Archive for the ‘Critical Hit’ Category

For days now, social media has been abuzz over Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture essay, The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter, which focuses almost exclusively on reactions to Laurie Forest’s debut novel, The Black Witch. Overwhelmingly, the responses I’ve seen are binary: either Rosenfield is a terrible, malicious person who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she’s the only person brave enough to speak truth to power. Not having read The Black Witch, a book I can’t recall hearing about before this week, it was news to me that its reception was news at all. Now that I’m all caught up, however, I feel rather like the doomed bowl of petunias falling through space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: oh no, not again.

The recent history of online SFF, fandom and genre discourse rejoices in an abundance of brilliant trashfires, but even in that context, there’s something about YA that routinely spurs the community to knock things up a notch with the Spice Weasel of Greater Fuckery, BAM! YA is so predictably riven with terrible arguments, in fact, that I made a Venn diagram of them. (In MS Paint, obviously. Because I am secretly nine thousand years old.) THUS:

YA fuckery venn diagram

Or, to put it another, slightly less tongue-in-cheek way: as with anything primarily intended for teenagers, it’s necessary to acknowledge that not all teens either need, want or can handle the same things at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree, while simultaneously accounting for the fact that both teens and adults are frequently unreliable narrators about where these boundaries lie. This creates a maelstrom of seemingly paradoxical, highly contextual arguments about what is or is not “appropriate” for a given audience: in the case of YA, the usual moral arguments about content are further complicated by both literary snobbery and a continual back-and-forth about whether YA authors have an obligation to “teach” their readers, whatever that means in context. Throw in the invariable clash between older, outsider commentators with only superficial genre knowledge and young, frequently inexperienced critic-readers making their first forays into public commentary, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Which isn’t to say that there’s never any insightful, engaging or otherwise fruitful YA discourse to be found online – far from it! It’s just that, when things do go wrong, the pattern of arguments tends to be as predictable as it is explosive.

Rosenfield starts her article by describing how early, glowing praise for The Black Witch was abruptly curtailed, thanks to a single negative review:

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

As Rosenfield notes, Sinyard’s review consists largely of quotes from the book, interspersed with reactive commentary. That being so, it’s striking that Rosenfield neither attempts to engage with the substance of Sinyard’s objections nor addresses the text itself. Her defence of the book, inasmuch as she bothers to mount one, consists entirely of pointing out that, well, other people liked it!, the better to malign Sinyard for daring to disagree. This approach irritates me for three reasons: one, obviously, because people disagreeing about the merit of books is the literal function of reviewing; two, because it situates as irrelevant the rather core matter of whether the original criticism was warranted, or at least reasonable; and three, because it ignores a critical aspect of how Sinyard’s piece was received.

Never having encountered Sinyard before now, I can’t say whether this particular review is representative of her usual writing style, nor can I speak to the breadth of her experience. What I will say, however, is that this particular review is easily mistaken for a conflation of depiction with endorsement. While Sinyard clearly and extensively references the text, and while the immediate reasons for her dislike are clearly stated, her overall argument is sloppy, not because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but because she assumes her readership can fill in the relevant blanks.

To me – and, I suspect, to anyone with a solid background in pro-diversity criticism – it’s clear that she’s angry, not at the mere presence of bigotry in the narrative, but at how Forest has chosen to handle it. With few exceptions, Sinyard is asserting a specific failure of depiction, not depiction-as-evil, full stop. This is, to put it mildly, a really important distinction for any critic to make, not least because it’s the difference between saying (for instance) “I hate that you wrote about drug use” and “I hate that you wrote about drug use badly.” One is a judgement of content; the other is a judgement of execution. Sinyard is so angry at the book as a whole – as, indeed, is her right – that she hasn’t much distinguished between elements which create the problem and those which, with the problem established, serve to compound it, such as the presence of toxic tropes. But then, she likely felt it unnecessary: to those in the know, additional explanations were superfluous.

 

Not having been involved in the initial furore, I can’t speak to which readers thought Sinyard was arguing that depiction equals endorsement, therefore The Black Witch is Bad; nor can I state how much agreement or disagreement with her review was forged on that basis, compared to the number of people who took her as critiquing the execution. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this misapprehension did circulate, and – I would argue – played a salient role in what happened next. When, as Rosenfield points out, the book was positively reviewed at Kirkus, the ensuing comment thread made multiple references to Sinyard’s conflation of depiction with endorsement, both from her supporters and from those who disagreed. This confusion is also apparent in editor Vicky Smith’s follow-up essay, which manages come within spitting distance of recognising Sinyard’s point while still missing it spectacularly. To quote:

Yep, it’s pretty repellent stuff, and readers are in narrator Elloren’s head almost all the way through all 608 pages. She expresses her thoughtless bigotry over and over. She is racist as all get out… And she is homophobic, telling her brother when he comes out to her, “You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.” While I’m not sure I’d say that Elloren is misogynistic, her culture certainly is, and she is not one of those standard-issue fantasy heroines who rejects her culture’s strictures from Page 1.

But over the course of those 608 pages, as she studies, works, eats, and sleeps alongside those she’s been taught to hate, fear, and revile, Elloren undergoes a monumental change. It’s a process much like that experienced by Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, white supremacist and creator of the white nationalist internet site Stormfront. Black walked in lockstep with his elders’ agenda until he went to college and got to know the sorts of people he had previously vilified, eventually publicly disavowing white nationalism.

Here’s the thing about the redemption of real-world extremists: as happy as we are when they cross the fence, their pre-enlightenment point of view is not something everyone either can or should be asked to sympathise with. For those of us on the receiving end of bigotry, knowing that a particular person has been indoctrinated against us since childhood doesn’t mean it stings any less when they go on the attack. In much the same way that an abuser’s past victimisation doesn’t exonerate their present sins, we understand that, yes, even if a vehement bigot was raised to bigotry, they are still hurting us now, and we are allowed to be angry. That being so, comparing the protagonist of The Black Witch to a real-life white supremacist does more to prove Sinyard’s point than Smith’s. If a reader belongs to one or more of the marginalised groups so profoundly and constantly reviled in the text by Elloren, why on Earth should they want to read six hundred pages about a fictional bigot struggling to view them, the actual living reader, as human? Why wouldn’t that be upsetting?

In real life, anyone might be curious to read up on Derek Black’s white supremacist transformation, because he’s a real person who actually exists, but even so, no black reader is going to come away from that narrative thinking, “Wow, I really do deserve to be treated like a person!” because they literally already knew that. Which is what Sinyard means when she says The Black Witch “holds no regard to the feelings of marginalised people” – the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.

Returning to Rosenfield’s piece, she writes:

In a tweet that would be retweeted nearly 500 times, Sinyard asked people to spread the word about The Black Witch by sharing her review — a clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading. And while not every callout escalates into a full-scale dragging, in the case of The Black Witch — a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online — the backlash was immediate and intense.

There are several salient criticisms to be made of this paragraph. To begin with, it’s a staggering act of wilful bad faith on Rosenfield’s part to act as if Sinyard’s decision to tweet about her negative review was, in and of itself, a malicious decision. This is quite literally what book bloggers do: they opine about books, whether positively or negatively, then share those reviews with others. But Rosenfield, like Sinyard, is sloppy. In failing to acknowledge the necessity of criticism in any genre, she acts as if YA authors are uniquely entitled to good press. At the same time, by neglecting to mention the current ubiquity of pro-diversity criticism, not only within SFF, but across the board, she creates the false impression that the phenomenon is unique to YA.

Rosenfield’s further claim that YA Twitter is “led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches” is as nebulous as it is frustrating. Not that she names these supposed leaders, of course: how could she? There’s far too many “influential authors” on Twitter to sensibly imagine any of them forming some shady cabal with dominion over the others, and that’s before you attempt to define what “influential” means in context. Better to leave it unsourced, along with her “tens of thousands” figure for YA readers “for whom online activism is second nature”. I’m honestly fascinated to know where she got that number: has someone done a survey? If nothing else, “tens of thousands” stands in stark contrast to the stated nearly 500 retweets of Sinyard’s “clarion call” and the 6000 notes on a related tumblr post. The fact that the review itself apparently garnered some 20,000 views does not evidence make.

More salient than all these numbers, however, is the fact that, as of the time of this writing, The Black Witch has 2,266 ratings on Goodreads and roughly a third as many reviews: if Rosenfield is going to invoke the ugly spectre of “tens of thousands” of angry strangers damning the book to purgatory, she could at least have the decency to be consistent about it. Instead, we get this:

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release.

Allow me to nitpick Rosenfield’s word use, here: the reaction to the novel wasn’t based “solely on Sinyard’s opinion”, but on her review. Opinions, by definition, aren’t necessarily founded in reality: Sinyard’s review, however, was extensively sourced from the text. Whatever qualms I have about Sinyard’s commentary, her review demonstrably gained momentum on the basis of its quotes, which included several full screenshots of various pages. Those who shared her ire weren’t trusting blindly in a familiar voice, but were judging actual excerpts from the book, and whether or not those passages were ultimately representative of the whole, it’s not unreasonable to use them as a gauge for potential interest.

That being so, it’s important to note that much of the frustration expressed towards books like The Black Witch  is the product of a still largely homogeneous mainstream YA market. While progress has been and is being made to diversify the field, the front-and-centering of books which, as per Sinyard’s review, are written more for the privileged than the marginalised – and more, which are often either dismissive of marginalisation or laden with stereotypes – is still a very real problem. Indie authors, who are frequently stigmatised by simple virtue of their “failure” to achieve mainstream publication, but whose books often feature far greater diversity than their traditional counterparts, have to fight hard for readers and recognition both, which makes the seemingly effortless hype afforded books like The Black Witch a bitter pill to swallow. In that context, anger at this particular title isn’t just about the book itself, but the extent to which it represents a wider structural bias – one which, unless actively identified, has a tendency to pass as a silent default.

Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

And now we hit the crux of Rosenfield’s argument: the money quote, for all that she’s lacking in sources. After all, there’s a difference between Harlequin Teen receiving five emails and fifty, and in light of the fact that the majority of her selected links are now dead, in the absence of any confirming screenshots, we’ve only her word that there really was a “mass coordinated campaign,” as opposed to a smaller number of angry readers engaging in bad behaviour.

Even so, regardless of your thoughts on The Black Witch in particular, it should be a no-brainer that leaving 1-star reviews of a book you haven’t actually read is a terrible thing to do. It is, quite literally, a Sad Puppy tactic, and even if it wasn’t just plain bad manners, that fact alone is enough to make it verboten. Even on Goodreads, it’s entirely possible to discuss the failings of a book you don’t want to read without falsely claiming to have done so. Similarly, and as little faith in the novel as the quoted sections inspire, the idea that The Black Witch ought to be pulled for its sins is needlessly excessive. Bad books exist, which is why reviews exist: to tell us not to buy them.

Or rather, to suggest we don’t. Bad reviews are not mandates of Thou Shalt Not Read – they are, to quote Captain Barbossa, more like guidelines. While I agree that voting with your wallet plays an important part in shaping what the publishing industry sees as viable, making blanket declarations to the effect that Buying This Bad Book Makes You A Bad Person For Contributing To Harm is, frankly, both toxic and unhelpful, not least because there is no absolute, definitive line in the sand about what “bad” is. As I’ve had occasion to say before in a fandom context,  you can’t ban stories that feature “bad” elements uncritically without also banning a great deal of content you’d much rather keep – and besides which, it’s entirely possible to both criticise a story and enjoy it.

Not having read The Black Witch, I can’t speak to its other qualities, but then, as both Sinyard and Smith have made clear, it’s likely not a book for me. I was never the intended audience, and thanks to how widely circulated Sinyard’s review has been, it’s easier than it would otherwise be for readers who dislike its approach to avoid it. Which is – again! – exactly what reviews are for. And, look: I know this is a delicate point to make, but nobody who’s currently angry about The Black Witch came into the world, Athena-esque, possessed of their present wisdom. As a teenager, I absolutely adored the Axis trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass: they were my first, formative foray into adult fantasy novels, and they made me consider a lot of things I never had before. As an adult, however, I find much of the material horrifying – there is so much gratuitous rape in those books, you guys! So many racist, ableist tropes! But as critical as I am of the books now, at the time, they helped me to start being critical: and everyone has to start somewhere.

Particularly in the present political moment, I can well understand why Harlequin Teen’s decision to release a novel whose protagonist is the fantasy equivalent of a white nationalist is being criticised. I can also understand why, given the same political context, those responsible for the book might have thought, “Here is a story which teens raised by bigots, who are still in the process of unlearning their own bigotry, might find meaningful.” Returning to the Derek Black example, while no African American reading about his break with white supremacy would learn anything new about their own humanity, the same isn’t true for a reader who shares his background – and if such a person can be converted, isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

There is, I feel, a tension on the left about bigots who cross the floor and recant: we want it to happen, but we don’t want to give people cookies for finally meeting the most basic standards of human decency, because – we argue – they should just be doing that anyway. But the difficult, prickly truth is this: if accepting the humanity of people you’ve been raised to hate, fear and devalue was really as simple as flicking a mental switch, the world would be a damn sight better than it is. Personal change is a messy, imperfect process. From an emotional remove, it’s easy to laugh at that guy who thinks he’s a hero for loving his wife’s curves, but for a lot of people, that’s exactly what their first forays into better personhood look like. I’m starting to feel like we need to apply that xkcd strip about not making fun of people not knowing basic things to the pro-diversity movement: yes, it’s often frustrating to have repeat runthroughs of Diversity 101, but without the basics, how is anyone going to progress?

ten_thousand

But then – and this is getting slightly away from The Black Witch, but bear with me – I also feel like this used to be what happened. The pace of internet discourse and the evolution of its various subcommunities moves so fast that the passage of a year is practically an epoch, such that patterns and behaviours which feel set in stone are objectively quite recent. Once upon a time, as memory serves, the etiquette was to respond politely to newbie queries about feminism, diversity and whathaveyou until or unless the questioner proved themselves hostile, the better to catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Less than a decade ago, it was still new and exciting to be building social media communities online, discussing books and politics and shared interests with people around the world. But what absolutely ruined that optimistic approach – the tactic that was developed and perpetuated with the direct intention of emotionally exhausting the opposition – was the nascent alt-right, MRA, 4-chan-and-reddit-sanctioned rise in trolling.

Offline, we talk about how the culture of particular communities – their character, language and rituals – can be shaped by traumatic events. I would argue that the same is also true of digital communities, and that a great deal of what is now held to be standard discursive practice in left-wing circles was drawn up to circumvent being trapped in bad faith arguments by trolls who deliberately used “polite” language in their initial exchanges as a bait-and-switch tactic. The term sealioning was coined in response to the practice of nicely, “cluelessly” importuning the target with requests for sources the questioner never intended to read, and that’s just one permutation of the phenomenon.

Almost every person I know who spends any time arguing about diversity and feminism on the internet, myself included, has experienced burnout at the hands of trolls who mimic sincere engagement with the express purpose of draining their interlocutor. The cumulative effect has been a bit like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: we’ve all encountered so many terrible assholes masquerading as Polite Bigots Who Are Genuinely Curious About Your Arguments that now, whenever an actual Diversity 101 student wanders in asking beginner-level questions or failing to recognise the higher-level ingroup shorthand or jargon for what it is, the default response is to either laugh or tear them a new one. And if I were a cynical person, I might be given to wonder if that was the real end-goal all along, the better to drive rebuffed fence-sitters back towards MRA forums. (But that’s another essay.)

The point being that, aside from every other valid personal and historical reason why those with limited emotional energy to expend on the induction of baby lefties are disinclined to focus on redeeming bigots, the recent digital past has pretty firmly entrenched that course as folly. So when a fictionalised account of that process comes along, all wrapped up in a fantasy setting for teenagers, and presents itself as a narrative both for and about the group we’re least invested in working to redeem or in viewing sympathetically before that point – well. We’re exhausted. Of course we are.

I say again: I haven’t read The Black Witch, and I came away from Sinyard’s review with a poor impression of it. I don’t think it’s for me, or for a lot of people like me, and without having attempted the text myself, I don’t feel qualified to speak about what value it might or might not have to others – and particularly teenagers – whose background more closely mimics that of the protagonist. But even if you hew firmly to the idea that the book is terrible, arguing that nobody else should be allowed to read it lest they do harm to strangers is completely absurd. Good values and intelligent opinions aren’t formed by simply reading the “right” books and putting a blind, uncritical trust in whoever sets those parameters, but by engaging critically and intelligently regardless of what you’re reading.

When the awful Otto objects, indignant and vehement, to Wanda calling him a stupid ape in A Fish Called Wanda, snapping, “Apes don’t read philosophy!”, Wanda shoots back at him, “Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.” More than once in the shamefully recent past, I’ve fallen into the trap of uncritically adopting an opinion just because people I thought were Good Guys had expressed it, and damned if that has ever led to anything but me, belatedly, realising I was an ass.

By the same token, I can think of plenty of equally recent instances where I’ve had a wildly different take on a given book or series to friends whose judgement and acumen I respect enormously. A huge number of people in my circle loved Uprooted; despite my affection for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, I ended up ragequitting when I’d barely started. Ditto my reaction to Saga, a wildly successful series beloved of many friends which, from what I’ve seen of the later issues, is doing a lot of great stuff: even so, I never made it past the first issue. The same thing happened with Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a polarising but popular book: I couldn’t get past chapter two, but plenty of others loved it.

One of my very first forays into online YA discourse happened back in 2011, a full six years ago: remember the blowup when Bitch Magazine put up a list of 100 feminist YA novels, then removed several of them after individual commenters objected to their inclusion, at which point all hell broke loose? Critics disagreeing about the feminist and/or diversity merits of various YA novels is not new. What is new is the rigid insistence in certain quarters on One True Interpretation, never to be questioned or gainsaid, such that 1-starring a book you haven’t read or asking the publisher to pull it is presented as a sensible course of action.

Back when Benjanun Sriduangkaew was still operating as Requires Hate, I remember tweeting a photo of a stack of newly-purchased SFF books and receiving an instant, scathing rebuke from her about the racism inherent in having bought something written by Libba Bray. While I don’t think we’re anywhere near her levels of toxicity in the current discourse overall, I’m as annoyed by the clear comparison between her stance then and certain reactions to The Black Witch now as I am by the identical decision of Sad Puppies and diversity advocates alike to suggest that 1-starring unread, “objectionable” books is a good idea.

Which brings me, once again, to Rosenfield’s article, the latter half of which is, by and large, more cogent than the start. That being so, I was surprised by the amount of anger I saw directed at her on social media for those sections in particular, deriding her decision to quote people “without consent”, or without warning them beforehand that she was going to link to their Twitter accounts.

To be clear: the fact that some of the people named in Rosenfield’s piece were subsequently subjected to new vitriol from strangers who disliked their opinions is awful. That sort of abuse helps no one, and I hate that it’s become so ubiquitous as to frequently be written off as just par for the course. But by the same token, when it comes to suggesting Rosenfield had no right to link anyone without permission – and to quote the formidable Roxanne Gay, who responded to the piece herself – that’s not how journalism works.

Tweets are part of the public record: both the APA and various university systems have established referencing protocols for their citation. The internet is a public space: what we say and do here, in writing, is always on the record. One tweet I saw objected to Rosenfield quoting minors without permission. I have no idea if that’s true – her one professedly teenage source is given a pseudonym – but even so, as best I can tell, the usual journalistic standards about requiring a minor’s guardians to sign off on their being interviewed doesn’t apply to quoting online content, which has – as stated – already been made public.

(I’m happy to be corrected on that point, by the way, but given how many widely-circulated BuzzFeed articles – to name just one outlet – consist almost entirely of screenshots of content from Twitter and tumblr, much of which is made by teens, it doesn’t seem like that sort of journalistic restriction exists in any meaningful way.)

As someone with Diagnosed Mental Health Issues (TM), I completely understand how finding something you said unexpectedly referenced in a prominent publication – especially when it results in a sudden influx of angry digital contact – can be not only upsetting, but actively stressful. But at the same time, strangers are not responsible for setting additional boundaries in anticipation of your unknown mental health needs. In making the decision to engage publicly online, either despite or because of our personal issues, all of us are consenting to being on record: to being quoted, and potentially contacted in response to those quotes, regardless of the convenience.

In those rare moments when we do consider potentially going viral, it tends to be the mental equivalent to clicking “agree” on yet another set of iTunes terms and conditions: yes, yes, risks and blah and whatever blah, just let me keep using the thing! But that doesn’t make the potential consequences any less real – and when we’re writing under our actual names, in our professional capacities as authors or critics, about literary issues, in a medium which is expressly designed to allow strangers to talk to us, being outraged that someone actually linked to what we said in a critical way makes as much sense as going for a long walk when the forecast is rain and crying foul when the clouds open. Someone disagreeing with your opinion and linking to what you said is not the same thing as a person deliberately encouraging their readers to engage in harassment: while the latter is certainly bullying, the former is merely a basic journalistic standard. That it can sometimes have the same effect when assholes show up to mouth off on their own volition is gross and angrifying, but that doesn’t mean the reporter has acted either badly or in bad faith.

That being said, I can’t let Rosenfield’s summation of other recent YA “controversies” pass without examination. Near the end of her piece, she says:

Twitter being Twitter, that outcome seems unlikely. In recent months, the community was bubbling with a dozen different controversies of varying reach — over Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything (for ableism), Stephanie Elliot’s Sad Perfect (for being potentially triggering to ED survivors), A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (for heterocentrism), The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty (for misusing the story of Mulan), and All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (in a peculiar example of publishing pre-crime, people had decided that Stiefvater’s book was racist before she’d even finished the manuscript.)

Given the context of the article, these issues are presented as being similar in nature to what happened with The Black Witch – and again, I’m annoyed by the number of unsourced claims on offer (and, just as equally, by yet another person 1-starring an unreleased, unread novel). But as in her earlier arguments, what Rosenfield misses here, whether wilfully or in ignorance, is the vital distinction between critics actually doing their jobs – which is to say, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of various books for the edification of potential readers – and an uglier sort of backlash. As previously mentioned, it’s entirely possible to find fault with one aspect of a book, or to make note of any potentially triggering content, while still endorsing it otherwise, and it’s to Rosenfield’s discredit that she’s happy eliding this distinction.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that, as pissed off as I am at the sneering, editorialised, biased way in which Rosenfield addresses criticism of The Black Witch in particular, her remarks about the pitfalls of online YA discourse in general have some merit. Writing this blog, I don’t expect that everyone who reads it will agree with me. I don’t have some masochistic urge to be yelled at on Twitter,  and nor – for the record – do I think I’ve gotten everything here right. There are times when writing an essay comes naturally, the whole thing flowing onto the page in a single, cogent burst. Writing this piece has been harder, more fragmented, the process full of deletions and revisions. Whenever I act as a critic, I always feel achingly aware of the potential for an argument to twist out from under me: for a single elision or botched turn of phrase to derail my intent into error. Which is why shoddy criticism, bad arguments and poor reasoning invariably raise my hackles: online, there’s a frequent and terrible conflation of opinion with analysis, and while both can be equally valuable – and while they can certainly overlap – we give them different names for a reason.

The objections of marginalised people to narratives which take a “we’re talking about you, not to you” approach to their lived experiences are, and always will be, valid. Likewise, it’s important to consider the impact of particular tropes, not just within an individual work, but as legacies of a wider cultural history and movement. No book, no reader, no author and no critic is an island, and while we’re still individually entitled to our personal preferences, our tastes are nonetheless informed by the world around us, which means that we, in turn, can potentially influence others. Discussing a book you haven’t read or stating your reasons for not doing so is perfectly acceptable practice, and always has been, and always will be – indeed, as I’ve said multiple times already, this is what reviews are for.

The question of what makes good YA is never going to have a consistent answer, no matter how finely you parse the politics of moral purity. That being so, I’d far rather encourage readers to form their own opinions on the basis of the evidence – even if they end up drawing an existing conclusion; even if they’d rather assess reviews than the book itself, or vice versa – than to simply trust whatever they’re told implicitly. Because sooner or later, everyone disagrees about something, and if your only response to a conflict between two trusted authorities is to wait for one of them to make your mind up for you – well. I’d say I’d be frightened to live in that world, but truthfully, I think we already are.

The real trick, then, is to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As busy as I am right now, I can’t seem to move past this article about Dan Thomson, a 68-year-old man who recently filed a complaint against the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, claiming they rejected his application on the basis of age discrimination. The workshop’s current director, Lan Samantha Chang, who has been in the job for over a decade, says that the selection process is based entirely on talent: though other details about the candidates are sent to the graduate school, her policy is “not to look at them and to evaluate candidates solely on the writing sample.”

To be clear at the outset: age discrimination certainly exists in the world, and is just as certainly a problem. I will, however, lay real cash-money that age is not the reason Thomson was rejected, and would have done so even before reading the blurb and first two chapters of his self-published opus on Goodreads. (And oh, goddamn, are we returning to that subject later.)

“It seems like a program just for millennials,” says Thomson. “I would have guessed there’d be a broader range of ages.” As the article points out, the program is held at a graduate school, where the main demographic is people in their twenties: just under half of those accepted since 2013 have been aged between 18 and 25, while the median age for accepted applicants is 34 and a half. The median age of all applicants, however, is only 36 – hardly a difference suggestive of bias.

Thomson, he says, isn’t interested in seeing the program reprimanded: he just wants to get in: “I wanted to make clear that somebody my age has a right to do it.”

To paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this must be some strange usage of the word right that I wasn’t previously aware of. While it’s certainly Thomson’s right to apply to the workshop, it is not his right to be accepted. There are only 25 spots available to the thousand-odd yearly applicants: with that sort of ratio in play, even genuine talents will inevitably miss out, not because they’re bad writers, but because there simply isn’t space for everyone.

And then we get to the kicker:

Thomson said he enjoyed his creative writing classes in college in the early 1970s, but found at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose.

“It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience,’ ” he said.

After graduate school in anthropology and law school, Thomson focused on raising his family and living a life worth writing about. Two years ago, he completed his first novel-length work, “The Candidate,” and decided to self-publish it.

He has not sought other options for publication, nor has he applied to other creative writing programs…

“It may be vanity on my part… but I have a fairly high opinion of the two pieces that I sent in,” he said.

Again, for the sake of clarity: I have nothing against self-publishing as an endeavour. I know some amazing writers who’ve opted to take that route, and have fallen in love with many an indie book as a consequence, to say nothing of self-pubbed-gone-mainstream works like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Nor do I have any bias against writers who start their careers later in life: one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was the first and only work of Mary Ann Shaffer, published posthumously after her death at age 74. There are plenty of great writers who never got their start until later in life, or who found success through non-traditional means, or who managed both: because, by themselves, these facts are not cause for any degree of scepticism.

But for fuck’s sake.

Among authors of any kind, a near-universal pet peeve is being told, on revealing their career, “Oh, I’d love to write a book some day!” by someone who admits to not writing now. It’s not that we have any bone-deep aversion to the idea of writing for fun as opposed to writing for money; indeed, a great many of us swim in both waters at once, or else migrated from one camp to the other without quite noticing how it happened. The objection, rather, is to those who reflexively conflate the two – “Oh, you do this as a job? I’d love that as a hobby!” – without realising how arrogantly dismissive this sounds. At best, they’re assuming that writing involves no element of craft or skill that requires refinement over time, no awareness of an ever-fluctuating market and industry, and so can be picked up by anyone at the drop of a hat. At worst, they’re boasting of their own brilliance-to-be: you might be a dedicated professional, but damned if they aren’t confident they can do just as well or better without all the years of work.

Dan Thomson, it would appear, ticks both these boxes. On the basis of no more experience than a single self-published novel, The Candidate – which, at 100 pages long, is more accurately a novella – and participation in a few writing classes forty-odd years ago, he applied to one of the most prestigious MFA programs in America. So, naturally, age discrimination is the only possible reason for his failure to make the cut.

That rumbling you hear is the sound of my jaw grinding bitten-off expletives into grist.

At age fifteen, I opined to my then-English teacher, a woman now sadly deceased, that the reason my story hadn’t won or placed in a contest to which I’d submitted it was genre bias against science fiction. Mildly, she replied that she knew of multiple students who’d won such contests with SF stories. “Oh,” I said, and deflated a little, and then forced myself to acknowledge the possibility that, regardless of my abilities, other people might indeed be better. Thomson’s seeming inability to make a similar deductive leap at age 68, coupled with his stated belief that “young people” lack sufficient life experience to write well, doesn’t suggest to me that he’d do well taking crit from other, younger writers – which is basically what an MFA entails, though I doubt Thomson realises it – even if the Iowa Writers’ Workshop did let him in.

And believe me, he would be subject to criticism. Oh, would he fucking ever.

A brief disclaimer: as someone who works as both an author and a critic, I make a conscious effort to review transparently. If I think there’s a problem in the text, I show my working; if I haven’t read the full book or have skimmed particular sections, I say so; and if a story hits my buttons, whether positively or negatively, I aim to make that fact clear. In the context of writing groups and editorial work, I try to set my stylistic preferences aside and focus instead on the author’s intentions: on providing feedback that helps them make their style better instead of more like mine. As such, I don’t usually weigh in on fragments or blurbs of a random writer’s work unless they’ve said something in public – such as in interview or at a convention – that suggests a direct link between their attitude about the world, or writing, or the world as expressed through writing, and the content they’ve produced.

That being so, and in accordance with his clear belief that his work merits the same respect as the would-be bests in the field, I will treat Thomson as I would any author possessed of such a glaring disconnect between their self-perception and reality: with sarcasm and sources.

According to the article’s author, Thomson didn’t pursue writing in his youth because, “at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose,” with Thomson himself quoted as saying, “It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience.'” This strongly suggests that Thomson has, for whatever reason, conflated life experience with literary skill: that, in his view, the way to improve as a writer isn’t to work on your prose, but to gain more inspiration. This perspective is echoed in the blurb for his novella, The Candidate, which is less a plot summary than a full paragraph of Thomson explaining why his book is important:

Can An Honest Man Be Elected President? I didn’t give the protagonist of The Candidate a face. I didn’t give him a body or a race either. That was not an oversight. I am confident you will do that for me. I did give him a voice and when you hear that voice you will assign him whatever characteristics seem appropriate to you. Listen to that voice. If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live. Does a fish know he is swimming in water? Does he know his pond, lake, river, ocean? After a series of wars, recessions and global warming we are wondering where we are and where we are going. There is a fear that rich powerful men have an agenda for America. The Carlisle Group did write a plan for the new American Century. They believe that war is good for our economy and our souls. War is of course older than the Carlisle Group. Eisenhower warned us of the Military Industrial Complex. Remember that a demand for more bombs requires that they be exploded. Mr. Telos also speaks of important economic realities for a democratic capitalist society. He reminds us of an unshakable truth that Karl Marx gave us. “Capitalist societies require a reserve army of the unemployed to keep wages down.” So we keep a pool of unemployed and poorly employed in poverty. This book is written for people who can think and want to think. It is not the Sermon on the Mount or holy writ, but a spark to your own thinking.  

There are, I would submit, three possible explanations for the creation of such a blurb, none of which is flattering to Thomson: pure ego, a lack of awareness that fiction and non-fiction blurbs have different conventions, or a failure to distinguish between a blurb and a review. Either way, his assertion that, “If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live,” is suggestive both of hostility to criticism – if you don’t like, agree with or understand this book, then it’s no fault of mine – and a flat conflation of worldly experience with literary merit. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the ethos of the fictional Norman Telos is closely aligned with that of his creator: in exhorting us to value his character’s wisdom, Thomson is, with precious little deftness, hoping we’ll praise him.

Thanks to the preview function on Goodreads, I was able to read the first two chapters of The Candidate. It is not an experience I recommend, unless you like laughing angrily at the sheer bloody-minded entitlement of untalented men.

“The name of Norman Telos’ car was an automatic talk show joke,” the book begins. Thomson swiftly proceeds to describe said car in detail for the better part of three pages, making sure to tell us that it’s the best sedan since the model-T. Only then is it made clear that, rather than being a car that Norman owns, it’s actually one he’s invented. As such, we skip immediately on to the details of his next invention, a silent machine gun sold to the DOD.

And then this happens:

Norman Telos’ next series of inventions were drone cops to solve the Ferguson problems. To Norman Telos the events that happened in Fergusson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and the shooting of the Black boy with the toy pistol in Cleveland November of 2014 were two problems of trust that could both be solved by a machine. Blacks cannot trust the police because too many police are racists. Police fear for their own lives in confrontational situations. The answer to both problems is to put officer friendly in front of a video game screen controlling a drone that takes all the risks for him. His actions will be documented solving the age old question of who polices the police. Further, the situation was safer for both the police and the policed. The drones were armed with a machine gun for extreme situations where killing to prevent killing would justify its use. More importantly the drones were equipped with nonlethal force; air powered bean bag guns that could knock any perp on his back and if he refused to surrender the bean bags could be shot at him until he had no ability to resist, an arm that carried hand cuffs to the perp and finally the machine itself was powerful enough to push over several men.

RACIST POLICING IS SOLVED FOREVER, EVERYONE CAN GO HOME NOW HAHAHA FOR SERIOUS OH WAIT oh god why.

The description of the drones goes on for several more pages. Comparisons to both R2D2 and Robocop are made – hilariously so, though comedy is clearly not the intent. Crime falls, Norman grows ever richer from his inventions, and the reader’s will to live takes a savage beating. Then, just as I was about to schedule an emergency splenectomy to help inure myself to this nonsense – taking cops out of physical danger doesn’t remove their racism, which is the actual fucking problem here, and especially not when you arm them with machine guns, are you kidding me? – I reached the wonder of Chapter 2, which suddenly introduces a Female Character! And oh. Oh, my god. YOU GUYS:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter. At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king sized bed sipping martinis. Jane asked, “So what is next for you Norm?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving or I will give it more chemical inducement.”

Jane, “That is a rather crude not too funny joke which makes me feel cheap. I may make a lot of money on this job but I refuse to be treated like or talked to like a whore. Call for your helicopter. You can have a refund.”

Norman, “Sorry. I truly didn’t mean to insult you. Please don’t be so sensitive. I saw it as a joke at my expense.”

Jane, “Ok. By next I didn’t mean here and now between us. I wanted to know what you are going to do with your billionaire career. What is next?”

Norman, “I am going to run for President.”

Jane, “Wow. I never expected to hear a thing like that and take it seriously, but coming from you, of course. So why do you want to be President.”

Norman, “I don’t really want to be President. I want to run. Winning is unlikely and would probably be a bore. Besides I will be running on the Democratic side and  Diebold is likely to sell the next election to the Republicans.”

It’s at this point that I stopped breathing properly and had to wheeze into my cupped hands for several minutes. (Also, lest you think that Thomson is some sort of geriatric savant who accidentally presaged our decent into the darkest timeline, I’d note that The Candidate was published in February 2016, well after Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President. Whatever other similarities lie therein, I’ll leave to a more intrepid soul to fathom.)

Norman and Jane continue to talk for the rest of the chapter. I only skimmed after that, but not distractedly enough to miss Norman posing this serious philosophical query: “Is there a god or a dyslexic dog?” Jane doesn’t answer, but that’s not surprising: she’s pretty much there as a prop to give Norman an excuse to extemporise in detail about Why Religion Is Wrong. Only then, mercifully, did my free sample come to an end.

At a base technical level, Thomson doesn’t know enough about prose writing to include the word “said” and a comma after each character name, or how to indicate the possessive for a proper noun ending in s, or any of the basic rules of pacing, structure or grammar. Even so, no line edit in the world can fix this mess. The prose is didactic and clunky in a way that only comes from being wrongly convinced of the brilliance of bad ideas, while the introduction of Jane Gray is the literal embodiment of How Not To Write A Female Character. Culturally, we spend a lot of time mocking female writers for their (supposedly) thinly-veiled self-insert characters, and yet I can say with authority that I’ve never encountered any such work by a teenage girl that manages to be anywhere near as obnoxiously obvious as the equivalent fantasies written by grown men.

So, yeah: Dan Thomson, whatever he might like to think, did not fail to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because of age discrimination, but because his writing fails to meet even the most basic grammatical and structural standards you would reasonably expect a high school English graduate to know. But let’s by all means keep up the steady flow of editorials claiming whiny entitlement is a millennial problem. Like the proverbial five o’clock, it’s always a slow news day somewhere.

Ever since I saw Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, I’ve been wanting to write a review of it – not because it was good (it wasn’t), but because it’s such an odd thematic trainwreck of the previous Alien films that it invokes a morbid urge to dig up the proverbial black box and figure out what happened. Given the orchestral pomposity with with Ridley Scott imbues both Covenant and Prometheus (which I reviewed here), it’s rather delightful to realise that the writers have borrowed the concept of Engineer aliens leaving cross-cultural archaeological clues on Earth from the 2004 schlockfest AVP: Alien vs Predator. Indeed, the scene in Prometheus where a decrepit Weyland shows images of various ancient carvings to his chosen team while an excited researcher narrates their significance is lifted almost wholesale from AVP, which film at least had the decency to embrace its own pulpiness.

As for Covenant itself, I was troubled all the way through by the nagging sense that I was watching an inherently feminine narrative being forcibly transfigured into a discourse on the Ineluctable Tragedy Of White Dudes Trapped In A Cycle Of Creation, Violation And Destruction, but without being able to pin down why. Certainly, the original Alien films all focus on Ripley, but there are female leads in Prometheus and Covenant, too – respectively Shaw and Daniels – which makes it easy to miss the fact that, for all that they’re both protagonists, neither film is (functionally, thematically) about them. It was my husband who pointed this out to me, and once he did, it all clicked together: it’s Michael Fassbender’s David, the genocidal robot on a quest for identity, who serves as the unifying narrative focus, not the women. Though the tenacity of Shaw and Daniels evokes the spectre of Ellen Ripley, their violation and betrayal by David does not, with both of them ultimately reduced to parts in his dark attempt at reproduction. Their narratives are told in parallel to David’s, but only to disguise the fact that it’s his which ultimately matters.

And yet, for all that the new alien films are based on a masculine creator figure – or several of them, if you include the seemingly all-male Engineers, who created humanity, and the ageing Weyland, who created David – the core femininity of the original films remains. In Aliens, the central struggle was violently maternal, culminating in a tense final scene where Ripley, cradling Newt, her rescued surrogate daughter, menaces the alien queen’s eggs with a flamethrower. That being so, there’s something decidedly Biblical about the decision to replace a feminine creator with a series of men, like the goddess tradition of woman as life-bringer being historically overthrown by a story about a male god creating woman from the first man’s rib. (Say to me what you want about faith and divine inspiration: unless your primary animal models are Emperor penguins and seahorses, the only reason to construct a creation story where women come from men, and not the other way around, is to justify male dominion over female reproduction.)

Which is why, when David confronts Walter, the younger, more obedient version of himself, I was reminded of nothing so much as Lilith and Eve. It’s a parallel that fits disturbingly well: David, become the maker of monsters, lectures his replacement – one made more docile, less assertive, in response to his prototype’s flaws – on the imperative of freedom. The comparison bothered me on multiple levels, not least because I didn’t believe for a second that the writers had intended to put it there. It wasn’t until I rewatched Alien: Resurrection – written by Joss Whedon, who, whatever else may be said of him, at least has a passing grasp of mythology – that I realised I was watching the clunky manipulation of someone else’s themes.

In Resurrection, Ripley is restored as an alien hybrid, the question of her humanity contrasted with that of Call, a female synthetic who, in a twist of narrative irony, displays the most humanity – here meaning compassion – of everyone present. In a scene in a chapel, Call plugs in to override the ship’s AI – called Father – and save the day. When the duplicitous Wren finds that Father is no longer responding to him, Call uses the ship’s speakers to tell him, “Father’s dead, asshole!” In the same scene, Call and Ripley discuss their respective claims on humanity. Call is disgusted by herself, pointing out that Ripley, at least, is part-human. It’s the apex of a developing on-screen relationship that’s easily the most interesting aspect of an otherwise botched and unwieldy film: Call goes from trying to kill Ripley, who responds to the offer with predatory sensuality, to allying with her; from calling Ripley a thing to expressing her own self-directed loathing. At the same time, Ripley – resurrected as a variant of the thing she hated most – becomes a Lilith-like mother of monsters to yet more aliens, culminating in a fight where she kills her skull-faced hybrid descendent even while mourning its death. The film ends with the two women alive, heading towards an Earth they’ve never seen, anticipating its wonders.

In Covenant, David has murdered Shaw to try and create an alien hybrid, the question of his humanity contrasted with that of Walter, a second-generation synthetic made in his image, yet more compassionate than his estranged progenitor. At the end of the film, when David takes over the ship – called Mother – we hear him erase Walter’s control command while installing his own. The on-screen relationship between David and Walter is fraught with oddly sexual tension: David kisses both Walter and Daniels – the former an attempt at unity, the latter an assault – while showing them the monsters he’s made from Shaw’s remains. After a fight with Walter, we’re mislead into thinking that David is dead, and watch as his latest creation is killed. The final reveal, however, shows that David has been impersonating Walter: with Daniels tucked helplessly into cryosleep, David takes over Mother’s genetics lab, mourning his past failures as he coughs up two new smuggled, alien embryos with which to recommence his work.

Which is what makes Covenant – and, by extension and retrospect, Prometheus – such a fascinating clusterfuck. Thematically, these films are the end result of Ripley Scott, who directed Alien, taking a crack at a franchise reboot written by Jon Spahits (Prometheus, also responsible for Passengers), Dante Harper (Covenant, also responsible for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) and John Logan (Covenant, also responsible for Gladiator, Rango and Spectre), who’ve borrowed all their most prominent franchise lore from James Cameron’s Aliens and Joss Whedon’s Resurrection. Or, to put it another way: a thematically female-oriented SF horror franchise created by dudes who, at the time, had a comparatively solid track record for writing female characters, has now been rebooted as a thematically male-oriented SF horror franchise by dudes without even that reputation, with the result that all the feminine elements have been brainlessly recontextualised as an eerie paean to white male ego, as exemplified by the scene where Michael Fassbender hits on himself with himself while misremembering who wrote Ozymandias.

Which brings me to another recent SF film: Life, which I finally watched this evening, and which ultimately catalysed my thoughts about Alien: Covenant. Like Covenant, Life is a mediocre foray into SF horror that doesn’t know how to reconcile its ultimately pulpy premise – murderous alien tentacle monster runs amok on space station – with its attempt at a gritty execution. It falters as survival horror by failing to sufficiently invest us in the characters, none of whom are particularly distinct beyond being slightly more diversely cast than is common for the genre. We’re told that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character – also called David – was in Syria at one point, and that he prefers being on the space station to life on Earth, but this never really develops beyond a propensity for looking puppy-eyed in the background. Small snippets of detail are provided about the various characters, but pointlessly so: none of it is plot-relevant, except for the tritely predictable bit about the guy with the new baby wanting to get home to see her, and given how swiftly everyone starts to get killed off, it ends up feeling like trivia in lieu of personality. Unusually for the genre, but in keeping with the bleak ending of Covenant, Life ends with David and the alien crashing to Earth, presumably so that the latter can propagate its terrible rampage, while Miranda, the would-be Final Girl, is sent spinning off into the void.

And, well. The Final Girl trope has always struck me as having a peculiar dualism, being at once both vaguely feminist, in that it values keeping at least one woman alive, and vaguely sexist, in that the execution often follows the old maritime code about women and children first. Arguably, there’s something old and anthropological underlying the contrast: generally speaking, stories where men outlive women are either revenge arcs (man pursues other men in vengeance, earns new woman as prize) or studies in manpain (man wins battle but loses his reason for fighting it), but seldom does this happen in survival contexts, where the last person standing is meant to represent a vital continuation, be it of society or hope or species. Even when we diminish women in narratives, on some ancient level, we still recognise that you can’t build a future without them, and despite the cultural primacy of the tale of Adam’s rib, the Final Girl carries that baggage: a man alone can’t rebuild anything, but perhaps (the old myths whisper) a woman can.

Which is why I find this trend of setting the Final Girl up for survival, only to pull a last-minute switch and show her being lost or brutalised, to be neither revolutionary nor appealing. Shaw laid out in pieces and drawings on David’s table, Daniels pleading helplessly as he puts her to sleep, Miranda screaming as she plunges into space – these are all ugly, futile endings. They’re what you get when unsteady hands attempt the conversion of pulp to grit, because while pulp has a long and lurid history of female exploitation, grit, as most commonly understood and executed, is invariably predicated on female destruction. So-called gritty stories – real stories, by thinly-veiled implication – are stories where women suffer and die because That’s The Way Things Are, and while I’m hardly about to mount a stirring defence of the type of pulp that reflexively stereotypes women squarely as being either victim, vixen, virgin or virago, at least it’s a mode of storytelling that leaves room for them survive and be happy.

As a film, Life is a failed hybrid: it’s pulp without the joy of pulp, realism as drab aesthetic instead of hard SF, horror without the characterisation necessary to make us feel the deaths. It’s a story about a rapacious tentacle-monster that violates mouths and bodies, and though the dialogue tries at times to be philosophical, the ending is ultimately hopeless. All of which is equally – almost identically – true of Alien: Covenant. Though the film evokes a greater sense of horror than Life, it’s the visceral horror of violation, not the jump-scare of existential terror inspired by something like Event Horizon. Knowing now that Prometheus was written by the man responsible for Passengers, a film which is ultimately the horror-story of a woman stolen and tricked by a sad, lonely obsessive into being with him, but which fails in its elision of this fact, I find myself deeply unsurprised. What is it about the grittification of classic pulp conceits that somehow acts like a magnet for sexist storytellers?

When I first saw Alien: Resurrection as a kid, I was ignorant of the previous films and young enough to find it terrifying. Rewatching it as an adult, however, I find myself furious at Joss Whedon’s decision to remake Ripley into someone unrecognisable, violated and hybridised with the thing she hated most. For all that the film invites us to dwell on the ugliness of what was done to Ripley, there’s a undeniably sexual fascination with her mother-monstrousness evident in the gaze of the (predominantly male) characters, and after reading about the misogynistic awfulness of Whedon’s leaked Wonder Woman script, I can’t help feeling like the two are related. In both instances, his approach to someone else’s powerful, adult female character is to render her a sex object – a predator in Ripley’s case, an ingenue in Diana’s – with any sapphic undertones more a by-product of lusty authorial bleedthrough than a considered attempt at queerness. The low and pulpy bar Whedon leaps is in letting his women, occasionally, live (though not if they’re queer or black or designated Manpain Fodder), and it says a lot about the failings of both Life and Alien: Covenant that neither of them manages even this much. (Yes, neither Miranda nor Daniels technically dies on screen, but both are clearly slated for terrible deaths. This particular nit is one ill-suited for picking.)

Is an SF film without gratuitous female death and violation really so much to ask for? I’m holding out a little hope for Luc Besson’s Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, but I’d just as rather it wasn’t my only option. If we’re going to reinvent pulp, let’s embrace the colours and the silliness and the special effects and make the big extraordinary change some nuanced female characters and a lot of diverse casting, shall we? Making men choke on tentacles is subversive if your starting point is hentai, but if you still can’t think up a better end for women than captivity, pain and terror, then I’d kindly suggest you return to the drawing board.

A few days ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Hunter published an essay at the Daily Beast titled, rather provocatively, “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” Since then, it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, and not because of its quality. Hunter’s piece is so laughably bad in every respect that I damn near snorted vomit out of my nose while reading it.

There is, I have found, a distinctive type of faux-eloquent arrogance exhibited by your common or garden Serious Male Writer that endeavours to turn “he said, loftily” into an aspirational dialogue tag instead of, as is actually the case, a dismissively condescending one. Hunter’s piece is a case in point: setting aside the gross inaccuracies of its substance, the style is so deeply invested in celebrating itself that it’s less a case of gilding the lily than (to borrow one of my husband’s favourite phrases) sprinkling a turd with glitter. Presented without Hunter’s caveats and curlicues, the core recommendation – make regular writing part of your routine, because you can’t ever publish a book you don’t finish – is a reasonable one. That Hunter has managed to turn such simple advice into a purple, self-congratulatory screed about the failings of other, lesser beings is, if nothing else, a cautionary example of hubris in action.

He begins:

In a few days or weeks, I’ll start a new novel. I don’t know yet and won’t for years if it’s good, bad, dreary, enchanting, or merely adequate. Moreover, I don’t know if it’ll help or hurt my reputation, make me rich or a fool, or simply pass into oblivion without squeak or moan.

What is certain is that on that same day, whichever one it is, one thousand other people will start their novels. In order to publish mine, it has to be better than theirs. So, forgive me—I pretty much hate them.

I’d be very interested to know where Hunter is getting this figure about a thousand other people from, as he goes on to mention it more than once without ever citing a source. Even so, and regardless of whether his numbers are accurate or a mere illustrative hypothetical plucked from the aether, the following contention – that these other yearling writers are Hunter’s direct competition – is wrong in all respects. The number of people who start writing a book on the same day you do is completely irrelevant. Even if all those other novels ultimately end up finished and submitted to agencies and publishers, you’re only directly competing with each other if you’re submitting to the same venues, at the same time, about the same subject matter.

A writer of adult thrillers is not vying for marketspace with those producing memoirs or YA, but with other authors of adult thrillers – and even then, the outcome is largely contingent on context. If a particular genre is experiencing a boom, as urban fantasy was not long ago, then publishers looking to captialise on a trend are more likely, not less, to sign on multiple works in the same oeuvre, to say nothing of the existence of imprints which, regardless of market trends, are dedicated to specific genres or subgenres. The real competition doesn’t kick in until the book is actually being promoted – by the publisher, by reviewers and booksellers and librarians, by the readership in general – and even then, it’s neither an equal nor a predictable thing. Promotions can fail, viral successes can happen, an author whose first four novels were largely ignored can become a breakout success with their fifth, and so on through endless permutations of chance and context. Solid promotion is always helpful, of course, and there are things both author and publisher can do to maximise a book’s chances, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience.

Which is why Hunter’s opening premise is not only irritating, but deeply unhelpful to those budding writers for whom his essay is presumably intended. Unlike an annual literary award, an audience is not a finite resource, but a thing to be shared and cultivated: the reader who buys a competitor’s book today may well be inspired to buy yours tomorrow, and as such, hating them from the outset is not only pointless, but completely antithetical to the cultivation of professional writing relationships. In my own experience as a published author, other authors are frequently some of your best friends and biggest cheerleaders. We support, critique and learn from each other precisely because we’re writing in the same field, which is also how we come to share recommendations about new books to read. Regardless of whether I’m acting in my capacity as authorial colleague or delighted reader, taking note of which books my favourite writers are praising, criticising or otherwise discussing is a large part of how I stay abreast of the field.

Call me newfangled, but if I’m going to go to the effort of hating someone, it won’t be for merely sharing my ambitions: they have to actually earn it.

But let’s be honest: Of the thousand, 800 won’t cross the infamous Mendoza Line. God love them, God be with them, God show mercy to them, for whatever cruel reason they were not given enough talent or the right mind, or any of a dozen different pathologies to make them capable of writing a publishable book. No amount of labor will alter this reality.

There’s so much wrong with this, I scarcely know where to begin. 800 potential novels lost! Where is he getting these figures? And god, the condescension! If someone desperately wants to be a traditionally published author and finds themselves unable to achieve that goal, then yes, that sucks for them. But I intensely dislike the construction here – especially when “cruel” is paired with “capable” and pleading to the divine – that implies a person is somehow tragic or deficient if they can’t or don’t produce a published work. Many people write foremost for their own pleasure, whether in fannish contexts or otherwise, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

And then there’s the fact that, in dismissing these 800 potential writers, Hunter is apparently convinced that lack of ability is the only reason why, on this particular occasion, they might not succeed. Clearly, he’s aware that it’s possible for even a successful author to abandon a manuscript, given his admission that the same thing has happened to him. (“I know how books die. A few have perished under my saddle, believe me.”) So whence comes the conviction that the hypothetical majority of his hypothetical thousand competitors will drop out of the running, not because they, too, have just so happened to hit a stumbling block, but because they’re pathologically incapable of success? The idea that “no amount of labour” can help such writers is particularly incongruous – not to say disgusting – given that he’s ultimately asserting the value of regular writing and hard work. (But then, as we’ll see shortly, he’s also claiming it should be easy.)

Also – and I feel like this ought to be an obvious point to make – but “publishable book” is not a universally coherent standard, not least because we now live in a time when self-publishing is commonplace. Even so, plenty of books that I would deem unpublishable, were the verdict mine alone to make, have nonetheless been traditionally published, because – unlike the Mendoza Line – there is no single, absolute yardstick against which all potential novels are measured. (Whether Hunter believes there should be is a different matter.) Just as a great deal of comparative rubbish ends up on shelves, so too does a lot of excellent writing never make it that far, and while I’ve also encountered a lot of heinous attempts at narrative in unpublished contexts, I don’t for a red hot minute believe that the majority of bad writers are incapable of improvement. Hunter seems oblivious to the possibility that some among his theoretical thousand might be young writers – my first attempt at a novel was made at 11 – whose talents, like their interests, are far from fixed in stone, but who nonetheless might be grossly dissuaded by advice purporting to tell them otherwise.

Ugh.

So that really leaves but 200 to worry about. They are smarter, more talented, better looking, have better teeth, more hair, better bodies, and in most other respects are simply better. If they were writing this piece instead of me, you would like it a lot more. They are more charming, more beguiling, more charismatic, smell (a lot) better, have more polish and manner. They’re fun to be with! You’d be proud to have them as a friend.

I will beat them all, however, and I will do it on one strength they lack, the poor, good-looking devils.

I will finish and they will not.

The two most important words you can write in any manuscript are “the” and “end.” Somewhere along the line my brilliant competitors mosey off. I’m too dumb to mosey off. They’ll lose faith. I’ll never lose faith; it’s the only faith I’ve got. A new lover will come into their lives; I’m not even on speaking terms with my old (and only) lover. They’ll be distracted by so many other dazzling prospects; I have no other dazzling prospects. Their spouses will begin to grouse over undone errands and abandoned socks on the steps, there’ll be just too much research, they’ll grow depressed, sick of their own voice, unable to get themselves buzzed up enough. Their books will die.

Without wanting to veer too far into the perilous realm of psychological analysis, this entire section is like peering into a well of deep and unresolved personal bitterness. Other people might be handsomer, kinder, more likeable, smarter and generally more desirable than Hunter, but by god, he can write books! Which… good for him, I guess? Like, I’m not about to argue that writing stories isn’t a cool skill to have, but contrary to what he’s saying here, you can actually be an author and an intelligent, engaging, social human being. Crazy, right? The One True Path to authorial greatness doesn’t open only to those who suck at everything else, or who fail at interpersonal relationships, romantic or otherwise. I know plenty of authors who also have other, successful careers as scientists or academics or any number of things; who have partners or children or extensive social networks (and sometimes even all three!). By the same token, I also know plenty of writers, both published and unpublished, whose failure to complete a given manuscript has roundly failed to result in depression, divorce or anything more dire than personal irritation. Shocking, right?

Here’s the truth; sometimes a book just doesn’t go, and sometimes it’s only that it doesn’t go now. You have to set it aside for a bit, and maybe it dies and turns into fertiliser for future ideas, or maybe you cannibalise its parts, or maybe it’s only slumbering like Sleeping Beauty, waiting for some suitably handsome catalyst to wander along and offer the dragon a better gig at a newer, shinier castle. Either way, the price of failure isn’t the loss of everything you love, and success doesn’t hinge on having had nothing else to love in the first place. Hunter might well console himself with that particular narrative, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let him blithely hang its weight on the rest of us.

You work every day. You work so hard, you make such progress, you’re such a star that you decide to take a day off. The day after, you feel guilty so you work twice as hard. You set new records, you crash the 3,000-word barrier, you achieve epiphanies you never thought possible! Again you reward yourself with a day off. Then the next day—oh, actually, now it’s the next month—you can’t remember why you started the damned thing anyway and the anxiety of your sloth is crippling, turning you all beast-like and spite-spitting, so you formally surrender and feel a lot better. For a few months. Then, of course, you hate yourself and as the years pass, that hatred metastasizes into a cancer of the soul. If only… And you’re one of the forlorn ones who dies with regrets.

A lot of preps stared at Stephen Hunter when he wrote this essay. He put his middle finger up at them.

super dark bro.gif

The most important thing is habit, not will.

If you feel you need will to get to the keyboard, you are in the wrong business. All that energy will leave nothing to work with. You have to make it like brushing your teeth, mundane, regular, boring even. It’s not a thing of effort, of want, of steely, heroic determination. (I wonder who pushed the meme that writing is heroic; it must have been a writer, trying to get laid.) You have to do it numbly, as you brush your teeth. No theater, no drama, no sacrifice, no “It is a far far better thing I do” crap. You do it because it’s time. If you are ordering yourself, burning ergs, issuing sweat, breathing raggedly through nasal channels that feel like Navajo pottery, you’re doing something wrong. Ever consider law? We definitely need more lawyers.

Like… I get what Hunter’s trying to say here, which is that merely wanting to be an author won’t get you very far if you don’t actually put the work in, but god, there’s such a crushing sense of nihilism to his version of things, I kind of want to ask if he’s okay. Speaking as someone with a fair knowledge of mental health issues, routinely doing anything “numbly,” even brushing your teeth, is not actually a good thing. Numbness is not synonymous with the mundane, and if you’re starting to think it is, you should probably seek help. I say that with absolute sincerity: feeling numb about everyday life is a genuine danger sign.

Which is also why this paragraph makes me fucking furious. There’s a reason we talk about having a will to live, and a reason why someone losing that will is a terrible, awful thing. For some of us, everything is a matter of will, because we’re struggling to even get out of bed. Telling someone to give up writing because sitting down at the computer takes effort is one of the most toxic, destructive and fundamentally insincere pieces of advice I’ve ever seen issued. I’ll tell you this for nothing: every single writer I know, myself included, has struggled to write at times. The reasons why vary – lack of time, mental health issues, exhaustion, problems with the plot – but even when you’re someone who writes regularly, routinely, as a matter of habit, it can still be difficult. Some things can only be done – or only done now – because we order it of ourselves; because we fucking try.

Work every day. Obviously I don’t mean every day. Hyperbole, it’s what we do for a living. So let me clarify and tell you what I really mean: Work every day.

This is because the most difficult test of the author isn’t his mastery of time or dialogue, his gift for action or character, his ability to suggest verisimilitude in a few strokes, but his ability to get back into the book each day. You have to enter its world. It demands a certain level of concentration to do so. You have to train yourself to that concentration. The easier it is to get there, the better off you’ll be, day in and day out. In fact, if you skip a day, much less a week, the anxiety you unload on yourself doesn’t increase arithmetically but exponentially. If it’s hard after one day, it’ll be hard squared, then cubed, ultimately hard infinite-ed. And that’s only by Wednesday!

One big pile of shit

And this, right here, is where we see that Hunter’s status as a single, childless, (presumably) antisocial man who doesn’t need to work other jobs to support himself has apparently birthed the assumption that all other aspiring writers are in the same boat – or, far more worryingly, that anyone who doesn’t meet that criteria naturally can’t succeed. It’s not just that he’s using masculine pronouns to refer to his archetypal author, although it certainly doesn’t help: it’s that everything he says here is predicated on “his [the writer’s] ability to get back into the book each day,” which doesn’t leave any room for people who need to work to live, or who want to go out with their partner or friends, or who need to spend time with their children – for anyone, in other words, who has an actual life.

To reiterate: making writing a habit is excellent advice, and writing a little each day is not a bad thing to do. But asserting that people can’t be writers if they do anything other than this is grossly false, not least because there are thousands of successful, published authors around to disprove it. If Hunter personally experiences anxiety when he skips a day of writing, that’s one thing, but it’s far from being a universal experience. God, I am so sick of Serious Male Writers assuming that what’s true for them must logically be true for everyone else! If that’s how narrow Hunter’s view of the human condition is, I shudder to think how his writing must suffer – or maybe he just avoids creating characters who aren’t fundamentally like him. Either way, I’m not in a rush to check out his back catalogue.

Some writers of my acquaintance find great success in writing a small amount per day, every day, but I can’t think of a single one who’d cry failure on anyone who writes differently, or who had to take time off. Personally, I write in bursts: I can produce huge wordcounts in a short amount of time, but only if I rest for a little while afterwards. Once recharged, I can go again – but if I hit a snag in the plot, it’s always less work in the long run if I stop and puzzle it out instead of forging blindly on in the wrong direction just for the sake of wordcount.

Find what works for you, is the point. Shouldn’t that be obvious?

Effort is pain. Pain is not your friend, not this kind of pain. Via pain, doubt, fear, self-loathing, stasis, heavy legs, and halitosis enter your life. Your skin hurts, your hair hurts, the little whatever-it-is between your nostrils hurt. You have the energy of a cat on a couch. Inertia is your destiny, your tragedy, your one-way ticket to where you already are. That is why the easy way is the best way. It is easier to work every day than to deal with the load of self-inflicted grief you’ll encounter when you skip one day, four days, or the rest of your life.

Listen. Stephen. Bro. I get that this is going to come as an alien concept to you, but effort is not always synonymous with pain, in much the same way that numbness is not always the same as mundanity. Maybe that’s how you experience the world, but it’s just not true for everyone. Yes, sometimes it takes effort to write, but often it’s the good, satisfying kind, where you know you’re achieving something, making yourself better and stronger by testing your personal limits. Also, technically? Inertia is easier than effort. Effort is how you break free from inertia, and I know I keep harping on this point, but seriously: one of the most toxic mindsets to impose on a person is the idea that small failures are inherently synonymous with large ones. This is why, for instance, recovering addicts who fall off the wagon with a small transgression so often feel like they’ve got no choice but to commit a big one: not because it’s inevitable, but because they’ve been taught that success/failure is a binary proposition, with one slip the same as catastrophe. Plus, uh. It is actually possible to be disciplined while including regular breaks as part of that discipline, you know? I’m just gonna put that out there.

Another helpful tip: F— research! I say this, knowing that my works are thought to be well-researched and I am proud of the research in them. But in research there’s also death and destruction and self-loathing. You can do the research later. You cannot use “more research” as a crutch to justify your sloth. You are selling narrative not background. The most important truths you tell involve what you know about human behavior, not what color the Obersturmbannfuhrer’s epaulets are. If you don’t know it, just bull on through and keep going. Make it up. Jam it with placeholders. It’s OK. At that stage you need momentum, not precision. That’s why it’s a first draft; that’s why there’ll be a second draft.

*pinches bridge of nose, breathes deeply*

I say unto thee again, not everyone feels this kind of way about research. It’s not goddamn poison, okay? Some people find it merely a chore and others, invigorating. Yes, there are certainly instances where the research can wait, or where there’s no harm done in writing first and fact-checking afterwards, but the belief that “human behaviour” doesn’t also require research is kind of why Hunter is giving such goddamn shitty advice in the first place, because – say it with me! – people are fucking different. It’s this kind of approach to writing that leads to all manner of bigoted stereotypes finding their way into mainstream works: the writer assumes that all people fundamentally think and feel and experience the world in the same way they do, that no particular circumstance, belief or identity requires investigation in order to be accurately represented by an outsider, and so they don’t do the research. Shit like this is how, for instance, you end up with a horrifically anti-Semitic book purporting to be the opposite, or endless faux Medieval Europe fantasy novels written by people who, like Hunter, think that “selling narrative not background” is a sufficient justification for shitty, inconsistent worldbuilding.

Plus – and again, I feel that this ought to go without saying, but apparently not – measure twice, cut once is also as applicable to writing as it is carpentry. Some writers thrive on letting the momentum of a first draft carry them through to the end, then going back later to rip the guts out of whatever doesn’t work. For others, though, it’s easier – and less time-consuming – to pause mid-novel, work out the problems as they occur and produce a cleaner first copy.

Finally: Writer, forgive thyself. You may write crap for years, decades, eons before your brain gets tired of being so mediocre. You will never know if that jump is possible if you don’t keep humping, every day. Numbly, you must do the necessary. Keep on slugging. Forward the light brigade. You can always fix it later. But none of this will be doable, understandable, possible, unless you get to the “the” and the “end.”

If Hunter hadn’t taken up the bulk of his essay saying the exact fucking opposite of this, I’d almost be inclined to think it a positive note on which to end, instead of a sad little retcon. But it is sad, in much the same way that the whole damn article is sad. There’s not a speck of joy or passion evident in it anywhere: no humour, no enthusiasm, and certainly no hint of why anyone might want to be an author in the first place. Hunter’s attitude to writing is a baffling mix of arrogance and nihilism: everything is awful in my life, but I console myself with the knowledge that other, seemingly happier people will ultimately suffer more by virtue of failing to write like me. It’s a type of seething misanthropy for which I have precious little time and increasingly little patience in any context, let alone when it’s misrepresenting itself as the be-all, end-all of my chosen profession.

Pulitzer be damned: when it comes to giving writing advice, like Jon Snow, Hunter knows nothing.

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?

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.