Stranger Things: Through the Eyes of Children

I cut my literary teeth on Stephen King. I was that weird kid lugging a 5-pound copy of The Stand around in my backpack to read on the bus, and I still can’t truly trust clowns after viewing It (unbeknownst to my parents) at the tender age of six. I say this for the sake of full disclosure, because anything that pays as much homage to Stephen King as Stranger Things is automatically going to rank high on my geek-love radar.

And it’s definitely a story that could fit right in alongside the best of King’s catalogue. Set in the early 1980s in a small, working-class town, the horror is of a psychological bent, focused more on suspense than gore. Also like King, though, it’s got one hell of a monster, and (to paraphrase the horror master) it doesn’t hesitate to jump out and go ooga-booga. It’s like the unholy love child of the Cloverfield monster and that creepy eye-hands guy from Pan’s Labyrinth, with a cross-dimensional travel pattern that lets it be pretty much everywhere at once and almost impossible to track and kill—in short, a nearly perfect beast to inspire pure terror.

There’s a lot to love about Stranger Things but from a genre writer’s perspective, the thing I found most uniquely masterful was the way they integrated the Dungeons & Dragons tropes without them feeling gimmicky. I’ve only ever seen the “game becomes reality” idea executed well in comedies, never in a dramatic or true horror setting (which often then becomes a comedy, if for all the wrong reasons). The way Stranger Things integrates it so seamlessly is the same way Stephen King handles some of his most bizarre and terrifying creations: by showing it first through the eyes of children.

Here’s some context, for those who haven’t seen the show. The monster’s presence in our world is made possible through the accidental opening of a portal to another dimension—a place identical to our world in general form but dark and mostly lifeless. This is referred to in the show in many ways, but the kids first wrap their heads around this realm as the Vale of Shadows—a region described in their D&D source texts as a shadow world that’s dark “even in the brightest day, and some of the shadows walk, carrying their burden of hatred and hunger with them.” It’s the first explanation of any kind the viewer is given for the shadow world. Though we eventually do get the more scientific description, the Vale of Shadows is both more apt and far more interesting than the stock explanation of multiple dimensions.

If adult characters—even avid D&D players—whipped out a description from a Dungeonmaster’s Guide, I can’t picture that succeeding on the screen. Not with the same deadly seriousness the kids in Stranger Things use. An adult character who did read from D&D would have to present the information tongue-in-cheek, or with a sense of extreme skepticism, even in the context of supernatural weirdness.

When the adults regard the monster’s realm, it’s treated as science fiction: a strange portal opened up by a force that, though not understood, could potentially be explained following the in-world rules and science. When the children interact with it, though, the realm is fantasy. It doesn’t need an explanation. Their quest has brought them to a dangerous place, and their task is only figuring out how to survive. Ultimately, this gives the kids’ version of the world a more visceral emotional flavor, uncluttered by the need to define it.

A child character is naturally going to have a more fluid conception of existence than your standard adult. They’re difficult to write well (at least for me) but they can be a useful tool, allowing you to play more with the boundaries between reality and fiction. Stephen King’s child characters use this advantage to full effect. Stranger Things admirably follows his example, as it does in so many other wonderful ways.

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Becoming human: The AI in Star Trek

Star Trek consistently takes a humanist approach to science fiction. There are a multitude of species and worlds but the focus always stays with Starfleet and its largely human-crewed ships; advanced technology is certainly present and often plays a major role in the plot, but it’s a tool, a setting, more than it is the focus.

Take the android. In Star Trek’s version of Earth’s future timeline, humans don’t create the first android until 2330 when Dr. Soong creates Lore, Data, and his other prototypes. This is relatively late on the technology timeline—about 300 years after the invention of warp drive, and more than 200 years after invention of the transporter. Compare this to Isaac Asimov’s future Earth in I, Robot, where robots are common in the 21st century. Or Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, where there are not only androids in the early 21st century, but models so sophisticated they can pass as humans. The android or robot is a common character in sci-fi worlds, but Star Trek downplays its role, choosing instead to keep the focus primarily on organic life forms.

Even more telling is that most artificial lifeforms in the Star Trek universe want nothing more than to be human. That’s Data’s driving mission throughout TNG. His brother, Lore, is an exception; he thinks androids and other artificial lifeforms are superior and tries to use some renegade Borg to overthrow humanity (TNG Ep. 6.26, “Descent”). But Lore is clearly established to be the villain in this saga, getting Data to join in on this plan only by shutting down his ethical subroutines. Data and Lore are more advanced than humans in many ways. They’re stronger and more precise, possess vastly more knowledge and better computational skills, and are more durable—theoretically immortal. The idea that such a creature would long to be human reinforces the idea that the intangible human spirit is more valuable than strength or intellect.

The Borg convey a similar message. At the most basic level, they’re technologically-enhanced biological organisms. These enhancements make their perceived advantages and short-fallings similar to those of an android, though the hive mind aspect also means they lack individuality—another quality valued by humans. Whenever a Borg is given its individuality back, it gladly gives up the strength and protection of the collective in order to be its own entity. This is seen in both Hugh (first introduced in TNG Ep. 5.23 “I Borg”) and the recurring Voyager character Seven of Nine, who—like Data—spends most of her series on a quest to discover her humanity.

Where Star Trek deals most uniquely with the idea of artificial intelligence, though, is in the realm of the hologram. Whereas both androids and Borg have corporeal forms, a hologram is nothing more than a projection of light waves. An android still exists when you turn him off; a hologram ceases to exist when you end its program. A self-aware hologram that’s on a quest to become more human faces an entirely different struggle than that of an android. The hologram has the intangible—the personality, the emotions, the individuality. What it lacks is physicality.

The nature of holograms changes a lot from 2364-2378 (the timespan collectively covered by TNG, DS9, and Voyager) and there is, fittingly enough, one self-aware hologram on each of these three series. TNG gives us Professor Moriarty—a program of the Sherlock Holmes character who is accidentally made sentient when Geordi asks the computer to create a character capable of outwitting Data (Ep. 2.03 “Elementary, Dear Data”). Like the character he was created from, Moriarty ends up taking the role of genius antagonist, both in this first appearance and when he’s accidentally reactivated four years later (Ep. 6,12 “Ship in a Bottle”) though his devious plots have an understandable goal: he wishes to be able to leave the holodeck and live a normal, human life. Though the Enterprise crew experiments with using the transporter to give him a corporeal form, their efforts are ultimately unsuccessful; they store his program and promise to work on technology that would allow him to exist outside the holodeck.

Considering how easy it was to create Moriarty completely by accident, it’s I suppose not surprising that sentient (or at least self-aware) hologram programs become seemingly widely available by the 2370s. It’s not clear whether Moriarty’s accidental creation led to these developments or whether they were in the works before. In 2373, Dr. Bashir buys a program for a self-aware hologram named Vic Fontaine, a 1960s era jazz singer program that also serves as a kind of counselor for the crew aboard DS9 through the toughest parts of the Dominion War. Unlike Moriarty, Vic seems relatively content to remain within the constraints of the holodeck (though the DS9 crew does keep his program turned on more than normal so he can “live” normal days). Even so, Vic continues the show’s trend of having AI admire humanity. At one point, the Ferengi character Nog is traumatized by a battle injury and goes to live with Vic on the holodeck while he recovers. Vic’s role in this scenario is to coax Nog back out into the real world and convince him that the holodeck is nothing more than a fantasy. Vic recognizes the constraints of his environment and that he is, by extension, inherently lesser than a corporeal being.

When the USS Voyager embarks on its mission in 2371, they are equipped with a holographic emergency medical program (EMH), which they rely on exclusively after their medical staff is killed in the first episode. The Doctor is made in his creator’s image physically and without much in the way of personality. Though his program has both self-awareness and the ability to learn, he was intended for short-term use; he developed as much as he did only because of the extenuating circumstances of his ship. By 2373, he exceeds the memory capacity of his program, which was never intended to run long enough to form interpersonal relationships. The Enterprise crew finds a work-around that maintains the core of his personality rather than take the easier route of re-initializing his program, which would wipe out all his memories. In doing so, they acknowledge his accumulation of memories as a self. It’s later in that year he acquires his holo-emitter, allowing him to leave the confines of sick bay and the holodeck. With both his physical and psychological limitations exceeded, the Doctor officially becomes the first holographic projection that could arguably be called an individual.

Perhaps the ultimate message about humanity that can be discerned from Star Trek’s various plays with AI is that our flaws make us human. The Borg—the ultimate enemy—are on a quest for perfection. That perfection takes the best from various species and eliminates the rest, in the end serving to make them all the same. When individual drones are extracted from the collective, they become sympathetic. Lore also sees androids and Borg as more perfect than humans, that trait that differentiates him from his brother Data, who admires the aspects of humanity Lore views as flaws. Though Moriarty is placed in the role of villain, we nonetheless respect his motivation and see him as sympathetic because his goal is to become more like us. The Enterprise crew feels the same way, storing him so they can help him on his quest rather than deactivating him as they do with Lore. Ultimately, the primary function of the AI in Star Trek is to explore what humanity means, admirably serving as foils to the human characters, whatever the specifics of their creation.

Swarm Theory

swarm_theory

Swarm Theory
Christine Rice
361 pages
University of Hell Press

 

tl;dr summary: Life in New Canaan, MI is shitty, and lots of different characters tell you why.

 

Read this if you like: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Alan Heathcock’s Volt

 

I am a firm believer that genre conventions are made to be broken, whether the term’s used to refer to form or content. In terms of content, Swarm Theory falls squarely in the literary camp. It’s the form where author Christine Rice shakes things up here—and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

The stories (chapters?) themselves are well-written. Some are better than others, as is often the case. “Known Issues” and “The Art of Survival” are masterful—in fact, the entire first act is strong. There are flashes of brilliance in the remaining three acts, too. “King of the Lakes” is tragically beautiful and “Spectacular Diversions” has a unique voice paired with an excellent pacing and flow. A couple of the stories feel a bit cliché; I could swear I’ve read “Other than Honorable Intentions” before, or at least something like it, and “Kinetic Friction” is predictable, bordering on melodramatic. Generally, though, it’s a good representation of the modern literary style: artfully-written everyday people, many of whom are good people doing not-so-good things, some of whom find either redemption or growth at the end of their journey.

Where I felt this book stumbled slightly was in its scope, which seemed to exceed the constraints of the structure. The individual narrative sections couldn’t quite decide whether they were chapters or stories—not self-contained enough to stand apart from the collective but not interconnected enough to give the book a complete narrative arc. To use the bee metaphor so prevalent in Swarm Theory, the novel as a whole felt like a hive full of worker bees with no queen. There were so many points of focus that the complexities of the plot felt confused, a bit scattered. I was missing a tangible central thread that could focus the narrative and give it direction.

I should admit I was predisposed to pay extra attention to the structure of this book when I came into it. I’ve been working on a project with a similar structure, one that you might call a “novel in stories,” that walks the line between a novel and a collection. I picked this book up intentionally to see how she approached the multiple POVs and whether or not it worked. The biggest benefit of the structure is how big it makes the world. Giving so many character their own voice lets us see all of New Canaan, even the parts one character or another would never visit.

The downside of the multiple POVs, as you might guess, is that it’s harder to follow. To fully appreciate the story I think would take me another read. The reader has to piece the bigger story together out of short, limited glimpses of the world. It jumps back and forth in time over a pretty broad stretch. The de-centralized narration makes it harder to gather on a first read which details and people will be important later on; many characters appear sporadically or go by different names in different perspectives, making them difficult to track. I ended up doing a lot of back-checking and re-reading just to get my bearings. I’m not opposed to a difficult novel on principle, but in this case I feel as though the structure made the book harder to read than it had to be, and I’m not sure it was ultimately in service to the story.

The interplay between the voices allowed for beautiful dramatic irony. The characters are as well-formed as they are diverse. I wonder if perhaps this is what I’d call a writer’s book. I found myself appreciating it from a craft perspective, admiring her use of language and coming at it from an intellectual more than an emotional angle. There’s a lot of good here if you’re willing to work for it.

GoT Season Six: 11 Key Takeaways

If you’re not caught up through the GoT season six finale: Brace yourself. Spoilers are coming.

I’ve had a few days to process the sixth season and have engaged in two solid drunken debates on all the major points, which means I’m ready to look back on the season as a whole. It was the first season all of us smug book readers were just as clueless about what would happen as the TV only crowd, with all but a few minor plot points pushing beyond A Dance with Dragons territory, uniting the fanbase in suspense and speculation. It also brought back some characters we haven’t seen for years, successfully advancing every single running plot. Loose threads were not necessarily tied up but were at least woven back into the picture, a masterful bit of plot-wrangling considering how vast this world has become and how many characters there are.

A lot happened this season, and I’m sure there will be at least one rapt attention re-watch in store for me in the coming months to comb for minute details that can be the germs of my new fan theories. In the mean time, this season gave us a lot to chew on at the macro level, along with some important life lessons, such as:

1) When in doubt, kill it with fire
The Targaryen family motto is “Fire and Blood,” so of course it’s Dany’s go-to, whether she’s executing every Dothraki Khal or taking out the slaver’s fleet with a muttered dracarys. But our Khaleesi isn’t the only one who likes to watch the world burn. Up north, burning a body is the only way to keep it from turning into a White Walker, and fire is the Children of The Forest’s preferred method for killing their creations-turned-enemies. And then of course there’s Cersei, who takes a page from the Mad King’s handbook (because he was a great role model for successful leadership) and simply blows up the sept when the High Sparrow and his Faith Militant gets too big for her to control.

2) Unintended consequences are a bitch
…which is a pretty big theme throughout the series but especially true in this season. Obviously King’s Landing is full of this—the political interplay of Cersei and Margaery with the High Sparrow ultimately leads to Cersei blowing up the sept and Tommen’s subsequent suicide. Bran, though, is a newcomer to accidental fuck-ups. It’s his rogue tree-talking that brings the Night King down on them, and his interest in young Hodor that makes him Hodor in the first place (in a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey twist), though you could argue that Bran’s unintended consequences were more like destiny considering Hodor’s role in getting Bran north of the wall in the first place (time paradoxes FTW).

3) Revenge is sweet (and well-choreographed)
Remember the Red Wedding? Of course you do. Remember the ways everyone was killed? Robb was stabbed in the gut and shot through with arrows while Catelyn’s throat was slit. The three men responsible for orchestrating this betrayal have since been systematically picked off: Tywin Lannister, who was killed all the way back in the season four finale with a crossbow bolt; Roose Bolton, stabbed by Ramsey in pretty much the same way Roose stabbed Robb; and Walder Frey, whose throat is slit by Arya in the finale (anyone know why she’s allowed to use the faces? Part of a “at least you tried being no one” consolation prize? Did she slip a few into her pocket on the way out? A girl is baffled). Speaking of vengeance, Sansa’s ice cold delivery of Ramsey’s fitting puppy chow comeuppance in “Battle of the Bastards” is the capstone on her evolution into Lady Stark (more on her later).

4) All the characters apparently have transporters (oops wrong franchise)
I get that traveling isn’t the most exciting thing to show on screen, and there’s no way to say for sure how the chronologies of the major players align (just because one scene follows another in the episode doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happening concurrently, etc). Still, this season in particular said “fuck it” to little things like how long it takes to travel by ships or horseback. This started with Sansa and Brienne getting from Winterfell to the Wall in all of ten minutes and culminates in Arya’s appearance at Walder Frey’s side one episode after she’s seen in Braavos. It’s not just a Stark thing, either—the journeys of Jaime crossing the Riverlands, Varys sailing from Mereen to Dorne, and Yara/Theon taking an entire fucking fleet from the Iron Islands (off the western coast of Westeros) to Mereen (east of Westeros and across the sea) are all just poofed away. The only one who seems to be exempt from this rule is Sam, who was still sailing to Horn Hill until episode six.

5) The title sequence reveals more than we realize
This is one I can’t take credit for, but it’s a big one. Crystal Ro over at Yahoo! made the observation that the chandeliers inside the Citadel library in Old Town look identical to the big bright spheres adorned with house sigils in the opening credits. These chandeliers have lenses around them, which appear eerily similar to the “focus wipe” between map locations (click on over to Ro’s article for some gif action). This of course opens up a whole new realm of speculation. Is the steampunk map in the credits something that exists in the Citadel library? Or is the implication more far-reaching, indicating the Citadel has a lot more control over the course of Westerosi politics than we realize? Do the Maesters in each castle actually have a bigger end-game than giving advice? It’s a good time to give fans more to speculate about, since some popular fan theories have come to fruition this season, including…

6) R + L = J
It’s always a nice feeling as a fan when your theories turn out to be right. Bran’s vision of the Tower of Joy shows Lyanna dying in childbirth then entrusting her newborn son to her brother Ned, with a quick-cut to Jon’s face ensuring even the densest viewer understands the connection. Now that it’s confirmed, Jon’s right to the Stark name is unquestionable, and his Targaryen blood could make for some interesting plot movements going forward.

7) …and Coldhands is Benjen (at least in the show)
He didn’t ride in on an elk (more’s the pity) but based on the circumstances of his appearance and his role in getting the new Three-Eyed Raven south, Benjen Stark’s re-entry into the plot is at the very least the show’s homage to Coldhands. A note from GRRM to his editor on a manuscript of A Dance With Dragons pretty clearly debunks the  Coldhands/Benjen connection in the books, but the show world is getting progressively more different with each passing episode. In this instance, I think it’s fair to say the show’s producers took a fan theory and ran with it.

8) Sansa finally took a level in badass
We’ve all been waiting for the eldest Stark daughter to live up to her family name. She didn’t wise up after Joffrey’s abuses and stayed relatively naïve through Littlefinger’s machinations, but Ramsey’s true bastardness succeeded where they failed. Sansa has been hardened into the Lady Stark that Winterfell needs to get them through what will surely be a bloody winter. Better late than never, right? Speaking of late bloomers, we’ve also learned that…

9) Theon’s more of a man without his dick
The Theon Greyjoy of season one was a womanizing douchebag. The Theon Greyjoy of seasons two and three was a traitorous, weak-willed princeling in way over his head. Post-castration Theon not only helped Sansa escape from her hellish captivity but  returned to the Iron Islands and threw his lot in with his sister, Yara, facing both her anger and his people’s judgment with his head held high (and delivering a rousing, if unsuccessful, speech in her favor). In season six, we see Theon standing up for his principles and making amends for his past, the first positive progress for his character the entire show.

10) …but Edmure’s still a pussy
Maybe the Freys just didn’t treat him badly enough to push Edmure into the kind of character transformation that both Sansa and Theon underwent after their respective tortures. Regardless, Edmure hands Riverrun to Jaime without so much as a second thought, ultimately getting the Blackfish killed and pretty much ending any hope House Tully had of surviving past this generation. Still, as dire as House Tully’s situation is, they’re not the only family for whom…

11) Shit just got real
…and that’s saying something for a show that’s consistently slaughtered characters indiscriminately. Exhibit A is the combined Targaryen/Greyjoy fleet now headed across the Narrow Sea to Westeros. Dany’s path to the throne is much clearer than it once was thanks to the newly-formed alliance with both Dorne and Highgarden (and Cersei’s remarkable ability to make the worst possible decision). Most of the political power in King’s Landing went down in flames at the Sept of Baelor, and Jaime’s looking like he’s finally having second thoughts about choosing Cersei over Brienne (although he might have to fight off Tormund if he hopes to rekindle things with his Maiden Fair). Exhibit B is the seemingly imminent Stark family reunion. Jon and Sansa have re-taken Winterfell, Bran’s coming south from the Wall, and Arya’s not too far away in the Twins (and doesn’t she still have a wolf out there somewhere? Ghost needs a buddy). Exhibit C: The Night King (along with his zombie army) whose march south isn’t likely to meet any resistance from the Night’s Watch that’s fallen so far Dolorous Ed is its Lord Commander (I mean, I like the guy but come on now).

 

Where will season seven take us? If Jon stays true to his stated objective, he’ll return to fighting the White Walkers now that Winterfell is safe. An alliance with Dany—who has dragons, which make dragonglass, which kills White Walkers—only seems logical. If Jaime really is getting cold feet, a few words from his favorite little brother might just see the last remaining Lannisters helping to bring Cersei to her long-awaited demise. It doesn’t seem like Dany’s going to have much trouble at all taking the Iron Throne. It seems to me season seven will be more of a “Song of Ice and Fire” than it will a “Game of Thrones,” with the political machinations taking a backseat to the supernatural threat beyond the wall. As always, though, we’ve got ten months to discuss amongst ourselves before we get to WAFO.