Wo-ow, “Et in Arcadia Ego” part one, the first half of the conclusion to this first season of Star Trek: Picard, was one great hour of television. Past Star Trek series had plenty of visits to idyllic worlds with a dark underbelly, but here we’ve had a season of build-up to visiting the planet of the synthetics, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Google Translate tells me that “Et in Arcadia Ego” means “And in Arcadia I am”, where Arcadia is a poetic term for a utopia, which is certainly appropriate here.
One thing to watch for in this episodes is the spectacular acting by much of the cast; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a virtuoso ensemble performance in any episode of Star Trek, where Patrick Stewart might not be delivering the best or even the second-best performance.
I’d originally planned to review the last two episodes together, but this one had enough stuff in it that I decided to cover it separately.
Three episodes of Picard this time around, and they’re an odd set to review together:
“The Impossible Box” finishes the second third of the season, as Picard and company make it to the Borg cube and find Soji. It’s the most exciting episode of the season to this point, and starts moving the story into high gear.
So, oddly, the next episode, “Nepenthe”, isn’t really part of any of the three parts of the season (beginning, middle and end). Rather, it’s a pause, a time for the characters (and viewers) to reflect on where we are. While the popular focus has been on the return of Will Riker and Deanne Troi, it also allows Soji and Picard to adjust to recent developments which have left them reeling, while the crew of La Sirena deal with some their own problems.
Finally, “Broken Pieces” resolves several plot points, in a way clearing the decks for the two-part finale, as well as giving us some insight – finally – into Captain Rios.
All three episodes are quite good, and quite different, and everything seems to be coming together. More after the cut:
The fourth and fifth episode of Star Trek: Picard operate as a pair of sorts. Where the first three episodes concerned Picard learning that he had something he needed to do and arranging to be able to do it, these episodes see him and his band leaving Earth and learning where they need to go. They’re more adventurous – in the literal plot sense – than the first three, but they’re also a little awkwardly dropped into the story: Whereas the second episode “Maps and Legends” felt like it was moving pieces into place for the purposes of the plot, these two have a similar purpose but to get to their goal they’re developed in the context of a pair of smaller stories.
After the first episode, “Remembrance”, I’d thought maybe I’d write a review for each episode of Star Trek: Picard, but the second episode, “Maps and Legends”, didn’t feel like it needed a review. It wasn’t a bad episode, and certainly I didn’t expect it to be as good as the first episode as it was a hard act to follow, but it was mostly a moving-the-pieces-into-place episode, without much of a narrative arc.
The third episode, “The End is the Beginning”, jumped the quality back up and made me decide to cover both of them at once.
I figure if you haven’t watched the first episode, or if it didn’t grab you, then you’re not likely to be reading this, so I’m just going to jump to spoilers after the cut:
(In the unlikely event you’re curious what twentysomething me thought of mid-series Next Generation, you can read a bunch of my reviews here.)
That said, I do enjoy Star Trek: Nemesis, and I enjoy it more now than my review at the time says I did at the time. Indeed, I think it’s the best NextGen film, though it’s not perfect, but it boiled down NextGen to its two best characters: Picard and Data. It struggles to fully develop its themes, but at least it has themes.
Star Trek: Picard seems to have highly variable word-of-mouth. Some people love it, some people hate it. I inferred from context that big fans of NextGen did not enjoy it. So maybe that meant I would? And the more I learned about it, the more appealing it seemed: Michael Chabon is involved. Picard is struggling with recriminations in his retirement involving Data’s death and the destruction of Romulus (a plot point in the Abrams reboot).
And, well, Jean-Luc Picard was the best thing about NextGen.
So tonight I signed up for CBS All Access, and watched the first episode.
And it was a fine hour of television.
My spoiler-free reaction to the first episode, “Remembrance”, is that Picard is a deep character who is indeed dealing with some of the traumas of his career, and the story overall moves Star Trek substantially forward from The Next Generation, rather than just rummaging around in the show’s past. There’s drama and action, and the promise of a lot of suspense and ratcheting up of the stakes to come. But – perhaps most importantly – it moves beyond the feel-good utopian-future nonsense of The Next Generation: Picard is fallible, the Federation is fallible, people make mistakes and have feelings about it. Like humans.
After 37 (or so) seasons of television, the BBC cast a woman as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker fit right in with many of her predecessors, perhaps not surprisingly most closely evoking David Tennant – the most popular Doctor of the modern era – and Peter Davison, with her portrayal of the Doctor being more consistently upbeat and less of a schemer who can’t entirely be trusted (a la the sad end of Matt Smith’s Doctor vis-a-vis Clara).
For me, the key question was whether the writing would improve, as the show’s writing these last few years has been inconsistent at best, and often just plain weak. Did new show runner Chris Chibnall succeed in elevating the storytelling? My answer… after the cut (along with spoilers for the season):
I recent finished reading John Scalzi‘s recent novel, The Consuming Fire, the second in his Interdependency trilogy. It’s quite good, and I agree with some comments I’ve read that although it starts slow, it ends up being a more satisfying read than the first volume. But what won me over fully to it is not the satisfying ending (which is about as satisfying an ending as the second book in a trilogy can have), but the bits in the middle.
(Spoilers for The Consuming Fire, as well as some other stories discussed below!)
The Interdependency in the series is a collection of worlds connected by wormholes, except that after millennia the wormholes start collapsing. Since most of the “worlds” are actually uninhabited – the population live on artificial satellites in orbit, and only one world is known to itself be habitable – this is a big problem, since the worlds can’t survive on their own. The fact of this collapse is a nascent scientific discovery which is not widely believed, but a major development in this book is that a wormhole which had collapsed centuries before has recently reopened for a limited period of time, and our heroes – in the form of the Emperox – send an expeditionary ship through to see what happened to the settlement there.
They break into the main satellite, which is predictably dead and dormant, and manage to reactivate some of the computer systems, whereupon they discover that they’re not the first ones to do so: The system had been reactivated several times since civilization collapsed, and our heroes figure out that not only is there a remnant of the centuries-dead civilization still hanging on, but that they had been visited from elsewhere during that time.
And I love this stuff. Stories about finding long-forgotten and long-dead remnants of past civilizations or even people whose stories ended tragically long before they were uncovered thrills me more than almost anything else in science fiction.
I was trying to think when my fascination with this sort of story started, and the earliest instance I can think of is the Space: 1999 episode “Dragon’s Domain”. Five years earlier, a probe to the recently-discovered tenth planet of the solar system ended in tragedy when it discovered a graveyard of alien ships. On docking with one of them, three of the four crew members are killed by a mysterious creature, and the fourth barely escapes and makes it back to Earth. In the present, he senses that the creature is nearby, and the Alphans find the same graveyard, many light years from Earth, and have a final showdown with the creature. As with most things in the series, the story doesn’t make much sense, but when I was six years old when it first aired in 1975, it made an indelible impression on me, enough that when I had the opportunity to buy a few episodes in the 90s, it was one of the two that I bought. (Yes, I was disappointed when I watched it.) It’s not even very satisfying in exploring the ships they find – we never get to see inside any of them – but somehow it was just enough to stimulate some part of my brain.
Somehow many Space: 1999 episodes are available in their entirety on YouTube, and I watched it before writing this post:
(I could write at some length about Space: 1999, basically that I think there is some good stuff in there that could have been used as the springboard for an actually good series, but it’s buried under so much nonsense and terrible writing that any good series would have been substantially different from what actually aired. But I digress.)
Another episode which tickled a similar part of my brain was “Another Time, Another Place”, in which the Alphans meet their doppelgängers from another universe who had recolonized the Earth, with mixed results. I haven’t re-watched that one, but I recall the exploration of the doppelgänger Alpha was pretty powerful. Again, to my six-year-old self.
Star Trek also had a little of this, though the memorable episodes involved finding derelict starships. “Space Seed”, “The Tholian Web”, and my all-time favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine”, all feature these small-scale discoveries and piecing together what happened, although the main thrust of each episode heads in a somewhat different direction; the space relics are primarily part of the episodes’ color. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode actually entitled “Relics” features an ancient Dyson sphere, but it’s really about Scotty coming to the 24th century. And the Star Trek: Enterprise story “In a Mirror, Darkly” is a sequel to “The Tholian Web”, but it’s really a love letter to original series fans.
The movie Alien starts off with the characters exploring a derelict alien hulk, and although the film is overall excellent (and I am not a fan of horror films generally), plumbing the depths of the hulk is not the point of the film.
So with all of these TV shows and movies teasing me with glimpses of old relics that don’t really get explored, what really got me hooked on this stuff? Well, it was a book titled Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which was part of a series of art books from the late 70s about the fictional Terran Trade Authority. Set over the next thousand years or so, the book is a collection of short stories with corresponding illustration (I inferred that the illustration was done first and the story written to more-or-less match it, but I really have no idea) about spaceships which had been lost and later found abandoned, or maybe just found without anyone knowing where they came from (e.g., alien ships). Mary Celeste-type stuff. It was not great literature, but I read through it several times as a teenager, fascinated by the stories with their sometimes-oblique tragedies of years long past, buried more by obscurity than by intent.
I think that’s part of what appeals to me about such stories: Unlike typical mysteries, in which there’s a perpetrator who is deliberately trying to conceal the truth, in these stories the truth has been lost due to the ravages of time, or due to something simply dropping out of sight, or becoming inaccessible. There may have been some corresponding or causal tragedy to the mystery – that’s sometimes where the story comes from – but I find the peeling back of the layers, and the revelation of what happened to the long-dead people to be the part of the tale that grabs my imagination.
And that brings me to what, to my knowledge, is the preeminent example of this sort of story: Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict series.
Alex Benedict is an antiquities dealer who inherited money from his anthropologist uncle after he was lost in space, and set up his own business. In the first book, A Talent For War (1989) – which is one of my favorite novels – he investigates the disappearance of a crew of heroes who helped end the war against the only known alien species in the galaxy. As a group of legendary officers, the crew lightly evokes the crew of the original Star Trek, but all of them are two centuries dead. The story has some good twists and turns, and a solid ending. It was probably the most satisfying story of its sort I’d read up to this point – it might still be at the top.
To my delight, McDevitt turned this novel into a series, with 9 millennia of backstory for his characters to explore:
Polaris (2004): An auction of relics from a ship whose crew disappeared under impossible circumstances unfolds the mystery of what really happened to them.
Seeker (2005): A lone cup unlocks the mystery to the location of one of the earliest colony ships from Earth, nearly 9,000 years earlier. This one won the Nebula Award for Best Novel.
The Devil’s Eye (2008): A mind-wiped friend of Alex’s is the clue to a government cover-up and a lost colony. The series’ nadir in my opinion.
Echo (2010): A deceased scientist known for searching for other intelligent life beyond humans and the one other species we’ve encountered found something. But if he found aliens, why did he bury the news?
Firebird (2011): Another deceased scientist who was known for researching parallel universes also found something. What he found is very different from the story in Echo, and is perhaps the most arresting storyline of the series, and very much on-theme for this article – but I won’t reveal it here because I definitely recommend reading it yourself. It’s concluded in the next novel…
Coming Home (2014): In addition to the continued story from Firebird, Alex is presented with a relic from the earliest days of humanity’s space age, and he heads to Earth in search of its origin.
Coming Home seemed like a perfect ending to the series, and it was hard to see how McDevitt would top it, but apparently there will be a new volume, Octavia Gone, published next year.
Despite my fondness for the series, I do caution readers to temper their expectations: McDevitt is clearly influenced by the SF Golden Age grandmasters such as Asimov and Clarke, which means his writing can be a bit dry. He also has a decidedly clumsy approach to writing women, which is doubly unfortunate since after Talent – narrated by Alex – the remaining books are narrated by his assistant and pilot, Chase Kolpath. Chase is a pretty capable figure, but there are many cringeworthy turns of phrase involving her gender. So I’d expect some people would find the writing would cancel out the good qualities of the story, but if you can get past its limitations perhaps you’ll enjoy it. Unfortunately in such a limited niche, it’s nearly impossible to have it all.
By the way, an earlier McDevitt novel, Ancient Shores (1996), has some moments that resonated for me in this way – humanity discovers an abandoned network of portals to other worlds – although the main thrust of the story lies elsewhere. I suggest skipping the disappointing sequel, Thunderbird (2015), however.
I’m sure there are other stories I’m forgetting about, but those are the major ones. I wish more writers would play in this space (though I’m not so willing to sit through dozens of episodes of bad television for the occasional story of this sort), but I take what I can get.
Are there any notable stories in this vein that I should check out?
A friend’s comment on Facebook reminded me that I wanted to mention a couple of similar tropes which I see as different from the trope that interests me here:
First are Big Dumb Objects, unfathomable artifacts from ancient civilizations. Stories around these tend to fall into two camps: Either people trying to figure out what they’re used for and eventually reactivating them (usually to disappointing effect, since the payoff is rarely satisfying after the build-up), or as something which trigger the story but isn’t central to how it plays out (for example in Alastair Reynolds’ novella Diamond Dogs). While I can enjoy these stories, they different from the trope I’m discussing here because they’re fundamentally more impersonal; there’s little speculation in or resolution of what happened to the specific characters who left behind the BDO, it’s just a driver for the main characters’ story.
Second are ancient and dead civilizations, which again tend to be impersonal, the discovery of vast swaths of culture and/or technology rather than the story of a specific relic left behind. Star Trek worked this territory a lot, usually encountering the degenerate remnants of such civilizations, though occasionally they found completely dead ones, such as in “Contagion”. “The Inner Light” is a more personal take on a dead civilization, although it contains more of what I enjoy, but it subverts it by throwing Picard into the middle of events (and is shamelessly manipulative and maudlin to boot).
These science fiction audio dramas include some of (what I imagine are) the most complicated podcasts in their writing, acting, and production. This genre also includes what are my two (maybe three) favorite audio dramas, so I, at least, appreciate all the hard work.
One of the pitfalls of such production is that the warts can be more evident and more disruptive than in simpler podcasts. Audio quality is really important, especially in maintaining a comparable audio volume and clarity among all the actors. I suspect this is a lot easier to say than to do, as there are some clearly-very-high-production podcasts which don’t quite get this right. I try to cut them some slack, but it does take me out of the experience. One actor being noticeably quieter than the others, or a slight hiss in the audio for one voice, can be very distracting unless there’s an in-story explanation for it. And when it’s two people who are supposed to be in the same room having a conversation, it jars. While this isn’t likely to make me drop a podcast I’m otherwise enjoying, it might keep me from sticking with a new one I’m having trouble getting into.
Reminder: I’m a bit over 2 months behind listening to audio dramas which are still ongoing (longer for a few I’m catching up on), so some of my comments might seem dated to people who are all caught up.
Girl in Space: If you asked me to pick the single best audio drama in production now, it might just be this one. (And if it’s not, then it’s the next one.) The main character, X, is a young woman raised by her scientist parents on a decaying research ship orbiting a peculiar star. Her parents disappeared years ago, but she continued their work. Then a corporate fleet shows up to claim her ship and work for their own. The first-person-present narration works brilliantly, and X’s musings on existence and her peculiar situation – as well as the jerktastic behavior of many other humans she meets – is human and insightful. There’s an ongoing mystery which gets revealed in little bits over several episodes, and it all adds up to the most engaging audio drama out there. If it has a flaw it’s that the supporting characters are a little too stereotypical, but I suspect that’s actually the effect they’re going for (you can hear the sneer of the lead heavy whenever he speaks, for example); it’s just a bit odd next to the humanity of X.
The Strange Case of Starship Iris: After the war against the aliens, a revolution leaves humanity governed by an oppressive Republic. Violet Liu is the last survivor of the research ship Iris when she’s rescued by a group of smugglers. Their adventures take them around the edges of human civilization, as well as encounters with some interesting aliens, as they try to figure out what was going on aboard the Iris and to what extent Violet was (knowingly or not) involved. The cast and dialog is first-rate, and there’s clearly something going on behind it all. I feel like the newer episodes have lost focus a bit (perhaps the long hiatus after the first five episodes had an impact on the creator’s plans or approach), but I still look forward to each one.
ars Paradoxica: A 21st century scientist’s project goes wrong and throws her back to the Philadelphia Experiment in 1943. She starts a new life as part of a secret war project, trying to replicate her discovery and figure out how it works, and maybe get back home. I’m only a few episodes in – up to the end of World War II – and each episode has been clever and engaging, with a strong period feel and fun cast of characters. And of course time travel and other high-tech hijinks. I believe the show recently concluded, to rave reviews, so I’m really looking forward to making my way through it. I’m enjoying it at least as much as the two above.
Wolf 359: Another heralded series which recently ended, about the hijinks aboard a space station orbiting the star of the series’ name, presumably no relation to the Star Trek battle around the star. Communications officer Doug Eiffel narrates the events; he’s a hedonistic slacker who butts heads with the commander and the chief scientist, and the stories so far slot right in alongside other comical SF series. But there’s a hint that the first contact with aliens is coming, and I imagine that will concern much of the series once it happens. Each episode so far is basically a set-piece for the quirks of one of the three characters on the station, which makes it lightly amusing but not (yet) remarkable.
Startripper!!: The web site’s summary reads, “Follow Feston Pyxis, a former file clerk who left it all behind in search of the best times the galaxy has to offer, on a road trip through the cosmos!” And that just about covers it: The exuberant Feston flies from place to place to sample the many experiences the universe has to offer. Three episodes in, it’s difficult to figure out if Feston is naïve and lucky, or secretly up to something. The high-energy tone of the series – which feels like a more optimistic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – suggests the former. Lightweight but fun.
All’s Fair: A 6-episode series about a Victorian woman who invents a time machine and travels to humanity’s future, where she repeatedly encounters a man in increasing positions of importance in government. Things don’t go well. Smart and to-the-point.
Tides: One of the most-lauded audio dramas currently running, about a scientist who gets stranded on a planet with an unusual and massive tidal cycle, exploring the local ecology and trying to stay alive until her crewmates on the ship orbiting the planet can rescue her. Julia Schifini as Dr. Winifred Eurus might be the single best acting talent I’ve yet heard in the audio drama universe, with a tremendous range of emotion and amazingly clear enunciation. And the podcast needs her because the story is very uneven. The suspense of her trying to stay alive is engaging and suspenseful, but the long asides of her describing the local fauna does not hold my interest at all. Maybe it’s a matter of what kind of science-fictional nuts-and-bolts interests you, as the brief description of the local cosmology around the planet was way more interesting to me than all of the biology bits put together. Your mileage may vary. I presume the status quo will get shaken up sometime soon since I can’t see Dr. Eurus remaining alone and wandering around like this for much longer, as the set-up is getting repetitive.
Marsfall: Another current audio drama which has gotten rave reviews, but which I’ve struggled to embrace. Certainly it shows a tremendous amount of technical ability in its production, and the acting is generally strong, but I’ve found the story to be pretty shaky. It’s about one of several commercial missions to colonize Mars later this century, with a commander who has an art background (that’s an early plot point), and an AI supporting the colony which is less frightening than HAL, but more suspicious than Data. Things go wrong as soon as the colony arrives on Mars, with several waves of mayhem over the first seven episodes. But I’ve been frustrated with the frequently-unprofessional behavior of these supposedly professional colonists. I also guessed one of the big surprises in the first season very early on, which made me wonder why none of the characters figured it out, since the evidence seemed to be screaming it at them. It feels like it’s aimed at casual fans of SF television shows as opposed to serious readers of SF (basically the opposite audience from Tides). Hopefully the second season will have a tighter story with characters acting less erratically.
Athena: An “audio journal” about a young woman growing up on a starship who decided to steal a shuttle and head to Earth. Episodes are short, so with me being 5 episodes in there’s not much backstory so far (for example, how can Athena and her people be human given their background?). Athena’s voice – which I assume is the podcast’s creator – has unusual vocal mannerisms which gives Athena an unusual feel. I’m hoping this will be more than a coming-of-age story, as it sounds like it will be a fairly short story when it’s finished, it might not be.
Next time I’ll run through some suspense and horror audio dramas.
I took a few days off to have a 5-day weekend in order to go to Worldcon 76 in nearby San Jose. This was my fourth Worldcon, and maybe the first SF convention I’ve been to in about 10 years. Fortuitously, my other three Worldcons have all been since I started my (old) journal, so you can read about them if you wish:
1997 in San Antonio, memorable for the Babylon 5 sessions and for me helping livestream the Hugo awards ceremony (though the page where we did so no longer exists).
The weekend started off a little bumpy, though: I took Thursday off planning to go down to the con in the afternoon, while having lunch with Debbi and visiting her new workplace. However, I went out to my car and it wouldn’t turn over. I called AAA and they came out and replaced the battery – a little annoying since I’d just had the car in for its annual service a week earlier, but a friend of mine says he once had his Eos‘ battery die on him without warning. By the time it was done it was too late to meet Debbi for lunch, but I did drive to her work and we swapped cars just in case there was something else wrong with my car so I wouldn’t be stranded. (My car worked fine all weekend, so hopefully the battery was it.)
By the time I got to the con the check-in line for badges was long, and I was in it for about 45 minutes. I think I was there at the worst point, as the line was half as long when I got out of it. I did get to see my friend Jeanne from Minneapolis, whom I don’t think I’ve seen since the 02 Worldcon, and we ended up going to dinner together as her partner was seeing some sights in Silicon Valley and ended up getting stuck in bad traffic.
There was not a lot going on Thursday. I wandered through the dealer’s room and said hi to a few people (such as Anna from Illusive Comics; I’m always a bit surprised and flattered that she recognizes me). I skipped the opening ceremonies and decided to head home early to save energy for the rest of the weekend.
On Friday it was time to hit the panels. I went to a few which I thought were so-so – mainly because the panelists lacked focus or didn’t really have much to say on the topic – but I also went to some really good ones. I particularly enjoyed “A Geek’s Guide to Literary Theory” by M. Todd Gallowglas, which led me to insta-follow him on Twitter; if anything the talk was a bit too condensed and could have benefitted from another hour! I also went to see him read in the evening – he’s a very entertaining speaker. I talked to him at his booth in the dealer’s room later at the con, too, and bought his book of writing from his year finishing his MFA (I’m a few dozen pages into it as I write this and it’s good!). I did not, however, note how much his Twitter icon resembles Sean Bean. I could probably have talked to him some more (e.g., about his thoughts on writers who write novels which are in a way commentary on their earlier novels – such as Tehanu by Le Guin – or about my obsession with story structure), but always worry about overstaying my welcome when talking to authors.
I also went to a remembrance for the late editor Gardner Dozois, featuring George R. R. Martin, Pat Cadigan and John Kessel. (I ran into my friends Ceej and David there, too!) As expected, it was a series of touching and funny reminiscences, but it also felt like a sort of pre-wake for 70s and early 80s fandom: Most of the people attending were 60 and older, and had probably broken into fandom between 1970 and 1985, as the panelists did. I got a sense that Dozois’ passing had stirred something, maybe a realization that the older members of that generation were getting up there in age (Dozois and the panelists are all early Baby Boomers) and that they should consider seeing and appreciating each other while they still can, especially at Worldcon since they might not often see each other otherwise. Maybe I’m off-base about this, but that was the feeling I got. (In 15 years my generation of fandom – the late Boomers and most of Gen X – will be there ourselves.)
My last panel on Friday was on Imposter Syndrome, which ironically is what I always feel at conventions. (Heck, look at the first of my entries on the 2004 Worldcon and I was keenly feeling that back then!) I could go on about this some more here, but let’s just say that Friday night I went home early rather than going to parties where I wouldn’t know anyone, and Saturday I ended up at loose ends for dinner in the evening, had a long wait before eating a pretty good meal at Il Fornaio, basically wasting several hours by myself. Ugh.
Saturday I went to a session on libraries and library technology, which was pretty interesting. It’s all stuff my sister works with every day, I think. I introduced myself to Lynne M. Thomas, whom my sister has known for a while and whom she urged me to introduce myself to. It’s sounds like they’ve had somewhat parallel careers in some ways.
The session I took the most notes on all weekend was on plotting a story, by Kay Kenyon, an author who frankly has been on my list to read for a while but I haven’t gotten there yet. (Ah, the curse of the slow reader.) I found her breakdowns really thoughtful and useful, fleshing out some things I already knew about the three-act story structure. Should be useful if I ever actually write something!
There was also a small protest outside the convention center in the afternoon, which most attendees avoided (I certainly did, although I enjoyed reading some updates on Twitter). It was over 90 degrees in the afternoon so that must have been fun for the protestors.
In the evening I had my ill-fated dinner adventure, but I did end up at the party hotel where I ran into my friend Mark and Yvette, and met their friend Miri, and we had a good time chatting in the lounge (the acoustics of which were way too good for the volume of the band playing there).
Sunday I went to a panel on recommended webcomics, which as you might guess is a subject right up my alley (inasmuch as I have about 125 active webcomics in my RSS reader). The panel was kind of split between discussing the history of webcomics and making recommendations, and it also had 7 panelists, which made it a bit unwieldy. It was fun, but felt like it could have used more focus.
But I spent more time on Saturday searching out books in the dealer’s room, and getting autographs. The dealer’s room was pretty good, but it did feel like there were fewer used book dealers there than in the past, which is perhaps not a surprise due to the rise of digital books, but it is a bummer for me since I was hoping to score some specific items from my want list. I did find a few, but some others were just not in evidence. And it’s nice to pick them up in person to see their condition first-hand, and not deal with shipping. There was one George R. R. Martin book I was going to buy, but when I went to pick it up – having determined that it was the best combination of condition and price in the room – Martin was at the booth signing their stock, and when they put it back on sale they’d marked it up by $25. No thanks! But I guess it’ll make someone else happy.
I did get a different book autographed by Martin, though, and I stood through the long line to have John Scalzi sign a few more books. But I can’t complain because John is a truly nice guy, and he was signing multiple books for many people, as well as taking pictures and having conversations, yet the line was still moving along anyway. I spent most of the time chatting with the person in front of me, and I took a bunch of photos of him meeting John. I first met John back in 2002 at Journalcon, and I’m flattered that he’s remembered me when I’ve seen him since. If you’ve seen him speak or be on a panel, when he can be very much in his “Scalzi the performance artist” mode, rest assured that he’s very personable in the autograph line – or elsewhere, from my experience.
In the evening I went to dinner with Ceej and David and a couple of friends of theirs. I haven’t seen Ceej in years, and we really ought to see each other more often than that! I decided to skip the Hugo Awards ceremony, and instead finally got myself up to the Borderlands Books suite for their sponsors, which was a nice quiet space and I had some good conversations with the few people there. I wish I’d made myself go up earlier in the week!
I’d taken Monday off as well, but there wasn’t really anything I wanted to do at the con that day, so I decided to take it as a day of downtime as well.
Overall I had a good time, though 2002 is still my personal high water mark for Worldcons. This con had some behind-the-scenes controversy (which spilled over into a broader audience, or else I wouldn’t have known about it), especially regarding programming. As someone who wasn’t really affected by those issues I thought things went reasonably smoothly – at least compared to my experience at other cons – but I understand why people who were affected have some hard feelings. The biggest issue for me was that the programming rooms were often too small for the panels – about half I went to were standing room only when I arrived. Given the site I’m not sure what could have been done about that – the San Jose Convention Center is a pretty stark and unforgiving facility. (But it does have excellent wi-fi!)
So it’s been 14 years since I last went to a Worldcon, and I’m not sure when I’ll get to one next. Though there have been 4 west coast Worldcons in this century, plus ones in Las Vegas and Denver, so there will be opportunities. Despite some of my anxieties, it is a fun experience.
I’m not a fan of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but lots of people are. I find this odd, but enh, I don’t have a deep love of Star Wars generally. Still, sometimes people I follow post how much they like this film and it makes me think:
Toy with tropes? Subvert expectations? Did we see the same film? I found its storytelling ham-handed and elliptical, struggling to find its meaning and message. But Rachel’s hardly the only person who sees meaning in what I see as clumsiness. Is this just a matter of different peoples’ minds seeing different patterns in the same content?
I’m not going to try to answer that question here (speaking of elliptical). Rather, her tweet made me think further about what sort of meaning there is for me in the film, inasmuch as I think Star Wars is not generally a deep franchise, and it’s generally pretty simplistic in both world building and storytelling. This led me in a roundabout way (which is code for “I don’t remember all the details of how I got to this point”) to thinking that the end game for this trilogy could be something different from what people are expecting. To wit:
The Force Awakens contained a lot of beats that seemed lifted from the original Star Wars, and The Last Jedi drew some comparison to The Empire Strikes Back, which perhaps leads people to conclude that the next film will evoke Return of the Jedi, and in particular an expectation that the trilogy is going to wrap things up in a fairly conclusive manner. After all not only did Jedi do so, but there’s likely still a lot of fanthink that these three movies are going to finish off the 9-film arc that George Lucas had teased decades ago.
But it’s pretty clear to me that Disney has strayed far from that path already, since Force and Last Jedi build upon, but don’t really continue, the arc of the six Lucas films. So what if the goal here is to not evoke the closure of Return of the Jedi?
What if the endpoint is instead to have our heroes suffer a crushing and total defeat, as happened at the end of the prequel trilogy?
After all, we didn’t really “get to” experience the shock of the heroes utterly losing in the prequel trilogy, because we all knew it was coming, but this is an opportunity to surprise and shock the viewers.
I’m skeptical that this is what would really happen, since it’s not very Disney-esque, and J.J. Abrams’ work doesn’t indicate that this is the direction he’s likely to take the final film. But it could be quite effective, and could lead in to another trilogy, maybe a couple more decades down the timeline, with a new group of characters trying to put things back together. (Finn: “It’s all true: Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, the Skywalkers, all of it.”)
The Last Jedi ended on a pretty grim note, so how much worse can things get? Well, just as one possibility, which seems entirely plausible based on how the story’s been going, I have two words: