Friday, January 19, 2018

Night in the Woods


You've probably heard about Night in the Woods even if you haven't played it, or have only a vague idea what it is.  Released by indie studio Infinite Fall last year after a highly-successful kickstarter campaign, the game, an adventure-slash-ghost-story starring anthropomorphic animals who live in a dying Rust Belt town, is an irresistible combination of cute and spooky.  Its story, in which twenty-year-old college dropout Mae returns to her home of Possum Springs, reconnects with her friends and family, and slowly begins to realize that there are dark doings afoot, seems designed to appeal to a certain type of young fan, with its themes of early-adulthood aimlessness, coming of age, and mental illness.  Graphics from the game have been cropping up on my twitter feed and tumblr dash for months, almost instantly iconic due to the game's simple yet evocative (and expertly-executed) design.  What surprised me, however, when I finished the game last week and went looking for in-depth discussions of it, is how little talk there seems to have been about Night in the Woods's politics.  To me, they feel not just important, but like the key to the entire exercise.

My first play-through of Night in the Woods was a little disappointing.  The game was beautifully animated, with a rich, wide world, well-drawn characters, and a fairly simple mechanic (especially for someone like me, who prefers the absolute minimum of key-mashing in her gaming).  But it also felt rather aimless.  Despite its title, Night in the Woods actually takes place over roughly two weeks following Mae's return to Possum Springs.  Each day she wakes up in her childhood bedroom, chats with her exasperated but loving parents, leaves home to wander around the center of town, and then hangs out with some subset of her closest friends: irrepressible bad boy Gregg; his boyfriend, the decent and dependable Angus; and caustic Bea, who has been forced into an early adulthood by her mother's death and father's emotional collapse.  Slowly, elements of the uncanny begin to reveal themselves.  Mae begins having strange, disturbing dreams.  At the town's Halloween celebration, she seems to witness a reveler being kidnapped by a mysterious figure.  And the local police keeps warning her off sticking her nose where it doesn't belong.  

But this part of the story takes a while to reveal itself.  The game's first half feels rather slow and a little pointless, which only makes its final act feel more rushed after all that buildup.  It was only when I played Night in the Woods a second time (and armed with information from its fan-wiki about areas of the game and side-quests that I'd missed) that it became clearer to me what it was trying to do.  Far from being the goal-oriented story that its supernatural component suggests, Night in the Woods cares a great deal more about Mae's relationships, and about her understanding of herself.  The repetitiveness of its story is designed to allow her to build (and in some cases, rebuild) friendships, rediscover her town, and slowly work her way towards admitting the reasons she dropped out of college.  In one instance, Mae can choose to spend a portion of each day visiting the church where her mother, Candy, works as an administrator.  These visits help to repair the frayed relationship between mother and daughter (which is rocked by a vicious fight halfway through the game), and if you repeat them often enough, Candy will invite you on an outing to "Jenny's Field", where she tells you a story about the person the field was named after, a child who fell into a sinkhole while walking with her mother.

In the moment, this might seem like nothing but a cute scene (and a way of racking up an achievement), but the more you play Night in the Woods, the more important, and multifaceted, the image of the sinkhole becomes.  At the most basic level, they are a menace that is plaguing the town, which the overstretched public works department can't get ahead of.  From Candy's perspective, the image of a mother losing her daughter in an instant probably resonates with her own fears for Mae.  Meanwhile, Mae herself, who has a history of emotional problems and even psychotic breaks, sees the sinkhole as a representation of her own capacity to simply drop away from reality.  Later in the game, Mae is ominously told by a friend's grandmother that "you've got a dark spot in you".  Though the woman immediately claims to be kidding, Mae angrily replies that "I'm not just an offing shell for my problems to walk around in".

Beyond the personal level, the sinkhole represents the dwindling fortunes of Possum Springs, a town that is literally rotting from its center as businesses close down and buildings are abandoned, as well as "a hole at the center of everything", the place where the malevolent being that Mae and her friends end up confronting has hidden itself.  When Mae searches for this creature, she ends up falling into an underground lake in an image that clearly echoes the way Jenny fell into the sinkhole in Candy's story.  The way this single image keeps recurring in different guises is just one of the ways in which Night in the Woods layers the personal, the political, and the supernatural over each other until it becomes clear that they are ultimately the same thing.

As Mae explores the town on her daily excursions, she gains insight not only into the lives and personal histories of the people she talks to, but into the history of Possum Springs itself.  Mae is selfish and immature, and in the early parts of the game in particular it quickly becomes clear that she's given very little thought to the struggles of anyone besides herself.  She takes it as a given that her parents will be able to cope with the mortgage they took out to pay for her college, even though her father has been laid off from his manufacturing job and is working at the meat counter in the local supermarket.  And she doesn't seem to realize that Bea, who had to stay in town to run her parents' store, is desperately envious of Mae's educational opportunities, and angry at her for squandering them.  But as much as the purpose of Mae's exploration is to open her eyes to other people's suffering, it also serves to educate her, and us, about the political and economic currents that have brought that suffering about.

I'm struggling to think of a recent work of pop culture--not just games, but film and TV as well--that so brazenly incorporates progressive, pro-labor politics and buzzwords into its story.  Characters who speak to Mae frequently lament the loss of unions, and observe that the bosses at the few businesses left in town would fire anyone who even tried to organize their workers.  Mae speaks to an old woman, Miss Rosa, who tells her about her grandfather's history as a firebrand, who once trashed the car of a visiting mining executive.  That same mine has a familiar but resonant history, including lethal accidents caused by the bosses' cost-cutting and indifference, strikes violently broken by the military, and a brief period of prosperity after the unions got their way.  


In the present, that prosperity is long gone, and again that's expressed in explicitly political terms.  Bea laments that austerity and budget cuts mean that basic infrastructure repairs, including to the washed-out bridges out of town, aren't being carried out.  A local WPA-style mural depicting heroic miners is defaced, and when Mae confronts the culprit they struggle to articulate their anger over a promise that has been betrayed.  The new pastor at the church tries to get permission to let a homeless drifter sleep in the basement, but the chamber of commerce, desperate to project an image of progress that might lure in new jobs, turns her down.  Mae's friend Selmers writes "short, cute" poems about heartbreak and her favorite foods, but when she appears at a poetry reading she delivers an enraged diatribe against plutocrats who make more in a day than she could in a century. 

The more you explore the town, the more you poke your nose into even the most irrelevant-seeming corners, the more examples you come across of how economic deterioration is affecting everyone in it, from a former schoolmate of Mae who turns up at every shitty part-time job in town, to clickbait news headlines that advise people struggling with their mortgage to rent out their bathrooms for public use.  The cuteness of its graphics, and the gentle repetitiveness of its gameplay, can serve to obscure the fact that Night in the Woods is a profoundly angry story.  It's this anger that comes to dominate, especially over repeated playthroughs, over the supernatural story that ends up giving the game its shape and climax.


Throughout these adventures, Night in the Woods refuses to separate the personal from the political.  Mae's frequently referenced and slowly exacerbating emotional problems, for example, are not simply a personal issue, but an economic one.  As we find out late in the game, the "Dr. Hank" that she and her mother keep referencing, who has been treating her since a violent breakdown in middle school, isn't a psychologist, but the local GP-slash-dentist, who offers well-meaning but ultimately insufficient remedies for serious mental health issues.  It suddenly becomes clear that Mae might simply not have access to the psychiatric care she so badly needs, which turns a story about one person's struggle into a story about the failure of a badly needed system.

(One place where Night in the Woods fails to make these vital connections is when it comes to race.  The game's basic conceit effectively nullifies any possibility of talking about race, since the characters are all animals, and there doesn't seem to be any Maus-like correlation between specific animals and ethnicities.  And while the role that racial resentment played in dismantling the social safety net is referenced, it's done rather obliquely--a character complains that the government gives money to "lazy people 'n immigrants".  In a game that is otherwise so upfront about social issues, this feels like a glaring omission.)

This refusal to separate the personal from the political continues all the way to the game's climax.  It's not uncommon for horror stories to juxtapose the cosmic and the mundane--as Bea rather blatantly puts it, ghosts scare her a lot less than medical bills and mortgages.  What's interesting, however, is that Night in the Woods refuses this straightforward dichotomy.  The ghost story isn't opposed to the political story, but inextricably tied to it.  When Mae finally confronts her "ghosts", she finds that they both are and are not supernatural creatures, both are and are not a response to the failure and impending death of Possum Springs.  There is a monster, and there are also people so demoralized by the loss of their way of life that they've allowed themselves to become monsters.  Even the imagery used in this sequence works to conflate the two types of horror.  Mae has a vision of her parents' street, but all the houses are gone, and as far as she can see there are only barren fields.  This is a common image from cosmic horror--the post-human world, with all of our tiny efforts swept away.  But it also expresses the more mundane fear that the town's elders have been struggling against, of Possum Springs falling to decay and abandonment, becoming a ghost town.

When Mae confronts the monster, all the things she's been struggling with--cosmic horror, mental illness, her lack of future prospects--combine into one image, a tiny creature facing an immense, powerful being that doesn't care about it.  This is not, as you might expect, a boss fight, and there isn't even a right or wrong choice that the player can make.  But it's here that the choices you've made over the course of the game--to shoot straight through to the ghost story, or to meander and let Mae learn about herself, her friends, and her past--can imbue this scene with added meaning and significance. 

As we've learned over the course of the game, Mae, despite her often infuriating flaws, her seeming inability to cope with reality, is fundamentally strong.  When pushed, she fights back, and protects herself and the people she cares about.  "I'm not going to die in a hole", she announces very shortly after the game's beginning, in what feels at the time like a joke, or even a comment about her recklessness (she ends up in this particular hole by jumping on a pile of discarded timber and causing it to collapse), but ends up being her mission statement.  So it's not surprising when, at the end of the game, Mae chooses defiance.  But the choices we've made throughout the game can give that defiance an added depth--is Mae lashing out blindly, or is she fighting a particular political enemy?

Another way of describing Mae's adventures throughout Night in the Woods is that she's had her consciousness raised.  From a self-absorbed child, she's become a slightly less self-absorbed adult who is at least aware that she is part of chain, a community, and a family.  That knowledge gives her the strength to defy entropy, at least for a while longer.  It's impossible to get to the end of the game without being exposed at least some of its political weight, but the experience is much richer when you've taken the time to get to know Possum Springs and its inhabitants--as expressed in the game's epilogue, when Mae discusses everything she's seen with her friends, and has much more to say in the iterations in which she's done more exploring.

Some fans have described the Night in the Woods's ending as disappointing, and it's easy to see where they're coming from.  Nothing really happens, after all.  Mae doesn't defeat the monster, and the villains she does defeat are sufficiently pathetic that one can't help but join in the characters' horror and guilt at their demise.  But this, too, is part of the game's point and of its political message.  There's no false hope here.  Possum Springs is probably doomed and many of the characters we've come to love probably don't have very bright futures ahead of them.  The triumph is in their willingness to fight (and in their hints of political defiance, such as Bea's membership of a local Socialist group).  Not bad for a story about talking cat people.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Introducing A Political History of the Future at Lawyers, Guns & Money

The political blog Lawyers, Guns & Money has been a favorite hangout of mine for years, both for its sharp and often funny discussions of progressive politics, and for its vibrant, intelligent comment section.  As well as being political junkies, many of the bloggers and commenters at LGM are nerds, and the blog has hosted some great pop culture writing, including by Steven Attewell and the late Scott Erik Kaufman.  So I'm pleased and thrilled to announce a new guest series at LGM, A Political History of the Future.

As I write in my introduction, the focus of this series will be on works of science fiction and fantasy that address topical political issues, particularly from a progressive point of view.  I'm also interested in how science fiction imagines future societies and how they order themselves, and particularly those that are not dystopias and post-apocalypses.  I'm not necessarily looking for "optimistic" futures, but I am interested in ones that are functional.

I've already got a list of works that I'm planning to write about, including books, TV series, and movies.  Hopefully I'll find some comics that also touch on these subjects, and maybe even some games.  (In fact, I recently finished playing Night in the Woods, which is a little outside the scope of this series but also extremely political, and unabashed in bringing up issues like the baleful effect of austerity or the importance of unions.)  I hope you'll read along and comment.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 67 books in 2017, a significant drop from 2016, but one that I was expecting.  More importantly, that drop in quantity was by no means accompanied by a drop in quality.  2017 was easily one of my best reading years, so much so that I've had trouble narrowing down this list to a manageable number of titles.

If I have a problem with 2017's reading, it is that for various reasons, including my New Scientist column, most of the books I read this year were recent ones, and nearly two thirds of them published this year.  Which means that my best of the year list looks a lot like many other lists I've seen published in the last few weeks.  It's been fun feeling up-to-date with the latest hot thing this year (and I'm probably never going to be as well-prepared for voting in the Hugo novel categories as I am now), but I'd like to get back to striking my own, more idiosyncratic path, even if it leaves me out of the ongoing conversation.

As usual, this list is presented in alphabetical order of the author's surname:
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris

    It's amazing to think that this long, dense, expertly-crafted volume was Ferris's first published work.  It feels like the grand capping-off of an illustrious career, not an introduction of an exciting new artist.  The book itself, however, is very much about the emergence and development of a young talent.  In pen-stroke drawings meant to evoke a child's sketchbook, Ferris introduces us to Karen Reyes, a ten-year-old girl growing up in a seedy 1968 Chicago neighborhood.  Karen's life is troubled by her mother's illness, her father's absence, her older brother's emotional problems, and the death of her beloved upstairs neighbor, the Holocaust survivor Anka.  She is also, however, struggling with her own identity--as an artist, as a working class woman of color, as a lesbian, and, as she thinks of it, as a monster, straight out of the schlocky horror movies she loves so much.  Her drawings dash between fantasy and reality, between Chicago in the 60s and Germany in the 30s, as she listens to Anka's recorded testimony of the things she did to survive, which went on to haunt her and may have gotten her killed.  The result is a mystery story, a coming of age tale, a narrative of artistic growth, and a major art object in itself.

  • Human Acts by Han Kang (English translation by Deborah Smith)

    Kang's second novel to be translated into English takes as its focus the Gwangju Uprising, in which pro-democracy activists took over the South Korean city for several days in 1980 before being brutally suppressed by the military dictatorship.  Its perspective, however, is oblique, visiting various participants in the uprising, both dead and alive, in the months, years, and decades following it.  Kang finds them struggling not just with trauma and PTSD, but with knowledge that shatters their ability to participate in society.  These people know what human beings are capable to doing to one another, and that these acts are not a violation of human nature, but an extension of it.  That realization is the subject of the novel, and its force is overpowering precisely because Kang refuses to sensationalize it.  It's a reminder that most of us walk past and accept violations like this in our own countries, and leave the people who have been exposed to them to cope as best they can, and try to make their lives in a world that doesn't value them as it should.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

    As I wrote in my short review of this collection, I couldn't experience Her Body and Other Parties the way readers new to Machado's writing have been doing since its publication in October, because I already had the top of my head taken off by her skill several years ago.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that this is a major and necessary work, one that expands the boundaries of what slipstream literature is capable of while making pointed (and sadly timely) observations about how female bodies are viewed, felt, commodified, and abused.  The women in Machado's stories are sometimes at war with their bodies and sometimes in harmony with them, but in every story their physicality is at the forefront.  In a world that so often alienates women from their bodies--whether by making us hate them, or by keeping us ignorant of them, or by expecting us to tolerate violence against them--Machado's approach feels radical, and unlike what any other author is doing.

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

    Saunders has become so associated with the short form over the course of his storied and much-lauded career that many readers were both fascinated and uncertain when he announced a novel-length work.  What he produced, however, stretches the definition of the novel almost to the breaking point.  Lincoln in the Bardo is more like a play, a polyphonic performance by dozens of characters who constantly break into each other's narratives, speaking over, in response, and in complete ignorance of one another.  The novel is made up of their intercutting voices, as the ghosts in a Georgetown cemetery tell us about their lives and afterlives, and narrate the night after the interment of eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln, the president's son.  As the ghosts try to persuade the new arrival to move on from the limbo they've been caught in, and to influence the grief-stricken president to leave his child's body behind, they reflect on their own choices, and on their own reasons for refusing the next stage of existence.  It's a performance like no other; a masterful experiment in what the novel is capable of.
Honorable Mentions:
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - Hamid's tale of refugeeism is both a love story and a fantasy of borderlessness, a gentle and surprisingly hopeful tale about a world in which people can start over from even the worst calamities.

  • New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson - The most necessary work of 2017, Robinson's novel is funny, erudite, hopeful, and enraged.  It is a vision of both the best and worst possible worlds we can look forward to as the last chances of mitigating climate change slip away.

  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon - A radical reworking of the generation ship story, Solomon's debut rejects realism in favor a pointed contrast between its futuristic setting and a social order resurrected from one of the darkest chapters of history.  It's a reminder that not only is progress sometimes an illusion, but that even the most degraded people can be bold and inquisitive about their world.

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford - After writing semi-novelistic nonfiction about economics, Spufford has produced a historical novel in which money and the power it confers bump up against social mores that are so fundamental, they can barely even be spoken.  Golden Hill is a puzzle novel, and when the key to its puzzle is revealed, one is shocked by how meaningless it should be, and how powerful it actually is.

Friday, December 22, 2017

New Scientist Column Update

If you're a New Scientist subscriber, you can read my latest SF column, in which I discuss Rivers Solomon's debut novel An Unkindness of Ghosts, and M. John Harrison's short story collection You Should Come With Me Now.  I'm sorry that the column has been paywalled, because these are both books that deserve more attention, so if you're not a subscriber I'll sum the column up by saying that you should seek both of them out.

The Solomon, in particular, is a book that I hope to see getting more attention in the coming months (I shouldn't make these kind of pronouncements since I've been so wrong in the past, but I'd be very surprised not to see it on next year's Tiptree list).  It's a book that works hard to wrongfoot its audience--a generation ship story in which not only has racial prejudice persisted into the future, but in which the social order on the spaceship Matilda takes the exact form of antebellum plantation slavery.  It very quickly becomes clear, however, that this puzzled reaction is what Solomon is reaching for.  She isn't aiming for verisimilitude (at one point I described the book to some friends as a counterpoint to Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora) but for discomfort, deliberately imagining a future in which not only have humans not moved past racial prejudice, they've moved backwards.  Into this setting she places a genuinely remarkable heroine--a hard-headed, neruoatypical, gender-nonconforming scientist, who is exactly the sort of person we'd expect to find in a science fiction story, except that she's also a slave.  One of the core accomplishments of An Unkindness of Ghosts is to take people, and a situation, that we're used to seeing purely through a historical lens and make it into a science fiction story, not only in order to make their predicament more immediate, but to remind us that even in situations of absolute degradation, people are capable of being bold, inventive, and curious about their world.

This is also my last column for The New Scientist, who have decided to shake up their SF coverage going into 2018.  I'm sorry to see this feature, which I've had a lot of fun with over the last year, come to an end, but I'm grateful for the magazine's interest and support, and hopeful that I'll continue to write for them in the future.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A few days ago, I reread my review of The Force Awakens, and found myself in the odd position of being completely unable to recognize myself in it.  It's not that I disagree with anything I wrote.  But only two years after the film's opening, it lingers with me so little that the strong feelings I had about its plot, themes, and approach to the broader Star Wars universe feel positively alien.  What has stuck with me are the characters--Rey and Finn and Poe and Kylo Ren--but even that has more to do with the actors' charm and charisma than with the rather underwritten roles the film gives them.  When The Force Awakens came out, there was a lot of conversation about its essentially being a work of fanfic, a fun, well-made rehash of A New Hope without much personality of its own.  Two years later, we're seeing the outcome of that, with the film existing more as a launching pad for the revamped, Disney-owned Star Wars universe than its own entity.

The Last Jedi is very much not this.  Whatever else can be said about this film, it is so much its own thing that I half-wonder whether general audiences won't reject it for being neither the fun romp they associate with Star Wars, nor the grim but still conventionally-structured deviation from the norm that was The Empire Strikes Back.  It is the first Star Wars film to actually try to be about something[1], and what it's about is, well, Star Wars.  It's a film that is in direct conversation with the previous works in this series, most especially Return of the Jedi and the prequels.  It spends slightly more than half its running time fooling you into thinking that it's merely going to recapitulate these movies, only to pull the rug out from under you, along the way asking some pointed questions about the Star Wars's universe's core assumptions.  This doesn't entirely work, but the mere existence of the attempt, in a film universe as little given to self-reflection as this one, is shocking.  It's a Star Wars movie that is interesting.

The Last Jedi takes place very shortly after the events of The Force Awakens.  In its main storyline, Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down an embittered Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a hermit hiding out in the ruins of the first Jedi temple, and tries to convince him to return to the world.  When Luke refuses to either come out of hiding or train Rey in the ways of the Jedi, she's left frustrated and open to the manipulation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who appears to her in visions in which he tries to persuade her to turn to the dark side.  Elsewhere, the First Order's destruction of the central planets of the Republic has left it ascendant and the resistance on the run.[2]  The ragged remnants of the rebellion try to escape the First Order's pursuit, and after Leia (Carrie Fisher) is disabled the fleet is taken over by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  Distrustful of Holdo's closely-kept plans, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) dispatches Finn (John Boyega) and resistance technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to disable the First Order's ability to track the rebel fleet.

That's already quite a lot of story, but The Last Jedi is, in addition, a very oddly structured movie.  It switches between its storylines much more frequently than you'd expect, often stopping in one merely to set a scene or deliver a visual.  Its middle segment is extremely talky and contemplative.  It's not afraid to be weird--A New Hope had blue milk; The Last Jedi has Luke milking a brontosaurus-like creature who gazes at Rey with a resigned expression.  And it's fascinated with the Force as something that can't be put into words, but only visuals.  Rey has a long interlude in which she experiences a vision (clearly a callback to Luke's cave vision from The Empire Strikes Back) that is all about the inscrutability of the Force, designed to make the audience tense, and even frustrated by the lack of answers.  Even concrete accomplishments, such as Rey clearing a pile of rocks blocking her friends' escape, are shot in such a way as to emphasize the wonder and strangeness of what's happening.  The Last Jedi isn't an art film, but it's the closest the Star Wars universe is probably going to get to one, and it's perfectly happy to downplay the straightforward plotting of the previous movies in favor of something more meditative.

The heart of the movie is the Rey-Kylo-Luke triangle.  When Rey first arrives on the planet of Ahch-To, she sees Kylo as an irredeemable villain.  Like so much else about the Star Wars movies, this conviction is driven by the personal.  Kylo had a father who loved him and risked his own life trying to offer him a second chance, and he responded with murder and betrayal.  Rey, who has spent her life longing for a family, can't comprehend that level of rejection.  But as Luke repeatedly refuses to train her and mocks her convictions, she's increasingly drawn to Kylo's insights into her inner turmoil.  She finally becomes convinced that, just as Luke sensed the "conflict" within his father and was able to bring him back to the light, she can do the same with Kylo.  That belief is spurred by her realization that Kylo's origin story is more complicated than she'd been led to believe.  That his descent to the dark side was kickstarted when Luke, realizing how dangerously powerful his nephew was, tried to kill him.[3]

I watched the first half of this storyline with a slowly-mounting feeling of distaste.  Director Rian Johnson, who also wrote the film, seemed to be diving head-on into the worst impulses of The Force Awakens's fandom, and of Hollywood's relentless determination to make excuses for handsome white men and give them second chances.  Some scenes felt as if they'd been lifted, unaltered, from a pro-Kylo tumblr post--"Did you create Kylo Ren?" Rey demands of Luke after finding out about his abortive assassination attempt.  More importantly, there is a sense in these scenes that The Last Jedi expects us to be interested in Kylo, to find him important, to a degree that is simply not earned by the self-absorbed, overgrown child showing up on screen. Aside from his skills with the force (in which he is repeatedly outclassed by Rey) Kylo seems to have no traits that might make him an engaging protagonist. Most of his screen-time is spent whining about his uncle's abuse or allowing himself to be browbeaten by his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  In the face of people like Rey, who raised herself out in the middle of nowhere, or Luke, who spent his life looking for adventure, the amount of investment that The Last Jedi expects us to have in Kylo Ren simply doesn't make sense.

It's enormously rewarding, therefore, when The Last Jedi reveals that yes, Kylo is a person of substance, but no, he isn't worth saving.  Rey's plan works to a T.  Like Luke before her, she presents herself to Kylo and Snoke, and allows herself to be tortured in the belief that her suffering and defiance will shake Kylo out of his passive acceptance of Snoke's power over him.  What follows is a genuinely exhilarating fight scene in which Kylo kills Snoke, frees Rey, and then side-by-side they lightsaber their way through an entire contingent of Snoke's guards.  And then Kylo Ren, finally his own man, freed of the control of the men who have been messing with his head for decades, clear-eyed and of his own free will... makes the decision to become the new Supreme Leader and take over the First Order so that he can rule the galaxy.  He'd like Rey at his side, because he does genuinely care for her, but what really matters to him is power, and that's what he ends up choosing when the choice is finally, truly his.

It's a rebuke, not only to some of the fannish reactions to The Force Awakens, but to the narrative spun by the previous Star Wars films, particularly Return of the Jedi and the prequels.  Rey's plan, after all, is exactly what Luke does to Vader.  But even though that ploy succeeded, when Luke hears what Rey means to do, his response is "this is not going to work out the way you think it will", as if to suggest that he's changed his mind over whether his father actually achieved redemption.  Like Luke in that earlier film, Rey clings to the fact that Kylo is in "conflict" with himself over his actions, but the conclusion the film reaches is that this is meaningless.  People who do bad things are often conflicted about their actions, but that doesn't make them secretly good.  So long as you continue to choose to do evil, you are evil, and the film ends with Rey literally closing the door in Kylo's face over his choice to do just this, in a direct contradiction to how previous Star Wars movies have wanted us to see their villains, both Kylo Ren and Anakin Skywalker.

The problem here is that as hard as The Last Jedi works to argue with some of the core assumptions of the Star Wars universe, it's still very much in thrall to others.  Like nearly every Star Wars movie before it, The Last Jedi is a film in which no one seems to have a firm understanding of what good and evil actually are.  In which the metaphor of the light and dark sides of the force has been allowed to so thoroughly dominate that the actual meaning of it--the idea that people are "on the dark side" when they do bad things to others--is treated almost as an afterthought.  The result is a film about a struggle for a man's soul in which the matter of morality never even comes up.  In which our heroes try to convince a villain to become good without ever articulating either what good is, or why being bad is undesirable.

Despite what The Last Jedi--and most of the previous Star Wars movies--claims, Kylo Ren is not a bad person because he chooses the dark side of the force.  He's a bad person because he is selfish, and thus able to decide that his own goals justify monstrous actions--massacring the villagers at the beginning of The Force Awakens, participating in the destruction of whole planets, or tolerating the enslavement of thousands of storm troopers like Finn.  This is so obvious once you think about it, and so completely short-circuits the film's project with Kylo, that it has to be ignored.  Luke and Rey, who are not selfish people, are therefore made to look monstrous when they behave as if the worst thing Kylo has done is kill his father, and never even try to make the point to him that his choices are causing real harm to real people.[4]  Choosing to become Supreme Leader is yet another in a string of selfish actions that will end up hurting people, and yet when Rey tries to talk Kylo out of it, she has nothing to say on this count, because in all her attempts to reach him, she has never tried to make any sort of moral argument.

It's a gap that makes The Last Jedi's handling of Finn look rather troubling.  Finn is, in many ways, Kylo's mirror image.  Abducted as a child and raised in dehumanizing conditions, he has a justification for being evil that Kylo could only dream of.  And yet at the first opportunity, Finn overcomes his abusive upbringing and chooses to run away from the First Order, because he does not want to hurt helpless strangers.[5]  It's not just that Finn is a better person than Kylo, but that his journey casts into sharp relief Kylo's complete self-absorption, the fact that the fate of other people has never even entered into his calculations.  In light of that fact, Rey's determination to save Kylo seems almost perverse.  One wonders whether it's for this reason that she and Finn are separated for most of The Last Jedi, that he never learns about her connection with Kylo, and that they're only reunited after Kylo chooses to remain evil.

Instead, Finn is relegated to a comedic subplot which largely repeats the beats of his character arc from The Force Awakens.  Initially driven by selfish cowardice, Finn tries to run away from the rebellion, only to be caught by Rose, who then travels with him to the glamorous den of thieves, Canto Bight, in order to find the help they need for their mission.  His experiences with her teach Finn to believe in something greater than himself, to declare his loyalty to the rebellion just as, in The Force Awakens, he declared his loyalty to Rey.  But the juxtaposition between his storyline and Rey's creates some odd resonances.  In one scene, Rose explains that she hates Canto Bight because the rich people who party there made their money by selling arms to both the First Order and the resistance.  The hacker that she and Finn recruit tries to convince him that he needs to look out only for himself, that ultimately there are no good guys or bad guys, only to turn around and betray Finn and Rose to the First Order.  Both experiences teach Finn the importance of standing for something.[6]

It's an important lesson, and establishes The Last Jedi as a coming of age story for all three of its young leads, a moment where they all choose where they stand and what for.  But it's awfully weird for the movie to hold back from calling bad people bad in the Rey-Kylo storyline, and yet go in so hard on people who refuse to pick a side in the Finn-Rose one.  Once again, the fact that in the Star Wars universe evil is so completely associated with the dark side, rather than with the effects of evil acts, ends up making a statement that I suspect Johnson didn't intend.  Rose can point to the concrete effects of the indifference and amorality that run rampant on Canto Bight--the poverty and exploitation experienced by the city's urchins, of whom she was once one.  But Rey can't show Kylo the monstrous effects of his actions, because to do so would force the film to admit that he wasn't worth engaging with in the first place, and that it's only the conventions of the Star Wars story that made us think that he was.

If The Force Awakens was fanfic, The Last Jedi is metacommentary, an attempt to grapple with the limitations of the Star Wars universe that ultimately falls short because the choice is either to do that, or tell a Star Wars story.  I might even go so far as to say that it ends up doing neither, but in a way that I found myself enjoying more than any other work in this universe--if only because there was so much more to argue with.  And, perhaps more importantly, it sets up its story so that going forward, there will be fewer limitations and expectations on people working within this universe.  It is no longer necessary for Kylo Ren to be won back to the light just because his grandfather was (and in fact we're led to wonder whether that earlier redemption was even worthy of the name).  It's similarly no longer necessary for every major player in this story to be related to previous ones.  When the answer to the great mystery of Rey's parentage finally arrives, it makes a powerful statement, not just about who gets to be a hero in this universe, but about what kind of story you can tell about it.  It frees future writers from the burden of having to follow the template of the previous movies--a new hope indeed.



[1] Or maybe the second if the reading of Revenge of the Sith as an anti-Bush movie is to be taken seriously. But I haven't watched that film since it was originally released and I'm not going back to check.

[2] Like much of The Force Awakens's worldbuilding, this is something that doesn't hold water.  To have gone from a functional space empire to a "rebellion" in the space of what appear to be only a few days, even in the wake of such massive destruction, doesn't make any sense.  But Star Wars is clearly more comfortable operating in the realm of a David-and-Goliath story, and this is one of the ways in which The Last Jedi doesn't buck the trend.

[3] Later when Luke tells his version of the story, he reveals that he only considered killing Kylo for a moment before recoiling in shame, but by that point it was already too late to take back his betrayal.  It's one of the fundamental differences between Luke and his father and nephew, however, that he doesn't treat this as an excuse.  He recognizes that the consequences of his actions are his fault even though he repents those actions, which is frankly far too rare in this fictional universe.

[4] Of course, this is a lacuna that exists in most Star Wars movies, with the possible exception of Rogue One.  The scenes with Leia on the rebel fleet don't have any more to say about the real people who have been, and will be, hurt by the First Order than the Rey-Kylo storyline does.  It's a fundamental flaw of the Star Wars universe, but one that The Last Jedi calls unusual attention to by focusing so much on the dark side as its own thing, separate from the actions of the people drawn to it.

[5] As I wrote in my Force Awakens review, this is a poorly-written character arc, and neither film does much with Finn's history of abuse and indoctrination.  Nevertheless, it is a part of him, one that both J.J. Abrams and Johnson chose to put in their stories.

[6] I haven't said much about Poe's storyline, which is my least favorite of the movie.  In it, Poe objects to Holdo's seeming inaction, and launches a mutiny against her only to learn that her plan, formulated with Leia, is to distract the fleet's pursuers long enough to allow the rebels to escape to a nearby base.  Not unlike the Kylo storyline, the purpose here seems to be to wrongfoot the audience, leading us to believe that Holdo is a pencil-pushing coward who must be outsmarted by the swashbuckling Poe, only to reveal that she's actually brave and self-sacrificing (and that the entire upper echelon of the resistance is run by badass middle aged ladies).  This works a lot less well than intended.  While there's no reason for Holdo not to reveal her plan to Poe, there's also no reason for her to confide in him--he's a captain and she's an admiral, and he should be ready to follow her orders.  The fact that he behaves as if she needs to earn his trust and respect feels deeply gendered in a way that the film doesn't seem aware of and can't defuse simply by revealing that Holdo actually is a good commander.  Also, Poe's actions end up derailing Leia and Holdo's plan--when Finn and Rose's hacker betrays them, he reveals the rebels' location to the First Order, and all of Holdo's bravery ends up being for nothing.  That the resistance ends the film decimated is thus Poe's fault, which goes completely unacknowledged.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 27

The blockbuster movies of 2017 are winding down--there's really only The Last Jedi left to go--and then it'll be time for Israeli movie theaters to furiously start scheduling the year's Oscar movies before the ceremony (still bereft of release dates: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and probably several others I'm forgetting).  Here are my thoughts on a few of the stragglers (though really, only one of them has proven to be a bona fide blockbuster) in what has proved to be a strong year for solid popcorn entertainment, even if there have been no genuine exceptional examples of the genre (except possibly Get Out, which is really more of a horror movie).
  • Blade Runner 2049 - I have trouble deciding how I feel about Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later follow-up to Ridley Scott's cult classic.  On the one hand, this is a beautiful, evocative work of science fiction of the kind one doesn't get to see in the movie theater very often.  On the other hand, it's self-indulgent, overlong, and most importantly, adds almost nothing to the original movie.  You see this most distinctly in the film's decision to reveal, in its opening minutes, that this iteration's blade runner, the cop tasked with "retiring" runaway replicants, is a replicant himself.  There's an obvious argument for choosing to front-load this shift to the story, thus forestalling much of the debate that has come to consume the original movie (which is especially valuable since "is Deckard a replicant" is literally the most boring, pointless question you can ask about the original Blade Runner; no matter what answer you come up with, it tells you nothing about the character, his world, or his story).  But it also means that the already-not-particularly-deeply-buried subtext of the original movie--that this a world in which the distinctions between human and inhuman are imposed by the demands of capitalism, and have nothing to do with how human replicants actually are--is right there on the surface.  The same is true of the film's backbone of story, in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) must track down a child born to a replicant, and brutally suppress the knowledge that such a thing is even possible.  It's a profound reduction of the original Blade Runner's humanism--which extended to recognizing the personhood of flawed, murderous beings like Roy Batty or Pris--to suggest, as Blade Runner 2049 does, that replicants can only "prove" their humanity if they have fertility (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, is treated as interchangeable with female fertility).

    Or maybe the problem lies with the original concept.  Villeneuve has shown himself to be an exceptional director, including of SF stories, and he pulls out all the stops with 2049, all-but gorging the viewer on cyberpunk cityscapes, dust-covered ruins, junk deserts populated by dehumanized scavengers, and the corporate-architecture-on-acid interiors of the offices of Wallace corporation (the inheritors of the original movie's now-defunct Tyrell).  But it doesn't take very long in this rather overlong movie to realize that all this splendor is in service of very little in the way of ideas.  As Aaron Bady wrote last year about another work, all robot stories are ultimately about slavery, and there's really not that much you can say about that concept when your starting position is "are slaves human?"  Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he's been looking for.  Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are.  Or the idea that the world's economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they're viewed as subhuman.  But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve.  For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable.  It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.

    As we saw last year with Westworld, trying to tell a slave story with robots almost inevitably skews the racial and gender politics of your story to an extent that can render it worse than useless.  Once again, these are issues that 2049 could have done interesting things with.  The fact that almost all the replicants we meet are white, or that non-white humans seem to have been relegated to the outskirts of even the degraded, dystopian society at the film's center, could have been a commentary on how racial prejudice plays out in a society in which it is possible to manufacture an underclass.  Instead, it's treated as so unremarkable as to not even require an explanation.  Similarly, the increasingly oppressive images of female commodification and objectification that keep cropping up in the movie--the giant, holographic naked women that K walks past in the city, the statues of equally naked women he encounters in the ruins of Las Vegas, the naked female replicant that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto in a distracting, tedious performance) fondles and then murders--end up feeling cynical and self-satisfied.  Yes, the film is calling attention to the misogyny of its world (and a premise where sexbots, again almost always female, are de rigueur), but once again it has nothing to say about the issue once it's raised it, and its actual female characters are mostly devoid of personality.  Joi, for example, can only "prove" that she is a person by expressing devotion to K that goes beyond her programming and eventually gets her killed, while Mariette proves hers by being catty to Joi, reminding her that she isn't real.  It's enough to make you root for the film's villain, Wallace's assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant who seems to realize just how disturbed and monstrous her boss truly is, but who nevertheless kills remorselessly for him because it's her only way to express her anger at her enslavement.  It's only in Luv that 2049 achieves anything close to the complexity of the original Blade Runner, and it's fairly typical of this latter-day repetition's shallowness that it doesn't seem to realize this.

  • Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel has spent several months pumping up Taika Waititi's attempt to revitalize its least successful (critically and artistically, if not financially) sub-franchise, bombarding us with lush posters and trailers that parade its psychedelic, 80s-arcade-inspired visual style and irreverent sense of humor.  It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the actual film, enjoyable and fun to look at as it is, doesn't quite live up to the hype.  Waititi and the film's writers make several very smart choices when they come to craft the third solo outing for their title character.  They play up the fact that he's a bit of a dimwitted jerk, and they constantly put him in situations in which these qualities get him into trouble, as he bites off more than he can chew and incorrectly assumes that everyone around him will be impressed by his pedigree and fighting prowess.  Ragnarok quickly wraps up the dangling threads of plot left by The Dark World, and then sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a quest to find their missing father, which quickly becomes more serious when they encounter Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with tremendous and exhilarating gusto), their hidden older sister, who wants to claim the throne of Asgard and use its armies to conquer the multiverse.  This, through yet more convolutions of plot, leads to the brothers being dumped on a junkyard planet, and to Thor being made to fight in gladiatorial combat against the reigning champion, who turns out to be Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk.

    It's all a lot of fun, but also a bit much, especially when you consider that there's a parallel storyline about Hela's takeover of Asgard, and a redemption story for lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, fantastic despite the really unfortunate choice to attempt an accent) who has been drinking away her traumatic memories while procuring fighters for the fey, casually psychopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the majordomo of the games arena.  These are all great performances who make the film feel vital and exuberant, not to mention extremely funny (though it must be said that every genuinely funny joke, there's at least one moment that's more like "isn't it funny that we chose to make a joke, here, where another movie might be serious?").  Taken together, however, they're a bit of an assault, and the film doesn't really give any of them enough time to shine.  Despite what the film's trailers promise, Ragnarok isn't really a buddy comedy--the Hulk is only prominent for a few, albeit extremely funny, scenes in the middle of the movie--but instead yet another journey of self-discovery for Thor, as he remembers that beneath his bluster, he genuinely cares about his people and the fate of the world.  And while the choice to stress (and puncture) Thor's arrogance, even as it reaffirms his sense of responsibility and his courage, means that Ragnarok is a much more satisfying iteration of this story than either Thor or The Dark World, it is still, ultimately, the same story we've seen before and probably will again, albeit in a much shinier and more humorous guise.  That might be enough for MCU fans who are more attached to the character than I am, but for those hoping that Ragnarok will seriously break the mold, it might be wise to manage expectations.

  • Justice League - There's a part of me that thinks that in another year, Justice League might have been received more positively.  I think we've gotten all we're going to get out of the (richly deserved, but in hindsight a little overwrought) collective hate-on of the DC movies occasioned by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.  And with Wonder Woman's success and the behind the scenes upheaval at Justice League indicating that WB have definitely gotten the memo, a little indulgence might have been in order.  The problem is, Justice League comes to us at the tail end of what has, completely unexpectedly, been a truly excellent year for superhero movies.  Think about it: until the third week of November, the worst superhero movie of 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which wasn't bad so much as redundant and a little mean-spirited.  And aside from that, we've enjoyed a slew of extremely well-made crowdpleasers such as Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as some more adventurous fare like Logan and Colossal.  That Justice League, in comparison, is merely rather dull, with a tepid villain and character work carried almost exclusively by its actors, might have been enough in a weaker year, but it won't fly in 2017.

    Justice League wastes little time in assuring us that it's changed and eager to do better.  After an opening scene that feels almost like a coda to Batman v Superman, and especially its Nietzsche-for-dummies take on Superman as a living god whose existence gave humanity a sense of purpose, the film jettisons all that thematic weight in favor of pure comic book storytelling--an alien villain who wants to destroy the world.  The problem is that as tepid and juvenile as Zack Snyder's ideas were in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, they were at least ideas.  When Justice League abandons them, it's left with nothing but warmed-over Avengers.  And unlike that movie, it lacks humanizing points of interest to make us care about its shopworn, underwritten plot.  The villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds in motion capture as some sort of horned demon), has no personality, and his motivations are as generic as they come.  His plan--to collect a set of McGuffins with which he can construct a mega-McGuffin--is so boring that the film itself can't be bothered to take an interest in it, quickly racing through the interim acquisitions so that it can get to the main event.  But this, too, is fairly perfunctory, a CGI extravaganza with little flair or excitement.  Joss Whedon, parachuted in to freshen up the film's script (and take over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy, which can't have improved the film's action scenes) tries to recreate the magic he managed with Avengers with some very obvious Whedonisms.  But these almost invariably fall flat, and in a few cases, are actively skeevy.

    Justice League thus ends up resting on the shoulders of its characters, which is to say its actors.  This is not the worst thing.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck continue to do good work as the grown-ups in the room, weary soldiers who recognize the enormity of the task before them but also the necessity of seeing it through.  Jason Momoa is given almost nothing to work with as renegade Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman.  One senses that his backstory is being held back for his own movie, but in Justice League this means that Arthur comes off as blustering and thoughtless.  Happily, Momoa has so much charisma that he manages to make even this underwritten type leap off the screen, but Aquaman's handling is typical of how Justice League approaches its characters, reducing them to types instead of making a case for them as complicated heroes in their own right.  Ezra Miller's Barry Allen, for example, is laden with the bulk of the film's comedic moments.  He's up to the task, but along the way the film loses sight of Barry as a person, and his only dramatic scenes are retreads of material only recently (and more effectively) covered bin The Flash.  The most interesting character is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even that comes down to the actor's choices, amping up Victor's ironic detachment as he's slowly taken over by an alien machine.  (Henry Cavill's Superman, who returns halfway through the story, is probably Justice League's biggest misstep.  There's a palpable attempt to move away from the brooding, joyless Superman of the Snyder movies, but Cavill can't seem to unbend sufficiently to actually make Superman heroic, or even likable.  He ends up coming off as a condescending jerk.)

    Buried deep in the core of its underwritten character interactions is Justice League's sole claim to originality, the barest hint that it has an idea of how to distinguish the DC movies from the MCU without wallowing in unearned angst.  As in Wonder Woman, this comes down to the difficulty of continuing to fight for an inherently broken world, and there are some solid and refreshingly unsensationalistic exchanges between Batman and Wonder Woman over the figures they could both cut in a world without Superman.  Unfortunately, Justice League is completely the wrong movie for these conversations to happen in.  Unlike Avengers, it can't figure out how to tie together its characters' personal problems and the threat to the world.  It becomes, instead, a story of how its heroes kicked a nondescript villain's ass and along the way got their groove back, but this is far too thin a frame on which to hang not just this overlong, CGI-heavy movie, but an entire cinematic universe.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 45

This is a funny bunch of books: a few that I picked up on a whim; a few that I've been breathlessly waiting for since they were announced; and one that's been sitting on my shelves for years.  The result isn't as exciting--in good ways and bad--as the last roundup of books I published, but nevertheless there are some reads here that I can already tell are going to be highlights of this swiftly-concluding year.

  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru - I freely admit that the main reason I picked up Kunzru's latest was its title, which made me laugh with its deliberate provocation.  The actual novel, however, starts out a lot less pugnacious than you might expect, sort of a cross between Donna Tartt and Stephen King, albeit with a much more sophisticated awareness of issues of race, class, and cultural appropriation.  Carter and Seth are music producers who specialize in an analogue, "authentic" sound that hearkens back to the early 20th century.  Carter, in particular, is obsessed with the blues and early jazz, African-American music that is often available only on rare vinyl records that he and other collectors--almost all of them white--hoard and covet.  When Seth, on one of his trips through the city to record sounds for use in their sample library, captures an anonymous black singer singing what appears to be a true blues original, Carter turns it into a rough-sounding track and puts it online.  He claims to have discovered a lost artist, Charlie Shaw, in the hopes of luring collectors from whom he can buy more albums.  But the song quickly takes on a life of its own, and as it does so does Charlie Shaw, who seems to bear a particular resentment towards Carter's wealthy and shady family.  Seth, a hanger-on who has basked in Carter's attention and reflected glory, suddenly finds himself at the center of the story, as the only person who realizes that there is something supernatural going on.

    The early chapters of White Tears are perhaps a little familiar in how they describe Carter and his family's privileged floating through the world, and Seth's profound hunger for them--for recognition that his friendship with Carter is real and not just a paid arrangement, or for the affections of Carter's sister Leonie.  Underlying all this, however, is the growing realization of how much of a role race plays in establishing the characters' positions.  Carter and Seth are white men marketing to white musicians an idea of authenticity rooted in treating black people, and their suffering, as exotic.  The very fact that they're obsessed with the blues is telling--it's music rooted in oppression, in suffering that the white protagonists feel free to fetishize because they have no fear of ever experiencing it.  It's therefore not a surprise that part of Kunzru's project with White Tears is to remove that veil of safety, the protective claim of "yes, bad things happened, but it's not my fault".

    Like so many ghost stories, White Tears is about the victims of the past coming back to demand justice, but unlike other authors, Kunzru doesn't treat these ghosts as villains or monsters (or at least, he doesn't seem to feel that this should keep him off their side).  As the book approaches its end, its prose grows more fevered and hallucinatory, and the lines between past and present blur and disappear.  It's all in the service of a simple truth--that the past isn't over, and that its injustices are still continuing.  Ultimately, White Tears is about theft--of culture, of money, and of lives--and its ending, though gruesome, is arguing for a full restitution.

  • The Accusation by Bandi - This is one of those books where the story of the book is, inevitably and perhaps even intentionally, more interesting than the story in the book.  The Accusation is presented as a collection of short stories about life in North Korea, published pseudonymously because the author is still living under the regime, and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists.  I have, obviously, no way of knowing whether this is true, but having read the book, I find myself believing it.  There's something earnest about the stories here, a lack of ironic distance that convinces me they were written by someone grappling with a horror that was very close to them.  A recurring theme in the stories in The Accusation is disillusionment--the realization of characters who had believed in the North Korean project that their government doesn't care about them, and of characters who had thought that they had the system of the country figured out that there is simply no way to embody the "good" citizens they've been trained to be.  The emotion underpinning it all is very real and moving, but the portrait the stories paint isn't particularly revelatory.  Perhaps because most of the stories were written in the early and mid-90s (when the North Korean economy collapsed, leading to a horrific famine that left millions dead), the details they reveal are mostly things I've read about before (for example in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, a collection of interviews with North Korean defectors).

    The Accusation thus ends up more interesting as an artifact than as a work of literature, but nevertheless there are moments of great emotion and horror here--a grandmother's guilt over having been randomly "favored" by the Great Leader even as her family were left to scramble for their survival; a young mine worker's desperation to see his mother on her deathbed, despite being denied a travel permit; in the background of all the stories, the growing desperation as food supplies dwindle and citizens resort to extreme measures to survive a famine whose existence the government won't admit.  It's a book that leaves you feeling rattled, even if that's rooted more in what's happening outside its covers than within them.

  • The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara - Yanagihara's debut was one of the most talked-about literary novels a few years ago (and then slightly upstaged by her Booker-nominated follow-up, A Little Life, which I also own but haven't read), but for one reason and another it's taken me a while to get to.  Also for whatever reason, I ended up reading it at a time when its subject matter feels unpleasantly apt.  Just a few weeks after the revelations about Harvey Weinstein have kicked off a flurry of conversation about the prevalence of sexual harassment and the ways in which society orders itself to protect abusers and vilify victims is maybe not the best time to crack open a novel whose first chapter, a newspaper clipping reporting that a renowned scientist has been accused of rape and molestation by his adopted children, ends with one of the scientist's colleagues calling the situation "a great tragedy"--for the accused, of course.  The People in the Trees is presented as the memoirs of Abraham Norton Perina (the name is obviously significant, though it was never clear to me what the reference to America's one and only emperor was intended to evoke), the founder of the field of "medical anthropology", and a Nobel-prize winner for his discovery that a "lost tribe" in the Micronesian island nation of Ivu'ivu suffer from a degenerative disease that confers upon them seemingly eternal life at the cost of their mental faculties.  In the framing story, Perina's last supporter and friend Ronald Kubodera describes the aftermath of Perina's denunciation by several of his 43 adopted Ivu'ivuan children, and laments the ease with which the world turns on this "great man".

    The spirit of Nabokov wafts over this book.  It is, at one and the same time, the self-justifying narrative of a child abuser trying to spin his actions as rooted in love, a la Lolita, and the final work of a renowned intellectual, annotated and heavily-footnoted by a hanger-on desperate to demonstrate his importance to a man who probably doesn't even notice him, as in Pale Fire.  But Yanagihara's interests take her in directions completely different to Nabokov's, and which she handles with impressive flair.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the description of Perina's first journey to Ivu'ivu as a young doctor, recruited to assist a pair of anthropologists conducting a more traditional study of the tribe, before he makes his own discovery.  The descriptions of the jungle, its strangeness and fecundity, are almost overpowering, but through them it's easy to sense Perina's own detachment, his disgust with anything living that doesn't come from himself.  The descriptions of the Ivu'ivuan society are similarly a masterwork of both worldbuilding and character work.  Yanagihara constructs a fascinating, unusual, not always admirable social structure for her invented tribe, and through Perina's observations of them makes it clear just what a monster he is--how he sees everyone, regardless of race or culture, as inferior to him, and merely a means to his ends.  Even without the accusation of child abuse, Perina's publication of his findings has such a catastrophic effect on Ivu'ivu and its people, as pharmaceutical companies race to take the island apart in search of a workable elixir of eternal life, that it's impossible not to hate him--especially when we realize that to him, this is merely a reason for self-pity, as "his" paradise is lost to him.

    It's a brilliant portrait and a brilliantly constructed world, and I found myself racing through The People in the Trees, unable to put it down no matter how unpleasant its narrator and events.  But as I said, I'm not sure this was the right time for me to read this book.  As little as two years ago, I might have been able to read this kind of story with enough detachment to enjoy it, or at least appreciate it more.  But right now we're surrounded with so many examples of how abuse is excused and ignored, how exploitation is justified  and forgotten, that Yanagihara's conclusion that the accusations against Perina would cause his career to evaporate and even lead to a short prison sentence feels positively rose-tinted.  More importantly, I'm just not in the mood right now to wonder about the psychology of this particular kind of monster. As we keep seeing on the news, people who see others as subhuman are a lot less interesting and complicated than we'd like to believe.  Yanagihara never coddles Perina, and never expects us to feel anything other than disgust for him.  But she also thinks we should be interested in him, and through no fault of her own, that's something that feels wrong at this moment.

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden - I don't know whether Arden's debut was inspired by Naomi Novik's Uprooted, or whether (as seems more likely) the two books ended up plugging into the same hunger for new ideas in the fantasy genre, which has landed on retellings and remixings of Eastern European folklore.  Either way, Nightingale has a few too many similarities to Uprooted to stand on its own.  Both books are about a young girl in a rural, medieval community slowly becoming aware of her magical powers, just as an ancient evil arises in the nearby forest.  Both feature an ally character who is a powerful, ancient magical user, with whom the heroine develops a prickly relationship with an undertone of quasi-dangerous romance.  Both are driven by the conflict between the restrictive role the heroine's community affords women, and her own desire for purpose and adventure.  And both, as noted, take place in a lightly-fantasized medieval Eastern European setting, with strong lashings of Russian and Slavic folklore.

    Having read (and enjoyed) such a close variant on this story only last year, I ended up appreciating Nightingale a lot more for its realistic details than its fantastic plot--the minutiae of how the farming community at the book's center survives the long, harsh northern winters; the protocols that govern the lives and aspirations of the heroine's gentleman farmer father and his sons; the hints of political intrigue and geopolitical scheming, especially as regards the dissatisfaction of Russian nobles, at that point still paying tribute to the Tatar empire.  That's not to say that there's nothing to enjoy in Nightingale as a story.  Heroine Vasya is delightful, genuinely curious about her world and clear-eyed about the flaws and strengths of the people around her.  Her antagonist, the charismatic priest Konstantin, who tries to punish Vasya for his attraction to her, is fascinating precisely because you can see how much of his evil is rooted in his self-importance, and how easily he could have been a better person if he'd learned to set aside pride and male entitlement.  This is also a story about the tension between rigid social conventions and human flexibility.  Vasya's father and brothers, though certain that she has only one possible life path before her, also realize how easily she could be made unhappy in a life like that, and many authority figures in the novel see it as their role to balance strict rules with common sense and compassion.  As enjoyable as these human details are, when they give way to the novel's fantastical plot, the result is too familiar--not just from Uprooted, but from so many other stories like it.  I found myself wishing that Nightingale had started where it actually ends, with Vasya leaving her home to have adventures, finally shaking off the expectations that had hemmed her--and her story--in.

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado - It seems like only yesterday that I was telling everyone I could find about this amazing new author I'd discovered, whose stories were a magnificent blend of humor, horror, and an earnest handling of the myriad complications of female sexuality.  In the intervening years, I've watched Machado deservedly become a superstar, both for her stories and her essays, and now with her bestselling, National Book Award-nominated debut collection.  (Meanwhile, the Hugos managed to sleep on Machado in both the short fiction and Campbell categories.  The latter was partly the fault of the various puppy factions, but still: not a great look, guys.)

    It's perhaps inevitable that my reaction to Her Body would be less intense than that of readers new to Machado's unique voice and sensibilities.  I already had the top of my head taken off by "Especially Heinous", a phantasmagorical reimagining of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which a critique of the show's attitude towards rape and rape culture gives way to multiple ghost stories and forays into alternate universes.  Or "The Husband Stitch", a queasy tale in which a seemingly happy marriage is unmade by the husband's refusal to accept his wife's one limitation on their intimacy.  Of the eight stories collected in Her Body and Other Parties, four were familiar to me, as was the general impression formed by them of an author following in the footsteps of Kelly Link and Sofia Samatar, and incorporating their use of surrealism and wry pop culture references into her own fascination with--as the title suggests--female bodies, how they're perceived, policed, used, and how they feel.  The new stories continue that fascination, for example in "Real Women Have Bodies", in which a prom dress saleswoman in a world in which some women have begun to fade into nothingness discovers a horrifying connection between the disease and her wares.  Or "Eight Bites", about a woman undergoing bariatric surgery whose choice seems to permanently sever her connection to her daughter.  Interestingly, the collection omits several of Machado's publications, such as "Descent" or "My Body, Herself", perhaps because they didn't fit with this theme, so for a lot of readers this will be more of an introduction to Machado than a summation of the first stage in her career.  Either way, it's an essential collection for anyone interested in the more slipstreamy edge of genre short fiction, and for anyone looking for an example of how genre fiction can grapple with issues of gender and sexuality.

  • Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng - The only thing I knew about Ng's debut before reading it was that it was a fantasy about Victorian missionaries in fairyland.  This led me to expect something Strange & Norrell-esque, or perhaps similar to Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown--a wry puncturing of Victorian self-importance in the face of the implacable strangeness of the magical world.  Minus the tone, that's more or less what the novel delivers, but that tone makes a big difference.  Under the Pendulum Sun is a great deal stranger and darker than I was expecting.  It owes a very obvious (and acknowledged) debt to the Brontës, and particularly to Jane Eyre.  It sprinkles those references onto an edifice that is pure Gothic, a story about a young woman who arrives in a mysterious castle where she keeps stumbling across long-held secrets, whose dark past continues to send out tendrils that ensnare her.

    Catherine Helstone arrives in fairyland in search of her brother, Laon, a missionary whose letters home have stopped.  Deposited in the twisty castle, dubbed Gethsemane, where the fairy queen has sequestered her guests seeking to spread Christianity to the fairies, Cathy finds her search for Laon stymied by the riddling answers and deliberate obfuscations of her fellow inhabitants: the changeling Ariel; the gnome Benjamin, fairyland's sole convert; and the fire-breathing housekeeper, Salamander.  The early chapters do a little to sketch in the shape of a world in which fairyland is not only a known place, but a potential site for colonization and cultural imperialism.  We learn, for example, that changelings like Ariel, who grew up thinking she was human, are recruited as ambassadors and go-betweens by the fairies, better able to explain their masters' strangeness to literal-minded humans.  But this is not, ultimately, what Under the Pendulum Sun is about.  Some readers might find the novel a bit slow-going, but Ng is working very squarely within the Gothic tradition, in which Cathy's task is not to explore the breadth of fairyland, but to delve inward into Gethsemane's secrets.  When Laon returns, heralding a visit from the fairy queen herself, it becomes clear that the siblings' relationship is nearly as fraught and full of unspoken truths as their new home.  Faced with a world where none of the rules--of society or of reality--seem to apply, the Helstones are forced to confront the reasons for Laon's decision to flee so far from his sister, and the question of what they do now that they've been reunited.

    Another thing that surprised me about Under the Pendulum Sun was the importance of religion, not just to the novel's Christian characters, but to its plot.  I was expecting Ng's handling of missionaries to veer towards the political, but in fact she spends a lot more time debating theology with Cathy, Laon, and Benjamin, as they try to puzzle out how fairyland fits in with Christian cosmology.  In theory, this should have been my jam--I'm always fascinated by depictions of faith and how characters relate to it.  But I'm not very interested in the kind of nitpicky conversations that the Helstones and Benjamin get into, trying to keep afloat what is essentially a rickety, patched together bit of worldbuilding that can no longer accommodate their new understanding of the world.  To be clear, this is the sort of thing that did (and still does) happen, and Ng is very good at capturing the twisty, headache-inducing turns of argument that people can get into when they refuse to separate the core ideas of a religion from the edifice of tradition erected around it.  But as the novel progresses, it feels less and less as if these questions are important to the characters, a way of showing us how they see and relate to the world, and more as if they're just objectively important.  The question of whether changelings like Ariel have a soul ends up having a concrete significance to the plot, whereas to me the fact that Ariel is clearly a thinking, feeling person renders such discussions moot.  It's possible that this is the conclusion Ng is aiming at as well--the novel's ending sees Catherine and Laon struggling with their own, possibly damning, sins, and whether they're even interested in seeking forgiveness for them.  But if so it comes to that conclusion long past the point where I was ready for it.  Still, it's sufficiently unusual to see fantasy grapple with religion--and particularly this branch of 19th century, empire-tinged Christianity--that even a frustrating attempt is worth exploring.  Which is ultimately my conclusion about Under the Pendulum Sun as a whole.  It's a strange novel, and not entirely satisfying.  But it's so much its own thing that I don't hesitate to recommend it, and am extremely curious to see what Ng does next.

  • A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge - One of the problems--or, well, "problems"--of Frances Hardinge being an exceptional writer who is also quite prolific is that you can end up developing an over-familiarity with her favorite tropes and themes.  Hardinge's perennial focus is on characters who are damaged, sometimes by abuse, but sometimes also by difficult circumstances such as poverty or racial persecution.  Her books repeatedly drum in the point that for her protagonists, the damage caused by their twisted upbringing--the isolation inflicted on Neverfell in A Face Like Glass, or the emotional manipulation to which both heroines are subjected in Cuckoo Song--can't be undone, but that they can learn to come to terms with it, and forge a good life in spite of it.  It's a powerful, important message, and especially effective coming from an author of Hardinge's skill, who never shies away from the ugliness of what her characters are capable of.  But especially for an adult reader, it can get a little wearying to encounter again and again.  But then you get a novel like A Skinful of Shadows, which reminds you that even when she's working within a familiar scheme, Hardinge is so full of ideas that she can always find ways to make her preoccupations feel new and affecting.

    A Skinful of Shadows is set in the 17th century, in the early years of the English Civil War.  Our heroine, Makepeace, is raised first among Puritans, and then given work as a kitchen girl in the house of an old noble family, whose illegitimate scion she is.  In both of these settings, Makepeace is forced to contend with her ability to see and manipulate the spirits of the dead.  Her strict, emotionally withholding mother taught Makepeace to fight off the ghosts who tried to possess her, but her unacknowledged family, the Fellmottes, have more sinister plans for her.  They're keeping her around as a "spare", a vessel into which to pour the spirits of long-dead ancestors in case one of the legitimate Fellmottes, raised to this task since childhood, should die.  The ghost metaphor is evocative, especially after Makepeace, seeking to escape the Fellmottes and rescue her already-possessed half-brother James, starts amassing a menagerie of spirits to help her in her task.  And Hardinge finds multiple uses for it, each of which relates in a different way to the central theme of her writing, the abuse perpetrated by individuals and systems.  Early in the novel, Makepeace takes in the spirit of a sideshow bear, whom she constantly has to calm and acclimatize to her new situations.  He becomes a representation of her anger, and of the difficulty that a mistreated child has in opening up and showing trust.  The Fellmotte ancestors, who use their descendants as receptacles, not caring that doing so usually destroys the original personality, are a predatory system that sees everyone as subservient, a means to the preservation of the elite.  Late in the novel it's revealed that the legitimate Fellmotte heirs, though raised in privilege, are subjected to routine alterations to their personality by the ghosts in order to make them more suitable receptacles.  The end result of this, as exemplified by Makepeace and James's cousin Symond, is psychopathic, a reminder of what can happen when child abuse is combined with almost limitless privilege.

    A Skinful of Shadows follows Makepeace back and forth across the English landscape as she tries to first escape the Fellmottes, and then accrue enough leverage against them to bargain for James's freedom.  Along the way she collects a coterie of spirits--a conceited doctor, a deserting Puritan soldier, one of the Fellmotes' spies--whom she must corral and negotiate with.  In her journeys, she also gains several perspectives on the war, and while the book ultimately sides with Parliament in the conflict, its main conclusion is that both sides are prone to abuse and exploitation--there's a particular emphasis on Puritan authoritarianism and misogyny, for example when Makepeace runs afoul of a witchfinder who is certain that her possession is a sign that she's made a deal with the devil.  As in her previous books, Hardinge's interest in abuse isn't confined to a single abusive relationship or household.  She sees abuse as a product of broader social choices, in this case the belief that some people are simply worth more than others, which is taken to irrational extremes in the form of the Felmottes, whose exploitation of their lessers continues even after death.  None of the institutions Makepeace encounters in the novel--the Fellmotte estate, the court of Charles I, the Parliamentarian army, or the Puritan church--are free of this belief, and she ends up rejecting all of them.  She offers a counterpoint in the form of the community she forms with the ghosts she carries, and in making an active choice to respect their right to happiness and self-determination.  By the end of the novel, both Makepiece and James have committed to living as multiple beings, offering homes to people who weren't given a fair shake in life.  It's the kind of ending you can't imagine any author but Hardinge delivering, and certainly not with her level of assurance and skill.