Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2017 Edition

I've been doing these fall TV reviews for more than a decade, and every year they feel less relevant, as either a guide to shows that people might like to watch or a commentary on the state of TV.  It's not that I believe that network TV is no longer capable of producing worthwhile, exciting fare--after all, my favorite show currently airing, whose second season is somehow managing to top even its stellar first one, is a network sitcom.  But pretty much everything the networks have trotted out this fall, good and bad, has felt inessential, like retreads of old ideas and trends that aren't really worth taking the time to talk about.  My focus in this post, then, is on the one thing that makes this fall unusual--the fact that in the space of a month, we've seen the premieres of four different SF shows.  Not all of them are good, but their subject matter means that all of them are sufficiently far from the standard network template that I can find something to say about them.
  • The Orville - By now you've probably heard that Seth MacFarlane's new space-set show is not, as you might expect from its description, appearance, and MacFarlane's involvement, a parody of Star Trek, but an hour-long adventure show that is entirely earnest in its use of Star Trek's tropes and conventions.  This, however, doesn't even come close to capturing the strangeness, and the awkwardness, of what MacFarlane has produced with The Orville.  Watching it feels like what I imagine it would be like if you could follow along and watch--but never participate--in someone else's not-very-sophisticated but extremely well-funded Star Trek LARP.  As a television show, The Orville is bad--the storytelling is slow and dull, the dialogue is stilted and full of infodumps (which none of the actors know how to deliver), the characters are barely there--but one feels almost embarrassed to point this out, as if by doing so you're interrupting someone else's fun.  In all my years of watching way too much TV, I have never encountered a show that gave off so pronounced an impression of being completely uninterested in me or any other member of the audience, of existing solely so that its creator--MacFarlane, as Ed Mercer, the newly-minted captain of the titular ship--could cosplay in his favorite fictional universe.

    As a Star Trek fan myself, this is an impulse that I might be expected to sympathize with.  But one of the very first things The Orville reveals, once you get past the strangeness of its project, is how shallow MacFarlane's take on Star Trek actually is.  Oh, the look is all there--the costumes, cityscapes, and spaceships all look exactly like what you'd get if you took the aesthetic of The Next Generation and updated it to keep up with 2017 fashions and production values--and the terms are all easily recognizable--instead of the Federation you've got the Union; instead of Klingons you've got a species whose name I didn't even bother to learn, but who cares, they're Klingons.  And in interviews, MacFarlane has spoken about his desire to return to the "optimistic" type of space exploration stories that Star Trek specialized in.  But the actual stories showing up on screen contain none of the depth or wit that made Star Trek actually good, and the prevailing emotion in the show is less optimism than blandness.  Star Trek has a reputation for being sterile, for ignoring the real messiness of human life and relationships in its zeal to depict a future in which so many (but by no means all) of the sources of human misery had been eliminated.  Leaving aside for a moment whether that's an accurate perception, The Orville's solution to this alleged problem only reveals what a depth of emotion there was in the series it takes off from, and how insufficient MacFarlane's "modernized" take on it is.  The characters on The Orville aren't messy and human; they're shallow and immature.  And not even in fun ways--if the show were more strongly comedic, it might be possible to forgive the fact that its characterization comes down to having the cast speak in 21st century slang and make ever-so-slightly risque jokes.  But given its earnest tone, the thinness of its stories and character arcs is simply unforgivable.

    Instead of relying on humor, The Orville cadges storylines from both its obvious inspiration and real life--the second episode borrows from several top-notch Star Trek episodes when it reveals the existence of an alien zoo where sentient species are kept as displays; the third episode revolves around a female baby born to an all-male species, whose parents want to give her gender reassignment surgery.  But the handling of these ideas is invariably shallow, dull, and terrified of controversy--in the third episode, MacFarlane and his writers somehow manage to go a whole hour without ever mentioning the existence of intersex humans, much less suggesting that in The Orville's idealized future, such people might be considered unremarkable.  A similar shallowness afflicts the characters' relationships, the most important one of which is between Ed and his ex-wife, Kelly (Adrianne Palicki, who deserves so much better than this), who cheated on him and is now trying to make amends by helping to put his career, derailed by their divorce, back on track by serving as his second-in-command.  It's tempting to roll your eyes at such a hoary premise, but it might have been better if The Orville were wall-to-wall ex-wife jokes.  Instead, it plays the relationship between Ed and Kelly mostly straight, and in so doing draws attention to the fact that neither one of them behaves like anything resembling a human being, much less one wracked by the kind of deep feelings you'd expect the breakdown of a marriage following infidelity to arouse.  There's the slightest uptick in drama in the third episode, when we witness the conflict between the alien parents who disagree over whether to "conform" their female child, but still not at the level of getting us to care about these people, one of whom is a series regular.  I can almost sympathize with MacFarlane's desire to have another show like Star Trek on the air, but he's so bad at making a version of Star Trek that realizes why that show was special that he might as well not have bothered.

  • Star Trek: Discovery - An additional reason to resent the existence of The Orville is that it has exposed a surprisingly wide seam in Star Trek fandom who, like MacFarlane, seem to think that Star Trek's appeal begins and ends with nostalgia.  These are the people who tend to slag off the most recent addition to the actual Star Trek canon, Discovery, while claiming that The Orville represents "real" Star Trek.  Which is probably making me a lot more partial to Discovery than the show currently deserves.  Taken on its own merits, Discovery is a frustrating but fascinating mix of good and bad, Trek and not-Trek.  But what I appreciate about it is that, even in its worst moments, there is a palpable sense that the people creating it are trying to move Star Trek forward, both as an idea and a work of television.  Not everything they're doing works, and given how withholding the show's storytelling is, even four episodes in, it'll probably take me until the end of the season to decide where I come down on it.  But the idea that it is necessary to grow and change in order to keep telling a story about the infinite possibilities of the future is the most quintessentially Star Trek thing imaginable, so in that sense at least, Discovery is on the right track.

    Perhaps the most disorienting--and at the moment, un-Star Trek-like--thing about Discovery is that it's the story of a person, not a ship or a place.  Heroine Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) quickly goes from rising star in the Starfleet ranks to mutineer to a press-ganged crewmember on the titular ship, whose captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is conducting a mysterious and probably ill-fated experiment in new propulsion systems, and whose ship is filled with secrets and mysteries.  It's not how Star Trek is supposed to work--the ship is always supposed to be home; the crew, even if they disagree, are always supposed to be allies--and, especially for fans traumatized by the recent movies' tendency to throw every idea and principle that made Star Trek what it was out the window in service of a generic action plot and an unearned hero narrative, it's a worrying decision.  What keeps me feeling hopeful about Discovery is mainly Michael herself, who is a wonderful blend of intellect and temper, calm reasoning and self-destructive urges.  The badass/fuckup combination that failed so catastrophically with NuKirk works wonderfully here, mainly because the writing and the performance combine to create the impression that Michael is always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices--even the bad ones.  If she's not quite the Hornblower-esque figure that the original Kirk was, she's a fascinating modern variation on it--not least for being a black woman.

    The rest of the Discovery crew are still being revealed, but there's a similar complexity to some of the ones we've already met.  Commander Saru (Doug Jones), a member of an alien race who are congenitally fearful and pessimistic, but who is also decent and kind; Lieutenant Stamets (Anthony Rapp), a scientist who is caught between elation and disgust that the military are fast-tracking his project; Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman), Michael's roommate who appears to have some sort of anxiety disorder, but who is also ambitious, and willing to learn even from an unlikely source like Michael.  They all feel like people with their own points of view, and more importantly for a Star Trek context, like people who are used to looking at the universe like a puzzle, not an obstacle course.  There are other aspects of the show that feel more conventional, more like the action-adventure direction that the movies took--Lorca and the suggestion that he's a villain; his mean-tempered chief of security Commander Landry (Rekha Sharma); most of all, the show's take on the Klingons, who have so much less personality and individuality than they did in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.  As I've said, I probably won't know how I feel about Discovery until at least the end of the first season.  But what I do know is that there isn't another character like Michael Burnham on TV right now, nor another story that gives her the opportunity to be a badass, a scientist, and a political thinker.  That, to me, feels like Star Trek.

  • The Gifted - Fox's second X-Men series is a great deal less trippy and surreal than Legion, but has essentially the same premise--mutants fleeing for their lives and freedom from sinister government agencies.  The more conventional style and structure allows The Gifted to be more political, though I'm reserving judgment on how successfully.  In a world where draconian laws allow the government to detain and intern mutants, a middle class couple discover that their children have abilities, and go on the run, teaming up with the mutant underground.  The twist is that the family's father, Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) is a lawyer for the government whose job is to criminalize and prosecute mutants.  In fairness, The Gifted seems aware of the inherent problems of focusing its story about oppression on a former oppressor, who only realizes his actions were wrong when they affect his own family.  Already in the first episode there is evidence of subtle criticism of Reed and his wife Kate (Amy Acker, once again being unimaginatively asked to play weepy and overwhelmed), who are the kind of people who pride themselves on being decent and law-abiding, but who, when push comes to shove, genuinely don't seem to believe that the laws should apply to them.  An early scene sees Reed demand severe treatment of students who have bullied his son by, ironically enough, bullying one of his teachers, and when the scary Sentinel Services come to take away the Strucker children after an incident at their school, Kate, who had previously told Reed that he is "keeping us safe" from mutants, flatly denies that the government has any right to take her kids.

    It's still possible that The Gifted means for us to see this behavior as uncomplicatedly heroic, and not to notice the Struckers' privileged habits of thought (though the second episode sees Kate being confronted with the fact that she didn't care about how badly mutants were being mistreated until she realized her children were mutants).  But an additional way in which the show addresses its potential problems is by not focusing exclusively on Reed and Kate.  Equal time is given to the Strucker children, Lauren and Andy (Natalie Alyn Lind and Percy Hynes White), who have a nice big sister-little brother rapport, and who clearly don't entirely trust their parents--one of the best scenes in the pilot comes when Lauren reveals that she's been hiding her mutant abilities for three years because she didn't know how Reed and Kate would react.  The mutant underground are also given their own storyline, and though I could wish that the show were told more strongly from their point of view (not least because the underground is a great deal more diverse than the lily-white Strucker family), it doesn't treat them as a means to Reed's ends, nor as helpless victims who need him to save them.  A lot depends on how The Gifted will develop its story going forward--there's a lot of potential for the show to be a story about a racist who Learns Better, and by this point we should all be able to look around and see that it doesn't work that way.  But if the show continues to challenge Reed and Kate on their privilege, and to develop the storylines of the kids and the other mutants, it might end up having something interesting to say about its extremely familiar premise.

  • Marvel's Inhumans - There's probably nothing I can say at this stage that will add to the torrent of scorn that has rained down on Marvel TV's latest effort.  The only thing I can say is that it's all deserved.  Inhumans is a genuinely awful show: poorly written, indifferently acted, and with almost no characters that anyone could care about or be interested in.  What I will say is that I was a little surprised by this failure.  Scott Buck's last tour of duty with Marvel, Iron Fist, was pretty bad in its own right (though, amazingly, still better than Inhumans), but the one thing it got right was the twisted 1% family drama of the Meachums, Danny Rand's business partners.  Given that the one thing I kept hearing about the Inhumans was that they were a superpowered Dynasty, Buck seemed like the perfect fit.  And yet for some reason, he seems to have misplaced the instincts he had for that kind of soap opera storytelling when it came time to write Inhumans, trying to sell the show as a straightforward story of good versus evil, even as the actual characters and premise he presents completely fail to earn those designations.

    Inhumans is set in the secret city of Attilan on the Moon, where the part-alien title characters live in a society governed by a rigid caste system.  At puberty, young Inhumans are exposed to Terrigen Mist, which either transforms them and gives them powers, or leaves them human.  The latter group are then sent to toil in the mines, while the former live like kings--literally, as our heroes Black Bolt and Medusa (Anson Mount and Serinda Swan) rule over Attilan along with the rest of the royal family.  The obvious perversity of this arrangement is recognized only by Black Bolt's brother, Maximus (Iwan Rheon), who orchestrates a palace coup and gains the people's support by promising them new living space on Earth.  In other words, at the very least Inhumans should be a twisty tale of intrigue and double-crosses where no one is purely good or bad (though frankly, the only reason not to be completely on Maximus's side is that he keeps killing people who get in his way).  Instead, the show presents Black Bolt, Medusa, and their supporters as completely in the right, and Maximus's actions as completely evil, and leaves no space for the kind of political machinations its premise clearly demands.

    Of the cast, only Rheon and Swan seem to realize that they should be playing entitled, arrogant aristocrats, whose appeal comes not from being likable but from total self-possession.  Even they, however, can't do much with the story or characters they've been given.  The show fares much worse with Black Bolt, who can't speak because his voice has terrible concussive properties.  Seemingly no thought has been given to how to convey the personality of a completely silent character, and so Maximus's accusation that Black Bolt is passive and unwilling to plan for the future end up carrying a lot of weight, further cementing the feeling that neither he nor his family deserve to win this particular game of thrones.  One imagines that, like The Gifted, the arc of this story will be for the "good" Inhuman characters to take the opportunity of having been humbled in order to Learn Better and then remake Inhuman society into a more equal place.  But, even if the execution so far were not so very bad, that feels like a waste of a good premise.  There's nothing wrong with a twisty soap opera, and the world of Marvel is obviously a rich setting for one.  Not everything needs to be about heroes and villains.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

New Scientist Column: Maggie Shen King, M.T. Anderson, and Dave Hutchinson

My latest column at The New Scientist has a relationship focus: in Maggie Shen King's debut novel An Excess Male, China's one child policy leads to a population of unmarriageable men who are encouraged to enter into polyandrous arrangements.  There's a definite whiff of The Handmaid's Tale wafting over this novel (which, along with last year's The Power, leads me to wonder if we're seeing a mini-trend of SF that recalls that classic, thirty years on), but what's most interesting about An Excess Male is that it isn't a dystopia, and remains intriguingly open-minded about the possibility of creating a good family in such an awkward situation.

Somewhat less hopeful about the possibility for romance in a futuristically altered world is M.T. Anderson's Landscape With Invisible Hand, his first foray back into YA fiction since the transcendent Octavian Nothing duology.  I describe the story as The Hunger Games meets Black Mirror's "Fifteen Million Merits", which is definitely a compliment.

I was less thrilled by Dave Hutchinson's novella Acadie.  Those looking for more Le Carré-esque spy-and-geopolitics shenanigans in the vein of Hutchinson's Fractured Europe books will find something very different.  One assumes that this was a deliberate choice on Hutchinson's part, but it pays off very few dividends in this case.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

It might seem a bit strange to say that The Stone Sky, the concluding volume of the Broken Earth trilogy, had a lot riding on it.  For the past two years, the SF field and its fandom have been falling over themselves to crown this trilogy as not just good, but important.  Both of the previous volumes in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, were nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo.  When The Fifth Season won the Hugo in 2016, it made Jemisin the first African-American (and the first American POC) to win the best novel category.  When The Obelisk Gate won the same award earlier this year, it was the first time that consecutive volumes in a series had won the Hugo back-to-back since, I believe, Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead thirty years ago.  That's probably not considered the best company nowadays, but it speaks to the kind of zeitgeist-capturing work that Jemisin is doing with this series.  In that context, the third volume might almost be looked at as a victory lap, just waiting to be showered with laurels.

To me, however, a great deal depended on the kind of ending Jemisin crafted for her story.  This was a bind she had set up for herself--one assumes in full knowledge--already in The Fifth Season's opening chapter, in which she ended the world.  Even in The Stillness, a planet (strongly implied to be a far-future Earth) wracked by geological instability and prone to "fifth seasons", in which ash released into the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions caused years-long winters, the supervolcano explosion that sets off the series's story was an anomalous event, one that would render the planet incapable of supporting life for millennia.  No amount of preparation or adherence to tradition on the part of the humans of the planet--whose entire culture is designed to survive Seasons--could save them for more than a generation or two.  What's more, Jemisin quickly reveals that not only was the supervolcano eruption (referred to as The Shattering) caused intentionally, but it was done as an act of defiance and revenge by an orogene, a member of a group who have the power to cause or quell geological instability, who are reviled, persecuted, hounded, abused, and murdered by the powerless (or "still") inhabitants of the Stillness.

So, Jemisin starts with a world that is not only doomed, but which doesn't really deserve to be saved, and any reader with even the slightest amount of genre reading protocols will naturally assume that the trajectory of her story will be to fix both of these things.  But, especially given how deeply The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate delve into the myriad injustices and cruelties that govern the Stillness, it's hard not to approach the end-point of that story with a bit of trepidation.  The Fifth Season was a portrait of how the society of The Stillness operated during normal periods, including the systems it had put into place to control and oppress orogenes--the institution of The Fulcrum, where young orogenes were trained, using techniques that liberally employed physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, to control their powers and make them "useful" to the world; and the caste known as The Guardians, who protect, police, and hunt down orogenes, developing sick, codependent bonds with their charges-cum-victims.  The Obelisk Gate shows us how society functions during a Season, and here too orogenes have no place.  One of the tasks of Guardians (who are revealed in this volume to be something akin to vampires, drawing sustenance from a substance found in orogenes' bodies) during a Season is to kill their charges, then go into hibernation until the Season ends.  As both books establish, orogenes are necessary--they quell instabilities that might lead to Seasons and make the Stillness livable--and yet they are also hated and abused.  It was difficult to imagine what solution Jemisin could come up with that would persuasively counter such entrenched, systemic hostility, especially at the same time as she constructs a more familiar quest narrative whose purpose is to save the world from the effects of the cataclysm she unleashed.

Does she manage it?  Yes and no.  One of the problems with writing about the Broken Earth books is that they're completely different works when viewed through the lens of worldbuilding and ideas, and through the lens of character and plot.  On the former level, these are some of the most important, groundbreaking genre books of the last decade.  On the latter, they often struggle and overreach.  (The reason, I think, that The Fifth Season is the best book of the three is that it's the one that achieves its plotting and characterization through worldbuilding, by using its three heroines as points of view to the Stillness's various dysfunctions, and following them as they navigate the systems intended to keep orogenes under control.)  The Stone Sky, like its predecessors, switches between several viewpoints.  In one storyline, Essun, heroine of the previous two books and renegade orogene, struggles with guilt over the multiple acts of violence and mass-murder she committed in her attempts to get out from under the Fulcrum and the Guardians' control.  She hopes to expiate her guilt by saving the world, recapturing the planet's moon, which was lost in the distant past and whose return might permanently quell the Stillness's instability.  In the second storyline, Essun's daughter, Nassun, is traveling with Schaffa, a former Guardian (who, unbeknownst to her, is the person who once hunted down Essun, leading to the death of her oldest child).  Betrayed by both her parents--her mother recreated the abusive training of the Fulcrum in her attempts to keep Nassun's orogeny under wraps, and her father murdered her younger brother when he couldn't exercise the same control--and appalled by the system of injustice and abuse that traps orogenes and stills alike, Nassun is traveling to the same place as Essun, with the intention of wresting from her control of the Obelisk Gate, the system of amplifiers that could allow Essun to catch the Moon when its orbit brings it back in range, but which Nassun intends to use to end the cycle of cruelty by ending all life on the planet.  Intercutting between mother and daughter is Hoa, a Stone Eater--a race of immortal, silicon-based aliens--who reveals to us how the broken system of the Stillness came into existence, and how the Moon was originally lost.

It's a lot, in other words--a quest and a family drama and a portrait of abuse and how people struggle (and sometimes fail) to live with the weight of it--and there isn't quite enough space to do it all in a way that feels organic.  One of the goals of the Broken Earth books is to chart the emotional toll that living under constant racism and abuse can take on a person, even when that person isn't a "sympathetic" victim--when they respond, as Essun and Nassun do, with indiscriminate violence.  It's a project that works fantastically well in The Fifth Season, but The Stone Sky, like The Obelisk Gate before it, ends up telling more often than it shows, especially when it comes to its characters' fraught, complicated emotional states.  These are narrated to us in the second person, in a device that ends up having a purpose but which, in the moment, feels awkward.  When the emotional climax of the novel--and the fate of the world--hangs on whether Essun can overcome her failures as a mother to reach out to her daughter, and whether Nassun can process her many traumas sufficiently to believe that the world might still be worth living in, the fact that we get total insight into both of their minds, with every single emotion and every single step of their decision-making process spelled out, ends up feeling curiously distancing.  It makes them feel less like people and more like cogs in a machine, who make decisions not because it makes sense for them as human beings but because that's what the plot needs them to do in that moment.

Take a slightly broader view, though, and that's exactly what they are.  If I'm lukewarm on the Broken Earth books as the story of individuals, I am all-in on them as the story of systems.  And as a story about the stories about those systems.  It is, in fact, one of the most remarkable traits of this series that no matter how many times you pull back from it, how many layers of metafiction you place between yourself and the text, it still has something eye-opening to say.  At the most basic level of the systems of its world, The Broken Earth is a story about how the Stillness is designed to both perpetuate and benefit from oppression.  But the books also contain and constantly reference the texts that teach the people of the Stillness how to function within that system, reminding us that it is the story the Stillness tells itself about itself that achieves its oppressive effect.  Pull back further, however, and it's easy to see that the Stillness is made of tropes--some of the most common tropes of genre writing, here taken to their horrific but entirely logical conclusions.  And then it becomes impossible not to see that those tropes are integral components of the stories that we tell ourselves, and that, just as they do in the Stillness, in our world those stories feed off, and into, racist and oppressive habits of thought.

You see this most obviously in the books' central conceit, the oppressed superpowered minority, the subject of so much hand-wringing and exasperation in genre and particularly comics fandom.  Most of fandom (and even some creators) seem to have reached the conclusion that The Mutant Metaphor doesn't work, that it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the kind of racism that exists in our world by comparing black people, LGBT people, immigrants, or Jews to people who have tremendous and often destructive powers.  Jemisin instead takes the metaphor and makes it her own, insisting on the possibility of social justice even within a world so twisted that it offers up a so-called justification for racism and oppression.  The scenes set in the Fulcrum in The Fifth Season feel like a deliberate perversion of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, reminding us that it is impossible to simultaneously treat people like a bomb that is about to go off and a person.  In The Stone Sky, each chapter closes with a passage from the notes of a Stillness researcher who reveals the many times in which orogenes prevented Seasons, sometimes at the cost of their own lives, but in many other cases, by revealing themselves after having lived in hiding in still society.  In almost every such case, the people these orogenes had just saved turn on them with sudden, uncompromising viciousness.  It's a powerful statement that even in a world where there is supposedly a reason for it, racism is not rational.  That even when orogenes "prove" that they are good and necessary, the prejudice against them runs deeper.

Something even more powerful emerges when you remember that both of these truths--the danger that orogenes pose, and the fact that they keep saving the world even in the face of abuse and certain death--are choices that Jemisin made in her worldbuilding.  It seems to be a deliberate rebuke to the ubiquity of the dangerous, persecuted minority trope.  Instead of abandoning it, Jemisin compounds it, and then dares us to keep reacting to it from the same place of comfort that originally made it so popular.  What does it mean, after all, to build a world in which there is no choice but to oppress and abuse certain people?  It tells us nothing about real racism, but it might say a great deal about the kind of people for whom that kind of story holds an appeal.  The Broken Earth books are a deliberate challenge to such thoughtlessness.  On the one hand, they don't shy away from the danger that orogenes pose, or from their capacity to do horrific damage--over the course of her life, Essun kills probably hundreds of thousands of people, and her former lover Alabaster (the father of her murdered child and the orogene who sets off the Shattering) kills millions.  And on the other hand, they also reverse the direction of the difficulty posed by these tropes.  In The Stone Sky, it's revealed that Alabaster was motivated not just by rage and vengeance, but by cold reason.  By blowing up the supervolcano, he unleashes tremendous power that can be channeled by an orogene like Essun into the Obelisk Gate, and used to capture the Moon and end the Seasons forever.  "You want to read about worlds where racism and oppression are justified?"  Jemisin seems to be saying to her readers.  "Fine, I'll not only make the monsters of those stories my heroes, but I'll make it so that the only way to fix this horribly broken world is for them to kill millions of 'normal' people."  It's a direct challenge to comfortable readers who suddenly find the cold equations facing in the other direction.

Of course, the problem isn't simply tropes, but how those tropes both reflect and justify real racism.  The Mutant Metaphor may not be a good way of coping with with racism in fiction, but its reverse--the idea that certain groups are inherently dangerous and therefore killable--crops up in reality to justify real harm to ordinary human beings.  When the grand jury testimony of Michael Brown's killer was made public, Jamelle Bouie observed that he spoke as if he'd been facing a superhero, not an unarmed teenage boy.  Television shows and movies, including and often primarily in genre fiction, popularize the narratives that are later used to justify things like police brutality or drone warfare.  Jemisin takes that fact to its logical conclusion in The Stone Sky when she reveals that orogeny was genetically engineered into humanity not as a tool, but as a way of making such racist narratives real.  Having hounded an ethnic group, the Niess, out of existence, and having convinced themselves that they possessed superpowers that justified such hounding, the humans of what would become the Stillness had no choice but to bring the monsters of their imagination into being.
If the Niess were merely human, the world built on their inhumanity would fall apart.

So... they made us.

...Remember, we must not be just tools, but myths.  Thus we later creations have been given exaggerated Niess features--broad faces, small mouths, skin nearly devoid of color, hair that laughs at fine combs, and we're all so short.  They've stripped our limbic systems of neurochemicals and our lives of experience and language and knowledge.  And only now, when we have been made over in the image of their own fear, are they satisfied.  They tell themselves that in us, they've captured the quintessence and power of who the Niess really were, and they congratulate themselves on having made their old enemies useful at last.
A few hours before I sat down to write this review, I read an essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which he tries to grapple with the reality of a nation that could elect both Barack Obama and Donald Trump as consecutive presidents.  His conclusion is that America relies on the narrative of white supremacy, but is willing to set it aside when things get bad enough--as they were in 2008 when Obama was elected.  But when the pendulum swings back a little, the need to reassert a white supremacist worldview becomes paramount.  A similar dynamic is observed in The Stone Sky; Nassun and Schaffa advise a group of runaway orogene children to find a community where their abilities will make them useful during the Season.  But, they warn, if it ever looks as if the Season is receding, the children will have to run away, lest the same people whose lives they saved turn on them.

Writing about the role of narrative in perpetuating and obscuring the role of white supremacy in history, Coates observes:
It is not a mistake that Gone With the Wind is one of the most read works of American literature or that The Birth of a Nation is the most revered touchstone of all American film. Both emerge from a need for palliatives and painkillers, an escape from the truth of those five short years in which 750,000 American soldiers were killed, more than all American soldiers killed in all other American wars combined, in a war declared for the cause of expanding "African slavery". That war was inaugurated not reluctantly, but lustily, by men who believed property in humans to be the cornerstone of civilisation, to be an edict of God, and so delivered their own children to his maw. And when that war was done, the now-defeated God lived on, honoured through the human sacrifice of lynching and racist pogroms. The history breaks the myth. And so the history is ignored, and fictions are weaved into our art and politics that dress villainy in martyrdom and transform banditry into chivalry, and so strong are these fictions that their emblem, the stars and bars, darkens front porches and state capitol buildings across the land to this day.
"The history breaks the myth.  And so the history is ignored" feels like the thesis statement of The Stone Sky, a book that is all about pulling back the curtain to reveal the ugly causes of the Stillness's ugly present.  It's not a mistake that the only way Jemisin's characters can find to finally defeat this history and begin again involves destroying much of the world--the weight of hatred, and the unwillingness to admit where that hatred is rooted, are too great for anything else.  And even then, the book's ending is uncertain.  Will peace between orogenes and stills ever be possible?  Will orogenes, finally freed of the Fulcrum and the Guardians, take their revenge and even try to become the oppressors they were once subject to?  Will stills continue to follow the forms of ancient hatreds even when what little reason there was for them is gone?  Is it possible to teach the Stillness new stories about itself, or will those stories, like their predecessors, simply serve to paper over crimes and cruelties?

There isn't another work in science fiction asking these questions.  Not really.  Not with this intensity.  Not with such a clear-eyed look at where so much of the ugliness that underpins our own society comes from.  And not with the demand that we acknowledge how much our own genre perpetuates and intensifies that ugliness.  If there's any justice, these books will represent an upheaval that the genre will never look back from.  No more building worlds to reify narratives that hurt people in the real world.  No more villains whose villainy consists of responding "badly" to their abusers.  No more quick fixes that put everything right without acknowledging how deep hatred and prejudice can run in a civilization.  In hindsight, I shouldn't have worried that Jemisin wouldn't know how to craft the right (I am deliberately not saying "satisfying") ending for this series.  Her certainty and clear vision with it have been apparent from day one, from that first chapter.  It only remains to be seen whether the rest of the genre will follow suit.