CASTALIA: Want Superversive Pulp? Try Eoin Colfer’s “The Wish List”

The superversive conversation at the moment has more or less centered around two topics (things tend to move in cycles; we’ll move on eventually):

  1. What makes a good “strong female character”
  2. The connection between superversive and pulp

I’m not going to rehash that conversation; if you want to see the relevant posts, try these, and click through the comments for discussion. Instead, I’m going to try to give you an example of a relatively modern superversive novel that seems like it would fit pretty firmly in the pulp tradition: Eoin Colfer’s “The Wish List”.

Colfer is best known for his Artemis Fowl series, which is a ton of fun (and pretty pulpy itself) but leans hard into feminism and environmental politics. And it’s not his best work; that would be “Airman”, which is a superb adventure novel that I may also write about one day.

“The Wish List” is something very different than both of those, and in some ways it’s a remarkable book.

Let me try and make my case in order:

1) It has a clearly and unashamedly Christian cosmology. I’m not sure if any other modern work by a mainstream writer is as overtly and clearly Christian as this one. I’m not talking about Christian themes here. I mean St. Peter and Beelzebub literally debate each other at the gates of Heaven (A brief note: the theology is occasionally fudged somewhat, but it’s still undoubtedly Christian):

Even though the archangel  and the demon came from different ends of the spectrum, theologically speaking, they had, over the past few centuries, established something of a rapport…

“So what’s the problem, Bub?” [St. Peter] grinned down the phone line. His opposite number would be spitting fire, but he’d have to swallow it if he wanted a favor.

“The Master is looking for a soul.”

“What about that lawyers’ convention?”

“No. A specific soul. I thought if you had her at the Pearlies, we might trade.”

Awesome. The coolest part of it is that there’s none of that universalist “All religions are true in their own way” crap. “The Wish List” is a novel with a Christian soul, and it tackles its fantasy elements from that perspective.

2) Evil is kicked in the face. In the earlier pulp conversation, Jeffro said this:

I mean the point of a pulp story is to have somebody punch evil and kiss the girl, right?

Good news! Evil might not be punched (Well, sort of, but not really…), but it is kicked in the face. And it’s amazing:

Belch wrapped himself around Meg’s torso. Insane gibberings leaked from between his slobbering lips.

“Finn,” he muttered. “Finn going down.”

That was it for Meg. She’s just about had it…

“Belch,” she screamed, raising down a booted foot, “You can go to Hell!”

She brought the boot down squarely on his wet nose, and the creature that had been Belch Brennan spiraled into the flames, with Meg’s name stretching behind him like a prayer. Or a curse.

3) Yes, the girl is kissed. Not our protagonist in this case, but the deuteragonist gets what surely must be one of the most spectacular kisses in all of fiction:

“Well, Lowrie,” she said, echoes of the teenager in her voice. “Why have you come here?”

It occurred to Lowrie then that he was probably on television.

“Lost love,” he said simply, and kissed her on the lips.

And the crowd went ape, especially when Cicely Ward draped a hand over the dapper old gent’s shoulder and kissed him back. It was fantastic, stupendous.

An ethereal ray of white light exploded from the point of lip contact…

Belch felt it too…”What the hell is that?” he growled, peering over his shoulder.

…”Good,” [Elph] said. “Pure, one hundred percent good.”

Meg felt a rush of blue in her aura.

4) Things get weird. In fine pulp fashion, we get this creation:

Someone, or something, was spinning along beside her. Canine features bubbled under a human skin, poking through like computer animation effects. It was horrible. Grotesque. Yet somehow strangely familiar.

“Belch?” said Meg uncertainly. “Is that you?”

…The dog-boy could only stare in horror as his fingers morphed from stubby digits to pit bull claws. Tears and slobber rolled down his face, dripping in large gobbets from a furry chin.”

Cool!

5) Genres are mixed. In the middle of the fantasy, we get bits like this:

The computer wizard grinned smugly. “No problem, Beelzebub-San, I can uplink him.”

…Myishi removed a nasty-looking object from his box of tricks. It resembled a small monitor on a metal stake. Without hesitation the programmer plunged it into the morass of Belch’s brain. 

…”The brain spike. I love this little baby. The brain’s own electrical impulses provide the power source. Ingenious, if I do say so myself.”

Pure science fiction, baby.

You can’t argue that this one doesn’t hit the pulp beats, right? Unashamedly Christian cosmology? Genre mashing? Weird imagery? Gals getting kissed and demons getting kicked in the face?

It’s all there.

But is it superversive?

You better believe it is.

Remember the infamous redemption story post?

Well, “The Wish List” is that story and more. It’s a redemption story, and it’s a resurrection story. It’s about not giving up, and living without regret, and making up for past wrongs, and all of that other stuff that’s corny when it’s executed badly and amazing when it’s executed well.

“The Wish List” is executed very, very well. It’s not just fun, it’s not just funny, it’s not just inventive, it’s also moving and inspiring. It’s incredibly superversive.

Is it perfect?

No, it’s not. The Chekov’s gun at the beginning is flashed rather obviously, and many of the plot beats are very predictable. The characters sometimes lean a little too far into the stock end. But you’re having so much fun when you read it that you hardly even care!

Isn’t that also the exact thing that folks like Jeffro have been talking about? Those supposedly “cliche” and “predictable” plot beats were used so much because they were incredibly effective?

“The Wish List” is the sort of book that we just don’t see much of anymore, and fans of pulp fiction or superversive fiction owe it to themselves to give it a shot.

Lela E. Buis Reviews “An Unimaginable Light”

She liked it.

This is the first Hugo-related review I’ve seen of any of the book’s stories. Lela Buis also has her own story in “Tales of the Once and Future King”, and I think I can confidently state that it’s one of my favorites in the book.

Money quote:

Pros: John C. Wright is actually an awesome writer. The number of levels this story works on is pretty amazing. 1) It invokes the Inquisition, i.e. the uppity, beautiful woman accused as a witch and the powerful, degenerate man questioning her. 2) It pays homage to the Asimov robot stories, referring to the Three Laws and similar philosophical issues. 3) It outlines questions in the dialog that fall out from the current conflict between conservative and neo-left politics. 3) It’s pretty erotic. Wright doesn’t fall short on the character descriptions, and the BDSM elements are obvious.

Three and a half stars.

(Note: There are no rape scenes and no actual sex is portrayed, for those who aren’t fans of that sort of thing, such as myself.)

I did respond to something she mentioned in her review in the comments section. For the curious:

Hello Lela! Anthony here.

A note: God, Robot was marketed by Castalia as a superversive anthology because of the authors involved, but when I came up with the idea I wasn’t soliciting only superversive stories. It just happened to turn out that way. Vox himself also has a very creepy story in it.

Your criticisms are fair, and I’m glad you did like it.

The follow-up by Josh Young I think does a lot to put the story in context.

Lela also has one of my favorite stories in “Tales of the Once and Future King”, so you guys should look out for that.

And if you want to know what all the fuss is about, pick up “God, Robot” today!

Superversive Alliance Award Nominees

Superversive SF contributor Jon Del Arroz’s book, Star Realms: Rescue Run, has been nominated for the Realm Makers Alliance Award, a reader’s choice award for Christian speculative fiction. The nomination process was open during the month of March with the top vote-getters being nominated.

The second round of voting cuts the 20 nominees to a top-5, based on a star rating system. In order to ensure that these are real readers voting, voters must give star ratings for at least two of the works, and leave a brief blurb about why they nominated the books as evidence of their readership.

In order to facilitate the readership, Jon Del Arroz has offered to give a free ebook of Star Realms: Rescue Run to anyone who wishes to vote in the second round of this nomination process. This is in conjunction with another nominee, Kia Heavey, a leader in the Conservative Libertarian Fiction Alliance group. Kia’s book, Domino, has also received the nomination, and she is likewise offering free ebooks to anyone who wishes to vote. Both authors endorse each other’s work in the nomination process.

In order to receive Jon’s book, contact him through his blog at http://www.delarroz.com, twitter @jondelarroz, Gab.ai: @Jon del Arroz or through Facebook messenger: Jon Del Arroz (not on his wall as he is off Facebook for Lent) and he will take your contact info for the free book.

In order to receive Kia’s book, contact her through her blog: http://www.kiaheavey.com, twitter: @KiaHeavey Gab.ai: @KiaHeavey or through Facebook messenger Kia Taskos Heavey.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Porco Rosso”

I have heard it said that Miyazaki, as a director, becomes very predictable the more of him you watch.

I haven’t found this to be true at all.

There was a point in “Princess Mononoke” where I actually turned towards my family and said “I honestly have no idea how he’s going to bring this film to a conclusion”. I had no idea what was going to happen next in “Spirited Away”. I certainly didn’t see the dirigible ending coming in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

True, Miyazaki goes back to certain themes and motifs, and he has an obvious and unabashed love for flying – but so what, really? What director doesn’t explore things they’re passionate about? Do we criticize Tolkien because he stuck to fantasy?

And it’s not as if he doesn’t do unique things with his ideas. “Porco Rosso” gives the impression of being lighter or “lesser” Miyazaki, without as much depth or ambition or insight as his very best films, like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. But while “Porco Rosso” isn’t quite as good as either of those films, there’s a lot more going on there than it’s often given credit for.

The movie, of course, is about a fighter pilot named Marco Rossolini (in the American dub) who has been transformed into a pig. One interesting aspect of the film is that we never actually learn why; Miyazaki gives us several potential options and the symbolism is fairly clear, but he leaves it intentionally ambiguous, both for us and for Marco himself.

The dogfights in “Porco Rosso” aren’t as well choreographed as the action scenes in “Castle in the Sky” or the fight scenes in “Princess Mononoke”, but some of the imagery is – as always -still wonderful, and the setting is one of the most visually fascinating of all of Miyazaki’s films, being the first one he made rooted in a real, historical place and time. The detailing on the planes is exquisite; you can feel the care he put into the designs bleed through.

“Porco Rosso” is structured as a comedy, and it is – a good one. The real highlight of the movie is the sparkling dialogue, which shines even through the dub. Marco is a wonderful character, one of Miyazaki’s most entertaining, essentially Humphrey Boggart in pig form. He’s excellent at trading barbs with whoever he happens to be talking to and his facial expressions are priceless.

The mechanic, Fio, and a potential love interest, continues the Miyazaki tradition of creating a character feminists swoon over that they would never actually create themselves. Fio proves herself fit to fly with the big boys, but in precisely the “Wrong” ways. When Marco balks at her being his mechanic, she asks him if it’s because she’s too young or because she’s a woman (“Both excellent reasons”).

Her reaction is brilliant. Instead of yelling at Marco, or getting offended, or getting mad, she shows him her design and begs him to give her a chance, pointing out that he started flying at 17, the same age she happens to be. No anger, no nastiness, and no frustration – and that is why we like her. She wins him over with optimism, ingenuity, and sheer hard work.

Ultimately what elevates the movie from a fun and atmospheric adventure film to something truly great is its brilliant ending. Because for all its lightheardedness and fun, this movie is one thing that no other Miyazaki film is: a tragedy. And you know what? It’s perfect.

SPOILER for the ending coming:

The great irony at the end of the film is that it’s only after Marco finally turns back into a human (so it’s implied, at least) that he commits his very worst act: Abandoning Fio and Gina.

But that’s the thing about Marco. In the end, he’s not so important. Fio and Gina do perfectly well without him. And now when he finally has no excuse, the only person he hurts by leaving is himself.

And that’s why “Porco Rosso” is a great movie. Only a bold, brilliant director would or could have ended “Porco Rosso” like that (just as, conversely, only a bold, brilliant director could have given “Princess Mononoke” a happy ending), and Miyazaki is both. This is just further proof to me that, far from being predictable, Miyazaki could do pretty much anything he wants to and succeed with flying colors. It’s a shame that this one isn’t more famous.

I know this will shock you, but – recommended.

EDIT: An interesting spoiler:

Apparently, going by reviews and various things about “Porco Rosso”, it is implied that Marco actually does get together with Gina – the other love interest of the film, and the one Marco is really in love with – in the end.

I think this still works very well BECAUSE it is only very lightly implied and still left ambiguous. In the end the important thing is that “Porco Rosso” doesn’t end in a straightforward victory for Marco; if it is not a bad ending for him, the possibility of a bad ending needs to be there. That possibility exists, and so it still works well.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Ponyo”

Once upon a time there was this movie.

This movie is, still today, considered by most a classic, and by some one of the greatest animated films ever made. It wasn’t the story, which was simple but surprisingly powerful. It wasn’t even the characters, though one of those characters became a sensation in her own right.

No, what made that movie legendary was its stunning view of undersea life, its gorgeously varied lights, textures, and creatures used to create a detailed and beautiful world simply never seen before, and arguably never seen since.

The movie I’m referring to, of course, is “Finding Nemo”, made by the only studio in the world able to consistently rival “Studio Ghibli” at its peak (one day the Pixar retrospective is coming!). “Finding Nemo” was a landmark film in the world of animation, proving that CGI could provide phenomenally beautiful backgrounds and creatures that even traditional animation couldn’t. It was statement movie, proof that CGI was not only cheaper than traditional animation but in the right hands just as beautiful as well.

Okay. Now let’s fast forward six years. Arguably the greatest animator in the world has finally, years after he announced his retirement (again!), come out with his new movie.

His last movie? A supremely imaginative fairy tale known as “Howl’s Moving Castle”, a movie more in line with his films like “Castle in the Sky” and even “Princess Mononoke” than his earlier children’s oriented entertainment.

So the question on everyone’s mind is: What is he going to do next?

Let nobody claim Miyazaki isn’t full of surprises. He stumped the world and turned back the clock to his earlier works for young children and came out with “Ponyo”, the wonderfully weird Miyazaki perspective on “The Little Mermaid”.

The trouble with Miyazaki films – for me, anyway – is that even when I find myself saying “This film is better” or “This film is worse”, I still don’t really have any specific flaws to pick on. Put another way – his execution is generally flawless, or close to it. The differences lie less in how well each particular film happens to be made and more in the ambition of his ideas and certain creative choices. Past that you get down – as my sister did in the “Mononoke” review – to nitpicking.

This very long prelude is all set up for me to say that “Ponyo” is an engaging and creative film. The darkness in “Ponyo” splits the balance between “Totoro” and “Kiki’s”. Unlike in “Kiki’s”, there is definitely an underlying sense of danger to the whole proceedings, but it’s never as real or tragic as Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s sickness in “Totoro”. Sosuke’s father is lost at sea, yes, but we cut to him multiple times, and neither Sosuke nor his mother seem overly worried about him. Later on it gets a little more serious when Sosuke can’t find his mother, and there’s definitely the nagging feeling that the senior center where his mother works is in danger, but in the end Miyazaki deliberately chooses not to focus on the more frightening parts in favor of Ponyo’s childlike whimsy and the pure beauty of his animation.

Oh, and what animation it is! Amazingly, this might be the most gorgeous Miyazaki film I’ve seen so far. The “Finding Nemo” was mentioned because of how interesting the contrast is between Miyazaki’s animation and Stanton and Unkrich’s. The animation in Nemo isn’t quite photorealistic – the fish ultimately look very human in their own way – but it definitely leaned very far in that direction. As a result it felt less like looking at the creation of a new world and more like we were taking a peek into our own backyard, and all of the beauty it contained.

As Nemo used CGI to do something traditional animation simply couldn’t, “Ponyo” used traditional animation in ways I’ve frankly never seen before or since. For Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is a painting, but not a static one. The artistic style isn’t very close to realistic but – interestingly – the people are, giving the impression that regular humans are interacting with an artist’s canvas.

The animation of the water is quite simply some of the best ever. It has to be. There is a scene where Sosuke and his mother outrace a tsunami to their house. Unbeknownst to the mother, the tsunami is not only following them – lead by Ponyo, who is skipping across the top – it is transforming into fantastical underwater creatures, sometimes looking like fish or whales or rays and other times simply forming into a gigantic many-eyed monster. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a sequence CGI just can’t replicate. It’s literally impossible.

The story is actually one of Miyazaki’s more straightforward, weird as it is, and the message of the film feels more typically Disney – the power of love will save the world – than Miyazaki, who tends to have layers of meaning in his films. Sosuke is a fine protagonist and Ponyo is lovable enough, but ultimately I found neither as well drawn or interesting as some of his other heroes, like Pazu and Sheeta, or even Satsuki and Mei. Liam Neeson’s wizard character was fascinating, but I’d have liked to figure out a little more about his and Ponyo’s relationship. We know Ponyo doesn’t really like him but while we get some hints, it’s not fully clear why.

So for those reasons this is probably – again, for certain values of the phrase – my “least favorite” Miyazaki film so far. On the other hand, I’m not willing to go further than probably. The gorgeous animation is so stunning that it alone might pull it up in the ranks. Either way, like all of his work, it’s highly recommended.

The Miyazaki Retrospective: “Princess Mononoke”

Today’s article is a guest post by my sister, Mariel Marchetta. You can find her stories in “God, Robot”, where she was also assistant editor.

As regular readers may have noticed, my brother and regular writer Anthony Marchetta has begun writing a series of reviews as he works his way through the Miyazaki canon. After convincing me to join him and successfully turning me into a Miyazaki fan, he has graciously taken a step back and let me take the floor to pen my thoughts on the next movie on our list, Princess Mononoke.

Having watched Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky before this, the movie in some ways feels very much in line with what I have come to expect from a Miyazaki movie; stunning animation (the best I have seen so far, in fact), an understated but effective romantic arc, an imaginative plot, and of course a message about living in harmony with nature.

The differences are much more striking. Castle in the Sky was an adventure flick, almost Indiana Jones for kids, with goofy pirates and an almost cartoonishly evil villain. Spirited Away was a Japanese Alice in Wonderland.

Princess Mononoke has the titular character drinking the blood of wolves and has more than a few instances of dismemberment in some pretty violent fight scenes. But the scenes don’t feel gratuitous, one of the biggest grievances I have against a lot of adult oriented cartoons in the west. In fact, these scenes rank among the best in the film.

There’s also a certain level of moral ambiguity in Princess Mononoke I haven’t seen so far. Miyazaki is famous for his extreme environmentalism, but there’s much more nuance in the film than it’s given credit for. The most obvious antagonist in the film seems to be Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown. When we are introduced to Eboshi, she is a ruthless and cunning leader who dreams of manufacturing enough guns and weapons to take the forest for herself. She has no regard for the lives of the animals she is killing or the gods of the forest, and in fact was responsible for the demon that cursed Ashitaka in the first place. What makes her compelling is that what she lacks in compassion for the forest, she has in spades for the people of Irontown.

Eboshi buys women from brothels and gives them work to save them from prostitution. She helps lepers who were otherwise shunned from the community. The people of Irontown all follow her, not out of fear, but because they genuinely love and respect her. There was one particularly effective moment when San, after breaking into Irontown to kill Eboshi, comes face to face with both her and two women armed with guns. Eboshi calmly tells her that she can try and kill her–but she’ll have to face two women whose husbands were killed by the wolves that raised San. The idea is clear: Eboshi has a point. The forest spirits are no saints. And, in what was one of my favorite parts of the movie, Eboshi actually sees the error of her ways and promises at the end to ‘build a better town.’ The message of the movie doesn’t demonize the humans or the spirits, but rather tries to find a middle ground that has the optimistic message that humans and spirits can learn to coexist–and that even power hungry Eboshi can learn to do better. Despite all of the violence, it seems that Miyazaki just can’t help that streak of superversiveness that seems to be present in all his films.

I mentioned the imaginative plot before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t think Miyazaki could get more creative than he did with Spirited Away. But between talking forest spirits, a protagonist cursed with a demon mark that imbues him with powers, and a girl raised by wolves that fight to protect the forest spirit from the humans, this has to be one of the most ambitious concepts I has ever seen in an animated film, if not the most ambitious.

However, its high concept also makes it that much harder to execute, and while Miyazaki is definitely successful for the most part, Princess Mononoke had some noticeable flaws, mostly centered among the townspeople. The characters of the town are used often as comic relief, but poorly; between the dim witted henpecked husband and the group of feisty flirtatious women, it all felt a little too goofy. This might have been somewhat intentional on Miyazaki’s part, to show the differences between them and Ashitaka’s people–a serious people who lived in harmony with nature, as compared to the bumbling, loud people of Irontown–but if it was it fell flat. This is all a pretty minor gripe once the main conflict really picks up though, and certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie all that much.

So would I rank this as the best I’ve seen so far? Compared to Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, two films that I honestly think were flawless, this would actually probably rank as the worst. But that’s a difference of one or two small flaws compared to none, so that’s definitely not an insult by any means. And if Princess Mononoke lags behind the other two in execution, that’s only because the incredibly ambitious concept would have completely fallen apart in all but the most capable director’s hands. In that sense, it may not have been my favorite to watch, but it’s definitely the one I’m most impressed by. So if you’re looking for a movie with incredible visuals, and an epic, compelling story (not to mention giant wolves and boar demons), you should definitely pick this one up.

Anthony’s Notes:

While I do agree with the gist of my sister’s review, I do disagree that it is the worst of the films so far. “Castle in the Sky” was an excellent movie that executed what it was trying to do just about flawlessly, but ultimately it was a very straightforward adventure movie, not too far off of “Indiana Jones”. “Princess Mononoke”, in contrast, was a vast and sweeping epic; as my sister pointed out, there were flaws (and I agree with them), but the successes outweighed them by so much they’re barely worth mentioning.

My sister hasn’t yet seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighbor Totoro”. In some ways it’s not fair to compare, as those movies are trying to do vastly different things. At the same time, it seems only right to take ambition into account, and “Princess Mononoke” is incredibly ambitious. I would – as I generally do – go farther than my sister here and say that “Princess Mononoke” is one of the great epics ever made. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Quick Retrospective: “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

The next step in my thoroughly enjoyable journey through the Miyazaki oeuvre is “Kiki’s Delivery Service”.

This one will be quick because, in a lot of ways, it’s very similar to “My Neighbor Totoro”, a supernatural slice of life film for preteen girls.

The movie can best be described as “Incredibly charming”. Everything is very fluffy and low stakes. Outside of one scene at the end, nobody is in any real danger. The conflict is all internal – Kiki needs to gain the self-confidence and skills to navigate through life on her own, and how she goes about doing this is told in what is essentially a series of vignettes that make up the plot of the movie.

“Kiki’s” is – and I don’t really know how else to say this – very sweet, even more so than “Totoro”. There isn’t even that underlying sense of dread like in that film. As the TVTropes article on the film points out, that’s more laughing with joy in this film than anything else I can think of (this is a Miyazaki thing, apparently, as there was quite a lot of laughing for joy in “Totoro” and even “Castle in the Sky”).

At the same time, the world isn’t quite as friendly as “Totoro”, though nobody ever actually gets TOO mean. An interestingly subtle trick that Miyazaki plays is that even when Kiki has trouble with other people, the problem is actually mostly with her. Tombo, the boy who obviously has a crush on her, is actually very polite to her throughout the film, but Kiki rebuffs him (she says for bad manners, but more obviously because she’s still nervous about meeting new people at this point in the story). When Tombo’s friends show up and Kiki runs away in tears, they never actually do anything wrong; Kiki is just overly self-conscious of her lack of money, and it’s when she accepts her own skills and limitations that she is finally able to open up to new people in her life.

The finale of the film was controversial with the author of the book the movie was based on, but for the film itself it is perfect. The story asks the question: Why is it so important that Kiki can fly, or more fundamentally, that she is a witch?  And the finale gives the answer: Because it helps her connect with and help the people around her. It is a skill not only to be used for work and enjoyment, but for friendship and to better the world, something implied from the very beginning of the story but that Kiki only truly understands during the climax. A rather noble message for such a relaxed, low-key film!

It is also worth noting that the flying scenes themselves are spectacular; unlike the typical Harry Potter/traditional view of witches on broomsticks, Miyazaki portrays flying as wonderfully capricious and unstable, at the mercy of the wind and difficult to control. Scenes where Kiki is simply flying through the town avoiding the people, buildings, and vehicles rank among the best in the whole film.

You knew, I’d recommend this, right? Well, you were right. I do. As always, it’s yet another home run from Miyazaki, probably the “worst” of the films so far for certain values of that word but still a wonderfully fun low-key charmer if that’s what you’re in the mood for.

And who isn’t sometimes, right?