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Warning: total spoilers for TROS, and also for Steven Universe.

Coming into The Rise of Skywalker today, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite my best efforts to remain unspoiled ahead of time, my internet goblin lifestyle – and the outrage of people who don’t use fucking spoiler tags – got the better of me. As such, I went in knowing exactly two things: one, that Kylo Ren dies at the end; and two, that for every person I’d seen on social media who was big mad about either this or the film in general, there was another who’d loved it wholeheartedly.

For the purposes of contextal recap, I reviewed both prior instalments when they first came out: I really loved The Force Awakens, but had issues with The Last Jedi. Since then, I’ve happily rewatched TFA more than once, but have yet to complete a full rewatch of TLJ – not because I haven’t had the time or the opportunity, but because each time I’ve tried to sit through it (and there have been multiple attempts), the early butchering of Poe Dameron’s character and the subsequent idiot plotting leaves me with gritted teeth. (Also, and this is a minor irritant in comparison, but every time there’s a closeup on Rey in TLJ, I cannot get over how jarringly overdone Daisy Ridley’s makeup is. I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else, so possibly it’s just a me thing, but even so, it grates.)

From what I’ve seen online since TROS came out, there is a large – but by no means universal – overlap between its loudest detractors and those who loved TLJ. Otherwise, the bulk of the criticism I’ve glimpsed boils down to three things: an excess of nostalgia, a perceived disrespect of Rian Johnson’s work, and a dislike of how Kylo Ren was treated. Having now seen the film, I disagree with all three of these takes. In fact, I’m prepared to say that TROS is my favourite instalment in the new trilogy – an opinion shared by both my husband and our six-year-old son. This latter opinion is, to me, the crucial one: multiple times on the way into our screening, my son was excitedly proclaiming his love for Kylo Ren and the hope that his “team” would win (he likes to play as Kylo in games of Battlefront with his dad). Both my husband and I were therefore braced for tears and disappointment at the finale; we’d even lined up a plan of action for if he was heartbroken.

But instead, he came out exhilarated. “I love it,” he proclaimed, “because Kylo Ren came to the good side!”

As an adult consumer of entertainment that is often meant primarily for or written in consideration of children, it’s sometimes easy to ignore the importance of their perspective – and therefore of their status as a desired, intended audience – on the end product. To take a small critical detour, consider the show Steven Universe, which I also watch with my son. I’ve seen a great deal of adult discourse trashing the later seasons because Steven reconciles with the Diamonds rather than killing them for their crimes, as though this was ever going to happen in a show aimed at young children; as though it is a failing not to prioritise the adult complexities of empire, revolution and colonialism over the more child-oriented themes of personal growth and love.

Adult eyes look at the Diamonds and protest that they’re war criminals, imperial tyrants who, in the real world, wouldn’t deserve a second chance, forgetting that a dash of unreality is the actual goddamn point. If we wanted to play by real world rules, the constant alien attacks and countless Gem relics on Earth would have long since prompted actual human governments to get involved, thus making it rather difficult for a single half-Gem tween and his adoptive family to run the show on intergalactic relations in the first place. We allow such behavioural exemptions in stories for kids because, quite simply, there’d be little scope for children to play such a powerful, autonomous role in those narratives otherwise. The heart of Steven Universe is a navigation of family, love, communication and queerness: the imperial elements aren’t the main narrative arc, but are rather used both as a metaphor for and in parallel with the idea of dysfunctional families. It’s a testament to how skilfully the show has been made, that adult viewers can find in it so much with which to engage so deeply, but they are still not the primary audience, and it is solipsism to fault the show for acknowledging this.

Returning to Star Wars and The Rise of Skywalker, therefore, I’m inclined to lend more weight to my six-year-old’s happiness at the ending – and to the audible delight of multiple other small children in our cinema when the credits rolled – than I am to the outrage of adults about the fate of Kylo Ren. To be clear: I’m not saying adults aren’t allowed to have their own opinions about the film. That would be an especially egregious form of hypocrisy, as I, an adult, am currently writing a review of it. Nor am I saying that Star Wars is aimed primarily at children: unlike Steven Universe, which is first and foremost a children’s show, the modern Star Wars movies are aimed at a general audience of kids and adults alike, with specific pieces of tie-in media being aimed more narrowly at specific age groups. What I’m saying is that, in my opinion, it matters that a little boy who loves Kylo Ren – a boy who is so often sensitive to the fates of his favourite characters, who cries when they suffer or die on screen, and who went in wanting Kylo to be victorious – came out happy with how his character was treated.

Here’s the thing: I don’t understand the complaint that TROS is too nostalgia-heavy, because what the fuck else are adult fans watching Star Wars for in 2019, if not to indulge the fantasy that “nostalgia” is the correct way to describe your feelings about a globally ubiquitous franchise that’s been producing tie-in novels, kids’ books, comics, animated specials, cartoon shows, live action TV series, toys, LEGOs, collectables, RPGs, MMOs, MMORPGs, board games, tabletop games, branded merchandise and eight major full-length, live-action feature films (plus a smatter of other movies) at an exponential rate of increase since 1977? The expanded Star Wars universe is a sandbox, not because it contains infinite narrative possibilities, but because it contains near-infinite ways to do the same things over and over again with slightly different variables and in a range of narrative flavours. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

Star Wars is where we go for bounty hunters and space lasers, chosen ones and eldritch MacGuffins, space opera and kitsch panoply, weird galactic politics and battles between the forces of good and evil. Some of its stories, like Rogue One and The Mandalorian, fall at the “grittier,” more adult end of the available spectrum, while others, like the 2008 animated Clone Wars film and the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, are decidedly less serious. Does this mean we’re wrong to have expectations and preferences about new instalments in the franchise, including greater diversity? Of course not! But of all the complaints to level at a Star Wars movie, too much nostalgia feels a bit like accusing the ocean of being too wet. Of course it’s nostalgic; or at the very least familiar: what else did you come here for? Do you also demand breathless originality from Marvel movies? Come on, now. Nobody eats at McDonald’s because they expect a gourmet burger, even if the franchise is going through one of those phases where they advertise options that pass as gourmet only in comparison to the regular menu. No: we go because it’s the satisfying trash we love to hate to love, and even though we can feel our arteries hardening with every slurp of thickshake, that’s what we signed up for.

With that in mind, let’s have a detailed plot summary, because I can’t do a proper analysis without one. So:

The Rise of Skywalker begins with Kylo Ren investigating the apparent return of Emperor Palpatine, who he sees as a threat to his power. Palpatine is indeed back, ensconced on the creepy, hidden Sith planet of Exogol, where he’s spent decades building a secret fleet of planet-killing ships with his minions, called the Final Order. To receive this fleet, Kylo needs to do only one thing: destroy Rey, and through her the Jedi Order. Details of this fleet are soon passed to the Resistance – specifically, to Finn and Poe – by an unknown spy inside the First Order. As they race through space to bring the details to General Leia, Rey struggles with her training, plagued by visions of her past while trying to contact the spirits of dead Jedi masters.

In order to combat both Kylo Ren and Palpatine, the Resistance needs to get to Exogol – and to do this, they need an ancient Sith relic that can show them the coordinates. Using Luke’s notes as a starting point, Rey, Finn and Poe – along with Chewie, R2D2, C3P0 and BB8 – set out in the Millennium Falcon to begin their search where Luke’s left off. What follows is an encounter with Lando Calrissian, who helps get them pointed in the right direction, which kicks off an exciting string of MacGuffin chases: to start the search for the Sith relic, they need to find a downed ship; and in the ship, they find a Sith dagger with a clue to the relic’s location. Luckily, C3P0 can read the Sith glyphs on the dagger; unluckily, he is forbidden by his programming from translating them because Evil Language Of Evil. Before they can get off-planet, however, Chewie is captured and (so they wrongly think) killed when Kylo pushes Rey into accidentally using force lightning to down a transport ship. He also steals the Sith dagger,  so that the only record of the relic’s location is now stuck in C3P0’s memories, while the Falcon is taken on board his ship.

Not wanting Chewie’s perceived death to be in vain, the trio decides their only option is to find an illegal droid-hacker to access C3P0’s memories. Still pursued by the First Order, this takes them to Zorii, an old spice-running friend of Poe’s who helps them after some fun, fighty banter. Her droid-hacker associate then reveals that accessing the Sith translation will wipe C3P0’s memory, but the stakes are high enough that he, rather touchingly – on the back of several scenes where he’s played his usual comic relief role –  agrees to this, a neat callback to his previous, unwilling mindwipe at the end of Revenge of the Sith.

With C3P0 wiped and Kylo’s ship now overheard, Rey realises that Chewie is still alive and being held prisoner. The trio hurry aboard to rescue him, and while Finn and Poe grab the wookie, Rey backtracks to reclaim the dagger. As she takes it, she and Kylo have a tense confrontation through their force-bond, where Kylo reveals that he knows the secret of Rey’s heritage and promises her that she’ll take his hand when next he holds it out to her. Elsewhere on the ship, Finn and the others are captured and taken for execution – but are saved by, of all people, General Hux, who reveals himself to be the Resistance spy in the First Order. His motives, very plausibly, have nothing to do with altruism: he’s just sick of Kylo Ren, who constantly thwarts and berates him, and wants to see him defeated. (However, even though Finn wounds Hux at his request to aid the pretence that he was overpowered during their escape, General Pryde immediately kills him after seeing through the lie.)

Reunited with Rey, the heroes escape on the Falcon and fly to the coordinates C3P0 provided, where the wreck of the Death Star lies in the Endor system. Here, after crash-landing the damaged Falcon, they encounter a group of former Stormtroopers, led by a woman called Jannah, who all, like Finn, defected from the First Order rather than kill innocents. Her group pledges to help them reach the Death Star ruins, which lie amidst a turbulent sea, but Rey – increasingly troubled by visions of herself falling to the dark side – takes a skimmer and goes alone to reclaim the Sith relic from Palpatine’s vault. Finn hurries to help her while Poe repairs their ship, but arrives too late to prevent her epic showdown with Kylo Ren, who goads her into a fight by first revealing her ancestry – she is Palpatine’s granddaughter, heir to Sith blood – and then crushing the relic she came all this way to find.

While Kylo and Rey fight on the other side of the galaxy, General Leia reaches out to her son through the Force. As with Luke’s actions in The Last Jedi, this massive effort costs her life, but to powerful gain: Kylo hesitates at a crucial moment, so overwhelmed by the contact that he drops his lightsaber, allowing Rey to run him through. Earlier in the film, when trapped in underground tunnels searching for the first downed ship, Rey used the Force to heal a giant snake that was threatening the group, achieved by transferring some of her lifeforce to it. She does the same here to Kylo, showing him mercy at the moment they both sense his mother’s death; a mercy that extends to healing the facial scar she gave him. She tells him that she would’ve accepted Ben’s hand, not Kylo’s, and then – as Finn and Jannah look on – takes his ship and flies off in it. Left alone, Kylo speaks with the memory of his Han Solo, echoing the conversation they had in The Force Awakens right before he killed him; but this time, he flings his lightsabre into the sea instead of repeating the patricide.

Returning to the Resistance base, Finn and Poe find Leia dead and are elevated to co-generals in her stead. Taking Zorii’s earlier advice, Poe sends the newly-arrived Lando to help recruit allies from ordinary people who want to fight back and has R2 restore a backup of C3P0’s memories, while Rey flies to Luke’s old home on the Isle of Porgs. (I know that’s not its real name in canon, but come on. It’s the Isle of Porgs.) There, she burns Kylo’s ship and, newly terrified of her Palpatine heritage, pledges to retreat from the world so as not to be a danger to it, as he did. But when she tries to throw away her lightsaber, Luke’s Force ghost appears and talks her out of it, telling her that he retreated out of fear, and that she has everything she needs to find Exegol: a second Sith beacon, which survives in the wreckage of Kylo’s ship (and which we, the viewers, saw him obtain at the start of the movie), and Luke’s old x-wing, risen from the sea. He also gives her Leia’s lightsaber, which he’d hidden away in life.

And so Rey sets off for Exegol, all while transmitting the coordinates of her journey back to the Resistance, where Finn and Poe promptly set up a plan to attack the Final Order fleet before it can launch. On arrival, Rey finally confronts Palpatine, who reveals not only that Snoke was his creation, but that, if she strikes him down with hate, he will live on in her and the Sith will be reborn. As she falters, Kylo shows up to help her. Palpatine proclaims them a dyad in the Force: a linked pair, the first in generations, and steals the energy of their bond to help himself physically regenerate.

As Rey lies insensate and Palpatine flings Kylo into a nearby fissure, the Resistance arrives and begins a battle with the starships overhead. It’s a deliberate callback to the end of Return of the Jedi, Rey and Kylo facing off with Palpatine in place of Luke and the barely-turned Vader. As Palptine targets the ships overhead with a massive burst of force lightning, Rey finally hears the voices of the Jedi masters she’d been striving to contact at the start of the film. They tell her that, just as Palpatine is the Sith, she is the Jedi, and with this burst of clarity and power, she uses two lightsabers – Luke’s and Leia’s –  to turn his force lightning back on him from a place of calm, annihilating him completely.

Overhead, the battle turns: Lando arrives with reinforcements just as Poe was beginning to despair, giving him time to rescue Finn and Jannah from a nearby enemy ship. But destroying Palpatine has taken all Rey’s strength. As she lies dying, Kylo crawls over to her and copies her Force healing technique to bring her back, effectively returning the lifeforce she used to save him earlier. This act comes at the cost of his own life: Rey calls him Ben, they share a kiss that feels more relieved than romantic, and then he dies, his body vanishing from his clothes as a cut to Leia’s shrouded form shows her likewise vanishing, the pair of them being accepted into the force.

Both the First and Final Orders are destroyed; as per Return of the Jedi, celebration is seen across the galaxy, with all the heroes celebrating together. The film ends with Rey returning to Tatooine, to the long-abandoned Skywalker homestead. There, she buries both Luke and Leia’s lightsabers in the sand. When a passing stranger walks by and asks her name – her full name, not just Rey – she sees the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia standing nearby, and gives her name as Rey Skywalker. Cue the John Williams as she stands against the iconic backdrop of Tatooine’s two suns, and roll credits.

With that out of the way, I’d like to return to the two main criticisms I’ve seen levelled at the film beyond the complaint of excessive nostalgia: firstly, that Rian Johnson’s work is being ignored and disrespected by J.J. Abrams; and secondly, that Kylo Ren’s character is being fundamentally mistreated.

When I first reviewed The Last Jedi, I disliked the idea that Kylo was being set up as a romantic partner for Rey, but was interested in their being contrasted as dark and light sides of the Force who nonetheless shared a bond. What I didn’t want was for Kylo to be woobified into being forgiven for his (many, murderous, genocidal) crimes, such that his manipulative, terrible treatment of Rey could be retroactively cast as romantic. What I disliked most about TLJ – and this a hill I will die on – is how it mangled Poe’s characterisation, did a gross disservice to Holdo in the process, and ended up with a soggy middle based on a series of idiot plot decisions. As such, I would argue, TROS takes the very strongest aspects of Johnson’s contribution to the trilogy and builds on them while ignoring the weakest. My only complaint is that Rose Tico ends up as a minor background character, but given that TROS gives us two new female characters in Zorii and Jannah – the latter of whom is also a woman of colour – it’s a less egregious failing than I’d feared it would be, and does nothing to walk back how important Rose was in the previous film.

As for Kylo Ren, I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that TROS does him a disservice. His arc throughout the trilogy has been one of a tormented, tortured character – by turns explosive, monstrous, wounded, betrayed and nihilistic – who has nonetheless committed such horrific crimes on such a grand scale that blanket redemption was never on the cards. I reiterate again the difference between Steven Universe, which is intended primarily for young children, and Star Wars, which is meant to appeal to both kids and adults. In SU, the Diamonds are framed foremost as abusive members of a toxic, dysfunctional family, with their hierarchical empire used as both a metaphor and framing device for discussing these themes; in the new Star Wars trilogy, however, this emphasis is reversed, with Kylo Ren, the Sith and the First Order framed foremost as agents of evil and empire, with their familial connections to the heroes used to mirror the tragedy of their actions on a smaller, more intimate scale.

When Vader is redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi, it comes at the cost of his death and his transition into a Force ghost. That Kylo is given a parallel end feels only fitting, given that the new trilogy has cast him as Vader’s echo. No, we don’t get a funeral scene like Vader did, but why would we? There’s no body left to burn or carry away, and nobody alive but Rey who either could or should plausibly mourn him. His parents and uncle are dead – one by his own hand – and of the main trio, he tortured Poe and saw Finn’s childhood stolen. For me, it was enough that we saw our heroes weep at the finale: their separate griefs and joys didn’t need individual reiteration, because we’d already seen them happen.

If you were anticipating Rey and Kylo getting a happily ever after or had hugely invested in Kylo as a character needing redemption, then I can understand why you’d feel hurt and dissatisfied by the ending of TROS, but at the same time – and I don’t know how else to put this – we’re talking about Star Wars canon here, not fanon. Possibly this might change in the future – and I’d be happy if it did – but right now, there are, if not exactly rules, then very firm conventions that go hand in hand with being a global property owned by the same soulless mega-corporation that makes the Avengers movies, and one of those is that even sympathetic villains don’t get the girl, even if they do get a one-time Kiss of Redemption prior to dying. (Relatedly: I’m right there with Oscar Isaac lamenting the fact that Finn and Poe didn’t end up as a couple, and I was sure as hell eager for it to happen after I first watched TFA, but I’m not angry-shocked-betrayed that it didn’t happen, because I never expected it to. That’s how it goes right now.)

More to the point, and without wanting to make everything about, you know [gestures broadly at 2019] politics, if The Rise of Skywalker had ended with the sad genocidal white dude who’d tried to for the better part of three films to gaslight Rey into turning evil so they could be sexy Sith together getting not only the girl, but a parade and a big shiny future without anyone holding him accountable for, you know, destroying multiple planets, that would not, I feel, be the best of looks, either presently or historically. I’m cool with Rey giving him a kiss in the moment because look, we survived and won and you’re not evil anymore, and also you just brought me back from the dead basically!, but Kylo Ren is very much worse than, say, Zuko from Avatar.

As for the structure and overall plot, I really have no issues. Yes, it’s a bit handwavium as to how Kylo gets back to Exegol and why the Final Order fleet couldn’t just launch itself, but no more egregiously so than anything else in any other Star Wars movie you’d care to name. And in any case, I’m inclined to forgive its failings because of what it gave me that The Last Jedi manifestly didn’t: plenty of scenes between Finn, Poe and Rey that not only got their characterisation right, but which actually made them feel like friends, striking all the right notes between humour, tension and pathos. A great deal of my love of Star Wars is founded on the pithy one-liners and snappy bicker-bantering that overlay genuine affection, and I was happy to have it back.

The tragedy of Carrie Fisher’s death means that Leia’s role in the film was necessarily minimal, but what there is of it is, I think, respectfully done. Small moments like Rey calling her “master” and the addition of her lightsaber feel poignant and meaningful, and beyond that, I love how many women are in the film. Though Maz, Rose and Lieutenant Connix are all background characters, when put together with Leia, Jannah, Zorii and, most importantly, Rey – who gets some spectacularly badass fight scenes and great emotional moments both – it feels like the most female-oriented film of any in the Star Wars universe. Finn and Poe’s relationship with each other and with Rey is shown with care as well as laughter, and in terms of ending on a hopeful note, there’s a brief, yet powerful moment of salience in the final battle, when Lando’s new allies shows up and a First Order stooge says in confusion, “That’s not a navy. It’s just… people.” Maybe it’s just me, but that one line felt more encouraging to me – and more relevant – than Kylo’s redemption ever could.

In The Last Jedi, Poe racked up a collateral body count by putting the mission – or rather, his view of the mission – ahead of individual lives, deaths for which he was never truly held accountable by the narrative and which we never saw him mourn. But in The Rise of Skywalker, Poe gladly risks the mission and his life to save Chewie once they realise he’s still alive – a portrayal much more in keeping with the character we first met in The Force Awakens. If asked to choose, I know which iteration of him I prefer, and if that counts as disrespecting Rian Johnson, then so be it.

While a lot of people currently appear to dislike The Rise of Skywalker, my feeling is that it’s going to end up ageing well, as I suspect that opinions might change once it’s viewed from a less heated distance. Yes, there’s a great deal of MacGuffin chasing, but that’s true of every other film in the trilogy – and in Star Wars generally, for that matter. (And at least in TROS, the logic behind each successive fetch-quest is internally consistent and hangs together with what both the audience and the characters know, as opposed to “we’ve secretly come to the Evil Space Casino to hire a Hacker Guy because our leader won’t talk to us Because Reasons, but security caught us instantly, so now we’re going to trust this one Extremely Sketchy Dude we just met in jail with the future of the Resistance.”)

All in all, the pacing is fast, the visuals are stunning, the main trio kicks ass and it feels like a proper Star Wars movie; which is to say, a Star Wars movie that reminds me of all the things I like about other Star Wars movies – and also, my kid loved it. What else can you ask for?

Warning: spoilers

In many respects, Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth is a superb, original novel; in others, it is a needlessly frustrating one. In the days since I finished reading it, my thoughts in each of these directions have met, overlapped and – for the most part – separated out again without resolving the dissonance, leaving me to wonder which aspects of storytelling I most value in a work, and why. If I skew towards the negative, am I being unduly harsh on a novel which I ultimately enjoyed and whose sequels I plan to read? If I skew towards the positive, am I being overly kind to a story whose discrepancies come more sharply into focus the longer I have to consider them? What matters more to my stance as a reviewer: the feelings I had while reading a book, or my tempered analysis of it? In this case, I’m honestly not sure, but I hope that writing this review will be clarifying for someone, even if it isn’t me.

Gideon the Ninth begins with its titular heroine trying and failing to run away from home to join the cohort, aka the space army – trying, because the home in question is the Ninth House, a sect of necromancers set on a desolate planet in a system run by same; failing, because Gideon, who is not a necromancer despite being raised by them, knows too many House secrets to be allowed to leave. Her planned departure is thwarted by the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, aka Harrow, her sole age-mate in the Ninth after a terrible plague wiped out all the other children during their infancy. Harrow, a highly skilled necromancer and heir to the Ninth, is a constant thorn in Gideon’s side, and has been for their entire lives.

But as it turns out, Harrow has need of Gideon. The immortal Emperor of the Resurrection – a man who became God and a God who became a man, who has ruled for ten thousand years – has sent a missive to the Houses asking for each necromantic heir and their sworn cavalier to come to Canaan House on the First planet, a planet of ruins and mystery, to undergo trials to become Lyctors: the immortal, most powerful Hands of the Emperor. Or, almost immortal: after nine thousand years, the existing First Lyctors have dwindled in number – hence the need for trials to attain replacements. In order to attend, survive and pass the trials, Harrow needs a cavalier primary: a swordsman, bodyguard and confidant. And as her existing cavalier is manifestly not up to the task, that leaves Gideon to fill the gap.

Arriving on the First, Gideon and Harrow – and, by extension, the audience – are soon introduced to the representatives of the other Houses, all with their own agendas. Under the guidance of the enigmatic Teacher and a literal skeleton crew (because necromancy), the necromancers and cavaliers are given one single rule to start them on the journey to Lyctorhood: open no locked doors in Canaan House without permission. But the First is a dangerous place to be, and when people start turning up dead, the stakes are raised: it’s not just about becoming a Lyctor any more – it’s about surviving.

For the first two thirds of the story, Gideon the Ninth is a tense, characterful and wholly original species of locked room mystery. Though Gideon has grown up around necromancers, she has no real understanding of the various theorems and methods they employ, and as such, the readers learn these details along with her. Rather than making this an excuse to infodump, however, Muir uses Gideon’s ignorance as a deliberate tease: though the system of necromancy feels both compelling and well thought out, it maintains a tense mystique by dint of being under-explained, discussed primarily by experts who, with few exceptions, have no reason to give a 101 rundown of their discipline. As a narrative technique, it reminds me most of the way we slowly learn about gems, fusion, the diamonds and the history of Homeworld in the early seasons of Steven Universe: an organic, background tuition that rewards an attentive audience with glimpses of a hidden, but nonetheless coherent, whole.

In this context, the trials that Gideon and Harrow start to undergo – to say nothing of the process by which Harrow works out what the trials are – make for gripping reading. We’re given enough identifying glimpses of the other characters to get a feel for them without being led by the hand, and as their motives start to become more distinct, this characterisation – with what is ultimately revealed to be one glaring exception – bears up admirably.

And it’s here that we enter true spoiler territory: because while the first two thirds of the book are exceptional, it’s the final third that gets a little dicey. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that, until I reached the end of Gideon the Ninth and saw that it was book one of a series, I’d been thinking of it as a standalone novel. In my defence, until you finish the final chapter, there’s nothing printed anywhere in/on the physical copy to indicate otherwise, which I’d argue is a discourtesy to the reader: knowing whether a book is part of a series changes your expectations of its structure, and it was confusing in the extreme to feel that the build-up of the first two thirds, all of which centred around the mysteries of Lyctorhood, had suddenly become secondary to a different, belatedly-revealed conflict. This would’ve been forgivable if said conflict had made sense; instead, however, it has the unfortunate effect of making certain key aspects of what came before feel weird and illogical.

Specifically – and to those who want to remain unspoiled, turn away now – the problem lies in the Big Reveal about Dulcinea Septimus, the chronically ill necromancer of the Seventh House. At the finale of the book, we learn that Dulcinea is not who she pretends to be: instead, she is Cytherea, one of the Emperor’s still-living Lyctors who, for reasons that don’t really parse, has decided to try and kill off the would-be Lyctors. To quote the explanation she gives to Palamedes Sextus, one of Gideon and Harrow’s allies:

I knew that if I ruined his Lyctor plans – killed the heirs and cavaliers to all the other eight Houses – I’d draw him back to the system, but I had to do it in a subtle enough way that he wouldn’t bring the remaining Hands with him. If I had arrived in full force, he’d have turned up on a war footing, and sent the Lyctors to do all the dirty work like always. This way he’s lulled into a false sense of… semisecurity, I suppose. And he won’t even bother coming within Dominicus’s demesne. He’ll sit out there beyond the system – trying to find out what’s happening – right where I need him to be.

As a statement viewed on its own, the logic of this hangs together. In the context of the novel up until this point, however, it manifestly does not, which makes the nearly forty page long, emotionally fraught battle sequence that follows ring frustratingly hollow once you’ve had a spare moment to think through the implications.

For instance: we are told, over and over again, that there is no communication allowed between Canaan House and anywhere else in the system, even in the case of an emergency. During the trials and until their completion, the First is meant to be functionally cut off. This only changes by accident, when the members of the Second House, frightened by the ongoing deaths and affronted by the seeming lawlessness that permits them to happen, kill Teacher and send an illicit transmission, which only reaches the Emperor because it’s not strong enough to reach a neighbouring planet and because his ship, for undisclosed reasons, is the only one close enough to hear it. During the Emperor’s brief appearance at the finale, we’re given no reason to believe he suspected Cytherea of treachery prior to this point, and by the same token, we’re also told he either can’t or won’t set foot on the First again – so why was he near the system at all? How was Cytherea’s plan meant to work, if she couldn’t possibly count on the Emperor showing up in response to her disruption?

And if, as seems to be implied, Cytherea wasn’t already suspected of treachery by the Emperor, then why not simply attack him elsewhere instead of constructing a needlessly elaborate plan to draw him back to the First? It’s hinted at that the Emperor can’t be killed except on the First (or possibly by the being entombed forever on the Ninth; the details are deliberately hazy, presumably for future plot reasons) but if so, there’s good reason to have been clearer on this point, just as it makes no sense to emphasise the lack of outside communication and then hinge the whole finale on its ultimate necessity.

Working backwards from this point, we end up with yet more questions about Dulcinea/Cytherea’s actions prior to being exposed. Most pressingly: how was she able to send her murderous bone construct after Gideon and the two members of the Fourth House when she was under constant medical supervision by Harrow, Palamedes and Camilla? The logical answer is that the construct was acting autonomously – but if so, then why, when Gideon and one of the Fourth were sleeping in the same room, did it only murder one of them? It’s hinted that there’s a long-game reason for this – “You don’t even know what you are to me,” Cytherea tells Gideon, along with, “I’ve spared you before,” – but given that, to all intents and purposes, Gideon dies during the finale, an act of self-sacrifice that elicits no reaction from Cytherea, who was literally trying to murder her at the time, this feels like an inadequate explanation. And as whatever special feelings Cytherea might have for Gideon presumably don’t extend to Harrow, the fact that Dulcinea helped Harrow on multiple occasions – not just to understand the trials, but to survive them – further muddies the water.

Throw in the fact that Cytherea’s appearance is the first time we learn anything at all about the existing, original Lyctors, and it’s hard not to feel frustrated. To all intents and purposes, she’s a reveal that comes out of nowhere, taking the existing emotional conflict and mystery the book had worked so hard to build – the megatheorem, Ianthe’s ascension – and steering it in a different direction. Without such a hard left turn at the end, I might have been content to ignore other, seemingly minor questions about the worldbuilding, but when the narrative rug gets yanked out from under your feet, it’s human nature – in my case, anyway – to wonder if that ultimate instability was hinted at in earlier, smaller missteps.

Such as: if Cytherea was the only threat to the trialgoers all along, then why was Teacher so adamant that other, dangerous entities were lurking in Canaan House? If Gideon was raised by people who feared and hated her on an isolated, desolate planet with no access to anywhere else, then where did she get her comics, sunglasses and pornography? What’s going on in the rest of the empire, and how much of it does Gideon know about? If the Emperor is actually as benevolent as the ending implies (which, that’s a whole other area of potential criticism re: imperium, albeit a sidebar to the plot of this first instalment) then why is he constantly at war? And why, in a space-age setting with guns and magic, are cavaliers expected to learn swordplay? It’s the kind of detail that seems like it should have some minor in-world justification – I’m honestly not picky; swords are cool and I’m very hyped to see them here – but none is ever provided.

(Also, I could do with fewer descriptions of eye colour. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% a sucker for Interesting And Pretty Eyes, but given how striking Muir’s descriptions are otherwise compared with how repeatedly she describes the same people’s eyeballs, it ends up being a little too much of a good thing.)

All these nitpicks don’t mean much on their own, but taken collectively, they’re not so much grating as disappointing – as, indeed, is the aforementioned part of the ending where Gideon seems to die. I say seems to, because there’s so much about Gideon’s mysterious backstory that we don’t yet know – to say nothing of the fact that we’re dealing with literal necromancy – that I don’t trust for a hot second that she’s actually permadead. If she is, my queer ass will be pissed as hell, because giving me an awesome snarky lesbian protagonist and then killing her is profoundly Not Bros; but if she’s not, I still have a deep and abiding dislike of the Surprise Cliffhanger Death trope. Making Harrow think Gideon is dead for an emotional gut-punch is one thing; making the reader think so too is quite another. It feels like a gotcha! moment to me, an unwelcome flirtation with the dead lesbian trope – and if it’s not a flirtation, then that’s even worse, because AUGH.

And yet – and yet! – the reason this is an emotionally bifurcated review, despite how much time I’ve spent laying out my grievances, is because the rest of the book – the parts that work – are absolutely amazing. Both in terms of the narration and the character banter, Muir has gone all-in on a mixture of modern snarkasm and gothic shade, the effect of which is equal parts hilarious and (in a good way) disturbing. The descriptions of necromancy and bone magic are graphically vivid in the most linguistically skilled and memorable ways; the plotting is tight, and – I cannot emphasise this enough – the concept of angry lesbian necromancers in space is so goddamn appealing, it’s hard to put into words. It’s like our collective inner teenage gothgirl got to rub her little queer hands all over science fiction, and I love how unapologetically For The Aesthetic the resulting story is, both thematically and narratively.

The real strength of Gideon the Ninth, however, is the enemies to friends to almost-dating arc of Gideon and Harrow. Their banter is crisp, their emotional histories, both singly and when intertwined, are complicated and tragic, and Muir does an absolutely spectacular job of making you root for the two of them – not just as a couple, but as individuals. I’ll be genuinely, heartbreakingly angry if it turns out that Gideon is permanently dead, but despite my misgivings about the end of the book, it’s a measure of how much trust Muir’s writing earned otherwise that I’m confident enough in my happier suspicions to be eagerly awaiting the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth: it’s a hell of a debut novel, and while the structure is buggy near the end, there’s a great deal of scope for future instalments to rectify matters, or at least to clarify them. I’d still prefer to have that clarity now, of course, but the bulk of the narrative does so much right that, until I can judge the whole series in its entirety, I’m willing to give the wobbly parts the benefit of the doubt. I don’t recommend it without reservation, but I do recommend it strongly – and that, I think, is the most important thing.

I have a lot of thoughts right now, and I’m not sure how to express them. There’s so much going wrong in the world that on one level, it feels insincere or trivial to focus on anything other than the worst, most visceral horrors; but on another, there’s a point past which grief and fury becoming numbing. The angriest part of of me wants to wade into the wrench of things and wrangle sense from chaos, but my rational brain knows it’s impossible. I hate that I know it’s impossible, because what else but this do the people who could really change things think, to justify their inaction? I have words, and they feel empty. The world is full of indifferent walls and the tyrants who seek to build more of them; words, no matter how loudly intoned, bounce off them and fade into echoes.

Our governments are torturing children.

I could write essays detailing why particular policies and rhetoric being favoured by Australia, the UK and the US right now are inhumane, but I don’t have the strength for it. Some actions are so clearly evil that the prospect of explaining why to people claiming confusion about the matter makes me want to walk into the sea. I can’t go online without encountering adults who want to split hairs over why, in their view, it’s completely justifiable to steal the children of refugees and incarcerate them away from the parents they mean to deport, because even though they don’t want adult refugees they see no contradiction in keeping their babies indefinitely, in conditions that are proven to cause severe psychological damage, because – why? What the fuck is the end-game, here? People don’t seek asylum on a goddamn whim; they’re fleeing violence and terror, persecution and war and destruction; yet somehow the powers that be think that word of stolen kids will pass through some non-existent refugee grapevine and stop people coming in future? And even if it did, which it manifestly can’t and won’t, what the fuck do they plan to do with the ones they’ve taken?

Our governments are torturing children.

Refugees caged on Manus Island are committing suicide, their families left to learn of their deaths through the media. Disabled people of all ages are dying and will continue to die in the UK of gross neglect. None of this is conscionable; none of it need happen. Billionaires are privately funding enterprises that ought to be public because they can’t conceive of a better use for that much money while workers employed by their companies die sleeping in cars or collapse on the job from gross overwork or subsist on food stamps.

I want to say that the world can’t continue like this, but I know it can. It has before; we’re at a familiar crossroads, and the path down which we’re headed is slick with history’s blood. That’s why it’s so goddamn terrifying.

Please, let this be the turning point. Let’s fix this before it’s too late.

Our governments are torturing children.

It’s not every day that I’m indirectly accused of ruining someone’s business, but 2017 has been a hell of a year.

On Christmas Day, I – along with many other writers in the SFF community – received an email from something called the New York Literary Magazine, informing me that I’d been nominated for their Best Story Award. For a number of reasons, both the email and the site to which it directed me pinged as fishy, not least because nominees were directed to pay a submission fee in order to be eligible for the award itself. In response, I ended up writing this Twitter thread about it. Many other writers chimed in – some of whom had paid the fee, most of whom had not – and the whole thing was quickly reported to Writer Beware as a scam, or at the very least as an operation to be wary of.

Because, at first glance, there’s quite a lot that’s wrong with the NY Literary Magazine – hereafter referred to as NYLM – and its Best Story Award, and as such, it’s worth examining those issues in more detail.

The email NYLM sent out very clearly stated that works had been “nominated” for the award, with nominees encouraged to list the nomination in their author bios. However, even once the reading fee was paid, entrants weren’t told for which of their works the nomination had been offered, or on whose recommendation. Instead, they were asked to upload the works themselves in a digital format.

The NYLM site is full of pull quotes detailing the advantages of award nominations for both would-be and established authors, framed in such a way as to suggest the quotes are about the NYLM award specifically. This is born out in the wording on the main contest page, which claims that “winning an award from our magazine gives you great credentials which will impress readers, agents, and publishers.” On investigation, these supporting quotes are easily shown to be about either awards in general or a couple of major prizes, like the Pulitzer, in particular.

ny lit contest

This same section of the website also states that the Best Story Award has “monthly winners in each category, unlike other contests which only have 1 or 3 winners per year… We accept ONLY 200 entries per month, per category. Other contests have thousands or even tens of thousands of entries. It’s like trying to win the lottery when you enter them with average chances of 1:5000. Chances of winning our Exclusively Limited-Entry contest are much higher. Your chances are 1:200.”

How many categories are there, you might ask? Eleven in total: fiction; mystery, crime & thriller; action & adventure; dystopia & apocalypse; horror & paranormal; sci-fi; fantasy; children’s stories; MG; YA; and non-fiction, memoirs and bio’s [sic].

ny lit categories

And that’s before you factor in the additional question of what type of works are eligible. The NYLM Best Story Award rules states that the contest is open to “books/stories,” and as the only categories relate to genre rather than length, the unsettling implication is that short stories, novellas and novels would all be competing in the same weight class.

ny lit rules

This is, to say the least, a staggeringly broad mandate – and as writer E.B. Brown pointed out on Twitter, the sheer manpower required to read through all such works in the allotted time period is considerable. So considerable, in fact, that I broke my normal rules and engaged in voluntary maths.

use math

Assuming the contest filled up each slot in each category each month, with no duplicate submissions – which are permitted under the rules, provided you pay an additional fee each time – then that’s 2,200 potential entries. If even half of those were full-length books as opposed to short stories, then that’s 1,100 books to read and assess PER MONTH. The usual minimum wordcount for an adult novel is 80k, with a YA work starting at around 60k, so given the muddled categories, let’s split the difference and assume these hypothetical books average out to 70k a pop. If it takes the average person about four hours to read that many words, that’s 4,400 hours total. Given that there are only 730 hours in an average month, and assuming that each reader works 12 hours in every 24, including weekends, you’d need a minimum of twelve people employed just to read those submissions alone.

Now, given the kind of operation the NYLM appears to be, I don’t for a minute believe that they sell out every slot in every category every single month. But even if, as shown, they only receive half the possible number of entries for each contest, that’s still high-volume traffic with a hard, repeating deadline. The NYLM insists that the Best Book Award is merit-based, yet I find it very hard to believe that so many judges, whether paid or unpaid, could be found each month for each category – but if they could, the NYLM site ought to tell us who they are, or at the very least give some information about how submitted works are going to be judged, especially if short stories and books are going to be in direct competition with each other.

But no such information is listed. And you know what? I’m pretty sure that’s because it’s a fucking scam.

The NYLM, however, begs to differ – and has, in fact, taken the rather extraordinary step of using its mailing list to send out an open letter that is ostensibly addressing, but in reality complaining about, the criticism to which its contest has been subjected. The whole thing is some eight pages long, and if you want to subject yourself to the entirety, I’ve made it available here.

Says the NYLM:

There have been many inaccurate accusations circling around and cyberbully attacks upon authors who were awarded our award. This has ruined our business and caused us to permanently shut down our magazine and contests.

Everyone who purchased an entry into our contest has been refunded.

After years of work on this magazine, we have had to fire our entire team of loyal, hard-working, full-time employees.

Yes, you did read that correctly: the NYLM – which, at the time of this writing, is still online – is claiming to have been so harmed by a Twitterstorm over Christmas and Boxing Day that they’ve been forced to fire their entire full-time staff. Unless those staff were solely paid for out of contest entry fees – which, granted, is not beyond the realm of possibility – and unless those fees have further been cancelled forever, this decision makes literally zero sense. If the NYLM, which repeatedly claims to be a “distinguished publication,” is a genuinely a legitimate literary outfit, then the obvious response to the accusation of scamming is greater financial transparency: show the fee structure of the company and how the employees are paid, explain what aspects of the business the submission fees support, list the qualifications of the award judges, and, if revenues still stay down over time, then make personnel changes as necessary. Firing everybody overnight because the internet got mad at a shitty, unsolicited mailout is the kind of thing nobody actually does unless they’re either completely fucking incompetent or – you guessed it – a scam company full of lying liars who never had any employees to fire in the first place.

What happened?

Regretfully, we outsourced our marketing to an Asian company to help us spread the word about our Best Story Award contest.

We believed they were experts and could help us reach authors.

It was our terrible mistake to entrust the entire marketing campaign in their hands including the marketing methods, approach, and text.

They sent out a marketing email on our behalf, from an email at nyliterarymag.org, at an unexpected time for USA time zone on Christmas.

Unfortunately, it appears they chose the wrong approach and terminology when inviting authors to our contest by telling them they were nominated instead of simply informing them of our contest and inviting them to join it.

It was our terrible mistake not to closely supervise and monitor each marketing action they did and the text they used.

Pardon my French, but that is some goddamn bullshit.

If, as this explanation implies, the NYLM is really so monumentally incompetent as to okay a global mailout on their behalf without vetting the contents, then they still deserve criticism for terrible business practice; but if they did vet the contents, then trying to pass that failure of judgement onto their contractors is skeezy in the extreme. But do I actually believe that there was a random “Asian company” involved in the marketing of NYLM’s contest in the first place? No, I do not, and for three main reasons: firstly, because it would be exceedingly simple to name that company itself, especially given the comfort with scapegoating them; secondly, because it makes little sense for a literary publication to outsource its marketing in the first place, let alone to a company with no experience in marketing to authors*, regardless of their worries about costs; and thirdly, because of what the letter says in the following paragraph.

For other businesses such as VIP Entrepreneur clubs (with ~$1,000 annual membership fees), sending a nomination email instead of an invite to join their clubs worked very well. Our marketing agency, therefore, presumed this was a good way to approach authors as well. They even thought that authors who didn’t want to/couldn’t afford the $15 entry fee to our contest would still be happy to be nominated and be able to mention it in their bio.

They did not think there would be an issue with nominating multiple authors.
Nor did they think it would annoy authors to be nominated.

We apologize to all the authors who feel they were misled by being nominated.

Look very carefully at the wording here. We are being asked to believe that this author-ignorant marketing company was astute enough in its research to know that award nominations should go in a writer’s bio for promotional purposes – the very same argument, coincidentally, that NYLM sells on their website, constantly, ad nauseum – but not the very crucial distinction between what it means to be nominated for an award versus invited to submit to a contest.

And then there’s that final telling sentence (my emphasis): “We apologize to all the authors who feel they were misled by being nominated.” Not by being invited, which they’re trying to claim was the real intent, but by being nominated. If the NYLM is truly trying to pass off the whole debacle as an act of linguistic confusion, with their “Asian company” to blame for one word (nominated) and their intentions kept pristine through use of another (invited), then it makes zero sense to continue using the two interchangeably, and especially not in a way that suggests they really did mean nominated in the first place.

So this is, of course, exactly what they proceed to do, as per the following section which addresses what the NYLM calls “inaccurate accusations.”

“They say you were nominated but have to pay to be nominated.”

Authors nominated were not required to pay anything to be nominated.
Some nominated authors posted the picture of our trophy statute they were nominated for and used it for their marketing without paying to enter our contest. They didn’t have to pay to be nominated.

I mean, honestly. “The picture of our trophy statue that they were nominated for.” Meaning, the statue that you can only win if you enter the contest, which you just tried to say was a different thing entirely to being nominated/invited, such that the “Asian company” telling authors to use nomination in their bio was a mistake.

kuzko's poison

Which is it, NYLM? Was nomination a slip of the digital tongue that got all mixed up with an invite, or does nomination entitle us to say we’ve already been selected? Either way, having admitted in the same section that yes, you used a mailing list; having doubled down on your claim that the award is truly merit-based; and having likewise included a section on your submissions page instructing authors on how to submit their manuscripts to NYLM when they pay their fees, it should be painfully fucking obvious that being nominated for the NYLM award isn’t remotely merit-based, because you haven’t seen any stories until “nominees” send them in to you, which is after their nomination.

And then comes the tale of woe (all bolding my emphasis):

For two years, we’ve been running free-to-enter poetry and short story contests and publishing free-to-read digital magazines and print anthologies. We even spent time training and monitoring 20 interns who read through thousands of free poetry submissions this summer.

We made tens of writers around the world happy… Even our interns enjoyed working for us and were grateful for all the things they learned.

Since our anthologies are free, our poetry contests are free, and submissions to our magazine are free, we needed a way to sustain our magazine for the future, which is why we launched the Best Story Award contest.

We are completely devastated and shattered from the extent of hate mail, comments, messages, tweets, lies and false accusations that were posted online which have totally blackened our name and destroyed our magazine – all based on a single email with one wrongly-worded sentence…

Worse still, it is truly horrible to see how cruel some humans can be.
Some unsuccessful, jealous authors are spending days contacting the fans of authors who won an award from us or received a book review, telling their fans lies in an attempt to ruin the author’s reputation, turn their readers against them, destroy years of their hard work to build up their careers and readership, and ruin their lives for no reason and under the guise of “saving them from a scam”…
We have closed our contest. Refunded everyone who entered.
There will be no more free-to-enter contests. No more free-to-read anthologies.
No more articles. No more anything.

We had the heartbreaking task of firing our team of loyal, hard-working employees. 10 people are now jobless after Christmas.

 I honestly can’t even.

Remember that math I did earlier, where it worked out that you’d need at least twelve people working continuous twelve-hour days to read even half the submissions the NYLM was trying to attract each month? Here, they’re saying they’ve had to fire ten full-time workers, which they’re calling their entire staff – meaning, people whose duties must also have included the creation, management and promotions for the website and its anthologies. THAT IS NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE, KAREN.

I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating: if the contest was legitimate, there was no need to fire anyone. All you needed to do was apologise for the mix-up and show some transparency! If we’re truly meant to believe that the NYLM was capable of doing everything it claimed it could with the number of employees it says it had; if it was a solvent, successful business able to take on twice as many interns as employees – if we’re truly, honestly meant to believe that everything was above board and legitimate, and that the whole thing was a big mistake, despite those several paragraphs where they made the same one over again without any outside assistance – then these business-savvy dumbfucks have just fired a two year team of literal superheroes over Christmas because of a marketing copy error and their own profound incompetence.

Or, in the alternative scenario: they are lying liars who want us to feel bad for pointing out that their scam was, in fact, a scam.

(Also: the idea that people have been “spending days” harassing authors over Christmas when this entire boondoggle is still less than 48 hours old is kind of amazing.)

I have no doubt that many of the people published by NYLM were happy to see their work in print, whether digital or in hardcopy, but that doesn’t make them a legitimate publication. At a preteen, I was over the moon when I submitted a poem to an online contest and found out it had won a place in a real printed anthology – the fact that I had to pay for my copy hardly seemed worth bothering about. It was my journalist parents who explained to me, gently, what vanity presses were, and how some people would claim to be running a contest as a way to sucker you in – you’d still get the finished product, of course; you just wouldn’t have earned anything through merit, and you’d end up paying for something which, if you were being legitimately published, you’d be entitled to for free.

While the necessary, pragmatic goal of any writer is to be paid for their work, at base, we still care deeply about whether that work is good. Scam awards like this, which claim to be “exclusive” while making the higher odds of winning a selling point – which make us think we’ve been nominated by others on the basis of ability, but which are really just clickbait to make us nominate ourselves – are designed to prey on that feeling. We want to be good. We want to succeed, and sometimes that means paying, doesn’t it? Yes, of course – but in a fair industry, that payment would net you something more meaningful and substantial than the reassurance that your odds of success are better than if you bought a lottery ticket. For that payment, we ought to know who the judges are and why they’re qualified, and we certainly shouldn’t have to pay extra to list our work as belonging to more than one genre.

If you don’t want your business called a scam – if you truly want to be taken seriously as a literary publication running a meaningful literary award – then you’d damn sure better be ready to take ownership of your errors. Passing the buck while trying to guilt strangers into feeling bad about their deployment of basic critical reasoning skills is shitty at any time; but during a major holiday, at the end of a year as treacherous and draining as 2017 has been, it’s somehow even worse.

And for everyone who’s been upset by this, or inconvenienced – or to anyone, really, who’s just had a difficult twelve months – 2018 is right around the corner. Let’s dig down and make it better for all of us.

*ETA 27 Dec 2017: The original version of this post included the line “secondly, because it makes little sense for a small English-speaking literary publication to outsource its marketing to a company based in a non-English speaking country,” which I’ve now amended to read “secondly, because it makes little sense for a literary publication to outsource its marketing in the first place, let alone to a company with no experience in marketing to authors”. I’ve made this change because it was pointed out by Aliette de Bodard that the original version was both racist and inaccurate: English is an official language in multiple Asian countries, and regardless of that status, Asian nationals can certainly be fluent in the language. This was a biased, racist lapse in thinking on my part for which I apologise unreservedly; I’m grateful to have been corrected, and will endeavour not to make similar offensive errors in the future.

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.

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

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

You get where I’m going with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Warning: total spoilers for Rogue One.

Here’s the thing about Rogue One: its core emotional scenes all cite the importance of hope in rebellions, but it’s not a hopeful film. Hope is a buck it passes to Episode III in its final moments (via an Uncanny Valley recreation of a young Princess Leia, no less) but everything unique to the prequel itself sits squarely in the Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies category of storytelling. And this annoys me, because it didn’t have to: would rather, I’d contend, have been a stronger film all over if even one core cast member (Bodhi, for my preference) had survived the big finale.

While part of me appreciates the logic of a grittier – ugh. Actually, no: I can’t even bear to type that fucking sentence, a gritter take on the Star Wars universe, without wanting to gouge my own eyes out with a spoon. LBR, I’m fucking sick of grit. But I can, begrudgingly, see the intent behind it in this case.The messy, ugly aspects of the Alliance – Galen Erso dead by friendly fire, the desperate, last-ditch attempt at building bridges with militant extremists like Saul, the things that Cassian has done in service to the Rebellion – is something the Star Wars films haven’t really acknowledged before. As my husband said when we exited the cinema, given that entire planets are destroyed in both The Force Awakens and A New Hope without any real examination of the enormity of those losses, there’s something powerful in showing the more intimate, human tragedy of regular, non-Jedi, non-exceptional people dying in battle, for a cause, without the benefit of an authorial Get Out Of Jail Free Because Protagonist card. And yet it still annoyed me, because as moved as I was by the deaths of K-2 and Bodhi, Baze and Chirrut, Cassian and Jyn, I left the film feeling as though the writers had been so invested in the inevitability of their deaths that they never really focused on their lives.

Rogue One is a fast-paced, action-oriented film, and while that makes it watchable – and while there are some wonderfully choreographed space battles – emotionally, it’s not a good thing. The characters read as distinct by virtue of the skill with which they’re (mostly) portrayed, but there are precious few beats in the narrative that help us flesh out their characterisation, motivation and history beyond the immediate: no quiet moments of introspection, no extra morsels of dialogue. The most thoughtful scene in the whole film is the opening sequence explaining Jyn’s backstory, and while it was beautifully shot, it ultimately feels redundant, partly because the subsequent series of encapsulating flashbacks to her childhood does a much better, tighter job of explaining her history, but mostly because it has no bearing on her adult motivation. When the story then cuts to her present day incarceration, we don’t know what she was doing that lead her to be arrested: we’re read her rap sheet by the Rebellion, but it’s just the cold charges, not the emotional facts of why they mattered. How many aliases has she lived under? Why did she resist arrest? What does she really think about Saul? We’re given just enough information to know these are relevant questions, but never enough to answer them – and that is profoundly frustrating.

Nor does it help that Jyn embodies one of my least favourite narrative archetypes: the ambivalent but apparently special outsider who goes from “this isn’t my fight” to “I will deliver Crucial Motivational Speeches and LEAD THIS ARMY” at the drop of a hat while other, more qualified persons drift quietly into the background. It’s a common expression of Trinity Syndrome, and the fact that it’s a white woman sidelining men of colour in this instance constitutes neither subversion nor improvement. When Cassian points out to Jyn that he’s been in the fight longer than her; that she’s not the only person to lose everything to the Empire, and that her sudden conversion after her father’s death doesn’t mean she understands the stakes better than him, he’s right. (The fact that Galen is killed by Rebellion fire – and that Jyn knows this – is another crucial dropped thread in her characterisation: especially given her prior ambivalence, she should be pissed at this development, not gung-ho to accept the Rebellion as is without any demands for accountability.) The emotional tension that then develops between them feels out of place for lack of such a vital exchange, and while their final scenes together are still moving, the obligatory gesturing at nascent hetero romance is rather ruined by the fact that Jyn has better chemistry – and better narrative callbacks – with K-2 the snarky droid. Their exchanges are punchier, their banter simultaneously more revealing of both characters and more biting for it. Yet when we come to an emotional point, it’s Cassian who comes around to accepting Jyn, and Jyn who’s put in the figurative position of forgiving Cassian’s sins.

And what sins are those, exactly? Apart from his early murder of an informant, we don’t know; nor are we told about his crucial losses. Cassian’s inner struggle as he tries to decide whether to assassinate Galen is evident thanks to the strength of Diego Luna’s acting, but as to the history that actually informs it – nothing. The same goes for Bodhi, whose defection from the Empire is the lynchpin of the plot: without knowing what suddenly tipped him to change sides – without knowing about him – it’s difficult to understand why Galen’s suggestion that he make amends would carry any weight, or why (again) the brutality he experiences at Saul’s hands doesn’t make him doubt the Alliance as allies. It rankles that the consequences of his mental torture are never properly addressed, either: Saul claims it will destroy his mind, but though Bodhi is rattled afterwards, he was equally rattled beforehand. On screen, it reads as though Cassian reminding him of his identity is all it takes to undo Saul’s damage, which neatly handwaves the need for any more in-depth exploration of his character. By the same token, while it’s implied that Chirrut is a former Jedi, or at least force-sensitive, this aspect of his identity is never really evident beyond its applicability on the battlefield. His relationship with Baze is ripe with potential history, but while Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang both do a fantastic job in layering their interactions with warmth and the sense of old depth, this can’t quite compensate for everything the actual narrative fails to invest in them – or in Bodhi, Jyn and Cassian, for that matter.

Emotionally, then, Rogue One has the feel of a film whose gracenotes were removed in post-production by someone who viewed them as superfluous to the many big explosions, and whose protagonist (Jyn) was given a motivation that changed halfway through filming to the point of making her soggy (and whose actress in any case is visibly weaker than her costars). Presumably there are already other Star Wars materials – guidebooks, tie-ins and so on – where interested fans can find the kind of gribbly details that didn’t make it into the script, but that seems to me a poor excuse for leaving out everything entirely.  I also found it striking that all the rebels who volunteer to stand with Jyn and Cassian are men, just as all Galen’s scientists are men, with almost no female faces besides Mon Mothma and a lone female member of the Alliance to balance things out. A couple of female pilots show up late in the game, but they’re barely present, and when you consider that multiple female pilots were cut from A New Hope because the Powers That Be didn’t want to show women dying on screen, the absence felt doubly conspicuous.

(The more I think on it, the more it bothers me that we’re given a greater sense of Krennic’s drives and relationships – and more particulars about Galen’s history and regrets – than we are any of the far more interesting POC characters. Jyn was no Rey, and while I’m on board with more female SFF heroes as a general rule of thumb, we’re not so bereft of young white women in those roles – and especially not in Star Wars – that I feel any need to stan for her despite my criticisms. I don’t know if Felicity Jones could’ve turned in a stronger performance if she was given a more coherent character to work with or if the two things are unrelated, but even if she had done, I don’t think it still would’ve been enough to make me love the film – not on its own, at least, and especially not when the white characters were consistently given more emotional time to far less narrative purpose than everyone else.)

Though I ultimately enjoyed watching Rogue One, it didn’t move or satisfy me the way The Force Awakens did. There were a lot of neat callbacks to the original trilogy and some truly gorgeous landscapes, but overall, it just felt lacking in some fundamental way. I want to be able to point to a specific concrete failing, but I can’t: the real culprit is a rather a more nebulous sort of narrative resignation. Both emotionally and narratively, Rogue One is a closed system: a story that exists more as an interlude between the two acts than as a bridge uniting them. Though the actions of the characters are undeniably congruent with the facts of the original trilogy, nothing of the characters themselves suggests a new interpretation of or appreciation of its content – and that’s something I feel a good prequel ought to do. Rogue One doesn’t shed any new light on the existing narrative, and though it tries to open a few new doors in the form of original characters, their deaths slam each one shut.

Which is a goddamn shame, if only because it would’ve been nice to speculate about who from Rogue One might show up again in the forthcoming Episode VIII. But now we know they won’t, which makes the prequel oddly devoid of a legacy of its own – and as half the point of the story was to reinvigorate the franchise, I’m going to have to count that as a failure of both heart and imagination.

And lo, in the leadup to Christmas, because it has been A Year and 2016 is evidently not content to go quietly into that good night, there has come the requisite twitter shitshow about diversity in YA. Specifically: user @queen_of_pages (hereinafter referred to as QOP) recently took great exception to teenage YouTube reviewer Whitney Atkinson acknowledging the fact that white and straight characters are more widely represented in SFF/YA than POC and queer characters, with bonus ad hominem attacks on Atkinson herself. As far as I can make out, the brunt of QOP’s ire hinges on the fact that Atkinson discusses characters with specific reference to various aspects of their identity – calling a straight character straight or a brown character brown, for instance – while advocating for greater diversity. To quote QOP:

[Atkinson] is separating races, sexuality and showing off her white privilege… she wants diversity so ppl need to be titled by their race, disability or sexuality. I want them to be titled PEOPLE… I’m Irish. I’ve been oppressed but I don’t let it separate me from other humans.

*sighs deeply and pinches bridge of nose*

Listen. I could rant, at length, about the grossness of a thirtysomething woman, as QOP appears to be, insulting a nineteen year old girl about her appearance and lovelife for any reason, let alone because of something she said about YA books on the internet. I could point out the internalised misogyny which invariably underlies such insults – the idea that a woman’s appearance is somehow inherently tied to her value, such that calling her ugly is a reasonable way to shut down her opinions at any given time – or go into lengthy detail about the hypocrisy of using the term “white privilege” (without, evidently, understanding what it means) while complaining in the very same breath about “separating races”. I could, potentially, say a lot of things.

But what I want to focus on here – the reason I’m bothering to say anything at all – is QOP’s conflation of mentioning race with being racist, and why that particular attitude is both so harmful and so widespread.

Like QOP, I’m a thirtysomething person, which means that she and I grew up in the same period, albeit on different continents. And what I remember from my own teenage years is a genuine, quiet anxiety about ever raising the topic of race, because of the particular way my generation was taught about multiculturalism on the one hand and integration on the other. Migrant cultures were to be celebrated, we were told, because Australian culture was informed by their meaningful contributions to the character of our great nation. At the same time, we were taught to view Australian culture as a monoculture, though it was seldom expressed as baldly as that; instead, we were taught about the positive aspects of cultural assimilation. Australia might benefit from the foods and traditions migrants brought with them, this logic went, but our adoption of those things was part of a social exchange: in return for our absorption of some aspects of migrant culture, migrants were expected to give up any identity beyond Australian and integrate into a (vaguely homogeneous) populace. Multiculturalism was a drum to beat when you wanted to praise the component parts that made Australia great, but suggesting those parts were great in their own right, or in combinations reflective of more complex identities? That was how you made a country weaker.

Denying my own complicity in racism at that age would be a lie. I was surrounded by it in much the same way that I was surrounded by car fumes, a toxic thing taken into the body unquestioning without any real understanding of what it meant or was doing to me internally. At my first high school, two of my first “boyfriends” (in the tweenage sense) were POC, as were various friends, but because race was never really discussed, I had no idea of the ways in which it mattered: to them, to others, to how they were judged and treated. The first time I learned anything about Chinese languages was when one of those early boyfriends explained it in class. I remember being fascinated to learn that Chinese – not Mandarin or Cantonese: the distinction wasn’t referenced – was a tonal language, but I also recall that the boy himself didn’t volunteer this information. Instead, our white teacher had singled him out as the only Chinese Australian present and asked him to explain his heritage: she assumed he spoke Chinese, and he had to explain that he didn’t, not fluently, though he still knew enough to satisfy her question. That exchange didn’t strike me as problematic at the time, but now? Now, it bothers me.

At my second high school, I was exposed to more overt racism, not least because it was a predominantly white, Anglican private school, as opposed to the more diversely populated public school I’d come from. As an adult, I’m ashamed to think how much of it I let pass simply because I didn’t know what to say, or because I didn’t realise at the time now noxious it was. Which isn’t to say I never successfully identified racism and called it out – I was widely perceived as the token argumentative lefty in my white male, familially right-wing friend group, which meant I spent a lot of time excoriating them for their views about refugees – but it wasn’t a social dealbreaker the way it would be now. The fact that I had another friend group that was predominantly POC – and where, again, I was the only girl – meant that I also saw people discussing their own race for the first time, forcing me to examine the question more openly than before.

Even so, it never struck me as anomalous back then that whereas the POC kids discussed their own identities in terms of race and racism, the white kids had no concept of their whiteness as an identity: that race, as a concept, informed their treatment of others, but not how they saw themselves. The same boys who joked about my biracial crush being a half-caste and who dressed up as “terrorists” in tea robes and tea towels for our final year scavenger hunt never once talked about whiteness, or about being white, unless it was in specific relation to white South African students or staff members, of which the school historically had a large number. (The fact that we had no POC South African students didn’t stop anyone from viewing “white” as a necessary qualifier: vocally, the point was always to make clear that, when you were talking about South Africans, you didn’t mean anyone black.)

Which is why, for a long time, the topic of race always felt fraught to me. I had no frame of reference for white people discussing race in a way that wasn’t saturated with racism, which made it easy to conflate the one with the other. More than that, it had the paradoxical effect of making any reference to race seem irrelevant: if race was only ever brought up by racists, why mention it at all? Why not just treat everyone equally, without mentioning what made them different? I never committed fully to that perspective, but it still tempted me – because despite all the racism I’d witnessed, I had no real understanding of how its prevalence impacted individuals or groups, either internally or in terms of their wider treatment.

My outrage about the discriminatory treatment of refugees ought to have given me some perspective on it, but I wasn’t insightful enough to make the leap on my own. At the time, detention centres and boat people were the subject of constant political discourse: it was easy to make the connection between things politicians and their supporters said about refugees and how those refugees were treated, because that particular form of cause and effect wasn’t in question. The real debate, such as it was, revolved around whether it mattered: what refugees deserved, or didn’t deserve, and whether that fact should change how we treated them. But there were no political debates about the visceral upset another boyfriend, who was Indian, felt at knowing how many classmates thought it was logical for him to date the only Indian girl in our grade, “because we both have melanin in our skins”. (I’ve never forgotten him saying that, nor have I forgotten the guilt I felt at knowing he was right. The two of them ran in completely different social circles, had wildly different personalities and barely ever interacted, and yet the expectation that they’d end up dating was still there, still discussed.) I knew it was upsetting to him, and I knew vaguely that the assumption was racist in origin, but my own privilege prevented me from understanding it as a microaggression that was neither unique to him nor the only one of its kind that he had to deal with. I didn’t see the pattern.

One day, I will sit down and write an essay about how the failure of white Australians and Americans in particular to view our post-colonial whiteness as an active cultural and racial identity unless we’re being super fucking racist about other groups is a key factor in our penchant for cultural appropriation. In viewing particular aspects of our shared experiences, not as cultural identifiers, but as normal, unspecial things that don’t really have any meaning, we fail to connect with them personally: we’re raised to view them as something that everyone does, not as something we do, and while we still construct other identities from different sources – the regions we’re from, the various flavours of Christianity we prefer – it leaves us prone to viewing other traditions as exciting, new things with no equivalent in our own milieu while simultaneously failing to see to their deeper cultural meaning. This is why so many white people get pissed off at jokes about suburban dads who can’t barbecue or soccer moms with Can I Speak To The Manager haircuts: far too many of us have never bothered to introspect on our own sociocultural peculiarities, and so get uppity the second anyone else identifies them for us. At base, we’re just not used to considering whiteness as an identity in its own right unless we’re really saying not-black or acting like white supremacists – which means, in turn, that many of us conflate any open acknowledgement of whiteness with some truly ugly shit. In that context, whiteness is either an invisible, neutral default or a racist call to arms: there is no in between.

Which is why, returning to the matter of QOP and Whitney Atkinson, pro-diversity advocates are so often forced to contend with people who think that “separating races” and like identifiers – talking specifically about white people or disabled people or queer people, instead of just people – is equivalent to racism and bigotry. Whether they recognise it or not, they’re coming from a perspective that values diverse perspectives for what they bring to the melting pot – for how they help improve the dominant culture via successful assimilation – but not in their own right, as distinct and special and non-homogenised. In that context, race isn’t something you talk about unless you’re being racist: it’s rude to point out people’s differences, because those differences shouldn’t matter to their personhood. The problem with this perspective is that it doesn’t allow for the celebration of difference: instead, it codes “difference” as inequality, because deep down, the logic of cultural assimilation is predicated on the idea of Western cultural superiority. A failure or refusal to assimilate is therefore tantamount to a declaration of inequality: I’m not the same as you is understood as I don’t want to be as good as you, and if someone doesn’t want to be the best they can be (this logic goes) then either they’re stupid, or they don’t deserve the offer of equality they’ve been so generously extended in the first place.

Talking about race isn’t the same as racism. Asking for more diversity in YA and SFF isn’t the same as saying personhood matters less than the jargon of identity, but is rather an acknowledgement of the fact that, for many people, personhood is materially informed by their experience of identity, both in terms of self-perception and in how they’re treated by others at the individual, familial and collective levels. And thanks to various studies into the social impact of colour-blindness as an ideology, we already know that claiming not to see race doesn’t undo the problem of racism; it just means adherents fail to understand what racism actually is and what it looks like, even – or perhaps especially – when they’re the ones perpetuating it.

So, no, QOP: you can’t effectively advocate for diversity without talking in specifics about issues like race and sexual orientation. Want the tl:dr reason? Because saying I want more stories with PEOPLE in them isn’t actually asking for more than what we already have, and the whole point of advocating for change is that what we have isn’t enough. You might as well try and work to decrease the overall number of accidental deaths in the population without putting any focus on the specific ways in which people are dying. Generalities are inclusive at the macro level, but it’s specificity that gets shit done at the micro – and ultimately, that’s what we’re aiming for.

 

 

There is, I’ve come to realise, a certain type of hypocrisy that occurs when eloquent, successful practitioners of reflexive self-defence neglect to consider the consistency of their arguments. It’s a tactic which relies in large part on those arguments not being written down or otherwise recorded: it’s much harder to establish that your interlocutor is contradicting a prior claim if they’ve never made it to your face, or if no handy verbatim record exists, and especially if they deny ever having said it. Your memory must be to blame, or else your comprehension: either way, they’re in the right, and will doubtless continue to be so.

Unless, of course, a transcript is produced.

Lionel Shriver is not an author whose books I’ve ever read for the same reason that I’ve never subjected myself to Jonathan Franzen: the woes of modern day, middle class white people is a genre in which I have little to no interest. It’s nothing personal, except inasmuch as I am myself a modern day, middle class white person – I’d just rather read about literally anything else. So sue me: I’m a fantasist, and always have been, and always will be. But I’m also a writer, and though I have no interest in reading modern literary fiction, its ubiquity and prestige – to say nothing of the many complex issues facing all writers and their communities, regardless of creed or genre – ensures that I still have a dog in its various fights.

Such as, for instance, Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the full transcript of which has just been published online.

You see where I’m going with this.

If I wanted to give myself a tension headache, I could waste several hours of my evening going through the dreadful bulk of it line by line and pointing out the various strawmen: the information purposely elided here, the conflation of the trivial and the serious there, the overall privileged rudeness of taking a valuable platform given you for a stated purpose and turning it to another. But what really stands out to me is the utter dissonance between Shriver’s two key arguments, and the bigotry that dissonance reveals: on the one hand, fury at the very idea of “cultural appropriation”, which Shriver sees as a pox on artistic freedom; on the other, her lamentation of particular types of diversity as “tokenistic”.

Early in her speech, Shriver says:

I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.

But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.

And yet, mere paragraphs later, we get this:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

I’d ask Lionel Shriver to explain to me how the presence of queer characters can “distract from the central subject matter”, but I don’t need to: the answer is right there in the construction of her statement. Queerness can distract from the central subject matter because, to an obliviously straight writer like Shriver, queerness is only ever present as another type of subject matter, never as a background detail or a simple normative human variation. Straightness doesn’t distract her, because it’s held to be thematically neutral, an assumed default. But put a queer character in the story for reasons other than to discuss their queerness – include them for variety, for honesty, because the world just looks like that – and it’s a tiresome, tokenistic attempt to be “hip” or “fashionable”. In Shriver’s world, such non-default characters can only “pertain to [the] story” if the story is, to whatever extent, about their identity. The idea that it might simply be about them does not compute.

And thus does Shriver bring us that most withered chestnut, Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – or, as she puts it:

At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various…

We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

Listen, Lionel. Let me explain you a thing.

Identity informs personhood, but personhood is not synonymous with identity. By treating particular identities as “subject matter”instead of facets of personhood – by claiming that queer characters can “distract” from a central story, as though queerness is only ever a focus, and not a fact – you’re acting as though the actual living people with those identities have no value, presence or personhood beyond them. But neither can you construct a tangible personhood without giving thought to the character’s identity; without acknowledging that particular identities exist within their own contexts, and that these contexts will shift and change depending on various factors, many of which will likely exceed your personal experience. This is what we in the writing business call doing the fucking research, which concept astonishingly doesn’t apply only to looking up property values, Googling the Large Hadron Collider and working out average summer temperatures in Maine.

To put it simply, what Shriver and others are angry about isn’t the nebulous threat of “restrictions [being placed] on what belongs to us” – it’s the prospect of being fact-checked about details they assumed could be fictionalised entirely, despite being about real things.

If Shriver, in a fit of crass commercialism, were ever to write a forensics-heavy crime procedural without doing any research whatsoever into actual forensic pathology, readers and critics who noticed the lapse would be entirely justified in criticising it. If she took the extra step of marketing the book as a riveting insight into the lives of real forensic pathologists, however – if the validity of what she’d written was held up as a selling point, a definitive glimpse into the lives of real people as expressed through the milieu of fiction – then actual forensic pathologists would certainly be within their rights to heap scorn on her book, to say nothing of feeling insulted. None of which would prevent this hypothetical book from being technically well-written or neatly characterised otherwise, of course; it might well have a cracker of a plot. But when you get a thing wrong – when you misrepresent a concept or experience that actually exists, such that people with greater personal knowledge of or investment in the material can point out why it doesn’t work – you’re going to hear about it.

That is how criticism works. It always has done, and always will do, and I am absolutely baffled that a grown adult like Shriver, who presumably accepts the inevitability of every other aspect of her writing being put under the twin lenses of subjective opinion and objective knowledge, thinks this one specific element should be somehow immune from external judgement.

Except that, somehow, she does – and I’ll come to more of that later. But first, there’s an even bigger problem: namely, that Lionel Shriver doesn’t think identities exist at all.

Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.

That distant thunking sound you hear is me banging my head repeatedly on the nearest hard surface. Look, I hate to be That Guy and pull the dictionary definition card, not least because I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist: usage comes first, and all that. But there’s a difference between asserting that a word should only be used a particular way and claiming, flat out, that it literally doesn’t mean the thing it (both functionally and definitionally) means. And to quote our good friends at Merriam-Webster, ‘identity’ means, among other things, “the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from others; the relation established by psychological identification”, with ‘identification’ further defined as  “psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association.”

In other words, being Asian doesn’t magically cease to be an identity just because Lionel Shriver says so. Nor does queerness. Nor does disability. An identity is a thing you claim and feel for yourself, in association with a particular concept or shared bond with others. That being so, what I suspect Shriver is groping after with this blatant misuse of language is the idea that there’s no such thing as a universal identity – that there’s no one way to be female or gay or Armenian, which is correct, and that good characters must, therefore, be more than just a superficial depiction of these things.

Well, yes. Obviously. (Though rather ironically, given her earlier thoughts on queerness.) But saying that there is no universal Chinese experience, and thus no universal Chinese identity, does not ipso facto prove that there is no such thing as any Chinese identity – or identities, as the case may be – at all. Think of it like a Venn diagram: every circle represents the particular experience of belonging to a given group or identity. The point of commonality is that they all overlap; the point of difference is that everyone experiences that overlap differently. You might as well argue that being Christian isn’t an identity because Orthodox Catholics and Southern Baptists both exist. But that’s the macro perspective, where group nomenclature is more taxonomy than experience. Identity is the micro level: the intimacy of self-expression coupled with the immediacy of belonging. And in between those two things, tasked with the perennial balancing act, is the seedy, ever-shifting vagueness problem of group politics: who has authority, who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and why.

But of course, despite her protestations to the contrary, Lionel Shriver does believe in identity. How else can you categorise her prior defence of her own book, The Mandibles, as being “a multigenerational family saga – about a white family,” a narrative in which she “wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual [character]”? By her own admission, whiteness is an identity, just as straightness is an identity, distinct from their respective alternatives and made meaningful by the difference. But this is an uncomfortable thing for Shriver to admit in those terms, because it means acknowledging that identity is neither the intrusive hallmark of political correctness nor an exotic coat to be borrowed, but a basic fact of human life that applies equally to everyone. What Shriver views as a neutral default is merely a combination of identities so common that we’ve stopped pretending they matter.

Which they do, by the way. They really, really do.

Returning, then, to the subject of criticism, Shriver says:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

You heard it here first, folks: the burden and self-examination required to be respectful to others – the same thing we ask of any child who borrows a toy at a birthday party – is simply too great for precocious adult genius to bear. And note, please, the telling differences in Shriver’s response to criticism of different aspects of the same novel, The Mandibles: when one reviewer critiques her portrayal of her lone black character, she threatens to be put off writing black characters for life; but when another reviewer rebukes her for writing an overwhelmingly “straight and white” novel, there is no similar threat to disavow writing white characters. But of course, she could hardly threaten to stop writing both – if she did, there’d be nobody left. (Not least because, in Shriver’s world, ‘Asian’ isn’t a real identity. Perhaps she should let Pauline Hanson know; I’m sure her relief would be palpable.)

When Shriver decries identity, she applies the concept only to those identities she doesn’t share, or which she views facetiously, the better to paint it as an arbitrary barrier between her artistic license and the great, heaving soup of Other People’s Stories to which she, by virtue of her personal rejection of the concept of identity, feels entitled. But ask why her writing focuses predominantly on a particular type of person, and suddenly identity is a rigid defence: the characters had to be this way, could never have had some other, more distracting type of identity, because the story was about this experience in particular. Which is to say, about a fucking identity.

Here is the paradox Shriver cannot reconcile, because it’s no paradox at all: if identity is irrelevant and the full spectrum of humanity is rightfully accessible to every writer at any time, then there’s no earthly reason why a multi-generational family saga shouldn’t have queer people in it, and no intelligent way to argue that it can’t. But if, despite the apparent irrelevance of identity and the presence of a full spectrum of humanity about which to write, you’re still predominantly writing about straight middle class white people, we’re liable to wonder what particular biases of culture or inspiration are skewing you that way. That’s not Damned If You Do And Damned If You Don’t – it’s just common sense.

There’s more to this argument, of course – most pertinently, the fact that certain writers occupy a position of greater cultural and historical privilege than others (something of which Shriver herself is well aware). When such writers decide to speak for and about more marginalised groups, that has a material impact on the ability of those groups to speak for themselves and to be heard, especially if their personal accounts differ, as they invariably do, from those of more prominent outsiders.

To give a particularly pernicious example, consider the case of Arthur Golden’s exploitation and gross misrepresentation of Mineko Iwasaki. One of several geisha interviewed by Golden in the course of research conducted for his bestselling novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, Golden not only breached Iwasaki’s confidentiality by naming her as a source, but based a significant portion of his book on her life without permission, misrepresented actual historical details for sensationalist purposes, and generally twisted Iwasaki’s narrative. She sued him for breech of contract in 2001, with Golden settling out of court two years later. While Iwasaki was subsequently moved to write her own bestselling autobiography – Geisha, A Life – to try and ameliorate the damage, his appropriative actions nonetheless caused her material harm. And meanwhile, the film adaptation of Golden’s novel, which celebrated the worst of his changes, was critically acclaimed in the West, further contributing to the exoticisation of Asian women in general and geisha culture in particular. But why should that matter? It’s just a story.

Isn’t it?

In my bookmarks bar is a folder called Narrative Influencing Reality, where I keep track of articles, posts and news items that show a correlation between fictional stories and the real world. The first link is the famous story about how, in the late 1940s, the writers of the Superman radio serial managed to stymie the resurgence of Klu Klux Klan memberships by having Superman fight the Klan. They knew that the story mattered; that people in the real world looked up to Superman, even though he was fictional, and could thus be persuaded to use him as a moral compass. This is a positive example of narrative influencing reality. But there’s also plenty of negative examples, too, such as evidence that the over-the-top “romantic” gestures popularised in romantic comedies can promote social acceptance of stalking, or the real-world racist backlash against Asians provoked by the film Red Dawn.

As writers, we know that stories matter, or we wouldn’t bother to tell them. Narrative is a force that shapes our humanity, our history, and our perception of others – and that is why unresearched, stereotypical and thoughtless portrayals of vulnerable groups can be so very harmful. Writing respectfully about others shouldn’t be such a terrible burden as to be worth angrily hijacking a festival keynote speech; it should just be basic good manners. As actress Jenn Richards recently said, “Artistic freedom is important, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of actual human lives.” And stories are always, in the end, about actual people: what they think, why they matter, and how we relate to them.

To say that stories have power, but to deny their consequences, is a particularly self-deluded form of irresponsibility. And Lionel Shriver, in denying the very real harm done by cultural appropriation, is guilty of it.