Review: The City We Became by N K Jemisin

NK Jemisin’s 2016 short story The City Born Great (https://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/ ) is the prologue and launchpad to her most recent novel The City We Became. The original story is amended at the end so that the cataclysmic conflict at the end of the short story ends less decisively, with graffiti artist protagonist severely injured after fighting the unnamed enemy. The novel presents a new complication to the premise of the short story: New York is transforming into a living entity but rather than just a single avatar, the struggle has resulted in the creation of five additional avatars, one for each borough of New York. [For those, like me with a very fractured sense of New York geography: Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and the oft-forgotten Staten Island.]

If you are immediately thinking of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, then that’s not unreasonable but whereas Gaiman’s London is narrow, weird, convoluted and Victorian, Jemisin’s New York is loud, colourful and in your face. Whereas Neverwhere is a rabbit warren of a mystery, The City We Became owes more to superheroes, a genre that is as New York as they come. I can’t claim Jemisin has grasped that same sense of place as Gaiman did with London because I don’t know New York except through it’s own fictional depictions but it feels like it does.

The superhero comparison is not a shallow one. This is very much a story about a group of New Yorkers who each gain unique powers and who must find a way to fight a supernatural evil…and in the process lots of things get smashed including a fight between a kind-of King Kong and an eldritch subway train. The story does aim often at subtlety, the tools of the enemy include racist cops, dude-bro alt-right artists, gentrification, predatory real estate and at least one guy with nazi tattoos and ranged against these forces are an ethnically diverse group of people of different ages and sexualities. Again, the brushstrokes here are big and broad and unapologetic. The main characters get backgrounds rather than deep character arcs as they are plunged head first into a trans-dimensional battle for New York.

Jemisin saves the deeper character work for the odd one out of the bunch: Staten Island. The avatar of the least metropolitan of the boroughs, Aislyn has to face her own life and upbringing as well as the machinations of the enemy. Likewise, the personification of the forces working against the city, the Women in White allows Jemisin to show off her capacity to write about evil in a way that captures the sense of influence and self-deception. This horror dimension to the novel is repeatedly name-checked in terms of HP Lovecraft both as a pop-culture reference for characters trying to make sense of events but also later in terms of the underlying threat. However, as a work of horror this is not so much a commentary on Lovecraft as a story that plays on Stephen King riffs. In particular, it shares King’s use of psychological and personal ethical flaws as a gateway for evil forces.

The story has a definite end but with some significant plot lines and character arcs unresolved. There’s also several indications that the situation with cities transforming into semi-sentient entities is far less than an unalloyed good than was suggested in the original story. Despite the horror elements (or maybe because of it, as it makes the morality simpler) this is a much less emotionally dark work than the Broken Earth series. There are personal conflicts and something sinister in Manhattan’s past (of course, because he’s Manhattan…) but this is a story about good people trying to be good in the face of a very manifest evil.

Fun and I’m keen for a sequel.

Review: Space Force (Netflix)

Netflix’s Steve Carrell led comedy leaps on the absurdity of the Trump administration’s announcement of a new branch of America’s armed forces and then sort of loses track of the absurdity. The show falls neatly into the sub-genre of bureaucratic comedies that include The Office (both versions) or The Thick of It and then throws a budget and stars at it. Carrell, Lisa Kudrow and more surprisingly John Malkovich add a lot of comedic weight to the show which then doesn’t quite do anything with it.

There are some funny moments, there are some interesting characters and interesting character arcs but…no particularly funny episodes or particularly insightful episodes or particularly touching episodes. Carrell’s General Naird is too nice and too competent. The jokes about the US military and internal rivalries are too tame. Even the digs at the absurdity of Trump (unnamed) are underplayed. So the show just occasionally plays into its own ridiculousness and then back pedals. Carrell and Malkovich are funnier when they are antagonistic (Malkovich plays the chief scientist for the newly formed Space Force)…so the show keeps giving them arcs where he and the general learn to work together better and be friends. I mean, I can see how that could be a neat subversion of comedic expectations but practically it forces the show into an arc of moderate likeability rather than funny.

There is some excellent writing in places and nice performances from the less famous members of the cast but the show never hits any heights. It’s not terrible. I did watch all the currently available episodes. It’s not exactly propaganda for how great the US military is but then it is not a searing satire of it either and hence (circling back) actually very much is propaganda for the US military (as endearing goof-balls, which…nah, no thanks). It is sadly, a bit bland and quite how it manages to make Jon Malkovich bland is a mystery. At each turn the show insists that no matter what the Space Force organisation sort of has to be the plucky underdog good guys who will come out on top in the end by being basically decent…which might work as an idea for a Disney movie about a kid’s sports team but which sits very badly with a branch of the US military.

Murderbot: Network Effect

[Spoliers avoided in the post but I will post spoilers in the comments. So avoid the comments if you don’t want spoilers.]

I sort of gave up reviewing Murderbot a few novellas ago. There is a sense that actually the plot really doesn’t matter and the simplest explanation of an instalment is that its a Murderbot story and the reader either knows the formula or doesn’t and if they don’t then see earlier reviews. However, that belies how much I enjoy each and every one of Martha Wells’s brilliant episodes of Murderbot’s continuing adventures.

The essence of the formula is the juxtaposition of this incredibly vulnerable highly competent killing machine. Murderbot has been shot and blasted and zapped but the struggles with their own sense of self and connections with other people pulls you in.

The novel-length Network Effect works in much the same way as the novellas but extended to novel length by splitting the action into a series of dramatic acts in different locations. There’s an underlying mystery but even that is familiar (corporate shenanigans around an abandoned terraforming colony and alien technology). The story is intended to be a stand-alone so the broader plot around GrayCris and Preservation aren’t the main focus (although discussed). The Asshole Research Transport aka ART is back but…well, spoilers.

What we do get and what each of the novellas have provided is this intentionally slow and deliberate character arc for Murderbot. Their gradual experience with building personal relationships and connections with other people or minds is a feature of the stories. Murderbot coming to understand themselves better and dealing with people better is what drives the stories and pushes them beyond a series of exciting set piece action sequences.

So again, I’m not really reviewing Network Effect. Poke at the world-building of the Corporate Rim and it still doesn’t really make sense and that really doesn’t matter (and also, what we get is Murderbot’s account of how he thinks all of this works and while they are never deceitful they aren’t wholly reliable either). The action is exciting, Murderbot commentary on it is both funny & moving, and there are some warm and fuzzy parts.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (Hugo 2020 finalist)

I’ll confess that I struggled with this book initially and when I say ‘initially’ I mean up to around the first 200 pages of a nearly 500 page book. Some of that was due to other media consumption: I was reading The City…* as a physical book but reading multiple other books as audio (eg all the Hugo finalist novellas). Even so my read of that first 200 pages took weeks and the next nearly 300 pages took a few days. There was just a point where the plot, the characters and the rhythm/pace of the novel clicked with me.

I’ve remarked about how there has been a melancholy tone in many of this year’s finalists in the story categories. I don’t think it is a trend as such, 2020 may be a very confronting year (and getting more so) but 2016-2019 haven’t been a barrel of laughs in the outside world either and we had a broader mix of tone. However, even judged against the more sombre beats of the other finalists The City… is a melancholy story, a science-fictional Doctor Zhivago about love, regret and disillusionment.

The novel swaps between two point-of-view characters, Sophie (initially a student in the over regimented city of Xiosphant) and Mouth (a trader formerly of a nomadic group/cult) who are mutually connected by a third character Bianca (initially a student radical). The story traces the personal history of Sophie and Mouth through youthful rebellion (where Mouth has ulterior motives), fraught journeys across the increasingly inhospitable planet, a kind of exile in a less restrictive but equally dysfunctional human city and eventual return to Xiosphant.

Part of the initial issue I think I was having with the book is Mouth is very much a character who themselves feels they have lost or rather never gained a character. When a key character is essentially a cypher to themselves it can be difficult to get a handle on them as a person by definition. Sophie, on the other hand, due to the combination of a brutal attempted execution by the authorities of Xiosphant and revelatory encounter with the aliens of the planet, is a person who suffers from a more immediate sudden loss of identity early on in the novel. Both of these aspect are absolutely central to what the novel does as a novel, so I won’t call them flaws: they are to a large part what the novel is about and without that initial sense of loss, subsequent character arcs would lose their strength. Having said all that, it is a novel best read with a firm commitment to finish it and plenty of time and head space for it.

Whirling through the cold darkness of the plot is a question about disillusionment that is multi-fold: the disillusionment of ideals, the disillusionment of love for a person, and the disillusionment with our own background and upbringing. That is a potentially very miserable cocktail made more so as we progress through the story and it becomes increasingly clear that the human settlements on a thin habitable ribbon of a tidally locked planet are doomed. The hopeful radicals we meet at the start of the story are quite correct that something needs to change in Xiosphant but are woefully misunderstanding the scale of the problem that the human settlers are in.

Sophie’s early encounter with the apparently monstrous ‘crocodiles’ (assumed by humans to be just another example of the planets aggressive but mindless fauna) marks the counter theme to disillusionment. The answer is akin to an element in Becky Chambers’s To Be Taught if Fortunate, transformation: to survive and prosper humanity would need to change ourselves physically, psychologically and socially. Likewise, the answer to disillusionment requires a degree of reconciliation with the past but only as a step to letting that past go if it is a barrier to change.

These conflicting themes give the latter part of the book both an anti-radical and hyper-radical aspect to them. Revolutions will disappoint, change is hard (or impossible), people you admired or loved will let you down — a kind of moral entropy that is remorseless, inevitable and which can push societies into apathy and acquiescence. Yet the story of Sophie and Mouth still rejects that apathy and the acquiescence by looking beyond the human assumptions that are cognitive traps. The change needed is not the change that is apparent but something quite different that the Gelet (that the human’s dismiss as un thinking ‘crocodiles’) can help with within their own titular city that is literally in the middle of the night.

I doubt this novel will win the Hugo Award this year. Far too easy to bounce off and it’s a very difficult story to prepare people for. “This will be sad and depressing” is not a great marketing tag-line but actually I think I’d have got the pace of the story far quicker if I’d gone into it thinking of Pasternak rather than (as the blurbs on the back would have me think) Le Guin. Yes, there is are big overlaps with Le Guin’s topics of non-human minds, language, stories and multiplicity of societies but tonally and in terms of pacing this isn’t a very Le Guinish book despite that overlap. However, I strongly suspect it is a story whose reputation will continue to grow as it continues to find readers in the right frame of mind for its emotional impact.

I really have no idea where I’ll rank this. I think is probably a novel that I need to re-read with the full context of the novel already in mind to really make sense of it as a story. That by itself points to the depths this novel has but is it successful in exploring them? I don’t know.

*[A history of sci-fi cities is an idea, isn’t it?]

Hugo 2020 Ranking Novellas

I’ve read and reviewed all the 2020 Hugo Award novellas.

I thought I might try ranking them along different criteria. There is at least one I loved and at least one I hated but there are several here that had some very notable qualities that I was less than enamoured with. Splitting these impression into different criteria doesn’t make those criteria objective but it lets me think about how my different feelings/impressions play out between them.

Cohesion: How well did the story hold together as a single piece. Did the multiple parts all work in concert? Lower ranked stories had parts that I liked but which worked less well when taken as a whole.

  1. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  2. In an Absent Dream
  3. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  4. This Is How You Lose the Time War [this feels a little unfair as some of the lack of cohesion was intentional]
  5. The Deep
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Characters: How well did I feel I know and care about the characters in the story by the end of it? I was surprised that Time War ended up sixth but looking at it this way made me appreciate some aspects of To Be Taught

  1. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  2. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  3. In an Absent Dream
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate [I found them annoying in places]
  5. The Deep [Perhaps a little unfair also as the central character was struggling with a loss of identity]
  6. This Is How You Lose the Time War

Prose: Pure word-smithing. Which ones show how to put a sentence together.

  1. In an Absent Dream
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  4. The Deep
  5. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Engaging Plot: How much did I want to know what happens next! Possibly this overlaps too much with cohesion but pacing and characters also play a role. Time War does better as a result.

  1. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. In an Absent Dream
  4. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  5. The Deep
  6. To Be Taught, If Fortunate

Boldness: Which story tries to push envelopes and be inventive! A story can do well on some of the above criteria by playing it safe but the spirit of science fiction is to boldly go where no story has gone before or at least not as often! This is a tough criterion because they each really do push some boundaries.

  1. The Deep
  2. This Is How You Lose the Time War
  3. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate
  5. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
  6. In an Absent Dream

Intangible sfnalness: I want to give a boost to fantastical ideas here! But this is a tough category. They each emit large amounts of fantastical energy.

  1. This Is How You Lose the Time War: Crammed full of time hopping weirdness
  2. The Haunting of Tram Car 015: Steam punk djinn 1910s Cairo
  3. The Deep: Hundreds of years of a deep sea history mixing magic, trauma and tragedy and the history of a people
  4. To Be Taught, If Fortunate: multiple planets and exotic life forms richly imagined
  5. Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom: a classic of taking a single science fictional idea and exploring the social and human ramifications
  6. In an Absent Dream: The intricacies of the Goblin Market and its cruel/not-cruel rules

Scores! In alphabetical order.

  • Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom (1,2,3,4,3,5)
  • In an Absent Dream (2,3,1,3,6,6)
  • The Deep (5,5,4,5,1,3)
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (3,1,5,1,5,2)
  • This Is How You Lose the Time War (4,6,2,2,2,1)
  • To Be Taught, If Fortunate (6,4,6,6,4,4)

Oh but I have painted myself into a mathematical corner! Multiple rankings on different dimensions! A point system would be better but we’d still need to think about how to weight each category! Oh no!

What I could do is treat each criterion as the preferences of a different voter where each voter is part of my fractured taste in stories. However, it’s a cold morning and implementing instant run-off voting on a spreadsheet is to much like hard work and I’m not sure the numbers would work (To Be Taught… would get eliminated first but without changing anything). One method that uses a simple calculation rather than an iterative process is a Borda Count. Each ranking generates points based on how many candidates are ranked lower. Add them all up and the candidate with the most points wins! The results aren’t very different than averaging the rankings but statisticians don’t ask you why you think you could possibly go around averaging that set of numbers if you shout “voting system!” at them. Of course you then get psephologists shouting “violations of the Condorcet!” at you.

Borda’s method gives me this ranking which I think is almost right in terms of how I’d rank them holistically — Time War should be lower, The Deep should be higher I think.

TitlePoints
The Haunting of Tram Car 01519
This Is How You Lose the Time War 19
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom18
In an Absent Dream15
The Deep13
To Be Taught, If Fortunate6

Hugo 2020 Novellas: The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark

There is a conceit to book reviews that even when the broader context of a story is acknowledged, the quality of a story stands by itself. It’s a necessary lie because how else would reviewing a story be possible when each of them is lit by reflections and shadows of other stories? With Hugo finalists that set of illuminating and overshadowing objects is at least constrained to an influential six and yet, giving a full accounting of each story in relation to each of its five neighbours is beyond the humble reviewer. Ranking is the best we can do, knowing that any ranking is flawed and misguided — at best a clumsy cartoon of the relationships between the stories.

I say all this because I’ve been thinking more and more about the accidental curation of stories that the Hugo process creates. This year we had again many excellent stories but unlike previous years we haven’t had much in the way of humour. We’ve had melancholy and introspection both of which I like to indulge in with my reading, so I shan’t complain to much (and as I nominate works for the Hugos, I shouldn’t be surprised to see some of my tastes reflected in the results). However, reading through as a collective set of shorts, novels, novellas and novelettes, I did need something that tickled and had its own cheeky irreverence.

So P. Djèlí Clark gets a massive advantage at this point of my reading, an advantage that arises from aspects of other stories and the order I read them in. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offers a steampunkish buddy-cop fantasy set in a magical early 20th century Cairo. It’s a sequel focused on different characters to “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. The premise is the same world, one where djinn are real and their powers have given Egypt a magical and technological edge along with political independence and economic prosperity. This is a setting that use fantasy tropes to pursue the modern in an engaging manner.

Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has been lumbered with a new partner, the English educated newly qualified Agent Onsi and from there we know that the two will clash, Onsi will learn about some of the realities on the street and Hamed will grow to trust his new partner. Playing off that template gives Clark the freedom to build up a fantastical setting and simultaneously delve into the politics and social change of his alternate Cairo. Women’s suffrage, clandestine smuggling rackets of Armenian sweets and central Asian folklore collide and ricochet of each other as Hamed and Onsi struggle to keep their investigation of the possessed tram car within budget limits.

I loved this so much. Genuinely funny but with a consistent and compelling sense of place and world building. Clark is careful to never let the humour drift into parody of any of the genres he integrates into the story and lets the wit and charm of the setting and characters work its own way into the fun, horror and social commentary. Competent people just a bit out of their depth in circumstances with real stakes (a murderous, violent supernatural entity) but with limits (it’s possessed a tram car and the Superintendent of Tram Safety and Maintenance is very cross about it).

I want to watch the movie of this. I want to watch the Netlfix animated series set in this world.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: This How You Lose The Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Two agents from two conceptually different future outcomes for the universe, range through time attempting to shape history to make the destiny of their faction the inevitable one. Stepping between worlds and alternate realities they begin a correspondence: at first taunting and bragging, then flirting and then, inevitably, declaring their love for one another. The plot is easy to sum up primarily because the details to some degree do not matter, the arc is inevitable but that’s part of why it is the perfect choice for a story about vast factions attempting to tweak history.

Of all the novella finalists this year, it is the most ambitious — an author collaboration on timey-wimey epistolary story that is happy to indulge in long flights of romantic prose. That it works at all is remarkable, whether it always works well, I’m not so sure. I’m really not sure whether I wanted a story that was longer or one that was shorter. The argument for shorter was, I’m sad to say, that I got bored with the point at which Red and Blue were just saying how much they loved each other repeatedly — it was sweet but I was relieved when the story moved towards its end game.

The argument for longer? Both the Garden and the Agency were underplayed and while the whole point is there is no real rationale for the Time War, a better sense of what the factions imagined the stakes were is something I craved. That same context was missing for Red and Blue in terms of their fellow agents or connections with other ongoing characters. Really only the Commandant existed as an additional character throughout the story. The personal isolation of both agents was part of the issue that both had and provides a reason for them to continue to reach out to each other but without any other real personal dynamic with anybody else that very passion between them lacked something.

I ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I was actually enjoying it. However, there’s some stunningly well written sections and the obsessive and baroque methods by which messages are exchanged as the characters zip between settings is delightful. The vivid imagery and use of verbal colour is compelling, as is the technique of referencing paintings (in particular Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton) to add to the very visual sense of the story.

I very much do like to see bold stories that take big risks and follow ideas through. I really can’t fault it by that standard, even if it didn’t quite pay off its promise for me.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire

Last time I reviewed Ted Chiang’s novella finalist and that story has an odd dynamic with his also nominated novelette. Based on a plot synopsis the stories are utterly different but there is a conceptual overlap such that reading one causes a re-evaluation of the other. There is a similar dynamic here between McGuire’s novella (a new entry in The Wayward Children series) and her nominated novel Middlegame.

There are some more obvious overlaps, both Middlegame and In an Absent Dream feature a clever friendless girl who doesn’t really understand how lonely she is who finds friendship in magical way. Both characters even escape class to a janitors closet but it isn’t these plot points so much but the sense of an author exploring a set of ideas, in particular the process of bookish children becoming adults and the parallels of escape within literature and literature as escape.

With In an Absent Dream, the main character Lundy finds a door (as is required in the Wayward Children) that leads to the small world of the Goblin Market. The first thing we learn about the market is that it is governed by rules and from there the story is set on a course that we know will end with Lundy breaching the rules in some way leading to a semi-tragic end. That’s not a flaw in a story but rather a way of establishing the gravity of the tale. It has a sense of a morality fable but there is not a moral as such beyond the reality that growing up is painful for children and parent alike.

It is a more complete and consistent story than Middlegame but it was, for me, a less interesting one. It was also hard to experience the story as a thing separate from both Middlegame and the other stories in The Wayward Children series. In that context, In An Absent Dream felt to me like an addition to an exploration of an idea that didn’t add much to what I’d already experienced in the other stories whereas Middlegame opened up new avenues of exploration but with connections to those same ideas of children’s literature (and specifically portal fantasies) as questions about the process of becoming an adult and what we lose or retain on the way.

As always, you really cannot fault McGuire’s mastery of prose. There is an apparent effortlessness to the story telling and the emotional impact of Lundy’s numerous disappearances adds to the tragic melancholy of the story. However, and this may sound odd, I really thing I’d have enjoyed this a lot more without the surrounding connections to the stories that preceded it. Perhaps the very theme of the Goblin Market and its insistence on ‘giving fair value’ makes me doubt whether I, as a reader, gave fair value to the story (note: I’m not doubting whether I gave fair value to the author and publisher 🙂 because I did pay for the book!) by finding myself judging the story on the merits of other stories.

Hugo 2020 Novellas: Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, Ted Chiang

The title gives me an excuse to talk about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concept_of_Anxiety ) except I know very little about Søren Kierkegaard other than that he makes me nervous. Suffice to say if you entitle a story with a quote from Kierkegaard you are pointing to questions of what it means as a person to be. For the stories collated in Ted Chiang’s anthology Exhalation that was already clearly a theme. The pneumatic robot scientist dissecting his own brain to discover a terrible revelation about the certainty of entropy in the title story is a distinctly science fictional take on the them of existentialism. Likewise the introspective shift in Omphalos when the devout scientist protagonist comes to understand that (the very real and manifest) God’s centre of attention is not humanity brings us back to the question of what is it like to be. That two letter English irregular verb is the centre of metaphysics but the sense here is one of psychology.

Ultimately, in Omphalos the complex premise takes the central character down a path of acceptance that in many ways is unremarkable and the same can be said of the scientist in Exhalation. Taken together, the common idea could be stated that the core question doesn’t change with circumstance. Chiang utterly changes the universe in both examples and the clever, nimble minded protagonists find themselves contemplating the same issues as those same characters might if translated to our universe. The same spectrum of responses is open to them and both characters look for a way of maintaining a personal equilibrium in the face of a universe or a god that is perhaps indifferent to them.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” has a similar quality in that we meet people in a world in which there is a highly pertinent science-fiction conceit that impacts questions of personal choice and identity and what it is to be but which, in the end, does not fundamentally change how we or the characters engage with those questions. I think it does so more successfully than either Exhalation of Omphalos by centring ordinary people in a story where the technology informs the setting rather than providing a surprising revelation about the universe.

The conceit is very well done. In a world not unlike ours, there is a marvellous invention called a Prism. This is a machine that use quantum mechanics to provide a means of communicating across branching realities spawned by quantum bifurcations in line with the many worlds interpretation. The Prism machines have distinct limits, each one is tied to a specific quantum event that machine itself induces when first activated which provides access to an alternate reality only from that point forward. Also, while large amounts of information can be exchanged (including audio and video) the exchange of information is finite — you will eventually use it all up.

The nature of a Prism means that once you activate it, a parallel you has also activated the machine (or rather you split Schroedinger’s cat-style into two prism owning people) allowing communication with this version of you that up until that moment was exactly the same as you. At this point the value of the Prism practically (and monetarily) is very limited as this other person is basically you living in (almost) exactly the same world. Only over time do timelines diverge as random and/or chaotic events accumulate giving both of yourselves insights into how your lives might have gone.

The story follows two interrelated plots: firstly a psychologist who runs a support group for people who have become obsessed with the paths their alternate selves have taken and secondly a woman who works in a dodgy Prism shop who is running a scam that involves trying to con a member of said support group into selling their Prism. The con relies on the fact that the value of the information in an alternate universe may not lie with the specific alternate self but with other people in that universe. In the case of the Prism at the heart of the con, a celebrity couple who suffered a fatal car crash have a different survivor in each universe making the Prism potentially a means for the grieving survivor to speak with their dead soulmate (and vice-versa).

Meanwhile the psychologist is still dealing with her own issues around a choice made when she was a teenager — a choice that she feels set her best-friend off on a bad path. In a world were people can trace where alternate choices have led themselves, such questions have the potential of empirical exploration. However, as the people in the support group reveal this additional information often leads to deeper issues of people trying to second guess themselves or even issues of jealousy and envy of alternate more successful versions.

Ultimately the Prisms cannot answer how we should behave ethically but Chiang is also careful to avoid fatalism, predestination and chaotic indeterminism as views of the world. The Prisms do offer ways of doing controlled experiments to reveal true facts about the world or even personal choices but they simply cannot resolve a person’s individual dilemmas because one way or another a version of you will have to live with the choice that has been made.

Regret is the central emotion here rather than the anxiety of the title. The two key characters experience regret in different ways and come to terms with past choices in their own ways.

The She-Ra final season is very, very good

I was already in the Noelle Stevenson can do no wrong camp but I think that position has been well validated 🙂. This show has never apologised for keeping all the rainbows, glitter and bright colours that a show about magical princesses demands but yet has managed to fuse it with a space fantasy of some depth and some very big (and dark) emotional punches.

If you are not keen on redemption arcs you will be disappointed as there at least four (five depending on your views on Entrapta) but each of them are very good examples of how to do it.

This how good children’s TV should work. Don’t apologise for bright colours or goofy humour or the occasional sea-shanty but also don’t accept that those limit the boundaries of the story that can be told. Friendship, true-love, magic and sacrifice add together so that you very much care about each of the ten or more character arcs going on (sadly only a tiny amount of Kyle, Lonnie, and Rogelio).

This final season is very much a single story arc with most of the episodes driving the plot forward (the exception being episode 4 but it is also a necessary turning point). Overall, a very good example of how to make use of a big cast of characters to deliver a strong story with emotional stakes.