Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a murder mystery nested within a murder mystery nested within a defense of murder mysteries as a literary genre

Paperback cover of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders gives the whole thing away in the first two paragraphs. And by “the whole thing,” I mean “my own reductive interpretation of what the novel’s overarching meaning is.”

If the image isn’t already a bit of a cliche, it’s rapidly becoming one. It seems lifted from advertising targeted at Women of a Certain Age (basically, over 29), selling them the ultimate luxury of just getting to relax for a couple of hours. But it’s still a perfectly concise way of establishing the whodunnit as a guiltless pleasure.

The protagonist and narrator of the book has settled into her apartment on a rainy night, equipped with a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of Doritos, ready to read the manuscript for the latest in a line of formulaic murder mysteries. “What could be better?” she asks.

Our hero has every right to be jaded about this book, since she’s edited every book in the series, she’s got a contentious relationship with the author, and she spends her entire life immersed in a publishing industry that categorizes every book as either a trivial entertainment or a life-altering masterwork, with little in between. But she remains a fan. And being intimately aware of all the tricks and gimmicks doesn’t ruin the appeal of them, but adds to their charm and the pleasure of working out their puzzles.

When I was looking for book recommendations a while back, that kind of comfortable, familiar, and engaging reading-for-entertainment was what I was hoping to find, having exhausted all of Agatha Christie’s books (apart from the Miss Marple ones, which I never liked) back in high school. Reviews of Magpie Murders made it sound perfect: a pastiche of Christie and other’s traditional murder mysteries, from the author who created the Midsomer Murders TV series. All embedded in a clever meta-fiction, in which the mystery novel gives clues to solving a larger mystery in the “real world.”

Even the positive reviews of Magpie Murders tend to describe it terms of pastiche or mimicry, and the novel would’ve been a virtuoso achievement even if it had been just that. The book changes voice seamlessly and effortlessly, not just between characters and not just between styles of writing, but between different qualities of writing. Trying to mimic both a pretentious and self-important author and a well-meaning but talentless writer is to me the literary equivalent of an actor doing a character with an accent trying to mimic another character with an accent, all through a ventriloquist dummy. But Horowitz fearlessly adopts different voices for entire passages, on top of including clues and red herrings for multiple murder mysteries, and an additional layer of anagrams, acrostics, puns, and allusions throughout.

And because the book is a murder mystery narrated by a character who edits murder mysteries, Horowitz frequently draws attentions to the book’s gimmicks and puzzles and explains how they work, but somehow, they still work. It’s much like a magician who explains sleight of hand and misdirection to the audience, and then immediately pulls off the trick anyway.

But as impressive as Magpie Murders is just as a smart and confident recreation of traditional murder mysteries, I think there’s an additional layer to it: a recurring assertion that there doesn’t need to be an additional layer to it.

It’s a love letter to mid-century murder mysteries, but it’s also a self-aware defense of them that rarely comes across as self-aware or defensive. Horowitz acknowledges all the tropes and criticisms and limitations of the genre, either directly or indirectly. Then, he asserts that those criticisms are either irrelevant or miss the point entirely, because they underestimate the skill and artistry that goes into writing a good murder mystery and why they’re so beloved by their audiences. They needn’t be life-altering works with profound insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t make them pointless garbage, either.

Part of what impresses me is that it could’ve all gone so horribly. Descriptions of Magpie Murders make it sound like the literary equivalent of the Scream movies: deconstructions of a genre that still work as well-executed and entertaining examples of the genre. As much as I love the Scream movies, they are full of that late-90s self-aware pointlessness, not really saying much about horror movies apart from “we get it.” The only gratuitously self-aware bit in Magpie Murders is the repeated reference to Midsomer Murders, which comes across half as Horowitz’s wink at the reader and half as an acknowledgement that he’s aware of the similarity in the titles but it’s given that title for a reason.

The story-within-a-story gimmick the Scream movies introduced with Stab in the sequels took the self-awareness even further, and it’s the perfect example of something clever from the 90s that now seems insufferable. It’s a defensive crutch, more concerned with letting the audience know that they’re in on the joke than with saying anything meaningful. But I don’t get any sense of condescension in Magpie Murders to the Atticus Pünd half of the story; if anything, the book feels like a love letter to that type of story written by an unapologetic fan.

The examples of “bad” writing in Magpie Murders are used in a subtly but significantly different way. One example of clunky an amateurish writing isn’t mocked, but instead is given some amount of sympathy from our professional editor protagonist, who suggests that writing talent is less of an innate gift and more of a skill. The other passage get a much harsher treatment, because it’s a pretentious and overblown attempt to mimic an “important” writer, written by someone who’s sneeringly dismissive of murder mysteries as trite and pointless. It seems to have little sympathy for the affectations of authors striving to make Great Art. Instead, the entire novel has a recurring theme praising the virtues of well-organized, readable, and accessible fiction.

At the beginning of the book, Ryeland (who seems to be speaking for Horowitz here, at least) acknowledges the life-changing power of books — but she includes Never Let Me Go and Atonement along with the Harry Potter novels, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and 1984. Some led the reader to a profound insight, some had cultural significance, and some were considered just popular entertainment but still had a huge impact on readers’ lives. It’s a rejection of the idea that the power of a book consists entirely of what a great author embeds within it. It says that the real power of a book is the result of a combination of author, a moment in time, and a reader’s interpretation.

Granted, all of that is itself a reductive interpretation from someone who’s always hated the Art vs Entertainment argument. Several times over the years — too many times — I’ve gotten in arguments with people who use “entertaining” or “a fun read” with a dismissive sneer, and who insist that a work has to be “challenging” to have any merit, and that accessibility is mutually exclusive of importance or significance. I say that art is ultimately communication (even if the idea being communicated is “interpret this for yourself”), and I’ve got little patience for pretense and artifice. So I might be reading too much into this overarching theme of taking the hot air of literary snobs. Even if that’s the case, I think Magpie Murders still stands out as an ingenious and expertly-written example of detective fiction.

Even though I did totally predict the murderer right away. Which leads me into a final couple of observations which are in mild spoiler territory. Please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve finished Magpie Murders.

First: all the focus on anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues has left me with the nagging feeling that there’s an additional layer to the book that I’ve missed and am too dense to pick up on. I purposefully read without trying too hard to solve the puzzle in advance, and I definitely don’t have the patience to go back and look for more anagrams or common themes in the names of characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be found in “New Game+” mode.

Second: I loved that the elaborate years-long puzzle throughout the series of books was revealed not as a momentous stroke of genius, but a vulgar prank by a snob who died unsatisfied because he was never able to appreciate his actual talent. It rises above the whole argument and leaves literary snobs to their own insecure futility.

Third: There seem to be a couple of threads that were left hanging; I’m fine with them being red herrings, but I wish there were a definitive resolution to them. And if there was a definitive resolution, I was too dense to pick up on it. Is there more to Andreas’s past at the school? What was in the photos that were mentioned and dismissed by the “real” vicar’s wife? Is there any significance to the fact that Conway created pseudonyms for so many characters but left the name Jack Dartford unchanged? What about the mentions of pedophilia that never get a follow-up? Is there an additional significance to the final paragraph, or is it just a metaphor? In the beginning of the book, Ryeland says that real life doesn’t offer all the tidy endings that fiction does, but this is also a book in which the villain sits quietly while the protagonist explains the whole sequence of events, so….

Fourth: I’m happy with my interpretation of the book as being a celebration and defense of reading murder mysteries gleefully and unapologetically without being concerned about their literary merit. But I also appreciate that the last paragraph adds “…in moderation.” Horowitz seems to suggest that he doesn’t want Ryeland getting so wrapped up in fiction that she neglects to live her life. Ultimately, he seems to acknowledge the value of a great book but treats the publishing industry as shallow and self-important.

Virtual Reality Check

I bought an Oculus Rift S, and now you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Back in 2016, I became a convert and likely insufferable evangelist for virtual reality after someone let me try out the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. At the time, I was completely enamored with Valve’s The Lab and the seemingly endless potential for immersive experiences made possible by dropping you into a world that completely surrounds you. I wasn’t one of those super-early adopters who bought the Rift development kits, but what I lacked in timing, I made up for in enthusiasm.

I took to VR headsets like Mr. Toad took to motor cars. Which means that over the last few years, I’ve tried all of the major commercially-available ones, and I’ve wasted disposable income on several of them. So I’ve got opinions, and I think they’re reasonably well-informed. Here’s my take on the current state of things:

  • VR isn’t just a fad that’s already gone the way of 3D Televisions. For about as long as I’ve been interested in VR, people have been declaring that VR was “dead” or at best, that it had no future in gaming and entertainment. The most common comparison that people made was to 3D televisions, which TV manufacturers tried to convince us were an essential part of the home theater of the future, but which just about completely disappeared within a few years. Even though interest has cooled a lot, I think it’s impossible for home VR to go away completely, simply because it still suggests so much potential for new experiences every time you put on a headset.
  • VR will remain a niche entertainment platform. That said, home VR as we know it today is never going to take over as The Next Big Thing, either. A few years ago, a lot of people were suggesting that VR headsets would become the new video game consoles, and therefore the bar for success would be an HMD to achieve PS4 or Xbox-level sales. That’s not going to happen. I’ve been pretty disappointed in the PSVR overall, but I think in terms of market positioning and ease of use and overall philosophy, it’s the one that most got it right — it’s an easy to use accessory for specialized experiences.
  • VR needs experiences designed for VR, and not just different presentation of existing games. For a while, I was starting to become convinced that VR had “flopped” since I almost never went through the effort of setting up and putting on the Vive or PSVR again, so they just sat collecting dust. When I was in the mood to play a game, I almost always went to the Switch, suggesting that The Future of Games Is Mobile and Accessible. But I think the real conclusion is that there are different experiences for different platforms, and the one-size-fits-all mentality of video games is a relic of the “console wars.” Not every type of game is going to work well in VR, and IMO the ones that do work exceptionally well in VR can only work well in VR. The comparison to 3D TVs is apt, since it shows that people thought of VR as a different way of presenting familiar content, but it’s actually an entirely new type of content. Altogether.
  • Stop trying to make “epic” VR happen. Related to that, I think a lot of people (including myself) assumed that the tipping point for VR adoption would come as soon as one of the big publishers made the VR equivalent of Skyrim or Halo: the huge, big-budget game that will incontrovertibly prove the viability of VR as an entertainment platform. But actually playing Skyrim or Fallout in VR turns out to be a drag, in some part because you can’t just lose hours to a game in VR without noticing. The fact that most VR experiences have been brief isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. The success of Beat Saber doesn’t mean that VR is a baby platform for stupid casuals, unless you’re a teenager on a message board. Instead, it means that we’re getting closer to finding out what kinds of short, dense experiences work inside a VR headset.
  • The biggest obstacle to VR is that it’s isolating and anti-social. I think it’s kind of ironic that one of the biggest investors in VR — and in fact the greatest chance for VR to reach wide adoption — is a social media company, since putting on a VR headset is about as anti-social as you can get. Sony had the right approach with their initial PSVR push, emphasizing it as the center of a social experience, but I think it ultimately came across as gimmicky and limited, like Wii Sports. Sometimes you want to shut the rest of the world out — I was surprised to see so many people touting the Oculus Go as perfect for media consumption, since I can’t imagine anything I’d want to do less than watch a movie with my sweaty face stuck against a computer screen. But I think the real key to longevity and wider adoption with VR will be a way to have that sense of immersion and isolation but still have a lifeline to the outside.
  • Ease of use and convenience are always preferable to “better” technology. Back in 2016, I was 100% on Team Vive, because it had the better tracking technology, and better technology meant better immersion, right? I’ve done an almost complete reversal on that. In practice, an easier experience beats a “better” experience every single time. I think the PSVR tracking is throw-the-controllers-across-the-room-in-frustration abysmal, and the display is disappointingly fuzzy and pixelated, but it still ended up getting more overall use than the HTC Vive, simply because it was more comfortable and easier to jump into. And I suspect I played more with the Oculus Quest in the first week after I owned it, than I’d spent over the entire past year with the Vive. I wouldn’t have thought it would be a huge difference being able to set up a play space in seconds as opposed to minutes, but just that one change made VR something I looked forward to again, instead of feeling like a burden. All the videos about haptic gloves or force feedback vests or two-way treadmills to guarantee a more immersive experience seem not just silly now, but almost counter-productive in how much they miss the point.
  • At the moment, the best headset is the Oculus Quest. It’s still a mobile processor, so it sacrifices a lot of the graphical flourishes that can make even “smaller” VR experiences cool. But being able to just pick the thing up and be playing a game within a minute is more significant than any other development. I have to say that Facebook/Oculus’s efforts to make it easier to jump in and more social when you are in, are just more appealing to me than anything else happening in VR.

Facebook has been holding its Oculus Connect event this week, and in my opinion the biggest announcement by far was that the Oculus Quest —their wireless, standalone headset with a mobile processor — would soon be able to connect to a PC via a USB-C cable. That would essentially turn it into an Oculus Rift S, their wired, PC-based headset.

Full disclosure: I have to say that I was instrumental in bringing this change that made the Oculus Rift S functionally obsolete, since about a month ago, I bought an Oculus Rift S. I never expected Facebook to add a feature to one of its hardware platforms that would invalidate another of its hardware platforms, but then I’ve never really understood Facebook’s business model. And honestly, I’m kind of happy that I don’t.

But the end result is that if the technology works as described, it’ll be the best of both worlds for the Oculus Quest. You’ll still be able to have the just-pick-up-the-headset-and-start-playing experience for a lot of games. But on the occasions where you want to play a larger-scale game like No Man’s Sky, or if you’re just playing Moss and are sad at how bad the downgraded water looks when it’s so evocative on the PSVR, you can sacrifice mobility and ease of setup for higher fidelity and a bigger library.

And the other announcements — in particular, hand recognition so that there are some experiences that won’t require controllers at all; and the “Horizon” social platform that may finally make VR feel less isolating, if they get it right — are encouraging to me. I feel like the way towards wide adoption isn’t going to come from taking the most advanced technology and gradually making it more accessible, but from taking the most accessible technology and gradually making it more advanced.

And while I’m predicting the future (almost certainly incorrectly, since I think I was completely off in my predictions just three years ago): I think all the efforts that see AR and VR as competing or even different-but-complementary technologies are missing the point. I believe that the future isn’t going to look like VR or AR as they’re pitched today — putting on a headset that blinds you and has you start swinging wildly at imaginary monsters only you can see, or just projecting an existing type of mobile game onto a real-world table or showing a Pokemon on your living room table — but is going to be more like the immersive AR shown in the movie Her. People will need to be able to treat it as a continuum that goes from private to social, where they can shut out as much or as little of the outside world as they choose to at any given moment. And whether that’s an isolating dystopian future, or a magical one-world-united future, depends less on the technology itself and more on how we decide to use it.

Won’t Someone Think of the Phoenicians?!

Or, “If We Can Dream It, Then We Can Complain About It.” I am a middle-aged man who has strong opinions about Epcot.

Now that the D23 Expo is over, we’ve all got some more info about how Disney plans to restructure Epcot, and out of all the news, the single thing that surprises me the most is how angry I’m not.

I’ll be the first person to concede that I tend to be a Disney apologist, but I’m also super-possessive of everything about the parks, and I’ll complain loudly to anyone who’ll listen when I don’t like a change. But yesterday I found out that one of my favorite places on Earth since I was a teenager is going to be effectively destroyed, and my reaction was, “Cool. Let’s see what they come up with to replace it.”

I got the D23 news not from the Disney blogs or YouTube channels like usual, but from watching the Instagram feed of theme park reporter Carlye Wisel. I think she’s great — funny, honest, opinionated, and clearly passionate about theme parks, while still able to acknowledge it’s kind of a weird, niche specialty, but insisting that that doesn’t make it any less valid — and anyone interested in theme parks should be following her and reading her articles. While I found myself disagreeing with her take on the changes, specifically the changes coming to Spaceship Earth, I had the unsettling realization that a generational shift had happened.

Wisel talks about the current version of Spaceship Earth — narrated by Judi Dench and ending with cutout versions of your future and thanking the Phoenicians for the alphabet — as if it’s the definitive one. Whereas I, a sophisticate, recognize that the One True Version of the ride is the one hosted by Jeremy Irons.

Or really, the One True Version is the version of the ride that’s in my head. Which is, like the model of Disneyland at the end of the Walt Disney Family Museum, a fantastic version that never actually existed, but is an amalgamation of decades’ worth of changes and embellishments. It’s mostly narrated by Judi Dench; has a brightly-lit version of the scene where cavemen hunted the mammoth; the classic animation of the chariot on an infinite loop leaving Rome; the black woman computer programmer from the current version; the kids speaking to each other from opposite sides of the world in realtime-translated English and Japanese on the descent; and most of all, the space shuttle and astronaut floating over the projection of Earth at the top, this time narrated by Walter Cronkite and set to a majestic soundtrack that makes me tear up every time I see it.

I absolutely sympathize with anyone who’s upset that something they love from Epcot is going to be changed or destroyed. At several times over the past 30 years, I’ve been that person. In fact, whenever I’ve visited the park over the past several years, I’ve realized that almost everything I love about Epcot is wrapped up in nostalgia. For the World of Motion, and the Dreamfinder and Figment, and the rainbow tunnel, and the Communicore, and the roller-coaster-building touchscreens, and the hydrolators, and the Tapestry of Nations parade, and visiting with my family, and my early teen years. It’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t exist anymore.

So the current incarnation of Spaceship Earth has long felt like a stopgap to me, a retrofit of a retrofit. A ride that was initially sponsored by a communications company to have a specific message, but has been retooled and repurposed so often that it now has to act as a stand-in for everything that Future World used to be.

But everything in Future World now feels like a stand-in for what it used to be. As much as I love it, the park has been long overdue for an overhaul. When we visited in February, I watched the Reflections of Earth show twice, and I cried like I was at a funeral, mourning the death not just of a fireworks show, but of the feeling of optimism and globalism that the show — and the entire park at the turn of the millennium — celebrated. If Epcot in 1982 was the manifestation of an idea, then Spaceship Earth on one end and Illuminations on the other were the last surviving vestiges of that idea.

And that is part of why the plans for the new version of Epcot are encouraging to me. Disney is finally letting the other shoe drop, after letting it hang over everyone’s head for over a decade. They’re finally acknowledging that the version of the park that existed in the early 1980s, and even the version that existed in 2000, is gone. And I like that, not just because it feels like ripping off the Band-Aid once and for all, but because if it’s successful, Epcot will be able to “mean something” once again.

Early Epcot undeniably had a voice and a message, but it’d be revisionist history to claim that the voice and the message always worked. And Disney fans are experts at revisionist history. How else do you explain how Maelstrom instantly went from being one of the parks’ most ignored if not outright reviled rides, to being one of the most beloved, the moment it was announced that it was going to be replaced by a Frozen ride?

Within five years after Epcot opened, Disney had already found itself having to chip away at the “pure” Epcot experience. It had gotten a reputation for being boring, because some people thought it went too hard on the “edutainment” angle. Some guests didn’t want to go on 30-minute-long rides when on vacation, especially not ones that had didactic messages about technology or corporate sponsorships. All of the attractions hit the same one note of a middle-of-the-road Carousel of Progress-type experience; there was little for small children to do, and there were no thrill rides. And almost everyone, not just Michael Eisner, wanted to see more of the characters.

The new proposed changes are obviously and undeniably an attempt to retrofit the entire theme park to drag a concept from 1982 into 2020, while trying to make it seem it’s been that way the whole time. But Disney’s been updating the park practically since it opened, and sometimes it’s worked. Sometimes WDI has had a very practical goal to fulfill — like maintaining a General Motors sponsorship and making a family-friendly thrill ride that’s still educational — and they pull it off so brilliantly that I can’t even be mad that it replaced my previous favorite attraction at Epcot.

But then other times, they make “Journey Into YOUR Imagination.” If Spaceship Earth is the icon of Epcot, then the Imagination pavilion is its heart. Or more accurately, the haunted painting it keeps in the attic. I purposely avoid finding out too much about the internal goings-on of Disney or the rumors around project development, preferring to let the parks just speak for themselves. But at least from my perspective as an outsider and frequent guest, it seems that throughout the history of the park, if you wanted to see the overall state of Epcot, you could just look at the state of the Imagination pavilion.

When it opened, it was a bridge between the Magic Kingdom/Disneyland and Epcot. One one side, it was the attraction most like a traditional dark ride, with a cute cartoon character, a song from the Sherman Brothers, and a queue reminiscent of “it’s a small world.” On the other side, it was part of the “voice” of Epcot, based on an abstract concept, intended to be as informative as it was entertaining, using original characters with no ties to an existing property, encompassed by a corporate sponsorship that defined the pavilion’s overall “message,” and being part of an hour-long experience instead of just the 12-minute-long ride.

And over the next decade or so, it aged like the rest of the park: eventually becoming a dark ride representation of 1982 Epcot whose original “message” had gotten diluted. Either from the loss or change of a sponsor, or updating part of the pavilion without touching the ride, or bringing in elements that were no longer unique to Epcot.

Finally, Disney essentially sacrificed Figment to the spirit of the 1990s. The company was trying to counter the popular conception that Disney was childish and dated, and they hadn’t yet learned how to spin that into a positive by calling it “classic” and “timeless.” They chose to get rid of everything that made the pavilion unique to Epcot, instead going for a cartoonishly simple-minded attempt at “corporate synergy” by tying it into the Honey I Shrunk the Kids franchise. And they did it all under a ridiculously constrained budget.

(Which is the one aspect of Disney I still just don’t understand at all. Every parks project in the US is hit by budget constraints that bafflingly persist no matter whether the company is doing gangbusters or is in a financial downturn. Even though they’ve seen in the Tokyo parks that putting money into the parks pays off with massive attendance. I don’t get it).

That was received so poorly that they tried to course-correct to the current version, which is a representation of the state of how Epcot’s been more or less limping along in the new millennium. It’s pretty much summed up in the new name “Journey Into Imagination With Figment.” They’re eager to try and appease fans by adding back the stuff they think fans love: the dragon mascot and a catchy song. It’s more or less well-intentioned, but it’s soulless. It’s a patch fix that tries to fix the surface problems, but ignores the core problem, which is that the pavilion no longer has a message or a voice. It’s now just a dated ride and a children’s play area.

The changes to Epcot as presented at D23 — even though they don’t mention Imagination at all, which is a little troubling — make me optimistic that they’ve finally recognized the problems from the last two refurbs. They’re not just acknowledging but embracing the history of the park (because they can sell merchandise to nostalgic fans like me, for a win-win!), so they’re unlikely to just throw everything out for the sake of a movie tie-in. But they’re not hamstrung by the history of the park or beholden to preserving it exactly, since the legacy of the park isn’t just its characters or songs, but its ideas.

So the names they’ve proposed — World Nature, World Discovery, and World Celebration to retroactively fit in with the existing World Showcase — are clunky, but people don’t use the Disney-branded themed names for things in practice, anyway. The role they serve is to pitch an idea: it’s no longer a somewhat-awkward mashup of an 80s Tomorrowland plus a permanent World’s Fair, but it’s a single cohesive whole. And what I think is the most ingenious part: they took what could’ve been a crass and soulless attempt to “Disney-fy” an obstinately high-minded theme park, and instead made it work by going back to the original acronym and presenting it as a true “Community of Tomorrow.” The sections aren’t called “lands” but “neighborhoods.” The attractions aren’t trying to educate (which people on vacation tend to resist) or to accurately predict the future (which has been proven multiple times to be futile in a theme park setting), but are meant to celebrate human achievement and shared experiences, which is traditionally one of Disney’s core strengths.

I’m also optimistic because I’ve seen this approach work before. I already mentioned Test Track — they kept almost none of the surface details of the original World of Motion, but they kept the overall theme, and significantly, its tone. The refurb had an updated sense of humor that worked perfectly (and which, unfortunately, was entirely drained out of the current version).

Disney has also gotten better at putting IP into the parks while keeping it feeling intentional and natural, instead of awkwardly shoved into otherwise original experiences. The Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout ride is absurdly fun and an improvement on the DCA version of Tower of Terror (which was itself an attempt to copy an “original” idea but do it on the cheap) in every conceivable way. And Cars land and Pandora take two licenses that I really don’t care about at all, and manage to make fun and interesting experiences out of them even for non-fans.

This article about the changes to Epcot and the other parks, written by Todd Martens in the LA Times, talks about fans’ concerns that stuff original and unique to the parks is being shoved out in favor of experiences based on other properties and copied in multiple parks throughout the world. It’s a tension that’s been going on for a while — even (especially?) I have been guilty of lamenting that original stuff like The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain, is falling out of favor. But I think the most telling quote in that article is from a guest who’s worried about Figment and “The Three Caballeros,” which the article acknowledges was already a case of Disney adding an existing property to an original ride concept. I love the Grand Fiesta Tour (the name of the new version of the ride), I think it’s another improvement over the original in every way, and it’s a perfect example of how they’re able to add existing properties to the parks and make it feel seamless and natural. I’d hate to see the company abandon original concepts completely, but I also think it’s a mistake for us to be too precious about the evils of IP. It’s been part of the parks since Walt called it Sleeping Beauty Castle, Imagineering is doing a better and better job of incorporating it and making it feel natural, and it’s been a tension for so long that there are likely dozens of people working in the company now who grew up wanting to see it done right.

And finally, I’ve already seen a similar transition take place not just within a single ride, but across an entire park. Animal Kingdom started out as a too-hot half-day park, where there was little to do apart from a 30-minute long traumatic Safari ride and be endlessly harangued about the evils of poaching while you were just trying to enjoy your vacation. Now, it’s one of my favorite parks in the world. It started out with a voice, a commitment to original and unique experiences, a rejection of IP as much as possible, and an insistence on “purity” of the experience, for lack of a better word. And I don’t feel that any of its integrity was sacrificed as over the years, its voice was softened and made less strident, and it was allowed to relax.

So yeah, I think I’m cautiously optimistic about the new Epcot. I appreciate that they’re spending a year pandering to — I mean pleasing the fans who grew up with the park, re-releasing attraction posters and park icons and a “limited time” fireworks show that promises to use all the old songs. (And which means I have to book another trip to Florida within the next year). But even more than that, I appreciate that they seem to be committing to a genuine “re-imagining” of the park, forgoing quick fixes in favor of making everything fit into a cohesive theme. And I have to say it’s a relief to be once again optimistic about a place that was always supposed to be about optimism.

Just don’t mess with the mural outside Spaceship Earth, please.

The mural at the entrance to Spaceship Earth, which could totally be about the history of storytelling and not just the history of communication, so hands off.

10% Chance of Soft Rains

Reading The Martian Chronicles in 2019 feels wonderfully transgressive and optimistic, and is the best example of Ray Bradbury’s genius that I’ve read so far.

I just finished reading The Martian Chronicles as a 48-year-old man in 2019. Or, it seems appropriate to point out, I had it read to me by my global internetwork-connected smart phone connected to my half-electric car as I drove on an interstate highway to my job helping to make computer software for virtual reality headsets.

The reason I point all that out is to acknowledge that the book is so well-known and highly-regarded at this point that I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it, except the accident of timing means I can say what it feels like to read now. (I’d read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” probably the best known of the book’s stories, as a teenager). The events of the book are due to start about a decade from now.

At least, it’ll start a decade from now according to the edition I read. Apparently, the original started in the 20th century’s favorite year for science fiction, 1999. Which was in reality a dud, seeing as how we didn’t start settling Mars, the moon did not escape from Earth orbit, and the sky didn’t even turn all purple, nor were there people running everywhere. Instead, to those of us in the United States, it just meant the Y2K scare and school shootings, or in other words the combination of dull stupidity and cyclical horror that have pretty much defined the 21st century so far.

In retrospect, just the act of pushing the dates of the novel back seems like an optimistic move. It’s like hitting the snooze bar on human advancement, confident that in just another 30 years, we’ll have gotten our shit together enough to be able to realize the kind of dystopian future people imagined in 1950.

Reading the book in 2019, that sense of optimism and faith is the part that feels the most curiously dated. More than all of the analog technology, or the belief in the coming ubiquity of rocket-based travel, or the casual assertion of breathable atmosphere on Mars, or blue sand or canals. Bradbury asserts in the forward that it’s not a work of science fiction. It quickly becomes clear that Bradbury has no interest in futurism, either, as the book remains un-self-consciously locked in a perpetual 1950. Not just in technology but in society: attempts at humor are steadfastly in same school as The Honeymooners or The Flintstones, women are flighty and gossipy and look to their husbands for assurance, and American exceptionalism extends to space. The Martian Chronicles is a story about America, and humans’ attempts to turn Mars not into a New Earth but specifically a New America.

For the most part, though, it’s charming and wonderful. In “The Silent Towns,” the attitude finally overwhelms everything else, and the attempt to be light-hearted instead comes across as misogynistic, fat-phobic, and mean-spirited. But for the rest, it’s a kind of benign chauvinism that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing.

It’s undoubtedly a vision of a world dominated by white American men (saying “straight” is irrelevant here, since it’s a universe where non-straight people don’t even exist), but it’s not the stupid version we’re surrounded by today, full of people wallowing in willful ignorance, taking their refusal to acknowledge their own biases and blind spots to a ridiculously absurd extreme. Bradbury writes about the pioneer spirit without forgetting to acknowledge everything that the pioneers helped destroy.

Actually, much of the book reminded me of Epcot. I’m not sure if that’s because I know of Bradbury’s involvement with Spaceship Earth, or just my pathological need to associate everything with Disney parks, but whatever the case, it was a wonderful sense of nostalgia for a feeling of optimism that everyone seems to have abandoned. The Martian Chronicles isn’t too concerned that Mars doesn’t actually have canals or a breathable atmosphere; it’s just an inconvenience that can be overcome not with any particular technology but with pure human ingenuity.

So reading the book in 2019 felt almost transgressive. It was a break from the faux Progressives who’ve introduced a kind of New Puritanism, which would insist we focus on the “problematic” in the work instead of appreciating the beauty of its intent. The Fahrenheit 451-esque story “Usher II” felt as depressingly relevant now as it probably did when the Hays Code and HUAC were still fresh in memory. Resisting my first impulse to dismiss the stories as dated because of their antiquated technology, or their chauvinistic or sexist assumptions, meant that I was able to appreciate the universal insights that Bradbury was exploring. Unlike, for example, The Illustrated Man, which felt more fixated with Twilight Zone twists than universal experiences.

I think the story in The Martian Chronicles called “The Musicians” perfectly captures the tension that makes this book transcendent, and in fact the qualities that make Bradbury’s work such masterpieces. The story is about a bunch of Earth boys desecrating the corpses of Martians in their dead cities — Martians who were more or less murdered by humans, in fact — and Bradbury somehow makes it simultaneously a lamentation of the tragic needless loss of life, and a pitch-perfect celebration of boyhood in America. It loses nothing because of its lack of diversity; in fact, it’s that specificity that makes it universal. Bradbury so wonderfully understands that very specific experience that he recreates it perfectly. Even for those of us who spent our childhoods mostly indoors and afraid of breaking the rules.

Bradbury’s ability to perfectly convey how something can be simultaneously horrible and beautiful, sinister and nostalgic, and joyful and tragic, is beautifully realized throughout this book. Yes, much of the book is about Americans and the optimism of the pioneers, but ultimately it’s about how civilizations rise and fall and will continue to do so for eternity. He can write about the wonderful comfort and serenity of life in small-town America while simultaneously acknowledging what had to be destroyed for it to come about, how fragile it is and susceptible to corruption, and how it will inevitably fall to ruin, just as every wonderfully comfortable and serene world must.

That unshakeable faith in the inevitable death that leads to the inevitable rebirth imbues the entire book with an optimism that I hadn’t even noticed had disappeared. I can now recognize so many more familiar things in “There Will Come Soft Rains” than when I first read it. I have the lights in my home scheduled to turn themselves on and off, and appliances programmed to make me coffee, and devices by the bed to answer my questions, and of course my complete reliance on the handheld pocket computer that was so alien that Bradbury’s stories didn’t even speculate on it.

But even as darkly sinister as that story is, it still has faith in a world that will survive us. Bradbury’s stories mention an Earth that maxes out at around two billion people, where the devices controlling the house aren’t all aggressively corporate-driven and designed to have us consume even more than we can keep on reserve, and where nuclear warfare is the worst we could possibly do to the world. Even as Bradbury wrote about callous Earth men tossing garbage into the Martian canals, he seemed to see the damage it did more as disrespect than active destruction. He captured the risk of our destroying each other, but underestimated our desire to take as much of the Earth with us as possible.

So maybe we should take comfort in “The Green Morning,” where Bradbury conjures Johnny Appleseed to describe how humans can create an atmosphere on Mars with a combination of American tenacity and Martian magic. If Bradbury can make me vividly remember my boyhood in small-town mid-century America that I never actually had, maybe we can use that tenacity and optimism to stave off the collapse of our civilization for at least another thousand years or so.

Una cosa que me encanta de Los Espookys

Los Espookys on HBO is weird and brilliant and I already miss it, even though it’s not over yet

Los Espookys is a comedy series on HBO about a group of four weird friends in some unspecified Latin American country, who stage real-life horror scenes for their various weird clients. Even if you don’t have HBO, you can watch the first episode on YouTube.

I’ve read a bunch of articles and reviews trying to explain why the show’s so surprisingly fun and charming, but I don’t think any of them really nail it. And neither will this blog post, because it’s practical inexplicable. It’s the best weird concept for a comedy I’ve seen since The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, and it’s probably the surprisingly funniest series I’ve seen since 30 Rock, and it’s somehow more impressive than both because it plays simultaneously to both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences. Which leads into the thing I’m picking as One Thing I Like About Los Espookys:

There’s a scene in the third episode where Andrés’s (Jose Torres) handsome but awful boyfriend asks “will you marry me?” and Andrés responds with a hilariously perfect expression that he later describes as “I said maybe with my eyes.” It’s great first of all because it’s perfect for Andrés’s character. He has a perpetual expression that’s a combination of being haunted by his dark mysterious past and annoyed to the point of he can’t even.

Even more than that, though, it’s a moment that’s hilarious but that doesn’t depend on language. Very little of the comedy in Los Espookys is wordplay or referential humor, since everything has to work for people relying on the subtitles as well as people who understand Spanish. Still, the dialogue is often hilarious, but more from stringing absurd ideas together. There isn’t a lot of slapstick, either, although there is some — like the best comedies, Los Espookys is constantly jumping across the lines between cerebral and silly. Because it’s not dependent on being “too Spanish” or “too American,” the humor is more universal.

I read an interview with Torres in which he downplays concerns about trying to sell a show predominantly in Spanish to an American audience, simply by pointing out that he grew up in El Salvador watching American programming with Spanish subtitles, and he handled it fine. That sensibility seems to drive everything about the series: it doesn’t feel the need to sacrifice any of its voice (literally or figuratively) to cater to an English-speaking audience, or in fact any kind of “mainstream” audience.

It doesn’t assume American by default; it’s conceived by people who grew up in Latin American cultures, and it’s adamantly about aspects of that culture — B-movie horror, ever-present Catholicism, copyright-infringing knock-off chocolate companies (a detail that I’d never heard of before but Torres asserts is common) — but is in no way an “intro to Latin America.” It really doesn’t feel as if it’s made for either audience; it’s universal. Or at least universal among people who like weird humor, and who pick up shared references to exorcisms, alien abductions, inheritance scares, and that thing where someone is sucked into a bed and falls through the ceiling to land on the bed again.

I also like that scene because it’s a gay marriage proposal in a universe where nobody treats being gay as all that exceptional. So far it seems like two of the main characters are queer and one seems to be asexual, but it’s just an aspect of their character and not any kind of plot point. In fact, there’s a moment when Andrés’s boyfriend tells him “good luck finding another gay guy,” and it seemed jarring, because until then no one had even seemed to acknowledge that they were a gay couple.

There’s just a sense of confidence and fearlessness throughout Los Espookys that makes it seem like true 21st century multicultural comedy with its own unique voice. And it refuses to do anything that would compromise that voice. It doesn’t tell you that it’s some kind of cultural bridge between English- and Spanish-speaking audiences, it doesn’t over-explain its gags, it doesn’t try to justify its weirdness. It just feels like a smart, goofy show that only tries to be funny; all of its multicultural and multilingual significance is something it says with its eyes.

Postcards from Batuu

Photos from an excellent birthday trip to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland

No Toy Left Hanging

Toy Story 4 is my favorite in the series, a perfect farewell to the characters and the more satisfying conclusion I didn’t know I needed.

I can’t write a “One Thing I Love About Toy Story 4” blog post, because I loved pretty much everything about it. If I were forced to pick one thing, it might be how if you stay to the very end of the credits, that one commando action figure finally gets his high five.

One thing I see consistently in reviews is that Toy Story 4 isn’t “necessary,” that the third entry was a perfect conclusion, and the additional installment is well-made but superfluous at best. I disagree. I think it actually reveals what was missing from Toy Story 3, which is something I didn’t notice at the time: that movie didn’t actually complete its main characters’ stories, but instead just left them hanging indefinitely in stasis.

I dug up my thoughts about Toy Story 3 that I wrote right after seeing it for the first time, and I still stand by most of it. (Even though part of it I have to stand by with clenched teeth and an explanation later in this post). The part where I was wrong was stating that Pixar had taken characters I’d assumed would just go on existing in perpetuity, and given them a story arc.

I interpreted the main message of Toy Story 3 as an allegory about growing up: acknowledging the things that we love from our childhood, and moving on with memories of them as important parts of our lives, instead of just abandoning them. Maybe it was the fact that I spent the last 15 minutes or so of that movie just in heaving, ugly, sobs, but I never noticed that the only character really given a conclusion to their story arc was Andy. But the Toy Story series was never really about Andy; it was always in one way or another about Woody.

The series started with a neurotic toy consumed with anxiety that he was no longer a child’s favorite. As of about nine years ago, it ended with that neurotic toy learning to let go — before immediately going right back to an unhealthily dependent relationship on another child. If it were an allegory for parenthood and empty nest syndrome, it seemed to say that the only cure for feeling sad your children are leaving for college is to have another kid ASAP.

Which might help explain why I could never find fault with Toy Story 3, but I still never felt like I loved it and never had much desire to see it again. (I honestly can’t remember if I ever saw it that second time). The ending is spectacularly, relentlessly, emotional, but I don’t think it felt cathartic. And I wonder if that could be subconsciously because it just leaves its characters locked for eternity in a nightmarish purgatory of sublimating their own desires out of fear of abandonment from a callous child who will inevitably abandon them.

I’m only exaggerating a little. The premise of the franchise is that toys are imbued with life when children play with them, but to some extent, Pixar has spent decades treating them less like characters who’ve come to life, and more like inanimate objects they can pull out of storage every few years to put together into a new sequence of emotional moments.

The “When She Loved Me” song in Toy Story 2 was the emotional core of the movie, but after getting used to reinforce Woody’s anxiety in the third movie, and then used as a plot device in Toy Story of Terror, it soon started to feel like “chronic fear of abandonment” is the only aspect of Jessie’s character. By the fourth movie, it’s become full-on PTSD, as Jessie starts to hyperventilate at the thought of being left in a closet. At the time, it seemed weirdly out of place in tone. (And for all I know, it could be the result of multiple rewrites of that scene from different creative teams). But when put in the context of the rest of the movie, it feels like an attempt to take all the more sinister ideas of the franchise and treat them as aspects of real characters instead of just gags.

I liked that Toy Story 4 took a lot of the same core components of the last two movies, and then started asking new questions about them. Do we have to see our villains humiliated and/or tortured, or can we get an even more satisfying resolution by acknowledging that our villains are motivated by the exact same anxieties as our main characters? Has Woody been turned into Pixar’s Mickey Mouse, i.e. stripped of the flaws and neuroses that made him an actual character, and turned into just a blandly wholesome protagonist for whatever random story they decide to tell next? At what point have we invested enough into these toy characters that they have stories of their own? (And also, are ventriloquist dummies “toys?” And can they talk without a person controlling them?)

One of the most memorable moments in the first movie is Woody asserting to Buzz, “You are a toy. A child’s plaything.” It’s satisfying to see the series saying now, after so many years, that it’s not as simple as that. We can define ourselves instead of letting other people tell us what we are.

Which leads into the other part of my old post about Toy Story 3, where I agree-but-with-significant-caveats:

That’s the main reason I don’t see any merit in the common complaint that Pixar movies haven’t had female lead characters — Pixar doesn’t need to be making movies to order or to fill some sort of quota; they need to keep making movies that feel honest.

It’s gross that I inadvertently used the same language that mens rights activists and other bigots often do, and especially awkward considering the issues that the studio has gone through, but I have to say I haven’t changed my mind since 2009. That’s definitely not to say I’m against more diverse representation and better roles for female characters, because that would be trivially stupid. But at the time, the arguments about representation in Toy Story 3 were frustratingly reductive and simplistic. Reviews at the time were reducing it to a zero-sum situation, in which it was impossible to call for more women’s voices without faulting Toy Story 3 for not being given a female protagonist. Instead of actually calling for diversity, they were holding one movie as somehow responsible for decades of male-dominated stories. Like so many things on the internet, it was in danger of devolving into self-parody, like The Onion’s “Chinese Laundry Owner Blasted for Reinforcing Negative Ethnic Stereotypes.”

Toy Story 4 just feels more inclusive, and it does so organically, whether it was actually organic behind the scenes or not. And the character of Bo Peep is so well developed and well handled (and excellently voiced!) that it puts the question to rest more effectively than a billion different think pieces could. They took a character who existed pretty much solely for Woody to have a girlfriend, and turned her into not just a bad-ass but the emotional core of this entire film (if not the entire series)! Plus at Disneyland last weekend, I saw they were selling toy versions of Bo Peep’s staff, so everybody’s happy (apart from the chuckleheads who get overly invested in the gender of cartoon characters of toys).

More diverse casts and more diverse creative teams make for more interesting characters; it’s just that simple. And I like that Pixar chose to show instead of tell. What makes it especially satisfying is that it’s not just an obvious transformation from “hand-wavingly feminine” character to “infallible bad-ass,” either. The message, both implicit and explicit, is that you can be whatever you want to be.

And the feeling of inclusiveness goes beyond gender. I’ve loved most of the Pixar movies, but even among my favorites there’s been something “othering” about them. They’re “family movies” in the literal sense, which is that they’re pretty adamant about the importance of having a particular type of family. Underneath every one there seems to be a voice whispering from Emeryville, saying this isn’t really for you, because you don’t have children. Even when they show non-traditional families, it seems as if the universe of the story aligns to provide surrogates for all the traditional roles, so they can feel “proper” again by the time the movie concludes. I’m skeptical that it’s at all intentional, but it still feels like I’m not their target audience and never will be.

For the first time, Toy Story 4 seems to present a world in which two-heterosexual-parent, one-child families exist, and they’re not they only option available. You can be single if you want. You can choose to have a kid or not. You get to decide whether you’re trash or not. The movie doesn’t put a value judgment on anything except letting other people define what’s right for you.

It’s kind of a subtle thing, but it was just so nice to feel like I wasn’t just enjoying someone else’s movie, but I was actually being rewarded with a movie that I loved and was made big enough to include me. And it was nice to see Woody plucked out of limbo, turned into a real live character, and rewarded with an actual conclusion to a genuine story arc that leaves him in a different place than where he started.

One Thing I Love About Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run

The new Millennium Falcon ride at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland reminded me a lot of the source of all dark side evil on Dagobah, but in a good way.

There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Yoda’s daring Luke to go into this dark side cave they found, and Luke asks what’s inside the cave, and Yoda says “only what you take with you.” That came to mind when I was trying to think of how to concisely sum up the new Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland: at least at this stage, you get out of it what you put into it.

I mean, not literally. Thousands of people have spent countless hours and countless dollars to build this place and make it perfect, twice. It’s not as if Disney just puts you in a black room and tells you to think about Star Wars. But more than any other Disney experience I’ve had (even including Disney Quest!), Galaxy’s Edge felt less like being passively entertained and more as if it depended on my participation.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t overwhelmed by the whole thing. Considering what an emotional attachment I have to Star Wars, and especially after watching YouTube videos of fans losing their composure at the sight of the park (which I genuinely love), I expected that I’d be having some kind of breakdown as soon as I caught sight of an A-Wing or the full-size Millennium Falcon. Once I saw it in person, though, I was too removed from it to be overwhelmed.

Part of that was because of the crowds — although Disney did a remarkable job at crowd control, we were still in a pack of at least a thousand other Star Wars fans being shuffled from one line to another. Part of it was because I’d been watching so many videos that there was little left to surprise me. And part of it was the disappointment at having made a reservation to get in the land but still being turned away from the Cantina and the light saber experience. But I also believe it was intentional in the design; it’s more interested in creating a sense of place than a sensory overload.

Galaxy’s Edge seems to be an extension of a design philosophy that’s been prevalent in Disney parks for the last couple of decades — from Animal Kingdom, to areas like the New York Waterfront in Tokyo DisneySea, to Cars Land at California Adventure. The idea focuses on making a fictional place that feels real, instead of a collection of a bunch of themed elements. One of the best examples is comparing the China pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase to the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. The former takes a bunch of architectural, cultural, and conceptual highlights from all around China and combines them into one place, to act as a kind of fantastic tour of the country. The latter goes all in on creating a fictional kingdom of Anandapur, located somewhere near Nepal or Tibet, trying to act like a highly detailed functional city that can serve as a kind of representative sample for a large section of Asia.

I’ve loved the Animal Kingdom approach for years, but it wasn’t until I saw it applied to Star Wars that I really appreciated a side effect of it: it sacrifices spectacle in favor of immersion. There are still bits of spectacle, of course: Anandapur has a beautiful camera spot set up with an altar to the Forbidden Mountain in the foreground and the mountain itself in the distance across a lake; and Galaxy’s Edge is designed so that multiple entry points all yield a gradual, cinematic reveal of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the lands are deliberately designed to look as if they haven’t been deliberately designed. You’re made to feel less like a visitor to a theme park and more like a street photographer; you’re not being explicitly shown what to look at, but pulling interesting details out of the environment.

(Which works especially well with Star Wars, since one of the most interesting aspects of Star Wars is how creatures and technology that are fantastic to the audience are seen as familiar or even ancient to the characters. The centerpiece of the land and its most obvious photo opportunity is something that multiple characters think of as “what a piece of junk.” So Batuu and the Black Spire Outpost can seem exotic to visitors but no big deal to the locals).

All of that background is relevant to Smuggler’s Run because it explains how the ride isn’t just an updated version of Star Tours. In that ride, you’re a passenger who’s riding along with someone else’s adventure. I think that never would’ve worked with Smuggler’s Run because getting into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon is all about wish fulfillment. It would’ve felt like a catastrophically missed opportunity to be in the ship and be forced to just watch passively.

And the interactivity isn’t like that of Men In Black or Buzz Lightyear or Toy Story Midway Mania, or any interactive ride I’ve seen before. In fact, it reminds me most of the Pirates of the Caribbean experience at Disney Quest. It’s cooperative instead of competitive, so your “score” is based on how well you work with the rest of the people on the ride with you. Which is the one thing I like the most about Smuggler’s Run.

A couple of friends posted an article by Robert Niles in the San Jose Mercury News giving his take on how the ride encourages cooperation. And while it was likely well-intentioned, it made me fear the worst. In particular, it made me fear getting stuck on the ride with someone like the writer, who took it upon himself to debrief his crew on how to correctly experience the ride, and whose key takeaway from the experience was how it was important to take control to guarantee the most successful outcome of the mission. Which made him sound completely insufferable.

I already dislike being forced to engage with strangers. I think that theme park designers frequently assume that guests are all going to be as extroverted as they are, so they design experiences that demand a certain level of audience participation. That’s bad enough, and when you add a layer of gameplay on top of that, it gets worse. Anybody who’s played enough cooperative board games, or gone through escape rooms, has encountered the type of person who appoints himself quarterback, telling everyone else how to “best” play the game. Niles’s article made it sound as if he were doing exactly that. It’s either spoiling the surprises of the ride for people who haven’t ridden before, or presuming to tell them that he understands the ride better than they do, and that what he wants out of it should be the same thing that they do. What’s the harm in “laughing as the whole thing comes crashing down?” That’s pretty much the entire premise of Star Tours, which has been beloved for decades. Suddenly I was anxious about getting stuck with someone who decided to tell me what to do, and my having to tell him to stay in his own lane and let me enjoy my damn vacation how I wanted to.

What actually happened, though, was the kind of “magical” interaction with strangers that is rare for those of us who are introverts. For our first ride, we were put into a group with four people who’d ridden before. I was assigned the engineer position, and I was a little disappointed because I’d already read reports that the pilot was by far the best experience on the ride, if not the only one worth doing at all. But as soon as they heard it was our first time on the ride, the other people on the ride offered to let us be the pilots, both so we could see it and so that they could try all the different positions. Once we got on board, they were cheering us on as pilots, clapping whenever the group accomplished something, gasping at stuff we hadn’t seen before, and generally making the whole ride feel like a big cooperative adventure.

We got to ride two more times that night. Each time felt as if the group energy brought as much to the ride as any of the visual effects. The second time was with a pretty quiet group of strangers (I believe they weren’t native English speakers), and I thought the experience was neat but unremarkable. The last time was with a couple of guys who’d been trying to ride with all the different roles, and we’d chatted a little bit in the waiting area while I was trying to get a picture at the chess table, and the ride felt more communal and fun.

Granted, this was during a period in which most everyone was seeing the land and the ride for the first time, and we’d all had to make reservations in advance, so it was a group of people predisposed to love everything Star Wars more than a representative sample of the public. Also, the reservation system meant that waits for the ride were rarely over 20 minutes, so we could ride multiple times and didn’t have too much investment in it. Maybe the dynamic will change once the flood gates open and people aren’t able to ride without a long wait, and then change once again after everyone has become familiar with the ride. (No doubt there will eventually be “min-maxers” who’ll be happy to coach you on how best to perform each role).

But for now at least, it’s a ride that takes one of my least favorite things — being forced to talk to strangers — and makes a magical, communal experience out of it. I hope to never be one of those people who tells people the “right” way to experience the ride, but I do know that the only “wrong” way is to expect it to be a sit-back, passive experience like Star Tours. In fact, I think the ride’s tendency to pull you away from facing forward and interact with buttons to your left and right isn’t a design flaw, but actually an element that encourages that kind of immersion. You can’t just sit back and watch. And that’s fine, because the point of the ride isn’t what’s on the screen, but what’s happening in your group.

One Thing I Love About “Stories of Your Life and Others”

I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy

From the movie Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life”, and also a billion memes

Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”

It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).

It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.

Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.

It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.

The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.

The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.

And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.

That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.

I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.

Pride* and Prejudices

Thinking about the meanings of “pride” and “queer” and the problem with living your life according to someone else’s standards.

On the first day of Pride Month, I woke up, checked my phone, and saw the thing that terrified me the most throughout my teens and twenties turned into pancakes and used to perpetuate global brand awareness. Which, I think, proves that the arc of social justice is long, and it bends towards ridiculousness.

This is a weird time to be alive and gay. It’s gone mainstream enough that it apparently doesn’t even register in terms of diversity, but it’s still not so mainstream that I can donate my blood. It’s a time when at least 75% of the people in my home city wouldn’t even consider my relationship to be anything unusual, while 75% of the people in my home state voted to make it so that I could never be married there.

It’s also a time when one of the most promising candidates for President of the United States happens to be gay, and two of the most frequent criticisms of him are that America’s just “not ready” for a gay President, and also that as a white man he can’t win the progressive vote against women and people of color. So apparently it’s true that you can’t be too gay and also that you can’t be too gay.

Considering how much of my life I spent wanting desperately to be normal, then being in a society that doesn’t think “gay” is all that interesting anymore — at least until it becomes politically useful to discriminate against, of course — could seem like I finally got what I always wanted. Instead, it’s just made me realize that I’ve spent my whole life overly preoccupied with “normal” in one form or another.

Here’s something I learned within the past couple of years: the people behind the original Pride celebration chose the word “pride” because pride is the opposite of shame.

I wish I’d learned that sooner! I’d never heard it explained so simply and directly. For years, I’d thought it was another example of activists choosing a world loaded with negative connotations and so easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. (For a fun time, ask me sometime how I don’t like it when people use “privileges” to refer to basic social injustices and inequalities). At worst, it’s associated with arrogance, or the seven deadly sins. At best, it suggests an accomplishment, which at least in my case felt undeserved.

But refusing to be ashamed for things that aren’t shameful: that’s a pretty great thing to celebrate.

Usually, I take Pride festivals and “National Coming Out Day” as an opportunity to do a status check. I look back on when I came out (15 years ago!) and compare my life and my mindset now to the way it was before. And when I look back now, it feels like my preoccupation with what’s “normal” has made me just swap one brand of unnecessary guilt for another. I wasted so many of my adolescent and young adult years feeling ashamed because I wan’t “normal,” but instead of shedding all of that when I came out, I’ve spent the last several years feeling like I had to make excuses for being “too” normal.

It could seem odd to celebrate a lack of shame in 2019, considering that the country is currently being violated by a bunch of people whose only qualification for public office is that they’re actually literally incapable of shame. And it could come across as tone deaf (at best) to assert pride for all aspects of my own identity — not just the gay part — in an environment where the media and the internet is obsessed with giving a microphone to every kind of idiot spouting bullshit about white nationalism, “men’s rights” assholery, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or simply the disingenuous claim that liberal activism is all about being “racist against white people.” After all, we’ve seen how easily a bunch of chuckleheads could corrupt a simple and powerful message of “Black Lives Matter” into the spectacularly selfish and insultingly clueless whine that “All Lives Matter,” from people terrified that the national conversation isn’t about them for even one second.

But the key part of trying to live with integrity is that it’s got to be the same whether you’re surrounded by enlightened people or you’re surrounded by assholes. You have to stay alert, be aware of your own blind spots, show some humility, do what you can to help people and be sympathetic to what they’re going through, and trust people not to misinterpret or misrepresent what you’re talking about.

As I was growing up, I developed a whole suite of self-deprecating jokes or distractions or obfuscations to explain away any uncomfortable questions. Like why I didn’t have a girlfriend, or why I wasn’t interested in the usual stuff that young men in the south were “supposed” to like, or why I had so many posters of Han Solo. Once I came out, I finally got rid of all that, but then I went and replaced them with a new suite of self-deprecating jokes and pre-emptively defensive explanations to cover years of internalized white liberal guilt. So I’ll make fun of myself for being “not gay enough” or “too white” or “just another white man with an opinion.” It probably started to show some humility and empathy, but repeat it enough time and it turns into bullshit that’s not useful to anybody. Instead of conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as good, it’s just conforming to somebody else’s idea of “normal” as bad.

Which reminds me of another word loaded with connotations: “queer.”

The podcast The Allusionist by Helen Zalzman did an episode about the history of the word, with interviews with various people describing why they do or don’t identify with it. I recommend it to anyone, since it stays pretty free of judgment, and people who’ve had a contentious relationship with the word get their say, too.

I don’t use the word to identify myself, and the reasons have changed over the years since I came out. At first, it was simply because it was used for so long as a slur, and I’ve never been a fan of the idea of “taking back” words, since it can make someone feel shitty unless they’re not 100% in sync with the context in which you’re using it.

But at this point, it’s been used in a positive way for so long that the idea of using it as a slur seems almost like a quaint anachronism. Like Mr. Roper on Three’s Company making a limp-wristed gesture; it’s not even offensive anymore so much as weird, and so dated that you even feel a little bad for him.

So many people love it as this big inclusive, unifying term, which is great, and something that would’ve been useful for me to understand years ago. When I first knew someone who came out as transgender, I tried to be as supportive as I could but still feel like I could’ve done better. I was too focused on the fact that I don’t know what it’s like, and worried that I’d say the wrong thing. I think I’d do a better job now, since I finally “get” that I may not know what it’s like to be transgender, but I do know what it’s like to feel “othered” and have to go through the experience of coming out and being obligated to make parts of your personal life public. It emphasizes a shared experience.

But still, I don’t use it for myself. It’s not a value judgment, because I love that so many people see it as inclusive. My reservations are about the literal meaning of the word and the significance of its meaning. (Even more than “less” vs “fewer.”) For “queer” to make sense for me, it has to be contrasted against “normal.” For some people, that revolves around sexual orientation and gender identity; for others, it’s a celebration of individuality with no “requirements” for inclusion; for others, it’s rejection of an abstract notion of “normal.”

This year in particular, I’m pledging to get over my preoccupation with “normal,” and that doesn’t matter whether I’m making excuses for not being normal enough, or whether I’m making excuses for being too normal. If I’m constantly feeling the need to acknowledge that I came out in about the least hostile environment possible, or feel the need to acknowledge that my experience is mostly white American middle-class male as if that somehow renders me devoid of empathy for anyone else, then I’m celebrating Pride with an asterisk. Which seems to miss the point entirely. I’ll acknowledge that there are plenty of people who seem to be able to navigate all of this with no problem. But I spent so many years feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, that I can’t help but be depressed whenever someone uses any aspect of my identity to try and diminish or dismiss me.

We all have more in common than not. And empathy, kindness, and compassion aren’t in limited supply. Anyone who acts as if humanity is a zero-sum game, and that promoting one group means demoting another, has either lost the message or never had it in the first place.