Friday, August 09, 2019

A Political History of the Future: Years and Years at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My series A Political History of the Future is back at Lawyers, Guns & Money, with a discussion of Russell T. Davies's miniseries Years and Years.  The series, which aired on the BBC in the spring and on HBO earlier this summer, follows the life of a single British family over the next decade, during which they cope with climate change, economic collapse, the growing insularity of Western nations, and the increasing appeal of substanceless fascism at the ballot box.
For all that its characters may feel helpless to change the course of history, Years and Years is a story about how people—again, mostly comfortable people like the Lyonses—let history happen, and even chivvy it along a course they know is no good because doing so makes them feel powerful or good about themselves. We know Daniel and his husband Ralph (Dino Fetscher) are in trouble when the latter starts entertaining conspiracy theories, including flat-earthism. When Daniel protests that he and Ralph have flown to India, Ralph simply replies "I'm just keeping an open mind". But it's clear from the way he says it that what he's actually doing is choosing not to think. Later in the series, Stephen interviews for a job with someone from his old life as a financial advisor, now a shady government contractor, and realizes that a condition of getting the job is that he agree that the nuclear attack that happened at the end of episode 1—an attack in which Edith, who rushed to the site to retrieve video proof of the event, sustained a lifespan-reducing dose of radiation—never happened. Denying reality becomes a tool of power, and a way for citizens to buy into that power, to preserve their comfort and sense of security in the face of an increasingly hostile world.
A lot of the discussions I've seen of Years and Years have stressed its low-key horror, the way it piles just-around-the-corner calamities on its characters.  But to me the crux of the show is less in the awfulness of the future it predicts, and more in the way that it insists that the people enduring that awfulness still have the ability--and the responsibility--to stand against it.  Neither nihilistic nor starry-eyed, the miniseries instead insists that the future of the world lies with ordinary people--if we can just get off our asses and do something.  The result is one of the most exhilarating, and essential, pieces of genre storytelling I've seen this year.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

My Worldcon Schedule

Worldcon is nearly upon us, and I will be attending this year's convention in Dublin.  With the final program now published, here are the events I'll be participating in.  If you're planning to attend, I hope to see you at some of these, or just around.

(UPDATE: There has been a change to my schedule. I am off the national identity panel on Sunday, and on a panel on the work of Jordan Peele around the same time.)

  • Narrative and the Dollar: Understanding Contemporary TV
    17 Aug 2019, Saturday 12:00 - 12:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)

    TV has always been at the mercy of commercial imperatives. On network TV, the "best" episodes air during "sweeps" weeks, and plot structured around ad breaks. On streaming services, shows experiment with new structures, but with mixed results. How should viewers adjust their expectations? What is "good TV" today? Will "TV novels" come to dominate? Is there still a role for the anthology show?

    Mr Adam Whitehead, Abigail Nussbaum, Dr Douglas Van Belle (Victoria University of Wellington), Mr Greg Chivers (HarperVoyager / Discovery Channel) (M), Michael Cassutt

  • Protest and resistance in fiction and reality
    17 Aug 2019, Saturday 17:30 - 18:20, Stratocaster BC (Point Square Dublin)

    The last decade has repeatedly demonstrated the central role of protest in politics. From the Women's March in DC to the Arab Spring, protests have played a vital role in shaping the political conversation. How does SF reflect this reality? Is there room for protest in heroic fiction, or do these types of stories only leave space for violent resistance?

    Abigail Nussbaum, Mary Anne Mohanraj (Speculative Literature Foundation / University of Illinois at Chicago), Ranylt Richildis (Lackington's Magazine) (M), Paolo Bacigalupi, Veronica Roth

  • How national identity is portrayed in SFF
    18 Aug 2019, Sunday 14:00 - 14:50, ECOCEM Room (CCD)

    Speculative fiction can offer authors a space, removed from reality, to consider questions of national identity. How do nations respond to disasters? Does the author use cultural stereotypes as a shorthand for national identity and where have these come from? The panel will discuss the ways SFF provides a window into how nations view themselves and others and what that means in a broader context.

    Abigail Nussbaum (M), T. R. Napper, Anna Gryaznova LL.M. (National University of Science and Technology MISiS (Moscow, Russia)), Dr Bradford Lyau (Globosocks LLC)

  • Get us out of the Twilight Zone: the work of Jordan Peele
    18 Aug 2019, Sunday 13:30 - 14:20, Point Square - Stratocaster BC

    With two extraordinary films and a reimagined Twilight Zone under his belt, Jordan Peele has made a huge impact as a weird/horror visionary over the last few years. This panel will discuss Peele’s work: what it says, how it works, and why it matters.

    Chris M. Barkley (M), Dr. Andrew M. Butler (Canterbury Christ Church University), Dr Wanda Kurtçu (California State University, Hayward), Abigail Nussbaum

  • Holy forking shirtballs: The Good Place panel
    19 Aug 2019, Monday 13:00 - 13:50, Wicklow Hall 2B (CCD)

    Over three constantly inventive seasons, The Good Place has established itself as one of the best – if not the best – telefantasy shows airing right now. In this panel, fans will discuss what it does so well, the implications of the revelations at the end of season three, and hopes for the future – both narratively and philosophically.

    Alex Acks, Mr Ash Charlton (ACE TRAINING), Abigail Nussbaum (M), Jeffery Reynolds, Ginjer Buchanan (Penguin Random House)

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Review: Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson, at Strange Horizons

My review of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Moon appears today at Strange Horizons.  I was excited to finally get a chance to write at length about Robinson, whose recent writing has plugged into ideas about economics, government, and our response to climate change in a way that almost no other writer in the genre is doing.  New York 2140, for example, felt to me like an utterly vital novel, combining fury and optimism in its depiction of a damaged, post-climate-catastrophe future in which humans nevertheless manage to build a new, perhaps better way of life in the ruins of the old world.

It was a disappointment, then, to find Red Moon so comparatively muddled and unconvincing.  The novel, which starts on the moon but then slingshots back to Earth to discuss a future China and its role in creating a more equitable role for all people, juggles too many ideas and isn't terribly persuasive about any of them (at one point it's suggested that the problems with unrepresentative democracy might be solved using, I kid you not, blockchain).  Add to that the obvious hurdle of a white American like Robinson writing a novel that purports to give readers an in-depth look at China's history, culture, and national character, and you've got a work that leaves a reader feeling more dubious than invigorated.

This is also an opportunity for me to mention that Strange Horizons is running its annual fund drive, which is now about halfway to its goal.  Strange Horizons continues to be one of the top venues for in-depth, multifaceted reviews and criticism of SFF both new and old.  Some highlights of the magazine's non-fiction publishing in the last year include: Gautam Bhatia's thoughtful examination of Marlon James's Black Leopard, Red Wolf; Mazin Saleem's funny and smart evisceration of Netflix's anthology show Love, Death & Robots; the fantastic roundtable I participated in, along with Zen Cho and Charlotte Geater, discussing Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin.  And, of course, Erin Horakova's gargantuan, wide-ranging "Erin Groans: A Gormenvast Review of Every Adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Titus Books".  That last one is a reminder of the unique service Strange Horizons provides to the genre community, and why it's important to continue supporting it.  And, of course, the magazine also publishes fiction, poetry, articles, and its ongoing project 100 African Writers of SFF.  If you can, please consider supporting it.

Finally, we are now just three weeks from the deadline to vote for this year's Hugo awards, in which Strange Horizons has been nominated for the semiprozine award.  This is the magazine's ninth or tenth nomination, but amazingly, it has never once won the award.  I'd like 2019 to be the year that changes, so if you're voting for the Hugos, please consider placing Strange Horizons first in this category.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Jessica Jones, Season 3

The third season of Jessica Jones was released with little fanfare this weekend, bringing both the series and the Netflix MCU to a close.  It's not a very good season of television (and the things about it that are good were done better in the flawed but still quite interesting second season), but watching it can help clarify some points for those of us who have watched the Netflix MCU's experiment with "street level" superheroes, who have adult problems and psychologies, curdle into a mass of samey conversations, runaround plots, and indifferent visuals.  Put simply, the third season of Jessica Jones makes a powerful argument that we never really understood what this show was about.  And what it was actually trying to accomplish seems, in retrospect, not really worth the attempt.

The third season picks up some time after the end of the second.  Jessica is still estranged from Trish following the latter's murder of Jessica's violent, murderous mother Alisa, and from Malcolm because... well, mainly because he's a sanctimonious asshole.  Malcolm is now working for Jeri Hogarth as less an investigator than a fixer, who cleans up the messes of Jeri's rich, entitled clients. But he has a closet full of designer suits and an up-and-coming lawyer girlfriend, Zaya (Tiffany Mack), to make up for it.  Trish, as a brief moment at the end of the second season seemed to promise, has developed superpowers as a result of undergoing a similar procedure to the one Jessica did as a girl.  She has enhanced speed and agility, and wastes no time in remaking her life in her quest to become a crimefighter.  But as we see in the first of two episodes told from Trish's perspective, her judgment remains severely flawed.  She quickly gets herself in trouble for injuring a fleeing cellphone thief, and can't understand why Jessica won't just "get over" Alisa's murder (which she boasts about to Malcolm).  The sisters' paths only cross again when Jessica is stabbed by a masked assailant, an attack that turns out to have actually been aimed at her latest one-night-stand, Erik (Benjamin Walker).  Also an enhanced person, Erik has the ability to sense "darkness" in people who have committed horrible crimes, and uses it to blackmail them.  One of his targets, Gregory Sallinger (Jeremy Bobb), turns out to be a serial killer, who fixates on Jessica when she tries to protect Erik, becoming obsessed with the notion that she has "cheated", and doesn't deserve her fame and renown, because she hasn't done anything to earn her superpowers.

To give the third season its credit, it does something I really hadn't expected it to do.  As I wrote in my review of the show's second season, I thought Jessica's estrangement from Malcolm and Trish was entirely the correct decision on her part, given how unhealthy and codependent their behavior towards her had become.  I was concerned that subsequent Jessica Jones stories would hurry to reunite the trio and sweep under the rug the fact that the show's heroine deserves so much better than so-called friends who criticize and belittle her when she doesn't react the way they think she should to their (often extreme) behavior.  Instead, the season takes Malcolm and Trish's flaws seriously.  Malcolm finally takes a long look at himself and recognizes that the problems in his life are nobody's fault but his own.  While he and Jessica don't go back to the relationship they had (probably for the best given how needy he was with her; also, Jessica's new assistant Gillian (Aneesh Sheth) is not only refreshingly chill but a welcome instance of transgender representation) they do manage to forge a professional relationship with stronger boundaries and something like mutual respect.

Trish, meanwhile, ultimately becomes the season's villain.  Though she and Jessica do reach a detente in the season's middle stretch, teaming up to take down Sallinger, they find themselves increasingly at odds as that investigation derails and it becomes clearer that he isn't going to pay for his crimes.  The more she engages in vigilantism, the more fevered Trish becomes in her belief that she has the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner, and that her black-and-white morality is a foolproof moral guide--as opposed to Jessica, whom she comes to see as misguided, and even unheroic, for holding back on unleashing violence on "deserving" targets.  That conviction is bolstered when Sallinger murders her mother and then blackmails Jessica into destroying the only piece of evidence against him with a photograph that proves Trish is the vigilante who beat him nearly to death in response.  By the end of the season, Trish has teamed up with Erik to track down and "punish" his former blackmail targets, but ends up killing several of them, and then brutally murders Sallinger even after Jessica has secured proof of his crimes and handed him over to the police.  Jessica is finally forced to conclude that her sister is beyond saving, exposing her as the vigilante who has been terrorizing New York and squaring off against her when Trish tries to escape the city.  The season--and the show--ends with Trish being carted off to the Raft, the MCU's Guantanamo-esque prison for enhanced people.

This is, to be clear, not an inherently terrible idea, and especially as a story for Jessica Jones, who has been characterized almost from day one by her inability to give up on the people she cares about, no matter how far gone they are.  Given that the second season revolved around Jessica's refusal to hand her mass-murdering mother over to the authorities, even going on the run with her, it's obviously a sign of growth that she's able to let go of Trish and fights to bring her in.  But there are immense problems with the execution, first when it comes to Trish herself.  Janet McTeer gave an incredible performance in Jessica Jones's second season, conveying not only Alisa's volatility and potential for violence, but the depth of her love for Jessica, and her fierce desire to protect her daughter.  You could sense that Jessica got something out of their time together even as her determination to keep her mother out of prison became more unrealistic.  As Trish, Rachael Taylor has never found that depth of emotion.  She comes off as whiny and self-absorbed even in those moments when Trish might be excused for behaving irrationally, as when she finds the souvenir Sallinger has left her of her mother's dying moments.  Long before Jessica gives up on her, the audience will probably be over Trish and the two women's dysfunctional bond.

Sallinger himself is an even bigger problem.  It's hard to imagine why the show would have chosen to deploy yet another psychopathic killer with the memory of Kilgrave still so fresh in the viewers' minds, but Sallinger isn't even a particularly interesting example of the type.  He reads like a cross between Captain Marvel's Yon-Rogg and The Incredibles's Syndrome--someone deeply unimpressive who is convinced that he is entitled to the heroes' time and attention, and resorts to violence to get it.  But instead of sweeping him aside as such characters deserve, Jessica Jones gives him center stage.  We're expected to listen to his endless monologues about Jessica's unworthiness of the title "hero", and even to take them seriously (Jessica herself obviously takes them seriously, because of her deep-seated self-loathing; but this only makes her seem sad, rather than increasing Sallinger's malevolence). 

Even worse is the way the show makes Sallinger effectively untouchable by the police, possessed of a preternatural ability to avoid leaving any evidence of his crimes.  I was reminded of the way Daredevil's third season was eventually forced to posit that Wilson Fisk had infiltrated every level of government, law enforcement, and the legal system in order to justify Matt Murdock's dilemma over whether to kill him or allow him to get away with absolutely blatant crimes.  But without Vincent D'Onofrio's charisma to fuel the character, it's impossible not to notice the writers' finger on the scales.  We're meant to be frustrated that Jessica won't take justice into her own hands and kill Sallinger herself, as she ultimately did to Kilgrave.  But the character is so unimpressive that our frustration turns instead to the show's obvious manipulations--especially since, once the plot requires Jessica to defeat Sallinger, it has her entrap him into a confession with a tactic so obvious that the genius he allegedly was in the season's earlier episodes would surely have seen through it.

It is, in other words, a dud of a storyline, and what's most interesting about it is how it forces one to reevaluate what Jessica Jones was actually about.  Most of us--myself very much included--read the show's first season as a smart, horrifying parable about sexual abuse, how society enables it, and how victims struggle to recover from it.  Looking back, however, it's clear that already in that season there were signs of the show's real preoccupation, with toxic relationships and manipulative behavior.  Alongside obvious abusers like Kilgrave and Will Simpson, the show suggested that abusive behavior existed on a spectrum that also included people like Jeri Hogarth, who cheated on her wife, gaslighted her, and finally sicced Kilgrave on her in an attempt to get out of a pricey divorce settlement.  Or Trish's mother, who abused her daughter physically and emotionally, and left her vulnerable to sexual exploitation and a drug habit.

In its later seasons, Jessica Jones leaned into this theme, not only with storylines for Trish, Malcolm, and Jeri that stressed their tendency to form unhealthy, manipulative bonds with people they identified as vulnerable to such exploitation, but by repeatedly confronting Jessica with her own susceptibility to such relationships.  Kilgrave--an obviously unfit target for Jessica's affections, as even she was able to recognize--is replaced with Alisa, someone who loves Jessica and wants what's best for her, but who also requires a complete upheaval of Jessica's life.  And just as Jessica begins to accept, in the third season, that Trish's murder of Alisa might have ultimately been for the best, Trish attacks Sallinger and becomes exactly the kind of burden that Alisa was--the scenes in which Jessica whisks Trish away from the scene of her crime, cares for her, and starts to plan Trish's escape from the city, feel uncannily like a reflection of similar scenes from the second season, with Trish having become exactly the burden she claimed to have been saving Jessica from.  By the end of the season, a wiser Jessica extracts herself even from her burgeoning romance with Erik, recognizing that though he's a better person than her sister and mother, and is trying to become better still, he's also got a toxic past that she'd do well to steer clear of.

As narratives of growth go, however, this is a rather limited--not to say depressing--one.  In the comics, Jessica Jones grows past her traumas, learns to trust again, finds a new community, and starts a family.  In the show, the best she can do, it seems, is rid herself of one level of abusers after another.  And as for any hope of doing better, it's hard to harbor it, given how completely the show associates toxicity and abuse with even the most rational of desires.  Trish wants to be a hero, and this leads her, one inevitable step after another, to becoming, as she puts it, "the bad guy".  Malcolm wants his own PI firm (and, more broadly, to escape from his past as a junkie and Kilgrave's henchman), so he agrees to do even the most depraved, immoral things Jeri demands of him in order to bulk up his reputation and skills.  And Jeri, still reeling from her ALS diagnosis last season, wants not to die alone.  So she tracks down her first love, Kith (Sarita Choudhury), and tries to detach her from her husband, using increasingly underhanded methods that eventually lead the man to take his own life.

Against all these immoral graspers and strivers we have Jessica, who wants literally nothing but to be left alone to drink and pity herself.  Even the one genuinely terrible thing Jessica has done over the course of the show's run--lying to Luke Cage about her role in his wife's death and striking up a romantic relationship with him--was a rare instance of her wanting something for herself.  It's hard to escape the conclusion that in the world of Jessica Jones, any desire to better your situation, have more in your life than you currently have, or even make a human connection, can only be sinister, and, if left unchecked, will lead to calamity.  The possibility that people can want things and work towards them without hurting others (or even learn from their mistakes and do better) is given almost no space in the show, and as a result the only form of growth available to Jessica also ends up isolating her from everyone who cares about her.  The series's ending is meant to be triumphant--Jessica packs her bag and prepares to leave town, but then she hears Kilgrave's voice praising her for "giving up" and decides to stay in New York instead.  But to me, it seemed like a fresh start in a new city was exactly what Jessica needed, and it's hard to imagine how New York could still be good for her when literally everyone she knows there is toxic to her in one form or another.

It would be one thing for the show to make this argument if I thought it realized just how bleak and depressing it was.  But it feels more like a reflexive echo of the MCU's general hostility towards change and growth.  I've spoken in the past about how films in this universe tend to devour themselves, and personal growth is often a casualty of that tendency.  Tony Stark destroys his suits as a sign that he's ready to be more than a warrior at the end of Iron Man 3, but the Avengers movies still need him in armor, so he stays in it until the bitter end.  Steve Rogers forges new friendships and makes a home for himself in the future after the loss of his world at the end of The First Avenger, but Avengers: Endgame sends him back to the past, to be with a woman who has missed the last decade of his life.  The Netflix shows are the only MCU stories that have had a similar kind of longevity, not to mention being far more character-focused than other MCU TV series.  So it's notable how they repeatedly prevent their characters from achieving growth.  Matt Murdock is still spinning around the same simplistic, nonsensical "can I murder my enemies (henchmen don't count)?" dilemma he was struggling with in 2015.  Luke Cage can only change for the worse, going from hero to mob boss.  And Jessica Jones can't make meaningful improvements in her life, because... well, because apparently someone thinks that if she did, she wouldn't be Jessica Jones anymore.

It's hard to know how to sum up a show that started out being hailed as a major feminist accomplishment and ends with its two female protagonists at one another's throats, or with the argument that its title character is better off without any of the interesting, complicated female characters the show had previously surrounded her with in her life.  Jessica Jones became a victim of the Netflix MCU's identity crisis.  Neither a character drama nor an action story, it ended up doing neither one particularly well.  If it doesn't quite lose its heroine in the process, this is only because of Krysten Ritter's performance, increasingly the only thing keeping the show grounded.  But as the screen fades to black for the last time, one can't help but feel that this is for the best--this character deserves better than her writers were ever going to give her, and now we can imagine that she will get it.

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.