media consumption update

January 23, 2020

I’ve just finished reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I love Conrad’s writing and there are still a number of books of his I haven’t read. I’m working through them. This one is slow, but great, if that makes sense. So one of the things I love about Conrad — he’s been elevated to the canon, he’s considered a classic, literary author. But that wasn’t how he published. He was a contemporary of folks like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was writing the same kinds of things they were — adventure stories, mysteries, and so on. I mean, he’s such a good writer and his work is complicated and deep. . . but read him back-to-back with Haggard and you suddenly realize that Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are adventure thrillers. I love that.

The Secret Agent is a crime novel. It’s also a whole collection of character studies. But the chapter where it all comes together, the murder that marks the climactic moment. . .it’s masterful. Whew. I’m taking notes.

Moving on to my current obsession, The Witcher, which I have now watched through twice. How long do we have to wait for more? Hrm.

Wanting not just a fantasy fix, but the very specific fantasy fix I feel like The Witcher offers, I rewatched Dragonslayer.  I know I’ve sung the praises of this 1981 movie before. But it’s still great!  And it really does push the same buttons as The Witcher, which made me happy. I’m trying to figure out what makes this kind of fantasy tick. I think Willow and Ladyhawke fall into the same category.

What I’ve got so far:

Likeable, competent characters who are basically good people trying to do good. Even if they are wearing black leather.

Magic that is commonplace but also wondrous. That is, this is a world where there’s a kind of standard magic technology — but that only makes it all the more surprising and inspiring when someone pulls out some real genuine badass wild magic. It’s about pushing past what the characters think is possible.

The world may be grimdark, but the characters aren’t. The protagonists coming together to look out for each other in a grimdark world is one of the great appeals of this kind of story.

Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jokes are allowed. Poking fun at itself is allowed. Silliness is allowed.  Something Connie Willis says about romantic comedies — for a romantic comedy to work, the story can make fun of everything except the feelings of the main characters for each other. Mock and satirize whatever you want — but that relationship has to be real and genuine and honest.  I feel like there’s something similar going on with this kind of fantasy.  It can be funny, it can be cheesy. But there’s a core to the story — the goodness of the main characters, the power of magic when it’s used unselfishly — that has to be in earnest.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.

 

still we march

January 20, 2020

I spent Saturday at the Denver Women’s March.

Not as big as the first one, but those gathered are just as passionate and just as determined to hold whatever line we can against hate and corruption.

We can do this all day.

adventure ho!

January 16, 2020

Check another thing off the bucket list:  I’ve been snowshoeing. Twice, even.

I should have done this ages ago, because I really like it. Hiking, in snow. Generally, I don’t like the cold, but the snowy world is so beautiful and engaging it’s totally worth the extra prep and attention. Rocky Mountain National Park, one of my favorite places, is different in winter:

Bonus:  The first trip up was right after I finished watching The Terror, which added a certain zing to the adventure. This is up at Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. This picture is me actually on the lake, which is very frozen right now. How cool is that?

Seriously, I look like I’m about to dive into a James Bond adventure.

peak superhero TV

January 13, 2020

Binged two more shows over the last couple weeks, both of them superhero deconstructions. Both of them nominally about family as well, which puts them firmly in my wheelhouse.

Umbrella Academy. A group of children is born under strange circumstances, and an eccentric billionaire adopts them in order to train them up into a superpowered team that will be able to stop a coming apocalypse. Trouble is, they grow up, and most of them leave. Now as adults, they need to come back. Oh, and there’s also a couple of cross-time assassins gunning for one of them. This started out really well, I thought. The characters are all really well drawn, the situations are intriguing. The last few episodes start to fall apart when the plot starts getting driven by people being stupid. Particularly Luther. When the whole lesson of the story is so clearly “trust your peeps” and he is so determined not to…  Anyway, it’s generally fun and stylish and I liked it, even if the last couple episodes got frustrating.

Watchmen (TV). An impressive series that manages to be a genuine and generally fulfilling sequel to the graphic novel, with the addition of a whole lot more — and more specific, and therefore I think more successful — political commentary. The backstory of Hooded Justice? That’s how you do a retcon. Take a detail that was never really developed, then look at it in a whole new light, and maybe even build the whole story on it? Yeah, I’ll take it. This is truer to the book than the movie was, while still borrowing heavily from the movie’s aesthetics which I think was a good choice. I got impatient with some of the absurdities, esp. re: Adrian Veidt, some of the contrivances re: Dr. Manhattan. But I loved Laurie, and I’m sad we didn’t at least get a scene with Dan.

Anyway, we all bitch and moan about the number of sequels and reboots and all the rest, but then something comes a long that at least does something new and interesting. I still wish some more original properties and such would get developed. (hint hint, just putting that out there, Hollywood…)

There are still a ton of superhero shows I haven’t seen yet. The Boys, Raising Dion, Titans, Doom Patrol, and a bunch of others I’m missing. Too many to keep up with. I don’t even try anymore. (Which I think is part of what contributed to me basically not watching anything for a year or more. I just peaced out of the whole thing.) People are obviously finding new things to say about superheroes, or leaning hard into the familiar superhero tropes that people like so much.

I still can’t help but think we’re headed for a bust soon. Has any other genre so dominated pop culture? Even in the great heyday of the western, were westerns this pervasive?

I’m now officially curious what the post-superhero entertainment landscape is going to look like.

 

new year, week one

January 10, 2020

It feels like it’s been a busy productive week so far, and it’s fun to see other folks having this same experience. Like there really is a communal energy out there? All of publishing shuts down over the holidays — this year, what that meant was I got two sets of page proofs sent to me right before the holidays, due back right after the holidays. Ha! But those are done. Next, I’m spinning up book promotion and travel plans for this year. This feels very different than this time last year, when I didn’t really having anything new coming out. This business is so strange sometimes.

Speaking of strange… another window into freelance life:  30% of my income for last year landed in my bank account in the last two weeks of the year. This was mostly happenstance — finishing up a couple of big projects right at the end of the year, which means I got paid right at the end of the year. But this is one of the reasons freelancing can be so fraught — you just never know when the money is coming in. Don’t worry, I’m fine — but this is exactly why having savings that can cover 6 months to a year’s worth of expenses is such a big deal when you work for yourself.

I’m just about ready to pull the trigger on a trip to New Zealand for Worldcon this summer/winter. I’ve started looking into tours, and there’s just so much to see and it’s just so exciting! I’m also looking at pictures of birds. Ahh….

I’m definitely attending this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 18-21. This will be my first time at this conference, and I have to say, I’m really looking forward hanging out in Florida right at the moment I start getting brutally sick of winter.

I re-watched the first episode of The Witcher, and all the clues about the timeline are right there. The trouble is, if you have no context for anything and the names haven’t registered, it means nothing. It just sounds like vague fantasy jargon. Once you have context…then all becomes clear.

 

reading review 2019

January 6, 2020

I read 48 books in 2019. This includes novellas and graphic novels — if you take out the novellas especially, I didn’t read that many books at all. But there’s some really good work being done in novellas right now, so why not?

Eleven of these were re-reads, which seems like a big number. A chunk of that is the Ursula K. Le Guin collected Earthsea novels that came out last winter — read the whole thing, most of which I’d read before, and I decided to count those separately rather than as just one book. Several were revisiting books I read as kids, because I’ve been interested in getting a handle on my teenage/preteen reading aesthetic. I really liked short zippy adventure stories as a kid. I feel like this explains a lot about me.

Ten of these were non-fiction.

Four of these were Robin Hood novels, not my own. I haven’t even scratched the surface of Robin Hood novels out there — four new ones, not my own, came out just this year. I’m debating whether I should try to read more. This is a subject where everybody has wildly different takes. It’s fascinating.

My Robin Hood is completely different from any of the others I’ve read. Completely. As I said, it’s fascinating. You know, I do think I want to read some other takes on him. . .

 

The Witcher

January 2, 2020

Okay, binged the whole thing (only 8 episodes makes bingeing so much easier), and I decided this show deserves its own post because it really, really sucked me in.  I didn’t think it would, then it did, and I’m now picking it apart to figure out why. I will probably binge it all again soon.

It starts rough. It feels so much a part of this low-budget fantasy mode that always wears me out, like the World of Warcraft movie and that terrible Dungeons and Dragons movie. First off, The Witcher is a much better Dungeons and Dragons version than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie. But that still means there’s a pretty high self-important cheese factor. When discussing the early episodes with a friend, I referred to “Stupid Wizard School” and “The War of Bad Tactics.”

My friend had to tell me that these storylines are all taking place at different times and I need to hang in there until they converge. I was already willing to do that because A) only 8 episodes, B) broody fantasy Henry Cavill, and C) the raging feminist subtext.

There’s a conversation that happens a couple of times, in a couple of different versions, in the early episodes. It goes like this:

Dude: We need you to kill a monster.

Geralt: Hang on a sec, didn’t that monster used to be, like, a girl?

Dude: Well yes, but it’s a monster now, very dangerous. So you’ll kill it, right?

Geralt:  But she’s a monster now because you cursed her/neglected her/etc. It’s because of shit you did. This isn’t fair.

Dude: And yet, here we are.

And then Geralt will do his very, very best to try to save her. He doesn’t always succeed. He kind of hates people in general after a few rounds of this. This story is filled with women forced into terrible situations and then using whatever agency and power they have to get out of them, or get some kind of power for themselves. Also women and girls who are cursed, abused by destiny, in situations made worse by the selfishness and arrogance of the people around them. Geralt seems hyper aware of this, and it makes him very endearing.

So this looks like a typical fantasy centered on a badass sword-wielding dude. But the story is just about entirely driven by the choices and actions of women. I think that’s interesting.

The episode where things start coming together include a splendid live-action version of the “Hans My Hedgehog” fairy tale, which just about won me over. Then came the dragon episode. This was so neatly done, and so like an old-school D&D scenario, I just loved it.

Then suddenly, somehow, I felt like I was in the middle of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. (This is Steven Erikson’s massive epic fantasy series, the only recent epic fantasy series I’ve read all the way through.) The multiple timelines, the jumping around between misfit characters who aren’t part of the power structure. The huge, very confusing backdrop that doesn’t really matter because what’s pulling us through are these characters and their very focused, very personal stories. And then that mage battle, which felt like something Erikson would write. Magic here is common, but the implications aren’t.

The last minute of the last episode was perfect, and I almost went back to watch the whole thing right then. So. Yes. Every now and then I take a chance on a series and am rewarded with the reminder of why I love stories in the first place. Can’t wait for the next season.

Also, I’ve had that stupid song stuck in my head for three days now which basically makes it the perfect bard song. Long live the bards!