• Sigrid Ellis

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    Sigrid Ellis is co-editor of the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies. She edits the best-selling Pretty Deadly from Image Comics. She is the flash-fiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction, from Lightspeed Press. She edited the Hugo-nominated Apex Magazine for 2014. She lives with her partner, their two homeschooled children, her partner’s boyfriend, and a host of vertebrate and invertebrate pets in Saint Paul, MN.
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Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, has been highly praised in the last year. Pulitzer finalist, optioned by HBO. You see what I mean.

It’s a good book. Though perhaps not for everyone. The tl;dr is:

Avoid if you can’t handle bad things happening to children, if you want to know whether an event is really happening or not, or if you want to know what the point of all of this was.

Read if you like narrators that do not know they are unreliable, if you want a complex story of poor judgement and failed consent, or if you love stories that understand the pervasive nature of failure.

Spoilers follow.

When I was entering college, my class was assigned to read the book Geek Love, so that we would have something to talk about during orientation. During the book discussion I said I didn’t really care for the book. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, I said, and this book didn’t have a plot. The characters wandered around thinking about their feelings, and I found it boring. (One of my new classmates told me that I didn’t understand it because I was immature, and that reading literature at college would help me outgrow fantasy books.)

I see my point then, and I also see that I might like a book like Geek Love more these days. When I was 17, I wanted stories to have a plot. I wanted stories to lay tracks down for me, to be a guide and a path towards my future. I wanted the books I read to tell me how things might could be, who I might could be, where I might fit in, how I could belong. I did not want stories about failure, or despair, or futility, or uncertain insecurity. I wanted stories where people figured out what was right, where mistakes were mended and purpose achieved. I was going to be a knight when I grew up, possibly a superhero. I was going to save the world — or at least save my friends — and I didn’t need books about confused muddling failure to get in my way.

I appreciate confused muddling failure more, these days.

Swamplandia! offers no easy answers. Nothing works out as planned. People fail spectacularly, catastrophically. There are lies and deceptions and hideous errors in judgment.

I have made hideous errors in judgment since I was eighteen. And, like the characters in Swamplandia!, I didn’t know what to do afterwards.

There is a scene, towards the end of Swamplandia!. In this scene, a character has done something awful to another character. The reaction of the character who has been on the receiving end of this is horribly, horribly perfectly written. Sometimes bad things happen because other people are evil. But sometimes you can identify a moment of bad decision on your part. How, then, is the fault apportioned?

Swamplandia! asks this question over and over again. And it doesn’t give any answers.

At the end of the book huge events have occurred. Lies have been exposed. Things have been said and done that can’t be undone. But the mysteries are replaced with new mysteries, and the lies … well, now there are new lies. New silences to replace the silences of before. Swamplandia! is an amazingly well-written book. There is nothing precious or pretentious about it, it races along in vivid prose. I can’t swear that everyone who reads it will enjoy it, however. If you want answers delivered in a tidy package this book will disappoint.

I wasn’t disappointed. I knew what I was getting going in, and Swamplandia! delivered.

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An A to Z of the fantastic city, by Hal Duncan

On the last day of Wiscon I was dashing through the Dealer’s Room buying books. I stopped at Small Beer Press for a few items, had a lovely chat with the folks there, and then noticed the small, pamphlet-sized volume on the table’s corner.

An A to Z of the Fantastic City, by Hal Duncan

I know of Hal Duncan’s work primarily as a blogger. A deeply funny, wickedly profane, sharply intelligent blogger. I first heard of him as That Scottish Sodomite, which, well, gives you an idea of the blog’s humor. I hadn’t heard of An A to Z of the fantastic city, and picked it up with enthusiasm.

Duncan’s work was the first thing I read upon getting home from Wiscon. I think this is because I had an impression that a collection of twenty-six short story-essays would be easier to digest than a novel. This was … a mixed presumption, on my part. An A to Z of the fantastic city is, indeed, composed of twenty-six short story-essays. But they are as easy or as hard as you let them be.

The collection is a guide, a travelogue, an encyclopedia of sorts, to unreal cities. But it’s more complicated than that. Heaven is listed here; so is London. Xanadu and Washington, Erewhon and Byzantium all have their place.

Time for an autobiographical digression.

Before I moved to Minnesota, I read an issue of the comic book Exaclibur in which our hero, Kitty Pryde, met her favorite band, Cats Laughing. The band members were Emma Bull, Steve Brust, Lojo Russo, and Falcon. Three of those people are real; I’ve met them. One is a fictional character created by another member of the band.

When I moved to Saint Paul for college, I read a book called War for the Oaks. In this book, the members of a struggling rock-and-roll band in Minneapolis find themselves embroiled in a war between the light and dark fae. There’s a war on in the streets of St. Paul, a war taking place in Como Park and at Minnehaha Falls. Our hero meets the fae queen at the top of the Prospect Park lookout tower. The showdown takes place at a Battle of the Bands inside the First Ave nightclub.

It was, I think my second MiniCon before I saw the band Cats Laughing play. I saw Emma and Steve and Lojo, with a drummer whose name I do not recall but who was not an alien prince on the down-low. As far as I know. I’ve climbed down the stairs and stood at the foot of the Falls, I’ve been to the Como Park Conservatory many times, I’ve attended shows at First Ave. And none of this reality has ever managed to eradicate the fictional lives these places and people had in my mind before I ever met them.

Hal Duncan understands this.

Hal Duncan knows that the world is a palimpsest of experience, that reality is the fictions we lay on it. He knows, as Elizabeth Bear said at a Wiscon panel on Sunday past, that history has no narrative; we impose one on it. And if that narrative contains goblins and elder gods, so be it.

I’ve never been to Byzantium. But I have been to the fantastic city of Byzantium. I’ve never been to Oxbridge. But I have a perfect map of it in my head, I know its stones and lanes and I know the river and its punts.

An A to Z of the fantastic city is a guidebook. But I fully expect that half of you already have been to half these places. You know them as well as Mr. Duncan or I do. Which makes this book not only a guide, a record of things for the unfamiliar, it makes it a series of love letters you might have written once, a long time ago, and forgotten.

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Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

I recently re-watched the 1987 film Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. This movie was incredibly important to me as a teenager. That is not the same as saying it’s a good film. Nope. Not the same thing at all.

For those of you who haven’t seen this gem, the gist of the film is as follows. The last of the Elm Street children are all in a locked psych ward for various reasons having to do with sleep disorders. Nancy, the protagonist of the first film, is now a doctor specializing in sleep disorders. She comes to the clinic, realizes that the kids are being hunted by Freddy Krueger in their dreams, and tries to work with the kids to kill Freddy. (The necessary backstory from the first film is that, while alive, Fred Krueger was a child molester and murderer. He was killed by the parents of the town he lived in, burned alive. Now he is a malevolent spirit that kills the kids of those people in their sleep.)

The Elm Street films have a few threads of horror that I find interesting. First, the victims are being punished for something that they did not do. They are sacrificial repayment for a crime committed by the people entrusted with their safety — their parents. Second, the parental sins are compounded in each film by neglect and abuse. The parents of the Elm Street kids are self-absorbed, controlling, or absent. They are alcoholics or violent, they are deaf and blind to the pain their children are experiencing.

The third thing added in this third film is that Freddy’s victims are blamed for what is happening to them. In the first film the deaths are perceived as murders or bizarre accidents. In Dream Warriors, Freddy sets up each death to look like a suicide. The kids are not merely dying, they are despised for their weakness. They are fighting Freddy with all their might, but are viewed with contempt as weak-willed quitters.

When I was fourteen years old, I internalized some of this. The idea that psychiatric problems were despised, were character flaws. The idea that everyone entrusted to help you will fail. The idea that you can tell the truth, scream it, and no-one will believe you.

This was, perhaps, not the best worldview for a teenager to take as writ. But, ah, well, there you have it.

On re-watching this film, I found I hadn’t imagined these themes. Kristen (played by Patricia Arquette) is specifically blamed for her suicide attempt, despite her telling everyone that it wasn’t her it was the guy from her dreams. And the group discussion after Phillip’s death overtly blames him, saying he gave up. Nancy is deemed weak and irresponsible for taking the medication she does, and for recommending it to others. And the moment Dr. Gordon becomes sympathetic to the kids fears, he is suspended from the hospital.

One of the central themes of many kinds of horror is powerlessness. In the Elm Street franchise you are always at your most vulnerable when you are asleep. Freddy attacks you while you are engaged in a biological function you can’t avoid or resist. (The recent Nightmare remake with Rooney Mara has a great time with this.) Dream Warriors has a few excellent scenes of Kristen fighting sleep with everything she’s got. What makes these moments frightening is that we know she has to lose. We know she will fail; it’s just a question of how and when.

But this sleep-related powerlessness is always intertwined with a second sort — the fact that no-one believes the victims. The systems of relief and succor fail, shimmering into intangibility as soon as the kids reach for them. Police, hospitals, parents, physicians, all make decisions that are the worst possible for Freddy’s victims. His dream-based assaults have the effect of subverting the proper order of the world and human relationships. His victims are isolated by an abuser who forces them to share his secrets.

Funny thing, that, considering the character’s origin is a child-molesting murderer.

This bring me to what is probably the worst part of this film. They change Freddy’s origin story. Well, not change it entirely — a layer is added, about his mother being raped by mental hospital patients. The exact line is, “bastard son of a hundred maniacs.” This cheapens and weakens Freddy’s power, in my view. A huge part of what makes him so creepy is that he really was murdered by the parents of these kids. Burned alive by nice, normal townsfolk. He was evil when alive, but he was also wronged. Making him be supernaturally evil in some sort of genetic curse way justifies the families’ choice to murder him.

If you make the parents’ choice correct, you remove the best betrayal in these films — the moment when the kids find out that their parents are lying murderers. And the extra-special betrayal when the parent tells their child this evil was done on the kid’s behalf. In essence, “Freddy is after you because I killed him on your behalf, so this is really all your fault in a way.”

How sucky is that.

This film is … really a mixed bag. Patricia Arquette is great as Kristen, even when given some awful lines. And the moments where she gets to react to things are superb. I am very fond of Taryn, though I detest the dream-makeover she undergoes. I love the character of Nancy to pieces, but find Heather Langenkamp’s acting to be not up for the task. The special effects are much, much worse than those from the first film. The dialog is incredibly uneven. The scenes where Freddy is killing people are played for laughs, not terror.

But. For all of that, I still love this film. There is a stubborn-stupid refusal on the part of the kids to give in or give up. They have no reason to continue fighting, but they do. They each held out on their own, alone and isolated, until they found each other. Upon finding each other, they team up to defeat the villain.

Kind of like the Avengers, am I right?

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Haywire

I saw Haywire, the action movie starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, on Tuesday.

What I knew going into the film is that it starred Gina Carano. That she is or was a mixed-martial-arts fighter. That Channing Tatum was in the film. That is was directed by Stephen Soderberg. That was it.

What I did not know is that the movie also stars Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassbender.

Haywire is a good action-thriller. It’s very similar to the Jason Bourne movies. Carano plays Mallory, a private black ops contractor for whom things have gone terrifically wrong. She’s been betrayed, by someone. She spends the movie fighting to get her good name back.

This is noteworthy. At no point does Mallory fight to protect a child. She’s not married, has no kids or nieces or nephews. There is no kidnapped child in this film. Moreover, Mallory does not rescue women from prostitution or human trafficking. She does not free or rescue women from the drug trade. Mallory does not fight for family, love, or principles of universal justice. She does not defend the weak and downtrodden.

What Mallory does in Haywire is what male action heroes have been privileged to do for nearly a century of film. She’s fighting to get back at the people who betrayed her. She fights because she’s been not merely framed but slandered. And she cannot allow that to stand.

How refreshing.

Another point of note —

At no point does Carano change her clothes on-camera. She is in control of her sexual agency throughout the entire movie. At no point does she strip in order to distract someone. At no point is she threatened with rape.

In fact, no character is threatened with sexual assault at any point in this film.

The writing and dialog in the film are quite good. The plot is a typical international double-cross. The acting is superb. Carano is … okay, she’s not superb. But she’s good, and she carries her parts of the emotional plot of the film very well. The soundtrack is fascinating — it’s nearly European, in that it choses to not have music during many scenes. This adds a realism and immediacy to the action. Moreover, the sound editing all together leaves in many, many background sounds and noises. Shoes squeak.

There is a … not a chase scene, but a scene where Mallory is being tailed. It is an amazingly tense scene. The filming of it was gripping.

Haywire does not pass the Bechdel Test. This points out that the Bechdel Test is a guideline, a principle, not a hard-and-fast limit.

Haywire is a good, solid action flick. It is groundbreaking in a way that I find … heartbreaking. It is groundbreaking in that the sex and gender of the main character really doesn’t matter to the film at all.

The Native Star and steamfeminism

The 2010 Nebula Award nominees were announced today, including among their number M. K. Hobson’s The Native Star.

I just finished The Native Star, on a friend’s recommendation, and quite liked it. I don’t want to go into the story too much here, to prevent spoilers, but here is my recommendation —

Avoid this if you: prefer male point-of-view characters, dislike a romantic b-plot, prefer optimistic protagonists, are tired to death of steampunk and/or zombies.

However, read The Native Star if you: like a bit of cynicism in your narrative voice, enjoy in-depth world-building including competing schools of magic, want a book about adults instead of teenagers, don’t mind a bit of environmentalism with your zombies and steampunk.

I hesitate, truly, to call this steampunk. But it’s a mid-to-late 1800s historical U.S. AU (alternate universe,) and it deals almost entirely with competing schools of thought about how the world should be run — magic, science, different schools of magic, etc. I think the Big Bad’s revealed [redacted] in the plot to [redacted] makes it steampunkish.

The attitude of the protagonist is one common in this second-wave steamwhatever that I’ve been reading — a scrappy attitude of trying to get by in a economic and social world comprised of systems run by men, for men. I’m thinking of Gail Carriger’s Soulless and it’s sequels, I’m thinking of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker and DreadnaughtDreadnaught in particular.

Is it punk when the stories simply try to take an honest look at what the lives of women might be like in these Victorian AUs? Is it punk, bravado and rebellion, to imagine women in a world engineered for men? Or is it not a punk anger that simmers under the surface of these female protagonists, but a feminist will? None of the protagonists of the books I’ve mentioned complain about their lot in their worlds as women. They are angry about specific things they face, zombies and werewolves and vampires and demons and blood magic, sure. Who wouldn’t be? The characters accept that the world is manifestly unfair, and then set about doing the best they can in it. That determination is remarked upon as unfeminine, unmannerly, and unladylike. And the female protagonist characters by and large respond with a steel-willed anger.

Anyway, check out The Native Star if you think it sounds right for you. And if you want to ponder whether the existence of female determination and anger is enough to be dubbed revolutionary, or “punk,” read the other books I mentioned.

Feed, by Mira Grant

Neuromancer did not foretell the future. William Gibson’s novel, the work that brought “cyberpunk” out of the short stories and fringe elements of SF and into the limelight, it did not come true. It was not prophecy. What it captured, instead, was the feeling of a mostly young, angry, disaffected, hopeful, alienated segment of SF readers. If you were one of those young angry hopeful disaffected people when you read Neuromancer, it was a Damascus Road moment. (If you weren’t one of them, then you didn’t really get the big deal.) The skies opened and the holy blazing light of revelation fell upon you, and you were blinded by a truth too large to see. This., your heart raged from within you. This is mine.

I can’t tell for certain, but Mira Grant’s Feed might be some new generation’s Neuromancer.

I don’t say the new generation. I think the science fiction and fantasy reading world is too fragmented to have a universal truth dropped by a single book. But neither do I mean that Feed will be meaningful to A Few People simply because every book is meaningful to someone. I mean … I mean that Feed is going to be read by enough people who relate to the emotions in this book that they will integrate it, they will recognize it, they will adopt its messages and ways of thinking about the future as their own.

Feed is a story of hope the same way that Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency is one of the most profoundly hopeful humanist manifestos I have ever read in fiction. Hopeful the way James Alan Gardner’s Explorer Corps books are hopeful. Hopeful in a way that grabs you by the collar and slaps you a couple of times, shouting, “so what the holy fuck are you gonna do now?!” Feed does not condescend to the reader, it treats the reader like a grown-up who can by-god step up to the responsibilities of living honorably in a fucked-up world. This isn’t the hope-free individualism of Neuromancer, peering warily at the possibility of a world without nuclear holocaust. Nor is this the cynical opportunism of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, living off of pride when there’s nothing else left. Feed lunges at the reader demanding some frakking engagment. This isn’t a slouching sideways glance, a shrugged invitation to a cultural moment. Feed is bear-hugging you with the zeitgeist and doesn’t care much if you can’t catch your breath.

What is that zeitgeist? Zombies, certainly. The fear that, at any moment, the physical world will betray us and we will be revealed as our worst enemy. Take that for whatever metaphor you please — human destruction of the environment, antibiotic resistant diseases, GMO crops, hormone-addled food in our children, domestic terrorism, gays living next door, it doesn’t matter. Whatever you think might suddenly reveal itself to have been your enemy all along, that’s zombies. But zombies aren’t the only Thing Of The Moment in Feed. There’s a distrust bordering on disgust with top-down media. Yet there’s a yearning for, a search for a traditional institution in which one could place one’s trust. A Good Politician. The CDC. Feed also celebrates family of all sorts. Found family in the Mason siblings, found family in the bloggers. Traditional family in the Ryman’s. Family is interrogated, critiqued, and judged in Feed, with the conclusion that human connections are necessary and valuable and just as likely to get screwed up as any other thing — but that doesn’t make family something to abandon or throw away.

Feed is a book about hope. About trust and faith. It presents a world in which faith is perverted and trust is betrayed and good intention has caused global calamity, and that is no kind of reason to stop trusting or to lose faith.

This is not the cultural moment in which I came of age. I read Future on Fire in a train station in 1991 and I kept wiping the tears from my eyes because I could feel its alienation in every part of my being. (I was also eighteen years old and very melodramatic. These things happen.) That was a world of people completely unable to reach out to others around them, no matter how hard they tried. Feed presents a future in which alienation is completely justified, yet all the characters exist in a web of relationships that are at the core of their identities. The bloggers have no job or purpose without a world of people who care. The politicians have no votes without engaged people who care. Cynical or not, this is a world of people who are real because of their connections to each other.

I’m glad this is someone’s cultural moment. I’m glad that this is one possible zeitgeist, identified only in hindsight as we all glance back at it. Today is my daughter’s eighth birthday, and I would rather give her the future of Feed, zombies and imminent threat of death included, than the cold struggle for power and identity that belonged to Molly and Case.

You tell me; reviewing Black Swan

I saw the classic Catherine Deneuve film Repulsion in college. I saw it in the college’s weekend cinema at at time in my life where I was reasonably unhappy. I walked out of the theater sick and shaking and half-convinced that I was going out of my damn mind.

I really don’t like stories that want you the reader to guess the ending. I don’t like stories where you don’t know at the end whether the narrator is crazy or dead or it was all a dream or whatever. Just tell me, oh author, because if I wanted nauseating helpless uncertainty I would stick with real life and ponder the death of the environment.

Given both of those facts you would think that I hated Aronofsky’s Black Swan. I didn’t. I loved it.

It’s hard to say one loves a movie so painful to the narrative protagonist. Nina, played by a manically tightly-wound Natalie Portman, is either really turning into a swan or she is really going out of her damn mind. And either option, transformation or madness, seem preferable to her life of unrelenting emotional abuse and repression. But Portman is freaking transcendent. Every single line, every single look, is an acting tour de force. Every single gesture, because this is such an intensely physical film. Every breath, deliberately caught by the microphones during moments of exquisite dancing, is a triumph of an actor who is giving the performance of their life.

How appropriate, in a movie about a dancer giving the performance of her life as a character giving the performance of her life to defeat her evil alter ego giving the performance of her life. Which reminds me, go look at the credits page for the movie. Every lead actor has two character names, one of which is from Swan Lake. The movie is a movie interpretation of the ballet their characters are interpreting. Worlds within worlds, a style of storytelling that I usually detest with its emphasis on being cleverer than the audience. But that’s not the case here. Aronofsky is not interested in showing us how clever he is. He shows us with relentless clarity how transparent the metaphor is. We the audience are invited into his shell game to see the horror unfolding from the inside. He holds our hand and points out the landmarks on the way.

Every actor in the movie was amazing. Mila Kunis was impossibly perfect as Lily, the Black Swan. Easy and confident and sexual and inhabiting her body as if it was a pleasant place to live. She is also dangerous and manipulative as the charismatic can be. She’s not a genius, not a perfect and inspired dancer, but the company (and the movie audience) is compelled to watch her.

Vincent Cassel was spot-on as the director of the company (and The Gentleman.) Demanding, abusive, manipulative, and at the same time he got the performances he wanted from his dancers. He is a bastard and I want to see him arrested or fined or something, but he likely is a genius. This is really important, this balance. Too often we see a caricature of this sort of man, a mustache-twirling villain who is so abusive that I cannot fathom why he still has a position of authority. In this case I believe in Thomas Leroy. I believe that he consistently delivers stunning performances, I believe that he gets the absolute best out of his dancers. I believe that they hate him and crave his praise.

Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers, The Queen, is frightening. Her love is a sucking tide of ego-death. There is nothing she doesn’t want for her daughter — except anything her daughter wants that is not The Queen’s own goals. The sheer invasiveness of this is impossible to convey to you. You must see it yourself. The part where I actively shuddered was not where she threatens Nina, but where she trims Nina’s nails. It was horrifying in everything it implied.

Winona Ryder played Beth Macintyre, the Dying Swan. I had the most trouble looking at this part objectively because all I could think was “oh my god I have gotten old, if WINONA RYDER is playing the middle-aged retiring ballerina.” Which is true, I have gotten old, and I’m okay with that. But the nuances of her performance were lost in my head, entwined with memories of Beetlejuice, Heathers, Mermaids, and Girl, Interrupted. That’s my fault, I think, not hers. It is a tribute to her that I didn’t recognize her at first, until she said the line “suck his cock,” and there is something in the way she hits her final consonants that is unmistakable.

Natalie Portman.

Much has been made of the sheer work Portman took on to become a ballerina. That is a feat in and of itself. But so was her performance and delivery. Portman’s acting career has been sort of inexplicably uneven, with brilliant performances like the girl in Leon, inane drivel in romantic comedies, and performances seemingly faxed in from another continent like her work in Attack of the Clones. But I have always held that Natalie Portman can actually act and she proves it here without any question.

This is not an easy film. I averted my eyes from the screen more than once. The much-ballyhooed sex scene between Nina and Lily is not sexy, it is wrenching and frightening. At no point in the film does Nina seem to have any ownership of her body. She is constantly touched by others, sexually, professionally, invasively. It is painful to see her will so stunted and twisted. People are not bonsai, yet that is Nina — a bonsai, molded by the will and hands of others to be one beautiful thing and to be nothing else at all.

The most terrible fact of this molding, though, is that Nina desires nothing else but to succeed at the goal set for her.

Is this agency or collaboration? Is Nina a victim or a participant? Does she desire Leroy or fear him? Is she really turning into a swan, or is she completely freaking delusional?

I don’t know. The movie doesn’t give clear answers. This is a film like Mulholland Dr. where intelligent people can talk about it for hours and still not be sure they even have their facts right. I want for Nina to have been turning into a swan. I want for her to be a collaborator with agency, a participant in her own destruction. That would be a satisfying story to me. But I can’t argue against other interpretations. At least, not without seeing it a few more times.

Tell you what. You go see Black Swan. You watch the movie and think it over, and come up with your theory of what happened. And then we can talk it over. You tell me.