Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Children of Decembrion Rejoice!

I would make a joke about my blog becoming increasingly irrelevant this year, but that would imply that it ever was relevant, so let's simply jump right in, just under the wire, for my traditional annual recapping of highs and lows and glory and praise to the divinity of top ten lists!

1. Best Bandwagon Jumped Late Upon: Tatiana Maslany's Emmy-worthiness. So this summer I decided to finally give a look-see to Orphan Black, the Canadian tv series I had heard so many good things about. I made it through all of season one, most of it in a one-week binge, and as of today I still have not begun season two simply because I loved it so much that I truly want to savor it. From the very outset I was blown away by Maslany's ability to inhabit each of the separate clone characters as distinct individuals with their own mannerisms, speech patterns, body language and so on, to the point where it becomes easy to forget that it really is one actress playing all the different parts.

Then the clones started interacting, so convincingly that once again it was hard to remember that all of the interplay and chemistry is an elaborate illusion involving stand-ins and different shots separated in space and time. And finally the story starts twisting into more and more complex knots and Maslany has to not just portray Sarah and Alison and Helena but Alison pretending to be Sarah, which is a different proposition altogether from Helena pretending to be Sarah, and so on. So yes, long after everyone else was all fired up about Maslany being robbed, I too found myself wondering how she has not already won all the awards.

2. Most Ambivalent Ending to a Book Series: Worldwar. Right around the same time I was getting into one science fiction series I was getting out of another, as I finally read the fourth and concluding volume in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar tetralogy (which I've blogged about before, half this blog's lifetime ago).

Striking the Balance was ... fine. It brought the epic saga of aliens attempting to colonize Earth during the 1940's to a conclusion by having the aliens and various world powers sit down and negotiate terms of peace after years of war. Maybe this just shows what a poor student of history I am, but I tend to think of the end of WWII as: Normandy, German retreat, Hitler's suicide, V-E day, island hopping in the Pacific, atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, V-J day, U!S!A! Turtledove's alternate WWII+aliens had atomic weapons deployed by both sides early and often, with the grim realization that continued exchanges would wipe out both sides and leave the planet uninhabitable forcing everyone to the treaty table. I suppose that's realistic, but realism didn't seem to be a major concern throughout the previous installments, so all in all it simply felt anti-climactic and deflating, especially for a series I spent years making my way through. Just now, in double-checking some things via Wikipedia, I found out there is technically more to the story, books written by Turtledove about what happens when the much larger colonization fleet of aliens arrives, expecting to find a world of slaves subjugated by the military fleet and instead finding a fractious peace resulting from a stalemate. I doubt I'll be following up on those books any time soon, but I suppose one never knows.

3. Most Surprisingly Awesome Blockbuster: Mad Max Fury Road. I blogged about this, too, but I was so eager to get into the nitty-gritty of analyzing what the movie had to say and how it went about saying it that I didn't do much of my usual observations of personal context. So before 2015 closes out, I'll take the opportunity to correct that. I went to the movie theater six times this year, which I consider pretty good. I knew back in 2014 that I would make special trips to see Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I was intrigued, as always, by Pixar's offerings, and it turned out that at this point all three of my kids, even the bino, can handle a cinematic outing, so I saw Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur with them. I followed with great interest the pre-, mid-, and post-production news about The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace quasi-biopic based on Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I had read; I expected at some point I would rent it but my wife very sweetly surprised me by insisting that we make a date night out of hunting down a suitable arthouse theater that was showing it and catching it on the big screen.

I say all of the above simply to illustrate that at no point did I anticipate that I would go to the movie theater specifically to see a Mad Max sequel. It could not have been further off my radar until a fair bit after it had premiered. And thus it represents the biggest gulf to be crossed between expectations (non-existent) and actual experience (mind-blowingly amazing). And that's always a nice feeling and worth noting.

4. Most Unexpected New Genre (Recurring Theme): Mermaid Horror. Right, I didn't see this one coming, either, and I'm guessing neither did any of you all. Somehow terrifying fishy tales became a leitmotif bookending my year. You might recall that I had a story published in the anthology Twice Upon a Time which came out back in February. One of my fellow contributors, Alethea Konits, wrote a story called "Blood & Water" which was a re-telling of The Little Mermaid with a much more nightmarish edge, and (outside of my own table-of-contents turf) was my favorite story in the whole book.

Then, just this past month, I treated myself to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 anthology, which contained the story "Each to Each" by Seanan McGuire; oddly enough this story was also about mermaids and in its own unique way disturbing and horrifying. If two related things count as a trend, then I fully expect to see a deluge (ehh? ehhhhh???) of mermaid horror coming soon.

5. Best Consumer Decision: Netflix Streaming. Holy frijoles, how did my wife and I sleep on this for so long? Sometime in the last year or so my trusty portable dvd player gave up the ghost, I tried to buy a cheap used one to replace it and found it barely any more functional (because you get what you pay for), and my long-running habit of watching movies on the train ground to a halt. Meanwhile I was writing more, and reading more, so maybe things all worked out for the best, but the fact was that my standing policy of sticking with the analog dvd version of Netflix because I couldn't stream movies on the train was no longer really applicable. So I finally switched to a streaming subscription and both my wife and I have been hooked, mostly on the original tv series programming. Master of None? Loooooved it. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? Still only a few episodes in, but enjoying the heck out of it.

Marvel's Daredevil??? Granted, that one I am watching solo, because it's a bit bloodier than my wife tends to like her entertainment, but man oh man, that is some cinematic bloodshed. If there exists one or more other tv series which look as stylish and striking and just plain good as Daredevil, I need to be informed about them immediately, because that is the kind of television I want to be watching all the time.

6. Most Heartwarming Homecoming: Star Wars. I'm not going to lie, I went into The Force Awakens with some amount of trepidation, fully aware of all the possible ways that the new movies could go wrong and provide something which might be the officially (and superficially) licensed successor to Star Wars but missing something in spirit. I remember back in 1999 sort of knowing there were serious flaws in The Phantom Menace but more or less giving them a pass because it was cool to see Yoda again. Then time passed and more prequels came out and the understanding went by the wayside to be replaced with disappointment (and I say that as a reformed prequel defender, someone who sees merit in Episodes I through III but will always wonder how much better they could have been if only, if only, if only). This time around, I doubted anyone would have the patience to be indulgent and apologist for a letdown.

But I'm happy to report that all of the emotions associated with my actual viewing experience were good ones. Powerful nostalgia, of course, but also good old fashioned excitement and wonder. Plus a surprising amount of wistful sadness, something about seeing a lot of the original cast showing the signs of the implacable passage of time. But all in all it's good to be once again living in a world where Star Wars is (for the moment, at least) almost everyone's favorite thing. And my own offspring are getting into the older movies, too, not to mention recognizing BB-8 on sight. The cockles of my heart are not just warm but positively aflutter.

7. Best new terminology: SJW. If you do not know what Gamergate is, or who the Sad Puppies are, consider yourself lucky, because honestly you're better off without awareness of those particular blights against everyone else's faith in humanity's inherent decency. Still, I like to look for silver linings, and a certain catchphrase deployed online with great frequency in the past year has proven to be that. The long and the short of it is this: within video game and SF/F literature fandoms, there are (and I'm going to have to engage in sweeping generalizations and oversimplifications here to keep this under a few thousand words, so apologies in advance) certain people who view the history of the medium's inclusiveness (or flagrant lack thereof) as perfectly fine and normal and very much if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it. Basically that means privileged straight white dudes who have no problem with games being sexist or misogynistic, or books being whitewashed and culturally conservative, because that's the way it's always been and they want the same comforting thing fed to them over and over again with minimal variation, and also because it reinforces their privilege (which they deny even exists in the first place). These dudes tend to focus on how the golden age of science fiction was about square-jawed WASPs with jetpacks raygunning down hordes of savage alien others, and that's what drew them in at first and what they expect forevermore, and if they don't have their expectations met they tend to be pissed off and vocal about it. They'll say that it's the bold ideas about space travel and exotic technology and weird lifeforms that they love and continue to want, and that any political baggage the arrangement of those ideas carry is incidental, unimportant, and maybe just a reflection of the baggage of certain readers. Meanwhile other people, not coincidentally women and people of color and LGBT identifiers and so forth, may very well have been attracted to the bold ideas at first, but maybe got bored with the same thing over and over, maybe got curious about pushing the envelope, maybe just got sick of never seeing themselves represented in the medium unless it was as evil caricature or subservient sidekick. And some of those people feeling that way became either critics or creators, and made demands or made their own art, which is how things grow and change, of course, and is also how things get better. To the point where major awards for SF/F novels were being given to meditations on the biggest ideas, like personal identity, and not just big ideas, like first contact with gallium-based life. Although they could be, and very often are, about both! It's still all a bit horrifying to the true, old-school fans.

So the conservative - in the literal sense of wanting to stop and/or turn back change - fans vented their spleens at these critics and creators whom they saw as ruining their games and stories, in various online controversies. The conservative fans tend to focus solely on the differences that make things new, ignoring that an award-winning science fiction novel is very much about spaceships and robots and howling that it's too much or all about the inherent artificiality of gender roles. Maybe - maaaaaaybe - that's something that some people need to talk about, somewhere, but the conservative fans in no uncertain terms want all that political garbage kept out of their precious escapist fiction. By their logic, to incorporate such elements into SF/F is putting the cart before the horse in beyond absurd fashion. The critics and creators who disagree with them clearly have their priorities totally out of whack. Those people, they reason, must have a weird monomaniacal obsession to keep picking this fight with the humble fans who just want to keep things the nice way they were. And thus a moniker was born to encompass anyone who tries to introduce non-traditional elements into the formerly happy bubble of SF/F. These zealots for unnecessary change are SJWs: social justice warriors.

That's it. That's the biggest insult the conservative fans could come up with, that's the incendiary rallying cry for their cause. Because obviously anyone who looks at the world today and perceives a lack of social justice is a crazy person. Anybody who thinks attempting to correct the lack of social equality and representation is a thing worth doing is a warmongering monster. Anyone who thinks the games we (including children) play and stories we (including children) tell is the proper venue for this wanton, unnecessary fighting is below the scum of the earth. SJW is synonymous with fool, with loser, with wrong-headed waster of everyone else's time, and anyone whose actions get them tagged an SJW should immediately die of shame.

When I was a little kid I was torn as to whether I'd rather grow up to be a Jedi or a superhero. What those archetypes have in common is that they fight the good fight (like warriors, you might say) on the side of goodness and right (justice, in other words) and for the good of everyone in society. Eventually I realized those weren't really realistic ambitions. But to find out that you can be recognized as a social justice warrior in the real world today? That clicked with me instantly. The fact that it's slung around as a hateful slur by miserable troglodytes? Kind of makes it even better.

8. Biggest Swing and a Miss (by someone else): Five Ghosts. Right, so as long as I've gone political, I might as well weigh in on this disappointment from the past year. I was gifted with the first two volumes of trade paperbacks of the comics series Five Ghosts, which had a premise I thought was fantastic: Fabian Gray is haunted, or passively possessed, by the ghosts of five legends, and he can draw upon their abilities as needed. The interesting metafictional twist is that these ghosts are Merlin, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Musashi, and Dracula, not so much spirits of real people who died as shades of creations of the imagination that have become deeply embedded in the collective unconscious. Unfortunately, this all winds up falling under the heading (as more and more things seem to for me all the time) of Not Quite What I Expected. The focus is entirely on how Fabian can steal relics like no one else because he can cast spells, deduce weaknesses, use a sword or bow and arrow, and fight like a wild vampire. The ghosts don't show much personality inside Fabian's head, they're just a convenient explanation for how the main character can be such an all-around superlative badass.

And the politics come into play with the fact that the series is a pastiche of classic pulp adventures, including primitive African natives who worship a spider-god, treacherous Orientals, and fainting females who need the white man to save the day. I can barely tolerate that in the old classics under the excuse that people didn't know any better back in the day; in a modern homage I find it entirely off-putting. Ah, well.

9. Biggest Swing and a Miss (by me): New music. Every year, I say I'm going to get back into music and discovering albums or acts that are at least new to me, and every year I run out of time, 2015 being no exception. I didn't even download any new Christmas music this month.

10. 2016 Ambition: Get caught up on the MCU. Since The Lego Batman Movie doesn't come out until early 2017 (allegedly) the movie I'm looking forward to most is probably Captain America: Civil War. I would like to be totally up to speed on the Marvel Cinematic Universe by the time that flick hits the theaters. I've mentioned before how I had fallen behind on my quest to stay current and complete, although I also noted above (item number 5) how I did finally break the seal on Daredevil. So in order to make this pop culture resolution happen, I'll need to:
- watch all of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3 (which I am DVRing)
- watch all of Agent Carter (also to-be-DVRed)
- watch all of Jessica Jones (which, again, at least I finally have Netflix streaming for)
- watch all of Luke Cage (if it gets released any time before May)
- watch Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man

That is a non-zero investment of time! And it may or may not happen, but as I always say, it's good to have goals.

So that's my brief look back at 2015's entertainments. I do hope that I'm able to check in on the blog more frequently, although that will largely be driven by how often I feel like I have something I really need to say. If nothing else, I'll be here again this time next year rattling off the things that impressed me, underwhelmed me, and generally pushed my buttons throughout 2016.


  1. A Netflix Streaming recommendation: a spooky, very well done French series called "The Returned." In a good-sized mountain town in France, people who died start coming back. They aren't ghosts or brain-eating zombies, they're themselves. But they don't seem to know where they came from. Things get weird quickly. It's eight one-hour episodes. Great stuff.

    Two low-key Britcoms well worth the brief time investments (Netflix has one six-episode season of each) are "Scrotal Recall," about a guy flashing back to tales of exes when he has to call them to notify them about his STD, and "Detectorists," about two geeky metal detectorists farting around Essex trying to find gold. It's charming, amusing, and a little painful.

    "Black Mirror" is as messed up as its reputation.

    Mermaid Horror as a subgenre..."Seashell Bra, Saltwater Death?" No, there has to be a better title. Hm...

    1. I have been meaning to get into Black Mirror - I think it would be very much up my alley, from what I have heard. I will have to check out your other recommendations as well!