Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman, at Strange Horizons

Strange Horizons has published my review of Naomi Alderman's The Power, a twisty, thought-provoking tale about a world in which women suddenly develop the ability to shoot bolts of lightning out of their bodies.  As I say at the beginning of the review, it's the sort of premise that seems designed to get SF fans' motors revving, and I think that it could easily have overwhelmed a lot of authors--in the rush to cover all the possible stories that could emerge out of a premise like this, it would be easy to lose sight of the one you want to write.  Alderman teeters on the verge of this failure mode, but in the end her idea of what she want to say with The Power is too strong.  The result is one of the most satisfying, but also disquieting, books I've read in some time. 

There's a lot I would have liked to say about The Power that didn't make it into my review.  Alderman's use of Jewish scripture (including one of my favorite Bible passages, which she uses as an epigraph) was a refreshing change of pace from the Christian focus of most anglophone literature.  And while discussing the review with editor Aishwarya Subramanian, we had an interesting conversation about the way the book uses white and non-white, Western and non-Western cultures as emblems of different attitudes towards women, that I didn't really have the space (or, really, the expertise) to discuss in my review.  I hope there ends up being more discussion of The Power--most of the reviews I've seen have been, while positive, a little surface-y, not scratching much beyond the book's "revelation" that women can be just as violent and power-hungry as men, though this is far from the point that Alderman is trying to make. 

I do think that discussion is forthcoming, though.  I'd be very surprised not to see The Power on this year's Clarke shortlist--even leaving aside the obvious debt the book owes to The Handmaid's Tale, the Clarke's first winner and, in many ways, its mascot, this is one the most Clarke-ish books I've ever read, seemingly tailor-made for the award's interests and concerns.  Even if it doesn't make the shortlist, however, several of the participants in the Clarke Shadow Jury have selected The Power for their shortlists, and I'm very interested to see what they make of it.

By the way, once you're done reading my review, be sure to check out Dexter Palmer's long review/essay on Alan Moore's Jerusalem, a master-class in how to grapple with a book that is seemingly too big and too complicated to be encompassed in a something as mundane as a review.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Why Hugo?

There's just over a month left in the nominating period for this year's Hugo awards, and if you're hanging out in the same fandom spaces as I do, you've probably made the same observation I have: the conversation surrounding this year's Hugos has been surprisingly muted, to the point of nonexistence.  Certainly when you compare it to the veritable maelstrom of public commentary (including in venues well outside of fandom and penetrating quite deep into the mainstream press) that accompanied the awards in 2015 and 2016, when the Rabid Puppies succeeded in infesting the nominations with barely-literate garbage that reflected their fascist, racist leanings, only to get smacked down during the voting phase.

There's obviously no mystery as to why the Hugos aren't really on anyone's mind this year.  Not only did the results of last year's voting phase indicate that the Puppies and their legions of flying monkeys had grown tired of a game in which the prize was clearly never going to be theirs, but there are, unfortunately, much bigger things to worry about.  We're living in the midst of tremendous social upheaval, with racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric gaining terrifying inroads on many stages--in the rise of the far-right in Europe, in the results of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim violence that followed it, in the consolidation of power by wannabe tyrants like Putin and Erdogan.  And, of course, in the US, with the election of Donald Trump, who has amassed around himself a coterie of shady characters with strong roots in fascist and neo-Nazi groups, and who has galvanized his followers to racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim violence throughout the US.  Every day seems to offer more proof of the weakening of democracy and the rule of law, next to which a fandom award that is of interest to perhaps a few thousand people world-over seems pretty damn trivial.  Like a lot of critics, I'm having trouble justifying to myself the choice to write about the latest film or TV show, much less the inside baseball of Hugo commentary.

At the same time, however, I think a big part of why we're not feeling motivated to talk about the Hugos this year has to do with how connected they are to everything that's happening around us.  I wasn't the only person to say, on November 9th, that the Hugo voters in 2015 and 2016 showed more good sense than the American electorate--see, for example, N.K. Jemisin's blistering commentary, which draws the same connection.  As many people have pointed out and demonstrated since then, there's a line that connects racist and misogynist geek groups like GamerGate and the Rabid Puppies to the American alt-right and its bases in websites like Breitbart.  All of these groups root their appeal in the curdled, unjustified entitlement of white men who believe the world owed them something, and who are willing--happy, even--to burn it all down if they don't get it.  For probably a large confluence of reasons, the voters for the Hugo award were able to look at this group and see them for exactly what they were (even when provided with cover by groups like the Sad Puppies and their leaders).  The American electorate, for an equally large confluence of reasons, did not (or, at least, a sufficiently large margin in a few key states didn't--the electorate as a whole rejected Trump quite decisively).

The issue, therefore, is this: it's not just that the Hugos are trivial, but that the Hugos are solved.  If last year and the year before, we had a strong argument for seeing participation in the Hugos as an important and even progressive act, this year it seems largely meaningless, precisely because the difference between the best-case and worst-case outcomes is so small.  Let's say the Rabid Puppies come back for a third try this year, and manage to get their trash on a lot of ballots.  So what?  They'll just get knocked down in the voting phase again, and the only people it'll really matter to will be the ones who lost out on a nomination--and I say that as someone who did lose out on a Hugo nomination, twice, as a result of the Rabid Puppies' actions.  Given the current state of the world, lousy Hugo nominations are pretty far down my list of things to get upset over.  And on the other hand, if the Puppies have given up (or, more realistically, moved on to greener pastures, of which there sadly seems to be an abundance), I think we all know by now that the result will not be some progressive, radical-lefty shortlist.  The Hugo will go back to what it has always been, a middle-of-the-road award that tends to reward nostalgia and its own inner circle.  Yes, there has been progress, and especially in the shadow of the Puppies and their interference--2015 best novel winner Cixin Liu was the first POC to win in that category, and 2016 winner N.K. Jemisin was the first African American.  But on the other hand, look at the "first"s in that last sentence, consider that they happened a decade and a half into the 21st century, and then tell me that this is something to crow about.

After having said all this, you're probably now expecting me to make some huge turnaround, to explain to you why the Hugos still matter, and why it's still important to talk about them and nominate for them.  But the thing is, I can't.  I still care about the Hugos.  I'm going to nominate this year, and around the beginning of March I will, as in previous years, post my own ballot for those of you who are interested in my suggestions.  And I think that you should try to nominate too, because there was a lot of work in 2016 that deserves recognition.  But if you're looking for me to make an argument for why nominating for the Hugos is important, I can't.  Because it isn't.

What I can say is this: last week I saw the movie Hidden Figures, which I enjoyed a great deal and definitely recommend.  I've seen some people talking about nominating it in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category, and having seen the film, I think it would be a perfect fit.  Not only would nominating Hidden Figures be totally consistent with Worldcon's decades-long love affair with the space program (which led, among other things, to Apollo 13 being nominated for a Hugo in 1996), but it would be just the right film to nominate in the (knock wood) post-Puppy world.  Hidden Figures is the perfect counterpoint to the narrative the Puppies (Rabid and Sad) tried to spin to justify their actions, as if science fiction and its awards had always belonged to conservative white men, who had been unfairly pushed out by a cabal of political interests.  It's a film that reminds us that just because the story we've been told and taught to accept doesn't include women or people of color, doesn't mean they weren't there.  Doesn't mean they weren't doing important, even vital, work.  And doesn't mean they don't deserve to be recognized.  If there's ever been a work that embodies the anti-Puppy stance--which just so happens to be the truth--Hidden Figures is it.

So no, nominating for the Hugos this year is not an act of resistance.  But I think that it can be an act of affirmation.  A reminder that just because the world is going crazy around us, doesn't mean we're not going to hold on to what's ours.  That just because we seem to be surrounded (and governed) by people who care about nothing and no one, doesn't mean we're not going to keep caring about things ourselves--even when they are completely trivial--and keep working to preserve them.  We worked hard, these last few years, to prove that the Hugo belongs to fandom, to the people who care enough about it to show up.  Even in the midst of turmoil, I think there's value in continuing to prove that point.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Make of Heaven a Hell: On the First Season of The Good Place

"Welcome! Everything is Fine." So says the big, friendly sign that greets Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) when she wakes up in a pleasant waiting room. She is quickly informed, by the genial Michael (Ted Danson) that she has died, and that because in life she worked tirelessly for poor and disenfranchised, she has gone to "the good place". This particular slice of heaven looks like a quaint, cod-European neighborhood, full of charming cafes and many, many frozen yogurt shops. Eleanor has her own house, designed exactly to her liking, and there she also meets her soulmate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), who in life was a professor of ethics.

There's only one problem: Eleanor was not the selfless person that Michael believes her to be. In real life, she was selfish, manipulative, and narcissistic, committing evil deeds that ranged from the mundane (littering, constant rudeness) to the disgusting (selling useless diet supplements to the elderly, abandoning a dog-sitting assignment to go see Rhianna). Confiding in Chidi, and terrified of being sent to "the bad place", she convinces him to keep her secret and teach her how to be a good person. But when she inevitably missteps, the good place reacts violently. Stealing shrimp at a party causes giant shrimp to fly through the air, menacing the neighborhood's population. Destroying a cake whose baker worked for hours on it causes a sinkhole to open in the middle of town. Eleanor must then evade the investigations of Michael and his all-knowing assistant, the AI Janet (D'Arcy Carden), as well as the attentions of her neighbors, former model and socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and silent Buddhist monk Jianyu (Manny Jacinto).

It's been repeatedly noted that in the second wave of the Golden Age of TV, comedy is more often a site for innovation and artfulness than drama. It’s a genre whose definition is wide enough to encompass the depressive musings of Bojack Horseman, and the zaniness of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Created by Michael Schur—who has run the gamut of comedy styles in his own career, writing for the American The Office and Saturday Night Live, producing The Comeback and Master of None, and creating Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-NineThe Good Place might be the first comedy to derive most of its humor from its fantastical, elaborate worldbuilding. Every episode opens up our understanding of the good place and how it functions, from the Minority Report-esque screens and interfaces with which Michael and Janet try to repair the damage caused by Eleanor, to casual observations like "Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104% perfect. That's how you got Beyonce." When the neighborhood is visited by representatives of the bad place (led by Adam Scott in a performance so perfectly nasty that one can hardly recall his turn as the lovable dork Ben on Parks and Recreation), they signpost their evil by talking up their love of The Bachelor and performing karaoke to the speeches of Richard Nixon.

Though its premise initially looks like a Three's Company-esque comedy of lies and misunderstandings, what really drives The Good Place's story, and its jokes, is our feeling that there is something not quite right about the world as it has been presented to Eleanor and her fellow dwellers in the good place, and our desire to work out rules that don't quite seem to make sense. As Eleanor learns more about her new surroundings—and as she scrambles to game them in an effort not to be discovered—she uncovers other cracks in heaven’s foundation. Jianyu turns out to actually be Jason Mendoza, a "professional amateur DJ" from Florida whose hobbies included throwing molotov cocktails at his enemies' boats, and who died during the commission of a particularly dumb robbery.

It's a conceit that seems designed to appeal in particular to genre fans, with our fondness for working our the rules of an invented world--and the aspects of those rules that are being kept from us.  (It's interesting, for example, to read Emily Nussbaum's write-up of The Good Place in The New Yorker.  One of the finest TV critics currently writing, Nussbaum nevertheless tends to write from the perspective of a viewer who lacks genre reading protocols, and it was striking to me that she initially took the show at face value, whereas I assumed almost from the beginning that there was more to it.)  There's a long tradition of fantasy worldbuilding of the kind Schur does in The Good Place, which imagines the afterlife in mundane and sometimes openly bureaucratic terms—everything from A Matter of Life and Death to Beetlejuice. The Good Place builds on these works when it encourages us to question the ethical underpinnings of its afterlife, even as it insists on them. As Eleanor says to Chidi soon after figuring out the full extent of her predicament: "This system sucks! What, one in a million gets to live in paradise and everyone else is tortured for eternity?" 

Even if you ignore the obvious cruelty of this arrangement, there are some serious questions raised by the good place's execution of it. Tahani, for example, raised billions for charity, but she's also vain and self-absorbed, and in flashbacks we learn that her good works were all designed to get her the attention that her parents lavished on her conceptual artist sister. Chidi, on the other hand, is a genuinely kind and decent person, but he also achieved nothing in life, spending it writing a magnum opus that turns out to be unreadable, and frustrating his friends and loved ones with his constant indecision. It's hard to see how either of them could have earned a place in paradise. And at the other extreme, Jason may be the only truly bad person on the show, but his crimes were committed more out of stupidity than malice, and by the end of the season he has come to play the role of the holy fool, perceiving truths about the good place that his friends are too harried to notice. The system of points by which people are classed into the good place or bad place—good acts earn you a certain number of points, while bad acts cause them to be deducted—is also something of a head-scratcher. Do we really want to accept that good acts cancel out bad acts, and vice versa? And is it fair that Tahani, who was raised in wealth and privilege, should be rated on the same scale as Eleanor, who has been on her own since her teens?

It's obvious that these are all questions The Good Place wants us to ask, but what's interesting is that this questioning serves dual purposes. On one level, it's a way for the show to introduce some basic but also fairly meaty concepts of ethics and morality, which are also discussed through Chidi's lessons to Eleanor (and later also Jason) and her attempts to implement them. Is an act good in itself or is its morality judged by its consequences? Is Chidi required to help Eleanor, even if doing so causes him anxiety, and keeps him from his true soulmate? Are Chidi and Eleanor's lies and deceit always wrong, or are they justified because their ultimate goal is to keep Eleanor and Jason from suffering? Are Eleanor's attempts to grow as a person genuinely good, or can they be discounted because their motivation—to avoid an eternity of torture—is so obviously self-serving?

At the same time, the obvious flaws in the good place's idea of goodness are signs that the audience should be questioning the cosmology that the show lays before it. To put it another way, if you're unhappy in heaven, does that mean that there's something wrong with you, or that there's something wrong with it? That Eleanor and her friends are increasingly caught up in a web of lies which forces them to scramble in order to keep ahead of Michael's investigations might be an indication that even in paradise, committing bad acts has its consequences. But equally, it could be a sign that all is not as it seems.

It's here that we see why The Good Place had to be a comedy—and one whose tropes hew closely to the conventional sitcom form. Comedy runs on conflict, and in a sitcom it is totally normal that, just as Eleanor and Chidi are chafing at their enforced closeness and the need to pretend that they are soulmates, Michael would ask them to cohabitate with another couple, who just happen to be a private detective and a marriage counselor. So it takes a while for the audience to consider that this is actually a very strange thing for him to do, and especially in a place that is meant to be completely responsive to its residents' needs and desires. Through its choice of genre, The Good Place teaches us to see its contrivances as mere tropes, when really they are something much more significant, clues to the true nature of the show's world and story.

As he did in Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur emphasizes friendship and community as a path to self-improvement and even redemption. It's no coincidence that Eleanor's badness in her life on Earth is manifested mainly through her unwillingness to form close bonds, and her belief that she can go through life owing no one and being owed nothing. In that sense, she strongly resembles Community's Jeff Winger, and like him, her growth into goodness involves (and is perhaps driven by) becoming a sort of guide and protector to a group of misfits who may outstrip her emotionally and ethically, but who also don't quite know how to cope without her.  But here, too, The Good Place complicates the situation by injecting it with a philosophical weight that relates directly to the show's questionable construction of its paradise. Eleanor can become a successful good person—which is to say, a good friend—because she used to be a bad one. Because she understands manipulation and deceit, she can spot them when they are applied to her and her friends. Because she spent her life gaming systems, she can do so again in the system of the good place. Being a bad person in heaven may end up being Eleanor—and the other characters'—salvation.

The inspired use that The Good Place makes of its genre, to both conceal the cracks in its worldbuilding and suggest that the audience take another look at them, makes it interesting to compare it to another ambitious, high-concept show whose first season aired in the fall and winter of 2016, Westworld. Strange as it may sound, the two series share many similarities. They both take place in constructed worlds overseen by a mysterious, white-haired figure. Both tell stories that center around those worlds malfunctioning, while constantly suggesting that these malfunctions might all be part of a plan. In both shows, the constructed world advertises itself as a place that gives its residents everything they want, even as the truth turns out to be more complicated. Both shows feature characters who are constantly being reset and rebooted, but who advance towards personhood through those repetitions (in The Good Place, this is mainly Janet, but late in the series it's revealed that the human characters, too, can be erased and reset). Both are ultimately about their characters growing towards a fuller, more complete form of humanity. Both are, in addition, meta-commentaries on storytelling and their own genres. And both end on a twist that completely upends our understanding of their world and its purpose.

What this comparison reveals is, first, how hard the project that both The Good Place and Westworld set themselves actually was, and how great the gap is between achieving it and falling short. The Good Place delivers its twists—and its payload of philosophical (one might almost say radical) musings—with a lightness and an ease that are truly delightful to behold. It's an accomplishment that makes Westworld's trudge towards revelations the audience had long since guessed seem even more laborious in comparison.

More importantly, the difference between The Good Place and Westworld seems rooted in the recognition that a serious story doesn’t need to be told in a serious way. Like many HBO shows, Westworld was criticized for mistaking violence (and sexualized violence in particular) for serious drama, and yet there was ultimately very little about the show that its viewers could take seriously. Its pretensions of philosophical weight could not be sustained by a story that ultimately just wanted to get us to the robot massacre. The Good Place has no such pretensions—in fact, it holds its cards so close to its chest that most viewers will spend the season wondering if they're imagining things when they question whether there's more to the show's world than meets the eye. And yet it is able to fully engage with some of the fundamental questions of how to be a person. To watch a show that is so unassuming accomplish all this is genuinely exciting—and drives home how absent that feeling of excitement was from most of Westworld’s first season.

The twist that ends The Good Place's first season is exhilarating and impeccably delivered, altering the show's entire world but also leaving many open questions about its cosmology. Not unlike Westworld, it sets up a scenario for the show's second season that is completely different from what came in its first, but which also promises to continue following in the grooves of a familiar story. Most importantly, it's an ending that leaves us genuinely anxious for the fate of its core foursome—for their ability to extract themselves from a supernatural bind, and their capacity to continue growing as people. It's proof, if any more were needed, of comedy's ability to engage with meaty issues in a way that is both thought-provoking and entertaining, and to tell a genuinely compelling story. As the audience will have suspected in the show's opening scene, everything is not, in fact, fine. But when Eleanor returns to the waiting room in the season's final scene, the new message on the wall might as well be speaking for the viewers: "Welcome! Everything is great."