sunnuntai, 18. kesäkuu 2017

Four Funny Dudes and One Pretty Girl

Just got Netflix and started watching Expanse and Stranger Things, since I've heard so much about them. And they are good, based on a couple of episodes. Even right now I feel the pull to go and watch more. But why, oh why, even those two great, well-written series have this same old set-up which has irritated me from since childhood? Why can't we have Three A Bit Weird Boys and Two A Bit Weird Girls, or Four Weird Girls and One Cute Boy, or some other configuration of genders, weirdness/misfitness and numbers? I would not be so annoyed if it had not been the same in Wonder Woman. Why could not the funny secretary be somehow included in the group? Why arghh why the whole entertainment industry is so in love with this specific grouping?

Of course it may be that the situation in these series may change, I've seen only a couple of episodes after all, but it also may be that for whatever reason we'll never have a popular entertainment piece where four weird chicks team up with a cute dude – beyond Ghostbusters, which otherwise can't be recommended.

I just want to relate to a group of girls, all with their own quirks and who are mutants or cyborgs or misfits or just odd looking, and since I'm not sexist, of course there can be a dude too, but just one, thanks. Otherwise it might be too much, and you know what happens when you have more than one dude: they start their ranking games, and that's insufferable, and would ruin the group dynamic. So just one, and it would not hurt if he was nice to look at. Siiiigh...

maanantai, 5. kesäkuu 2017

Emotional Labour and Romance Lit., continued

A box of free books, something I just can't walk past even in a hurry. I'd probably rummage through "take a book for free" box even if running away from a killer robot from future. So there was such a box and I picked up The Bridal Bargain by Emma Darcy, a Harlequin romance, 162 pages, happy end guaranteed.

Firstly, I know it's meant to be a pleasant and light read, to help the reader forget her worries for a few hours. But still. For me it is hard to take entirely seriously the relationship problems of people who, based on the descriptions, appear in my mind's eye as shampoo commercial models. Certainly shampoo ad models have love lives and no doubt they have fears and doubts and suffer heartbreak like everyone else, but this image gives the story a parodical air. I could do with a little less square jaws, piercingly blue eyes and luscious tumbling blonde locks etc. (Not to toot Ethel M. Dell's horn at every opportunity, but *her* characters are not model-pretty or exceptionally handsome. And in case girl protagonist is remarkably beautiful, it just complicates her life by drawing the wrong sort of man to her before the hero who of course sees through the exterior to her soul comes to the rescue.)

But yeah. This book definitely fits my theory of popular romance literature giving woman readers the satisfaction of reading about relationships, where man takes it upon himself to do most or even all the emotional labour necessary. Besides a little revenge fantasy side plot, the whole point of the book is a guy fixing a girl's emotional issue. Storyline in short is that efficient, smart and pretty Hannah begins to work in a restaurant owned by rich, determined and handsome Antonio. They are immediately physically attracted (because they both look like just stepped out of shampoo commercial). But Hannah has been badly betrayed in previous relationship and is suspicious. Antonio has a principle never to mix work and relationships, also due to past experiences. They end up in bed anyway, but Hannah proves her moral integrity, she's not going to use it to excuse inefficiency at work or for favors. Antonio proposes to marry her, but she still can't trust him completely because of her past heartbreak. He listens attentively to her worries and comes up with a plan, which finally convinces her he is serious and trustworthy: he promises to organize their wedding which will be in 5 months time. During this time she is free change her mind about them getting married at any time (free as in emotionally risk free, as he promises to ask no questions and not try to change her mind, if she decides to cancel the wedding). The guy shouldering all emotional risk of disappointment, social embarrassment, navigating the different expectations of their respective families, etc is the crucial moment of the whole book, which leads to happy end.

So far this is only anecdotal evidence, I need to go through at least a couple of dozen harlequin romances to see if this happens in most or all of them (but not right away, Hugos first!). Anyway, it seems to be a mirror image of entertainment aimed at mostly male audience, where the hero gets the girl in the end specifically without doing any emotional work. Dude meets a pretty girl, then there is danger, dude is heroic, and in the end a relationship with the girl just materializes out of thin air, without him exposing himself to emotional risks. Instead of setting himself vulnerable to emotional danger, he proves himself worthy of a relationship by facing external physical danger = zero emotional labour and none of that messy picking up cues if she likes me or not.

As big portion of entertainment comes from the US, this might have a lot to do with American dating culture, which seems to put the pressure to initiate contact and be the pursuer on the guy. And it no doubt is a satisfying fantasy to get the girl without facing the possibility of rejection and embarrassment. There's an additional category of aimed at mostly male audience entertainment, where women & romantic relationships don't feature in any way, which seems to fulfill this need as well. "Romance and relationships are so messy and taxing, I wish I did not need to stress out about them *at all*", something like that.

torstai, 20. huhtikuu 2017

Nostalgia backwards-forwards

I feel sort of up-side down nostalgia, caused by a book set in here and now. This book is in Finnish (Rakkaus niinku, Johannes Ekholm) and not been translated to other languages yet. It is about a thirtysomething designer/writer guy, who records his everyday discussions with his friends and family on his cellphone. This guy Joona has been fired from his job and had to move back with his parents, he suffers from feelings of anxiety and meaninglessness, and his most meaningful relationship is chatting with a girl he has never met. This book is in no way speculative fiction, due to being composed of real-seeming discussions, phonealls and chats. Maybe it's even anti-speculative, if such a category exists. It is very much the 21st century urban Finland reality: meatspace and social media existence similar in importance. Social wrongs so huge they inspire self-centered apathy instead of action. Everyone agrees that glaciers are melting and the Earth is nudging closer to destruction every day, and yet they are unable to escape from this economical system which compels people to do work they know is harmful. All very real, nothing made up. I know these people very well (although my social circles are about 5 years older, have more kids and use less drugs or hide their habits from me).

The speculative part is in my head. I'd love to send this book back in time some three or four decades. I'm imagining how Joona chatting on Google hangouts with Sadgirl91 would come across in 1987 or so. I'm imagining myself sitting in my room as a kid, maybe 1989 or 1990, window facing dark fir forest, www still an unherad-of invention, new third channel on television still mostly seen as unnecessary luxury, cell phones something maybe seen on James Bond, and then! How it would have felt reading about a world where people live their lives as much on portable computer screens as in the real world, dropping half-digested sociological theory buzzwords with the ease only available to people who can and do Google them instantly and speed-read through half a dozen blog posts about any subject while tapping their messages with their thumbs. It's a strange hybrid of utopia and dystopia. Information utopia bubble in a sea of suffering.

I've experienced this lost in time sensation with other books too. Gibson's Spook Country, which is not speculative fiction, made me want to read it back in the eighties as near-future cyberpunkish SF.  And it feels somehow like a waste and a pity to read it here and now, where it is lifted right off the life so familiar to me. A couple of decades back I would have read with eyes wide in wonder and shock and amazement!

maanantai, 10. huhtikuu 2017

Jacqueline Koyanagi: Ascension

Have read the first polyamorous SFR story, here is the report, might have some spoilers so watch out!

Screen%20shot%202017-04-10%20at%2018.09.Humans live on several planets and have space travel technology to transport themselves from one planet to another in time measured in weeks. But it's not all plasma and copper in Ascension world – there are also spirit guides, who facilitate their clients' mystic journeys and have supernatural skills. Protagonist Alana is a spaceship engineer, a "sky surgeon", who's slowly going out of work, as completely different technology is making her and her kind obsolete. This new sort of technology comes from a parallel universe, whose inhabitants can do magical things: heal incurable diseases, make people grow new limbs, change their appearance with fins and third eyes and shimmering skins. All that comes with a hefty price tag, and money seems to be hemorrhaging out of Alana's universe into the Otherside, causing widespread poverty and some hotspots of wealth for those doing business with the othersiders. (This scenario perhaps inspired by what may happen with AI and increased robotization; those who own these superior technologies have an economic super-advantage comparable to having magical powers from another universe, and end up leeching all the money, since most people's skills and time are no longer worth anything in the market. There is no mention of AI or any kind of advanced computers in the book at all, so the technology is something out of pulpy SF in the 50s or 60s.)

Alana sneaks into a spaceship after the crew of that ship comes looking for her sister, who is one of the mystical but professional spirit guides. She also has an instant connection to the ship, Tangled Axon, and hopes a bit irrationally to be accepted as one of the crew in exchange for locating her sister. This stow-away thing is stretching credibility a bit far, like how can it be this easy can it be to sneak and hide into a spaceship! Everyone would be doing if it was that simple. But to get the story started, she needs to end up on that spaceship, so what can I do but swallow this tedious plot device?

Alana and her professionally succesful sister Nova have a difficult relationship, maybe due to Nova's snobbish ways, maybe something else. If the Nova character seems exaggerated and grates on your nerves, just please keep going, it'll get better. To make matters more complicated, Alana suffers from a painful illness, and she needs constant medication to function, or an othersider cure, which is too expensive – in contrast to Nova, who is healthy, but treats her body as an annoying inconvenience to her spirit guide activities. Alana's resentment at this is understandable, if unfair.

So where's the romance? It's on its way, for the ship is owned by cool and sexy Tev, to whom Alana is instantly drawn, even if the situation is hostile. But this book is ultimately more a novel about family than about romantic connections. This would perhaps be less obvious for me, if I had picked the book up without knowing it is going to be about polyamory. Lots of emotional suspense is drawn from Alana not knowing her love interest Tev is polyamorous, and wondering about the mixed signals she's receiving from Tev. But since I knew from the beginning how that's going to work out, there was no mystery except why didn't Tev or someone in the crew explain earlier what was going on. The withholding of information even gave the story an eerie, horror-like vibe, as if the spaceship was some kind of Christine the Killer Car, moulding her crew into a hive-mind of sorts without them even maybe knowing it was happening. Luckily – for romance – the explanation was more benign, though now I'd like to read something about a half-sentient spaceship invading the brains of the crew!

However, the biggest emotional change has to do with how Alana views her sister Nova and how their strained and distant relationship is healed. Biggest losses have to do with family, and family relations make the plot move. The relationship between Alana and Tev comes as a nice bonus. Of all the characters, Tev is the most likable and solid. The crush Alana has on her feels very understandable, if a bit sudden – but people's emotions probably go double speed in those cramped spaceship quarters and under threat.

Ascension is written in the first person, which I didn't like since it obscured much of the worldbuilding – best parts of the book were those where Alana listened to the stories of the crew she was getting to know, which was near to having third person narrative. Writing was at times really nice and at times basic minus, it would have benefited from stricter editor work-out. And the plot overall was holey, although the big reveal was satisfying, but otherwise people's actions just did not make much sense (like why destroy that planet, I just never understood that). Ascension is Koyanagi's debut novel, I hope she writes more books, since I feel she has a lot to give to SFR, if she'd just keep on writing. Wonderful cover art btw!

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As a side note, at times I'm reminded of how SF-y our age is. In the book a huge gas giant planet suddenly disappears, and I started to wonder would it not upset the orbits of the other planets, messing up the whole system, so I switched from iBooks to Safari on my portable information device, and wrote "what would happen if Jupiter disappeared", and got an answer in 2 seconds. That's future yeah! So cool! I almost pity the kids these days since for them this is all normal.

torstai, 6. huhtikuu 2017

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

An American movie dream

I believe popular movies are the subconscious of societies, that nations are literally dreaming through their movie industries: going through past event and trying to come to terms with them, fulfilling wishes, battling fears. USA dreams in Hollywood and India in Bollywood and so on. The more driven by a single person's artistic vision a movie is, the less it channels these subconscious themes, but movies where every decision is made by a committee with money in mind, ar the purest as national dreams. I have just woken up from Hollywood live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell anime and I'm in need of a book of dream symbolism.

Everyone has probably heard about how the movie was cast with western actors instead of asians or specifically japanese. The only big role in the movie filled by a Japanese actor is Mr Aramaki, Section 9 boss, played by super cool Takeshi Kitano. Even Togusa is played by a Singaporean actor. As if there was a shortage of Japanese actors and actresses...

The problem is not that Major is played by Scarlett Johansson, a western actress. It totally makes sense someone would build a robotic body with her features – I would, wouldn't you? But it just drives me nuts that in the movie a remarkable portion of US populace has immigrated to Japan, as refugees probably, but the situation is not elaborated at all. In the movie there are at minimum as many western characters as there are asian, and English has become the main language of Japan – only old people speak Japanese anymore. Major can't even pronounce her original Japanese name properly. The Japanese culture is being swamped by American culture, up to the point where gravestones are written in alphabet instead of kanji.

In the original anime, one of the major plot-driving forces was political strife between countries. In the new movie, we hear that a political entity called African Union exists, so nations have not disappeared, but the political relationship between US and Japan is left completely vague. This lacuna is so conspicious it must be important.

Is this movie an American dream or a Japanese nightmare? Is there a nagging feeling in the collective American unconscious that occupation of Japan and restructuring the nation after WWII should have been more thorough? Some kind of irritation that Japanese reamined so Japanese instead of becoming Americans? Or is it a nationalistic warning about allowing "too many" refugees to your country, lest they take over, inspired by recent real-world events? I am confused.

Defining ourselves through memories
Uncovering mysteries in one's past is such an archetypal plot motivation in American pop culture, I wish I knew why! It is said in the movie that "memories don't define us, what we do define us", but this is revealed to be a lie or a misstatement – memories end up being the most important part of humanness. I don't remember anyone in the anime having families, but it was admittedly a long time ago that I saw it. In the movie Major re-connecting with her mother provides emotional closure, in a touchy-feely way at odds with typical cyberpunk mindset. Now that I come to think of it, the public hug Major gives to her mother is a very un-Japanese thing to do, underlining the fact that even if her daughter's "ghost" is returned in humanoid form, her mind and spirit are irrevocably American.

Scarlett Johansson looks throughout the movie as if she was only 90% there, which makes her character appropriately distant – although everyone is too emotionally expressive for my tastes. The part where she went into a brothel to fondle a human woman was aesthetically a very pleasing moment, but seemed quite purposeless except as fan service. But yeah, good-looking scene, as was the whole movie. The cityscapes and all the design was awesome, I'd watch this movie again just to properly appreciate the visuals.

Romance-wise, Major's colleague Batou has still an unrequited crush on the Major, very touchingly expressed. "You never ask, I always come [to the resque] – resignation to the facts, not as a complaint. Consent is one of the main themes of the movie, as well as violation of the body and mind. So Batou, who keeps his respectful distance is the perfect relationship for Major, whose body is continuously ripped to pieces and regrown, yet does not feel anything and whose head has been completely messed.

Final verdict: Gorgeous-looking movie which dregs up some weird stuff in American unconscious about relations to Japan.