Category Archives: nerd stuff

Science Fiction and Billionaires’ Arrested Development

Wow, it’s been a minute. Four months and no posts is … well, as my hiatuses from this blog go, it’s fairly standard.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about science fiction, which I suppose is hardly unusual for me. To be more specific, I’ve found that my SF thoughts have been squaring up of late with contemporary events and situations, enough so that I’ve been writing them down so as to try to make sense of my inchoate thoughts in a significant way. This post, which is very long, is one of two I’ve been pecking away at for about two weeks.

And again—this is quite long, but I didn’t want to lop it up. I have however divided it into sections, so maybe read it in stages if you don’t feel like slogging through it all at once.

The Books that Shape Us

An internet sage once said: “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

I’ve wondered on occasion about the cult of Ayn Rand among those whom she most venerated, billionaires and multi-millionaires (and the politicians who have built careers catering to the needs of the über-wealthy); I wonder if it was reading Rand’s odes to selfishness as “bookish fourteen-year olds” that set them on the path of rapacious capitalist accumulation, or whether Atlas Shrugged came, post-facto, to provide a useful pseudo-intellectual justification for why they should have vast wealth while 99%+ of people do not.

The question is rhetorical, of course, even perhaps somewhat disingenuous: while I have little doubt that some people did in fact find their life’s mission revealed to them in the pages of Rand’s writing at an early age (Ted Cruz springs to mind as an obvious candidate), the people at the extremes of that opposition are probably few and far between. I know a significant number of people who devoured The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as teens, who later discovered that what they found compelling about the novels when they were young was completely out of step with their adult sensibilities. That of course is not an uncommon experience with certain works of literature more generally: I read The Catcher in the Rye at the age of sixteen; given that Salinger’s novel is scientifically calibrated to resonate with angsty teenage boys, I read it in a single feverish sitting, but doubt I could tolerate Holden Caulfield for more than a few pages today. By contrast, I was a bookish twelve-year old when I read The Lord of the Rings, and it did indeed change my life—it remains a core text in my life, as evidenced by the fact that I am currently teaching my department’s Tolkien course for the third time.1

I recently shared an anecdote from Neil Gaiman with my first-year English students. In a lecture delivered at The Reading Agency in 2013, Gaiman said,

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

To be clear, reading SF when you’re young doesn’t necessarily translate into becoming a tech genius or innovator (sometimes it means you become an English professor); what Gaiman is advocating in his lecture is reading promiscuously, and especially making available for children as wide a range of reading options as possible: “The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.” He cites the story from his participation in the SF/F convention in China not to suggest that SF makes you innovative, but that the kind of creative imagination exemplified by SF and a multiplicity of other genres—which facilitates an imaginative engagement with the impossible and the unreal—is a precondition for inventiveness.

As with Rand’s objectivist fiction, however, there’s always a danger in reading stuff prescriptively. I’ve been thinking about this story of Gaiman’s a lot lately, though not so much in terms of the positive sense of it I communicated to my students. I have, rather, been watching as a trio of billionaires seem stuck in what I can only characterize as a sort of arrested development corresponding to certain eras of SF—two of them speaking confidently about colonizing Mars and the third apparently determined to build cyberspace—and none of them seem to have truly understood the SF paradigms they’re trying to make real.

Star Trekking

Let’s take them in turn. Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have been quite enthusiastic about the prospect of settling humans on other planets, starting with Mars. (I’m leaving Richard Branson out of this consideration for that reason: his spacefaring ambitions seem more in the line of having the coolest, fastest new vehicle, something made obvious by the sleek aesthetics of Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft vs. Blue Origin’s phallic homage to Dr. Evil’s rocket).

Musk recently tweeted that his ultimate intention is “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness.”

Virgin Galactic Unity. I see Richard Branson as someone who’s basically been going through a very extended midlife crisis.

Bezos is also ultimately determined to make it to Mars (though he’s asserted that returning to the moon is a necessary first step), and has reportedly been fascinated by space travel all his life—as valedictorian in high school, he ended his address with the line “Space: the final frontier. Meet me there.” His love of Star Trek, as evidenced in those words, is something he’s frequently expressed, most recently when he shot ninety-year-old William Shatner into space.

It’s hardly unusual for people to love works of art that articulate values at odds with their own—as much as I love LOTR, for example, I’m hardly down with Tolkien’s conservative Catholicism as it emerges in the novel’s pages—but sometimes the dissonance can be jarring. Consider, for example, when former Republican Speaker of the House and Ayn Rand enthusiast Paul Ryan named Rage Against the Machine as his favourite band (which always begs the question: against which machine did you think Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello were raging, Paul? Spoiler alert, it’s you). It’s unsurprising that a tech guy like Bezos would love Star Trek, but it’s also hard not to see a comparable dissonance between Gene Rodenberry’s utopian, egalitarian vision of the future and the rapacious business ethos embodied by Amazon.

It makes me wonder what the Trek-loving Bezos made of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which the Enterprise comes across a 21st century satellite (somehow dislodged from Earth’s orbit and adrift in deep space) containing cryonically frozen people with terminal illnesses. They are unfrozen and their illnesses cured with 24th century medical technology, which of course had been the point of being frozen, kept in stasis until the day they could be treated. One of the unfrozen people is a stereotypical Wall Street douchenozzle who initially gloats over the success of his plan to cheat death—only possible, he notes, because of his considerable wealth—but is horrified to learn that the long-term investments he’d expected to cash in on would now be nonexistent. Captain Picard tells him, “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy” (ep. 1.25, “The Neutral Zone”).

Even in its grittier iterations, Star Trek always retains the germ of Rodenberry’s utopianism, born in the American mid-century before postwar optimism would truly start to fracture under the repeated shocks of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the cynical politics of the Nixon administration. “The final frontier” was a specific echo of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” rhetoric; and while there is no lack of cynicism or dystopian predictions in the SF of the 1950s and 60s, the broader trends were more hopeful: one reads the SF of that period and finds, if not always optimism necessarily, then certainly a prevalent sense of the possibilities created by advanced technology … and, as with Star Trek, a not-uncommon faith that such technological advances will be matched by humanity’s moral maturation.

Undoubtedly, apologists for the Musk/Bezos space race would tell me that just because the billionaires are the contemporary embodiment of being “obsessed with the accumulation of things,” it doesn’t obviate the altruism of their visionary space-faring ambitions; that the groundwork laid by these early, seemingly trivial joyrides to the edge of space will be crucial for future larger-scale space travel; that governments have failed in such endeavours, so it falls to the billionaire class to carry humanity into the next stage of our development; almost certainly the Musk/Bezos devotees (especially the Muskovites) would tell me I’m a small-minded person resentful and jealous of their genius as manifested in their vast wealth. Possibly Bezos himself would say something to the effect of how he loves the utopianism of Star Trek and hopes for such a future, but to bring it about he needs to play by the rules of the world as it is today.

It’s possible that some of these things might end up being true; I suppose it’s even possible that my conviction that the very fact of billionaires’ existence in societies where children go hungry is a moral obscenity simply masks my own true desire to accumulate wealth on a cosmic scale. Possible, but unlikely; it strikes me that Bezos and Musk and their cheering sections might have science-fictional enthusiasms about colonizing space, but don’t seem to have paid much attention to the transformations in SF’s preoccupations. While we don’t lack for contemporary SF depicting the spread of humanity through space and the colonization of far-flung planets, the utopian spirit and assumptions of the mid-century has diminished rather dramatically. SF has become darker in its outlook—dystopian figurations are more pervasive, especially those imagining post-apocalyptic futures; increasingly, visions of the future have become tempered by the current environmental realities of the climate crisis and the Anthropocene; and even those imagined futures featuring the colonization of other planets largely eschew such tacit utopian assumptions like those of Star Trek, in which humanity’s expansion into the solar system and beyond entails progressing beyond the factious politics of the present. More and more, space-focused SF grapples specifically with the stubborn realities not just of the vast distances involved in space travel, but of human nature as well (I’m also currently writing a longish post about how, in the present moment, the most unbelievable aspect of much SF is the idea that any given planet could have one-government rule, never mind a galaxy-spanning empire or federation). A good example of this the Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey, which have been adapted into an excellent television series—ironically enough—by Amazon. In the future envisioned by The Expanse, humanity has colonized the Moon, Mars, and a bunch of moons and asteroids collectively known as “the Belt.” One of the things both the novels and the series does well is convey the sense of scale, the enormous distances involved just in our local solar system. Space travel is punishing, inflicting potentially stroke inducing Gs on travelers; people born and raised in the low gravity of Mars or the even lower gravity of the Belt cannot endure the gravity of Earth; and resentments, hatreds, and regional prejudices mark the attitudes of Earther, Martians, and Belters to each other and Earth’s imperial history plays out again in its exploitation of the Belt’s resources. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The impossible-to-comprehend vastness of space is central to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, about a generation ship’s three-century journey to the nearest possibly, hopefully, hospitable planet (spoiler alert: it isn’t). More germane to Musk and Bezos’ Mars ambitions is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, popularized by the film adaptation starring Matt Damon. When botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, his only way to survive is—in the now-famous line—“to science the shit out of this.” And as he notes, his margin for error is nonexistent: “If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the hab[itat] breaches, I’ll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.”

The novels of Robinson and Weir are exemplars of “extrapolative” SF, which is to say: SF that is scrupulous in its science, hewing closely to the possible and plausible. What is interesting in the context of what I’m talking about is a shift in focus—The Martian isn’t a trenchant argument against space exploration, but it also eschews an imaginative leap ahead to a Mars in the early stages of terraforming, with safe habitats for thousands of colonists to live, instead focusing on the granular problems involved with even beginning to think about such a project Again, the Musk/Bezos contingent would certainly say that of course we’d have to start small, that it would be harsh and difficult for a long time, but that the billionaire visionaries are the ones laying the groundwork.

To which I say: read the room. Or better yet, read the SF of the past twenty years. Really, just scan the spines in the SF section of a decent bookstore and count the number of novels from the past two decades that are dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or which, like John Scalzi’s recent “Interdependency” trilogy (The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox) are essentially allegories about the current climate crisis. Then do a quick calculation and see how much of SF’s current market share comprises such narratives. Because it’s not as though dystopian stories and post-apocalyptic SF are at all new;2 they’re just more prevalent than ever,3 reflecting a zeitgeist more preoccupied with the depredations of modernity and technology than with their capacity for continued expansion.

All of which is by way of saying, if you want the TL;DR: this planet is our home and it would be great to fix the problems we have with it before seriously thinking of colonizing others—not least because the colonization of Mars, even if it proves possible, is the work not of years but centuries, centuries we simply don’t have. The resources Musk and Bezos are bringing to bear on their respective dreams of space travel would be much more profitably devoted to developing, among other things, green energy. Mars ain’t going anywhere.

But then, even billionaires are mortal. It’s possible to see their current competition less as mere dick-measuring (though it is that, to be certain) than as a race to satisfy their dreams of space travel while they still draw breath (in this respect, one wonders if sending ninety-year old William Shatner into space was not just an homage to Bezos’ favourite SF, but a cynical calculation on the part of the fifty-seven-year old billionaire to reassure himself he’s still got at least three decades of space faring years). Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars; as with many of his pronouncements, it’s not at all obvious if he’s serious or just taking the piss, but it does cast his ostensible determination, as quoted above, “to get humanity to Mars and preserve the light of consciousness,” in a somewhat more fatalistic light—it seems to suggest that the “light of consciousness” isn’t likely to survive on Earth, and must therefore be seeded elsewhere. It’s difficult not to interpret these words in the context of the broader trend of doomsday prepping among the super-rich that has seen multi-millionaires and billionaires buying remote property on which to build bunkers, and stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition against the anticipated collapse of civilization. At the time of writing, Elon Musk was accounted the wealthiest man in the world, with his fortune exceeding $300B; it makes a sort of perverse sense that, as status-bunkers go, having one on an entirely different planet would win the game.

I am still stumped, however, by how Musk means “light of consciousness.” Is it him? Does he mean to be found, eons from now, cryonically frozen like the people on The Next Generation by an alien species, the last remaining human? Because it seems to me that the light of human consciousness is best carried into the future by teeming billions living on a planet saved by their collective effort. Sending the light of consciousness to Mars is more akin to the final words of Margaret Atwood’s short fiction “Time Capsule Found on a Dead Planet”: “You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words: Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

Getting Meta

… or, from outer space to inner space.

This image had me pondering a question for days: how do you create an avatar when you already inhabit the uncanny valley?

I tried to watch Mark Zuckerberg’s ninety-minute infomercial in which he announced the launch of the “metaverse” and Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta,” and lasted all of about five minutes. I had no expectation of getting through the entire thing—nor of seriously attempting to—but you’d have thought I could have endured more. But apparently not … I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe, so I did a fair bit of both. It was just so damned earnest, and it baffled me how this putative tech genius could talk so enthusiastically and unironically about this new utopian virtuality, with no acknowledgment of (1) the dystopian shitshow that is the current state of social media generally and Facebook specifically, and (2) the fact that there has yet to be a depiction of virtual reality in fiction that is not even more dystopian than Facebook IRL.

The word “disingenuous” doesn’t even scratch the surface. “Sociopathically delusional” might be closer to the mark.

The next day I subjected my long-suffering first-year students to an impromptu rant about how SF authors in the 80s and 90s had anticipated all of this—specifically, a digital reality embedded in a broader condition in which massive transnational corporations have more power than most nation-states, wealth disparity is a vast and unbridgeable chasm, industry has irrevocably poisoned the environment, and the broader populace is distracted with the soporific of digital entertainment and misinformation—and this was why everybody needed to take more English courses (don’t ever tell me I don’t shill for my own department). I noted that the very term “metaverse” was used by SF writer Neal Stephenson to describe the online virtual environment in his 1992 novel Snow Crash; I also noted that depictions of virtual reality appeared long before computers were ubiquitous, such as in Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik, and that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer (1983), which became the definitive cyberpunk novel, on a manual typewriter without ever having owned a personal computer.

And I emphasized the point I made above: that in no instance were any of these depictions anything other than dystopian.

But then, it’s sadly unsurprising that the man who not only invented Facebook, but who for all intents and purposes is Facebook, should forge ahead with the arrogant certainty that he knows better than all the people who envisioned the metaverse long before it was a technical possibility. If Musk and Bezos’ arrested development is stuck sometime in the SF of the 1960s, Zuckerberg’s is in the 80s—but with apparently even less understanding of the material than his billionaire bros.

I could go on with all the elements of cyberpunk Zuckerberg obviously doesn’t get, but I think you get the point … and besides which, my main concern here is with the way in which the choice to rebrand Facebook as “Meta” is perfectly emblematic of Zuckerberg’s apparently congenital inability to engage in self-reflection. It is also, not to put too fine a point on it, what irritates me so profoundly: I have what you might characterize as a professional beef with this rebranding, as it entails the flagrant misuse of a prefix that is crucial to contemporary, and especially postmodernist, literature and culture.

What is “meta-“? Notably, in his infomercial and the letter posted to Facebook announcing the rebranding, Zuckerberg says that “meta” is from the Greek and means “beyond.” This much is true: the second entry in the OED’s definition of meta- is “beyond, above, at a higher level.” Zuckerberg goes on to say that, for him, it “symbolizes that there is always more to build, and there is always a next chapter to the story.” Except that that is entirely not the sense in which meta- is used, not even colloquially. It is not uncommon to hear people say things like “that’s so meta!” or “can we get meta about this?” In both cases, what is meant is not a sense of taking things further, but of reflection and reconsideration. “That’s so meta!” is precisely the kind of thing you might expect to hear from someone watching a movie like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a noirish murder mystery that constantly draws attention to the tropes, conventions, and clichés of noirish murder mystery, and which further features Robert Downey Jr.’s character frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us that, yes, we’re watching a noirish murder mystery movie. The suggestion “can we get meta about this?” usually precedes a discussion not of the issue at hand, but rather things surrounding, informing, framing, or giving rise to the issue at hand.

In other words, as the next line in the OED definition tells us, meta- is typically “prefixed to the name of a subject or discipline to denote another which deals with ulterior issues in the same field, or which raises questions about the nature of the original discipline and its methods, procedures, and assumptions.” Hence, metafiction is fiction about fiction, metacriticism is criticism about criticism, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang—whose title is taken from a disparaging comment by film critic Pauline Kael about what audiences want from movies—is metacinema (or metanoir, if you want to be more specific). And while the practice of being endlessly self-referential can grow tiresome,5 my point is more that meta- is, literally by definition, introspective.

Something Mark Zuckerberg manifestly is not. To be meta- about “Meta” would not involve plunging forward with a tone-deaf and bloody-minded ninety-minute infomercial promising to double down on Facebook’s putative mission of “bringing people together.” Rather, one might reflect upon the assertion that “We’re still the company that designs technology around people,” and wonder instead if all the internal studies establishing that Instagram is toxic to adolescent girls’ body-image and that Facebook facilitates atrocities and props up dictatorships are perhaps more indicative of technology shaping people’s behaviour. Perhaps all that SF from the 80s and 90s might help in this process?


1. I didn’t read anything by Ayn Rand until I was in grad school. When I finally did read her, it was in part out of curiosity, but more significantly because by then I’d had the basic tenets of objectivism explained to me in some detail; I found the entire philosophy abhorrent, as you might imagine, but also figured that were I ever to find myself in argument with a libertarian about the relative merits of her fiction, I should at least know more precisely what I was talking about. So first I read The Fountainhead, which was a fairly quick read and the more engaging of her two most notable novels. I completely understood its appeal to adolescent readers, especially precocious teens convinced of their own rightness and unsparing in their hatred of anything reeking of compromise and “selling out.” (Thinking about the novel now, it strikes me as possessing a notably modernist sensibility, if not style: architect Howard Roark’s ultimate determination to demolish his building rather than allow “lesser” architectural minds to taint the putative genius of his design reminds me of little else than the unfortunately common tendency among scholars of modernism to express categorical disdain for anything they consider unworthy of study).

Atlas Shrugged was more of a slog, and I often wondered as I read it (in fits and starts over several weeks) at how feverishly its devotees tore through its 1000+ pages, and then obsessively reread it over and over. It’s not that it’s a difficult read—it’s certainly not particularly complex, nor is the prose dense or opaque—I just had difficulty caring about the characters and their stories. I’ve nodded sympathetically many, many times when people have confessed to me that Tolkien’s digressions into the history of Middle-earth lost them, but the purplest of passages in LOTR ain’t got nothin’ on John Galt’s sixty-page-long paean to the moral virtues of selfishness and greed.

A number of years ago, as Breaking Bad was airing its final episodes, I hit on an idea for an article about how that series functioned in part as a sustained and trenchant critique of Ayn Rand. I was fairly deep into drafting it when I hit a wall—specifically, the resigned realization that, if I was going to make a serious run at writing it, I’d have to reread Atlas Shrugged. And, well, that was a bridge too far … though I did write a blog post sketching out the general argument.

2. The critical consensus is that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) was the first SF novel, and Frankenstein’s nothing if not a dystopian warning about the unthinking and unethical use of technology. Eight years later she published The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic story set in the midst of a deadly pandemic, so it’s safe to say she was ahead of her time.

3. The corollary to this upswing in post-apocalyptic SF is the proliferation post-apocalyptic narratives that don’t quite classify as SF, with the biggest and most obvious example being the critical mass of zombie apocalypse in fiction, film, television, and games. The corollary of this corollary is the concomitant prevalence of fantasy, with which zombie apocalypse shares DNA insofar as it posits a return to a premodern state of existence. If much SF is dystopian and articulates a bleak outlook, the zombies and the dragons are a kind of nostalgia for a world stripped of the modernity that went so very wrong.

4. Yes, yes, it was Facebook’s “virtual connect” conference … but really, it was an infomercial. A long, tedious, cringeworthy infomercial.

5. I recently watched the new Netflix film Red Notice, which was entirely forgettable, in part because of just how meta- it was. The biggest eye-roll for me was a scene in which the FBI agent and the master thief played, respectively, by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, are searching an arms dealer’s antiquities collection for a certain ancient Egyptian treasure that precipitates the action of the film. “Where is it?” mutters The Rock, to which Reynolds responds, “Check for a box labelled ‘MacGuffin’.”

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The Daenerys Paradox

So I don’t know how everyone else is feeling, but sitting here, counting down the hours to tonight’s GoT episode, feels not at all unlike sitting around a fire with Tyrion, Brienne, et al waiting for the end. Fortunately, I had a lot of excess thoughts in my head after the previous episode, which I offer up here as an amuse bouche before the meal proper tonight.


As we head into the final episodes of Game of Thrones, a question that has cropped up more than a few times among fans and critics is: what the hell is going on with Daenerys? What happened to the “breaker of chains,” the reformer of Slavers Bay who promised Tyrion that she meant to “break the wheel,” i.e. destroy the ancient system of house rivalries and hatred that has long defined Westeros—that is to say, the very game of thrones from which the series takes its name.

Since arriving on the shores of Westeros, that progressive mentality (progressive for a neo-medieval feudal world, at any rate) seems to have evaporated. She has questioned Varys’ loyalty, derided Tyrion for his mistakes, roasted the defiant Tarlys over Tyrion’s strong (and reasonable) objections, and otherwise made it clear that submission to her rule is non-negotiable. It is worth recalling that the one possible exception was when she appeared to entertain the idea that Yara Greyjoy, in exchange for her loyalty, might be permitted to reign as queen of the Iron Islands—a concession that startled her advisors, but which was made when she still was in Meereen. Since landing in Westeros, that latitude is as dead as the Tarlys.


Her otherwise-promising confab with Sansa last week was but the most recent example of her rigidity, and the episode as a whole was framed with suggestions that she cannot, as Samwell astutely observed, see beyond her own crown. Jaime Lannister’s arrival occasioned a certain selective amnesia about her father and brother; in past episodes we’ve watched her reckon with the reality of her father’s madness and criminality, and her avowal that she would never be like him (a promise made more tenuous with her treatment of the aforementioned Tarlys); she tells Jaime about the story Viserys would tell her about the Kingslayer and what punishments they had conceived for him, putting aside for the moment the fact that she watched in tacit approval as her late husband murdered her brother in a manner far more gruesome than a sword in the back. And at the end of the episode, Jon’s revelation of his parentage evoked not the joyful realization that she was not in fact the last Targaryen, nor the icky realization that, yes, she’s been fucking her nephew, but “Oh, crap! He’s got the stronger claim to the throne!”

George R.R. Martin has said countless times that A Song of Ice and Fire “grew in the telling.” When he started writing A Game of Thrones, he conceived of it as a series of three novels; then it became five; and now seven, and anyone who has read to the end of A Dance With Dragons probably wonders, as I do, how he means to resolve this ever-more-sprawling narrative in just two books. He could really use a thanos ex machina to cull the ensemble by half.



My suspicion is that his ever-more-glacial writing process has been due to the inevitable narrative snarls, cul de sacs, and painted-in-corners that come with multiplying the number of plot threads and cast size to an untenable degree. A Game of Thrones felt epic and sprawling because it had eight POV characters; A Dance With Dragons doubled that, to the point where, as an acquaintance of mine astutely pointed out, reading it was like “pulling taffy.”

DwDOne side effect of both this narrative bloat and the ever-lengthening time the series takes until completion is that, for good or for ill, the world of ASOIAF has become increasingly complex and granular—by way of the primary texts themselves, such ancillary texts as The World of Ice and Fire, Fire and Blood (the history of the Targaryens), The Lands of Ice and Fire (a definitive series of maps of Westeros and Essos), to say nothing of the various wikis and websites devoted to every last detail of GRRM’s creation.

Game of Thrones the series has done an admirable job in paring down the bloat, though it has also been subject to audience complaint about the proliferation of names and storylines. Sometimes this has not worked as well as it might (the entire Dorne departure, for example), but with only four episodes to go we’re looking at an economy of storytelling that GRRM might want to take as an example going forward.

That being said, the series has also got a certain amount of the novels’ world-building baked into it, which brings us back to the question of Daenerys seemingly throwing off the mantle of liberator in favour of the conqueror’s crown.

To my mind, such a question was more or less inevitable, as it is rooted in fantasy as a genre. As I have written on this blog and elsewhere, fantasy has entered an interesting phase, insofar as a not-insignificant number of contemporary fantasists (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, N.K. Jemisin, Lev Grossman, J.K. Rowling, among others) have been using this genre—rooted as it is Christian, scriptural, and mythopoeic sensibilities á là Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—to articulate a specifically secular and humanist worldview. GRRM is no exception, and indeed I would argue he has been more influential in this respect than most: for all of its Tolkienesque trappings, ASOIAF has far more in common with Shakespeare’s history plays and their preoccupation with the secular negotiation of power than with The Lord of the Rings’ feudal and indeed Catholic figuration of power as extrinsic and immutable.

Fate and destiny have always been key tropes—and more importantly, key plot devices—in fantasy, which again speaks to the genre’s roots in medieval romance and Christian scripture. The “chosen one” is a figure of divine right, whose coming and ascension sets things aright again: Jesus Christ, King Arthur, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, Belgarion in The Belgariad by David Eddings, the Shannara descendants in Terry Brooks’ Shannara Chronicles, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings … right up to Neo in The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Ultimately, however, Buffy complicates this ostensible fate, as does J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter novels; but then, neither of them were dealing with the other manner of divine right, which is the logic of hereditary monarchy. This is where we arrive at what we might call “the Daenerys paradox.” Put simply, how does one act as a liberator when one’s claim to that role necessitates the fealty of the liberated? Back in Essos, Daenerys always held up a choice: she freed the Unsullied and the slaves of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, but promised free passage to anyone unwilling to swear loyalty. She won over the Dothraki though a show of strength, but again, their loyalty was freely given.

But that’s not how it’s going to work in Westeros, for the simple reason that it can’t. All things being equal, it could be worse for Daenerys—she does genuinely get to face off against an unreconstructed tyrant in the form of Cersei Lannister, and an otherwise still-fractured Seven Kingdoms; it’s not as if the civil war resolved itself into an equitable peace with a well-loved successor to Robert Baratheon.

Daenerys’ lifelong quest has been predicated on her claim to the throne, and were she the heroine of a more pedestrian work of post-Tolkien fantasy, she would unequivocally be the “chosen one” in the same mode as King Arthur or Aragorn. But ASOIAF complicates this on any number of levels, not the least of which being the way in which the series has complicated the very notion of divine right: the Iron Throne, after all, is a mere three centuries old, and the convention of a single king or queen ruling over the Seven Kingdoms was forged by conquest. In the thousands of years of Westrosi history, three hundred years is a mere blip, and the Targaryens mere tourists. GRRM has built a great deal of contingency into ASOIAF’s long game, and Daenerys’ inflexibility on “bending the knee” is likely going to have to change before all is said and done.

Since watching the new opening credits, however, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Westeros will be a radically different place at the end than where we began—and not just because there will have been a possibly-apocalyptic war fought with the dead. I keep coming back to Daenerys’ vision of the throne room in King’s Landing, with the roof open to the sky and snow drifting on the Iron Throne. As I said in our first post for the season two weeks ago, the reversed trajectory of the opening credits—starting north of the Wall and ending in King’s Landing—suggests a fundamental change in the political power in Westeros. For seven seasons, we always started with the seat of power. I’m curious whether the credits will change again after tonight’s episode, if in fact the looming battle settles the Night King’s hash. If King’s Landing becomes a vestige of the old order, perhaps that will mean Daenerys comes back to herself and does, in fact, break the wheel.

throne room

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Bert and Ernie, Dumbledore, and Lady Macbeth’s children

In 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and thereby legalized same-sex unions, The New Yorker ran a cover that, if I’m perfectly honest, made me a little weepy.


Speculation on whether or not Bert and Ernie were more than just good friends and roommates has attached to them for years. Most recently, Mark Saltzman, who won  numerous Emmies for his writing on Sesame Street between 1985-1998, said in an interview that “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Saltzman’s comment caused The Sesame Workshop, producers of the show, to issue a statement saying that they are just good friends and, furthermore, that as puppets they have no sexual orientation.

Leaving aside for the moment the obvious refutation about puppet sexuality (i.e. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s longstanding relationship, to say nothing of Gonzo’s veritable harem of chickens), Saltzman’s comments and the responses they evoked are just the most recent in a fairly long history of arguments about the true nature of Bert and Ernie’s relationship, something helpfully detailed in a great rundown by Aja Romano at Vox here. As Romano points out, though “Bert and Ernie seem to have been clearly modeled off Neil Simon’s famous Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix,” they “were loaded with queer subtext from the very beginning” (which seems to suggest that there was no queer subtext in The Odd Couple, but that’s another fox hunt altogether). Whether that subtext was present or not is at least partially besides the point: the lovely thing about Bert and Ernie is not that they have presented an either/or proposition—queer or not?—but that they’ve always been both/and. When they first appeared as original characters on Sesame Street fifty years ago (egad), that ambiguity meant that LGBTQ people who grew up watching the show could see an ordinary, loving same-sex couple fully integrated in their community. Or, conversely, children could see an example of two men who, for all of their differences, had genuine affection and love for one another.


This last point is why I’m of two minds on the question: while I’d be totally down with Bert and Ernie coming out and getting married and introducing into what is probably the most influential children’s show in the western world a long-standing gay relationship, one of the blights of toxic masculinity in the present moment is the social prohibitions on heterosexual male love and affection. The reflexive need of some men to cry “no homo!” after a hug, or the way in which sentimental expression is characterized as effeminate or gay, implicitly and explicitly, in popular culture, reminds us that patriarchy hurts men, too. The very idea that love and affection is necessarily sexual poisons assumptions informing the relationships we form.


Beyond this question, however, is the more literary-critical question of text. Which is to say: we cannot definitively comment upon Bert and Ernie’s sexuality because we have never been given any substantive indications one way or another. Mark Saltzman might say he wrote them as a gay couple modelled on himself and his partner, and Frank Oz might say that, as the creator of Bert, he can definitively declare him hetero, but in the end there has never been anything to confirm either perspective. As I tell my students, all we have to go on is the text: we can talk about suggestive subtexts, metaphors, hints, allusions, and so forth, but any interpretation you essay needs to be grounded in the text.

And that often means ignoring the author. Reading the latest kerfuffle over Bert and Ernie, I was put in mind of J.K. Rowling’s post-facto “revelation” that Dumbledore was gay, and that he and Gellert Grindewald had been lovers. Predictably, this enraged a good number of homophobic Potter fans; but it also enraged a not-insignificant number of Rowling’s LGBTQ readers, who thought her authorial claim rather weak tea. The revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality was a not insignificant gesture (at least in terms of the predictable outrage it inspired), but it came across as cowardly after the fact—how much more powerful would it have been to have had queer and out characters represented in the novels?

The point, however, is that even with Rowling’s post-facto intervention, even if we now read the novels with the awareness that “Dumbledore is gay!” in the front of our minds, there is still nothing in the text that supports the author’s assertion—even less, really, than the evidence for Bert and Ernie’s ostensible congress. It is the sort of speculation that has been typified in the question “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” That was a seriously posed question by readers of Shakespeare for a long time: at one point, Lady Macbeth, to emphasize just how far she’ll go to win the throne, tells her husband:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7: 62-67)

The suggestion here is that the ostensibly childless Macbeths once had at least one baby—which presumably died, or possibly just spends the entire play offstage in the company of a nanny (lucky kid, if that’s the case). But of course there is nothing else in the play that makes reference to Macbeth and his Lady having children. That does not, however, stop people from speculating: how many children? how many still births, crib deaths, and just where is that nanny anyway?

It might seem absurd, but this of course is the stuff of fan fiction. Well before Rowling outed Dumbledore, there were (and still are) endless online iterations, ranging from the modest to the pornographic, imagining the romances and hook-ups between Hogwarts’ usual suspects. I have to imagine there was some Dumbledore slash fiction in that mix. But the thing about fan fiction is that it is extra-textual: which is to say, it is not “canon.” What we have to work with, there, is the text itself … again, something I emphasize to my students.

One might argue that J.K. Rowling is the first and last authority on her own writing, which, if you make that argument to me, I will laugh and laugh and laugh. Since about the mid-20thcentury, literary critics and scholars have discounted authorial authority, recognizing that, to paraphrase Northrop Frye, writers are often mediocre critics of their own writing; but also that, once something is in print, there is not infrequently a desire on the part of the author for further revision. Sometimes new editions are released with changes, and then it’s in the hands of textual scholars (yet another fox hunt). It somehow seems unlikely that Rowling will issue a revised edition of all the Potter books, in which Dumbledore is out and proud.


That being said, this might change, given that the Potterverse is expanding; it is possible that in the new Fantastic Beasts film, in which Jude Law plays a young Dumbledore, we might see more concrete evidence: perhaps he’ll have a boyfriend, or perhaps we’ll see unmistakable sexual tension between him and Grindewald (though given the fact that the latter is played by Johnny Depp, I really hope not).

I do rather doubt it, however. Which is unfortunate.

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Thoughts on expanded universes, part two: Solo and the whole Star Wars thing

I’ve been working on part two of my thoughts on expanded universes series, and it keeps getting away from me—which is perhaps only appropriate. “It grew in the telling,” Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings, a sentiment echoed by George R.R. Martin. Which is not to compare my modest blogging project here to their work, but to observe that even writing about world-building is, well, an ever-expanding project, never mind actually engaging in the process.

I have a lot written, and the problem is that the subject wants to run off madly in all directions. And given that this problem was exacerbated when, a few days ago, I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, I figured that perhaps a few words about Star Wars in general, and Solo in particular might help things out.

So just to be clear: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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First, a Review


solo - chewie

What gravity the Star Wars films possess—which is to say, the establishment of high stakes (the fate of the galaxy, e.g.) and a certain amount of dramatic tension—is pretty much absent here for reasons more pithily summed up by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker: “We already know what will happen—Han will meet Chewbacca, make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs, win the Millenium [sic] Falcon in a card game, and end up a rakish bachelor—and this puts any genuine suspense out of reach.” I’d say that this is the inherent problem with some prequels, i.e. knowing where the story ends up, if it also wasn’t an inherent aspect of most genre fiction. The more important question is how we get there. Solo lacks the aforementioned narrative stakes we find in, say, Rogue One, and this film telegraphs its end point(s) even more obviously. There’s little in the way of character-based tension, and nothing in the way of difficult or problematic choices that lead us to where we know Han ends up. It would have made for a more nuanced evolution if Han were even a little bit morally compromised. But no: he begins with altruistic intent (keen to escape his bondage with the girl he loves), and ends with an altruistic act (giving up a fortune for a revolutionary cause), and at every point in the story he makes the choices he does in the name of the former. His betrayal at the end by both Beckett and Qi’Ra is such an obvious plot twist that it doesn’t deserve the name. (Emilia Clarke’s Qi’Ra is, indeed, the most interesting character in the film. Beckett not so much, for reasons I’ll get into below).


The point is that this Han Solo is so very … Disney. When we meet Han in A New Hope, he is a familiar generic character: the Byronic gunslinger modeled on every such character in a western not played by Gary Cooper. Such characters are fascinating because we know, without knowing the particulars, that they have tortured, morally compromised pasts (which is why Lucas’ much-vilified change to the Greedo scene is as much a sin against genre as against Han’s character)—but that they will ultimately use their talent for lawless violence in the service of capital-G Good, and thus find redemption.

But the Han Solo at the end of Solo needs no redemption, for he has not transgressed, except against a totalitarian regime and organized crime bosses. I suppose it remains to be seen whether we’ll get a bunch of other films in which we see Han develop his more cynical mien, but as an “origin” story, we don’t hit the closing credits with much more than a knowledge that Han Solo has always had a snarky and roguish sense of humour, but no sense that these aspects run deep. As I said, this is the Disney Han, with more in common—unlike Harrison Ford’s version—with such handsome rogues as Aladdin than with any of his western genre precursors.

In fact, the contrast I found myself making was between Han Solo and Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly—first, because Nathan Fillion as Mal did cynical self-interest even better than Ford did (though to be fair, he had twice as many hours as a principal character to develop it, and a much better team of writers). But also because the brief glimpses we get of Mal’s origin story do an exceptional job of explicating just why he’s now such a cynical bastard with occasional gleams of altruism. We really don’t need that with Han Solo, because he comes to us in A New Hope as a fully formed trope, but if you’re going to rip of Firefly, you might as well take a lesson from its narrative nuances.

Second, the whole train heist sequence, to say nothing of Beckett’s original crew, felt totally lifted from Joss Whedon’s space western. The second episode of Firefly, which was aired first (because, as we know, Fox execs have the critical acumen God gave walnuts), featured a train robbery by spaceship that goes badly. In and of itself, this isn’t cause to suspect plagiarism; what is, is the parallel between crews: the gunslinging cynical wisecracker in a long coat, the no-nonsense Black woman as first officer, and the glib, cheerful pilot (respectively, Mal, Zoe, and Wash in Firefly, Beckett, Val, and Rio in Solo); and once Chewbacca is on board, we have a very tall dude to act as muscle, Solo’s analogue to Firefly’s Jayne Cobb.

mal et al

solo - crew

Philosophers talk about epistemic closure, but this feels a lot like generic closure: Firefly owes its existence to Star Wars generally, and the character of Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo specifically. Which isn’t to say that what Whedon did with the series wasn’t new and interesting, but that it wore its homage (ironic and otherwise) on its sleeve. That we’ve come full circle here—in which an entry in the new Star Wars canon apes tropes from a television series that was aping tropes from the original films—is perhaps unsurprising in a mass entertainment context in which recycling and rebooting is a much safer financial bet that creating new material.

Unfortunately, the whole “expanded universe” trend of the moment does seem to be at least as motivated by an aversion to novelty as any genuine interest in the exercise of world-building. And on that note …


Donald Glover is Lando Calrissian in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Yup, Lando was one of the best parts of the film, which is why he doesn’t come in for any kvetching in my comments.

Solo and the (Revamped) Star Wars Expanded Universe

In Solo’s penultimate scene, we discover who the Big Bad behind the Crimson Dawn and all the other cartels is. And the threatening hooded figure in the hologram is … Darth Maul! Whom we last saw falling down an airshaft in The Phantom Menace, bisected by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s light saber (well, technically by Qui-Gon Jin’s, but … well, nevermind).

Because I tend to follow links down the nerd-hole, my response to this was less “WTF?” than “Really … you’re going there?”

See, in Rogue One, we met a character played by Forest Whitaker named Saw Gerrera—a former member of the Rebellion who had been ousted because he was considered an extremist. Because I read a bunch of online reviews of the film and clicked on the aforementioned links, I learned that Saw was a character from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, and that his appearance in Rogue One evoked something resembling geekgasms among the most dedicated Star Wars fandom.

Why this is interesting to me beyond simple trivia is a question that brings us back to something I alluded to in my Infinity War post—namely, that we (so far as I’ve been able to figure it) get the phrase “expanded universe” from Star Wars, specifically from all of the stories (novels, comics, video games) embroidering the narrative of the original trilogy and the prequels. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and commissioned J.J. Abrams to launch the new Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens, a decision was made to basically invalidate the entirety of the “expanded universe.” Which, all things being equal, was somehow unsurprising, considering that doing otherwise meant Disney and Abrams would have been obliged to adapt a rather involved series of novels (starting with Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire) that detailed the lives of Luke, Han, Leia, et al after The Return of the Jedi.

Instead, they chose to ignore them, and in the process render them “non-canon.” Though I’ve never been a follower of the expanded universe, it was quite obvious that this decision—to coin an expression—caused a great disturbance in the Force.

I’m less concerned by this disturbance (not least because I was not personally disturbed) than by the debates that emerged about what, then, was considered “canon” in the Star Wars expanded universe. And again, I’m less interested in the details of this debate than the significance of the word canon.

In my next post I’ll get into the ways in which terms such as “mythology” and “universe” have come to be used in relation to the popular culture phenomena, but here “canon” seems as good a place as any to start. For myself, as a professor of English, the most significant definition of canon is what we might otherwise designate as “the great works”—that it to say, works of literature that define a given tradition. The English Canon traditionally starts in the Middle Ages with Chaucer (though might also include earlier works like Beowulf), and includes Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dryden, Pope, the Romantics, up through such modernists as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf. The problem with the idea of literary canons is that, like the list I just gave, is that they are by definition exclusionary and tend to privilege certain voices—every single author on that list is white, and only a single one is a woman.

I don’t want to get into an argument on this particular topic (I’d say that’s a whole other series of blog posts, but really it’s a library in and of itself), but rather bring up this definition of “canon” as one that is (or has been for about three decades or more) constantly under negotiation (when not, as is more common of late, being challenged outright). In its religious definition, “canon” denotes something transcendent or immutable, as in the Catholic church’s canon law. It also, and this is its relation to the literary understanding, designates those works of scripture which are accepted and considered the proper word of God (as opposed to the Apocrypha).

So on one hand we have the absolutism of religious doctrine, and on the other the more nebulous and negotiable conception of what works define a tradition. The analogues here to the Star Wars expanded universe should perhaps be obvious, though obviously irksome to theologians and literary snobs. (I’m sure there’s a down side to it all, though).

What I’m interested in here and the next few posts are the ways we engage with such fictional worlds, and the way they’re created and delineated. Last post, I talked about paratext as something that circumscribed and defined texts proper. The whole question of what we call “canon” is a large-scale example, whether in terms of what counts as biblical scripture or what narrative elements define the Star Wars universe, versus what we count as “apocryphal.” (When Disney and Abrams eliminated the extant expanded universe at a stroke, they made the glib suggestion that fans could consider those stories as “legends” in the context of the new canon—something that undoubtedly infuriated many, but raised the interesting prospect of seeing an expanded universe within an expanded universe).


But to return to the question of what is “canon”: the appearance of Darth Maul at the end of Solo, replete with robotic legs to replace those removed by Obi-Wan, would seem to confirm what many fans speculated after Rogue One—namely, that the animated series Clone Wars and Rebels were included in the new canon. Apparently, Rebels resurrected Darth Maul (who managed to stay alive through the sheer force of his hate and, presumably, the sheer force of the Force), and made him the head of a criminal underworld conglomerate. Eventually, he had showdowns with both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine himself; which leads one to surmise that we’ll be seeing more of him in the Star Wars spinoffs to come. And given that there’s been the suggestion of more “Star Wars stories” dedicated to Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, it would seem that these “stories” will not quite be the one-offs that were originally hinted at, but something more resembling Marvel’s universe-building: it becomes easy to see how Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Qi’Ra, as well as Boba Fett and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul may all find themselves crossing paths in a series of underworld vs. tyranny vs. rebellion films. Which, after all my kvetching about Solo, might redeem that film if in hindsight it proves just to be some elaborate throat-clearing to get the necessities of parsecs and rakish bachelorhood out of the way.


OK, I had some more thoughts on canonicity, but I will save them for what is now part three of my thoughts on expanded universes series. Until then, work hard and be good, my friends.

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Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
—Monty Python, “The Galaxy Song”

Someone recently added me to the Facebook group “Genre Writers of Atlantic Canada,” and given that I don’t have much to say about the writing of genre fiction but a lot to say about genre fiction (and film, and television), I shared my previous post about my Fall grad course; since then I’ve had about a dozen people sign up to follow this blog. To those of you now following, welcome! Hopefully the next few months will see me being somewhat more prolific here than I have been in the past year or so.

Also, you should be warned: I tend to post fairly lengthy meditations on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and this entry is no exception. I started thinking about the nature of what we call “expanded universes” in popular culture, and this rumination has itself quickly expanded into what will have to be a series of posts (probably four of them, but possibly more).

This blog is basically a space for me to think out loud and work through ideas and arguments. That it’s a public forum forces me to try and be more coherent than I am when I argue with myself in the car or scribble notes in my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to brevity, alas …

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The various expanded universes of fandom, from DC and Marvel to Star Wars and Doctor Who, might not quite be whizzing in all directions at the speed of light, but one could be forgiven for assuming so. It seems impossible these days to create an alternative universe that doesn’t get expanded: aside from the obvious examples above, there are now a handful of Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works; the adventures of Newt Scamander keep the Harry Potter Muggleverse alive; and there’s even plans at Amazon to create a Lord of the Rings prequel series. And all of this is just the most recent stuff.

From what I’ve been able to glean, the term “expanded universe” first came to be applied to Star Wars, to the constellations of TV specials, comic books, video games, and novels that accompanied and followed the original trilogy. However much the prequel films were generally loathed, they gave the expanded universe a lot of traction to expand even further, until finally the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent production of The Force Awakens deemed, at a stroke, that all of the prior expanded universe creations were emphatically not canon.

The paroxysms of rage this arbitrary decision sent through the fan universe are, at best, incidental to my discussion here, which is more concerned with the broader concept of the “expanded universe” and the significant role it has come to play in popular culture. What was once the provenance of devoted fans has become a financial juggernaut for production studios and publishers, and (often to the annoyance of the devoted nerd community) has spread its appeal to general audiences.

Though I count myself a member of the aforementioned nerd community, my interest here is more academic: in anticipation of my graduate seminar this fall, I find myself thinking rather a lot about world-building and the relationship between such “expanded universes” as Marvel’s and the long tradition of alternative realities and worlds from medieval romance to Middle-Earth to contemporary fantasy. One way or another, this post and the ones following were precipitated by thoughts I had after watching Avengers: Infinity War. So, without further ado …


Avengers: Infinite Cast

For a variety of reasons, it took me a week until I was able to see Avengers: Infinity War. By the time my girlfriend and I plunked our arses down in the theater seats, I had become very nearly frantic. Any longer not seeing the film, it seemed, and I would inevitably have the big reveals inadvertently spoiled. As it was, I knew there were going to be HUGE SURPRISES, as all of social media (seriously, it felt like all of it was mobilized to taunt me about Infinity War) alluded portentously to MAJOR PLOT POINTS and a certain HUGE THING THAT HAPPENS.

It is perhaps now that I should warn readers that there will in fact be SPOILERS in this post, both for Infinity War and a bunch of other stuff (well, for Game of Thrones, anyway).

Before I get to all of that, however, I should not bury the lede (as I tend to do on this blog), and point out that my interest in this particular film is incidental. I don’t have anything to say about Infinity War that hasn’t already been said, so here’s my tl;dr review: loved the story, was deeply impressed by how the directors and writers didn’t let the ever-expanding cast turn the narrative into an exercise in pulling taffy, laughed my aforementioned arse off (honestly, Thor calling Rocket and Groot “rabbit” and “tree” should not have cracked me up as much as it did, but here we are). Favourite moments: Cap appearing as a shadowy figure at the train station, Peter Dinklage as a huge dwarf, Rocket’s man-crush on Thor, Bruce Banner’s ongoing argument with a Hulk who, having had his ass handed to him by Thanos, has obviously turned timid. There are more, but that will do for the moment.

As much as I loved the film, the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Considering that the worst comes to pass and Thanos accomplishes his goal of wiping out half the sentient universe with a snap of his fingers, that cosmic genocide lacks the kind of gravity it should have had—mainly because we know that most of the characters will not remain dead for long. Tom Holland’s Spiderman had one of the more poignant departures (both because of Tony Stark’s protectiveness, and because his final seconds were reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go!”), but given the success of Spiderman: Homecoming ($880M worldwide), it’s highly unlikely that Disney/Marvel is going to let him stay dead. That goes doubly for T’Challa: though it was heartbreaking to see Danai Gurira as Okoye’s expression of abject loss as her king disintegrates, it is even less likely that Disney will let Black Panther and its $1.3B box office go at a single movie.


Wakanda Forever!

All of this was in my head upon leaving the theater; when I got home and finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding all week, I found my thinking crystallized by John Scalzi:

What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.

This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.

I recommend reading the entire post—Scalzi pretty much hits the nail on the head and puts into words the inchoate thoughts rattling about my head after the movie.

So I’m not going to go on in this vein—suffice to say that the movie is great on its own terms, but the biggest spoilers aren’t what you might accidentally stumble across online so much as just knowing that huge Hollywood studios will always behave with a predictability that talented writers won’t … and that in a showdown between the former and the latter, the former always wins.

There is built into this “expanded universe,” however, something of an irony, given that, on reflection, Marvel’s long game has been hellishly impressive. The Marvel Universe has genuinely earned the modifier “expanded,” as each film has been carefully planned and slotted into a grand narrative, occasionally in ways that sabotaged the individual films (Age of Ultron being the prime example). Each new film that merged extant storylines and characters, such as Avengers and Civil War, was potentially satisfying but perilous for the reasons all crossover stories are: we’re eager to see our favourite characters meet and interact, but anything less than at least competent storytelling is going to at best annoy and at worst alienate devoted fans. That Infinity War with its near-infinite cast of characters not only does not disappoint, but emphatically delivers, is particularly impressive.

But as I said above, there is an irony to this meticulous world-building within the context of multimillion-dollar franchises, which is that success breeds success, and that means that successful stories and characters (i.e. profitable stories and characters) will be milked for all they are worth, or until their key actors’ contracts expire. None of which would be an issue if audiences existed inside a bubble of ignorance, cheerfully oblivious to box office takes and trade news about actors’ contracts and planned future productions. But of course we do not exist in such a bubble, especially not in this era of fan participation by way of social media on one hand,* and studios’ massive investment in long-term, big-budget franchises on the other.


Can someone please tell me: is it in keeping with comic book/superhero conventions that Thanos, with all of the mystical power of the infinity stones, still feels the need to resort to punching things all the time?

All of which goes to the broader point that we can’t feel too much dismay for the death of T’Challa—and by extension, everyone else extinguished by Thanos—when we know that there are hundreds of millions of reasons for the studio to resurrect him.

Which, oddly, is where I get interested, at least in terms of the theoretical implications for world-building. Normally we would be inclined to deal with such a storyline on its own terms, which is to say, according to the internal narrative and thematic logic it establishes. But the longer-running and larger-scale—i.e., the more “expanded”—a given “universe” becomes, the more it is subject to such external logic as economic considerations, actors’ contracts, internecine squabbles, and so forth. In the case of the Marvel EU, the external logic has come to inflect the internal. By contrast, even though most of us were all 90% certain Jon Snow wouldn’t stay dead after being stabbed at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, we weren’t 100% certain … and that 10% of doubt proceeded from the show’s internal logic, i.e. five seasons worth the show pitilessly killing characters we assumed to be central, from the execution of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding. There were a lot of reasons to assume that Jon Snow would be resurrected in season six, but none of them involved Kit Harrington carrying a billion-dollar Jon Snow franchise on his brooding, fur-clad shoulders. The question of just how deep his grave was dug had rather to be considered against George R.R. Martin’s gleefully murderous storytelling.


Further, however, it is instructive to recall the misdirection in which Kit Harrington and HBO engaged during the months between seasons five and six, in an effort to convince fans that Harrington and therefore Jon Snow would not be coming back. Such extracurricular considerations, like our certainty that Disney/Marvel will be making Black Panther 2, play a role comparable to what in other circumstances we might call “paratext”—which is to say, ancillary texts that define and circumscribe the text proper: title pages, epigraphs, indices, forewords, footnotes, and so forth … or in the case of a film and television, the opening and closing credits. Other paratexts include such considerations as the author or editor or translator, or in film the director(s) and producer(s), or anyone else whose name connotes certain qualities (think, for example, of True Romance, which was directed by Tony Scott, but which was written by Quentin Tarantino, and is almost invariably associated with the latter rather than the former).

Paratexts serve to define a text, and provide tools for understanding and interpretation.

On an individual basis, we probably think nothing of them unless they are unusually invasive or self-reflexive; but every time you purchase a book because it has an intriguing cover (which, despite the cliché injunction not to, happens all the time), or, conversely, buy it specifically because of the author, paratext affected or inflected your reading and understanding of the text proper.

But in an expanded universe like that of Marvel’s films, we experience something like a cumulative effect, simply by dint of the small army of writers and directors involved; When we consider that many of the names attached—Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler et al**—come with certain specific stylistic and thematic connotations, that cannot help but affect our expectations going into the various films. And while the Marvel films have attempted—mostly successfully—to attain a consistent aesthetic and tone, they nevertheless comprise an aggregate of directorial styles and varying quality of story that makes an entry like Thor: The Dark World seem dramatically out of place with Black Panther (or for that matter with Thor: Ragnarok). And while Infinity War certainly counts as one of the best installments, the contrast between the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic (faithfully rendered by the Russo brothers) was something of a jarring juxtaposition with the earthbound sequences.


To be fair, I’m stretching the strict definition of paratext somewhat, but then the “expanded universe” as concept and practice invites a certain amount of boundary-stretching on any number of fronts—which is one of the aspects that fascinates me.

That being said, I realize I’ve now written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 words and I haven’t actually attempted to define what we mean by “expanded universe.” Oops. Well, that will be installment the second: what determines an expanded universe? What differentiates it from a merely expansive universe? How does the Marvel or Star Wars EUs compare to those of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

Stay tuned.



*Social media is of course just one aspect of a broader participatory current that has always been present in fan culture, with fan fiction and slash fiction having long been key methods of creative and imaginative interaction. The internet has of course multiplied and disseminated fan creations, as have the various wiki pages that compile and catalogue arcane details of given universes. This participatory dimension is something I’ll look at more closely in my second installment.

**This list of prominent dudes serves to highlight Marvel’s need to introduce some estrogen into the mix. On that note, it should also be pointed out—as frequently and loudly as possible—that the best three films arguably to emerge from both the MCU and DCU in the past year, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman were directed by an indigenous man, an African-American man, and a woman (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Patty Jenkins), respectively.


Filed under Magic Wor(l)ds, nerd stuff

You should watch The Expanse, but you should also read the novels


Tonight, the new ScyFy Channel series The Expanse premieres, which seems as good an excuse as any for me to nerd out about about the novels from which it is adapted.

Leviathan-WakesI picked up Leviathan Wakes earlier this year, as much out of curiosity as anything. It’s a thick, brick-like book, and at that point it had three others in the series on the shelf beside it. Its cover featured generic huge-spacecraft art, but what had been catching my eye was the blurb above the title from none other than George R.R. Martin declaring “It’s been too long since we’ve had a really kickass space opera.” Its author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two people: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter of whom was GRRM’s personal assistant for a long time (or might still be, but I suspect he’s busy with his own stuff now). Colour me intrigued: I gave Leviathan Wakes a chance.

And then proceeded to devour the next three books—Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn—all of which are 500+ pages, in the space of about a week.

It is a really, really good series, and if you like SF at all you owe it to yourself to read them. It’s space opera in the hands of a pair of pros. Structurally, one senses GRRM’s influence: they proceed through point-of-view chapters like A Song of Ice and Fire, but unlike Martin’s books, they exercise restraint. At no point are we overwhelmed by a surfeit of perspectives, and each novel has a contained narrative arc. They are very tightly plotted, and feature well-realized characters.

The basic premise is a compelling one: set several centuries in the future, humanity has colonized the solar system, but has not progressed into interstellar space. In interviews, the authors cite the fact that the great deal of outer-space SF tends to focus on our first steps in becoming spacefarers, or skips ahead to a point where we’ve mastered the technology that allows us to travel between the stars. What these novels do is posit a future moment when we’ve become quite facile at hopping between Earth, Mars, and the outer planets (the “Belt”), but lack anything resembling the capacity to traverse the unthinkably vast distances beyond. Hence, we encounter a future with a notably industrial, jury-rigged feel to it, as the economies of this future depend upon vast fleets that essentially approximate the tramp steamers plying the oceans of the present. Many of the ships, to say nothing of the ports and shipyards, are old and rusted, oft-repaired; much more Millennium Falcon that U.S.S. Enterprise.

I won’t get into plot points, as my main goal here is to just plug the books. As the series proceeds, however, I imagine there will be a number of posts in the future getting into the narrative particulars.

I do however want to say that one of the things I really love about this series of novels is that they’re a big thumb in the eye of the Sad Puppies. Last April I wrote about the furor surrounding this year’s Hugo Awards, in which a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies successfully lobbied a portion of Worldcon’s membership to nominate their slate of choices, in order to strike back, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.” To recap, the previous round of Hugo nominees featured a significant number of works by women and authors of colour, or which featured stories with socially progressive elements. And, well, we couldn’t have that!

My blog post on the subject focused mostly on the arguments of author Brad Torgersen, who along with Larry Correia spearheaded the Puppy revolt. Torgersen’s main beef is that science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) has forsaken its origins in order to effect “subversive switcheroos” that appropriate traditional SF/F tropes and pervert them to articulate leftist, social justice agendas rather than good old-fashioned straightforward adventures.

Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.

Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

You can read the entirety of my critique in my post, but my response basically boiled down to this:

The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.

Which brings us back to The Expanse, which is as perfect a demonstration of this principle as I’ve encountered. The novels depict a racially diverse future, one in which race and ethnicity are hardly remarked upon, often leaving us to divine characters’ origins through their names (Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Julie Mao, e.g.), and features a lot of sharply drawn, compelling female characters without it ever feeling as though this representation is there for the sake of representation. One of the best characters is a U.N. undersecretary named Chrisjen Avasarala, an Indian woman with a marvelously foul mouth, who generally functions as the power behind the throne on Earth (she’ll be played in the TV adaptation by the magnificent Shohreh Aghdashloo). The series deals with such contemporary concerns as corporate power and malfeasance, terrorism, colonialist arrogance and colonial resistance, militarism and the ethics of warfare, and more. And it does so with all the spirit and bombast of the space operas of yore that Brad Torgersen and company lament as passing from this earth.

What’s more, the series delights in the trappings of genre: Leviathan Wakes is a noirish, hard-boiled conspiracy narrative. Caliban’s War, the second in the series, is good old-fashioned military SF, replete with space marines in mechanized combat armour. Abaddon’s Gate is a classic revenge drama. Cibola Burn is a about a standoff between planetary settlers and the corporate interests who have assumed ownership of their new home. And Nemesis Games is the high drama of desperate diplomacy in the midst of war. All of which unfolds from a variety of points of view, but especially from a core group of characters whose depth and complexity is what makes us care about the larger dramas engulfing the solar system.

So I’ll be turning on The Expanse tonight with about the same level of anticipation as a new season of Game of Thrones. My fingers are crossed that it will be good, but early reviews are all positive. Even if I hadn’t read the novels, one critic’s promise that “it will fill the void left by Firefly and Battlestar Galactica” would certainly have me watching.

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Filed under nerd stuff, what I'm reading