Sunday, December 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 22, 2017

New Scientist Column Update

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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