Friday, April 05, 2019

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

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

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

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

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

Monday, March 25, 2019

Us

There's a scene about halfway into Jordan Peele's Get Out that to me sums up the genius and horror of that movie. It's wordless, and begins with a series of seemingly disconnected images: a crowd seated before a gazebo; a photograph of Daniel Kaluuya as the film's lead, Chris; Bradley Whitford, as the genial father of Chris's girlfriend, making strange hand gestures; people in the crowd holding up bingo cards. Then the camera pulls out, and the disparate pieces come together in a startling crash. Whitford is auctioning Chris off to a crowd of fellow white people. Later in the movie we'll learn more about what this will entail and why this abominable practice continues, but it's in this moment that Get Out spells out its terms, establishing stakes and villains, as well as its wicked, take-no-prisoners sense of humor.

There is no moment in Peele's follow-up to Get Out, Us, that delivers the same sense of revelation with a similar elegance. If Get Out was an arrow aimed straight for the heart, Us is firing in all directions. This doesn't make it a bad filmit is, in fact, a rich and heady stew, anchored by a stunning double performance from Lupita Nyong'o. But it does make it messy, in a way that a director who wasn't riding high off a genre-defining success like Get Out probably wouldn't be able to get away with. I found myself thinking that Us might have worked better as a miniseries, not only to give its various storylines and characters room to breathe, but so that it could do more work to spin out and elaborate on the various symbols and recurring images it keeps dropping into the narrative. What is the significance of Hands Across America, for example? What does Jeremiah 11:11 mean? What's with all the rabbits?

You can see this tendency in the way the film takes its time getting started, layering one prequel scene over another. First we get a title card informing us that beneath America lie thousands of miles of tunnels, some of unknown purpose. Then we watch a string of commercials on an old-fashioned TV (in whose screen is reflected a young black girl), including one for the 1986 anti-poverty project Hands Across America. Then we see the same girl (Madison Curry) at a fairground on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. She wanders onto the beach and into a hall of mirrors, where she encounters what appears to be her double, and the screen smashes to black. Then the opening credits run as the camera slowly pulls out from a wall lined with cages containing rabbits. It's only after all this that we arrive in the present, following a family car driving towards Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. Each of these non-sequitur moments introduces an image or recurring motif that eagle-eyed viewers will have to look out for once the story proper gets started, though the roster still isn't complete. The devilishly sharp fabric shears that have become the film's calling card in its promotional materials, for example, aren't introduced until the end of the first act.

With such a weight of symbolism, there's a strong temptationespecially for people like myself, who tend to approach pop culture in an analytical wayto try to "solve" Us. But the truth is, for every explanation I can come up with for the film's oddball worldbuilding, there will be half a dozen others just as compelling and worth thinking about. And even my best ideas about the movie fail to account for all of its details and evocative imagery. While I was writing this review, I came across a twitter thread in which the incomparable critics Samira Nadkarni and Aishwarya Subramanian were lamenting their inability to get to the bottom of the rich symbolism in the novels of Helen Oyeyemi, and it strikes me that Us, and perhaps Peele's filmmaking in general, possess the same quality. Like Oyeyemi, Peele has an approach to horror that focuses less on chills and affect and more on weirdness, which is in turn underpinned by a keen intelligence and a sharp political awareness. Like Oyeyemi's novels, what Peele has produced in Us works less because of one's ability to read it "correctly" as because of its overall effect. What follows, therefore, isn't meant to be a definitive reading, but a record of my immediate reactions to the filmwhich may mature and develop as I get more distance from it.

The family in the car are the Wilsons: mother Adelaide (Nyong'o), who is confirmed as the little girl from the prologue scene with a flashback that reveals that in the wake of her unspecified ordeal she was diagnosed with PTSD, father Gabe (Winston Duke), teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and pre-teen Jason (Evan Alex). They've arrived at a vacation house that used to belong to Adelaide's mother, but quickly reveal that in all their years of staying there, Adelaide has never allowed her husband or children to go to the nearby beach. Even when she agrees to make an exception, Adelaide is anxious, and nearly has a breakdown when Jason wanders off for a few minutes. Later she confides to Gabe about her experiences, but neither he nor we are able to understand what frightened her so much about her encounter. That conversation is cut short by the arrival of the Tethered, a family of doubles of our heroes, clad in red jumpsuits, armed with the aforementioned scissors, who quickly overpower the Wilsons.

Adelaide's double (referred to in the credits as Red, though she is never named in the film even though the other doubles all have names; this will turn out to be significant) explains, in the first of several monologues, that she and Adelaide have been linked since birth. She married her husband not because she loved him but because he was Gabe's double. Her children are doubles of Adelaide's children, though like their parents they are strange and sinister, characterized by alarming tics and perverse pleasures. While the Wilsons have lived lives of comfort and safety, the Tethered have been relegated underground, forced to suffer and do without, and driven mad by their deprivation. Now they want to sever their connection, cutting through the Wilsons' flesh to do it. When the family escape to the home of nearby friends, they find the same carnage there, and the TV news eventually reveal that the same uprising has occurred throughout the country.

In other words, Us is a film about the violent rise of the (literal) underclass. This is a trope that tends to have a racialized undertone, as does the home invasion genre that Us initially presents itself aseven when their villains are white, both are rooted in the anxieties of white society over the danger posed by an oppressed but ever-present non-white population. When the first trailer for Us dropped, many people commented on the significance of not only centering the film around a black family, but placing them in this genre, in which people who look like them are often the villains or nonexistent.

In the actual film, race feels a great deal less important than class. Or, to put it more precisely, it's the intersection of the two that feels like the film's ultimate focus, the fact that the Wilsons are not just a black family but one that is safely ensconced within the American upper-middle class. The early scenes in the movie do a lot to stress the family's financial and emotional securitynot only the fact that they have a nice car, a nice summer house, and can afford to go on nice vacations, but that these are familiar environs to them, where they are part of the community. And yet Us also subtly reinforces the sense that the Wilsons are out of place.

It's notable, for example, that outside of the flashbacks to Adelaide's past, the Wilsons are the only black people in the movie. When the scope of the Tethered's attack becomes clear, the only other victims we see are white. This includes the Wilsons' friends and neighbors, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters. From our first glimpse of them, it's clear that these are not very impressive peopleKitty complains that she could have made something of her life if she hadn't gotten pregnant, and Josh wastes no opportunity for douchy behavior. And yet the Wilsons, particularly Gabewhom Duke plays with a deliberately exaggerated nerdiness, pitching his voice into the nasal range and constantly readjusting his glassesare clearly in a semi-friendly competition with them, openly envying their boat, their car, and their smart house. There's a constant tension between the Wilsons naturally belonging in this world of affluence and security, and their need to prove that they belong by living up to the example of people like the Tylers.

Throughout the film, there are hints of the Wilsons' conflicted relationship with blackness. When the Tethered appear in the Wilsons' driveway, Gabe tries to drive them off by adopting a tough-guy, "street" persona that not even he seems to believe in, but which he clearly thinks of as the universally understood signal not to mess with him. Adelaide, meanwhile, immediately calls 911. In the context of this story, she's obviously right to do so, but it seems clear that the film is calling back to the multiple instances we've seen documented in recent years of black people having the police called on them, simply for going about their lives.

It's a context that changes the Tethered's claims against the Wilsons, moving them from the general to the specific. "You could have taken me with you", Red says to Adelaide of their childhood meeting. When we get to see the underground lives of the Tethered, they are a perverted, wordless parody of the kind of affluence the Wilsons take for granted. In one of the film's tour de force scenes, we rewatch young Adelaide's trip through the fairground as it was reflected in the underworld. Above ground, Adelaide's father wins her a t-shirt, smiling warmly as he presents it to her. In the underworld, his smile is a deranged leer, a shadow play bereft of triumph or happiness. He is performing a staple of middle class respectabilitya father gifting his child with something she doesn't need but nevertheless wantswith nothing to back it up. The Tethered describe themselves as linked to their doubles, but what shows up on screen feels more like a cargo cult. Just as Gabe keeps trying to keep up with the Tylers in the hopes of becoming them (regardless of whether they are actually worth emulating), the Tethered are imitating all of us, including the Wilsons, hoping that by mimicking the forms of capitalism they can gain a foothold in it. Until, that is, they decide simply to take it.

It's interesting, in fact, to observe how the Wilsons' relationship with their doubles differs from that of anyone else we see. The Tylers are murdered within minutes of their doubles invading their home. But the Wilsons are toyed with, in ways that leave them avenues for escape and resistance. The film ascribes this to a particular sadism on Red's part"we want to take our time" she tells Adelaide during their first meeting. But the film also implies that there is something special about the Wilsons, perhaps their liminal status conferring upon them some degree of protection. It's notable how little tension there is over whether the entire family will survive, even though in a film with so many main characters you'd expect at least one to buy it in order to establish proper horror bona fides (despite trailers that seemed to promise otherwise, Us isn't a very scary film; its horror is more existential than visceral, and there is in fact very little viscera on display). Even Gabe, whom we'd normally expect to dienot only because that's the role husbands and fathers are usually relegated to in family survival stories, but because he is so clearly unsuited to the new, apocalyptic reality established by the Tethered uprisingmakes it to the end, and not as a newly minted badass. He never fully accepts the irrevocable loss of normalcy that has occurred around him, and even towards the end of the film he keeps trying to play by the old rules. "You don't get to make decisions anymore!" Adelaide snaps at him when he suggests holing up in a Tylers' house, waiting for help that clearly isn't coming. And yet he lives.

The reason Gabe livesthe reason the entire Wilson family livesis Adelaide. In a film with the theme of doubling, you'd naturally expect confused identity to eventually crop up. As the family kept being separated and reunited in their scrambles to escape the Tethered, I was constantly on my toes for a switcheroo, for one of them to be killed and replaced by their double. It turns out, this has already happened. The reason we never find out Red's name is that her name is Adelaide. This is also the reason why she's the only Tethered who can talk, and the one who possesses enough shreds of sanity to come up with the plan to rise above ground and take over. It's the reason why Adelaide had PTSDnot from a single traumatic incident, but from a young lifetime of abuse and deprivation. The woman we've been rooting for it the little girl Adelaide met in the hall of mirrors, who kidnapped her double, imprisoned her in the tunnels, and took her place.

It's a revelation that comes in the film's final minutes, and I found myself wishing that the film had given it more time to percolate, for its implications to be considered (for that matter, it might have been interesting if we had gotten a sense that Adelaide has always known what she is, as opposed to the implication that she had suppressed this knowledge until the events of the film trigger her memories). On the one hand, there is the obvious point that there is no meaningful difference between ordinary people and the TetheredAdelaide has lived a normal, respectable life above ground, while Red was driven to the same madness and violence as her compatriots who were born in the tunnels. This is a common trope of stories about a sinister Otherno matter how much the narrative and characters insist otherwise, there never seems to be any meaningful difference between humans and Cylons, or replicants, or Hosts. The "us" of the film's titlewhich conjures immediate associations of us vs. themis in fact a way of reminding us that the enemy is indistinguishable from ourselves, and that we're only defining them as the enemy because it serves our purposes.

At the same time, it's impossible to avoid the implication that the Wilsons survive because Adelaide came from underground. Because her legacy of trauma and abuse has lingered with her despite the privileged life she stole and then built for herself. The fact that it is her children, but not her husband, who take up their mother's attitude, who fight for their lives with determination and ruthlessness, suggests that Adelaide has passed along her unease and anxiety despite not being consciously aware of them. This is seen as both a good and bad thing. At the end of the movie, we're not certain whether Adelaide is a monster. By which I mean, not a monster from horror movies, an Other who can be killed without remorse, but a human monster, the sort of person who takes what they want and then kills the person they stole from when they show up to proclaim their injury. In the film's final moments, Jason, who has witnessed Adelaide's final triumph over Red, regards her with suspicion. He isn't sure what she is, not because he thinks there's been a switch, but because he's starting to realize that he never knew her at all.

There's a lot more to Us than I've written here, and in fact I worry that by summing up my reading of the film I have reduced it something far less strange and baggy than it actually is. There is, for example, the fact that Red's plan includes, after the Tethered have killed their doubles, creating a giant human chain in homage to Hands Across America, whose significance escapes me entirely (others have written compellingly about this device). There are the rabbits that hop freely in the tunnel where the Tethered live (one of them is rescued by Jasonperhaps suggesting that in him and his generation lies the possibility of rapprochement with the Tethered?). And Red's explanation for the existence of the Tethered, which brings up government experimentation and control, feels at once deeply significant and completely beside the point. This is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a messy film, and any attempt to solve it will inevitably leave things out and miss important details. But that is also the film's genius. There is no artist in Hollywood who is doing the kind of things Peele is doing (well, maybe Donald Glover), and if what he delivers isn't always as sharp and instantly comprehensible as Get Out, it is also never less than fascinating.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Novel, Series, and Campbell Categories

As the Hugo nominating period winds to a close, I find myself a bit out of sorts with this final batch of categories.  For one thing, I was hoping to read Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road before the nominating period ended, so that I could consider it for the Lodestar award for YA novels.  For another, I'm even more than confused than usual about Campbell eligibility--the Writertopia site remains an invaluable resource, but this year they've also linked to Rocket Stack Rank's list of eligible short fiction writers.  On the other hand, this year I actually have things to nominate in the best series category, which I hadn't thought would happen since I don't usually read more than the first volume of any series.

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

  • The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman (review) - In my review of The Breath of the Sun I compared it to Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria, and one of the reasons for that is that it has the same quality of broadening our understanding of what fantasy can do and how it can show us its world.  Fellman's mountain-climbing narrative touches on magic, religion, history, and technology.  It is a Nabokovian conversation between its author and her intended reader, the person to whom she is trying to explain her past.  But it is also a meditation on extreme pursuits, and what they mean and symbolize to different people.  It's a rich, hard-to-pin-down novel that is, despite the comparisons I found myself reaching for, unlike just about anything else I've read.

    (Note: I reviewed The Breath of the Sun using Fellman's previous name and pronoun.  As he's written on twitter, he has contacted the Hugo administrators and informed them about the change in his circumstances, and they will consider nominations under both his current and former name as referring to the same person.)

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (review) - The genius of this novel--and the reason it deserves to be nominated for a Hugo despite being published and discussed as a mainstream work--is how it makes us see our own world as an alien planet.  How it makes us understand an alien species that we walk past every day and give very little thought to.  Powers constructs an alternate history of Earth as seen through the eyes of trees, and that history is, unsurprisingly, one of loss and calamity.  The conceptual shift is essential to The Overstory's environmental project.  By opening our eyes to the notion that the creatures we share our planet with are not dumb and senseless, and that even plants deserve consideration as equal participants in our environment, the novel leaves us space to imagine a different way of living--one of the core aims of science fiction.

Best Series:

  • The Fractured Europe Sequence by Dave Hutchinson - I haven't quite finished Europe at Dawn, the concluding (?) volume of Hutchinson's strange, China-Miéville-meets-John-le-Carré spy saga.  But whatever those final chapters deliver, the work as a whole is one of the most distinctive, unusual series to come out of science fiction in years.  Hutchinson's near-future Europe is fragmented into hundreds of independent polities, and his main characters make their living by flouting the constantly-shifting borders to transport goods and people.  Into that relatively-comprehensible world, Hutchinson introduces an entirely new spin on the concepts of "border" and "territory", in the form of a European player that exists in its own pocket universe, and whose agents are trying to manipulate the existing world order.  Coupled with some top-notch spy antics and winning characters, the result is one of the most unusual SF works of the last decade.

  • The Centennal Cycle by Malka Older - As I observed in my write-up of State Tectonics, no series did more to inspire A Political History of the Future than Older's thought-provoking meditation on how democracy and news media might change.  The Centennal Cycle does something that science fiction should always be interested in and doesn't do nearly enough of--poke at the core assumptions of how we order our society and ask whether they could be changed, and if so, what might happen.  Older's "micro-democracy", in which political parties both nationalistic, ideological, and corporate vie for non-contiguous territory all over the world, and all news is vetted and fact-checked by a central authority, is neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but simply different.  More importantly, it allows Older to ask questions about what we want from democracy and how it may be failing to achieve those goals, which feels like a vitally important question in the current moment.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Isaac R. Fellman - With The Breath of the Sun, Fellman delivered one of the most remarkable debuts of the last few years, immediately staking a claim as a major new voice in fantasy who could push the genre in fascinating new directions.  First year of eligibility.

  • Jeannette Ng - I nominated Ng last year for her remarkable, utterly unique debut Under the Pendulum Sun, and she remains more than worthy of this nomination.  Pendulum was a weird, Gothic novel about fairies, religion, and finding your identity in the most unexpected places.  It took elements that I had never thought to see combined in a work of fiction and fused them together almost effortlessly.  I can't wait to see what Ng does next.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Rivers Solomon - Another author who is being nominated again on the strength of a remarkable debut novel.  Solomon's An Unkindness of Ghosts poked holes not only in the generation ship trope but in the prevailing assumption of a lot of SF, that things like prejudice and white supremacy will simply get better with time.  It created a challenging setting, and placed within it remarkable characters set on an exhilarating adventure.  It's been great watching Solomon spend 2018 exploring new opportunities, and I'm looking forward to reading The Deep, their collaboration with Clipping. Second year of eligibility.

  • Emma Törzs - It's actually a little unusual for me to nominate so many novelists in this category, so I'm glad to have encountered Törzs's short fiction, which is certainly worth highlighting.  "From the Root" in Lightspeed is not only unusual for dealing with female reproduction, but has a winning, inquisitive female lead.  And "Like a River Loves the Sky" in Uncanny has an unusual heroine and a refreshing focus on friendship that is not (and doesn't need to be) anything more.  First year of eligibility.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

With only a few days left to nominate for the Hugos, we come to our third batch of categories.  One thing they all have in common is that they I tend to nominate the same things here each year.  Partly this is a function of the limitations of my perspective (I don't always, for example, have time to follow a new short fiction venue that might make it onto the semiprozine ballot), but partly it's a way of recognizing people and organizations that have been doing great work for years, without nearly enough recognition.  (Another thing this group of categories has in common?  It's also the one where I tend to leave more categories blank: once again, I won't be nominating in the best editor, best fancast, or best fanzine categories.)

Previous posts in this series:

Best Semiprozine

  • GigaNotoSaurus - this little magazine that could continued plugging away in 2018, publishing one story per month and finding interesting new voices to highlight.  It featured one of my favorite stories of the year, Adrian Simmons's "The Wait is Longer Than You Think", and in fact it's unusual for there not to be at least one GigaNotoSaurus story on my short fiction ballot.  Which, when you consider they only publish twelve pieces a year, is an impressive hit rate.

  • Strange Horizons - Are you aware that Strange Horizons has never won a Hugo?  Isn't it time we changed that?  This fantastic magazine has been around for nearly two decades, publishing boundary-pushing fiction and non-fiction, and providing platforms for pieces that simply wouldn't have a home anywhere else on the internet.  Who else would have published Erin Horáková's "Erin Groans", a book-length essay about obscure Gormenghast adaptations that is both delightful and enlightening?  The magazine also publishes an ongoing project, 100 African Writers of SFF, that explores the continent and its regions to find the speculative work being created there, and its sister magazine, Samovar, publishes fiction in translation.  And this is all happening with an all-volunteer staff.  Strange Horizons gets nominated every year, and always ends up an also-ran.  Let's make 2019 the year we finally give them a Hugo.

  • Uncanny - This relatively new magazine had another strong year in 2018.  Their fiction department ran an interesting project in the middle of the year, in which several authors wrote stories about present-day dinosaurs, which produced some very strong pieces.  But I was more strongly struck by the fiction department's focus on featuring stories with disabled protagonists, which dealt with their struggles to deal with a world that doesn't value them and doesn't make the space that will allow them to participate and contribute to society.  It's an important topic, and it's good to see editors exercising their judgment to promote discussions of it.

Best Professional Artist:

  • Tracy J. Lee - Lee is a commercial artist with a wide-ranging portfolio, but in the last year she illustrated several genre-related projects.  Chiefly, she designed the GIF animations for Wired's The Future of Work series, which featured short stories by several writers about the changing face of labor.

  • Paul Lewin - Lewin draws amazing Afrofuturist illustrations, and in 2018 he came to my attention for his gorgeous covers for the reprint editions of Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.  In a few months we'll also be able to see his cover for The Dark Fantastic, an essay collection by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

  • Victo Ngai - I've been nominating Ngai for this award for years, and there's really not much I can add to the praise I've already heaped on her.  If there's a better or more distinctive illustrator working in genre right now, I don't know who they are.  Her most prominent genre-related work in 2018 is the cover for Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology.

  • Del Samatar - I haven't read Monster Portraits, Del and Sofia Samatar's hybrid study of monstrousness, but the pictures I've seen of Del's illustrations for the book are simply stunning.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu had a great year in 2018.  She continued to create covers for JY Yang's Tensorate novellas, giving them one of the most distinctive (and appealing) looks in the business.  And she single-handedly sold me on Mike Carey's new fantasy comic The Highest House with her dreamy covers.

Best Fan Artist:

  • Vandy Hall - Hall creates strange blown glass and mixed media sculptures of fantasy creatures.  I particularly like her bird-like creatures.

  • Likhain - In 2018, Likhain continued to produce colorful, almost overpowering illustrations that draw on Philippine tradition and folklore to create a completely unique style.

  • Keith Newstead - I became aware of Newstead and his automata through "Erin Groans", which is another reason to reward that article and its author.  His "Gormenghast Castle Automata" is one of the most unusual and remarkable pieces of fan art I've ever seen, a gorgeous approach to the book that captures its core theme of inescapable, repeating patterns perfectly.

  • vacuumslayer - These Alice in Wonderland-ish photo manipulations continue to delight, with a definite political undertone.

Best Fan Writer:

This is exactly the same lineup I nominated last year, so instead of repeating myself too much, I'm just going to highlight some of the great work these writers did in 2018.  And, if a lot of that work happens to have been published at Strange Horizons, maybe that's more proof that it's time to give them a Hugo?
  • Nina Allan - As well as her wonderful blog (where she's been doing a lot of writing about crime and horror fiction recently), Nina continued reviewing for Strange Horizons.  Her review of Jac Jemc's horror novel The Grip of It sent me racing to find a copy of the book, and her thoughts on the miniseries version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, especially as compared to the 1975 movie, were extremely illuminating.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - Most of Vajra's focus in 2018 seems to have gone to his fiction writing, as well as editing the Strange Horizons fiction department.  But his mega-review of last year's Clarke Award shortlist, "Rupture & Complicity" (part 1 and 2) is a master-class in how to combine reviews of individual works with a panoramic view of the state of the field, and provides an important tool for analyzing the currents running through the genre.

  • Erin Horáková - "Erin Groans", of course, but Erin had a fantastic writing year in 2018.  Some of my favorites of her pieces are her reviews of Paddington 2 and The Worst Witch.

  • Samira Nadkarni - For her monumental, leave-no-stone-unturned review of Venom alone, Samira deserves to be on this list.  And, though it is a 2019 publication, I'd be remiss not to mention her thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising review of the third season of Wynona Earp.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Captain Marvel

There isn't really that much to say about Captain Marvel in itself.  As a movie, it is a pleasant but unremarkable way to spend two hours.  Brie Larson is extremely winning as Air Force pilot turned Kree warrior Carol Danvers, but the film built to introduce her is rather nondescript, offering up neither the original, format-busting heights of Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok, nor the pointless tedium of Doctor Strange, nor yet the infuriating pseudo-ethics of Captain America: Civil War.  I might call it inessential, if it weren't for two things: the film's significance as the first female-led foray in the MCU, and Carol's obvious significance to the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, and the future of the MCU after it.

Which is really the most important thing you can say about Captain Marvel: this is a movie that is important not because of what happens in it, but because of what happens around it.  The most interesting conversations you can have regarding it all take place in the meta-levels--what does Captain Marvel mean for the MCU, for superhero movies, for pop culture?

Take, for example, the film's use of US Air Force imagery.  Within Captain Marvel itself, these elements are fairly minimal.  We get only a few shots of Carol as a pilot, and only hints of her uphill battle to claim her place in the boys' club of the military and combat flying--or, for that matter, the even more challenging journey endured by her best friend, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), a black single mother.  I strongly suspect that there was a lot more material shot covering this part of Carol's life, as well as her childhood, but what we get in the film itself is almost impressionistic.  A person who had only seen Captain Marvel and knew nothing of the media hoopla around it would probably consider Carol's Air Force background to be a minor detail in the tapestry of her life.  But if you do pay attention to that hoopla, you're aware not only of how much Marvel has been pumping up the film's military connections--from highlighting the role of Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force's first female combat pilot, as a consultant, to publicizing the fact that Larson spent time on Air Force bases while researching her character--but of the conversation that has sprung up over the unsavory implications of some of these tie-in efforts, such as an F-16 flyby during the film's LA premiere, or the Air Force airing recruitment ads before the movie.

Another example is the way Captain Marvel refigures Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, who functions here as Carol's sidekick on Earth, where she crash-lands after being captured by Skrulls, the enemies of the Kree.  Fury has been a fixture of the MCU since he showed up in the after-credits scene of Iron Man in 2008, and has always cut an imposing figure: a grey eminence, spymaster, and general who suffers no fools and always has plans within plans in his monomaniacal quest to defend the Earth from alien dangers.  The version of Fury we meet in Captain Marvel is much more down to earth--funny, self-deprecating, willing to pause his serious pursuits in order to coo over an adorable cat, and inordinately pleased with himself over minor bits of spycraft, like fooling a fingerprint reader with a bit of tape.

It can be hard to square the Fury in Captain Marvel with the one we've known for twelve years in the rest of the MCU, and once again, when looking for solutions, one immediately turns to the metafictional.  My first thought when the film's credits rolled was "someone told Jackson to just do what he did in The Long Kiss Goodnight".  That 1996 film, for those of you who don't know, was Renny Harlin's attempt to turn his then-wife Geena Davis into a bona-fide action star.  Its plot resembles Captain Marvel's in more than a few respects--it's about an amnesiac woman who discovers that the life she's built for herself since losing her memory in an accident is a lie, and that she is really a highly-skilled assassin.  She has to fight her former mentor, and does so with the aid of a down-on-his-luck private detective, played by Jackson.  The most blatant similarity between the two movies is the fact that Jackson plays a sidekick character in both, a humanizing influence whose humor and camaraderie help the heroine reconnect with the life she's forgotten, and to reintegrate it into her present life, finally becoming a self-aware, self-directed woman.

I don't know if the Captain Marvel team--directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet--intended the film as an homage to The Long Kiss Goodnight.  But there's no denying that such a reading gives Captain Marvel a depth that it might struggle to earn on its own.  Long Kiss was, after all, a famous flop that not only stalled Davis's career, but has been cited for years as "proof" that female-led action movies don't sell.  The fact that Davis has gone on to become a major activist for female representation in Hollywood, founding a self-titled institute that publishes reports on the limited space for women both in front of and behind the camera--pointing out, for example, that a film franchise can go twelve years and twenty movies without putting a woman front and center, and most people won't see anything wrong with this--only adds significance to the reference.

Of course, most people will take Fury's personality shift in Captain Marvel as merely a character arc, the film functioning as an origin story for him as well as Carol.  The film's ending even sees him drafting the first proposal for the Avengers Initiative, and spelling out to Clark Gregg's Coulson (who makes a brief appearance that nevertheless manages to step all over the backstory established for his character in Agents of SHIELD) the philosophy that will go on to guide his career--with dangers like the Kree and Skrulls out in the universe, Earth needs its own heroes to protect it.  But that's a reading that smooths over a lot of the problems with Fury--and with the MCU.

Marvel wants us to see Captain Marvel as a movie that shows us how Fury went from a schlub to a badass.  But what's startling about the Fury we see in this film isn't that he's uncool; it's that he's kind.  He finds himself caught in the crossfire between a quippy, take-charge alien soldier, and a bunch of alien shapeshifters who scare the bejeezus out of him, and nevertheless tries to help out someone who is more lost than she realizes.  And then when the shapeshifting aliens turn out to be not so nefarious after all, he helps them too.  It's not the shift from baby-talking a cat to wearing full-length leather coats that bothers me about Fury.  It's the shift from being willing to interest himself in the problems of others and put himself out to help solve them, to greenlighting a system that would allow him to kill anyone on the planet at the push of a button.  Like so many characters in the MCU, Fury's coolness only makes sense if you limit your perspective.  In the grand view, Captain Marvel is a tragedy about how a good, decent man began his slide towards megalomania.

This is particularly glaring given that Captain Marvel itself wants to be a story about questioning a corrupt militaristic system, and finding humane solutions to problems instead of just shooting at them with the biggest, most powerful weapon you can develop.  It tells this story, however, incredibly badly.  If most of the film is fun but lightweight, the political subplot--in which Carol discovers that the war against the Skrulls is a lie, that she was once an unwitting part of a renegade effort to resettle Skrull refugees, led by the Kree scientist Mar-Vell (Annette Bening), and that her powers were given to her by an accident when that effort failed--is simply incoherent.  To state the obvious, what the hell does it mean, "the war is a lie"?  Wars can be founded on lies, but more often, they're founded on propaganda.  On the media's refusal to report fairly about who is attacking whom and who is suffering where.  And, usually, on a bedrock of racism that defines some people as less worthy of protection, and more killable, than others.  To suggest that Carol and other Kree soldiers were simply unaware of the fact that the Skrulls are not a race made up 100% of evil infiltrators, but are regular people who sometimes do evil stuff but also dream of a home and love their families, is not only idiotic, it makes our heroine look like an idiot--and that's the kindest interpretation you can put on her behavior.  (The one thing that does work in this storyline is Ben Mendelsohn as the sardonic, war-weary Skrull leader Talos, a rare case of an MCU character buried under layers of prosthetics who nevertheless manages to come off as a person, and an interesting one to boot.)

Of course, this type of flattening is typical of MCU movies.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the most complex and challenging film in the franchise, and one whose plot Captain Marvel clearly models itself on, nevertheless insists that what "Hydra infiltrated SHIELD" means is that half of all SHIELD operatives are secret double-agents, fully committed to evil, ready to turn on their fellows the moment the word is given with utter ruthlessness.  (And that this in no way reflects on Nick Fury's competence, moral character, or fitness to lead.)  It does this so that future films and TV series can rehabilitate SHIELD without giving any serious thought to whether this is desirable or even possible.  It's hard not to wonder if Captain Marvel isn't setting up a similar walk-back of its humanist message--on twitter, Gerry Canavan pointed out to me that though we see four Skrulls arrive on Earth in search of Carol, only three are accounted for by the end of the film, leaving a fourth to potentially start a Skrull invasion storyline.

So a weakness that might have been forgivable in a single movie--perhaps even a means of conveying an otherwise unpalatable message in a way that could impact on the film's young target audience--becomes much more glaring when you consider it as part of a pattern.  The MCU keeps gesturing at criticism of the security state or the military, but its broader shape will always end up being in favor of them.  By making Carol an unrealistic innocent, even as Fury learns exactly the wrong lesson from their adventure together, Captain Marvel not only defangs its message, it ends up saying the opposite of what it wanted to say.

It's a particular shame because, buried under this unconvincing political plotline, there's a more personal one that could have worked like gangbusters if it had been given more room to breathe.  Throughout the film, Carol struggles with powers she doesn't understand and can't entirely control.  Her mentor, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) spews platitudes about emotional control and not giving into anger, while the Supreme Intelligence, the AI that governs the Kree (Bening again), warns her that "what can be given can be taken away".  Part of Carol's journey towards heroism is realizing that nothing about herself, and certainly not her powers, was given to her.  Rather, that they are something she needs to claim.  "I've been fighting with one hand tied behind my back!" she joyfully exclaims when she finally realizes that the Kree are more afraid of her than she should be of them.  When she finally embraces what she is, she becomes unstoppable. 

The film's absolute best scene comes when Yon-Rogg, now revealed to have been manipulating Carol in order to gain access to the Tesseract cube from which she draws her powers, calls back to an exchange he had with Carol at the beginning of the movie, insisting that he fight him without her powers, that only by doing so can she "prove" her heroism.  But Carol, without even breaking her stride, simply blasts him away, because he has no right to demand so much of her attention or time.  "I have nothing to prove to you," she tells him, in a moment that is bound to become a shorthand for casually waving off entitled men who demand to be "debated".

It's incredibly frustrating for a film whose true and most inspiring moment is a woman saying "I am enough, I am amazing, and I don't need anyone's approval" to spend so much of its running time doing anything but that.  But the problem is, Captain Marvel may be enough, but Captain Marvel isn't.  Even as the character is finding her groove, the movie is laying pipe, setting up a bigger movie in which Carol is merely one component of a whole, looking forward to phase four, trying to make sure that this billion-dollar juggernaut never stops.  As Aaron Bady has observed in one of the most clear-sighted reactions to Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU has a tendency to devour itself.  It burns up its best and most original parts as fuel for its worst and least effective ones.  Black Panther introduces us to the vibrant, fascinating new world of Wakanda, and Infinity War destroys it.  Thor: Ragnarok ends with the promise of new beginning for the Asgardians, and Infinity War kills them all in its opening minutes.  But Captain Marvel is something different.  It comes pre-digested--there's nothing here that's powerful enough, or sufficiently well-done, for us to feel protective of as the machinery of Endgame descends upon us.  Nothing but Carol herself.  Which is something, to be sure, but I can't help but feel that the first female headliner in the MCU deserved better.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

The 2019 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

Part 2 of my ballot covers a lot of the "fun" categories, the ones that get a lot of nominations.  In several of them, it can be pretty easy to guess who the nominees will be, with or without your input.  Still, there's room here for off the wall choices, and for a reminder of how even the most mainstream work can still expand the genre's boundaries and do new things.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Related Work:

As usual, I haven't done nearly enough reading in this category, to the extent that it's hard for me to even imagine how it might shake out.  The recommendation list in this year's Hugo spreadsheet, for example, includes books, essay series, individual essays, and even a recipe (which I've made, by the way, and highly recommend, though I wasn't planning to nominate it for this award).  I will, however, point out that my series A Political History of the Future, which started publication at Lawyers, Guns & Money in 2018, is eligible in this category.

  • "Erin Groans: A Gormenvast Review of Every Adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Titus Books" by Erin Horáková, published at Strange Horizons - Once again, Erin produces the type of in-depth, breathlessly geeky, magnificently erudite deep dive that only she could deliver (and that only Strange Horizons would carry).  This exhaustive review of Gormenghast adaptations covers theater, radio, animation, TV, and even animatronics.  It's not just a survey of how this weird, indefinable, hopelessly flawed work has been adapted, but a meditation on the very concept of adaptation.  As media companies keep trawling the backlogs of genre for the next red-hot IP, "Erin Groans" is an important questioning of what we prioritize when our favorite, idiosyncratic works try to reach a wider audience, and how that process can lose sight of what made those works special in the first place.

Best Graphic Story:

I read a lot of comics in 2018, but I still find myself coming to this category with major gaps in my reading.  In particular, I wish I'd been able to get hold of Ezra Claytan Daniels's Upgrade Soul, and Anna Mill and Luke Jones's Square Eyes (nominated for the Kitschies' Inky Tentacle award for cover art earlier this week), before the nominating deadline.

  • Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal - Collecting strips originally published on Dhaliwal's instagram, Woman World is a wryly funny, low-key twist on a premise, the death of all men, that SF tends to treat with either hysteria or despair.  Its characters, for whom men are figures of myth and confused historical accounts, spend some of their time pondering the lost world represented by the male gender, and Dhaliwal mines some good jokes out of their incomprehension of the fundamental irrationality of our world, such as separate razors for men and women. But for the most part, their lives revolve around what's in them, not what's gone, and the strip's storytelling focuses on a remarkably gentle, humorous post-apocalypse.  (I wrote some more about Woman World, and how science fiction deals with gender in general, in this Political History of the Future entry.)

  • Coda, Volume One by Simon Spurrier and Matías Bergara - If you've been reading fantasy for more than a bit, the concept for this new series from BOOM! might make you roll your eyes.  A post-Tolkien-ian sword & sorcery epic whose sardonic hero keeps poking holes at the heroic conventions of the genre?  Haven't we seen this a million times before?  Well, maybe, but Coda's execution is fresh and delightful, and its main character, a misanthropic ex-bard wandering a landscape left blasted by the final battle against a dark lord, trying to free his warrior wife from a curse, is instantly relatable.  Bergara's almost Seussian artwork gives the comic's world a personality all its own, while remaining true to the conventions of the genre.  This is a fantastic new series.

  • Eternity Girl by Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew - This remarkable miniseries from DC's late, lamented Young Animal imprint takes Chrysalis, a twelfth-tier, much repurposed superhero and uses her to tell an utterly unique story, about a woman who wants to die but is too powerful to achieve it, and decides the only way is to destroy the universe.  Visaggio's story works on multiple levels--as a narrative of depression, as a metafictional meditation on how superhero comics keeps bringing back minor characters and slotting them into new roles and genres, and as a cosmic story about the end of the world, which invents an entire backstage for the universe that is weird and fascinating.  Liew's artwork does a good job of separating the various story strands, and creating the sense that this is both a powerful metaphor for mental illness, and an adventure in which the fate of the universe is at stake.

  • On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden - The first thing you notice about Walden's brick of a graphic novel is the artwork.  Mostly black with splashes of color, it is both a classic take on space, and a completely novel one.  Walden's galaxy is dotted with human outposts, asteroid fragments and floating structures where bizarre animal species and even stranger human cultures flourish.  Spaceflight is achieved aboard semi-organic ships, and space itself is prone to multicolored, reality-bending storms.  Into this extremely different slant on space opera, Walden introduces a gentle but resonant story, about a young woman who takes work on a spaceship while thinking back to her school days and recalling her first love, with a mysterious girl from a little-known outpost.  It's as purely SFnal a story as I've read in comics this year, and a great example of the genre.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

At some point last year I complained that 2018 wasn't delivering the same caliber of genre films as 2017, and though I still stand by that overall assessment, there's no denying that last year also delivered some of the all-time highlights of SFF filmmaking.  There are a few films I was hoping to watch before the nominating deadline--to my shame, I still haven't seen Annihilation--but my current ballot is so strong that it's hard to imagine anything on it being unseated.

  • Black Panther (review) - I suppose there's no chance that Infinity War won't make it onto this year's ballot, and beyond the fact that it is an objectively bad movie, it seems especially ridiculous to recognize it in a year like this one, when the MCU achieved its creative height (so far?  I suppose there's Black Panther 2 to look forward to) with this movie.  Not just a cultural phenomenon, but a marvel of worldbuilding and smart, politically aware writing.  Black Panther not only sets a benchmark for what superhero films can achieve--in their construction of imaginary worlds, in their handling of real-world politics, in the space they give to multiple, varied female characters, and in the creation of multifaceted, complex villains--it is also an exciting work of science fiction, a meditation about the responsibilities of a post-scarcity utopia towards the world around it that incorporates race and racism in a way that few treatments of this subject have done.

  • Sorry to Bother You (review) - The most original, boundary-pushing SF film of 2018 by far, not only because of its gonzo third act twist, but because of its focus on matters like labor rights and organization.  One of the things I've noticed in writing A Political History of the Future is that we're seeing more and more SF addressing the future of work, from the issue of automation to the question of how labor organizing might work in space.  Sorry to Bother You fits perfectly in that tradition, as a movie in which unionizing is an important, necessary step towards building a better world.  As important as it is for the Hugos to recognize works like Black Panther, I think it's equally vital for them to acknowledge Sorry to Bother You as a major work of science fiction film.

  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (review) - It's quite astonishing that in a year that already gave us Black Panther, we somehow got a second superhero movie that breaks the mold in so many ways, expanding the space allotted to diverse characters in the genre, pushing back against its established visual palette, and offering a quietly revolutionary message.  But whereas Black Panther emerged from the well-oiled machine of the MCU, Spider-Verse seemed to come out of nowhere, a shot in the dark at a character whose rights-holders have spent the last decade flailing.  That the result has been so triumphant, on every level, is more than worthy for recognition by the Hugos.

  • Suspiria - It's been a few months since I watched this strange, digressive, overlong horror extravaganza, and I still find it utterly delightful (in a terrible way, of course).  The thing I love best about Suspiria is that it's not just a movie about witches, covens, and murder.  It's also a movie about art, about giving yourself over to the creative instinct, and holding on to your own identity even when you're bringing another artist's work to life.  The way that Suspiria ties that theme to its premise of a witches' coven running a dance troupe is inspired, as are its observations about totalitarianism and how it seeks to control women.  In a ballot that, whatever its other strong points, is pretty strongly dominated by stories about men, it feels important to recognize one in which women take center stage.

  • The Terror, Season 1 - Long-term readers of these posts know that I have an aversion to nominating TV seasons in this category--it often feels like a way of compensating for the fact that TV writers can't write decent, self-contained episodes anymore.  But I make exceptions for self-contained stories, and The Terror, whose first season adapts the Dan Simmons novel, which dramatizes the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, is more than worthy of recognition.  A gorgeous but entirely bleak journey into darkness, The Terror is at its best in its quietest moments, when the doomed sailors and officers of the expedition try desperately to hang on to their humanity and one another, only to realize that they can't.  This is also one of the few dramatic genre works from 2018 to deal, even obliquely, with environmentalism, with the entire disaster of the doomed expedition occurring because of the Victorian assumption that white men can always triumph over nature, and nature striking back.  (Sady Doyle has an excellent meditation on the series that discusses its connection to environmentalism and environmental racism.)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • DC's Legends of Tomorrow, "The Good, the Bad, and the Cuddly"- Legends of Tomorrow really came into its own in its third season, finally becoming the Doctor Who-esque romp it was always trying to be.  This episode, the third season finale, sees the show's team of misfits and also-ran superheroes teaming up against a time-destroying demon with their typical lack of self-seriousness, which culminates in the creation of a giant plush doll to act as their joint champion.  No other show on TV is doing anything as weird, as silly, or as kind.

  • The Good Place, "Janet(s)"- I had some reservations about the third season of The Good Place, but "Janet(s)" is one of the show's top episodes, a crowning demonstration of how this show manages to do so much in only a fraction of what other, more prestigious shows take for granted.  In a mere 22 minutes, "Janet(s)" gives D'Arcy Carden a tremendous showcase, expands its cosmological worldbuilding, tools around with the weighty question of identity and continuity of consciousness, and gives us a major romantic moment for Chidi and Eleanor.  This is TV writing at its best and most adventurous.  (I could also make a case for "Jeremy Bearimy", and might in fact end up nominating The Good Place multiple times, but "Janet(s)" is, to my mind, the season's standout episode.)

  • The Haunting of Hill House, "Two Storms" - This is another show that I had problems with, particularly in the follow-up to this episode.  But "Two Storms" is Hill House at its best, marrying formal inventiveness--the entire episode is told in a series of long takes that carry the characters forward and backward in time--with the show's deep understanding of grief, guilt, and painful family connections.  As the Crain family come together for a private viewing of the body of their recently-deceased youngest daughter and sister, her ghost haunts them both literally, and in flashes of the past.  It's the perfect encapsulation of the show's mixture of horror and sorrow.

  • Marvel's Cloak & Dagger, "Lotus Eaters" - Someone should analyze the reasons why, as the skill of writing a decent standalone episode has atrophied from seemingly every genre show's writers' room, the sole exception has been the time loop episode.  It's quite common for episodes like this to become a high point of their show, but Cloak & Dagger, a well-kept secret that has quickly become Marvel TV's most impressive foray, does even better.  This hour, in which heroes Tyrone and Tandy become stuck in a coma patient's mind, treats the time loop as a psychological, rather than practical, trap, with Tyrone scrambling to persuade Tandy to let go of the past, even as her mind is shredded by endless repetition.  It's beautifully done and extremely moving.

  • The X-Files, "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" - For the most part, The X-Files revival was a rather pointless exercise, and season 11 was particularly terrible.  But the sole exception is this episode, a mercifully standalone hour that feels like the sort of thing Black Mirror would deliver if it had more heart.  Nearly wordless--every bit of communication is carried out by app screens and automated devices--the episode expertly uses Mulder and Scully, their well-worn chemistry and individual warmth, to breath life into what might otherwise have been a cynical fable about technology depersonalizing us.  It's a glimpse of what the new X-Files might have been, but also a delightful hour in its own right.