‘Cormorant’ Review

I should out myself first as a fan of Chuck Wendig and of Miriam Black. I really enjoyed my introduction to her in Blackbirds (as much as one can enjoy being introduced to Miriam), and while I got a little lost in the murkier plot of Mockingbird I found Cormorant something of a return to form.
If you have read other of Wendig’s work you’ll know what to expect here: swearing, off-kilter metaphors, a morality of greys and blacks, frenetic pacing. It’s a strong hand and he plays it well. Miriam’s no cheerier. She remains wounded and brutal, abused and abrasive. Her ‘gift’ still feels more like a curse. An offer she can’t refuse tempts her to Florida where the consequences of her past come back to haunt her. If you have read Miriam’s earlier books you should definitely read this one too.
And now we enter (potential) spoiler territory. I haven’t deliberately included any specific spoilers, but there’s the potential that some detail below might spoil it for you, so turn back now if ye be weak of heart.

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Transplanting Miriam to Florida works well. As with Dexter the setting provides a bright contrast to the dark heart (and dark deeds) of the character, a kind of thematic chiaroscuro. In many ways Miriam is the same as she ever was, but the effects of the previous novels are telling. From the beginning we see her life spiralling further downward, this from a starting point already best described as doldrums.

The development of her character had a sense of natural progression, but I didn’t accept it easily. The ghoulish opportunist of the first novel – a woman prepared to wait like a vulture over those due to die – is replaced with a murderer (the blurb says ‘killer’. I don’t think that’s strong enough). Miriam takes an active hand in deciding who lives; who dies. She has done so before of course, but for nobler ends. Where before the difficult decision to end a life was made to protect someone she loved, here it seems little more than experimentation. The kid she shoots – point blank to the skull no less – is no saint, but nor is he the kind of arch-criminal who Miriam has killed in the past. It’s a difficult balance to paint a character from so dark a palate as Wendig has chosen and still keep her sympathetic, and her decision to kill here makes that even more difficult. Granted, the decision has lasting effects on her.

It’s a theme of these novels that Miriam causes such distress and damage to those about whom she most cares, and who care most about her. Louis is mentioned, but when she has the opportunity to reconnect with him she chooses not to do so. Instead it’s her mother she calls. Wendig handles this expertly. The image we have had of Miriam’s mother in previous novels – entirely presented through Miriam’s perspective – is shattered quickly. She is not the woman Miriam remembers. Gone is the oppressive influence of religion. She has been hurt by her daughter’s experiences, and by her daughter’s absence. Now that Miriam’s back, there’s more hurt to come. Preventing the foretold murder of her mother becomes Miriam’s driving motivation, and a far more compelling one than the MacGuffin that got her to Florida in the first place.

Miriam also learns more about her powers. She meets another with a similar gift, a genuine psychic with a talent for finding what has been lost. Like Miriam her power is born from trauma, and the link is explicitly drawn. There’s also an extension of her earlier affinity with birds, in this case the transferral of her consciousness is more complete, more deliberate. The titles of the trilogy have always hinted at this affinity, but never so directly or so obviously as in this case. Her antagonist here also has a power, seemingly drawn from the other side of the same coin. Wendig explores in more detail the concepts of predetermination, of free-will, and (in a somewhat meta sense) predictability.

Miriam is put through the wringer again. Fittingly, for the third volume of a trilogy, there is an escalation in her own suffering. Physically she is hurt like never before. Too hurt, I suspect. She suffers such violence that it strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Even in a story about a psychic who can become birds, there’s a limit to what a human body can endure. Emotionally this is perhaps Miriam’s toughest tale. She has lost many of the support structures, fragile as they were, which she had worked so hard to build. She blames herself for the damage done to those around her, and that her antagonist is in a sense of her own creation. She struggles to reconnect with her mother, to see past the caricature villain of her memory to the woman in front of her. By the time she does, that rediscovered woman is endangered and even the saving of her life brings unimaginable trauma. For all her best efforts Miriam can’t prevent the horrors of her life from affecting others, and the more she tries to contain them the more they burden her.

She’s a fascinating character, and Wendig’s prose brings her brilliantly to life, popping off the page in a barrage of blasphemy and profanity. She’s sour and sharp and sarcastic, always the pugilist. He writes Miriam’s world-view with confidence, presenting it for us to decipher from little asides, the attention to detail. Sometimes – not often but perhaps too often – his characters can take on the role of mouth-piece, as Miriam does in the early chapters when she talks about friend-zoning. Perhaps this is a consequence of my fandom. Perhaps following Chuck on Twitter and at Terribleminds have given me an insight into his politics and perspectives such that when I read those same views in his characters I ascribe them to him. I’m not even sure that this is a criticism – authors will of course have characters who share their views, just as they will have characters who oppose them – other than that it took me out of the narrative during those moments and I had the feeling that it was Chuck’s voice in my ear, not Miriam’s.

The plot here is less muddled than I found Mockingbird’s to be, which is an improvement, but I felt that the pendulum may have swung too far. As with previous novels Wendig has the opportunity to play with flash-forwards and flash-back. Miriam’s power is a perfect vehicle for a jump into the future; her reminiscences and her mother are opportunities to flesh out her past. Wendig also tempts the reader with chapters that take us away from the main narrative to a future-point, in which Miriam is being interviewed by the agents of some unknown (alleged) agency. Despite this, Cormorant is very linear. Not a straight line, exactly, but no real dead-ends either, no red herrings worth noting. There are a few moving pieces introduced, but they remain on the periphery, never really upsetting the central narrative track. As a reader you can see what’s coming in advance and the interest becomes in seeing how it will all come together, rather than the mystery and anticipation of wondering how it will end.

Cormorant grabs hold and keeps you reading. It’s an engaging time to spend, shackled to the unfolding train-wreck of Miriam’s life, hoping despite yourself, despite her, that this might end well. Being already invested in Miriam’s story I was hooked already and enjoyed reading about her time in Florida.

Wendig is due to return to her in Thunderbird I will not hesitate to return with him.


My musings on increased diversity in comics

So Thor is to be a woman, Captain America is to be African-American, Spiderman Hispanic, Ms Marvel Pakistani (I prefer the ungendered ‘Captain Marvel’ title to ‘Ms Marvel’, but we shall press on), and other similar flippings and re-imaginings are bringing a new sense of diversity to familiar comic heroes. And to my own surprise, I am conflicted. I should be all for this… but.

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Photo Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Let me say from the outset, I want comics to diversify and tell the stories of people who are not straight, white guys. I want more stories with protagonists of colour. I want my sons to see superheroes that reflect the world they live in, populated as it is by shades of brown, by more women than men, by the rich traditions of cultures from around the globe. I’ve written here about diversity in storytelling before.

I love the idea of a female superhero flying in, swinging a hammer, sending lightning to strike her foes, in a superheroic role that don’t require skin-tight black leather, cleavage-bearing cut-outs or bikini line waxing. I was raised by Buffy. On top of this, Falcon is the obvious candidate to take-up the star-spangled shield if Steve Rogers’ serum were to fail him, and an African-American Captain America should be unremarkable in an America where Obama is president, for readers who have grown-up admiring athletes like Jordan, Shaq and LeBron.

And yet I am conflicted by these changes. For all those reasons I have to support them, something grates. I worried initially that this was some vestigial cultural rejection, that some part of me was stamping its feet and saying ‘Thor is a man because he just is dammit!’ But I don’t think that’s what this is. After all, much has been of Thor’s time as a frog, for a time Captain America was a Skrull, Superman has been a gorilla, etc. These passed unremarked, as they should have, and perhaps as these changes should too.

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I think instead that my conflict comes from concern that these well-intentioned changes don’t actually achieve the message they intend. These changes are not tokenism – as Chuck Wendig’s excellent post points out – and I don’t argue that they are. Yet it is not a true increase in diversity either. It is a veneer of diversity. I find that it disappoints me, particularly in the case of Thor, that these new heroes are presented to us only after they come to inhabit some other, established, identity – a white man’s identity.

Commercially, bringing these protagonists into the role of existing, established characters (with an existing, established readership) makes sense. Comic book superheroes are not rare. It’s a crowded space into which a new addition may make barely a ripple, but change an existing member of its pantheon, and people notice. Geekdoms landslide with approbation or applause, likely both. Either way you get noticed. You get into mainstream media. And that’s good business and I absolutely understand that.

In the case of Spiderman, and Captain America, and many others, I can see how the passing of the identity works. It has been long established. Many characters have taken on an heroic role: Azrael becomes Batman after the breaking of Bruce Wayne; the many iterations of The Flash (Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen and beyond). I can imagine someone taking up the bow and purple cowl of Hawkeye, because Hawkeye is not restricted to Clint Barton (and Barton has played other roles than Hawkeye). When Pym retired as Ant-Man others used the technology to take on the role.

Thor is different, as are Superman and The Hulk. Behind Batman’s cowl anyone can dispense vigilante justice, that’s the nature of the cowl and of the secret identity of its wearer, but as Tarantino’s Bill pointed out, Superman is not a costume. Kal-El dresses up as Clark Kent, but Superman is inextricably Kal-el. Likewise, Hulk is inextricably Banner, Thor is inextricably the son of Odin. ‘Thor’ is not a title to be passed on.

God of Thunder is a role. Wielder of Mjölnir is a role.  These are roles that could be given to someone other than Thor Odinson, and at times they have, and yet when Captain America (or Storm, or Beta Ray Bill) did wield the hammer, they did not become Thor. They were able to play the same role, but not to inhabit the same identity.

Previous attempts – admirable in themselves – at gender diversity were similarly flawed or fraught: female superheroes were defined by connections with, or as counter-points to, male heroes. Batman/Batgirl; Superman/Supergirl; Hulk/She-Hulk; Thor/Thor-girl, etc. (Ms. Marvel becoming Capt. Marvel being an exception here). Marvel seems keen to head-off this criticism. Their announcement of the female Thor was couched in language as much about what she was not, as about what she was. Jason Aaron has said that “this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!”… “This is not She-Thor, This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is Thor.”

So she has become that identity entire. And this is precisely where she sends the opposite message to the one I believe was intended. Can a female superhero not exist in her own identity, as herself? Must she inhabit the identity of a white guy before she’s gifted legitimacy? Can a woman only be heroic by taking on a male role – not just the characteristics of a male hero, but the very identity? Because if the answer to those questions is a yes, that’s a crap message.

Having Sam Wilson trade in his wings for a shield doesn’t actually add diversity to Marvel, it’s just reshuffling their deck. Wilson was ground-breaking as a black superhero in 1969, and he breaks some ground now as Captain America, but it’s not added diversity. He’s not new, he’s just rebranded. Nor is he the first black man to take on the uniform. More than 10 years ago Marvel had a black Captain America in Isaiah Bradley.

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The criticisms levelled at that 2003 series ring eerily familiar this week:

“…outright racists who just don’t like the idea of a black man in the Cap uniform.”
(http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,390672,00.html)

“When we posted our first image of Isaiah Bradley – the silhouette of an African American man in a Captain America costume – the media latched onto it as a story of interest, but a lot of internet folks lined up against it, assuming, for whatever reason, that it would disparage the legacy of Steve Rogers.”
(http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=34680)

Despite Aaron’s insistence, both the ‘black Captain America’ and the ‘female Thor’ are absolutely being positioned as temporary inhabitants of these roles. Thor Odinson can reclaim Mjölnir when he is again worthy. Steve Rodgers remains in many ways the ‘real’ Captain America, training Sam Wilson in how to throw the shield and wear the stars, running the missions from Avengers mansion. An unkind reading would have this as a white master sending out his black errand boy. Both of these characters are replacements, and as such any identity they form will be in the shadows of their (white, male) predecessors, never an independently their own.

To bring them in in this way is to ensure that they are less prominent even in their role because they will always be viewed through a comparative lens. Rather than having Falcon brought to prominence in his own right (perhaps as the lead in a Falcon film where Captain America plays his second fiddle), Marvel has merely swapped the colour palate for the Captain America inking. Rather than bring Lady Sif to prominence in her own right, Marvel has merely altered Thor, making a pointier breastplate prominent. I’m sure they will do more with the characters that that, they have talented writers on hand, but the criticism is there to be made.

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And I do support that these stories are being told. I do support greater genuine diversity of the people represented as heroes. There’s better ways to achieve this. You want an African-American hero? DC could do well to leave the Ryan Reynolds disaster behind and cast a Green Lantern based on John Stewart in an upcoming Justice League film (and let The Rock play him!). What better opportunity than having a woman and an African American (I know The Rock is a Pacific Islander, stick with me here) stand alongside the Kryptonian and the Gothamite? It was a noted strength of the Winter Soldier film that when Captain America (Rodgers) needed allies he turned to two black men and a woman.

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Diversify The Avengers? Bring Falcon onto the team. Bring Rhodey on as War Machine and give Downey Jnr a rest.  Introduce Black Panther (and give him a movie of his own). Where’s Luke Cage? He has worked with Spider Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Hulk and could appear in any number of franchises? (The Rock again? Or Idris Elba? Just don’t cast Nicholas Cage to play the Harlem-raised African-American).

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Would these suffer from the accusations or the reality of ‘side-kick spin-off’ syndrome? Perhaps. So take a character who’s no one’s side-kick.

You want a female superhero throwing lightning around and kicking arse? Storm! She’s established and portrayed in film by an Oscar winner. She’s a female of colour. She has worked with The Avengers before. If Wolverine can have an origin, why not Storm? Want a woman hitting hard with a divine hammer? Have Ms Marvel take up Mjölnir, or Brunnhilde the Valkyrie. Have Jane Foster pick up the hammer when Thor’s knocked down. Who wouldn’t want to see Natalie Portman with Mjölnir in hand? Have a new female character (Asgardian or otherwise) wield it. There’s no shortage of Norse myth to plunder.

Have Frigg and her attendants as a team of female heroes.

Gender-swap Vidar and have a Goddess who can stand beside Thor with the strength to rip Fenris’s jaw asunder with her bare hands.

Have Tyr become a one-handed Goddess of single combat.

Imagine if Nanna swore revenge instead of pining her way to an early death in grief at Loki’s murder of her husband. Powered by her need to avenge Baldr the (now former?) Goddess of Peace could oppose Loki, could ignore Thor’s calls for restraint or mercy, could be a narrative grenade tossed into the halls of Asgard and the world of men. She could renounce her reign of peace and unleash violence of divine proportions. She links to existing canon in that she is fighting an existing antagonist. She could draw on the tradition of moon goddesses, a new Diana hunting through the Marvel universe. Thor could cameo to plead with her for his brother’s safety, and she could shrug him off as a weak-willed and overly sympathetic fool. She could take Mjölnir from him, not received as a gift, but taken as her right, and in a rage she could wield it against her foes.

That’s a kick-arse female hero I want to read more about.


‘Control Point’ Review

Control Point Review

I’ll open with a spoiler-free (tl;dr) summary of my feelings about the book and then go into more detail (potential for some minor spoiling therein).

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Précis:

I enjoyed the book. I rated it on Goodreads, and although it deserves more than 3 stars, I don’t think I can give it 4.

I particularly enjoyed the way it challenged and questioned enculturated values. I liked how Cole managed the powers and his action scenes were kinetic and visceral. As a writer I learnt a lot from the way he brought the genres together, forced a collision and made something new from what was there.

I will read the others in the series, and happily recommend the book to fans of comic book superheroes, military fiction and urban fantasy.

Detail:

Control Point is the debut novel of Myke Cole, and the first in a series of “Shadow Ops” novels (of which there are three, with a prequel due out next year). I picked it up because I came to know of Myke Cole through his blog, and through Twitter (@MykeCole). He’s one of those authors who is incredibly interesting when they talk about how they came to be writers and what writing means to them. He offers advice and engages with his fan-base, and his books were recommended or enjoyed by others I trust, and had a good cross-over with other authors whose work I’d enjoyed (Mark Lawrence’s review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/246427711?book_show_action=true&page=1).

Cole is a US Military vet, having served in Iraq, and is currently a member of the US Coast Guard. It’s not a common résumé for Fantasy writers, and the world he has created is not common Fantasy. It has been described as a cross between ‘Black Hawk Down’ and ‘X-Men’ (by no less a reliable source than Peter V Brett), and you can definitely see the way that the influences of his professional militarism meet his personal geekdoms, with influences apparent from the battlefield, to superhero comics to D&D.

In an unspecified near-future USA there has been an awakening of previously latent powers. People have discovered that they can control elements, or – in rarer cases – exhibit other ‘magical’ powers. This awakening is quickly legislated and the military steps in to attempt control. Oscar Britton begins the novel as a military man charged with controlling (or killing) the awakened latents (selfers), but he sympathises with those he must hunt. When he exhibits powers himself he is faced with an impossible choice, to submit, or to flee.

Cole’s greatest strength is in his world-building. On gross structure this is familiar from any number of superhero origins, but it is in the minutiae that Cole’s world takes shape. Each chapter presents excerpts of speeches, legislation, media, etc from this new world which gives us a better insight into how society has sought to adjust. From this we can hold a mirror to modern cultures. The novel forces us to ask how we balance liberties against regulation, how we respond to de-centralised terrorism, how existing cultural and religious world-views have adapted – some better than others. The heavy-handed government control of the US is more criticised than endorsed. Cole takes an interest in the fictional indigenous of his magical source-world, and his understanding of Islamic and Native American cultures adds nuance and depth to what might otherwise have been a one-dimensional speculation.

That our protagonist finds himself more often opposing than endorsing his government’s militarist approach is particularly interesting, given Cole’s own history. If anything this is overplayed. The gung-ho militarists are obvious antagonists. Unfortunately Britton – our protagonist in this world, from whose perspective it is shown to us and to whose internal monologues we have access – is often a confused and confusing moral compass. Perhaps this puts the need to moralise back on the reader, something with which I am generally more comfortable, and yet the character suffers because of this uncertainty. From the beginning, when teenaged selfers are attacking their school, Britton sides with them over his command structures. This jarred me, as a reader, because the actions of the selfers were unsympathetic – they obviously needed to be stopped.

The pacing is rapid, the novel quite heavily plot-driven. This can mean that the prose is stark and direct, sometimes to the extent that it felt lacking. I think this is a necessary quality of the prose for the story being told, and this was a debut novel, but it makes no claims to high literature. This is fast-moving pulp and should be enjoyed as such.

Similarly, most characters are to be taken on face value, and while some show development and growth many others come into the narrative, serve their purpose, and depart the stage. Many remain archetypes or sketches throughout, and while this is a criticism, I think it’s one that flows inevitably from keeping the plot moving quickly. The character I found most sympathetic was the indig ‘Marty’, and he becomes a key motivation for the protagonist, as well as a key player himself in the build to the climax. Too often I confused characters, or forgot their names, or forgot which call-sign went with which name, etc. In large part this is my failing, but it also suggests perhaps that many of the secondary characters weren’t memorable beyond being a super-power in a uniform.

For Military/Fantasy/Sci-Fi with fast-paced action and a 2nd world twist this is a good series to get into.


‘Embassytown’ Review

Over on Goodreads I have a review in which I have tried to avoid spoilers. Here I go into more depth and there may be some minor spoilers for several of Miéville’s books, but I think I’ve largely avoided that again. Fairly warned though.

I am unashamedly a fan of China Miéville’s work. Look over to the tag cloud and you’ll see his name boldly prominent. I like to read his books, and I like to talk about his worlds and his writing.

Perdido St and The Scar were both magnificent. They changed the way I understood the Fantasy genre, my understanding of genre as a costruct, and what imagination and creativity really looked like. They opened shackles I’d unknowingly worn since my early-pubescent reading of Tolkein, Feist, et al. Fantasy was no longer the cobbling together of the D&D Monster manual. Fantasy was worlds drawn from a global supply of myth and eons of folklore and it was new things as well like physics and invention and theoretical sciences. The Fantasy hero could be a fat, middle-aged scientist, a bug-headed artist, a surgically enhanced man-dolphin. The Fantasy villain could be a moth, or a mayor, or some trans-dimensional benthic leviathan. That said, I’m not one of those calling for Miéville to return to Bas Lag. I am as interested in where he is headed as where he has been.

I liked Kraken and King Rat. I liked the London it showed me, familiar and strange at once, lovingly recreated and then twisted and shaped by myth and magic. I liked the subversions and inversions of ancient tales, of folklore, of nursery rhymes, of drum and bass. I liked the cross-culturalism of a modern city clashing with the ancient history of place. I liked the urban organic. I liked the religiosity and sociology of these ab-Londons.

Although some I know disliked The City & The City, I found it fascinating and I enjoyed the way that he drew back from what could have been absurdly fanciful and made it more about psychological dissonance, whether imposed or by way of self-discipline. I went away and researched towns with amorphous boundaries and cross/hatching. I developed a different understanding of geography and place. I found Iron Council to be a tough slog. At times it was frustratingly slow and tangential, but it had its rewards.

I was so looking forward to Embassytown: Miéville writing sci-fi, on an alien planet, with a whole alien race – a whole alien city – to create, with the technology for AI and constructs. Miéville exploring the artificiality of language, the interstice of translation, cross-cultural semiotics.

Miéville, sci-fi, linguistics.

What a recipe!

This should have been a book which I loved: brilliantly high-concept, detailed world-building, fascinating originality, clever and witty… and yet I really struggled to stick with it.

Embassytown is far from being a bad book. It is a very good book. Structurally it works well: builds a world, introduces us to characters, makes clear the complicated relationships and politics of people and place, twists and turns through an active plot and leads us to a satisfying conclusion.

I know that Miéville’s prose can alienate some readers, but I am not one such reader. His word-play, and his word creation, are fundamentally attractive aspects of his novels for me. In Embassytown we again have many of his signature phrases, his unique formations and phrasing, his extensive vocabulary, and I loved some of the passages. Miéville made me see the power of the adjective used adverbially when, in Perdido Street Station, a small seedling pushes pugilist through train tracks. It is a technique he continues to use to good effect. The Germanic origins of many of the terms gave depth to the world, but the hearkening to Latin and Greek gave variety. Neologisms of mashed nouns (terretech, citynaut, biopolis) were immediately sensible. The abbreviations (autom, exot, trunc) and others perhaps entirely invented (floaking – a term that has every right to join ‘Grok’ in the vocabulary of geekdom and perhaps beyond) fitted so naturally and seamlessly into sentences that it seemed that they just belonged. The numerator/denominator, cut/turn, expressions of the Hosts and the Ambassadors were a fascinating concept, as was the singular identity in dual physical bodies. I loved immersing myself (pun intended) in the language.

I also share an interest in many of the themes Miéville explored: metaphysics, existentialism, philology, the linguistics, the exploration of truly alien culture and the limitations on cross-cultural communication. The essence of self-hood, explored here through the ambassadors whose singular identity manifests in paired bodies, and names like CalVin and EzRa. The same theme I felt was sadly underexplored through the Automs – Artificial Intelligences whose personhood is hinted at but largely dismissed, most fully realised in Ehrsul. Of all the automs Ehrsul is said to be remarkable, even unique, and yet her narrative arc fades during the second act and is all but absent from the final.

Several characters annoyed me, but most notably Avice and Scile. This is perhaps because of the way the chapters inter-stitch different time periods, cross-hatching the Formerly and the Currently until the two narratives meet and we can finally progress to the finale. This makes Avice seem more inconsistent than she would be on a linear narrative, but even allowing for that I found many of her actions (and inactions) infuriating. Some of the tangents came to overwhelm and distract, there were Chekhov guns which remained loaded and mounted to the wall without ever being taken down or fired. Maybe – likely – this is deliberate. Likely Miéville is knowingly subverting such expectation, is touring us through the world he made so that we might simply enjoy it as an act of creation. He did the same in parts of Perdido, and Scar, and Iron Council, to varying success. He makes Embassytown more central than mere setting, just as New Crobuzon is, or London, or Beza/UlQuoma. To that end he is effective. The immerverse has massive scope for story-telling and an impressive depth beneath what little of it we see. Yet this efficacy comes at the cost of narrative pace and engagement, and for me there were times when the price paid was too great. The pace of the final act is effective, but for much of the middle it is glacial. Slow pace is not inherently a problem, but apparently it was a problem for me in this instance.

I gave Embassytown 3 stars on Goodreads, because for all that was good about it, I did not love it. More accurately, I loved it at times, in passages, intermittently. Other times it wearied me, it dragged, it rambled along and allowed me to follow without my ever really being clear why we were taking these detours. In sections, it floaked.

If you are a fan of China Miéville you should definitely read this. It follows through in detail and sophistication on many of the themes which are closest to his interest. If you are new to China Miéville, or unfamiliar with his brand of Weird / New Weird literature then I’d recommend starting with some of his others before working your way to Embassytown.


True Detective: masculinity, misogyny and monster myths

I have just finished watching True Detective and I intend to discuss it below in a way that will require I give a spoiler alert right here. There’s been a lot said recently about spoilers after a certain someone at a certain royal wedding met a certain fate and the internet went nuts and those people who didn’t want a 15 year old book spoiled for them were understandably upset. So though I don’t intend to deliberately spoil anyone’s enjoyment of True Detective, I’ll probably say something that might. Fair warning then. Spoilers ahead.

For a long time I have held The Wire to be my favourite TV show of all time, and I think there’s a fair stretch of daylight between The Wire and whatever is second. I thought Dexter was a challenger at around the time of Trinity, but it fell away quickly and it fell hard and by the end I hated that dead-beat, lumberjacking cop-out. Oz would be up there. I never quite caught the Breaking Bad addiction to the same extent as many friends did, but it’s clearly very good. Ditto Sopranos. Ditto Deadwood. Then there’s the next tier down where sits the likes of Lost, Walking Dead, first season of Heroes, etc.

True Detective I think is my new 2nd, and it’s closer to The Wire than any of those others came. It is the most stunningly beautiful cop procedural I have seen. The cinematography, the long-shots, the tracking shots, the aesthetic of landscape and urban decay and the people eking out lives of misery and quiet desperation… magnificent. Both leads are tremendous (and the support cast too, but more on that soon), each shed a weight of their parodied past and shouldered instead the gravitas and depth required in a series that relied a great deal on strong performances from its dual protagonists. They delivered. They delivered in spades. Harrelson is great, brooding, childish, petulant, aggressive, assured, fragile, by turns. He inhabits all of these contradictions and owns the physical changes Marty undergoes across the span of 15 years. McConaughey is astounding, and in his ’95 iteration particularly he is nearly unrecognisable but for his voice. I kept having to remind myself who I was watching, and he kept dragging me away from that guy and immersing me in the character.

That guy...

‘That guy’…

But what I feel truly set the series apart from other odd-couple, buddy cop, bromance, procedurals was the philosophical positions expounded by these characters. In his nihilism, his philosophical pessimism, his unflinching honesty-to-self, Rust Cohle brought some interesting ideas to the small screen. The most quoted – most quotable – of these has inspired Tumblrs and Sub-Reddits and all manner of internet discussion, dissection and debate. “Time is a flat circle” explores Nietzsche’s theory of infinite recursion – the thought that most terrified him, among all of the terrifying thoughts he offered. References to “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” made an 1895 collection of short stories an Amazon best-seller.

Those whom I have read dissatisfied or critical of the series complain that after introducing this apparent profundity, this depth of philosophy and thought, this supernatural sense of myth… the finale is unconcerned with addressing those loose ends. I personally don’t think that was a problem. If this is to be understood as a story about Rust and Marty, then their story is told, and wrapped-up, in the finale. It is in some ways a surprising ending, perhaps in that it is so adherent to the buddy-cop formula, perhaps in that it draws a positive conclusion from a previously pessimist world-view, perhaps because it is so deliberately unconcerned with all those things that had the internet speculating, but it is a completion of the narrative.

Questions do abound though:
Who was the King in Yellow? Why was everyone so afraid? Why is the corpse of Errol’s father left just staked out like that? How did the murders go so long unrecognised? What was the role of the Tuttle family? What consequences await the governor? Why was this done in the first place? What religious or spiritual significance was attached to it? The spiral? The ability of DeWall to see Rust’s soul? What is the ‘mask’ Rust wears?

There’s been several articles and posts  about the conclusion. I can see why some feel the need for a more encompassing resolution to these questions, but I think that misunderstands the main theme of the show . This series was not entitled, “The Yellow King”. This was “True Detective”. Rust and Marty are our focus. It is their tale, and with the denouement in the hospital it is completed (although Lauren Davis’ examination of the conclusion as a supernatural victory for the Yellow King was most interesting).

The more complex criticism, and I suspect the more valid, is in the way True Detective treats women.
Kameron Hurley summarised the concerns as I understand them on her website, and her writing forced me to go back to the series and examine just how much I had read it through the lens of straight, white, cisgendered, male; examine just how different it might look through a different lens.

There were several occasions where the series explicitly explored the nature of masculinity. When, having seen only the first two episodes, I was asked by a friend what the series was about, “masculine roles” was my answer. In ep 2

Marty talks about how he differs from his father, how he faces his burdens – is expected to face is burdens – differently. He reveals himself as a man struggling to adapt to a world of shaken patriarchy. His concept of what it means to be a father, a husband, are shown to be hopelessly out-dated. Indeed he uses these concepts to rationalise the most egregious behaviour. His infidelities, he claims, are essential for him to maintain a healthy marriage. As the series progresses he loses control of himself, his family, his wife. The women in his life were all possessions, which he guarded jealously. His wife. His daughters. His mistress(es). He – as he tells Rust – likes to mow his own lawn. When these things are threatened he responds with violence, often shown to be an impotent violence that he knows he cannot realise, at least against those that matter. Against Maggie and Rust he backs down, or in the one fight scene with Rust he knows he cannot win – later accusing Rust of arrogance for holding back. Against ‘lesser’ men (and against boys) he gives his violence fearsome rein. Against women too, slapping his daughter, choke-hold on his wife, he is as much an aggressor as a protector. His insults against women who he feels have wronged him are all sexual. His daughter a ‘slut’, his unfaithful wife a ‘whore’, his mistress a ‘bitch’ whom he will ‘skullfuck’. Marty is a simple man, and undeniably a misogynist.

Rust is different, and less simple, but still has a deeply flawed view of women. Rust is motivated by a woman in the fridge, in this case his daughter. Subsequently he disassociates from women. He is reluctant to engage at all with Marty’s family, and surprised to find it less terrible than he’d feared. He accuses Maggie ‘what have you done’ immediately after their infidelity. He encourages a woman suffering Munchausen’s-by-proxy to suicide. He shows little compassion for the women and girls at the trailer-park ‘bunny ranch’, and what compassion Marty shows he mocks. ‘Is that a down payment?’ (That he later turns out to be correct only serves to endorse the view. Marty’s desire to protect an innocent falls away when he has a chance to be ‘despoiler’. Women, even ‘saved’ women, remain whores, to be bought).  Rust is a misogynist also, even if not as overt. He knows this. He knows that he is not a good man, but believes he is necessary to keep the other bad men from the doors of innocents (women and children – whom no one else seems to miss). He knows he is a dangerous man. He sets himself up as a protector of women and children, though he cannot have either in his own life.

Whether this means that the series itself is misogynist, I’m less certain. I can see the argument, though I’m not entirely convinced. True Detective fails the bechdel test . Maggie is given a role in the narrative (as interviewee) only after they can no longer interview the men, and then she’s only interviewed about the relationship of the men to each other (and what her role in its fracture might have been). Her own arc has some moments of strength and independence, but these are undermined by that final scene of her, with obedient daughters, showing up to offer Marty redemption. That it is too late for that, that he is not redeemed by his delayed heroism, is his tragedy, not hers. The one moment in which Maggie does seize some agency is in her decision to have sex with Rust. Even this, a brief glimpse of her as a decision-maker, as an agent, is in service to the show exploring the relationship between the men.

And yet perhaps that’s the point. Willa Paskin, at Slate, accepts that “mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof…” and yet argues that this is deliberately so, that this ignorance of women is a thematic decision. If it is then it’s an important theme perhaps too subtly played out. True Detective shows the monstrous acts of men: abduction, rape, pedophilia, dismemberment/corpse display… It gives us at the end the catharsis of our (flawed) heroes pass through the labyrinth and defeat the monster at its centre. Errol is clearly a monster. His monstrosity is foreshadowed clearly by Rust in his interview.
And yet what True Detective then ignores is all of the other men in that video, all the others who allowed this to happen, the society that meant women and children could go missing unnoticed, that police would not even search for a child if the orders came from above that they shouldn’t.
It’s this monstrosity, the monstrosity of the normal male, the quotidian masculine assumptions of power and privilege, that are the truly terrifying, and I wonder if by giving us an obvious monster to kill True Detective didn’t distract us from the horror of all those ‘normal’ men who participated and facilitated. It’s something Rust is himself concerned by, expressing his regret on his hospital bed. marty though is satisfied. ‘We got ours,’ he says, and for him that’s enough.

Near where I live a woman was walking home – a short walk, and familiar, along a well-lit and heavily trafficked street – when she was taken by a man, raped, murdered, hastily buried. The man was caught and convicted, sentenced, is imprisoned for his crime. He had a history of sexual violence and that he was free to commit this rape and murder on an innocent woman sent shock and outrage through the community.
As I was drafting this post I became aware of something which the husband of that murdered woman wrote. Despite what he had suffered, despite the genuinely nightmarish monstrosity of the rapist who took his wife from him, this man still has the courage and perception to see how dangerous the myth of the monster is.
Some violence against women is perpetrated by monsters, by Childress and his ilk, but much of it – the overwhelming majority of it – is perpetrated by men like Marty, and perhaps like Rust. Manly men, who struggle to find their place in the world and struggle to understand how to relate to women, or how to cope in the absence of women, or how to curb their desires. Men with double-standards and short fuses and a view of women as possessions or playthings. These men are the real dangers.

And so the one ardent criticism I have to level at one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, is that we too easily identify with, accept, and forgive, the monstrous behaviour of bad, dangerous men.


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