Thursday, February 10, 2022

My 2021 in Review

I've decided to "borrow" another idea from Jack Shear and write about my favorite things I read, watched, and listened to in 2021. Every month, Jack writes a Total Skull post on Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque, and every year, he and Tenebrous Kate records a Best Of episode of Bad Books for Bad People. (Readers with photographic memories may recall that I previously copied Jack's Unholy Misc format for my own Miscellany series.)

The Best Things I Read

Genre Fiction (tie) - The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders & Fire Time by Poul Anderson

I really love the worldbuilding in City in the Middle of the Night. We're on a small, tidally locked alien world with human two cities built at the cusp of Day and Night, Xiosphant, the clockwork city, and Argelo, the city that never sleeps. Anders describes their cultures and languages in a way that makes them feel distinctive, real, and alive. The world is hostile. Whatever star they're orbiting is deadly bright, so the Day side of the planet is utterly off-limits. The Night side is dangerous, but human tech can function there briefly, and there are some interesting aliens living in the dark. The early history of the human colonies are very gameable, with the mothership sending "treasure asteroids" to crash on the surface, where teams of explorers, kitted out in environmental suits and snow-crawlers raced into the Night to recover the mineral wealth.

City must be, I think, an example of what critics derisively refer to as "squeecore". There are two protagonists. One is a working class girl, Sophie, with an obvious crush on her upper class friend. They play at political revolution, and Sophie ends up taking the fall when the police come looking for someone to execute. She only survives because she discovers how to communicate with some of the Night side aliens. The experience is traumatic, and for the rest of the book that trauma is never far from the surface. The other protagonist, mouth, is the lone survivor of tribe of nomadic people who traveled the entire length of the small globe. Now she runs with some daring black market traders who sell contraband back and forth between the feuding cities. Sophie and mouth start only peripherally connected, but the actions of one inevitable affect the other. None of the book's tentative romances are ever consummated, but several characters go to rather extreme extremes to enact their political beliefs, or empower themselves, or just do what they think is right.

Fire Time has another weird ecology. The planet Ishtar is in a trinary system, with one star like our sun, one inconsequential dwarf, and one red giant on an extreme elliptical orbit that exposes Ishtar to a century of much hotter weather once every millennium. Humans have a small colony on Ishtar and are trying to use their technology to help the native civilization survive the titular "fire time" - in every previous era, nomadic peoples from the planet's hottest regions migrate and sack the cities, which alongside predictable flooding and agricultural failures has always led to the collapse of the sedentary governments. At the outset of the book, the humans on Ishtar are forbidden by Earth to continue their plan so they can make ready in case they get pulled into a conflict started by humans on another alien planet, one with no indigenous life, where the human colony's conflict with the colony belonging to a second alien species has metastasized to the point where both homeworlds are involved, in what feels like an analogy to the actual Cold War. The plot is essentially a tragedy - a conflict on Ishtar that could be averted isn't because of politics on Earth.

I'm impressed by how many ideas Anderson manages to pack into a 200-ish page novel (compared to the 300-400 that's standard today). We get at least two factions of humans, two of the Soviet-analog aliens, two very well developed groups of Ishtarans, a half-dozen viewpoint characters, great worldbuilding around the ecological and cultural effects of the trinary stars, and especially great worldbuilding around the biology and ecology of Ishtar. The handfuls of Terran crops are the only food on Ishtar the humans can eat, and soil that grows one planet's native plants can't grow the other's. The most common Ishtaran plant is called "lia", which I imagine looking like sansevieria. There's also a third type of life on Ishtar, one that only lives in the otherwise uninhabitable regions, except during the fire time. Tauran life originally came from a planet that orbited the red giant before it got too big and too hot. Their astronauts came to Ishtar a billion years earlier and all died out. But their gut bacteria survived, and from those evolved new multicellular life, and eventually new sentience. The Tauran's are essentially made up of "left handed" molecules compared to both humans and Ishtarans; what nourishes one is basically indigestible to the others. Anderson's world is mind-expanding to imagine.

Literary Fiction - Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

I mentioned before that I wanted to read this one, and last year I finally did. Famous Men Who Never Lived tells about the 100,000 refugees who come to our world from a parallel Earth that diverged around 1910 and experienced a different 20th century. We closely follow Hel, short for Helen, and some of her friends. Hel is obsessed with the science fiction novel The Pyronauts, which tells a story like a reversed War of the Worlds mixed with Fahrenheit 451. In it, Martians come to Earth in peace, bearing gifts of wonderous technology, but by accident, they also bring infectious microorganisms that lay waste to our plantlife, including our crops. The titular pyronauts, of this book within a book, are men dressed in environment suits, armed with flamethrowers, who burn away the infected plants to prevent the alien spores from spreading. Chess gives us Hel's summaries, rather than raw text from the fictional Pyronauts, but she's invented a book that feels like it should exist, and could have been written in a slightly different 1920.

While trying to find support to build a museum to the lost culture of the dead world the refugees escaped from, Hel either loses the book or it's stolen from her, and the lost book becomes a symbol of everything she left behind and had to give up. The perspectives of the other characters help to fill out the strangeness of the other 20th century, and the magnitude of the loss of an entire world. This was one I read knowing that it would confront me with my own grief about the pandemic.

Poetry - Eunoia by Christian Bok

The heart of Eunoia is a series of five prose poems, each written using only words that contain only a single vowel. So there's an A poem, an E poem, etc. Each poem is packed with as much assonance and alliteration as Bok could fit into them, and each includes, among other things, a feast, a drug trip, and a sex scene. Even moreso than other poems, these deserve to be read aloud, and I found the entire exercise to be a real delight.

Here's the merest sample: "Hassan gnaws at a calf flank and chaws at a lamb shank, as a charman chars a black bass and salts a bland carp. Hassan scarfs back gravlax and sprats, crawdads and prawns, balks at a Parma ham, and has, as a snack, canard a l'ananas sans safran." So good!

Nonfiction - A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin

A book about the secret history and forgotten contributions of women doing classified work during WWII, somewhat akin to Hidden FiguresGame of Birds and Wolves tells the story of the women in the British navy who got recruited to design and run a wargame that would first discover tactics to prevent the German U-boats from sinking so many cargo ships, and second teach those tactics to the commanders of the British fleet. You learn an awful lot about the navy, women in the navy, and submarine combat along the way. 

One pleasurable discovery for me was realizing that the somewhat arcane rules followed by Romulan Warbirds and Klingon Birds of Prey in the original Star Trek series, when they use their cloaking devices, rules that don't really make sense if there's just a forcefield that turns them invisible, are the rules that govern how submarines engage in combat. Underwater they're invisible and too deep for torpedoes to touch, but move incredibly slowly, can't fire their own weapons, and are vulnerable to correctly aimed depth charges.

The Best Things I Watched

Animated Television (tie) - My Hero Academia & Avatar: The Last Airbender

I started watching more anime this year primarily because it fits neatly into my lunchbreak at work, but I've enjoyed the opportunity. My Hero Academia is basically a Harry Potter story with superheroes instead of wizards. It's also a lot of fun. It's set in a world where about ¾ of the population has some kind of superpower, or "quirk". These range from classic superhero powers to some real oddities, like having tape dispenser elbows or headphone jack earlobes. The main character, Deku, is born without a quirk, but wants to be a hero, and idolizes All Might, who's a Superman / Dumbeldore figure in this story. He gets a power, gets into school, and begins his journey, and by the end of season 5 the story has nearly reached the second year of high school. (The first year is, uh, eventful!) I especially like the way the world outside the school has started to open up in the last couple seasons, and am looking forward to catching season 6 in the fall.

After finishing My Hero Academia, one of my coworkers recommended I try Avatar, and I'm glad she did! If I had known how much I'd like Avatar earlier, I too might have contributed to the wildly successful Kickstarter. The world here is divided into a continent that's home to the Earth Kingdom, a major archipelago that houses the Fire Nation, the north and south poles where the Water Tribes live, and assorted mountainous islands that used to be occupied by the Air Nomads. Oh yeah, and each society has a significant and elite minority of "benders" who can control one of the elements.

The story opens after a century of war waged by the Fire Nation on all the others. Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka discover an magic iceberg, containing Aang, the current reincarnation of the Avatar, who disappeared just before the war started. They travel the world learning magic, initially pursued just by the disgraced Fire Nation prince, Zuko, and later by other agents of the Fire Nation. As our heroes travel, we see the cost of war, but also the reasons one might fight to retain autonomy, the importance of a peace based on coexistence rather than conquest. There are a lot of likable characters, but to my mind, Zuko is the most compelling. He's a deeply flawed person, but also the one who I cared most about what he did, and who I knew least whether he would do what I hoped. I also have to mention how much I love the animals on this show. They're all combinations, bat-lemurs and vulture-wasps and turtle-ducks and the like. They're really delightful!

Live Action Television Television - Counterpart

My only ambition in watching Counterpart was to watch a scifi spy thriller, and to see JK Simmons playing two characters in the same show. It's fair to say I got more than I bargained for! In this show, there are two Earths, one essentially like ours, and one harsher and more mysterious, for reasons that are initially unclear. The two worlds are connected by a single doorway in East Berlin, with an embassy on either side, with very tightly controlled travel and communication between the two worlds. The existence of the doorway is a secret, and so there are lots of spies on both sides trying to learn about one another and steal technology.

The show opens because someone hired an assassin on the other side to come to our world and kill certain people. Simmons' character, Howard, a minor bureaucrat who doesn't even know the nature of the secretive organization he works for, gets recruited to help out because his comatose wife is one of the targets. The assassin, Baldwin, was the first element to draw me deeper into the show than I expected. I found I couldn't take my eyes off of her; the actress's performance is electric. The other element I couldn't resist was learning more about the secrets of the two worlds, how they came to be connected, and the global flu pandemic in the 1990s that made the other world so harsh and cruel in its dealings with ours. I didn't expect how important that fictional pandemic would be to the show, or how much it would engage my emotions.

Documentary Television - Alien Worlds

If I were to add a couple more to this category, I'd recommend the glass arts competition Blown Away, or the ceramic competition The Great Pottery Throw Down, but the show that really exceeded my expectations was Alien Worlds. I'm a big fan of speculative biology, and this show doesn't disappoint, but what I especially liked was how much it was all grounded in extrapolating from the biology of Earth. The very first interview in the first episode is with the man who discovered the first exoplanet! I was also deeply impressed by the tour of the Danakil Depression.

There are only four episodes, but we see the airborne life that thrives in the thick atmosphere of a planet with twice the mass of Earth, the adaptive radiation of the same genus into different species on the night and day sides of a tidally locked world, the overflowing fecundity and complexity of the food chain on a world with a binary star, and the possible long-term future of an intelligent species on an Earth-like planet around about to become a red giant.

Film - The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

I probably watched more television than movies last year, but The Night is Short, Walk on Girl leapt to the front of my mind when I thought of things I'd enjoyed. We follow an unnamed and very charismatic young woman, a college student, as she enjoys a very long night of drinking, book fairs, and street theater. She quickly collects a group of fellow bon vivants, and a luckless grad student with an unrequited crush on her. This film really captures the joy of the night life, and reminded me how much I miss it, how much fun it used to be to go out on the town.

I have two reservations worth mentioning. First is that in the final act, a rather nasty common cold spreads among all the revelers in the film, sending all of them home to bed, and leaving the streets eerily empty in a way that looked too much like the first lockdown. One character even rhapsodizes about the rapid spread of communicable diseases as a manifestation of human camaraderie. It was impossible for me to watch that and not think about the possibility of people spreading something worse than a simple cold. 

My second reservation is that I don't really like stories about men pursuing romance with women who don't know them; the chases always feel sinister to me and the happy endings almost always feel false. By the end, the grad student guy learns how to stop acting like a stalker and start acting like a friend, and the "end" of his chase is simply that they make a tentative start at dating. But neither set of qualms is enough to knock this from its spot as my favorite movie I watched last year.


  1. Oh wow, the animation in "The Night is Short Walk on Girl" is beautiful. Gonna see about watching that with my partner tonight.

    1. The animation is gorgeous, and really takes advantage of the medium. The characters' bodies are flexible in a way that shows off the pleasure of drinking something tasty, the wackiness of a trendy new dance, or the pain of eating spicy food. And emotions appear as flowers of splashes of color in a way that looks better than I'm making it sound...

  2. I started watching The Night Is Long... , and it sounds like its got all kinds of elements that would be fun. But that second reservation you mentioned really bigges the heck out of me. I paused it to come back to later. Even if its not threatening, the unrequited stalker dude just seemed like a little bit of bleck added to the mix.

    Also it seems the only version I can find is dubbed.

    1. I really do feel you on the stalker-like wannabe-boyfriend guy. If his role in the story were bigger, I don't know how much I would have enjoyed it.

      I will say that rather than being rewarded for stalking, it's more like he learns his lesson that that's not the right way to approach someone. He gets a chance with the girl when he finally stops with all the cloak and dagger, stops putting her on a pedestal, and approaches her as a peer.

    2. That's reassuring. I'll take another look soon.

  3. Very interesting, thanks.

    Just one remark: I thought it was universally acknowledged that "Balance of Terror" STC episode was just a classic WWII Destroyer vs. Submarine story.

    1. It's very possible! The episode first aired over a decade before I was born though, so I may have missed being part of the scene where that was common knowledge.