What I Want from Wonder Woman (and Won’t Get): A Pre-Review

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Y’all know I’m a Marvel girl. The MCU has been one of the things that’s kept me going for at least five years now, and most assuredly for the past two. So it’s a bit disingenuous for me to talk about DC’s film universe because I know from the get-go I’ll just get labeled as some sort of shrill Marvel shill. But bear with me because, above all else, I just want to be told a good story. I’m the first to call out Marvel when I think they’ve failed (which they’ve done frequently and spectacularly lately) so keep that in mind when I say that DC done lost its fool mind.

I had the misfortune of having to go see both Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad for a podcast that I host with my friend Marc. You can’t talk about something if you haven’t seen it. Marc is much kinder to things than I am. I wanted to burn everything to the ground after enduring both movies. Neither has any depth, plot, or character development. They’re both desperate, slapdash propagations of highly lucrative intellectual property. They rely solely on the fact that everyone is desperate to love the films because they love the symbols in them. DC has always been King. Batman has always been #1. Everyone already adores Harley Quinn.  But Marvel’s film success has DC desperate to get their shit in front of eyeballs because superheroes sell. They seem to have missed the crucial bit that good stories about superheroes are what sell. (The box office returns v. critical acclaim debate I save for another day.)

There are so many problems with the entire situation that I can’t even enumerate them all. I don’t know the ins and outs of DC, Warner Brothers, or comics culture the way others do and DC’s disasters have been endlessly dissected by others better than I could. So what I’m going to talk about is not the horrors DC puts out but what I want from Wonder Woman. Because, to my weird specialized heart, that movie has the potential to be better than Captain America: The First Avenger. (Y’all ever heard me go on about Cap1? There are usually overexcited tears involved.)

Continue reading

Citations for the FitzSimmons Special

Hey guys! I finally recorded a 100% FitzSimmons episode of the podcast I started with my friend. You can listen to it here.

And behold my mighty list of citations if you want to delve into any of this in more detail:

  • Barwich, Ann-Sophie. “Science and Fiction: Analysing the Concept of Fiction in Science and Its Limits.” J Gen Philos Sci 44 (2013): 357-73. Web.
  • Dempsey, Paul. “Science Friction.” Engineering and Technology (2013): 33-35. Web.
  • Dill-Shackleford, Karen E. How Fantasy Becomes Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.
  • Francis, Becky. “Re/theorising Gender: Female Masculinity and Male Femininity in the Classroom?” Gender and Education5 (2010): 477-90. Web.
  • Gelernter, David. “The Closing of the Scientific Mind.” American Jewish Committee (2014): 17-25. Web.
  • Hearn, Jeff, and Liisa Husu. “Understanding Gender: Some Implications for Science and Technology.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews2 (2011): 103-13. Web.
  • Hills, Rachel. The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015. Print.
  • Hurley, Kameron. The Geek Feminist Revolution. New York: Tor, 2016. Print.
  • Larbalestier, Justine. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2002. Print.
  • Mendick, Heather, and Marie-Pierre Moreau. “New Media, Old Images: Constructing Online Representations of Women and Men in Science, Engineering and Technology.” Gender and Education3 (2013): 325-39. Web.
  • Millward, Liz, and Janice G. Dodd. “Feminist Science Fiction Utopia and Stargate: SG-1: “I Doubt Very Much Colonel Carter Has Even Scratched the Surface of What Is Possible”” Women’s Studies 41 (2012): 18-35. Web.
  • Moore, Bryan L. “”Evidences of Decadent Humanity” Antianthropocentrism in Early Science Fiction.” Nature and Culture1 (2014): 46-64. Web.
  • O’Reilly, Julie D. “The Wonder Woman Precedent: Female (Super)Heroism on Trial.” The Journal of American Culture3 (2005): 273-83. Web.
  • Pettersson, Helena. “Making Masculinity in Plasma Physics: Machines, Labor and Experiments.” Science Studies1 (2011): 47-65. Web.
  • Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club. Boston: Beacon, 2015. Print.
  • Rubin, Lawrence. “Superheroes on the Couch.” The Journal of Popular Culture2 (2012): 410-31. Web.
  • Schummer, Joachim. “Historical Roots of the ‘Mad Scientist’: Chemists in Nineteenth-century Literature.” Ambix2 (2006): 99-127. Web.
  • Stiles, Anne. “Literature in Mind: H.G. Wells and the Evolution of the Mad Scientist.” Journal of the History of Ideas2 (2009): 317-39. Web.
  • Szalavitz, Maia, and Bruce D. Perry. Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential–and Endangered. New York: William Morrow, 2009. Print.
  • Taber, Nancy, Vera Woloshyn, Caitlin Munn, and Laura Lane. “Exploring Representations of Super Women in Popular Culture.” Adult Learning4 (2014): 142-49. Web.
  • Toomey, Chris. “Does Nanotech Have a Gender.” Nature Nanotechnology 7 (2012): 412. Web.
  • Toumey, Christopher P. “The Moral Character of Mad Scientists: A Cultural Critique of Science.” Science, Technology, and Human Values4 (1992): 411-37. Web.
  • Weart, Spencer. “The Physicist as Mad Scientist.” Physics Today (1988): 28-37. Web.
  • White, Michael. Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997. Print.

Fun fact, I recorded this for like two hours in a very hot car \o/

Hugo: Fahrenheit 451 (1954/2004)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Read May 12-14 2016

Premise: In the future, firemen are the censorship arm of the surveillance state burning books (which are illegal) to ensure the cohesion of a society built on sensationalism and shallowness.

Verdict: I had read this book a long time ago and my local library did a read-along of it in May. It’s small enough to knock out in a few hours tops so I re-read it, loved it, and headed off to the library discussion which was all doom, gloom, and terror. Sci-fi is all about speculating on the dark paths our actions may lead us down in the future, but I think something about this group (who were all at least 50 or older and most claimed to hate science fiction) just made them more inclined to declare that the entire world was degenerate and our society was failing. Also, if you’ve read any of my previous Hugo project reviews, lately I’ve gotten free of a lifelong abusive situation and have been working on my brain. All fun things. So, with that preface, here’s what I thought about Fahrenheit 451 on this, the xth time I’ve read it.

When I first read this book I was convinced it was about how stupid our culture is because people don’t want to think. I was an angry teenager who loved books and learning and I was relentlessly bullied for it. Fahrenheit 451 felt like a vindication to me. Now that I’m not an angry teenager it still feels like a vindication, but less of intelligence and more of compassion. Our discussion at the library eventually got into Cold War paranoia which was an astute conversation topic. But I feel like it’s worth noting the censorship aspects not from a totalitarian angle, but more from the way Bradbury presents a culture of despair.

Reading this novel is very familiar, not because I’ve read it before, but because our society becomes more and more recognizable in its dystopian future. The novel presents a utopian infrastructure (with what’s basically a hyperloop, virtual reality television, ubiquitous transportation etc.) but a totalitarian rule of information. The head fireman Beatty does plenty of philosophizing, but it’s explicitly stated that society itself decided it no longer wanted anything to do with critical thought. Ideas in books became “too confusing” because you could never reach blanket consensus. People willfully gave up their right to think and instead consume pre-packaged sensationalistic media. As someone currently living with a disagreeable roommate who alternately blasts CNN or Bravo, reading this book in this house was surreal. “Sitting around and talking” is weird because “what do you talk about?” Your life is judged by what you consume and the populace is kept busy by manufacturing need in consumers to strive for more and “better” goods. The culture in the novel is so disconnected that they literally have a special “handyman team” of medical professionals who go around “cleaning out” the stomachs of the plethora of people who attempt to commit suicide every day. The McCarthyist paranoia is rampant, but it just emphasizes that American culture on the whole has never recovered a sense of trust in others. We still have a default mode of “everyone is out to get you.”

What’s even more prescient, perhaps, is the notion of a live high-speed televised chase that has to have narrative structure. The Hound chasing Montag at the end narrativizes chunks of life in ways that satisfy the culturally constructed notions of justice and payoff. It’s all about eyes, not information. This book is so short, but it’s creepily like Bradbury just peeled a little window through time and cast judgment on what he saw. Good sci-fi is like that.

At any rate, for me the burning of books became less about censorship and more about the books symbolizing critical thought. Yes, censorship is bad. But censorship also implies that some part of the culture wants the information they have no access to. Either that, or that there is a state-sanctioned brainwashing going on a la nationalistic book burnings. There’s something eerie in reading about the narcissistic disaffection of society in a novel written in 1954. Maybe there’s nothing particularly special about 2016 except the speed at which information flows.

I mean, this book is a classic. One of the must-reads of American literature. So go read it.

4,722 Hours and 6,741

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

Tonight is the finale of this disaster of a season on Agents of SHIELD (and yes I’ll do a postmortem) but what I want to talk about right now is character integrity and the way both Agents of SHIELD and Person of Interest handled disappearances/returns of major characters. Agents of SHIELD‘s “4,722 Hours” was like the epitome of what not to do while Person of Interest‘s “6,741” was ideal.

The premises here are largely the same. A stolid lady is taken from her friends and allies and is presumed to be in grave peril. In both cases, said lady is tentatively engaged in an unconventional romance which enhances but in no way defines her character. Both Simmons and Shaw express to their respective lovers that they reciprocate their feelings just as they are separated. Person of Interest allows Shaw to retain her agency, inhabit her space, and reaffirm her character. Agents of SHIELD, by contrast, robs Simmons of her agency, papers over her character, and forces her to emotionally contort exclusively for the sake of manufactured romantic conflict. 1 More than that, AoS takes a fully-realized character who rejects traditional gender roles and defines her exclusively by her womanhood and normative expectation where PoI eschews normativity altogether.

spoiler warning Continue reading

Scales of Madness and Goodness in Marvel Cinematic Universe Scientists

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

science and madness in the mcu

There are some things I just can’t let go. Science and scientists in the MCU is definitely one of those things.

Science is a massive part of the MCU’s logistics so most of the stories involve good scientists battling bad ones. The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that it was more like altruistic ones fighting mad ones. I already had a minor squee fest about this here. I decided to plot it all out. Possibly my favorite thing about visualizing this idea is that it makes clear that it’s impossible to be an Evil Scientist who is not also a Mad one in the MCU.

Parameters

Each character is graded on a scale of -2 to 2, with -2 being the baddest/maddest and 2 being the most heroic/altruistic. 0 is perfectly neutral on both scales. Here’s how I defined those categories:

  • Madness – Mad scientists use science to deliberately harm others, to gain power or financial advantage over others in a way that detrimentally monopolizes knowledge, experiment on themselves, or let their quest for knowledge devolve into monomania. Generally, consider whether the character is over-emotional or under-emotional and then how that causes them to use their scientific knowledge (see: this post.)
  • Goodness – The goodness metric takes into consideration whether characters intentionally and wantonly harm others, their underlying motivations, and how actively they engage in altruistic behavior. Additionally, “heroic” and “neutral” characters can slide on the scale depending on how closely they’re aligned with the protagonists.
  • Heroes/Neutrals/Villains – Heroes are main protagonists. Villains are main antagonists. Neutrals are characters who are unaligned or who switch from one to the other.

A few of these data points are fairly arbitrary. Helen Cho, for example, has about 30 seconds of screentime and no discernible character traits so I made all that up. The others I tried to hold up to the spectrum schemata as closely as possible. I was even diplomatic about it and made Simmons a little bit bad and Fitz a little bit mad! As for who is included and who isn’t, medical doctors I generally left off unless they had a research specialty or partook in experimental studies (Lincoln and Dr. Streiten don’t really, for example.) A few side characters are noted to have scientific training but don’t use it extensively for plot purposes (Bobbi, Callie from “SEEDS”). That said, if I’ve forgotten any scientists or you’d like to argue for someone’s inclusion  feel free to let me know!

(The inherent sanity of the author of this post is not up for debate.)

“It’s Like Magic”: Science, Superpowers, and Narrative Utility in Cult TV

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

(This essay is #7 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD)

Genre cult television tends to have two character types: action heroes and brainy exposition characters. Oftentimes, the brainy characters develop some kind of physical or metaphysical power of their own because generating ways to keep them narratively relevant over time becomes difficult. In the MCU in particular, science is used by the majority of scientist heroes to level themselves up and give themselves superpowers. Yet Fitz and Simmons don’t use science as a personal enhancement, their intelligence is something like a superpower, keeping them relevant while still allowing them to remain mundane.

Additional Spoiler Warnings for: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly/Serenity, Supernatural, Angel

spoiler warning

Continue reading

FitzSimmons, Science, and Scientists in the MCU

Estimated Reading Time: 13 minutes

(This essay is #6 of 9 in a series on Agents of SHIELD. The final four essays in this series can best be summarized as “Blubbering and Screams Interspersed With Big Words.”)

LET’S TALK ABOUT SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS IN THE MCU, AKA MY LITERAL ACTUAL FAVORITE THING. Let me take you on a journey through the cultural historical traditions of scientists’ representations in the media, the necessity of carefully constructed science to the MCU, and how all this context helps me explain why Fitz and Simmons make me weak at the knees.

Please consider this more of an exuberant outline. I have so much research on this topic that I could literally fill a book with it and technically it covers the entire MCU.

spoiler warning

Continue reading

Black Mirror’s Virgins and Whores: Science Fiction and the Woman Problem

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

Yesterday, at a loose end and with a few hours to kill, I decided to give Black Mirror a go. All I knew about it was that it was “weird” and one of the episodes had Hayley Atwell. Cool.

Black Mirror is a sci-fi anthology series with a new story every episode. The most accessible comparison is that it’s like Twilight Zone. Every story in Black Mirror is a fascinating exploration or deconstruction of modern technology and society’s reliance on it. The basic premises are intriguing and the stories are quite good. I enjoyed it. But the thing that kept me from adoring it is the same thing that keeps me intellectually detached from a lot of classic science fiction. Women in these stories are archetypes who exist almost solely as plot points for men.

Women are more than just love objects and baby incubators. Yes, miraculously, women have their own internal lives. No, they aren’t wandering wombs desperate for insemination. And no, they’re not constantly out to screw you in every capacity.

spoiler warning

Continue reading

Hugo: Redshirts (2013)

Redshirts by John Scalzi
Read March 23, 2015

Premise: A group of ensigns on an exploration starship in the distant future try to find a way around the certain, brutal, pointless deaths that plague the peons on the crew. It is, basically, what is says on the tin and very meta about it.

Verdict: I’ve been trying to get my hands on this book for at least two years so reading it was a pleasure. I will say, however, that while the first half chugs along hard at all my favorite tropes, and meta storytelling styles, once it actually gets into the why/what/where/how of the thing it gets less interesting. The logic of the plot is a bit hand-wavy, but given the nature of the story that’s possibly another meta feature. This whole book is basically Star Trek meets Stranger Than Fiction meets a little bit of Kilgore Trout. At the end it even starts fighting with itself (including a debate about whether Final Draft or Scrivener is better, so even when it’s off on its tangents it still kept me rolling. It’s very funny throughout.) It’s fairly obvious why this won a Hugo. Hugos are a fan-voted award and this is just enough of a high-camp send-up of sci-fi and fandom combined with a relentlessly logical intellectualism to appeal to the kind of people who would vote in such a thing. That’s not a strike against it; all that crap is what makes it so fun. But I’d say, if you’re not a geek maybe don’t try this or you’ll be confused. Since I personally found it overall a bit weak, I’m not nearly as enthused about it as I was earlier today when I started. But it was truly a joy to read. Kudos.

This book is fun. Read it. Enjoy.

Hugo: Blackout / All Clear (2011)

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis
Read from December 16, 2014 – January 2, 2015

Premise: Three Oxford historians time travel to their assignments during World War II only to find themselves stuck with no way to return to the future.

Verdict: Hey ho, friends! I have returned to my Hugo Project after such an obscenely long break that it should be criminal negligence. I’m still here, reading away! But, you know, life-stuff happens. I also read a ton of other random books over the past two years, but ironically not a single Hugo winner.

Anyway! Let’s talk about Blackout/All Cleara one-story, two-book time travel adventure set during World War II. I read both of these novels the day they came out, so re-reading them was an interesting experience. I re-read the entire Oxford Time Travel series as a winter treat to myself, remembering how much I adored Doomsday Book and how struck I was by To Say Nothing of the Dog, which was one of the first books in this entire project when I started it a lifetime ago. Reading the entire series straight through reveals all the nods and connections in this book to all the others in the same universe. But you don’t have to read these books to understand the others, or read any of them in order for that matter. They all stand up well as separate stories.

That said: Blackout/All Clear was way better the first time. The thing with this novel is that about 70% of it is the main characters running around just missing meeting each other or the people they’re trying to find. Most of the suspense comes from those missed meetings, so when you know what happens already it gets tedious as hell. Even the characters who I remembered loving and the relationships I enjoyed were a bit strained, just because I felt like I was wasting a lot of time reading about everyone dashing here and there and groaning about it being futile “because time travel” and obviously if they’d made it they’d already have been rescued etc. It’s all very dire. If you don’t know what happens. The rest of the novels (and the novella Firewatch) stand up much better to re-readsparticularly Doomsday Book which is a frickin’ masterpiecebecause their plots are much more character focused. This go around, however, all the time travel elements made a whole lot more sense.

Annoyances aside, this novel (and the extreme length of it) is testament to Willis’ fixation with World War II (which comes through in all the other novels in the series as well) and she plays it out in pretty much every possible scenario. They’re also long enough that Willis can weave together her classic humor and her penchant for emotional devastation into one seamless work. The setup of the multiple storylines is fun, playing out like the mystery novels the characters love so much, but once you figure out even that you just want her to frickin’ spit it out already and get on with it. The first time I read these I was wrenched horribly. This time they feel bloated way out proportion.

All that said: I still enjoy them. Alf and Binnie Hodbin (two street urchin terrors) are plenty entertaining; Willis’ portrayal of gentle clergymen always gets me where I live somehow; and the three main characters are truly wonderful and make insightful observations related to whatever thesis they were working on as a history assignment. The relationships they all form with the contemps are appropriately heart wrenching, as I’ve come to expect. And, as ever, I am madly in love with Mr. Dunworthy. It’s just that the whole thing is so damned drawn out.

If you like this series, go for it. As an entry into Connie Willis, I wouldn’t suggest it. Go with Doomsday Book.