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Good riddance 2020

The title of this post refers to global events, not personal ones, though the ripple effects have definitely not helped the isolation I’ve felt steadily increasing these past few years. Many plans lay discarded because of the pandemic, but I still managed to finish building a cabin after two years of work, and my friends have been tremendously kind this year, for which I am absurdly grateful.

Books

Launching into 2021, I’m painfully realizing the lack of any kind of tracking for books I’ve read, especially since I haven’t been making regular posts on this blog. I read many novels this year, but I can’t recall the titles of most of them. I feel this is tied to reading as an escape, but also my enthusiasm for common narrative tricks in science fiction and fantasy has flagged considerably. The latest installment of The Expanse was no longer a breezy page-turner; the authors have shifted the series away from the interplay of various factions into the more comfortable territory of spacefaring empires and rebellion, and it felt like many thousands of pages of buildup inevitably pointing to an empty conclusion. The Poppy War was well-reviewed and had a lot of positive buzz through the authors I follow online, but I found its cocktail of conflicting structures, tones, and voyeuristic cruelty to represent a trend in fantasy already highlighted by The Traitor Baru Cormorant that I personally find distasteful. Lastly, while I was all for the first half of Foundryside with its Thief-like city and tightly knit cast of characters, the thick succession of reveals at the end made me feel like the novel had spiralled out of control.

Starting off my best of the year list with disappointments is keeping too much with the spirit of 2020, but I want it there because it represents a shift in my attitudes towards what I read.

Some things still poked their heads up above those general impressions. I read the first three of Martha Wells Raksura novels, and while I wasn’t so keen on The Cloud Roads the series grew more intricate and more sure as it went on and I now think it’s one of the most compelling settings found in fantasy. I also read the remaining novellas in her Murderbot series after All Systems Red, and have a similar reaction but displaced to science fiction: as a representation of space capitalism gone horribly wrong, the Murderbot stories are much more effective as satire and at exploring how characters interact with their deeply broken social and political structures.

I caught up on more dystopian fiction besides, finally reading 1984 and its mirror, We by Yevgeny Zemyatin. Both represent the railroad-track conclusions of totalitarianism, We being the more poetic of the two, a string of haunting images dwelling inside a disconnected narrative.

My experiences with self-published books had been universally poor up to this point, but I finally found one I could recommend without reservation: Books and Bone by Victoria Corva, about necromancers in an underground city that reminded me of certain parts of Death of Necromancer by Martha Wells, but with a gentler sensibility that somehow pairs well with all the gore.

Outside of the sff world, I at last read Pride and Prejudice and you know what? I found it delightful, though my positive reception of its many, many adaptations should have tipped me off. I was not expecting Mr. Collins, however, to be nearly as awful a human being as he was. Silence by Shusako Endo was the opposite of delightful: a very heavy exploration of what faith means set against the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan.

Another standout for historical fiction were Emma: A Victorian Romance and Bride’s Story by Kaoru Mori, two manga set in Victorian England and 19th century Central Asia, respectively. The amount of care and research Mori puts into bringing these eras to life is astonishing, but it’s in the service of small stories and how individual lives intertwine with class structures and political struggles.

Television

So much for books, then. I finally bought a TV this year, so I at long last watched Avatar: The Last Airbender after abandoning it early in the first season some years ago. I am happy that I waited, since  think it took until now for me to truly be able to appreciate the strength of the writing in this series. What starts at a seemingly formulaic children’s adventure show soon abandons those pretenses and focuses on building its characters and complicating their relationships. The earlier struggle with the episodic format changes into assured, confident execution, and the climax of the final season is the best TV I have seen in a very long time. I now understand why my generation uses Avatar as the go-to example for fantasy at its finest.

Games

The long nights of this winter were largely occupied with Avatar in the evenings and playing computer games. Supergiant Games once again impressed me with Pyre, where you lead a sports team to glory in an ancient ritual. The characters are a wonderful mix of conflicting motivations and attitudes, paired with the gorgeous arts style I’ve come to expect from this developer.

Gris was a captivating platformer with spectacular visual design, a puzzle experience told largely without words. I am currently making my way through Return of the Obra Dinn, a bizarre mystery game that lovingly recreates the look of old adventure games on a Macintosh Classic while delivering an atmosphere and game mechanics that were probably beyond the capability of older systems.

Final

So those were the things I read, watched and played this year. I left off The Witcher and The Witch only because I have entire podcasts about those up online right now. Elsewhere, no short story publications to report. I have steadily been drawing and painting, but I’ve been training myself lately that I don’t need to share everything I make online. I’ve found it relaxing while writing, on the other hand, remains a struggle for publishable content, though I’ve belched out hundreds of pages of personal projects, which is an improvement.

I don’t expect to kick things up on this blog for 2021, but I’m allowing myself some hope that things will be better.

After 5 years of people yelling at me to see this film, we finally watch The Witch (2015).

Books mentioned:

  • Witches and Neighbours: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft by Robin Briggs (1998).

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Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

Geralt’s butt.

Marie watched the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher! Michal indulges in his teenage obsessions. We end up comparing The Witcher to Dealing with Dragons.

Correction: At one point, we make it sound like Dandelion is the English translation of Jaskier. This is incorrect. Jaskier in fact means Buttercup.

The books.

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Marie’s website

My blog post about the Polish television series from 2002

Source of our theme song

Years after I read the book, I can finally articulate why my opinion on Station Eleven has grown more negative every year after I happened to tune into a radio interview with Emily St. John Mandel this morning about a completely different novel.

Station Eleven snaps back from its post-apocalyptic setting to a contemporary one and asks us to care about characters who are already far over-represented in mainstream Canadian literature, as if it connects in some way to the troupe of actors who otherwise centre the novel. In my mind, the two don’t connect, and the split focus that draws attention to its bourgeoisie cast speaks to a constricted sphere of experience. There is little reason for me to feel invested in the narrative thread of a failed actor and a comic book artist in the 2000-somethings when balanced against people fighting for survival in a post-pandemic future. It certainly doesn’t give any literary legitimacy to the other side of Station Eleven, which I (uncharitably) think is likely why Mandel constructs the story that way.

My favourite books often highlight a cross-section of societies in their settings. I often get annoyed at Can Lit in general for representing a very specific upper middle-class experience over any other. I see it when Guy Gavriel Kay, an author I otherwise enjoy, writes anything set in the modern-day real world, an assumption that his privileged background is a universal default and a blindness to how people outside that sphere don’t think about the world in the same way. It’s good he doesn’t write in that space often, then, and Mandel didn’t have to draw that thread either. But she does, and the book is a lot poorer for it.

A write-up for the current game I’m running. As it’s already out there online, so I thought I’d share it here as well. The setting sprang from my painting to the right.

I play using Risus: The Anything RPG. Write-up designed to hand out to players before character creation.

This setting is also available as a printable PDF on Risusiverse.

Background

Three hundred years ago came the Hammer’s Blow. An astral body came hurtling towards the earth with an impact so great the very continents were hurled into the sky. With it too came a large infusion of magical energies that permeated the shattered land.

Now, the world looks little like it once did. The habitable regions are floating islands of a myriad sizes, ruled by an amalgam of kingdoms, principalities, republics and city states. Few of these island nations have the resources to remain self-sufficient, and so many depend on the vital trade along the sky roads, traversed by airships run by powerful merchant families or the occasional daring adventurer.

A thick blanket of noxious mist called the Celestial Fog churns beneath the archipelagoes, but if one were to plunge beneath, they’d find the torn remnants of the world that was – a charred wasteland that never sees the sun, surrounded by deep ravines and bubbling seas of magma. However, even in these dangerous regions people have found a way to make a life for themselves, plundering the ruins of the ancients and learning the secrets of their advanced technology.

The player characters will be new members on the crew of am independent merchant airship called the Cloudfarer, under a certain Captain Sasha Waylend

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…There’s a new Kwisatz Haderach in town.

We talk Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki.

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Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

1984 in 2020

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The first time I encountered George Orwell’s 1984 was in an essay collection by Isaac Asimov I read when I was 11. It was the first thing I’d read by Asimov, it was the first essay in the book, and it was devoted to criticizing 1984 as a bad example of science fiction. It’s laughable to recall that essay now. Asimov was fixated on the Orwell’s failure to imagine technological advancement and how well it measured as a predictive text; he pushed an idea that science fiction attempts to accurately extrapolate the future. If you measure Asimov’s own work against that criteria, then he failed to write good science fiction too. And from the viewpoint of 2020, the situations have reversed: Asimov wrote the essay in actual-year 1984, and many of the social changes 1984 warns us about sank into daily life much later. 1984 became much more of a predictive text than Asimov’s in the 21st century, but we’ve ceased to measure it by the criteria.

Not to criticize Asimov too harshly on this point – there are other things that he deserves much more criticism for. In 1984, there was a vogue to write those kinds of comparisons when the year and title of the novel are largely arbitrary. The worst I can say is that Asimov’s essay meant I didn’t pick up 1984 on my own through high school. It was assigned reading in other English classes but not in mine, and I didn’t actively seek it out.

Time passed. It’s 2020. I have finally read 1984 for the first time.

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Recording this episode cost us an arm and a leg.

We talk Fullmetal Alchemist.

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Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

We were supposed to record an episode about Fullmetal Alchemist, but we got distracted by Cybersix, an animated Canadian TV show from 1999 that should not exist.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

Fantasy without humanity

While fantasy novels promise the ability to reach the limits of our imaginations, it’s still not often that authors choose to tell stories with no humans in them at all. Estrangement is a common way to describe fantasy, but crossing the gap to completely alien biologies and societies puts more distance between a reader than just throwing in unfamiliar words, behaviours and cultures. I know plenty of readers thrown off by the first chapter of Dune just from the terminology used in the first chapter. Unless you map creatures against a clear historical human antecedent like the Edwardian dragons of Tooth and Claw, you need to put in some real effort to make readers accept and care about characters who don’t look like people.

This barrier comes up immediately in Martha Wells’s Books of Raksura. The main characters are a species of shape-shifting, flying humanoids who structure their society unlike any human one, and the entire vastness of the Three Realms likewise is packed with varied intelligent species who call the land, the water, the air, or the islands that also float up in the sky their homes.

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