Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: Nov. 2019

Over the summer, I was perusing an article highlighting minority voices in sci-fi and fantasy. N.K. Jeminsin's, The Fifth Season, caught my attention, so I picked up a copy, but I didn't crack the cover until last month. In short, I loved it.

This book has a lot going for it. It's set in a future where Earth is a more volatile habitat. The planet is far more active with earthquakes and volcanos and such, which has presumably wiped our modern societies and cultures out, along with current technologies. Thus, what humans survived rebuilt entirely new communities, though many of our social problems persist. (More on that later) In fact, this culling of the human population due to inhospitable environmental conditions hasn't happened just once, but rather time and time again, to the point that the world has a name for it, a Fifth Season. This setting is both familiar and unfamiliar. Many elements of the setting harken back to pre-industrial human history, while other features are new and exciting, like how people speak of the Earth as if it has a personality and a distinct dislike for humans.

Then there's the "magic." Readers learn early that in this world, some people are born with the power to effect earth, as in the soil and rock. These characters can summon boulders up from the ground, draw heat from the air, and a lot more. Where did this power come from? Did it evolve in humans over the thousands of years between now and when the book is set? All this is unclear. At least through this the first book in the series. But the consequences of this power and the people who have it is a far more engaging idea. In this world, only a small percent of people have this power, and those who don't fear the ones who do. In turn, they abuse them, kill them, enslave them, and force them to live meager lives and to use their powers for the collective when, where, and how they are directed to do so.

And of course, there are the characters. The story mostly follows Essun, and jumps between four periods of her life. In many ways, she's lived four very different lives, one as a child hiding a secret, one as a slave of sorts, one as an adult hiding a secret, and more. (No spoilers) As the story jumps points in time, we piece together a complex and riveting story arc, and a plot that doesn't lack in highs, lowes, heartbreaks, and triumphs.

On top of all this wonderful, there are threads of underlying themes and poignant, reflective criticism of our society. (Which great spec fiction often includes.)

Off the top of my head, but not limited to:

· Taking care of the environment so that the environment can provide for us.
· The folly of judging people by their race, religion, or heritage.

· The folly of tribalism.

· The folly of forced labor.

· The folly in gender inequality.

· Cultural ignorance and not being open-minded to people who are different from yourself.

· Struggles with social casts and social mobility.

But the icing on the cake - although there is a supernatural element to the book, it stills calls pseudosciences into criticism as well, which I love, and has been a theme I've tried to feature in my own novels. There are many nods to legit science, particularly geology, which I also relish.

Without a doubt, I'll be reading the rest of Jeminsin's Broken Earth series. I've already started book 2.

What I've Been Watching: Nov. 2019

I've recently started watching the sci-fi series, Another Life, on Netflix. I'm about halfway through the season. So far, I have mixed feelings on this one.

The show features Katee Sackhoff, who you may remember her from Battlestar Galactica, or even from Longmire, which I rather enjoyed. We'll now she's Niko Breckenridge, a captain in some space-exploring government agency. Presumably of the US, but not stated outright. The series begins with an alien ship or probe from an unknown corner of the galaxy arriving on Earth, landing, and erecting a crystal-like structure that starts sending a signal. It appears to be un-manned. Soon after, a ship is launched on a mission to travel to where they believe the probe originated. There Niko and her crew are to investigate and/or make contact with whoever sent it.

Some things I like:

· Sackhoff's character is complex. She's outwardly confident, but also carries a lot of guilt for leaving her family and because of troubles in a previous command. Thus, she grapples with a lot of self-doubts. On top of this, she is a bad-ass who can fight and doesn't back down when challenged. Early, she is tested by an egotistical man who thinks he should be the one in command, and without spoiling anything, let just say, it doesn't go well for that guy.

· The story alternates between events on the ship and events back on Earth, both involving the crystal probe, and the captain's husband and daughter. It adds layers of drama and tension.

· The ship has an A.I., which presents itself as a human via holographic projection. It has flirted with issues of ethics and sentient A.I. though it hasn't gotten into this deeply...yet.

· Dabbles in reflecting modern social issues with one crew member being transgender, though little focus is placed on this. It's treated more like a regular aspect of life in this near future, which is pretty cool.

· Everything is built around the underlying tension of humans having a first contact with an alien species. Will they be hostile? Benevolent? Will we be hostile and undermind any chances of a fruitful relationship?

Some things I question:

· Disiplin is extremely poor on the ship and creates a great deal of the problems. We're not led to believe that the space organization is a military one, but they assign a captain and a second in command, so one would think that the ship is not a free for all where every member of the crew does what they please. Most merchant vessels and science vessels alike still tend to have a captain-down hierarchy, which, if not followed, yields some negative consequence. Not so for this ship, and if they did, so far, it would have headed off most of their troubles. I'm not saying insubordination has no place in a story, but then the disobedience should be the conflict, not the routine genesis of other trouble. In a way, it feels like lazy writing. If anyone is familiar with Star Gate Universe (2009-2010), you'll get a similar feeling among the crew on Another Life. They're always at odds with a failing ship, and always at odds with one another in a power struggle. However, in SGU, they were a bunch of random people who ended up the crew of an ancient Alien ship by happenstance, so they didn't know how to operate the ship and weren't ever intended to be a crew. The same just doesn't seem to fit the narrative for Another Life.

· The technology doesn't seem to match society. The ship is traveling to another star in the span of months. For this to be practical, they must have faster than light capability. They even talk in one episode about making a detour, which is only four light-years, as if it is an inconvenient distance but not a debilitating one. Yet, as of halfway thought the season, there has been no talk of other ships currently out traveling space. The mission that haunts the captain happened near Saturn, so still in our solar system. There is no mention of space stations or other vessels that have been out anywhere near them. At the same time, they don't talk like this is some substantial new accomplishment, as if no other human has been out this far before. Likewise, the alien probe got to Earth's atmosphere apparently without detection. One would think that a society capable of traveling at the minimum to nearby stars would have means to detect an approaching ship, and with a space fleet, potential meet it prior to its landing on our home planet. It's all just a little odd and feels like it wasn't thought out. When you've got FTL, cryo-sleep, synthesized gravity, and the ability to stock a ship with food and water for a large crew and for months of travel, it just seems like certain little things that seem to come up as trouble, should be accounted for already.

· More trope than originality. As an author myself, I've read a lot of genre writing advice that suggests writers know their genre's tropes well. The general idea being, that while certain things might seem cliche, if you ignore them all, you're not likely to satisfy the audience. This could be good advice. If you made a sci-fi story set in a future where humans were able to travel deep into space, but you didn't have advanced computer systems, or alien contact, or ship malfunctions, which can all be sci-fi tropes, then you likely wouldn't have a very well-liked product. But at the same time, you can't have a story that is all trope. Even if you hit all the routine points viewers and readers tend to like; it can still fall flat without at least one new-ish underlying premise. For Another Life, I can't quite put my finger on what that extra something was intended to be.

Altogether I'd call Another Life and pretty middle of the road sci-fi series. It's got a Ripley from Alien sort of leading lady, a Star Gate Universe kind of hodge-podge crew, and an Arrival type of first contact puzzle. But it's a lot like listening to your favorite band's greatest hits album. It's all familiar, there's a lot you like, but you're not going to find anything you haven't heard before, and the elements don't all quite fit together the way they would on a regular album.

The characters have been compelling enough that I'll likely stay tuned to finish the rest of the season, but I won't be surprised if Another Life never gets a second.

What I've Been Listening to: Nov. 2019

Ok. Hear me out. I thought I'd be talking about Niel Young and Crazy Horse's resent new album this month, and I enjoyed giving it a listen. I even plan to give it another go, but I found myself into an out-of-left-field album far more, Doja Cat's Hot Pink. But let's be clear. It's forward, crass even, very sexualized, and very sexually explicit. If that might rub you the wrong way, better to forget this post and check back in with me in a month. Otherwise, here's what I like about it.

I'd never heard of Doja Cat until a few weeks ago, maybe because she seems kind of cutesy. The artist's name and the album's name, Hot Pink, make me picture Hello Kitty. If you listened to a small snippet of her performance, you might think the same of Doja Cat's voice. It's high pitched and youthful, in a way that almost makes me think of K-Pop, yuck. But the album reels you in with solid, deep bass rhythms, all with a little bit of a funk aspect, which is far from cutesy. Then Doja Cat hits you with crass, emotional, sometimes vulgar, sometimes vulgar to the point of humor, lyrics - all in tightly written rhymes wich invoke compelling imagery. Plus, she dabbles in aggressive speed changes and brutally honest themes. Doja Cat even captures a taste of the body-positive elements I enjoyed in Lizzo's album a few months ago.

Altogether, I think there's a huge juxtaposition between the surface presentation and the actual lyrics and performance, and it's just damn entertaining. Imagin Taylor Swift covering an NWA song, and you'd be on the same track. I'm not sure I'd personally be as interested without the dichotomy, but all that aside, Doja Cat is a legit MC and might be the next Lil' Kim.

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