Category Archives: Reviews

Opinions are always free. Here are mine.

Finding Flannery among the Three Billboards

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Sermon on loving your enemies  (link)


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a top contender for an Oscar this season,  in a field with several other great films like Get Out (perhaps the best horror movie I’ve ever seen) and Dunkirk (chilling sound design + interesting manipulation of the timeline in the storytelling), this festival darling has gotten a lot of attention since the turn of the year.

Three Billboards has sparked controversy too regarding whether it exhibits blind spots about race and police brutality. I figured I’d have to wait for rental since the film is completely off-market here in the South for the types of movies that open at our theaters, so I was pleasantly surprised it finally opened here.

Three Billboards is a raw film, a brutal and unflinching observation of human nature at war with injustice.  ]

Briefly (spoilers): the plot centers on Mildred, a working-class single mother whose teen daughter was raped, murdered, and burned seven months ago in a little fictional town in Missouri. Mildred gets the idea to put up three huge billboards calling out the town’s police chief for not cracking the case, leaving her daughter’s killer at large and herself with a gaping hole and a lot of anger.  The film is told through the perspectives of several characters, mostly Mildred and the police chief Willoughby and his deputy Dixon.

In an early shot, a supporting character reads from Flannery O’Conoor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The homage to Flannery’s work in this film is unmistakable.  Martin McDonaugh, the writer and director, is Irish, but he’s clearly a fan of Southern Gothic themes.  And I’d say her stamp on this film is critical to understanding the story rightly, lest the viewer misunderstand the layers of irony at work. Were Flannery alive today and writing film scripts, I’d easily say this one were hers.

Why is the film controversial? Well, language for one. Mildred in particular is quite unhindered in her vulgarities, caring little whether her language or behavior offends her audience. For her, the injustice of an unsolved brutal crime makes social “rules” irrelevant.  In one scene, she screams at high schoolers who mock her son and wear their parents’ judgmental stance as their own. Her words escalate to physical violence. It’s a “balls to the wall” moment, but not without cost. When grief and anger drive one’s actions, a lot of people get hurt who don’t actually deserve it.  That’s a central point of this film, one that the writer put on a billboard so you couldn’t forget it.

Some have criticized the film for offering only a white woman’s POV of crime and injustice, when the narrative repeatedly refers to Deputy Dixon’s racism and brutality as a cop without providing details. Several times he is accused of or admits to “torturing” a black suspect in custody but this part of his story is left unexamined. Some have suggested this is a flaw: Is not the systemic injustice of police racism worse than an individual mother’s loss? Black bodies are threatened with violence almost constantly, yet we are asked to watch this particular white mother rage at her daughter’s murder.

I think that criticism is missing the point here. In Flannery’s Southern Gothic storytelling, the reader is usually presented with a whole set of character flaws to consider, operating as a backdrop to egregious evil that’s not always showing up holding a sign to announce its presence. In Three Billboards, the problem driving the story is Mildred’s relentless drive for justice. But that’s not the only problem in Ebbing that needs to be addressed.  I don’t think it’s a flaw in the writing that McDonaugh expects his viewers to recognize evil when they see it (like a racist deputy) and draw their own conclusions – all while wrestling with whether individuals suffer more because of individual crimes or systemic ones.

Those same critics suggest that Dixon is offered a cheap redemption arc in the second half of the film and this makes his racism all the more inexcusable for the writer to gloss over. Dixon isn’t a good man – indeed, any good man (or woman) is hard to find in this town.  He’s also a product of a racist and uncaring upbringing (highlighted via the scenes with his mother, who seems more hateful and racist and cruel as Dixon). But every human possess the power of choice, and Dixon uses his in the second half of the film to express a bit of sympathy, perhaps a desire for real justice for Mildred’s daughter.

Again, I think the viewers who charge that Dixon is given a redemptive arc he didn’t earn  are missing what McDonaugh is trying to do – and why he made sure we saw Flannery O’Connor’s name and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” on the screen at the very outset of the story.  In the end, Dixon and Mildred drive off to execute vigilante justice – should they even get that far.  Is that actually justice?  Another great question, one that we aren’t allowed to ignore.  As a viewer, I do feel better about Dixon, a bit, by the end, but by no means do I like him or sympathize with his unemployment and broken  life. Nor do I feel comfortable with Mildred, who so thoughtlessly injures the people around her as she lashes out. Her suffering does not give her permission to inflict pain on others.

Mildred’s actions don’t solve the murder. They just bring more pain. At first, we stand with her against the townspeople who hate her for making them remember this crime. They hate her for implying it’s the police chief’s fault. Woody Harrelson makes Sheriff Willoughby  pretty likable without letting us forget that he’s not without blame here too. Like Mildred, his own story is both tragic and sympathetic. His suicide complicates matters for Mildred, after her public shaming of him and disregard for his terminal cancer diagnosis. In his final words to her, he seems to forgive her for it. Should his daughters be so gracious toward her? Or would that be cheap mercy?

O’Connor’s unflinching and brutal stories of Southern self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and Grace are not for the faint of heart. While I would say her themes are some of the most Christian that we can find in early 20th century American literature, many of my Christian friends cannot stand to read her. They find the violence and grotesque characters in her story too off-putting to be “proper.”  They miss – as do some of the viewers of Three Billboards – the truth that Grace is sharp. It has teeth and claws and a backbone. Real Grace, the kind that can undergird Cross-death and self-sacrifice, changes the receiver as well as the giver. It’s nothing like the cheap religiosity which permeates Southern culture, where God and guns and college football and family pride are worshiped at individual shrines. Cultural Christianity – the fake kind – has little beyond platitudes to offer Mildred in her aching grief and searing anger.

In “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a dysfunctional family goes on vacation, gets lost thanks to the self-centered and foolish grandmother, and falls prey to a murderer on some backwater Georgia country road. The killer and the grandmother engage in one of the most memorable fictional discourses about existential good vs evil and human choices. She all but begs for the killer to find the good in his nature to spare them. He’s far more prepared than she to identify her Pharisaism and denies her mercy. The story title warns us there won’t be any good people in this tale, and there aren’t.

In Three Billboards, Mildred seeks justice for her daughter because it’s been denied thus far and she’s desperate. Does she also see her own flaws and own them honestly? We see flashbacks that any parent could relate to- and feel guilty about. She’s not really a great parent, before or after her daughter died.  But she also didn’t ask for her daughter to be raped, murdered, and burned. Nobody deserves that.

We see Mildred at the outset of the film as heroic. We’re expecting a to like this “nasty woman” on her quest, hard as nails and relentless. McDonaugh turns our expectations sideways, making us squirm as we realize we can’t feel entirely sympathetic for anybody on the celluloid before us. The dividing line between good and evil runs through us, not around. Southern Gothic writing – even when written by an Irishman – is always at its best when holding a mirror before our faces, forcing us to see humanity as it really is.

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Three thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Billions of words will be marshaled in support or condemnation of Star Wars Episode VIII. So of course, I want to add a few of my own. 😉

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

(This was me trying to avoid spoilers last week)

The Last Jedi is a divisive entry – to me, exactly the gut-punch this cultural juggernaut needed to stay relevant, but not all fans agree. At least, not on their first viewing.

My current favorite analysis is this article which details the many ways in which Rian Johnson upended fans’ expectations and franchise icons to deliver a better story. In it, the author details many important turns in Johnson’s script and their importance to breaking viewers’ expectations.  Spoiler warning, of course!  The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars (Slashfilm)

The following three points have stuck with me since seeing the film, along with a general awe for the gorgeous visuals and lovely John Williams score. (Do you think he hears another million $$ hit the bank every time a Star Wars film releases? haha)

Women leading like women would lead

Carrie Fisher is gone, but the film in its final form doesn’t trim her significance to this story. However, it’s not just Princess/General Leia who occupies an important role in SW:TLJ. I uttered an audible gasp at Vice Admiral Holdo’s critical moment in the film. (The on-sreen visuals alone elicited a “whoa.”) Holdo’s leadership style was not at all what Po Dameron wanted from his commander, and in that onscreen relationship, I saw the archetype of so many long-suffering women in positions of power with boys chafing underneath them because they don’t engage in the same brash, risky behavior that drives male leadership.  A good read by Vanity Fair on how The Last Jedi stomps all over “mansplaining”

All over this film we see women collaborating, arguing, debating, nurturing, leading. I relished seeing Rose confront cowardice and greed and betrayal with both her heart and her head. Of course, Rey is a central figure in the entire trilogy, a young women who represents formidable integrity and hope in the face of dark times.

The Resistance army needs brave hot shots like Poe Dameron to score the big hits, but it needs good leaders who make careful decisions more than it needs bravado. But this isn’t an anti-male story — I genuinely believe Po is being set up for a strong finish in the next film, based on the cues we get from his character presentation in the final moments of The Last Jedi.

Good leaders come from both genders. It’s just that most of my female Gen-X peers never got to see women exercise that leadership without having to “play a man” to get it or keep it.  And I’m relishing every strong, capable women I’ve seen on screen in 2017.

last-jedi-tout-2

POV and narrator complexity

Rian Johnson offers us a complex web of stories which unite into a unified second entry for this trilogy.  One singular element of the story is the conflicting versions of why Kylo Ren/Ben Solo destroyed Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training school. Like with so much of our messy human existence, “it’s complicated.”  We’re hard-wired to assume Luke is in the right here, because he’s the hero we know and love. But Johnson’s story forces us to question why the son of Han and Leia would grow up to manifest the worst traits of his grandfather Darth Vader.  We never get the whole picture, but we do begin to see more of Kylo Ren’s internal struggle, portrayed so well by Adam Driver. And this presentation of “what happened” reminds us that history is written by the teller. The facts are malleable, depending how you interpret them, how they’ve been warped by both Luke and Ben’s memories, and by the strong emotional overtones both men bring to their versions of the story.

There’s a parallel technique happening with Finn’s experience of his part in this story. We are all invested in Finn and his growth from being “a bad guy with a conscience and a choice” in The Force Awakens toward someone we assume will be important in the new world of Star Wars. Finn discovers throughout The Last Jedi that he snaps to judgments prematurely and needs to slow down and consider that he might not be seeing everything in play. This instructs us viewers as well not to make hasty assumptions about the folks who inhabit this universe. Will this new trilogy simply give us heroes descended from now-famous families? Or will we again see the rise of “nobodys” to positions of greatness?

It’s smart script writing and I’m pretty sure I’ll notice even more masterful moments when I see the film a second time.

Failure, not success, grows us into better people

Much of the fan hate arises from critique of Luke Skywalker’s part in this tale. Those of us raised on Star Wars would love to take a time machine back to the early 80s when Harrison Ford wasn’t so wrinkly and so damn grouchy, and when Luke/Leia were the hottest characters across the pop culture spectrum (whether toys or graphic novels or Halloween costumes).

Do I want to be reminded that my celluloid heroes are now old or dead? Well, no.  Momento mori isn’t what I expect from a space fantasy. Yet here we are.

And The Last Jedi is so much better because Johnson wrote like a man who has lived in our world, not just in a fantasy land where people can wield light sabers and little fighters and score impossible victories in the face of an overwhelming superior yet evil Empire.

I’ve spent my life in education. Seeing Luke recoil from his own failure as a teacher resonates so much with me. Teaching is the most fulfilling, terrifying job I can conceive of. It’s not the work of it that makes teaching hard. It’s holding in your feeble hands the minds and hearts of people who might grow up to change the world if you can avoid screwing them up or cheating them out of the challenges that will force them to grow.

Fans didn’t ask for a Luke Skywalker who is aware of his insufficiency and his failures and fearful of the consequences of action now that he understands – as an old man – what those outcomes may be. And I, a 40-something woman who yearly gains a better grasp of my own shortcomings as my life flows through middle age toward old-ness, I grab hold of Luke’s story with all of my heart. It catches me even now. I want to drop everything to run out and watch the movie again so I can see Luke the Teacher, Luke the Failure, come to grips with his actions and their interplay with the free choices of Ben Solo that turned him into Kylo Ren.

The greatest teacher, failure is. ~Yoda

Luke is confronted in that significant scene on the island to remember that teachers labor to be surpassed by their pupils. That is the calling we were given, not to exercise control over our students’ choices and lives.

I’m a sentimental sot, but if you’re going to throw teacher wisdom at me in the middle of a blockbuster franchise film, I’m probably going to bawl. So I did.

*  *  *  *  *

I know fans will rage and argue, but I think The Last Jedi is some of the best and most meaningful Star Wars writing we’ve seen in years. I applaud Rian Johnson’s outstanding work on the script, and I am thrilled he’ll be at the helm of a new trilogy in the future, in some other corner of a galaxy far, far away.

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Review: Disjointed (2017)

Watch disjointed: Netflix

I rarely disagree so fully with prevailing opinion on Rotten Tomatoes or elsewhere, because we live in an age where crowd-sourced reviews en masse are usually pretty good.

But the mob is wrong when it comes to disjointed, a Netflix original sitcom starring Cathy Bates. This is a great show, and you should watch Season 1 to see if you agree.

I rarely like sitcoms because they’re rarely funny beyond surface gags. Of course, there are exceptions: How I Met Your Mother and Friends famously made their mark in the world with great writing and a strong story arc. Usually I stick with longer-form shows that incorporate comedy but don’t depend on it. (Pushing Daisies and Boston Legal, I still miss you!) I’ve tried some of the many others which win critical acclaim– Broad City, Insecure, Hey White People — and I end up walking away halfway through the first season. I guess I’m more into drama and action.

So I was pretty surprised when on a lark we started to watch disjointed and actually liked it. The premise of the show is simple: Cathy Bates runs a weed dispensary in California as “Ruth,” the maven of weed (and law). The show’s plots are basic sitcom fare: a zany cast of characters inhabit the store, from the hippie guy who tends the plants to owner’s son who’s trying to prove to his mom that his MBA is worth something in her alternative business. Potheads abound, and the show doesn’t mind mocking their giggles or stupor or childlike excitement for their favorite strain.

Dank and Debby are two stoners who inhabit the show’s plots. They make me laugh 100% of the time.

But a couple deeper elements deserve praise, and I can’t believe the critics missed these.

First, the show tackles issues around the War on Drugs with a deft hand. Yes, the show assumes the POV that pot is relatively harmless, often beneficial, and sort-of legal. I could see how some might be offended by a show that takes as its premise that arresting people for weed is borderline immoral. Some might also feel that disjointed glorifies smoking and getting high; it’s true that most of the stoners and customers at the dispensary get along just fine with their smokey lives. But the recent legalization efforts in several states suggest that the people who decide to make weed a lifestyle aren’t generally ruining their lives or anyone else’s, and I’m not going to fault a comedy for not dealing with edge cases where weed costs someone their job. The characters do confront people who are lighting up too much or using weed to escape real issues.  I just think stoned people are funny and the show plays off that for much of its humor.

But where things really shine occurs in the story line of Carter, the security guard who checks IDs at the door. He’s a military vet suffering from PTSD. His episodes are rendered by the show via incredible animated shorts that take over the screen and unpack memories that burst into his consciousness and affect his life. The art style is amazing; the plot line is refreshing. I didn’t expect to even stick with this show more than 3 episodes; the fact that it’s dealing with PTSD is part of the reason.

The storytelling itself is interesting. Maybe I inhabit the YouTube/social media world of Millennials so much that I don’t find it disjointed (haha) as some critics; I find the blend of live action comedy, animated scenes, and YouTube episodes from Dank and Dabby to be the perfect medium for a show about living in a drug haze.

Storytellers don’t have to hedge their tales with caution signs.  The show has a strong libertarian bent when it comes to weed. I like it without the slab of moralism on top.

Are there moments where the humor is just slapstick? Yes. But critics have panned the series as “unfunny” – a charge I honestly can’t understand. Winks and nods abound throughout the writing. The chalkboard behind the counter is chock-full of witty references. You need to squint to see what books Ruth is reading in her office, but the titles are always a nod to something in the plot. The slogans on Tai Kwon Doug’s studio are the exact kind of bro-stupid that make his character funny.

Is this a genius show that will challenge America’s drug policy? Nah.  Will you see the seedy underbelly of the drug trade like in Weeds? Nope.

Is it worth 5 hours to binge all 10 episodes and laugh yourself through a bag of popcorn this weekend (because you’re gonna get sympathetic munchies)?  Yes. Yes, it is worth it.

disjointed on imdb

 

Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the story for the Black Panther tale, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

Interesting read: The Radium Girls

Sat in a bookstore over the weekend and read a large portion of the book Radium Girls. These factory women went from being some of the highest paid workers in the 1910-20s to ravaged by radium poisoning from their work. Though the companies fought hard to deny it, a few remaining (dying) “radium girls” sued the companies and won – these were landmark cases in establishing workers’ rights to sue for occupational diseases.  The book is a rapid read and leans more toward entertainment-style writing rather than hard science, but Moore unpacks the women’s story well. Check it out next time you’re in a bookstore.

The Radium Girls were so contaminated that if you stood over their graves today with a Geiger counter, the radiation levels would still cause the needles to jump more than 80 years later. They were small-town girls from New Jersey who had been hired by a local factory to paint the clock faces of luminous dials.

Source: The Radium Girls and the Generation that brushed its Teeth with Radioactive Toothpaste

Wanted: A soul – Mass Effect: Andromeda Review

Sometimes games can’t beat the pressure of their own ancestry. If any game series risks being downgraded due to its own success, it’s Mass Effect. Many of us found the ME trilogy to be one of the most powerful story experiences of the previous console generation. ME2 ranks as one of my favorite stories of all time, across all categories (book/game/film/TV). I wrote about power of the Mass Effect storyline here several years ago.  Despite the controversy about the series’ ending, the writers showed us just how high excellent game storytelling could rise.

So it’s not an understatement to say I was bubbling with excitement this spring to get my hands on Mass Effect: Andromeda, the newest game from the BioWare team.

… and discovered that this newest installment has no soul.

I can’t escape the tinge of disappointment that I feel whenever I’m playing the game. The basic arc is all there, the loyalty missions, the questing structure, decent sci-fi shooter combat. The game’s shine is dulled a bit from the effect of Mass Effect hitting in 2007; games overall are so much better now and audience expectations march ever higher.

But what I genuinely miss is the story having a soul.

Briefly (only mild spoilers here), you play one of the two Ryder twins who are traveling with the Milky Way pilgrims to the Andromeda galaxy. An unknown large corporation (The Initiative) sponsored 100,000 colonists to move to the neighboring galaxy and set up shop. If you know the ME series, this game takes place around the same time as the start of ME2, so you know that all Milky Way life is being threatened  by the reapers, though most folks there don’t realize that yet.

The themes in Andromeda are a lot of what you’d expect: meet new alien races, fight the ones who try to kill you, explore brave new worlds, do side quests that range from annoying to genuinely interesting, and try to get these new colonies off the ground before everyone dies in the cold darkness of space.

Honestly, if the only expectations Andromeda had to live up to were last year’s No Man’s Sky debacle, I’d say it was winning. This is what we all wanted No Man’s Sky to be, in many ways: fly around on a kick-ass ship to brightly colored planets with difficult environments and poke around till we find something cool. Build bases. Stare at a sky full of stars – because Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s star maps are breathtaking. It’s always been one of the best features of the ME games.

A recent patch allows gamers to skip the long travel cutscenes as they move throughout a star system, but they’re genuinely beautiful.

But therein lies the problem. As consumers, we demand that each new iteration be an improvement. Is it ok that Andromeda feels like the writers sketched out the bones of ME2 and swapped in new names and new inciting incidents?

Why does this game leave me feeling so cold inside? Why do I pick up my controller (driven by a “need” to finish, because it’s a BioWare game and I want to know what happens) yet feel bored by pretty much everything that’s happening here?

I’m still working through my first play through, so I can’t speak to the ending of the story. It’s possible ME:A will wow me by the end by offering up what I’ve come to expect from these guys: really interesting deep writing with thorny ethical dilemmas and characters I love like members of my own family.

My Sara looks a little like this. Actually, mine looks a LOT like Michelle Obama, which was entirely unintentional…..

But I’m 50+ hours in, and my love for the crew is tepid. I like Sara Ryder (I’m playing her rather than Scott, her brother), but she’s such a goody-two-shoes at times. Without the paragon structure in the dialogue choices, I often feel as if my only options are between “nice” self-righteousness and the asshole version. Ryder is quite young, so maybe that’s part of BioWare’s goal with this character – to evolve her own understanding of the difficulty of command as the game progresses. But I’m not seeing it really, and it all leaves me a bit cold inside.

AAA+ game titles are too big to fail, so they die from the inside out.  If you’re too afraid to gamble your story by pushing it forward and challenging the player, you kill it by a thousand little cuts. It’s not that the ME:A writing is bad; it’s fine. Well, dialogue is laughably stiff much of the time, but that may have more to do with the game’s engine and pacing than the actual writing.  Extra Credits did an excellent piece on why the animation has been so stiff in ME:A and the challenges that come with trying to create realistic game conversations:

But animation issues aren’t at the heart of what’s wrong with Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s that the story seems to have little driving it forward emotionally, while the gameplay itself isn’t innovative enough to offset this weakness in the writing.

I’ve heard that BioWare is stepping away from the ME franchise after this – gutting the Montreal studio that made it and focusing on other IPs instead. I’m sorry to hear that; the ME universe is so rich and well-developed thanks to the trilogy. But they didn’t gamble big enough on story, while gambling too much on the switch to the Frostbite engine and all the animation issues that caused.

*****
A good example of RPG game-writing with heart: The Witcher 3 blew my mind and set the bar pretty damn high for all future RPG writing. I’m thrilled to hear that Netflix is going to produce a Witcher TV Series. I’m so excited!

I wrote about my experience playing Witcher 3 a few months ago … it’s #1 in my list of “best games I’ve ever played,” barely edging out Journey and Mass Effect 2 for that title.
I played a parenting sim disguised as the best video game I’ve ever played