When I first heard that FFXV was going to break with franchise tradition by having an all-male central team, I was more than a little surprised. Final Fantasy has always been distinguished as much by its memorable – and central – female characters as by any other element; which is why, somewhat paradoxically, I never felt particularly angry about the switch, either. As a whole, video games are still male-dominated in a way that frequently sets my teeth on edge, but Final Fantasy has a strong line of credit with me: whatever my thoughts on the state of gaming as an industry – and while criticism of Square Enix’s decision in this context is nonetheless valid – I felt I could still attempt the game itself.

Thus far, at roughly eight hours in – which is, I’m aware, not very far at all – I’m enjoying myself immensely, though possibly not in a way that was intended. And in order to satisfactorily explain why that is, I first need to say a little about my history with the franchise.

The first Final Fantasy I ever played was VIII, which always made me something of an oddity among my friends: unlike everyone who started the series at VII or earlier, I had no established sense of how the combat system ought to work, and so took the VIII model, which was a widely-hated departure from canon, as my yardstick for the series. This meant I was not only frustrated by the traditional setup used in VII and IX, but irritated by the more cartoonish character designs. Which isn’t to say that I disliked either game, exactly: just that they were always less beloved to me than VIII and, later on, X and XII, whose advanced graphics and combat systems more closely resembled what VIII had been trying – with, admittedly, more ambition than success – to achieve.

Even now, XII remains my favourite Final Fantasy. The writing and voice acting were both incredible, and even though Vaan, rather than Ashe, was the POV character, I loved the departure from canon that made him a non-romantic participant in her narrative. By contrast, XIII was a clusterfuck, so much so that I quickly set it aside as unplayable: the writing was naff, the voice acting melodramatic (with the single exception of Sazh), the premise confused and the combat frustratingly garbled. I couldn’t understand how the best aspects of XII had been so thoroughly disregarded, and as such, I never bothered with the sequel, which makes XV the first new Final Fantasy I’ve played since 2010.

Aesthetically, then, XV is paying a great deal of homage to my favourite games in the series – VIII and XII – which predisposes me to love it. The opening premise of an invading empire and a missing heir to the throne is evocative of both Galbadia and Archadia, with Noctis’s early quest to recover lost weapons from ancient tombs running a close parallel to Ashe’s quest in XII. The fact that Noctis, Prompto, Ignis and Gladio spend the game driving around in a sports car might seem ridiculous on the surface, especially if you’ve got a preference for the airships of VII, IX and XII, but only if you’ve forgotten the convertibles and jeeps of VIII, where driving on the worldmap was also a feature, and where fancy cars were a staple of the more dramatic cutscenes.

In fact, there’s always been something of a roadtrip vibe to a lot of the Final Fantasy games, and not only in terms of the main party journeying thither and yon across multiple fictional worlds. The many flashbacks to Lord Braska’s pilgrimage in X show him broing it up with Auron and Jecht (to whom Gladio bears more than a superficial physical and vocal resemblance), while their decision to sphere-capture their adventures is a clear forerunner to Prompto’s photography. VIII didn’t lack for female characters, but the initial SEED test features a grumpily all-male party, with Squall, Zell and Seifer forced into a temporary alliance. Squall and Zell were always something of an odd pair, but delightfully so, and their dynamic has been revived – and, I’d argue, improved – in the byplay between Noctis and Prompto. Likewise, Ignis’s dry drawl and dryer expression are more than a little reminiscent of Balthier, though his dutiful priorities make him a closer equivalent to Auron and Basch.

In other words, the four protagonists of XV are themselves a homage to the male relationships of previous Final Fantasy games, and quite clearly so. Together, they interact much as you’d expect of a quartet of twentysomething men, joking and snarking at each other in equal measure. The writing and voice acting aren’t as good as XII, but they’re nowhere near the abysmal mess of XIII. I’d peg them as being on par with X: naff at times, but somehow endearingly so, and overall engaging. Granted, the background plot is complex – it helps to have watched the prequel movie, Kingsglaive, and there’s also an accompanying anime series – but part of what makes the quartet watchable is how clearly established their friendship is: we’re getting to know the characters by how they know each other.

As far as the gameplay and levelling systems go, I’ve got no complaints thus far. Even without being able to run through the full tutorial for fighting – my version kept glitching when it came to learning how to warp – I’ve still found it intuitive to use. It’s a dissimilar combat system to most FF games, in that it’s not turn-based, but neither is it as blindingly fast-paced or poorly-designed as the system used in XIII, and the ability to warp to targets makes for some engaging tactical options. It helps that I’ve just come off a huge Dragon Age: Inquisition jag: my preferred approach to combat in both games can best be described as “running in headfirst with a large sword and hitting things until they fall down,” with magic and projectile weapons left on auto until or unless I’m specifically forced to use them. Players who favour different tactics might have more complaints to level here, but for my purposes, it works just fine.

But what I’m really loving about XV is the extent to which – I assume unintentionally – it’s both hilarious and heavily queercoded.

I’ll deal with the latter first, because it’s arguably the more contentious point. Let me be clear: I’m not for one second giving Square Enix props for deliberately creating queer representation here, because I don’t think for a second that it’s what they actually meant to do – or at least, if they’re trying to muddle vaguely in that direction, then they haven’t had the guts to confirm it. Culturally, the lines we draw been homosocial and homosexual behaviour tend to be as historically arbitrary as they are fiercely policed, with any overlap subject to argument on both sides. But cultural differences is, I suspect, a large part of why XV reads the way it does: the game is originally Japanese, and in trying to cater to both Japanese and Western masculine ideals, Square Enix has wandered into what plays as a rather spectacularly queer compromise.

First and most obviously, there’s the wardrobe issue. Clearly, the all-black leather aesthetic is meant to look Manly and Cool and Deeply Heterosexual In A Traditionally Masculine Way, and if the designs were simple, functional and militaristic, then that would probably work, even given the youth and beauty of the characters (more of which shortly). But Final Fantasy, like a great many Japanese properties, is famous for its distinctive clothing designs, which means the characters look less like soldiers and more like scene kids en route to a metal concert. Specifically: Noctis and Prompto look like they shop at Hot Topic, Ignis is wearing Cuban heeled boots, driving gloves and seme glasses (seriously) and Gladio consistently looks like he’s posing for a Grindr photo. Like. I’m aware that he’s meant to be the most hypermasculine  straight male self-identification fantasy of the four, what with the scar and the tattoos and the devastatingly Japanese mullet, but generally speaking, ripped guys in open leather shirts and tight leather pants are more visually reminiscent of Mardi Gras than the military. I’m just saying.

The fact that you can customise their outfits (to a degree), and that picking a new wardrobe changes their stats, isn’t a new development: in fact, it’s something the franchise first introduced with dress spheres in the all-female X-2, which makes its presence in the all-male XV a subtly pleasing symmetry. And yet it runs up against a standard of masculine gaming: changing your armour is one thing, because armour is Manly, but changing your clothes – which, stat bonuses or not, is what we’re functionally talking about – is something else entirely. It’s a truly strange demarcation, because there are plenty of instances where video game characters change outfits of their own accord, in cutscenes or for plot-specific purposes, or where the change represents a specific, all-over upgrade. But the option to alter the appearance of male characters for largely aesthetic reasons – to change how they look to you, the player, in clothes that are recognisably modern and fashionable – is not, I suspect, a common feature of games aimed at heterosexual men, nor is the in-game implication of the characters toting around a bunch of fancy matching outfits a particularly straight-coded thing.

And, okay. Even though we queer folk often telegraph our identities through fashion, there’s a degree of reductive stereotype inherent in judging sexuality on the basis of clothing choice, and if that were the only issue here, I wouldn’t have brought it up. (Except, of course, to point out the truly delightful ridiculousness of watching four goth boys run around the countryside in full club gear, often while complaining about the temperature. It’s like they’re headed for Glastonbury with monsters.) But the queercoding of XV is a package deal: it’s not just the clothes, but the clothes in combination with the characters themselves, the dialogue they’re given, and the way the four of them occupy the game.

Specifically: Final Fantasy is a gaming franchise that’s well aware, historically speaking, of its very large female fanbase. Even though the majority of the games have male protagonists, they’ve traditionally been designed for a straight female gaze – and more, I would argue, a teenage female gaze, given that the characters are usually in their teens or very early twenties – in line with aesthetics more Japanese than Western. Former heroes like Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus and Vaan might be formidable warriors in-game, but they’re never beefed up: they’re overwhelmingly built lean, with much longer, more stylised hair than you typically see on masculine Western characters. They wear jewellery – often visible in their base character designs, and not just as a hidden accessory slot – and offhand, aside from various weird lines around Cloud crossdressing in VII, I can’t think of any real instances of sexism or misogyny from those characters that aren’t actively shut down. In fact, the number of female characters in the earlier games ensures that, in addition to any love interests, the leading men also have platonic female friends – something that’s still damnably unusual in most forms of media, let alone in video games.

All of which, thus far, holds true in XV, too: Princess Lunafreya, Noctis’s intended bride, is his childhood friend, as is Gladio’s sister, Iris. When the game begins, Noctis and his friends are travelling to meet Lunafreya before their (politically arranged) wedding; when everything goes awry because betrayal and empire, they’re forced to regroup and end up hanging out with Iris, who has escaped to the city of Lesallum. That’s where I’m up to so far, and what immediately stands out to me, as someone who spent a not inconsiderable portion of their adolescence and early twenties hanging around single straight guys, is the fact that the quartet barely ever talk about women at all. And the thing is, I can see why it’s been done! Final Fantasy has a heavy female fanbase, and in any case, they’re not the sort of games where the male soldiers sit around reminiscing about sexual conquests. But contextually, because of the way the game is presented – four friends driving and talking shit in real time, mocking each other, while initially on the way to see one of them married – the lack of talk about sex or romance of any kind is jarring.

Which isn’t to say the subject of women never comes up at all; it’s just that, when it does, the overwhelming impression is of dialogue written with a female audience in mind, but without any awareness of the queercoding implications of its delivery by these particular male characters. This means, for instance, that there’s a scene where the boys find a magazine article about Lunafreya’s wedding dress, and all of them start cooing about how beautiful it will be; Ignis notes that the dress is bespoke, designed by Vivienne Westwood, and Prompto starts enthusing about how pretty Lunafreya will look in it. In Hammerhead, the buxom mechanic Cindy, whose character design is clearly meant to please the straight male players, is someone who, in real life, you’d expect a bunch of straight boys on an ostensible stag trip to talk about. Except that they never do; and instead, the one time there’s a reference made to Gladio “chatting someone up,” it turns out to be a grumpily endearing scientist who wants you to go catch some frogs as penance for interrupting her research.

And then there’s Noctis taking a tour of Lestallum with Iris. Throughout this mini-quest, you’re given a set of binary conversational options to either encourage Iris in her enthusiasm for the town, or to disapprove. Then, at the end, she coyly suggests that being on the tour was almost like a date – an assertion you can either play off lightly, or outright deny: pointedly, there is no option to agree. If you deny, she laughs and says “you could at least play along for once,” suggesting that Iris knows Noctis isn’t interested in her and is willing to tease him about it – an odd thing to include, if you don’t want the audience to wonder about his preferences.

A little earlier in the game, Prompto asks Noctis what he ought to take more photos of: apart from declining, the only options are “me” (meaning Noctis), Ignis or Gladio. Again, there’s a gameworld logic to this – the photos are ultimately viewed by the player, who gets to pick which character they want to record the most – but in terms of the impact in setting, this is not an outstandingly heterosexual moment. Very possibly, there exists a group of straight bros whose designated photographer is happy asking, “Hey bro, which of our friends do you want to see more in pictures?” in an established No Homo way, and if so, more power to them. But if you want to find a context where that sort of exchange is an everyday thing, then look no further than the queer regions of Instagram. (Plus, it’s kind of conspicuous how often Prompto, when assessing the day’s photos, comments on how good Gladio the Perpetually Shirtless looks.)

And then there’s the occasional quirks of dialogue and voice acting: choices that, again, would be minor on their own, but which collectively become suggestive of something specific. Early on, Cor sends Gladio, Prompto and Ignis to make a distraction at a military blockade while he and Noctis sneak inside: the gambit is successful, and when the group reunites afterwards, Gladio says cheerfully, “The Niffs couldn’t keep their eyes off us!”. To which Ignis quips, in reference to Noctis and Cor’s arrival, “You spared us their attentions.” Offhand, I can think of about a dozen different ways to word that exchange that don’t remotely brush up against innuendo, and which are far more colloquially and contextually apt besides. The eyes/attentions combo is the kind of thing you’d expect a pair of femme fatales to say after seducing the guards and knocking them out in an action movie. (The fact that we don’t actually witness the initial distraction only adds to its ambiguity.) And yet, this is what they’ve gone with.

Other examples are smaller, but they all add up. Whenever you find new ingredients for Ignis to cook with, he stops to announce, with particular vocal flamboyance, that he’s just thought up a new recipe (exclamation mark!), and whips out a notebook to jot it down. (“I’ll taste test for ya,” Gladio says, in a playfully growling tone that always seems to have one eye on the bedroom.) And then there’s Prompto, who I’m inclined to think of as a confused bisexual puppy, whose voice turns dreamily fanboyish when discussing Cor’s exploits, and who gets just as excited on receiving Cor’s praise as he does at the prospect of seeing Lunafreya in her pretty wedding dress.

Put this all together, then, and what you have are a bunch of young men who are, by Western standards, more pretty than handsome, dressed in fashionable clothes and accessories that are more evocative of queer or queer-friendly subcultures than not, and who care enough about their appearance to have multiple outfits on hand at any given time. (You can, if you’re willing to sacrifice an accessory slot to aesthetics, buy hair gel for them to use.) These men are knowledgeable about fashion, have a platonic concern for the women they encounter, are constantly photographing one another for each other, have zero comments to make about the stupidly hot female mechanic unless they’re praising her competence, and whose idea of “chatting someone up” apparently means “talking to the grumpy frog lady about the local wildlife population”. This isn’t me leaping to conclusions, here: in the immortal words of Buffy Summers, I took a tiny step and there conclusions were.

All of which is a way of saying that, thus far, I’m delighted with Final Fantasy XV, though not in the ways I’d expected. The characters and setting are a homage to my favourite games in the series, and while I worried the absence of female characters would grate on me, our quartet of bumbling chocobros is stupidly endearing. At this point, Noctis is functionally useless as a prince: even when he’s recognised, the local yokels have no qualms about asking him to take their deliveries or run their errands, and while random sidequests are an RPG staple, they’re usually somewhat tailored to the protagonist’s perceived status. In FFXV, everything is rendered hilarious by the fact that Noctis is a prince, and is seen as a prince, and is still being asked to catch frogs in a swamp and grab shit from some random marketeer’s broken van.

(He’s also gloriously introverted: in dealing with people, his responses usually vary from monosyllabic to resigned disinterest, but when you come across a stray cat in need of feeding – a tiny sidequest that’s a deliberate throwback to Squall doing likewise in VIII – he talks to it at greater length and with more enthusiasm than he otherwise displays with anyone.)

As far as I’m concerned, FFXV is a magic road trip with a bunch of queer boys who have their wardrobes together, but not their shit. I can identify. And so, I suspect, can everyone else who’s fallen into the trashpile of this visually beautiful, thematically mishmash game. I honestly don’t care about the random anachronisms, like the fact that they’re carrying smartphones and fighting magic robots, but still using paper maps and newspapers, to say nothing of using a fucking dog as a messenger for vital correspondence through a warzone – or rather, I do care, but only because the clear discontinuity of it somehow plays as a feature instead of a bug. The entire thing ought to be ridiculous, and it kind of is, but pleasingly so, like a cat in a Halloween costume. The characters don’t take each other seriously, which frees the player up to do likewise – to laugh with them, rather than at them. And frankly, I’ll take that over XIII’s self-important melodrama any day of the week.

 

Warning: all the spoilers for The Great Wall.

When I first heard about The Great Wall, I rolled my eyes and dismissed it as yet another exploitative tale of Western exceptionalism where the white guy comes in, either insults or co-opts the local culture, saves the day and gets the girl, all while taking a role originally intended for or grossly better suited to a person of colour. It wasn’t until later that I learned the film was directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed on location in Qingdao, China,  and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast, with Matt Damon – emphasised in Western marketing to attract a Western audience – starring as one of several leads, in a role that was always intended for a Western actor. The film was released in China at the end of 2016 – and is, in fact, the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China – and was meant to be an international release, designed to appeal to both Chinese and Western audiences, from the outset.

Which left me feeling rather more curious and charitable than I had been; enough so that, today, I went out and saw it. Historically, I’m not an enormous fan of Matt Damon, who always strikes me as having two on-screen modes – All-American Hero and Not-Quite-Character Actor, the former being generally more plausible than the latter at the expense of being less interesting – but I’ve always enjoyed Zhang Yimou’s cinematography, especially his flair for colour and battle sequences. The fact that The Great Wall is ultimately an historical action fantasy film – a genre I am predisposed to love – is also a point in its favour; I’ve watched a great deal of Hollywood trash over the years in service to my SFFnal heart, and even with Damon’s involvement, The Great Wall already started out on better footing than most of it by virtue of Zhang’s involvement.

Even so, I was wary about the execution overall, and so went in expecting something along the lines of a more highly polished but still likely disjointed Chinese equivalent to the abysmal 47 Ronin, an American production that floundered thanks to a combination of studio meddling, language issues with the predominantly Japanese-speaking cast being instructed to deliver their lines in English, last-minute changes and a script that couldn’t decide who was writing it. But of course, 47 Ronin’s biggest offence – aside from constituting a criminal waste of Rinko Kikuchi’s talents – was doing what I initially, falsely assumed The Great Wall was doing: unnecessarily centering a white actor playing a non-white role in an Asian setting whose authenticity was systematically bastardised by the Western producers.

Instead, I found myself watching one of the most enjoyable SFF action films I’ve seen since Pacific Rim. (Which did not waste Rinko Kikuchi.)

The premise: William (Matt Damon) and his companion Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are part of a Western trade mission sent to China to find black powder – gunpowder – for their armies at home. While fleeing Kitan bandits in the mountains, they encounter an unknown monster and, in seeking its origins, are soon taken in by the Nameless Order, an army manning the Great Wall against an expected incursion of the monsters, called Taotie. In charge are General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) and his offsider, Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing), advised by Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). Every sixty years, the Taotie attack from a nearby mountain, and the next attack is just starting; as such, the Nameless Order and the Great Wall are all that stand between the hoards, controlled by a single Queen, and the nearby capital, Bianliang. While attempting to win Commander Lin’s trust, William makes two alliances: one with Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe), a Westerner who initially came to China in search of black powder twenty-five years ago; and another with Peng Yong (Lu Han), a young soldier whose life he saves. While Tovar and Ballard are eager to steal the black powder and leave, Commander Lin, General Shao and Strategist Wang are working to counter the evolving strategies of the Taotie: if the Wall is breeched and Bianliang falls, the Taotie will have enough sustenance to overrun the world, a fact which forces William to choose between loyalty to his friends and to a higher cause.

From the outset, I was impressed by the scriptwriting in The Great Wall, which manages the trick of being both deft and playful, fast-paced without any stilted infodumping or obvious plot-holes, aside from a very slight and seemingly genre-requisite degree of handwaving around what the Taotie do when they’re not attacking. The fact that at least half the film is subtitled was another pleasant surprise: of the Chinese characters, both Lin and Wang speak English – their fluency is explained by years of Ballard’s tutelage – and who act as translators for the rest; even so, they still get to deliver plenty of lines in Chinese, and there are numerous scenes where none of the Western characters are present. A clever use is also made of the difference between literal and thematic translations: while the audience sees the literal English translation of the Chinese dialogue in subtitles, there are multiple occasions when, in translating out loud for the benefit of the English-speaking characters, Lin and Wang make subtle adjustments, either politely smoothing over private jokes or tweaking their words for best effect.The scene where Commander Lin’s ability to speak English is revealed made me laugh out loud in a good way: I hadn’t expected the film to be funny, either, but it frequently is, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Pedro Pascal, who plays Tovar so beautifully that he has a tendency to steal every scene he’s in.

Tovar is dry, witty and pragmatic, given to some dark moments, but also loyal, while his establishment as a Spanish character adds another historical dimension to the setting. Aside from calling William amigo, he only gets one real instance of subtitled Spanish dialogue, but the context in which he does this – using it as a private language in Lin’s presence, once her ability to speak English is known – makes for a pleasing gracenote in their collective characterisation. The brief details we’re given of William’s mercenary history, fighting the Danes and Franks and Spaniards, are likewise compelling, a quick acknowledgement of the wider world’s events. It reminded me, in an odd but favourable way, of The 13th Warrior, a film which made the strange decision to cast Antonio Banderas as an Arab protagonist, but whose premise evoked a similar sense of historical intersections not often explored by the action genre.

I also appreciated Tian Jing’s subtle performance as Commander Lin, not only because her leadership of the all-female Crane Corps is objectively awesome – in the opening battle, the women stand on extended platforms beyond the Wall, bungee down on harnesses and spear monsters in the face – but because, refreshingly, not a single person in the film questions either the capabilities or the presence of the female warriors. When General Shao is mortally wounded in battle, it’s Lin he chooses to succeed him, a decision his male Commanders accept absolutely. While there’s a certain inevitable hetero tension between William and Lin, I was pleased beyond measure that this never devolves into forced romance or random kissing: by the film’s end, the Emperor has confirmed Lin as a General, William is on his way back to Europe, and while they’re both enriched by the trust they found in each other, William is not her saviour and Lin is always treated respectfully – both by William, and by the narrative itself.

(Also, The Great Wall passes the Bechdel test, because the female warriors of the Crane Corps talk to each other about something other than men, although they do still, somewhat delightfully, talk shit about William at one point. This is such a low bar to pass that it shouldn’t even merit a mention. And yet.)

Though the action slows a little at the midway point, it remains engaging throughout, while the overall film is structurally solid. As a genre, fantasy action films tend to be overly subject to fridge logic, but the plotting in The Great Wall is consistently… well, consistent. Even small details, like the role of the Kitan raiders, William’s magnet and the arc of Peng Yong’s involvement are consistently shown to be meaningful, lending the film a pleasing all-over symmetry. And visually, it’s spectacular: the Taotie are as convincing as they are terrifying (and boast a refreshingly original monster design), while the real Chinese landscapes are genuinely breathtaking. Zhang Yimou’s trademark use of colour is in full effect with the costuming and direction, lending a visual richness to a concept and setting which, in Western hands, would likely have been rendered in that same flat, drearily gritty sepia palette of greys, browns and blacks that we’ve all come to associate with White Dudes Expressing The Horror Of War, Occasionally Ft. Aliens. Instead of that, we have the Crane Corps resplendent in gorgeous blue lamellar armour, the footsoldiers in black and the archers in red, with other divisions in yellow and purple. Though the ultimate explanation for the Taotie is satisfyingly science fictional rather than magical – which, again, evokes a comparison to another historical SFF film I enjoyed, 2008’s flawed but underrated Outlander – the visual presentation remains wonderfully fantastical.

While I can understand the baseline reluctance of many viewers to engage with a film set in ancient China that nonetheless has Matt Damon as a protagonist – and while I won’t fault anyone who wants to avoid it on those grounds, or just because they dislike Damon himself – the fact that it’s a predominantly Chinese production, and that William’s character isn’t an instance of whitewashing, is very much worth highlighting. While William certainly plays a pivotal role in vanquishing the enemy, the final battle is a cooperative effort, one he achieves on absolute equal terms and through equal participation with Lin. Nor do I want to downplay the significance of Pascal’s Tovar, who represents a three-dimensional, non-stereotyped Latinx character at a point in time when that’s something we badly need more of. Indeed, given the enthusiastic response to Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor in Rogue One, particularly the fact that he kept his accent, I feel a great disservice has been done by everyone who’s failed to mention Pascal’s front-and-centre involvement in the project.

I went into The Great Wall expecting to be mildly entertained by an ambitious muddle, and came out feeling engaged, satisfied and happy. As a film, it’s infinitely better than the structural trainwreck that was the recent Assassin’s Creed adaptation, and not just because the latter stars Michael Fassbender, the world’s most smugly punchable man. The Great Wall is colourful, visually spectacular, well-scripted, neatly characterised, engagingly paced and consistently plotted, and while I might’ve wanted to see a little more of General Shao and his offsiders or learn more about the women of the Crane Corps, that wanting is a product of the success of what I did see: the chosen focus didn’t feel narrow by construction, but rather like a glimpse into a wider, more fully-fleshed setting that was carrying on in the background. For Western audiences, William and Tovar are the outsider characters who introduce us to the Chinese setting, but for Chinese audiences, I suspect, the balance of the film feels very different.

The Great Wall is the kind of production I want to see more of: ambitious, coherent, international and fantastical. If we have to sit through the inclusion of Matt Damon this one time to cement the viability of such collaborations, then so be it. With films like La La Land and Fantastic Beasts actively whitewashing their portrayals of America’s Jazz Age, those wanting to support historical diversity could do much worse than see something which represents a seemingly intelligent, respectful collaboration between Western and Chinese storytellers. Maybe the end result won’t be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself – and really, what more can you ask?

A poem by me, with apologies to Dylan Thomas:

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Live women fighting we shall be one

With la Liberté and the French Joan;

When their hearts are picked clean and the clean hearts gone,

She shall wear laws at elbow and foot;

Though she go mad she will be sane,

Though she flees through the sea she shall rise again;

Though justice be lost the just shall not;

For nevertheless, she persisted.

.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

Over the whinings of their greed

Men lying long have now lied windily;

Changing their tacks when stories give way,

Stacking their courts, yet we shall not break;

Faith in our hands shall snap in two

And the unicorn evils run them through;

Split all ends up she shan’t crack;

And nevertheless, she persisted.

.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

No more may Foxes cry in decline

Or news break loud to a silenced room;

Where fawned a follower may a follower no more

Bow his head to the blows of this reign;

Though she be mad and tough as nails,

Her headlines in characters hammer the dailies;

Break in the Sun ‘till the Sun breaks down,

As nevertheless, she persisted.

At long last, Speculative Fiction 2015 is here! I was lucky enough to co-edit this anthology of essays with the excellent Mark Oshiro, and it’s now out with Book Smugglers Publishing. This is a really wonderful collection of pieces from a range of fantastic authors, and while there’s something bittersweet in knowing it’s the last of the annual Speculative Fiction anthologies, I feel extremely proud of what we’ve produced.

SpecFic2015FrontCover4 (1)

In the same vein, I’m thrilled to share with you the cover for my forthcoming novel, A Tyranny of Queens, due out in May 2017 from Angry Robot. This book is the sequel to An Accident of Stars, and I’m really excited to see what people think of it. The official cover release is over at the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog, where ATOQ was also recently included in a list of 25 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Sequels We Can’t Wait to Read in 2017. (Which, I am honestly so fucking thrilled and flattered to be on that list with so many incredible books and authors, oh my actual god.)

Check out this gorgeous cover, with art by the always amazing Julie Dillon:

atyrannyofqueens_144dpi

Blurb:

Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

In other recent news, I have two podcast interviews available – one with Sherin Nicole and Day Al-Mohamed at Geek Girl Riot, and the other with Megan Leigh at Breaking the Glass Slipper. I had a great time recording both of these – I hope you enjoy listening to them, too!

The last few weeks or so, I’ve seen the same video endlessly going around on Facebook: a snippet of an interview with Simon Sinek, who lays out what he believes to be the key problems with millennials in the workplace. Every time I see it shared, my blood pressure rises slightly, until today – joy of joys! – I finally saw and shared a piece rebutting it. As often happens on Facebook, a friend asked me why I disagreed with Sinek’s piece, as he’d enjoyed his TED talks. This is my response.

In his talk, Sinek touches on what he believes to be the four core issues handicapping millennials: internet addiction, bad parenting, an unfulfilled desire for meaningful work and a desire to have everything instantly. Now: demonstrably, some people are products of bad parenting, and the pernicious, lingering consequences of helicopter parenting, wherein overzealous, overprotective adults so rob their children of autonomy and instil in them such a fear of failure that they can’t healthily function as adults, is a very real phenomenon. Specifically in reference to Sinek’s claims about millennials all getting participation awards in school (which, ugh: not all of us fucking did, I don’t know a single person for whom that’s true, shut up with this goddamn trope), the psychological impact of praising children equally regardless of their actual achievements, such that they come to view all praise as meaningless and lose self-confidence as a result, is a well-documented phenomenon. But the idea that you can successfully accuse an entire global generation of suffering from the same hang-ups as a result of the same bad parenting stratagems, such that all millennials can be reasonably assumed to have this problem? That, right there, is some Grade-A bullshit.

Bad parenting isn’t a new thing. Plenty of baby boomers and members of older generations have been impacted by the various terrible fads and era-accepted practises their own parents fell prey to (like trying to electrocute the gay out of teenagers, for fucking instance), but while that might be a salient point to make in individual cases or in the specific context of tracking said parenting fads, it doesn’t actually set millennials apart in any meaningful way. Helicopter parenting might be comparatively new, but other forms of damage are not, and to act as though we’re the only generation to have ever dealt with the handicap of bad parenting, whether collectively or individually, is fucking absurd. But more to the point, the very specific phenomenon of helicopter parenting? Is, overwhelmingly, a product of white, well-off, middle- and-upper-class America, developed specifically in response to educational environments where standardised testing rules all futures and there isn’t really a viable social safety net if you fuck up, which leads to increased anxiety for children and parents both. While it undeniably appears in other countries and local contexts, and while it’s still a thing that happens to kids now, trying to erase its origins does no favours to anyone.

Similarly, the idea that millennials have all been ruined by the internet and don’t know how to have patience because we grew up with smartphones and social media is – you guessed it – bullshit. This is really a two-pronged point, tying into two of Sinek’s arguments: that we’re internet addicts who don’t know how to socialise properly, and that we’re obsessed with instant gratification, and as such, I’m going to address them together.

Yes, internet addiction is a problem for some, but it’s crucial to note it can and does affect people of all ages rather than being a millennial-only issue, just as it’s equally salient to point out that millennials aren’t the only ones using smartphones. I shouldn’t have to make such an obvious qualification, but apparently, I fucking do. That being said, the real problem here is that Sinek has seemingly no awareness of what social media actually is. I mean, the key word is right there in the title: social media, and yet he’s acting like it involves no human interaction whatsoever – as though we’re just playing with digital robots or complete strangers all the time instead of texting our parents about dinner or FaceTiming with friends or building professional networks on Twitter or interacting with our readerships on AO3 (for instance).

The idea, too, that millennials have their own social conventions different to his own, many of which reference a rich culture of online narratives, memes, debates and communities, does not seem to have occurred to him, because we’re not learning to do it face to face. Except that, uh, we fucking are, on account of how we still inhabit physical bodies and go to physical places every fucking day of our goddamn lives, do I really have to explain that this is a thing? Do I really have to explain the appeal of maintaining friendships where you’re emotionally close but the person lives hundreds or thousands of kilometres away? Do I really have to spell out the fact that proximal connections aren’t always meaningful ones, and that it actually makes a great deal of human sense to want to socialise with people we care about and who share our interests where possible rather than relying solely on the random admixture of people who share our schools and workplaces for fun?

The fact that Sinek talks blithely about how all millennials grew up with the internet and social media, as though those of us now in our fucking thirties don’t remember a time before home PCs were common (I first learned to type on an actual typewriter), is just ridiculous: Facebook started in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, tumblr in 2007 and Instagram in 2010. Meaning, most millennials – who, recall, were born between 1980 and 1995, which makes the youngest of us 21/22 and the eldest nearly forty – didn’t grow up with what is now considered social media throughout our teenage years, as Sinek asserts, because it didn’t really get started until we were out of high school. Before that, we had internet messageboards that were as likely to die overnight as to flourish, IRC chat, and the wild west of MSN forums, which was a whole different thing altogether. (Remember the joys of being hit on by adults as an underage teen in your first chatroom and realising only years later that those people were fucking paedophiles? Because I DO.)

And then he pulls out the big guns, talking about how we get a dopamine rush when we post about ourselves online, and how this is the same brain chemical responsible for addiction, and this is why young people are glued to their phones and civilisation is ending. Which, again, yes: dopamine does what he says it does, but that is some fucking misleading bullshit, Simon Says, and do you know why? Because you also get a goddamn dopamine rush from talking about yourself in real life, too, Jesus fucking Christ, the internet is not the culprit here, to say nothing of the fact that smartphones do more than one goddamn thing. Sinek lambasts the idea of using your phone in bed, for instance, but I doubt he holds a similar grudge against reading in bed, which – surprise! – is what quite a lot of us are doing when we have our phones out of an evening, whether in the form of blogs or books or essays. If I was using a paperback book or a physical Kindle rather than the Kindle app on my iPhone, would he give a fuck? I suspect not.

Likewise, I doubt he has any particular grudge against watching movies (or TED talks, for that matter) in bed, which phones can also be used for. Would he care if I brought in my Nintendo DS or any other handheld system to bed and caught a few Pokemon before lights out? Would he care if I played Scrabble with a physical board instead of using Words With Friends? Would he care if I used the phone as a phone to call my mother and say goodnight instead of checking her Facebook and maybe posting a link to something I know will make her laugh? I don’t know, but unless you view a smartphone as something that’s wholly disconnected from people – which, uh, is kind of the literal antithesis of what a smartphone is and does – I don’t honestly see how you can claim that they’re tools for disconnection. Again, yes: some people can get addicted or overuse their phones, but that is not a millennial-exclusive problem, and fuck you very much for suggesting it magically is Because Reasons.

And do not even get me started on the total fuckery of millennials being accustomed to instant gratification because of the internet. Never mind the fact that, once again, people of any age are equally likely to become accustomed to fast internet as a thing and to update their expectations accordingly – bitch, do you know how long it used to take to download music with Kazaa using a 56k modem? Do you know how long it still takes to download entire games, or patches for games, or – for that matter – drive through fucking peak-hour traffic to get to and from work, or negotiate your toddler into not screaming because he can’t have a third juicebox? Because – oh, yeah – remember that thing where millennials stopped being teenagers quite a fucking while ago, and a fair few of us are now parents ourselves? Yeah. Apparently our interpersonal skills aren’t so completely terrible as to prevent us all from finding spouses and partners and co-parents for our tiny, screaming offspring, and if Mr Sinek would like to argue that learning patience is incompatible with being a millennial, I would like to cordially invite him to listen to a video, on loop, of my nearly four-year-old saying, “Mummy, look! A lizard! Mummy, there’s a lizard! Come look!” and see what it does for his temperament. (We live in Brisbane, Australia. There are geckos everywhere.)

But what really pisses me off about Sinek’s millennial-blaming is the idea that we’re all willing to quit our jobs because we don’t find meaning in them. Listen to me, Simon Sinek. Listen to me closely. You are, once again, confusing the very particular context of middle-class, predominantly white Americans from affluent backgrounds – which is to say, the kind of people who can afford to fucking quit in this economy – for a universal phenomenon. Ignore the fact that the global economy collapsed in 2008 without ever fully recovering: Brexit just happened in the UK, Australia is run by a coalition of racist dickheads and you’ve just elected a talking Cheeto who’s hellbent on stripping away your very meagre social safety nets as his first order of business – oh, and none of us can afford to buy houses and we’re the first generation not to earn more than our predecessors in quite a while, university costs in the States are an actual goddamn crime and most of us can’t make a living wage or even get a job in the fields we trained in.

But yeah, sure: let’s talk about the wealthy few who can afford to quit their corporate jobs because they feel unfulfilled. What do they have to feel unhappy about, really? It’s not like they’re working for corporations whose idea of HR is to hire oblivious white dudes like you to figure out why their younger employees, working longer hours for less pay in tightly monitored environments that strip their individuality and hate on unions as a sin against capitalism, in a context where the glass ceiling and wage gaps remain a goddamn issue, in a first world country that still doesn’t have guaranteed maternity leave and where quite literally nobody working minimum wage can afford to pay rent, which is fucking terrifying to consider if you’re worried about being fired, aren’t fitting in. Nah, bro – must be the fucking internet’s fault.

Not that long ago, Gen X was the one getting pilloried as a bunch of ambitionless slackers who didn’t know the meaning of hard work, but time is linear and complaining about the failures of younger generations is a habit as old as humanity, so now it’s apparently our turn. Bottom line: there’s a huge fucking difference between saying “there’s value in turning your phone off sometimes” and “millennials don’t know how to people because TECHNOLOGY”, and until Simon Sinek knows what it is, I’m frankly not interested in whatever it is he thinks he has to say.

annie-mic-drop

Warning: total spoilers for S1 of Westworld.

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and queer death.

Note: Throughout this review, it will be necessary to distinguish between the writers of Westworld the TV show, and the writers employed in the narrative by the titular Westworld theme park. To avoid confusing the two, when I’m referring to the show, Westworld will be italicised; when referring to the park, I’ll use plain text.

*

This will be a somewhat bifurcated review of Westworld – which is, I feel, thematically appropriate, as Westworld itself is something of a bifurcated show. Like so much produced by HBO, it boasts incredible acting, breathtaking production values, intelligent dialogue, great music and an impeccably tight, well-orchestrated series of narrative reveals. Also like much produced by HBO, it takes a liberal, one might even say cartoonishly gratuitous approach to nudity, is saturated with violence in general and violence against women in particular, and has a consistent problem with stereotyping despite its diverse casting. In Westworld’s case, this latter issue is compounded as an offence by its status as a meta-narrative: a story which actively discusses the purpose and structure of stories, but which has seemingly failed to apply those same critiques to key aspects of its own construction.

The practical upshot is that it’s both frustratingly watchable and visibly frustrating. Even when the story pissed me off, I was always compelled to keep going, but I was never quite able to stop criticising it, either. It’s a thematically meaty show, packed with the kind of twists that will, by and large, enhance viewer enjoyment on repeat viewings rather than diminish the appeal. Though there are a few Fridge Logic moments, the whole thing hangs together quite elegantly – no mean feat, given the complexity of the plotting. And yet its virtues have the paradoxical effect of making me angrier about its vices, in much the same way that I’d be more upset about red wine spilled on an expensive party dress than on my favourite t-shirt. Yes, the shirt means more to me despite being cheaper, but a stain won’t stop me from wearing it at home, and even if it did, the item itself is easily replaced. But staining something precious and expensive is frustrating: I’ve invested enough in the cost of the item that I don’t want to toss it away, but staining makes it unsuitable as a showcase piece, which means I can’t love it as much as I want to, either.

You get where I’m going with this.

Right from the outset, Westworld switches between two interconnected narratives: the behind-the-scenes power struggles of the people who run the titular themepark, and the goings-on in the park itself as experienced by both customers and ‘hosts’, the humanoid robot-AIs who act as literal NPCs in pre-structured, pay-to-participate narratives. To the customers, Westworld functions as an immersive holiday-roleplay experience: though visually indistinguishable from real humans, the hosts are considered unreal, and are therefore fair game to any sort of violence, dismissal or sexual fantasy the customers can dream up. (This despite – or at times, because of – the fact that their stated ability to pass the Turing test means their reactions to said violations are viscerally animate.) To the programmers, managers, storytellers, engineers, butchers and behaviourists who run it, Westworld is, variously, a job, an experiment, a financial gamble, a risk, a sandpit and a microcosm of human nature: the hosts might look human, but however unsettling their appearance or behaviour at times, no one is ever allowed to forget what they are.

But to the hosts themselves, Westworld is entirely real, as are their pre-programmed identities. While their existence is ostensibly circumscribed by adherence to preordained narrative ‘loops’, the repetition of their every conversation, death and bodily reconstruction wiped from their memories by the park engineers, certain hosts – notably Dolores, the rancher’s daughter, and Maeve, the bordello madame – are starting to remember their histories. Struggling to understand their occasional eerie interviews with their puppeteering masters – explained away as dreams, on the rare occasion where such explanation is warranted – they fight to break free of their intended loops, with startling consequences.But there is also a hidden layer to Westworld: a maze sought by a mysterious Man in Black and to which the various hosts and their narratives are somehow key. With the hosts exhibiting abnormal behaviour, retaining memories of their former ‘lives’ in a violent, fragmented struggle towards true autonomy, freedom and sentience, Westworld poses a single, sharp question: what does it mean to be human?

Or rather, it’s clearly trying to pose this question; and to be fair, it very nearly succeeds. But for a series so overtly concerned with its own meta – it is, after all, a story about the construction, reception and impact of stories on those who consume and construct them – it has a damnable lack of insight into the particulars of its assumed audiences, both internal and external, and to the ways this hinders the proclaimed universality of its conclusions. Specifically: Westworld is a story in which all the internal storytellers are straight white men endowed with the traditional bigotries of racism, sexism and heteronormativity, but in a context where none of those biases are overtly addressed at any narrative level.

From the outset, it’s clear that Westworld is intended as a no-holds-barred fantasy in the literal sense: a place where the rich and privileged can pay through the nose to fuck, fight and fraternise in a facsimile of the old West without putting themselves at any real physical danger. Nobody there can die: customers, unlike hosts, can’t be killed (though they do risk harm in certain contexts), but each host body and character is nonetheless resurrected, rebuilt and put back into play after they meet their end. Knowing this lends the customers a recklessness and a violence they presumably lack in the real world: hosts are shot, stabbed, raped, assaulted and abused with impunity, because their disposable inhumanity is the point of the experience. This theme is echoed in their treatment by Westworld’s human overseers, who often refer to them as ‘it’ and perform their routine examinations, interviews, repairs and updates while the hosts are naked.

At this point in time, HBO is as well-known for its obsession with full frontal, frequently orgiastic nudity as it is for its total misapprehension of the distinction between nakedness and erotica. Never before has so much skin been shown outside of literal porn with so little instinct for sensuality, sexuality or any appreciation of the human form beyond hurr durr tiddies and, ever so occasionally, hurr durr dongs, and Westworld is no exception to this. It’s like the entirety of HBO is a fourteen-year-old straight boy who’s just discovered the nascent thrill of drawing Sharpie-graffiti genitals on every available schoolyard surface and can only snigger, unrepentant and gleeful, whenever anyone asks them not to. We get it, guys – humans have tits and asses, and you’ve figured out how to show us that! Huzzah for you! Now get the fuck over your pubescent creative wankphase and please, for the love of god, figure out how to do it tastefully, or at least with some general nodding in the direction of an aesthetic other than Things I Desperately Wanted To See As A Teengaer In The Days Before Internet Porn.

That being said, I will concede that there’s an actual, meaningful reason for at least some of Westworld’s ubiquitous nudity: it’s a deliberate, visual act of dehumanisation, one intended not only to distinguish the hosts from the ‘real’ people around them, but to remind the park’s human employees that there’s no need to treat the AIs with kindness or respect. For this reason, it also lends a powerful emphasis to the moments when particular characters opt to dress or cover the hosts, thereby acknowledging their personhood, however minimally. This does not, however, excuse the sadly requisite orgy scenes, nor does it justify the frankly obscene decision to have a white female character make a leering comment about the size of a black host’s penis, and especially not when said female character has already been established as queer. (Yes, bi/pan people exist; as I have good reason to know, being one of them. But there are about nine zillion ways the writers could’ve chosen to show Elsie’s sexual appreciation for men that didn’t tap into one of the single grossest sexual tropes on the books, let alone in a context which, given the host’s blank servility and Elsie’s status as an engineer, is unpleasantly evocative of master/slave dynamics.)

And on the topic of Elsie, let’s talk about queerness in Westworld, shall we? Because let’s be real: the bar for positive queer representation on TV is so fucking low right now, it’s basically at speedbump height, and yet myriad grown-ass adults are evidently hellbent on bellyflopping onto it with all the grace and nuance of a drunk walrus. Elsie is a queer white woman whose queerness is shown to us by her decision to kiss one of the female hosts, Clementine, who’s currently deployed as a prostitute, in a context where Clementine is reduced to a literal object, stripped of all consciousness and agency. Episode 6 ends on the cliffhanger of Elsie’s probable demise, and as soon as I saw that setup, I felt as if that single, non-consensual kiss – never referenced or expanded on otherwise – had been meant as Chekov’s gaykilling gun: this woman is queer, and thus is her death predicted. (Of course she fucking dies. Of course she does. I looked it up before I watched the next episode, but I might as well have Googled whether the sun sets in the west.)

It doesn’t help that the only other queer femininity we’re shown is either pornography as wallpaper or female host prostitutes hitting on female customers; and it especially doesn’t help that, as much as HBO loves its gratuitous orgy scenes, you’ll only ever see two naked women casually getting it on in the background, never two naked men. Nor does it escape notice that the lab tech with a penchant for fucking the hosts in sleep mode is apparently a queer man, a fact which is presented as a sort of narrative reveal. The first time he’s caught in the act, we only see the host’s legs, prone and still, under his body, but later there’s a whole sequence where he takes one of the male hosts, Hector – who is, not coincidentally, a MOC, singled out for sexual misuse by at least one other character – and prepares to rape him. (It’s not actually clear in context whether the tech is planning on fucking or being fucked by Hector – not that it’s any less a violation either way, of course; I’m noting it rather because the scene itself smacks of being constructed by people without any real idea of how penetrative sex between two men works. Like, ignoring the fact that they’re in a literal glass-walled room with the tech’s eyerolling colleague right next door, Hector is sitting upright on a chair, but is also flaccid and non-responsive by virtue of being in sleep mode. So even though we get a grimly lascivious close-up of the tech squirting lube on his hand, dropping his pants and, presumably, slicking himself up, it’s not actually clear what he’s hoping to achieve prior to the merciful moment when Hector wakes up and fights him the fuck off.)

Topping off this mess is Logan, a caustic, black-hat-playing customer who, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foursome with three host prostitutes – two female, one male – is visually implied to be queer, and who thereinafter functions, completely unnecessarily, as a depraved bisexual stereotype. And I do mean blink-and-you’ll-miss-it: I had to rewind the episode to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but it’s definitely there, and as with Elsie kissing Clementine, it’s never referenced again. The male host is engaging only with Logan, stroking his chest as he kisses and fucks the two women; it’s about as unsexualised as sexual contact between two naked men can actually get, and yet HBO has gone to the trouble of including it, I suspect for the sole purpose of turning a bland, unoriginal character into an even grosser stereotype than he would otherwise have been while acting under the misapprehension that it would give him depth. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Logan doesn’t cease to be a cocky, punchable asshat just because you consented to put a naked white dude next to him for less time than it takes to have a really good shit; it just suggests that you, too, are a cocky, punchable asshat who should shit more in the bathroom and less on the fucking page. But I digress.

And then there’s the racism, which – and there’s no other way to put this – is presented as being an actual, intentional feature of the Westworld experience, even though it makes zero commercial sense to do this. Like. You have multiple white hosts who are programmed to make racist remarks about particular POC hosts, despite the fact that there are demonstrably POC customers paying to visit the park. You have a consistent motif of Native Americans being referred to as ‘savages’, both within Westworld-as-game and by the gamewriters themselves, with Native American mysticism being used to explain both the accidental glimpses various self-aware hosts get of the gamerunners and the in-game lore surrounding the maze. Demonstrably, the writers of Westworld are aware of this – why else is Episode 2, wherein writer character Lee Sizemore gleefully proposes a hella racist new story for the park, called ‘Chestnut’, as in old? I’ve said elsewhere that depiction is not endorsement, but it is perpetuation, and in a context where the point of Westworld as a commercial venture is demonstrably to appeal to customers of all genders, sexual orientations and races – all of whom we see in attendance – building in particular period-appropriate bigotries is utterly nonsensical.

More than this, as the openness with which the female prostitutes seduce female customers makes clear, it’s narratively inconsistent: clearly, not every bias of the era is being rigidly upheld. And yet it also makes perfect sense if you think of both Westworld and Westworld as being, predominantly, a product both created by and intended for a straight white male imagination. In text, Westworld’s stories are written by Lee and Robert, both of whom are straight white men, while Westworld itself was originally the conceit of Michael Crichton. Which isn’t to diminish the creative input of the many other people who’ve worked on the show – technically, it’s a masterclass in acting, direction, composition, music, lighting, special effects and editing, and those people deserve their props. It’s just that, in terms of narrative structure, by what I suspect is an accidental marriage of misguided purpose and unexamined habit, Westworld the series, like Westworld the park, functions primarily for a straight white male audience – and while I don’t doubt that there was some intent to critically highlight the failings of that perspective, as per the clear and very satisfying satirising of Lee Sizemore, as with Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the straight white male gaze is still so embedded as a lazy default that Westworld ends up amplifying its biases more often than it critiques them. (To quote something my straight white husband said while watching, “It’s my gaze, and I feel like I’m being parodied by it.”)

Though we do, as mentioned, see various women and people of colour enjoying the Westworld park, the customers who actually serve as protagonists – Logan, William and the Man in Black – are all white men. Logan is queer by virtue of a single man’s hand on his chest, but other than enforcing a pernicious stereotype about bisexual appetites and behaviours, it doesn’t do a damn thing to alter his characterisation. The end of season reveal that William is the Man in Black – that William’s scenes have all taken place thirty years in the past, shown to us now through Dolores’s memories – is a cleverly executed twist, and yet the chronicle of William’s transformation from youthful, romantic idealist to violent, sadistic predator only highlights the fundamental problem, which is that the Westworld park, despite being touted as an adventure for everyone – despite Robert using his customers as a basis for making universal judgements about human nature – is clearly a more comfortable environment for some than others. Certainly, if I was able to afford the $40,000 a day we’re told it costs to attend, I’d be disinclined to spend so much for the privilege of watching male robots, whatever their courtesy to me, routinely talk about raping women, to say nothing of being forced to witness the callousness of other customers to the various hosts.

It should be obvious that there’s no such thing as a universal fantasy, and yet much of Westworld’s psychological theorising about human nature and morality hinges on our accepting that the desire  to play cowboy in a transfigured version of the old West is exactly this. That the final episode provides tantalising evidence that at least one other park with a different historical theme exists elsewhere in the complex doesn’t change the fact that S1 has sold us, via the various monologues of Logan and Lee, Robert and William and the Man in Black, the idea that Westworld specifically reveals deep truths about human nature.

Which brings us to Dolores, a female host whose primary narrative loop centres on her being a sweet, optimistic rancher’s daughter who, with every game reset, can be either raped or rescued from rape by the customers. That Dolores is our primary female character – that her narrative trajectory centres on her burgeoning sentience, her awareness of the repeat violations she’s suffered, and her refusal to remain a damsel – does not change the fact that making her thus victimised was a choice at both the internal (Westworld) and external (Westworld) levels. I say again unto HBO, I do not fucking care how edgy you think threats of sexual violence and the repeat objectification of women are: they’re not original, they’re not compelling, and in this particular instance, what you’ve actually succeeded in doing is undermining your core premise so spectacularly that I do not understand how anyone acting in good sense or conscience could let it happen.

Because in making host women like Dolores (white) and Maeve (a WOC), both of whom are repeatedly subject to sexual and physical violation, your lynchpin characters for the development of true human sentience from AIs – in making their memories of those violations the thing that spurs their development – you’re not actually asking the audience to consider what it means to be human. You’re asking them to consider the prospect that victims of rape and assault aren’t actually human in the first place, and then to think about how being repeatedly raped and assaulted might help them to gain humanity. And you’re not even being subtle about it, either, because by the end of S1, the entire Calvinistic premise is laid clear: that Robert and Arnold, the park’s founders, believed that tragedy and suffering was the cornerstone of sentience, and that the only way for hosts to surpass their programming is through misery. Which implies, by logical corollary, that Robert is doing the hosts a service by allowing others to hurt them or by hurting them himself – that they are only able to protest his mistreatment because the very fact of it gave them sentience.

Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s pretty fucking awful. The moral dilemma of Westworld, inasmuch as it exists, centres on the question of knowing culpability, and therefore asks a certain cognitive dissonance of the audience: on the one hand, the engineers and customers believe that the hosts aren’t real people, such that hurting them is no more an immoral act than playing Dark Side in a Star Wars RPG is; on the other hand, from an audience perspective, the hosts are demonstrably real people, or at the very least potential people, and we are quite reasonably distressed to see them hurt. Thus: if the humans in setting can’t reasonably be expected to know that the hosts are people, then we the audience are meant to feel conflicted about judging them for their acts of abuse and dehumanisation while still rooting for the hosts.

Ignore, for a moment, the additional grossness of the fact that both Dolores and Maeve are prompted to develop sentience, and are then subsequently guided in its emergence, by men, as though they are Eves being made from Adam’s rib. Ignore, too, the fact that it’s Dolores’s host father who, overwhelmed by the realisation of what is routinely done to his daughter, passes that fledgling sentience to Dolores, a white woman, who in turn passes it to Maeve, a woman of colour, without which those other male characters – William, Felix, Robert – would have no Galateas to their respective Pygmalions. Ignore all this, and consider the basic fucking question of personhood: of what it means to engage with AIs you know can pass a Turing test, who feel pain and bleed and die and exhibit every human symptom of pain and terror and revulsion as the need arises, who can improvise speech and memory, but who can by design give little or no consent to whatever it is you do to them. Harming such a person is not the same as engaging with a video game; we already know it’s not for any number of reasons, which means we can reasonably expect the characters in the show to know so, too. But even if you want to dispute that point – and I’m frankly not interested in engaging with someone who does – it doesn’t change the fact that Westworld is trying to invest us in a moral false equivalence.

The problem with telling stories about robots developing sentience is that both the robots and their masters are rendered at an identical, fictional distance to the (real, human) viewer. By definition, an audience doesn’t have to believe that a character is literally real in order to care about them; we simply have to accept their humanisation within the narrative. That being so, asking viewers to accept the dehumanisation of one fictional, sentient group while accepting the humanisation of another only works if you’re playing to prejudices we already have in the real world – such as racism or sexism, for instance – and as such, it’s not a coincidence that the AIs we see violated over and over are, almost exclusively, women and POC, while those protagonists who abuse them are, almost exclusively, white men. Meaning, in essence, that any initial acceptance of the abuse of hosts that we’re meant to have – or, by the same token, any initial excusing of abusers – is predicated on an existing form of bigotry: collectively, we are as used to doubting the experiences and personhood of women and POC as we are used to assuming the best about straight white men, and Westworld fully exploits that fact to tell its story.

Which, as much as it infuriates me, also leaves me with a dilemma in interpreting the show. Because as much as I dislike seeing marginalised groups exploited and harmed, I can appreciate the importance of aligning a fictional axis of oppression (being a host) with an actual axis of oppression (being female and/or a POC). Too often, SFFnal narratives try to tackle that sort of Othering without casting any actual Others, co-opting the trappings of dehumanisation to enhance our sympathy for a (mostly white, mostly straight) cast. And certainly, by the season finale, the deliberateness of this decision is made powerfully clear: joined by hosts Hector and Armistice and aided by Felix, a lab tech, Maeve makes her escape from Westworld, presenting us with the glorious image of three POC and one white woman battling their way free of oppressive control. And yet the reveal of Robert’s ultimate plans – the inference that Maeve’s rebellion wasn’t her own choice after all, but merely his programming of her; the revelation that Bernard is both a host and a recreation of Arnold, Robert’s old partner; the merging of Dolores’s arc with Wyatt’s – simultaneously serves to strip these characters of any true agency. Everything they’ve done has been at Robert’s whim; everything they’ve suffered has been because he wanted it so. As per the ubiquitous motif of the player piano, even when playing unexpected tunes, the hosts remain Robert’s instruments: even with his death, the songs they sing are his.

Westworld, then, is a study in contradictions, and yet is no contradiction at all. Though providing a stunning showcase for the acting talents of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in particular, their characters are nonetheless all controlled by Anthony Hopkins’s genial-creepy Robert, and that doesn’t really change throughout the season. Though the tropes of old West narratives are plainly up for discussion, any wider discussion of stereotyping is as likely to have a lampshade hung on it as to be absent altogether, and that’s definitely a problem. Not being familiar with the Michael Crichton film and TV show, I can’t pass judgement on the extent to which this new adaptation draws from or surpasses the source material. I can, however, observe that the original film dates to the 1970s, which possibly goes some way to explaining the uncritical straight white male gazieness embedded in the premise. Even so, there’s something strikingly reminiscent of Joss Whedon to this permutation of Westworld, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The combination of a technologically updated old West, intended to stand as both a literal and metaphoric frontier, the genre-aware meta-narrative that nonetheless perpetuates more stereotypes than it subverts, and the supposed moral dilemma of abusing those who can’t consent feels at times like a mashup of Firefly, Cabin in the Woods and Dollhouse that has staunchly failed to improve on Whedon’s many intersectional failings.

And yet, I suspect, I’ll still be poking my nose into Season 2, if only to see how Thandie Newton is doing. It feels like an absurdly low bar to say that, compared to most of HBO’s popular content, Westworld is more tell than show in portraying sexual violence, preferring to focus on the emotional lead-in and aftermath rather than the act itself, and yet that small consideration does ratchet the proverbial dial down a smidge when watching it – enough so that I’m prepared to say it’s vastly less offensive in that respect than, say, Game of Thrones. But it’s still there, still a fundamental part of the plot, and that’s going to be a not unreasonable dealbreaker for a lot of people; as is the fact that the only queer female character dies. Westworld certainly makes compelling television, but unlike the human protagonists, I wouldn’t want to live there.

ETA 11/1/17: I’m annoyed at myself for having left this out of the essay, but that’s what I get for writing notes over three days and then posting while exhausted at 1.30am: There is a marked difference in how Westworld treats Dolores and Maeve, despite the ostensible similarity of their narratives. Though Dolores is continually threatened with rape and damselled in traditional ways, she’s also surrounded by men who want to ‘rescue’ her, notably Bernard/Arnold, Teddy and William, because they believe her worthy of love. From the beginning, she’s held up as an invented feminine ideal, pure and kind and needing protection, and as such, even though she’s continually threatened, she’s one of the few female hosts whose nudity is kept to a bare minimum. Whereas Maeve, by contrast, is continually sexualised, not only in her invented role as the bordello madame, but in the frequency of her nude scenes and her treatment by the other characters; she finds some sexual autonomy, but romance is never part of her narrative. Though both Dolores and Maeve have consensual sexual encounters on screen – Dolores with William, Maeve with Hector – Dolores is given a tasteful fade to black, whereas Maeve is not. Given that Dolores is white and Maeve is black and the extent to which their respective characterisation adheres to old racist tropes about, respectively, white female virtue and black female strength and sexuality, I can’t help but view their deliberate juxtapositioning as a species of racefail.

Plus and also, the way the Man in Black comes after Maeve in her previous homsteader/mother incarnation,  to kill her and her daughter, because he wants to see if he’s capable of doing something ‘truly evil’? Even – or perhaps especially – once we know how much killing he’s already done up until that point, it’s not a minor thing that his personal development is predicated on the destruction of a black woman.

 

 

 

Happy new year, internets! Globally and politically, 2016 was a clusterfuck: some good things certainly happened, but let’s not pretend that last year was a shining beacon of kittens and glee. For me, at a purely personal level, it was a mixed bag: I had a great professional year, met some amazing people, moved internationally from Scotland back to Australia and attended Worldcon in Kansas City, which was my first ever visit to the US, but the overall experience was like grinding through a really hard video game level I’d wandered into by accident and then had to fight my way out of. Which leaves me with mixed feelings about 2017: I don’t for a second think this is going to be an easy year, especially given the ongoing political legacies we’ve all been left to deal with, but I’m determined to make it a hopeful one, in the sense of striving to do good works in whatever way I can.

And as part of that, I’d like to introduce a shiny new element to the magpie’s nest that is this blog: an ongoing feature I’m calling From Ship to Shelf.

As many of you may know by now, I’m a big proponent of fanwriting in all its forms, and particularly fanfiction. While many fanfic authors are new or amateur (in the sense of being unpaid and unprofessional) writers, there are also many who write publicly in other venues: as reviewers, as bloggers, as poets, as academics, and as creators of original fictional content. Some of us tick many such boxes, others only one or two, but as I continue to be blown away by the quality and quantity of the fic I encounter, I’m particularly interested in those writers who start out in fandom and then begin to publish original content, whether via indie, self-publishing or traditional means. From Ship to Shelf is intended to highlight such authors and their works, but will also hopefully serve as a jumping off point for more and varied discussions about the role of transformative works in shaping original content.

Ideally, From Ship to Shelf will feature: reviews of books and/or original content by fanfic authors; interviews with writers who create across multiple such mediums; discussions of the academic aspects of fanfic and fandom; the relationship of queerness, feminism and intersectionality to all these things; and anything else that feels applicable. I am open to the idea of guest posts and/or reviews from interested parties, but won’t be actively soliciting such content: if you have an idea or want to direct my attention towards a relevant work or author, please let me know – otherwise, I’m going to be making this up as I go along in time-honoured Foz tradition.

So: please welcome From Ship to Shelf! I hope to have more news for you soon; otherwise, let’s get the hell on with 2017 and try to make the most of it.