Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Black Mirror, "Striking Vipers"

It feels strange to talk about Black Mirror reinventing itself. Even if you leave aside the fact that this is a show in its fifth season (plus two specials), a point where habits tend to be firmly fixed, what would be the impetus for it? From its scandalous premiere in 2011, Black Mirror has always been lauded for being exactly what it is. Even the people who have criticized it—for its cynicism, for its nastiness, for its reflexive distrust of technology—have helped to cement its brand, our idea of what a Black Mirror story is like and can accomplish. And yet, when you finish watching the three episodes of the just-released fifth season, there is no other way to describe them than as a departure. It's probably the strongest season the show has fielded since its first, but it's also the least Black Mirror-ish.

Some people might describe the season as optimistic. This isn't entirely inaccurate—the third episode, "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", is basically a YA story about two sisters who help a pop star evade the clutches of her nefarious manager, along the way repairing their own fractured relationship. On the other hand, the second episode, "Smithereens", is a hostage drama driven by the hostage taker's suicidal depression, and which ends ambiguously but, it is strongly implied, tragically. But even in this episode, there is a sense of benevolence, of a world that mostly travels along well-established and well-intentioned grooves. The people who accumulate around the hostage crisis—police officers, hostage negotiators, SWAT teams—behave with caution and professionalism, working hard to secure the best possible outcome. The corporate officers at the titular social media company, whose CEO the hostage taker demands to speak to, similarly act responsibly, sharing information with authorities, prioritizing the life of the hostage even though he's just an intern at their company. Even the people who behave like assholes—the onlookers who tweet confidential details about the crisis that scotch the cops' plans, the company's legal advisor who doesn't want to let the CEO know about the situation—are being assholes on a relatable, human level, and with obvious limits on their behavior. It's a moderation that is entirely atypical of the show.

What it comes down to, I think, is that in its fifth season Black Mirror is much more focused on character and plot than on technology. You see this, for example, in the way that none of the episodes feature technology that is new to the show (or even to reality—"Smithereens" could take place in the here and now). Instead, they mix and match previously-established technologies—the personality-modeling "cookies" from "White Christmas" and other episodes; the VR gaming interface from "Playtest"—and imagine new uses for them.  One effect is that for the first time in its life, Black Mirror can just tell stories, rather than pointing at tech and urging us to beware. It's not an entirely successful experiment—all three episodes are a bit weak in their endings, the need to service an actual plot stretching creator Charlie Brooker (who wrote them all) to his limits—but it's still an exciting one for a show that had seemed to run out of stories to tell (to the point of trying to leave the actual storytelling to its audience).

The emphasis on story also means that Black Mirror's more annoying, preachy tendencies are toned down. "Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too", for example, peddles the eye-rolling, tired trope that tween-oriented pop is shallow and worthless and that cool girls should only like rock (by sheer coincidence, I'm sure, the type of riot grrl rock that was at the cutting edge when Brooker was young). But it's also too busy with its story for that message to get much space, and for the most part it is possible to ignore it and enjoy the episode's more positive themes of female solidarity and sisterly support. The emphasis on story also means that the fifth season of Black Mirror has the least to say about technology's interaction with capitalism, a topic on which it has sometimes managed to be quite probing. When we meet the CEO of Smithereens, for example, he's a good-hearted dweed who complains that his company has "gotten away from him".

The episode I want to talk about, though, is the season's opener, "Striking Vipers". It is, to my mind, a strong contender for one of Black Mirror's all-time great episodes, and easily its most interesting. It's also the queerest story the show has told in some time, perhaps ever, though not in the more straightforward way of "San Junipero". Instead, "Striking Vipers" is a story that challenges us, and its characters, to figure out its variety of queerness as it goes along.

The episode begins by introducing us to a trio of friends: protagonist Danny (Anthony Mackie), his girlfriend Theo (Nicole Beharie), and his roommate Karl (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The trio live the carefree lifestyle of the young, going out to clubs, doing drugs, and playing video games all night. Eleven years later, Danny and Theo are married, live in the suburbs, have a young son, and are trying for another baby, while Karl is still living it up as a single man in the city, dating women ten years younger than him. At Danny's 38th birthday party, Karl gives him the latest version of Striking Vipers, the Mortal Kombat-esque fighting game they used to play in their younger days, along with a VR extension that lets players inhabit their chosen fighter. Later that night, the two men meet in the game, Karl playing his favorite character from the old days, Roxette (Pom Klementieff), and Danny embodied as Lance (Ludi Lin).

(You could raise issues about the fact that the two in-game characters are Asian—and, unsurprisingly for this type of game, have exaggerated, stereotypical styling and personas—but one effect of that choice is that all five of the episode's main characters are POC.  In fact, every speaking character, and most of the background ones, are non-white, a first for the show.)

What's most surprising and fun about "Striking Vipers" is how it repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag. Most Black Mirror episodes, even the ones with twists, tend to establish their starting conditions and story types fairly early on. But "Striking Vipers" leaves you guessing for most of its first act, uncertain about the story it's telling. And once that story materializes, it's a shock. The basic premise—two men on the cusp of middle age, both with good lives that nevertheless leave them vaguely unsatisfied—is a familiar one, and raises certain expectations. We expect Danny to have an ill-advised affair. We expect the two men to become entangled in one another's lives (perhaps through a body-switch?). We do not expect Roxette and Lance, after a few minutes of trading blows and admiring the game's full range of sensation, to turn a mid-fight tussle into a hot-and-heavy makeout session.

After a bit of perfunctory denial, this turns into a regular thing, with the two men forgoing any pretense of using the game for its intended purpose and instead meeting in it solely in order to have increasingly acrobatic, cinematic sex via their avatars. One thing that Black Mirror has been relatively slow to address is the way that technology is only rarely used in exactly the way its creators intend. The show loves to talk about how technology will pull us in unseemly, inhuman directions, but it rarely addresses the reverse, the fact that, as William Gibson put it, "the street finds its uses for things". That a game like Striking Vipers might be used for sex feels both inevitable, and like a refreshing avenue for story that the show has thus far failed to explore.

It doesn't take long for the audience to figure out what the characters are denying—that this isn't simply a form of masturbation, but an affair. Both men start neglecting their partners—leading to a lovely monologue from Beharie, whose character type is after all a thankless one but who the episode leaves space to be human, thoughtful, and sexual. More interestingly, the sexual relationship between Danny and Karl deepens their friendship. Early in the episode, Danny complains that he and Karl can't really talk anymore beyond the surface level of small talk. But in the game they have true intimacy, even beyond the sexual, all while Danny keeps a huge secret from his wife that damages their own ability to be intimate.  Ultimately, Danny is forced to choose his family over his personal satisfaction, leaving Karl genuinely bereft in a way that he can't even put a name on.

Another way in which "Striking Vipers" defies the expectations we might have developed for its story is the fact it refuses to put a label on what Danny and Karl have. One very plausible reading of the episode—which I've already seen—is as a metaphor for closeted homosexuality, and specifically life for closeted black men on the DL. But within the episode itself, that doesn't seem to be the answer. When Danny and Karl try to see if their connection exists in real life, they feel no heat, even as their in-game encounters become more intense. Nor does Karl seem to be questioning his gender identity. Though he insists that he enjoys sex more as Roxette than in his own body, in every other respect he seems happy with life as a man.

To me it feel like "Striking Vipers" is less about sexual identity than it is about kink. Danny and Karl have hit upon something that really works for both of them, that deepens their relationship, but also complicates their lives. Which is delightful, because most of the time, when pop culture discusses kink, it does so in a way that is prurient, or mocking, or pitying. "Striking Vipers" treats its characters with respect and sympathy, and their proclivity as something that emerges naturally from their humanity. It's a rare case of Black Mirror reversing the arrow of its anti-technology hectoring. For once, instead of technology bringing out the worst in us, it allows us to discover things about ourselves, and our capacity for pleasure, that we never knew.

It's at this stage, however, that the episode finds itself in a bind, because there is no way to proceed from this point that leaves all of its characters happy, as they clearly deserve to be. Danny loves his family, but he gets something out of his relationship with Karl that he can't get from Theo. And neither Karl nor Theo are happy with him being only half-present in their lives. He ends up leaving one of them, and then the other, but being unhappy with both choices.

The episode finally comes up with a solution that feels like walking back some of its previously-established assumptions. Danny goes back to Theo, but gets occasional nights off when he's allowed to meet Karl in the game. In exchange, Theo gets a night away from her marriage, free to pick up a handsome man for a one-night stand. But this feels rather unconvincing. For one thing, we've never gotten a sense that Theo wants an open marriage—though she speaks about her frustrations with monogamy, it doesn't feel like a deep desire so much as the sort of vague frustration that all married people sometimes feel without wanting to act on it. For another thing, a one night stand simply isn't equivalent to the emotional affair that Danny and Karl were carrying on, and Theo should still be concerned about how that might endanger her marriage. Finally, what about Karl? Is he really content with having Danny to himself for a few nights a year, despite previously having claimed to be in love with him?

I found myself wishing that "Striking Vipers" had been a little less character-focused, a little more Black Mirror-ish. What if instead of focusing on this trio—whose dilemma is ultimately irresolvable without hurting someone—we instead took a wider view of the community that develops around the game and its off-label use for sexual encounters? Karl tells Danny that he explored this community and concluded that no one satisfies him as much as Danny-as-Lance, but what if instead of that, he found someone in it who shared his kink and was available for a real relationship? What if Theo tried her hand at the game? As I wrote, endings are the achilles' heel of Black Mirror's fifth season, and this is especially noticeable in the case of "Striking Vipers", which until this point was such a strong, interesting story.

Still, even a weak ending doesn't completely undermine the episode. Between its compassionate approach to its characters and its open-minded approach to technology, "Striking Vipers" charts a path for how Black Mirror could evolve and grow. I hope that more people discover it and embrace its message of treating kink respectfully (while still respecting people who might not share it but also have claims on you). But I also hope Black Mirror learns from it about how it can be a better, more interesting show.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Roundtable Discussion: Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner, at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons has resurrected its book club feature, and the inaugural discussion features me, Zen Cho, and Charlotte Geater discussing Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1977 collection Kingdoms of Elfin, reprinted last year after many years out of print by Handheld Press.  Though I haven't read much of her writing, I've found Warner, an early 20th century fantasist as well as one of the inaugural voices of the New Yorker's fiction department, a fascinating writer, and Kingdoms of Elfin has been a particular obsession of mine ever since I first read about it, and learned that it was unavailable.  In these stories, written over a decade after the death of Warner's partner Valentine Ackland, Warner visits various fairy kingdoms around the globe, imagining their customs, court intrigues, and scandals.  This naturally creates the expectation of a light, frothy book, but as the roundtable reveals all of us found the stories cold and challenging.  There's a chilliness to the collection that seems to speak to the essence of what Warner was trying to do with them--not a frivolous escape, but a hard-headed look at how life can turn empty and meaningless when love is gone.
AN: I think Zen makes an interesting point when she questions the description of the stories as “inhuman.” A lot of the cruelty in them struck me as related to class in a way that is surely quintessentially human. Think of the way that Elphenor in “Elphenor and Weasel” is basically abandoned after having failed in his diplomatic mission. He’s not important enough to send people after, and having failed the court he’s probably better off not returning. It’s tempting to treat this sort of behavior as inhuman, but it’s at best an exaggeration of the way that low-class people—and even lower-ranking high-class ones—are chewed up and spat out by stratified, aristocratic systems. You see it also in the setup to “The Mortal Milk,” where the deaths of the court’s prized werewolves and, if I’m remembering correctly, the lower-class fairy helping to care for them, are basically brushed aside, or in the treatment of changelings in all the stories. And you see it especially in “The Blameless Triangle,” where the fairy free-thinkers, despite claiming to have abandoned the corrupting influence of court life, try to browbeat their youngest member into prostituting himself so they can all live in comfort.
I worry, though, that people will come away from this roundtable feeling put off or intimidated by the book.  As challenging as I found it, I absolutely do recommend it, if only because I've never read anything else like it.  It's an important, overlooked corner in the history of fantasy, and a thought-provoking meditation on loss, and the insufficiency of glamor and luxury to make up for it.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Game Theory

"It never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened," quotes Aaron Bady in his review of "The Last of the Starks", the fourth episode of the just-concluded eighth and final season of Game of Thrones. Aaron--whose reviews this season, alongside Sarah Mesle and Philip Maciak, have remained the gold standard for talking about this much-talked-about show--is referring to the battle against the army of the dead in the previous episode, whose fallen are eulogized in "Last"'s opening scene. "This is why the show needed those fiery pyres and a big speech from Jon about how no one will ever forget; otherwise, we might notice and be shocked that it didn't matter, that everyone is going to forget, and that it never happened." But in a way that he might not even have realized at the time, he is also articulating the approach of the entire season. Rather than tying off and concluding its storylines, in its final season Game of Thrones furiously goes about unmaking them, and finally, itself.

It's not just that the battle against the army of the dead barely comes up after it's won. It's how little any of that storyline ends up mattering. The identify of the Night King, the meaning of the grisly bits of environmental art he kept leaving for our heroes, the role of Essos and Westeros's warring religions and the prophecies that seemed to involve our heroes, whatever it was that the dead actually wanted--all are forgotten as soon as Arya plunges her dagger in and wins the day. And after that first unmaking, others follow with increasing speed and urgency. Jon Snow's parentage, speculated about by fans for years, confirmed two seasons ago, revealed to the world at the end of last season, ends up playing absolutely no role in where his or Westeros's story end up. Sansa, Daenerys, Varys, and Tyrion play subtle chess games against one another when they each learn Jon's identity, and it all ends up meaning nothing as far as the nation's final disposition is concerned. Daenerys razes King's Landing to the ground, and the next week there's enough of the city left for the characters to occupy and squabble over.

In the season's final episode, each scene seems to cancel out the one before it. Daenerys is a demonic dark lord, surveying her troops like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl movie and regarding her acts of destruction with manic glee, promising to burn down the whole world, so powerful that no one can imagine how to stop her. No, wait, now she's dead. The Dothraki and the Unsullied are fearsome, dark-skinned Others, fanatically loyal to Daenerys and an enormous problem for Westeros even without her. No, wait, they have inexplicably allowed Jon and Tyrion to live for weeks after Daenerys's death, waiting politely for Westeros's surviving lords to gather for a conference to decide its fate. But now Grey Worm insists on Jon facing justice for his betrayal of Daenerys! No, wait, he just wants the Westerosi nobles--a group of people he neither trusts nor respects--to give Jon a trial, after which both armies meekly pile back on their ships and sail off, never to trouble the continent again. But Jon is to spend the rest of his life at the Wall! No, wait, he just fucks off with the wildlings, which no one tries to stop him from doing because no one seems to care.

Perhaps the most profound expression of how much Game of Thrones wants to undo itself is the fact that it allows Tyrion to set the terms of its ending. For three seasons, we've been watching Tyrion repeatedly faceplant due to his tendency to spin convoluted, oh-so-clever plans that don't survive their first contact with reality. For three seasons, one character after another has berated him for buying into the myth of his own cleverness and inevitably outsmarting himself. What, then, are we to make of the fact that the conclusion--the solution, apparently--to Westeros's wars of succession is yet another Tyrion Lannister special? Hey, you know what system of government is super-stable, guaranteed never to lead to succession squabbles or civil wars? Elective monarchy!

The final scene of Game of Thrones, in which Tyrion presides over a meeting of the Small Council featuring all our favorite secondary characters, is meant to convey a hard-won peace.  But really it feels like an act of gaslighting, the ultimate negation of change. The wheel has turned, and somehow, despite all the talk of revolution, despite all the upheaval and destruction, despite all the promises of apocalypse and transformation, we've ended up right where we started. Sure, there are some cosmetic changes--Bran is king now, because why the hell not; the Stark children have grown and are each doing their own thing; a bunch of cities have been burned to ashes. The players have changed, but the game remains essentially the same. All the drama of the last eight seasons and nine years? It will shock you how much it never happened.

You can choose to take this as a pointed criticism of monarchy, of the fantasy genre and its obsession with prophesied rulers, of the promise of heroes who will remake the world into something better if only we give them absolute power over it and us. The fact that nothing has changed is the point, you see, because true change can't come from within the system, man. And look, I have often--quite recently, in fact--taken pleasure in the pastime of ascribing to Game of Thrones a level of complexity and subversiveness it obviously didn't possess. But this time, I don't buy it.  The show's conclusion lacks the darkness and richness of its more tantalizing moments, when you could convince yourself that there was something more going on than just what appeared on the surface. On the contrary, there's something desperately earnest about it. Or just plain desperate, the writers putting more and more speeches in Tyrion's mouth as if trying to convince the audience sitting at home rather than their other characters.  By the time Tyrion starts going on about stories, there's no way to avoid admitting that we're meant to be taking this all at face value. There's a palpable sense of flop sweat about that final turn, as if the writers had only now realized--after eight seasons, seventy-three episodes, and countless storylines, locations, and characters--that they have no idea what their story was about. So then, let it be about stories--that solves the problem, doesn't it?

"Who has a better story than Bran?" Tyrion asks, in brazen defiance of the fact that at least half a dozen characters sharing the scene with him, not to mention himself, could answer that question in the affirmative. But in this new Game of Thrones, a show that has devoured itself in order to avoid acknowledging that it was only ever about itself, this retcon is necessary. We have to believe that the character with the least interesting story actually has the best one, because to take any other character as our focal point would require a much more dramatic, meaningful ending than the show is capable of delivering. Even Tyrion himself--whom the show dusts off as its mover and shaker and point of view character, as he hasn't been since the end of season four--ends up getting written out of the official history of the most important events in his life. The future belongs to the Brans--all-knowing, personality-free cyphers who only a few seasons ago were convincingly described as effectively dead, and definitely no longer human.

I'm coming off as mocking--because there is, quite frankly, a great deal to mock here. But the truth is, I don't want to complain about how bad Game of Thrones has gotten or how silly its ending was. What would be the point? I've been complaining about Game of Thrones since before there was a Game of Thrones (that review is not my favorite piece of writing, but boy, did I nail the core problem with the series's story). I've complained about its sexism.  I've complained about its violence.  I've complained about the unearned prestige being granted to what was clearly little more than a well-made soap opera. We all complained about those things. And then we kept watching all the way to the end. If the series's end has embodied all the flaws we spent nine years complaining about--if it features a beloved female character expressing the opinion that having been raped has made her a badass; if it paints a wannabe revolutionary as a murderous fanatic who wants to kill the world in order to save it; if it uses people of color as scary, ravening hordes of merciless killers; most of all, if it fails to end in a way that puts a satisfying, decisive cap on its story, instead taking us back to its starting point--well, who's to blame here, really? The show, for being exactly what it always was? Or us, for pretending that it would change at the very last minute?

Over the last few weeks, we've seen the rise of a cottage industry in twitter threads and thinkpieces seeking to explain "why Game of Thrones sucks now". We've had plotters vs. pantsers, sociological vs. psychological, and that age-old standby, "it all went to pieces when they ran out of books!" I don't want to be the glib cynic who responds to these kinds of analyses with a great cry of "you idiots, it always sucked!" But I do think that a lot of them miss what Game of Thrones was, and mistake it for something it wasn't. This was never a story that was going to end well because it was never a story designed to end at all. The true refutation of epic fantasy tropes that, we kept being told, was what made this story brilliant would have been in letting it go on forever, constantly churning through characters and settings, constantly throwing up new dynasties only to topple them, constantly pulling our favorites out of danger only to plunge them back into it, constantly pointing at fresh-faced new heroes only to have them fail and reveal themselves as ordinarily human.

But of course, it couldn't do that. And so, with a pair of showrunners whose work was never as clever or as deep as they seemed to believe, and who were clearly itching to be done, we got an ending that was rushed, half-assed, and prone to the series's worst and ugliest failings, especially where female characters were concerned. (How often did women talk to one another in Game of Thrones's last two seasons? How much worse do those numbers get when you exclude Arya and Sansa's misbegotten fight storyline from season seven?) I'm not saying it couldn't have been done better. But I don't think there's a version of this show that ends in the way that fans wanted and expected it to, with a grand climax that ties together all the show's storylines and themes into a satisfying and transformative crescendo. This was never that sort of story.

No, instead of wondering why we're all so disappointed in what Game of Thrones has become, shouldn't we be wondering why we liked it in the first place?  Why did those of us who recognized the show's problems from day zero continue following it so obsessively?  What were we getting out of it?  This feels like an important question, especially now that the show is over.  Because I guarantee you that in the dozens of writers' rooms where, right now, teams of extremely talented people are trying to create the next Game of Thrones, it is being pondered and, if we're to go by past experience, exactly the wrong lessons are being learned. Remember when the Lost fandom was at the peak of its frustration with the show's endlessly proliferating mysteries, and every wannabe clone tried to sell itself by promising that it had an airtight multiseason plan all worked out from the get-go? And then all those shows flopped like the airless, over-designed slogs they were?  Imagine that, but with dragons and cod-medieval fantasy worlds.

It's not as if there haven't been other fantasy shows running before or alongside Game of Thrones.  It's not as if there haven't been multithreaded historical dramas with rich, charismatic characters operating within a complex geopolitical landscape.  It's not as if there haven't been shows like Game of Thrones that were better, smarter, more tightly-plotted, more interesting.  Some of these shows have been successful, but none of them were Game of Thrones.  I would argue that the reason for that is exactly the thing so many people are now identifying as bad writing, the thing that writers trying to making lightning strike twice are now streamlining out of their proposals and pitches.  The shapelessness of the show's overarching plot, the looseness of its pacing, that frustrating tendency to compound entities instead of converging on a narrative. These all left space for fans to argue with the show and complain about it, to claim the world and its characters as our own in the face of writers who clearly didn't know what to do with them. We loved arguing with Game of Thrones. We loved complaining about it. We loved that alongside its top-notch production values, complex characters, and a cast who could pull off anything asked of them, it was so obviously, stupidly wrong about so many things, from medieval norms and customs to battle tactics to how women think, act, and behave towards one another. We loved that we could spend hours debating and discussing it and not get treated like hopeless nerds, because everyone else was doing it too.  We never really wanted it to end.

So farewell, Game of Thrones. We shall not see your like again, despite HBO's multiple planned prequels and spinoffs and Amazon's forthcoming Lord of the Rings show and whatever else anyone tries to recapture your magic with. That combination of tremendous skill and utter, bone-deep stupidity isn't the sort of thing you can produce by demand.  More than a show or a story, Game of Thrones was a glorious mistake--a half-finished (and probably never to be finished) series of books with a flaw baked into it so obvious that people were pointing it out decades ago, handed to writers without the skill, or even the desire, to make that story their own, that through a bizarre alchemy hit the absolute perfect sweet spot between frustrating and engrossing.  That sort of accident doesn't come along too often.  So thanks for giving us something to argue about.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

When Marlon James announced that his next project would be an African-set, epic fantasy trilogy, I have to admit that my reaction was skepticism. I first encountered James when I read his second novel, The Book of Night Women (2009), which used heady language and uncompromising descriptions of violence to address the physical and psychological impact of slavery on its victims. It marked James out as an author to follow. But I've been a genre fan for a while, and I've seen too many authors come from the outside—from literary fiction, or from outside of fantasy—and get heralded as the ones who are going to save epic fantasy from itself. Especially in the current moment, in which there are so many authors testing the boundaries of what epic fantasy can do—people like Sofia Samatar, Kai Ashante Wilson, Jeannette Ng, K. Arsenault Rivera—I wasn't really certain what James, with all his skill, could bring to the table.

On the other hand, one obvious answer to that question could be found simply in the project's description. As much as epic fantasy has been changing and growing over the last decade or so, there still isn't a lot of it that is set in African or African-derived settings. The fact that James had taken the publicity and cachet that came with winning the Booker (for A Brief History of Seven Killings, in 2014) and announced his intention to write an "African Game of Thrones" (a description which he has, in subsequent interviews, demurred from a little) felt remarkable in its own right. It hasn't been that long since such a project would have been unimaginable, much less with the publicity and prestige launch that Black Leopard, Red Wolf has received. So maybe, I thought to myself, my skepticism might more accurately be described as cynicism? Maybe a gifted writer with a different perspective can bring something new to the form?

It turns out, I was both right and wrong to be skeptical. James clearly knows his stuff. Black Leopard, Red Wolf has many distinctive traits and pleasures, but in terms of the story it tells, it does exactly what the capsule description of "African-set epic fantasy" seems to promise. It is set in a quasi-medieval, fantasized Africa, where nations and city-states (probably fictionalized versions of real entities that I don't recognize) grapple for power even as currents of magic and horror influence and are influenced by geopolitical turmoil. It even opens with the traditional fantasy-world map, which marks out the various polities in its setting, each, as we will learn when we visit them, with its own distinct customs, social organization, and culture.

Into this setting, Black Leopard, Red Wolf injects a quest narrative, in which a ragtag crew of misfits with various magical powers and sad backstories face perils, monsters, and double-crosses before realizing that they have become embroiled in a plot that affects the highest reaches of their society. There are some obvious Tolkien references—at one point, the band of nine travelers is referred to as a "fellowship", and a sequence in which they debate whether to go around or through a dense forest where, one of them insists, they will meet monsters and mind-altering magic is a blatant reference to the passage of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

James clearly includes these references in order to confound the obvious associations they have for fantasy readers—the characters' fellowship is riven by conflict and long-simmering enmity; the novel's Gandalf figure, the witch Sogolon, is revealed as manipulative, monomaniacal, and ultimately misguided; the magical, Rivendell-like city where everyone lives in beautiful platforms at the top of trees turns out to be a classist dystopia, ruled by an egomaniacal queen and powered by an army of brainwashed slaves. But, perhaps because the world of Black Leopard, Red Wolf is more often its own creation than a reflection of anyone else's worldbuilding, the story set in it defaults to the familiar templates of the genre more often than it reacts against them. The novel ends up feeling like a very familiar sword and sorcery adventure, albeit one with a setting that is still uncommon in the genre. It's left to the reader to decide whether the resulting work is more conventional or more groundbreaking.

One thing that James definitely does differently from many other epic fantasy authors is how he structures the novel. In its early chapters, in which we are introduced to Tracker, our otherwise nameless narrator and protagonist whose preternatural sense of smell can track people and objects across continents, the narrative jumps in time, elides important information, stands still for long stretches, and most of all uses Tracker's own ingrained resistance to being made part of anyone else's story to stave off anything resembling a narrative. The novel is framed by interludes in which Tracker tells his tale to an inquisitor as part of an investigation into a crime whose full contours we won't understand until its end. As the inquisitor writes,
The Tracker's account continues to perplex even those of uncommon mind. He travels deep in strange lands, as if telling tales to children at night, or reciting nightmares to the fetish priest for Ifa divination. ... He goes into the sight, smell, and taste of one memory, with perfect recall of the smell in the crack of one man's buttocks, or the perfume of Malakal virgins in bedchambers coming out of windows he walked underneath, or the sight of the glorious sunlight marking the slow change of seasons. But of spaces between moons, a year, three years, he says nothing.
This is James's way of acknowledging the skip-start nature of these early parts of the novel, the way he resists kicking off his story in a way that can make the reading experience a frustrating one, but which also, as the quote observes, recalls traditional storytelling methods far more than commercial epic fantasy. (Gautam Bhatia, in his review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf in Strange Horizons, argues that it is this storytelling mode that sets the novel apart from its genre and makes it distinctly African.) In the novel's first hundred pages, Tracker runs away from an unhappy home, stumbles upon his ancestral village, learns a bunch of family secrets, including the fact that he is expected to take up a blood feud that has already claimed several generations in his family, runs away again, becomes the quasi-guardian of a group of children who have been abandoned or sold by their families because of superstitions about various birth defects, and meets Leopard, a beast who can change into a man (or perhaps vice versa) who becomes his first true friend. It's only in the final pages of the opening segment that something resembling a standard fantasy plot rears its head, when, after a separation of some years during which Tracker plies his gift to locate lost treasures, absconded wives, and abandoning husbands, he and Leopard meet again. The latter recruits him for a mission to rescue a child who has been kidnapped and made to serve a group of supernatural monsters.

Another distinctive trait of the novel is Tracker himself, a sour, confrontational type of person always ready with a smart-aleck reply. "Like, I like. Dislike, I love. Disgust, I can feel. Loathing, I can grab in the palm of my hand and squeeze. And hatred, I can live in hatred for days", Tracker explains of himself. And indeed, he spends much of the novel's early chapters delaying the plot's beginning because he hates the idea of being under anyone's command, of being part of a group or accepting anyone's mission. That there is a great, gaping wail of pain and loneliness at the center of all this oppositional behavior should come as no surprise to anyone—from a very early point in the novel, Tracker's adopts as a catchphrase the saying "nobody loves no one", which should really tell you all you need to know about him. But this doesn't make him a particularly original character, nor does it allay the frustration of watching him pick pointless fights that end up preventing the actual story from happening.

(Another issue with Tracker is the fact that he has serious problems with women, and particularly women with authority and power. That he is called out on this attitude by several characters, that the accusation of misogyny clearly bothers him even as he can't entirely refute it, and that he even seems to make some progress towards a more healthy approach in the book's final chapters, are indications that James has given his protagonist this character trait with deliberate intent. But this still means that we spend some six hundred pages in the head of a man who views any woman with power as an enemy and seeks to undermine her. In addition, the novel's plot can't seem to avoid validating Tracker's attitude—most of the women he interacts with do end up being villains, and almost all of them are dead, defeated, or outsmarted by the end of the book.)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes a more conventional shape in its middle segment, after Tracker gets sufficiently over himself to allow the quest to start. Joining a band of travelers that includes a witch, a giant, and one of his oldest enemies, he traverses the book's fantasy-world map in search of the missing child. (Oddly enough, it's in these chapters that Leopard disappears for what feels like a very weird and underexplained reason; perhaps this will be elaborated on in the sequels, which are supposed to cover the novel's events from a different character's point of view.) These chapters deploy a lot of classic epic fantasy tropes while also making tremendous use of the novel's African setting and James's research into it. We travel to walled cities, dusty archives, mysterious forests where giant spiders roam, and a network of magical doors that transport people instantaneously across the novel's fantasy map.

Through it all, James's rich, sometimes overheated language gives the novel a personality all its own, while also sometimes making it a bit of a slog. He's great at capturing the sense of a place—the conformity and legalism of the city of Kongor, or the stratified walled city of Malakal, where concentric walls divide the social classes from one another. He's equally good at inventing fantasy monsters (or repurposing them from African folklore) to haunt, attack, and viciously kill members of the party. But all that richness can come to feel overbearing, even in the more straightforward chapters of the novel's middle segments in which the plot proceeds in a fairly orderly manner.

It's also in these chapters that the novel introduces its first genuinely likable character, the prefect Mossi. A guardian of the peace in Kongor, where the missing child was kidnapped, he starts out investigating Tracker and eventually joins the mission after the villain's tendrils turn out to have infested his police department. He is almost immediately positioned as Tracker's potential love interest, and James's handling of their burgeoning romance is affecting if a bit on the predictable side. What's more important is how Mossi brings Tracker out of himself, forcing him to acknowledge his failings and try to work on them, and encouraging him to reach out to others and own his feelings when he experiences loss and grief. (The fact that Tracker is gay is introduced with little fanfare very early in the novel, and what's mainly interesting about it is how different communities in the novel's setting have various attitudes towards homosexuality and other forms of queerness, from total acceptance to violent persecution.)

The only problem with Mossi is that he is so perfect and so nice that one very quickly starts gaming out when his inevitable death will happen. And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with Black Leopard, Red Wolf as a whole. The only things that are surprising about this novel are the worldbuilding details that draw on a cultural and folklore tradition that most epic fantasy doesn't look to. And while that's something to be celebrated, it doesn't make the novel as a whole particularly gripping.

While reading, I found myself thinking of Samatar's The Winged Histories (2016), which also draws strongly on core epic fantasy tropes like lost princes, hardened warrior women, and mysterious monsters, but uses them to poke at the genre's conventions and say interesting things about history, legend, and imperialism. The contrast feels even more striking given that Samatar and James both deploy the same plot point—apparently taken from a real Ghanian social convention—in which the king is traditionally succeeded by his sister's son, and imagine a disruption of the social order when one king decides to establish his own dynasty.

Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (2015) is another work to which I found myself comparing this novel, and here the similarities are even more profound. Like Black Leopard, Red Wolf, it depicts a doomed, passionate gay romance set against an epic fantasy backdrop, plays a lot of games with dialect that challenge readers' assumptions about what epic fantasy characters are "supposed" to sound like, and revels in overheated descriptions of squelchy, bloody battles with fantasy monsters. And in every case, it does these things to much greater effect as both a piece of storytelling and an investigation of the genre. So much of what James has done in this novel has been done better, and more effectively (not to mention at a shorter length) by other authors.

On the other hand, maybe this is me blaming James for writing the book he wanted to write, not the one I wanted to read. There is, however, a moment at the end of Black Leopard, Red Wolf where it feels like the book and I might be looking for the same thing. The tale of the quest for the missing child has concluded, but the novel still has at least a hundred pages left to go. And we still haven't learned why Tracker is being subjected to interrogation in the framing story. When he starts the next chapter of his story, he is a hardened man, even more detached from his emotions than he was at the beginning of the book. It's not hard to guess what has happened—think, basically, of the most banal motivation one can give a male character in an epic fantasy tale—but what's interesting is the suggestion of the shape James is about to give his story. Throughout the novel there have been hints of a greater struggle happening out of Tracker's and our view—a looming war, a succession struggle, public disputes over the continued role of slavery, warnings of danger coming from the west. But in its final chapters, instead of plugging into these currents and turning Tracker into a player in a wider narrative, the novel instead has him turn inwards, rejecting any allegiance except to his quest for vengeance, any consideration except his own grief and pain.

So, in its final pages, Black Leopard, Red Wolf becomes something that one doesn't tend to see in epic fantasy. Not a battle between good and evil, not a rollicking adventure in which mercenaries face off against horrors for little more than a payday, and not a Game of Thrones-esque geopolitical struggle. It is, instead, the story of a character, the tale of a broken man who, for a short time, was able to overcome his flaws and make a decent life for himself, and then lost it all. The novel's opening line—"The child is dead. There is nothing left to say."—reminds us that Tracker's quest will fail, and the rest of the story is merely elaborating on what that failure means and how it came about. That could be an interesting thing to do within the confines of this genre, reminding us that its characters are people, that their suffering isn't simply plot fodder, and that some wounds can't be healed with redemptive violence.

But of course, there are two more volumes to come in this trilogy, and it seems unlikely that Tracker will not appear in them, and thus that this is the end of his story. I suspect that I won't understand James's project with this story—and with this genre—until I've read all three volumes of the trilogy, and to be honest, based on my experience reading Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I'm not sure I feel very motivated to continue with it. I wish I had a stronger sense, coming out of this novel, of what it was trying to accomplish with this story, and whether its aims are something that is of interest to me.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

About a week ago, critic Todd VanDerWerff published an interesting article about spoiler culture and how it has changed, and been changed by corporate interests. His argument—which I find indisputable—is that companies have started using spoiler-mania as a way of drumming up enthusiasm for their products, creating the impression that you must watch a movie or a TV episode immediately, or risk losing all enjoyment from it through spoilers. What's particularly odd about this phenomenon, as VanDerWerff observes, is that it's often deployed to talk up works that aren't particularly spoilable—no major plot twists, no sudden betrayals or revelations, just the normal progression of story—to the point where even anodyne reactions like "there's a great fight scene!" or "I liked it" are perceived as something that can ruin your viewing experience. And that, ultimately, is what these works become. Not a story, not a chapter in a narrative, but an experience.

It's obvious why VanDerWerff published his essay last week, just days before the release of Avengers: Endgame, which is being billed as the concluding chapter of what is now apparently called the Infinity Saga (I am never calling it that, FYI). For weeks now, news stories have been coming out about the lengths to which directors Joe and Anthony Russo went to prevent plot details from the movie from leaking out, down to withholding the full script from most of the cast, and even giving some actors pages that only contained their lines, and only a few hours before shooting[1]. If you're like me, and you thought Avengers: Infinity War was, to quote myself, "barely even a movie", this probably wasn't the most enticing news. You probably went into Endgame thinking of it as the sort of experience you just want to get through.

Which turns out to be unfair, because Endgame might just be the least experience-esque of the Avengers movies. To be clear, I'm not saying that it is a great, or even particularly good, movie. Quality-wise, Endgame is... nice. It's better than most Avengers movies, maybe even better than the first (though I'm going to have to think about that, and I suspect I'll end up ranking it lower), but that still leaves it in the lower tiers of MCU movies. But it is by far the most plot-oriented of the team-ups—this is, for example, one of only a handful of MCU films to have a middle act. There are a lot of problems with it, including major plot holes, mishandled themes, an unwieldy running time, a deeply problematic ending, and one character death that is unbelievably misjudged. But unlike every other Avengers movie, Endgame doesn't feel like an excuse to spend tons of money to recreate the thrill of pounding your action figures together. You go into this movie expecting an experience, and instead you get a story.

One might argue we should have seen this coming. Infinity War was a relentless slog with too many characters and plotlines, but it left the MCU in the perfect position to tell an interesting story in its sequel. Not only are there fewer characters to keep track of[2], but for the first time, an Avengers film doesn't turn on destruction, on smashing big things into other, bigger things, but on finding a way to repair what has been broken. Perhaps the cleverest thing that Endgame does—and it is, I want to stress, quite shocking to me that I am using the word "clever" in the context of any MCU movie's plot—is to immediately get out of the way the most obvious response to Thanos erasing half the life in the universe. The solution that we all immediately thought of—steal the gauntlet from Thanos and use it to bring everyone back and defeat him—is prevented because Thanos predicted it, and used the gauntlet to rob the infinity stones of their power[3]. All that's left for the Avengers to do is fulfill Tony's promise to Loki from the first team-up film, killing Thanos in a completely insufficient act of revenge, after which they go home.

Flash-forward five years, and our heroes, nursing their grief and guilt, have mostly settled into post-snap lives. Some of these are genuinely affecting—Steve is working as a counselor for the still-shellshocked survivors; Natasha is coordinating intergalactic peacekeeping with the help of Nebula, Rocket, Okoye, Captain Marvel, and Rhodey while barely holding it together over the loss of friends and the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders; and Tony, having had a breakdown after his failure to defeat Thanos, has achieved a measure of peace, starting a family with Pepper and decisively putting the task of saving the world behind him. Others are gags that work to greater or lesser degrees—I was genuinely charmed by Professor Hulk, a midpoint between Banner and the smashier version of the Hulk who is surprisingly chill and happy-go-lucky; but I could have lived with a great deal less of depressed Thor, who has grown an epic beer belly and spends most of his days playing video games with some of his Thor: Ragnarok pals. And some are simply inexplicable—I don't think anyone, including quite possibly Jeremy Renner himself, was clamoring for a major Hawkeye subplot in which he becomes a vigilante who roams the world, murdering criminals who had the temerity to survive the snap while his family perished.[4]

Into this new normal erupts Scott Lang, who has finally emerged from the quantum zone where he ended up stuck at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Scott believes that he traveled through time, and that the same technology can be used to steal the infinity stones from the past and create a new gauntlet that could undo Thanos's snap. There follow some getting-the-band-back-together shenanigans, and some handwaving about the particular form of time travel the film has invented and its implications—the latter probably doesn't entirely hold together but also doesn't feel worth investigating. In general, these scenes embody the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. On the one hand, this is a much looser effort than previous Avengers films, and the extra breathing room does the story and characters good—watching everyone brainstorm the places in time where the infinity stones can be snatched is the most fun and most natural these characters have felt together since the party scene in Age of Ultron. But on the other hand, the impossibly high stakes, and the audience's awareness that for some of these characters, this is going to be the final adventure, give writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely permission to be sloppy. Endgame is overlong to the point of self-indulgence, and while we might forgive the film the desire to spend more time than it absolutely needs with characters who are about to be sent off, a lot of that extraneous runtime is instead expended on increasingly unfunny jokes about Thor's weight, or Hawkeye's journey into darkness.

All of this, however, is in service of getting us to what is clearly the film's heart (and yet another reason why the spoiler-mania surrounding it is absurd, because it should have been one of the film's main marketing points), a journey back through the Avengers' greatest hits, as our heroes travel back in time to events in Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World in order to grab the infinity stones. This is such an established story beat that there's probably a TV Tropes page for it, and it's kind of exciting watching the MCU reach for this type of storytelling—as if we were watching proper science fiction. But the execution is of variable quality. I've already made my views on the Thor subplot known, so the fact that his journey back to his least successful movie is designed to let his mother give him a pep talk about being himself and reaching for his inner goodness and heroism (in other words, the exact same character arc he's had three times already) did very little for me. On the other hand, I enjoyed some of the scenes in the background of Avengers, particularly a completely over-it Steve brawling with his earlier, more stuffed-shirt self. The joke about Professor Hulk having to pretend to be regular Hulk, and half-heartedly smashing things while complaining that it seems gratuitous, was also delightful. And since the Guardians movies have never given either character enough room to be a real person, it was good to see a more evolved, more confident Nebula trying to talk a Gamora who is still under Thanos's thumb into rebellion.

But this sequence also includes the film's absolute nadir, and what I truly believe is the most misbegotten storytelling choice in all the MCU. Anyone who remembers Infinity War will have already pricked up their ears during the planning sessions of the infinity stone heist, wondering what our heroes were planning to do about the pesky requirement to sacrifice a life in order to gain the soul stone. It's a reasonably smart decision to dispatch Clint and Natasha on that mission—the two Avengers who have the fewest immediate personal connections except with one another—and it comes as no surprise when they get into a fight over which one of them gets to sacrifice themselves.[5] But the thing is, who in their right mind would want Natasha to win (or rather lose) that fight?  Natasha is a founding Avenger, one of the MCU's most magnetic characters, and oh yeah, one of only a handful of female MCU headliners. Clint is... Clint. It would be one thing for Natasha to die saving the world. But to save Hawkeye?

And look, even if you're not as down on Hawkeye as I am, surely it's obvious how creepy and wrong everything about this scene is. To go back to the place where, a year ago, Gamora was sacrificed, and recreate that sequence, right down to the disturbingly romanticized image of Natasha's broken body—it filled me with disgust. I think it's clear that Endgame intends for there to be a contrast between the two deaths—Gamora is murdered in the pursuit of a goal she vehemently opposes; Natasha sacrifices herself in order to save her friend and the universe. But like so much else about this perennially mishandled character, the writing isn't there to support it. I don't think anyone involved in making Infinity War understood how viscerally disturbing Gamora's death was, especially for women in the audience—to be murdered by your abuser in what he claims to be proof of his love, and to have the universe itself validate that proof by giving him what he wants in exchange. Not enough work is done to differentiate Natasha's death from that earlier one. Like so much else that has been tried with the character since Age of Ultron, there's a solid idea there on paper that becomes horrifying in the execution because no one involved (except maybe the actress) really understands how any of these tropes play when they're applied to a female character. And the fact that unlike Gamora, there isn't even a woman left to mourn Natasha only drives home how much she has been instrumentalized for the sake of her male counterparts, and how little room was left for her own humanity.[6]

That bit of unpleasantness done away with, however, the Avengers return to the present with the infinity stones. And then Endgame does a second genuinely clever thing: the Avengers' plan works. They complete the gauntlet (along the way revealing that it takes great strength to activate and that anyone who isn't Thor or the Hulk would probably die from it; which seems pretty random, but, again, whatever) and with a snap of the finger everyone who was dusted by Thanos's snap is returned to existence. Only then does the shit hit the fan—Thanos of 2014, having discovered the time traveling Nebula and replaced her with his own, loyal version, has traveled to 2023 to attack our heroes, take the completed gauntlet from them, and start the whole thing all over again. And just as our heroes think that all is lost, a million portals open, as Stephen Strange teleports all the heroes who have been returned to existence, as well as the Wakandan army, the surviving Asgardians, the monks of Kamar-Taj, and Captain Marvel herself, to kick Thanos's ass.

And look, I'm not made of stone. It is genuinely moving when literally every superpowered person we've ever met in the MCU shows up to save the day. It's even more moving when Thanos nevertheless gains hold of the gauntlet and is about to destroy the whole universe with it, so Tony Stark grabs it from him and uses it to dust Thanos and his army at the cost of his own life, completing the self-sacrifice he attempted in Avengers. And this is the point where you have to decide what kind of fan you are, what kind of viewer you are. Taken on its own terms, this is a perfectly serviceable ending. It has grandeur, stakes, consequences. There are elegiac farewells and bittersweet partings. There is the promise of a bright future. It's a very appropriate chapter ending for the MCU and its eleven-year, 22-film project.  You could just leave it at that.

But if you're like me, you won't. At some point—maybe the next day, maybe on the way home from the movie theater, maybe even in the moment it happens—you'll have to wonder: wait, this was it? Isn't the way the Avengers defeat Thanos in Endgame basically identical to the way they lost to him in Infinity War, except with better logistics the second time around? And isn't logistics what Stephen Strange, who had the time stone and the ability to teleport people in Infinity War, would be perfect at? Wasn't this entire adventure just an awfully roundabout way of getting to a place where two beloved characters had to die in order to achieve something that was apparently just as achievable last year, before all this pain and suffering happened?

Once you start asking those questions, it's hard to stop. The fact is, once the gauntlet is assembled and in our heroes' hands, the film faces massive ethical and practical dilemmas that it is neither equipped to, nor particularly interested in, addressing. Why should the gauntlet only be used to resurrect those who vanished in the snap, for example? When Thor travels to his past and meets his mother hours before she's due to die in The Dark World, Rocket dissuades him from saving her by arguing that Frigga is "really dead", while the people who disappeared in the snap are only "sort of dead". Is that sort of hair-splitting really something we're comfortable with? What makes the people Thanos caused to crumble into dust more deserving of life than the ones he simply murdered, like Drax's family, Gamora's people, or the Asgardians? And even if you accept that you can't cancel every tragic death in history, what about the people who died as a result of the snap? As everyone pointed out after Infinity War, the consequences of suddenly removing half the people in the universe (or, as later statements from Marvel had it, half the biomass—so, animals, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.) would be a catastrophe almost equal to the snap itself. People would die in the millions, maybe even billions, from accidents, starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, suicide. How do our heroes justify not bringing any of them back?

And finally, what about the consequences of simply restoring everyone removed by the snap, to a world that has only just figured out how to feed, supply, and house the people it has left? Wouldn't the result, once again, be accidents[7], starvation, industrial collapse, wars, refugee crises, and probably also suicides, of people overcome by the cruelty and capriciousness of the ridiculous universe they live in? Obviously, a better use of the gauntlet would be to cancel out the last five years (which we know is possible because that's how Thanos was able to get the mind stone even after Wanda killed Vision to destroy it at the end of Infinity War). But that entire realm of possibilities is closed off by Tony, who doesn't want his daughter to be wished out of existence. Which is a sympathetic motivation, obviously, but not one that should be accepted without any discussion, as the film does.

When I wrote about Infinity War, I complained that its ending, in which the heroes fail with horrifying consequences, was clearly little more than sequel bait. The whole thing, including the deaths that took place in it, was obviously going to be rolled back in the next chapter. I wasn't alone in making that prediction, and I have to wonder if Markus and McFeely anticipated those criticisms, because they have clearly worked hard to make sure that the method they came up with to undo Thanos's evil leaves noticeable consequences on the world. It's just that those consequences are much greater, and more horrific, than the film is willing to acknowledge. The world that the Avengers "save" is possibly even more broken than it was before, and the note of triumph that concludes Endgame can only feel earned if you ignore that.[8] It only takes a bit of craning past the frame the film imposes, with its elegiac, extremely well-attended funeral for Tony Stark, to wonder whether the entire exercise wasn't more about salving our heroes' wounded pride than actually doing the most good.

Does this make Endgame a bad movie? I have no idea. I think we all know that going forward, the MCU isn't going to acknowledge any of the inherent problems with the film's ending, or even the trauma that the world endured during those five years that everyone was missing. Hell, it's kind of doubtful whether it's even going to come up that half the world is five years younger than they should be—how is it that all of Peter Parker's schoolfriends appear to be the same age in the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer, for example? It is possible to simply roll with what the film wants us to believe, not ask too many questions, and accept that most of it won't matter in the long run. I just think that maybe the MCU, and these characters, deserved better. When Infinity War ended, I just wanted to forget its existence and pretend that none of the team-up movies were real. But Endgame is something else. It's probably the best version of what an Avengers movie can be. And even that turns out to be silly, sloppily written, and to require massive amount of suspension of disbelief. Is it really too much to hope that Marvel stops debasing its characters and stories with events that can never live up to the MCU's individual pieces?[9]



[1] I can't decide if it's a testament to how well the impeccably cast roster of MCU stars know their characters that the film doesn't feel as cobbled-together and emotionally incoherent as this approach would seem to guarantee, or if it's a sign of how little the acting or dialogue matter to making these movies, and especially the more action-oriented team-ups, work.

[2] Though, as Samira Nadkarni points out, this also makes Endgame one of the whitest, most male-dominated MCU movies in some time.

[3] In other words, the resolution of a very similar storyline in the second season of DC's Legends of Tomorrow. Which I mention mainly because it gives me the opportunity to say that Legends has been firing on all cylinders for several seasons now and is a ton of fun. Also, that the DC superhero shows usually do a much better job of superhero team-ups featuring interesting plots, coherent character arcs, and palpable stakes than the Avengers movies.

[4] This is apparently a comics storyline, but in the context of the film, not nearly enough time is spent addressing the fact that Hawkeye has apparently become such a vicious murderer that Rhodey and Natasha start to seriously consider taking him out. When he inevitably rejoins the fold, his murderous past is barely brought up again, as if it were little more than a costume, an excuse for Hawkeye to get tattoos and an undercut. And, to quote Samira again, it feels very telling that this walk on the dark side involves Hawkeye traveling to Japan to kill non-white people.

[5] I'm not sure this is how the soul stone works, but whatever. Also, remember how the leitmotif of Infinity War was "we don't trade lives", in stark contrast with Thanos, who did sacrifice a woman he claimed to love as a daughter in order to achieve his monstrous goals, and everyone assumed that that difference was going to be crucial to how our heroes would defeat him? I guess we're just not doing that anymore.

[6] But hey, later in the movie there's a scene of the surviving female MCU heroines surrounding Captain Marvel as she prepares to fight Thanos, so girl power! This type of empty-calorie signaling is rather typical of Endgame, which has also been patting itself on the back for a scene in which a nameless one-off character mentions that he dates men, even as it features two exchanges—one between Nebula and Gamora, another between Sam and Steve—that basically amount to "as we both know, you're straight".

[7] Remember all those cars and planes crashing in the final minutes of Infinity War? Now imagine the people who disappeared from those vehicles reappearing, in the middle of highways, or 30,000 feet in the air.

[8] As does Steve's decision to take a well-earned rest and spend his life in the past, reuiniting with Peggy Carter. I am, however, mostly pleased by this development, because I've been predicting it for months, but I imagine the Steve/Bucky shippers must be royally pissed.

[9] Yes.  Yes it is.

Friday, April 05, 2019

A Political History of the Future: A People's Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

After a few months off, my series A Political History of the Future is back at Lawyers, Guns & Money.  My first column of 2019 discusses Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams's anthology A People's Future of the United States, in which some of the top names in genre writing are invited to imagine the future of America.
In his introduction to A People's Future (excerpted in The Paris Review) [LaValle] writes about his feeling that America is being poisoned by the stories it tells itself about itself, and of the need for different kinds of stories if it’s to imagine and bring forth a different kind of future. As its title suggests, LaValle offers up A People's Future as an homage to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (1980 and subsequent editions), which was itself an attempt to change the American narrative. LaValle and Adams have assembled a roster of some the hottest names in genre, people like N.K. Jemisin and Charlie Jane Anders whose writing has always been strongly political and inflected by the issues of the day, and charged them with imagining America's future along lines that acknowledge its current problems.
The results veer in a lot of different directions, and as I write in the piece the story I ended up liking the best was the one that actually felt the most rooted in the present.  But it's still a worthwhile read if, like me, you want your science fiction to address the many burning political issues we're faced with.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, at Strange Horizons

My first Strange Horizons review of 2019 looks at Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman, a near-future-set novel of science and research in the vein of Gwyneth Jones's Life.  As I write in the review, Schulman covers a wide range of subjects, but while each is fascinating in its own right, she struggles to tie them all together into a single theme.
In the appendix to her fourth novel, Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman lists the many scholarly works she consulted in the course of her writing. These cover a wide range of subjects, from the lives and communities of great apes, to the study of flint-knapping, to research into pain and the medical community's attitude towards it. It's an eclectic bunch of topics that epitomizes both the novel's charms and its frustrations. Theory of Bastards is about so many fascinating things that one can't help being carried along by them (and by Schulman's gift for dramatizing these subjects and fitting them into her story's framework). But eventually one comes to wonder what the novel itself is trying to say with all its erudition. This is a question that becomes even more pressing when Theory of Bastards reinvents itself halfway through, becoming something completely different than what it started as.
Despite this scattershot quality (and despite the sudden lurch into post-apocalypse in its second half), Theory of Bastards is worth looking out for, especially if you're interested in the too-small category of books about female scientists, about women's struggles with the medical establishment, and about women whom reviewers tend to dub "unlikable".