Reading Comics: X-Men X-tinction Agenda (TPB)

coverIn this entry: Uncanny X-Men #235 & 236, first two issues in the X-tinction Agenda crossover event (the most ambitious crossover event in history! or something). Written by Chris Claremont; penciled by Rick Leonardi (235) and Marc Silvestri (236); inked by P. Craig Russell (235) and Dan Green (236); colored by Glynis Oliver (235) and Petra Scotese (236); lettered by Tom Orzechowski (235 & 236); and edited by Bob Harras.

Caution! Spoilers ahoy.

Welcome to Genosha.

My comics knowledge, as I’ve said elsewhere, is kinda spotty, at least compared to my true comic nerd friends. I get most of my comics from the public library, so I’m subject to the whims of availability and purchasing departments and waiting lists. But I know that I like Chris Claremont, so when I happened upon a TPB at the library called X-Tinction Agenda collecting several stories–from Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and X-Factor, published between 1983 and 1988–centering around the island nation of Genosha, I checked it out.

Guys, it’s so good. And even though it was published thirty years ago, parts of it are so relevant to our current political situation. So I figured I’d talk about it.

Uncanny X-Men #235: Welcome to Genosha.

Random thing, before we even start on the plot: The picture that dominates the first page is a sign that says: “Welcome to Genosha. A Green and Pleasant Land of Hope and Opportunity where the Watchword is Freedom.” “Green and pleasant land” is a line from a William Blake poem that is also a very famous and common British hymn and a sort of alternative national anthem for England. It evokes Britain as a sort of paradise, a place where lions can lie down with lambs and lovely rabbits frolic through the idyllic grasses. Under this sign, with its buzzwords of peace and prosperity, crouches a fugitive, a mutant who is trying to smuggle his child away from a life of slavery. The overarching theme of this entire story arc, underneath its blams and pows, is about the rot and corruption and cruelty that exist underneath the patina of wealth and prosperity, and you can see all of that on this one page if you look hard enough.

We start out by getting into the middle of a story that doesn’t involve the X-Men—a blonde man with a Sylvester Stallone-ian build, carrying a baby, has vaulted into a restricted area of an airport runway. “See those lights?” he tells the baby. “For people like us…that’s where true freedom lies.” He’s trying to smuggle the baby off the island, and he succeeds, but loses his own life in the process. There’s so much that could be talked about, pointed at, even in just these first few pages. Like a present-day Mexican, or Syrian, or Somalian, or Rohingya, or Palestinian—people will always cross barbed wire and guns if they think it’ll lead to a better chance for their kids. “I’ll miss you, baby boy,” he tells the young one. “You be brave.” Then the magistrates (Genoshan secret military police force charged with corralling and punishing mutants) are on top of him. He takes out one of their armored vehicles before they shoot him down, and as he dies, he watches the plane with the small stowaway take off and fly away. The magistrates, thinking that he was trying to escape himself, don’t even realize at first that a mutant has escaped their clutches.

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I want to be clear that these are the first two panels on the first page.

SCENE CHANGE. The reds and blacks of the airport security lights and murder switch to oranges and yellows of the bright Australian sun. The Genoshans have sent the magistrates after the escaped baby, who is a mutant, and therefore (according to Genoshan law) not allowed to be a free person. They have lured Jenny Ransome (an escaped adult Genoshan mutant) to their location, hoping to quietly kidnap her back to Genosha, but unfortunately (for them) Jenny is accompanied by Madelyne Pryor, X-Man, clone, and close enough to a mutant that the differences are academic.

The Press Gang magistrates are an odd bunch, and I will freely admit that maybe this is one of those things that is explained in an issue of the X-Men that I’ve never read. They have special abilities, and seem to be either mutants or augmented humans, but they also hate and fear mutants as all Genoshans do. It’s unclear if the Press Gang are brainwashed into service (though in a different way than the general “mutate” population), or if they chose joining the Magistrates over going through the mutate process. They may be a sort of mutant Judenrat. I’m honestly not sure.

Over and over again, Genosha exhibits this slaver’s mindset doublespeak–they hate and fear mutants, even the mutants hate and fear mutants, but they’re happy to use them for their own ends to make Genosha a prosperous nation. Mutants are a danger. Mutants are also the reason why Genosha is prosperous. The future of Genosha depends on Genoshans never realizing or acknowledging this fact.

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This is Punchout. It took me like 7 pages to clarify that she is a woman. She is probably also on steroids? Also I think that 1980s comic book artists don’t know what women look like.

Pipeline, one of the Press Gang Magistrates, has the ability to reduce humans to “binary electronic impulses” and send them across his “phone link” for near-instant transport to Genosha. The phone link can transport humans but not their clothing for reasons that comic nerds tell me are perfectly obvious and logical and has nothing to do with wanting to see naked mutants. Pipeline zaps both Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor back to Genosha, which of course brings the X-Men into it when Madelyne doesn’t come home. The adventure is on. Like, full splash page of a battle on.

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Zoom! Pow! (Also, poor Colossus. Doesn’t realize he’s in part one of like eighteen.)

 

Uncanny X-Men #236: “Busting Loose!”

At the end of #235, Jenny Ransome and Madelyne Pryor were zapped via “telephone link” from Australia to Genosha, as were Rogue and Wolverine when they were caught trying to track Madelyne and Jenny. Which is how we end up with Naked Wolverine and Naked Rogue taking on a whole squadron of magistrates.

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It is 100% necessary to the narrative that Wolvie and Rogue show up naked in Genosha. Also, strategically placed shrapnel is strategic.

About halfway through the issue, though, the story starts to depart from the usual comic POWs and ZAMs and SNIKTs and veer into Chris Claremont-ian holy-shit-metaphors territory. We cut away from Wolverine and Rogue (who have just lost the battle by virtue of having their mutant abilities wiped out by a vaguely clerical-looking Genoshan mutant named Wipeout) to suburban Genosha where a high-level civil servant, the Genegineer, has been pulled away from his Saturday gardening and plans with his teenage son Phillip to go deal with the general crisis that is the X-Men show up naked on your doorstep. (The Genegineer is in charge of administering the medical/biological alterations to mutants to turn them into powerful but mindless slaves.) You can see, in a small but telling interaction, just where general Genoshan population—through the lens of Phillip—is in terms of human-mutant relations: a flying car, taking off from Phillip’s yard, has damaged the lawn and some of the garden. Phillip offhandedly says to an approaching mutate, “Fix it, will ya, boy?” He doesn’t stick around to see if the mutate does so, or to thank him, or tell him he did a good job. He just walks away, both garden and mutate gone from his mind. (Which leads me to wonder, why is Phillip’s dad gardening at all, when they have a mutate who can do it faster and better?)

And now, back to Wolverine and Rogue, who have been captured and imprisoned.

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So, here’s a thing that maybe says more about my obtuseness and lack of reading comprehension than anything else, but it wasn’t until I read these panels that I realized what a stunning metaphor Rogue’s mutant powers are for trauma. I mean, in these two panels, the two jailers who are speaking think that Rogue is reacting solely to being manhandled (and in a way she is, because thanks to Wipeout she didn’t absorb any magistrate psyches), but what they—and we (sorry, spoilers)—don’t know yet is that Wipeout’s attack combined with the Magistrates’ capture of her has basically unleashed all the psyches that Rogue has buried in her brain. But that’s…that’s what trauma is. A ghost of an experience, taking up space in your brain, and rising up at the most inconvenient times to make a time traveler out of your adrenal system and convince you that you’re back in that spot. Rogue has dozens and dozens of psyches inside her brain, and generally she can keep them at bay, but every now and again they rise up and incapacitate her. And they can do this without the original person knowing, or being aware, or even remembering what they did to get into her brain in the first place (see also, Kevin Spacey “not remembering” what he did to Anthony Rupp, and how what was so formulative for Rupp was not even a blip in Spacey’s mental story of his life). Ghosts, man. Ghosts and trauma.

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Besides the beauty of Claremont’s narration, I just want to point out that I love Rogue’s body language and how she’s standing here (especially because I will be mocking the body language of female characters later on).

 

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*whispers* This page is so goddamn pretty.

 

Okay, so, back to our young lad Phillip, who is out for a run when he sees that a squad of magistrates have descended on his neighbor’s house and arrested the family of a government minister (including their daughter who is, we will learn, young Phillip’s fiancée). One of the magistrates threatens to club Phillip with his baton when Phillip tries to intervene, then does an abrupt 180 when he finds out how powerful Phillip’s father is. He’s apologetic and fawning, begging Phillip not to tell his father that a lowly magistrate stepped so far out of line. On an immediate level, he’s asking Phillip not to tell his father, because then the Magistrate will get fired. But really, what he’s asking of Phillip—what the whole interaction is about—is reminding Phillip of who he is, where he’s from, what his class is. In Genoshan society, if Phillip isn’t siding with the humans, then he’s siding with the mutants, and the magistrates are there to enforce that divide and make sure it remains. Sympathy for mutants is a dangerous emotion. What’s at stake here is not just the whims of some cops, but all of Genoshan society. If the subtext isn’t obvious enough, Claremont throws in that most notorious of excuses for the benign perpetuation of evil into the narrative waters— “I was only following orders,” the magistrate tells Phillip. Nothing personal. I was only following orders when I arrested your girlfriend and sent her off to get her genetically altered into a mind-altered slave. I didn’t create this system, I’m just living in it. I just need to feed my family and I’m only following orders.

And I mean, that’s how you know you’re in power, even if you feel like a small and powerless element of much larger social mechanisms. When what is, for you, just one of your basic daily duties that you hardly think about is also the most deeply, elementally personal thing to someone else–their body, their identity, their very existence. People who are in power, who are removed from the consequences of their actions, can have profound impacts on those below them without ever meeting or thinking about what they’re doing and why. The Magistrate is just following orders. The mutant is just existing. Even the Genegineer, with all his power, frames his actions as “necessary”—not as choices. Jenny Ransome has a “duty” to serve Genosha as a mindless, altered mutate. The Genegineer has the duty to turn her into the slave that Genosha needs. And Phillip is learning, is about to learn, that his action–or his inaction–will have profound consequences.

Next time: Who’s human? All aboard the mutant train.

I Live in a Town Where You Can’t Smell a Thing

I’ve been reading Columbine, by Dave Cullen. It was published in 2009, but I put off reading it, because I have this weird disconnect in my head when it comes to Columbine stuff. I both want to know everything, to try and understand, but whenever I think about it for long I go into my 17-year-old headspace of being confused and angry and other emotions that I don’t understand. So mostly I avoid Columbine stuff. But recently, Sue Klebold (Dylan Klebold’s mother) released a memoir, and I read that, and decided to finally read Columbine while I was on a roll, so to speak. (If you want to read other thoughts of mine on school shootings, I wrote an entry after the shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School here.)

So I’m reading this book. About the murderers and about the victims and what happened that day. And before and after. And something struck me.

When Cassie Bernall was 13 or 14, she went through a bad bout of depression (my word, not Cullen’s). She threatened to commit suicide, she cut herself, hit her head against walls and bathroom counters. In a journal that her parents found after she died, Cassie said, “I cannot explain in words how much I hurt. I didn’t know how to deal with this hurt, so I physically hurt myself.” Cassie’s family was(is) deeply Christian, so their method of coping with this behavior, after consulting with their minister, was to pull Cassie out of public school and put her in a private Christian school, take away the phone in her room, and basically forbid all activities that weren’t church- or youth group-related. This strategy worked, and Cassie stabilized enough that they let her return to public school when she was a freshman, to Columbine High School. She said that she wanted to bring the word of Christ into the public school.

A little over a year before the massacre at Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were arrested for theft. They broke into a parked van and stole some electronics equipment out of it. They’d gotten in trouble a few times before this, the sort of trouble that involves parents and school administrators, not the police. But getting arrested for anything when you’re 17 is a big deal in suburban white-collar Littleton, so both sets of parents took it seriously. Eric Harris’ parents, in particular, besides grounding him and taking away his computer and the usual punitive parental things, sent him to a psychiatrist who got him started on anti-depressants (both boys were sent to counseling as part of their sentencing, but Harris’ dad was apparently moving towards putting his son into therapy within days of his arrest). Both boys completed their court-ordered Diversion program, and Harris was on his full dose of antidepressants right up until his death (as shown by his autopsy).

So. These kids. All with significant emotional and/or behavioral issues. All at Columbine High School.

One family did the textbook version of “everything right.” Sent their kid to therapy, tried to get underlying causes diagnosed, let legal consequences stand. The other went with a strategy that would strike a lot of people as abusive or harmful, or, at the very least, not helpful. But two kids ended up murderers, and the other kid ended up murdered.

I’m not trying to make a broad point about either of these treatment options, if we can call them that. Eric Harris got sent to therapy, and it didn’t help him; but Dylan didn’t ever go to a therapist outside of his court-ordered counseling, but he probably had depression and was definitely suicidal (as evidenced by journals found after his death), and getting properly diagnosed and treated could have made an enormous difference to him–and, by extension, an enormous difference to the people he ended up terrorizing. Similarly, just because Cassie’s outward mood and demeanor changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was no longer depressed or that she wasn’t still in need of treatment besides whatever comfort she found in church. If she’d lived, she may have had a recurrence once she went off to college. She could have been faking happiness so that she could leave her house and use the telephone (I have some friends who have diagnoses of depression who think she was doing exactly that). Or, maybe she really did feel better, feel loved, feel like she was a person of value. I don’t know. I know that Leelah Alcorn, when subjected to a similar parental plan of therapy-by-Christianity, ended up killing herself by stepping out into freeway traffic. I also know that my own religious community has been a comfort to me when precious little else has. I also know that there doesn’t seem to be a reason why either of those outcomes happened. Why Cassie chose one direction and Dylan chose another.

If anything, I guess I’m making a broad point about how scary humans are, not to mention how scary it is to be one, especially when adolescence and mental illness manifest at the same time. I’m not a psychologist by any sense of the imagination. I’m also not a parent. It just seems insane, the leap of faith parents have to make. You can pretend all you want that kids are a computer, that behavior is a science, that when you input Software Program A into Port 1, it will update the drivers and your beta human will respond and improve in a predictable, quantifiable way. And that just isn’t how it works. I know that every parent knows this in a way that I don’t, but also, it seems like one of those things that’s easier to deal with if you just don’t think about it. I don’t know how you decide on a course of action when the potential consequences range from “everything fixed” to “dead kid.” I don’t know how you do that.

The scary thing, the risky thing, is that I think the strategy that has the best chance of working is anything that brings people closer. That broadens a community and brings more people in. And I’m not talking anymore just about school shooters, but anything to lessen the violence we humans seem to inflict on each other. You need to be an empathic person in order to make a commitment to not hurt people, and some people can’t be taught that no matter what, but some people (most people?) just need to be reminded. But you never know who’s who until you try, and that’s the hard part. The part where you’re asked to risk literally everything for an outcome that has no real assurance of actually happening. When you’re in a situation that your culture and your upbringing and your education and your experience with humans has not prepared you for, you have to trust a human and put your faith in them, and humans–for all the power that our religious institutions have these days–are actually really bad at having faith and trusting each other.

But what else is there to do?

It’s like this

I did not write this. I got it from tumblr user makingfists. They’re deactivated their account, though, and I really don’t want it to disappear, so I’m posting it here. Hopefully makingfists doesn’t mind. I relate to this story SO MUCH and want to keep it.

It’s like this…

You’re fourteen and you’re reading Larry Niven’s “The Protector” because it’s your father’s favorite book and you like your father and you think he has good taste and the creature on the cover of the book looks interesting and you want to know what it’s about. And in it the female character does something better than the male character – because she’s been doing it her whole life and he’s only just learned – and he gets mad that she’s better at it than him. And you don’t understand why he would be mad about that, because, logically, she’d be better at it than him. She’s done it more. And he’s got a picture of a woman painted on the inside of his spacesuit, like a pinup girl, and it bothers you.

But you’re fourteen and you don’t know how to put this into words.

And then you’re fifteen and you’re reading “Orphans of the Sky” because it’s by a famous sci-fi author and it’s about a lost generation ship and how cool is that?!? but the women on the ship aren’t given a name until they’re marriedand you spend more time wondering what people call those women up until their marriage than you do focusing on the rest of the story. Even though this tidbit of information has nothing to do with the plot line of the story and is only brought up once in passing.

But it’s a random thing to get worked up about in an otherwise all right book.

Then you’re sixteen and you read “Dune” because your brother gave it to you for Christmas and it’s one of those books you have to read to earn your geek card. You spend an entire afternoon arguing over who is the main character – Paul or Jessica. And the more you contend Jessica, the more he says Paul, and you can’t make him see how the real hero is her. And you love Chani cause she’s tough and good with a knife, but at the end of the day, her killing Paul’s challengers is just a way to degrade them because those weenies lost to a girl.

Then you’re seventeen and you don’t want to read “Stranger in a Strange Land” after the first seventy pages because something about it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. All of this talk of water-brothers. You can’t even pin it down.

And then you’re eighteen and you’ve given up on classic sci-fi, but that doesn’t stop your brother or your father from trying to get you to read more.

Even when you bring them the books and bring them the passages and show them how the authors didn’t treat women like people.

Your brother says, “Well, that was because of the time it was written in.”

You get all worked up because these men couldn’t imagine a world in which women were equal, in which women were empowered and intelligent and literate and capable.

You tell him – this, this is science fiction. This is all about imagining the world that could be and they couldn’t stand back long enough and dare to imagine how, not only technology would grow in time, but society would grow.

But he blows you off because he can’t understand how it feels to be fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and desperately wanting to like the books your father likes, because your father has good taste, and being unable to, because most of those books tell you that you’re not a full person in ways that are too subtle to put into words. It’s all cognitive dissonance: a little like a song played a bit out of tempo – enough that you recognize it’s off, but not enough to pin down what exactly is wrong.

And then one day you’re twenty-two and studying sociology and some kind teacher finally gives you the words to explain all those little feelings that built and penned around inside of you for years.

It’s like the world clicking into place.

And that’s something your brother never had to struggle with.

Book Review: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

 

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This review was first published on my Goodreads account over here.

So I read this a few months ago and my memories are fuzzy, but here goes…

This book was good. Really, really good. On a number of levels. The plot is good, the characters are great, and it brings up a number of themes that are relevant to modern-day America. It’s not a science fiction story that takes place in its own world, it can travel between the boundaries of fiction and real life and make you think about what the hell is going on.

The world in the book posits a world in which werewolves (called lycans in the book) are real and known, and the balance between non-lycan humans and lycan humans is tenuous and marked by violence and fear. The book primarily follows three people: Claire (a teenage lycan), Patrick (a teenage survivor of a lycan terrorist attack) and Chase (a politician who uses people’s fear of lycans to gain power and popularity), along with some other folks connected to the three main ones (Chase’s campaign manager, Claire’s aunt, Patrick’s dad, people like that).

One reason I liked this book is because it doesn’t take so many of the easy outs that a lot of genre fiction takes. The lycans aren’t all bad, but neither are they all good. Same with non-lycan humans. I can’t remember exactly how the book ended anymore, but I remember thinking that Percy had kind of written himself into a corner with his unsolvable primary dilemma.

The book was written in 2013, and I saw some reviews online accusing it of being heavy-handed with the Lycans-as-Muslims metaphor, but I didn’t read it that way. Like the X-Men, lycans can be read for a lot of oppressed people in American history (I remember feeling funny about Percy re-writing events in American Civil Rights history and making them apply to his fictional Lycan Civil Rights movement), from Muslims to African-Americans to LGBTQ folk and people with AIDS.

I also found myself fascinated by Chase Williams, the politician character. The book was published in 2013, and I read it in the fall of 2015, and was forcibly reminded of nobody more than Donald Trump (again, your own casting of Chase-Williams-as-metaphor may vary), currently running for president.

So yeah. Totally worth reading. Takes and re-casts our own world into a different, but still recognizable, setting. Recommended. (I recommend his other novel <i>Dead Lands</i> as well, though for different reasons that I may talk about some other time.)

2016, and books, and me

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I read Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton on the Monday after Christmas (well, yesterday and Sunday), since I wanted to return it to the library before I left town. I was struck by some weird parallels between my life and Mr. Wheaton’s, even though our lives are wildly dissimilar (for example, I was never a child actor. Or an adult actor, for that matter). I started blogging in 2001, around the same time he did, but whereas he almost immediately had hundreds of readers, the most followers I’ve ever had is 37 (over at The Annotated Sherlock). When I joined the Internet, so to speak, I was 19 (I got an email address when I was about 17, and hung out a lot in AOL chatrooms, but didn’t have a blog until a few years later), and Rule One of the Internet at the time, especially for me–ostensibly vulnerable and innocent female–was Do Not Give Away Your Real Name Because Ax Murderers Will Find You And Murder You And Your Family. So I never made an attempt to widen my blog’s audience beyond friends and family (my blog was actually set to private until very recently). And maybe it never would have found a broad audience anyway, but I basically spent the first decade of my life on the Internet successfully evading any and all attention from an audience, while Wheaton spent it building his.

I also relate, in some small way, to the regret that he wrote about; to being 30-ish years old and not knowing how to get your life to where you want it to be. I was going through my file boxes and old mail yesterday, and found a rejection slip for “Ghost Town,” a short story that I eventually self-published. The rejection note is handwritten, contains both feedback and encouragement, and an invitation to resubmit after revisions. And I didn’t appreciate that for what it was at the time. I didn’t re-submit. But now I’m grateful for that editor and the time that they took. Maybe that’s my new years resolution, to appreciate small opportunities and challenges. To remember to talk to people. To “network.” Writers like Wheaton and Jon Scalzi write about their everyday lives, and whatever comes into their heads, which is basically what I want for this blog. I don’t want to be “The Fantasy Fan blog” or have a “Mom blog” or a “food blog.” I’m not good at sticking to one subject, anyway. But I feel like I’m ten years too late for that sort of general blog to build up any sort of following. But, at the same time, I don’t know what else to do, really. So I keep writing into the void and hope that someday the void shouts back.

After I finished Just a Geek I started reading Patti Smith’s new memoir, M Train. I’m not done with it yet, but it reads like a meditation more than anything. A meditation on coffee shops, and black coffee, and on following one’s thoughts through to their natural conclusion. On how whether or not an object is sacred has nothing to do with its economic value. On the beauty that happens when you follow impulses, and love the process of a thing, rather than the results. Like when you buy a boat and put it in your back yard, and repair it yourself, but it ends up never being seaworthy so you use it to sit on and listen to baseball games over the radio. So maybe that’s my lesson for this year, too. To do things without needing the result that I foresaw at the beginning of an endeavor. Patti Smith doesn’t just write poetry. She sees poetry weaving its way in and out of life and objects and people. In her words, even watching crime dramas (something I do a lot of, too) has weight and human importance. Ms Smith seems to drift through her days, following her romantic impulses, and because she’s one of the women that I admire most on this earth, I remind myself that that’s an okay way to be. That I don’t always need to be trying to accomplish something. And that’s not a bad lesson either. Quite the opposite.

I guess when I throw those together, that’s my goal for 2016: To keep moving forward, while also feeling at peace with standing still. So, you know, totally simple.

Book Review: Armada

armadaThis review was first published on my Goodreads account over here.

Sigh. I really wanted to like Armada. I really, really did. I thoroughly enjoyed Ready Player One, and was looking forward to Armada, like, a lot. I had multiple coworkers (I work in a public library) on the lookout for Express copies for me (new books that have a different code in the catalog so they can’t be put on hold; they are grabbable on a first-come-first-served basis), and eventually got an ARC from the purchasing department.

But Armada fell completely flat for me. It disappointed me on so many levels. And I want to make this clear: It’s not disappointing just because I had high hopes and it didn’t measure up. It’s disappointing on an objective level. The narrator character (Zack Lightman) is kind of a terrible person (it’s one of those things that could be mitigated by a secondary character pointing out his shortcomings, which would at least reassure me that Cline knows what a selfish shit his main guy is; but since he doesn’t, the jerkiness is just left hanging out there with no repercussions which makes it annoying. More on this later), and the plot is predictable. Horribly predictable. Like my friend who read it predicted the ending when she was maybe 70 pages in, and when I got to the end and told her she was right (I read faster than she does), her response in Google chat was, “UGH! what? no. what? UGH. but also sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
ooooooooooooooooooo predictable.” She did not finish the novel.

Okay, so. I will try to avoid spoilers insofar as I can, but I’m also feeling like avoiding spoilers is kind of silly since, if you have any knowledge of science fiction tropes/classics at all, you will totally see the end of this book coming.

Zack Lightman is a high school senior. There is a spaceship shooter game that he spends all his free time playing (Armada). Then one day a flying saucer lands on the lawn of his school, and Zack discovers that Armada is a real battle against real aliens, and an international coalition of space ship fighters needs him to enlist in the real fight and save the Earth. This is probably as good a place as any to get into my “Zack is a selfish dickhead” argument: Zack establishes at the outset (and at every possible point thereafter) that his dad died when he was a baby and that Zack has spent a significant amount of his youth digging through boxes of nerd memorabilia that his dad left behind, in the apparent notion that knowing what movies your dad liked is the same as knowing your dad. He’s been raised by his mom, who has never remarried, and is still obviously in love with Zack’s dad. So when a flying saucer lands on his school lawn and Ray (Zack’s manager from his part-time after school job) steps out and says he needs Zack to join an intergalactic fight against aliens who want to destroy Earth, what does Zack do? Does he think, “No, I can’t do that, I’ll leave my already grieving mother all alone”? Does he say, “Hang on, let me talk about this with my mom, since we’re a family and our decisions effect each other”? Does he voice one single thought for his mother at all?

No. No he does not. Just fucks right off onto the spaceship. Look, I know teenagers are selfish jerks (I was a selfish jerk when I was a teenager), and Zack in particular spends way more time talking about and thinking about his dead dad than his live mother, but it seems like maybe Ray, or somebody, would have been like, “Oh yeah, and dude, before we join this deadly battle, let’s at least make sure your mom knows where you are so she doesn’t panic when the school calls her and tells her that her only son left school after almost getting into a serious fight with a classmate and that nobody’s seen him since.” But no. Everyone just fucks off to the battle and doesn’t tell his mom anything. When he does finally think of his mom, it’s to use her loneliness and grief to manipulate and hurt another character, not out of any spontaneous and standalone feelings of love or loyalty.

Speaking of the fight that Zack had been about to get into when the flying saucer landed. That fight? He’d been about to brain a rival classmate of his with a tire iron. Now, granted, in his viciousness and stupidity, the classmate in question is reminiscent of Biff from Back to the Future, but still, a tire iron? This after almost begging to get into a fistfight the day before, and several mentions of “The Incident,” a previous feud between Zack and neo-Biff, which was memorable enough that all of Zack’s classmates are demonstrably still afraid of him (and which, seriously, Zack should have been arrested and/or put into cognitive therapy over). Guys. This is not how you introduce an audience to a hero, even a nerd-hero who is meting out vengeance to a jock-villain. There’s a concept (and a book) in scriptwriting that is embodied in the phrase “save the cat.” I’m going to go ahead and cut and paste the definition from wikipedia: “a term coined by [scriptwriter Blake] Snyder and describes the scene where the audience meets the hero of a movie for the first time. The hero does something nice, e.g., saving a cat, which makes the audience like the hero and sympathise with him. [Snyder’s] inspiration for this was the movie Alien, where Sigourney Weaver’s character Ripley saves a cat named Jones.” Ernest Cline has apparently never heard of this concept, since he introduces us first to Zack’s rage and second his daddy issues. If nothing else, this book takes place post-Columbine and every other damned school shooting, and my ability to tolerate cartoonish levels of violence and stupidity in stories set anywhere in the vicinity of a high school no longer exists (I’m from Littleton, hi, nice to meet you).

Just about every review of Armada I’ve read talks in depth about Cline’s constant referencing of nerd books/movies/video games, so I won’t go into it much here, except I agree that a) it’s everywhere and b) it adds nothing to the narrative. In Ready Player One, the nerd nostalgia added to the narrative. It moved the plot forward. Here, it does nothing but save Cline the effort of having to actually describe things, and frustrate the hell out of me because telling me that a spaceship hanger looks “straight out of Battlestar Galactica” tells me precisely absolutely nothing because I haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica (I know, I know. I should see Battlestar Galactica. It’s on my list). Describing things in terms of other things relies on being reasonably certain that your audience has seen those things, and in my case at least, Cline is severely overestimating his audience’s nerd-culture literacy.

I think I will spend the rest of the review telling you this list of plot point predictions that I made that turned out to not be true.
-This book could have been a surprise Ready Player One prequel. The aliens invade and, instead of humanity winning, the aliens lay waste to the Earth and several years after that Wade Watts is born. Since none of the world governments have revealed to the population that the aliens exist, we can go with the “global warming screwed up everything” reality that Wade Watts accepts at the beginning of RPO.
-Maybe Dad is really dead but the EDA (Earth Defense Alliance) killed him because he stumbled onto their plan. Zack finds out halfway through, after enlisting in the EDA himself.
-Somebody declines to join the EDA after being told of the alien invasion, or demands third-party verification of their claims of alien invasion. We find out if people are actually allowed to voluntarily enlist/de-enlist in the EDA.
-Decent female characters anywhere? Anywhere? Anyone that isn’t a love interest? Anybody?
-What if Zack and the other gamers decide that they’re not actually okay with the fact that Big Brother has been watching them and filling files on them for their entire childhoods, and rebel and overthrow the American arm of the EDA (because they’re the best gamers in the world this should be well within their capabilities), and China and Russia are like, “Well, I guess we’ll save the world from the aliens then since America’s defense arm has completely disintegrated.”
-Zack could be a female gamer who joins the EDA to save the earth, but then becomes so disgusted and discouraged by the misogyny and abuse and terrible jokes that she’s subjected to by the many minions of asshole male gamers who surround her in the EDA, so she leaves and goes home to her boyfriend (or girlfriend), who’s been wanting to spend more time with her anyway, and they have mindblowing sex until the alien apocalypse happens. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SHUT WOMEN OUT OF GAMES, GAMERGATERS? THE PLANET BLOWS UP. Also, surprise Ready Player One prequel.

Random aside: Zack’s dad’s middle name is Ulysses and Zack’s dad’s dog is still alive (though ancient) and I hope you see and are as annoyed by this obvious nod to classic literature as me. Seriously, this is why there’s no worries about spoilers. The dad’s name is Ulysses. The dog is still alive. Worst broadcast of a twist in the history of ever.
Other random aside: In a world that has a wrist-watch gadget that can apparently instantaneously translate English to Chinese for the one Chinese character in the book, I’m incredibly annoyed by all the American characters who don’t even try to get their wrist-watch gadgets to translate Chinese into English so they can have easy conversations with the Chinese kid. All the burden of translation, if he wants to participate in the conversations at all, falls to the Chinese kid. That kind of sucks. Way to be ambassadors of American hospitality and openness, guys.

Just. Fuck this book. Seriously. I really really like Ready Player One, (there’s a review of it by me floating around on this site somewhere) and I really want Ernest Cline to keep writing, because I like the place that he writes from. I like Wade Watts (the narrator from Ready Player One), who is a flawed but decent person, who wants the world to be a fair and balanced place, who believes that even the schlubbiest nerd can be a hero. That’s the best side of nerd-dom, right there. That’s what I want to read.

Book Review: March (Book One)

marchThis review was first posted on my Goodreads account over here.

It can be hard to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement. I think that, because we’ve all seen pictures and heard Dr. King’s Dream Speech, been told the broad strokes like, “The Freedom Riders did ______” and “The Montgomery Bus Boycott was _____,” it’s easy to think that it’s a story that you know. It’s kind of like the Holocaust–it’s a story that’s so huge, and been told so many times, that we forget that it took place on a small human scale, not not just a big social upheaval scale.

Congressman John Lewis’ memoir, written in the form of a graphic novel (also written by staffer Andrew Aydin, and drawn by artist Nate Powell), has been a pretty good antidote to that skittering, shallow version of history for me.

Book One starts with Congressman Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Alabama; his early experiences on his family’s farm, his early call to ministry and social justice, his college years in Nashville, TN and the first sit ins and protests he participated in. The framing device of the story is Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, so we sort of switch back and forth between 1960-62 and 2009. Book One ends in the middle of the Nashville lunch counter sit in protests. (Book Two covers the remainder of the sit ins, Congressman Lewis’ experiences as a Freedom Rider, his elevation to SNCC chairman, and his speech at the 1962 March on Washington.)

Gone are the days when a couple hundred African-Americans can bring downtown Nashville to a standstill simply by taking up space at lunch counters, when just 80 people could fill a county jail and max out the criminal justice system for that day. We’ve expanded the criminal justice system exponentially, and become accustomed to criminalizing an enormous percentage of our populace in the process. How many people are arrested and processed every single day in mid-sized American cities?

What shocked me (it shouldn’t have shocked me, but kind of did) was not the behavior of the white people in the story, but the way that the police and white civilians worked together to attack, undermine, and refuse to work with the black people. The perpetuation of segregation in the South was truly the job of every white citizen, policeman, lawmaker, or shopowner. White businessmen closed their stores and left black customers sitting at lunch counters in the dark, undermining their own ability to earn money rather than give in to the demands for desegregated lunch counters. White police departments delayed responding to black protestors’ calls reporting violence and asking for protection, and let white vigilantes attack black people with impunity. White police officers, of course, arrested black protestors, and Bull Connor turned dogs and firehouses onto them. White people destroyed property rather than share space. I wonder how far they would have gone to protect their racist interests and power, if the federal government hadn’t stepped in. The mayor of Nashville crumbled when challenged; but Bull Connor and the mayor of Birmingham, it seems, would have happily burned down the entire South rather than give in.

The other thing that this book made me think of is that systems–whether racist or not–exist because the populace tacitly allow them to exist. We give systems power by complying with them. When you take away that compliance–when you refuse to ride the bus, when you sit at the lunch counter, when you register to vote, when you try to buy a ticket to the movies–you are upending the system’s ability to continue operating as it has. And that is the real power of nonviolence.

That’s a lot of rambling for a short book, I suppose. Mr. Lewis and Mr. Aydin, who wrote the text, have done something powerful, in spite of the relatively few words they used to do it; helped in no small part by Mr. Powell’s drawings that accompany. It’s a quick read–I got through it in about a day–but is not shallow. Quite the opposite. This is a massively important book that should be read. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. I think, and I hope, that it will be read by people who might not normally pick up a memoir or a biography. If I was a middle or a high school teacher, I would be handing out copies to all of my students.

So good. So so so good. So glad this book exists.