We Deserve a Better Storm and other thoughts on race and the X-Men

storm
Picture of Fox cartoon Storm aside, this entry is about the X-Men movies.

I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?

Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast. 

I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?

Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.

On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).

Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.

That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them. 

Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.

To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.

So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.

The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.

Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.

And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.

So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.

 

 

Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.

Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.

Anti-Racism as Practice

It continues to be a hell of a week (this week has been, what, four months long now?). I can’t go to protests and I spend way too much time on social media, so one of the many things I’ve been watching, along with white folks showing up and protesting alongside black folks, is white folks learning about systemic racism and police brutality in real time. It got me thinking about how I started learning about these issues over a decade ago. Not just about events in my life or people I’ve known who influenced me, but what is it about me, that predisposes me to care about this stuff? I’m not unique in my experiences. When did this state of affairs creep into your consciousness? And why do some of us (white people) let it change our consciousness, and some of us dig in and refuse?

I know there’s a lot of white people out there who just realized the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in America (welcome!), and there’s a ton of blog posts out there pointing people towards books and TED talks and resources. You should check in with all that. This isn’t that, this is about the perspective that I try to keep, things I remind myself of before I act. These are the things that I do inside my head, every day, when I can’t go to protests or smash the police state.

Disclaimer #1: I am in no way saying that I am a great ally, or even a good ally. I’m trying to be, but I’m not the one who gets to decide if I succeed. I think I’ve got some stuff down. I know there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work at. 

Disclaimer #2: While obviously PoC are welcome to read this and weigh in, this is definitely a post by a white person for white people and is likely to contain some white feeeeeeeelings (and/or acknowledgement of same). If you don’t have the time or energy for that, that is totally legit.

1. LISTEN and TRUST. This is the one thing I’m willing to claim that I do well, since it’s a running theme in my entire life, not just when I’m trying to be an ally. When people tell me how their lives are, or what they want, I just…believe them. Which should not be a radical act, but in the context of racism in America, not believing Black people is the #1 fundamental thing that White people must do in order to maintain this system. Outside of anti-racism practice, this trustingness probably means I get taken advantage of by panhandlers with sob stories (shrug), and I miss a lot of undercurrents in office politics, and the “honeymoon phase” of relationships is secretly hell because I believe all the soppy things that men tell to me during that time and have trouble readjusting later. But it also means that when an older black lady from my church says she’s been subjected to racism her whole life, I believe her. I don’t have any reason not to. When another older black lady tells me that racism is why she retired as an associate law professor, not a full professor, I believe her. Why would I not? What does that get me, or them?

Flipside: Learning to trust Black people when they describe their lives and experiences, trusting that they are right about those experiences, means learning to distrust institutions like the police, the media, and politicians who are trying to get elected to things. This is basically a project all on its own, and one that (specifically in the context of distrusting the media) I still struggle with. I have spent the last three weeks repeatedly falling for police/media propaganda (I definitely shared pictures of the cops kneeling for the protesters, for instance), then catching myself and backing up and readjusting my mental viewfinder.

You have to listen to people, if you’re going to learn anything. You have to believe that they are the experts on their own lives. You have to believe that they have no reason to lie to you. If they say something that doesn’t jive with your own understanding or personal experience, chalk that up to a difference of experience, not misdirection or misperception.

Which leads me to

2. HUSH. Just hush. Just listen. Don’t argue. Arguing with white people is exhausting. Every black person with any kind of public persona has to do it all the time. The one black person who works in the same department as you probably just wants to get work done, not talk about racism and white privilege to all of her co-workers that she never exchanged a social word with until two weeks ago. 

You can practice hushing and still get your questions answered! On social media, look in the comments. Chances are you’ll see some other white person with the same question as you. See if someone answered that person. Don’t be asking people to answer the same question over and over.

If you don’t see an answer to your question, hang tight. People often address the same topic over and over. It’s a side effect of the fact that we like to talk about the things that we feel very strongly about, and most of us have a limited number of things we feel strongly about. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, a lot. What a lot of black people have going on in their lives is racism. Some of them choose to talk about it publicly, and those that do, will talk about it regularly. If someone says something you don’t understand or disagree with, I promise you lose nothing by letting it slide by. Lurking is good for you, and good for the person whose feed you’re reading. Remind yourself of all the things that person said that you found powerful and true, remind yourself of all the stuff they’ve already taught you (for free!) and just let it go. The subject will come around again. And the person will make their point differently, or they’ll talk about another aspect of it that they didn’t mention before, or they’ll link to an article. And you’ll have learned more in the time between. Your ears will hear better. It’ll be different. Keep listening. Keep learning. Figuring out racism and how it functions is a process

And hey, eventually you’ll hear something that you don’t agree with completely, even if you understand exactly what the person speaking is trying to convey. That’s fine. But you don’t have to open your mouth to say it in somebody’s mentions (go back to the paragraph above, and remember that somebody else has probably already said it). Just let it go. It’s fine.

Remember that Google is a thing! Try googling your question, or asking a handy reference librarian. Many, many times, the question you are wondering about has already been asked and answered elsewhere. A lot of the topics that are currently under discussion–racism in policing, lopsided city budgets, the broken criminal justice system–have literally decades of academic discussion and research out there, because these are problems that we have declined to solve for decades. Which, in terms of treating our fellow citizens with actual justice and compassion, is very very bad. But for you, person with questions who just wants to know more, it means that there is so much information and analysis out there, waiting for you to find it.

3. READ. KEEP READING. There’s a million reading lists out there for people who want to learn about racism and white privilege in America. I’ll refrain from making another one here. But this isn’t about homework. This isn’t about how you can read The New Jim Crow or watch 13th and call it good. And maybe you don’t like reading! That’s fine. (Try listening to something on audiobook?) But if you’re an American, I bet you take in a lot of art and media, one way or the other. You gotta diversify that shit. Like reading fantasy? Find black fantasy authors. Like movies? Find movies by black directors, writers. Watch movies from Africa (I hear Nigeria is fostering a growing African movie industry). Podcasts? Music? History books? Television? Comics? Is your local art gallery organizing a showing of local black artists? Can you tell them that that’s something you would like to see?

And don’t make it all about racism, either. I mean, maybe at first. You gotta learn about racism and how it functions and how our society got the way it is. That is a project that’ll keep you busy for a while. But don’t get yourself into a place where the only stories you know about black people are ones of discrimination or oppression. Part of de-colonizing your mind is hearing more stories, different stories, new stories. Give yourself a break and watch a Tyler Perry movie. There’s a black dude out there who makes videos where he raps with his cat. Watch the Nicholas Brothers dance. Learn about the pre-MJ history of the Moonwalk. Or the history of go-go in DC. Maybe Jordan Peele has a list somewhere of his favorite movies by black directors? Who are some badass black visual artists working these days? I don’t know. You do you, and you like what you like. You’re most likely to be successful if you diversify a type of art you already like, instead of trying to foster a whole new interest just because it’s done by black people.

I did this/am doing this (my book collection was White As Shit until about five years ago), and I don’t regret it. Not even for “And now I’m a better person! And I know more about black people!” reasons, but because you don’t always realize how many of your stories are the same until you start taking in different stories, by people from different backgrounds. And then you start to realize you’ve been cheated, all this time. There is so much stuff that the white folks who run music companies, movie studios, and book publishers have been keeping from you because they didn’t know how to market it. There is so much fucking creativity and beautiful art out there, but if you don’t specifically go looking for black folks (and other marginalized voices), they’re not likely to end up in your bookcase by accident, because marketing is also racist.

Also, reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy. Go find stories! They’re good for you!

4. Perspective. There is a weird tension in trying to be anti-racist. Being a racist is the worst thing in the world, right? We (white people) have all been trained from babyhood to reject it. We’re not racists. We perceive the mere accusation as violence. If you want to shut down a conversation with a well-meaning but ignorant white person, call them a racist, or use the word white supremacy. We deflect those accusations reflexively. Being called a racist is the worst.

We gotta get over that. Every white person is racist. If you grew up in America, especially if you grew up in a segregated neighborhood (and most of us did!) and you’re white, you’re racist. You can’t help it. It’s not your fault. It’s because the country is racist. The air is racist. It’s a miasma. You can’t keep it off you. By the time symptoms developed, it was already too late. It sucks, but you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to admit it. That’s the only way we move forward. As a friend of mine said the other day, “Once I realized and admitted I was racist, it was freeing. I had nowhere to go but up. Every step was progress.”

It might be a little like admitting you’re an addict? (Or this might be the worst metaphor ever.) Addicts do some heinous shit sometimes, they do damage, and they may not realize they’re doing it (or not realize the impact), because they’re addicts and they’re using. Call them an addict, and they’re offended, they’re mad, they storm out, they don’t want to know you. But when they reach their own moment of clarity, when they can call themselves an addict, when they can look around with clear eyes and see the part they’ve played in their life turning into whatever it’s turned into? That’s when they can start to move forward.

So, you’re a racist, and that’s okay.

Except it’s not okay! Don’t forget! Being a racist is still the worst thing! Our system of racial oppression is still terrible and it’s eating people alive! We have to undo it. In order to undo it, we have to acknowledge it’s there. To acknowledge that it’s there, we have to admit our part in it, and its effect on us. 

Racism is the fucking worst thing but admitting that doesn’t make you the worst person but also it’s the worst thing and we have to dismantle it right now. It’s the worst, but it’s not, but it is. Clear?

5. When you fuck up. Because you’re going to fuck up! You’ve been breathing in racism your entire life and you just started to change your perspective like, five minutes ago. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet. So you’re going to fuck up, and it’s going to hurt even worse than it did when somebody called you a racist before you realized you were a racist, because now your whole thing is understanding how much harm black people experience every day but you’ve contributed to that harm and that sucks that we can’t seem to stop hurting black people, even when we’re on their side. So: You’ve fucked up, you’ve said something hurtful that you didn’t realize was hurtful, but a black person has told you it’s hurtful (and you believe them, because you’re still following #1 on the list). What do you do?

  1. You say you’re sorry.
  2. You thank them for telling you what you did wrong.
  3. You shut the fuck up.

You’re going to want to say more. White people, we’re used to having our emotions and grievances listened to. If we’re white women of a certain demographic, we’re used to processing those emotions. We’re used to being validated, one way or another. We’re so used to it, we reach out for it and demand it from others without even realizing we’re doing it. Listen to me: It is not a black person’s job to help you process your emotions or listen to you explain where you were coming from or what you were trying to say. Stop. Stop that. This is such a common spiral that white people fall into when we’re being corrected that it’s got a name now: White tears. It takes over conversations and suddenly now we’re talking about how sad Karen is because Tara told her she was racist, and not about the harm and the hurt that Tara is feeling.

Find a fellow white person to process your shit with. (Preferably one who also knows how racism works who won’t tell you that Tara was just being mean and validate all your white feelings.) Needing to process is fine! Needing to feel your feelings is fine. Needing to let some stuff out before you circle back around to working on not being racist is fine. Do not feel your feelings at black people. I promise you, experiencing racism is worse than being called racist. Take a deep breath, leave the conversation for a minute if you have to, come back when you can be a person participating in a conversation instead of dominating it. 

And remember: Hard as it is to hear, being told you’ve said or done something shitty is also an opportunity. On some level, that person wouldn’t have told you about the harm you’d done if they didn’t think you were capable of learning to do better. 

(Tangent: Back in 2012 [I think it was 2012 because I remember Mitt Romney was in the picture], Dreamers and immigration activists kept shouting at President Obama and interrupting events, trying to push him into doing something about the Dream Act. I think at one event he actually departed from his planned speech and responded to them a little bit. They were notably not shouting at Mitt Romney [who was running for President at the time], or John Boehner [who was Speaker of the House] or Eric Cantor, or [as far as I remember] any of the Democratic Senate leadership. A journalist actually asked one of the activists, Why are you yelling at Obama, who is on your side, but not at any of the Republicans who are blocking the legislation, or at Mitt Romney, who is super high profile and would get you attention if you engaged in civil disobedience at one of his campaign stops?

Their answer: They thought Obama was the mostly likely person to actually get something done for them. They knew that yelling at Republicans was a waste of breath. They weren’t out for attention, they were out for actual change. So they yelled at the guy that they thought might actually change something.

I’m sure that Obama did not like being yelled at [though as far as I remember he handled it with grace]. But I hope he knew why they were yelling at him, specifically, and maybe felt a little bit…honored? Flattered? Slightly less annoyed than before?]

So. Remember. Black people are asking you to change. They are trusting that you can. Don’t tell them you’ll do better. Shut the hell up and do better.

This ended up being a lot of words to describe some things that are really pretty simple. They aren’t always easy. But they’re simple, once you get down to them. Believe Black people. Listen to them. Seek out their stories. Change and grow as a person. Destroy white supremacy. You can do it.

In the middle of All This

Oof. It’s been a week, hasn’t it, Best Beloved? A year. An interminable, endless year.

I had at least half an entry in my head last week (was it last week?), when the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park who (among other things) doesn’t think that dog leash laws apply to her and will enforce that belief by threatening random black men with murder-by-cop, was circulating. But then George Floyd was murdered, and then protests, and then riots. I don’t know that I have anything like a cohesive post, but I got some things. (Also, I’m not the first to say any of these things.)

A.) I was accused of having a “laundry list” of things that worried me more than property damage when I responded to a person on social media who was lamenting property damage. And…yeah. I do indeed have a long-ass list of concerns. Because I am 38 years old and this list has been growing for my entire lifetime and then some. That’s the thing about lists, and grievances, and grief, and trauma: they don’t go away when you ignore them. They sits there, festering, self-replicating, creeping out the cracks in the walls until the walls lose their integrity and come tumbling down. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…or does it explode?

What “rational” response should people be engaging in right now? Colin Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest and lost his job. MLK engaged in peaceful protest and he was murdered. How many black people have to die, and the people who killed them face no justice, before it’s okay to break some shit? Activist Stokely Carmichael said that, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” It’s clear that forces with power in the US are fine with ignoring peaceful protest; violent protest they can squash with guns and tanks and then do what they can to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Because if activists really wanted change, they would do this shit nonviolently, right? And they think we’ll forget that activists already tried that, have been trying that, will continue to try that. What’s left, then? What are folks supposed to do?

How long are communities expected to go without health care, including mental health care? How long should activists spend trying to reform the criminal justice system, to get nonviolent offenders out of jail, to get cops to stop killing people? Does systematically depriving children of an education because you don’t want to pay for schools count as violence? What about systematically depriving children of their parents because you want to house them in a for-profit jail system and make money off of them? What about systematically putting children in jail because you don’t know any other way to change their behavior? How do we change all that? I agree that lighting a dumpster on fire won’t directly change that, but neither has decades of direct activism and hard work, so I got no answers and I’m not going to judge the people who got to the end of their rope and found that it dropped off a cliff.

B.) Just after George Floyd was murdered, I said on social media (kind of offhandedly, while talking about something else) that I thought it was important that videos like that be shared. That white people should watch them and not look away. I changed my mind, though, after seeing multiple people of color (on other social media platforms, not in my mentions) talk about how traumatizing they find these videos. How they’ve become more traumatizing over time because it’s a cycle now: graphic video/protest/nothing happens/rinse/repeat. To watch black people die, over and over and over, is traumatizing. To have it show up, unasked-for, in your social media feeds, is exhausting. When’s the last time you saw a white person murdered on camera? When’s the last time that got broadcast over and over on CNN? We (white people) have to expand the definition of “don’t look away” to something beyond “share shit on facebook.” Or if you’re going to share that shit on facebook or twitter, commit to doing something else, too. Contact your congressperson. Donate to a bail fund. Make some art. Buy some art from a person of color. Don’t just feel sad/mad for a minute, share the news story, and move on. Do something.

There was a time when it was important to see and share and take in these videos, along with other accounts of the trauma and danger that people of color live through in this country every day. I’m glad that more people seem to believe people of color when they tell their stories now. I wish we white folks could have gotten there without the need for video documentation, but it is what it is. Now we have to keep believing them and keep sharing stories and do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing our friends and family and people who are just trying to walk through the world without getting killed or harassed.

If sharing videos of these atrocities could have stopped them from happening, they would have stopped by now. But the death of Philando Castile didn’t even galvanize change in the state of Minnesota. We gotta do something else.

(Also: relying on videos and viral sharing is a bad way to do justice, friends. There’s no way it can reach every murder, galvanize every city. Look at the difference in reaction between George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s. Is one of them more deserving of justice than the other? Is one of them, at this moment, more likely to see justice served? This is what we’re talking about when we need systemic change. We can’t rely on social media to catch everyone who deserves justice and find it for them.)

C.) Talk to your people who still believe that colorblindness is how we solve racism. It is not. Thinking and talking about race is hard and uncomfortable, especially when you’re a well-meaning white person who doesn’t want to piss anybody off. It still is for me, and I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about systemic racism and whiteness for well over a decade now. We have to know our own history and how racism is tied into it. You think the Nazis and the fascists and the slavery nostalgists don’t know this history? You think they don’t use our ignorance against us, to outflank us and cause harm to PoC and Jewish people, every step of the way? They use our loyalty to and investment in colorblindness and they make us complicit in the harm they cause. It’s one of the reasons why people of color end up doing so much of the labor, physical and emotional. This investment in not acknowledging race or racism has never helped black folks. It has only helped white supremacy.

And we have to start talking about this shit with kids. Kids can see the difference between how white folks live and how black folks live. They want explanations. They want to know why the world is the way it is. And right now, with white kids, a lot of the best explanations they can find is coming from racists. And that’s a problem, right? We can agree that that’s a problem?

I remember going to punk shows as a teenager, and reading zines, and the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) would hand out and distribute fliers from the SPLC showing different names and logos and code words of white power groups, publications, websites. I got warned off Skrewdriver before I even knew anything about them. There was no hoping that failing to recognize them would make them go away. Instead, there was positive action. Naming them. Showing what they looked like. Forcibly ejecting them from shows when they were recognized. Maybe if white liberals had learned how to talk about racism forty years ago, Bannon and Miller and the other racists in this administration could not have gone so unchecked for so long, or built up the empires that they have.

When Trmp says, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he is quoting somebody. Do you know who he’s quoting? I didn’t, I found out like two days ago. Were there white nationalists out there who heard him say that and understood exactly what he meant? You bet your ass. And yeah, maybe he didn’t know who he was quoting either (it’s not like he reads anything), but I bet that somebody in the White House does. Somebody put that line in his head. Learn to recognize dogwhistles and call them out, if you do nothing else. If today is your first day looking around and thinking, Holy shit, maybe there’s something to this racism thing, welcome! You don’t even have to start with systemic racism or implicit bias or white privilege! Our president is giving real-time lessons in how racists talk to each other when they don’t want to be obvious about it. Learn the language.

Black people have known how to talk about race for decades. White racists have known how to talk about race for decades. We white liberal antiracists have to learn how to talk about it too.

D.) White women in particular: Don’t forget about Amy Cooper. Watch that video, and sit with that. That was such a perfect fucking textbook example of how white women wield their social standing and their fear to enforce racist outcomes in this country.

E.) Buy work by black artists, musicians, and writers. Support their podcasts. Find their patreons. Share those videos. Listen to those stories. Lift up voices, allow other perspectives into your feed.

F.) This is all aspirational for me too. I’m not saying I’m great at doing any of this, but it’s past time I redirected some energy into trying harder. We all need to pay attention, and keep paying attention. Learn what hushing up and letting other people talk looks like (it probably doesn’t look like this entry, which I realize is full of all kinds of white-centered thoughts and feelings, but that’s what blogs are for, I suppose).

G.) Stephen Dubner, the host of the radio show/podcast Freakonomics, has started signing of off episodes with the phrase, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.” I like that. I might start using it.

Take care of yourself. If you can, take care of someone else.

 

Poets I’m reading this week: Langston Hughes. Martin Espada. Danez Smith. Ross Gay.

Prose I’m reading and/or listening to: Roxane Gay, NK Jemisin, Stokely Carmichael, W Kamau Bell, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Frederick Douglass (1852 Fourth of July Speech), MLK Jr (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Music is good: Jurassic 5, the Flobots, the Gossip, Le Tigre, Strike Anywhere, Lizzo, Yo-Yo Ma.

Note to a kid and also myself

makegoodart
Picture by Gavin Aung Than of zenpencils.com

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
—Stephen King

Recently, I was going through my google drive to see what I could clean up. Docs tends to be where I start impulsive projects, or where I take notes if I’m out and about somewhere and don’t have a pen and paper handy. I get started, write a few paragraphs, realize that I have no real place to go with it and no conclusion, run out of time, and close the app. I never remember to title these bits and pieces so my drive is full of “Untitled Document” with only the creation date to differentiate them. And every now and then I go through and try to figure out what I can expand on and finish, and what I can just delete.

This time, though, I actually found something interesting. Marginally. In 2017, I was on a panel at Denver Comic Con about writing fanfic (DCC has since been renamed something that won’t get them sued by the San Diego Comic Con, who have decided that they are the only comic con, but I never remember what the new name is, so in my head the event is still, and probably always will be, the Denver Comic Con). I was working at the public library at the time, which often organizes a bunch of family-friendly panels covering various aspects of nerdly books/movies/fandom. It was fun, if terrifying, because I’m not exactly known for my public speaking skills or confidence. We covered a bunch of topics, from writing generally to a history of fanfic to an overview of a few of the largest sites, like AO3 and fanfiction.net. I went first, and spoke about writing generally. It was…not a lie, exactly, but more of an aspirational talk than a factual one, because I was (and still am) struggling with writer’s block. I was giving advice to kids that I was having trouble taking myself.

But anyway. This is more or less what I said. I have gone through and edited and updated it, since it’s two years old:


I took on the task to make a case for writing, which I think is both easy and hard, because to me it comes down to this: If you want to be a writer, if you want to write, you should write. And you should write what you want, and what you enjoy. Period, the end. That’s all you really need to be a writer. Everything else is details.

“We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.” That’s what Neil Gaiman says. Especially in this day and age, in this culture, when it’s so much easier to be a consumer than a contributor, we must tell stories. In this age when so many of our stories are fed to us by corporate behemoths who write by committee, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. Don’t wait for someone else to write the story you want to read.

When I was in high school and college, I got intimidated out of writing what I wanted to write. I thought that if I was going to be a “real writer,” I had to write stuff like what I was reading in English class. I thought I had to write like Steinbeck or Tolkien or Toni Morrison. I don’t even know where I got that impression. It certainly wasn’t anything that anybody told me, but more of a vague idea of what a Real Writer looked like. If I’d been cognizant enough of it to articulate it, any adult would have told me what I’m telling you now: write whatever you want, and don’t worry about whether you’re measuring up to Charles Freaking Dickens. Don’t worry about symbolism or theme or whether your subject is weighty enough. Soap operas get dragged for being silly and impossible and overly dramatic, but their writers get paid like anyone else. Chuck Tingle writes stories about being pounded in the butt by [insert noun or sometimes figurative idea here] and got nominated for a Hugo award. Don’t worry about whether it’s worth it. Worry about finishing. Just write it, whatever it is that’s in your head.

So, with that manifesto out of the way, I thought I’d spend a minute talking about some specific advantages to writing fanfic especially if you’re a new writer.

Sometimes it seems like people will only consider you a “real fan” if you know everything about the thing that you’re a fan of. Don’t get me wrong, knowing everything about one thing can be cool and fun if that’s your jam. I have a friend who owns every single Daredevil comic ever written. He can name all the all the writers and artists and often what issues or arcs they worked on. If that’s where your fandom happiness lies, go for it. More power to you, and I hope you make editor someday. But if you want to write, and you’re hesitating to start because you fear that you don’t know enough yet–stop that. Start writing. Stop doing homework and start writing. There’s a ton of resources out there about how to write, but they all boil down to: Sit with a pad of paper and a pen, or with your computer, and start putting words on paper. That’s all you really need to get going. The rest you can learn.

Fandom is changing, and with the internet comes a lot of gatekeepers, but there’s also a lot of people around who are determined to burn the gates to the ground and piss all over its ashes. Just as you can write whatever you want and however you want, you can define fandom however you want. It’s your fandom. Love the Good Omens miniseries? I definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t, I think it’s great, but don’t feel like you have to read the book and also Neil Gaiman’s tumblr asks where he answers questions about it and also the script book and also the TV companion book before you can write your story. Do you want to cosplay Wonder Woman even though you’ve only read a few issues, but Comic Con is soon and you love her armor? I sure won’t stop you. And anyone at a con who starts quizzing you about all her writers and artists and storylines is doing it wrong. Don’t let them discourage you. Fan fiction is great because you can just start.

If you’re wanting to get published, sure, different standards come into play. Grammar and style and structure and (probably) using characters you created instead of somebody else’s. But this is fanfic. This is fun. There is where nothing but possibility lives.

You get better at writing by writing. The first thing you write will probably be terrible. That’s okay. The more you write, the more you’ll find your voice.

West Wing Weekly, the Ladies, and Stories

westwing“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival

I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.

Most Complicated

cardcatalog2“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” –Leo Babauta

I feel like my twenties was spent accumulating Stuff, and my thirties is going to be spent getting rid of it. I’m a writer, and accumulate paper at an alarming rate. I get supplies and ephemera and things, and plan to do projects that end up being stuffed into boxes. Instead of making a list of books I wanted to read someday, for awhile (because I worked in a bookstore that gave me a 30% discount) I would just buy the book and put it in a crate, planning to get to it eventually. This system may work great if you’re not already a busy person with a tendency to procrastinate, but I am not that person. Besides that, my living space never expanded to accommodate all my Stuff like I thought it would. Turns out that not everyone’s economic situation is a steadily increasing upward climb after college. I think I figured that by the time I got to my 30s, my living space would have expanded and stabilized, but that’s just not how life worked out. And so now I wonder why I have all this Stuff, why I pack it up and haul it around to a new living space every two to three years, why I step over it in my bedroom, why I trip over it in the dark, why I breathe in the dust it collects. I’m finally looking at fitting my stuff into the space I have, instead of the other way around. (And yes, it is capitalized in my head, this Stuff that I probably don’t need and yet don’t get rid of.)

A milk crate full of scratch paper. An old microwave. Six bags of clothes and towels. A bashed-up futon. Four pairs of shoes.

After my dad had to clean out his mom’s house after she died, he came home and started emptying out his own crawl space and filing cabinets and closets, so that me and my brother won’t have to someday. Hurricane Katrina took care of the problem at my other grandmother’s house. When I was a kid, I used to lie awake at night fearing that my house would catch fire (the school unit that was meant to empower me in case of emergency had the effect of opening my eyes to a manner of death and destruction I hadn’t, to that point, realized was possible), and I would make lists in my head of what I needed to take out of the house with me. I keep reading about Syrian refugees, millions of them, leaving behind everything they can’t carry. People fleeing from wildfires. Zombie apocalypse stories that reduce humanity to its bones. The problem of electrifying India and China while not cooking the planet. Why do I carry all this stuff. The objects, the lists, the tasks, the anxiety. The stuff. It’s all ephemeral anyway. Just one fire away from being ash and memories. Just one hurricane away from being black sludge. How much of it do I really really need?

A DSLR camera. An electric guitar. A 12×1 amp. A saxophone. A 12-channel mixer. Old art supplies. Old blank books.

This isn’t entirely the way I was raised. My parents are tidy people, my dad especially is budget-minded, and they didn’t just buy stuff willy-nilly. But neither did they throw anything away that might be useful (or rather, in the case of my dad, he doesn’t buy anything that he doesn’t think he can get at least ten years of good use out of). They didn’t police my own ability to control my bedroom space and accumulate possessions. Even as a little kid, I liked garage sales. I grew up reading Ranger Rick and its elementary-level precautions against how fast we’re filling up all of our landfills. So for as long as I can remember, I have been both surrounded by stuff and worried about it. Full bookshelves, full garages, full crawl spaces, full drawers of random crap that don’t have a place. I used to keep a milk crate full of paper that was blank on one side that I used as scratch paper. I carted it around for over ten years; it turned into a sort of sediment record of my academic career going all the way back to high school. I finally chucked it out last summer. As a friend of mine said, if you haven’t used it in ten years, you’re not going to use it. So out it went. And now it’s one less thing, physically and mentally, to carry around.

I was raised in Quakerism, and one of Quakerism’s founding principles is Simplicity. The definition I was told as a child, that I’ve always connected to, is that Simplicity isn’t about the amount of stuff you have or don’t have. And it’s not even necessarily about how busy you are, something that those of us in the 21st century probably find comforting. The way Simplicity was explained to me is that you need to have space in your brain and your heart to be able to listen to God in your life. For me, it happens to be true that a cluttery living space contributes to a cluttery headspace and a cluttery religious practice. On the other hand, some of the most cluttered houses I was around growing up were houses owned by Quakers, because we tend to save everything in the hope that it might be useful someday. It took me a long time to realize that I can’t save stuff hoping I’ll use it someday. It takes up too much space in my head. When I imagine my best living space, or when I try to imagine my life feeling caught up and simple, I’m in something like a log cabin with no extraneous furniture and simple tasks to do and I just move through life, doing one thing at a time. I keep daydreaming about putting my stuff in storage and going and teaching English in Japan, or even just getting a long haul trucker’s license and living in the cab of a truck with a dog and a small bookshelf with books and a laptop. (My need to collect books will probably forever stand in the way of my desire to live in a tiny cabin with no extraneous possessions.)

How much of my life is just extraneous? What could I do without? The vast majority of it. Easily. The question is, will I do without it because I want to, or will I wait until I have to, until the entropy of the universe takes my decision to own stuff out of my hands?

Paystubs from 2005. Old pots and pans from Wal-Mart. Three boxes of books. Two boxes of old magazines. Old candles.

Why do I save objects thinking I’ll use them someday? Wouldn’t it be better if I sent it back out into the world where someone who might be able to use it now could maybe find it? As a country, we’re drowning in stuff. We could stop producing jeans and shirts and shoes right now any everyone would still be able to walk around fully clothed for years. 40% of the food purchased nationwide gets thrown away. The problem of people not having stuff isn’t a problem of resources; it’s a problem of distribution. As I get used to being able to find everything online, and at my local library, trying to build my own archive of useful Stuff seems like a futile endeavor. I don’t have the time or the space or the filing system.

And so, a little at a time, stuff has gone out the door. To Goodwill and onto Amazon and ebay and into Little Free Library boxes and used book stores. I still have a box of records (music records I mean) to sell on ebay. I could probably stand to get rid of more clothes. I can’t quite stand to get rid of my old Nintendo, even though I don’t have anything to plug it into. There’s another drawer of audio cables and chargers that I could chuck out. These days, ironically, my problem is cardboard boxes, which I don’t want to throw out because I could fill them with stuff I’m throwing out, but I’m not sure now if I have more cardboard boxes than stuff to put in them.

Piles of bumper stickers that I don’t have a car to put them on. My childhood dog’s collar. A box of Mardi Gras necklaces.

I’ve been reading books like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, listening to podcasts like The Minimalists, to get me in the right mindset to throw stuff out. I’m realizing that material simplicity–the sort of simplicity where you approach your possessions and schedule with mindfulness and intention instead of just automatically going wherever your impulses lead you–is one of those things that you approach entirely differently depending on your income level aand class privilege. What, for some folks, is a way to improve their life is for other people just life. I had an economic upbringing that was set to a packrat/accumulation default, and much of my adulthood has been spent unlearning that behavior (it says something about the creepy power of American culture that I learned this behavior in spite of my parents’ best efforts to teach me otherwise). If you don’t have money to buy that book you want to read, even at a 30% discount, you don’t buy the damn book. If you don’t have a closet or floor space in which to cram all your scrapbook supplies (that you had the money to buy), you don’t even start out with crafting supplies and half-done projects.

But even more than that, minimalism as a philosophy has a certain class-based bias. Maria Kondo, the tidying guru of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends that throwing things out be the default setting, and that you only keep things that give you joy. Alright, okay. One of her anecdotes involves getting rid of a screwdriver, and then trying to use other household objects in the place of the screwdriver, before deciding that life really needs screwdrivers and buying another one. The idea of throwing away (or giving to Goodwill) a perfectly good screwdriver and not replacing it until I find a joy-causing screwdriver is bonkers to me. The fact that the Minimalists (bloggers Josh and Ryan) left extremely well-paying corporate careers to be bloggers, and to have that blog be about the joy of less stuff, is bonkers. Most of us can’t leave our jobs, no matter how much we want to. I just started listening to the Minimalists podcast, and on one level I love the idea and the content and the process, but on another level I really hope they acknowledge at some point that just the fact that they were able to make that choice at all is an extraordinary level of privilege and class and education in and of itself. I have maybe $200 left in my bank account at the end of every month; no way can I quit my job and be a blogger. They talk about their desire, early on their minimalism journey, to quit their jobs and be baristas. My reaction (because I was a barista for ten years) was, “Yeah, that’s not living simply, that’s just being poor.” What’s the difference between being poor and living simply? Even being a barista is a manifestation of privilege, because it means you’ve spent time in coffee shops, which means you have an extra $5 a day to spend on coffee and muffins. Nobody ever advocates quitting your corporate job for the joy of being a Wal-Mart greeter, even though the two probably pay roughly the same. The Minimalists said no to $10k a month by refusing to put ads on their site. I don’t know how much either of them has that they can say no to $10k a month, but holy shit, I would love $10k a month. Almost anyone would, and it’s not because we’re greedy or have no values, it’s because so many Americans feel fucking broke all the time.

But, y’know, maybe I could. Because that’s the thing, when I’m annoyed by shit like this, it’s often either because I recognize myself in this classist weirdness, or because I want to. I want a website that’s popular enough that someone will give me $10k per month for ads. I’d do that for six months, pay off all my debts, donate money to a scholarship fund for kids who don’t have money for college, and then go back to my ad-free model. I want to be the asshole that considers being a barista to be artful and working at Wal-Mart to be drudgery. I want to make choices about my life, not have those choices made for me either by economic limits or by cultural inertia. And one of the deepest inertias, one of the biggest lies told to us, is that we don’t have choices about things that we actually have a choice about.

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve been working on this entry for weeks, and while it’s gotten longer, I don’t think I’ve reached any more clarity on the whole thing. Maybe I should just stuck with throwing stuff out, and not thinking about the lifestyle implications.

A Mutant Origin Story

mutieI’m near the younger end of my cousins. I have four cousins younger than me, and twelve that are older, so when I was a kid and we went back to Louisiana to visit them, I was almost always one of the youngest ones there. So sometimes, while my parents talked with their siblings, I ended up doing not-entirely-age-appropriate stuff to entertain myself. Like when I was seven or eight and ended up in my cousin Daniel’s bedroom digging through his X-Men and Spider-Man comics and reading them. I didn’t know anything about the X-Men canon. It was in the middle of Chris Claremont’s epic run on the series, and a lot of it went over my head, but a lot of it settled in my subconscious, and planted seeds in my memory. I certainly learned the names of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Jean Grey. When Fox started airing the X-Men animated show in 1992, I was all over that shit like white on rice. The universe became clearer, and I started reading X-Men comics more regularly (but still pretty piecemeal, since I didn’t have access to a comic book shop) and assembling the universe in my head. The X-Men and the Evil Brotherhood of Mutants. Sentinels. Senator Kelly. William Stryker.

(Note: It was a mystery to me what X-Men story I had read first, because all I had was a memory of a single panel: of Nightcrawler lying unconscious and bleeding from his ears while the other X-Men stand over him in concern and a vague understanding of mutants as an oppressed minority rather than a crew of superheroes. It wasn’t until recently that I read God Loves, Man Kills by Chris Claremont and realized that that was the comic I had read decades earlier at my cousin’s).

Early on in the Fox series, there’s a plotline in which two scientists discover a “cure” for mutantism. I forget how the X-Men find out about it, but they do, and their reactions all fit their personalities and personal histories. Wolverine immediately sees it as a tool to eliminate mutants’ powers and neutralize the perceived threat of mutantkind; Rogue, not so much. As one of the mutants whose powers are both an ability and a curse, Rogue (as well as Beast) tend to be the most ambivalent about their mutations, and tempted by the idea of a cure. Peaceful, optimistic Charles Xavier disagrees with the very premise. “Don’t say ‘cure,’ Moira. Being a mutant isn’t a disease. It’s something you’re born with,” he tells Moira McTaggert, one of the scientists. (This is the same plot line that Joss Whedon would handle for his run writing the Astonishing X-Men comics in 2005). It is, basically, the neurodiversity argument, only written in 1992 for a grade school-level audience.

I think it’s this storyline (and others like it), rather the ones that deal with a planet in danger or intergalactic space war, that drew me to the X-Men. Pretty early on, I picked up on threads that I translated into the X-Men being code for people with disabilities. One of the earliest questions that I remember being asked about my sister (besides “What’s wrong with her?” and “What’s it like having a sister with Down’s?”) had to do with whether I would change her if I could. Magically suck the extra chromosome out of every single one of her body’s cells. I don’t remember how young I was when I first heard about the high abortion rates for fetuses with Down’s, but it’s been in my head since at least middle school. And even though I never witnessed people being cruel to my sister, I did witness neurotypical classmates of mine being cruel to disabled kids at my school, and being mocking in general of anyone in special ed or remedial classes. It became really easy, in my head, to equate “Do mutants have the right to exist?” and “Do people with disabilities have the right to exist?” To see “retard” and “mutie” as linguistic cousins. The fear and hostility that mutants experience when they interact with regular Homo sapiens sometimes feels familiar when I hear people talk about people with disabilities. The parallel ran so deep in my head that I was honestly surprised when I got to high school and college and started talking about the X-Men with other people and realized that for them, the parallel was between straight people and queer people, or white people and people of color. That there might be many parallels had honestly never occurred to me, so deep and solid was my understanding that “mutant” was code for “disabled.” (This was before I read Chris Claremont’s statement that for him, mutants could stand in for any outsider population. In the introduction to the trade paperback version of God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont says, “Mutants in the Marvel Universe have always stood as a metaphor for the underclass, the outsiders; they represent the ultimate minority.”)

It crystallized slowly for me, over the course of years. Not all–or even most–storylines have to do with mutaphobia, after all. The X-Men fight against Magneto and fight against the Shi’ar (and fight with the Shi’ar), and there’s the Phoenix Saga and numerous interpersonal dramas and secondary mutations and all that. To read the X-Men is to get to know them from the inside first, their individual histories, their powers, how they feel about those powers, their flaws and foibles, their courage and tenacity, their creativity at solving (or blasting through) problems. You know the X-Men as individuals, make friends with them, and as the stories pile up it slips your mind that the rest of the comic universe world doesn’t see them as individuals, but as a blanket population. You don’t always have to be aware of the fact that a small but significant percentage of the non-mutant population hates mutants, fears them, and wants them dead.

I came to knowledge of my sister’s disability in much the same way. I was three–almost four–when she was born, so I didn’t have any concept of what Down syndrome was. She was just an eating, pooping, crying (and eventually giggling) machine. Your basic human baby. By the end of elementary school (when she would’ve been around seven and me around eleven), I had a pretty good handle on the definition of Down syndrome, but I had an even better knowledge of my sister. I knew how much she loved Barbie and Full House and that cheese was a fundamental dietary building block. I knew her love and her smiles and her stubbornness. I knew how much she was distressed by bees (and flies that might be bees) and automatic garage doors and anybody crying. I knew her. It’s hard to put all that aside and look at my sister from an outsider’s point of view and remember that there’s people who think that my sister is a waste of space. That she’s stupid. That she’s a burden on society and/or my family and that she shouldn’t exist. And there’s people out there who don’t think those things, but who are happy to tell me such things over the Internet because they know it’ll get to me.

I truly believe my sister is a gifted person, though not in the academic way that most people think of when they label kids “gifted.” Her gifts are of a more abstract sort: a deep and instinctive knowledge of chesed, of loving-kindness, of human joy. But the same genetic error that gave her those gifts also gets in the way, too. Gets in the way of her desire to live independently and have more friends. Gets in the way of my family’s desire that she live with economic stability and a reasonable amount of personal safety. Would she welcome the chance for a cure? I honestly don’t know. Like Rogue, her extra chromosome is both a gift and a curse. She can do many amazing things, but also misses out on a lot of opportunities that are easily available to “normals.”

It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized the other parallel. The angry one.

Because people with disabilities get abused at disturbingly, shockingly, unacceptably high rates in modern America. And every time I see it, in the news or wherever, it makes the muscles in my arms harden, and I stop breathing, and start looking for something to hit. Of course there’s never anything to hit. In those moments, though, I wish I was the mutant Pyro, so I could literally set the world on fire. In Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, when Dr. Rao announces a cure for the “mutant disease” on television, Wolverine’s claws come out and he can’t retract them. “She called us a disease. Do you know how that feels?” he says.

Yeah, Logan. I think I do, at least a little bit.

I would set the whole world on fire. I understand Magneto’s fury in the face of human intolerance and bigotry, and why he’s given up on humans and on Charles Xavier’s idealism. Xavier wants to teach people tolerance and compassion, but that is the long fucking way around the problem, and in the meantime people are straight up fucking dying and why do I have to talk to you about not calling people retards when those same people are getting murdered? I don’t have time for that bullshit. It would be so much easier, so much more satisfying, to just throw cars at people and silence them.

When it was my own sister that got hurt, it didn’t feel like enough. Her getting hurt by somebody else felt like the end point of a long chain of dealing with the stupidity and apathy of “normals” and the inevitable vulnerability and invisibility that disabled people experience because of it. There had been decades of people asking, in so many words, “Why does your sister exist?” And then someone came along and decided that she existed to be his victim. He picked a vulnerable, invisible person, and he did it on purpose, because he knew he could get away with it. He thought she wouldn’t fight back. And he was largely right, because how do you teach somebody to defend herself when her default setting is that everyone is her friend?

And that is when I understand the anger that allows Magneto to channel enough power to lift an entire football stadium into the air.

That is when I understand the Scarlet Witch’s anger and desperation when she says, “No more mutants.”

That is when I understand Pyro throwing fireballs, because that’s what I would do, that’s what I wanted to do, to set the whole fucking world on fire for leaving my sister helpless and invisible and vulnerable to somebody who decided to hurt her.

I want to incinerate the world. I want claws like Wolverine’s. Because that’s the biggest thing that X-Men in the Marvel Universe have going for them, that’s their trump card. They can do astonishing things. Uncanny things. Amazing things. They can save the world when no one else can. And that’s a really good argument in favor of their right to exist. When all else fails, when morals and ethics and human compassion fails, mutant usefulness is still there. My sister, and people like her, aren’t stupendous. They aren’t awe-inspiring. They do not astonish, unless you’re willing to examine something quieter and more subtle than telekinesis. Given the chance, much as I like to imagine myself as one of Xavier’s noble X-Men, I’m probably closer to one of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. More interested in defending, in fighting, than explaining. At least where my sister is concerned. Because it makes me so, so angry, the way this world treats the most vulnerable people in it.

But there’s this: I think Magneto feels very alone. At least, on days when I want to blow up the world, that’s how I feel: like nobody cares about this–either not enough or not at all–except me. And if their apathy was neutral, it wouldn’t matter. But apathy isn’t neutral. In the vacuum of apathy, people like my sister get hurt. They die. They’re left all alone. And that is when I have to go for a walk and calm down until I can hear the Charles Xavier voice in my head again. The one that insists that normal humans are worth teaching. The one that believes that humans and mutants can co-exist. The one who would never commit genocide, even though he has the mental power to make everyone’s brains ooze out of their earholes. I remind myself that I’m not alone. That there’s a lot of people–and not just in my family, either–who love my sister, who want to help her, and who are helping her.

My sister loves me. And I love her. She never gives up trying to do anything you ask her to do. There is nothing on this earth that could shake her faith in me. And maybe that makes me selfish, to want to keep that. Almost certainly it is. No more selfish than keeping her around because she’s the only one powerful enough to fight the Brood, but hey. We haven’t had much luck with convincing the world that the ability to love is enough of a utility to exist in a capitalistic society.

Sometimes I think about Ian McKellan (who is, as far as I’m concerned, Magneto’s alter ego) and the fact that, despite dealing with homophobia on a personal and professional level his whole life, he has not himself turned into a supervillian. The fact that, in spite of all they’ve been put through, oppressed minorities in this country (whether it’s disabled folks, LGBTQ folks, mentally ill folks, people of color, etc etc) have, without exception, never turned into evil supervillians. (I know I’m generalizing here, but keep in mind that this is what I tell myself in order to not let my heart get eaten by a murderous rage that burns with the heat of a thousand suns and cut me some slack.) Sure, there’s warlords in Africa and drug cartels in Mexico and Kim Jung-un in North Korea, and they cause enormous amounts of heartache and human damage, but they’re not exactly on the world-endangering level of Dr. Doom or the Red Skull. From a power and world domination standpoint, Barack Obama is the closest thing we have to a supervillain. Maybe Donald Trump. From the oppressed minority contingent, we don’t get Magneto. We get Martin Luther King, Jr.; a human of intelligence and courage that we certainly did not ask for, let alone deserve, but are so fortunate to have had in our midst. We get Helen Keller and Harvey Milk and Nelson Mandela. Bayard Rustin and Vincent Harding and Temple Grandin. Artists like Toni Morrison, Leslie Feinberg, Maya Angelou, Jeremy Brett. We get the beautiful people that I know from the progressive/leftist/anarchist organizing community in Denver, who have taught me about putting love into action and validating and standing up for yourself and others. We get community groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement and the AIDS Quilt and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. And that’s just in this past century. The world is full of thousands and thousands of heroes that we don’t deserve, and often don’t recognize while we have them among us. And that is the truly amazing, awe-inspiring, human superpower: The fact that, in the face of oppression and systematic violence and apathy, more often than not, humans choose to love and hope. They default to trying to teach other humans to be better. The fact that we have as many heroes as we do should send us all to our knees.

Thousands of Charles Xaviers walking among us, disguised as regular people. I like that.

Arrow Episode 4: In Which Not-Chris-O’Donnell is Really Bad at Being a Masked Vigilante

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Episode Four: Not-Chris-O’Donnell’s cover is blown! Oh noes! His life mission to anonymously bring Justice(!) to Starling City lasted like a month. Peter Parker is making Judgment Face at you, not-Chris-O’Donnell. Be ashamed.

Okay, so actually, not-Chris-O’Donnell’s bodyguard got shot, and so not-Chris-O’Donnell brought him to his Secret Justice Lair to fix him (because Starling City doesn’t have hospitals?), and the bodyguard’s immediate reaction (even though he’s been shot and poisoned and is still metabolizing an antidote) is to try and hit Ollie. Because everyone in this universe is pissed off at Ollie.

I must also point out this excellent dialogue without comment:
Not-Chris-O’Donnell: I found a couple things along the way.
Mr. Diggle: Like what, archery classes?
Not-Chris-O’Donnell: Clarity. Starling City is dying.

Mr. Diggle (I’m just going to call him by his actual name because it’s amazing) calls not-Chris-O’Donnell a criminal and a murderer and leaves him. All alone. So. Very. Alone. So not-Chris-O’Donnell goes back to his big empty house and puts on a suit, and after some unknown period of time Laurel comes to “check on him,” because she has excellent boundaries and is totally on top of all of her shit.

Apparently Laurel has decided to be not-Chris-O’Donnell’s mommy since his actual mom is kind of an emotionally absent sociopath. She guilts him into not telling his family that he was okay after getting shot at, which is totally legit, but she also calls him selfish (and other synonyms) to make him feel guilty. Because guilt is the best way to encourage people to change their behavior. At this point, Laurel is just lashing out, and should probably move on, but she won’t, because…something.

Oh, and the sister saw it all! Lucky not-Chris-O’Donnell isn’t wearing his Arrow hoodie or he would’ve been outed twice tonight. She seems understanding and calm…she’s probably stoned. She dispenses with advice like a reasonable person.

Okay, next morning, Mr. Diggle has phoned in his resignation, apparently effective immediately. I hope he sells his story to the tabloids, because it’s a good one. Also I hope he got medical attention because he got shot. So not-Chris-O’Donnell’s mom called Bodyguards R Us and had them send over another one. Not-Chris-O’Donnell immediately ditches him.

Not-Chris-O’Donnell is investigating his own Making A Murderer-esque miscarriage of justice into a convicted murderer. The convicted murderer is not on Oliver’s list of people who are murdering Starling City, but the name of his employer is, so not-Chris-O’Donnell concludes is that the convicted murderer was framed. Obviously. So not-Chris-O’Donnell goes and talks to Laurel (who is a lawyer, remember) about proving his innocence. Can I just point out again here that a hoodie is actually a terrible disguise? And he walks right up to Laurel like she can’t see his face and recognize him. (Also, you can tell that his Batman voice was done in the studio post-production and it’s very annoying.)

Laurel is now investigating the murder, because apparently there is still a hope to get a new trial declared? Stay of execution? Commuted sentence? I’m totally unclear on the legal process here. Is she even his lawyer?

Okay. I got distracted. Not-Chris-O’Donnell went to talk to Mr. Diggle to try and enlist him, again, into joining Team Vigilante For Justice. Roommate wants me to point out how creepy not-Chris-O’Donnell is when talking to the waitress who is also Mr. Diggle’s family member (which not-Chris-O’Donnell knows, I’m assuming, because he went snooping through Mr. Diggle’s personal life. You know, like friends do). Mr Diggle is not amused, and does not want to join Team Vigilante for Justice, and so Oliver uses emotional blackmail by telling him that the assassin that he “stopped” the other night had murdered Mr. Diggle’s brother. This is a compelling argument because…reasons? I feel like people who are against vigilante justice feel that way because they believe in the legal process, and justice, and staying within the law. Not because they have a stake (personal or otherwise) in deciding whether the vigilante’s victims deserve to be targeted or not. But that’s just me. Maybe there’s people out there who think that vigilantes only kill innocent people and are fine when they find out that vigilantes only kill people who deserve it?

Not-Chris-O’Donnell seems to rely on force of will and non-sequiters to persuade people to his arguments. Mr. Diggle says he doesn’t respect him, and not-Chris-O’Donnell responds by pulling his dad’s journal out of his pocket and shows it to him because…I don’t even know. Not-Chris-O’Donnell makes a lot of anti-capitalist arguments, and portrays the plight of the underprivileged in shockingly bad Batman voice, and argues that the plight of the underprivileged can only be avenged by murder. (Also if, as Roommate argues, Starling City’s manifestation of a capitalist system is not unusual–that is, that exploitative capitalism is a feature and not a bug–not-Chris-O’Donnell is really just getting started at just getting started. I look forward to the Starling City/Gotham crossover, and after that…the world!) “People like my father, they see nothing wrong with raising themselves up while stepping on other people’s throats.” Was this kid reading Trotsky on his desert island?

OKAY NEW THEORY: The show so far hasn’t actually done a fantastic job of showing us the human cost of living under the heel of the evil Starling City capitalists/evil doers. Like, watching any number of Batman movies or reading Batman comics, I totally understand, really quickly, why Gotham is not a great city to live in. I totally understand the human cost that the corrupt police department and rampant crime has cost that city. I don’t have that sense with Arrow, so far, which leads me to the entirely reasonable conclusion that Ollie actually went mad on the island and is enacting some kind of insane murderous delusion that he thinks is saving the city. We only have his word and his dad’s that the city is being poisoned from the inside out, after all. (Also, poison? Has it gotten into the water supply?).

Okay. We need to pause and talk about torture…
….
…..


……So. Who wants to start?

Skipping over a couple of scenes of the B plot that don’t matter, Arrow has gotten information from Laurel about the murder victim’s boss, who testified at the husband’s trial that the victim had never reported fraud to him (or whatever she reported) (the husband was convicted of his wife’s murder; Arrow is attempting to prove that the murderer was actually the wife’s employer. Arrow says that they have to get him to testify (again, AT WHAT? The trial is done, the execution is scheduled, there are no more hearings to testify at.) Not-Chris-O’Donnell basically says that he’ll do whatever it takes to get the boss to confess to perjury, and then channels his inner Spider-Man and sort of…grapple-arrows his way across the downtown Starling City skyline.

Not-Chris-O’Donnell then kidnaps the boss and chains him to a train track and threatens to put Boss on the 10:15 to “Bloodhaven” (is that an actual city that exists in comics or was not-Chris-O’Donnell making a funny?). Boss confesses to keeping evidence of corporate wrongdoing and murder in his desk. At work. His corporate bosses, who had his subordinate murdered, are working in the same building where he keeps evidence of her murder and their corporate wrongdoing. Also this evidence is three years old, and just hanging out in his desk.

Oh, and torture. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from the last 15 years of the existence of Guantanamo Bay, it’s that torture works. As not-Chris-O’Donnell is demonstrating here with his murder train.

We detour to a bad wig flashback. A random man is rescuing not-Chris-O’Donnell, sort of, except his method of rescue is to give not-Chris-O’Donnell a caged live bird for him to kill and eat himself. Not-Chris-O’Donnell does not want to kill the bird, and it’s the saddest thing in the world. Poor sad, uncorrupted, innocent not-Chris-O’Donnell. Also the kid who is shipwrecked on a desert island has his shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck and it’s making me really uncomfortable.

Roommate wants to talk about the awesomely-written dialogue for a moment. Specifically the line, when Arrow hands her evidence that he stole after committing a violent felony that nearly ended in train murder, that, “as a lawyer, [she] never would have gotten a file like this.” Minds are changing as we watch, guys. You can see her opinions changing right in front of her eyes and it’s clearly a confusing experience for her. Like, of course you never would have gotten a file like this as a lawyer. Know why? Because it’s ILLEGAL AS FUCK AND NOT ADMISSABLE IN COURT. Laurel. Come on. You’re supposed to be the smart, down-to-earth one here.

I’m derailing talk of the amazing dialogue to talk about the legal system: We have illegally obtained files that are about corporate wrongdoing (not murder!) that Laurel can apparently use in the execution hearing that doesn’t exist to get a convicted murderer freed. Also she’s not even his lawyer. Also the files were stolen! From a guy who almost got murdered by a train! What is this justice system that exists!

You guys there’s still 17 minutes left in the episode and I’m getting really exhausted by this whole thing. Things are happening and half an hour ago I would’ve told you about them but I just can’t. Not-Chris-O’Donnell has frolicked off to torture a confession out of a corporate magnate and I just don’t care. Torture. Meh.

Final fight scene is the worst ever. I can’t even. There’s still ten minutes left in the episode but I’m done. Guy in prison gets magically released. Laurel is falling in love with the masked vigilante. The end.

Roommate says: “If I could fart right now, I would.”

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 they were maybe 70 pages in, and when I got to the end and told them they were right (I read faster than she does), their response in Google chat was, “UGH! what? no. what? UGH. but also sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
ooooooooooooooooooo predictable.” They 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.