Paladin’s Hope, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Hope is the queer continuation of Ursula Vernon’s paladin romances (written as T. Kingfisher). It does finally deliver the gay romance I’d asked for previously, and now I’m wondering what other stories we’ll get next given that I know there are a few paladins remaining without books about them.

For personal reasons, I enjoyed reading this one less than I enjoyed the others (Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength). I’ll try to dig into that, but I should add: if you liked the previous books in the series and still want “paladin romance,” this will still give you that and do it well. My personal discomfort has more to do with my own history than with some bigger critique of the book or series.

These books are all about paladins (often along with their potential romantic partners) being—in the words of friends who also read and enjoy these books—“total goobers.” The paladins these books revolve around all have lots of reasons for telling themselves why they’re not good enough for a romantic partner, or telling themselves that they’re doing everyone a favor by not pursuing or committing to a relationship, or etc. They are, in short, goobers. This goober-ness almost always drives the core of the relationship drama at the heart of each novel’s romance plot. There’s always other plot too, good fun stuff, often with intrigue and murder playing off the romantic tension to draw the story out and let everything feel right, narrative-wise. It’s well-written and does the expected romance novel thing, and it’s all fun.

But with Paladin’s Hope, Vernon very evocatively wrote some goober-ness that reminded me—painfully, powerfully—of my own previous episodes of goober-ness. And that hurt a lot. It hurt enough, was evocative enough, that I had to stop reading for a while and just meditate to keep myself from spiraling.

That’s the reason I liked reading this one less.

It’s still a good fantasy romance with murder and intrigue, like the others in the series. It’s certainly got some solid characterization and a good portrayal of relationship dynamics (healthy and unhealthy).

It wasn’t comfortable for me, and that’s okay. With any luck, you won’t have the same issues that I did.

The book also establishes the next step for the larger story world’s plot. I’m quite excited about that. I think the next few books in the setting and series will be fun, and big, and open up bigger overarching plot elements again. Those felt a little lacking with this novel, though I can’t say I noticed the lack until I reflected on it after the fact. Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Freya Marske’s A Marvellous Light is magic society intrigue set in early 1900s Britain, with a heaping serving of gay romance on top.

I knew I was reading something very gay before I started, given what little I’d heard about the book beforehand. I *hadn’t* realized I was going to be reading lurid sex scenes. Fortunately, I was able to avoid reading those scenes in public (something I’ve tried to be cautious about since a few awkward experiences in high school—Covid has actually been helpful there), and I was able to just relax and enjoy the book.

If you read the things I had to say about Ursula Vernon’s books, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that this book delivered all the gay romance I’d felt was lacking in the first two Saint of Steel books. Also, I just realized that I read the newest one (Paladin’s Hope) and didn’t write about it here. I’ll try to rectify that.

But I’m distracting myself. This book is good stuff. And it opens with an excellent dramatic scene that sets the stakes for all that is to follow.

In fact, thinking about it from a composition perspective, I wonder when Marske decided to use that as the opening scene; it’s the right choice, I think, and does a marvelous job of creating tension for the reader, but it doesn’t seem like the obvious jumping off point for the next set of scenes. It feels like the teaser intro used to open a spy movie and showcase the future badness our heroes will face. That’s not the wrong choice or the wrong genre for the rest of the story, it’s just not the surface genre for the next step of the story. And I really want to know what inspired Marske to thread these pieces together this way.

Backing up…

Freya Marske has combined several genres here, as I mentioned up top. There’s gay romance, there’s magical fantasy, there’s historical society intrigue and drama (subgenre: British, early 1900s), and there’s the related spy genre. I tie those last two together because, in many ways, spy stories (more le Carré, less Fleming) feel like a reduction of society intrigue: concentrated, cooked down over some higher stakes to something more piquant, seasoned with a dash of paranoia and murderousness. The ultimate dish here is less twisty than an actual le Carré story, but with some of the same flavors and machinations.

So. Back to the novel (heh) genre blending of the book’s first chapters…

When the first scene of the book feels like the opening to a spy story, turning up the pressure and letting us know that something dire is afoot, that’s great. Then the story segues into something that feels more like society drama and leaves the threat lurking under the surface, like a shark too deep to show the reader its fin. And that works too. But, as a tonal shift, I don’t think the choice to do things that way is immediately self-evident. Or, it wasn’t an obvious option to me until I read this.

By the end of the story, it’s clear that all those elements work well together. What’s more, the genres feel well-blended; I’m really looking forward to the (clearly intended) sequel(s) and how they play with this mixture, because I suspect this story’s continuation will give me even more of the magical intrigue and spy fiction that I desperately want. If there’s more queer romance in it, all the better.

All of which is to say, if this blend of genres sounds like your cup of tea then you should hop to and find yourself a copy. It’s good stuff.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers’ work, as I think I’ve written about before here, feels like a different kind of science fiction (and indeed genre fiction) than the stuff that I grew up reading as a kid. Her work is… emotionally textured, small in physical-plot scale, entirely about the characters in the story and their emotional journeys rather than about the big dramatic large-scale events which might be happening around them.

Her stories are about people before they’re about events. Sometimes big things happen, yes, but it’s the characters and their emotional lives that get our focus.

And this story, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (is it a novella? It’s certainly brief) feels even more character focused than the other books of hers I’ve read (the Wayfarer series).

That’s not a weakness.

I mean, none of this is a weakness, it’s what she does so well. It’s what sets her apart from so much other genre fiction (so much other fiction, period). I love this aspect of her work. What I mean to say is… the fact that this story feels even more character focused than her other books is a strength. It’s a delight.

The story is meditative, it’s charming, it’s sweet. It’s not without a hint of bitterness and sadness. But only enough to feel honest, only the amount that leaves me thinking “yes, this is precisely the way that would feel, this is just right as a representation of this very human emotional experience.” I often feel that way about things that Becky Chambers has written. Her skill at finding the emotional heart of an experience, and then expressing it in a way that resonates and sings, is one of the things I love about her work.

And that, no doubt, is why I love this story.

Well, it’s part of why I love the story.

There’s another large part, which is unique to me and a few of my friends; we’ve been playing a game of D&D for the past several years (yikes, we might be coming up on seven years at this point) and in many ways this entire book feels like the core of my (robot-plant) character. Reading a story that feels like it fully understands my character’s slightly-askew perspective on life—right down to the questions about purpose and… everything, really—is a joy. I feel like I’ve briefly shared brainspace with Becky Chambers herself. It’s fun, and it’s flattering: a writer I deeply respect reached similar thoughts when exploring this character’s emotional and psychological interior.

And all of this has left me wondering: where are the feeder-stories, the tributaries that lead new genre readers (or readers who love other parts of the genre) to this book? Is it happenstance? Does it rely on word of mouth?

I would not have found her work if I’d kept reading the adventure stories of my youth. I had read so many different high-plot high-action genre stories, with lots of exciting action going on and significantly less time given over to emotional depth. Had I continued reading “similar works” I suspect that I would never have picked up The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. In fact, I only read Chambers because a friend suggested that first Wayfarer book to me.

I hadn’t known that Becky Chambers’ stories were something I would love.

Anyways.

This is a good book. I recommend it, especially if you already know you like Chambers’ stories. If you haven’t tried her work before, this might be a little slow as an introduction (even if it is also quite short). But if you want good gentle science fiction all about very human emotions and philosophical struggles, this is a great piece for you.

Oh, yeah, this story also leaves me feeling better about the world, humanity, and myself. Other reviewers have called it optimistic, I’d call it heartening. It’s really very good in that way.

EV adventures

I was busy last Thursday. Very busy. I had a bit of an adventure, really.

My sib has finally replaced their ancient car with an EV, and we used it last Thursday to deliver our brother (the eldest) and his kids to the airport. From Burlington, Vermont, to Boston’s Logan Airport.

During the winter.

I, and my sib, learned a great deal.

We delivered our eldest brother and our niblings to the airport only twenty minutes later than planned, but the drive took approximately twice as long as I’d normally expect (seven hours, ish). It turns out that the quality of the charging stations available to you matters a great deal, whether that’s “do they charge quickly” or “do they work at all.”

The EV in question is not a Tesla, no superchargers for us.

This all meant that we stopped several times for recharging, with each stop taking about thirty to fifty minutes. We would stop charging before hitting full capacity because the rate-of-charge decreases significantly as the battery fills, so we tried to time our stops to only charge when we’d actually get faster charging. I can see a future where this becomes more normal, and the dominant “highway refueling” paradigm shifts from gas stations with little quick-to-use convenience stores to charging stations with diners, restaurants, or any place that can hold your attention easily for fifteen to fifty minutes. It’s not a bad feel, really, and if we weren’t under time pressure to deliver our family to the airport, it might have been nice to slow our journey and appreciate those stops. Not having COVID be a thing would help too.

But as best as we can tell, any charger installation needs someone nearby who really cares about whether it works and how well it works. The reliable chargers were near stores that might want them to attract clientele, mostly Whole Foods (though there was a Walmart with mostly-okay chargers). But other chargers, like one hidden behind a hotel, were often simply broken and only registered error codes or offered trickle charges that would take a whole day (or night) to refuel. Even the chargers in Somerville’s Assembly Square garage didn’t work reliably; if my sib and I are right, this comes down to no one establishment caring enough about the chargers to push for their regular maintenance, and no one establishment seeing them as clearly tied to their own reputation.

Having delivered the fam to the airport, we then turned around and headed back north. Well, after stopping to charge again and eat. It probably would have been a better idea to stay the night in Somerville, all things considered.

But we retraced our steps, mostly without excitement (except for a surprise fireworks display), until we were nearly in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. That’s when the temperature dropped into the single digits (6F or so) and we both got real quiet, watching the battery’s gauge plummet.

We had to cycle the defroster, and turn off the car’s heat in general, in order to nurse the battery to the charge station… where we discovered that the charging capacity had been temporarily reduced (from earlier that day) due to an in-progress system update. It felt, in many ways, how I imagine early gasoline car trips might have felt. Remarkably functional, exciting, and just uncertain enough to keep us on the edges of our seats.

So we spent the next hour and a half or so waiting for the battery to charge. We napped (or lay still with eyes shut, in my case), and drank our extra coffee, and generally tried to pass the time as midnight rolled by. After watching the battery drop so quickly in the cold temperatures, we didn’t want to chance going up and over the Green Mountains without a nearly full charge, so we took extra time to be sure. Then, nearly full, we set out again.

The first leg of that trip was nerve-wracking. We kept eyeing the number of miles remaining, comparing it to the percent charge still in our battery. We planned out where we’d pull off the highway and ask for help, if it looked like we were losing charge too quickly. It wasn’t until we could tell that we were definitely getting slightly more than one mile per percent of battery charge that we relaxed—we knew we had another charger in range at that point, which would let us finally return to Burlington about seventeen hours after we’d left.

From there on, it was fun. We talked, listened to music, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Vermont is beautiful, and driving through it at night and watching the snowscapes pass by is still something I love.

It’s not a trip I want to make again in an EV though, not the way we did it.

I think that until the charging infrastructure is a little better—more reliable, faster, more omnipresent—I prefer to make shorter trips. Or I prefer to make long trips like that with more flexible time available on either end. I suspect that the trip would feel quite different in the summer, too, without the battery choking on the frigid temperatures.

But, for all that I have been raised to expect the convenience of a gas engine, I think the more languid rhythm of a long EV trip is quite nice. And I think it’s vital that we build out better charging infrastructure to make those trips easier, because EVs are the only practicable way to move car-culture and long range personal transport past petroleum. I don’t think there’s anything inherently different about what is possible with an EV, I just need to change the way I think about structuring my trips in them: what would be a three and a half hour trip will be longer, and I’ll want to plan for more rests and more layovers, as it were.

This makes me think of rural America, and of small towns.

I actually think there’s a lot to be said for EV charging, and building business offerings around that, as a way to buttress the small communities that are so often simply passed and ignored by people on highways. When you’re nearly guaranteed to spend half an hour in a spot charging your car, you’re far more likely to look around and be tempted to eat or buy something. Gasoline vehicles will pull into a station and be out again three minutes later, there’s no captive audience there. But EV drivers are far more likely to want something to do, see, or eat while their vehicle prepares for the next leg of the trip. If an EV charging network can collaborate with local businesses, or if local businesses can band together to offer a charging station… that would be great.

Despite the harrowing nature of some pieces of my trip last week, I think EVs are great. I think they’re vital to weaning ourselves off petroleum, and I think they could be another way to bring people to the small communities that have withered along the sides of the highway for so long. Maybe we’ll be fortunate enough to see them succeed.

Blood Bowl 2, for socializing with friends

This is not a recommendation, this is just me musing on a game that I’ve been enjoying with my friends for the past… COVID, really. We started playing together in the spring of 2020, when we realized that we weren’t likely to see each other for a long while. I’d never played Blood Bowl before, though I remembered seeing a couple painted minis for it when I was a little kid.

I thought those looked cool, like pretty much everything else that my older sibs touched.

Normally, my friends and I would all see each other in the summer while we worked at LARP camp. We’re also quite close, emotionally speaking; being able to talk to them regularly was (is!) sanative and restorative for me. Given that I’m bad at staying in touch with anyone I don’t see regularly or intentionally schedule time with, playing a semi-weekly fake sports match in a league with my friends was pretty ideal.

The game, however, was not easy to love. Blood Bowl is a satirical mashup of soccer hooliganry, American football, and rugby, and it’s about as violent as it is tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a troublesome beast, full of non-obvious rules and capricious randomness. You can absolutely play an excellent game and still lose because you were sufficiently unlucky with your dice. And you can win a game with a mere tactical victory, while most of your team lies broken and bleeding on the pitch.

In a strange way, I think Blood Bowl was a very appropriate game for me to start playing during the early stages of a pandemic. You have to learn equanimity to play well, or at least learn to recognize when you’ve lost that balance. You can only play your best, try to control what you can, and understand that there’s always something that simply isn’t up to you. In that way, it was quite good at teaching me to let go of trying to control absolutely everything.

Useful, given the world’s circumstances.

For a long time, perhaps over a year of playing the game, I wasn’t even interested in playing with anyone besides my friends. No matter how much fun I had playing, it was often still stressful. And the thought of playing with anyone I wasn’t close friends with—anyone I wasn’t LARP-camp friends with—had very little appeal. A lot of the joy I got from the game came from naming my team and players after good bits, things that I could play to the hilt and which I and my friends could laugh about. It helped that some of my fellow players were into pro-wrestling and convinced us all to indulge in the kayfabe and the creation of faces and heels for our league.

But I think I’ve finally turned a corner. I can’t say I’m likely to start playing games with randoms on the internet, but I’ve finally reached a point where the game feels more rewarding and less stressful. Maybe that’s from growing skill and familiarity, maybe it’s a shift in mental health and brain weather, or maybe it’s something else. Suffice to say, I do actually enjoy the game these days. I don’t only engage with it as a way of maintaining regular contact with my friends (though that is still something I treasure).

For myself, I’m looking forward to more seasons of Blood Bowl to come. And I can’t wait to see whether the Skraghaven Squigbitas can take down that uppity bunch of varsity kids, the Kronar High Neandertals. I plan to watch, and heckle, and root for my friends this Saturday while we find out what wildly improbable inanity will happen this time.

I think I finally understand what people love about rooting for their teams in real life sports. I won’t say that you should try the game, or that you’d enjoy it, but… you might?

Under the right circumstances, you might.

Exit Strategy, and more Murderbot from Martha Wells

Martha Wells does an excellent job of wrapping up her arc in Exit Strategy (Murderbot #4).

Her habit through the first four novellas of layering in emotional struggles alongside but separate from the underlying physical plot—separating the drivers of the physical and emotional plots in ways that are contrary to most current practice—works really well here. That separation allows her to write Murderbot as a proactive character, reaching for goals that it chooses for itself, without requiring Murderbot to be complicit in pushing its own emotional development. That’s important, because Wells has created a character with zero desire to engage in personal emotional content (despite its love of human media), which means that Murderbot starts the series uncooperative in pursuing any emotionally charged plot.

It’s a neat combination of a driven and reluctant protagonist, in one package.

Murderbot’s reluctance to engage in emotionally charged plot only makes the conflicts Wells builds towards in Exit Strategy even more satisfying. And because of all that, because of the character transformation that Wells laid out over the course of the first four Murderbot novellas, I cried as I neared the end of book four. It was that good.

Having now read the rest of the (currently available) series, I think Wells’ use of a multiple-novella arc was ingenious. I think those first four novellas together may even be stronger than the novel-length Murderbot story. This isn’t due to a lack on the novel’s part—rather, I think it’s an outgrowth of how the novellas serve Murderbot’s growth uniquely well.

Some thoughts on this…

Any time that a character needs to experience emotional growth and change, it helps to have your story cover a long enough time period for that change to feel real. It’s also useful to have there be multiple mutually reinforcing circumstances that coincide, over time, to produce the gradual shift. Both of those things are easier to do over the course of multiple novellas, where literary convention allows the story to wander across more spaces, times, and situations without the requirement of tying all the developments into a single cohesive unit of story. An obvious parallel: it’s the same freedom of expanded narrative space that allows a six hour miniseries to offer more character growth than a three hour movie. Spreading that character transformation out, especially when it’s a big and complicated one, gives the character’s growth space to breathe, expand, and feel less forced.

The usual alternative—the approach most similar to a movie’s, and the one favored by action and adventure stories since the 1800s at least—is to have the story produce a high-tension crucible of a climax, where all the preceding character development comes to the fore and shakes out like an earthquake of personal growth. That single big conflict has to encompass, even prove, all of the character’s transformation in the story. That means that if there are multiple points of change, they all need to be set up ahead of time. The groundwork is often elaborate, and a large degree of genre-savviness is simply learning to recognize those story preparations.

Storytelling is all artificial; it’s artifice working as hard as it can to look natural and real. And it’s harder to make something look real when you’re forcing it to go as fast as possible, with nary a moment to breathe. Giving a big character transformation more space therefore helps to smooth everything out and make a tumultuous period of transformation look right.

That’s what Martha Wells does with her first four novellas.

I think her novel length piece, Network Effect, is still good. I enjoyed it a lot, and happily recommend it to anyone who likes the Murderbot series. But it doesn’t do all the same work that the first four novellas do. In some ways, the important emotional journeys of Network Effect belong to people besides Murderbot… and they aren’t as resonant or rewarding for me as the arc Murderbot completed in Exit Strategy.

They’re still good though.

But now I’ve run out of new Murderbot to read, and I’m at a bit of a loss. My next few library books aren’t ready yet. And once I have them I don’t expect them to be as good, or as good in the same ways, as Murderbot.

I’m really looking forward to whatever Martha Wells writes next. I hope it’s more Murderbot, but I’m excited for whatever it is.

Dune (2021)

Dune (2021) reminded me why I like seeing movies in theaters. It was CINEMA, in an incredibly all-caps fashion. It was larger than life: it pulled me out of my socially distanced seat, even made me forget that I was wearing a mask, and caught me up in its vastness.

There are certainly movies that benefit from being seen on the big screen, movies that benefit from having a good sound system. So many MCU blockbusters fit that description. I’m sure I’ve said that of other movies here before.

But it’s rare that I watch a movie that feels designed for that largeness every step of the way. It’s rare to watch something that so welcomes dwarfing its human actors against massive backdrops, that feels ready to swallow up everyone on screen at once. It’s even more rare for these movies to go beyond dazzling spectacle, and to evoke awe.

I really liked watching Dune. I LOVED it.

I’m not yet talking about the story, or the characters, or any of that (though I do have thoughts there). I’m not covering the soundtrack at all, which deserves its own essay. Nor am I talking yet about how Dune is problematic, and one of my problematic faves. I’m just talking about the experience of watching Dune on a big screen, with a proper 7.1 sound system that I could feel in my chest. And part of that, part of the magnificence of the movie and how it drew me in, comes down to a set of decisions they made that (I think) were brilliant.

First of all the camera work, and especially the groundedness of the camera, keeps the viewer in the scene. The camera never moves in ways that feel unreal, even when its location is obviously impossible: the vacuum of space is graced with a slow pan, while an ornithopter in flight is followed either from the ground, or with what feels like remarkably steady helicopter work. Like David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, scale and distance and perspective still play a crucial role as we see just how small the characters are in their setting—a visual cue that parallels the ways in which so many people in this movie, full of hopes and dreams, are rendered insignificant and cast aside.

This movie’s visuals say, loud and clear, that the world is bigger than any human. It’s bigger, and it doesn’t care. Arrakis doesn’t care about you. The Padishah Emperor doesn’t care about you… and if he does, he may simply wish you dead or broken. The story is Shakespearean, as Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat in Dune 2021) points out. I agree, though perhaps a little differently: it’s a vast tragedy, with many people who die on the sidelines without ever achieving what they’d wished. Few people are as large as they might think themselves, few as important. The movie’s visual language hammers this home.

But the visuals also feel incredibly real. That feels unusual for a big genre movie with showy fantastical elements. So often, those big “wow” moments are both impressive and just slightly off. Dune manages to convey a sense of reality and presence that I can only compare to seeing the original Jurassic Park in theaters. As I discovered when I dug deeper, this is because the Dune production team (like the JP team) paid attention to minute detail, working extremely hard to make every little bit fit together—and work together—into a greater whole. It paid off.

For one, Dune paid incredible attention to lighting color and quality. They developed a new background screen which the production team called a “sand screen,” replacing the common blue and green ones. A warm brown, the sand screen better matched the lighting-color of their set locations, and allowed reflected background lighting to paint the proper colors on the actors’ faces, thereby enhancing the visual immersion (at the cost of slightly harder work for the CG artists). This meant that even when working with CG’d-in sets, the actors were still lit more like they were shooting on location.

Speaking of shooting on location: Dune captured their outdoor shots with real sunlight, even when working in front of screens. And when they had explosions in dark scenes, they filmed in darkness and cued pre-positioned lights to illuminate the actors’ faces in time with the explosions. What’s more, they used literal tons of real sand in many of their blowing-sand shots (material that gave their CG artists something to work with while touching up the scenes) and took footage of helicopters blowing up desert dust clouds for additional reference.

Heck, they also weren’t afraid to let those dust clouds obscure their (beautiful, intricate) prop and set designs. There were shots where I could barely make out the vast scenery, only see hints of it by well chosen lighting and inference. The production team understood the value of not showing everything, of letting the viewers fill the gaps. And while they may have covered up some of the gorgeous art they’d created for the film, the effect was magnificently immersive. Watching a lone figure buffeted by wind and rain below the landing lights of an otherwise pitch black ship, or seeing Harkonnen combat vehicles hidden by billowing sand and lit only by the flares of their own missiles, I felt more pulled into the scene. And the movie pulled my focus to the elements it really wanted to show, rather than overwhelming me with too much detail.

They did an excellent job.

Okay, now for some of the other stuff.

First, if you’ve read the book you’ll know what’s happening. If you haven’t, I can’t help you. It’s been so long since I read the book, this story has wormed its way through my brain. I doubt I can judge whether it does a good enough job of including an uninformed audience.

That immediately opens many cans of worms. Dune, the novel, was published in 1965. That age, and the divergence in social assumptions that go with it, is palpable when you think about the book. And despite the little ways they’ve changed things, the movie is pretty faithful to the original text.

But in a lot of ways, the 2021 film does a good job of concealing the cultural temporal disconnect. While it (like the source material) is painted up like science fiction, the movie’s genre feels far more like grim feudal intrigue fantasy, in space. That gives it some cultural leeway I think it might otherwise lack. Like an interstellar Game of Thrones, with some technology that reads like magic (or an excuse to follow Frank Herbert’s personal Rule of Cool), it’s clear that this world has some different cultural conventions than our own. And, of course, we return to it being a Shakespearean story—murderous feudal politicking in space.

Now, I feel the movie made the right choice by leaning into the fantasy intrigue genre, because I think the book was there all along. For me, the book fits far better into the genre conventions of epic fantasy a la grim feudal political intrigue than the genre conventions of science fiction. (I feel similarly about Star Wars: it’s space fantasy, rather than sci fi). It feels like the movie is being even more faithful to the text than I’d realized was possible.

I don’t think this will save them from all the ways in which Dune is problematic. I think it already hasn’t. This movie is less problematic than its source text, but not without issues of its own.

But it does look like they’ve backed off some of the ways the original text was troublesome, and laid some groundwork (that I don’t recall from the books) that builds context for other ways in which the original story was problematic. I have no idea to what extent that will cushion the blow, though, because… this was just Dune: Part One. Time to wait another two years, probably.

I’ve now written enough without a clear outline that I’m losing track of my thoughts. Suffice to say I think this is an awesome movie, in the archaic and classical “awe-inspiring“ sense of the word. It’s absolutely worth watching if you can see it on a big screen with big sound. If you can’t, and you’re a Dune fan, you should still watch it. If you’re not a Dune fan… yeah, I’d still recommend it, provided you know what you’re getting yourself into (I’m not going to write about that here and now, this is already too long). But do try to find a safe way to see it on something large. And ready yourself for taking in visual and auditory spectacle.

Because wow. This movie is a lot.

Blade Singer, by Aaron de Orive and Martha Wells

This isn’t Murderbot.

It’s really not fair to compare the two. But because I found this book by looking for other things involving Martha Wells—that felt like Murderbot—I’m afraid it’s doomed to comparison. This was the available book, with Martha Wells’ name attached. It wasn’t what I was looking for.

I did finish it.

Blade Singer isn’t Murderbot. It’s straightforward portal fiction, with a powerful fey three musketeers vibe. All genres I like. Clearly intended for that awkward threshold between middle grade and young adult, where the plot is very middle grade but the writing is a tad more complex, Blade Singer has a mix of genres (and a target audience marketing category) that I have strong opinions about.

Honestly, this book is fine. I enjoyed it. My quibbles with it are perhaps unreasonable.

Leaving aside my desire for more Murderbot, I think this is actually a solid book to give to a younger reader who enjoys fantasy, fey and faeries, swashbuckling and musketeers, or portal fiction. And it’s a solid choice for any younger reader who might like those things and hasn’t gotten deep into books yet. It isn’t as immediately accessible as other simpler reads (it’s no Warrior Cats), but it’s not especially difficult either. On that front, it lands the upper middle grade rating pretty solidly.

However… as someone who’s quite familiar with (and enjoys) all the genres involved, this book also doesn’t offer any big surprises or new takes. It isn’t transforming the genres, or at least not in a way that offers a story more complex and nuanced and to my taste. It doesn’t succeed where other ostensibly-for-children fiction has thrived, with the depth required for cross age-market appeal (think She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, most Pixar movies, or Nnedi Okorafor’s middle grade work like Akata Witch or Shadow Speaker).

Blade Singer’s stumbling blocks for me, I think, were its moral and emotional plots. They were present, all the requisite structure was there, but they felt almost bland. Like I could see the action on the page, and I knew how it would or should play out, but I never felt pulled into it, into feeling it. And I know this book could have done that. All the puzzle pieces were there.

Part of that could have been the close over-the-shoulder third person narration, but I know other close third stories have succeeded for me where this book didn’t. And while adding more filigrees to the moral and emotional plots might have helped make them less straightforward, I don’t think that would have solved the issue for me—I don’t feel pulled in just because something’s complex, I enjoy something being complex when I’ve already been pulled in. I think it came down to something about the characterization, and the fact that I simply bounced off of fully connecting with the narrator, Manny.

Your mileage may vary.

But that emotional bounce, and having a solid physical plot while struggling with the emotional and moral plot, reminds me of my own experience first writing fiction. With most of my preceding storytelling experience coming from running RPGs, I struggled to make stories with emotional connection or character depth. I’ve written about all that on this blog before.

And maybe I’m reading too closely here, but I think Aaron de Orive had a similar starting point (both in terms of games and the fiction he consumed). He’s involved in writing for RPGs and video games, and the authors he mentions on his personal site aren’t known for their excellent depictions of relatable complex emotional people, not like the modern authors I’d compare them to. Many are the same authors I read as a kid.

For me at least, writing linear fiction was a puzzle that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t solving. Most adventure fiction I’d read as a kid didn’t have much emotional depth or nuance. And while I knew how to elicit reactions from my players, that was all about setting up the stage with the right plot pieces and then letting them complete all the robust internal character struggle in their own heads. I didn’t know how to show that on the page. Sometimes, I still don’t.

But I wanted Aaron de Orive (and Martha Wells, she’s credited as a co-author even though this doesn’t feel anything like her other work I’ve read so far) to yank on my heartstrings. I wanted these authors to reel me in deep and leave me really feeling the joys and sorrows of the characters involved. That didn’t happen. And I didn’t feel attached enough (as I did with Murderbot) to complete the loop myself.

But as I said above, my quibbles are probably unreasonable. Blade Singer has more emotional depth than those adventure stories I read as a kid. It’s not a bad book! It’s perfectly fine, and I do recommend it to anyone who likes the relevant genres. And, to really enjoy it, I think you’re best off reading it as a kid who doesn’t have as much experience with these stories.

All Systems Red & Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

I love Murderbot.

I’m late to the game, I know. But if there’s any upside, it’s that there are already a bunch of Murderbot stories for me to read. I don’t have to wait for them to be written and published.

The downside, of course, is that I’m reading them through the library and other people are being slow and I just want more Murderbot now please and thank you. This enforced wait is especially jarring given that I got my hands on the first two on the same day, blazed through them both, and now have to wait for the rest of the series to be free (in order, no less).

Why do I love Murderbot? Probably for many of the same reasons that other people do. Martha Wells has done an excellent job forging a voice for this character, dry, wry, and full of sardonic wit. And Murderbot is not an especially reliable narrator, even if it may think of itself as one; while it does generally admit to its emotional experience eventually, it spends a good deal of effort trying not to. Plus, while it so clearly wants to think of itself as not-a-person, Murderbot’s internal monologue is extremely easy to sympathize with—which makes it feel even more person-like, even while it protests that it is not a person.

The inversion of expectation is another part of what I love so much about Murderbot. Who’d think a security cyborg would want to spend all its time watching soap operas, listening to music, or binging its way through trashy fiction? The fact that Murderbot simply wants to be left alone, not be looked at or spoken to, not be asked to do anything, and simply be allowed to indulge itself in stories… it’s delightful. It’s relatable. To my reading, Murderbot is anxious and depressed and just wants some peace and quiet. But it’s (of course) Murderbot’s inability to get the peace and quiet it desires that makes this all work so well.

I have mixed feelings about reluctant protagonists, mostly because of how our collective love of them in media shapes the way many people make their characters for RPGs. Players’ desire to make their characters match that popular reluctant archetype often plays out to their and their play group’s disservice, in my experience. But when a narrative is so wonderfully fit around that reluctance (much easier to manage in a linear narrative, of course)… well. It’s hard to match that narrative tension, and the struggles of someone with so relatable a set of goals and desires, faced with extraordinary circumstances, only make it better.

This character is very good. The story is very good. Martha Wells has done wonderful things here.

I owe my mom for this next observation, given that she made it while I was telling her about the book.

In some ways, Murderbot is reminiscent of Ferdinand the Bull (one of my favorite childhood characters and books). 

Murderbot is seen by everyone else as an object, and an object of fear, violence, and suspicion at that. But much like Ferdinand, it only wants to spend its time quietly, peacefully, not bothering anyone and not being bothered.

Unlike Ferdinand, Murderbot struggles to see itself as anything but an object—finds its own object-hood safer, maybe more comfortable, than thinking of itself as a person—and works to avoid any confrontation that might jostle the status quo. Better to remain in the limbo that you know, be it ever so depressing, confining, and uncomfortable, than to risk seeking something better. Though in Murderbot’s case the risk involved is quite literally obliteration, so maybe the caution is warranted.

Extremely vague *SPOILERS* follow.

I’m also fascinated by the shift from the first story to the second. Where the first felt like a more whole story, something that contained a more complete and satisfying emotional & character arc, the second story felt like an installment, another step along a longer path. The second also had elements that left me thinking of the differences between what a character *thinks* will be important—as well as what the longer term plot demands as another step along their path—and what is actually most transformative for them.

The Witness for the Dead might be a good example for disambiguating this: there are a lot of mostly-unrelated side plots, and only one or two of them tie back into the central intrigue of the story. Katherine Addison could have cut those side plots, or rewritten and collapsed them into the central plot somehow, but the first option would have left the story feeling sparse and the main character’s emotional journey unsupported… while the second would have felt too contrived, unreal. We put up with the second (those contrived, perfectly neat stories) in our fiction all the time, because we’ve been trained as readers to expect the elements of a story to all tie in together in the end, but that’s rarely very true as a depiction of real life—and allowing for divergence in those plot lines is both freeing and lets the author give more space to the rest of the world beyond the immediate plot of the story.

So in The Witness for the Dead our narrator pursues a series of different investigations and jobs, only some of which tie into his primary task. And while he’s trying to resolve one central investigation, it’s his struggles with the other ones—which have little bearing on the first—that inform his emotional growth and development. His initial concern is less important to his personal realizations.

All Systems Red meshes these struggles. All the plot conflicts, Murderbot’s personal emotional conflict and its external physical plot conflict, are wound together into one thread. There’s no real divergence, the whole thing is extremely neat.

But Artificial Condition makes space for divergence by containing parallel plot lines that feed into each other while remaining separate. Murderbot’s biggest emotional and personal growth comes from the plot line, the conflict, that it is less initially invested in. Thus Murderbot thinks that one course of action, one set of objectives, is the important one… only to find out that the other holds at least as much importance to it, that the way it is treated by humans matters far more to it than it had ever realized or accounted for before. This means that Artificial Condition changes the way the story had approached its combination of character development and physical plot in All Systems Red, and that’s at the core of why this sequel feels notably distinct from the first story.

*END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I’m loving the Murderbot Diaries. I recommend them completely. They’re very good.

The Harder They Fall (2021)

Profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, and all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world.

I can’t write about this movie without writing about Wild Wild West (the 1999 Will Smith film, not the midcentury TV show that gave rise to that movie). I also have to talk about the larger context of Westerns. And I ought to talk about American history post-Civil War, and how that’s been depicted in Hollywood. That deserves a deeper look, but I’ll try to keep it brief: I’m not ready to write an essay right now.

The Harder They Fall fits oddly well with Wild Wild West. This isn’t because they feel the same, though they are both set in the American West. Instead, it’s because of what they both do that few other movies have done.

Both movies break the Hollywood mould. Both do something unusual, especially for movies set (roughly) during Reconstruction; they feature black protagonists whose fundamental struggles are not about slavery.

Most movies set during or around that time prominently feature white protagonists. When there are Confederates, they’re often empathized with. When the protagonists are black, their dramatic struggle nearly always centers around slavery (their own, a loved one’s, etc.). And Westerns, as a subset of those movies, rarely feature people of color as anything other than The Other. ‘Western’ stories are nearly always “of the white people, by the white people, for the white people.” Given the fact that there were so many non-white people present in the land these stories are told about, and during the time when those stories are set, that’s a pretty egregious rewriting of history.

For a long time, Wild Wild West was the only movie I could point to that didn’t do that.

For all of its troublesome pieces (and there are many), Wild Wild West refused to toe that revisionist-history line. The film is set during Reconstruction, and its central protagonist is black and isn’t a slave. In fact, instead of centering his dramatic struggle around escaping enslavement (his own, or someone else’s), his fundamental duty is to hunt down Confederate terrorists still operating in the US post-war (very historical, unlike the giant spider-mecha). Relatedly, and most importantly, the movie never caters to the fantasy of the Lost Cause and the mythology of the Good Confederate that went along with it; unlike so many other movies set in this time period, Wild Wild West never defends the Confederacy or any of the racists who supported it. In fact, the villain is an unrepentant Confederate obsessed with reversing the outcome of the Civil War. There are a few white people on the hero’s side, but they’re in supporting roles and none of them are supposed to be reformed secessionists.

The Harder They Fall is very different. It’s not steampunk alternate history. It’s far less fantastical. It does do some fun things with visual design, sets, and costumes that may not be purely historically accurate, and it anachronistically combines several real historical people in one time, place, and story… but it’s down to earth. But like Wild Wild West, it features a black protagonist whose dramatic struggle doesn’t focus on slavery.

Actually, it goes way further than that. There isn’t a single main white character in the movie (let alone the redeemable Confederate that has long been a staple of Hollywood fare). The entire central cast is made up of people of color, just like the vast majority of the extras. On that front, The Harder They Fall blows Wild Wild West out of the water.

It even hews more closely to the expectations of the genre. Thematically, this story is profoundly Western: part tragedy, part drama, it’s all about revenge and camaraderie and fighting to make a place in the world. Actually, it reminds me a good deal of the Spaghetti Westerns, with its rich visual language and cinematography, with its omnipresent and evocative soundtrack, and with its violence. Honestly, it’s pretty brutal in places… it’s not quite Tarantino-esque, though the movie arguably references Django Unchained early on when someone shoots a white person before they can finish possibly saying the n-word.

So.

I don’t know if I can say just how happy I am to find another movie that does this. We need to end our cultural obsession with protecting the harmful mythology of the Lost Cause, and with casting Confederates as tragic noble knights instead of violently reactionary antidemocratic racists. This movie pushes us in that direction. We need more stories about people who aren’t white, and those stories should make space for them to be something more than slaves. This movie offers exactly that. I enjoy The Harder They Fall all the more for the way in which it gives these characters space to be people. It doesn’t offer a cure for every ailment, just… complicated people with their violent, complicated lives.

If you don’t like Westerns, or can’t handle violence with occasional bits of gruesomeness, I suggest you appreciate this movie from a distance. Otherwise, have at. It’s good.

Huh. I got so wrapped up in talking about bigger, structural things, I forgot to mention that I just like this movie as a movie. The cast is lots of fun, the story delivers what I want, there are twists that I enjoy… it’s a good movie. It’s a good Western. And it’s even better for all the other things I mentioned above.