Escapism, 2017 Style
by Kristin King
So 2017 will go down in U.S. history as a dumpster fire. A significant portion of our voting populace decided that our problems were just too hard and too confusing -- easier just to light everything on fire. There’s been quite enough horror and tragedy in real life (oh, and by the way, #metoo), so I’ve looked for lighter fare in my fiction.
Here are some of the books and shows that helped me get through the year.
The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward
This is escapism of the best sort, a pulpy mashup full of excitement, espionage, and romance. Lucy Harker, the daughter of Dracula, has come onboard the Titanic on a mission to guard the plans for the Nautilus, but is sidetracked by a romance with a mysterious countess. More, please.
Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages
Klages is always a joy to read. Her works reflect a positive outlook on life -- generally -- but the reader is never safe. I winced all the way through the magician story “Hey Presto,” not knowing who would survive the on-stage trickery, rooted for the evil stepmother in “The Education of a Witch,” and so enjoyed the hilarious “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” that I read it out loud to anyone who would listen.
The Clover Twig series by Kaye Umansky (Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage and Clover Twig and the Perilous Path)
This children’s series takes a sensible, orderly young girl and puts her to work in a witch’s house, filled with messes waiting to happen, cupboards you must never open and potions you must never take, alongside an accident-prone boy. It’s fun and exciting, with delicious prose. I especially enjoyed the cat, who acquired the ability to speak while remaining decidedly feline.
Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King
This brilliant and funny novel by part Cherokee author Thomas King is impossible to describe. A satirical Western? A Native treatment of white mythology? A trickster road trip novel? Three “old Indians” have run off from a nursing home, and somewhere along the way they take on the names Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye. The novel ranges from sly satiricism to outright comedy, leading up to a convoluted Columbus Day pun. But this novel is also as serious as it is funny, with strong characters struggling with life and identity both on and off a Blackfoot reservation, at the unveiling of a great big -- and very profitable -- dam.
Dreadful Water Shows Up by Hartley GoodWeather
In this novel, Thomas King, writing as Hartley GoodWeather, takes a well-drawn protagonist through an illicit investigation of a murder that mars the opening of a controversial -- and very profitable -- casino. It’s a good send-up of the hard-boiled detective novel, but like Green Grass, Running Water, it tempers the wit with emotional depth. My favorite moment is when the protagonist, Dreadful Water, encounters a crying woman and processes his own grief while trying to comfort her, and I get an insight into human nature I’ve never seen before. Dreadful Water notes that he’s never understood why women think crying makes you feel better, where in his experience, it’s always made him feel worse. That was a lovely way to turn a stereotype on its head.
With the passing of Robert Guillaume, I revisited an old favorite from my childhood. In a weekly bonding moment, our family used to watch Soap on a TV channel we could barely receive, listening intently through the snow for the next joke. Now I’m watching it with my own, teenage kids. It’s been a hit but I’ve had some serious explaining to do, especially when faced with the rape jokes and the severe homophobia that surrounds the character of Jodie.
Jodie was one of the first homosexual characters to be portrayed sympathetically on television, as a real person rather than a caricature, and kudos to Billy Crystal for risking his career by taking this part. Many of the jokes are offensive, but it helps to remember that this was a no-holds barred show that exploited a wide range cultural insecurities.
Benson, the black butler played by Robert Guillaume, is a force of nature and hilarious from the first episode, where he stands up to his sleazy boss, Mr. Tate, with a combination of outright defiance, feigned ignorance, pointed glances at the camera, oblique references to racism, perfect timing, and wit. Later in the season (episode 16, to be precise), a Nazi detective comes around to bully and intimidate the family, but Benson cuts him short with biting wit . . . and the willingness to sacrifice the family’s strawberry shortcake.
In other words, Benson was antifa before it was cool.
Doctor Who Series 10
This was a relatively light series, especially after all the death, horror, and drama of Series 9, and Peter Capaldi got to settle into more humor, alongside a witty-and self-possessed companion.
Actress Pearl Mackie, as Bill, broke onto screen with a big splash in her first trailer, asking newbie questions with a comic wittiness. (Why do the Daleks have a sucker? Why do they say “Exterminate” and not just “Kill”?)
One of my favorite moments is when another character catches her talking to herself and she neither denies it or calls herself “crazy.” She explains that she was having a conversation with her mother, who had died when she was young, and she frankly admits that she does it regularly, like it’s a perfectly healthy thing to do. Which it is.
In another fine moment, she comes to the conclusion that the Doctor has taken the wrong side. (He was playacting at totalitarianism.) Disappointed but practical, she points a gun at him and pulls the trigger. No hand-wringing or hero worship here. She is purely her own self, with her own story arc, and it’s marvelous.
Kristin King (http://kristinking.wordpress.com) is a writer, parent, and activist who lives in Seattle. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Calyx, The Pushcart Prize XXII (1998), and other places. Two of her stories appeared in an Aqueduct Press anthology, Missing Links and Secret Histories: A Selection of Wikipedia Entries Lost, Suppressed, or Misplaced in Time. A selection of her short fiction has been collected in Misfits from the Beehive State.