Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: The Hatching

I guess I know now what it takes to bring me back to blogging--scathing contempt for a book that I bought at half of half price and still feel like I overpaid for it. It's not exactly the most noble of sentiments, but I'll take it.

'The Hatching' is a book that brings to mind nothing so much as Sarah Hagi's quote, "Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man." The author, 'Ezekiel Boone', is actually Proper Literary Writer Alexi Zentner slumming it in the horror genre under a pen name, and it's blatanly obvious to all concerned--not because this is a Proper Literary Work that just happens to be in the horror genre, but because this is really obviously not the work of a young hungry author who's swinging for the fences in his debut novel. It's a flabby, underplotted little potboiler that does nothing to earn the already-greenlit sequel, hardcover status, and promotional push that it was given because of his proven track record under another name in another genre, and it's no stretch to say that I really want to make him go back and do another couple of drafts to see if he couldn't try a little harder.

As the cover gives away, the book is about a global invasion by a giant colony of murderous spiders (as opposed to a murderous colony of giant spiders) and the book starts off with a little atmosphere as said spiders flood out of the jungles like army ants devouring everything in their path. But then the book jumps to China, and Minneapolis, and India, and Washington, and California, and a different part of California, and Scotland, each time introducing a new set of characters whose reactions to events will no doubt be highly important to the next book 'Skitter' (coming in May, as the ending helpfully reminds you) but many of whom have literally no connection at all to actual events in this book.

Except for the characters in China and India, whose role in the story is to die messily in ways that the American characters can find out about and realize that Something Terrible Is Coming. The more I think about the way that a story that makes a point of having a sprawling cast of characters from around the globe has absolutely no point-of-view characters from two of the countries where the majority of the plot actually happens, the more annoyed with it I get. It's lazy, it's othering, it treats the lives of foreigners as disposable and only of importance to Americans as canaries in the mine when a global crisis hits, and it's utterly inexcusable in a book where so damn little actually happens.

And let's not bury that lede any further--the book is about 300 pages, and the author only decides to stop generating atmosphere and introducing characters on about page 220. The vast majority of the book is "People get increasingly nervous about impending spiders," with the actual spider invasion never getting any further than LA before the author goes, "Ooops! Out of room! Come check out my sequel, 'Skitter' to find out what actually happens in this story!" It is indefensibly slack plotting. It is insulting to one's audience to write a book this lazy, this slapdash, this reliant on regurgitating tropes done better by other writers (I guarantee you that the pitch for this series said, "World War Z, but with spiders") and then not finish it and demand that people pay twenty bucks for a second hardcover to get the story you couldn't be bothered to fit in the first time around. This is the Peter Jackson's Hobbit of killer spider books, basically.

About the nicest thing I can say about it is that the main characters are all written so shallowly that I genuinely couldn't tell for much of the novel who was written in just to be killed by spiders in the next scene.

(Okay, no. I can also say that he has a gay couple in there, at least one half of whom is not written as flaming and stereotypical, and he has a black female character in there who is a Marine from a wealthy family, and the President in the book is a woman as well. So we've got some nods to representation, which is nice. But none of them are given particular depth and the book would be better off narrowing its focus to one of them or expanding its focus out to show what the heck is actually happening in China and India while all the Americans dither and worry.)

I have no doubt that this author can do better. He's going to get the chance to show someone that he can do better in the sequel. But oddly, that's what frustrates me the most. Because a first effort like this should not be automatically rewarded with a second chance.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

My Subconscious Has a Weird Sense of Humor

I dreamed last night that I was watching a revival of Cyrano, and they'd decided to go a completely different direction by making it a musical. It was a terrible mistake, though, because the director chose "Roxanne" as one of the songs, and it really made Cyrano's reputation as a great poet and lover misfire when he wrote an anonymous love note calling the woman of his dreams a prostitute.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I'm Suddenly Tempted to Make a Short Film

I saw the trailer for 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' recently, and while there was a lot of cool stuff to unpack, I find myself utterly fascinated by the four burglars at the beginning wearing the cheap Avengers Halloween masks. I mean, setting aside the head-twisting weirdness of kids dressing up like superheroes in a world where superheroes are real, I really want to know what made the bank robbers decide to pick these particular masks. I can actually see myself making a short film on the subject, a sort of Reservoir Dogs pastiche where these four hardened criminals, having obtained the advanced tech they need to carry out their crime, now argue over which Avenger they're going to dress up as.

I figure you'd have the one guy who really thinks it's a bad idea. He says that the one thing that will make the Avengers get up off their butts to chase down a bunch of bank robbers is finding out that those bank robbers all wore Avengers masks to commit their crimes. He finally, reluctantly agrees, but demands to be Captain America because that's the only one of the four who probably won't accidentally kill him just by punching him.

There's a huge argument over who gets to be the Hulk, with one of the guys insisting that he totally, like, gets the Hulk in a way that none of the others possibly can. But one of the other guys wants to be the Hulk, because it's either that or Thor (because the guy who organized the gang is like, "No, letting me be Tony Stark is one of the conditions of the job" and his mask is suspiciously better than everyone else's and it's kind of obvious to everyone that he came up with the whole 'Avengers masks' idea pretty much as an excuse to wear his Iron Man mask without looking weird for being the only one wearing a superhero disguise, but they don't say anything because it's a really good plan and they don't want to lose out on the loot)...

And the Hulk guy is like, "Why don't you want to be Thor? You're totally a Thor dude!" and the other guy explains that he saw all these creepy skinheads in prison with Norse tattoos and he doesn't want anyone to think he's, y'know, racist or anything, his girlfriend is black and his kid is biracial and he wants them to be proud of him. And the Hulk guy is like, "Naw, no way, man! The real Thor, he'd be totally cool with your kid! You know if he saw those skinhead dudes, he'd be smacking 'em with the hammer like he was playin' Whack a Mole!" and really selling Thor to this other criminal, until the guy finally relents and picks up the Thor mask and says, "Let's do this!"

And then the post-credits scene is just a reprise of the scene from the trailer.

I can see it working, I really can. I suppose it'll become a sickness if I ever write out an actual script.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Seat at the Table, a Voice in the Corner

(Crossposted to Daily Kos.)

I’ve seen a lot of angry progressives over the last few days. While it is definitely time to look at why we lost, it is not and never will be a time to cast blame. Finding a problem and fixing it is important and necessary; finding a reason why it’s not your fault is just an exercise in ego-preservation and will only lead to a whole bunch of new mistakes next time as we fix every problem but the ones we’re responsible for making.

So, let’s talk...calmly and without rancor...about Hillary as a candidate, and the other choices we had...and the other choices we didn’t have.

Hillary, in retrospect, was everything we tried to convince ourselves she wasn’t. She was a wonderful woman, a great civil servant, a hero that the American people frankly don’t deserve...but she was also a polarizing figure that the vast majority of Americans had already made their mind up about, who was too reserved and guarded to be an effective campaigner. She did her best, but she was always going to be better as a Secretary of State where she could play to her strengths than as a speaker out on the stump. We told ourselves that we could overcome that and we almost did, but the flaws were what we thought they were.

Bernie Sanders...was pretty much the same. Not that he didn’t differ with Hillary, but his differences were not the kind of differences that would have swung the election. He would have come out with a more fiery, more progressive message...but his message would not have swayed the voters that came out for Obama and stayed home for Hillary. Because his message to minorities, and her message to minorities, was the same. “Trust me to represent you and I’ll be a voice in your corner.” And I think that from now on, the Democratic Party is going to accept that this simply isn’t good enough anymore.

Because we’ve had Barack Obama. I’m 41, and he is the best President we’ve had in my lifetime. I think I’d say the same thing if I was 51 or 61 or even possibly 71. He performed magnificently under conditions that were almost impossible. He was an inspiring leader and a forceful voice in polarized circumstances. And his coalition, the coalition that got him elected and re-elected despite the best efforts of obstructionists and racists, is a diverse coalition of minorities. They have seen that a black man can be President and can do a damn fine job. A promise is not good enough for them anymore. Nor should it be.

If the Democratic Party and the progressive movement is going to be a coalition of minority voters, the candidates we put forward should reflect that. If minority support is the difference between a D and an R in the White House, then they deserve a seat at the table, not just a voice in their corner. They deserve to look at a candidate that reflects them, not just another member of the white establishment making promises. Anyone can make promises. Trump made promises. Actions speak louder than words here, and the actions of the Democratic Party were to follow up the historic election of America’s first African-American President with Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and tell minorities, “It’s cool, they’re all woke!”

(And in hindsight, Tim Kaine was the most adorably terrible choice for VP Hillary could possibly have made, for those same reasons.)

In 2020, we have to do better. We have to show that the Democratic Party does not just pay lip service to our core constituencies, we respect their ability and their perspective and their patriotism. It is time for people like Hillary, Bernie...and yes, me too, white guy speaking...to sit down and let someone like Ilhan Omar be a voice in my corner for a change.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Saying Farewell to A Pastime

For those of you who haven't heard, tomorrow marks the last day of the Facebook game "Marvel: Avengers Alliance", which started out as a turn-based tie-in to the 2012 'Avengers' film and just sort of kept going for four years and 166 playable characters. It wasn't a perfect game--it was a Flash game and prone to bugs and balance issues just like many others, and it had its grindy elements just like pretty much any game that tries to get you to log in every day and play it as much as possible does.

But it had some amazing virtues. It had a character roster that hit just just the classic Marvel characters like Spider-Man and Thor and the Hulk, but quirky and offbeat cult favorites like Howard the Duck and Daimon Hellstrom. It introduced players to new heroes like the Blue Marvel and Faiza Hussain, spotlighted obscure heroes like Phyla-Vell and Cloak and Dagger, and even allowed you to redeem a variety of villains from Magneto to Ronan the Accuser and put them to work in the service of humanity. It allowed for a dizzying array of team-ups and crossovers, and was every Marvel fan's dream in a lot of ways.

And the gameplay, while simple, was not without its depths. The different characters each had their own mechanics and special abilities, and figuring out how to combine them could produce synergistic effects that made them amazingly powerful. (Drax, for example, was lethal but withered quickly under direct assault, while Groot was a walking shield wall that took the hits for his team mates. The two made a devastating pair.) Combine that with a variety of different game situations that mandated or prohibited specific characters and you had a recipe for constant reinvention and adaptation to the different enemies the game threw at you.

I've been playing the game in one form or another for about three years now, pretty much ever since 'City of Heroes' went the way of all things. It got me through my grieving period for that game, in a lot of ways. Now I have to grieve this one. I guess that's the problem with games that offer you an infinite number of possibilities and a sweeping array of things to do. In the end, it just means that your interest in the game outlives it instead of the other way around.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Has Whedon Changed, Or Have We Done Changed?

Of late, I think it's safe to say that there's been something of a fan backlash against Joss Whedon. His last work of note was 'Avengers 2: Age of Ultron', after which he more or less quit doing big studio movies in despair and hasn't had a major project since. Meaning that to some extent, he's been judged by 'Age of Ultron', which...

Okay, let's get this out of the way. I liked 'Age of Ultron'. I know the criticisms against it and they're not without merit, but I do think that they are sometimes overemphasized in relation to the film's virtues. Whedon had a murderously tricky balancing act to pull off--making a movie that was simultaneously the beginning of Tony Stark's big hubris arc while still making him relatable, advancing the metaplot of the Infinity Stones while still making a movie about Ultron, advancing the stories of Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye who aren't getting features of their own for internal studio-politics related-reasons that are pretty much why he quit in despair, introducing Vision, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, setting up Wakanda for future films, and oh by the way rebutting 'Man of Steel' and Zack Snyder's dystopian Objectivist vision of superheroism. The fact that he made a film that was watchable is, I think, something of an achievement even if I can also agree with the people who have specific and legitimate complaints about it.

There. Now as I was saying, he's been judged to some extent by 'Age of Ultron'...but I also think that we're beginning to see the first reappraisal of Whdeon's overall body of work as we get a bit of distance and perspective from it. And some of the things that people are seeing are things they're not happy about. For the first time, Joss Whedon is being viewed not as "the feminist writer guy", but as "the problematic writer guy". So what's changed?

I don't think that Whdeon himself has changed. I think he has always been a committed ally to feminism, but I think he's also, like a lot of guys who see themselves as committed allies to feminism, not really used to having to adjust to the fact that a committed male ally to feminism is playing a supporting role and not being a star. It's difficult, I think, for him to accept the fact that as a major Hollywood writer/director/producer, he is fundamentally sucking up some of the oxygen in the room away from feminism no matter how hard he tries to do otherwise simply because his voice is so much louder than that of the women he's ostensibly supporting. I think we've seen this overtly a few times when he's gotten into verbal dust-ups and been very upset that his "feminist cred" was being challenged by women--surely he'd done the work by now, right? Surely he would get the benefit of the doubt?

He doesn't and shouldn't. As much as I can say that I understand what he was getting at with the Black Widow scene in 'Age of Ultron', I can also say that I fully understand why a lot of people thought he failed at conveying what he was trying to say and failed in ways that reaffirmed some very sexist tropes in fiction. He does not get a "feminist pass" on those things, and he shouldn't behave as though he's earned one. And I can understand as well how that issue and his response to it has made him lose a lot of trust from feminists in the forefront of the discussion, even though he's said he'd like to try to write a story that would make amends for it. Because...

Well, honestly, because even if you ignore some of his recent tantrums over being called on his feminist credibility, it's still worth reappraising his work in the light of a good decade or so of distance. It's okay to say that while 'Buffy' and 'Angel' were very progressive for 1997 when they started, or even for 2004 when they left the air, that they're not that progressive for now and it's okay to examine them from the point of view of here and now and say that Tara getting killed off was a major example of a very unpleasant and homophobic trope that LGBTQ fans have gotten thoroughly sick of, or that killing off Charisma Carpenter's character because the actress got pregnant was shockingly petty and sexist, or that while we got some big moments of Buffy throwing off the shackles of the patriarchy over the years, we also got a whole season of her screwing up the basic functions of adult life so badly that her father figure had to come back and help her put her life in order.

And that Mal Reynolds is a misogynist jackass to Inara whose lack of respect for her is palpable in every scene between them, despite the chemistry the two actors had together, and that had the series gone another season we would have probably gotten the most profoundly horrible sexist episode of a Whedon series ever. (If you don't know about this one, be kind of glad. It doesn't get much better when you describe it in detail.)

Oh yes, and that in pretty much all his series he describes "physical strength" with agency and romanticizes abusive relationships. The point is, while Whdeon was progressive for the 90s, it's okay to say that it's not the 90s anymore (yes, I feel old too!) and we expect more from creators than just "look, there's a female protagonist here who's not the damsel in distress!" It's okay to say that looking back, these series seemed great to us because we were getting so little from our media in terms of representation that just having a lesbian couple who were openly in a relationship for a full two seasons was ground-breaking. It's okay to say that even though we respect Whedon's efforts to shift the conversation forward, he's not a flawless saint and he can be criticized without tearing down the entire edifice of feminism. It's okay to say that he's a feminist and that he's problematic. You can be both things at once. Lord knows that as a white dude myself, I've probably fallen into that trap more than a few times.

Joss Whedon has not become less feminist. He is still who he always was. But it's okay to want more than that now.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

My One Concession to Donald Trump

Having now officially heard more out of Donald Trump's mouth than I think I ever want to in this lifetime, I'm willing to concede one important point that he's been hammering on for the past...oh dear god it's been almost a year will this endless stream of verbal diarrhea never CEASE?

(It's not the one about the Mexicans.)

Donald Trump has been saying, almost from the beginning, that he's fighting a "rigged system". And after watching him in action, I'm willing to say that yes, absolutely. The system is rigged in such a way as to make it harder for liars, fraudsters, crooks, cheats, con artists and swindlers to get into a position where they have the power to siphon off vast amounts of public money for their personal aggrandizement, and to use the bully pulpit of running for office to steal money from American citizens under the guise of "soliciting political donations." We make it hard for people to do that. Entirely on purpose.

(Clearly we haven't made it hard enough, because Trump, but that's another conversation.)

Basically, yes. The system is rigged against Donald Trump. The system was also rigged against Bernie Madoff. The only difference is that Donald Trump is better at getting around rigged systems than Madoff was.