Friday, February 05, 2016

E-Books Galore

When I promised to start making ebooks of some of the posts in this blog's (gulp) ten-year-old archives, I thought I'd get on that in a few weeks.  Six months later, I've finally done it!  the E-Books tab has been updated with three new collections: the series Back Through the Wormhole and Let's See What's Out There, in which I reflected on the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, and Austen and Friends, a collection of my reviews of Jane Austen's novels and other related books.  All three ebooks are available in epub and mobi formats.

Please let me know if there are formatting issues or problems downloading any of the ebooks, and if you have comments on the contents.  It was an interesting experience, going back to my old writing to edit and format it for these collections.  In some cases, posts that I wrote ten years ago, when I was still working out what I wanted this blog to be, still resonated with me.  In other instances, things that I wrote just a few years ago struck me as misguided.  I've made some alterations to the original texts where I felt that they were making points that I genuinely couldn't stand by anymore, but mostly I've left them as they were, as a testament to how I used to think, and how I hope I've grown as a writer.

If you have any ideas about what subject should be collected next, I'd love to hear them, though maybe this time I shouldn't promise to be too swift about it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Review: The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the second and third books in Ayize Jama-Everett's Liminal People series.  This was one of those cases where a book comes to you just when you need it the most.  As they've slowly taken over popular culture, I've found myself growing increasingly impatient with superhero stories, and with how the ones that show up on our screens choose to handle politics (see, for example, this series of tweets from last night in which I try to sum up my frustrations with the seemingly endless barrage of superhero shows and their messed-up politics).  It's been particularly frustrating watching what is, by now, the dominant genre in pop culture carefully and studiously avoid anything like a real engagement with issues of social justice.  For all that they claim otherwise, superheroes are about preserving the status quo, and that usually means siding with those in power, not those whom they oppress.

So Jama-Everett's books, in which opposing--and trying to dismantle--the status quo lies at the core of most of his superhero characters' stories, were just what the doctor ordered.  And as if that were not enough, most of the superhero characters in these books are people of color, and people whose ethnic and cultural heritage is central to their identity and to how they see the world, which is also something that mainstream superhero stories don't do enough of.  I might not have like these books as much if I'd read them five years ago, but I'm extremely glad that they exist now, and if you're like me and are finding the glut of reactionary superhero stories oppressive, I heartily recommend these books as an antidote.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: A Few Thoughts as Nominations Open

On Wednesday, the good folks at MidAmericon II announced the beginning of the nominating period for the 2016 Hugo awards, which will run until March 31st.  If you're like me, you've maybe been treasuring the period of relative peace and quiet since last year's Hugos were announced at the end of August, and are a little hesitant to launch yourself back into the conversation that surrounds these awards--which may, or may not, end up as fraught and starkly political as it was last year.  Let us, however, try to remember that nominating and voting for the Hugos can--and should--be fun, a way of discovering and discussing what was excellent and worth recognizing in last year's genre conversation.  To that end, here are a few points of order, and pointers, for those of you thinking of, or planning to, nominate in the Hugos.



First, a note on eligibility.  You are eligible to nominate for the 2016 Hugo awards if you are
  • An attending or supporting member of Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon in Spokane, Washington.

  • An attending or supporting member of MidAmericon II, the 2016 Worldcon in Kansas City, Missouri, and became so by January 31st, 2016.

  • An attending or supporting member of Worldcon 75, the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, Finland, and became so by January 31st, 2016.  Note: if you voted in the site selection ballot for the 2017 Worldcon, which was held last summer at Sasquan, your voting fee was automatically converted into a supporting membership of the 2017 Worldcon, regardless of who you voted for.  You should already have received an email from the Worldcon 75 administrators informing you of your membership and asking your permission to pass on your contact details to the MidAmericon award administrators.
MidAmericon has started sending out emails to all eligible nominators containing their membership number and PIN, which will allow you to nominate online.  If you think you're eligible to nominate this year and haven't received a PIN by February 5th, you can query at hugopin@midamericon2.org.

Note that only members of MidAmericon itself will be eligible to vote on the final winners of the 2016 Hugos.  That, however, is down the line.  If you like (or hate) how the nominations shake out and feel that you want to vote on the winners, you can buy a supporting membership in the convention after they're announced, which will give you voting rights.



The announcement that Hugo nominations are open (as well as the nominating periods for several other awards, such as the BSFA and the Nebula) is usually accompanied by authors putting up "award eligibility posts," followed by a discussion of whether this is a good thing or whether it makes the entire process into a PR effort.  I've already said my piece on this subject, so at the present I'll just repeat what feels to me like the most important point from that essay, which is that my problem with award eligibility posts is less that they're crass and commercialized, and more that for their stated purpose, they are utterly useless.  I don't want to trawl through an author's blog history to find the list of works they published last year.  What I want is a bibliography--easily found, up-to-date, and ideally sorted by publication date and containing links to works that are available online or for purchase as ebooks.  If you haven't got one of those on your website, I have to question how seriously you want my vote.


As I've done in previous years, I'll be posting my own Hugo ballot closer to the end of the nominations period, probably near the beginning or middle of March.  In the meantime, if you've found yourselves overwhelmed by the wealth of material available, or are struggling to figure out who to nominate in out-of-the-way categories like Best Related Work or Best Fan Artist, there are several excellent resources that can help you narrow (or widen) your search.  Note that most of these are likely to be updated continuously throughout the nominating period.
  • The 2016 Hugo Nominees Wikia is still in its infancy, but is a good place to start looking for ideas.

  • For the second year in a row, the good folks at Ladybusiness are maintaining a Hugo recommendations spreadsheet, which you can read and edit.

  • The contributors at the blog Nerds of a Feather have aggregated their ballots into a Hugo "longlist," with lots of links to the stuff available online.  You can find their suggestions in four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4).

  • The Hugo Eligible Art tumblr has been a little quiet recently, and especially for someone like myself, who struggles to find nominees in the Best Fan Artist category, I hope they emerge from slumber soon.  At any rate, I'd be interested in having a longer conversation about what constitutes a fan artist, and what kind of work we'd like to see nominated for a Hugo, out of all the wide world of fan art available online.

  • Writertopia's Campbell Eligiblity Page is still the best resource for finding nominees for this award, which recognizes new writers in the field.

  • Finally, with both the BSFA and Nebula awards seeking nominations at the same time as the Hugos are, there are resources related to those two awards that are also useful for Hugo nominators.  The BSFA have, for the first time, introduced a longlist stage into their nominations process.  You can find the longlist in this google doc, including links to works available online.   The members of the SFWA, meanwhile, are maintaining a "suggested reading list" for the Nebula award, which may also be of interest.



I said this already after last year's Hugo results were announced, but we are in a unique position this year.  In 2015, thousands of people showed up to decisively make the point that the Hugos belong not to an embittered cluster who call the award illegitimate if it recognizes work they don't care for, but to anyone who shows up.  All of those people now have nominating rights, and they could have a tremendous effect on how this year's award looks--if they choose to show up again.  Next year, the Hugos will probably change again, as the anti-slate measures approved in last year's business meeting take effect (assuming they're ratified in this year's meeting, which they probably will be).  So this year we're on the cusp, which is where interesting things often happen.  If you have nominating rights for this year's Hugos, please consider using them, even if only on a few categories, and even if you don't feel that knowledgeable.  The whole point of the Hugos is to reflect fandom in all its many forms.  Let's see if we can make that happen.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 2

It took ten days (all year!) but I'm finally done with the backlog of TV that I let build up over December while I was busy with other things.  And once again, all of these shows, good and bad, are infinitely more interesting than what the networks were cranking out in the fall.  Though it must be said that along with these miniseries and SyFy series, I also watched several network pilots--such as The Colony, Second Chance, and Angel From Hell--that were just as conventional as the now-cancelled dreck they're replacing, and once again not worth talking about.  Is it simply time to give up on the networks producing worthwhile, interesting TV?  Happily, even if that's the case, we still have plenty of other venues supplying us with new shows to discuss.
  • Tripped - This cute but inessential Channel 4 series feels like a cross between Sliders and The Wrong Mans.  It follows the by-now extremely familiar template of two lifelong friends, one an unrepentant slacker happy to wallow in eternal manchildhood, the other struggling towards something that resembles adulthood through the simple expedient of latching onto a loving but long-suffering woman, who are whisked off on an adventure.  In this case, deadbeat Milo (George Webster) is stunned when a bearded, sword-wielding version of his newly-engaged best friend Danny (Blake Harrison) appears in his bedroom telling him that all versions of themselves in all alternate universes are being hunted by a mysterious villain, who promptly appears and attacks both of them.  Actually, Milo isn't that stunned, because he was epically high at the time.  But when the buzz wears off and there's still a dead body in his bedroom, he quickly finds Danny and the two end up bouncing from one universe to another, trying to survive and figure out why they're being hunted.

    There are some original touches in Tripped--the reason for Milo and Danny's predicament turns out to be cleverer than expected; there's a nice touch when it's revealed that Milo, whom Danny sees as an albatross around his neck keeping him from growing up, is actually a positive influence on him, and that in all universes in which the two weren't friends Danny became a selfish, villainous person; and also it's nice that the show at least tries to give Danny's fiancée Kate (Georgina Campbell) a bigger role than such stories usually do, and more of a personality than the humorless nag who just wants her man to grow up and settle down.  But in the end, this is a very familiar type of story that doesn't deviate from its predictable template, in which Milo and Danny constantly teeter on the verge of annihilation, only to win through with a combination of dumb luck, unexpectedly useful skills, and the strength of their friendship.  If this is the sort of thing you like, then Tripped is a pretty good example of the genre (and the fact that the season only spans four half-hour episodes keeps it from overstaying its welcome).  But one can't help but wish that this genre was a little less popular and evergreen, or that somebody might make some twists to it like--gasp!--telling this same story about a pair of female friends.

  • London Spy - In the opening moments of this miniseries, Danny (Ben Whishaw), an aimless young man with a complicated personal and sexual history, meets and falls head-over-heels in love with Alex (Edward Holcroft), a mysterious, naive, and emotionally repressed genius.  The two embark on what seems like a storybook romance, only slightly hampered by Alex's obvious secretiveness, and the fact that so little of what he tells Danny about his life makes sense.  When Alex disappears and is later found dead in what looks like an S&M adventure gone wrong, Danny is the only one who believes that there's more to the story.  Aided by his friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent), he embarks on an investigation into Alex's life and history that quickly draws to him the attention of extremely powerful, dangerous organizations.

    There's a lot to like about London Spy, and a lot to dislike.  At the most basic level, the fact that this very familiar, very common type of spy thriller (the whole thing reminded me very strongly of The Constant Gardener) is being told with a central love story between two men--and in which the love story is both swooningly romantic and unabashedly sexual--is something to celebrate.  The best version of this miniseries is the one in which Danny tries to work through his grief and lingering feelings of anger and betrayal, finally coming to the realization that he can still love Alex even though he didn't really know him, and that he can forgive Alex's secrets and lies--that these, in fact, do not change how important a role Danny played in Alex's life.  It's also really interesting and rewarding that the show does so much with the fact of Danny, Alex, and Scottie being gay, and with how their sexual histories and proclivities affect how they're seen by the supposedly liberal society around them.  It's a sweet and beautiful touch, for example, that Danny's initial realization that the version of Alex being presented to him by the people who orchestrated his death is a fake comes from his certain knowledge that Alex was a virgin when they met, and that this knowledge allows him to see through so many of the lies he's told about Alex over the course of the miniseries (though this also has the, I hope unintentional, effect of treating kink and S&M as inherently seedy and unromantic, as opposed to Danny and Alex's "pure" sex life).  In another scene, Scottie, a high-ranking civil servant, is outraged when Danny treats him as part of the establishment, pointing out that he has been distrusted and shunted aside for decades because of his orientation, the suppression of which has left him without a personal life and family.

    But while the romantic melodrama aspects of London Spy work really well, the spy story is equal parts turgid and ridiculous.  The mini builds up the awesomeness of the forces arrayed against Danny, which systematically break down and destroy his life when he refuses to give up his investigation into Alex's murder, until we can be in no doubt that whatever Alex discovered must have been enormously important and dangerous.  But technothrillers of London Spy's ilk rarely deliver on that kind of promise, because they're not really interested in the implications of the McGuffin they posit.  So that when the mini starts to talk about algorithms and super-smart internet data mining, it's hard not to let your eyes glaze over, because it clearly isn't taking this any more seriously than we are.  (Over at Strange Horizons's year in review piece, Dan Hartland briefly suggests that London Spy can be read as SF because of the fantasticness of Alex's discovery, but to me this seems unconvincing.)  Even worse, nothing changes after Danny realizes what Alex left for him to discover, and he continues in the same passive-aggressive game of one-upmanship with forces that, realistically, should already have disposed of him once he refused to back down.  London Spy doesn't really know how to end its story, and instead ends up repeating the same beats again and again--another assault that strips away one of the few things Danny still cares about while leaving him still standing, another attempt to prove to him that Alex wasn't who he thought he was.  By the time it cobbles together an ending, in which Danny decides that he must continue to try to expose Alex's murder no matter the hopelessness of that cause and the surely disastrous consequences to himself, the winding path we've taken to get there makes it feel less like a climax and more like another step on a samey path.  London Spy wants to be a tragic love story, about a man who is willing burn himself up just to prove how much he loved someone who, in life, never really knew this.  The performances, particularly by Whishaw, are strong enough to carry this kind of story, but the bitty, repetitive, and ultimately unconvincing plot lets it down.

  • The Magicians - As regular readers of this blog know, I genuinely disliked Lev Grossman's bestselling novel, on which this new SyFy series is based.  I found it to be an unnecessary, indulgent celebration of a self-pitying child of privilege, who seemed genuinely injured by the world's failure to simply hand him a sense of purpose and a life-long adventure.  So if you'd told me, going into the first episode of The Magicians, that it takes profound liberties with its source material, I probably would have been pleased.  The problem is that the things I disliked about Grossman's novel are clearly not the things that the showrunners of The Magicians saw as flaws, while the things that worked about the novel are the ones they seem to have been most eager to get rid of.  I never had any problems with Grossman's core project with The Magicians--to dismantle the central trope of portal fantasy, in which a single (usually white and male) Chosen One must defeat an ancient evil, and in which crossing over to a world that has magic immediately makes one's life brighter and more meaningful.  My problem was rather that Grossman wrote as if no one before him had had this idea, when in fact there have been dozens of fantasy writers who have explored it, most of them with a great deal more intelligence and nuance than Grossman showed.  (M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, for example, makes The Magicians look like the children's novels it claims to be deconstructing, not least because it lacks its fawning British-philia and overpowering, embarrassing undertone of class envy.)  The Magicians, the show, serves these tropes straight up.  Its Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a callow, upper-middle-class young man who is offered a place at Brakebills, a university of magic, actually is the Chosen One, and there actually is an ancient evil that he needs to defeat.  Honestly, what was the point?

    It's possible that later episodes will move the show back into alignment with the novel, but there's a lot about the pilot that makes me reluctant to stick around and find out.  The novel, which was locked into Quentin's self-pitying, depressed point of view, at least implied that his perspective was an unreliable one.  The show seems to expect us to take his sense of himself as an underdog seriously.  You see this most especially in the character of Penny, a future villain (Arjun Gupta), who in the novel is the uber-geek to Quentin's cool, lovable geek, turning their shared love of the Narnia-esque children's series Fillory into something joyless and possessive.  In the show, Penny is a tattooed, musclebound jock who always has a hot girl draped over him, and who looms over Quentin, mocking his nerdy literary tastes, the better to validate Quentin's persecution complex.  (The fact that the show also changes Penny's race from white to Indian has implications that I don't think anyone involved with it has realized.)  Add to this a scene in which Quentin's friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who was rejected from Brakebills, is recruited into an underground magical circle by a sinister figure who threatens to rape her in order to expose her latent magical powers (he later says that he never "really" meant to rape her, as if this makes an actual difference), and I really don't feel compelled to give The Magicians a second chance.

  • The Expanse - All due respect to Childhood's End and The Magicians, but The Expanse was the show that SyFy was banking on to jumpstart its moribund genre credentials and reestablish it as a channel for people who like science fiction.  And having watched the first half of the season, it's easy to see why.  This is meat-and-potatoes space opera with a slick, obviously costly appearance and a setting that offers huge scope for interesting storytelling.  In an unspecified future, Earth and a partially-terraformed Mars are vying for control of the asteroid belt and its resources, while the space-born miners who supply both planets with the means for their advancement feel oppressed by planets they could never survive on.  The series kicks off with a crooked cop on Ceres stations (Thomas Jane) being hired to find a missing heiress who has involved herself with separatists from the asteroid belt, and an ice-mining freighter investigating a distress signal that turns out to be a trap, which leaves only a handful of survivors to discover why their ship was destroyed and their friends killed.  Back on Earth, a ruthless politician (Shohreh Aghdashloo) fears that the cold war between Earth and Mars is about to heat up, and is willing to do anything to prevent this, or at least make sure Earth has the upper hand.

    My one real problem with The Expanse is actually less with the show and more with the PR and hype that have surrounded it.  SyFy clearly wants this to be their new Battlestar Galactica, and have thus stressed the political aspect of the story.  But though the show's worldbuilding is really interesting--some of the best scenes involve minor characters expressing how the people of Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt see each other, the resentments and prejudices that have built up between them--what it does with this world is thoroughly conventional (and, as much as I ended up resenting its desperate bid for political relevance, doesn't even come close to the sophistication and depth of Galactica's storytelling).  Except for how much more expensive it is (which is to say, better looking and peopled with better actors) it's hard to see what makes The Expanse so much better than Dark Matter and Killjoys, the low-rent, decidedly cheesy but slightly more fun space operas that SyFy aired last summer.

    Certainly when it comes to playing games with gender and sexuality, The Expanse falls way behind those two shows, Killjoys in particular.  The two male leads who drive its more propulsive storylines are so boringly familiar that they might as well be placeholders, and both of them are driven by motivations that treat women as means to an end--the leader of the ice-freighter survivors wants revenge for his murdered girlfriend, and the detective has become obsessed with the femme fatale he's searching for, who exists only as an idealized image in his mind.  Meanwhile, the more interesting women around both characters--a crewmember on the spacer's ship who is curiously overqualified for the job and might have a checkered past, and the detective's captain and fellow officer--get shunted off to the side, even as secondary plotlines include such stories as a principled cop who becomes infatuated with a kindhearted prostitute.  (Aghdashloo is obviously the glaring exception to the predictable, constrained roles that The Expanse gives women, but of the three main characters she's the one who is forced to be the most passive, to observe and plot where the spacer and detective get to fight and work their way towards plot developments.)  There's still a lot to enjoy and keep watching for in The Expanse, but its vision of the future is ultimately hidebound--we haven't even mentioned the show's assumption that the disaffected workers on the asteroid belt exist in a binary state, either downtrodden victims or terrorists; the word "union" is never mentioned, possibly because nobody involved with the show realizes that it's an option, and of course the possibility that societies in space might organize themselves along principles that differ from 21st century capitalism is never considered.  Which means that, fun as it is, The Expanse's claims to be the next big thing in televized SF should be taken with a grain of salt.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 1

I didn't write anything about the fall TV season this (last) year, because frankly, it was too dismal and boring to write anything about, and anything I could have said would have just joined the chorus of thinkpieces lamenting the networks' inability to produce anything resembling worthwhile new shows.  But here we are in winter, with the network shows on break or just coming out of it, and suddenly we've been inundated with a whole gaggle of interesting, ambitious projects that remind us of what the medium is capable of.  I didn't love all of the works I'm about to review--in fact I genuinely disliked some of them--but at least they gave me something to write about, which is more than can be said for the raft of samey procedurals and unfunny comedies we were slogging through in the fall.
  • And Then There Were None - My first reaction when I heard that the BBC was planning a new adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel was to wonder why anyone would bother.  I read the novel as a teenager, and I remember it being clever but mechanical, and rather awkward in delivering a final twist that, I felt certain, everyone must know by now (as this highly scientific poll reveals, it's actually more like a 50/50 split).  Once you knew the twist, I thought, going through the motions of watching the ten strangers gathered together on Soldier Island get picked off one by one by an unknown assailant seemed rather pointless, and not a little bit mean-spirited.  As it turns out, the problem must have been in Christie's writing, and in her Fair Play obsession with laying out the precise details of every murder so that the reader could work out the killer on their own.  The BBC version is a lot less interested in the whodunnit of the story, and more focused on the psychological effects of its gruesome events.  It very effectively captures the breakdown of the rigid social conventions that govern the type of 30s house party the characters think they've been invited to, and which they initially try to cling to before the reality of being trapped with a killer sinks in.  As the cast is whittled down, the claustrophobia and paranoia rise, and the characters begin to let go of their pretense of civility--including, eventually, their insistence that they are innocent of the crimes of which they've been accused by their tormentor, and for which they've been sentenced to death.

    The entire cast is strong, but Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner are particularly good as a clever, capable young woman concealing a terrible capacity for evil, and the only member of the party willing to admit to his own moral depravity.  The miniseries also makes some changes to some of the characters' backstories and the crimes they've been accused of, which taken together suggest that despite the killer's proclamations, what's on trial in this story is actually the pre-War British way of life, and its thoughtless assumptions about class and racial superiority.  My only problem with this adaptation is that if you watch it knowing who the killer is, and observing their interactions with the other characters, it becomes easier to see that they are a cruel psychopath, and that for all their pretenses to be seeking justice, the fact that they've constructed such an elaborate, sadistic game suggests that they're much more interested in bringing more suffering and pain into the world.  The mini tries to address this in several scenes that obliquely hint at the killer's depravity before they are revealed, but the structure of the story--in which they only get a short scene to explain themselves--means that this thread is inevitably shortchanged.  Even with all the welcome alterations that it makes to Christie's original, it's hard to finish And Then There Were None and not feel at least a little unsatisfied.  It's not that we want any of these, for the most part unrepentant, murderers to survive, but by the end of their torment we don't really want their killer to win either.  For all the changes that this version of the story makes, and despite its overall success at making something more resonant than the novel it's based on, it doesn't find a way to deprive the killer of the last word.

  • Sherlock: The Abominable Bride - A few weeks ago, while reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Overture, it occurred to me that, slowly but surely, Gaiman's Sandman and Steven Moffat's Doctor had become the same type of character, a protean trickster figure who exists in many forms, but who is always fundamentally the same, and essential to the proper running of the universe.  Inevitably, both of these authors return to a story about their characters' multifarious existence, about the many types of stories told about them and the many guises they take, all of which have the same heart (Gaiman has also told this type of story about Batman, with the rather forgettable Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?).  About halfway into "The Abominable Bride"--the one-off/special/standalone episode that stands in for this year's season of Sherlock--we realize that Moffat is now telling this kind of story about Sherlock Holmes.  What initially seems like a rather pointless, tail-swallowing trip back to the 19th century (which only throws into sharper relief how much Sherlock, and Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in particular, owe to Granada's magnificent adaptation of Doyle's stories, with the incomparable Jeremy Brett as Holmes) turns out to be a reflection on Holmes's many facets, leading us to ask: is this a story about Sherlock, in the 21st century, imagining how his life might be like as a Victorian detective, or is it about Holmes, in the 19th century, imagining his life in a future that has flying machines and mobile phones?

    On the face of it, this makes a certain amount of sense.  Holmes has been reimagined and reinvented dozens of times since his creation more than a century ago, and the best of these variations retain a certain essential Holmes-ishness no matter how much they change the character.  So why not tell a story in which these different versions meet and comment on each other? Especially one that also reminds us how much Holmes, even within his own story, is mediated by his chronicler?  The problem, unfortunately, is that by calling attention to Holmes's many facets, Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss (who is also credited as writer on this episode) remind us how little they understand the character.  Or rather, how much they want him to be something he was never meant to be.  No matter how badly Moffat wants it, Sherlock Holmes is not a superhero.  He is not an elemental force binding the universe together, and he is definitely not The Doctor.  What makes Holmes such an evergreen and resilient character is, on the contrary, his humanity--his kindness, his decency, his appreciation of human folly and weirdness--and this is something that Sherlock has never been able to accept.  "The Abominable Bride," like so many Sherlock stories before it, tries to tell us that we need Sherlock to save the world, when this has never been Holmes's function, and has always been the least interesting and least convincing use to which the show has put its title character.

    Along the way, there are several ideas that must have looked good on paper but really don't work on screen.  Andrew Scott's Moriarty returns not as Sherlock's nemesis (which he was never any good at) but as a representative of his fears, his self-loathing, and most of all his addiction to drugs.  In principle, this is a good way of walking back Moriarty's return at the end of the last season (in the face of fandom's uniformly negative reaction to that development), but it runs aground on Sherlock's consistent failure to engage with its title character's addiction on any but the most simplistic terms, and even then, only when it suits it.  Even more dangerously, there's an attempt to address the show's history of misogyny that goes so spectacularly wrong that it's almost amazing to watch.  For one thing, this element corralled into the 19th century story strand--thus implying that misogyny was a problem of the Victorians, despite the fact that Conan Doyle's original stories are much better than Sherlock has ever been at featuring interesting female characters who are treated with respect and are allowed to move the plot in their own right.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, the show delivers a twist on "The Five Orange Pips" in which the secret society hounding Holmes's client is a group of feminist avengers who hunt down and kill cheaters and abusers--an already problematic plot development that is made even more so when you remember that in the original story, the secret society in question was the KKK.  That's right, in Steven Moffat's universe, feminism takes its cues from the Klan, and criticizing Sherlock on the internet is akin to stabbing philandering husbands in the heart while dressed as an avenging, ghostly bride.

    Somewhat strangely, the only character who still works and still feels human is Gatiss's Mycroft--all the more impressive when you consider that his screen time in the 19th century strand is devoted to an unpleasant, offensive fat joke.  In the 21st century strand, however, Gatiss is very good at conveying the anguish of loving someone who is incapable of recognizing or returning that love, and of having to stand by and watch as they destroy themselves.  If the rest of Sherlock were as human and real as the few moments in which we see Mycroft laments his inability to save his brother from himself, it would be something to watch.  Instead, all we get is Moffat's increasingly desperate attempts to make the show, and the character, into something they could never be.

  • Childhood's End - In principle, you have to respect what SyFy was trying to do with this miniseries.  After nearly a decade of relying almost exclusively on schlock, pulp, and shows that have nothing to do with science fiction for their bread and butter, the channel seems genuinely to be trying to get back to its roots.  And how better to do that than with a handsome, serious, expensive-looking adaptation of one of the core works of Golden Age science fiction?  Going into the miniseries, one's knowledge of SyFy's proclivities (and of what tends to happen to SF when it gets adapted by just about anyone) leads you to expect the familiar corner-cutting and standardization.  You expect the whole story to be turned into the heroic saga of one ruggedly handsome white man who saves the world through the sheer force of his virility while an adoring, stick-thin and perfectly-coiffed woman looks on.  And, to be fair, there is some of that here--the character who in the novel was the Secretary-General of the UN is transformed into a Midwestern farmer who dresses in nothing but jeans and leather jackets, and three of the five main female characters are defined purely as love interests and mothers.  But on the whole Childhood's End is a meditative and rather bleak story that avoids the temptation to veer into pulp.  No one here is going to save the day.  When the aliens who dub themselves The Overlords arrive on Earth and announce that they are going to save us from ourselves, it very quickly becomes clear that there's nothing we can do about that except hope that they are truly as benevolent as they claim to be.  And the answer to that question turns out to be both "yes" and "no"--the aliens' benevolence is a means to an end, and that end is, when viewed in a certain light, extremely sinister.  But the aliens themselves are not sinister at all, and the miniseries works hard (perhaps a little too hard) to present them as kind, compassionate beings who are doing what they think is right, and who have a compelling (if, to me, not really convincing) argument that this is, in fact, the right thing to do.

    The problem is that none of this is very interesting to watch, and certainly not over six nearly interminable hours.  I haven't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which the miniseries is based, so I have no idea where Childhood's End's faults are rooted, but the script (by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Matthew Graham, which honestly surprised me quite a bit when I learned it) has hardly a single interesting or surprising moment, hardly a single line of dialogue that doesn't feel canned and predictable.  Childhood's End is clearly trying to be somber, but what it ends up landing on, most of the time, is underpowered, and even boring.  And that, in turn, makes it easier to notice the flaws in its basic concept, and in how Graham develops it.  The methods that the Overlords use to solve the problems of war, poverty, and inequality are, well, childish--in one scene, we're told that hunger is going to be solved because the US will use the ships of its recently decommissioned Navy to send America's leftovers to Africa, which is literally the sort of idea that a bright sixth-grader might come up with, but not something we can be expected to take seriously in a production aimed at adults.  Neither was I particularly convinced by the miniseries's contention that, without the pressures of necessity and scarcity, humanity will cease to care about work, art, or scientific pursuit.  (What's missing from the entire discussion--and here I suspect that the fault lies with the novel--is capitalism, and the idea that it too is a problem that the Overlords need to solve, perhaps the root of all other problems.  Without addressing that, all the solutions the miniseries suggests to our woes feel incomplete and meaningless.)  By the time the end comes around, and with it the expectation that we will buy into the idea that humanity needs to die so that God can come into existence, I was completely checked out.  Without reading the novel, it's hard to know whether Childhood's End could have worked with a better script, or whether its concept is irrevocably flawed, but either way it remains a well-intentioned bid for respectability, not a worthwhile work in its own right.

  • Dickensian - Five episodes in, I still find myself puzzled by the core concept of this series, which imagines that the background and supporting characters of some half dozen Dickens novels (and a few of the leads) all live on the same street and interact with each other.  I don't consider myself a Dickens fan (though I know enough about his novels, from general knowledge and watching adaptations, to have recognized all the main characters in Dickensian, and to know what's in store for most of them) and maybe that means that this show simply isn't for me.  But it's hard not to see the show as a sort of theme park selling the Dickens Experience--lots of quirky characters with odd names, even odder habits of speech, and hard-knock lives, all bouncing against each other at Christmastime.  The obvious point of comparison, Penny Dreadful, works because it quickly finds its own tone and builds its own world from its borrowed materials, but Dickensian still feels like little more than pastiche.  Of the three main storylines, one is an elaboration--the investigation of the murder of Jacob Marley (of A Christmas Carol fame)--while the other two are prequels describing the downfall of two young women, Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle), whose engagement to a young officer is endangered by her embittered sister (thus setting up the main plotline of Bleak House), and Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton), who becomes romantically entangled with a scoundrel after her brother hires him to get at her inheritance (which will presumably lead her to wander around in a wedding dress plotting vengeance on all men, as she does in Great Expectations).  Unless creator Tony Jordan is planning to do something a little more bold than the show, so far, seems to promise, that means that we're watching a slow-motion trainwreck, the exact opposite of what Dickens's novels tend to deliver.  (But then, maybe I'm giving Jordan too little credit--the first episode, after all, ends with Little Nell miraculously recovering from her seemingly fatal illness.)

    For all that, I've found Dickensian unexpectedly enjoyable and compelling.  Largely, this is the execution--the writing is sharp, the actors are all solid, and the pacing is impeccable (on that last point, it really helps that the show's episodes are only half an hour long; it's still too rare for the writers of dramas to recognize that their running time isn't a function of their genre, but should reflect the needs of their story).  You end up wanting to know what happens next even if the project as a whole still feels a little dodgy.  But it also helps that the show has constructed some clever and moving family drama in the chinks of Dickens's stories.  Honoria's sister Frances (Alexandra Moen), who is judgmental, priggish, and actively working to destroy her sister's happiness, also has extremely sympathetic moments.  We see how she has trapped herself (and been trapped, by social expectations and her domineering father) in the responsible, caretaking role, while her younger, prettier sister gets to dream of romance, and is protected from the family's financial problems.  Her bitterness over this understandable, even as it corrodes her soul.  Similarly, the triangle that develops between Miss Havisham, her whiny brother, and the soulless adventurer he hires to destroy her, is fascinating, constantly shifting to expose parallel currents of love and hate between all three of them.  Middleton is particularly good at conveying both Amelia's determination and her vulnerability.  We can imagine how this woman could be destroyed by the act of betrayal being perpetrated upon her, but we also really want her to find a way to overcome it (or maybe just to take her revenge on the right people, and thoroughly trounce her brother and his partner).

    I suspect that I won't know what I actually think about Dickensian until it concludes and I have a clearer sense of what Jordan's project is (for one thing, I'm a lot less interested in the murder mystery than, I suspect, the show wants me to be).  The show has been so well-made so far, though, that it's hard not to root for it to find a justification for its existence--something that makes it its own story, or even a meaningful commentary on Dickens and his work, not just an imitation filling in his margins.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 44 books in 2015, about the same as last year and still not where I'd like to be (I'm still working on what might yet be number 45, but I doubt I'll make it in the three hours and change I have left).  About a third of the books I read were science fiction, a much higher proportion than usual due to Hugo reading and some other writing projects I'm working on.  Though I've found some great new discoveries, it's not a ratio I'd like to maintain.  In 2016, I'd like to get back to reading more mainstream fiction, not to mention fantasy.  I also read quite a few short story collections (and an even larger number of uncollected short stories during my search for Hugo nominees early in the year), which I find more pleasing--I used to be a great lover of the short story collection, and I seem to have fallen out of the habit in recent years.  It's good to get back to it.

Highlights of the reading year include going back to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in nearly a decade (I storified my thoughts about the book and its legacy here), and further progress through Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels and stories.  I also reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in honor of the BBC's miniseries adaptation, and found it to be just as delightful and clever as I had remembered.  I made some forays into the bibliographies of authors that I've heard about for years but had never tried for myself, such as C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner, which read a little too much like Shōgun in space for my liking) and Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vor Game and Mirror Dance, both of which I liked--the latter especially).

Going into 2016, there are a few reading projects I'd like to get to.  I've been thinking of rereading Dune, which got a lot of attention this year for its 50th anniversary, and which I haven't read since my teens (I probably still won't bother with any of the sequels, though).  I'd also like to finally finish reading Gormenghast--I read the first book in my early twenties and found it stunning but also exhausting; I couldn't quite face going on to the concluding volumes in the trilogy.  Most of all, and as usual, I'd like to read more, read more widely, and read more of the right stuff.  I have quite a few enticing books in my TBR pile--several of them 2015 releases that I'd like to get to before the Hugo voting deadline--and if I get to a sizable portion of them, I think I'll probably have a pretty good time.

Best Books of 2015:
  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (review)

    I haven't yet read Cho's extremely well-received debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (though it's right at the top of that TBR pile I mentioned), but if it's anything like her short story collection, I don't doubt that it will be a blast.  Cho's writing is smart, funny, and heartfelt, combining fantasy with elements of the romance genre and a fascinating portrait of Malaysian life, whether back home or as ex-pats in the UK.  The sense of place that her stories evoke--where that place might be Malaysia, Britain, the spirit world, or a colony on the moon--is powerful and immediately convincing, and the thread tying her stories together is the way in which their origins and culture guide and define her characters, teaching them how to see the world and how to live in it.

  • The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III

    If you'd told me a few weeks ago that one of my favorite reads of 2015 would be Neil Gaiman's latest addition to the Sandman mythos, I would have called you crazy.  I picked up Overture almost out of the sense of obligation, and mostly out of curiosity.  I wasn't expecting Gaiman--whose writing I've found a little samey in recent years--to find new notes in a story that found its perfect and very decisive conclusion decades ago (especially in light of his previous addition, Endless Nights, which was the very definition of inessential).  But Overture turned out to be stunning--first, visually, with Williams delivering art that finally lives up to the title character's role as the lord of dreams and imagination.  Every page here is a wealth of imagery and color, nearly an assault on the senses if it weren't all done with such care and attention to detail.  But the story, too, is a delight, a sort of prequel to the Sandman story, which explains what Dream was doing that left him vulnerable to the decades-long imprisonment that kicks off the saga's events.  At points it veers into fanservice--there are details here that connect to loose ends in A Doll's House and A Game of You that didn't really need to be tied up--but the core of the story expands our understanding of Dream and his world in a way that reminded me why I found the original Sandman saga so compelling.  It's got me wanting to revisit this whole world all over again.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

    I can't remember the last book that left me feeling as exhilarated and energized as The Blazing World, and as desperate to press it into the hands of everyone I know.  On its surface, the story feels like a very familiar kind of complicated--an aging artist, convinced that her career has been stymied by her gender and the art world's misogyny, partners with three men to present her work under their name.  When she comes forward to claim her work as her own, the response--from the art world and her collaborators--is complex and causes unexpected ripples.  The story is told through document fragments, interviews, and competing narratives.  But the heart of The Blazing World isn't in its story, but in the fervent, overpowering personality of its main character, a difficult, mercurial, fiercely intelligent woman who is equal parts bully and victim, and whose passion for art and creation shines through every page of this book.  Nearly every character, in fact, is an artist of one sort or another, and The Blazing World is largely about how they see their work, how they create it, and how they feel about putting it into the world.  To read it is to become caught up in a storm of creativity and furious, churning thought, and it's hard not to turn the last page and want to join in the adventure of making something out of nothing, and hoping that someone will see it for what it is.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

    I'm indebted to Nina Allan for introducing me to Whiteley, whose future work I anticipate with bated breath.  The Beauty is an eerie, claustrophobic novella that combines post-apocalypse, body horror, and an examination of gender roles in a way that is both horrifying and seductive.  A colony of lonely men in a world in which women have all died are overjoyed to be joined by a troupe of beautiful, accommodating women.  So overjoyed, in fact, that they fervently ignore everything that is strange and offputting about these women, who may not even be women at all.  As the men begin to experience physical changes in response to their "wives," they have to decide what's more important to them--their identity as men (and as human beings), or the love that their new partners offer them.  Utterly disturbing but also impossible to stop thinking about once you put it down, The Beauty was one of the finest works of genre I read last year.
Honorable mentions:
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link - This would probably be in the best books list proper if I hadn't read some of the best stories here--such as "I Can See Right Through You," "Valley of the Girls," and "Light"--before picking it up.  But it's great to revisit those stories, and to discover some of the other pieces here that were new to me, and which are typically excellent.

  • Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee - Once again, I've been reading Lee's short fiction piecemeal for years, but it was only when I saw all these stories together in one volume that I realized what an amazing writer he is, imaginative and skilled with a phrase.  I'm really looking forward to his debut novel next year.
I'm glad to say that hardly any book I read in 2015 was bad enough to qualify for a worst books list, and the one exception was so painful and disappointing that I'd really rather not write about it.  So instead, let's have a discussion of how that disappointment came to be ever-so-slightly mollified.
  • The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

    Earlier this year, I read Pratchett's Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel and the last aimed at adult readers.  When I finished it, I was so angry that I didn't even know what to write, and so ended up writing nothing.  I didn't even know on whose behalf I should be angrier--Pratchett himself, whose many accomplishments deserved so much better than to be capped off with a barely-publishable and often offensive mess, or his fans, who were apparently expected to keep handing over money no matter how degraded the material appearing under Pratchett's name had become.

    So I'm very grateful for The Shepherd's Crown, and for the fact that I've been able to put my decades-long love affair with Pratchett's writing to rest on a more positive note, rather than end it with the sour disappointment of Raising Steam.  To be clear, The Shepherd's Crown is far from Pratchett at his best, and though the book's afterword tries to blame this on the fact that it was left as only a first draft at the time of his death, it's clear that the problems afflicting it run deeper and are similar to the ones that marred much of his writing in the last five years (including, unfortunately, the sad curdling of his liberalism, which began in Snuff, and here results in some oddly regressive attitudes towards gender roles).  But like most of the Tiffany Aching novels, it benefits from a strong, wistful sense of place, and from the dominant personalities of its witch characters.  It's a strange coincidence that the final Discworld novel ended up being the one in which Pratchett laid to rest one of his most iconic characters, but to its credit the book doesn't coast on that borrowed significance.  The chapters depicting Granny Weatherwax's death and its quiet, orderly aftermath are some of the most moving in the book, especially as they bring Tiffany, who started the series mourning for her grandmother, who had loomed as large in her life as Granny did for so many Discworld readers, full circle.  The actual story is, unfortunately, rather thin (it's here that the book's being a draft probably comes most into play), but the emotional highlights still hit home.  If The Shepherd's Crown is not quite the reminder we needed of why Pratchett was such an important writer to so many of us, it is at least a good way to say goodbye.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A few weeks ago, someone on my twitter feed joked that soon, we'd be inundated with a million reviews and thinkpieces about The Force Awakens all starting the same way--with a recitation of the author's personal connection to Star Wars, how they first encountered the movies, what their emotional reaction to the prequels was, and what place the franchise holds in their heart.  This threw me, because it made me realize that I honestly have no idea how I feel about Star Wars.  I don't love it.  I don't hate it.  I can't be indifferent to it--no person who comments on pop culture, and particularly geek culture, can do that.  When I searched my heart for the feelings about Star Wars that were uniquely and untouchably my own, all I found was a big question mark.

So I went back--for the first time in at least a few years--and rewatched the original films (I didn't bother with the prequels, because I know perfectly well how I feel about them--they're awful, and pointless, and watching them once in the movie theater fifteen years ago was at least 0.5 times too many).  And honestly, that just left me feeling more uncertain.  Because the truth is, the original Star Wars films are fractally awful.  The closer you examine them, the more apparently fatal flaws you notice.  The story makes no sense.  The worldbuilding is laughable when it isn't offensive.  The dialogue is wooden.  The actors are even more so, and the only exception consistently makes acting choices that seem rooted mainly in orneriness.  The characters behave like dim children, and their reactions to calamity, either personal or global, are basically sociopathic.  The good guys only win because the bad guys are stupid and incompetent.  The central love story is creepy (and that's before you even get to the inadvertent incest).  And the philosophical conflict that underpins the entire series runs the gamut from hopelessly muddled to morally bankrupt.  The only thing the series has going for it are its visuals (which are on gorgeous display in the most recent, HD versions of the films, though Lucas's CGI embellishments from 1997 look a lot less convincing than the original footage from the 70s and 80s).  But even then, what starts out as genuinely artful in the first half hour of A New Hope devolves into self-cannibalism by the end of Return of the Jedi.

But having said all this, no, I still do not hate Star Wars.  I still, in fact, feel deeply for Luke and Han and Leia, even if I can't tell you why, and I still have a fond reaction to terms like lightsaber, Death Star, and the Force.  I think I like the idea of this story more than I like the reality of it, which is almost enough to get you to buy that Joseph Campbell claptrap that Lucas has been peddling for the better part of four decades.  Maybe the answer is simply that Star Wars is like chewing gum--fun and tasty at first, but the more you chew on it, the less flavor it has, until keeping at it feels more like a chore than a treat.  We've been chewing on this particular piece of gum for 38 years, so it's not surprising that my main reaction to the franchise at this stage is ennui.  It certainly doesn't help that Star Wars has been everywhere in 2015, that the new film's publicity machine has been utterly inescapable, that the internet has been occupied by hardly anything else for the last few weeks (though at least the obsession with avoiding spoilers has provided us with this handy comparison, throwing into sharp relief just how much the entitlement of fanboys is prioritized above the safety and wellbeing of women and people of color).  In the face of all that excitement, all that anxiety, how can someone like me, who at this point mainly finds Star Wars rather fatiguing, even know how she feels?

So probably the best compliment that I can pay J.J. Abrams's The Force Awakens is to say that it has largely swept away my fatigue with Star Wars.  This is not to say that it's a great, or even a very good, movie.  Like the original films, it has flaws that only loom larger the closer you examine it.  It's too long.  Its plot is basically a whole bunch of setup and scene-setting poured into the rough outline of A New Hope.  The mission that makes up its final set-piece was clearly arrived at because someone asked "what's cooler than a Death Star?" and the only answer they could come up with was "an even bigger Death Star!"  Its worldbuilding makes no sense within the film itself and, once it's explained to you, is really quite massively ethically dodgy.  But nevertheless, it's a hell of a lot of fun, with a plot that moves effortlessly, genuinely exciting action scenes, winning characters, and some interesting additions, especially on the visual front, to the series's universe.  All of this is enough so that while you're watching The Force Awakens, its problems seem a lot less important than its pleasures.  Now, possibly all this is just me saying that someone has handed me a fresh stick of chewing gum, but especially with the example of the prequels before us (or for that matter, Abrams's previous attempt to revitalize a moribund SF franchise), let's not pretend that this is an easy thing to do.

As noted, The Force Awakens largely recapitulates the beats of A New Hope, so the plot can be glossed over rather quickly.  Rey (Daisy Ridley), a plucky orphan on a backwater desert planet, finds a droid carrying information crucial to the rebellion against the empire (both "rebellion" and "empire" are being used here as stand-ins for the names the film gives these bodies, but this is effectively what they are; if you actually try to work out the film's geopolitics, you'll end up with either a headache or a burning rage; best not to, either way).  In her quest to return the droid to its owner, she's joined by renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and is taken under the wing of a mysterious old man, here played by Harrison Ford.  (The third member of of the film's trio of young heroes, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, is actually a lot less important to the story than the film's promotional material leads us to expect.  He disappears after the first act and never even interacts with Rey.  For most of the movie, the central trio are Rey, Finn, and Han).  The three of them (plus Chewie, of course) bounce around on the Millennium Falcon, facing various dangers, until they arrive at the rebellion headquarters and the film's final act, which revolves around destroying the Death Star (sorry, mega-Death Star).

There are really only two things that Abrams does in The Force Awakens that feel like his own additions to the story, and like setup for his own trilogy rather than a retelling of Lucas's.  The first is that the quest its heroes are set on is the search for the long-missing Luke Skywalker.  The second is that the villain of the piece, the Sith lord Kylo Ren, is Han and Leia's son (real name: Ben, which honestly makes no sense as a name that Han and Leia would give their child).  Technically, the fact that Finn is an ex-stormtrooper is also an original touch, but this is something the film does almost nothing with.  Finn's moral awakening and decision to leave the empire happen in all of a single scene, and as it turns out he never even committed any real atrocities.  We learn that he was essentially a janitor for most of his career, and he never fires his weapon in the battle that crystalizes his realization that he hates his job.

Luke's absence is something that hangs over the film but doesn't really shape it--he's more of a McGuffin who will probably have more of an effect in the next movie(s).  Kylo Ren, meanwhile, is the film's biggest problem, and the place where Abrams most struggles to escape the gravity well of Lucas's shoddy worldbuilding.  We get vague hints of his background--he's disappointed with his parents, especially Han; he was trained by Luke but seduced by the Dark Side; he's currently the apprentice of the new trilogy's Big Bad, the unfortunately-named Supreme Leader Snoke (a CGI puppet voiced by Andy Serkis).  He's also obsessed with his grandfather, and with recapturing what he sees as Vader's lost glory.  But the problem here is that the Star Wars films have never done a particularly good job of defining the light and dark sides of the Force, nor why anyone would be drawn to them.  When Luke supposedly struggles with the pull of the dark side at the end of Return of the Jedi, absolutely nothing shows up on screen, and we have no idea why becoming evil is suddenly so seductive.  There's a similar opacity when we're told that Kylo, though sworn to the dark side, is "tempted" by the light.

What little moral philosophy is laid out by Lucas in the original trilogy is barely worth scrutinizing.  Luke is apparently in danger of becoming evil because he feels anger and hatred towards Emperor Palpatine, a man who has subjugated the galaxy, ordered the murder of billions, and is about to kill Luke's friends.  The planet-destroying, child-murdering Darth Vader, meanwhile, becomes good by saving the life of his son, which is surely at least partly a selfish act.  Oddly enough, it's the prequels that actually come closest to explaining the allure of the dark side, with their story of an abused former slave who is unable to let go of the anxiety and rage bred in him by years of precarious living and the loss of his family, who turns to the dark side for a sense of control (to be clear, the prequels tell this story abominably--"from my point of view, the Jedi are evil," anyone?--but the bones of it are extremely compelling).  But even there, Lucas's ideas of good and evil are simplistic and even offensive.  The Jedi are right to tell Anakin that fear and anger are the path to the dark side.  But instead of teaching him to overcome those feelings (or, for that matter, doing anything for the people still languishing in slavery and oppression, the causes of Anakin's fear and anger), the Jedi tell him that he is a bad person for feeling them.  Unsurprisingly, this does not end well.

Kylo Ren, a child of privilege who was raised by loving parents, doesn't have Anakin's justification for feeling fear and anger.  Neither is he as fearsome as Darth Vader--his displays of anger feel more like tantrums.  He is, in short, an utterly pathetic, entitled, whiny excuse for a villain, made all the more unpalatable because he apparently feels stirrings of conscience but chooses to ignore them.  If The Force Awakens intended for us to recognize how unimpressive Kylo is and leave it at that, that would be one thing.  But to me it feels as if the film wants us to be interested in him, and even wish for his redemption.  Since "redemption," in this case, would mean Kylo getting over his unjustified self-pity and not hurting people for a second, I find myself utterly unsympathetic, and genuinely resentful of every second spent in his presence.  It's particularly annoying that most of the emotional weight of Han's presence in the film (and all of Leia's) is expended on his grief for his son and his desire to save him, when I have to believe that the real Han would have absolutely no patience for the self-pitying streak of piss he somehow managed to raise.

Happily, there's a lot less Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens than there is Finn and Rey, both of whom are delightful.  To be fair, the writing for both characters cuts corners--as I've already said, it isn't really believable that Finn was raised from a child to be a stormtrooper, or that he breaks free of his indoctrination so quickly and so easily.  As for Rey, there's been some criticism of her super-competence--she's a genius engineer, a hotshot pilot, and incredibly strong in the Force--and to be honest, I feel that there's some merit to these complaints.  The Star Wars films are full of preternaturally gifted characters, from Luke Skywalker himself, to Finn and Poe (who are, respectively, a gifted fighter who can pick up any weapon, including a lightsaber, and learn to use it within seconds, and an exceptional pilot who can fly anything).  But Rey's competence moves the plot and solves her problems a lot more often than they do for any other character in the series, and at some point it's hard not to roll your eyes at that.  For me, that point came in the scene in which Kylo Ren tries to interrogate Rey using the Force.  I can accept that Rey manages to turn Kylo's mind probe back on him, because she's been established as a character who can very quickly figure out how things work and use them to her advantage.  It makes less sense to me, however, that in the very next scene Rey uses the Jedi mind trick on a stromtrooper, even though she's never seen it used and, for all we know, doesn't even know that such a thing is possible.  By the end of the film, when Rey beats Kylo in a lightsaber duel despite never having wielded the weapon before, it's hard not to feel that her awesomeness is being layered on a bit thick.

None of this, however, makes Rey a bad character, because the more competent and powerful she becomes, the greater the challenges the film throws in her path.  There is, in addition, something deeply compelling, and quietly heroic, about the matter of fact attitude that Rey takes towards her own abilities, her obvious belief that she is always the person for the job because she's always been able to do it.  Early in the film, she announces that she is waiting for her family--for, it's strongly implied, years and even decades.  "They'll be back, though," she says simply.  The strength required to maintain that faith (and the toll that it nevertheless takes on Rey, whose constant motion is clearly an attempt to tamp down deep-seated anxiety) shines through her every action, and it's that same strength that powers Rey's incredible skill and competence.  It also helps that Rey sparks delightfully with Finn and Han, both of whom are able to keep up with her quick mind.  Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Rey and Finn or Rey and Han furiously discussing a problem and rushing towards a solution at a breakneck pace, quipping at each other all the way.  In the end, the reason that The Force Awakens works as well as it does is that it has Rey at its heart, and that her heart is so obviously pure and true.

A lot of the criticism of The Force Awakens has centered around how derivative it is of A New Hope, with critics decrying it as yet another example of Hollywood's wholesale surrender to nostalgia.  I don't think this is wrong, but I think the word missing from most of these discussions is also the one that most perfectly describes the film: fanfic.  I mean this not in the wide and commonly used sense in which any work set in a universe created by someone other than its current writer is fanfic, but in a very specific way.  Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, for example, are not fanfic of the original series, because they both take the foundation it built seriously, and add something new to it with its own flavor and purpose.  Abrams's own version of Star Trek, meanwhile, is not fanfic, because it lacks the crucial "fan" component, hollowing out the original Star Trek until all that's left is its exterior and filling it with something completely different.  The Force Awakens is fanfic because it is both deeply reverent of the original it builds on, and doesn't add much of its own flavor--though it must be said that this is at least partly Lucas's fault, for constructing a story so flimsy that very little substantial addition could be made to it without completely changing its nature (as we saw in the case of the prequels).  It is good fanfic, though, the kind that finds new notes that the creator never thought of--it's clear, for example, that Abrams has given some thought to the cool things you could do with the Force, as when Kylo Ren stops a blaster pulse in mid-air; and when Kylo and Finn fight with light sabers, they get scorched and cut, because that's what would happen if you fought with flaming swords.  And it's the kind of fanfic that gives more space to women and people of color than the original trilogy did.  That's definitely worth your time and money, and as I've said, it has reinvigorated my fondness for this series--without trying to make it something it isn't and could never be.  But to me, it also illustrates the limitations of this fictional world, and the reason why I will never feel as strongly about it as I do for others.