A poem in honour of Usula K Le Guin, who has passed away

Where are the words, when words lack?

Who takes this emptiness and gives it name?

You are gone and feel no more, but I am just the same.

You wove dreams to change lives

You changed the world with words

You gave me the door and the window and the key

To make my own words and worlds and be free.

Rest in peace, Ursula K Le Guin

You have left us, but not gone.

I know where to find you when I have need

In these well-loved pages; in your Earthsea.

In loving memory. I can’t think to express what Ursula Le Guin’s works have meant to me. Until I read A Wizard of Earthsea, I read well enough, but not fiction. Not for fun.

Though I loved to make up stories, I had been passed only dreary and lifeless books in school. When taken to the library, I brought home Choose Your Own Adventures, because nothing fired my imagination. Strange, when I was such a creative child. Always wanting to play pretend, imagining other worlds – looking for magic, for more than the world around me could give.

And I found what I was looking for in A Wizard of Earthsea.

I wanted fantasy. I wanted science fiction. I wanted voyages of the imagination. I found something in the shadow that followed Ged from island to island – in his struggle with it – almost more than the dragon and the magic. I found something in that world. I could not define it, but it stirred something in me.

The same something that was stirred by the dark labyrinth in The Tombs of Atuan. By the girl priestess who finds a dark-skinned stranger within those dark halls and decides to help him.

I can’t quantify what Ursula Le Guin gave to me. Do I grieve for her? I don’t know. She’s an almost mythic figure for me. She changed my life. She showed me where the books I wanted to read were hiding – in the science fiction and fantasy section. From there I went on to Anne McCaffrey and Tamora Pierce, David Eddings and Stephen King… then circled back to read the books that had been read to me as a child: The Chronicles of Narnia and Watership Down. And on, and on – eventually to an English Literature degree.

It wasn’t that I had never read a book that I had enjoyed before – I had stumbled upon the odd one – but I hadn’t know what tied them together. I hadn’t know quite how stolen away one could be by a book. And now, I have more books than shelves. I write for a living, and I edit, too. I help other people make books, and I am writing my own.

Everything. She changed everything to me.

Rest well, Ursula, we were so very lucky to have had you.

Posted in Ursula Le Guin | 1 Comment

“You are in a room…” A Tweet-based Adventure, Episode 2

Read Episode 1.

Player 1: Once the tea is finished, let’s try the door on the right at the far end of eastern corridor

@YouAreInnaRoom: You finish the tea and head to the far end of the Eastern corridor. You open the right hand door and step into a large room. To your right, along the North Wall is a bank of computers. In the North West corner is a circular pod of some kind. The Southern half of the room is dominated by a curved inset floor, with stairs leading down on either side. Three large, comfortable chairs sit along the back of this section, facing South. The Southern wall is divided between a large view screen on the right half, and a window that looks out on a stuttering screaming void. There are also three hot desk terminals in the upper portion of the room behind the three comfy chairs.


An updated map:

Updated map of First Floor (Space Station) - see text for description.

Updated map of First Floor (Space Station)

@YouAreInnaRoom: What will you do?

Continue reading

Posted in Free Fiction, Me, Tweet-based Adventure, You Are Inna Room | 1 Comment

“You are in a room…” A Tweet-based Adventure

A million (2) years ago I started a tweet-based adventure game which went on for several months, but stalled because Life Happened.

It was one of the most enjoyable and magical pieces of shared storytelling I’ve done for a while, so I’m resurrecting it. But before I do so, I’m going to capture the Story So Far here, as a record for myself, the current players, and anyone who is interested or might like to join in.

The cover of the programming book for Silver Mountain, along with the story and hints.

Silver Mountain: my first text-based adventure from the 80s.

It worked like this –  I set up a Twitter account called @YouAreInnaRoom and tweeted:

@YouAreInnaRoom: You are in a room. What will you do?

Other tweeps, my ‘players’ then said what they would like to do – much in the style of a classic textbased adventure, except I was the computer programme, and I was often making stuff up on the spot. Together we wrote a story that was funny and sweet and full of wonder. Featuring a deserted house, a cat, Anakin’s lightsaber, a Deep Dark Forest and a Lonely Robot.

Below is a transcript of our journey. As there’s a fair amount to type up (although not that much to read – 350~ tweets) I’m doing this in two ‘episodes’. I hope you enjoy.

Episode 1

(Note: some players have private accounts, so I have replaced player names with Player 1, 2, or 3, in order of appearance):

@YouAreInnaRoom: You are in a room. What will you do?

A small dusty window in a dark room.Player1: Have a look out the window.

@YouAreInnaRoom: The window is small and dusty, you can’t see very much.

Player 2: Look around the room.

@YouAreInnaRoom: There’s quite a lot of stuff. Someone has been collecting. Many boxes. A guitar. Anakin’s lightsaber is here.

@YouAreInnaRoom: There are also doors to the North and West. To the East is a small grubby window. To the South, a cupboard.

Player 1: Let’s see what’s in the cupboard.

@YouAreInnaRoom: You open the cupboard. It’s dark in here, but there’s maybe something at the back.

Player 1: Have a closer look.

@YouAreInnaRoom: It’s hard to see much when the only source of light is a grubby window and you’re standing in the way of it.

@YouAreInnaRoom: You can detect an amorphous darker blob against the lighter painted wood-work, however. What will you do?

Player 2: Touch it?

@YouAreInnaRoom: It gives under your touch. You think it’s probably a blanket. It feels like there’s stuff underneath.

A blue lightsaber against a background of space.Player 1: Let’s try the lightsaber for some illumination (that’ll work, right?). What’s under the blanket?

@YouAreInnaRoom: You turn around and grab the lightsaber. Flicking a button hopefully, you manage to turn it on with the blade pointed away from your face. It ‘whombs’ softly. You turn back and point the lightsaber into the cupboard.

Continue reading

Posted in Free Fiction, Tweet-based Adventure, You Are Inna Room | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

What do I want from the coming year?

I want lots of things. Some of those things are achievements. Some of those things move my life along. Some of those things are things. Things I wish to own. Things that will make my living environment better. Things that will make me happy. Things that will help me achieve some of the other things I want. And some of those things are experiences I have long longed for – stuff I want and stuff I need.

It’s easy to forget what things I want in the day-to-day. So. Here is an incomplete list – mostly for me, rather than anything else.

I want…

To finish writing a novel.

Duh. Be that Courtly Intrigue and Dragons (currently 28,000 words), The Winged Guardian (currently 27,500 words), or the one with Clones and Nanites in Space (that’s not even a working title, it’s just a description – currently 8,000 words). These are, theoretically, the novels I am actively writing, although the Clones and Nanites one I apparently haven’t touched since 2016.

I’ve written longer incomplete works, most notably Cyborgs and Androids, which stalled at around 50,000 words when I was 21… depressingly 13 years ago now.

Thanks to fanfiction, I wrote around 200,000 words from November 2016 to November 2017. I could have written two complete novels in the past year if I had channelled my escapism more effectively, but I did not. And if we’re honest, I wasn’t going to. I needed to escape, and I needed to write with minimal pressure in an environment that offers immediate and almost entirely positive feedback. Fanfiction is great for that – you have an almost pre-selected audience of people who already like the characters and themes you’re writing on, and they’re getting the work for free, so they don’t mind the odd typo. It’s been very rewarding. But while some of it was good writing and even quite powerful within its niche, it wasn’t great writing, and none of it is suitable for professional publication, recognition, or payment.

I’m also conscious that although I have learnt a lot over the last ten years, overall my writing is less ambitious and less rich. I do not have the energy to do more than force out a scene that… gets the job done. I’m not steeped in literature the way I was immediately following my BA, and while that has the positive advantage that I’m not constantly shoving modernist poetry into my work left, right, and centre, a certain richness and intertextuality has been lost.

I also struggle to make time to read for pleasure. I have been struggling to make time to read through the latest book by my favourite author, Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb, for months. Not because it isn’t good – it’s excellent – but because I can’t shake that ingrained feeling left over from my PhD that I should be doing something more important. Something that moves my life along… even though what’s holding back my own writing is a lack of the kind of wide reading that I used to do.

Ultimately, I need to rest and relax, and find a kind of inner calm I have been missing for a long time, and that’s part of what the other things I want for 2018 are about.

I need safety and physical health and financial security to get the kind of mental wellbeing that will enable me to write well again.

To get physically fit

This one is hard because something is wrong with my health and has been for a long time and I’ve been through an endless battle to convince people it’s even real – the ache of explaining again and again that the reason I’m ill is the same reason as the last time they asked and I don’t want to go through the long outline again of everything I have been through the last four or five years. All the symptoms. All the blood tests. All the woolly non-diagnoses. All the not-so-subtle hints in response that I’m not really as unwell as I think and I just need to buck up and pull my socks up.

I met with a doctor on Friday who has ordered more of the same blood tests that I’ve had done before, but he actually seemed interested in hearing how long it had been going on, rather than just focusing on this latest bout of illness, which has certainly centred around the ‘Australian’ flu (almost certainly what I had over Christmas and New Years), but really can be traced back through one rotten illness after another through December, November, October, September… honestly nearly non-stop while I also dealt with one stress after another trying to get my life together – moving house, applying for jobs, work shake ups… and so it goes…

He mentioned he has some theories, but doesn’t want to talk about them until we’ve had the blood tests and a fuller picture. Which is good. I am, of course, worried that he’ll come back with a diagnosis for something that isn’t going to go away, like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or ME, but even then, a diagnosis would help stop the endless questions about how utterly wrecked I am by a simple cold.

I hope for something more than that. A plan I can act on and use to get properly well again, back to the gym, lose weight, get down the allotment… all those things I long to do. But we shall see.

I want a permanent job. Still.

This one will, again, be easier to get if I can sort out the other things in my life. Find space for the ambition and action that used to propel me. It’s hard to be ambitious when you can’t get out of bed.

A notebook – the laptop kind

I need to be able to write on the go. I was hoping to get one in the January sales, but even with a voucher, everything within my price range has a ridiculously tiny number of GB. 32GB was fine two years ago, but if you want to run Windows 10 (and I do – please don’t pitch up telling me to use other things, I have my reasons and you don’t need to know them) anything that size is going to keel over on its first update… which is exactly what an increasingly large portion of reviews are saying they do.

In the interim, I have bought me a bluetooth keyboard, which I am hoping to use with my phone, but it’s a stop-gap solution. A proper notebook like I used to have from my department when I was a research student would make all the difference.

A holiday. Somewhere with a beach

I have not swum in the sea since holidays with my family as a teenager – nearly two decades ago. As a child living in the US, I was practically part fish, and then later in holidays to Cornwall and Greece… You can’t really swim in the North Sea, though. I’ve managed to paddle once or twice in the last ten years, but it’s not enough anymore.

I want to swim. I want to lay on the sand and read a book and feel warm and not stressed about my real life.

I want a goddamned beach holiday.

A holiday. Somewhere with friends where I can write and read

We’re now getting into territory where it’s gonna be obvious that I cannot do all that I want. I’ll maybe be able to afford one holiday, if I get a permanent full-time job. But I have to put these things down or they will swim into the miasma of unfulfilled dreams and become a stagnant pool of unidentifiable regrets.

But me and some of my friends have talked over the past few years about clubbing together and renting a place for a week or five days or something and just… chilling. Writing. Reading. Maybe going for the odd walk. Minimal pressure – potential to do much in the way of healing and/or writing. An important ambition.

If this could happen somewhere near a beach, so much the better, but either/or would do.

A new vacuum cleaner

It’s really hard to keep my house tidy at the best of times, but it also becomes quickly clear when I try that my vacuum cleaner cannot cut it. It’s designed for small spaces, because that’s all I could afford when I moved into my last house, which didn’t have very much carpet. In this house… it’s pretty ineffectual. I’ve been on my hands and knees picking up fluff today. Ugh.

But vacuums are expensive?? Even on Gumtree the second-hand ones are expensive??

Something to remember I need next time I have a windfall.

An office chair

For the study. So I can write and paint up there. I chucked the old one, which stood me well for many years, but was a bit broken when I got it and had been worn and patched and… the plastic of the arms had gone weird and sticky?? Bleurgh.

I have a folding chair that will do for now, but if I really want to persuade myself not to spend my entire life on my laptop in bed, I need comfortable furniture that is fit for purpose.

Speaking of which: I also need a sofa

One I can lie down on comfortably to read and snuggle up in to write.

I do have two second-hand armchairs (left by a housemate who didn’t want the bother of disposing of them) and a sofa I got from the Community Furniture Store, and an Ikea armchair I got with an Amazon voucher somehow. It’s fine. It works for having people around. And I’ve got my living room into an almost stylish state that I actually enjoy spending time in sometimes. But I do tend to end up with a numb bum and eventually retreat to bed.

A proper sofa would be grand – even if it’s just a slightly nicer one from the Community Furniture Store, but I suspect I shall be making do for a little while yet.

Assorted bedroom furniture

My wardrobe came from Oxfam and spent the first two years of it’s time with me in the dining room because it wouldn’t fit up the stairs. It has been a nightmare to deal with every time I have moved and it’s starting to fall apart. It actually performs its job admirably well, but I kind of hate it and want it gone.

A new, nice chest of drawers. I have a plastic one from Argos that isn’t pretty but does its job, and a second-hand one that is falling apart. It did me good service for many years when I had nothing else, but it is not fit for purpose anymore, several of the handles are broken, and I just want something bigger and nicer.

A new bed. This one has also been a little hero, but it got mouldy in the Worst Flat and that left some ugly marks that remind me of shitty times. Also, although this mattress is a million miles better than the last mattress, I have still managed to fuck some of the springs and it sags on one side. But as this was new the year before last, I shan’t be replacing it for a while.

There are probably a whole host of other things I want (like a boyfriend – ha!), but I’m running out of energy and this is enough to get me going. To look back on and reflect.

I hope this year brings bigger and better things, but history suggests that even if it does they shall not be easily won.

Wish me luck!

Posted in Me, Not-writing | 1 Comment

Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Poster: The Last Jedi(Here be spoilers.)

I wasn’t sure I wanted to review The Last Jedi, but men on the Internet are being so silly, I felt like there needed to be a voice of reason.

I’ll never understand why middle-aged men think of this franchise as solely theirs – as though women and girls weren’t right there in the cinemas watching it from the beginning. But maybe they were watching different films to me, who knows?

They apparently didn’t see Leia using the Force to tell where Luke was when he was hanging, barely conscious from a metal spar beneath Cloud City. They didn’t hear Yoda say “There is another,” clearly meaning both another Skywalker and another potential Jedi. They heard Leia say “Somehow, I’ve always known,” when Luke tells her she’s his sister, and they’re so distracted by the fact that this implies she knew she was snogging her brother that they don’t see this as yet another example of Leia’s Force clairvoyance.

And I guess they missed in the last film that she knew that Han was dead.

Oh, they say, we’re not denying that Leia is Force sensitive, but for her to actually move physical objects with her mind, like a Jedi, is preposterous.

Sure, sure. What Yoda meant was, “There is another who is Force sensitive, but could not possibly have been trained as a Jedi.” And his statement that “There is another,” is just as significant if there are in fact many people who are Force sensitive and Leia is just one of those. That totally makes sense.

These are often, by the way, the same people who are eager to argue that Han is Force sensitive, based on little cues like him knowing Gredo was about to shoot and therefore shooting first, and the fact that no one actually could navigate an asteroid field the way Han does, given the odds of 3,720 to 1.

Personally, I’m delighted by the idea that many people are Force sensitive, and I think we see evidence of this across the old movies and the new, but you cannot have it both ways. There’s really no other reasonable interpretation of Yoda’s words. He meant Leia. And he either meant that Force sensitivity is so rare that anyone with it could become a Jedi, therefore Leia is another potential Jedi, or he meant that Leia is also significantly powerful such that she could be a Jedi were she to be trained. If she’s not significant – if she’s not special in very much the same way Luke is – he wouldn’t have been talking about her at all.

Leia standing up to Darth Vader in A New HopeOn this basis, every woman I know who loves Star Wars has been waiting on baited breath to see Leia use the fatherfucking Force for more than ‘just’ clairvoyance. Don’t get me wrong: Yoda’s training of Luke in Empire strongly suggests that clairvoyance is actually a very sophisticated skill – one he only trains Luke in after a considerable amount of running through the jungle and lifting things with his mind. More: using that skill responsibly is clearly a key aspect of being a Jedi – one Luke fails at spectacularly, dashing off to save his friends despite Yoda’s warning. Whereas we never see Leia be ruffled by her clairvoyance into emotionally irrational behaviour. Leia is a military leader the very first time we meet her, at 19. She’s tortured by Vader and gives up nothing. She has always had the mental discipline to be a Jedi. She just, quite frankly, had better things to do.

All this was blindingly obvious to us. It’s written into the original trilogy. Explicitly. Through the voice of Master Yoda. And we were disappointed to see Leia still exhibiting nothing but clairvoyance after all these years when The Force Awakens rolled around.

Leia rescuing herselfSo we were cheering when Leia used the Force to do something Luke never did: she rescues herself (as she has always done) from the vacuum of space, using the Force to pull herself back into the spaceship.

Now, there is a legitimate question about why she didn’t die in the vacuum of space. Two things to say about that: firstly, a human being can remain conscious for about 15 seconds in a vacuum. We know because it has happened and the dude was revived. So Space Leia has some time to play with. You won’t last long, but your eyes won’t explode or anything gruesome. Secondly: we know the Force can be used to manipulate the physical world. It’s reasonable to suppose that Leia might use the Force to pull some atmosphere around herself to give her some literal breathing room. This is just an extension of Force telekinesis. We have seen forcefields in Star Wars seal in a hanger deck from the vacuum of space – why couldn’t someone strong in the force do the same?

Don’t get me wrong – the experience would still fuck Leia up, as it is seen to do. She spends most of the rest of the film unconscious. But that doesn’t make it silly or unreasonable.

Frankly, this moment was the culmination of 35 years of waiting for many female fans. And it felt like an apt tribute to the late and wonderful Carrie Fisher – Princess and General Leia, and goddamn awesome human being.

You want to take flying through space away from Carrie Fisher? Really? Really?

Carrie has written and spoken at length on the sexism she experienced in Hollywood – and indeed on the set of Star Wars. The toll it took on her mental health. She wanted her obituary to read that “I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”A woman who was told by George Lucas in A New Hope that they wouldn’t have bras in space, so she wasn’t allowed to wear one… and who was then forced to sit as a mute slave in a gold bikini in Return of the Jedi. A woman who received relentless abuse from the industry and so-called fans because illness and simply getting older meant that she didn’t stay looking the same way she had at 19.

I would not deny Carrie her obituary for anything, but I am so, so glad her iconic character, General Leia, did not drown in moonlight, but instead flew through space to save her own skin. Just as she had been saving herself and her would-be rescuers right from the beginning.

You will take flying Force Leia from my cold, dead hands.

So. Now we’ve got that issue out of the way, let’s discuss the rest of the film.


Following the events of The Force Awakens the rebellion are fuuuuuucked. The First Order has a way of tracking them, even through hyperspace, and they are almost out of fuel. It’s deliciously reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica episode “33“, with the heroes a benighted flotilla, running out of resources, pursued by a superior force who are tracking them in an unknown manner.

Worse, Captain Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) disobeys Leia’s orders, expending precious resources to take out a Star Destroyer. The plan works, but at a cost they can ill afford, as they lose almost all their fighters. When Leia demotes him for his action, Poe protests that the people who followed him were heroes. “Dead heroes,” she replies, and we feel the impact of her words most acutely, for we followed one of those heroes very closely in her last moments as she gave her life so that Poe’s mission might succeed.

That hero’s sister, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), meets Finn (John Boyega) as he appears to be fleeing the ship. At first, she seems merely to be grieving, and when she recognises Finn it is with the fangirlish charm we have seen from Tran on the red carpet, where she has burst out crying, hugged fans dressed as her character, and generally expressed a genuineness that can’t help but bring joy to anyone who sees her. She then explains that she’s been doing her part to honour her sister’s memory by tasering deserters. Which she promptly does to Finn when she realises he is leaving.

The First Order strikes a blow to the rebellion’s flagship, taking out all the leaders save Leia (who saves herself, but is incapacitated). Vice Admiral Amylin Holdo (Laura Dern) takes charge (with her amazing purple hair) and seems, to Poe, to be insufficiently active. Despite being demoted, he demands the same access and knowledge from Holdo that he had from Leia. She puts him in his place and tells him to do what he’s told. He doesn’t like that, so he hatches a plan (well, adopts Rose’s plan) to find a code-breaker to disable the tracking device, so the fleet can escape through hyperspace. Rose and Finn leave to find the codebreaker. Poe stays behind… to be a pain in Holdo’s arse, I guess?

Meanwhile, Rey is with Luke, failing to persuade him to join the rebellion. For some reason she doesn’t lead with the fact that she wants to train as a Jedi, but eventually Luke figures that out and sets out to give her three lessons. The lessons, he says, will teach her why there should be no more Jedis. Luke thinks the order is broken, that the Force is in everyone and that the Jedis fell to their own hubris in thinking that they somehow were the sole keepers of the knowledge and power to maintain balance in the force.

Finn and Rose visit a rich-person’s casino resort in search of a code-breaking gambler. They fail, but find an insalubrious substitute who seems to be equipped to do the job, escaping on adorable and impressive rabbit-horse creatures.

Meanwhile, Rey has been having mental meetings with Kylo Renn, and becomes convinced she can turn him away from the Dark Side. Despite Luke’s warnings, she leaves to attempt just that.

Can Rey save Kylo? Can Finn and Rose get back to the fleet in time to disable the tracker? Exciting, fast-paced tension ensues!

My thoughts

Honestly, I loved this film.

Apparently there has been a ‘review bomb’ to skew its score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is part of the reason I decided to dust myself off and write my own review, but I’m delighted to see that Wikipedia is currently saying “some considered it the best film of the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back“, citing a wide range of sources.

Screenshot from Wikipedia.

For me? It had almost everything I wanted. There’s a joke in the opening sequence that fell a bit flat for me, but otherwise, it hit home with just about everything.

A porg sitting next to Chewbacca in the cockpit of the Millenium FalconI thought I was going to hate the much-hyped porgs, but no, they are adorable, and hilarious. The decision to have them give Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)a hard time was genius.

I also loved the aforementioned rabbit-horses, and the crystal critters, which are like arctic foxes created by Swarovski. Cute alien animals can go easily wrong and become cheesy, cringe-worthy figures of awkwardness (and I say this as someone who unashamedly loves ewoks), but these ones work.

Plotwise, the pacing was fast and gripping, and though there were many nods to the original films, The Last Jedi forges its own direction, which seems right to me. Empire, the second movie of the original trilogy, was famous for it’s anti-narrative, risk-taking ending, and it is in keeping for The Last Jedi to seek a similar stamp of originality. I loved the nostalgia of The Force Awakens, but I found I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen with The Last Jedi, and that kept me hooked.

I loved the diversity. We saw more people of colour in Rose and her sister and DJ (Benicio del Toro), the Latino, dodgy code-breaker, as well as many background characters and a visible presence of women pilots and fighters.

I do rather feel like they wasted Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), again, bringing her only late into the movie; although they did at least give her an epic fight with Finn. On the other hand, I was intensely relieved that Vice Admiral Holdo proved to be a genuine hero in the end, and not as cowardly and ineffectual as Poe assumed. Indeed, both Holdo and Leia calling Poe on his shit was glorious, and messages about listening to women in power and not ignoring the chain of command are important in an era where we are learning that decades of showing Bad Boys breaking the rules and succeeding has reinforced unhealthy attitudes in, for instance, policing in the US, where fatal shootings of civilians continues to rise, while data suggests police run much less of a rick of getting shot than they used to.

I was also a little disappointed that the fan-popular romance between Poe and Finn has not materialised, and Rose seems to be being positioned as a love interest for Finn. However, let’s remember that Leia kissed Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and, well, we all know that was not meant to be. A friend knocked me for being shippy about this, but in all honesty, the possibility that Poe Dameron and Finn might be gay (or bi) is huge in terms of representation.

Another complaint on the net is that Luke Skywalker seemed different to how he did in the original films. My goodness, it’s almost like he aged 35 years.

I’ll admit, watching The Force Awakens I was struck by the differences in the characters of Han and Leia, but I swiftly adjusted my perspective on the basis that they are older. They aged. Like people do. Like the actual actors who play them have. The Last Jedi, in my opinion, is great precisely because it explores the issue of how people age and how experience changes a person. We see Rey having conversations with Kylo that are alike not just in subject matter, but in earnestness, to the conversations Luke had with Vader. Meanwhile Luke is begging her to see reason, that Kylo will not turn, and is furious with her for seeming to turn so easily to the Dark side.

Why? Because he has been precisely where Rey is now, and he has learnt lessons, hard lessons, about the impetuousness of youth.

Yet what struck me was that we need youth’s idealism to have these hard and challenging conversations. I remember having Rey’s passion and belief. Her ability to stand up to a mind like Kylo Ren’s and believe that she might change him. Just as Luke once spoke with unrelenting hope to Vader. As we age we learn that such conversations are all too often fruitless. We become discouraged, like Luke. We want to hide away. And we want to destroy the structures of pride we built, believing that we had all the answers.

What this film shows us is that both perspectives have validity. I am glad Luke has realised that the hubris of the Jedi order brought its downfall. I am glad he wants to bring down the systems that failed. I am glad that he recognises what I always felt: that if the Force is in everything, then it can be owned by anyone, not just a small elite. Equally, I am glad for Rey’s hope and her willingness to keep fighting. And I’m glad to see her inspire something in Luke – to make Luke believe in the power of hope again, and to be willing to use himself as a symbol to guide others and give them the strength to find belief in themselves.

The film honours the mythology of the original trilogy, while encouraging us to think that that world – that world that we love, that inspires something so powerful in so many of us – can change and evolve and be open to new thoughts. That was what Luke was in the original films, after all – a challenge to Yoda’s assumptions. And it is even what Obi-Wan was in the prequels. The impetuousness of youth, willing to believe and strive against an established order, is shown to have value, even if sometimes it fails, as Obi-Wan did with Anakin, but Luke did not with Vader.

So, thematically, I am well on board with this film.

But more than that, and more than the cute critters, I was blown away by the visuals and feel of the film.

Space felt like space again. In a way CGI space has never achieved for me before. I felt wonder. I felt inspiration. I felt the reality of another world in which individuals face titanic struggles. I felt the wide possibilities of alien environments opening before me with a stark beauty that took me out of my real existence. The mineral planet Crait is not Tatooine or Hoth, but it somehow captures the barren strangeness that led me to fall in love with both.

This is a film to see and to love and to find something to believe in again. Let it transport you to a galaxy far, far away…

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Reading: Descartes’s First Meditation

What I did on my hols.

I’ve been meaning to write something about my trip to Australia for a while, but goodness, I took a lot of photos. This, however, is one little thing I did for me that I thought I’d share.

Sitting on a beach in Merimbula, Australia, looking out at the Pacific ocean, I read my favourite philosophical passage, in which Descartes begins the destruction of all his opinions, that he might start again from a solid foundation of first principles that cannot be doubted.

He employed his method of doubt, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation*, exploring the idea that it can be read as a form transcendental argument, i.e. he argues that certain fundamental truths can be certainly known because their truth is necessary for one to doubt anything at all, and therefore if one is doubting, the very act of doing so demonstrates their truth.

The First Meditation concerns itself solely with the destruction of Descartes’ uncertainly held opinions. The Second Meditation begins the task of building these up again with Descartes’ most famous argument: I think, therefore I am. Or, more accurately: I doubt, therefore there is something that doubts, and I am at minimum that thing that doubts.

I finish the reading after the dreaming argument, which I take to the be the most powerful argument in Descartes’s arsenal of demolition, and the most beautifully articulated.

I use the John Cottingham translation of Descartes’s Mediations on First Philosophy, which is divine.

I did this for me, but I’m sharing it because everyone should have the chance to hear this iconic text.

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*From the perspective of Janet Broughton’s analysis in her Descartes’s Method of Doubt.

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I have ditched the old Tip Jar. I’m very grateful to everyone who ever donated to this blog that way, but it was kind of a weird system where I had to tell PayPal I’d provided you with a service and… it was just unnecessarily complicated.

But! You can still send your appreciation of this blog with money, should you so like. I’m using this new ‘Ko-fi’ thing that’s all the rage so you can send me a little tip if I did something you liked.

I may or may not buy an actual coffee with the money you send. I might buy hot chocolate. I might buy lunch. The point is that you can tip me a small amount (like the price of a coffee) with very little hassle.

And you remain as unobliged to do any of that as ever. But if you would like to. I am here.

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Review: The Good Place

The Good PlaceI have a new favourite show. It’s both smart and easily digestible, and it’s refreshingly diverse and unproblematic.

It’s called The Good Place, and each episode explicitly explores moral theories in the context of wacky, upbeat sitcom hi-jinks. I never expected that such a show might exist. I AM SO EXCITE.

The Premise

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in the Good Place. She has died, and Michael (the Architect of the Good Place, played by Ted Dansen) introduces her to the afterlife. She’s one of a tiny percentage of people whose good works were so astounding that for them the afterlife will be spent in a neighbourhood perfectly constructed to suit the tastes of the other Very Good People who have managed to get in. This Good Place is not the only Good Place, but it’s the one perfectly suited to them.

It’s paradise! There’s only one problem: Eleanor Shellstrop does not belong. She is not the Eleanor Shellstrop who was a human rights lawyer defending people on death row. She was, in fact, not a particularly nice person. Eleanor was not evil. She committed no serious crimes. But she was petty and selfish and you would not have wanted to be her friend.

Worse: Eleanor’s presence has thrown the Good Place out of balance. Following a neighbourhood welcome party where she got drunk, insulted the host, and ate more than her fair share of the shrimp, the Good Place is beset by chaos. Something is clearly wrong, and Eleanor knows it is her.

Chidi Anagonye

Chidi Anagonye

Worried, she turns to her Soulmate for help (everyone in the Good Place has a Soulmate), Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper). Chidi was a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, and he sets about teaching Eleanor not just to behave well but to be a better person. A person who might belong in the Good Place, thus preventing further choas and potential discovery.

For discovery would mean eternal damnation: being sent to the Bad Place.

Why I like it

The philosophy

The Good Place source material

The Good Place source material

As long-time readers will know, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher of epistemology, metaphysics, and mind, rather than ethics, but I have taught ethics. I have studied and/or taught all of the texts referenced in the show. And when I say referenced, I don’t mean subtly. I don’t mean implied or in passing. I mean Chidi literally teaches Eleanor these texts and we see the books and they are quoted from.

They hit a lot of the classics you do at A level or as a first year undergraduate: Aristotle, Kant’s Goundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Hume, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, Phillipa Foot’s Trolley Problem. As a utilitarian, I get kinda narked by the fact that they only discuss the easily dismissed act utilitarianism, rather than the more robust rule utilitarianism Mill prescribes in On Liberty, and I have no idea why they seem to think Scanlon’s contractualism is All That (it is not). I’d also like to see more female philosophers, and was glad to see they worked Phillipa Foot’s seminal text in for the season 2. But as a brief introduction to some of the key theories in ethics, it’s not bad.

And I suppose that’s the thing. They pack an awful lot of clear explanation into 20min episodes of easily digestible lighthearted situation comedy about the afterlife. That’s an achievement, and not something I have ever seen attempted anywhere else. This show has guts, and it’s paying off.

The diversity

While it must be conceded that the main character, Eleanor, is white, and all the promos are off-puttingly white, focusing on the two white characters from the main cast, this is actually one of the most diverse casts I have ever seen on telly. As well as Chidi, the main cast also includes Tahani (Jameela Jamil), who is South Asian, and Jianyu/Jason (Manny Jacinto), who is East Asian.

Not to mention a supporting cast that is not only racially diverse, but diverse in body type. While it’s hard to deny that all of the main cast are all beautiful people in a reasonably standard Hollywood fashion, the people of the Good Place are by no means all super-skinny Hollywood starlets, and this is never seen as a bad thing. There is one instance where Eleanor comments on someone’s weight, and Chidi immediately calls her out for it. After all, it is implied, good people don’t judge people based on their weight.

We also see an equal number of men and women, and I’m fucking CHEERING for a female lead, jumping all over sexist dingbats who think women aren’t funny.

Moreover, we see diverse sexuality. Eleanor is openly and unabashedly bisexual – a sadly rare thing for a main character. She frequently comments on Tahani’s attractiveness, and it’s made clear that she has sexual interest, this isn’t just about jealousy or recognising another woman’s beauty. Recurring character, Gunnar, appears to have a male Soulmate, and in Season 2 Michael confirms that not all Soulmates are sexual partners – affirming that asexual and platonic love are also valid. I would like to see more in this vain. Except for a brief hint in Season 2, we never really see Eleanor and Tahani in a relationship (though that hint indicates that Tahani is also probably bi), so all the main character relationships thus far are male/female*. But overall the representation is positive.

I also like that the representation avoids stereotypes. Tahani is unambiguously and frequently described and treated as more beautiful than the white woman, Eleanor. An important fact in a world where skin bleaching is still routine as paler skin is eroneously treated as a beauty ideal. Chidi is the intellectual who cannot make decisions and abhors violence, eschewing the stereotyping of black men as thugs. And Jianyu/Jason’s character is the epitome of stereotype breaking. This is a minor spoiler, but I can’t discuss it otherwise and it’s great. The character is originally introduced to us as very stereotypical: the East Asian guy is the wise Jianyu, a monk who has taken a vow of silence. But Jianyu reveals to Eleanor in the third episode that he also doesn’t belong. He isn’t Jianyu, he’s Jason Mandoza, a stoner failed DJ from Florida. We are directly confronted with racial assumptions and have them shown to be false – a fact that Jason even gets to explicitly comment on: “Everyone here seems to think that I’m Taiwanese; I’m Filipino. That’s racist.” Particular credit goes to Manny Jacinto, who is supremely convincing in both roles, and thoroughly sells Jason as not particularly bright, but thoroughly engaging. It would be very easy to bring his lines straight into ham territory, but Jacinto conveys a genuineness in Jason that’s endearing instead.

Janet (D'Arcy Carden)

Janet (D’Arcy Carden)

My one minor note of uncertainty lies in Janet (D’Arcy Carden), the almost omnipotent AI who runs the Good Place, and whom Jason forms a romance with. I love the idea of human/AI romance, but I am done, done, totally done with dudes getting off with hot AIs that happen to look like hot women. This is lampshaded a little by Eleanor, who (unable to remember Janet’s name) refers to her as “Busty Alexa” and “Robot Slave Lady”. That said, Janet is always dressed like a particularly modest air stewardess, and while I’m kinda annoyed by the ridiculousness of having the avatar of an AI mainframe wear heels, they are at least small heels. Janet is never dressed in a sexually provocative way. Plus, Jason and Janet’s relationship is based solidly on the fact that both have been kind and comforting to each other when others were not.

The comedy

As well as all the intellectually pleasing aspects of The Good Place, it’s just plain FUN. It’s silly, it’s a little surreal, and it’s not offensive. I was sold on this programme the moment Janet played an audio-clip of the Bad Place and admidst the screaming you hear a woman shout: “That bear has two mouths!” Because a bear with one mouth is just not scary enough. And all this mixed in with a genuinely engaging plot and an ensemble cast of deeply charismatic and funny characters.

Safely hand your brain over to The Good Place and be at peace for a while. I can’t recommend it enough. You can find The Good Place on Netflix.

*Ish. As she reminds us frequently, Janet is not a girl.

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Review: The Lizzie Borden Chronicles

Promo image for the Lizzie Borden ChroniclesLizzie Borden took an axe

gave her mother forty whacks;

when she saw what she had done

she gave her father forty-one.

So goes the old folk rhyme, which is slightly mangled in the opening credits of Lifetime’s TV series loosely based on the true story of one Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the brutal murder of her father and step-mother, but likely did it. The show misquotes the rhyme as ‘when he saw what she had done/she gave her father forty-one’, which puts Lizzie’s murder of her father more squarely as a reaction to him catching her in the act, as opposed to the more ambiguous motives of the original rhyme.

As is my wont when these historical adaptations arise, I was immediately drawn to investigate the truth. In this case… the truth is uncertain, and has been the subject of many wild speculations, but Lizzie is still the number one suspect. The Wikipedia article contains a good summary of the theories and evidence.

Lizzie Borden had motive – she and her sister had been on very poor terms with her father and step-mother, had recently quarrelled, were in the middle of a property dispute, and stood to inherit a very large sum of money. There’s also speculation that Lizzie was sexually abused by her father, and that she was caught in a tryst with the maid, Bridget Sullivan, although there is little evidence for either. There were rumours that Lizzie was a lesbian, and she seems to have been very close to actor the, Nance O’Neill, who came to live with her in later life, but there is no such connection to Bridget.

Lizzie gave inconsistent testimony, although this may have been influenced by the morphine she was taking to calm her nerves. She was also found destroying a stained dress, and a plausible candidate for the murder weapon was found on her property.

So, in as much as it is very likely that Lizzie Borden killed her parents; was very close to her sister, Emma; plausibly had a relationship with Nance O’Neill; and inherited a lot of money, the series has some basis in fact. But from there the Lizzie Borden Chronicles and the truth part ways. For the most part, I don’t mind.

It is perhaps obvious to say that if you ever wanted a show about Wednesday Addams growing up and brutally murdering people, you’ll enjoy this show. Obvious, but nonetheless true. This thought is undoubtedly behind the apt casting of Christina Ricci, best known for her childhood role as Wednesday, in the role of Lizzie.

In fact, casting for the show is perfection all round. Clea DuVall is exquisite as the tight-lipped, dour, but good-hearted sister, Emma Borden. Cole Hauser pulls off a difficult balance of both charming and deeply dubious in his role as Charlie Siringo, the private investigator and ‘Pinkerton man’ whose investigation of the Borden murders pulls him dangerously under Lizzie’s radar. Genre fans will also enjoy performances from Chris Bauer (True Blood, The Wire), Jonathan Banks (Community), and especially Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) as the mobster matriarch, Aideen Trotwood.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles present a joyfully bloodthirsty and original vision. Whilst it doesn’t attempt to be true to the facts, its basis in them gives the heroine stature. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character like her. Women simply aren’t allowed to play such unequivocally dangerous and brutal, yet still feminine, roles. When I try to think of others… Dexter‘s Hannah McKay reflects the stereotype of the female poisoner. Sure, she’s feminine, but this only serves to underscore the idea that women can only overpower men by ‘underhand’ or ‘deceptive’ means. At the other end of the scale, Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones is a skilled and powerful killer, but she is a knight, killing in the name of justice, and anything but feminine. Strength, brutality, physical threat, these are reserved as masculine characteristics, and they back up the idea of women as fundamentally defenceless; although the truth is that social mores and morality are the chief reasons most of us are not a threat to each other.

We are fleshy, vulnerable animals in our day-to-day lives. Knives, axes, pitch-forks, and the like, can all be wielded with deadly force regardless of whether you are male or female or neither. Historical evidence suggests that the real Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her step-mother 19 whacks, and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 11. She was not particularly strong or tall. Just really, really angry.

The fictional Lizzie Borden goes on a killing spree that the real one did not. But it’s no more implausible than Dexter‘s Bay Harbor Butcher, and that’s important. Impressions of strength and physical threat, whether we want them to or not, affect how vulnerable we appear. It matters that we see a normal, feminine woman can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than many men.

I’m not on board with all the deviations from likely historical truth. It’s heavily implied that she killed a bunch of cats – something the real Lizzie Borden, an animal lover, would have been unlikely to do. And, sad to say [spoiler], I wouldn’t get your hopes up for Lizzie growing old with Nance, or Adele, Lizzie’s other  love interest. The trend of lesbians dying on film continues in grim fashion. Not that the fictional Lizzie is a partner I would wish on anyone, but if Dexter can find love and Hannah McKay can end up alive and well in Argentina, there was room for a different choice.

If you’re not aware of what’s wrong with yet more lesbian deaths on television, a Google search can show you dozens of articles on the subject in seconds. The issue came to prominence last year, when fictional lesbian and bisexual women were dropping like aging popstars. The short answer is that lesbian and bisexual women lie at the intersection of mainstream misogyny and homophobia, with a hefty dose of queers die for the straight eye. You’re allowed to admit women who love women exist these days, but only if they die. Bonus points if their deaths make straight men sad and motivate them towards action (aka fridging). It’s no more inevitable that Lizzie Borden should kill her love interests than it was for Dexter, but it was just such an easy choice.

I’m not the first person to say it, but this needs to stop being the go-to for writers. There was a great moment when I thought Nance was going to join Lizzie in a murder-road-tip – this was an option, and one that would have skewed just a little closer to reality. But the writers chose to move away from the real history, where Lizzie’s relationship with Nance drove a wedge between the sisters, in favour of strengthening the sister-bond story. An opportunity lost in favour of heteronormitivity and the tired trope that platonic female relationships are the only kind that provide strength and solace.

That aside, I still think this show is very well made and as much of a romp as a drama about a serial killer can be. Bonus points for some really delightful period costumes. And full love for Mama Stark (Michelle Fairely) reprising her role as a formidable matriarch herding sons who are not her equal.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles was refreshing and enjoyable – one of the best things I have seen in a long time.

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Back from outer space

Sorry to leave it such a long time with no update. I have half-a-dozen posts I started, but never finished.

Combination of continued ill-health, job-stress, and falling down a fanfiction rabbit-hole. Dragon Age owns me, and I don’t think it’s likely to let go any time soon.

Job stuff is good. I’m looking after the webpages of a large organisation. It’s creative and supports stuff I’m into. It’s also a 10min walk from home. Which is good when you have energy problems. I’ve handed over the stressful part of my job to someone else, and I’m generally feeling positive. The only down side is that it’s a maternity contract and it will finish in Septmeber. BOO.

I’m currently on leave and making use of my hand-me-down netbook to camp out in a bar by the river and get some writing done. It’s meant to be fiction writing – my novel, working title: Courtly Intrigue and Dragons – but I have a review burning a hole in the side of my brain, so you may have new content from me, soon!

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