Alien Covenant is Just Really Good, Okay?

Alien: Covenant.

Of all the movies this month, the one I most wanted to see. Those of you who know me know I have an unreasoning love of the obtuse, flawed Prometheus. It’s a philosophical tour-de-force masquerading as a horror movie, and while this second outing in what is the best prequel trilogy ever made is more horror than philosophy, it continues in its predecessor’s tradition with aplomb, though it also continues Prometheus’s wonky pacing and questionable plot decisions (why don’t they wear environment suits PERIOD? Why?)

Yes, the characters do dumb things. Yes, the film’s plotting makes it supremely obvious just who is going to die (although to be fair, that’s kind of a horror staple, is it not?) It’s not perfect, and the crew doesn’t behave like a team of scientists/soldiers/trained professionals should (though this IS temporized by the fact that said crew is composed of married couples, for colonization purposes).

But it’s stunning despite that. Horrifying despite that. The set work is astounding (that city, though. Guys, I have dreams that Ridley Scott would be the one to direct my stuff. His visual language informed so much of my own imagination. It won’t ever happen, but when I visualize things, it’s in his style. I just need to explain how much of a crush I have on his filmmaking). The meticulous attention to design and worldbuilding is peerless. There are these hand drawn zoological sketches done beside alien samples pinned up like butterflies. That Gothic stuff speaks to me. That said, some of the CGI was a little wonky in places. It’s not a deal-breaker, but some of it I was all “why didn’t you guys use muppets? Muppets are cool!”

The performances are all really strong, most especially Fassbender’s two performances as Walter, the robot who correctly ascertains that duty is a kind of love (a value our day and age has forgotten, and one which is of desperate importance to me), and as David, the robot-incarnation-of-Milton’s-Satan (complete with melodramatic quotations! <3) Surprisingly, Danny McBride is really affecting, of all people, and Katherine Waterston is awesome as well, though I wish she had a little more to do. They treated her a little bit like Ripley in that she only emerges as a lone protagonist in the final act. (Brief mention should be made of Billy Crudup, who I always like–and who happened to play the devoutly religious captain, Christopher. I mention this because there are SO FEW Christophers in fiction. We're a marginalized class and I demand greater representation. I didn't know I could be a hero/hapless victim until I saw it acted out on screen because I'm incapable of identifying with anyone different than me!)

But Jesus, was it bleak. GETTING A LITTLE INTO SPOILER TERRITORY HERE SO BE WARNED, BENNETT. It's clearly Part 2 of a saga that demands a part 3, so it feels a little incomplete, and like so many part 2s it leaves us in a dark, DARK place, rife with the horror and profanation one expects of anything touched by Giger's designs.

All in all, this is another excellent movie but with some medium-sized flaws. I'm gonna give it Three Thinking-Face emoji, a Teeth-Gritting emoji, and one Scared Emoji out of Why-Didn't-They-Follow-Containment-Protocol?

ūü§Ēūü§Ēūü§Ēūüė¨ūüėĪ / ūüė∑ūüė°


…Is he gone?

There is a moment wherein the two Fassbender-bots are talking, and David (the spooky one) quotes Shelley's "Ozymandias" and says Byron wrote it. I about lost my shit and William was laughing at me because I thought they'd messed up hard. How do you not Google that shit?

I should have learned from Captain Christopher. He had faith.

The two robots talk later about how David is going to wipe the humans out with his new creation: the Xenomorphs, because they had their time and they are flawed and weak and dying on Earth (presumably due to environmental degradation, but that's not explicit). He will not allow us out into space. That's why he extinguished the Engineers on this planet, to further ensure our destruction. Here he is Milton's Satan (and he indeed quotes Satan, saying that it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven). He is the spirit of pre-eminent rationality, of immoral logic–because you cannot found a moral philosophy on logic (because you can rationalize ANYTHING, ask the Nazis, ask the Soviets, as Marx and Derrida and other devils). Here Walter, the good robot, points out that David misattributed the Shelley quote earlier, claiming it was Byron who wrote Ozymandias. THIS IS FUCKING ACTUAL GENIUS. HOLD ME. What this says is that any rational philosophy of good and evil is only as good as its facts. Get a fact wrong, and you could end up rationalizing genocide. This is echoed earlier in the film when Waterston's character turns to Christopher, who is having a breakdown over the death of his wife, and says "We need your faith." Because we do need something to ground moral systems, like Nietzsche said. Without an a priori moral structure, such as those faith provides (and we've not got a better foundation example. Science/rationality, again, does not work for the above reasons. Believe me, this is hard for me too, given that I can't bring myself to believe in any sort of god. I have a series of thoughts about this, but not now). But they wrapped that whole idea up in like 2 lines of dialogue AND IT WAS A REFERENCE TO THE ROMANTICS MY GOD COULD THEY HAVE PLANNED ANYTHING MORE PERFECT FOR ME OH MY GOODNESS.

And there was a huge Bocklin reference just SLAPPED up all across the screen. They literally tableau'd his Isle of the Dead, which is my favorite painting of his. Weird thing is I found that painting on my own and worked it very, very subtly into Empire of Silence. It's a weird thing that Scott and I are on the same page here.

I loved it so much. I need the next one like…tomorrow.


Doctor Who Review: “Oxygen”

Jamie Mathieson’s “Oxygen” is a fantastically frustrating piece of science fiction. It’s an excellent episode of Doctor Who, and as a drama it’s quite remarkable. The suits are terrifying, the premise solid, the set work and supporting cast pretty solid–all things considered. It ought to be about an 8 out of 10 (as an experience), but I can’t even grade it because its premise is fundamentally flawed–both in its underpinning philosophies and its science (which is a shame, because it actually handled explosive decompression pretty correctly).

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about Mr. Robot and Mirror’s Edge and the common critique of capitalism that emerges in science fiction. The corporate villain in this episode forces its employees to pay for oxygen on a space station that’s otherwise devoid of atmosphere (which begs the question of why they’ve bothered to install air locks and pressure seals on the doors at all). Once they’ve mined enough, they turn around and use the suit’s AI to kill the human occupants to save profits in the post mining phase of the operation (which begs the question: Why not just use AI and robots for the entire procedure?) The episode goes on to talk about how this is the end stage of capitalism: devaluing human life for profits.

But here’s the thing: this isn’t capitalism at all.

Forcing people to pay for a product or service–especially something that’s mandatory for survival, like air (or health care)–isn’t capitalism. Particularly if there’s only ONE PLACE the commodity can be bought. The corporation who owns the station in this episode has a monopoly on oxygen sales on its own station (and what sort of business makes its employees buy the equipment necessary to operate its own machinery? Let me answer that: none of them. Air would be an operating cost shouldered by the company, or else no one would work for them. UNLESS you wish to propose they were FORCED to work for that company…in which case, we’re not talking about capitalism. Again.

The workers on this station are not purchasing air on the free market. They’re being taxed. Calling the authoritarian power a corporation does NOT mean we’re dealing with a capitalist system, just because money changes hands doesn’t mean we’re dealing with a free market. These people are in mercantilist indentured servitude and they’re expected to pay for it. It IS certainly a travesty of human rights and the Doctor was quite right to step in and save them, but the episode is dead wrong to call the system that hurt them capitalist. This isn’t a free market. This is a monopoly. We’re looking at the East India Company in space, not Carnegie Steel, not Google. Not Facebook.

I’m not saying capitalism is above criticism, but this episode doesn’t even criticize it. This is like watching an episode of Game of Thrones¬†where somebody starts talking about how Westeros is really bad democracy–and using Westeros as an example of how democracies are always bad. It isn’t a democracy. This isn’t capitalism. This is ridiculous.

Really, I expected better of Jamie Mathieson and of Steven Moffat, and I resent how they made the Doctor–the smartest man in the universe–incapable of making a distinction that should be obvious to anyone who’s had even half an economics lesson.

This episode gets one angry frown emoji out of go fuck yourself.

ūüė°/Go Fuck Yourself.

My Country, North Carolina

All right, I’d like to take five to address the fact that North Carolina is considering another bill to limit the rights of our LGBT citizens to marry and stand up and be counted equals in the light of the sun. Obviously, I think this is monstrous. It’s ideologically motivated, and I don’t like ideologies. It’s cruel, and I don’t like cruelty. But that’s not brave of me to say, and it’s not revolutionary. It may be revolutionary for me to say as someone on the political right, but I don’t think of it as a thing requiring great courage or even an opinion of particular novelty. It’s the right course of action. So that is not why I am writing this. Rather, I am writing this because I have seen several people–both here and on Twitter–expressing their embarrassment and shame to be accounted citizens of this state which I love most of all those in our Union, and most of all the countries of Earth.

North Carolina is my home, and has been my entire life. I expect that it will always be my home, and expect that it will one day keep my bones, as it keeps the bones of my grandfather. Because of this, I feel a tremendous weight of fondness for this place, and for Raleigh most of all: City of Oaks and tangled highways.

Not too long ago, I was in New York City, explaining to my new and cosmopolitan friends there just what sort of place it was I come from. I felt for a moment that defensiveness, that sense of careful shame and safeguarding directed at protecting the creeks and suburban enclaves of my home. I felt a need to explain that we weren’t up to our eyeballs in Confederate battle flags and obsessed with bathroom regulations. Heavens, I account myself a conservative and you could not find two shoes less likely to fit my feet. It occurred to me then, as it occurs to me now, that I was then in the city that thought “stop and frisk” was an acceptable policy.

My point is this: no place is wholly good or evil, just as no person is wholly good or evil. Rather, each place is BOTH good AND evil. Every culture oppresses and constrains. That’s what a culture is for. It tells you how you have to live because you have to learn to live with one another, and we can’t share a roof or a city if we’re all so radically different we can’t communicate. That’s Babel. That’s what the patriarchy everyone harps on about IS: it’s culture’s tendency to shape the behavior of the people in it, whether they will or no. (We can talk another time about why culture is typed masculine in rhetorical and dramatic structures). But cultures also protect and define. Like our actual fathers, they give us structure, they teach us who we are, how to be, how to stand up as finished people and speak the truth. Sometimes they go too far. They make mistakes. They hurt. But we can change that.

This bill does not speak to the North Carolina I believe can be. It does not speak to the North Carolina I believe should be. Must be. But I will not be ashamed of my state because of it. The soil is innocent of the law, as are most of the people living under that law. We can be the change we want in the world, but we cannot do so from a place of shame, of disgust, of contempt. We cannot improve the world if we hate all that it is. If we are embarrassed by it. The lawmakers downtown are making a mistake. They are making a mistake from an ideological place, and I say again: I do not like ideologues. Left or right. They’re pathological and are acting from precisely the same place of shame as those of you who turn your eyes down and whisper “Yeah, I’m from North Carolina.” As if it were the outer vestibule of hell or some failed state half a world away, war torn and backwards.

You cannot believe that and embetter the world. You do nothing but drag your own pathologies into the light. You make the world meaner. If you fight for truth, for love, for justice–whatever you call it–you cannot do so meanly. Weakly. With shame. Be proud of the place you’re in, be proud of where you come from: not despite its flaws, not because it’s perfect (it’s not), but because you are here. And you can it better.

But you have to sort yourself out first.

New York, New York

A week ago, I was packing for my first business trip–itself a strange experience, and another of those sure signs that I had left my childhood behind (another being how my birthday on Wednesday being a thing entirely devoid of pomp, circumstance, and cake). The experience was perhaps made a little stranger by the fact that I had compounded my work trip with another work trip, because such is my life.

I’d been flown up for a publishing sales conference–a surprisingly brief affair–in which we made the Simon & Schuster sales force aware of the titles coming out in our Fall season (between September and December), they made some suggestions about branding and marketing for said books, and I kept my mouth shut. I’ll be putting together a video for my notoriously spotty YouTube channel on the trip soon, but that piece will be a deal more meditative than informative, I think, and so I thought I’d enumerate the hard facts here for those curious about such things.

1. I do not have a release date for Empire of Silence just yet, but I can tell you that the earliest it can be out now is June 2018. DAW has its Spring schedule filled out already, and due to delays beyond all controlling, I did not make the cut. My suspicion is that the release will actually be closer to the start of Fall 2018, perhaps in September, but that’s just a gut feeling. That may actually be ideal, as I will certainly be at Dragon Con both this year and next, and launching AT Dragon Con would be positively righteous.

2. I will know more about the release schedule for certain come the end of June. My new editor, Katie, said she has another book to finish editing first and then it’s my turn! That does mean I have a little time to wait, and April always was the cruellest month, but that’s all right. Waiting will give me more time to finish playing Breath of the Wild, and honestly the fact that I haven’t finished it already is a badge of shame weighing heavily on my soul.

3. That being said, Katie and I spent about 7 hours on Sunday talking though the series as a whole and getting a plan sort of worked out, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve every confidence that we’re on the right track now to deliver the very best version of the story, and if that takes a little more time to prepare, then it takes a little time to prepare. I’ve been waiting for this since I was 8-years-old. I can wait a little longer. Still, having one’s first book come out when one is 25 is slightly less awesome than 22, but I WAS 22 when I sold it. #NeverForget.

4. I also have permission to start working a bit on book 2, and my aspiration is to have book 2 finished and delivered to my publisher well in advance of the release of book 1. I don’t want to get stuck in a rut and leave everyone hanging. Besides, I’m happiest being productive, and the 10000 words I’ve already written in the sequel are all pretty glorious so far. I think it’s off to a really great start.

5. On a tangential note, I can 100% confirm that the short story anthology I’m editing with Tony Daniel, Star Destroyers, will be out in March of 2018, on the 6th to be precise. It’s shaping up to be quite a fun little collection, with stories from David Drake, Michael Z. Williamson, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Jody Lynn Nye, and myself–along with several other Baen mainstays. My short story in there, “Not Made for Us,” will give us a ground-level view of the Empire’s war with the Cielcin, as a Legionnaire is thrown into battle with those monstrous xenobites without any warning at all. So 03/06/2018, Star Destroyers, mark your calendar.

6. I haven’t started sending out that other short story I mentioned–the one with the Catholic priest and the android. I’m waiting to get some fresh eyes on it first, because I don’t want to bungle it. I’d love to actually sell something to one of the magazines.

7. It may well be that I’ll be editing at least 2 more anthologies with Baen Books in the coming year/year and a half. More on that as it develops.

As a final note, I’m absolutely thrilled to have met everyone: Betsy, Katie, and my agent, Shawna. The whole thing feels more real now than it did before. I’m really going to be an author. It wasn’t all some sort of dream I was having. I have to wait a little longer than I’d thought, sure, but that’s a small price to pay for ensuring the book’s release is as well-planned and felicitous as possible.

That’s all I know, friends! The YouTube video won’t be out today–it usually IS the first–but it will be along this week.

Stay human!

My Grandfather, Ten Years Gone

I was reading Night. You know, the book by Elie Wiesel? I was in Mrs. Wright’s English class. Seventh grade. I was sitting in the back. At the left. I was wearing the same damn uniform fleece coat I always wore, even in summer. I was thirteen.

It was too soon.
It wasn’t uncommon in those days for my mother to check me out of school without warning. Maybe I’d had a doctor’s appointment I didn’t remember, maybe my brother was sick and she didn’t want to make the commute twice…maybe I had some appointment I’d forgotten about. The dentist, maybe.
Were it so easy.
I remember closing Wiesel’s book, remember making some quip about how I had no idea why I was being checked out early. No idea at all. Mrs. Wright liked to antagonize me. I’m sure she implied I was trying to skip out on her class. That was never true. I liked her class.
I wish I never had to go.
I remember the short walk downstairs: the high ceiling of the upstairs atrium, the banners hanging in the last sunlight that had any color in my world for many years. Mrs. Wright’s¬†room was the closest to the stairs–unless you counted the copy room or the girl’s bathroom (I didn’t). It seems funny to me now that so short a walk could mark so great a journey: sinister and unfair. Magical the way deceit is always magical. Footsteps echoing on the laminated stairs. Yellow sunlight.
Do you know what the funny thing is? I can’t remember if both my parents were there. In the principal’s office. I’m sure they must have been. I can’t even remember which principal it was. Joanna Burley maybe? Or Lou Pappalardo? I suppose it doesn’t matter. I remember the words. Bleak, broken. I do not remember who spoke them. Mom or dad. I can hear them, their cadence but not the voice. I can hear the tears, but cannot recall whose eyes it was that dropped them. Mom’s or dad’s.
“Grandpa died.”
Disbelief. Confusion. It wouldn’t scan. I waited, thinking there would be more of an explanation, thinking that it must be my mother’s dad–he always seemed so unwell, who out-lived them all. I remember the fluorescent lights of the office seemed suddenly very cold. I remember that same broken voice explaining what had happened–I think it must have been my father…whose own father was dead. I do not remember the words, or the look on his face. I remember the screaming. I don’t know if anyone else heard it, or if it was for my ears and soul alone, or if they did hear it perhaps it sounded different. It was low and piercing: the tearing of metal somewhere deep in my soul–the tearing of my soul. I started breaking then, who would shatter in the next twenty months. I had never really hurt before, not truly, nor felt creation tear along the fault lines within me.
Ten years ago. Today.
It was not the end, was not even the worst. That would come a year later…the day after my birthday, when my grandmother died. But the green-stick fractures that set the stage for that awful day were laid then. In that office. By that broken voice…and all its words meant.
I still waited for an explanation. His heart had given out, they said. That wasn’t good enough. That was how. I wanted WHY. I was Catholic in those days, and dreamed–but for a very public crush–that I might one day make a priest. I looked there for a why, for that quiet place I’d learned to find within myself where I felt what I thought was the Love my teachers spoke of. I couldn’t find it. There was only the screaming. I know now that I am fortunate to have suffered so small an amount of tragedy in my life. Were I still Catholic, I might speak of how blessed I am. Were I ever stupid, I speak only of my good fortune. My luck. That I did not suffer more, that death was the worst of my trials. Good deaths hurt us. Great ones unmake us, for a time, as I was unmade. Great deaths need not be as they are in stories: the hero holding the narrow way against death and darkness. Great deaths are measured only by the closeness of one’s soul to the departed…and my grandfather and I were very close. He was not my world, as he was my grandmother’s, or the bright north star as he so often seemed to be for my father. But he was a world, and it was a comfort to know that in the vast and human universe there was a place and a person so defined by his compassion, his brilliance, by the depth of his knowledge and his capacity for good. It was as if–by virtue only of his presence in my life–a great darkness and danger was kept at bay, and with his passing the world grew a little stranger, a little more frightening. Indeed, when I walked numb to my mother’s van to go to the house–my grandmother needed us–I remember the sunlight had changed. It was silver now. Not silver. Gray. I don’t know when it changed back…but it was not for several years, not until almost I left home for college. All the world was gray, muted…remained muted. I could not change it back. I could not stop hearing that hollow scream that rattled in my soul like a broken tooth. “Why?” it asked. “Why? Why? Why? Why?” Over and over, day and night for weeks. “Why? Why? Why. Why.” Until it was not a question, and that it was no longer a question broke me.
The next year was hard: it claimed my mother’s mother, then my father’s mother, then my mother’s father last of all. It nearly claimed me, for I was neither well nor happy then, nor indeed very wise. My suffering turned septic in me, turned me sour. It made me the worst person I had ever met for a very long while. That is why I have so very few friends left from high school, and why I value those friends I have no so highly. I suffered until my suffering was wholly self-made, as do a great number of us. I was still broken somewhere in my soul, the whole of me rattling with that screaming question that was not a question. Was rage. Was only rage.
Things changed, I grew up. I fell once briefly in love, lost that, and briefly I met real evil, and saw real suffering. I think that contextualized my own crises…broke me again. But I broke back together, though my new shape was strange to me. The sun is golden now, as it should be.
Only there are clouds now, and today the clouds are dark and close. Ten years gone. I am ten years now removed from my grandfather and the world of compassion and wisdom he represented. Ten years removed from him, who was the surest link to my Italian heritage. Ten years removed from that hideous day in the gray sunlight where more than a dozen priests escorted his body from a cramped sanctuary. They sang the Salve Regina, and would sing it again for my grandmother little more than a year later. Their voices broke in the spring air, and faltered. And choked. It was a song they reserve for their brother priests, and though a bishop was there they sang it–and he with them. I judge funerals now by the standard of his. By the hundreds there, by the sorrow deeper than any cloud of memory ten years gone. Great deaths unmake us–such is the force of the life ended, the weight of it. Would that we all lived so well and so wondrously as to create such grief by our parting…
But more than that…would that he were here. He would have hated that I wanted to study English. It would have brought me no end of grief. I’d have bourn every second badly–would bear it gladly now. A day is fast approaching where I long to knock on that screen door, to enter that narrow kitchen and approach the flattened armchair where he sat–ever by his phone–and lay my book in his hands. “Told you I could do it,” I’d say. And grandma would smile from her own chair. She’d try not to laugh.
“Oh, Christopher!” he would say, voice too big for that low-ceilinged room, “I never said you couldn’t do it, only that you really should have tried harder in math!” I’d shrug. We’d laugh. Grandma might tell him to leave off. “But I never doubted you!” He’d add, defensive. “You’re my favorite, number-one grandson!”

Best of the Culture

I’m not usually troubled by celebrity deaths. Much as I love Alan Rickman, his passing last year–among the first of what seemed 50,000 celebrity deaths in 2016–did not trouble me overmuch. Only one death in recent memory can be said to have very much affected me: that of the Scottish novelist and visionary Iain M. Banks. I remember going to check up on his website, as was my wont every few months, to see if he had announced a new book in his space opera series, the Culture. This must have been early in 2013, because¬†The Hydrogen Sonata¬†had been released fairly recently and the man worked fairly quickly (particularly when stacked against certain other writers to whom I am subscribed). I was devastated to read his post about his cancer, and more devastated when I learned that he had lost his battle with it.

It seems silly to admit, but I was devastated not only because there would be no more gifts from the Culture, his strange and compelling anarchic utopia (a utopia that is really a very well-mannered machine autocracy, but that’s an issue for another time). I was devastated because I would never get the chance to meet him. Even then, a sophomore in college, I was certain that I would make it to where I am now: that I would sell my book. I had foggy hopes of meeting Mr. Banks at some Worldcon years hence, of sharing a whiskey with the man and of thanking him for Cheradenine Zakalwe, for Lededje, for Jernau Morat Gurgeh, for Bora Horza and all the rest. And I can’t do that. What I have been able to do is place an homage to his work in my own, and to call that enough. It isn’t enough, but it will have to do.

The Culture series is unique: 9 novels, 1 novella, and a couple of short stories, almost none of them sharing characters or plot elements, all set in a strange and jangling space opera universe characterized by technology so preposterously advanced as to make most magic seem trite by comparison, an idealized version of cultural anarchism achieved through that same high technology (that there’s no way the Culture could have arisen as a consequence of this philosophy is a detail I was gladly willing to ignore for the sake of the fun. I have written my rejoinder to this opinion elsewhere), and an enormous,¬†enormous¬†amount of sarcasm. Each book is unique, each fantastic. I’ve read them all at least several times, and though I do not claim expert status on the series the way I might for¬†The Lord of the Rings¬†or the¬†Dune Chronicles¬†(mostly because I can’t spell anything from Banks’ work properly), I’m certainly no slouch.

And because I’m no slouch, I wanted to write this and take a moment to abjectly disagree with this piece from the Guardian’s Damien Walter. By my reckoning, speaking only for myself and for whatever my opinion as an M-List novelist is worth, here are the Top 5 Iain M. Banks novels.

5. Inversions

Didn’t see that coming, did you? Yes? No? Of course not. No one expects¬†Inversions,¬†because it’s the least apparently¬†Culture¬†of the Culture novels. On the surface of it (taken at surface detail, if you will) the book appears to be Banks’ attempt at a low fantasy novel, set on a planet of approximately early Renaissance level technology, it tells of two warring kingdoms through the lens of two detached narrators: one the assistant to a foreign doctor administering the King of Haspidus, one the unnamed impartial observer of events at the court of the military dictator of Tassasen. Throughout the narrative, it becomes clear to us–familar as we are with Banks’ world–that both the foreign doctor and the dictator’s bodyguards are offworlders of Culture origin: humans from an advanced civilization playing God amongst primitives. The real genius here is that Banks comes at this from the perspective of natives, and so renders things that might be prosaic to those of us familiar with his work strange again. It does everything low fantasy does at its best, but hints at high technology and the glory of outer space the way most fantasies hint at gods and magic.

4. Consider Phlebas

Banks’ first book published in the series is also one of the hardest to come to grips with for me. As a 12-year-old, I couldn’t finish it. It’s Banks at his most¬†Guardians of the Galaxy:¬†a rip-roaring heist novel filled with shape-shifters and cannibals and put-upon robots. It begins with a man being shat on in a cell, and it doesn’t dial down the bleakness at any point: it only dials up the humor. But it introduces us to this utterly strange and wonderful universe, as a team of ragtag mercenaries attempt to recover one of the Culture’s hyper-intelligent AI Minds from the ruins of a bombed-out, extinct civilization guarded by a race of incorporeal ghosts. It’s a work of utter genius, culminating in a pulse pounding action sequence at the end that’s the literary equivalent of the final act of¬†Rogue One.¬†

3. The Player of Games

This one used to be my favorite, because it was the first one I ever finished. After I stalled out trying to get a handle on¬†Consider Phlebas,¬†I gave¬†The Player of Games¬†a shot (my mother had imported those two, along with¬†Use of Weapons,¬†from Europe for me for Christmas. I can’t remember how it was my 12-year-old self became convinced I needed them, and at the time I couldn’t seem to find them online or in stores…even the magical bookseller who haunted the local Borders and only appeared when I needed her couldn’t help me). It’s a much easier read than¬†Phlebas,¬†and so I still recommend it to folks looking to get in on the series. It’s the story of Jurneu Morat Gurgeh, a man from the Culture who plays games: board games, video games, card games, games of chance…even sports. He was also imminently more likeable a person than¬†Consider Phlebas’¬†assassin-hero, Bora Horza, so it made my younger self more amenable to the story. Gurgeh is recruited by the Culture to participate in (read: interfere with) the election cycle of a foreign galactic empire, Azad, by playing a complex board game which they use as an examination system for determining who is worthy or fit for what government post (such that the winner overall becomes Emperor). It explores how such a system might work, all while pointing out the problems with privilege and imbalance in the system, as well as dealing with all the intrigue one might expect to come from a foreign national like Gurgeh being really, really good at this sort of game (which could spell disaster for the Empire). I also have a personal attachment to it, as one of my very dearest friends is a huge gamer, and I tend to think of him as Gurgeh.

2. Surface Detail

Damien Walter’s article on the Guardian had this listed in 10th place, and I can’t disagree strongly enough. Rather than lacking¬†Banks’ genius at its best,¬†Surface Detail¬†exemplifies Banks’ vision in its grandest scale by reusing some of his most familiar tropes: a woman horribly wronged seeking revenge, a genius-soldier as willing participant and antagonist in a war that is both figuratively and literally a war of ideas, an utterly epic scope, and the most dryly sarcastic and terrifying warship AI of all time. Throw in the biggest honking plot twist in Banks’ entire canon right at the end for seasoning, and you’re on your way to greatness. It’s the story of a huge, virtual reality war being fought between several civilizations over whether or not those civilizations have a right to make copies of people’s minds and trap them in VR hells as a form of punishment. We visit those hells, and they’re even more gross and disturbing than Dante’s own vision, reminding me more of something out of a Japanese RPG’s most revolting bonus dungeon than anything else. And it takes that VR premise to its extreme, waging battles in medieval castles, in space, in the depths of the oceans, and all the while a single slave girl struggles to take revenge against a sadist billionaire–her former master–who just might have a role to play in the war for the hells. It’s brilliant, but definitely not the first Culture book you should read.

1. Use of Weapons

Anyone who knows me knows I was going to say this. Mr. Walter even acknowledges this book not being in his top 5 might shock some people. I, for one, am shocked that it’s not everyone’s top pick. There’s nothing like it (or if there is, it’s copying this). It starts and the middle of the story, and alternates towards both the end of the story and the beginning. It follows Diziet Sma, a Culture agent tasked with locating the immortal supersoldier and tactical mastermind Cheradenine Zakalwe, her former partner, a man whom the Culture uses to fight proxy wars. She needs him to stop another war, and along the way we dive into his own mysterious past, structured in such a way that functions both as origin story and redemption arc simultaneously in a way that sums up the whole of the man’s life in one go, creating a complete portrait of this man as both this brilliant soldier-hero, but it does so by cutting him off at the knees in this way that’s utterly, completely heartbreaking and terrifying and beautiful. It is an absolutely unparalleled achievement, and it is a crime for any other title to take the top spot.

Is Art Political? Must it be?

“Why does art always have to be so…political?”¬†

We hear this question posed time and again–on Twitter, by critics, by one artist to another. I won’t mince words: when this happens, it is almost always because someone on the political right complaining about an artist’s work exposing their left-leaning ideology (the reverse exists, and I will provide an example, but they are markedly less common). It’s an ugly conversation, the participants usually devolving into condescending smugness on the left and unhelpful screeching on the right. Even I’m not immune, when¬†Rogue One’s¬†screenwriters tweeted that the Galactic Empire was “a white supremacist organization” I got angry. It’s wrong. I can prove to you that they’re wrong using George Lucas quotes and the mythological language of Joseph Campbell, but it’s unhelpful to pick apart this particular instance on the level of a graduate thesis, because¬†Rogue One’s¬†writers–however ideologically motivated–are right. The Galactic Empire is a white supremacist movement. They’re also the Soviet war machine, the German Empire of WWI, the Third Reich. They’re every autocrat, every regime who ever placed a boot to the throat of their fellow man and stomped.

By speaking up and saying that the Empire is a white supremacist movement or represents the modern resurgence of white supremacy, the writers of¬†Rogue One¬†temporarily damaged the universality of their work. Star Wars being Star Wars–and¬†Rogue One¬†being excellent–this small damage will be negligible over time, but there was a small boycott movement, and the film might have alienated a small, cretinous portion of its audience.

I choose this example not only because I happen to love Star Wars more than most things, but because it’s a very clear example of a polemic–a politically charged narrative–being injected into a piece of storytelling. This sword cuts both ways, however. Just this morning, I was reading an old article about the works of Orson Scott Card (a writer whose oeuvre I greatly respect, though I disagree with him as regards marriage equality). In it, the reviewer complained about how “offensively heteronormative” his novel¬†Ender in Exile¬†was. Perhaps it is. I haven’t read¬†Ender in Exile¬†since high school and it didn’t make much of an impression (it’s no¬†Ender’s Game).¬†But ultimately, this complaint, that Card was injecting his political agenda RE marriage equality is the same as alt-right fascists complaining about the¬†Rogue One¬†white supremacy narrative. No matter what you think of it,¬†this is what Card believes, and I believe that in art and storytelling there are no invalid beliefs, however caustic or subversive.¬†If we are willing to call a photograph of a Crucifix immersed in urine a work of art, despite it being deeply offensive to more than a billion people in the world, than there is room enough for the odd heteronormative sci-fi novel, whatever you or I feel about it.

And it is my fate to complain about both. About all. In the foreword to¬†The Lord of the Rings,¬†the good Professor says that “As for any meaning or ‘message’, it [the book in question] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.” This particular line has been used, to great effect, by what I must call the anti-political crowd of readers and critics. After all, who could gainsay Tolkien? Well, plenty of people. Others have–just as correctly–indicated that authorial intent is in many senses irrelevant, and that¬†The Lord of the Rings¬†might serve as an allegory for the dangers of atomic power in World War II (which is specious and utterly absurd) or, more correctly, that the corrosive nature of the Evil of the Ring and of Frodo’s resistance to it accurately demonstrates a Catholic view of the nature of sin and of our ability to overcome it. Which is to say that, in spite of even the Professor’s best efforts, there is something of his politics in his work (and not just his ardent Catholicism, but his anti-modernism and environmentalism).

Which brings us to the pro-politics side of the argument: that no author can fully shake the bonds of his or her perceptions and conceptions about the world. In this, the writers I see on Twitter talking about how they plan to use their work to advance their agenda (be it conservative or {more usually} liberal) have an ally in–you guessed it–Orson Scott Card. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Card (along with co-author Aaron Johnston) at a signing in 2014. He said something I have not forgotten: that we as writers do not know what we believe (and that this is true of non-writers as well I’ve no doubt) until we explicate it in writing. The old axiom that “speaking is thinking” is in this case very true. That is to say that writing is as much a process of self-discovery as it is of entertainment. Because of this, it is possible that the people who believe stories are only for entertainment already know all there is to know about themselves, either because (charitably) they are very self-aware or (less charitably) they simply aren’t very complex.

Because of this, I tend to side with the pro-politicals when they say that art is about a message, as much as it breaks my heart to stake myself across the starting line from Professor Tolkien. Even Shakespeare was not immune. Recall that the man was a propagandist, that¬†Macbeth¬†was written to legitimize the embryonic Stuart dynasty on the throne of England through the character of Banquo, et al. Mind you, whether or not these were the Bard’s own political beliefs or merely ones he assumed out of pragmatism we will never know. They likely were his beliefs, but that it immaterial. If even¬†Macbeth¬†is political, what hope has any of us of truly divorcing ourselves from our work and from the dialogue of our day and age? Nearly none.

And yet I still cringed when I heard the word about¬†Rogue One¬†and the white supremacists. Why? Because even though the pro-political end of this spectrum is right–and our personal politics always infect our writing–they are also needlessly, hopelessly stupid. Anyone who says “I wrote this book to advance my (Marxist/monarchist/Christian/feminist/heteronormative/liberal/conservative/etc) agenda” and wears that as a badge of pride is a complete and utter moron. No¬†two ways about it. Tolkien was sorely mistaken when he said there was no message–political, religious, or otherwise–in¬†The Lord of the Rings,¬†and we might lay a charge of short-sightedness at his door for that (and for sneering at Wollheim and the Ace paperbacks), but the error made by persons both left and right of political center in saying¬†what¬†that agenda is is by far the more grievously ignorant act.

Because authorial intent–in fiction, at least–doesn’t matter. And because it doesn’t matter the best piece of advice for any writer seeking immortality is “Keep your mouth shut.” The work ought to stand for itself, to speak its own piece. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that we writers (and humans generally) are by far more eloquent writing (and writing behind layers of allegory–conscious and subconscious) than we are coming out and saying stupid things like “I wrote this because fascism is bad.” Obviously it’s bad. No one who watches¬†Rogue One¬†is going to come out of it not getting that message, unless there is already something profoundly wrong with them. In a similar sense, the cast of¬†Hamilton¬†stepping up to preach at Vice President Pence was redundant (and in the minds of some Americans, obnoxious) because the musical¬†Hamilton¬†itself was already a love letter to diversity, and a more eloquent statement of the beauty of it than any ham-fisted letter delivered by an actor as a kind of lame post script. It was the awkward emoticon on the back end of a love poem. It was a waste of time that got in¬†Hamilton’s¬†way insofar as the Trumpist right wingers (who need the message of¬†Hamilton¬†more than anyone, one might argue) were concerned. Did you see anyone in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat after the Pence-Hamilton¬†episode say “Well gee, I should go buy¬†Hamilton¬†tickets?” No. Because the cast shot its own foot explicating Lin-Manuel’s work. (Aside: Ironically, Pence himself seemed to respect the players for their action, to judge by the remarks he made to his family, per some articles I read).

Not only should authors keep their mouths shut to avoid putting their feet in them like some soft-headed Ouroboroi, but because stories are by far more persuasive than are formal arguments. It’s just the way we think.¬†I read once that language is what really separates us from other animals, and I read a later counter-argument (it might have been from Steven Pinker, but I can’t recall with certainty) that went a step further: saying that stories are really what make us human, that they separate us more sharply from all other life on Earth than even language does. I like to think it’s true, in no small part because I am a storyteller. But in any case, we cannot deny the massive psychological power of stories. Carl Jung, from whose work Joseph Campbell samples liberally, goes so far as to propose the archetypes of our stories underpin the way we view the world–this ties also into Richard Dawkins’ notion of memes, of ideas being¬†biologically adaptive traits in precisely the same manner as beak shape was in Darwin’s finches. Things like the hero who slays the dragon date as far back as the Sumerian Enuma Elish–which is nearly the oldest story we have! These notions have been with us as a species for so long that they’re almost a part of our cells. Stories are the real language of change, and when some idiot writer playing at pretension says what it is they are about, they may as well be closing the ears of precisely those readers they most need (to their minds) to reach.

Additionally, talking about the specific political exigence or theory underpinning a story robs it of its universality. If the¬†Rogue One¬†writers had come out and said that the film was specifically about the 2016 white supremacist movement, they would have anchored the film specifically to this point in time. By a similar token, the song “Vision Thing” by the British punk/Goth band Sisters of Mercy could have be about any US President, but their insistence that it be specifically about the milquetoast George H.W. Bush robs it of its ability to critique other Presidents, and ultimately dooms the song to be forgotten. As a way of demonstrating my point: Have you ever heard it before? Most of you will say no. By coming out and saying “This story is about A,” the writer destroys the piece’s ability to be about B or C or anything else. This is why a lot of the enduring works of literature–in science fiction and fantasy, at least–tend to be from writers we might place approximately in the anti-political camp.¬†The Lord of the Rings¬†is one.¬†Dune¬†is another. There are exceptions.¬†Dante’s¬†Inferno¬†is extremely catty and political, but I suspect it has endured only because it was the typifying example of its form. (Or indeed due to the vividness of its worldbuilding. After all, Dante invented the notion of Hell’s having rings, and that trope persists despite its having no Biblical or religious basis whatsoever. Besides, no one reads Inferno¬†for its politics, or even understands them–outside the experts, of course). This sort of non-specific approach to literary context mostly applies to genre fiction and to myth. A World War II novel is obviously about World War II, and any attempt to specify deeper particulars as regards message and theme must necessarily transcend the historical setting. But in myth? In fantasy? Science fiction? We do well to cast our nets wide and vaguely, as far from the here and now as possible, that we might provide our examples and inspire the audience in new ways. Star Wars doesn’t have to tell us fascism is bad: we can see it. Star Trek is softer on fascism (I tend to think it endorses it), but it’s bright on scientific optimism and on the beauty of diversity and acceptance. The Twilight Zone instructs us on nightmare, and injects into the modern world a sense of mystery and terror that the comforts of civilization almost buried.¬†Doctor Who¬†can do it all, and they all do it without condescending to the audience, without telling us outright what they’re about and what to believe.

The final¬†problem with this anti-political/pro-political divide that I wish to address is a social one. These two camps refuse almost universally to have truck or to speak with one another. It’s one of the ethical dilemmas which lies at the heart of the political divide in the arts (and in science fiction and fantasy perhaps especially). The right wingers insist they can tell stories that are pure entertainment, and that their leftist counterparts are dangerous ideologues. At the same time, the left wingers insist they have a moral duty to crusade, and that it’s at best naive or at worst morally bankrupt to insist that stories can carry no polemic content. I propose that both camps are seeing the problem with one eye–the left or right one, as it were. This puts me in a <sarcasm> thrilling </sarcasm> position: I get to be angry with both sides, and like Catelyn Stark said to Stannis and Renly, I’d like to smash their heads together until they remember that they are brothers. Each is looking at an equal part of the same truth here: on the one hand, the pro-politicals are right that you can’t scrub an author’s beliefs out of their work, even on the pulpiest, schlockiest levels. But the price you pay is alienation. On the other hand, the anti-politicals are right to insist that some stories are made to entertain, but wrong in assuming, as Verne did of Wells, that they are merely entertaining.

What we need here, as perhaps in all things, is synthesis. We need to recognize that the truth is that all art is political, but that good art isn’t only political, and that we do art a disservice by talking about it. The pro-politicals are right as regards truth, the anti-politicals are right as regards method. Put the pieces together, throw out the rot, open your other eye.


PS. I should note that Tolkien’s ignorance (feigned or genuine) regarding the political/allegorical nature of his work is a reasonable stance for an author to take. It is at least a far safer one than to outwardly espouse an ideology. An author cannot contradict himself or herself if he or she doesn’t provide you the skeleton key for decoding their work by way of extra-textual analysis. It is for this reason I labeled the pro-political sin of saying what your work is about as mortal, compared to Tolkien’s more venial agnosticism per the matter of allegory/topicality.

PPS. I should say that “politics” here does not mean in the narrow sense of relating to governance, but rather to the system of beliefs and practices a person employs to relate to others, a category containing politics in the narrow sense, as well as religious, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, and moral concerns–all of which inform your actions on the political stage.¬†Your¬†politics.