πŸ“— That Consumption Life: Teixcalaan, This Is Us, Never Have I Ever, Breath Becomes Air 🧬

Monday, November 7, 2022 :: Tagged under: culture pablolife. ⏰ 6 minutes.

🎡The song for this post is Paint it Black, by The Rolling Stones.🎡

A Desolation Called Peace

Covers of both novels

This is the sequel to A Memory Called Empire, a breakout novel by newcomer Arkady Martine. I enjoyed both of these books!

Like a lot of breakout sci-fi by newer underrepresented authors (e.g. The Fifth Season), it doesn't fit cleanly in genre borders and kind of invents its own. It's got the trapping of sci-fi but I'd call it a combination of a few other genres: competence porn, hugbox world-building, and political thriller.

What is "competence porn?" I coined this after reading some urban fantasy Karen introduced me to (The Innkeeper Chronicles): this is a genre where a (usually woman) lead has to manage tense, high-stakes situations calmly and with incredible intellectual and emotional competence. The Innkeeper books have planet-level stakes with escalation by a ton of very powerful, hotheaded men, and the lead of that novel has to deftly manage their angry Man feelings, defusing tons of tiny situations while also solving the bigger novel's puzzle.

This isn't a knock: it reminds me a bit of action movies. Men love their action movies where a usually-man solves giant problems and is greatly rewarded using some of the only tools our gender roles are allowed (anger, passion while still being cool enough to walk away from explosions without looking. Being horny. Lots of violence and flexing). It's a bit of a female-coded version of this: these two books have a many woman leads who keep their heads on, and play the scenes very intelligently. It's extremely satisfying.

The sequel also follows a precocious 11-year old, which also taps into the pleasure center of nerdy readers.

Spoiler-ey observation The Eight Antidote storyline was "What if Ender's Game, but he prevents a genocide?"

What is "hugbox world-building"? This one comes from this Twitter thread. Nobody clicks outgoing links, so I'll copy the first two tweets, but the thread is really in-depth and I suggest you read it:

[...] in general is that there are two diametrically opposed visions of how to write queer literature. Let’s call them hugboxing and scab-picking, and do a quick thread.

The basic divide between hugboxing and scab-picking comes in how they engage with queer oppression. Hugboxing imagines its absence, creating safer, better worlds. Scab-picking probes its wounds in deliberately painful and uncomfortable ways.

So queer and gender representation in these novels is very hugboxed. Race is a harder one to classify because it employs the notion of imperial citizens vs. "barbarians" (people born outside the empire) but in general, picking newly made-up or clearly fictional delineations (novels where there's discrimination against vampires, for example) is a bit of hugboxer move: it lets you talk about themes of discrimination without recreating any real, in-the-reader's-life discriminations.

Additionally, there's a bit of pandering in the world-building. Who reads books? People who like books and the written word! And who is the all-consuming, all-powerful, bloodshirsty empire in this novel? A society of poets! That's right, this society loves and treasures the written word, just like you, dear reader. It's a bit like Rock & Roll songs that talk about how amazing Rock & Roll is. It's kind of a cheat, IMO.

Finally, I'd call it a political thriller. A friend didn't love these books mentioned that "nothing happens," and while some things do happen, what you see is smaller-scale in action than what's happening offstage: most of the conflict is internal to the protagonist.

With all that classification done, I really, really liked these. It's extremely well-executed; even coming into this with my frame of hugbox literature, the world is extremely well-built. Calling it competence porn doesn't have me liking it any less. The themes around belonging in a culture and complicated feelings around the empire with boot on your neck (hey, I'm from both the USA and Guatemala…) are lovely and not something I'm used to marinating on while reading fiction. And I dug the politics!

In Chile I had long, long drives between the various parts of the desert, I was so greatful to have such a page-turner.

This is Us (Hulu)

cast of This Is Us

The day I turned 36, I was in DC for a family visit and my parents wanted me to see the pilot of this. During the pilot, 3 characters celebrate their 36th birthday; I gave my parents some eyes at this.

It's got 6 very long seasons. Each episode is ~45 minutes. That said, as far as drama series go, it's pretty sticky. I saw episodes 2 and 3 on the flight back from DC, and now it's a good way for me to tune out for a bit. It's a bit… wholesome? If you're sensitive to manipulative mood music it's pretty jarring. Each episode has several Big Actor Showcase Monologues that sometimes you wish you could skip. But I'm now in season 4; it succeeded in sticking me.

Also, big ups to Mandy Moore for becoming a killer actor. Between her, Christina, Britney, and Jessica, she drew the best lot. Confession, when I was in HS someone had A Walk to Remember on their TV, I idled into it, and cried at the end. Criminal that it's less recognized than the other famous Sparks adaptation, The Notebook.

Never Have I Ever (Netflix)

Cast of Never Have I Ever.

This was recommended by someone I met on Bumble; I downloaded S1, and binged the whole season on my flight back from Santiago. It's pretty funny! It's not 30 Rock level of density and quickness, but it's closer to that than a Chuck Lorre sitcom. The show it reminds me of most is Jane the Virgin (one of the best shows ever, run, don't walk): it's pretty funny, but it leverages its breaks from realism and use of humor to make you more invested in the melodrama. Because it's more ridiculous, you're able to relax into it more.

Between this and This is Us, the "perfect dead dad who everyone mourns" is getting played out pretty hard. Also, I'm a little saturated on "precocious teenagers in High School clearly written by and for adults" (I just watched Ms. Marvel (which, in fairness, came later); everything in this genre reminds me of Easy A and Superbad and Can't Hardly Wait and Never Been Kissed. And Lord let's try to forget the old guy they got for Dear Evan Hanson).

I'm watching it pretty happily. Almost every episode has at least one moment that makes me laugh out loud.

When Breath Becomes Air

Cover of When Breath Becomes Air.

Most of my dates this year came from apps, but two very serendipitous dates happened outside the apps, and they were meaningful, lovely experiences. Both of them called this one of their favorite books; I'd already heard a lot of praise for it, so I picked it up on the Chile trip.

It reminded me of an Elizabeth Gilbert line from Eat, Pray, Love: "I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life. So why didn't I see myself in any of it?" She was living a narrative, then a major event derailed it (the divorce), and she had to figure out what her life was about, actually. This has a similar arc: Paul was on a blessed path, a shocking event makes that path impossible, and he's forced to become very reflective on what life should be.

I suspect part of why this book resonates for so many: its call to action is begging us to take stock and ownership of our present situations. A lot of us are living lives that are about something other than who we are in the present moment. Maybe you're at your job or with your partner because you're "supposed" to be, but if you knew you had less time, what would you do? I've spent a ton of this year asking myself what Wanting Something even means, it's nice to get a poke.

He's a pretty fabulous writer; the pages flowed easily and he had many great turns of phrase.

Make It Stick

Cover of Make it Stick

Non-fiction, self-help-ey: it's cool. Like a lot of Business-ey books, it's actually not that much content that gets inflated to Book Size to sell in airports, so reading it is a bit of a slog, and repetitive. But it also helps reinforce the lessons. I'll be incorporating its lessons in a lot of the things I'm working on learning (accordion, some professional things) as well as how I mentor and teach others. You could do worse!

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