Weblog #3 – On picking something to read and giving people a chance

Personal goals:
Take time to relax without thinking, I should be working.
Read a book.

I can’t seem to finish anything though. (“When are you going to write a book Lauren?” Hahahahahahaha, SHUT UP.) My last few reads – The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey and Slipping by Lauren Beukes – were like hot dates that hit all my sweet spots. I disappeared into them in a haze of Oh my god, this is so fucking good, and now I want the next book to give me that same experience.

This is not an expectation I want to harbour. It’s unfair. It’s like meeting someone and wanting them to have all the qualities you’ve ascribed to your perfect partner in the isolation tank that is your mind (I absolutely do not ever do this. *coughs*). Few books are going to have that effect, and you can’t predict which ones will, especially if your tastes aren’t mainstream. It’s not just about the content or the quality of the book either, but the time you give it and when you happen to read it. Your life right now is part of the reading process. I love the title story of Slipping because the protagonist chooses to keep sprinting after she’s knocked down and broken in the middle of a race, and her heart literally starts slipping out of her cybernetically modified chest. I read ‘Slipping’ right after someone I thought was a friend told me I wasn’t worth any time or effort, and the story described, better than I could, exactly how that had made me feel. On a different day, ‘Slipping’ might have been a good story instead of a great one.

But I couldn’t know what those books would do for me, and I didn’t read them expecting to find what I did. I just opened up and got to know them for what they were. Also, it took two or three false starts before I finished The Liminal People and The Girl With All the Gifts, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have finished Slipping if I hadn’t agreed to write a review. Yet instead of giving another book the same courtesy, I sought recurrence by specifically trying to identify an exceptional book perfectly suited to my preferences in the moment. I read a few pages here, tried something else there, and did nothing but waste enough time to finish several novels.

So I reverted to the strategy that kept this blog going for years: pick something and finish it. No matter what it’s like. Even if it fails to impress me right away or there are things I don’t like about it. Nothing out there was written just for me. But my book collection is at least curated – almost everything on my shelf and the majority of the content on my Kindle is there because I want to read it. So why don’t I? Each book and short story has the potential to be something I love. I had to just pick one and give it a chance. I used to select reads according to publishing dates and reading challenges, but those don’t matter right now so I had to find other criteria. It didn’t really matter what they were if my only goal was to just bloody read a book.

 

Infinite-Ground

I chose Infinite Ground by Martin MacInnes. It’s the last new book that I bought. It sounds fascinating but I bought it largely because it’s beautiful, and it feels good to hold something beautiful. It also cost a lot of money that I couldn’t quite afford (and would really appreciate having back in my wallet right now), so I wanted it to do something more than sit pretty on my shelf with nothing to show but its spine.

No one seems to like this strategy. People often insist that life is too short to read bad books. They declare that a book has fifty pages or three chapters or whatever to hook them and then it’s over. Which is fine if reading is just a casual hobby, but I wouldn’t have a career if I was that fussy or demanding, if I didn’t read bad books and learn from them. Nor would I love my favourites as much as I do if they didn’t stand out against a background of mediocrity and shit. It’s no use having an attitude that says, Be great or begone.

And in my next life goal, I’ll try to be that considerate with people, too.

Weblog 7 May 2017

I have to nod in agreement to Sarah Gailey’s fictional essay on why you can’t trust Batman:

“We live our lives, and he lives his life,” he says. “He throws parties, and we work. He sleeps with whatever new lady catches his fancy, we clean up rubble.” He shrugs, continues cutting in a sharp edge of paint near the ceiling. “He’s never had a job, kid. What he gets up to is nothing that we’ll ever be a part of.”

 

Why is this billionaire playboy still a billionaire? It doesn’t seem right to you. Doesn’t seem fair. He funded your orphanage… but when you think about it, it’s pretty weird that the city needs such a large orphanage.

People typically respond to this sort of thing with something like, But if that was the case we wouldn’t have a story. (Or the story would be a dull political drama.) Yes. So? That doesn’t mean we can’t point out problems with the mechanisms used to set the story in motion. We tend to be defensive when it concerns something we enjoy, but we’re quick to criticise a problematic premise when we’re also critical of the story that follows.

I think this alternative perspective of Batman is really interesting. We consider him a hero and enjoy his heroics. We can’t help but cheer for someone who fights and kills people we know are bad because we all have (or think we have) these types of people affecting our daily lives. We know most of them are going to get away with it. The police, the courts and the politicians can’t or won’t do the right thing the way Batman can.

But yeah, a billionaire … The very fact that billionaires can exist is an injustice. And It’s not like Batman is helping society in the only way he can. He has enough resources to provide affordable quality education and healthcare, alleviate poverty, empower law enforcement, etc. Instead, he spends his time training and uses his money to enable him to do the major crime fighting himself. He’s not so much a hero as he is a control freak who can’t see beyond his own wealth.

Morgan (2016)

Minor spoilers ahead, but still a lot less revealing than the trailer.

I’m feeling a little lonely here. Few people seem to like Morgan, the 2016 sci fi thriller written by Seth Owen and directed by newcomer Luke Scott. Among its producers is Luke’s rather more famous father, Ridley Scott, which I guess explains why Luke got such a stellar cast for his feature-length directorial debut.

Research facility

Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like she might be Hollywood’s new It-Girl) is a genetically engineered child – the ‘L-9 prototype’ – with advanced, accelerated emotional and physical development. Something is clearly wrong with her design however; when Dr Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Morgan that she won’t be allowed to go outside for a while, Morgan stabs her repeatedly in the eye.

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Morgan, missing the outdoors

A corporate risk management consultant, Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) is sent to assess the viability of the project, as explained by a voiceover from her superior, played by Brian Cox. Lee is a stone-cold professional whose ruthless manner doesn’t go down well with most members of the team of specialists who designed, created and care for Morgan, because they’ve come to see her as their child, and formed a kind of family unit around her. Instead of lab tests and training sessions, video footage of the L-9 project shows the team playing with Morgan outside and throwing her a birthday party. They speak of her with pride and love, and Lee crisply tells them that Morgan is not a ‘she’ but an ‘it’ who has no rights whatsoever.

Lee Weathers

Lee Weathers

Because it concerns a young, artificial creature whose humanity is called into question, considers the difficulty of humans having close or intimate relationships with artificial beings, and features an isolated research facility in the woods, Morgan gets compared to movies like Splice (2009) and Ex Machina (2014), and it doesn’t fare well. The other two are genuinely interested in the methods and ethics of creating artificial life. In Scott’s movie, it’s not long before you stop asking whether Morgan can truly feel human emotion and settle down to see if she can beat Lee in brutal hand-to-hand combat or not.

house

The house. Surely nothing bad could happen here

Morgan gleams with potential but remains determinedly superficial. For example, when Dr Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti!) conducts a psych evaluation, he interrogates Morgan about the fact that she calls the team her friends. She may consider them friends, he says, but do they consider her as such? Would a friend keep you locked in a cage? It’s a good question. Can the scientists be her friends in any meaningful way? Can you be friends with a person or creature you created to be a weapon, a ‘potential product line’? What responsibilities do Morgan’s creators have towards her? Well, think about that on your own time; this film just gets violent.

psych-evaluation

The psych evaluation

Similarly, there’s the troubling question of Morgan’s relationship with behaviourist Amy (Rose Leslie) who has ‘boundary issues’. Amy is clearly attracted to Morgan and the feeling may be mutual. There’s no evidence that their relationship has become intimate, but it could, if given the opportunity. The thing is, Morgan is five years old. What the fuck is Amy doing? Then again, Morgan develops at an accelerated rate, so she already looks like a teenager, and she has enhanced emotional development. She’s a new kind of life form, so we can’t necessarily judge their relationship according to the usual standards. If this sounds complicated, well, you need not worry because the movie doesn’t have the guts to take it any further anyway.

Amy

Amy

I wondered though, if Morgan is manipulating Amy and the other characters, perhaps to ensure her own survival or just because that’s how she’s learned to be around people. We know that she has some level of precognition, as demonstrated when she gets under Dr Shapiro’s skin by revealing that he has a daughter who he doesn’t get to see very often. How much of her behaviour involves her ‘reading’ people and behaving in whatever way they want or expect her to behave? Not that that’s especially disturbing; isn’t it just an enhanced version of how most people behave? Nevermind – skip to action sequence.

Amy-and-Morgan

Amy and Morgan, crossing boundaries

Despite its commitment issues, I like Morgan. A lot. It isn’t the cerebral sf thriller that it might look like, or that its cast seems to suggest it is but it’s way better than most of the commercial sf out there, especially the superhero movies that get much more attention. I’m comparing them because Morgan gave me the entertainment I want but seldom find in the latest blockbusters. I don’t expect them to be brilliant; I just want them to be fun, but they’re way too long and they generate such little interest in the characters and plots that even the action scenes bore me. They waste my time.

Morgan didn’t. It’s fast-paced and efficient, stylish, and exceptionally beautiful to look at. I like the colour palettes and the way they shift with the narrative. Most of the major characters are female and the film doesn’t objectify them.

It successfully occupies an interstitial space that’s thoughtful enough to engage my intellectual interests, then indulge my mindless ones. It blooms with ideas, but avoids the risks of dealing with them. Yes, that’s cowardly. It starts out smart and geek-chic, then goes mainstream. That can be seen as a good thing, not because martial arts are more exciting than moral debates, but because the latter requires a deft touch. Of course, I have no idea if Seth Owen and Luke Scott were up to the task; I’m saying it might have been worse if they’d tried and performed poorly. As it is, I found plenty to think about, to enjoy, and I can’t argue with my own satisfaction.

Weblog 2 May 2017

I don’t want to give up on this blog. It’s spoken for me when I was quiet or absent. It spoke to more people than I do, generally, or made introductions for me. It’s my body of work. Right now, it might be half-dead if not deceased, but in the sff world death is merely a state between being. A wood between worlds.

This post is the beginning of an experiment in very literal blogging – i.e. web logging – and an attempt at revival. I should know, from all the stories I like, that this often leads to things like the zombie apocalypse, but M.R. Carey proved that even that can offer up beautiful new things.

The journal form is amorphous enough to fill the increasing space between my reviews with any content I think is worth sharing. I still read quite a bit. It’s also easier to manage than essay-length reviews, while helping me work my way towards those reviews. And keeping a journal is just something I do anyway.

I was going to list the ideas I’ve had for the Weblog, but since  all my other blog serials tripped and died – sometimes right at the start – I’m just going to leave this here and see what happens.

creation-space

Find me on Instagram @violin_ina_void

The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett

the-liminal-peopleTitle: The Liminal People
Series: Liminal #1
Author:
Ayize Jama-Everett
Publisher: 
Small Beer Press
Published:
 January 2012
Genre:
 science fiction, fantasy, thriller, superheroes
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
8/10

It’s a rare pleasure to read something without knowing anything about it (and if you want to do the same, I’ll just tell you now that I recommend this very highly). The Liminal People came in a Small Beer Press Humble Books Bundle I bought a while back and I read it because it I was looking for something fresh and well-crafted but relatively short. I trusted Small Beer to provide both quirk and class and I got exactly what I didn’t know I needed: a pacey sff thriller with edgy writing I want to read all day and some very cool ideas.

Taggert calls himself a healer, but although that word captures the core of the person he considers himself to be, it doesn’t accurately describe the extent of his powers.

I read bodies the way pretentious, East Coast Americans read the New Yorker. With a little focus, I can manipulate my body and others’ on a molecular level. With a lot of focus, I can push organs and whole biological systems around.

What this means is that when Taggert is in close proximity to someone, he can gauge their psychological state (happy, anxious, finger-on-the-trigger) by reading things like heart rate, muscle tension, body chemistry, etc. He can see what medical problems they’ve had, have or might develop, and what kind of physical state they’re in (“The veins are tight, lots of blood coursing through them. She’s been working out.”). He can hack bodies and heal them, but those same abilities allow him to cause insane levels of damage and pain. He can instantly turn hereditary defects into immediate suffering or force the body to turn on itself in the most excruciating ways. Or he could just make snipers take a nap and help an anxious kid stay calm.

Taggert can also transform his own body, even changing his melanin count:

I need to be less black to pull this off, so I focus until I can tell that I probably look mulatto. I close off my hair follicles and pull the thick mats that I have out and flush them down the toilet. Then I focus on slick black hair, coated in oil. I let it grow until I can fix a small rubber band at the base of my neck. Since I’m at a toilet I vomit up sixty-five pounds, making sure to check my discharge for too much stomach acids. I just need to lose the pounds, not my voice. When I step out I look like a sexy young intern that works too hard.

He’s a very useful person to have around, which is why his boss, Nordeen, keeps him on a very short but comfortable leash. Nordeen has some kind of mysterious power that Taggert cannot figure out, claiming only that he can’t be lied to.

It’s enough to keep Taggert in check and he’s ok with being a crime lord’s pawn largely because he’s a self-reflective man who wants to understand his power, and Nordeen was the first person to mentor him, a kind of terrifying father-figure:

If you can understand why I stayed with Nordeen, then you can understand me a little better. I’m not a sycophant. I don’t crave power, nor do I have a desire to be under anyone who does. Nordeen’s description of the power inside of me was perfect: “the thing that decided to take up residence inside of me.” On rough days, it made me feel like an alien beast or, as Yasmine would say, like a freak. But on good days, when I exercised my power in right relation to the world, I felt nearly unstoppable. I grew with power. Living a bipolar life, rocketing between freak and human, made me long for some stability. And despite the bowel-spilling terror Nordeen invoked, he offered that. I knew that under his protection and guidance I would learn more about myself.

Taggert’s stability is disrupted when his ex-girlfriend uses an untraceable, one-time-only phone number to call him for help. Yasmine was – is – the love of Taggert’s life, despite the fact that she called him a freak, something he never really got over. He’s still angry, but he loves her without requiring anything in return, and of course he’s harbouring all sorts of hopes about what her desperate call for help might mean for their relationship. More importantly though, when he promised to come if she ever needed him, he meant it. So he gives Nordeen as little of the truth as he can and escapes Morocco for London, where Yasmine’s daughter has gone missing. Searching for her brings Taggert into contact with an underground exisitence of other powers like him and, as Nordeen has warned him, ‘People like us tend to stay away from each other for good reason’. However, it’s not clear if that’s true or if Nordeen is just manipulating him.

I’ve mentioned before that the current glut of superhero movies – ranging from decent to Jesus Christ how could it possibly be this shit – have given me superhero fatigue. Right now, it’s a genre defined by mildly entertaining mediocrity, but maybe I should be looking at superhero novels, if The Liminal People is anything to go by. It has so much more nuance and style that it has me rethinking the potential of the superhero. We tend to exploit them for sfx orgies but these days they almost completely fail to satisfy my (now dwindling) desire for big-budget spectacle. Taggert, however, is more impressive than any superhero I’ve seen in a long time; why is that?

Firstly, it’s great to have a black superhero and a diverse cast of characters for a change, not only as a matter of authenticity but because it’s more interesting than the bland norm of the white western male. An added bonus is that racial identity is significant, and not only in comparison to whiteness. Taggert is not a character who happens to be black but could be white with a few simple tweaks. He sees his identity as being rooted in blackness, but this doesn’t mean his life is consumed by racial oppression. This is about who he is, who he chooses to be, and the stories he involves himself in. I’m not dismissing stories about racism, but they’re heavy as fuck, so it’s cool to read a book about a black dude that isn’t all about what white people have done to him.

Secondly, I like the way Taggert has mastered his abilities. Many superheroes seem to look inward: it’s all about understanding their own mechanisms and learning to use them with greater precision or potency. Taggert’s approach is different: he fine tunes his skills but he also educates himself. He studies physiology, neurology, psychology, genetics, etc. because his talents would be crude if he didn’t understand all the complex systems her was working with. The following character analysis he does on a teenage girl is a good example of how he rings together his powers, education, intuition and life experience:

One day she’ll be fat and bloated, like her mother; I can already feel a slower metabolism than normal. Which is why she smokes, so she doesn’t have to eat and so she doesn’t have to work off those calories.

Taggert is one of the most intelligent, highly educated superheroes out there, but without being the kind of cliché troubled genius we see in Tony Stark or Dr Strange. Part of his appeal is also philosophical: Taggert is constantly reflecting his past, his morals, his relationships (with his brother, Nordeen, Yasmine). He wants to figure out what it means to have powers, and to exist in a world with others like him.

The novel occasionally falls prey to the common pitfalls of superhero stories though. There’s some overdone posturing and a floppy one-liner or two. Taggert can be too slick at times, and I got tired of the way he oversexualises Yasmine, especially when he describes her breasts as “heaving and falling quicker than California tectonic plates”. Tectonic plates? Really? I get that he’s intensely attracted to her and his feelings are exacerbated by an obsessive longing that’s stayed strong for almost two decades, but I’m not exactly moved when I see this expressed as tits-and-ass lust.

I can let that slide though, because I love pretty much everything else about this book. It’s helping save the superhero.

The horses of Westworld

(Don’t worry, this is spoiler-free.)

I’ve fallen all the way down the rabbit hole of fan theories about HBO’s Westworld, which is currently my favourite show. With so many online conversations about what’s really going on and how it’s going to turn out, I don’t see much point in adding my speculation, but there are lots of other details I really enjoy about the show.

One random thing I love is that the horses never get shot.

I hate having to watch the animal brutality in movies and series involving horses and violence (e.g. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings), even though the focus is seldom on the animals’ suffering, but in Westworld the bullets never hit horses. There are loads of scenes with multiple characters firing rounds, killing plenty of hosts but leaving the horses untouched. Two characters even use gatling guns without a single horse being harmed.

It’s unrealistic, but in the context of the park it makes sense. The horses are all machines, presumably so that no one has to deal with real animals, who would need food, water, rest, medical care and so on, all of which would spoil the guests’ fun and require a lot of menial labour from the staff. Robot horses would also do as they’re told, so they can all be used by guests who aren’t skilled riders, and hosts don’t have to be programmed to deal with the temperaments of actual animals.

westworld-horse

If the horses got shot, the Westworld staff would have to repair them. They could do this easily, but why waste time and resources on that? The guests aren’t there to hurt animals – the ones who come to the park to indulge their suppressed brutality want to inflict their cruelty on people. Plus, wounded or dead horses might leave guests stranded. It’s more convenient for everyone if they’re safe from most forms of harm.

As we’ve seen, the ‘smart’ guns or bullets can injure or kill hosts but not humans. They also seem to be coded for accuracy: guests and hosts can all take out a target with one shot, which usually hits the heart or left shoulder, and while hosts could shoot accurately because they’re robots, the human guests wouldn’t all be so good at it. So the guns/bullets and arrows are coded, I’m guessing, to avoid shooting horses.

This is no doubt a minor detail to some, but for those of us who worry more about whether the dog is going to make it than the main character, it makes Westworld that much more enjoyable.

Notes on Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-poster

A disclaimer: I didn’t read the comics and I don’t plan to, so these are just thoughts on the movie as an isolated entity. I’m rapidly losing interest in superhero movies as they become increasingly disappointing, so I didn’t follow the film’s development, except to read an article or two when a friend mentioned the whitewashing of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Still, I hold out hope that these movies will at least be fun to watch, and Marvel has been doing far better than DC in this regard.

A visually beautiful, trippy movie. No complaints there. It seems I can still be swayed by aesthetically pleasing action.

Oh cool, a white dude travels to the East to learn some esoterical shit and shortly after he has to to save the world because none of the POC characters who have been training for years – particularly Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – are as special as him. You can just smell how fresh this plot is.

heading-east But I won’t lie – I like Benedict Cumberbatch. That voice. Those eyes. That snooty sarcastic genius typecast he’s fallen into. I don’t care that his face is weirdly long. I’m only human; I have my weaknesses okay.

On Christine, the ER surgeon and ex-lover played by Rachel McAdams: one of only two women in this Bechdel-test fail, Christine exists purely for Stephen’s sake. At the beginning, she directs his attention to a dying patient with a unique injury so we can see what an awesome neurosurgeon he is. During the course of the movie, she always happens to be at the hospital (but unoccupied) when Stephen rocks up needing her help. The only time we see her anywhere else is during Stephen’s recovery, when she delivers food to his home and informs the audience that he’s gone broke trying to fix his ruined hands. Christine has no life or personality outside of the functions she serves for Stephen Strange. The fact that she’s a surgeon is not enough to make her a strong female character. She hardly has any character.

supporting-character

Supporting character

Tilda Swinton’s action scenes are the best. I found her stereotypical guru persona banal (blah blah blah mystical wisdom blah) but I loved watching her mind-bend architecture with signature elegance.

The villains suck. Their multidimensional plot is a one-dimensional scheme of bland evil with the usual small-minded goal of becoming uber-powerful and taking over the world, causing spectacular destruction in the process. I barely know what Mads Mikkelsen was on about when he explained the reasoning for this in that one scene (where, for some reason, he just couldn’t kill Strange, despite him being a total noob), but it didn’t seem to matter. All you need to know is that the baddies are going to destroy the world, and must be stopped. By Strange, who is the only one smart enough to figure out how, obviously.

Dr Strange’s red cloak is a more enjoyable character than Mads Mikkelsen’s. This is one of the main reasons I’m getting sick of superhero movies: the characters are so flat I don’t actually care what happens to them, and the spectacular action scenes are rendered meaningless. This isn’t quite the case in Doctor Strange, which has just enough charm to get by.

There are quite a few funny moments. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That said, I’m slightly discomfited by the way Wong (played by Benedict Wong) mostly seems to be there so Stephen can make fun of him for our amusement.

 Entertaining, but I wouldn’t watch it again.