20210704

a prelude for july

As I write this, we're recovering from a heatwave that is worse than anything the Pacific Northwest has ever seen on record, with all-time record high temperatures being posted across the entire bioregion, often for several consecutive days, or more. It would have been bad for any time of year, but this was still June, when the temperatures are still usually fairly manageable. It was staggeringly hot, a kind of heat much of the region is woefully unprepared for. Summer, it seems, wants to make its presence felt this year. The temperatures are still well above normal for the time of year, and will be for some time yet; it's cool enough that the heat wave feels "over" but warm enough that it could still be causing problems, drying up plants that could become fuel for wildfires, interfering with crops as they grow . . . the initial heat was catastrophic enough, but the subtle lingering warmth could cause still more damage.


And this is the Fourth of July weekend, the first one "after the pandemic", the weekend after all this heat, when so many fireworks will be set off, when the conditions are ripe for fire . . . usually the worst of wildfire season for Seattle is later in the summer, but already things are pretty bad. That means that we have more time when conditions are optimal for wildfires, which would be bad even if Americans weren't so deeply and reliably foolish.

Also as I write this, King County has lifted its mask mandate, because our vaccination numbers hit a particular arbitrary total, ignoring the WHO's recommendation to maintain mask requirements and the worrying increase of the so-called delta variant of the virus, which appears to spread much more quickly. America has decided that we have done enough to declare the pandemic over, so we're acting as if it is. So now we're relying on the feverish hope that the vaccines are good enough that they can prevent variants from taking root and mutating to the point that we need new vaccines.

It is well and truly summer, then: brutal, unrelenting, interminable, inexorable. It's hard to feel hopeful when the heat is so bad that all you can do is lie on the floor with some wet towels and hope that it cools down enough at night that you can get a few hours of sleep. It's hard to feel like the pandemic is over when the health organizations that aren't compromised by capitalist interests are begging us to keep restrictions in place, warning that nowhere is safe until everywhere is safe.

I hope my fears are unfounded, that these filters I've been collecting over the past few fire seasons will go unused, that the numbers will actually continue their slow decline. But summer, I've found, is seldom merciful.

20210603

a prelude for june

 And just like that, June is upon us. These first two days of June in Seattle have been full of summer's promise, the endless sun, the heat--far from oppressive but still a stark contrast from spring's warmth. But as I write this the sun is setting and we're settling into the more familiar pattern which locals call the June Gloom, where there are always clouds in the sky and we have the audacity to call these sixty degree days "cool." It's not spring, but it's not quite summer; sometimes it feels like a lie to suggest we have four seasons. There are so many shapes the seasons take throughout the year.

People are starting to say the pandemic is over, or nearly over. Restrictions are easing, with promises of even more relaxations coming soon, as soon as we hit certain vaccination thresholds. It feels like that classic American blunder of declaring MISSION ACCOMPLISHED as soon as victory is in sight, then just bailing out before crossing the finish line and letting things fester once again. We are so desperate to return to normal we're willing to sabotage ourselves to get there. Or perhaps it doesn't matter; perhaps we fucked up so badly that there never could have been a clean end to this. That, too, would be very American. Or maybe, despite everything, things really will get better. Maybe it's over. Stranger things have certainly happened.

Regardless, "normal" is coming back. People are returning to work in their offices; office buildings are relaxing their restrictions and removing some of the seldom-used distancing measures. Soon we'll get to see if we see any lasting behavioral changes when we've collectively agreed that the pandemic is over; soon all of those few, both blessed and cursed, who actually stayed home all this time, will reemerge and have to remember what it's like to interact with people again.

And soon these little monthly preludes following life in a pandemic and apocalypse will be . . . superfluous isn't quite the word; they were never necessary. But certainly whatever uniqueness my perspective had is fast fading, and soon, for good or ill, life will be back to some grotesque facsimile of normalcy for everyone.

20210503

a prelude for may

 Ah, May. This is the month where winter is finally just a memory and everything is green and alive again, finally--it's a shame it comes so close to the start of summer, that so often you can still feel the touch of winter in March and April and then by the time May rolls around it's almost over. Perhaps that's the nature of spring, though, to be ephemeral; perhaps if it really lasted it would cease to be spring, and I would instead be saying this about April or March. What is summer but spring once the novelty has worn off That's cynical, of course. But spring is new life, and summer is life ongoing, life unchanging.

We stand at a precarious point where something like an end to the pandemic seems to be in sight. The population of vaccinated individuals is increasing, and there's a promise of returning to normal, at least here. It's hard to trust it. There are disastrous spikes elsewhere, in places like India; there are large segments of the US population who still don't believe this is real; there is so much we don't know. But part of me wonders if I'm having a hard time trusting it because it's just been so damn long, it's hard to imagine normal happening again.

I was able to get my first shot recently and the second one is imminent. (The shot itself was painless, but by the evening my arm was very sore. I felt vaguely unwell the following day but if I hadn't gotten a shot the day before I'd have just assumed I was tired.) I am constantly told that the second shot makes you feel quite badly indeed the next day, and that's . . . odd. Being able to just write on your calendar that you're going to be unwell that day is odd. But there is a sense of relief, that at least for a while it will be safe to just be a person again.

These days it's hard for me not to think of what I was doing a year ago, since I started making the effort to chronicle life in a pandemic. Everything seemed so different back then. In some ways I almost miss it: at least a year ago, the city felt like it was taking it seriously. Now, it's this ghoulish half-life of people pretending things are normal and going through the motions of precautions, but . . . we're all so tired. And even if everything goes perfectly with the vaccines, we still have to clean up.

I hope spring is going well for you, wherever you are.

20210423

elegy for a pigeon in traffic

Someone killed a pigeon downtown

its blood shining bright

against the dull asphalt

and the city just

went about its business

as if we hadn't

bred them to be pretty

and turned them loose

and treated them like vermin

with iridescent wings

and fed them our garbage

and made them rely on us

even though we don't want them.


By the time the colors have faded

the bright blood and

the shine of the wings dulled

no one will think much about it

least of all

I assume

the driver who hit them and moved on

just another dead bird

but it is important

I think

to remember even these

unimportant things.

20210410

a prelude for april

 So far, the spring this year has been . . . fitful, at best. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that a winter that only found its strength at the very end is reluctant to give up its grasp on the year. But the flowers are starting to bloom in earnest now, rather than a few stray optimists. The sakura trees are in full bloom, the tulips are on their way, even if there's a chill in the air carried by a wind that feels more like early winter than early spring. I'm told things will finally warm up next week. Like so many things about this year, it's hard to even imagine that winter may finally end, even if it seems all but imminent now.

There's not much interesting to be said about life as an essential worker now. I've long since lost a sense of what is normal, and while things seem to be getting livelier downtown, it's happening at such a glacial pace that it's almost imperceptible. I still remember the desolation of the early days, though. Everything downtown was so quiet, so still, and everyone seemed so bleak. Everything seemed so uncertain. It still does, of course, in different ways. The past year has caused so much damage that we aren't even beginning to see the effects of, yet, and when the ruling class steps in to heal that damage, they'll do so in ways which make society that much worse for it.

But it's springtime, for now. April is still early, yet--perhaps it will be beautiful and warm by the time May comes around, and everything will feel alive and the city will be bright with color. Spring is a season of promise, and sometimes the promises are so beautiful we forget how often they end up broken.

20210305

a prelude for march

It's hard to believe it's been a year since last March, when the pandemic began. What a surreal year that was, to top off a surreal set of years before that. Even more surreal is just how normal it's all become: the masks, the "haha we're alive in a hell-time and there's nothing we can do about it", everything. Can you imagine how strange it would have been a year ago to see someone walking down the street wearing a mask on their chin? Now it's just a thing that happens.

So, March. Spring is trying its best to happen, after one astonishingly snowy day in February followed by a week of rain and warm weather to melt it all off immediately. But the temperatures are creeping upwards slowly, the days are getting longer--can you believe the Spring equinox is so close?--and the sun is shining a little more. Sometimes going outside in my usual winter gear feels too warm.

It's oddly appropriate, isn't it? Such a sad, fitful spring as the end of our pandemic is in sight but just out of reach? Perhaps we will get the bright riot of colors that made me fall in love with the springtime in Seattle, but not just yet. Old man winter isn't giving up that easily; it seems he's saved most of his fight for the end.

20210224

something beautiful

It's odd, looking out at the drowned city that used to be the capital, staring at that bone-white spire surrounded by waves, knowing that the end really is coming--sooner rather than later, I think, but it's hard to measure the exact point an empire dies. Most people have fled the old heartland already, and this old observatory won't be safe forever, but one day, whoever survives the end will come here, and they'll want answers.

I don't have answers, of course. But I want them to find this observatory, these texts I've carefully preserved, and I want them to know who we were. I want them to see that there was more than just the hubris that nearly shattered the continent and drowned a city. There was something beautiful here, too. And maybe, if I'm lucky, some traveler will find what I've written here and salvage that beauty, pass it on to their own civilization. 

I'm imagining them sitting in the ruins of this building, as I used to sit in the ruins of the old pre-imperial shrines, basking in the melancholy air, wondering what had happened. And maybe they'll find these old texts and bring them to some scholar, just like me, who'll burn many a candle trying to decipher the language that was once so commonplace. (Will it seem at times familiar, or will it be completely alien to them?) And maybe they'll feel connected, in some way, as I've so often felt connected with the sages of the past, with whom I've communed via their own carefully preserved texts.

And maybe, after all that, something I've archived here will live on, and thrive, and take on new life in whatever world follows this one. I hope it's a kinder one than we've made here.

20210203

a prelude for february

2021 sure did start out rough, huh? Republicans openly attempting to stage a coup, three solid weeks of holding our breaths and wondering if there would, in fact, be a transfer of power to the newly elected Joe Biden, let alone a peaceful one. And then all that insurrectionist energy fizzled out and we have a new president and everyone is so fucking desperate to pretend that things are normal again. And I get it; it's been a rough half a decade. It's important to take some time to rest. But the problems that led to the last five years have not gone anywhere, and they will not go anywhere if we don't do something about it.

It's been a warm winter, so far, relatively speaking. A few cold fronts, a few threats of snow that never went anywhere, but mostly it's been warm and unremarkable. Perhaps the weather's tired. I think everyone's tired around February, when it's been cold and dark for so long and there's still at least another month before it ends--and that's when the world hasn't been on fire for the past five years. The sheer exhaustion of simply existing these days is hard to fathom. But we made it. There might be an end in sight to the pandemic, at least.

I still need to work on fixing the Vaudeville Ghosts website. I'd like to put up my media reviews as they happen instead of waiting until the end of the year for them; perhaps for the end of the year I'll try to write up something a little pithier for my media lists, to make them more readable. (Medium said my last one was a 30 minute read, which is quite a lot, and I do tend to ramble.) So that's my goal for this month: get that website up and working.

Anyway. Winter's not over yet. Things are looking calm right now but who knows when the weather will break? We've miles to go before spring and February has a history of surprising everyone. It's not quite yet time to put away those winter coats.

20210107

vaudeville ghosts, and other haunted tales

In 2006, I wrote a few short scripts called "Sophie Swanson, Titular Heroine," for a stop motion film featuring our titular heroine defeating the evil forces of Dr. Haiku. I think only the first script was ever animated. It drew heavy and unapologetic inspiration in style from the webcomic Scary-Go-Round, where the narrative itself often operates on a kind of moon logic; the humor was focused less on jokes and punchlines and more on clever quips and absurd situations. (We even submitted a few fan comics, done with clay figures, to Scary-Go-Round's guest weeks.) It's far from the best thing I've ever written, though it had some things I'm still proud of: the title amused me to no end, and the name of the pub where the characters meet up once or twice is "The Jaded Old Crone." And the voice acting from the friends we got to act in it was really good; I still think about it pretty regularly.


I'd recently moved to Seattle from Moses Lake at the time. I barely knew how to live in the city or be an adult living on my own. I made most of my money by driving my friends around, and that really wasn't very much money. (One of the lines I think about constantly is Dr. Haiku telling a bus driver to keep the change. It just doesn't make sense if you've ridden a bus, even if the bus driver clearly thinks it's kind of weird. I didn't think that bus drivers even got tips, but like . . . I clearly just didn't know how public transit worked. It was new and scary and we didn't even have smart phones back then. A different time.) A few years later I moved out to Boston, and lived there for a while and learned even more things about myself and about living, and moved back to Seattle a few years later. 

Each of those moves represented a major change in my life, sharply defined borders for a new era. I'd been back in Seattle for almost two years when, in late 2011, I started writing another script for Sophie Swanson: Titular Heroine. At the time, that was the only name I had for them. The title was another joke, because for some reason, Sophie, in my mind, had become a villain. The early stories mainly focused on the adventures of Melissa, a character I'd imported from a morose story I never really finished (though who appears in her morose incarnation in my 2013 project on this very blog!), and her best friend Sarah, who I think I made up for the series.

Sophie doesn't even merit a mention in several of the earliest stories; the joke, of course, was that the titular heroine of the series didn't even show up that much and was actually a villain, but by the tenth script in this ongoing series it became clear that I needed something else. So I went back to the very first episode, about a group of spectral theater performers trying to cover Tom Waits, and I called the series "Vaudeville Ghosts."

There are two things about Vaudeville Ghosts that I think are important to note: the first is that the scripts were never intended to be made into anything. The second is that, for the first month or so, these scripts just flowed from my mind to the page. It was like I was channeling them onto the page. The cast of characters expanded, eventually it started developing lengthy, convoluted storylines, and eventually even though I had some ideas for what was coming next I think the whole thing collapsed under the weight of itself. I think I wrote something like 100 episodes, spanning three "seasons" 20-30 episodes long and then two aborted seasons which each got no more than three or four episodes. I loved it all.

Reliably, when I read these old scripts, there are jokes that I still think are hilarious, and bits that I wish I hadn't written. Much like Sophie Swanson: Titular Heroine in its original form, I think it's transparent to anyone who reads this that I drew a lot of stylistic inspiration from Scary-Go-Round, but I like to think there's more substance to it than that first script, so long ago. And many of these characters still live rent-free in my head.

Vaudeville Ghosts will be ten years old this year. I got a restraining order against the animator from the original script after he made some murder threats; I've moved to a new place, there's been a whole-ass apocalypse out there (you might have heard about that). But as is traditional at the start of a new year during a pandemic, I've been thinking about it again, and I want to at least keep the name and spirit alive, even if I don't know if I have any other stories in that universe coming any time soon.

I've owned the vaudevilleghosts.com domain for a very long time now; I was originally planning on using it to do a "reboot" of Vaudeville Ghosts, featuring a series of Twine games I was planning on writing. I wrote half of one--"The Vaudeville Ghosts Crash Your Party," about preventing a party demon from feeding on party energy by making sure the party it's hanging out at really, really sucks; and a part of another, "The Vaudeville Ghosts Ruin Your Childhood," where the cast starred in a live-action Pokemon movie. I maintain that this twine game willed the Detective Pikachu movie into existence. I will not apologize.

And recently I've been thinking: I don't really have a place to just put all of my assorted writing projects. This blog has . . . a tone, or a brand, or a theme, or something, and some things feel odd to put on here. Reviews, essays, poems, weird scripts, character sketches and worldbuilding notes, they all live in their own scattered places, and I'd like a place to put them. I've always wanted to have, for want of a better word, a brand to put all these things other, something cohesive.

I think now that Vaudeville Ghosts could be that brand. It was always weird, scattered, experimental; it's been where so many odd ideas found a home. Perhaps it's time to open it up again, attempt to consolidate the disparate entities that I've created, and, who knows? Maybe it's time for the Vaudeville Ghosts themselves to ride again.

I don't think I'll abandon this blog; I've taken a fondness for writing a prelude for the months, and these little bits of morose microfiction will always have a special place in my heart. But it was never meant to be a container for all of my projects, and I think having a place for all of them to live will help encourage me to work on more of the things that my brain is constantly thinking about.

The aforementioned domain will update soon.

20210102

a prelude for 2021

I spent the first day of the new year reading through the comic archive of Bad Machinery, an old favorite. I was unexpectedly spared from working on January 1st like I'd thought I'd have to, and was instead able to spend the day doing something I enjoyed, relaxing, while, apparently, a great deal of rain began to fall on the lowlands of western Washington. After a bit of a cold spell a few weeks back it's been pretty warm, and warmth and water go hand in hand here in the winter.

Normally this is the time of year when people start shuffling their way back to their normal levels of activity after the holidays. It takes a while--the holiday season inflicts a great deal of stress on our society, even for those who enjoy it but especially for those who don't--but once January rolls around it's time to get back to the grind. That's what resolutions are really about: it's about getting up and starting over again.

I don't know what that will look like this year. For all that's happened, that cloud of uncertainty has been a constant companion and I expect that will not change any time soon. Perhaps things will wake up, or perhaps things will begin to drift back into slumber as there are no more holidays to drive all that activity. We're all so tired. 

As glad as I am to put the previous year behind me, I'm still worried about the year to come, but this year, at least, got off to a nice start. I like New Year's Day to be quiet and personal, a time to rest and reflect. I like listening to the rain on the roof. I like revisiting something I loved and taking the time to explore it and remember all the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place.

So rest up, maybe take some time to re-explore some old favorites, do what you have to do to take care of yourself, and when you're ready, get up, dust yourself off, and keep going.

20201231

hindsight

So, at long last, 2020 draws to a close.

We are far from out of the woods, but all the same all I want to say is: thank fucking Christ it's over, holy fuck. This year has been an unrelenting nightmare to top off the four preceding hell years. But I mean, I don't need to tell you this. You know. You were there. I'm not here to do a recap; you're tired of it by now.

The oddest thing right now, though, is that people are finally starting to have hope. The past several years were bad, and we knew they would be bad; a few people still dared to say "it couldn't possibly be any worse" but for the most part we looked for small victories and tried our best not to tempt fate. But this year? There are vaccines. The fascist lost the election, and his attempts at a coup seem to be falling apart.

It won't happen right away. We are, of course, badly mismanaging the vaccine distribution; there are still opportunities for the fascist coup to cause damage; the start of 2021 will still be a struggle. But suddenly it's a struggle with, if not an end, then at least a reprieve in sight. And what a fucking relief that is. The fact that thinking of a future that isn't wall-to-wall misery is a novelty is pretty sad but that's where we are.

If there is hope, it's still a faint glimmer. But it's there, it's real, you can touch it. People are starting to worry about what happens when the pandemic is over, wondering what returning to the old normal will be like. Will it be hard? Will it even be possible?

Whatever happens, it will continue to be hard. And whatever happens, the ongoing disaster that is the death of the American empire is not over. But there is no shame in celebrating a fleeting victories, in finding joy in little places, in smiling at the fleeting glimpse of light in a dark place.

Happy 2021, friends. I hope it's a good one.

dreaming of a bright future

I seldom remember much about my dreams, apart from the dim sense that something is wrong--a world where the edges are too sharp, the surfaces too rough, where nothing fits. This is nothing new; but every now and then the border between the dream world and the waking world weakens until that pervasive sense of wrongness is everywhere, until the cruelty and darkness of the waking world are just a obvious as they are in my dreams. And just as in the dreams, reality starts to fade from my memory and I drift through it like a wraith.

If I can no longer tell when I'm dreaming, it hardly makes a difference. Neither world makes sense; in both, the only thing I can do is try to help where I can, pray to a creator I don't believe in that I'm not making things any worse. And perhaps people smile in a way they think is kind when I do something strange because my mind can't quite accept that a world this dark is not the dream world--fine. I will do my best to help all the same, come hell. 

Sometimes I dream of something so bright it hurts to look at, and I wake up with an ache in my heart as I realize that even at its kindest this world can never be so kind, nor so beautiful at its most beautiful. Now and again the dreams remind me that for all the darkness of my dreams, at least when I awake they are gone.

But today I woke up weeping at a dream so beautiful all I can remember is how overwhelming it all was, but something felt different. I felt confident and powerful, like I could bend the gossamer fabric of this dreamlike world to my whim. I can build that brighter future. Today I am lucid for what may be the first time.

20201225

waiting, pt. ii

The thing I hate most about the empire is how terrified they all are of the forest. Even here in the heartland, where they've tamed every wild thing, when I tell my friends we should celebrate midwinter properly, they shy away, make excuses. I can see the fear in their eyes, though: they're afraid we'll attract spirits. And I know enough about the heartlanders to know I can't just take them by the shoulders and look them in the eyes and say, "That's the point."


So I'm here alone. It's cold, and even the winter coats they wear in the capital aren't warm enough against a proper winter's chill, but the fire burns hot and nobody seems to mind if I still use blankets from home, so I have them wrapped around me like a cloak as I sit, facing the flame, watching the gibbous moon rising above the clearing. It's cold enough it has a halo, bright enough I think I could navigate the forest by its light alone. The perfect night for awakening the old sparks of wilderness the empire had tried to bury.

I make offerings: wine from my home, some of the hard bread and stale cheese I packed for the journey, a song I heard in the market, a thin trickle of blood from my forearm. I imagine my friends joining the song, dancing with them around the fire--a celebration, a welcoming. But they are safe in their beds, resting well. They will never hear footsteps crunching in the snow behind them, or the crackling and roar of the fire as it flickers and flares in the fitful breeze, just as the forest will never hear the music of our mingled voices as we keep ourselves entertained waiting for dawn to break at the end of the longest night of the year.

When I feel myself beginning to nod off I curl up in my tent, and let the sounds of the winter forest lull me to sleep, each rustling sound or odd footstep a promise, a potential, a hope, that maybe something wild has been waiting all this time for someone to bring the spark it needs to grow bright and strong. And when it does--if it does--it will find me waiting for it, ready to welcome it, to help bring the wild spaces back to this dying land.

20201220

waiting, pt. i

The storms came almost immediately after we'd escaped the capital, bringing snows so bad that even the princess, equal parts furious and desperate, finally agreed to take shelter in the manor of one of her staunchest supporters. And so we found ourselves watching the world disappear under a thick white blanket of powder. So recently I had been admiring the turning leaves, smiling as they danced in the winds, pulling my coat tight against the autumn rains of the heartland. Now it was almost hard to remember what the world looked like before, or even imagine what it would look like in the spring.


If there is one thing that is true about the princess, it's that she deeply hates those rare times when she is not in perfect control. The loss of the capital was bad enough; now even the weather had turned against her. She could not raise an army to take back her throne from this sad snowbound mansion; she could not even begin contacting allies to begin formulating a plan or even to see just what resources she had available with which to plan. All she could do was wait.

How dearly she must have wished that her sole companion was anyone besides me--the oft-cursed Drysi she could have at least enjoyed bickering with; my sister, a tactician par excellence, could have devised schemes and stratagems; her beloved Morgana could have offered her some comfort, had she not been left behind in order that we could escape. I was none of these things; all I could offer was calm, and that seeming indifference was far from comforting.

"We are trapped here with no resources at our disposal when the entire commonwealth is about to descend into open war," she said at last, when pacing and muttering did not improve her mood.

"We are, indeed," I said.

"Why, then, are you sitting there with your feet up and watching the snow accumulate--the very snow, I should add, that is preventing us from taking action?"

"All of that will still be true when the snow melts. Besides," and here I offered a smirk that, if her scowl was any indication, she did not appreciate in the slightest, "it's pretty."

"Aren't you worried? The two of us can't fight a war. We barely even escaped the city."

I shrugged. "I expect we've got most of the winter to worry about it. Taking an evening off won't hurt."

And what a long winter it was. The storms never relented, and we spent months in that manor, rationing out supplies because we didn't know how long we'd be trapped there. It was almost exciting, at first--it snowed so rarely in the capital--but it became tedious before too long. We had nothing to do except wait, worsened by the fact that our reward at the end of all that waiting was only disaster.

But, even if neither of us would have chosen the other as our snowbound companion, if we had to weather this storm, and wait for whatever hell would come with the arrival of spring, at least we had someone to share those moments with. And I think there are very few souls throughout history who can claim to have convinced the Princess of Elouan to make snow angels with them.

"You were right," she said. "If we must wait for disaster to come, we might as well enjoy the time we spend waiting."

20201213

media list for the year of our lord 2020

There's an old post with most of this information contained therein, but I haven't updated it recently and there's enough new stuff that I figured I'd just add a new post for it. So, here it is! The more-or-less final 2020 media list from yours truly.


MOVIES (AND TV SHOWS I GUESS?)

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE

This was exceptional. Reviews often describe this French historical film as a lesbian deconstruction of the cinematic male gaze, which is extremely reductionist--there is so much more to this movie than simply a commentary on other cinema. It's a touching love story set in 18th century France, and a story of several women who have different ways of coping with what society expects of them. It's quiet and intimate, and so much story told in the way the characters look at or don't look at each other. It is streaming on Hulu and is extremely good.



BIRDS OF PREY

Fun and visually interesting, but I found Harley Quinn's accent irritating and I don't really have the urge to rewatch. Comic book movies aren't usually my thing, though, and I liked this better than most. It was very stylish and gleefully nihilistic, and seemed to at least escape from the endless self-serious grimdarkness of the recent DC cinematic universe.



LITTLE WOMEN

Oddly paced and slightly disjointed. The decision to jump between the "past" and the "present" was odd, the story seemed to pick up with the expectation that we would know what was going on--having not read the book, I did not know what was going on, so it took me a while to catch up. I'm given to understand that even those familiar with the source material occasionally run into this problem of the story being somewhat disjointed. Still, it was a good watch, even if it's probably not on the rewatch list.

I believe it was on Amazon.



SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER*

This was a rewatch for me (except for the new bits, which were new). This show is delightful and subverts the classic cartoon trope of the clash between the forces of good and evil by actually making actions have consequences--the status quo is not preserved eternally. This show goes places, has good queer representation, and explores some interesting and complicated character dynamics. It's on Netflix. Go watch it.


BAAHUBALI

An epic story from India which feels in many places inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies, featuring over-the-top action stunts, big epic battle scenes, demigod characters, some very silly moments, some very tragic moments. Also quite a bit more blood and gore than LOTR, so heads up on that. This is two movies, each of which is a bit less than three hours, and while it could very easily have fit into a single movie, there's a charm in the odd, meandering pacing. There are some regrettable choices, such as the African-coded army of evil barbarians that invade the kingdom, but overall, very fun. It's on Netflix.



AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

A good story featuring some interesting characters and surprisingly mature themes mired down by a number of issues. The tone is frequently all over the place; though the show seems at times to be interested in telling a feminist narrative, the female characters frequently feel very stereotyped; and just generally the Nickelodeon goofiness seeps its way into the story and detracts. It's still a good show, and I think I understand why it's so well-regarded, but we watched this right after She-Ra and that contrast really just highlighed all of Avatar's shortcomings. It's on Netflix.


KNIVES OUT

An extremely well-structured and well-crafted whodunit with some strong Columbo vibes. Features several send-ups of murder mystery tropes, some amazing acting from an ensemble cast, and a broad array of awful characters, each awful in their own unique way. Some genuinely good and well-earned twists, some supremely well-timed comic beats, and a compelling and unexpected narrative. Strongly recommend.

It's on Prime.


BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF*

A French movie that isn't really sure what it wants to be. Is it a monster horror movie? A whodunnit murder mystery? A political commentary? An action flick? It tries to be all of these and ends up falling short everywhere as a result. Also features a great deal of yikes around a Native American character and its general treatment of female characters. The worst part is there are seeds of something cool and interesting here, but its lack of focus means that none of these have time to breathe.

There is some very solid costuming, and this movie is the clear stylistic inspiration for the game Bloodborne (down to the impractical transforming sword-whip-stick). Not the worst possible use of your time but if you looked at the costuming in promo images and thought "oh, this looks cool," maybe give it a miss.



SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD*

This film adaptation of a comic is possibly the only film adaptation of a comic that manages to feel like a comic book. The editing in this movie is phenomenal; director Edgar Wright is a master of visual storytelling and his style really shines here. It's the story of Scott Pilgrim, fuckboi extraordinaire, and his journey to become less of a garbage person. There are some jokes that aged rather poorly, but by and large the movie is not sympathetic to its characters when they are being bad people.

Overall, this movie is still very fun, and if you like movies that do something interesting with the medium of film, this is a rare example of a comedy that fits the bill.



THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD*

A satirical film about a competition held in Depression-era Winnipeg to see which country's music was the saddest, with a cash prize on the end. A black comedy with a melodrama at its heart, it satirizes American cultural imperialism as it pilfers other cultures for superficial elements and discards what makes them interesting, as well as the commodification of grief, loss, and sorrow. 

This is one of my favorite movies but it's hard to describe; Guy Maddin is a very distinctive director and his movies definitely fall on the weirder side. A lot of what makes this movie works is the small elements--the way the announcers gleefully commentate on performances of various cultures' mourning rituals; the way the music they are performing is punctuated by loud, tournament-style buzzers; the various odd visual elements scattered throughout. It comes together to make a story which is memorable, funny, sad, and incisive.



THE EXPANSE

There are parts of this show I really love. Many of its characters are fascinating, and it mostly does a good job making the geopolitical elements feel very grounded, with actions having repercussions that spread throughout the solar system. But a couple of the characters are just . . . obnoxious isn't quite the word. They drag the whole down with them. The problem is one of them is the protagonist. (Spoilers follow, I guess.)

James Holden reads like a video game protagonist in all the worst ways. He has a background that should make him an interesting character (raised by a commune of extremist libertarians on an Earth which is ruled by a single government), but he ends up being extremely bland. He's unreasonable, but not in a way which adds depth to the character, he quickly becomes Extremely Special despite having no particular talents of his own (he is briefly shown being charismatic in episode one but never again). It would be forgivable if he were clearly intended to be unlikable, but he seems to inspire a deep loyalty in the crew, which is baffling and frequently feels out of character for them.

But when the characters are good, they're so good. They are fascinating and unexpected. They interact with each other in interesting ways, and they're understandable enough that you can guess how they might interact or what they might do in a situation but not so simple that they can't surprise you--and when they do surprise you, it doesn't feel like breaking character.

The plots themselves are mostly in the range of good to decent. Occasionally they suffer from the problem of "this thing needs to happen for the plot to happen", universally to its detriment. The stories are at their best when they are grounded portrayals of people reacting to events or acting upon events; when something happens just to kick up the melodrama it always feels cheap.

It also has an unfortunate tendency of portraying the oppressed Belters (people who were born and raised in the asteroid belt or on one of the moons of the system's gas giants) as being extremely violent, almost by nature; the narrative wants us to sympathize with their plight but it sabotages itself here as it attempts to justify their oppression.

I enjoyed the Expanse and will probably continue watching it as more seasons come out, but it could be so much better.



THE BREADWINNER

A sad and lovely story about an Afghani family in the days after the rise of the Taliban, focusing on a young girl, Parvana, as she disguises herself as a boy in order to make money to feed her family. Created by Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the visuals in this are lovely, and though the story is full of little tragedies, there is a strong theme of the power of story to soothe and to give us hope. This movie is full of beautiful little moments, each worth discovering. It's available on Netflix.



THE LEGEND OF KORRA

A follow-up to Avatar: The Last Airbender, now available on Netflix.

This show is better than the original in most respects. The characters are considerably more interesting and dynamic; Bolin, the character filling the role of Comic Relief Guy, is infinitely less obnoxious than Sokka; Korra, the protagonist, has agency and makes decisions that drive the plot; and there are far fewer episodes and scenes where the mere act of excising them would improve the series dramatically. Avatar was a garden full of weeds; Korra is a garden that has not finished growing.

Korra as a show is bursting with potential, with fascinating characters interacting in a world which feels like a believable followup to the original series (though the future Korra imagines is a much more Western-inspired world than that of Avatar, and the show itself feels a lot whiter than the original, both of which feel like a failure of imagination here). Even the side characters have good, believable characterization, and even the badly executed love triangle plot of the first two seasons is at least in direct service to the protagonist's story. All of the villains (with the possible exception of the villain from season two) have believable, understandable motives, twisted though they are to make sure we know they're the bad guys. And the show tackles the themes that were hinted at but seldom fully explored in Avatar, of fascism and inequality and corrupt power structures.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when it fails to deliver on that potential. Each season's climaxes routinely favor spectacle over meaningful impact; and because each season has its own story arc, there is less of an overall arc for the show to follow, which is fine, but it makes the overall show less impressive. (I expect they did this because they weren't sure, on making each season, if there would be a followup, but I haven't looked into it.) The worldbuilding is a lot more willing to just trust the audience to buy that, yes, some weird bullshit is happening right now, deal with it. My biggest problems with Korra were those moments when you could see the show it could have been, but, for whatever reason, fell short.

(That is strictly speaking a lie. My biggest problem with Korra is Meelo. Meelo was awful.)

I enjoyed Korra. I'd watch it again without feeling the urge to skip episodes (or entire seasons), which is more than I can say about Avatar. Rather than being bogged down in detritus, it felt like a show that could have achieved great things, but was, for whatever reason, held back.


KIPO AND THE AGE OF WONDERBEASTS

I ignored this show for a while because Netflix gave it the "goofy" tag, which, coming off of Avatar, is a word I wanted to avoid. I'm very glad we decided to watch this despite that initial concern.

I'll start by saying that it's a three-season contained story, and all three seasons are out. You can watch it and know that it will have an end and get where it's going. In this fallen age of sequels and reboots, a concise self-contained story is a breath of fresh air.

But beyond that, it's just . . . good. It's a post-apocalyptic story where humans mostly live in underground burrows and mutated talking animals ("mutes") live on the surface. That description didn't really hook me at first, so let me delve into that. The mutes have all formed various gangs, and as is tradition in post-apocalyptic story, the gangs are territorial at best, and openly hostile at worst. It's an unfriendly world out there; as if the rival gangs weren't enough, it's also full of dangerous flora and fauna to worry about. Kipo is a human from one of the burrows, stranded on the surface and looking for a way home, and she is just so fucking optimistic.

There is a lot of charm in the worldbuilding here, but what sold this show for me, I think, is that this is a hopeful story. Kipo starts making friends and trying to help people and make peace almost right away. Her optimism and good nature spreads through the surface like a particularly beneficent wildfire. But the show also doesn't shy away from portraying the actions of its villains as bad, or from showing that you can't make friends with everyone, or that not all villains can be redeemed.

It also has a wonderful cast of characters, a truly amazing soundtrack, excellent representation, and some strong emotional moments. There is no filler here: everything exists in service to the plot or the characters. Highly recommended.



OVER THE GARDEN WALL

A comic, dreamlike spooky cartoon Halloween story with a beefy voice-acting budget. Has some funny moments and some humor that ranges from charmingly absurd to perhaps a little too random. OTGW is a good watch, but its strengths are in its episodic nature; it's short, but I think it's stronger if you watch them over time rather than binging through them. The overarcing plot is light and I think it's stronger if it's not as fresh in the memory. Overall it is very charming and I'd be willing to revisit it for Halloween but overall it doesn't feel like it will have staying power for me.



SPEED RACER

What an odd movie. The Wachowski sisters wanted to make a film that didn't feel constrained by realism and traditional film conventions, and they sure did deliver. Probably a love letter to the anime I never watched, Speed Racer takes place in a universe where racing is comically deadly, absurdly popular, and is also the most important thing in the world. Races are fixed to allow the elite to make money on the stock market, and the big sponsors attempt to crush racers who don't sign on. The tone is wildly inconsistent, the comic relief characters are pretty grating, and there is way too much going on to describe this as a cohesive work, but this movie is worth watching for the cinematography alone. 



REDLINE

A 2009 sci-fi racing anime directed by Takeshi Koike, Redline is . . . just kind of wild. The narrative is conventional enough: racer who just wants to drive and is also extremely reckless is put at risk by a mafia race fixing scheme, also has a love interest who is a racer. But the famous Redline race is taking place on Roboworld, a fascist dictatorship which has sworn that it will kill any Redline-affiliated racers who arrive on the world, so the race is also a big ol' fight scene. There are kaiju and hyperdisintegration cannons, a planet of magic-using princesses, lots of interesting alien designs . . . it's a lot. The art is beautiful, the action and race sequences are well-done, and everything feels very visceral. There isn't a lot of direct worldbuilding but it feels very lively and varied; you can easily imagine a lot of different stories taking place in this universe.

If watching a wild-as-fuck racing anime with a surprisingly lucid narrative sounds like your idea of a good time, you might as well take a look.



GRAVITY FALLS

A Disney animation about Gravity Falls, a small town in rural Oregon where weird things happen; 12-year old twins Dipper and Mabel are visiting for the summer and investigate the town's mysteries while engaging in summer hijinx. There are two seasons, each at twenty episodes each.

I mention the two seasons because season one is a very episodic, monster-of-the-week show, while season two has a focused narrative. It feels like season one was trying to lay out a lot of the groundwork for season two's focus on the story, rather than it being a shift in direction as the series progressed, but, like . . . season two is great, and season one could be really hit or miss. The show would have benefitted greatly from more direction early on.

Which isn't even to say season one was bad; it just has all of this potential that seems to go untapped until season two, when the show really delivers, and transforming from a "sure, watch it if you've got nothing on your list" to a solid "this show is worth checking out". (Season one also has a few ongoing story threads that will be less frustrating on a second watch, I think.)

I feel like I'm not saying enough about what I enjoyed here, so: the characters are all fun and unique and memorable. The easy litmus test for a show with good characters is to try imagining what they would do in a certain situation, and it's very easy to imagine what this show's cast would do. There are a few character dynamics I'm not fond of but when they work, they really work. There is a lot of attention to detail, and things which come up later are usually fairly well foreshadowed. And it strikes a great balance between zany adventure and a sense of wonder and mystery and exploration.

There weren't many magical adventures when my sister and I went to the little cabin in the woods we used to go to when we were young, but exploring those pine forests sometimes really did feel magical.



A WHISKER AWAY

We watched this Netflix original anime on a whim because it looked cute. It's a story about a girl who has accepted a magical mask from a deeply sinister feline cat salesman which allows her to transform into a cat, so she can stalk her crush. She's pretty creepy for most of the story but you come to understand her as a character she gets . . . less creepy (still kind of creepy). For as bizarre and occasionally creepy as it is, it's a sweet story, and the backgrounds and art are absolutely gorgeous.

Worth noting, if this bothers you as much as it does me: the English subtitles did not match the English audio track, so if you want subtitles I recommend the Japanese audio. (I expect the English subs were written to accompany the Japanese audio rather than as subtitles for the English dub.)




GAMES

ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS

I don't know if I would have picked this game up if it weren't for the quarantine. This has become a cultural touchstone for certain parts of the internet. It's pure escapism: move to a deserted island, clean it up, decorate it, make it yours. The game progresses in real time--if you start a construction project on Tuesday in the real world and they say it will be done tomorrow, it will be done on Wednesday in the real world. You can time travel using your system clock if you want--many people do--or you can just let the game happen at its own pace. It's very relaxing, and I personally really enjoy watching the island slowly develop as time goes by. (My current project is breeding flowers, which can take weeks of real time. It's nice to have a little something to do when I wake up every day.)



PERSONA 5 ROYAL

An expanded remake of 2016's Persona 5, which was itself fantastic, P5R adds some new characters, some new content, some quality of life improvements, and some gameplay tweaks. If you're unfamiliar, the game combines visual novel segments, where you live out your life as a high schooler, hanging out with friends, working part-time jobs, studying for classes, and dungeon crawling, where the dungeons are the metadimensional manifestation of the twisted cognitions of the corrupt adults who hold the reins of society. It offers a much more interesting experience than your traditional JRPG (both in combat and during dungeon exploration), and the game is incredibly stylish and has a killer soundtrack. It is a very long game, clocking in at over 100 hours, which is a lot of time to invest, but it's worth it.

There are some pacing issues in the story, including a very, very long cutscene explaining a plot twist, but with a game as long as it is that's to be expected. You probably won't be doing nothing but playing this game for two weeks straight (well, under normal circumstances), so you might be playing it over the course of several weeks or months, and the story is structured like that, expecting that you might forget or otherwise miss some points from earlier. But it's an amazing experience and worth checking out.



TANGLEDEEP

I love this game. It's a roguelike dungeon crawler which takes direct inspiration from the classic roguelikes (Nethack, ADOM, Angband, etc.), but with modern sensibilities and a 16-bit aesthetic. It features a cool red-haired lady protagonist (shout out to the angry Steam reviewers who are mad about being "forced" to play as a female character), an interesting (if sparse) story, and is a refreshing change from the grimdark aesthetic that many roguelikes are fond of.

One of the things I like about the game is that it is difficult without relying on randomness. Supplies are plentiful--you will never die because you ran out of healing items. It also adds roguelite elements without making them required--you can easily beat the game on a fresh save file without needing too much skill, if you wanted. The roguelite elements can make the game easier but are not required, so if you find yourself grinding them it will be because you want to, not because it's required in order to progress. 

There is a New Game+ after you clear it if you want to try out your build on harder enemies, or you can start over and test out a new character build, so there's plenty of replayability. This is everything I wanted in a roguelike. It's chill and charming and has a mood that's less "YOU DIED" and more "let's go explore some mysteries!"



THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER HD

I had never actually finished this game before, believe it or not, though I'd started a few files. (I have a tendency, when I sense the end of a game is coming up, to put off finishing it because I don't really want it to end.) This is the Wii U remake of the original, which has some quality of life changes over the original and is widely regarded as an overall improvement on what was generally regarded as a very good game. It holds up pretty well! There's still some jank to the controls, but it's pretty good. The Wii U gamepad can be used to display your map, so you can navigate without pausing to bring up the map or relying on a small minimap; you can also hot-swap items from the gamepad. (Seriously, having a second screen to play games on is a huge QoL improvement. It's a shame the gamepad is massive and hurts to hold after a while.)


The Great Sea is fun to explore; the dungeons are mostly pretty easy, though the last few have some clever puzzles. Nintendo often struggles with hint placement; I often encountered hints that I didn't particularly want or need, and on a few occasions didn't get a hint when I really felt like one would have saved me a bunch of time. Overall a solid experience, with a lovely art style and a nice maritime adventure feel.



HYRULE WARRIORS

It's Dynasty Warriors, but Zelda. You beat up armies of faceless mooks and capture bases and outposts in a semi-strategic fashion, but you're Zelda characters. It's fun, it's not quite mindless (but pretty close); there is a fair bit of grinding if you want to do more than clear the story, but if you enjoy the core gameplay it's not too bad.


JET LANCER

Everyone compares this game to Luftrausers, but that game didn't work on my computer so I'm going to compare it to Asteroids, but with gravity. You're a futuristic mercenary jet pilot (I hesitate to say you are an anime jet pilot, but you are very close to being an anime jet pilot) and you are fighting other mercenary jet pilots, along with some boats and submarines and gun platforms and the occasional robot. It's got customizable loadouts and fast-paced action and various objectives and lots of accessibility options and a customizable control scheme, and it's lots of fun. Go check it out.


MONSTER HUNTER WORLD: ICEBORNE*

Monster Hunter is exactly what it says on the tin: it is a game where you hunt monsters, carve bits off them, and use those bits to make more powerful gear so you can fight more powerful monsters. It's a simple but effective loop. The game is all about learning a monster's patterns so you can understand when and where it's safe to attack, and unlike many RPGs it matters which part of the monster you hit, creating a risk-reward system where your best damage is often done by standing close to the part of the monster most likely to ruin your Christmas.

Despite being the least obtuse game in the series, Monster Hunter World is still hella obtuse, and is best enjoyed with a friend who knows the ropes, and preferably by watching some Youtube tutorials about your favorite weapons and possibly some of the mechanics. The initial learning curve is steep and many of the mechanics are not documented at all so you can uncover new ones literal years after you started playing, but once you're past that initial curve it's pretty smooth sailing.



PERSONA 4 GOLDEN

Persona 4 didn't get its hooks in me in the same way Persona 5 did. While I enjoyed it overall, the alchemy that made Persona 5 work just isn't quite there. It has strong themes (identity and the truth), an interesting narrative (a small-town supernatural murder mystery) that builds well on itself, and a mostly pretty solid cast of characters, but the combination of those elements doesn't feel as compelling. The dungeon crawling element also leaves a fair bit to be desired; the actual act of exploring the dungeons is not particularly interesting, and the combat, while more interesting than traditional JRPG fare, is not as dynamic as in Persona 5. And while the mystery is good and the story rewards you for paying attention, overall the pacing of P4 feels sluggish, often leaving you waiting around for the next plot element.

It's also dragged down by several problematic elements, some of which were at the initial time of release (2008) probably progressive-for-its-time-and-place portrayals of sexuality and gender, and some of which were just . . . not great. At its best, Persona 4 is about coming to accept yourself, even the parts society doesn't find acceptable; at its worst, it suggests that being true to yourself means simply accepting your place in society, and casually pokes fun at marginalized groups.

For all that, if you enjoyed Persona 5 or are curious about the series, this is worth picking up. (I'd recommend playing it before P5 if you plan on playing both; you will absolutely feel the lack of QOL improvements otherwise.)

Persona 4 Golden is now available on Steam.



HYRULE WARRIORS: AGE OF CALAMITY

A Dynasty Warriors-styled quasi-prequel to Zelda: Breath of the Wild, set during the time of the Calamity that led to the post-apocalyptic setting of that game. 

The spoiler-free thoughts: it's probably one of the best of the Warriors games I've played, both in terms of story and in terms of gameplay. It's well-balanced, does a good job of capturing a lot of the feeling of Breath of the Wild, and makes each character feel unique. Combat flows nicely and you have a lot of options to deal with problems.

Spoiler thoughts (including spoilers for the whole game including the ending, you've been warned), mostly concerning the story:

This game is, I think, a victim of hype. People were saying it was an "official prequel" and "it's canon", which, combined with the fact that it's a "prequel", led people to assume that this game was going to simply be a recreation of the fall of Hyrule that led up to the events of Breath of the Wild, and it's not that.

(We'll save rants on "canon" for another time, and just leave it at this: canon is a meaningless concept.)

So, taken on its own merits, the story is actually pretty good. It's the story of Princess Zelda and her quest to avert the apocalypse with the aid of a fairly inobtrustive time-traveling robot from the future. (The time travel itself is fairly inobtrusive; they don't harp on it much, and while it is instrumental in the story deviating from the expected course of events, it's not, like . . . a big deal.) She struggles against impossible odds, loses heart when things seem hopeless--it's not the most amazing story ever, but it's a story with emotions and structure. It's solid.

And because canon is a meaningless concept, it makes sense that this is the story they went with. It's a conventional heroic narrative structure: the heroes struggle against overwhelming odds and win because of their heart and determination. Video games especially, since the player is on some level a participant in the story, enjoy a conventional narrative structure, because no one wants to feel like they've failed.

But there is so much potential for a beautiful tragedy here, even with the time travel introduced (though I think it would be better served without it). And half the reason it would work so well is because it's a tragedy we expected. Tragedy works when you know that it's happening, when you know that the struggle is doomed, when you can watch our heroes fight valiantly and still fail.

It would work doubly well here since we know that ultimately, however great the cost, the heroes prevail, that Hyrule presses on, that people can rebuild. It could have given us a deeper understanding of what had been lost, of what it had cost to preserve even what little remained, and let us really appreciate the tragedy of the downfall, safe in the knowledge that one day peace could return to Hyrule.

There's so much wasted potential here which exists only in conversation with Breath of the Wild; but because Breath of the Wild exists, we will always be left wondering what could have been if they had been willing to deliver a video game with a downer ending.




BOOKS

THE BROKEN EARTH*

A trilogy of fantasy novels by the excellent NK Jemisin; this series (and Nora herself) made history as the first series ever to win three consecutive Hugo awards. I happened to finish rereading it at around the time George Floyd was murdered, and the Black Lives Matter protests spread throughout the country (and the world), and the timing for that couldn't be better.

The Broken Earth is a series about what happens when the oppressed have finally been pushed too far. It opens with a member of their oppressed underclass triggering a cataclysmic supervolcanic eruption that destroys the empire that rules the world and will almost certainly lead to the extinction of humanity eventually--think thousands or tens of thousands of years of volcanic winter. It is as beautiful as it is brutal, a story about loss and oppression and love, and it is absolutely worth your time.



TERRA IGNOTA

A science fiction series by Ada Palmer, this is an extremely philosophical series, inspired particularly by the philosophers of the 18th century. It leans heavily into an unreliable narrator, and raises questions and discusses philosophical dilemmas without ever feeling didactic. It imagines a future Earth where the nation-state is obsolete, and society is instead governed by a universal alliance of Hives (so named by analogy to the bee, which creates something greater than itself for the collective), which are essentially cultures and sets of laws that members can freely leave and join, bound together by some universal laws.

I cannot stress enough that the beating heart of this series is the philosophical explorations: what does it mean to live in a society? Can we be considered free if we cannot choose which laws to follow? Is utopia possible? Is history decided by the actions of a few great men, or do the events of history derive from systems and movements? And so many more. There are interesting characters, and the plot is engaging (and though I am usually not deeply concerned with spoilers, some of the revelations in the plot are worth preserving the secrecy of), but at its heart it is a story exploring the central conversations of the Enlightenment. It's a series that begs to be discussed. I loved it, but I can imagine people finding it dull or indulgent.

The fourth and final book of this series is due out next year (2021).



IN THE VANISHERS' PALACE

I think this is a novella, or novellette? I'm not really sure what the difference is. It's by Aliette de Bodard, a French-Vietnamese writer, and the high concept is "Beauty and the Beast, but the beast is a dragon and they're lesbians." If that sounds like your jam, it's worth picking up. Writing a review of a shorter work like this is harder for me, since there's less to latch onto; it has some interesting concepts touched upon in its worldbuilding and magic, and a cast of characters that I think would benefit from more time to explore who they are and how they relate to one another. But I enjoyed it, so there's that.

20201202

a prelude for december (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

December always makes me think of what it was like being a kid, and how interminable the wait for Christmas seemed. Weeks, months, days--it hardly mattered, it seemed like the day would never come. Now, the months go by so quickly, and December just means the end of the year will be here soon.

And yet, this is only the beginning of winter, and winter always feels like it will last forever. Here in Seattle, the autumn colors are fading, though you can still find the odd bright yellow leaves dancing in the wind; the cold has settled in and isn't going anywhere, and it's important to check the weather before going out because you never know when the rain is going to come and refuse to let up. I think the seemingly endless winters come from the fact that you never really know when it's going to end: some years winter ends early, some years it ends late, and all you can do is count down the weeks and hope that it's not too bad this time around.

The pandemic continues to worsen; the state has issued new restrictions that are too little, too late to stop or even contain this spike, which continues to set records day by day. Downtown feels unchanged after the new restrictions went in place, and they're set to expire before Christmas. It feels inevitable that our numbers in the state and county will reach the atrocious levels they have elsewhere in the country, and unconscionable that our leaders have almost no interest in preventing that.

And the election . . . happened. Biden is the apparent winner, and Trump and the GOP are doing their level best to invalidate the election results. The ongoing coup attempt appears to be petering out but until the electoral college meets the uncertainty remains that enough GOP loyalists will be willing to destroy democracy so they can get four more years in the presidency. Continuing to pretend that this is a democracy rather than an oligarchy with vestigial democratic elements feels extremely silly.

For the new year, for the end of winter, or for the fall of the empire, nothing to do but wait. This month's theme--the final theme of the year, and who knows if I'll keep doing this next year--is waiting.

20201201

chaos, pt. i

No one really knew what to do with themselves, after he died. He'd been keeping so many disparate circles together with nothing more than his charisma and his ability to make people feel like they owed him, like they needed him. Then someone put a bullet through his head and it all started to fall apart.

We thought maybe running away would make the chaos go away, but you can't really run from chaos, not when you're part of it. Not even if you thought you'd finally gotten away from all that. The chaos follows, and it's so, so tempting to give in, to let the chaos rule, to ignore everything you know and understand and let it all drift away on a whim. We almost did. Neither of us were trying to be leaders when we finally decided to stand up. We just wanted to calm things down, to let people know they didn't need to keep suffering now he was gone. But they rallied behind us anyway, a rock to shelter behind in a tempest, because what other choice did they have? Keep on drifting aimlessly?

So we helped where we could, we tried to give people some solid ground to stand on, and I tried my level best not to cringe every time someone said "we owe you one" or something like it. Maybe that's how he got started, forever ago: standing steady in a storm and people just flocked to him. Maybe he really did want to help at first, and then it was just so easy, once he'd built something, to just keep collecting people who owed him, who needed him. Maybe at some point he forgot that this all started because he had the chance to help people.

We disappeared again as soon as the chaos settled down, went back to laying low, trying to stay out of sight. Some part of me worried that we'd just leave more chaos in our wake once we were gone, but people aren't so bad at dealing with chaos if they have a rock to stand on. They'd be fine. I had to believe that.

20201102

a prelude for november (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

November is an odd month. Some years it's a herald of winter's impending arrival, and some years it's autumn's last hurrah, with all the crisp days and vivid colors that implies. Some years, I suppose, it's both. I've always thought of it as the start of winter here in the northwest. November is the month when the gloom settles in, if nothing else.


And of course, every two years, the US holds federal elections in November; this year it's a presidential election, and this year pretending that it holds much in common with that tradition is so deeply misguided as to be actively harmful. This year, we're holding our breath wondering how much violence there will be in the streets on election night and the nights that follow. This year, we're wondering if the president, if he loses the election, will concede. We're wondering if the fascist party that supports him will aid him in a coup if he doesn't. We're wondering if the efforts both by officials of the fascist party and by their brownshirt supporters to suppress, steal, or destroy votes will succeed at stealing the election. We're wondering how anyone could have any faith in our electoral process at all. We're wondering how long we're going to have to hold our breath.

My intention to write every day last month fell apart; I moved to a new place, I got sick, and it's so hard to focus these days as the end creeps ever closer. I'll try again this month. There are stories that want telling, after all. It may very well fall apart, however; there is so much uncertainty now, so much chaos. So let's make that our theme for this month. Chaos. Unpredictability. Discord. A word that can hold so much hope and fear all at once.

20201027

liminal, pt. 2

When I first started out on the road, I left my name behind. It was practical, at first: my reputation and my past were the first things I wanted to leave behind, and I already stood out enough without everyone being able to put a name to my face. And at first it was nice, being a nameless wanderer, drifting in on the whims of the wind, leaving . . . stories in my wake. I'd wear whatever name suited me at the time: a flower, a season, an aspiration.

I'd still write letters, when I could find the time, when there was someone heading in the right direction--rarer and rarer the further I got from the empire's rotting heart. And the longer I spent nameless, the odder it felt to sign them with my old name. How long had it been since I'd heard my name on someone else's lips, or spoken it aloud? With each false name--snowdrop, willow, hope--I felt that old self slipping away, but there was no new self to take her place. I slipped into some liminal space, my identity ever in flux, solidified only as long as I needed it to.

I'd been adrift for years when I ran into a ghost from my past, at a harvest festival as close as you could get to the edge of the empire, and when she met my eye and whispered my name it nearly broke me. I tried to lose myself in the festivities, in dancing and drink, but the constant shifting of my identity demanded resolution: stand and fight or keep running forever. And I'd promised, when I was too young to understand what it would cost, that I would always stand and fight. 

It was the reminder that, because this ghost from my past promised a return to normalcy, to safety, to complacency, being true to that promise meant betrayal. The trust the powerful offered was a shackle, the same as any other; they did not understand that I had come to break chains, not to forge new ones. I chose a new name, then, the same as I always did, but this one was an anchor, not a shield. A renewal of an old promise, a decision made to stop lingering in the threshold.

20201003

liminal, pt. i

I found a spirit in the lowlands outside the capital. She was a tiny wisp, a fragment of a fragment of something great, but she shouldn't have been possible at all. Not there. Of course she couldn't explain how she even existed. (Could you answer that question? I'm not sure I could.) And yet, there she was, in the form of a butterfly, shimmering in the shade.

I was a kid, overwhelmed by being forced into a world I did not understand and a culture I had sworn to destroy. This was . . . probably a few months after I was taken. I was angry and afraid and confused and at that moment, as I dipped my feet in the river and watched the spring leaves dancing in the wind, all of that stopped mattering. Here was something impossible. Here was someone who needed my protection.

"I've never met a human before," she said, while I stared in awe I couldn't have explained if I wanted to. "Are all humans this pretty?"

"Some," I said.

We talked. She was too new, too small, to hold much knowledge or recollection of the world, but there were fragments that suggested memories. She had so many questions about the world, about me, about the empire I'd vowed to topple. I felt, at first, wholly unprepared for something so momentous as educating an impossible spirit in the ways of the world. And then, as I tried to describe the life I'd had among my clan, there was clarity.

I understood, then, why the order that made her impossible needed to fall. It had always been this abstract ill: that I, tattooed like the hunters of old, would hunt that most dangerous of monsters, empire, and that I would stand in its ashes a conquering hero. Now that ambition took on shape and new purpose: it was mine to defend those who could not defend themselves, and so long as the empire stood, I could not stand as a champion of the weak.

I built her a shrine, then, out of fallen branches and flower buds and spring leaves. I promised her I would make the world safe for her; she promised friendship. Our contract sealed, I carved its sigil in the largest branch I'd found, and we both left that place changed.

That marked the beginning, I think, for both of us, as we both found a way to thrive and grow and change in an environment that should have been hostile to us. And one day we would be powerful enough to change the world.