Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

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Book review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get ThereUtopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.”

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists starts with a simple premise: since we are already living in the utopia imagined by previous generations, what’s the utopia we’re aiming for now? We need big ideas to strive toward in order to keep progressing forward.

I have been meaning to read Utopia for Realists for several years now. Prior to the book’s publication, I read the sections Bregman had made available from two of his chapters on Medium. Those were my first introduction to the concept of a Universal Basic Income and how there was some fairly compelling, if limited, evidence for just giving people money to fix just about every problem. Poverty, it seems, isn’t a moral failing or a lack of work ethic, it’s a lack of cash. Since then I have watched several of his interviews and discussions (yes, including the Davos inequality panel) and still managed to gain more insights from his book.

It seems odd to note that we’ve stopped thinking about our future utopia. Outside of Star Trek*, most of our future visions are of dystopias which warn us of our mistakes, but also underline what happens when we stop thinking of a utopia to strive for. We can only see the negative futures, not the potentially great futures.

Bregman spends a lot of Utopia for Realists outlining several of our current societal problems and then introduces some of the evidence for his utopian vision of a Universal Basic Income, lower inequality, and a shorter working week as solutions. These are not new ideas – Mill, Russell, and Keynes have all written on these topics – but they are the utopia that Bregman thinks we need to be aiming for. In outlining the evidence in favour of this vision, he also shows how close we have come on several occasions to implementing some of these reforms and how easy it is for naysayers to win the day.

Utopia for Realists is very well written**, is easy to read, and not particularly long. The only reason I didn’t finish this quickly was that I kept tracking down the extensive references and surrounding literature for further reading. My own fault for being a giant nerd. One of my favourite references was this one on the value created by various professions, which suggests that we are rewarding some who are actively bad for the economy, whilst under-paying those who are good for the economy.

This book is highly recommended reading.

See also: https://tysonadams.com/2019/04/05/book-review-austerity-the-history-of-a-dangerous-idea-by-mark-blyth/
https://tysonadams.com/2019/03/19/book-review-winners-take-all-by-anand-giridharadas/

* Although, how much of a utopia is Star Trek, what with the wars, the planet of hats, and Borg collectives? Discussed further here.
** Not sure whether to credit this to Bregman or his translator – Elizabeth Manton.

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Book review: A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job (Grim Reaper, #1)A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tedious job, flexible hours, remuneration package includes invisibility powers, some harassment involved, and if quotas not met world will end in darkness.

Charlie Asher’s world is turned upside down the day he becomes a father. His wife dies, he becomes a grim reaper, his daughter can kill by pointing at things, and he may never get laid again. His new job is confusing – the JDF is in the mail – the forces of darkness are calling to him from the sewers and people are starting to suspect he’s a serial killer. At least the pay is good.

Over the last month, I’ve tried to read several humorous novels, and have only managed to complete two of them. The two I have finished – A Dirty Job and Redshirts – have had similar pros and cons. Both have had a strong premise, were mostly well executed and were reasonably entertaining. But neither were as funny as they thought they were.

Moore’s absurdist writing style is a strength to this novel. But I couldn’t help but feel he didn’t capitalise on that with more humour. And some of the humour that he does inject… Let’s just say that cringy white guy jive talking or ethnic caricatures probably don’t amuse me as much as they used to.*

I think it was because of this only mildly amusing level of humour that I started nitpicking aspects of the story. The continuous references to ‘beta males’ became tiresome as, aside from being scientifically debunked, it made the author sound like he was posting on Reddit subforums. Another was the use of weapons against the forces of darkness.** Whilst the humour of this was done well, it did trivialise the threat at several points.

So, much like I said in my review of Redshirts, I think A Dirty Job wasted its potential as a comedic novel and was only okay.***

* I’m going to pretend it wasn’t deliberately racist.
** Also, since when does an American not have access to an arsenal of firearms? One handgun? One?
*** I feel as though I’m being a bit too harsh/critical of humorous novels of late. Maybe all the Terry Pratchett I’ve been reading has spoiled regular books for me.

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Book vs Movie: The Little Mermaid – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at the classic children’s story that became a(nother) Disney movie.

My memory of The Little Mermaid story is what you would call hazy. The Hans Christian Andersen tales, from my recollection of them, were a lot darker and nastier than would generally be acceptable for young children these days.

The movie is much easier for me to recall, as my daughter has recently taken a liking to the tale. Except for the bits with Ursula in them, which are far too scary. Fortunately, I’m usually on hand for hugs during those scenes.

The thing that has struck me the most about The Little Mermaid, and Disney kids films in general, is how much they have progressed in the last 30 years as compared to the 30 years prior. Several of the Disney films released in the 70s and 80s (The Little Mermaid, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh) bear a lot of similarities to earlier films (101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi*). The leap that was made after Toy Story is profound, such that newer films are just in a whole other league (Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia).

Almost as big of a leap as children’s book have made since Hans Christian Anderson was writing.

The source material behind Disney’s animated classic, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, is a surprisingly metal fairy tale. Let’s take a look at all the ways the filmmakers changed the source material, talking crabs and all! It’s time to ask What’s the Difference?

* But not Dumbo. That film has aged badly. There is a lot to cringe at in Dumbo and the film itself climaxes with a very short scene, so it feels a little underdone.

Book review: The Boys by Garth Ennis

The Boys Omnibus, Volume One (The Boys Omnibus, #1)The Boys Omnibus, Volume One by Garth Ennis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The words you don’t want to hear from someone with superpowers: Because I can.

The Boys series by Garth Ennis shows us a world where superheroes are a marketing gimmick for a military-industrial company – Vought America – and these all-powerful beings – such as The Homelander – have to be kept from overindulging in hedonism, vice, and collateral damage. But there is more at stake, as Vought scheme and The Homelander plots.

It was interesting to revisit this series 7 years later as the TV series is set to commence. I remember enjoying the series for its interesting take on superheroes. Much like Irredeemable and Incorruptible, The Boys tries to imagine a more realistic scenario for how people with superpowers would behave. This gives Ennis a chance to pour in his trademark nudity, sex, violence, and toilet humour.

But underneath that facade is a much more interesting story. The Boys team are comprised of trauma victims who (mostly) have interesting story arcs. The superheroes are portrayed in a way that feels much truer to life; especially if you take them as a stand-in for actors, models, rich socialites or the like and the shady stuff we know they get up to. The political and business machinations throughout stands as a cautionary tale. And the series is pretty much one big swipe at the military-industrial complex.

I think I appreciated the depth of this series more on the second read. The Boys is worth reading, especially if you’ve seen other Ennis comics and ever wondered what he really thinks of superheroes.

A quick comment on the TV show: I’m hoping the series is good. From the trailer, it appears they’ll be doing some things a bit differently to the comics, notably The Homelander’s personality and the more prominent corporate criticism. Karl Urban, Antony Starr*, and Elizabeth Shue are great actors, so just their presence should make it worthwhile.

* Antony was the lead in the criminally underappreciated Banshee. If you haven’t watched that series, do so.

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