Thoughts on MLK Jr. Day, 2018

So there I am, sitting in Jim’s Tire Center on LA Avenue. It’s Martin Luther King Day, and it’s a chance to reflect on the “I Have a Dream” speech and on the message behind Letter From a Birmingham Jail, to see the Gandhian ideals of nonviolence and social justice take shape in a way most Americans might recognize. I’m sitting there with a book of Joan Didion essays in my lap, waiting for the man behind the counter to call my name. He’ll tell me that my tires are all replaced, that my suspension’s been fixed, and that, yes, it’s all the same price he quoted to me last Thursday.

But, for the last two hours, I got to sit and try to read. I say “try,” because, against my will, I get to listen to two straight hours of Fox News talking heads.

I hear them discuss Democrats holding up negotiations for DACA and military spending. I hear them praise Trump’s work on the economy and North Korea, and how he’s bringing all those jobs back. I hear commercials for investing in gold and silver, for VA-backed home loans now that buying a home’s never been easier, for heart medication and children’s hospitals and home surveillance systems. I hear the snide tone in which Democratic proposals are dismissed, in which Obama’s lack of activity on jobs and security is held up against Trump’s sterling record. I hear pride in hard work and scorn for state governors who make billions in tax revenue off legalized marijuana (because how dare they make money off drugs?).

In all of this, I hear two things: money and security. And that’s really the same thing, isn’t it?

I hear, Hey, you worked hard for your money! Here’s how you make more!

I hear, Look at these soldiers in front of the flag! Don’t you want to do your part for them?

I hear, Democrats said Trump hasn’t fixed anything! Why didn’t they fix anything either?

When I used to be an MSNBC viewer, I saw similar lines in their programming. I’d hear Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann go after Republicans for their crude profit motives and bullying of women and minorities. I saw Democratic legislation for healthcare and immigration reform stifled by angry Republicans and Tea Party misfits, who were all really in the Koch Brothers’ pocket, you know.

And that’s the interesting thing, when you think about it. Money is a big deal to both parties, and most of it comes from a strong donor class. The same goes for these 24-hour cable news shows. When I see their commercials, I see who’s bankrolling the network. I see which demographics they’re trying to target, because Lord knows older Americans have health issues and retirement concerns, and if we can scare them in the primetime, we’ll get their money that they’re so afraid to lose on our new line of products and services!

Republicans are mean. Democrats are hypocrites. Republicans only care about rich white people. Democrats want to send all our money to lazy immigrants and coastal elites. Republicans want to keep the underclass permanent. Democrats want to destroy entrepreneurs in this country.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Meanwhile, as I drive home on a set of brand new tires, with fine-tuned suspension, I feel a sense of freedom. Not because I earned my car or those tires, but because I put money back into my local economy. I feel grateful for the hard work that the folks at Jim’s Tire Center do, and I pray for middle-class and working-class folks to get a break with their finances and employment, so that businesses won’t bury them in fees or keep them locked in a cycle of debt. I feel free, even while I see myself in the larger scheme of a community that works, eats, sleeps, prays, and dreams together.

By the way, if you have some time today, please sit down and read Letter from a Birmingham Jail in full. It’s relevant to anyone who cares about the long moral arc of our universe.


Flash Fiction: “Monsters on the Track, Liquor in the Back”

It’s been a while, but I’m always glad when I can come up with crazy new stories. Especially when said stories let me channel my inner Hunter S. Thompson.


Monsters on the Track, Liquor in the Back,

By Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 535

Few, dear reader, have the stomach for a flat-out, full-on, non-stop, balls-to-the-wall race in the middle of the desert. And yet, that’s where I found myself, leaning against a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at eight in the morning on top of a lonely Nevada dune.

Armand Boston, reporting live from a press tent somewhere in Clark County, desperately scarfing down vodka and burnt gingerbread cookies to stave off the morning heat. Yes, it’s true that the Las Vegas Gazette has revoked my press credentials at the time of this writing. But what of it? The Story Must Be Told. And it’s not like I could give back the rented motorcycle before Thursday…

The racers were ready at dawn. I toyed with a slice of lemon around the rim of an untouched glass of water. Revving engines and hoots and hollers filled the air outside. I only then remembered to hit the button on my tape recorder, for when I’d need color and sound to add to this article. Even if that greased-up, pigheaded Pancho of an editor refused to print it.

Instead, however, all I heard next were screams.

The Beast that attacked never stood still long enough for photographers to capture it. Not that they could, dear reader, whilst they were running for their lives. I saw the best bikers of my generation destroyed, raving, hysterical, and mutilated limb from limb. Neither photo nor prose could have prepared you for the viscera that the Creature waded through on that unholy morn…

[Editor’s Note: We apologize, but there is a missing section in Armand’s story. The article he sent for publication has at least a page and a half stained with lemon juice. Or, at least, we hope that it’s lemon juice.]

…And there I was, dear reader! Eye-to-eye with the Jabberwocky itself!

Though it did not burble as it came, it reared back its head and split the air with a bone-chilling roar. It raked the space above my head with bloodstained claws, and in my mortal terror, I did the only thing I could.

I threw cookies at the damn thing.

To my surprise, the one-eyed, one-horned giant purple people eater did not reject the torched gingerbread. In fact, the Creature seemed delighted. Its salivating maw inhaled the treats and followed up with a sickening wet crunch. O! Happy was this undevoured reporter!

One plate of cookies and a liter of vodka later, the Beast had had its fill. I stood outside the ruined tent, clinging to the remains of a Harley-Davidson chopper, and I watched the Beast gallop drunkenly back into the sandy wastes from whence it came. At long last, the desert was silent and still again, save only for the pitiful cries and crawls of the half-eaten racers at my feet.

Far be it from me to speculate, my readers, but I can only guess at how this act of mayhem might have been a monster’s commentary on the sport of long-distance motorcycle racing. Even so, while our Armed Forces continue their desperate pursuit across the empty Nevada wastelands, this humble reporter can only offer one small piece of advice.

Don’t skimp on the gingerbread cookies. Your lives may well depend on it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 3: Hell is Empty: When the Fire Runs Out

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

As I mentioned before in my post about the emotional content in media, Life is Strange is one of those franchises that gets me on a deep and tragic level, because it’s “not mindless tragedy, but a cathartic experience.” For all its nostalgia filter on the Nineties and early 2000s, and for its themes on childhood friendship and romance, there’s a dark side to life in the small town of Arcadia Bay that leaves so many players torn up by the end, no matter what our choices were.

By that same token, the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm is just as heartwrenching, but with no option to rewind time and try again. Every choice, every scar, every loss or victory—it’s all final.

In the final act, Episode 3: Hell is Empty, we see Chloe and Rachel still reeling from the revelation about Sera Gearhardt and her true relationship with Rachel’s father. Meanwhile, Chloe is trying to patch things up at home with David and clean out her debts with Frank Bowers, who’s in his own kind of trouble with Damon Merrick, the top drug dealer in Arcadia Bay. Everything hinges on Rachel’s safety, a possible showdown with Sera and Damon, and getting the whole truth out of James Amber.

Compared to the ups-and-downs from Life is Strange‘s Season 1 finale, Hell is Empty has a far less drastic and more soft-spoken delivery. Its plot doesn’t hinge on murderers abducting girls and town-ending storms, but there are plenty of psychopaths to go around, from Damon the drug dealer to Eliot the obsessive classmate. Instead of a traditional adventure of kicking down doors and taking names, Chloe and Rachel’s journey here comes in the form of confronting father figures and making a new path for themselves. They’re tired of the lies, tired of the conspiracies, and tired of settling down and pretending nothing’s wrong.

Chloe’s personal journey here is one of the better parts of the episode. She’s caring toward Rachel in the wake of her trauma, she has a chance to reconcile (for the moment) with Joyce and David, and she begins to define her “brand.” Namely, putting together her iconic truck, outfits, and blue hair dye. Chloe becomes a more serious punk in this episode, as opposed to the wannabe trailing after Rachel from Episode 1. Even her ghostly interactions with William Price are more confrontational than before, as she comes to terms more and more with his loss.

As for the climax, the story and gameplay is a touch… well, anticlimactic. Even when compared to Max’s dream sequence and final choice in Polarized. Here, Chloe is involved in the big shutdown of the conspiracy behind Rachel’s parentage, but she’s nowhere as active as other side characters turn out to be. Her role is more akin to that of a herald, bringing news between characters and either revealing a painful truth to Rachel or learning to lie to her. But then again, “Everybody Lies,” as Chloe has tagged on various walls in Life is Strange.

And then there’s the post-credits scene. Ooh, boy. That is a dark place for the game to end on. Even though it’s a tie-in for what happens in the first Life is Strange series, it’s still a punch to the player’s gut, and a bit cheap at that. We could’ve had a more tender moment of Chloe mourning Rachel after she goes missing, or perhaps a sense of what happens with Rachel’s parents. But instead, we get this. This sharp reminder of how nothing or no one ever stays safe for long.

In some ways, Before the Storm has been a good prequel to the shifting tides in Arcadia Bay, as best expressed in Rachel’s backstory and Chloe’s transformation into a dropout and rebel. It’s the same drop in innocence and safety that Max Caulfield goes through, but it’s more focused and fleshed-out on two characters rather than on one character trying to balance friendships with solving mysteries and handling time travel. While there are one or two potholes in the road, overall the spirit of the game is a worthy add-on to the series, and it leaves me somewhat optimistic for where things will go in the continuing saga set in Arcadia Bay.

The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Hell is Empty,” is available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 3: Hell is Empty. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: December 20, 2017.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Need to Confront Change

Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

Never before has a line of dialogue so perfectly captured the spirit of a movie. And it came from the mouth of Luke Skywalker no less. A worn-down, bitter, cynical Luke Skywalker. Not the fresh-faced hero from yet another desert planet, but not exactly the edgy antihero of so much post-Nineties TV and cinema. This is a broken man tired of living up to his own legend.

This, then, is the new face of Star Wars. It’s what happens when we ask which legends are worth saving and which are worth losing.

In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find both our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the whole of the Resistance in a state of freefall. Rey has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but he’s neither the hero nor the mentor she wanted. He’s made too many mistakes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he won’t be responsible for her downfall, too. Meanwhile, the Resistance reaches its breaking point in a series of counterattacks by the First Order fleet, jumping from one system to another as new leaders like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) take command, leading to clashes with ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and subversive acts by Resistance loyalists like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). All this, of course, only serves to empower the First Order’s leader, Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), as he and his apprentice Kylo Ren work to corner and eliminate the last Jedi Knight and the fire of resistance once and for all.

When it comes to the storytelling behind this new installment of Star Wars, I give a lot of credit to Rian Johnson’s writing and breathtaking use of colors in his cinematography, the script doctoring by the late Carrie Fisher, and to the performances of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. This movie has plenty of callbacks and echoes of the original three movies, but it’s also its own creature, complete with Kurosawa-style splashes of red, homages to Monte Carlo casinos and Rashomon, and plenty of comedic moments that keep the film alive.

Everyone who came to the movie brought something unique, and I think that it’s connected to the film’s overall theme: that no one can change things by themselves, but by working in concert with others, however small their actions might be. Poe Dameron can’t fly in an X-wing and blow things up to save the day. Rey can’t find the reclusive Jedi Master and learn everything like in the old days. Finn and his new friend Rose can’t break the First Order’s weapons from within, or throw their lives away to stop the war machine’s relentless advance.

This movie, for the most part, is an action-driven and emotional ride that makes it the longest-running Star Wars film to date. I think it delivers the same dramatic punches as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with maybe one or two missteps. Some of the second act runs a bit overlong, especially with so much time given to the CGI love-fest that is Canto Bight, and some of the sequences on board Snoke’s flagship are one or two minutes drawn out for my liking. But apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi and I’m left breathless and excited for the next and final installment of this sequel trilogy.

I’m aware that there are plenty of criticisms about the movie, and that a number of fans have taken exception to the changes made by Rian Johnson and others in this new film. But as a longtime Star Wars fan myself, well-versed in the old Expanded Universe of decades past, I couldn’t help but love this. This movie is funny, exciting, dramatic, heartwrenching, affectionate, and downtrodden in so many ways. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s surprising. Yes, it’s tearing down the status quo.

But that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell Rey, and it’s a lesson he needs to learn himself. Don’t make people into legends. Make your own journey instead.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. Written by Rian Johnson. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 15, 2017.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Finding New Words for Family

Copyright 2014 by Becky Chambers

I grew up with space opera and visions of adventures in space. Thanks to my dad’s influence, I grew up devouring the original Star Wars movies, as well as the then-current TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation.  You couldn’t get spaceships and alien civilizations out of my head no matter how hard you tried. But having said that, I haven’t loved every bit of space opera I’ve come across. To some fans’ horror, I wasn’t even all that thrilled with Firefly when it first came out.

Thankfully, it’s the 2010s, and we have a new generation of writers coming to the fore. This is how I came to discover Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer series. So, today, I’m looking at her first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

In the far future, humanity has joined the other races in the Galactic Commons and become a key player in interstellar politics. One such human, Rosemary Harper, is a recent add-on to the crew of the worn-down space-tunneling ship Wayfarer. Alongside such quirky crew members as Captain Ashby Santoro, the pilot Sissix, and the eccentric engineer Krizzy, Rosemary is introduced to a variety of new cultures and attitudes beyond the life she knew on Mars. But as their newest clerk, she’ll prove instrumental in helping navigate the tricky legal and logistical hardships that comes with life in outer space.

In every sense of the phrase, this is an ensemble story. Every single crew member has their own story arc, sometimes explored within the confines of a single chapter. That’s part of what makes this story a little unusual at first glance. It’s less about following a Rosemary across her journey to start a new life, and more about the ongoing adventures and challenges that the crew faces on various trips. It all leads toward a singular end, but along the way, you get an engineer dealing with PTSD, another engineer in love with an AI, a captain’s affair with a non-human woman, a reptilian pilot trying to reconnect with other members of her species, and a mad alien navigator wrestling with his race’s terminal condition.

(And all that’s just before the halfway point of the book, too.)

One of the things that Chambers does so brilliantly in this story is create a sense of culture and a sense of family. She looks for ways for alien minds to be truly alien, like how the Aandrisks don’t recognize their children as individuals until they become adults, or how the Toremi Ka’s perspective is more warped than anything else the races of the Galactic Commons has ever encountered.

But even with biological and psychological barriers, there’s a way to overcome them, and that’s something I love about this book. Reptilian Aandrisks and human beings can and do coexist. Interspecies love is shown here to be just as honest and pure as any LGBT or hetero romance. And for all their different needs and issues, the crew of the Wayfarer really do pull together whenever a crisis hits, even when it hits less-appreciated people like Corbin or Jenks. You get the sense that Ashby is as much a starship captain as he is an exasperated but caring parent to everyone else in their dialogue.

If you love colorful ensemble casts, a sense of family and kinship, and imaginative new forms of life among the stars, then by all means check out this book, and the ones that follow it. This is the kind of science fiction that I’d love to see more of in years to come.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.

Bibliography: Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.