Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 2

The second part of my review of this year's Clarke shortlist is now online at Strange Horizons, covering Arcadia by Iain Pears, Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson, and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.  You can find it here, and in case you haven't already read part 1, that's here.  The actual winner will be announced in London in a few hours, but as I write in the conclusion to the review, I tend to see that announcement as less of a triumph for any particular book, and more a data point that will help to clarify--at least a little--what the judges were aiming for with this year's bland and conventional shortlist.  The book that wins will tell us a great deal about how this year's judges saw the Clarke, and their task as its jury.  But I'm hopeful that next year the jury will make more interesting, more challenging choices.

Martin Petto has updated his collection of links to discussion of the shortlist, including this essay by Megan of the (new to me) blog From Couch to Moon.  It's very much worth reading, including some interesting reflections on both the Clarke and this year's nominated books.  To me, it also clarified many of my problems with this shortlist.  Megan and I largely agree about the ranking of the six nominated books, and our thoughts about the ones that, I suspect, we'd both happily knock off the shortlist are largely in line.  But when it comes to the two books that I think we'd both class as good--Europe at Midnight and The Book of Phoenix--our opinions diverge widely.  Megan sees Europe as much more self-contained and self-sustaining than I do (to me it feels like a pendant to the previous volume in this trilogy, Europe in Autumn, whereas Megan calls it superior to that book).  And though we both agree that The Book of Phoenix is the most likely winner of this year's Clarke, it's clear that we took very different things away from the book, and read it quite differently.

And that, not to keep repeating myself, is how the Clarke should work.  The books it highlights should be the ones that people disagree about, even if they're broadly in agreement about their quality and literary merits.  I want the Clarke shortlist to be full of books that I could write 3,000 words about, and then go and read someone else's 3,000 words and discover a whole host of ideas I'd never considered.  I hope I won't have to wait too long before getting a shortlist like that again.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Review: The 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist, part 1

The first part of my mega-review of this year's Clarke Award-nominated novels appears today at Strange Horizons.  This is the fourth time that I've reviewed the entire shortlist, a tradition begun by Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus and carried on by Strange Horizons with rotating reviewers.  I'm sad to say that this was by far the least fun I've had reviewing the Clarke shortlist, not so much because the nominated books are bad--though a few definitely are--but because there ended up being so much less to say about them than I'm used to.

After finishing my read-through of the nominated novels, I started reading a few of the books that were submitted for consideration, and the difference is striking.  It's not so much that the books left off the Clarke shortlist are masterpieces--on the contrary, I would have had serious reservations about most of them if I'd had to review them for this project.  But that's precisely the point.  I would have had so much more to say about, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora, a book I struggled with but found utterly fascinating, than just about any of the choices this year's Clarke judges made.  What makes the Clarke special, to me, is that not so much that it makes consistently good choices, as that it makes consistently interesting choices.  It failed at that task this year.

The first half of my review--which discusses Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time, J.P. Smythe's Way Down Dark, and Becky Chambers's A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet--is here.  At his blog, Martin Petto has been collecting other reviews of the shortlisted novels, and thoughts on the shortlist as a whole (on the latter front, be sure to read Nina Allan's meditation on the shortlist and the Clarke as a whole).  The second half of my review will be published on Wednesday, and later that evening the Clarke winner will be announced.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Winners

A month ago, when I posted here to remind people that the Hugo voting deadline was coming up, it was with a bit of trepidation.  Last year, when puppies of various stripes decided to get their jollies by trying to tear down this award, we saw a huge influx of new voters who showed up to make it clear that this was unacceptable behavior.  That the Hugo belongs to the people who care about it, not people who try to use it to score outdated, bigoted political points, or further their fevered personal agenda.  This year, it was clear that a lot of those same voters weren't coming back.  They had made their point, and were, quite reasonably, moving on to the things that interested them.  It's a funny fact about people who spend their lives concentrating on the things they care about, not the things they'd like to destroy, but it's usually a lot harder to corral them into action against the latter.  Which is great, but also potentially worrying, because if the people who had nothing better to do with their lives than try to destroy the Hugos outnumbered the ones who do, we could have ended up with some depressing Hugo results.

I should have known better.  The one thing I keep learning, again and again, as I study this award is that, much as it frustrates me, much as it throws up shortlists that disappoint me, much as it often seems stuck in a middlebrow rut, the Hugo is always what it is.  It doesn't take thousands of new voters to keep the Hugo true to itself, because the people who vote for it every year will do that job themselves.  With something like half the voters we had last year, we still managed to send the same message: that we have no patience for astroturf; that we have no time for writing that embarrasses the paper and ink used to print it; and that this is an award that can be gamed, but it can't be stolen.  This year's Hugo voters had no trouble telling junk from serious nominees; they saw the difference between the nominees being used as shields by the puppies and the ones that truly represent their literary tastes and politics.  And even more importantly, in the best novel and best novella categories in particular, Hugo voters recognized some of the finest and most exciting work published in this genre in years.  That Vox Day's second swat on the muzzle came in the form of a Hugo award for N.K. Jemisin is extremely satisfying, but that's just icing on the cake of handing the Hugo to The Fifth Season, a genuinely brilliant, defining novel.

Now that we've established that the Hugo can take care of itself, what next?  The voting and nominating breakdowns published this morning paint an interesting picture.  The bump caused by 2015's influx of voters is very noticeable.  If you compare this year's nominating numbers to last year's, it's interesting to note the huge surge of nominating ballots required to get on the final ballot, even among non-puppy nominees.  In 2015, for example, Laura J. Mixon, the highest-ranked non-puppy nominee in the best fan writer category, got 129 votes.  This year, that wouldn't have been enough to get her on the ballot.  In fact, my 141 nominating ballots (50 more than last year) would have left me below the threshold, even if there had been no puppy nominees at all.

That in itself is unsurprising, but what's interesting is how that effect disappears when you move to the voting phase.  Pretty much across the board, the total number of valid ballots in each of this year's categories represents a 50% drop from last year.  In other words, and as I noted above, most of last year's protest voters exercised their right to nominate in this year's Hugos, but they didn't stick around for the voting phase (for which they would have had to pay extra).  This is equally true of the puppy voters.  In its analysis of this morning's stats, Chaos Horizons theorizes that there were approximately 450 puppy nominators for this year's awards, but that only about 160 of them stuck around for the voting phase.

What this means is that the puppy problem is, to a certain extent, self-correcting.  For all their bluster last years, it's clear that most of them weren't interested in undergoing a repeat performance, and moved on to other, easier trolling targets.  That's no reason to get complacent, obviously, but it's an important data point that we should pay attention to as we seek to reshape the Hugos in order to prevent another Puppygate.  To that end, two proposals were passed in today's WSFS business meeting.  The first was the second-year ratification of E Pluribus Hugo, the complicated vote-counting algorithm intended to counter the effects of slate voting.  In preparation for discussion of this proposal, the award's administrators ran anonymized nominating data from 2015, 2014, and this year's awards to see what effect EPH would have on the resulting ballots.  The results aren't exactly encouraging: EPH does some good in this year's ballot, but hardly any for last year's, where the problem was a great deal more pronounced.  It is, at best, a partial solution. 

(I'm less bothered than some by the fact that EPH also changes "organic" ballots.  For one thing, I think that was a highly predictable outcome, and it was perhaps naive to assume that such profound changes to how we count nominating ballots wouldn't have any undesired effects.  And for another, I don't see anything "unfair" about this sort of change.  If there's a system and everyone knows how it works, then the fact that it produces certain shortlists is perfectly fair.  To complain about that strikes me as not unlike the occasional outrage you get when someone realizes that a certain nominee got the most first-place votes before the lower tiers were redistributed, and starts screaming about unfairness because that nominee didn't end up winning.)

Another proposal, which passed on the first vote, and needs to be ratified next year, is Three Stage Voting.  This would add a longlist stage to the nominating procedure, allowing voters to weed out astroturf--or just plain bad--nominees.  I think this proposal has the virtue of being straightforward and transparent to the voters, but it also has the problem that any additional encumbrance to voters will naturally suppress participation in the award.  It will also make it harder for voters to make informed choices, since in the second voting phase they'll have less time in which to read more nominated works, and this will naturally benefit more popular work by more visible writers. 

As I wrote above, I'm no longer convinced that this kind of fiddling with the Hugos is even necessary anymore.  In general, it feels as if there's a movement towards limiting access to the Hugos, after more than a decade of moving in the other direction--one proposal raised before the business meeting was to eliminate nominating rights for members of the next Worldcon, and I've seen people suggest that members of the previous Worldcon should be stripped of nominating rights as well (at the moment, members of the current, previous, and next Worldcon can nominate for the current Worldcon's ballot, but only members of the current convention can vote on the winners).  I can certainly understand why this shift is happening, but I think it's important to remember that the Hugo's relevance and legitimacy rest, in part, on the breadth of participation in it.  We don't want to go back to the days, not at all distant, when the award was handed out based on the votes of fewer than a thousand people.  This year's nominees and winners are far from the ideal situation, but as always, it's worth remembering that there is no ideal with the Hugo.  At its best, it will always be a compromise award, one that often fails to recognize the boundaries of the genre, even when they're where the most interesting work is happening.  Instead of trying to legislate that fact away, we should be coming up with more constructive ways to deal with it--and, eventually, accept it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: Two Weeks Out

In two weeks, voting for the 2016 Hugo Awards will close.  You could be forgiven for being taken aback by just how quickly that deadline has rolled up on us, seeing as, especially compared to last year's all-Hugos-all-the-time news extravaganza, the conversation surrounding this year's awards has been so muted that at points it's seemed that the only person even participating in it was Chuck Tingle.  And even he seems to have found other interests recently.  And on one level, it's easy to see why the Hugos have fallen by the wayside this year, given that we're in the middle of a news cycle that has included, in the last month alone, terror attacks in Orlando, Baghdad, and Nice; two black men shot by American police officers while committing no crime and a sniper attack on a peaceful protest that left five police officers dead (edit: in the six hours since I wrote the first draft of this post, another such shooting seems to have occurred in Baton Rouge; WTF, America); an attempted coup in Turkey and vicious reprisals for it; the UK nuking its entire political system from orbit; and, of course, the ongoing carnival act that is the US presidential race.  But at the same time, genre fandom has been able, in the midst of all this political upheaval, to pay attention to Game of Thrones, Hydra!Cap, and the new Ghostbusters, so why so little conversation about the Hugos?

There are, I suspect, several factors involved.  The first is that everyone is a little tired.  We went through this rigmarole last year, and there's quite honestly a limit to how much time and effort we can be expected to spend on a group of people whose pet project to destroy something that other people enjoy is, let's be honest here, really boring.  It's a lot more fun to talk about new things, even if they don't get you write-ups in the Guardian and Slate.  Second, and not unrelated, is the fact that there isn't really anyone to talk to anymore.  Last year, there were a lot of people willing to carry water for Vox Day and his ilk, and to pretend that Puppygate was something other than what it clearly was, a destructive act by someone whose hatred of the Hugos fell only slightly short of his bizarre hard-on for one particular science fiction writer.  Those people kept trying to start a conversation about the Hugos' politics, their supposed exclusion of particular kinds of SF or particular kinds of SF fans, and, at one point, whether of not books had spaceships on the cover, which was inevitably hampered by the fact that none of these supposed arguments could hold water.  This year, and to their credit, most of the people on the Sad Puppy side opted to participate in the Hugos instead of trying to tear them down.  Instead of a slate, they did what the rest of us do, and came up with a scattered, broad recommendation list.  And, just as we discover every year, that turned out to have very little effect on the resulting nominations (though it might have had a little more effect if the Rabid Puppies weren't still trying to ruin everyone else's fun).  But as a result, it's now become very clear that this is only nominally about politics.  That what this issue is about is a dispute between the people who care about this award, and the ones who want to destroy it.  And there's not really much to talk about there.

And then of course there is the matter of the nominees themselves.  There was a lot of talk, when the nominations were announced, of how and whether to approach the puppies' decision to slate works that were not only deserving, but very likely to have appeared on the ballot regardless of their influence.  That talk, too, has died down, for the simple reason that, despite what the puppies seem to think, none of us are susceptible to this kind of middle-school gotcha! maneuvering.  I'm not telling anyone how to vote, and I recognize that different people can have different views on this issue.  But literally the only people who think that awarding a Hugo to, say, Nnedi Okorafor's novella about a Namibian tribeswoman who is a mathematical genius and travels to space university, with multiple observations about the evils of racism and colonialism, would be a victory for white supremacy are the ones who have realized that they have no chance of claiming a win any other way.  If you think that it's more important to slap down the puppies than give an award to Okorafor or other nominees like her, that's your call, but I don't think there's anyone who, if she does end up taking home a Hugo in August, will lament that the puppies have won.  Once again, what this means is that there's not much to talk about.

Which is great on one level, and on another is worrying.  Because another thing that hasn't been happening this year is the huge influx of Worldcon members buying supporting memberships for the sole purpose of protesting against the puppies' attempts to dominate the Hugos.  At the moment, MidAmericon II has 5,600 members, and is on track to be a mid-sized North American convention, which probably means fairly normal Hugo voting numbers, not the outsized protest vote we saw last year.  Now, as I've said many times in the past, I have a great deal of faith in Hugo voters' ability to tell astroturf nominees from the real deal, and to smack down nominees that have no business being on the ballot.  But the numbers still need to be on our side.  Chaos Horizon estimated that there were between 250 and 500 Rabid Puppy nominators this year.  I'd like to believe that the real number is closer to the lower boundary than the higher--there can't, surely, be 500 people with so little going on in their lives that they'd be willing to spend good money just to make Vox Day happy (or whatever approximation of the human emotion known as happiness can be felt by someone so occupationally miserable).  But if I'm wrong, and those people show up in the same numbers this year, then they have a solid chance of overwhelming the good sense and decency of the people who want the Hugos to be what they were meant to be, an award recognizing the excellence and diversity of what science fiction and fantasy achieved in the last year.

So, if you are a member of MidAmericon II, please remember to vote.  If you're not yet a member, and you're able to become one, please consider doing so--even at this date, you can join, get your PIN immediately, and vote for the Hugos.  And if you're a member and a voter, please remind others who might not be that they can still do both, and how important it is, for the future of this award and this convention, that we do so.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, adapted by Russell T. Davies

Today at Strange Horizons, I write about Russell T. Davies's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the BBC.  It was a bit of a surprise to me that this film even existed--whatever promotion there was for it seems to have been swallowed up by the media blitz for the second season of The Hollow Crown.  And as I write in the review, this turns out to have been massively unfair, because whereas this year's Hollow Crown sequence was an uninspired slog enlivened, here and there, by a few fine performances, Davies's Dream is witty, fun, and most of all very smart in its approach to the play and its problems.  To be clear, this is still a Russell T. Davies production, with all the good and bad things that implies (the Murray Gold soundtrack is quite a hurdle, for example).  But ultimately, he and the play turn out to have been a perfect match, and the result is one of the most rewarding Shakespeare adaptations I've seen in some time.

My positive reaction to the movie is also rooted in the timing of my watching it--a few hours after I finished it, the news started pouring in about the horrible shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  On that day, Davies's approach to his material--in which diversity of race and sexuality is directly opposed to the forces of fascism and brutality--felt not just entertaining, but necessary.  But the review is being published on the same day that Britain wakes up to a new, post-EU reality, and suddenly the optimism of Davies's vision feels insufficient.  In a world in which the right wing has an even stronger grip on UK politics, is anyone going to let artists like Davies create follies like a TV movies of a Shakespeare play (which, among other things, bring supposedly "high" culture into the living rooms of anyone with a TV, not just those with the money and means to go to the theater)?  Will artists who want their work to be explicitly pro-diversity, pro-LGBT, and anti-fascist be able to find a platform?  So I find myself feeling a lot less hopeful about this work than I did when I watched it and wrote the review, but maybe, for people feeling hopeless today, Davies's Dream is exactly what they need.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Recent Reading Roundup 40

2016's reading continues to be rewarding, and though perforce less swift now that I'm no longer on holiday, still moving along at a steady clip.  This bunch of books includes several that I can already tell will be on my list of favorite reads at the end of the year.
  • The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie - This spring's it-litfic comes with blurbs by Ursula K. Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler, and has a quasi-literary, quasi-romantic, quasi-slipstreamy premise that seems instantly appealing.  The novel spans the short but eventful engagement of Veblen, an underachieving temp worker and sometimes translator who lives in a storybook house in the woods and talks to squirrels (who sometimes talk back), and Paul, a neurologist whose new gadget to prevent traumatic brain injury in the field has been picked up for testing by the US military.  Right off the bat, the book feels like an invigorating blend of the personal, the political, and the topical.  Veblen, whose retiring, accommodating nature is the product of years of emotional abuse by her narcissistic mother, whom she has only barely managed to escape in her adulthood, is simultaneously a dreamer and a clear-eyed critic of our society's ills.  Part of her inability to engage with the world is rooted in her awareness of how society immediately capitalizes and monetizes anything good--such as Paul's gadget, whose good intentions are immediately transformed into a moneymaking venture--and how much of our public discourse is merely thinly-disguised advertising.  Paul is struggling with the same questions, seduced by his employers' promise of wealth and dreaming of an affluent suburban life with Veblen, while also dimly sensing that this is not what she wants.  The early chapters create the impression of a comic social novel, along the lines of Dexter Palmer's Version Control, which effortlessly blends the counter-factual and mundane.

    It doesn't take very long, however, for The Portable Veblen to get bogged down in the waters of cuteness.  The book that I ended up comparing it to was not Version Control but Where'd You Go, Bernadette, in that like it, what initially seems like an engagement with social issues quickly becomes a solipsistic examination of the difficulty of living in the world when you're a white, upper-middle-class Northern Californian who is so much smarter and more creative than everyone else.  Like Bernadette, Veblen ends up focusing its story on the restoration of family--which means that it is far more forgiving of Veblen's mother than I think is warranted, and even Paul's relatively-nurturing parents, who have nevertheless spent his life neglecting him in favor of his disabled brother, get off pretty lightly.

    McKenzie is clearly trying to tell a coming-of-age story for both of her protagonists, who have to put behind their many justified grievances against their parents and learn to relate to them as adults, but this feels like a much smaller, lighter-toned story than the one the novel initially seemed to be telling.  In its final chapters, The Portable Veblen doubles down on its comedy (including a rather gruesome ending for one of its villain characters that hardly feels earned, or in keeping with the rest of the novel's tone) and its romance, seeming to suggest that Paul and Veblen can overcome the inescapable problem of living in late-era capitalism by sheer virtue of their specialness.  The book's epilogue finds them living in Scandinavia, engaged in the kind of virtuous, rewarding, and not very taxing occupations that people in romantic comedies are constantly having dropped in their laps.  In the moment, this feels totally earned--McKenzie is good at getting us to care for both of these people, and to want good things for them--but the further I get from the book, the more curmudgeonly my reaction to it becomes.  What started out as a story with something to say about the world ends up as a story about two privileged, fortunate people, and to me that's decidedly a devolution.

  • High Aztec by Ernest Hogan - I'm indebted to Vajra Chandrasekera for alerting me to the existence of this novel, which was published in 1990 and seems to have been undeservedly forgotten.  It's not a perfect work--there's a lot more worldbuilding than there is plot, and even at a mere 200 pages the book ends up outstaying its welcome--but there's a lot here worth reading for, that not many other writers today are doing.  Set in the mid-21st century after the collapse of the US, High Aztec imagines a Mexico in which the Aztec culture, religion, and language are experiencing a revival.  This has led to profound social unrest, with rising tensions between different Aztec revivalist groups, and between them and mainstream society and government.  Our protagonist is a feckless, atheistic artist who becomes infected with a virus that makes him believe in the Aztec religion, which makes him valuable to almost every power in Mexico City (or Tenochtitlán, as the novel calls it).  He bounces from one pair of hands to another as his infection deepens and his view of the world is overlaid with hallucinations of the gods of the Aztec pantheon.

    Though not strictly a work of cyberpunk, High Aztec has the strong flavor of that genre, with its emphasis on an on-the-ground exploration of how technology and social changes affect the lives of people on the margins of society (in that sense, it reminded me strongly of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland).  The guided tour of religious cults, street gangs, criminal organizations, and sinister government facilities eventually pales a little, as does our protagonist's increasingly addled state of mind, but High Aztec is nevertheless a great example of the kind of SF novel that gets its power simply from exploring its setting--an exploration that is only made more enjoyable by the wit and irreverence of our viewpoint character.  If I have one complaint, it is that women in this novel are rather flat characters, driven primarily by their desire for men, and described solely in terms of their attractiveness (some of this has to do with the protagonist's own limitations, but Hogan doesn't do any work to suggest that there's more to the women he meets than he realizes).  It's an unfortunately glaring flaw in what is otherwise a fascinating and unusual novel.

  • Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon by Jane Austen - I don't know why I've been so resistant to reading Austen's three "official" unpublished works.  Maybe it was the knowledge that the latter two were unfinished at the time of her death, and that I'd therefore end up craving an ending that would never come.  Or maybe it was the awareness of how much revising and reworking went into making Austen's published novels as perfect as they are, and a fear that what I'd get from her leftovers would be, at best, Austen-lite.  In the end, it took Whit Stillman's forthcoming adaptation of Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, to get me to discover the original, and though I'm not sorry that I've done so, it's easy to see how this novella works better as a starting-off point for someone else's story, than as a story in its own right.  Written in an epistolary format, Lady Susan follows the title character, a beautiful but impoverished widow, as she flees the home of the married man she's been carrying on with for the relative safety of her brother-in-law's house.  Susan's main objective in life to marry off her inconvenient daughter Frederica to a rich but empty-headed baronet whom the girl despises.  But while she's in her brother's house, she resolves to revenge herself on her sister-in-law, Catherine, who has always looked down on Susan's flirtatious, amoral behavior, by seducing Catherine's morally upright, judgmental brother Reginald.

    For a work that was probably written when Austen was a teenager and then abandoned, Lady Susan is remarkably accomplished.  Though its tone is more reminiscent of Austen's broader novels, like Northanger Abbey, it already features her impeccable command of language and tone, the ability to convey her meaning perfectly with a few well-chosen words (though it must be said that this control falters near the end of the story, when the epistolary format rather gets away from Austen, and she wraps up the narrative in an epilogue that feels more dutiful than artful, as if she just wanted to get the business over with).  The chief appeal here, unsurprisingly, is Susan herself, who is a remarkably rounded villain.  Manipulative and calculating, she proceeds through Regency society like a grandmaster at a chessboard, casually discarding a pawn or accepting the loss of a piece, and reacting philosophically to temporary defeats because she always believes (rightly, as it turns out) that she can turn them into victory.  I was reminded a great deal of Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele, which makes sense because that novel was also originally written as an epistolary work, which in both cases seems to have forced Austen to give more thought than she usually does to the inner life and humanity of her villains.  And Susan is, despite her calculations and cold-bloodedness, undeniably human: very funny in her assessments of everyone around her, and surprisingly honest about the often-petty motivations that drive her behavior.  Unlike other Austen characters on the make, the older and perhaps wiser Susan isn't looking for one final score, but mainly for a bit of fun, because she knows and accepts that it will never last.

    Perhaps unsurprisingly, the problem with the story turns out to be everyone else in it.  The critic Q.D. Leavis called Lady Susan a dry-run for Mansfield Park, and one can certainly see the truth in that.  You only need to flip the perspective of this story, about a witty, amoral woman who upends the norms of a sleepy country estate and captures the heart of a priggish man who keeps trying to convince himself that there is some goodness in her that simply doesn't exist, to get to Austen's most controversial novel.  The key difference between these two works, however, is that Susan takes up all the air in her story.  Between them, Catherine and Frederica split the role that is played by Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, but neither of them achieves the frustrating complexity of that character--Catherine is too savvy, and too untouched by Susan's machinations, and Frederica has all of Fanny's outward milksop appearance, and none of her slightly-scary strength of will.  Reginald, meanwhile, barely even registers, a quality he shares with all the other men in the story.  In fact, one of the things that most distinguishes Lady Susan from Austen's published novels is how little the women in it seem to think about men.  Oh, the men are always the pretext for the story--they need to be trapped, or saved, or fobbed off--but the relationships in the novel, and of course the letters that give it its form, are between women, perhaps most interestingly between Susan and her equally immoral and rather bored friend Mrs. Johnson.  It's a quality that I wish was more present in Austen's more polished works, for all that Lady Susan never approaches their other accomplishments.

    The Watsons and Sanditon are both fragments, the opening chapters of novels that Austen started and abandoned, or, in the latter case, died before she was able to finish.  Both are tantalizing, but in very different ways.  The Watsons, written when Austen was about 30 and living in Bath, feels like a classic, quintessential example of her work (which is all the more surprising when you remember that this was a fallow period, both creatively and emotionally, in Austen's life).  Its central event is a country ball attended by Emma Watson, who has recently returned to the home of her impoverished family, after spending most of her life as the ward of her relatives.  When her adoptive uncle dies and her aunt remarries, Emma finds herself cut off from her expected inheritance, and forced to return to a home and a family she barely remembers.  The ball is Austen's way of introducing us to the three or four families who will make up this novel's business, but also of establishing the fact that Emma, though lonely and out of place, is self-possessed and has a strong moral code.  This puts her at odds with her family, and particularly her sisters, whose blatant husband-hunting she recoils from.  The opening chapters set up several interesting avenues of story, none more so than the relationship between Emma and her oldest sister Elizabeth, who though lacking Emma's refinement has a clear-eyed pragmatism that the younger woman lacks.  Since none of this will ever be resolved, what's left is to enjoy in these chapters is Austen's clear control of her material, the way she effortlessly sets the scene and establishes a scenario in only a few short chapters.

    Sanditon, on the other hand, feels like a huge departure.  When reading The Watsons, it's very easy to guess how Austen would have developed and ended the story, but Sanditon is very different from anything else she ever wrote, more a social novel than a novel of manners, and more strongly comedic than any of Austen's published works.  This is particularly notable in the way that the fragment fails to develop, and indeed seems rather uninterested in, its heroine, Charlotte Heywood, who travels to the titular resort town with friends of her parents, and there encounters a wide array of ridiculous characters.  The actual subject of the novel seems to be Sanditon's rapid development, from a sleepy village into a tourist destination, and the various forces driving and impeding that transition.  Charlotte's host, Mr. Parker, wants to build up Sanditon's reputation and bring more visitors to it, because he believes in progress, and believes it will prove a social good.  His partner, Lady Dunham, is a skinflint who resents the possibility that prosperity might give her social inferiors ideas above their station.  Both are surrounded by hangers-on who are each ridiculous in their own particular way, and whom Charlotte observes with growing bewilderment.  At the end of this fragment, it's almost impossible to guess where Austen would have taken her story--for one thing, because though she has introduced several young women into Charlotte's circle, there are hardly any eligible men in it.  It is, however, exciting to discover that Austen was stretching her wings and exploring new possibilities as an artist, and is yet another reason--if more were needed--to regret that her life and career were cut so short.

  • Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge - At first glance, Hardinge's next-to-last novel feels very much of a piece with last year's The Lie Tree.  In both books, the elaborate and detailed fantasy worlds that have characterized most of Hardinge's previous work are replaced by a real-world setting (albeit a historical one--Cuckoo Song takes place a few years after WWI, whose shadow lingers over its events).  This was a disappointment to me in The Lie Tree, since Hardinge's ability to work out the rules and customs of fantasy worlds that also happen to be utterly bizarre and unlike those created by any other writer is one of my favorite things about her.  That Cuckoo Song was, like The Lie Tree, more rooted in horror than in fantasy, and locked in a tight third person on a young heroine who teeters on the verge of becoming a villain, led me to expect a very similar reading experience to The Lie Tree, which I liked but didn't love nearly as much as Hardinge's other books.  To my surprise and pleasure, however, Cuckoo Song turns out to be a more complex work than I initially suspected, and far more elaborately worked-out than its opening chapters suggest.

    Our heroine, Triss, wakes up after an accident with a fragmented memory and a sense of overpowering strangeness.  As the days pass, that sensation deepens, especially as her younger sister Pen keeps treating her like a stranger and an interloper.  The seeming normalcy of the book's opening chapters turns out to be a reflection of Triss's sense of self, which disintegrates as she learns more about her accident--and about her own nature.  Peeling back the layers of her identity requires Triss to delve beneath the normal surface of her world and discover the strangeness the lies just beneath it, a journey on which we join her.  By its midpoint, Cuckoo Song's apparent realism has cracked to reveal such deranged elements as a movie theater where silent-film characters try to drag the audience into the screen, letters from the dead delivered by winged creatures with the faces of old women, cities full of elves and demons hidden in the cracks and corners of human ones, and a girl made of leaves and thorns who can devour almost anything in her quest to stay alive.

    Hardinge's gift for invention turns out to be even more effective as an engine for horror than for fantasy, but underlying the horror of her fantastic inventions is the horror of abuse.  Triss is a child in a world that leaves very little space for children, that treats them as inherently untrustworthy and casually hands them over to plausible-sounding adults who mean them harm.  Her parents, unable to cope with the loss of their oldest son in the war, have warped both of their daughters with emotional manipulation and gaslighting, and Cuckoo Song is squirmingly effective at conveying the sense of claustrophobia and isolation that dominates in their home.  When the girls are thrust into the world without protectors and facing terrible danger, it's still a relief, because they're finally able to direct their own lives instead of living under the control of untrustworthy and sometimes harmful adults.  Like most Hardinge novels, Cuckoo Song doesn't pretend that it is possible to fully heal from this kind of damage, but it also offers the hope that some grown-ups can be trusted to treat children like people, and that with their help, both Triss and Pen can find their way back from the things that were done to them, and the things they've done.

  • Wake by Elizabeth Knox - Knox is turning out to be one of those writers who never writes the same kind of book twice.  I'm still in the early phases of my journey through her bibliography, but already I've encountered a YA fantasy (Mortal Fire), a historical romance (The Vintner's Luck), and now, with Wake, a tense, can't-put-it-down work of psychological and supernatural horror.  Even as she jumps effortlessly between genres, there are some underlying Knox-isms that shine through all of her work, such as a commitment to low-key, naturalistic emotion even in the face of the utterly bizarre or devastating, a sly and often dark sense of humor, and a determination to work through the cosmology of her strange and fantastical premises (the McGuffin that drives the events of Wake even feels slightly connected to the setting of Mortal Fire, both of which have to do with alternate realities).

    Wake begins purposefully, and with an intensity that lays out the novel's intentions.  On an ordinary morning, every inhabitant of a small New Zealand town is driven suddenly and incurably mad.  Within an hour, they're all dead, either through violence or by having simply stopped breathing.  The only survivors are thirteen people who happen to have arrived at or returned to the town after the madness began, and who now find themselves trapped by an invisible force field that surrounds it.  It's a premise that owes a great deal to Stephen King (most obviously his 2009 novel Under the Dome), and throughout the book there are other flashes of King-isms, such as a fascination with the scatological (in a harried, horrible sequence in which the survivors' food is poisoned) or a character who seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder.  But King hasn't been this compulsively readable in decades, and more importantly, Knox's project with this novel seems to be a deliberate rebuke to the assumption made by him, and other horror writers, that the immediate response of people under pressure, and in the face of impossible situations, is to lose all semblance of humanity.  The survivors in Wake are sometimes fractious and unpleasant, but they never devolve into savagery.  Even when they argue--over how to act or who gets to give orders--they manage to do so like adults, and with the obvious recognition that they'd all rather stick together, not just for safety, but for the comfort that human bonds and company give them.

    This is not to say that Wake is a mild novel or lacking in human drama.  On the contrary, the very fact that the survivors don't end up at each other's throats makes their conflicts all the more intense and hard to read about.  Under the right circumstances, the survival of civilization turns out to be just as horrifying as its breakdown, as the survivors insist on maintaining normal modes of behavior in a situation that grows increasingly hopeless.  Most of the first half of the novel, for example, is taken up with a discussion of whether and how the survivors should bury the hundreds of bodies scattered throughout the town, and the toll that this act of humanity takes on them--the resentment they feels towards those among them who suggested the plan and seem confident in it, and the coping mechanisms they come up with to deal with what they see and have to do--is all the more brutal for Knox's refusal to sensationalize it.  As the characters themselves begin to die--from self-inflicted wounds which may be a normal human reaction to horror, or a recurrence of the madness that took the town--they have to start wondering what the purpose, or meaning, of survival in their situation even is.

    In its final chapters, Wake's existential horror gives way to a more concrete explanation of what happened to the town and what the survivors are facing, that might, in another book, have felt like a letdown--like Knox backing away from her exploration of how humans behave in the face of certain death with a choice to make that death a little less certain.  But the unflinching brutality of the preceding chapters--a brutality that is made all the more punishing by the mundane, matter-of-face way in which Knox presents it and the characters react to it--makes this release valve necessary.  Knox has worked so hard to make her characters human even in the face of an inhuman set of events, that it would be cruel and punishing not to give them at least a chance of surviving them.  It's not a perfect ending--in particular, the way it uses a mentally disabled person as a means to an end is a King-ism that Knox might have done well to leave by the wayside--but it's precisely the one that her characters have earned.

  • The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley - Whiteley's latest novella is--deliberately, one imagines--very different from The Beauty, one of my favorite stories of 2014.  That story was suffused with claustrophobia, body horror, and a sort of queasy eroticism.  The Arrival of Missives, in contrast, starts off extremely proper.  But that's because it's told by an extremely proper young lady, Miss Shirley Fearn of the village of Westerbridge.  It is just after the end of the first world war, and Shirley--bright and earnest, clean of mind and body--is full of plans for how to make the world a better, more peaceful place.  These plans are bound up in Mr Tiller, the local schoolteacher and a wounded veteran of the war, whom Shirley idolizes and loves.  When Shirley discovers a horrible secret about Mr Tiller, she's driven by both love and idealism to not only keep the secret, but enlist herself in his mysterious agenda--an agenda, he tells her, which is guided by messages from future, instructing him on how to save the world.

    The early parts of The Arrival of Missives are a bit hard to get through, not because they're badly written, but because Whiteley so perfectly captures Shirley's earnestness and iron-clad certainty, and these are a little hard to take.  This, however, makes it all the more powerful when Shirley, under the twin pressures of Mr Tiller's mission and her growing realization that her parents have her life all planned out for her, starts to stretch her wings as an adult, and to discover her power to affect the world--as well the very real limits put on that power by her youth and gender.  The very certainty that initially makes Shirley seem naive and childish becomes something more complicated when she begins to feel out her desires--for a place in the world, for a sense of importance, and for control of her own body and sexuality.  Slowly but undeniably, she grows into a heroine who is capable of seeing the adults around her, including Mr Tiller, more clearly, and to make decisions not only for herself, but for the future of humanity.  The Arrival of Missives is a lot of things, and among them is the origin story of a heroine whose power comes from recognizing and respecting her own wants, and not cancelling them because society or propriety tells her that she should.  I don't know if Whiteley plans to tell other stories about Shirley--certainly she's left the door open for it--but whether or not she does, it's easy to imagine her having a heroic, adventurous life.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

I promise, at some point I'll go back to writing about things that aren't superheroes.  Though that would require Hollywood to stop blasting superhero stories at us in such close succession (I haven't even written anything about the second season of Daredevil, though you can get a sense of the existential despair it plunged me into from the thread starting at this tweet).  Coming at the end of that barrage, it's perhaps understandable that the third (or sixth, or eighth) X-Men movie should be met with a muted, not to say exhausted, response.  And some of the reviews have gone further and been downright brutal.  I'm here to say that both of these reactions are unearned.  X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a great movie, and it has some serious problems.  But I still found myself enjoying it a great deal more than any other work in this genre since Deadpool.  Perhaps this is simply the relief of a superhero story that is not about grim-faced men taking themselves very seriously, and which instead tells an unabashedly silly story in a totally committed way.  Or it might be because alongside the flaws, there are also things to praise in X-Men: Apocalypse, things that hardly any other superhero works are doing right now.

If there's a core flaw to X-Men: Apocalypse, it is that what it really wants to be is a six-part miniseries.  You can even see the places where the chapter breaks would have gone, complete with intermediate climaxes leading up to a world-destroying conflict with the villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, largely wasted on a nondescript character covered with the kind of makeup that forestalls any attempt at acting), who wants to kill off most of humanity so that the survivors can rebuild, stronger than ever.  Apocalypse eventually comes to seem like the highlights version of its own story--just the big, climactic moments; hardly any of the connective tissue.  As flaws go, however, this one is a lot less disruptive to the viewers' enjoyment than, say, the seemingly endless let's-get-the-band-together scenes in the first act of Avengers.  It's easy to sense the movie that Apocalypse is trying to be, and as a result the actual product is rushed, but not incoherent.

On the other hand, Apocalypse's compressed, just-the-highlights approach also means that most of its characters are underserved.  The X-Men films have always been characterized by a wide ensemble, and have tended to handle it more elegantly than the comparable Avengers movies (or even Civil War).  But the sheer weight of events--mostly explosive ones--that happen in Apocalypse means that a lot of its cast gets lost in the shuffle.  This is particularly true of the four disciples that Apocalypse gathers to help in his world-destroying plan.  Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are there to act as warm bodies in fight scenes, and are otherwise completely wasted.  Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is coasting off the previous two films' character development, but even so his presence by Apocalypse's side feels barely-justified.  Worst of all is Storm, who has a kickass introduction and is played to perfection by newcomer Alexandra Shipp, but who the film then pretty much forgets about--a particular problem since Storm is, of course, a major good guy in the X-Men universe, and her turnaround in Apocalypse thus deserved a lot more screen-time than it gets.

Other characters, however, get better handling.  Existing good guys like Charles Xavier, Beast, and Havoc get just enough screen time to establish their rapport and the community they've built at Xavier's school, but the film really belongs to Mystique.  Jennifer Lawrence--whose naked and blue time the film reduces to a bare minimum--is predictably wonderful as a woman struggling with a painful past and crushed hopes.  Her growing realization that she's become a heroic figure within the mutant community, and slow acceptance of a leadership role in it, are one of the most gratifying choices made by the rebooted X-Men movies.  Similarly rewarding is the film's new version of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a problematic character whose handling in the original X-Men trilogy revolved mostly around her fear of her powers, and Wolverine's unrequited love for her.  Turner's version is still saddled with a character whose only possible development is into a force that must be violently stopped (usually by men), but in this movie, at least, she plays Jean as someone who is learning to understand, control, and use her powers.  In the middle part of the movie, it's Jean who drives the action, using her powers to lead the juvenile members of the X-Men on a mission to save Xavier and Mystique.  And where previous X-Men movies might have depicted Jean unleashing the full force of her abilities on Apocalypse as a surrender to a force she can't control, in this movie it's painted as a choice, an embrace of power that makes Jean one of the X-Men team's foremost members.

Part of the reason why Apocalypse can get away with being so rushed, so compressed in its storytelling, is that the climaxes that it delivers every time Apocalypse reveals the full scope of his powers are exhilarating and beautifully executed.  Apocalypse isn't a very interesting villain, but the sheer scope of his powers means that he is still scary.  In one scene, he unleashes all of the Earth's stockpile of nuclear weapons, and you keep expecting it to turn out to be a dream, or for Xavier, Magneto, or Jean to stop it, until you finally realize that no, this is really happening.  I can't remember the last time that an action set-piece in a superhero movie had the power to shock me in the way that this sequence did.

But of course, none of this would work if Apocalypse didn't have such a firm handle on its action components.  I was never a huge fan of Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, but there's no denying that with his return to superhero filmmaking he demonstrates just why he was the one who made this genre of movies viable.  The action scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse put to shame just about every other attempt in this genre in the last ten years, and simultaneously bring home how cluttered, busy, and overwhelming every other superpowered free-for-all on our screens has been.  (Someone will no doubt bring up the Russo brothers, but it's important to note that their forte has been one-on-one fights, mostly between people without extravagant powers.  When it comes to city-destroying mayhem, the best that the MCU has to offer is Joss Whedon's work in the Avengers movies, and, well.)  It is, for example, totally unsurprising that the film tries to top the "Time in a Bottle" sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) zips around merrily, solving everyone's problems in his own good time.  But what's amazing is that Apocalypse actually succeeds at this, effortlessly upping the stakes and bringing across the true extent of Quicksilver's powers, while still stressing his fundamental silliness.

There are, however, some problems with this movie that its stunning set-pieces can't overcome.  Unlike X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse is not a very political movie, which means that it doesn't delve into the question of mutants' place in the world, and how they interact with human society.  For the most part, this is a function of its story and villain--Apocalypse doesn't care about human vs. mutant disputes, and is happy to deal out death equally to both groups, so long as a select few, whom he sees as the elite, survive.  And while it is, as I said above, a little refreshing to have a superhero story that doesn't try to engage with real-world political issues (which it will inevitably do poorly) but instead just gets to the business of a bunch of good guys fighting a bunch of bad guys with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the complete failure to engage with any political issues contributes to the sense that Apocalypse underserves huge swathes of its story and cast.  Storm, for example, is introduced as a punk-ish thief in Cairo, with an Arabic-language magazine cover featuring Mystique hanging on her wall.  There's an opportunity here to connect to Arab nationalism, to the frustrations and resentments of the third world with the systems that have kept it poor and exploited, and to the way that revolutionary figures can have cross-cultural appeal.  But the film's neglect of Storm after these opening scenes means that any chance at a political subtext is lost.

This is particularly unfortunate because Storm is one of only three people of color in this movie (the others are Psylocke, and Jubilee, played by Lana Condor, who gets only a few lines and doesn't participate at all in the super-heroics).  The lack of focus on her, as well as the fact that the staff at Xavier's school seems to be made up entirely of white men (we see some female teachers in background shots, but none of them even get to speak), reinforces the sense that the mutant problem, in the world of X-Men: Apocalypse, is one that afflicts mostly white, middle class Americans.  That certainly seems to be the thrust of the plotline that introduces Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who arrives at the school shortly before the film's events kick into gear, and seems designed as its point of view character.  But though unobjectionable, Scott Summers fades into the background when Jean Grey and Mystique get to interact with one another, and it would have only done the film good if there had been similar interactions between Mystique and Storm.

If there's one problem that really comes close to scuttling X-Men: Apocalypse for me, it is the film's handling of Magneto.  In my past writing about the X-Men movies, and particularly the rebooted universe beginning with X-Men: First Class, I've been pretty sympathetic to this multifaceted villain, and since then I think I've only gotten more entrenched in that position (it doesn't help that Xavier's approach just gets less tenable the more you think about it; as Steven Attewell points out in some recent discussions in his People's History of the Marvel Universe series, it's increasingly disturbing that an organization nominally devoted to securing mutant rights spends so much of its time fighting other mutants).  But Apocalypse takes Magneto beyond the pale, just at the point where it clearly believes that it is returning him to the fold.  The film's obvious intent with Magneto is to tell a story in which he experiences a horrific loss, responds by giving in to violence and anger, and is then brought back to his senses by the reminder that he has people who care about him and believe in his goodness.  The problem with this is, first, that the execution is terrible--it's here that Apocalypse's rushed, compressed nature works most powerfully against the film's intended effect.  The minute we meet Magneto's saintly wife and daughter, it's obvious that they're going to be killed off in order to provide him with angst, and their characterization is so nondescript that it's virtually impossible for us to empathize with his grief and anger over their loss.

More importantly, there is the simple fact that there are only so many times a person can decide their own suffering matters more than the survival of the human race, before that stops being an excusable reaction to trauma, and becomes a reflection of their shitty personality.  Despite what Charles and Raven keep telling him (and us), the Magneto in X-Men: Apocalyse does not, in fact, seem to have any good in him.  On the contrary, he seems to be a selfish, self-absorbed person, whose reaction to pain and anger is to start murdering people left and right, and then to happily act as a key component in Apocalypse's plan to kill billions of people.  It's downright galling that his last-minute decision not to do so is presented by the film as a meaningful turn to the light, with newscaster voiceovers at the end of the movie informing us that he is now being hailed as a hero--for stopping the calamity that he himself caused.

(On a personal note, I find Apocalypse's handling of Magneto particularly offensive because this version of the character has made so much of the fact that he is a Holocaust survivor.  As it happens, there have been survivors who lost their entire families to the Nazis, rebuilt their lives after the war, and then lost their families again.  The film's attempts to justify and excuse Magneto's murderous reaction to such a trauma are an affront to these real survivors' resilience and enduring humanity in choosing not to do the same.  That Apocalypse's seduction of Magneto to his ethos of destruction and death culminates in a visit to Auschwitz only makes the film's use of the Holocaust more risible.)

The only positive note in Apocalypse's handling of Magneto is the way the film uses Quicksilver, who enters the story knowing that Magneto is his father and eager to connect with him.  In the film's climactic scene, Mystique and Quicksilver confront Magneto and try to convince him that he still has something to live for.  While Mystique appeals to Erik's humanity, Peter is obviously nonplussed by the monster that his father has become.  When questioned, and given the opportunity to declare himself as Magneto's son (which, unbeknownst to him but obvious to us, would restore to Erik something of what he lost with the deaths of his family), Peter instead says obliquely "I'm here for my family."  At the end of the movie, he announces that he might tell Erik the truth some day, but not yet.  Aside from being a clever character note--surely any reasonable person would balk at letting Erik Lehnsherr claim them as family--it's also a moment of judgment against Magneto in a film that doesn't contain nearly enough of them, and a thin thread to cling to for those of us who refuse to see him as a redeemed figure.

It's in talking about moments like this one that I come closest to articulating why I enjoyed X-Men: Apocalypse so much more than objectively better films like Civil War, and despite the fact that it has so many glaring flaws.  When Quicksilver chooses not to acknowledge his relationship to Magneto, he reminds us that he has an inner life and a story of his own, and that this is true of so many (though, unfortunately, not all, and not always the most compelling) of the series's characters.  Taken together, they create a sense of community, of family, that none of the other superhero series currently running have managed.  Even the MCU, despite its best efforts, always feels more comfortable in its standalone movies, and has yet to convincingly argue that its characters have real, lasting relationships, or that they've formed a community.

Perhaps another way of putting it is that the X-Men films--and particularly the rebooted, post-First Class films--know what their story is about in a way that the MCU and the Justice League movies don't.  Where just about every other superhero franchise is still stuck rehashing 9/11 and the war on terror, the X-Men movies are creating their own world, and with it their own identity.  What they do with this world is rarely as interesting or as comprehensive as I would like (and the mutant metaphor remains a millstone around this story's neck, especially since the movies are so resistant to letting people of color take center stage).  But after two years of superhero stories struggling to root themselves in our politics and failing miserably, it's honestly a relief to return to a universe that is complete in itself.  X-Men: Apocalypse is flawed in many ways, but it wears those flaws more lightly than many other, better films' accomplishments.  It isn't trying to prove to us that it's worth engaging with.  It's simply telling a story, and inviting us to come along.