I finally got around to seeing Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I hadn’t been in a rush to see it because the reviews have been mixed, with some praising it but others saying it was just another run-of-the-mill Marvel origin movie. But I quite enjoyed it. The formula may have been familiar, but the execution was fresh and engaging in a lot of ways.
I grant that it’s a little hard to sympathize with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange at first. He’s good at what he does, and the opening surgical sequences do a good job of establishing how important the precision of his hands is to him, but he’s also an arrogant jerk, and not as charmingly so as Robert Downey, Jr. But if the goal is to make us want to see him get comeuppance and begin a journey of transformation, it succeeds. Although I wish the movie had done more to give us some indication of why Strange would be chosen as a sorceror candidate, what this great potential was that the Ancient One saw in him. If anything, the lead character himself is one of the least well-drawn figures in the film.
But that’s the film’s strength, in a way. Marvel films have a tendency to focus on the heroes’ journeys and complexities and keep the villains kind of simplistic, which is a shame, because Marvel Comics have long been known for the richness of their villains’ personalities. Here, though, the supporting cast and the villains (both present and future) are nuanced and well-drawn. The main villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was not what I expected — far from seeking power or vengeance or some standard villain motive, he sincerely believes he’s saving the world and doing good for its people; he’s just been misled by Dormammu’s promises, and is too dismissive of sacrificing individual lives to save the greater number. I was surprised at what a sympathetic figure he turned out to be. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is a fascinating character — an ally of Strange and the Ancient One rather than the power-hungry traitor he was in the comics, but one who has harsh and unyielding sensibilities — a willingness to do whatever violence is necessary to achieve his goals, and a rigid adherence to the rules that makes him unwilling to accept it when his allies break the rules to save the world. In an inversion of the original character, this Mordo sees himself as the betrayed one instead of the betrayer. I’m somewhat reminded of Ejiofor’s Operative character in Serenity — an antagonist who stood for law and order and believed that the unethical things he did were necessary to defend a peaceful, orderly system he revered above all else. Although the Operative went from antagonist to ally, while Mordo went the other way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a nicely nuanced character as well, taking questionable steps that make Mordo’s sense of betrayal understandable.
One thing I did really like about Strange, in contrast to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe screen heroes, is that he has a clearly stated aversion to killing, and shows remorse when it becomes necessary. This is something that’s been standard for the majority of comic-book superheroes since the ’40s, but it’s all too rare in their movie counterparts, since American adventure movies tend to be made within a paradigm that presumes the villains must die. This is something that’s always bothered me about feature adaptations of superheroes, and I’ve always found it hypocritical that the movies’ Tony Stark supposedly gave up the weapons business due to a crisis of conscience but still routinely uses lethal armaments as Iron Man. But it seems we’re finally starting to see a movement toward heroes with more of a resistance to killing. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang was pretty firm about being opposed to violent methods (although there was dialogue there suggesting that the Avengers were presumed to use lethal force by default), and on Netflix, both Daredevil and Luke Cage are firmly against killing (though in the former case that seems to waver where ninjas are concerned) and Jessica Jones avoided it except in one special case. I do find it ironic that the supposedly darker Netflix shows have more non-lethal heroes than the supposedly light and fluffy MCU movies, although that’s going to change somewhat now that there’s a Punisher series in production. But maybe the movies are starting to turn away from lethal heroes somewhat. I certainly hope that’s the case with Spider-Man: Homecoming, at least.
As far as the visuals and the depiction of magic are concerned, I admit I’m not a big fan of the kaleidoscopic urban-origami Inception-ish stuff that’s featured in all the trailers. It’s certainly a fresh way of depicting magic, but it’s just too overcomplicated in its execution, all these pieces of buildings folding over and reduplicating and tessellating. I mean, these are supposedly changes that the sorcerors are making to the environment to benefit themselves and confound their foes. That much makes sense. But it doesn’t seem necessary to make all those thousands of nibbly little changes to the environment to achieve one specific effect, and it’s hard to believe one person could have the concentration to initiate and control all those individual changes at once. So I might’ve liked it better if it had been a little less overdone, less mechanical-looking, less cluttered with detail.
But I really liked a lot of the other things they did. There’s some very clever stuff here. I liked the way Strange integrated his sorcery and his medicine, using his “Sling Ring” to teleport to the hospital and draw on his colleague/ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) for help in key moments. It helps explain why he holds onto the title “Doctor Strange” instead of Master — he’s not giving up that side of himself completely, but is finding ways to integrate the old and the new. There was some clever stuff in the astral-body battle, and the final scene between Strange and the Ancient One was beautifully done, both visually and in writing/character terms. The battle in Hong Kong was inspired, the way they integrated the combatants moving forward in time with the environment moving backward, including some very clever ways of using the time inversion against the villains. I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie before, and it was delightful. The climax with Strange confronting Dormammu was also excellent, and it really showed how far Strange had grown, to the point where he’d finally set aside his ego completely for the good of the world. That was really effective.
I decided to splurge on seeing the movie in 3D, to get the full effect of the visuals, and it did add to the experience somewhat. Still, I’m not sure if the problem is with the theater or my eyes, but I had the same problems with depth of field that I’ve had with other 3D movies, in that things seem to be closer than they should — a lot of things seemed to be right in front of my face when they should be at least a bit further back, and characters in long shots often seemed tiny and close rather than normal-sized and distant. The theater also had a pretty bad sound mix that made some of the dialogue hard to hear, though it wasn’t as bad in the film as in the trailers.
One thing’s for sure — Cumberbatch definitely looks the part of Dr. Strange. And judging from the mid-credits scene, he’s wasting no time involving himself in the business of the superhero community going forward. I do look forward to seeing where he and Mordo go from here. (And Wong. Wong is cool. I should’ve said that.)
Good news — even before my upcoming Analog Science Fiction and Fact story “Twilight’s Captives” is released, I get to announce my next Analog sale! The story is called “Abductive Reasoning,” and it’s quite a change of pace from the previous couple of stories, a humorous tale of a first contact between a UFO believer and a real alien, which doesn’t go at all the way either one expects.
This is a first for me in a couple of ways. For one, it’s the first actual short story I’ve ever sold! Everything else I’ve done has been at least novelette length (my previous shortest, “The Weight of Silence,” was 7600 words), but this one’s a cozy 4100 words. It’s also my first Analog story, and my second original work after “No Dominion,” that isn’t part of my default/Only Superhuman universe or my Hub universe. It’s a completely standalone tale, for now. (Well, technically there’s no reason it couldn’t share a universe with “No Dominion,” but they don’t exactly go together stylistically.)
Like my previous three original sales, this is another story I wrote ages ago, abandoned for years, and then revived. And this one’s a record-setter — I wrote the first version fully 20 years ago for a story contest, my longest interval yet between writing a story and getting a version of it published. But while “Twilight’s Captives” only needed a few tweaks, this one needed a top-to-bottom rewrite, including a title change, and it’s essentially a whole new story now. And to my surprise, I sold it on my very first try.
No word on publication date yet — I’ll let you know.
The word has been out for a little while now, so it’s high time I mentioned it: My next Star Trek novel after the upcoming The Face of the Unknown will be Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Patterns of Interference, the fifth book in the ROTF series. Here’s the blurb:
The time has come to act. Following the destructive consequences of the Ware crisis, Admiral Jonathan Archer and Section 31 agent Trip Tucker both attempt to change their institutions to prevent further such tragedies. Archer pushes for a Starfleet directive of non-interference, but he faces opposition from allies within the fleet and unwelcome support from adversaries who wish to drive the Federation into complete isolationism. Meanwhile, Tucker plays a dangerous game against the corrupt leaders of Section 31, hoping to bring down their conspiracy once and for all. But is he willing to jeopardize Archer’s efforts—and perhaps the fate of an entire world—in order to win?
The listed publication date is August 29, 2017, which makes it officially the September 2017 book.
Before anyone asks, yes, the title is kind of a nod to the TOS episode title “Patterns of Force,” but it’s not directly related to that episode, aside from dealing with Prime Directive issues. I just thought it was a reasonably good title (it’s a bit of a pun on interference patterns in physics) and the resonance with a prior Trek title was a bonus.
I’m in shock right now. I didn’t sleep a wink last night, yet still I got up hoping that the election results would turn out to have been a bad dream. I thought I was clear-eyed about the risk of this happening — I’ve seen enough works of speculative fiction on the theme of “It Can Happen Here,” and I know from my studies of history that societies don’t remain stable forever. But still, I let myself get reassured every time the probabilities swung away from this outcome and just crossed my fingers. I feel embarrassed about my last-moment, half-hearted post about the election yesterday. I feel that I should’ve said more before now, done more. But I’m sure a lot of other people do as well — and many more will come to feel buyers’ remorse over the months and years ahead.
It’s happened. The United States has let an incompetent, abusive, bigoted con man trick it into believing he cares about anything but himself. A stooge of a hostile foreign power will now occupy the Oval Office. Civil rights in this country are likely to be set back by a generation. The economy will likely tank, the world will likely become more unstable and violent. The odds that we can stabilize the planet’s climate will plummet. This is probably the worst thing that has happened in the United States in my lifetime.
Still, I’m looking for reasons to hold onto optimism, because that’s what keeps me going. I was bullied and marginalized throughout grade school, my life was one of constant stress and fear and low self-esteem, but because of Star Trek and superheroes, I had hope that there was a way things could get better. I needed to have hope. It was all that kept me sane.
There is the hope that, now that he has won the prize which is the only thing he cared about, Trump will be completely uninterested in actually going to the trouble of governing. He essentially said in the campaign that he’d entrust both foreign and domestic policy to his vice president. I expect this to be like the Reagan administration squared — the celebrity figurehead will barely pay attention to the work and it’ll be taken care of by the staff and handlers who surround him, who will be working hard to walk back the figurehead’s rhetoric and keep the sharp objects out of his hands, like they did throughout the campaign. Which would mean we’ve effectively elected Mike Pence president, or maybe whoever becomes chief of staff. That’s awful enough in its own right, but at least it might just be an ordinary level of presidential awfulness rather than the authoritarian coup many have feared. There’s also the hope that, since he’s a con artist whose whole campaign was built on lies, he won’t actually try to enact the nonsensical or hateful policies he spent the past year advocating. His supporters will probably get screwed over as badly as the investors in his businesses.
Still, we can’t assume the worst won’t happen; that mistake led to yesterday’s outcome. The fact that there’s a movement that responded to a campaign based on racism and religious bigotry and authoritarianism, and that it was large enough to win the election, is terrifying. That movement isn’t going anywhere, and they’ve been emboldened now. And Trump thrives on their adulation, so he’ll continue giving rallies to stir them up, and that will be even worse now that he has the bully pulpit. So the rest of us will have to stand firm, to keep speaking out for what we believe in, to be a loyal opposition and a check on the government’s excesses and a conscience for the nation. We saw in the 1960s how powerful such protest movements can be even when the government is against them. Things may be bad for a while to come, but I believe it will inspire a counterreaction that will eventually make things better again.
I’ve been thinking, during this sleepless night, about the 1991 book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. The book, and the subsequent ones by the same authors, put forth a generational theory of American history stating that the country has gone through several iterations (“turnings”) of a four-generation cycle lasting about 80 years, give or take. There’s a High period, when society is optimistic and well-off but conformist, afraid of anything that would upset their stable existence; an Awakening, when a new generation challenges the previous conformist norms and restrictions and experiments with personal and spiritual awakening; an Unraveling, where the previous generation’s focus on the self leads to an era when social institutions are weak and the population is divisive and mistrustful, unable to unify to solve its problems; and a Crisis, where those festering problems erupt into a major upheaval, but the generation forged in that crisis unites and rises to the occasion, solving it and building a new order that ushers in the next High. In the most recent “turning” of this cycle, the Depression and WWII were the Crisis, the postwar era through the early ’60s was the High, the ’60s and ’70s were the Awakening, and the mid-’80s onward were the Unraveling. And that would put us in the Crisis phase right about now.
In the 25 years since the book came out, I’ve been startled by how closely reality has conformed to the predictions of this theory, although from a scholarly perspective I know that it would take at least another complete “turning” to confirm it scientifically. But I’ve expected for a long time now that we would enter another Crisis phase around this time, and so far, events are bearing that out. And that means things are going to get worse before they get better. I hadn’t expected it to take this form. But I do believe it won’t last forever. It may be a decade or more before we come through it, but I believe the counterreaction against what’s to come will lead to a better world for the Millennial generation and the one after that. And maybe that generation — so much more inclusive and multicultural than the American generations before it — will begin to find a way to break the cycle of highs and lows. That’s probably a long shot, but I need to believe it’s possible. We all need hope more than ever right now. And not just those of us who lost yesterday. Trump won over his supporters because they already lacked hope and were vulnerable to someone offering them easy answers. Real solutions are never easy, but they can only work if they offer hope to everyone, not just those we agree with.
So what will I do? I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep using my work to portray a better future we can strive toward, and to be as inclusive of diverse characters and worldviews as I can. I’ll keep writing allegories about the problems we face, and hopefully influencing some people to work toward solving them. I know, for example, that my upcoming Star Trek: The Original Series novel The Face of the Unknown, due out at the end of this year, is suddenly much more relevant than I ever wanted it to be. It may be hard to believe in a better future at the moment, but my work, both in Star Trek and in my main original universe, has always incorporated the assumption that the first half of the 21st century would be a time of crisis, but that it would be a catalyst for humanity to find new solutions and make the world better — not completely, not easily, and always with the risk of backsliding, but still better, wiser, more inclusive and enlightened. We need to keep believing in that future, and fighting for it. In the words of Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, “Under the Night,” October 2, 2000), “Pessimism is not a survival trait.” No matter who won or lost the election, we still need the audacity of hope, and we are still stronger together.
(I’m disabling comments again, because this is hard for me to think about or talk about. I needed to say this, to get it out of my system, but I don’t have the strength for an extended discussion, and I still have writing obligations that urgently need my attention right now. This will be reposted on my Facebook page, of course.)
I’ve been hesitant to post anything about the election here on my blog, in part because I’m really busy with writing right now, and in part because I’m timid and don’t like to invite controversy here on my personal site. Also, I was raised to believe that voting decisions were a private matter. Anyway, I think people familiar with my work will already have a pretty good idea where I stand, and will be fans of other people who’ve made the case quite eloquently.
But today’s election is so important that I had to say something. A healthy democracy depends on informed voters participating in the process. We’re not spectators, we’re the decision-makers, and when too few of us participate, the decisions that get made tend to be bad for the rest of us. And those decisions need to be careful and informed, because an election is a job interview, not a popularity contest. And this may be the single most important election of our lifetimes. Even from a climate-change perspective alone, the fate of the world may be literally at stake today — or at least whether the optimistic futures I like to write about will ever be plausible.
Even if it weren’t so pivotal this time, it’s always important to vote, and to be an informed voter, learning about the issues and candidates rather than just letting rhetoric, partisanship, and propaganda guide you. It’s work, yes, but democracy is like adulthood — with great freedom comes great responsibility. If we don’t do the work, we don’t get the benefits of independence. And not only for the big races, but all the way down the line. The local races, particularly for things like school boards and juvenile court judges, are just as important to our everyday lives as the big stuff that gets national attention.
So please vote, and vote carefully.
First off, following up on my cover reveal for Star Trek: The Original Series — The Face of the Unknown, Simon & Schuster has also included a listing for an unabridged audiobook adaptation of the novel. I know this is a real thing, since I was recently contacted for input on the pronunciation guide. This will be my third audiobook overall, and my first for a Star Trek project.
Second, Cross Cult, the German publisher of Star Trek novels in translation, has posted the preliminary cover artwork for their translation of Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures:
Am Scheideweg = At a Crossroads, apparently. Nice translation for A Choice of Futures.
And I like it that it’s just Star Trek: Rise of the Federation, instead of ST: Enterprise: ROTF. That’s what I would’ve preferred it to be called, since it’s broader than just ENT.
Here it is:
I quite like this cover. It’s got nice vivid colors, it’s a dynamic scene, and I like the menacing Scary Balok Puppet head looming over the scene (and tying in nicely with the “Face” in the title). The swarm of angular red ships attacking the Enterprise is what really sells it, I think, adding color and energy and novelty to the scene; take them away and it would just look like a poster for “The Corbomite Maneuver.” It’s interesting how one element can make the difference like that.
Also, I just realized that the dominant colors on the cover are gold, blue, and red, the three TOS uniform colors (although the “gold” was actually more an avocado green that looked gold under stage lights, but anyway). How appropriate for the closing book of TOS’s 50th-anniversary year (it’s technically the January 2017 book, but its official street date is December 27, and a publishing year is considered to run from February to January).
Here’s the blurb again:
Continuing the milestone 50th anniversary celebration of Star Trek—a brand-new novel of The Original Series featuring James T. Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the USS Enterprise!
Investigating a series of violent raids by a mysterious predatory species, Captain James T. Kirk discovers that these events share a startling connection with the First Federation, a friendly but secretive civilization contacted early in the USS Enterprise’s five-year mission. Traveling to the First Federation in search of answers, the Enterprise suddenly comes under attack from these strange marauders. Seeking refuge, the starship finds its way to the true home of the First Federation, an astonishing collection of worlds hidden from the galaxy beyond. The inhabitants of this isolated realm are wary of outsiders, and some accuse Kirk and his crew for bringing the wrath of their ancient enemy down upon them. When an attempt to stave off disaster goes tragically wrong, Kirk is held fully accountable, and Commander Spock learns there are even deeper forces that threaten this civilization. If Kirk and Spock cannot convince the First Federation’s leaders to overcome their fears, the resulting catastrophe could doom them all!
And here’s the ordering page at Simon & Schuster, with links to other vendors.
Just two months to go!