Monday, December 31, 2018

2018, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 96 books in 2018.  Even allowing for the fact that that number is inflated by quicker reads like graphic novels and standalone novellas, that's an impressive haul, maybe the highest number since I started keeping track on this blog.  Unfortunately, there was a bit of a quantity-over-quality attribute to this year's reading.  A lot of books that I was expecting to enjoy turned out to be only so-so.  In particular, when looking over the year's reading log to prepare for this post, I was struck by how few genre books came close to making the cut.  As you'll see below, there are only two blatantly SFF books on the best books list, and only one of them was published by a genre publisher.

I'm not sure if it's related, but this has also been one of the most up-to-date reading years in my life.  Nearly half the books I read in 2018 were published this year, and another third in 2017.  This didn't use to be the case for me, but as ebooks have made immediate access to a book a reality for me, and as my writing projects--my New Scientist column last year, my Political History of the Future series this year--have made staying current more of a priority, I've found myself reading more and more recent books.  That's not always a bad thing--I read quite deeply into this year's Booker longlist, for example, and found the experience extremely (and unexpectedly) rewarding.  But I wonder if I'd have more satisfying results overall if I made reading more widely a priority in 2019.

Nevertheless, there are always great reads to report, and this year was no exception.  Here are my selections, in alphabetical order.

Best Books:
  • Milkman by Anna Burns

    Burns's novel, about a young girl trying to avoid the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary leader at the height of the Troubles, sounds like a garden variety "issue" novel.  In reality, it's a perfect illustration of the adage that a work of art is always about the "how" of it, far more than the "what".  Through a stream-of-consciousness style that swoops from past to present and delves into the most minute detail of the disputes and tensions that rule the heroine's violent, repressive, conformist neighborhood, Burns decisively makes the point that these two things--the Troubles and the paramilitary groups behind them; and the sexual commodification and abuse of women--are rooted in the same evil.  In a landscape that too often treats the problems of women as ancillary to politics as a whole, Milkman is an essential counterpoint.

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

    I took a while to get to Franklin's 2016 biography of Jackson, and now I regret every moment I lived without reading it.  Organizing Jackson's life according to the houses she lived in and the books she wrote in each one, Franklin offers not just insight into this perennially overlooked author, but a compelling argument that her fiction was always about the tension between wanting a home, and fearing the power that the community can have over an individual.  Her descriptions of the dysfunctional, fraught marriage between Jackson and Stanley Hyman are extremely effective outrage fodder for everyone who knew Hyman was an ass but had no idea just how much.  But most importantly, the image she paints of Jackson herself--brilliant, warm, prickly, and self-doubting--is at once familiar and revelatory.  A must for any Jackson fan.

  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

    A memoir so lightly disguised as a novel that you might easily miss it.  A book-length prose poem.  An exhilarating act of literary vengeance.  Kandasamy's first-person narrative of an abusive marriage is read almost in a single breath, at turns heartbreaking, horrifying, and hilarious.  It creates a template for writing about abuse that should be memorized and taken in by anyone hoping to approach the topic.  By centering the victim, refusing the perpetrator's repeated attempts to make her ordeal into his own story, and ridiculing him without ignoring the profound danger he--and the system designed to enable and excuse him--pose to the heroine, Kandasamy allows us to see the techniques used to bring power to bear against women, without ever depriving those women of their full humanity.

  • Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

    Lim is far from the first writer to try to plumb the political weight of the superhero stories, but after him, I wonder if there's any point in anyone else trying it.  Not that Dear Cyborgs is about superheroes, exactly.  Rather, it's about the pop culture landscape from which superheroes and other heroic, comic-book narratives emerge, and the tension between stories about saving the world, and a the capitalist system that churns them out and makes money off them.  More broadly, Dear Cyborgs is about the meaning of art, protest, and political action in a world that tries to co-opt and monetize all of these things.  All of which is to make the book sound cerebral and dry, when really it's one of the most thrilling, enjoyable reading experiences I've had in ages, a furiously intelligent, funny, angry novel that leaves you feeling both energized and thoughtful.

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers

    Despite a turn towards the genre late in the book, The Overstory isn't strictly a work of science fiction.  But it feels profoundly SFnal, in its determination to describe an alien world that just happens to exist alongside our own, and an alien lifeform that just happens to be so common that we walk past it every day, giving it barely a thought.  In his argument that trees are our equal partners on this planet, that they engage in the same life-cycle as us, only slower, and that they have the same right to survive and thrive, Powers engages in an act of worldbuilding that makes us see the world in a different way.  He also offers a vision for a better future that, while obviously fantastic, feels worth working towards. (For more of my thoughts on the book, see this write-up at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)

  • Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

    I liked Singh's second short story collection a great deal when I read it early in the year, but it's only grown on me since.  It's yet another great argument for the short story being science fiction's most vibrant form, and yet another example of how story collections can be some of the most essential work in the genre.  Singh naturally draws a lot on Indian mythology and folklore in her stories, marrying them to modern and futuristic settings.  But the collection is much more about the anxiety of the Global South as it faces the lingering after-effects of colonization, and the increasingly destructive effects of climate change.  As such, it feels entirely modern--of a piece with Singh's essential 2017 essay, "On the Unthinkability of Climate Change".  That unthinkability is nowhere to be found in these stories, which face up to problems both old and new with remarkable clarity and originality.

Honorable Mentions:
  • The Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman - A secondary world fantasy about mountain climbing and religion that is like no other book I've read in years.  Pushes brilliantly against the boundaries of what the genre is capable of, and sets the bar for authors to follow.

  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson - What initially seems like a common tale of family dysfunction grows increasingly weirder by the page, incorporating mythology, magic, and supernatural menace without losing its grounding in the mundane.

  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - A romantic melodrama whose inciting crisis is the American justice system's brutality towards black people, this book effortlessly combines the personal and the political into a tangled knot that its characters, for all their best intentions, struggle to untie.

  • Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid - Essential for any fan of Banks.  Kincaid offers both an overview of Banks's life and an analysis of his writing, and goes further than most SF-focused critics of his work by examining his literary fiction, and making an argument that both oeuvres were rooted in similar concerns.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Five Comments on Roma

Alfonso Cuarón's Roma has been generating a lot of conversation recently, for reasons that sometimes seem only tangentially connected to the film itself.  First, because it's a serious Oscar contender shot in black and white, with dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec, and starring a complete newcomer.  Second, because it's a Netflix movie that is probably the platform's first genuine masterpiece, which has also led to a side-conversation about whether it's worth watching on a home screen or even a personal device.  (As one of the people lucky enough to have a theatrical release of the film near her, my answer is that Roma definitely benefits from a big screen and a theatrical sound system, but that it's worth watching any way you can.)

Along the way, the film itself, which covers a year in the life of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid and nanny in the home of an affluent Mexico City family in the early 70s, seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.  Cuarón based the film on recollections from his own childhood, and has dedicated it to the woman who cared for him as a child, on whom Cleo is based.  As a result, I think some people have dismissed Roma as a simple family melodrama--especially since its plot revolves around the twin crises of the family's father, Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), leaving home and taking up with a mistress, while Cleo is left pregnant and in a lurch by an untrustworthy man--or at best, focused on its technical accomplishments and not its storytelling ones.  Which is a shame, because Roma is one of the most beautiful, moving, effectively-written movies I've seen in some time, and it deserves more in-depth discussion about how it achieves its effect on the level of visuals, writing, and character work.  I'm too overwhelmed by the film to write a proper review, but here are a few observations that have lingered with me.
  • At its most basic level, Roma is a story about unequal love.  It would be easy to makes a movie about a saintly maid being abused by her heartless employers.  But while there are moments in the film where the family's treatment of Cleo is inexcusable--chiefly when the matriarch, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), lashes out at Cleo as she unravels in the wake of her marriage's breakdown, but also when it becomes clear that the children, though they love Cleo deeply, don't respect her or her authority--most of their interactions with her are suffused with kindness and love.  When Cleo finds herself pregnant and unmarried, Sofia offers her both material and emotional support.  When she loses the baby, it's clear that giving her time to heal and recover both physically and emotionally is important to the entire family.  In some respects, Cleo is even better off as a maid than in her own community--as she observes to her friend, she can't visit her mother during her pregnancy, and it's unclear whether she ever confides in her family about her experiences over the course of the movie.  The film's final set-piece, in which Cleo rescues two of the children after they're swept out to sea, ends in a profound declaration of love from both Sofia and the children.

    At the same time, we are never allowed to forget that Cleo loves the family more than they love her.  That she gives to them more than they give to her (and that what they give is far less than what they could give--when Cleo goes into labor and is rushed, alone, into the delivery room, Antonio, a doctor at the hospital, stops by to reassure her with a genuine concern and fondness, in one of his most human and sympathetic moments in the movie; but when Cleo's doctor offers to let him stay in the delivery room, he quickly demurs and walks away).  The trip to the beach that allows Cleo to fully heal from the loss of her baby, and experience catharsis over her complicated feelings towards her pregnancy, culminates with her returning to her duties as a maid.  Being OK, for Cleo, means going back to serving the people who just proclaimed their love and devotion to her.  The film's final scene sees her gathering the family's discarded laundry and taking it to the roof to be washed, as they sit together and chat about their recent vacation.  There's no cruelty or injustice here (beyond, that is, the broader injustice of the way Mexican society in the movie is shown to be deeply stratified), but there is inequality, including in the affection and care that Cleo and the family offer to one another.

    It can be hard to know how to respond to this.  Some reviewers have dinged the film for not pushing hard enough at the way class distorts its relationships.  It's tempting to accuse Cuarón of romanticizing his old nanny's life--Cleo is, after all, characterized by her cheerful selflessness, her generosity and open heart, and it's tempting to wonder how idealized a portrait she is.  But the film feels too complicated, too well-written and acted, and Cleo herself feels too human and looms too large in the film's landscape, for this criticism to entirely land.  It seems harder to admit that sometimes love isn't just.  Some people take what they can get and make do, while others take what's offered to them and don't wonder whether they've done enough to deserve it.  It can leave you feeling uneasy, watching Cleo's happiness and knowing that she deserves so much more of it, but maybe that's not a bad thing.

  • A lot has been written about the film's use of visuals, particularly the long pans and tracking shots that have become Cuarón's hallmark.  In particular, attention has been paid to a sequence near the end of the film, in which Cleo and the family's grandmother, Teresa (Verónica Garcia), find themselves caught the middle of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, when government-backed paramilitaries attacked student protesters.  Cuarón situates his camera at the windows of the second story of a department store, tracking calmly across the violence and then returning to the terrified shoppers within the store.  This is followed by the film's most harrowing sequence, in which Cleo goes into labor, and followed by a scene with her at the beach, where the camera tracks alongside her into the sea as she battles ever-higher waves to rescue the children.

    As impressive as all of these sequences are, it's actually the film's quieter moments that strike me as more revolutionary, and more connected to what it's trying to say.  Roma's first scene sees the film's opening credits projected against a close up of the driveway tiles in the family home, as an unseen person, who eventually turns out to be Cleo, sweeps water over them.  As the water piles up, it reflects the sky above the driveway, and eventually a passing airplane.  The contrast between Cleo's humble circumstances and the kind of life she will probably never experience (unless one of the children she cared for becomes a world-famous director, makes a movie in homage to her, and flies her to the premiere) is obvious, but to me what's important about this sequence is the long wait until we get to see the airplane.  It's almost disquieting how long the film makes you wait for anything to focus on in this shot (the audience in my screening seemed positively broken by it) but it also feels like part of the point.  Cleo's life is ruled by mundane, tedious tasks, and the film is going to immerse us in them.

    The next sequence follows Cleo into the house, where she collects the laundry from the family's bedrooms.  The camera follows her for a while, but eventually it situates itself in the middle of the house and makes a 360-degree turn around it.  This not only establishes the film's primary setting--though Cleo leaves the house frequently, for movies with her friends, on vacations with the family, and on her own trip to confront the father of her child, the house is at the core of the film's story--it establishes the confines of Cleo's life.  The driveway that she cleans in the film's opening moments is an image that the film returns to again and again, as people leave the house or enter it.  Later in the movie, we see Cleo clean the driveway again, after Sofia upbraids her for letting the family dog's turds pile up in it.  But every time we see the driveway again after that scene, it's once again littered with excrement.  Because, well, dogs poop.  No matter how many times Cleo cleans the driveway, it'll always get dirty again.

    Which seems to me like the core message of the film's visuals.  Cleo keeps moving in circles.  She cleans the driveway and then it gets soiled again.  She collects the laundry and then it piles up once more.  Even the baby she conceives at the beginning of the movie comes to nothing.  For all the film's forays into striking locations and exciting visual tricks, it's these circles, the repeated return of the camera to where it started, that seem to me to be the most important point it's making.  The film's final shot tracks Cleo as she climbs the steps to the roof of the house to do the laundry.  It's an uplifting image, gazing up at the clear sky that in the opening credits, we saw reflected on the ground.  But doing the laundry is also how Cleo started the film.  For all the upheavals she's experienced, she's still in exactly the same place.

  • It's getting a lot less attention than the visuals, but the film's sound design is also worth highlighting.  And frankly, just the fact that I'm saying this should already tell you something, because if I'm borderline illiterate when it comes to talking about film visuals, I often don't even notice the sound in films (or rather, I notice it, but not in a way that consciously observes the work that went into it and the artistic choices that contribute to the work's effect).  But Roma is a rare case where a film's use of sound registers and enhances the experience of the movie.  The film has no score, and the only sounds in it are diegetic music, ambient nature noises, background conversation, and the regular noises of city life.  While the camera often remains fixed or pans back and forth across a room, the soundscape of the film works overtime to let you what's happening off-screen, in the next room, or outside the house.  The work that the sound designers do to create an aural landscape that immerses you in the setting is brilliant, and makes you feel as if you're in the movie, standing next to the characters and participating in their lives.

    The sound work is, in fact, the main reason why I think the "watch in a movie theater" argument has merit.  Many people have a big TV to watch Netflix on, but few of us have a surround sound system at home, and the experience of watching Roma is absolutely enhanced by the way the film's soundtrack creeps up around you.

  • I've found it fascinating how some of the reviews of the film have leaped directly to reading it as an autobiographical journey through Cuarón's early growth as an artist.  It's not that this isn't an obvious aspect of the film.  Multiple lists have been made of the way that it references Cuarón's filmography (most obviously, a scene in which Cleo accompanies the children to a movie that features astronauts floating towards one another in space).  But it's telling that reviewers can look at a movie about a poor, Native, female domestic worker and see a potted artistic history of their favorite filmmaker.  Particularly since Cuarón himself doesn't make this mistake.  As much of himself and his career as he puts in Roma, it's very clear that he knows it is Cleo's movie.  In fact, while many reviewers have called the film autobiographical, it's notable that Cuarón himself is effectively absent from the movie.  We know that he's one of the children, but there's no way of telling which one.  And while the children are as well-written as any other character in the film, behaving in a believable mix of adorable and bratty, there's never a moment where the film highlights any of them, or gives us any indication that they're going to grow up to become artists.

    There are still questions you could ask about the way Cuarón centers the film on Cleo--the fact that he's telling her story through his own recollection of events could certainly be taken as appropriative, especially given how sensitive some of the material he's depicting is.  But there's never any question that the film is about Cleo, which is one of the many reasons that I was so won over by it.

  • Another thing that's remarkable about Roma is how, for such a personal film that is locked into such a limited point of view, it manages to be fiercely political.  This is seen, most obviously, in the Corpus Christi massacre scene, but signs of political turmoil in 70s Mexico abound throughout the film.  Cleo is told about fellow Native villagers whose lands have been confiscated.  Military parades down the family's quiet residential street punctuate the film's events.  There's even an earthquake that raises questions about the city's preparedness for such a disaster.  I'm sure that, for people who know more about Mexico's history, there are more references that went over my head, but even to an outsider like myself it's remarkable how good Cuarón's script is at conveying a great deal of information about its setting in very few words, and with images seemingly focused on the intensely personal.  When Cleo goes to visit Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), the father of her child, he off-handedly mentions that his martial arts group is being trained by an American.  When he later turns up killing students in the Corpus Christi massacre, it doesn't take much to connect the dots.  The result is a film that effortlessly draws connections between the personal and the political, which seems only appropriate for a story about a Native woman making her way in an enclave of the elite.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My last PHotF column for 2018 discusses Aminder Dhaliwal delightful webcomic Woman World, recently collected in a single volume.  It's a gently humorous post-apocalyptic story about a world where men have died out, and about as different from the likes of Y: The Last Man as that starting position will let you get.  The comic is sweet, irreverent, and most of all, dedicated to letting its characters be people, and live their lives without the undertone of tragedy that we might have expected.

This is also an opportunity for me to take a broader look at how SF handles gender, and specifically, the idea that gender roles and even our definition of gender might change.  When you think about it for just a moment, that's a very obvious component of worldbuilding--we don't look at gender the same way that people from only a few decades ago did, so why should people centuries in the future, who live in galaxy-spanning, space-faring societies, have gender roles that so closely resemble ours?  And yet it's rare for SF to approach this topic head-on, as I discuss in this essay.
Perhaps more than any other topic, gender challenges writers of science fiction to expand their viewpoint and imagine different ways of ordering society. The adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism applies even more strongly to prevailing gender norms. Many early science fiction writers found themselves, either intentionally or thoughtlessly, replicating the gender roles of their moment even as they invented technologies that would overhaul their societies. Asimov's robot stories, for example, are steeped in 1950s middle class gender roles that even he must have known were not a universal constant. This despite the fact that most of the robots introduced to these settings are intended for household labor (and, for some reason, coded male).
It's an incredibly broad topic, and even in an extra-long essay, I can only touch on the handful of issues it raises very briefly.  If you have more ideas, please raise them in the comments.