Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alive in 2015

Reading through some of my previous year-end posts, I was struck how optimistic last year's post was. I don't remember 2014 with much fondness and yet things then were arguably better than this year. 

I think 2015 is the year when a lot people decided to give up hope in slow, steady progress. I don't have any other explanation for what transpired. The Ebola panic of 2014 has become the immigration panic, ISIS panic, and the Trump panic, and half a dozen other emergencies that have to be DEALT WITH RIGHT NOW! Then, something that does represent an actual challenge for this country, indeed the world, Global Warming brings together the entire world in an agreement that while rudimentary, lays some ground work for the future (as we know it) on this planet. That is a huge achievement that this country helped bring into being.

And yet - we're told this is a country that has lost its greatness. That this country has been humbled and defeated. 

I simply can't believe it. 

I see a country that continues to do what it always does, prioritize business over nearly every concern,  look for quick easy solutions to complex problems, and put up barriers to people we should be welcoming to this country with open-arms. 

I also see a country that continues to be what it always has been, a place that finds meaning in community and fellowship, displays of great sincerity and ingenuity, and constantly changes its demographics and beliefs and outlook.

This country refuses to agree, like it always does. 

I'm not sure what 2016 is going to be like. I have long since stopped guessing about when or if Trump is going to drop out. The fact is, a significant portion of this country likes what Trump is saying. I think they are mistaken but then again, that is why we have elections. If people I agree with cannot overcome a demagogue like Trump, if there aren't enough of us, or if we don't try hard enough, or if we aren't smart enough, then we deserve to fail. 

I don't think we are going to fail.

Yet, it was precisely the idea of failure and collapse I returned to again and again this year. I joked that this was the year of the post-apocalypse. I get maniacal about topics every once in a while. Last year it was True Detective, the year before that -Star Trek, and well, this year I got really keen on reading and watching as much as I could about the fall of human civilization. I don't have a bug-out bag, and although I subscribed to r/collapse, I'm not going to look into fallout shelters any time soon.

I tried to write up my feelings about the post-apocalypse in a previous post but in revisiting it, I see that a lot of what we mean when we write about the end of the world is what we want to keep. What is important is that we fear we might lose. The best, most popular, works of post-apocalyptic fiction put that something in peril, and then show how it arises once more. Which is fine, but it also misses something. Collapses in history have not been abrupt cataclysms. They have been accelerated periods of transition. When the Late Bronze Age civilizations of New Kingdom Egypt, Hittite Empire, and the Mycenaeans fell into hard times, it didn't mean that people stopped living in the Mediterranean basin. It meant they stopped one way of life in favor of a new, more complex form of civilization. 

If I learned anything from this year, it's that while dangers and disasters happen, they often cause the most pain when people refuse to let go of what they perceive to be indispensable. Maybe somethings are worth defending but we have to, as a country, acknowledge that other things might not be worth the trouble.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What I Watched in 2015

This last five best list is the hardest one. All of the movies listed below are terrific. The next two movies I didn’t include on this list are also pretty great. Yet, I think there is a virtue in ordering experiences and with that in mind, Mad Max beats out competitors. I’m not sure if this is a better movie than Spotlight or Ex Machina, but it certainly occupied more of my attention this year.  
  1. Mad Max: Fury Road. To be clear, this is an action film. A well-made, sincerely wrought exercise in mayhem to be sure, but ultimately this is a long car-chase. But there is something about Fury Road that, for me, goes beyond a good movie and enters the realm of myth-making. This movie didn’t work on all of my friends and I’ve seen very detailed break-downs on how Imperator Furiosa is not a new-wave feminist icon, or how the plot has major holes, or this and that. But in the end, this film stands unmarked by carping. It found a way to make action movies cool again, sketching in 120 minutes a world entire while leaving plenty of alluring blank spaces.
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakened. After my second watching I think I have a better handle of what this film is and isn’t. Whether or not this film entertained you or sent you into rapturous heights of fandom depends on how much faith you have that the sequels will answer the questions of Episode Seven. For me, I entered this film wanting to be convinced I wasn’t wasting my time and I left exhilarated by what comes next.
  3. Ex Machina. This movie wants you to underestimate it. It wants you to think of it as a rip-off of half-dozen other “androids amok” movies. To a certain degree, its plot depends on you making such mistakes. Because what this movie really is about only becomes apparent in the final reel. Because what this movie is really about is information and how it’s used against us.
  4. Spotlight. If Ex Machina paints the downside of of knowing too much, this movie effectively describes how the opposite. With strong acting, a brilliant script, and determination not to turn the drama of the story behind the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal into melodrama, this story focuses on one thing - truth and its consequences.
  5. Inside/Out: This year had two Pixar movies but only one that I’ve seen. Funny, poignant, and thought-provoking, In/Out continues Pixar’s exploration of secret lives. Here, we see the inside of one girl’s mind, as personified by five disparate emotions. Similar to the other movies I’ve listed above, as fine as the movie itself is, the part that kept me thinking about it were the layers of invention and imagination glimpsed around the edges.

Then, of course there was television. “Game of Thrones” seemed to lose its way before giving us its best set-piece yet. The second season of “Leftovers" became a completely different show that somehow said all the same things as the first season, only better. Marvel’s small screen was far more interesting than its tent-pole movies (Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and the constantly improving Agents of Shield). I binge watched the first four episodes of “The Expanse,” pretty sure I found the next Battlestar Galactica. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

What I Read in 2015

This is the second in my year-end series addressing works of music, literature, and film that seemed important to me. Today, I’m focusing on literature.
I read a bunch this year, mostly works from 2014 but a few from this year. Any long-time reader of this blog might be able to guess at my favorites from this year but I discovered plenty of exciting new artists along the way.

  1. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson: Hands-down my favorite novel this year and probably one of my favorites from KSR outside of the Mars Trilogy. Borrowing themes and motifs from previous works (even Shaman!), Kim Stanley Robinson here crafts a generation ship tale unlike any I’ve read. This novel will endure for me well past 2015 because its target is not just the implausibility of interstellar travel, but the pernicious danger of human ideas when confronting the hard truths. Put simply, people are bad at accepting facts they cannot see or choose to ignore. Sound familiar? Even so, this novel is not doom and gloom, but a stirring argument for reprioritizing life over ideology. Placed alongside his other work, KSR makes a strong argument for a separate sub-genre in speculative fiction - the optimistic realist.
  2. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I bought this book because Jemisin was the Guest of Honor at last year’s Arisia and she makes a terrific salesperson for her work. I was not disappointed. The world she creates here, The Stillness, is one wracked with enormous tectonic cataclysms. The book follows the misadventures of terramancers - the hated orogenes - both serving as state slaves and as dangerous rogues in a world on the brink of destruction. Jemisin is particularly good in this book at introducing concepts gradually, exploring each one fully before broadening the world. This is clearly the first work in a much larger series but I never once felt as though I reading through exposition. 
  3. Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: Water Knife takes its name for the slang term in his novel for water company operatives who methodically pare away junior water rights for communities in a post-collapse Southwestern United States. If you want an exciting and believable look at the emerging climate-change fueled water crisis - this is the novel for you. Works as both a thriller and a well-researched meditation on how collapse might look in our country. 
  4. Seveneves by Neil Stephenson: At nearly a thousand pages, Seveneves has a great opening line about the moon exploding for no particular reason and a steadily ratcheting up of tension and drama as the the people of earth goes through a radical and sustained population adjustment. Ultimately, as compelling as this first section is, the last third reads like the flavor text for a space opera RPG, establishing an interesting world devoid of characters to care about. Still, I’m putting it on the list despite its flaws for the sheer scope of Stephenson’s invention.
  5. Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace: This is a strange beast. Archivist Wasp is a kind of ghost killer in a shattered world beset by the angry wraiths of some distant half-remembered global war. She finds a powerful ghost that wishes her to help him rescue his love and follows him into a richly imagined underworld. Archivist Wasp is a great character, at once wounded and vulnerable, but also courageous and indomitable. Think Neil Gaiman collaborating with Stephen King and then think of something way better than that.

Short Stories:

  • For the Love Sylvia City by Andrea Pawley. As I said when I highlighted this story in my short story review column - the particular strength of this story is how well it does conjuring an entire world in a very short period of time. Pawley describes a strange and haunted post-apocalypse, a world where different strains of humanity have tried to survive as best they can in ecosystems untouched by war and technological holocaust.
  • Ten Things to Know about the Ten Questions by Gwendolyn Kiste. I’ve already mentioned Kiste a few times this year for her steady output of terrific stories. This is my favorite, her dread-inducing character study of a person primed to go ‘missing.’ Similar themes to The Leftovers, but handled with much more palpable malice.
  • Spring Thaw by Charles Payseur. Setting counts for a lot in horror stories and the forbidding wastes of Antarctica is one of the best. Here the landscape and the horrors it contains serve as metaphors for the buried trauma of a troubled researcher. While the horror is no less visceral, it is an emotion harnessed for another purpose.
  • Dog by Bruce McAllister. This is a story where visceral horror is the focus. An appalling and absorbing look at a couple haunted by demonic dogs lingered with me for a long time after reading it. The details of this story are so specific and wrenching that the entire tale acquires the inevitability of a dream that follows you into your waking life.
  • Meshed by Rich Larson. I encountered a few cyberpunk stories this year, but this was probably the best. In the future, sports stars are fitted with ‘meshes,’ or cybernetic devices recording their experiences for sale. A basketball scout searches for a way to convince a young aspiring star to become meshed, over the objections of his beloved grandfather. One of those works of speculation that works on multiple levels effortlessly, exploring the implications of near-future technology while simultaneously digging into the meaning of family and individual talent.



Sunday, December 27, 2015

What I Heard in 2015

Every year, I like to take a few moments to list works of music, literature, and film that seemed important to me. This is the first post in that series for 2015, the music I enjoyed.
The top two places on this list were obvious to me in June, but the others required many re-listens. Left off is the amazing return album from Sleater-Kinney, Kendrick Lamar’s exceptional “To Pimp a Butterly,” and works by Courtney Barnett, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Grimes. As always, this list is simply a record of the sounds that signified for me the experiences of a year.

  1. James McMurty: Complicated Game. Right off the bat I knew this would be one of my favorite albums from 2015. Giving it listen half a year later, I’m struck by how powerful this album is, how bleak and perfect for this year. There was an easy confidence to these songs, a hard-bitten world view of people’s lives ground up and buried. I imagine some of these songs would sound samey to someone but to me each one is a poetic encapsulation of what a single moment in time is like. 
  2. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell. Dire stuff - and  yes I recognize my two top albums are really similar in theme and tone - but I loved each for different reasons. I guess McMurty won out for me because despite how heart-breaking this album is, its lyrics are morosely opaque where McMurty’s are painfully, painfully insightful and lucid. Nevertheless, songs like "Fourth of July,” “The Only Thing," and the title song find some heart-breaking universal nostalgia within experiences clearly very personal. 
  3. Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free. This is a treasure trove of tuneful folky ballads by a member of Drive-By Truckers. I can’t help but succumb to a song book like this - each song an exquistely wrought work of Americana pathos. “24 Frames” was the stand-out but stay for “How to Forget,” “Children of Children,” and “If It Takes a Lifetime."
  4. Bop English: Constant Bop. I honestly starting loving this album more when I learned it’s the product of a Texan singer-songwriter, James Petralli, still a member of the indie band White Denim. Until that discovery I assumed this was a British band, one more perfect pop rock album from a place that seems to sprout them like mushrooms. That this comes from the Lonestar State struck me as being more remarkable, a lush desert rose found in the middle of a crumbling strip mall. Constant Bop is tremendous amount of fun - reminding me in places of The New Pornographers, other places of my favorite parts of garage rock revival of last decade. Every song works very, very hard to get you smiling and if that involves borrowing tunes and textures from 70s ramble rock classics, so be it.
  5. Suzanne Sulfor: 10 love songs. Ultimately the heart wants what it wants. This is Scandenavian pop music. Some of these songs even sound like updated ABBA. Which means I guess I love updated ABBA because I listened to this album relentlessly for months at a time. It still holds up, for me at least. I think the thing that saves it from being simply disposable is the economy of the sound and the permission Suzanne gives herself to be weird, stretching out one of the later ballads for ten glorious, harpiscord drenched minutes.

In keeping with this being my year of the post-apocalypse, I also tracked down a great number of albums and artists that to me addressed themes of collapse, societal decay, and the world after some disaster. Locrian’s Infinite Dissolution, a heavy metal meditation on the decay of the ecosystem, was a group I would probably not have explored in any another year but I'm glad I did. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, referenced above, also turned in a thunderous apocalyptic scenario in Asunder, Sweet, and Distress. I could make arguments for a few other recent albums but mostly my explorations took me through the greats of the post-rock movement of the past two decades. For the first time I sat down and listened to albums by Tortoise, Talk Talk, and Swans. In particular the big recent double albums released by Michael Gira really captured the spirit of this year - dark and portentous, cloaked in half-remembered rituals and bombast, searching for meaning in collapses both personal and global.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Force Awakened

Star Wars: The Force Awakened makes me care about Star Wars again. In a year filled with great science fiction and fantasy films, this movie finds its own special place.

The thing about thinking about an experience after you've had it, is that it is already an admixture - part of what you are feeling now will always affect what you thought you felt then. As best I can resurrect, what I felt watching Star Wars two nights ago was sheer joy. From the opening crawl to the final credits, I spent long, long moments completely immersed in this movie, completely enthralled. I liked a number of movies this year, but this might be the only one that grabbed my attention and never let go. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, which was an accomplished space opera, couldn't really match this movie's most effortless achievement - creating a whole bunch of characters I understood and cared about in a personal way.



I think the first and most apparent level of this movie is that personal engagement. J.J. Abrams is unquestionably a fan of Star Wars and the attention to the details, easter-eggs, and mythos of the the Star Wars universe is all clearly on display. But it is also clear, having watched this film, that what Abrams most liked about the original franchise was its relationships between characters. By the half way mark of the movie, the characters were making jokes about these relationships (out of the way, ball), (Okay, big deal) that seemed to understand how real they were not only for the characters but for the audience as well. In a word this movie was self-assured.

These characters were, as has been mentioned before, a better mirror to the society we find ourselves in then the original or prequel trilogies. Rey, the plucky young heroine of the story, joins Finn as played by John Boyega and the smart-alecky Poe Dameron seem a nice cross-section of the demography likely to watch this movie. It is important that they are young because this movie hinges on such generational adjustments. One of the wiser elements of the story is how the evils and virtues embodied in previous movies by Darth Vader, Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and Yoda are shown echoed in the struggles of the next generation. One aspect of the Return of the Jedi that I don't think could be really replicated in the current state of the world is the triumphant, "everybody's having a victory party" ending.  So, A Force Awakened presents us a world where the defeat of the Empire has given rise to the First Order, a military force with the stylistic choices of North Korea and the apocalyptic mind-set of Daesh. The Rebellion has given rise to a new Republic but also a scrappy and over-matched Resistance. (The relationship between these various powers is not well explained in the movie, I should point out.)

As my friend Dave Nurenberg mentioned in his review of the movie - a constant theme of this movie is the pressure for the younger generation to live up to the hopes of the previous. The principal villain, Kylo Ren, has an enormous chip on his shoulder regarding his role-model Darth Vader, displaying the same intolerance for failure as that earlier Sith Lord without any of his iron discipline. Rey remains on the barren junkyard planet Jakku to await the return of her family. Finn is the wayward son of the First Order, refusing to participate in a war-crime he attempts to get as far away from his "family" as possible. There are many, many other such echoes.

But these are masks.

I'm going to need another viewing before I settle on how this film approaches masks but even my first viewing convinced me this is one of the central themes of this film. Nearly every character enters this movie cloaked in some sort of disguise. Kylo Ren wears a sort of biker's helmet mixed with a welding mask, we first see Rei wearing a desert cloak that masks her face, and Finn is clad in the featureless white armor of the Storm-trooper. Then, one by one, we see each of these characters' faces and learn that that what's hidden below is quite different from our original impression. In particular, without giving to much away, Kylo Ren's reveal is particularly interesting. Masked Kylo Ren is a terrifying figure of shadowy malice. Kylo Ren unmasked is just as terrifying but for completely different reasons.

This is, of course, a theme of JJ's throughout his movies. His principal reoccurring motifs are disguises, redirections, and mind-games. This was true back in Alias, it threads through the third Mission Impossible movie, nearly sunk Into Darkness, but reaches a kind of maturity of craft in this film. In both big and small ways, the flawed but human individuals seem bound to the images in which they cloak themselves. The First Order cannot simply be a militaristic power, they must better the achievements of the original Empire. Finn is not simply a deserter but one who torn between being a "big deal," and fleeing from the trauma of his past. And Rey, who enters the movie as a down-trodden scrap collector, leaves the movie with a destiny and formidable heritage to confront.

Other story-telling tics of Abrams are less welcome here. While most of these concerns didn't really bother me until the next day - there are annoying details both big and small throughout the movie. JJ Abrams continues to value a mode of visual story-telling that privileges symbolic meaning over any need to follow established canon or real-world physics. Arguably these are the same issues in the original trilogy but Abrams wants to tell a bigger story than A New Hope at a much more frenetic pace. This means that we go from one or two characters trudging across vistas of empty desert, to scenes of space battles as replete with laser fire, dog-fighting space craft, and explosions as anything from the prequels. The difference is that while those epic set-pieces were Lucas' primary (only?) focus, here Abrams wants to keep his characters tightly foregrounded. Rather than using CGI robot versus clone battles as short-hand for galactic power shifts, now we have the processes of cataclysmic death machines dramatizing interpersonal conflicts. I know which of these I prefer, but there is a third way. The Empire Strikes Back seemed to understand how to balance the impulse toward character-based conflict and epic set-pieces much better.

Still, all told, it's nice to have a Star Wars movie back that seems worth the effort to think about.





Saturday, December 12, 2015

Quick Note on What I Read in November

Alas, life intrudes again. I was able to read a number of excellent stories this month but I haven't been able to read nearly enough to justify a full short story review page for this month. So I'll name a few that I liked and try to wrap in a few more for my end of the year list.


  1. So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer. (Clarkesworld) Clarkesword can be such a deadly serious journal most months, it's great to encounter a story like Kritzer able to have a little fun with the end of the world. This was one of my favorites because it suggested that a possibly apocalyptic event, a global superflu epidemic dealt with in the same way all of life's travails are: lots of cooking. Like Contagion but filled with people you actually care about.
  2. If on a Winter's Night A Traveler by Xia Jia (translated by Ken Liu for Clarkesworld). My favorite story so far this month. I struggle to call this science fiction or fantasy but it certainly has an otherworldly Borgesian aspect to it. A librarian becomes obsessed with the mysterious author of a poetry chapbook, discovering a small coterie of similar admirers preserving not just the copies of the work but its essential mystery. I will have a chance to be on the same panel as Mr. Liu this January at Arisia 2016's "Genre Fiction in Translation" panel. Stories like this are the reason I'm so excited by that opportunity.
  3. Way Down East by Tim Sullivan (Clarkesworld) A profoundly sad and moving story , beautiful in its parochial matter-of-factness and the slow masterful unwinding of its tension. Maine lobsterman rent out their boat to an alien and its minders. A story about empathy and the irreducible distance between all sentient beings.
  4. Self, contained by Kristen McDermott (The Dark) A small jagged shard of ill-intent. I loved the shear bloody minded weirdness of this story, the infectious rage and helplessness of the protagonist. Story quickly sketches the details of a werecat terrorizing a neighborhood, before turning its focus to one lonely woman left to consider choices.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My Panels for Arisia

The panel announcements are up for Arisia 2016 and I'm pleased to report I'll be on some awesome ones this January.

First off, I'm going to be on the "Genre Fiction in Translation" panel Friday at 7:00 pm with a whole host of talented writers. Crystal Huff will moderate and I'll be sharing the table with Ken Liu, Sarah Weintraub, and John Chu. Ken Liu has been mentioned a few times here at Ancient Logic, both for his excellent short stories (including one of my favorites from last year "The Clockwork Soldier," and his work bringing Chinese language science fiction into English, including work from Liu Cixin. John Chu is one of his collaborators so I'm very excited to take part in this conversation. 

That same night (Friday 8:30 pm) I'll be taking part in The Future of Mars panel with another incredible line-up of writers and thinkers. The Guest of Honor, John Scalzi will be joining the discussion, as well as Ken Scheneyer (moderator) and Jeff Hecht. Having the opportunity to meet the Guest of Honor would be enough to warrant its own post but the idea I'm going to be on the same panel...well, I'm legitimately terrified. And humbled. But also terrified. Mars is a favorite topic of mine and I can only hope that half way through my introduction I don't just turn to Scalzi and go..."Dude, you wrote Red Shirts. That was awesome."

I should be reading my work at some point in the weekend, but my last topical panel is on Monday at 1:00 pm and it was the other offering I was really keen on joining - "The End of All Things: Sociology and Eschatology." Ever since Fury Road, I've been doing a lot of back-reading and watching on post-apocalyptic media. Ever since Veterans Day, I've been doing a little virtual research in a small game called Fallout 4. The panel is moderated by Suzanne, and includes Venetia Charles, and Sarah Smith. My pitch to join this panel was bringing up the state of the post-apocalypse at the moment, from Neal Stephenson's future-forward take on the end of the world, to Paulo Bacigalupi's hard-truth collapse thriller "Water Knife." The other panelists bring some diverse experiences to bear on this topic so it promises to be a great conversation.

One last weird note - all of my announced panels are in Marina 2. Good venue.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Update from the Commonwealth

After two weeks of playing Fallout 4, I find myself increasingly doing missions so I can kill enough raiders to fuel my bottomless appetite for copper.

This is by no means done but I think it gets the general idea across.

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