Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”

Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.

A New Pub Creeps up on You

Today’s the day. The Sockdolager is live with my story, “Hide Behind.”

I’ll have more to say later, but for now, the short version: “Hide Behind” is set in the same world as “Tall,” an American West where folklore is fact.

Meet Hayashi Yuna, a frontier doctor struggling to unlock the secrets of a preternatural tree alongside her research partner, Ruthie. When a local giant is murdered, the struggle to unravel buried secrets becomes far more immediate, and the potential consequences far deadlier.

You can read the story free online here. If you’re inclined to buy a copy from the wonderful folks at The Sockdolager who took a chance on it (and why wouldn’t you be?), here’s links to a bunch of different options:

Amazon
DRM-free
In that old fashioned print thingee

You can also subscribe to The Sockdolager over on their site. Today is the day of options, I tell you.

This story isn’t a sequel. More of a meanwhile somewhere else. Having read “Tall” might make you more familiar with a world building element or two, but you absolutely don’t need to have read “Tall” to understand “Hide Behind.” (though if you’d like to, the collection it’s in is still available).

Evil From the Start

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Once Upon a Time. I don’t always worry if I miss some of it, but I keep coming back because folklore re-working is one of my wonks (Obviously). I’m in a catch-up phase with the show at present, and found myself pleasantly surprised by the recent episode “Sympathy for the De Vil.” Spoilers follow, since I don’t have a way to talk about this without giving away the primary twist in the plot. You’ve been warned.

I tend to think of it as “the Wicked effect,” myself (TV Tropes prefers Cry for the Devil), as it seemed to surge on the heels of that particular Broadway adaptation’s success, but the narrative for just about any villain in Once Upon a Time generally follows the same formula: after introducing us to the latest in the line of Most Evil Person We’ve Ever Faced characters, flashbacks reveal that once, our cold-hearted villain was a loving, caring soul who was ruined by someone else’s evil. Usually, by someone else he or she (usually she) cared for.

Regina’s evil is from the horror which was her mother, Cora, enacted on the love of her life. Cora’s evil is originally from having her love exploited by a callous, lying lover. Rumpelstiltskin’s father abandoned him and his wife left him. Captain Hook lost his love to Rumpel’s magic. And so it goes.

Given that one of the show’s primary themes is redemption, it’s not a surprising trend. And the recent trio of new villains seem to be following the pattern. Maleficent, we find, has suffered the loss of a child. Ursula, too, found her villainy in the face of betrayal.

The episode focusing on Cruella De Vil started by holding to form. A stern mother and her not-remotely-lovable Dalmatians harrow a poor little Cruella, then Mommy locks her away in the attic. See? Of course she’d have hard feelings about spotted dogs. She was horribly treated by them as a child!

An older Cruella finds a means of escaping from her prison, though, and of gaining new powers (because on OUAT, every villain has magic) thanks to a brave suitor after telling him about how her mother killed all three of her previous husbands (Cruella’s previous fathers). Cruella hurries off, telling her suitor they’ll meet soon and run away together.

Bad Mommy shows up, and I may have yawned, because we’ve seen this before. Repeatedly. If redemption is a central theme of OUAT, another puzzlingly seems to be “family does really messed up stuff in the name of taking care of you.”

And then they went and surprised me. Because, you see, despite all the same trappings every other of these little flashbacks has had, despite a title telling me about the sympathy I’d feel, it turns out Cruella lived up to her name without any external influences.

Yup. Cruella killed her own father. Then did it to her mother’s next two husbands. It wasn’t even revenge, really. Cruella, it seems, was just plain old evil. She killed because she liked it. So far as I can tell, Cruella is your standard issue psychopath.

Which, given the normal direction of the show, was oddly refreshing. That, finally, UOAT for a brief moment offered up the idea that some people really are just plain evil.

And I got excited, because what would all these “you can be good if you really want to be” heroes do in the face of someone who would never, ever make that choice? Who wasn’t corrupted by a nasty history, couldn’t be restored to the love and light from which he or she originally sprang. Who was fully, unarguably, irredeemably evil? Oh, this could be really delicious.

Mind you, it seems the writers didn’t think there was quite so much potential in that particular moral quandry. I suspect the real reason for Cruella’s “born evil” origin was due to what happens in the “present” of the episode immediately afterward. Cruella’s thrown off a cliff, and while we’re shocked and all, we did just find out she’s evil to the core.

And just when I started to love her. Hopefully this heartache doesn’t send me on the path to villainy.

Adventure Epics About Intrepid Grease Monkeys

Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s the baseline for a healthy kid, right? You’d have thought I’d be a bonus, what with eighteen fingers. Guess they all have to function before you count them.

As Deficiencies go, mine’s not so bad. The Skew was a hell of a thing, and everyone on the Rim’s still feeling it. I knew a guy once had a fully formed jaw down around his nuts. I only wish I was kidding. On the upside, the hinge didn’t work, or it would’ve been a nightmare sitting down.

Cover art: The Woods by Boudewijn Berends
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0) license
Image edits by Leland Spencer

“At Her Fingertips,” goes live today over at Betwixt magazine. This is another story set on the Rim — the asteroid colonies / ghettos populated by victims of the genetic plague known as the Skew — which first appeared in “Detritus.” If you haven’t read that first story, don’t worry; this is a different asteroid, a different protagonist, and a story intended to stand on its own.1

Acaja is a skilled pilot, talented mechanic, and surly piece of business. She’s also a dreamer and a romantic, but if you tell anyone, she might just beat you to a within an inch of your life. A lady has a reputation to keep.

Acaja wants off her asteroid colony, Rixzah, out of the literal garbage dump she works in, and into the arms of … oh, but that would be spoilers.

Part caper, part romance, all complicated-and-surly protagonist, and totally free to read. Though, of course, if you enjoy it, consider buying the ebook or dead tree versions via the Betwixt site. And maybe think about picking up “Detritus” (link on the right or on my bibliography page) for more weird stuff from the Rim.

1. Folks who have read “Detritus” may recognize at least one character here, and pick up one or more other easter eggs, mind.

Click. Read. Enjoy.

I’ve a longer post in the works, but need to clear a few things first. In the meantime, here’s the short version:

“At Her Fingertips,” a new story of the Rim (from “Detritus”), is now live over at Betwixt magazine. It’s free to read, so everyone’s out of excuses. If you’re reading this post, you have everything you need to dive in. It’s the story of a frustrated mechanic who wants a lot more out of her life, and is determined to change her luck if she has to build that change with her own genetically-off-model hands.

Why are you still here? Click it, read it, then tell everyone you like to do the same. You can even tell people you don’t like.

Possess the Original

Spoilers for The Originals are likely to follow. Warning done.

In general, I’ve tended to find The Vampire Diaries spin-off show The Originals more interesting than its parent. I think the pull of the latter comes in part with the way the writers seem to play with moral ambiguity in more interesting ways. A fair amount of that is the fact the titular original vampires are often and repeatedly painted as Not Good People. And unlike in TVD, they generally aren’t seeking redemption. The Mikaelson clan are callow and selfish and back-stabby. That last quite literally, though they’re often as happy to stab you in the front if it’s more convenient.

The original vampires are, then, protagonists rather than heroes. The nature of series television, of course, means that casting them in that central position required some level of softening from the soulless lot they first appeared as in TVD. Largely, this takes place in the extended familial interactions: sibling rivalry and the burdens of unplanned parenthood and long lost relatives with which they have … unpleasant pasts.

A significant frustration is that, though set in New Orleans, the show’s first season wasn’t what I’d call especially diverse. The Mikaelsons are all white. Most of the added supporting cast, as well. The first arc’s adversary (Charles Michael Davis’s Marcel) was one of the few POC in the cast. I can’t say he reformed, because I’m not sure anyone does that on The Originals, but he has moved his way onto the protagonist side of the equation, insofar as anyone can really be certain of an allegiance in a show built around betrayal by those you most trust.

Another adversary was a body jumping witch, who was — both in her first life and in the body she inhabited in the 21st century — a woman of color. There’s an argument to be made that it’s also problematic the percentage of POC characters who fall on the antagonist side of the equation. I go back and forth about it, because the show makes it pretty clear that most of the people who want to hurt the Mikaelsons have entirely valid reasons for doing so. The originals are horrible people who’ve earned a fair share of the ire directed toward tehm. Which is likely to happen when you’re centuries-old bloodsucking murderers.

And given how often the Mikaelsons are plotting against each other, it’s often difficult to decide who the hell’s in the right. Usually no one. I mean, the number of times the siblings have imprisoned, tortured, or tried to murder one another, and then justified it with speeches about loyalty and betrayal that don’t really makes sense but obviously feel right to them … yeah.

Still, even if they’re all Not Good People, season one had a woeful dearth of color given the setting.

The second season has made a little progress to fixing that, though the storyline behind that is as murky in how it makes me feel as the title characters themselves. You see, while there are more black actors working on the show, they’re almost all playing white characters.

Bear with me. I’ll explain

This season, Esther Mikaelson, the mother of the original vampires, returns from the dead, and brings back deceased Mikaelson siblings Kol and Finn with her. The returned Esther’s originally played by white Natalie Dreyfuss, Finn by black actor Yusuf Gatewood. After a few episodes, Esther’s spirit slips into that of a different witch, and she’s thereafter played by black actress Sonja Sohn.

Esther, it seems, has a plan to remove the taint of vampirism from her children. She wants them to stop being the murderous animals they have been, to move all of their souls into new, human bodies and thus grant them a chance to live honest, human lives. She even takes steps to try to give them recognizable vessels, preparing human ally Cami (Leah Pipes) to receive the soul of daughter Rebekah.

It’s at this point that the narrative finally pauses long enough to point out what’s been obvious for some time: Esther’s magic hasn’t fashioned new bodily shells for herself and her children; they’re possessing bodies which belong to living souls. Though she doesn’t wind up in Cami, Rebakah does — through the twisting nature of plots and traps and double-crosses the show so enjoys — wind up in a new body. That of black actress Maisie Richardson-Sellers.

Surely by now you’re sensing the pattern.

I find the potential of this pattern incredibly intriguing. I mean, for all that Esther keeps saying she’s trying to save her family, for all that she denounces the evil of her children’s monstrous existence, she’s effectively trying to rescue them from being predators by making them into parasites. She’s giving them a second chance by taking away several others’ first one.

And nearly all the folks whose lives are being stolen by these white Europeans are black.

It’s just downright fraught with prickly, twisty dynamics. Especially when you consider that Marcel explicitly comes from a background as a slave. He lived his early life possessed by a person, though not in the mystical sense. Even after he was ostensibly freed by Klaus (Joseph Morgan), he wound up a recurring pawn, fought over by the vampire family, each of whom has variously wanted him for him or herself, as a sibling or child or lover or whatever, but almost never as an equal. Marcel has been bandied about as “belonging” to one or more Mikaelson for a significant portion of his life and later undeath.

There is, too, the choice to have Yusuf Gatewood continue to play Finn when, in a recent episode, the minds / souls of the Mikaelsons are all gathered in a magical holding area outside of their bodies. That Kol is played in that sequence by Daniel Sharman (the current “host body” for Kol and not the character’s original actor) suggests this is probably only a logistical expedient, but I couldn’t help myself wondering if it might suggest that long-term possession impacts the sense of self, and then wondering in what ways.

The frustration of it all is, however, that other than that brief period wherein white Cami is at risk, no one seems to be commenting on what all this possession means to the possessed. Indeed, in the most recent episode, the only person anyone’s morning as one of the possessing Mikaelsons dies is that of the possessing soul, and not the young man whose life was co-opted by him. Even more noteworthy: though there’s been much hand-wringing about how to get Rebekah back into her original body, the same scenes of a dying brother lead to Rebekah’s promise to stay in her (black) witch body until she can manage the magic to bring Kol back.

As I said in the beginning, this isn’t an especially new turn of events for these characters. They’ve perpetually only cared about their own well being, and marginally the well-being of those mortals with whom they happen to be fond at the moment. That the Mikaelsons don’t think twice about what their choices mean to the humans they force themselves on is a pretty consistent narrative of the show.

But it’s not just them. No one is commenting. Not Davina (Danielle Campbell), who still wants Klaus dead for his callus treatment of her loved ones. Not Marcel, whose previously-mentioned background might suggest he notice this kind of thing. Not even Cami, who is not only known for pointing out just how completely messed up all these supernatural characters’ moral compasses are, but who was actually in danger of being possessed. If anyone might sympathize with the suppressed person in these bodies, it should be her.

I suppose I can take this as indication that the Mikaelsons’ philosophy is seeping into all those with whom they associate. It wouldn’t be the first time. Stay around these people long enough, and you seem to develop a taste for blood whether you’re a vampire or not. I have a hard time believing that’s not the intention, though. And it’s just frustrating to see what feels like such an intriguing subplot languish un-commented on.