Wednesday, February 06, 2019

It's Easy to Be a Saint in Paradise: Thoughts on The Good Place's Third Season

The Good Place is the best show on television. I don't even see how there could be a debate at this stage. No other show combines such lofty ambitions with such graceful execution, such weighty themes with such a total lack of self-seriousness. It succeeds on every one of the many levels it operates on—as an uproariously funny comedy, as a touching relationship drama, as a thought-provoking philosophical treatise on goodness and self-improvement, and as a gonzo feat of fantastic worldbuilding.

It's also a show that—with its typical earnestness—pokes holes in all the hallowed truisms about what a prestigious, "serious" TV show is supposed to look like. Game of Thrones has got everyone convinced that character death is the only way to achieve meaningful drama? On The Good Place, everyone is already dead, and the only serious threat to the characters' wellbeing—that of being tortured for eternity—is so over the top and inconsistent with the show's comedic tone that it could clearly never happen. And yet the show frequently packs a heftier punch than any dozen other more serious dramas. It aired on January 24th, and yet I doubt that TV in 2019 will deliver a more harrowing, quietly devastating moment than Chidi and Eleanor's farewell at the end of the third season. And in a landscape still so Lost-struck that it views out-of-nowhere twists as the highest form of serialized writing, The Good Place repeatedly reminds us how hard that sort of thing is to do well. Every one of the show's revelations—and the third season delivers not one but two whoppers—has been seeded well in advance, not as part of a mystery to be solved, but as a component of a system to be worked out. That feeling of "yes! I knew it!" you get when the show reveals that, for example, no one has gotten into the real good place in five hundred years, is more satisfying than a dozen island hatches.

All of which is to say that it can be a bit intimidating to express criticism or skepticism about The Good Place's worldbuilding, because odds are that your reaction is the point, all the way back to "wait, the afterlife in this show doesn't make any sense" in the first season. Nevertheless, I find myself troubled by some of the conclusions the show reaches in its third season and where it proceeds from them. Maybe the fourth season will demonstrate that my reaction was the one the writers were hoping for, or maybe we've bumped up against the limitations of the show's core assumptions. Time will tell.

The third season of The Good Place continues the show's penchant for constant reinvention. In its first few episodes, the damned human protagonist are given a second chance on Earth to demonstrate that they are capable of becoming better people, and eventually—with the help of reformed demon Michael and all-knowing being Janet—reunite and form a support group for their efforts at self-improvement. This already-tenuous status quo is quickly overturned when Michael and Janet accidentally reveal themselves and are forced to spill the beans, thus re-damning the group—now that they know about the point system that determines who gets into the good and bad places, they can no longer gain points because any good action they take will be in expectation of moral desserts. (It's indicative of the sheer conceptual tonnage of this show that an idea this fraught and open to debate—why is it bad to do good things in the expectation of a reward?—is just left on the table as an assumption we all need to accept, in order to deal with even weightier concepts.)

From here, the show quickly launches itself back into its familiar combination of cosmic and philosophical. In the midst of their efforts to help other people turn their lives around, the gang discovers that no one, no matter how virtuous, selfless, and careful not to inflict harm on the world, has gotten into the good place in centuries. Which leads to a sort of revolt against heaven, and finally the conclusion that what's at fault is capitalism itself—that in the system of exploitation, inequality, and endless supply chains in which we all live, even selfless, generous acts become objectively harmful behavior.

It must be acknowledged that this is all carried off with a verve and degree of skill that are simply exhilarating to behold. The early episodes of the season, in which the gang return to earth, are not my favorite use of the show's premise, but nevertheless they offer many pleasures: Tahani's romance with Larry, the least-successful Hemsworth brother (Ben Lawson); Janet's frustration at no longer possessing her powers of omniscience and omnipotence ("humans only live eighty years, and they spend so much of it just waiting for things to be over!"); perhaps most importantly, the introduction of Simone (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Chidi's colleague, foil, and eventual love interest. And the string of episodes after the gang learns the truth about the point system contains some of the show's absolute highlights, from Eleanor's anguish and fury when she realizes that her neglectful mother was capable of change, but not for her, to Chidi's collapse into nihilism in the face of learning the full extent of the universe's absurdity.

In rewatching the season before writing this essay, I was struck by Michael's character arc, and the way it mirrors both Eleanor's growth earlier in the show, and the core principles espoused by Chidi's touchstone text, T.M. Scanlon's What We Owe to Each Other. Michael starts out obsessed with saving the gang. "These four humans are all I care about in the universe", he tells his former boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), and later, when trying to justify his repeated interference in the humans' lives, he desperately exclaims to Janet that "this is all we have!" But when he realizes that the point system is fundamentally broken, something shifts for Michael. By the end of the season, he's angrily exclaiming at the committee that oversees the good place over their slowness to act in the face of his news: "Just so you know, the whole time you're doing this, the bad guys are continuing to torture everyone who ends up in the bad place. Which is everyone!" Ethics, in the show's world (and maybe also in ours), begin with the personal and expand to the universal. Eleanor's first truly selfless act came when she realized that keeping her secret in the first season was hurting Chidi. By the third season, she's the one arguing for the gang to ignore their immutable damnation and work to help others avoid the same fate.

Focusing so much on the personal makes sense for a television series, which after all tend to be rooted in their characters. But it doesn't sit entirely well with what the season eventually reveals about The Good Place's cosmology. A lot of people were excited by the show's confirmation that there is no ethical consumption (or rather, no ethical action) under capitalism. But am I the only person who was bothered by where the series chose to go from there?

It makes sense for Michael, while he still believes that the point system is being tampered with by the bad place, to argue that it needs to be reviewed and reformed. But after he realizes that it's not the point system, but the world that is broken, it's rather unclear what his proposed remedy is. Like so many others, I don't know what the correct response is to the realization that capitalism forces us to participate in the exploitation and immiseration of others. But I'm pretty sure that changing the definition of "good" so that it excludes these unintended but still very real negative consequences is not it. Yes, Michael's approach has a solid justification in that all humans who ever lived are being subjected to eternal torture, but surely the solution to that is to stop torturing, full stop, instead of trying to redefine the types of people who "deserve" to be tortured? At the very least, we've reached a point where the show's worldbuiding, with its focus on the afterlife, ceases to be useful as any sort of philosophical or ethical thought experiment.

Even the solution proposed by Michael and the gang—try to recreate the anomalous results of the first season by creating a new neighborhood, peopling it with new people who have failed to get into the good place, and demonstrating that they too can become better—raises some uncomfortable questions. "[Michael's] neighborhood gave us the chance to become better people because it removed all the variables that make life on Earth hard" Chidi explains, and Eleanor adds "there was no rent to pay, no racism, no sexism".

But, well, that's the point. Ethics doesn't—or rather, shouldn't—exist in a frictionless sphere. There's no point to learning how to be good in a world that doesn't exist. And conversely, what is the point of becoming a better person when you no longer have the ability to affect the world on any level but the most personal? How can you go from realizing that the world is broken to concluding that the best possible response is to remove people from it and put them in an artificial reality where that brokenness can no longer affect them?

Take, for example, Simone, who arrives at the new neighborhood at the end of the season, as part of Shawn's plot to undermine the experiment by making Chidi too nervous to interact with her and "help" her towards becoming a good person. But the thing is, Simone already was a good person. Everything we see of her in the season's early episodes shows her to be decent, kind, level-headed, and good-humored. Unless there are deep dark secrets buried in her past, the only reason a person like her wouldn't get into the good place is the fact that, like the rest of us, she participated in capitalism and indirectly caused the suffering of others. Which means that simply by existing in the new neighborhood, which is disconnected from the capitalist system and where there is no exploitation, Simone will start accumulating points on her own. This tells us nothing about ethics, or trying to be good in general.

Once you realize how limited the characters' approach is, you start to realize why the earlier parts of the season, back on earth, felt so awkward (and maybe that's an indication that you're meant to have this reaction, which the fourth season will build on, just as previous seasons have built on previous dissatisfied reactions to their worldbuilding). It was one thing for our heroes to live a post-scarcity, obligation-free afterlife in the first season. But the third season recreates that scenario in the allegedly real world, positing that four people with absolutely no reason to know or spend time with one another would drop everything to form a bizarre support group that takes up all of their time. Even if you account for Michael's interference in the humans' lives to make this happen (which continues when the pressures of real life threaten to tear the group apart, as when Eleanor's funds start running low), it's clear that this isn't a plausible set of actions.

More importantly, it isn't a particularly believable path towards enlightenment, not when every possible obstacle in the characters' path is swept (or, as Michael has it, snowplowed) aside before they can even notice it. It's easy—or at least, easier—to dedicate yourself to self-improvement when you have no financial constraints, no dependents, no immigration police chasing after you, no real contact with your old life and its complications. To its credit, the show acknowledges this. But its solution isn't to fix the world so that more people will have the wherewithal to work on themselves. It's that these specific people get to opt out of every difficulty inherent in living a good life except the ones rooted in their own personal hang-ups.

Again, the show has a justification for all these convolutions of plot, because it is trying to prevent a specific outcome: the four humans being tortured for all eternity. But I'm not sure you can introduce a concept as weighty as the fact that all of us are complicit in suffering and enslavement into your story, and continue to expect your audience to maintain its laser-like focus on four more-or-less privileged characters. Especially when you consider that "we're all complicit" is a rather glib pronouncement, one that ignores the profound inequalities imposed by capitalism. It's all very well and good for Jason to explain that his friend, who was burdened by family obligations, had no time to wonder whether the vegetables he bought in the supermarket were farmed by exploited workers, but what about those workers themselves? Are they doomed to the same torment as the people who thoughtlessly perpetuate their suffering?

There comes a point where focusing on your own self-improvement in the midst of a broken world becomes, in itself, an unethical act. Especially if that self-improvement is achieved by retreating from the world—as people who are lauded by the show as ethical do even before the idea of a new neighborhood is broached; Tahani goes to live in a remote monastery, and Doug Forcett (Michael McKean), the blueprint for ethical living, has gone so completely off the grid that he only drinks his own filtered waste. Once more, it is entirely possible that I was meant to have this reaction, and that in its fourth season, The Good Place will once again overturn everything we thought we had understood about its cosmology in a brilliant and completely satisfying way. But there has always been an uncomfortably neoliberal undertone to this show, down to the way that it boils ethics down to consumer choices, and I can't help but fear that it will end as it started, prioritizing the personal above all else. At this stage in the story, I'm not sure that would be the right thing to do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Illusion of Free Will: On "Bandersnatch" and Interactive Fiction

After seven years, four seasons, eighteen episodes and two specials, the conversation around Black Mirror seems to have settled itself into distinct camps. There are those who see it as a meaningful commentary on the growing role of technology in modern society and the pitfalls of our growing dependence on it. And there are those who decry it as a cynical, reflexively anti-tech exercise in nastiness. I tend to think of myself as falling between the two extremes—there are a lot of ideas in Black Mirror that I find interesting and unique, especially when it comes to the intersection of technology and capitalism; but I often feel as if many of them have happened largely by accident. The show's latest foray, however, the interactive movie "Bandersnatch", written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, has shaken my indulgence. Not only does it revel in some of Black Mirror's worst excesses, it's also an extremely bad example of interactive fiction, at a moment when the form is enjoying a creative flowering.

"Bandersnatch" follows a young computer programmer, Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who in 1984 pitches a game publisher on a game based on the cult novel Bandersnatch, whose author went mad and killed his wife. Bandersnatch, the novel, is a choose-your-own-adventure book, and Stefan's selling point for the game is the heretofore-unprecedented ability to give players a sense of control over the story they experience. So almost at once, the film sets up several layers of meta-fiction—not only the game-based-on-a-book-within-a-movie, but the fact that Stefan is trying to sell the type of narrative he himself is living within. It's also a reminder that, as with 3D projection, the entertainment industry has taken cracks at interactive fiction on more than one occasion, usually for pure business reasons, and rarely to any great effect.

The film wastes little time in confronting the viewer with choices, some as trivial as choosing which breakfast cereal Stefan wants for breakfast, and others as fraught as deciding whether to kill someone. The viewer can take Stefan on story paths that end up involving drug trips, government conspiracies, time travel, and emotional breakdowns.

Unfortunately, it very quickly becomes clear that "Bandersnatch"'s creators have placed far too many eggs in the novelty basket, neglecting to give the individual branches in their multi-branch story a reason to exist in their own right, or anything resembling a common theme. We get glib pronouncements on the creative process, as when Stefan's idol, the bad-boy game programmer Colin (Will Poulter), advises him to work on the game alone, because "teams are fine for things like action titles, but when it's a concept piece... bit of madness is what you need, and that works best when it's one mind". And we get the poisonous equation of mental illness and creativity, as in a story-path in which Stefan agrees to up the dosage on his psychiatric medication, and subsequently produces a game that is dismissed by a reviewer as having been written "on autopilot".

The closest the film comes to genuine wit is when Stefan starts to realize that some of the choices he's making are not of his own free will, and even fights them off. This can lead to darkly humorous scenes in which he asks the viewer's advice, and then acts disgusted at our choices, or a sequence in which we can try to explain to him what Netflix is. But it's a concept that, like many others in Black Mirror, outstays its welcome to very little effect. It's all very well to point out that a character in a work of fiction doesn't have free will (and this is trivially true whether it's the author or the viewer who is making the characters' decisions for them) but it's not what one might call a particularly interesting observation.

As many commentators have noted by now, it is more fruitful to discuss "Bandersnatch" as a game than as a film, and especially in the current moment, in which interactive fiction of its type has been enjoying a surge of popularity. When Netflix first announced its intention to develop interactive entertainments, there was no small amount of skepticism expressed, including by people who remember some of the previous iterations of this concept. An obvious counterpoint to these reactions would have been to point to the success and cultural penetration of recent walking- and conversation-simulators like Gone Home (Fullbright, 2013) or Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016). Obviously, the audience for this kind of interactive narrative experience exists, so why shouldn't a work like "Bandersnatch" capitalize on it?

The semi-derogatory term walking simulator is an oversimplified way of describing a game whose purpose is to carry the player through a narrative. While there are usually simple tasks the player needs to carry out in order to advance the story—go to this location, find that item—these are often little more than tokens, and some walking simulators, like Gone Home, are merely a structureless exploration of a single location. A conversation simulator also gives the player the ability to choose different dialogue options (or not to speak at all) which affects the game's narrative. In the eerie ghost story Oxenfree (Night School Studio, 2016), the player character's dialogue choices affect her relationships with the other characters, and make subtle changes to the game's ending.

In theory, "Bandersnatch" offers the player more freedom and control than your average walking simulator game. The reality is quite different, however, which can tell us a great deal about why "Bandersnatch" fails, and what it is that makes these games appealing. In Firewatch, for example, you play a lonely park ranger traipsing back and forth across a patch of Wyoming wilderness, with only the voice of a friendly but potentially untrustworthy colleague for company. The game offers the player no meaningful choices, locking them into a single story path and only allowing them to choose dialogue options. And yet it is undeniable that the experience of watching—or rather, playing—"Bandernatch" is much less engaging than an average playthrough of Firewatch. Is it because Firewatch has a better story? Or is it because the feeling of exploration you get from directing the player character is more satisfying than the actual ability to control the narrative in "Bandersnatch", which aside from its decision points gives you no control over its storytelling, down to the camera angles?

Some walking simulators, like Gone Home or Fullbright's follow-up Tacoma (2017), resemble immersive theater far more any game. And as in an experience like Sleep No More, the participant choices are expressed not in how they affect the story, but in how they choose to consume it—where they choose to look, what scene they choose to follow. In Tacoma, you visit a space station that has been evacuated and watch recordings of the crew in the hours following a disaster. You can choose to rewind the recordings, following different characters each time, or focusing on crowd scenes. There's nothing you can do to affect the story, which ended before your character arrived on the station. But your active exploration of it creates a sense of participation that is far more engaging than anything "Bandersnatch" has to offer.

The more you look at games of this type, in fact, the more obvious it becomes that no one actually wants to be able to make up the story they're consuming. Even if you move away from pure walking simulators like Gone Home, choice is something that designers have to carefully corral and shepherd, finally reducing it to an illusion. The mega-hit Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment, 2015) based its entire storyline on the issue of choice, even giving its player character the power to rewind time and change her choices after she's made them. A major throughline in the game involves the heroine's choices affecting the state of mind of one of her friends, which ultimately determines whether the player can stop her from committing suicide. But in the end, the only choice in the game that actually matters is the final one, and whichever option you choose, it will negate all of your previous choices, either by winding back time to the beginning of the game's events, or by allowing everyone you've interacted with and affected to die.

Even a game like Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall, 2017), which distances itself from other walking simulators by taking the form of a side-scrolling platformer and including some rudimentary running and jumping challenges, uses choice sparingly, to the extent of not even having a final choice. The entire final encounter with the game's chief menace is essentially a cut-scene without even any diverging dialogue options. The only effect your choices earlier in the game—to explore side-quests and get to know minor characters—have is to give this final confrontation deeper layers of meaning and significance. Oxenfree, meanwhile, leans into the expectation that players will repeat the game multiple times in order to get slightly different configurations of its ending by revealing that its heroine is stuck in a time loop, so that ultimately no choice in any individual playthrough can be said to have a lasting effect.

All of these games are deeply satisfying as both narratives and playing experiences—far more so than "Bandersnatch", which on the surface level gives the player more control over its story. The conclusion is inescapable: the impression of control and agency is much more important, when creating interactive fiction, than the actual ability to determine the story's direction and conclusion. On the contrary, giving the player, viewer, or reader complete control over a story is recipe for dissatisfaction. If you think back to the Choose Your Own Adventure books you read as a kid, were any of them particularly fun as stories? Or was it simply the novelty of skipping back and forth and trying to find the good ending (which is a lot faster and easier in a book than in a movie where you have to sit through the same scenes again and again) that kept you entertained?

The reason that letting the audience choose its own story keeps failing when the entertainment industry tries it is that it's a bad idea. It's the author's job to write the story. They can then choose a way to convey that story that gives the reader freedom in how they experience it. But if the story itself is merely a loose collection of different options, each in a different genre and with a completely different tone, then what they've created isn't a coherent work, but a self-indulgent mess—like "Bandersnatch", in fact.

In fairness, the film itself eventually reaches this very conclusion. In its most satisfying and thematically coherent ending (and the one the film signposts as the "correct" ending, since it's the only one in which Stefan produces a game that gets a five-star rating) it has Stefan explain that "I've been trying to give the player too much choice. So I just went back, stripped loads out. Now they've only got the illusion of free will. But really, I decide the ending". The problem is that the film presents this as a revelation—a slightly sinister one, in fact, in keeping with the unconvincing parallel it keeps trying to draw between "Bandersnatch"'s storytelling method and the philosophical question of free will. When in fact, it's doubtful that any game publisher would hand their biggest release over to a developer who did not already know this extremely basic fact of narrative design.

Or maybe this is simply the latest expression of Black Mirror's tendency to prioritize gimmicks over any real engagement with challenging concepts. It's actually a bit difficult to get to the five-star ending. Or at least, it is if you're trying to make the right choices for Stefan and give him a happy life. The only way for Stefan to have enough time to make the game of his dreams, it turns out, is to kill his father. And the more times you resist "Bandernatch"'s urging to do this, the more likely it is that Stefan won't be able to finish his game even if you do give into it. So if you play the entire film without killing Stefan's father until you're forced to, you still won't be able to get to the "good" ending without starting over and playing again.

In other words, the game corrals you into making a morally reprehensible choice, and then—as in this interview with Slade, in which he talks about the viewers' complicity with Stefan's act—chastises you for it. The gaming industry has for years been rife with games that scold their players for playing them, and it's not surprising that a show as prone to glib cynicism as Black Mirror would dive headlong into that impulse. But it's not a conclusion that any self-respecting viewer should be satisfied with.

If anything good comes of "Bandersnatch", it'll be that more people discover the rich, fascinating world of interactive fiction as it's being expressed in the gaming industry. It might also spur a conversation about why those games work (and why "Bandersnatch" doesn't) that could finally lay to rest the notion that there's any value in an author abdicating their responsibility to tell a story. As for "Bandersnatch" itself, perhaps it's best to take its protagonist's exhortations seriously, and just choose not to play.

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 Isaac R. 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.

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Political History of the Future: State Tectonics by Malka Older, at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column is up at Lawyers, Guns & Money, discussing State Tectonics, the concluding volume of Malka Older's Centennal Cycle.  As I wrote in my review of the first volume in the sequences, Infomocracy, these are not terribly exciting books in terms of plot, but they make up for that with the breadth and richness of their worldbuilding, and more than that, by their willingness to imagine a geopolitical future that is not simply post-democratic.  Older tries to envision how a future democracy that is different, but still suffers from many of the same problems, as ours might look like, and the result is fascinating and thought-provoking.
The point of the Centennal Cycle books, as I see it, is not to offer a plausible alternative to our current democratic system, but to encourage us to ask questions about how that system is organized, and whether we could make different choices that could lead to better outcomes. The idea of a non-contiguous political entity, for example, one that is united by shared policy preferences rather than ethnic or national identity, is an intriguing one. So is the notion of expanding the concept of political parties past national lines (though on a darker note, it also has its echoes in discussions we've had on this site about the trans-national nature of many far-right, supremacist movements). It's not so much that you'd want to pursue any of these ideas in the real world, as that they provide an interesting thought experiment with which to expand your understanding of what government is and can be.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Review: The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman, at Strange Horizons

Today at Strange Horizons I review Isaac R. Fellman's The Breath of the Sun, a remarkably assured debut that challenged me to fully capture it.  As I write in my opening paragraph, it's a novel that invites comparisons, but is also very much its own thing:
There are any number of neat, one-sentence ways to sum up Isaac R. Fellman's The Breath of the Sun. You could describe it as a cross between Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria (2013), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997). You could sum it up as a fantasy-world fictionalization of the first summit of Everest, in which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are both women, and one of them is a wizard. And you could even make an argument for the book as a Nabokovian meta-narrative, in which both the narrator and her first and only reader try to puzzle out what actually happened, juxtaposing the story with later observations and documentary evidence. 
These are all accurate descriptions—and, I hope, enticing ones. But they don't quite do The Breath of the Sun justice.
The novel itself is a climbing memoir in a fantasy land where mountains reach well beyond the atmosphere and scientist-priests use magic to craft pressure suits and hot air balloons.  It's about exploration, religion, and obsessive love.  It's unlike anything else I've read this year, and I strongly urge you to seek it out.

While I have you, allow me to recommend two other recent pieces in Strange Horizons that are well worth your time.  First, Erin Horáková follows up the epic "Kirk Drift" with "Erin Groans: A Gormenvast Review of Every Adaptation of Mervyn Peake's Titus Books".  Which, well, does what it says on the tin, with a typically thorough Erin exploring stage adaptations, radio plays, and weird art projects.  It's a great exploration of how this odd, indescribable work has inspired artists in multiple mediums, and how they've struggled with its nuances.  Second, Samira Nadkarni offers what must be, hands-down, the most thorough and thoughtful review of Venom, discussing the way that issues of race, colonialism, and disability are filtered through the film's plot about an irreverent alien parasite taking over a hapless human.  It's a wonderful example of how to take a serious approach to an inherently silly work.