Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is all about one thing — killing Nazis

The newest entry in the anti-fascist franchise brings the fight to America

 

Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is about one thing — killing every lowdown, dirty Nazi you see. It really doesn’t need a plot — the momentum of that overwhelming prime directive is enough to carry the game. The gameplay is basic point-and-shoot, but the customizability of weapons loadouts lends engaging variety to the simplicity. The character-level plot is pretty fuzzy and choppy, but the creepy, believably-crafted alternate history setting is strong enough to power the overarching plot: Nazis won World War II, they’ve annexed the United States, and your job is to set off a revolution that will burn Nazism out of America forever.

This is somehow a controversial political stance in today’s America. I wasn’t in the market for a shooter, but I picked up this game because there was an alt-right backlash, an actual backlash, against this tweet: https://twitter.com/wolfenstein/status/916075551382585344. It’s a basic promotional tweet, but the phrase “Make America Nazi-Free Again” ruffled some feathers on the internet. This ridiculous outrage, plus Bethesda’s response to it (uh, guys — we thought the “Are Nazis Bad” question was settled 70 years ago) made me decide to pick up the game, in which I spent 20 hours Making America Nazi-Free Again.

 

Everyone rips off The Man in the High Castle

 

Nazism is one of the great universally agreed evils (or at least it was) in the world. The USA built its modern mythos off of our actions to help topple a genocidal maniac and our assistance to a war-ravaged Europe in the postwar years, but the world of Wolfenstein takes that from us. We didn’t win. We don’t get to claim we helped save the world — the Nazis get to claim they own it. The proofs of this throughout the game are so visceral — from a nuked and crumbling Manhattan to a prison-city New Orleans, with Nazi machines of war patrolling to keep undesirables in check. The destruction of a major metropolis and the systematic genocide of American citizens, the construction of concentration camps on American soil, the colonization of the United States by the Reich — all of it feels real, constructed out of the surreal yet solid plausibility of nightmares.

 

Nazi parades and prison cities

 

The plot really is just to kill all Nazis, to systematically eliminate high-ranking targets in order to advance the interests of the rebellion, but the world of The New Colossus gives more than enough weight to the story. The artistic interest in the game isn’t so much what you do, but where you’re doing it. The vision of an America complicit in the Reich is stomach-churning, and supplies all the narrative impetus necessary to get you through the game. It’s in the details, like when you go to a Nazi parade down the streets of a small American town and overhear a German soldier berating a fawning Klansman for his atrocious pronunciation of the German he’s learning. It’s in the reaction of the propagandized citizenry to who you are — you’re not B.J. Blazkowicz, Polish-American hero of the ill-fated World War II, you’re Terror-Billy, indiscriminate killer and scourge to all upstanding American citizens. It’s in the casual complicity of those American citizens who are powerful — stand with the Reich, and the Reich will stand with you.

 

Bullets, bullets, and more bullets

 

This being a Wolfenstein game, the solution to this problem is to find all the bullets you can and fire them as quickly as you can. The enjoyment of the actual weapons use was a welcome surprise here. Bethesda treads a careful line between simplicity and variety — the choices aren’t overwhelming, but the customizability of each weapon and the ability to dual-wield mixed types makes it easy to match your exact loadout to how you want to play. I went with a LaserKraftWerk in my left hand, and a fully-optimized shotgun in my right. The first is a one-shot kill laser gun that’s a little bit touchy to aim, and the second is, well, a shotgun. The laser cut through all the distant opponents and all the heavily armored ones, and the shotgun obliterated close enemies and took care of cleanup in case of my poor aim with the laser. One issue with the game is, if you want to really buy in to the mythos of Terror-Billy, you might want to play on an easier setting. I eventually got the hang of things, but I spent a good half of the game getting absolutely brutalized by grunt soldiers, which really didn’t fit with the idea of B.J. Blazkowicz as an unstoppable killing machine.

The game is not a must-play, but it’s fun as hell. If you’re craving a shooter, I strongly recommend picking this one up. The horror of its alternate reality is plausible enough to hit you in the pit of your stomach, the gunplay is fast and engaging, and the game is a good reminder that yes, Nazis always have and always will be a Very Bad Thing.

Three essential features Blade Runner 2049 inherited from the original science-fiction classic

God, Philip K. Dick. You're the greatest

Visual style, an ethical dilemma, and great casting made the original Blade Runner incredible, and Denis Villeneuve built the sequel the same way

The science fiction neo-noir classic Blade Runner is the single greatest book adaptation ever made. It’s laughably divergent from its source material — it picked up Philip K. Dick’s concept of androids and that the world was screwed and didn’t run with much else. Usually, this ends poorly for everyone involved, and the result is less like Lord of the Rings and more like The Hobbit. The film worked because androids, the idea it cuts out of the book like a painting out of a gilt frame, is morally and intellectually the most interesting part, and because it filled in all the holes around that idea with a style so distinct and clear that every frame of the film is a work of art. Also, Harrison Ford’s star wattage doesn’t hurt.

The gulf between an original movie and a 35-years-late sequel is similar to the distance between a book and its movie. Blade Runner 2049 took a different direction with its source material — a direct and respectful homage to its original. The difference between it and something like The Force Awakens is that it stakes out enough of its own turf not to be an artistic failure. Hate to be a buzzkill, and I loved seeing it in theaters, but The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat remake of A New Hope without a single new idea of its own. So, why is Blade Runner 2049 a success?

Well, before you go any further, take a gander at what you can see in theaters this weekend:

The strengths of the original Blade Runner

The success of the first Blade Runner comes down to its visuals, the stimulating central problem of replicants, and Harrison Ford. Its worldbuilding is the greatest artistic achievement of that decade, and it builds its world with visuals. Everything is gritty, wet, and cramped, either too bright or too dark, except for the Tyrell corporation building which is a soft-lit, wide temple to wealth and power. Rick Deckard’s job in the movie is “retiring” rogue replicants, androids who have begun acting anomalously. The movie spins around the moral core of killing sentient beings just because they’re acting like sentient beings, i.e. seeking freedom. Deckard never seems thrilled to be doing it, and towards the end of the film he not only falls in love with a replicant, but begins doubting whether he is one. Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard is the final style piece of the film — no one has a better put-upon-why-me face, and he’s also Harrison freaking Ford.

The movie’s plot is well-constructed, but it’s not the central component of the movie’s watchability. The action in Blade Runner is understated, almost ponderous, but what keeps the film going is that every single frame is beautiful, is art. It’s easy to watch because the literal act of viewing each frame is rewarding.

Blade Runner 2049, genetics, and inheritance

Blade Runner 2049 is definitely its father’s son. Denis Villeneuve tries to rebuild the same world Ridley Scott constructed in 1982, just adding in three more decades of we’re-screwed. There’ve been several bloody replicant revolutions and a complete ecological collapse. The first bankrupted the Tyrell Corporation (original manufacturer of replicants) and the second was solved by the agri-tech of Blade Runner 2049’s main antagonist, Niander Wallace (who bought up Tyrell’s assets and started making “safer” replicants).

Denis Villeneuve pays the same attention to visual worldbuilding as Ridley Scott did, only it’s a world 30 years more bleak. Urban areas are an industrial wasteland filled with scavengers, rust, and death, and natural spaces are an ecological wasteland filled with cracked earth, dust storms, and dead trees. People live in the middle of these extremes, in a cityscape filled with ever-advancing technology. The interplay of light and dark, the picture-perfect artistry of each frame of the movie is still there, paying perfect homage to the original.

The ethics of the sequel have shifted. Not only has the replicant-as-slave trope been made explicit, with Niander Wallace (tech magnate and the current manufacturer of replicants) stating that “[e]very civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce” and regretting that he couldn’t breed replicants (as slaves were bred), but the main character, Ryan Gosling’s Officer K, starts the movie as an indisputable replicant, the property of the L.A.P.D. Blade Runner’s morality was ambiguous — the inventor of replicants, Eldon Tyrell, was a benevolent creator, and Rick Deckard’s attitude was “I’m killing replicants, ain’t it a shame, but hey, what else can we do?” In Blade Runner 2049, a definite replicant is struggling with issues of identity and morality. An unambiguous member of an oppressed class is at the center of the sequel, which changes the ethical landscape significantly. Not to mention Jared Leto’s amazingly creepy Niander Wallace is, unlike Eldon Tyrell, undoubtedly a Bad Guy (murder, torture, etc.).

Blade Runner 2049 has the same approach to plot as its progenitor — make it good, but don’t make it the center of the movie. The sheer beauty of the world that’s built is what makes the film. Its approach to action is a bit different — in the original, it’s a few short bursts of gunplay and chasing. In 2049, the fight scenes might be rare, but they’re definitely modern. Officer K is literally, as he was built, a killing machine, and it’s impressive to watch when he gets in a corner where the only way out is violence.

Ryan Gosling vs Harrison Ford

How cruel to put any actor up against living legend Harrison Ford, but Gosling does a really great job. Same balance of grim but emotional right underneath, same ratio of acting chops versus sheer ability to look cool. Ryan Gosling might be Harrison Ford for Millennials — good actor, attractive, with the ability to fill out an action movie without being typecast as an action star. Harrison Ford is part of what made Blade Runner great, and Ryan Gosling definitely adds style and charm to 2049. Ford is a legend, but Gosling is a worthy inheritor.

Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel every great movie deserves

Blade Runner 2049 and its predecessor are both primarily visual experiences. The plot of each is clear and strong, but the center of each film is just seeing the world it builds. Each frame, as a still photo, is interesting enough to make you want to see the next one. Preserving and intensifying the central moral quandary of the original and adding Gosling’s star power to the mix just adds more to love.

Blade Runner 2049 is heavily indebted to the original, but that’s by design. What’s important is that Villeneuve had the courage to use everything important about the original film — the stunning visual style and the central moral question of replicants — but still carve out his own original space. It might not be taught in film classes like Blade Runner is (yet), but the beauty of a director making an intellectual property his own is that one-to-one comparisons are no longer relevant. Villeneuve and Gosling made their own thing here, and it stands alone, and it stands strong.

Three Pillars That Make Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti So Incredible

Her inventiveness, her attention to emotion, and her information-dense, fast-paced style build a rock-solid science-fiction story

I have a bad habit of only finding amazing books/series/authors right as they’re about to explode into the mainstream. For example, I devoured A Song of Ice and Fire when the television show was already in production but not released. I did it again with Nnedi Okorafor. She’s been writing award-winning stories for years and years, and only a few days ago, in the midst of all the buzz about her work becoming an HBO show, did I pick up my first one, Binti.

Kindle Binti novella manual picture
So I only have this on Kindle…this seemed like the best way to take a picture of the book.

You can get the whole series (3rd novella pending release) here: https://www.amazon.com/Binti-3-Book-Series/dp/B06XSRMZ72. Trust me, you’ll want to if you read the first one.

The first pillar is the author’s sheer creativity. This is the most inventive and fresh thing I’ve read in months. Nnedi Okorafor’s novella (the first of a set of three) is not really a happy story, but there’s a lightness and a joy in her creation, from biological interstellar ships that are basically giant star-shrimp, to the main character’s tech, based around “harmonizing,” which is a form of mathematical comprehension of the world so deep it may as well be sorcery. Binti uses harmonizing to optimize the astrolabes her family makes their living on. Astrolabes fit the same cultural niche as our smartphones but are much more powerful and beautiful. All this takes place in an afro-futurist world, where tech is extraordinarily advanced and cultural roots run deep. The conflict between the traditional expectations Binti’s family levies on her and her ambition of studying at the galaxy’s most prestigious university planet is the central emotional conceit of the novella.

The second pillar is Okorafor’s realistic attention to emotion. A general flaw of a lot of classic SFF is its treatment of emotion. It’s either overweeningly mawkish or nearly nonexistent. This is why rereads of Heinlein and Asimov just don’t grab me — the emotion that’s there is either too robotic or too overwrought. In Binti, Okorafor gives emotion its due — presents the concerns and internal torments of her characters in a clear and matter-of-fact manner — and then lets their actions as they navigate their problems do the rest of the explaining. Binti neither denies nor overfocuses on emotion. Okorafor plants the internal lives of her characters firmly, then builds the story around them without letting it get weighed down by them.

The third pillar of Binti’s greatness is the “chunk of meat” storytelling style. There’s a chunk of meat on your dinner plate that you don’t recognize. You ask what it is, but the chef shrugs her shoulders and walks away from your table. You are confused, but the presentation is interesting, and the aroma rising from it is irresistible, so you eat it, still lost but enjoying it immensely. “Oh, the main character can use math to generate an advanced meditative state, cool, great…oh ok, the ship she’s taking to university is a giant shrimp with titanium-hard skin. Cool, sure. Huh. Pass the gravy, this is delicious.” Okorafor’s chunk of meat style puts discrete and not-fully-explained pieces of the world in front of you, and the time she saves not info-dumping everything gives an immediacy to the story that carries you on a great wave, like how the Meduse…well, you’ll find out what that species does when you read the novella.

Binti is fresh and strong, from its powerfully-described world to its extremely relatable, loveable main character. Part of the freshness is its afro-futurism, and the impact of reading about an African spacefaring culture is every bit as refreshing as reading fantasy that’s not chock full of ogres and elves. It’s also a vital piece in building diversity in SFF — this triumphal entry in the field makes it a more inclusive and interesting place.

Why Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is perfect Science Fiction

Butler's Science Fiction Masterpiece

She hits the big three of SF: detailed world-building, great characters, and compelling plot

Octavia Butler needs no further praise, but she definitely deserves it, so here we go. Parable of the Sower is just one present under a very well-stocked Christmas tree of literary achievement. Her oeuvre is filled throughout with characters who struggle with believable problems in relatable ways, and with powerful new ideas that are not only appealing in an oh-that’s-cool way, but because they go right to the core of how people do live, and how they should live. Butler delivers all of these gifts in a direct, conversational prose that makes opening and enjoying them a deep and simple pleasure. The only person that competes with her for simplicity and clarity of writing is Ursula K. Le Guin.

Pick up the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Parable-Sower-Earthseed-Octavia-Butler/dp/0446675504

Where are we when we enter Octavia Butler’s world?

Octavia Butler's fallen California
Pretty much everywhere is this. It’s not great. Credit: TheschmallfellaCC BY-SA 3.0

The most striking accomplishment of Parable of the Sower is how believable its world is. Butler makes such small, but ultimately such significant changes to our world. The book opens in 2024, centering around a walled community 20 miles outside of Los Angeles.

The opening has all the shapes of normal life. Children doing chores. A sermon. A minister’s daughter getting baptized. Except the chores include picking fruit and vegetables from the family’s extensive home garden because store-bought food is prohibitively expensive, the sermon happens in the minister’s front room because his church, outside the neighborhood walls, was burned down, and the baptism, which takes place in a friend’s church across town, is preceded by a harrowing bike ride accompanied by armed adults through burned-out streets strewn with the starving and desperate. These details are ubiquitous — the forms of normal life linked with the changes that have already taken place, and those that are coming. Another couple of details: five kids are getting baptized together because all of their families went in together to share the debilitating expense of the gallons of potable water necessary for the ritual, and almost everyone works from home with weekly or monthly in-person check-ins because a daily commute is just too dangerous.

I could keep listing these for another ten pages, but I’m not Octavia Butler, so it would be extremely boring. Butler weaves all of these in so inseparably from the narrative impulsion of the story that each individual one passes notice, but their collective impact builds a world that seems kind of normal but is in constant flux and danger. Any of the trappings of normalcy are willfully imposed by the older generation. The protagonist lives in a gated community, completely normal! The tops of its walls are covered in crushed glass, and the keys to the front gate are jealously guarded by the heads of household. Oh…

Characters are at the center of any good fiction

The key to Octavia Butler’s work is her understanding of how people actually function, how they are. All writers, when they construct characters, are building facsimiles that readers are willing to accept if they’re done well enough. There’s no way to actually capture everything people are in a handful of words, but Butler comes close.

Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, is a young black girl, old enough to have some responsibility in the world, but young enough not to view responsibility as clinging to the structures of a dying past. Her father is a powerful presence, the neighborhood minister, a sensibly-acting and deep-thinking man who is the main personality actually holding the community together. The central conflict of the early book, aside from survival, is the clash between this strong-willed daughter and her stubborn father. They love each other deeply, but see the world in fundamentally different ways:

“Do you think our world is coming to an end?” Dad asked, and with no warning at all, I almost started crying. I had all I could do to hold it back. What I thought was, “No, I think your world is coming to an end, and maybe you with it.” That was terrible. I hadn’t thought about it in such a personal way before. I turned and looked out the window until I felt calmer.

Butler is so good at people. They can fight and yell and disagree and love each other deeply. Lauren is in the midst of a big fight with her dad, and almost loses control and cries because she contemplates the death of the person being so antagonistic to her.

The most rewarding part of the early book is this relationship: strong, intelligent Lauren Olamina clashing with the man who raised her to be strong and intelligent. She recognizes her debt to him even as she hopes for an escape from his strictures:

I love him. He’s the best person I know, and I care what he thinks. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Earthseed: the world’s going to hell, why not start a new religion?

Olamina's religion journal
This is all Lauren Oya Olamina needed to begin her own religion. What have you done lately?

As Lauren navigates this conflict, she logs everything in her journal. In fact, that’s the book. The Parable of the Sower is a series of Lauren’s journal entries, sometimes with a day between them, sometimes a month. The confessional style matches well with Butler’s vivid and conversational prose — the accessibility of the writing mixes with the emotional immediacy of the journal to cook a completely satisfying, easy-to-consume meal. As easy and fun to eat as McDonald’s, as nutritious as a kale salad. Another key function of the journal is it’s where Lauren starts building her new religion — Earthseed. Again, the entire world of the book is built on the linking of the completely normal (teenage girl journaling) with the new and strange (she’s journaling about her homegrown religion). Here’s verses 1 and 3 of Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina’s religious text:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

———————-

We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change.

This is what drives Lauren through the story. God is change, and it’s humanity’s job to shape God, to accept, anticipate and influence change. It weaves over and around all that happens in the story: Lauren’s acceptance of and attempted control of change, from growing up in a civilized island in a sea of lawlessness, to surviving the fall of her neighborhood (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s pretty clear from the get-go that this has to happen), to traveling coastal California attempting to find a better life. God is Change.

The Big Three of Science Fiction

The Parable of the Sower is everything that’s great in SF. All the science fiction I love shares three traits: well-built characters, a detailed world, and narrative impulsion. Without believable, relatable characters, what is there to care about (ahem, Asimov)? Without a detailed exploration of the world, how the world came about, the anthropology of the society, then the otherworldiness of the SF is just a gimmick. And without narrative impulsion, where each page gives you a reason to turn to the next one, what you have is a boring book. The characters and world of Butler are built with a loving attentiveness to detail, and once you care about the characters and how they move through the world, that’s half the narrative impulsion right there. What provides the rest is the suspense Butler creates in describing Lauren moving through increasing danger towards her goal: is she going to get there? Oh no that was close! I have to find out! Octavia Butler is a champion, and reading her is a privilege.

N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy is the Best Epic Fantasy of the Decade

Jemisin brings it to a close with The Stone Sky and demonstrates exactly why the previous two books needed Hugo Awards

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky is a masterful finish to the most groundbreaking (ha) series of the past decade. Seriously — you can argue about all-time greats, but this is hands-down the most impressive post-millennial series I’ve completed. The world she builds, the characters she creates and how she makes them interact, and the falling-free man-the-ground-sure-is-coming-up-fast gravity of her plotting all combine and balance each other to make this book a place you want to be, filled with people you care about, moving through a plot that satisfies and builds anticipation in alternating cycles until the final payoff. After turning the last page, I felt like I’d been evicted. It was a physical place, with such weight that it left an emptiness behind. The last time I experienced that was 19 years ago in 7th grade, having finished reading about Frodo going off to the Grey Havens. I’d spent a month somewhere, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to be there anymore. Jemisin’s world-building alone is Tolkien-level, but she isn’t heavily indebted to him, as a lot of contemporary fantasy is. This is a can’t-miss series for the vivid and original worldbuilding alone, but there’s so much more to recommend it.

If you want to get a small taste before you commit, Jemisin wrote a short story set in the same world a while ago (available in text and audio for free, because Clarkesworld is awesome):

http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/jemisin_07_14/

great book fantasy epic conclusion omg yes!
This book, y’all. It’s where I spent my Sunday.

You can’t have epic fantasy without a map, so where are we?

The Stillness is a single supercontinent that is supernormally tectonically active, criss-crossed with rift lines and volcanoes, all floating precariously atop the anger of the Earth. The extreme inhospitability of this world leads to something called Fifth Seasons, where seismic events create winter conditions for at least six months due to ash blocking the Sun, but they can last for years and have much more interesting effects, such as during the Fungus Season, where extended darkness occurring during monsoon season created a crop-destroying fungal bloom over 20% of the continent, or the Season of Yellow Seas, in which an unknown bacterial agent toxified the seas, causing decades of famine in communities which relied on fishing for sustenance.

The most essential people, without whom humanity would have succumbed to ash and darkness generations ago, are the orogenes, too despised to belong to any caste, but too useful to exterminate. They can perform orogeny, the etymology of which makes me twitch in pleasure. Oros is Greek for mountain, so orogeny is mountain-making, and sweet sassy molassey, that’s exactly what they can do! Magic in this fantasy epic is the manipulation of the heat and kinetic energy of the overactive Earth in a way that allows orogenes to explode volcanoes, raise islands, and create city-slaying earthquakes. It’s this last feature that makes the “orogenically-afflicted” into feared pariahs.

Being feared might kill you, but being feared and useful will lead to the subjugation of your people and an endless cycle of generational misery. Government-trained orogenes who pit their will and power against the fury of the Earth are the only reason humanity is still alive. Untrained orogenes are slaughtered. Trained orogenes who are disobedient are disciplined. If they don’t improve, they are slaughtered. A caste called Guardians does all the disciplining and slaughtering — one example is that, without exception, Guardians break the hands of young orogenes. If they have enough control to keep from causing an earthquake in their fear and pain, their reward is the setting of the bones in their hand. If they don’t have that control, the Guardian kills them. This dichotomy continues throughout their lives — stay useful and be allowed to serve; cease being useful and die.

The solidity and originality of Jemisin’s magic system, the immediacy of danger in the Stillness, and the intricacies of the society that lives there all contribute to making this world feel real. The last bit that does it is a trick used to great effect by Tolkien (and Jemisin): have your story take place on the surface of a depthless past. Most stories evaporate when you shut the book because their thread of narrative is all they have — in LOTR and The Broken Earth, so much happens off-screen that what’s on screen feels much more textured and deep. Stuff has been happening in the Stillness for millennia, and you can feel it. Each chapter ends with a sample from a historical text. Sometimes it’s simple survival stonelore:

Set a flexible central beam at the heart of all structures.
Trust wood, trust stone, but metal rusts.

–Tablet Three, “Structures,” verse one

Other times, it’s heftier:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the physical integrity of the Stillness–for the obvious interest of long-term survival. Maintenance of this land is peculiarly dependent upon seismic equilibrium and by an imperious law of nature, none but the orogenic can establish such. A blow at their bondage is a blow at the very planet. We rule, therefore, that though they bear some resemblance to we of good and wholesome lineage, and through they must be managed with kind hand to the benefit of both bond and free, any degree of orogenic ability must be assumed to negate its corresponding personhood. They are rightfully to be held and regarded as an inferior and dependent species.

–The Second Yumenescene Lore Council’s Declaration on the Rights of the Orogenically Afflicted

Each time, it helps build a larger world for the single narrative to live in. The second example is especially effective because it mirrors reality so well. With a few changes here and there, it could pass for what was written not so long ago in the United States: the specious stuff used to justify slavery in the antebellum South — why, this is for their own good! Why, the good of Society must be our primary concern!

OK, so the world is great, but what’s actually happening in it? (Spoilers Follow)

In The Broken Earth series, the main plot is that a massive, continent-spanning rift has opened, setting off the Season to end all Seasons. Ash starts falling from the sky, raiders start riding across the landscape, and people buckle down and hope. By the time The Stone Sky opens, Essun, a mother searching for her daughter, is helping the community of Castrima migrate to a better location in the hopes of surviving. She’s also committed to appeasing the Earth (who is sentient — I don’t have time to explain, just read the books) by bringing back the moon, whereas her nihilist daughter is planning to use her powers to slam the Moon into the Earth, ending the old bastard once and for all.

great author picture oh my god she wrote the Broken Earth
This is N.K. Jemisin. She made this! All hail the author! Credit: Laura Hanifin | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

This untenable situation — a mother desperately trying to find her daughter and redemption for the awful decisions of her past, a daughter currently making awful decisions in reaction to her mother’s, the overwhelming knowledge that if they could just get together and talk it would all be okay OH MY GOD WHY AREN’T THEY TOGETHER YET IF ONLY THEY’D TALK IT WOULD ALL BE BETTER.

The twin motivators — Essun and Nassun have to meet again! and How the hell will they pull this off? Are they going to be able to catch the moon? — keep the pages turning fast and without fatigue. It’s easy to get lost in a world that’s so big when you are deeply invested in what happens to the characters and how the fuck-up of this civilization will be put right.

The amount of information Jemisin gives us about the world in the finale is another reason to keep turning pages. The stone eaters are what? Orogeny was designed? By whom? In addition to creating the forward impulsion of Nassun/Essun // Apocalypse/Peace, Jemisin uses the third installment of her series to answer every single question we have about it, mostly through the flashback chapters about Syl Anagist, an ancient solarpunk city that spanned the world. It gives complete explanations for why the Earth is so angry, why some inhabitants of the stillness have superpowers, and what the hell stone eaters are. Nevermind the explanation of mysteries that have been following us the entire series: it’s a joy to explore the ancient city with Jemisin at the helm. Full of arrogance, far too satisfied with their own power, true, but look at all the cool stuff they had. Another benefit is that it takes this already fully-fleshed-out world, a world you’ve lived in for days (or weeks or years, depending on when you read the books), and makes it just the remnant of a 40,000-year-old far-future society, further increasing the depth and breadth of the world Jemisin built. The resolution in the novel is not just the resolution of two humans, mother and daughter, but of a 40,000-year-long war between humanity and the Earth. Epic doesn’t begin to describe it. The story itself is super cool, but another really interesting thing Jemisin does is make all her main characters awful people. No, seriously.

Oh man these people make bad choices, but who are we to judge?

Jemisin doesn’t shy away from making her characters awful people, and it makes them much more believable. Awful people is maybe too harsh, but they do make awful decisions. Essun, the main character who has been searching for her daughter since Book 1, raised her daughter Nassun in such desperation and fear that she only ever trained her, only ever showed disappointment in weakness, because weakness meant death. Her love was the desperate love of the hunted — never free from the harsh drumbeat survive survive survive. Both mother and daughter are powerful orogenes, in grave danger if they ever reveal what they are. Essun even breaks her daughter’s hand in a horrifying parallel to what her Guardian did to her. It is a cruel torture, but it does ensure the victim has control. Without control, Nassun would be found out and killed. Essun does what is necessary to make sure her daughter lives, to the exclusion of everything that Nassun might see as love. She’s not a bad person. She’s a great mother in one very specific way, and a terrible one in another.

Nassun, ten years old, ripped from her home by a horror she can barely understand, stumbles through a destroyed world until she meets Schaffa, an ex-Guardian seeking redemption. She’s either physically or emotionally estranged from her entire family, and Schaffa (more on him later) gives her the unconditional love she’s craving so desperately. She falls deep into this dependent love, and it leads her to make some problematic decisions. When Schaffa brings her to a Fulcrum (a branch of the organization that sanctions orogenes) she literally kills every single one because, having figured out her mother is a trained orogene, she blames them for making her mother so cold and unfeeling. She goes on to ever-increasing acts of genocide, infected by the absolute nihilism of a ten-year-old who has lost everything she ever cared about. By the end of the book, she is willing to end the world to end its pain, an ambition beyond all but the most accomplished supervillains, but the magic of Jemisin’s writing is you understand exactly how she got there and are reluctant to pass judgment.

The dominant relationship in The Stone Sky is a bizarre cross-time triangle between Essun, Nassun, and Schaffa. Schaffa is the Guardian who broke Essun’s hand, who tortured her for her own good, who hunted her when she ran away. It is horrifying to watch Nassun fall deeply in daughterly love with her mother’s tormentor. The years (ahem, spoiler centuries) he spent instilling dependent love in others as a Guardian makes it a hard habit to break. Here’s the thing though: as toxic as his love is, and as dangerous as he is, he truly does love his charges, at least by his own lights. That makes it so much creepier.

You understand each and every character, from the most saintly to the most despicable, what their motivations are, and what they’ve done. My favorite quote about literature is George Saunders’ about fiction being an empathy-generating machine, and Jemisin’s machine is ticking over nicely. I might be horrified by some characters’ actions, but I understand why they did them, and that’s a luxury most readers don’t enjoy.

Go get The Stone Sky, and get it now (or the whole series, if you’re behind)

Here, I’ll help: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B01947LZ8A

There is so much I couldn’t say here. I try to keep these under 1500 words, and I’m over 2,000 right now, but there’s so much greatness in these books that, if I tried to explore it all the result would be unreadable. The balanced, clear writing? How Jemisin pays attention to racial differences in a way that most fantasy doesn’t (most fantasy just assumes everyone’s white)? How badass the fight scenes are? Exactly what Guardians are and where they get their power? How orogeny is actually just magic and much more than rock-throwing? How freaking cool stone eaters are? This work is too big, too expansive, to discuss everything that’s in it in a single blog post, and my inability to discuss it comprehensively is the single greatest indicator of it being literally epic, as in “heroic or grand in scale or character” dictionary-level epic. It’s too big to talk about. I can’t share it with you here. You only have one option. Go read it!

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word of Unbinding is a perfect short story

 

Le Guin’s first Earthsea tale is one of her best

I just read one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s first short stories, and it was so perfect it completely derailed my original plans for this post. I have to write this love letter to my favorite author. No one alive comes close to her flawless creation of whole worlds from a handful of sentences, and no one has a deeper speculative-anthropological interest in what humanity is and should be.

You can get the story here for two bucks:
https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489863570&sr=8-2&keywords=the+word+of+unbinding

I don’t remember the first time I read one of her books — it happened in that post-high-school flurry of absolutely unbound devouring, where you’re no longer reading what you feel you “have to” to be taken seriously, but what you want to — the rubber-band snapping of freedom is disorienting, but it’s wonderful to no longer have to pretend you understand Gravity’s Rainbow at 17 years old.

In that frenzy of consumption, something of hers was tossed in, but where she really grabbed me and never let go was with The Dispossessed. A piece of Science Fiction so perfectly balanced, so perfectly human, serious without confusing being serious with being boring and grim, that I have never forgotten it. It fairly and clearly represents the benefits and flaws of a capitalist and anarchist society (two different planets locked in co-orbital positions, one desert-anarchist, the other lush-capitalist). Capitalism is not all subjugation of the poor (although that is an unavoidable side-effect, if not a planned feature), and anarchism is not all lighting fires and throwing stones — all anarchy means is the absence of hierarchical power structures. UKL shows there’s beauty and flaws in both systems because both systems are run by inherently fallible people.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards

She’s a bona fide hero. If you need proof, here’s her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters:

In a room filled with book publishers, at an event sponsored by Amazon, she took the industry to task for “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant” and said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.”

That was UKL the doyenne of American SF. This story is from Ursula K. Le Guin, the barely-published writer, and she already had the magic.

 

The Word of Unbinding: a ten-minute story packed with everything Ursula K. Le Guin would become

In The Word of Unbinding, we already see all the elements that make UKL who she is as an author. Language as simple and clear as a forest stream. The ability to plant twenty words, step back, and watch them grow into an entire vivid world. A focus on the importance of balance, acceptance, and doing the right, the human thing. Before going further, please read the story. It’s two dollars and will take you ten minutes. It is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing you will do today — doubtless more worthwhile than reading this blog.

The Word of Unbinding is an exceedingly simple story. A wizard is trapped in a dark well, guarded by strange creatures and magics, and he tries and fails to escape until there is only one way out. Like all of UKL’s writing, it is simple and straightforward, but so incredibly dense. Not in the James Joyce/Thomas Pynchon sense, but in the sense that each word is so carefully chosen and placed it’s like setting stone on stone. Here’s the first line:

Where was he? The floor was hard and slimy, the air black and stinking, and that was all there was.

She accomplishes everything she needs to in twenty words. The protagonist is lost and confused, something bad has happened to him, bad air, hard floor, and that’s it. Before there’s any chance of remotely understanding what’s going on, there’s a rock-solid sense of where the story is. Next step is explaining who the protagonist, Festin, is:

Lately, in these lone years in the middle of his life, he had been burdened with a sense of waste, of unspent strength; so, needing to learn patience, he had left the villages and gone to converse with trees, especially oaks, chestnuts, and the grey alders whose roots are in profound communication with running water. It had been six months since he had spoken to a human being. He had been busy with essentials, casting no spells and bothering no one.

UKL’s conception of how magic works and what its practitioners should be is the most compelling in all of literature. This isn’t clear from the excerpt, but her system is almost entirely based on naming. Everything in existence has a True Name, and innate power wedded to study and discovery of these names gives a wizard their abilities: just like a writer, they use language to call forth miracles, to change the reality around them. What is clear from the excerpt is what a wizard should be: Festin has not cast a spell in half a year. Magic is not about fireballs and parlor tricks, but about balance. Each and every wizard has a responsibility to maintain and protect that balance — that is what makes them a wizard. The upsetting of that balance is the source of evil, in this story as elsewhere in Earthsea (UKL’s fantasy territory).

 

burgwald_025
Le Guin describes herself as “the most arboreal science fiction writer.” She’s not wrong. Credit: Nikanos | CC BY-SA 2.5

A wizard reaver named Voll goes from island to island, destroying towns and enslaving people, disrupting the natural order. He seals the protagonist in a dark well-tomb. Festin, confident in his power, attempts to escape repeatedly. First as a creeping mist, then as simple air, then as a falcon, then as a trout. He is successively foiled with a blast of hot air, a storm wind, an arrow, and a fisherman’s net. Broken, cold, and kept on the edge of death, he begins wondering why his enemy will not kill him. After due consideration, he takes the last path out of his situation — the word of unbinding:

So Festin made his choice. His last thought was, If I am wrong, men will think I was a coward. But he did not linger on this thought. Turning his head a little to the side, he closed his eyes, took a last deep breath, and whispered the word of unbinding, which is only spoken once.

Festin, seeing his situation and a possible way to restore balance, makes the human (in its least cynical definition) decision and accepts the change required to set things right. Once in the land of the dead, a land of hard obsidian lava flows, black grass, and unmoving stars, he discovers Voll is long dead but has somehow returned to the world. He chases his enemy back to his corpse, forces him to re-enter it, and then sits vigil at the point of origin for the imbalance, guarding against further upset.

Festin saves the world through acceptance of the most human fact there is: all will die and turn to dust. If he had attempted to avoid what must be, he would have remained trapped and ineffective, unable to bring battle to Voll on any plane that mattered.

Cultivating imbalance for personal gain unerringly leads to evil and is set right through courageous acceptance of what must be.

This story floored me not simply because it was so perfect, so small yet so powerful, but because this is one of the first things UKL ever published, and she was already a master. She further developed her talent over a decades-long career, but everything she needed was already there: the power and clarity of her language, the strength of her perception of the world she’s creating, and the strong philosophical attachment to balance. Not to mention it’s a super fun wizard adventure story, written 53 years ago and still wonderful and fresh today.

Logan is a great balance of comic book movie action and painful emotional tragedy

And by great balance, I mean both aspects are set to 11 in Hugh Jackman’s last X-Men film

Logan gives Wolverine, one of the most popular comic book movie stars, a great sendoff. I suppose Wolverine himself won’t be leaving, but Hugh Jackman, the main reason the character is so popular, will be, and apparently he’s taking Patrick Stewart with him. The movie is a bit like Driving Miss Daisy, if Morgan Freeman were an alcoholic who just couldn’t seem to stop manufacturing amputees and Miss Daisy were an extremely dangerous telepath. The movie takes place years in the future. Charles Xavier has some type of degenerative brain disease, and whenever he has a seizure, he paralyzes everyone within a certain radius (including their lungs), so he’s living in a hole in the middle of nowhere. Logan is supporting him by driving a limo, apparently. All the other X-Men are dead. New mutants are not being born. Something is killing Logan slowly and painfully, and he’s drinking a lot and finally looking old (he was born in the 1880s). He’s aging, covered in scars, and limping, so his healing factor is ominously not working so well anymore. Add to this the sudden arrival of Wolverine’s murderous daughter clone Laura, who is on the run from the people who trained her as an assassin, and we’re off to the races! Spoilers follow. I guess they preceded too, but they really follow.

Logan is realistic, for a given value of realistic

The first thing that stands out about this film and sets it apart from other entries in the franchise, that makes it memorable (the only thing I remember of X-Men Apocalypse is an angry blue man and a collapsing pyramid) is its unstinting realism. If you replaced Logan’s claws with guns and his on-the-fritz healing factor with some good old-fashioned plot armor, John Wick style (ok John, maybe you have a bulletproof suit, but there’s a finite number of times people can shoot at you before one gets lucky and hits you in the face), and this could be a grim, gritty thriller movie about a grizzled ex-warrior who just wants to save his daughter.

Reality is the backbone of this superhero movie, which sounds weird when you get into the secret corporate labs, the kids with superpowers, and the man with giant claws. I’ll try to explain. The Hangover was just a movie about a group of guys going to Vegas, gambling, and getting drunk, nothing supernatural at all, but the underlying feel of it was completely unrealistic. It goes the opposite way in Logan. It’s a movie about a 150-year-old with a clone daughter and a telepath father figure all being hunted by a transhuman mercenary force, but underneath the superhero trappings is a story about age, and death, and loss. This is where the acting chops of Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman really come through. Those two men have carried most X-Men movies (with some help from Ian McKellen), and they are at the top of their form in this one. Stewart plays a feeble, confused, half-crazy Professor X perfectly — every line of his body radiates weakness, his voice cracks, he’s so frustrated at his helplessness he curses at Logan (yes, Professor X drops an F-bomb in this movie). Every single time you see Hugh Jackman’s face, decades of loss and disappointment hit you like a truck. His every movement, grunt, and word shows a man who is done with life, waiting to die. Their acting makes the movie work, and it’s so wrenching to watch this performance realizing you’ll never see them in these roles again.

Wolverine on a rock
20th Century Fox has every image of Wolverine extremely copyrighted, so here’s this one. Credit: Jonathan Othén | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s not just those two characters that make this grim. The entire world they live in is terrible — the X-Men are all dead (most likely killed by Xavier when he first started having these attacks), the anti-mutant corporations are ascendant and hunting down anyone who is left, and one of the most beloved characters of the franchise is contemplating suicide. Everything is awful, nothing is good. 20th Century Fox brings you in with a promise of X-Men action, and you find yourself trying to eat popcorn to a Sartre play. Again, that’s part of what makes this movie so refreshing compared to the others, and it’s not like they don’t also deliver the action goods.

If you think Wolverine is violent, you should meet his daughter

This movie is not as action-packed as others in the franchise, but the little it does have really delivers. After a brief intro fight, Logan spends a lot of time just driving around, getting drunk, and taking care of Professor X. He meets his clone daughter and still nothing cool happens. She just sits in their hideout eating cereal. Just as you despair of seeing an X-Men movie at all, the mercenaries show up to take her back. They easily subdue Wolverine and send a couple men into the building to get her. You hear some screams, and she comes out and throws a SEVERED HEAD at the leader, then throws herself on the enemy with a viciousness paralleling only that of Wolverine himself. Her fighting style is acrobatic, and involves a lot of evasion, landing on people’s shoulders, and neck-stabbing. Whoever choreographed it should get a medal. It’s a joy to watch, and the incongruousness of a ten-year-old girl effortlessly murdering beefy, lumbering soldiers gives you a sensation that lands somewhere between hilarity and extreme discomfort.

Wolverine’s fighting style is more labored — less balletic but just as bloody. Laura (the clone daughter) fights like someone holding a samurai sword, and Logan fights like a guy holding a bat with nails in. He’s old, and he’s slow, and he can’t shrug off damage like he used to, but he’s still got the killer instinct. He struggles for every inch he gets, and that makes the fights more fun to watch. Too often in superhero movies, it’s hard to see how hard someone is working. Mutants with energy-based or telekinetic powers are fighting for their lives, and, oh boy, it’s time for them to really turn it up, and all they do is…grunt a little more and squinch up their face. Logan does not have that problem — he is no longer an elite fighter, but he just does not stop, and you see his determination in every muscle flex, every enemy punch deflected, and every bodyblow absorbed. It really means something when he finally sinks his claws in someone. Speaking of sinking claws in people, they actually show it. It never made sense in the other X-Men movies when Wolverine would stab someone and the guy would just bloodlessly hit the ground. Well, Logan is rated R, and holy hell it shows. His fights involve multiple amputations, buckets of gore, and lots of realistic stabbing. When he puts his claws into someone’s skull, you see them come out the other side covered in brain matter. It’s so graphic it’s uncomfortable, but it’s better than the touch football version of fighting he was using in previous movies.

Let’s talk about Logan’s feelings

I spent so much time talking about the action scenes because that’s how you approach an X-Men movie, right? How cool the fighting is, how much fun it is to watch people use their powers, etc. There’s another level to this movie though: actual character development and a real focus on the human side of things. These are people, not superheroes. Many of the previous X-Men films tried to carry the whole emotional arc of the movie on the back of the old tension between Magneto and Professor X. It gets stale. In Logan, a half-feral mute falls in love with her genetic father and learns that murdering everyone all the time is maybe problematic. A man who was one of the most powerful and respected mutants of all time is now feeble and dying, desperately trying to advise his last surviving pupil (Wolverine) to do something that really matters. An old, cynical loner who is convinced the last thing left for him to do in this world is leave it finds something to care about. That last one sounds corny, and I suppose it is, but the difference with Logan and other “heart of gold” stories is that Logan absolutely does not have a heart of gold. He’s an old, angry Canadian, and his heart is full of bitters and blue ruin, full stop. By the end of the movie, he has a heart that is maybe a bit shiny if you catch it in the right light, but that’s it.

Maple syrup on a table, only thing better from Canada is Wolverine
Maple syrup, the best thing America has imported from Canada after Wolverine. Credit: Miguel Andrade

Another good human touch to this movie is the humor. There’s not much, god knows, but it is there. Xavier and Logan bicker like an old married couple. The girl does not understand that violence doesn’t solve everything (mostly because it does solve everything). For example, they are at a gas station and she’s riding a little mechanical rocking horse. When it stops, she flies into a rage and is about to murder the coinbox to get more money when Logan just hands her a quarter and gives her a look. Another thing I found funny (and I’m not sure if this is intentional) is that almost every single mercenary chasing Laura has at least one robotic arm, which you absolutely would need if you spent your days raising a baby Wolverine. These small, almost non-existent touches of humor are pleasant in this film, and in a more general sense are what makes the Marvel (not actually the same studio as this one, but whatever) movies more successful than the DC ones — they have a sense of humor. The recent Batman/Superman movie was so terrified of looking goofy that it ended up looking like a steaming pile of gloomy, humorless garbage. There’s got to be a little humor, no matter how serious the movie, because there’s always a little humor in people, no matter how serious the person.

Logan: the rest is silence

There are plenty of scenes of mutant-fueled carnage in this film, more than enough to satisfy the moviegoer who just wants to see Hugh Jackman kill stuff, but the real focus of the movie is an assemblage of deeply broken people taking action to do something that matters, regardless of how much the sharp edges of their shattered pasts grind together within them with every step they take. The beginning, middle, and end of the movie are exercises in unremitting tragedy, which a.) might be overkill but b.) some people’s lives really are that bad. I definitely got something different than what I was expecting, but most of the unexpected was great.

In the climax of the movie, old, almost-dead Logan takes an injection of a serum that supercharges his powers. He’s finally back in form, ready to tear apart a legion of soldiers without breaking a sweat. Wolverine finally achieving full strength was extremely gratifying to the part of me that watched X-Men cartoons as a kid, but the gritty emotional realism comes through here as well. He’s not just back physically, but emotionally as well, finally ready to fight for the person he loves. In the climax, the two focuses of this movie — serious emotional piece and action-packed superhero film — come together like hydrogen and oxygen, in a way that entirely satisfies the part of me that will always love any movie that involves Arnold Schwarzenegger + guns and the part of me that makes a point of watching whichever film won the Oscar that year. I left the theater not sure if I liked the movie or not, not sure exactly what I had watched, and that is a result of the director taking a risk with this film, which is almost always better than doing a retread of a successful formula. After a week’s reflection, it’s clear that any movie that can successfully blend well-done action escapism with emotional catharsis is a great achievement.