Things I Like: “Sing Sing Sing”

I think this is a contender for most joyous piece of music in the world.

 

A contender. I think there are likely many.

 

 

Here’s the nine minute version:

 

 

I think what makes this song so joyous to me is, in part, that it sounds a bit brash. Forceful. Demanding. In your face. It swings, it soars, it ignores you as it spins by, yes. But it also shouts at you, stands up, demands to be acknowledged. It’s the joy of “you can’t stop me,” the joy of “I will live my life the way I want,” the joy of “you can’t hurt me.”

 

It’s joy leavened with defiance. It’s very, very human. I love that.

Things I Like: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor

I was never a particularly musically astute kid.

I liked music, certainly. I listened to it. But I was never one of those people who went out of my way to find new music, or to learn about bands or composers. I was a music consumer, not a music fan. I listened to the albums my parents owned. Harry Chapin, Crystal Gale, Helen Reddy, Jesus Christ Superstar, the concert for Bangladesh.

MTV changed that, for me.

When MTV came along I was entranced. I loved, loved, the VJs, the bands, the costumes, the music. I became a fan of certain bands based on their music videos, on the clothes they wore and the way they implied a depth of world I had never considered. What was Madonna trying to say in “Borderline”? What were Wendy and Lisa in Prince’s Revolution implying? These were things I pondered.

When I moved out in order to go to boarding school I took a few cassette tapes with me. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. The soundtrack for Pretty in Pink. And I took a battered cassette that wasn’t mine. It was my father’s, and it was a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

I think this was the first piece of classical music I ever truly loved. I liked the 1812 Overture a lot, don’t get me wrong! Every year the Chicago Pops played the 1812 as the finale to the Fourth of July fireworks display on the lakefront. The fireworks were timed to the canon at the end, and who could resist that? Not me. But I found the 4th Symphony while I was poking through the collection of tapes in my dad’s office desk, looking for a copy of the 1812 Overture. I liked Tchaikovsky, I reasoned. I might try this.

It opens with this, this brassy clarion call, this shake of one’s shirt collar. It clears the mind, the opening of the 4th. And it ends with a Finale that takes no prisoners, accepts no quarter. It swoops and swirls and drags a person along.

At least, if that person is me.

I used to listen to the 4th while studying, at least, until I started listening to Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and all the other music of my roommates while studying. To this day the 4th steadies me, focuses my thoughts, calms me down and wakes me up.

It is, for these purposes, better than smoking. Those of you who have ever longed for that first cigarette of the day know whereof I speak. This is, to be clear, some serious shit.

I’ve looked up, or tried to look up, information about the 4th. Who it was written for, and why. What the story is. I didn’t find out much. It’s not like the 1812, with its story of war and bloodshed and last-minute rescues. The 4th is just, well, a piece of music. I don’t know that it’s supposed to be about anything.

That said, I can tell you what it is about.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor is a story of standing one’s ground. It’s about not letting things get to you, or get at you. It’s about staying firm, staying on task, staying focused. It’s a symphony of resolve. It music for keeping your chin up and knowing what you intend.

This isn’t combative music and it’s not forward momentum or charging through. It’s about knowing yourself. It’s about listening to the quiet in your head and shouting the exultation moments later. The finale hurtles wildly towards a conclusion that was pre-ordained from that first brassy call. At the end of the race you haven’t moved. But neither have you been moved.

Well.

I mean, that’s either what the symphony is about or it’s massively presumptive wish-fulfillment identification on my part. You know how that goes.

Either way, I love this piece of music.

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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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Things I Like: Sherlock Holmes

My love for Sherlock Holmes falls slightly outside my usual run of interests. (My usual run of interests, for those of you new to the blog, being more along the lines of attractive desperate women and stories about consequences.) Yet Holmes is a character I almost always adore.

1. In the currently-running BBC series Sherlock (the second season of which I have not seen yet, no spoilers please!) a police officer calls Holmes a psychopath. Holmes whirls and snaps at the man, the anger precise between his teeth, “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning sociopath, do your research.” This is a Holmes I love. I love the man completely adrift in humanity who makes a decision to use his powers for good and not evil.

He had to make the choice, you know. You know that at some point he sat down, possibly for days, and weighed his options. Good or evil. We have no way to know what went into the calculation, and goodness knows I pine to hear his thinking, the pros and the cons. But he had to decide.

This decision on Holmes’ part, this is very akin to the decision the X-Men make — to protect a world that hates and fears them. On a much smaller scale this is the choice that kids who are outsiders, or victims, or shunned, or neurologically atypical, or geeks must all make. When the world doesn’t seem to care much for you, when the world shoves, what do you do in return? Do you make the world a better or worse place? Do you grow up to become an abuser or a social justice advocate or a writer or an elementary school teacher or an administrative martinet? Do you use your powers, whatever they may be, for good or for evil?

Holmes’ decision is one we all have to make at some point. I love this version of Holmes because that choice fascinates me. I want to know how it is made.

2. I also love the Robert Downey Jr. Holmes of the recent movies. This Holmes is less sociopath and more unable to live inside his own head for more than a few moments. He casually insults people, but he also knows how to charm and sees the use of it.

RDJ’s Holmes is manipulative and codependent, and I like this about him. He is more comprehensibly human, afraid of experiencing personal loss, afraid of failure. There are people in the world, people I know, who move through life as though shot from a canon. They achieve, and succeed, and they always have a plan. And you can see just behind them the shadow of what they are leaving behind, even if you can’t identify it. RDJ’s Holmes is one of those people, walking briskly away from something that is totally irrelevant to the story at hand, save that it drives him on.

3. I also love the Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories. There is less character to love here, and more sheer brilliance. This is the Holmes I pine to be, the brilliant detective who doesn’t need anything but scientific truth. This Holmes appeals to my sense of order. Science, logic, rational thought, this is how I want the world to be. I want people to be deduceable, as well. In the Holmes stories, they are.

4. Laurie King is the author of a series of books, beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I fell madly in love with Mary Russell upon first reading the books — brilliant, self-contained, damaged, arrogant Marry Russell — but I quickly fell for both her relationship to Holmes and Holmes himself.

This Holmes is a man, very human. He is brilliant but he is also older. He’s had time to move past some of the insecurity and arrogance of youth. He is also an incredibly dedicated student, constantly working to maintain and improve his skills. He is a man who used to be chasing a need to be right; now he is chased by visions of how things can go wrong. This is Holmes with not only intelligence, but wisdom.

In the best possible universe, when I am sixty years old I will get to be some combination of King’s Sherlock Holmes and Bujold’s Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. (And don’t you now want to eavesdrop on those two people sitting down to tea? Don’t you want to know what they would say to each other? Fanfic writers, give me that, mmkay?)

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I was thinking about this due to an essay, A Scandal in Fandom: Stephen Moffat, Irene Adler, and the Fannish Gaze. It’s an excellent essay, and I don’t think I have more to say on it at this time. But it made me ponder what I personally get out of Holmes, and the variety of canon and fanon works pertaining thereunto. I think my take is that I essentially approve of all the Holmes interpretations that don’t make Sherlock distant and unengaged.

For me, personally, the core of Sherlock Holmes is a close-bodied grappling with the worst of humanity. Whether the contest is intellectual and clean, or visceral and bloody, Holmes is a character who is only alive when he is engaged with a problem. A Holmes who moves from cool and bored to cool and superior is not a Holmes I want to spend time with. I think both Moffat and King address this, in their very different ways. Laurie King’s Holmes is a man called out of retirement by life and youth and, yes, crime. The text explicitly acknowledges that he was stagnating, possibly dying, as a direct result of having no useful work. Moffat’s Holmes thrives on the conflict, the puzzle, the need to show his superiority. But it’s also clear that he stays engaged with other people, particularly Watson, to stay in touch with his own humanity. Two very different approaches with similar results.

Some days, I wish I could be Sherlock Holmes. Other days, I hope fervently that I am not. Whichever sort of day it is, though, I can’t let his character go.

Things I Like: James Alan Gardner’s League of Peoples books

James Alan Gardner is the author of a series of books referred to as the League of Peoples books. This series, in all of its depressing and hopeful glory, is one of the most comforting things I re-read on a regular basis.

The series of books, beginning with Expendable, makes the following presumption, which I quote in its entirety from Wikipedia:

“The League of Peoples is a fictional interstellar polity present in a series of novels by science fiction author James Alan Gardner. Although theoretically made up of every sentient race in the galaxy, in actuality the League is controlled by (from Humanity’s standpoint) hyperadvanced beings who have little concern for wants, needs, and desires of the less evolved races.

The League effectively has one law – no dangerous non-sentient creatures can cross between star systems. A dangerous non-sentient is defined by the league as any being which kills a sentient being or through negligence allows a sentient being to die. Any dangerous non-sentient that attempts to circumvent this law, or any being who knowingly aids in the attempt, is instantaneously but painlessly executed by the League. Although this renders interstellar war impossible, it does not prevent mayhem on individual planets, nor does it stop unethical behavior that stops short of murder.”

This has many repercussions, not least of which is to the soul of the human race. One of the principle questions the series raises is, what do you do when you know you don’t matter?

The character who ties all the books together is a woman named Festina Ramos. I’m going to quote at some length again. This is a passage from Expendable, taken from James Alan Gardner’s website. Festina Ramos is a member of the Explorer Corps for the human Technocracy. Here she explains what that means:

Listen. Here is what all ECMs knew.

Violent death is rare in the Technocracy. We have no wars. The crime level is low, and few incidents involve lethal weapons. When accidents happen, victims can almost always be saved by sophisticated local medical centers.

But.

There are no medical centers on unexplored planets. Death may come with savage abruptness or the stealthy creep of alien disease. In a society where people expect to ease comfortably out of this world at a ripe old age, the thought of anyone killed in the prime of life is deeply disturbing. If it happens to someone you know, the effect is devastating.

Unless…the person who dies is different. Not like everyone else.

Two centuries ago, the Admiralty High Council secretly acknowledged that some deaths hurt Fleet morale more than others. If the victim was popular, well-liked, and above all, physically attractive, fellow crewmates took the death hard. Performance ratings dropped by as much as 30 per cent. Friends of the deceased required lengthy psychological counseling. Those who had ordered the fatal mission sometimes felt a permanently impairing guilt.

But if the victim was not so popular, not so well- liked, and above all, ugly…well, bad things happen, but we all have to carry on.

No one knows exactly when the High Council solidified this fact of human behavior into definite policy. In time, however, the Explorer Corps evolved from a group of healthy, bright-eyed volunteers into…something less photogenic.

Potential recruits were flagged at birth. The flawed. The ugly. The strange. If a child’s physical problems were truly disabling, or if the child didn’t have the intelligence or strength of will to make a good Explorer, the full power of modern medicine would be unleashed to correct every impediment to normalcy. But if the child combined ability and expendability in a single package–if the child was smart and fit enough to handle the demands of Exploration, but different enough to be less real than a normal person…

…there was an Explorer’s black uniform in that child’s future.”

Expendable.

In some ways, the Expendable Crew Members are a complicated metaphor for the position of humanity within the League of Peoples. Not good enough, not bad enough to be repaired or restored. And just as the Expendables form elaborate coping mechanisms for their position, so does the human race. Each book in the series looks at a different path some individual human takes or has taken, and how that plays out.

There is a pervasive quality of depression through this series. What do you do, what is your purpose, when you know your existence is pointless? In Expendable, we meet Festina and her dogged insistence that purpose is a thing one makes for oneself. In Vigilant purpose is a form of apology and restitution. Hunted shows us what happens when a purpose is forced onto a person, and how one can regain personal agency. Trapped is a book for failed and fumbling knights, that reveals the high cost of holy quests. In Ascending purpose is claimed in the face of death. And in Radiant a number of universe-level secrets are revealed, so I won’t go into it here.

There is a theme I harp on. That theme is, It’s Not About You. You Are Not The Hero, You Are Lucky to Be a Sidekick. Everyone is, of course, the hero of their own story. When we are reminded that the world largely doesn’t care about us one whit, it can be a painful shock to the ego. James Alan Gardner writes about that, about that shock, and about the more useful or less useful ways we can choose to deal with it.

I think this is one of the most critically important life lessons we all need to learn, to understand. I think we must each recognize that other human beings are at the center of their own stories. The guy who cuts you off in traffic isn’t cutting you, personally, off. He doesn’t even see you. The garbage tossed onto the side of the highway isn’t thrown out to make you pick it up, it’s thrown out with no regard for anyone else, at all. The fossil fuels we steal from the future are taken because no-one understands that the future is real, that consequences exist.

I ask my kids all the time, “what did you think was going to happen?” I ask my kids all the time, “would you like what you did to be done to you?” In the League of Peoples books, humanity are the children. Limited and fumbling and behaving in ways entirely against their own self-interest. Yet the entire point of the series is, we can and do grow up.

I debate with myself whether Gardner undercuts his premise somewhat by making the narrators of his books Special People With Purpose. I think it’s a fine line. Mostly, I think he pulls it off. The protagonists are special, but it is made clear that they are special only on a most human and limited scale. Like a four-year-old being the best finger-painter in pre-school. Your opinion may differ from mine on this, and I think there is room for valid disagreement.

I hope you each reader this do try to find a copy of Expendable and give it a try. Gardner is a great writer, the prose is excellent. His characters are, uniformly, engaging and vividly different from each other. Moreover, the characters are a variety of races, sexes, sexual orientations, ages, and ability levels. All the narrators are human, more or less, though many supporting characters are not. Yet Gardner deftly avoids mapping human cultures onto alien races. The aliens are alien. And deeply weird.

I do not find this series depressing. I find it uplifting. I am at a point in my life where I appreciate books that understand that I know I’m not the protagonist of anything. I appreciate books about people who are not on a quest, but are just doing their jobs. I appreciate books about the failed, the muddled, the atoning. I like books about finding hope after hope is really a stupid option at this juncture.

If you like Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency or Orbiter for their bitter, bitter optimism; if you like Shadowunit or Fringe because here is a place where the flotsam and wreckage find a home; if you like Neal Stephenson’s books because of the intricate and detailed world-building — if these things are true, you will love the League of Peoples. Give it a shot.

Things I Like: 5ive Girls

5ive Girls is a movie about, well, here, I’ll quote the Netflix Watch Instantly page:

Ron Perlman (Hellboy) stars as the resident Catholic priest in this horror flick from director Warren P. Sonoda set in a reform school. When five troubled teenage girls are sent to the academy, they expect to clash with their keepers — what they don’t expect is that their keeper will be a demon named Legion who holds the institution in thrall. Luckily for the girls, they possess unique powers that enable them to battle the ancient ghoul.

All-girls’ haunted Catholic reform school story in which the girls have psychic superpowers. Short skirts. Too much eyeliner. Superpowers. Sadistic blond headmistress with a ruler. Possesions. Demons. Alcoholic ineffective priest. Very short skirts. Tight white shirts. Psychic superpowers.

Okay, if you, Gentle Reader, are not lured in by what I’ve said so far, then you are probably not going to like this film. Because it doesn’t offer much more than that. Jordan Madley is probably the best of the Teen Girl actresses, as Mara. (The juvenile delinquent thief with a fondness for knives and prescription drugs, who is a psychic healer.) Unfortunately, she’s not the lead. Jennifer Miller’s Alex (the telekinetic with daddy issues) has a lot more screen time and is less charismatic. Ron Perlman, who must have owed somebody on the crew a favor, gets all the billing but is, honestly, kinda phoning it in. Which I can’t really blame him for. The script is not great.

But …

But the writer/director, Warren Sonoda, has done something pure, here. Pure and gleeful id, to be sure. This movie is a cross between the movie The Craft, The Exorcist, every reform school girl / women in prison movie ever, and the X-Men comics. Or, more accurately, the premise from those comics of teenagers having secret powers. And, for that thing, it hits every mark. There is a lengthy strip-search scene. A show-and-tell in which the girls all find out about each others’ powers. Scenes in which demonic ooze penetrates sleeping girls. A bit where the girls cast spells. A scene where the headmistress spanks one of the girls. A power-walk of telekinetic fury. Attempted seduction of the priest. Almost-kissing moments between the girls.

It really hits every mark.

I love this movie.

As a movie watcher, a comic reader, a reader of fiction and non-fiction, there are times when I appreciate subtlety and complexity. Times when I want to be challenged. But there are other times when I want to watch 20-something actresses in really short skirts pretending to be delinquent high school girls with superpowers.

See, here’s the thing.

I was a high school girl. At a boarding school for geeks. I was variably delinquent; not as much as some, more so than others. I spent more time than I really care to admit trying to acquire superpowers. I was deeply in love with many of my friends, and not out to myself. I frequently felt helpless, felt that bad things were happening to people I cared about, things I did not fully understand and could do nothing to prevent.

Now, these things were not demonic possession, certainly. But abusive relationships with parents, various forms of self-harm, and suicide attempts of differing sorts all appeared among my friends at points during my high school career. And, being a teenager, none of these things were really talked about fully, or explained, or processed, or handled particularly well by me. I recall trying, a couple of times, to find adult help. But it never seemed to work out. I didn’t feel helped.

The narrative I applied to this emotional landscape, the story I told to myself to make sense of things, was part Knights of the Round Table, part Mercedes Lackey Valdemar books, and part X-Men. My friends and I, we were a misunderstood band of Special, Chosen People who were persecuted for reasons vaguely relating to our Special Purpose and Powers. We couldn’t trust anyone outside of the group, because they wanted to use us for their own ends. (Digression: The motto of my boarding school at the time was “You are the Leaders of Tomorrow.”)

I’m not saying that this is an accurate representation of my high school years. I am saying that this is the story I told myself in order to make my life a sensible narrative. Which brings me back to 5ive Girls.

The narrative through-line of this very poor movie is “everyone is out to get you, there is no help, but you and your friends are strong and you will stand together and fight.” I like that theme in many, many forms, in many genres. I like this theme when it’s done really well — Seanan McGuire’s books, for instance — and when it’s done more ham-handedly. In, say, the mid-80s Claremont X-Men. Or when it’s done well and heavy-handed, as in the Mercedes Lackey ouvre.

In 5ive Girls, this theme is executed poorly. But it is still meaningful to me. And, in this film, the theme comes with short skirts.

Things I Like: Miles and Ekaterine

There is an author. Lois McMaster Bujold. And she has written, among other things, a series of multiply-award-winning books about the Vorkosigan family. The books are science fiction.

On the surface, these books are space opera. If I recite the plots to you, they include space-ship hijacking, interstellar wars, galactic empires, and a band of space mercenaries. Yet these books are so very much more. They are books about people, and how people relate to each other. More than any other thing, though, these books are about the process by which we as human beings chose to become ourselves.

All of the books are like this. Cordelia’s two books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are about honor, and living with the choices you have made, and parenting, and grief, and living with the choices you make again. The earlier Miles books are about clawing your way out of what you think you should be and into what you can become. The later Miles books, particularly the three I think of as a trilogy — Memory, Komarr, and A Civil Campaign — are about realizing you never actually can get away from yourself, and how do you live with who you are?

These are books about choice. They are books about making decisions and then living with the fact that you are the person who made those decisions. They are books about how to live with responsibility and guilt without wallowing in those things. They are books about the very hard truths of adulthood, the ones I never realized until I was standing in the disaster of my life, wondering how the hell I’d gotten here. Miles and Ekaterine showed me how I got there. And they showed me what to do next.

The tag-line for Memory is “Miles hits 30, and 30 hits back.” That’s flippant, and does nothing to explain or sell the fact the the book is about the process of grieving. Not grieving for the death of a loved one, but grieving for the staggering loss of who you had thought you were going to be by this time. On some level I think that’s all a mid-life crisis is — grief. Or, more accurately, the denial phase of grief. But one thing I never heard when I was a kid was “your life will not follow your plan.”

I was not a kid with a big plan, I should note here. My plan, if I had one at all, was to dotingly follow my friends, and later, girlfriends, as they implemented their plans. Sidekick, that was my goal. Yet not even that plan unfolded the way I’d expected. Miles Vorkosigan goes through this, in the spectacular way that fictional characters do. Bang, not whimper. He makes a mistake, and makes a series of mistakes to cover up the first mistake, and ends up destroying everything of value in his life. As he sees it. All this happens in the first thirty pages or so. The rest of Memory is the grindingly painful process of figuring out what do to since he is inconveniently not dead.

I’ll give you the answer. You just go on. You take the day. And then the next day. And then the day after that. And you make something of your life that redeems, as best you can, what you screwed all to hell. If you have truly sinned, you owe it to the people you hurt and to your own self.

In Komarr we meet Ekaterine. And in this book we have two intertwining plots of ambition and the failure of ambitions. In both plots, the goals were not reached as intended and the persons involved must decide what to do about that. Go on, pretending that everything is fine? Give in and adjust to this new state of failure? Give up, break your word and walk away from everything you promised?

What does an honorable person do, when given no honorable choices?

At some point, decent human beings have to figure out how much they need to care about other people and how much about themselves. Ekaterine has historically erred on caring too little for herself. Komarr is about the pain of that. It’s about the pain of grabbing the tattered shreds of the you you once thought you could be and … taking them back. Taking back your selfhood.

A Civil Campaign is the story of how very hard it is to truly see people as they are. To see past ourselves. It’s the story of living with the mistakes you’ve made and learning to make mistakes again. Life isn’t safety, it’s risk. We try to look at the risks and decide if we want to take them, of course. But what do you do when the danger is not from outside, but from within? How do you take a chance when your greatest fear is that you will once again fail?

You know, I could have titled this post, “My Issues, Let Me Show Them To You.” But a), this is my blog, and it is intended to be somewhat revealing. Also, b), it’s clear that these are not merely my issues. I did not write these books. I did not single-handedly give them Hugo and Nebula awards. I think many people relate to the questions Miles and Ekaterine raise. I hope that many people understand the answers.

As for me, I’m still working on it. I tell people that Miles Vorkosigan taught me how to apologize. He did, but I didn’t learn it until about six years ago. Maybe eight, if I’m being generous with myself.

Dear Madam Vorsoisson, I am sorry.

This is the eleventh draft of this letter. They’ve all started with those three words, even the horrible version in rhyme, so I guess they stay.

You once asked me never to lie to you. All right, so. I’ll tell you the truth now even if it isn’t the best or cleverest thing, and not abject enough either.

I tried to be the thief of you, to ambush and take prisoner what I thought I could never earn or be given. You were not a ship to be hijacked, but I couldn’t think of any other plan but subterfuge and surprise. Though not as much of a surprise as what happened at dinner. The revolution started prematurely because the idiot conspirator blew up his secret ammo dump and lit the sky with his intentions. Sometimes these accidents end in new nations, but more often they end badly, in hangings and beheadings. And people running into the night. I can’t be sorry that I asked you to marry me, because that was the one true part in all the smoke and rubble, but I’m sick as hell that I asked you so badly.

Even though I’d kept my counsel from you, I should have at least had the courtesy to keep it from others as well, till you’d had the year of grace and rest you’d asked for. But I became terrified that you’d choose another first. So I used the garden as a ploy to get near you. I deliberately and consciously shaped your heart’s desire into a trap. For this I am more than sorry, I am ashamed.

You’d earned every chance to grow. I’d like to pretend I didn’t see it would be a conflict of interest for me to be the one to give you some of those chances, but that would be another lie. But it made me crazy to watch you constrained to tiny steps, when you could be outrunning time. There is only a brief moment of apogee to do that, in most lives.

I love you. But I lust after and covet so much more than your body. I wanted to possess the power of your eyes, the way they see form and beauty that isn’t even there yet and draw it up out of nothing into the solid world. I wanted to own the honor of your heart, unbowed in the vilest horrors of Komarr. I wanted your courage and your will, your caution and your serenity. I wanted, I suppose, your soul, and that was too much to want.

I wanted to give you a victory. But by their essential nature triumphs can’t be given. They must be taken, and the worse the odds and the fiercer the resistance, the greater the honor. Victories can’t be gifts.

But gifts can be victories, can’t they. It’s what you said. The garden could have been your gift, a dowry of talent, skill, and vision.

I know it’s too late now, but I just wanted to say, it would have been a victory most worthy of our House.

Yours to command,

Miles Vorkosigan

There is much there that I aspire to. I want to be the sort of person who can see others that clearly, without my self getting in the way. I want to be honest enough with myself to be able to see what I am doing, what I do to others whether I intend it or not. I want to be brave enough to acknowledge my mistakes and the harm I do. And I want to have the basic human decency, the honor, to apologize in a way that is about the other person and the harm they did, and not what I want.

I’m not there yet. Honestly, neither are Miles and Ekaterine. They are flawed, they are human, they struggle with themselves and who they mean to be. That’s what I value. That’s what I respect. That’s what I hope to be.