29 March 2016

The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin

On a continent where the ground is unstable and communities must be in readiness for disaster a woman with useful but dangerous powers mourns for her murdered child. A girl is taken away from her ordinary life and shown her place in society. A young woman is sent on an assignment that goes wildly awry.

This story displays incredible imagination and emotional depth. It's secondary world fantasy with a setting that feels fresh, detailed and well-drawn. I have read a lot of fantasy, but I've not read a world like this one. It's cool to see how a particular aspect of the environment has so thoroughly impacted society, culture and history. The way that communities operate and the common culture that holds them together is depicted well, but this no homogeneous society. Communities vary depending on size, wealth and status, and the people of the continent come in different shapes, appearances and roles which affect their attitudes and behaviours. The reader is introduced to various pieces of lore and vocabulary from the world without a lot of heavy exposition and this creates depth. By following characters on the fringes of society we get glimpses of what is considered normal, why that doesn't apply to certain people, and how normalcy can change very suddenly.

I don't want to go into plot details, because this is a better read if you don't know a lot going into it, but the story starts with something big and somehow manages to ramp things up. The book switches about, and the narrative structure is very cleverly done, at least I felt quite clever when I figured it out and was impressed with the method. There are sections of the book that are told with an immediacy and intimacy in a style that isn't often used in fiction. It's the kind of thing that seems like it shouldn't work, but the author skilfully uses an unusual writing style to make the reader identify strongly with a character who is going through something brutal. The characters go through a lot of changes and take various emotional blows and the reader feels each keenly meaning that this isn't an easy read but it is a thoroughly engaging one.

The book explores how society controls certain groups of people who are considered to be dangerous through hatred, fear and exploitation of their resources. Some of this is direct and lethal prejudice, but some of it is subtler and secretive, using the skill and resources of people to support a system that hates them. It also shows how the people who are victims of this hatred and exploitation can come to believe what's said about them and buy into their own oppression. It presents alternative ways of living that exist on the edges of, and hidden beneath, mainstream society. There's also exploration of how friendship, family and community can sustain a person and how these change in times of extremity. The story and characters don't stick to the traditional ideas of love, family and gender that exist in the mainstream of our own society, which is refreshing. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fresh, powerful fantasy.

24 March 2016

Galaxy's Child

Episode: s4, ep 16

The Enterprise gains a giant baby and it turns out parenthood is literally draining. Also Geordi behaves dreadfully.

What Happens
Due to strong feelings while watching I'm going to split this section by plotline.

Baby Space-Thing
The Enterprise goes to investigate an anomaly that turns out to be a massive space-based lifeform. They go to say hello but it attacks the ship so they try to escape, killing the thing in the process. Data notices a life-sign within the body and they realise that it's pregnant. Crusher suggests a caesarian and performs one on a massive, unknown lifeform using the ship's laser. When the baby escapes it follows the Enterprise and Troi suggests it has imprinted on them. Then the baby space-thing latches on to the ship and drains energy from it. The ship is losing power so senior staff discuss what to do. Data extrapolates where the parent was going so they head there and find more of these creatures, but the baby still won't let go. Geordi tries blasting it off with pressure, which doesn't work and the baby drains more power. Visiting engine designer, Dr Brahms, suggests they sour the milk and so she and Geordi change the frequency of the ship's vibration (or something). The baby sends out a distress call and the other space-things speed up, but luckily baby detaches before the ship loses all power. I think that the space creature might look kind of gross if it were rendered with better effects, but actually I like that it's not too detailed. This was a nice little plotline with more emotional depth than I'd expected, and while I feel a baby space-thing would make an excellent addition to the series I get that's not how this show works.

Geordi and Dr Brahms
Picard informs Geordi that the designer of the Enterprise engines, Dr Leah Brahms, has requested to
come and meet him. Geordi previously developed a crush on a holodeck simulation of her that he created with the computer (using her personnel record and psych profile) while he was supposed to be saving the ship. Geordi seems to believe that this means that a real person he has never met is about to become his girlfriend, it makes him weirdly smug and familiar. When he explains this to Guinan she points out that a real woman is not his holodeck fantasy, as ever he fails to heed her. Dr Brahms is there to inspect what Geordi has done to the engines and she's not happy that he's been messing with her design. Geordi is initially nonplussed that she isn't friendly. Then he starts being overly-familiar, which is confusing to her as they've never met and she's there in a professional capacity, plus he seems to know a lot of odd things about her. When she criticises what he's done to the engine he gets angry and defensive, which I think she was expecting, though I suspect he's behaving that way in part because she's not what he thought she'd be like.
Geordi calms down and tries to make a play for his imaginary version of a real woman by inviting her to his quarters. She clearly thinks it's a work meeting, because he makes it sound like one, so of course she's freaked out when he's in casual clothes and there's music playing. She talks herself down by describing some of the negative ways others perceive her (I wonder if she's doing this to try and put him off, that it is something I have done). When he offers to get dinner for her she leaves abruptly, it was clear he was not there to discuss work. Still uncomfortable about Geordi acting like he knows her, Dr Brahms continues with her work and while in a tube they chat about how they both have strong feelings about engines. She compliments some work he's done then he suggests they could be close friends and confesses that he's studied her, without revealing how. She, reading the situation correctly, points out that she's married. It is the most awkward conversation I've ever seen in a tube.
Geordi angrily rants to Guinan. How dare a woman he has encountered only in a professional capacity have the temerity to get married before she ever knew he existed! How dare she behave in a manner colder and more formal than the imaginary version of her that he invented! Guinan points out that his expectations were nothing to do with the real woman and that he should look at her as a person, not his fantasy. After this Geordi behaves better towards Dr Brahms and they work well together. Then Dr Brahms sees a holodeck programme about the original engine design. She goes into it and sees holo-Dr Brahms saying weird quasi-romantic/obscurely sexual things and is understandably creeped out and furious. Geordi rushes in and Dr Brahms realises this is why he was weird with her and assumes he was doing something unsavoury, which makes sense considering the dialogue she witnessed. She yells at him and she says she feels violated. This is where the growing awkwardness breaks and I am so happy at this point. She's found out the truth and is expressing her feelings and I am laughing and I am punching the air! He deserves her fury and should realise the error of his ways.
Then it all goes wrong. Geordi doesn't apologise, but tries to explain. She's not receptive to this, not surprising, she's shocked. Then he gets angry and HE starts shouting at HER. He tells her off for not being friendly to him, even though there was no reason for her to be and he had been making her uncomfortable since she arrived. He doesn't care at all how this has made her feel (she said she felt violated, that is a big deal). He is being an arsehole and I hope she makes a formal complaint. Except that's not what happens. They work together on the power-draining baby problem, and though she's wary at first Geordi seems to win her round with his problem solving. He explains his actions a little more, but he never apologises either for the holodeck simulation or for his behaviour, or for making her uncomfortable. At the end of the episode they're all friendly and laughing about it all and then SHE apologies to HIM!! WTF!!!! I am so angry at this point, so angry. He magnanimously waves away her apology - no need to apologise for feeling angry about me cyber-stalking you or feeling violated when you assumed I was using an unauthorised image of you for sexual purposes.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard was so happy to see the creature, something that can live in the depth of space, and fascinated by making contact. He is completely devastated about killing it and Patrick Stewart absolutely sells the quiet despair in those moments.

Doctor Doctor
Has anyone ever used a star ship's weaponised laser to perform a caesarian in space on a giant creature before? I suspect not -though space is really weird- and if I'm right this should totally be put in medical journals or called the Crusher manoeuvre.

Blind Engineering
I want to like Geordi La Forge more than I do. I know various people like him as a character and find him inspiring, and I really get that. Everything I know about LeVar Burton suggests that's he's a really great guy who does a lot of good, important work, which I know is separate to the character but seems worth stating. The thing with Geordi is that, as a viewer, I'm not that bothered about spaceships or how they work and that's a large part of Geordi's role. I get that ships look pretty and people get really interested in their features, but a recent conversation with my husband has revealed I care far more about the characters and events on the spaceships of TV and film, than I do about the ships themselves.* As Chief Engineer in most episodes Geordi talks about the ship and the engine and finds engineering solutions to problems and I just find so much of his dialogue uninteresting (this is absolutely not a dig at the vital and impressive work of real life engineers, it's just that I don't find the engineering stuff on Trek entertaining, plus I'm told it's all bollocks anyway). Outside of that his character is generally pleasant and convivial and he's obviously brave, but the same could be said for most of the TNG regulars. His relationship with Data is nice and has some good moments. It's just that whenever he's had a plotline involving his love life I've found his attitude to women intensely irritating and this horrible plot makes him seem dreadful. I have decided that going forward I will keep my rage about these events contained to this episode, but I expect something impressive will have to happen to change to my current cool feelings towards the character.

Guinan's Hat - Red
As ever when Geordi has something to report about his love life he goes to see Guinan, it is a shame that he never follows her advice and sometimes it seems like he doesn't even notice when she's trying to make a point. He should listen more. Anyway Guinan sees where this is going because she's wise, although in this case it doesn't take much wisdom as Geordi is clearly deluding himself when he says he doesn't expect anything romantic. Later when Geordi is petulant she points out that he can't blame another person for how he's feeling, because in the holodeck he only saw what he wanted to see. It is an excellent point and I think Geordi really gets it and he works well (and professionally) with Leah. Shame that doesn't continue when he decides that her feelings about the holodeck version of her aren't worth acknowledging.
The one line of Guinan's that I really love is "She's probably done the most horrific thing one person can do to another, not live up to your expectations." It's a great comment on how the desires of people (especially men) can completely warp their perceptions of other people (especially women) nd how this is something people overreact to. This comment is so relevant nowadays, especially with self-determined nice guys who immediately get angry or offensive when they don't get the reaction they want from women whose affections they have, rather un-nicely, decided belong to them. I think I got so angry here because Geordi was clearly thinking of himself as a "nice guy" despite obviously hiding the specifics of what he'd done, and the story decided that in the end we should feel sorry for him.

Staff Meetings: 2
1. Senior staff discuss the orphaned baby stuck inside its parent's corpse (it's actually kind dark when described that way). Crusher can't say much for certain but suggests it may be premature. She mentions caesarian and Riker suggests doing it with lasers. Work advises against it as the parent was a threat to the ship, he is as ever ignored. Picard says to proceed at Crusher's discretion.
2. Senior staff -and Dr Brahms- discuss what to do now that the baby is sucking power from the ship. They don't know how long "Junior" will stay attached to the ship. Picard asks Data to figure out where the parent was going and Crusher says it might have been going to a safe place. Leah points out that the baby is attached near a cargo bay door, she and Geordi suggest using the pressure inside the ship to blast it away. The meeting ends with Data asking if the baby should officially be called Junior, Picard grumpily refuses.

The End
Geordi approaches Leah in Ten Forward and admits he got attached to holo-her, he's clearly a bit ashamed, but still does not apologise. She apologises to him, which isn't necessary but is a show of good faith, then laughs at the look on his face hen he came into the holodeck (which was funny). Then he's laughing at the look on hers (which isn't funny cos she was very angry and possibly scared/disgusted). She again regrets the way she's behaved towards him (professional, unnerved then rightfully angry) and admits that she had wrong preconceptions about him. Of course none of her preconceptions were based on a dodgy copy she'd made of him, so I feel like she's in the right here. Then she leaves to meet her husband and Geordi looks disappointed and I have no damn sympathy for him.

* It was completely awesome when the Battlestar Galactica jumped into atmosphere to save the colonists. I mean they did an FTL jump, into atmo! But that's the main time I can think of that I've been super impressed by seeing what a spaceship can do.

12 March 2016

First Contact

Episode: s4, ep 15

An interesting episode showing that space isn't full of promise for everyone. Though Riker is treated really badly here.

What Happens
Riker is rushed through an alien hospital, unconscious and in alien make-up. The medics looking at him are shocked to find that he is not of their species.When he wakes Riker is questioned by doctors and pretends to be a man from that planet with genetic defects. As crazy as it sounds some of the medics think this could be some kind of alien.
A Science Minister argues for space exploration, but a Defence Minister argues against moving away from their traditions. The planet's Chancellor agrees that they can make the attempt to break light speed but then they should stop. When Science Minister is alone Troi and Picard beam in to tell her aliens exist. As her species are about to achieve warp they've come to say hi. They take her to the Enterprise and she looks at her planet from orbit; she's awed and very open to the experience. She says that most people on her planet believe they're the centre of the universe, so aliens would be a nasty culture shock. Picard and Troi are aware of this attitude and a few years ago the Federation sent down a covert team to find out more about the planet. When Riker went down to liaise with the planet-based team he was caught in violence and they've lost track of him. Science Minister says that they shouldn't mention any this to the Chancellor. At the medical centre Riker is held under guard. They know he's not from the planet and though they're trying to keep it secret the word will spread and so will panic.
Troi and Picard are introduced to the Chancellor by Science Minister, and they show him the Enterprise too; she's really excited but he's overwhelmed. After a drink with Picard the Chancellor feels more positive. Meanwhile Riker is approached by an alien fetishist at the medical centre who offers to help him escape if he'll have sex with her, which we have to assume he does. She's actually not much help and Riker is chased, beaten and restrained.
The Chancellor tells the Defence Minister about the Federation and he is alarmed. He reveals that an alien spy has been captured and is being held at a medical centre. Science Minister says she knew and it's her fault they didn't tell the Chancellor about Riker. Defence Minister wants Riker interrogated, though he's badly injured and the drugs they'll use could kill him. Picard asks the Chancellor for Riker back and tries to accept responsibility for the situation, the Chancellor says Riker's being questioned.
Defence Minister goes to Riker, who is suffering. He has Riker's phaser and says that the aliens are too dangerous and strange to be allowed contact with his people. Even if they mean well their existence will undo his society and its values. He tries to make it look like Riker shot him. A shocked medical team arrive and make an emergency phone call, then Crusher and Worf beam in and Crusher talks to them doctor to doctor. The Defence Minister isn't dead, he didn't know about the stun setting. Both patients are taken to the Enterprise sickbay. The Chancellor is saddened by what the Defence Minister did, but knows this is a sign of how people will react. He says he'll scale back the warp project and devote resources to education and social development to prepare for the day when they are ready. There'll be rumours and stories but most won't be believed. Science Minister disagrees but the Chancellor asks the Federation to leave them alone for now. Science Minister asks to go with the Enterprise.

Guest Star

Bebe Neuwirth plays the woman at the medical centre who lusts after Riker. She most famously plays Lilith in Cheers and Frasier. While it was cool to hear that she's a Trek fan I think this is the only role of hers that I've seen and didn't like. Not that I think her acting is bad here or anything, it's just that her character's behaviour is unpleasant and the ethical implications are unexamined. It's clearly meant as a humorous, throwaway encounter, but it's not funny, though I don't blame the actress for that.
A much better and funnier crossover between this actress and TNG occurs in an episode of Frasier where Brent Spiner plays a man Lilith meets on a plane. They bond over being pale, which I could relate to.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard approaches the Science Minister to introduce her to the idea of the Federation and the interstellar community her people are close to meeting. This is done sooner than usual because of Riker's disappearance and against his better judgement he agreesnot to reveal Riker's presence (or that of their surveillance team) to the Chancellor. Picard's chat with the Chancellor over family wine feels a bit like they should be wearing smoking jackets and sitting in old leather chairs. Picard reassures the Chancellor that they aren't conquerors, that they will respect his wishes about how they interact with his people, or whether they will interact with them at all. Though it's a culture shock the Chancellor is positive, though he's aware Picard is a diplomat and wants to be cautious. After Riker's presence is discovered Picard tries to take responsibility for omitting the information about the surveillance and acknowledges that it was a mistake. When the Chancellor won't say whether he'll give Riker back Picard beams away without trying to argue further. Picard is happy for the Science Minister to come with them, respecting her love of space and determination to fit in there, though there doesn't seem to be a plan for what to do with her.

Poor Riker
Riker's love of risk-taking is probably why he's gone to liaise with the surveillance team (who we never see, which is presumably why they have that job). It does require more research and surgical implants than a usual away team mission. Getting taken to a medical facility is what every alien infiltrator dreads. He sticks to his character background and uses genetic defects to explain his weird pink digits and fake forehead, but it doesn't hold up for long. The chief medic tries to be sensible, keep it quiet and contained and check there's no medical precedent, but members of his staff are excitable and Riker is really weird.
Riker's escape attempt is facilitated by an alien fetishist. It seems unlikely that -in a culture that doesn't believe in aliens (and reminds me of 1950s America)- there would be many people who have "always wanted to make love with an alien". It's even more unlikely that such a person would happen to have an alien brought to their work place. Having found herself in the astronomically unlikely position of being able to fulfil her fantasy this woman (who I think is a medical professional) coerces Riker into sex, which is creepy. Riker doesn't seem threatened by this, but he is perturbed and even if he might have wanted to under other -consensual- circumstances he's in a terrible situation. He's injured, alone, in danger and she manipulates him. Riker tries to point out that there are differences, mercifully without going into detail, but that just makes her more keen. It's actually stupid as well as creepy because she doesn't know what she's getting into. It could be disgusting or painful or something that doesn't seem like sex to her. It could lead to disease or death or pregnancy, and then she's got an alien baby on her fingerless hands. Thankfully we see nothing, but it's implied that events transpired. Considering what Riker does to secure her help she gains him nothing; in fact the escape attempt gets him in worse trouble. The episode doesn't notice how gross this is, though it's not portrayed as romantic or sexy (thank god) there's no exploration of the ethics or implications of the situation. Disappointing but not surprising given the apparent genders of those involved.
When Defence Minister visits Riker is very sick, revived by drugs that are killing him, but still able to talk about the Federation's message of peace. It turns out that Defence Minister isn't interested in Riker's intentions, only the effect that aliens will have. Riker objects to Defence Minister trying to make his suicide look like murder, and I don't think that he was just telling him the phaser was on the wrong setting.

The Prime Directive is A Harsh Mistress ...usually
Picard briefly describes the Prime Directive as not interfering with the natural development of a planet. It's been made clear that pre-warp societies are off limits, but once they're about to achieve warp the Federation does a tonne of research (which is a sensible approach to aliens), and secretly sends people in to observe, which is kinda creepy. Picard says lack of prep caused the Klingon conflict and he thinks the secret observing has helped more than it's hurt. But who has it helped? I don't know how they find out when a planet is ready, how many species are they watching? There are other episodes where the Federation are secretly observing people that are far from space travel. That seems like curiosity. Do they observe everyone they encounter? For people who don't want to interfere the Federation have certainly gotten comfortable with intrusive surveillance. How necessary is all this anyway? While deep space confrontation isn't the best introduction and has scope to go wrong this is a lot of effort and resources devoted to simply avoid that. I suspect this approach also has a fair bit to do with marking territory. The Federation presence keeps other advanced powers away. When you look at what the Cardassians did to Bajor that's not necessarily a bad thing. The Federation won't conquer, compete or share tech, they'll only guide, but what are they guiding others towards?

The End
The forward-looking Science Minister asks Picard to take her away from her planet, and the Chancellor says she won't be happy on the planet with the restrictions he'll have to impose. Picard warns they might not return while she's alive and that she might not be prepared for space, she says she's been prepared since she was 9 years old. Picard asks Worf to assign her some quarters and then says farewell to the Chancellor, who hopes they'll be able to meet again someday.