Categories
Politics

Drop Outs 2020: Who will drop out first in the Democratic primary?

I should state upfront: I have a tremendous record for accurate predictions.

The majority of Democratic voters (76 percent) believe electability is most important when considering their presidential candidate for 2020 and that belief hangs over the field when voters consider any candidate not named Joe Biden. Americans are right to recognize this next election as paramount to the future of our country, and they’re hesitant to embrace a more “exciting” candidate when so much is at stake. At the same time, the public’s collective trauma felt by Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign still affects Democrats today (even in the face of arguments suggesting Comey’s letter, the Electoral College and television media markets did more to swing the election than her candidacy). Democrats don’t need to be told twice the safest pick isn’t always the best. This has created a first-mover problem for 2020 — voters don’t want to break from the candidate they believe is most electable because it could weaken the Democratic argument against President Donald Trump. Even with that concern, the data does not suggest Democratic voters are totally sold on the candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden. He clearly has a base that remains at a solid 30 percent regardless of new candidates in the field, or criticisms leveled at Biden, but his lack of growth suggests the majority want another option and they’re waiting to see what alternative gets presented.

The question shifts from who do Democrats support most, to who will drop out first? The strongest argument for Biden is his electability, but any candidate that survives the onslaught of a field with 20+ candidates inherently proves their electability. As the field winnows to a handful of candidates, voters may be more willing to embrace the policy differences between them. Viewing the Democratic race in this context can be an illuminating exercise for predicting the final candidate. I think there’s ample data available to predict the order of candidates dropping out and I’ve outlined my thoughts below. While the predictions themselves may prove to be inaccurate, I believe the reasons motivating these predictions will prove to be true to some extent. I want to end this article with a Top 10 list, but first we should weed out two groups of candidates who generically will not make it to the end.

Group 1: “Biden will drop out and I will become the moderate front runner”

Senator Michael Bennet, Governor Steve Bullock, Congressman John Delany, Governor John Hickenlooper, Congressman Seth Moulton, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, and Congressman Tim Ryan.

We should give Hillary Clinton credit for her total domination over the Democratic Party in 2016. Ok, that statement may draw the ire of many people who believe Clinton gained that support through undemocratic means and tactics similar to corrupt backroom deals, but the point remains the same. Joe Biden does not have the same command over the Democratic Party as Clinton did in 2016. He’s a front runner, but a weaker front runner. Other politicians have smelled blood in the water and believe they can run a campaign that replaces Biden as the moderate alternative for Democrats not convinced by the progressive wing of the party.

Unfortunately for all of these ambitious politicians, Biden’s support has shown resilience in the face of criticism. After a full media cycle about Biden’s history of invading women’s personal space, Biden released a non-apology stating he would recognize the world has changed and adapt his habits appropriately. He was criticized for the response, but his support did not falter.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

After Senator Kamala Harris confronted Biden on his history of supporting policies out of vogue in modern America, many media outlets considered it a watershed moment for Biden’s inevitable downfall. This was an exciting narrative, but polling of each candidate before and after the first debates, revealed Biden’s support remained mostly the same. Although Harris — and virtually all candidates who are lesser known — received bump ups in their favorability numbers, Biden’s support did not falter.

Many politicians are running with the theory that Biden’s appeal has more to do with his moderate views rather than his personal candidacy. This theory is based on the belief that moderate voters would just as likely vote for another moderate candidate should Biden drop out of the race. So far, that theory hasn’t been proven. Moderate voters have now seen a plethora of moderate candidates, including Former Congressman John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke — all of whom had decent debate performances or relatively high media coverage. Despite the exposure to moderate alternatives, Biden’s support has not faltered.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper

The “Biden will drop out” theory does not seem to be based in reality. Biden voters have been undeterred by the criticism leveled against him so far — as indicated by his consistent polling numbers even after two large-scale attacks against his candidacy. More importantly, when Biden voters are polled about their second-choice candidate, a plurality choose progressive candidates — not moderates. The latest numbers on Morning Consult show among Biden voters, 27 percent would support Senator Bernie Sanders, 19 percent would support Harris and 16 percent would support Senator Elizabeth Warren. Collectively, that makes 62 percent of Biden’s base willing to back a progressive candidate. Only a minority of Biden voters would support more moderate candidates as their second-choice such as O’Rourke or Senator Amy Klobuchar.

It is worth mentioning voters for Sanders, Harris and Warren have symmetrical second-choice polling. For example, Warren voters’ second-choice preferences are Harris, Sanders and Biden; Harris voters’ second-choice preferences are Biden, Warren, Sanders; and Sanders voters’ second-choice preferences are Biden, Warren and Harris. These voters are defining “electability” by a candidate’s current position in the polls — not by their more moderate policies.

All of this is to say every candidate in this group has launched a campaign based on a false premise. None of them will be preferred by Biden voters if he drops out. Biden voters prefer another front runner since they’re viewed as more electable. That will be proven in time. Along the way we’ll see the candidates in this group fail to gain any traction and eventually run out of money. With that in mind, a candidate’s burn rate of their accrued funding may be the best indicator of who drops out first (which would indicate Hickenlooper, Delany, Congressman Seth Moulton and Congressman Tim Ryan will be the first ones to drop out) but this is assuming a level of reasoning and logic that seems to be absent from their campaigns. They may pull a Kasich and stick around far past their viability simply because they’re kind of dumb — which also makes it difficult to predict who drops out when. Either way, my guess is all of these candidates will bow out before anyone in our next group.

Group 2: “I’m not actually running for president.”

It’s very difficult to predict when someone is going to drop out of a race they have no intention of winning. Consider Sanders’ candidacy in 2016, when the primaries concluded but he refused to concede. He stayed in the race because 1) he was playing the long-game and 2) he wanted to use his position to affect the Democratic Party and change the system. Both of these goals were accomplished by Sanders, eventually. In 2019, the Democratic Party’s signature issues mirror Sanders’ 2016 platform: Medicare for all, ending forever wars, and breaking up major corporations. He also accomplished diluting the importance of superdelegates for the Democratic primary process. It was only after the party agreed to his demands that he “officially” dropped out of the race, even though every primary had concluded and Clinton was the clear winner. Sanders achieved his goals, but it’d be a fool’s errand to grade him based on the rules of a game he was never playing. Sanders may be in it to win this time around, but many other candidates are not. They all have their own reasons and I want to break those down:

Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio

Bill de Blasio

Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio is partaking in the timeless tradition of “running to raise your national profile.” As it stands, de Blasio is not very popular in New York City. He holds a 42 percent job approval rating, but the racial demographic breakdown reveals why he isn’t dead on arrival. De Blasio’s approval rating among black voters is 66 percent, Hispanic voters 40 percent, and it’s only when you get to white voters do you have a majority disapproval (58 percent). It’s also worth noting that de Blasio’s main opposition are voters who believe he has been too harsh on New York’s Police Department — a faction that skews white — but is unlikely to cause a hitch for the national Democratic platform.

The takeaway from these numbers suggest that de Blasio may not be overwhelmingly popular in New York City, but he may be more popular on a national stage — or even a regional one. If more voters become aware of his policies, he could set himself up nicely for a run at Governor of New York or attract enough attention for a Vice President pick (which would open New York City to a mayoral election, but wouldn’t harm Democrats’ resources for keeping the house and retaking the senate). It seems like de Blasio may find more success outside of his claim to fame. This gambit may prove to be beneficial for his political career, and maybe for New Yorkers as well. Although part of me can’t shake the feeling that de Blasio is delusional enough to think he can win.

Congresswoman Tulsi “The Establishment Is Trying To Destroy Me” Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard

Hawaii Congressman Tulsi Gabbard is running for Secretary of State to directly implement her views on foreign policy. Her signature issues are all about foreign policy. It’s the only thing she talks about when granted interviews or given speaking time in debates. She focuses on her background as a military veteran, and her multiethnic background — as well as her transformation from social conservative to progressive — suggests she could build relationships with countries that lack the United States’ modern values. Gabbard was actually rumored as one of the top candidates for Secretary of State in the Trump administration. Of course, the most notable news story from that rumor was when she was endorsed by none other than David Duke — the leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Duke allegedly endorsed Gabbard’s presidential candidacy, although he denies that reporting and Gabbard has denounced his endorsement.

The Duke endorsement is emblematic of the main controversy of Gabbard’s candidacy. She is not a crazy person — although feature pieces from the New Yorker relying on religious bigotry will attempt to portray her as such — but she has a knack for drawing support from crazy people. In February, just before her announcement, NBC reported Gabbard’s campaign had attracted the attention of pro-Russia propaganda sites (which Gabbard claimed is inaccurate). In May, The Daily Beast uncovered the names of high-profile Putin supporters who had donated to her campaign.

There are pundits who have suggested Gabbard is “Russia’s candidate,” and some extremists have suggested she may be literally conspiring with Russia. I don’t think either of these assessments are fair. A candidate who gains the support of specific faction does not mean that candidate is working for that faction. Consider President Barack Obama was enthusiastically endorsed by Louis Farrakhan, a noted Black Separatist and general crazy person, who shares nothing in common with Obama’s political views. Gabbard is a politician who believes in non-interventionism, which unsurprisingly gains the support of people who believe some of the United States interventions in the past have been inappropriate. That may be motivated by generic hippies singing Kumbaya, or it may be motivated by bad actors who want to parade around the world without fear of retribution. Distinguishing between the two may be an argument for a later day. For now, it’s what defines Gabbard’s candidacy, pigeonholing her as a single-issue candidate. Given her overall goal, it might be a good thing if her name becomes synonymous with foreign policy when cabinet positions are considered by the eventual nominee.

Former Alaska Senator Mike “Dank Meme” Gravel

Mike Gravel

When you hand your political campaign over to a duo of teenagers making sick memes, it’s pretty clear you’re not a serious candidate. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s candidacy (or perhaps, these teenagers’ candidacy) is focused on beating up moderate candidates in service of the Democratic Party’s future. They’ve said as much quite explicitly when Gravel’s account tweeted: “we don’t expect Mike to win the presidency in 2020, but we do expect his ideas to win the future.” Like Sanders in 2016, the Gravel campaign is playing the long-game and could very well stick around until November 2020 just to keep trolling the candidates.

Gravel should be commended for using his platform to boost younger voices who will likely sway the future of our politics more than many of the other candidates mentioned so far. His campaign twitter has repeatedly expressed admiration for so-called “joke” candidates for bringing new ideas to the party. If nothing else, he’s introduced a new type of rhetoric to these debates which may end up devastating our public discourse but for now it is incredibly funny.

Washington Governor Jay “Hip Dad” Inslee

Jay Inslee

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced his presidential campaign in March with a video entirely focused on combating climate change. As Inslee states in the video, “we’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and the last one that can do something about it.” He feels very strongly about the issue, enough to waste a bunch of time and money to spotlight it on the national stage.

While Democrats generally agree climate change is an important issue, none of them (outside of Inslee) have made it their signature issue. This is for good reason. Americans polled in January 2019 ranked climate change 17th in their top priorities. Only 44 percent of Americans believe climate change should be a top priority — compared to the economy (70 percent), health care costs (69 percent), education (68 percent) and 14 other issues. Climate change isn’t a topic that wins elections — or primaries — but Inslee probably knows that.

Inslee may feel strongly about climate change, but he also floated the idea of running for a third term as Governor. Washington’s gubernatorial election coincides with the 2020 presidential election, so he has a high incentive to get out of the race for president, and focus on the campaign in his home state.

Minnesota Senator and Comb Enthusiast Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar

Pour one out for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s campaign for president — one of the fallen Democratic stars lost in the gravity of Clinton’s black hole presidential campaign. Klobuchar has been a popular senator since she won her first election in 2006. She continued to win by a comfortable margin in 2012 (and later 2018), which made her a bit of a rising star in the party. Prior to Clinton’s ascension, Klobuchar was frequently listed as an attractive candidate who could pull progressive city dwellers and rural voters. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Klobuchar took the diplomatic road and got in line for 2016 by endorsing Clinton.

Now her moment has passed, and the novelty factor has moved onto other candidates. Klobuchar is in a position where she has to fight to stay relevant in the field, but that’s difficult to do when 1) she is a woman, who statistically do poorly in public favorability when they adopt an aggressive tone and 2) she suffered through an entire news cycle suggesting she is an abusive boss. It’s difficult to fight from behind when fighting at all reinforces the biggest criticism against you.

The stars could have aligned differently for Klobuchar, and in an alternate universe she may be an exciting moderate front runner behind Joe Biden, but we don’t live in that world. Instead, Klobuchar has shown awareness of her position and refused to attack other candidates even when asked directly. This is because she doesn’t want to burn bridges with the eventual nominee, who would see Klobuchar is easily one of the most attractive Vice Presidential candidates in the field. She has over a decade in legislative experience, serves as senator in a blue state (where her position would be appointed by a Democratic governor if she were to leave for the executive branch), she attracts moderates and progressives, and is one of the few women qualified for the position.

If Klobuchar was in it to win the nomination, she’d take a gamble on making more aggressive moves, but it looks like she’s on stage to make friends and raise her national profile.

Author, Self-Help Guru, and Spirit Entity Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson

Believe it or not, this is not the first time author and self-help guru Marianne Williamson has run for public office. In 2014, she took a chance at California’s 33rd congressional district to unseat Ted Lieu, citing her concerns for the country’s shrinking civil liberties and expanding corporate influence. She may have been disappointed by her fourth place finish, but I’m sure she’s relieved to see Ted Lieu has become one of Trump’s most vocal critics. Maybe she’ll score a similar victory with her national presence.

Williamson has proven she speaks differently from ordinary politicians. She’s not concerned with policy, or even messaging, but rather “healing the soul of America.” Her website even says in large letters “the issues aren’t always the issue.” Her candidacy is more about a vague feeling of what politics could be, rather than any concrete policies for what it should be.  

As much as I appreciate Williamson’s honesty in debates, and her spirited public speaking that rivals the shōnen anime, she is the definition of a joke candidate. Good on her for milking it, but she likely won’t make the third debates and her performance in the most recent debate will prove to be her season finale.

With those two groups out of the way, we have ten remaining candidates in the race. I believe these final candidates will drop out primarily because of three factors: size of their base, money available, and concern for other elections. Here’s who I think would drop out first, ending with the Democrats eventual nominee:

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

10. Kirsten Gillibrand

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign is based on the false premise that women vote as a “bloc.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, there is convincing evidence that some demographics vote together reliably. An easy example is political party demographics. Believe it or not, people who self-identify as Democrats tend to vote for Democrats. This can also be true for racial demographics. Most famously, the “black vote” was dominated by Barack Obama for both of his elections and is often cited as the bedrock of his base. With the rise of identity politics, and the fervor to elect a woman to President of the United States, Gillibrand made the calculation that she could use her identity to create a voter base of women. Except, women have never voted as a bloc. No matter how many times Gillibrand mentions her mother, grandmother, or wears pink, she is not specifically gaining traction from women voters, because she is not generally gaining traction from any voters.

Gillibrand’s execution of how to appeal to women voters is likely the cause of her under-performance in the Democratic race. She believed the election of 2016 fundamentally altered the nature of modern day politics, and signaled the beginning of a new era with new leaders. With this theory in mind, Gillibrand saw her connection to the Clinton family as a liability and not only denounced their endorsement but went on the offensive against President Bill Clinton. She was no longer “the Clinton’s candidate,” she was now her own woman, and sought to redefine herself as the champion of #MeToo. Gillibrand quickly became the main voice of the movement on Capitol Hill and sought the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken following allegations of sexual misconduct. She executed the strategy of her rebranding successfully and has been paying the price ever since.

It turns out both voters and financial backers don’t like it when a potential presidential candidate cannibalizes their own party. The public was quick to support the spirit of #MeToo, but it has become increasingly more skeptical of politicians championing the cause. People are capable of discerning genuine activism from calculated ulterior motives and Gillibrand is ending up on the wrong side of that analysis. This point was made by Joe Biden in CNN’s debate, when he said Gillibrand has been a lifelong supporter of his policies but she’s criticizing him because “you’re now running for President.”

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the New Yorker released a lengthy dive into Franken’s resignation which ultimately exonerates the former senator. Voters should read the entire article, but a key data point is every politician who called for Franken’s resignation said they now regret their action. All of them… except for Gillibrand.

Unfortunately for her presidential ambitions, women do not vote as a bloc, and regular voters aren’t so stupid they can’t see the Machiavellian plot she’s architecting. She has no base, no funding, plenty of criticisms available against her candidacy, and she’s unlikely to make it to the September / October debates. I would not be surprised if she drops out within a month’s time.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker

9. Cory Booker

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is a black politician who polls in the single digits among black voters. He’s losing those voters to Biden (roughly 50 percent) followed only by “undecided” (26 percent). Among establishment support, the Congressional Black Caucus has thrown their weight behind Harris — not Booker. Booker has no hold over the “black vote,” and given his rhetoric on uniting Americans with working across the aisle it is unlikely he will create any in-roads with that demographic.

Outside of the week he announced his campaign, Booker has never polled higher than 5 percent. This suggests he has as much public support as “longshot” candidates like Marianne Williamson or Andrew Yang — which isn’t a good position to be in when you’re a Senator with above average name recognition and four million followers on Twitter.

Why hasn’t Booker caught voters’ attention? It could be bad timing. Booker won his New Jersey senate election in 2014, two years before Sanders scorched the earth for politicians taking PAC money. Like many politicians before him, Booker’s campaign was funded by private interest groups, including pharmaceutical companies. Given that New Jersey is home to many American pharmaceutical companies, it made sense for Booker to seek the endorsement of his home state’s largest business community. Unfortunately, that reality has aged very poorly in our new world where individual donors reign king in Democratic politics.

Booker has presented himself as a progressive, but progressive voters are very skeptical of his ties to Big Pharma. It has a nasty habit of coming back around whenever Booker presents a nuanced view on health care issues. That issue may be compounded by Booker’s public speaking, which has been described as “inauthentic,” adding to concerns he’s just another politician bought by private interests.

(irrelevant personal anecdote: I saw Booker speak at Drew University when I was reporting in New Jersey. He was asked one question and spoke for 45 minutes straight — he did not answer the question)

Booker has swung hard into progressivism with his policies, so he can’t rebrand as a centrist — unlike someone like Beto O’Rourke — and has quickly found himself with no real support.

All of this looks pretty bad, but the main motivator behind an early Booker drop-out is he needs to run to keep his job. Booker is up for senate re-election in 2020 and he is already facing a Republican challenger whose entire campaign is centered on Booker’s missed obligations while running for President. An identical criticism was leveled against Governor Chris Christie when he ran for president in 2016 and floated to the lowest approval ratings in modern history. Unless Booker wants a similar spot in history, he’ll cut his losses sooner rather than later.

Former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro

8. Julián Castro

Pour another one out for the political career of Former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro, another fallen Democratic star lost in the gravity of Clinton’s black hole presidential campaign. Some of you reading this article may be thinking: “didn’t you already make that joke about Amy Klobuchar?” Well, this article is already over 4,000 words and I’m worried most of you haven’t read the whole thing. If you are one of those people skipping around: consider all the great jokes you’ve missed in previous sections that I couldn’t find a way to recycle throughout this final ten.

Castro had a high-profile in 2016 as a potential Vice President pick and shares a similar story to Klobuchar. He missed his moment. What made him exciting in the past — a young person with the credentials of an experienced politician — has not transitioned to what excites young Democrats today (big progressive ideas).

Castro doesn’t seem to be framing himself as “the candidate for Hispanic/Latino voters” but that doesn’t stop non-Hispanic/Latino voters from viewing him that way. It’s true that Hispanic/Latino voters do not vote as a bloc — and he undoubtedly knows that — but his focus on immigration may be limiting his appeal to other voters. His two moments of success in the debates — sparring with O’Rourke and hitting Biden with an effective one-liner — both relate to immigration. Castro’s focus on immigration may play to his experience as Mayor in San Antonio, his identity as a Mexican American, and emphasize one of the Trump administration’s biggest scandals — but it’s more likely to pigeonhole him as a one-issue candidate. It’s an issue that just barely the majority of Americans think should be a top concern (51 percent of Americans cited Immigration as a top concern, 9th overall).

It doesn’t look like Castro will be able to gain a foothold and launch into other policy points. The silver lining in all of this for Castro is he still looks like a good Vice President pick. He also has no other office to run for, but he runs the risk of not qualifying for the September/October debates and may call it quits.

Former Congressman and Democratic Heartthrob Beto O’Rourke

7. Beto O’Rourke

Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke shined in the national spotlight for being a relatively progressive candidate challenging Ted Cruz. For a moment it looked like he might enter Democratic hall of fame for unseating one of the most unpopular senators in history. Specifically, it was his ability to raise $80 million for his campaign in a state Democrats have long given-up on. Of course, O’Rourke lost that election, but that didn’t stop some people from citing Abraham Lincoln’s unsuccessful bid for senate prior to his successful bid for president.

As they say, “money talks,” and that was the headline of O’Rourke’s decision to run for president. He managed to raise $9.4 million for Q1 2019 — not quite as much as Sanders’ $18 million or Harris’ $12 million — but O’Rourke’s campaign had only been announced for 14 days by the end of the quarter which showed he raised half as much in a fourth of the amount of time. He benefited from tremendous press attention before announcing, including a documentary about his time on the road and some rosy features depicting him as a lost soul who finally found purpose in life.

What he hasn’t found is any success in his national campaign. Nate Silver put it best: O’Rourke doesn’t have a base. O’Rourke looked progressive next to Ted Cruz, but he looks like a deer in headlights next to real progressives. He has floundered in debates, relying on vague optimism that spoke a lot to dejected Texan Democrats, but says very little to skeptical national voters. O’Rourke has stumbled into the position of a centrist, which is slightly better than his internet reputation as a man with no strong position on anything. It seems like national Democrats are doing a double-take on O’Rourke and wondering what they saw in him in the first place. Was his senate campaign more about a hatred for Cruz? Or maybe big donors were looking for a rising star in the party that could make the case for centrism — the way Howard Schultz and others have hoped? It doesn’t look like either has panned out.

O’Rourke’s fundraising will allow him to limp far beyond his appeal, but even that revenue source is drying up quickly. Unfortunately for him, the extent of his campaign’s failure may scorch other opportunities that would have been open to him otherwise. He may be reluctant to admit he made a mistake in running for president and stick around while praying for a miracle.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg

6. Pete Buttigieg

At this point in the predictions, we need some chaos theory analysis of multiple “what if” situations playing out. If my predictions are accurate, then the campaigns of Gillibrand, Booker, Castro, O’Rourke and various novelty candidates (Inslee, Gabbard, Williamson, etc.) have all come to an end. The voters who supported those campaigns have to choose where to go next (or remain undecided). My analysis on what happens to those voters is the motivation for why I think Mayor of Sound Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg will drop out at this point in the race.

Buttigieg has mainly drawn tremendous support from white college-educated voters. His campaign raised more money than any other candidate in Q2 2019 . That sounds impressive on paper, but it hasn’t helped his polling (it’s almost as if white college educated voters disproportionately have the most expendable income to dump into presidential campaigns). Buttigieg peaked in April after a flurry of media coverage and has hovered around 5 percent since the first debate in June.

He’ll need to gain support from other demographics if he wants to be considered a true front runner, but that challenge will prove significantly more difficult for Buttigieg who is not only polling at literally 0 percent among black voters, but has multiple racially charged scandals from his time as Mayor of Sound Bend. What little support he had from the black community in South Bend has leaked away over his tenure as the city’s mayor. Buttigieg understands this weakness in his candidacy, and seems eager to address it, but it’s looking like an uphill battle.

Racial issues may provide a fitting answer to why Buttigieg is doing so poorly among minorities, but there may be another elephant in the room: his sexuality. The liberal world may have moved passed gay marriage and homophobia in an unprecedented amount of time, but the rest of the world has not. There are a litany of personal accounts echoing the high levels of homophobia in black communities. In fact, Black voter turnout was literally part of the Republican strategy to suppress gay marriage ballot measures. Even in blue states, as recently as 2018, roughly 39 percent of black voters opposed gay marriage. Democrats may be willing to vote for a black man, a woman, or a non-Christian, but they aren’t quite there yet for other minority identities. It is unlikely Buttigieg will be the candidate to win hearts and minds in this community, when he’s already juggling legitimate racial concerns from his past.

Beyond these concerns, I have to consider what voters are available to Buttigieg at this point in the race. Gillibrand, Booker and Castro are all minority candidates with voters who are focused on minority issues (women’s rights, racial inequality, and immigration). Who are they going to flock to when their first-choice candidate drops out? I’m guessing it won’t be the Ivy League, Rhodes Scholar, with a troubling past involving police brutality and racial tension.

Buttigieg may have the fundraising to support an extended run once he’s no longer Mayor of South Bend in November 2019, but more so than the other remaining candidates, he is at risk of feeling his support stagnate while others grow their base. He also has an incentive not to stick around. At 37 years old, this certainly is not the last we’ll see of Buttigieg on the national stage. He may be wary not to tarnish the status he has earned as an underdog candidate who vastly exceeded expectations. Better to leave them wanting more than wishing you were gone.

California Senator and Aspiring God Emperor Kamala Harris

5. Kamala Harris

California voters (including myself, circa 2016) were pissed that their influence on the election was diminished by Democratic Party rules. Not only did Californians have to wait until June for their primary — despite being the most populous state in the country — but they were burned again when the state’s voter turnout handed Clinton the popular vote only for her to lose anyway. Action was taken, and California was moved up in the queue for 2020’s primaries. This creates an advantage for California Senator Kamala Harris, who seems content to play the long game for this election cycle; not that she’s given any indication that the long game needs to played patiently.

Harris was the story of the first debate. She seemed to take the mantle of Biden’s executioner — dispensing of an old man who couldn’t hang with modern day progressivism. The media was eager for that narrative before Harris stepped into the spotlight. Her name seemed to fit all the ad lib blank spots pundits needed to craft a compelling story. She’s a freshman senator from a progressive state, an accomplished prosecutor for multiple decades, an attorney general for the second largest judicial system in the country, and comes from an immigrant family. She’s one of the most accomplished female politicians in the country with some amount of legislative, judicial and executive experience across her multi-decade career. Not to mention, she’s an effective debater who’s media savvy and politically pragmatic. She looked like the perfect foil to Biden during the first debate where she usurped Booker’s criticism of Biden and used her own identity to suggest Biden’s candidacy is inappropriate in the modern era.

But her time in the limelight revealed all the ugly criticisms hiding behind the curtain. Harris presented herself as an identity conscious progressive, but her history as a prosecutor is incompatible with that pitch. Tulsi Gabbard focused on some of Harris’ most dubious accomplishments, including jailing thousands of low-level drug offenders. I’m actually working on another article that goes through all of horrible things Harris has done, but a briefer version would include her smattering of copycat bills, her inauthenticity, her authoritarian policy suggestions, and that absurd student debt bill that’s earned widespread ridicule.

Even with those criticisms at hand, Harris has proven she can garner some support from voters and establishment Democrats, as well as maintain media attention throughout the debate phase of the election. With California so early in the primaries, it may be worth it for her to stick it out until her home state’s vote. Unlike other candidates, Harris doesn’t have another election to worry about, but she may want to take a moment to reflect on why she isn’t doing better in California-specific polling. It could be an indication that her controversial career as a prosecutor has created a “low ceiling” for her support, although it may take time to discern if that is truly the case.

Vermont Senator and Last Year’s Model Bernie Sanders

4. Bernie Sanders

One of the reasons this race is difficult to predict is because Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders doesn’t look like he has a clear path to the nomination or any intention of resigning to that reality. Analysis from FiveThirtyEight shows that roughly 25 percent of Sanders voters in 2016 never voted for Hillary Clinton (choosing to vote for Trump or third party candidates in the general election). This suggests a quarter of his base was motivated by opposing Clinton, rather than supporting Sanders. Off of this analysis, you can assume Sanders’ support — which again, wasn’t enough to win the nomination in 2016 — is already significantly diminished. On top of that, Sanders is in a field with more progressive candidates. No longer is he the sole option for ideas like Medicare for All or raising the minimum wage. Warren, Harris and even Buttigieg (to some extent) serve as conduits for those ideas as well.

Not that any of that matters, because Sanders has shown himself to be incredibly stubborn when it comes to folding to other people’s demands (need I recycle the fact he refused to concede the democratic nomination even after all the primaries concluded and he clearly lost?). His stubbornness in 2016 wasn’t just because he opposed Clinton’s campaign so adamantly, it’s been part of his personality for a long time. In May, the New York Times published a story about Sanders’ tenure as Mayor of Burlington. Local mayors tend to be tied up in mundane operational issues like road maintenance, property taxes or managing city recreational spaces. Mayor Sanders spent much of his time discussing foreign policy — specifically voicing his support for socialist regimes in Central and South America — he did this while Burlington residents came to public meetings to request street lights or right-hand turn lanes. He spoke about foreign policy so frequently, his own city council passed a resolution restricting council meetings to only discuss issues that directly related to city business. Sanders vetoed the resolution (one of the few times he used that power) and sent a lengthy message to the council repeating his talking points about foreign policy. This is not a man who responds well to being told what to do.

To his credit, Sanders had reason to believe he had a shot in 2016. His momentum was kept alive by a new surprise development every few weeks. He lost Iowa by only .2 percentage points, galvanizing his base into believing he could win the nomination and followed that up with a crushing victory in New Hampshire. Of course, Clinton swept him in several states for the following months, but then something would happen like his upset victory in Wisconsin that’d reset expectations and renew speculation on his chances.

Will the arithmetic of Sanders’ campaign change if he repeatedly loses primaries? For 2020, Iowa voters show a strong preference for Biden, followed by split support for Sanders and Warren. New Hampshire polls are more favorable to Sanders, but they’re just as favorable to Biden and Warren (and Harris). Sanders’ successfully capitalized on the identity of an oppositional candidate in 2016, but that doesn’t work as well when he’s in a three-way tie with two other oppositional candidates. It also doesn’t help that the establishment candidate (Biden) is tremendously more popular than his 2016 counterpart.

Sanders has the funding, voter base, and security to keep running as a factional presidential candidate for the rest of his life (whenever that may be). If he wants to parade around, fueled entirely by his own ego, he has no real reason to concede… unless he’s convinced his candidacy does a disservice to his own movement. To me, it appears that Warren has overtaken Sanders as the progressive darling of the party. She’s gained the reputation of a policy wonk (in a good way), she has establishment support, and her identity makes her a natural foil to Trump. Sanders maintains a multi-decade friendship with Warren, so it seems like if he’d be willing to concede to anyone — it would be her.

The fundamentals indicate Sanders’ support is diminished in this election cycle. Mostly because he is no longer running against Hillary Clinton, and because Warren and Harris provide options for progressive voters. Whether that’ll be enough to convince him to step aside is another question that can’t truly be answered until we arrive at that moment.

Former Vice President and Current BFF of Barack Obama Joe Biden

3. Joe Biden

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this piece (6,000 words ago), the majority of voters are concerned with “electability” when it comes to selecting the Democratic nominee. As the Former Vice President and heir-apparent to the most popular Democratic president in the past 60 years, Joe Biden seems like a natural fit for the majority of voters. Yet, even though 76 percent voters are concerned about electability, under 40 percent support Biden’s candidacy. What are those other 30 percent of voters thinking?

It may be worth considering that the Democratic Party has not had a referendum on its values since the rise of political engagement among millennials. Obama remains popular in his post-presidency across all generations, but was he truly representative of millennial voter preferences? Here’s an interesting data point: Obama is the only two-term President in the past 200 years of American history to receive fewer votes in his re-election (the other President was George Washington, who miraculously received more votes in the country’s first election ever then in his re-election). Was Obama’s re-election less successful because of tea party mobilization and continued economic woes, or was it the beginning of a tide shift in the Democratic base?

Biden — like Obama — is a classic Democrat, who supports liberal policies but can square his idealism with practicality. That approach was essential for Hillary Clinton, but Clinton turned out fewer millennial voters than Obama. Many veteran Democrats argue more left-leaning candidates have always lost their elections (Gore, Dukakis and Mondale), but that wisdom ignores the fact that millennials are significantly more liberal than prior generations. These are voters who not only support further left policies, but their entire community and network support further left policies. These are the same voters who turned out for Clinton and watched the country get handed over to Trump’s far-right campaign. To this generation, the centrists seem more impractical than the idealists.

So yes, over 70 percent of voters care about selecting a candidate who is “electable,” but the party is divided on what that means. In fact, some pundits have argued “electability” is historically a loaded term for “straight white male,” but that may be changing for younger generations who view it more as a candidate with bold ideas that can mobilize disenfranchised voters. An “electable” candidate for younger voters could look like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory over former Congressman Joe Crowley, which was primarily achieved by targeting citizens who had not voted in previous elections. Of course, that race was two democrats facing each other.

As the saying goes, “Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love,” and younger voters have little reason to fall in love with a centrist candidate even if the generic voter agrees with Biden’s policies. The party maintains skepticism of the progressive wing’s appeal, but who will the voters of Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg flock to after their first candidate drops out? We already know the answer to that question: their second-choice is Elizabeth Warren. If the Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy of appealing to progressives is valid, then we don’t truly know the “ceiling” of Warren’s support. Especially since she has framed herself as being a continuation of Obama’s idealism, which could attract moderate voters who remain content with Obama’s legacy, without sacrificing younger voters who want a more exciting candidate than a man who’s been in office for half a century.

If Biden’s two biggest strengths are a vague sense of “electability” and his proximity to Obama, do those strengths still hold if he’s facing another candidate with competitive polling, comparable policies to Obama’s most popular ideas, and the potential of creating a historic moment by becoming the first woman elected as President of the United States? I doubt it.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

2. Elizabeth Warren

You can keep scrolling to read my insane theory for an alternative top pick, but if you don’t want to subscribe to my propaganda then Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is effectively my prediction for the Democratic nominee.

Simply put, Warren has the most staying power of all the candidates. Her strong progressive base (she’s already competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire), support from establishment Democrats (third most diverse collection of endorsements behind Harris and Biden), and access to fundraising (third most, behind Sanders and Trump) will ensure she can stay in the race for a long time. As other progressive candidates drop out of the race, Warren is the most popular second-choice pick and she shares many of their donors. She’ll be in an excellent position to consolidate the field around her campaign.

On top of favorable fundamentals, Warren is an ideal candidate for today’s Democratic Party. She’s defeated a Republican incumbent (granted in a blue state), her time in the senate has been focused on the economy and health care reform (Americans’ two top issues), she’s one of the more popular senators in the country, and she was even a popular choice for president in 2016 before Clinton announced.

Warren has framed her campaign as a continuation of Obama’s idealism while other front runners (including Harris and Sanders) seem eager to criticize the most popular Democratic president in 60 years. This framing will satisfy Obama loyalists, while also appealing to the idealists of the party who may have some reservations about Obama’s moderate legacy. Even with that approach, she’s a strong contrast to the lofty idealism of Sanders that rarely affected policy. Her proposals are immensely detailed and she shows an understanding of newer problems that young voters are concerned about. Not to mention, she could recreate Obama’s 2008 historic election as the first woman to become President of the United States — but we said that about Clinton too.

There are a few criticisms of Warren waiting to be addressed. Her multi-decade identification with the Republican Party, her unproven views on foreign policy, and of course her Native American ancestry episode that Trump is keen to exploit. Fortunately for Warren, only one of these criticisms would ever be brought up in the Democratic primary: her prior identification as a Republican. However, considering Democrats want to appeal to Republicans, I can’t imagine this criticism will hold. In a general election, she may have to dedicate her time to expanding her foreign policy position or formulate a good line to deflect “Pocahontas” jokes, but luckily this article is only about the Democratic primary and not the general election :^).

I see her candidacy as the most solid of all the contenders, but I also personally hold Warren as my number two pick (just like many other Americans) so I could be biased. Of course, there is another candidate who could become the nominee…

Entrepreneur and Humanity’s Last Hope Andrew Yang

1. Andrew Yang

What chance does Entrepreneur Andrew Yang have for the Democratic nomination? Let’s start by reiterating the three main reasons a candidate would drop out of the race: size of their base, fundraising available, and concern for other elections.

In virtually every poll that includes his name, Yang has polled at a minimum of 1 percent. That number has shown a very minor trend upwards where he is now averaging at 2 to 3 percent in the past two months. In #YangGang circles, the most common testimonial is either 1) I’ve never voted before but I support Andrew Yang or 2) I voted for Donald Trump but now I’m for Andrew Yang. This indicates Yang’s base is made up of disenfranchised voters and Republican voters, who are not at risk of being leeched by other candidates. Yang’s voters are turning out for him specifically. If he rises in the polls, he’s staying at that altitude (or rather, he has a “rising floor”).

Yang doesn’t have the impressive fundraising numbers of other front runner candidates, but he does have similar fundamentals to the most successful fundraising candidates. According to data pulled by the New York Times, Yang is just one of seven candidates who pulled donations from every state in the country. While some candidates have raised more money overall, they benefit from deep pockets in specific regions with very little support elsewhere (Booker, Klobuchar, Inslee, and Gillibrand). Yang also rivals Sanders in percentage of funds raised through small donors with both candidates sitting at 69.6 percent — beaten only by Castro and Williamson. These numbers suggest Yang has the interest of Americans across the country, even if they haven’t bought into his campaign’s viability just yet.

As for other elections? Take it from the man himself. He has no other position to run for and wants to see his campaign to the end.

The fundamentals look strong, but perhaps a more nebulous metric is Yang’s synthesis with the cultural consciousness. His focus on automation and artificial intelligence has captured the attention of Onion punchlines and memes alike. He maintains a policy to accept all media interviews possible, gaining the admiration of right-wing commentators, disengaged voters and progressive media. In interviews with traditional media, reporters seem genuinely fascinated by his platform and Yang has inspired hesitant excitement for his potential. So what’s holding everyone back?

At the beginning of this article (8,000 words ago), I said the 2020 Democratic Primary has a “first-mover” problem. Everyone is aware of the problem, but no one wants to take action first. Progressive Democrats are concerned Biden’s candidacy is too milquetoast to mobilize younger voters, but moderate Democrats are concerned progressivism will continue the party’s long history of throwing their weight behind candidates who campaign on unpopular policy positions.

The Atlantic noted after the second debate that the Democratic primary doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. With the exception of Warren’s consistent surge in the polls (which began before the debates), and O’Rourke’s decline into irrelevancy (also pre-dating the debates), there has been sparse movement with no progress. The front runners and longshots have stayed in exactly the same place. Progressivism can’t gain majority support and centrism doesn’t have a leader. What could resolve the deadlock?

Politico asked a similar question in May: Is Andrew Yang for Real?

Of Yang’s three main policies (Universal Basic Income, Medicare for All and the American Scorecard), all three of them correspond to Americans’ top priorities for 2019. It’s worth noting that the economy was still the number one concern in 2016 and voters believed Trump would address economic concerns more so than Clinton. Yang’s proposal for a universal basic income sounds like science fiction to the average American, but to the average science fiction reader it’s a relatively uncontroversial proposal. In fact, it’s already been trialed in countries like Canada and Finland (both trials were shut down by conservative opposition). Even before Yang’s candidacy emerged, nearly half of Americans supported the idea of universal basic income and after the second debate he received accolades from mainstream media and more widespread internet communities tired of the political process.

If Andrew Yang is for real, he’d have an unprecedented potential electorate for a Democratic candidate. His economic proposals would capture the attention of moderate rural democrats displaced by automation, and mobilize progressives who want to rebalance the economy to assist the middle class. You could argue Yang’s proposals are more left-leaning than the average Democratic nominee, but again young millennials are more liberal than ever before. If Yang captured the Democratic nomination he would be entering the general election with a Republican party that has actively disenfranchised its most loyal supporters. Yang has already proven his appeal among conservatives, which means he’s likely more “electable” than “safer” choices like Biden or Warren. A political platform that addresses the electorate’s top concerns with bipartisan support sounds pretty “real” to me.

The effectiveness of Yang’s platform is the only question left unanswered. It’s true that Yang’s candidacy and his policies are both untested political entities. He has never run for office before and universal basic income hasn’t been exposed to months of debate and oppositional propaganda. Some mainstream media and other candidates have dipped their toes in dismissing Yang’s flagship proposal, but there’s no clear data about the policy’s popularity in a post-Yang world. There’s also no clear indication of how universal basic income would affect the country’s economy (outside of a hypothetical study from the Roosevelt Institute with mixed conclusions). Yang certainly gives a great pitch and his website extensively answers some of the most obvious questions, but no one will truly know until it’s tried. If America were to adopt Yang’s Freedom Dividend, it’d be the largest implementation of the policy in history by several magnitudes and one of the greatest leaps of faith in human history.

I won’t dismiss the gravity of the situation. Yang’s platform could very well bankrupt the country. It could throw our society into a state that has more in common with depression-era Germany than modern day America, and serve as the gateway to the dystopian future we all fear. Then again, if Yang’s predictions about automation turn out true, the country could already be on the road to devastation. We’re ten years away from the elimination of 43 percent of jobs and no plan to structure society when half the population can’t work. If Yang is right, we’ll start to see that dark future beginning with the next recession, which is due any day now. The clearer that vision becomes, the more likely voters may consider his candidacy as the real deal.

Supporting Yang’s solutions for the incoming robot apocalypse might seem insane now, but that may be a good thing. Because if we get to the point where our country needs a savior, it may already be too late.

Categories
Books

Book Log: Ubik shows Dick at his best and worst

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

My first brush with Philip K. Dick was while plunging into alternative history Wikipedia and discovering the premise of The Man in the High Castle — a novel depicting the world if the Axis won World War II. The book follows a string of characters from different background, each illustrating the differences in this alternate timeline. Man in the High Castle’s pacing moved very quickly, jumping from character to character, while putting forth thought-provoking ideas about identity. It proved Dick’s imagination and musings could support an entire novel. It also showed his desire to innovate on writing through unreliable narration. Late into Man in the High Castle, a point-of-view character is drugged and their narration becomes increasingly incomprehensible as the drugs take hold. The gibberish goes on for roughly a paragraph before Dick clues the reader into what’s going on. It was a neat gimmick that showed Dick was just as willing to experiment with the medium of writing itself, as well as the themes and concepts traditionally covered in fiction released between 1950 and 1980. It was enough to convince me to pursue his other works — it also helps his name is ubiquitous with modern day science fiction, as the man who inspired Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly.

I read Man in the High Castle in 2015 and have since also read A Scanner Darkly. Reading both novels showed illuminated the trajectory of Dick’s career. Fittingly, one book was released toward the beginning of his career and serenely synthesized highly conceptual ideas with great story-telling (Man in the High Castle), while the other was released toward the end of his career and fumbled with dull philosophical babbling. (A Scanner Darkly).  I went into Ubik knowing it was listed as one of the Top 100 American Novels, so likely more approachable and tightly written than Dick’s more experimental works. Other than that information, I wanted to enjoy the experience of discovering where the story would go.

grayscale pkd photo
PKD has earned his place as one of the hallmark names in science fiction.

How was it?

Ubik was written in 1966 and published in 1969 — which in the grand scheme of Dick’s life sits right in the middle of his career. At this point, he was already a heavy user of psychedelic drugs which exacerbated the themes of identity and paranoia that persist throughout all of his writing. The influence of psychedelics is clear in the first couple pages of Ubik.

The story begins with Glenn Runciter — the CEO of Runciter Associates. The company hires telepaths to ensure privacy for its clients since the modern world has run amok with precogs who can read minds and influence individuals’ decision-making. Runciter’s company experiences a crisis and decides to seek out the advice of his wife — Ella Runciter — who passed away a number of years ago and now exists in “half-life,” where her body is cryogenically frozen but her consciousness can be contacted and communicated with for short periods of time. Dick’s books have a tendency to dive right into high concept ideas, and Ubik is no different. The first page drops six or seven terms that are undefined and unknowable without a healthy background in other science fiction stories (for example: a “precog” is easy to understand for anyone who saw Minority Report, but indecipherable to anyone else). Dick is never one to hold his reader’s hand, and I got the impression it’s because he wants to B-line to the surreal ideas in his head, rather than slowly immerse a reader in the world he’s crafted. For example, the second chapter of Ubik has Runciter attempting to discuss a corporation crisis with his cryogenically frozen wife, but she can’t help but get distracted by haunting existential dread:

“‘Aw, Christ,’ [Runciter] said, ‘everything’s going to pieces, the whole organization. That’s why I’m here; you wanted to be brought into major policy-planning decisions, and god knows we need that now, a new policy, or anyhow a revamping of our scout structure.’

‘I was dreaming,’ Ella said. ‘I saw a smoky red light, a horrible light. And yet I kept moving toward it. I couldn’t stop it.’

‘Yeah,’ Runciter said, nodding. ‘The Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, tells about that. You remember reading that; the doctors made you read it when you were —‘ He hesitated. ‘Dying,’ he said then.

‘The smoky red light is bad, isn’t it?’ Ella said.

‘Yeah, you want to avoid it.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Listen, Ella, we’ve got problems. You feel up to hearing about it?’”

Ubik, Philip K. Dick, pg. 12.

If this isn’t ridiculous enough on its own, Runciter’s conversation with his wife is eventually interrupted by another half-life child named Jory accidentally phasing into their conversation — sort of a metaphysical version of bad reception. I found myself laughing at the absurdity of this scene, but it isn’t clear if Dick wrote this passage with humorous intent. His writing maintains a weight to it, reminding unsuspecting readers Dick could deliver a gut punch at any moment. For example, shortly after Runciter’s failed connection with his wife, he meets a young femme fatale named Pat. Her long black hair, confident strut and vaguely manipulative conversational style invokes a memory of his. Dick then ends the encounter by hitting readers with this line:

“’I have a twenty-year-old wife in cold-pac,’ [Runciter] said to Joe and Pat. ‘A beautiful woman who when she talks to me gets pushed out of the way by some weird kid named Jory, and then I’m talking to him, not her. Ella frozen in half-life and dimming out — and that battered crone for my secretary that I have to look at all day long.’ He gazed at the girl Pat, with her black, strong hair and her sensual mouth; in him he felt unhappy cravings arise, cloudy and pointless wants that led nowhere, that returned to him empty, as in the completion of a geometrically perfect circle.”

Ubik, Philip K. Dick, pg. 48.

It is lines like this one that make Dick’s work worthwhile. When I read a book — or consume any art — my only desire is to feel affected by its contents. The early chapters of Ubik delivered on that criteria and propelled my interest in the story. I read the first 100 pages of this 220-page book within two days. Ubik doles out a stream of thoughtful ponderings, interesting characters and bizarre situations. It makes the first half of the book breeze by, but it soon departs from somber metaphysical dilemmas and becomes more of an adventure story following an everyman named Joe Chip. Chip is introduced early-on, and tags along a kind of telepathic A-Team for a mission, but something dramatic happens and we follow Chip as he navigates a world that seems to be moving backwards in time.

There’s technically a plot explanation for Chip’s journey through time, but it’s an excuse for Dick to articulate his thoughts on heaven and hell or the space that exists between those two points of finality. This section becomes quite dull simply because Chip isn’t that interesting of a character. Replacing the reader’s POV from Runciter to Chip may have made it easier to philosophize more generically, but without an anchor to the stakes in the story it reads like a collection of odd occurrences with no real point. There’s not a lot of novelty to a random dude experiencing strange circumstances for a hundred pages. It also doesn’t help that “flowing backwards in time” seems to miraculously come to a halt during the 1950s — an era Dick is intimately familiar with since he experienced it throughout adolescence. When time stops moving, the plot stops as well. Pruning Ubik of all the science fiction elements may make posing existential questions easier, but it also removes what made the novel interesting in the first place.

colored pkd collection
PKD’s other works are more renowned and enjoyable than Ubik.

Final Thoughts

In the context of the modern day, and with Dick’s full catalog available to us all, it’s hard to imagine why Ubik would be recommended over any other novel from his extended works. Later novels, such as Flow My Tears the Policeman Said or A Scanner Darkly, explore concepts about identity more than Ubik and they’re a bit more experimental with their execution too. At 66,000 words, Ubik is an inoffensive introduction to Dick’s style. It shows his strengths at combining complex ideas and implementing them with unique characters, but it also reveals his weakness in staying power. It’s as if he gets deeply involved with a new idea, pursues it quickly, but rather than advance it further he comes up with a new one to take its place — only to abandon that idea just as quickly. With this interpretive lens applied, it makes sense why Dick was known for writing many short stories and novels in quick succession and nearly all of them are relatively short. Before he’s finished one project he’s off to the next. With that criticism in mind, it’s impossible to deny the novelty of Dick’s imagination and ability to merge telepaths, existentialism and corporate greed into a compact novel, but Ubik is more of a sample of Dick’s potential than an example of his best work.

3/5

Categories
Books

Book Log: You Know You Want This reveals more than it intends

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Much like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by Roupenian’s Cat Person when it appeared in the New Yorker. Although I was immensely frustrated by the story and the actions of the main character, I felt Roupenian had tapped into a cultural moment better than anyone else who had tried. It seemed she had something to say and it would be worth it to hear her message. This short story collection shows the promise Roupenian has to craft a compelling message about the darkness of our own desires, but largely I found these stories to be a mix of adolescent drama and egomania mental illness.

How was it?

Let’s start with the good. The last batch of stories in this collection show Roupenian at her most promising. Unsurprisingly, these stories are also the ones that are highlighted by reviews and the jacket cover. These stories give life to the mental disturbances in our own mind by manifesting them as real life terrors, more frequently of the body-horror variety.

  • Scarred is a short tale about a woman summoning a naked man who acts as a cadaver as she cuts him for blood and other ingredients as she betters herself with more black magic.
  • The Matchbox Sign follows a couple where the woman develops strange “insect bites” that spread across her body, while doctors suggest they’re self-inflicted.
  • Death Wish is a first-person recount of a strange sexual fetish.
  • Biter tells the story of Ellie and her desire to bite people for gratification.
Death Wish

There are obvious themes across these four stories. Our desires — specifically sexual fetishes — can corrupt the world around us. They can be a source of self-fulfillment and gratification, while degrading our so-called loved ones. Each of these stories has a different take on how we may respond to being targeted as the supplier of our sick fantasies. Some of us can’t handle it and stay forever disturbed (Death Wish) while others may accept our demented side (Matchbox Sign). Roupenian has tapped into the vulnerability our culture feels when discussing our sexuality and how it exists in the #MeToo era. Although these are the most promising stores in the collection, they often end short of their potential. Quickly wrapping up anticlimactically when it feels like it was just getting good. These later stories show Roupenian is close to synthesizing her ideas into something really quite novel.

However, the rest of the book could convincingly make the case that Roupenian needs to address her own demented desires before further plunging herself into fiction writing. I am a strong believer of separating art from the artist, but virtually every character — their motivations and worldview — appear to be see-through stand-ins for Roupenian herself. Specifically, the thoughts and desires of someone who suffers from intense narcissism. This is evident by the fact that all of her stories maintain this revolting obsession with reputation sabotage, sadism and egomania. Let’s look at some of these stories:

Bad Boy — where a couple discovers their fetish for teasing their friend and using him for sex.

“It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.” (pg. 4)

“As soon as he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist.” (pg. 8)

Look at Your Game, Girl — a young girl recalls the time when a strange beach-bum’s attention to her could’ve turned her into a nationally recognized name.

“After she went away to college, Jessica came to believe that this early impulse to link her own experience to Polly’s had arisen from a childish self-absorption, the impulse to see herself as the center point around which the rest of the universe revolved.” (pg. 25)

Scarred

The Night Runner — an earnest Peace Corps teacher is pushed to desperation due to a class of girls terrorizing him.

“She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, she while strolled back to her desk amidst cheers.” (pg. 46)

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone — a princess seeking suitors decides a mirror that reflects her image, a bucket that echoes her voice, and a thigh bone that replicates her touch, is the “mate” she chooses to spend her life with.

“You love what you love, the king said. If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it. I love you, and your children love you, and the people of the kingdom love you, and we don’t want to see you suffer any longer.” (pg. 71)

Cat Person — a young woman has a complicated relationship with a man, but ultimately finds herself most attracted to him when he makes her life herself.

“…from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.” (pg. 83)

“She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him.” (pg. 85)

“She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” (pg. 86)

“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” (pg. 89)

Once again, I believe in separating art from the artist. A writer’s ability to create a viciously immoral character does not imply they themselves are viciously immoral, but these disturbing views are not exclusive to one character, or one story, they exist across all of the stories. Roupenian herself has said that reading her stories is a window into her worldview:

Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page.

Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker

With this in mind, it’s obvious Roupenian has a sustained interest in the concept of extreme idolization, to the point where a person is willing to self-harm to please the target of their affection. This theme is present in virtually every character across the many stories within the collection. On its own, this fascination with a dismal personality flaw might be interesting enough to dedicate a dozen short stories to, but what makes You Know You Want This so loathsome to read is how it celebrates the narcissism of its protagonists.

Bad Boy’s protagonists are the tormentors. Look At Your Game, Girl reads like a missed-connections tragedy. The Night Runner routinely emasculates and degrades a person who’s shown to be earnest. The queen/princess of Mirror/Bucket/Thigh Bone is relished for her selfishness. Cat Person’s Margot is hailed as a survivor of toxic masculinity despite being the author of the story’s emotional terrorism.

The Good Guy

These characterizations of immoral, awful people prevailing in their own terribleness is infuriating to read. As if they were the modern-era equivalent of a teenage boy writing about a muscular anti-hero manipulating women into sex. The majority of You Know You Want This reads like a childish power fantasy. One where Roupenian and her subjects acknowledge their immorality and get rewarded for it.

My only hope is that Roupenian is playing a different role than the one she’s been assigned. Viewed as a voice for women in #MeToo, Roupenian seems more interested in examining the extent of awfulness humans are allowed. In what situations do we forgive our tormentors? What becomes our breaking point when we’ve already submitted ourselves to abuse? These are fascinating questions that seem to be on Roupenian’s mind. Most notable in in Biter, where the protagonist’s desire to bite a man is portrayed as deranged, but circumstances arise so that she’s seen as a hero. It’s an interesting conclusion that made me reconsider the rest of the book’s themes.

Final thoughts

I have no idea how this short story collection came about. These very well could be stories Roupenian wrote over a decade ago, before she crafted her style, or understood the target of her obsessions. Maybe she even realized her earlier stories were devoid of morals and has learned to tune them to a wider audience. Maybe that is why the last batch of stories are significant improvements from the ones that precede them. This is all I can hope for.

I won’t diminish Roupenian’s potential. There clearly is some talent behind her writing. However, as a standalone work, You Know You Want This reads like the immature journal doodlings of an egomaniacal prom queen.

1/5

Categories
Books

Book Log: Sapkowski finds the Witcherverse’s potential with Sword of Destiny

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

As mentioned in a previous log, I’m in the middle of rereading the entirety of The Witcher books after I lost track of the plot in the third novel — Baptism of Fire.

Sword of Destiny is the second short-story compilation before the true story of The Witcher series begins. While technically these short stories are “separate” from the larger storyline that begins with Blood of Elves, the information from these short stories are utilized in the novels in meaningful ways. For example, Geralt is introduced to Ciri — a future main character — in one of the latter stories of Sword of Destiny. This introduction may not be vital to understanding their relationship but it certainly helps. Considering I dropped off the novels because I felt lost by the revolving-door of characters and conflicts, I wanted to reread these short stories more diligently. Refreshing my memory of what has happened could better prepare me for what events were coming up.

How was it?

I remember really enjoying Sword of Destiny, far more than I anticipated, and even more so than The Last Wish. The author — Andrzej Sapkowski — has clearly set-up what journey he wants his characters to take and as a result the stories in Sword of Destiny feel cohesive with one another. Whereas The Last Wish was a string of subverting fantasy tropes, Sword of Destiny feels like it’s about something. Specifically, Geralt’s philosophy on where he lies in the world’s conflicts, his relationship with Yennefer, and his views on fate.

The Bounds of Reason

The Bounds of Reason is the first story in this collection and may very well be one of the tightest introductions in a short-story compilation. A side character named Threejacks is introduced and frames the reader’s interpretation of the Witcherverse by asking Geralt if he sides more with the forever-conflicting concepts of chaos and order. Threejacks suggests Geralt is one the side of order, because monsters are on the side of chaos, and Geralt kills monsters professionally. However, Geralt counters that a dragon is most certainly on the side of chaos, but witchers don’t kill dragons. This conversation becomes far more complex as the events of the Bounds of Reason unfold and we learn more about Threejacks, as well as what Geralt is thinking at this point in time.  

Bounds of Reason introduces a slew of side characters in the form of various mercenaries, all vying for reward money for a particular contract. These characters allow Sapkowski to reintroduce various parts of the world — the ruthlessly violent professionals, the impractical idealists, the snooty bourgeois, the chaotic monsters, and the common man who’s crushed by each of those groups. The interplay between these groups dumps the reader into the Witcherverse’s shades of gray, while anchoring it all to Geralt’s story and his various friends. In this case, Dandelion and Yennefer. Every one of these characters serves a plot purpose and there is a string of payoffs in the final chapter that provide an immensely satisfying conclusion. It’s practically a perfect story.

A Shard of Ice

Bounds of Reason is followed-up by A Shard of Ice, a story that focuses on Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer and establishes Sword of Destiny’s willingness to tell tales outside of traditional fantasy quests. A Shard of Ice reveals Geralt and Yennefer have been engaged in an on-again-off-again complicated relationship and in that time Yennefer has reconnected with a former lover — a sorcerer named Istredd. Geralt and Istredd become aware of one another and Yennefer’s desire to reduce her number of lovers, pitting them against each other.

A Shard of Ice proves to be a surprisingly modern story, considering it was written in the mid 90s. The dynamic between the three characters is easily relatable to anyone entrenched in the hellscape of modern dating where there is a silent agreement every romantic engagement is deemed “casual,” unless commitment is explicitly stated. A familiar dynamic emerges where all parties believe they were fine with the noncommittal nature of a relationship, but the presence of competition makes them realize they care about it more than they realized, forcing them to rush for a resolution while stomaching emotional pain. This is a good pitch for a story, but a lot of Sapkowski’s writing devolves into this infuriating vagueness in pursuit of being “deep” that can get very frustrating. Specifically, Yennefer tells of a story of an “ice queen” as a metaphor for herself. It starts off coherent enough, but as Geralt throws in his own metaphor and the two intermingle, it becomes less clear what each character is trying to say — or what Sapkowski is trying to convey.

Still, this story is one of the only insights we get into Geralt and Yennefer’s feelings for one another. It’s also one of the few stories that lacks any physical combat or battle of some sort. It’s entirely focused on the characters and their conflict. It shows that their personalities are strong enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the diversity of Sapkowski’s writing ability. It shows where the Witcher stories could go, and sets up the theme of the rest of the book.

Eternal Flame

Eternal Flame is likely the most unique story in the collection simply because it barely follows Geralt at all. Centered around a dwarf named Dainty Biberveldt who’s had his identity stolen by a doppler, this story builds the world of the Witcherverse’s greater economy and various institutions. We get introduced to the city of Novigard — the only worthwhile metropolis mentioned in the entire series — as well as the religious cult of the Eternal Flame, the legal system of local cities, the dwarves’ guild, bankers’ guild and how a market economy is affected by the constant waring of feudal states.

This is one of those stories where fans can reread endlessly to infer additional lore details about the Witcherverse. We get exposed to many elements and sects of life that otherwise exist as background to the tales of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer. It’s a story that feels remarkably different from the other stories in the collection and solidifies Sword of Destiny’s point of proving the versatility of stories told in the Witcherverse.

A Little Sacrifice

A Little Sacrifice is a low-key, low-stakes, story for Geralt, but it may be my favorite story in the entire series. Geralt takes on a contract to assist a local lord woo a mermaid into marriage, and while doing so he spends time with Dandelion and his longtime friend/fellow musician, Essi “Little Eye” Daven. Geralt and Essi get engaged in the equivalent of a “summer fling,” which forces Geralt to confront his feelings for Yennefer. There’s an obvious theme between Geralt’s fling, and his mission to force an unnatural relationship into success, but they’re surprisingly understated.

A Little Sacrifice feels like a novelty episode of your favorite TV show. There’s no real conflict in the story; it’s pitched as a string of summer days with friends spending time with one another. It’s maybe the only story where you feel a sense of peace and joy in its events. This tone, combined with the subject material of love and regret, creates an immensely melancholy atmosphere. You can feel the impermanence of happiness existing in the story’s pages. Even though this is one of the longer stories in the Witcherverse, I personally felt like I didn’t want it to end. Essi is an incredibly likable character and we see Geralt at his most vulnerable. The final paragraphs of A Little Sacrifice are heart-crushing, and easily one of Sapkowski’s finest moments.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny’s title-story is significant for its introduction of Cirilla “Ciri” Fiona to the series, but otherwise is the most insignificant story. Geralt ventures through the forest and comes across Elven territory where he finds a mousy young Ciri. He attempts to aid her through the forest, but we’re introduced to the “dryads” of the forest. Psuedo-elves who were human children, straying too far into the forest, and are subsequently captured and indoctrinated into dryad life. Ciri is one such child. Though Geralt tries to intervene with her fate, it becomes clear that he must leave her behind. There are many macro-plot lines introduced in this chapter, such as Nilfgaard’s war, elder blood, elven prophecies, magic and the relationship between various realms like Cintra and neighboring nations, but the drama of this story is lackluster. Sapkowski relies heavily on vague metaphors about a “sword of destiny” that “cuts two ways,” but it’s not clear what this comparison is meant to convey. It also doesn’t help that Sword of Destiny ends anticlimactically, leading directly into the next story.

Geralt shooting fire

Something More

Something More, is the final short story for the collection and launches Geralt onto the journey that will be told for the remaining six novels. After assisting a tradesman on the side of the road, Geralt suffers a near-fatal injury, causing him to drift in and out of consciousness as he recalls previous memories. Primarily, his promise made in The Last Wish’s Matter of Price, where he said he would return in six years to collect on his law of surprise — a barter where witchers offer help, in exchange for “something at home that you don’t suspect,” often a child. In this instance, Geralt goes to the country of Cintra to collect on this law of surprise, but after philosophizing with Queen Calanthe for a bit he decides it isn’t worth the trouble. Leaving Cintra empty-handed, Geralt decides to help the tradesman referenced in the beginning of the story.

Along with the memory of his time in Cintra, Geralt recalls one of his prior meetings with Yennefer, and partly hallucinates an interaction with his biological mother. These both provide a tied knot for two dangling threads left by the series so far: What’s Geralt’s backstory? And where is his relationship with Yennefer going? The former is explicitly concluded and the latter is framed as a never-ending conflict in Geralt’s life. While it’s nice for Sapkowski to clearly reiterate his intentions for the main character, these interactions feel a little stale. I’ve never desired an answer to Geralt’s lineage, so the mother scene feels out-of-place. Additionally, Yennefer has been a constant presence within the book so far, so to emphasize her importance once again seems repetitive.

Finally, the crux of this story is centered around the vaguely fatalist “law of surprise” and the complicated lineage politics of Cintra — a lesser-nation in the context of the world’s greater geopolitics. It’s easy to get lost in the needlessly confusing threads spewed across this story. The multiple flashbacks and reintroduction of old characters makes it difficult to know where the story is going, what it’s trying to accomplish, or what we should be paying attention to. All of these thoughts swirl together until it abruptly reveals Geralt’s reward for the law of surprise: Ciri, effectively binding each other by fate, or as the book states — something more.

Final Thoughts

Taken as a whole Sword of Destiny leaves a powerful impact. The first four stories are so phenomenally told and wonderfully unique, it creates a lot of excitement for the prospect of a full-fledged novel in the Witchverse. However, the final two chapters show how Sapkowski can sometimes get lost in the various themes and characters interacting with one another to disappointing results. Sword of Destiny simultaneously shows how the characters are strong enough to support a story on their own, while also reminding readers of Sapkowski’s flawed desire to keep adding more ingredients to a formula that’s fine on its own.

Although it may end on an indication of things to come, Sword of Destiny is still one of the best books I’ve read. It’s surprisingly modern and dense with interpretations. It’s the book I remember whenever the novels slow in pace, because I know the slog will be worth it if Sapkowski can recapture what he accomplished in this series of stories.

5/5

Categories
Books Politics

Book Log: The Coddling of the American Mind

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

In 2015, I read Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty. At the time, it seemed like our country was at the height of on-campus hysteria and reading that book gave me an enormous peace of mind. For starters, it looked like the bulk of these problems were originating from the left — the portion of the spectrum I had identified with my entire life. If I disagreed with what was happening on the left, did that mean I belonged somewhere else? This thought led me to researching conservative ideologies which I quickly deduced were not representative of my views at all. I felt out of place. There was nowhere in this new dynamic where I was represented, but then I read Lukianoff’s book.

Lukianoff is a self-described lifelong Democrat who cherishes free-speech and other liberal ideals. These were views I aligned with. I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but at the time it was difficult to find anyone who agreed with view that wasn’t a right-wing lunatic. Lukianoff’s take was refreshing and gave me the insight I needed to make sense of the crazy world we were descending into. From Lukianoff, I was introduced to many other public intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt, co-author of Coddling and a researcher who did studies on political tribalism; Sam Harris, who I had cursory knowledge of but didn’t look into many of his views; Steven Pinker — and eventually more uniquely political-defined characters such as Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Jordan Peterson and Brett / Eric Weinstein. Reading Lukianoff’s book set me on a path to finding the voices I now consider the most valuable in our current moment.

Of course, 2015 was not the peak year of campus hysteria or whatever we want to call this strange time we’re living in. It’s not clear we’ve reached the peak. You could argue 2018 was the worst year yet, but 2019 has already started with a viral scandal about the media’s portrayal of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers and if they didn’t anything wrong or not. We’re clearly still in a time we don’t quite understand. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book that attempts to resolve some of the mysteries of how we got here.

Greg Lukianoff

How was it?

It’s interesting to read a book by two authors because you can pretty much tell when one section is written by one or the other. Lukianoff is an effective writer and makes every sentence meaningful. I tend to highlight key sentences or phrases that impact me and I had to stop myself from highlighting entire pages of this book. Of course, other sections are far more sparse of quality one-liners and take a bit to get to the point (my analysis is these sections were written by Haidt). In terms of pure readability, this is an engaging book on a topic that could’ve come across as dull. Although I have to say the introduction chapter has one of the dumbest framing gimmicks I’ve read in nonfiction.

In terms of information, I was a bit surprised the book’s thesis relied so heavily on other authors. Specifically, Nassim Taleb’s theory on anti-fragility is front and center for most of the book. Other authors and written works are pulled from Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids and Jean Twenge’s iGen. I suppose it’s worth saving the time by not rehashing what other experts have already concluded, but at times it felt in the dark on the full-scope of an explanation because I wasn’t well-read on the other sources of information the authors repeatedly pulled from.

Jonathan Haidt

Of course the book has a fair amount of its own analysis, especially in the “How Did We Get Here?” portion of the book. It makes a compelling case for how the issues born on campus actually came from a variety of sources that intermingled for this very specific catastrophe of free society. This isn’t a book that gives a simple answer for a complicated problem, there are many layers to the issue and each one is extracted and examined. The book doesn’t suggest the finger can be pointed at any one event or individual, this is an issue that came to life due to many influences and all of them must be addressed.

The end of the book concludes with ways to potentially address the problems and I thought this was one of the stronger sections of the book. For one, it helps to end a grim book on a point of optimism. It also helps that the solutions range from small-scope to large-scale and are all backed by data. Something as small as restricting kids’ time on smartphones is an easy life change to make, but others like incentivizing students to take a gap year after high school by altering college admissions to favor that behavior, show how institutional change could affect these outcomes as well. You finish the book feeling like there is a way out of this hole we’ve dug into.

Final Thoughts

I’ve followed the issue of campus hysteria pretty closely for five years, so a lot of this book was a rehash. It felt slow at times; mainly when I was in a section about an experience I still have fresh in my memory. Even with the repetitiveness, this book has macro-level analysis that isn’t always possible in the news cycle of individual events. The third and fourth parts of this book offer the reader an opportunity to step back and see the extent of the situation we find ourselves in as a country. These parts of the book are what made the reading experience worth it.

I can only imagine how much more rewarding this book would be in the hands of someone who had no knowledge of this issue, or maybe only heard about it on their periphery. This book acts as a great introduction for the unfamiliar and adds important insight to a problem others may be well aware of.

4/5

Categories
fiction

Fiction: In Flight

“I’ve been having a ‘me’ year,” Derek said, although it was closer to two years now since he had finally acknowledged the rampant unhappiness in his life and resolved only to commit to himself in all manners of life.

“I can tell, you look great!” Kelsey said. It was true. Derek’s “me” year provided many successes. He lost weight, earned a promotion at his job, traveled quite a bit (alone) and managed to finish War & Peace after maintaining an off-and-on-again relationship with the Russian tome for over a decade. The successes were nice, but hollow. He kept prolonging the me “year” and eventually discovered his isolation merely replaced one destructive coping mechanism with another.

“Thank you, it’s been good but I needed to come back,” Derek said, he wanted to reintegrate with his friend group and this annual New Year’s party was a good excuse. There were a few people he was hoping to see, but kept an open mind about who he’d reconnect with. Kelsey wasn’t exactly one of his closest friends, but she was incredibly inoffensive. She had the type of unabashed optimism that would be fitting for an animated Disney protagonist, but she was difficult to condemn without sullying yourself; you can’t really criticize a person’s optimism without announcing your own bastardly character.

“You should meet my friend Jill,” Kelsey said and motioned toward another end of the party. “You’d like her, she’s nice.”

They walked through the crowd of people illuminated by multi-colored lights and sparklers. Jill was positioned close to the speakers playing nostalgia-laden 80s tunes, but she had no difficulty projecting over the noise. In fact, she handled most of the conversation on her own. Jill was a 24-year-old veterinarian. She loved animals, dogs specifically, and coffee, and dogs, and astrology, and dogs. She brought one with her. His name was Rusty. They had the same sign (Scorpio). She’d hold him while she talked. Sometimes she’d put him down and use wild hand motions to accentuate the emotion in a story about herself, but then Rusty would come back over and shower her with attention until she picked him up again. She loved Rusty. Her love for animals was so immense she thought maybe she was truly from a different species of human — one that descended from dogs.

“You know, it’s like, those people that say men are from Mars and women are from Venus — right? Well I’m like from — somewhere else,” Jill said.

Derek felt a strong reaction to Jill, but likely not the kind Kelsey intended or Jill would’ve wanted. During his year of exile, he found he valued less and less in the world. Niceness was one of the causalities. It seemed like a character trait that could only be applied vaguely; for strangers with no actual personality. Jill seemed like a nice person. She liked things. She felt love for life. She wouldn’t harm anyone, and maybe that’s why he found her boring. For all of Jill’s niceness, he could only think how nice it’d be to push on her windpipe until she couldn’t talk about dogs ever again.

“Do you think you’d go to another planet,” he asked.

“Me?” Jill clarified without waiting for response “Oh, I mean. Totally. They’re sending those ships eventually, right? I mean, maybe I’ll find more of my people there… Would you go?” Jill opened her eyes wide and sucked on the straw leading to her fruity drink.

“I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint — you know because…” he searched for the rest of his thought across the room but felt his attention spiral out of control as the woman he hadn’t seen for nearly two years made her entrance to the party. She had silver hair now, apparently having had exhausted the rest of the rainbow. Derek remembered seeing her one last time in her apartment with blue hair, then a few days later announced to the world she was blonde. He knew then it was over.

Jill had taken advantage of Derek’s prolonged silence and continued musing about space-traveling dogs, but he didn’t care. His attention was focused on the silver-haired guest circling the room. He didn’t want to appear scared to look at her and miss an opportunity to acknowledge one another. It was already awkward enough with how they left things. He could tell she felt his presence; she was careful not to wander her gaze in his direction. His stomach turned as her irises danced around him. He felt annoyed knowing they might ignore each other for an indefinite amount of time. Couldn’t she get it over with and face him the way he envisioned in his head? In that exact moment she found his eyes, curled her lips into a smile, and approached.

“Hey you,” she said playfully. He anticipated an affectionate greeting but felt only the embrace of anxiety. “How’ve you been?”

“We were just talking about space travel,” Derek replied after a pause, he didn’t want to bring up the past. “Jill was saying whether she would go to another planet.”

“Totally,” Jill said, retrieving Rusty from the floor.

“How about you,” she asked. “Were you planning on leaving all this behind?”

Derek considered the thought. He had tried. For the past two years he had challenged every aspect of his life to see what would hold. Did he really like anything about his life or was he running on inertia? Nothing escaped his examination and much of it was eviscerated. His friends, his career, his hobbies, and much more was systematically reset. For a long time, this felt exhilarating. As if he had launched from a space probe, feeling the air rush past him as he got closer to unexplored territory that would reveal his true self, but as he descended faster downward he found the only surface waiting for him was rock bottom. Before he started his journey, he would’ve taken a trip to another planet, but now he feared the void he sought to resolve raged inside him still.

“I was saying before, I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint,” Derek began, searching around the room for the rest of his thought. “Because you’re going to be on another planet eventually, but first you have to live for two or three years on that spaceship with the all the same people every day.”

“Yeah, I’d probably just kill everyone on board,” she said dismissively. Derek’s face lit up.

“That’s what I was going to say!” Derek said with grin. “How can you miss the opportunity to be the first space serial killer?”

“Oh yeah, you’re in history forever if you do that,” she said with a smile. “You’d probably have a cult started in your name too.”

“’Mommy, why are there no astronauts anymore,’” Derek began mockingly. “’Well, honey, there was this one guy…’”

“With the way things are going now, you’d secure the extinction of our entire race, that’s like the most consequential thing you can do with your life” she said.

“Huh,” Jill said defeatedly. “I feel like being one of the first space colonists would be consequential enough on its own.”

“Nah, I’d rather be an intergalactic terrorist,” she said, stifling her laughter.

They laughed at the absurdity of their conversation until Jill used Rusty to excuse herself. Alone with one another, Derek could feel a familiar thrill as their cynical humor propelled them through taboos and the profane. Suddenly the void inside him seemed like an ally, guiding him toward the happiness he had sought. If he closed his eyes and focused he might’ve noticed the sound of air rushing by on his way down, but when he opened them again he could only see the reflection of his best self in the mirror of her approving gaze.

Categories
Politics

Crisis 2020: What Our Next President Needs to Acknowledge

We’re over a year away from the first primaries and almost two years away from election day, but with five high-profile politicians announcing their candidacy as America’s next president in the past week alone — it’s clear we’re full-swing into the 2020 election cycle. This isn’t going to be a fun election. It’ll be as grueling of an exorcism on our country’s values as the last one. It will feel like torture, but it will be necessary torture. There are big questions we have to resolve about our country’s future. Along the way it will become very easy to get lost in the day-to-day horror show, so I wanted to outline my personal beliefs and what I’ll be looking for in our next president.

I want to stress that this election is the second part of a once-in-a-lifetime event. As The Atlantic’s David Frum said: America’s politics were frozen from 1990 to 2015, evident by the fact that the main issues on opposite sides of the era were exactly the same: health care, wars in the middle east, Russia, taxes on the rich and ultra-partisanship. If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that the public was desperate to shatter the ice. We’re still picking up the pieces from that decision. It’s clear the majority of people are not happy with our current state of affairs but it is just as true that many people do not want to go back to the past. We all want to go somewhere different. Where that destination may be lies in the candidates for this election. This isn’t simply the rejection of our current president, it’s deciding the future of our political parties for the next generation.

Below are some musings about what I think are the two most important things facing our country.

picture of Warren and Clinton
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren became popular as the progressive darling of the party, but many other politicians have risen alongside her.

The Economy and a post-work society

Let’s talk about robots. Everyone knows that automation is coming. We see it at McDonalds’ self-serve kiosks or read about it when Amazon announces they’re investing in drone technology to handle deliveries. Automation will be a great thing for many reasons. The jobs that are getting automated are careers no one wants. No one’s life purpose is discovered making change as a cashier or troubleshooting tech support over the phone. We’re happy to give these jobs over to robots, but the problem with automation comes from how our system is designed. America was founded on the prospect of receiving the fruits of one’s labor — but what does the world look like when you don’t have to work?

Right now, we only know what happens if you can’t work and it doesn’t look good.

In traditional capitalist market economy, they say when one market goes defunct, another one will take its place. Where there is a void in the market, a smart entrepreneur can cater to the market’s needs and make a living out of it. This is true for individuals as well. If your job is no longer viable, you’re motivated to get a new one. Many skills can be retrained and reapplied to different industries and we all have an intrinsic desire to survive. This is what many economists say will happen with the automation revolution. Unfortunately for anyone paying attention, we know this is not the case, because we already have a test case for what happens when an industry disappears.

Between 2000 and 2009, America lost five million manufacturing jobs. There is a dispute on whether these jobs were sent overseas or automated by robots, but the fact remains that these jobs are never coming back. In the wake of their disappearance, our country now had five million unemployed workers with relatively dexterous skills and decades of experience. Market economists would tell you these workers had a good chance of retraining for another job, but that is not what happened. The majority of displaced manufacturing workers were unemployed for over a year and then eventually stopped looking, leaving the workforce. Some applied to work retraining programs which proved to have an effectiveness of zero to 33 percent.

picture of Yang
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is a long-shot candidate running on the platform of Universal Basic Income to compensate for shifts automation will make to the American economy.

What are all those workers doing if they’re not paying for their cost of living? The government is paying for it. Starting in 2000, more Americans started filing for disability insurance. The increase in disability benefits focused in states hit hardest by manufacturing losses, such as Michigan. Of course, disability wasn’t meant to act as a replacement for work and it wasn’t meant to balloon in size over a short amount of time (the number of Americans on disability doubled between 1980 and 2005). This isn’t to say that these workers “gave up” on finding a job and now belong in an underclass of Americans who rely on entitlements. They spent years looking for a job, but couldn’t find one. When desperation finally hit, they turned to government assistance. Who can blame them?  

Disability saved many manufacturing workers from financial ruin, but that option will not be available for the other industries that get displaced. America’s disability insurance was predicted to run out by 2028, due to the massive increase of recipients. The fund was merged with social security to prolong its financial sustainability. Social security is having its own fiscal problems though — that fund is expected to run out by 2034.

Manufacturing was one industry, but in the next decade we will see many more disappear from the market. AI experts say that any job that’s considered “routine” can be automated. Regardless of complexity, if a task is performed the same way every time, a computer can learn how to do it. The Federal Reserve has classified around 58 million jobs as “routine,” and therefore at risk of being automated. This includes the industries of retail, food service, call center support and trucking driving. These also happen to be the four most popular industries in the United States.

picture of Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden is known as a policy-hound, and could provide some insight on how to resolve America’s economic problems.

Truck driving illuminates how dire this situation will become. The average truck driver is a 49-year-old male, with a high school diploma and no significant family. There are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the United States. It’s the most popular profession in 29 states. What’s going to happen to these truck drivers when they can’t get a job? What do you think millions of 49-year-old single men would do if pushed to desperation? The alternatives to disability insurance are not fun to consider.

While all this is going on, we have companies like Amazon and Apple announcing trillion-dollar valuations and market experts claiming the United States’ economy is better now than ever before. There is clearly a disconnect between these two Americas that cannot be ignored. We’re in the middle of redefining our country’s relationship with work and there are few suggestions to how we’ll navigate this reality. One thing is certain: our current system will collapse. It will begin to collapse during the next recession (which is forecasted any day now). Our country needs a leader who understands the breadth of this issue and has an ambitious solution for it.

When it comes to viable presidential candidates, this issue eliminates anyone who appears tone deaf to the extent of our economic crisis. This is a bigger problem than a $15 minimum wage or tax cuts for the rich can solve. We need big ideas because we can’t afford anything less. I’m more willing to consider a zany idea that appears to have the reach we need, over a more mainstream idea that clearly will not work.

picture of Gillibrand
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is known for being a skilled politician and effective policymaker, but her call for Senator Al Franken to step down rubbed some Wall Street campaign financers the wrong way — potentially crippling her financial position in a crowded field.

Education and the American purpose

It’s often debated whether school is meant to prepare students for a career or for life but it’s clear that the American education system does neither. A High School diploma has become so ubiquitous and devalued by programs like No Child Left Behind that it’s led to the necessity for post-secondary private education for students to stay competitive in the job market. Of course, private higher education has become just as meaningless as a High School diploma, all the while burdening students with oppressive debt that prevents them from entering the workforce sooner and suppresses entrepreneurial endeavors that are necessary to maintain a free marketplace.

We have a lot of economic reasons to fix our education system (and I’m intrigued by ideas such as bailing out student debt, or at least making loan payments interest free) but I believe our schools can resolve a different issue. Americans, and the western world, are facing an existential crisis of purpose. In the same way that our economy is being massively overhauled into a post-work society, our cultural identity has also massively shifted. The question of “what should I be doing with my life?” once had a few answers. Religious texts gave followers a path to leading a good life; American families stressed the importance of leaving a legacy and making the world better for the next generation; and some found their career to be worth dedicating to during the era of prosperous free-market capitalism. These options are not available to younger generations. American religiosity has plummeted (which has many good side effects, but this particular one could be marked as a negative), our country has a declining birth rate that’s barely equalized by mass immigration, and few have the option to pursue a career that’s guaranteed to employ them for their entire life.

Unsurprisingly, our country has become massively depressed and turned to destructive tendencies to fill the void. We’re in the midst of the biggest opioid epidemic in history. In 2015, drug overdoses took over car accidents as the most common form of death and has continued to reign number one ever since. Drug use is a way of ignoring our problems, but our solutions are just as damaging. I believe our political polarization is fueled by individuals desire to define their purpose with ideology. In many ways, politics has overtaken religion as our generation’s existential identity. This is why phrases like “everything is political” have become mainstream. Politics is the only lens people can view the world in a way that makes them care about it, so they inject it into everything, even where it does not belong.

picture of Harris
California Senator Kamala Harris has been an establishment candidate since her Senate race in 2016 where she was endorsed by Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama, despite running against another Democrat.

Last year’s The Coddling of the American Mind outlined how modern trends of polarization and increased anxiety could be addressed by restricting kids’ access to smartphones (two hours a day) and teaching them the basic tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of addressing cognitive distortions that lead to depression and anxiety — it doesn’t require medication or professional help and is hugely successful). I believe we can redesign our education to address the most important fact of reality: existence can be incredibly draining and you have to teach yourself to find enjoyment in life. There are small modifications that can be made to prevent catastrophe (such as CBT) but we also have to give students the means to discover their own purpose in life. Whether that’s creating a structure that contributes to society (business management, entrepreneurial pursuits, law), pursuing art (music, writing, visuals) or becoming a pillar of a community (parenthood, journalism, religious or volunteer work).

Giving students the resources to navigate the world is more important than frontloading them with entry-level information they might need. I’m sure any person can figure out the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell if they need that information to achieve their goal. That’s not the main concern for young people today. Most are totally lost. They either have no direction, or they’re so dejected by early failures they’re uncertain they can apply themselves to anything meaningful. This type of educational overhaul may not have many-short term gains, but it’ll address a generational issue that if we continue to ignore will lead to monumental problems in a decade or two.

I believe one of the biggest issues facing our generation is finding an answer to nihilism. It may be a stretch to call this section “education,” since the issue I’m describing exists far outside of standardized testing and the achievement gap, but this is the only institution in our society I believe can help with this goal. Nihilism is no longer the harmless, cringey, pop-philosophy name dropped in movies and metal albums. It has overtaken many Americans as their defining ideology. Anyone paying attention can see this. When one of the president’s biggest factions is a group of trolls who refer to a mythical “kekistan” where everything is a big joke; when you have a huge increase in mass shooters, all one-upping each other on who can cause the most devastation to reality; and when you have record breaking drug addiction and depression diagnoses, you’re dealing with a populace that doesn’t believe life matters. That belief has a consequential effect on the rest of us. Our country needs a leader who’s attuned to this existential problem and believes they can do something about it.

picture of Bloomberg
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a run in 2016 but decided against it.

Closing thoughts

These two issues may seem to exist on such a macro-level that it’d be impossible for any politician to fulfill them. That may be true. I can’t imagine a dream candidate will descend from the heavens and resolve two of the biggest problems in our country within one term. However, this criterion serves the purpose of identifying who will not be helpful for our country’s future.

With these issues in mind, any politician campaigning on restoring our country to pre-2015 is dead on arrival. This is why I am totally unenthusiastic about the prospect of Joe Biden running for president. This is equally true for any establishment Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker or Mitt Romney. I’m unconvinced any of them truly understand the crisis our generation sees and they’ll want to talk about the same old ideas we’ve heard for decades. The ideas from the past will not lead us into the future.

My focus on redefining our American purpose toward something productive outlines my total zero tolerance toward any politician willing to play the identity politics game. Our generation has a massive over-reliance on deriving purpose from politics. That reliance has devastated our public discourse, ruined friendships, polarized our nation and hampered all mechanisms to resolve these issues. Maybe this would be ok if it resulted in a better world or healthier people — but there is no indication of that. We have increasing numbers of depression and anxiety, and various polls say Americans believe the world is getting worse — not better — despite overwhelming statistical evidence proving we’re in the best point in history. Politics works best when people angrily demand change. This incentive to stay in a perpetual state of anger is what is making us miserable. I see any politician exploiting this existential insecurity as an opportunist who’s leading their followers down a destructive path of self-immolation.

picture of Sanders
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t ruled out running for President, but has suggested he’s deciding if there’s another candidate who could make a more viable run on the same platform.

Unfortunately, these two criterions knock out over half of the suspected democratic field. While I’m sure people like Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker have the best of intentions with the tactics they utilize to bring about change, I believe some of those tactics directly contribute to the bigger issues looming over everything else. At the same time, although I may loathe their candidacy throughout the democratic primaries, if my only other option is the guy who’s systematically destroyed our country’s institutions, the choice makes itself.

I’ve been talking about these two issues for the past few months with some friends and the overwhelming response is a common criticism. “Every generation thinks they’re at the brink of global catastrophe!” Before our current moment there was nuclear war in Russia, before that we had a corrupt President who was shooting anti-war protestors on campus, before that we had an assassinated president and racists preventing civil rights, before than we had a world war, which came just after a great depression which was preceded by the first world war. With all these moments in our past and the story of our perseverance over each of them, how could we remain so cynical about the future? Each generation thought this was the end, but it wasn’t. That’s true, but I believe it is because they believed it was the end that they got through it.

Our current political moment may not be the tipping point before devastation, but it sure feels that way, and if we want to prove that feeling is wrong, we should take it seriously and elect a leader who can add the problems of today to the history of adversities we’ve overcome.

Categories
Movies

Top Films of 2018

This year of film had a lot of incredible originality. I’ve never been more optimistic for the future of movies than right now. Here are some movies that show movies are still one of the best ways to tell stories and dissect the human experience:

Top2018-1

10. A Quiet Place

It’s pretty crazy that a movie like A Quiet Place was billed as a mainstream blockbuster. It wasn’t so long ago that filmmakers had preconceptions of what audiences would accept. At the top of that list has always been the necessity for dialogue. People believed audiences were too stupid to understand a plot through pictures. Those long sequences of no-talking were for artsy films by Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. A Quiet Place has proven audiences are up for a lot more than Hollywood may have expected. The film has a plot explanation for the lack of exposition and it commits to its own rule without circumventing it by having soundproofed rooms or an abundance of subtitled sign language [Bird Box call out goes here].

The bravery of A Quiet Place to commit to its own idea is enough for me to commend the film, but it helps that it’s actually a thrilling nail-biter as well. The sound design has an obvious contribution to the tension, but just as important is John Krasinki’s direction and decision to show the monsters sparingly (although we do get that paid off eventually). It’s also a film that takes narrative risks. The opening scene shows the lethality of the world and proves to the audience that this story could go anywhere — and indeed it does. A Quiet Place is more than an exciting thriller with an intriguing pitch, it’s a sign of how far mainstream audiences have come and how far filmmakers are now allowed to go.

Top2018-2

9. The Front Runner

I could probably write ten thousand words about my thoughts on The Front Runner, but most of them would be focused on politics and not the movie itself. To put it simply, the story of Gary Hart is essential to modern day America. It’s a tragic tale of an upstanding politician whose presidential aspirations are torched by shoddy reporting and a societal shift toward denying privacy to public figures. Hugh Jackman plays the lead role of Senator Gary Hart and he perfectly captures the mixture of anger and disgust Hart embodied when he was asked personal questions or suggestions he had been unfaithful to his wife. He was a reasonable man who reacted appropriately to inappropriate inquiries, but it wasn’t the reaction the public wanted and we all suffered as a result.

One of the reasons this story is so important — although it is never addressed in the film — is Hart has since been exonerated for this so-called “scandal.” A Republican strategist admitted on his deathbed that Gary Hart’s scandal was a set-up. How could such a shoe-string trick tank an otherwise popular politician? Well, that’s where the 10,000 words come in. In short, The Front Runner will force you to address how you view the purpose of the press, how we consume media, and what’s relevant to report — without getting confused by the craziness of our current president. It seems we’re living in the day Hart predicted “when we get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

Top2018-3

8. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth time Spider-Man’s origin story has been committed to film, but Spider-Verse’s greatest accomplishment is how new it feels despite that fact. This is a superhero film with a purpose. It has a narrative it wants to tell that exists outside of maximizing audience likability to launch a franchise of films. As a result, Spider-Verse is the most refreshing superhero film in a long time. I really loved its total embrace of the animated art style and Spider-Verse concept. The presence of multiple universes isn’t a generic roadblock for the [hero] to overcome, it’s interwoven into every aspect of the film. The multiple Spider-Mans and alternative versions of well-known villains made this particular story standout in the sea of copy-paste superhero films out today. Spider-Verse holds on its own and shows there’s more creative energy in this genre that’s starting to feel tired.

Top2018-4

7. Searching

You’ll often find people who claim every style of film has already been explored and all that’s left are gimmicks. I’d challenge those people to watch Searching. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen while a father searches for his missing daughter. You might wonder, why restrict that story to a computer screen? Wouldn’t it work better if you could pull away and see the main character react to information? Well 1) you do see him react in other ways and 2) there’s an immersion quality to the main character’s search that wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t glued to the screen in the same way he is. It’s an inventive filming technique that truly utilizes its form to fortify the narrative. Searching has incredible pacing and some great twists, making it easily one of the most enjoyable film experiences this year.

Top2018-5

6. First Reformed

This is a strange entry on this list because First Reformed went from 0 to 100 very quickly for me. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest in a congregation that’s getting more irrelevant in modern times. He’s asked to help a woman’s husband, who has become nihilistic due to global warming and the fear of raising a child in a dying world. Hawke’s character goes on his own journey, but I’ll be honest and say a lot of the messaging in this film was eye-roll inducing. It’s a movie that seemed like it was going the absolute wrong way for so many bad reasons, but it all changes at the very end. Its final shot delivers a blow to pessimistic scare-mongering, and it wasn’t until that final shot that I decided I loved this movie. If nothing else, First Reformed is worth a watch for the interesting musings about what we should be doing in the face of a potential global catastrophe.

Top2018-6

5. A Star Is Born

It might not be surprising the fourth remake of A Star Is Born is good, but it is surprising just how good it is. This isn’t just a retelling of an old story, it’s about the realities of fame, the loneliness of popularity, how hard it is to remain authentic, and the difficulty of supporting a relationship in the spotlight. It’s a film with huge scope, but feels like a passion project. A lot of that passion comes from Lady Gaga’s performance. Her musical performances sing for themselves, but her acting matches the caliber of skill found in the array of actors she’s surrounded by.

In the review I gave earlier this year, I had some criticisms for individual scenes or how the second act loses its tight direction, but many of those critiques disappear given the full breadth of the film. A Star is Born succeeds at humanizing celebrities and getting the audience to see how the struggles of stardom are not so different from ordinary life. There may be some faults along the way, but it feels like a cultural event that deserves to be seen.

Top2018-7

4. Hereditary

I don’t like horror movies. I want my movies to have some value beyond jumping my nervous system so I feel alive for a few hours. I want something to think about. Hereditary gives you something to think about and maybe some mild PTSD to overcome for the rest of your life. If there’s one thing I can say to convince fellow non-horror film fans, it’s the fact that Hereditary has no jump scares. It plays it straight from beginning to end, and it doesn’t detract from the terror it inflicts. Although Hereditary inevitably becomes a supernatural hellscape in its final minutes, the majority of the film is a family drama depicting the ways people cope with death. It was the dramatic moments of the film that have stuck with me. The ants, the scream, the rear-view mirror — they still give me chills. Hereditary taps into the true fears of the human condition and sets an example all horror films should aspire to.

Top2018-8.jpg

3. Eighth Grade

We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. In an era where everyone is focused on the Logan Pauls of the world, Burnham understands that the majority of experiences with the internet is intense loneliness manifested in personal vlogs. For a man who benefited early from “going viral,” Burnham shows a remarkable amount of empathy for the type of person who gravitates toward web content. Eighth Grade follows a young girl with no following of any kind, and shows how her web presence contrasts with her dull life. While this alone might have been good enough to be a great film, Eighth Grade enters another echelon with the infamous truth or dare scene. In one of the most uncomfortable versions of a well-known party game, Burnham shows the complicated relationship between our desire for human connection and our frequent disappointment with other people. It’s a brave film that leaves its audience with a new sense of empathy and understanding for the oddballs attempting to navigate this strangely interconnected world we live in.

Top2018-9

2. The Hate U Give

When I tell people I like The Hate U Give, the number one response I receive is “Really? I thought you’d hate that movie.” Maybe that’s a low-level insult about me, or maybe I can’t blame people for that reaction since I haven’t liked Sorry To Bother You, Moonlight, Blackkklansman or countless other movies about the black experience in America. But maybe my enjoyment of The Hate U Give proves the effectiveness of its message. Regardless of your political views, it’s clear America’s relationship with black Americans and police officers is something that needs to be examined. While many pieces of art have attempted to present their worldview as the definitive solution to these complicated problems, The Hate U Give knows when it can give an answer and when it can’t. Instead of pretending to possess oracle wisdom from the future, the film anchors its conflict to how it affects its family of characters.

The family of The Hate U Give is based on a book that came out two years ago (which received similar level of praise) and the movie really feels like it’s derived from dense source material. The world feels rich with life and backstory. Numerous side characters pop in and out, all with their own history that contributes to the narrative and how it affects the main character. Starr isn’t a perfect person — and she makes many mistakes throughout the film — but all her choices are understandable given the context of her situation. She’s an immensely likable character who’s attempting to navigate difficult issues in good faith. Much of Starr’s wisdom comes from her father, Maverick, who acts as a source of stability throughout the family’s turbulent journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how many black families could have had a Maverick figure in their life, but were robbed of such an individual due to the realities of our era.

From a filmic view, The Hate U Give doesn’t have any standout production elements. It’s not a movie that’s praised for its artistic direction. Instead it’s a movie that addresses difficult issues and allows productive conversations as a result. It’s for that reason, I consider it the most vital film from this year.

Top2018-10

1. Annihilation

My first viewing of Annihilation was defined by awe. My initial review praised the movie for accomplishing incredibly tense minute-to-minute set pieces, but also found time for lofty big ideas to think about. There was enough left unexplained to allow for a conspiracy theory-level of obsession. I saw Annihilation twice in the theater. I bought it the first day it was available for download and I’ve since seen it a total of six times, each time with a new group of friends so we could uncover the mystery of Annihilation. In these viewings and conversations, I haven’t “solved” Annihilation — in fact some people would say movies are not meant to be solved — instead I’ve found a wealth of interpretations, all of which have their own merit. Annihilation is dense with ideas and as a result it can be about so many things.

Even if it weren’t high-concept and otherworldly, Annihilation is one of the more memorable journeys into the unknown. The film is classified as science fiction, but it’s closer to a horror film. The crew’s experiences in the shimmer run the gambit of every type of dread you can experience. Jump scares, body horror, extreme violence and gore, existential horror and psychological unease. Who can forget the alligator, the video tape, the bear or the lighthouse? They’re permanently implanted in your brain not only because of the terror they inflict, but because of the strangeness you never completely understand. How do these traumatic experiences affect who we become?

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times and I’m still in awe. Annihilation is an unbelievable achievement. It’s the most inventive science fiction film in a decade, an unforgettable experience and easily the greatest film from this year — perhaps one of the greatest of all-time.

Categories
Books

Book Log: Entering the Witcherverse with The Last Wish

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Earlier this year I finished Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the Witcher franchise, but the fifth book in the series (the first two books are a collection of short stories). The story of Baptism of Fire is largely self-contained. The main hero — Geralt — goes on a very linear adventure looking for his pseudo-adoptive daughter — Ciri. Geralt goes to one place, then another, then another, and another. He meets many people and these characters and their relationships get a good deal of progression, but at the end of the book the narrative pulls back reminds the reader of the macro-scale politics that are going on in the world while Geralt was galavanting in the forest. It was in these final few pages of the book that I realized I had no idea what the hell was going on.

If I’m being honest, the feeling of confusion has been the most defining attribute of the Witcher book series for me. It seems as if it was written for an audience that would read, and re-read, every entry to pick away at the world — something I have no interest in doing. I’ve consumed most of my understanding of the Witcherverse through the games which I hoped would catch me up to speed enough to understand the books. But when it comes to these grand feuding political entities and their individual motivations, I get totally lost. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of characters who have hidden motivations or mistaken motivations and many of those characters don’t appear in the games at all. One example that comes to mind is Vilgefortz, who’s referenced in Witcher 2 as a type of guy you can envision being a main antagonist. Vilgefortz appears in the second novel — Time of Contempt — and his introduction is such that it becomes very obvious he’s a significant character worth remembering. In Baptism of Fire, Vilgefortz does not appear at all, and if it wasn’t for Witcher 2’s mention of him I would’ve forgotten about him entirely — the same way I forgot many other characters.

Witcher5
One of the strengths of the Witcher games is it knows to anchor your interest in the world with characters Geralt has a direct relationship with.

If any other book series had done this to me, I would’ve given up on it. I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to individual books (I almost never give up on a book, I force myself to finish it even if it takes years of chipping away at it), but for a book series I’ll easily abandon it if one book loses my interest. I did this with The Magicians series where the second book handled a heroine character so catastrophically I swore off the whole thing. At this point, The Witcher has committed a similar grave error. I read books to enjoy them and if I have to take notes just to know what’s going on that’s not conducive to an enjoyable experience. It makes reading feel like work. Suddenly reading this series becomes a literal chore and I don’t want to have that experience.

But I also feel an obligation to The Witcher. I loved Witcher 3 so much. I like the characters Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. I like Sapkowski’s interest in politics and the allegories he creates for the modern day. I also truly enjoyed the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. I even remember really liking Time of Contempt. So where did it all go wrong? Maybe I took too long to read the individual books, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. There’s enough doubt in my own ability to compel a re-reading before I swear off another series that I really have every reason to like. So, I started re-reading The Witcher franchise, starting with the first short story collection. This time with a more critical eye: What is it about the series that turned me off? Where does it all go wrong?

How was it?

Unsurprisingly, The Last Wish remains one of my favorite fantasy books. This was my impression when I first read it a few years ago and its quality holds up today. In a way, re-reading this book was the first true reading I’d done of it. When I first began the Witcher books I got confused on which book came first so I actually started with Sword of Destiny. I didn’t notice the error until I started The Last Wish, where it becomes very obvious that I had consumed the story out of sequence (Yennefer is introduced in Last Wish whereas she’s a prominent character throughout Sword of Destiny). This time around, I got to read The Last Wish as a true introduction to the Witcherverse. Every story told was an indication of what Sapkowski thought was vital about the world he was creating. It was a revealing re-read and I want to share some thoughts from each individual story:

Witcher4
The Witcher games pitch Geralt’s profession as supernatural detective work, but the book is far more politically focused.

The Voice of Reason

I should mention up front that The Last Wish is framed with the backdrop of an overarching story called “The Voice of Reason.” The Last Wish has six self-contained short stories, but each one is broken up by a few pages dedicated to The Voice of Reason which typically sets up the next story.

There’s probably a good reason Voice of Reason exists but it’s easily the worst part of the book. It’s disjointed delivery and shallow scope offers nothing but confusion to the reader. Maybe Sapkowski wanted to give The Last Wish a sense of “conclusion” that it didn’t have otherwise if it ended on a random short story, but Voice of Reason is a poor substitute. Its problems get worse as the book goes on. By the final installment, Geralt has a “climactic” fight with a character who was introduced several chapters ago. Which means you have to read two self-contained stories plus a chapter of Voice of Reason without this character, so I can’t fault anyone for forgetting the identity of this character or why they’re upset with Geralt

Voice of Reason is a shape of things to come from Sapkowski’s storytelling. My experience with the Witcher novels is reading about characters as if I should know who they are, but it’s been several hundred pages — or sometimes multiple books — since I last ran into them.

The Witcher

The introduction to Geralt and the Witcherverse is basically perfect. You get everything you need to know about this world in a single story — specifically how it subverts genre tropes. I’ve always heard that the Witcher series is known for subverting tropes, but it’s been a funny experience for me. I am a Polish American, and although I won’t say I totally understand Polish culture, I have some understanding of Polish people (specifically older Polish men) and their tendencies. I’ve always considered Polish people to have a streak of contrarianism. There’s probably a good historical reason for this. I imagine the concept of “general wisdom” has always been a term dominated by Western societies that have no interest or understanding of Polish culture and customs. So to Polish people, the “general wisdom” is simply the thoughts of westerners that don’t know anything about their life or values. But since Polish culture is a minority, it comes across as being combative and contrarian. This is a half-baked theory that probably deserves more research before I make such bold claims, but that’s the unedited version of my thesis at this point in time.

The reason I mention this streak of contrarianism is because The Witcher seems conceived from a place of contradicting the current fantasy norms. Mages are not intelligent scholars but self-interested rejects who can’t be trusted; Elves are not mystical environmentalists but ruthless rebels with no interest in diplomacy; Geralt is not a knight in shining armor but a mercenary who kills monsters for money, and etc. Even the details of the plot have slight deviations that give The Witcher a grittier feel. Geralt is tasked with saving a King’s daughter, but not from a monster, she is the monster — a striga. And why is she a monster? Well because the King had an incestuous affair with his sister. Some might say the Witcherverse exists in shades of gray but it’s closer to shades of black. Pretty much everyone in the universe is an asshole, which is not unlike our collective experience in life.

Witcher3
Nothing is ever simple for Geralt. Every bit of information affects various parties and their attitudes toward him.

But then there’s Geralt. Who’s portrayed as a politically neutral actor focused on his job and that’s it. It’s interesting to hear that Geralt — and by extension Sapkowski — has become a right-wing hero to some readers because of the values he puts forth. For example, in the introduction story, Geralt is focused on his work and nothing else. He believes he has a trade and his purpose in life is to excel at the responsibilities and duties of that trade. There’s definitely a conservative value in that approach that some readers may see as admirable. However, I feel this is a shallow reading of Geralt’s motivations.

As interesting as the genre-defying window dressing may be, this story — and the Witcherverse itself — really comes into its own when Geralt is given a counter-offer to the King’s predicament. Rather than cure his daughter, a loyalist asks Geralt to kill the monster. The loyalist offers more money, but Geralt doesn’t believe the sum will be paid and even if it were, he can cure her, so why kill her? If that wasn’t an interesting dynamic enough, another political actor asks Geralt to leave the town. Don’t cure the daughter, don’t kill the striga, leave things as is. Geralt intuitively sees this political actor wants to oust the King, and it’d be easier to do so if the striga ran rampant.

This added plot point is what dumps the reader into the world of the Witcher. Even a neutrality-focused mercenary finds himself entrenched in politics. Sure, witchers have a “code,” but even Geralt admits it’s used as a convenient reason to decline contracts that seem more trouble than they’re worth. This is where the modern-day allegories become obvious. It seems we’ve been thrown into a world where every action is political and no one can remain totally neutral. This is a concept that’s developed more fully throughout the novels. It’s the idea that made Sapkowski’s books so successful and what makes the series unique. It’s evident in the very first story and it’s what makes this particular introduction so rewarding to read.

In the end, Geralt satisfies the wishes of the King and it seems as if all the bad guys have been defeated and the good prevails, but we’re left with this world that’s buried in unfairness. Geralt is mistreated throughout the entire story. His morality has no benefit. In fact, he probably lost money by adhering to it. So what is the fate of this character in this world? The Witcher is a great self-contained story but its greatest accomplishment is piquing interest in where things could go next.

A Grain of Truth

The Witcher eventually becomes a fascinating political world, but A Grain of Truth is the first deviation to traditional fantasy elements that have never been Sapkowski’s strength. This story is meant to be a redux on Beauty and the Beast where the beast is kind of an awkward jerk and the beauty is a monster he’s fallen in love with. From a lore perspective, this story sets up the monster side of the world. Not only are there various factions and political entities in the Witcherverse, there are also monsters who can co-exist with some humans or resolve their own problems with one another. Not every monster needs to be killed. In fact, a horrifically cursed man can fall in love with a nice creature of the woods.

While that sounds nice, reading this story is a bit of a chore. Sapkowski seems to enjoy describing scenes with a thesaurus on hand. One passage on page 50 uses the words mottled, festooned and plinth, which you wouldn’t think are enough to completely devalue an entire section but no matter how many times I read it my eyes glaze over and no image is imparted onto my imagination.

There are other lore concepts that are introduced in this chapter but it’s all very forgettable. None of these off-handed references add depth to the world, other than mentioning there’s various types of monsters and magic. Sapkowski has never seemed interested in explaining the fantastical elements of his stories so when a narrative focuses on those aspects, it’s not very engaging.

Witcher2
Lesser Evil shows the Witchverse for what it is: grim and full of death.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser Evil is one of the more iconic stories from The Witcher, and potentially the best short story of both books. The central conflict in this story is an excellent synthesis of the world of The Witcher, but even before we get to that this story introduces some other realities in the universe.

The color of Lesser Evil fills in the grim thanklessness of Geralt’s work. At the beginning of this story he kills a monster but finds out there’s no contract listed in town — resulting in no pay. When Geralt meets with a sorcerer later, he makes a quip about witchers killing off the last of endangered species. These two encounters show how Geralt’s profession ensures he gains no fans from experts in monsterology, and it’s also rare for the common folk to show him any gratitude. He finds himself between the two worlds, serving a role that neither really cherishes, even if they do benefit from safer country roads due to witchers pruning monsters from the path. This isn’t a world of honor and prestige, it’s about individualism and people only acting in their best interests in the worst of ways. For example, there’s this passage from Geralt that shows what the world is like outside the stories told:

“One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I’m used to it.”

More so than the prior stories, Lesser Evil shows the Witcherverse isn’t a fun fantasy world. It’s a dark place. This isn’t one of those worlds where you wish you could visit and stay for a while. These details do a nice job for filling in the world but also prepare the reader for the content of Lesser Evil’s plot.

Geralt runs into a sorcerer named Stregobor, who says he’s being hunted by a woman named Renfri. She’s coming to town to kill him. Stregobor hires Geralt to protect him, but to be extra safe, he stays locked up in his tower. Geralt seems confident he can resolve whatever murderous dispute exists between the two, but Stregobor says it’s not so simple.

He explains that Renfri bares the Curse of the Black Sun — being born during an eclipse. The curse is known to cause tendencies of insanity and pushes people to cruelty. The curse is well-known and as such, Renfri has been treated as a potential serial killer her whole life. Her step-mother attempted to have her killed. Stregobor was assigned the task of putting the girl out of this world but his plan went wrong and she escaped.

Given that background, it’s easy to sympathize with Renfri. She’s been mistreated her entire life. Even her own family wants her dead. It seems obvious that anyone who is treated as evil their entire life will develop a chip on their shoulder and may feel the desire to exact revenge on their terrorizers, but that’s not the result of a curse — it’s an understandable response from someone who’s been abused their whole life.

At the same time, Renfri doesn’t do a very good job at convincing Geralt — or anyone else — that she’s not a demented lunatic. The plot finds its own conclusion, but it’s difficult to see the resolution as anything but a tragedy.

Renfri’s story, and Geralt’s predicament, can act as allegories for other political issues. In any issue, there are abusers and the abused. It’s easy to imagine sympathizing with the abused, but there are instances where the abusers have their hands tied or are the results of other actions they may have mishandled (If you find it difficult to consider the thought that some people “deserve” the abuse they receive, consider this op-ed from a Silicon Valley billionaire who argued rich people are more mistreated than German Jews in the 1930s). While it may be true one side’s anger is more deserved, or maybe both sides are equally delusional, the reality of politics remains the same. Sympathizing with either side necessarily earns you an enemy of the other. There is no resolution in these types of conflicts, there is only tragedy. Especially when one side tries to radicalize their actions, hoping it will bring the result they desire.

It’s an excellent point, deliver perfectly by Sapkowski’s writing that doesn’t play favorites with either side’s depiction. Reading the story feels like being between a rock and a hard place, a location that Geralt will occupy many times over across all the Witcher stories.

Witcher1

A Question of Price

So begins the unending tale of Cintra and its royal class. This story is the first mention of Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, and the country Cintra. Cintra has quite a significant place in the geopolitics of The Witcher and much of it stems from the royal bloodline and alliances made or broken in an attempt to preserve that bloodline. While this plotline’s first mention in A Question of Price isn’t so egregious, I have a hard time enjoying this short story since it represents everything I’ve come to loathe about The Witcher series.

For one thing, it introduces an immense amount of characters and expects you to remember them. Anyone who’s played the games knows about the culture of Skellige Islanders, and if you’re a devoted fan you may know that Mousesack is the same character as Ermion (he was renamed for obvious reasons), but if you didn’t have those reference points then this story is a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of banter between warrior buddies as they drink around a huge table trying to court Calanthe’s approval to marry her daughter.

Thematically, this story introduces the concept of destiny, and explains the law of surprise — a tradition in the Witchverse where someone chooses their reward to be “what you find at home but don’t expect,” often a child. This is a key development for Geralt’s relationship with Ciri, which is explained in Sword of Destiny.

It’s neat that this short story carries its significance across the Witcher novels, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. It’s a bunch of lords arguing with a stranger about his rights as a peasant with some random magic thrown in as well. Some of the dialogue is engaging, but this story is mostly all the types of politics people hate with none of the morality predicaments that makes things interesting. Even worse is this short story is likely the most essential for understanding the background of many of the events that take place throughout the novels, which makes its slow pace all the more agonizing.

Witcher6

Edge of the World

This story is likely The Witcher at its most “fun.” You’ve got Dandelion, a talking monster, some pretty ridiculous superstitions and a run-in with the vicious elves. I’ve already mentioned how The Witcher or Lesser Evil set up the tone of the Witcherverse — grim, pessimistic and politically infused — but Edge of the World is a sample of how those elements get interwoven into a world that isn’t always so serious. There are a lot of silly elements in Edge of the World. It’s easy to see how Geralt’s job can go from dangerous to ridiculous, to dangerous again — which is pretty much the arc of this short story.

From a lore standpoint, this is the first introduction to the elves and forest mysticism which is relatively unknown outside of elder races that live outside of society. You also get a sense of where the world “ends.” There isn’t a flat earth with dragons off the side, but if you get far enough from the main civilizations, you’re in elf territory and bound to get your throat slit.

I remember not liking this story so much on my first read-through. Looking at my notes, it seems my younger self got very confused by two characters: Torque and Torviel, being introduced in the same passage (technically Torque is established way before, but his name isn’t mentioned until he’s in the presence of Torviel). Maybe I’m the dumb one here, or maybe it’s a good reminder for conventional storytelling wisdom: don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same letter — especially don’t have two characters begin with the same three letters.

Other than that minor misstep, this is a low-stakes story that shows what Geralt’s day-to-day is like, and it’s a refreshing change from the intense drama seen in the other stories.

Witcher7
#TeamTriss

The Last Wish

Sapkowski ends The Last Wish by introducing one of his most iconic characters: Yennefer of Vengeberg. I’ve read that Sapkowski created the character specifically to write a female heroine that defied genre tropes. While it’s true that Yennefer’s aggressive attitude, more-than-competent magical ability, and dark fashion sense differed from what was in-vogue for fantasy during the 1990s — Yennefer still falls into some tropes that authors are frequently criticized for. Sure, Yennefer punishes Geralt for sexualizing her, and uses her sex appeal against many men to make them literal zombies to do her bidding, but at the end of the story she’s still a damsel-in-distress saved by our hero, Geralt. And of course, his reward is sex.

This is one of those instances where Witcher 3 has truly left its mark. Whereas the book Yennefer seems inconsistent, the video game adaptation seemed more fully-formed. In the game, Geralt is practically bossed around by Yennefer and the only reason he can hold his ground is because she does truly care about him and his feelings (although he denies having at all). It’s an interesting dynamic, almost the complete flip of conventional love interests in fantasy writing, but in the books that dynamic isn’t as clear. It doesn’t help that the magical bond that ties Yennefer and Geralt romantically seems a bit more vital in their book relationship, whereas in the game its understated. Of course, the follow-up short story collection would expand on their relationship in many ways.

All of this is to say, while Yennefer has become a well-known beloved character in the franchise, her introduction story is merely ok.

Final thoughts

This “short log” is nearing 4,000 words, so I’m completely betraying the goal I had with this log.

I’m glad I re-read The Witcher’s introductory short story collection. Even with a more critical eye, it’s still about as good as I remember. If anything, this process has only revealed to me what I already knew on a subconscious level. There are kernals of greatness in the storytelling that propels me to keep reading just in case there’s another nugget worth reading, but among those good moments are an abundance of dreary politics, ineffective descriptive text, and way too many characters to keep track of. Knowing this could enhance my reading experience moving forward, since I’ll know when I’m entering one of those slog sections that it’s a known weakpoint of the series. I hope this awareness will make the good moments that much more significant.

 

4/5

Categories
Video Games

Game Log: God of War is not a good video game

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Early in my opinion-having life, I discovered my thoughts were usually out of sync with everyone else. Some might say there’s something wrong with me. For whatever reason, you can reliably assume that out of the handful of universally acclaimed games or movies that come out, maybe half of those won’t jive with me at all. Consider it an inability to think outside of my own perspective or maybe I have an inherent desire to be a contrarian dick, but I don’t think either are true. Communicating your opinion is very difficult to do and if you haven’t practiced that skill it’s easier to rely on what other people have said. Sometimes this leads to you agreeing with things you don’t actually believe.

Imagine you play a game and hear a critic call it “the best game in years.” You hear that comment and you feel like you agree. The reason you agree is because that particular game did something you hadn’t seen in a long time and you really liked it. You feel the critic’s words accurately describe your general enjoyment of the game and specifically how it accomplished something that hasn’t been done in a game for years. You use the phrase “the best game in years” to explain how you feel because you can’t quite nail the specifics of your own thoughts. But in that phrase comes many other statements that you may not necessarily agree with. Is it truly the “best game in years?” Wasn’t there another game earlier this year you liked even better? Weren’t there several games you liked better? To the average person, this distinction doesn’t matter because the overall message they wanted to get across remains intact. They liked the game and it did something that hadn’t been done in years. This choice of words might dilute their opinion on other topics, but most people don’t dedicate a lot of time attempting to maintain critical consistency (which is totally ok).

In the reception I’ve read for God of War, many reviewers and commenters explain their enjoyment of the game by parroting empty phrases. Their assessment often lacks specifics and relies on vague language or plain descriptions without any real judgement of their merit. Consider IGN’s review that 1) refers to an “engrossing whole” made up of individual elements and 2) spends several paragraphs explaining what’s in the game without really commenting on why it’s any good. It’s easy to see why some people take this approach. God of War is a dense game with a lot of mechanics and many things going on at once. If you’re enjoying the game, it may be difficult to narrow down where your enjoyment is coming from, but that experience can be very different for other players who don’t like the game. See, I know exactly how I feel about God of War because despite dumping 30+ hours of my life into it, I didn’t have any fun.

GOD2
God of War is easily one of the prettiest games this year, but it’s successes end there.

Why did I play it?

This is a good question because I’ve never liked God of War. It’s always been a game that values spectacle over substance. This is the series that pioneered quick time events and large-scale boss battles. Sure, it looked cool, but the player interaction with the world was lackluster. I remember comparing the original 2005 God of War to Dynasty Warriors since it was a more stylish button masher, but that comparison never convinced many people.

So, I’m going to write some words to pin point all the ways God of War isn’t “an engrossing whole,” it’s actually a mess of a game that seems loosely tied together. It absolutely nails the spectacle thrills the series is known for, but that doesn’t make it fun.

How was it?

God of War’s remix on its old formula is transitioning the series to an open-world role playing game. The player can now traverse a large world at their own pace and Kratos has a progression system that unlocks new skills and higher stats. In addition to player progression, the open world gives players side quests and small-scale puzzles that reward success with loot that can increase Kratos’ lethality even further. This all sounds like a great deviation from the series’ formula. God of War was known for being a tightly guided experience. In the original trilogy, players couldn’t even move the camera since the developer thought it was essential to guide their attention to the action. If there was any risk for this team to take, it’s relinquishing that control and embracing the open world antics.

Unfortunately, the open world is the most obvious flaw of God of War because the level design was clearly crafted with the intent of directing the player’s experience which is antithetical to the appeal of an open world. In a typical location, the landscape may feel “open” either through its vastness or various crates nestled in the corners of the room but there’s almost always two directions: forward and back the way you came. Once you arrive at the specific destination you were intended to reach, the trail stops and there is nothing further. This can be frustrating for new players because open world games don’t typically feel as restricted as God of War. In any open world game, you can anticipate branching paths, little secrets in nooks and corners and a sense of freedom that you could go wherever you want but maybe you don’t want to just yet. God of War masks the rails of its experience by creating large environments the player can run around, but most of the deviations from the path end in nothing. If you’re like me, and you want to seek out those additional paths, the game can feel frustrating. There are many environments where it seems like you should be able to go somewhere new but that feeling never bares out to be true.

GOD1
As much as the game pretends to be “open world” deviating from the intended path is rarely rewarding — instead it reveals the game’s deepest flaws.

Even as a guided experience, God of War can feel inadequate in its directions. Kratos has a variety of ways to traverse the terrain, but most of these traversals result in looking for button prompts in unnatural locations. Consider a game like Uncharted or Prince of Persia where there is a lot of climbing and swinging around, but the player always knows where they’re going. It can feel a little limiting at times since there’s obviously only one path forward, but the player still feels like they’re Nathan Drake or The Prince traversing the world. God of War never feels natural. There’s no visual theme to express where Kratos can climb and where he can’t. Often times you have to search for the large “X” prompt on screen, and if you didn’t have that as a guide you’d be completely lost. It doesn’t help that this prompt is often located off-screen from Kratos’ view. There’s no better way to take a player out of an experience than have them searching for a button prompt, but that routinely happens in God of War.

Even if you’re managing to get to your destination on track, the game has a habit of throwing in unreachable destinations or unsolvable puzzles without explaining that Kratos isn’t equipped to tackle these paths just yet. For example, Kratos eventually gains the ability to break branches by lighting them on fire. Before unlocking that ability, Kratos comes across a series of branches he can’t pass. This might seem like an obvious design choice to anyone who’s played a Metroidvania, clearly the developer wants to pique the player’s interest and once they gain the necessary ability they’ll remember this roadblock and eagerly pass it for more content. Except, God of War only has two or three of these mechanics and they are all introduced very late into the game. There’s no indication in the early game that you will unlock some item later one. Which means every time you pass a pile of branches in the first 10 or 15 hours of the game, it feels like you missed something. There’s not even a “I can’t do that right now” voice over prompt from Kratos or his companion. As a result, you spend a lot of the game lacking confidence that you’re where you should be.

Nothing encapsulates the lost feeling core to God of War’s experience like the introduction of side quests. The first side quests hit a few hours into the game and they’re both strangely designed. My first quest had me seek out a mystical storeroom. I arrived at the location and fought a few enemies that seemed little more difficult than the main story. I eventually got to a hugely difficult enemy with a massive amount of health that killed me in two or three hits. I decided this quest was meant to be completed later — although I wondered why such a guided experience would give me a quest I can’t complete? Many hours later, I returned to the quest several levels higher and with new gear and found the same enemy was still incredibly lethal and had a lot of health. I managed to beat him and completed the quest but the experience was mystifying. Why would they frontload the first quest with such a difficult enemy? Why would the game give me prompts telling me some enemies may be “above my level” when the enemy stayed just-as-difficult even after I gained additional levels? It’s one of the moments where you’re forced to reconsider your impression of the game. A studio like Sony Santa Monica has such a huge budget, clearly it must be well-designed, but this seemed like the sloppy execution found in eastern-bloc soviet games from the mid 2000s.

GOD3
God of War presents itself as an action game with solid mechanics comparable to Dark Souls or a character action game, but at its heart its still a button masher.

Perhaps the most revealing fact about God of War’s development is the implementation of the nine realms. Early in the game Kratos comes across a cloud of black smog that impedes his progress. He speaks to a witch who takes you aside and says “Ok, so here’s these nine realms…” In any other game, you’d assume this would be the framing device for the entire game. Clearly, we have to go to each of the nine realms. Maybe a bit excessive for a little black smog, but this is a video game after all so let’s do it. Sure enough the first realm you go to has a complex backstory and a “dungeon” with puzzles that lead up to a final boss encounter. It feels like a Zelda game, or maybe closer to Darksiders. But this one realm (Alfheim) is the only realm that has this much development. It turns out you only go to four of the nine realms, one of which is the realm you start in (Midgard) and another only has a small environment for story purposes (Jotunheim). Even with this in mind, a huge portion of the story is about your ability to traverse the various realms but you rarely interact with these realms in a direct sense. In any other game, the realms would be the centerpiece for the entire experience, but the majority of God of War’s exists entirely separated from these realms. You’re mainly in Midgard. It feels like the game was either meant to be guided through the various realms but creative direction changed, or God of War’s scope was so massive they were forced to cut it down due to resource constraints. All of this is to say, it isn’t really clear why God of War is open world in the first place. It doesn’t embrace any open-world mechanics and appears to prefer guiding the player to specific places and specific times. Even a loose open world like the ones found in Legend of Zelda or Darksiders is ignored in favor of a strictly controlled narrative.

This problem plagues the combat as well. Kratos has his own progression system where he can unlock new abilities by expending “XP” (experience is treated like a currency rather than a metric of progress). He also has several attributes that can be increased with gear. Strength and defense can increase Kratos’ damage or resistance to damage while others like “runic” increase his abilities and “luck” increases the chance of finding more gear. But none of these systems actually matter. Regardless of whatever items or attributes you possess, it always feels like you’re doing the same exact amount of damage to enemies. There may be some minor alterations, but the progression is so slow and so gradual that you never feel like you’re progressing at all. I have to imagine this problem stems from the developers’ desire to control the experience. You never get an overpowered weapon that deals an immense amount of damage, or some random loot with ridiculous stats. Everything is very minimal and gradual. You get new loot primarily from the game’s NPC blacksmiths who unlock new equipment with story milestones. Much of the gear from sidequests is lackluster at best, or in service to collecting the parts needed to create gear unlocked by main quest milestones. You never feel an incentive to take on these sidequests or look for more loot because it’s all so inconsequential. I often forgot to level up Kratos for many hours because it seemed insignificant.

It doesn’t help that the combat lacks the fidelity of other action games. The best way I can describe my problem with God of War’s feel for combat is how it treats dodging. In a game like Dark Souls, or any character action game, if an enemy is swinging their sword at you but you run away from their reach, you can see them whiff in the air and hit nothing. In God of War, enemies will close the distance by gliding toward you and land their attack unless you hit the dodge button at the exact moment the prompt flashes on screen. This seems like an incredibly stupid design decision, especially consider many enemies can attack you and you can only press the doge button at the “right” moment once. Other games like the Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed series have shown how dodging can be done right even with lock-on enemies, but God of War lacks the fidelity of those games. As a result, the combat lacks the feeling of grace found in other melee combats pioneered in the past five years. Instead it feels like a very pretty, nicely stylized, button masher.

GOD4
Kratos’ relationship with Atreus is unique, but even that relationship has spots of hamfisted dialogue emblematic of the entire game’s lazy storytelling.

Which brings me to my last point which is whatever God of War does “right” is totally separated from its ability to be a decent game. A lot of reviewers marveled at the one-shot camera gimmick or the presentation of the game, but to me these are totally inconsequential. I have to imagine creating a continuous shot across the entire 30-hour game proved to be a logistical nightmare at times, but that creative decision provides no value to the player. So why did they spend so much time perfecting it?

Some have said the story of God of War is what makes it worth playing and I have to wholeheartedly disagree. It is true that the dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus is an interesting relationship that games haven’t explored before, but whatever good comes out of their frank conversations about responsibility and purpose is greatly overshadowed by the boring snoozefest of the overall plot. In fact, I’d call God of War a narrative without a story. The characters float from one location to the next while the player is inundated with Norse mythological lore that no one actually cares about. It feels like the writers got lost in world-building without thinking about how to anchor the player’s interest in this fictional world they created. Kratos and Atreus have their own personal motivation that begins their journey, but that motivation is often left by the wayside to explain petty feuds between gods that only exist off-screen. Consider that Thor, Odin and Tyr are talked about for the majority of the game and the player never meets any of them. Most of this information is conveyed through a talking head lecturing about their history. I often found myself mindlessly wandering from McGuffin to roadblock, mystified what my objective was meant to accomplish other than extend the length of the game. It’s fitting that the game ends with two “twists” that basically amount to “Look! MORE LORE!” It’s a game that doesn’t know what motivates players to connect with a story and instead offers mass information dumps.

Final Thoughts

I’ve never liked God of War, so maybe this game is hitting a note I can’t hear, but its fundamentals look deeply flawed to me. It’s one of those games where its faults are so obvious I wonder if people see them and don’t care or if it’s a case of valuing parts of a game I have no interest in. It’s true that God of War looks really pretty. The environments are gorgeous and some of the large-scale boss fights look incredible. To some, it may be enough to play a game where they can experience that sense of scale. They can get lost in the spectacle and feel a fictional world come to life in that way. Maybe that’s why people like God of War. For me, I need mechanics to hook my interest. A video game world is only as interesting as my interaction with it. In that regard, God of War is a sterile controlled experience. It wants you to do specific things at specific times and never deviate from its vision. Unfortunately for me, and I suspect many others, its vision is fragmented. It’s an open-world game that doesn’t feel open. It’s a progression system with no sense of progress. It’s a plot without a story. It’s a game with limited interaction. I commend the developers for trying something new, but the developer’s attempt to translate their formula into the language of a new genre reads as a jumbled mess.

1/5