Monday, April 09, 2018

A Political History of the Future: The Expanse, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

Just in time for its third season premiere on Wednesday, I dedicate my latest Political History of the Future column to The Expanse, a show with tremendous potential as a piece of political storytelling that is mostly being squandered.

I haven't written about The Expanse since I reviewed the first few episodes, and the impressions I formed then have mostly persisted--the worldbuilding is still great, the production values are still amazing, and the story is still pretty dull.  And, as I observed back then, the show's tendency to downplay the importance of popular organization has led to some frustrating blind spots.  The Expanse has a premise that should naturally lend itself to depictions of labor unions, political parties, and liberation struggles, but like a lot of Hollywood products it is reflexively suspicious of all such bodies.  It thus falls into the traps of dividing the underclass into those who suffer passively, and are to be pitied, and those who act, and are to be viewed with suspicion.  And, as I write in the essay
It’s an emphasis that seems particularly perverse given the event that closes the first season, in which Jules-Pierre Mao’s plans to investigate the protomolecule’s properties reach their horrific next stage. His agents place an activated strain of the protomolecule on Eros Station, which within a day transforms the station’s 1.5 million inhabitants into a blob. It’s Bhopal times one million, except on purpose. It’s an act of war that is also a war crime. It’s, well, genocide. And it’s not something the show really expects us to care about.
If I found The Expanse's first season unengaging, the second has frustrated and infuriated me with its handling of the aftermath of genocide.  I elaborate on that in this essay.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Recent Reading Roundup 46

The first reading roundup of 2018 covers an eclectic bunch of books, some of which I really liked and others I found pretty meh.  It veers back and forth between rather experimental fare and stuff that sits squarely in the mainstream of literary fiction.  It's not the best possible start to the year, but it's a solid one, and one that reminds me that being adventurous in my reading usually pays off.

  • Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin - Part literary fantasy, part historical fiction, Irwin's novel takes as its subject Anthony Woodville, a 15th century knight, courtier, and scholar whose sister Elizabeth's marriage to king Edward IV destabilized the tentative peace achieved after the initial York victory in the Wars of the Roses, and set in motion a chain of events that left both sides in the dispute decimated.  I've written in the past about the different approaches that historical novelists have taken to this period, and more generally, about the way that the choice of genre, tone, and even literary style can affect our view of history.  Irwin's approach--which is only semi-serious--is to ask what history actually is.  His characters exist in a moment where the very idea of history, and of how we narrativize it, is still being codified.  In one scene, Anthony is shocked by the thought that people in the past dressed or spoke differently than him, or had access to less sophisticated weapons or ships.  A running subplot involves an abbot who is trying to work out the age of the world through the simple expedient of working backwards through the known events of the past (he ends up concluding that there are too many centuries and eliminates the sixth through ninth from his timeline).  The difference between legend and actual events is impossible to discern, and sometimes nonexistent.  Characters talk of King Arthur and his knights as if they really existed, but at the same time, one scholar wonders whether Charlemagne could have been a real person, since surely no single man could have achieved all the feats ascribed to him.

    It's a slippage that is often reinforced for blatantly political reasons.  In order to obscure the roots of his reign in treason and usurpation, Edward tries to model his court on the fictional Camelot, staging tournaments and sending his courtiers on quests.  His advisers grumble that such fantasies have no place in this "modern" age, but at the same time they ignore the frequent encroachment of magic and wonder into their world.  Anthony begins the novel by dying at the Battle of Towton, only to come back to life because there are so many dead that the afterlife has overlooked him.  For the rest of his story, the supernatural dogs his steps, whether it's the ghosts of the dead, or figures out of the heroic deeds invented about him by Edward's agents in order to cement the Woodvilles' legitimacy.  The narrative of the novel is frequently interrupted by stories, told by the characters or to them.  By the end of the novel, the fiction that has been built up around Anthony--that he is a virginal, virtuous knight who has even seen the Holy Grail--is so powerful that it steps into the world as its own entity, whose first act is to chastise the real Anthony for being an ordinary, sinful human.

    In its handling of Anthony, Wonders Will Never Cease is reminiscent of Hillary Mantel's humanizing, deliberately modern historical novels.  Like Mantel's Cromwell, Irwin's Anthony is defined by his ambivalence, his willingness to learn about the world and consider different points of view, and his detachment from more florid, dogmatic figures like Edward, or his chief constable and avid torturer Tiptoft.  But its frequent forays into symbol-laden Arthurian pastiches (which reminded me very much of the novels of John Crowley) mean that this realism is constantly, and clearly deliberately, being undercut.  The result is a heady, dense mixture, by no means a quick or straightforward read.  It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the novel's frequent detours into stories-within-stories, or its near-invisible transitions between realism and allegory.  But whenever one is in danger of being permanently disoriented, the force of history reappears and carries Anthony, and us, along with it.  In its final moments, as Anthony approaches a date with destiny that will transform him into a character in other people's narratives, the project of Wonders Will Never Cease becomes clear--to convince us of a thing that is almost impossible for most of us to believe, that history is real, and that we are a part of it.

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - I found myself, in the opening chapters of Ng's recent novel, being reminded strongly of HBO's mega-successful Big Little Lies, which I watched a few weeks before reading the book.  Like that series (itself based on a novel by Liane Moriarty), Little Fires Everywhere starts with a lower-class single mother moving to an affluent, orderly community, allegedly in order to send their child to a better school, but really because of the still-simmering secrets of their past.  Both stories start with a shocking crime, which the narrative then flashes back from in order to explain the background and events leading up to.  And both involve the community being split over a dispute in which the personalities and social class of the people on either side make as much of a difference as the facts of the case.  (Somewhat unsurprisingly, the rights to Little Fires Everywhere have been purchased by Reese Witherspoon, who produced Big Little Lies.)  It's perhaps because of this familiarity that I found Little Fires Everywhere a little underwhelming, or perhaps because consuming several stories of a similar type (see also USA's The Sinner last year) drives home the fundamental limitation of all of them--that the secrets these narratives tease are rarely as salacious or as shocking as the buildup to them always tries to promise.  "Idyllic town with dark currents running beneath the surface" is a classic for a reason, but one of the effects of its having been repeated so many times is that we've seen most of the likely variations on it, and few of them are likely to surprise us.

    What's left, then, is the execution, the characters, and the issues underpinning it all, and on all of these counts Ng is accomplished though, again, not terribly thrilling.  The heart of the novel is the conflict between its two mothers, well-off Shaker Heights doyenne Elena Richardson (almost always referred to as "Mrs. Richardson" by the narrative)--whose house will burn down in the novel's opening chapter, setting up the narrative's climax--and itinerant artist Mia Warren.  When Mia and her quiet teenage daughter Pearl rent the Richardsons' second house, the two families end up in constant contact with each other, with Pearl entranced by the blithe, privileged Richardson children's confidence and normalcy, while they in turn find in Mia a figure who gives them permission to be imperfect and make mistakes, as they don't feel comfortable doing around their mother.  Some of the best scenes of Little Fires Everywhere are the ones where the characters are allowed to simply be, as opposed to moving the novel more deliberately towards its promised destructive ending--when Mia works on her abstract photographs, or when the youngest Richardson child, the misfit Izzy, seethes over injustices that she can sense, but can't articulate or productively respond to.  As the novel's plot heats up, however, it becomes, somewhat predictably for this kind of story, more mechanical and more contrived.  Mia's mysterious backstory is dumped on us in two chapters that suddenly yank the narrative away from the novel's carefully naturalistic progression through time.  A laboriously set up gun-on-the-mantelpiece, one character using another's name while procuring an abortion, goes off in exactly the manner and time we expect.  It's all leading up to an ending that is a great deal less interesting than simply letting the characters continue with their ordinary lives might have been.

    Underlying it all is the issue of race and how it intersects with class, which Ng approaches in subtle, oblique ways.  Mia and Pearl's relative poverty colors how the rest of the community, and particularly Mrs. Richardson, perceives their behavior, particularly when it comes to sex and motherhood.  This coincides with the legal case that divides the community, in which a Chinese immigrant tries to regain custody of the baby she abandoned, who is in the process of being adopted by an affluent Shaker Heights couple.  The community--one of the US's first planned cities, where Ng herself grew up--prides itself on its progressivism and inclusiveness, but is unwilling to admit how deeply these values are rooted in affluence and the expectation of it.  When the baby's mother is accused of unfitness, the accusation always ends up hinging on her poverty, and the idea that Shaker Heights parents have options and support systems that a woman like her doesn't is always present, but rarely acknowledged by people like Mrs. Richardson.  Repeatedly challenged by the case, by Mia and Pearl's very existence, and by hints that her own family is not as perfect as she believes, Mrs. Richardson crumbles, finally using her wealth and power as a weapon against those whose "badness" is really just a lack of options.  It's a powerful moment, but once again it feels as if Ng doesn't trust it.  She ends the novel instead on several contrivances (including one with a gaping plot hole) that reinforce my impression that Little Fires Everywhere, like Big Little Lies and other stories like them, is more interesting for its parts than its whole.

  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - The early chapters of Makumbi's epic are very much what a reader might expect upon being told that the book they're about to read is "the great X novel", where X is a country in Africa--in this case Uganda.  Set in 1750, they are a richly detailed, vividly described portrait of the life of a provincial governor in the Buganda kingdom, focusing on the customs and social orders that govern his life, and on the events that overturn it despite his best efforts to follow what he sees as the correct, moral path.  The influence of Things Fall Apart is strongly felt, albeit with some notable and clearly deliberate alterations.  The hero of these chapters, Kintu Kidda (a name that has a rich significance in Ugandan folklore and tradition, signifying the first man) is, unlike the hero of Achebe's seminal work, a kind, thoughtful man, whose adherence to tradition is tempered by his nuanced understanding of human nature.  In one particularly charming scene, Kintu and the other married men of his family sit with his soon-to-be-married son to have a frank discussion of marital relations, which focuses as much on the need to be open and responsive to the needs of one's partner as it does on dirty jokes.  Nevertheless, Kintu's life is on a collision course with tragedy.  When he accidentally kills his adopted son, a member of the Tutsi minority, Kintu is too overcome by shock and guilt to admit his responsibility and give the boy proper funeral rites.  Cursed by the boy's biological father, he quickly watches his family fall apart, and dies in the knowledge that future generations will carry the curse forward.

    It's at this point that Kintu changes radically from the novel we might have expected it to be.  Instead of proceeding forward through time to reveal how each subsequent generation of Kintu's descendants faced the curse in their turn, it instead jumps forwards 250 years, to 2004, and visits with four members of the present-day family.  Kanani is a joyless missionary for a dying Christian sect, who spends his days trying to spread the word by pretending to have committed horrific crimes which have now been washed away by god's forgiveness, and his nights ignoring the dysfunction in his own family, his twin children's all-consuming relationship and his grandson's disaffection.  Miisi is a former academic who returned to Uganda after years of exile in Britain during Idi Amin's rule, and is now trying to make amends for his absence by raising his grandchildren, most of whose parents have been felled by war or AIDS.  Isaac is a self-made man, hardened by a loveless, impoverished childhood, who is riddled with indecision over whether to test himself and his young son for HIV.  And Suubi wafts through life as if she has no past, having suppressed the memory of her abandonment as a child and convinced herself that her adoptive parents were her real ones.  All are haunted by the recurring motifs of the curse: twins, one of whom tries to overpower the other; people of Tutsi heritage; and the presentiment of murder or suicide.

    As Aaron Bady writes in his introduction, one of the interesting (and, again, clearly deliberate) choices that Makumbi makes in Kintu is the decision not to discuss colonialism or European influence in Uganda.  These forces are present in the background, and their impact has clearly shaped the lives of the modern characters--most notably in the case of Kanani and Miisi, both adherents of Western systems of thought, which they regard with varying degrees of ambivalence.  But the project of Kintu--both the novel and its characters--is moving forward from an ugly past.  Isaac, for example, must come to terms with being the product of rape and with the abandonment of his mother, while Suubi must face up to the past she has suppressed, including a twin who died at birth and whose ghost haunts her.  For all of them, the project of the novel is to redefine themselves and come up with a stronger, more grounded identity, which they do by both embracing their heritage and position as part of a family, and discarding the past that weighs them down.  That duality defines Kintu, a novel that is both aware of itself as part of a tradition of "African" novels oriented at Western audiences, with particular expected tropes, and trying to reinvent those novels for a Ugandan audience.  So we get the multifaceted portrait of modern Ugandan society, the mingling of realism and folklore, the references to crushing poverty, government corruption, and AIDS.  But we also get nuances of Ugandan society--naming conventions, for example, or slippery definitions of familial relationships--that a reader from outside the culture might find difficult to parse.  Perhaps deliberately, Kintu thus ends more with a question mark than with a definitive statement, offering the chance of a different, better future, but not yet certain what that future looks like.

  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan - It's been seven years since Egan published the magnificent, heart-rending A Visit From the Good Squad, but even after all that time, a follow-up to that novel was sure to send me running to the bookstore.  Manhattan Beach turns out to be a great deal more conventional than that earlier, time-hopping novel.  It's an absorbing read, but lacks Goon Squad's force and clear intent.  Set in early 40s New York as the American war machine begins to work in earnest, churning out materiel and soldiers for the European and Asian theaters and upending the lives of the people left back home, Manhattan Beach focuses on two such individuals.  Nineteen-year-old Anna Kerrigan is a technical worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard who dreams of becoming a diver, repairing ships and clearing obstacles under water.  Dexter Styles is a gangster with one leg out of the life, married to a respectable banker's daughter and slowly moving his business interests towards the legal end, but still with strong ties to the families that helped him on his way up.  Tying the two together is Anna's father, Eddie, who disappeared five years ago after taking clandestine work for Dexter--a fact of which Anna and her family are unaware, assuming that Eddie abandoned them.

    Manhattan Beach is at its best when it explores little- or under-discussed aspects of this time and place in history: the wartime work of women in places like the Navy Yard; the rigors and challenges of diving; the life of merchant marine sailors and the dangers they faced while transporting supplies for the war through U-boat infested waters; the hierarchy of Depression-era shipyard work, and the way the mobbed-up unions controlled it; perhaps most importantly, the way that New York of the early 20th century was still primarily a port city, defined by its rivers, harbors, waterways, and the people who knew their secrets.  It's no surprise to come to Egan's acknowledgments and find several pages of personal and documentary resources she drew on during what must have been more than a decade's work on this book.  But these elements don't tie together into a particularly engaging narrative.  The overarching theme of the book is escape and reinvention.  The war allows Anna to slip out of her old life and become a completely new person several times over.  But when Dexter, inspired by the atmosphere of change and reinvention around him, tries to go completely legitimate, he finds that not just his mob connections, but his respectable ones, resist this transformation.  This is a little too grand and amorphous a concept to give the novel much of a shape, however, or at least it is in Egan's handling of it.  As a result, Manhattan Beach feels more like a bunch of things that happen than a complete novel--far less so, in fact, than the superficially more bitty and aimless Goon Squad.

  • The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera - Rivera's debut novel is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world, where the Hokkaran empire rules over several disparate nations, imposing both its military rule and its cultural norms.  To the north of the empire lies the magical Wall of Flowers, beyond which the four demon generals lie in wait, periodically sending out their minions to harass humans, often infecting them with "blackblood", which turns its victims into bloodthirsty fiends and for which there is no cure.  It's a very familiar setting, and but for its cultural inspirations one might easily call it derivative.  But what sets The Tiger's Daughter apart is less its premise and more what Rivera does with it, and with what style.  Though its narrative ranges back and forth across the empire, the framing story of The Tiger's Daughter is that Shizuka, the young, troubled empress, has received a long letter from Shefali, her childhood friend--and eventually, lover--in which Shefali describes how their lives have been intertwined since birth, and even before that, as their own mothers were legendary warriors who fought side by side against the demon generals.

    The style Rivera uses in The Tiger's Daughter reminded me of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, and even more than that, of Kai Ashante Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  The language is rich, emotional, focused on the small details of character interaction, even in the midst of great drama or intense action.  More importantly, the focus of Shefali's letter is on the shifting currents in the friendship between her and Shizuka, as well as their relationships with their mothers, or their growing awareness of how Hokkaran cultural hegemony has warped the empire's other nations.  Shefali's people, the Qorin, are clearly based on Mongolian steppe tribes, nomadic people with a great love of horses and the open sky, whom the Japanese-inflected Hokkarans deride as barbarians.  This frustrates Shefali, who sees her people's culture as beautiful and sophisticated (and who also keenly observes how other Hokkaran protectorates, such as the Korean-inspired Xian-Lai, have been warped by being forced to accept Hokkaran conventions, for example outlawing same-sex relationships).  Her narrative therefore becomes not just a story of her coming of age and sexual awakening, but of her growing political awareness.  In the present, meanwhile, we get to see how Shizuka's dreams of creating a better, more just world have met with only limited success.  She's wrested control of the empire from her cruel, racist uncle, but the heartbreak of having been separated from Shefali--due to a tragedy that the latter's letter builds up to--has kept her from becoming the leader and hero her people deserve.

    The Tiger's Daughter is not a mild or soft-spoken novel.  Every emotion is pitched to the rafters, whether it's Shizuka's arrogance, or Shefali's passion, or the two women's pain at being separated.  This suits the story Rivera is telling (as well as, one imagines, her project of writing an epic, heroic romance whose lovers are both women).  But for me, at least, it's a style that outstays its welcome, and especially when one considers that this is only the first volume in a trilogy.  It finally becomes difficult not to notice the fatal flaw in its premise: if, as we eventually learn, Shefali and Shizuka have been separated for years, why is the topic of Shefali's letter the years they spent together rather than her adventures during their separation?  More importantly, it becomes difficult to accept the novel's insistence that it is depicting a romance for the ages rather than a love story between two over-dramatic teenage girls, who might not be entirely good for one another.  I found myself much more interested in the politics of the world than in the novel's two heroines, which given that their voices and personalities are what give the novel its flavor ended up feeling like a fatal disconnect.  At a shorter length--not unlike Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, or the similar chapters in The Winged Histories--I might have loved The Tiger's Daughter, but given that it is a hefty volume in its own right that only begins to tell its story, my enthusiasm for it can only be described as qualified.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - Lim's slim novel starts in a very familiar way: two teenage boys in late 20th century middle America, social outcasts for their nerdy demeanor and interests (and also, in this case, for being Asian), bond over a shared love of comics and all things geeky.  The only thing setting this iteration apart is the insistence of Lim's narrative voice, which flows from one incident to another in a rush that carries the reader irresistibly along with it.  Upon the chapter change, however, everything gets turned upside down.  Now we're in the present, and our protagonists are a group of friends, Dave, Muriel and Frank (sometimes joined by a nameless narrator who may be one of the boys from the first chapter, now grown up).  Dave is a disappointed artist, Muriel works at a hospital, and Frank is a political ghost writer, but in their down time they are a superhero team known as Team Chaos.  But this, too, is to suggest a familiar format that Dear Cyborgs immediately bucks.  The insistent narrative voice is still present, and its focus is not on superheroics but on the utterly mundane, as it follows the characters' trivial reminiscences, dreams, and the lives of the people they've met.  Even when Frank is sent in pursuit of a supervillain, Ms. Mistleto, she spends most of their time together talking to him, telling him her life story and trying to explain why she's turned to anti-social behavior.  Stories unfold within stories, fact is confused for fiction and reality for dreams.  The only thing keeping us afloat through all this is Lim's rigorous control of his narrative voice, which manages to make even the most mundane tale feel compelling, and to carry us along to the book's end.

    It might sound glib or pretentious to say that Dear Cyborgs is about modern living, but this is both true and a great deal more exciting than you might expect.  Running through all the nested stories in this volume is the question of how to create meaning when you're just a tiny component of a system that is, at its deepest levels, exploitative and corrosive.  The superhero premise reminds us of the fantasies of agency that pop culture is rife with, but even these heroic, powerful characters are struggling with the question of how, and whether, to resist.  Is it possible to create art, for example, that changes the world, or will it inevitably be co-opted by capitalism?  The book repeatedly features artist characters who destroy their own work rather than allow it to be taken out of their control, or sold to a market that values it as nothing more than an object.  More interestingly, it suggests that protest--the Zuccotti Park protests of 2011 are repeatedly referenced--is in itself a form of art, of performance, and just as vulnerable to commodification, and to losing its meaning through this process.  This discussion is interspersed with reminiscences of real artists, and real activists (many of them Asian-American) who tried to solve this conundrum, with varying degrees of success though never completely.

    The combination of exaggerated social realism, SFnal elements, and an arch, comedic tone reminded me strongly of the short stories of George Saunders, but Lim is an angrier writer, his ultimate conclusions more desperate even though they're cloaked in humor.  The conclusion that many of the characters reach is that the only ethical choice left, when all other forms of protest have been exhausted, defeated, or co-opted, is to become "parasites", participating in society only minimally.  But this is a solution that Dear Cyborgs refutes simply by existing.  It is too vivid, too loud, too exhilarating to be, ultimately, a novel preaching withdrawal from the world.  If it can't offer a solution to the problems it identifies, it is at least vitally insistent in how it defines them.

  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - This multigenerational historical melodrama touches on a corner of history that I--and, I suspect, much of its target audience--knew very little about before picking up the book, the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan before and after WWII.  When Japan annexes Korea and begins hollowing out its economy and social structures in the early 20th century, peasants like boarding-house owners Hoonie and Yangjin are left scrambling for survival.  Their daughter, Sunja, is seduced by a married Korean-Japanese mobster and left pregnant, and the only option before her is to marry a passing missionary, Baek Isak, and go with him to Osaka.  In the years and decades that follow, the Baek family--Isak's brother and sister-in-law, Sunja's sons, and various in-laws and grandchildren--struggles first with survival during the harsh times of the 30s and 40s, and then with the evolving but insistent Japanese prejudices against Koreans throughout the 20th century.  Sunja's son Noa is constantly aware of the need to embody the "good" Korean, excelling at school despite significant financial and social challenges, but constantly haunted by his heritage.  His brother Mozasu goes into the pachinko business, surrendering not only to a Korean stereotype but to relentless rumors that he is mobbed-up.  Mozasu's son Solomon is set on a trajectory to "transcend" his background, growing up in cosmopolitan luxury, isolated not just from Japanese prejudices but from the reality of life for most Korean-Japanese.

    It's a fascinating bit of history, and Lee finds some compelling angles on it.  A chapter in which Solomon--who despite being second generation Japanese-born isn't a Japanese citizen--has to obtain a foreigner's identification card on his fourteenth birthday, to the distress of his loving Japanese stepmother, does an excellent job of outlining the mundane challenges of his existence.  The dimly-felt influence of the post-war Korean split pops up in intriguing ways--Solomon's Korean-American girlfriend is frustrated when Japanese people ask her whether she is north or south Korean, since to her there is no difference from such a vast geographical and generational remove.  As a story, however, Pachinko is alternately stolid and overwrought.  Both the frequency with which the novel lobs tragedies at the Baek family--car accidents, HIV infections, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki--and the resignation with which they endure these hardships end up feeling calculated, even manipulative.  For some of the characters, this resignation works--most of all Sunja, whose long, tumultuous life leaves her with many unanswerable questions about guilt, suffering, and endurance.  But Sunja is off-page for much of the novel, and the other characters feel less like people trying to navigate complicated challenges and political realities, and more like mouthpieces for whatever insight the current chapter has into Korean-Japanese relations.  Pachinko ends up feeling less like a story, or even a meditation on migration and statelessness, and more like a drawn-out historical soap opera.  It's interesting, but not very engaging.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Iain M. Banks at Lawyers, Guns & Money

In my latest Political History of the Future column, I discuss Iain M. Banks, in the context of Paul Kincaid's excellent biography/critical study of him, and Amazon having announced a planned adaptation of Consider Phlebas.  Readers of this blog know that I spent the better part of the decade making my way through Banks's SF, and in this essay I try to synthesize those individual reviews into an overview of the sequence, which naturally ends up revolving around that ever-baffling question: are we meant to be on the Culture's side?
The Culture wants for nothing, and yet it is defined by a profound need for meaning. The Culture is the most radically, anarchically free society imaginable, and yet it is governed by AIs (known as "Minds") who make decisions at a speed and complexity that human citizens could never hope to match. The Culture is constitutionally peaceful, and yet it constructs ships and weapons platforms capable of dealing out death and destruction on a galactic scale. What's more, the Culture's covert operations wing, Special Circumstances, routinely interferes in the affairs of other societies, sometimes nudging them gently towards more equal, more benevolent forms of government, and sometimes orchestrating coups and civil wars in the hopes that these will lead to better results down the line. It can be hard to tell whether we’re meant to approve of the Culture or be horrified by it. Beyond that, it can be hard to tell whether the Culture is a utopian vision of the future, or a dystopian parody of the present.
The opportunity to revisit the Culture in 2018 also gives me the chance to discuss whether Banks's SF still feels relevant in our present political moment.  To which the answer is, unsurprisingly, yes and no.  As I write in the column, the Culture books increasingly feel rooted in the Cold War and its implicit assumption about the West's goodness (which the Culture is designed to both reflect and repudiate).  But on the other hand, there are principles in these books that feel evergreen, whose echoes continue to be felt decades after they were published.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Strong Female Characters: Thoughts on Jessica Jones's Second Season

It's a bit strange, coming back to Jessica Jones two and a half years after its first season.  When that remarkable, groundbreaking story dropped, it--and the Netflix MCU project of which it was only the second chapter--felt like a breath of fresh air, a genuine breakthrough in how superhero stories could function on TV.  If Daredevil's first season suggested how a long-form superhero story could combine psychological realism, an adult handling of politics and economics, and one of the MCU's first successful villains, but still struggled to wrap all those up in a compelling story, Jessica Jones's first season seemed to perfect the formula.  It delivered all those traits, and a story that was nearly impeccable, and a wrenching examination of rape culture, trauma, and the way that our system is designed to let abusers thrive and find new victims.[1]  With Luke Cage, the MCU's first black headliner, making a guest appearance on the show in preparation for his own series, it seemed clear that the Netflix MCU project would be a sophisticated, politically-aware, mature alternative to other superhero stories.

Two and a half years later, the bloom is decidedly off the rose.  It's been genuinely dismaying to watch Netflix squander the promise of those first two seasons, as each follow-up show has wallowed in similar flaws of poor pacing, dull writing, and a limited emotional palette that now feels less like a conscious stylistic choice, and more like a lack of imagination.  We've had Luke Cage (promising in points but undone in its second half), the second season of Daredevil (utterly forgettable), Iron Fist (misconceived from start to finish), and The Punisher (didn't bother to watch).  And all this was in service of the alleged culminating event of this entire project, The Defenders, which arrived like a damp squib on our screens last summer and disappeared from public consciousness almost as quickly.

So Jessica Jones's second season, the first offering in Netflix MCU's phase two, arrives burdened with the need to demonstrate this entire project's long-term viability.  And that's on top of the show's own burden of expectations.  As practically everyone--myself included--pointed out in 2015, the Kilgrave arc that gave that season its shape would be a tough act to follow.  It would be nearly impossible to come up with a villain who could have the same emotional resonance for Jessica, and the same metaphorical weight for the viewers, as David Tennant's mind-controlling psychopath.

Wisely, then, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and her writers decided not to try.  The second season of Jessica Jones is a much more diffuse affair than its first.  Each of its four main characters--Jessica, Trish, Malcolm, and Jeri Hogarth--gets their own storyline and character arc, and while the season's villain has a personal connection to Jessica that echoes Kilgrave's, it's also different in ways that end up being revealing of Jessica and her personal journey.  The result feels a lot less like a superhero story than a crime drama about people who have superpowers.  It's also a less explicitly feminist story than the first season, focusing less on the way that society and its systems enable the abuse of women.  Instead, the second season's feminism is expressed through its being a story that allows its characters--who are mostly women--to be fully-rounded people, who get to act and direct their lives, even in spheres where one rarely gets to see female characters.[2]  The result isn't as explosively great as the first season, and it suffers from some by-now familiar Netflix flaws.  But it's often quite good, and at points a rich, rewarding examination of its unique premise.

Picking up an unspecified amount of time after the first season[3], which ended with Jessica killing Kilgrave in order to protect Trish and many other victims, season two finds our heroine more or less where we left her: still a self-destructive, alcoholic mess, still taking cheating-spouse cases to pay the bills, and still resisting Malcolm and Trish's exhortations to more fully engage with the community, and use her powers and skills in a heroic capacity.  One complication is the fact that a lot of people now know that Jessica has powers, and that she killed Kilgrave in cold blood and got away with it.  In another sort of story this might make her a folk hero, but in Jessica Jones it makes her a marginalized figure, who is often greeted with fear or contempt.  When a client tries to hire Jessica to kill her cheating partner, she responds to Jessica's indignation by pointing to Kilgrave's death and arguing that Jessica is neither a hero nor a vigilante, but just a common killer.  Jessica's response--"a hero would have you locked up for soliciting a murder; a vigilante would beat the shit out of you.  Now, which one am I?"--establishes the core question she will spend the season trying to answer: who, and what, is Jessica Jones?  But it also establishes the show's own ambivalence towards strength and violence, an ambivalence that is fairly unique in the superhero genre.

Superhero stories, after all, run on violence, on the assumption that it can be justifiable and even redemptive, and that some people have the right and moral authority to deploy it.  The Netflix MCU shows poke a little at these assumptions, but Jessica Jones goes the farthest, when it depicts violence as not just corrosive to the soul, but as something that can put you outside the bounds of normal society.  Unlike Matt Murdock, Jessica can't compartmentalize her capacity for violence and present a civilized face to the world (in part because she doesn't have a heroic alter-ego).  And unlike the Punisher, she is trying to participate in society, and is bothered when she's seen as unfit for that participation.

An early storyline in the second season involves Jessica clashing with a more polished, more professional private investigator, Pryce Cheng (Terry Chen), who unbeknownst to her was dispatched by Hogarth to get Jessica working for her indirectly.  When Cheng uses strong-arm tactics to convince Jessica to work for him, she initially tries to outsmart him, but it doesn't take him very long to provoke her into real, terrifying violence.  The narrative trains us to be on Jessica's side--especially because Cheng has been such an ass until this point--but the reactions of the other characters, as well as the consequences for Jessica (she gets probation and is sent to an anger management class, which as several characters point out is actually a very light sentence) remind us that this is not how people who want to be allowed to participate in society get to behave.  Jessica, meanwhile, is left to wonder whether she is, as Cheng and others insist, "an animal", which triggers her lifelong feelings of self-loathing.[4]

The themes of violence, the allure of power, and the self-loathing of those who exercise it recur throughout all of the season's character arcs.  Trish's storyline builds on the first season's suggestion that she envies Jessica's powers.  Though initially content to make a difference as a reporter--she starts the season pursuing the company that experimented on Jessica and gave her powers--it soon becomes clear that Trish's need for meaning runs deeper, and is rooted in her addictive personality and the abusive childhood that created it.  When last season's secondary villain Simpson bequeaths her a batch of his performance-enhancing drugs, Trish happily indulges in them, and in her fantasy of being a superhero.  But the show refuses to sugarcoat how she expresses her newfound capacity for violence--it shows her trolling city buses for "villains" to beat up, or slapping her (admittedly horrible) mother in the face.  By the end of the season, Trish's need to be the hero has her hurting herself--tracking down the doctor who gave Jessica her powers so that he can perform the same procedure on her--and others--lying to Jessica and betraying her trust, and attacking Malcolm when he tries to stop her.

Jeri and Malcolm's storylines are more subtle, but no less brutal in their exploration of how power can be abused.  Jeri starts the season by receiving a diagnosis of ALS, which she takes as cosmic retribution for causing the death of her wife in the first season.  When her partners try to use her health as an excuse to push her out of their firm, however, Jeri's instincts for survival and dominance kick in.  She starts out looking for blackmail material, continues by trying to find the experimental treatments used on Jessica, which she thinks could cure her, and ends by orchestrating a murder.

Malcolm, meanwhile, has always been held up as the show's one true innocent, but even in the first season there were hints that underlying his do-gooder persona there was a core of selfishness.  In the second season this is more clearly exposed, as in a scene in which Malcolm pretends to apologize to his ex-girlfriend for his toxic behavior when he was on drugs, but is really trying to steal her access card for a case.  Of course, selfishness isn't always an evil, and certainly not in a universe as rife with abusers and manipulators as Jessica Jones.  The person who first calls Malcolm out on his selfishness, for example, turns out to be a grifter who scams Jeri by promising to use superpowers to cure her illness.  Being able to protect yourself from people like that is an asset, but Malcolm's selfishness can also mean that his dynamic with Jessica very easily turns toxic.  He presents himself as her loyal, long-suffering assistant, but when she fails to reciprocate his attentions in the ways he expects, he lashes out in ways that can't fail to trigger her low self-esteem.[5]

And then there's the season's villain, Alisa (Janet McTeer), a fellow subject of the experiments that produced Jessica's powers, who starts killing the other subjects and doctors when Trish's investigation gets too close.  The first half of the season is spent in Jessica's pursuit of this woman, but the entire story is overturned when she turns out to be Jessica's mother, who also survived the accident that killed their family.  Like Jessica, Alisa is super-strong, and prone to outbursts of rage.  But she has no control over them, and commits wholesale slaughter several times throughout the season.  McTeer gives a magnificent performance--really, the opportunity to watch her and Krysten Ritter, hands down the strongest headliner in the Netflix MCU's roster, go head to head on everything from fights to philosophical debates to tender moments to exasperated mother-and-grown-up-daughter clashes is worth the price of admission all on its own.  But the writing is right there for her, crafting a character who is still all too rare on our screens--a strong, scary middle-aged woman who is still human and sympathetic.

The season avoids the too-common pitfalls of strong female characters--Alisa isn't sexualized (though she does have a love interest who clearly finds her strength very attractive) or fetishized.  Her power isn't made cool just because she's a woman.  The show is very clear on the fact that she's an unrepentant killer who often can't control her rages.  But it also makes clear that much of Alisa's anti-social personality comes down to the person she was before she got powers, and that she and Jessica share a certain caustic, abrasive personality that has nothing to do with their powers or traumas.  At points, it can become hard to tell where the prickly woman ends and the killing machine begins.  In one delirious scene, Alisa relentlessly upbraids a cab driver for texting while driving, becoming, in an instant, the epitome of the opinionated, self-righteous suburban mom she once was.  When Jessica, frantic that the cabbie is going to get his head torn off, gets out of the car, Alisa refuses to apologize, insisting that "I was in the right".

In the middle of the season, Jessica spends several episodes trying to protect Alisa from the world, while simultaneously protecting the world from Alisa.  It's interesting to compare these episodes to a similar arc in the first season, in which Jessica agreed to live with Kilgrave and try to reform (or at least control) him--a comparison that Jessica makes herself in the season finale.  In both seasons, these arcs are the fullest expression of the core contradiction of Jessica's character--it's never clear whether her decision to shackle herself to mentally-unbalanced killers is rooted more in her innate heroism and sense of responsibility, or in her deep-seated belief that she doesn't deserve any better.

As we keep seeing, Jessica is capable of profound compassion and forgiveness.  There is hardly a single fuck-up or loser she meets whom she doesn't try to understand and extend sympathy to, whether it's gently trying to break the news to Hogarth that the cure she'd been pinning her hopes on is a scam (and urging her to believe that "you don't deserve this", even though any reasonable person would agree that Jeri probably does, in fact, deserve it), or reassuring a mother whose custodial kidnapping she's just thwarted that she'll always come first in her son's life.[6]  But she can never extend that compassion to herself, and it finally becomes unclear whether her kindness isn't just a facet of her self-loathing--does she forgive others because she doesn't feel worthy of judging them?[7]

In the first season, it was easy to dismiss Kilgrave's offer of an outlet from Jessica's feelings of guilt and unworthiness--in the guise of self-actualization, what he was actually urging Jessica to do was give up on herself.  Alisa, however, makes a more complicated offer.  Besides not being a sadist, she clearly cares about Jessica as her own person, not just a reflection of herself, and does her some real good when she, for example, insists that Jessica wasn't responsible for the accident that killed their family.  So when she finally insists that Jessica abandon her rigid, and perhaps unsustainable, moral code for one that allows her to forgive herself and live her life--"I do what I have to, and the only way to live with it is not to wallow in it"--it's hard not to feel that she might have a point.  We've spent the season watching the entire cast spiral into cycles of self-loathing and abusive behavior, which leads to more self-loathing, which leads to more abusive behavior because after all, they're already such horrible people.  It's hard not to feel that at least some of Alisa's give-no-fucks attitude might do Jessica, and the show's other characters, a lot of good.

What's interesting is that Jessica actually listens.  It's easy to miss this, because she remains, as I said, a self-destructive drunk who does some really stupid and in some cases unforgivable things, but over the course of the second season Jessica is the most stable, right-thinking member of the cast, and the one who makes the most progress towards recovery and well-being.  She listens when Alisa tells her that she isn't to blame for her family's deaths.  She seeks a detente with Cheng and with her new building supervisor, Oscar (J.R. Ramirez), where in the past their accusations that she is nothing but a source and magnet for chaos might have sent her straight to the bottle.[8]  There's a plot twist late in the season where Jessica starts looking into a prison guard who has been abusing Alisa, and ends up killing him when he finds her in his house and attacks her.  It's a rather poorly done story, too quickly introduced and then gotten rid of, and quite possibly existing solely in order to give the season an excuse to bring David Tennant back as a voice in Jessica's head telling her that now they're the same.  But it's still gratifying to see Jessica realize that this is wrong, that unlike both Kilgrave and Alisa she is capable of choosing not to kill, even if she sometimes falls short of that standard.

Perhaps the most important sign of growth on Jessica's part is that she ends the season cutting Malcolm and Trish out of her life.  I'm not entirely sure that the show intends me to see this as a positive step--pop culture, and superhero stories in particular, are obsessed with the notion of "the team", whose members forgive each other all sorts of codependent, manipulative behavior.  But for Jessica to have enough sense of her own worth to draw boundaries with both of the people closest to her feels like a huge step forward to me.  I don't doubt that Malcolm and Trish will be back in her life sooner or later, but for the time being it feels very encouraging that when Jessica realizes, at the end of the season, that she's left herself completely alone, her response isn't to reach out to Malcolm or Trish, but to go upstairs to Oscar's apartment, and try to forge a new, healthier connection.

If I have one substantial complaint about the second season of Jessica Jones it is that all this fine character work is wrapped in a plot structure that is shapeless, and storytelling that is perfunctory at best.  The second half the season, after Jessica learns the truth about Alisa's identity, starts out like gangbusters, and devolves into tedium as the show keeps repeating the same plot points over and over in an attempt to run out the clock.  One can almost see the writers realizing that they've run out of plot with three more episodes left in the season, and piling on additional complications that feel pulled out of nowhere.  In the last two and a half years we've spilled barrels of virtual ink about the problems of the Netflix MCU shows' structure, the way it encourages bloat and discourages effective plotting.  But Jessica Jones is precisely the show where these problems should have been easiest to avoid.  The looser, more character-focused structure of the season would have lent itself perfectly to a more episodic format with a strong emotional throughline, something along the lines of Elementary.

It's staggering to realize that Netflix has delivered a female-oriented detective story in which two actresses at the top of their game are given nuanced characters and a rich, complicated mother-daughter bond to play, and hardly anyone is going to pay attention to it, because the plotting was so very mediocre that a lot of the audience will have been too bored to notice.[9]  In its first season, Jessica Jones used the Netflix format to its fullest capacity.  In its second, it challenges that format but ends up being undone by it.  Let's hope that in their third season, Rosenberg and her writers continue to give their heroine space to grow, and that Netflix has enough wisdom to do the same for the show.

[1] It was also only the second MCU story to star a woman.  In 2018, it is the only such story, Agent Carter having been cancelled in 2016 and Captain Marvel being still a year away.

[2] Which is not to say that the show doesn't still wear its feminism on its sleeve.  As has been widely reported, all of the directors, and nearly all of the writers, for the second season are women.  One interesting reflection of the show's feminism is its willingness to allow its heroines to look unglamorous.  In particular, it's interesting how unsexy the scenes in which women are shown in their underwear tend to be, and makes you realize how ubiquitous the male gaze is in every other aspect of the culture.

[3] The events of The Defenders are never mentioned, and as the season draws on it seems increasingly implausible that Jessica was recently involved in leveling a city building.

[4] There is, to be clear, a dark underbelly to the way Jessica Jones questions its violent heroine, and that is the fact that as much as pop culture loves violent women when they're safely ensconced in fantasy, in the real world women who exercise violence, even in their own defense, tend to arouse a disproportionately violent reaction.  Women who kill their abusers face harsh sentencing, while male abusers who kill their victims are often more lightly punished.  Especially in a universe where Daredevil gets to drop people off buildings without facing any serious condemnation, and the Punisher is considered capable of redemption after emptying a magazine into a crowd at a hospital, the fact that Jessica, who killed her rapist and stalker after the authorities proved helpless to stop him, is met with condemnation and revulsion could easily be seen as an extension of this tendency.  But this isn't an interpretation the show is interested in exploring.

[5] Or, as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend puts it, "After Everything I've Done for You (That You Didn't Ask For)".  In general I think there are more similarities between Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jessica Jones than you might imagine.  They're both about a remarkable but emotionally unstable heroine who is surrounded by people who turn out to be a lot less put-together than they'd like to pretend.

[6] The exception, of course, are people who hurt Jessica's loved ones, especially Trish, and more generally those who victimize the innocent and helpless.

[7] Further complicating the matter is our recollection of how the first season glossed over Jessica's betrayal and abuse of Luke Cage, something that was only lightly discussed in The Defenders and which doesn't even come up in this season.  In general, race continues to be a frustrating blind spot for this show.  There are only a few small roles for women of color, and most of them end up dead or dismissed by the end of the season.  (In particular, the two most prominent black women in the season are both killed by Alisa, which doesn't affect the show's expectation that we will sympathize with her and with Jessica's desire to have a relationship with her.)  And though men of color fare better, their storylines rarely take into account the role race could play in their lives.  Malcolm, for example, doesn't think twice about getting into fistfights with white men, which in the real world would probably be something that a tall, athletic black man would be hesitant about.

[8] I haven't said anything yet about Oscar, who is a good idea in principle, but whose execution leaves a lot to be desired.  Initially suspicious of Jessica because of the violence she brings to the building, he comes around after she saves his son's life.  But both his initial suspicion and his later embrace are too sudden to be believable, and when Oscar and Jessica became romantically involved soon after, I found myself looking for a catch.  For a show whose entire cast is stacked with manipulative abusers to introduce a love interest who is so uncomplicatedly on our heroine's side felt like a trap, and I had no idea how to feel about Oscar until the very end of the season.

[9] In addition, Netflix's belief that the best way to promote a series is to dump the entire season in a single day keeps coming up short.  Just look how well The Handmaid's Tale parlayed weekly episode releases into months of cultural conversation, whereas the buzz about Jessica Jones is already starting to fade.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Fiction Categories

With a little under 24 hours left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the big fiction categories.  As I wrote earlier this spring, I'm giving the short fiction categories a pass this year, but I have read enough interesting novellas to have a few nominations in that category.  In the novel categories, however, we've seen a bit of an explosion in the last few years, with the Best Series, and Best YA Novel (tentatively called the Lodestar) joining Best Novel.  I haven't read much that's eligible in either category (I'm tempted to nominate Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence for Best Series, but I was a little underwhelmed by Europe in Winter so I might not), but nevertheless, there's more to talk about in this post than in previous years.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Novel:

  • The Rift by Nina Allan (review at The New Scientist) - Allan's second novel sneaks up on you.  For most of its length, it's a well-crafted family drama about a woman whose sister disappears in her teens and reappears as an adult.  A long middle segment seems to chart the sister's experiences on an alien planet, but are we to take them literally, or as a metaphor for abduction and abuse, or a as a complete invention?  Despite the seeming simplicity of the story, there's a richness here that demands reexamination and thought, in the tradition of the best science fiction.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - It's a bit of a long shot, trying to get literary fantasy onto the Hugo ballot, but if there was a 2017 novel that combined a literary fiction sensibility with SFnal elements to greater and more devastating effect than Exit West, I haven't heard of it.  Set in a world much like our own, where civil war, economic instability, and climate change are sending waves of refugees in search of a better future, Hamid imagines that randomly appearing doors allow these refugees to immediately appear in richer, safer countries.  The result is sometimes tragic, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally utopian.  Shortlisted for the BSFA award for best novel.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - If Exit West is a stretch, White Tears is even more so, since the Hugos don't tend to recognize horror and ghost stories.  But Kunzru's novel is masterful in how it combines the familiar tropes of a haunting with the history of how white culture appropriates black art and commodifies black pain.  Its fevered conclusion leaves us uncertain who to root for, and uncertain whether a full exorcism is even possibly until the total extent of complicity and guilt has been explored and expiated.

  • New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson (review at The New Scientist) - Along with Exit West, this feels like the genre novel for 2017, encompassing politics, capitalism, and environmentalism as it tries to imagine how humanity might survive in the post-climate catastrophe world, and how the means of that survival could end up being turned into yet another commodity by the financial system that defines New York as much as its culture and community.  Told by a rotating cast of characters, New York 2140 is funny, erudite, and invigorating, offering hope for the future even as it identifies the infuriating flaws of the present.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (review at The New Scientist, subscribers only) - Offering a twist on the generation ship story that really shouldn't work, Solomon not only combines slavery and science fiction, but adds to them a neuroatypical, gender-nonconforming heroine to create a rich stew that nonetheless feels grounded and immediate.  An Unkindness of Ghosts touches on so many issues, and makes room for such harsh, heartbreaking emotion, that it's hard to believe that it also works so well as a space adventure and a tale of escape.  But at the heart of the story is a simple message--that science fiction is not antithetical to the prejudiced abuses of the past, and that enslaved people can still star in, and direct, a science fictional story.  Listed in the Tiptree Award honor roll.

Best Novella:

I have to admit that I don't actually know that any of these works belong in this category, wordcount-wise--the first two might be too long, the last too short.  But absent any information to the contrary, I'm nominating them here because that's where it feels that they belong.

  • Landscape With Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson (review in The New Scientist) - Anderson's short, devastating work is a dark comedy about love, art, and economic exploitation.  Or rather, it's a dark comedy about how economic exploitation can hollow out love and art until there's nothing left, and about people clinging to their notions of how the world works even in the face of the complete destruction of their system of values.  All that, and funny aliens too.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - I'll have more to say about Lim's weird, experimental volume in the near future, but for now I'll just say that this is a deeply political work that forces the fantasies of agency that pop culture has been feeding us for decades--superheroes, secret agents, psychic powers--on a collision course with the realities of political and economic exploitation.  Dear Cyborgs asks, what is the value of disruption--through art, through protest, through defeating a supervillain's dastardly plot--when the system that envelopes you will always co-opt it?

  • "Fallow" by Sofia Samatar (from Tender) - After delivering two of the most astonishing fantasy novels of the last few years, Samatar dropped off the radar a bit in 2017, despite releasing a very fine short fiction collection.  As a result, there hasn't been as much talk about "Fallow" as it deserves, but this is a very fine portrait of a deeply conformist society and the individual that bucks against it.  The narrator--who isn't an iconoclast but loves people who are--is left wondering what's better, preserving the community or making space for those who are different.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel:

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - Normally I'd feel a bit guilty for nominating in a category in which I've only read one eligible novel, but when that novel is by Frances Hardinge, and is as fine as A Skinful of Shadows, there's really nothing to apologize for.  Set in the early days of the English civil war, Skinful follows a heroine with a head full of ghosts, as she tries to survive, escape people who want to abuse her power, and form a family of her own.  It's a keen examination of the abuses of power and how it twists both the people it benefits and the people it hurts, as well as a utopian vision of disenfranchised people helping one another and creating a kinder, more equitable future.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

Most years, my nominees in this category are short story writers, but because I haven't read a lot of 2017 short fiction, this year they're all debut novelists, each with a very different, but also very exciting, start to their career.

  • Jeannette Ng - I had a lot of expectations when I heard that Ng's debut novel, Under the Pendulum Sun, was about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  Ng exploded pretty much all of them, and delivered something much stranger--a Gothic romance full of musings about identity, morality, and theology.  It doesn't entire work for me--there's a certain bagginess, especially towards the end, and the book seems to expect an investment in the main characters' obsessions that I didn't quite feel--but despite these issues, Under the Pendulum Sun is so much its own thing, and Ng's work on it feels so assured, that it heralds the arrival of a major new writer.  First year of eligibility.

  • K. Arsenault Rivera - I wasn't entirely blown away by Rivera's debut novel, The Tiger's Daughter (I'll have more to say about it soon, probably next week).  But it is a gorgeously written epic fantasy that places as much focus on its heroines' interior life as it does on their battles with demons and wild animals.  And it builds a fascinating world rooted in Asian culture and mythology, and plants a complicated political system in the middle of it.  There are a lot of great writers challenging our assumptions about what epic fantasy can and should do these days, and with The Tiger's Daughter, Rivera has joined their ranks.  First years of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - It should come as no surprise that the author of a debut novel on my Best Novel ballot will also end up on my Campbell ballot.  I've already written about why I think An Unkindness of Ghosts is special, and I can only hope that Solomon will follow it up with more work that is groundbreaking and challenging.  First year of eligibility.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

A lot of my nominations in these categories this year are going to be repeats of stuff I nominated in previous years.  These are the categories that got hit hardest by puppy interference, and a lot of people and institutions that should have had a chance to win Hugos in the last five years were pushed out of nomination entirely.  There's a backlog, in other words.  On the other hand, this is also the grouping where I tend to nominate the least (I'm not alone in this--that's why these categories were so vulnerable to the puppies).  Joining the editor categories and Best Fancast in ballots I'm probably going to leave blank this year is Best Fanzine--I'm sorry, but I just don't read enough eligible sites (much less paper zines) to nominate in this category.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Semiprozine:

  • GigaNotoSaurus (editor: Rashida J. Smith) - This continue to be the little magazine that could, publishing a single story each month on a simple blogging platform, and giving space to some of the most interesting writers in the business, often at greater length than other online magazines offer.

  • Lackington's (editor: Ranylt Richildis) - I love that this weird project is still going strong for the fourth year, delivering themed issues with stories that are experimental or surrealist.  Alongside the more blockbuster magazine, Lackington's deserves to be recognized for striking its own path.

  • Strange Horizons (editors: Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Niall Harrison) - Strange Horizons continues to move from strength to strength, launching projects like Samovar to promote translated fiction, featuring Geoff Ryman's 100 African Writers of SFF series, dedicating a special issue to the topic of resistance on the week of Trump's inauguration.  It's also one of the best magazines for insightful criticism and commentary on genre, featuring (among other great writing) Dexter Palmer's long meditation on Alan Moore's Jerusalem, Vandana Singh's conflicted reaction to Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, and, of course, "Kirk Drift".

Best Professional Artist:

  • John Coulthart - If you're like me, there's been one particular piece of Coulthart's art that you've been unable to escape all year, and each time it's looked just as fresh and exciting as the first time.  I'm speaking, of course, of the cover for Jeannette Ng's Under the Pendulum Sun, easily the most eye-catching genre book cover of 2017, and one that perfectly captures the mood of the book and the things that make it remarkable.  A look through Coulthart's gallery reveals that he's illustrated several other interesting covers this year.

  • Kathleen Jennings - I didn't recognize Jennings name when I saw someone recommend her for this category, but when I looked through her gallery, I realized that I'd been seeing her illustrations all year.  Jennings produces cut-paper and line illustrations, and in 2017 you'll have seen her work adorning the second season of Ellen Kushner's Tremontaine, and Kij Johnsons Wind in the Willows sequel The River Bank.

  • Victo Ngai - Unlike the previous two names, Ngai should need no introduction, and certainly not if you've been following my Hugo nominations for the last few years.  She continues to be one of the most exciting, talented artists working in SFF illustration.  In 2017, her work has included the covers to stories by JY Yang and Christopher Caldwell.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu is another name that I've been nominating for years for consistently great work, but in 2017 she delivered some of the most effective, gorgeous covers in the business with her work on JY Yang's twinned novellas The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune.  I usually read Tor novellas in ebook format, but Shimizu's work made me desperately jealous for the physical object.

  • Christian Ward - It would be impossible to overstate the importance of Ward's art to the success of Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt.  His psychedelic illustrations perfectly convey the irrationality of the prison in which the Inhuman leader has been trapped, and the turmoil of his and the other prisoners' souls.  It's unlike anything I've seen before in a comic, and deserves to be recognized in its own right.

Best Fan Artist:

This is a category whose boundaries always flummox me.  A lot of the people brought up as prospective nominees are professional artists who also do personal work, and then the question becomes, when do they cross the line into the pro category?  Two people I'd like to nominate this year are Brian Kesinger, a professional illustrator and animator whose Calvin & Hobbes-inspired Star Wars drawings were all over the internet after The Last Jedi.  And James Davies, a children's book illustrator whose genre-themed illustrations (see his recent series of Lord of the Rings characters) are delightful.

  • Likhain - You're probably familiar with Likhain's colorful, fantastical drawings, and in 2017 as in the previous year she combined professional work with her own personal drawings.  But the bulk of her work has been in the latter category (which explains why she was nominated here last year).  Her drawings continue to be evocative and rich in details.

  • Liv Rainey-Smith - I'm a little uncertain about this nomination.  Rainey-Smith's woodcut illustrations are delightfully weird, but I'm not sure they answer the requirement of being a "fan"--most of them seem to draw on folklore and religious imagery rather than genre subjects, though there are the obligatory Lovecraft drawings.  Still, I like what I see here enough to let someone else sort out the minutiae.

  • Vacuumslayer - Still making mixed-media works, Vacuumslayer's focus this year seems decidedly Alice in Wonderland-ish.  These two pieces are my favorites.

Best Fan Writer:

(A brief reminder here that I have announced that I would decline a nomination in this category if I received enough votes to qualify this year.)

  • Nina Allan - Nina had a great 2017, with her second novel The Rift gaining wide acclaim and attention.  She also continued to do good work as a critic and reviewer, on her personal blog, at Strange Horizons, and in the Shadow Clarke project.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - We didn't see as much of Vajra's nonfiction writing in 2017 as I would have liked--his focus these days seems to be on his own fiction and on being a fiction editor at Strange Horizons.  But his writing at the Shadow Clarke site was some of the most insightful writing that project offered up, in particular this review of Aliya Whitely's The Arrival of Missives.

  • Erin Horáková - After nominating Erin's magnum opus for Best Related Work, you're probably not surprised to find me nominating her in this category.  As well as that magnificent essay, Erin did other writing for Strange Horizons in 2017, covering movies, plays, and board games.

  • Samira Nadkarni - A lot of Samira's best work is happening on twitter, where in 2017 she made some incisive comments about works like Star Trek: Discovery or Thor: Ragnarok (she had some equally interesting things to say last month about Black Panther).  In longer writing, some standouts include her review of Deserts of Fire, an anthology about "modern war" whose project Samira argues with vociferously, and of the Netflix show Crazyhead, in which she discusses the genre trope of conflating mental health problems and superpowers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Altered Carbon at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Altered Carbon, which recently received an appropriately neon-lit, grimy-yet-expensive-looking adaptation from Netflix.  My emphasis in this column, however, is more on the original, 2002 novel by Richard Morgan.  I reread the book before watching the show, for the first time in close to 15 years, and wasn't terribly surprised to discover that some of its hardboiled-cyberpunk tropes hadn't aged terribly well.  Nevertheless, Altered Carbon remains a terrific thriller with a great central idea, one that Morgan explores with insight and verve.
Peeking in between these crime story elements, however, are glimpses of a world in which your body has become just another one of your possessions, like a car or a phone. Something you can insure. Something you can trade up. Something the state can, under certain circumstances, lay claim to. Something the rich get better versions of.
The show, in comparison, only glosses the surface of these ideas.  It's more focused on the fairly basic idea of immortality being unevenly distributed, which is only where the novel starts exploring the implications of personality storage and transfer.  It's a fun watch, but if you found its ideas intriguing, you might be better off picking up the book.