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From Ada’s AMA: Terra Ignota, Bash’es & Hives

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This post collects the questions and answers that are about Hives and bash’es in the Terra Ignota world. There may be minor spoilers, but I’m not reproducing the specific spoilers that were marked as such (partly because they’re impossible to cut and paste…) I’ve done some rearranging to put the questions into related topics just to make it more coherent to read.

Hives

Infovorematt: I get that Hives are non-geographic but how does that work in practise? If my Hive lets me smoke cannabis what if I’m in a Mason-majority city (no way they are ok with weed!) can I still light up? What if I’m visiting my humanist friends ‘bash? Is all private property (houses, malls, shops, etc) aligned to a Hive and subject to their rules and laws? There must be a bit of tension and culture clashes in public places. Strict Masons being weirded out by hippy-dippy Cousins. Cousins being uncomfortable when a Mason spanks their kids etc

Ada: Cities and some areas have individual geographic regulations passed in that area, as the cars cheerfully tell us every time we land. If you were a Humanist and smoked cannabis in a town in an area that banned it, like Lagos, Cambodia, or Myanmar (regions with a Cousin majority), then you’d be guilty of breaking local laws and could be charged by the city. Your Hive would pay a fine to the city and then impose on you whatever punishment the Hive considered appropriate, which is often an equally sized fine, but sometimes something different. It’s similar if you commit murder—your Hive pays a fine to the other Hive and then your Hive punishes you, unless your Hive has made a special deal as all the Hives have with the Utopians who reduce the fine the other Hive pays if the other Hive enforces Modo Mundo (other political favors were also promised by Utopia in return for this concession.) Private property like houses is restricted by city regulations and by Hive regulations IF it’s a one-Hive bash’, but only city regulations if it’s mixed. There can be culture clashes in public places, which is why most cities have major districts dominated by particular Hives, like the Utopian districts we see.

Infovorematt: How easy is it to create a hive? Is the small number a likely outcome or just easier from a narrative point of view

Early in the process, in the 2200s when the Hive system was new, it was comparatively easy to found a Hive and people expected there to be lots and lots, so there were dozens. Now it’s very hard, since with the megahives that have formed from mergers no one takes a new tiny one seriously. So we’re seeing a last man standing stage of a slow development.

Delduthling: Did you have ideas for Hives that got scrapped during the world-building process?Are there any historic Hives we haven’t heard of yet?

Ada: Yes I have some clear ideas of Hives that existed at the beginning but didn’t last. One of the main ones is OBP, “One Big Party” which merged with the Olympians to form the Humanists. The Olympians started as a transit network to take sports fans to games, and OBP was the same for concerts and theater and art and museums, so people could zip around the world to see singers, or Shakespeare, or visit a gallery. They shared their excitement about excellence, and figures like Ganymede more embody OBP than the Humanists. Others may or may not get mentions in book 4, we’ll see.

Factitious: How does having exclusive Hive languages work with mobility between Hives being so important? Do ex-Mason Humanists just politely pretend not to understand Latin?

Ada: Yes, when you switch Hive you are expected to stop speaking that language, and to politely refrain from eavesdropping on conversations in that language. The hope is that it will wither in time. Similarly for kids who haven’t yet joined a Hive, they inevitably hear the Hive language being spoken at home by their parents, i.e. young Martin Guildbreaker hears people speaking Latin all the time and learns to understand it easily as kids do, but kids are discouraged from speaking the Hive language until adulthood. Unless it’s a strat language too, i.e. a young French kid would speak French at home in addition to English despite not yet being a member of the European Hive, and a young Spaniard Spanish etc. becuase it’s a strat language, as with Mycroft speaking Greek.

Subbak: So is it frowned upon for someone (outside of professional translators and interpreters) to learn a language that is not the language of their Hive or nation-strat?

Ada: Yes, it’s considered uncomfortable, breaking a taboo. We see this in Mycroft’s guilt about using his Japanese in chapter 3.

Factitious: Did the Hive demographic chart in TLTL, which was described as being of world population, count Minors? If so, how? Did it count people on reservations?

The Hive demography doesn’t count anyone who has not yet taken the Adulthood Competency Exam, nor does it count people on reservations. So we don’t know how large the population of Reservations is.

Adult Competency Exam

MayColvin: What kinds of things are tested on the Adulthood Competency Exam? Has this changed over time since the exam was instituted as the marker of legal majority?

Ada: The Adulthood Competency Exam has a lot of moral reasoning questions, the point being to make sure you can do complex adult decision-making. So things like more elaborate versions of the Trolly Problem, with no correct answer, just asking you to articulate an answer to make sure it’s a sophisticated one that demonstrates you can make intelligent political decisions, and are mature enough not to be taken advantage of. There are also lots of versions. While Romanova’s office administers a basic one, as the Charter specifies any organization can offer one if the Alliance office confirms its equivalency, so every Hive has a version, and some strats have versions in their own languages, and there are also lots of options for format to make it easier for people with different disabiltiies. All versions involve an oral exam, and many have only an oral exam while others have an oral and written component; only the EU offers a written-only option. The Brillest one is really strange and you’re not really fully aware it’s going on most of the time.

Factitious: What options do Deaf people have for the Adulthood Competency Exam? Is there a Deaf strat that offers a version in sign language?

Ada: Deafness is less common do to medical advances, and sign is uncommon since voice-to-text is so good that you can program your tracker put simultaneous subtitles in your lenses as people are talking. The system struggles with homonyms so is imperfect, and sign is still used in some places, but the voice-to-text system is more ubiquitous. If you wanted a sign language ACE it would be offered by Romanova, the Cousins, and the Europeans.

Clothes

Subbak: How enforced is the “Clothing as Communication” thing? Would it be illegal for a Humanist to wear a Utopian coat in public because they thought it was cool? Or an armband of a nation-strat you don’t belong in?

Ada: It’s enforced by cultural pressure rather than law, so people don’t do it much just as today people don’t go into the office dressed in a bathrobe much. It makes everyone uncomfortable. In a few circumstances you can get in legal trouble if you’ve masqueraded as a Member of another Hive for purposes of taking advantage of people, such as a journalist masquerading as one Hive to interview someone in bad faith by tricking them into thinking it’s a fellow Hive Member, or someone dressing as a Hive to go to a Hive Member only event. But when it’s for innocent purposes it’s done, certainly for dress-up parties, for acting on stage, and Sniper dresses as all the Hives sometimes for play.

Subbak: Can you describe how Mason and European suits differ?

Ada: European suits have more elements we associate with the pre-modern world, so more elaborate tailoring, long rows of buttons, waistcoats sometimes, tails or flared parts in the back, etc. They’re also a bit more wide-ranging, objects of fashion, while Mason suits are more standardized.

Factitious: Do Brillists who just plain don’t like wearing sweaters have a good alternative?

Yes! Sometimes they’ll have a suit or jacket made to have subtle textural stuff in the weave that communicates the same info the sweater would — we see Felix Faust in one of these at one point. Alternately, for when it’s too hot out for a sweater etc., you can communicate the same using a coded knot bracelet. A lot of the communication things, including strat and Hive, have bracelet options for when you’re dressed differently, or at the swimming pool.

Masons

Factitious: How many Masons are there? From TLTL p.153: “Cornel MASON is the unquestioned master of more than three billion voluntary subjects…” But from TWTB p.251: “…my Empire, two billion people of the ten…”

Ada: Ah, good spotting on that contradiction! There are 3.1 billion Masons, but in 2454 it just recently crossed the 3 billion mark, so people are used to it being in the high 2 billions. On p. 251, Cornel MASON is being modest, reflexively using the old number rather than acknowledging the change.

Aretti: The Masons’ Roman theme seems to be very Western Roman Empire in everything they do. With that in mind, why is it that the title for children of the current Emperor, Porphyrogenne, is not Latin but rather Greek, and refers to a naming custom that existed in the Eastern Roman Empire and not the Western? Is this just a solitary exception, or do the Masons also draw from the imagery and symbolism of the Eastern Empire in other places? (And if the latter, are there other polities that have identified themselves with Rome that they draw on, or would Muscovy/the Ottomans/the Holy Roman Empire be bridges too far?)

Ada: Good spotting! There are some tiny byzantine things here and there with the Masons, and Egyptian too (Alexandria, the ziggurats and lighthouse in the Masonic capital), but Western Rome has indeed won out in the rhetoric. This is partly since Western Rome is more dominant in our cultural imagination now. It’s also because Byzantium is so deeply intertwined with Christianity, and the world of Terra Ignota is so hyper-afraid of Christianity, more so than of things like ancient Greek religion which isn’t considered dangerous the way the faiths that caused the Church War are. So there are small Byzantine and Ottoman edges to the Masonic empire, but they’re very subtle and usually unspoken. One of the biggest nods in that direction, though, is that most of the major Masons we see are ancestrally Middle Eastern. Mycroft doesn’t mention it much (because the vein of Greek nationalism in Mycroft’s upbringing makes him uncomfortable with Turkey and the Middle East) but if you look carefully at the descriptions when they’re introduced, Martin is described as “Persian” and Cornel MASON is also signaled as Middle Eastern in descent. So while the Masons are very international and very mixed in race, there is a concentration of the Eastern Mediterranean in there among the rest.

Aretti: This is extremely surprising, given that Saladin is the name of a famous Middle-Eastern sultan! I had been working from the assumption that the “Greek” ethno-strat had kind of Megali Idea-d and picked up portions of Anatolia to explain Saladin, but if that’s not the case, then his origin is substantially more confusing.

Ada: Yes, Mycroft has a very complicated love-and-awe-and-fear weirdness about Turkey and the Middle East. I don’t bring it to the fore very often because even Mycroft is uncomfortable with it. Remember that part of what Mycroft loves about Saladin is his strangeness and fearsomeness.

Brillists

makoConstruct: Set-sets and the brillists: Imagine that there were a society built by and for cartesian set-sets, and it developed its own ten number profiling system, each variable having high predictive power over interpersonal dynamics cartesian set-sets care about. Now say we inserted a neurotypical person raised naturally in one of the major hives into this cartesian society. The cartesians’ profiling system would assign them an extreme, abnormal profile. The cartesian set-sets would find it very difficult to ‘restore’ this person’s profile to their society’s normal. They’d find it hard to change it much at all without extensive, painful therapy. Their profiling system would inevitably be attuned to the dynamics of their society- none of which could the visitor participate in, however brilliant they may have been in their birth society- and it would mostly ignore others. The cartesians, seeing this, might say to the Brillists, “No, YOU are set-sets!” (It would be facetious, because no cartesian set-set would take a profiling system that confined itself to a mere 10 variables seriously, but they would have a right ot say that and the Brillists would get harshly burned.) Has this test transpired, or has the thought experiment been posed? How did the Brillists respond to it? It seems to me that the Brillists’ theory is sort of inevitably thoroughly laced with status-quoist prejudice, designed only to do good in our cognitive domain, it finds it can’t function in another. Instead of humility, the Brillists stomp their feet and try to argue that those other worlds are degenerate cases, that they’re barren of human value, and who would want to understand them properly anyway. Am I being arrogant, judging them so? What would the Headmaster say to me?

Ada: I’m not going to tip my hand about this sort of thing since much is still to come in book 4, but this is a great direction to be thinking in terms of the Brillists.

Utopians

MakoConstruct: If a culture like the Utopians reached critical mass, I don’t think it would ever stop eating. It would infect us all with its akrasia-guilt, its power and its glamour, and its hope. Once we put on their visors, even just for a day, we would be snared. Whatever system they use to coordinate, it would never let us go. We would come to crave approval that only the Utopian process could provide, we would aspire only to Utopian virtues, we would buy deeply into the ideology of consequentialism, growth, perfectionism, and we would inevitably come to blame outsiders for the duration of Mortality’s reign, we might call anyone not a voker a “deathist” for being so abominably lazy while people are still dying, while humanity is still at risk. Having seen how many of your readers would have been pulled beyond their event horizon, do you still believe that the Utopians would be so much smaller than the other hives? Have you surveyed the general population, outside of your readership, and found that they really are that bad?

Ada: This question reminds me of the section in Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents” where he talks about the different paths to happiness that people have tried throughout history, listing the ambition to advance human progress coequally with love, art, religion, and vegging out on cocaine as paths people have tried to lead to happiness. I think Freud is right that there are real paths to happiness down all these paths, and that the progress path is not one of the most satisfying because of the sacrifices it requires, (1) hours of toil, and (2) recognizing that the golden age you work for will be enjoyed by your descendants, not yourself. So I think many people would be excited by it, but also that many others would be intimidated by it, and drawn by other paths, such as the Humanist excitement about developing personal excellence, or the Cousins’ drive to help the present rather than driving toward a distant future. Thus I think the Utopians are numerous but not a majority. I think among my readers the majority do prefer Utopia but science fiction readers are a very specific sample, and even among us there are those who have read the Oath and felt it asked too much, and others who have found other Hives — Cousins, Brillists — more appealing. Because really all these Hives have powerful philosophies worthy of respect. The Utopian is the most powerful in some senses, with its mission to disarm death and touch the stars, but the most frightening in others, a potent mix.

MakoConstruct: Are the Utopians controlling their U-Beasts telepathically? The U-beasts’ sensitivity and synchronicity could suggest nothing else. How spectacular the U-beasts are, and the fact that the puppeteers clothe themselves in nowheres as if to say, “ignore the human. Keep your eyes on the puppet”, it makes me wonder if many utopians have come to project their identity into their U-beasts. I think if I could see and interact with the world through the body of a flying dragon I might well like to forget my human body, leave it behind, fit it with an exoskeleton that would walk it for me, let it trail along after me.

Ada: U-beast interface is indeed deeply mysterious, intentionally on the Utopians’ part.

MakoConstruct: Are the Utopians angry like I am angry? Do they quietly curse us every time we waste a day on entertainment or recreational drugs? Are they bitter, jealous of the power granted to those who sacrifice pieces of the future for temporary dominance in the present?

Ada: Angry about some things, yes. Not wasting days on entertainment or even on recreational drugs: the human animal needs rest and play to regenerate and stimulate the brain, so board games and mind-stimulating TV and all that is not only good but mandatory. But it does anger them (and many of us) when a big social policy stifles progress, when schools are throttled from spreading knowledge to the next generation, and when resources are wasted. An evening playing board games is an evening spent honing a mind that will reach for the stars — an evening filling out paperwork is a tragic victory for Entropy.

The Hiveless

Fthagnar: We see about the Blacklaws and their merry lives in the latest book — how they love and thrive in the inconvenience of it, but how inconvenient is Hivelessness for the Greylaws and Whitelaws?

Ada: Graylaw isn’t really inconvenient at all, it’s very simple and ubiquitous and no one dislikes you, whereas some of the Hives sort of dislikes certain other Hives. Whitelaws I’m looking forward to showing another glimpse of in book 2, but Whitelaws tend to get lumped in with Cousins somewhat, though they’re actually very different. Cousin law focuses on mandating things that are good for the collective, things like requiring vaccinations or requiring educational stages that tend toward the broad social good. Whitelaw is much more about personal strictness, forbidding yourself from doing things in order to encourage the formation of strict moral character. So, for example, paid sex is illegal for both, but Carlyle could effortlessly get an exemption to go into a brothel to help someone else, but a Whitelaw absolutely couldn’t.

Bash’es

Praecipitantur: I’m curious about bash’ romances. I think Martin refers to the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ as “Open”, presumably meaning people date outside of it. What other implications does that carry? Are there other kinds of classifications for how bash’ handle romance? And, related–Is it considered taboo for ba’sibs to sleep together?

Ada: Yes, an “open” bash’ means at least one person dates outside, as opposed to a “closed” bash’ where no one is interested in further external relationships. Within a bash’, some bash’es have only two-person couples, while others involve polyamory, but people don’t tend to discuss that much because it’s considered to be prying into other people’s lives intrusively. Romance between ba’sibs (i.e. people with the same birth bash’) is common and acceptable, so long as it isn’t actual blood-incest. There is some Hive variance here, and the more permissive Hives (Humanists, Mitsubishi) have more comfort with ba’sib relationships and romances among cousins etc. than more cautious Hives like the Cousins. The Brillists have complicated and confusing guidelines about bash’-romance structures which make sense only to them.

Injygo: So blood relations are still important, even though the bash’ has replaced the traditional family. Is that also why the dynasty of Spain is only passed down through male heirs?

Ada: Yes. Remember that the isolated nuclear family we think of as “traditional” is itself, historically speaking, very young, predated by greater focus on extended families, and multi-family cohabitation in which a higher status family and lower status families in a patron/client or master/servant relationship formed the basis of the household. The world of Terra Ignota is yet another transformation in which the household is different, but some of the ideas about lineage and blood are the same.

RERoberson: I’m also super curious about the whole Bash structure, including how they are formed.

Ada: Bash-formation is expected to happen in the transition from youth to adulthood, when young people are at a Campus. A Campus isn’t quite a university, it’s an area with common spaces, dorms, and several different schools, some of which might be universities or colleges, others technical training spaces that teach you carpentry, programming, medicine, plumbing, etc. Different campuses have different focuses while having broad opportunities, so Romanova’s campus has lots of political opportunities, Lisbon’s has lots of marine opportunities from research to surfing, etc. People choose a Campus for its strengths and attend but might be studying things even more disparate than the disparate things at current colleges and universities, and you usually stay at a campus more than 4 years, since you’re doing technical training as well as undergrad-type things. There young people mix and mingle and meet each other and live together in dorms and form friend groups, and eventually come together into bash’es.

Some bash’es are hereditary, some new. In a hereditary bash’ like the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash, some of the children will go together to the same Campus and seek out just a few friends or romantic partners who would like to join their bash’, figures like Sidney Koons, or Martin Guildbreaker’s spouse Xiaolu. But the majority of bash’es form newly from the friend groups that develp at a Campus.

Dragonbeartdtiger: One of my favorite parts of your utopian/dystopian future vision is the bash’ system. In TLTL, it’s mentioned that bash’es were developed by Regan Makoto Cullen, but sometime after the flying cars and Hive systems were put in place. Were there proto-bash’es already existing, and Cullen just codified/formalized/promoted them, or did the bash’ system have to be rolled out officially over the course of a generation after the initial success? Are there still alternative household structures in the world?

Ada: There are alternative structures, mainly in Reservations where lots of other ways of living still thrive. The bash’ system was developed from observing groups of adults who cohabitated in productive communes, which has been a phenomenon for centuries and is today, but it was Cullen (Brill’s apprentice) who described them formally, argued that they were better for society, and whose huge influence popularized them and made them become ubiquitous within a generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Ada’a AMA: Terra Ignota, Language, Gender & Music

On 11th January 2018, Ada did a marathon “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit. This post collects the questions and answers that are about language, gender, and music in the Terra Ignota world. There may be minor spoilers, but I’m not reproducing the specific spoilers that were marked as such (partly because they’re impossible to cut and paste…) I’ve done some rearranging to put the questions into related topics just to make it more coherent to read.

Languages

Partoffuturehivemind: I’d like to know about translations of Terra Ignota into other languages. What translations are planned? It seems particularly challenging to translate, doesn’t it?

Ada: Yes, very hard. French, Spanish, Polish and Hungarian versions are underway. All of them make me very excited. For the French and Spanish I’ve offered to write special in-world afterwords from Mycroft addressing the “European” and “Humanist” editions but I don’t know if they’ll take me up on the offer.

There are lots of reasons to make it difficult to translate. It’ll be hard to figure out how to work out the gender in French and Spanish where even tables and chairs have gender. But there are also subtleties of the political end.

I had a great conversation recently with my Polish editor about a gender challenge I hadn’t anticipated. In the English-speaking world at the moment, using gender neutral language is associated with the progressive end of the political spectrum, so whether it’s the singular they, or saying “flight attendant” instead of “steward/stewardess” and “server” instead of “waitor/waitress”, when you encounter that kind of language it invokes the liberal/progressive side in gender politics. But in Poland at the moment the political associations of gendered language are the reverse. In Poland it’s the progressive and feminist side that’s pushing for always using gendered language for everything, always having a male and female form (i.e. professor/professoress, driver/driveress or the equivalent) to make the presence of women hyper visible. So translating the gender word for word would make the future of Terra Ignota seem, in Polish, to be a future in which where the reactionary side of gender debates was victorious, rather than what I intend in the English which is to make it seem that the progressive side of gender debates was victorious. So fascinating to see the meaning of the language and the politics of the language produce such an amazing challenge with localization.

Subbak: I wanted to ask a question about language. Mycroft, Sniper, Martin and 9A all write in something very close to modern English (which is good, otherwise we probably wouldn’t understand it). However you state that Masonic Latin has little resemblance to classical or medieval Latin, and from the few snippets of French we get (either from EU officials or from Madame’s) it looks like its grammar has evolved quite a bit (which would be necessary anyway to accommodate for a genderless society, as French is horribly gendered). I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t tell if the same is true with the Spanish peppered through the book.

Did you try to imagine as well how Mycroft and others “really” speak English? What are the most prominent changes to the grammar (besides obviously the generalization of the singular they)? Are there dialects among Hive languages? Is the Cousin English significantly different from the one used for inter-Hive communication, or inter-strat among the Mitsubishi?

Ada: I made the conscious choice to keep the English standard because the books are already so challenging that adding one more layer of difficulty (which I did experiment with) was just too much. Realistically Mycroft should either be writing in 18th century English or in 25th century English but I just didn’t want to do that to the reader. I didn’t let myself think heavily about it because I knew if I did I would be tempted to use it!

U-speak is the only major dialect. Everyone else, including the Cousins who are the other Hive that has no unique language, speaks a fairly homogeneous English. But every bash’ on Earth develops its own customs, and often a few words from other languages will enter a bash’es English if the bash’ has lots of members who speak another lanugage, just as polyglot households sometimes borrow a word that doesn’t have an equivalent, like prego from Italian.

Injygo: The Utopian Hive is your love letter to the sff fandom of today. Is the Utopian jargon related to or inspired by in-jokes you have with your friends today? Could you tell us more details of Utopian speech and customs?

Ada: It’s a bit related to in-jokes, or at least to how terms from fiction or other languages enter conversation within friend groups. Most of my close friends don’t speak Japanese but a few Japanese words are heavily in our vocabulary that fill niches English just doesn’t. So U-speak is a development of that forward. And a big function of it in the narrative is to distance them from the other Hives, showing how, unlike all the others who speak a standardized version of English, the Utopians are more culturally isolated, setting up Mycroft’s observation that one majority in this majority-less world is that the majority are not Utopians.

Injygo: That sounds interesting — can you give examples of specific Japanese words?

Ada: The one we most use is “Saa” which is a fabulous generic answer word that sort of means “I politely decline to answer this question.” It’s often translated as “I don’t know” or “who knows” but it’s really a question closer.

“Do you think he meant to do that terrible thing?” “Saa.” i.e. I decline to answer

“That’s so stupid! What were the writers thinking?!” “Saa.”

“Are you going to give Terra Ignota a happy ending?” “Saa.”

(Proviso: that is not how it’s usually spelled but that’s the easiest way to get the sound across.)

We also use “dozo” a fair bit, equivalent of the Italian “prego”

Injygo: Do you speak all the languages that Mycroft does?

Ada: I speak French, read Latin, read a little German and ancient Greek (though not modern Greek), and understand spoken Japanese a bit and have studied Japanese linguistics a lot but can’t read it. I don’t speak Spanish, so for that one I have to ask for help from friends, and I often do for German or Japanese too, to make sure I have the nuances right. When I’m writing Mycroft’s narration I sometimes intentionally flip back and forth between iambic meter (comfortable in English) and more dactyllic meter which is comfortable in Greek, to suggest when he’s thinking in which language. But the most language work I do is writing J.E.D.D. Mason’s dialog, since there I try to think through how He’d structure the sentence in all his languages before rendering the English but making it awkward in just the right way. It means it sometimes takes me a whole day to do a couple sentences of his dialog, but it’s worth-it!

Kmar81: Do you speak any other language to any degree of proficiency or fluency?

Ada: I speak French and Italian, read Latin well, and read German and ancient Greek and Gothic, plus I’ve studied some Japanese linguistics and picked up a lot of spoken Japanese from exposure, and I am a linguistics geek and read up on the tricks of lots of languages.

Gender

Madscientistninja: I’m a huge fan of Terra Ignota and I’m so happy I found this series. I have a couple of questions. Do you have specific genders (born or chosen by themselves) in mind for characters? Or do you play around with it even in your mind, so as to be in a Mycroft-adjacent mindframe?

Ada: I do have sexes and genders (not the same) in mind (also Mycroft’s pronoun choice is separate from both) but I also make sure to play around with it. Usually when a new character develops in my mind the character develops with a sex and a gender in my head, but then part way through development I always try imaging the other sexes and genders (the opposites and nonbinary) to see how it makes the character feel different, and how it affects the way the story flows in my mind. I also think hard about how Mycroft’s pronoun choice will affect the reader. Then I often decide to change the sex and/or gender and/or pronoun because I like what I find when I try it a different way, or I keep it the same but feel more confident that I like what it does to the story. So I do have a bodily sex in mind for them, and a gender identity in mind for those who would have strong gender identities. For some I have planned in advance whether the sex will be revealed to the reader at some point or whether it won’t, and for others I leave it and let it be revealed if I feel it comes up naturally in prose and remain ambiguous if it doesn’t. I’ve had some readers start keeping careful track and make charts of which characters we do and don’t know for certain what the character’s bodily/biological sex is. I find it fascinating that people care that much, and one of my goals in the book was to give readers the opportunity to notice when a revelation about sex or gender makes them reevaluate a character and when it doesn’t, giving readers the opportunity to learn more about their own responses to gender.

Injygo: It seems like gender haunts the world of Terra Ignota. Is this just Mycroft’s bias? Do you think it’s possible or desirable to abolish gender?

Ada: In Terra Ignota I’m depicting a future that tried to abolish gender but did it badly. I don’t think it can’t be done, I just think it’s really hard since it’s ingrained very deeply in our culture, so there are lots of ways that an effort to do so could fail. I talk more about this in my essay on  queership about what I’m doing with gender in the series.

Music

Haverholm: Do you listen to music while working on your books? And do you use music actively, choosing it depending on what you’re writing (achademic or fiction) or what mood you need for a specific passage?

Ada: I find music very immersive so I can’t work while listening to music, except when I’m doing a copy edit for which I sometimes listen to Renaissance instrumental music to keep me relaxed.

But to get myself into the mood for writing, I have a “Bridger” playlist with songs that remind me of the story, or characters from it. I find it very intense and often cry listening (I listen while on an exercise machine, to get myself ready for writing and relaxed through exercise at once). It’s a mix, and not the sort of music I listen to for pleasure (I like Renaissance music for that) but it’s songs that resonate for me. The main one is Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” (which I first heard via a Gundam Wing AMV) and I have a whole imaginary music video of the four books worked out that plays through my head as I listen. A lot of the others are anime songs. The Stellvia opening which is the Utopian theme, the FLCL ending which is Sniper’s theme, the first Gundam Seed ending theme (Anna ni Isshodattanoni) which is Apollo Mojave’s conflict with Mycroft, the 3rd Gundam Seed opening for the war themes of the first two books and the 4th opening for the second two books.

MayColvin: As both a writer and a musician, have you thought at all about what music is like in the world of Terra Ignota? (Is “Somebody Will” an actual Utopian song in-universe?)

Ada: I speculate about Cannerbeat a bit but haven’t worked out music in huge detail. Somebody Will I play with as a Utopian thing and it certainly captures their values, so I think of it as their anthem in my head, but it’s too sad to be an anthem really. It’s something else.

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From Ada’s AMA: Life

Ada, wearing the jacket she borrowed from Sniper

On January 11th 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit, and I’m extracting the most interesting questions and answers and preserving them here. The ones in this post are about life, work, work-life balance, imposter syndrome etc.

A Space-X engineer: I’ve been at SpaceX for about two years now. My actual, real-life experience since graduating school has been voking 50-60 hours a week for the Great Project. I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say thank you, thank you so much for the Utopians, and for the world that created them <3

Ada: Thank you. A friend mentioned to me that he’d seen a SpaceX engineer post online with great enthusiasm for Terra Ignota, and I was so happy it made me bounce in my chair and tear up. The Great Project is a profound act of love giving such a gift to the future, and also a profound act of teamwork with so many parts. For some of us the challenge is that our contributions feel so distant, that (as my song Somebody Will says) we are contributing to the civilizational path to the stars but at such a distance that the connection between our efforts–running a store, marketing a device, standing in a classroom–can be dishearteningly invisible. But at the same time I know that friends on the other face have a different kind of disheartening experience, the slowness of it all, as you work on improving rockets, or mapping Mars, understanding fully how huge the task is, how long, how certain it is that what we’re working for is not for our generation. So thank you so much for keeping at it, that wonderful, invaluable, difficult work, and also thank you for telling me you found Utopia and Terra Ignota so powerful. A world where the project and its interconnections are no longer invisible. A world where we, and the fact that we are a we, is no longer invisible.

logomaniac reviews: As someone with a literary bent entering academia, I’m interested in how you balance your careers day to day. I imagine it’s a lot of writing, for one. And it’s clear that your research influences your fiction – in what ways does the influence go the other way (has your fiction work changed the way you teach/write for academia)?

Ada: Career balance is really hard and I’m really struggling to balance academic obligations with writing time with disability, but I feel I’m getting better at it all the time (the Utopian oath printed on my desk helps! So does taking lots of breaks to rest and mentally refresh by watching anime or playing Pandemic Legacy with friends). The history work absolutely transformed how I think about the change and development of worlds over time and is a huge part of how I world build, the questions I ask about how institutions got to be the way they would be. I’m so incredibly fortunate to be at a university where colleagues are supportive of my fiction and don’t see it as taking time away from my other work.

Logomaniac: What’s your favorite course you’ve ever taken or taught?

Favorite course Alan Kors’ intro to the Enlightenment, which is now immortal on DVD so you can enjoy it too!

Logomaniac: I’d also love to hear a little more about your project on censorship throughout history, what inspired you to do that, what your goals are, etc.

Ada: On Censorship I just managed to upload these videos of my GoH talk at Chessiecon where I talk about it. Very exciting!

Injygo: You’re the Ur-Fan, the Alpha Nerd, filker, historian, novelist, and sff fan. Can it be that you, like us mere mortals, have been frustrated or demotivated? How have you managed to become as cool as you are, and do you have advice for aspiring Alpha Nerds?

Ada: Yes, I absolutely struggle with frustration, demoralization, impostor syndrome, all of it. I talk about it a bit in my author’s note at he end of “Too Like the Lightning” and also in my blog post about how I sold it: (also has a lot of my advice, the big one being to keep doing and making and writing more and more things, not getting stuck on one attempt)

A lot of people don’t believe I could feel impostor syndrome with how much success I’ve had, but I absolutely do, despite the books’ success, despite awards, despite getting tenure here at the University of Chicago. But impostor syndrome isn’t rational so it doesn’t go away no matter how much counter-evidence you have. It still stuns me sometimes how one negative from someone who doesn’t like the novels can make me gloomy for days even if there are fifty sparklingly positive ones in the same time. So one big piece of advice is to remember that everyone struggles with motivation and frustration, and that struggling with it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

I also self-monitor very carefully, which helps a lot. There is a history of depression in my family so from early childhood I learned about it and learned to watch myself carefully for symptoms, to talk to friends about it and ask them to keep an eye out, etc. I learned to observe my mood and listen to my body, to notice what small environmental changes can help me concentrate better, work better, feel better (I concentrate better when slightly chilly, for example, which is why I usually wear sleeveless shirts , and I feel happier when I exercise semi-regularly and when I’ve washed my hair recently. Why? Who knows, but now that I know that I can use it to keep my spirits up.) Fortunately I’ve never had bad depression the way my family has, despite being at great risk and extra risk because chronic pain, which I do have, so often brings depression with it. But I think learning about it young and watching myself carefully, and surrounding myself with supportive friends, has done wonders for giving me healthy work habits. I make sure to have meals with friends often, to take breaks for board games or interactive fun often (studies show that interactive fun like a conversation or watching a show together is more emotionally restorative than passive fun like vegging out with the TV). It’s not for nothing that the Utopian oath mentions taking the rest and leisure you need to be your most productive, which can be a lot! The oath really means that working is your default, rest/play your mandatory assignment, rather than the other way around.

This got rather rambly, sorry. But above all I recommend going forward and doing and making and writing more and more, always having a next project in mind, never stopping to dwell on one. As Jo put it in her poem “Go away and be more awesome.

 

 

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From Ada’s AMA: Writing

On 11th January 2018, Ada did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. I’m preserving the most interesting parts of it here. In this post, questions about reading and writing.

quite_vague: It’s amazing to me that Terra Ignota is your fiction debut; it’s so ambitious and accomplishes so much.

How did you manage to write Terra Ignota as your first published work? What other writing have you done along the way? Do you have any thoughts or observations on a debut that’s managed to be ambitious, unusual, and popular as well?

Ada: First, yes, it’s unusually polished and ambitious for a first novel. One fact that helps is that it isn’t the first series I planned or the first novel draft that I finished. In fact this was the fourth series I planned, and I’d already written complete drafts of three earlier novels, each the first of a different series. So, unlike people whose first published novel was their first full novel-length project, I’d already had the experience several times of planning a world, creating an outline, following it from beginning to end, giving it to beta readers, polishing it up etc. That experience helped a ton, and is definitely a big part of why these books came out so well. I may someday go back and (now that I’m a better writer) write better versions of those story worlds; something for my long to-do list.

This is also why, whenever I talk to an aspiring novelist who has written a first novel and is stuck in the frustrating phase of sending it off and getting rejection letters, I always encourage the person to go write novel #2. I have a big fat folder of rejection letters for my first, second, and third novels/series, many generic, some encouraging which, as I look at them now, I can tell meant that the drafts were already pretty good and that the editors who rejected them saw potential in me, enough for them to send personalized, encouraging rejections instead of form letters. Though I got my share of form letters too. But what I’m infinitely glad of is that I didn’t get discouraged with the rejection of the first one, nor did I get obsessed with selling that one project and stuck in a rut polishing it over and over, or getting angry that people wouldn’t take it. I always held on to the conviction that the next one would be better, the next one better than that, and that eventually one would be good enough.

My academic writing also definitely helped. Academic writing often has strict length limits, which require me to communicate complicated ideas in limited words, and forced me to learn the art of concision. The Terra Ignota books are pretty long, so most people wouldn’t associate them with concision, but I do think a lot about being concise in every line and paragraph, since the more information you pack into fewer words the more powerful prose becomes. That doesn’t mean I don’t take plenty of time off for little touches, descriptions, Mycroft tangents etc., but when I do so it’s because I’ve thought hard about the content I’m trying to convey there, and determined that it’s valuable, not just for that sentence, but for the mood, the character development, the reader’s emotional arc. Whether it’s a “she sighed” or a description of the glittering water outside a harbor, I really have read over every line carefully to make sure every word matters. Learning to do that helps so much.

One time in my third year of grad school I had to cut a 16,000 word paper down to an 8,000 word presentation, so I paused my then-current novel project for a while and worked and worked until I got the paper short. And then when I went back to writing the novel draft it’s amazing there’s this line, what I’d written before I did that and what I wrote after, and suddenly BOOM the prose is better. IT’s the only kind of exercise I’ve ever found that really improves writing quickly. That’s why I always recommend the “Half and Half Again” exercise to people: take an old thing you wrote (an academic paper, a chapter, a letter, anything) and make yourself cut it down to half the word count without removing any content. It’s agony but it’s so good for learning where the slack is in your writing, how you can make it more powerful. After you do it, put it in a drawer for six months, then get it out and make yourself do it again. It can do wonders for your prose. Of course it can go too far, and you don’t want to cut all descriptions or all adverbs or something crazy like that, but it teaches you to think through every word, what it achieves, and whether another tighter way of putting it might give you more power.

Other writing: academic articles and books, historical notes for the Hetalia TV series DVD release and the Mythical Detective Loki DVD release (those sure required concision since they have to fit on a screen!), and blogging on ExUrbe.com and Tor.com

Scottynuttz: After Terra Ignota, do you have other science fiction ambitions?

Ada: Yes, first a more fantasy series with Viking Mythology, and then a couple SF things planned for after that. It’ll be a few years, because I worldbuild slowly, but they’re coming!

Book Recs

Madscientistninja: What other books (fiction and nonfiction) would you suggest for someone who has completely fallen in love with the French Renaissance period because of the way you have portrayed it in Terra Ignota?

Ada: Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist is always my top pick. This won’t sound flattering, but it’s like Terra Ignota with no plot. It’s like Mycroft’s narration but with no story, just pure narration. It’s gorgeous. I also can’t overrecommend Alan Kors’ lectures on the 17th and 18th centuries.

Praecipitantur: Given the content of Apollo’s Iliad, I have to ask: What are your favorite mecha animes?

Ada: Gundam is my favorite Mecha, and I have a whole bookcase of Gundam in my anime room. I really love how it comments on war and whether individuals can make a difference in war, and I love comparing the series to each other, looking at how the same archetypes and events are re-framed in parallel narratives in original MS, Zeta, Wing, Seed etc. My single favorite is probably Gundam Seed, which was new as I was finishing writing Too Like the Lightning, so the parallels kept making me extra happy. I also love the moral and theological parts of Evangelion (I have a big collection of figures of Nagisa Kaworu), and I absolutely love the original Gunbuster, not quite a normal Mecha but in the space. And I like Nadeshiko, Escaflowne, Gasaraki, Shingu… I have RahXephon and Gurren Lagann in my to-watch stack but have been sidetracked doing a fresh pass through Double Zeta and am excited to finally watch Turn-A, so those are backburner for a while.

Also does anyone know if the new rerelease of Gundam Wing is a better translation? I want to show it to a friend but only have the horrible dubtitled old US release and am desperately hoping the new deluxe one has a new translation. I phoned Right Stuf but they said they weren’t sure.

Also, if there’s one other anime that was a big influence it was Reign: Obsession of Alexander. Especially the relationship between Alexander and Olympias for the relationship between J.E.D.D. Mason and Madame.

And Kenshin had a non-negligible influence on my concept for Mycroft Canner, especially the domesticity, and the sudden switching to the old dormant personality.

Chtorr: What were your favourite books as a kid?

Ada: When I was little I read a lot of Brian Jacques novels, a lot of Sherlock Holmes, and Tolkien. Also, through my father’s recommendations, Heinlein, Bester, and Asimov. I also had the Derek Jacobi audiobook of Homer’s Iliad (Fagles translation) and listened to it over and over.

Injygo: What’s the most recent book you’ve fallen in love with?

Ada: The manga Ooku, by Fumi Yoshinaga. BRILLIANT. Such exquisite storytelling, use of history, characters, art, gender stuff, just so good!

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Discontinuity and Empathy: a non-review of “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys.

9781466868946
Illustration by Allen Williams, for Tor.com

On the one hand, I have been looking forward for ages to reading and then writing something about “The Litany of Earth,” an amazing novelette by Ruthanna Emrys, acquired for Tor.com by editor Carl Engle-Laird.  But on the other hand I personally usually dislike reading reviews, at least traditional reviews of things I have already decided to read.  When a reviewer tells me about what I’m going to experience and what excellent things the author is going to do, it disrupts the reading process for me, makes the things mentioned in the review stand out too boldly, interfering with the craftsmanship of a good story in which the author has taken great pains to give each beat just the right amount of emphasis, no more, no less.  The memory of the review in my mind makes it like a used book which someone has gone through with highlighter, which can be fascinating as a window on a fellow reader, and delightful for a reread, but it isn’t what I want on first meeting a new text, which in my ideal world consists of me, the reader, placing myself wholly and directly in the hands of the author, with the editor’s touch there too to help spot us along the way.  I do not need a co-pilot.  And it is more of a problem, for me at least, with short fiction than with long fiction since the review could be half as long as the story and weigh me down with nearly as much weight as the whole thing carries.  So, today I have set myself the challenge of writing a review, or non-review, of “The Litany of Earth” that isn’t a co-pilot, or a highlighter, and does as much as possible to get across the story’s strengths and the power of the reading experience while doing my best not to change the relative weight of anything in the story, make anything jump out too boldly, leaving the craftsmanship as untouched as it can be.

I have a seven step plan.  (Personal rule: anything with three or more steps counts as a plan. Also, “Profit” is not a step, it’s an outcome, and does not count toward your total of three.)

  1. Recommend you go read “The Litany of Earth” now before I can spoil anything.
  2. Talk amorphously about things the story is doing with structure and world-canon, talking more concretely about a few other pieces of fiction that have done somewhat similar things.
  3. Ramble about Petrarch.
  4. Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…
  5. Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.
  6. Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.
  7. Sing.

Step One: I strongly recommend that you go read “The Litany of Earth” right now.  It’s free online, and if you read it now you won’t be stuck with an intrusive co-pilot even if I do fail in today’s challenge of writing a non-review.

Step Two: Talk amorphously, and compare the story to other works of fiction.

hb_1972.118.224One of the unique literary assets of current fiction is the proliferation of familiar but elaborate and thoroughly developed fictional worlds which authors can step into and use for new purposes.  There have always been such worlds as long as there has been literature.  Arthuriana is my favorite pre-modern example, a complex and well-populated world rich with explorable relationships and flexible metaphysics ready to be elaborated upon and repurposed.  Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory and Petrarch and Ariosto and the traditional artists in Naples who decorated (and still decorate) street vendor wagons with Arthur’s knights each repurposed Arthuriana just like Marion Zimmer Bradley and and Monty Python and Gargoyles and Heather Dale and Babylon 5 and the endlessly hilarious antics of the BBC’s Merlin.  Each of the later authors in the genealogy has taken advantage not only of the plot, setting and characters but knowing that readers have genre expectations.

In the early 1500s when Ariosto began his chivalric and slightly-Arthurian verse epic Orlando Furioso he took advantage of the fact that readers already associated the topic with epic works and grand tourneys and knights and ladies and courtly-love adultery, baggage which let him write a massive and endless rambling snarl of disjointed and fantastic adventurousness so unwieldy that traditional epic structure is to Orlando Furioso as a sturdy rope is to the unassailable rat’s nest of broken headphones and cables for forgotten electronics that I just fished out of this bottom drawer.  c_orlando20furioso2019511No reader, not even in 1516, would put up with it without the promise of Arthurian grandeur to make its massive scale feel appropriate.  (I will also argue that the BBC Merlin, for all its tomatoes and giant scorpions, has not actually done anything quite so unreasonable as the point when Ariosto has “Saint Merlin” rise from his tomb to deliver an endless rambling prophecy about how awesome Ariosto’s boss Ipollito D’Este is going to be.  Fan service long predates the printing press.)  In a more recent continuation of this tradition, modern Arthurian adaptations have given us the previously-silenced P.O.V.s of women, of villains, of third-tier characters, and in some sense it’s quite modern to think about P.O.V. at all.  But even very old adaptations take advantage of how not just setting but genre is an asset usable to get the reader to follow the author to places a reader might not normally be willing to go.  And, of course, in more recent versions authors have taken advantage of exploring silenced P.O.V.s to critique earlier Arthurian works and their blind spots, as a way of reaching the broader blindnesses and silencings of the past stages of our own society that birthed these worlds.

Japan's new "Princess Arthur" lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It's not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.
Japan’s new “Princess Arthur” lets you date the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not actually goofier than what Ariosto did to Arthuriana in the 1500s.

“Is ‘The Litany of Earth’ Arthuriana?” you may wonder.  No.  It uses a different mythos.  I bring up Arthuriana in order to remind you of the many great things you’ve seen humans create by using and reusing a familiar collective fiction, and in order to reinforce my earlier claim that one of the great assets of current fiction is that we have many, many such worlds.  If pre-modern Earth had several dozen rich, lively, reusable mythoi and epic settings, the 20th century has added many, many more in which good (and campy) things have and can be done. Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, Gundam, the massive united comics universes of Marvel and DC, these each provide as much complexity and material for reuse and reframing as the richest ancient epics, more if, for example, you compare the countless thousands of pages of surviving X-Men to the fragile little Penguin Classics collections of Eddas and fragmentary sagas which preserve what little we still have of the Norse mythic cosmos.  Marvel’s universe, and DC’s too, have a fuller population and a more elaborate and eventful history than any mythos we have inherited from antiquity, and my own facetious in-character reviews of the Marvel movies are but the shallowest tip of what can be done with it.

Marvels_(Alex_Ross)The specific case of this kind of rich reuse whose parallels to “The Litany of Earth” are what brought me down this line analysis comes from the Marvel comics megaverse, the unique and skinny stand-alone Marvelsby Kurt Busiek, illustrated by Alex Ross.  What it does with the narrative possibilities of the Marvel universe is very much worth looking at even if one doesn’t care a jot about comics.

Described from the outside and ignoring, for a moment, that these are comic books, the Marvel universe presents us with an Earth-like alternate history in which disasters–supernatural, alien, primordial, divine–have repeatedly threatened Earth, the universe, and, most often, New York City with certain destruction.  These have been repeatedly repelled by superheroes, somewhat human somewhat not, and the P.O.V. from which we the reader have always viewed these events has been as one of the superpeople at the heart of the battle, deeply enmeshed in the passionate immediacy of the short-term drama, nemeses, kidnappings, personal backstory, and who’s dead lately.  Only rarely have we had works that gave us a longer perspective over time, reflecting personal change, evolving perspectives, how being constantly enmeshed in superbusiness makes a person develop and self-reflect, though notably the works that have done so have been among superhero comics’ shining stars (Dark Knight Returns, Red Son, Watchmen.)

Marvels instead offers a long-term and distanced P.O.V., that of a photographer who lives in New York City and, during his path from rookie to retirement, experiences in order the great, visible cataclysms that have repeatedly shaken Marvel’s Earth.  His perspective gives historicity, sentiment, reflection and above all realism to Marvel, using it as alternate history rather than an action setting.  The effect is powerful, beautiful and highly recommended for the way it weaves the richness of Marvel’s setting together with good writing to create a truly valuable work of literature.  But it also reverses an interesting silencing which has been present in the back of Marvel, and superhero comics, since their inception: the silencing of the Public.

marvelsVery much like the women in early versions of Arthuriana, the Public in Marvel (and DC) has not been an agent in itself, but an object to motivate the hero.  The Public exists to be rescued, protected, placated, evaded, sometimes feared.  The Public has cheered P.O.V. heroes, hounded them, betrayed them, threatened them with pitchforks and torches, somehow being tricked over and over again into doubting the heros even after the last seventeen times they were exonerated.  The Marvel Public specifically also persistently hates and fears the X-Men and other mutants despite being saved by them sixteen jillion times, and somehow hates and fears the other heros less even though many of them are aliens or science freaks or robots or other things just as weird as mutants.  It is a tool of the author, manipulated by villains, oppressing misfits, causing tension, but virtually never is the reader asked to empathize with the Public.  The object of empathy is the hero, or occasionally the villain, but the reader is never supposed to identify with or even think about the emotions of the screaming and yet simultaneously silenced mob.  Marvels gives us, at last, the point of view of that mob, or at least one member of it, directing our self-identification and above all our empathy for the first time to something which has been hitherto faceless.

The effect is rather like a stroll through the Uffizi enjoying endless scenes of exciting saints surrounded by choruses of beautiful angels and then hitting the Botticelli room where each angel has a distinctive face and personality and you find yourself wondering what that angel is thinking when it watches Mary come to heaven to be crowned its queen, or sings music for young John the Baptist whose grisly end and subsequent heavenly ascension the angel already knows.  Only when Botticelli invites you to see the angels as individuals do you realize that no earlier painting ever did.  They had a failure of empathy.  They were still beautiful, but here is a rich new direction for empathy which no earlier work has asked us to consider, and which opens up a huge arena we had ignored.  Women in Arthuriana; the Public in Marvel; the angels that stand around in paintings of saints.

Cimabue-Pre-Giotto Alterpiece

Botticelli_1483-85 Magnificat Madonna

In just the same way, “The Litany of Earth” uses empathy and P.O.V. to open rich new arenas in one of our other well-known modern fictional settings.  And the setting it uses has a fundamental and very problematic failure of empathy rooted deep in its foundations, so addressing that head-on opens a very potent door.

And since I can feel the urge to talk about Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto becoming harder to resist, I believe it is now time to nip that in the bud by moving on to the next stage of my plan.

hob_france7aStep Three: Ramble about Petrarch.

Picture Petrarch in his library, holding his Homer.  He has just received it, and turns the stiff vellum pages slowly, his fingertips brushing the precious verses that he has dreamed of since his boyhood.   The Iliad in his hands.  His friends have always whispered to him of the genius that was Homer, his real friends, not the shortsighted fools he grew up with in Avignon, arrogant Frenchman and slavish Italians like his parents who followed the papacy and its trail of gold even when France snatched it away from Rome.  His real friends are long-dead Romans: Cicero, Seneca, Caesar, men like him who love learning, love virtue, love literature, love Rome and Italy enough to fight and give their lives for it, love truth and excellence enough to write of it with passion and powerful words that sting the reader into wanting to become a better person.

images (1)Petrarch was born in exile.  Not just the geographic exile of his family from their Florentine homeland, no, something deeper.  An exile in time.  This world has no one he can relate to, no one whose thoughts are shaped like his, who walks the Roman roads and feels the flowing currents of the Empire, whose understanding of the world connects from Egypt up to Britain without being blinded by ephemeral borders, who can name the Muses and knows how truly rich it is to taste the arts of all nine, and how truly poor one is without.  Antiquity was his native time, he knows it, but antiquity was cut off too early–he was born too late.  His friends are dead, but their voices live, a few, in chunks, in the books in distant libraries which he has spent his life and fortune gathering.  His library.  Each volume a new shard of a missing friend, those few, battered whispers of ancient voices which survived the Medieval cataclysm that consumed so much.  And now, after hearing so many of his friends speak of Homer, call him the Prince of Poets, the climax of all art and literature, divine epic, the centerpiece of all the ancient world, he has it in his hands.  It survived.  Homer.  In Greek.  And he can’t read it.  Not a word of it.  Greek is gone.  No one can read it anymore, no one.  Homer.  He has it in his hand, but he can’t read it, and for all he knows no one ever will again.

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This historical moment, Petrarch with his Homer, is one of the most poignant I have ever met in my scholarship.  A portrait of discontinuity.  The pain when the chain of cultural transmission, of old hands grasping young, that should connect past, present and future is cut off.  The cataclysm doesn’t have to be complete to be enough to disrupt, to silence, to jumble, to leave too little, Greek without Homer, Homer without Greek. Petrarch is a Roman.  They all are, he and his Renaissance Italians, they have the blood of the Romans, the lands of the Romans, the ruins of the Romans, but not enough for Petrarch to ever really have the life he might have had if he’d been born in the generation after Cicero, and with his Homer in his hands he knows it.

ancient-booksPetrarch did his best.  He spent his life collecting the books of the ancients, trying to reassemble the Library of Alexandria, the pinnacle, he knew, of the culture and education which had made the Romans who had made his world.  He found many shards, eventually enough that it took more than ten mules to carry his library when he journeyed from city to city.  He journeyed much, working everywhere with voice and pen to convince others to share his passion for antiquity, to read the ancients that could be read, Cicero, Seneca, to learn to think as they did and to try to push this world to be Roman again, which for him meant peaceful, broad-reaching, stable, cultured and strong.  People listened, and we have the libraries and cathedrals and Michelangelos they made in answer.  And Petrarch never gave up on Homer either, but searched the far corners of the Earth for someone with a hint of Greek and eventually, late in life, did find someone to make a jumbled, fragmentary translation, nothing close to what a second-year-Greek student could produce today let alone a fluid translation, but a taste.  By late in life he had his New Library of Alexandria, and real hope that it might rear new Romans.

Venice's great late Renaissance Marciana Library.
Venice’s great late Renaissance Marciana Library, where Petrarch’s library isn’t.

Petrarch wanted to give the library to Florence, to help his homeland make itself the new Rome, but Florence was too caught up with its own faction fighting for anyone to stably take it.  Venice was the taker in the end, and he hoped his library would make the great port city like the Alexandria of old, the hub where all books came, and multiplied, and spread.  Venice put Petrarch’s library in a humid warehouse and let it rot.  We lost it.  We lost it again.  We lost it the first time because of Vandals and corrupt emperors and economic transformation and plague and all the other factors that conspired to make the Roman Empire decline and fall, but we lost it the second time because Venice is humid and no one cared enough to devote space and expense to a library, even the famous collection of the famous Petrarch. Such a tiny cataclysm, but enough to make discontinuity again.  We have learned better since.  Petrarch had followers who formed new libraries, Poggio, Niccolo, they repeated Petrarch’s effort, finding books.  Eventually princes and governments realized there was power in knowledge.  Venice built the Marciana library right at the main landing, so when foreigners arrive in St. Mark’s square they are surrounded by the three facets of power, State in the Doge’s Palace, Church in the Basilica, and Knowledge in the Library.  And now we have our Penguin Classics.  But we don’t have Petrarch’s library, and we know he had things that were rare, originals, transcriptions of things later lost.  There are ancients who made it as far as Petrarch, all the way to the late 1300s, through Vandals, Mongols and the Black Death, before we lost them to one short-sighted disaster.  Discontinuity.  We have Homer.  We don’t know what Petrarch had that we don’t.

This was one of two historical vignettes that came vividly before my mind while I was reading “The Litany of Earth.”  The second is…

Step Four: Ramble about Diderot.  Dear, dear Diderot…

denis_diderot_2fm4I must be very careful here.  Even though my focus is Renaissance and my native habitat F&SF, Denis Diderot remains my favorite author. Period.  My favorite in the history of words.  So it is very easy for me to linger too long .  But I invoke him today for a very specific reason and shall confine myself strictly to one circumscribed subtopic, however hard the copy of Rameau’s Nephew on my desk stares back.

Three quarters of the way through my survey course on the history of Western thought, I start a lecture by declaring that the Enlightenment Encyclopedia project was the single noblest undertaking in the history of human civilization.  I say it because of the defiant, “bring it on!” glances I instantly get from the students, who switch at once from passive listening to critical judgment as they arm themselves with the noblest human undertakings they can think of, and gear up to see if I can follow through on my bold boast.  I want that.  I want their minds to be full of the Moon Landing, and the Spartans at Thermopylae, and Gandhi, and the US Declaration of Independence, and Mother Teresa, and the Polynesians who braved the infinite Pacific in their tiny log boats; I want it all in their minds’ eyes as I begin.

imagesThe Encyclopédie was the life’s work of a century on fire.  The newborn concept Progress had taken flight, convincing France and Europe that the human species have the power to change the world instead of just enduring it, that we can fight back against disease, and cold, and mountain crags, and famine cycles, and time, and make each generation’s experience on this Earth a little better.  The lion has its claws and strength, the serpent fangs and stealth, the great whales the force of the leviathan, but humans have Reason, and empiricism, and language to let us collaborate, discuss, examine, challenge, and form communities of scientists and thinkers who, like the honeybee, will gather the best fruits of nature and, processing them with our own inborn gifts, produce something good and sweet and useful for the world.  The tone here is Francis Bacon’s, but Voltaire popularized it, and by now the fresh passion for collaboration and improvement of the human world had already birthed Descartes’ mathematics, Newton’s optics, Locke’s inalienable rights, calculus, and the Latitudinarian movements toward rational religion which seemed they might finally soothe away the wars that lingered from the Reformation.  Everything could be improved if keen minds applied reason to it, from treatments for smallpox which could be preventative instead of palliative, to Europe’s law codes which were not rational constructions but mongrel accumulations of tradition and centuries-old legislation passed during half-forgotten crises and old power struggles whose purpose died with the clans and dynasties that made them but which still had the power to condemn a feeling, thinking person to torture and death.

DiderotLoomThe Encyclopédie had many purposes.  Perhaps the least ambitious was to turn every citizen of Earth into a honeybee.  Plato had said that only a tiny sliver of human souls were truly guided by reason–able to become Philosopher Kings–while the vast majority were inexorably dominated by base appetites, the daily dose of food and rest and lust, or by the wild but selfish passions of ambition and pride.  For two millennia all had agreed, and even when the Renaissance boasted that human souls could rival angels in dignity and glory through the light of learning and the power of Reason, they meant the souls of a tiny, literate elite.  But in 1689 John Locke had argued that humans are born blank slates, and nurture rather than an innate disposition of the soul separated young Newton from his father’s stable boy.  The Encyclopédie set out to enable universal education, to collect basic knowledge of all subjects in a form accessible to every literate person, and to their illiterate friends who crowded around to hear new chapters read aloud in the heady excitement of its first release.  With such an education, everyone could be a honeybee of Progress, and exponential acceleration in discovery and social improvement would birth a better world.  So overwhelming was public demand that Europe ran out of paper, of printer’s ink, even ran out of the types of metal needed to make printing presses, so many new print shops appeared to plagiarize and print and sell more and more copies of the book which promised such a future (See F. A. Kafker, “The Recruitment of the Encyclopedists”).

Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot's contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.
Not just French and Greek, the Encyclopedia even tries to help us read Japanese and other alphabets new and strange to Diderot’s contemporaries. A wide, inclusive world.

Yet Diderot and his compatriots had another goal which shows itself in the structure of the Encyclopédie as well as in its bold opening essay.  The second half of the 17 volume series is devoted to visual material, a series of beautiful and immensely complicated technical plates which illustrate technology and science.  How to fire china dishes, smelt ore, weave rope, irrigate fields, construct ships, calculate distance, catalog fossils and decorate carriages, all are illustrated in loving detail, with diagrams of every tool and its use, every factory and its layout, every human body at work in some complex motion necessary to turn cotton into cloth or rag into precious paper.  With this half of the Encyclopédie it is possible to teach one’s self every technological achievement of the age.  The first half was intended to provide the same for thought.  With its essays it should be possible to understand from their roots the philosophies, ethical systems, law codes, customs, religions, great thinkers of the past and present, all aspects of life and the history of humankind’s evolving mental world. It is a snapshot.  A time capsule.  With this–Diderot smiles thinking it–with this, if a new Dark Age fell upon humanity and but a single copy of the Encyclopédie survived, it would be possible to reconstruct all human progress. With this, the great steps forward, the hard-earned produce of so many lives, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Polynesian log boats, will be safe forever.  We can’t fall back into the dark again. With this, human achievement is immortal. Yes, Petrarch, it even details how to read, and print, and translate Greek.

Let’s linger on that thought a moment.  A beautiful, unifying, optimistic, safe, human moment, warm, like when I first heard that, yes, eventually Petrarch did get to read a sliver of his Homer.  Because I’m not going to keep talking about dear Diderot today, much as I would like to.

Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.
Fire at the National Archives in Kew London, Feb. 14, 2014.

In 2012/13 we lost 170,000 volumes from the Egyptian Scientific Institute in Cairo to the revolution, 20,000 unique manuscripts in Timbuktu library to a militia fire, and we have barely begun to count the masses of original scientific material burned during a corrupt botched cost-saving effort to reduce the size of the Libraries of Fisheries and Oceans of Canada. More than half of the entries on Wikipedia’s list of destroyed libraries were destroyed after the printing of the Encyclopédie, and the libraries on the list are only a miniscule fraction of the texts lost to disasters, natural and manmade.  It doesn’t even list Petrarch’s library, let alone the unique contents of the personal libraries and works that accumulate in every house now that we’re all honeybees.  Diderot tried so hard to make it all immortal.  He tried so hard he used up all the ink and paper in the world.  Yet if my numbers for printing history are right, in the past half century we have destroyed more written material than had been produced in the cumulative history of the Earth up until Diderot’s day. And that does not count World Wars.  We’re getting better.  On February 14th 2014 a fire at the British National Archives threatening thousands of documents, many centuries old, was successfully quenched with no damage to the collection, thanks substantially to advances in our understandings of fluids and pressure made in the 17th and 18th centuries and neatly explained by the Encyclopédie.  That much is indeed immortal (thank you, Diderot!) but much is so very far from everything. It’s still so easy to make mistakes.

One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is

18217One of the most powerful mistakes, for me, is this cenotaph monument of Diderot, in the Pantheon in Paris, celebrating his contributions and how the Encyclopedia and enlightenment enabled so much of the liberty and rights and change that defines our era. Voltaire’s tomb was moved to the Pantheon, Rousseau’s too, but for Diderot there is only this empty cenotaph. I went on a little pilgrimage once to visit Diderot in the out-of-the-way Church of Saint-Roch, where he was buried.  There is no tomb to visit.  During the French Revolution, Saint-Roch was attacked and mostly destroyed by revolutionaries (carrying banners with Encyclopedist slogans on them!) who, in their zeal to torch the old regime, forgot that their own Diderot was among the Catholic trappings they could only see as symbols of oppression.  Once rage and zeal had died down Paris and all France much lamented the mistake, and many others, too late.

Did I mention we very nearly lost Diderot’s work too?  A far more frightening loss than just his body.  Diderot didn’t include himself, his own precious original intellectual contributions, in his Encyclopédie.  He knew he couldn’t.  He was an atheist, you see.  A real one, not one of these people we suspect like Hobbes and Machiavelli, but an overt atheist who wrote powerful, deeply speculative books trying to hash out the first moral system without divinity in it, fledgling works of an intellectual tradition which was just then being born, since even a few decades earlier no one had dared set pen to paper, for fear of social exile and ready fire and steel of Church and law.  But Diderot didn’t publish his own works, not even anonymously.  He self-censored.  He was the figurehead of the Encyclopédie.  An atheist was too frightening back then, too strange, too other.  If people had known an atheist was part of it, the project would have been dead in the water.  Diderot left instructions for future generations to print his works someday, if the manuscripts survived, but gambling with his own legacy was a price he was willing to pay to immortalize everyone else’s.  The surviving manuscript of Rameau’s Nephew in Diderot’s own hand turned up by chance at a used bookshop 1823, one chance street fire away from silence.

Step Five: Urge you to read “The Litany of Earth” again, last chance before I get out my highlighter.

Here you get points if you read it before getting this far.  It’s free on Tor.com, but you really liked it you can also buy the ebook for a dollar, and give money to Ruthanna and to Tor, and tell them you like excellent original fiction that does brave things with race and historicity.

Step Six: Talk about “The Litany of Earth” directly.

9781466868946
Illustration by Allen Williams

This is a Cthulhu Mythos story which is in no way horror.   The richly-designed populated metaphysics and macrohistorical narrative of Lovecraft’s universe is here, but as a tool for reflection on society and self, with a narrative that bears no resemblance in to the classic tense and chilling horror short stories I (for some reason) enjoy as bedtime reading. Ruthanna Emrys uses Lovecraft’s world to comment on Lovecraft’s writing and the deeply ingrained sexism and especially racism that saturates it, repurposing that into a tool to make us think more about the effects of silencing and othering which Lovecraft used his skill and craftsmanship to lure us into participating in.  But the message and questions are universal enough that the target audience is not Lovecraft readers or horror readers but any reader who has even a vague distant awareness that the Lovecraft Mythos is a thing, as one has a vague distant awareness of Celtic or Navajo mythology even if one doesn’t study them.  If there is any horror in this story, it is the familiar reality that the things we make and do and are are perishable, that human action often worsens that, and that at the end of all our aeons and equations we face entropy.  But rather than presuming (as Lovecraft and much horror does) that facing that will lead to mad cackling and gibberish, the story presents the real things we do to try to face that: spirituality, cultural identity, and the effort to preserve the past and transmit it to the future.  It turns a setting which was created a vehicle for horror into a vehicle for social commentary and historical reflection.

I suppose I should directly address Lovecraft’s failures of empathy, for those less familiar with his work, or who have met it mainly through its fun, recent iterations in board games and reuses which strive to leave behind the baggage.  Racism, sexism, classism and other uncomfortable attitudes are not unexpected in an author who lived from 1890 to 1937.  We encounter unpalatable depictions of people of color, and equally unpalatable valorizations of entrenched elites, in most literature of the period, from M. R. James to the original Sherlock Holmes.  In Lovecraft’s case, the challenge for those who want to continue to work with his universe is that many of the racist and classist elements are worked deeply into the fabric of his worldbuilding.  Many of his frightening inhuman races are clearly used to explore his fear of racial minorities, while the keys to battling evil are reserved for elites, like the affluent, white, male scholars who control his libraries, and the Great Race which controls the greatest library.

The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.
The board game Arkham Horror does many excellently entertaining things with Lovecraft, but minimizes the diversity issues rather than repurposing them.

While many attempts to rehabilitate and use Lovecraft’s world do so by excising these elements, or minimizing them, or balancing them out by letting you play ethnically diverse characters in a Lovecraft game, this story instead uses those very elements as weapons against the kinds of attitudes which birthed them.  If the scary fish-people represent a demonized racial “other” then let them remain exactly that, and show them suffering what targeted minorities have suffered in historical reality.  By reversing the point of view and placing the reader within the perspective of the “other”, the original failure of empathy is transformed into a triumph of empathy.  Now we are in the place of a woman for whom Lovecraft’s spooky cult rituals are her Passover or Easter, the mysterious symbols her alphabet,  “Iä, Cthulhu . . . ” is the comforting prayer she thinks to herself when terrified, and a Necronomicon on Charlie’s shelf is Petrarch’s Homer.

And we aren’t asked to empathize with only one group. We empathize with those deprived of education, in the form of Aphra’s brother Caleb, taking on the classist negative depictions of “degenerate” white rural families common in Lovecraft’s work.  With the plight of the Jews and other groups targeted in Germany, invoked by Specter’s discussion of his aunt. With those facing physical and medical challenges, invoked in the powerful opening lines where Aphra describes the pleasure she finds in facing the daily difficulty of walking uphill while she slowly heals. And with women, rarely granted any remotely coequal  agency in literature of Lovecraft’s era. Not only is this story a powerful triumph of empathy, but after reading it, whenever we reread original Lovecraft, or anything set in his world, the memory of Aphra Marsh and her tender prayer will forever change the meaning of “Iä, iä, Cthulhu thtagn…”  The triumph of empathy diffuses past the boundaries of this story, to enrich our future reading.

Another striking facet is that this is a story about legacy, continuity and deep history that manages to address those questions using only very recent history. Usually stories that want to talk about the deep past use material from periods we associate with the deep past: medieval, Roman Empire, Renaissance, Inuits, Minoans, anything we associate with dusty manuscripts and archaeology and anthropology and old culture.  Even I in this entry, when trying to evoke the themes and feelings of this story, went back centuries and consequently had to spend a lot of time explaining to the reader the history I’m talking about (what’s Petrarch’s Homer, what’s up with Diderot, etc.) before I could get to what I wanted to do with it.  This story instead uses contemporary history, events so recent and familiar that we all know it already, and have seen its direct effects in those around us and ourselves, or have tried to not see said effects.  As a result, the story doesn’t have the baggage of having to explain its history. Instead of needing footnotes and exposition, it touches us directly and personally with our own history and makes us directly face the fact that we too are part of the link of transmission attempting to connect past to future, and our failures can still heal or harm that just as much as Visigoths, the Black Death or the Encyclopédie. The use of modern history makes it impossible for us to distance ourselves, greatly enhancing its power.

I have already discussed, in my own roundabout way using Diderot and Petrarch and Marvel comics, many of the key themes which make this story so powerful: othering, empathy, reversal of point of view, legacy, silencing, translation and transmission, and discontinuity, how easy it is for the powerful engine of society to make mistakes that cut the precious thread. The power with which this story is able to present that theme demonstrates perfectly, for me, the potency of genre fiction as a tool, not for escapism or entertainment, but for depicting reality and history. The tragic discontinuities created by World War II, the destruction of life, education and cultural inheritance generated not only by the most gruesome facets of the war but also by great mistakes like the treatment of Japanese Americans, are difficult to communicate in full with such accurate but emotionless descriptive phrases as, “people were rounded up and held in prison camps.”  Attempts to communicate the genuine human impact of such an event easily fall so short.  We try hard, but often fail.  As a teacher, I remember well the flurry of discussion which surrounded some High School history textbooks which, in their efforts to do justice to the often-silenced story of interned Japanese Americans, had a longer section about that than it did about the rest of the war.  Opponents of political correctness used it as a talking point to rail against liberalism gone too far, while apologists focused on the harm done by silencing the events.  Yet for me, the centerpiece was the fact that textbooks had to devote that much space to attempting to get the 9780802722775_p0_v3_s260x420issue across and still largely failed to communicate the event in a way that touched students.  “The Litany of Earth” communicates the same event very potently, using the tool of genre to make something most readers might see as only affecting “others” feel universal.  The large-scale horror of Lovecraft’s universe revolves around the inevitability that human achievement, and in the end all life, will fading into nothing.  The Yith and their library are the only hope for a legacy, one bought at the terrible price of what they do to those whose bodies they commandeer.  By creating a parallel between the fragility of all human achievement, preserved only by the Yith, and Aphra’s barely-literate brother Caleb writing of his doomed search for the family library which contained the history and legacy he and Aphra so desperately miss, the fantasy setting puts all readers in Aphra’s place, and the place of those interned, creating universal empathy which no textbook chapter could achieve; neither, in my opinion, could a non-fantasy short story, at least not with such deeply-cutting efficiency.  After reading this story, not only the events of Japanese American internment but many parallel situations feel more personally important, and one feels a new sense of personal investment in such issues as the fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive. This stoking of emotion and investment is a powerful and lingering achievement.

Structurally, the story interweaves experiences from different points in Aphra’s present–where she encounters Specter–with her past arriving in the city and encountering Charlie and his interest in her lost culture and languages.  The choice to depict the present scenes in past tense and the flashbacks in present tense might seem counterintuitive, but I found it a powerful and effective choice.  Past tense reads as “normal” in prose, so much so that we accept it as an uncomplicated way to depict the main moment of a narrative.  In contrast, especially when we have just come from a past tense section, the present tense feels extra-vivid, raw, invasive.  It feels like a very certain type of memory, the kind  so vivid that, when something reminds us of them, they jump to the forefront of our minds and blot out the here and now with the tense, unquenchable emotions of a very potent then. Trauma makes memories do this, but it is not the traumatic memories of camp life that we experience this way. Instead it is the vividness of tender moments of cultural experience: seeing precious books in Charlie’s study, sharing his drying river, warm things.  The transitions to vivid present tense make the reader think about memory and trauma without having to show traumatic events, while simultaneously highlighting how, in such a situation of discontinuity and cultural deprivation, the experiences which are most alive, which blaze in the memory, are these tiny, rare moments of connection, even tragically imperfect connection, with the ghostly echo of Aphra’s lost people.

For me, the triumphant surprise of the story comes in the end, when Aphra approaches the cultists, and chooses to act. Specter’s descriptions of bodies hanging from trees, combined with our familiarity with the copes of creepy cults in Lovecraft and outside, prepare us mid-story to expect that when Aphra approaches the cult they’ll be evil and insane, and she’ll overcome her resentment of the government and do what has to be done.  Or possibly the reversal will be stronger with that, and the cult will be good and nice, like Aphra, and the take-home message will be that Specter is wrong and Aphra and the cultists are all just misunderstood and oppressed.  It feels like the latter is where the story will take us when we see Wilder and Bergman, and Aphra finds comfort and companionship in participating in a badly-pronounced imitation of her native religion.  Even when we hear about the immortality ritual and Bergman refuses to listen to Aphra’s attempts to make her see that her ambition is an illusion, it still feels like we are in the narrative where the cultists are good but misunderstood, and the tragedy is just that there is such deep racial misunderstanding that even Cthulhu-worshipping Bergman cannot believe Aphra’s attempts to help her are sincere.  It is a real shock, then, when Aphra called in Specter to shut the group down, because the genre setting raises such a firm expectation that “bad cultist” = “blood and gore” that even when we read about Bergman’s two drowned predecessors it doesn’t register as “human sacrifice” or “bad cult.”  Aphra, unlike the reader, is unclouded by genre expectations, and shows us that, precious as this echo of her lost culture is to her, life is more precious still and requires action.  The ghostly echo of Aphra’s people that she shares with Charlie is precious enough to blaze in her memory, but she is willing to sacrifice the far more welcome possibility of being an actual priestess for people who sincerely want to share her religion, when she realizes that their cultural misunderstanding will cost human lives.  And she cares this deeply despite being an immortal among mortals.  The triumph of empathy is complete.

Unlike the numerous vampire stories and other tales which so often present immortals seeing themselves as different, special, unapproachable, and usually superior to mortals, here Aphra’s potential immortality enhances the uniqueness of her perspective and the depth of her loss, but without in any way diminishing her respect for and valuation of the short-lived humans that surround her. The grotesque folder of experimental records which is her mother’s cenotaph does make her reflect on how the loss is greater than the human murderers understood, but does not make her present it as fundamentally different from the deaths of humans, or make her (or us) see her suffering in any way more important or special than that of the Japanese family with whom she lives. The history of Earth that her people have learned from the Yith make her recognize that living until the sun dies is not forever, nor is even the lifespan of the planet-hopping Yith who will persist until the universe has run out of stars and ages to colonize. The Litany of Earth that she shares with Charlie is an equalizer, enabling empathy across even boundaries of mortality by placing finite and indefinite life coequally face-to-face with the ultimate challenges of entropy, extinction and the desire to find something valuable to cling to.  “At least the effort is real.”  This is something Charlie has despite his failing body, that Aphra’s brother has despite his deprived education, that Aphra has despite her painful solitude, a continuity that overcomes the tragic discontinuity and connects Aphra even with her lost parents, with ancestors, descendants, with forgotten races, races that have not yet evolved, races on distant worlds, races in distant aeons, and with the reader.

My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.
My favorite book on the history of magic. Primary sources.

One last facet I want to comment on is how the story portrays magic which is at the same time viscerally bodily and also beautiful and positive.  This is very unusual, and the more you know about the history of magic the clearer that becomes.  Magic, at least positive magic, is much more frequently depicted with connections to the immaterial and spiritual than the bodily: bolts of light, glowing auras, floating illusions, the spirits of great wizards powerfully transcending their age-worn mortal husks.  Magical effects that are bodily, using blood, distorting flesh, are usually bad, evil cultism, witchcraft.  This trope far predates modern fantasy writing.  I have documents from the Renaissance based on ones from Greece discussing magic and differentiating between the good kind which is based on study, scholarship, texts, words of power, perfection of the mind, the soul transcending the body, angelic flight, spiritual messengers, rays and auras of divine power, an intellectual, disembodied and male-dominated “good” magic contrasted, in the same types of texts, with the bad evil magic of ritual sacrifice, sexuality, animal forms, distortion of the body, contagion, blood and associated with witchcraft and with women.  Cultural baggage from the Middle Ages is hard to break from even now, and we see this in the palette of special effects Hollywood reserves for good wizards and bad wizards.  The tender, intimate, visceral but beautiful magic which Ruthanna Emrys has presented is authentic to Lovecraft and to the rituals we associate with “dark arts” and yet positive, a rehabilitation which works in powerful symbiosis with the story’s treatments of discrimination.  Since race and religion are so much in the center of the story, its treatment of gender rarely takes center stage, but in these depictions of magic especially it is potent nonetheless.

I’ll stop discussing the story here, since I resolved to make this review shorter than the story itself, and I’m running close to breaking that resolution.

Step Seven: Sing.

One of the most conspicuous effects when I first read “The Litany of Earth” was that it made me get one of my own songs firmly stuck in my head for many, many hours.  The piece is “Longer in Stories than Stone” and it is the big finale chorus to my Viking song cycle, a piece about the fragility of memory and the importance of historical transmission.  It is a different treatment but with similar themes, and I found that listening to it a few times live and over and over in my head helped me extend the feelings reading the story awoke in me, and let me continue to enjoy and contemplate its messages for several happy hours.  So to celebrate the release of the story (taking advantage of the fact that this blog is no longer anonymous) here is the song, and I hope it will do for you what it did for me and help me extend my period of pleasurable mulling.  I hope you enjoy:

If you want more stories by Ruthanna Emrys go here.  If you want to other excellent short fiction on Tor.com with related themes I recommend “Anyway Angie” and “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere”.  If you want to see more amazing things Kurt Busiek does by giving P.O.V. to traditionally silenced facets of modern superhero comics beyond just Marvels, try Astro City or the original run of Thunderbolts.  If you want to hear more of my Viking music, there’s some streaming on the Sassafrass site.

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The Thor 2 Gloat-A-Thon (an unbiased review of Thor 2: The Dark World)

Thor-Character-Movie-Poster-Set-1-Tom-Hiddleston-as-Loki-The-God-of-Mischief(This is a tongue-in-cheek in-character “review” of the “plot” of Marvell’s film Thor 2: The Dark World.  You are hereby warned that it is filled with spoilers, and that it is absolutely not a straight, serious review. For earlier installments in the series, see my reviews of Thor, Avengers, Iron Man III, and my Recap.)

It was a bit much, I admit.  There is something to be said for the elegance of a simple plan, something with just three steps, something like, say…

  1. Get back into Asgard by allowing myself to be captured.
  2. Escape during the next convenient (chance or pre-arranged) chaos.
  3. Steal all the awesome stuff!  (Cosmic Cube, Infinity Gauntlet, etc.)

But that little period of imprisonment between steps 1 and 2 required patience, and patience breeds… Well, you must have had the experience of that anxious period when you’re waiting for the fruits of something you were working on, and you just can’t help adding to it?  Yes I’m dressed for the dance, but surely I could shine my shoes and sew fresh trim onto this jacket.  Yes this dinner menu is sufficient, but surely there’s time to also make an apple pie, and cookies, and some quiche. You think, “I’ll add just another couple brush strokes to this landscape,” and next thing you know you’ve painted an entire town, with a train pulling into the station, and a tickertape parade.

Seriously, Tess of the D'Urbervilles?  This is bordering on cruel and unusual!
Seriously, Tess of the D’Urbervilles? This is bordering on cruel and unusual!

They say a truly great artist knows when not to add to what is already perfect, but months in a box, months in a box surrounded by idiots, idiots who only give you a book a week because that’s how long it would take him to finish it, idiots who don’t even recognize a predator’s gaze when you snarl through the force field at them, idiots who… ahem, well, even the most supreme intellect succumbs to boredom’s urge to… overcomplicate. Just a little bit.

Because you know what’s more fun than chilling in a dungeon?  Chilling on a throne.

 

 

So gung-ho they aren't even really worth manipulating..
The masks were my suggestion, to help keep mythographers from figuring out what species they’re related to. Can’t end the mystery.

First off, don’t you just love the Svartálfar?  (That’s Dark Elves, for those not so good at pronouncing Icelandic.) Setting aside how hilariously confused Snorri Sturlson and the other saga writers are about them (Are they elves? Are they dwarves?  Were they invented purely to irritate anthropologists?), they’re so adorably simple!  “We hate light!”  Well, yes, all sensible people do, and the Aesir are jerks for having littered their tacky light-balls from Musfelheim all over the freaking cosmos, but instead of adopting a reasonable plan like, say, destroying the Sun, or tricking the Aesir into selling you the Sun and the Moon, or feeding them to wolves, the sort of plan a sensible*ahem*Jotun*ahem* individual might come up with, they come up with Operation: Destroy Everything. Including, you know, meat, and mead, and gold, and books, and conquerable peoples, and my most excellent boots (gotta looove my boots).  But the Svartálfar have this absoluteness and simplicity to their motives that makes recruiting them for a plan so effortless it’s almost zen.

“Would you like to help me d–”
“Yes!  Destroy!”
“OK, well, the plan is–”
“We will sacrifice ourselves to do it!  RAAAH!”
“Right, then.  Anyone want to stop on the way for pancakes and–”
“Destroy!  Accursed!  RAAAH!”

Today I think I'll quip entirely in limerick.  See if he notices.
Today I’ve prepared all my quips in dactyllic hexameter. Please somebody notice.

Needless to say Svartálfheim is not where one goes for a rich Socratic dialog.  I confess, the only times I usually trek out there are just to show off that I know where Svartálfheim actually is.  All nine worlds are accounted for, so is it part of Alfheim?  Nifflheim?  Vanaheim? In the dwarven tunnels under Midgard?  (Keep on stacking up those bribes, Snorri, and maybe someday I’ll tell you…)  But Svartálfheim is totally where you send your illusory projection when you suddenly realize you can’t stand sitting in this damned box another day playing endless rounds of “Guilt Trip: the Confrontation” the with the Yawnfather.  Get.  Me.  Out.  Now.

Svartalfheim: even more boring than Niflheim; at least there you can ice skate.
Svartalfheim: even more boring than Niflheim; at least there you can ice skate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the way, it’s getting harder to maintain the weakening third person pretense of these reviews, so shall we drop it?  I still maintain they’re “unbiased” because it’s only from the one being in the cosmos who knows what actually happened that you’ll get an accurate version.  But it is so much easier to explain when I can say “I” and “me” and “my” and not couch things in roundabout phrasing.

"No, Thor, I'm not playing it with you again...  Because it doesn't have any strategy!  It's not even a real game!...  Yes, I know it's called "War" but... There's no decision-making, it's dictated entirely by the cards, how can you still not see that...  No that isn't what real wars are like!
“No, Thor, I’m not playing it with you again… Because it doesn’t have any strategy; it’s not even a real game… Yes, I know it’s called “War” but… There’s no decision-making, it’s dictated entirely by the cards, how can you still not… Yes, yes I know it’s your favorite, but… No that isn’t what real wars are like!

I once taught myself how to stack a deck of cards.  For about twenty minutes it made playing cards brilliant, but after that it made it intolerably dull.  Until I realized I could stack the deck agianst myself, and then have to play extra-brilliantly to make up for it, and try to keep my opponent from noticing that I was double-cheating against myself. That was perfect. That was, and stayed, deliciously perfect. So this became precisely that. Awakening the Svartálfar was the deck I stacked against myself, a little handicap to make me have something else to occupy part of my attention so that returning to Asgard in secret, defeating Odin and replacing him on the throne won’t be laughably effortless. It’s like keeping one hand behind your back, only with a bit more alien invasion of Midgard. I told the Svartálfar they had to release the Great Red Macguffin on Midgard.  They didn’t ask me why Midgard.  I wonder whether “Midgard is the most fun!” would’ve meant anything to them…

So, the ham-handed Svartálfar naturally wanted to just break in and actually free me.  (And smash all their own ships while doing so: Smash!  RAAAH!)  It took quite a bit of talking to convince them to attack, free everyone except a certain someone, and count on a certain well-advertised transit monopoly to get my “captors” to release me themselves.  This was easily the scariest part of the plan.  No matter how great the efforts to advertise the transit monopoly, the whole thing hinged on the Thunderer thinking of something. For a while, waiting in the cell, it was an almost piercing paranoia: Will he not get it? Should I have hung neon lights in the sky reading “Only Loki Can Leave Asgard Without Bifrost!”?  But in the end he was precisely as stupid as I predicted, no more no less, and off we shot! With the nice perk of getting to undermine the honor and trust everyone had in the Thundrer, and Sif, and all his friends, and, most deliciously, Heimdall.  Heimdall commiting treachery… you know that’ll grate on his stony, laughter-killing heart a good, long time.  Until the day I pierce it through.  Most satisfactory.

Oh, and Frigg had to go.  I even had to direct the idiot Svartálf to her myself. But it was time. I can’t play Odin that convincingly, not well enough to fool her. Pity. I enjoyed Frigg.

"Do you want me to review the plan for you again?  Are you sure four times is enough?"
“Do you want me to review the plan for you again? Are you sure four times is enough?”

Aaaaaand, we’re off!  Quick hop to Svartálfheim. (Note: it didn’t occur to Thunderer to ask me why my tunnel was set to go straight to Svartálfheim without passing go or collecting two hundred fallen enemies.)  And now I get to savor the delicious triple-bluff pantomime of pretending to betray the Thunderer and side with the Svartálfar, only to suddenly reveal that I’m faking and help the Thunderer against the Svartálfar, who know the whole time I’m still with them, and then I get to pretend to get killed!  And then there’s the Thundrer all sad, wid’ his widdle guilt in his widdle cudly heart, awwww.

If course, I could’ve stuck with the Svartálfar a while longer, but they’re the types where if you say, “Can I have a lift home now, please?” they say “RIDE WITH US TO DEATH AND DESTRUCTION!  RAAAH!” and you say, “On second thought I’ll walk.”  Easier to go it solo.  But here’s where the ornamentation born of my impatience gets a little tangled.  I have business in Asgard but there are now Svartálfar running around, and Svartálfar are such short-term thinkers, not a tool one really wants to keep in hand during the long haul, and certainly not a group one wants to let succeed.  They must be dealt with.

Meanwhile, Ian the Intern.

Superfluous, but charming.
Never trust someone who says “Yes” to an unpaid internship.

Projecting myself in the persona of Ian the intern is, I confess, another of these ornaments that the plan probably could’ve done without.  But I was so bored, and it was so fun wriggling my way in so close to the Thunderer’s girlfriend-pet-thing whatever he thinks she is.

Sure, I coudl’ve just used good old Dr. Erik “Pants-less” Selvig to do everything I needed, but it was so much more entertaining to let him think he was free of my control, but then taunt him, from the inside, and from the outside as “Ian” and see how long it would take his non-negligable human intellect to snap like a mundane chain trying to hold a certain puppy.   I may have overdone it a bit with Erik.  No.  No, it was perfect.  Stonehenge was hilarious, and Tony did a great job having his Jarvis collect all the Youtube footage for me which I’ve been basking in between bouts of having to pretend being the Un-fun-father.  But the real fun was seeing how unscientific a conclusion I could lead Erik to without him realizing we weren’t in scienceland anymore.  I just had to lead him to the random spot I’d told the Svartálfar was the right place to set off the Great Red Macguffin.  I could’ve, you know, concentrated gravitational waves there, or made an illusory portal appear, or put weird lights moving across the photos taken by Hubble to make it look like a space thing was aimed there, but it was so much more fun scattering the clues around Stonehenge and other randomly selected ancient rocks.  Yes, Erik, draw an X between the henges, that’s totally science.  Ian the intern totally agrees.

Of course, one must get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, but one must not seem to get one’s hands on the Big Red Macguffin, or people may start to talk.  So first one sends in the person least likely to be helping with a sinister plan: Thundergirlfriend!  Spacial instabilities are easy enough to arrange, enough to attract Team Thunderscience, and then it’s easy enough to whip up a portal to the hiding place of the ancient all powerful weapon which no one bothered to actually set a guard on (Is Asgard ready for a regime change or what?).  Of course, as soon as she got to the place where the distortions were she got so distracted by the kids and cute, I thought she’d never wander in the damned portal… had to have “Ian” accidentally lose the keys to keep her there.

Don'd mind me and my incredibly sophisticated space technology.  It's so easy it's not even really worth calling it subeterfuge.
Don’d mind me and my incredibly sophisticated space technology. It’s so easy it’s not even really worth calling it subeterfuge.

That was the beauty of “Ian” you see.  In that form, I could do anything.  No one would suspect.  And it was so plausible to have any technology I might need (“Oh, I don’t know what it does, I didn’t make it, I don’t know anything, I’m just an intern, dum-de-dum”) and no one would even ask!  And I could be on the internet doing anything science-looking or math-looking, or even beyond, and they’d just assume it was either work or some kind of videogame.  Even if someone looked over my shoulder and asked “What are those equasions?” or “How come that looks so much like the S.H.I.E.L.D. Mainframe?” or “Why are you text chatting with someone called SexyStark4evR and why do they keep calling you ‘master’?” I could just say “It’s a World of Warcraft thing,” and they’d never ask again.

I had to take down S.H.I.E.L.D., of course.  I would only have a narrow window of the Svartálfar releasing the full-blown Power Stone, and we needed unrestricted access to get the technology I had Tony build for me in place.  I wanted to not only gain a sample and the ability to reproduce the effect, but I also wanted to route my imprint onto the Stone, so I could gain control of it, and make sure I could track, activate and recall it from anywhere in the cosmos.  To do that I needed something beyond just Midgard tech, and while I could teach Tony to build the stuff, I couldn’t teach him to camouflage their non-Midgard origins well enough to hide it from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inevitable curiosity if they inspected our innocent detector rods that golly-gee coincidentally were also capable of defeating the big bad.  Also, S.H.I.E.L.D. might’ve brought Hulk – things get less fun around Hulk.  So, when perky-Thundergirlfriend-assistant-girl picked up her phone, it was vital that S.H.I.E.L.D. be fully occupied.  (A multi-billion-dollar international super organization not picking up a phone call from the team of human scientists with closest contact with the Asgardians?  And she doesn’t find that fishy?)

I gave Tony carte blanche to divert S.H.I.E.L.D. as he liked, with no command beyond “Entertain me.”  He took that one to heart, and has a mind which knows how to make the best of fleeting opportunities.  There was this Great Conjunction bringing Nine Worlds into alignment: just the sort of circumstance to make S.H.I.E.L.D. perfectly distracted, if it’s brought to the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s enemies.  It was clearly established that Asgardian troops had just restored a fragile peace in vulnerable-little-village-infested Vanaheim.  A little push of HYDRA attention that way and Captain Flagpants couldn’t unpack his star-spangled space suit fast enough.

That left the Thunderer.  As ever, the Thunderer.

Must protect convenient emotional button-pushing device!
Must protect convenient emotional button-pushing device!  I mean, human!

Using “Ian” to push Thundergirlfriend to push Thunderer made it easy enough to make him pull his weight in eliminating the last Svartálfar before they could actually (shudder) destroy all the meat and mead and gold and books and conquerable peoples. Self-stacked deck defeated.  And as a bonus, since it’s been a while since my New York invasion, Midgard  got a fresh reminder reminder that the universe is teeming with monsters, Midgard is not prepared, and its Human defenders are useless, but we grand, divine Asgardians can protect them, we alone.  Must get these humans ready to embrace my rule.

As for the Thunderer, I couldn’t have him wandering Asgard with me on the throne, any more than I could have Frigg around.  It’s not that I thought I couldn’t deceive him, it’s that there are those idiot friends of his who’re pushing for him to take charge away from daddy, and a rival power base is… an inconvenient complexity.  And he’s irritating, and it would be so tempting to… tease.  Mustn’t let myself get distracted. But he’s too valuable a blunt instrument to just destroy. Banishment might make him, or others, try to reverse it, so the ideal was to get him to banish himself. The treason of freeing me got him thinking he deserved it, then a few choice reminders of his own incompetency compared with the Mirror of Princes that is yours truly, was the starting wedge.  I didn’t even have to drive it home, though.  Thundergirlfriend did that, plus the pathetic plight of the defenseless humans flattering the Thunderego into thinking he could do something valuable by living among them as some condescending protector. Cute. He really is too cowardly to be a sovereign. Realizing it may be the first slightly smart thing he’s ever done.

Hm... maybe a TV tray too?
Hm… maybe a TV tray too?

So now the prelude is complete, Midgard is freshly cowed, the Thunderer is gone, his friends are discredited, two Power stones are nicely under my control, and I’ve finally got reasonable quarters as I wait for the real first stage of my plan to get going.  Most satisfactory.

Only one thing went genuinely wrong: stupid Svartálfar smashed Odin’s throne!  I’d been waiting to sit in that damned throne again for so long, and you go and smash it!  I was so pissed when I got back to find a pile of rubble.  Oh, well.  At least the new one I designed has a more comfortable seat, and swivels, and has wi-fi, and a little screen in the arm rest so I can text with Tony during these endless valkyrie status reports.

SexyStark4evR: “Master! Cap just made a Facebook account!”
*TheOdinChat: “srsly? Whats he doing with it?”
SexyStark4evR: “Posting pictures of SHIELD 4th of july party”
TheOdinChat: “R they rlly bobbing 4 apples? lol look@Fury’s face!”
SexyStark4evR: “Im gonna send a friend request pretending to be Miss America. No, Miss Canada! Think he’ll agree to a date?”
TheOdinChat: “Im gonna invite him to Farmville. And Cookie Clicker.”
SexyStark4evR: “Master, you’re evil!”

*When the Lord of Asgard sleeps he sleeps The Odinsleep; when the Lord of Asgard chats he chats TheOdinChat. Must keep up the pretense.

And that is the story of how I walked effortlessly out of prison, saved Asgard and the universe from a danger I created, awoke and then defeated one of the great ancient rivals of Jotunkind, seized two Power Stones, crippled S.H.I.E.L.D., put my newest servant through his paces, further opened humanity’s eyes to the truth about aliens and gods that their leaders have been conspiring to hide, shattered Heimdall’s honor, tricked the Thunderer into banishing himself, seized my rightful throne, and finally faced my first truly worthy opponent: myself. Not bad for a plan I came up with in one night in a fit of boredom. I shall now accept applause.

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Background of Marvel’s “Thor: the Dark World” (an unbiased recap)

thor-the-dark-world-movie-poster-4The new Marvel movie “Thor: the Dark World” opens in just a few days, so for those who have been following my “unbiased” review series (and for those interested in starting) here is a brief refresher on the “real” plot of the Marvel movies.

Alternately, you can read my full-length analyses of the earlier films: Thor, Avengers,  and Iron Man III.

(And before I receive any more comments or e-mails attempting to correct my “mistakes”: this series consists of tongue-in-cheek, in-character reviews of these films, intended for fun and to add extra zest to watching.  Please relax and enjoy my reviews it in that spirit.)

We will begin, as Aristotle would recommend, with some syllogisms:

    1. Loki is brilliant
    2. Brilliant people produce brilliant plans
    3. THEREFORE: Loki produces brilliant plans

Second syllogism:

    1. The plans Loki attempted in the Thor and Avengers movies were bad plans
    2. Loki produces brilliant plans
    3. THEREFORE: those were not Loki’s real plans

Hereby we arrive at the single guiding principle which must inform our interpretation of the films: Loki’s activities so far were, in fact, a brilliant plan which succeeded, cunningly disguised as a terrible plan which failed.

Loki’s activities in the first film were a tour-de-force of misdirection, designed to secure and confuse his enemies about his true motives and lower their guard against him so he could freely put the mature stage of his plan into action.  The gods (doubtless influenced by Loki’s good advice) had put all Asgard’s transportation eggs in one basket, creating only one means of interstellar travel, Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge aka. giant conspicuous vulnerable zappy teleporter gizmo. Having first developed his own original and untraceable method for moving between planets (Pleasant exercise for an oft-bored brain), the next necessary step was to destroy Bifrost, securing a monopoly on faster-than-light travel and stranding the others in Asgard (or making them waste staggering amounts of power to escape, and run around like idiots in the meantime).  The fake plan with which he camouflaged this goal was not even quite a plan, more a feigned temper tantrum.

The wildly inconvenient mode of transit the Asgardians are left with after Loki's "defeat."
The wildly inconvenient mode of transit the Asgardians are left with after Loki’s “defeat.”

Having trapped Thor on Earth and incapacitated Odin, he took charge of Asgard (side perk: getting to boss everyone around for  bit = superfun!). He then pretended to discover the (bloody obvious) secret fact that he was actually Jotun-born (Duh! What other race could produce such cold and glittering genius?), and to flip out and try to overcome this shameful (ha!) background and prove his loyalty (ha!) to Odin by exterminating the rest of the Jotun race.  And by pure, natural, utterly serendipitous coincidence, the most efficient way to do that was to repurpose Bifrost into a super-destructo-laser (Didn’t realize it could do that?  That’s what you all get for spending your time drinking and skull-splitting, while only a certain someone read all the schematics).  Thus when Thor returned, he destroyed Bifrost (such a pity), and was so convinced by the flipping-out-traumataized-oh-woe-is-me-I-was-adopted little brother lie that he tried to “save” Loki despite everything, but instead Loki fell “helpless” into the void which, of course, he had no means of navigating (Aaaaah, the sweetness of success).  Securing interstellar transit monopoly without anyone realizing that was what you were after: 12,304 hours of scheming and a few bruises; leaving Thor and Odin with a giant guilt trip: priceless.

thor-the-dark-world-movie-poster1-550x777The Asgardians are now safely out of the way, and the overture can give way to the opening act.

In this camouflage plan, Loki makes a deal with random aliens in which he promises to deliver the Mighty Macguffin (currently possessed by S.H.I.E.L.D.) which will somehow let these aliens conquer the entire universe, and in return he gets the (puny) Earth (desirable for some reason?) while they get the entire rest of everything (go on, take it, I’ll pe peeerfectly happy just sitting here on this rock playing king of the humans…).  And to accomplish this he takes the following steps: (A) get captured by S.H.I.E.L.D., (B) hang around  in a cell for a while goading the Avengers, (C) escape making no attempt whatsoever to kill any of the Avengers who could’ve been easily killed and taking no advantage of his access to the secure inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, (D) help the aliens smash New York City for no particular reason (Loki smash?), (D) hang out in Tony Stark’s incredibly high-tech house for a while also for no particular reason (Loki dawdle?), and it is during this last step that he totally lets his guard down and gets captured by the Avengers despite numerous opportunities to escape (invisibility… teleportation… shapeshifting… alien allies… stairs…).  And everything else, particularly the bit where he revealed the existence of extraterrestrial life incontrovertibly to the entire human race, was totally accidental (Oopsies… was that me?).  Truly this is a cover-plan which only an idiot would believe.  Happily most of the Avengers are idiots, and of the exceptions, Banner has rather a lot on his mind, and Stark… now Stark is a toy worth playing with…

Asgard, a comfy place to wait, and think, and plan...
Asgard, a comfy place to wait, and think, and plan…

The true goals, of course, were to manipulate the Avengers, push Earth toward an interstellar war, and to wind up exactly where Loki wanted to wind up, back in Asgard close to Odin’s treasure trove of Cosmic Macguffins which make S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Mighty Macguffin look like a cracker jack prize, and Mjolnir look like the dinky rubber mallet which, in the grander scheme of things, it always has been, and always will be (Kids will cling to their toys…). And in the comfort of an Asgardian cell from which a well-prepared genius can effortlessly escape/project/whisper to agents/etc., we await the delectable invasion, at which point Loki will be freed by the Asgardians who are not quite stupid enough to forget the scintillating brain which really is their only possible salvation.  And in the chaos of that invasion, and with the Cosmic Macguffins in easy reach, the true  the plan will begin, at last, to turn…

"You're welcome, thanks for mentioning it."
“You’re welcome, thanks for mentioning it.”

I want to bring our attention back for a moment, to the detail that Loki very directly and very intentionally revealed the existence of aliens to the human race.  This is a truth the “good guys” at S.H.I.E.L.D. had been concealing for how long now?!  Hello, human race!  You’re not alone!  First contact!  What you’ve all been searching for, for so long!  Oh, and if the cosmic playground is a little rougher than you might’ve hoped, that’s only good for you.  Adds zest.  In fact, opening Earth’s interstellar relations with that tiny first foray in Manhattan may have been the kindest first contact he could offer Earth, since it’ll make the planet and its people prepare themselves for dealing with the idiotic stellar empires that are out there without dooming them to conquest-at-first-idiotic-diplomatic-snafu.  I mean, Galactus is out there, and Celestials, and the star-eating Phoenix entity.  A few space monsters in Manhattan is the cosmic equivalent of a light punch on the shoulder along with your “Hello.”  Frankly it’s Loki’s turn to stand before the human race and say “You’re welcome.”  But enough of that tangent… we have bigger fish to fry than Earth…

Smile
Boredom’s sweet, sweet end…

A full-scale alien invasion of the Earth, not some petty giant bugs squishing Manhattan, is a tricky thing to achieve, particularly with the most likely perpetrators, the Kree and Skrulls, locked in their eternal entertaining but rather monotonous war (Been there, manipulated that…).  Earth must be made to seem to be at just the right level of power, powerful enough to be a worthy target and to require a full invasion (delicious…) and not just a disappointing expeditionary force (bored now…).  But it can’t seem so powerful as to make the aliens bring genuinely overwhelming forces, since those might be too hot to handle while also juggling one’s usual thousand other balls, and might result in the accidental breaking of a few favorite toys.  Hence the necessity of carefully manipulating the Avengers so as to put just the right face forward, inviting just the right sized alien force.  And hence securing time alone in S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ and, later, in Tony Stark’s house, to tap their security systems and technology and gain complete mastery of Earth’s defenses, so one is prepared to shape the Earth reaction, and consequent conflict, to precisely the scale one wishes (…but the third bowl of glorious carnage was juuust riiight…).

The best thing that ever happened to Tony Stark.

Perhaps the most fun, if not the most critical, details which, thanks to Loki’s elegant subtlety, many viewers seem to have missed: Loki had a mind-control wand.  It let him turn people into his minions.  He hit Tony Stark with it.  For no explicable reason it “seemed” that Tony Stark was completely immune (Yes, tell yourselves it’s ’cause of the mechanical heart thing… that’s totally plausible…).  Stark was, of course, in his own high-tech house with his Iron Man armor nearby, meaning he and Loki were under surveillance the entire time.  If you were Loki and mind-controlled-loyal-to-Loki Tony Stark (note, Stark and Loki, both smart dudes), would you have Stark kneel abjectly at Loki’s feet?  Or would you have him pretend he hadn’t been affected, so that no one in the Avengers would suspect that one of their own had been co-opted?

For further evidence that Tony Stark was and is still under Loki’s complete control, we have only to look to “Iron Man III”, a film which may seem like Loki isn’t in it at all.  Yet, when examined closely, it is clear that the entire film is  portrait of Stark’s internal transformation as his admittidly quite respectable mind (not a rival to Loki’s but respectable in a “clever puppy” kind of way) became gradually reconciled to his new servitude, and came around to accept and eventually embrace his new master.  An exceptional mind takes breaking in.  Thus, the film chronicles Stark’s conversion, from his initial trauma-like symptoms (the mind fighting to free itself… how cute..) to his concluding declaration that his former self was a “cocoon, and now I’m a changed man” (details in the Iron Man III review).  And in the midst of this, we saw the master himself visit Stark (lucky puppy…) in the guise of the implausibly wise and ingenious little boy “Harley”, confirming, for those of us who were anxious during the long wait fearing that poor Loki might be bored waiting in his necessary but annoying Asgardian prison, that our genius has means enough to project himself in mortal guise at will. At the end Loki showed his satisfaction with his new servant and played the kind master, teaching him how to finally repair his heart (It was clearly established that Stark couldn’t and then suddenly bing! he does? Good service is rewarded…)

LokiDialog“Oh, Loki, pretty please save us from the alien invasion you yourself set up!”   The trailers have already revealed that much of the plot of the forthcoming film, but it will be interesting to see whether the film reveals that Loki set up the invasion, or whether Loki and the writers will conceal it from Thor and Odin throughout.  It may be that Loki’s connection with the invaders will remain subtext only, but he (and the writers) may succumb at last to the desire to let him gloat.  Thus the board is set, and we can expect the coming film to finally show the first stages of Loki’s true plan unfolding.  For maximum enjoyment, as you watch next week, try to keep these basic “truths” in mind:

  1. Loki set up this alien invasion, got captured on purpose, and has been waiting for and planning something big.
  2. Loki carefully arranged the current limitations on transit to and from Asgard, and has secret transit methods of his own.
  3. Loki has complete access to and control of all the data and technology possessed by S.H.I.E.L.D. and by Tony Stark & co.  Any use of technology or troops of any kind anywhere in the film may (and likely is) part of his secret plan.
  4. Loki is a shapeshifter, and can teleport. Any character at any time may actually be Loki in disguise, and the disguise may not be overtly revealed by the script (these writers have proved their willingness to trust us to see through such things ourselves).
  5. While he seemed to be imprisoned in Asgard, Loki has had the ability to project himself in disguised form anywhere he likes, and has been setting up all sorts of delightful things in the background, working on Earth, and, presumably, other planets.
  6. Any and all opportunities to tease adorable Thor and expose his embarrassingly soft underbelly will be exploited.
  7. Tony Stark is not only under Loki’s control but now actively loyal to him.  During any and all scenes we must be wondering what exciting thing Tony Stark is secretly doing in the background at the same time to further his master’s plans.  If we are lucky, the DVD extended edition will contain a special disc showing the parallel adventures of Tony Stark behind the scenes (“Iron Man IV: Servant of Greatness)”, but even without that we can guess.
  8. Loki loves nothing more than to pull the wool over the eyes of enemies.  We can fully expect that, once again, his brilliant plan, which will succeed, will be disguised as a terrible plan which fails.  Don’t be deceived.

And with these critical “truths” in mind, I hope you will all enjoy Marvel’s “Thor: the Dark World.”  Oh, and if the Thunderer or Odin asks, I’ve been quietly in my cell the whole time…

Click here to read the next installment of the series: the Thor 2 Gloat-a-Thon.

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“The Borgias” vs. “Borgia: Faith and Fear” (accuracy in historical fiction)

BorgiaFrenchTVPoster
A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!
Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.
My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.
Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

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Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.
BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.
From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.
Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

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See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy
The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.
Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

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I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me
Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).

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Stark’s Metamorphosis (an Unbiased Review of Iron Man 3)

iron-man-3(NOTE: This post is a continuation of my earlier “unbiased” reviews of the Marvel Thor and Avengers movies, in which I presented a reading of the films positing that Loki’s apparent ‘defeats’ in both movies were intentional parts of an extremely long-term plan, and that in The Avengers, when Loki zapped Tony Stark with his mind-control rod and it seemed not to work, it actually did work, but he made Stark pretend it didn’t so that after Loki allowed himself to be ‘defeated’ and ‘captured’ no one would realize Stark was still his agent on the outside.  Do I sincerely believe this is how the films are meant to be read?  No.  Do I enjoy them a heck of a lot more by reading them this way?  Absolutely.   This review is full of spoilers for the ‘plot’ of Iron Man 3.)

Character over plot has been a signature of these Marvel films, as the main events grind on in the background and we focus instead on the small, human experiences of side characters like Tony Stark, which a less subtle writing team would leave undeveloped and unexplored.  While Iron Man 3 offers no direct glimpse of the massing invasion which Loki is masterminding, it offers instead a detailed case study of an issue too frequently glossed over in such stories: the psychological effects of long-term mind control. Instead of seeing only the use Loki makes of his new servant, we are presented with a sensitive examination of the process of surrender and conversion.

The first quarter of the film establishes that the long-term domination of an intellect like Stark’s is far from simple.  Loki’s control is not weakening, but the unwilling mind is in turmoil, and breaking down.  The directors use no ham handed cliches, like a sinister Loki voice-over in Stark’s head, but show the realistically imagined symptoms of such a mental battle: sleeplessness, hyperactivity, memory loss, breakdowns in social interaction, eventually panic attacks, which trigger especially when those around Stark bring up New York, the aliens and the Avengers, topics which require him to directly lie to conceal the control, putting the most pressure on his deception.  If this continues, Stark will break down.  If he is to be useful to his new master, the former self sleeping inside him must succumb, accepting his new identity as a servant of Loki.  It is this process we watch as the film unfolds, starting from Stark’s opening line about how we “make our own demons,” referring, of course, to his fear that he is becoming a demon as he gives in.

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On his knees, amid fire and icy water. Quite as it should be.

The initial flashback to 1999 shows how early Loki sowed the seeds we will see blossom.  We instantly recognize that the regenerating plant effect, which mad science botanist Dr. Hansen is researching, cannot be human technology, and must be based on the effects of the Well of Urd which the Aesir use to regenerate Yggdrasil every day, though the exploding side-effect is clearly an enhancement by our favorite Jotun.  This event is years before Loki’s mind control took hold, so the audience is left guessing from the start: who is Loki watching here?  Stark, the conspicuous genius?  Or this woman Hansen, to whom he gave this power?  Does she know?  The answers come only toward the end of the film, when we come to understand the real import of the name tag reading “You Know Who I Am” – a message for the audience more than the characters that the true, hidden protagonist of these films is with us.

The main plot sparks when Stark, and the greater intellect which watches through him, encounters the completed form of the Well-of-Urd-based regeneration formula.  Obviously-corrupt mad scientist Aldrich Killian (a colleague of Hansen) enters Stark’s headquarters and shows Pepper Potts a holographic demonstration of the work his group AIM has done inserting Well-of-Urd regeneration into humans, and thereby creating precisely the effect that the hosts of Valhalla are supposed to enjoy: fighting, hacking off limbs and rising to fight and feast again (hereafter I shall refer to this by its obvious true name, the “Valhalla Serum”).  Loki’s hand is clear in the beautiful irony of the “Valhalla Serum” offering the same bribe Odin gives his chosen (with a super bonus heat-generating power added).

But, we realize, this research has matured while Loki is imprisoned in Asgard, an inconvenient necessity serving his larger goals, which means he does not actually have access to the finished Valhalla Serum formula, nor access to AIM’s current plans.  He seeded the research, but could not guide it further–at least not until it crossed his new servant’s path.  This happens when Stark’s security chief and friend Happy Hogan shows Stark the scene of Killian showing his holographic data display to Pepper Potts.  The data display, which Loki-through-Stark glimpses through Hogan’s tablet camera, is enough to confirm that what Killian has must be the mature form of the Valhalla Serum.  In an elegant moment of planning for deniability, Loki has Stark pretend that Hogan fails in his attempts to re-orient the camera toward Killian’s display, convincing Hogan that Stark never even saw Killian’s data, so he can thereafter claim not to know about it.  This is one of a number of steps Loki has Stark take to alienate Hogan, who, of course, as an old friend is the most likely person to notice Stark’s changed behavior and suspect mind-control, so Hogan is systematically pushed away until he can be conveniently left in a coma.  The explosion which leaves Hogan incapacitated also gives Stark and Loki their first glimpse of the delicious power of the mature Valhalla Serum.  From this point, gaining AIM’s finished Valhalla Serum (and other research) becomes Loki’s secondary goal, the primary, of course, being breaking Stark to his control.

Home: an easy thing for a stubborn psyche to cling to.
Home: easy for a stubborn psyche to cling to.

Loki then has Stark publicly challenge this infamous terrorist “The Mandarin” and invite him to attack Stark at his home.  The viewer is left wondering: does Loki know at this point that the Mandarin was a puppet of Killian and AIM, or did he, like Stark and the viewer, discover it when Hansen revealed it?  After all, the Mandarin plan was Killian’s, presumably developed quite recently, while Loki was imprisoned in Asgard.  Is it a plan he seeded before he let himself be captured?  Can we believe that his command that Stark challenge the Mandarin was mere chance?  Or did he know?  The idea that he might not know, that he might be improvising, is an entertaining one, and the authors let us believe it for a while, since there are three direct benefits to challenging the Mandarin which Loki could easily have seen even if he did not realize the connection between the Mandarin and his Valhalla Serum:

First, the destruction of Stark’s house (the inevitable consequence of the challenge) provides a powerful psychological marker for the internal destruction of his past self, making it easier for Stark to think of his past free self as a lost self, and his new self as having no home to return to other than that provided by service to his new master.  This destruction of the past is completed at the film’s end when all the old suits are destroyed – a new beginning for a creature with a new purpose.

Good service merits a reward.
Good service merits a reward.

Second, by putting Pepper Potts in danger, the attack sets up for the first of the great carrots Loki offers Stark as a reward for his surrender.  Stark can easily see that a superhero’s girlfriend will constantly be in mortal peril, but if Loki can give him a complete and stabilized Valhalla Serum then Potts can be made indestructible and therefore safe, a fit reward for a loyal servant.  Loki dangles this danger, and his offer, before Stark through the whole latter two-thirds of the film, when he guides Stark’s actions toward ensuring that Potts is kidnapped by Killian.  Loki and, presumably, Stark as well already know that a regeneration serum is the heart of this scheme, and knowing how mad scientists always like to turn the “girl” into “their creature” it is obvious that Killian will give Potts the serum.  Of course, Killian’s version is unstable – only Loki can grant Stark the final steps necessary to make a perfected version, which he does at the end of the film.

Third, and most obvious, Stark’s challenge brings the focus of the Mandarin, the US government and the world upon Stark, setting up a fresh opportunity for “Iron Man” to save the world (and especially America) from a great threat.  This wins Stark greater trust and security clearances, which we saw Loki already make such great use of in the Avengers film, where he used Stark to gained access to S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark Enterprises’ security systems.  Stark’s flashy digital review of data on the Mandarin reminds the viewer that he has already given his new master access to Police, CIA, FBI records etc., but more trust is always worth winning, and taking down this great terrorist threat is an easy and fun opportunity to gain further inroads into human governments.  When Stark convinces James Rhodes (the pilot of War Machine) to give him his access password, on the excuse of helping thwart AIM and the Mandarin, Loki gains full access to AIM’s plans and research, as well as to new levels of NSA clearance.  Thus, during the hilarious scene in the tech van where Stark meets his obsessive fanboy, Loki is obtaining all data on the Valhalla Serum, as well as many other secrets of AIM and the US government, while in the fanboy Stark faces a reminder of how ridiculous his narcissism is, another hint of how much he will benefit if he lets Loki help him mature into something new.

Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark's progress.
Baptism by ice: another playful stage in Stark’s progress.

The maturation of the AIM/Mandarin plan has several small but commendable boons for Loki’s side.  War Machine, the only Iron Man suit not under Stark’s direct control, is hijacked by the enemy and thereby discredited in the eyes of a trusting government, which is led thereby to rely even more on Stark’s personal reliability.  The US president is kidnapped and personally rescued by Stark, engendering gratitude which will lead to even blinder future trust, and the Vice President is removed and replaced, presumably, with a figure Loki prefers.  The final battle is also an excellent opportunity to test the full range of Stark’s autonomous armor, though the suits deployed there must all be destroyed afterwards, since presumably S.H.I.E.L.D. and other Earth forces were watching the battle closely, and will develop counters for any suit deployed there – best to scrap them and trust to the new, superior ones which the newly-reborn Stark, Servant of Loki, will create (we have already had hints of stealth gear in planning).  (We can only imagine what delightful distraction Loki cooked up to keep S.H.I.E.L.D. and the rest of the Avengers busy while he is playing with Stark and the Mandarin–perhaps we can hope to see that in another film.)

It is, incidentally, during the final rescue of the President that Stark makes his one slip and shows how much his mind is being taken over by the Norse worldview, when he realizes they intend to burn the President and instantly calls it “A Viking funeral.”  He tries to cover, overcompensating with the wildly out-of-character Christian blessing gesture and the line, “It’s Christmas.  Take ’em to church,” line.  Naturally War Machine is too thick to spot the slip, but it is a fun touch, and proof of how excited Stark is to get to see Potts after her Valhalla Serum transformation.

iron-man-3-poster1
The true battlefield: Stark’s mind.

The Mandarin is, of course, secondary.  The true conquest occurs within Stark himself.  I called this a game of carrot, stick and mirror.  We had the carrot in granting the Valhalla serum to Pepper.  A second carrot is revealed at the end when suddenly, out of nowhere, Stark figures out how to remove the shrapnel from his heart, an impossible medical feat which he himself is, as we know, incapable of, so it must be a boon from a superior intelligence.  We had the stick in the destruction of Stark’s house, and other points at which his master forced him to endure hardships, though, as the film matures, it becomes clear (to the viewer and to Stark) that most of Stark’s pain is being brought on, not by his master, but by his own resistance.

The mirror is a special touch, supplied by figures of Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian, both genius scientists like Stark, who have themselves gone through a process of corruption and surrender.  In them Stark sees what he thinks he will become if he succumbs, the “demon” he fears.  Their example makes him more determined to resist.  Yet, as he confronts them (in the scene where they have captured him and tied him to a bedframe) he realizes they are not what his master would have him become.  They are weak and petty, fractious, self-absorbed, serving no greater plan.  Fools.  Fools who failed the test, and we see now there was a test, as we realize at last what really happened in 2009 when Loki seeded the Valhalla serum to Hansen.  Hansen shows Stark the old name tag he left with her in 2009, with “You Know Who I Am” on the front, and on the reverse the formula for the next stage of the Valhalla Serum.  Hansen thinks Stark wrote it, but Stark says he does not remember writing it.  The truth is obvious: Loki left the formula, as he must have left other seeds for Hansen before, testing to see if she was smart enough to realize these were not human achievements but products of an inhuman genius.  By leaving the formula on a paper connected to a famous genius, Loki tests Hansen: is she foolish enough to believe Stark wrote this, or will she realize there is something greater reaching out to her?  Hansen failed the test, so Loki abandons her.

Stark passes.  He says nothing, but he realizes when he sees that formula that it is no work of his.  It is this that shows him just how much smarter he is than these other “fallen geniuses” he had thought were mirrors of himself.  He realizes now that the transformation he is undergoing is entirely different from their weak corruption.  The determination to “not be like them” vanishes, replaced by fresh awe for the scope of intellect, both his own intellect, for passing the test, and his master’s, for weaving such wonders.  In that moment Stark realizes how much greater he can become, how much more he can accomplish, if he throws away the flash and brawn of Iron Man and allows his new master to guide him toward his true calling: the full exercise of his intellect.  This is one central step in his metamorphosis.

A very special visitor.
A very special visitor.

The other, of course, is contact.  Stranded by his suit’s malfunction, Stark just “happens” to come across the convenient little boy genius “Harley Keener”, who has been active in the area near the first successful Valhalla Serum blast.  “Harley” has a shed full of equipment, a conspicuous lack of interfering parents, in-depth knowledge of the blast zone where the Valhalla Serum activated, and an uncanny ability to poke at Stark’s weak spots (New York, aliens), egging on his transformation.  The boy tells a story about being abandoned by his father, a story which is a little too… familiar.  Even his potato gun is a very familiar shade of green.  It is this “Harley” who pushes the change, who urges Stark to stop thinking of himself as a fighter and think of himself as a smith (“mechanic”) again, who makes him realize his mind, not his suit, is his true weapon.    A second test unfolds here: will Stark recognize his master?    Will he realize the great honor he has been granted, being invited to work side-by-side with the Great Intellect in this dwarf-like improvised smithy?  The worthy outpouring of gifts and tribute which Stark sends to the “child” at the end of the film confirms that he passes this test too.

Our patient mastermind.
Our patient mastermind.

We do not yet get to know how Loki is able to manifest while still in prison.  Did he slip out and take this form?  Is this a boy priest he is possessing?  Is this an illusory projection?  The possibilities are thrilling, and Loki’s presence on the scene of the first Valhalla Serum blast confirms to us at last that he must indeed have known about the AIM Mandarin scheme from its inception, since it was conceived to cover up these blasts and make them seem like the work of a terrorist instead of scientific accidents.  If Loki was there from blast one, we can easily assume he was watching Hansen, Killian and AIM as the Well-of-Urd seeds he planted bore their sweet, explosive fruits.

“My armor was never a distraction or hobby it was a cocoon, and now I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away.  I am Iron Man.”   This conclusion, from Stark’s own mouth, marks the end of his transformation, and confirms that this was always about his rebirth as Loki’s servant.  He receives his rewards–the perfected Valhalla Serum for Potts, the healing of his heart–but the greatest reward is self-discovery.  Genius is stronger than iron.  Brains over brawn, Loki’s subtlety over Thor’s force, smithcraft over hack and slash.  That is what Iron Man is, and always should have been.  Stark is ready now to become greater than he has ever been, and serve something greater than any human has ever served: his master’s Plan.

Where, then, does this sideline character sketch leave our central protagonist Loki?  We know he remains physically in his Asgardian prison, but this film reassures those of us who were worried that he might be suffering in the boredom of such confinement.  We had assumed he had plans for his months of imprisonment, but it is comforting to have this confirmation that his reach remains long, and his plans active.  And we have uncovered new facets of his character: generosity, and delight in intelligence in all its forms.  He watched Stark for years, long enough to recognize not only the potential utility of this human genius but also the flaws preventing him from achieving his full potential.  Given power over Stark, Loki could break him viciously, but instead he breaks him kindly, helping him to actualize his hitherto stunted potential.  Our prince of intellect, it seems, loves intellect in others, even in humans, enough to cultivate it when he can reach it.  Certainly Stark will make a more valuable servant this way than if he were simply broken, but the patience, the rewards, and the hands-on touch of a personal visit all establish this as more than mere utility.  We have been shown a rare glimpse of the kinder face of our mastermind.  Months of prison have not made him bitter; they have made him subtler.

Click here to read the next installment in the series.

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You Can Shoot a Laser THROUGH a Clear Blimp! (Skyfall movie review)

(No very specific spoilers for Skyfall appear in this post, just comments on the overall structure & mood).

“Why did no one mention this before!”  My shriek ricocheted among the fluorescent wooden parrots of the Tex Mex restaurant.  “You can shoot a laser through a clear blimp!  Now–Yes!–now all the clear blimps that are anchored on top of the villian’s giant high-tech white & chrome treehouse complex can have goons shooting lasers from them!  And they can shoot at the little helicopter that has James Bond in it!  Oh!  And the two little helicopters can weave all around the blimps trying to shoot at each other with the machine guns, but they don’t dare shoot through the blimps in case they explode!  But the blimps are clear so Bond and the bad guy can see each other through the blimps, and they can zoom up and around trying to get a clear shot, and all the time all the minions are shooting at Bond with lasers through the blimps!”

“But before or after the helicopter bit there has to be a fight on top of the interconnecting corridors of the treehouse base,” my Dad contributed, “in some kind of vehicle.”

Roommate: “Like a Smart Car!”

Dad: “Or a Segway!”

This climactic battle (and the subsequent debate over the relative merits of a man in bullet-proof armor riding a Segway vs. a Segway with a bullet-proof armored chariot casing built in) was the peak of our post-movie cathartic deconstruction of why Skyfall had been an unsatisfying Bond movie while undeniably being a perfectly respectable movie in the broader sense.

“What should our villain be after?  How about a continent?”  “Yeah!”  “Australia.”  “What does he want it for?”  “To experiment.  Remember, he’s a geneticist, so he wants to create his own biosphere.  With mammoths.”  “And condors.  Shouldn’t he put condors?”  “And he’ll use the global electromagnetic field manipulator to increase the temperature so rainfall increases in Australia and it becomes a fertile rain forest.”  “Yes, by accelerating global warming.”  “No, no, too much eco-villainy lately.  We want something more classic.  He just wants Australia so he can experiment freely.  He’s already rich but it’s not enough.  Now he wants to be free to pursue his science and genetic engineering faster.  To do that he needs a private world.”  My fist slammed the table triumphantly enough to make the guacamole jiggle.  “He means to terraform Australia!”

Now we could cross out #7 “Outlandish villainous ultimate goal” on our James Bond Movie checklist, as well as #9 “climactic battle” #5 “awesome villain tech” and #6 “evil lair”.  We had gotten this far through #4 “Grand evil scheme” which involved creating genetically modified super-aggressive swarming creatures which could be directed to attack target areas around the world using a machine which manipulated the Earth’s electromagnetic field.  The first attack would be bees, some target city, millions and millions of bees would all swarm in and devastate everything.  The world is held hostage.  But oh, the people think, we can hide inside our airtight houses.  So they all hide and the bees swarm black outside and people think they’re safe, but then the termites!  The electromagnetically-commanded termites burrow through the walls and let in the swarm!  And now the villain can demand they hand over Australia to become his brave new mammothy world!

There are certain questions that you always want your James Bond movie to be a potential answer to:  “Which was the one where there was a henchman with a special jaw that was super strong, and then they wound up in space?”  “Which was the one where he was driving through the ice palace while it was being melted by the solar space laser reflector beam?  Was that the invisible car?”  “And he was driving it from the back seat, while they were shooting at him–or was that a different one?”   All sorts of variants on “Wasn’t that the one where…?”  And Skyfall will never be the correct answer to these questions.  Skyfall didn’t… it just didn’t…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #1, the “Opening mission”…

Here! Here is where Bond should be fighting a guy!

“Can we have the swarms cause an opening pre-credits disaster on an oil rig?”   “Hm… what swarm… squid?  Squid that swarm up the poles!”  “Squid?  Wouldn’t that have to be octopus?” “Octopodes are too intelligent.  But can squid climb an oil rig?” “Squid can go pretty fast in the water, they just tend to do it horizontally, this could just be vertical.  Pwoo!”  (Sound-effect combined by gesture of arm shooting up in the air with finger-tentacles wriggling.)  “I don’t know…”  A few moments absently rearranging Jalapenos with my fork.  “Ooh, wait!  What if it works because there’s a submarine nearby, and millions of squid all whoosh up and drag the submarine along–” “–and smash it into the oil rig!  Of course!”  “Wait, I thought the beginning was when we were going to have him steal the prototype electromagnetic railgun.  How does the oil rig help?”

…James Bond Movie checklist item #3, the “Early stage of the scheme”…

“No, the railgun isn’t before the credits, it’s the second stage thing, after the credits.”  “And I thought it wasn’t going to be the main villain who stole it, we were going to have it be the woman who was working with him.”  “Did she want to steal it to use as a weapon?” “No, they thought she was going to steal it to be a weapon, but instead she brought the railgun to the geneticist to use for the magnetic field effect to control the killer bees, but then in the end she betrays him and helps Bond stop him, and then she betrays both Bond and the villain and sneaks in separately at the end and takes the railgun to use as a weapon.”  “Like Catwoman!”  “Only Bond stops her.  Because she isn’t Catwoman.”  “Right.”  “So she’s a villain, and then not a villain, and then a villain again, in addition to the main bioengineer villain.”  “Yes.  Oh, is she also the business scheming villain?  Or is there some other one doing the sinister businessy politicsy part.”  “Oh yes, someone has to do be a big business schemer, because someone has to invite him to a party, because…

…James Bond Movie checklist item #10: “Bond must order a martini at a swanky party”…

Bond did order a martini in Skyfall (oops, and I promised no spoilers!).  And he does so at an expensive party in a ridiculously glamorous exotic place, and drinks it with a beautiful and mysterious bond girl, and there are piles of cash and expensive evening gowns and goons in dark suits.  And these are all the right ingredients to set things up for the plan to unfold its first petal, and then… there are supposed to be more petals, right?  The twists are supposed to keep unfolding and unfolding, with one more layer of deception right when you think it’s all over.  And the stakes are supposed to be high.  Like a continent, or a coup, or ten billion dollars, or at the very least killing a head of state.

Our true triumph arrived with the dessert: “Ooh!  Ooh!  Can Bond have to go into Australia but to avoid the swarms and the magnets he has to do a super-high-altitude parachute jump like the Red Bull guy did?  Only, Bond has to do it while fighting a guy!”  (Whatever stunt other people can do, Bond can do “while fighting a guy.”  That’s Bond’s superpower.)

In all seriousness, we were aware that hordes of squid and stampeding mammoths are too sci-fi outlandish for Bond, but you can’t blame us for overcompensating after a flick where the most advanced technology displayed was… was… the internet?  I mean, there was a touch screen… those are… well, one came standard with my new laptop, so…  yeah, I’m going with the internet.

After our post-movie decompression we watched the recent Casino Royale movie again.  No clear blimps here either, and it  started the recent pattern of the films being more interested in (of all things) giving James Bond character progression than it was in the grandness of the scheme.  In fact, during Bond’s climactic battle over the suitcase full of $120 million I turned to my friends and pointed at the 16th century Venetian palazzo, which Bond had just destroyed, and said “You know what’s worth more than 120 million dollars?”  But it was still more satisfying than Skyfall because it had the requisite twist, followed by another twist, followed by a false ending, followed by yet another twist.  That was enough.

Instead of twists and grand schemes, Skyfall tried to do something which was undeniably bolder and more original, and considerably more worthy of respect.  It focused on the characterization of M.  Brilliant idea!  A great and veteran part of the Bond universe as-of-yet underexplored.  And stepping out of the Bond universe for a moment, this was an action flick which focused on an intelligent, dignified, 100% non-sexualized, retirement-age woman!  Maybe one or two movies a year give meaningful attention to an older woman, and certainly not ones full of car chases!  It didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and still degenerated into male-dominated action, and rescues, and characterizing her as Mom, but she was still an actual centerpiece of the movie in a way no gray haired woman has been in any action flick I’ve ever sat through.  It even passed the Bechdel test (something we usually know better than to apply to Bond films) in a scene in which M was questioned about her career by a female government official.  Such a move in a Bond movie was as startlingly deserving of respect as if someone had delivered a brilliant proposal for how to solve the Economic Crisis in the middle of Antiques Roadshow.  They also flirted with homosexual elements that no Bond had dared before, in a way which was a little awkward but also overdue and therefore somewhat healing in one of the most fiercely hetero-normative franchises in pop culture history.  On both counts it may not have really succeeded, but I respect the fact that it tried, and getting any kind of movement on sexual politics out of a Bond movie is rather like wringing tears from a stone.   I respect trying, but there is a difference between a movie I respect and a movie I enjoy, and it remains empirically true that I left the theater dissatisfied.

“I sure hope they make a normal James Bond movie soon,” I muttered later that evening, as we played fridge Tetris with the leftover fajitas.

Roommate: “What do you mean?”

I: “You know, one that isn’t about something.  One where they shoot lasers through clear blimps, with an evil villain, and James Bond defeats him, and there are quips, and no characterization.”

And that’s the story of how I found myself wishing the movie I had just seen had been less ambitious.  But thinking back on it, that isn’t really what I wanted.  I went to that Bond movie instead of any number of other movies that were actually supposed to be objectively good because I wanted the comfort of a familiar formula and the thrill of action-escapism.  Instead I got character depth.  Why couldn’t I have both?  Why couldn’t they have deepened the characters and still had more than three petals on their rose?  Why wasn’t there room in the movie for M and clear blimps?  Why did the first action movie I’d ever seen focus on a mature woman have to make me wish it wasn’t?

The weirdest thing is that it felt like the writers had the same idea.  The film ended with an “And now the whole team is assembled again!” moment, implying a vein of self-awareness: “Yeah, the last three Bond Movies have been weirdly character-ful, but now that we’re done dealing with Bond’s origin story and the retirement crisis, the next one will be a [….] Bond Movie, we promise.”  How did they intend their audience to fill [….]?  “Normal”?  “Traditional”?  “Action-centered”?  “Satisfying”?

Skyfall gets marks, though, for the most important test of every Bond film: the opening credits.  Also points for the new Q; someone (probably who was following the success of Sherlock and the new Dr. Who and Avengers) noticed that smart geeks, especially scrawny ones with glasses, draw a slice of the female demographic that Bond’s brawn misses.  Nerd is the new fan service – enough so that even a franchise as trope-encrusted as Bond has found one new “sexy” to tap.  Let’s just hope they never try to put Bond himself in glasses and a labcoat; I fear for the audience whiplash.

Addendum: many thanks to all my readers for being patient these few months with my slow posting speed and the infinite delay of the Machiavelli series.  I have been wrestling with the old illness/over-commitment combo.  I do intend to return to the Machiavelli series as soon as I am sufficiently rested and caught up on my 10,000 tasks.

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