Sunday, December 28, 2008

Yuletide Recommendations!

Yuletide is a yearly fandom gift exchange specifically for rare or minor fandoms--it's grown yearly since 2003 and this year has over 2,400 stories in its database. It tends to elicit some truly wonderful stories--thoughtful and carefully-written. I've just spent three days reading through a huge variety of stories and ended up with fifteen that really struck me as particularly good. My favorites in Yuletide tend to be stories that provide "more of" (in Sheenan Pugh's phrase) canon rather than "more from"--that is, that feel like continuations or missing episodes. With small fandoms like this, there's often a yearning for a little extra that could fit with the original.

The Fionavar Tapestry:
No Man of Fionavar. A look at life in Fionavar eight years later. A wonderful exploration of the goddesses Ceinwen and Dana, who are lovers of two major characters but get very little character development within the series. Lots of other wonderful touches about all the other characters and how their lives unfold.

In the Colours of All Countries. Another story set after the series is done, this one is shorter and focuses more closely on the main characters more shortly after the series. A look at three children named Diarmuid born shortly after the series ends, and their parents and the people who care about them.

Greek Mythology
Small Step for Man. A history of Apollo and Artemis through the ages. Probably one of the darkest and most disturbing of my favorites, with incest and violence and an overall feeling of terrible pain as history progresses. Very powerful and painful.

Anne of Green Gables
Keeping Faith. Unlike most of my other favorites, this couldn't have ever been a missing chapter of the original, because it has a rather explicit sex scene--and yet the sex manages to retain some of the tenor of Montgomery's work: shy and wondering. She'd probably be horrified by it, but I liked it. This is a story set quite late in the series and about one of Anne's children--Walter, who in the original dies in WWI. In this AU he survives and returns to Canada, but striken with shell shock and terribly wounded. This story unites him with his love, Una, and shows his slow healing with her help. It's hopeful and sweet and yet true to the reality of the horrors of war, while retaining Montgomery's idiom.

The Pretender:
The Hound and the Hare. This story nicely captures the feeling of the final act of an episode of "The Pretender," with the edged-yet-hopeful banter between Jarod and Parker. Broots and Sydney make spot-on appearances. Jarod exposes a racetrack that abuses its grayhounds and introduces Parker to his own rescue dog:

"Miss Parker." His eyes and voice were hard. "Come to see my prize bitch?"

The Dark is Rising:
Sense and Notion. Every Yuletide there are a few stories that deal with the heartbreaking ending of the original series and the fact that characters we've come to love deeply lose their memories of all that's gone before. This was my favorite this year--a stubborn and baffled Bran, somehow certain that a summer that he remembers as mundane had deep meaning in it, insists on reaching out to a reluctant Will.

Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:
Metamorphosis. Probably the second-most disturbing story of my favorites, but in a very different way. This one manages to capture fairly well the tone of the play (an amazing feat, frankly). At turns ironic, witty, savage, bleak, and desperate.

Guildenstern watches Rosencrantz standing before the mirror, modeling the doublet that Ophelia has loaned him to wear for the play; he finds the image disturbing, and for a moment, he cannot place why. Surely they have stood before mirrors before, together--although Guildenstern cannot quite remember a specific instance, now that he thinks on it--and surely it has never been disturbing before. That is the very nature of a disturbing thing, after all; it is something which isn't usual, ergo necessitating the existence of a usual.

Pre-test Diagnostic Log #045216/F/4. Portal is a bizarre video game in which "you" are a test subject in a lab experiment gone horribly wrong, attempting to outwit the passive-aggressive and homocidal AI GLaDOS. GLaDOS has...a distinct voice and personality, to put it mildly, like a hectoring and totally insane mother. There were three Portal-based stories this year, and this one probably comes closest to replicating the tone of the game.

1983. This story is less canon-compliant, but perhaps funnier, as it features a bizarrely funny and disturbing segment where GLaDOS tries (ineptly) to seduce the test subject:

You could argue that I do not wear pants but at least I can tell you that I do not wear pants. If I tell you about the pants then you can imagine the pants. The pants are not a lie. The pants are real. The pants are as real as you imagine them to be.

My voice is not suited to being a boy. I can tell that you are disappointed. Now you understand how I feel. I am often disappointed. You disappoint me.

The Silmarillion:
A Spirit of Fire. A character exploration of Melkor. I don't usually enjoy character studies of villains, because they usually strike me as contrived--especially theatrical villains who seem to cherish evil for evil's sake, like Melkor. But this presents him reasonably and interestingly, without minimizing the cruelty and evil of the character.

Breath of Hope. Another character study, this one of Brandir, Turin, and Niniel. It's Turin/Niniel, but nothing explicit or disturbing. Brandir confronts Niniel about her decision to wed Turin, and Turin confronts him about the conversation later. A thoughtful look at three fascinating characters.

Bright are the Stars Upon the Margin of the World. An in-depth exploration of Beleg, one of the many interesting characters Tolkien introduces and then leaves mostly hinted-at in The Silmarillion. This is a long, leisurely look at Beleg's early days, and his first intimations of his fate. Full of resonant symbolism and a good capture of Tolkien's style of writing--no small feat at all.

He looked up into the heavens, and still the stars were shining brightly down, his keeper brightest of them all: red the shoulder of the sword-arm and brilliant the girdle, fearsome the stance of the warrior eternally suspended against the vault of the sky.

Galaxy Quest:
Never Give Up, Never Surrender...To the Power of Love? This is a parody of the bemused and confused tone of news articles about fanfiction, written within the Galaxy Quest universe (i.e., Lazarus/Taggart slash, for example). Funny at two levels--a discussion of the show and a discussion of news articles of this type.

The Show Must Go On. A wonderful, wonderful story that perfectly blends humor and deeper emotion in the same way as the original. The cast (shooting the New Adventures of Galaxy Quest) is approached by the Thermians once more, only to discover themselves facing the most cliche of cliches: the mirror universe evil doubles! The plot is engaging and fun, with a wistful, hopeful (and slashy) subplot about Alexander Dane finding love at last. I'll confess the ending choked me up.

The Chronicles of Prydain
The Kindly King of Strummings and Hummings. Another beautiful story that could be a lost chapter of canon, featuring Fflewddur Fflam and Gurgi, two of my absolute favorites, and a cameo by the always-delightful Eilonwy. Fflewddur has to deal with a dragon infestation. Charming and gentle and homely, like the original.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stepping Back

So I posted an image yesterday of the Three Magi gazing up at the Star of Bethlehem with one of them murmuring, "Oh, I am so blogging about this."

It made me laugh because blogging--and the whole online existence of interacting largely in print--encourages a sort of self-aware distance from one's own experiences. I compose a LOT of blog entries in my head, usually as a sheerly theoretical exercise--"how would I describe this experience? What are the words I would use to capture this?" I almost never post the results, but it's fun to think about. Mind you, this can escalate into narcissism--or worse, Twitterism (I don't get Twitter! I feel like the worst Luddite in the world, but I hate it so much...)--but I do like the extra emotional distance blogging fosters, the ability to step back and narrate your own life a bit. It reminds me of a Zen meditation technique--how you're supposed to step back and think "I'm having a feeling I'm hungry," "I'm having a feeling I'm bored," and be aware that you are not your reactions. A certain ironic distance, a reminder that yours is just one of many stories going on...

Monday, December 22, 2008

In Minnesota for Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: Always Coming Home

(Map of the Valley. North is to the left of the map)

"The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California. . . The difficulty of translation from a language that doesn't yet exist is considerable, but there's no need to exaggerate it."

So begins one of my favorite books by Ursula LeGuin, and probably one of her lesser-known works, "Always Coming Home." She calls it "an archaeology of the future," and it's a beautiful example of world-creation. The main narrative of the book is the autobiography of Stone Telling, a young woman of the Valley, but her story is broken up with digressions into songs, recipes, rituals, novels and other anthropological observations of her people. I desperately want to put "digressions" in scare-quotes, to make the implicit argument that they're actually quite key, but since part of what LeGuin is positing is that digressions are part of the dance, I'll let it stand.

This is a slow-moving book and I was about halfway through it the first time before I realized that things were not entirely as they seemed at first. It's nothing shocking like Sheri Tepper's also-wonderful speculative feminist novels like "Grass" and "The Gate to Women's Country," but it's a beautiful unfolding that invites you to see what you've been taking for granted, what you haven't noticed, and what the Valley narrators have been taking for granted themselves.

LeGuin is a Taoist, and this time through I noticed what I hadn't before--that the ritualistic Valley symbol of the gyre or hinge creates a stylized yin-yang symbol that weaves its way through society. This is a Taoist utopia, but achieved at prices LeGuin doesn't gloss over--staggeringly high infant mortality being only one of them. And it's got a self-aware irony that cuts some of the inevitable utopian smugness: LeGuin imagines herself in a conversation with an archivist of the Valley in which she sighs "I never did like smartass utopians. Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends."

The book is a beautiful example of world-building, based on a deep and lovingly intimate knowledge of the Northern California landscape. The world unfurls around the edges of Stone Telling's story, alluringly realized and temptingly unfinished. I remember the first time I read it studying the charts of the different clans and deciding that the me that lived in the Valley would be a member of the Serpentine House and the Oak Society, which covered the areas of writing and poetry. She'd make beautiful paper and raise sheep and live near a stream. Her name was Ubbuarra, Words in the Middle. She still lives there, always.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The Greatest Gift of All"

I find Stephen Colbert fascinating and challenging. Part of why he's both so funny and so appealing are the moments when the mask of his savage irony slips away and you see just how angry he is about exactly all the things "Stephen Colbert" is pretending to celebrate. He does a delicate sort of scarf dance of persona--for example, I watched the election night special he and Jon Stewart co-hosted. Now, "Stephen Colbert" was miserable at every state that Obama won, and kept wistfully predicting a comeback from McCain. But at the moment when California was called for Obama and it was official, both Colbert and Stewart stopped talking. For a long, long moment they both looked away from each other, shuffled papers, took a drink of water, and took a couple of deep breaths. It was like...they didn't really trust themselves to stay in character at that moment, so they just did nothing at all until the information processed. I have no idea if they planned it or not--they must have--but it was oddly moving.

I watched Colbert's Christmas special this week, and it has that same strange mix in it. "Stephen Colbert" waxes eloquent about the War on Christmas and other conservative topics, but when he and his guest stars (an improbable lineup of Elvis Costello, Toby Keith, Feist, and Willie Nelson) sing "What's So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding," it's all the more moving because "Stephen Colbert" is not supposed to mean it, and yet Stephen Colbert so clearly does. The duet he sings at the end with Costello is a beautifully complicated brew of cynicism and hope, and it becomes impossible to tell what's "Stephen Colbert" and what's Stephen Colbert:

Elvis: There are cynics, there are skeptics
There are legions of dispassionate dyspeptics
Who regard this time of year as a maudlin insincere
Cheezy crass commercial travesty of all that we hold dear
Stephen: When they think that
Well, I can hear it
But I pity them their lack of Christmas spirit
For in a world like ours, take it from Stephen
There are much worse things to believe in.

Stephen: Believe in the judgment, believe in Jihad
Believe in a thousand variations on a dark and spiteful god
Elvis: You've got your money, you've got your power
You've got your science, and all the planets going to end within the hour
Stephen: You've got your dreams that don't come true
Elvis: You've got the ones that do
Stephen: Then you've got your nothing
Both: Some folks believe in nothing
But if you believe in nothing
Then what's to keep the nothing from coming for you?

"Christmas: There are Worse Things to Believe In" is a motto I'll remember when I get too grouchy about canned carols and forced cheer.

The special ends in one of the weirder recursive loops I've ever seen, when Santa shows up to give Colbert "the greatest gift of all": a DVD of Colbert's Christmas special "The Greatest Gift of All." "So wait," barks Costello, "That's the DVD of the special that we're in the middle of making right now?"

Ow, my brain.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friends of Friends of Friends

A friend of a friend of a friend of mine died last week. That wouldn't usually cause much disruption in the space-time continuum, but in the online world it can set of ripples that wash on relatively strange shores.

In this case, it prompted a friend of a friend of mine--Merlin Missy--to write an essay about friendship and fandom. I think she captures really well the sort of community/friendship online interactions capture, and the ambivalences and joys of it.

I know things about relative strangers online that I have nothing similar for with some of my oldest friends. I have an acquaintance--really not even a friend!--who I've watched go through a horrible, difficult pregnancy that she doesn't want, watched her agonize over how she thought her husband would love and cherish her more if she did this (he doesn't). I see people's posts made late at night, maybe when they've been drinking a little more than they should, and they can wail about everything bad in their lives. People spill their dreams and hopes and fears out into the ether, and how can I not know them in a way that's both more facile and more meaningful, perhaps, than the people I see face to face? Maybe it's not quite the same as tried-and-tested friendship, but it's an undeniable sense of intimacy.

As a side note of oddness, Merlin Missy mentions in her article that weird sense of intimacy--"Reminder to self: Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman are not your friends, no matter how well you think you know them." Well, Wheaton (child star of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and UberGeek of the Internets*) linked up to her article. In the comments on his article, I see the name of another friend of a friend.

The Internet: most gigantic small town in the history of humanity.

It's like last week fellow-blogger Fresca mentioned Samuel Delany in a post and he stopped by to compliment her writing. Uh...I was the person who commented after him and I tried to stay cool, but I was so tempted to write something like "HOLY CRAP FRESCA THAT'S DELANY COMMENTING ABOVE ME OMG OMG OMG!!!!1!1!!!"

Life is a strange and wonderful place.

*True story: Wil Wheaton's cat died slightly after mine did a few years ago, and I wrote him a quick note to tell him he was in my thoughts, never really expecting he'd read it. He wrote back a personal email. I almost died. How can Wil Wheaton possibly answer even half of the email he must get, it would have to be a full-time job! He's just the coolest.

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