Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on the Nominees

Yesterday saw the announcement of this year's Hugo nominations.  Usually I write an essay about the nominees and what state of the field they reflect, but these were announced just as I landed from a week-long trip to New York into several work and life obligations.  So instead, here's an itemized list of the reactions I had to the nominations when they were announced, not necessarily in the order I had them:
  • Happiness, at finally being able to announce that I am once again a nominee in the Best Fan Writer category.  Thank you very much to everyone who nominated me and to the award's administrators and staff, and congratulations to my fellow nominees, Mike Glyer, Natalie Luhrs, Foz Meadows, and Chuck Tingle.  But not Jeffro Johnson, because fuck anyone who willingly associates with a racist turd like Vox Day and tries to ride his coattails to an award they haven't earned.  Enjoy losing to No Award, my man.

  • Relief, because even though I was fairly certain that the puppy presence would be vastly reduced this year, there was always a chance that I would be wrong, and in the end I wasn't.  There are still puppy nominees in most categories--Alex Acks at Bookriot has a good roundup of which one is which--but in the major categories these are mostly things that would probably have been nominated anyway, such as China Miéville's This Census Taker in Best Novella, or Deadpool in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.  And because we've switched to six nominations in each category, and the puppies didn't manage to get more than one of their choices in each category, one can argue that we're getting the ballot we would have gotten under last year's rules, with the price of having to pay a small amount of attention to a bunch of whiny babies.  I don't know why Day's flying monkeys are so determined to keep up this silly game, in which the result is a foregone conclusion, but I guess people who choose to live such pathetic lives have twisted ideas of what counts as fun.

  • Pride, over the fact that several nominees whom I championed here made it onto the ballot.  It's likely that I didn't have that much of an effect--I was clearly not the only one who recognized how deserving The Vision, or Hidden Figures, were--but other nominees whom I've been stumping for for years, such as GigaNotoSaurus and Victo Ngai, have finally been nominated, and I'd like to believe that I played a small part in achieving that.

  • Frustration, because the puppies' ongoing presence on the ballot, even under extremely reduced circumstances, means that it continues to be impossible to talk about the nominees as their own thing, rather than a reaction to an attempted fascist takeover.  There's a lot to praise about this year's ballot, including the continued shift towards a more diverse slate of nominees, but in the short fiction categories in particular, the Hugo has once again thrown up a fairly middle-of-the-road selection.  Most of these stories aren't bad, but quite a few of them are meh, and it would be nice to once again be able to have a proper discussion of that.  Instead, we're all still in bunker mode, still cheering the fact that publishable fiction was nominated for the genre's most prestigious award, which increasingly seems like a low bar to clear.

  • Anger, at whatever abomination twitter has inflicted on their tweet threading mechanism.  Being on vacation last week, I missed the outrage over this when it was rolled out, but the limitations of the new system were made abundantly clear when I got tagged in multiple threads of more than a hundred participants each, with no ability to remove myself from them.  Until twitter comes to its senses, this is a good, brief primer on how to conduct conversations on the platform in a way that doesn't completely spam people's mentions.

  • Uncertainty, over the state of the three media categories, the two Best Dramatic Presentations and Best Graphic Story.  I think that all of these categories have delivered solid shortlists this year, with even a few surprises--it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the Hugo nominators would accept Hidden Figures's right to be on the ballot, and the fact that the hip hop group Clipping's concept album Splendor & Misery was nominated in the short form category is obviously delightful.  But overall, these are very predictable shortlists, and while that's not exactly a new development, it does make one wonder what their added value is, in terms of recognizing excellence in the field.

  • Hope, because now that Daveed Diggs is a Hugo nominee, perhaps he might be persuaded to come to Helsinki?  I say this, of course, in a public-minded spirit, and not at all because Diggs and I are both invited to the same Hugo nominee reception.

  • Deliberation, because now I have to decide what 2016 writing to put in my Hugo voter packet contribution.  If you have a preference, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Five Comments on Iron Fist

Marvel and Netflix's latest series dropped this past weekend, a week and a half after the pre-air reviews pretty much savaged it, calling it the partnership's (if not the MCU's) first complete dud.  What I found particularly damning about Iron Fist's reviews was their uniformity.  When one reviewer gives you a pan, you can blame the reviewer.  When a dozen reviewers give you pans that all make exactly the same criticisms--a dull and unsympathetic lead performance, an increasing emphasis on an unappealing villain, storylines that focus too much on boardroom shenanigans, lousy fight scenes--you've probably got a turkey on your hands.  Having watched the entire first season of Iron Fist, my only quibble with the reviewers is that most of the flaws they ascribe to the show were also present in the second season of Daredevil, which received generally favorable notices.  In fact, it's not so much that Iron Fist is worse than Daredevil's second season, as that it is more boring (it lacks, for example, a magnetic central performance in the vein of Jon Bernthal's Punisher), and this makes it easier to notice flaws that have been present in all of the Defenders shows, albeit taken to far greater extremes here.  The boring part means that the show doesn't really deserve a full review, but there are a few points about it that I thought were worth discussing.

  1. It is almost impossible to overstate how much of a drag Danny Rand himself is on this show.  To the extent that I strongly suspect that if you tweaked Danny but left everything else exactly as it was, Iron Fist would have gotten much kinder reviews.  In the show's first scene, a barefoot and bedraggled Danny (Finn Jones) arrives at the headquarters of his father's company, after a fifteen-year absence during which was presumed to have died in the plane crash that killed his parents, but in which he was actually training in the mystical city of K'un-Lun.  When he's refused entrance, he attacks and beats the guards who try to stop him, then makes his way to the executive floor where he accosts the grown-up children of his father's partner, Ward and Joy Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), insisting that he is their long-lost friend.  Later, he breaks into Joy's house (where he and his family used to live) and then boasts to her about it.  Later still, he steals Ward's car with Ward inside, and, after disarming Ward of his own gun, threatens him with it.  Through it all, Danny is increasingly affronted by the world's refusal to recognize him, and perceives that refusal as a flaw in the people he interacts with.  "You need to calm down," he condescendingly tells Ward after the latter orders him out of his office, and then later complains that "I have been met by nothing but anger and hostility."

    You can almost imagine how all these interactions might have worked in a show that was more willing to make Danny look vulnerable, misguided, or just plain wrong.  But it's clear throughout Iron Fist's first episode that we're meant to be on Danny's side, to feel that his behavior is reasonable and that it is the people who are refusing him who are being foolish and thus deserve everything he does to them.  What's worse, it's clear that Danny feels this way as well.  The show tries to spin him as an innocent who doesn't understand how invasive and creepy his behavior is, but--even leaving aside the fact that this is always the excuse offered when privileged men abuse their power over others--that is simply not how Jones plays the part.  His Danny is smugly certain of his right to other people's attention, and when that certainty is punctured, he slides almost directly into anger.

    You see this, in particular, in Danny's interactions with his new friends, dojo owner Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Defenders stalwart Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).  All of Danny's interactions with Colleen in Iron Fist's early episodes betray his conviction that he is entitled to her time and attention.  He repeatedly abuses her generosity--when she offers him a place to stay for the night but insists that he be gone in the morning, he instead wakes her up with loud music--and pushes against her clearly-stated boundaries.  In one particularly teeth-gnashing scene, he interrupts Colleen's lesson with Claire to take her out to lunch.  When Colleen points out that they made no plans and that she has prior commitments, he complains that "I ordered takeout"--actually, a full-course meal that he has had delivered to the dojo, complete with white tablecloth and waiters.  It's clear that Iron Fist's writers see this behavior as, at worst, clueless, and at best, sweet (and, eventually, romantic).  But it's a dynamic that constantly puts Colleen and Claire on their back feet, reacting to the rules Danny sets and never being allowed to set their own.  Later in the season, when Danny begins succumbing to PTSD from his unprocessed feelings over his parents' deaths, it falls to Colleen and Claire to baby him when he has outbursts of anger and even violence, and to reassure him that these reactions are not his fault.

    In the season's first episode, Danny is befriended by a homeless man, and after listening to his delusional ravings, muses that "I'm guessing people think we're pretty much alike".  Implicit in all of Danny's interactions in Iron Fist's first half, and in the show's constant validation of his sense of entitlement, is the belief that if people knew who he really was--the real Danny Rand, or the Iron Fist, defender of K'un-Lun--they would treat him differently.  But the truth is, most of the people who interact with Danny do see him for what he is: a pushy, arrogant, condescending man who feels entitled to their time and becomes hostile when they don't give it to him.  That Iron Fist fails to acknowledge this comes down to the show's misguided conviction that we will want to see Danny as a hero, and thus share his belief in his entitlement.  It does not seem to have occurred to the show's writers that Danny needs to earn his role as a hero, and that his behavior instead pushes him further and further away from it.

    Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the show's handling of the Iron Fist concept itself.  As Danny explains to Joy in the fourth episode, the Iron Fist is charged with the sacred duty of defending K'un-Lun from invaders.  In the same breath, he admits that he only wanted the job because no one thought that an outsider could be chosen for it.  But as soon as the passage between K'un-Lun and our reality opened (which only happens every fifteen years), Danny left his post.  The only justification the show can offer for this dereliction is to argue that Danny's PTSD and feelings of abandonment caused him to pursue the role of Iron Fist for the wrong reasons, but (leaving aside that it makes the monks who chose him for the job look pretty foolish) that excuse doesn't make things any better for the people Danny abandoned--especially since the end of the season reveals that in Danny's absence, some calamity has befallen K'un-Lun.  Once again, there are interesting things that could have been done with this--if Danny were introduced at the beginning of the season as a failure who needs to redeem himself for his betrayal of his duty.  But Iron Fist seems genuinely not to realize how bad it makes its main character look to have pursued a position of great responsibility and importance simply because everyone assumed he couldn't do it, and then, once he realized what it entailed, to abandon it at the first opportunity.  It still wants us to see Danny as a hero, and entitled to the role of Iron Fist, without him having to do any work to (re)earn it.

  2. Iron Fist is about wealth and capitalism in a way that has been largely obscured in the publicity surrounding it.  There's been a lot of conversation about Marvel's decision to cast a white man as Danny Rand, despite loud voices coming out of the fandom requesting that the character--who is, let's face it, a tired '80s trope that doesn't make a lot of sense as a superhero in 2017--be cast with an Asian actor.  Like a lot of people, I had assumed that the choice to ignore those voices was rooted, at least in part, in the desire to make Iron Fist a "plot" show rather than a "message" show like Jessica Jones or Luke Cage (to be clear, I think that this is a false dichotomy, but I could believe that the decision-makers at Marvel bought into it).  Instead, Iron Fist turns out to be just as politically blatant as the Defenders shows preceding it, albeit in the exact opposite direction.  Danny's position as a member of the 1% turns out to be just as important--if not more so--to his story as his martial arts skills and magical powers.  Once again, this does not mean that Danny could not have been cast with an Asian actor, but given the political slant of the show, I think the only thing that would have been accomplished by this would be to give an actor from an under-represented group a high-profile job.  The hopes of so much of fandom, that casting an Asian Danny would be a way for Marvel to grapple with its history of Orientalism and dismantle the "white kung-fu superhero" trope, would probably have been left unanswered, because that is not at all where Iron Fist places its thematic weight.

    The villains of Iron Fist are The Hand, a clandestine, all-powerful cult who have appeared in both seasons of Daredevil, to very little effect.  Led by the perpetually-smiling Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), the Hand have tendrils in both organized crime and the occult, and in Iron Fist it's revealed that they have co-opted Rand Corporation by offering Ward and Joy's father, Harold Meachum (David Wenham), a cure for his terminal cancer.  This means that a great deal of Iron Fist is spent in boardrooms, as the Meachums first try to prevent Danny from taking his place on the Rand board, and then act exasperated when he tries to take the company in a more ethical, and less profitable, direction.  But what at first seems like the show treading water before Danny discovers the Hand's presence at Rand, actually turns out to be the point of the exercise.  Iron Fist is seriously trying to argue that all it takes for a billion-dollar corporation to be ethical is for one boardmember with a controlling share to insist on approaches such as selling a new drug at cost.  In one particularly tone-deaf plotline, Rand is sued by people living near one of their chemical plants who have been experiencing abnormally high levels of cancer.  Rather than reveal that the plant is indeed poisoning the residents, the show instead offers the weirdly implausible conclusion that Rand have abided by all existing regulations, but that they may be poisoning the residents through a process not yet understood, or regulated by the law.  This gives Danny the opportunity to insist that the plant be closed nonetheless, but more importantly, it allows the show to paint Rand as innocent--a company that has followed all the rules and is being sued nonetheless.

    The significance of this becomes clear when the show reveals that the Hand is actually an umbrella term that encompasses several warring factions.  Opposing Gao's violent, drug-funded faction is a seemingly more peaceful one, led by a charismatic guru named Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez).  He introduces the Hand to Danny as a sort of benevolence association, who give a home and an education to disadvantaged children, and encourage them to go out into the world and take positions in public service.  One of the biggest twists of the season is the revelation that Colleen is a graduate of this program, Bakuto's own prize pupil, and that her dojo is a recruitment post.  Given the overt cult vibes that Bakuto and his compound give off, it's not surprising when this branch of the Hand also turns out to be sinister, but the terms in which Iron Fist couches this evil are telling.  This version of the Hand are the stereotypical evil Communist infiltrators, seemingly benign and concerned with the public good, but actually obsessed with obedience and conformity, and hard at work placing their operatives at every level of society.  When Colleen realizes she's been working for the wrong people and betrays the Hand to save Danny, her punishment is to be literally drained of her blood--which Bakuto describes as "giving to the Hand".

    In other words, Iron Fist is a story about an innocent corporation escaping from the clutches of an evil Communist plot.  And while Rand Corporation can be saved through the simple expedient of removing Harold Meachum and placing Danny and Ward at its head (Joy has, by this point, been seduced by the forces of evil), the Communist Hand can't be saved.  All of the good it does is corrupted by its ulterior motives, and with the exception of Colleen, its members are brainwashed, willing to turn on their former teacher and benefactor if their leader tells them to (the fact that the leadership of Rand is white and rich, while the Hand is carefully multiethnic and drawn from among the poor and working classes, only makes this conclusion more pointed).  It is, quite frankly, a bizarre turn of plot, and one that I'd like to see get more attention.

  3. Colleen Wing could--and should--have been the show's lead character.  That in the early episodes of the season Colleen ends up being more sympathetic and magnetic than Danny isn't terribly surprising--where he is a son of privilege who has run away from his obligations, she is a young woman with few advantages who has taken on obligations, to train and help the kids in her neighborhood.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Jessica Henwick has a great deal more presence than Finn Jones, as an actress and in her fight scenes.  She manages to sell lines like "you dishonor yourself when you fight for money" or "I stepped way outside the code of Bushido" where he doesn't, because her character always comes off as a person with a code that she believes in but nevertheless struggles to live up to.  Colleen's storyline in the season's first half involves participating in underground cage matches, which not only gives the show its only truly engaging fight scenes--there's a heft and energy to Henwick's fighting that is completely absent from Jones's underpowered attempts at it--but raises the suggestion that Colleen is fighting more because she likes the thrill of it than in order to keep her dojo afloat.

    What is surprising about all this is how closely Colleen's story follows the contours of a standard hero narrative.  All it would take is shunting Danny to the side for the show to be about her and her journey.  Even the revelation that she is working for the Hand--though it makes her anxiety about funding the dojo seem completely unfounded--could easily have been folded into this kind of story, with Colleen learning to see that the people who saved and trained her are actually evil, and striking out on her own.  It's such a blatant heroic journey that one can hardly believe it when the later episodes of the season sideline Colleen in favor of Danny's perspective on her, prioritizing the question of whether he can learn to trust her again, and whether their nascent romance can survive the trauma of learning about her deception, over her own path towards the side of good.

    There's a sense that Iron Fist is grasping towards an equivalence between Danny and Colleen, two young people raised and trained by rigid, dogmatic systems, taught to hate each other but forced to reconsider their prejudices when they actually encounter the enemy (especially since Ward and Joy Meachum, and Danny's friend and fellow acolyte from K'un-Lun, Davos (Sacha Dhawan), who follows him to New York, can also be said to be products of similar systems).  But this would require the show to have spent more time establishing what K'un-Lun is actually like, and less time demonizing Bakuto's faction of the Hand.  Most of all, it would require the show to place a great deal less emphasis on Danny, and turn Iron Fist into more of an ensemble show, and this is clearly not something the writers were interested in doing.

  4. The most interesting character dynamic in the show doesn't involve Danny at all.  In one late-episode scene, after removing Danny from a tense interaction between Harold, Ward, and Joy Meachum, Bakuto comments that "those people... are a pit of vipers.  You should thank me for getting you away from them".  He's right, but that's also why the scenes between the Meachums are consistently--and unexpectedly--the most entertaining thing about Iron Fist.  Though saved from cancer by the Hand, Harold is officially dead, and he's been prohibited from stepping foot outside of his lush penthouse, which he has decorated as nearly a parody of masculine obsessions.  This leaves Ward as his father's go-between, conveying his orders to the Rand board as if they were his own ideas, while an oblivious Joy takes him to be a business genius.

    The dynamic that develops between the three Meachums is thus deliciously twisted.  Ward--who is shown in flashbacks to Danny's childhood to have been a vicious bully--is hardly a sympathetic character, especially when he does things like send goons after Danny or loot the Rand employee pension fund.  But he's also the most self-aware character on the show, recognizing that his father is a monster, and that the path he's taking his family and company on is one of madness.  Ground down by his father's emotional and physical abuse, and lacking the strength to break away, Ward instead spirals into anxiety and drug abuse, which is a refreshingly realistic reaction to the kind of madness that tends to pervade in a Defenders show--not to mention a well-executed portrait of the toll of toxic masculinity.

    Joy, meanwhile, feels like White Feminism personified.  Smart and ambitious, and more than willing to play dirty--in order to close a deal, she manipulates the organ transplant list to help the nephew of a putative business partner; and when threatened with ouster from the Rand board, she coolly gathers sordid blackmail material on her enemies--she's nevertheless been allowed to think of herself as an innocent in all of Rand's dealings.  But Joy is smart enough to have known better, and even when she becomes an active participant in Harold's schemes, she refuses to see what's in front of her--for example, the fact that her father is murdering their opponents on Rand's board.  That there is nevertheless a great deal of love between the three Meachums--in particular between Joy and Ward, who despite their differences strongly support one another until their father comes between them--only makes the tangled family drama more fun to watch.

    The only problem with all this is that there's no place in it for Danny, or at least not Iron Fist's version of Danny.  The Meachums were Danny's second family before the plane crash that killed his parents and derailed his life, and after his return it's clear that he still romanticizes them and the chance to form a new family with them.  Playing on this desire in much the same way that he manipulates his own son, Harold very quickly suborns Danny and convinces him that he has been an unwilling dupe of the Hand.  But that is almost the extent of Danny's interactions with the Meachums.  He spends the season thinking that Harold is a victim--it's only right before the end that we discover, unsurprisingly, that Harold orchestrated Danny's fateful plane crash--and is not privy to Harold's abuse of Ward, or Ward and Joy's close bond and its corruption by secrets, or Joy's growing willingness to adopt her father's tactics.  When Danny finally catches a glimpse of the real Meachums near the end of the season, he's utterly befuddled, because the most interesting story in his own show has been happening largely without his input.

  5. You do not need to watch Iron Fist in order to understand the plot of The Defenders.  This is, obviously, mostly speculation, but Iron Fist is actually fairly self-contained in its storytelling.  Very little is left for The Defenders to resolve, and the only dangling thread that seems as if it might be relevant to that show's story is the fact that Bakuto's faction of the Hand has infiltrated much of New York's government and public services.  It's likely, however, that The Defenders will reintroduce this plot point in order to make its own storytelling work, so if you're planning to watch Iron Fist as a necessary stepping stone to the team-up event, don't bother.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Best Novel and Campbell Award

Well, here we are at last.  With a little more than a day left in the Hugo nominating period, it's time for the last two categories.  These are, in many ways, the big two (though possibly I'm giving the Campbell more cachet than it has for most voters--I just find it very interesting), but also the ones where it's tough to gather enough momentum to get interesting work on the ballot.  This year, for example, I'm taking it as a given that the Best Novel trophy belongs to Connie Willis, which, if you know my tastes, you can probably guess doesn't thrill me.  But though I wouldn't call 2016 a standout year for novel-length genre fiction, there were several very interesting and worthwhile works published this year, not to mention new authors that I'm sure will go to great things.

(I don't plan to nominate in the special category of Best Series, both because I find it poorly defined, and because I haven't read a lot of work that qualifies.  I suppose I could have nominated Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe sequence, but I didn't get around to reading Europe in Winter before the nominating deadline.)

(As usual, I relied for my Campbell nominations on the invaluable resource that is Writertopia's Campbell eligibility page.)

Previous posts in this series:


Best Novel:

Most years I complain about not reading enough recent books to nominate in this category, but I actually read quite a lot of 2016 genre novels.  Nevertheless, there are several books I wish I'd managed to finish before the nominating deadline--chiefly Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning, but also Emma Newman's After Atlas and Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Winter.

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman (review) - As I've said, this feels more like a Clarke award book than a Hugo award one, but nevertheless Alderman's chilling, Handmaid's Tale-esque story about a world in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot bolts of electricity from their bodies, upending the world's balance of violent potential, is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking works of science fiction I've read in some time.  What's most interesting about The Power is that while it is undeniably a book about gender and the role that violence plays in maintaining gender roles, that's not its main interest.  What Alderman is doing with her premise is using it to discuss the role that violence and the use of force play in organizing our society, even when we pretend to be beyond them.  That feels like a vital issue at this point in time.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - I wasn't as blown away by Lee's debut novel as some--under all its bells and whistles, the plot struck me as quite conventional, and the book feels hampered by being the first volume in a trilogy.  But none of that changes the fact that this is one of the most distinctive and fascinating space operas to emerge from a period that was already testing that genre's limits and capabilities.  Lee has been doing tremendous work in short fiction for years, but with Ninefox Gambit he synthesizes many of the ideas in those stories--most especially, the notion that math, and the basic axioms of your mathematical system, can be used as a weapon of war--into an effective and involving story of space battles and sieges.

  • The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar (review) - One of the best books I read in 2016, Samatar's sequel/companion to A Stranger in Olondria got less attention than that earlier book, but quite undeservedly.  It is, in many ways, a more conventional work than Olondria, one that plops the reader in the middle of a fantasy-world civil war.  But it's also, like the previous volume, an examination of its own genre, of the effect that writing and storifying can have on history and our understanding of it, of the uses to which empire puts those effects, and of the roles that women are allowed in such stories.  And, like so much of Samatar's work, it is beautifully written, set in an instantly winning world, and people with indelible characters.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (review) - It actually took me a little while to realize that Whitehead's exceptional, heart-wrenching novel about slavery was eligible for the Hugo, perhaps because of the gloss of respectability that attends a novel that has been so widely lauded.  But The Underground Railroad, which uses a fantasy premise to decouple American racism from any one period in time and sends its heroine on a journey through the different forms that it has taken over the centuries, is a genre work in almost exactly the same way as previous Hugo winner The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and like that novel it reveals the ways that genre can be used to make necessary observations about the state of the world today.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer:

  • Joseph Allen Hill - Hill wowed me with his novelette "The Venus Effect", which cannily examines genre tropes and which kind of people can end up being excluded from them.  He's also published other stories--"We'll Be Together Forever" from 2015 and "You Can't See It 'Til It's Finished" from 2016--which reveal an intriguing and unique voice, combining surrealist and metafictional elements with a quirky sense of humor.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Malka Older - Older's 2015 story "Tear Tracks" was an unexpected surprise that has lingered with me, and her debut novel Infomocracy more than lives up to the promise of that early work.  Nearly alone among writers imagining the near-future, Older focuses on the changing face of democracy, and on the role that information technology plays in those changes.  She writes about these topics with a clarity that is obviously rooted in a keen observation of the state of the world around--there is scarcely a bit of Infomocracy's worldbuilding that doesn't feel achingly relevant to our present moment.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Laurie Penny - Penny has been an outspoken and incisive feminist activist and non-fiction author for several years now, so it's kind of unfair for her to reveal that she's also a pretty good fiction writer.  Her novella Everything Belongs to the Future, and short story "Your Orisons May Be Recorded", reveal a good eye for details, a winning sense of humor, and a deft hand at combining politics with good fiction.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tade Thompson - Thompson's novel Rosewater--a fungus-based work of cyberpunk in the vein of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland--is a little more interesting for its worldbuilding than its story.  But the worldbuilding is indeed very interesting, describing a world in which aliens invaded several decades ago, and physically altered a portion of humanity, but no one really knows what to do about that.  Set in Nigeria and focusing on a ne'er-do-well "sensitive" who can access the "xenosphere" created by the presence of alien fungus on Earth, Rosewater combines politics and technology, imagining how the irretrievable alteration of the world looks from the parts of it that have come last in the old order.  Second year of eligibility.

  • Tamara Vardomskaya - Vardomskaya caught my attention this year with the novelette "Polyglossia", but when I went back to look I realized that I'd read and liked several other stories by her, including "Acrobatic Duality" from 2015, and "The Three Dancers of Gizari" from 2016.  In all of her work, she constructs fascinating fantasy worlds in which the focus is on art and creativity--and in which those forces are nevertheless vectors for politics, oppression, and conflict.  Second year of eligibility.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Media Categories

These are the categories that have the most color and make the most noise.  And they're usually the ones where I feel the most grounded when I come to nominate, but this year I actually managed to miss out on several movies that I wanted to consider for Best Dramatic Presentation--things like High Rise, Midnight Special, Kubo and the Two Strings, and even Zootopia.  Nevertheless, I'm pleased with how my nominations worked out this year--I tend to think of media as being the more generic arm of SFF, but the works I've nominated here are each so much their own thing that I'd hate to imagine my year without them.

Previous posts in this series:

Best Related Work:

This is the category that I always feel most guilty about not nominating more widely in.  There's a lot of great non-fiction being written in genre right now, on- and off-line, but since my threshold for substantiveness excludes most individual blog posts, I often end up with very little that I want to nominate here.  The solution, obviously, is to read more long-form non-fiction--UIP's Modern Masters of Science Fiction is a great source that I somehow never get around to--but happily this year has been a good one for long-form online essays and blog series.

(Not listed in this ballot, because he's asked people not to nominate it, but still very much worth reading and remembering, is Jonathan McCalmont's "Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird", which delves into the short half-life of this genre, and the critical conversation that surrounded it.)

  • A People's History of the Marvel Universe by Steven Attewell - The only criticism I can make of Attewell's series is that it seems to be on permanent hiatus, just when we could use an independent history of this corner of pop culture, told from a decidedly leftist perspective.  Attewell delves into the origins of several key Marvel characters and concepts, from Magneto's background as a Holocaust survivor, to the infamous "mutant metaphor".  He describes both the evolution of ideas we've come to take for granted, and the pitfalls the Marvel writers fell into as they tried to grapple with social upheaval and the need to reflect it in their world of heroes and villains.  With superheroes currently one of the dominant forms in our pop culture, a perspective like Attewell's is invaluable.

  • Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - the Legacy of Blakes 7 by Erin Horakova - One of the many remarkable things about Erin's essay is how accessible and thought-provoking it is even to someone like myself, who has been hearing about Blakes 7 for years, but has seen almost nothing of it.  This is by no means an introductory piece or a guide to newbies.  Its focus is specific, one might almost say deliberately fannish.  And yet, by turning her eye on some very particular aspects of the show, and the people who were instrumental in achieving them, Erin builds a larger argument about the intersection between art and politics, about the capacity of popular entertainment to grapple with difficult, even radical ideas, and about the specific circumstances on the set of Blakes 7 that allowed it to do so, and how modern work would struggle to achieve the same effect.  It's a brilliant piece of cultural commentary (as already acknowledged by the voters for the BSFA award's non-fiction category) and one that absolutely belongs on this year's Hugo ballot.

Best Graphic Story:

  • Clean Room (Volume 1: Immaculate Conception) by Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt - I didn't expect much from this series, which after all has a rather shopworn premise--spurred by the death of a loved one, an ordinary person begins investigating a secretive organization and falls through the trapdoor of reality.  But Simone executes this story incredibly well, starting with the organization at its center, a Scientology-esque cult that just happens to be humanity's last line of defense against body-snatching demons.  Davis-Hunt's artwork perfectly captures the horror of Simone's creatures, but the heart of this story is not the gore, but the two women at its center--plucky, no-nonsense journalist Chloe, and tough-as-nails cult leader Astrid, who quickly become fast frenemies, and allies in the war to come.

  • Paper Girls (Volume 1, Volume 2) by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang - Given all the excitement surrounding Stranger Things (which I have no doubt will be gracing this year's Best Dramatic Presentation nominations) it's a little surprising that Saga didn't use the Netflix juggernaut to promote Vaughan's new series, which tells a very similar story, but addresses the main complaint that a lot of fans had against it.  Paper Girls is Stranger Things starring four Barbs, the less-popular, slightly weird girls who just happen to be the only ones left standing when reality takes a break on one ordinary fall day in 1988.  In addition to being a weird science fiction mystery, it's also a story about the relationships between women--between friends, between the girls and their mothers, and, in the second volume, between one of the heroines and her future self.

  • Monsterss (Volume 1: Awakening) by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda - The story of Monstress is, frankly, a little on the familiar side--fantasy world, promised ones, looming apocalypses--but it's more than made up for by the richness of its world.  I've already written about Takeda's stunning art, but it would be nothing without Liu's work in building a complicated, multifaceted fantasy society divided between various races, castes, and guilds.  The fact that nearly every character in the story is a woman, and that disability is a common fact of life in the story's cruel, war-torn world, makes Monstress an interesting twist on its type, no matter how familiar.

  • My Life as a Background Slytherin by Emily McGovern - With her hilarious web-series, McGovern has done the seemingly impossible--found a new corner of humor in the seemingly exhausted field of Harry Potter fanfic and fan-art.  As the title indicates, the strip follows the adventures of Emily, a member of house Slytherin during the events of the Potter books (though background Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Gryffindor characters also make guest appearances).  It uses her perspective to poke fun at the book's characters, as well as the more questionable qualities of Hogwarts as an educational institution, and a house system that relegates a quarter of its students to the "evil" house at the age of eleven.

  • The Vision (Volume 1: Little Worse Than a Man, Volume 2: Little Better Than a Beast) by Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, and Michael Walsh - I've written about this comic several times already, including selecting it as one of the best books I read in 2016, so it's probably not a surprise to find it on this ballot.  But what feels particularly right about nominating King's run of The Vision for a Hugo is that, while most superhero stories are considered at least SF-adjacent, this is just a plain old science fiction story, about a robot who tries to be human, and the disastrous, tragic results that follow.  That the Vision is also a former superhero plays into the story (and allows King to make some interesting observations about the rights and duties of a person who has saved the Earth multiple times), but not as much as you might expect.  Walta and Walsh's art perfectly complements the chilling, compelling story, which manages to surprise you at every turn, even when you know how it's going to end.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (adapted by Russell T. Davies, directed by David Kerr) (review) - It might sound strange to say that Davies stages Shakespeare's play as an episode of Doctor Who, but that is exactly what he does, complete with a minimally-conceived yet surprisingly-coherent alternate world setting, a looming menace who seeks to stamp out freedom and creativity, and trickster figures who save the day by refusing to play by the rules.  The result is one of the best things Davies has done in a while, and one of the freshest approaches to the play I've ever seen.

  • Arrival (written by Eric Heisserer, directed by Denis Villeneuve) (review) - For all my reservations about the changes that Arrival makes to Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life", there's no denying that taken on its own, it's a powerful, moving film, one that proves that there is room and an audience for thoughtful, cerebral SF movies that center women, soft sciences, and emotional connections.

  • Deadpool (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, directed by Tim Miller) - I expect at least one MCU movie, if not two, to make it onto this year's ballot, but I'd much rather see a nomination for Deadpool.  Deeply imperfect and not nearly as funny as it clearly thinks it is, it is nevertheless the only superhero work from 2016 that recognizes the inherent ridiculousness, and fundamental flaws, of the concept, and treats it accordingly.  For that, it deserves to be rewarded.

  • Hidden Figures (written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, directed by Theodore Melfi) - I can't think of a movie that came out in 2016 that seems more calculated to appeal to Hugo voters, with their space program fannishness and love of everything that is geeky and science-y.  The fact that Hidden Figures sheds light on a part of the space program's history that had remained relatively unheralded for years makes it even more perfect for this category--it's about time Hugo voters gave these women their due along with everyone else.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form:

  • Black Mirror, "San Junipero" (written by Charlie Brooker, directed by Owen Harris) - There's been some discussion over what it means that the hands-down best episode of Black Mirror is also the one that abandons the show's trademark cynicism and brutality, and tells a sweet love story with a happy ending.  I think a better way of putting it is that "San Junipero" shows us Black Mirror at its best, as a show that imagines how technology can change us in ways that not everyone is ready for, and which are not seen as a universal good, but which can be embraced precisely by those people for whom the old system didn't always work--though the episode doesn't sensationalize it, it's no accident that the love story at its center is between two women (one of whom is bisexual, and spent years happily and faithfully married to a man).  Whether that's something the show wants to continue exploring is up to Brooker, but in the meantime, "San Junipero" is too fine an accomplishment not to recognize.  (Bubbling under is the episode "Nosedive", whose execution just gets more perfect the further I move away from it.  I don't think it's a coincidence that this story, too, is less bleak than the typical Black Mirror episode.)

  • Gravity Falls, "Weirdmageddon 3: Take Back the Falls" (written by Shion Takeuchi, Mark Rizzo, Jeff Rowe, Josh Weinstein, and Alex Hirsch, directed by Stephen Sandoval) - My last chance to get Hugo voters to recognize one of the best genre stories of the last few years.  "Weirdmageddon 3" is the final part of Gravity Falls's explosive and completely satisfying series finale, in which the titular town must ban together to defeat the incursion of Cthulhu-esque demons who plan to take over our reality.  It's an episode that gives all of the show's wide and wonderfully drawn cast of characters their moment to shine, and gives the evil villain Bill Cipher his well-deserved trouncing.  And it features the show's trademark weirdness and horror, both of which are achieved at a pitch that is astonishing in a work of children's entertainment.

  • Person of Interest, "The Day the World Went Away" (written by Andy Callahan and Melissa Scrivner-Love, directed by Fred Toye) - Person of Interest's final season was hit-and-miss, and I wasn't overjoyed by the neatness of its ending.  But in its best moments, such as this episode, it remained a show that challenged its audience to imagine how an all-powerful AI would see the world, and how such a creature could be a person without being in any way human.  "The Day the World Went Away" introduces some truly dizzying ideas about the meaning of life in a world in which we can all be modeled in a computer--"We're all simulations now", one character concludes, and therefore "we never die".  It's a reminder that at its best, Person of Interest was one of the most purely SFnal shows on TV.  (Bubbling under is the episode "6,741", which explores how an AI can play with, and even destroy, our perception of reality.  It's probably not a coincidence that the two standout episodes of the season are the ones that most heavily feature the Root/Shaw romance.)

  • Supergirl, "Falling" (written by Robert Rovner and Jessica Queller, directed by Larry Teng) - Supergirl has been extremely hit-and-miss, especially in its approach to political issues such as feminism or (in its current season) immigration.  But this first season episode shows off what the show can do when it gets its concepts just right.  It takes a well-worn comics trope, red kryptonite, and explores the true horror of its implications, for Kara herself as well as the people around her.  And it's an episode that dives straight into the show's feminist underpinnings, as going evil, for Kara, means trying on various "bad girl" personas modeled by the women in her life.  The result is a surprisingly resonant episode with a great deal to say about how women end up performing goodness and badness (it's no coincidence that every personality change Kara experiences comes with a wardrobe change), and how those roles can end up driving them literally insane.

  • The Good Place, "Pilot" (written by Michael Schur, directed by Drew Goddard) - I would have liked to nominate The Good Place's entire first season, but alas, the brilliant ending that takes a smart and interesting comedy and turns it into one of the most shocking and delightful series I've seen in a long time aired in 2017.  The show still deserves to be recognized by the Hugos, however, and the pilot is a good choice because of the way it lays out the show's fantasy worldbuilding.  The Good Place is a comedy whose laughs are derived in no small part from its ability to construct an internally consistent fantasy world, and the fact that it does this so well makes it one of the best genre shows of 2016.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories

The trait that most sets the categories in this post apart from the rest of the Hugo ballot is that there doesn't tend to be much movement here.  Magazines that do good work tend to keep doing it.  Writers who produce excellent criticism will (happily) keep writing.  So the excitement of ferreting out the year's best work, of happening across a new discovery, is a little muted here.  Especially in my case, since so many nominees in these categories that I've been stumping for for years have continued to be ignored by the greater nominating membership (in other words, what is it going to take for Victo Ngai to get a Best Professional Artist nomination?).  Nevertheless, this year's reading has reminded me that it is possible to be surprised even by venues and writers you thought you knew well, as I elaborate below.

(As usual, I've omitted the editor categories where I don't feel qualified to nominate, and Best Fancast, because I don't really care for podcasts.  I also relied a great deal on the Hugo Eligible Art tumblr, and on the Hugo Nominations Spreadsheet, for suggestions in the art categories.)

Previous posts in this series:


Best Semiprozine:

  • GigaNotoSaurus (editor: Rashida J. Smith) - I continue to be blown away by this how this small magazine consistently delivers excellent work in the most unassuming setting ever.  For a magazine that publishes only twelve stories in a year to constantly end up with multiple selections on my ballot (this year I have a novella and novelette selection from here) is a pretty impressive hit rate.

  • Lightspeed Magazine (editor-in-chief: John Joseph Adams) - Lightspeed surprised me this year by developing something I had learned not to look for in online short fiction magazines--a clear and strongly-felt editorial voice.  In a significant departure from previous years, the stories Lightspeed published in 2016 tended overwhelmingly to be science fiction, to be focused on near-future issues caused by the interaction of society and technology, and to be strongly political.  That's not necessarily how I'd like all my short fiction, but it's interesting to see one venue with such a distinctive focus.

  • Liminal Stories (editors: Shannon Peavey and Kelly Sandoval) - This is a new magazine, and I haven't completely plumbed its depths yet.  But what I've seen has impressed me--Joseph Allen Hill, whose "The Venus Effect" was such a wonderful surprise, had another, very interesting story here, "You Can't See it 'til it's Finished", and the rest of their roster is an interesting combination of familiar names and new ones.

  • Strange Horizons (editor-in-chief: Niall Harrison) - The mothership, and still one of the most ambitious and hardworking genre magazines out there.  Strange Horizons had a great 2016--a successful fund drive, finally transitioning to a new website, and setting up several important projects that'll be debuting throughout 2017.  And through it all, it continued to publish excellent fiction and non-fiction--it's not a coincidence that all but one of my Best Fan Writer nominees did some of their best work for this magazine.

Best Fanzine:

I'm on the verge of no longer nominating in this category.  I don't like the idea of nominating personal blogs here--with the existence of the Best Fan Writer category, and the fact that Best Related Work is increasingly being used to recognize individual blog posts or series, it seems like an unnecessary duplication--and there are few group blogs I might consider nominating that do not quickly cross the boundary into the Best Semiprozine category.  I'm going to nominate Ladybusiness and People of Color in European Art History, both of which continue to do good work in their chosen fields, but it's not a category I'm particularly invested in.

Best Professional Artist:

What I really want to do, though I can't quite justify it to myself, is nominate Mark Bryan, whose painting "The Nightmare" uses genre imagery to perfectly capture the horrors of the nascent Trump presidency.  But, apart from everything else, I'm pretty sure "The Nightmare" is a 2017 work, so I'll refrain, difficult as it will be.

  • Likhain - In 2016, Likhain continued to draw on Filipino influences to create truly unique and breathtaking art.  See, for example, her cover illustration for Zen Cho's novelette The Terracotta Bride.

  • Victo Ngai - Look, guys, this is getting ridiculous.  Ngai is on the verge of being so big that nominating her for a Hugo would almost be an insult, so the fact that the fandom can't get its act together to recognize an artist who has been getting commissions from Apple, Lincoln, and the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, who has been honored by Forbes as one of the top illustrators under 30, is more of a ding to us than to her.  We're lucky to still have Ngai creating works in the genre--this year, she contributed an illustration for Charlie Jane Ander's Tor.com story "Clover", and the cover designs for Nisi Shawl's Everfair and Kij Johnson's The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe.  But she won't be around forever, and we should recognize her while we can.

  • Yuko Shimizu - Shimizu, too, is an artist whom the Hugo voters have been sleeping on for far too long.  In 2016, her genre-related work includes this variant cover for Dark Horse's Firefly comic, and an illustration for Laurie Penny's story "Your Orisons May Be Recorded" at Tor.com.

  • Sana Takeda - I wasn't as blown away by Marjorie Liu's Monstress as a lot of people (though I did like it quite a bit).  But there's no denying that Takeda's artwork in that comic is stunning, and unlike anything that is being done in the field.  The lush, busy illustrations are what makes the world of Monstress real, and particularly their hints of the bizarre, such as the old, dead gods who float across the world's sky, to the inhabitants' general apathy.

  • Gabriel Hernandez Walta - The Vision was one of the most astonishing and thought-provoking comics I've ever read, and it could never have achieved its affect without Walta's artwork.  Deceptively realistic, Walta's careful attention to details, and his orderly panels, make the world that the Visions make their home in feel real, and then oppressive as the demands of normalcy turn out to be more than they can cope with.  When the story inevitably bursts into violence, Walta is right there to convey both the urgency of the action, and the horror of its aftermath.

Best Fan Artist:

  • Vesa Lehtimäki - Lehtimäki's Star Wars focused photo-series, which combines real locations, photoshopped spaceships, and Lego figurines, is utterly delightful and unique even in the rather busy field of Star Wars fan art.

  • Daniel Shaffer - Shaffer's deceptively simple illustrations feel like something out of a fairy tale, but also have a weight of weirdness that sets them apart.

  • Nuria Tamarit - What wins me over about Tamarit's illustration is the expression of her characters.  Even in the most fantastic situations, they seem exasperated, amused, or even bored.

  • Vacuumslayer - In 2016, vacuumslayer continued to manipulate stock images to create truly unusual, Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired images.  This one feels particularly pertinent.

  • Kathryn M. Weaver - Weaver's illustrations initially seem similar to a lot of fantasy-themed art, but slowly you notice the slightly off touches, the hints of weirdness, that give them their own personality.

Best Fan Writer:

  • Nina Allan - In 2016, Allan continued in her role as one of our top critics, a writer who knows how to keenly dissect a work by a popular author, and how to introduce readers to writers they'd never even heard of and make them sound completely enticing.  Perhaps her most important work from last year is her commentary on the Clarke Award shortlist, which eventually lead to her establishing the Shadow Clarke Jury.

  • Megan AM - Another writer I encountered while reviewing the Clarke shortlist (and who is also involved in the Shadow Clarke project).  Megan's commentary on the shortlisted books was incisive and insightful, and as I continued reading her during the rest of the year I discovered the kind of book blogger I'd thought was no longer to be found.  Happily, I was wrong.

  • Vajra Chandrasekera - Vajra went from strength to strength in 2016, writing short fiction, taking over as a fiction editor for Strange Horizons, and continuing to write reviews and even a column, Marginalia.  That column, in particular, is what I want to highlight here even though it was short-lived--it drew my attention to books I would never have heard about, and in a way that made them sound completely necessary.  But don't overlook Vajra's excellent reviews, for example of Nnedi Okorafor's Binti, or Victor LaValle's The Ballad of Black Tom.

  • Erin Horáková - Erin has been one of Strange Horizons's top critics for years, but 2016 was a banner year for her.  She published the magnificent essay "Boucher, Backbone, and Blake - the Legacy of Blakes 7" (currently nominated for the BSFA's nonfiction award), as well as several magnificent reviews--see, for example, this one of Steven Universe.  She also reignited her blog, where she published several important pieces--this review of Neil Gaiman's illustrated story The Sleeper and the Spindle is particularly sharp on Gaiman's appeal and how people who encountered him as teenagers in the 90s see him today.

  • Samira Nadkarni - You may, like me, have encountered Samira on twitter, where she is a delightful and insightful critic (check out her trenchant twitter-thread on the massive blind spots with how Captain America: Civil War constructs its geopolitical situation).  It's no surprise that Strange Horizons wanted her to write for them, and the results have been magnificent.  Her review of Shadowhunters remains one of the best dissections of the current state of genre TV I've ever read, and her non-review of the anthology Deserts of Fire is a stern but necessary denunciation of its project and the limitations of how it executed it.  For a more upbeat take, check out her delightful (and delighted) review of the Bollywood superhero movie A Flying Jatt.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

SF Column at The New Scientist

I've been sitting on this news for a while, and now it can be told: I'm writing a bi-monthly recent SF column for The New Scientist.  The first column is up here.  It discusses three recent and very different space operas: Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion, Joe M. McDermott's The Fortress at the End of Time, and Nnedi Okorafor's Binti: Home.

Writing in this style is going to be a bit of a challenge for me--I'm used to having space to spread out and indulge myself, and it's complicated to try to get at the essence of a book under more severe length restrictions.  Nevertheless, I've been inspired by several reviewers working in this format--N.K. Jemisin's column for the New York Times has, in particular, been a great example of how to use limited space to achieve a great deal--and I'm hoping to be able to emulate them.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Recent Movie Roundup 24

The deluge of 2016 Oscar films continues, which means that I'm still catching up with what this year's awards were about even though they've already been handed out (for the record, I am thrilled with this year's winner, especially since I, like everyone else including the people announcing it, thought that the best picture trophy would go to the pleasant but comparatively shallow La La Land).  At the same time, we're starting to see the first inklings of 2017's blockbuster movies, which normally would mean a roundup made up of a whole bunch of highbrow films and one or two lowbrow ones.  This year, the lowbrow films are aspiring to cultural significance--in fact, there's not much between Logan and Oscar nominee Hell or High Water, except that I think Logan is better.  We'll have to see how that plays out in the rest of the year.
  • Moonlight - It's hard to know how to begin writing about a work that left me feeling as excited and exhilarated as Barry Jenkins's second film, a three-part meditation on identity, masculinity, and connection that checks in on the life of Chiron, a gay black man from a poor Miami neighborhood, as a child (Alex Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a young man (Trevante Rhodes).  At each of these points, Chiron is taciturn and emotionally withheld, but also clearly yearning for love, and trying to work out how to be a person--and a man--in a world that doesn't seem to have a place for him.  He finds mentors and supportive figures, in the form of the local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his warm-hearted girlfriend Teresa (Jannelle Monáe), and develops feelings for his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland).  And he struggles with his mingled love and hate for his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris).  Underpinning this all is the question of what kind of man Chiron wants (and is capable of) becoming, and whether his environment's demands that he toughen up (especially in response to his sexuality, which is identified by almost everyone around him long before Chiron is ready to acknowledge it) are something that he can accommodate, or must give in to.

    Moonlight is a remarkably specific movie--Jenkins, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, upon whose play the film is based, are both natives of Liberty City, the neighborhood where most of the story takes place, and their mingled affection and clear-sighted view of its flaws help to create a powerful sense of place that grounds the film despite the fact that its storytelling shows us only snapshots of Chiron's life.  And Chiron himself is very clearly the product of a particular situation and set of circumstances.  He's not just gay, but also black and poor, and his identity is bound up in all of those labels and how they affect one another, as well as his family history and home town.  (In that sense, and several others, Moonlight reminded me a great deal of Donald Glover's Atlanta, another story about a young black man trying to make his way despite not answering to a particular, prescriptive form of masculinity, which repeatedly draws on the details of the neighborhood Glover grew up in.)  It's that specificity that gives the movie life, but it is also the quality that helps it feel so universal.  The heart of the film are conversations that Chiron has with Juan, Kevin, Teresa, and his mother, about the kind of life he wants to lead, how he sees the world, and his fears that it might be too late for him to change.  It's so unusual in pop culture to see depictions of men talking (and especially to one another) about their feelings, hopes, and fears, and especially with the honesty, vulnerability, and openness that they do in Moonlight, that the film becomes a template for what so much filmmaking should aspire to.

    It's perhaps because of this openness that Moonlight, despite its difficult subject matter, ends up being a remarkably hopeful, even joyful film.  Where other films about marginal characters in bad neighborhoods might try to shock us with those characters' humanity--this guy may be a drug dealer, but he's also kind to small children!--Moonlight starts from the assumption that that humanity exists.  The drug dealers, addicts, and criminals in this movie are full human beings, who have made bad choices (sometimes for understandable reasons, and sometimes less so), but whose lives are not encompassed in those choices.  They are also parents, children, friends, neighbors, and lovers, and the film holds out the hope that those relationships can help the characters make better lives for themselves (some of them do, and some don't).  The film's final act, which sees Chiron and Kevin reuniting as adults after a decade's separation, is a small but perfectly formed love story, in which the most miraculous thing that can happen to a person is to be seen and accepted for who they are.  That this miracle is handed to someone like Chiron, who in other movies might have been treated as beyond hope, is a huge part of what makes Moonlight so moving, and so important.

  • Hidden Figures - There is scarcely a single sports movie cliché that is not hit on with gusto in this movie about the black women whose calculations enabled the American space program to succeed.  Its beats are entirely predictable, right down to the minute, and if anything the film leans into its familiar structure and character arcs.  But Hidden Figures is nevertheless entirely winning and engaging, in no small part because of the trio of winning and engaging actresses at its heart--Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the mathematician whose launch and landing calculations enabled the Mercury and Apollo missions to succeed, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, one of NASA's first computer programmers, and Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, an aspiring engineer.  Another big reason for the film's success is how different and fascinating its subject matter is--this is not just a film about space, but about the mathematics of getting into space, and about the black women who were doing that mathematics.  Beyond how exciting it is to learn about this overlooked chapter of the history of the space program, it's genuinely infuriating that it wasn't more widely known until now.  (The biggest compliment I can pay to Hidden Figures, in fact, is that it inspired me to read the Margot Lee Shetterly book on which it was based, and learn more about these women and their work.  On my twitter feed, I had some more thoughts about the differences between the book and the movie, and storified them here.)

    One of the ways in which Hidden Figures bucks its sports movie structure, which ends up being its smartest and most rewarding choice, is in not choosing to focus on a single, remarkable individual.  Though the three heroines all grapple with similar obstacles of racism and sexism, each of their journeys is different, and informed by their different personalities--Katherine is geeky and slow to stand up for herself, Dorothy prefers to ask forgiveness than permission, and Mary openly defies authority and unfair regulations.  Hidden Figures also stresses the support that the three women give to each other, and the fact that they are part of a group of black female mathematicians, and of a community, whose pride in them and support of them are essential to their success (it's particularly fun to see the film treat Katherine and Mary's romances--with, respectively, Mahershala Ali and Aldis Hodge--in the same way that most movies like this treat female love interests; Ali and Hodge's job is to be charming and supportive, which they do incredibly well).  More mixed is the film's handling of its white characters.  It does a good job of depicting the complicated relationship between black and white women at NASA, which encompasses both hostility and support.  Kirsten Dunst plays Dorothy's supervisor, who clearly derives some satisfaction from having someone below her on the totem pole, and Kimberly Quinn plays the administrative assistant in the space group Katherine is assigned to, who quietly helps her navigate her new environment.  In both cases, this behavior is underplayed--Dunst isn't the villain of the piece, and Quinn isn't a hero; neither one of them goes through life thinking about black women, and both their nastiness and kindness are minor notes in the heroines' journeys.

    The white men that Katherine works with, however, are allowed to be major notes in the movie, whether it's Jim Parsons as an engineer who resents being shown up by Katherine, or Kevin Costner as a supervisor who recognizes her talent, and the absurdity of ignoring it because of her race.  Both of them are allowed to take up too much space in a story that should never have been about them, and particularly Costner, whose "good white guy" character was invented for the movie and feels more and more out of place as its story progresses.  Hidden Figures juxtaposes the journey into space with the struggle towards full opportunity and acceptance of African-Americans, making the dual point that, on the one hand, a society that aspires to go into space can't afford to hold on to backwards prejudices, and on the other hand, that the only way to achieve the impossible is to make use of everyone's talents, regardless of race or gender.  It's a shame, therefore, that it chooses to make this point by putting it in the mouth of a white man who never even existed, and whose character was clearly created in order to appease the kind of white audience who can't stand not seeing themselves at the center of a story.

  • Hell or High Water - Looking back at the dismal selection of movies delivered by the summer of 2016, it's easy to understand how David Mackenzie's spare crime drama, about two down-on-their-luck brothers who decide to rob banks in order to pay off the mortgage on their mother's farm, and the Texas Ranger who pursues them, ended up seeming like a breath of fresh air and a credible awards contender.  But one might have hoped that by the time January and Oscar nominating season had rolled around, cooler heads would have prevailed.  Hell or High Water is well made, and features strong performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the two robbers, and Jeff Bridges as the Ranger.  But it's also a thoroughly conventional and even slightly underwritten piece of filmmaking, not really any better or worse than several other crime stories set in the economically depressed American south from the last few years.  The story proceeds with very few surprises--indeed, with an almost depressing predictability; about ten minutes into the film, one identifies the character who is going to die tragically, who shuffles off precisely at the moment you think they will--and a lot of empty space that is not adequately filled by either the performances or the nicely-shot landscapes of open fields and dying towns.

    There are some grace notes--a brief scene in which Bridges and his partner (Gil Birmingham) are stopped in their pursuit by a herd of cattle fleeing a brush fire has a certain elegiac quality, and there's some wit in Birmingham's character, who is part Native American, observing that the white people who dispossessed his ancestors are now being driven off that same land by capitalism.  But like so much else about Hell or High Water, this economic message is watered-down and barely followed through.  The film never makes us feel sufficiently invested in the brothers' plight, but neither are they so foolish or short-sighted as to be interesting as a cautionary tale.  By the time the bodies start dropping because of their choices, it's hard not to simply check out of their story.  And while Bridges's turn as a soon-to-be-retired Ranger, well-versed in the wide variety of human folly, is very well done (the one case where I feel the film's Oscar nomination was deserved), it is also, like so much else about Hell or High Water, a pale imitation of better work--in this case, Tommy Lee Jones's very similar character in No Country for Old Men, whose ending is far bolder and more resonant than what Bridges gets.  Though entertaining, Hell or High Water feels patched together from pieces of better movies, and this makes its continuing presence in this year's awards races rather baffling.

  • Jackie - Pablo Larrain's film is a stunning achievement, at once a biopic and a meditation on politics, public image, celebrity, and legacy.  Natalie Portman is magnificent as the recently-widowed Jackie Kennedy, in a performance that could easily have come off as a cheap imitation but instead uses Jackie's antiquated accent and mannerisms to get at a deeper truth--that this was a woman who was, herself, constantly putting on a performance.  The film rests completely on Portman's shoulders, with the camera often trained closely on her face as she struggles to suppress an emotion, find the right tone to strike to get what she wants, or hold her own against the men who see her as an ornament, or an impediment to their plans.  The narratives switches back and forth, framed by three interviews--with a reporter (Billy Crudup) who comes to Jackie shortly after the assassination to discuss the lavish funeral she orchestrated for her husband; with a priest (John Hurt), some time after Kennedy's death; and with a news crew, during her 1962 televised tour of the white house.  Interspersed with all these are depictions of the minutes, hours, and days immediately after the assassination, as Jackie makes her way back from Dallas with Kennedy's body, plans her husband's funeral, and leaves the white house.  Through it all, the central question of the movie is: who is this woman, and what does she want?  What is the purpose of the grand display of grief she's planning for her husband?  Is she a vain fame-hound just looking for a few more moments in the public eye?  Is she a grieving widow trying to keep her husband alive for just a little longer, if only in the edifice she erects to mourn him?  Or is she a canny politician, who realizes that the funeral is her last chance to cement her husband's image in the public consciousness?  In one of the film's best scenes, Bobby Kennedy (a criminally overlooked Peter Sarsgaard) rails against the injustice of cutting short his brother's life before he could accomplish all he wanted.  But Jackie, listening silently, seems to realize that Kennedy's legacy is what she is at that moment creating: the image of hope, vigor, and promise which she is teaching the nation to mourn.

    It's easy to draw lines between Jackie and our current political moment.  On the one hand, the innate sense of service that permeates so many of the characters seems enviable, from our present situation.  Everyone in the movie recognizes the need to sublimate their own needs, and even their own grief, to the needs of the nation, and the fact that Kennedy's death does not belong solely to his family is accepted by all.  But at the same time, it's hard not to look at Jackie's projects as first lady--not just the funeral or the white house renovation, but making the presidency a sort of royal court, inviting artists to perform for the president and having grand parties in the residence--as the first steps towards the celebritization of the presidency.  One of the arguments the film makes is that a lot of the things we take for granted about how American presidents are treated, in life and death, were being invented in the Kennedy white house, and especially after the assassination.  That before Kennedy, the president was a public servant, and after him, he was something akin to a king.  The film is deeply ambivalent about the value of that--was the grand state funeral, as the reporter suggests to Jackie, a "spectacle", or was it, as he concedes later on, a necessary component of the nation's healing?  What this, as well as the scenes with Bobby, leave us to chew over is the question of what politics actually is--is it image, or action?  And is there really a difference between the two, given that so much work has to be put into projecting just the right image?

    For a film as smart and well-made as Jackie to have been locked out of this year's best picture race (not to mention Portman's loss in the best actress category to Emma Stone, whose performance in La La Land is perfectly fine but nowhere near the difficulty of what Portman accomplishes here), would be infuriating, if the film itself were not crafted, at least in part, as an explanation of why that sort of thing keeps happening.  Ultimately, Jackie's difficulties come down to the fact that we're not socialized to consume women's stories.  We either take it as a given that women don't have stories worth telling, or we see them as monstrous for trying to be at the center of a story--too ambitious, too vain, too flighty, too chilly, too emotional, too something.  The fact that none of the men around her can understand Jackie, that they keep trying to put labels on her that clearly don't fit, is directly linked to their inability to see her as their equal, as someone operating within the same sphere as them.  Jackie herself is alternately frustrated by this failure, and very savvy about using it to her advantage.  That audiences and critics similarly failed to grasp this film's importance and versatility, the way that, like its heroine, it uses our inability to put just one label on her as a way of disarming our expectations and prejudices, is equally frustrating and to be expected.  Nevertheless, even if the Academy failed to recognize Jackie's genius, there's no excuse for viewers doing the same.

  • Logan - It's been a little frustrating, watching the rapturous critical reactions to Logan pour in, all calling the film a great leap forward in superhero storytelling.  Not because Logan isn't a good film--it undeniably is.  But because the things that make it good have nothing to with revolutionizing superhero movies, but are rather (obviously deliberate) throwbacks to the Westerns of the 50s and the crime dramas of the 70s.  Logan is good because it takes a very simple, very straightforward story--in a near-future in which mutants are all but extinct, a physically-shattered Wolverine tends to a senile Charles Xavier, but is forced out of retirement by Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl who possesses the same powers as him and is being hunted down by the sinister corporation who created her--and tells it well, with careful attention to its characters, and some very bloody, vicious fight scenes that suit the bleakness of the film's premise and the desperation of its situation.  That this represents a revolutionary approach to superhero films is not actually untrue.  Superhero films have, for some time, been characterized by a "more is more" approach, piling on countless characters and relentless CGI to make up for slack, underwritten scripts; so Logan's relatively spare, and yet well-crafted, storytelling makes for a refreshing change.  But it is a little depressing to think that Logan breaks new ground simply by trying to be a good movie, and what's more, it gets in the way of appreciating Logan as a work of filmmaking in its own right.

    On that level, Logan is actually strongest in the moments where it embraces its inner X-Men movie.  For all its ups and downs, one of the most consistent strong points of this film series is its grasp on the relationships between its characters, in knowing which of them would like or dislike each other, and how they'd interact (compare that to the MCU's blithe insistence that all its good guys would get along famously, except for when the script requires them to fight).  Logan's bleak, nearly-hopeless tone could easily have come to seem like a gimmick--the equivalent of the 90s comics craze for "gritty" storytelling, which confused an emotional tone with a path towards some deeper philosophical truth (especially since we know that, right around the corner, there's another ensemble X-Men film coming that will no doubt return to the series's standard, more upbeat tone, and to the prevailing assumption of this genre that no story is worth telling if it doesn't hang the fate of the world in the balance).  That it doesn't is entirely down to the relationship between Logan and Charles, and the ad hoc family they form with Laura, a violent, taciturn ball of rage whose pure-id behavior clashes amusingly with the two older men's more experienced, damaged personalities.  Stewart, in particular, is excellent and heartbreaking as a once-great man made querulous and childish in his old age.  His relationship with Logan shifts back and forth between their old teacher-student bond, and a more intimate parent-child relationship, in which it's Logan who must realize that Charles's judgment can no longer be trusted, and that he needs to take on the parent role.  Logan's own character arc is less engaging, largely because it hasn't changed much in seventeen years, but these familiar character beats are revitalized by pitting him against Laura, in many ways his younger mirror.

    The one thing that Logan does bring to the superhero table is the film's background setting.  Logan is set in a near-future in which draconian restrictions on immigration, and the hostility towards immigrants that they promote, have become the norm.  In which American corporations set up sites in Mexico where they conduct unethical experiments, creating new mutants to be used as soldiers, because they can bully the local nurses and surrogate mothers into silence, and kill them if they refuse.  In which the working class is increasingly squeezed out of what little they've managed to carve out for themselves by giant corporations and their violent cronies.  None of these are the point of the movie, but the fact that the world has gotten crueler and more prone to exploiting the weak is what allows its story to happen, and it contributes to its characters' despair, their sense that they've failed as heroes and activists.  This is finally an X-Men movie that recognizes that there are more axes of oppression than anti-mutant prejudice, and that white, middle-to-upper class men like Logan and Charles can't be expected to stand in for all of them--which makes it all the more important that Laura, and the other young mutants she eventually joins forces with, are almost all POCs.  Because Logan tells such a small story, in which victory consists of saving just one girl, it can acknowledge that the world's ills are too great for any one person to solve, even if they have mutant powers, and this allows the movie to be a lot more honest about what those ills are than most works in this genre.  I'd like to believe that at least one of the lessons Hollywood will learn from Logan is to take a more realistic view of the world's problems, but I suspect what we're actually going to get is a slew of R-rated superhero movies starring pre-pubescent, barely-verbal action heroines.