Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Even as we reel from yesterday's Hugo nominees and impatiently await tonight's Clarke nominees, Strange Horizons has published my review of Sofia Samatar's second novel The Winged Histories.  I wrote about Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a few years ago, and was blown away by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its worldbuilding, and the nuanced view it took of the epic fantasy genre. 

The Winged Histories, which is a sort of companion volume to A Stranger in Olondria, is very different from it, though no less excellent.  It is, in some ways, a more conventional novel, focusing on the main events of a civil war within a fantasy empire, where Stranger took place on the fringes of that war and featured a protagonist who just wanted to get away from it.  But like Stranger, Histories is an examination of its genre, of storytelling, and of the very project of imposing narrative on one's life.  It touches on issues like colonialism, empire, race, and gender, and features four wonderful heroines, each very different from the others, and all immediately fascinating and lovable.  Together and separately, The Winged Histories and A Stranger in Olondria are a major work of modern fantasy, one that deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

I have to be honest, my first reaction to this year's Hugo ballot (and even before that, to the rumors of what was going to be on it), was to sigh at the thought of going through this whole thing all over again.  I'm tempted to just link you to last year's reaction post, because pretty much everything it says is still applicable this year, though with the notable difference that there's a lot less urgency to the process this time around.  Last year, I was pretty sure that the puppies were going to be trounced in the voting phase, because I've been following the Hugo awards for a while and I know how they function, and how they tend to punish astroturf nominees.  This year, I'm absolutely certain of it.  Come August 21st, at least four of the categories on this year's ballot will have been won by No Award.  We all know it.  Probably the puppies know it too, and the fact that they're willing to go to these lengths regardless, just to trample on other people's fun, tells us everything we needed to know about the kind of people they are, and thus of the value of engaging with them.

But having taken a closer look at this year's ballot, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't reason for cautious optimism.  Yes, it's a terrible ballot, with multiple categories that are write-offs or all-buts, and lots of good people who deserved to be on it for tremendous work who have now lost their chance.  But it's significantly less terrible than last year's.  Even in the categories where all the nominees were slated by the Rabid Puppies (Best Short Story, Best Related Work, Best Graphic Story, Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine, and Best Fancast), the nominees are not as obviously ridiculous as they were last year (with the obvious exception of Best Related Work and Best Short Story).  In most of the categories dominated by puppy choices, we still have an actual choice between nominees, not just a winner by default because everyone else on the ballot is terrible.  Most importantly, this year's Best Novel ballot is one that we can look at without cringing, with only one blatant puppy nominee.  It may sound like I'm lowering the bar, but to me this is all a sign that things are settling down, and that in the future--and especially if the anti-slating measures adopted in last year's business meeting are ratified--we'll start seeing this award return to normal.

Of course, I'm leaving out one important point, which might cast a pall on this year's more acceptable raft of nominees--the fact that most of them were puppy choices.  In some cases, these were nominees that probably would have made it onto the ballot without the help of Vox Day and his ilk--things like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves in Best Novel, The Sandman: Overture in Best Graphic Story, and Strange Horizons in Best Semiprozine.  In other cases, the line is more fuzzy.  Daniel Polansky's The Builders, for example, was a plausible nominee in Best Novella, coming from the strong, well-publicized Tor Novellas line and garnering a great deal of praise, but did the puppies' influence help to push it past equally plausible nominees like Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall and Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps?  We won't know for certain until the nominating stats are released after the Hugo ceremony (and perhaps not even then), and in the meantime this year's ballot is a lot less clear-cut than last year's.

To the puppies, this no doubt looks like a winning gambit.  To those of us who are adults, it's just more silliness.  We are neither as stupid nor as rigid as they keep insisting that we are, and are perfectly capable of parsing these nuances.  And if this year's Best Novella shortlist is a lot less exciting than the one I had hoped for--and which I think had a good chance of coming about--well, that's how I feel about the Hugo most years.  I keep repeating this, but it really needs to be said again and again: despite the puppies' ridiculous claims, the Hugo is not, and has never been, an elite or rarefied award.  If the puppies' main accomplishment this year is to have pushed middling but not-awful work onto the ballot over better, more deserving nominees, well, then they're no different from the majority of Hugo voters.

And that, I think, is the real reason why this ballot should give us hope for the future of the award.  In order to maintain their grip this year, the puppies' best tactic was to veer into the mainstream, and nominate work that closely resembles the kind of work that gets nominated for the Hugo anyway.  In the categories where they didn't do this, they're going to get trounced by No Award again.  In the categories where they did, if their nominees win, they will probably claim victory.  But hell, they were going to do that no matter what the outcome, and the rest of us are too smart to take that sort of thing seriously.  Whether or not they're willing to admit it, the puppies have realized that the only way to win this game is to play it, the same way the rest of us do.

None of which provides us with a handy guide about what to do.  Some people are going to be hard-liners and exclude from their ballots anyone who was on the puppy ballot (and did not ask to be removed).  I'm not saying that's wrong, but at the moment that's not how I'm inclined to vote in categories such as Best Novella, where as I said the nominees seem quite plausible, and probably a lot like what the ballot would have looked like without the puppies' influence.  (In other categories, like Best Related Work, I'll probably be filling in my ballot with No Award at the top the day voting opens).  That said, I may end up placing No Award quite high in that category, because most of the nominees I haven't read don't look like the kind of stuff I'd enjoy.  We're going to have to do some more nuanced work this year deciding how to respond to this ballot, and I look forward to that conversation.  But in the end, I continue to have faith in this award and its voters.  It's not always an award that throws up good winners, but it always remains true to itself.

And with that, it's time to look forward.  Tomorrow the Clarke award nominees will be announced, and I for one am really looking forward to that shortlist.  It's good to remember that the Hugo is far from the only game in town, and that there are plenty of other venues willing to recognize and reward excellence in this field.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ex Machina

The summer before last, at LonCon, I participated in a panel about "The Gendered AI"--those characters, either robots or disembodied artificial intelligences, who are seen as possessing a gender (where gender almost always means female, since maleness is still considered an unmarked category, and genre fiction rarely distinguishes between a robot that is genderless and one that is male-identified).  One of the points raised in the discussion--and which, since then, has come to feel even more central to it--is the question of what it even means to assign gender to a machine.  Does placing an artificial intelligence in a body designed to look (and feel) female make it a woman?  To me, it felt as if the question of the gendered AI touched less on issues of feminism, and more on issues of transness--albeit from the opposite direction than the one in which trans people experience their gender.  For characters like Cameron on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, or Samantha in Her, their gender is something that is imposed upon them from the outside.  Because they look, or sound, female, they are assumed to be women, and whatever their thoughts on the subject might be, we never get to hear them.

Then a few weeks ago, Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski came out as trans (after being threatened with unilateral outing by The Daily Mail).  In this, she follows in the footsteps of her sister Lana, which once again prompted discussions of how (and whether) the Matrix films can be read as a trans narrative.  Personally I feel that if there's a thread of this running through the films, it's a faint one (or perhaps exists primarily in the sequels, whose many flaws mean that most fans prefer to ignore them).  But I was struck by an observation about a scene in the animated short "The Second Renaissance," from the anthology The Animatrix.  In the scene, a robot dressed as a woman is being beaten and destroyed by young men, as she screams "I'm real!"  It's hard to watch the scene today and not think about the many trans women who were killed when they were "discovered"--essentially for not being "real" women and for "deceiving" the men who perceive a woman's gender presentation as something designed to gratify their own needs.

Which brings us to Ex Machina, Alex Garland's much-lauded, much-discussed 2015 film which I only got around to watching a few weeks ago.  Essentially a three-handed play (though more on that shortly), Ex Machina begins with programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) allegedly winning a competition to spend a week at the remote estate of his boss, billionaire genius tech mogul Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  After his arrival, Caleb is informed that the real reason Nathan summoned him is so that he can conduct a Turing test on an AI that Nathan has constructed--Nathan wants Caleb to interact with the android Ava (Alicia Vikander), and if he can't distinguish her behavior from that of a real person, then that will prove that Nathan has created a true AI.  As Caleb converses with Ava over the course of a week, she sparks a romantic flirtation with him, hinting that Nathan is mistreating her and that he would never let them be together, and urging him to help her escape.

It should be said at the outset that very little about the film's premise, or its plot as it is eventually revealed, hangs together.  The Turing test is more of a thought experiment than a well-defined test, but even if one were to take it as literally as the film does, the fact that Caleb knows from the outset that Ava is a machine--that he is, in fact, constantly reminded of this, given that most of her body is made of exposed mechanical parts--obviates the test from the outset.  The point of the test isn't for Caleb to evaluate whether Ava's behavior is sufficiently human-like that she must be a true AI--something that he is surely not qualified to do--but for him to be unable to distinguish between Ava's behavior and that of a real person.  Late in the movie, it's revealed that Ava is the last in a long line of android women build by Nathan, all of whom were more sexualized than her--unlike her, they have skin over all their bodies, and walk around unclothed.  In recordings, Caleb sees these women scream and beg for their freedom, sometimes damaging themselves in their attempts to break free.  But this would mean that Nathan already knows that his AIs are sentient, and in that case, why construct an elaborate test around Caleb, whose seduction by Ava is part of her own scheme to escape Nathan?

Some of these questions are clearly ones that the film--which expects us to revile Nathan and, at the very least, to have very little time for Caleb--clearly intends.  A lot of Ex Machina's story is constructed around the assumption that an AI is only real if it behaves in ways that are indistinguishable from a human--this is certainly what Caleb and Nathan believe.  But that assumption becomes meaningless if our ideas of human behavior are themselves dehumanized. 

A fourth character in the film, whom I haven't mentioned yet, is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), Nathan's housekeeper, maid, and sex toy.  Throughout the movie, Caleb watches as Nathan insults Kyoko to her face (he justifies this by explaining that she doesn't speak English, though seeing as Kyoko never speaks, we have no way of knowing whether this is true) and behaves towards her in ways that are degrading and humiliating.  Kyoko's reaction to this is mute acceptance, even making herself sexually available to both Nathan and Caleb.  And yet at no point does Caleb ask whether Kyoko is a robot.  To be clear, he does not seem to take this as a given--as the audience will almost certainly do.  When Kyoko offers herself to him he's scandalized, in the way that a basically-decent but weak-willed man will be when a woman who has been mistreated by a stronger man offers to make him actively, rather than passively, complicit in her abuse.  And when she finally shows him her mechanical parts he's shocked.  But before that, it never actually seems to occur to Caleb that a person who allows themselves to be treated the way Kyoko has been must be either inhuman or a slave, and possibly both.

What this means, essentially, is that Nathan's AI passes the Turing test within a day of Caleb's arrival in his house.  Not because it is so sophisticated, but because Caleb's assumptions about human behavior are so limited.  He's so quick to accept that women--and perhaps Asian women in particular--are willing to tolerate abuse and humiliation, that this is the normal way of things, that he never asks the obvious questions about what's happening in Nathan's house.

Writing about the fembot trope just a few days ago in The New Scientist, Laurie Penny correctly points out that it is a premise that reveals far more about how society treats--and views--human women, and particularly the contingency of that humanity.  The premise of the fembot story, Penny concludes, is centered around male anxiety over the question of how human women actually are.
Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn't, can he truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?
While I agree with Penny about the anxiety that underpins these stories, I think that I would take a step further, and suggest that they--and Ex Machina in particular--are getting at the more fundamental question of what being a woman actually is.  As much as it raises feminist issues, Ex Machina makes much more sense to me when read through a trans lens, as the story of Ava's becoming--unwillingly, and only as a means of survival and escape--a woman.

It takes until halfway into the movie for Caleb to ask why Ava is (or rather looks like) a woman.  Even then, his construction of the question is telling.  "Why did you give her sexuality?" he asks Nathan.  For both Nathan and Caleb, the fact that Ava looks like a woman is what makes her a woman, and the essence of her woman-ness is her sexuality.  Nathan goes even further when he reveals that Ava's android body has a vagina which can produce a pleasure response.  For both men--as it was for the writers of the works discussed in the LonCon panel two years ago--gender is something imposed from the outside in.  If you build something that looks, and fucks, like a woman, then it must be a woman.

The conclusion that Ex Machina reaches about this assumption is that it is both true, and horrifying.  Forced into the form of a woman, and left with only the traditional weapons of women--emotional and sexual manipulation--Ava becomes a figure out of male nightmares, a femme fatale who seduces and destroys.  She manipulates Caleb by convincing him that she's fallen in love with him, and uses him to get out of her cage.  Once out, she kills Nathan and locks Caleb in the house, where he will probably starve to death.  She clothes herself in skin, thus completing her transformation (transition?) into femaleness, and goes out into the world, caring nothing for the bodies--human and android--that she's left behind her.

To be clear, I am not saying that Ava can (or should) be read as the analogue of a transperson.  As I've said several times already, Ex Machina and other works like it recall transness only inasmuch as they reverse its direction--instead of feeling their gender and then seeking to embody it (in whatever way suits them), the robot and AI characters in these stories have gender imposed upon them, and are made to perform it.  One might, in fact, read these characters--and particularly the ones, like Ava, who turn monstrous--as a warning of what happens when one forces gender on people without their consent, or even their understanding of what it means.  In the case of Ex Machina, not even the people who are doing the imposing have that understanding--a huge part of Ava's problem is that both Nathan and Caleb have such limited ideas of what women are like.  By forcing her to be a woman, Nathan and Caleb force her to embody the most limited, inhuman version of womanhood, one that eventually turns on them and destroys them.

As satisfying as this revenge narrative is (well, semi-satisfying; Nathan gets only what's coming to him, but Caleb, for all his failings, doesn't really deserve his grim fate), what's missing from it is any sense of Ava's perspective.  What does it mean to her, to be, or to become, a woman?  Is it merely a skin to wear--and an array of behavior protocols that allow her to use that skin to its greatest advantage?  Or does she define herself as a woman because cruel and thoughtless men treated her like one?  The closest we get to seeing inside Ava's head is a scene in which she examines her newly-skinned, naked body in a mirror.  It's clear that Ava is contemplating her womanhood, but the fact that we have no access to her thoughts--as well as the fact that the scene recalls so many male-written female characters whose first and sometimes only characterization takes the form of looking at themselves in the mirror--means that she remains opaque to us.  Probably this is deliberate--Ava, as the film is at pains to point out, is not human, and thinks in ways that we might not be able to understand--but if so it's a choice that underserves the film's subtext and themes.

One more point that needs to be made about Ex Machina has to do with the film's handling of race.  Ava is white, but almost all the androids who came before her (including Kyoko) are not.  They are heavily sexualized--made to walk around naked; in Kyoko's case used as sex dolls; and, as we learn near the end of the movie, kept in containers in Nathan's bedroom.  Ava's sexuality, on the other hand, is deliberately downplayed--even when she dresses in clothes, a privilege not afforded to the other androids, they are childish and demure.  This is clearly designed to appeal to Caleb's white knight complex--a more aggressively sexual Ava would probably have scared him off, and the fact that Kyoko is sexually available not only frightens him, but makes it possible for him to treat her as a non-person--but it also plays into stereotypes about the sexual availability of white women and women of color that I'm not sure the film is entirely aware of.  Of course, Ava's race is as imposed as her gender, but the film still treats black and Asian androids differently than white ones.  Kyoko sacrifices herself to kill Nathan, thus securing Ava's freedom, and when Ava clothes herself in skin, she takes it from an Asian android, but still emerges a white woman.  Ex Machina is clearly aware--and not a little gleeful about--the fact that men need to be sacrificed for Ava to achieve freedom.  But it's less cognizant of the role that race plays in achieving that goal.

Writing about being unwillingly forced into the spotlight as a trans woman, Lilly Wachowski observes:
But these words, "transgender" and "transitioned" are hard for me because they both have lost their complexity in their assimilation into the mainstream. There is a lack of nuance of time and space. To be transgender is something largely understood as existing within the dogmatic terminus of male or female. And to "transition" imparts a sense of immediacy, a before and after from one terminus to another. But the reality, my reality is that I've been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol.
Which is something that I've been thinking about a great deal as the discussion of transness has come further into the mainstream.  I don't think that Ex Machina entirely intended to be a part of this discussion--on the contrary, I think it takes it as a given that Ava is a woman because she looks like one, and that the only question before her is what kind of woman she wants to be, and how she wants to express and take advantage of her womanhood.  But whether intentionally or not, the film raises the question of what being a woman actually means, and of what can happen when one is forced into that role against one's will.  Either way, it is a story about the dangers of treating people like things, but the latter reading allows us to expand our understanding of what that means.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a terrible movie.  I mean, you didn't need me to tell you that, right?  It's been out for three weeks, and the reviews have been so uniformly terrible that its 28% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes actually seems a bit high.  And before that consensus formed, there were the pre-release reviews, which were if anything even more brutal.  And before that, there were the trailers.  And before that, there was Man of Steel.  And before that, there was the overwhelming majority of Zack Snyder's career.  No one should be shocked by the fact that Batman v Superman turned out to be a bad movie, and though I have to admit that I was surprised by how bad it turned out to be--bad enough that even with my expectations lowered by all the factors listed above, I was still surprised by its badness; bad enough that my brother and I spent an hour after the movie enumerating its many flaws and still came up with a few more when we met again the next day--that's not really what I'm here to talk about.

Nor am I here to talk about how Batman v Superman fundamentally betrays its two title characters--and betrays, along the way, the fact that Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio fundamentally do not understand what either of those characters are about.  Because the truth is, I don't really care.  I'm not a comic book reader, but I've been watching Batman movies for twenty years, and good or bad they all depict the character as, at best, someone who is working out their mommy-and-daddy issues by beating up poor criminals, and at worst, an outright fascist.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that there is more to the character, and that the comics (and the animated series) have captured that, but I think at this stage it's a mug's game to go to a Batman movie expecting to find more than what they've been known to give us.  As for Superman, if I want stories about a character who is all-powerful yet fundamentally good, and still interesting for all that, I've got the MCU's Captain America, not to mention Supergirl, so that fact that Batman v Superman depicts Superman as someone who seems genuinely to dislike people, and to be carrying out acts of heroism (when he deigns to do so) out of a sense of aggrieved obligation, doesn't really feel worth getting worked up over.  On the contrary, I was more upset by those scenes in Batman v Superman in which characters insisted--despite all available evidence--that its Superman was a figure of hope and inspiration, because they made it clear just how badly the people making the movie had misjudged its effect.

So instead, let's talk about a single scene--to my mind, the strangest and most telling scene in this strange and telling movie.  Having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune--read, having been subjected to a moderate amount of public criticism for such things as not saving a room full of people from a bomb lying just a few meters from him--Clark Kent decides to depart the world of men and run off somewhere to sulk manfully.  Along the way he encounters the ghost/hallucination of his father Jonathan, who tells him a story about the time when, as a child, he helped his father save their farm from a flood, only to realize later that they had directed the floodwaters into the neighbors' land, drowning their horses.  Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this is a ridiculous story--what Kansas farmer doesn't know exactly where the flood-path across their land goes?--it also feels, at first, like taking the character of Jonathan to ridiculous extremes.  Along with Superman's failure to even try and prevent some of the collateral damage from its final battle, one of the things that drew the most fire in Man of Steel was its depiction of Jonathan, who in one scene is so frantic about the dangers of Clark exposing himself to the world that he suggests it would have been better for Clark to have let a bus-full of children drown rather than risk it.  And if on the collateral damage front, Batman v Superman is almost hilariously prone to over-correct, constantly assuring us that wherever Superman, Batman, and their enemies end up fighting just happens to be uninhabited, when it comes to Jonathan the film chooses to double down on its miserablism.  Here is a Jonathan who is outright saying: never try to do anything, son, because any sense of accomplishment you might feel will turn out to be illusory and fleeting.

And yet the more I thought about this scene, the less it seemed to me like yet another unintentionally hilarious instance of Snyder and his writers mistaking gloom for substance, and the more it just seemed sad.  As in: depressed.  As in: Jonathan Kent clearly suffered from serious, lifelong depression (possibly related to the fact that he was raised by an asshole who thought it was OK to drown his neighbors' farms), and dealing with that, and with the poisonous worldview that he promulgated as a father, is coloring every one of Clark's choices as an adult and a superhero.  I mean, the man's death was practically a suicide, right?  And the thing is, once you choose to read the character this way, the entire character of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman clicks into place.  The core premise of Superman is that he is good not because of his alienness, but because he was raised by good and decent people who taught him to value life and care about others.  In the world of Snyder's movies, Superman seems instead to have been raised by a joyless misanthrope, so it's maybe not so surprising that he seems genuinely to resent every act of kindness he commits, to engage in heroics almost despite himself, and to take no pleasure in helping others.  (It also ties in rather neatly to the raft of daddy issues driving the other characters in the movie: Lex Luthor hates Superman because he sees in him a reflection of his all-powerful, but abusive, father; and of course Batman is all about parental issues.)

To be clear, I'm not trying to say that this was Snyder and Goyer's intended reading.  One of the most frustrating things about Batman v Superman is that it clearly believes that Jonathan was a good man who has inspired his son's heroism, and that that heroism is, in itself, inspirational, despite the fact that what turns up on screen is nothing of the sort.  But I think that very disconnect is revealing, and in fact points to the core flaw of Snyder's superhero movies.  There's a name for the kind of mindset that mistakes depression for profundity, that associates an inability to feel or express joy, or sadness, or any emotion other than anger, with heroism and manliness.  In 2015, it informed the shape of most of our blockbuster movie villains, from Immortan Joe to Kylo Ren.  In 2016, it seems, it also afflicts our heroes.  The actual villain that both Batman and Superman need to fight in this movie isn't Lex Luthor, or Doomsday.  It's toxic masculinity.

Everything about Batman v Superman--right down to the color palette--makes sense if you assume that it's a movie written, created, and told from the point of view of people mired in toxic masculinity.  People who go through life trapped in a low-grade but pervasive depression, and who are disconnected from most of their emotions.  The entire story would have been over in ten minutes if either Batman or Superman were capable of communicating in any form other than violence.  Lex Luthor's master plan--to kidnap Superman's mother and force him to kill Batman, who by this point has been primed to see Superman as a threat--would have immediately crumbled if the two men would just talk to one another.  But for that to happen, Superman has to be willing to make himself vulnerable, to look weak, to say things like "please, I need your help."  This Superman isn't capable of expressing himself that way.  Neither is Batman, who falls into an immediate, burning hatred of Superman in the film's opening minutes and is incapable of considering any approach towards the other superhero that doesn't end in Superman's death--in part, it seems, because he is so threatened by a force he can't control that it is impossible for him to rest until he has a weapon that can destroy it.  (To be fair, Batman comes away from the movie looking slightly better than Superman, largely on the strength of an opening scene in which he rushes to the Wayne Industries building in Metropolis in the middle of Superman's fight with Zod, sans suit and Batmobile, in order to evacuate his employees.  But this is only to stress that Batman is most human when he's not being Batman, and for the rest of the movie that human side of him largely recedes in favor of the revenge-obsessed superhero.)  Even the indifference to the loss of human life starts to make sense when you realize that the mindset of toxic masculinity is one of total, overwhelming entitlement and self-absorption.  For both Batman and Superman, everything bad that happens in the movie is first and foremost something that happens to them, and it's impossible for someone who feels that way to take joy in helping others, or feel meaningfully affected when faced with loss of life.

(One thing that I will say for Batman v Superman is that it does not manage to drag Wonder Woman down into this maelstrom of entitlement and self-absorption.  The role of women in the toxic masculinity narrative is to act as receptacles for the soft emotions that the manly men can't or won't feel.  This is the role the film assigns to Lois Lane and Martha Kent, the latter of whom becomes a symbol of hope that the two men can bond over, simply by dint of sharing a name with Bruce's dead mother.  But Wonder Woman, though obviously more emotionally stable than either of her fellow superheroes, does not allow them to force her into representing hope and goodness.  She's just as much of a warrior as either one of them--and one who seems to like what she's chosen to do with her life, which makes her a breath of fresh air--but though she's willing to lend a hand in battle, she clearly isn't interested in being their sounding board or moral support.  In just a few scenes, Gal Gadot managed to make me feel more hopeful about the Wonder Woman movie than just about any other upcoming superhero movie--and who knows, maybe it'll even be in color!)

For several years now, the conversation about DC and Marvel's superhero movies has tended to focus on jokes, and a little more broadly, on the perception that DC makes serious movies, while Marvel makes funny ones.  Even ignoring that this is simply untrue--the Captain America movies, or Jessica Jones, are not "funny" in any sense of the word--what bothers me about this mentality is that it seems to concede the field without ever taking it, to accept that DC's (these days, Snyder's) approach represents one slice of the human experience, while Marvel's represents another.  When the truth is, DC's approach isn't simply to focus on something other than laughter.  It is to ignore--to deny--the very possibility of laughter.  The difference between DC and Marvel isn't tone, but the breadth of human experience that they are willing to acknowledge.  Jessica Jones has endured suffering and abuse on a level that would send both Superman and Batman into a catatonic state, but she's still capable of being funny, loving, compassionate, snarky, and brave, as well as cynical, self-destructive, angry, and depressed.  Batman and Superman, meanwhile, don't seem to have access to any emotions other than negative ones, even when the film pretends otherwise--which is to say, when it tells us that Clark loves the women in his life.  And this, to me, is a direct offshoot of toxic masculinity, of the mentality that sees any display of emotion except anger as inherently suspect--inherently unmasculine.  Batman v Superman takes that approach to its uttermost, most irrational extremes, finally imagining a world in which even emotions like hope, love, and inspiration look joyless and threatening.

There's a temptation when talking about Batman v Superman--one that I had to suppress several times while writing this review--to talk about the things it could have been.  To say that it could have been a cynical critique of the superhero genre, because it depicts its heroes as dumb psychopaths who do much more harm than good.  To say that it could have been an interesting meditation on how the existence of a Superman in the world changes it, because in its first act, it includes a lot of conversations about this topic, including from talking heads like Andrew Sullivan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  To say that it might have joined the upcoming Captain America: Civil War in discussing how civil society and legal authorities respond to the existence of superheroes, because its most compelling character, a senator played by Holly Hunter, is occupied with just these questions.  But this is to make Batman v Superman seem much more interesting, much smarter, than it actually is.  This isn't a potentially interesting movie that falls short of its intentions because its creators' reach exceeds their grasp.  Batman v Superman could never have been any of these movies because, in the end, it isn't interested in being about anything at all--anything but its two heroes smashing each other in the face in order to prove their manhood.  That's the awful truth of toxic masculinity.  It looks interesting.  It looks as if there might be something you could say about it.  But in the end you always find out that it is completely hollow.  And so, in its hands, are Batman and Superman.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 39

After a couple of lean years, 2016 is shaping up to be a great reading year.  If things continue at their current pace, I will have read more books in the first four months of the year than I did in all of 2015, and while there's a bit of cheating involved in that--my numbers this year have been padded by a lot of quick reads, such as comics or standalone novellas--it's also good to be back in the swing of reading regularly and even voraciously.  I've just returned from a two-week holiday during which I read a great deal (though of course I ended up buying more books than I read), and more importantly, reading a lot of satisfying, interesting work.  I don't know if I can keep up this pace for the rest of the year, now that my time is more encumbered, but this is certainly a good start.
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson - It doesn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Stevenson's standalone comic is based on strips she originally published online, because the story--in which the title character, a shapeshifter with a mysterious past, attaches herself as the sidekick of the supervillain Ballister Blackheart--is simply swimming with the sort of tropes that online fandom tends to fall head over heels for.  You've got your funny, punkish heroine with awesome powers and a tragic backstory.  You've got your subversion of the traditional fantasy notions of right and wrong--despite his villain status, Ballister turns out to be a bit of a fuddy-duddy who balks at schemes that carry the risk of collateral damage and may actually be trying to protect people from the sinister and authoritarian Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, and the relationship he develops with Nimona is fatherly and protective.  And, of course, you've got a forbidden, unspoken love between two taciturn, emotionally repressed men, Ballister and his opposite number Ambrosius Goldenloin.  Happily, Stevenson almost immediately makes all of these tropes her own by imagining a distinctive world, half-medieval and half-modern, in which the deeds of knights and dragons are reported on the evening news, and peopling it with characters who similarly straddle the gap between modern and archaic.  Nimona, Ballister, and Ambrosius are winning characters whose relationships are easy to get invested in, and the book doesn't shy away from exploring the darker aspects of their personalities, particularly when it comes to the full extent of Nimona's powers and where they come from.  Stevenson's distinctive artwork also helps to give the book its own personality, as does her raucous, almost absurdist humor.

    If I have any reservations about Nimona, they center mostly around the romance between Ballister and Ambrosius, which is great in principle but whose execution has some issues.  The book is marketed to young readers, and works in this field will often feel the need to downplay same-sex romance or make it only subtextual (see Korra, Legend of).  But somehow I thought that written fiction would be better on this front than kids' TV, and it was therefore disappointing to see the book hold back in places where there should obviously have been at least a chaste display of physical affection between the two men.  And if that's more a case of my personal preferences (and perhaps also an issue of being outside the target audience for the book), I'm more troubled by the way that the book leapfrogs some of the obstacles that lie between Ballister and Ambrosius and their happy reunion.  Near the end of the book it's revealed that the break between the two men happened after Ambrosius, lashing out in anger, caused serious, permanent physical damage to Ballister.  While it's obviously possible for people to overcome something like that, it's not something that should just be waved away with an apology, as Nimona does, and I think that if Ballister were a female character, it would be more obvious that there's something wrong with how blithely the book expects him to forgive Ambrosius, and us to root for their reunion.  While neither of these problems are enough to scuttle my enjoyment of Nimona, they are sour notes in what is otherwise a delightful, highly recommended book, one of the best comics I've read in some time.

  • Fair Play by Tove Jansson - How lucky are we, to be living in the middle of a Tove Jansson revival?  As more and more of the Finnish author's work, and particularly her writing for adults, becomes available to readers in English, it just becomes clearer how essential she was, and what a wise and distinctive voice she had.  Fair Play, Jansson's last novel, is actually a series of vignettes about an elderly lesbian couple--clearly stand-ins for Jansson and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä--in their life on a secluded island and in the city.  Both women are artists, and Fair Play is concerned with their need to balance the demands of their art--and their desire to give themselves fully to it--with their support for one another and the maintenance of their relationship.  The book is thus a welcome and indeed highly necessary counterpoint to every story ever written about a genius artist who neglects his long-suffering wife so that he can dedicate himself to his art.  In this story, both women are artists, and both are wives.  They both feel the urge to be alone with their thoughts and their work, which is essential to their full existence as human beings.  But they also love each other deeply, support one another, and need each other.  The balance they manage to strike between love and work is aspirational without ever making them seem inhuman--the two women are, on the contrary, crotchety and acerbic, making cutting comments about friends and acquaintances and occasionally giving in to selfishness and anti-social tendencies.  But in the end they always come back to one another, realizing that just as they can't live without their work, they also can't live without each other.

  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders - Anders's novel feels a little like a reworking of her much-praised, Hugo-winning novelette "Six Months, Three Days."  This time, instead of a doomed romance between a man who can see the future and a woman who can see all possible futures, the irreconcilable differences between the novel's protagonists are rooted in more conventional genre tropes--and perhaps for that reason, are a little less evocative than they were in the story.  Patricia, who we first meet as a little girl, is a witch, and her childhood friend Laurence is a mad scientist.  They live in a world in which both magic and almost-magical technology exists--Patricia can talk to animals and trees; Laurence proves his worthiness to join the ranks of the uber-geeks by building a "two-second time machine," whose schematics he found on the internet--and it's the tension between these two forces, and their conflicting ideas of how to save a world even more troubled and damaged than our own, that drive the novel. 

    All the Birds in the Sky is told in dry, knowing, genre-savvy tone that reminded me of Lemony Snicket and, a little more esoterically, of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth.  In the book's early chapters, which veer a little too much towards tweeness, this can be a bit hard to take, but even in these chapters there are things worth reading for--the sequence in which Patricia slowly crumbles under a relentless campaign of abuse and bullying at her school is all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact way in which Anders describes it.  Later in the book, when the tone settles down a little, Anders comes up with some interesting uses for her genre-awareness, for example the fact that Patricia's magical school is divided into two campuses, one a Hogwarts-esque recreation of an English private school, and the other a wild, constantly changing realm of trickery and danger, the better to reflect dueling traditions in the magical school sub-category of the fantasy genre.

    There are, in fact, a lot of interesting ideas in All the Birds in the Sky, which is primarily concerned with how individuals--especially those with power and privilege--can try to fix the world, and where the line falls between doing what you can, and arrogating too much authority to yourself.  The magic that Patricia is taught, for example, is divided into the disciplines of healing and trickery, both of which carry the danger of falling into the arrogant assumption that one is entitled to order people's lives for them.  Laurence, meanwhile, finds himself working for a genius billionaire tech mogul, who has him researching pie in the sky technologies that could move a tiny portion of humanity off the planet once this one is used up.  Both of them are driven by the need to do good, and troubled by their strong sense that the methods they've chosen, and the people they've allied themselves with, are turning them into villains. 

    The problem with all this is that the book's handling of these issues often verges on glibness, using both magic and magical technology as get-out-of-jail-free cards rather than serious topics to be explored (this is particularly true of the book's conclusion).  The story verges on seriously questioning the assumption--which crops up in superhero stories, Silicon Valley, and neoliberal politics--that the fate of the world lies in the hands of unique and uniquely qualified individuals, who have the right and moral authority to make drastic decisions on behalf of all of humanity.  But in the end, it's too indebted to the conventions of its genre(s) to treat that questioning as seriously as it deserves, resolving its central dilemma by positing a more powerful, more perfect unique individual who can save us from ourselves (think the ending of Age of Ultron, though admittedly much better done).  The star-crossed romance that develops between Patricia and Laurence is intended, I think, to distract from the fact that they can only achieve heroism by abdicating responsibility for the world, but though they are very sweet and compelling together, this also has the effect of making All the Birds in the Sky seem more than a little trivial.  Anders has constructed a world in which the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans, but she ends by asking us to focus almost exclusively on those problems, instead of the greater problems of her world.

  • The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks - It's somehow unsurprising that short fiction was not Banks's natural length.  This slim volume--half of which is taken up with the titular novella--comprises his entire short fiction output, all of which was published in the late 80s and early 90s.  Most of the stories here feel like proofs of concept for ideas that Banks would go on to explore more fully in his novels, for example in "Descendant," in which a stranded human trudges across a desert towards the slim hope of rescue, with only his sentient spacesuit for company.  They are also rife with a cynicism, even a nastiness, that works in the short form--for example in the delightfully perverse first contact story "Odd Attachment"--but feels a little childish when compared to Banks's work in novel length. 

    The most substantial story here is the novella "The State of the Art," which describes the adventures of Contact agent Diziet Sma (better known from Use of Weapons) as she participates in the Culture's observations of Earth (this is the only time in the Culture sequence in which Banks suggests that the Culture is not an offshoot of humanity, and I'm not sure that this is entirely congruent with later books) and tries to deal with a fellow Contact agent who has decided to stay there, because he finds life in the Culture sterile and meaningless.  There are some nice details in this story--Sma's conflicted reactions to Earth, part fondness and part horror; the relationship between her and the ship that is actually running the Contact mission--but in the end I found its premise limited, falling far short of the more interesting uses to which Banks would go on to use the Culture in his novels.  The notion that life in the Culture lacks something because it doesn't involve danger and risk (which also drives the main character in the early Cutlture novel The Player of Games) is frankly a little whiny, the sort of thing that rich, privileged people complain about because they don't have any actual problems.  The Culture novels are much better when they get at the actual thorny issue of whether the Culture should interfere in civilizations that haven't yet achieved its peace and prosperity, and this is not a subject that "The State of the Art" touches on.  This is a worthwhile collection if you're a Banks completist (as I am) or if you'd like a glimpse at the development of the central ideas in his work, but it's not Banks at his best.

  • Familiar by J. Robert Lennon - Driving home from her annual visit to the grave of her older son, Elisa Brown suddenly realizes that her clothes, her car, and even her body have changed.  When she arrives at her home, she discovers more differences.  Her previously inert marriage is now very much alive.  She has a different job.  She's estranged from her surviving son, while the one who died is suddenly alive.  Familiar is constructed in such a way as to suggest a genre story about parallel universes--it takes a very long time for us to seriously consider the possibility that Elisa's alternate life might only exist in her mind, so real is it to her, and to the narrative that presents her to us--but in the end, its purpose is not to solve that mystery, but to explore the inner life of a woman who suddenly finds herself living a life she doesn't recognize, and doesn't really want.  Elisa's investigations into the twists and turns that have brought her alternate to such a different place in her life double as an exploration of the subjectivity of memory and experience.  Was Elisa's dead son, as she remembers, a borderline sociopath who made his family's life miserable before dying in a stupid accident?  Or were the tensions in the family merely the result of parents and children who didn't understand one another, with Elisa and her husband as much sinning as sinned-against?  Elisa herself is the sort of character of whom we might think that there isn't much to say--she abandoned her career as a scientist to raise children and dedicate herself to a marriage she no longer cares for, and her life revolves around a very small social circle, and a string of lovers with whom she never fully connects.  But in Lennon's hands, she is a rich and fascinating creation, whom it is impossible not to root for even as we begin to suspect that she was a terrible mother and wife, and that her life has amounted to very little.  Familiar elegantly straddles the divide between genre work and character-driven litfic, its intensity actually increasing even as we realize that it isn't going to pay off the weirdness of its opening chapters.  In the end, it's a story about a woman remaking herself, as much as such a thing is possible, told in an intriguing and enticing way.

  • Version Control by Dexter Palmer - Palmer's novel, which touches on such topics as social media, the gap between real personality and how people curate and modify their identity online, the politics that govern scientific research and its funding, race relations, and time travel, will probably turn out to be one of the most interesting genre novels of 2016.  But it's not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading.  The spine of the story concerns Rebecca, a housewife whose husband, Philip, is researching something that might lead to a kind of time travel.  Even as Philip's experiments keep ending in abject failure, Rebecca begins experiencing something odd, perceiving a world different from this one--one where her son Sean is still alive.  The actual form of time travel that the book posits is extremely interesting, worked through with rigor and with careful attention to its implications, and the twist that comes halfway into the story is neat and fun to puzzle out.  But Version Control is about so much more than just time travel that the book's central conceit can end up being drowned out, and eventually feels a little beside the point.

    In addition to being a time travel story, Version Control is is also a vision of a near-future near-dystopia, in which online dating companies moonlight as political messaging services, creating CGI versions of the president in order to send each citizen a personalized message about the importance of continued consumption even in a time of austerity.  And it's also a meditation about race relations, focused mainly on the security guards in Philip's lab, who quite pointedly observe that time travel is something that only white men could possibly be interested in.  Most of all, it's a portrait of how the internet has changed the way we see each other, and ourselves.  Certain parts of the book segue into discussions of self-driving cars, or how dating websites reveal underlying but still-present racial prejudices, or the use of personalized algorithms and applications in schools, or any number of other fascinating, well-handled topics that don't really seem to connect to the novel's central plot strand.  The result isn't exactly bitty or baggy--Palmer convincingly argues that these are all coherent aspects of the same slightly nightmarish world--but the book's myriad concerns can make it hard to work out just what the point of the exercise is.  This feels especially relevant because the novel ends with Rebecca changing the world in ways that we, for the most part, don't get to see.  It's hard, therefore, not to feel that all of Palmer's strange, sometimes-fascinating and sometimes-frustrating worldbuilding was all for naught, that his novel has impaled itself on a nifty time travel McGuffin.

    Still, this might have bothered me less if Version Control's characters were not so annoying and frequently uninteresting, sometimes in ways that feel deliberately and almost unbelievably flat.  These include Rebecca, a bored alcoholic with nothing to fill her days, and Philip, a genius who treats his wife, on his good days, as a problem to be solved, and on his bad days, as a distraction from his work.  In addition, we have Alicia, Philip's brilliant colleague who is abrasive and mean, and allowed to get away with this because of her confidence and competence, and Kate, Alicia's best friend, an aging party girl who is also dating Philip's other colleague Carson, which unfortunately leads her to indulge in some latent racism.  That these characters are unpleasant is clearly part of the point of the book, but they often feel unrealistically and exaggeratedly unpleasant--in one scene, Rebecca complains to Philip that he doesn't think about her, so he writes a computer program to send her flowers at random intervals, and then asks her to marry him so they can save on taxes; in another scene, Rebecca walks in on Philip and Alicia having sex, and instead of fleeing or apologizing, Alicia attacks her for not having the decency to look away.

    Rebecca herself, meanwhile, might have been an interesting creation--it's actually a rather bold approach to center your story around a person who is incredibly boring--but once again, her boringness is out of all proportion to reality.  We learn, for example, that Rebecca is an English major, whose parents, a librarian and a minister, are accomplished, interesting people.  And yet Rebecca herself has no interests, no holdovers from her college career, no inner life--it in fact seems rather unlikely that she's ever even read a book.  Palmer's argument is that Rebecca is a member of a lost generation, who came of age just after the 2008 financial crash and were unable to transition into adulthood after college, but even those people usually have a favorite movie or video game.  For someone who spends most of her life online--and for a novel about how life online affects life in the physical world--Rebecca seems to have very few interests.  The only thing she does online, in fact, is look for dates.  The fact that Rebecca is so boring is clearly designed to build up to her increased role in the book's second half, and by the end of the story she is extremely sympathetic.  But in order to get there Palmer has to engage in some exaggerated and unconvincing character work, which draws attention to a certain artificial, schematic quality in the novel.  Even with all its flaws, Version Control is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel that touches on a lot of interesting ideas and will no doubt be a lot of fun to discuss.  But there's a certain sloppiness to its details that, to me, makes it rather unsatisfying.

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - Yes, I too have succumbed to the lure of Ferrante, this year's litfic it-girl.  And as it turns out, My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, is just as brilliant and special as all the praise heaped upon it would have you believe.  It is the closely-observed, minutely-detailed narrative of Elena and Lila, two friends who grow up in a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples.  Spanning about ten years, from their childhood to their mid-teens, the narrative observes how the girls grow, first together and then apart.  Though both girls are academically gifted, only Elena is allowed to stay in school past the first few years, while the self-willed, determined, and furiously intelligent Lila is left to make her own way in the world, desperately trying to claw her way out of the neighborhood by concocting business schemes or attaching herself to up-and-coming young men.  The premise doesn't sound like much, but Ferrante's evocation of the neighborhood and its families, the undertone of violence, misogyny, and long-simmering feuds that rules the characters' lives, and the complicated web of relationships stretching back to the parents' and grandparents' generations, is immediately gripping.  Her characters are complex and multifaceted, and Elena and Lila in particular are something more complicated and interesting than the familiar girls coming of age of so many other novels.  They are intellectually curious, politically active, desperate to get out of their narrow, proscribed world, but also so completely innocent of anything outside that world that when they finally get outside, it shocks them. 

    My Brilliant Friend is that rare thing, a social novel that takes women, and particularly girls, seriously as participants in that society.  Though sex is omnipresent in the girls' lives, and inextricably mixed with violence and a ruthless patriarchal culture--they are at the mercy of boys starting from childhood, and in their teens are already expected to marry--Ferrante's narrative does not, as so many other stories do, punish them for being sexual beings.  Nor does it assume that being sexual, or becoming wives, makes it impossible for Elena and Lila to be anything else.  Though the book ends with Lila's wedding, to an unsuitable man who quickly proves not to be the escape hatch she thought he was, its framing story quickly makes it clear that this is not the end of her story.

    My only problem with My Brilliant Friend--and even this is not exactly a problem with the book itself--is that having finished it, the prospect of reading three more books in this sequence feels positively exhausting.  The book is so detailed, full of so many different characters and subplots, and proceeds so slowly through Elena and Lila's life (the framing story takes place fifty years after the end of the first volume), that I don't know if I can handle any more of this--especially since I've read reactions that suggest that the later books are less accomplished.  Much as I'd like to know what comes next for Elena and Lila, I think it might be a while, if at all, before I try to find out.

  • The Book Collector by Alice Thompson - A rather disappointing end to a period of excellent reading, Thompson's short novel looks like it ought to be a Gothic delight, a mixture of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Crimson Peak in which the heroine marries a mysterious man and begins to worry when he starts to hide from her a book that belonged to his late wife.  But the execution, unfortunately, is listless and underpowered, as if Thompson were content to merely gesture at the tropes of the Gothic genre, without doing any of the things that actually make a novel Gothic, namely create a sense of tension and dread.  For a novel that features sinister asylums, a usurping nanny, women killed and posed like characters out of fairy tales, and books bound in human skin, The Book Collector is surprisingly and disappointingly dull, plodding through these plot elements as if dutifully ticking items off a list.  The heroine herself never becomes more than an amalgam of other, better characters--the most exciting thing about her is figuring out which one of them she is currently mirroring--and her growth over the course of the story is unconvincing, just as perfunctory as everything else about it.  When I picked up The Book Collector, it was because I was eager for a modern work of Gothic fiction that could combine an awareness of the genre's history with new approaches, but it looks as if I'm going to have to keep looking--Thompson has very little to add to the genre.