Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Review: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, a Latinx Anthology

A new collection of fiction and poetry about home, identity, and the need for connection

A sequel to the Latinx Rising anthology, Speculative Fiction for Dreamers contains 38 pieces of writing by authors from the Latin diaspora. The inherently hybrid nature of Latin life and Latin identity in the United States is addressed in the editors' introduction, which states, "Being Latinx, in its immense, beautiful, fractured entirety, is a kind of speculative fiction in itself."

These stories come at a pivotal moment for Latin artists of all speculative genres in the United States, which Frederick Luis Aldama's preface describes as "how the creative, mindful use of our counterfactual capacity today can imagine better ways for us to think, act, and feel tomorrow."

Part I: Dreaming of New Homes

The pieces selected for this first section deal with the characters' search for a place in the world and with their need to persist in that search when the world seems determined to exclude them.

How Juan Bobo Got to los Nueba Yores by Karlo Yeager Rodríguez, about an immigrant mother struggling to keep her son safe in a hostile city, is a dreamlike sequence of close encounters with the urgent need to belong, both as a matter of personal identity and as a matter of survival.

If he looked out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw mountains, hazy
with distance. Every time he repeated his story to himself, they grew sharper,
greener, until one day the skyscrapers would become the mountains back home.

Those Rumors of Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice Have Been Greatly Exaggerated by Ernest Hogan, about a road trip through the reclaimed lands of Mexican America, is an incoherent, rambling rant that mistakes having an anthropologist character for the need to overexplain itself in anthropological parlance. Even worse, it's a historical revenge fantasy, which to me is one of the least interesting forms of speculative fiction.

"It's a chocolate-flavored delivery system for a scientifically
blended combination of caffeine and cannabis!"
"Keeps you awake and energetic. And feeling good! It's the working
person's best friend! And it doesn't make you pee all the time!"

Saint Simon of 9th and Oblivion by Sabrina Vourvoulias, about a single young woman trying to figure out what she wants from life while everyone around her wants to impose their own aspirations on her, is a beautifully written exploration of the meaning of self-confidence, the elusive gift of living on one's talent, and the blurry lines between need and desire.

"My success comes from how wildly I imagine and how
meticulously I execute. Not magic, not fortune, just me."
"You've always had an exceedingly high opinion of yourself."

Ancestral Lines and other Tall Tales by Samy Figaredo, a theater play about a mixed-race young enby learning to draw strength from their origins, is a bit too flat and direct, without space for layers or subtext, but sometimes a heavy truth calls for a blunt delivery.

"You may choose to show certain sides to people to survive, but
the features you conceal are still with you. The moon does not
dissolve to form a crescent: it only chooses to show us less of itself."

Quetzal Feathers by Tammy Melody Gomez is a short but touching poem where an unnamed narrator transforms into the sacred bird of Mayan culture and flies toward a land more alive than reality.

a mountain place of winged fish and fluorescent frogs,
where I have forced my dreams to take me, again and again.

Tía Abuela's Face, Ten Ways by Lisa M. Bradley, about a young woman who undergoes plastic surgery to adopt her dead great-aunt's face, does a great work of condensing into the short story form the complexities of extended family drama, the effects of technology on identity, the biopolitics of bereavement, and the oddities of human culture when seen from the outside.

Everything is swimmy. Which I guess is appropriate, since the serum
in my irises is modeled after the chromatophores in octopus skin.

Part II: Dreams Interrupted

In this section, characters are placed in situations where they have to deal with loss, be it personal, generational, or ancestral.

Jean by Stephanie Nina Pitsirilos, about a girl whose way of coping with the death of a mother addicted to consuming heroin is to retreat into the story of the death of a heroine addicted to consuming stars, draws a thought-provoking parallel between spacetime wormholes and the unsettling power of emotional triggers.

Shake up the world of the dead and there's no way of knowing how far back into
the past you've reached to understand a story. Where a wormhole's taken you.

Like Flowers through Concrete by Louangie Bou-Montes, about a park ranger searching for a proper way to honor his dead brother's memory while unexpectedly falling in love with a guerrilla gardener, is a sweet portrayal of the compassion and care with which lasting sadness can gradually learn to coexist with newfound joy.

Wyatt just preferred the outskirts of town: the trees bursting up through
the roofs of the long-forgotten rectangular buildings, the mounds of
moss and grass growing over hunks of rusted metal, the forest smashing
its way past the concrete and asphalt that had once tried to contain it.

A Flock for the Sandhill Crane by Roman Sanchez, about the spirit of Our Lady of Guadalupe watching over the Mexican nation for centuries, is a waste of an interesting idea with its poorly edited sentences, its jarring structural disjointedness, and its cartoonish oversimplification of the historical roots of inequality as if they were reducible to conspiracy theory.

They had never intended to give the world
the opportunity to begin life in the stars.
While DeLamonte kept the UN and its
citizens distracted, the capitalist class began
boarding his rockets and preparing to flee.

Fancy by Diana Burbano, a theater play about organized struggle under a patriarchal theocracy, proceeds like a philosophical debate between waves of feminism and, by extension, between their associated generations, with the topic in question being the choice of tactic of resistance.

"Fighting like you do gets people killed. Or
thrown in jail— We got other ways to rebel."

Time Traveler Intro by Eliana Buenrostro is a flash piece about the dislocating strain of having to survive as several identities in several places.

I am everywhere and split into so many directions.
Split into multitudes. I am here and not at all.

The Music Box by Sara Daniele Rivera, about a grotesquely commodified soprano singer, is the curious type of science fiction that picks a metaphor and plays with taking it literally, in this case the metaphor of being robbed of your voice.

If she could, she would sing in Spanish.
If her mouth could still shape the words.

Part III: My Life in Dreams

The unifying theme in this section is the effect that the wondrous element (either technological or magical) has on human beings when it is integrated into the ordinary actions of daily life.

My First Word by William Alexander, about a community of garbage collectors in a world where speech produces trash, is an intriguing example of how language can be a tool of social exclusion, but also of survival.

The boy uttered a refrigerator. He didn't seem to have any trouble
producing an entire fridge from inside his distended jaw. It was
dark beige. It thunked against the rooftop, several times his size.

Do as I Do by Pedro Iniguez, about a trek across the Mexican countryside during a robot apocalypse, should have had more retouches in the editing stage, but is still effective at conveying the strength to keep love alive when all seems lost.

"He had to come out of hiding because food was running short. That's when
I met him. I was scavenging an old pet store for food. It had been looted
long ago, but there he was, frightened and joyous all at once. Like me."

The Clarification Oral History Project by Pedro Cabiya is written in the style of a promotional brochure by a nonprofit organization entrusted with documenting first-hand testimonies about a mysterious event that transformed all Haitians into white people.

After the Clarification nothing has been the same anywhere in
the world. Perhaps one of the most enduring and far-reaching
results of the Clarification is the final disintegration of Western
moral paradigms and the bankruptcy of its cultural leadership.

Curanderas in the Ceiling by Alex Temblador, about a woman undergoing spiritual healing at the same time as gynecological surgery, is one of those cases where an ending open to ambiguous interpretations hurts the story instead of helping it.

I want to say something, but in that moment, I can feel
the blood rushing from my head, my vision blurs and
begins to fade. I can hear the nurse speaking in tongues,
Mamá crying, and the doctor yelling at someone.

Dream Rider by Daniel Parada, a comic one-shot about an agricultural festival in a Mesoamerican-themed future, has an interesting visual design, but it doesn't really have a plot, and feels more like a prologue for something longer.

It is only once a year, but on this day, the dimensions
of the living and the dead are weakened. This creates a
liminal space accessed by lucid dreaming via a special
liquid compound. On this day the dry and wet worlds party.

Spooky Action at a Distance by Laura Villareal is a poem where the narrator meditates on the threads that tie us to each other.

people gushed about Pluto's heart
until they knew it was broken.

BlindVision by Grisel Y. Acosta, about an extreme form of augmented reality that takes over users' muscles to guide their daily movements for them, starts as a very interesting thought experiment and then derails into something resembling a spy drama that promises answers and gives none.

They look like glasses to block the sun, the kind
you get at the doctor, except for the flicker of
light at the center of each lens, like a blue, green,
or red signal, slowly dying, somehow lingering.

Part IV: When Dreams Awaken

This section explores that liminal moment when the realm of fiction brushes against the realm of reality, and the inhabitants of our stories somehow cross over into our side.

The Chupacabra Next Door by Roxanne Ocasio, an urban fantasy/shifter romance about a schoolgirl who accidentaly gets involved in a secret war against evil, is a great example of the power of legends to rewrite collective memory: chupacabras are actually a very modern phenomenon, arisen in the late 20th century, but this story succeeds at believably recasting them as mythical creatures from precolonial times.

Wings and tail drooped as if empty of bone and muscle.
His strange blue eyes lost all of their color, becoming
a sickly gray. How could this be the same person
who had eaten dinner at her house twice this week?

An Adventure of Xuxa, La Ultima by Reyes Ramirez, about a wandering warrior who visits town after town to warn them of an oncoming zombie horde, is a fast-paced adventure with serious questions about humanity's right to survive.

"The gods, in all their genius, ended our reality
with the dead returning to feast on the living, our
collective history catching up to confront us."

Night Flowers by Stephanie Adams-Santos, about a family of survivors that flee from a fire and walk through a dangerous jungle full of hungry terrors, abounds in pitch-perfect metaphors that don't let the tension subside for one moment.

in the vicinity of sleep one begins to
doubt the shape and size of what is true.

Alma y Corazón by Julia Rios, about a former demon slayer now institutionalized as a mental patient, takes the tropes of superheroism and carefully molds them into a more intimate form. There is an admirable depth of compassion in how this story suggests a different way of saving a life.

She needed to be strong for her sister. And
strength didn't always mean roaring ferociously.
Sometimes it meant being quietly assertive.

Ella by Frederick Luis Aldama, Fernando de Peña and Rodrigo Vargas, a comic one-shot about biomechanical surveillance in a totalitarian maquila, has a worthy premise, but is visually unpolished and structurally confusing.

I wake. I roll over. I'm connected. I'm tentacled.

Two-Bullet Cowgirl Blues by Steve Castro, a poem about a tough girl in a tough town, is brief and direct, but with a whole world of revelations at the ending.

She arose early enough to wring the rooster's neck while it slept.

A Mirage by Steve Castro, about a domestic discussion on what to have for dinner in space, is written in flash form, and that hurts the story. The sheer amount of background exposition that the characters have to insert in each line of dialogue demands too much credulity of the reader, and the abruptness of the ending makes the whole piece feel directionless.

"Didn't you tell me that dodo burritos were your favorite,
and that your mistress loved goat-cheese empanadas."

The One by Steve Castro is another flash piece, this time about a world-ending cataclysm, and it fares better in its use of the form to paint a general image in the appropriately broad strokes it needs.

The fire was so massive and intense, its flames reached
up to the heavens and incinerated the earth's moon.

Grave Talk by J. M. Guzman, a surreal exploration of a literally living city, is by far the most difficult piece in the book. I have no idea what it means, but it's beautiful.

There were violet hearts encased in the calcified
ceiling, oozing black oil, pulsating irregularly.
Engineering the city with their tenuous hold.

Part V: Dreams Never Imagined

The anthology reserved the most creative pieces for its last section, which contains some truly innovative concepts that push forward the frontiers of speculative literature.

A Dangerous Wand by Nicholas Belardes, about a glassblower who becomes fascinated by a newcome stranger with mysterious intentions, is a tragic take on the allure of danger.

She said in our native tongue that Mr. Tiré was a
brujo, that he was here to melt the trees and consume
both sand and animals and pull the water from
below us and evaporate what was left into the sky.

Madrina by Sara Daniele Rivera, about stranded astronauts who resort to telepathic time travel to try to chart their way back home, not only has a thought-provoking premise related to the ethics of anthropological research and historical memory, but also leaves the reader with a bittersweet new sensation: the nostalgia for a place not yet seen.

"It's like I was born in a gap. Like my whole life is a
transition between people who will have true lives."

Bad Sun by Scott Russell Duncan, a flash piece about a boy sneaking out to play under forbidden sunshine, has almost an air of ancient myth in how it wields imagery and primal fears.

Knocking came from the door. A man in a hat
that had candles circling it talked to Mom.

Beacon by Scott Russell Duncan, a flash piece about a sinister bishop obsessed with people's inner light, is a curious reversal of the colonial gaze on Indigenous religions.

Their fathers and mothers lit candles to their spirits,
then more candles so they could see to light even
more candles, but it was never enough, darkness
came every night, inside, outside, everywhere.

Her Number by Scott Russell Duncan, a flash piece about an accountant who finds mystical meaning in financial datasets, is a weird but entertaining portrait of gradually creeping obsession.

Wendy did her numbers. The patterns came slowly.
Numbers formed pictures at times. At first like looking
up in the clouds and seeing people. Or a paw. Or a tail.

Old Folks by Scott Russell Duncan, a flash piece about a retirement home running an organ harvesting program, is quite effective at beginning in a warm, friendly tone and ending with a wham.

"Don't be so greedy, Pearl. Wait your turn. He's here for everyone."

Soledad by Ezzy G. Languzzi, about a desperate housewife who asks for a wish from an enchanted bottle of mezcal, is a hilarious vignette of revenge.

"The plant warmed, wrapped its plump, velvet-like
leaves around her, and protected her from the cold. It
cradled her and lulled her into a deep, deep sleep."

Contraband by Patrick Lugo, a comic one-shot about a reluctant smuggler doing a favor for her brother in a cyberpunk dystopia, makes excellent use of silent panels to tell its plot and of dialogues to land the punch of its reveal.

"Oh, what's that? Is that what everyone calls 'papers'?"

The ENCRoach Program by Grisel Y. Acosta, a poem about coerced espionage via insect wetware, tells a lot more than it shows, and ends up sounding more like a dry manifesto than like an artistic work.

my enslavement, the anvil on my back,
forcing me to steal words from the same population I steal food from

Homebound by Tabitha Sin, about the slow, bureaucratic genocide of immigrants in a future flooded Manhattan, leaves a chilling impression of how easy it can be to normalize the unacceptable. It offers a sobering reflection on whether immigration is really worth all the hatred and the broken ties. As the last story in the collection, it closes resoundingly.

I didn't know if I was heading home or leaving it, but
at least I had someone who felt like home by my side.

As regards wordcraft quality, this anthology is rather mixed. But in thematic breadth, historic relevance, and opportunity for recognition of both established and up-and-coming creators, this is a milestone. There's material here for every taste: you may love the parts I didn't, and that's one of the strengths that make this book very recommended.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Hernandez, Alex; Goodwin, Matthew David; and García, Sarah Rafael [editors]. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, a Latinx Anthology [Mad Creek Books, 2021].

Monday, November 29, 2021

I'm Colombian. Here's what 'Encanto' means to me

You've been dazzled by the toucans and the capybaras and the bougainvilleas. Now let me give you the whole context.

After the end credits of Disney's new animated musical Encanto, there's a brief shot of Mickey Mouse in his iconic Steamboat Willie pose, whistling and dancing, while the beats of cumbia keep playing in the background. It's a powerful juxtaposition: from now on, there will forever be a piece of Disney official canon where Mickey is dancing cumbia. He's obviously not doing the right moves, but the moment is important in view of how aggressively protective Disney is about the uses of Mickey's image.

When a media megacorporation places its sights on an underrepresented culture, it's inevitable to perceive the interaction in terms of unequal power dynamics. So one has to be very careful when assessing the result. A great deal of the discussion around previous production Raya and the Last Dragon had to do, on one hand, with Disney's unfortunate choice to hire East Asian instead of Southeast Asian voice actors for the majority of the cast, and to summarize the enormous diversity of the region in a single mixture that wasn't very convincing to actual Southeast Asians. On the other hand, you had American critics being clueless about the source cultures and therefore unequipped to interpret the movie's symbolic content.

So when I, a Colombian reviewer, draw attention to the significance of Mickey Mouse dancing cumbia at the end of Encanto, I'm absolutely not in any way framing it as our culture being finally worthy of being showcased by Hollywood. The question to ask is exactly the opposite: it's whether Hollywood is worthy of getting its hands on our culture.

Fun fact: Colombia's literacy rate is 95% for adults and 98% for children!

Also fun fact: Americans just can't be bothered to spell Colombia correctly!

It needs to be set in those terms because American movies have so far done a horrendously offensive job of representing Colombia. Examples abound, of which the absolute worst is Romancing the Stone, whose influence on American perceptions of Colombia has done damage comparable to what Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom did to perceptions of India. So Disney had to be aware that, after the multiple ways Hollywood has mistreated us, they needed to put in a lot of extra effort to earn our good will. Fortunately, Disney did its homework this time.

Encanto is set in a deliberately ambiguous location on the Andean mountains, in a town built in the Spanish colonial style of architecture and surrounded by the emblematic wax palms, Colombia's official national tree. (Remember the "wax" part. It'll be important later.) From the start, that choice of location is loaded with tension. It's true that the natural habitat of the wax palm is breathtakingly beautiful, and a suitable stage for a fantasy story...

Fun fact: Colombia has the world's highest diversity of bird species!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the world's seventh highest rate of tropical deforestation!

... but Andean locations, peoples, and cultures have been overemphasized in Colombian popular media (and in government budgets), mainly because our most important industrial centers and the best-funded universities and theaters and libraries are located in Andean cities. Movies and television shows produced in Colombia have tended to reinforce a narrow idea of what our society looks and sounds like, and when stories choose to include characters from disadvantaged regions, it's done via tired stereotypes that often veer into blatant derision. So, while the wax palm forest is a gorgeous sight that clearly lends itself to magical storytelling, you need to keep in mind that it's impossible for one single location to represent the entire country, and that the locations that have nevertheless been selected for that purpose have usually been the same few, while the peripheral regions are only allowed to represent their isolation.

Fun fact: Colombia is the third richest country in South America by GDP!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the third worst income inequality in South America!

Just like in the United States you hear of a divide between the prosperous, educated, productive coastal cities vs. the neglected flyover country, in Colombia we have prosperous, educated, productive mountain cities vs. the neglected coasts and forests. It has become a habitual refrain to say that ruling elites in Colombia live secluded between mountains and oblivious to what goes on elsewhere. In the flashback scene where the matriarch of the Madrigal family loses her husband, bursts into tears and magically creates an entire town (am I the only one getting WandaVision vibes here?) so that she can raise her kids in safety, the most striking image is the rising of the mountains that keep her refuge closed off from the world. This is a symbolic clue to the persistent anxiety that defines this character: she's afraid of everything outside of her microcosm.

It's a brilliant move by the film to establish the grandmother's character flaw in terms of her relation to physical space. It has been pointed out that Encanto is the rare adventure story where the adventure doesn't leave the home, and there's a solid reason for that. There's a certain current in Colombian literature that treats the extended family household as a metaphor for the country. You may have perceived this trope in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, but it's present in many other novels, such as The Big House by Álvaro Cepeda Samudio, The House with Two Palm Trees by Manuel Mejía Vallejo, and House of Fury by Evelio Rosero. In the Colombian narrative tradition, if you want a practical way to write a "total novel" about the country, you write a novel about a house, one where the family members suffer under the constraints of arbitrary authority, and the elders' emotional trauma is inherited by every subsequent generation.

Fun fact: Colombia has been ranked multiple times as the world's happiest country!

Also fun fact: Colombia has the world's highest percentage of former child soldiers!

When viewed through this "house-as-stand-in-for-the-country" lens, Encanto's focus on a single authority figure dictating the lives of others resonates with a well-known mindset of centralism that has caused much resentment in the peripheral Colombian regions. One of our most consequential historic missteps was the failure to set up a federal system that would integrate the immense diversity of cultures contained within our territory while allowing them enough breathing room to decide on their own affairs. To give you an idea of just how disastrous our rulers have been: the entire countries of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama used to be part of Colombia, as founding members of a titanically ambitious project to harness the momentum of the recently liberated colonies and turn South America into a world power. But they went their own way, and for roughly the same reason: our central government's frustrating refusal to look beyond the tiny space between the mountains.

The breakup of Greater Colombia is one of the foundational traumas of our national identity. But today we don't even give it a moment's thought, because much worse traumas have overshadowed it. Once we had failed to keep other nations living with us, we went on to fail to keep ourselves living together. For our entire history since independence, we have disagreed so ferociously over every detail of our form of government (centralism vs. federalism, protectionism vs. free trade, church schools vs. secular schools, land concentration vs. land reform) that the Wikipedia entry for "Colombian Civil War" is a disambiguation page. More recently, when the Juan Manuel Santos administration asked the Colombian people to vote on a peace agreement to end the last armed conflict of the Western Hemisphere, the most traumatic thing wasn't even that the total count turned out against the agreement, but that it did so by a negligible margin. If the house represents the country, the reoccurring cracks in the house in Encanto represent the numerous disputes that continue to hurt us. Our most persistent notion of ourselves as a people is that we are a house divided against itself.

Fun fact: Colombia is the oldest standing democracy in Latin America!

Also fun fact: Colombia has been climbing the list of most fragile states for the past 5 years!

In an interview with The Wrap, Encanto co-director and co-scriptwriter Charise Castro Smith pointed out the symbolic importance of keeping the open crack in the mountains after the Madrigal house is rebuilt. According to her explanation, part of the emotional healing process is being able to see out of your shell and acknowledge the roots of your pain. This is a key element in any story that aspires to represent Colombia. We eat transgenerational trauma for breakfast, both in the sense that it's given to us as a common part of daily life, and in the sense that we pretend we're over it and we keep it stored inside us until we burst (see: Luisa's character song). It's no coincidence that "open your eyes" becomes a motif in Encanto, because it truly is our superpower to live in denial. Colombia, as a whole, is a traumatized society. Our families are traumatized families that excel at perpetuating trauma. There's only so much of Colombian rural violence that you can show on a fantasy musical for kids, but the horrific backstory of the Madrigal grandmother, as well as the effect such violence has had on her personality and her parenting style, is vividly recognizable to us as a still ongoing tragedy, repeated millions of times upon millions of widows and orphans. It's notable that Pedro's killers are never identified in the movie. Liberals? Conservatives? Far left militias? Far right militias? To the victims, it's all the same.

Instead, let's talk about raccoons.

Before the start of Encanto, Disney has inserted the animated short Far from the Tree, which, perhaps intentionally, summarizes the themes of Encanto. It shows us a raccoon that protects its offspring with excessive zeal because it was injured by a predator and wants to prevent that from happening again. Alas, it does happen again, and the baby raccoon barely escapes death. The parent then scolds the baby with a severity that we know comes from pain, but ends up causing lasting fear and insecurity. When that baby raccoon grows up, it replicates the same behavior with its offspring, but quickly learns that it doesn't need to repeat the same overprotective parenting style. Instead, it accompanies its baby in exploring the world safely.

Fun fact: Last year, Colombia was selected as the top trending destination for tourism!

Also fun fact: Colombia is ranked as more violent than Myanmar, Palestine and Ethiopia!

The tendency of parents who were traumatized as children to engage in hypervigilance that in turn traumatizes their children is the emotional core of Encanto (and of many Colombian life stories). It's valuable that this societal problem is recognized, but the way the movie resolves it leaves much to be desired. Here I'm going to have to speculate a bit, but I'll present evidence to support my interpretation.

Twice in the movie, in the songs "The Family Madrigal" and "All of You," protagonist Mirabel refers to the members of her family as comprising a constellation. Once would have been attributable to a whimsical turn of phrase, but twice signals meaningful intention. And I find that intention questionable.

Family constellation therapy is a scientifically dubious and unproven approach to the processing and overcoming of transgenerational trauma. It treats family roles as archetypal connections that continue to influence descendants, even those who don't know their ancestors' life stories. There are a lot of charlatan red flags in the theory, which, depending on the practitioner, can include total nonsense like morphic resonance and quantum mysticism. The idea is that our elders' experiences leave ripples in the unseen fabric of the family, and the way to break free of them is to openly acknowledge their effects. A session of family constellation therapy involves roleplaying in order to question the roles assigned to each family member. However, the emphasis is on the acknowledging, and that is assumed to be enough for closure. No actual changes of behavior are indicated. If Mirabel's scene of reconciliation with her grandmother by the river feels somewhat off, I suspect it's because it's written from this theory. They just voice their roles to each other. They declare what they have experienced. But there's no admission of wrongdoing, no commitment to amends. This may explain why, as others have noted, Encanto comes off as promoting the dangerous idea that you should forgive your family just because they're family and not because they're going to start treating you better.

Fun fact: A Colombian pediatrician pioneered the Kangaroo protocol of
neonatal care, which is estimated to reduce preterm deaths by more than 36%!

Also fun fact: Out of 180 countries surveyed, Colombia
is ranked 126th in quality of childhood life experiences!

Fake psychology is terrible for real life, but it's useful for making (and reading) fiction. The theory of family constellations helps explain another plot point of Encanto. As it happens, one key step of its therapeutic method is the reintegration of members who have been erased from the family. And this brings us to the topic of Bruno, a bearer of unpleasant truths who represents one of the most enduring and venerable Colombian traditions: shooting the messenger.

The original sin of Colombian society is fear of truth. The grandmother's nervous reassurances that everything is fine, and the house stands strong, and what are you waiting for to go back to the dance floor, call to mind the amazing Colombian ability to not ignore the elephant in the room but successfully pretend to ignore it. (Yes, that's two levels of self-deception, and we're the masters at it.)

To be fair, our selective attention is not a personality flaw, but a survival strategy. We live surrounded by incomparably beautiful landscapes and appalling political violence, we have a ridiculously fertile land yet every year there's news of malnourished children somewhere, we are inexhaustibly creative and hardworking and dedicated while the rest of the world thinks we're only good as hired guns or drug mules, every day we make a monumental effort to put on a happy face and build something resembling a normal life while things around us keep breaking into pieces, and we're barely holding it together. When Luisa protests that she can't go on carrying the weight of everything, when Isabela protests that she's sick of keeping up appearances, we hear them and nod. When Mirabel cries because she hasn't been given a chance to pursue any achievement to be proud of, we cry with her.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges put it best when he declared that being Colombian is an act of faith.

Many Colombians end up feeling they don't really have a place here (or are forced to relinquish their place). The character of Bruno represents the human cost of social exclusion. It may be in the form of Native Americans (there's a lot of Native imagery in Bruno's bedroom, on which more below), who are made to feel like strangers in their own territories; or the growing numbers of people who are forcibly displaced from rural areas, are rarely helped back to their feet, and end up as beggars in the cities; or the portion of Colombians who leave the country because our society turns too hostile. However, like Bruno, exiled Colombians keep a close eye on events at home, maintaining an ambivalent relationship to a place they want to love.

Fun fact: Colombia is the world's eighth most welcoming country for foreigners!

Also fun fact: Colombia is the world's fourth largest source of political asylum seekers!

Since much of Encanto has to do with a reappraisal of people's ties to home, it's worthwhile to analyze the symbolic weight of places in the story. There's a very Pan's Labyrinth feeling to Mirabel's exploration of locations in her house that lead to huge, magical spaces for adventure. Of course one child exclaims that the house is bigger on the inside, because Mirabel's journey to uncover her family's history has the qualities of time travel, starting with the hourglass carvings and flowing sand in Bruno's bedroom. The fact that Bruno's bedroom is located in a tower also has its own significance, and to untangle it, we're going to need a bit more context.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard is most famous for his contributions to epistemology, but he also wrote about the meaning-making power of architecture. His book The Poetics of Space describes the house as a literary analogue of the human psyche: it has hidden rooms, and forbidden doors, and places we go to for comfort, and memories attached to every corner. In Encanto, each Madrigal descendant has access to a private world in a bedroom, a sanctum uniquely theirs, furnished with objects that reflect their personalities. In chapter 8 of The Poetics of Space, Bachelard speaks of the vast places contained within us: "Immensity is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone." Mirabel's forbidden visit to Bruno's bedroom resembles the laborious work of introspection done during therapy when a patient explores past incidents too painful to admit.

Regarding Bruno's abode in a tower, we find in chapter 1 of The Poetics of Space: "And all the spaces of our last moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams."

For Bachelard, the attic's position at the top of the house brings up unconscious connections to the roof's protective function. It is a refuge of serenity. It is where the mind can sustain an illusion of safety from the secrets buried below, in the cellar.

Of the traditional components of a house, the most prominent spatial referent used in Encanto is the door. Chapter 9 of the The Poetics of Space has this to say on the matter: "the door is an entire cosmos of the half-open [...] one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations..." The door both connects and separates; both contains possibility and hides consequence. As long as Mirabel doesn't have a place of her own (she's still sleeping in the nursery, effectively infantilized), she has no access to the realm of possibility. Going into the hidden rooms of the house occurs in parallel with going into the untapped potential of her maturity.

The first inner space we see in the house is Antonio's new room, a piece of Colombian jungle meticulously represented in all its diversity. Here it must be admitted that we've not developed a healthy relationship with nature. Colombia prides itself in its ecological tourism destinations, but we've seriously missed the mark when it comes to conservation efforts. We treat our forests as pretty promotional material for travel brochures (and, by extension, as a tool to sell tickets for Encanto), but at every opportunity, we've cut them down to use the land for mining or raising cattle. Antonio's ability to talk to animals reflects our need to reconnect to a natural space we've mostly spoiled and mismanaged. (Also, it's interesting that his side of the family has all the gifts of empathy: he can communicate with those who can't speak, his mother has the power to make her true feelings visible, his sister has the power to listen, and his brother has the power to put himself in anyone's shoes.)

The next inner space we see is Bruno's bedroom, the place where he retreated to hold prophetic ceremonies. For Colombian viewers, the geometric patterns and carved faces on the walls of this vault have an immediate resonance: they resemble the Native art found in the subterranean tombs of Tierradentro, a place loaded with religious meaning. It's thematically fitting that the place where Mirabel starts to reconnect with her history resembles the most important Native American burial site in Colombia, a place whose construction deliberately used the symbolic power of architecture to express the connection between the individual and the ancestors, a place built by people whom Colombian society has treated with criminal neglect and often tried to write out of history.

You'll recall that, when Mirabel enters this vault, a giant door closes and she finds herself in complete darkness, and then green lights appear from a circle on the ground. The experience will be familiar to you if you've visited the Gold Museum in Bogotá, our largest collection of Native American metallurgy. At the end of your visit, you're invited into a closed room where all the lights are out. Suddenly, a circle on the floor is illuminated, and you see wondrous emerald jewelry encased in gold.

That's the green crystal Mirabel takes from the vault: it's emerald.

Fun fact: Colombia produces the world's finest and most valued emeralds!

Also fun fact: Emerald mining is one of Colombia's bloodiest industries!

The next inner space we see is Isabela's room, an immaculate garden kept with painstaking care until Isabela learns to create a more spontaneous form of beauty. There are several possible readings of this moment. For Mirabel, her sisters are extreme poles of femininity, with Isabela standing in for the oppressive beauty standards that continue to constrain Colombian women. Almost every town in Colombia has its own beauty pageant, and such contests are often used as ladders of social mobility for disadvantaged women. Another possible reading of Isabela's growth, if we see her as a creative type of character, is the rebellion of Colombian artists against a strictly conservative establishment that has historically been eager to impose censorship and enforce antiquated aesthetic canons.

Fun fact: Colombia is the world's second largest exporter of flowers!

Also fun fact: The Colombian flower industry has outrageous labor conditions!

Finally, the location where Mirabel reconciles with her grandmother is not the inside of a bedroom, but it nevertheless has a powerful meaning for Colombian viewers. The river used in this scene is inspired by the real river Caño Cristales, an impossibly beautiful spectacle that you almost can't believe can happen on this planet. In a country that has failed to protect so many of its natural wonders, Caño Cristales still explodes in color every year due to the life cycle of the algae that dwell under the waters. This river's yearly resurgence has made it, in Colombian consciousness, a hopeful signifier of perseverance, and that makes it the perfect stage for the rebuilding of the Madrigal family ties.

The fragility of Colombian ecosystems is visible to us from the start of the movie. Wax palms are protected by law, but they're endangered because their leaves are popular in a Catholic festival and their wax (remember I said I'd come back to the wax?) can be used to make candles, which are important in another Catholic festival, very likely the one where the grandmother met her husband. In the vaguely-early-20th-century setting of the movie, the possible sources of wax for candles are either beeswax (which would explain why Mirabel's father has so many encounters with bees) or wax palms. The grim realization is that it would take several wax palms to keep that miraculous candle lit for decades. Were it not for magic, the continuous burning of that candle should require mass-scale environmental devastation, which, if it was an intentional choice by the filmmakers, would be a brutal hidden metaphor for the cost of Colombia's often unrealistic projects.

In the reconciliation scene there is, of course, an even more powerful symbol. If you're not familiar with Colombian literature, you need to know that it's absolutely crucial that the butterflies that appear through the grandmother's backstory happen to be yellow.

Yellow butterflies are the most famous motif employed in the works of Gabriel García Márquez as a visual shortcut for hopeful love. By extension, they have become a symbol of the entire genre of magical realism. We did not invent magical realism, but we put it on the map. It was almost mandatory that a fantasy tale about Colombia should feature yellow butterflies.

(Another recurring shoutout to García Márquez in Encanto is the hurricane, which famously ends One Hundred Years of Solitude. Both Luisa and Pepa speak of the hurricane as a threat to the family's stability, but Isabela celebrates it as an explosion of joy.)

The grandmother's flashback is accompanied by the song "Dos Oruguitas" ("Two Caterpillars"), which ties together all the movie's themes. The grandmother's character flaw is to anxiously try to keep her family sheltered in a coccoon; as said above, both geographical and emotional barriers are among Colombia's longstanding problems. But also, caterpillars are baby butterflies. To pass from caterpillar to butterfly is to achieve maturity and freedom.

Inner conflict has been an interesting substitute for traditional villains in recent Disney productions. In Coco, what saves the day is the power of memory. In Raya and the Last Dragon, it's the power of trust. In Luca, it's the power of acceptance. In Encanto, the power that Mirabel discovers, what one could call her gift, is the power of community. Time and again, that's what has saved Colombia from falling into the abyss. The Madrigal family share their gifts with the town without compensation, to the point that they can be said to have built a literal gift economy. Their generosity is rewarded when the community comes to their aid and Mirabel finally gets to see herself.

Earlier I said that Mirabel's sisters are two poles of femininity, basically the butch and femme archetypes. If we take Bachelard's image of the household as a symbol for the self, Mirabel's sisters are the potential paths of her own womanhood (including also her mother as the archetype of the selfless caretaker), which is why it's so meaningful that her definitive moment of growth is to see herself in her fullness. The limits of gender expectations are another of the many ways Colombia has continued to cause itself lasting harm (see how both Bruno and Mirabel start being mistrusted by the family when they each disrupt the rituals of traditional marriage). The restoration of the self and the restoration of the home are the dearest wishes of every Colombian, and to reach that goal our best tool is the same that saves the Encanto: the power to rebuild together.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the care to animate gestures and facial expressions that are uniquely Colombian, +1 for the accuracy in plant leaf shapes, all of which correspond to actual plants we've had at home, +1 for skillfully employing Colombian cultural imagery to bolster the story's meaning, +1 for honestly addressing the sequelae of violence on Colombian families.

Penalties: −3 for a muddled psychological foundation.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Reference: Bachelard, Gaston [author], Jolas, Maria [translator]. The Poetics of Space [Penguin, 2014].

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

6 Books with Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen writes short science fiction and fantasy, essays, and poems. She lives atop some of the oldest bedrock in North America. She is among the premier speculative fiction writers in the world named after fruit.

Today, I axe, err, ask her about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

I'm currently reading Megan E. O'Keefe's Catalyst Gate, which is the culmination of a trilogy that starts with Velocity Weapon. It's space opera that's filled with spaceships, alien intelligence, nanites, and shooty-shoot--and also personal relationships and the human heart. The series is full of twists and turns, and I can't wait to see where it all ends up.


2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I'm really bad at preorders, but I have made an exception for Ken Liu's The Veiled Throne. It's the latest in the Dandelion Dynasty Saga, and I expect it to be what I love most about late books in a series: consequences, consequences, consequences. Ken has set up so many world-shaking things in this series--now we see how it all plays out, what the characters build when they have a chance. I can't wait.


3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

Always. I'm a little bit afraid to think about this question because it might send me down a rabbit hole. But I think the one that's most at the top of my mind on this blustery autumn day is Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills. I love how the language the characters use starts the worldbuilding immediately. I love their relationships, I love their exploration of the world, I love how self-contained they are and yet how they interact with the Secret Country trilogy. I see new things about how it's constructed every time I reread it.


4. How about a book you’ve changed your mind about – either positively or negatively?

For some reason, the first time I tried Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead, I did not connect to it *at all*. The opening that now strikes me as exciting and evocative left me cold. I can't even tell you why. It just did. I'm really glad I gave it a second chance, because it and the entire Craft Sequence are now favorites for their sharp wit, worldbuilding, and characterization. Sometimes things are worth a second look. (I have negative examples, too, of course--we all do. But I prefer to focus on the positive.)


5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

Like a lot of Swedish-American children, I grew up with more of Astrid Lindgren than just Pippi Longstocking. One of my favorites is Ronia the Robber's Daughter, which is a story of a semi-feral little girl growing up running around in the Swedish woods--which I still love to do whenever I get the chance, although mine don't have harpies and dwarves in them, that I've ever found. They live in a half-ruined castle, and there are massive thunderstorms and all sorts of very vivid images that stuck with me quite firmly. She and her best friend turn their parents' bands of robbers peaceful and honest in the end, but not before a lot of shenanigans as they grow up. I still love Ronia.


6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 

My chapbook is Monstrous Bonds, a collection of five short stories about monsters and friendship. I think the thing that's most awesome about it is its inspiration, my friend and fellow author John Wiswell. I was sitting in on a panel John was doing on monsters at Fourth Street Fantasy in the beforetimes, and I started writing down title idea after title idea, all related to monsters. Five of them have coalesced into these stories. (I might write more later!) The combination just felt like a really good time to me, and having it come out on Halloween was the obvious choice.

 There's a really large range of monsters here, both physically and relationally, and I just find it really satisfying to write about friendship. I hope you find it satisfying to read too! You can find it on Marissa's site here.

 Thank you so much, Marissa!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' is the latest round in a conversation we're tired of having

It's become a vicious cycle: we keep begging movie studios to do something original, and they keep refusing to learn from their bad choices

How to properly grapple with the fearsome cultural weight of the original Ghostbusters is a question that the franchise has acknowledged before. In 1997, the beloved cartoon The Real Ghostbusters was followed by an unexpected sequel: Extreme Ghostbusters, in which paranormal researcher Egon Spengler recruits a new team of young heroes to continue the fight against supernatural menaces. This show was darker and less goofy than the previous one, a necessary course correction given how The Real Ghostbusters had attempted, starting on its third season, an ill-advised shift toward a family-friendlier tone. Notably, the series finale of Extreme Ghostbusters is about Egon reconnecting with his old pals and going out to chase ghosts like they used to, annoying the new team with their obvious mid-life crisis and condescending attitude. Most of the humor in this two-part episode is done at the expense of the original team, portraying them as so self-absorbed and meddlesome that we can't wait to see them go. The villain is defeated by the collaboration of both teams, but not until the seniors acknowledge that the torch has been passed.

That degree of self-awareness is lost on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the latest result of filmmakers' current state of utter terror of their own audiences. Just like Disney took the overblown hatred thrown at The Last Jedi seriously and gave us the insipid Rise of Skywalker, Sony Pictures let the vitriol about the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot scare it into delivering a safe, reassuring, bland, reverential, unimaginative, inoffensive-yet-fully-offensive pat on the head for all the entitled manchildren who couldn't accept women wearing a proton pack and spent the last half decade demanding that the studio go back and fix it.

This attitude of "go back and fix it" has done serious damage to the movie industry. When James Cameron returned to the Terminator franchise with the explicit intention of erasing everything after T2 (Cameron actually said the words "we’re pretending the other films were a bad dream," which by now ought to be taken as a prophecy of doom in Hollywood), hardcore fans cheered, only to be treated to the underwhelming Dark Fate. Even today, many fans still demand that George Lucas be brought back to supposedly save Star Wars, forgetting how the prequels are made entirely of bad choices. The same bizarre cult of personality forms the backbone of the #RestoretheSnyderverse movement.

Hidden beneath the rage and the hyperbole is an interesting discussion about the nature of authorship and canonicity. The fixation on canon stems from a misplaced need for veracity that belongs in historical studies, not in fiction. It actually matters if Nelson Mandela was freed and elected president of South Africa, and did not, as many misremember, die in prison. It does not matter if Superman gets married in one storyline and is back in high school in the next. To offer a not wholly unrelated example: each region of India has their own myths about the gods, and the Hindu attitude is to deem all of them valid. Conversely, in the Western world, there's only one official canon of Scripture, even though in the early Christian times there was an immense variety of gospels in circulation, and there were bitter disagreements about which selection of books were meant to belong to the One True Canon. The latter approach is the one taken by fans who demand that all pieces of a franchise fit together in a single, neat, agreeable lore. Viewed in this context, it's not surprising that genre canon is being treated with a reverence that crosses into dogmatic fanaticism. The Ghostbusters franchise repeats the fatal mistake of the Terminator franchise in adopting the position that only the Holy Word of Reitman is true.

Even worse, this disregards the franchise's own ethos. For all its flaws, the original Ghostbusters at least made the progressive statement that ordinary, working-class people could become heroes by dedication and effort (as bumbling and unprofessional such effort may be). Afterlife, instead, is an aristocracy where only the legitimate progeny of the heroes (and of the filmmaker) deserve to inherit the legacy. This feeds into a toxic possessiveness that shuts off possible avenues for innovative storytelling.

The many ways Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails to entertain have already been dissected in ample, gory detail. It's been called "a soulless ode to nepotism," "dead on arrival," "manipulative and ethically dubious," "nostalgia whack-a-mole at its worst," "a nightmare colored in shades of sepia," "an ouroboros of nostalgia cannibalizing itself," "a dungeon of necrophilia," "a slimy, stinking corpse of a sequel," and (my favorite) "a gloomy nostalgia trip through the ruins of American culture." There's no diplomatic way of putting it: a movie made this badly should be a career-ender.

But Ghostbusters isn't done with us. This is a conversation we cannot avoid, however much exhausting it is to have to tell angry Gen-Xers that the way they remember the 80s is very biased and that the rest of us shouldn't have to care about their hair-sprayed, mini-skirted, shoulder-padded, neon-lit, lead-fueled memories anyway.

So, time for a little bubble-bursting: the character of Peter Venkman in the original Ghostbusters is an insufferable narcissist, a parasitic excuse of a friend, and a serial sexual predator (and in the second movie, a xenophobic bigot) who would have been kicked out of academia (not to mention out of polite company) decades before we meet him in the first movie, and the fact that the actor who played him was brought into the 2016 reboot for the sole purpose of blasting him out a window was a fully deserved catharsis.

You need to do some serious work on your adulthood if your childhood is even capable of being retroactively "ruined." No movie, however much cherished, deserves to be treated as sacred and untouchable. The original Ghostbusters oozes with erotic subtext that is missing from devoted fans' starry-eyed recollection of their first viewing. The movie reaches its climax with the heroes smeared from head to toe in creamy white goo, and the second movie, even more overt in equating heroism with intercourse (see: Louis Tully), is obsessed with a different type of goo that is bluntly coded female (as in bright pink and highly emotional). When fans demand a sequel that respects Ghostbusters, it's hard to comprehend what exactly they find so respectable.

This phenomenon is not new. Haters of The Last Jedi protested that it didn't respect Star Wars, but what you get when you make a movie worried with respecting Star Wars is the nervous people-pleaser that is Rise of Skywalker. The same thing has happened with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. It's embarrassing to see a studio agree to perform any humiliation demanded of it, and it's depressing to consider that this won't be the last time fan feedback will intimidate filmmakers into abandoning all self-respect (it's no wonder that "don't be yourself" is made into a motif in Afterlife).

Even if we try to be generous and analyze it apart from its connection to the franchise and (for the sake of argument) apart from the torrents of discussion surrounding it, Ghostbusters: Afterlife fails at the basics of storytelling. We begin by following the story of Callie, a single mother who moves with her two children to a rural town in the middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma because they're penniless and the only thing they have left is the badly kept farmhouse where her estranged father died. Her son Trevor barely has a role beyond being a hormonal creep, but Phoebe, her genius daughter, quickly discovers that there's something not quite right about this place. There are unexplained earthquakes, and ominous rock carvings, and self-moving chess pieces, and people who call themselves "Podcast." As it turns out, her mysterious grandfather was not a jerk, but a hero who died trying to capture an evil deity before it could consume the world.

Phoebe reconnects to her family's heritage with the help of literally the first acquaintance she meets in the town, a summer school teacher who happens to know some geology and who by the magic of plotting chance is a big adoring fan of her grandfather's exploits. But once he's provided the mandatory exposition (with the implied moral that today's adults do their children a grievous disservice by not telling them about the Ghostbusters), this character ceases to be any help at all. Despite being the only person in the state of Oklahoma who even knows what a ghost trap does, his first impulse upon finding one is to poke it with a stick and irresponsibly release an undead monster that immediately runs to the ominous rock carvings to help bring the end of the world. The next thing our heroic teacher proceeds to do is get possessed by a dog demon, engage in a sexual ritual that couldn't possibly have been consensual, and... that's it.

So let's check up on the kids. The role of Phoebe was given to a decent actress, but the way she's written makes her the least believable portrayal of neurodiversity since Sheldon Cooper. Her petulance gets boring very fast, and her relationship with her mother is adversarial to the point of emotional wounding. One might say, in Phoebe's defense, that she comes from a difficult family background. Not only did her grandfather leave with no explanation; her father is also to blame. It's completely understandable to break up because you don't like your partner anymore; it's monstrous to break up because you don't like your child. However, that doesn't suffice to build a defense of Phoebe, because the movie has no interest in exploring that angle. The massive amount of trauma in her backstory is glossed over in the service of ancestor worship.

On her brother Trevor's side, the seams of the story become even more strained. He's not so much a character per se; he's more of a recognizable face that's useful for selling tickets. He has an instant crush on a girl who only keeps him around to play mean pranks on him and who by the magic of plotting chance is related to the only other adult in the town. The rest of the characters are treated as background decoration, which makes it hard to believe in the stakes when an ancient horror crawls out of its pit.

Said horror takes the shape of an androgynous fashionista who doesn't seem much interested in conquering; she likes to sit and pet her demon dogs and look menacing until someone comes to tell her bad jokes and steal one of her dogs. In the final battle, in which a family that have only behaved in a mean and resentful manner to each other have suddenly learned to cooperate, the young heroes prove incapable of completing the job, and a team of retired Ghostbusters come out of nowhere to show the kids how it's done. We meet the disturbingly wordless specter of the dead grandfather, who seemingly gets forgiven for simply showing up, and...

Yes, and... this movie doesn't even bother having a proper ending.

Where does this leave us? Yay because the monster is gone, boo because the heroic family is still destitute. Yay because the kids uncovered their true place in the world, boo because their own effort had no part in building it. Yay because the lonely mother landed a hot boyfriend, boo because he's a terrible teacher who makes zero effort at his job and despises his students. Yay because we got a girl Ghostbuster, boo because the only way Afterlife could think of to make the concept of a girl Ghostbuster palatable to the rage mob that savaged the previous movie was to remove from her character design all physical and behavioral markers of femininity.

In sum: seen on its own merits, it has none. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not exciting, or scary, or funny, or interesting. It's just a very, very bad movie. But when we bring all the context back into the discussion, it becomes something worse. It's a capitulation to the rage mob and a validation of its abusive tactics. It's a vulgar stroking of the audience's nostalgia buttons. It's a set of manacles fastened around the creative potential of the franchise. It's a childish attempt to remove from memory the actually good 2016 reboot (and the actually good 1997 cartoon).

This movie pulls a back muscle with how hard it winks at the viewer. The repetition of the same villain with the same plan and the same methods as in the original movie is an appalling display of subservience to lore and plain unimaginativeness. The needless completion of Ivo Shandor's origin story is exemplary of the worst tendencies of explainer culture, which confuses mysteries with mistakes. The camera fetishizes every piece of merchandise prop with such awe that one expects the frame to include price tags. The ending includes a "go back and fix it" redo of dialogue from the original movie that was uncalled for and ultimately inconsequential to the fight. The post-credits scenes land with all the obnoxious box-ticking of Chewbacca's medal. And one can almost hear Phoebe say "I'm all the Jedi" when Harold Ramis is digitally dragged from the grave for a moment of cheap fanservice that is contemptible beyond words.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife has nothing valuable or memorable to add to the main continuity it so anxiously defends, shows no awareness of the raunchy tone that made the original a classic, and sets a disturbing new precedent for the dynamic between fans and filmmakers. That this was avoidable (they could simply have ignored the rabid manchildren and produced sequels to the 2016 reboot) makes the result even more lamentable. Instead of a loving homage to a generation of cinema, what we got is an era-definingly bad movie.

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Microreview: The Fallen by Ada Hoffmann

 The Fallen continues Ada Hoffmann’s story of Jasira and Tiv, whose inadvertent rebellion against the Gods and the Angels that serve them has irrevocably not only changed them, but the planet of Jai as well.

When last we left the pair, after Jasira’s contact with the Outside and the eruption of the Plague literally bringing down the wrath of heaven on them, they had managed to escape the Angels and set themselves up in a region of the planet Jai where the laws of physics were...different, and malleable. Destroying the region and all within it is a last resort the Angels are not yet ready to implement, but their forces are waiting just outside the Chaos Zone, ready to pounce. The problem for Tiv, is that she is trying to hold together the fragile society they have built in the zone, Jasira herself is very much not holding herself together, when Tiv, and the others, need her the most.

This is the story of Ada Hoffmann’s The Fallen, sequel to The Outside. [I reviewed The Outside here in 2019: http://www.nerds-feather.com/2019/07/microreview-book-outside-by-ada-hoffmann.html ]

What happens after the heresy and defying the Gods, and having to actually build and hold things together in the wake of the drama of the first novel and the contact with things outside reality. After you make the dramatic break, how do you hold things together, especially built on such a slippery foundation?  Hoffmann’s story explores this in detail, showing how the society within the zone on Jai depends strongly on Tiv and her counterparts. It’s a precarious situation for Tiv and company and the story of them trying to hold the Zone together itself could be the mainline of the novel.

The novel, however,  provides much more. I was conflicted at first by the novel taking Yasira off of the table for much of the novel, relying on Tiv, but I realized the clever switch of the major POV here to Tiv and it works rather well, and like this. Yasira, with her contact with the Outside, is now something much more than human, and the Seven (including Tiv) have to hold the Zone together, help their people and keep watch on what the people are doing. Yasira is not quite a deus ex machina, but keeping her offstage, and mostly out of sight, and keeping her power at bay does mean that Tiv and the others have to find other solutions to the problems besetting them. This is accentuated by the narrative cruelty of Tiv, among the Seven, not having any “superpower” granted to her by the Plague. She can’t manipulate reality as the others can (who really do some across as “superheroes”) and more so, is the ostensible leader with Yasira incommunicado (and clearly in distress for all of that). 

There are some interesting narrative tricks, too. In addition to Tiv, and in the end, some from Yasira, the point of views we get in the book help illuminate the narrative. Elu and Akavi, the former angels of Nemesis now on the run from the Gods themselves for failing to stop Yasira, Tiv and Dr. Talirr from unleashing the Plague, definitely want to finish the job, regardless.  I also particularly liked Enga as a point of view character here, getting inside of her head and how she thinks was effective on two levels--first, it helped illuminate a rather mysterious character (or more of a force of nature) and second, like with the stories of Tiv and Yasira, it helped strengthen and promote the neurodiverse voices and  overall diversity in the book. Hoffmann’s protagonists, Enga included, are fascinatingly flawed individuals who nevertheless try the best that they can.  Rather than making it a black and white story of those who support the gods and those who oppose them, the use of character voices like Enga also show other sides of the conflict in Hoffmann’s verse.

And then there are the “Story” bits. Throughout the narrative, we get some short sections where the Gods tell the “Story” of the Chaos Zone from their point of view. This point of view is very much skewed on their point of view, and is uniformly hostile to all of our protagonists, and Elu and Akavi do come across in a new light as they are ostensibly trying for these goals, as well as their own agendas. All this complexity enriches the narrative of the universe and the narrative of the characters as well. 

The narrative tricks also extend to the timelines and order of events in the novel as well. There is a lot of hopping around in time and events throughout the book, which makes sense given that the characters are quite literally in a zone of reality where the rules of the universe don’t quite work the way they are supposed to, this makes sense. The novel disorients a reader in its experience, and I think that is a deliberate choice on the part of the author.

But this also illuminates a weakness for me for the novel. Where I think the novel doesn’t quite hit the worldbuilding, characters, representation and other elements is the plotting. The through line of the plot isn’t as strongly delineated as the other elements of the book, and I think that is a weakness. It’s not a fatal weakness for the novel, and I delighted in the other elements of the book, but for those who want a strong overall plot, this novel feels a bit of a step back from the first book, whose inciting incident definitely kept the plot rolling with its implications and results. Here, the novel begins sometime after the end of the Plague, but there isn’t the same sort of narrative drive. The hopping around  in time and space masks this problem rather than solves it in my view.

Overall, for all it discomfited me, and the plotting frustrated me, I enjoyed this long awaited followup to The Outside. The world that Hoffmann creates here, particularly, is one I would like to spend some more time in. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for continued interesting worldbuilding and asking the question of “what happens next” effectively

+1 for interesting use of point of views to illuminate the narrative.

Penalties: -1 A lack of narrative plotting drive in the plotting is a real weakness of the book.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Hoffmann, Ada The Fallen  [Angry Robot, 2021] 

Friday, November 19, 2021

6 Books with Marjorie B. Kellogg

Marjorie B. Kellogg is an associate professor of theater at Colgate University. Kellogg has written several novels, including Lear's Daughters, Harmony, and The Dragon Quartet series. She has adapted work for the stage and written an original musical. She has a BA from Vassar College. In addition to teaching at Colgate, she has also taught at Princeton University and Columbia University.

Today she tells us about her Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu,
by Joshua Hammer

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

After the Fall, by Ben Rhodes

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I tend to read several books at once, for variety and to suit my level of concentration at any given moment. These are all books given to me by friends, except for the KSR, which I made myself wait to read until I’d finished my own book about flooded Manhattan. Fortunately, the two could not be more different. With something as vast and far-reaching as climate change, there are a billion stories yet to tell.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Any new book feels like an exciting prospect!

But I’ve been too busy this summer to keep an eye on what’s in the pipeline. Plus, I look for enthusiastic recommendations from other readers I trust, and none have come my way recently. A chance to work through the stacks waiting on my desk and bedside table.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

I don’t tend to reread books, as the surprise element in a narrative is important to my enjoyment of reading. And there are so many books yet to read, with so little time!

But if I really loved a book, and enough time has passed that I feel I might read it differently, see it in a new light or learn something new from it, then I’ll revisit it. 

It might be time to reread Cloud Atlas, for instance. Or early George R.R. Martin.

4. A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. 

This book I have reread, more than once, and still find moving and magical. Her portrayal of an alien civilization is so deeply drawn, so compassionate, so non-comic-booky, and yet so relevant and relatable to our own Earth-bound issues and selves. It’s what Science Fiction can do like no other genre.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing? 

I didn’t think much about writing as a young adult. I read a lot of science fiction and I thought most about story, and how SF, while being a fun read, could also discuss and bring to life issues like racism, gender, or especially the environment, topics that were then and still are most important to me.

Perhaps, as a youngster I first noticed good writing in the work of Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, Johanna Russ, Sheri Tepper: people who paid attention to style when that wasn’t required in genre fiction. Now there’s lots of good writing around, which may be one reason why science fiction, and particularly climate fiction, is being read by a much wider public. About time, since the future that climate fiction has been prophesying for decades is upon us already.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome? 

My latest is Glimmer, debuted October 12, from DAW Books. It’s a near-future novel about living with the disruptions of climate change. It’s not a coming-disaster tale. The disasters are already happening, page by page, and Glimmer does not offer some magical fix. Instead, it’s an intimate, first-person narrative by a young woman who, traumatized into memory loss, finds surprising community in chaotic, flooded Manhattan, and with that community, explores new ways to live in a climate-changed world. She endures terrible loss as lethal weather and random violence surge around her, but surfacing memories ignite a healing process of self-discovery. 

We often read how the rich and privileged are preparing for climate change. I wanted to imagine what ordinary folk, the left-behinds without power or wealth, might do to survive as the social order darkens and falls apart. Can Darwinian fitness take on a new definition? Is might-makes-right the only possible outcome? I wanted to locate hope for a reasonable future for the Earth in my characters’ determination and creative ingenuity, the positive side of being human.

Thank you, Marjorie!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Microreview [book]: Obviously, Aliens by Jennie Goloboy

An SF novel centered around humor, but also characters, relationships, and ultimately heart.

Dana has a problem. When traveling to Spokane to meet a memorabilia company to pitch them an idea for a line of collectibles, she makes the mistake of drinking the wrong can of soda from a can in a rental car. Except the soda isn’t a soda, and now she has someone else in her body. This isn’t even the weirdest thing that Dana has to face, as she is soon plunged into a world of a variety of aliens, government agencies, tech companies with secrets, her past with her famous father, and even more weirdness. Not a great day for someone who just wants to sell her idea for Doges of the Month. 

Obviously, Aliens, is the debut novel of Jennie Goloboy.

Humor is a hard thing to pull off in a SF novel, especially as a tentpole. There are precious few writers who have the skill of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. And, really, in this day and age, you need more than just the humor to sustain a narrative .So, Goloboy is certainly brave to make the attempt at a comic SF novel here, even if the novel is backed with a strong set of characters, a strong focus on relationships, and a relatively soft and comfortable storyline. 

As it so happened, breaking the fourth wall here, I read a large portion of this book while waiting for Urgent Care for a thumb injury. It turns out a light, fun and breezy SF novel leavened with humor is exactly the kind of thing you want to read in a situation like this. Somehow I think a more serious or complex narrative was not what I was interested in, but this novel? This novel is the SF equivalent of a beach read, something that I could read while in discomfort, and fall for the humor, the characters, the relationships. 

Plot is pretty much not the point of a novel like this. We start with Dana, trying to realize her artistic dream, and switch between her and Adam, who loves Jay, who at the beginning of the novel gets inserted into Dana via that “soda can”. A series of adventures plague both as Dana gets pulled into a world that Adam (and Jay) know much more about, but even they don’t quite know how deep the rabbit hole goes. They are aware of one alien, yes, but it emerges there are several sets of aliens on Earth, with varying agendas and plans, and both Adam and Dana get wrapped up in their shenanigans.

Describing humor is relatively hard, I find. How do you convey the sense of humor and fun that this novel has. I can broadly say that it runs to the absurd and situational, rather than more dry or literarily focused. But I think a comparison is in order, and to two movies. Obviously, Aliens, although the author mentions Scarecrow and Mrs King as an inspiration, reminded me of two movies. The first, no surprise, is Men in Black, with a variety of aliens on Earth, trying to get along, and occasionally having their agendas cause problems for others. The other movie is one I happen to like, and my citing of this movie is meant as a compliment, and one I want to discuss in detail. And that movie is Hudson Hawk.

Hudson Hawk, you may have heard, is “not good”. For me, this is far from being true. That it was a box office failure is undeniable. But I recently rewatched it and I saw what the movie tries to do, and for people who accept it, can see and enjoy it.  It’s utterly absurdist, as Bruce Willis’ main character, who just wants a cup of espresso and live his life now out of prison, gets pulled into a plot heist involving Leonardo Da Vinci, the Vatican, quirky and weird egotistical millionaires and a lot of humor all over the place.. It’s a movie that never takes itself seriously, and there is a softness to the movie that makes it perfect to watch if, say, you are sick and want something breezy and fun. Obviously, Aliens felt for me exactly like the literary equivalent of Hudson Hawk in that regard. Dana just wants to make a living (although finding a stable relationship would be nice). Adam and Jay want to make their relationship work, even if there are...challenges given their current states of being. The government agents...they just want to keep things on an even keel. And the aliens, too, all of them, have pretty basic wants and needs, but when they all collide, funny things happen. 

The novel also has a lot of heart. It treats its characters, even the ostensible antagonists, rather gently and with love and respect. You will get to know Dana, Adam, Jay, Sophie and the rest and get to know them, road trip style. (If this book were ever turned into an audiobook, this novel would be really fun to listen to on a driving adventure). Sure, the characters go through all sorts of disasters, reversals, and “can you believe THIS?”  but it is a very lighthearted tone. The relationships especially work well. Adam and Jay trying to keep it together. Dana, trying to find someone as her world gets weirder and weirder. The friendships and work relationships as Dana further sinks into this world. 

Spoiling a comic SF novel is easy, but I will give a shot at what Dana finds as she plunges into a world that she never knew existed:  Aliens with multiple bodies. Alien ship landings. Mysterious tech companies. Dogs who are really Aliens. Robot duplicates. Strange libertarian communities offshore of San Francisco. What REALLY is underneath Denver Airport. Alien run grocery stores. And a whole lot more. Goloboy puts these elements in the blender and turns it on to high and every chapter brings something new, and funny, to the fore.

On a more serious note, the novel’s writing is excellent. Goloboy knows when to stop pressing a joke, and more importantly, knows when to jump the narrative forward and bring us to the “next bit”. The novel is lean in the sense that we aren’t stuck interminably trying to get to the next funny bit, the narrative fast forwards us to the next interesting scene with vibrant pacing. There is an RPG term for not bogging characters and players in dull stuff, called “Fun, Now.”. The author has applied that philosophy to her novel.  Reading this novel in a waiting room at Urgent Care, I was consistently entertained, and the novel ever flagged, which was crucial in trying to put my mind off my discomfort, my fears of my thumb injury, and the soul-sucking interminability of a hospital waiting room.

But, reader, you don’t need to get a thumb injury in order to enjoy Obviously, Aliens. Do you want a comic SF novel with fun characters, a breezy pace and plot, and a lot of heart tht reads quickly and humorously? Then Goloboy’s step into fiction (and novel length fiction at that) is for you. It’s not a novel that will change your life permanently, no, but to put your mind off of the world for a little while, Obviously, Aliens will keep a smile on your face.  Things could be worse, after all. YOU could drink from the wrong soda can or figure out how to get your boyfriend out of a strange woman’s body, or figure out this weird species called humanity. 


The Math

Baseline Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 for a comic and fun SF novel that kept me entertained and amused and distracted during a painful experience in an unpleasant place. 

 Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 Reference: Goloboy, Jennie. Obviously, Aliens (Queen of Swords, 2021)

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.