Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang


Title: Exhalation: Stories
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Knopf

This is the second collection of short stories and novellas by American author Ted Chiang, probably best known for his short story "Story of Your Life", which the movie "Arrival" was based on. 

"Story of Your Life" was breathtakingly good, one of those rare stories that just powers straight through your eyeballs and blows apart your brain even as it puts your heart back together again. A linguist learns an alien language, and forcing herself to think like them enables her to perceive time the way they do--which leads/will lead/has always led to her realizing the trajectory of her life, and of her daughter's.

That's a pretty good taste of what Chiang is like. In the first collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others”, Chiang's stories often featured people's ideals or beliefs—especially religious beliefs—getting challenged or thrown out of whack by scientific discoveries or new technologies. For example, in “Acts of God” a recently-bereaved widower struggles with the meaning of devotion and faith in a world where the existence of God is an observable fact. In another story, the builders of the Tower of Babel discover their cosmology is all wrong—but not in the way you’d expect.

The collision of humanity and science continues to be a strong theme in this new collection, "Exhalation: Stories". The title story, for example, is about a race of automatons dealing with the knowledge of the inevitable destruction of their world. How do you go on living when you know nothing will last? In another, on an alternate Earth where humanity has found objective scientific proof that the universe was created by a god (nothing older than 8,000 years old exists) they then have to confront the fact that their planet is moving with respect to background radiation—meaning their planet is not the center of creation.

Generally, the collection is up there with his previous work, if not quite as good, but remaining both touching and thought-provoking. There aren’t any space battles or marauding aliens or killer viruses, it’s all low-key, very internal stuff, featuring people struggling to come to terms with what it means to be human (or automaton) in a complex, technologically-mediated world.

At the same time, Chiang remains an author much better at concepts and ideas than characterization and dialog, but maybe with the popularity of books like “Three Body Problem” or “Ancillary Justice” stories long on ideas and short on, er, story, are what’s in at the moment.

In particular the longest story in the collection, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," is also the dullest and most meandering and could probably have delivered the same punch in a quarter of the length.

I must confess my main gripe with this collection is economic rather than stylistic, though. I'd already read many of the stories as they're available online from various sites, including both "Exhalation" and "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and a couple of other stories, so the $20+ price tag for the Kindle edition felt a bit steep. I think only two out of the nine stories in the collection are actually original, with the others all published sometime between 2005 and 2015. They're good stories, but maybe wait for this one to go on sale?

In the meantime, here’s where you can read some of the stories in this collection:




 


Thursday, May 23, 2019

Game of Thrones: Aragorn's tax policy, the Good Ruler and King Bran the Broken



There's a lot of very justified criticism of the show's (and possibly George RR Martin's) decision to end with Bran as king. But maybe we're looking at this the wrong way?

ASOIAF and to a lesser extent the show seem in large part an answer to the question "What was Aragorn's tax policy?" -- that is, "What does it really mean to be a 'good ruler'?"

At first glance the answers we're shown are either nonsensical ("someone who doesn't want to rule") or fantastical ("an inhumanly detached Oracle who possesses all human knowledge").

Being a good guy doesn't work (Ned, Robb, Jon), being a dick doesn't work (Joffrey, Roose, Ramsay, Cersei) even being a good guy to your friends and a dick to your enemies doesn't work (Dany). Every form of monarchy is terrible.

So what makes the books or show think Bran is any better?

Well, let's look at those final scenes again. Yeah, down a quart of whiskey, barbiturates, whatever it takes, just watch them again. We've been arguing Bran will be a good king or he'll be a bad king, but watch the damn cringey awful scene and tell me what you see.

Bran ain't ruling shit.

He wheelies in, makes a nonsensical comment about a spymaster (as everyone points out, an utterly unnecessary post with him as king), Tyrion does the harried-middle-manager thing and tells his boss he's on it, and Pod wheels Bran out. Everyone lets out a breath and GETS ON WITH ACTUALLY RULING.

Every form of monarchy is terrible ... except the one where the monarch doesn't actually do anything. 

It brings to mind this quote by CS Lewis:

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

Bran isn't the best king because he's an omnipotent moral busybody (as both supporters and detractors of the plot twist have maintained). He's the best because he literally does not give a fuck. A useful figurehead who allows the actual running of the realm to happen. He's Robert Baratheon without the urge to blow all his money on booze and hookers.

Who is our 'good ruler' then? Tyrion, Davos, Sam, Bronn and Brienne.
  • Outsiders and marginalized people who never felt entitled to rule
  • People with (possibly excluding Bronn) no hope of seizing greater power for themselves
  • People with no particular agenda, vision or mission
Now in the current climate it's often sexier to pose as a revolutionary, but if feels like Martin and the show are appealing for a kind of status quo incrementalism. Martin's a boomer, so maybe this shouldn't surprise us. The best ruler is a civil servant, a bureaucrat rather than a demagogue.

And that's why they made Bran king.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Game of Thrones (A Retrospective)


And it’s done! Our watch has ended. But there are no tears, as what is dead may never die, but rises again, stronger!

Here’s a look back at the eight seasons of Game of Thrones, the highlights and low points and things I loved and hated about the series.

BEST KING
Robert Baratheon, First of His Name, who managed to win a civil war against a tyrant without massacring an entire city, breaking up his realm or murdering nine-tenths of the nobility. Ruled over an extended period of peace, where the only real issue was foreign debt as opposed to, say, the utter annihilation of the human race.
Runner up: Tommen. Had sex with Natalie Dormer, knighted his cat, did nothing of note and jumped out a window. A true legend.
Worst king: Bran. Seriously, how did anyone think this was a smart move?

BEST VILLAIN
Joffrey Baratheon (Lannister), played to irritating, maddening perfection by Jack Gleeson. Every preening step, every false-bravado empty threat, every bullying petty little twerp slight and insult was a joy to watch and to hate. Goodnight, sweet prince.
Runner up: Ramsay Bolton was hilariously overpowered at times (Ser Twenty of House Goodmen) but had some terrific lines, and knew how to play Jon Snow like a fiddle.
Worst villain: Euron “Horny Jack Sparrow” Croweye. To quote Twitter, he died as he lived: Making everyone go, “Ah, not this fucking guy again.”

BEST ACTOR
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister). Going to give this one to Nik over Peter because I think, in the end, he exhibited a greater range than Peter, from strutting and cocky bravado, broken down by the loss of his hand, recovery and rejection of his sister, to final breakdown and going crawling back to her.
Runner up: Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister). Early on, looked like he would easily clinch this award thanks to his delicate mix of cynicism, self-loathing yet also wounded pride and determination to prove himself. Loses his clear lead as front-runner towards the end of the series, as he is reduced to moping, making idiot suggestions, and making unfunny dick jokes. No blame on the actor, but the wit, sparkle and energy of the early seasons was lost, and Tyrion became a bore rather than a joy to watch.

BEST ACTRESS
Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister). Took what is, in the books, a character who is sometimes a bit of a caricature, and invested her with both bottles full of humanity, but also vanity, narcissism and pettiness. Absolutely sold every eyebrow twitch, every grimace, every glare. Just such a shame she was given so little to work with towards the end.
Runner up: Maisie Williams (Arya Stark). While I think they fumbled her character arc towards the end in favor of fan service (Yes, I see you waving your golden hand, Jaime, but get in line), watching her turn from tomboy to vicious killer in season 4 was simultaneously chilling and cathartic. Like, I knew I shouldn’t be enjoying this, but I was.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Rory McCann (Sandor “The Hype” “The Hound” Clegane). I mean, c’mon. If you want me to explain this, I’m gonna have to eat every fucken chicken in this room.
Runner up: Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister). Mesmerizing as the cold and calculating Tywin Lannister.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Diana Rigg (Olenna Tyrell). The take-no-shit Queen of Thorns is the perfect foil for both Tywin Lannister and not-as-clever-as-she-thinks Cersei Lannister. Diana absolutely steals every single scene she is in, and even amid some rocky writing, went out in style: “I want her to know it was me.”
Runner up: Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell). It’s yet another Tyrell in the number two slot. Convincingly amoral and ambitious, climbing over the bodies of two (!) husbands to finally make herself queen. Her carefully controlled anger at the High Sparrow is also pitch-perfect, setting the stage for brilliant actresses who do their best work immediately before being written out of the show.

BESTEST BOYS
Ghost and Drogon (tie)
Worst boy: Olly.

BEST COUPLE
Jon and Ygritte (Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie), Undoubtedly helped by their off-screen romance, filled with teasing, fire, passion, just oozing charisma all over each other.
Runners up: Hodor and Bran (Kristian Nairn and Isaac Wright). He held the door. ‘Nuff said.
Worst couple: Robb and Talisa (Richard Madden and Oona Chaplin) not because they were bad together on screen, but because of the way it ended. Narrowly beat out Jon and Dany (Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke) for much the same reasons, but Dany’s death wasn’t nearly so traumatic.

MOST IMPROVED
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys). Go back and watch season 1, then watch season 8, and try to convince yourself that these two people are the same woman. It’s a hell of a ride—a total transformation on her part, from being unable to sell a single line, to selling us entire volumes with an iconic eyebrow twitch. She’ll always be my queen!

MOST SUBVERTED EXPECTATION
The obvious ones are the deaths of Ned and Robb (A.K.A. The Red Wedding), showing us that this show would be about the realities of violence and power rather than fantasy ideals. But those have been analyzed to death, so I won’t pick them. I’m going to go with Jaime Lannister’s reveal of why he became the Kingslayer. Up until then, we’ve still been thinking in terms of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. In this one scene, we get a whole new insight into Jaime, his motivations and the shield of brittle pride he holds up to ward off the scorn he meets because of his altruistic actions.
Runner up: Okay, I’ve already mentioned Ned and Robb, so they’re the clear runners up, so this is actually like, third place or so, but the moment Daenerys takes control of the Unsullied and promptly turns them on their former masters is just the right mix of surprise, “Oh, of course! Why didn’t I think of that!” and cruel joy, making the audience part of and complicit in Dany’s budding madness.
Worst subversion: That this show could stick the landing.

MOST WTF CHARACTER
Quaithe. In her gold gimp suit, she was a little bit “extra” even for this show. Who was she? What did she want?

BEST ONE-ON-ONE DUEL
Brienne vs. the Hound. Not only is this just a straight-up great fight, it’s also absolutely loaded with meaning. Brienne is determined to fulfill her vows and prove herself a knight. Selfish Sandor Clegane is learning to care for someone who isn’t himself, someone in whom he sees so much of himself. It’s almost symbolic of the audience’s hopes for a happy ending versus the grim reality of the world of Game of Thrones—and what a brutal ending it has.
Runner up: Oberyn vs. the Mountain – again, because the tension was through the coliseum walls on this one. We understand and empathize with Oberyn a billion percent, we want him to have vengeance, we want him to kill the Mountain ... and our hopes are squeezed and crushed like an eggshell.
Worst duel: Arya vs. the Night’s King. Out of the blue (eyes), anticlimactic, not at all in keeping with a master assassin.

BEST BATTLE
Battle of the Blackwater, proving that sometimes less is more. Even if it wasn’t the spectacle of some of the other battles, it was packed, absolutely PACKED with character moments that sent reverberations through the series—everything from Sandor’s cowardice, to the attempt on Tyrion’s life, to the humbling of Davos and Stannis. While most of the other battles featured the very Good guy/Bad guy tropes the show tried to warn us against, in this battle we truly empathized with both sides.
Runner up: Hardhome, which squeaks in ahead of the Battle of the Bastards on the strength of its closing image, as the Night’s King appears, and with almost mocking ease, raises the dead of the battle to join his army, underscoring the hopelessness of trying to fight him. One of the genuinely chilling moments in the series.
Worst battle: Winterfell (season 8). Impossible to see what was happening half the time, featuring idiot tactics and the ‘kill-the-leader-and-they-all-die’ trope we’ve seen done to death in everything from “Phantom Menace" to the first Avengers movie.

BEST SONG
“Jenny of Oldstones” (Pod the Rod)—absolutely convinced most of the audience that this would indeed be goodbye for so many of the characters we’d gotten to know and love. “She never wanted to leave...” Neither do we, Pod. NEITHER DO WE.
Runner up: The Opening Theme. It’s got zero words, but damned if I don’t sing along with it. Every. Single. Time.

BEST LINES
“You gonna die for some chickens?” — “Someone is.” (Polliver and the Hound) Just this whole scene, every single damn line, is just (finger-kissing noises) mwah.
Runner up: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t being paying attention.” (Ramsay Bolton/Iwan Rheon). Could be the subtitle of the entire series. Honorable mentions to “Chaos is a ladder”, “Power is power”, “You win or you die.”   
Worst line: Almost any of the Varys-doesn’t-have-any-balls jokes.

BEST EPISODE
Season 4, Episode 1 “Two Swords”. Pass me the chickens.

BEST DIRECTOR
David Nutter (Rains of Castamere, Mhysa, others)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Game of Thrones

Well, I’ve watched the first 5 episodes from season 8 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” And. Well. Hm.

In Douglas Adams’ classic “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, there’s a segment in which a highly advanced civilization of philosophers and thinkers build a super-computer named Deep Thought, and ask it one simple question: “What is the answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything?”

After several million years of ruminating, Deep Thought comes back with its answer:

42

“Game of Thrones” is the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” of the fantasy genre: A show that dares to ask the really Big Questions, and then goes right on to further dare to give a Completely Nonsense Answer.

It’s slightly depressing to realize that beneath its portentous trappings, its promises to reinvigorate heroic storytelling with real danger and an appreciation of what real leadership means, inside the thin outer shell of ‘gritty’ realism, there’s just an empty core of nihilism. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have openly rejected the idea that there is any deeper meaning to the stories they tell. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” Benioff famously told one reporter as far back as 2013.

No lessons are learned, indeed there is no point in attempting to learn a lesson, as shit just happens and whatcha gonna to do? There’s no fate or destiny, people might face the consequences of their bad decisions, but they again they might not, or they might just die for no especially good reason.

It’s the narrative equivalent of ¯\_()_/¯.

Which might very well be what life is actually like, maybe shit really does happen and then you die, but it’s a startling admission of powerlessness on behalf of storytellers and a big, fat ‘Dracarys’ to the early promise of the show.

How did we get to this?

ASKING THE BIG QUESTIONS

Like pretty much every other observer, I figure the early promise of the show to say something about the fantasy genre, and even real life, is pretty much entirely thanks to the source material—the "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George RR Martin—and similarly its slide into cheap soap opera mostly the work of showrunners Benioff and Weiss.

Martin’s books feel as though they are in a dialog with earlier works in the genre, particularly Tolkien, as well as his imitators. To me, two themes stood out fairly strongly, one aimed at writers, one aimed at the audience. The first is that violence and war, even in a good cause, is horrific and should be portrayed as such. The second is that being a good person sometimes means doing some not very good things.

The first point is what has lead Martin to write scenes that he is now most famous for, where he kills off some of his main characters.

“A writer, even a fantasy writer, has an obligation to tell the truth ... You can’t write about war and violence without having death,” Marin said in an interview with Galaxy’s Edge. “If you want to be honest it should affect your main characters. We’ve all read this story a million times when the hero and his best friend go through amazing hair-raising adventures and none of them die. That’s such a cheat. It doesn’t happen that way.”

The second point explains why so much of Martin’s series, which despite starting as a fairly generic fantasy setting with the return of an ancient evil and prophecies of a reborn hero who will defeat them, goes on to spend most of its time focusing on political intrigue.

“Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” Martin told Rolling Stone. “Real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass.”

So that’s exactly what the first few seasons of “Game of Thrones” showed us. Those who stuck rigidly to their principles were done in by those more ruthless and unscrupulous. Honorable Ned Stark is beheaded, rash Renly Baratheon is murdered by Shadow Baby, love-struck Robb Stark gets Rains of Castamered at a wedding feast, Jon Snow tries to do the Right Thing and winds up with a belly full of steel for his troubles (Spoiler: he gets better).

As the show went on, it also seemed to hint that being a despot was just as short-sighted as trying to be a saint. Unstable and violent Joffrey Baratheon (well, technically Lannister) is poisoned by his enemies. The traitor Roose Bolton is stabbed by his son also poisoned by his enemies. Rigid, heartless, child-murdering Stannis Baratheon is deserted by his own men. Queen Cersei’s despotic reign ignites a religious uprising among the common people, culminating in her public humiliation. Littlefinger’s plotting ends with him friendless, alone, and getting his throat cut by the Stark sisters.

Only in young queen Daenerys’s storyline do we see a glimmer of an answer: Being a good ruler means sometimes doing not-very-good things for the benefit of your people. Daenerys frees the slaves she encounters, but firmly and bloodily puts down an armed uprising by the dispossessed slave-owning class and their foreign allies. She raises three dragons, but puts them in chains when they kill and eat a child. She is generous to her allies, but deals mercilessly with those who threaten or betray her.

That’s a much more adult and nuanced take on human nature and the nature of societies than ‘everything is shit.’ It’s not necessarily one we should be entirely happy or comfortable with. The violence is still horrific—Daenerys is sometimes shockingly cruel to those who oppose her, such as when she immures a traitor inside a vault or burns a group of tribal chiefs alive—but her violence was always aimed at the ruling classes, those responsible for the misery and torment of others. There's room to debate whether her actions are justified or not, whether she went too far.

Did you get that?

Right, now forget everything I’ve just said.

GIVING A NONSENSE ANSWER

Once it left Martin’s still-unfinished book series behind, “Game of Thrones” the show took all the lessons of its source material, and learned precisely the wrong things. It concluded that war and violence and people dying is cool and awesome because shocking the audience gets people excited about the show, except when it suddenly isn’t because um, well that part’s not really clear right now.

This inconsistency, this jittery moral compass that never points in the same direction twice, means in the end the viewer is left with no message or point at all, except a nihilistic ‘people are messy’ or ‘everything is shit,’ which quite frankly is the kind of conclusion I expect from goth teenagers, not complex works of adult fiction.

To illustrate, let’s consider the trajectories of two characters, Arya Stark and Daenerys.

Arya Stark watches the death of her teacher and her own father’s execution, then the murder of her protectors, watches fellow prisoners be tortured to death, escapes and is kidnapped for ransom but then hears anyone who might ransom her, i.e. her elder brother and mother, are dead too. That’s from the books.

She joins a guild of assassins, brutally murders the man who killed her teacher by stabbing him in the eyes, finds the man who murdered her father, bakes that man’s sons into a pie and feeds them to him before slitting the man’s throat, then poisons his entire extended family. Later, she rejoins her surviving family, publicly cuts the throat of the man trying to manipulate her elder sister, and is instrumental in defeating the ancient evil that threatens to wipe out humanity. That part’s not in the books.

In short, if this young girl had not been utterly consumed and driven by the lust for blood and revenge, absolutely everybody in the world would have died. So, um, violence is good provided it’s against your ‘enemies’ and not ‘innocents’ even though, erm, the two terms are entirely subjective. Shh. Anyway. Revenge is awesome!

On the other hand, you’ve got Daenerys, who becomes so convinced of her own goodness that everyone who opposes her must be completely evil and thus fair game for a touch of draconic deep frying. In the final season of the series, she wins at last, her last remaining enemy surrenders to her, but that isn’t enough, she wants to punish the enemy—so she burns an entire city to the ground (see the clip, above). Not just the men, but the women and children too.

So war and violence are bad, even in a good cause? But wait again, they’re actually good, because Arya (Not to mention all the horrific things all the other ‘heroic’ characters have done, like Jon Snow hanging a 12-year-old boy to death, Sansa Stark feeding her abusive rapist husband to hungry dogs or Tyrion Lannister strangling his lover to death and murdering his father on the toilet).There's no nuance either way. Either it's presented as entirely good and justified, or cartoonishly evil. There's no space for intelligent discussion about the proper bounds of either, it's all or nothing, and the show plumps for 'nothing.'

Similarly, any lessons about wise rulership have gone up in a burst of neon green flame. We no longer have any example of what a successful ruler looks like. Ned gets beheaded, Robb crossbowed, Renly shadow-stabbed, Stannis the Mannis, Balon Greyjoy, Joffrey, Tommen, Whatsface the Forgettable in Dorne, Cersei, Dany, even Jon, literally every leader we’ve been shown turns out to be an idiot, incompetent or evil.

You see? Nothing matters, there’s no point to any of it, sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Sure, you can write stories about the essential meaninglessness of life. “The Hydrogen Sonata”, the last novel by one of my favorite authors, Iain M. Banks, deals explicitly with this idea.

In the novel, an alien race is on the verge of uplifting itself into a kind of extra-dimensional heavenly paradise. The protagonist finds evidence that their reasons for doing so might be based on a lie. She struggles to uncover the truth—only to discover it doesn’t matter. The race uplifts itself anyway. The whole effort was for nothing. As a side note, the protagonist is attempting to learn how to play a nearly-impossible piece of music called The Hydrogen Sonata. She encounters a Mind (a hyper-powerful AI), who shows off by immediately playing the piece perfectly. Her life’s goal is also completely pointless.

But at one point the protagonist visits a man who has effectively made himself immortal, who lays out the rebuttal to this kind of thinking: Either everything we do in life is its own point, or nothing is. In this way the lack of extrinsic order or meaning in the universe becomes not depressing, but liberating.

I find nothing life-affirming or uplifting in the descent into anarchy in “Game of Thrones.”

NICE IDEA POORLY EXECUTED

I think that in other hands, perhaps the concept of the need for balance and restraint could have been executed in a way that didn't undermine the previous narrative, but despite a wonderful cast and some stellar production values, the show just didn't seem invested in making its point clearly.

No matter how great your ideas are, if the plot, action and dialog don't support the idea, it just will not work.

A go-to example of when they don’t is that other franchise whose fanbase its tearing itself apart, Star Wars. The prequel trilogy had some great ideas, like how showing how easy it is to subvert democracy by inventing an outside threat and positioning yourself as the defender of some mythical golden age (let’s face it, they’re much more Palpatine/the Emperor’s movies than they are poor hapless, whining, sand-hating Anakin-Vader’s). Those ideas get lost in idiot dialog, wooden action and patently green-screen fuckery. As a result, Anakin’s heel turn from heroic Jedi to child-slaughtering Darth Vader feels forced and artificial.

And that’s pretty much what we got in “Game of Thrones.” You could perhaps write a compelling story about a basically good queen who becomes so convinced of her own goodness that she begins to demonize her opponents and go to further and further extremes to crush any opposition to her rule. (Martin still might surprise us all and do exactly that, though it’s been eight years since the last book and the man is now 70).

But we didn’t get that. In season 8 episode 5, "The Bells," we get a sudden, inexplicable 180-turn to mass murderer on the slimmest of pretexts (much the same way that killing Mace Windu immediately transformed Anakin Skywalker into a full on baby-killer). 

In previous seasons, Dany's slave-holding opponents are shown as utterly evil, and her slaughter of them completely justified because she is determined to protect the down-trodden and innocent ... and then a few hours of show-time later, she decides to slaughter thousands of those same innocent people because, um. She was having a bad day. The gap between ‘I'll spare the innocent but slaughter my enemies’ to ‘Heck, Imma just kill everyone’ is not a hop nor a jump, but a fricken’ intercontinental teleportation.

The cartoon villainy completely undercuts the point that was being made through the storyline for the past seven seasons. There’s no right way to rule, everyone screws it up. We’re all fucked. The end.

And that’s a cheap, lazy ending to what otherwise started out as a fresh and interesting take on the fantasy genre. If all grimdark and gritty fantasy has to offer us is ‘life sucks,’ then it’s past time we had something else, because pretty much all of us over the age of 12 have already figured that part out.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Subverting Expectations


Recently, the term ‘subverting expectations’ gets thrown about a lot. Largely this is probably thanks to three dudes and their popular SF/fantasy properties: Rian ‘Who cares who Snoke is, Rey’s parents are nobodies, Luke is a crazy old coot with a walrus titty fetish’ Johnson and the Game of Thrones showrunner twins, Dave and Other Dave.

In both cases, I think the term is unearned and misused.

Before I foam at the mouth any more though, let’s first acknowledge that the impulse to ‘subvert expectations’ probably comes from good intentions. To get noticed in our overcrowded entertainment binge-o-sphere, you’ve either got to do everything brilliantly, or you’ve got to do something surprising and different, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to do the latter. And yes, audiences now are hyper-aware of the hoary old tropes that litter almost every genre and can spot most plots coming a mile away. In order to surprise, you’ve got to push the boundaries further and further, going to greater and more outrageous extremes.

One problem is that subversion is no longer subversive, it’s increasingly becoming the norm. When I read an Joe Abercrombie book, like “The Heroes”, I now fully expect all the nice characters to wind up dead or worse, and the worst ones to end on top of the rubble left behind. In order to shock, writers are reaching for more outlandish and unexpected twists, but like a junkie craving that first high, we’ve become numb and they only succeed in poking holes in the whole thing.

The other problem is that like a lot of fancy, fashionable mots du jour, a lot of the time ‘subversive’ seems to be doing a lot of lifting that plainer, sturdier words could shoulder just fine. Words like ‘surprising’ or ‘unexpected.’ And I get it, saying ‘subverting expectations’ feels fresh, Freddie Mercury-in-a-skintight-bodysuit level exciting and makes it sound as if you know what the bloody hell you’re on about, in a way that slobby old me-in-baggy-Edwin-jeans ‘surprising’ or ‘unexpected’ could not in a million, centillion years, ever do. But after one too many M. Night Shyamalanesque twists, we’ve very quickly and collectively worn it to shreds, so that the term is not so much ‘distressed’ as ‘disintegrated’ and it’s time to stop.

It’s a shame, because it’s a good term, and could potentially mean something quite special and specific.

I think there are a couple of differences between subverting expectations and plain old-fashioned narrative twists, both based on the simple idea of respecting your audience:

First, there has to be some hint or clue as to what’s afoot before you spring the surprise, otherwise the writers are like cheap stage magicians, pulling plot points out of their arses and making idiots out of their audience. “Aha, you thought X, but you were wrong, YOU FOOLS!”

Second, there has to be some point to it, some greater message than “Nyer, nyer, fooled you!” The audience’s expectations have to merit subversion—some expectations, such as ‘the narrative will make sense’ or ‘character motivations will be understandable’ are probably not worth subverting, unless of course the illogic of life or the unknowable nature of men’s minds is the message. There’s got to be some point, otherwise, you know. What’s the point?

Let me give some examples of what I’m talking about.

RULE 1: NOT TREATING YOUR AUDIENCE LIKE IDIOTS

Audiences in general are often a demanding bunch, but one of the most basic expectations we have is to be treated with respect in return for the time and money we’re investing in the story. So if there’s going to be a twist, it should always make sense, even if only in retrospect. In other words, we the readers or viewers COULD have predicted what was coming, but because of our expectations—our automatic, unexamined biases or assumptions based on the kind of story we were experiencing—we were blind to the cues and hints left for us. When the twist is revealed, we smack ourselves on the forehead. Well, OF COURSE that’s what happened, we exclaim. In hindsight, it was almost inevitable.

Without that wink and nod to the audience, the twist just comes across as lazy or sloppy writing or that other overused literary term, deus ex machina.

One example I was reminded of recently happens in the original “Star Wars” movie, at the start of the climactic space battle against the Death Star. Luke asks Han to join the Rebels, but Han refuses. There’s a moment after Luke walks away when Chewie looks at Han, and Han tries to shrug it off. It’s not much, but it’s a wink, a nod, a nudge in the side of the audience. So later, when the Millennium Falcon miraculously reappears at just the right time to save Luke, the audience doesn’t say “WTF, where’d he come from?” but instead “I KNEW IT!”

I knocked M. Night Shyamalan up there just now, but let’s agree that his first twist, in “Sixth Sense” (viz, Bruce Willis is dead the whole time) is brilliant because even before the revelation, a good chunk of the audience in the theater I was in started slowly swearing under their breath as they worked it out. That’s why the film cuts away after he’s shot, that’s why his wife or Haley Joel Osment’s mom never speak to him. It all makes sense.

Last one I’ll mention is “Memento”, Chris Nolan’s brain-bending story of a man with short-term memory loss out for revenge for the murder of his wife. It’s told in reverse chronological order, putting the audience in the same position as the protagonist, i.e. with no knowledge of what happened in the past. In the end, we learn that the protagonist actually already found and killed his wife’s attacker (she didn’t die), but then of course forgot about it, and is now murdering random people who fit the profile he’s developed. Again, the clues were there—the whole bleedin’ story revolves around the man’s unreliable memory, but we take his story about seeking revenge on faith.

The great thing for the audience is, in addition to not being made to feel like a fool for being engaged in the story, you can now go back an re-watch or re-read the story, and gain new enjoyment from spotting the clues that were left for you. Whereas if it’s just a cheap trick, there’s zero motivation to go back, since you already know the surprise.

RULE 2: HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT EXPECTATIONS

Audiences carry whole emotional bags full of expectations when we crack open a book or sit down to watch a show or movie. Some expectations, as mentioned above, I assume are fairly universal. Many of these expectations arise from our assumptions about the genre or type of narrative we are about to experience, whether it’s grimdark fantasy, superhero action, space opera, horror, mystery, magical realism, gritty war story or meandering think piece by Internet nobody, whatever.

Tad Williams’s “Memory, Sorrow, Thorn” series is a good example of this. It’s a high fantasy series, in which the big bad is the undead king of the “Sithi” (a vaguely elf-like race) who seeks revenge on the humans who nearly annihilated his people. The protagonists stumble on an ancient, garbled prophecy about needing three magic swords when the undead king returns, so at great cost they seek out the swords, bring them together, confront the big bad—only to discover the prophecy was for the BAD GUY, not the good guys, HE's the one that needed the magic swords, and they’ve inadvertently nearly handed him victory.

Williams subverts our expectations that in high fantasy, prophecies are always meant for the good guys, and reliable guides on what to do. However, throughout the series we’re shown that legends, tales and fables are almost always utterly inaccurate bullshit. A dragonslaying king was just an opportunist who arrived when the dragon was already dead, and so on. So the twist, the subversion, plays directly into the central theme or message of the narrative. And it’s a point worth considering—were the heroes of yesteryear really the paragons of virtue we make them out to be? Would we be better served with a more honest appraisal of history, even if it means speaking ill of the dead?

So how does this relate to “The Last Jedi” and “Game of Thrones”?

THE LAST JEDI

As if there wasn’t already enough on the Internet on this subject, but yeah, let’s flog this dead horse just a little more. The trouble with The Last Jedi is, I think, two-fold. On the one hand, it ‘subverts expectations’ without warning or set-up, thereby Death Star-lasering Rule 1 of subversion to Alderaanian microdust.

Second, it didn’t really have anything to say about those expectations and why they were the wrong ones to have—the movie just goes on to talk about completely different themes. Having new big bad Snoke turn out to be nobody in particular could have been a comment on the banality of evil, but the concept is never explored. Having Rey’s parents be nobodies seems to hint at the idea that anyone can be a hero, your destiny is what you make of it, something along those lines, but again it’s kind of a throwaway reveal that is never mentioned again.

Instead, we get an exploration of the idea that people only learn through failure, which is a fine and good point to make, but again, completely unrelated to the trajectory of the previous movie in the series, making it feel jarringly out of place. Everything about the previous movie in the series, “The Force Awakens”, suggested it was a return to the nostalgic touchstone of the original series. The sets, the returning characters like Han and Leia, even the Death Star Part Three recycled plot, all created the expectation that the sequel trilogy would stick to the kind of archetypal hero’s journey we got thirty years ago.

Instead, without warning the rug gets yanked from under the viewers. Who is Snoke? Nobody. Who are Rey’s parents? Ditto, and also fuck you for asking. What’s Luke been up to? Nothing. Here’s a quarter, now it’s gone. You’re a jerk. Now it’s back, you’re an idiot. Show’s over.

The ludicrous thing is that having subverted these expectations, the movie then backs off and reverts to a very traditional good-versus-evil showdown in the climax, leaving things much as they were at the beginning of the movie, reinforcing the perception that the subversive elements were there for their own sake, and not because there was any counter-argument or message to make.

So no, The Last Jedi does not subvert expectations, because it not only fails to set the stage for the subversion in any way, but also it has nothing to say about why those expectations needed to be subverted.

GAME OF THRONES

The trick with Game of Thrones (both the books and the TV show) is that it’s kind of two genres at the same time, mashed uncomfortably together. On the one hand, it’s a gritty, realist take on the Lord of the Rings trope of the good king who rules in peace and happiness. On the other, it’s a traditional ‘high fantasy’ tale with an ancient evil that must be stopped, fire-breathing and physics-defying dragons, time-traveling wizards, zombies and legends and prophecies and all that jazz Gregorian chanting.

The series opens with the second theme—ice demons kill a bunch of scouts—so naturally the audience expected certain fantasy tropes: The good people would be good, the evil, well, evil, the former would ultimately be rewarded, the latter punished. Instead, the putative main character, Ned Stark, gets his head chopped off at the end of part one, then the next putative main character, his son Robb Stark, gets George Martined at a wedding feast.

Had it stopped there, I’d call this a win for subversion. We live in an imperfect world, so being a good ruler probably means doing some not very nice things from time to time. Fair point. We might even have speculated that having shown being a goody two-shoes is dumb, we’d then see that being a nasty scheming arsehole is equally short-sighted, when the remaining Stark children wreak their revenge or when the Others/White Walkers arrive and wipe everyone out, nicely subverting the ‘grimdark fantasy’ trope as well—being an evil piece of shit is just as idiotic as trying to be Prince Charming.

But alas, no. As the show has gone on, it has vacillated between high and gritty fantasy even as it has run the idea of ‘only the most ruthless survive’ right into the ground. On the one hand, Arya Stark’s journey from innocent girl to ninja assassin utterly consumed by the thirst for revenge is suddenly portrayed as an awesome, cool and heroic thing. On the other, characters continue to be brutally excised from the story precisely because it’s expected, rather than subversive, and without any set up or tragic flaw that would explain why they had to die. Magic exists, a dead man is resurrected, but wait, prophecies are bullshit and mean nothing. Why the first expectation is worth keeping but the second needs knocking down is unclear.

That now undercuts the potential message of the earlier seasons. It now seems rather that there is no point, Ned and Robb Stark died because shit happens, the evil ice demons are defeated because reasons, life’s a bitch, whatcha gonna do?

There’s no longer any setup, nor any point to the surprises. It just does what everyone expects, but in slightly different ways than the audience anticipates, and it’s hard to see what’s so subversive about that.