Black Panther ☕ d. Ryan Coogler, 2018

Here are some things I liked about Black Panther, the deservedly successful movie about T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), an African king who gets super-strength from a local herb and near-invulnerability from a suit of armor. Spoilers follow.

Production Design. Everything about Wakanda looks awesomely Afrofuturistic. There are obviously problems in this place, but one of the big things at stake in the film is whether utopia can still be utopia while building a bridge with the outside world. The production design sells that idea of vibrant harmony in ways that the dialogue just doesn’t have room to do. Meanwhile, Busan is a 1980s neon dreamscape: exactly the kind of place where a breathless chase with a remote-controlled car and a spear-wielding valkyrie would make total sense.

That Car Chase. Speaking of which, it’s one of the highlights of the many set pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, let alone this film.

General Okoye. Can we just take a second to talk about what an incredible badass Danai Gurira gets to be in this movie? She does everything T’Challa does, except backwards and in high heels without superpowers and in an evening gown. More than that, Gurira instills a sense of hard-won righteousness in a character legitimately torn about her duty. Never once does Okoye make a decision that is not driven by her loyalty to Wakanda and its traditions, and none of her decisions are easy. I mean, the entire cast is great, and Boseman is a terrific lead (and Letitia Wright is his great little sister). But honestly, the person this movie made me really root for was Okoye, and I hope to see much more of Gurira in starring roles in the future.

Killmonger. Marvel movies often suffer from lackluster villains. A great villain needs to be grounded in comprehensible motives while also being larger-enough-than-life to present a catastrophic threat. Andy Serkis is delightfully flamboyant and transparently evil, but doesn’t play a proper Big Bad. Michael B. Jordan is both grounded and larger-than-life, and his terrifying, nihilistic anger is fueled by a laundry list of legitimate grievances. Few villains these days are persuasively tragic without neutering their evil aura. Jordan’s Killmonger is tightly written and superbly acted, and he walks that tightrope with grace.

Thorny Politics. The main arc of the story and of Killmonger’s origin is rooted in a Shakespearean family feud, but as in Shakespeare, the royal drama is an entryway into a nexus of thorny political issues ranging from the legacy of Europe’s colonial conquests to American slavery and institutional racism, even touching on global migration. I don’t think the film adequately sorts through those issues. It can’t. I think one of the takeaways from Black Panther is that systemic problems cannot be solved by a single hero, a single nation, or even the work of a single lifetime. That’s tough to say, and it’s tough to hear. Much hay will likely be made for several years over the film’s inadequate sensitivities or nuance toward decolonization and race, and I’m certain that many will simply remain staunchly skeptical that any product put out by Disney/Marvel could possibly be taken seriously as a work of political art. That’s fine. I think it’s simply worth noting that our film’s hero never contradicts the villain’s allegations against the colonial world, including America. He simply won’t permit apocalyptic revolution to be the way forward, and he’s willing to risk trying to solve these problems in the second-worst way possible: through diplomacy. I dig that Boseman has acknowledged that T’Challa is not optimally placed to take that stand..

That Ending. The final scene of the movie is darn near perfect. Marvel finally made its mothership connection.

A Few Gripes. There were things that didn’t do as much for me. Some of the CG was dodgy, and the supporting cast was perhaps a bit overstuffed. (I love Martin Freeman, but his character seriously did not need to be in this movie.) Coogler’s handling of the action sequences was sometimes choppy. On whole, though, I dug way more than I didn’t about Black Panther, and it is one of Marvel’s best movies so far.

In Relation to the MCU. One of the secrets of its success, I think, is that it is so little dependent on the Infinity War plotline. Though perhaps a bit bloated in terms of its runtime, I think Coogler and his editors cut the film very efficiently, and the focus never strayed from what this film is about. When compared with, say, Doctor Strange (another Marvel film I actually rather loved), it’s revealing to consider how much of that film was spent delivering expository dialogue. All stories need exposition, but Black Panther delivers so much of it with careful attention to costuming, staging, music, etc. (in short, through good filmmaking) that the dialogue can focus on the big character beats and let viewers absorb the rest through osmosis. If an Infinity Stone was dropped into the middle of it, that balance would be thrown off even more.

Much as I look forward to Avengers: Infinity War, a movie like Black Panther simply makes me excited to see more Marvel movies spotlighting particular heroes, especially if Marvel continues to give each filmmaker just enough latitude to make each movie individually meaningful while still participating in the same universe.☕

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2016-2017: A Books Review

As in my last year-end book recap, this post will cover books that have enriched me in some profound-yet-vaguely-defined way. Two key differences, though: 1.) I’m reviewing two years’ worth of reading at once, and 2.) I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, I haven’t read nearly as much fiction as I have in previous years, which is mostly due to my dissertation research. Apart from prose style, I still generally feel that ranking fiction and nonfiction against each other is a bit like comparing apples and teakettles. But there’s no version of an account of the books I’ve read in the last two years which doesn’t reckon with the huge swath of nonfiction that has imprinted its contours on my spirit. So I’m not ranking anything strictly, but the following is more or less in descending order.

I must also admit that there wasn’t much fiction in my life within these last two years that gave me such a high as the first three books on my last list. Much was enjoyable, but little really felt like a revelation. By contrast, there were quite a few nonfiction works whose clarity, force, or style really swelled my sails.

As a bonus, I’m going to recommend complementary pairings for several of these books. In the case of some of them, I think that the dialectic forged between certain authors in my reader brain has been more potent than any text alone. All of these (with exceptions noted) are books that I read in 2016 and 2017, and I’m grateful to have done so.

Cornel West.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West (1982). A relatively simple contention: we can’t find a workable solution to any political problem in the U.S. without taking to heart the historical experience of African-American Christians. Having grappled with a long chain of promises made and thwarted, black American churches have had to develop spiritual and cultural resources that are necessarily political, and especially well-suited to an era defined by unequal power relations among people, states, and the tectonic flows of global capital. So says West, whose politics are, of course, radical. He’s also a rare visionary stylist who can graft together the patois of continental poststructural philosophy, Marxism, race theory, and American pragmatism and not only make it intelligible, but often lyrical.

Pairs well with: The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Black Prophetic Politics (2011) by Stephen Marshall or The Prophetic Imagination (1978) by Walter Brueggemann. Marshall comes at the African-American political tradition from a historiographical standpoint and affirms the power of black prophetic critique going back to David Walker’s Appeal while also being critical of its patriarchal bias. Brueggemann’s book is justly a classic appeal to Christian theologians and pastors to take much more seriously the Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions as challenges to established hierarchies, especially within the church—and not just for social justice, but for the renewal of commitment to the Gospel.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935). The first time I read this was in the late summer of 2016, in the parlous moment when half the country wrung its hands over the bizarre rise of Donald Trump while still serenely self-assured that Hillary Clinton would, in the end, triumph over the vulgar authoritarian. The second time I read this was in the fall of 2017, not long after President Trump failed to slam-dunk a generic condemnation of violent Nazis in Charlottesville. Looking back at American history, it seems to me that Lewis’s satire is relevant in pretty much any period, let alone the present. That’s because Lewis observed the simple fact that democratic tradition itself is no inoculation against tyranny. All you need is a large enough number of people who desire tyranny (with its deceptive promises of restorative greatness) and are willing to install it in government. Though I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist per se, he is an authoritarian, a bully, and a hateful human being, and my fear is that his electoral success presages a future in which authoritarianism becomes an appealing option for voters across the political spectrum. Which means that It Can’t Happen Here will continue to be perennially relevant. Sad!

Pairs well with: The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003) or The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (2004). Frankly, these two books pair nicely with each other, too. Once you read the historical particulars of European fascism, it’s amazing how dead-on Lewis was in nailing the structure of their ideology and political life cycles; it’s even more amazing how well Lewis translated fascism into the all-American tropes which are now standard operating procedure at FOX News and its kissing cousins.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009). It’s a steampunk adventure! It’s a Harlequin romance! It’s an effortlessly witty British comedy of manners! For all that, it’s essentially Underworld (the Kate Beckinsdale series, not the DeLillo novel) served as afternoon tea. I’ve read the next two books in the series, and I have enjoyed them, but the first book is free of the burden of developing a saga—it’s just a colorful, sexy, immensely entertaining romp. It’s also one of the relatively few novels I’ve read which made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and the central romance is laser-calibrated to fan the flames of shipper hearts everywhere.

Pairs well with: whatever’s in the current news cycle. Because when you’re in the depths of despair, it helps to read a book about a sardonic woman who tames vampires with her umbrella, werewolves with her force of personality, and her appetite not at all—because there’s nothing not to love about a heroine who loves a good meal while she peruses the latest scientific literature.

Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu (2001-2010). Though I read the first few volumes in 2015, I finished the series in 2016, thanks to our local library’s shockingly well-stocked comics collection. To date, I have seen precisely one episode of FMA: Brotherhood (after having finished the manga), and I rather enjoyed the experience of reading this without feeling compelled to compare it to its anime adaptations. At heart, it’s a variation on Frankenstein, but it’s one that surveys the wreckage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which rapidly adopted poor Victor’s ideology and embedded them in the global cultural and institutional framework. Arakawa is wise enough both to seek empathy with her villains but also to recognize political evil for what it is.

Pairs well with: Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (2015-present). I read the first six volumes of this series. I guess it’s considered horror, but it’s much more of a folk tale. This is another story of gods, men, and ghosts and the trouble that brews when powerful people categorically confuse the distinctions between them. Bunn has a storyteller’s sense of evoking resonance with cadence and simplicity, and Crook’s art is almost unbelievably atmospheric.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790). The 2002 critical edition I read was edited and very helpfully annotated by J.C.D. Clark. In previous posts here on Catecinem, I wrote a bit about why I can no longer identify as conservative. Actually reading Burke, at long last, was instrumental in that. My suspicion is that Russell Kirk might have understood what he was doing when he elevated Burke into a conservative icon and helped a generation of American conservatives enshrine Reflections as a canonical text for their movement. But those who have imbibed Burke second- or third-hand don’t really grok how historically and culturally contingent Reflections is. Nor would they recognize that conservatism post-Goldwater is basically a kind of fundamentalism—a radicalism that is temperamentally incompatible with Burke’s in this tract. Burke damn well knew, far as I can tell, the difference between taking the historical longview and mythologizing his nation’s past as a model Golden Age for political reform. His very pragmatic point is that sometimes we need to treat the status quo with respect in order to keep fundamentalism at bay. For all his outmoded (even in his day) blindnesses and biases, Burke’s Reflections does not read to me as “conservative” in the narrow ideological sense. It reads, if I were to inadvisedly abstract it into a manifesto (which it is not), as a well-considered warning against revolutionary radicalism. The very idea that shutting down the government, gutting decades-established programs, or blowing up the deficit because free markets will magically solve every program—this is all revolutionary radicalism. And any appeal to the founding fathers, the pre-New Deal status quo, or the genius of Abraham Lincoln as support for such measures is an ahistorical, asinine delusion. If nothing else, what I learned from reading Burke is that people who treat their revolutionary politics as history’s redeeming grace are to be feared.

Pairs well with: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears (2009) or Marxian Socialism in the United States by Daniel Bell (1967). Lears makes a strong argument that the re-alignment of national identity along corporate capitalist lines in the late nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries was guided by a revamped masculinist ideology that continues to shape America’s sense of self and its role in the world. Though it echoes with Lefty Bush-era exigencies, I think it’s still relevant. Bell’s classic essay argues that socialism failed to take root in the U.S. in large part because it fell victim to quasi-religious sectarianism. Besides being a sterling historical argument (not without persuasive detractors, but still a lodestone), Bell’s prose is lively and laced with sardonic humor. It was, strange as it may seem based on the title, a genuine pleasure to read.

My Monster Secret (Actually, I Am…) by Masuda Eiji (2013-2017). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for harem comedies. I’m not ignorant of the many problems inherent in a mostly exploitative genre. I think the best harem comedies function as romantic comedies, as opposed to unreconstructed adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Of course, harem comedies really just inherited the problems of the romantic comedy and amplified them, but… I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. C’est la vie. As someone who has spent large swaths of my life feeling intolerably lonely, I’m inclined to forgive anyone for responding instinctually to a story in which stifling, bumbling awkwardness is the primary obstacle to two people recognizing in each other the love of one’s life. Actually, I Am… gets that, I think, on a primal level. The characters are all given some dimension, the gags and timing are hilarious, and the art is simply stunning. I’ve only read the first seven volumes so far; this series is sweet and endearing and it’s smart enough to laugh at how absurd its unnecessary complications are.

Pairs well with: A sunny, cold afternoon when your highest ambition is to drink hot cocoa and snuggle under a homemade quilt.

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements (2013). Physically, it appears to be a coffee table book, but it’s a nuanced, accessible, and (as far as I can tell) scrupulously well-researched history of the anime industry. Clements broadens his contextual focus from key artists and titles to account for how economic trends, technological advances, and institutional gambits work as an ecosystem to produce Japanese animation and its aesthetics. In sum, it’s fascinating, concise, authoritative, and written in a lively prose style. My favorite anecdote from the book, by the by, concerns the role that prints of Princess Iron Fan and Fantasia confiscated during WWII played in the development of Japan’s wartime (and thus postwar) animation.

Pairs well with: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2006). Roberts argues that we can best understand science fiction as a mode of artistic creation by tracing its contours as a dialectic between Enlightenment rationalism and the premodern religious worldview. I find his case to be very persuasive, although I admit I may be more bowled over by his audacity and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature than I am convinced by a thorough examination of his interpretation of the evidence. It’s a great critical performance, at any rate. One of the major shifts he charts in sf, especially moving into the twentieth century, is that sf became primarily visual in its mode of expression. Clements is often at pains to emphasize that all anime is not giant robots, magical girls, and high school tournament epics. But the explosion of anime in the international video market in the 1980s was very much tied to sf aesthetics. Further, I suspect that scholars could do a lot more to work though the marketing and fan reception of anime in Western countries in conjunction with Roberts’s thesis. Roberts’s thesis, in turn, could benefit from deeper engagement with historians of the impact on sf tropes in the public imagination worldwide.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). Easily one of the great alternate history stories, but, like most everything else PKD wrote, its premise doesn’t quite capture how trippy the novel is. A 1960s North America governed by the Japanese empire in the west and the Third Reich in the east might seem like a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the postwar America people knew. In Dick’s view, life under the Japanese isn’t functionally that different from the real world, with its racial hierarchies, authoritarian police, almighty corporate culture, and uneasy Cold War detente with a more aggressive totalitarian superpower. There’s more to it than that, because PKD. Man in the High Castle may be the best novel of his that I’ve read so far, if not his most characteristic.

Pairs well with: Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (1995-present). Though I’ve been reading this series for a long time, there was a long dry spell where I didn’t keep up. In the last few years, I finally devoured volumes six through ten, including the excellent Dark Age arc. As you probably know, Astro City takes place in the titular metropolis where the superpowered heroes, villains, and regular folk are all given roughly equal due, and the series really shines in its vignettes. At first, Astro City came across to me like a more character-driven riff on our favorite superhero icons as well as a love letter to the Golden Age. It is that, but it’s more. The creators have apparently worked out an incredible continuity for their series (no major reboots or crossovers yet!), and it only now occurred to me that they’re not just telling the metastory of superhero comics of the twentieth century. They’re telling the story of America in the guise of an alternate history, and the major movements and tropes of the various comic trends form the periodization. It’s spectacular and stunning and, as the vignettes collage together, it’s breathtaking.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America by Rod Dreher (2017). Yes, this is that book by the American Conservative blogger who thinks Obergefell is the court case that tipped America over the precipice into moral chaos. Unless and until you read it, though, you’ll miss that it’s an essentially utopian jeremiad. The wrack and ruin at the heart of American communities is a symptom of the self-imposed degradation of Church culture, which hollowed Christian identity out from the center of American culture, or so Dreher contends. His critique of the Enlightenment’s legacy and its effect on Christian praxis is not so far flung from the diatribes of the Frankfurt School, save for the fact that he thinks rebuilding the church from the inside out is the most important task for saving the human spirit (as opposed to socialist revolution). This is not a book advocating total separation of Christians from secular culture; it is also not a book attempting to impose draconian rules on who gets to be in a Christian church and who doesn’t. (Surprise: in his own way, Dreher tries to make room for LGBTQ Christians in the BenOp!) It’s a book about the fact that the Church has sold Christian orthodoxy down the river for the comforting illusion of cultural relevance and the power that comes with being capitalism’s handmaiden. Thus the Church has hollowed out its internal resources for resisting the relentless advance of a social hierarchy that values only efficiency, exploitation, and the genuflection of the atomized individual before the almighty dollar. I don’t accept every claim Dreher makes, nor do I subscribe to his brand of small-o orthodoxy (my church ordains LGBTQ+ clergy, soooo…), but I think his diagnosis and his prescription are worth pondering. A challenge he struggles with is how to integrate his Benedict Option into liberal churches. He makes the claim that liberal churches can and should do so, but he never really articulates how that would work. I think that those of us who belong to churches with more progressive tendencies should take up that challenge in good faith, even if it’s only a starting point for constructive dialogue.

Pairs well with: News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890). While it’s a failure as a novel (as many nineteenth-century utopian novels tend to be), and thus a bit of a chore, I found Morris’s retrograde, pastoral utopia to be a welcome challenge to Edward Bellamy’s industrialized corporate vision of command and control. While Dreher tends to reject the label of “utopia” for his own project, I think he and Morris are actually kindred spirits in significant ways. Not least is the fact that Morris insists much more persuasively than Bellamy on the importance and sustainability of community—one that is organized around duty and pleasure, not ease and competition for status. One significant feature that serves as a complement to Dreher’s call for pastoral monasticism is Morris’s focus on crafts and beauty. Dreher knows we need those things, but his book wasn’t the place to address it satisfactorily; Morris shows in a more dramatic fashion how the building of community and the production of culture in a localist framework might actually work.

My Hero Academia by Hirokoshi Kohei (2014-present). About as winsome and exciting as high school manga get, this series is also a wonderful homage to superhero stories and why they matter. The art is jaw-dropping, and the character designs are distinctive and quirky. (Pun intended.) I’ve read the first ten volumes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you like superhero comics and you’re not reading this, get thee to a biblioteca!

Pairs well with: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, et al. (2014-present). Wilson is crackerjack at dialogue and characterization. Takeshi Miyazawa, artist of the last couple volumes I read, draws dynamic panels with evocative facial expressions. But Adrian Alphona’s art in the first couple arcs is truly amazing. Besides being dynamic and expressive, Alphona also squirreled away tons and tons of details that made studying each panel a real delight. The quirkiness of his art paired well with Wilson’s writing, and I don’t think the series ever quite matched that high afterward. Ms. Marvel’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t have as many villains of archnemesis quality in it (yet), but Kamala Khan and her friends are a wonderful cast of characters, and Wilson works hard (sometimes not quite effortlessly) to write a comic written for teens that offers hope untainted by saccharine falsity. As a Christian, I found it refreshing that the main heroine is a person of faith—a Muslim—and that the creators don’t seem to think it’s their sacred duty to lead her to reject her faith or angst about the seeming rigidity of her family’s or community’s religious practices. Her faith is, in fact, instrumental in leading her to want to use her powers to help people. I feel like artists of faith in any media could learn from this example.*

Log Horizon by Touno Mamare (2011-present). I’ve only read the first two volumes of this light novel series, but it’s a captivating pastiche of fantasy adventure, political social novel, and science fiction mystery. In a post-Sword Art Online fanscape, the premise of MMORPG players trapped in their favorite fantasy realm might smell like a clone. It’s not. This is a utopian story through and through, and it is far more about the difficulty of creating and sustaining community. In almost Asimovian fashion, a great deal of the series so far consists of Touno establishing rules for this world, then having his main protagonist work out ways around those rules. Weirdly, the author (real name: Umezu Daisuke) was charged with income tax evasion. Upon discovering that, my only real reaction was a gripping terror that he’d never finish Log Horizon or that the publisher would stop translating it.

Pairs well with: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (1970). From the author’s introduction: “This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.” How could you not want to read this? It’s one of the ur-texts that the RPGs (and later digital versions) drew on to make stories like Log Horizon possible.

When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1981). Had I the time, I’d re-read this for Black History Month. Most reputable editors will include representatives of the Harlem Renaissance in American Literature anthologies; hence your familiarity with (even in passing) such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps you are more familiar with legendary jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Fats Waller. Besides being an exciting, nimble account of the dozens of luminaries for whom Harlem became something of a Mecca, Lewis manages a tricky feat: he shows how foundational the ferment of the Renaissance was to the formation of American culture from the mid-twenties onward while never losing sight of the specific people, place, and time of his story. I remain scandalized by how little I knew of the Harlem Renaissance, even with my years of English education, and humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This is simply an outstanding intellectual and cultural history, perhaps more urgently needed now than at the time of its original publication.

Pairs well with: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (1999) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Of Kennedy’s magisterial volume, there’s little to be said: it’s simply a great overview of a period of American history that has attained mythic status. And it’s an incredibly helpful survey of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and its artists. I think he does justice to it without letting myth overtake good history. Du Bois, by contrast, was a mythopoet of the first order, but only part of the time. A scrupulous sociologist and debunker by training, a polemicist and muckraker by profession, and prophet by disposition, Darkwater is one of Du Bois’s counter-myths of pan-African history. Brilliantly composed, Du Bois places black Americans at the forefront of history in a series of essays, poems, and stories that comprise a ferocious and poignant mosaic. For those looking for more on Du Bois’s life and times, Lewis has written an authoritative two-volume biography.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). The occasion for reading this was my wife’s Engaging Books Challenge, but it’s a book I should’ve read long ago. Far from being an anti-religious screed, it’s a testimony to the ways that oppression and violence are woven into our culture and institutionalized beyond reckoning. If anything, Atwood takes pains to emphasize how cynically the guise of religion is abused by the men and women in power in her futuristic dystopia. Nothing about the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible in the strictest sense of being an extrapolation of how current trends could fall together. That is to say, I don’t think the world of Handmaid’s Tale could exist in the form in which it’s presented. The tensions between the conflicting desires, ideological mystifications, and historical memories could not be sustained in this particular thought variant. Then again, it often strikes me that our current, real-world conflicts of desire, ideological mystifications, and historical memories are mindbendingly unsustainable and implausible. It violates plausibility that the hot mess of American civilization has not flown apart in centrifugal rage—not really—since the 1860s. That’s why I think The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels real, even if it doesn’t feel strictly plausible. It doesn’t seem possible that the endless flow of women stepping forth to testify about the horrific systemic abuse they’ve suffered could have gone on so long unchecked. It doesn’t seem possible that people could, even now, ignore and deny the sheer flood of plausible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, or—in grotesquely comic fashion—tacitly acknowledge the truth of these testimonies and simply keep on keeping on without doing a damn thing about them. When the world as it exists feels unreal, that’s when we most need science-fictional narratives to make sense of it all. Offred’s story isn’t realistic because the world could become Gilead; it’s true because the horrors of Gilead already surround us in all their numbing complexity.

Pairs well with: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). I confess: I’m cheating a bit. I first read this in 2015 and didn’t include it on that list. In retrospect, the prophetic value of this novel has only been amplified. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t think it’s the holistic assemblage of specifics that are likely to come to pass. Instead, I think Atwood’s parable accurately captures the essence of a certain amoral emptiness at the heart of how we deal with the problems of power. Oryx and Crake is a North America plagued with industrialized excess, pornography, corporatized inequality, and engineers and technocrats who, thanks to gene-editing technologies, have the power to be like gods. The emergence of a Crake, in whose nihilistic narcissism someone like Snowman finds direction and purpose, well… Does it sound paranoid to say that this is not merely inevitable, but that it’s the current state of the world? How many Crakes do you know? How many Oryxes and Jimmies? How badly have we underestimated the implications of remaking our reality at the genetic level? How badly have we failed to grasp how unready we are—as a society, as a species—to be our own gods? The men in Handmaid’s Tale have a taste of that power, but Gilead is, strictly speaking, only a corner of North America. The Crakers inherit the Earth.☕

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  • Quick nerdrant: At its most frustrating, Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of why I’ve generally always loathed mainstream superhero comics. Picking up any mainstream superhero title is sort of like randomly starting to watch a long-running soap opera, but worse. I mean, there’s probably forty years of history you don’t know about, with all sorts of characters and setting details that are totally obscure unless you’ve been reading the whole time. So the buy-in is pretty steep to start with, and the publisher just tilts it further. Story arcs are interrupted for major, universe-changing events which are given zero context; characters from other titles are randomly shoehorned in, because oh my lord we absolutely must have Wolverine fanservice in every freaking single Marvel property ever. Without being a total poop about it, I get why Marvel (and the other major publishers) pull these stunts. They help drive sales. Sure. Except readers like me have not time nor money nor interest in reading thirteen other titles just to get the big picture. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the references from Ms. Marvel are echoed in Marvel’s film and TV franchises, I’d have been totally lost. It’s a serious drawback in a title that is otherwise delightful. The idea that Kamala’s story cannot be decoupled from the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe has some appeal; in theory, it gives dimension and weight to living in a particular place and time, with the decisions and actions of mighty powers far away having major impacts on others who don’t have that kind of power. Handled right, that could be poignant and meaningful. The way it’s actually handled feels cheap and random. Rather than feeling connected to the “Marvel Universe,” Ms. Marvel often simply feels chained to the exigencies of Marvel’s marketing division, which is less interested in telling meaningful stories than larding comic book stores with a neverending succession of crossover EVENTS that always ultimately cancel each other out. One thing you can say for soap operas is that at least their stars grow old and die. I sometimes feel like being a Marvel or DC superhero with the self-knowledge of my role in the comics universe would be the greatest existential nightmare: I exist, I have no agency, my creator-gods themselves manipulate me at the discretion of senseless forces beyond even their control, my actions have no meaningful consequences whatsoever, and my torment will never end.

D&Determined to prove a villain?

“To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/ I am determined to become a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Since I started Dungeon Mastering D&D, a few people have asked me on separate occasions why I don’t permit evil-aligned characters in my games. Initially, it was out of reflexive distaste. When I first started playing D&D, whenever my fellow party members did something evil or evil-adjacent, it frankly made the game less fun for me. I made the game less fun for myself on occasion by making evil choices that were, in retrospect, outside of my character’s alignment.

Until I started DMing, I’d sort of assumed that most players, at worst, played fantasy world Jack Bauers. You know, people who did bad things, but who were basically committed to a kind of code that nudged them toward heroism. Later on, I discovered the legendary player archetype of the murderhobo—easily one of the most felicitous coinages in the English language. From my first session as a player, I knew I wanted to be a DM, but I also knew that I didn’t want to run a murderhobo campaign.

One time, when we were scouting out a goblin stronghold, I cast charm person on a goblin, and after we got the information out of him, another player and I simply beat the confused sod to death while making wisecracks. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, but in retrospect, I was really ashamed of myself. Partly, I was upset that I wasn’t true to my character—which is apt to happen when non-thespians engage in sustained improv sessions—but I was also a bit disgusted by the glee with which I’d made my character murder someone with no capacity to fight back. My wife and I also had a bad experience playing an evil one-shot at a con, which sort of cemented my prejudice against that kind of game. That prejudice has begun to crumble a bit, but it’s taken a while.

In the past few years, I’ve reflected quite a bit on why I don’t want to run that kind of campaign. My instinctive distaste for evil roleplay as I experienced it has underlay the justifications I’ve conjured, but the following reasons are the result of introspection and observation.

There are two pretty pragmatic reasons I don’t permit evil characters. Extrapolating from my own feelings as I participated in situations with evil RP, I figured that there must be other players who also would find their game to be less fun in a party with evil characters. While I think people who enjoy playing evil characters can have fun playing good or neutral characters, the reverse is not necessarily true: some players simply wouldn’t have fun playing evil characters. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’m boxing out the people who would enjoy evil characters. Good characters won’t ruin the game for someone running an evil character, but one evil character could bring the game down for other folks. For the sake of maximum fun for everyone at the table, it’s simply easier to proscribe evil characters.

The other practical reason is a corollary to that. Evil characters are more likely to drive internal tension in the party, especially if there’s a lawful or chaotic good character committed to high ideals. Players who aren’t thoughtful about their choices could very easily torpedo a campaign without attention to common goals and intra-party politics. And that’s just if their evil actions are outwardly-directed. Stories abound of evil characters murdering their own party members or getting their party killed, and that can be a social disaster for a lot of groups.

My other reasons for proscribing evil characters are a bit more abstract. The most kneejerk reason for not permitting evil characters makes me sound like a fusty old marm—“there’s enough evil in the real world, why recreate it in the game?!” I’ve repeated some variation of that numerous times, but even I don’t find it all that convincing, for reasons I’ll get to later. It took me a while of running Dungeons & Dragons to realize the major reason why I don’t want evil characters in my game, and it’s one that is unique to being a DM. Running a game is not about what you don’t permit at your table; it’s about your vision of what you want to create with other people. That is, I think a good DM isn’t there simply to place negative boundaries, but to use boundaries to give positive shape to a particular kind of storytelling experience.

He almost deserved it.

I couldn’t articulate it at first, but the game I was interested in running was an epic heroic adventure. Whatever pretensions I have, at heart I’m a kid who grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time. To me, fantasy stories are about people who save the world because they succeed in the struggle to become better versions of themselves.

Great fantasy is about the forging of heroes, and great fantasy heroes like Bilbo Baggins or the Pevensie children inspire us because they show us how hard it is to be worthy in a world that too often fosters or celebrates unworthiness. And great fantasy storytellers understand that we need to see heroes fail as well as succeed, or else they are not convincing. Because we can relate to failure and human flaws, we can therefore also relate to our heroes when they overcome those failures and flaws to become superheroes. Overcoming obstacles does not just make fantasy heroes better people, it serves as a way of redeeming their worlds—and by virtue of their inspiration in readers’ lives, our own.

This is not the only kind of fantasy, nor is it the only way to write great fantasy. But it’s the conception of fantasy coded into my DNA. As a DM, I need to love my players’ characters. I need to root for them. They can and should fail sometimes; my players should absolutely roleplay their characters’ flaws. But I can root for inept, wayward, misguided, unlucky, or otherwise maladapted heroes. In fact, heroes like that are perhaps more endearing by virtue of their flaws—I’m even more invested in them succeeding. By contrast, an evil character’s chief flaw is also his ideal. If an evil character succeeds, then that’s the opposite of heroism. Then she hasn’t become a better version of herself—she’s only become more crafty, underhanded, or powerful.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not interested in running a Forgotten Realms variant of Natural Born Killers or Goodfellas. These happen to be films that I personally despise, despite the fact that they are made by master filmmakers working at the top of their game. I’m mature enough to concede that these are masterpieces, in the sense that they make maximal use of film form to tell truthful stories about indelible characters. They are also the kind of stories that I don’t think I could tell truthfully, nor would I want to. Telling these stories wouldn’t be true to who I am or to the kinds of stories I most deeply value.

Which is not to say that I don’t want to be capable of telling those stories some day. As I’ve grown more comfortable with the role of DM, I find that my ambitions grow accordingly. Recently, I’ve been watching High Rollers: Dead Reckoning, and it seems to me to be a classic model of how to run an antiheroic campaign.

From session zero through the campaign proper, Dead Reckoning shows a D&D group in total control of their characters, their setting, and tone. The characters are antiheroes, but the players find ways to give dimension to them, embracing what makes them disturbing without losing sight of what gives them humanity. It’s also a game where internal party tension is part of the point of the campaign, keeping with the tradition of Dirty Dozen-style suicide squad missions. Mark Hulmes, the DM, has a knack for balancing mordant humor with a pervasively dangerous situation that compels the group to work together to survive, even as the moral complications of that situation threaten to pull the group apart. It’s a campaign that thrives on roleplay, and for the experienced, imaginative players in the High Rollers cast, it certainly seems to be thrilling drama.

I’m not there yet. But my kneejerk aversion to evil characters in my stories contradicts one of the main reasons I love D&D in the first place: the immersion in the experience of an imaginary world where your choices define the story. Good stories need to be real, and some players might feel that me placing evil characters off-limits makes their agency less real.

Placing that kind of limit also implies that I don’t fully trust my players to play certain types of characters. As DM, I play evil characters all the time, and I don’t think anyone would argue that there isn’t a difference between a DM running evil characters and players doing so. But just as players enjoy tangling with a complicated evil NPC with morally-ambiguous goals, I think some players would enjoy that kind of dramatic tension within the party. RP-oriented players especially could generate productive drama from that kind of tension, and they would probably appreciate having the freedom to explore that.

I can’t imagine throwing an evil PC into a campaign without having a conversation ahead of time with everyone in the group about it. First, to make sure that every single player is on board with this—if anyone had any reservations at all about being in a party with an evil PC, that would be a no-go. Second, to make sure I understood what makes that character tick, and what the appeal would be in playing that character. Maybe a question as simple as, “What does playing an evil character add to this campaign?” would be sufficient. And if nobody found the answer persuasive enough, that would be that.

Joe Manganiello joins Sam Riegel, Taliesin Jaffee, and Marisha Ray on Critical Role.

Joe Manganiello is a good example of a player who knows how to align his evil character’s goals with the party in a non-game-breaking way. In Critical Role and Force Grey: The Lost City of Omu, he plays Arkhan the Cruel, a paladin of Tiamat, the major villain of D&D Fifth Edition’s first major storyline—an evil dragon goddess. Besides just being great at calibrating his role-play presence to the groups he’s in, Manganiello makes a point of clarifying his character’s motives. I loved how, in Force Grey, when he’d use his paladin powers to restore other party members’ hit points, he’d say, “A gift from my queen.” It was creepy and funny—here’s this giant evil red dragonborn proselytizing with that classic apostle’s gambit, the healing miracle. It gave the party reason to trust him, and while Arkhan clearly saw most of them as useful pawns, it was still a comprehensible, recognizably human dynamic. And in a deadly campaign where everyone needed to rely on each other in order to survive each encounter, it at least established that Arkhan wasn’t the kind of character who would needlessly waste their lives. After all, if they proved really useful and felt a lasting bond with him, he could exploit that later.

Another way of approaching the problem would be to abandon alignment as part of character creation altogether. Satine Phoenix and Jason Charles Miller talked about this in GM Tips. Unlike Phoenix, I do think that good and evil are generally useful categories. But it might (might) be more useful to have players simply focus on nailing down their characters’ traits, goals, ideals, and flaws in more depth rather than leaning on alignment as a definitive category. During gameplay, players would be free to form their own judgments about each character’s morality, and the customs and other social pressures of the setting would also play a part.

The risk is that I’d end up running a misbegotten bastard variant of Blood Meridian. The potential reward is that players would have a bit more freedom to find their own redemptive arcs, and I’d have more freedom in emphasizing the complicated nature of justice in a fallen world. I have that freedom now, but my players might feel like they don’t. Maybe dispensing with labels can let us address certain ideas and situations with more clarity. One of my favorite moments in Dead Reckoning came after one of the party members straight-up murdered a NPC as a sort of misguided mercy killing, and another rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “That was wrong.” Instead of having the DM rule out that kind of behavior at the outset, it might (might) be more meaningful for players to face the truth squarely on their own terms: right and wrong are made tangible by when you can make your choices and act accordingly.

One of the things I never fully appreciated about D&D before I started running it is how risky a venture it is. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly, and a bad call as DM can destroy a player’s entire experience of the campaign. Then again, things can go off the rails in a good way. In the first campaign I ever ran (and it’s still going!), I presented the party with an artifact that would turn the bearer chaotic evil as long as it was on their person. I did this after we’d been playing for a year, and I felt like the group could handle it. I even had a shortlist of those I expected to be the one to pick it up. The player who picked it up rolled with the temporary alignment shift brilliantly. For the next four or five-ish sessions, the party was never far from the precipice of disaster, but there were tons of memorable scenes and creative role-play. It’s one of the high points of my short career so far as DM, and all I really did was present my player with a different set of choices and let her rip.

That kind of calculated risk is one I may run again at some point, but it will depend greatly on the player, the group, and the campaign itself. At the end of the day, as most GMs say, it’s all about whether the group has fun. If I ever get to the point where everyone at my table thinks it would be fun to party up with a villain, I guess we’ll see what happens. This is not a personal goal, but it is a possibility about which I’ve very slowly begun to shift my stance from resistant to ambivalent. ☕

Mark Hulmes (DM), Chris Trott, Katie Morrison, Tom Hazell, and Kim Richards on Rogues One: A High Rollers Story.


Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Today, all readers of science fiction have occasion to celebrate the life’s work of Ursula K. Le Guin. We too often celebrate the life of people when they’re gone, but the passing of Le Guin feels less like a loss than it probably should. In large part, that’s because her stories celebrate the cycle of life and the search for harmony, of which death and life both play their parts. It’s also because Le Guin attained a cultural status almost commensurate to her accomplishments.

I’ve rambled about the canon quite a bit on this blog, not always coherently or with well-justified arguments. I don’t know if Le Guin will be mandatory reading one or two hundred years from now. But as many of the obituaries have noted, she earned pretty much every meaningful award in her field and several outside of it. Her books are widely read by adults and children, especially the Earthsea series. Her two most famous science fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), are taught in high schools and universities, and literature students of any level often cut their critical teeth on her work. There is no question in my mind that at some point in the not-distant future, some ambitious TV producer will adapt one of her stories into a popular and critically-acclaimed series. At that point, Le Guin’s transition into the cultural mainstream will be complete. Mainstream acceptance isn’t a prerequisite for canonicity, but it helps.

When I say that Le Guin’s current cultural cachet is almost commensurate to her accomplishments, it’s not to downplay the accolades mentioned above. It’s to acknowledge that the effort Le Guin expended to pull herself—and by proxy, science fiction as a literary category—will likely never be recognized outside of fandom or scholarly circles. Vociferous and prolific, Le Guin was one of sf’s leading apologists and theorists: the sheer number of speeches, essays, and interviews she’s done, in which she always made a shrewd observation, uttered a provocation, or simply told the truth in a colorful way, are also a part of her legacy. That kind of labor requires diligence, ingenuity, a certain restlessness, and courage. It’s a labor that demands recognition not for its own sake. It’s never enough to be a great artist. Great artists require great apologists, and nobody was a better advocate of her work than Ursula K. Le Guin.

And she certainly is a great novelist. I find that I don’t ever appreciate her work the first time I read it. I always feel underwhelmed. Then I find that her stories and ideas become essential to my own way of thinking about and expressing things. It’s a process that takes years, a sedimentation. Which is to say that if I call Le Guin’s work foundational to my own approaches to culture and literature, I mean that it forms geological strata in my consciousness.

Like all great stories, Le Guin’s writing helps make sense of the world and our place in it. And like all great stories, her work always contains a moral framework. No great story is intelligible without a moral framework. One of the great fables of her career is The Lathe of Heaven (1971), in which a man whose dreams can literally remake reality must refuse to allow a utopian psychologist to use him to improve the world. It’s a very Taoist fable, in which the exercise of individual agency to remake the world in one man’s image leads ultimately to disharmony. It’s also a piercing feminist critique of the patriarchal hierarchies built into therapeutic discourse. More fundamentally, it recognizes that using power to reconstruct the lives of others is not always the right thing to do, even if it does improve security, stability, and happiness. Totalitarianism and the erasure of people and their history are utopian projects, but in the negative sense where the search for perfection really is the enemy of the good.

Much as I’ll miss Le Guin as an active commentator and personality, I won’t miss her presence. She’s right there in her writing, and we’ll hear her voice every time we read her words. Her voice has been echoing in my head for years already, and she’s been very companionable indeed. If our kids and their kids are lucky, they’ll hear her voice echoing far into the future.


The Books of 2015

I was quite blessed last year to have a read a number of wonderful books, both fiction and nonfiction, some of which were new to me, and some of which were old acquaintances. I’ve read Mansfield Park and Macbeth, for instance, several times already, but they unfold unwonted revelations upon each reading. The following is a list of books that I read for the first time in the last year; it is all fiction, mostly for the sake of categorical clarity (I don’t really think I can justify how I would rank The Principle of Hope, Vol 1, for instance, against Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead; it just don’t sit right). Let me quickly give mention, though, to two impossible-to-categorize memoirs: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. They are required reading for reasons that, in all honesty, elude my critical capacities. They’re simply that good. In any event, the following are all books I read in 2015 that have, in some way, deeply enriched my comprehension of life, the world, and the soul.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Technically, I had already read The Inferno back in high school, but I figure a gap of nearly 20 years ought to qualify reading the Commedia in its entirety as “new.” I’m not sure whether it’s because of arrogance, ignorance, or some bizarre combination thereof, but I went into the Comedy with relatively low expectations. What I learned from Dante is a truth universally acknowledged but not often enough reiterated: the classics have new things to teach us. In particular, Dante pretty nearly revolutionized the way I think about divine love and its relation to sin. Truly, if you haven’t ever read The Divine Comedy, please do so. The edition I read was the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander. To be honest, I didn’t care so much for their translation. It seemed as though I got the content of the poem, and the translation was elegant, but the side-by-side comparison showed me that, even with my tourist’s-level Italian, their English version contained almost none of Dante’s poetry. That said, the endnotes and introductions were enormously helpful and endlessly fascinating. I’m going to make a point of re-reading the Comedy throughout my life, and I will likely try a different translation each time until I finally find the one that’s right for me. I hope you all find the one that’s right for you.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Yes, much like Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s that book that everyone claims to have read (but really hasn’t), because she has borrowed it from the library 20 times with every intention of reading it, only to get a couple hundred pages in (if that) and stop, or she’s had it sitting on her shelf for twenty years, relying upon friends and visitors picking it up and rifling through the pages as a substitute for actually having to dust it off, or has sworn never to read it on general principle, because it’s: a) the book all those obnoxious hipsters/English majors claim to have read and loved, or b) a thousand effing pages long, and screw those endnotes (because, honestly who does that?). So. I read it. The whole thing. Not only worth finishing on its literary merits (which are considerable), but a prophetic diagnosis of a culture that has resorted to self-fulfillment as the ultimate authority, and a remarkable feat of authorial empathy.

Tracks by Louise Erdrich. Opening lines: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. It was surprising there were so many of us left to die. For those who survived the spotted sickness from the south, our long fight west to Nadouissoux land where we signed the treaty, and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers, what descended from the north in 1912 seemed impossible.” If reading those lines doesn’t make you want to read the book, I don’t know what would.

steinbeck-center-grapes-of-wrath

 

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Another feat of authorial empathy, this classic of twentieth century American letters is justly considered to be an epic. It’s Dickensian social realism in the best possible ways: a feel for the vernacular patois of the characters, a masterful control over the rhythm of the sentences, and a surefooted sedimentation of the chapters. This is an edifice erected as a monument to a hard time in our history, to all who survived it, and to all who didn’t.

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. One of the great things about science fiction is that it can give thought experiments the moral weight of narrative. To a certain extent, all stories are fables. We are invited to exercise judgment on the actions and meaning of the characters we read about, and the exercise of judgment is a healthy thing to do if we want to keep our consciences in trim, fighting shape. In Bring the Jubilee, Moore mounts one of the great thought experiments on sf about the nature of free will and historical determinism. There are ambiguities, as there must be in most great stories. In the end, however, he implies, in grand existential fashion, that free will or not, we still bear moral responsibility for choosing whether or not to act.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. Can you believe I never read anything by McCarthy until 2015? While I also read Blood Meridian and The Road for the first time, The Crossing is the one that blew me away. It’s really stunning, prophetic. The artistic invention of grace out of the whole cloth of human cruelty and cosmic indifference.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Another one that rather eludes my critical capacities, but it’s another prophetic work that manages to be utterly alienated and utterly tuned in to the need for authentic connection. Somehow caustic, bitter, and unsparing without giving up hope.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know, another one I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to. I don’t have the excuse, as with Infinite Jest, of it being particularly long or aesthetically forbidding. Le Guin is a challenging and precise writer, but not in that way. I can see why this is considered to be her masterpiece, and while I did appreciate the structure, the overwhelming impression left one me was that it manages to dramatize the complicated nature of social injustice. Le Guin is about as merciless as possible with her socialist-anarchist Anarres, emphasizing that problems remain in even the best of possible worlds, yet she manages to inspire palpable relief when Shevek finally returns home—home to his planet, to his family, to the way of life he knows best. Whatever its flaws and shortcomings, the striving for a better world only has meaning when it is embedded in a particular context, and Le Guin imbues that context with the kind of utopian possibility that can only be illuminated by disappointment, but a disappointment put in its proper perspective—the kind bred by intimate familiarity.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons. Though it doesn’t really stand alone very well (and, as part of a pre-planned series, it’s not meant to), Hyperion rather lives up to its reputation as a masterpiece of sf worldbuilding. Its rep as “cerebral” sf may be a touch overblown, but only in comparison to, say, The Book of the New Sun. Simmons is a very smart writer, and he manages to weave together a story that is sort of about everything that sf is about: human nature, free will v. determinism, ontological reliability, etc. Each section of the book is a wonderful variation in tone and subgenre, ranging from characters study to action adventure to bildungsroman. No trope is left unturned, and Simmons always ties character development into the weirdnesses of his recognizably alien universe.

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. This is a book about how neoliberalism screws us from behind. Metaphorically or literally? Sort of both. Satire’s brutal honesty depends on being a bit outré, and as brutal riffs on contemporary society go, this is damned prophetic.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Lily Bart’s decline and fall is full of pathos, but like any good social satire, it’s also shockingly lively and witty. Wharton’s genius is in finding a way to make her ruthlessness a form of empathy. As with Lightning Rods, she’s brutally honest, but her tonic doesn’t taste bitter, just a sad combination of bemused and furious.

Sort of Dishonorable Mention:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This is the worst novel I’ve ever read that I think ought to be required reading for all Americans. Unlike most folks who hate Atlas Shrugged, I found the prose to be bracing, and for all the tedious sermonizing, Rand knows how to craft rhetorically compelling speeches. This is polemical pulp fiction at its stylistic best. It is also an argument in favor of straight-up anarcho-capitalist plutocratic oligarchy. The heroes are people who actively sabotage civilization so that they don’t have to put up with any peons or government bureaucrats siphoning any of their precious bodily fluids wealth. On the one hand, you might be tempted to feel sympathy for these ingenious captains of industry who have to deal with the incompetent jerks bleeding them dry at every turn. On the other hand, they cause an extinction-level event in order to make more money for themselves. To the extent that anyone can be sympathetic to the plight of genocidal one-percenters, this book makes the best possible case on their behalf. For the rest of us who have something resembling a social conscience, it’s a window into the ideology driving both the Tea Party and Trumpism.☕


Stranger Things ☕ Season One, 2016

I’d have to say that my favorite single character scene in the series involves the boy’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. As boys are bombarding him with questions concerning parallel universes (it all makes sense in the end), they throw out an obscure Dungeons & Dragons reference and he knows exactly what they’re talking about. It’s little moments like this one where Stranger Things feels authentic — where the nerdy references and pop culture homages become more than the sum of their parts because of the delightful, sympathetic characters making them.

Jason Morehead nails the appeal of Stranger Things pretty generally in his review, but that paragraph clinches it. If you haven’t already binged on it, Netflix’s latest nerd-friendly show is possibly the best Stephen King adaptation never made. Without spoiling anything, it’s about a kid vanishing under mysterious circumstances and the encounters those searching for him have with weird things involved in his disappearance. Beyond the main title font and a few explicit nods to King’s work (like the guard reading Cujo in the morgue), Matt and Ross Duffer’s story takes advantage of the Netflix format to indulge a sprawling story peopled with a fairly large cast of small-town characters. Like Derry, ME, Hawkins, IN, is a fully-realized community. Unless you’re talking about Tolkein or perhaps Austin T. Wright, fiction is rarely able to give you a firm sense of topography; texture comes primarily through characterization or other tools of world-building: the accumulation of details often overlooked in real life, but which make all the difference in grounding audiences in other worlds. Detail is especially key to historical fiction, and critics have already spilled plenty of ink (physical and digital) over Stranger Things’s recreation of the early 1980s. But it’s really the characters that make it feel real, because they arise from real historical possibility, as Georg Lukacs might have put it.

While I’m not Stephen King’s biggest fan (to put it mildly), the standout trait of all his work that I’ve read is the amount of time he lavishes on his characters. His worlds feel real because of the often complicated (or overwrought; perhaps overdetermined or unnecessary) networks of characters that comprise his stories. King’s work often doesn’t focus on a single central protagonist. His heroes are often groups: motley assemblages of stereotypes tweaked by his eye for psychological detail into three-dimensionality. Obviously, this is not always the case, but even in stories focusing on a scant few individuals, they are always rooted in relationships with others, perhaps even people you never meet within the pages of the story proper. This is King’s greatest asset as a storyteller, even as his predilection for overstuffing his stories with subplots—sometimes stemming from an overabundance of characters—is also one of his greatest weaknesses.

At a relatively trim eight episodes, Stranger Things doesn’t tend to fall prey to King’s excesses in this regard. Joyce’s relationship with her no-good ex, Lonnie, for instance, might seem to go nowhere. He’s not a fully-realized character by any stretch, but the framework is there for him to become one. More importantly, Joyce’s hysterical personality comes into focus a bit when you finally meet him. A lot of folks haven’t dug Winona Ryder’s performance; I did. You get the distinct impression, seeing how Lonnie interacts with Joyce and Jonathan, that this guy is a master of playing his loved ones’ insecurities off each other. It’s easy to see how Joyce might have been “high strung” in her youth and how Lonnie pushed her relentlessly into something short of a basket case. Then, of course, there’s Barb, bookish and loyal to a fault. Her relationship to Nancy makes total sense, as does Nancy’s increasingly thoughtless behavior toward her friend. To put it bluntly, supporting characters are props. They need to be plausible; they need to have some dimension. But they are, in some ways, terrain, and the protagonists are the ones who traverse it. The role of the terrain is to give better shape, definition, and psychological dimension to the heroes; in turn, if the protagonists are well-crafted, the terrain itself becomes more real, better-defined. A world apart. We love supporting characters like we love gravity and breathable air. They’re necessary for life.

Which brings me back to Mr. Clarke. He’s pretty much the greatest teacher ever. He’s also very much of his time and place. Lots of middle school teachers, I’m sure, go above and beyond to help their students. But in 2016, teachers have to wary of boundaries. Mr. Clarke is both teacher and buddy (sort of) to the boys in Stranger Things. He’s a mentor in an era when institutional structures didn’t make the kind of relationship he has with the boys totally weird. One of the other great scenes in the film is when the boys phone him at home while he’s on a date with questions on how to build a sensory-deprivation tank. Randall P. Havens is pretty great throughout, but if the scene where he explains string theory with D&D references is the most charming, this one offers the greatest insight into how far away 1983 really is. Not only do the boys interrupt his date by calling him at home on the weekend, but Havens plays Mr. Clarke as savvy enough to know that the boys are Up To Something, yet, because they’re so invested in scientific geekery, he can’t help but give them the information they need to really get in trouble. In 2016, when your adolescent students call you at home to ask you how to build a DIY sensory-deprivation tank, you hang up and send an email to someone in the administration. In Stranger Things, Mr. Clarke’s bond with and trust in his students is what helps them save their friend.

He’s a minor character, of course. Someone that my friend, Scott, calls “Mr. Plot,” a supporting cast member whose main function is to deliver exposition. Yet he feels real because his function in the story makes the main characters more grounded. He adds to the world. Another great minor character is Chris Sullivan’s short order cook. Because Stranger Things sets up a world in which a sprawling cast of characters can be supported, his scenes early in the series with Millie Bobby Brown are both tense and heartfelt, suggesting layers in his own personality and the potential of their own developing relationship. He functions mainly to give you a sense of the kind of town Hawkins is and the stakes of Eleven’s plight, but Stranger Things can spend time on his scenes with Eleven that a feature film would condense quite a bit more.

Netflix originals have been criticized in the past for not really understanding how to make the most of their medium. Jessica Jones, for instance, was critiqued for its pacing, as have other Netflix series. Making shows for a binging audience is a new thing. It’ll take time to crack that code on a consistent basis. I think the Duffers have taken us a good deal further toward that goal. Whereas time spent on supporting characters in a superhero show might feel like “filler” (though I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment), for a show like Stranger Things, the little scenes spent with tertiary characters are utterly necessary to the show’s raison d’être. This is world-building, not padding. Even if those scenes don’t have a payoff in terms of plot mechanics, I can’t think of a scene from Stranger Things, off the top of my head, that isn’t in some way necessary to capturing the messy, sprawling reality of interpersonal relationships in a small town. Sometimes resolution is itself a bit of a cheat. Unlike a lot of the adaptations of Stephen King’s actual work, few of the “dead end” subplots in Stranger Things subtract from the overall experience. If there is to be a second season set in Hawkins, these things are utterly necessary for establishing a solid foundation for future chapters. Even if the first season of Stranger Things were to stand alone (and I think it certainly does), there’s almost nothing about it that feels totally wasted—if you consider replicating King’s dense texturing of community to be a paramount aesthetic goal.

Especially when you consider how important redemption is to the thematic arcs of so many characters, this becomes more important. It’s often easy to think of personal redemption in terms of individual achievement. Even when presented as something sought within a particular context, or something achieved with the help of others, stories of redemption often have a very individualist ethos to them. King’s stories often emphasize that doing the right thing is made more challenging by those in your own corner; those you love and rely on don’t make your life easier. They’re not supposed to, even when you’re doing all in your power to save yourself and them. Adversity creates fault lines as often as it cleaves people more strongly together, and even as a series like Stranger Things builds toward the main characters finally (finally!) pooling their knowledge and resources, it has to set the stage for fallout. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say, and no action provokes anything less than an equal and opposite reaction. You don’t just get scars from fighting monsters; you get them from friends and family, too. The best of us impose our flaws on the undeserving. That’s human nature. Without a capacious cast of characters and the little moments of grace and light that comes with them—like the boys’ interactions with Mr. Clarke—the dark lattice of shadows all people cast would not stand out so starkly in relief. Like all good tales of terror, Stranger Things knows that we are all made of light and shadow. Meaningful sacrifices aren’t made for one person, but for a world. Without a world of people—all fallen, all too human—you’ve come to know and care about, what difference would even one sacrifice make?☕


Ghostbusters ☕ d. Paul Feig, 2016

A modest prediction: like the original, 2016’s Ghostbusters will age well. Everyone knows that there are many New York Cities. There’s the real, actual NYC. There’s the NYC that each New Yorker lives in his or her own little world. Tourists, of course, have their own NYC. Then there’s the New York we see in movies: the violent dystopia, the romantic urbs bucolica, yesteryear’s city of tomorrow, etc. To paraphrase Whitman, it contains multitudes. The best movies set in New York City can only be set in New York City. Woody Allen doesn’t film, for the most part, in Boston, and despite what the Academy says, I don’t think it was such a hot idea for Martin Scorsese, either. By the same token, it’s impossible to think of the Ackroyd/Ramis/Reitman version of Ghostbusters taking place in Chicago, L. A., or New Orleans. “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” Right? It’s gotta be set in New York, or it doesn’t quite work.

Or maybe it’s just that NYC as a milieu works so well as a catalyst for galvanizing types of humor honed elsewhere. After all, the original Ghostbusters cast was a mix of Canadians and Midwesterners, all connected with Second City and/or Saturday Night Live. The discipline of comedy tours and weekly television are rather like classical training for American comedians, who must adapt their routines and sketches to the demands of one of the most diverse audiences in the world. Live comedy demands an often tricky mix of topicality and timelessness—great jokes have to plugged into the here and now, but you can’t assume that everybody in the audiences is as plugged in as they should be. Film comedy is a different kind of tricky. Again, sharp humor always feels contemporary—but sharp humor always feels contemporary. The characters of Manhattan are as pathetic and funny in 2016 as they were in 1979; Peter Venkman’s narcissistic assholery and Ray Stanz’s blue collar geekery translated across state lines in 1984 as well as they translate across the three decades since they first appeared.

There’s little topical humor specific to 2016 in the new Ghostbusters, few allusions outside the franchise. Characters reference classic films like The Exorcist, but only to elements already deeply soaked into the pop culture consciousness. For instance, Andy Garcia plays the mayor of New York (because of course he does), and he deeply resents Kristin Wiig’s desperate scientist begging him not to be like the mayor from Jaws. Melissa McCarthy spends the whole film trying to get a decent bucket of wanton soup from her favorite Chinese restaurant—a running gag that works even better because only in (movie) New York City would someone stubbornly keep ordering the same disappointing soup from the same take-out joint and berate the delivery driver for it. Instead of “We’re ready to believe you!” or “Who you gonna call?,” the first slogan these Ghostbusters come up with is, “If you see something, say something,” only realizing after the flyers are already printed that someone is already using that one. In fact, that might be the most specifically New York joke of the film, and its topicality is restricted only in the sense that you have to know that the film takes place post-9/11.

In fact, that reference is probably the single strongest signal of the film’s temporal setting. There’s one instance of a smartphone video uploaded to YouTube costing a character a job, but apart from that, there’s little reference to the latest communication technologies, which probably comprise the single most conspicuous trait of our historical period. The (fictional, s’far’s I can tell) Mercado Hotel replaces 44 Central Part West as the site of the the climactic battle, and its art deco lobby is vintage (movie) New York City: it’s exactly the kind of perfectly preserved building you would expect to sit atop ancient ley lines, in addition to being an architectural expression of yesteryear’s cutting edge. It’s nebulously nostalgic, and while art deco might look simply dated elsewhere, it feels strangely a part of contemporary life in (movie) New York.

The Mercado Hotel climax is symbolic of what’s great about the film as well as what’s not so great. While it evokes that wonderful movie-NYC contemporary-nostalgia, it also evokes some of the most memorable scenes from the original Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, 2016’s Ghostbusters does entirely too much of that, and not cleverly enough. One callback that works well is the way this film brings in the classic logo, here spray-painted into a subway as a bit of mockery by a graffito. Another classy nod is the bronze bust of Harold Ramis glimpsed early in the film, gracing the hallowed halls of Columbia University. Cameos by other original cast members range from nice to outright distracting. Annie Potts essentially plays Janine, except here she’s the desk clerk in the Mercado. It works in part because her shtick is still funny, and because it’s a brief beat in the narrative flow. The single worst cameo is, unsurprisingly, Bill Murray’s. It’s not so much Murray’s performance as a paranormal debunker that clunks, but the fact that the film builds an entire sequence around him. While I think Paul Feig and Katie Dippold wanted him to be this version’s Walter Peck, it doesn’t really work out that way. For one, his cameo is too brief and poorly structured into the narrative to serve the catastrophic purpose of Peck in the original. For another, even if Murray’s performance is fine, he’s just too much Murray. Maybe other fans of the original will really dig him here. For me, the entire sequence screamed, “OMG you guys we got Murray for a day we gotta DO STUFF WITH HIM!!”

There’s really no way Feig et al. could win. Remaking a beloved film like Ghostbusters entails its own challenges that have little to do with the mechanics of storytelling and everything to do with fan service. Apart from the clunkiness of Murray’s extended cameo, he shows up at almost exactly the wrong time, a little more or less than halfway through the film. Until his appearance, the film had done deft work in metatextual commentary, sprinkling allusions to the earlier films into its original material in ways that were pleasing without interrupting the flow. In fact, the first 45 minutes or so of 2016’s Ghostbusters is borderline magnificent. It sets up a distinct cast, a different kind of villain, and it does all this with the workmanlike professionalism that makes for durable Hollywood cinema. The thematic arc is even distinct from the original. Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters were underdogs who got to prove their worth to a city famed for its facility with dream-crushing, and Peter Venkman learns to be a little less of a selfish asshole. Feig’s Ghostbusters are still underdogs who get to prove themselves, but this movie is really about what a difference friendship makes to said underdogs. The difference between the good guys and the bad guy here is that human connection. In a culture that frankly still often celebrates bullies and narcissists, the outcasts who save the city in the new film are honored for their personal strengths in ways that are subtext (if that) in the original Ghostbusters.

The cast makes that work. And as someone who is a big unplugged from pop culture, this was my first time really seeing Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as performers. SNL fans know them, but I don’t think I’ve watched SNL since about 2001 or 2002. They are simply terrific, as is McCarthy, whom I know going back to Gilmore Girls. The dialogue in this movie is good, and the special effects are okay; this is a movie you kind of have to see for the actors, though. Besides the great chemistry shared by the principle leads, they also spark with pretty much everyone else who shows up. I recognized Charles Dance, Ed Begley, Jr., Matt Walsh, Michael K. Williams, and Michael McDonald, of course; Cecily Strong, Neil Casey, and Steve Higgins are (apparently) SNL alumni as well. This isn’t quite an Ocean’s Eleven-level Who’s Who, but there are no wasted scenes with any of these performers. It’s all good stuff. Oh, and, yeah—Chris Hemsworth: delightful.

I’m interested to see how this movie plays over the long haul. Unlike a lot of my contemporaries, I didn’t see 1984’s Ghostbusters (or its sequel) until I was in my teens. So the nostalgia factor is a bit blunted, but I have watched the first film at least a dozen times. It’s impossible for me to watch 2016’s Ghostbusters and not be at least a little distracted by all the callbacks and cameos. Will younger audiences, those less attached to the original movies, feel the same way? What about viewers my age or older, who simply enjoy the cameos for what they are? I don’t typically see the point in doing a remake/reboot unless the filmmakers can find a reason to justify doing something new and different. Most of the new film hits the sweet spot between honoring the structure and vibe of the old one while still infusing it with the unique sensibility of its (re)makers. The very presence of the old cast (awesome though they are as individual performers) and some of the callbacks simply feels like an unwelcome intrusion, sort of like the VIPs that you’re obliged to put on the guest list even though the party will be super-unhip if they actually show up.

On the whole, though, it’s an enjoyable and—dare I say—necessary extension of the Ghostbusters franchise into the 21st century. The weird mix of welcome and unwelcome nostalgia is likely an unavoidable cost of that labor. All the same, what I kind of dig conceptually about the new film is that it formalizes the Ghostbusters not just as a viable franchise, but as a cultural institution, one that’s multigenerational in a meaningful, active sense. What would America be without its institutions—and what would (movie) New York be without its Ghostbusters? ☕


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