Monday, February 20, 2023

My 2022 in Review

Last year I started what I hope will be an annual tradition, and posted reviews of my favorite things I read and watched in 2021. It's time again, so here are my favorites from 2022! 

(Please note, the categories are somewhat different this year, and might be different again next year, depending on what particularly interests me each time around.)

The Best Things I Read

Graphic Novels - Black Water Lilies by Fred Duval and Didier Cassegrain

Black Water Lilies is a murder mystery set in the French village of Giverny, where Monet lived and painted for the latter part of his life. Police quickly determine that the murdered man was interested in acquiring Monet paintings by deceiving owners who didn't know the value of what they had, that he had numerous affairs, and that he might have a child. Three women emerge as suspects within the narrative - an old woman who secretly owns a Monet painting that is only rumored to even exist, a schoolteacher who has been seen with the dead man and might have had an affair with him, and a little girl who wants to be a painter and might be the right age to be the dead man's daughter. The police focus on the teacher and her husband, but that might be because the lead detective has fallen in love with her.

The investigation turns up a lot of information, but seemingly no conclusions, until the very end. The end of the story is perfect, and makes everything you've read so far even better in retrospect. I found myself immediately flipping back through to consider it all again. The art is also a absolutely gorgeous, which I think you can tell from the cover. The pastel colors, the profusion of flowers and large panels that show off the landscape - reading this book is like investigating a mystery set inside a Monet painting. The text and art work really well together, with the beautiful surroundings contrasting with the darkness of the story.

My runners up are Berlin by Jason Lutes, and Giantess by JC Deveny and Nuria Tamarit, which was published by the same press as Black Water Lilies. Berlin is an absolute masterpiece, with a large cast of characters who embody the major events of Germany in the 1930s and black and white art that resembles the striking graphics of posters of that era, and of course Lutes' name should be familiar to RPG fans. Giantess is a fantasy comic about a giant girl who is adopted by humans, then sets out to find her way in the world, along the way encountering politics, war, dogmatism, asceticism, witchcraft, and feminism, all while trying to decide what sort of person she wants to be.

Literary Fiction - Destransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

I'm always a bit nervous to read fiction about trans people, having been burned a bit by some of the novels by non-trans authors I read when I was first coming out. But I'm very glad I read Detransition, Baby, which is by a trans author, and filled with the sort of true-to-life details that let you know she really knows what she's talking about. I recognized myself in this, was reminded of other trans women I've known, and felt like I maybe learned some things about the community that I hadn't known before. Peters treats all her characters with empathy; she understands them and expresses their sometimes difficult-to-explain interior states with deceptive ease. Consider, for a moment, the beautiful ambiguity of the title. Is it a loving request, a bullying taunt, or simply an ordered list?

Detransition, Baby follows a trio of characters. Ames is currently living as a man, but he used to live as a trans woman, and may choose to again, sometime in the future, beyond the end of the book. Reese is Ames's ex-girlfriend, and another trans woman. Katrina is Ames's boss and current girlfriend, and she is accidentally pregnant with Ames's child. Ames suggests an unconventional arrangement - that the three of them co-parent the child together. As this plot unfolds in the present day, we get flashbacks to Ames's and Reese's closeted girlhoods, the early days of their transitions, how they met, and why their relationship ended. Ultimately, the three of them will have to decide whether to commit to Ames's plan or not, but the novel doesn't end with a decision; it ends when they have each finally confronted enough of their past mistakes to actually make a real decision.

My runner up is Temporary by Hillary Leichter, although The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman probably deserves a shout-out as well. Temporary follows a member of the precariat through a series of temporary jobs, where she deals with loneliness, low-pay, mistreatment by her coworkers, and the moral injury of being asked to do someone else's dirty work, all while longing for "the steadiness" of a job of her own. What's unique here is that her temporary positions are all fanciful and surreal - a pirate, a barnacle, a ghost, a hitman's assistant, a witch's assistant, a temporary mom. The Very Nice Box is a subversive romance novel that follows a queer woman working for an IKEA stand-in, designing the titular object for her company, and maybe re-opening her heart to a bro-ish young man whose affable masculinity is a little more toxic than it initially appears.
Genre Fiction - Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is a fantasy novel, set in a world that resembles rural England, or maybe New England, with the Tower standing in for London or New York. Thomas Senlin, a small-town school teacher and latter day Ichabod Crane figure, takes his new wife to the Tower for their honeymoon and immediately gets separated from her. We follow him as he searches, gradually working his way up the levels of the interior. The bottom floors of the Tower are tourist attractions, gaining expense and exclusivity as they rise. Senlin is a flawed protagonist, at once too fussy and too certain of himself, but he survives to continue his search because he grows and learns from his mistakes.

Although the idea of the Tower, and its early displays of steampunk technology, are indeed fantastical, Bancroft grounds his story in a great deal more social realism than you might expect. He's especially attuned to issues of class and gender. The Tower is a machine, and it runs on the exploitation of labor. Where I think Bancroft excels is, at each stage of his story, recognizing what's the most obvious thing that could happen next, and then trying to outdo himself. By the time I reached the final set-piece, where a half dozen factions and conflicts all exploded into one another, I was seriously impressed by his skill. Senlin is the first book of a quartet. It stands alone well enough if you're not sure you want to commit to the series, but I'm glad I kept going.

My runner up is Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway. Harkaway gives us a James Bond type spy villain with a doomsday device and a plan to freeze the world in a state of perpetual quantum certainty, an aging lady spy forced out of retirement to stop him one last time, and a hapless watchmaker, son of a famous dead gangster, who assembles the greatest underworld vigilante team this side of M to pull one last heist and save the world from a state unbearable epistemic oversaturation. The whole caper is an awful lot of fun, at least as rollicking, madcap, and sexy as it is philosophical, but the elevated stakes, and the ideas behind them, only added to my enjoyment.
The Best Things I Listened To

Pop Music - "Expert in a Dying Field" by the Beths

With lyrics that seem to simultaneously describe the feeling of loving vintage and retro things, the grief of a failing relationship, and the pervasive anxiety of working in academia in time of budget cuts and shrinking college-age populations, guitars that progressively shift from pop to rock, and a video that was seemingly decorated by someone who wanted to make me sick with jealousy, the Beths score a very easy win here. 

For my runners up, I recommend "I'm Not Where You Are" by Marika Hackman and "None of My Friends" by Liz Lawrence, which are both about wanting to be alone, in their own ways, and both have excellent videos. 

Rock Music - "Hertz" by Amyl & the Sniffers

Amyl and her band are an honest-to-god punk rock phenomenon, with fast guitars, punchy lyrics, firecracker energy that rages without ever seeming to run out, and a name that genuinely offends at least half the people I try to recommend them to. (Just what are they sniffing, everyone seems to wonder. Is it glue, or the only other obvious alternative?) Here, she sings about wanting to go on a beach holiday, and I find her mood irresistibly infectious.

My runner up is "Chaise Lounge" by Wet Leg, which got much more attention this year. Despite their equally salacious name and even-more-explicit lyrics, no one ever seems as put out by this duo as they do by the Sniffers. The guitars here are probably a bit more danceable for most folks too.
The Best Things I Watched
Television - Dirty Pair

I never saw Dirty Pair when it was originally on in the 1980s -  in fact, I only found it because of a recent CBR article praising it shortly after it reappeared on Crunchyroll - but I'd like to think that if I'd had a cool older sister, this is the sort of show she'd have taken me under her wing and forced me to watch with her for my own benefit.

Dirty Pair follows a couple of teenage girl heroes-for-hire as they solve problems and restore justice in the most chaotic ways possible across a wild and dangerous scifi future. The girls feel like real teenagers. They quarrel with each other constantly. They'd rather go on dates with cute boys that save the world, but they will, though they'd like bonus pay or extra vacation days if they have to go above and beyond their original contract. In a galaxy where there seemingly is no "letter of the law" to follow, they consistently try to do the right thing and to stand up for people with less power who're being oppressed, no matter who's doing it.

And yes, their costumes are basically just fancy swimsuits. Yes, we sometimes see them wrapped in towels after showering at their apartment. But unlike more recent anime, we don't get any leering fanservice close-ups of their bodies. Their outfits just seem like an expression of self-confidence; their time "backstage" is shown naturalistically. The camera treats the audience as a peer rather than a voyeur. This is a series that was made for girls first and foremost. 
Plus, listen to that theme song! It's immediately jumped to the top of my favorites list, right beside "Cruel Angel's Thesis".

Honestly this was a good year for animation, and I watched a lot of it, but my runner-up is Andor, which would be first place in its own category if I was splitting television any further this year. It's a show about a Rebellion and an Empire that is thematically all about, you know, the ideas of rebellion and empire. Other reviews of the show tend to emphasize the price we see the rebels paying; I want to draw attention to the Andor's representation of imperialism. All the cops we meet are bastards, the prison we see deserves to be abolished, and one of the most powerful scenes asks us to cheer for rioters throwing bricks at the police. (You might be briefly tempted, as I was, to feel some empathy for the girlboss character, until you're reminded that, oh right, she works for a government that tortures and kills with impunity, and the more competent she is at her job, the worse things are for the people she's targeting.) Andor is by far the most anti-authoritarian show I've watched recently. It also has excellent pacing into 3-episode arcs that inevitably culminate in perfectly choreographed action scenes, actors who are good at acting, and really excellent attention to detail in terms of the sets, costumes, and music.

Arthouse Films - Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn

Bad Luck Banging tells the story of a teacher who made a short porn video with her husband, and has to attend a meeting with the school's principal and a group of concerned parents to determine whether or not she'll be allowed to keep her job. In the first act, she crosses Bucharest on foot, walking from her apartment to the school, with a couple errands along the way. The movie was filmed in spring or summer 2020, so the masks, and the weird tension that suffused every face-to-face encounter during that time, are presented as a matter-of-fact part of the story. There's an interlude where the director criticizes what he sees as the sexual hypocrisy and growing fascism of Romanian society. His complaints about his country sound a lot like my complaints about mine; the differences are matters of degree, not kind. 

In the second act, the teacher attends the meeting, outdoors, because of the pandemic. If the first part was her Gethsemane, this is her Golgotha. The crowd of parents all want her fired. They insist on screening the porn video. (It was taken down from the internet, but one mother "helpfully" downloaded a copy for the meeting.) The parents all watch the video while the fathers make lewd comments. And the teacher does not flinch. She doesn't apologize. She doesn't offer to resign. She defends her right to exist as a human outside of her job, and she defends her ability to do her job well. I was in awe of her, transfixed by her courage and her strength. I only hope I can be half as brave if a conservative mob ever comes after me.

One thing I sometimes think about when watching or reading, is whether the depiction of sexuality is appropriate - was it necessary? was it authentic to the characters? should there have been less of it? or more? The show My Dress-Up Darling stands out to me for its inauthentic portrayal - when Marin looks at Gojo, we see him through her eyes, and understand what she feels, but when Gojo looks at Marin, we get generic anime fanservice, not a faithful representation of why he's so flustered by his sexy friend. The City in the Middle of the Night, which I otherwise really enjoyed, is notable for having characters who, seriously, should have just fucked at some point, where it feels false that literally none of them did, ever.

Bad Luck Banging absolutely passes this test. If a point of this film is that the teacher and her husband had the right to make a porn video, that she did nothing wrong either in her actions or by filming them, then yes, I really think the movie really does need to show you that video. It's not just acceptable; it's necessary. It would be self-defeating for the film to insist that this was completely fine but also refuse to allow the audience to glimpse it. And the film makes it clear, she hasn't done anything immoral - the people who keep re-uploading the video after it's taken down, and the people who watch it when she asks them not to, have.

My runner up is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which again, is probably the more famous of the two on my list. It's kind of a slow burn of a movie, but not only did it keep growing on me as I watched it, but I found my enjoyment of it increasing even more in retrospect after I finished. It's a historical lesbian romance that does right a lot of things that other films in that niche are often criticized for doing wrong. And as a bit of storytelling technique, I especially appreciate the character of the maid and her problem, which forces the two main women to get out of their own heads, interact with other people, and help someone who needs it. Her being younger also emphasizes the lead characters' relative maturity. It's a very well-made film.

Genre Films - Everything Everywhere All At Once

Speaking of well-made movies, can we talk about just how good Everything Everywhere All at Once is? At a time when multiverse movies are all the rage, it is easily the best multiverse movie, and likely to stay that way for awhile. We get a quick, understandable explanation for how the multiverse works, and how people can contact their multiversal variants, and the payoff from visiting the multiverse isn't just cool costumes, incredible fight scenes, and an excuse for each actor to play multiple roles - though we get all those things too. The payoff is a surprisingly moving discussion of the regret we all sometimes feel over the decisions we didn't make, expressed by characters who are not idealized or perfect, but are realistically, at times frustratingly, flawed, imperfect, human.

And as I said, it's a really well-made film. From Chekov's Gun in drama to a whole host of ideas about the role of repetition in comedy, we know that there are times in any work to bring something back from earlier rather than introduce something new. And part of the beauty of EEAAO is that everything comes back, usually two or three times. Nothing is one-off, nothing is just for effect. Everything comes back, and gains humor and poignancy from its reuse. 
The film editing also deserves a special shout-out here. Most of the time, I feel like awards for editing are mostly a way to lavish even more praise onto already successful films, or to ensure that a particular prestige pic doesn't get completely boxed out by someone else's winning streak - but seriously, EEAAO is a well-edited film. From the cuts between realities, to the super-rapid flashbacks, to the main villain's mutating mulitversal costumes and weaponry, to the really touching scene where two unmoving rocks talk to each other with the help the best shot-countershot since Alligator Loki, this is a movie that simply would not work if it weren't edited so well, and among the many things worth noticing as you watch it, that's definitely one.

My runner up is Netflix's Kate, featuring Mary Kate Winstead on a furious and doomed mission to get revenge on the people who poisoned her before the poison finishes its job. Absolutely brutal fight scenes, plot and dialogue that manage to not romanticize her remorseless killing spree, and the kind of neon-drenched visuals that I'm always excited to see more of. Watching Kate back-to-back with Gunpowder Milkshake made the latter seem even more garbo by comparison than it would have if I'd watched it alone. I'm ready for a change of pace from the formula of making your anti-heroic character more sympathetic by giving them a kid to defend, but considering that the radiation-poisoned protagonist goes back at least to D.O.A., it's not originality that matters here, but how well the film uses the pieces it's assembled from.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Roadside Picnic Basket Book Club - 2 - Blindsight

For the second meeting of the Roadside Picnic Basket Book Club, Trey from From the Sorcerer's Skull played host, and invited me to discuss the dungeoneering aspects of Peter Watts' novel Blindsight
So despite the cold, pull up a blanket, pour a cup of hot tea from your thermos, and enjoy the club. You can read the first half of our conversation here, and the second half here.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Blog5 on Tape - Type5 of Re5ource5

The fifth season of Nick LS Whelan's excellent Blogs on Tape project is well underway, and I've been fortunate enough to be included again this year!

Big thanks to Nick for his ongoing curation, preservation, and publication efforts, and for including me in his vision of the best of the blogosphere!

And remember to check in on Nick's work at Papers & Pencils and Blogs on Tape.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Over the summer, I got really depressed. I've had major depressive disorder for more or less my entire life, and I mostly have it well-managed, but sometimes it grows out of my control. Summers are often worse, for whatever reason. And of course, the general state of the world has worsened, downgrading from this-is-fine-dot-png to not-great-bob-dot-gif, in ways too numerous to mention, which isn't the cause of my depression, but certainly doesn't help either.

While I was depressed, I took a hiatus from blogging. I'm feeling better now, but it's been difficult to restart all the things I stopped doing during the most difficult time.

In March, shortly before my absence, Josep Torra of the Tirant lo Dau blog contacted me about translating my essay Landmark, Hidden, Secret into Catalan and publishing it in a zine. This easily makes LHS the most famous thing I've ever written. The zine is available on as a free pdf, and there's an inexpensive print option on Lulu. Josep's translation of my writing is on pages 81-86.

Tirat lo Drac 2022

Then in June, Chris McDowell also promoted Landmark, Hidden, Secret. It was tip #2 in his Bastionland Broadcasting episode "Preparing for an RPG Session - 3 Small Tips". The section that mentions me starts at around the 23 minute, 30 second mark.
Over the summer, my regular online gaming group met somewhat sporadically. Peter from Fantasy Heartbreak Workshop acted as the dungeon master, and ran us through Axo's Dungeon - which turns out to be quite a work of OSR collaboration, put together and keyed by Paolo Greco from Lost Pages, using geomorphs hosted on Dyson's Dodecahedron and Stonewerks, with updated art provided by Of Dice and Djinn. We used Peter's SKROP rules, which is his house ruled mashup of the GLOG and D&D 5e, and the game took place in his Owl Light setting, a science fantasy moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant.

We started the campaign looking for human Reavers who'd been kidnapping villagers in a remote lake district, and found the dungeon on an island in lake. Inside we met an affable and nervous priest of Cthulhu, who wished to promote moderate worship of the Great Old One, but not so much worship that it might trigger madness in the worshippers or risk disturbing Cthulhu from his eternal slumber in any way. We also found a whole hoard of Reavers in a tenuous alliance with the Squid King and his Cephalopod army.

The dungeon has a lot of corridors and passageways, giving us an almost Metroid-like experience of rapid exploration. We rescued the Slug Witch from the Slug King, provoked a war between the Reavers and the Cephalopods that decimated both factions, and rescued the imprisoned villagers. Peter was amazed that we managed to navigate the dungeon so effectively to find the things we were looking for. I was amazed that our various disguises and stratagems actually worked and got the two armies to nearly wipe each other out. It was maybe my most efficacious campaign ever, in terms of accomplishing my character's goals during the game.
Axos Dungeon by Lost Pages
Recently we've started a new campaign with me as the referee. Ever since the new edition of Into the Odd came out, I've been wanting to run someone through the expanded version of the "Iron Coral" dungeon. Originally only a single level, it now has three! I actually ran the original as a DCC weird western adventure site, which I called "The Irontown Corral", but this is my first time running it using I2TO.

Peter and Leighton have just found an entrance to the second level, so I'm excited to see what happens next! So far Peter's Prize Breeder and Leighton's Sky Trooper have found 6 jars of "Dr Bronzeworthy's Fantabulous Frictionless Ball Bearings" and a very valuable crystalline sphere, thanks in part to some help from a couple of assistants that I rolled up using the Burnboss and Courier failed careers from Benign Brown Beast. (In the likely event of character death, the assistants will get promoted up to full player character status.) In the next section, I'm hoping they'll delve into territory none of us has seen yet.

The Iron Coral frontispiece by Johan Nohr

So that's how I spent my summer. Feel free to share what you've been up to in the comments!

Friday, April 29, 2022

A Phone Call from the Joker

BATPHONE - Ring ring!

BATMAN - Hello?

JOKER - Ha ha! Greetings, Batman! It's me, your old pal, the Joker!

BATMAN - This is an unlisted number.

JOKER - Just calling to let you know I've broken out of Arkham again! Ha ha! Next time you should try locking me up in a wet paper bag! By the way, I hope none of those guards had families! Ha ha!

BATMAN - Dammit, Joker, they all had families.

JOKER - Oh good! You see I dosed each of them with a time-delayed chemical, coordinated to the time of my breakout and the length of their shifts! Right about now, each of them should be murdering their spouses and children! Ha ha! 

Don't worry, none of them have control over their actions, and here I am, a known criminal, confessing to poisoning them in a recorded call with a sworn officer of the court! I'm sure the prosecutor won't hold them responsible! Of course nothing will save them from the guilt, or the drug-induced PTSD flashbacks! Ha ha!

BATMAN - What makes you think I'm recording this call?

art by Jonathan Case for Batman 66 #1

JOKER - By now you're probably wondering why I've phoned you! I wanted to let you know that I've decided to play a little game with your sworn oath to never kill anyone under any circumstances ever! Ha ha! My recent flooding of the entire Gotham subway system with poison gas during rush hour, killing thousands, apparently didn't provide you with enough motivation!

BATMAN - I won't stoop to your level, Joker.

JOKER - That's too bad for the people of Bludhaven, Batman! I've stolen a nuclear bomb, and I'm going to detonate it downtown! Millions will die! Ha ha!

BATMAN - I'll never let that happen, Joker. I'll find you before the bomb goes off. I'm the world's greatest detective, don't you think I can find you in time?

JOKER - Perhaps you plan to find me by tracing this phone call? Let me save you the trouble! This phone is the detonator to a bomb vest I'm wearing! Ha ha!

As soon as I hang up, all you have to do is call me back, the phone will ring, and I'll die in a fiery explosion! The bomb vest only has a single stick of dynamite and I'm nowhere near any other people! The bomb will kill me and me alone and won't cause any structural damage to any bridges, roads, or buildings! There'll be no collateral damage of any kind! Ha ha!

Of course that means if you don't want to kill me then you can't risk calling me back after I hang up!

BATMAN - I don't need to find you, Joker, I just need to find the bomb.

JOKER - The bomb? The nuclear bomb? The nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in the heart of downtown Bludhaven? A city of millions? Millions who will die by being blown up by the nuclear bomb hidden by me, the Joker?

BATMAN - Yes, that bomb.

JOKER - You should know, Batman, that there's no way to disable the bomb on-site! Ha ha! It's connected to a remote detonator, and if you disable or remove it, it'll blow up immediately, which, I'll remind you again, will result in the deaths of millions! 

BATMAN - I understand the threat, Joker.

JOKER - What's the remote detonator you ask? Why it's a simple countdown timer, but instead of being linked to a clock, it's connected directly to my heartbeat! Ha ha! The only way to stop the countdown is to stop my heart!

By the way Batman, I hope I haven't given you the impression that you're going to have enough time to stop me any other way! Ha ha! After I hang up the phone you'll have about 3 minutes before the nuclear bomb detonates, less if I get excited and my heart starts racing while we talk!

BATMAN - . . .

JOKER - So what's it going to be, Batman? Lift one little finger to kill me? Or by your inaction allow millions to die and suffer? There's no other way to solve this!

You're trapped in a no-win situation specifically designed to show off the limits of your never kill anyone no matter how much they deserve it policy! A better, or at least more unified team of writers and editors would either allow you to kill or avoid putting you in situations like this one that make you look foolish! 

No one minds a Batman who doesn't kill as long as he only fights bank robbers with silly costumes! But try explaining why you won't execute a war criminal who has wiped out whole neighborhoods, entire cities, and will keep doing so again and again until you put him in the only place he can't escape!

BATMAN - . . . 

JOKER - What will you do? Police can't arrest me, prisons can't hold me! If you capture me, my next crime will make this one pale in comparison! How many lives are you willing to sacrifice just to prevent me from committing suicide?

You can't get to Bludhaven, and couldn't stop the detonation there if you tried! You don't have time to drive or fly here! You don't even know where I am! 

Even your other old pal Superman can't help you! Metropolis is basically Manhattan, Gotham is Brooklyn, and Bludhaven is essentially Queens! And everyone knows Superman never crosses the East River!

BATMAN - Actually, Gotham is canonically in New Jersey.

JOKER - Ha ha! You're almost out of time, Batman! 

By the way, if the millions of lives at stake aren't enough to sufficiently motivate you to take decisive action, let me remind you that your son and heir Robin, under his new nom de guerre Nighwing is in Bludhaven, and will certainly perish along with the others! I don't know your real name or his, but I know he's there, along with his adorable little pet dog Bitewing! Ha ha! 

You have less than 3 minutes, Batman, and then everyone in Bludhaven dies in a nuclear holocaust, including your protege!

BATMAN - No, not Robin!

BATPHONE - Dial tone.

art by Dick Dillin for Amazing World of DC Comics #14

Friday, April 15, 2022

Science Fiction Remix - Baron Harkonnen

My first introduction to the world of Dune happened years before I read the book, when I saw Wayne Barlowe's illustration of a navigator who was mutated by consuming Spice in the quantities needed to allow interstellar faster-than-light travel without the benefit of computers.

The illustration is colorful, and seemed to promise a setting filled with post-human beings, descendants of Old Earth who had gone so far, adapted so much, and been apart so long that they were effectively aliens. 

image from Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Frank Herbert offers us just the barest glimpse of this. Spice consumption allows the Steersmen to navigate between the stars, the Mentats to remember and calculate at a level akin to the real world computers of 1965, and grants the leaders of the royal houses a superhuman longevity. 

The text also gives us an interstellar society that's halfway between the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch East India Company - great houses, supposedly peers within the Landsraad beneath an elected emperor who is like the first among equals, all squabbling and jockeying for position and control and a larger cut of land and money and power and influence and Spice, the most valuable resource in human space, Spice, the whale oil or petroleum of its day, the source of the best medicines, the fuel for all travel, the thing that the shared economy cannot function without.

I imagined the costumes in Dune as being modeled after 18th and 19th century European military and nobility, Ruritania in space, and to a greater or lesser extent, both the David Lynch film and the Sci Fi Channel miniseries gave me back some of what I'd imagined, with costumes inspired by Moebius and HR Geiger and probably Star Wars, whose look was allegedly inspired by Moebius and Geiger anyway by way of the unproduced Alejandro Jodorosky version.

The recent Denis Villeneuve Dune film certainly plays up the militarism of the houses, but it also might as well have been filmed in black and white for all the color that Villeneuve allows to appear onscreen. The recent Apple TV version of Foundation probably looks more like my dream vision of Dune than any of the adaptations that actually exist. (The plot modifications probably make Apple's Foundation closer to Dune than to Isaac Asimov's Foundation anyway.)

I'll admit that I might like the world of Dune, with its psychics and mutants, its Great Powers competition that's equal parts espionage and economics, better than the story of Paul Atreides gradually accumulating various Chosen One statuses until he is the Duke of House Atreides, and a trained Mentat, and a trained Voice user, and the culmination of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program, and the leader by marriage of the Fremen of Arakis, and the fiancé of the daughter of the Emperor of Space, and and AND! Paul is the ultimate of what C Wright Mills calls the "power elite," combining military, political, and economic power; he accumulates every possible type of what Max Weber calls "the sources of legitimate domination," hereditary, charismatic, meritorious in every way.

Look - color! Look - costumes that visually distinguish the different factions!
image from Foundation

In contrast to Paul's over-determined heroism, Herbert poured a super-abundance of "villainous" traits onto his chief antagonist, Baron Harkonnen. It's not enough for him simply to be the enemy of House Atreides, or for him to be a sore loser about being forced off Arrakis and away from the most lucrative part of the Spice business. No, Herbert REALLY wants you to know that he's a bad person, so the Baron is fat, so fat he can't support his own bodyweight without antigravity devices, and he's gay, and he's a rapist of adults, and pedophile, AND, because this somehow wasn't enough, the Lynch film also covers him in scars and boils and other skin ailments. 

There's maybe some message in Baron Harkonnen's traits about how unchecked autocratic power allows a person to indulge and over-indulge in every possible kind of appetite, and how people who derive pleasure from pushing past limits and boundaries need to keep escalating, keep doing more and more extreme versions of whatever it is they enjoy if they want to keep one-upping the severity and outlandishness of their own past endeavors. There's maybe a warning about what happens to a person when no one else can say no to them for fear for their lives.

Okay. But like, real talk, it certainly seems like Frank Herbert wrote the Baron as fat and gay because he's the villain.

Apparently one of the prequel novels claims that Harkonnen isn't fat because of overindulgence, but because the Bene Gesserit give him a venereal disease that causes obesity and muscle wasting. This is a retcon that I actually think is worse than the original interpretation.

image from National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe

The thing is, the larger setting of Dune is one where, kind of, everyone is a villain. Everyone the audience is likely to meet, anyway. The emperor assigns each great house a planet to govern; the locals have no say in who governs them or how often new regimes are rotated through. The houses themselves are absolutist monarchies with a single, superannuated hereditary ruler. The economy is colonial and feudal, with the resources of entire worlds getting funneled inward to purchase of Spice and other luxuries, which the houses use to keep their members young and healthy, and to allow themselves the interstellar travel that makes the whole system possible. This is a morally abhorrent society, which means its leaders can be interesting, compelling, captivating characters, but they can't really be good in any meaningful sense.

And while the elite of this society may designate certain of their members as being on the margins of acceptability, its more likely to be for violations of etiquette and decorum as it is for anything the rest of us would consider wrong or cruel. The leaders inherently cannot be criminals, both because they make the laws for everyone else, and because they themselves are explicitly above them. Baron Harkonnen is more interesting to me when he's not THE singular villain, laden down with so many cartoonishly evil characteristics that he needs his antigrav harness just to support the weight of all those tropes, he's more interesting when he is both flawed and, in some small ways, admirable or sympathetic, when he's A bad person in a setting full of bad people. A Harkonnen who's not pure evil is also less likely to make his enemies seem good just by virtue of opposing him.

Let's start with Baron Harkonnen's sexuality, because I'm intrigued by the idea of the head of one of the planetary governments being an out, proud gay man. While I'm sure he has as many consorts, courtesans, and flings as any other house leader, I would prefer to avoid any implication that his homosexuality gives him a special taste for nonconsensual encounters.

In Dune, in addition to the Emperor and his house, and the other great houses that make up the Landsraad, and whatever indigenous political structures exist on the planets underneath the colonial rule of the houses, you have a few major non-governmental power centers. You've got the Guild of navigators who control space travel, CHOAM, which in my limited understanding serves as the equivalent of both the stock market and the marketplace for the sale and trade of Spice and manufactured goods, and the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization of geneticists and eugenecists devoted to increasing human psychic potential by selective breeding, who hide their scientific prowess beneath a religious mystique, and who have enough social power to insist that every house leader take a Gesserit consort and participate in their breeding program.

Arranged marriages, obligatory consummations, tracking "matings" and "pairings" with the obsessive attention of a zookeeper trying to revive a near-extinct species, and really the whole idea of mandatory "breeding" of human beings are already incompatible with the idea of consent as we understand it. None of the other parts of the history of eugenics are any more palatable. The Bene Gesserit have unlocked humanity's latent psychic potential, but those born with powers just become the psychic bureaucrats so necessary to keep the imperial system running, and the Gesserit themselves are a secondary source of tyranny, alongside the empire. 

Remix Harkonnen has no interest in "doing his duty" to the species, "lying on his back and thinking of the empire," or any of the rest of it. He is an open critic of the Bene Gesserit and their eugenics program, opposes their attempts to arrange marriages and breedings, not just for himself, but for everyone, and he will eventually pass rulership of his house down to a protégé rather than a child. Remix Baron Harkonnen might still be a reprehensible bastard on other issues, but let's let him be right about this one thing.

Next, the Baron's size and weight. The detail I keep thinking about is his antigravity device. What if Remix Harkonnen isn't simply a fat man, but truly someone who can't move around, or perhaps even survive, under Earth-normal conditions? I imagine that he's basically spherical, and looks like the illustration of hypothetical Venusians from the old Our Universe book, seen above. His body has been adapted to survive in an atmosphere that is incredibly thick, heavy, and crushing, and simultaneously very buoyant, like the deep ocean. The inside of any House Harkonnen building recreates this atmosphere, and requires pressure suits for anyone who looks like the humans of Old Earth to survive inside. But when the Baron travels to other houses, he needs a forcefield bubble to protect himself from the same effects you or I would feel in a vacuum.

Why do the members of House Harkonnen look like that? I think that an earlier era of space exploration relied on direct genetic engineering to produce durable, post-human bodies, rather than the combination of Gesserit eugenics, Spice, and high technology that are used in the current age. (As an aside, maybe the natives of each planet have been engineered to survive their specific conditions. This permits them to live openly and in poverty on the surface, rather than requiring specialized and luxurious habitats like the great houses. It also means they can never leave, unlike the comparatively hyper-mobile ruling class, who jet from planet to planet as the Emperor demands. The Fremen would likely be another example of this type of engineering.)

As the product of this prior regime of human improvement, Remix Harkonnen has yet another reason to oppose the Gesserit and their way of doing things. His body is visibly different from the Old Earth phenotype that most of the other ruling houses wear - although perhaps the Harkonnens are not the only ones who have been engineered rather than bred. I imagine he comes from a trash planet that falls outside the empire's direct sphere of influence, meaning that no great house is ever required to relocate there. 

Like some ambitious combination of Kingpin and Jabba the Hutt, Remix Baron Harkonnen started out as one gangster among many, became the don of dons through a combination of smarts and ruthlessness, and graduated to the interplanetary and interstellar big leagues, forcing his way into great house status and a seat on the Landsraad. The other house leaders dislike him for his disreputable origin, post-human appearance, and perhaps for refusing to hide his thuggishness behind the veneer of respectability the rest of them maintain. 

I suppose I ought to consider what sort of economic resource the Baron brings to the table that requires the others to offer him a seat. Perhaps a metal that can only be mined on his planet, or technology from before the AI wars that can no longer be replicated, or knowledge of genetic engineering that can produce results that the Gesserits can't reproduce in the short term. Or maybe he's just that good at bribery, coercion, extortion, etc. Or maybe his knowledge of the above makes his house ideal for rooting out local corruption and slapping the hand of any other great house that sticks their wrist too deep into the cookie jar. 
My remix version of Baron Harkonnen is more like Magneto or Killmonger - a man with a sympathetic origin and understandable agenda, who is nonetheless still deserving of condemnation for his actions. If your Remix Dune coexists in the same setting as a Remix Legion of Superheroes, then I have to assume that Bouncing Boy is a do-gooder outcast from House Harkonnen. If your Remix Dune is also a Solar Dune, then Harkonnen might come from Venus, or perhaps from a cloud city on Jupiter that's deep enough beneath the "surface" to require his distinctive body modifications to survive.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Meta Critical Miscellany - Literary, Intellectual, Enjoyable, Forgotten, Fragile

Actually, Criticism is Literature
Writing about the art of writing is an art unto itself.
Jonathan Russell Clark

"Every once in a while, a critic will feel it necessary to define what they think of as their role in the larger literary community. Now as a critic I love these essays; many of these writers have brought brilliant insights into what can often be a dismissed vocation. But while I appreciate the efforts of my fellow critics, there is one aspect to nearly all of these defenses that I disagree with, deeply, and that is the implication that criticism is separate from the literature it describes, as if novelists, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers were the players in the game and we critics merely the referees. What’s intimated in many defenses of criticism is this gap between observer and observed, between artist and non-artist."

"This is bullshit. Criticism is also literature. The word 'also' there insists on criticism's inclusion as a genre of literature, and not as a subject that stands outside of it. When viewed as a separate entity, criticism becomes this Big Brother-like authority ready to pop up and take down any unsuspecting artist; it turns criticism into a practical evil that published authors must suffer through; and it devalues the work of those who became critics because they love literature and they love to write."

"A critic is an artist; I am an artist. I write because I love language and because I love using language to depict the various complexities of my life. Some people use their family and friends as inspiration, while others mine history for theirs. Still others find muses in the calm of nature, some in the chaos of the city. I’ve found it in books - it is through them that I’m able to express not merely what I think of literature, but what I believe about life."

The Intellectuals are Having a Situation
Reviewing the n+1 review of reviews.
Christian Lorentzen

"I am not the most famous book reviewer in America, but I've been reviewing books on and off for 21 years, and it is how I make my living, such as it is. Why do I do this? I enjoy writing criticism, performing literary analysis, and reading and thinking about books. One of my friends once justified our activities by saying you have to help create the literary culture you want to be part of."

"n+1 ran an essay called 'Critical Attrition: What’s the Matter with Book Reviews?' Let's begin with 'the earnest reader.' This reader pays attention to jacket copy on books, uses the website Goodreads, searches Twitter for literary opinions, and doesn't know very much about the literature business. I'll be honest, I have no respect for this fictional character or anyone in real life who resembles him. He's buying books, presumably books that he's going to spend many hours of his life reading. Yet when he has read a book he doesn’t like, he feels misled by its marketing. This reader is simply bad at being a consumer. He doesn’t know how to spend his money on products that will please him. He is not in touch with his own taste and ways of satisfying it."

"A sorry situation, as n+1 paints it. Readers who don’t know how to find the books they like and reviewers writing pieces that are tepid and compromised, secretly driven by their misplaced hopes for minor advancement (n+1 is too sympathetic to their plight to call them grifters, but that's the idea). I think these problems are irrelevant because they constitute the sort of mediocrity endemic to any endeavor." 

"The picture n+1 paints of criticism is a joyless one. If there is a problem with book reviewing the problem is that those of us who are good at it aren’t good enough, there aren’t enough of us, and we aren’t doing a good enough job of expanding the scope of literary discourse, to put it in touch with tradition and open it wide to new writing. We have the duty of helping to create the culture we want to live in, and that world should be full of infinitely various delights. The imperatives are to be stylish, to be thorough, to be funny, to be generous, and occasionally to be cruel."

 Critical Attrition
What's the matter with book reviews?
The Editors

Like This or Die
The fate of the book review in the age of the algorithm.
Christian Lorentzen

Let People Enjoy This Essay
How the mindset of an irritating web comic infected criticism.
BD McClay

"If we were using one of those little pain-measurement scales to log how annoying this comic is, 'shhh' in its original form ranks, at the very worst, two out of ten. It’s a little smug. But it’s basically fine. In a happier world it would have slid down into the great content void and that would be the end of it. Instead, some world-historical monster cropped out the last two panels, which in turn became a standalone reaction image. Let people enjoy things went from one piece of an, again, only mildly annoying comic, to a manifesto for a certain type of fan that gets very, very angry if somebody out there isn't enjoying things."

"'Let people enjoy things' is, partly, just about figuring out when it is and isn’t appropriate to get into a disagreement, which, for conflict-enjoying people, is a lifelong process. There’s a right time and a right place and, maybe most importantly, the right companions for me out there. The problem is this: For a small but vocal number of people online, any opinion they dislike is, essentially, being expressed by somebody in their home. 'Let people enjoy things,' as a way of saying 'learn basic conversational dynamics,' is a banal but true statement. But in practice, 'let people enjoy things' means something else: it is rude or inappropriate to dislike something."

"The 'let people enjoy things' problem is a pathological aversion, on a wide cultural level, to disagreement, discomfort, or being judged by others. I don’t want to move 'let people enjoy things' one tier up so that now we are all fiercely demanding to be allowed to enjoy cultural criticism. Negative criticism can be just as tedious, misguided, and fan-service-driven as positive criticism. But the paradox of a wide-open digital publishing field is that it has tended more and more toward consensus, with its two modes being the rave and the takedown, instead of diversity; even in terms of subject matter, culture verticals focus on the same things, instead of branching out."

"People are as interested in conversation over pieces of art and entertainment they like as they have ever been. But all of these take place within a context where interest and fandom are already established, which is part of why a harsh review can provoke such an angry reaction. A recap isn’t really meant to be evaluative. Much like evangelicals created their own parallel version of everything, from music to magazines, fan culture has its own alternatives. Negative reactions - up to a point - can live comfortably in this world. Negativity is just another brand.  Even so, many kinds of negative criticism, particularly of a vaguely political bent, come down to trope recognition: women in refrigerators, Bechdel tests, who dies first in horror movies."

"But criticism - by which I mean something that demands maintaining distance between the critic and the subject, not a negative or positive viewpoint - is, in a fandom world, an obsolete exercise. The growth area in culture writing is culture coverage - interviews and profiles - not criticism."
Have We Forgotten How to Read Critically?
Since the internet has made the entire world a library with no exits or supervisors, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response.
Kate Harding

"Not every piece of short nonfiction writing is an opinion piece, crafted to advance a particular argument. This is the first thing we all need to understand. I love the essay form because it’s an opportunity to watch someone - including yourself, if you write them - think deeply, out loud." 

"We used to understand this, I think. But social media has tilted things so that books by contemporary authors - let alone essays - are no longer portable worlds that awaken when a reader enters and slumber when one leaves. Today, the author is not dead until the author is actually dead. In the meantime, every published piece of writing is treated as the beginning of a conversation - or worse, a workshop piece - by some readers, each of whom feels entitled to a bespoke response."

"There is no apparent awareness that, in writing a piece and publishing it, the author has said what they meant to say and turned the project of thinking about it over to the reader. Today’s reader will simply not accept the baton being passed. If something is unclear, the author must expand; if something offends, the author must account and atone. Simple disagreement triggers some cousin of cognitive dissonance, where the reader’s brain scrambles to forcibly reconcile beliefs that don’t actually contradict each other."

"Reading can make you feel close to someone without actually knowing them, a precious gift in a lonely world. But if the pleasure of reading is feeling connected to a distant stranger, then the pain of watching people read badly is its opposite: a severing of shared humanity. A cold, demoralizing reminder that we never can look inside each other’s minds, no matter how we try."

"Books once kept the boundaries between writer and reader distinct. Unless you met an author under the controlled circumstances of a public event, you’d never get a chance to say hello, much less insult their intelligence and demand they go to therapy. Now, you and 300 other furious strangers can tell an author to kill herself before she’s finished her first coffee. Technology is a miracle."

Authorial Fragility and the Limits of Poptimism
It's good when critics dislike things.
Christian Lorentzen

"It seems strange to me that people have to invent ulterior motives for critics who don't lavish every new novel, film, television program, or art exhibition with slobbering praise. Disliking most of what you see and hear seems to me the natural way of things. All the more pleasure when you find something that grips your attention. Reading novels and watching films and looking at paintings and sculptures are hedonistic activities. Negative reviews are simply the expression of displeasure. The critics who write them don’t tend to be normal people because if they were their reviews would be boring and either nobody would print them or nobody would read them. In any case evaluation isn’t the ultimate point of criticism, though in the crude slipstream of social media it's usually taken to be."

Everyone's a Critic
Richard Joseph

Your Bubble is Not the Culture
From Hamilton to Harry Potter, critics keep misreading popular culture 
and writing off things that their audiences love. Why?
Yair Rosenberg