Friday, October 16, 2009

Titus Crow, Volume 1: The Burrowers Beneath; The Transition of Titus Crow

Titus Crow's adventures are a lot like the role-playing game exploits of player characters: they start out believable enough, but as the power creep and leveling sets in, the character's achievements and enemies seem to grow exponentially.

There are a few things that modern Cthulhu fans should be wary of when reading Lumley's foray into the Cthulhu Mythos. According to Lumley:

* Mythos beings can be repelled quite handily with "star stones." These are made with tiny chips of the original soap stone elder signs. That's right, they're mass-produced "extract of Elder Sign." And they work against shoggoths.

* The Tikkoun Elixir is actually holy water, which also works against the Mythos.

* There is a globe-spanning organization of psychics known as the Wilmarth Foundation. This Foundation has men in every level of government and business, and marshals their resources in times of great need, like when battling the Mythos. They also keep the Mythos hidden to prevent worldwide panic.

All of this is told to the reader after the fact in The Burrowers Beneath. In the tradition of Lovecraft, the stories are all from journals and letters of those who were there, shifting from character to character to build a story around giant psychic killer worms known as Chthonians. Mind you, they're just minions of the larger Cthulhu Cycle Deities (who are, irritatingly, referred to as the CCD).

Lumley seems intent on explaining everything in Lovecraft's fiction and providing a logical framework behind it all. This is great for a role-playing game but makes for boring reading. But when Lumley writes an action scene, such as when DeMarginy (the Watson to Crow's Holmes) is attacked directly by a Chthonian, it's absorbing. Unfortunately, there's so little action that the rest of the tale becomes a dry retelling, sometimes bordering on parody.

Did you know that there are dinosaurs swimming in Loch Ness? Lumley drops that and other nuggets matter-of-factly throughout the narrative – and it has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than to perhaps explain that the Wilmarth Foundation, with its uber-psychics, knows everything there is to know about the world.

By the time we get to the second part of the book, The Transition of Titus Crow, Lumley just gives up. Crow experiences every pulp trope, from the love of a green-haired "girl-goddess" to riding a lisping dragon, to replacing his shattered body with cybernetics manufactured by robots, to time traveling in an extradimensional clock. Crow, it turns out, is both the descendant of the Elder Gods and a cyborg. It's like a Rifts game in prose.

But the most unforgivable of all is that Transition is told in fragments. A terrible attack on the Wilmarth Foundation means its records have been lost, so we are left with a story that has been pieced together. Where the pieces are missing, Lumley uses ellipses. A lot. Reading the book becomes painful… whenever Lumley doesn’t feel like filling in the blanks…he uses ellipses…until you get just fragments like…ENERGY RAY…INTERDIMENSIONAL TRAVEL…OH MY GOD MY EYES ARE BLEEDING…

There's a particular standout scene where Crow, confused and lost in a prehistoric era, engages in a battle of survival with a pterosaur and a giant crab. It's good stuff, but doesn't make up for the sheer insanity of what can only be described as lazy writing. We get it: the fragments of what happened to Crow are hard to piece together. But since this is, ya know, a WORK OF FICTION, it would be nice if the narrator made a token effort to craft a full story for the reader rather than transcribe the bits and pieces literally. And for that only Lumley can be held accountable.

In terms of characterization, Crow is a bit of a cipher. De Marigny has most of the personality, and even he tends to bluster through the book with very British exclamations of surprise and horror. The characters are rarely in actual danger and their stiff upper lip attitude becomes so overbearing that they begin to feel invincible even in the face of the mind-blasting insanity that is the *cough* CCD.

Worth reading to provide a foundation for Titus Crow and as a template for a role-playing game universe where the player characters actually have a chance against a Lovecraftian menace. If you can stick with it, the next book in the series gets much better.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

State of Play

State of Play has received much attention for its spin on the plight of today's newspapers. The story pairs up a veteran journalist (Cal McAfferey, played by Russell Crowe with an odd accent) with a newbie blogger (Della Frye, played by Rachel McAdams). The plot is technically about the death of Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) who just happens to be working for Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) who just happens to be a former roommate of Cal. It seems there's something rotten in the state department, or in this case the private military company they hire: PointCorp, an analog for Blackwater.

State of Play has two different agendas, one more overt than the other. At its heart, the movie postulates what would happen if the U.S. military had largely surrendered its operations to freelance military operations that are not accountable to the American people. This is no theory. In fact, Blackwater received so much negative publicity that it changed its name to Xe. The supposed hue and cry that would be raised by this revelation didn't amount to much, deflating the entire premise of State of Play.

The other main theme is the tension between supposed cub reporters who only blog on the web and real journalists who aren't afraid to pick up the phone or make a deal. Frye is a foil to make Cal look smart. At no point do we see Frye actually blog or the consequences of her blogging, besides reporting on something Cal felt was private. Or to put it another way: bloggers are self-serving, unethical morons who don't know how to report the facts. The movie feels decidedly lopsided in favor of beat reporters. Oh sure, there's tension and drama and a few surprises along the way. But Frye is completely unnecessary.

In the background is the looming threat of the newspaper being closed, but these occasional reminders (falling from the foul mouth of Helen Mirren, no less) feel forced. To assume one breaking story would save the newspaper is to fundamentally misunderstand the downfall of the newspaper industry.

State of Play was based on a 2003 BBC serial of the same name. And that's the problem. Too long and creaky in places, it feels like a movie drawn from subject matter that's six years out of date.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Let's get a couple of things straight: Surrogates is not a bad movie. It is not anything like Gamer, and yet Rotten Tomatoes has a spread of under 10 points between the two. This is a crying shame. With Gamer and Surrogates coming out within months of each other, it's almost like Hollywood wanted desperately to make a Second Life movie but realized too late that Second Life is no longer cool.

Surrogates has a lot in common with I, Robot and yes, Gamer. Implausibly, the world is dominated by remote-controlled robots, a parallel to Internet avatars. Thanks to these robots, known as surrogates, crime is unheard of and the dream of a utopian society beckons. Of course, not everyone is okay with the status quo, including a radical group known as the Dreads. The Dreads are the underclass, people who don't believe in a robot-filled reality. Everyone else has become shut-ins, hiding in their bedrooms in their pajamas, living life through perpetually beautiful twenty-something robots.

FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate a pair of murders in which the operators died too. There's just one problem: there are safeguards to protect operators from being harmed by the death of their surrogates. If word got out that surrogates were not immortal, the social fabric of modern society would fall apart.

On screen, the surrogates are disturbingly perfect. Their teeth is pearly white, their eyes without any hint of veins, their stubble-free skin cheeks are as rosy as a newborn's. The robots (and thus, the actors portraying them) only move their heads when they talk, even when angry. Sights and sounds are softly muted. Until the real world hits and Greer is forced to come out of his shell.

Willis' skill playing a sad sack and a scruffy loner are on full display here. Surrogates is as much about the increasing isolation of technology as it is about the wreckage of a marriage. As the stakes get higher, the movie becomes about the broken relationship between a husband and wife who were disconnected from each other long before surrogates were invented.

If along the way it happens to involve some amazing special effects and a lot of cool action sequences, that's not such a bad thing.