The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2)

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What it’s about: In the midst of the worst Fifth Season in generations, Essun searches for home while her daughter, Nassun, runs from it.

Notes:

  • This is a rather different book than The Fifth Season, smaller in scope, more raw, intimate but just as emotionally scathing. Rather than telling the story of how things came to be, The Obelisk Gate brings the story forward, as Essun, the orogene protagonist of the three narrative strands in book 1, tries to survive in the apocalypse while trying to find her daughter, Nassun, and trying to find a way to set things right with the world.
  • But we also see the story unfold from Nassuns’ point of view, and with it, the story takes a slightly darker tinge, if it were possible. Essun was not a particularly nurturing parent, working Nassun to the  bone in a bid to make her control her fledgling orogenic powers, in the process showing her little of the love she needed. And now, abducted by her father and taken to lands far south, other forces begin to craft her a new destiny.
  • The weird machinations of the Obelisks start to slowly unravel in meaning and significance, and that mystery of their true purpose and power is a driving force in the book. Of course, the book slowly, deliberately draws out the bequeathing of its secrets, not in the most elegant of ways: Essun basically spends days and months learning the truth from her once-mentor, once-lover Alabaster, who is so weak that he can only divulge a few Truth nuggets to her (and the reader by extension) every chapter. But it’s a revelation as strange and innovative as any fantasy out there, a technology tied to the very Earth itself, an Earth not depicted in the typical Gaia fashion, but as an ancient masculine being full of abject malice and cruelty.
  • Does it suffer from middle-book syndrome? I think it does, a little. While it has its share of high-octane suspense and its moments of transcendent and magnificent catastrophe, very little actually happens, with much of the book devoted to fleshing out Essun and Nassun as characters. Cursed with a power that makes them killing machines, they are both angels of death and destruction, dealing havoc at every turn almost as a natural response to the threats around them. It’s a common fantasy conceit for one to not be in control of their powers, but what Jemisin shows is a situation in which the very fact of one’s powers creates a path dependency that leads to inevitable destruction and heartbreak in its wake – in a world that almost demands that one’s powers be used, at great emotional cost. That, more than anything, is what typifies this series to me. It almost reminds me of The Wheel of Time.

Verdict: Slower and smaller than the magisterial first volume, The Obelisk Gate nevertheless demands to be read, and has its share of the magnificent desolation and deep mystery that so characterises this series.

I give this book: 4/5 toruses

 

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The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1)

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What it’s about: The world is destroyed. Amidst the ruins, a woman, cursed from birth with abilities that make her a monster in the eyes of humanity, seeks revenge against her husband, who has murdered their child.

Notes:

  • The Fifth Season merges epic, geologic-scale fantasy with intimate portraits of the people who live in a world that is quite unique in the genre. The world of The Fifth Season is an Earth, which, having lost its Moon long ago, is wracked by intense geologic activity; once every few centuries, a massive volcanic eruption or some other natural disaster gives rise to protracted periods of catastrophic climate change, called Fifth Seasons. The civilisation of the day, a massive empire spread out across the single continent, has developed strict codes of oral and written history that dictate the precise actions that people must take in the event of a Season, in order that their communities can survive until the Season ends.
  • Within this context, there are orogenes, people born with the power to control the flow of energy in a system. Since the power is so innate to them, if untrained, they lose control and are liable to kill entire towns. As a result, they are feared and hated, and only sanctioned as part of an organisation called the Fulcrum, where they serve humankind by using their powers to stabilise the geologically hyperactive Earth, to minimize the incidence of Seasons.
  • This conceit sets up a lot of opportunities for the book to act as a commentary on race and gender relations. Certainly, The Fifth Season is a novel for the disadvantaged, one that eschews the stereotypical male white power fantasies so endemic to the genre’s canon and replaces them with deeply disadvantaged characters whose circumstances were theirs from birth.
  • However, the characters that populate the book are anything but passively resigned to their fate. The book is subdivided into three points of view in three different times, of orogene girls and women at different stages of their lives, trying to survive and make a life for themselves, in a broken world. This narrative triptych proceeds at parallel for most of the book, until it ties together in a not entirely unexpected, but very satisfying, fashion.
  • The book was feted almost hyperbolically upon release, winning a Hugo award. Certainly, it has its merits and a calibre of worldbuilding up there with Brandon Sanderson in its creativity. Its prose is rich with a kind of wry irony, a tone that almost knowingly knows what tropes the reader is expecting and either pre-empts or subverts them. The main character, Essun, for example, is originally portrayed as a broken middle-aged woman, shattered by the death of her son at the hands of her suddenly abusive husband. But as the plot progresses, Essun’s inner monologue begins to reveal a much more complex and prickly history, and Jemisin winks at the reader by just making Essun wryly self-aware of the disparity between who she is and who she appears to be.
  • A final point is that The Fifth Season has that spark in fantasy that always hooks me into it – that intimation, or suggestion, of deep history that suggests that the present world is the way it is because of mysterious events in the deep past, as evidenced by the various forgotten artifacts and ruins lying around, from a more advanced, hubristic time. And I like that the Earth is portrayed as a character, or at least an active agency in the book, but not your typical Gaia-like benevolence, but instead, as a vengeful, almost evil entity, evincing the exclamation, “Evil Earth!” from the lips of any of the denizens of the Earth. A reminder to us, in the real world, that the Earth can thrive perfectly well without us, and can – and will – kill us in a myriad of horrific ways, if we’re careless about exploiting it.

I give this book: 4.5/5 obelisks

No Is Not Enough

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What it’s about: Naomi Klein diagnoses the failings of neoliberal capitalism following Trump’s shock ascendancy to the highest office in the land, and gives readers a foundation for how to build a unified resistance based not merely on opposition, but on a foundation of strong, affirmative shared values.

Notes:

  • The world reeled when Trump won, not just because he was a buffoon, but because of what he signified – a herald of an era where branding was king and the tool of neoliberal capitalists to propagate themselves by exploiting the labor of the poor, and for disaster capitalists to profit and flourish from crises, both real and engineered.
  • According to Klein, Trump himself is the epitome of both tendencies. First, his business empire is built upon his Trump branding, a form of rent that he extends to franchisees in return for handsome royalties, which in turn gives him a kind of immunity to his antics – because his crassness is part of that brand, of hedonistic, callous excess turned up to eleven. When Trump acts crass, he is not judged as harshly because he is conforming to that brand – this is, I think, a valuable insight that Klein has given us about why Trump appears so invulnerable to criticism.
  • Second, the incompetence of his presidency has merely led to more shocks – periods of extreme crisis, unrest and instability in the general world order, which are rich seams of opportunity for disaster capitalists to profit from. The incompetence of the federal government in handling these crises is just used as a justification to reduce the size of government, creating a self-fulfilling, self-reinforcing loop of the steady erosion of the public realm, or creates a period where democratic norms are suspended, allowing them to ram through a capitalist wishlist of neoliberal reforms that concentrate wealth ever more in the hands of the rich.
  • Global warming and extreme weather are just one, rather worrying part of this torrent of anthropocentric crisis, one that neoliberals are all too ready to be sanguine about because to stop the tide of global warming would be to cease the culture of unchecked extractionism that drives capitalist growth.
  • Klein tells us that the need for resistance is stronger than ever, but left-leaning coalitions often break apart because they are driven by a multitude of different agendas – feminism, native rights, environmentalism, racial and social justice, LGBTQ rights – and often their marriage to the cause is one of convenience, and has only a tenuous link to the critique of the neoliberal state of affairs. There is no blood-and-soil essentialist tribalism that unifies the disparate threads of the left in pseudo-religious fervor.
  • Ultimately, Klein tells us – to mount an effective resistance and to offer a real, sustainable solution, no is not enough – there needs to be a coherent, singular manifesto that everyone on the left can agree on, a set of shared goals and values based on compromise and mutual respect, a vision and mission to fight for. She offers one such vision – the Leap Manifesto – a mishmash of liberal identity politics and native rights mixed with awareness of the effects of capitalism on the working class – which provides a strong conceptual backing from which to build a new social vision.
  • Klein here once again writes with galvanizing force, synthesising various discursive strands of the new Trumpist reality into a coherent and singular thesis of what Trumpism signifies. It is a taut, powerful and impassioned call for positive action, given life and breath by the righteous outrage generated by the visible incursions of Trumpian depredations into our everyday reality, and the looming threat to the viability of our living planet. While her Leap Manifesto might not be the answer, what she says needs to be done strikes a chord of truth – to combat the a machine built upon essentialist tribalism, the Left must come up with a manifesto of its own, not just in opposition to an enemy, but in fashioning a new and better state of affairs to today’s Trumpist reality.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Trump steaks

Stranger Things 2

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What it’s about: One year on, the kid crew deal with the echoes of the trauma, and confront a giant new enemy from the Upside-Down.

Notes:

  • Stranger Things has always been great at building up a creeping sense of tension and mystery, creating story hooks that just make you want to watch the next episode.  In season 2, the town of Hawkins is being overtaken by a mysterious influence that kills animals and starts to infect a compromised Will. The showrunners are adept at building up that mystery and peeling back its layers one by one across episodes. Indeed, that binge-worthy quality is really what made me stick to the first season, and is strongly present in season 2.
  • Structurally, though, S2 did suffer from similar problems to the first season – in that the climax was somewhat rushed to a neat resolution, which gave the sense that the buildup didn’t really have a good payoff. Not much was revealed about the nature of the Upside-Down beyond what was hinted at during the first season, and basically the Big Bad was again beaten back by Eleven’s telekinetic powers, with the other characters playing defense in other arenas. Plot-wise, the entire season is full of plot contrivances, in which characters seem to be able to achieve things that in real life would be unrealistically difficult to do. Case in point: Piecing together Will’s maps into a cohesive map of Hawkins. I mean, just how was Bob able to make sense of that in just  a few minutes? Also, characters doing mind-bogglingly stupid things, like Hopper going into the tunnels alone.
  • In terms of character development, S2 was hit and miss. I have to say that the adults were much better, with Hopper’s attempts to care for Eleven that backfire after she snaps from his oppressive overprotectiveness, and Joyce’s very earnest romance with Bob. Other parts seemed forced in just to fit in the showrunners’ idea of character growth, and involved the kids just entering into their troubled post-adolescent phases and being associated with one overarching emotional arc – Mike and his depressive pining for Eleven, Dustin’s arrogance and condescending attitude, Eleven’s telekinetic-abetted fits of inarticulate rage.
  • Lucas, ironically, becomes the nice one of the group (after his turn as the skeptic in S1) but for some reason needed to be shoved into an adolescent romance arc with series newcomer Max, which just felt completely out of place. Max, herself, is an intriguing addition to the series and had potential to be a breakout in her own right, but she was squandered after she was relegated to accessory status in the group, playing second fiddle, being habitually abused by Mike and Dustin, and acting only as Lucas’ love interest. There’s Will and Nancy’s cavorting and sudden relationship, which was okay but also a bit contrived in its awkwardness. I have to say, though, Steve and Dustin’s often hilarious male bonding talks were inspired, and definitely the highlight of the season, character-wise. Max’s brother, Billy, is a sterling case of frightening teenage brutality – the second scariest character in the show, after the Shadow Monster.
  • I wish they didn’t have to relegate Will to the perpetually compromised position of being series victim, though. While he gave an effective and frankly quite scary performance as the distant kid possessed by an eldritch horror, I do think he could have been put to better use. Here’s hoping they break him out of that cycle in S3.
  • The series has one slightly quirky diversion in the form of Eleven’s jaunt into Chicago to confront the specters of her past. She meets Eight, a fellow psychic with the power to foster illusions, and goes on a quest to kill the Department of Energy scientists who tortured her and made her mother into a vegetable. It’s tonally and narratively quite jarring, but I suppose it was an important part of Eleven’s character journey into defining the boundaries of her own humanity, and honing her rage into something channeled and productive.

Verdict: All in all, an entertaining binge-watch, but feels like a bit of a misfire – the main characters aren’t as charming as in the previous season, and the plot didn’t quite go quite far enough in developing the world and its lore.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 Ghostbusters costumes

Lenin’s Kisses

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What it’s about: In this satire of modern China’s hunger for material wealth, a provincial official hatches a plan to Lenin’s body from Russia and setting it up in his county to attract tourists. He enlists the oddly talented disabled inhabitants of a village into a performance troupe to raise money for the purchase.

Notes:

  • This was a ponderous, meandering novel, one of the oddest I’ve read in a while. That it is a satire is clear, and manages to lampoon everyone and everything to do with contemporary China in some form or other. Co-opting a famous communist symbol to make money is a deliciously ironic conceit, as is the image of frenzied prancing villager bumpkins hauling in massive wads of cash as a result of channeling their capacity for productive work into money-generating, but ultimately unproductive, performances. It has its moments of absurd comedy, such as the relentless descriptions of Chief Liu’s narcissistic excesses, or the surreal feats of the Liven villagers.
  • As a novel, though, it doesn’t really seem to work. Structurally, Lenin’s Kisses is a bloated mess, with an excess of unnecessary verbiage, repetition, and narrative digressions. It presents flashbacks in the form of extremely extended footnotes, a curious stylistic affectation that, to me, doesn’t seem to have a clear purpose or pay off in any way. It meanders from character to character, jumps timelines, and segues crazily from story arc to story arc without really feeling like a cohesive novel. Essentially, it prioritises its satire over its storytelling. Everything that Yan can find a way to lampoon, will be lampooned, even though it requires a few pages of exposition that are strictly not necessary to the story.
  • At the end of it all, I can’t say I really enjoyed reading this book, although I can kind of appreciate its value as one of the rare satirical works that hasn’t been impacted by Chinese censors, mostly because its satire is so universal that its hard to point to any one thing that Yan is critiquing, or even if he can be said to be critiquing anything at all. Perhaps that is its main selling point.

Verdict: Satirical to the core, yet ponderous to read, Lenin’s Kisses is best admired for its adroitness in satirizing the hypercapitalist excesses of modern China in a way that passed the censor’s pen (maybe because it was so metronome-like in its repetitiveness?)

I give this: 3 out of 5 firecrackers to the ear

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Let’s first get something out of the way. In my opinion, Disney ruined Star Wars. They ruined it when they threw away the EU of books and games and replaced it with a new continuity with none of the old EU’s accreted  texture and socio-political verisimilitude. They ruined it when they let J.J. Abrams make a movie that was basically just a carbon copy of A New Hope, except with little of its charm and packed to the brim with absurd plotholes.

As it stands, the post-ROTJ continuity of Star Wars is fundamentally broken, because Abrams locked in a storyline that basically involved a galaxy’s worth of individuals making idiotically absurd decisions that allowed the First Order to rise and history to repeat itself.

For these reasons, I consider the post-ROTJ Disney continuity to be a kind of high-budget fan fiction, the kind that seems predicated on the sort of hubris that leads one to confuse imitation with mastery. In doing so, I refused it a place in my personal Star Wars headcanon, which, chronologically speaking, starts from the dim pre-hyperspace days of Xim the Despot and ends right around the conclusion of Timothy Zahn’s Vision of the Future. 

I watched The Last Jedi with the sort of detachment that came from my having denied it true headcanon status. Through that, less subjectively biased lens, I actually found TLJ to be fairly good, but massively flawed, attempt to transmute the themes of the original into something new. But like TFA before it, it is hobbled by its place in this new and malformed Star Wars continuity, perpetuating plotholes that were created by the absurdities introduced by the post-ROTJ timeline’s lack of political realism.

So, with that frame in mind, I will, without further ado, discuss about what was good, bad and sad (because, despite everything, the film was pretty emotionally wrought for me) about TLJ.

There will, of course, be spoilers.

The Good

TLJ is thematically and structurally quite brilliant. In terms of the quality of its story beats, TLJ is probably up there with ESB in its ability to confound with its many shocking plot twists and narrative developments – Snoke’s death, Luke’s heart-wrenching final act of sacrifice, the truth behind Rey’s parentage, the catastrophic failure of Finn and Rose’s admittedly ridiculous quest to save the Resistance.

These story beats were so effective not just because they were unexpected in a Star Wars film, but also because they played important parts in developing the key themes of this movie, which is about transcending the usual themes of Star Wars and alchemising them into something new. Ren’s killing of Snoke subverted expectations that he could be redeemed. Luke’s story arc made him out to be a flawed hero whose last act redeemed him and turned him into a timeless legend, a beacon of hope for the galaxy; an emotionally-charged act of passing the torch to a new generation of heroes.

The revelation that Rey was a nobody subverted the longstanding notion that the mantle of the chosen one could be passed down through lineage. Kylo Ren, of the Skywalker lineage, failed the test of redemption, while Rey, a nobody, could become a hero in her own right.

And finally, the whole Poe Dameron sub-plot demonstrated that plucky heroic antics, long a mainstay of the films, could actually go wrong, upending the well-worn trope of heroes going against the palsied hand of authority to save the day. The film led us to think that Admiral Holdo as a cowardly villain and Poe as the hero (complete with Poe smugly trying to mansplain the tactical situation to Holdo), only to suddenly subvert that trope by showing up Poe’s actions as ill-conceived and ultimately disastrous, and Holdo’s actions as prudent and well-thought out.

Even the Canto Bight adventure by itself, seen by some as a superfluous accessory to the plot (since it didn’t Save the Day), did allow for Johnson to make mention of the notion that there are a superclass of individuals who profit off the endless cycle of war in the galaxy, and bring our attention to the systematic structures of oppression that undergird society – a timely commentary of the neoliberal takeover of the world, adding dimensionality to an otherwise simple parable of good versus evil.

That the film subverts these Star Wars tropes is not a bad thing – and is in fact good, because it means that the film is trying to be its own thing, to be both entertaining and thematically  resonant at the same time, to critically examine the tropes that make up the franchise and do something different, while still staying somewhat true to the spirit of Star Wars‘ elemental nature.

In a way, the film also tries to address some of the elements of the previous films. Luke sees the Force as bigger than the Jedi or the Sith, and thinks that it is hubris to view the Jedi as exclusive guardians of the Force. He critiques the Jedi of the prequel eras as hypocrites, ineffectual monks in ivory towers that abetted the conditions that allowed Sidious to rise, custodians of a reductionist view of the Force that assesses one’s potential for training through one’s midi-chlorian count (kind of like how kids are streamed to secondary schools via their PSLE score). The Last Jedi makes the bold thesis that the Jedi as a concept are unnecessary and even inimical to an understanding of the living Force. And while it doesn’t technically conclude with the Jedi dying out (since Rey is the new last Jedi), it opens up the question in our minds on what it means to be a Jedi and whether or not we’ve been unduly deifying them.

The big trio (Rey, Finn, Poe) are much better written and developed than in TFA. There are also a few genuinely great new characters (Rose Tico among them – I hope she survived the crash). Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher were resplendent in their roles. Luke was an exquisitely tragic character study; Leia the very definition of dignity and inner strength.

Rian Johnson also mercifully downplayed some of Abram’s less inspired additions to the universe, the ineffectual Captain Phasma being one of them, and the whole awful macguffin plot of searching for Luke Skywalker – finding out where he was wasn’t really of importance to the plot of TLJ, in the end.

The Bad

As I said, TLJ is massively flawed, and mostly because of the many ridiculous plotholes that pepper it, both as a result of Abram’s lack of coherence and Johnson’s own carelessly loose script. Much of it arises from treating the galaxy, a collection of a hundred billion or more stars, like it just consists of a few random planets in space.

Let’s just rattle them off:

  • How come the First Order dreadnought didn’t have deflector shields? How could a lone starfighter just have blown up the laser batteries and allowed bombers to get through?
  • This is one of the central mysteries of the entire chronology – sure, a portion of the New Republic fleet was pulverized by Starkiller base – but surely there are other fleets elsewhere? Who keeps their entire arsenal only at the capital? There’s a galaxy to defend! Where are the rest of the good guys?
  • Surely the Resistance is not the only conceivable hope out there, or even that important of a symbol – it’s a big galaxy, surely other people want to be free. And doesn’t the defense of individual systems fall to individual fleets? Why should the First Order, with its limited resources (and yet crazy enough to send its most powerful ships chasing after a hundreds-strong splinter group) be able to conquer the galaxy, and its teeming multitudes? Why did the New Republic demilitarise to such an extent, flying in the face of realist geopolitical logic amidst a sea of potential threats and revanchist factions floating around?
  • Why couldn’t the First Order just end things quickly by sending a few ships through hyperspace to intercept the fleeing Resistance fleet to blow them to smithereens? (This is, by far, my biggest pet peeve).
  • Also, a planet’s pretty big – why didn’t anybody know the Resistance was heading straight to Crait, and by virtue of that, figure out that maybe they had something up their sleeves? Sure, the movie tells us Holdo’s plan was an inspired one, but it just doesn’t hold up upon closer inspection.
  • Just how long does it take to travel across the galaxy, anyway? The film seems to suggest that jumping to any given random planet in a galaxy, bringing back a codebreaker, breaking into a ship, disabling its hyperspace tracker, and escaping doesn’t take more than eighteen hours. This is a continuation of the Abramesque tendency to “compress” the vastness of the galaxy into something that will fit in his tiny imagination.
  • The whole Canto Bight thing is just a ridiculous macguffinesque plot – scour an entire planet for one guy who happens to be the only person in the galaxy who can help. Admittedly, the movie does acknowledge that it was a dumb idea – but apparently not too dumb for people to actually act on.
  • Speaking of which, why didn’t Holdo just tell people what was going on and avoided the entire debacle?
  • How come people can talk to each other through hyperspace on commlinks, but you need to go to a planet to send out a distress signal? And why just the Outer Rim?
  • How did Rey get so good at a lightsaber so fast (continuing the Abramesque fallacy). By my reckoning they only spent a few days at Ahch-To. Months-long training at Dagobah, this was not.
  • Raddus destroying the First Order fleet, while satisfying (and beautiful), was a total deus ex machina.

Essentially, the premise of the new films derives from a conception of the galaxy as small, simplistic, and strangely homogeneous – a place where a single star system’s destruction can change the fates of thousands of planets, where the conceit is that the survival of a ragtag band that’s lost everything is the only thing that can save the galaxy, where geopolitical realities, rules of logic and reasonable conduct have been warped in order to give rise to a specific set of circumstances to contrive yet another war between an evil empire and a rebellion – to pander to the imagined desires of a fanbase that is seen just as an enormous source of profits to be milked, just like Luke does to that alien.

The Last Jedi doesn’t, and can’t, escape those starting conditions, and has a few real stinkers of plotholes entirely of its own doing. And because of that, it makes what could have been a creditable and thematically strong work of “fan fiction” lose a few brownie points with me.

The Sad

Luke meets Leia for a last, bittersweet farewell, recaptures some element of his younger days, fights Kylo Ren to a standstill, and disappears, before dying. By far the single most emotively jarring part of the film is the scene where, old and grey and exhausted, he stares into the twin suns and disappears, his cloak floating off into the breeze.

Admiral Ackbar dies. WUT.

The Resistance is whittled down to a bare skeleton in this film, methodically, with clinical savagery, as hope dies, is reborn, dies again – with only the barest thread of it surviving – an emotional rollercoaster of a movie (one that, to be sure, is still fan fiction and the darkest timeline of the SW multiverse, but still, disbelief is sufficiently suspended). This is the most sobering Star Wars film ever made. (But again, it really hangs on this notion that the Resistance is the only resistance left that has the ability to organise – that is decidedly not true, and should not be true. Otherwise, we accept that the galaxy is essentially a hopeless place, without non-movie characters able to rise to the challenge and lead).

Seeing Carrie Fisher in the film was also emotionally ravaging. There is an irony in how she survives the movie – we know we will never see her again, and we don’t know how Episode 9 can do without her, given the big role she played. But now, two of the big three have passed in the film, and the only survivor in the film has passed in real life. People conflate actors and the people they play, until they are one and the same. While the deaths of Han and Luke were devastating in the context of the plot, Carrie Fisher’s death was the thing that really signaled that the old guard, and the era of the original films, is really fading into the background, to make way for new characters that don’t have half of the OT heroes’ charm and chemistry. It is a sad reminder of the inexorable end of a period of my life, and of the lives of millions of Star Wars fans. RIP, Carrie Fisher.

Lastly, seeing the reactions to TLJ just underscores how stressful it is to be a SW fan – many hate it, for different reasons than what is stated above, many love it – especially professional critics. But whenever a critic crows about how the movie subverts tired SW tropes, I want to grab them and say that the EU did all that stuff – explored the nature of the Force (and the existence of many different Force-using traditions, including the Dathomiri witches), introduced new non-lineage heroes with humble origins that rose to prominence (Corran Horn), imbued SW with political realism and intrigue – way before the sequel trilogy was a twinkle in Disney’s eye.

Yes, SW fans are impossible to please.

P.S. Rian Johnson: I noticed your unsubtle homage to Wings – the dolly shot through a sea of tables to reveal the suave gambler at the end.

P.P.S Porgs are…okay. I didn’t hate them, but I wouldn’t buy merch of it.

I give this (fan fiction SW film): 3.5 out of 5 phantom dice

What Happened

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What it’s about: Hillary tells us what happened and what could have been.

Notes: 

  • I have to admit, my interest in reading this book was somewhat voyeuristic, the desire to get into the mindspace of a public figure who has been so endlessly analysed and dissected by the media. I wanted to know what she thought about the whole affair, the terrible day that Trump won the presidency, about how she would answer the question: “what happened?” The various stories circulating around that said the work didn’t pull any punches spurred on this avid interest in reading her book.
  • Well, I have to say it’s not as juicy as screed as it could be, but is actually a kind of post-fact manifesto, a wistful but detailed fantasy of the good she imagined she could have done had she won the presidency. It was a chronicle of her thoughts about being a woman in power, of her true passion of working on policies that would lead to the betterment of the children of America. Indeed, pretty much all the juicy bits, I read before actually buying the book.
  • That said, she is strident in her criticisms of the state of American politics and society in this age of Trump.  She doesn’t hold back in accusing the Russians of an all-out campaign to undermine American democracy and aiding the Trump campaign, and she has no compunctions in warning us of just how incompetent and unfit Trump is to be President, both from a personality and policy angle.
  • It’s hard to feel anything but sympathy for Hillary after reading the book – while she does get tied up in her own significance at times, it was still a surprisingly self-aware and engaging look at herself and the decisions that ultimately led to our present situation. Who can blame her for trying, appreciating the significance of her candidacy for millions of men and women in America? Should we blame her for losing to a buffoon, for her unpopularity, which was the result of decades of Republican smear tactics? For her emails, blown insanely out of proportion? For the media, walking hook, line and sinker into Trump’s shock doctrine and inadvertently pushing his brand even more into the American consciousness?
  • Ultimately, though, this book is the kind that will not have much lasting power. It isn’t a call to action or a manifesto, not a manual for revolution – it is just a journal of introspection, self-reflection and a wistful imagining of a what-could-have-been, a kind of cathartic exercise for Hillary, even (and she admits it, in the book). It is a book to be consigned to the background texture of history, fitting for a woman whose time in the spotlight is probably over, however unjustly.

Verdict: Equal parts what-if policy manifesto, self-reflection, and screed, What Happened gives an interesting and unique account of the election from Hillary herself, but doesn’t rise above its own self-preoccupation to deliver a strong message of hope and action for the American people, sorely needed in these times.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pantsuits