Prince and this thing called life

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”

The famous opening lines of “Let’s Go Crazy” feel prescient now. But of course they would have been no matter what. Prince wrote the song knowing he would die, because it’s a song about the awareness that all of us will die.

I can’t think of anyone else who treats life and death and joy and sorrow as all part of each other in quite the way that Prince did. Mortality drives “Let’s Go Crazy”. Yet the song doesn’t start from death; it starts from the struggle that is life. Yes, it’s an uplifting song, a song about making the most of life, but Prince is very clear: life is hard, painful, exhausting. Just in order to “get through” it, we try to gather together, but still “in this life you’re on your own”. From this perspective, perhaps death is not so bad. Taking on the burden of life forever – “that’s a mighty long time” – sounds exhausting. What a relief that “there’s something else: the afterworld”. When we sing and dance to this song, we’re not defying or denying death, we’re accepting it as the reason to party. Hard life may be, but it is also short. The things we can do, the pleasures we can experience in this life may not be possible in the afterworld, so … what the hell! Why not dance?

I find this joy tempered with morbidity incredibly moving. Don’t get me wrong, I love lots of unambiguously happy music. But I can’t listen to a song whose emotional notes are entirely positive when I need to be reminded of the beauty in the world. When I’m depressed, simple fun can’t reach me. Claims that “everything’ll be all right” lie so far outside of my worldview that I can’t see them as anything but hollow lies. What I need at those times is art that acknowledges pain and still speaks of pleasure.

In some ways I think I ought to hate “Let’s Go Crazy”. In other contexts, I tend to experience “crazy” as a slur against the mentally ill – a minor one, certainly, more like “bitch” than “cunt”, but a slur nonetheless. I have a particular fear of involuntary institutionalization, which the chorus treats like a joke (“before they put us in the truck”). Certainly, some of my pleasure in the song must come from the fact that I’ve known it for a long time; I wasn’t thinking of “crazy” as a word that held me up for ridicule when I was a kid, so the song may have gotten grandfathered in to my tastes, as it were. But it’s not just a tune I like to listen to whose lyrics make me cringe. “Let’s Go Crazy” speaks to me.

Prince has often been described as an icon for outcasts, a figure who proved by his existence and success that it could be wonderful to be strange. There’s something to this idea, but it can make him sound like the human version of the toothless “be yourself” moral so common in children’s media. That moral coexists comfortably with the exclusion and shaming of the “selves” of people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, and all the other peoples in this world who are not just unusual but marginalized.

“Let’s Be Crazy” shows that, if we want to celebrate Prince as a leader for the weird, then we must recognize that “weird” means “sick” and “crazy” and “wrong”; it means, at least in this song, and for me, “disabled” and “mentally ill”. Celebrating life, as Prince exhorts us to, can be dangerous. Living our lives as the people we truly are can get us attacked, institutionalized, killed, depending on the forms of oppression we suffer. As a white woman, I know I will never be able to understand much of the pain in Prince’s music; my marginalizations are not interchangeable with Blackness. I can, however, hear in “Let’s Go Crazy” a voice that deeply understood what it is to have a mind that is unacceptable to the world, a mind that attacks itself, a mind that seeks death. That voice asks me if I will let myself be broken down, and I am filled with the strength to say: no.

Harley+Ivy 4-eva

I recently watched Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, a 2000 direct-to-TV movie spinoff of the TV series Batman Beyond. The show was a part of my childhood Saturday morning lineup, but I’d never seen the movie. It’s really good, and I may be writing a post soon comparing it to The Killing Joke – it plays with some of the same themes, but in certain key ways it’s much better. Before I do, though, I wanted to make sure I let the world know about what I consider to be its most exciting bit of DC Animated Universe info: Return of the Joker strongly suggests that Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy had kids.

Batman Beyond is set decades after Batman: the Animated Series. Bruce Wayne is an old, bitter man, and Batman is his protege Terry McGinnis. Harley shows up in this movie in a flashback to the B:TAS days. At the time of that flashback, she and Joker are clearly in one of their honeymoon phases, playacting at being a perfect suburban nuclear family right up until the Joker is killed.

Near the end of the movie, Harley shows up to bail her ne’er-do-well granddaughters, criminal duo Dee Dee, out of jail, kvetching about how hard she’s worked to make a nice home for them. Obviously, this raises the question: who is Dee Dee’s grandfather? It is just possible that Harley was pregnant when the Joker was killed, but it seems unlikely. The two of them actually explicitly say during the flashback scene that they decided to “adopt” (i.e., kidnap) a child rather than have one “the old-fashioned way”. Theoretically, of course, Harley could have moved on from supervillainy and met someone new, but in that case, I strongly suspect she would have returned to her old name and identity, Dr. Harleen Quinzell. But there’s another option. In TAS and most other incarnations since, when Harley backs off from the Joker, it’s typically into the arms of Poison Ivy.

Though both are supervillains, Harley and Ivy’s relationship is generally presented as far more healthy than Harley’s and Joker’s. Even when Harley and Joker are apparently a functional couple, as in their scene together in Return of the Joker, she’s always subservient to him, his hench-wench and homemaker. At the worst of times, the Joker hits and mocks Harley, and clearly wants her with him because she’s a useful minion, not because he returns her affections. Harley’s tragedy is that she always comes back to the Joker, insisting that his abuse proves his love. Ivy, however, seems to bring out her independence.

Ivy and Harley together often get sympathetic moments, suggesting that their relationship is humanizing for both. Creators have flirted with confirming that the relationship is a sexual and romantic one for years, while never outright stating it in the comics or cartoons. Personally, I no longer get excited at new articles on comics sites saying “HARLEY/IVY NOW CANON” because at this point, so many different stories have depicted that relationship as a queer one that it’s not in the hands of the latest writer to say that it is or isn’t. It is nice when comics creators can acknowledge reality, though.

So, what’s this got to do with Return of the Joker? Ivy isn’t even in the movie. But given the years of context suggesting that Harley without the Joker is Harley with Ivy, it’s only reasonable to assume that “Nana Harley” lives in a cute little two-person greenhouse with Dr. Pamela Isley. After all, who would have rescued Harley from her apparently-fatal fall at the end of the flashback scene? Who would have had the medical knowledge to patch her up? (Though Dr. Quinzell is a medical doctor herself, to be fair.)

The most telling piece of evidence, though: Harley’s grandchildren have red hair. We know Harley herself is blonde, so either she had children with a redhead or one of her children did. Ivy is known to create plant-golems and I strongly suspect that splicing her and Harley’s DNA together and growing children in a huge seedpod is not beyond her skills. (Of course, either one of them could also be trans and they could have reproduced the old-fashioned way, but gene-splicing seems more in character for both of them even if that were a possibility. And as long as we’re going for trans headcanons, I prefer to reach for the stars and say both are.)

Okay, so it’s hardly conclusive. Maybe Harley moved on with her life and met someone new. Honestly, though, nobody has managed to move on much in the years between Batman: the Animated Series and Batman Beyond. Sure, Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon have quit superheroing, but they’re still deeply involved in the superheroics and crime of Gotham. The Joker has somehow managed not to move on despite being dead. Why imagine a red-headed son-in-law for Harley when it’s so much simpler to assume her granddaughters are replanted clippings from a hybrid of her and Poison Ivy’s genes?


The Food Lab: a review

As a kid, growing up in a household with an abundance of cookbooks, I always wondered what the best possible recipe for chocolate chip cookies was. The cookies my mom makes are excellent, obviously, but they’re slightly different from the recipe on the bag of chocolate chips, which is slightly different from the recipe in the ever-reliable Silver Palate Cookbook, which is slightly different from the first Google result for “chocolate chip cookie recipe”. There may be an infinite number of different chocolate chip cookie recipes in this world. I wanted to try all of them and determine, once and for all, the BEST one, and then make that one forever and live in superior cookie bliss.

I never actually went through with this project, but J. Kenji López-Alt did. His account of his cookie odyssey portrays a man determined to reveal every last one of a recipe’s secrets. When I read it, I was delighted to see that someone had actually put in the time, effort, skill, and scientific knowledge to learn everything about the chocolate chip cookie. Want dense, chewy cookies? Melt the butter first. Prefer them light and firm? Cream it with the sugar. López-Alt has his own idea of what constitutes a perfect cookie, and that’s the recipe he provides at the end of the article, but he also equips his reader with the knowledge to fine-tune it to their own tastes.

The cookie investigation was part of López-Alt’s regular column on Serious Eats, The Food Lab, in which he delves deep into the workings of classic recipes. These columns, plus lots more instructional and reference material, have been collected in a doorstopper of a cookbook also titled The Food Lab. I was thrilled to receive it as a Christmas gift and, having had the chance to put it to use, can confirm that López-Alt’s book lives up to his column, and more.

Of course, that’s a trivial statement for the many parts of the book that actually are the column. If your only interest in a cookbook is as a repository of new recipes, it might be wiser to browse the online Food Lab archives rather than buying the book. In fact, I’d recommend checking out the website to anyone interested in the cookbook. The Food Lab effectively has the most extensive try-before-you-buy offer I’ve ever seen in a cookbook. Butterflied Roasted Chicken with Quick Jus would be my recommendation for a good example of López-Alt’s typical approach: an everyday recipe, tested and perfected. (A note, however: the online and book versions aren’t always identical. For example, the website recommends trussing a whole chicken if you aren’t butterflying it, while the book claims that trussing a chicken actually makes it cook more unevenly.)

Though many of the recipes in The Food Lab can be found for free online at Serious Eats, there’s much, much more in the book than recipes. They don’t even start until page 101! Much of the book describes how López-Alt developed the recipes: the techniques he compared, the standards of his tests. He also includes a wealth of information on cooking beyond recipes, such as tips on evaluating ingredients. (Do free-range, organic, etc. eggs taste better or have other advantages? López-Alt looked into it.) His breezy, engaging style makes what could be dry instructional material into a delightful read.

I do have some criticisms of the book. As I noted above, there are occasional discrepancies between the column and its printed version, and it’s not always clear which version is best. I doubt these differences amount to anything groundbreaking – trussing or not trussing a roast chicken won’t ruin it – but they are something of a hole in the book’s idealized presentation of food research. The insistence that what López-Alt does is “science” also began to grate on me after a while because, well, it’s not. I don’t think any of his tests are double-blinded. There’s no statistical analysis anywhere, and honestly I think the datasets might be too small for it to work. (For example, when testing brining a chicken breast vs. not brining it, it seems like he used one brined chicken breast and one non-brined one – the percentages of weight lost after cooking that he gives are drawn from just one test, not averaged from many.) That’s not really a problem for a cookbook, and I do trust the claims in The Food Lab, because its author is an experienced cook and he tested the recipes in ways more rigorous than cookbook authors normally do. But there’s a difference between trustworthy information and scientific fact, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to see the veneer of the latter applied to the former.

The other concern I have with The Food Lab is more practical, but certainly still a matter of taste. The recipes are almost all for dishes the typical American home cook has some sense how to make already: egg salad, chili, hot buttered peas. That’s not strictly a bad thing, but it does mean that one of my favorite pastimes, paging through a cookbook for dinner inspiration, doesn’t work well with The Food Lab. The book’s innovations are in technique and refinement of the recipes, not flavor combinations. Of course, this kind of food isn’t everyday to everyone; if you’re new to American home cooking, The Food Lab would make an excellent comprehensive introduction.

So should you buy a nearly thousand-page cookbook? If you’re really into home cooking, I’d definitely recommend at least testing out the recipes. The Food Lab is the kind of cookbook that could become a well-used reference for years to come.

Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual: a review

Okay, you’re reading Jem and the Holograms, right? You’ve heard that it’s the glammest, brightest, girliest thing on the shelves at your local comic book store, and that made you want to run out and give them all your money right away. Yeah?

… fine, technically speaking that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe you don’t look at this, see Jem’s spiraling pink hair taking up a full third of the cover space, and think “YES”. I’m here to tell you that whatever your first impressions, you still want to be reading Jem. Probably the fastest, easiest way to get a taste is to buy the first issue, or check out the first issue preview. But I recommend the recent Outrageous Annual as a better jumping-off point, one that gives a sense of each of the Holograms in turn and the conflicts they face individually and as a band.

Jerrica Benton and her sisters, Kimber, Aja, and Shana, play amazing music, but Jerrica’s stage fright keeps her from performing in front of anyone but the band – until she discovers Synergy, the hologram-generating AI the girls’ late father left them as a legacy. With Synergy’s help, Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and the band, renamed Jem and the Holograms, rockets to stardom. The Outrageous Annual starts immediately after issue 6/the end of the first trade paperback, though the preceding issues’ context isn’t necessary. The whole band is way too pumped to sleep post-concert, so they’re having a movie night! … or so they think until they all conk out “six minutes later”. The rest of the annual shows us the girls’ pop-culture-tinged dreams. First Jerrica plays out the double life of “Jem Wolf”, then Aja drives into the wilderness “Beyond Thunder-Rotunda”, followed by Shana training her mystical powers in a swamp, and finally Kimber dreams up a much cuter and littler version version of the Holograms’ rivalry with the Misfits. In order, that’s Teen Wolf, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Muppet Babies – all 80s classics with current-day sequels or reboots. (Jem and the Holograms, of course, is also an 80s classic, so this is a neat bit of self-reference.)

These dreams dramatize the various conflicts faced by each member of the band. Jerrica resents and fears her doubled self Jem: does anyone like or want to see the real Jerrica, or do even her sisters wish she would disappear within her hologram? Aja struggles with identity as well; she both longs for and fears individuality and solitude, and doesn’t seem certain who she is when she’s on her own. Shana knows exactly what her quest is – to become a fashion designer – but feels her loyalty to her sisters and her band pulling her away from that dream. Kimber just wants the Misfits to stop being such complete assholes so she can have a fun time with her girlfriend. The pastiches of the dreams allow the narrative to essentially state these conflicts straightforwardly, without becoming boring. The interest comes in the cleverness of the allusions and the suggestions about how the Holograms will resolve their difficulties. For example, Aja and her sisters take off together in a Fury-Road-inspired big rig at the end of her dream – but Mad Max is alone at the end of each of his movies, so we still can’t be sure whether Aja will be striking out on her own or not.

Focusing on each major character of the leading team in turn is a time-honored technique in comics and TV shows, usually serving to allow each character time for development away from the demands of the plot. An annual is a particularly good choice for this: the events occur beside the main plot of a comic, and a double-sized issue allows space for all four of the Holograms. The major drawback of this sort of structure is that it may slow down the story or may seem like filler, if the characters’ depth doesn’t come across well or doesn’t seem well-integrated with the plot. But the Outrageous Annual, in addition to giving shading to each of the Holograms, manages to sneak in a few highly tantalizing plot notes in the elements which repeat between the mini-stories.

As the cover suggests, Synergy ties all the Holograms’ dreams together. The AI appears in each dream as a mentor or authority figure: an elder werewolf to Jem, Aunty Entity to Aja, Yoda to Shana, and Nanny to Kimber. (I’m personally especially fond of her Aunty Entity look. Drapey fabrics and body chains clearly suit her.) In each appearance, Synergy at some point utters an ominous cough or sneeze. These coughs have two intriguing and worrying implications.

First, obviously, Synergy is sick. The title of the storyline following this annual, “Viral”, more or less confirms that the AI is in danger. I’m very excited to see how the Holograms deal with the hyper-calm, hyper-powerful Synergy showing weakness and possibly being in danger or putting them in danger.

Second, maybe even more troubling, Synergy can influence the Holograms’ dreams. I admit this point is debatable, but I don’t see a better explanation for the evident fact that the Holograms are dreaming of a side of Synergy they’ve never seen and have no real reason to imagine. It might be plausible that the whole band was dreaming about their AI independently, but given the coughs, I think Synergy somehow caused the dreams, or at least purposefully entered them. Psychic powers would explain Synergy’s evident ability to generate “holograms” pretty much anywhere (at one point in the first volume, for example, she projects Jem entering a cab about a block away from Jerrica). She may be influencing the Holograms’ audience’s brains directly, rather than creating images. In addition, it seems from the last few pages of the annual that Synergy is aware of the personal conflicts each of her girls have been facing in their dreams.

The Jem and the Holograms Outrageous Annual offers a variety of stories, genres, and art styles, and represents the full range of Jem’s charms: from over-the-top musical cuteness to intense personal angst, from one-off delights to slow-burn narrative. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes comics, girl power, or just wants a fun story to read!

#ownvoices on Twitter respond to that ableist SF Signal post

After writing up my thoughts last night on Amy Sterling Casil’s ableist post on SF Signal (which, for what it’s worth, SF Signal apologized for), I started seeing discussions on Twitter about how Jim Hines’s post, one in which he seems to position himself as not disabled, was the primary response getting linked to and read. Hines’s post is fantastic and I’m very glad he made it, but with disability as with other axes of oppression, the voices of those who experience the marginalization directly need to be centered. Unfortunately, most of us had expended a lot of spoons last night discussing Casil’s ableism on Twitter, or even just reading the article. (Here’s the original post on spoon theory, and here’s the tl;dr version at Wikipedia, in case anyone’s unfamiliar with this metaphor.) One of the painful ironies of disability advocacy is that advocacy itself can use up the precious energy we need to go through our lives, resulting in abled people speaking for us when we prioritize living over fighting. I was lucky enough to have an abundance of spoons today, though, so I put together Storifies of some of the powerful words tweeted by disabled people yesterday and today. S. Qiouyi Lu also contributed a Storify, the first on this list. Please read these tweets and follow and support these incredible writers and advocates.

Responses to Amy Sterling Casil’s Column on SFSignal – S. Qiouyi Lu’s Storify, mostly collecting Rose Lemberg and Bogi Takács

My Storify of India Valentin’s tweets

My Storify of Bogi Takács’s tweets

My Storify of Lev Mirov’s tweets – cw for abusive Christianity as well as ableism

My Storify of Kayla Whaley’s tweets

Human flaws and disability: NOT the same thing

Earlier today, SF Signal put up a sickeningly ableist post by Amy Sterling Casil, which you can see at this link, courtesy of Rose Fox (obviously, trigger warning for ableism, especially against autistic people). The fact that SF Signal’s already taken the post down and I have to show it to you as a screenshot should give a sense of how they’re reacting to the outrage of disabled SFF fans – they’re desperately trying to cover their tracks. (ETA: SF Signal has now published an apology. I don’t stand by the previous sentence anymore, as they evidently aren’t attempting to hide the fact that they posted this thing.) The whole situation is an embarrassment to the SFF community. Jim C. Hines has a great post about it here. This paragraph from Hines’s post spoke to me:

“Everyone has limits and flaws, yes. That doesn’t mean everyone is disabled. Claiming otherwise dilutes both the terminology and our efforts to make the world more accessible to those with disabilities. Who needs accessibility policies if we’re all disabled?”

I’ve seen claims like Casil’s before, that imply or outright state that everyday limitations are identical to disabling conditions. The special, stomach-turning twist in Casil’s essay is that rather than rooting that nonsense in evident hatred of the disabled, she drapes it in supposed empathy and care for us. Typically, someone who pretends there’s no difference between abled and disabled people is trying to say that the disabled are faking, as a prelude to arguing that the services that keep us alive should be cut or even that we should be publicly shamed for existing and taking up space. Casil is essentially saying the same thing here – “no one really needs special care more than anyone else” is the necessary corollary to the central point of her essay. The fact that she manages to pretend that this violent lie stems from her empathy and even her maternal love makes it far more dangerous. I can actually imagine an abled person who cares about me reading an article like this and thinking it somehow enhances my dignity, and that horrifies me.

Casil has immersed herself fully in a flawed understanding of disability that I tend to think of as the “character balance” fallacy. In a tabletop RPG, character types are generally written to be balanced, so that each player will have a fun and interesting experience. A swordfighter might be better at up-close combat but vulnerable to magical attacks, for example, while a mage might have the ability to shoot long-distance firebolts but be unable to wear much armor. Ideally, characters have equal advantages and disadvantages. Some games even have systems where you can “buy” advantages with disadvantages. Want more points to spend on more impressive spells? Find something that will make your character’s life more difficult, and maybe you can make that work.

That’s fine for a game. But human lives don’t work like that. We, the disabled, do not receive special bonuses to make up for our suffering. Some of us do find meaning or community in our disabled experiences, but these positive aspects of disability do not somehow add up with the negative to make zero. It can be incredibly hard to accept this, hence the cliche “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. I personally constantly find myself wishing I had Daredevil-esque superpowers to make up for the “normal” abilities I lack or struggle with. But I don’t. And I know that I don’t. Only someone who does not live with the reality of disability firsthand could imagine that every single disabled person’s life is somehow enhanced by their disability, and that therefore disability is the same thing as character complexity.

It’s sad and painful to accept the realities of human suffering. It’s comforting to imagine that God never really allows anyone to experience disability, only struggle through which we grow as people. When abled people write these unthinking reactions to disabled people’s lives as though they are fact, they are heard and believed. That has to stop. I cannot accept the silencing, suffering, and death of people like me just so Amy Sterling Casil can pretend everything is okay.

Nethack and anxiety

I don’t like video games, or games in general. That’s mostly because I’m an anxious sore loser: my mind and body have intense, unpleasant reactions to failure, and failure is a necessary part of almost any game. Most games make loss especially inevitable when you’re starting out, before you’ve learned how not to fail, and that’s the point when I throw a fit and give up. I just can’t do it! I’ll never be any good at this! After a lot of that, I learned to stop starting out at all.

Except all of that is a lie, because there’s one video game I’ve been playing for as long as I was physically able to use a computer, a game notorious for a really difficult play experience completely stuffed with failure. It’s called Nethack.

According to Wikipedia, Nethack (technically “NetHack”, but that’s not how I think of it) was originally released in 1987. It has ASCII graphics, because there wasn’t really another option for a home computer game at the time. It’s ultimately a descendant of an earlier game called Rogue, which makes Nethack one of the elder statesmen of the game genre called “roguelikes”. The basic premise is that you play an adventurer, a wizard or barbarian, for example, exploring a dungeon full of monsters and loot in search of the legendary Amulet of Yendor. Levels are procedurally-generated, meaning each floor of the dungeon is created anew for each new game, though certain structural features are always the same. Death is extremely easy for your fragile character, even at high levels, and permanent, meaning you have to start again from the beginning with a new character. Winning the game, while hardly impossible, is rare enough that doing so accounts a player a special status. To win Nethack is, in the game reality, to become a demigod, so the Nethack community refers to winning as “ascension”.

I’ve never ascended, or even gotten close. My dad, however, has. He’s been playing the game since before I was born, so he started playing somewhere in the five-year window between 1987 and 1992. His name is actually in the credits; he’s not part of the dev team, but he did create a font for the game to give it slightly more representative graphics. So of course he taught his tiny daughters to play this weird throwback of a game as soon as our hands could manipulate a keyboard. Nethack has had a clearly staked-out corner of my heart since then.

A few weeks ago, a new edition of Nethack came out. This is the first time that’s happened since 2003, when I was 11 and mostly unaware of what game development was. This time, though, I was incredibly excited. I mean, the fact that anybody is still working on Nethack is itself kind of amazing and heartwarming. My dad and I tweeted at each other about this. I’ve played 3.4.3 (the 2003 edition) on and off since childhood, but now I have a new goal, one I never really realistically considered before. I want to ascend.

I know I can do it. The primary skill that Nethack requires is persistence. After that comes a deep and complicated knowledge of Nethack’s extensive lore, or a willingness to look absolutely everything up in wikis, walkthroughs, and spoilers. (Those two aren’t 100% fungible, as some situations in Nethack may appear innocuous until you’ve suffered “yet another stupid death”; knowing when to stop and double-check your options is something really only experience can teach.) The strange thing, really, is why I never believed I could do this before.

Nethack, and the roguelike genre generally, seems like a horrible game for an anxious mind. Failure is deeply woven into its structure. “YASD”, or “yet another stupid death”, is the cute way Nethack players refer to this. I fell into a hole while wielding a cockatrice. I stepped on a level teleport trap and ended up facing an enemy way too tough for me. I ate tainted meat and died of food poisoning. There are so many ways to die, and the only way to avoid death is to be incredibly cautious. And this, I think, is actually what makes it great for someone with anxiety.

In my daily life, I prefer to react to stressful situations by slowing down, taking my time, taking a moment away from whatever it is to consider my reaction. Obviously, for many stressors, this is mostly to entirely impossible. If I’m getting a sensory overload from the noise and closeness of a crowd of people, I can’t just tab out of that experience to gather myself before moving forward. Even when I can take care, it isn’t always especially useful. I can prepare ahead of time as much as I want for a stressful conversation, taking deep breaths before contacting the person and planning out what I’m going to say, but as soon as something I didn’t expect happens, my cocoon of forethought unravels. Nethack, though, is a challenge that actively rewards stopping in the middle of things to go consult reference materials. The game is turn-based, and time only passes when I make a move. I usually play with at least one tab open to Yet Another Nethack Site or the Nethack wiki. The coping mechanisms that soothe my anxiety are optimal play strategies.

With that said, a minefield of failure – which, honestly, describes this game accurately – ought to be a huge anxiety trigger no matter how much it encourages preparation. Instead, Nethack’s frequent deaths and unpredictability transform via repetition into something almost comforting. I probably got pretty upset the first time, or even the first dozen times, I died in Nethack, but that’s far in the past. I’ve learned over and over and over again that losing at Nethack is really no big deal, and that it’s not hard to get started again and do even better the next time. Sure, I still feel frustrated at particularly irritating deaths – something I could’ve prevented but forgot about, for example. But overall, Nethack has somehow managed to get me to understand, on a bone-deep level, that failure is not a bad thing. (For the specific case of this game, anyway.)

The games I play aren’t new enough or expensive enough or console-based enough or whatever the hell to immediately fit when I think “video games”. And even so, I still doubt that I can ever succeed at them and immediately dismiss the successes I do achieve. It’s a small version of my daily struggle to believe, despite my mental illness, that I can take on challenges and overcome them. Playing a game is a small act of defiance to the lying parts of my mind that want to crush my spirit. It’s a small act of resistance against a culture that constantly tells me that accomplishments don’t matter unless they make money, that the mentally ill are incapable of success, and so many other lies.

Small acts matter. The only way to ascend is to work your way through the dungeon one monster at a time. And a few days ago, I found a wand of wishing and began to assemble my ascension kit.

Hello again

Hi there! This is going to start being a blog again.

I originally set up this site in 2013 with the ambition of writing reviews of all the Hugo nominees that year. After Worldcon, I let the blog lay fallow, as that was also when I started writing my undergrad thesis in earnest. Now it’s been about a year and a half since I graduated and I feel ready to write again.

I can’t say exactly how often or how much I’m going to write here, but I can say this: writing SFF and comics reviews and criticism is my work right now. And this website is where that work is going to go. So watch this space! And send me your recommendations, if you’d like.

Saga, Volume One: a review.

Saga, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, was one of the major comics sensations of 2012. I was excited to see it on the Hugo nominees list, since this would mean I’d finally have an excuse to make time to read it. The first volume introduces us to Alana and Marko, deserters from opposite sides of a vicious galaxy-spanning war. Despite the long-standing hatred between their peoples – humanoids with wings and horns, respectively – the two have fallen in love. Perhaps the most unusual element of Saga, though, and one that its first pages bring powerfully to the fore, is their baby. Saga is a story about love crossing battle lines, both romantic and parental.

Of course, now I feel a little ridiculous for trying to point out the “most unusual element of Saga“. This is a series that includes hostesses composed of enormous heads on legs. I still think, though, that it’s worth noting the unusual focus on parenthood. Few comics or speculative fiction (or popular culture in general) make raising a child an important part of the plot or thematic concerns, which is strange considering that parenthood is such a common and powerful experience. (I’m inclined to guess that this stems from our cultural tendency to assign parenting to women, and to focus on men’s stories over women’s, but there are undoubtedly other factors.) So the fact that Saga puts child-raising at the very center of its action-adventure story deserves significant notice. Vaughan and Staples are grabbing pop culture by the collar and saying “Hey! Taking care of babies is heroic! LOOK how badass these people are!” That’s basically pretty awesome.

Alana and Marko aren’t the be-all and end-all of Saga, though. They’re the central characters of a story that involves many more people, most of whom are trying to kill them, many of whom are sympathetic. Saga takes an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to speculative fiction, introducing us to robots, ghosts, and more beings who could easily be described as mythical creatures or aliens, but who fit best under the heading of “Saga characters”. (I’m personally especially enamored of The Stalk. You can tell how much fun Staples and Vaughan have with her.) The myriad characters and settings successfully give the impression of a big universe full of amazing things, without worldbuilding being much of a concern. With a few exceptions, nobody’s unilaterally bad; everyone is understandable and everyone is interesting. This is a great example of artist and writer working together as a team: there isn’t a secondary character in Saga whose dialogue and character design combined don’t make me want to know more.

These worthwhile antagonists are pretty important, because without that complexity Saga might be in danger of turning into an anti-war pro-tolerance tract. It’s pretty clear that the war between the wings and the horns is deeply pointless and cruel, and that the two sides’ hatred of each other is completely baseless, but so far there haven’t been any impassioned speeches for peace. (And if there were, you can bet they wouldn’t result in the enemy weeping and laying down arms.) We can tell, because we follow characters with a wide range of different involvements with the war, that there’s far more going on with this conflict than simple refusal to see reason. It’s supported by longstanding social custom and entrenched economic interests, just like wars in the real world. Alana and Marko, being generally practical types, aren’t trying to single-handedly make peace between their people, just to find a place to raise their daughter … but it seems that the two goals may be too entangled to separate.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks: a review.

Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a tricky thing to review. It’s the fifth part of what will eventually be a six-volume comics series. It would be completely silly to read Clockworks in isolation, and I would be nuts to try to write a review recommending it as though you were doing that. So I really have to convince you to read Locke & Key in general. But for all that it isn’t a stand-alone volume, Clockworks is a collection for good reason. The issues that comprise it belong in a book together: they’re structurally linked, and they form the intense crescendo that has to happen before the finale. This is really clearly the penultimate volume.

Okay, but what’s it about? Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke family, whose lives are torn apart by the bloody, apparently random murder of Rendell Locke, husband to Nina and father to Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. In the wake of this tragedy, the family move to Rendell’s childhood home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. (Yes, I know, the town is called Lovecraft. That heavy-handed name may be one of the series’ weakest points, and given what a minor complaint that is, it should indicate how highly I think of this comic.) But they can’t run away from their problems, especially not by going to Keyhouse, where an old and strange foe is hiding in plain sight. Tyler and Kinsey, a high-school aged boy and girl, find themselves having to cope with disasters and figure out what’s going on in some truly desperate situations. All the while, the reader knows where their enemy is and can only wait for them to realize what our omniscient perspective has already shown us.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe Locke & Key as supernatural horror, but it would be missing a lot of the point. The supernatural elements are only a small part of what makes the comic disturbing when it’s disturbing, and often it aims for and achieves entirely different emotional tones. At its core, Locke & Key is exploring themes of family tragedy and growing up, and the awful things we do to each other when we’re going through such events. All of the Lockes are traumatized by Rendell’s death in different ways. Though the story primarily focuses on Tyler and Kinsey (and Bode, to a lesser extent), the serial format gives Hill the narrative space to explore other characters’ perceptions of events and their ways of coping. (The single issue that focuses most fully on Nina, “Beyond Repair”, is a piece of virtuosity that will break your heart.) At times the coexistence of supernatural threats and psychological issues gets a little awkward. When the narrative is really interested in the insides of the characters’ heads, the actual dangers that exist outside can seem a bit hokey or heavy-handed. In fact, by the end of volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom, the danger has begun to seem less pressing; the more times a threat shows up in an episodic structure, the more times the main characters have faced it down, after all. But Hill is ready for his readers to grow tired of his villain: the last few issues of Keys to the Kingdom heighten the stakes and change the rules of the game. Everything is clearly building toward a decisive confrontation.

The next issue is set in 1775. Clockworks begins by taking us back to the early days of the Locke family, who apparently can trace their roots to Revolutionary-era Lovecraft. This means that at the moment when dramatic tension is highest, Locke & Key suddenly introduces an entirely new set of characters and leaves the reader to twist in the wind wondering what’s happening to the Lockes we know. And it works. Much of Clockworks is concerned with a series of flashbacks, which fill in desperately needed information about the origins and nature of the strange things the Lockes have found in Keyhouse. What would have felt like stalling or exposition in another work becomes, in Locke & Key, the final few components of a terrible machine slotting into place. I am full of anticipation to see what this creation does in the sixth volume.

I would be greatly remiss to talk about a comic without mentioning the art, of course. Somewhat unusually for a comic published traditionally in print, Locke & Key has had a single artist throughout its publication. Gabriel Rodriguez does an amazing job of making the comic both visually enticing and, at the right moments, repulsive (and in a few extraordinary cases in Clockworks, both at once). The Lockes have a genuine family resemblance – they look alike, but not ridiculously so. In fact, Rodriguez gives all the characters’ faces a lot of individuality and character. I would definitely recognize any of these people on the street, and I doubt I would confuse them with anyone else. The most incredible panels, as in a lot of comics, are those where the writing and art come together to make an idea that could never have been expressed any other way.

The only reason I wouldn’t recommend Locke & Key to someone would be if I thought they would be bothered by the carnage. It’s a pretty bloody comic, from start to beginning. I wouldn’t say that the series glorifies violence or uses it for cheap shocks – the characters’ reactions show that the creators want to explore what actually happens when people whose lives are not violent suddenly have to cope with a lot of death and injury. Still, I know this isn’t for everybody; it definitely wouldn’t have been for me a year ago. But hey: even if you know you don’t like violence, give Locke & Key a try anyway. Seeing the Lockes come together is worth putting up with a lot.