The Fourth One
From the beginning, I knew it would be a challenge to get one of these out every week. My previous efforts at weekly posting started out dependent on a large backlog of pre-existing material, and once that runway ran out I lost steam. I haven’t really examined the reasons for that in too much detail. But with Ersatz I’m flying without a net, so to speak. No big queue of ideas, no master plan. Just a bunch of stuff I’m reading and watching, and some vague notion of expressing my thoughts on the world. At the beginning of every week I think about what to put in here, start sketching it out, and post something on Friday. This is what you get this week. Nothing pithy, nothing deep to ease you into it or bring it all together. Sometimes you’re just going to get me writing about writing.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd
I started out describing this as a “genre lite” book, in that it had genre elements but wasn’t really written or marketed as genre. It seems written to appeal to the mass market. Then I realized there’s an easier way to describe it, which is “like The DaVinci Code, in a good way”. The things that work best in that book work well in this one, too. But I think The Cartographers is better.
I’m not going to go into the plot too much here; you can read the book jacket copy for that. It had me at “all about maps” because…I kind of have a thing about maps. Shepherd does a great job of pulling the reader in, layering story elements on bit by bit as things unfold. The central mystery concerning a 1930s-era New York State road map serves as a framework to hang the book’s characters, which is the way I like my stories. Plots are OK, but what those plots do to the characters is where it gets interesting and more fulfilling. This is the main way that Shepherd does things with more success than Dan Brown. Dr. Langston never seemed that interesting to me, but Nell Young? I like her, I get her, and I want to go along with her as she solves the mystery of her life.
It’s not perfect, though. I wish some of the dialog was better, because some sections come off like dialog written for Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies. Too much “tell” and not enough “show”. Similarly, a few characters didn’t seem to be…necessary? A little cardboard, and seemed to exist only because they were supposed to be there, or to deliver the dialog to explain things. Overall not too bad of a mark against an otherwise well-constructed narrative. More of a speed bump than a roadblock.
Grizzly Bear Conflict Manager by John Scalzi
Yes, of course we found your stool in the woods, Paw-Paw. That’s where bears go to poop. This is widely known. Please don’t act surprised.
Scalzi wrote this story to read for people on his book tour. It’s worth your time.
When you have the ability to see movies for cheap, sometimes you take the good with the bad. At least I went to a movie.
The release of this movie was delayed a couple years because of the pandemic. I know why they waited; they needed every shiny nickel and dime they could get from theatrical release. Once upon a time I would be totally on board with trashing any movie that came across as a stinker, but in my wise old age I just want to have fun. And as a dad, I know that everyone is doing their best, and nobody set out to make a bad movie. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into making them the best they can. So I do my best to remember that and meet every movie at its own level, with appropriately calibrated expectations. That said, my expectations for this were actually a little too high.
I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty details, but I think they missed the mark. Morbius is already a marginal character, likely one of dozens that Sony picked up for a song when they made their overall Spider-Man deal way back in the before time. The general public knows nothing about him, so they had every freedom to do what they wanted. And they really tried. They just didn’t quite get there. This interview with the director kind of explains, if you read between the lines, some of the background on why.
Is there anything good about it? Sure. Jared Harris plays an older, wiser doctor to the best of his ability, which is considerable. Always love to see him in anything. The “vampire motion” effects or whatever looked pretty cool, even if the underlying logic of how his powers worked didn’t make any sense whatsoever. The whole look of the film is kind of a techno-noir/neon cyberpunk, I guess, which is different. Not a whole lot else really stands out, though. Also, as is Marvel custom, there are “post credit” scenes. You can skip them; they are nonsensical and pointless.
If you want to watch a better Marvel vampire movie, I’d recommend the original Blade starring Wesley Snipes.
Yellowjackets Season 1
We’ve always been these people…Secrets have always been a part of us.
This series opens with a sequence that promises, at some point in the story, things will absolutely go off the rails. Everything builds, the tension rises, and you just know shit’s about to get weird. Weirder. All ramping up to whatever events go down that pay off that opening promise. So weird stuff happens and every time you think “Yeah! This is it!” And every time there’s something else that happens that takes you one notch closer to Crazy Bananapantstown.
The premise: State champion high school girls soccer team from New Jersey (the titular Yellowjackets) are on a charter flight to the 1996 nationals in Seattle when their plane goes down somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. They’re stuck there for almost two years. Now, 25 years later, the survivors are still working through the trauma of that experience. The story unfolds simultaneously in the past and the present.
Likely owing to the show’s flashback structure coupled with a “survivors stranded in the wilderness” premise, Yellowjackets actually has a very Lost kind of vibe to me. They haven’t alluded to any kind of time travel or teleportation or anything like that—I haven’t seen a polar bear, for instance—but there are a lot of things that walk that line of “is this supernatural or is it something else, something more mundane?” Something seems weird and creepy, but maybe it’s just the natural result of actual trauma and people trying to deal with an extraordinary situation. Either way—again like Lost—the real meat of the story is how the characters live within the events rather than the events themselves, and how the events of the past inform the actions of the characters in the present. Revelations and misdirections only work when they serve the characterizations and relationships. Underneath (or on top of) the bizarre plot shenanigans there’s a compelling story of young women who survived a traumatic set of circumstances during one of the most crucial points in their social development. Lives interrupted, and then putting the pieces back together as adults many years later.
This show is outstanding just for the performances. Both the teenage versions of the characters and their adult counterparts have drawn me in with some very intense portrayals. And oh, the needle drops. Since the “past” part of the story takes place in the mid-90s, every song choice is a perfect audial flashback to my college years. Collective Soul. Seal. Mazzy Star. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. PJ freaking Harvey. Don’t take my word for it, check out the official Yellowjackets playlist. Some of it’s just to set atmosphere and ground you in the time, but some is used to good effect to enhance the drama. I think maybe only James Gunn has done better in choosing music for his movies and shows.
I’m sure there are a lot of other takes on this show that I haven’t read; I just finished it last night as of this writing. If you’ve come across anything I might find interesting in relation to the show, let me know. I’m late to the party on this one, but it’s a fun party.
Picard Season 1 Redux
I finished Picard Season 1. It’s delightful. Highly recommended. Especially if you’re a big Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, but that’s not a requirement. I hear S2 is just as good, if not better, and I’ll dive into that soon. A teaser for Season 3 just dropped so… Get to it! (I won’t watch it until I finish Season 2.)
Protect Trans Kids
All the things that were happening the last few weeks are still happening (and even accelerating). Keeping kids safe and healthy shouldn’t be a debate or a matter of preference. Here’s a few places that are trying to help. If you have others to suggest, let me know, and I’ll include them in a future dispatch.
Rated 97/100 by Charity Navigator, this organization is doing the work to help LGBTQ kids and their families live the life they’re entitled to live, with “full equality in the hearts and minds of our fellow Texans and in all areas of the law.”
If you’d like to show your support with a clever t-shirt (or hoodie or sticker) that demonstrates your pride in our great state and our kids, this is the link for you. Purchases here are going to Equality Texas.
An organization focusing on “furthering gender diverse equality in Texas. We work to accomplish this through education and networking in both public and private forums”.
A grassroots nonprofit dedicated to providing direct emotional and financial assistance and resources to people in crisis.
Is anybody reading this?
Probably the biggest struggle I have in writing is just doing the work. This weekly dispatch is me starting the couch-to-5K program, trying to establish the habit that will hopefully build into a full marathon some day. At this point I think I have the stamina to keep it up, but only time will tell if I have the will. Every writer I follow who has given writing advice starts and ends with “you have to write”, no matter how you’re motivated to do that. If you’re following along and watching me stretch out these metaphorical writing legs, thank you, whoever you are. If anything I’ve written or shared strikes a nerve or causes you to check something out, please let me know. You can also find me on Twitter. DMs are open until I have a reason to close them. I’ll keep shouting into the void, but sometimes it’s nice to hear the void whisper back.