Thursday, December 31, 2015

Want Some Wacky Spelling Humor? You've Come to the Right Place!

Coming this fall, to TNT:

When magic returns to the world, this elite team of experts feels that it's really not their place to decide whether it's being used ethically or not--after all, if magic is being misused, then surely the reputation of the individual sorcerer will suffer and people will choose not to work with them in future. This alone provides sufficient safeguards on the bad behavior of others, without needing some sort of state apparatus providing surveillance and control over the lives of everyday citizens acting in good faith. That kind of apparatus eventually finds continuing ways to justify its own existence, turning every magic user either into a slave of the state or a rebel against it. Minimal regulation of magic is the best regulation, they say, and so they refuse to participate in the oppression of their fellows by committing theft in the guise of artifact "confiscation" or by depriving others of their civil liberties simply because those others devoted their lives to esoteric studies in expectation of a reasonable reward. After all, doesn't the exchange of time and effort deserve to be compensated with otherworldly power? Of course it does! So these experts...pretty much don't do anything. Ever. Because to do so would be against their deeply held philosophical beliefs regarding the social covenant between individuals.

The Libertarians. This fall, on TNT.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Sparrow

There's always an odd feeling that comes when you read a book and appreciate it while feeling fairly certain you took away a completely different message than the one the author intended. It's sort of awkward--it seems almost churlish, like you're refusing a gift the writer gave you and instead rooted through their stuff to take home a souvenir. It makes one want to keep silent, for fear of offending fans who no doubt appreciated the book the way it was supposed to be read.

Which brings me to Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow', which was recommended to me by some good friends. And I'm pretty sure it was intended as a science fiction religious parable, a meditation in the spirit of Job on a devout and saintly Jesuit man who believes that divine providence has set him on a path to first contact with an alien race, only to have his faith tested when the mission (in both senses of the word) goes horribly wrong.

What I instead took away was a cautionary tale about the very real need for laws regarding who can initiate first contact with an alien species, because there are definitely some really stupid people out there who will jump in with both feet and mess it up beyond all hope of fixing if we're not careful. Father Sandoz, the main character, is instantly convinced that their trip to Alpha Centauri is divinely ordained because a) he is one of the first people to discover the message that the aliens send, b) his friends all have technical expertise that would come in handy on a mission to Alpha Centauri, and c) he doesn't know enough about what he's contemplating doing to even understand how badly he's about to mess it up.

Seriously, the Jesuit expedition to Rakhat (the planet orbiting Alpha Centauri whose messages Earth receives) is a classic example of Dunning-Kruger in action. They don't even think about the risks of biological contamination--when the first crewmember dies (I'd apologize for spoilers, but most of the book is told in flashback well after it's established that Father Sandoz is the only survivor) they bury his body in the alien soil because, well, they've already breathed the air and eaten the food and defecated onto the ground, so what's the good in preventing a human corpse from rotting in an alien ecosystem? They plant a wide variety of Earth vegetables, all the while patting themselves on the back for using "low-germination" seeds know, probably...won't become an invasive species that overruns a completely alien world and destroys its delicate balance of nature.

You know, probably.

And if their grasp of biological contamination begins and ends with "don't bring along breeding pairs of predatory animals or anything," their grasp of cultural contamination is equally criminal in its naivete. They encounter two sentient alien species in the course of their expedition, and by the end (mild spoilers) they've touched off a civil war and at least one genocide through their interference in an elaborate social structure that they don't even begin to understand. To say nothing of what happens to the expedition and Father Sandoz,, okay, some serious spoilers here, alright? (If you don't want to go any further, assume I recommended the book but really didn't like any of the characters in it.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's Christmas Week!

And since it is Christmas week, I'm afraid I'm not going to be blogging a ton. In lieu of a post today, for example, here's a graphic I worked on last week:

Which, if nothing else, shows how bored I can get sometimes.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Review of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

I was lucky enough to get into a special screening of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' on Tuesday, and although I've been avoiding reviewing it until now, due to spoiler concerns, I figured that with the movie coming out I could at least share some of my opinions. The first thing, I have to say, is that I really expected higher production values. I mean, this is 'Star Wars'! You'd expect them to throw all the money in the world at this movie, but instead we got a dingy, grimy film that looked like it had been shot back in the 70s. Perhaps Abrams was trying to maintain fidelity to the original?

The second thing I noticed is that Mark Hamill really seemed to be phoning it in as Luke. Half his dialogue sounded like mumbled ADR added in post, and he gestured as though he was conducting some sort of drunken concerto. (And as for his appearance...I get that they wanted him to look older, but his beard was obviously fake.) I don't think you can fault Hamill, who's done great work elsewhere; this just seems to have been a shoddily directed production.

And the screenwriting was no great shakes either. It lacked the scope of the previous films--even the Prequels took us to strange, alien worlds and showed us astonishing vistas from across the galaxy. This looked like it was shot on a beach in Florida. And the plot--Luke's spaceship crashes, and he needs help from local kids to dig it out? That's the best they can come up with for a star-spanning epic? To say nothing of the bizarre digression halfway through, where Luke just stops to tell the kids a story that's a thinly-veiled version of "Jack and the Beanstalk". I don't know what they were thinking there.

To me, though, the worst indignity was when the Millennium Falcon (or what passes for it in the new film's budget) shows up to rescue Luke. We don't even get Han Solo--just Chewbacca, in a half-hearted costume that looks more like a gigantic white rabbit than the Wookie we've all come to know and love. It's a lazy, slapdash resolution, made all the weaker when Luke's spaceship simply disappears through "Jedi magic" and the kids all just go home. What were they even thinking with this--


...oh., I seem to have been laboring under a misapprehension, there. It appears that what I attended was not a sneak preview of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens', but was in fact an encore presentation of 'Rifftrax Live: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny'. (Which, if nothing else, explains the short Christmas films in front of the feature and the three guys who kept talking over every scene.) Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be seeing the theater about a refund.

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Probably a Good Thing I Never Monetized This Blog

Did you hear that Robert Palmer is starting a new line of exotic cheeses? He's going to be using primate milk instead of cow or goat milk. The line will be called, "Simply Irresistible Cheese", and the slogan will be, "Cheese so fine, there's no telling where the monkey went.", you may need to Google this one.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lazy Link Post 2.0!

Technically, I'm jumping the gun on this slightly--the finale of Season 27 of 'The Amazing Race' doesn't air until Friday, so there's still one more episode to recap before I can put this one to bed. But it's close enough that I can update this post on Saturday, so let's post a linkroll of the new season of the Amazing Race!

"A Little Too Much Beefcake"
"Get in There and Think Like a Dog"
"Where My Dogs At?"
"Good Old Fashioned Spit in the Face"
"King of the Jungle"
"My Tongue Doesn't Even Twist That Way"
"Full Speed Ahead, Captain!"
"Krakow, I'm Gonna Get You"
"It's Always the Quiet Ones"
"Bring the Fun, Baby!"
"It's Not Easy Beating Green"
"We Got a Chance, Baby!"

And that will put another season in the books. Season 28 has already been confirmed, and I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Greatest Mysteries Have No Answers

I was absolutely thrilled the other day to find a copy of 'The Secret Man', Bob Woodward's most recent book on Watergate and the one he wrote after the revelation of Deep Throat's identity. Because even as a kid, the identity of Deep Throat was one of those great historical mysteries, on a par with the true identity of Jack the Ripper and the fate of the passengers of the Marie Celeste. Everyone wanted to know the secret identity of the man who took down the President (even though Woodward and Bernstein were a bit more modest than the movies in suggesting the role he played), and it appeared for the longest time that the truth behind it would stay hidden forever.

And then it came out. And a lot of people looked very smart, and a few people looked very foolish, and Bob Woodward wrote a book about it...and when I read it, I learned just how little we really knew at all. Because Woodward makes it painfully clear in 'The Secret Man' that he didn't really know Mark Felt, the Number Two man at the FBI who provided Woodward and Bernstein with the road map they needed to uncover Watergate. They were casual acquaintances, and after Watergate they didn't even speak for decades. Woodward doesn't have the slightest clue what would make Felt do what he did. Nobody does.

Oh, he has some good guesses. He knew Felt was a Hoover loyalist who believed strongly in the ideals of the FBI, and that it had to have gutted him to watch a political appointee destroy evidence and allow the agency to become a political instrument. He knew Felt was an ambitious man who must have been furious to see himself passed over for promotion not once but twice. (Part of this, of course, was that one of the few people who wasn't fooled by Felt's deceptions was Nixon himself. He knew Felt was Deep Throat all along, but never did anything with the information because he was afraid that Felt would be even more damaging if Nixon forced him to go public.) Woodward knew a lot of things about Felt, but he didn't know the man.

And ultimately, nobody did. Knowing who Deep Throat is, while it certainly satisfies the mundane question of "Who was this person who knew so much about the Nixon conspiracy?", doesn't solve the mystery. The ultimate mystery is in the heart of a solitary, private individual who took his reasons to the grave--as with Jack the Ripper, the identity turns out to be the least important question, and knowing the answer means almost nothing.

It's haunting, realizing that there are things we can never know. Not just in the literal, historical sense--things are lost to history every day, even with the best of efforts from archivists. (18 1/2 minutes worth of things, for example.) I mean in the sense that ultimately, we can never truly understand the great decisions of history. People justify, they misremember, they lie and they obfuscate...or, as in the case of Felt, they simply take their secrets to the grave.

Mark Felt was Deep Throat. But who was Mark Felt?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review: The Disappearing Spoon

It's been a long time since I read a book as fun as 'The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of Elements' by Sam Kean. It's one of those magnificent polymathic books that flits madly from topic to topic, sometimes a history book and sometimes a science text, occasionally taking in a bit of economics and psychology and literature along the way as it covers the way that the elements define us.

Not just literally, although there's certainly some of that--Kean devotes entire chapters to poisons, how they work and how they've been used and how they've shaped our culture and history--but how the struggle to define the periodic table and to understand the elements of our universe is ultimately the human struggle. It incorporates politics--the very names of elements like Berkelium and Californium are at the heart of a Cold War race with the Russians to find the rarest and least stable elements--and art, economics and the biographies of some of our greatest minds. It's filled with amazing triumphs of the human intellect and astonishing depths of the human soul, a quest for understanding the very universe itself by understanding its fundamental building blocks.

All of which is great in and of itself, but Kean brings those stories to life in vivid, elegant prose. Every chapter is filled with tiny, brilliantly-linked anecdotes that are entertaining and informative in their own right, but which combine to fascinate the reader for hours. The sheer variety and profusion of cleverness on display is magnificent--there are pieces on the cold fusion debacle, on Japanese pollution crises, on Australian gold rushes and the life-cycles of stars, with none of them seeming out of place. The story of the elements is the story of everything, after all. There's nothing it can't encompass.

In case I'm not making myself clear, this is a wonderful diversion of a book. It teaches without boring, it entertains without being a mindless diversion, and it's well-written on every level. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Priming the Pump: 10 Movies I'd Like to See on the New MST3K

Okay, first the obvious part for those who haven't heard about it: Mystery Science Theater 3000 is coming back and you can help make it happen!

So, if you're going to have Mystery Science Theater 3000, you need bad movies. Joel has already said that the movies will be decided on mainly through the criteria of "What bad movies can we get the video rights to cheaply?", which makes perfect sense to me, but I do want to toss out a few suggestions that I'd like to see featured on the show. You know, in case anyone is listening. In picking these, I tried to stick to movies that had not been featured on MST3K or any of its spin-offs (so no 'Night of the Lepus', no 'Doomsday Machine', no 'Space Mutiny') and that were, at the least, not so gory or risque as to make trimming them for family-friendly purposes difficult. Oh, and they had to be cheesy...which isn't exactly the same thing as bad, but is at the very least goofy. In no particular order...

1) Beware! The Blob! Don't get me wrong, the original Steve McQueen movie is just in that sweet spot of fun and cheesy to make a pretty good MST3K episode as well. But the sequel stars Larry Hagman! Larry Hagman fights the Blob! This feels like an instant win, and I suspect it would be cheaper to get than the original.

2) The Astro-Zombies. When you have Wendell Corey, John Carradine and Tura Satana in your mad scientist movie, you already have a mark of high cheesiness right there. This one is an infamous low-budget thriller with silly zombie masks and a dearth of decent sets and locations, and I think they could knock it out of the park.

3) The Devil's Rain. Roger Ebert featured this in one of his books of bad movie reviews, and it seems like there'd be a lot of fun here. It's got Ernest Borgnine as Satan, William Shatner in his desperate "between Star Treks" phase, and Anton LaVey doing a cameo as more or less himself. If that doesn't sound promising, I don't know what does.

4) Phase IV. Technically speaking, this breaks the "never done on MST3K" rule, because it was featured on the show back in the KTMA days. But that was back when they were still doing all the jokes as improv, they didn't have a writing staff to speak of, and the whole concept was still developing. And I still have fond memories of it. It'd be great if they could tackle it again with a full writing staff.

5) Latitude Zero. A strange little Japanese movie made for the American market, with Cesar Romero as its biggest star. It's about a group of undersea explorers who find a miraculous kingdom at the aforementioned latitude on the ocean's floor, where gold and diamonds are plentiful and nobody ages, but unfortunately they're under attack by a crazed mad scientist (you know, as you are) and have to defend them. Really really surreal and loopy, perfect MST3K fodder.

6) Mutiny in Outer Space. Don't know much about it, other than that it was made by the same guy (Hugo Grimaldi) who did 'The Human Duplicators', one of my personal favorites, and that it starred Harold Lloyd's son. Oh, and it's about a killer fungus, which apparently...mutinies? Okay, I guess.

7) Zardoz. Because a catalog of cheesy movies that doesn't have 'Zardoz' is like a zoology textbook that somehow omits elephants. Might be pricey, but I can't imagine that anyone is sitting around in a film library saying to themselves, "Oh, we can name our price for this one!"

8) X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes. I'll admit, I primarily want them to do this one because I want to see it and I'm too lazy to track it down. It's Roger Corman, it's an old favorite of Stephen King's, what could go wrong?

9) The Thing With Two Heads. This is one of those movies that they keep referencing in other MST3K episodes, but somehow they've never gotten around to showing in the series. It seems like a perfect choice--a transcendently silly yet high concept exploration of race through the plot device of a wealthy racist whose head is grafted onto a black man's body.

10) The Swarm. Again, this one is such a famous flop that it may actually be difficult to get, but as with 'Zardoz', who the heck is saying to themselves, "We've got Irwin Allen's 'The Swarm', the bidding rights start at twenty million"? This infamous killer-bee movie killer B-movie with Michael Caine and Patty Duke and Slim Pickens and Olivia de Haviland and Jose Ferrer just sings out for misting.

Those are my picks--if you've got some of your own, toss 'em in the comments!

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Disney Movie I Want To See

Let's start with the statement of purpose: Disney Princesses have been getting cooler. Time was, their main job was to stand around and sing to woodland creatures and do the housework while the prince got on with the job of fixing whatever needed to be fixed in Fantasyland, but these days it's only suckers who wait for someday when their prince will come. These days, Disney Princesses have agency, they can fight...heck, they even have superpowers!

...wait a second...

I want to see "Disney's Avengers". Team up Merida, Rapunzel (she'd need to get her magical hair back, but hey, how hard can that be), Elsa, Mulan and Ariel (who would get her tail back when she went into the water, same as Rapunzel gets her magical hair back, because this is a reconceptualization of them as a team of superheroes and that means Ariel gets to be the Aquaman/Namor figure) to fight together against an epic Disney villain. (Or villains--maybe we could see an evil cabal of history's darkest sorcerers, Ursula, Jafar, Facilier, Maleficent and Gothel?)

Every second of this sounds like it would be awesome. The only way I could see to make it better would be to make it a time-travel story (yes, those five characters probably aren't in exactly the same time period, but they're close enough to make it fit if you don't sweat the details) so that you can bring in Lilo and Stitch for the grand finale. Because while Lilo is technically not a princess, I'm pretty sure she would tell you she was one if you asked, and her dog would be happy to back that up with all six fists.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Lazy Link Post!

Over on, a blog that I'm slowly running into the ground by guest-posting for, I've been doing weekly recaps of each season of the Amazing Race. Currently Season Twenty-Seven is ongoing, but I already completed a full run of Season Twenty-Six that it occurred to me might be something people here are interested in reading as well. So here's a link-post to the full recaps of Amazing Race Season Twenty-Six! (The "blind date" season--oh, not interested anymore? Well, it's here anyway.)

"Great Way to Start a Relationship"
"I Got the Smartest Dude"
"The Great Amazing Nasty Race"
"Get In That Lederhosen, Baby"
"Smells Like a Million Bucks"
"Back in Business/Moment of Truth"
"Can I Get a Hot Tub?"
"Fruits of Our Labor"
"In It To Win It"
"Monster Truck Heroes"

I'll be doing a similar link-post for Season Twenty-Seven once it's concluded. Until then, enjoy my recappy goodness!

Monday, November 16, 2015

I Wouldn't Keep Getting Political If We Had Smarter Politicians

Okay. I am going to try to explain this calmly and reasonably.

The most pessimistic estimates of ISIL's membership put it at about 200,000 worldwide. That includes non-combatants, support staffers, administrators and other political actors as well as fighters, but 200,000 is going to be our baseline estimate because it's always good to think worst-case scenario.

There are currently 1.3 million active US military service members, with a further 850,000 on reserve. This is solely the number of men and women that America can put into the field; it does not count our traditional allies such as France, Great Britain, Canada, et cetera et cetera.

There are 1.47 billion practicing Muslims worldwide.

Take those three sets of numbers together, and you will see a picture of ISIL as a tiny guerrilla force unable to do anything more than inflict cruelty on the defenseless. They are out numbered more than 10 to 1 by the United States military alone, and we are far from alone in our opposition to ISIL. Even many of the countries we have historically had a troubled relationship with feel that an apocalyptic death cult doesn't make a good neighbor. ISIL is politically isolated and counting on two things to help them in their struggle against the West.

One, they are counting on the fact that because they are small and we are large, we have more to defend and they can choose to strike us where we are not expecting it. This is in the nature of guerrilla warfare. It is utterly tragic, and it will mean that Paris is not the last place that ISIL attacks us, but the same tactics that make them effective as a guerrilla force make them ineffective as a conventional army. They are not able to destroy America. They are not able to destroy anybody. They are only able to inflict cruelty upon the helpless when nobody is watching.

Two, the only way that they can progress beyond their status as petty, vicious murderers is by reframing the issue from "ISIL against the world" to "Muslims against Christians". As a crazy, hate-filled death cult, they are a weak military force that has drawn the attention of some of the most powerful armies in history. As defenders of the Muslim faith, they have a potential army of over a billion that they can recruit from. They are desperate, literally desperate to convince Muslims everywhere that the West hates all Muslims with the same passion that they hate ISIL and want to crush Islam entirely.

In other words, when Donald Trump says that we need to shut down all the mosques to prevent ISIL from gaining strength in America, or when Ted Cruz says that we don't need to care about civilian casualties when fighting ISIL, they are making ISIL recruiting speeches. They are doing our enemy's work for them, and it is a testament to the kindness and decency of the overwhelming majority of the people of the Islamic faith that they have refused to give in to the hatred that their supposed allies around the world hold for them.

That doesn't mean that they don't need to stop and stop now.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals

I am always up for a bit of pop science. Well-written, accessible books conveying interesting scientific topics to the layperson are right up there with gripping historical non-fiction in my list of good books to curl up with, and when I saw 'Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' by Becky Crew, I thought it had some potential along those lines. It's a series of essays on various animals with strange habits or odd biology, from the naked mole rat to the killifish (the titular "astronaut fish") to the great tit (the titular "zombie bird").

The problem is that Crew sells the book as a sort of humorous-yet-informative collection of essays, but the line of demarcation between "humorous" and "informative" is a lot thicker than it perhaps needed to be. Instead of trying to find interesting and funny ways to describe the unusual animals, she includes either a preface or a postscript that imagines the animal's behavior in human civilization. To be honest, these generally come off as somewhat strained ("Imagine if this frog jumped off of tall a job interview!") and repetitive, but the bigger problem is that the essays they bracket tend to be dry recitations of fact.

The facts are extremely solid, though. The book is drier than what I was expecting, but it's an extremely well-researched collection of facts about obscure animals and the way that new techniques have illuminated more and more details about the animal kingdom. From details about the way that a fossil's eye sockets can tell us what time of day a dinosaur hunted to descriptions of animals only found miles below the ocean surface, Crew does a magnificent job of showing the way that we are peeling back the mysteries of the natural world.

So although I could wish for a bit more of the book that was described on the back cover, I do have to say that in all fairness it's a sound science book. Just a bit less "pop science" than I was hoping for.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Today's Thing I Should Not Have To Explain: Of COURSE "Blue Lives Matter"

Despite the fact that we're now well over a year off from Ferguson, and despite the daily articles about yet another police officer using disproportionate force resulting in the death of an unarmed (usually African-American) civilian, I am still seeing people responding to the "Black Lives Matter" movement with counter-movements like "Blue Lives Matter" or "Cop Lives Matter". I am deeply and sincerely hoping that nobody in my regular audience buys into these counter-movements, but on the off-chance that you need to link someone you know through to an explanation of why they're a problem, here's one.

The problem with a "Blue Lives Matter" movement in response to the "Black Lives Matter" movement is that it suggests through implication that the opposite of policemen killing unarmed civilians who may not even have committed crimes is armed criminals killing policemen. This does not make sense. This does not even begin to make sense. This does not even exist in the same universe as sense. This is saying, in essence, that police brutality and extrajudicial executions of innocent people is so deeply ingrained into police culture that it is literally impossible for them to conceive of doing their job without just randomly choking someone to death for a non-violent offense or shooting a random black teenager in the chest for looking suspicious. Those are terrible, insane responses to suggestions that police be held accountable for doing their job badly.

To understand just how terrible they are, imagine transplanting the problem to another possession. Imagine a doctor going into surgery and, instead of operating on the patient to remove their gallbladder, they don full bio-hazard gear, douse the patient in kerosene, and set them on fire before sprinting out of the room, shrieking "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" And then imagine that the state medical board investigates and decides that the doctor is not at fault because there were indications that the patient could have had a communicable disease of some sort.

In this circumstance, pointing out that doctors are at risk of catching communicable diseases from their patient and that we need to care about their lives too does not counter the fact that the doctor in question was terrible at their job and murdered someone in their care through homicidal actions that went far beyond simple neglect or carelessness into active murderous incompetence and malice, and that the authorities whose job it is to make sure that malicious and incompetent members of the profession are not allowed to continue to practice have instead decided that it is more important to protect their own. This is Not Good.

Police lives do matter. Of course they do. It is a hazardous profession, and there's a limit to how much we can mitigate that, but nobody is suggesting that we shouldn't do everything we can to keep cops safe on the street. But a police officer who is killing unarmed people is not doing their job, full stop. They are dangerously incompetent, and the fact that they are killing African-Americans all out of proportion to any other demographic is not coincidence. Violent racism is not something that can or should be tolerated in our police force, and saying that is not "anti-cop" rhetoric. It is anti-racist-incompetent-cop rhetoric. The only people who should be opposed to that are racist, incompetent cops, and it is incredibly worrying that entire departments seem eager to step up and declare their membership in that demographic.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

What I'm Enjoying: The Quest

I found out that "The Quest", the reality TV single-season wonder from the producers of 'The Amazing Race', is now on Netflix. This thrills me to no end, as I saw the first episode during its original run and missed the entire subsequent event, and it really is one of those things you have to see in order.

For those who never saw it, it's basically a big-budget LARP. The producers have rented out a castle, hired experts in practical special effects, make-up and stagecraft, and gotten a bunch of actors to portray the inhabitants of the mythical kingdom of Everealm. Then they got a dozen genuine fantasy enthusiasts and brought to Everealm to spend a whole season competing for the right to save it.

See, Everealm has a problem. As with all mythical kingdoms, Everealm is under attack by Verlox, who goes by the nickname of "The Darkness", and only a heroic paladin bearing the legendary Sunspear can defeat him. But each of the twelve heroes from our Earth has just one piece of the Sunspear...and over the course of a season of mock-combat, tests of nerve and skill, and good old-fashioned Survivor-style voting, the false heroes are winnowed out leaving only the destined savior of Everealm to assemble the Sunspear and defeat Verlox!

(I will confess, due to a habit of slight mispronunciation on the part of pretty much everyone who isn't the closed captions, I keep hearing it as "Sunsphere". Which is a problem, because I keep hearing Bart Simpson say, "Remember, everyone. We're parked under the Sunsphere.")

I won't lie. This is cheesy as hell. But it's cheesy in all the right ways. It hits that sweet spot of SCA/LARP and low-budget fantasy movie, where all the professional actors are speaking in Fantasy Trope-ese and all of the paladins are reacting to it with genuine, sincere enthusiasm. They're living their dream--someone has actually constructed a fully immersive, days-long live-action D&D campaign just for them with Hollywood production values and they get to play it for FREE! That child-like excitement transcends the cliched nature of the storyline and turns any amateurishness into a virtue rather than a fault. It's at a strange crossroads between obvious fraud and vivid reality, and somehow both enhance the other.

The paladins were apparently not competing for a prize (hopefully they were compensated in some form, but the winner's only reward was in defeating Verlox and bringing peace to the Twelve Kingdoms). In a way, I think this was the smartest decision they could have made--if they'd been playing for money, it would have encouraged the worst Survivor-style backstabbing and conniving, which would have utterly broken the immersion of the heroes as paladins attempting to find their inner hero and save the day. There's still a little of that, of course; human nature being what it is, not all the paladins are equally noble. But that too is part of the fantasy charm--it wouldn't have much tension if all of the heroes were bland ciphers of nobility, would it?

(On a side note, there's a pleasingly large amount of race and gender diversity among the paladins. In fact, it's a lot better than most genre work in that aspect; frankly, I'd be a lot more likely to read a generic "Earth person is transported to fantasy realm and must defeat magical evil" if the hero was Shondo Blades, an African-American mixed-martial arts fighter who spoke almost exclusively in sports motivation cliches. Because he's freaking awesome.)

I know that there's currently a fan campaign to get a second season, but honestly I feel that it kind of stands perfectly as a single story. A second season would invariably have contestants who'd seen the original, forcing them to either rework the story in possibly-unsatisfying ways or deal with knowing, ironic contestants rather than the charmingly innocent folks they got. The Quest feels like lightning in a bottle to me, the kind of thing that you can only do well once. A sequel would suffer badly from diminishing returns, whereas this feels, in its own quirky way, just perfect.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Remind Me Of This On October 1st, 2016

The Halloween season has once again come and gone, although this time without me watching a metric ton of cheesy horror movies (my wife has suggested I watch them on November 8th, in honor of the astrological Samhain instead of the fixed calendar date). I did take my son trick-or-treating, though, because he's nine and I'm his dad. We had a fun time, but I did come away from it feeling like there's a fundamental lack of organization to the whole thing.

Because not everybody participates--which is fine. Nobody is morally obligated to give out candy to complete strangers on Halloween even if they are adorable and bedecked in hilariously cute costumes. (My child was a robot.) But it's very difficult sometimes to tell who's giving out candy and who is out at parties/working on Halloween (the poor bastards)/just misanthropic and hiding in the basement. Ideally, people who are handing out candy should have a porch light on, but lights burn out and some people have those automatic lights to discourage burglars and some parents want to start trick or treating before the sun has completely set because they have small children in black costumes and don't want to worry about cars and generally the whole system is a complete mess.

So here's my idea. Next year, we make up signs that you can print out and put on your doorstep, saying "Trick or Treaters Welcome!" or something more cutesy and Halloween-pun-themed. We print out a stack of them and hand them out around the neighborhood, saying, "Here! You can use this to help let people know when you're ready to hand out treats!" Then, on October 31st, we go to the houses that have the signs, and we skip the houses that don't. Am I crazy, or is this just the best idea ever?

I know. It's not an "either/or" situation. But still.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


I've never been much of a bird-watcher; my parents liked to have a bird-feeder outside their window ever since I was a kid, but to me they weren't nearly as cool as animals that would stay still and let you pet them (which we weren't allowed to have, I might add). Still, I'll admit I make exceptions for three factors, and today reminded me of one of them.

1) Color. Even though I never cared much about the birds at the feeder, it was still a special experience when a brilliantly vivid cardinal or blue jay stopped by. Crows (and similar dull-black birds), sparrows and the like were always just sort of there, but it was always neat to see a brightly-colored bird catch the eye.

2) Size. This is what today's bird sighting reminded me of--the building I work at is situated slightly oddly, at the very edge of a small industrial park that nestles up to a wildlife sanctuary. Which means that there are office buildings on three sides...and the window right outside my desk looks down onto a parking lot right next to open wilderness and a river beyond. There are twenty-three wild turkeys milling around the parking lot, any one of which would easily come up to my knee. They're not particularly pretty birds (although again, their head provides a vivid contrast to the gray-black pavement) but man, are they impressive to watch. They're just bigger than you feel a bird should be allowed to be, and you feel a little bit of that primal connection between birds and dinosaurs as you watch them strut around.

3) Propensity for violence. The Twin Cities has a thriving raptor population that has figured out that streetlights make much better perches than tree branches. They're taller, they support the bird's weight better, and they don't have any branches to obscure vision. So on just about any drive through the city, spaced roughly every two to three miles (raptors are territorial birds) you can see a red-tailed hawk watching for prey, or sometimes if you're very lucky a peregrine falcon or a bald eagle (the latter are more common around the Mississippi River). Again, right outside my window I frequently spot small flocks of turkey vultures, lazily surfing the updrafts and keeping an eye out for something they can scavenge. They're astonishingly beautiful birds, even the turkey vultures; their smooth, sleek lines make them look like they're swooping even when they're standing still, and occasionally you'll see one dive with amazing speed and come up with a small mammal gripped in their talons.

There are obviously a few birds that score in multiple categories--hummingbirds, for example, while tiny, get multipliers for color and propensity to violence (plus their speed makes them eye-catching in their own unique way). But for the most part, when you see me stop in amazement at a bird, it's either big or bright or a sleek hunter. I feel very privileged that I get to stop in amazement so often.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Crazy Fact of the Day

Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum have not dropped out of the Republican Presidential race yet!

Bonus crazy fact of the day: Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum are all declared Republican Presidential candidates!

Seriously, though, it is a little hard to understand why so many of these guys are running. The national conversation has been reduced to Trump, Carson, and Bush, with occasional comments about how Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal are floundering/are keeping their powder dry for the inevitable implosion of Carson and Trump. (Delete where applicable, although I'm still waiting for an extremely bored opinion columnist to try to combine the two into one column.) To be honest, Jindal has already been moved into the "death watch" section, where the only articles he gets are speculation about when he's going to drop out.

But those other guys...they're not even being mentioned in the conversation about who's going to leave the race yet! They are seriously so irrelevant to the national political discussion that they're not even given consideration as potential losers. It's already assumed that if they're not gone already, it doesn't really matter because they soon will be. Basically, they're the Lincoln Chafee/Jim Webbs of the Republican Party, except that those two guys had the common sense to give up after humiliating themselves on national television. The Republicans appear to be clinging to delusions of grandeur until the bitter end.

My current hypothesis is that this is another unintended consequence of Citizens United. Because it is now so much easier than it ever was to raise vast amounts of money for political campaigns, and because the rules on how that money is spent have been loosened (and the laws that do exist have been loosely enforced) it is now at least a theoretically lucrative proposition to run a losing Presidential campaign. Basically, you find a few big-money donors and shake them down until their teeth rattle, then live high on the hog touring the country and spouting the kind of crap that stands no chance of getting you elected, but does loosen the purse strings on other donors. If you work this system right, you end up with a string of contact information for people with poor critical thinking skills and disposable income who you can milk for years in between elections by sending out fear-mongering emails about Planned Parenthood and Agenda 21.

(I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why it seems to be the Republicans who have so many of these political tapeworms in their collective gut.)

As a lifelong Democrat, I'm of mixed opinions about this. On the one hand, I obviously think it's terrible that the current political system actively encourages con artists to pretend to run for President in order to prey on the gullible and stupid. I think it helps to encourage the notion that politics and policy are unrelated, and that the business of elections is a combination of sideshow and sporting event rather than a job interview for the people who will be in charge of our country for the next four years. On that level, I would really like all of these frauds and charlatans to get out of the process. (And yes, that goes for Trump and Carson too. They're no less frauds and charlatans; they're simply much better at it than Rick Santorum is.)

On the other hand, if the gullible and stupid will insist on getting involved in politics, and if they will put their money where their mouth is and throw cash at terrible human beings who spout racist, sexist, nativist garbage and whose idea of a solution to our problems is round up all the furriners and give everybody a gun...well, then I suppose it's not such a bad thing that they're spending that cash on people who have no hope in hell of being elected. If the net result of the Republican effort to openly sell our political offices to billionaires is that in the end, the billionaires are all taken for a ride by con artists and legitimate-but-terrible candidates like Jeb Bush flounder while Hillary Clinton (or better yet, Bernie Sanders) have a smooth path to the White House, I guess that's not the worst solution.

Basically, I think what I'm saying is that until we get real campaign finance reform, I'd much rather conservatives give all their money to the ineffective candidates. Because the alternative is them donating to people who actually stand a chance to win.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My New 'Back to the Future' Headcanon

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of 'Back to the Future' nostalgia, as the celebration of the official arrival of Marty's future caused everyone to go back and rewatch the original movies and incessantly blog about them. (Those people blogging about 'Back to the Future' should be ashamed of themselves.)

While rewatching the movie with my family, we got into a conversation about Marty's dangerous tampering with future history--not the stuff with his family or Mayor Goldie Wilson or Biff. No, Marty dropped "Darth Vader" into conversation with a science fiction fan who goes on to be a published author, decades before 'Star Wars' even happened. (He also mentions the planet Vulcan, but that's a much less serious risk because Star Trek's Vulcan was named after the hypothetical planet astronomers once believed to exist inside the orbit of Mercury. It was actually used in several other science fiction stories that predate Trek.)

So, the question we had was, "Did Marty's slip of the tongue create a parallel timeline where Darth Vader wasn't the villain of the Star Wars movies?" We came up with three possibilities.

1) No. Marty's dad forgot the name and came up with something else for his radiation-suited matchmaker in his book, 'A Match Made in Space'. History stays on its track.

2) No. Marty's dad made his money (he doesn't appear to have the same office job he did in the original timeline) not through writing, but through creative lawyering; he published the short story that would later be used as the basis for 'A Match Made in Space' back in the late 50s/early 60s, and when 'Star Wars' came out, George McFly sued George Lucas for plagiarism. They settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that allowed McFly to live in comfort and write in leisure.

3) No. (This one is my favorite.) Instead, in this timeline, George McFly went on to write for television and film (remember, they only said it was his first novel) and worked with luminaries of science fiction like Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. In the revised timeline, he actually suggested the names "Vulcan" and "Darth Vader". Basically, Marty McFly rewrote history so that his dad created both Star Wars and Star Trek.

Which means that JJ Abrams is, I suppose, his spiritual heir...

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Gweniverse!

Ever since Spider-Gwen introduced us to the parallel universe where Gwen Stacy was bitten by a radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker, we've been seeing Marvel react to the strong, unexpected demand for a version of Spider-Man who's also an adorable teenage girl. (I still insist there's something deeply Freudian about the "distaff counterpart to male superhero" trend in general, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is.) She has her own regular series, and they've gone so far as to release Gwen Stacy-themed covers of just about every Marvel title in order to show what it would be like if Gwen was Captain America, the Hulk, Deadpool, every single member of the X-Men, et cetera.

Which made me wonder--what if she was?

I'd love to see a Marvel one-shot that was an off-shoot of the classic Jackal storyline. For those of you who don't remember either the Jackal's first, legendary appearance or his later, extremely awkward and best forgotten return in the 90s, the Jackal was college biology professor Miles Warren. He had an inappropriate fixation on Gwen Stacy, and when she died, he blamed Spider-Man for not being able to save her. He created what was originally intended to be a clone of Gwen, which was later retconned as a gene-splicing formula capable of reconfiguring random people into Gwen Stacy (and which may later have been re-retconned back to a clone of Gwen, but for our purposes let's pretend it wasn't).

(No, we can do that, because it was later revealed that he also created a similar genetic cocktail that turned one of his students into a version of himself called Carrion, so the logic holds no matter how you come at it. Anyhow, this isn't the place to get into the finer points of Clone Saga continuity, as we simply don't have enough liquor to go around.)

The point is, I think they should do a story where the Jackal returns with his final, triumphant creation--a virus that will transform everyone on Earth into Gwen Stacy! He unleashes it in New York City, of course, but it begins spreading globally. If left unchecked, it will mean the end of the human race, as the entire population of human beings will be reduced to Gwen Stacies. Luckily, the virus interacts oddly with superhuman genomes, creating a sort of limited protection from the virus--superheroes aren't immune, but the transformation shapes itself around their powers to create variants on Gwen Stacy. The story becomes a race against time, as Gwen Stacy, Gwen Stacy and Gwen Stacy (formerly Mister Fantastic, Beast and Hank Pym) must find a cure while Gwen Stacy, Gwen Stacy and Gwen Stacy (Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine) track down the Jackal and stop him once and for all.

And then in the next Secret Wars, Battleworld can have the Gweniverse meet the Marvel Zombies.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Um...Also, Testing...

I'm trying out my first Teespring shirt design. It's pretty simple, just a phrase they used on last night's Daily Show that deeply resonated with me and I thought people would like on a t-shirt. I'll try to come up with something cleverer and more original next time. Here's the URL:

I tried to keep prices low, since the graphic is pretty simple. I hope people enjoy it!

Today, I Am A Superhero

Today, I am a superhero.

I am using my amazing powers to shape my thoughts into tiny patterns of light and communicate them to you telepathically, across the vast distances of the planet and even into the future. I am speaking to people far out of hearing range, using specially designed communications devices to come to their assistance without ever even being in the same room as them.

Later, I will travel far faster than any human being can run with the aid of a technological marvel I call "the Automobile", I don't use these powers to fight crime--I concern myself with the dilemmas that fall between the cracks, the problems the police don't notice. I use my amazing powers to help my family, my friends. They can reach me from anywhere, using a secret ten-digit numerical code known only to them that activates my communicator. And through that communicator, I can reach the entire world, using a special web that links our minds known as "The Internet".

I may get tired, but luckily I have access to a special "energy drink" that will boost my mental acuity and help me push past my physical limits for a while in order to do all the helping I need to do. I know that not many people will see my amazing physical and mental abilities as anything special, but that's what having a secret identity is all about. I don't need acclaim or financial reward--all I need to know is that I used these blessings wisely and well at the end of the day.

Today I am a superhero. And if you respond by saying, "But you could say that about anybody," well...isn't that awesome?

Thursday, October 08, 2015


Every once in a while, when discussing racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism/generalized prejudice with people, you'll see the classic line, "But I can't be prejudiced! My friends/family/significant others have been members of this minority and we get along great!" Occasionally, you'll see it pushed beyond "we get along" to "they agree with me", but the general thrust is that if you can find a member of the group who you're accused of prejudice against who shares your views and is willing to say nice things about you, then clearly you can't really be prejudiced against that group. This has become known as "using them as a shield".

(Every once in a while, by the way, you'll find someone engaging in the cargo cult debating practice of accusing people who argue against racism of using minorities as a shield by ignoring the members of the minority who agree with the racists. GamerGate loved this tactic, frequently making up fictional members of minority groups who agreed with them when the actual minorities who agreed with them proved to be rather thin on the ground.)

Often, the people who use women and minorities as a shield get very upset about being accused of using women and minorities as a shield, because they think it implies that not only are they prejudiced, which they clearly can't be because they have friends who are women and minorities, but that those relationships they value are false or only there to defend them from criticism. If you're one of those people, let me try now to explain to you, in what will hopefully be calm and friendly terms, why you're wrong--and not just wrong, but wrong in a way that is in and of itself prejudiced.

You're wrong because you're thinking about "prejudice" in its colloquial, everyday sense--hatred for minorities, or the belief in one's racial superiority. But really, prejudice is more than just that--literally, it means to pre-judge, to ascribe traits to an individual based not on the direct evidence of their personality or behavior, but because of the traits you imagine members of that group to have. It usually means negative traits, but it doesn't have to--deciding that all black people are good at basketball isn't hateful, because telling someone they're good at something is usually a compliment, but it is an act of prejudice, because it's not always true and it's making an assumption about someone based on race.

It's important to note that this prejudice works both ways. If you meet one woman who gets upset easily the week before their period, and you generalize that claim to "all women get really emotional right before their menstrual cycle", you are engaging in an act of prejudice even if you can point to specific instances that support your beliefs. Because you are judging every woman, in advance, based on the actions of one woman. (And again, this holds true even if the act of prejudice is behaviorally neutral. Liking watermelon is a behaviorally neutral act. Insisting that the stereotype of black people liking watermelon is true because your co-worker was black and he loved watermelon is racist.)

So if your defense against a claim of prejudice is to cite an individual who's a member of that group and point out that they agree with you, you're engaging in an act of prejudice right there. You are taking the opinions of one person you know who supports your position (or who you believe to support your position--I could probably write a whole additional column on the ways that "not arguing with me openly and continually" is conflated with "agreeing with me" by bigots) and generalizing them out to, "All people of this group support me, and so I can't be racist because I have so much support from minorities." The very defense of bringing in a minority as a shield is, in and of itself, a clear sign that you don't really get what your problem is.

That's why the "#notyourshield" argument that GamerGate made comes from a false place and inevitably fails. It assumes that people arguing against prejudice are doing the same thing they're doing--finding women who agree with their viewpoint and holding them up as examples--and that if they can find enough counter-examples, then they can "prove" that they're not sexist. But it doesn't work that way because the definition of "sexism" isn't simply "doing something a woman dislikes", it's ascribing traits to all women based on the actions of an individual woman, or ascribing traits to an individual woman based on your beliefs about women as a group. When you do that, you're being sexist whether or not you can find one or more women who say you're not.

To give another, purely hypothetical example, let's imagine a person named B. Torgersen--no, wait. That's too obvious. Let's call him Brad T. Let's say that Brad T. says that women and minorities "benefit from Affirmative Action" when they win an award--purely for hypothetical purposes, we'll pick the Hugo Awards, but it could be any major science-fiction writing awards. This is an act of prejudice--it is a direct implication that women and minorities are not as talented as white men, and that they need to have factors other than the quality of their work taken into account in order for them to win the award.

Now, Brad T.' comment could be defended on the grounds that he's not talking about all women and minorities; he's just giving specific examples of women and minorities who did win despite other work being better on the merits. It's a pretty weak counter-argument, because it denies the possibility of bias on his part while insisting everyone else is subject to bias, but he could try to make it work. Perhaps he could cite examples of worthy works that were overlooked in favor of these supposed inferior stories.

Instead, our hypothetical Brad T. insists that he can't be racist or sexist, because he's married to a black woman. Note that this is, in and of itself, a prejudiced act on a number of levels. He's assuming that the only kind of prejudice possible is irrational hatred of women and minorities, rather than unthinking assumptions about them. He's assuming that his wife's emotional support of him as a person equates to support for his beliefs that women and minorities are not as talented as white men. And most importantly, he's assuming that if one black woman agrees with him, then all black women must agree with him. In trying to defend himself against prejudice, he has unwittingly exposed a whole host of further unexamined assumptions about race and gender, and demanded that they remain unexamined because to do otherwise implies that he doesn't really love his wife.

This is using a minority as a shield. It's not a hateful act--again, this isn't an implication that the relationship exists only as a defense against criticism--but it is an act of prejudice. Every single time. And if you find yourself in that position, of saying, "But all my friends are--" or "My family members are--" or "My loved ones are--" instead of engaging with an argument on the merits, stop. Take a step back. Calm down. And try to ask yourself why it is that you need your friends or family or loved ones to validate your opinions for you.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Top Five Characters I'd Like to See in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

With the caveat that Marvel has movies planned out until at least 2019, and that they're pretty rapidly getting to the point where you could run a cable network that showed nothing but MCU properties...there are actually some characters I still think they haven't gotten past fan rumors. I've got a few favorites I'd like to see, like:

5. She-Hulk. I'd do this as a TV series like "Daredevil" or "Jessica Jones", only a bit more light-hearted. Jennifer Walters is a high-profile attorney (I'd probably make her a district attorney) whose life turns upside-down when she's injured by mob bosses and given a blood transfusion by her cousin, Bruce Banner. (Obviously, this is something you'd have to work in later, once Bruce's whereabouts became known. I'd toss out the "rare blood type" thing, and make it an emergency transfusion given on the spot using improvised equipment.) Now she's invulnerable, super-strong, and really not interested in being anything other than an excellent district attorney because she believes in the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with law-breakers. But of course, it's never that easy.

4. Quasar. What I've always liked about Quasar is the idea that what made him a hero was that he wasn't aggressive or bitter or generally angsty. Literally, that's what made him a hero--he got these super-powerful quantum bands that could do all sorts of amazing stuff, and he was the first guy that didn't think of them as a weapon. The people who did all wound up blowing themselves to kingdom come with them. I would run with that, and make it clear that he's a hero who thinks first of his powers in terms of protecting people and limiting the abilities of bad guys to cause trouble, and then put him into an escalating series of cosmic crises where it gets harder and harder to save everyone.

3. Monica Rambeau. I grew up with her as "Captain Marvel", so to some extent I think it's a shame they're using Carol Danvers even though she's pretty awesome herself. But I like the idea of a super-powered New Orleans harbor patrol officer who takes the same approach to big epic cosmic Avengers-themed bad guys that she does to her everyday police work, and who survives the craziness by bringing everything back to police procedural principles. Every crime has a perp, a motive, a method, and evidence. Oh, and she is so not impressed by Tony Stark.

2. The Runaways. I actually think the Runaways would work better as a series of movies than as a comic, because their one big flaw as a superhero team is that they don't really have any big reason to keep fighting evil after they take down the Pride. (Yes, I know, Vaughn tried to sell the whole "they feel responsible for the uptick in crime after the Pride are defeated" thing, but it never felt comfortable.) In the movies, having a smaller number of good arcs isn't such a bad thing. And frankly, you almost don't need to touch the first story at all to make a great film.

1. Ms Marvel. Honestly, who else was it ever going to be? I really think the only reason she doesn't have her own movie yet is because they're using "Agents of SHIELD", 'Inhumans' and 'Captain Marvel' to lay the groundwork for her admittedly complex origin. (Okay, I tell a lie, it's not that complex--she got gassed with alien mist that awakened alien DNA. But comics fans will tell you it's complex.) Seriously, they don't need to change a thing, just bring her into the movies with a good actress playing her and do all the stuff they're doing right now and it will be awesome.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Involuntary Decency

This one's as much a question as an answer: Does anyone else ever get a peculiar feeling of intense shame and frustration when you give up and decide to indulge in a bad habit you've been trying to be disciplined about, only to have circumstances conspire to prevent you from doing so? And if so, is there a word for that? I think it happens to everyone--you get so sick of your diet that you decide to go pig out on pizza, but the restaurant is closed. Or you decide to pick up a new book or game despite a tight budget, only to find out that it's out of stock.

To me, it always seems like the worst of both worlds--you have the shame of knowing that you don't have the willpower to resist temptation, but you don't get the compensation of actually having whatever it is you didn't have the willpower to resist. It's got to be the worst flavor of guilt out there, really. (In case anyone's worried, it was a very mild case today--I was planning on ordering out for lunch, but I left it too late and wound up deciding not to. It was less "circumstances" and more "my own personal laziness" conspiring to make me do the right thing.)

That said, I'd love to know if there was a word for it. Probably the Germans have something, even if it is thirty syllables long; they're good with giving names to obscure moods and feelings. You'd think that French would be the champion language for that, but what have they ever given us besides ennui?

...sorry, that should read, "What have they ever given us besides 'ennui'?" Big difference there. In any event, if you know the word for this feeling, or even if you just want to join me in disliking it, feel free to do so in the comments.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why Doesn't the Valeyard Work?

In 1986, during Season Twenty-Three's 'Trial of a Time Lord', Bob Holmes (with contributions from others including Philip Martin, Eric Saward and Pip and Jane Baker) introduced a character that instantly gripped the imagination of pretty much the entire fanbase at the time...the Valeyard. He began the story as the prosecutor in the titular trial of the Doctor, but by the end he was revealed as something far more shocking--a future incarnation of the Doctor, a distillation of all his worst impulses into living form. He instantly became a major, core element of the mythos of the series...

Well, no, actually he didn't. In fact, apart from a few audio stories (I think that Beep the Meep may actually have appeared more often than the Valeyard) and a mention in the Season Seven finale, the Valeyard has been rather conspicuously absent for a character who would seem to have so much storytelling potential. In point of fact, for the longest time he was not only absent but forbidden: The Virgin submission guidelines made it clear that any pitch featuring the Valeyard, explicitly stating that they felt he had no storytelling potential and was a crutch used by bad writers in order to make their stories seem more significant.

Is that true? Certainly, you could argue pretty persuasively that any story that features the Valeyard could be done just as easily with the Master; he's already the Doctor's "dark mirror", so in a lot of ways the part is already taken. (It's probably significant that the one major Valeyard story featured the Master helping the Doctor against the Valeyard.) But surely there has to be something that can be done specifically with the Valeyard that can't be done with a generic "evil Time Lord scientist", right? There has to be something particular and special about the idea of the Doctor's potential corrupted and debased into cruelty and sadism?

But the Valeyard we see on screen has nothing to him beyond cruelty and sadism. He's evil. Full stop. The Doctor's "dark mirror" is a murderous sociopath who does evil things for evil's sake, or at least that's how he's played in 'Trial'. He's a sneering, preening, gloating villain who wants to cause chaos for its own sake. If he's the Doctor's dark mirror, then the Doctor must be a humble, self-effacing sort who's interested in preserving order and..

Ah. Yes. There it is.

The Doctor has never been an unambiguously, uncomplicatedly "good" individual. He's a mercurial creature of chaos in his own right, toppling governments and dashing off into the night without ever caring what results he leaves behind. He's at times callous, at other times startlingly sympathetic over trivial details. He's refused to kill his enemies because he believes deeply in compassion...and he's steered whole fleets of alien conquerors into the sun with a casual "good riddance". He's burned whole planets, and sacrificed his life to save a single man. He is perhaps the most strikingly complex protagonist in television history...and yet his "dark mirror" is just a typical Man in the Black Hat who comes up with complicated-yet-rubbish schemes. (Am I talking about the Valeyard or the Master? Yes.)

For the Valeyard to work, he'd have to be far more like the Doctor than he is. He'd have to be a capricious monster, one just as willing to spare an entire world from his depredations simply because he liked the color of the sky as he was to crush a sparrow underfoot for singing out of tune. He'd have to be an agent of order as well as chaos, perfectly willing to spend decades on a trivial task because it was worth doing right and then dashing a whole civilization to dust with a few whispered words. In short, a dark and twisted incarnation of the Doctor would be very difficult to distinguish from...the Doctor. The difference between the Doctor's best self and his worst impulses is a matter of degree and emphasis, as he himself has admitted on occasion. ("Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.") Ultimately, the reason the Valeyard is so underused is because he's superfluous to requirements. The Doctor has all the darkness he needs without having to outsource it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"The Right Gaming Group"

io9, just moments ago, published an article on resources you can use to find a gaming group in your area. They point out that finding the right gaming group can be tricky, since there's no one set of criteria everyone shares for "the right group", and your mileage may vary at all times. While this is true, I've certainly noticed a few things over the years that are important, and I thought I might share them with people.

The Big Important Points:

1) It is, fundamentally, a game. The very definition of the word "game" includes the phrase "amusement"; it is intended to be a leisure activity that you enjoy doing. This means that if anyone is taking the game so seriously that they lose sight of that--rules lawyering, losing patience with inexperienced players, being needlessly sadistic as a GM, freaking out over missed sessions, demanding strict adherence to in-character behavior, flipping out when your character dies or anything else not on this list that involves getting upset or angry over what is fundamentally a social activity--they need to relax or else they may not be a good fit for a gaming group.

2) It is a co-operative game. This is an important part of it, because while you should never lose your temper or freak out over someone playing a game badly, the counterpart of that is that you should at least put effort into it. You should try to be there for every session (yes, life happens, we all know it, but if you're missing more than one out of every five or six sessions you should look into why); you should always pay attention to the game--phones put away and TV off is a default minimum, but more generally you should listen to what everyone is saying and try to play along so long as they're suggesting something even reasonably fun; and for Pete's sake it is not a competition. Unless it is a clear, agreed-upon-by-all-parties-especially-the-GM, official and well-understood part of the campaign, you should never ever ever ever ever EVER be screwing around with your fellow party members. Basically, if everyone wants to play 'Paranoia' or something, that's fine, but that one person who always plays a Chaotic Evil character so they can backstab another player and claim "I was just being in character"? Kick 'em to the curb. They're toxic, they will ruin everyone else's fun, and they're unlikely to change.

Oh, and if you're a GM, you should always try to apply the rules in a way that makes the players' experiences fulfilling. This doesn't mean Monty Haul gaming; being challenged is exciting and overcoming a big challenge is thrilling, and that's part of a fulfilling gaming experience. It also isn't exactly the same thing as "applying the rules fairly"; sometimes the rulebook gets in the way of a fun game. (And sometimes your adventure notes get in the way of a fun game. Learning to improvise with what's interesting to your characters is a big part of making a good game.) But you shouldn't favor anyone unduly, you shouldn't disregard the rulebook solely in order to do bad things to players, you should be willing to change your mind when a player points out a legitimate rules mistake instead of getting defensive (sometimes the rules lawyer is right!) and you should always give them a fighting chance. And most importantly, you should communicate with them in a mature fashion in order to avoid misunderstandings.

That's my criteria for what makes a good gaming group. You could probably distill it down further to "Everyone should work hard to try to make everyone else's experiences fun", I suppose, but I wanted to mention specific red flags that come up when that isn't happening. Even the red flag-items, though, aren't automatically bad. As long as everyone is relaxed, participating in a spirit of good-hearted fun, and willing to take the unusual in stride, the occasional intra-party kill or GM fiat isn't going to hurt anything. Just try to remember that the point is to create good memories, and those happen whether or not you "win".

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: The Deep

Nick Cutter's 'The Deep' is quite possibly the most disturbing book I've ever read.

It's not the scariest--I think that for a story to be truly terrifying you have to be able to, on some level, imagine it happening to you. That's why most of them start so simply--everyone can imagine going up to a cabin for the weekend, everyone can imagine taking a wrong turn late at night, everyone can imagine stopping at the wrong hotel. I don't think many people can imagine traveling eight miles straight down to an undersea base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in order to assist their brilliant-but-remote scientist brother in his efforts to harvest a miracle cure for a new disease using a substance unknown to science. It's not, y'know...common.

But 'The Deep' isn't scary. (Well, okay, it is actually pretty scary, but it's not primarily scary. If you get my meaning.) 'The Deep' is disturbing. 'The Deep' presents a vision of a universe that is fundamentally at odds with rationality--not simply a scary thing down at the bottom of the ocean, but a rot at the heart of everything we think we know about the way that reality works. The book isn't about insanity; it's almost the opposite of insanity, the attempts by fundamentally rational people to comprehend something that cannot be understood through rational means. I've read plenty of books where the big twist is that the main character is insane, but I don't think I've ever read a book before where I was hoping that to be the case.

'The Deep' has a magnificent purity to its commitment to sheer, sickening irrationality. None of it makes sense. The disease the characters are attempting to cure, a progressive memory disorder called "the 'Gets", has no apparent mechanism for transmission. It appears out of nowhere. The substance that apparently cures it, ambrosia, is sickeningly physics-defying and does things to people and animals that makes the Colour out of Space look like Turf Builder. Even the environment the story takes place in has a tendency to warp and shift in impossible ways, resulting in some of the most memorable and nightmarish imagery I've seen in a horror novel. It's almost like living a fever dream.

Even worse, it never feels like this is an ordinary world that is being corrupted. Several characters including the protagonist, Luke, have flashbacks to horrific events from their past that take on a distinct tinge of madness and impossibility. It feels almost as though whatever they've come in contact has been waiting for them all their lives, and I hope I'm not spoiling things too much when I say that this isn't too far from the truth. That rot is everywhere in 'The Deep' once you start looking for it. It stretches deep into the past and all the way down to the bottom of the ocean. It transforms the things it touches, and it has a purpose.

I cannot stress enough how much this book impresses me. It sets out to achieve a certain tone, a sense of creeping, inchoate, inexplicable chaos and it hits the notes so perfectly that I can't imagine any way of improving it. The novel never gives in to the urge to define its monsters in terms of myth or legend the way so many horror stories eventually do; it comes close, near the end, when you come face to face with the heart of the madness and find a little kinship to the monsters we all imagine to be trapped down below, but it never does anything as slapdash or lazy as saying, "Hey, it was Satan/C'thulhu/Killer BOB all along!" The book remains resolute in its commitment to utter madness on a cosmic scale, even as the ending makes perfect, inevitable sense. (That ending, man. That's going to haunt you.)

Cutter also manages to shed most of the trappings of Stephen King here. There's still a tiny amount--like King, much of the book centers on the father/son dynamic that King explored in novels like 'The Shining' and 'Cell'--but I feel like this book is where Cutter comes into his own. I don't think I'll wait long to pick up his next book.

Thank God that it doesn't sound as creepy as this one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Review: The Dark

Reading James Herbert's novel 'The Dark' is almost like cracking open a time capsule--the book was published in 1980, but it's clearly steeped in the influences of the late 1970s. You can see pretty much every trope of British horror at the time laid out in front of you with the meticulous care of someone who wanted to make the most 70s-Britishy horror novel they could possibly make, and who assembled each ingredient with the precision of someone deeply attuned to the zeitgeist of the era.

So you have a hero who's a paranormal investigator who researches haunted houses, but who's a skeptic who believes that it can all be explained away rationally, because that peculiar blend of New Age parapsychology and 'Stone Tape' rationalism was in everyone's mind. You have an evil death cult that all committed mass suicide, because Jim Jones and the People's Temple, but with an overlay of Manson Family (they're not all dead and the survivors are carrying out the master's plan). You have pseudo-religion to go with the parapsychology angle--naturally, the master of the evil cult has his own cosmology that will give him life beyond death, and even more naturally this new mix of paranormal science and ancient religion forms an all-encompassing Theory of Everything that explains away all previous religions as imperfect understanding of this new science. Because that's what people did in the 70s before cocaine replaced LSD as the drug of choice.

And naturally, since it's British horror in the 70s, you get heaping dollops of Hammer-style ironic gore, with loads of people getting bloody (but not so bloody that you'd get it shredded by the censors) deaths in ways that just happen to dovetail with their own moral failings. Oh, and a romance that's veddy veddy British as well. And an ending that...well, let's just say that if you're familiar with the genre, you've probably already predicted it. The whole thing feels so much like a Hammer film that my brain actually envisioned it on grainy film stock.

None of which should suggest that I disliked the book. It's exactly what it sets out to be--a distillation of a bunch of popular culture topics that fit into the horror wheelhouse, expertly done and unfolding at a rapid and enjoyable pace. There are some great set pieces--in fact, the book is almost entirely composed of great set pieces, with briskly efficient narrative tissue connecting them together. The dialogue is a bit functional and perhaps over-concerned with paranormal jargon, but again, that's entirely what a book written in this era and set in this era should feel like.

Basically, once you've read 'The Dark' you really don't need to see or read another "ghost" movie or book from this era, because they're all going to be mostly like this. And frankly, if you just want to read one book from this era, you could certainly do worse than choose this one.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Dream Marvel Project

This is a "dream project" that I'd like Marvel to do and make available for purchase by me, just to clarify, not a dream project I'd like to do at Marvel. Although if they want me to help, I'm open.

Because it would be kind of ambitious. My idea is for a series of books collecting the entire Marvel Universe in chronological order. Everything they've ever declared to be canon, starting from the beginning (and yes, I know that would involve the Golden Age Timely stuff) and moving all the way up to the present day, by which time of course they would be years ahead because there's no way you could keep up with the material.

I'd like to see it as big, thick hardcovers, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 issues per book, just going month by month through Marvel's output and collecting as much as you can cram in one series. You wouldn't do it in the order it was set, obviously, or continuity inserts would eventually make it an incomprehensible nightmare--you'd probably need to jump around from series to series a bit, though. So one volume might have three or four issues of "Fantastic Four" that all occur as part of a single series of events, then jump over to a 'meanwhile...' set of issues in the X-Men that are meant to be roughly contemporaneous. (Perhaps even get a Marvel historian to annotate the whole thing with the reasons for placing issues in a given order?)

Obviously, it'd be huge, unwieldy, only-for-collectors, and probably desperately unprofitable. Still, I can dream of having the entire Marvel Universe spanning my shelves, can't I?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Review: The Troop

As I said in my previous review, I have a thing for trashy horror. And part of the thing I have for trashy horror is that it's not really scary--it plays so closely to the established tropes of the genre that it almost becomes paradoxically safe and predictable. There's a Hero, who you know will survive to the end of the book, and a monster, which will seem invulnerable but which will be beaten at the end by a determined effort from the Hero (with an optional "stinger" showing it's not permanently destroyed) and of course, a cast of supporting characters who will die at regular intervals (with the possible exception of the Hero's Love Interest, who usually has plot immunity as well). It's silly horror. It's safe horror.

And then every once in a while I read something like Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'. That's the other kind of horror. The real thing. Queasy, gut-twisting fear that forces you to put the book down every few minutes because you feel like you're smothering when you read it. Nerve-twisting dread that makes you go on the Internet and look up plot summaries so that you can at least get some idea of where the plot is headed in order to stop at least a little bit of that uncertainty. (There are no plot summaries of this book online. Just to save you a little time.) This is a book that does not play games. It is not safe. It is utterly terrifying.

The story is very simple--a group of Boy Scouts out on a camping trip on a deserted island have an encounter with a starving man, and it turns out that he's very very sick. He's infested with parasites, genetically altered tapeworms that are literally eating him alive from the inside, and they're seeking new hosts. It does not take very long at all for the camping trip to go horribly, horribly wrong.

But this book moves past the lazy tropes of "scary worms crawling around looking to get into your body" (although there are some scenes of suffocating dread involving the worms, both when characters are trying to avoid infestation and when describing the experience of being infested with them). It's the people who are the most terrifying here--each of them filled with flaws and weaknesses that are exposed like a raw nerve by the crisis. This is a book about people, not about worms, and about the way that disaster brings out the best in some and the worst in others. And for one boy, budding serial killer Shelley, the worst turns out to be very bad indeed.

If there is one complaint I could make about the book, it's that Cutter does wear his influences somewhat on his sleeve--Shelley is a bit too reminiscent of Patrick Hockstetter in 'It' (a clear inspiration for this book in many ways) and one of the deaths bears a close resemblance to a sequence in 'The Ruins' (which is also about a small group of people who run into the unnatural and cope badly). The book does very much read like a style pastiche of King and Smith. That said, it's a style pastiche that succeeds at reading something like King or Smith might have written, rather than an inferior imitation, so I'm not sure how upset I can really be. Talent borrows, genius steals, right?

So while I recommend 'The Troop', I can't do so unreservedly. Because only you know your particular tolerance levels for white-knuckle terror and your stomach for gore. (The descriptions of what the tapeworms do to their host are not to be read before, during or after mealtimes.) If all you're looking for is some safe scares, a good old-fashioned "chiller", this is probably not the book for you. But if you're looking for real can do a lot worse than Nick Cutter's 'The Troop'.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: Dead Sea

I don't know exactly why, but I have a soft spot for trashy horror novels. You know the kind I'm talking about--quick reads that can usually be summed up as "monsters show up and whittle down the cast one by one", cover art that's usually a picture of said monsters, and titles that are either thuddingly blunt, like "Werewolf Moon", or so lyrical they're almost purple, like "Die Softly, My Darling", or lazy puns, like...well, like "Dead Sea".

Basically, what I'm saying is that this isn't really a good horror novel. It commits a lot of Brian Keene's usual sins; he comes up with a really interesting idea for a novel about apocalyptic societal collapse, something that nobody else in the genre is really doing, and then he has a first-person narrator skim through that idea in a five-page infodump at the beginning of the book so that he can get to a small cast of people running around with guns and shooting monsters for two hundred pages. Then, once the cast is sufficiently whittled down, the narrator gives a bleak coda. Admittedly, after "The Rising" and "The Conqueror Worms", I kind of knew what I was getting into, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating.

It doesn't help that this one is a little less inspired. "The Rising", for all that it didn't really make much use of the central concept of sentient zombies, at least had that as a compelling and unique hook. And "The Conqueror Worms" was bizarre, but it was so bizarre that it was downright fascinating. This is just, "Oh, hey, zombies. And zombie animals too, that's kind of different, right?" (It is different, but it's different on a level of, "You realize everyone in this book should be dead before page one, right?" A zombification virus that crosses species would result in an almost inconceivable holocaust, and I don't think Keene really got an idea of the scope of the devastation.)

But yes, "Dead Sea" is pretty much just zombies of all species. Survivors escape to the ocean, there's two hundred or so pages of running around and shooting things, and once the cast is whittled down sufficiently, the narrator gives a bleak coda. I think the big problem is that the end is simply too obvious; given that civilization has already collapsed, food and drink is impossible to obtain due to the fact that everything is already dead and still moving, and the virus keeps jumping species pretty much willy-nilly over the course of the novel, it's hard to even imagine that this won't have a bleak ending. It's hard to generate tension when all the characters are basically just "pre-dead"--you just can't get attached to them enough to care. (It doesn't help that they don't really sound like real people. There's a scene about two thirds of the way through where everyone just starts chatting about Jungian archetypes that is absolutely immersion-shattering in its sheer unbelievability.)

That said, Keene has a slick and propulsive narrative style that makes the book a quick read and an easy page-turner. You don't really get invested in the consequences of events, but the book moves smoothly from one event to the next without any real languors (apart, perhaps, from the aforementioned Jungian archetype conversation). There's also a vividly creepy human monster in the form of a priest who believes zombification to be a miracle and enacts his own perverse version of the transubstantiation myth, who really should have been given a more prominent role. Those sequences are probably the best bit.

So that's "Dead Sea". As long as you understand what you're getting into, it's a decent read. But like all of the guys who are listed as "the next Stephen King" on the back covers of their books, Keene is no Stephen King.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Review: Dopplegangsters

A few caveats:

1) There's actually an umlaut in the title, but I don't know how to format umlauts in Blogger. Yes, I'm aware that there's also an umlaut in "umlaut" that I can't type, either.

2) This is not the first Esther Diamond novel. If you decide to pick up this book based on my recommendation, you should probably not pick up this book. You should pick up Disappearing Nightly, which is the first book but which is not listed as the first book in this book because the series started under another publisher and the publishers of this book were apparently not about to give free publicity to a book they were hoping would go out of print so they could buy the rights and get the whole series under the same publisher. So although there's a handy info-dump at the beginning to get you up to speed, you probably don't want to do what I did and buy this book thinking it was the first book.

3) Full disclosure: Laura Resnick, author of Dopplegangsters, first came to my attention by making lots of smart, insightful, level-headed comments on the whole Puppy mess on File 770, and by posting cute pictures of her foster kittens on Facebook. I freely admit that I will pick up your first novel based on your cute cat pictures. After that, you need to have talent.

And with those caveats out of the way, let's talk Dopplegangsters. The first thing I'll say is that the book cover does a good job of setting expectations. The title, the cover art and the back cover copy all suggest a screwball comedy paranormal romance-mystery about Esther Diamond, an out-of-work actress who's waiting tables at a Mafia restaurant and bumps into a gangster twice in one night...only to witness his gruesome murder the next night. It turns out (spoilers!) that mob enforcers all over town are sprouting magical twins, and dying horrifically not long afterwards.

With those expectations in mind, the book lived up to them very nicely. Esther is a charming, sympathetic character with a good head on her shoulders and enough determination and smarts to make her a believable solver of bizarre gangland paranormal slayings, but she's also human and relatable enough to make her a believable out-of-work actress who's in way over her head a lot of the time and coping with the situation using wry humor and the occasional bout of panic.

Max, her sorcerer friend, is a bit caricatured--you'll recognize him from a lot of urban fantasy stories who have powerful immortal magic-wielders that are a bit out of touch with the modern world. But he's a well-done take on the caricature, and has some genuinely funny moments. Lopez, Esther's cop boyfriend who isn't particularly thrilled at her involvement with the Mafia, is sympathetic despite having a lot of plot functions that should theoretically force him to be a jerk (he's the token skeptic, he's trying to sideline Esther for her own safety, and as a cop he starts to get more than a little suspicious that Esther is hanging around with gangsters all the time). In some ways, he's the best character.

But really, the show is repeatedly stolen by good-guy hitman "Lucky", whose basic response to finding out that magic is real and that a professional killer is using it to whack people is, "Okay, that sucks. We should find that guy and kill him." There are a lot of great gags involving Lucky's pragmatic approach to the mystical world, and the impromptu education he provides Esther and Max in moving through his own territory without getting killed.

The mystery itself isn't exactly complicated--there's really only about three suspects, and Resnick takes the Agatha Christie tack of "the person who seems least likely to have done it is the obvious suspect". But this isn't really about the mystery--it's about the people solving it, and Resnick does an excellent job of creating characters that you want to spend time with. It's a book you don't so much read as hang out in, and the charming atmosphere will definitely make you want to spend a little more time with Esther Diamond.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Meet 'N Greet #9!

This particular feature of my blog has gone fallow ever since 'City of Heroes' went away, and I think that's kind of a shame because it was fun to talk about the concepts I had for my characters. I know that "please don't tell me about your character" is one of the standard jokes in fandom, but generally I feel like it applies more to people for whom the phrase "let me tell you about my character" means "let me tell you exclusively about the absurdly large/small [delete where applicable for gaming system] numbers I wrote down on my character sheet and the way it makes me better than everyone else at playing the game". Because numbers aren't inherently interesting, but characters frequently are.

Take for example today's entry, Paintboxer. He was a mad scientist, and when I say "mad" I mean "totally barking". His big moment of revelation came when he saw a truck passing his lab with the Sherwin-Williams logo painted on the side:

That was when he had his moment. This was no coincidence. It was a message, a coded message from the secret masters of the universe. This was his directive, his command, his all-consuming imperative from this day forth! He would design special gauntlets that could inject nano-engineered self-replicating paint droplets, and defeat the enemies of the secret world order by punching them with endless gallons of paint! He would design his own spacecraft, stealing to get the money if necessary, and he would put a bucket the size of the moon in geostationary orbit! And then...then, armed with his self-replicating paint and his massive paint-generating bucket, he would do the impossible. He would fulfill his orders. He would....


That was Paintboxer. You can see why I disagree that people who talk about their characters are boring.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Review: The Fifth Season

I'll be honest--if Nora Jemisin wasn't so damn brilliant, I'm not sure I could have made it through 'The Fifth Season'.

Because this is not a pleasant book. Page One opens with a woman cradling the body of her three-year old son, who has been beaten to death by her husband. By Page Seven, most of the continent has been devastated in an extinction-level cataclysm. And it pretty much goes on from there. I'm not saying it's not good, but of the many awards this will probably win, the first one should be "Book Least Likely To Be Reviewed Using the Phrase 'Madcap Romp'".

That said, I read to the end. Not just read--I devoured the book in great gulps, triggery scenes and all. Because Nora Jemisin is that brilliant. If she was a less talented writer, the brutality in this book would have been done simply for shock value, or exploitation. If she wasn't so amazing at her craft, these scenes wouldn't have made an emotional connection to the reader; they'd have been there simply to say, "This is a bad world with bad people that the hero must stop," a sort of signpost for evil that we could all walk past and know we were heading in the right direction.

But there is nothing that lazy in 'The Fifth Season'. Everything Jemisin writes is designed to remove the distance between you and the narrative. The three interweaving stories of Damaya, Syenite and Essun are meant to be your story as well--the use of the present tense, the use of the second-person voice in much of the story, these things are there to bring you closer so that you feel the pain of it. The injustice. The crushing, grinding despair that comes from being systematically exploited and abused for something outside of your control. Nora Jemisin wants to kick the props out from under you and make you feel something, and she succeeds completely.

That's what this book is really about--it's not about defeating a villain and toppling an evil empire. That happens by Page Seven, and I'm still not sure whether it was the right thing to do 442 pages later. This is a book about understanding how people can be exploited for their gifts and talents as well as their weaknesses. It's about learning that sometimes, people can look at you and see nothing more than a resource to be used. It is a powerful allegory for a powerful subject, and it's hard to feel the same way after you finish reading this book. It is a book that changes you. It takes a lot of talent to do that.

(It's also Book One of a trilogy, so don't expect a self-contained narrative. Just so you don't get frustrated at the end.)

This is a work of heartbreak, but it's all the more worth reading for that. I don't think most writers could have pulled it off. I don't necessarily think a lot of writers would have tried. But I'm glad someone did.