Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Death And Life Of Cyberpunk

Few science fiction subgenres have been proclaimed dead as often as cyberpunk. If you need any
Christine Foltzer's cover
for the novel Repo Virtual.
(Image via Amazon)
proof that these claims are exaggerated, look no further than Corey White’s 2020 debut novel Repo Virtual, which shows that cyberpunk is still vital and evolving.

Set in the fictional Korean city of Neo Songdo, Repo Virtual is both an action-based heist and an exploration of how corporate hegemony subverts human freedom.

Protagonist Julius Dax is a person with a disability who repairs robots as his day job and has a side gig conducting repossessions in various augmented-reality online games. The skills he has from working his repo work come into play when his step-sibling Soo-hyun drags him into a risky heist involving the theft of an artificial intelligence from the hands of a reclusive billionaire named Zero Lee.

The novel gets a bit more complicated when Dax (who is being hunted by the corporation that made the AI) decides to try and extort the person who organized the heist — a charismatic cult leader named Kali who may have nefarious plans for the artificial intelligence.

We’ve long observed that members of marginalized groups are often the first to face the adverse impacts of technological change. Which is why it is baffling that cyberpunk (a subgenre that explores the freedom-destroying aspects of new information technologies) is often focused on able-bodied white male characters as protagonists. White’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters, a prominent enby character, and other minority characters hints at some of the reasons why a revival of cyberpunk could be vibrant. We might have appreciated a bit more development for these characters, but their presence was natural and inclusive without seeming tokenistic or heavy-handed.

Despite a brisk pace and approachable prose, Repo Virtual was occasionally baffling. Transitions between chapters were sometimes jarring, and there were points at which the narrative became a bit arcane and labyrinthine. That being said, these minor flaws actually made the book feel more authentic and raw; this is a book whose unpolished edges contribute to the ‘punk’ aspect of ‘cyberpunk.’ There is a crackling anti-authoritanian energy to the novel, and it’s this punk element that makes the novel truly shine.

When it comes to tackling issues of authority and capitalist overreach, this novel is quite quotable: “Corporate capitalism is built on a foundation of infinite growth despite our very finite resources. We’re on track to consume our way to an unlivable planet, and no one seems to care.”

Although it’s pretty clear from the novel’s ending that this is a stand-alone book, Neo Songdo is a
Corey J. White's debut novel
is often quotably Marxist.
(Image via Twitter)
setting that we could have happily spent more time in. One of the major challenges for cyberpunk writers is to imagine exactly what uses the street will find for new technologies; Corey White is particularly good at this. White’s thoughtful worldbuilding shows why cyberpunk continues to be a relevant subgenre; gamified economies, precarious employment, augmented reality, and globalization have all accelerated since cyberpunk’s heyday in the 1980s. We kept being drawn into the story by details like the autonomous police security robot dogs, the quasi-veneration of the ultrawealthy, and the wealthy kids who conspicuously smoke cigarettes as a status symbol to show that they have the resources to be cured of cancer.

These bits of worldbuilding help reinforce the anti-capitalist themes of the story. Privatized health care helps trap Dax in disability. The need to eke out a living has corrupted Dax’s family relationships. This is a sadly believable future, and one that White depicts well.

Repo Virtual is cyberpunk for those who are attracted to cyberpunk for its anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian vibes. The world needs more proletarian science fiction that tackles issues of class and economy and recognizes the struggles of marginalized populations. Corey White has just made a solid argument as to why cyberpunk might be the subgenre most well-suited to doing so.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

The Last Emperox - Review

The Last Emperox is a disappointing final volume of an otherwise superb trilogy.
Image via Amazon.ca


Set in an interstellar empire connected by a network of conduits that allow faster-than-light travel, the Interdependency Trilogy centres around Emperox Grayland II. Shortly after her coronation, the Emperox learns that the network is about to collapse, leaving each imperial node cut off and isolated from each other.

The first two books dealt with the initial response to this discovery and the subsequent political machinations and attempted coups as various factions tried to turn the crisis to their advantage.

But as the third book opens, the underlying problem of an impending collapse of all interstellar trade remains unresolved. Grayland has five years before the worlds of her empire are split apart, and each system is left to fend for itself. It was made abundantly clear in the first two novels that there was no way to avoid this tragedy, and that each system would be unable to survive without their existing and symbiotic relationships with other worlds.

Resolving this point of tension in a satisfying and internally consistent way presents a major storytelling challenge. With 20 billion lives in the empire, the logistics of getting them all to the safety of a habitable planet (as opposed to orbital space stations) within five years would strain any story. Conversely, the prospect of ending a relatively light-hearted set of space adventure novels with the demise of 20 billion people would present major tonal challenges.

Unfortunately, Scalzi does not manage to resolve this conundrum. Instead of untangling the gordian knot created in the first two books, The Last Emperox offers readers another round of scheming nobility and coup attempts, with several of the most intriguing characters sidelined on personal quests and errands.

One of John Scalzi’s biggest strengths as a writer is his breezy, approachable prose that conveys meaning, personality, and emotion. For the first third of The Last Emperox, this remains true. But significant portions of the novel, particularly in the middle third, are told in the form of a rushed exposition of events.

The pace slows down suddenly during one character’s side-quest, but only to talk about the nature of the interstellar network. For the better part of a chapter, the author explains through metaphor and technobabble exactly why what was established as canonical fact about interstellar travel is no longer true.

Worse yet is the section in which we follow the plot as if it were a historical essay. Pages upon pages, paragraphs upon paragraphs without dialogue, character development, or human warmth. It feels like reading the text off a TV news anchor’s teleprompter. The writing comes across as rushed and lifeless.

During one of these expository sections, a major character is killed off so abruptly that some of us wondered whether it was a fake-out, and that it would be revealed later to be a ruse.

Most of all, the end of the novel is mostly a cop out. There’s plans to save the whole population of the Empire through a new property of the interstellar hyperspace network, though implementing this plan, and the possible demise of entire planets worth of people are left hanging. This cop-out ending seriously undermines the central climate change metaphor of the trilogy.

The first two novels of the Interdependency Trilogy are possibly the most enjoyable novels John Scalzi has ever written, in large part because of a diverse and interesting cast of characters. The first book introduced an interesting setting and a significant challenge. The second book explored some of the history and backdrop of this setting, while revealing new facets to the society. But the third adds very little.

Despite significant reservations about the third volume, we’d still recommend the series. The trilogy had the potential to be a definitive classic of science fiction, but is instead just OK.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Attack Surface: A Novel For Today

After the events of a weekend in which waves of violence overtook American streets, I find myself wishing that Cory Doctorow’s upcoming novel Attack Surface were already available.

It’s a novel that is perfectly suited to inform national dialogues about police violence, how
A photograph from today's Detroit
Free Press
could have been pulled
straight out of Cory Doctorow's new book. 
technology can undermine or promote human freedom, and how members of the dominant culture can be allies in combating injustices committed against marginalized groups.

Picking up a decade after the events of Doctorow's Hugo-shortlisted novel Little Brother, this new book follows the career of Masha Maximow, the hacker/programmer who showed up briefly in previous stories.

As an anti-hero protagonist working for private security firms, Maximow's loyalties are split between the well-funded realpolitik employers that let her live in luxury, and the idealistic friends and allies she helps in secret. This makes for interesting internal character tensions, as well as opportunities for Doctorow to delve into the details of computer security and encryption.

One of Doctorow’s strengths as a writer is his ability to tackle complex real-world computer security issues with a depth of knowledge, while making the subject accessible to lay readers. He also makes it evident why the subject — and the nuances he's describing — are of immediate relevance to the plot.

Where the book stumbles is when Maximow reconnects with her former antagonist and ally Marcus Yallow, who was the protagonist of Doctorow’s previous novels Little Brother and Homeland. Yallow’s wide-eyed techno-utopianism feels at-odds with the more pragmatic worldview that has informed Maximow’s life for the majority of the book. Maximow’s subsequent road to Damascus moment is unconvincing at best. This tonal confusion may in part be explained by the unusual placement of Attack Surface as a novel for adults that is a continuation of a story set by two YA novels.

Major portions of Attack Surface are spent in protest scenes that are nearly identical to those plastered
Attack Surface will be
released on October 18,
2020. It could not be
more timely today.
(Image via MacMillan)
across every news station in the U.S.A. right now, and Doctorow captures the hope, the fear, and the confusion of these types of events. Any reader who has participated in a protest that was targeted by the police will recognize that Doctorow is clearly writing from experience.

Some of the police tactics that Doctorow describes — including kettling, deliberate provocations, and cell phone jamming — have been on display over the past few days. The ways in which the protagonists of Attack Surface circumvent those tactics are not always as effective as Doctorow describes, but the novel still provides a good crash course in some forms of effective protest management.

Given the events of this past weekend, I wonder if Doctorow underestimated the willingness of American police officers to act with unmitigated violence, and if he overestimated the judicial system’s ability to hold those police officers accountable.

Despite the ways in which Doctorow depicts omnipresent surveillance, privatized military being turned against citizens, and corporate corrosion of democratic accountability, Attack Surface is at its heart a hopeful novel. This is a story in which protests work and in which individual actors are able to affect change for the better. I am not sure that I found that believable, but at this present moment many readers might need something hopeful.

Attack Surface is a vital and necessary contribution to the public discourse. Doctorow is extremely talented at diagnosing potential problems with new technologies being used to subvert human freedom, even when the resolution to the story he tells might ring hollow.

I wish it were available now, rather than being released in October. 

Sunday, 24 May 2020

The Astounding Award

Most Worldcon attendees are likely to be familiar with the long list of megastars for whom the Astounding Award (formerly the John W. Campbell Award) has been amongst the first of many honours they’ve received in long careers: Jerry Pournelle, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Jo Walton, Cory Doctorow, and Mary Robinette Kowal to name a few.

These authors continue to benefit from the promotion of publishers who profit from their works … but there is little economic incentive for publishers to continue promoting the works of lesser-known writers who are not producing new works. In some ways, the Astounding Award helps fill this need.

Reviewing the list of Astounding Award finalists and winners makes it clear that part of the joy and value of this award is that it can help new generations of readers find works by creators whose careers never soared to Scalzian heights, or whose years of writing were few in number.

Raphael Carter was shortlisted for the Astounding Award in 1997 and 1998 on the strength of his
Raphael Carter has only
published one novel.
But one great novel matters.
(Image via Wikipedia)
cyberpunk novel The Fortunate Fall. If not for seeing him listed on the Astounding Award shortlist, I might never have read — and enjoyed — this book. Carter never wrote another novel, and as far as I can tell is credited with just one short story.

The Fortunate Fall is a rich text that was ahead of its time. It’s prescient tackling of gender politics, as well as themes of surveillance would only become more important as a point of discussion in the decade after it was published. The fact that it helped earn Carter an Astounding Award nod helps the novel find new audiences, and maintains the integrity of its enduring value.

But Carter is not the only example of why the Astounding Award, and the similar Locus Award For Best First Book, are so important to the genre.

It has been 20 years since the fourth — and most recent — novel by Michaela Roessner hit the shelves. It has been almost a decade since her most recent short story. But The Stars Dispose remains an excellent fantasy that continues to find new readers through her Astounding nomination. Paul Melko hasn’t published so much as a short story since 2012, but his three novels (Singularity’s Ring, The Walls Of The Universe, and The Broken Universe) will find new readers through his Locus award. I'd highly recommend the parallel-world-hopping fun of The Walls Of The Universe.

The fact that Melko, Roessner and Carter do not seem to be publishing new books or stories anymore does not diminish in any way the depth of their talent, or the worthiness of their existing works. But it would, unfortunately, have made it significantly less likely that they will find new readers if awards like the Astounding didn’t exist.

Whatever these authors are up to now, I sincerely hope that they are doing well, and that they are proud of the fact that their books continue to connect with readers.

But the Astounding Award also reminds us to celebrate authors whose careers were cut short.

Carrie Richerson, who died last year, was twice nominated for the Astounding in 1993 and 1994 on
Carrie Richerson at the World
Fantasy Convention in 2006.
(photo by Scott Zrubek)
the strength of her short fiction. The Astounding helps ensure that we won’t forget her debut story Apotheosis.

David Feintuch won the Astounding in 1996 for his Seafort Saga books, which are largely out of print now, but fans of Horatio Hornblower novels would do well to seek them out. The Astounding may help keep his memory alive.

Awards for best first book, or for new writers are often seen as a jumping-off point, or a way to promote the career of an emerging artist. But seen in retrospect, I’d argue that these awards provide even more value by reminding us of great works that might otherwise have been forgotten.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Gideon The Ninth - review

Exuberant, quirky, and occasionally goofy, Tamsien Muir’s uneven debut novel is elevated by singular world building and an engaging primary narrator.

Introducing us to an ancient, decaying nine-world civilization, Gideon The Ninth follows the title character’s journey from her miserable, frozen and depopulated homeworld on the edge of the solar system to Canaan House, the central palace at the heart of the empire. Partnered with her hated childhood rival Harrow, Gideon represents her world in a series of trials.
Protagonist Gideon
Nonagesimus is an
extraordinary swordsman
who wears sunglasses.
(Image via Amazon.com)


The location is as integral to the novel as any of the characters: Canaan House is a massive, sprawling castle complex filled with antediluvian secret chambers, cyclopean tombs, labyrinthine passages, and crumbling architecture. It is a castle with a personality all its own, and may be one of the most well-developed characters in the novel. It reminded some of us of a YA Gormenghast.

The book is poised in that liminal zone between the fantastic and the science fictional. Details of how the world works are peppered organically through the story, without excessive elaboration about why, or how: magic (but only necromancy) is in common use, spaceships flit between distant worlds, the civilization is ruled by arcane and ancient noble houses, mirrored sunglasses are rare but obtainable. Nothing about the setting makes sense, and yet it all seems to work.

An interesting aspect of this world building is that although the magic is limited to various iterations of necromancy (raising the dead), it has been around long enough for civilization to have found every conceivable use for it. This is one of the most interestingly imagined magical systems in recent memory.

The prose may be somewhat rococo for the tastes of some readers, but it would be difficult to deny the skill that’s evident in the sentence structure, and the depth of descriptive detail. It has often been observed that the classic gothic horror novel is usually about a woman who moves to a house, where the otherworldly contents try to harm her. Both in terms of style and content, Gideon The Ninth falls into this tradition.

The book’s momentum is propelled by Gideon’s irreverent, quippy first-person narration, filled with bravado and ribald jokes. This type of cooler-than-cool, hipper-than-hip protagonist may be somewhat of a cliche in genre fiction, but Muir manages to make the trope feel fresh.

Through flashbacks and Gideon’s internal monologue, readers learn about her long problematic
Tamsyn Muir's debut novel
is filled to the brim with strange
and wondrous imagination.
(Image via Wikipedia)
relationship with Harrow, the heir to the throne of the House of the Ninth, and the person most responsible for hijacking Gideon’s life. Because they’re forced to ally with each other during the trials they face, they quickly grow closer, and eventually develop an intimate relationship.

This frenemy/codependency slowly becomes the heart of the novel, albeit an exceptionally problematic one. Gideon has very little agency in her decision-making. She’s essentially bound into servitude, frog-marched into her role as the Ninth House’s representative in the trials, and thrown into grave danger, with her freedom dangled as a potential reward. The power dynamics between Gideon and her oppressor are uncomfortable, as Harrow treats her with little respect. Some of us were uncomfortable with the abusive nature of this central relationship. 

Although a sequel is already available, even those of us who were enthusiastic in our appreciation of the novel wondered whether a follow-up is necessary. The book seems complete in and of itself, and further exploration of this bizarre and beautiful world may only serve to diminish the vast, unknowable mystery.

Despite these issues, Gideon The Ninth is a memorable, well-crafted, and worthy Hugo nominee that will end up fairly high on our ballots. We will be very interested to see what other strange and arcane worlds Tamsyn Muir will take us to next.

Friday, 24 April 2020

The Edges Of A Genre

When Arthur C. Clarke observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he highlighted a fundamental malaise of science fiction as a genre. This is a discomfort with which the fandom community continues to grapple.

There is a continuum between utterly mimetic and purely fantastical fiction; the difference between
(Image via Wikipedia)
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings is only a matter of degrees. The angst of science fiction is that it lies in a liminal area between that which reflects the real world and that which eschews reality.

There is clearly no “hard line” between what is science fiction and what is fantasy, a fact that Norman Spinrad inartfully grappled with in a now-notorious column in Asimov’s magazine last November.

Genre-based awards are, by definition, bound by an accepted understanding of the genre itself. For the science fiction community, and the Hugo Awards in particular, the existential anxiety of defining these boundaries continues to be both a strength and a weakness.

These days, the Hugo Award is an award for any form of speculative fiction, be it fantasy, science fiction, alternate history or other sub-genre work. In many ways, this inclusive, adaptive approach is a strength. But it does mean that none of the top-five most prestigious literary awards focus squarely on science fiction as a genre.

Fantasy has the World Fantasy Award (WFA), and horror has the Bram Stoker Award — neither of which recognize works of science fiction (beyond the occasional genre-blurring piece). The Arthur C. Clarke Award is more strict about genre delineations, but it is UK-based, and doesn’t have as high a profile as the WFA or the Locus Award. Both Hugos and Nebulas are about as likely to go to a work
Norman Spinrad may
have expressed himself
inelegantly recently.
(Image via Wordbasket)
of science fiction as they are a work of fantasy.

Those who criticize the Hugo Awards for recognizing fantasy works may in part be reacting to the absence of a “pure” science fiction award. However, it is possible for those who yearn for a more narrowly-defined award for science fiction to do so positively.

It’s worth digging into why the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) at the World Science Fiction Convention gives an award formerly known as the “Science Fiction Achievement Awards,” but does not restrict the award to science fiction in the same way the World Fantasy Convention’s World Fantasy Award is restricted to works of fantasy (try saying that sentence ten times fast). Part of the explanation of this oddity may be found in the history of the Hugo Award.

In the 1953 Worldcon Progress Report #3, Will Jenkins writes:
  • “At the 11th World Science Fiction in Philadelphia on Labour Day weekend, a new tradition will be established, with the formal awarding of the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards to those writers, editors, artists, and fans whom the members of the convention feel have distinguished themselves during the past year. This is the first time in the history of Science Fiction that such awards have been made to include all fields of Science Fiction endeavor.”
By the repetition of the phrase “science fiction” in describing the award and not once mentioning the word “fantasy,” it might be reasonable to assume that the original intent of the organizers was to focus on science fiction. Certainly in what we’ve read of the discussions of award voting that year, there’s no mention of now-classic works of fantasy that would have been eligible, such as C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This seems to be an assumption that WSFS rules historian Ben Yalow disagrees with, as he writes on the official Hugo Awards website “The Hugo Award ... has always included works of fantasy.” Our disagreement with Yalow's assertion is more of a nitpick than a substantive argument against it.

We find it amusing to think that there might be proponents of Hugo Award Rules
Antonin Scalia was wrong
about the U.S. constitution …
much like the WSFS constitution,
it's a living document.
(Image via Wikipedia)
originalism; a WSFS equivalent of Antonin Scalia if you would. An examination of the evidence will tell you that the Hugos have accepted works of fantasy for more than six decades.

By the time they awarded the second Science Fiction Achievement Awards, the rules written by Nicholas L. Falasca include a note “While the award carries the connotation that only science fictional material will be considered, we hasten to add that fantasy and weird material can be included.” There’s explicit acknowledgment of fantasy, but the list of winners continues to show a strong bias towards what would generally be classed as science fiction (although the fanzine award that year was given to Fantasy Times).

By 1959, when the term “Hugo” began to be used in official documents to describe the awards, and the phrase “science fiction or fantasy” was used throughout the rules, clarifying that these awards include both.

The first 40 years of the Hugo Award winners show a strong bias towards works that would be classed by most readers as falling on the science fiction side of the SF-F spectrum. By our estimate, the first work of pure fantasy to win — or even be shortlisted for — a Hugo Award for fiction was in 1959 with the short story “That Hell-Bound Train” by Robert Bloch.

However in recent years, works that would likely be described as fantasy have become more common. This is particularly evident in the short story category where in 2019, the only finalist that falls on the science fiction end of the spectrum was Sarah Gailey’s interactive “STET.”

The World Fantasy Award — which was founded in 1975 as part of the World Fantasy Convention — doesn’t seem to have ever had any controversy about whether or not science fiction should be considered for the award. Looking over the list of shortlisted works, it would be difficult to argue that the World Fantasy Award recognizes science fiction. Although we have been unable to find an online version of the WFA rules, the nominees and winners appear to fit squarely within what most would describe as fantasy. The closest that we could find was the WFA judging panel announcements which mention that: “All forms of fantasy are eligible, e.g. high, epic, dark, contemporary, literary.

The struggle to define the exact boundary between science fiction and fantasy does not mean that
Last year, the only short story on the
Hugo ballot that could be called
science fiction was Sarah Gailey's
"STET." If you haven't read it yet,
you should do so right now. It's great.
(Image via Goodreads)
there is no difference. Instead, it points to the fact that the edges of a genre aren’t necessarily hard edges, but rather points on a continuum. A work might be more science fictional or less science fictional, more fantastical or less fantastical. Those who suggest that one needs to “take a side” are woefully misguided... but those who suggest that there is no difference between science fiction and fantasy aren’t entirely correct either.

In his column, Spinrad took umbrage with the “evaporating” boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Some of his many critics have claimed that there is no difference between science fiction and fantasy, that any attempt to distinguish between them is futile.

In a well-reasoned response to Spinrad’s column, Alexandra Erin blogged at Uncanny magazine about the impossibility of creating a hard distinction between fantasy and science fiction. She highlighted numerous ways in which works that are generally considered to be science fiction are in fact fantastical, and several instances in which works generally regarded as fantasy are science fictional.

Within our book club, there are widely varying opinions and preferences about fantasy versus science fiction. Some of our book club members believe that a broad, more inclusive set of rules for the Hugos means that the cream rises to the top without putting it through a filter first. Others feel that the increasing prevalence of fantasy on the Hugo ballot makes the award more likely to be redundant, as there are other awards to recognize works of fantasy.

It can be said without privileging one over the other that there is a difference between science fiction and fantasy. Likewise, it’s completely fair for an individual reader to prefer science fiction or fantasy without casting aspersions on the other.

The Hugos have changed with time and with different contingents of Worldcon attendees. In the late 1960s, the definition of science fiction was radically changed as the demographic juggernaut of Baby Boomers began nominating and voting for works that addressed their concerns and tastes. We’re currently undergoing a similar demographic shift with the Hugos, as Millenials come into their Hugo-voting years and redefine the genre again.

Because Hugo nominees are not determined by a judging panel in the style of the WFA and Stoker,
"Oh no, millennials killed
science fiction!" is clearly
a ridiculous claim.
(Image via SassySpoon.com)
they are more affected by demographic shifts, and more prone to mutability of purpose. While this mutability is not necessarily a bad thing, it has left a gap in the ecosystem of genre awards, one that is keenly felt by fans who prefer a more technologically centred version of science fiction.

There is no easy way to address this gap. None of us want to impose more restrictive rules on the Hugo awards, since trying to parse the exact boundaries of the genre would be a fool’s errand. Creating a separate category within the Hugo architecture would likewise be unsatisfying, as there are frankly too many categories already, and more would dilute the importance of the awards.

For now, those who yearn for “pure” science fiction can make do with alternatives like the geographically restricted (not-universal) Arthur C. Clarke Award, sub-genre specific (but less prestigious) awards like the Prometheus Award, or recently created and troubled awards like the Dragon Awards. They can also lobby for the best examples of writing they love to win the Hugo. More people talking about great stories can only be a good thing.

These options may seem like cold comfort to some, but they are all better than — through churlish nostalgia — undermining an existing awards system that works well for a broader spectrum of genre fiction.

----

This is a blog post in part inspired by:
https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/11/07/fantasy-versus-science-fiction/
https://www.tor.com/2019/11/06/science-fiction-vs-fantasy-the-choice-is-clear/
https://classicsofsciencefiction.com/2019/11/06/does-science-fiction-have-a-purpose/
https://www.asimovs.com/current-issue/on-books/

Amy Goldschalger and Avon Eos did a creditable job of trying to define the differences between SF and fantasy: https://www.sfsite.com/columns/amy26.htm

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Phoenix Farce

Jean Luc Picard didn’t have the decency to wait the traditional three days before rising up out of the grave.

The quick-and-easy revival of the Enterprise captain is emblematic of a trend in pop culture — particularly in science fiction and fantasy — in which all-too-many significant characters are “killed off” one moment and then resurrected the next.

It’s a lazy writing technique that undermines dramatic tension, cheapens character moments, and
Fun fact, if you start playing the song
“Back to Life” by Soul 2 Soul
when Picard dies, he will be resurrected
before the song ends. We timed it.
(Image via StarTrek.com)  
impoverishes the emotional experience of narratives. For us, it was one of the biggest disappointments in an otherwise pretty decent season of Star Trek.

Picard is dead for fewer than three and a half minutes of screen time. He literally spends more time saying that he will lay down his life for a cause than he spends being dead. Why should viewers get emotionally invested in Picard putting his life on the line when his life costs him nothing?

Although the finale of Star Trek: Picard’s first season provides a case example of this trend, we’d like to be clear that his pointless death and meaningless resurrection is by far not the most underwhelming. Even within the past few years of Star Trek, we’d note Dr. Hugh Culber’s resurrection in Star Trek: Discovery, and Kirk’s resurrection in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

This latter example offers an interesting comparison between resurrections of fictional characters, and what makes some more egregious than others. Into Darkness is a soft remake of The Wrath of Khan, and follows many of the same character moments: a reactor overloading, and a beloved protagonist sacrificing themselves for the greater good. In the case of The Wrath of Khan, it’s Spock who gives his life for the greater good, while in Into Darkness, it’s James Kirk. In both cases, the character who dies gets a prolonged death scene, and an emotional farewell. The narrative asks audiences to grieve for the character’s demise.

But post-mortem, these stories diverge. Within the same movie, after just a few minutes of grieving,
Somehow, while The Wrath of Khan
is considered one of the great Star Trek
movies, Into Darkness is often regarded
as one of the lesser ones.
(Screen capture via Youtube)
Kirk is injected with ‘super blood,’ and is healed almost instantaneously. He’s back on his feet and able to go toe to toe with Khan. End of story.

Compare this with what happened in the earlier movie — Spock stays dead. And when (years later) he’s brought back to life, it’s only through adversity and sacrifice that his friends manage to revive him. When Spock is resurrected, he continues to suffer adverse effects of the trauma. In essence, Spock’s sacrifice is a sacrifice because he actually gave something up.

This is not to suggest that Spock’s resurrection in The Search For Spock is good, but rather that it is a less anemic use of a resurrection plot device than Kirk’s. The ‘Genesis Planet’ may be no less risible a contrivance than ‘Super Blood,’ but the amount of effort and turmoil caused by Spock’s death means that his sacrifice has narrative weight.

In essence, the differences between the two stories highlight the fact that that death without consequence is empty.

This phenomenon is not limited to Star Trek. In movies and television, Spider-Man, Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5 captain John Sherridan, Ellen Ripley, Agent Phil Coulson, and Harry Potter have all died and come back to life with essentially little consequence.

It gets absurd when you consider that X-Men comic book mainstay Jean Grey has been killed and resurrected numerous occasions; two official” deaths, three more fake-out deaths …

Why bother with killing off a character if their rebirth is expected by audiences? In part we suspect that characters are killed off in order to imbue a story with meaning — and we naturally associate death as a serious and consequential event in the narratives of our lives. But the significance of death is not in the event itself, but rather in the consequences.

The Death of Superman is a good case study of how resurrection stories often fall flat. Retailers assumed Superman's resurrection would be as big or bigger than his death and over-ordered copies of Adventures of Superman #500, the much-hyped issue in which he returned. To this day the issue in which he dies sells for about $20, but the issue with his resurrection is in the quarter bin of most comic stores.

Death sells, but resurrection doesn't. There is drama in death, after all, everyone without exception has to experience it eventually. But (Easter Sunday and generations of its normative cultural expectations aside) resurrection is not something we empathize with. The experience is alien to us.

Abhay Khosla once observed that in recent years the big superhero crossover had become a pagan ritual where a super heros life is given up as a blood sacrifice in the hopes their death will bring prosperity to the comics. Its like Shirley Jackons ‘The Lottery, except you can often predict who will have the ticket by analyzing sales data trends.

Viewers rarely want to say farewell to a beloved character, and rights holders never want to release a
Did any of us really expect Spider-Man:
Far From Home to be set in Hades?
(Image via Twitter)  
profitable intellectual asset. Excessively long copyright terms on pop culture icons and the hegemony of franchise culture leads to strong incentives for the corporations that control the rights to these characters to ensure that stories about those characters are in perpetual production.

Spider-Man was never going to stay dead — in fact, even when he “dies” on-screen in Avengers: Infinity War, studios had already announced the movie Spider-Man: Far From Home. For moviemakers to expect his demise to resonate is manipulative, cynical, and insulting to audiences. They expect us to grieve for a character we know isn’t actually gone.

The superficial treatment of death means that our heroes live in a consequence-free environment.

This trend is so pervasive that when fan-favourite protagonist Ned Stark dies in the first season of Game of Thrones (and the book on which the show is based), his death is shocking in its finality. While later seasons may have undermined this consequence-rich storytelling, the show stands out for having the guts to let the dead stay dead.

Stories resonate most when they reflect and engage with human emotional states, including grief. When death is meaningless, and resurrection is easy, these stories become little more than shallow wish-fulfillment fantasies.