Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Under the Dome 1.12: "Exigent Circumstances"

I am a fair person.  And in order to prove it, I am going to do something unexpected: I am going to trash-talk Breaking Bad.

You might recall that in my Under the Dome review last week, I began by describing a scene from the previous night's episode of Breaking Bad, in an attempt to demonstrate how to properly film a suspense scene.  I'd found Under the Dome to be egregiously guilty of failure in that regard last week, so in order to contextualize its failings, I thought comparison to a wild success was a good strategy.

So, this week, let me tell you about how last night's episode of Breaking Bad dropped the ball.  Massively, in my opinion...although I have yet to read a review that seems annoyed with it at all.  It appears to be me against the world.  And I'm okay with that.

Let me set the scene, and try to have as few spoilers as possible for those of you who have foolishly opted to not hop on the Breaking Bad bandwagon:

In the New Mexican desert, two DEA agents come face-to-face with about half a dozen well-armed neo-Nazi mercenaries.  The scene is tense, partly because of the fact that the preceding forty or so minutes of the episode have been incredibly tense, full of massive plot advancements and brimming with drama.  This climax to the episode has been telegraphed; you know it's coming.  It isn't the type of scene that hinges on plot twist; it's the kind that hinges on the emotion resultant from the inevitable.  Six million or so people are hanging on the edge of their seats watching this.  I am fully expecting the episode to fade to black, and for resolution to have to wait for seven days.

Instead, the shootout begins!

And all of a sudden, none of these people can hit a thing.  Two DEA agents, at least six badass mercenaries (who have been used in highly badass capacity a mere two or three weeks ago), and for no reason I can fathom, they all become roughly as shitty at shooting weapons as your average Stormtrooper in a Star Wars movie.  It's also reminiscent of how, in the G.I. Joe cartoons from the eighties, the Joes and the Cobras were constantly in shootouts but nobody ever got hit.  Amazingly awful marksmanship.

I don't expect that from Breaking Bad.  Depending on how the scene resolves next week -- it ends with everyone continuing to just miss each other -- then I will be able to let it slide on the grounds that it was for dramatic effect, to amp up the beginning of the next episode.  But if it has a poor -- i.e., unbelievable -- resolution, then I'm going to call major bullshit on this episode.

I say that for two reasons: first, to prove that I'm not merely a slavish Breaking Bad fanboy; and second, to bring me to a place where I can make my next point.

Which is this: the only reason I am willing and able to cut Breaking Bad some slack is because it has earned it.  It hasn't been immune to a bit of ball-dropping here and there, but those fumbles have been exceptionally rare.  So until I know they've dropped it, they get the benefit of my trust in them.

Under the Dome has lost every bit of that trust.  It lost it a long time ago, frankly.  But there were several scenes in tonight's episode that really brought home for me the fact that this is a series I simply do not trust.

And yet, I kind of enjoyed the episode!  We'll come back to that, but before we do, I've got to get the complaining out of my system.




One of the major plot point of "Exigent Circumstances" involves Barbie enlisting Angie's aid in helping him sneak into the clinic and save Julia from what he (correctly) assumes will be a potentially murderous situation.  Now, as far as plans go on really dumb televisions shows like this one, Barbie's plan is a decent one.  And it works!  Not entirely without a hitch; Barbie has to whoop Junior's ass in order to make a getaway.  But whoop that ass he does, and he and Angie are able to get Julia loaded into the amublance, ready to make their getaway.

Which, of course, means it is the perfect time for Barbie to take a time-out and tell Julia -- who, you may recall, is comatose and presumably unable to hear him -- that he loves her.


Bad writing doesn't get much more badderer than that.  LOL, RAOTFLMAO, y'all.  I mean, look: I get it.  Once you go redheaded you never get clearheaded; that makes sense to me.  But there's a time and a place for everything, and this was maybe neither for Barbie's strawberry fetish to demand to be vented.

But hold yer horses, pard!  It does get worse, because moments later, Barbie decides to abandon Angie and Julia.  He sends them on their way -- Britt Robertson screaming her head off, Rachelle Lefevre blissfully collecting a paycheck for pretending to be asleep -- and hops out, expressly so he can surrender.

The idea here, I guess, is that he's assuming that if he is captured, Big Jim won't worry about Julia.  But even as I type that, I don't know if it's true, because it makes no sense.  Literally no sense of any kind.  Barbie decides he needs to rescue Julia because Big Jim will kill her lest she reveal that it was Maxine who shot her, and not Barbie; Barbie turning himself in will help her in no way.  In fact, all he's done is risk her life further, and Angie's in the bargain.

Unless there is something I'm not seeing here -- and if there is, please, somebody by God tell me -- then I see no justification for what Barbie ends up doing.

Except that it takes the plot where the producers want the plot to go: Barbie, captive in front of the whole town.

Also on the stupid-as-hell list: Linda, who -- in the face of first-hand evidence that Big Jim has been lying and breaking the law on an ongoing, systemic basis -- has decided to simply believe everything Rennie is telling her.  I thought Natalie Martinez made a fairly strong impression the first few episodes, but I believe everything has been downhill for her since the episode in which she commands people not to get near the dome and then immediately trots over and kisses the damn thing while her fiancee is on the other side.  In tonight's episode, you can practically hear her muttering under her breath about how dumb her character has become.

There's more to say.  How about how incredibly stupid the entire town seems to be.  Which is one thing; but how about how incredibly boring they all are?  They all look like they came from Extras 'R' Us Discount Dayplayers.  Sorry, North Carolina; no offense.  I've been to your state, and found it utterly charming.  So trust me, it's nothing personal.

I was going to spend some time talking about things in the episode I liked.  I guess I still could, but my enthusiasm for it is waning.

Briefly:
  • The scene in which Big Jim kills Dodee is fairly effective, mainly because Jolene Purdy does a good job of being scared but trying not to look scared.  The series made nothing of Dodee, and did nothing with Purdy, which is a combo of shame.  But at least, in her final scene, she got to provide the series with something that felt like actual grit.  (It's remarkable how toothless the series has been so far, isn't it?  Especially compared to the novel.)
  • I haven't always loved what Mackenzie Lintz has done as Norrie, but I think she's been good more often than not.  And I thought she was very good in a few scenes tonight; she looked like someone who could plausibly decide to just plunge a knife into Big Jim.  Of course, the screenplay had her utterly botch it; but Lintz was good.
  • So I guess it turns out that the military has had eyes on everything going on inside the dome all along, huh?  Everything visible to satellites and/or binoculars, at least.  That makes sense.  I never expected Jim's murder of Reverend Coggins to come to light via that sort of plot device, but in retrospect, it works well.  And it also gives Big Jim semi-decent motivation for wanting the dome to stay in place.
  • Speaking of the dome, I continue to be intrigued by the minidome and the soon-to-be butterfly.  I know I probably shouldn't be; I just can't help it.
  • Dean Norris continues to impress me, although the series has turned Big Jim into an actual villain so rapidly that I don't know how he managed to keep up.  And frankly, Norris is less interesting when playing a mustache-twirler; he is great at nuance, and I fear the nuance for Big Jim has come to an end.
  • Mike Vogel is doing the best he can.  Poor guy; he's a good actor, and he's trying, but Barbie at this point in the series is so poorly written that I'm not sure 1985 Harrison Ford could do anything with the character.
  • Carolyn finally comes back.  She and Norrie are all parental/filial, which is kind of touching; might have been nice to see some of that actually develop in the previous few episodes, though.

I should say more, but frankly, I'm tried of writing about how garbage this series is.  I'm going to call this one early, and head over to Netflix to watch an episode or Orange Is the New Black, which is a vastly superior series to this one.

One final note, though, just to amuse myself: tonight's episode was directed by Peter Leto, which makes me think of how Duke Leto killed Piter de Vries in Dune.

Yes, I am a nerd.





10 comments:

  1. I was grinning like the Joker for most of last night’s episode. After the rushed, yet quiet ambivalence of last week’s episode, I’ll admit I came to this one in trepidation. In fact, I was kind of trying to puzzle out my response to the series as a whole to others, and trying to size up the series itself.

    I had some thoughts on that, and the original books as well, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

    First off, I was excited by the pace. Second, what I like about this episode was that after a brief hiatus, I think for character study, the show has gone back into the mode that got me hooked somewhere around the like the third or fourth episode, the one with the bomb. In other words, high on action and tension, where there’s really no telling what a character is thinking, thus forcing the audience to think about what it’s seeing. Also what I’m delighted to see back is the character ambiguity, as I think it’s the main drive for suspense on this series, or at least it appears to be what the writers are banking on. Granted, what I just described in that last sentence could all be applied to Breaking Bad.
    Therein hangs some exposition…

    I said I came into the last episode trying to measure the series as a whole. This thinking is by no means complete, yet here are some of the thoughts I had so far.

    My first thought is, once more, in terms of the novel vs. series. I still don’t get what people find in the novel, and maybe I just didn’t understand the first time. I’m still not sure I’ve ever heard a fully convincing argument as to why the book should be considered good, even as light entertainment. I even went and listened to Hans Lilja’s podcast in which he talks about his take on the Dome series. He said he understood how changes would be inevitable in an adaptation, and yet he was not satisfied with these changes. Unfortunately, from what I heard, he never gave a full elaboration, just stated: I don’t like this, and left it at that. If I had to take the best possible educated guess, I’d say it was judgment based on emotion. In other words, a good way of rephrasing Lilja’s statement might go as: This series made me feel dissatisfied, though I don’t know the underlying reason, just that I don’t like it.

    In such cases, either of satisfaction or not, the obvious course then is to trace such emotional reactions to their intellectual source, which can only be whatever artistic standards of criteria, conscious or otherwise, that an individual uses to judge any artwork submitted for his or her judgment.

    I said earlier that I liked this recent episode, and therefore the obvious inference is that it left me more or less satisfied, and I’m eager to see how this season will wash out. I also stated that my personal criteria was based on two writers, one shrink and a philosopher, T.S. Eliot, Tolkien, Jung and some guy in a toga called Aristotle (make up your own animal house joke here).

    The best course of action then is to elaborate on the principles I got from each of these writers, and how they, in a way, help me prefer the series over the book.

    To be continued.

    ChrisC

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    1. Continued from last post.

      The basic idea I got from Eliot, Tolkien and Aristotle was the interesting concept of literary tradition. This tradition, of which Eliot and Tolkien seemed to think themselves a part, was derived from the historical study of written artistic texts, both past and present.
      What both discovered, and what I’ve since learned, is how a single text, say, the Odyssey, while remaining it’s own work, still manages to reference passages, thoughts or images from the works of writers that came before, and also that writers further down the timeline, say Shakespeare, continued this tradition, not by re-writing the whole story of an earlier author, but rather maybe and idea or possibility suggested to Shakespeare in, say, Homer’s take on Helen of Troy. Hence, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, a retelling of a myth that was old before Homer ever wrote the Illiad, and which Shakespeare in turn took a whack at.

      The following helpful summary is from The Poetry of T.S. Eliot, by Hugh Ross Williamson, laying out Eliot’s idea of literary tradition:

      Williamson: The first requisite of the poet is the historical sense, involving a realization of the meaning of tradition. It is this sense which " compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.''

      Eliot felt that, from Aristotle’s Poetics on, every great writer has in some sense drawn on some, if not all, of those that came before them. Eliot himself demonstrated this with his own Wasteland, which I’ve since learned, from Eliot’s own notes, that it is little more than a retelling of the Grail Quest.

      What I learned about King from Eliot’s writings was that even his best works were a sort of amalgam of elements from folklore, i.e. The Boogeyman (for that’s all the character It really is), New England and English Gothicism from Poe, Hawthorne and Dickens and Tolkien etc.
      How Tolkien fits into this can be found in T.A. Shippey’s Author of the Century. Ever since reading Eliot, I now see that Shippey’s book is really a sort of point by point run down of how Tolkien, both conscious and unconsciously, stitched together various elements from simultaneous ancient sources and manuscripts, among them Beowulf and the Battle of Malden, was also engaged in the same “literary tradition”.

      By finding out that King wrote “within tradition” as it were, I realized that not only were his work more or less or a piece, but that each work was made up of elements that were older than the stories they appear in, and that as such, they were what Jung called archetypes.

      To be continued.

      ChrisC

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    2. Continued from last post.

      What Eliot and the “literary tradition” have to do with Jung is this. Like Jung, Eliot came to the realization that there were and still are patterns in all great literature. These patterns, in the form of recurring types of characters and situations, were the ones that continually seemed to have sparked off ideas in various writer’s imaginations throughout the centuries. Jung recognized these patterns as products of the mind, and eventually discovered their psychological nature, hence archetypes. There’s evidence that Tolkien and Eliot felt the same way, based on favorable references to Jung in Eliot’s literary criticism (a good sample is The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism) and Tolkien owned a copy of a book called “Archetypal Patterns in Poetry” by Maud Bodkin (head out of gutter please).

      In terms of the novel and series of Dome, I call the novel a poor use, and the series a more or less decent enough use of archetypes “in tradition”. Neither work is without its flaws, yet the flaws of the book in terms of poor character execution with no real meaningful development, a meandering plot thread, and a tacked on cop out ending that is rushed and not allowed anything like the development of characters and situations in his other works, all make the flaws of the series more tolerable and less a hindrance to me at least.

      Also, there is one final criteria a learned for myself. Realism cannot be found in fiction, anywhere. If realism is the goal, it’s best to stick with just living life, as it’s the only real there is around. Because of this, stories function on a symbolic, psychological logic than everyday life.

      This is not to say that reading or watching isn’t an intellectual medium, both of them are and more or less always have been. The key is to figure out the logic of the symbols in a story, and that takes intellectual thought.

      The Dome series is better than the book for me on all these scores, as it more or less plays fair enough with the established tropes that King has written about before, and also the main characters are kept strictly in the forefront while the back characters remain in the back and everything flows more or less smoothly with maybe minor bump or two, but on the whole I can’t complain.

      ChrisC

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    3. "In other words, high on action and tension, where there’s really no telling what a character is thinking, thus forcing the audience to think about what it’s seeing."

      You're right; there IS no telling what a character is thinking. The characters are so poorly and inconsistently written that it would be nearly impossible to predict anything any one of them is going to do. Sure, that'll keep you guessing...but the same way talking to a crazy person will keep you guessing.

      "Also what I’m delighted to see back is the character ambiguity, as I think it’s the main drive for suspense on this series, or at least it appears to be what the writers are banking on."

      I wouldn't say the characters are ambiguous so much as I would say they are poorly-defined. And here is one regard, at least, where the series is not at all well-related to King's work, even in an abstract sense. His characters are rarely poorly-defined; or, if you prefer, they are rarely ambiguous.

      "I still don’t get what people find in the novel, and maybe I just didn’t understand the first time. I’m still not sure I’ve ever heard a fully convincing argument as to why the book should be considered good, even as light entertainment."

      I can answer that: it held my attention without fail over more than a thousand pages. If that doesn't qualify it as good light entertainment at the very least, then I don't know what would. I think it's better than that; not without (severe) problems, but with enough strong elements to make it qualify as being at least good.

      "In such cases, either of satisfaction or not, the obvious course then is to trace such emotional reactions to their intellectual source, which can only be whatever artistic standards of criteria, conscious or otherwise, that an individual uses to judge any artwork submitted for his or her judgment."

      I find this to be a strange thing for you to say when you steadfastly refuse to engage with a specific medium on its own terms. For example, you've been known to say that you don't consider things like cinematography and acting to be particularly important in terms of film; or that you've never considered how the layout of a comic book might have anything to do with the story. That strikes me as being rampantly anti-intellectual. Which, if that's how you choose to approach things, is fine. But you don't seem to have anything resembling a consistent approach, Chris, and the result is that sometimes -- like tonight -- I simply can't follow what you're trying to say.

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    4. Let's consider what Williamson has to say about a poet working within "the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country." What do you suppose he would have to say -- specifically -- about the idea of Barbie deciding for no reason whatsoever to surrender himself and send Angie and Julia into the wilderness? How would you say that scene fares when viewed within the whole of the tradition of Western literature? If there is an argument that can help make that scene seem less like lazy writing and more like some sort of grand resumption of codified Western literary value, I'd love to hear it. But be specific.

      "Realism cannot be found in fiction, anywhere. If realism is the goal, it’s best to stick with just living life, as it’s the only real there is around. Because of this, stories function on a symbolic, psychological logic than everyday life."

      Yes, but they don't have to be stupid and have gaping plot/character inconsistencies. I'd prefer that they didn't. Because really, what's the argument FOR stupidity and illogic in storytelling? There is none.

      Also, you can't have "symbolic and psychological" without realism; even if you're only using them to run away from, you have no choice but to engage with realistic ideas. For example, if a story is going to attempt to convince me it has symbolic meaning that is somehow relevant to real-world experiences (and this series does so through weak parallels to current real-world topics such as gun control and search-and-seizure laws) then I'd say the story has an obligation to try and work on at least a semi-realistic level. This series seemingly tries to do that, but fails by virtue of having to rely on plot contrivances created by inconsistent characterizations. If the series existed on a purely non-realistic level, maybe that wouldn't be an issue; but its method of attack is to approach realism of one sort by failing at a different kind of realism. It doesn't work for me at all.

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    5. "I find this to be a strange thing for you to say when you steadfastly refuse to engage with a specific medium on its own terms. For example, you've been known to say that you don't consider things like cinematography and acting to be particularly important in terms of film; or that you've never considered how the layout of a comic book might have anything to do with the story. That strikes me as being rampantly anti-intellectual. Which, if that's how you choose to approach things, is fine. But you don't seem to have anything resembling a consistent approach, Chris, and the result is that sometimes -- like tonight -- I simply can't follow what you're trying to say."

      I was sort of afraid of this. The sad truth is the more I started laying down my thoughts, the more long and drawn out this would have gotten. So, long story short, I tried to see if I could cut things short.

      I managed that, but at the expense of comprehensibility. I'm afraid I bit off more than I could chew on this one. Also, in treating the general I might have lost sight of the particular. The irony is I actually have been writing down my own thoughts about fiction, or at least trying to, only you'd be surprised how slow it takes me to sort all my ideas out.

      Better luck next time, perhaps.

      ChrisC

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    6. I should be clear about this: I've got no issues with the fact that you like the series. I still find myself more or less enjoying the act of watching it, despite my abundant frustration with how substandard some aspects of it are. But the frustrations are far easier to write about than the enjoyment, so that's what I tend to focus on.

      Chris, you're obviously a smart guy who has a lot of useful things to say. I just wish you'd whittle your focus down a bit and engage with some of the actual points I make in my reviews.

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  2. @ChrisC -

    "I still don’t get what people find in the novel, and maybe I just didn’t understand the first time. I’m still not sure I’ve ever heard a fully convincing argument as to why the book should be considered good, even as light entertainment."

    The book is satire of post-9/11 America. It is noteworthy just for that, but it's also very satisfying satire of the very same, the same way Needful Things is satisfying satire of its own era/ certain iterations of the American Dream. Would that we had an alien child to appeal to end our own tenure under the real world dome, but escapist fantasy is essential in such times. At any rate, it might not be to your liking, but don't mistake your lack of affection for it as a failure on the part of the book or of any who admire it.

    I say this because the series is demonstrably a mess. The novel is not. Say what you will about it, but it is structurally sound and on-point message-wise. Characters are far more interesting in the novel, even as exaggerations, than they are on the series, because the characters of the novel are not constantly just being contrived to circumstance. HUGE EXAMPLE: at no point is Maxine introduced, who starts a fight club, that gets everyone in town, and then is gone next chapter, after she's shot by another character, who suddenly becomes a villain because that's how the last few episodes have to be. These are just not examples of character nuance or intriguing plot twists.

    It does seems you're going to some awfully deep wells to justify points about the show. It all seems to do with not liking the book, which is fair, but by your own admission, you don't get the book. i.e. "Big Jim is just a cartoon." In a satire, exaggerations are not just common; they're essential. But the Big Jim of the TV series is not an exaggeration or a satire at all. He's garden variety bad-tv villain. A few posts ago you mentioned not knowing soap opera tropes. Fair enough, again. But Big Jim is a soap opera trope, which is infinitely less compelling than satire, UNLESS the show is spoofing soap opera tropes. Which it doesn't seem to be. It seems to want me to think this is some compelling mystery adventure with characters where "anything goes." But the characters have yet to be established, because they change to accommodate very cliched kind of twists and massively fail to exploit the main premise of the show. i.e. THE DOME. Caps required! This has blown my mind all season. I mean, you had Angie "wanting to make a go" of the diner for a couple of episodes. What?? I don't think, when the thousands of refugees of Katrina crowded into the Superdome, it would occur to anyone to commandeer the hot dog stand and "live the dream." It's just ill-considered writing. There to fill a few moments of an episode and then forgotten.

    Now personal enjoyment is all subjective, so hey, if you like the show, great. It's not that I'm arguing with. It just seems to me that poor plot twists and shoddy execution and inconsistent characters from week to week have much more in common with bad tv writing than sweeping statements about archetypes, Grail Quests, etc.

    I mean, if it turns out that the writers of Under the Dome have been trying to tell the story you're talking about, I have to hate the show even more, as it's an incredibly piss-poor way of trying to re-tell the Fisher King story or something.

    I believe there is just too much cinema (and even a great deal of television) that successfully and consistently explores character ambiguity to not mistake something like Under the Dome as of the same kin. When you speak of character ambiguity driving the tension of the series and what the writers are banking on, I just can't agree; such things are simply not evident to me in the show I've been watching. Really, if you want to bring Eliot, Jung, Tolkien and Aristotle to bear on something, it seems there might be worthier targets.

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    1. "I mean, you had Angie "wanting to make a go" of the diner for a couple of episodes."

      Not YOU-you, obviously.

      All frustration is directed at the show.

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    2. "HUGE EXAMPLE: at no point is Maxine introduced, who starts a fight club, that gets everyone in town, and then is gone next chapter, after she's shot by another character, who suddenly becomes a villain because that's how the last few episodes have to be. These are just not examples of character nuance or intriguing plot twists."

      They definitely aren't. Maxine wasn't even a character so much as she was a plot manipulation given form. Which is all Dodee turned out to be, in the end. It's all ANY of them are apt to turn out to be, I'm afraid. But yes, Maxine is an especially egregious example.

      "A few posts ago you mentioned not knowing soap opera tropes. Fair enough, again. But Big Jim is a soap opera trope, which is infinitely less compelling than satire, UNLESS the show is spoofing soap opera tropes. Which it doesn't seem to be."

      This is a very good point. If the series was doing some sort of satire of that sort of television, it would still be a bit of a violation of the spirit of the novel, but it would at least be SOMETHING. This series, as far as I can tell, exists purely in service of its concept. And really not even the concept, but the "mystery" inside the concept (i.e., the minidome and whatever is motivating all of this). IF -- and that's a mighty big if -- that ends up being compelling and interesting, then the series is salvageable; if it does not, then the series will be a failure on all fronts, story-wise. As far as I'm concerned, at least.

      "I mean, you had Angie "wanting to make a go" of the diner for a couple of episodes. What??"

      That was absolutely retarded. The ONLY way I can justify it is by saying to myself that the series wanted to make its viewers think that that (Angie running the diner) would be Angie's dynamic going forward, so that when that turns out to not be the case, it's sort of a surprise. In THAT sense, I guess you could look at the show as being somewhat edgy in terms of how it uses TV tropes. But that's a massive stretch (one I do NOT believe to actually be the case, incidentally); and even that was would be merely an explanation, as opposed to a valid excuse.

      "The book is satire of post-9/11 America. It is noteworthy just for that, but it's also very satisfying satire of the very same, the same way Needful Things is satisfying satire of its own era/ certain iterations of the American Dream. Would that we had an alien child to appeal to end our own tenure under the real world dome, but escapist fantasy is essential in such times. At any rate, it might not be to your liking, but don't mistake your lack of affection for it as a failure on the part of the book or of any who admire it."

      I'm glad the book has its defenders. I'm one of them, although my disappointment in a few aspects of it -- especially the lack of genuine confrontation in the end between Big Jim and Barbie -- causes me to be a bit apathetic in my defense. I also hate some of its tics, such as having Junior say "Baaaaaarbie" all the time. Also, some of its politics went a little too far for me, despite the fact that I am essentially on the same side. Your assertion of it being satire is persuasive, though, as I've said before; I suspect that when I reread the novel, that will really click for me.

      Regardless, I think the worst you can say of the novel is that it's a flawed but essentially compelling bit of sci-fi.

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