Monday, June 12, 2017

Five (Additional) Comments on Wonder Woman

I didn't expect to have anything more to say about Wonder Woman after publishing my short review of it.  But in the week that followed, the film has stayed with me, particularly the ways in which it complicates (and fails to complicate) the conventions of the superhero narrative.  Partly, this is just the shock of the new.  The MCU--and particularly those parts of it that are a bit more politically engaged--has gotten more than a little top-heavy, constantly bumping up against the limitations of its genre when it tries to do anything interesting with it.  Wonder Woman isn't kicking off its own cinematic universe, but I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that we'd all be better off if WB wrote off its previous three DC movies and used Wonder Woman as its template going forward (and, at least until November, we can all pretend that this is what's going to happen).  Without the baggage that the MCU has accumulated, DC is in the enviable position of being able to learn from the earlier franchise's mistakes, as well as striking its own path.  The following are some thoughts on how Wonder Woman sets up some interesting ideas for that project going forward, and how the conventions of Hollywood, and of the superhero genre, are likely to stymie that approach.
  • It's been a little frustrating to watch the conversation around Wonder Woman coalesce around its feminism.  Not that I don't understand why that's happening, or that there aren't interesting things to be said on this front.  In particular, I've been struck by discussions of the film's visual language, and of its avoidance of typically male-gaze-ish approaches to depicting powerful women.  And, in the other direction, there have been some trenchant critiques of the whiteness of the film's feminism, the fact that, in the Amazonian utopia of its opening segments, women of color are mostly relegated to the background, and in the WWI segments, they are almost entirely absent even as non-white men appear in crowd scenes and as main characters.

    My problem, however, with talking about Wonder Woman as a feminist work is that most of that feminism is external to the film.  That is, Wonder Woman is feminist because of what it is, not because of what it does.  To be clear, I absolutely agree with the statement that being the first movie about a female superhero in the current, mega-successful iteration of superhero movies (and one of only a small number before that) is a feminist act in its own right.  But there's only so much that you can say about that, and that's a problem that is exacerbated by Wonder Woman herself.  More than almost any other character in pop culture, Diana exists outside of patriarchy.  And while it's powerful to see a woman who brushes aside the assumption that she's not as good as a man because the very idea that this might be true is completely foreign to her heritage and upbringing, what this also means is that a lot of the central questions of feminism are equally foreign to her.

    I'm not as down on Wonder Woman as Jill Lepore, writing in The New Yorker, but she's not wrong when she says that "Gadot's Wonder Woman doesn't fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero."  Diana's journey over the course of the movie involves learning to see humanity--or, as she puts it, "men"--for what it is, with all its strengths and flaws.  But left completely unacknowledged is the degree to which the cruelty of men is often visited upon women.  How does Diana's bemusement at the concept of marriage face up to the discovery that almost all of the people she meets in 1918 would consider it acceptable for a man to beat his wife?  How does her decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse change in light of the fact that she is moving through a rape culture?  How does her joy at seeing a baby withstand the knowledge that most women in that period have no choice in when or whether to have children, and that many of them die in childbirth?

    If DC and WB were actually serious about making their cinematic universe "dark", this is precisely the sort of material they could latch on to, instead of focusing on the angst of privileged white men like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.  As I've written, Wonder Woman already shows us a Diana who has more of a justification for despairing of humanity than either of her established fellow heroes, but it misses an important point when it ignores how much of that despair should be rooted in the world's treatment of women.  That's something that could change in future movies, but not if they continue to hold on to the simplistic notion of a woman who is a feminist idol simply for existing.

  • One of the few explicitly feminist moments in Wonder Woman comes when Diana meets Etta Candy, and, after learning what a secretary does, exclaims "where I'm from, that's called slavery!"  At the most basic level, this is a 21st century joke awkwardly shoehorned into an early 20th century setting.  As modern feminists, we are supposed to disdain secretarial positions (we shall leave aside, for the moment, the question of whether this is actually a feminist stance, and whether there are many feminists who still hold it), while in 1918 the profession, still largely male, would have been seen as prestigious and important (it is, in fact, entirely possible that Etta only has her job because too many of the men who might have taken it have been sent to the front).

    If you look at this exchange more seriously, however, some troubling questions emerge.  How can Diana be completely ignorant of patriarchy, and yet also know what a slave is?  Where exactly do the boundaries of Themyscira's utopia lie?  It's a question that puts me in mind of some of Sarah Mesle's excellent writing about Game of Thrones, and particularly the way the show styles its supposedly badass, egalitarian women.  Who, Mesle asks, is pleating Daenerys Targareyn's skirts?  Who is braiding Arya Stark's hair?  No one who cares about that sort of thing can have missed the elaborate (if functional) hairstyles on almost all the Amazons in Wonder Woman, but even if we assume that the women braid each other's hair, in a show of sisterhood, who tanned Diana's leather training outfit?  Who dyed the bright blue gown of the tutor the young Diana escapes from in the film's opening scene?  The pre-modern Greek civilizations that Themyscira is modeled on ran on slave labor, and particularly when it came to styling high-status women, there would have been an army of lower- and no-status ones working to make the illusion seem effortless.  Is Themyscira perhaps run like a kibbutz, with everyone, low and high, sharing in even the most noxious of tasks?  But if so, then again, how does Diana know what a slave is?

    The answer, of course, is that this is not a thing that the film wants us to think about, and in this it is ultimately no different than most Hollywood products (including, of course, Game of Thrones).  But to go back to that scene with Etta, it's interesting to note what happens after the exchange between her and Diana.  The camera follows as they walk into the department store, and the musical score rises, but it is still possible to hear Etta, having agreed with Diana that she is the equivalent of a slave, go on to explain that "...the pay is rather good."

    So, on the one hand, we have Etta making a 21st century joke about how being a secretary is like being a slave.  And on the other hand, we have the film's obvious belief that Etta is a trailblazer for being a woman who works (with all the issues that attend that form of mid-century, mainstream-friendly feminism, which tends to ignore the fact that women have always worked, just not always in professions with prestige, good conditions, and good pay).  But most importantly, we have Diana falling in with both of these contradictory attitudes, when what she should be decrying as slavery is the very notion that one should have to work to earn the means of survival.

    When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, there was a lot of discussion of Steve Rogers's politics, with some persuasive arguments that Steve, the Brooklyn-born, working-class child of immigrants, would have been at least a socialist if not an all-out communist, in direct opposition to Tony Stark, the benevolent oligarch (four films later, Steve and Tony have devolved into subtly different variations on American imperialism, so it's no wonder that we're looking to Wonder Woman for a fresh start).  But, if we assume that Themyscira is the utopia that it claims to be, then Diana should be even more of a radical than Steve, and her feminism should be inextricably bound up with the kind of anti-capitalism that would obviate both Etta's pride in having secured well-paying work, and the idea that one's work would require you to be constantly at the beck and call of another person.  Obviously, this is putting more thought than the film ever expected me to into a fundamentally thoughtless gag.  But it also feels like the perfect encapsulation of the limitations of Wonder Woman's feminism--of the limitations of any feminism that begins and ends with representation.

  • I've written already about the similarities between Wonder Woman and The First Avenger--as I said on twitter, Wonder Woman feels at points as if it's retelling the Captain America film's story, from the perspective of a Peggy Carter who also happens to be the one with superpowers.  The more I think about it, however, the more it feels as if Wonder Woman is in direct conversation with the earlier movie, and deliberately attempting to address its flaws, particularly when it comes to the depiction of weakness, injury, and loss.  Wonder Woman's variation on the Howling Commandos stands out for its willingness to allow these characters to carry irreparable damage, and to contribute nevertheless.  But the film is perhaps most remarkable for its willingness to accept that people don't have to be able to contribute in order to be valuable--or that their contributions don't have to be related to martial prowess.  The moment in Wonder Woman that most sets the film apart from the superhero films that have come before it, and most effectively establishes who Diana is and what makes her a hero, comes when the shell-shocked sniper Charlie, who froze and was unable to carry out his duties in the previous battle, suggests that he stay behind, because he has nothing to offer.  Without missing a beat, Diana replies: "but Charlie, who will sing for us?"

    By the end of the film, Charlie will of course have picked up his weapon again.  But it's important that this is not signposted as a huge redemptive moment for him.  As far as Wonder Woman is concerned, Charlie doesn't need to be redeemed, or even cured.  His value as a human being, and a friend, is not diminished by his inability to be a soldier.  As I've written many times in the past, I am deeply bothered by the way that superhero stories, and the MCU in particular, depict trauma and disability, often distinguishing good from bad characters by whether they are willing (or able) to overcome their past, and become fighters once more.  The franchise is profoundly uneasy with characters who can't overcome their damage, and particularly those who express their mental health issues in uncomfortable, unattractive ways--consider, for example, the way that Thor: The Dark World plays Erik Selvig's lingering trauma over having been brainwashed by Loki for laughs, while dealing very soberly with Loki's own, more photogenic emotional problems.  Let's not forget that The First Avenger itself is a story about a hero who is weak--one might say disabled or chronically ill--and who is magically cured of his weakness.  Or that the MCU's most consistently incurable character and most obvious analogue to Charlie, Bucky Barnes, is someone the films have never entirely known what to do with, literally sticking him in storage in lieu of facing head-on the full extent of the damage he has sustained.

    There's an obvious caveat here, which is that while Steve Rogers may be cured of his weakness, Diana was born without any.  It's easy for her to tolerate weakness in others when she is literally a goddess herself, and in fact one might argue that the former emerges from the latter--that to Diana, we are all so fundamentally weak that the difference between Charlie and Steve Trevor is essentially meaningless.  But even taking that into account, it still feels incredibly important for Wonder Woman to have taken the time to let Diana be kind, and to let characters like Charlie express their weakness without being expected to overcome it.  (Having said that, it shouldn't be ignored that the film also fails quite badly on the disability front with the character of Dr. Maru, who falls into the risible stereotype of the evil disfigured person.)

  • The more I think about it, the more it feels like the biggest flaw in Wonder Woman, not just as a feminist work but as a film trying to establish Diana as her own unique kind of hero, is the near-total absence of women after Diana leaves Themyscira.  The scenes on the island are powerful, not only giving the film an easy and meaningful Bechdel pass but establishing strong relationships between Diana and her mother and aunt.  But those relationships are effectively closed off when Diana leaves the island.  It is particularly frustrating to see how Steve repeatedly draws on the memory of his father for courage and inspiration, while Diana never even mentions Hippolyta or Antiope after parting from them.

    In the modern world, Diana's relationships with women are brief to the point of nonexistence.  Etta disappears almost as soon as she's introduced.  There is virtually no interaction between Diana and Dr. Maru.  Aside from all the other ways in which this is a problem, it feels utterly unbelievable for Diana, who has spent her whole life surrounded solely by women, to be so comfortable being the only woman in her circle.  She should be seeking out women wherever she goes, inherently more comfortable in their company than she could ever be around Steve or the other men in their group.  Nor should there have been any shortage of women with whom she could have interacted--WWI offered great scope for women outside the confines of the domestic, as nurses, factory workers, even spies.  If there's one thing that I want future Wonder Woman movies (or, for that matter, future Justice League movies) to address, it is the paucity of relationships between Diana and other women.

  • Like, I suspect, most viewers (who don't know a great deal about WWI), I assumed that the villain of Wonder Woman, Ludendorff, was an invented character.  I was surprised--and impressed--to discover that he was based on a real WWI general, and even more intrigued after I read his wikipedia entry.  The real Erich Ludendorff was one of the most influential figures in wartime Germany, essentially running large parts of the war and of the country's economy.  Unlike his film analogue, he supported an armistice, but only because he saw no hope for victory.  But he also saw Germany's defeat as a humiliation, both personal and national, and was further outraged by the Treaty of Versailles.

    Though not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff was absolutely a fellow-traveler to them.  He coined the "stab in the back" myth, which blamed Germany's loss in the war on internal sabotage by Jews and communists.  When the Nazis emerged in the 20s, Ludendorff was sympathetic to them, even having cordial meetings with Hitler, and he supported the abortive Beer Hall Putsch.  After the Nazi party was outlawed following the putsch, Ludendorff represented the National Socialist Freedom Movement in the German parliament, made out of former Nazis and members of the German Völkisch Freedom Party.  Even his personal philosophy sounds like the origin story of the Red Skull:
    Ludendorff was a Social Darwinist who believed that war was the "foundation of human society," and that military dictatorship was the normal form of government in a society in which every resource must be mobilized.[63] The historian Margaret Lavinia Anderson notes that after the war, Ludendorff wanted Germany to go to war against all of Europe, and that he became a pagan worshiper of the Nordic god Wotan (Odin); he detested not only Judaism, but also Christianity, which he regarded as a weakening force.[64]
    I mention all this not just because it's interesting, but because it casts the film's depiction of its villains in a new and intriguing light.  There's been a lot of discussion of Wonder Woman's choice to frame Germans as the "bad guys" in WWI, with some commentators lamenting a simplification of history that depicts all German villains as Nazis, and others arguing that the film's choice of WWI as its setting was a deliberate attempt to avoid an easy categorization into heroes and villains.  But as Ludendorff's history shows, the issue is more complicated.  While not a Nazi himself, Ludendorff sympathized with and supported the Nazis' goals and philosophies.  What's more, his post-war career reminds us that the Nazis were not the only fascist, racist movement to emerge in Germany, and that the ideas that drove them found fruitful ground in many levels of society.

    Especially right now, it feels important to me to point out that Nazi-esque evil is not restricted to just those people who wear the right uniforms and make the right salutes (this is one of the reasons why the "Hydra are Nazis!" conversation that has emerged in response to Marvel Comics's bizarre pandering to the far-right has struck me as oversimplified and frustrating).  In every society, there are always going to be racist, authoritarian, anti-democratic groups, that worship power and believe that things like human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression are, at best, effete luxuries, and at worst, threats to the nation.  Whether they're the Nazis or the KKK or the alt-right, the danger that these groups pose is not in themselves, but in the possibility that the population as a whole will enable them, ignoring the danger they pose or even voting them into power.  The narrative of Economic Anxiety that most of us have been taught about the Nazis' rise isn't entirely inaccurate, but it elides the degree to which people wanted the Nazis in power because they wanted to feel powerful, because the allure of authoritarianism and violence is ever-present, especially when fanned with hysteria about Those People.

    To be clear, there isn't a great deal of this in Wonder Woman, and in fact I'm disappointed that the film leaves out so much of Ludendorff's actual personality (there's also the fact that with both Ludendorff and Hindenburg dead at the end of the movie, one might expect the history of the world in the DC cinematic universe to have progressed very differently from ours).  But I think the seeds of what I've described here are in the movie--the idea that it isn't one particular fascist philosophy that we should be worried about, but an entire cluster of nationalistic, authoritarian movements, and more than that, the impulse towards war and conquest.  It's hard to know how much we can expect future Wonder Woman movies to espouse the pacifist philosophy that the film ends on--this is, after all, a genre that runs not just on violence, but on the idea that violence can be good, even redemptive.  But Wonder Woman itself certainly comes closer to doing so than almost any superhero story in recent memory.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review: Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock at Strange Horizons

My review of Anne Charnock's third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time, is up at Strange Horizons.  I took this review as an opportunity to air some of my frustration at one of the most glaring blind spots of science fiction (and perhaps fiction and public discourse in general), pregnancy and fertility.  A genre that likes to imagine that it will dismantle any commonplace of modern life, and ask how changing it changes humanity, has been deafeningly silent on one of the most basic, common human experiences.  It's as if science fiction writers believe that there's nothing to change or innovate when it comes to how we create children, even as the real-world state of pregnancy undergoes massive upheavals due to public ignorance and indifference.

It's perhaps because of my eagerness for science fiction that engages with fertility that I found Dreams Before the Start of Time a little underwhelming.  Some of what Charnock does in this book, which follows several families over the course of nearly a century, as each generation grapples with how they want to create the next, is very interesting.  But taken as a whole, Dreams is too focused on the personal, on pregnancy as a personal choice that the characters can agonize over--and then be blamed for by their children.  The political and social forces that shape how pregnancy is viewed and experienced, meanwhile, feel muted.  To a certain extent that's me blaming Dreams for not being the book I wanted it to be, but I continue to feel that the book I wanted is essential, and sadly absent.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 25

This bunch of movies is something of a transitional group--a few of the early blockbusters of the year, but also some of last year's art-house movies that only made it into Israeli movie theaters recently, and one movie that I wasn't expecting to see here at all.  The coming summer doesn't have much that appeals to me (though I was excited to learn, just today, that both Colossal and The Big Sick have scheduled Israeli releases), so this might end up being the most intriguing group of movies I see for some time.
  • Get Out - It's a bit of a shame to come to Jordan Peele's blockbusting debut film so long after its release, given that its topic, twists, and most memorable moments have been the subject of so much discussion (not to mention GIF-ing and meme-ifying) in the intervening months.  I would have loved to approach Get Out knowing a lot less about it (but then, until very recently it was quite unusual for Israeli film distributors to even purchase films by or about African-Americans, so I guess even a delayed release is something to celebrate).  Still, even knowing what to expect, there's a lot to enjoy and admire here, both the audacity of creating a film that melds the horror genre and the real-life horror of racism and racially motivated violence so seamlessly, and the skill with which that melding is accomplished.  In its early scenes, Get Out feels like a pitch-perfect dark comedy of social awkwardness, as photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, excellent) nervously accompanies his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) on a weekend visit to her family, uncertain what to expect in a white enclave where he is likely to be the only black presence.  Chris's interactions with Rose's parents, Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), initially balance on the knife's edge between well-meaning cluelessness (Dean assuring Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have) and something more sinister.  The more Chris sees of the neighborhood, however, the more suspicious it seems, and particularly his interactions with the few black members of the community: Dean and Missy's servants Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), or friend of the family Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), whose behavior grows increasingly creepy and inhuman as the film draws on.

    Peele has such a perfect grasp on the slowly mounting tension and wrongness in the Chris-focused parts of the film, that the ones that move away from him can feel slack in comparison (in particular, a plot strand involving Chris's friend Rod (LiRel Howery), who grows suspicious of Chris's reports, is very funny, but could have stood to be pared down significantly).  When the film returns to the family home, however, it is a perfect engine of suspense, black humor, and keen social observations.  The core conceit of Get Out is, of course, overturning the racist trope in which the black interloper endangers an innocent white family, by reversing the direction of danger.  But even knowing that going in, I couldn't help but gasp at some of the ways Peele found to express that idea, such as the fact that Chris is literally auctioned off by his hosts (the slow revelation of what's actually going on in this scene is one of the film's most shocking and brilliantly executed directorial flourishes), or the realization, as sirens sound in the distance in the film's final moments, that Chris may be in as much danger from the cops coming to his rescue, who might automatically see him as the assailant, as he was from the people trying to kill him.  But the most audacious and provocative twist Peele makes to his premise is to reveal that the danger Chris is placed in is motivated not by straightforward hatred of black people, but by the fetishization of them and their bodies.  The people he ends up running from desperately want to be black, while feeling so secure in their privilege that they are unable to even imagine the danger that can sometimes pose for real black people--a danger they end up embodying.  It's a rich, heady examination of the inherent contradictions and irrationality of racism, wrapped in a genuinely thrilling and engaging story.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - The second Guardians of the Galaxy film is sentimental, self-indulgent, and very heavily dependent on the twin crutches of its catchy soundtrack and jokes that seem cleverer than they actually are.  It's also a lot of fun--at least while you're watching it--largely because of a still-game cast, psychedelic visuals, and some genuinely exciting action scenes.  The actual plot is overstuffed, but circles mostly around manchild Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) being reunited with his father, Ego (Kurt Russell), a living planet who has taken the form of a man, and whose plans for Peter quickly turn out to be sinister.  There's the hint of a genuinely interesting idea in Ego's dilemma, as an all-powerful immortal who desperately searches for meaning to his existence, and lands on something monstrous but, in its own way, understandable.  But Vol. 2 is much more interested in Ego as an engine for Peter's never-ending daddy issues, to which end it also brings back Michael Rooker's Yondu, the brusque space-pirate who raised Peter, and who spends the last act of the film fighting with Ego over the titles of good and bad dad.  The whole thing looks rather silly and, again, self-indulgent if you think about it for very long, but it works in the moment, largely because Pratt manages to sell Peter's vulnerability and craving for a father-figure without ever surrendering his inherent immaturity and silliness.  (The same, unfortunately, can't be said of Dave Bautista's Drax, who like Peter is meant to be both clueless and deeply damaged, but whose humor in this movie mainly comes off as mean and unpleasant.)

    The other Guardians get their own storylines--Gamora (Zoe Saldana) continues to fight with her adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan); Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes people away with obnoxious behavior; and Groot (Vin Diesel) is going through the stages of tree-person development.  It's good that Vol. 2 works so hard to give each member of the team their turn in the spotlight, while also introducing new member Mantis (Pom Klementieff), as well as several new locales and potentially recurring characters (certainly the film does a much better job of juggling multiple main characters and settings than either Civil War or Age of Ultron).  But with each of these storylines being just as heavy-handed as the main one, the ultimate result is both overwrought, and not entirely earned.  It's nice, for example, that Gamora spends most of her on-screen time with Nebula (which also means that Vol. 2 has the most meaningful Bechdel pass of probably any MCU movie), but their shared scenes, which reveal more of the horrors they endured as the adopted daughters of Thanos, only reinforce the impression created by the first film, that Gamora's well-adjusted, even slightly boring personality makes no sense--except as the film needs her to be the adult to Peter's child.  And even when the film's subplots land, Vol. 2 doesn't have a strong control of its tone.  Like its predecessor, it bills itself as cheeky but heartwarming, but what shows up on screen is often much darker, and all the more so for going unacknowledged.  An excessively long sequence in which Yondu's men mutiny, for example, leading first to his supporters being spaced, and then to the mutineers being killed off one by one by Yondu to the sounds a jaunty tune, is weirdly graphic and brutal.  And yet the film clearly means for us to find it cool, or even funny.  It's a good thing that Vol. 2 is so ephemeral, slipping from your fingers even as you step out of the movie theater; thinking about it more than a little reveals some pretty disturbing stuff beneath the surface.

  • To Walk Invisible - I don't know why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie, since it combines so many things I like: the writing of Sally Wainwright, of Happy Valley fame; stories about prickly women artists who keep plugging on despite the obstacles piled in their path; and the Brontë sisters.  Once I sat down to watch the film itself, however, I found its structural choices a bit strange, perhaps even offputting.  To Walk Invisible focuses on the period between 1846 and 1848, when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie, and Charlie Murphy) decided to focus seriously on their writing as a potential career, encouraging and advising one another on their work, and sending it out to publishers under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.  But it frames that story through the narrative of the final deterioration of the only Brontë son, Branwell (Adam Nagaitis).  The film begins as he returns home, after having been dismissed from a his position as a tutor for having an affair with his employer's wife.  It follows him as he sinks into depression and alcoholism, and ends with his death.

    The film paints a chilling portrait of the agony of living with an addict who won't even try to get better--the queasy combination of frustration, pity, resentment, and love the sisters feel for their brother, especially since, even in his dissipation, he is considered more respectable, and more capable, than they are simply because of his gender.  But because Branwell's actions--drinking and whoring and haranguing his father (Jonathan Pryce) for money--are inherently more dramatic than the sisters' writing, or their silent rage and frustration with him, he can end up taking an outsized role in a story that doesn't belong to him.  Even more disturbingly, the juxtaposition between Branwell's downward spiral and the sisters' success can end up feeling rather moralistic--Branwell is a failure because he won't "get over" serious emotional problems, while his hardworking sisters triumph because they persevere in the face of profound discouragement.  This isn't wrong, obviously--and the film even makes the point that part of the reason Branwell is so fragile is that he's been taught to think only of himself, while his sisters were trained to work hard without the expectation of reward and recognition--but by the end of the story there seems to be a tinge of gloating to the way the film contrasts the male and female Brontës.  It feels particularly pointed that the film ends with Branwell's death, and only informs us that Emily and Anne followed him soon after in its end titles.  Especially when you recall that one of the causes of Emily's death was her refusal to accept medical attention until it was too late.

    All that said, there is still a great deal to enjoy in To Walk Invisible, and particularly the way that it draws each of the sisters as her own unique person, whose personality is reflected in the work she ends up producing.  Charlotte is deeply ambitious, and most able to clearly articulate the frustration of being discounted because of her gender.  Emily is short-tempered and hard-headed, perhaps the most purely talented of the three sisters, but also the one most afraid of exposing herself to public judgment.  Anne is outwardly conciliatory, but also has the keenest social awareness, and is eager to use her writing to advance social causes.  The depiction of writing as work, and of publishing as a business, are not only engaging in themselves, but set up the film's best and most moving scene, when Charlotte presents herself at her publisher's office to quash the rumors that the Bell siblings are all the same person.  Watching her be met first by befuddlement, and then with total, unabashed fannishness is gratifying twice over.  As someone who has been watching Charlotte struggle both professionally and personally, it's wonderful to finally see her get the recognition she deserves.  And as a reader, it's marvelous to imagine how it might be for an author you deeply admire to simply walk into your workplace one day.  If I remain dubious about some of To Walk Invisible's framing choices, its commitment to the idea that the Brontë sisters were remarkable artists, worthy of celebration, is certainly laudable and worth watching for.

  • Paterson - For about its first half hour, it's hard not to feel a sense of slight puzzlement towards Jim Jarmusch's most recent movie.  What is it about this gentle but repetitive film, about the life of a bus driver and his wife, that enraptured so many critics?  Once you get into the rhythm of Paterson, though, the magic of it becomes apparent, though not very easy to explain.  Set over the course of a week, Paterson follows its title character (Adam Driver) as he goes about his routine in the New Jersey town whose name he shares.  He wakes up early in the morning, eats breakfast, walks to work, drives the #23 bus back and forth across town, walks home, eats dinner with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahni), walks their dog, and stops at his local bar for a beer.  In between these mundane actions, Paterson observes the sights of his town, listens to the conversations between his passengers, and interacts with friends and strangers, all of which inspire him to write poetry, which he jots down in a notebook he carries with him.  Nor is Paterson the only artist in the movie.  Throughout the week he runs into other poets, from a little girl to a Japanese tourist to an aspiring rapper, all of whom take the time to observe the world, and try to put something new in it.  Laura, meanwhile, is bursting with talent and creativity, experimenting with everything from fashion to music to cookery, but unable to decide on a single direction.  There's an obvious risk that a movie with this premise will fall into the trap of treating its subjects like an anthropological curiosity: a bus driver who writes poetry!  Working class people with dreams of being taken seriously as artists!  But instead Paterson makes its premise seem not just unremarkable, but entirely inevitable.  It puts us so thoroughly in its protagonist's head that we start to see the world through his eyes, and to see how the things and people he encounters can only be captured through poetry.  It's a feeling that persists even after you walk out of the movie theater--the belief that even in the mundane, there is something worth creating art over.

  • Wonder Woman - Plot-wise, DC's latest movie--and, amazingly, the very first superhero movie in the decade-old "expanded universe" craze to star a woman--is not much to write home about.  Its opening segment on the island of Themyscira is overlong and stuffed with portentous pronouncements (though it does feature the film's most distinctive action sequence, in which a legion of Amazons on horseback battle a boatload of pistol-packing German infantry soldiers).  The rest of the movie, after heroine Diana (Gal Gadot) leaves her home with crash-landed spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in order to bring an end to WWI, feels almost like a remake of Captain America: The First Avenger, and especially because, despite some solid action scenes, Wonder Woman doesn't really have a signature moment along the lines of Winter Soldier's elevator fight.  None of which is intended as a criticism of this movie, but more an observation that its strengths lie elsewhere than plot.

    Near the top of any list of those strengths would be the characters.  Gadot plays up the young Diana's naivete without ever losing sight of her innate heroism.  Neither the audience nor the characters around her ever doubt that Diana is a born hero, but she also spends the movie in genuine dismay at the cruelty and suffering of the first modern war, and her conviction that this is all the work of the war god Ares, and that all she needs to do is kill him in order to restore peace to the world, grows thinner and less persuasive as the story progresses.  One might expect Pine's Steve to be a cynical contrast to Diana's idealism, but instead his is merely a more mature, more compromised version of her belief in the need to do everything possible to save lives.  (As much as I liked Steve as a character, one can't help but notice how much space Wonder Woman gives him, and how much of a role he has in moving the story and helping Diana develop into a hero, compared to female love interests.  In particular, it feels as if the film ends up downplaying the romance between the two in favor of giving Steve his own story in a way that would never have happened with, say, Peggy Carter.)  The band of misfits the two collect in their quest to destroy a poison gas production site, while obviously based on the Howling Commandos, is compelling for being more obviously damaged: a French-Muslim charlatan who dreamed of being an actor but couldn't make it because of his race (Saïd Taghmaoui), a shell-shocked Scottish sniper (Ewen Bremner), and a Native American smuggler who pointedly observes that he is following the lead of a man whose people exterminated his own (Eugene Brave Rock).  That these unappreciated denizens of the demimonde are nevertheless willing to risk their lives for the greater good--and that Diana recognizes their heroism even when it is curtailed by their various weaknesses--is a powerful statement that hardly any other superhero movie has made.

    Being willing, even eager, to accept the damaged and the flawed is, in fact, Wonder Woman's greatest strength, and the thing that most sets it apart from The First Avenger.  When I first heard that the film was going to have a WWI setting, I assumed that this would be a fig leaf, and that it would nevertheless treat its German villains as cod-Nazis.  Instead, Wonder Woman faces head on the senseless slaughter of the first world war, the fact that there were no right sides in this dispute, and no clear-cut villains (in fact, the actual villains of the film's superhero plot--Danny Huston as a German general who refuses the proposed armistice, and Elena Anaya as a chemist developing new poisons--barely even register compared to the impersonal evil of modern warfare).  Against this much suffering, even a superhero might quail, and indeed the core question of Wonder Woman is what its heroine can (and should) do to save the world from itself--a question that it handles with more nuance and delicacy than the Captain America movies, refusing to blame the ills of the world on a single villain or an infiltration of evil, while insisting that humanity is still worth fighting for.  Diana herself is simultaneously unequal to the challenges set before her, and a figure of hope and inspiration whose strength lies, in no small part, in her refusal to accept that she can't save everyone.  Another way of putting it is that Wonder Woman earns the tone of bleak hopelessness that infected the previous Justice League movies--Diana's experiences actually justify the loss of faith in humanity that both Batman and Superman take as their starting position.  And yet this is by no means a hopeless movie, but rather one that powers through hopelessness, the recognition that there is evil in the hearts of men that no superhero can vanquish, and nevertheless lands on the choice to continue fighting.  I don't know if future DC movies will follow in Wonder Woman's ideological footsteps, but they might be wise to, as it lays out a template for setting themselves apart from the MCU while still remaining recognizably heroic.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 43

The first few months of 2017 reading have not been as breathtaking as the comparable period in 2016.  Nevertheless, the feeling of having gotten my reading mojo back persists, and this list of recent reads, a mostly-literary bunch (a lot of my recent genre reading has been for my New Scientist column, and you can find my thoughts on those books there) with a few awards contenders and interesting also-rans thrown in, represents a strong first half of the year.  At least one of these books, I think, will end up on my year's favorite list, and almost all of the others are books I'm glad I took the time to read.

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer - It's interesting that in the space of a single year, Tor published two debut novels about non-dystopian, non-corporatist future societies in which the boundaries of national and ethnic identity have been replaced by global affinity groups, to which people assign themselves according to their interests and philosophy.  For all my reservations about its technothriller plot, I have to say that I prefer Malka Older's Infomocracy to Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, largely because I find the world in that book more interesting, and more believable as a place where people like me might possibly live.  There's no denying that Palmer's project is more ambitious than Older's.  She plays more elaborate games with narrative voice, telling the story through the eyes of Mycroft Canner, a criminal sentenced to a lifetime of community service for a crime whose details we don't learn until fairly late in the novel, but whose skills as an analyst have put him in the path of the great and good of the society of the 25th century.  Obsessed with the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and convinced that he is writing for the edification of some far-future civilization even more advanced than his own, Mycroft is a vain fame-hound, who seeks constantly to impress us with the quality and power of the people he rubs shoulders with.  More crucially, he is convinced by the Great Man theory of history, and the portrait he paints of his society is driven by emperors, CEOs, and grey eminences that, to his way of thinking, have shaped civilization through the sheer power of their greatness.  Reading Too Like the Lightning is thus an exercise in trying to see past Mycroft's point of view, and determine how much of what he tells us of his world is accurate, and how much his own fabrication.

    It's an interesting exercise, and Palmer's skill at creating such an unpleasant, fawning creature as Mycroft (who is nevertheless smart and capable), is to be lauded.  But none of this gets past my core problem with the book--that I did not for a minute believe in the society Palmer created in it.  Palmer's world is supposedly divided into several massive "hives", whose members are dedicated to certain principles or projects--the Humanists seeks to perfect themselves, excelling in sports or martial arts; the Utopians seek constant scientific progress and are the only group still interested in space exploration; while the pan-Asian Mitsubishi clan believes that excellence can be achieved by amassing land.  But these all feel like concepts, not real societies, an impression that is not helped by Mycroft's myopic focus on the most powerful and influential members of each group.  Despite claiming to be a society of billions, the world of Too Like the Lightning never feels as if there are more than a few hundred people living in it.  Its systems feel more like a thought experiment than something that might be able to run the lives of huge numbers of people, and its institutions appear to be driven by a few remarkable individuals, not the thousands of busy public servants that run Infomocracy's various government bodies, where even the most powerful and influential officers are merely cogs in the machine.  It's possible that Palmer isn't reaching for realism in the same way that Older was, and that the thought experiment nature of her novel is deliberate.  But if so, I find it hard to understand to what end, and what the experiment is meant to prove or demonstrate.  There are some interesting ideas here and there--the profound hostility that this society feels towards organized religion, to the extent that theological discussion involving more than three people are prohibited, lest they devolve into a church; or the "nurturist" faction, formed in opposition to the practice of raising children to function as, essentially, living computers, but whose philosophy could just as easily be extended to argue that it is child abuse to assign a baby a gender, a religion, or a nationality.  But none of these are sufficiently developed, and more importantly, there's never a sense that they are topics of public debate, so much as philosophical disagreements that the Great People we meet through Mycroft ponder in their salons.

    Too Like the Lightning is the first in a quartet, and the book itself is only half a story, which makes it even more difficult to gain a sense of what Palmer's project is.  Conversely, it makes it a lot easier to be annoyed by certain aspects of the book and its narrator, such as Mycroft's obsession with race and gender.  His descriptions of characters almost never fail to include fetishizing details of their racial heritage that seem almost to treat them like thoroughbred horses, remarking on this person's distinctive Indian hair or that person's dominant Asian facial features.  As for gender, the book's society seems mostly embarrassed by the topic; the dominant pronoun is "they" and it's considered impolite to gender a person except in intimate situations.  Mycroft, however, genders people constantly, according to his own system.  He seems to expect us to be shocked by the fairly common-sense notion that a person's gender identity and expression don't have to be related to what's in their pants (the contents of which utterly consumes him), but in so doing he regresses to the most clichéd and essentialist definitions of gendered behavior--a man whose default mode is borderline sexual assault, a woman who simpers and bats her eyes to get what she wants.  Like so much about Mycroft, the discomfort that this arouses is clearly deliberate, but the larger system of the world seems to affirm Mycroft's assumptions, as when we discover that a gendered "underground" exists in reaction to the world's rejection of gender, headquartered in a brothel where women are taught to seduce powerful men as the only means of attaining power themselves.  Even the book's ending, which sets up a sort of "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" dilemma that has surely been chewed to death many times already, feels juvenile, calculated to shock rather than provoke real thought.  There's no question that Palmer has an ambitious, unique project planned with this series, but based on the first installment, I'm struggling to come up with a reason to keep going with it.

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid - Hamid's fable about immigration and refugees has a premise that puts one in mind of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad--at the same time that war, economic collapse, and climate change are making refugees of more and more people, doors start appearing in disadvantaged parts of the world, transporting the people who pass through them to safer, richer countries, where their appearance is treated almost like a natural disaster.  But--leaving aside that a comparison to Whitehead's magnificent novel would be unkind to almost anyone, even a writer as assured as Hamid--this fantastical device turns out to be less central to Exit West than I had expected.  Far more important to the book's effect is the way that Hamid works to anonymize and universalize the phenomenon of refugeeism, and the experience of being torn from your home.  While the book repeatedly stresses that its heroes, young couple Saeed and Nadia, are Muslims from a Muslim country, it also works hard to remind us that very little of what they experience is different or new.  The book's opening chapters, in which Nadia and Saeed meet and fall in love against the backdrop of their city teetering on the cusp of all-out war, are affecting precisely because the life they describe is so familiar.  In one chapter, our heroes are living a perfectly normal, modern life, the war in their country a constant background hum that has not yet touched their lives.  A few chapters later, they are stockpiling food from rapidly-emptying supermarkets, barricading windows to protect from stray bullets, and frantically trying to get out.

    After Nadia and Saeed leave through the doors and arrive in Europe, Exit West becomes a narrative of the toll that leaving your home in such an abrupt, total way can have on a person and a relationship.  Nadia flourishes under the challenges of her new life, relishing the opportunity to live more freely than she could have in her home.  Saeed, on the other hand, turns inwards, the loss of his home and way of life turning him prematurely old, and nearly curdling him with nostalgia.  Exit West is as much a love story as it is a political one, but it's a love story about how love is often situational.  The challenges that Saeed and Nadia face as refugees are not the challenges they would have faced as a couple in their own country, and their relationship grows, changes, and ultimately fails in response to those challenges.  Despite the sad end of its romance, Exit West is a deeply kind, hopeful novel, veering towards outright science fiction in its final chapters, when it imagines a new order to a world in which the doors exist, and in which it is easy for people to change their location and situation.  It holds out hope that we will be able to see each other as people, not nationalities, and that those who are forced to leave their homes will be able to build new ones elsewhere.

  • What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi - Oyeyemi's first short story collection (or second if you count the linked story cycle Mr. Fox, though that volume feels much more coherent and of a single piece to me) feels a little like an opportunity for this brilliant author to try on different hats.  The evocation of dark, nested fairy tales feels like Oyeyemi channeling Angela Carter.  The wry surrealism, inflected by pop culture references, feels inspired by Kelly Link.  And the stories that focus on Cambridge students, usually immigrants or the children of, reminded me a great deal of Zen Cho.  All of which is to say that Oyeyemi's voice isn't as distinctive here as it was in Mr. Fox or White is For Witching, but nevertheless she makes the stories in What is Not Yours is Not Yours her own.  Some stories here are more self-contained than others, and feel like complete statements in their own right.  "'Sorry' Doesn't Sweeten Her Tea" describes a young father's bewildered helplessness as his teenage daughters observe the parade of public hand-wringing, victim-blaming, and excuse-making after an idol of theirs is accused of domestic abuse; "Presence" is about a couple, both on their nth marriage and struggling with the impulse to run for the door at the first sign of trouble, who test a new technology meant to alleviate the pain of the bereaved; "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society" is about a long-term campus war between a men's-only social club and the women who refuse to be invited to it.  Other pieces are discursive, to a point that feels almost in-jokey.  "Books and Roses" is a set of nested stories in which one can feel oneself being dragged further down and down with no real hope of coming up for air.  "Is Your Blood as Red as This?", about a group of students at a prestigious puppetry academy, switches points of view and focus several times without really converging on a point.  The result feels a little bit as if Oyeyemi is tooling around--which, to be clear, is by no means a reason not to read the collection, since she's a wonderful, insightful, and often quite funny writer.  But it means that What is Not Yours is Not Yours feels a lot less focused and purposeful than Oyeyemi's novels, more like a series of experiments than the more polished work I'm used to seeing from her.

  • Azanian Bridges by Nick Wood - Set in an alternate South Africa in which apartheid never ended, Wood's novel switches between the points of view of a psychologist and his patient.  Martin has invented an "Empathy Engine", a machine designed to allow users to experience the lives of others as their own, or project their own experiences.  As his first test subject, he chooses Sibusiso, a young man who sank into depression and PTSD after witnessing the death of a friend at an anti-apartheid demonstration.  Soon, political forces learn about the device and try to co-opt it--the government's Special Branch want Martin to give it to them to use it as an interrogation tool, and Sibusiso's friends at the ANC try to convince him that its effects can finally topple the repressive, racist regime they've been struggling under.  Both men end up on the run, and Martin in particular is forced to acknowledge how insufficient his thoughtless, ineffectual liberalism has been in a country in which doing nothing means participating in a gross injustice.

    Though it's great to see more (English-language) science fiction novels set in Africa and dealing with issues specific to that continent, Azanian Bridges is weakest where it deals with SFnal topics.  The alternate reality in which apartheid persists into the 21st century feels tissue-thin, not really bothering to imagine, except in the most general terms, how either the country or the world would have to look for that to be the case.  Perhaps Wood felt that he needed to set the novel in the present, rather than the 70s or 80s, in order to justify the technology that drives its plot, but the result feels neither here nor there.  The role that 21st century technologies like the internet, cell phones, and social media play in political conflict is downplayed, and the terms in which apartheid is expressed feel similar to the ones you'd find in a contemporary narrative (though, to be fair, my knowledge about this period is extremely limited, so there may very well be nuances to Wood's updating that I'm missing).  The book is much stronger in its depiction of the mundane, chiefly Sibusiso's mental health crisis, and Martin's difficulty in treating it (perhaps unsurprising, since Wood is a therapist himself).  Sibusiso's illnesses are real and require treatment, but they also emerge from a political reality, and Martin's refusal to acknowledge that--to see his patient's problems as anything beyond purely personal, even dismissing Sibusiso's expressions of distrust as "identity politics"--makes it impossible to effectively treat him.  The novel also raises the question of what it even means for Sibusiso to submit to treatment in a white-dominated system, one where he has every expectation of being spied upon by the people charged with his care, whose definition of good mental health inevitably includes discouraging him from future political activity, and which ultimately cares so little about him that Martin is able to skirt ethics regulations in testing the Empathy Engine on him, because there are fewer protections around a black patient.

    Towards its end, Azanian Bridges begins to weave together the realistic and SFnal parts its story, even if it never manages do so completely.  The book doesn't give quite enough time to the assertion made by Martin and the ANC, that technologically-induced empathy can arouse the real thing (in fact, considering that Martin's story requires him to go out of his comfort zone, interacting with black South Africans and ANC operatives, one could very easily take Azanian Bridges as an argument for the old-fashioned kind of empathy-building exercises).  In its final chapters, it raises the genuinely intriguing notion of distributing the Empathy Engine as a video game, where users get points for being able to empathize with others, and especially those who are demographically different from them.  But this feels like an aside to the more personal, mundane story of Martin and Sibusiso's attempts to escape government attention.  Azanian Bridges feels more like a political novel with science fiction touches than a science fiction novel, but the former--and particularly its emphasis on the issues of mental health under repressive regimes--is still worth the price of admission.

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - It was surprising to learn that Saunders, after decades as a highly-lauded short-story writer, was going to try his hand at a novel.  And therefore it's perhaps not surprising to crack open Lincoln in the Bardo and learn that it stretches the definition of "novel" almost to its breaking point.  Some chapters in this book are less fiction than collage, with Saunders copying a sentence here, two sentences there from biographies, letters, and historical works (some real and some invented) about Civil War-era DC and the Lincoln white house.  Some of these fragments work together to create a complete picture, though sometimes they sit side-by-side, completely contradicting one another.  Even in the completely fictionalized chapters, Saunders switches almost frantically, every paragraph or handful of sentences, from one point of view to another, so that the book feels almost like a screenplay: all narrative, no description.  I found myself wondering, in fact, whether Lincoln in the Bardo wouldn't work better as a play or a radio drama (and indeed, the audiobook version appears to have been a major production, with different actors voicing each character, including such names as Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, and Keegan-Michael Key).  Either way, it's a style that can take a little while to get used to, but once you do, achieves the otherworldly, cacophonous effect the novel is aiming at perfectly.

    The action of the book takes place over a single night in 1862, in a Georgetown cemetery where, earlier that day, Willie Lincoln, the president's third son, was laid to rest after succumbing to typhoid fever.  Grief-stricken, the president returns to the cemetery to commune with his son's body, unaware that all around him, the spirits of the dead, including Willie, are in disarray.  The spirits who still linger in the cemetery are the ones who have refused to move on, unwilling to admit that they are dead, hung up on mortal regrets, or simply terrified of what awaits them if they submit to a final judgment (despite the "bardo" in the title, the cosmology of this book's afterlife is largely Christian in nature, with eternal reward or punishment awaiting the dead, rather than reincarnation).  The novel thus switches between the narratives of different ghosts, telling us their stories and reasons for staying behind (in that sense, it reminded me a little of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, which also brings up Lincoln in connection to one of its dead narrators).  But it also develops a narrative, with three of the ghosts--a middle-aged printer longing for the young wife with whom he had just started to fall in love after years of marriage; a gay student who committed suicide after romantic rejection, only to realize too late the beauty of the world he was giving up; and a priest who knows that hellfire awaits him but has no idea why--trying to convince Willie to move on, because children who linger in the bardo are quickly driven insane, while Willie insists that his father will come back for him, and that he must therefore wait.

    Lincoln in the Bardo is thus a tale of enlightenment--of Willie, who must grow up quickly and make his own decisions; of the ghosts who have become consumed by regret, and must remember how to live in the present if they are to still do some good in the world; and of Lincoln himself, who struggles with his personal grief and the knowledge that the nation needs him to overcome it and lead.  On that last count, the novel is a little wobbly, as Saunders himself must eventually acknowledge.  He has Lincoln, on the one hand, learn to cope with his grief by realizing that everyone is suffering, and that the correct response to this is not to elevate one's own grief above others' but to treat everyone with kindness.  But on the other hand, Lincoln finding his way out of crippling grief also means that he is free to continue waging a brutal war that, however just, has already cost thousands of lives and will go on to cost hundreds of thousands more.  If Saunders can't exactly be blamed for not finding a way out of a philosophical conundrum that has flummoxed thinkers for millennia, he also undermines his attempts to square that circle by not giving nearly as much space to the voices of black people and slaves as he does to white characters.  Though the cemetery abuts a potter's field where black people were buried (and where the unquiet dead of that community still linger), these characters, and their narratives of suffering in life and being discarded in death, are secondary to the book's plot, a side-dish rather than the main meal.  Especially right now, telling a story about Lincoln and the Civil War has a political significance that Saunders doesn't entirely own up to, instead focusing on Lincoln the man and the symbol.  It's a choice that can end up making Lincoln in the Bardo feel a little lightweight, even as it fully accomplishes what it set out to do.  As a work in its own right, however, it is, like most of the Saunders stories I've read, beautifully written, clever, surreal, and quite funny.

  • The Emperor's Babe and Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo - Evaristo, and these two novels in particular, have been on my radar (and in my TBR stack) for a long time.  That's it taken me so long to get to them is at least in part down to both books' outlandish, perhaps even gimmicky premises.  In both cases, this is the sort of thing that either really works, or really doesn't.  The Emperor's Babe, for example, tells the story of Zuleika, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants in third century London (or rather, Londinium), who marries upwards when she catches the eye of a Roman official.  When he leaves for the heart of the empire for months on end, she finds herself living in bored luxury, until she catches the eye of the visiting emperor Septimius Severus.  Oh, and it's also a novel in verse, whose rhymes shift effortlessly between Latin, Cockney rhyming slang, and AAVE.  The audacity of the exercise--and Evaristo's skill at carrying it off--would be more than enough in their own right, but The Emperor's Babe is delightful for the deliberately wrongfooting portrait it paints of Roman-era London, as a place that is both familiar--a city of immigrants, a melting pot of cultures, a place where young people can break away from tradition and discover new ways of being--and completely foreign.  The moments where Zuleika's voice seems to slide across the centuries, making references to modern technology or celebrity culture, are a deliberate rebuke to our perception of the past as stately and dignified.  But so are the moments when her concerns turn out to be universal: her boredom, the trauma she carries from having been married off (and raped) at a very young age, her desire for something, either love or artistic achievement, to call her own.  It's almost enough to distract from the fact that the affair itself, and Severus as a character, are rather thinly sketched.  Partly this is the point--Zuleika loves the idea of being in love more than she loves her lover--but Evaristo also rushes through the affair and its aftermath in a way that she doesn't when simply allowing her heroine and setting to exist.  The novel's heart is clearly in the idea of third century London as a city much like the one we know, and The Emperor's Babe is at its best when it focuses on that.

    Blonde Roots has a similarly eyebrow-raising premise, but this one worked less well for me.  In the novel's world, the arrow of slavery pointed in the opposite direction, with African traders buying European prisoners to be sold as servants and field workers in Africa and its American colonies (here called West Japan).  Our narrator is Doris (renamed Omorenomwara by her captors), who after decades of enslavement in the home of a slave ship captain and plantation owner, takes a chance to escape.  In parallel storylines, we follow her escape attempt and what comes after, and the story of how she was captured and what her life as a slave was like.  As in The Emperor's Babe, one has to applaud Evaristo's audacity, as well as the skill with which she constructs her world.  But Blonde Roots's hold on its tone is a great deal more tenuous than in the earlier novel.  At points, it is clearly a satire--something that is obvious already in the novel's punning title, but which is reinforced through the interjection of modern slang, or even invented colloquialisms such as "house wigger".  In other segments, one can see Evaristo working hard to chisel at audience's (most obviously white audiences) reflexive acceptance of slavery as "just the way things were" by pointing out how absurd and clearly wrong it seems when we apply it to white Europeans--the idea, for example, that the English baronet on whose land Doris's family lived could be sold along with his tenants is wrongfooting, but it's no stranger than the idea of being sold alongside their princes and chieftains would have seemed to Africans.  And in its final third, in which Doris leaves her relatively comfortable life as an indoors servant for back-breaking labor on a sugarcane farm, Blonde Roots seems to be telling its story completely straight, as a narrative of the horrors and abuses of slavery.  It's hard to reconcile these three approaches, and the last one in particular feels undermined by the choice to make the novel's story about white people who are victimized by black people.

    Perhaps a big part of my problem with Blonde Roots has to do with when I read it.  It's easy to forget this, but it's only in the last few years that we've started seeing works about slavery enjoying major mainstream success.  In 2009, when Blonde Roots was published, it's very possible that in order to sell a work on this subject, and get past the kneejerk reaction of "but some slaves were well-treated!" or "it wasn't that bad!", you needed a hook such as the one Evaristo employs.  I suspect that if I'd read the novel closer to its publication date, I would have found it eye-opening.  In 2017, however, much of what makes it powerful has been superseded by works that look slavery more squarely in the eye.  Evaristo's description of Doris's journey across the Atlantic, under conditions that seem impossible for anyone to survive, is harrowing.  But it's overshadowed by a similar chapter in Yaa Gyasi's recent Homegoing, whose protagonists are Africans.  The tongue-in-cheek revelation that the Underground Railroad Doris escapes on is using the infrastructure of an abandoned African tube network would probably work a lot better for someone who hadn't just recently read Colson Whitehead's more expansive and affecting use of the same device.  It feels, in short, as if Evaristo thought that she needed to present slavery with a protective coating of satire and ironic distance (which, again, may very well have been true at the time the novel was written) only for other authors to experience greater success by serving it straight up, in all its horror.  That's not to say that there is no horror in Blonde Roots, or that the novel isn't trying to say something serious and important--its final chapters, in particular, are dripping with rage at the narrowness of its characters' horizons, the strict limitations of their hopes, even when they manage to break free; and its final argument, about the way that the legacy of slavery continues to affect our lives today, is clearly essential.  But its central device ends up working against it more than it probably would have when it was published.

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford - Not unlike George Saunders, it's a little surprising to see Spufford, whose career has straddled the divide between fiction and non-fiction (particularly with the undefinable but essential Red Plenty) come out with a proper novel.  And, again like Saunders, Spufford's choices of format and genre are idiosyncratic.  Golden Hill is a pastiche (pitch-perfect, as near as I can tell, though I admit that this is not an area in which I'm very well-read) of 18th century picaresques such as Tom Jones, in which an ambitious, good-hearted but self-absorbed young man sets out to make his fortune and ends up, through a combination of bad luck and his own fecklessness, falling flat on his face, before washing up on the shores of wisdom, temperance, and (of course) a good marriage.  What sets Spufford's version apart is first its setting, the fledgling economic powerhouse of New York City in 1746.  When mysterious stranger Richard Smith presents himself at one of the counting houses that litter the insular colony--then numbering only 7000 inhabitants, though representing a financial force far out of proportion to its population because of its role in clearing the money from the slave trade and the commodities produced through slave labor--with a banker's draft for more than a thousand pounds, he sets the entire town abuzz.  Is he a charlatan?  A spy?  A political activist intended to prop up one of the sides in the colony's simmering dispute, between the royally-appointed governor, and the local representatives who want more say in the running of their government?  Richard's refusal to satisfy anyone's curiosity only fans the flames, and for the sixty days he is obliged to wait before his draft can be honored, he is constantly observed and commented-upon, even as he works to insinuate himself into the community.

    There's another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel's big secret.  And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be.  Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard's narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con.  This turns out to be both true and not true.  What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him.  It is also--and to modern readers in particular--something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York's economy runs.  The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement.  Running through the novel is Richard's awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean.  It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we've spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.  It's a final twist on the kind of novel Spufford is imitating, one that perhaps makes Golden Hill into something entirely its own.

Monday, May 15, 2017

New Scientist Column: Kim Stanley Robinson and Gwyneth Jones

My latest column at The New Scientist looks at two novels that try to imagine how society will order itself in the wake of environmental and economic collapse.  Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140 imagines the titular city as a high-tech Venice, where a quasi-socialist community has arisen in the vacuum left behind when finance retreated, and must now defend itself as the forces of gentrification once again sniff out a profit to be made in the newly hip and livable canalized city.  It's been interesting to watch the reviews for this book pour in: Gerry Canavan at LARB, for example, wonders if it represents the shattering of Robinson's famed optimism, while Joshua Rothman at the New Yorker, and John Clute in Strange Horizons, see the book's vision of a city that survives and even flourishes in the wake of climate change as an inherently hopeful one.  I think that tension is entirely intentional--New York 2140 is a book that isn't entirely certain whether the future it imagines is a good one, and whether the survival it posits is something to celebrate or mourn.

Proof of Concept is a great deal less ambivalent about its future, in which most of humanity lives in cramped, heavily-policed enclaves while the rest of the planet is a polluted wasteland.  A group of scientists enter enforced isolation, supposedly to study a potential form of faster-than-light travel, but also as a form of reality TV that is a primary form of entertainment in a world that loves dreaming about an "escape ticket".  As you'd expect with Jones, everything is a lot weirder than even that premise might suggest, with the novella juggling so many balls that one could easily imagine it being fleshed out into a full-length novel.  It's amazing to think that we haven't had a new work from Jones in nearly a decade, and I hope that Proof of Concept is a sign of things to come, though as a work in its own right it feels incomplete (Paul Kincaid comes to similar conclusions at Strange Horizons).

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

We're All Mad Here: Thoughts on Legion

The superhero genre has been the dominant mode of our pop culture for at least ten years.  Which has turned out to be a bit of a problem, since, even by the relatively modest standards of blockbuster entertainment, superheroes do not lend themselves to particularly deep or thought-provoking ideas.  This is, after all, a genre that is still furiously debating the oh-so-provocative question, "should there be jokes?"  And so, as the years have passed, as character types have repeated themselves, as CGI spectacles have grown tedious and familiar, and as writers finally grew tired of rehashing 9/11 for the millionth time, we have inevitably reached the point where creators start experimenting, trying to prove that there's more to this genre by changing its preoccupations or storytelling methods.  In 2016, this meant political superhero stories, many wondering how civil society will cope with the emergence of superpowered people--which, for the most part, fell flat on their faces, because no amount of po-faced writing will change the fact that the answer to that question is "it can't".  In 2017, therefore, the focus has shifted from substance to style.  Instead of being political, superhero stories are now trying to be artful--from the barren, sun-dried landscapes and Western-inspired soulfulness of Logan[1] to the 80s-flavored camp extravaganza of Thor: Ragnarok.  And nowhere is the triumph of style over substance as blatant--or as much fun--as FX's recent series Legion.

Based on a relatively obscure X-Men character, Legion tells the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man who has spent his life in and out of psychiatric facilities because of, as he believes, schizophrenia.  In one of these facilities, David meets and falls in love with Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller), who turns out to be a mutant with the power to switch bodies with whoever she touches.  Through Sydney, David comes into contact with the Summerland institute, a group who seek to help mutants understand and control their powers, and who oppose the government-run Division Three, who want to exterminate mutants they consider too dangerous.  Summerland's leader, Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart), assures David that what he and his doctors took for mental illness was actually a tremendous psychic ability, but as she and David work together to understand his powers, they discover hints of a malevolent entity hiding within David's mind and seeking to control him and his power.

The thing that made Legion interesting when it was first announced--beyond the fact that this is the first superhero series produced by a cable channel--was the involvement of Noah Hawley.  Hawley burst onto the scene two years ago with his improbably successful adaptation of the Coen Brothers' 1996 movie Fargo into an anthology crime series, and that show's distinctive style and approach to storytelling seemed to promise very interesting things for a genre that, until this year, has been extremely hidebound on both counts.  In its first two seasons (the third began just last week, so it's hard to tell yet how it will turn out) Fargo was characterized by a cheerful willingness to go over the top, to use bombastic music, striking visuals, and almost cartoonish characters to draw the viewer in.  It balances this excess of style with clockwork-precise storytelling that often hangs on the smallest of details.  Many scenes in Fargo feel like short movies in their own right, often revolving around a character thinking their way out of a problem, constantly two steps ahead of the audience.[2] 

Visually, then, Hawley was absolutely the right man to make something new and different out of the superhero concept, but plot-wise, he was in a bit of a jam.  The kind of precision storytelling he specialized in in Fargo relies on characters who are faced with concrete limitations which they then must work to overcome; it doesn't work in a world where people can fling each other across a room with their minds, or turn invisible, or change the properties of matter.[3]  Hawley's approach with Legion, therefore, was to turn the visual zaniness he employed in Fargo up to eleven, combine it with an almost labyrinthine structure, and use both to convey the turmoil and confusion of David's mind.  The pilot episode, in particular, bounces so swiftly from past to present, from fantasy to reality, that it's not until its final minutes that we can start to piece together what has happened.  And throughout the show's first season, we are constantly being wrongfooted, finding ourselves having to question what is real, and then, to parse different layers of fantasy.  Is David dreaming, or is he in the astral plane?  Are the repeated visions he has of Lenny, his friend from the mental hospital (Aubrey Plaza), a construct created by his own mind, or is she something else?

A lot of the joy of watching Legion comes from the audacity of its structural and visual choices.  We've gotten used to superhero movies and shows spoon-feeding us their stories and character arcs, hewing so closely to the conventional that even something relatively half-baked, like the spy movie homages in Winter Soldier, feels revolutionary.  Legion's willingness to challenge us means that it can find something fresh and new in even the most shopworn of superhero tropes--when Melanie's team sees recordings of a possessed David taking on an entire Division Three base on his own, or when they storm his childhood home and find themselves unable to speak, proceeding in total silence, there's a thrill of horror and tension that I haven't felt from a superhero story in a long time, if ever.  The centerpiece of the season is Plaza's magnificent villain turn, sliding from vaguely disturbing to strangely sinister to all-out derangement with such impeccable logic that by the time she shimmies her way through David's mind to the sound of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good", or cackles like a mad scientist in a silent, black-and-white monster movie, one can't help but gasp in exhilaration.

Another strength of the show is in rejecting the mundane realism that dominates in most of this genre, which refuses to allow even stories about Norse gods or wizards or aliens from Krypton to ever be weird.  The show's time period, for example, is impossible to fix--the clothing and interior design are all straight out of a mid-century magazine, but people reference email at the same time that they use archaic technology like magnetic tapes.[4]  Perhaps the most interesting choice that Legion makes is to present Summerland using terms that deliberately recall the communes and cults of the 70s.  This not only raises the possibility that Melanie and her project for David might be a sinister one, but completely deflates the more common superhero story approach of treating the superhero team like a bunch of badass commandos.  When David finally comes face-to-face with Division Three, his intimidating catchphrase is "War is over, if you want it".

Even Melanie's secret agenda turns out to be something weird and rather affecting.  She's trying to find her husband, Oliver (Jemaine Clement), a powerful telepath who got lost on the astral plane twenty years ago.  When David meets him, Oliver turns out to be an absent-minded dandy, always at least half-soused, and prone to breaking out into slam poetry or making plans to form a barbershop quartet.  It's such a delightfully unexpected touch, in any genre, and only made more delightful when it turns out that beneath his vagueness, Oliver has actually got his finger on the pulse of the situation, and may be the only person who can help David reclaim his mind.

It's a good thing that Legion has so many entertaining secondary characters, and such a penchant for weirdness, because the person that the show is actually about is, well, not even boring so much as half-formed.  This is, to be clear, entirely deliberate--the show's conceit is that David has spent so much of his life in a haze of medication, and in completely structured environments, that he's had no chance to develop a personality.  Stripped of its adornments, the season's main storyline is a rather familiar psychiatric drama, in which a sympathetic therapist helps a long-term patient push through to the origins of their disease--usually a suppressed memory of trauma--only after which can they begin to build a life for themselves.

But while the fact that David is barely a person is justified by the narrative, the devotion that more developed characters end up feeling for him is not.  This is particularly blatant in the case of Syd, a strong-minded, self-possessed young woman whose love for David only gets more inexplicable the more she dedicates herself to his cause.  Especially when you consider that the glimpses we do get of David's personality are not terribly appealing.  The season's plot only kicks into gear because he kisses Syd against her will, triggering a body-swap that brings both of them to Summerland and Division Three's attention. And even after that, he continues to try to push against her clearly-stated boundaries, for example the fact that she doesn't like being touched even when there's no risk of body-swapping.  When he starts to gain control of his powers, David immediately transitions from his earlier bewilderment to arrogance, and even his growth into social responsibility at the season's end, trying to broker a peace between Summerland and Division Three, feels like a power grab, a young man who only became aware of a problem a few weeks ago trying to supplant a middle-aged woman who has been dealing with it for decades.[5]

These, however, are all are fairly familiar flaws of the superhero story.  What makes Legion uniquely frustrating is its handling--or rather, its failure to handle--the issue of mental illness.  Pop culture keeps trying to use superpowers as a metaphor for marginalized groups such as POCs, Jews, LGBT people, or immigrants--an approach whose flaws keep being reiterated, and which is nevertheless attempted again and again.  But I've been saying for a while that a much more fruitful parallel can be made with mental illness, chronic illness, and disability.  It allows for a wide variety of origins and expressions--some people's illness is congenital and even hereditary, and some develop it because of trauma or the circumstances of their life; some people's illness is invisible, and some are unable to function in society because of it--and a wide variety of attitudes.  It allows for the vast array of damaging preconceptions that society imposes--that the mentally ill are dangerous and out of control, or that disabled people are a drain on society.  Most importantly, it allows for the delicate balancing act between the recognition that your illness is a part of who you are and has shaped you as a person, and the need for tools and resources to help you deal with it and live a good life.[6]

Of course, this all requires very delicate handling, of the kind that one rarely finds in either superhero stories or fictional depictions of mental illness.  Legion, unfortunately, falls into some very predictable traps.  At the root of its handling of David's mental illness is a simplistic binary: is David crazy, or does he have superpowers?  Are the events of the show actually happening, or are they a delusion brought on by his schizophrenia?  Obviously, by phrasing the question as an either/or, the show tips its hand--even in a show this weird, we were clearly never going to discover that the entire story had been a madman's fantasy.  Around the middle of the season, the show suggests that David might have both superpowers and mental health issues, but it immediately undercuts that idea by revealing that those issues are the fact that he has been possessed by an evil mutant.  David's mental health problems are thus externally imposed and, more importantly, removable.  The entire structure of the season--the familiar dramatic conceit whereby discovering the root of your problems makes them go away--is mirrored in David and the other characters' efforts to uproot the mutant possessing him.  But implicit within that structure is the assumption that therapy, and recovery, are an on/off state.  David can either be sick, and thus of no use to anyone--"I was in Clockworks for six years.  Drugged.  Doing nothing.  Contributing nothing"--or he can be healed, and thus completely over his problem (which was never his problem in the first place).  The possibility that people might be able to live productive, contributive lives with mental illness, or that recovery is a process, often a lifelong one, is never even entertained.

It's a shame, because in the periphery to David's story there are some interesting moments where the show seems to recognize that people who are abnormal might still have a perspective on the world that they would value and cherish, even as it caused them difficulties.  Discussing her power with David, Syd explains that the ability to be so many different people has convinced her of the existence of the soul, which probably contributes to the sense one gets from her, that here is a woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants.  In a darker moment, however, she tells David about switching bodies with her mother in order to have sex with her boyfriend, and muses "who teaches us to be normal when we're one of a kind?"[7]  Ptonomy, whose power is the ability to remember everything and travel through others' memories, describes the ability to perfectly recall even the most painful moments of his life as not unlike being a time traveler.

In moments like these, Legion seems open to the idea that it is possible to be both a superpowered person, and someone with problems they need to work through.  But for most of the season the show seems convinced that you can either be one or the other.  When David first meets Syd in the hospital, she insists that "You're in here because somebody said you're not normal ... what if your problems aren't in your head?  What if they aren't even problems?"  In a later episode, when the being in David's mind convinces him and the rest of the characters that they are all patients in a mental hospital, Ptonomy explains to David that "that's the lie, the cruel-ish joke.  How somehow with the right dosage, the right therapy, stand on one leg, touch your nose, we could all go back to [being normal]".  The lesson, in other words, is that if you're really mentally ill, then there's no hope for you, but that if you have powers, then your problems aren't even problems.  It's wrong both coming and going.

I rewatched Legion before sitting down to write this essay.  In hindsight, I probably would have written a more positive review if I hadn't done that.  A lot of what feels audacious about the season the first time around is no longer surprising on the second, which makes it easier to notice how much the show relies for its effect on the reaction of "I can't believe they did that (in a superhero story)".  It's therefore all the more unfortunate that Legion couldn't find anything meaningful to say about mental illness, or anything else that might make it feel less hollow on a second look.  I'm still looking forward to what the show does next--or, if nothing else, to letting Plaza, Clement, and hopefully some of the rest of the cast cut loose on my screen.  But I have to wonder if the need to keep topping itself will eventually be the show's doom, and if we haven't yet again proved that there really isn't that much you can do with superhero stories to make them interesting and meaningful.


[1] Which, to be fair, also has a fair bit of political subtext.

[2] Most of these traits are things that Fargo shares with Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul, but whereas those shows view their problem-solving characters with awe, Fargo is a catalogue of human folly.  Even its smartest characters can't keep themselves from getting into the messes they end up having to think their way out of.

[3] This is a problem that superhero stories keep running up against.  Consider Ant-Man, which wanted quite badly to be a smart caper story, but eventually had to admit defeat, collapsing into a generic superhero punch-up in its final act.

[4] This is a particularly interesting choice given how strongly recent X-Men movies have presented themselves as being rooted in their time period.  There's been talk, for example, of Professor X appearing on Legion, but one could just as easily make the argument for James McAvoy as Patrick Stewart, and neither one feels as if they would be completely welcome in the show's world, which is deliberately non-realistic.

[5] It's especially frustrating that the only person on Melanie's team who tries to challenge the notion that David is uniquely important or particularly heroic, Jeremie Harris's Ptonomy, is also a person of color, and that he is sidelined for the most of the season's final act.

[6] Much as I believe in the potential of this approach, I have to admit that very few superhero shows or movies have attempted it, much less managed it well.  The short-lived Syfy series Alphas did some interesting work with superpowered characters whose powers were paralleled with, or the cause of, various mental health issues.  And one of these days I will get around to writing about iZombie, which in its best moments executes this trope flawlessly.

[7] Though if I'm being honest, I don't think that "raping people is wrong" is a lesson that requires case-by-case instruction.