My son is visiting Wisconsin and after work, we are alternatingly choosing films to watch together. Two nights ago, we watched a horror flick he chose called Hereditary, which was decent, not awesome, but was made by the same film company that produced Ex Machina(which I loved and realizing now, I have never reviewed this flick on my site…must amend).
Last night, we watched 12 MONKEYS on Amazon Prime for $3.99. This film would probably be rated PG-13 today. No sexual content really, just creepy apocalyptic tension. And wow! This is still an awesome film and has aged well. Today, I asked my GenZ kid…What do you think? Would most GenZers like this film?
It’s been a while since I’ve watched 12 MONKEYS, but given my vague memory of it, I thought…might be worth the time.
One pleasure, as an older film fan, was to remember Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt remarkably in the same film. Not sure it happened in any other, but what Terry Gilliam delivered on the screen between these two, was close to perfection. This is possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting and if you’re a fan, you’re gonna have to watch. A few images below underlie my point.
First, my Short Review: 4 Reasons You Want to Watch 12 MONKEYS
- Weird and dystopian tale, echoing Blade Runner in tone and style.
- One of Terry Gilliam’s masterpieces
- Possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting
- Bruce Willis playing his iconic gritty and misunderstood character
- Great storytelling
Just cannot get enough of these scenes, shots of these two iconic men, culture-impacting actors for the last 30 years.
The Longer Review
Sometimes when you re-watch a film like 12 MONKEYS, you wonder how it’s gonna age. As an older person, you think (because you have experienced this before), was I impressed because of something slightly superficial and trite, or was this film truly great? With this flick, you need not worry. 12 MONKEYS delivers on so many levels. First, it delivers on weirdness of setting, including its gritty urban reality. My son (25yo), who has watched Blade Runner understood the dystopian aesthetic of this world. He even commented on the similarity. That, in and of itself, makes me feel I am doing my job training up my children. Second, 12 MONKEYS delivers on story. There is a clear protagonist, a vaguely enormous villain (that proves to be more personal in the final scenes) and enough mystery to keep the audience in tension. Finally, there is weirdness and surprise and the best aspects of science fiction where the perspective being put forward from one or two of the characters absolutely blows up the assumptions and values of the audience. And, if nothing else, respect these images…bizarre and gorgeous. Terry Gilliam is a genius.
First, the Short Review
6 Reasons I Recommend THE SILENT SEA
- Beautiful production overall, including visuals that underlie the creepy vibe
- Featured a number of my favorite Korean actors, a few you might recognize if Squid Game was on your watch list this past year
- Plenty tension and surprises/frights
- A number of science fiction and haunted house tropes embedded in the story and various characters (see more in longer review)
- The relationships and particularly, the relationship to authority feel authentically Korean. (also, see longer review)
- You know I love the miniseries genre, 1-hour installments of great storytelling that comes to a conclusion without an agonizing cliffhanger
SILENT SEA is the story about a mission to the moon to find water. I rate this series PG-13. No sexual content in this production, but there are dead bodies, and some gore.
The first episode quickly gives the viewer the high stakes for this mission. Drought has plagued the Earth. Water is the resource most valuable and due to its scarcity, the planet has become a wasteland. Water is rationed to such a degree, many have suffered physically, billions have died. The wealthy nations have gone into space to find a water source. Most abandoned the idea of finding water on the moon after searching, but the South Korean government kept snooping. There has been a top-secret program at a large moon station that was believed to have borne fruit, but suddenly…the experiment falters. Everyone dies all at once on the moon station. The earthbound directors, including Heo Sung-tae (pictured near end of review) initiate another mission to go to the station and investigate the truth, but secrets pulse underneath the surface of this mission and become one aspect of tension in the story. The authorities hold their cards close and the military and science leaders do not push back, though they suspect something fishy. This may or may not be an aspect of Korean-specific deference to authority, but the screenwriter exploits what I understand as deference in a way that serves the story. Also, this is where the nuanced acting plays such a powerful role in the unfolding of the narrative. The audience can see in the face of Bae Doona, the slight suggestion of twitch, a blink, a stern jaw…we see it, but barely and it helps us know that she understands that she is being deceived. Yet, in most of the outward behavior, she acts the true soldier. Doona is great at this nuanced acting, but she’s just one, among a number of these performers, who pull off such nuance. In my mind, THE SILENT SEA showcases superb writing and better acting than Squid Game. Click for a review of Squid Game
Once the mission lands on the moon, what unfolds reminded me of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in all the best ways. Yes, there will be corpses, tunnels, darkness, betrayals, a terrible and contagious sickness, but there will be one character who keeps her eyes on the prize. Dr. Song (Bae Doona) is intent on discovering the truth. In part, she seeks the truth because her sister is one of the corpses and the holder of many of the secrets. Doona as Dr. Song, pictured above, is a female lead in the Korean zombie series, Kingdom. To see my review of Kingdom, click here
I beat this drum a lot but I do feel that Netflix streaming continues to find the best international productions and when it comes to science fiction, the Korean film/media community is putting out a lot of great product. Produced by Jung Woo-sung, directed by Choi Hang-Yong, who deftly handles the brilliant storytelling of screenwriter, Eun-Kyoi Park. Honestly, I think I could teach a five-hour course on writing with this series, moving scene by scene through the screenplay, in terms of a classic sci-fi thriller. Fun fact, this story (as did Scott’s Alien), closely follows the haunted house template. That means there are a few predictable tropes. The audience knows that the mission is doomed (at least the mission as it was originally conceived) as one by one, the team gets whittled down. Who will remain in the end…that is what the audience wonders. Regarding the various characters, the majority of them hold their own, each having his/her own arc, including the wise-cracking military scrub who just wants to go home…a longing the audience suspects will not be realized.
I highly recommend. THE SILENT SEA, and suspect that Netflix now has me pegged in its algorithm as a person who loves Korean-produced thrillers/sci-fi. I might need to give the Koreans their own category on my site. The product is so good, I can’t stop watching and when I watch, I always review.
The following is a post about the craft of storytelling. Posts like this are somewhat unusual for me on my author website. Most of time I am reviewing science fiction for the average consumer, not just for the writer. In this post, I am poking my nose into craft. I don’t want to just taste the stew…I want to know how it is made. This post is for the writer and beware…contains spoilers.
This is my second installment on first chapters. A few days ago, I analyzed chapter 1 of DUNE. To read that post, click here. Today, I analyze chapter 1 of THE HOBBIT.
This first chapter
–introduces the reader to the world and the main characters
–evokes reader empathy for Bilbo by showing Bilbo’s inner conflict
–presents the choice that will change Bilbo’s life forever
–introduces the reader to the fantastical possibilities that lie ahead, but also the dangers
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Thus begins THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but really this sentence begins the longer saga that so many have come to know and love, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Notice what it accomplishes.
- Sentence #1 introduces a new creature, the hobbit. This creature will inhabit the long saga. He will be the unlikely hero (later his nephew, Frodo will be our hero). The audience will come to admire, adore and identify with Bilbo and Frodo.
- This sentence begins to describe the culture of hobbits. They are earthy, living in holes, but absolutely committed to cleanliness and comfort. These creatures are civilized…they just happen to like holes as their place of abode.
- In this first sentence, Tolkien begins to evoke our empathy for Bilbo, who will soon trade in his life of comfort for a wild and magical adventure.
Paragraph #2 of THE HOBBIT describes Bilbo’s home in detail, which will be the place where all the action takes place in the remainder of the chapter, including the entertaining of a wizard and a large group of dwarves, but even more than that, this home represents the comfortable life of a gentleman. Later in the story, Bilbo often thinks of home (as does Frodo in the LOtR saga) as a place of rest, comfort and peace. It is a place to return to.
Paragraph #3 and #4 describe Bilbo’s ancestry, posing the curious conflict he bears within himself. There is a debate between the Baggins and the Took within Bilbo. The Took side of his family (Bilbo’s mother’s side) is prone to adventure and risk-taking. The Baggins side of the family (Bilbo’s father’s side) is conservative and would reject adventure and any controversy at all. The reader doesn’t have to wonder for very long which side will win out. Without that Tookish spirit, Bilbo might never have walked away from his comfortable hobbit hole.
Both impulses inhabit Bilbo and most readers can relate. It might be said that opposing impulses, such as what Bilbo experiences, are a part of every person. Thus, Tolkien evokes our empathy for Bilbo in chapter 1. Much as Bilbo leaves the comfort of his hobbit hole to journey with the dwarves, the reader leaves his/her comfort to embark with them in the story world.
Now for the rest of chapter 1: Bilbo, because of his value of hospitality, entertains Gandalf (a wizard who believes Bilbo will be a key member of the adventure) and a group of dwarves who demand food, drink, then compel him to travel with them to a place where a dragon guards a great treasure. The adventure, as it is presented, is magnificent, romantic and promises great wealth. Bilbo is taken in, though it is touch and go for a while. Despite his willingness to leave his home, it could be said the hobbit is in a way bewitched by the romantic notion of a grand adventure.
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.
Yet, Thorin, the lead dwarf, does not mince words about the dangers they might face.
We shall soon before the break of day start on our long journey, a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all of us (except our friend and counsellor, the ingenious wizard Gandalf) may never return. It is a solemn moment.
What is Bilbo’s reaction to this sobering news?
Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table.
The stage has been set. The semi-cowardly and ill-prepared Bilbo Baggins will reluctantly leave his comfortable hobbit hole and venture with these new friends, the dwarves and Gandalf. When he finally returns, he will be completely changed and so will Middle Earth.
For over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long-forgotten gold.
Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day when he woke up.
This stanza, when one reflects on THE HOBBIT and THE LORD of the RINGS speaks of long-forgotten gold. The dwarves believe this to be part of their hoard, that which is guarded by the dragon, Smaug. The reader understands a deeper meaning. Long-forgotten gold is the one ring to rule them all, found by Bilbo…later passed on to Frodo, becoming the impetus for the Lord of the Rings Saga.
The reader doesn’t understand at this point the profundity of the dwarves’ song, but it is there, imbedded in that first chapter of the very first book.
Spoilers below. If you want to read a review of the novel without spoilers, click here.
I happen to be in a writing critique group that started up this past week. A couple of the folks in this group are writing novels and sent in first chapters for a swipe at getting critique. So, I read a few Chapter 1’s yesterday and in the course of that reading, I began to wonder…Do these seem like first chapters to me? How do I feel as a reader as I am taking in the narrative for the first time? Do I begin to have a strong sense about the story, the characters and about the writing style? Absolutely. I did and do have feelings and ideas. Some of those made me want to keep reading. Others did not.
That led me to the question: How does a novelist write a brilliant chapter one?
I wonder about my own first chapter, the beginning of my novel that is undergoing an extensive edit. How do I feel about my first chapter? What is it accomplishing and what is it not accomplishing? Have I done the necessary work to hook my reader, keep them interested and engaged, settle them into the world I am creating?
All writers of any genre ponder this question when they sit down before the blank page because the possibilities are endless, as endless as stories themselves. However, I do think there are ways to understand first chapters, to critique and edit them for the purpose of making them better.
Therefore, I begin a series of posts devoted to the question of beginnings. My focus will be on science fiction and fantasy novels and the hope is not to be prescriptive. Telling the writer what to do or not do detracts from originality and art. However, paying attention to how great authors craft a narrative is worthwhile. We learn from the greats. Study enough of them and we begin to see common threads.
So, my goal in this series of posts is to plunder first chapters and see what I can glean about my own writing and will record my findings for the sake of other writers.
Today, A Look at DUNE, chapter 1
Frank Herbert is a great writer and though the novel DUNE isn’t perfect, it’s very close to perfect. How does that first chapter set us up for a marvelous journey?
I see it accomplishing four things.
-Gives us a sense of the setting of the story
-Introduces the primary characters, even putting the main character through a first test
-Hints at the coming conflict
-Tantalizes the reader with compelling mysteries
First, chapter 1 of DUNE give us a sense of the setting.
Here is the first sentence of the novel.
In the week before the departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
Most of us have experienced moving houses, cities, states. We know what it feels like to change locations. In this first sentence of DUNE, the reader is alerted immediately to the fact that a change in location is taking place for this particular family, for this particular person, Paul. Moving is disruption. Paul’s family is about to be disrupted. He will soon be leaving Caladan for a planet called Arrakis, sometimes called Dune.
Soon after, in the early paragraphs, Herbert repeats this series of words three times as paragraphs. They jump out on the page like a refrain. They are written in italics, which in Herbert’s style, represents thought. Paul, the main character continues to mull over this reality.
So, not only will Paul be leaving his current location, but the new location is harsh. There is a sense of foreboding about this desert planet. Paul will move from Caladan, a land where water is plentiful to Arrakis, where water is scarce. Caladan is known, comfortable, secure, a virtual paradise. Arrakis is mysterious, uncomfortable in so many ways, in part because of its climate. Climate will be a large issue in the rest of the novel. Herbert wants the reader to begin thinking about ecology and its importance to a planet and a people.
Here is the second sentence of DUNE.
It was a warm night at Castle Caladan, and the ancient pile of stone that had served the Atreides family as home for twenty-six generations bore that cooled-sweat feeling it acquired before a change in the weather.
When Paul’s family leaves Caladan, they are not only leaving their current comfortable home/castle, but they are leaving their home of twenty-six generations. This move is an epic move. The reader is left asking…why? Why leave this lovely planet and this home of so many years? We get a few clues as to why this move it taking place. Power and political maneuvering are introduced, a profound subject of the story.
Thufir Hawat, his father’s Master of Assassins, had explained it: their mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, had been on Arrakis eighty years, holding the planet in quasi-fief under a CHOAM Company contract to mine the geriatric spice, mélange. Now the Harkonnens were leaving to be replaced by the House of Atreides in fief-complete—an apparent victory for the Duke Leto. Yet, Hawat had said, their appearance contained the deadliest peril, for the Duke Leto was popular among the Great Houses of the Landsraad.
Arrakis is the place where the empire derives its most important resource: Melange, or spice, as it is sometimes called. Melange is the secret to space travel in this particular universe.
We can already see now how the chess pieces are stacking up.
This brings us to the second accomplishment of Herbert’s chapter one, the introduction of most of the main characters.
Paul is mentioned in the first sentence. So is his mother. Paul’s mother and Paul are on the stage for the very final scene of the novel as well. In fact, his mother gives voice to the final paragraph/speech.
Not only that, but the crone mentioned in that first sentence, the one who will test Paul later in the chapter, will also be on that stage at the finale. This is great writing.
Add to the list the Bene Gesserit, the Fremen, House Harkonnen…all are mentioned, Thufir Hawat, (who will be present in the final scene) and Dr. Yueh, important as the one who betrays House Atreides…all are introduced in chapter 1.
Note this paragraph early in the chapter.
Paul awoke to feel himself in the warmth of his bed—thinking…thinking. This world of Castle Caladan, without play or companions his own age, perhaps did not deserve sadness in farewell. Dr. Yueh, his teacher, had hinted that the faufreluches class system was not rigidly guarded on Arrakis. The planet sheltered people who lived at the desert edge without caid or bashar to command them: will-o’-the-sand people called Fremen, marked down on no census of the Imperial Regate.
The Fremen will become important to the story, of primary importance, but the reader is simply introduced here. There is mystery surrounding these people. I am curious. I want to learn more and Herbert will plunge me into Fremen culture before too long.
It’s interesting to note who is left out of chapter 1.
The Duke Leto, Paul’s father, does not get a speaking part until chapter 4. Even the emperor, the most powerful political person in the Landsraad, receives little attention. These are important omissions. It says something about how the story will be focused, that despite the powerful political figures on the scene, Paul and his mother, the two of them in particular, will take center stage.
Chapter 1 hints at future conflict.
As Paul is undergoing the test, the gom jabbar, here is what the Reverend Mother, the crone says to him.
The old woman said: “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to his kind.”
As I was re-reading the chapter last night, this nugget stopped me in my tracks. I had not realized, not seen how this Reverend mother quote foretells the remainder of the story.
Paul does feign death on Arrakis, so that he might kill the trapper and remove the threat to his family. That is, in essence, a summary of the novel. These two sentences are so brilliantly placed, subtle in all the best ways. We don’t understand consciously upon first reading, but Herbert has just told us what we can expect.
Lastly, chapter 1 teases the reader with mysteries.
This is an odd world, a mysterious one in which a mother of an only son, will give him up to a religious figure, knowing he might die.
Jessica stepped into the room, closed the door and stood with her back to it. My son lives, she thought. My son lives and is…human. I knew he was…but…he lives. Now, I can go on living.
This we absorb and I, at least, want to read to find out more about this bizarre world where such a thing would happen. In order to know more, I must keep reading.
Then, there is the planet Arrakis and the Fremen. In chapter one, we learn very little about them, but we wonder about them as Paul does. The planet is a desert and the Fremen seem to live off the grid. They are wild and uncounted by the empire. Who are they? We are meant to wonder, and to find out, I have to keep reading.
And lastly, in Chapter 1, Herbert introduces the reader to the idea of the Kwisatz Haderach, a messianic figure. Is Paul the Messiah? The reader suspects he is, though Paul himself struggles with this identity throughout the novel, mysterious even to him. We will have to keep reading if we want to figure out the true identity of the Kwisatz Haderach.
So…all of this in Chapter 1. I am wowed and I am hooked. I am also set up well in the world to take in more of the details as they unfold. Moreover, I have enough sense of the main characters to be able to navigate this complex world where many more characters will soon be introduced. It makes me wonder how many times Herbert went back to edit and perfect his beginning…because I don’t think he could have written a better version than the one we read today.
SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru was released exactly one week ago, Wednesday the 16th of October and understandably, it is moving off the shelves fast. I highly recommend this first installment in the three part series. I rate this series PG and would encourage parents to read it with children and discuss the many aspects of the story that are rooted in history.
Short Review: Five Reasons to Own and Read SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN:
- Be a collector! Only 3 installments to buy. Keep this historic series forever while using only an inch of space on your bookshelf!
- The drawings and colors are beautiful and stylized to deepen the reading experience.
- Learn history. There are historic truths woven into the story. Yang also adds autobiography relaying the story of how he has experienced racism and historical facts about the Ku Klux Klan at the end of the comic.
- The characters are well-drawn (literally and figuratively), avoiding cliches that sometimes populate comic book fiction
- The story is full of action, suspense, but doesn’t paint an overly simplified view of good vs. evil. This is one Gene Luen Yang’s strengths…the empathy he feels for all his characters, even the very broken ones.
To buy this book, Part 1 of 3, you’ll need to visit your local comic book store or click here. Also, if it’s been a while since you entered a well-stocked comics store, you owe yourself the treat. Go now and browse the shelves!
Most science fiction fans love comics, but not all. I know a few who have avoided them in favor of novels, television and film, but the comic format has proven its heft in recent years with literary stories like American Born Chinese. Gene Luen Yang, the author of American Born Chinese, also wrote the much-acclaimed New Super-Man, in which an Asian American young man emerges as the Superman in the story. It is no surprise Yang was DC’s choice to bring SUPERMAN SMASHES THE KLAN to life. The story is an adaptation of a 1946 smaller story arc within a radio series called The Adventures of Superman. In it, an Asian-American family is threatened by the Ku Klux Klan and Superman is inspired to protect the children of this family from racist terror.
Writes editor John Joseph Adams…”The BEST AMERICAN SERIES is the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction. Each volume’s series editor selects notable works from hundreds of magazines, journals, and websites. A special guest editor—a leading writer in the field—then chooses the best twenty or so pieces to publish. This unique system has made the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.”
To order this anthology, click Best of SFF 2019.
LaShawn’s story was first featured here…but why just read hers…there are so many great stories in this anthology.
I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.
YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.
Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER
Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.
- Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
- BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
- This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though many fans adore that version of the film.
- Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
- You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
- Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!
- The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
- This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
- Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.
To buy Dick’s novel, click this link Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond
I am delighted to introduce this third guest post. Professor Liam Corley, an old friend from my early years as a University pastor at UC Berkeley, writes on Jemisin.
First, Professor Corley will show us why Jemisin is worth reading. Second, he will comment on Jemisin’s deft handling of the story-telling craft. The latter part of the post contains spoilers, but for anyone who cares about writing great characters in epic novels, the professor’s sharp analysis will be incredibly helpful. Enjoy!
Five Reasons…(no spoilers)
Sure, N.K. Jemisin has won all of the top prizes in the industry, and every one of the books in The Broken Earth trilogy has won the Hugo. But you’re a discerning reader. You don’t follow trends or hype. Why will you be glad you read Jemisin’s amazing novels?
- You’re a mom, and you have fought with your daughter. Maybe been mean. Apologized. Did it again. Jemisin’s work is all about the woman protagonist, especially mothers, and the tangled relationships she depicts will have you thinking about YOUR relationships in a new way.
- You know Black Lives Matter, but you don’t know how to talk about it without bursting into flames or tears. Jemisin’s work is a treasure trove of insight into how to confront, live through, and go beyond racial injustice and all of the horrors it has inflicted. From lynching to the casual use of the N-word, it’s all there, in sci fi clothing.
- You care about the environment–really care–and wonder what humanity is doing to its survival prospects by destroying our home.The Broken Earth faces up to the end of the world. Again and again and again. Why are we destroying the world? Because we’re greedy and hate each other. Yup, that’s pretty broken. But Jemisin also shows people learning how to survive in the aftermath and figuring out how to make things right.
- You think Toni Morrison is the best writer ever. Hands down. Ever. If Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had a love child, it would be N.K. Jemisin. If you can remember reading Beloved in college or watching the movie with Oprah and bawling your eyes out because it was all just so wrong, so beautiful, and so painfully wrong and beautiful, you’ll want to read The Broken Earth.
- You love great science fiction and fantasy world-building and character-driven plots. If you are an avid sci-fi reader and especially if you write it, you’ll want to immerse yourself in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. For more on this point, see my longer review on Craft and Culture in Jemisin’s work below.
Click here to buy the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. Click here if you want to buy all three.
Warning: there are spoilers below, so in case you haven’t read Jemisin yet, you may want to stop reading and pick up the first book of the trilogy.
Craft and Culture:
Notes on N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy
Readers of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) have embraced N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, and every installment of the series has won the coveted Hugo Award. Consequently, this post is not meant to introduce new readers to the series. Instead, I will be pointing out elements of Jemisin’s writing that contribute to the magic of the reading experience. Other SFF writers will find this of interest, but so will readers who want to understand why the novels affected them as they did. I’ll touch briefly on how Jemisin weaves her alternating timelines into a narrative fabric that turns flashbacks into a strength, not a weakness, on Jemisin’s incorporation of racial politics that are already part of her reader’s core emotional lives, and on the genres novels’ connections to more literary traditions.
I found myself reflecting on Jemisin’s woven chronologies when I was trying to think through the best ways to incorporate character backstories in my SF work-in-progress. Writers know that flat characters live only in the moment, and their motivations tend to have more to do with survival or accomplishment than working out emotional consequences of their past. Yet providing a character’s past can be a distraction from engaging readers in the drama of the story’s “now” time. How then can authors deepen their characters without losing narrative engagement? Jemisin’s solution is brilliant.
In the first book of the trilogy, Jemisin takes her main character’s timeline and slices it into three parts—childhood, adulthood, and post-apocalyptic adulthood. The character has different names in these time periods and acts in much different geographies and societies, so it takes a while before most readers realize that the chapters which alternate between these three perspectives are actually all the same character at different times of her life. What this allows Jemisin to do is to provide the entire scope of her main character’s life in a nonlinear fashion that is as engaging as it is emotionally excruciating. Getting to know the main character at three very different stages of life gives readers a clear view of the character’s depth, journey, change, and motivation.
This technique shouldn’t simply be adopted wholesale by authors wishing to provide an engaging saga, but it makes evident a point that could be adopted more broadly: backstory needs to be as engaging as the main story or it shouldn’t be indulged in beyond broad strokes and hints. All narrative is a dance between scenes and interludes, scenes and interludes, scenes and . . . Flashbacks, to be compelling and to maintain the hooks of engagement, should be fully realized scenes and not inert paragraphs of backstory.
The Broken Earth series is almost entirely a story about race-based injustice and the ways that civilizations built on exploitation create systems and stories to obscure or recast their dependence on a despised underclass. Jemisin is incredibly effective in evoking readers’ feelings about American racial politics by incorporating parallel dynamics in her fictional world. The first, and probably most overt, instance is her use of a racial epithet, “Rogga,” to indicate orogenes, the enslaved and exploited earth magicians. The sonic similarity of the epithet to the N-word is obvious and intentional. Indeed, even the complex ways the term is used in the series—as slur, as indictment of injustice, as insider labeling—mirror the many ways the N-word is debated in our society. This instance of labeling leaves no questions in the readers’ minds about the allegorical nature of racial politics in Jemisin’s world.
What makes Jemisin’s evocation of contemporary race so powerful is precisely such correspondences that, despite their overt nature when reflected upon, fit so well within plot of the novel that readers can escape the sorts of mental coping mechanisms they have for engaging racial issues in their non-reading lives. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this technique. His tales of the grotesque and macabre are set far distant in time and geography from the slave-owning Southern states where he lived, but their depictions of torture, fear, guilt, and sadism draw indirectly on the repressed experience of those dynamics on plantations. Jemisin’s incorporation of lynchings, segregation, dehumanization, and other tools used by racist societies to subjugate their victims both draw on and make explicit the prevalence of these practices in our own world.
I’ll pivot here to Jemisin’s relationship to African American literature because the series has numerous plot points and characterizations that evoke masterworks by Toni Morrison, one of the most important American writers of the last century. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in a distinguished career that exploded into prominence with the publication of Beloved in 1988. Morrison’s novels often focus on a strong African American woman character, something Jemisin also does through her allegorical association of orogenic ability with African American identity. [spoiler alert] Several key plot points in The Broken Earth draw on Sethe’s world in Beloved, most notably when Sethe murders her own child to prevent her from being taken back into slavery.
There are at least a dozen other correspondences between Morrison and Jemisin that occurred to me as I read The Broken Earth, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by listing them all. Suffice it to say, SFF editors and agents interested in fostering more #ownstories in the genre should expect to see more explicit borrowing from more established traditions in the future. Most importantly, I think that editors and agents should take note of what Morrison and Jemisin already have expressed through their work: #ownstories aren’t niche or sideline stories; they are central to the human condition, and in the case of the United States, foundational to our national identity and culture.
Related to the issue of a society’s foundations in racial injustice, i.e. SLAVERY, is how Jemisin draws on another classic of SFF literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s immensely powerful and well-known story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story poses a philosophical question about injustice and the related phenomenon of scapegoating: would I live in a society that seemed perfect if I knew its perfection depended upon the suffering a single nameless child? The Broken Earth stages this epiphany and existential crisis time and time again throughout the series, with the added element of the unmerited scapegoating being race-based.
On the whole, I’ve become quite a fanboy of Ms. Jemisin’s work, and I hope someday to assign it in one of my classes on American literature
Liam Corley is a professor of American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is also a Navy Reserve officer, and he returned to creative writing as a way of understanding the world after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009. His work on literature and war can be found in Badlands, Chautauqua, College English, First Things, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and War, Literature, & the Arts. He is currently at work on a science fiction manuscript about genetics, time travel, and humanity’s irreligious future. He lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and four children.
The 6th and final post of a 6-day reading fest. I’m excited to recommend this series…all 6 volumes. I would rate DESCENDER as PG-13. This comic series is pretty mild compared to some of the stuff your kids are exposed to. Parents might want to view volume 4 to get a sense (regarding the one sex scene). Overall, the language was extremely tame. The violence was not graphic…not as graphic as many other comic series.
Also…FYI…don’t piss off you machines, those very helpful robots that make your life easier.
Today, I want to acknowledge my dishwasher, for all the hard work and quality service it does every other day or so…also, my robot vacuum machine. Also…the electric toothbrush, and much much more. Thanks to you, machines…I have more time to read amazing comics/stories like DESCENDER, THE MACHINE WAR.
Really, though, I have continued praise for the story. You can view my previous reviews on allscifi I’ve written a review for each volume. As a novel-writer, I am intrigued by the strengths and weaknesses of the comics genre. The visuals in this epic are so gorgeous and add so much to the understanding and the feeling the story. However, I did find myself missing lovely passages of linguistic poetry and the interior monologue that takes place in some novels and short stories.
THE MACHINE WAR does close with a longer interior monologue. A character the reader has not yet met, but one who makes sense in the story overall, she begins to narrate the post-story of DESCENDER, the pre-story of the coming series. This is the bridge character who will take center stage in the sequel to DESCENDER. The next series will be called ASCENDER.
Final word on the review. If you love comics…you will absolutely LOVE this series. The art and the writing are top notch. Furthermore, if you’re a scifi fan…you ought to read this tome. The narrative adds so much to our morality around how we understand ourselves, our machines, our planet and those who work in the shadows to make our lives easier. Let us no forget that real work has to be done by someone. More and more of that is done by machines…but much of it is still done by humans, people who we can easily marginalize and treat as less than human. This is important for all of us to remember. The best scifi stories teach us to be better humans. DESCENDER does exactly that.
Click here to buy this final in the series: DESCENDER, Volume 6 The Machine War
Click here to buy the first installment of the sequel to the DESCENCER, series ASCENDER, Vol. 1, The Haunted Galaxy
Six reviews in 6 days. Today marks the 5th day and review of volume 5 of DESCENDER. No spoilers for this volume, but beware of spoilers if you haven’t already read the first 4 volumes. You can see my first review of volume 1 here in case you stumbled upon this review as a first exposure to my website.
In RISE OF THE ROBOTS, Lemire delivers a number of answers to mysteries within the story world…not all of them, but enough to open up the possibility of some sort of redemptive ending to the saga. By the way, I don’t know the ending, so this is not a spoiler. I’m reading volume 6, the finale of DESCENDER tomorrow. In this volume, the planet Mata, an aquatic world, takes center stage. Mata itself is a mysterious place. It is less known by the UGC and there are early allusions in the first volumes of DESCENDER to the ruins of a great city in the water’s depths. Water is often a symbol in literature, so I look forward to seeing how Lemire works that thematic angle. You’ll also notice that the cover of this volume is a robot in a hazy blue environment…I’m interpreting that blue as an underwater world.
The unique (in the volumes so far) and fun surprise in volume 5 is a double page fold out. Lemire and Nguyen chose to dramatize the culmination of the RISE OF THE ROBOTS as it takes place across the UGC through the art. You’ll notice as you turn toward the final pages of volume 5 that a couple feel thicker than the rest. Be careful when you fold them out, so they don’t tear. This is the third reading of our copies of DESCENDER and so far, we’ve only had one issue with the binding (loose pages). I want these beauties to last a long time, so I am reading them carefully. I also love loaning out great books and I’m sure I will loan these out in the future, but I’ll ask my reader friends to read them gently.
Tomorrow, the final review of DESCENDER.
Click here to buy your copy of DESCENDER, Volume 5 Rise of the Robots