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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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The Sinking of Skywalker

This post contains ALL THE SPOILERS

DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FILM

So. I’ve seen it. I preface the below with the following disclaimer: it is just a film. It is entertainment and there are far more serious issues in the world, and in my country, right now.

However…it is also a presentation of how our culture sees itself. There’s reams of academic literature exploring how presentation of popular culture shows a mirror on the concerns and occupations of the people participating. And, in case the reaction to The Last Jedi hadn’t made you aware, Star Wars has become a battle ground between a certain class of those who think the world should serve them, reflect their preconceptions and prejudices and exclude those not like them and those who think, basically, the opposite.

I’m in the latter camp – I’m looking for representation. I’m looking for challenge, for change and for more than nostalgia for a type of society that has NEVER existed except in the myths told by the powerful to justify their actions.

Ok. If you’ve made it this far I’m ready to actually start. I’m going to list a few things I like about the film and then I’m going to really let go.

First. I like Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley. They are both fantastic in all three films. The commit to the material and both of them manage to deliver nuanced and emotional content. I could especially watch Driver all day long.

I also think John Boyega is great.

I think Chewie’s response to Leia’s death is the only really genuine emotional point in the film. Nothing else comes close.

And as ever, Hamill comes to the screen with an ironic but authentic presence. I feel like we truly missed a great actor of his generation. It helps that he appears to be a genuinely cracking human being as well.

The problems, for me, start with the opening crawl. The film simply announces the Emperor is back. No explanation. No sense of why or how anyone could have not foreseen this. No sense of being able to trace his signal back. Instead we have a preamble focussing on Kylo Ren rather than the heroes (and that’s a foreshadowing if ever there was one) who basically montages his way to secret hideout and then discovers all the secrets. I mean…really? And those secrets completely change everything he previously thought…well those convictions were easy to dismiss.

Then we have a completely pointless ‘spy’ narrative. It appears only to serve to establish there’s no time to save the galaxy from this unspecified threat (which by the way the spy can’t know about yet, since Ren himself also doesn’t know the details at this point). But hey, who needs continuity???

And here we see hyperspace travel, which has been clearly held up as taking hours, days or weeks across the entire canon now being completely discarded. (let’s not even talk about tie fighters which can hyperspace despite NEVER having been able to do this before).

By this point and I’ve already got questions…who saved Palpatine and took him half way across the galaxy to a safe space where snowflakes couldn’t get at him? Who fed him, watered him and doused him with anti-cancer drugs after they found him in a nuclear fusion reactor…?

How did his face not get BURNT OFF by the heat of an exploding nuclear reaction??? How did he create Snoke? We never find out. How did he become EVERY VOICE YOU’VE EVER HEARD?

I mean. Well I got nothing here. Because just then a thousand star destroyers rise up out of the mud…just like that. Who’s crewing them? Who’s feeding that crew? Who’s doing all of this???

It turns out Hux is the spy…the basic ruler of the first order. The chap who masterminded StarKiller base. Selling HIMSELF out. Why? Because like a five year old who’s had his candy taken away ‘I want the other kid to lose’. How this guy ever charmed his way to ruling a galaxy spanning super advanced nation of neo-nazis is anyone’s guess at this point. But it’s ok, because he has an ornate wooden walking stick in his quarters for the very day he gets shot in the leg…thank goodness. He obviously was a great Cub Scout.

So the resistance still has an unspecified number of ships (as does Ren, even after their disastrous losses in TLJ). So they just fly about wherever and whenever. The resistance generals leave the resistance behind instead of leading them and head off from one frolick to another without any clue what they’re doing excepting chasing down one macguffin after another. And it doesn’t matter when they get destroyed because it turns out there’s always another one. Oh, and I love that the Sith Wayfinder can be crushed by a human hand but can survive an inferno which melts a Tie Fighter…which was just so handily parked exactly where a random and ranging melee brawl happens to finish…

Ren gets his gang of Incels together and with a chimpanzee they spend an unnecessarily long time reforging his helmet. Indeed the chimpanzee probably has a more meaningful role than Rose, Finn’s love interest from TLJ and the moral heart of that film. But of course, certain white men hated her so she got sidelined and her emotional connection to the film severed. These Knights of Ren aren’t Sith, they aren’t jedi gone bad and don’t have anything to recommend them except old fashioned medieval melee weapons…which you can tell isn’t going to end well for them. And hey, it doesn’t, but who cares because by the end of the film they’ve done precisely NOTHING. Even Rey has to fight people with lasers…these guys have sharps…which are nasty except when pitted against LASERS! A pathetic waste.

So Rey’s been trained. Except she hasn’t passed some test we’re not really sure about because it’s not made clear. She’s almost all powerful and can teleport items across the entire galaxy. And she has powers other jedi considered rare (or were previously completely unseen). Now, I don’t object to this except they’re not consistent and only appear to get her out of being stuck. Like force memories (from Fallen Order). No prior use but all of a sudden she’s all about them.

And apparently her parents were important. Now this is where I really lose my shit. One of the things I loved about the Last Jedi was its message we are all capable of changing the world. That there is no divine right of kings, no special people who are special because of their blood, or their wealth or their parents. Instead we’re brought right back to, oh yes, the concept of there’s a specially powerful aristocracy and the rest of us should just shut up and listen and do what they say. And the entire argument between Sith and Jedi becomes an argument between two sides of the same group -those who are divinely chosen. It’s profoundly anti-democratic and deeply depressing that this is the message we’re choosing to privilege. It also suggest the nastiness of caste systems and is an argument that’s been used to justify slavery, racism, sexism and on and on across human history. You’d think we’d be able to jettison it – especially when TLJ did exactly that.

By the way…who’s flying the star destroyers? (I know, I’ve already asked but really, have you got an answer?)

Then there’s the fleet that arrives out of nowhere. It looks spectacular but…we’re told explicitly the hyperspace lanes are blocked…we’re also told no one came before. This is an important point. Except one ship disappears off and brings the entirety of the galaxy’s civilian population to fight the fascists (which is great btw!). How did they unblock the spacelanes? How did they convince people who, previously, had stayed the hell away? There’s no more hope now than earlier…so what changed their mind? Why weren’t the heroes doing this bit? Scouts could have been sent to…you know…SCOUT. The heroes and leaders could have been…oh, I don’t know…leading?

I feel sorry for Oscar Isaac. Poe is charming and dashing but clearly emotionally stunted because he learned this great lesson in TLJ and the immediately forgets it all over again and gets most of his mates killed doing exactly what he learned not to do the movie before.

By the way…when you need to insert into the script lines like ‘but that’s impossible’ not once but like three times? You’ve jumped the freaking shark, come back and given it a hotdog for being a good boy and then jumped it again and you’re so embarrassed by this you even confess it to the audience.

C3PO – I mean you sacrificed everything for this plot only to be brought back from the ‘dead’ just like that. Chewie…we thought you too were sacrificed to show Rey’s power and the conflict in her…only for you too to be still alive.

And Harrison Ford…I mean…were you a force ghost? An ordinary ghost? A memory? A hallucination? I mean…what? Was Ren actually mentally ill and the film simply crassly uses that to change Ren’s thinking?

Ren…you wanted to kill the old…and then you didn’t. For no reason except you discovered Rey was a Palpatine…which makes no sense. Much like the rest of the film, but hey. I like your character. I like your neo nazist portrayal, I like how it meant you could have been a proper bad guy. I hate how they made you back into a child doing someone else’s bidding. Oh, you have a plan? No you don’t because the PLOT says otherwise. What you have is a suddenly sexual crush on Rey who sees you like the boy next door and if only you become that boy next door you can be the good guy. After killing millions there’ll be no consequences for you and you’ll get the girl. Good old white boys will be boys after all.

And Poor Finn. You loved Rose. Or at least she loved you. But there’s no room for her anymore and even if you also love Poe, we can’t let that happen between two main characters can we??? Oh no, keep the gay stuff for two minor unnamed characters who get to kiss at the end. Argh! So Finn has no story. No arc. No meaning. Except hey, what’s this? Other POC who were stormtroopers too..probably slaves? yes, let’s not use that word but let’s heavily imply it. Then let’s only have relationships between people of the same colour – because white men complained about mixing of races on twitter. And let’s make this a slave rebellion on horses! Woo! Oh…wait. No. let’s not do that.

And, you know, after telling the audience for 8 films and an entire canon that it takes huge effort and a moon-sized base to create a planet destroying laser…let’s just tack one onto every spaceship the bad guys own…no need to supply chains, no need for ANY resources because we have the emperor in our back pocket and he can shoot lightening into space and only hit his enemies! In fact, who needs spaceships at all…apparently he doesn’t (he even says this) which dies beg the question…why have them at all you numbnutz?

And oh dear me…she did have important parents? And she’s not angry at them? And Palpatine didn’t have control over them? The emperor who says, at every fricking opportunity, this is just as I planned? Pretty poor planning/management skills there old Palps. You might need to watch a couple of TED talks mate, get a grip on family planning and strategic thinking.

It also entirely undermines Rey’s emotional journey – she’s no longer struggling with moral choices – she’s simply obeying her blood…more divine right moral absolution. It wasn’t me and even if it was, God said I could do it and who are you to question me?

I actually like the swapping of lightsabers. I liked the confrontation between Rey and Palpatine. I liked Chewie. I liked a whole bunch of moments in this mess. And it looked beautiful (although TFA and TLJ had more standout compositions) and the soundscape was great.

The film offers no reasons for many of the characters’ choices. No reason for Ren to change his mind, no reason for Lando to actually help, no reason for why Luke comes along and says ‘hey, all the stuff I learned in the last movie, when Yoda finished my training…it was all ponk. I was just wrong. Ignore me!’ No reason for Finn and Rose to not be together, no reason for why Poe was a spice smuggler or why he left, no reason offered for why Luke was looking for the Sith homeworld, no reason for why the rest of the galaxy decided now was the time to pitch up and help (when the enemy fleet is a hundred times bigger than the last time), no reason for Dominic Monaghan, no reason for why R2-D2 is almost entirely absent from the film.

BB8 is irrelevant and his hairdryer friend operates purely as a plot delivery mechanism.

I’d love to say this is lazy writing and some of it surely is. But I think it’s worse than that. I think it’s design by twitter and reddit. I think it’s design by reference to what the alt-right want in their films. Less non-whites, less mixed relationships, more white guys being the saviour, more white guys full stop. More mavericks, less cooperation and less community making the difference. I mean, it’s hard not to read into the people turning up to destroy the fleet as being anything other than a militia…so we have a defence of the 2nd amendment right there (another preoccupation of the alt-right checked off).

I apologise this is garbled. so a summary to finish.

  1. This film destroys all the good work of TLJ in taking Star Wars in new directions
  2. Even if you hate TLJ, it also completely ignores the universe set up over the last 40 years
  3. It has no character development worth a damn since there are no sacrifices by any major characters. Even Ren is redeemed and gets off without having to face the consequences of his actions.
  4. Who’s flying the frickin star destroyers???
  5. It makes the universe others have spent so long making feel real feel like a toybox with a kid simply saying ‘and then this happens and then this happens’. A crushing of the narrative rules.
  6. Characters are safe from harm because of plot armour. They’re also safe from thinking because of plot requirements.
  7. Worst of all, the above combines to make a chronically dull film which, although it’s clear it doesn’t like fascism, accommodates it in Kylo Ren and has no answers to the questions posed by evil. To be honest, it’s not even clear why Rey dies after her confrontation with Palpatine except it’s narratively expedient.

In the end it’s just a film. But my kids watch it and see the kind of world they think might be possible politically through stuff like this. To me its messages are retrograde and need to be rejected and to make it worse? It’s boring and meaningless with no consequences. It might be nostalgic crack for a certain demographic but the rest of us are left looking at it and shaking our heads as we move off to find content which actually interests and represents us

Let the past die

I’m here to talk about The Last Jedi. Again. Like twelve months after everyone else stopped. Why? Because of this podcast from the Financial Times’ Alphachat series (which I totally recommend by the way). In Andrea Nagle draws an insight which hadn’t occurred to me: that conservatism in the States is under attack but not from the left. It is under attack from the Alt-Right.

She outlines how the Alt-Right’s (we can call them neofascists if you like) mantra has developed over the last decade and how one of its defining features is a break from traditional conservatism. This break occurs because a new generation of right leaning people look at conservatism and see it capitulating each and every time it’s been challenged over the last thirty years. They see the only way to shore up and overturn the losses is to discard that form of conservatism and create something new.

Not only that, but this becomes a call to ideological radicalism rather than an incremental movement towards old ideas. No longer hold to compromise positions but simply develop new principles (communicated as old principles because the strength of the MYTHs of conservatism remain as seductive as ever). These principles become hills to die on and, if the chance occurs, to skewer others on as well. Gone are fiscal probity – in comes racism, anti-immigration. Discussions about PURITY (and for that see Mary Douglas’s excellent Purity and Danger for a clear explanation of why this is such a powerful myth).

A great place for these kinds of myths to reform and take new shape is among populations that have created ideas about being under siege. In technical terms they’ve become sectarian. Evangelical Christianity is a superb example of this in the US (and increasingly in the UK). See this superb long piece on the relationship between the two in the US. I don’t agree with it all, but the central insight that Evangelicals have entirely lost touch with the core tenets of Jesus and swapped them out for a fin de siecle long defeat narrative is spot on.

The above is all quite academic. I want to tie this into a central theme – why we shouldn’t laugh at Kylo Ren. Nor should we dismiss him. And by that I mean we shouldn’t laugh at Brexiters, nor Trumpists, nor dismiss them.

The second point should be obvious by now. Kylo Ren runs the First Order. Trump is President, Brexiters are possibly going to get the very worst of their wet dreams come true. Dismissing them is like dismissing the massive great hole in the side of the Titanic. SO for the rest of this, read Trump or Alt-Right, or Fascist or even Boris Johnson into every mention of Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren is a terrifying opponent because he was born to power. He was given every chance to have empathy for others, to do good in the world. At each step he’s mixed with those who HAVE done good in the world yet somehow has decided the world works differently to every model he’s been shown.

As well as having had every privilege, he’s also very wealthy. He’s had mentoring along the lines of conservatism. Snoke, Hux and others have helped him see a coherent view of the world in opposition to those who he never clicked with. His own internal struggles somehow make more sense to him when he sees it from Snoke’s point of view. Yet they still lose Starkiller base. They still can’t defeat the common people and their republic – even after totally dismantling all the protections, systems and ways of expressing themselves. The eradication of the new republic still doesn’t let them win!

So he thinks and realises the old ways, the conservatives, can never win. They need to go. When Kylo Ren says ‘destroy the past’ he doesn’t mean destroy the republic, although he certainly thinks they need to go. He’s actually talking about the First Order. Not only does he kill Snoke but when Hux disagrees with him (quite sensibly), he publicly assaults and humiliates him.

Kylo Ren is not a child throwing temper tantrum. He is not ineffectual or mad or stupid. He is only absurd because he’s destroying conventions we’ve accepted as right and normal. It is surreal but it’s not stupid.

Those around Kylo Ren don’t last long. But Ren doesn’t need them to. He’s building something new and part of the vision of that is chaotic and constructive destruction. He’s bought into the idea of blood shed makes everyone stronger and if it’s those around him in service of his vision that’s probably about as strong a message as he can send – we are ALL to be sacrificed to build a new world.

Further still – he knows he’s the only one to really understand what’s he’s trying to do, so he must endure, he must be in control lest the less pure, the less insightful water down his vision. When Trump Christians say they prefer Trump to Pence (an Arch- evangelical) they back it up with ‘because Pence is too nice to do what needs to be done’.

After a while his people are suspicious over everyone but him.

His failures don’t matter except to his enemies. His successes matter to everyone.

Kylo Ren is a perfect embodiment of the enemies liberal and social democracies face right now. He is an uncaring populist, a demagogue and a man with a vision most of us can’t begin to comprehend because of the horror true implementation implies.

The Last Jedi also contains some strong arguments for how to defeat people like this both in popular opinion but also practically.

Lesson 1 – Luke’s fight with Ren. Luke doesn’t fight Ren. He simply distracts him while everyone else organises. He stands up to Ren but does not engage him on his own terms. He let Ren wash himself out while his own people look on in horror at his foolishness.

Lesson 2 – the survival of the rebels creates a MYTH of overcoming an enemy who wants to destroy the world the rest of us have built.

Lesson 3 – sacrifice – Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice to stop the enemy fleet is something NONE of Ren’s team would ever consider doing. They would sacrifice others for themselves and their ends but never themselves for others. If we want the world we have now to continue and to improve Holdo is a massive lesson for us about how we build it.

Lesson 4 – The detour to Canto. It’s absolutely vital to the story because it shows how others prosper on our suffering. It shows life under fascism it shows that the rich don’t care if you suffer and they SHOULD NOT be idolised. Celebrities are an opiate we should put in a bin and burn far from home.

Lesson 5 – Mavericks get you killed. Don’t rely on those who think they know best when they have no plan or that plan relies on defying everything we’ve learned. Everything Poe Dameron does gets people killed. Everything he does fails and from it he takes that he’s succeeded. Until he learns he HAS to work with others everything he touches turns to shit. It’s vital we learn this lesson because we, as a culture, have swallowed the idea of ‘big men’ being the arbiters of history and being our heroes who make everything right again. It’s the biggest piece of bullshit going and if we fall for it, like Poe, we’re really just weakened shadows of Kylo Ren.

I maintain The Last Jedi remains the best Star Wars film. If only because it’s got everything in it I want about the politics of now and is, ultimately, a message of hope about how nobodies like Finn, Rose and Rey can make a difference.

Captain Marvel has a problem

The problem is not with the film – which is an excellent entry into the series. The problem is with the standards it’s being held to.

Apparently she’s ‘not emotional enough’, ‘not vulnerable enough’, there’s not enough interiority, there’s not enough for us to know who she is as a person. These criticisms have come from both sides of the aisle and a surprising number of them have come from people who you’d think would take a moment to listen to how they sound when read out loud.

I’ve read that it’s no Black Panther, as if every film has to be that one (and let’s set aside the issues with that comparison for a moment – we’ll come back to it).

At the same time she’s ‘too powerful’, telling girls they can take on ‘200lb men’ and therefore has no dramatic tension.

My response to these criticisms can effectively be summed up as ‘sexist much?’

I did think about taking each of the, by turns, more or less subtle sexist tropes reviewers and commentators have rolled out to justify why this can’t possibly deserve a bunch of plaudits but hey, I’m going to have a rant instead.

Carol Danvers doesn’t need to impress you. She doesn’t need to prove herself. She’s a character with a military background who’s fought her way to being taken seriously by being disciplined, risk taking, self controlled, brilliant and defiant. She hasn’t done it by taking on your advice about being personable, vulnerable or seeking to please decision makers. One of the most insidious forms of control men use on women (and whites on non-whites) is to demand that not only do they do it better than their peers but that they have to be nice and never get angry while they do it. Don’t get angry when you’re treated bad, don’t object to dismissal, don’t vent when the mediocre are promoted ahead of you or when the very design of the system prefers others. The risk of being emotional (or at least showing how the system being stacked against you makes you feel) is always weaponised against you.

‘Ah,’ they say. ‘We were right to distrust you, you’re clearly not in control, you’re clearly a risk.’ And when you’re pleasing, they say ‘well they’re eager to please, they probably can’t stand up when they need to.’ The structure is to provide no route to winning trust because it was never going to be given in the first place.

Carol Danvers achieved being a fighter pilot despite that environment which the film makers deliver without being ‘on point’, without sticking in your face.

And what about Tony Stark? Or Thor? Overpowered much? Check. Brooding idiots much? Check. Refusing to be vulnerable? Check. Called out on it….oh, is that tumbleweed?

The double standards about Captain Marvel are everywhere (except for the wonderful Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo who review it as if it’s any other film). It’s dispiriting to see women demanding Carol Danvers display an emotional core they don’t ask of Bruce Banner or Steve Rogers. It’s less surprising but just as annoying to see men objecting to her power, to the fact she’s not epitomising some socially constructed feminine ideal (and if otherwise utterly brilliant Wonder Woman has a fault, apart from it’s unnecessary third act, it’s this – Gal Gadot’s body is as much the star of the film for the camera as is the character).

This film is political – it says women don’t need mens’ permission to be themselves, they don’t need society’s permission and they don’t need other womens’ permission either. They can be good, bad, strong or weak all by themselves.

Is Captain Marvel any good? For me? Yes, I think it’s up there with Thor Ragnarok. It’s not about men struggling to find their purpose, it’s not about bromancial conflict, it’s not about who’s got the bigger dick powers. She’s not a genius, she’s not a billionaire, she’s not a member of a royal family and nor is she destined for greatness. Like Captain America, she’s someone who fought hard for what was important to her, struggled with being accepted BECAUSE of what she wanted in life and overcame on her own terms. It is the best origin story since Captain America – the first avenger and in large part because it follows many of the same beats. However, it doesn’t need a love interest like Steve did and she isn’t actualised in finding a lover to give her meaning.

It’s also about imperialism and in that sense it’s a direct counter to Black Panther. One of my problems with Black Panther is that it’s basically the same old ‘a son ruling by divine right has a crisis but overcomes his enemy to establish that he is the right person to RULE EVERYONE ELSE AS A TYRANT.

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and now Captain Marvel have both demonstrated a new story – the everyperson overcoming because they are who they are and that’s like us (mostly). You may be the type of person who wants ‘the special’ to rule over us or prove they’re the right person to be in charge but me? I like democracy thanks and I like being able to think for myself and change the world around me. Hey, you probably dislike The Last Jedi for the same reasons – because a nobody changes the world and the maverick (man) bungles it every step along the way. If you are, please let me have your vote because you don’t really want it do you.

In terms of what the film says to my daughter Captain Marvel is better than Black Panther. In terms of what it says to my son, it’s better than Black Panther.

As a film? I think it’s really hard to compare them – they’re not the same thing. One is a large sprawling dynastic epic the other a small, almost parochial story about the right to be who we want to be. It’s like asking which of The Magnificent Seven and Ghostbusters is the better war movie.

Go see this movie – it has amazing role models (and I don’t just mean for women). Go see it because it’s full of joy. Go see it because, frankly, I want to see more movies like this and I want to rub it in the faces of the giant man babies finding ever more spurious and tiny handed reasons to object to anyone other than them being portrayed as godlike.

Slavery

If you follow this blog even a little you’ll have read posts from me about racism, inequality and other related themes over the years. However, it’s in reading the three books I want to talk about here that have really challenged me over the last year.

WARNING – I use racial terms some of you may find uncomfortable or offensive. This is not meant as anything except a review of how these books have effected me but consider this your trigger warning.

The first of the three is Lincoln’s biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a book that is epic in its scope and puts a number of subjects into sharp focus for me. The first of these is the cause of the civil war in the US. It’s clear it was about slavery, it’s also clear from this startling work that modern debates about ‘heritage’ mean slavers’ heritage of being able to claim that it’s ok to enslave non-whites because they’re sons of Ham, and it’s ok to treat them as worse than cattle (for what farmer would beat their cattle to death with regular abandon?). From Goodwin’s meticulous description of the events of the time, it’s very clear that the heritage argument is one for white people being at the centre of all and for everyone else to be disenfranchised.

Furthermore, I have very few heroes but Lincoln is one of them. A flawed man capable of change, of growth and, most importantly, seeing how to get what he wanted – even if that took years to achieve. A man capable of welding together people from all walks of life, of winning them over and of creating coalitions capable of achieving more than anyone thought possible. My heart aches over the possibilities lost in the aftermath of his murder.

It also highlights just how dangerous it was to be someone who was abolitionist. It wasn’t an opinion one had, it was, for those who were committed, a way of life that involved fighting, violence (both political and actual) and real danger. I suppose this isn’t different to most political movements – they’re founded on the recognition of incipient violence for a cause. This last point is one our political systems today suppress with every tool at their disposal because the possibility that we would be that politically conscious threatens the system most of us live within (and prosper from). It may feel that these people were the same as us but their lives appear, when you think through what they really faced, a distance from me that makes it an effort just to put myself in their shoes and imagine how they feel. Their concerns were different to ours, their perils alien and their fights distinct.

Although grounded in tales of individuals, the book delivers a grand political overview.

The work of fiction, The Underground Railroad, delivers the personal account to go with the political of Lincoln. Set before Lincoln (and indeed, mashing up several periods of time to tell its story) the novel follows the life of Cora, a typical black slave living in the south of the United States. Owned. Referred to as it because property doesn’t have the dignity of being recognised as human or gendered.

It is a brutal book – in that it doesn’t flinch from detailing actual events and treatments of slaves as they happened. It’s easy to watch films and see slaves treated as indentured workers but this isn’t how it was for much of US slavery’s existence. With a sickening post-hoc rationalisation, white slave owning culture was comfortable with lynching people (both white and black) for helping slaves escape, it was comfortable with torture and that torture was carried out by children, women and men. Children informed on abolitionist parents. Runaways were lynched (if they were lucky) or tortured to death in public if they were unlucky.

In a sign that everyone knows that slavery is iniquitous, blacks are killed for learning to read and a black library becomes a focal point for white violence because it’s too many ideas for a negro. The culture was one of ‘natural order’ where White people were in charge and any ‘negro’ who thought beyond being a slave was uppity, dangerous, asking for it. Freedmen were killed by ‘recovery patrols’ with impunity because they’re only one step away from being chattel.

One argument was that to deal with the fact that there were more slaves than whites – sterilising them would solve the problem over time – especially it would help if they decided to rise up and treat the whites like they’d treated the blacks.

There is no freedom from slavery – even freedmen know this, their dreams replete with memories of beatings, of those who were killed or abused by those whose power over them was utter and unaccountable. Being oppressed twists the mind, breaks the heart in a way that may be impossible to recover from. It raises questions of whether, decades after the end of segregation, the US can safely conclude that the legacy of slavery and the suppression of the ‘other’ has passed or whether it continues to influence the culture, say in laws passed during Jim Crow, in basic cultural tropes and in the application of funding, judgements and a myriad other handles that impinge on civic life.

The character in the book is deeply suspicious of all whites. That may be unfair, but let’s be real – a slave has good cause to hold this view – even when a small minority give their own lives to help them. It questions whether there is a ‘black’ culture and challenges its own main character as to whether there is a ‘white’ culture. There’s reference to Europeans, Whites, Irish and the like. All of which the main character rejects even as the author makes sure to make the distinction. It’s a masterful presentation of the issues in and around a story that is deeply focussed on the personal disaster of being a slave from birth.

You may think Game of Thrones has a high body count (among it’s almost exclusively white cast) but this is worse because it’s not just murder, it’s the complete massacre of agency through repeated abuse followed, eventually, but the death of the body.

If the thought of slavery doesn’t make you sick you’ve either not understood it or there’s something wrong with you. It’s really that simple.

And so we come to the last of the three – The Sellout. This is a vicious, acid burning satire about living as a black person in the modern US. It’s about a black man who ends up owning a slave (who volunteers to become his slave) and the world they both live in that can find space for this relationship to arise and then how it responds to it.

It is harsh, whipcrack smart and extremely funny but it presents a society which I realised that although I’ve seen representations of elsewhere, is one I don’t know and one I don’t experience. It was more alien to me than both Lincoln and the life shown in The Underground Railroad. Which was a shock – that something contemporary was so much more alien than I expected.

Both novels are hard reads in their own way. I know plenty of people who will not read them because they present difficult subjects and all they want from their fiction is ‘escapism’. I lament the intellectual torpor of these peers of mine and I worry that their apathy is half of why the issues discussed in these books persisted for so long in the first place. Fiction like this should be essential reading because it can awaken the heart, it can shake us out of our comfortable self-indulgence. For people who claim to be ‘good’ or ‘moral’, fiction like this should demand their attention because it reminds us all that we’re really not very far away from such horrendous times. Moreso than any non-fiction, because fiction makes it personal and thrusts it into your face and asks you for your empathy.  Sorry – this is my ‘why fiction is so important’ rant.

I recommend all three books. They’ve each served to awaken my political sensibilities more than much of the news on the same subjects in the last year (although the two have worked together I’m sure). I’d start with The Underground Railroad because it’s the most personal, the most accessible.

In the end, slavery and its legacy is still very much alive for most of us both directly (for isntance, find a stone built house in Bath or Bristol not made possible by  the slave trade) or indirectly (US culture is so heavy with its legacy it’s impossible to list all the ways their language, tropes and stereotypes code slavery into the mainstream consciousness). This triplet of books opens a door into this discussion.

As a writer – these books have challenged me to present worlds and stories that take the lives of all those involved in these kinds of relationships more seriously. It’s a frightening task that I know I’m not up to.

 

Zero K review

Don DeLillo is a Big American Writer. A gorilla in the jungle of authors feted by critics and publishers alike. This book appears, at first, like it might be science fiction – it’s about cryogenics, end of the world politics and billionaires hiding away their wealth so that they can have it when they wake up. Except these things are really nothing more than surface details. The story follows an estranged son whose step mother is dying, who is going to be frozen so that she can be awoken when technology is advanced enough for her to be healed.

The son has a father, a billionaire who he’s never forgiven for leaving his biological mother. He has daddy issues. But then the father has existential issues of his own.

The themes are deeply wrought throughout the text: the death of babyboomers who thought mortality was a thing they’d never have to contend with if they only worked hard enough; the pain of children whose parents have everything, whose standard of living can only fall by comparison; the alienation of the rest of the world who has watched the West’s prosperity pass them by. Except it’s also about how one would chose anywhere other than the West for the emergence of the future, about how our identity is, in the end, in what we are, the space we fill, the people we live among. And finally, but far from least, the idea that art is what makes life worth living, what gives it meaning and that without it, we should be bereft and ready to pass on the the next world.

I don’t know if the book succeeds in addressing these issues, but it does lay them out and ask the reader questions of their own about what it is that makes us, us and whether we find meaning in the lives we lead. I enjoyed it but more as an exercise in thinking through the ideas contained within than in the journey of the characters themselves.

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Imagine if we found a way of letting the rest of the galaxy know we were there? Imagine it was a mistake, that it happened at a period of time in which your culture was undergoing violent upheaval. Imagine if you hated everything about the world in which you were forced to endure.

This is the premise of Cixin Liu’s opening book in the Three Body Problem trilogy.

It’s fascinating to see a story of this type told from a non-western point of view. It’s also fascinating to see it develop according to good science as well as exploring the issues of such a situation without resorting to cheap gimmicks or requiring the characters to have melodramatic awakenings or background ‘issues’. There’s no sense of the maverick detective with personal issues cliche here.

It’s a tremendous book and I’d heartily recommend it – it’s real companion is the recent movie – Arrival – which talks through some of the same issues but from a completely different starting point.

In terms of downsides, there is a reasonable amount of plot discussion and sometimes a little more internal monologue could have been used to help the reader understand what was going on but these are small quibbles.

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