“[…] I only regret one thing—making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight.”
– author Mrs. Oliver in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table
This excerpt comes from a Hercule Poirot novel. It’s a page-long burst by an imaginary author who doesn’t really care about getting certain details wrong, for example when one would use a dictograph vs. phonograph. That, of course, leads to feedback from more knowledgeable readers.
Being a Finn, I guffawed! Finns are busy readers indeed these days; it may already have been the case back in the 1930s as well.
(But, good grief, way to insult Romanians and Bulgarians, Christie! There’s a lot of interest in Christie’s writing, but on the other hand a lot of it hasn’t aged well, especially the racism and bigotry.)
Christie, Agatha. Cards on the Table. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011 , p. 66.
Image by Eppu Jensen
Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.
I remember when my father taught me to drive. The first time I got behind the wheel of a vehicle and tried to figure out how to get my feet on the right pedals and work the gear shifter, we weren’t sitting in a high-powered sports car. We weren’t on the highway or in the middle of rush hour. We were in an old Ford Custom truck with three-on-the-tree (for those of you who know what that means), on a deserted dirt road that had fields on one side and woods on the other. I did my false starts and gear-grinding in that truck where the worst thing that could happen was that I might slide off into a ditch. No matter how badly I messed up, I wasn’t going to hurt myself or anyone else. After a good long time of practice, I learned how to listen to the engine, smoothly slide my feet from pedal to pedal, ease the shifter into gear, and start and stop on anything from flat to a good steep hill. I have since driven confidently on single-lane mountain roads and through a Boston rush hour in everything from a sports sedan to a moving truck, but it all began with the skills I developed through slow practice on those sunny afternoons.
Much the same is true about a lot of the important things I’ve become good at in life. I didn’t learn to swim by being tipped off the side of a boat in the middle of a shipping lane. I learned by splashing around in water wings with my parents keeping a watchful eye on me. I didn’t learn to cook by tossing together a souffle or a pig roast. I learned by mastering one recipe at a time with my mother teaching me why each ingredient mattered and what each step in the process accomplished. Pretty much anything difficult I’ve learned to do, anything where getting it wrong risked doing harm to myself or someone else, I’ve learned by starting slowly with someone helping me figure out what I was doing and how to do it safely and well.
The same is true of my academic education. Now, studying history is not like learning to drive or swim. If you do it badly or recklessly, you aren’t likely to pose an immediate risk of physical harm to yourself or anyone else, but history is powerful. So much of our sense of identity, both as individuals and as communities, is wrapped up in how we think about our past. Misunderstanding how and why things happened in the past can lead us to make seriously bad choices in the present with real and devastating consequences. My teachers and professors were as careful in how they constructed their lessons as my father was when he took me down that dirt road and handed me the keys. It wasn’t that they kept us away from the hard parts and the painful questions, any more than my father kept my hands off the shifter or my mother locked up the salt. It was that they made the classroom a place where everyone felt welcome to bring their own experiences and observations into the discussion, where we could get things wrong and still know that we were respected as students and scholars, and where we could tackle complicated issues a little piece at a time.
There is a lot of talk these days about “safe spaces” in college classrooms, and a lot of misunderstanding about what that term actually means. It doesn’t mean a space in which we avoid difficult ideas. It means a space in which we engage with difficult ideas carefully, thoughtfully, and purposefully. Learning to grapple with challenging and painful ideas and with opinions radically different from our own is an essential part of a good education, but these are not things we learn effectively in a free-for-all. Part of my role as a professor is to be careful about how we engage with difficult ideas, the same care I exercise in choosing what texts my students will read and what assignments I will have them write.
That care includes meeting my students where they are, both as scholars and as human beings. It includes respecting the fact that everyone in my classroom is a unique individual with their own talents and burdens. It means recognizing that what is easy for some of my students to do will be exhausting for others. History is a powerful thing. How we think about the past has enormous consequences for the present, and the weight of those consequences falls more heavily on some people than on others. If I am to teach all my students effectively, my classroom must be a place where everyone feels welcome and knows that they will be taken seriously.
The history of the ancient Mediterranean may seem so distant and so tame that nothing arising from its study could possibly harm anyone, but the cultural authority of Greece and Rome has often been invoked in modern times to justify declaring certain groups of people outside the bounds of civilization. The detritus of past and present racism, sexism, anti-immigrant bigotry, and other prejudices still clings to the history of Greco-Roman antiquity. Even students with no ill intent may unintentionally poke at raw wounds in other students’ lives. It is my role as professor to know when we need to slow the discussion down, peel back the historiographical layers with care, and acknowledge the discomfort that comes not only from having our own wounds poked but also from realizing that other peoples’ wounds are not the same as our own.
Some people are fond of claiming that there are no safe spaces in the world and that colleges should prepare students for the harsh realities awaiting them by being equally unsafe. On one hand, this claim is far from true. The world is absolutely full of safe spaces for those of us who happen to have been born into the right demographic and socioeconomic groups. Ideas that unsettle the powerful are frequently pushed out of public view. My students who will have the hardest time finding a safe space in the world are already perfectly well aware of this fact and need no further education on that score.
But it is true that one of the functions of a college education is preparing our students to engage intelligently and productively with a world that will not always respect their histories or give them the space to think critically and carefully. Staying thoughtful in the midst of a shouting match is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill it is best learned with careful practice under a teacher’s guidance in places where the cost of making a mistake is minimal. Whether it’s rush hour traffic or the tumble of political discourse, we gain the skills and confidence to handle unsafe spaces by practicing in safe ones. I will do the best I can to make sure that my classroom is always a safe space for my students.
I mentioned that we re-watched Warcraft: The Beginning, the movie based on the MMORPG World of Warcraft. I had forgotten that in a council scene in Stormwind, there’s a short glimpse of a woman who looks like she might be a Dwarf. Here’s a screencap:
She’s at the right hand of the screen, walking towards Anduin Lothar (the prominent man in the middle). And with a DVD, you can of course stop and check out details you miss at the theater. Who knows, I thought, it might lead to cosplay in real life or a transmog in game!
I was pretty excited, because female Dwarves are my absolute favorite race / gender combo to play in WoW. (I love female Dwarf cosplay and fanart, too!)
Anyway, the WTB DVD has a few extras including deleted and extended scenes, among them this council scene. The woman in question even has a few lines. Hooray! Here’s a screencap from the extended scene:
Alas, I was triply disappointed. As it turns out, not only is she unnamed, she’s a human woman, not a Dwarf. Adding injury to insult, they had to go and cut her speech.
While it was great to see additional female faces (because the, shall we say politely, scant amount of women in the movie is frustrating), it’s getting really, really tiresome to witness women’s performances end up on the cutting room floor in favor of another 30 seconds of impersonal, wood-faced clones of tin soldiers whacking at each other en masse.
The word went out last week that Star Trek: Discovery will be ditching one of the long-standing rules of the franchise: that the main crew must not have conflicts with each other.
This rule has not only been an impediment to Star Trek‘s story-telling but represents a misunderstanding of Gene Roddenberry’s original hopeful vision for the future. Unfortunately, it is a misunderstanding perpetrated by Roddenberry himself, in his later years.
Star Trek has always been at its best when it embraced conflict among the crew. What is important is that those conflicts arise because different members of the crew honestly represent different points of view, not because they are driven by pettiness, jealousy, spite, greed, or other base instincts. The vision of Star Trek is that human conflicts driven by these basic flaws are unimportant distractions that we can overcome. When we achieve that, it doesn’t mean that we stop having conflicts, it just means that we can get down to the ones that actually mean something. We can argue passionately for our own points of view without devolving into petty sniping and backstabbing. We can disagree with someone else’s ideas and still respect and work with them.
This is why Deep Space Nine has always been my favorite version of Star Trek. It shows us characters who strongly disagree with each other, even to the point of yelling and storming out of rooms, but who still respect one another and work as a team. Their conflicts don’t get resolved at the end of the episode with one side proven right and the other wrong, because the conflicts that really matter are the ones that have no simple resolution. Exploring those kinds of conflicts is what Star Trek is about. It is why we haveStar Trek. It is what Star Trekdoes.
If Discovery is going to give us more of that, then I couldn’t be happier. In these days of internet flame wars and political absolutism, the idea that we can argue about things that matter and still work together as a crew to escape the mysterious space energy field of the week is utopian enough for me.
Note: this post contains spoilers for some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and some episodes of Sherlock.
I’m a fan of the BBC series Sherlock. I enjoy the show and its inventive modern take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. When I say that I have a problem with the show, it comes from a place of love. But I do have a problem with the show, and it largely comes down to this: not enough mysteries, too many puzzles.
Here’s what I mean by mysteries and puzzles. A mystery is when a real event is made obscure because we either don’t have all the facts or don’t see how the facts fit together. The pleasure of watching a mystery comes in the moment of revelation when we see past the obscurity to the truth and suddenly understand how the separate pieces fit together.
The original Sherlock Holmes stories are masterpiece mysteries. Most stories begin with a client consulting Holmes about some odd occurrence. Often, it is nothing overtly criminal or even threatening, just peculiar. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a young lady comes to see Mr. Holmes because she has been woken in the night by a whistling sound followed by a clang. She had heard the same whistle years before, on the night her sister died; her sister’s last words were about a “speckled band.” Holmes investigates and finds that the bell-pull in the lady’s bedroom is a dummy hanging from a hook on the wall. At first, none of these facts makes any sense, but when the truth is revealed, everything falls into place. The client’s step-father is attempting to kill her for her inheritance, just as he killed her older sister. He has been sending a deadly snake through a grate from the adjoining room, down the fake bell-pull to her bed at night. To cover his tracks, he recalls the trained snake with a whistle, then shuts it in a safe, hence the clang. The sister’s last words were her delirious attempt to describe the creature that had bitten her. The mystery works because all of the clues turn out to have a rational basis. Once you know the truth, everything makes sense.
Sometimes, the obscurity in a mystery is deliberately created, but even then it serves a practical purpose. In “The Adventure of the Read-Headed League,” the client is lured out of his place of business by the promise of high-paying easy work in a fake company concocted by the criminals. They had a reason for getting him out of the way, though: they were digging a tunnel from his basement to a nearby bank for a robbery. Holmes easily sees through the con, but that still leaves the mystery of why the con was perpetrated in the first place.
Puzzles are different. In a puzzle, there is no reality hiding behind the obscurity, just obscurity for obscurity’s sake. When you solve a puzzle, there is no reveal. The clues don’t suddenly make sense. There is no “why” to a puzzle other than “Someone wanted to make a puzzle.”
Sherlock has a few mysteries. In “The Blind Banker,” spray-painted symbols and a disappearing bank employee eventually reveal a smuggling ring moving illicit Chinese antiquities to the European market. In “The Sign of Three,” a collection of seemingly unrelated events, including a wounded soldier and a ghost date, adds up to an attempted murder at a wedding.
Too much of Sherlock, however, depends on puzzles rather than mysteries. Once the clues are solved and the questions are answered, all we learn is that Moriarty is bored and wants to play, or that Eurus is unstable and wants a hug. There’s no satisfaction in the reveal, just some clever person expounding on how clever they are. Instead of discovering that the inexplicable pieces all mean something once you know what was behind them, we discover that they were all meaningless and there was never anything behind them at all.
Even a well done puzzle (and some of Sherlock‘s puzzles are quite well done) is still a puzzle. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a crossword. I want mysteries in my mystery stories, not puzzles.
We’ve been watching The Shannara Chronicles. (We only watch series on DVD, so we’re still working our way through season 1). It’s some of the worst television I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t wait to see more.
Make no mistake, The Shannara Chronicles is terrible. The plot is a meandering soap opera mashed together from two parts Tolkien (a band of hobbits teenagers, occasionally aided by a grumpy wizard druid, must carry the magical ring seed to a distant place through a strange wilderness in order to save the world from a dark lord warlock who mostly just chills out in his tower henge being all evil and stuff) and one part Hunger Games (a tedious teenage love triangle between one girl half-elf boy and two boys girls—one rugged, the other sophisticated—in a vaguely-defined post-apocalyptic North America). Episode scripts are written Mad-Lib style: Dire warning about [peril] goes unheeded, recurring bandit guy threatens to [do something awful], someone explains [plot point] to the confused half-elf dude, princess has to be saved from [unheeded peril].
Yet despite its flaws, Shannara Chronicles manages the trick that most bad television doesn’t: to be both bad and enjoyable. More remarkably, it has managed this feat while remaining convinced of its own seriousness, instead of embracing its camp absurdity like most other beloved bad SFF shows, from Batman to Xena.
It’s hard to explain why I enjoy Shannara. Taste, of course, is subjective: one viewer’s guilty pleasure is another’s eye-roll marathon. I think there are three things about it that work for me:
The diamonds among the dross. Shannara is a kiwi production and I watch it in much the same spirit that I watch Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies: for the moments of beauty buried in the failings of concept and writing. The visual design is inventive and sometimes startling. Among the actors there are some shining stars like John Rhys Davies, Jed Brophy, and Manu Bennett improving the lackluster scripts with their performances. Plus New Zealand scenery is always worth seeing.
We’re starved for good fantasy. I like classic fantasy. I like it better when it’s done well, but in the absence of that (or when showrunners think that doing fantasy well means adding as much torture, rape, and pointless death as possible), I’ll take it done badly. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic story in which the post-apocalypse is a quaint side note to the plot rather than a weight around its neck.
The straight line is funnier than the joke. Comedy is well and good, but sometimes the best laughs come from people who don’t know they’re funny, and if the creators of Shannara know how funny they’re being, they aren’t letting on. I enjoy groaning at the teenage drama, the princess who has to be saved from something once an episode, the elite Elven soldiers who get themselves clobbered by bandits in under ten seconds, and the rest of the show even more when there isn’t a wisecracking sidekick poking me in the ribs and saying Hey, didja see what we did there? Huh? Huh?
In 2016, this terrible year in which some disasters hit with the shock of a thunderbolt and others drag on like a cold you can’t shake, the small-scale disaster of a wonderfully bad tv show is just what I need to take my mind off the rest of the world for a few hours.
In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.
The other day I saw yet another recommended books article with a headline of the type:
[number] Books You Must Read
[number] Books Every [persontype] Should Read
Ah hah hah hah haa. No. So much no. A non-descriptive headline isn’t an attraction, it’s a turnoff.
Writing a header like that, enthusiastic as it’s probably supposed to be, just comes across as lazy, narrow-minded, lazy, self-centered, and lazy marketing-speak.
It makes me think that your interests, oh dear random person on the Internet, aren’t even in the same galaxy as mine. Worse off, it sounds like you don’t care enough about your job to throw in even one modifier, not one, to narrow down the audience for your list.
There are no books you get to flat-out tell me I must or should read. For one, you’re not the boss of me. You don’t get to dictate my choices. For another, you’re not the arbiter of universal taste. What you promote is not and cannot ever be a must of anything for the rest of humankind. Furthermore, you know nothing of me; literally, not a thing. You don’t know whether I’m interested in whatever it is you’re promoting, whether I hate it, whether I’m lukewarm, or whether it might be a PTSD trigger. Assuming your recommendations are a must for everyone else is dismissive of priorities, experiences, and circumstances that differ from yours. Lastly, your puny title tells me absolutely nothing about your list. There’s not even an indication of whether we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction. I won’t waste a click on a header that’s laughably generic. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted both your time and your employer’s dollars.
Instead, tell me why I might want to have a look at your list. For example, the headlines below have a significantly higher likelihood of getting a click, provided I’m remotely interested in the topic / genre / protagonist / etc.:
[number] Books to Read If You Like [topic]
Exploring [genre] Worlds: [number] Books for Newcomers
[number] Books with [type of protagonists]
Our Favorite [genre] Books in the Style of [popular title]
Love [author]? You Might Also Like These [number] Books on [topic]
New Books for [popular title] Fans to Check Out
[number] Books to Consider for [topic] Enthusiasts
Darker, Edgier [genre] Worlds
The [number] Most Inventive Books that Break [genre] Barriers
[number] Worlds to Delve into If You Like [author]
Much, much more informative, don’t you agree?
Image: detail of photograph by Mundo Resink via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
The question of whether we, as professors, should include trigger warnings on our course syllabi has been bubbling in academia for a few years now. I’ve been uncertain what to do and my university’s administration has not taken a public position. After wide reading and long thought, I’ve decided to add a content note to my syllabi. Here is how it goes:
This course involves topics that may evoke strong reactions. These topics include war, violence, slave-holding societies, non-consensual sexual activity, and various forms of social inequality, but other topics may come up in the course of class discussion. I will do my best to inform you about what upcoming readings will cover, but it will not always be possible to predict what topics will arise in discussion or what associations may arise for you as you read.
It is your responsibility as a student to complete all assigned coursework and readings and to participate in class discussions. It is my responsibility as your professor to help you overcome any obstacles to doing so.
If you anticipate that some topic may be difficult for you, or if you discover that an assignment provokes a reaction that prevents you from continuing your work as a student, please come see me to discuss it. If a topic arises in class discussion that makes you too uncomfortable to remain in class, you are welcome to leave the room until you feel ready to return. If you need to leave the room during class discussion, please come and see me afterwards when you feel ready to do so. In either case, we will work together to find alternative ways for you to do the coursework.
You are also welcome to seek support and guidance outside of class. Student Counseling Services is at your disposal, as is Campus Spiritual Life. You do not have to discuss difficult emotional subjects with me if you do not wish to, but if I don’t know that something is creating an obstacle to your coursework, I can’t help you find a way around it.
“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”
– Chuck Wendig
Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.
Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.
Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.
While there were solid choices on the list, what struck me was that out of 15 named creators only 2 were women. That’s 13%. Since women make up half of the world’s population, an eighth is an unacceptably low proportion in my eyes, so I made a list of my own.
Notes on my list: 1) it’s novels only (no anthologies), 2) in a random order, 3) with no double entries (otherwise I’d include also Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy), 4) and I include not only a variety of flavors within the fantasy genre but also historical fiction. Moreover, 5) I’ve included old and newer favorites as well as new-to-me authors whose works sound intriguing. Finally, 6) the common denominator is (like in the Game of Thrones) the presence of power struggles of various sorts, negotiation of identities, and survival.
1. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore; Tehanu; Tales from Earthsea; The Other Wind)
Aspects of identity examined in an island-based early medievalesque world with magic and lots of sailing.
2. Kai Ashante Wilson. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps
Sword and sorcery, gods and mortals, with a band of mercenaries working as caravan guard in focus. (Linguist’s note: Fascinating mix of vernacular and more formal language.)
3. N.K. Jemisin: The Dreamblood duology (The Killing Moon; The Shadowed Sun)
Ancient-Egyptian-flavored fantasy on a moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant.
4. Samuel R. Delany. Nevèrÿon series (Tales of Nevèrÿon; Neveryóna; Flight from Nevèrÿon;The Return to Nevèrÿon)
Sword and sorcery in a world before the dawn of history, with strong elements of power, economic development and breaking barriers.
A blend of a coming-of-age story with high-stakes intrigue and danger on an island with water-based tech.
Enjoy! I know I will get back to this list after finishing my current reading project.
Image: Monteleone chariot with Thetis and Achilles, detail of image by Peter Roan on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 (Etruscan, currently Greek and Roman galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2nd quarter of the 6th century BCE; bronze inlaid with ivory)