Palm Springs (2020)

So, look, Palm Springs checks a lot of boxes for me.

Palm Springs could have been half as good and would still have entertained me. Instead, this movie had me cackling and murmuring appreciatively by turns.

It’s a deeply philosophical character study wrapped up in a semi-absurdist grim comedy about life, and what it means to be a part of it. It’s my kind of good movie.

It’s got time loops. It has characters who feel believably human throughout the situations they’re stuck in. It takes the opportunity offered by playing with time loops to delve into what makes those characters tick, what they believe about the world, and how that drives the decisions that they make. There’s some love, there’re plenty of personal realizations and comedic moments, there’s a bit of enlightenment, and there’s a whole lot of dying (with very little gore).

I loved this movie.

That’s because…

First off, I’m a sucker for time travel. I’m even more of a sucker for time loops. I’ll enjoy stories built on either of those things, because they delight me even when other parts of a story aren’t as good.

Another thing I like: I like stories with characters who feel believably human. I like characters who feel internally consistent. I like characters who—even if they disavow this—have personal philosophies and worldviews that I can understand through observing the characters interacting with each other and their world.

Watching believably human characters play off each other and struggle with their beliefs about the world and life, seeing that done well, that’s a treat. It’s even better when I recognize some of the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the perspectives in play. 

Now, I don’t want all of my movies to be about people struggling with those perspectives on life. Nor do I want every movie I watch to be about people struggling with their worldviews as they intersect with others’. Someone no doubt argues that every story is that, probably Truby, but that’s missing my point.

Besides which, Palm Springs does all that without making it feel cumbersome. I say that it’s deeply philosophical, but none of that gets in the way of enjoying anything else going on in the movie. It’s the perfect approach to an “all-ages” philosophical text; much like those exemplary Pixar movies designed to entertain children and adults simultaneously, Palm Springs is accessible at any one of a variety of levels.

Though, uh, it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

Still. If you want to watch Palm Springs as a romance, that’s available. If you want to watch it as an exploration of the Hindu and Buddhist teachings on reincarnation, proper action, suffering, and enlightenment, that’s there too! And if you’re looking for a grim comedy where some hooligans make a bunch of regrettable choices and suffer (somewhat) for them, that’s there in spades.

This movie will inevitably be compared with Groundhog Day, because… time loops. And because they’re so similar. Also, heh, this post is going up on Groundhog Day despite me having watched the movie maybe a month ago.

What I mean is, Groundhog Day is *the* present cultural touchstone for anything like Palm Springs. Hell, Groundhog Day digs through a lot of the same material and wrestles with many of the same philosophical questions. I doubt Palm Springs would exist without Groundhog Day. In a number of ways, Palm Springs feels like a modern update to the older story. 

That modern update makes a huge difference for me. In a good way.

Annnnnnd here we hit the *SPOILERS*.

For all that Groundhog Day and Palm Springs cover similar ground, Groundhog Day is trapped in a romance story’s paradigm. Winning the love (and belief) of someone not stuck in the time loop through engaging in proper moral action—and through showing off whatever skill you’ve developed over your eternity in this time loop—is the path out. That conclusion isn’t stated explicitly, but it’s sure as hell implied by the movie.

It’s a romance story. Love saves the day. Being a more moral human helps, and is important, but love saves the day.

Palm Springs offers that conclusion, and then explicitly rejects it. Right action, doing the right thing, atoning for previous faults or doing good wherever you can… don’t get you out of the loop. Being in love also doesn’t let you escape. Not even reaching peace and acceptance will bring you out.

But… they’re all important.

Escaping the time loop takes significant, hard work. And escaping the loop is important to the film’s plot. But it’s not achieved because “love saves the day,” it’s not “following the romantic plot brings escape from misery.” It’s something orthogonal to any of that.

No, the experience of finding peace, and of (mostly) doing the right thing by others, and of being able to love one another, those are all important for their own reasons. They have their own value. They can make existence better. And, critically for how this film compares to Groundhog Day, they ultimately aren’t the key to escaping the eternal time loop which is such an easy metaphor for existence.

Basically, Groundhog Day is a story about a trapped guy growing enough that he finally gets the girl and thereby finds freedom. Palm Springs is about people reaching enlightenment and finding joy—together, and as individuals.

I love that change. It means that Palm Springs doesn’t fall into the same Hollywood romance-logic trap. So many romance-genre stories build up romantic attachment into an impossible ideal that leaves any human relationship feeling flawed or inevitably doomed by comparison. Palm Springs nimbly vaults across that yawning chasm of bad writing which plagues so many genre stories, and feels more real and more human as a result. Because of that, I can enjoy the romance storyline without wanting to tear my hair out. I love it.

Another thing: Groundhog Day focused solely on one person. No one else was in the loop as well. That meant that there was no way for anyone else’s perspective on the world, on life, to respond to and adapt to any internal shift experienced by Bill Murray’s character. Yes, he could talk to other people, and yes they could share their whole perspective with him, and sure, he could come back and talk to them again another day with a different perspective. But everyone else was stuck in one place and time in their lives.

Palm Springs doesn’t do that. With multiple characters caught in the loop, it gives us a richer connection, more byplay between characters. The other people in the loop can come to their own realizations, they can grow and change and travel their own personal courses. They aren’t static.

That makes a phenomenal difference. What’s more, it means that when we’re given a deeper look at the life of these characters, their jumping off point for each repetition of the day, we can see how they’re trapped in turn by their own circumstances, their own pain. That, in turn, recontextualizes everything that’s come before. Laying bare the private sufferings of the characters, peeling back the layers for the audience throughout the movie, lends nuance. It makes them feel more human, and more comprehensible.

It also makes their growth, their changes, and the ways they play off each other so much richer. Those slow revelations feed neatly into how the characters’ perspectives bounce off each other over and over, changing a bit every time. It’s a well-established screenwriting technique—Truby loves it, see The Anatomy of Story—but this might be the clearest depiction of it that I’ve seen yet. It’s part of what had me muttering appreciatively, or just saying “wow,” throughout the film.

*END SPOILERS*

So.

Yes, I think you should watch it. I’m sure there are people who will see this movie and feel nothing, or be frustrated by things that I didn’t notice. Maybe if I watched it again I’d have a more critical perspective. But if you, like me, enjoy time loops and good human characters and dark comedy and a bit of romance and some philosophy… watch it.

Palm Springs is my kind of good movie.

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Poker Face (Peacock 2023), by Rian Johnson

I feel odd using this promo image: I think they airbrushed Natasha Lyonne’s face, and erased some of Charlie as they did.

Rian Johnson continues to be one of my favorite directors and writers. I was excited about this show as soon as I heard that he was working on it, and I knew the basic premise before I watched the first episode. That didn’t spoil anything. I’ll do my best to not spoil anything here either. Welcome to Poker Face.

Charlie, our protagonist played by Natasha Lyonne, is an itinerant human lie detector consistently ending up around yet another dead body or dastardly mystery. The show is intended to be episodic. While you should definitely watch the first episode first, I understand the later episodes are less reliant on any specific sequencing.

I wasn’t sure how this first episode would establish Charlie’s existence as an itinerant lie detector. Nor did I have any idea how it would establish stakes to give the rest of the show tension. But it’s great! The first episode gives us all the background we need, and doesn’t give us much more than that. We know why Charlie is on the road, and we know who she is: a basically decent human being, a mostly average person with an unusual talent, someone who absolutely has a sense of right and wrong but doesn’t have much power or influence to do anything about it.

She’s a marvelous average Jane.

I especially appreciate what feels like a tonal nod to Columbo: Charlie isn’t a genius, she’s not a detective, she just feels compelled to do the right thing and will catch when people are lying. And, as one might expect when watching a mystery show, she often pays attention to details and inconsistencies. And if you pay attention yourself, you can see her catch those details.

But this show isn’t adversarial.

That’s because Poker Face contines Rian Johnson’s embrace of showing us the story’s (the episode’s) central death. It’s not a question of who, or how, or even necessarily why; though we don’t have all the details, the show’s mystery isn’t a whodunnit. It’s a how’ll-Charlie-catch-it. Or a what’ll-Charlie-do-about-it.

As I said, the show isn’t adversarial. The writers aren’t trying to pull anything over on the audience (in episode one at least, I haven’t seen more yet). It’s even more generous than Knives Out, or Glass Onion: we aren’t kept in the dark, we don’t have to race to solve anything, we know more than our protagonist does. And because our enjoyment isn’t found in solving the case alongside of, or before our protagonist can, Johnson doesn’t have to plant red herrings or mislead us about the death.

I admire this approach! Instead of obsessing over the mystery, we can delight in the way our main character approaches things, the way she lives her life while surrounded by lies and mysteries. And we can enjoy the choices she makes, and see her bear up under the consequences.

Now, because we know more than our protagonist does, I suspect there will be a great many times when Johnson borrows tension from classic horror genre tropes. We in the audience will be yelling “Don’t go in the basement!” or “Stay away from him, he’s the killer!” while Charlie sits and chats and smiles and nods. It’s marvelous.

Of course, this show might not be for you if that sort of tension isn’t your jam. If you aren’t willing to stew like that while Charlie fumbles through life, just trying to be a decent person in the midst of potentially scary people… I don’t know.

Try the first episode. See if it’s for you. You can do that much for free.

Back to the show… I think Charlie’s desire to just live, and her competing desire to do what seems right, is part of what makes her so magnificent. She’s just a normal person (I mean, apart from being able to suss out lies), choosing to do the right thing as best she can. I love it.

Anyway. If you want some good TV, if you crave murder mystery, if you’re looking for something that hasn’t been worn into an axle-breaking rut by the procedural genre… try Poker Face. I’m glad I did. I want to watch more.

The Recruit, season one (Netflix 2022)

I finished the first season of The Recruit a couple weeks back. Once I started, it was hard for me to look away. I’m a sucker for spy stories. I enjoyed the characters. And the “CIA lawyer” angle is fun.

The show also had a really tight hold on what I’ll call ”the train-wreck factor.” That kept me staring, with the same sort of guilty, morbid curiosity that goes into rubbernecking. Watching someone get in over their head and then desperately claw their way towards whatever safety they can find (while being incapable of acting on the recognition that they might be in too deep) is fascinating.

Yet as I wrote while I was watching it, the protagonist of the show feels like the wrong person. Spy stories ought to feature more leads who aren’t super-agents, and who aren’t young white men. The SOE understood this during WW2, and a different show will give you a taste of that. The Recruit gets partway there: the lead isn’t a super-agent, and the show has many characters who aren’t young white men… but the young white man is still the focus of the show.

Nothing against Noah Centineo, who plays the lead, but if his character Owen and Fivel Stewart’s Hannah had simply swapped roles I think the show would have been more interesting. Yes, there would no doubt have been more other characters and plot points to rewrite after that, but I think the basic bones of the show were solid. I just would have been more interested if the main character weren’t a young straight white man.

I think the writers knew this. They were self-aware enough, had perhaps heard enough critiques before, to call out the social positions some of the characters occupy and how that shapes their worldview or constrains their actions—especially in comparison with the possibilities open to other characters. Because of that, the show felt at times like it was implying that Owen was able to get away with some particularly stupid shit specifically because of his social position.

But while that seems both honest and accurate, the recognition also feels almost like lampshading. Like, the writers decided to justify their choice of protagonist instead of trying a more interesting and possibly more difficult approach. And that only makes their focus on a very Hollywood-normal protagonist more perplexing to me.

Did the writers look at the option of having the lead be someone else, and then back off? Were they planning for the next season?

I have no idea what pushed the writers to make the choice they did. Perhaps they had well thought-out reasons. Maybe they chose to focus on a young straight white man because nearly anyone else would have been less clueless, or would have suffered greater consequences for their mistakes, or because the writers couldn’t imagine anyone else. Maybe they really wanted to play with specific character dynamics or story beats and didn’t believe they could explore those with anyone other than a straight white man. Or maybe they thought there was no way to have their script and their show greenlit if they chose a different protagonist.

Any of those could be true.

Or, maybe, they fell back on writing a young straight white male lead because they were comfortable with that. The show’s creator, Alexi Hawley, certainly has practice with writing for the straight white male lead, having written for Castle and The Rookie. I suspect he also has a decent idea of what he can get approved and what he can’t, so… yeah. Could be either.

Anyway.

Despite what feels like a missed opportunity, I’m still likely to watch the next season when it comes out.

I found the first season to be compulsive fun, despite not being quite what I wanted. I liked that it’s a spy story where the main character isn’t a highly trained badass. I enjoyed the characters involved. And I’m curious about where they’ll take those characters going forward. I can imagine several courses forward that would be a lot of fun, and would resolve many of my complaints. But that’s all speculation.

So, should you watch it?

If you don’t want to watch another show about a young straight white male protagonist who gets in way over his head and desperately flounders along, you should stay away. If you try the first episode and bounce off, or just feel the rising urge to scream because of the lead character… that isn’t likely to change much.

On the other hand, if you yearn for more spy fiction that doesn’t focus on the Bonds or the Bournes, this show and its frequently-punched main character will give you a little bit of what you want. If you don’t mind the lead character being yet another young white guy, and want internecine intra-department conflict and twisty loyalties, this will give you that too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be contemplating the love/hate relationship between fanfic and the original text.

Characterization & Character Creation, WH40k Darktide

This is not a full-on review of the game. If you like the developer FatShark’s previous title Vermintide 2 (Vt2) or other games in the Left 4 Dead co-op genre, and you’re willing to experience the teething problems of a game that needs a few more updates for performance and stability, then you might enjoy this. It’s certainly the best L4D genre game I’ve played despite still feeling rough at times. I’m having fun playing it with friends. 

Also, the setting is Warhammer 40K, which is such a powerfully cynical and dystopian flavor as to be nearly intolerable (it’s certainly intolerant). If you know you hate the fiction of 40K, you probably don’t want to engage with this either. I waffle on the topic of 40K: my enjoyment of it relies on knowing my fellow players aren’t actually unironic fash-enthusiasts.

But this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how Darktide’s character customization systems work, what they imply to me, and how they affect the game. 

Darktide’s character creation is fascinating to me. But it’s especially fascinating because of how it differs from Vermintide 2, and from other games available right now.

Vt2 has five different basic characters to choose from. They’re distinguished from each other in many ways (gender, voice, appearance, play style), and each has a large number of voice lines—some one-liners, and some conversations which emerge when different characters are present in a given mission. All those things, and especially the voices, have a big impact on how the character is portrayed in my mind. I’ve played enough of the game, and heard enough of their conversations repeated across the missions, that I can talk along with them at times.

Honestly, that reminds me a little of how much I played the original GTA 3. I listened to GTA3’s radio for so long that I could sing along or talk along with all the different stations.

But like those radio stations, Vt2’s characters and their voice lines are static. They eventually repeat. Each mission, you pick from the several different character options, each one with a distinct voice. I’ve played enough—and their voices are distinct enough—that I can tell who’s talking whenever someone speaks. Sometimes the characters are amusing, sometimes they are awful, sometimes they tease each other in a ridiculous fashion. Anyone who’s played the game for a while knows who I am if I call someone else “lumberfeet.”

Other multiplayer FPS games have done similar things to Vt2 with their characters’ voice lines. Apex Legends has a host of different characters, each with a distinct personality and voice. They don’t have mid-game conversations per se, but they do have intro and outro lines and do automatically vocalize things that you’re doing (there are barks for your reloads, for you pointing out a location, for changes in the game state as the arena shrinks, etc.). Apex Legends’ in-game characterization is evocative and gradual, slowly revealing more details about them and their view of life as you play them longer and experience more of their barks. They also have tie-in comics sometimes, and little movies for each update. But the characters aren’t really conversing with each other much in-game, or building up the setting’s fiction mid-match.

And, as with Vt2, characters in Apex come pre-made. You choose the flavor you want, you don’t make your own.

Contrast that all with Deep Rock Galactic. DRG makes frequent use of voice lines, with different voices for each of the four classes in game. But while you can customize your dwarf’s appearance in far more detail than is possible in Apex Legends (DRG pays a lot of attention to hair, facial and otherwise), your dwarf remains something of a cipher. You’re just another dwarf mining in space for the Company.

Darktide has taken a different approach here.

There are character classes, archetypal options a little like those that were baked into the characters of Vermintide 2. But there are so many more options to choose from during character creation. Choosing an archetype is just the first step, followed by choosing a childhood, a profession, a defining moment… you’re making a backstory for your RPG character.

And it’s not yet evident to me how they affect the final game.

Some of them, I think, play into what voice lines your character uses. Certainly your choice of voice is restricted by what planet your character comes from. But I can’t tell whether my choices have much impact in the game beyond that. Maybe in the future FatShark will introduce elements of the game that are dependent on characters’ backgrounds (presumably cosmetic, so that you needn’t pick a given background for mechanical reasons). I’d happily give my Ogryn a floppy hat specific to his youth on an agricultural world, where he spent all his time herding great big beasts. Or maybe FatShark will record more voice lines that have to do with those backgrounds, and my friendly Ogryn will opine on farming.

But while I’m fascinated by how customizable character creation is right now, it doesn’t yet feel like it’s living up to its full potential. The plethora of options available, and the considerable difference they imply, feel like they should have more impact in-game than I’ve found so far. And I suspect that developing that further is on FatShark’s todo list—somewhere behind all the technical fixes they’ve already pushed out, and whatever other fixes they’re still planning to implement.

A funny side-note: I almost do a double take whenever I hear the voice actors from Vt2 voicing new characters in Darktide. Vt2’s writers and voice actors did an excellent job of tying together voice and character, and I’m really glad the voice actors got more work in Darktide—it’s a little like hearing old friends. But it’ll take me a while to get used to hearing them without them being one of the Übersreik Five.

I also don’t want to downplay the value of Darktide’s character creation as it currently exists. I’ve made up little backstories for my two characters so far, and had great fun with that. Part of that is because of who I am, and my predilection for story-making. But it’s more possible because of the smart move on FatShark’s part of making that bit of background more accessible to players. I certainly feel like my Darktide characters are more “mine” than any character I played in Vt2 ever was.

This means that even if FatShark never does anything more with the character backgrounds, even if they leave them as-is, they’ll still have done more to make character creation feel personal than any other FPS I currently play. No, it’s not up to my expectations as storyteller. And yes, I see more they could do with it. But I like it, and we shouldn’t underestimate readers’ creative role and the value of head cannon.

Mrs. Pollifax, elderly women as spies cont.

As I was writing last week’s post, I knew that I was forgetting something. I’d read fun stories about an elderly woman involved in espionage before. Or more accurately, I’d listened to them: some of my childhood’s many long car rides were filled with hours of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books on tape. Young Henry thought those books were both hilarious and excellent.

I haven’t read them since. But I want to. I want to read them again, find out whether or not they’re as fun as I remember them being. In my memory, they were a perfect storm of ridiculousness and good genre fiction.

That said, I’m a little hesitant too. The first books in the series (there are many of these books) were written in the 60s. The last one was published in 2000. Given the gulf of years, I bet I’m going to stub my toes on something.

But I’m willing to bet it’ll be worth it. At worst, they’ll give me a place to start in my hunt for similar genre fiction. And if they’re anywhere near as good as I recall, I’ll probably be guffawing my way through them.

Plus, for all the absurdity and narrative contrivances that I remember in the several Mrs. Pollifax books I listened to, I think they captured several very important points that flashier spy stories forget. It’s valuable to be overlooked and underestimated. And—maybe this was just my impressionable youth speaking, but—Dorothy Gilman was nearly of an age with my grandmother, and Mrs. Pollifax’s surprising skillset reminded me of my grandmother too.

I remember growing up with plenty of stories about my grandmother. She fixed a stranger’s broken car on the side of the road (in Uganda or Kenya I think), using safety pins and pantyhose to replace a timing belt. She reversed a van at speed down a dirt track while being chased by a bull elephant. She had other adventures too, but more regularly she would weigh and vaccinate hundreds of babies in an open-air clinic, or help local women establish clinics in their villages and towns. And when I knew her as an older woman, she kept a thriving thicket of a garden, pointing me to the various things she wanted me to cut or harvest, showing me the good berry brambles.

So when I read Mrs. Pollifax, I see a little bit of my grandmother. They’re not the same person at all, they’re not doing the same things, but… in some ways they’re cut from similarly capable cloth. And reading that in a piece of spy fiction, when the protagonist sometimes underestimates herself almost as badly as her opposition does, is simply a treat.

Anyway, yes, I’m looking forward to picking up those books again. Maybe I’ll have something more for you here when I do.

White boys and spy stories

There’s more to be written here than I’ll address today. I’m putting this here because I’m sure I’ll have future posts on the topic. This particular topic came to mind through watching some of The Recruit, and through starting Arabella The Traitor of Mars.

Lots of spy fiction (I haven’t done a survey but I’d bet it’s the majority of it) is obsessed with the perspectives of white men. A revolutionary realization, I’m sure.

The thing is… that obsession is laughable. It’s ridiculous. I’ve known this for some time, but every so often I’m forcibly reminded of it.

Despite the relative position of power held by white men in Western society—no, because of it—white men are a strange choice for your default spies. If you could pick someone to be your spy, you’d be better off picking someone more likely to be overlooked or ignored by the society in which you want to gather intelligence. There are certainly other challenges for agents who aren’t white men, and those agents might struggle to reach every place or position of influence an agency might want access to (honestly, spy agencies should want agents of every shape and flavor), but I think there’s a solid reason the British SOE valued middle-aged and not-quite-elderly women for work in Nazi-occupied Europe.

And yet, so many of our spy stories still dwell on white male protagonists. It’s not surprising. White male protagonists have been the default for many genres for many decades, alas. But I’d love to see some fun spy fiction about a frumpy little elderly woman who is consistently overlooked and underestimated. I’m sure the genre exists, now I just need to go find it.

Away

I’m visiting family, and I’ve neglected to prepare a post for today. I am part way through A Taste of Gold and Iron, by Alexandra Rowland, and I’ll probably post about that soon. It’s fun. Court intrigue, gay romance, fun.

I hope that you’re doing well and staying safe and warm. Happy holidays.

Externalities, Perverse Incentives, For-Profit Prisons

I realize, on reflection, that this feels a little John Oliver-y.

It’s something I’ve thought about for a long while. It’s also related to a creative project I’m working on with a friend. Maybe I’ll have more on that here later.

For now, let’s start very zoomed out. Let’s cover some basic questions and concepts before we dive deeper.

Why have a market? What does market competition create that wouldn’t exist if the state provided the service / produced the good instead, without market competition?

Markets—in their idealized and only sometimes achieved form—maximize the efficient production of value within the constraints imposed on them. They reward those companies able to do more, and especially those which do more while spending less. In an ideal market, a company succeeds—winning customers (and thus market-share and greater income) from other companies—by making a better product or service, or offering comparable quality more efficiently than their competitors. Thus, ultimately, success is about maximizing income and minimizing cost.

But companies are only incentivized to minimize the costs they can’t ignore.

This means that, barring external enforcement, no competitor in a market is likely to minimize any cost that can be dismissed as an “externality,” an ignorable cost. For example, prior to the existence of government regulation of pollution, that pollution was an externality (and some pollution still is). So long as there weren’t costs associated with producing toxic ash and soot, few companies bothered to minimize their production of those things.

Those pollutants harmed people working at those companies. They harmed people living nearby, and even people far away. They have poisoned water supplies, killed wildlife, increased the prevalence of disease in humans (and likely caused human deaths). But so long as companies bore no associated costs for these outcomes, they were externalities. Those associated costs didn’t directly harm a company’s profit margin.

This is a pattern. Read about the Tragedy of the Commons, if you want to know more about similar dynamics.

Sometimes those externalities are a direct result of something which produces value for the company. The Cosmos episode “The Clean Room” discusses that to some extent, covering the topic through the history of leaded gasoline.

But sometimes those externalities actually produce additional value for the company, down the line. When this is the case, the company—possibly every company in a given market—is incentivized to create a cost that others must bear because this cost will eventually result in additional value for the company. If this abstraction isn’t clear enough yet, let’s talk about for-profit prisons.

For-profit prisons are paid to house inmates. Generally, they’re paid by the government.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons largely revolve around the idea that a for-profit institution will compete in a market, and thereby be incentivized to perform a service more efficiently—i.e. at lower cost to the government & taxpayer—than a non-profit or state-run institution will. For-profit prisons, after all, are strongly incentivized to cut costs wherever and however they can. The benefit of this cost-cutting, the reasoning goes, will be passed on to the taxpayer. Taxpayers will thus pay less for the incarceration of convicts than they would otherwise.

There is a related argument made in favor of for-profit prisons combining this idea of free market efficiency with two other ideas. First, (because of the aforementioned efficiencies, as well as for other reasons) that the free market should provide all goods and services, and second that the government should not compete with companies in the free market. That argument is more ideologically based. It also requires significantly more discussion of how one defines the term “free market.” Thus I’m not going to focus on it at the moment. Right now, I’m just going to talk about incentives and externalities.

For-profit prisons, then, would focus entirely on the service they provide: incarceration. The lives of their inmates after those inmates leave prison would be externalities.

Setting aside those externalities for the moment…

For-profit prisons, like other companies, are incentivized to find additional sources of income available to their business. With prisons, that income could come from the labor of their prisoners, or from charging prisoners for services and goods (phone calls, stationery and writing supplies, stamps, better food, etc.). It could also come from increasing the number of inmates they house. And if they wanted a more reliable level of income (as most companies do), they would be incentivized to ensure that there’s a steady supply of new inmates.

But how could that be done?

In a world where lobbying exists, for-profit prisons are strongly incentivized to pressure lawmakers on multiple fronts. They profit when lawmakers expand the powers of the police and those police secure more convictions. They profit when more behavior is criminalized. They profit when prison sentences are longer. They profit when more people in the criminal-justice system are more likely to be housed in prison. 

In short, for-profit prisons benefit when the criminal-justice system treats people harshly.

Let’s bring those externalities, the lives of ex-convicts after leaving prison, back into focus.

For-profit prisons have no incentive to reduce recidivism. They have every reason to want inmates to be returned to prison after they finish their sentence.

When an inmate leaves prison at the end of their sentence, the for-profit prison stops being paid by the government for housing them. The for-profit prison cannot earn money from the ex-convict’s labor, and cannot charge the ex-convict for goods and services. An inmate who leaves the system is lost income. If that inmate eventually returns to prison, that’s more income.

So an inmate’s life-after-prison might not actually be an externality. It might be a resource. Recidivism is good for for-profit prisons. Rehabilitation is bad.

I’ll spell it out. If a for-profit prison did a good job of helping inmates avoid future problems, helped them to find steady jobs and stable housing and healthy social connections, helped them to avoid being charged for another crime after they leave prison—in short, helped convicts rejoin society at large—that would hurt the for-profit prison’s bottom line. In fact, the harder it is for ex-inmates to readjust to society outside of prison—the harder it is for them to avoid being sent back to prison—the better it is for for-profit prisons.

For for-profit prisons, people who are re-incarcerated create additional profit. They’re repeat customers. At best, with these incentives, an intelligently run for-profit prison would be entirely neutral about whether their current inmates successfully reenter society after leaving. Anything less than the most ethical for-profit prison might be reluctant to help ex-convicts rejoin society.

I don’t know about you, but those incentives seem pretty perverse to me. 

People in prison are at the mercy of the prison. For-profit prisons may not be omniscient or omnipotent, but they have incredible influence over the lives of their prisoners. And as things stand they have very little reason to make those prisoners’ lives better, or to help those prisoners succeed after they leave.

With the current system, there is every reason for a for-profit prison to house prisoners as efficiently as possible, sell their labor, and charge them for basic goods and services. There is every reason for that same company to create environments that harm convicts’ ability to remain connected with the outside world, or to improve their chances of leading successful lives and remaining unincarcerated after leaving prison. There is every reason for those companies to lobby in favor of making life after prison as difficult as possible—because anyone who is re-incarcerated is just more income.

This means that the government is paying money to companies that benefit from having more people behind bars, and benefit from having those people re-incarcerated after they eventually leave. We’re achieving efficient imprisonment at the cost of incentivizing the incarceration of more people. It’s bad.

See, markets don’t automatically produce the best possible outcome. They encourage companies to efficiently deliver a product within the constraints of the system. They encourage companies to expand their market… and in this case, that means increasing the number of people in prison.

I’ve had to trim back a number of side arguments. I’m not responding to all the possible disagreements I can see with what I’ve written here. Not yet. But fundamentally, I think we have too readily asked “how can we do this through the market?” and failed to ask “should we do this through the market in the first place?”

I can imagine some theoretical way to structure a for-profit prison industry that isn’t incentivized to trap people in a cycle of incarceration, but improving outcomes here would be a whole lot easier if we took the profit-motive out of the equation instead.

Anyway.

You have, to some extent, comics to blame for this brain worm. Maybe I’ll have more on that front for you later.

A House With Good Bones, by T. Kingfisher

My experience of reading A House With Good Bones was weird, because I made some silly assumptions. It was also fun, and good, and I’d recommend the book. However, this isn’t an in-depth review; I’ll share more about this book elsewhere through GeeklyInc, so I’m focusing on my reading experience here. When I dive deep into the book, I’ll let you know.

Onwards.

I’ve previously read and enjoyed several other books from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). I’ve come to expect, for better or worse, a certain flavor of genre fiction. Her Saint of Steel series and her Clocktaur War books are all fantasy romance with other genres laced in (murder mystery, adventure, horror, etc). I foolishly allowed myself to think that everything she published as T. Kingfisher would therefore also have strong romance genre elements, and would feel like romance overall.

I was wrong!

Okay, I wasn’t that wrong. There are still hints of romance genre conventions here. There are plenty of things in this story that feel like they belong in a romance novel. They’re fun when they show up and they help lighten the mood. But the book doesn’t deliver all the requisite story beats for it to feel like or qualify as romance. Instead, it has just enough romance to allow the audience to enjoy a little bit of that flavor while enjoying all the rest of what the book is really about.

Which is horror. Spooky, weird horror. Spooky, weird gradual horror that reminds me powerfully of the RPG Unknown Armies, which is in turn inspired by the fiction of Tim Powers (who you’ll be shocked to know also writes some spooky, weird horror).

And Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is good at writing this horror.

I already knew she was good at other flavors of horror. Her Saint of Steel books revolve around the murder mystery and fantasy horror genres (yes, with romance), and I had a grand time with those. But the horror of those books is different from the horror of A House With Good Bones. And that difference, plus the less-present romance, threw me for a loop.

To dig into that flavor metaphor, I took my first bite of this dish thinking I was eating Italian and found out I was eating Indian. Sure, both words start with “I,” both cuisines make good use of tomatoes, and both are delicious—but what I got was not what I was expecting.

I figured out what was going on pretty quickly. I was happy with it. I spent a good portion of my time with this book smacking my lips and saying “huh!” and trying to suss out the different ingredients.

So. Yes, I recommend this book when it comes out. Yes, I had fun with it. Yes, if you like T. Kingfisher’s other work you’ll probably enjoy this too. But keep in mind that this is—first and foremost—something besides romance. With that, I think you’ll have a good time.

Reader’s experience & author’s influence

Sometimes, you start a chapter and just know that this is the creepy one. You know it as you skim that first page. And when that happens to me while I’m lying in bed in the dim light and drifting towards sleep, my self-preservation kicks in.

I don’t always manage to do this, but the most recent time it happened, I stopped myself. I set the book aside and reminded myself of which world I existed in, and resolutely tried to go to sleep without the drowsy conjured nightmares of this fictional world. That mostly worked.

The problem was, once I’d done that I struggled to pick up the book again. I knew that I was going to return to the story at a spooky moment, and I still had that lingering sense of dread that had warned me away from reading more just before sleeping. Having put the book down that way, it took extra work to pick it back up again.

I haven’t finished that book yet.

I was right about that chapter though. It was spooky. I read the rest of it, after psyching myself up to do so, and I’ve read some more after that chapter since.

But the material since hasn’t been as spooky as I’d expected. It was a very sharp peak of spookiness. As I’ve kept reading, I’ve struggled to tell how much of that diminishment of spookiness is in the story, and how much of it was inside my own head. Did the story actually reach such a heightened peak, or did I create more of a peak through some combination of reading late at night and apprehensively avoiding the book for a few days?

And, critical for me as a writer, how much of that experience was desired or intended by the author? How was that experience created?

People have funky and idiosyncratic responses to stimuli. Sure, there’s some general consistency, but when you’re trying to produce specific emotional responses in your audience via art you’re going to run into some odd responses. People will experience things that you didn’t anticipate, or that you thought weren’t there. It’s even worse when you have little control over how the art will be consumed. Once you’ve released art into the world, you give up any semblance of control over how it’s interpreted and just have to hope for the best.

Back to the spooky piece at hand…

The question that nags at me here is: how much of that experience came from the author’s decisions, and what can I learn from that? How much of that can I use in my own work? And how much of it was inside my own head, and won’t be shared by anyone else reading the book?

I’m lucky. I know that some of my friends are reading this book right now, and I’ll have a chance to talk with them about it soon. I already have a few questions lined up. But until then, I’ll keep reading and stewing, wondering what precisely is going on underneath the surface.