Thursday, July 24, 2014

My Worldcon Schedule

The Worldcon program was published today, and just from a quick glance I can already tell that I am going to be a) worn off my feet running from panel to panel, and b) overcome by agonizing choices between conflicting but equally awesome events.  I'm truly looking forward to this convention.

My own excellent slate of panels is below.  In addition to these, I will be on hand at the Strange Horizons brunch, on Saturday from 10AM to 12AM, at party tent A.
  • A Reader's Life During Peak Short Fiction

    Friday 12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)

    There are now more speculative short stories published than any one person can hope to read -- or even find. So how do fans of the short-form navigate this landscape? With so much ground to cover, how does an individual reader find stories they like -- are we more author-driven in our reading habits? Conversely, how and why do particular stories "break out" and become more widely known? To what extent is the greater volume of material enabling -- and recognising -- a greater diversity of authors and topics? And what is the place of short fiction in today's field -- testing ground for ideas, the heart of the discussion, or something else?

    Jetse de Vries (M), Elizabeth Bear , Abigail Nussbaum , Jonathan Strahan , Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

  • Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Next Generation

    Friday 16:30 - 18:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Alongside the much-discussed golden age of animated cinema, we're living in a golden age of animated TV. Shows such as Gravity Falls, Venture Brothers, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Adventure Time, and Avatar: The Last Airbender can be as clever, funny, politically challenging and emotionally sophisticated as any live-action show. This panel will discuss when and why the best of these shows work so well -- as well as the constraints they still face, and whether some of them fall short of their ideals.

    Amal El-Mohtar , Abigail Nussbaum , Abigail Sutherland , Andrew Ferguson

  • The Review is Political

    Saturday 12:00 - 13:30, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Every review is a political act because every review makes choices: about which aspects of a work to focus on, what context to provide, which yardsticks to use, and more. And while no choices are neutral, some can be the default -- a focus on plot and character, for instance, and less discussion of style and politics. What other defaults can we identify in SF and fantasy reviewing? How are reviews that depart from those defaults challenged? Are any defaults changing -- and if so, how can we help that process along?

    Kevin McVeigh (M) , Abigail Nussbaum , Dr. Tansy Rayner Roberts , Elías Combarro

  • 2014 Hugos: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

    Saturday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)

    Our panel will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the nominees, try to second-guess the voters, and tell you what else should have been on the ballot.

    Carrie Vaughn (M) , Tanya Brown , Kim Newman, Abigail Nussbaum , Mary Turzillo

  • The Gendered AI

    Sunday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)

    Strictly speaking, there's no reason an artificial intelligence should express gender in human terms (or at all). Yet in much recent film and TV -- such as WALL-E, Her, Person of Interest, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Caprica -- gender and/or sexuality has been integral to the vision of AI. How have such portrayals affected what stories are told? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What would it mean to imagine a genderless AI -- or a queer AI?

    Charlie Jane Anders (M), Nic Clarke, Michael Morelli, Abigail Nussbaum, Jed Hartman

  • The World at Worldcon: Israeli SF/F

    Monday 13:30 - 15:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

    In her essay, "The Man From the Yellow Star", Elana Gomel asserts that, as a general rule, "Israelis do not read science fiction and fantasy." In a 2013 interview published at Strange Horizons, Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf addressed the same issue, identifying a "bias towards naturalism" in the way Israeli fiction is discussed. But things may be changing. Who can we say is writing Israeli SF/F? How are the market and the fan community developing? And who should Anglophones be hoping to get the chance to read?

    Abigail Nussbaum (M), Galia Bahat, Lili Daie, Noa Menhaim, Einat Citron, Liat Shahar-Kashtan

Friday, June 20, 2014

He Would Never: Thoughts on Game of Thrones's Fourth Season

Jaime: When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped.  More than once.  None of these fellows have ever been with a noblewoman.  You'd be wise not to resist.
Brienne: Would I?
Jaime: They'll knock your teeth out.
Brienne: You think I care about my teeth?
Jaime: No, I don't think you care about your teeth.  If you fight them, they will kill you.  Do you understand?  I'm the prisoner of value, not you.  Let them have what they want.  What does it matter?
Brienne: What does it matter?
Jaime: Close your eyes.  Pretend they're Renly.
Brienne: If you were a woman, you wouldn't resist?  You'd let them do what they wanted?
Jaime: If I was a woman, I'd make them kill me.  I'm not, thank the gods.

Game of Thrones, "Walk of Punishment"
Despite the title, this post isn't intended as a review of Game of Thrones's recently-concluded fourth season, about which I feel largely the same way I felt about the third and the second--I find the show terribly engaging while it's on, and tend to lose interest very quickly once the season has ended.  I think Todd VanDerWerff is dead on when he writes about the fourth season's increasing bittiness--an effect that I suspect was exacerbated by the choice to split the third book in A Song of Ice and Fire over two seasons, and that will probably increase as the series begins to adapt the books in which, by all accounts, George R. R. Martin began to lose what thread his story originally had.  The effect of that bittiness is that it's hard to think of the fourth season as a single unit, rather than an arbitrarily demarcated period of time in which certain things happened to the show's characters.  This also makes it hard to write about (though if you're looking for more traditional criticism, for my money the best to be found is Sarah Mesle's Dear Television column at the Los Angeles Review of Books).  Coming to the end of the season, then, the only definitive statement I can make about Game of Thrones has less to do with what was happening on screen, and more with the popular and critical reaction to it, the fact that the fourth season was the one in which a critical mass of people suddenly noticed just how rapey this show is.

In the season's third episode, "Breaker of Chains," Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) rapes his sister and secret lover Cersei (Lena Headey), over the body of their recently-murdered son.  The incensed reactions were swift to follow, complaining that showrunners and episode writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had changed what in the books was a consensual encounter, that doing so threw a wrench in the character development of Jaime, who had spent the third season developing a growing awareness of his selfishness and privilege, and that the scene represented but the latest instance of Game of Thrones's rape-happiness, its willingness to use sexual violence against women (always women) as a way of upping the stakes and increasing tension, with no consideration, or even interest in, the complex reality of rape and its victims.  AV Club reviewer Sonia Saraiya led the charge with her essay Rape of Thrones, but she was quickly followed by many other commenters decrying both the specific rape scene in "Breaker of Chains" and the show's overall use of rape as a plot device, culminating in a New York Times report on the debate.

To be sure, there are some obvious and serious problems with how rape is used and depicted in "Breaker of Chains," most crucially the fact that both Coster-Waldau and episode director Alex Graves sounded off, after the episode aired, to say that they believed the encounter "becomes consensual" because Cersei eventually lets Jaime have his way.  The rest of the fourth season has reflected this belief, with no change in the show's depiction of Jaime (he in fact plays one of the season's more positive figures, sending the stalwart knight Brienne to rescue the missing Stark daughters, and standing by his brother Tyrion when he is wrongly accused of murder), and no indication from Cersei that she views the encounter between them as a violation--in the season finale, she even rekindles their romantic relationship and initiates consensual sex with him.  But in the days following the episode, before knowing how the rest of the season would play out, I found the reactions to the rape scene confusing and troubling.  I hadn't enjoyed watching Cersei be raped, but as a depiction of rape I thought the scene in "Breaker of Chains" was brutal and unflinching in just the right way.  Compared to the sensationalism of Sansa's attempted rape in the second season (now they've got her on the ground!  Now they've torn her clothes off!  Now they're forcing her knees apart!  Will she be rescued before penetration?!?!!!!), Cersei's rape felt devastatingly spare and low-key.  This is how most rape happens, after all: in places where women feel safe, committed by men whom they know and had previously trusted.  Cersei's behavior throughout the rape, the way she tries to minimize and take control of the situation ("not here!"), her unwillingness to involve anyone else because that would make what was happening real and awful, are more wrenching than any of the brutal, larger than life scenes of rape and abuse the show had featured in the past.  They make the point that what's driving her is shock that such a thing could happen, that at the moment when she probably feels the least sexual in her life--standing over the body of her oldest son--she can still be cast as a sexual object by someone else, and forced to enact that role. 

Obviously, the fact that the scene wasn't intended as a rape and that the rest of the season behaves as if it wasn't one means that its effectiveness is, at best, accidental (and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that Game of Thrones, a show that rarely hesitates to plump for the sensationalistic end of the sexual violence spectrum, can only touch on the true, stifling horror of rape when it doesn't even realize it's doing it).  On that front, I think the criticisms of "Breaker of Chains" and the rest of the season are spot-on, and in general I think that it was high time for the discussion of the show's use of rape and sexual violence to hit the mainstream, and for its producers to be made to answer for their choices to more than just a crowd of angry feminists.  But many of the terms in which the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation was couched left me uneasy, and are, I think, ultimately counter-productive.

I'm bothered, for example, by the emphasis that so many criticisms of the episode put on the fact that it changes the details of the book.  Even if we agreed that this was a meaningful complaint--and at this point, the show has deviated from its source material so much that I hardly see how it could be--the original scene, as quoted, for example, in Saraiya's essay, is dubiously consensual at best.  It's fairly standard bad-romance-novel, no-means-yes stuff ("She pounded on his chest with feeble fists, murmuring about the risk, the danger, about their father, about the septons, about the wrath of gods. He never heard her."), and the fact that it's told from Jaime's point of view makes its interpretation of the encounter highly suspect.  In the more realist tone of the TV series, without a guiding point of view to tell us how to feel and react, it's not surprising that the same or very similar events look like rape.

Even more troubling, to me, is how much of the discussion of "Breaker of Chains" seemed focused on Jaime and how the rape of Cersei "ruins" his character and redemptive arc.  I could quibble with whether Jaime's arc of redemption is really as profound as many of the people commenting on the episode have made out--after all, even excluding the rape, his actions in the fourth season mainly consist of helping people he likes and letting his power-hungry, sadistic father walk all over him--but I do agree that he's become more sympathetic since he was introduced in the show's premiere episode throwing a ten-year-old boy out of a high window, if only because the show has given us more of a glimpse into his history and thought-process.  Nevertheless--or maybe even precisely for that point--I thought the choice to make him a rapist was actually a brilliant one, driving home precisely the kind of world the show takes place in.  The undertone of a lot of the criticisms made after "Breaker of Chains" was "Jaime would never," but if we've learned anything after four seasons of Game of Thrones, surely it's that there are very few men in the show's world who truly never would?

There's a very effective encapsulation of rape culture in the fact that multiple people were involved in scripting, acting, and directing a scene in which a woman is physically overpowered by a man over her repeated and clearly-heard cries of "no" and "stop," and yet apparently none of them think that what they've depicted is a rape, because after he's wrestled her to the ground and torn her clothes, she lies back and lets him finish.  But if we're all products of rape culture, what about the characters on Game of Thrones?  This is, after all, a world in which the intelligent, compassionate Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has to think long and hard over whether he's going to force his child-bride Sansa to have sex with him, and when he decides not to the show signposts this as an indication of his goodness rather than, you know, the bare minimum of human decency.  A world in which the dying mercenary The Hound (Rory McCann) muses that he should have raped Sansa himself, because then he would have experienced "one moment of happiness."  A world in which characters who set themselves against rape--such as the mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein/Michiel Huisman), who loudly and repeatedly proclaims that one of the great pleasures in life is "to make love to a willing woman," or the Dornish nobleman Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal), who, angry over his sister's rape at the hands of a Lannister knight, wastes no opportunity to express his disgust at their use of rape as a weapon--are obvious aberrations.  It's a world in which men, even well-meaning ones, feel completely justified in directing the lives and choices of women, whether it's Robb Stark cavalierly promising his sister's hand in marriage in exchange for a strategically important bridge, or, in "Breaker of Chains" itself, Night's Watch member Sam Tarly (John Bradley), one of the gentlest, kindest characters in the series, forcing his friend Gilly (Hannah Murray) to leave Castle Black and live in a brothel, despite her repeated protestations.  (This proves to be a disastrous decision, as the village Gilly moves to is destroyed by raiding wildlings, and her and her child's lives are only spared through the compassion of another woman; nevertheless, Sam still feels justified in telling Gilly what to do, and the show clearly views this as a sign of his emerging masculinity.)

Jaime's rape of Cersei captures the pervasiveness of rape culture--in Westeros, and in our time and place--more powerfully and effectively than any of the series's more sensationalistic handling of the subject.  In other episodes, the show pretends that rape is the purview of monsters--characters like the vicious, bloodthirsty knight The Mountain, who raped Oberyn Martell's sister, or the renegade Night's Watch member Karl (Burn Gorman), who is introduced against a literal backdrop of women being brutally assaulted as he cackles "rape 'em till they're dead!", and who later menaces Bran Stark's friend Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick) while she's tied up and whimpering.  But when the handsome, charismatic Jaime, who spent the third season being woobified and forming one of the show's more satisfying character pairings with the honorable Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) commits rape, the message it sends is something much more powerful.  It tells us that in a world in which concepts like consent, or women's agency, are only dimly understood, even supposedly good men can find themselves treating women like things. 

A lot of fans have pointed to the way that Jaime saves Brienne from being raped in the third season episode "Walk of Punishment" as a reason why he would never disrespect Cersei in the same way, but to me that only makes "Breaker of Chains"'s (unintended) message more powerful.  Like the episode's writers and director, Jaime can recognize rape when it's monstrous, something violent that a bunch of filthy soldiers are about to do to his friend.  But as the quote at the beginning of this episode demonstrates, he still lack basic empathy towards women, or any real understanding of what it means to be vulnerable (even the loss of his hand at the end of "Walk of Punishment" doesn't seem to have taught him this lesson).  I don't find it at all unbelievable that such a man would think that his former lover doesn't have the right to refuse him, that his feelings for her are something that she is responsible for, and that in forcing her to have sex he is only taking what is rightfully his.  Does this mean that every man in Westeros is a potential rapist?  Probably not--though as examples like Sam show, pretty much every man on Westeros apparently believes that he gets to order women around by sheer virtue of being a man.  But if you're going to pick a male character on Game of Thrones who would never stoop to rape, then Jaime Lannister--child-maimer, sister-fucker, generally depraved dude--is probably not the hill you want to die on.

None of this, of course, is to say that I am glad that Cersei was raped by Jaime--especially, again, given that what positive qualities I saw in the depiction of that rape are there largely by accident, and are undermined by the rest of the season's treatment of the scene as a consensual sexual encounter.  But it was very hard to read reactions to "Breaker of Chains" and not feel that their writers' main problem was not the show's use of rape--which, again, in the episode itself is much more subtle and effective than anything it has done before or since--but the fact that this particular rape had spoiled their ability to enjoy a beloved male character.

Flash forward a few weeks to the season finale.  Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused and convicted of the murder of his nephew (the same boy over whose body Cersei was raped) is freed from prison by the selfsame Jaime.  Instead of taking Jaime's offered escape route, Tyrion makes his way to the chambers of his father Tywin (Charles Dance), the architect of his conviction and a generally baleful influence in his son's life.  There he finds the prostitute Shae (Sibell Kekilli), his former lover, who denounced him during his trial.  Shae wakes up and, seeing Tyrion, grabs a fruit knife.  He jumps her, overpowers her, and strangles her to death with her own necklace.

To be clear, the fact that Tyrion murders Shae is not, in itself, a problem.  I knew that it happened in the book, I had hoped that the show would decide to avoid it, and I wasn't happy when it happened.  But as I've been saying, in a world like Westeros, a man killing his former lover, and especially a prostitute, for what he defines as a betrayal, is not a surprising or inconsistent turn of events.  What's wrong here isn't the fact of the murder, but how the show constructs the episode--the entire season, in fact--in order to get us to sympathize with and even condone Tyrion's actions.  Shae, who in the previous three seasons had been depicted as a warm, intelligent, kind person, is here stripped of all personality and discernible motivations.  There are no scenes from her point of view or in which she's free to express herself, so we never find out why she turns on Tyrion--is she being threatened, or bribed, or is she simply angry that he sent her away "for her own safety" (another reminder that even "good" men on Westeros don't let women make their own decisions)?  Does she really mean it when she testifies that all her expressions of love towards Tyrion were an act?  And why is Tyrion so angry at her betrayal, when earlier in the season he ordered his squire Podrick to save his own skin by doing the same thing?  Wouldn't Tyrion assume that this was what Shae was doing, and forgive her?  The murder scene itself seems equally determined to stress Shae's "guilt"--the fact that Tyrion finds her in another man's bed, the fact that she reaches for a weapon (never mind that Shae would have a pretty good idea of what happens to women like her when they're found in the wrong bed by a man who believes he owns them).  Her actual death isn't even about her--the camera remains fixed on Tyrion's face, and his anguish and mental distress over killing her are what fuel his immediate, cheer-worthy confrontation with Tywin, whom he kills.  (If you want some more discussion of how fucked up and disturbing the arrangement of Shae's death scene and her plotline during this season were, Sady Doyle has the goods.)

And the thing is, it really didn't need to be that way.  When Tyrion hears Shae's testimony in the episode "The Laws of Gods and Men," he breaks down and has what can only be described as a supervillain moment, castigating Shae, his family, and the entire population of King's Landing, whose lives he saved during the siege at the end of the second season, but who have now turned on him for, he believes, something that he never had any power over, his dwarfism.  "I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you," he tells the assembled noblemen at his trial.  "I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it."  It's a bitter, deranged moment in which Tyrion lets go of all his decency and goodness and gives in to anger and resentment.  If that tone had been allowed to persist, if Tyrion's murder of Shae (and Tywin) had been depicted as the act of a man driven by abuse into behaving like a monster, I think I could have accepted it.  But such is the state of Game of Thrones, that it can depict rape in all its horrifying complexity only by accident, but when it sets out to deliberately get at the terrible reality of intimate partner violence, it does so only to justify and excuse the abuser.  (And to be clear: Cersei's rape could have easily been made as sympathetic to Jaime as Shae's murder was to Tyrion, if only someone had understood what it was they were filming.  Cersei is, after all, a much less likeable figure than Shae, and Jaime is under the influence of exactly the same cocktail of frustration and feelings of emasculation driving Tyrion, and which the show uses to justify killing Shae.)

So what I want to know is: what the fuck is wrong with this fandom, and with the people writing about this show, that it can get up in arms over a pretty shady dude committing a rape that is actually very effectively depicted, but isn't bothered by a previously decent guy committing a murder that is manipulatively set up to make him look as guiltless as possible?  If fandom truly believes that Jaime would never, why is it not a problem that Tyrion did?  And yes, I know that Shae's murder was in the books, but A Storm of Swords was published fourteen years ago, and in all that time I haven't noticed the slightest diminution in Tyrion's appeal.  Fandom still thinks that he's the bee's knees, and no one seems terribly bothered by that girl he murdered that one time (if nothing else, this should alleviate the concerns of fans who are worried that they won't be able to like Jaime after seeing him rape Cersei).

To put it simply, this is why we can't have nice things.  If the only thing that gets a serious segment of fandom up in arms about Game of Thrones's use of rape and violence against women is the fear of having tarnished the gleam of a favorite male woobie, then the showrunners have absolutely no reason to change their behavior.  If they know that favorite characters can get away, literally, with murder so long as the person they murder is a woman who hurt them and slept with other men, they will simply keep showing us that.  I'm not saying that I have the solution here, and god knows that simply by continuing to watch the show I'm part of the problem.  But it is enormously frustrating to watch a critical conversation build around this show and its handling of violence against women, only to devour itself when it becomes clear that the real problem is a man (compare the paltry staying power of the post-"Breaker of Chains" conversation to the way that the role of women--or lack of same--on True Detective became the dominant theme in most discussions of the show, finally obliging even the show's creator to promise to do better next season).  Until actual fans of the show are willing to stand up and say that Shae's murder is as big a problem as Cersei's rape, we can keep looking forward to a lot more of both from Game of Thrones.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the Tom Cruise time travel movie Edge of Tomorrow, a film that I thought was just terrible but which seems to be getting good reviews from all other quarters, which I honestly find quite baffling.  It's starting to feel a little like being the only reviewer not blown away by Looper, but where Looper had some genuine strong points (not least, recognizing that just because the male lead wants Emily Blunt to save him doesn't mean that's all she's got going on in her life, a fact of which Edge of Tomorrow remains sadly ignorant), Edge of Tomorrow is merely a competently made action film that squanders everything potentially interesting or thought-provoking about its premise and characters.

Incidentally, between watching the film and writing my review I decided to read the original novel, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, just to get a sense of how big the gap between the two is (answer: not great in general but pretty huge in certain points).  It's not a great book by any stretch, but it's a quick read, and a hell of a lot more interesting than the movie in its handling of its premise, its world, and its characters (in particular, the relationship between the male and female leads is a lot more equitable, though the other female characters are often problematic).  If anything good comes out of Edge of Tomorrow it will be to call attention to Haikasoru and its project to bring Japanese SF to Anglophone audiences, and All You Need Is Kill is a good place to start.

(Note: the comments on Strange Horizons reviews are currently not working.  If you'd like to comment on the review, please do it here until we resolve the issue.)

Friday, May 30, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: The Hugo Voter Packet

As has become traditional, the Hugo award administrators have published the Hugo voters packet, which includes ebook copies of many of the nominated works and samplers from many of the nominated people.  This includes myself and the other nominees in the best fan writer category (as well as Strange Horizons, nominated in the best semiprozine category).  I was a little mortified to discover that while the contributions by my fellow fan writer nominees ran to less than twenty pages, mine was more than twice as long, but I guess that won't come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.  (For those of you who are curious, the posts I selected for inclusion in the voter packet are my reviews of Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks, the first season of Elementary, Star Trek Into Darkness, and A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.)

If you're a member of LonCon 3, you can download the voter packet here with your membership number and PIN (which you should have received by email; if not, contact the award administrators at the email address on the voter packet page). 

The voter packet caused a bit of a stir this year when Orbit, the publishers of three of the nominated novels (Parasite by Mira Grant, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross) announced that they would not be including full copies of their nominated novels, but only excerpts.  It's easy to understand Orbit's reasoning.  Though there's a lot of debate about the effect that a Hugo nomination has on a novel's sales, the Worldcon membership is precisely the demographic that you'd expect to seek out your novel because of a nomination.  This year's Worldcon is on track to be the biggest in years, and in addition, the nomination of the Wheel of Time series (and publisher Tor's announcement that they will include all fourteen novels in the series in the voter packet) has caused a surge in supporting memberships--according to some accounts, over a thousand new members in the month since the nominations were announced.  It's hard to blame Orbit for choosing not to give away novels that they might have a reasonable expectation of selling, especially given that so many pundits have already declared the best novel race over and Wheel of Time the winner.

Nevertheless, the decision was greeted with exasperation and not a little ire--some of it from proponents of ebook publishing, who argue, perhaps quite rightly, that Orbit is being shortsighted, and that giving away books creates sales in the long run (both Grant and Leckie's books have sequels coming out later this year); and some simply from readers who expected to see Parasite, Ancillary Justice, and Neptune's Brood in their voter packets and now feel cheated.  Industry insiders have wasted little time in dubbing this latter group "entitled" (see, for example, this post from John Scalzi, who first came up with the idea for the voter packer several years ago and administered it himself before it was taken over by the Hugo award team), but this strikes me as massively unfair.  The fact is that, rightly or wrongly, the conversation around the voter packet has for years been taking it as a given that all nominated works will be included, and creating that expectation in voters and potential voters.  People who encourage others to buy supporting memberships in Worldcon (and to use them to vote for specific nominees) have been doing so with the argument that "you pay $50 and get five novels plus a lot of other stuff."  They might have been giving out misleading information, but I don't remember anyone with a huge megaphone hurrying to correct them.

Orbit's decision feels like a good excuse to have a conversation about the voter packet and the effect it's had on the award.  We've spent a lot of time this Hugo season, both before and after the nominees' announcement, talking about the changes that the award has been going through, the increasing effect of campaigning on the final shortlists and the growing balkanization of the voter base.  The role that the voter packet has played in this process can't really be overstated--it has made it much easier to galvanize the fans of a particular author of blogger, people who may not necessarily have any interest in the Hugos or the field as a whole, into buying supporting Worldcon memberships.  Possibly as a result of this, or simply because people like free stuff, the perception of the voter packet has shifted.  The original--and very laudable--idea was a way of evening the playing field, letting little-known authors stand alongside big names, and giving the less popular categories a platform that might encourage more voters to participate in them.  But from a method of creating a more informed electorate, the voter packet has come to be seen as a goody bag.  Does anyone think that the thousand new Worldcon members who joined after the nominations were announced did so because of a genuine interest in the award?  A sizable percentage of them, at least, probably did so in order to get free ebook copies of the entire Wheel of Time series for a mere $50.

We've already seen one effect of this in Orbit's choice to keep their full novels off the voter packet.  Another potential side effect was identified on the Coode Street Podcast.  According to the Hugo rules, to hand out an award in any particular category, it must have received at least 25% of the total number of voting ballots.  In other words, if 2000 people send in Hugo ballots, but fewer than 500 of them vote in, say, the fanzine category, no fanzine Hugo will be awarded.  This is usually not a problem--last year, even the least popular categories (fanzine, fan writer, and fan artist) came in at well over 40% of ballots.  But this year, with the huge influx of supporting memberships, we could very well see a situation where a large number of ballots vote solely in the best novel and other big categories, and where some of the smaller categories are starved out. 

In the immediate future, what this means is that those of us who care about the Hugo as an award for the whole field should feel an extra urgency about using the voter packet as it was intended, and voting in as many categories as possible.  In the long term, it would be nice if we could finally have a proper conversation about the Hugos and what's been happening to them, one that acknowledges that there is a difference between the interests of any single nominee and potential nominee, and the interests of the award and the field as a whole.  I'm already seeing more and more people talking about the unintended but deleterious effect of the voter packet (see Patrick Nielsen Hayden just this morning on twitter), and while that's not the full extent of the problem, it does feel like a good start.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Just Following Orders: Thoughts on Agents of SHIELD's First Season

Coulson: You're going to lose
Loki: Why?
Coulson: It's in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered.  Your floating fortress falls from the sky.  Where is my disadvantage?
Coulson: You lack conviction
The Avengers, 2012
Sam Wilson: How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?
Captain America: If they're shooting at you, they're bad.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014
What a long, strange trip it's been this year for Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.  Starting the TV season as one of the fall's most hyped and anticipated new shows, the expansion of the wildly successful Marvel cinematic universe into television, it quickly became one of the year's most beleaguered new series.  As the show hemorrhaged viewers exasperated with its tedious storytelling and boring characters, SHIELD's producers and stars seemed determined to make a bad situation worse, accusing disappointed viewers of not being "real" SF fans, and pretending that critics of the show were only complaining because they'd gone in expecting weekly guest appearances by Iron Man.  By the time Captain America: The Winter Soldier rolled around, SHIELD was in dire straits, too uninteresting to qualify even for hate-watching status.  The bombshell that The Winter Soldier throws into the MCU, however, is one that SHIELD was clearly created to anticipate, and in its wake the show's storytelling tightened and kicked into gear, delivering a solid, often genuinely thrilling final chapter to its first season that has had the core faithful who stuck with the show in the lean times proclaiming its arrival.  My own take, however, is more ambivalent.  While the final half-dozen episodes of the season represent a giant leap forward in the show's quality--and, more importantly, in creating the sense that SHIELD's creators and producers know what kind of story they want to tell with it--they do little to address some of the show's core flaws, and may in fact even highlight the fundamental problems at the heart of the entire MCU.

Set some time after the events of The Avengers, SHIELD begins with the (heavily publicized) revelation that Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), the erstwhile agent who was killed by Loki in the film's final act, is in fact still alive.  Granted some leeway by a grateful Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Coulson assembles his own team, set to jet around the world on a mobile base, addressing the problems that emerge in a world that is now aware of the existence of hostile aliens.  Coulson's team includes the taciturn, traumatized warrior Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and scientists Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), but the pilot episode's focus is on the characters Ward (Brett Dalton), a "specialist" accustomed to working on his own who resists Coluson's attempts to get him to play with others, and Skye (Chloe Bennet), a member of the hacktivist group Rising Tide who object to SHIELD's unregulated operations and its concealment of the existence of aliens and superpowers, whom Coulson recruits for her outsider's perspective.  The first season is driven by Coulson's growing awareness that the story he's been told about his survival isn't true, and by the team's pursuit of a shadowy cabal, led by a figure known as The Clairvoyant, who are using alien technology to create an army of supersoldiers.

That SHIELD's early episodes--particularly the first, nine-episode stretch of the season, which are mostly standalones--are so unexciting is perhaps to be expected.  Most genre shows take a while to get their legs under them, and the art of writing a solid, engaging standalone hour seems to be vanishing from their writing rooms as they become more and more consumed with overarching mythology plots and soapy character arcs.  But there's something genuinely upsetting, almost infuriating, about how lazy and unengaging SHIELD's storytelling pre-Winter Soldier is.  The show seems to take its audience's attention for granted, and one could almost swear that the people writing it hadn't watched TV since the mid-90s.  Joss Whedon (who is credited as the show's producer, as well as writing and directing the pilot, but whose influence is difficult to discern) revolutionized genre TV by recognizing that savvy viewers were familiar with the stories he was telling, down to their individual beats.  By subverting those expectations (the blonde girl turning out to be the vampire rather than the victim in the Buffy pilot) or cutting through the boilerplate (Mal Reynolds shoving an uncooperative captive into a jet engine rather than listen to his belligerent defiance; Zoe immediately choosing her husband when a villain sadistically allows her to save either his life or Mal's) Whedon made these stories his own, and created a new norm for genre storytellers--one that SHIELD's writers seem happy to ignore.

In a landscape in which it has become the norm to obscure plot holes, inelegant dialogue, and trite plot points by barreling through story (on series like Heroes--whose producers, Jeffrey Bell and Jeph Loeb, are, bafflingly enough, SHIELD's executive producers--The Vampire Diaries, Arrow, Orphan Black, and many others in and out of genre), SHIELD seems content to mosey along the world's most predictable and padded standalone plots.  The show instead places most of its storytelling eggs in the mystery basket, teasing the answers to such questions as the truth about Coulson's resurrection, the cause of May's trauma, and Skye's secret origins.  But even if it were true that you can sustain a weekly TV series merely by dangling mysteries in front of the audience--a theory that TV writers have been disproving through abject failure since Lost exploded onto the scene ten years ago--the answers that SHIELD delivers to the questions it raises are as vague and unsatisfying as the questions themselves.  A mid-season episode in which Coulson is kidnapped and tortured for the secret of his resurrection ends with the discovery that he was dead for far longer than the official eight seconds and was brought back to life using secret, alien technology--something that most viewers will have taken as a given five minutes into the pilot.  The big revelation about Skye is that she is an 0-8-4--SHIELD code for "object of unknown origin"--which would almost seem like a joke about using meaningless bureaucratic jargon to hide the fact that you don't know anything if the show and characters did not treat it like a major turning point.

It comes as quite a relief, then, when Winter Soldier upends the entire MCU, and with it the show's universe.  The film's revelation that Hydra, the Nazi offshoot who were defeated by Captain America in the 40s, have infiltrated SHIELD and spent seven decades corrupting it and using its resources to further their own goal of world domination through chaos and destruction, is obviously one that the show's first season was built to lead up to.  And indeed, in its first post-Winter Soldier episode, SHIELD steps up in a big way, depicting the aftermath of this revelation and of Captain America and Black Widow's exposure of SHIELD's secrets for the organization's rank and file--whether the true believers, like Coulson, or the more ambivalent, like Simmons.  More importantly, given the film's exposure of a fifth column within SHIELD, it's obvious that someone on Coulson's team has to be working for Hydra, and the revelation that this is Ward--who is under orders from his former commanding officer, Garrett (Bill Paxton)--is suitably shocking.  For the rest of the season, as Ward first plays on his team's trust in him, and then openly joins forces with Garrett, SHIELD is an entirely different series--a tense, fast-paced story about trust and betrayal in which our heroes are grimly determined to stand up for what they believe in.  Winter Soldier gives SHIELD a purpose--to articulate not only what the MCU looks like after the film's events, but why SHIELD is still necessary in that world, and what it still stands for.

None of this, however, makes the preceding sixteen hours of television any easier to sit through.  Looking back, it's clear that the season was written in order to build up to the huge twist of Ward's betrayal, with subtle hints and Easter eggs that only make sense in retrospect sprinkled throughout, going all the way back to the pilot--which sets Ward up as the true blue SHIELD agent and Skye as a potential disruptive element, only for the show to later reveal that it's the other way around.  Rewatching the season before writing this review, I was struck by how much more interesting and watchable it becomes when you know what to expect.  It's easier to spot the games that Ward--and other characters with secrets, such as Garrett, Skye (who first joins SHIELD on behalf of the Rising Tide), and May (who is spying on Coulson for Fury)--are playing in order to achieve their goals (and the fact that the smaller mysteries set up in the first part of the season have such underwhelming solutions, or that the episode plots are so forgettable, becomes more palatable when you know to expect this).  But the show seems completely uninterested in how viewers will respond to it the first time around.  It puts no work into making its buildup interesting or compelling in its own right, or in encouraging the audience to invest in the world that it's about to tear down.  In the sixteen episodes before Winter Soldier, Ward is a straight-shooting, rule-loving, protocol-obsessed bore.  Which is interesting in retrospect when you realize that this was merely a performance, but the first time through it makes the character almost impossible to care about, and thus robs his betrayal of much of its sting.

That blandness, unfortunately, afflicts the rest of the cast as well, and isn't alleviated after the upheaval of The Winter Soldier.  Though the actors are game, often doing much with their performances to elevate the middling material they've been given (Wen and De Caestecker are particular standouts), there's only so much they can do.  In my review of the SHIELD pilot I observed that its use of the physical space of the team's plane was similar to how Firefly had used Serenity, but lacked the imagination and texture that made that setting such a believable, lived-in space.  The same might be said of the cast--May, the taciturn female warrior; Ward, the amoral bruiser; Fitz, the unexpectedly brave scientist; Skye, the mysterious girl who might have powers--but none of the characters are as well-delineated as their counterparts on Firefly, and their camaraderie and rapport aren't as captivating as they were on that show.

Nowhere does SHIELD's problem of blandness strike as brutally or as deeply as in the case of its putative lead.  Coulson won the hearts of MCU fans by providing a down-to-earth, no-nonsense contrast to the larger than life antics of Tony Stark, Thor, and Loki.  He was heroic and resourceful--as seen, also, in the Marvel One Shots The Consultant and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer--but in a decidedly uncool, dad-ish sort of way.  Clark Gregg is so well-suited to playing this kind of dry, sympathetic, hyper-efficient cog in the machine that he was doing it years before Phil Coulson or the MCU were a gleam in anyone's eye.  But in SHIELD's first season, he doesn't manage to translate that impeccable supporting role into a star turn.  His Coulson can't hold the spotlight.  His dry understatement comes off as underpowered; his hero moments as shrill and trying too hard.  That the first season finds Coulson at a crisis point--questioning his lifelong habits of unquestioning obedience, and the very company-man-with-a-soul persona that made him a fan favorite--doesn't help matters, as instead of conveying deep inner turmoil Gregg's performance makes Coulson seem whiny and sulky.  The destruction of SHIELD in Winter Soldier means that it falls to Coulson to embody the organization's ideals as they should have been--as well as, at the season's end, to rebuild it.  And yet Gregg's most persuasive onscreen moment is a scene in the episode after he and his team find out about Hydra, when he breaks down under the strain of believing that Fury is still out there sending orders, crying out, with little conviction, that "we are not agents of nothing!"

That's a great shame, because SHIELD is in a unique position to address some of the core issues of the MCU that the films, with their need to deliver blockbuster-friendly thrills and moments of triumph, can't face up to.  When Winter Soldier came out, many reviewers, while praising the film's willingness to question and even dismantle SHIELD, expressed frustration at the stark division it posited between loyal SHIELD members and the hidden Hydra agents.  As pointed out, for example, by Genevieve Valentine, the problem is not merely Captain America's division of good guys and bad guys according to whether they're shooting at him, but the fact that the bad guys are so obligingly willing to pick up arms in order to mark themselves out.  In reality, after seven decades of growing into each other, it shouldn't be so easy to separate out SHIELD from Hydra.  On the one hand, Hydra should have so completely infested SHIELD as to taint all but the most minute of its good acts--as evidenced by the fact that even the good guys, who aren't shooting at Captain America, were perfectly OK with SHIELD's rampant trampling of privacy and civil rights before these escalated to mass murder.  And on the other hand, SHIELD's protocols and organizational culture are the ones that nearly all Hydra agents were trained in, which would shape their habits of thought even as they employ their training to evil ends.  No matter who they swear allegiance too, SHIELD and Hydra agents should be pretty hard to tell apart, and the lofty or vile ideals that guide them should, in all but the most extreme cases of true believers, be less present in their psychological makeup than institutional culture.

It's hard to imagine a better illustration of how interwoven SHIELD and Hydra have become than what the show does with Grant Ward.  In the season's first three quarters, Ward is the consummate SHIELD agent.  He follows protocol to the letter, doesn't let personal feelings cloud his judgment or sway his decisions, and most of all, he obeys orders and respects the chain of command, without ever needing to know the broader context of his missions or their ultimate purpose.  The revelation that he works for Hydra means that Ward immediately begins wearing leather jackets and growing out his beard, but it changes nothing about the kind of agent he is--it just means that the orders he's following come from different people and have a different nature.  In this essay about Ward, Sam Keeper observes that Ward doesn't think of himself as a villain.  He's actually proud of having successfully carried out his mission--to deceive good people and trick them into caring about him, and then to kidnap, torture and kill them if they don't do what he wants--and angry that Skye doesn't realize how difficult this has been to pull off.  But, leaving aside the fact that no one, no matter how depraved, ever thinks of themselves as a villain, it's not clear to me why we'd expect Ward, of all people, to do so.  By his own standards--"I go in alone; I get it done"--he has achieved exactly what was expected of him.

To be sure, the fact that Ward sees no difference between being ordered to protect people and being ordered to kill them is a sign that he is, at best, scarily disconnected from his humanity (and places him in stark contrast to Skye and Coulson, both of whom repeatedly evaluate their orders based on whether they comply with their own ideals and what they perceive as SHIELD's guiding principles).  But as we learn throughout the first season, the system that taught Ward to blindly obey is as much the SHIELD system as it is Hydra.  In the episode "The Hub," Ward and Fitz are dispatched on a dangerous mission, only to discover that the extraction they were promised upon completion was a lie (it was a similar abandonment, incidentally, that spurred Garrett to renounce his loyalty to SHIELD and join forces with Hydra).  When Coulson protests, he's told to "trust the system."  But the system, as Winter Soldier reveals, is decidedly untrustworthy.  The show doesn't explicitly draw the connection, but it seems obvious that there would have been countless loyal, decent SHIELD agents who enabled Hydra and its evil precisely because of this unearned, undeserved trust, and the culture that encouraged it.

"You're a criminal ... Specialized skill-set ... No family ... That is what these people do.  SHIELD.  They prey on fear, and loneliness, and desperation, and they offer a home to those who have nowhere else to turn to." Skye is told this by Ian Quinn (David Conrad), a billionaire who turns out to be in league with Garrett.  He's describing her--she is an orphan who finds in Coulson's team the first real family she's ever had--but the description fits Ward, who was kidnapped out of a juvenile detention facility and whose abusive family abandoned him to Garrett's indoctrination, equally well.  Coulson, too, has a similar background--he was scarred by the early death of his father, and was recruited by Nick Fury before he was even out of high school.  That SHIELD and Hydra have essentially the same recruiting tactics doesn't mean that the two organizations are one and the same.  Skye finds a genuinely nurturing parental figure in Coulson, while Garrett abuses Ward in ways specifically designed to stamp out his independence and sense of self-worth.  In the season's penultimate episode we see Garrett, in flashbacks, teaching Ward that attachments--to people other than Garrett, it remains unsaid but clearly understood--are a weakness, a lesson that Ward takes to heart when, at the episode's end, he tries to kill Fitz and Simmons.  In the present day, meanwhile, Coulson praises Skye, who is berating herself for not letting Ward die when she had the chance, arguing that her compassion is a strength.  But what this similarity does suggest that how all three of these agents turned out is at least partly the luck of the draw--if Ward had been mentored by Coulson, or Coulson by Hydra chief Alexander Pierce, the whole story might have been very different.  From what we see in the show's first season, there is nothing inherent to SHIELD and its protocols and training methods that encourages the principles of selfless protection that the agency supposedly stands for.

The problem with all this--and the reason that I remain skeptical about SHIELD's ability to leverage its post-Winter Soldier arc into a meaningful improvement in its quality--is first that as much as Ward's betrayal breathes life into the show, it--and the season's other villains--are the only thing to do so.  It's not just that Ward becomes a more interesting character after he turns evil, but that the season's entire rogue's gallery comes to life as the characters are given the chance to interact and spark against each other--Paxton's hammy folksiness with a sinister undertone gives Garrett a level of charisma that Coulson never achieves, and his and Ward's perverse father-son relationship is endlessly fascinating; Ruth Negga's Rayna, a scientist with her own hidden agenda, combines monomania with a disarming manner to create something at once alluring and creepy, and her ability to effortlessly manipulate both Garrett and Ward from a position of seeming weakness suggests that she is the true power to watch out for; J. August Richard's Mike Peterson, though not technically a bad guy since he's being coerced by Garrett, is also an intriguing figure, transformed both physically and emotionally, and only able to retain some semblance of his humanity by embracing the villain role assigned to him.  (Having said this, there's quite a lot about Mike's character arc that gives me pause, especially given that until the very end of the season SHIELD consistently fails to field black characters who are not evil, crazy, victimized, or some combination of the above; the way that Mike is repeatedly punished by the narrative for trying to be heroic, and the oddly self-effacing way he behaves towards our heroes, makes me very uncomfortable, though I don't quite feel able to articulate my issues.)

Against these complex figures, the blandness of the main cast is shown in even sharper relief.  Skye, Coulson, and May light up when they're up against Ward, but go back to being inert when he's away (a particularly glaring example is the episode "The Only Light in the Darkness," in which a tense, pulse-pounding game of cat and mouse between Ward and Skye is juxtaposed with a soporific story about Coulson coming to the rescue of his cellist ex-girlfriend--Amy Acker, criminally wasted in an insipid, underwritten role).  The discovery that the organization to which they've pledged themselves has been rotten to the core for longer than they've been alive should elicit some interesting material from the show's loyal SHIELD agents, but the most the show offers are banalities about how Skye worked so hard to join SHIELD only for it to collapse under her and rousing speeches from Coulson (May, meanwhile, remains frustratingly silent on the subject of SHIELD throughout the season, and is seemingly driven solely by her loyalty to Coulson).  It's hard to hope for improvement on this front when one considers Ward's replacement on the team, Antoine Triplett (B.J. Britt), whose geniality and general agreeableness somehow manage to make him even less interesting than original, good Ward.

An even bigger problem is that I'm not sure how many of the similarities between SHIELD and Hydra are intentional, and how much the show would prefer to elide them through an appeal to personality.  Much is made of the fact that Ward is weakened by his amorality--without Garrett to give him orders, he spins out and ends up thoroughly trounced by May--while Skye is strengthened by her deep moral convictions.  But the show can't convincingly argue that Skye's moral fiber--or indeed Coulson's--are something that SHIELD instilled in them.  At best, SHIELD can take credit for recognizing their commitment to helping others--though in that case it must also take the blame for failing to recognize that Ward, and hundreds or even thousands like him, were merely mouthing that commitment without really possessing it.  In the season's almost inappropriately jokey finale, Coulson and Fury trade jibes about how Garrett has failed to grasp Fury's adage that "a man can accomplish anything when he realizes he's a part of something bigger; a team of people who share that conviction can change the world."  But, just as in Coulson's dying words to Loki in The Avengers, SHIELD fails to acknowledge that conviction isn't a good thing in its own right--a lot depends on what your convictions are (oddly enough, this is something that Whedon grasped perfectly well in Angel's fifth season premiere). 

The season finale pits the self-absorbed--and by that point, actually insane--Garrett, who believes that he can be "something bigger" on this own, against Coulson, Fury, and the team, who correctly recognize that they are merely a part of that something bigger.  But this is to draw a false contrast.  The problem with Hydra isn't that its operatives lack conviction and aren't willing to work together towards a greater goal (though it is the case that true believer Hydra operatives are completely missing from the show--as James Nicoll points out, it's strange that the show uses Hydra as its big bad and yet none of its villains are Nazis).  And neither does our heroes' ability to work together towards a common goal do anything to mitigate SHIELD's colossal failure to instill the right convictions, and the right idea of something bigger to belong to, in so many of its agents.

But then, perhaps this isn't so surprising, when you consider how unwilling the show is to acknowledge the darker aspects of the legitimate, "good" parts of SHIELD.  Even before Hydra is revealed, SHIELD--who as we already knew routinely conducts extra-legal surveillance and military operations, and conceals information from the public--turns out to have been involved in some pretty shady stuff, very little of which receives condemnation from the show's good characters.  This includes secret prisons where people, including civilians, are held without trial or recourse to the law; human experimentation, often without the knowledge or consent of the subjects; the hoarding, study, and development of alien technologies and weapons; and a fairly cavalier attitude towards the abuse and mistreatment of prisoners.  In the season's early episodes, Skye gives voice to the view that SHIELD is an inherently illegitimate organization and that its methods are unacceptable.  But it's soon revealed that her actual motives for infiltrating Coulson's team are personal--she believes SHIELD has information about her parents--and after one or two episodes of criticizing Coulson's methods, she buys into the SHIELD culture completely, a loyalty that is further cemented when she discovers that SHIELD agents died to protect her as a child.  By the time Black Widow releases all of SHIELD's secrets online in Winter Soldier, it's left to Skye to sigh that "[Coulson was] right all along.  Having all this out there in the world makes it too dangerous, and now there's no one left to protect it."

(Meanwhile, the show seems genuinely not to have noticed that nearly every terrible thing that Ward does was done by a "good," loyal-to-SHIELD character first.  Ward kills multiple SHIELD agents during Hydra's assault.  But several episodes earlier Coulson, desperate to find a cure for a mortally injured Skye, leads a team to an off-book SHIELD facility and attacks it, killing its defenders in the process.  One of the named characters that Ward kills is Victoria Hand (Saffron Burrows), a high-ranking, tough-minded senior officer (who is also the person who sent Ward and Fitz on a suicide mission without their knowledge).  But the last thing Hand does in life is to suggest to Ward that he kill a bound prisoner--Garrett, who has been exposed as the Clairvoyant--because she feels that a lifetime's imprisonment without trial is too good for him.  It's hard, therefore, to see her death as anything but poetic justice.)

The question of following orders, of the duty of the soldier to both obey and question, and of the obligation of powerful people to both use their power for the greater good and make themselves answerable to some higher authority, recur in different guises throughout the MCU.  Tony Stark doesn't trust anyone to use the products of his intellect--not the buyers of the weapons he makes, nor the government eager to lay claim to the Iron Man suit.  But the authority he arrogates to himself is compromised by his narcissism and poor judgment.  The Hulk's power is defined by a complete lack of control--his own as well as anyone who tries to contain him in his enraged form.  He is incapable of following orders, and can only exercise control over how he's used by preventing himself from becoming powerful and keeping himself out of the hands of those who would use him as a weapon (including, of course, SHIELD).  Most crucially, Captain America is riven by the dilemma of how and whether to be a good soldier.  His instinct as a patriot--and a man who believes that no single person, no matter how powerful, is above the law and the chain of command--is to put himself at his government's disposal.  But he is also too moral, and too heroic, to blindly obey, and when his investigations of his superiors yield results that fall short of his ideals (as they do in both The Avengers and Winter Soldier) he uses his superior power to take control of the situation ("I guess you're giving the orders now, Captain").  The Winter Soldier acts as a sort of dark mirror to Cap, possessed of his strength, intelligence, and tactical acumen, but incapable of questioning his missions, much less comprehending their larger purposes and consequences (this parallel is the only justification for the Winter Soldier's presence in the film that bears his name, which otherwise gives the character short shrift).

SHIELD does something similar when it posits Hydra's supersoldiers, who are controlled through threats to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.  This, both the show and the film seem to be saying, is Hydra's idea of the perfect soldier, someone incapable of questioning their orders.  Garrett's downfall comes, appropriately enough, because he forgets why his soldiers obey him.  When Skye frees Mike Peterson's son, who was being held hostage, Mike wastes no time in killing Garrett, who spends his last moments in shock and outrage that his tool has turned on him.  But just as the existence of the Winter Soldier, and of Hydra's evil plan, frees the second Captain America movie from having to deal with the more thorny question of whether Cap has the right to use his powers without sanction or oversight, and whether SHIELD has the right to deploy him, the existence of Hydra's supersoldiers frees SHIELD from having to address the kind of soldiers that the organization has made of its own, supposedly free operatives.  In their last encounter of the season, Coulson berates Ward, not a little self-righteously, for "[devoting his] entire life to a deranged narcissist who never gave a damn about anyone," and though it seems obvious that the character will recur, perhaps on some path towards redemption (the producers have, indeed, all but promised this), it seems unlikely that that redemption will include any acknowledgment of how much Ward is a product of SHIELD, not Hydra, and how much he embodies its notions of what a good soldier is.

The season ends with Coulson promoted to Fury's former position as head of SHIELD, charged with rebuilding the organization.  The implication is that in the hands of a man like Coulson, who embodies the ideal of selfless protection of others, SHIELD can be what it was meant to be--that he has the conviction and moral vision to guide the organization.  But this is merely to recapitulate Skye's plot arc--taking someone who questions SHIELD's very existence and core assumptions (or, in Coulson's case, who has learned to question them after being victimized by them) and making them part of the inner circle.  It seems likely that the end result will be the same--that like Skye, Coulson's response to being granted the kind of power he had previously questioned will be to embrace it unthinkingly.  It's still possible for SHIELD to address some of the truly complex--and perhaps unanswerable--questions raised by its premise.  But with the show's first season seemingly so blind to the faults of what it has designated the "good" side--and with so little complexity in its good characters--I find it hard to hope that this will happen.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Recent Movie Roundup 19

Spring has sprung, and with it a whole bunch of movies I want to watch have arrived at the movie theater (as well as this bunch, see my recent review of Snowpiercer at Strange Horizons).  Though I haven't exactly been suffering, there's certainly a somewhat fannish slant to my recent moviegoing that verges on the embarrassing--I need to get around to watching some grown-up films, pronto.  Of course, it being the end of April these are nowhere to be seen, and by the time fall and its award-bait movies roll around I'll probably have forgotten this resolution.  In the meantime, here are my thoughts on some the films I've seen recently.
  • Veronica Mars - The Kickstarter-funded return to the world of the beloved TV series proves two things.  One, that it was always a mistake for the show's second season to pick up immediately where the first season left off and try to recreate its "mystery in a high school" plot.  And two, that while the world of Neptune, California and the character of wise-cracking, tiny, blonde private detective Veronica Mars had more life in them than just that first season, it really wasn't that much more life.  The common complaint raised against Veronica Mars, the movie--in which the title character, who has abandoned detective work because of the damage it caused to her family at the end of the show's third and final season, is called back to investigate one last case when mythological ex Logan (Jason Dohring) is accused of murdering his girlfriend--is that it prioritizes servicing the fans (who after all made the film possible) over telling its own self-contained story that might attract new fans and maybe even jumpstart the franchise again.  The film, accordingly, takes place at Veronica's ten-year high school reunion, and features multiple cameos from nearly all of the show's beloved recurring characters (perhaps most egregiously, this includes bringing back Chris Lowell's Piz just so that he can get his heart stomped on again as Veronica and Logan rush back into each other's arms).  But to my mind, the real problem with this film is that it exposes the seams and cracks in the show's original concept.

    The fact is, the high school detective premise doesn't work very well when your detective is ten years out of high school, and yet Veronica Mars behaves as if the problems that plagued Veronica as a teenager are the same ones that will dog her for the rest of her life if she returns to Neptune.  Mapping the class system onto high school cliques was brilliant in the show's first season, but it becomes more and more of a stretch as Veronica and her contemporaries get older and move further away from who they were in high school, a fact that the film fails to acknowledge--which is how we end up with a scene in which Veronica's third-season sex tape is screened at the reunion to the general appreciation and bemusement of her former classmates, because this is something that a room full of 28-year-olds would find funny and appropriate.  Similarly, behaving as if Veronica--who is now a lawyer--is just as powerless before Neptune's power structures as she was as a child is unconvincing, and so the film's "Forget it Jake, It's Neptune" conclusion--in which Veronica's only response to being confronted with the town's corrupt, borderline murderous sheriff's department is to go back to PI work (as opposed to launching an actual counter-offensive through the courts and the media)--feels demeaning to the character's much-lauded strength and intelligence.  It's all very well to tell a noir story, but that noir tone needs to be earned, and this Veronica Mars doesn't do.

    All that said, the things that kept the series going past the point where its story could carry it are back in force here.  Kristen Bell and Enrico Colantoni are still brilliant as Veronica and Keith, dropping right back into their familiar rapport, which remains as powerful and compelling as it was even in the series's weakest moments.  Logan clearly exists solely to satisfy shippers who can't get enough of his chemistry with Veronica--which is still palpable--and though the story the film offers for his post-series life is borderline absurd, it does provide a justification for toning Logan down, and making him Veronica's love interest and reward rather than the disruptive presence he was in the series.  And though the film's worldbuilding is questionable, it's used in the service of Veronica's own journey towards understanding the kind of person she is.  Though again, I don't find the choice the film offers, between being a successful lawyer away from Neptune and a hardscrabble private detective tilting at windmills in it, terribly believable, the terms in which Veronica Mars chooses to phrase this choice--as the struggle with an addiction to the PI life--are intriguing.  It might have been interesting to see Veronica finally growing up, and embracing detective work from a place of power rather than helpless addiction, but if you take it as a given that Veronica Mars is, like the TV series, trapped by its core concept, what the film does with this concept has enough glimmers of originality to make it worth watching, and a worthy successor to the show's brilliant first season.

  • Frozen - Six months of the internet falling over itself to crown Disney's latest the greatest thing since sliced bread probably didn't do it any favors with me once I finally sat down to watch it.  Frozen is a good film, but for the most part it recapitulates the plot and structure of Tangled, and does them slightly less well.  There's a bright-eyed, adventurous but sheltered heroine eager to see the world, a cynical and world-weary love interest who starts out helping her for selfish reasons but quickly finds himself won over by her infectious enthusiasm, and a time-sensitive mission they embark on together, during which they fall in love.  There's a little more than this to Frozen, which might be why it's so awkwardly paced--it takes forever to set up its story, then rushes through its most important emotional beats (among them, the development of all its central relationships, including the central romance).  Along the way, the jokes are less funny (though Josh Gad's talking snowman is delightfully surreal) and the songs are less good (even the famous "Let It Go," though a good song in itself, feels weirdly out of place in this movie, a pop anthem lost amid the rest of the musical-style soundtrack).

    The crucial difference between Frozen and Tangled is, of course, the fact that its central relationship--its central love story--is between sisters, not lovers.  Based very loosely on Andersen's "The Snow Queen," Frozen imagines the title character as Elsa (Idina Menzel), a princess born with a power over ice that she can't control, and whose parents have isolated her from the world and convinced her to completely suppress her powers.  When the pressure of keeping herself under total control proves too much for Elsa, she runs away and inadvertently starts a permanent winter, and her younger sister Anna (Kristen Bell), who has spent her life hurt and confused by her sister's absence, tries to rescue her--from her own power and from the opportunistic, power-hungry nobles trying to snatch their throne.  It's an intriguing premise, but one that Frozen for the most part fumbles.  The most interesting thing about Tangled was its complex and often ambivalent depiction of the smothering, abusive relationship between Rapunzel and her mother, and Frozen has the opportunity to do the same thing--this is, after all, a film about a child who was mistreated by well-meaning but horribly misguided parents, and the sibling who doesn't understand her family's dysfunction but was nevertheless damaged by it.  And yet Frozen repeatedly flattens what should be Elsa and Anna's complex personalities and relationship.  Elsa should be angry and conflicted towards her family, but because the film kills her parents off in its prologue, there's no one to direct that anger at except "innocent" Anna, which allows the film to neatly solve what should be Elsa's complex issues through Anna's simple love.  Her ambivalence about her powers is similarly very neatly solved--the exhilaration she feels at finally letting them loose in the film's middle segments, and particularly "Let It Go," is replaced by domesticated, safe applications by the film's end, with no sign that after years of confinement, Elsa might want to stretch her wings a little further than making summertime skating rinks (even the glorious castle she builds as a demonstration of her power is abandoned by the film's end).  The result is a character who can only be classified as good because she doesn't feel precisely those emotions that feminism identifies as crucial to self-actualization--anger, and a desire to be powerful.  While it's obviously a good thing that Disney is creating movies about (positive) female relationships, I can't help but feel that there's quite a way to go from where Frozen ends up.

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson's latest bills itself, in its promotional material and closing credits, as inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig.  That's certainly noticeable in the film, which shares several of Zweig's writerly tics and preoccupations--the multiple, nested framing stories, the ornate, storytelling dialogue, the tone of nostalgia for a pre-War, central European world of gentility and fading aristocracy.  But for all this obvious fondness for Zweig and his writing, The Grand Budapest Hotel is ultimately its director's film, which means that the kind of story that Zweig might have told as a melodrama, it tells as a farce.  As fond as I am of some of Zweig's writing, I can't deny that this is an attitude he might have benefited from himself, so I certainly don't have a problem with it in the film, which moves past the dry, absurdist humor of Anderson's previous films to become, at points, uproariously funny.  Ralph Fiennes plays M. Gustave, the implacable, unfailingly considerate butler of the titular hotel, in the fictional country of Zubrowka shortly before the outbreak of something very similar to WWII.  Gustave is the favorite of the hotel's spoiled, elderly, wealthy guests, attending to their every need and basking in their dependence and admiration.  When one of his charges dies suddenly, leaving him an expensive bequest, her jealous family accuse him of her murder, and Gustave and his protege Zero (Tony Revolori) must escape and prove his innocence.

    Fiennes is absolutely brilliant as Gustave, turning on a dime from romantic sentimentality to foul-mouthed hard-headedness and back again, but never losing Gustave's defining ability to transform the world around him into the kinder, more genteel place he wants it to be by sheer force of his belief in it.  When Zero visits him in jail, Gustave explains, in his typical flowery, didactic tones, that he has "beaten the shit" out of a fellow prisoner who mistook him for an easy mark, then pauses; "he's actually become a dear friend," he adds.  It's a fantastic performance, and I look forward to it being criminally ignored alongside similarly sublime turns in Anderson's previous films, such as Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic.  But like the rest of those films, what contains this performance is on the effervescent side, so much so that less than a day after watching it, very little of The Grand Budapest Hotel lingers in my mind.  The conversation about Anderson, and whether his films have substance to match their distinctive style, is of old standing, and this entry doesn't bring me any closer to an answer--not even the reliance on Zweig can fill the film with meaning, since nostalgia is by its nature an empty emotion.  Still, if there isn't much more to this film than pretty production design and wonderfully mannered acting, it is still an extremely funny story set in wonderfully realized alternate world, and that makes it worth watching.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - One of the impressive things about the MCU films--besides their very existence and the megafranchise's success and overall watchability--is how each of the sub-series that make up the universe has begun developing its own tone and genre.  Watching the first Captain America film in preparation for this one, I was struck by how sombre it is, when compared to the Iron Man or Thor films, suffused with its title character's melancholy, first at not being allowed to help those in need, and then at the things that those in power choose to do with his strength.  Winter Soldier takes that approach to--possibly egregious--extremes.  Where The First Avenger was sombre, this film is practically dour.  It's also talky and a little on the long side, laying out a convoluted conspiracy within SHIELD that Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and new character Falcon (Anthony Mackie) have to unravel and then save the world from.  Like Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier is rather bold in calling out the war on terror and the security state as distractions--in this film, an actual villainous plot concealing an attempt to establish a global tyranny--but by its nature this sort of plot doesn't give a character like Captain America much room to change or grow.  His purpose is to be a fixed point of goodness and integrity to which those members of SHIELD who still cherish the ideals of freedom and democracy can flock, but whereas being that sort of fixed point made Steve compelling in The First Avenger, when he still had a great deal to prove, it leaves him feeling rather inert in The Winter Soldier, in which he's so accustomed to his strength that he nonchalantly jumps out of planes without a parachute.  The movie gestures in some interesting directions in its first act when it discusses the difficulties of soldiers returning from war, not just with Steve but with Black Widow, Falcon (an Afghan vet), and even the Winter Soldier itself.  But as the film's plot develops this strand fades into the background, since even Steve's newfound ambivalence about following orders can't justify the mayhem he causes without an additional discovery of perfidy at SHIELD's core.

    More successful are Steve's growing friendships with Black Widow and Falcon (though it's a shame that the SHIELD plot shunts the actual Winter Soldier, and the dilemma that his identity poses for Steve, to the side; this is clearly setting up the next film in the Captain America series, but if nothing else it makes the film's subtitle puzzlingly inapt), but this does nothing to alleviate the feeling that Winter Soldier is centerless--especially as the film eventually comes to seem as if it were as much Black Widow and Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) story as Steve's.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing--if Marvel is trying to build the MCU as a fully integrated, multi-part story (which is a rather interesting thing to do with feature films, especially in the risk-averse blockbuster division), then The Winter Soldier shakes up the universe's status quo quite impressively and sets up situations that the next several films (and the TV series Agents of SHIELD, which might now require a name change) will be dealing with.  And it does so while delivering several very good action set pieces that flow together much more smoothly than in most MCU films.  I just wish the actual Captain America didn't end up getting lost in the shuffle.

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - Two movies in, the second Spider-Man series remains the most inessential of today's superhero franchises.  Which is not to say that there's anything actually wrong with these films.  In some respects, in fact, I think that the new series improves on Sam Raimi's trilogy.  Andrew Garfield, though obviously too handsome to play geeky loser Peter Parker, is very good as the wisecracking, irreverent Spider-Man, both in and out of his costume, and manages to convey the frustrations of being a troubled teenager and a superhero without sinking to the kind of depths of angst that made Tobey Maguire frequently unwatchable.  Garfield also has a better rapport with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy than Maguire did with Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane, and the fact that Gwen knows Peter's secret and assists in his crimefighting helps to balance the film and take some of the weight of its storytelling off his shoulders.  Perhaps most importantly, between a new director and improvements in CGI, the new Spider-Man films look a hell of a lot better than the old ones, and the exhilaration of swinging through the city with Spider-Man is far more palpable in them, even in 2D.

    Still, for all that the Amazing Spider-Man films have good performances and effects, these are not so good, in themselves, as to justify the films' existence, or the time and money we spend watching them.  Neither is the plot of this sequel--in which Jamie Foxx (as the first black character of any import in both Spider-Man trilogies, which makes the fact that he's a villain all the more unfortunate) runs afoul of that source of all mischief, OsCorp, and gains power over electricity, while Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, magnetic in his few scenes but wasted by a script that can't wait to turn him into a monster) goes through the motions of his counterpart's character are in the first trilogy--terribly interesting.  Which begs the question: why, apart from the fact that Sony doesn't want to lose the rights to the character, should anyone care about these films?  Like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 makes a faint stab at charting its own path by developing the story of Peter's parents and their connection to his powers.  But as in the previous film, this story is advanced only infinitesimally.  From what I've read, Sony are trying to develop a megafranchise similar to the MCU by hanging it on the skeleton of this mystery, and then presumably developing it in other films not featuring Spider-Man, but this does not make this plot's halting progress here any more tolerable or compelling.  The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends with a huge (and yet heavily telegraphed, for anyone who reads the comics or who reads people who reads the comics) development, which could potentially take the Spider-Man character in interesting directions.  But it's asking quite a bit for a film series to go two films--the latter of them absurdly overlong--before starting to find its own identity.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

The nominees for the 2014 Hugo awards were announced last night, and now I can reveal the news that I've been sitting on for one of the longest weeks of my life: I am nominated in the Best Fan Writer category!  I want to congratulate my fellow nominees, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Foz Meadows, and Mark Oshiro (who together make up what I think is the most female-dominated slate in the category's history).  I also want to thank everyone who nominated me and encouraged others to.  It's been strongly implied, but I'll just say officially that I will be attending LonCon 3 this summer and plan to be on hand for the Hugo award ceremony.

It's terribly gratifying to receive this nomination, especially at the end of a nominating period in which so many wonderful, smart people said such lovely things about me and my writing.  I'm particularly thrilled because, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the first Israeli to receive a Hugo nomination, and for that to happen at a convention that will be particularly accessible to Israelis and where I know that there will be a large Israeli contingent feels very appropriate.  In addition to the fan writer nomination, I'm also nominated as one of the editors of Strange Horizons, which received its second nomination for Best Semiprozine, so congratulations to Niall Harrison, Brit Mandelo, An Owomoyela, Julia Rios, Sonya Taaffe, Rebecca Cross, Anaea Lay, and Shane Gavin.

All that said, I spent the last week less in anticipation and more in trepidation, because as much as I appreciate being nominated for a Hugo I knew that my pride in my nomination would depend a great deal on the makeup of the rest of the ballot, and more than any other year I wanted this one's nominees to be ones that truly reflect the excellence and diversity of the field.  As you'll know if you've seen the ballot, my hopes were rewarded in only a very partial fashion.  The 2014 Hugo ballot is weirdly bifurcated.  The "bottom half," of the ballot, comprising the publishing, fan, and Campbell categories, seems made up, for the most part, of online fandom's dream nominees.  The best fan writer category is not only dominated by women but made up solely of online writers.  Blogs and online magazines dominate the fanzine and semiprozine categories.  There are more women in the professional and fan artist categories than I think have ever been nominated.  I'm particularly pleased to see several nominees that I championed on the ballot, some of which--like Mandie Manzano and Sarah Webb in best fan artist, or XKCD's "Time" in best graphic story--make me think (rightly or wrongly) that my endorsement played a real role in getting them a nomination.

But then you come to the fiction categories.  Though best short story is solid, the other three categories are not simply dispiriting or embarrassing, but downright infuriating.  Let me be clear: Vox Day is a despicable person whose repeated racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior towards specific members of the genre community as well as the community as a whole should make all decent human beings recoil from his presence.  That I received my first Hugo nomination on the same ballot that bears his name leaves a vile taste in my mouth.  That the rest of the fiction ballot feels, as several people have noted, as if it's recapitulating the culture wars only makes this nomination worse, and confirms me in my feeling that the only people who benefit from award campaigns are those with large and devoted fanbases--whether those fanbases are motivated by love of a particular writer, or the desire to stick it to the lefties (or, as is most likely, both).  One can only sigh at Larry Correia's Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles (serious, sigh) making it onto the best novel ballot, or Toni Weisskopf's best editor, long form nomination.  (As for the Wheel of Time series making it onto the best novel ballot, I'd just like to say to anyone who voted for this: feel ashamed, because you don't even have the excuse of being a reactionary troll to justify your bad taste.) 

All of which leaves me feeling very conflicted.  I want to be happy about my nomination and the nominations of so many wonderful and worthy people.  But I also can't ignore that this year the Hugos have shown their underpants, and the inherent problems of both the award's system and the ways in which it is being increasingly gamed, to a far greater degree than ever before.  The fact is that when the outside world talks about this slate of nominees, what they'll note is the absurd nomination of the Wheel of Time series, and that when we look back on this year, what we'll remember is Vox Day.  I'd like to believe that the changes I'm seeing in the smaller, less talked-about categories are creeping upwards, and that in a few years time we'll see them affecting the fiction categories as well.  But I remain uncertain, and that's not the feeling I wanted to have on the day after my first Hugo nomination.