2018 in Review: Wonder Women and Others
by Cynthia Ward
It's been the craziest year of my life, but I did fit in a few movies and books:
"I Was Up in the Air and She Taught Me a Lesson All Right" (Film)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - For Joe and me, Coen Brothers films are hit or miss by a wide margin, and their darkly humorous, cinematically stunning new collection of six Old West vignettes proved a miss: the theme of "life sucks and then you die" in the first three stories (one of which will enrage many disabled viewers) turned viewing to drudgery, and we quit (but Matthew X. Gomez finished watching the movie and reviewed it at Pulp Consumption [spoiler alert]).
Black Panther - I enjoyed Don MacGregor and Rick Buckler's comics about the Marvel superhero Black Panther in the '70s, and I'm glad to say the 2018 Marvel movie Black Panther is mythic and heroics-packed and wise, and one of the best films I've ever seen.
The Blockers - Given how raunchy it was, it's difficult to believe JetBlue was playing an edited version (butt beer bongs, anyone?), but this comedy is amusing and astute in an American Pie 1 kind of way, plus fairly feminist; we plan to see the unedited version.
Deadpool - It sounded like it was right in my wheelhouse (snarky, violent, antiheroic superheroics), but I didn't last 10 minutes with this movie, which makes Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange look like ageless masterpieces--a hit, why?
The LEGO Batman Movie - If you can't be yourself, be Batman, or at least LEGO Batman, in this rare (unique?) example of a self-parodying pop-lit movie that is simultaneously respectful of its subject, instead of torturously cynical (cf. the 1979 movie Moonraker, which put a friend and me off the entire James Bond franchise for decades).
Love, Simon - Excellent...yet....I know high school can be a time of spectacular interpersonal fuckups for students of all sexual orientations (cf. American Pie 1), but as this dim-witted het girl contemplated the queer grandkids watching this film, I grasped why a lot of LGBTQIAP+ readers viewers get tired of miserable events & experiences being routinely visited on LGBTQIAP+ characters.
Mamma Mia - This musical based on the songs of ABBA was just as shallow and wonderful as the other 3 times I've seen it, and very popular on neighboring seat-back screens.
Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Adding a bit of depth and darkness, but lacking a bit for the near-absence of the Meryl Streep incarnation of Donna, this sequel is still a banquet of gourmet comfort food - and, since I want you to be happy, here's the "Waterloo" dance scene from the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQDJyKmqej8.
Ocean's Eight - It would be lovely if gender-flipping a film franchise automatically led to great movies starring women, but I found this team caper flick centered on Sandra Bullock to be unengaging, and barely remember a thing two months afterward (but I haven't seen the previous run centered on George Clooney, or the original film centered on Frank Sinatra; maybe familiarity with previous incarnations would've helped).
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi - I find the sequels built around Rey of Jakku (played by Daisy Ridley) far better than other Star Wars movies released since the first two (1977's Star Wars and 1980's The Empire Strikes Back), though The Last Jedi feels like two movies interwoven--and a bittersweet experience it was to watch, too, because Carrie Fisher died during production of The Last Jedi, and back in 1977, her character, Princess Leia Organa, was the first woman I ever saw demonstrate agency in a movie.
Wonder Woman - Mostly successful, and I enjoyed seeing a female society (Paradise Island) presented as whole...kind of (one child, one family, no suggestion of sex or romance)--however, I wish Hollywood would stop thinking they need to throw in a clothes shopping scene or equivalent to "please" female viewers (dear studio execs: Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and Conan creator Robert E. Howard didn't inflict nonsense like this on women characters, and both died many, many decades ago).
A Wrinkle in Time - I wanted to like you, honest, I did--an epic mess of the sort which suggests a lot of studio meddling ("Sure, that quiet, quirky little YA novel's sold well for decades, but we'll make it better by turning it into yet another loud, stupid, big-budget action flick!").
Swords and Murderbots and Blasters, Oh, My (Books and Magazines)
Dates II: An Anthology of Queer Historical Fiction Stories edited by Zora Gilbert and Cat Parra - A low-key, delightfully diverting collection of YA-friendly comics and illustrated stories (not all romantic, despite the title), with characters who span the ages, the continents, and the LGBTQIAP+ spectrum; I particularly like "The Ibex Tattoo," writer/artist Gwen C. Katz's wonderful story of storytelling and friendship among the ancient Scythians, and plan to read Among the Red Stars, her historical YA novel about the Night Witches (the female Russian pilots of World War II).
Prez: Volume 1: Corndog-in-Chief by Mark Russell and Ben Caldwell - While reading it, I would've sworn this trenchantly parodic graphic novel was written during and after the 2016 election, but the comic-book issues collected in this volume were originally released in 2015; scarily predictive satire.
Princeless: Raven: The Pirate Princess: Book One: Captain Raven and the All-Girl Pirate Crew by Jeremy Whitley, Rosy Higgins, and Ted Brandt - A young woman defrauded of her piratical inheritance puts together a motley crew, amidst a certain amount of metafictional humor, in-jokes, and cameos; probably a YA graphic novel, but this work from 2016 is also suitable for adult and middle-grade readers.
Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill - On re-read, this 2016 YA/MG graphic novel (which is also suitable for adults) remains as charming, imaginative, and LGBTQIAP-friendly as ever, and has proven a smash with the grandkids.
Anthologies and Magazines:
AfroSFv3 edited by Ivor W. Hartmann - As of this writing, I haven't gotten far in the latest volume of the anthology series collecting science fiction by African authors, but so far the stories are excellent (review to come in The Cascadia Subduction Zone).
Black Cat Mystery Magazine Issues #1-2 - The first issue relies rather heavily on short sharp shocks, but #2 brings longer and deeper stories; current indications are, this rather dark and edgy new suspense magazine from Wildside Press will give the venerable mystery magazines Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen a run for their money.
Broadswords and Blasters: Pulp Magazine with Modern Sensibilities Issue #3 - The pulp herein is so modern (and sometimes so dark) that fans of the original adventure pulps may decide some stories aren't pulp at all; but, however you define pulp, my favorite contribution is Karen Heslop's cyberpunk'd zombie-gaming tale, "Testing Limits," which took me places I didn't expect.
Cirsova: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine Issue #9 - This pulp spec-fic magazine delivers the action-packed goods as it spans cultures and universes, from a star-faring circus on the brink of dissolution ("Cirque des Etoiles" by Bo Balder), to a thief whose Stormbringer-esque accursed blades go beyond soul-sucking to sarcastic commentary and cutting banter ("All That Glitters" by Paul Lucas).
The Best of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly Volume 1 - As with other pulp forms, the sword and sorcery genre is considerably more diverse in its interests, characters, and settings than the popular stereotype suggests, and two of the best stories in this strong volume (drawn from the long-running S&S magazine) are Dariel R.A. Quiogue’s "Lord of the Brass Host," wherein a wandering barbarian matches wits with an alt.Three Kingdoms prince, and P. Djeli Clark’s "Shattering the Spear," wherein an alt.African warrior in enemy territory meets an unexpected destiny.
Occult Detective Quarterly Presents: An Anthology of New Supernatural Fiction, edited by John Linwood Grant and Dave Brzeski - Fiction about investigators of supernatural doings is a field that stretches over more territory than you'd expect, if you're familiar only with The Dresden Files or Kolchak: The Night Stalker; and while this exceptional anthology doesn't span the entire possible range (which, as Grant's introduction points out, is potentially gargantuan), it does romp divertingly from Wodhousean humor to comic-bookish supergroup heroics--and, as a welcome bonus, it includes an informative overview of the occult detective genre from its 19th Century origins to the 1990s, "Fighters of Fear," written by Mike Ashley and annotated by Dave Brzeski.
Science Fiction Trails #12 - This issue marks the welcome revival of the pulp-oriented and sometimes steampunk-tinged Weird Western magazine; my favorite in this issue is probably Sam Knight's "Going to Hell on the Noon Train," wherein time travel may engender the titular diabolical realm.
Weirdbook #37 - The pulp-Weird revival magazine grows ever stranger and stronger; probably my favorite story in the issue is Dale W. Glaser's "The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona," which twists a steampunkish undersea steam locomotive along an unexpectedly dark and eerie track.
Novels and a Novella:
All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - An android contends with self-awareness and a patchy, troubling memory, in one of the best novellas I've ever read.
Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp - A thought-provoking and sometimes disturbing exploration of the nature of the self, set against a trio of backdrops: an Earthly socialist utopia (or maybe dystopia), a starship recovering from mutiny, and a distant alien planet, for whose inhabitants the barriers of our minds--and our wills--may prove woefully inadequate.
Finders: Firstborn, Lastborn Book 1 by Melissa Scott - As I ripped through Ms. Scott's terrific new novel (2018), set in a far future where the sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, I initially thought the label of "space opera" had been mistakenly applied, given the narrative's focus on a bisexual space-salvager throuple; but Finders does climax on a grandly operatic scale.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin - In the days between buying the eBook and re-reading the text, the author passed away, and so there never will be a chance to tell her that her brilliant tale of genderfuck is also a riveting human-against-nature adventure novel.
The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt - The latest Academy novel brings starship pilot Priscilla "Hutch" Hutchins and her crew and passengers into several interesting first contacts with alien races, yet both otherworlders and Earthlings ultimately feel so middle-class-TwenCen-Anglo-American that this novel, set a few centuries in the future, fails to achieve a high level of credibility.
Snake Pit: A Punk Rock Murder Mystery by C.A. Jaymes - I got no closer to the original L.A. punk rock scene than a concert by X in the unlikely locale of tony Santa Barbara, so I cannot speak to how closely this novel reflects its time and place, but this historical (!) romantic suspense novel kept me turning the pages.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss - This literary alternate-history mash-up offers adventure, a murder mystery, and a metafictional examination of the role of the scientist's daughter in Victorian and earlier works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
A Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell (a pseudonym for Beth Bernobich) - I enjoyed this reimagining of Holmes and Watson as queer African-American women in a near-future USA still reeling from a second Civil War, and I discuss this science fiction thriller in more depth in The Cascadia Subduction Zone.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle - Last read when I was a teen in the '70s, the classic YA SF novel has aged very strangely, by my perceptions - parts still resonate completely with the teen and child in me, and parts make the grizzled atheist in me wonder why the author thought her book ecumenically spiritual, instead of Christian (and, if you only know the 2018 movie adaption, don't avoid the book on that basis).
Corsets and Codpieces: A History of Outrageous Fashion, from Roman Times to the Modern Era by Karen Bowman - This book is less a history of fashion than a look at recent centuries of British clothes, and a rather jumpy one, at that, but it's an interesting introduction to the subject of English garb.
Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang and Nate Pedersen - A snarkily amusing overview of past quackishness, this book makes you simultaneously glad you live in the present, and wary of today's exuberantly touted new treatments and substances, because false claims and "cures" always flourish around genuine benefits (radiation can indeed banish cancer...but drinking water infused with radon just lands you prematurely--yet gratefully--in a lead-lined coffin).
Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy - I found this collection of reviews and critical pieces by the historian and queer feminist critic Liz Bourke not only sharp and thought-provoking, but a compelling page-turner.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore - Entertainingly answers the question "Was the creator of DC Comics' greatest female superhero a male feminist, polyamory practitioner, bondage advocate, and inventor of the lie detector test?"
Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov's, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies. For WolfSinger Publications, she edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2. With fellow Aqueductista Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Aqueduct Press has released the first two novellas in her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (shortlisted for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award) and The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum.