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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.