Taking The Week Off

Dear Followers and Readers:

I wanted to let you know that I am taking the week off from blogging. The reasons for this are actually very good, personally. This week, I landed a new day job which I am very excited about. I am also working on a new novel, which I am writing under contract. And on the 1st of March, I will be taking part in a reading in Chicago. I would be honored to see anyone there.

I will be back to the blog next week, especially William Shakespeare’s Dune. Things are going very well, but it also means things are going much busier.

To fill the void in your life, why not catch up on the first two acts of William Shakespeare’s Dune, or even better, buy some of my wonderful fiction from Amazon.com

From Somewhere In Orbit.

 

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 9 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: An awesome ending to an awesome show. I’m really not sure what to say about it that wasn’t great. In some ways, it reminded me of The Lord Of The Rings, with El and Hopper going into the Gate to seal it while the rest of the gang takes on the role of Aragorn and company by distracting the evil forces with various forms of fire. And unlike the previous season, we are not left with much of a cliffhanger.

The Bad: If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a natural quibbler, so before reading this, understand that none of this makes the show less than good. It irritated me from the start that no one tried heat on Will before this. As Joyce says, why were they giving it what it wanted for so long? Also, I wish the tension between Max and El had been more resolved in a more concrete fashion. That just felt as though it was left hanging.
One thing I meant to say in a previous post and forgot to, about Max and her douchebag older brother:

The tension that had been building around their origin and appearance was both weirdly heightened and killed by the appearance of their parents. Brother’s father had the weird effect of making me want to cheer him on by smacking around his son who desperately needed a smacking around, but also to want to shoot him because the odds are that he’s the reason his son is such a douche in the first place. We still don’t know exactly why Brother blames Max for the move from California, and until seeing the parents arrive, I thought these two were actually on their own. I leave it to the writers to wind this up in Season 3, but for now it feels flat.

And oh, gods, please PLEASE don’t really drag us through the stomach-twisting awfulness of an affair between douchey Brother and Mike and Nancy’s mom. Just barf.

Further Questions: Is Brenner alive? How and what is he doing? Obviously, the Thing in the Upside Down s still very much alive and wanting to get back to our world. Can it without some sort of assistance? We’ve met Eleven and Eight, which means there are potentially at least nine other Gifted we could encounter. Will we ever?
And is Steve really okay with where things ended up, or is he plotting something in that mind of his…

Final Thoughts: I’d really love to have some more indication on what the real nature of the Upside Down is. So far, the whole thing really has read as if it were D&D come to life, which is cute, but ridiculous. I keep wanting  better explanation, such as that it is an alternate timeline where Something Bad Came To Earth. I just find it hard to believe in a universe where things are built by no one and are always decayed.
In the course of this blog, I have seen a bit of fan speculation that Mike may be (or should be) killed off. I hope not. I think that would be the absolute wrong move. It would feel like a very artificial way to torture El and make her less human. The love story between El and Mike, and its innocence, is the heart and soul of this story. To delay it is certainly legitimate: it has to be laid on the line to make it worth something. To destroy it is to destroy the work.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 8 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: I really love what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. Here’s a man who has every reason to run from the strange situation he’s been thrust into, to refuse to believe what’s going on, and yet he sticks with it every step of the way. He steps forward to place himself in mortal danger not because he wants to prove himself, but because he knows he’s the only one who can do what needs to be done: resetting the computer system. One of my favorite lines in the series has to be: “Well, teach me BASIC.” “Oh, sure Sheriff. How about I teach you German to go with that. Or French; would you like to learn French?” Likewise, Paul Reiser’s character lays it on the line, becoming a true leader. These guys are men. Real men, who do what real men ought to do.
I love — more than I can say — the fact they did something with the creature’s mind control of Will that is so rarely well done: giving him agency down to the very last, figuring out how to send the coded message to his friends. That kicked ass, being very well-established and reasonable.
And finally, there was the return of El, which was everything it should have been.
The Bad: I really hate what they did with Bob’s character in this episode. First of all, the whole “Somehow, he forgot his gun in the control room” thing was just stupid. Especially given that how he died, that gun would have been 100% useless. It was incredibly predictable that Bob would die, which is the major reason I wish they had not killed him off. Frankly, it felt like they did that just to make Joyce more miserable, and I am really tired of seeing Joyce miserable. It is taking a character who is in many ways admirable, if understandably overbearing and needy (who wouldn’t be?) and hammering her flat by never allowing her a single moment of relief from loss.
Further Questions: How will El close the Gate? And how many more will we lose? And please, please, please, don’t kill El for reals this time.

The Word: The God Of Large And Small

Another theology column that I originally wrote for Sci-Phi Journal.

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls, brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers:
“The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.”
Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost:
“The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import:
“’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never
needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 7 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: At the risk of repeating myself, I just want to reaffirm how much I love the way this show is handling its characters. In this episode, we have El, encountering her long-lost sister, Kali (008). And while El is drawn to dreams of revenge, she does not alter her fundamental character to go on a journey through a dark side, which in some ways seems preordained in fiction these days, because nothing can stay pure. Honestly, I’d have preferred that El have articulated it, but it’s quite plain that she, unlike Kali, understands that she must spare, not her torturer’s life, but his daughters’ lives. Their father. Their childhoods. That the cycle of revenge must end.
More than that, Kali does not vow instant revenge on El. Whatever her other faults, Kali and El part on friendly terms, much as they may have chosen different paths. That’s complex and unusual. I admire deeply how this series avoids the easy tropes and answers in favor of the complex.

The Bad: I have little bad to say about this episode. And since writing this post I have discovered that there was enormous pushback against it. I thought it was really well done, and if it was hard to watch, it was because El, who we care about, was being pulled really hard toward making revenge the center of her life.
If I have a criticism, though, it’s in what others have said: the utter lack of backstory for the other members of Kali’s tribe. If they aren’t like Kali and El (Hmmm. Kali-El? Superman?) then what did they have to do with the Hawkins Lab and the people who ran it? Or are we to assume there are several groups of people being avenged upon, here?

Further Questions: Will we see Kali again? And when will El arrive back in Hawkins? Before, or after the Demodogs have had their feast?

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 6 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: Steve really comes into his own here as a leader, even when little is to be gained by it. If there’s something I love about this series, it is its unflagging insistence that no one is disposable. Every bit of struggle against the common enemy is necessary. Every bit of betrayal is wrong. I just about applauded when one of the scientists suggests — from a very sound strategic basis — that they have to burn the infection out, and if it kills Will Byers, then he has to die. And Paul Reiser’s character just fixes him with a stare and says “Say that again.” I was almost expecting the Dr. to show his true, evil colors here. That he did not made me love the series even more.
The only reason anyone in this series is disposable is because they choose to be: to take the side of the evil for their own selfish reasons. Dustin comes perilously close to that, far closer than I think he realizes, by placing Dart’s welfare and his wish to impress Max at a higher level than the welfare of his friends. And Max, I think, sees this, and is quite understandably more attracted to Lucas, who took the chance to tell her the truth, regardless of how stupid it sounded. That Dustin tried to make these two violations of “Law” equivalent, shows that he really doesn’t understand at all.
Also, we finally see Will’s fear realized. Yes, the Thing inside him can spy through him and can compel him, although I really like that it can’t just access his memories, and it doesn’t really seem to have a handle on human behavior.
The Bad: While on some level the Thing would be able to spy through Will, it was awfully predictable that this would happen, and the betrayal is incredibly reminiscent of the fight on C-level in Aliens when most of the Colonial Marines get their faces eaten. If this was intended as homage, it really came off as unimaginative. It’s maddeningly unclear how vulnerable the Demodogs are to gunfire, and it feels very much like they are killed only at the speed of Plot.
Further Questions: Are they all going to die? And where is El??

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 5 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: This episode felt very much like a filler episode for me, but there were some excellent details. I loved seeing how Will grows into, but is also scared of, his role as a spy. Perhaps my favorite bit of this was the idea that Nancy and Jonathan actually discover a halfway sane conspiracy hunter. Yes, he’s obsessed, but he’s not stupid, and he has a scheme to release just enough truth to do the good that needs to be done. Brilliant. Also, I really like that Steve Harrington has not decided to retreat into being any kind of a dipshit, but is growing into a man enough to do what needs to be done, even when there is no real reward for it.
And we finally get our answers for what happened to El’s mother, and it’s heartbreaking. Bob begins to play a very useful role in the series, despite Winona Ryder screaming at him.

The Bad: You know, I have all the sympathy in the world for Will’s Mom, I really do, but I would really love it if she could do something beyond be hysterically shrill most of the time. I still want to kick Dustin’s ass. And the long-unresolved sexual tension between Nancy and Jonathan finally comes to a conclusion, but it’s taken so long that it was almost anticlimactic.

Further Questions: Will Dart’s escape have long-term consequences. Well, duh. Is Will going to die? Be back next episode? He seems to be losing a lot of ground, here.

Words: Stranger Things 2, Episode 4 Microblog (Much Spoilers, Etc.)

The Good: From the beginning of this episode, what worried me was that Will was going to come back from his (well-meant but) ill-advised attempt to confront the Thing In The Upside Down as completely possessed. The fact that he did not was a great relief. Such a thing, making Will a possessed victim, would have been a bad choice for two reasons: firstly, it would have been far too easy. The possessed child trope has been overdone in horror because it’s a gut-wrenching paradox: the evil that is at the same time innocent. It’s sort of the opposite of the zombie trope: rather than the enemy you get to kill with no moral qualms, it’s an enemy you have to kill despite the moral horror of it. It’s a spiritual hostage crisis.
Secondly, Will’s role in the series up until now has been almost exclusively that of the victim, despite his attempts to survive. Giving “Will the Wise” the agency of spying on this “thing” is a way to make him truly a member of the party rather than its quest, and makes him a better character.
I’m also amazed at the way they handled Nancy and Jonathan’s plan to reveal the truth behind Hawkins Lab’s cover-up of Barb’s death. It’s becoming plainer that Paul Reiser’s character is not a reprise of Burke from Aliens, but rather a sensible man who is being as honest and kind as he can while at the same time being as deceptive and hard-nosed as he needs to be. Most series would portray anyone in government service as being evil by default, but once again, the writers refuse to take the easy way out. I love it.

The Bad: I have to admit that I found it really weird that, given the way Will is talking, his friends and family did not come to the conclusion that heating Will up, with or without his cooperation, would have been a good idea.
Also, Hopper not telling El the whole story about her Mother seemed to me rather gratuitously clueless.
But the worst part of the series is also showing up here because I find Dustin to be uncharacteristically dishonest and clueless about Dart for no real reason other than to build up tension. It’s the sort of cliché the series has done well to avoid: The Protagonist Keeps A Secret He Shouldn’t.

Further Questions: What will El find when she goes to see her mother? What will Nancy and Jonathan do with their knowledge. And most importantly, what is up with Max and her weird brother and why does he think it’s her fault that they are stuck here rather than in CA?