this week in fandom

This Week in Fandom (1/3/20): Mistborn, Time Travel, and the Magic of That Screen Crawl

Welcome to the first weekly installment of “This Week in Fandom,” in which I’ll briefly explore what I’m currently into and hopefully synthesize my divergent interests into some sort of coherent life. This Week in Fandom is somewhat modeled after Sanderson’s yearly “State of the Sanderson,” in which he outlines his year and the progress he’s made in various projects. However, instead of outlining my own accomplishments, I intend to outline the ways in which I’m enjoying the accomplishments of others.

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson.

The second book in the original Mistborn trilogy picks up about a year after The Final Empire. Last week [link] I started a series on how belief plays out in this series. So on this, my third time through, I’m digging in and exploring the ideas that have captured my attention on previous reads. This reread is also the start of another pass through the whole Cosmere for me, since we officially have a Stormlight 4 release date. More on what’s going on with Vin and Sazed later as I have a few more Mistborn and belief posts in the works.

The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz

I just cracked into this one, but I’m pretty excited. I read Newitz’s debut novel, Autonomous, last year, and it was great. I veer toward more fantasy than sci-fi, but the approach of Autonomous left me ready to open myself up to the genre. In her first novel, the ramifications of A.I. and bioethics drove the plot forward, so it will be great to see how Newitz takes on geological time travel.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 6: Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon written by Si Spurrier

Doctor Aphra is yet another Star Wars IP that is a dividing line between fans. Aphra is an archaeologist who plays by her own rules and lives by a “play or be played” philosophy. Her early adventures kept her perilously close to Vader, but these last few books have gone deeper into her back story and her absolute brokenness. Aphra is an absolute mess, but we just can’t look away. Sadly, I believe that Aphra is wrapping up with one final book, but I have found her to be a consistently great addition to the SW universe.

See my review of the latest Aphra book here.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Speaking of Star Wars, I was able to catch the final entry of the Skywalker saga again this past weekend. There is so much to say about this film, it’s place in its trilogy, and it’s place in the SW universe, but for now I’ll settle for just how great it was. I loved this movie. No spoilers here, but Kylo Ren’s *moment* atop the Death Star just wrecked me the first time I saw it. I am so satisfied with this film and remain so glad at the Star Wars revival. It’s not that there weren’t aspects of Rise of Skywalker that I didn’t appreciate, but the Star Wars opening screen crawl just has a certain power. It’s magic draws me in and ensures that I am about to generally enjoy whatever happens next. That is my bias that I don’t care to hide at all.

Other Various Media

I don’t think I’ve binge-watched a show since before my two-year-old was born, but I believe that I’m binge-watching The Good Place. I had heard this show was good, but I can now confirm that it is really good. The show pushes the “sitcom” boundaries and manages to ask deep ethical and metaphysical questions while staying in the comedy lane. Considering the other shows that creator Mike Schur has worked on (The OfficeParks and Recreation), it’s unsurprising what absolute gold this show is.

Currently on the back burner is The Silmarillion. I’ve been intending to take the plunge into Tolkien’s Legendarium since I read The Lord of the Rings as a kid, but have never been able to make it work for me. In order to shake things up, I checked out the thirteen (!) disc audio from my local library an have been listening off and on in the car. To be completely honest, I’m four discs in and can only vaguely describe what I have heard so far. That being said, the audio version is having it’s intended effect. The narrator, Martin Shaw, engages the material in a way that is enchanting and enticing. While it’s been a joy discovering the complexity and depth of Tolkien’s world, I think I have been most captured by the sense of beauty that he attempts to convey. The Silmarillion is rife with wonder.

I’ll sign off with a selection from The Well of Ascension. I have always loved Elend’s journey in this book. Elend finds himself as king of the central dominance. Though he believes in the government that he helped create, he does not believe in himself as king. It takes the catalytic tough-love of Tindwyl the Terriswoman, a specialist in the lives of the great leaders of the past, to get him there. From one of their tutoring sessions:

“Is that all it is, then?” Elend asked. “Expressions and costumes? Is that what makes a king?”

“Of course not.” 

Elend stopped by the door, turning back. “Then, what does? What do you think makes a man a good king, Tindwyl of Terris?”

“Trust,” Tindwyl said, looking him in the eyes. “A good king is one who is trusted by his people–and one who deserves that trust.”

The Well of Ascension, 186 

Cosmeric Faith

Cosmeric Faith Part 2: “I believe them all”

*This post contains mega spoilers for the original Mistborn trilogy and the “Era 2” Mistborn novels*

“…You said their prayer–is this the religion that you believe in, then?”

“I believe in them all.”

Vin frowned. “None of them contradict each other?”

Sazed smiled. “Oh, often and frequently they do. But, I respect the truths behind them all–and I believe in the need for each one to be remembered.” 

This brief exchange between Vin and Sazed in The Final Empire encapsulates the cosmere-ic take on religion. Sazed holds to the importance and even the truth of all beliefs, and these beliefs are deeply important because they are central to what it means to be human. I wrote recently on the Kelsier story as a counter narrative to the Christ story. Kelsier is shown as the flawed savior perhaps too in touch with his humanity. In a way Kelsier was driven by the same spirit as Sazed, seeing the deep importance of faith itself in the lives of story-telling beings.

There is really a sort of humanism at play here. In the Cosmere, one can truly value various beliefs because no religion can play a trump card against the others, since all of them are important because of how they both feed and manifest the human spirit. It is the affirmation of some beauty, goodness, and truth out there without affirming one specific source of beauty, goodness, and truth. This sort of plurality scares people. It’s scary to think that the source of truth for my specific group might not be *the* source of truth.

Yet part of what drives Sazed in his devotion to all religions is the fundamental lack of the Terris people–that they do not remember their own religion.There is a pleasure in enjoying other religions that heals even as it provokes the existential pain of the Terris people. But on Sazed’s journey toward truth and the faith of his people, he makes perhaps shocking discoveries about the nature of the divinity.

The great move in the Mistborn series is that Sazed, Luthadel’s resident expert in the divine, essentially becomes God. When Sazed picks up the power of Ruin and Preservation, he becomes Harmony, at once becoming a god but also realizing that he is only a piece of Divinity. In the Cosmere, there once was a God, Adonalsium, who was at one point shattered, it’s power taken up by sixteen individuals. As a lover of belief and the search for the divine–of the truly human–Sazed is uniquely suited to take on this power and uncover the deeper secrets of the universe.

Sazed discovers an impotence in divinity. In Mistborn Era 2, Wax, maintains a trust in Harmony as “God,” until Harmony royally effs up his life. Though I would say in some ways Sanderson prepared readers for this with Kelsier, the flawed savior. In the Cosmere, there is power that people can access, and there are new heights of awareness which people can reach. These powers are understandably associated with the Divine, but it is becoming clearer that the “gods” are fighting their own battles and often playing the same games as humanity. What this means for the “God beyond” or the source of ultimate reality is unclear.

Book Reviews star wars

Review: Doctor Aphra Book 6

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 6: Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, Vol. 6: Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon by Simon Spurrier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To play or be played?

In the sixth Doctor Aphra book, Chelli does what she does best and plays those who are out to play her. Si Spurrier delivers another satisfying end to an Aphra arc, as our titular misanthrope gets the best of the Imperial P.R. lady and further cements herself to the Empire by saving Palpy’s life.

Readers are also given more of Aphra’s unsurprisingly tragic backstory.

Looking forward to (one?) more Aphra book with Vader back in the picture. And it remains to be seen how Aphra will drastically destroy her relationship with Vulaada.

Much thanks to Gillen and Spurrier for giving me a Star Wars character that I remain hopelessly in love with.

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Book Reviews star wars

Review(s): new Star Wars comics

Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - Allegiance

Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Allegiance by Ethan Sacks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fun tie-in to The Rise of Skywalker.

On a mission to secure weapons for the Resistance, Finn and Poe are entangled with the new favorite bounty hunter crew that appear all over the new Star Wars canon.

Leia, Rey, Rose, Chewie, and C-3PO secure so me ships and support from Mon Cala at the cost of betrayal and First Order presence on the amphibious planet.

Allegiance works at a tie-in by setting the stage for Episode IX and having some fun fan nods without being too essential.

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Star Wars: Age of Resistance - Villains

Star Wars: Age of Resistance – Villains by Tom Taylor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The “Age of….” run has featured new scenes of some of our Star Wars loves and love-to-hates. The stories and follow-up essays therein usually work to connect the main arc of each character in the films with other pieces of Star Wars lore from new novels or other comics.

The Age of Resistance – Villains book features stories about Phasma, Hux, Smoke, and Kylo Ren. No, we don’t get the Snoke origin story that we were all hoping for, bit we get to see some Snoke-Kylo training. Meanwhile Hux and Ren both continue to deal with their pasts in super unhealthy, world-destroying ways. Phasma continues to not give a damn.

Not essential Star Wars reading by any means, this book builds on First Order lore in a nice way and helps wrap up the “Age of…” series.

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Cosmeric Faith

Cosmeric Faith Part 1: The Skaa Messiah

*(This post contains spoilers for “Mistborn: The Final Empire,” “The Well of Ascension,” and “Mistborn: Secret History.” There are some fairly non-spoilery references to the second era of Mistborn novels.)

I’m currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series for the third time. I think I read the first book when it was just called “Mistborn.” In the series, as in Brandon’s other books, belief and religion are consistent themes. Though faith does not have as central a role in Mistborn as it does in Elantris or Warbreaker, the importance of belief and the power of religion in people’s lives are driving questions for one of the protagonists, Kelsier. Those questions then set the course for future events–both in the immediate and centuries later–following Kelsier’s death.

In “The Final Empire,” Kelsier is deeply interested in the staying power of religion, especially those that lasted a few centuries into the Lord Ruler’s reign. If the Lord Rules was brutally persecuting all religious sects, what made some hold on longer than others? Kelsier learns about speaking truth to power and the ways that beliefs rooted in hope in an alternate world give people real power. He comes to know how a single religious-martyr figure can awaken people into a new state of being and call them to action to fight for the alternate reality that they have only dreamed of before. Ultimately, Kelsier gives his own life for the cause. He becomes the sacrificial death that ignites revolution.

For a while now I have read the Kelsier story in “The Final Empire” as a take on the story of early Christianity. I’m pretty sure that is not the case at all, at least in the mind of Sanderson, but what can I say except that I spent three-and-a-half years at seminary. Stuff happens.

The take is that the messianic figure is not necessarily divine nor even a sinless human but is actually benevolent and seeks the healing of humanity by instituting righteousness and justice for the poor and the oppressed. Sounds like your standard progressive Christian take on the Christ story, yeah?

I think the rub of this take is that Kelsier isn’t simply imperfect. He’s deeply flawed. He’s rightly concerned with justice for the skaa, but he’s a little…murdery. Also, as Vin so helpfully calls out, Kelsier basically is a nobleman. I.e., unlike Jesus of the Christian gospels, Kelsier does not seek to save the poor by identifying with them.

Also Kelsier’s arms are covered in scars from his time of punishment at the Pits of Hathsin. This experience is the catalyst that leads him from a life of self-centered thievery to other-centered thievery and revolution. Early Christians read this old verse from the prophet Isaiah as being about their savior: “The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5b, NRSV). Yet Kelsier earned these scars through actual lawlessness, rather than righteous resistance to unjust laws.

While that contrast between the two figures used to close the door on the Mistborn-Gospels discourse (yes, I just said that), it currently really, really excites me. Because while Jesus of the Bible is many things–compassionate, righteous, steadfast–he doesn’t really have a personality. Like sure God took on flesh in the Incarnation, but he wasn’t flawed, at least according to traditional theology. The idea of a flawed savior is frightening yet terribly attractive. I think it also testifies to how the lives of ordinary people can take on a much greater significance for those looking for something to believe in.

The other aspect of the story that makes “The Final Empire” feel like a take on early Christianity is “Kelsier’s” appearances to his followers. Though this is not Kelsier but the kandra, OreSeur, who has consumed his body (though for a dead man, Kelsier clings on tightly to life albeit in the cognitive realm.) Belief in his redemptive death takes off because some people see him after he is dead. Kelsier’s apparent death at the hands of the Lord Ruler takes on meaning and is imbued with new power when his new followers see him after the fact. In some way, he lives! Likewise early Christianity, after Jesus’ tragic death, tells stories of a few select appearances to his closest followers. On the one hand, we’re supposed to trust the story because of these eye witness accounts. On the other hand, it seems important to the story that Jesus didn’t go on a public speaking “Resurrection Tour” around the ancient world. Part of the deal is that only a few people knew about it.

Kelsier is the flawed skaa Messiah, born of the noble and the poor, whose story of love, loss, and friendship just might have something to say to the classic Savior story.

TV Reviews

Review: The Dragon Prince Season 3

*This is my spoiler-y review of The Dragon Prince season three*

I recently devoured season three of Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. I really like this show, but I often feel that I should really dislike this show. My main complaint is that plot events often feel very far-reached to me, e.g., Viren will do something just so ridiculously bad or things move to fast. Overall, though, this show has so much fantasy goodness that the end of each season has left me eagerly anticipating the next.

Book Three: Sun, takes off right where Book Two left off. Interestingly, there was no summary of the first two seasons, leaving my wife and I frantically searching the internet for a few things. We do get a brief scene of a nameless, very Viren-like (???) mage blinding the dragon Sol Regem, whom Rayla and Callum must face as they seek to enter Xadia.

Speaking of that ‘ship–it happens! Many fans rejoiced at the Rayllum (Call-la?) developments, my wife included, but I’m still holding on to a very small hope for Claudi-um (Call-lia?) because I’m sick. Anyway, Rayla, Callum, and Zym make it past Sol Regem and are crushed to learn that Rayla is basically dead to her people and that they have the magic to back up that sentiment. Thankfully Runaan’s husband briefly breaks himself out of the cruse and helps the crew along their journey to the Dragon Queen. They finally arrive after making it through the super-creepy desert with Nyx, who will hopefully not be a one-off.

Meanwhile, Ezran discovers that he just can wait to be king, handing control of the kingdom back over to Viren as he realizes he can’t convince Prince Dudebro to give peace a chance. Ezran’s friends and our favorites conspire to free him from the dungeon and send him off to find Rayllum in Xadia.

Viren descends into “no, this is totally fine” levels of relationship with Aaravos and drags Claudia and like eighty percent of the human population down with him. Disturbingly but all too realistically, Viren is able to lure the masses into his evil plot by playing to their fears, insecurities, and xenophobia (Xadia-phobia, get it?).

Our heroes make their stand along with the remnants of the Sun Elves at the base of the Dragon Queen’s mountain, but they eventually win–yay!

One of the most satisfying elements of season three was the completion of Soren’s redemption arc, which is encapsulated in his facial hair growth. After hitting rock bottom in the last season, Soren has to accept that his dad is absolutely the worst and wouldn’t know true love or empathy if it was standing right in front of him. Soren’s arc was important to the show for more than just its emotional pay off. For a show that can feel so touch-and-go with lots off one-off characters and seemingly-superfluous magics, it was good to have three-season arc like Soren’s.

Note Soren’s redemption beard

One of the most satisfying elements of season three was the completion of Soren’s redemption arc, which is encapsulated in his facial hair growth. After hitting rock bottom in the last season, Soren has to accept that his dad is absolutely the worst and wouldn’t know true love or empathy if it was standing right in front of him. Soren’s arc was important to the show for more than just its emotional pay off. For a show that can feel so touch-and-go with lots off one-off characters and seemingly-superfluous magics, it was good to have three-season arc like Soren’s.

Though there are still questions remaining* this season was the first to have an ending with resolution. It has that nice halfway point feel.

*Like, “wtf, Viren?”


Album Review: WHO (Deluxe)

Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey put out their first lp as The Who since 2006. I was very impressed with this album, as I typically pick up new music from classic rock staples with trepidation. I love me some dad rock, but I also find most new music from “the greats” to be…un-inspired (except for my forever favorite of course).

On “All This Music Must Fade,” The Who come out swinging with a tune that is undeniably them. The rest of the album continues in a similar vein. WHO has many of the classic characteristics of the band, e.g., vicious acoustic guitar, piano, and soaring chords supporting an even higher-soaring Roger Daltrey (whose voice has aged really well–Pete’s too!).

However, the band is not afraid to draw upon some 21st century production (I see you, “Danny and My Ponies,” and your auto-tuning). There are some pretty strong Train vibes on “Break the News.” It’s fitting that the album is at times a negotiation between the ethos of 70s Who and 21st century pop. Like Pete’s 2019 novel, The Age of Anxiety (see my review here), this album is part meditation on age and part. Where do The Who fit in the scene today? Whatever the answer, they are still chasing their art. From the rocking acoustic-driven vibes of the opening to the cry for peace ballad “Beads on One String” and the latin feel of “She Rocked My World,” WHO is a great listen!

Book Reviews

Book Review: The Age of Anxiety

The Age of Anxiety: A Novel

The Age of Anxiety: A Novel by Pete Townshend

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn’t sure what was going on for much of this novel from classic rocker, guitarist, and genius of The Who, Pete Townshend, but I couldn’t put it down after the first few chapters.

The Age of Anxiety is two parts character study and one part story, loosely following the journey of pub-rocker Walter through the anxious mind of his godfather, Louis Doxtader.

Louis is an art dealer who has often helped artists to channel their various neuroses into their art. And so it happens that his godson, Walter, has begun having strange auditory experiences at his shows. Walter feels that he is experiencing the emotions of his audience in some way. All of their anxieties come to him and weigh upon him. Louis leads his godson to washed up actor-turned-artist, who had experienced visual experiences akin to Walter’s. Walter retreats from his life but remerges anew fifteen years later, full of new artistic life, back together with his band again.

This novel looks at Walter’s anxiety, along with the worries of the world at large, e.g., violence, climate change, through the mind of Louis Doxtader, who is himself haunted by an experience in his own past. This event and Louis’s uncertainty around it propel him into deeper and deeper stress and worry.

This was the hardest aspect of the novel for me, as the climax of the book was discovering the truth and realizing that Louis didn’t rape Walter’s current wife after Walter’s wedding to his previous wife. I’m not sure if it’s a “me too” era thing or not, but the whole last act just felt bad. The best possible outcome was that our main character didn’t have to have his life ruined after raping someone during her blackout. Somehow the stakes were too low but also not recognized being very high for what it did to her as opposed to the decades-later effects on Louis.

Townshend shows off his craft in this, however, as the seemingly innocuous Louis quickly becomes the stories potential villain, all from Louis’s own perception.

Any elements of struggle in this novel are mostly internal to Louis, but the only thing that stands against the anxieties of the world is fate or serendipity, which makes jarring appearances throughout. Characters show up–for good or ill–at exactly the right time. Long-lost adopted children discover their birth parents, who were close at hand all along.

I’m still not sure what captivated me in this novel, but Townshend expertly crafts this neurotic character study using what the world knows him for: sex, drugs, and rock-‘n’-roll.

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Doing History

In this post, I consider the importance of doing history. I’ll wrap up by wondering about the ways in which speculative fiction might help us become better meaning-makers, story-tellers, and therefore interpreters of history.

I am currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. I have been excited about this one for a while, as I’ve read both of Coates’s memoirs (both are great, but you are in desperate lack if you haven’t read Between the World and Me). Coates’s prose-going-on-poetry will mark you. But since I’m not hip, and therefore don’t often read The Atlantic, I’ve never read any of Coates’s essays.

We Were Eight Years in Power features eight of Coates pieces published during the Obama administration. Each essay is introduced by a few paragraphs that place the essay in its original context and reflect on it in light of the 2016 Trump ascendancy.

In his essay from year three of the Obama White House, “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?”, Coates considers the competing narratives around the Civil War. He sees a turnabout in the way that Southern leaders explained the war before and after their defeat, and he says:

“In such revisions of history lay the roots of the noble Lost Cause–the belief that the South didn’t lose, so much as it was simply overwhelmed by superior numbers; that General Robert E. Lee was a contemporary King Arthur; that slavery, to be sure a benevolent institution, was never central to the South’s true designs” (Coates, 74).

He goes on to explain that this revision benefited North as well as South, of course at the expense of African Americans across the country.

There is a lot here. Still one can hear the cries–whether online or at one’s family Thanksgiving table–that the Civil War was not about slavery but states’ rights. Debunking such a maligning of history is not my aim here, though I can’t help but insert one question in response: even if one should consider “states’ rights” as more central to the cause of the Civil War, states’ right to/for what?

My aim is instead to reconsider the importance of doing history. We are an unreflective people, often with little sense of where we have been and where we’re going. Rather, we all have this sense, formed in us as we emerge as self- and culturally-aware people in this world. But we often let this sense or perspective go unchallenged. We are caught up in the present moment, with all of its debates and distinctions whose storied-pasts we often neglect.

There are many would-be prophetic voices out there who, however rightfully, make claims about the present and the future. The work of the historian is less glamorous. The historian must painstakingly deal in facts; she must also deal in narrative. The discipline is more than the presentation of neutral data, rather it is meaning-making on a grand scale. History deeply shapes one’s understanding of the present. Even more than the actual events that transpired, one’s understanding of the past shapes one’s expectations for the future and steps toward that end. Whatever other ways one struggles in the present, narrative and meaning-making are central to that struggle.

Admittedly, I have at times been skeptical of the historical enterprise, especially in relationship to theology or faith. With so much to occupy our minds right now, history can seem almost gratuitous. After all, shouldn’t we be skeptical of our ability to know the how and why of what actually happened? Perhaps the best we can do is to carry on and attempt to make sense of the present.

I’m also making my way through N. T. Wright’s four-tome Christians Origins and the Question of God series. Wright’s work is in large part a response to the last 150 years of Jesus scholarship. Many in today’s Western Christian landscape assume that history (not to mention science…) “prove” the Bible, never mind that the Bible is itself a product and a relic* of history. Yet much ink has been spent by scholars, from the “Lives” of Jesus onward, to get to the bottom of who this figure really was and what he did.

Yet more than dealing with the “facts,” Wright attempts to analyze history through images, practices, and story. In The New Testament and the People of God, Wright situates Christian Scripture within its place in first-century Jewish worldviews (clusters of practice, narrative, symbols, etc.).

History is unavoidably important for the spiritual life. Not that every faith practitioner will spend their days working through the relevant historical debates and such, but that some must. The prophets must do more than point forward. They must make meaning of the past, depicting the story that the faithful are to inhabit.

These scattered thoughts consistently point me back to one of my loves, speculative fiction. Just as the grand stories of our own world are central to “worldview,” fiction plays a fundamental role in shaping the world by shaping the attitudes and perceptions of its readers. This is not to move away from fiction as simply enjoyable and entertaining. It is surely that. But it is to point story tellers to their role, however willing, as the arbiters of narrative. Stories not only tell us about the world, however. They also teach us how to “read” our own stories–to read the past and the present.

Having said that, I think I need space to unpack it and truly understand it. How might learning how to inhabit other worlds via fiction help us inhabit and perhaps even love our own world, despite its many flaws?

*On my own stance: I definitely see the Bible as more than a relic. But despite the ways it is somehow “alive”–one might say animated by the divine Spirit–it is hardly readily accessible to the casual reader picking it up without context, for the most part.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. We Were Eight Year in Power: An American Tragedy. New York: One World Publishing, 2017.