Monday, October 31, 2022

Microreview: Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles

 An eerie collection of poems in the Orkney dialect, musing on themes of home, identity and belonging, against the backdrop of deep space.

Just as a bit of context for this review, I listened to the audiobook read by the author while reading the physical book, in order to get the proper sound of the language. I suspect this definitely influenced my enjoyment of it, as someone who does not speak Orcadian specifically or Scots more generally. It is perfectly possible to enjoy this entirely in print or entirely in the audio, but there were definitely aspects of both I appreciated having as part of the experience.

Deep Wheel Orcadia tells, in a series of poems, the story of Astrid, returning home from art school on Mars to the struggling deep space station she grew up on, and Darling, who has found herself there while running from a life and identity she doesn't want, as well as snippets of those others who live on the station. It is told initially in the Orkney dialect of the Scots language, with a translation mostly in standard English (we'll get back to this) underneath. The poems are mostly a sequential story, but play around with rhythm and form between the various viewpoints and themes they cover throughout the story.

As a story, it's haunting and emotionally vivid. As the poems pass by, we begin to see Darling's need to find her place, and how this may be it, it contrast to how conflicted Astrid is about her home station and her place in it, and about her art that she supposedly came back to work on. Her interactions with her parents are understated but resonant, full of unspoken sadness between them, captured in small words and juxtapositions, and underlined by her parents' interactions with each other, and the rest of the station. Her time with Darling is charged and fraught, not just for Darling herself but what Darling represents to Astrid. And even her simply being on the station is laden with poignancy - the poem Astrid gangs tae kirk encapsulates this beautifully, as well as being such a raw piece of musing on the conflict between the nostalgia of returning to your home church and all its rituals when it's a religion you've chosen to discard while away.

And this is where it succeeds as poetry - each poem can stand alone in its meaning, in its feeling, as well as stringing together to form a greater whole of storytelling. The rhythm and shape of them shifts to what is needed for the moment, and so the pace varies, from the quiet slowness of the introductory poems, to the bustle and gathering momentum of the dance, to the snippety precision of watching Øyvind working. They exist all as moments, frozen in amber, independent and crystal sharp. And they are so clearly poems for reading, for sounding out - when read by Giles herself, there is an evident music and rhythm to them - that you cannot help but linger over the words of them, reading them back and again to find the mouth-feel of a perfect phrase (which is all the better when you've had Giles reading them to you herself, so you know quite how good they sound as they are meant to be pronounced).

But as well as being both a piece of storytelling and a set of poems, Deep Wheel Orcadia is an exercise in translational art. As a reader coming into it without Orkney Scots, my experience of the poems in their original language is necessarily scaffolded by the translations - I can understand some of the original, get the gist and the feel and the sound - but a significant part of the vocabulary is new to me, and it does not always read how I might expect it to. And so I need the English too. But because the English is also written by the author, and because she has chosen a particular way of translating words and concepts that may not map perfectly onto English, what you get, when you combine both sets of text, are two pieces of a whole, rather than an original and its lesser shadow.

For example, in the first poem, one verse reads:

pierheads trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween ootbye an in
clossan slaa - but only noo,
wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is.

While the translation reads:

pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowly - but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.

I have never come across the word trang, before, and so giving me fullactiveintimate conveys a hint of the sort of multi-faceted sense that a speaker would have for it, a feel for the flavour of the word beyond a direct English translation. She could, of course, have simply chosen one word to translate trang as, whichever she felt most suited this context. And it would have made the English reading more fluid, more simple. But then, what does that mean for the original text - do you give an English that can be consumed alone, and risk that many people then do just that, ignoring the Orkney? Do you sacrifice a depth of sense for readability?

As someone who was taught to translate poetry - albeit from dead languages only and a number of years ago - quite often the answer is "yes". The translator chooses the meaning they think most suits the setting, most evokes the feeling of the original, or reads best, or sits more nicely in the language of their translation. And this isn't a bad decision - you provide the reader with accessibility into something that they would not have otherwise, and you do your best to get them as close to feeling it as possible.

But... but. In doing that, you do tend to sacrifice the original. And when the original is at least partially accessible, as Orkney is to an English speaker - trang may be obscured from me, but but only noo, wi this soond, deus sheu ken whar sheu is is well within my grasp - that feels wasteful. And so the English here does not stand alone - it needs the Orkney to give you rhythm and sound and smoothness, the flow of poetry written to be read. But that gives space for the depth that smoothness obscures, and I have a better sense for what trang might mean than I ever otherwise would.

And in some ways, the Orkney needs the English too - not for sense or reading pleasure, but for experiencing the complexity of the art that Giles has made here. Because those translations are art too - they are a conversation between the languages, a relationship nearly as present as the ones between the characters.

This becomes even more apparent as the story progresses, and we see Darling start to pick up snippets of Orcadian, weaving them into her otherwise English phrasings. There's also the character Noor, who has come to the station from away, but lived there now a while, and her language is mainly English, but peppered with parts of speech she's picked up from her time - and again, the extent of that shifts through the story, and with what she's discussing and with whom. Language and the conversation between language, mutual intelligibility and cultural disconnection, are all at the heart of the story being told, and by viewing it in both languages, we see the two halves of Astrid and the changing self of Darling, and their ongoing conversations within themselves and between each other. Because it is such a story of the self one chooses to be, through the vector of place and culture and language, having language at the forefront of the experience makes it that much more real and vivid to the reader.

And so Giles has taken three separate pieces of artistry - narrative, poetry and translation - and not only excelled at each individually, but skilfully managed the synthesis of the three into a coherent and wondrous whole. They all inform each other, they all relate back to each other, and they are all needed to get a full understanding of how deeply clever this book is. Nor is that even the whole of it - there's a running theme of echoes between island life and space station life, the way the people of the station evoke fishermen in the dangers of their work. The way religion and mythology sit quietly underneath parts of it, in the language and the way people live their lives. And then there's the artistry of how understated it all is - how much Giles manages to convey in so few words, in emotion and story telling and haunting mystery. It's not a work about giving you answers, or providing a simple, linear narrative with a clear ending. But what it is is a work that builds a beautiful, intense feeling of familiarity with a group of people living their lives, both entirely remote and strangely familiar. There's a huge galaxy outside of the station we see here, a whole world glimpsed in snippets, of people's lives we'll never see the edges of. But its incompleteness, its isolation, is exactly part of its art. We cannot ever know the full story - we're just seeing the conversation, the feeling and the moment. And they're glorious.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for being the sort of text where the more you think on it, the more you read it, the more layers of sheer artistry become apparent

Penalties: none

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference:  Harry Josephine Giles, Deep Wheel Orcadia [Picador, 2021]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea

Friday, October 28, 2022

Nanoreviews: Let the Mountains be my Grave, The Book Eaters

Let The Mountains be my Grave by Francesca Tacchi (Neon Hemlock)

Let the Mountains be my Grave is a short novella - possibly the shortest so far from Neon Hemlock's novella range - and it spends every second of its brief length going as hard as possible, with intense and powerful effect. Set in Italy in 1944, we follow Veleno, a partisan resistance fighter with little interest in ideology or thinking about a future he doesn't expect he'll see as he fights against Nazi occupation in his homeland. But Veleno has a gift: his village still has a connection to Angita, an ancient goddess of healing (snake style!) and he has a token from her which lets him heal his comrades. When Veleno's commander sends him, his irrepressibly idealist communist lover Rame, and two mysterious women on a mission to intercept a vitally important convoy, Veleno is forced to think about what his powers and  his fight mean in a wider context, and attempt to defeat a sinister and seemingly invincible enemy.

Veleno is a fascinating main character: he has little curiosity about the origins of his magic and disdains characters like Irma, his comrade on the mission, whose background is in academic research, but his deep connection to his country and his willingness to go to an early, pointless grave in its honour gives the story its core drive. Because it's not a long story, we don't get a whole lot of time to get to know the other characters, but love interest Rame immediately won me over with his impulsiveness and his delightful communist one-liners ("That was almost better than the first five-year plan", he exclaims after landing from a skydive), and the villainous Nazi who serves as the book's main antagonist - whose reveal I won't spoil - is satisfyingly unpleasant and archetypal. I could easily have spent more time in this setting - the combination of ancient, nearly-forgotten gods and the bleak realities of occupied World War 2-era Italy is a great one - but this small book delivers on its own terms, with a kick of romance and a tentatively hopeful close to round things out.

The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Tor, 2022)

Arturo has already written about his experience with The Book Eaters, and particularly the way the story takes on patriarchy, gendered oppression, and abuse. I agree with everything he's written, and I also didn't want to let this one pass without commenting on it as well.

The Book Eaters is the split story of Devon, a rare daughter born to a family of near human bibliovores called (you got it) Book Eaters. Devon has a secluded and somewhat-coddled upbringing within her old fashioned and isolated family, and is prepared for the compulsory arranged marriages that all book eater women have to go through to try and ensure the survival of their species. But we don't initially meet Devon as a young princess, dutifully eating her way through fairy tales - because book eaters absorb aspects the texts they eat, though not in the same way as reading - with rare forbidden raids on her uncle's library. When we meet Devon, she's a single mother in our world, trying to feed her son. Except, her son doesn't eat books, he eats minds, and the one Book Eater family who used to create drugs to help the often-ravenous Mind Eaters have all either died or disappeared. 

Devon's desperate, miserable choices in that opening chapter set us up to expect as much urban fantasy thriller as gothic horror in The Book Eaters, and as the narratives converge, it's fascinating to see how the different genres of Devon's past and present get closer to each other. Devon's younger self is a far more inactive protagonist, trying to survive and cling to points of happiness in a highly controlled world, while her older self grasps at agency whilst being pushed into ever more high-stakes situations. The genre shifts, and the changes in Devon's character, are also neatly paralleled by the experiences of her mind eater son, Cai, who takes on facets of the people he eats and has become an extremely precocious and changeable five-year-old as a result. There's a little bit of speculation, in the form of an epigraph of an in-universe book, about why Book Eaters and Mind Eaters are the same species and their spiritual purpose, but the characters themselves don't think about any of this. For Devon and Cai, the fact that they are hungry and that those hungers change them is just a fact of life, to be managed as best as possible - ideally, with the freedom to make their own choices.

The thriller element does win out over the other genres in the end, and the last part of The Book Eaters is action right to the end. I was impressed by how long Dean kept me guessing beyond the point where I thought all the information about how past-Devon became present-Devon had been revealed, and there's a few interesting twists which make the eventual climax all the more thrilling. Really good stuff.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

6 books with William Henry Morris

William Henry Morris writes, edits, and writes about SF&F. He writes fiction for the indie, literary Mormon market as William Morris and lives in Minnesota with his wife, daughter, and cat. You can find him wallowing in the supposed spaces between/amidst/around the literary and the fantastic (and the humorous whenever possible).

Today he tells us about his Six Books:

1. What book are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading The Grief of Stones by Katherine Addison. Like, many SF&F fans I was quite taken by The Goblin Emperor, but I think I like her The Cemeteries of Amalo series, which is set in the same world, even better.

The setting down in the city streets rather than the rarified air of the court is more my style. Thara Celehar, the wry, melancholic, murder-solving prelate who can speak to the dead, is a compelling character (although I’m also very worried about him). And I like that the books deal with questions of faith, religion, class, and industrialization in secondary world fantasy.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of Sofia Samatar’s work. It may be out in the world by the time this is published, but I’m very excited about The White Mosque. It’s not SF&F. It’s part memoir, part history, part travelogue, but I have no doubt that it’ll be fantastic—and it looks like it tackles some of the same concerns as Samatar’s two excellent fantasy novels.

For a true SF&F pick, I can’t believe we have to wait until the middle of next year for Vajra Chandrasekera’s debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors. His short fiction never fails to destroy me. I look forward to seeing what he does in novel form.

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

This is sort of strange considering that a) I read it just a few months ago and b) it’s not a finished book, but I’d really like to dig back into John M. Ford’s Aspects and better understand what he’s accomplished with the novel and think more deeply about where it might have been going. There are some potentially innovative for secondary world fantasy elements to Aspects that I find fascinating, especially the political system.

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

I’m sure there are books I read as a teenager that I’d not be quite as enthused about if I were to read them now. Hmmmm.

This is not a movement from negative to positive, but I don’t think any SF&F novel I’ve read has risen in my estimation over time as much as Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen. I think it’s an incredible achievement of secondary world fantasy that comes across as deceptively simple, perhaps even quirky. And yet themes, characters, and moments in it continue to unspool whenever I think about them, which I still do from time-to-time.

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

It may not seem like it based on the work of mine that’s been published so far, but Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy had a profound influence on my understanding of both literature and the world.

I suppose I could say that whatever kernels of pragmatic hope that can be found in my fiction are remnants of my experience reading that trilogy, especially The Kestrel, and the way in which darkness and decency get intertwined across those novels.

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

The Darkest Abyss: Strange Mormon Stories was recently published by the BCC Press under my William Morris moniker, which is what I use for my work that appears in the incredibly small, but fascinating [to me] indie Mormon literary market.

The 18 stories in the collection range from alternate history and science fiction to folk horror and literary experimental. If you’ve read any of my stories that (the late, lamented) Big Echo published—especially “Ghosts of Salt and Spirit”, which is in this collection—then I think you’ll find my these stories work in a similar mode, albeit all of them have some sort of tie-in to Mormon history, experience, and/or (often highly speculative in strange directions) theology.

Readers without much familiarity with Mormonism may miss some nuances (heck, a lot of Mormon readers would miss some nuances, although they’re probably not going to pick up the collection anyway). But they also may find them of more interest than standard portrayals of the Mormon experience, which tend to stick to certain narratives (whether produced by the LDS Church or by those who aren’t Mormon).

Thank you, William!

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

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Microreview [Video Game]: The Last of Us Part I by Naughty Dog

Still the best at what it does.

The Last of Us Part I
is not a fun video game. It contains heavy themes that are thoroughly explored over its fifteen-hour runtime. Sure you can turn on some modifiers for unlimited health and blaze through or you can skip all the cutscenes and focus on killing infected enemies, but you would be missing the point. Heavily inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Last of Us Part I gives players control of Joel as he navigates a post-apocalyptic American wasteland with an undesired mission and an even more unwanted companion.

What Naughty Dog manages to accomplish in the first fifteen minutes of The Last of Us Part I most video games can't manage over the entirety of their runtime. Their strong approach to character relationships, growth, and relatability sucks the player in right away. Next, atmosphere. The game immediately sets up a sinister vibe with its audio and lighting, a hum of danger vibrates under the surface. Then the dominoes start falling and the game sets up the underlying character motivation for Joel and it’s up to the player to help see him through to redemption.

Part I
is not a remaster like 2014’s The Last of Us Remastered, it’s a complete overhaul of all the assets and animations, breathing new life into an aging game. Now, Part I and II are closer in graphical prowess and ready for a new audience to experience once the show drops in 2023. The amount of work that has gone into fleshing out all of the existing assets is astonishing. The Last of Us Part I is one of the best-looking games on the market. It was difficult to stop myself from taking a ton of photos in the newly fleshed-out photo mode. The visual fidelity is astonishing and is one of the two pillars maintaining the tone of one of gaming’s most atmospheric series, the other is Gustavo Santaolalla’s unforgettable soundtrack.

Harrowing, heartfelt, and heavy, Santaolalla’s score is incredible and entwined perfectly into every aspect of The Last of Us Part I. From the end of the game’s first sequence until the last lines are delivered, Santaolalla provides music that gets under your skin and becomes as much of the game as the characters themselves. I get chills thinking about the moment the credits roll and the soundtrack begins.

Of most significance in Part I are the characters. Not only the main characters, but the ones you meet throughout your journey. This remake does more justice in representing the integrity of the voice actor’s performances than the original did. The new animations depict the characters in such stunning detail that, when comparing them, it gives quite a shock. Part I is an example of a studio that loves its property and wants to ensure it is respected. Many people cried foul when it was announced and were quick to denounce it as a simple cash grab. The Last of Us Part I is anything but.

Themes of loss, trust, surviving without a purpose, man v.s. self, society, and nature, as well as many others, are woven throughout the narrative. Every piece of this game is meant to fit into its place. There are no superfluous portions of Part I. They are all meant to flow, and do so, in one of the best-paced video games ever made. Each sequence gives the player time to experience what is going on before allowing them some downtime to reflect. The denouement is appropriately climactic, and unlike almost any other game, forces the player to reflect. Again, not fun.

The gameplay is as grounded as the story. Joel feels heavy as you navigate the world. You can upgrade your abilities, but Joel is never a superhero. His aim is slightly shaky and he takes a while to craft and heal. Taking your time to ensure a properly placed shot is critical, especially if you play on the harder difficulties where ammo and resources become even more scarce. But even on normal, it’s easy to waste your stock, so the player has to be conscious and prepared for future encounters. A sense of urgency and resource consciousness is present in almost every encounter, creating tense engagements regardless of enemy type.

Speaking of enemies, Clickers have become synonymous with The Last of Us franchise, even briefly appearing in the trailer for HBO’s upcoming show. These enemies inspire a sense of dread when playing on a difficulty that matches the player’s skill level. Their creepy clicking noises act as sonar, forcing the player to move slowly to avoid activating them. When combined with the Runners who can see the player, combat situations can quickly turn from stealth to all-out assault as a swarm of enemies chases you, moaning and screeching. If a Runner gets to you, they slow you down, but if a Clicker gets to you, it’s instant death for the player. The quick cutscene that follows the player’s death is gruesome but cuts away before the final damage is done, leaving some to the player’s imagination. It creates a terrifying effect that would be lessened with a more gratuitous finisher.

The writing in The Last of Us Part I is top-notch. The story is quite simple. Its main purpose is to serve the plot and character relationships and growth, so it never becomes convoluted and exposition-heavy like a Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy game (don’t get me wrong, I love both Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy). There are plenty of other games with much more unique and even better overall stories, but almost none that nail the underlying themes and character progression the way that The Last of Us does. In keeping the overarching story basic, Naughty Dog can focus on what matters. There are so many moving parts under the surface of each character’s action and dialogue—all of which is masterfully implemented. Every cutscene is brimming with heartfelt line delivery from the voice actors, and painstaking detail from Naughty Dog’s animators. The Last of Us Part I is a thorough labor of love.

Though the game is missing its amazing Factions multiplayer game mode present in the original release, a version of the game mode is confirmed for 2023. The remake does include the fantastic Left Behind DLC which is, like the main game, remade from the ground up. In addition to the inclusion of Left Behind, Part I takes some notes from Part II’s playbook and includes a whole host of new accessibility features for disabled gamers. You could technically play the game blind or deaf. The Dualsense is used in unique ways as well, including allowing the controller to vibrate in a way that represents a character’s line delivery which has proven helpful for deaf gamers. Naughty Dog has taken extra time and care to ensure that everyone could take part in the story they made nine years ago, and it’s present as soon as you look at the accessibility list of features.

Nine years ago I started a game that I was unsure about. The game was heavy, depressing, and sometimes frightening. But over time, the characters grew on me, the music transfixed me, and the setting sucked me in. When the last line was uttered and the credits rolled, I thought, “Was that the end?” And though I played it a few more times over the years, I would constantly think about the characters I’d come to love, their motivations, and the intent of the game’s final spoken line. One word, and yet, many ways to interpret it. It wasn't until The Last of Us Part II that any of my questions were answered. But for a game to have such a profound impact on me was an incredible awakening. I considered the actions I had been forced to take during my time with the game, challenged the protagonist’s motivations, and put myself in his shoes. Would I do what he did? Was that the right choice? The Last of Us Part I isn’t a fun game. It’s a game about reflection, and more than a game—it’s an experience. This remake is undoubtedly the best way to play this cinematic masterpiece. The Last of Us Part I isn't just Naughty Dog’s best title, it’s one of the best examples of what storytelling in a video game can achieve.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 10/10

Bonus: +1 for its best-in-class storytelling. +1 for living, breathing characters. +1 for one of the best video game soundtracks. +1 for incredibly inclusive accessibility options.

Penalties: -1 for lack of Factions mode.

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Review: MegaDeath by Tory Quinn and Marie Vibbert

A thrilling addition to a subgenre that seems, if you'll pardon the figure of speech, done to death

In the deadly tournament subgenre, overcrowded with such memorable entries as Death Race, Tron, Rollerball, Battle Royale, Bloodsport, The Running Man, Mortal Kombat, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The Hunger Games and Battle Angel Alita, it's interesting to see new stories are still being made. After seemingly every possible angle in this topic has been explored, an author who decides to create yet another deadly tournament story must clear a high bar to not be lumped along with thousands of mediocre imitations.

In the 22nd century where the novel MegaDeath is set, we find many of the same familiar elements: there's a globally broadcast athletic competition, with execution as the punishment for the losing team, and we're told that humankind has adopted this form of regulated mayhem as a cathartic substitute for international war. So far, so samey. Where MegaDeath distinguishes itself is in the extra building blocks of its world: if this sport is going to serve as a replacement for war, it needs to be attached to the same geopolitical consequences. In this world, the country that wins MegaDeath gets priority in setting the global agenda for the next four years, with decreasing amounts of power assigned to the losing countries in order of disqualification. The issues on the table are the same they've always been: trading privileges, taxes and tariffs, allocation of key resources. Whereas they were long ago decided by actual combat, they're now subject to the numbers on the scoreboard.

In a disturbing display of fervor that the novel uses very intentionally to blur the line between patriotic loyalty and hooliganism, the spectators and participants of MegaDeath honestly believe in this system. They'll defend its success at preventing widespread destruction by channeling the animosity between civilizations into a controlled environment that sublimates bloodlust into show business. One of the rules of MegaDeath gives the winning team the right to pillage the defeated territory for an entire day, a practice whose merits are repeatedly defended by some of the protagonists. The underlying assumption is that a mutually agreed period of supervised violence will prevent other, more explosive forms of it.

The stakes are further heightened by the revelation that fans have taken their patriotism to the absurd extreme of gambling their own lives upon the result of the tournament. A vicious circle of social pressure quickly forms because not betting your life is interpreted as not believing in your team's chances of winning. So the losing country will not only lose its top athletes, but also a sizable chunk of its population, which will bring the limited carnage of MegaDeath back to the massive casualties of conventional war. When one team discovers that the betting system might not be fully transparent, their already heavy ethical misgivings are multiplied by the millions of innocents who will die in another country if they win.

The main achievement of this novel, fitting for characters running for their lives before an audience, is the consistently breakneck pacing. The authors comfortably wield the rhythm and momentum needed to tell a nail-biting action story, although this intensity often carries over into other scenes of more reflective nature that needed a different treatment. Despite the minimal space dedicated to developing these characters, their desperation to win is communicated loud and clear. By the final rounds of the competition, their group dynamic resembles that of shell-shocked veterans.

MegaDeath is more enjoyable for the creative depictions of acrobatic violence than for any deep message contained in it. The big villain reveal isn't exactly compelling, and the ensuing discussion about the ethics of the game is held at the simplest level. This is not a book one reads for life-changing insights. This is a spectacle that demands to be experienced through primal impulses, in the blood and sweat of muscled idols whose shoulders bear the weight of the world. If the story is intended to convey any point about its themes, it may be that a replacement for war is no better than real war if it's used for the same ends and feeds the same darkness inside us. A civilization that enthusiastically sends its young to die is already a fallen civilization, and we need to ask ourselves who we're becoming when we cheer for our fellow humans' destruction.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +2 for the dynamic style used to narrate action scenes.

Penalties: −1 for clunky exposition, −1 for a less than gracefully executed ending, −1 because most of the transitions between scenes are too abrupt.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

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

Reference: Quinn, Tory; Vibbert, Marie. MegaDeath [Level 4 Press, 2022].

Monday, October 24, 2022

'Exception' raises questions about humanity's right to live

This existential drama unfolds at both the individual and the civilizational level

A story can be written about the worth of humanity in which cloned bodies with copied memories ask themselves pointy questions about the authenticity of their identities and the consequences of reversible death. Also, a story can be written about the worth of humanity in which a space colonization project sends the last surviving members of our species to another planet and we need to weigh our survival against the fragility of an alien ecosystem. Either of those choices could address such heavy issues as our place in the universe, our sense of importance, our responsibility to other living creatures, and the dangers of hubris.

The fact that the new Netflix production Exception goes for both approaches at the same time and weaves them into parallel thematic threads speaks to the ambition of series creator and screenwriter Hirotaka Adachi. While cloning is a fertile topic for a discussion of personal dignity, and space colonization offers a comparable opportunity to explore collective dignity, a story that takes cloned characters and puts them in the middle of a space colonization plot is a potent combination and an authorial statement that promises a multifaceted view of the issue.

This is a daunting task for a limited series of just eight episodes, but Exception fulfills this mission admirably. The plot is presented through what one might call bifocal lenses: at the micro level, we have the story of a botched cloning that results in a bizarre creature of hideous appearance that gives rise to doubts about its humanity and, therefore, its inherent worth; at the macro level, we have a political disagreement over the moral acceptability of invading an intact biosphere to settle the human species and refound civilization. The later reveal that one of these problems gave rise to the other closes the circle of this subtle but effective narrative experiment.

Although these questions have been a staple of science fiction for a long time, Exception manages to make them feel fresh while still leaving them without a definitive answer. The botched clone is alternately treated like a wild animal, a mere inconvenience, a defective copy, an abomination, a funhouse mirror, and a travel companion. The four protagonists have long debates about what to do with it, and the rounds of arguments and counter-arguments force them to reevaluate their own status as living beings. In a closed environment with finite resources and high tension, should someone's right to exist depend on their ability to contribute work? Are replicas of human beings in a position to judge the quality of an allegedly bad replica? Is the worth of a clone measured by its fidelity to the supposed original? If it's a trivially easy procedure to unmake and remake clones, is death an effective punishment?

As the story progresses, its scope expands and we're faced with new and equally thought-provoking problems: in a universe with other forms of life, is humanity's survival a moral absolute? Is it honest of us to reserve to ourselves the answering of that question? Do our past crimes against nature factor in that moral calculation? Should other species fear humanity?

One twist that complicates this topic in an even thornier direction is the backstory that explains that humans left Earth because robots took over it. The unspoken implication is that at least one other culture has already judged it's more deserving of life than us. Before the protagonists can even formulate a rebuttal to that challenge, the show presents them with a harder one: does nonintelligent life also get a say on how much value our survival should have?

How we answer the micro problem informs which answers are possible to the macro one. It won't do to assert human dominion over the nonhuman when the line between the two gets so blurred that we can no longer decide who gets to redraw it. The protagonists cling to a sense of humanity that has been fabricated for them, with aspirations and attachments not uniquely their own, and with a material existence made possible only through technology, which means that any redefinition of "human" they construct in order to justify their self-esteem and their personhood must automatically apply to the defective copy as well, and once that threshold is crossed, human primacy is left without a logical foundation.

The plot resolves by offering an answer but recognizing that it cannot be objectively true. Our survival must prevail, but that tells us very little if we are the ones affirming that value. Of course team human will cheer for team human: we can make no other choice (at least none that preserves our ability to make choices), and no one else can do it for us (because whoever tries to decide our worth immediately violates our worth). The question is not for others to get involved in, but we cannot be trusted to be impartial. The situation is thus rendered exposed: we can never know what humanity is outside of what humans believe about it. What Exception proposes, given the impossibility of an absolute pronouncement, is a plea for epistemic humility. If we must judge ourselves (and it is inescapable that we must), let us not forget that we are biased. If our species must exist (and as long we are in charge of the question, the question is already moot), let us be neither ashamed nor proud. We are precious to ourselves and redundant to the universe; the fatal error is to get those two confused.

Exception handles its subject matter with surprising depth for its short runtime, but the ending is so fitting that nothing more needs to be added, a reassuring demonstration that a self-contained series that knows when it has said all it has to say is still possible in the streaming era. The animation style is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but it doesn't distract from the arguments going on in each episode. The gory horror is not too shocking, and never self-indulgent. This is primarily a science fiction of ideas, a birefringent look at the contact surfaces between humans and beyond humans, and at the circumstances that can turn that contact into violence.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for expertly creating and maintaining thematic resonance.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

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

Friday, October 21, 2022

6 Books with Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of more than twenty novels, including the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy and the award-winning Devil’s West series from Saga Press/ Simon & Schuster. Her forthcoming projects include the Gilded Age historical fantasy, Uncanny Times (October 2022), and a series of paranormal romance novellas focusing on non-traditional partners, starting with Something Perfect.

Today she tells us about her Six Books.

1. What book are you currently reading?

Assuming we're not talking about research material?  The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda, by Sumita Oyama.  It's about the rather sad but also remarkable life of the poet and his works, about poetry, travel, language, and the art of observing.  I read a small bit each night before bed, so it's taking me forever, but in a good way.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Femmes Fatale by Amanda Cherry and Erik Scott DeBie. A very fun-sounding twist on the villain/heroine conflict, bad girl meets good girl, sparks fly, and oh yeah, they need to team up to save the world. Definitely not for the kiddies.

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

I don't re-read books very often.  Possibly a result of having to read manuscripts mutiple times, first as an editor and now as a writer, I prefer the first "discovery" read. Also, too many books out there!  I can't keep up even just reading once!  But I do go through phases of turning to old favorites - for a while it was Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy L Sayers.  It's both a comfort read, and a lesson in how to weave a mystery into a romance, and vice versa.

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

I used to say A Fine and Private Place by Peter Beagle, but as I've grown into my own voice, I realized that I would have written an entirely different book (being a very different person with different experiences than Peter). So it's hard to say "I wish I'd written that" when I couldn't have written that.  I do wish I'd had the idea first, though.

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

The Prydain Chronicles, by Lloyd Alexander, specifically Taran Wanderer. Alexander had such a deft touch with creating characters that lived and breathed. Yes, they were fantasy stereotypes (the orphan, the princess, the bard, etc), and the plots were thin, but Alexander's storytelling turned them into real people you wanted to spend more time with.  I don't even know how many times I took the series out of the library, then wore through copies of my own.  That absolute love of his characters, the thing that gave them life, that seeped through the skin, the ink into my blood. Which sounds pretentious AF, I know, but I swear that's how it happened.
Before Alexander died, I got a copy of Taran Wanderer signed... it's one of the few signed copies I keep, no matter how many times I move. Place of honor on the shelf.

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

The new book is Uncanny Times, which is the first book in the Huntsmen series.  I joke that this book is the result of 15 years of muttering about errors and inconsistencies in the tv show Supernatural running headfirst into my desire to write about the grittier side of the Gilded Age.  A brother and sister team (plus dog) in 1913, hunting down what they call the "uncanny" - creatures from myth and legend - who tangle with humanity.  But when they're sent to investigate an uncanny-related murder, they discover there are deeper shadows underneath, and secrets nobody wants revealed...
Amusing fact, Uncanny Times was supposed to be a stand-alone, just the one book, then I'd write something else.  But when my editor (Joe Monti) read it, he sent me an email saying, "'re writing another one for me, right?"  Because Rosemary and Aaron - and Bother, their hound - had gotten under his skin and he wanted to know what happened next.  Somewhere, I hope, Lloyd Alexander is saying "attagirl."

Thank you, Laura Anne!

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

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Memory in the Blood by Ryan Van Loan

The Memory in the Blood concludes Rvan Van Loan's Fall of the Gods (Buc and Eld) trilogy, by raising the stakes to a confrontation with truly metaphysical powers threatening to dominate the world.

Sambucina "Buc" Alhurra has been through a lot. From brilliant street rat with a mind like a fantasy Sherlock Holmes, to being bound to a shard of a Goddess that gave her even more power and ability, her goals have been clear ever since she met her partner Eldritch `Eld' Rawlings, former military officer (and much belike the Watson to her Holmes): destroy the Dead Gods and any other power

In The Memory of the Blood, Ryan Van Loan draws this story to a suitable catastrophic conclusion but the road to get there is by turns familiar and unfamiliar both, and like in the first and second books, Buc (and Eld) will have to grow, change and face hard truths about themselves and each other, and level up to deal with the foes they must face--the Sin Eaters, the goddess Ciris (responsible for the shard, Sin, in Buc's head), and the Dead Gods themselves.

First of all it is somewhat of a spoiler to say that at the beginning of this novel, based on the events of the second, Buc is pretty sure Eld has been dead and has been dead for sometime. Like the second novel, Van Loan doesn't feel to start right when the previous novel ended, instead jumping us forward, and letting Buc piece in, and the reader figure out, what happened in the intervening months. 

I want to explore that concept and elucidate it a bit more. There is the idea in photography of "negative space", of the space that is not filled by the subject or the focus, often left completely blank to show off the main subject . This negative space helps throw the subject, the actual matter of the photograph into relief and keep the viewers attention on it, but that negative space as an undertone helps define the main subject

I want to argue here that all of the adventure that Buc has between these novels, even though we get some parts of them related to one degree or another, are the negative space for the Fall of the Gods Trilogy. There are some fairly major events that happen in the space between the two novels--between the first and second novel. (The Sin in the Steel and The Justice in Revenge) there is a whole plot of Buc's grandiose plans in the Kanados Trading Company, and how they ultimately went down in literal flames. And for that being negative space and only something that is related, it is enormously important to the subject matter and themes of the novel, particularly colonialism. Through the events in that particular negative space, Buc learned a painful lesson which informs events and her actions in both The Justice in Revenge and here in The Memory in the Blood.  Again, too, between that second book and the third book, Buc has been through a lot, gaining allies and associates, and having uprooted herself into the city of Cordoban.  Cordoban is an entrepot of trading and commerce and knowledge, the names and terms vaguely reminiscent of Arabic and Middle Eastern languages. We get it in dribs and drabs why Buc is here, how that works going forward, and that negative space helps put the action into relief and visibility once Buc moves her plans to fruition.

One last thing about this negative space and withholding direct things from the reader, is that it happens within the narrative as well. Buc's relationship with the shard of Ciris known as Sin is an uneasy relationship at best, that unease having started in the previous novel, and having gone straight through to here. At this point, Buc is more than willing at times to shut Sin down and keep Sin from being aware of events and the situation. This is a point that Sin complains about when Sin learns it's been two weeks, complete with and a radical chance of scenery, since last Sin was aware of what Buc was doing.

So what is the author saying here in the use of these negative spaces, and how does it influence the events of the novel. I think you can take the negative space as a metaphor for any number of things, depending on your flavor of speculation, but the one that I do like is one of memory loss and PTSD, and what we remember, or do not remember, during trauma, and how those influences change a person. How people are changed by trauma also dovetails into the story of Eld.  As mentioned above, as a spoiler, he does come back, after being thought dead. His space and role, and what is expected of him, and how he fights to be himself could have been an entire novel from his point of view in and of itself.  Here it is a major subplot (and Eld gets a substantial amount of POV screen time) but it feels a little unexplained, directly, again, relying on negative space.

I've spent a lot in this review talking about things that are not there, and so I think at this point it is time to talk about what IS here, what is thrown into relief by the use of the negative space.  The first two novels, positive and negative space, lead up to this latest plot, and the stakes do go truly cosmic.Buc's desire to go against the Godshas been present since the first book, but here, in The Memory in the Blood, she has a chance to actually strike at the Dead Gods, and the very living and equally dangerous goddess Ciris as well. Like all of Buc's plans, as in the tradition of her progenitor Sherlock Holmes, her plans are a combination of clockwork precision, improvisation, and audaciousness. 

It should be noted that Buc's story isn't, in my view, really about Gods per se, in a theological sense. What Buc's story has been for me, since it's beginning, is all about colonialism, oppression and how Great Powers grind the average person on the street down in their endless appetites. That motif has been throughout the series, and Buc's attempts to come to terms with it, and upend the apple cart, has been the driving force of who and what she is.

Her attempts to join the Kandos Trading Company in The Sin in the Steel (and her fall from grace in the liminal space between that book and The Justice in Revenge) can be seen in the light of the brilliant Buc trying to co-opt and work "within the system" to make it better--only to find out that her attempts to do so in the end run up against too many entrenched interests, and taking a third option is the only way to do lasting change. 

That theme of colonialism and great powers moves upward from the Trading Company to the political conflict that overhangs the third book between Buc's native city of Servenza and the duchy of Normain, with powers like the Cordoban Confederacy caught between them in their struggle. Going up to the final, cosmic scale, the longstanding conflict between The Dead Gods and Ciris herself, a conflict Buc stumbled into quite literally in the second novel, is ultimately the most fulminating and grand scale expression of colonialism in the novel, a colonialism of temporal and spiritual power alike, with the fate of the entire world in the balance. Given Buc's arc up to this point, her efforts and goal to topple both of these oppressive forces makes for a logical endpoint to the entire series. 

There is much else here, from Buc and Eld finally figuring out their relationship, Buc growing as a person, and as in the first two novels, a stream of imaginary literary references and the books Buc has read. One marker throughout the series as to the time jumps between novels, is that in between them, the number of books Buc has read explodes. Van Loan likes to play with these references and fake books, alluding to ideas from our own history and philosophy and showing that at the bottom, once Buc learned to read, that she is in the end, like us, like those who pick up the series--she is a *reader* and likes to think about what she has read and how that applies to her life and what is happening now. In the end, I left the conclusion of this series with such thoughts myself--about colonialism, oppression and how to fight systemic injustice.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for a rich use of liminal space to tell the story of Buc and her fight against the Gods

+1 for excellent and immersive worldbuilding

Penalties: -1 Sometimes the pacing of this final novel isn’t all that it should be.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Van Loan, Ryan The Memory in the Blood [Tor, 2022]

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Microreview [book]: The Red Scholar's Wake by Aliette de Bodard

Lesbian Space Pirates! And so much more...

The modern SFF community sure loves a pithy one-line book description, especially when said description involves the word "space" or "in space". Tamsyn Muir's Gideon the Ninth was advertised as "Lesbian necromancers in space", Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott became "Genderbent Alexander the Great in space", and "Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes somehow became "it has psychic space cats", despite said cats being a relatively minor part of a multi-layered space opera. In keeping with this trend, many people will probably have heard of The Red Scholar's Wake, Aliette de Bodard's first novel in the long-running Xuya universe of stories, via the description "Lesbian space pirates!" Perhaps, if the person giving you the pithy description has some more characters to spare in their tweet, they'll also add that one of those lesbians is a spaceship, but the big marketing draw is likely to involve some combination of three words, and three alone. Lesbian space pirates! What's not to love?

There's nothing wrong with snappy marketing, and in this case it's very accurate: The Red Scholar's Wake is indeed a sapphic romance, set in a spacefaring setting, and most of its characters are pirates. But no matter how intriguing, a three word summary can't tell you how much is going on beneath the surface of a particular book, and The Red Scholar's Wake has a lot going on beneath the surface. It packs a huge amount into its relatively short length, and expects readers to get on board with the worldbuilding of Xuya universe - already been firmly established in shorter fiction (for other long-ish tales, try The Tea Master and the Detective or On A Red Station, Drifting) pretty quickly. Worldbuilding details like bots and mindships are introduced quickly and with little direct explanation, and the book is also completely unapologetic in presenting a spacefaring society based on Vietnamese cultural norms, even representing linguistic elements not present in English like relationship-based pronoun use. It makes for a lush, intriguing world, one which requires attention readers unfamiliar with the setting, or its real world cultural precedents to grasp.

At the heart of this story is a romance between Xích Si, a tech-savvy scavenger who, at the book's opening, is captured by the Red Banner pirate fleet and is awaiting either death or a miserable indenture at their hands; and Rice Fish, a mindship (a sentient spaceship with a very human sense of identity and relationships) who has just been made a widow at the death of her spouse, the Red Scholar, in the same battle. Instead of sending Xích Si away to nameless servitude, Rice Fish recognises her technical ability and offers her a different route: become Rice Fish's new spouse, use her abilities to uncover who murdered the Red Scholar, and live out a life of relative comfort and protection on Rice Fish's decks. It's meant as a business exchange, and with no home to return to and no good alternative, Xích Si has little choice but to accept. Of course, as the two spend more time in each other's company, the genuine attraction between them becomes impossible to deny, and the two start to forge a bond which overcomes the the power dynamic between them, and their differing outlooks on life to become a marriage of love.

The dynamic between Xích Si and Rice Fish is great, and filled with just the right amount of complication: both have children (Rice Fish's much older than Xích Si's) who play different roles in the plot, and both Xích Si's experiences as a destitute scavenger and Rice Fish's loveless and unintentionally traumatic first marriage to the Red Scholar have left scars which both have to acknowledge might never heal. Because Rice Fish is a mindship, there's also an enjoyably alien element to how the two express their physical attraction to each other. Rice Fish has a suitably gorgeous (if otherworldly) human-shaped avatar which she projects as her "body" in interactions with other humans, and can also use to visit the pirate space station and the interior of other ships. But her real body is a spaceship, and that ship is full of sensors, imbued with its own heartbeat, and contains a "heartroom" where the story's most sensuous scene takes place. If you've read "In the Vanishers' Palace", you know de Bodard can make a steamy scene with a non-human partner work, and that talent is on full display again here. (For those who like to know either way how many sexy bits you're getting in your romance: one, and you can skip it and not lose any plot if that's your preference.)

But beyond the romance, The Red Scholar's Wake also shines both when it comes to the action packed mystery of unravelling the Red Scholar's death, and in the wider implications about piracy, freedom and emancipation which that plot entails. As leaders of the Red Banner, the Red Scholar and Rice Fish had built their marriage around trying to create an idealistic pirate society which offered freedom to those fleeing the controlling, corrupt empires to either side of their territory. But the realities of pirate society, which is built on raiding and killing ships in their territory and forcing survivors into indenture, fall far short of those ideals, and beyond Rice Fish's banner, the abuses of power by other pirate leaders demonstrate that they're not interested in the Red Banner's political mission in the first place. Even as Xích Si is tempted by the ease of her new lifestyle and what it would offer her daughter, and as she makes new friends among the Red Banner crews, she doesn't lose sight of the unsavoury aspects of the lifestyle and the death that it metes on others, including members of her own family. Towards the final third of the book, the ideological conflicts between the pirates and the empire they have fled from really take centre stage, and the way it plays out makes for one of the most satisfying confrontations of "noble outlaw" ideology that I've read in science fiction. And while the romance leaves Xích Si and Rice Fish in a satisfying position to begin their life together, there's plenty of uncertainty and tension left over with supporting characters which I'd love to see explored in future Xuya stories.

In short, while "Lesbian Space Pirates!" is a fine entry point for this book, The Red Scholar's Wake goes so much deeper and gets far weirder than any quickfire marketing statement could possibly capture. It won't take up much of your time on its own, but this is a great jumping-on point for the Xuya universe and if you enjoy this, there's a great deal of shorter fiction which you're going to love exploring as well. 

Reference: de Bodard, Aliette. The Red Scholar's Wake [Gollancz/JABberwocky Literary Agency, 2022]

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

The Long Look Back: Star Wars and Superheroes

It has been ten years since Disney acquired the Star Wars galaxy and our writers here weighed in on what we thought this might mean for fans, and ten years since I wrote what remains one of my favorite essays for Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, From Spurs to Spandex: Why Westerns Died and Superheroes Fly. I’ve been thinking a lot about those two things recently, because literally everywhere I go, I am confronted by a non-stop barrage of Star Wars and superheroes.

Every time I turn on the television, every time I pass a bus stop, or a bus passes me, or I pass a billboard, or I pick my kids up from school. It has become part of the noise of every day.

There was a time – ten years ago, as it happens – when this wasn’t the case. Back then, I and other NoaF writers offered some theories of what might be coming down the pike and speculated about some of the whys and wherefores. I thought it might be interesting to look back at those perspectives and predictions from today’s vantage point.

Let us go then, you and I...

The Rise of Streaming

Right off the bat, two statements I made in the Star Wars and Superheroes posts collide because of the ways in which streaming services have totally redefined the media landscape. The transformation has been seismic, and not one I saw coming or I think any of us really could have predicted.

First, regarding the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, I worried about the impact it would have on limiting voices and stories, because for many years the number of films being released to theaters had been (and continues) shrinking. In November of 2012, I wrote:
What we're looking at is a two-year cycle of 12 films where 2 Marvels, 2 Pixars, 1 Disney Animation, 1-2 Tim Burtons, and now a STAR WARS are already taking up over half of the slate and about a billion dollars in budgeted production costs. What this move means overall is that fewer films will be made, there will be fewer surprises, and fewer chances for anyone to ever again blow up the cinematic landscape like Lucas did with the original STAR WARS.
Second, in the Westerns post, I argued that superhero films would move beyond the simple “household name hero origin story+sequel+sequel” pattern, to include different kinds of stories at difference scales. I wrote:
I do not believe it [the theatrical film market] can become saturated [with superhero content] in any real sense, but expectations have to be adjusted. Not every movie with a cape or a costume will make $100 million.
I wrote that in early 2013, surveying a media landscape in which movie studios were consolidating, so there were fewer and fewer buyers for and producers of feature films. Netflix existed, but to put it in context, the first episodes of House of Cards had just premiered. The success or failure of Netflix’s move into original programming was still an open question. Orange is the New Black hadn’t premiered yet, and Breaking Bad had yet to air the second half of its final season. Produced by AMC but licensed to Netflix, the show’s audience swelled through 2013 in anticipation of the final episodes thanks to people being able to binge the previous seasons on Netflix. But this was, crucially, still a broadcast show.

I argued then that Breaking Bad was the show of our time, and I think that holds up because I believe it was the transformative show that paved the way for the rise of streaming services producing original content. Contemporary reporting suggested as much, but even so, the sheer volume of original streaming programming is a whole other thing entirely. From the vantage point of 2012/2013, there was simply no way to anticipate that within the decade Disney+ a) would exist and b) would be cranking out more hours of Star Wars content per month than the total runtime of all the films in the franchise up to that point.

I believe it is fair to say that, thanks to the rise of streaming services and the continuing trends in theatrical distribution, the media landscape has now, in fact, become saturated with superheroes. But this speaks to the central thesis of my Westerns vs. Superheroes piece – in the 1950s, Westerns saturated the (far smaller) media landscape. Myriad TV shows geared toward kids, families, and adult audiences dominated the airwaves, and the list of Western films produced in the 1950s is so extensive that Wikipedia breaks it up into 1950-1954 and 1955-1959 . The Western occupied a massive domain in the American zeitgeist, which now has been replaced by superhero narratives.

An Ever-Expanding Palette, New Kinds of Stories

As I argued in 2013, both genres are concerned, at their core, with the intersection of violence and power. At that time, superhero franchises such as X-Men, Batman, Spider-Man, and the early Marvel films were considered reliable safe bets. I had a little skin in the game in the late-2000s, working as a writer developing a couple of original superhero projects. I and the producers I was working with heard consistently that nothing that wasn’t from existing IP would fly, and even the track-record of films from established characters with name recognition was spotty (Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Ghost Rider, etc). But I believed that the types of stories we were seeing would have to broaden and evolve. I wrote:
We can look at the incredible breadth of stories Westerns provided as a possible indicator of things to come. Tables were turned, where we began to see antiheroes and were asked to invest in the story from the "bad guy's" perspective, we saw stories of smaller lives touched by much larger struggles playing out around them, allegories for cultural and religious struggles, broken people forced into the hero mold and asked to do something beyond themselves, fringe voices telling familiar stories in entirely different ways, comedies, etc.
But I didn’t anticipate that, when we saw that evolution in the superhero realm, we’d be seeing it through the eyes of established characters. I believed that film and TV creators would gain the freedom to invent their own characters to tell stories of different sizes and with different perspectives. But with a few exceptions, particular in kids’ programming, IP remains king of the mountain in this regard. That said, hats off to the creators that have been able to make it work, and tell a huge variety of stories while playing in somebody else’s sandbox.

Marvel’s early Netflix run with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage used superhero characters to weave a neo-noir about the impact of sexual violence and a neo-blaxploitation series about local corruption, respectively – a far cry from the “saving the world” framing of many of the big-screen offerings even from the same universe. More recent series such as WandaVision and Hawkeye continued to get more personal, more emotionally complex, and less spectacle-centric. Meanwhile, the MCU theatrical offerings, especially in the Thor series, have become broader, funnier, and more intergalactic in scope. And films like The New Mutants, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Werewolf by Night have branched out into horror territory.

And that’s just Marvel. Amazon brought us The Boys, Netflix The Umbrella Academy, HBO Max continues to roll out content ranging from the blockbuster (Zack Snyder’s Justice League) to adult animation (Harley Quinn), and whatever DC is doing in theaters (a supervillain in a return to the 70s paranoid thriller? Ok, I guess.) continues to not interest me. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies remains DC’s best theatrical film, and you can fight me I don’t even care. So at this point, we have essentially seen the superhero genre iterate into every other genre we’re familiar with. Just like the Westerns did so many decades ago.

It’s important to make the same distinction I made ten years ago, which is that I’m specifically talking about superheroes, not the more nebulous “comic book adaptation.” Heartstoppers is a comic book adaptation. The Walking Dead is a comic book adaptation. That’s not what we’re talking about here. But you don’t need me to tell you that superheroes have become ubiquitous.

The question that lingers is why? Why now? Why with this intensity? Why with this ubiquity? And, I suppose, will it be with us forever?

Magical Thinking

In 2013, I argued that superhero stories supplanted Westerns because of a shift in perception among Americans about what the “American Dream” meant, and how it operated. I stand by this, and I think the titanic events of the last ten years bear this out. I wrote then:
Hard work doesn't pay off like it used to. Many of the hardest working people in this country can barely keep a roof over their heads, and people who have played by the rules and "done everything right" can find themselves out of work for years and unable to repay medical or student loan debts.
Superheroes tend to have a couple of things in common: they exist in a primarily urban landscape, and they believe in magic. Just like their audiences. As a culture, we are far more likely to believe in magic today than in hard work, and not without reason.

The former president of the United States played a successful businessman on TV, and then got elected to run the country. No experience necessary...just the irrational belief that it would all work out. Magical thinking. 1 in 5 Americans believes a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs the government. One in five! Even though their guy was in charge of the government! Observation tells me that over the last decade, there has been a marked rise in out-in-the-open magical thinking and a shift by millions of Americans away from evidence-based evaluation of just…facts. Of basic, discernible truths. 

It’s hard to avoid seeing the overlap between, say, Hydra’s role in the MCU and the ways in which an increasing number of Americans think the real world actually operates. It’s also interesting to think about the soul-searching at the heart of the Steve Rogers-Tony Stark dispute over the Sokovia Accords attempting to rein in the impact of superheroes and limit their destructive impacts as an allegory for corporate responsibility in an age of unparalleled corporate consolidation, reach, and impact. And The Boys seems increasingly transparent about its critique of the role of actual law enforcement in this country.

Like many of us, I feel helpless and insufficient to address so much of what is going on in the world. And the more I read, the more I realize that there are vast, interconnected systems undergirding every aspect of our daily life – systems that seem overwhelmingly formidable. There is something resonant in seeing fictionalized versions of those frameworks and something comforting in the idea that there could be superfolks who could just punch it all into oblivion. And there is something in it for the mega-corporations producing all of this content to keep us from looking behind the actual curtain. And it is at least in the realm of possibility that this inundation encourages us to believe in fantastic, impossible scenarios and frameworks, rather than examining the banal, actual, uncomfortable forces that are resulting in widening inequalities, loss of opportunities, and a general decay in the social fabric, writ large. I’m veering into the territory of whether or not violent media desensitizes individuals to actual violence, I know.

But the point is that the types of narratives we see in contemporary superhero stories, even in their increasing breadth, speak to us in our current complexity. Harley Quinn being an animated show for adults that deals with LGBTQ+ themes and situations is a great example. Can you fathom DC and Warner Media signing off on such a thing in 2013?!? The ubiquity and familiarity of these superhero characters create opportunities for storytellers and for audiences, and I don’t believe we’ll see anything but further proliferation of superhero stories, TV shows, and films for…a long, long while.

What’s Next?

Now is where I get to prognosticate a little more freely. This is just wild speculation, but if you were to ask me what comes next, as the popularity of superheroes inevitably wanes, somewhere far down the road? Again, wild speculation, but…

I’m kidding. I have no idea.

But I will say that I think one thing we are standing on the cusp of in this moment is an explosion of Star Wars content on a scale that is hard to fathom. Is it possible that someday the already-everywhere Star Wars might become even more ubiquitous? I’d say it’s a certainty. I’d like to shout out some of the predictions fellow NoaF writers made in 2012 when Disney acquired Lucasfilm.

The G opined:

Disney might be able to do some good here: they’ve done a decent job with Marvel (so far), and given that the STAR WARS franchise is riding a decade-and-a-half long waterslide to the gutter, it won’t take much at this point to right the ship. Mixed-metaphors aside, all it will take is putting the right people on the project. What’s Lawrence Kasdan up to these days?
As it happens, Lawrence Kasdan was about to be up to writing The Force Awakens. Along those lines, Molly wrote:
[T]his is all about who will lead up the project, both directing (my votes go to J.J. Abrams, Jon Favreau, or Christopher Nolan) – but more importantly, the writing.
Two out of three directors isn’t bad! J.J. was also Disney’s first choice, and Favreau wound up bringing us The Mandalorian. But Brad worried about certain possibilities, including one that definitely came to pass:
I say we all just get down on our knees and pray to God Almighty that they don’t stick Harrison Ford in the role of Han Solo for #7! After Indy 4 you know he’ll do it if asked.
But Mike really took the crown, with this quite prescient take:
My take is that Disney will take the brilliant world that Lucas created and treat it with care. Under the watchful eye of Disney I could see more of a Star Wars presence in its theme parks and could see it expanding the successful Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars. Anyone who has been watching the Clone Wars knows that the Star Wars franchise has a lot of quality stories to be told. I feel that removing Lucas from the picture may really open the creative envelope on a world ripe with opportunity.

Here we are ten years on, and I believe the ball that Mike predicted Disney would start rolling is finally getting up to speed. Many years ago, I remember Craig Mazin saying on the Scriptnotes podcast that when you factor in the Expanded Universe, Star Wars was the closest thing to a religion human beings had created in the last thousand years. The movies were just a sliver of the entire, immense Star Wars canon, but those novels and comics and other media never had the same blanket mass-market exposure the films did. Now Disney has essentially all the money in the world to put behind creating a brand new Star Wars universe, and they’re going to use Disney+ to bring all of it directly into our homes.

What about the metaverse, you may ask? Facebook and Microsoft are dumping billions of dollars into it. Might that revolutionize the entertainment landscape again in the coming years?

Nah. People don’t like to put shit on their faces. You heard it here first, folks!

Check back in 2032 for the latest.

Posted by Vance K – co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012. Emmy Award-winning producer and director, and multi-instrumentalist in different musical thingies