California

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Novel * Edan Lepucki * A Kinder, Gentler Apocalypse * 2014

Synopsis

It took me quite a while to realize that California wasn’t going to devolve into yet another dreary, wearisome slog through the worst of humanity. I kept waiting for the rampaging murder-hoards and the baby-eating pillagers but they never really materialized. Part of me missed them, because this is post-apocalyptic fiction and what else are we here for other than to watch people revert to our base animalistic natures when civilization collapses? The thing is, though, that kind of collapse porn wears thin after a bit. I’m not going to read The Road again, you know? I obviously think there is value in examining the hows and whys of societal collapse and what happens to our basic human nature when our structures fall apart on us. There just comes a point where there are other aspects to apocalyptic stories which don’t necessarily center on human depravity.

This is not to say that California shies away from violence or humanity’s capacity for atrocities and horror. There are scenes of violence and betrayal. There are allusions to roving gangs of violent marauders that popped up after civilization fell apart. The difference between this book and any number of other stories of the post-apocalypse is that California doesn’t focus on those things to the point of fetishization. The violence exists and is part of the world, but it isn’t the most important motivator for the people inhabiting that world. They’re more interested in cooperation and relationships than vengeance and warfare. They’re more interested in moving forward than cowering and waiting for the worst to befall them. That said, the motivations of the primary characters are all over the place, and include harnessing the power of violence to consolidate their own power. The point is that California doesn’t dwell on how terrible everything and everyone is. The novel accepts the state of the world and moves forward from there.

Let’s get a little more specific before moving past the break and openly discussing the story. California is told from the perspective of Frida and Cal, a young married couple who fled from the decaying city of Los Angeles to live in a little hut in the woods. The apocalypse which triggered the collapse of society is unclear, but none of the characters seem overly surprised that it happened. The only thing certain about the state of the world is that there was no single big event that caused everything to fall apart. There’s no asteroid, or nuclear war, or devastating plague. From all appearances, it seems that civilization collapsed under its own weight due to a combination of various factors (this, of course, is the most realistic cause of a future societal collapse). Civil incompetence, late-stage capitalism, global warming, it’s really not that important. All that matters is that Frida and Cal live in a rough-hewn shack in the forest and that they are each other’s only source of companionship and survival.

The novel switches back and forth between Frida and Cal’s perspective, so it’s a good thing both are solid characters with their own distinctive worldview. They’re a team, but they get sick of each other sometimes. You know, like a married couple. When we are first introduced to them, their biggest concern is boredom and anxiety. They deal with both of these things by having sex a real whole lot. This, inevitably, ends with Frida pregnant and the state of their little world thrown into flux. Cal would like to stay put in their little corner of the forest, since he believes that there is safety in isolation. Frida would prefer to find other people they can rely on in order to give her child the best chance at life. Eventually the decision is taken out of their hands, and the decisions get considerably more difficult.

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California: A state so wacky the trees grow sideways!

Discussion

The first third of California is mostly dedicated to establishing Frida and Cal’s personal histories, and why they are the way they are. There are a lot of flashbacks which flesh out their early relationship, but also about Cal’s college days at a place called Plank College. It’s here that Cal met Micah, Frida’s sister. It quickly becomes evident that Micah has played a major role in both Cal and Frida’s life. They both ruminate on memories that center around this very intelligent and enigmatic dude. Then, eventually, we learn that he is dead. Micah is not a victim of the general social collapse, however. He is dead because he was a suicide bomber, blowing himself up and taking some random people with him for a cause. That cause is never exactly clear, though. Micah isn’t in ISIS, his death wasn’t a religious statement. Nobody in the family, including Frida, actually knew what he hell it was all about. There were whisperings about a shadowy rebel association known as – wait for it – The Group. They’re socialists or something, but again their aims are never made particularly clear. Micah was apparently way into it, though, considering he gave them his life in order to pursue their aims.

Except of course he didn’t. There’s no way that an author is going to spend that much time flashbacking to a character and not pull the “but wait, who’s that” twist. Obviously Micah is still alive, and it’s with his reintroduction to Frida and Cal’s life that California shifts its focus from a single couple to a reimagining of social order. You see, in the time that Micah has been “dead,” he’s been extremely busy. While Frida and Cal were escaping the crumbling remains of Los Angeles, Micah was pushing forward his plans for a new, safe, self-sustaining community. It’s roughly Communistic in nature, and even have a thing called “Morning Labor,” but it is mostly successful. Eventually we find out that in order to found this community, called The Land (and these names sound exactly something like a writer who is bad at coming up with names for things would use, I know my own), Micah had to get up to some rough shit. You see, there used to your typical post-apocalyptic roving gangs of rapey, murdery pirates out there. But then Micah killed one and chopped his dang head off in order to establish the notion that The Land is not to be fucked with.

California is a novel about secrets even more than it is a novel about social structures, although the character’s propensity for keeping things from each other is rather the foundation of the kinds of structures they both came from and create. Cal learned about nearby people and didn’t tell Frida. Frida got preggers and didn’t tell Cal right away. Micah obviously kept his own death a secret from his sister and best friend. Likewise, Frida and Cal keep the baby a secret from Micah and his paranoid new community. Of course all these secrets inevitably come out and fuck people, because that’s what secrets do. Frida and Cal’s relationship survives while they are both expelled from Micah’s experiment in social unity. Micah saves both of their lives, and sets them up in a more stable social structure, known as a Community (I know). Of course, The Center at Pines is not exactly an ideal place for free expression. It is, in fact, a draconian gated community committed to emulating the ideals of 1950’s white suburban Americana. Yet it is relatively safe and relatively comfortable. The baby will be able to live and grow. The unasked question is, of course, into what? California doesn’t have any answers for you. Frida and Cal seem to have chosen safety over freedom, but what does that mean in a post-apocalyptic world? This novel works so well because it challenges your assumptions and your convictions without trying to pass judgement on its own characters.

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Posted in Books, Climate Change, Entropy | Leave a comment

Adventure Time “Come Along With Me”

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Television * Diana Lafyatis/Cole Sanchez * Hoo Boy… * 2018

Synopsis

I knew I was in trouble when I saw the title.

Adventure Time has been winding down for quite a while now. The show’s production – and its overall popularity – probably peaked with season five, which spanned the years 2012 through 2014. Keep in mind season one was in 2010 and we’re now finishing up season ten, and along with it the series itself. Please don’t ask me how Cartoon Network production schedules work. The way the network has dealt with this show is mystifying at best. On the one hand, they’ve been atrocious concerning the production and airing of new episodes. The last few seasons have been feast-and-famine situations in which months go by without a word and then suddenly there’s a full week of new episodes and then nothing for four more months. I don’t blame anyone for falling off the show because there was no way to reliably keep up. On the other hand, though, Cartoon Network has allowed Adventure Time to basically do what it wants and end on its own terms. Very few TV shows are given this opportunity and the amazing, talented team at Adventure Time made the absolute most of it.

It occurs to me that beginning this with a relatively dry look at how TV networks operate is my way of building a wall between me and the raw, beating heart of this beautiful fucking masterpiece because holy shit, it was perfect. “Come Along With Me” encapsulates everything Adventure Time has been and has become over the years. It was lovely to look at, as colorful and joyous in its visual style as ever. It was smartly written and cleverly worded. These things are expected. Above and beyond this was the creative team’s ability to craft an ending. Most importantly, they rightfully identified that such a wide and diverse and detailed world doesn’t actually “end.” These characters don’t just stop existing simply because stories aren’t being actively written about them. As BMO puts it towards the end of the episode, these characters keep living their lives. That said, important storylines and character arcs are paid off in a series of beautiful scenes which all work so well because they’ve been thoroughly earned over the past eight years. They’ve managed to balance the need for a sense of conclusion while still leaving plenty open to viewer interpretation.

In a moment, I’ll talk about the episode proper, but I need to prepare myself because this is just going to devolve into hyperbolic praise and bittersweet exclamations. That’s going to happen because of what this silly kid’s show has meant to me over the last few years. I’m not the target demographic that Cartoon Network envisioned when it first aired the show in 2010, you know? I didn’t even start watching until 2012, just as season 5 began. I was 33. The show immediately resonated and since then I’ve evangelized about it to anyone who’d listen. At this point I don’t even bother to hedge my statements: Adventure Time is my favorite show, full stop. It reawakened in me the joy of creativity and discovery and, of course, adventure that I was afraid was declining to the point of not existing any longer. But then here’s this ridiculous, exuberant, expressive, completely bonker-banana-beans cartoon, and it’s like this tiny light flickered back on. And over the years, somehow, it’s been consistently getting better and deeper while still being unafraid to try new things. Adventure Time has been one of the few consistent good things of the last few years, a constant reminder that life harbors joy and love in spite of a horizon of ominous, swirling darkness. Okay, now the actual episode.

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Action! Suspense!

Discussion

So, back to that title. “Come Along With Me,” is, of course, the title of the song which plays over the end credits of all 283 (!!!) episodes. It is a very sweet little song, nice and chill, and I’ve never really thought much more about it, considering how many times I’ve heard it. So of course that’s going to be the title of the final episode, and of course that’s the song that’s going to play over the final minutes of the episode, and of course I’m going to cry like a small child who just rescued a baby bird only to watch it die in a shoebox. Because that sweet little song is a reflection of the spirt of the entire show, which looks forward as much as it looks to its past. “Come Along With Me” plays out as the episode ends in a montage of future adventures, the continuing lives of beloved characters. Therefore, the waterworks. I’ll add here that it takes some effort to make this cynical husk of humanity cry, and I’m pretty sure it’s the first TV show to do it. Like, the last Harry Potter book, the chapter “In This Haze of Green and Gold” in the final Dark Tower book, and, uh, that might be it? I’m repressed is what I’m saying.

The thing about “Come Along With Me,” the episode, is that it manages to do everything that makes Adventure Time special without seeming like it’s pandering or wallowing in its own history. However, it is simultaneously paying off several years’ worth of storylines without getting bogged down in exposition. That, of course, is something that the show has always excelled out. Unfortunately, it also means that unless you’re pretty much caught up, the ending won’t be quite as impactful. The episode begins as the Candy Kingdom is on the brink of war. Princess Bubblegum, fierce and magnificent, is lost in her role as a protector of her people and her kingdom. Therefore it is up to her Knight, a young man whom we have watched grow over the years, Finn the Human, to convince the Princess to stand down and avoid an apocalyptic war.

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I like Lemongrab’s signature. Also, the expressive nature of the show continues to be the best.

The method Finn uses to accomplish this is deeply weird, which is a hallmark of the show. Essentially, Finn puts the leaders of both parties to sleep and leverages their unconscious imagery to bring them to their senses. I won’t even try to describe what the hell I just watched, but it’s Adventure Time at its strangest, which is not a bad thing. Eventually, Princess Bubblegum stands down because Finn – who is desperate to avoid the same violence he used to revel in – was able to impart some empathy onto her. PB – who, if you’ve ever read one of my Adventure Time articles would know, is my favorite character and forever cartoon crush – is at heart a good person and is eventually able to admit when she’s wrong. For a hot second it appears that disaster has been averted. At this point, “Come Along With Me” kicks up another gear, and Betty shows up to wreak havoc upon the Land of Ooo.

I don’t have the time or space to get into the tragedy of Betty and Simon. Suffice to say that the history of the Ice King is one of the more affecting storylines in the Adventure Time mythos, and its climax coincides with the final minutes of the entire series. In her last ditch effort to restore Ice King’s sanity, Betty has lost her own mind. She has summoned Golb, a being of immense chaotic power, and horrible things immediately start to happen. These are truly apocalyptic forces, and again, there are simply too many instances of foreshadowing to get into here, but all of the imagery the show employs in this episode resonate with meaning. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Ooo attempt to come together in an effort to repel the attack of pure chaos. They fail, and it is heartbreaking to watch. Yet at the same time, the characters, and the relationships they’ve forged over the last eight years, shine through.

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The ending montage is just the most bittersweet thing, but also PB and Marcy 4 Ever.

In the end, music saves the day. BMO sings a lovely little song (written by Rebecca Sugar, who worked on the show in its heyday and left to create Stephen Universe, a show I should probably watch) which ends up hurting Golb. He’s pure chaos and discord, so harmonies mess him up real good. Yes, they thwart evil with the power of love and music, but it’s not as pat as all that. Adventure Time has never shied away from harsh realities, after all, and this is no exception. The music doesn’t actually drive Golb away, and in a desperate attempt to save Ooo, Finn, Betty and the Ice King end up in its weird gullet and are slowly being digested. The music weakens Golb enough so that Finn and IK – who has been reset back to Simon – can escape, but Betty thinks she can banish the monster once and for all. She is wrong. Betty ends up merging with Golb and leaving Ooo forever, leaving a devastated Simon behind to endure the aftermath. It’s a tragic ending to a tragic character, and at no point is the reality of the situation watered down or dulled. It just is.

Maybe that kind of thing isn’t the reason some people came to Adventure Time for. Of all the glowing articles I’ve read after the airing of “Come Along With Me” (all of three days ago) there’s always a contingent of people in the comments voicing their preference for when the show was more lighthearted and carefree. And that’s fine, of course. Things should be more lighthearted and carefree when you’re 12, which is the age of Finn at the beginning of the show. By the end, though, he’s 17 and has gone through some heavy things over the course of the five years Adventure Time portrays. In that way, it’s a similar journey to that travelled by Harry Potter. If it were up to me, I’d much rather hang out Finn as old H. Potts can be a real drag sometimes. Finn, after all, was very rarely angsty and is always down to party or chill and play video games. Anyway, my boy Finn seems likes he’s in a pretty good place at the end of the series, and I’m glad the writers resisted the urge to shoehorn in a romantic subplot where he’s concerned (although he could do worse than Huntress Princess, for sure).

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I enjoyed the framed narrative aspect of the episode, especially Jake’s ancestor Beth here. Let’s just hope it’s not an ill-advised back door pilot.

Look, I could ramble on about this episode forever. There are moments of pure joy (PB and Marceline, finally) and moments of pure silliness (LSP leaning in for a selfie with Golb is an all-timer) and of course moments of pure devastation (the aforementioned Betty and Simon biz). It was weird and joyous and sad and exhilarating and did pretty much everything I needed to close out one of my favorite things. I’ll miss the excitement of seeing that new episodes are coming, but honestly, it’s the right time to end. There are an infinite amount of new stories to tell from the Land of Ooo, of course, but I’m perfectly fine letting those stories go untold (or play out in my head). The worst thing to happen to some of my other favorite shows are that they’re allowed to go on for too long. The classic case being, obviously, The Simpsons, which we should all be fondly remembering as the best show of the 90s instead of somehow still on the air. Adventure Time, thankfully, will never have to worry about becoming some kind of unholy shell of itself. Rather, it can live on as an established landmark of animation (283 episodes!) as well as a personal favorite. I love the world of Ooo and its ridiculous, endearing inhabitants more than almost any other fictional realm I can think of, and it’ll be something I’ll return to for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to have it.

Posted in Adventure Time, Television | Leave a comment

Blade Runner 2049

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Film * Denis Villeneuve * Adventures of the Android Police * 2017

Synopsis

Okay, allow me to complain about one thing before I spend the rest of the time effusing over how wonderful this movie is. After I finished watching this and being pretty much stunned by the artistic brilliance on display the entire time, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment. So much craft and creativity and talent clearly went into making this movie, why did it all need to be in service of a sequel to a movie that didn’t need any more of its story told? Blade Runner was great! Whichever ending we as a people have decided on is actually fine, there was no real reason to return to these characters. I’m not even convinced we need to return to this world. Not everything needs to be spun out into an infinite storytelling franchise, you know? Blade Runner was amazing and continues to function as a blurry glimpse into a nightmare world imagined in the early 1980’s. That glimpse can be far more effective than opening up the door wide open and staring at it in intricate detail. I mean, look at the Terminator movies. Those brief scenes of the future war in the first two movies were fascinating, and then they went and made a movie about just that. We do not speak of the result. Anyway, my preference is always going to be to see something new. That said, holy shit this movie.

I don’t do well with long movies. I get impatient and antsy and generally am easily distracted. I also don’t do well with slowly paced movies. Most of the time I just fall asleep, which I will admit was an issue with the first Blade Runner as well as various other films which prioritize atmosphere over action. Blade Runner 2049 is both of these things. When I saw the running time was fifteen minutes shy of three hours, I was immediately put off. So I didn’t watch it for a few months. I’m glad I set aside the time. Never mind that the movie is glacially paced. I had to double check to make sure there weren’t moraines piled on either side of my TV when I was done (that’s a little glacier humor for you). There are long, drawn out shots of Ryan Gosling looking bemused. There are long, drawn out shots of impossible cityscapes and dreary wastelands. There are long, drawn out shots of, well, pretty much everything in the movie. And I was totally fine with all of that because despite how obnoxiously handsome Ryan Gosling is, and how ridiculously attractive Ana de Armas is, the art direction is far and away the star of the show.

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Screenshots for this movie are… borderline pointless. Still, look at that foggy, menacing, monolithic LAPD building. Ugh. So cool.

Blade Runner, both of them, are mostly about atmosphere and mood. The narrative, while compelling in its own right, is not as vital to the overall experience as the setting. This approach usually doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. Yet 2049 makes it work, and that’s because the art team was all-in on this vision of Blade Runner’s world. The story is a small one, even if there might be larger social repercussions as a result of what happens. If you’re unfamiliar, this is a future in which there are androids running around, known as Replicants. These androids are specifically made to be slave labor, which are used to colonize extraterrestrial worlds in order to spread humanity throughout the galaxy. Yes, 2049 is absurdly near-future for any of this to be plausible, but that’s an issue with the first film. Think of this as an alternate-reality story extrapolated from a 2019 that looks like the original Blade Runner and not whatever next year is going to look like. Anyway. The Replicants quickly became not only self-aware, but autonomous, which freaked out the company which made them. Blade Runners, then, are the specialized cops who hunt down the renegade androids and murder them. Ryan Gosling, known as “K,” is a new model Replicant with no free will. He’s also at the crux of a new conundrum surrounding the Replicants. Spoilers ahoy below the break.

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Yo, I didn’t even get into the whole thing about Joi and the futility and illusion of love.

Discussion

I said something above which might seem counter-intuitive at first, which is that a story involving artificial humans is a small one. Obviously, the very notion of autonomous androids has huge ramifications for human society. Science fiction has been wrestling with the ethics of artificial intelligence and how they should be treated for time out of mind. Most of the time it’s a thinly veiled allegory for race relations, the result of which can be excruciatingly clumsy and embarrassing. The issue of android rights are front and center in Blade Runner 2049, and yet I still can’t help but think the story of K’s discoveries and autonomy takes a backseat to the world itself.

The focal point of the narrative is pretty simple. Jared Leto plays an evil corporate overlord who wishes to colonize the stars for obnoxiously philosophical reasons. Wallace has realized that his ambitions require more slave labor (which he justifies by essentially stating “everyone else did it so why shouldn’t I”) than his factories can produce. In order for android production to proceed according to Wallace’s dreams, they need to be able to breed, he just can’t seem to make it happen. However! Turns out, K’s been on the hunt for an android child born from the original Blade Runner’s dream couple, Deckard and Rachael. Procreating, autonomous androids would essentially be a new race of sentient being, so of course this is a huge deal. Especially since it seems that these androids are forming a union or something in order to overthrow the cruel limitations placed on most of their kind.

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Too much dystopian, neoliberal endgame nightmare? Welcome to post-apocalyptic Las Vegas! This movie has it all!

And yet, because of the size and scope of the world we are shown, this all feels like we’re missing the actual point. The world of Blade Runner 2049 is a nightmare. It sucks! Like, I know I’m biased being a park ranger and all, but a world in which trees do not exist is a world that has been destroyed. A world in which Los Angeles encompasses what’s left of the American Southwest is one which humanity is playing out its endgame. Sure, there’s the specious hope surrounding offworld colonies, but here’s the thing: we never see those. They’re rumor, conjecture, empty promise. While it’s pretty clear that these offworld projects exist – why else employ slave android labor? – their actual purpose is less obvious. The teeming masses who we see living out their lives in the sordid megalopolis of eternally rainy L.A. might think those colonies represent a future salvation, but it’s way more likely that said extraterrestrial worlds are simply being exploited for resources to maintain the status quo on Earth.

Blade Runner 2049 conveys all of this hopelessness with its rendition of this dystopic, post-ecology nightmare with a languid, loving eye. Most of the above is unspoken. There are establishing shots which pull back and back and back and all we see is more and more city. Dark and furtive, sprawling to every horizon, inert and lifeless, even if we know that the streets are teeming with human life. The scenes in post-nuclear (I think?) Las Vegas, where Deckard is hiding out, also convey this sense of post-peak humanity. The desiccated remains of an entertainment capital, even one as soulless and empty as Las Vegas, strike a chord of ultimate futility. The flickering hologram of Elvis at the height of his glory is a reminder of the transience of any society. At its heart, Blade Runner 2049 is about a society, no, a species that has failed. The evidence for this failure is the world which humanity has created, which the just wonderful art of this film revels in. The whole point of this film, and its predecessor, is that the Replicants are the only cause for hope in this entire bleak future.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Corporations, Dystopia, Film, Urbanization | Leave a comment

Dubliners

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Short Fiction * James Joyce * Social Paralysis * 1914

Synopsis

Goddammit, James Joyce. You ruined novels for everyone, you know that? You took the form and blew it apart with your fucked up genius and now nobody can ever do that again. If it wasn’t for the human desire to enjoy stories, the novel would be as dead as poetry after TS Eliot basically killed that form. Modernism marked the endpoint for all art, is what I’m saying. Anyway, Dubliners isn’t a novel but is merely Joyce warming up and incidentally writing some of the best short fiction of all time. I will say right up front that I am ill-equipped to discuss these stories in any depth, despite my background in Modernist literature. This is not because I was unable to follow the stories, they’re all pretty straightforward, especially for James Joyce. No, it’s because each one of these things is deep and layered and it would take approximately 100,000 words to do them any justice and I don’t have that kind of time. Instead, I’ll provide a brief overview of the collection up top and then go over some of the ten-year-old notes I scribbled in the margins during grad school. Not because said notes elucidate anything of value, but more as a means to deride my academic ability.

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Modern book, Modern cover.

But first, let’s take a quick look at Dubliners as a collection of stories. If you know nothing about it, this book is a collection of 15 short stories that take place in – wait for it – Dublin. All of these stories are about regular people doing mundane things in a large, anonymous city. There is a current of specious disaffection running throughout the stories, however insofar as the narratives are concerned they are not connected. These stores are extremely Modern in their themes and characterization, and every single character in these stories is in some way grappling with a society that has grown beyond their reckoning. In a vague sense, most of these stories are about people trying in vain to find some kind of connection with those around them and failing. While that may sound exceedingly depressing, and it certainly can be, Dubliners is also about small moments of beauty in all that grey. Not only does Joyce find those fleeting moments, he writes some stunning sentences about them. The dude’s craft is unparalleled.

“When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown somber. The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odours arose from the ashpits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness.”

Give me a break. Just skimming through the book a good third of my notes are just marking out passages like that and writing “wow” in the margin. That wasn’t me being impressed as a student, that was me being impressed as a writer. Let me tell you, the one thing that annoyed me the most about grad school was how little people seemed to care about the actual craft of writing. Everyone was worrying about how this all relates to Foucault or some shit and ignoring how evocative and effortlessly atmospheric that passage is. Nevermind that if Joyce wasn’t so good at creating mood and atmosphere, Dubliners would be a pointless exercise. The reason any of the symbolism or layered meaning works is because Joyce is able to recreate the world of Dublin around the turn of the 20th century so completely and efficiently. Without the sheer quality of the language, everything else is meaningless.

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This is my favorite cover and it’s not even close. Look how bummed out everyone is! It’s perfect.

Discussion

If you came here for some kind of astute observation on a James Joyce story, I’m sorry, but you’ve fucked up. There are few authors whose work critics have covered as completely, and I’m not so completely besotted with the man’s work that I feel the need to add to the critical chorus in any serious fashion. That said, this is literature, and the responses to literature are only limited by the number of people reading it. Even then, an individual’s relationship with a work can change as the person changes, which is why I advocate for revisiting books every now and again. Now, my copy of Dubliners is from when I was in grad school nearly ten years ago and there are many, many notes in the margins. This is very unusual, since I usually do not mark my books up. This isn’t common amongst academics, by the way, pretty much everyone I knew in school covered any and all available space with notes. I’m just a terrible student. Always have been. I would always be immediately embarrassed when someone in my cohort would ask to borrow my notes since they were largely a mess of doodles and random phrases that may or may not have anything to do with the seminar. My notes in Dubliners were an attempt to curtail my habit of writing instinctually about literature. That attempt failed, allow me to share why.

This edition of Dubliners has an extensive introduction written by a Joyce scholar. One piece of genuine advice I would give to the literature student is to read and understand these introductions as they provide helpful context to older works. I take my own advice, however I have little patience for academic writing.

“So the author and publisher entered on a protracted correspondence in which a compromise was sought – in vain – between artistic integrity and commercial pusillanimity.”

To which I responded: “Yes, yes, you’re very smart.”

A few pages later: “So he wrote to Grant Richards, as that pusillanimous soul hesitated….”

“Just say ‘cowardly!!!’” Yes, I included the single quotation marks.

And then: “… how much time characters spend on their feet or on brief journeys by cab or tram so that peregrination becomes almost a principle of composition.”

“Enough of you.”

I agree with myself, by the way. This is the kind of exclusionary language that drives people away from critical analysis. It’s also the kind of writing that bogs down thought and creates barriers between your analysis and my understanding, even if I know what the word means. It’s frustrating, because skimming through the rest of the introduction, I find myself agreeing with a lot of his points and all in all is a valuable resource for understanding Dubliners. But dude, just say ‘cowardly’ next time.

Okay, I think the point of this exercise is to highlight some of Joyce’s writing, because a good deal of my notes are me just geeking out over the writing.

“All the branches of the tall trees which lined the mall were gay with little light green leaves and the sunlight slanted through them on to the water. The granite stone of the bridge was beginning to be warm and I began to pat it with my hands in time to an air in my head. I was very happy.”

My erudite response: “That’s some idyllic shit right there.”

Indeed. The thing is, though, that’s absolutely some idyllic shit right there. Particularly the detail of a kid patting the warm stone in time to a song in his head, a thing we’ve all done and conveys the exact mood of the scene. The proclamation that he was very happy is almost extraneous.

The final sentence of “Araby,” a story about a boy trying in vain to woo some girl he knows:

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

Ahem. “What the Fuck? What does that even… Jooooyce!”

Look, it’s a very abrupt ending. Thing is, it’s Modernism and often times the “endings” are abrupt and are seemingly unrelated to what preceded it. I was simply not terribly interested in digging deeper to understand why the ending is the way it is. Turns out I’m still not. Also, this kid is a teenager and has therefore never seen himself as a creature driven and derided by anything. Please.

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This is the most common cover type. Sure it’s just a old-timey shot of Dublin, but check out our dope Celtic font.

I make a lot of pop culture references in the margins, and most of them I scrawled in Dubliners are fairly dated (pretty sure I saw an Office Space reference in there). Some things are timeless, though.

“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does possession of money.”

“Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.”

Hell yeah. Now, at the end of this story, “After the Race,” I attempted to take things a little more seriously. Let me see if I can read my own handwriting.

“Ah, they’re all pals. But I guess we’re starting to see the themes of paralysis and alienation taking place between these stories. These characters all seem to lack the ability to push themselves to improve their own lives in any meaningful way. All the (beautiful) descriptions of Dublin bolster this sense of serene inaction.

What’s interesting here is the focus on the new technology of speed – the racing car. A plaything of wealthy youth, it’s only another apparatus in a life of actual inaction, though the artificial speed of the machine masks the individual paralysis of the driver.”

Yeah that’s all right. That’s pretty good actually. Hmm. Sometimes I wonder if I know what I’m doing after all.

“…that emphatically takes the biscuit.”

“I’m saying that all day every day.”

Nope, I’m still a dork. Still, that’s pretty good. Need to bring that one back.

“A wistful sadness pervades these poems.”

“Sounds like half of every English department in the country.”

Pretty much.

“A spasm of rage gripped his throat for a few moments and then passed, leaving after it a sharp sensation of thirst. The man recognized the sensation and felt that he must have a good night’s drinking.”

“Oh, the IRISH.”

Some of these notes get playfully racist, because a common stereotype is that Irish people are drunk a lot, you see. The story “Counterparts” is about a mean, abusive drunk. It’s a night in the life of an asshole, which Joyce writes about with insight and deftness, without excusing his horrid behavior.

“He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk. He began to feel thirsty again and he longed to be back again in the hot reeking public-house. He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him.”

“Paralysis. Impotence. Modernity!”

That’s an effective paragraph, even if Joyce straight up tells rather than showing and uses all the semi-colons in the world. You can get away with that kind of thing when you’re an all-time master.

“It was hard to know what to buy and all she could think of was cake.”

“Yeah, that is troublesome when that happens.”

Moving along, and I pretty much entirely skipped “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” because it’s a topical story about Irish politics about which I knew nothing. Here’s another delightful sentence from a different story:

“She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life.”

“Stop being amazing!”

Right? It gets old after a while, Joyce. Trying being average for once, maybe. But then the only other note on this story, “A Mother,” is me noting “I can’t believe how little I care about this,” so maybe this one’s not exactly golden.

“I know all about the honour of God, Mary Jane, but I think it’s not at all honourable for the pope to turn out the women out of the choirs that have slaved there all their lives and put the little whipper-snappers of boys over their heads. I suppose it is for the good of the Church if the pope does it. But it’s not just, Mary Jane, and it’s not right.”

“Psst. Catholics be crazy. And the pope be King Crazy.”

Sounds about right. Also, I’m clearly over it at this point. These notes are all from “The Dead,” the final story.

“S…O… B…O…R…I…N…G…”

“Here comes Lame-o’s lame speech.”

“Zzzz”

“Joyce, you’re playing everyone for chumps. You win!”

That last one sums it all up pretty well, I think.

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Rainbows End

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Novel * Vernor Vinge * The Augmented Reality Future * 2006

Synopsis

First of all, allow me to reiterate my jealous annoyance with polymath genius sons of bitches like Vernor Vinge. He’s a mathematician and computer scientist who also happens to have like five Hugo awards because all his books are really good. At least he looks pretty much exactly what you would think a computer scientist who writes sci-fi would look. Okay, now that my petulant complaining is out of the way, let’s take a look at Rainbows End and its obnoxious lack of a goddamned apostrophe. It’s killing me. And no, that’s not petulant complaining, that’s pedantic complaining. There is a subtle art to whining on the internet, you know. Anyway, before Rainbows End I have read two of this other novels, both of which were excellent, and so I had high hopes. While I was not entirely let down, this novel didn’t click with me as much as A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, both of which are stone cold classics. The fact I haven’t written about them yet is a crime. Rainbows End is vastly unlike those two books, however, in that it’s a near-future story told on Earth.

Rainbows End is a book about what the world of the early 21st century would look like if the trends of 2006 held pace. Some of the things Vinge writes about here are still being developed. He correctly identified that the blistering technological pace of the 20th century has shifted almost entirely to computing power and related fields and away from the industrial and mechanical that was rampant a hundred years ago. The San Diego of Rainbows End, then, is set up for a population heavily reliant on augmented reality. What is that? Well, in context of the novel and current technology, it is a computer system that allows the user to overlay their own personal system onto the world around them. Essentially, the computer allows the user to project visuals and other information systems onto reality as they move through it. Say if you’re at the park and it’s just a boring old park. If you have the system and the cash, you can flip on your AR and now that park is filled with dinosaurs or gorillas or the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The use of such a powerful interface could, if integrated into a city’s infrastructure, change how society functions.

This is a novel about those societal changes, and how the citizens of that society have adapted to accept those changes and integrate them in their lives. Or not, as the case may be. Rainbows End has a few other things going on, one of which is fairly apocalyptic in nature. The main tension of the story is The Villain Who Thinks He’s The Good Guy and his endeavor to implement what is essentially mind control to placate humanity into being peaceful. Somehow, the novel manages to make this situation seem less important than an old man’s relationship with his granddaughter. This old man, Robert Wu, is a huge douchebag. He’s also the protagonist, so it’s one of those novels where you’re waiting around for a redemptive moment. Robert Wu is a poet (ugh, I know) who thinks extremely highly of himself, to the point where he considers everyone else to beneath him. This includes his ridiculously talented and high-achieving family. Rainbows End begins with Robert recovering from Alzheimer’s, which is curable in this future, only to find out he can’t do poetry anymore. Oh the tragedy. He then attends remedial school to catch up on the new technology, and despite the whole mind-control-apocalypse, most of the novel seems to take place in these classes.

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I prefer this nice, clean design. Also the French really classes up the joint.

Discussion

I had a strange experience with this book, as you might have surmised from the tone so far, and I’m still trying to decide whether or not I liked it. I’m pretty sure I did, but I think I liked it for reasons other than those intended by the author. The only characters I really liked were not entirely vital to the plot and at not as fleshed out as I might have expected by the author of A Fire Upon the Deep. Specifically, Juan Orozco got hosed. As a character, he was simply strangely drawn. He’s described, over and over and over, by pretty much every other character in the book, as a dumbass loser who can’t do anything right. This is extremely harsh, especially considering he’s still a child, but also because he works hard and has an active create mind. The things he says combined with his actions do not jive with the perspective the other characters have of him, and these things are never really reconciled. There’s no redemptive moment for Juan, not that he needs one, and it’s clear by the end that everyone else will continue to view him as some kind of endearing goober. Which is pretty unfair, especially since when shit goes down he’s given no real role in the climactic events of the story.

Now that I think about how the book ends, I think I understand the disconnect between the events unfolding in the story and the tone of the language used to describe it all. That is to say, very little dramatic weight is given to the potential apocalypse at hand. Well, that’s not entirely fair, that big AR fantasy battle was pretty cool, especially when contrasted with the descriptions of the real military hardware employed by the Marines. Still, the novel makes as big a deal of Robert Wu being mean to his granddaughter as it does high-level breaches of security and the potential brainwashing of humanity. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, and if it’s an intentional attempt to get me more vested in the internal life of Robert Wu, it failed. Because fuck that guy for real.

At its heart, Rainbows End is a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of characters and storytelling, and that’s totally fine. That’s why I think that in the end, I still enjoyed it. The novel presents a plausible future, which is always fascinating, especially considering that we’re a little over halfway to when the novel is set. This particular story is focused on accomplished older people trying to re-establish themselves in a society which has begun to pass them by, which is fine. That the technology itself is the cornerstone of this new way of life is where the ideas start kicking around. It’s made pretty clear that true power is held by those who best understand information control, and that the high-achieving Wu’s are powerful because they are able to harness this understanding. Likewise, intelligence agencies are depicted of having a disproportionate amount of power since they deal entirely in information, and are only threatened when an A.I. gathers enough consciousness to infiltrate their systems. Did I mention that there’s an artificial intelligence with its own agenda? You’d think something like that would swing a little more dramatic weight, but that’s kind of how Rainbows End rolls. It’s an odd book I’m pretty sure I liked.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Books, Wabbits | Leave a comment

Moxie Contemplates Her Infinite Brilliance

Hi! This here is a short story that I wrote for the mild amusement of my fellow rangers, but I think it’s fun even if you’re not familiar with the antics of the Golden-mantled ground squirrel. Also, I suspect this little vignette has a place in the larger world I started a while ago with The Burn (and has since continued to grow), so that’s fun. Anyway, here’s a story about a squirrel.

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Moxie was done. She was over it. Over it! Look at all these obnoxious little runts, tumbling around, running into each other, making weird noises all day like a bunch of tiny morons. That one, Doxie, was chasing the chubby one, Roxie, around a tree. What did she think was going to happen when she caught her? A tiny adorable jump kick to the face, that’s what. Ugh. Moxie glanced furtively around, briefly forgetting her train of thought, such as it was. Then she saw a couple bits of trail mix she had dropped on the ground. Ah ha! You little scamps, can’t get away from me. She snatched up a peanut and wondered where it all went wrong.

Probably having all these kids. Look at those other three little dummies, sitting in a row like it’s some kind of tactical advantage. Poxie, Loxie, and Foxie. That last one’s name was a joke, but Foxie didn’t get it because she was dumb, unlike Moxie, who was basically a genius. Also Foxie was like two months old, but Moxie was pretty sure even at that age she knew how to do basic things like…. Ow! In a quick, fluid motion Moxie bent in half and licked the glorious golden mantle of her rotund belly. Aaaah. Better.

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Where was she? Right, these unbelievable miniature nitwits. Now Loxie, the longest and therefore best, was bored of sitting in a row with his siblings and scurried a few yards away from where Roxie was attached to the base of a tree. Loxie wasn’t interested in Roxie, he was staring off into the hazy distance while Moxie stared at her offspring, resenting them. If it wasn’t—

“Weasel!” Loxie squeaked.

“WEASEL!” Moxie repeated without another thought. “RUN RUN HOLE RUN HOLE HOLE RUN!”

Instantly Moxie was halfway down her burrow’s entrance, peering up over the rim as her wonderful precious little fluff-fluffs scurried to safety. She scanned the immediate vicinity but nothing, nothing, oh what the heck?

“Loxie! What is wrong with you?”

“Weasel!”

“WEASEL!” She repeated, ducking back into the hole. Then, a moment later, “that’s a moth. You can eat that.” Loxie just stared at her like she was a pinecone. “It’s food, dummy.”

“Weasel-food?”

“WEASEL!” Moxie dipped back down but almost immediately popped back up. “STOP THAT. Ugh. Everyone out! OUT OF THE HOLE!”

They all tumbled out into the sunshine, and began chasing each other around like a bunch of ding-dongs, ding-donging it up. Where did that trail mix go? Oh, there it is. Moxie picked up a raisin and leaned back on her haunches, mechanically chomping away whilst meditating on her past. You know, like a squirrel. She watched as her offspring chased each other around this small patch of forest, kicking up tiny puffs of dust as they scurried under and around fallen pine needles and small rocks. Hazy shafts of late summer sunlight dappled the forest floor and a slight breeze stirred the scents of warm pine and distant smoke that sat heavy on the morning. In an instant, Moxie decided.

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Without a word to her children, Moxie sprinted away from them, her destination obvious. The Road. It had all become so clear. When she was young and beautiful, long before her wonderful, horrible little floofs had been born, Moxie was in love. His name was Ricardio Ferdinand Rodriquez III and he was glorious. Yes, he was beautiful, his golden mantle was full and robust, his ears pert, and his tail was poofy, but not too poofy. And he was so long! Moxie, despite being a genius, had no system of measurement, but he was easily two pinecones long. Such a man! Yet all that aside, this was less important than where he had come from. Ricardio Ferdinand Rodriquez III was from Away. He was from Across the Road.

Moxie had never heard of such a thing, couldn’t believe it, yet here he was, this golden-mantled god. Things moved quickly after that and before she knew it, Moxie was stranded on her side of the Road with five tiny idiots and Ricardio Ferdinand Rodriquez III was long gone. Not that she resented him. A man like that cannot be tamed, obviously, and when he declared that he had to leave to find another Road to cross, she didn’t protest. After all, Squirrel Valhalla had to be somewhere, and it was largely agreed by the greater squirrel community that it was on the other side of the Road. The only problem was, nobody knew which Road. Moxie, however, was a certified genius, or at least would be if squirrels had certificates, and in a moment of inspiration knew exactly which Road she needed to cross.

 

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It was the same Road that Ricardio Ferdinand Rodriquez III had crossed to meet her, but you see, she’d cross it the other way. Once she thought of it, it was obvious. Moxie crashed through one last manzanita bush and came to an abrupt halt on the gravel on the side of the Road. Its black, smooth surface stretched in either direction to a hazy infinity, beyond reckoning. There was a low hum on the horizon, which Moxie assumed was the sound of the Squirrel Choir, welcoming her to paradise. Behind her, Loxie, her long and beautiful son, emerged from the shrubbery. He eyed his mother warily, from a distance. Moxie sensed his presence, but ignored him. This was her moment. Moxie deserved this.

She placed one tentative paw onto the asphalt, but before she could continue she caught a brown streak of movement out of the corner of her eye and stopped. It was a chipmunk. A Least chipmunk, and what did she think she was doing? The chipmunk raced across the warm asphalt, tail raised proudly in the air, and was soon ensconced in the shrubbery on the other side of the Road. Moxie stared after it with bleak hatred. How dare that filthy, stripey-faced jerk defile paradise? But wait, no, she was overreacting. What could a Least chipmunk know of paradise? That little dummy was simply looking for seeds, as if there weren’t seeds over here. Imbecile.

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Nobody suspects the Least chipmunk….

Moxie’s confidence surged. The odd hum grew louder, the Choir yearning to embrace Moxie in paradise. It was time. Moxie leapt onto the Road and raced across. It was easier than she imagined, for about a second. Then, out of nowhere, the odd hum turned into a maniacal roar and suddenly an incomprehensible monster was towering over her, moving at a speed that was impossible. Yet for all that, Moxie was free and clear. The monster was behind her, and Valhalla was before her. Moxie stopped, suddenly indecisive. Her head swiveled back to the side of the Road she had come from, her home. There, sitting up on his haunches, long and magnificent, sat Ricardio Ferdinand Rodriquez III. Moxie’s decision was instantaneous, as is the way of geniuses. She reversed direction, and ran toward her one true love.

The thump was almost an afterthought.

Loxie remained on the side of the Road for several minutes, contemplating the scene while absently munching the twitching remains of a moth. Moxie was an idiot, for sure, but she had died a valorous death. One of Moxie’s paws reached in vain toward the blue ribbon of sky above her, and Loxie felt a brief moment of pride. Someday, Loxie would find the one true Road, he was sure of it. In the meantime, however, it would be a shame to let such a bountiful meal go to waste. Loxie calmly stepped out onto the Road to collect his mother.

Posted in Original Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Needful Things

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Novel * Stephen King * The Devil Went, Uh, Up to Maine * 1991

Synopsis

This is one of those Stephen King novels that I’ve read to death. I’m still rocking my 1992 paperback edition, even though the cover is mostly tape at this point. Also, I haven’t read Needful Things in probably fifteen years or so. So what we have is a book I easily read 20 times in my teens, and not at all since like, Incubus was cool. The question is obvious: does it hold up? Yeah, kinda. Needful Things is an odd novel, in that it works best if you’re familiar with King’s earlier works. There’s a good deal of inter-book referencing and name dropping and the like, none of which is absolutely vital to the story but is still helpful. King’s work has always been self-referential, that’s why something like that new Castle Rock series isn’t an unusual concept, and Needful Things is a culmination of a lot of fictional threads. My paperback edition even has the tagline “the last Castle Rock story” front and center on the cover, so King’s intent is fairly clear. Here’s a big story with tons of characters in a setting King’s “Constant Reader” knows and loves, and now it’s time to blow all that the fuck up and move on.

Needful Things is not King’s best work, let’s get that out of the way right up front, but even so it’s still pretty good. It’s a summer-ass summer read, but it’s a well-crafted summer read. I know the man has his critics, but he’s still such a skillful craftsman that pretty much anything the dude writes is compelling in some way. Needful Things is a typical King novel in that the characters are all well-realized small town personalities, and the ensuing plot is directly interfaced into these people’s conflicts. If The Long Walk is a masterclass in the skill of narrative pacing, then Needful Things is a lesson in intricate plotting. Seriously, the machinery of the plot is working from page one, and as someone who’s greatest struggle in writing fiction is with plotting, it makes me kind of sick. There are points in the story where I almost wish I had a flowchart to keep track of who is moving toward which end, but as it happens it’s not needed. King wrangles his massive character ensemble and their various goings-on cleanly, and makes it look effortless. Bastard.

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Nice and simple, probably my favorite kind of cover.

The plot, if you’re not familiar, sounds simple. A new store opens up in Castle Rock’s quaint downtown. It’s run by a dapper older man named Leland Gaunt, who is extremely charming. He runs a curio shop, with a little bit of all kinds of seemingly random merchandise. Oh but here’s the thing though. Turns out, Leland Gaunt’s main skill as a salesman is obtaining specific items for specific people, and selling it to that person a price that at first sounds reasonable but then becomes less so. An example: Gaunt’s first customer is a boy named Brian Rusk. This kid collects baseball cards, and the one he needs most is just out of his eleven-year-old reach, because it’s an old Sandy Koufax card and I guess that’s expensive or something (I have never understood baseball cards, not even when I was a kid and tried collecting them for like two weeks because my friends did). Anyway, Leland Gaunt just happens to have the exact card Brian needs, and is happy to sell it to the boy for a handful of change… and a favor.

At no point does Needful Things try to obfuscate its intentions. We know pretty much right away what kind of salesman Leland Gaunt is and what he’s doing in Castle Rock. For his part, King doesn’t really waste time trying to create red herrings and divert our attention from the true nature of Gaunt. There are very few surprises as you work through the novel, revelations and plot twists are not the point of the story. No, this is a book where the pleasure comes from watching events unfold. Brian, the proud owner of the exact card he needed, is now saddled with a relatively innocuous task, which is to huck some mud at some lady’s clean sheets. Of course, this lady is feuding with some other lady and immediately blames her instead of poor, invisible Brian. Every “special” item Leland Gaunt sells comes with a similar string attached, and pretty soon everyone in town has been cross-wired with someone else all the while forgetting that they’re up to their own petty shit in order to keep their weird item. It’s fascinating to watch unfold, and you can tell that King was enjoying himself by blowing up one of his oldest creations.

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There are a handful of these ink drawings in the book, but I like the opening one best.

Discussion

What makes Needful Things especially fun for the reader is watching all the various events and character interactions slowly but surely snowball into the inevitable apocalypse. The ending to this novel is never in doubt; there’s no real drama surrounding the fate of Castle Rock. You could say that King foreshadows the ending throughout the novel, but that suggests some kind of subtlety. Rather, the narrator just straight up tells you the town is fucked and that Gaunt is going to wreck everyone’s shit all up. It’s even a reasonable deduction as to how the town’s apocalyptic ending is going to come about – those pesky Baptists and Catholics going at it combined with that incredibly conspicuous order of dynamite that shows up like halfway through the novel. Again, King places all his cards face up, and that makes its own kind of fun.

This kind of story only really works if the individual pieces are compelling in and of themselves. There are a ton of characters here, but King does what King do, and they’re all somehow well-drawn and highly considered. They have to be, since the crux of the complicated plot is Gaunt pairing off people according to the person most likely to set them off in a spree of irrational violence. Obviously some characters are deeper than others, and if there’s a protagonist, it’s Alan Pangborn, the sheriff. He’s the one Gaunt is scared of, presumably because he’s so smart and dreamy. He’s not my favorite though, that’s probably his Barney Fife-ass deputy Norris Ridgewick. I dunno, I appreciate his sad-sack sensibilities and his death-feud with that turbo-douche Danforth Keaton. That said, there are points during Needful Things where the plot takes over to the point where the characters feel like they inhabit a spreadsheet. The pairing-off of personalities and their particular needful thing feels a bit contrived because, well, it’s extremely contrived. You know, in a good way.

 

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Actually this one is pretty cool too. Good old riots, you know?

All right, let’s talk about the poor, doomed town of Castle Rock and we can all get out of here. First of all, small towns are gross. I know they have an idyllic reputation as the backbone of America and whatnot, but in my experience they’re often a huge bummer. Perhaps this is because most of the small towns I know are half-dead and dying, specifically the post-logging towns of the Pacific Northwest. Now, Needful Things isn’t about the slow rot of small-town life, at least not explicitly. Castle Rock seems to be doing okay on its own merits as a tourist town, and when it all comes crashing down it does so all at once. It’s not the same kind of slow degradation that you see in like, Aberdeen, Washington. Still, the festering humanity underneath it all is still there, and that’s what Leland Gaunt is able to tap into so easily. The very thought of knowing everyone I see on the street, even peripherally, makes my anxiety get all twitchy. I live in a small city, but even that affords me anonymity and the luxury of the cushion between my private and public life. Not so in a place like Castle Rock, which is great news if you’re Leland Gaunt.

He’s not the devil. Which is to say, I do not believe Leland Gaunt is a manifestation of Satan, the fallen angel Lucifer from the kingdom Hell. Of course, this is troubled by the fact that Gaunt is out here actually collecting souls, which is a detail I never liked, although I do appreciate Gaunt acting like he’s too cool for reaping souls only to be called out by Pangborn. Anyway, whatever, I choose to believe that he’s just a work-a-day demon out there hustlin’. I mean, the occasional destruction of a small town isn’t exactly the big time, you know? Plus, there’s that weird sequence where Ace Merrill drives to Boston to retrieve Gaunt’s magical Tucker and he ends up in that eerie Lovecraftian industrial hellscape. Personally, I think old Leland Gaunt is in thick with the Elder Ones, which is certainly more fun than some banal Christian devil forgoing the traditional fiddle contest to simply fuck around with some townies. I guess in the end, if you live in Castle Rock, it doesn’t matter so much considering your town is a smoldering crater in the Maine woods. Regardless, it freed Stephen King from having to worry too much about his legacy overshadowing the new stories he wanted to write. Of course, after this novel was published he was pretty much beholden to the Dark Tower mythos, but that’s a whole other thing.

Posted in Books, Demons! | Leave a comment

A Handful of Dust

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Novel * Evelyn Waugh * Come With Me under This Red Rock * 1934

Synopsis

Evelyn Waugh was fairly late to the Modernism party, but boy did he fit right in. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was a book where everyone is terrible all the time and it is clear that the entire English social order is on the verge of collapse. I’m not sure you can cleanly define the work of Evelyn Waugh as purely satire, although the books I’ve read have all had their moments. That said, these characters have some depth to them, and they’re doing more than simply serving a broader point being made by the author. Generally speaking, satire relies on flat characterization bordering on caricature in order to subvert expectations and create pointed, ridiculous situations. Waugh’s characters are not as well-defined as others in and around Modernism, and there is a surfeit of ridiculous situations, however there is still a tenuous humanity to them. A Handful of Dust is a novel in which silly and awful things happen to silly and awful people, yet there is still a lingering sense of sadness for something which has all but fallen apart.

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It’s Brenda Last, another Modern Woman here to wreck your shit all up!

The story begins with a character named John Beaver, which is a silly name for a silly man. I don’t mean he’s silly in that he’s some wacky goofball pulling pranks, I mean silly in that he’s sort of pointless and is almost aggressively subpar as a person. Pretty much every single other character hates him, including his rather horrid, conniving mother. Where some of the Waugh satire comes in is that despite being pretty much universally despised, Beaver never really does anything egregiously wrong, or mean, or stupid. He just kind of is. He exists in a world of English society that is, between apocalyptic world wars, undergoing a massive shift. More precisely, the horrors of World War I stripped bare the frailties of the European Order and what was left was kind of an empty husk filled with a good deal of disillusioned wealthy idiots trying to paper over the massive failure of society that led to the war. I say that Beaver is a pointless human being because he exists in this world of social parties and intrigue without even being able to engage the other pointless human beings who make up that world in the first place. There’s also the part where A Handful of Dust isn’t actually about John Beaver.

The book is actually about a couple of landed English aristocrats, Tony and Brenda Last. The surname there isn’t particularly subtle. Tony and Brenda live in their ancestral House, one of the massive manors that litter the countryside, with their truly awful little son, John Andrew. This family gets up to the kind of aristocratic nonsense that you’d might expect. They spend entirely too much time trying to maintain the massive house and arguing whether or not it should be updated and modernized. Brenda decides that she doesn’t socialize enough, and eventually goes to London to re-integrate herself with her social peers. John Andrew is learning how to ride horses and how to be a misogynist little shit. The thing is, in their way, they’re every bit as pointless and hollow as John Beaver. To don’t really do anything. They’re emblematic of a larger English society of people from ancient families with enormous houses and lot of inherited wealth but not much else. I won’t discuss plot points above the break, but suffice to say the novel does not go well for these people. Considering the title of the novel, that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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This cover is… quite a bit more whimsical than the story within.

Discussion

Given the type of book this is, and what kind of writer Waugh is, I was fairly sure what to expect from the narrative. That is to say, since this is an English, interwar, Modernist novel and is written by an author known for dark, absurdist humor, I knew things were going to get fucked up. And boy did they! There are three major developments in the story, and you can probably guess what the first two are. First of all, in this disaffected family dramedy, Brenda begins an ill-advised affair with John Beaver, whom she does not respect. The title of this chapter is “Hard Cheese on Tony,” which is almost too British. Still, that’s a pretty common move for these kind of books, and there are more serious examinations of high-society family dynamics and the underlying visceral emotion of infidelity. If that’s what you’re looking for, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Parade’s End are there for you. In A Handful of Dust, it’s just a thing that happens. Brenda is bored and Tony is clueless and their kid fucking sucks. Brenda ends up with Beaver, despite clearly not liking him, as an arguably unintended consequence of getting an apartment in the city. It goes about as badly as one might expect, because as an upper class Lady of the House, she has absolutely no idea how to live in the real world.

Meanwhile, Tony putters around making pathetic entreaties to his obviously disinterested wife, and continues existing. That’s pretty much what Tony is best at. Then the second big plot point happens, and once again you could see it coming. John Andrew, the shitty little kid, gets his dumb ass killed. And if it sounds like I’m being overly harsh to this young life being snuffed out, well, he’s not real so relax. Also, this is the kind of situation where Waugh’s immensely dark sense of humor shines. This kid gets kicked to death by a horse (okay, parenthetical tangent, but horses are the actual worst and anyone who says otherwise is not to be trusted. Look at these monsters. Why are their heads so enormous and weird? Why do they smell all horsey like that? And those fucking teeth! Gah, they’re awful and I hate them), and the immediate response by everyone present was to reassure each other that it was nobody’s fault, really. Half the people didn’t even know the little idiot’s name, and the only people to really react were his parents. Once again, if you’re looking for a more serious examination of how the death of a child would resonate these kinds of people, check out Point Counter Point. Here, the disaster is more to set up further strange things and the absurd finale.

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A fruitful avenue of analysis would be to examine the role of a new technology, the telephone, in the novel and how it provides another layer of abstraction and feelings of disconnect between characters. Fun!

Once the kid croak-boats, A Handful of Dust gets… strange. Brenda demands a divorce. Okay, well, “demands” is a strong word. Here’s what she actually says:

“You must have realized for some time that things were going wrong.

I am in love with John Beaver and I want to have a divorce and marry him. If John Andrew had not died things might not have happened like this. I can’t tell. As it is, I simply can’t begin over again. Please do not mind too much. I suppose we shan’t be allowed to meet while the case is on but I hope afterwards we shall be great friends. Anyway I shall always look on you as one whatever you think of me.”

That, by the way, is the exact tone of the entire novel and everyone in it. Distant and disengaged in reality, and completely out of touch with raw human emotion. My favorite bit is her politely asking him “not to mind too much.” Anyway, Tony does actually mind, not that you’d really notice. He agrees to the divorce, and there is a bit of a farce making fun of archaic English divorce laws in which Tony has to pretend to be the one having an affair. It’s from this point that A Handful of Dust takes aim at poor Tony Last and just unloads on him. He’s lost his wife, his son, and most of his friends. Eventually, in order to feel alive (I guess) he goes to Brazil with an explorer. Bad things happen to him here, as you might expect from some inexperienced ding-dong muddling about in the jungle. Tony gets sick and his companion gets himself killed and their “Indian guides” abandon him. There’s a swerve, though, one which I was not able to anticipate. Yes, it is true that Tony never escapes the Amazon jungle. No, it is not because he dies of malaria or whatever. In fact, he finds another Englishman, Mr. Todd, deep in the unmapped jungle. If you’re looking for a serious take on this situation, read Heart of Darkness, because what happens here is… goofy. This guy has made a go of it away from civilization, and nurses Tony back to health. For the specific purpose of having a captive Englishman around to read Dickens novels to him. When people come to rescue Tony, Mr. Todd poisons him so that he cannot alert the rescuers to his presence. Once they’re gone, Tony recovers only to find that he is the eternal prisoner of Mr. Todd, and is only being kept alive to continue to read Dickens. The end. I know, right?

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Fallout 3

fallout 3

Game * Bethesda Game Studios * Retro-Future Nukes! * 2008

Synopsis

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m nearing the end of my desire to play more Fallout games. At the very least, I am of the firm conviction that Bethesda needs to mix their shit up because I don’t know that I can do this again. Of course, almost as if to mock me, Fallout 76 was just announced and boy is that not the kind of game I’m into. Still. It’s Bethesda trying something new and different, opening up the kind of game they make, and the simultaneous announcement of both a new I.P. and a new Elder Scrolls in the somewhat distant future ensures that they’re not giving up on the massive single player experience. Which is what I like because who needs other humans? That said, my hope for those two new games is that they change up the formula. It’s not my place to tell them how to do that, but I just played through Fallout 3 again and boy, it was a lot more tedious than I remembered. Perhaps that’s because I basically played it the same was as I did ten years ago (!!!), and so the story played out basically the same way. I don’t think that’s it, though. I’m not sure what it is, so let’s figure it out.

Fallout 3, if you’re not familiar, is a game set 200-some-odd years after a nuclear apocalypse destroyed civilization. In other words, the exact kind of thing I like. You play the Vault Dweller, which is a character that you kinda-create. As ever, my character is a smart, sneaky, resourceful young woman named Jillian. The game begins with Jillian’s birth, which is the game’s clever way of choosing your starting stats and whatnot. You’re born in a Vault, a secure, self-contained underground location that survived the nuclear war. However, all is not well within the Vault. Your dad is a bit of a troublemaker, it seems, and is in conflict with the Overseer, who is desperate to keep the doors to the outside world closed and his power in effect. Well, the game truly begins when you discover that your dad has left and the Overseer is cracking down on dissent. Fallout 3 has a morality system, dubbed “Karma,” so you can basically choose how things play out from this point. Your bestie is the daughter of the Overseer and she wants to help you escape. Do so without violence, and she’s cool. Kill her dad and she’s less so. Regardless, if you want to continue with the game, you must leave the Vault and enter the Capital Wasteland.

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Grey: The Game. To be fair, there’s a little sickly yellow and beige as, like, accent colors.

In 2008, that was an incredible moment. Yes, it was basically the same moment as 2006’s Oblivion, in which your character emerges from a sewer into an enormous open world, but whatever. It’s impressive. Hell, it was still impressive last time out in Fallout 4. You step out of your hidey hole and there’s a lens flare and a huge world sprawled out before you. And of course as the player you know that thing is all for you to roam around in. It’s the “see that mountain you can walk there” moment, and it still has power. Here’s the thing, though: That moment is only as good as the world the game delivers. Relax, Fallout delivers an amazing world that I love, and in 2008 this game was fucking mind blowing. I mean, unless you’re a Fallout 1&2 purist and you’re mad that these games aren’t isometric tactics games, in which case the world has moved on and yo, those games still exist. Still, this last playthrough was instructive as to why Fallout 4 didn’t quite feel right. There is a lot of repetition in the world design, from the complete and utter lack of color to the look and feel of the various locations down to the seven songs on the radio.

Let’s just face it, this game is incredibly grey. Yes, I get it, it’s a nuclear wasteland. Still, both outside and inside, everything is just shades of grey. In all these years nobody has figured out how to paint, apparently. It gets wearisome after a time, especially when paired with some fairly dire navigational choices. Oh, you want to walk around downtown D.C. and explore? Well sucks to be you, because in order to get anywhere you have to travel in an endless array of subway tunnels that all look exactly the same. Nor are these tunnels clearly marked, hell no, you just dip in and trudge through them and pop back on the surface. If you’re lucky, you’re a little closer to where you want to go. More likely, you end up in the complete opposite direction, so it’s right back into the tunnel so you can look for the next identical tunnel to hopefully get you to where you want to go. It’s awful, and I remember hating it when I first played it. Eventually, though, you get to where you’re going and then Fallout 3 is cool again. Which is to say you can get back into the various storylines.

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The only character who matters.

Discussion

There might be a way to finish this article without sounding like a total Negative Nicolas, but it’s probably going to take another paragraph or two of pointed criticism, so we’ll see. This is because the mainline story just didn’t resonate all that much with me. There’s a couple of primary reasons for this. The first is, none of the characters are particularly deep or sympathetic. The game basically hopes you either have a good relationship with your father – or a terrible one – so that the narrative choices your character make resonate within the story. I guess? Look, it’s difficult to craft a story around a character which can run a gamut of actions. Since the moral center of the protagonist is uncertain, the writers have to attempt to figure out what that character is going to do in any given situation. Videogames have progressed a little since 2008, but this is still a tricky story writing issue in the medium. The best versions tend to have a ready-made character that the player can nudge one way or the other, like Captain Shepard in Mass Effect. In Fallout 3, however, most of the character creation is left to the player. And while I enjoy that freedom, the narrative structure suffers for it.

Luckily for the game and the player, then, there are more memorable stories and vignettes within the world of the Capital Wasteland to stumble across. The main story is whatever. It moves you through the world and introduces you to its post-apocalyptic factions and also Three Dog, who is dope. Yet by the end, after you discover your old man’s back story and what happened to your mother and whatnot, none of it really lands, largely because of the reason noted above. You can nobly sacrifice yourself for the betterment of humanity and tbthh, whatevs. However, try being evil for once and go in and nuke Megaton. Now, if you’re like me (and apparently the majority of players) I’m a ridiculous goody-goody when a game gives me a morality spectrum. Yet after I wrapped up my playthrough this go-around, I went back in, created a straight-up doughy serial killer, and set about being evil. I wiped out everyone I could in the starting Vault, then marched straight to Megaton, found that creepy weirdo who gives you the option of blowing up the town, and then did so straight away. And holy shit! You do that for no other reason than because some bored old man could have a laugh. I dunno, I appreciate that kind of chaotic evil from time to time. It was definitely more memorable than the good path, where you haul scrap metal to some goof so he can fix up the water system. Blah.

fallout 3-2

Just blow it all up.

There’s value to the good path, of course, as it is inherently fun to storm a slaver stronghold and wreck their entire shit up. Also, there are just a ton of flippin’ weirdos out there to find and deal with. All that grey has driven humanity to same strange and upsetting places, let me tell you what. There’s the Republic of Dave, in which some dude has convinced a handful of idiots that he’s some kind of king. There’s that one lady who is obsessed with Nuka-Cola like some kind of even-more-depressing-adult-Disney-weirdo. Also, vampires?! Anyway, the point is there are strange doins going on in the Capital Wasteland and it’s still fun to go and find them. That said, boy, the world still seems pretty sparse. If you look a filled-in map of the world it seems bewildering, but there were times I’d wander around for like an hour and only find a few radscorpions and the occasional boring raider-cave. And while the ritual murder of wasteland pirates is fun and all, the harsh level cap sucks some of that fun out.

I am always going to have a fondness for Fallout 3, regardless if the game itself isn’t as appealing as it may have been ten years ago. That’s fine. Sometime down the line I’m probably going to go back through New Vegas, which if I recall is a better game. It’s brown instead of grey. Regardless, it’s probably the apex of what Bethesda has done with this particular formula. There are ways to go about making a Fallout 5 (in like 2028) that take all the things I love about the concept and world and make it less of a drag. Honestly, Fallout 4 took care of some of the above issues. It’s more colorful, the world is more meaningfully dense, and the progression issues are mostly mitigated. Yet there’s still the roadblock of storytelling, and how to properly integrate a user-created protagonist into the game world. I might consider getting rid of a main quest storyline altogether and focus on a series of interconnected vignettes instead. I’m sure there are other solutions, assuming, of course, that Fallout 76 doesn’t just become the new template of Fallout games. It’s weird, but I’m not sure that would bum me out all that much. I’m a proponent of new ideas and new worlds, and it could very well be time for Fallout to just fade away.

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Winter

winter1

Novel * Marissa Meyer * Happy Large-Scale Atrocities Ever After * 2015

Synopsis

Since this is the fourth and final novel in this particular narrative, there’s very little point in protecting anyone from spoilers. If you are vested in these books, you’ve finished them. If not, you probably figured out that they’re not for you three books ago. Either way, there’s little to be gained in explaining what happened. That said, I think I’m fine with the ending. Obviously, from the very framing of these novels, the series could only end one way. If you base your stories on fairy tales and they don’t all live happily ever after, you’ve fucked up. No matter what happens over the course of the story, we know the good guys will prevail and the correct people will match up and evil will be vanquished, because that’s how fairy tales work. All manner of grisly shit can go down between the once upon a time and the happily ever after, of course, but we’re working within a framework here. However, we’re also working within a modern, sci-fi/fantasy framework as well, so in order for the happily ever after to work, it needs to be earned. Meyer succeeds in that, for the most part, and where she does not, it barely matters.

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Apparently nobody told the French cover designer that Winter isn’t a white girl.

Discussion

For the most part, I’ve quite enjoyed this series up until this novel, so you can imagine my consternation when the first couple hundred pages or so of Winter left me fairly cold. I’m not certain if it’s the pacing, or the backsliding into obnoxious young adult fiction romance tropes, or puzzling character choices, or if Winter’s character wasn’t quite up to par. Now that I write that all out, it’s clearly an amalgamation of those issues, none of which were negative enough to deter me from pushing through. It made me anxious, though, because one thing I’ve learned over the years is that closing a series out is hard. And when an author really biffs it, it can put a damper on what came before. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair to the preceding material, but while reading the beginning of Winter, I was legit worried. What if this was a Divergent situation? As it happens, it is not. Eventually the pacing picks up, the romantic relationships stabilize, and I finally got behind Winter as a character. Meyer gets there in the end, which is great because The Lunar Chronicles make for some excellent summer reading and now I can recommend them in good conscience.

Now that we’ve reached the end of the series, I can give you my definitive ranking for the principal characters. First, of course, is Cinder. She’s had the most time to be properly fleshed out, and her arc is fairly well-realized. I’m not sure if I mentioned it last time or not, but it bears repeating. Over the course of the four novels, Cinder has grown from someone whose default mode was to be as invisible as possible to a true leader. This growth has been subtle, which I really appreciate. There were scenes in Winter where I noticed that Cinder was just chirping out orders, without the internal waffling and uncertainty that had been haunting her ever since she realized that she’s royalty. When I noticed that I was both impressed with the writing and also kind of proud of this fictional character. Like, yeah, you got it. Leadership is “simply” the courage to make the best decisions you can and to stand by them, regardless of the outcome. When she fucks up, she owns it. When she succeeds, she gives credit where it’s due. By the end, Cinder has the conviction to do what she knows is right and in so doing wins over not just her crew, but her future subjects. Even on the precipice of failure, Cinder comes to her leadership honestly. When the day is finally won, she deserves her new role and approaches it as you’d expect.

After Cinder comes Cress, because I will always have a soft spot for the socially awkward making good despite having to overcome intense social anxiety. I know that Cress is extremely anime, and that her base characterization is probably the most well-worn trope, but whatever. I identify with that trope. Besides, I’m on record proclaiming that I don’t care how often a particular character type or plot device is used, so long as it’s done well. And Cress is great. She was instrumental in saving the day, she displayed deep courage and honesty, and she got her boy. What’s not to like? After Cress, Winter grew on me to the point of coming in third. Since she only really came along in the final book, she had the least amount of time to grow as a character. Despite that, she was generally fun to read. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the whole dissociative aspect of her personality, but Winter has her own offbeat sense of humor that I enjoy.

I never really came around on Scarlet. Look, she’s fine. Also, I understand that her character was M.I.A. for most of an entire novel, which really cut into her screen time. I was just so completely bored with her relationship with Wolf that I kind of checked out of most of her scenes. Her best moments were those shared with Winter, and quite honestly Winter carried most of those. Scarlet is just kind of… mad a lot. I get it, she’s a fiery redhead and whatnot, but that’s about as deep as she gets. Also, more so than the other ladies, Scarlet seems defined by her relationship with Wolf. As we’ve seen, Cinder’s growth is the most pronounced and Kai is just kind of in awe of her most of the time. As he should be. Meanwhile, Cress had a childlike crush on Thorne from the onset, but over the course of the last two books she grew as a character first, and then naturally won Thorne because of her radness. Most importantly, Cress didn’t change and grow because of the boy, she changed and grew because the situation demanded it and she had the internal strength to accommodate that situation. The boy was secondary. Winter had a preexisting relationship with Jacin, of course, and most of her story has to do with controlling her madness long enough to help overthrow Levana. By contrast, Scarlet and Wolf spent the vast majority of the series pining for each other because they’re immediately co-dependent. Which is not great.

The Lunar Chronicles are one long fairy tale, obviously, so we know from the onset that everyone lives happily ever after. That’s great! Especially since I thoroughly enjoyed the principal characters and I feel like they deserve their happiness. Everyone is in love, and of course despite being teenagers they will remain so forever and ever. So, our protagonists are happily paired off and are enjoying their new lives of freedom and responsibility. That’s all well and good, but let us not forget the horrifying state of the world. Like, these eight people get to live happily ever after, but what of the teeming masses?

Turns out society is still super racist against cyborgs, despite Kai restoring them to mostly-human status. Meanwhile, this plague is still sweeping through humanity, and it’s going to take a while to get the cure out to the masses. And guess who’s going to benefit from the cure first? Oh you know it’s rich people. Then, you’ve got the fallout from the Lunar regime change. Earthen society isn’t exactly going to openly embrace the people who spent the last however many weeks sending genetically engineered monsters randomly into cities to kill tens of thousands of people. Oh, and then you’ve got the Lunars, who are getting that mind-control chip in their skull whether they want it or not, also they’ve got a huge ideological change coming up with Cinder’s new regime. On the one hand I’m glad Meyer didn’t attempt to wrap all this up with a cute little bow at the end. On the other, it never really seemed like the narrative took the large-scale atrocities enacted under both societies particularly seriously. In the end it barely matters. This is a character driven story, and so the happily-ever-after remains satisfying… if you don’t think about it too hard.

Posted in Books, Government, Plague, Uncategorized, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment