It's been a while! I love doing this feature, but I have to feel really enthusiastic about several different things all at once, and that can be hard to muster. I've got a few different things that I'm delighted to share with everyone right now, though, so if you're looking for a good show to watch, a good book to read, or a good podcast to listen to, read on!
Watch: Sense8 Season 2 (Seasons 1-2 streaming on Netflix)
When the first season of Sense8 came out almost two years ago, I was transfixed. It felt like a dream - not always perfectly logical, but the sense of connection and communication I felt was so beautiful that it overcame any issues with plotting. All I wanted was to spend more time with these characters, sharing in their experiences. And now, finally, I have a season two!
Their Christmas special, which came out at the end of last year, was a nice little reminder of what Sense8 could do, but a full season to dive into was what I really wanted. Thankfully, the new season lives up to my rather high expectations.
A little bit of background for the unfamiliar: eight people from all around the world suddenly find that they have a strong mental connection to one another, hearing, seeing, and even taking on the skills of the other members of their "cluster" - sometimes at random, when they're experiencing similar emotions, and sometimes deliberately, calling on each other for help in times of crisis. Soon after they discover their connection, though, they find themselves hunted by a sinister organization known as B.P.O. and their daunting henchman, another sensate (as they're called) known as Whispers.
The thrilling action sequences that were a strong suit in season one are still present, and the marvelous moments of love and empathy between the sensates (as well as those around them) help ground the sometimes convoluted plotting in strong character work. The diversity of the cast and the way that they interact sends an amazing message, one that I think really resonates in the current political climate. Gender roles, sexual identity, and color are totally irrelevant, which leads to some really wonderful moments. There's one in particular that really struck me - Sun, a Korean woman and the show's designated ass-kicker, needs a moment to reflect on all of the things that she's lost, but she's basically incapable of expressing that kind of sorrow. Lito, a Mexican actor whose career is in shambles after coming out of the closet, finds himself with her. Unlike Sun, Lito's very comfortable wallowing in his misfortune. It's an unusual character pairing, but it's wonderful to see what they find in each other in that moment - Sun, the vulnerability to just be sad and lay in bed and cry for a while, and Lito, the strength to push past the pain.
I really can't recommend this series highly enough. It's an ingenious blend of drama, action, romance, and some light comedy to leaven the more intense moments. I binge watched it over the weekend, and all I wanted to do after I finished was turn around and watch it again from the beginning. Which, not going to lie, I'm doing right now.
Read: All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
I've been a long time reader of the website io9, the "nerd" zone of Gawker Media. When Charlie Anders, the editor of the site, published All the Birds in the Sky last year, the book made quite a splash. As someone who reads a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, I always appreciate it when an author plays with the conventions of genre, so I was intrigued by this "science fantasy" book about a girl who, shortly after discovering that she's a witch, meets a boy with a keen scientific mind who is working on developing artificial intelligence. Years after they first meet, they encounter each other again, and find that they must work together to save the world.
Patricia and Laurence, our main characters, both come from difficult home lives - Patricia's parents are abusive, verbally and sometimes physically, and Patricia's sadistic older sister ensures that she's a complete outcast at school as well. While Laurence's parents don't abuse him outright, they certainly don't understand him, and end up sending him to a brutal military school when his brains, ambition, and complete inability to fit in prove too much for them.
But - and this is really important, I think - they grow up, and they become... well, not normal, exactly (Patricia's still a witch, Laurence is still a technological genius), but well-adjusted. They have jobs and friends and while they still carry some scars from their childhoods, they are not wholly defined by them. It really meant a lot to me to see that, because so often in fiction a character arc begins and ends with overcoming and confronting abuse, or succumbing to it and becoming a monster yourself. If you've lived through something like that, the way that the book treats it feels very real and thoughtful. Suffering is a part of the narrative, but it isn't a story about abuse or pain.
I also found it interesting that there aren't any villains in the book, aside from humanity's urge toward self destruction. Everyone that we encounter is acting out of good (or at least understandable) intentions - Patricia and the other magical folks are trying to use their magic to prevent an ecological catastrophe, and Laurence and the tech side are trying to find a way to reach another inhabitable planet in the event that the catastrophe cannot be avoided. The tech people and the magic people tend to see each other as villainous, but that's largely because they don't really know each other. I suppose that could be read as a commentary on the current state of politics - divisiveness and lack of communication leading to ever more polarization.
Anyway, whether you're here for a subtle but worthy political message or not, the characterization is brilliant (and that's true of both major and minor characters, which is impressive), the pacing is thoughtful, and the book is pretty much impossible to put down once you get started. I would recommend this for anyone, whether or not you think sci-fi or fantasy are for you.
Listen: You Must Remember This
Does Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This really need any more press from the vintage loving community? Probably not, but if there's anyone out there who hasn't heard of it, or just hasn't listened yet, I believe that it's my sworn duty to fix that.
You Must Remember This is, as the intro to the show puts it, "a podcast dedicated to exploring the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century." She mostly focuses on Old Hollywood, and has previously done series' devoted to subjects like MGM (the founding, major stars, the way that studio in particular shaped and developed talent), Charles Manson's Hollywood, and Hollywood during WWII. The podcast does an amazing job putting everything into context, talking not just about stars and their movies, but what else was going on in the world at the time.
Her most recent series, Dead Blondes, just wrapped, and it was a fascinating look at an archetype that has existed since the earliest days of Hollywood, and one that still plays out today. She talks about figures as diverse as Themla Todd, Marilyn Monroe, and Dorothy Stratten, defining their public personas, their particular brand of sexuality, and what it was about them that resonated in popular culture in their particular moment of stardom. One of the things I enjoy most about her podcasts is that she resists simplification - when she talks about someone like Dorothy Stratten, who I'd never heard of, she brings her to life, making her feel like a fully realized person. "Dead blondes" are often one note, defined entirely by their sex appeal and their tragic ends, and she makes them so much more than that.