Weekly Watch: The Most Dangerous Animal of All

One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.

The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.

It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.

Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.

All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:

Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.

What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.

The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.

To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.

I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.

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Talking Is Good 

Better Call Saul wound up being one of my favorite bits of TV ever (Emmy voters be damned!).

I even like it better than Breaking Bad (which I’ve now seen all of, thank you). Partly it’s because Jimmy/Saul is a lawyer and so his character resonates more with me (he is one of our patron saints, after all), but mostly I think it’s because I find Jimmy/Saul’s character arc more compelling than Walter White’s. White’s was more viscerally terrifying at time, but the fate of Jimmy/Saul (not to mention Kim Wexler) hit me right in the feels.

So why was I so disappointed by the series finale? It wasn’t bad, far from it, and I’ve got no real beef with how character arcs wrapped up. I sort of thought the very end should have come while Jimmy/Saul was on the bus headed to prison and all the other inmates were chanting “better call Saul!”, as it would have indicated just how he was never going to be able to outrun his past, but I don’t begrudge he and Kim one last smoke.

A nitpick here about that prison, though. My federal public defender self got overly excited during the scene where Jimmy/Saul is negotiating his deal with the Government. There was talk of the US Sentencing Guidelines! He even mentioned being sent to FCI Butner, a real facility in North Carolina where Bernie Madoff (not to mention several of my clients over the years) did his time. Hooray for verisimilitude! So why, then, was his final destination a fictional prison, ADX Montrose, that was clearly a stand in for ADX Florence, the real “Alcatraz of the Rockies?” There must be a reason, but damned if I can figure it out. Maybe I’m just miffed because Montrose was the name of my elementary school.

Anyway, back to the bigger question – what was it about the finale that left me unsatisfied? Ultimately, I think it was that everything happened too quickly. Better Call Saul (like Breaking Bad before it) was never a show to rush things, sometimes coming in for criticism for being too slow to move things along (a criticism with which I don’t agree, by the way). You couldn’t say that about the finale, though, which breezes through a good chunk of time in a single hour (mostly). It felt a little forced.

Was it because I wanted more Guideline talk? Not really, but I think “talk” was something that was missing. By the time the finale rolled around the show’s two main characters, Jimmy/Saul and Kim, were worlds apart (geographically and otherwise) not just from themselves, but from anybody else. Kim had coworkers and a boyfriend down in Florida but was keeping them at arm’s length. There certainly wasn’t anyone she could confide in about things. Jimmy/Saul didn’t even really have that much, unless you count all those cinnamon roll delivers to the guy from Parks and Rec.

As a result, the decisions they make and the way they reach those decision occur entirely inside the characters’ heads. I’m not saying they don’t make sense in the end, but there’s no way to really have them grapple with their decisions because there’s no one for them to talk to. As it happens, I just read the novel Fletch (the movie was better) which gets around this clumsily by having the titular reporter dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder which is at least something.

Of course, it’s easier to handle a situation like this on paper than it is on screen. Novelists or short story writers can easily open up a character’s skull and dive in, charting as the synapses fire while the character develops a plan. Short of a voiceover there’s no good way to do the same on film or television (or radio/podcast), aside from having characters talk to other people. Which is why it’s worth thinking about how characters are going to work things out if you strip away anybody else to talk to.

Talking, as the song says, is good. It’s a good rule for real life and it’s an even better thing to keep in mind when writing fiction.

Weekly Watch: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Last year, in my review of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I laid out how I’m not really a fan of nu-Trek and was happy to let the rest of that series go on without me. What really dragged it down for me was that it didn’t feel very “Trekky” and it was too slavishly devoted to the modern streaming serialized storytelling ideal.

So along comes Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another prequel (of sorts), but also a spinoff of something that occurred in a subsequence season of Discovery, Strange New Worlds gets us back on the Enterprise during the time it was commanded by Christopher Pike. Pike is well known to original Trek fans as the guy from the pilot (replaced by Kirk for the series), with said pilot being cut up for use in a later episode that reveals Pike to be horribly injured, but with great loyalty from Spock.

 Although I’m skeptical of prequels, I thought I’d give Strange New Worlds a shot, for a few reasons. First, since there’s not a lot out there on the pre-Kirk Enterprise, I figured there was some room to tell some cool stories. Second, given that this is the Enterprise we’re talking about here and the name of the show is Strange New Worlds, I hoped it would lean into the exploration angle more than Discovery did. Finally, what I read about the show suggested it was going to be less serialized and more “mission-of-the-week,” which, again, provided some room for good stories (and to not be stuck dealing with the aftereffects of bad ones).

I’m fairly happy with how Strange New Worlds met those expectations. The prequel part is the least successful, I feel. It’s one thing to have certain characters involved because we know they were there from original Trek (Spock & Chapel, mostly), but is there a particular reason the security chief has to be named Noonien-Singh?. And isn’t Kirk’s fight with the rubber-suited guy supposed to be first contact with the Gorn? Then there’s the final episode of the first season, which is a take on the original Trek episode “Balance of Terror” (the one where we first meet the Romulans), where Kirk himself shows up. There’s more of him promised for season two, as well, which makes me worry that the writers aren’t confident in the new stories they have to tell and will keep wrapping in known characters from the show as crutches. I won’t get into potential continuity issues with the original Trek stuff (it makes my head hurt) except to say, again, what’s the point of a prequel if it doesn’t lock in certain things about your world?

 All that said, most of the stories told in the first season of Strange New Worlds are really good, some inching towards great. As promised, the episodes do tend to stand alone, which provides a good variety of atmospheres (so to speak). “Children of the Comet” is a pretty cool culture clash story, with the do-gooders on the Enterprise confronted with religious dogma. “Spock Amok,” in addition to having fun body-switching, has a diplomatic plot that reminded me of something out of Babylon 5 (high praise from me). “The Elysian Kingdom” was probably my favorite, using a typical old-school Trek plot device (an energy being!) as an excuse to dress everybody up in fantasy garb to push to a really heart-wrenching ending (sort of). Then there’s the aforementioned “A Quality of Mercy,” which “what if?”s that classic Trek episode in a pretty satisfying way.

My only real beef is that the writers had a lot of issues with endings (I can sympathize – endings are hard). Take “The Elysian Kingdom,” for example, which looks like it’s going to end on a note of melancholy uncertainty as the ship’s doctor says goodbye to his ill daughter who is going to live with/as the nearby energy being. Rather than leave this unsettled – you think you do the best thing but how can you know? – the writers went ahead and threw in a little more to make sure of a happy ending. Not bad, but could have been better. There were a couple of other episodes that went the same way, headed towards really great but they couldn’t stick the landing. Or, alternately, they didn’t do more with it, as in the episode that was less a riff than a cover of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (should have started with that ending and explored what it means).

And I have to say that while these stories were mostly self contained, there was an overarching theme to the season in terms of characters, particularly Pike. Apparently, in the Discovery episodes that spawned Strange New Worlds, Pike learns his eventual fate as we’ve seen from original Trek (it’s unclear if he learned he’ll become a running joke on Futurama) and so in this season he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way around that end. That’s what triggers “A Quality of Mercy,” but Pike confronts it several other times during the season. It’s well done.

Which is to say, I’m cautiously optimistic about the second season. Given results thus far, I’m willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we won’t be overwhelmed by Kirks (Jim’s brother is on this ship, too, for some reason) and we’ll be introduced to more strange new worlds.

Weekly Watch: The Staircase(s)

A few weeks ago, in my list of favorite movies, I mentioned that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder On a Sunday Morning, went on to direct The Staircase, an epic (it eventually had 13 episodes) true-crime documentary about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, Michael. It is basically the urtext of the modern true-crime doc boom. So when I heard that someone had made a non-documentary miniseries not only about the Peterson case but about the documentary itself, I wondered whether this was something the world really needed. Having binged it over a weekend I’m still not sure it was necessary, but it certainly was interesting.

The base facts of the case are fairly simple – in December 2001, Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of a set of stairs in their home. The scene of her death was seriously bloody, evidence of a violent and tormented death. Everything else is supremely complicated. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife and eventually convicted, but his trial was rife with prosecutorial misconduct and expert witness fraud, leading to the conviction being overturned. Rather than go through with a second trial and risk going back to prison, Peterson eventually entered what’s called an Alford plea to manslaughter, in which he did not admit responsibility for his wife’s death (the point of an Alford plea is to allow a defendant to get the benefit of pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence – admittedly, it’s counterintuitive).

Part of what made the documentary series so riveting is that Lestrade and his team basically embedded with Peterson, his defense team, and his family, providing the kind of in-the-moment access that most true-crime docs can only dream of. The crew initially had similar access to the prosecution team, but that waned as the case went on.

Given that the documentary was such an interior view of proceedings, what does the miniseries bring to the table that it couldn’t?

Primarily, it brings life to Kathleen Peterson, whose death hovers over the documentary but who isn’t given any chance to be developed as a person. The miniseries splits its timeline three ways, with one being events leading up to Kathleen’s death. It does a good job of bringing to life someone who tends to get overlooked in the whole true crime genre and Toni Collette does a great job with the part.

Another thing the miniseries gives us is a more in depth look at the Peterson family and how the trial impacted them. The way that family was put together would strain fiction – two sons from Peterson’s prior marriage, a daughter from Kathleen’s prior marriage, and two adopted daughters whose mother had died in Germany (at the bottom of a set of stairs, no less!). They pull apart in different ways as the miniseries goes on and lends a real sense of how a case like this grinds up everyone who is caught up in it.

Finally, the meta touch of the miniseries is that it includes the makers of the documentary in it as characters. With one notable exception this really isn’t commented upon that much, as in large part their presence is simply noted in the background as filming takes place. The exception – and it is a doozy – is that the editor of the documentary wound up in a multi-year romantic relationship with Peterson while he was in prison, casting her objectivity into doubt (she has issues with some of the facts portrayed in the series – and isn’t the only one – but doesn’t deny the relationship). I mean, it’s an “ooh, I didn’t know that” moment, but unless you think documentaries are rigorous exercises in balance the idea that the documentary had a POV (and it was that Peterson was innocent) doesn’t come as a shock.

But is he innocent? It’s here that I find the differences between the documentary and the miniseries have the most interesting effect.

As I said, the doc is largely framed through the trial itself and the ways the state’s case is shaky (and the doc doesn’t even include an entire state’s expert witness whose testimony was struck for perjury!). That plays into, at least in my criminal defense lawyer brain, the presumption of innocence. If it can’t be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it then he didn’t right? The Alford plea at the end of things is meaningless in this regard as the entire point is that it allows a defendant to take a deal while maintaining innocence. There’s a burden and the state didn’t meet it. Simple as that.

But the miniseries, perhaps because of its broader scope, leaves me less certain. I think it’s that in paring away a lot of the legal wrangling you’re left with there being, basically, two stories of what happened – one in which Peterson killed Kathleen for not particularly well explained reasons and one in which it was simply a horrible accident. Neither story accounts for all the physical evidence and the only person who knows the truth, Peterson, has issues with honesty. I still think, if I was on a civil jury, I’d find that he didn’t do it, but it would be a much closer question.

So back to the original question – did we need a fictional take on The Staircase (aside from the incredibly funny Trial and Error)? Probably not. In truth, the miniseries doesn’t shed any more light on the case or the people involved. It does allow for some dramatic speculation, however, about areas that were beyond the scope of the documentary. So necessary? No. Worth a watch? Absolutely.

Weekly Watch: Gaslit

I’m not going to say that finding a great story to tell is easy, but in some ways coming up with the story itself can be easier than figuring out the proper form to tell it.

I’ve been thinking about this as the wife and I have been watching Gaslit, the Starz series about Watergate that wrapped up this past weekend.

See, the thing about Gaslit – from its title to its marketing (as you can see above) – is that it promises a new angle on Watergate. It was supposed to be focused on Martha Mitchell, a political celebrity and wife of Nixon’s one-time Attorney General John Mitchell. She knew all about Watergate and told the truth about it, only to be destroyed privately and publicly by, among others, her husband.

That is a fascinating story, horribly relevant in the world of #MeToo, that would provide some interesting insight into the general Watergate story we’ve all see over and over again. Only it really isn’t. Instead, Martha’s story is buried in the mix, forced to share or cede time to a cast of characters we’ve seen before and about whom the show has little to say.

Take the penultimate episode, which splits time about equally with Martha’s testimony before the Watergate committee – behind closed doors, ambushed by accusation of mental illness – and the struggle of Gordon Liddy in prison to kill a rat. Really, is that what the series is about? It doesn’t help that every time Liddy opens his mouth it sounds like he’s just one step away from lapsing into Doctor Evil’s meat helmet speech.

In other words, there’s a pretty good movie struggling to escape from an eight-episode limited series. A tight two hours or so that trusts the audience to already know what Watergate is and focus on the relationship of the Mitchells (played well here by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn), how it pulls apart, and the effect that daring to tell the truth had on her. It’s particularly sad that we didn’t get that movie, given that we’re in the fiftieth anniversary year of Watergate and we’re going to get lots of other general retrospectives on the scandal, including the one currently on CNN featuring John Dean (who gets a goodly amount of screen time in Gaslit as a Porsche-driving climber who kind of lucks into doing the right thing, eventually).

It’s entirely possible that Gaslit was only ever supposed to be a big ensemble piece and the purported focus on Martha came later, which would explain why much of it is not her story. It’s also possible that the Martha story was what drove the creators, but the network guided into a more blown out story. Obviously, you can’t tell at this point.

What you can tell is that whatever Gaslit is, it’s not what it wants to be or purports to be. Which is a shame, because with the talent on screen it could have been so much more if it had been so much less.

Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

The Book-to-TV Pipeline

Coming late to this, but last June there was an interesting article in The Atlantic about the rise in literary adaptations on television (broadly defined to include streaming services). It’s fascinating because there’s some evidence that there is so much adaptation going on that it’s actually impacting the publishing process.

Why is that? Part of it is just because there’s so much TV content being generated these days that producers are turning to extant products to fill the demand (per another, more recent article, the same demand is also creating a new boom in work for “older” actresses). But there are also certain features that are prevalent in titles that are optioned for adaptation (although not present in all), including “episodic plots, ensemble cases, and intricate world-building.” While, certainly, there are books (or short stories) that lend themselves more easily to adaptation, I think the story overlooks one important thing and gets another wrong, both of which are important in thinking about the current TV landscape.

What the article overlooks is that the definition of “television,” and what a TV show is these days, has changed radically with the rise of streaming services. Not only are there more TV shows than ever before, but they’ve gotten more compressed compared to the sprawling network series of the past. Where a new series once had to produce two dozen episodes per season (for multiple seasons), TV is now awash with series with only eight or ten or twelve episodes per season. Beyond that, the limited series – one season and done – has gained popularity, too. Those shorter seasons (and series) fit book adaptations particularly well, giving creators enough time to cover all the events of the book without the need to create ongoing stories to feed additional episodes/seasons.

Beyond that, the TV audience is so fractured at this point that bringing already-established fans from a book to the TV show is a solid way to build some viewership. To give some perspective, the 1993-1994 season of Seinfeld (the show’s fifth season) averaged about 30 million viewers, while the top episode of scripted TV last year (from NCIS) couldn’t even manage half that. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled more than five million viewers for its first episode (across multiple showings), demonstrating the value of a built-in base audience. Even if the book being adapted isn’t a huge, sprawling series, it can bring a certain bit of gravitas to TV just by being a book!

What the article gets wrong, I think, is that “episodic” books are more likely to be snapped up for adaptation. This is presumably based on the idea that such stories lend themselves to the episodic nature of TV, but that overlooks the fact that TV is getting less and less episodic as we go along. Not only do lots of current short-season TV shows tell single, ongoing stories, they often don’t really bother making the individual episodes work on their own. To go back to Game of Thrones, episode breaks there were often purely down to time restraints, more than anything else. It would be hard to take most episodes of that show, pull them out of sequence, and show them to someone with any hope they’d know what’s going on or be hooked enough to watch more.

Truly episodic TV has a better chance to do that, at the risk of losing the overarching narrative drive. I’m thinking of two long-running series that I got into in the middle, because of episodes that told complete stories.

One was Babylon 5, famous for being designed to tell a five-season story in novelistic fashion. That said, each episode could generally be consumed as a discrete chunk (occasional multi-part episodes to one side), such as “No Surrender, No Retreat,” the first episode I saw. Now, there’s an awful lot of backstory in that season four episode that I didn’t learn until later, but the basics – who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and who might be neither – were clear. There was an objective that could be obtained or not, within the space of the episode. It wasn’t merely a set of events playing out from the prior episode and into the next one.

The other was Doctor Who, for which my entry episode was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which involves Agatha Christie and explains her famous disappearance. Now, Doctor Who isn’t nearly as tightly serialized as Babylon 5, but there was, again, a lot of lore, backstory, and character development about which I had no idea. But the episode told its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a great hook.

None of which is to say the super-serialized series that are so popular these days are doing it wrong (although maybe they sometimes do). But it does suggest that what’s drawing TV developers to literary titles is not their “episodic nature.”

Ultimately, I think it’s great that more and more books are being developed for TV series. There’s lots of great stuff out there and it beats pointless reboots of series from decades ago. The series usually bumps the popularity of the books, too, so authors get a couple of benefits from it! I’m all for more of that.

On Time Jumps

As it happens, I wound up reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series not too long before the TV show began. As a result, as the TV series went on I read the next book in the series just before the new season dropped. Now that the TV show has finished, after six seasons, and the book series has wrapped up, after nine volumes, I decided to plow through and finish the books in one go.

The first of the last three (The Expanse is sort of three linked trilogies, really), Persepolis Rising¸ starts with a pretty audacious gambit – it skips the story forward three decades.

Before we dive in further, let me specify just what I mean when I say “time jump.” I’m talking about a narrative (either within a single work or across multiple ones) where there are large breaks during which a large period of time passes. I’m not talking about the usual passage of time – most sequels or new seasons don’t pick up right after the prior one, after all. Nor am I talking about flashbacks or flashforwards or stories about characters who, to borrow a phrase, have come “unstuck in time.” I’m talking about situations where the main narrative is still driving forward, but it’s like somebody’s picked up the needle and we’ve skipped some tracks.

It’s a bold gambit because, presumably, the world of the story continues to exist during the time that’s skipped over. Things change, just as they do in regular life over years. Picking up months or years in the future should be a means of exploring how those changes impact the characters.

A good example of this I recently read is Middlegame by  Seanan McGuire.

In the world of Middlegame, an alchemist in the modern United States is using semi-fraternal twins as a means to bring about the presence of a great power he wants to tap into. The book is the story of two twins, Roger and Dodger (the rhyming names are quite intentional) who, in spite of attempts to keep them apart, keep finding themselves over the years. The book proceeds in hunks (while also skipping around in time), first when the two are young kids, then when they’re college students, and then grown adults. Between hunks, years pass and it matters. Not only do the characters change, but their relationship to each other does, too, partly because of the passage of time.

Another good somewhat recent example is the jump in time between seasons two and three of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At the end of one season Gaius Baltar is installed as president. At the beginning of the next a year has passed and we can see what “President Baltar” really means – everything goes to shit and the Cylons return! The time skip moves the plot along while providing the writers a good way to show what went on in the interim and the impact it’s had on the characters.

Sadly, Persepolis Rising doesn’t handle the time jump nearly as well. I understand the bind  James S.A. Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working in collaboration) was in – the story needed to jump ahead decades in order to play out, but what to do with the characters you’ve spent six books lovingly developing? The answer here is mention a few extra aches and pains and leave it at that. For the crew on the Rocinante, thirty years passing was just like thirty minutes.

Which is supremely disappointing! The five folks on the ship are in exactly the same shape they were in at the end of Babylon’s Ashes: Holden and Naomi are still together, Amos and Clarissa have their weird connection, and Bobbie and Alex have whatever they’ve got. Alex has, in the intervening decades, been married and divorced again, but the only outgrowth of that is a son off screen he occasionally worries about. There’s no aggravation/shifting of loyalties that have occurred over three decades of doing the same damned thing in the same damned (small) place.

All of this violates what I’m officially dubbing Rufus’ Rule of Gullibility, which I discussed in a book review many years ago:

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. ‘Mary,’ she points out, ‘was a virgin.’ Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes: ‘The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.’

I just can’t believe that five people could live in such close quarters for three decades and nothing changes. This fall I’ll will have been in my current job for just twenty years and there has been a consistent churn of turnover among my coworkers the entire time. And we don’t have to worry about the rigors of space travel! It’s just not plausible that things stay the same all those years (after all, as the song says, things change).

Which is a shame, because where the crew ends up by the finale works really well and changes the game up significantly. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have other flaws – the bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as those in prior books and the POV bad guy, particularly, is a dweeb – but it’s still a really good read about characters we’ve come to care about.

Time jumps can be a valuable tool when writing, but you have to ask yourself two questions if you’re going to play around with them. First, why do you think the story needs to jump ahead so much? Second, what are the effects on the characters moving that far forward? If you don’t have good answers to both of those questions, probably start rethinking.

2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.