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.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Civil Links

It's been two weeks since Captain America: Civil War opened (a week in the US), and I think it's time to call it: the conversation surrounding this movie has been surprisingly, and disappointingly, muted.  Most reviews seem to have reached a consensus of good-movie-that-handles-its-politics-well, which, even notwithstanding that I only agree with the first part, feels like only scratching the surface (meanwhile, the more character-focused conversation on tumblr has tended to revolve around the kind of arguments that only serve to remind me why this is a good life rule).  Around this time after the comparatively incoherent Age of Ultron, we were practically swimming in thinkpieces and conversations, and while Civil War doesn't have as obvious an outrage hook as awkwardly implying that infertile women are monsters, one would think that people would still be able to find things to say about it.  Perhaps the truth is simply what I suggested in my own review: that the worldbuilding and politics of this movie are built on such a flimsy foundation that any attempt to engage with them inevitably leads to the conclusion that they're not worth talking about.  Nevertheless, here are a few interesting links that I have been able to find--obviously, I'd be interested in any others you could suggest in the comments.
  • Probably my favorite straight-up review of the film comes from Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com.  Amid a torrent of reviews that have tended to overpraise the film as both a piece of storytelling and a political statement, Seitz is refreshingly even-handed, finding things to be positive about (as there undoubtedly are) without ignoring some of the fundamental issues in the film's construction.
    There's a fair bit of "The Dark Knight" logic, or "logic," to the storytelling. Characters do things to other characters because they know it'll set off a chain reaction that'll eventually lead to a very specific moment at the end; luckily for them, each step goes according to plan, because if it didn't there would be no movie. And, as in the inferior yet thematically similar "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," the hero-versus-hero slugfest only seems to spring from real and deep philosophical differences. It turns out that the real problem is that these characters don't talk to each other when they should.
  • Writing in the Washington Post, Henry Farrell (perhaps best known to readers here as one of the bloggers on Crooked Timber) lays out all the ways in which Civil War gets global politics wrong.  This might seem so trivially obvious that it's not worth even spelling out, but I actually found it quite useful to have all these issue laid out in plain language.
    "Captain America: Civil War" talks about how superheroes might be perceived as vigilantes. There's an even uglier word for someone who jumps into a political situation, blows things and people up and disappears again — terrorist. When Thomas Barnett writes about "super-empowered individuals" in world politics, he isn't talking about Ant Man and Spider-Man. He’s talking about Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11, 2001, plane hijackers, who acted as individuals to change the shape of global politics. The Avengers have better intentions but the same potential for causing chaos without accountability. Even if they're acting to save the human race, it's unsurprising that governments should be angry and unhappy at their willingness to intervene across the world, regardless of the collateral damage.
  • One of the points made by Farrell is that Civil War irretrievably skews its story by focusing so myopically on American concerns and perspectives, even as its heroes seek the freedom and authority to operate all over the world.  Samira Nadkarni expands on this issue in a Storify of her tweets about the movie, in which she argues that "the MCU insists that a bomb in Lagos and even the inclusion of an African subplot is basically all about America and the Global North."  Her arguments touch on the way that Avengrs (which is to say American) interference outside of the US, and chiefly in the Global South, is seen as an American issue; on the problems with Wakanda as an African nation that is explicitly un-African; and on the choice to center the discussion of registration (inasmuch as it exists) on Wanda, a white European, whose terrorist activities would surely not have been so easily swept under the rug if she were a Middle Eastern man.

  • If you haven't done so already, check out Samira's review of the TV series Shadowhunters (based on Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments books) at Strange Horizons.  Though published several weeks before Civil War's release and focusing on a (nominally) different genre, it touches on a lot of problems with the way that superhero stories center white, Western people even as they claim to be about issues that largely concern people of color and the Global South.  The construction "a TV show about moderate racists taking on a vehement racist so they can learn to be slightly less racist" describes so much of the current superhero genre (and gets at why I've grown increasingly bored, not to say suspicious, when stories in this genre trot out cartoon Nazis as their ultimate villains--at this stage, it just feels like a distraction, a way to keep me from noticing the heroes' less overt fascist tendencies).  Samira's segue into her outrage at the way that the trailers for Civil War centered Steve's devotion to Bucky, even as other stories about superhero registration have treated people of color as the villains, feels particular prescient:
    In Marvel's TV property Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the character of Jiaying (played by Tibetan-Australian actress Dichen Lachman) fights against registration being enforced by S.H.I.E.L.D., as a result of having lived through this information being misused, leading to torture, organ theft, the death of the majority of her community, and the loss of her child. Her desperate attempt to start a war in response to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s American neo-colonial statement-threat of "we'll leave you in peace if you register" with its consequent policing and control of the Asian-themed city of Afterlife, is framed within the show as terrorism and strongly disavowed. Her story of fighting against forced registration isn't one that matters. The reasoning behind her actions—which also involves tortures of various kinds being a possible likelihood for her people as part of her lived experience—isn't endorsed. But, oh, yes, do tell me more about Bucky Barnes. Divorce this story even further from the people it affects. We've always been the villains of the piece. 
  • Brian Phillips, writing at MTV.com, makes a valiant attempt to reconcile Civil War and the world of the MCU (and other superhero movies) with present-day political anxieties, trying to get at why we're seeing so many stories about how (and if) we can reconcile the existence of superpowered individuals with democratic society, and with the post-9/11 penchant for violent global interference.  That he doesn't quite succeed is probably not his fault, given how muddled this genre (and the thinking about these issues in Hollywood) are, but this is nevertheless a well-written, funny essay that articulates some of the core problems with this project:
    The other explanation for that focus is an irony that, when you start to lay it out, is kind of gobsmacking, and that gets at an almost Greek-tragic dimension of recent comic-book movies. (Let’s say Norse-tragic, because Thor.) The irony is this: The superheroes in superhero movies are always the only force capable of saving humanity from the threats it faces. But with astounding regularity in post-9/11 comic-book films, the threats mankind has to be saved from were either unleashed by the heroes themselves, came into being simultaneously with the heroes, or both. In other words, the chaos from which the heroes are required to save the world is implicit in the heroes’ being in the world in the first place; even when the protagonists aren’t actually the authors of the crisis they are fighting against — something that, again, happens with startling frequency — they are manifestations of the same fundamental shift. Hark!
  • Over at my tumblr, I talk briefly about my favorite Bucky Barnes moment in the film--the one that seems most obviously opposed to the woobification impulse that seems to take over fandom when it discusses not just this character, but all the handsome white men in this universe.  I also mention some of the ways the film could have used Natasha better (which is to say at all).

  • Linda Holmes at NPR does the obvious pop culture thing of linking Civil War with, what else, Hamilton.  Clickbaity as that sounds, Holmes has a valid point--both works are about people who initially try to work out their problems through discussion, but who find themselves, by the end of the story, pointing weapons at people they care about once their disputes have passed the point of no return.
    There's a fascinating sequence, perhaps unique among movies of this budget and scale, in which a group of characters who are all known to be decent, known to be moral, known to be noble, and known to be literally both Super and Heroes sit in a group talking through this critical disagreement about acceding or not to outside supervision — to acting only when a group of governments working in concert tell them they can (and must). They find themselves forced to balance legitimately compelling arguments on both sides. They argue back and forth, not in the "fight" sense but in the "argument" sense: Someone offers support for one answer, then someone else offers support for the other. Everyone has a point. They all respect each other. They all know they cannot split the difference and cannot find a choice in the middle. They cannot punch or shoot or zap their way out of it. The choice is binary: They will say yes or they will say no, and despite the breadth of their agreement on the relevant issues, they cannot agree on the answer.
    I'm linking to this piece mainly because I want to disagree with it, or at least to point out that drawing comparisons to Hamilton does Civil War no favors.  Holmes is right that some of the discussion scenes in the first half of the film are exciting precisely because they're not the sort of thing we're used to seeing in this genre, but she ignores the fact that by its second half, Civil War makes it clear that these discussions were never the point--that what it really wanted was to get to the fighting.  This is very different from how Hamilton handles its characters' descent into violence, which is depicted as the act of two stubborn, childish men, and, more importantly, not the way to resolve political disputes.  Hamilton and Burr end up in a duel not because they have fundamental political disagreements, but because of their pride and immaturity.  Meanwhile, political action is still happening through conversation--either in the thrilling "Cabinet Battle"s that are the highlights of the play's second act, or in the "Room Where it Happens," where people sit down and hammer out policy details.

    Even more importantly, the way in which Hamilton handles its descent into violence is a direct rebuke to Civil War's glibness towards the same subject.  Holmes is right to highlight Burr's line, immediately before his duel with Hamilton, that "This man will not make an orphan of my daughter!"  Newly-minted Tony nominee Leslie Odom Jr. all but screams the line, going off-key as a way of demonstrating the desperation of Burr's will to live.  That desperation is completely absent from the climactic fight scene in Civil War, which both the film and the characters treat almost as a game, thus robbing the film of most of its emotional weight.  It's also significant that after killing Hamilton, Burr's life was basically ruined.  Even in the early 19th century, there were social consequences to his choice to abandon civility in favor of violence.  No one familiar with the MCU will be able to expect similar consequences for any of Civil War's characters.  On the contrary, the film blatantly leaves an opening for Steve and his fellow renegades to use violence in a socially sanctioned matter, saving the world from Thanos in Infinity War, thus sweeping away all their crimes in this story.

  • Not directly Civil War-related, but of interest to people who want to have a discussion about politics (and particularly progressive politics) in comics and have been disappointed in the dearth of such conversations surrounding this movie.  Since the beginning of the year, blogger Steven Attewell has been writing A People's History of the Marvel Universe, in which he discusses the history of the comics company's heroes and how they intersect, and emerge from, the politics of their day.  A lot of the discussions, as you might expect, center on the X-Men (the last few weeks in particular have focused on the infamous "mutant metaphor"), but Captain America has also featured heavily.  It's a great resource for people, like myself, who know these characters mainly from the movies, and would like to know how they developed, and how their political stances reflect social issues of their era more than ours.  If you're reading along at Lawyers, Guns and Money, where the series is being cross-posted, there's also a lively discussion in the comments.

    (Incidentally, it occurs to me that Attewell's series is precisely the sort of thing that the Best Related Work Hugo category should recognize.  I'm not crazy about the recent trend of recognizing individual blog posts in this category, but the People's History series is now approaching book-length, and I for one would love to see it recognized as such next year.)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

It's a bit of a strange thing to say, but I might have liked Captain America: Civil War better if it were a less good movie.  When films like The Dark Knight Rises or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice deliver rancid political messages wrapped in equally rancid plots and characterization, the reviewer's job is made easier.  We can point to how a failure to recognize the actual complexity of a situation, or to imbue characters with full humanity, both informs and reflects the simplistic, quasi-fascist message of the movie.  Civil War is a trickier customer.  It tries--and on some level, manages--to be more intelligent and more thoughtful than something like Batman v Superman.  Its characters take the film's central conflict seriously, discussing it rationally and trying to find a way to resolve it without descending into fisticuffs.  But even as they do so, they reveal the inherent impossibility of their project, the way the core assumptions of this entire genre combine to form a black hole that it can never escape.  I've said it before, but the minute you start taking superheroes seriously, and debating the rights and wrongs of them, only one conclusion is possible: that superheroes are a really bad idea, and that any fictional world that houses more than a handful of them will inevitably devolve into a horrifying dystopia in which the rule of law and the authority of democratic government are meaningless.  In the end, and despite the wide gulf of quality between them, Civil War ends up telling the same story as Batman v Superman: a tragedy about people who don't know any way to address their problems except through violence.

Before we get to that, however, let's note that for all my praise of it, Civil War is not a top-notch MCU movie.  Though it does a better job of wrangling a truly epic number of characters than last year's Age of Ultron, the need to service all of them--and set up several future entries in the franchise, chiefly Black Panther and the next iteration of Spider-Man--means that the film is overlong and occasionally listless.  It loses control of its tone--the one quality that has made the MCU undeniably excellent as a comics adaptation--at several crucial points, most importantly its climactic battle scene.  The relationships that were such a delight in the Captain America: The Winter Soldier--particularly the friendships that Steve Rogers develops with Sam Wilson and Natasha Romanoff--are given short shrift, and in general those characters leave the movie feeling flattened and uninteresting[1].  Perhaps most importantly, the film completely fails to sell the supposedly deep bond of friendship and loyalty between Steve and Bucky Barnes.  Whether you read the relationship as platonic or (as most of fandom does) romantic, Steve's devotion to Bucky is what drives his actions throughout the movie.  And yet what shows up on screen between the two friends is curiously inert--it's never believable that Steve would go the lengths he does for a man that he seems, at most, mildly fond of.  Meanwhile, the relationship that's meant to carry the film's romantic weight, between Steve and Peggy Carter's niece Sharon, never grows beyond a not-very-convincing concept.

Having said all that, there are also a lot of things to praise about Civil War.  Like Winter Soldier before it, it tells a relatively small-scale story, more rooted in espionage and conspiracy tales than in superheroics.  This grounds the film and gives it a weight that was absent from the more high-concept Avengers movies.  The action scenes, similarly, are excellent precisely because their scale is smaller, with the focus placed more on one-on-one matchups than CGI extravaganzas in which our heroes hit large things with even larger things.  Chris Evans continues to anchor the Captain America series--perhaps the entire MCU--with his turn as Steve, conveying the character's staunch beliefs without ever making him seem stiff or inhuman.  The film also, and a little more suprisingly, does a good job with Tony Stark, who is very nearly rehabilitated from his stint as an almost-world-destroying mad scientist in Age of Ultron.  This Tony is more damaged and more thoughtful without losing his defining egotism, and the best scenes of the movie involve him and Steve arguing, not because either one of them is a bad guy, but because they have fundamentally irreconcilable worldviews.  It's in these scenes that Civil War comes closest to selling its argument that "superheroes: yes or no" is a question on which reasonable people can disagree, and that both Tony and Steve have valid points to make.

In order to achieve that gloss of reasonableness, however, Civil War has to commit several rhetorical slights of hand that, as soon as they become clear, undermine not just the film's argument but its very premise.  Our heroes' problems kick off when an Avengers mission in Lagos goes wrong, leaving dozens of civilians dead.  It's the last straw for a world that has grown tired of seeing superheroes at the center of city-destroying mayhem, and as a response the Avengers are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would place them under the auspices of the UN.  While Tony champions the agreement, Steve demurs, refusing to once again place his power at the disposal of the authorities, and insisting that "the best hands are our own."  What seems like a stalemate erupts into open conflict when the summit at which the accords were to be signed is bombed, apparently by Bucky Barnes.  As Steve scrambles, first to bring Bucky in alive, and then to break him out when it becomes clear that he's being framed, he and Tony draw battle lines, with the other MCU characters falling in on both sides.[2]

There are so many problems with this premise, and with how Civil War develops it, that it's hard to know where to start.  For one thing, there is the subtle but insistent way in which the film massages the events of Age of Ultron so that no real blame attaches to any of the Avengers, most especially Tony Stark.  Civil War makes much of the guilt that Tony feels, and of the personal consequences he's suffered as a result of the earlier film's events--we learn, for example, that he and Pepper have broken up.  But like so much else about the movie, this is a bait-and-switch.  The film pretends to acknowledge Tony's guilt, even as it obscures the things he is actually guilty of.  When Tony tells Steve about his breakup with Pepper, for example, he blames it on his inability to leave behind the life of a superhero, not on the fact that he made the unilateral decision to build an all-powerful AI who went crazy and nearly destroyed the planet.  People who hold Tony responsible for the deaths caused by Ultron are similarly unaware of his real guilt, which means the film can act as if it is taking the events of Age of Ultron seriously, without ever facing up to the consequences they should have had.[3]

In other words, Civil War pretends that the problem with the Avengers is collateral damage, their inability to save everyone when they involve themselves in a messed-up situation--this, for example, is what happens in Nigeria, when Wanda Maximoff tries to levitate away a man wearing an explosive vest, but fails to contain the blast long enough to prevent any casualties.  But the real problem with the Avengers is not what they don't or can't do, but what they have done, and what they've gotten away with.  In one particularly galling scene, Wanda sadly muses that the world fears her for her psychic powers.  When really, if anyone fears Wanda, it's probably because she's a former terrorist who sided first with Hydra and then with Ultron, who knowingly sicced the Hulk on a city of three-quarters of a million people, and who has avoided any consequences for these crimes because she enjoys the protection of powerful, connected people like Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.

Another way in which Civil War fudges its premise in order to make it workable is the very purpose of the Sokovia Accords.  The film claims that, as in the original Civil War comic, the accords exist to regulate the actions of "enhanced" individuals, and uses Wanda as a poster child for that need.  But the truth is, people like Wanda are the vast minority of MCU superheroes, and recent additions to boot--Wanda and Vision were introduced in Age of Ultron, and Spider-Man is new to Civil War.  That leaves Steve as the only Avenger whose power is innate.[4]  Every other MCU hero is either someone who dons a supersuit--Tony, Sam, Scott Lang, James Rhodes, T'Challa--or a highly-trained super-agent--Natsha, Sharon Carter, Clint Barton.  Once you realize this, it becomes easier to see that while Civil War claims to be about the question of whether we should have superheroes, what it's actually asking is whether people who are rich and famous (and, for the most part, white and American) should be allowed to form their own private armies, and carry out military missions in population centers all over the world.

Once you ask the question that way, it's clear that the answer is no, and the fact that Steve does not give this answer, while not entirely unearned, is ultimately inexcusable.  Given the events of Winter Soldier, you can see why Steve would balk at placing himself and his powers under the control of any authority.  Civil War also, and wisely, works its way up to the moment when Steve decides to become an outlaw and a criminal--initially, he merely refuses to sign the accords, and tries to bring Bucky in peacefully; it takes several fight scenes for him to become the aggressor.  But ultimately, Steve's reticence to follow anyone's orders but his own is taken to extremes that are not justifiable, and which can't be explained by his loyalty to Bucky.  Aside from anything else, it's not a believable turn for the character, who has to be flattened into self-satisfied authoritarianism in order for the story to work.  The film tries to argue that Steve believes that he's doing the right thing--most notably, by quoting one of Cap's most famous comics lines, "When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: 'No, you move.'"  But of course a person who truly believes this sort of thing can just as easily be a monster as a hero.  The thing that has made Steve Rogers into the latter rather than the former has, until now, been the sense that he realizes this.  In Civil War, that no longer seems to be the case.

Steve's failure to recognize just how far beyond the pale he's gone may or may not be a betrayal of the character[5], but it certainly makes him seem unreasonable, and ultimately even a little villainous.  So does the fact that he can't seem to find any middle ground between getting exactly what he wants, and erupting into violence when he doesn't.  In fairness to Steve, Civil War does not seem to take place in a world in which such a middle ground exists.  When he brings Bucky in to stand trial for the UN bombing, Steve's request that Bucky be represented by a lawyer is greeted, literally, with laughter and derision.  When Steve's allies are arrested near the end of the movie, they are placed, without trial, in a secret prison in the middle of the ocean--even the ones, like Sam or Scott, who have no superpowers without their suits.  It in fact gets a little hard to blame Steve for his intransigence when we realize just how untrustworthy and villainous government is in this movie.  This, however, is a flaw in the story, not a justification for the characters' actions.  It's a flaw that is hardly unique to Civil War, the MCU, or even superhero stories--seemingly all of Western pop culture has bought into the notion that government is either incompetent or evil, and that individual action, usually of the violent variety, is the only way to achieve change.  But it reinforces the sense that for all the movie's pretense to thoughtfulness and sophistication, it ultimately has very little to say.  In a world in which there are only two ways to respond to a problem--surrender and all-out war--there's only so much talking you can do before throwing punches becomes the only possible way to advance the plot.

Nowhere are Civil War's confusion and incoherence more palpable than when its characters finally start throwing punches, in a battle royale between the supers aligned with Steve (Sam, Bucky, Wanda, Scott, and Clint) and the ones aligned with Tony (Natasha, T'Challa, Rhodey, Vision, and Peter Parker).  It is, simultaneously, the film's best scene and its worst one, a brilliant piece of action filmmaking that makes it clear that, for all the thought and care that went into making Civil War seem like a not-stupid movie, in the end this was all it was ever about--an excuse to get our heroes fighting each other, no matter how thin the pretext and how many contortions it has to take their personalities through to get there.

Most of the characters who choose to involve themselves in the climactic fight of Civil War have no real reason to be there.  Why would Scott Lang and Clint Barton endanger their freedom and their lives with their families?  Just because Captain America asks them to?  That sort of thing worked in Winter Soldier, but when Steve's motives are so much murkier and less defensible, it's a lot less believable--and makes Scott and Clint a lot less sympathetic when, later in the movie, they are shocked to discover that breaking the law has landed them in prison.  And then there's the matter of Spider-Man, who is not only a teenager, but, as played by Tom Holland, a very young-seeming one, whose heroics have so far amounted only to tackling street crime.  The fact that Tony Stark recruits this inexperienced child to fight against trained killers is unforgivable.  The fact that Steve Rogers, upon realizing that he's been pitted against a child, doesn't immediately lay down his arms is equally so.  In a coherent story, this alone should disqualify either character from ever again being called a hero.

But Civil War doesn't acknowledge this, because it wants us to, simultaneously, take this scene very seriously--to thrill to the angst and conflict as our heroes are compelled to fight against one another--and not to take it seriously at all--to lean back and enjoy the quips and jokes, forgetting that it actually means something when people abandon diplomacy and compromise and choose violence instead.  The ultimate effect of this tonal zigzag is to make these previously-beloved characters look callous and foolish, something that is only exacerbated by the choice of venue for this fight.  The filmmakers clearly chose an empty airport runway because of the by-now frantic fear shared by all superhero storytellers of seeming indifferent to civilian casualties, but it's a choice that also reinforces the heroes' silliness.  They end up looking like nothing so much as a bunch of hooligans, meeting up for a fistfight at an empty weekend parking lot, because violence is the only way they know to resolve their disputes.[6]

Late in the movie, Steve tells Tony that the fundamental difference between them is that while Tony puts his faith in institutions, Steve chooses to believe in people.  This is, obviously, a false and facile dichotomy, but what's worse is that it isn't even true.  There is nothing about Steve's behavior in Civil War that suggests that he believes in people.  On the contrary, his actions can only be explained by a profound distrust--perhaps even disdain--for the public, the press, and anyone who might form an opinion and pass judgment on his choices and actions.  Instead of arguing publicly against the Sokovia Accords, instead of demanding in the press that Bucky be granted the same right to a fair trial as anyone else, instead of exposing things like the government's secret prison, Steve's approach is to expect everyone else to trust him, implicitly and without question, even as he repeatedly squanders that trust through his choices and actions.  Civil War is a lot more subtle and insidious about it, but by its end the portrait it paints of Steve is not that different from Zack Snyder's take on Superman--they're both men who believe that they have the right to exercise violence as they see fit, and that anyone who tries to question them is so wrong that they're not even worth engaging with.  For a character who was introduced, way back in Captain America: The First Avenger, with the line "I don't like bullies," this is a profoundly disappointing turn.

In Civil War's final scene, Tony and Steve finally realize that they've been played--that the entire purpose of the film's events, and the plot to frame Bucky, was to get them at each other's throats.  It's a truce that doesn't last long, because the film's villain (Daniel Brühl as Zemo, whom I haven't mentioned already because he's ultimately not that important to the story, but who does a good job with a character who deserved more space and attention) reveals what Steve had already known and kept to himself, that one of Bucky's assignments as the Winter Soldier was to kill Tony's parents.  The film obviously sees nothing wrong with the fact that this revelation sparks the final, knock-down fight between the two former friends[7], leading to a rift between them that will obviously not be resolved until Steve and those who have sided with him return to triumphantly save the day in Infinity War.  But to me, Tony's choice to resort to violence--and Steve's choice to go along with him--reveal everything that is wrong, not just with this movie, but with the MCU and possibly even the superhero genre as a whole.

It's OK for Tony Stark to be furious at what he learns about Bucky and Steve.  It's OK for Tony Stark to throw a punch at Steve Rogers.  It is not OK for Iron Man to try to kill Captain America over what is, in the end, a personal matter.  The minute that Tony (and Steve) feel free to use their powers to gratify their own roiling emotions, they cease to be heroes, because a real hero knows that they have the responsibility not only to act, but to know when not to act.  To use their power only as a last resort, and not for frivolous or unjustified reasons.  That both Tony and Steve fail this test is perhaps understandable and human.  But that Civil War does not recognize this as a failure--that it sees their descent into violence as understandable, natural, perhaps even desirable--tells us everything we need to know about its world, in which people arrogate to themselves tremendous power and the right to use it whenever and however they want, and the rest of us don't even get to question it.  Much as I enjoyed it, I think Civil War is the point where the MCU and I part ways, because there is, quite simply, no one left to root for.



[1] This is particularly true of Sam, whose devolution, from a counselor who was happy to befriend and help Steve but who also had his own life and his own career, into Captain America's sidekick, has been one of the more disappointing turns of the post-Winter Soldier MCU movies.

[2] As an aside, it's extremely gratifying that the country that takes the lead in championing the Sokovia Accords is the fictional African superpower Wakanda.  Obviously, as far as the MCU's handlers are concerned, this serves the purpose of introducing the Wakandan crown prince T'Challa, also known as the Black Panther.  But given how casually the MCU's movies and TV shows have assumed that their American heroes are entitled to jet into sovereign--and mostly non-Western--nations, cause mayhem, and jet away, it's encouraging to see that within the films' universe, the pushback to this approach comes from the leaders of non-white countries.  I've seen some conflicting reactions to the entire concept of Wakanda--why, some people quite reasonably ask, invent an African nation instead of using one of the many real ones that Hollywood blockbusters tend to treat as nothing but a backdrop?  The answer to that question will obviously depend a great deal on how Black Panther handles its setting, but the little we see of it in Civil War--and the fact that Wakanda is able to demand concessions from the Western world--feels encouraging.

[3] The fact that the world has been allowed to remain ignorant of Tony's role in creating Ultron is one of the huge potholes in the MCU that Civil War can't avoid falling into.  It robs Tony of any moral authority he might otherwise have had, while making the other characters look stupid for not even bringing it up in their arguments with him.

[4] Bucky is not an Avenger at any point in this movie, and anyway it's never been clear to me whether he has actual superpowers or is simply supremely trained.  Technically, Thor and the Hulk should also count as supers with innate powers, but neither of them appears in this movie, and more importantly, it should be obvious that the Sokovia Accords can't be applied to either one of them.

[5] Certainly by this point there seem to have been more MCU movies that depict Steve as a self-righteous prig than ones that take a more nuanced view of him.

[6] It should be noted that not everyone in the film is so casually accepting of Steve and Tony's recourse to violence, but that the characters who question it are, for the most part, also the ones given the least space in the story.  Natasha initially sides with Tony because she feels that signing the accords is the best solution to a real predicament, and stands with him in the parking lot fight.  But she also chastises him for letting his ego guide his decisions, and, realizing that the situation between him and Steve can only escalate into further violence, removes herself from it.  She is thus absent from the film's final act.  Vision correctly warns that Tony and Steve's unwillingness to compromise will lead to calamity, but when his warnings go unheeded, he apparently feels obliged to join in the fighting.  Only T'Challa is allowed to truly grow in his views, and to see clearly how foolish and pointless Steve and Tony's squabbling is.  But he is also the character who is most disconnected from the rest of the story and its characters, existing, seemingly, in his own narrative that just happens to coincide with theirs.

[7] It is darkly funny that in both Civil War and Batman v Superman, the crucial turning point in a battle between the two heroes is rooted in the Batman character's lingering issues over the murder of his mother.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Review: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Even as we reel from yesterday's Hugo nominees and impatiently await tonight's Clarke nominees, Strange Horizons has published my review of Sofia Samatar's second novel The Winged Histories.  I wrote about Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a few years ago, and was blown away by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its worldbuilding, and the nuanced view it took of the epic fantasy genre. 

The Winged Histories, which is a sort of companion volume to A Stranger in Olondria, is very different from it, though no less excellent.  It is, in some ways, a more conventional novel, focusing on the main events of a civil war within a fantasy empire, where Stranger took place on the fringes of that war and featured a protagonist who just wanted to get away from it.  But like Stranger, Histories is an examination of its genre, of storytelling, and of the very project of imposing narrative on one's life.  It touches on issues like colonialism, empire, race, and gender, and features four wonderful heroines, each very different from the others, and all immediately fascinating and lovable.  Together and separately, The Winged Histories and A Stranger in Olondria are a major work of modern fantasy, one that deserves to be widely read and discussed.