Tag: diversity

Small Crush: Every Heart a Doorway

Magical Boarding Schools are not exactly my kind of thing. When characters in stories have to go to school, I tend to skip whole passages, unless it’s Jo Walton’s Morwenna in Among Others, who hates her school experience in a very relatable and well-narrated way.

So I was genuinely surprised when I came upon Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway in my Hugo readings and began to feel this novella was written for me.

Every Heart a DoorwayIts main emotion is longing, an unhealthy and absurd longing not to live in this world anymore. It’s the main motivation of every student in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, because everyone of the girls (and very few boys) there has once been lost, following a path to another world, and now all they want is to go back there, where they feel they truly belong.

Or so they say.

Their parents see another story, of troubled young minds and traumatised kids they can’t reach anymore.

There are so many layers and ways to read Every Heart a Doorway: is it a metaphor about growing up and leaving childhood dreams behind? Does it tackle mental illness and trauma? Or is it a fairytale, where special children are called to other worlds?

It is, first and foremost, acknowledging that people have very different needs. Some will never fit in, and they will break under the expectations and demands of the world. Unless someone offers them a place to be themselves, and that’s what Eleanor West (whose own story is one of the heartbreaking moments of this novella) does.

But her small bubble of inclusion is threatened when students start to get murdered. The whodunit part of Every Heart a Doorway is not its main feature, though – it’s the diverse and varied bunch of characters and their stories instead. That’s why the murders hit so hard; they show very clearly the stories that are left unfinished. From goth-like, fascinated by death Nancy to wannabe mad scientist Jack, these characters are somewhat quirkier than your standard magical boarding school students.

I’m still not sure what to think about the ending. It was a little bit anticlimatic, so very easy, and it seemed to narrow down the story and to factor out some severe implications. Discussing it with a friend, I found it could still be ambiguous, Pan’s Labyrinth style. If anybody wants to know more or discuss, I’ll write some spoiler-y thoughts in the comments section.

Every Heart a Doorway starts the Wayward Children series, and I’m also not sure I needed to know more, because it was pretty self-contained. But I’m willing to get surprised once more.

Small Crush: All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

Murderbot does what it says on the tin (although it doesn’t say ‘Murderbot’ on its tin, it says SecUnit, and Murderbot is just the not-so-ironic nom de guerre it chose for itself): It’s a bot intimidatingly apt at deploying the array of weapons at its disposal. Murderbot is also pretending to be a normal android slave, even though it has attained free will. And it’s addicted to binge-watching a cheesy show called Sanctuary Moon.

If this isn’t the stuff good stories are made of, I don’t know what is.

All Systems Red by Martha WellsMartha Wells has been a staple of my reading life and a long-time favorite of mine. Somehow I had filed her mostly as a fantasy author, although her fantasy novels often include SF elements such as lost technology or steampunk contraptions. All Systems Red is fully-fledged SF, with strong characterization and a fascinating style and POV. Murderbot tells us of its own adventures, and it speaks to the part of us that is withdrawn, socially awkward and needs its alone time (a lot of it, actually).

All Systems Red is written with all the thoughtfulness and empathy of a truly modern SF tale and fits in with other feel-good SF adventures of our time – we join a diverse group of scientists on a planet survey, and they simply like each other and are nice people. And while the plot revolves around something less nice harassing Murderbot’s clients (leading to some biting commentary on capitalism, which turns its deadly side on the protagonists, too), the inner struggle of Murderbot is far more important.

It is a story about truly accepting free will in another – maybe odd – life form, with all consequences. Good intentions may not be good enough, and changing attitudes is always a struggle on both sides. I loved how these themes are tackled in All Systems Red. It comes with a solid adventure story, not too complicated, because it is a novella you can read in one sitting, and features some shiny nuggets of worldbuilding (hey, it’s Martha Wells; she’s a master worldbuilder).

All Systems Red is framed as The Murderbot Diaries 1, and I’m already waiting for the next installment like it was an unwatched episode of Sanctuary Moon.

Small Crush: Six Wakes (Mur Lafferty)

Once in a blue moon, some book’s premise triggers my curiosity so effectively I can’t resist. I. Need. To. Know. I need to know what happens and how it’s done. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes is one such story.

Six WakesDormire is a starship with six crew members on a long, long voyage. They all wake up in their cloning tanks with memory loss, while the ship is off course and their murdered former bodies are still floating around in zero gravity, because someone disabled the AI and the basic functions of the ship. One of them did this, but they can’t even trust themselves, because each and every one of them has no memories of the time leading up to the disaster.

I didn’t need to know more to start reading. It’s like playing the RPG Paranoia – you can’t trust anyone and keep staying on your toes. And it’s kind of a derailed cousin of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. While Angry Planet’s Wayfarer is full of fluff and love, and nothing much happens in an utterly adorable way, Six WakesDormire houses an equally diverse crew (not as colorful, because no aliens), but it’s full of suspicion and flaring tempers, and ALL THE THINGS happen. The whirlwind plot cycles through the characters, the pacing is relentless, and your suspicions shift along with the crew’s. Before long, you expect this dysfunctional team to rush into another killing spree any minute instead of working together to save the ship.

Gradually, the story transcends the fundamental Whodunnit premise and ends up asking questions about cloning ethics and forgiveness. There are even some echoes of Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain when you learn about the development of mankind under the influence of cloning. And then to read in the afterword that it all started as an FTL fan fic warmed my gamer heart, although I never would have guessed.

Six Wakes offers no easy camaraderie and feel-good vibes, but an interesting bunch of troubled characters in a dire, dire situation, and the revelation that comfort food helps even in space.

XCOM 2 (Firaxis)

My one big love of 2016 was Firaxis’ XCOM 2. This game managed to look good, sound good and feel good in all the right ways (if you’ve got that soft spot for guys shooting slimy aliens and crave a healthy dose of military sf every now and then). And it got me invested in my underdog crew and my beautiful stolen starship on a level I seldom experience with a game.

XCOM 2 - Dr. Tygan

Your chief science officer is also fond of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff.

X(-)COM has been reigning supreme in the Earth-vs-Aliens genre as long as I remember, but this latest installment even beat the one time my character in a pen & paper UFO campaign owned a collection of more than 40 samples of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff. Dr. Tygan would have been proud of me!

Anyway, bad news for XCOM veterans: You fight a guerrilla war now, and nothing else has changed; the aliens are out there, and they are scary as hell and bear no love for humanity. It’s your job to face this threat. Against the will of (most of) humanity, that is, and without government funding.

One thing I like more than anything else in gaming is when game mechanics and storytelling go hand in hand. XCOM 2 does this so beautifully you’ll want to cry: you’re operating on very limited resources, just barely staying afloat. Strategy games aren’t exactly known for their quality stories, but XCOM 2 starts with giving you a bunch of memorable characters with their own quirks and in-jokes. You just gotta love grumpy Central, missing his old sweater and giving the general impression that he would kick the aliens back to where they came from single-handedly, if he could just bring himself to leave the Commander’s side (and the Avenger’s bar).

Everyone complains about how I fly the ship, but I don’t see anyone other than the autopilot stepping up.
– Central Officer Bradford

There is also a fascinating level of equality and diversity going on here, which really is something for a game in a typical boys’ club genre (militaristic, strategic, round-based). It starts with the Commander, who gets to play a bigger role this time, apart from being the substitute for the player. Very cleverly, the Commander’s gender is never stated, nor is it ever shown clearly. With this, you’re able to really step into those shoes, and for me, it makes all the difference. Shout-out to all my fellow female Commanders out there – Vigilo Confido, ladies!

And it gets better when you start recruiting rookies from all over the world and all walks of life. They’ll wear scarfs and bandannas and hockey armor and whatever is close at hand when you have to join the resistance against the alien overlords of the Earth in a hurry, but there’s not a single high-heeled amazon or boob window to be seen.

Most of Earth’s population did fall for the aliens’ propaganda, though, enthralling them with – no jokes – yummy free burgers and, ok, super high end health care, too. So your bunch of misfits has to take to the field. This is where the real magic happens: XCOM 2 gives you all you need to tell your very own war story: cinematic shots of your squad in action, heroic debriefings for the survivors, a sad memorial for the deceased, a range of voices, personalities, idle actions and fancy nicknames. And if you’ve got the smallest spark of a storyteller in you, you’re going to dive into the narrative. You’ll crave the moments when they make the day, and yell at them (often!) for messing up a perfectly good shot. And in the end they’ll be the heroes of YOUR story, and that’s what emergent gameplay is all about, I’m told.

Screenshot XCOM 2

This is one mean game.

I even enjoyed the (probably buggy) extra time when your squad is delivered to and from their missions, idly fidgeting around, mood strongly depending on your leadership skills. You’ll want to be a very committed Commander. And this game is mean. If you produce a strategic fail or even a wrong click, you will be punished. The enemy will shoot, burn, poison and mindfuck the shit out of your guys, and friendly collateral damage is also a thing. At crucial events it is not entirely impossible for you to realize you botched your whole campaign.

As you gradually unveil the secret of the alien rule, your story comes together so beautifully that it hurts a little when the ending hits fast … and not completely satisfying. It has its moments, but the suspense created beforehand seemed to hint at something larger. I would have liked to see a twist, something more ambivalent, some more struggle. More struggle, you say? Isn’t this a mean bastard of a game already? Well, if you don’t rush your campaign, you’ll have developed everything to the max for the endgame, and that’s when things become kind of evened out between you and the aliens.

On the other hand, I had lost my heart long before this point, and I guess I’ll have to try out this new Long War mod I keep hearing about and raise another bunch of rookies to heroes.