Monday, May 6, 2019

Nebula's Arc

by John Petrila

This essay contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
I've seen Endgame twice now, and after letting it settle a bit I just had to write out a post talking about how phenomenal Karen Gillan is as Nebula in this film. I'm going to talk about the entire arc of her character in this movie, so if for some reason you missed the spoiler warning in the title, get thee hence and go watch this movie, then come back.

Cool? Cool.

One of the things I loved most about Endgame in general is the massive amount of long-term character payoffs we get in this film, and Nebula is one of the most significant examples of this. From the very first time we see her, she is playing a game with Tony and is clearly so warped (still) by Thanos' upbringing that she assumes the only way to win is through raw aggression. Once Tony explains the rules of the game, and then Nebula actually wins, the look of shock on her face speaks volumes. The point of the game was just to have fun, not to prove anything, and the handshake at the end of the scene was exactly the sort of gesture that she'd been so hellbent on walling herself off from earlier in her life, viewing it as a sign of needing support; of failure and weakness (we'll come back to that in a bit).

Then you have the heartbreaking montage of Nebula insisting Tony eat the last of the rations and fixing him up while he sleeps, a far cry from her "of all our sisters, I hated you the least" declaration to Gamora in Guardians 1. To add to this, in his message to Pepper, Tony describes Nebula as "only slightly sadistic". Which, even taking Tony's sense of humor into account, is a far cry from the Nebula of old.

When she gets back to earth, Nebula immediately comforts Rocket, and then in her scene where she explains where Thanos has gone, she is mirroring almost exactly Gamora's speech to the Guardians and Thor in Infinity War ("For as long as I knew Thanos, he only ever had one goal...", paraphrasing/"My father spent a long time trying to perfect me..."). These two moments are very elegant ways of showing just how far Nebula has come in terms of confidence and emotional vulnerability/openness.

Her reaction at Thanos' death is also poignant, but unlike Gamora's weeping in Infinity War when she kills the Reality Stone illusion version of Thanos (which I will forever hold up as one of the most perfect examples of the counter-intuitive mind-screw that is mourning an abusive relationship that I've ever seen in a film), Nebula merely solemnly closes Thanos' eyes and moves on. She has made her peace with what was done to her, gets her closure, and walks away.

Later in the film, we come to what is perhaps my favorite character moment: Nebula's conversation with Rhodey in the Temple of the Power Stone. I know most of the fandom is highlighting and underlining the all-female superhero moment in the finale as a powerful moment of representation, which it is. But as someone with a physical handicap, seeing two people who have been literally, physically bent out of shape or torn apart by circumstance bond over their shared trauma and resolve to continue kicking ass anyway (because damn it, that's just what needs to be done to save the universe) was incredibly powerful for me to see. In my particular minority, it's very uncommon to see representation in an action movie in a role that isn't relegated to something like tech support from a wheel-chair. So thank you for that one, Endgame.

Of course, on the heels of that we get the jewel in the crown of this performance: when Karen Gillan plays two versions of the same character at the same time, and you can clearly see just how different each of them is. 2023 Nebula knows exactly how to go for the throat of her 2014 self "You're weak/"I'm you", and leverages what she knows about Vormir to start winning over 2014 Gamora-- displaying a level of emotional openness and concern for her sister that 2014 Nebula would never show, as evidenced by the earlier moment where she slaps away an offered hand from Gamora. Later on, 2023 Nebula connects with Gamora and takes her hand, echoing her moment with Tony at the beginning of the film and directly counterpointing 2014 Nebula's prickly aggression.

Which leads, near the end of the film, to the most heartbreaking moment of her whole arc. When the two Nebulas face off, you can see 2014 Nebula hesitate, and try desperately to believe that she could, in fact, become the version of herself she sees before her eyes. But her trauma overcomes her, she breaks, and says "He won't let me [change]." The way she says it killed me each time I heard it, and the look on 2023 Nebula's face after she kills her is haunting. To say nothing, of course, of the pained look on 2014 Nebula's face and the tear that falls out of her eye as she slumps dead on the floor.

Basically, Gillan's performance is a master class in portraying the journey from abuse and pained isolation to self-acceptance, agency and emotional vulnerability and trust-- while also showing, via the 2014 version, just how far the 2023 version has come. Gillan plays two radically different versions of the same character equally convincingly, and manages to display a shockingly large range of emotions for being covered in facial make-up. I love everything about this performance, and I think that if it took place inside of a standard prestige drama movie, she'd get a nomination for an Oscar.

I'm so glad McFeely, Markus and the Russos let her take center stage for Endgame on the heels of her supporting role in Infinity War, because she brought the three-movie arc of this character to a resoundingly powerful conclusion.

I just hope Gunn isn't tied up too much longer by Suicide Squad 2, because Endgame made me so much more excited than I even thought possible for Guardians 3.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

By Fire Above, the latest novel by Robyn Bennis, is not the adventure story it deserved to be. This is a hard thing to say as I quite enjoy the irreverent and slightly manic quality the author brings to her stories. Sadly, while there are passages in Fire that work well, the book as a whole is sufficiently weighed down by its flaws that it struggles to stay airborne. 

Fire is the second novel in Bennis' Signal Airship series, a steampunk offering centered around protagonist Josette Dupre, captain of the airship Mistral. Bennis' first novel, The Guns Above, followed Dupre's trial by fire as the first woman to command a combat airship. Her need to prove herself and gain her crew's confidence as captain provided that book's primary source of dramatic tension. At the close of The Guns Above, Dupre's command bone fides are established, both with her crew, and the Ganarian Kingdom's high command. Even the enemy Vin, awed by her heroics, refer to both Dupre and the Mistral as "The Shark". 

By Fire Above begins where Guns left off, aboard the battered Mistral in the aftermath of the first novel's climactic battle. It's a tricky starting point. The dramatic energy and tension, expended in battle just ended, are at low ebb. The wounded Mistral and her depleted crew head back behind the lines for refit, replacements and some much deserved R&R. Spare parts shortages and logistic snarls delay the Mistral's return to combat, forcing Captain Dupre to spend her time attending galas, rubbing elbows and playing politics with Ganria's upper crust, and dallying romantically. Despite two ship-board incidents inserted to boost the tempo of its early chapters, the first half of By Fire Above drags badly.

Even in the absence of action sequences, the nuanced shadow play of high-stakes political intrigue is endemic to seats of power during wartime. This should have provided ample edge-of-your-seat story telling opportunities. Unfortunately, in By Fire Above, Bennis never really engages their potential. In large part, this is Josette Dupre's fault.

In order to convince us of the captain's badass bone fides, Bennis continually resorts to dumbing-down the other inhabitants of her steampunk world. At times this is such a naked device I'm reminded of Spengo, the planet of idiots from Mom and Dad Save the World.  Faced with the kingdom's political and social elites Dupre yawns her way through one political or social confrontation after another, either deflating or overawing imperial aristocrats and bourgeoisie, according to the needs of the plot, with unrealistic aplomb. Amusing at first, this device quickly becomes tedious. By hobbling Dupre's supposedly dangerous political opponents in order to make the Captain appear formidible, Bennis jettisons much needed opportunities to inject dramatic tension and narrative velocity into the story. 

Absent drama from Fire's political intrigue, Bennis is forced to keep the reader engaged by playing for laughs. But humor and the odd dallop of pathos (particularly when so much of the humor depends on her lead characters smirking and rolling their eyes) aren't enough to sustain By Fire Above through the novel's early chapters.       

Finally, in chapter eight, Dupre and the Mistral depart the capital to besiege the city of Durum, occupied by the enemy Vin, and the story gradually picks up much needed steam. While Durum has no strategic value, it's Dupre's home town and her mother and assorted friends are trapped there. In order to free them, Dupre has convinced the King of Ganaria that the city is only lightly defended: a perfect training mission for a newly minted army division (jokingly referred to as the Fearless Fops) in need of 'blooding'. The Mistral accompanys the mission, only to find that Dupre's intelligence as to the defenders' strength is on the unreliable side. Hijinks ensue.

This is where Bennis seems most comfortable, and where the steampunk world she's created comes to life. The city provides a well drawn backdrop for the book's second act, and its siege is a marvelous set piece with many moving parts. Shifting her point of view between Dupre, aristocratic second son Bernat, and young Ensign Kember, Bennis deftly shows the parts off in detail while keeping the larger action moving at a brisk and steadily rising tempo.

Even here, though, Bennis' characters and plot often ring false. She repeatedly breaks through the belivability envelope in order to push the plot forward, or to deliver Dupre and her companions from disaster. Events hinge too often on characters acting against character, or wildly improbable strokes of luck becoming unaccountably probable, causing the story to lose its natural flow and become forced. Fortunately, the brisk pace of events Bennis maintains in the second half of the book are sufficient to keep the story aloft.

Bernat, the preening aristocrat, largely delivered comic relief in The Guns Above. He begins By Fire Above in much the same vein, but as the book moves from the capital city to the front Bennis begins adding depth to his character. Indeed, by the end of the book Bernat is in many ways becoming more interesting than the tin-typed Dupre, who has gained scar tissue from the adventure, but little by way of wisdom or insight. Indeed, during By Fire Above's denouement, Bernat shows himself the wiser of the two, and gets the book's best line in the bargain.

Ensign Kember's character ends By Fire Above much as she began it: primarily a vehicle for reflecting Josette Dupre's brilliance. Despite negligence on Dupre's part that puts Kember and the Mistral in avoidable peril (and could result in the ensign's court martial on capital charges) her hero worship remains undimmed. It will be interesting to see whether, should the series continue, she will cease to see her captain through rose tinted aeronaut goggles and move past the role of dutiful side-kick.

When all is said and done, By Fire Above is bouyed up despite its flaws by the irrepressable sense of fun Bennis brings to her writing. It's a quality that will allow many readers to ignore (or at least quickly forget) the smoke and occasional clanking eminating from the steampunk engine room, and simply enjoy the airship ride. In the current science fiction and fantasy zeitgeist, fun action-adventure stories are often dismissed as 'pulp' fiction: comfort food written by lesser writers for lesser readers. Happily, Robyn Bennis doesn't read those memos.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Unsafe Spaces

by J.D. Popham

The world is trying to kill you.

Really. Not a joke. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The universe in general, and the Earth in particular, are working very, very hard at your untimely demise. From your first breath until you shuffle off this mortal coil, you are on a cosmic hit list as the world conspires to lay you low.

Image Credit: NASA/Don Davis
The good news is it’s not personal. The universe has it in for every living thing. It’s all part of the vast celestial clockwork we inhabit. Think of the universe as an unthinkably massive threshing floor on which the evolutionary wheat is continually and repeatedly separated from the evolutionary chaff. Its fell machinery is relentless, implacable and it never stops. Not ever. Like all other organisms on Earth or in the universe at large, humans are never far from the shadow of the winnowing fan.

To readers for whom being fed, warm and safe is the baseline state, this may sound a tad alarmist. Even in a year rife with natural and human-made disasters, things probably seem far less…perilous than I’m making them sound. In fact, if one were to put together a Relative Peril Scale showing the degree of immediate threat to which individual humans and the overall species are exposed, we’d find that humans are relatively safe at the moment.

Relatively. At the moment.

As they say on financial prospectuses, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Humanity's track record for dodging the universe's efforts to knock that smug look off our collective face only goes back a few hundred years. That's slim to the point of being non-existent when held up against a geological (let alone a cosmological) time table. The universe has plenty of time on its hands. It plays a long game. 

Such a long game, in fact, that human thinking goes a bit wobbly when we try to play on the same temporal game board. It’s hard for humans to take seriously threats that haven’t occurred within living memory, or that come at us so slowly and incrementally that our short-game brains dismiss them. This is why, against all common sense and scientific evidence, we have anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and the 'raw water' craze.

Science fiction, of course, has been tossing around the apocalyptic football for well over a century. With little required by way of pesky science, one can remake the world pretty much as one pleases in order to deliver a cautionary tale, moral message or post-apocalyptic theme park. The end of modern civilization is prime real estate for issuing doleful cautions and commentaries on the shortcomings of modern society and its institutions. Or for positing better worlds that might bloom from the ruins were apocalyptic upheaval to hit the the civilization reset button.    
Still, for all our noodling over the end of the world as we know it, science fiction’s post-apocalyptic societies of late seem, more often than not, surprisingly familiar places. They tend to reflect mindsets and moralities that have emerged during humanity’s moment of relative security. It is ironic that we raze our civilization to the ground so often and so blithely in our flights of fancy these days, yet seem reluctant, even a bit squeamish, when it comes to acknowledging the degree to which such events would also remake who we are.

Rachel, the protagonist of Jeff Vandermeer's Borne, for example, is presented as a hardened scavenger under constant existential threat. She lives in a devastated city situated on the banks of a toxic river, and afflicted by a giant flying bear who gobbles humans by the pawful. The city is chockablock with lethal traps and pitfalls. Sudden death lurks around every corner. Yet Borne's violence tends to occur offstage or at a far distance, rendering the humans who suffer death and dismemberment comfortingly anonymous. As a result, Rachel's character renders more as a twenty-something liberal arts grad living in a transitional urban neighborhood than as the hard-bitten survivor of a cruelly dystopian city.

In part this is endemic to story-telling. Audiences enjoy a tale more when they can admire or sympathize with an author's characters as they confront mutants, zombies, and roving gangs of apocalyptians® with perfectly horrible table manners. That's difficult to do if the chords of reason or emotion struck by the characters don't resonate with the audience. Stories that reflect the target audience's cognative biases are much more likely be successful than those that challenge them. Authors who peddle safe, comforting stories rarely want for work.

However, social media seems to have exacerbated this tendency, narrowed the spectrum of character with which it's acceptable to engage. Genre fiction in particular has become prone to literary ethnocentrism, with authors and audiences self-selecting into isolated cultural pockets, each confident in its own superiority and speaking only to its own. We have become dabblers around the edges when it comes to cultural collapse. The deeper waters are murky and have an unwholesome look. They teem with dark, discomforting ideas about who we are, and why, and what we are capable of becoming. Authors who enter the deep, who dare stir up such dangerous creatures, are rarely loved by those whose social paradigms they ruffle.

Yet, science fiction at its best dares those darker waters. It trades in unsettling ideas, gives witness to dangerous visions. It seeks to divine our essential nature: to look beyond the zeitgeist of our current cultural moment, pull down the mask of ought-to-be and catch us up in an unsparing glimpse of our own true selves. It forces us to grapple with our mutable nature, which is both curse and gift.

The universe, meanwhile, cares not a fig for our social paradigms. It merely subjects them to the relentless binary test it applies to everything: Will a given tendency improve your odds of avoiding extinction? That's it. Yes or no. Pass or fail. It will continue to shape us. At the margins for the moment, and wholesale should the institutions that protect us fail. Truths we think universal and immutable will be scoured away, and scoffed at by futures that (as most futures do) imagine themselves superior to the past.

Assuming there's anyone left to remember us at all.  

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Matter of Lists

by J. D. Popham

I was in San Francisco during Hugo Awards weekend, basking in the Bay Area cool while attending my brother-in-law's wedding. Both wedding and reception were held in his home and, being family and all, mine was a busy Saturday full of duties and distractions. Festivities and subsequent clean-up wore deep into the night before I let sleep take up it's knitting needles to knit up my much ravll'd sleeve of cares.  Then it was off to the airport godawful early, and a Sunday spent on airplanes in order to get back to DC at a respectable hour.

With all the rushing about I completely missed the Hugo Awards ceremony. Looking at the news and follow-ups it seems a case of slate voting being deployed as a means of beating back slate voting. More on that after I recover from the trauma of this year's award season.

I've been thinking a bit about top ten lists. I have my own top ten list of science fiction novels, of course, though I tend to keep it inside my head unless asked. But, after listening to reviewer and critic Renay's interview on The Coode Street Podcast (which I highly recommend - it's a fascinating discussion) I decided to lay out my personal top ten list. Straight from the shoulder, and true as I can make it. No fudging to make it seen erudite, respectable or diverse. Just my all-time favorites. My only rule was that I couldn't use the same author twice.

So here's my list, in no particular order. My comments on it follow.

1 -  A Storm Over Warlock by Andre Norton

In 1969 a woman opened a doorway for me. Stepping through to the other side I found myself on an alien world, and never returned to my point of departure. Forty five years have come and gone since I took Andre Norton's Storm Over Warlock down from a bookshelf.  I have journeyed a long distance since that day in many senses, having become unstuck from space and time by the act of reading it. This is hardly Norton's best work, but it was my first exposure to written science fiction and a vintage copy rests in a place of honor on my bookshelf.

2 -Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

This book tends to make both Science Fiction and Fantasy lists as it stands in near perfect balance between the two genres. It is the story of a select group of space travelers who have used technology to set themselves up over their fellow colonists as gods from the Hindu pantheon. One of their number, Mahasamatman (or Sam), undertakes to play the role of Prometheus and break the 'gods' rule over the rest of humanity. Along the way Zelazny delivers one of the worst puns in the whole of science fiction, but does so in the best possible way.

3) - Downbelow Station by C J Cherryh

One of the best 'ships in space' science fiction yet written. In Downbelow Station, Cherryh hits every marks she aims at. The richness of texture and scope of her storytelling is astonishing. Somehow the clash of fleets and the politics of interstellar war are kept in balance with Cherryh's depiction of the human lives caught up in events. Topping it off, this book delivers the iconic starship captain, Signy Mallory. Simply brilliant.

4) A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

Beautiful use of science to create characters and drive events in a story. One wickedly malevolent AI is inadvertently set free and tears into interstellar civilizations with mayhem on its mind. Vinge's description of the fall of major political and economic powers is riveting, as is his use of characters, both human and alien. It's up to junior librarian, two lost kids, couple of sentient trees and a planet full of dog-like aliens to save the galaxy's civilizations from destruction.

5)  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

A great bit of story-telling from LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness explores the role of gender in heroic tales by setting this one on a planet called Gethen, where people are neither male nor female most of the time, taking on gender only briefly for purpose of conceiving children. The social institutions LeGuin creates for a population in which one can be father to some children and mother to others are credible and well thought through. At the same time she delivers an engaging adventure story with politics, intrigue, betrayal, and a daring escape across a frozen wasteland.

6) A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.

Arguably the best post-apocalyptic science fiction story yet written. Set in the deserts of the Southwest United States after a nuclear war has destroyed civilization, A Canticle for Leibowitz follows the efforts of the monks of the fictional Order of Leibowitz as they attempt to preserve the remains of human knowledge following the nuclear holocaust. It's a ticklish task, what with humanity being by far the greatest danger to the monks and their precious horde of books.

7) Dune by Frank Herbert

Never mind the sequels that followed. Dune stands best on its own. The book is set in a future interstellar empire where noble houses owe allegiance to the powerful Padishah emperor. The story is centered around Paul Atreides, whose family is given stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, the sole source of 'melange' or 'spice'; a drug that makes navigating across interstellar distances possible and thus is the lynch-pin of the imperial economy. It is a coveted position, but a dangerous one given that the noble houses are in a constant state of intrigue and the Atreides' enemies  are plotting to end their family's line for good. While the larger plot arc is simple, the tapestry of politics, betrayal, religion, ecology, technology and culture Herbert weaves in the telling of it makes Dune a classic.

8) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Having barely fought off two alien invasions, humanity is searching for a military leader ruthless and brilliant enough to win an interstellar war, yet empathic enough not to become a despot once the war is won. Selected children, including the protagonist, Ender Wiggin, are sent to an orbital 'battle school' where they are trained, tested and evaluated. In lesser hands the machinery of the novel would have descended into trope-ridden military fiction. However, Card's deft handling of the characters, relationships and the emotional underpinnings of the story resonate powerfully. While Card himself has fallen from grace owing to his position on and recent statements regarding homosexuality, Ender's Game remains a brilliant piece of writing.

9) Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer to my mind, defined the Cyberpunk subgenre. It was the author's first novel and it hit the science fiction world like a lightning stroke. Science fiction hasn't been the same since. 'Nuff said.

10) Snowcrash by Neil Stephenson

It's a rare author who can deliver a complex plot filed with rich concepts, riveting prose and unforgettable characters. Its a rarer author who can do so with perfect narrative clarity while propelling readers through their story at high velocity. Neil Stephenson is a rarer author. Snowcrash follows Hiro Protagonist (last of the freelance hackers, greatest sword-fighter in the world and pizza delivery man for the Mafia) and Y.T. the skateboard courier as they search for the secret behind Snowcrash, a biolinguistic virus capable of infecting both machines and human brain stems.


Now, you'll note that my list includes no books earlier than 1960, or later than 1996.

None of that is for want of reading older books or more recent books. For example, I'm perfectly comfortable reading prose by Romantic and Edwardian writers and enjoyed reading both Shelly's Frankenstein and Wells' The Time Machine. But neither made my top ten because, while I believe they are essential reading for someone who wishes to be well grounded in the genre, I find the prose from that period uses a lot of literary conventions that tend to keep the reader at arms length.

Moving into the early to mid twentieth century, I like reading writers like Asimov and Simak. I find their books well constructed and their underpinning ideas rich and complex. But their characters tend to be weak, almost a secondary consideration, and fail to engage me as a reader.  Once again, they are on many 'must read' lists (including mine) for people who want to grok science fiction, but for my personal top-ten they don't make the grade. 

While I've been reading a lot of more recent works, there's not much out there that's really grabbed me. That's not to say I don't enjoy works published post-1996. However, much of the science fiction published of late are near-future dystopias or straight-up military science fiction. That's literary ground that has been so overworked that little of note grows there anymore.

Still, there are a number of newer writers such as Leckie, de Bodard and Weir who have side-stepped the mire of zombies and space marines and are turning out quite good work. None of them, however, have struck lightning with me so far. A number of my pre-1996 favorites, like Gibson, Stephenson and Cherryh are still publishing, but they seem to have lost some of their early zeitgeist. It's good writing; mature, solid and polished, as I'd expect with a master of the craft. But I no longer close their books wishing there were more.

However, it's all about the journey. The search continues. I'll keep you posted.