Saturday, August 24, 2013

Animorphs Revisited: #2 - The Visitor

In which an Animorph faces Visser Three head-on for the first time. Also, Rachel feels bad for being a shitty friend, and she tackles street harassment in a satisfying but tragically non-reproducible way.

Our first Rachel book! Rachel books mean sass, Cassie books mean moral anxiety, Marco books mean bad jokes leavening angst, Tobias books mean philosophy, and Jake books mean naptime.

(Ax books, if you'll permit me a touch of prolepsis, mean all awesome all the time.)

Book Two opens with our first viewpoint account of flying, since Jake didn't morph a bird last book. These descriptions of soaring up on thermals and diving down made me ache with longing as a kid. PTSD or no PTSD, I wanna be able to turn into a bird, dammit!
If I'm being perfectly honest, it's pretty clear which bird I would be.
Apparently, the whole premise of the books came about because K.A. Applegate was really interested in animals and wanted to write a series that would teach kids about aspects of animal physiology in a fun way. The ability to turn into animals came first, and the rest arose from there. I guess it worked, because I am not much of an animal person and I don't care much for nature, but I still hoovered up these books and dreamed of morphing. I mean, this shit is just so cool.

Rachel alleges that Jake “loves excitement and adventure and being a little crazy.” Really? Because I just read an entire book from his viewpoint and I didn't get the slightest hint of such traits. From what I know about Jake's thought processes, he would love elevator music and the shipping news and white bread with the crusts cut off.

When the gang morphs back to human, Jake and Cassie share this charming exchange:
“It's like now, being back in a human body, I feel like I'm handicapped or something. I feel like I'm glued to the ground.”
“And blind. Human eyes are so lame for seeing things far away.”
Wow, guys. That's, like, eight counts of ableism in two sentences. Not cool. (This reminds me of the time a couple years ago when I rediscovered the nineties Harriet the Spy movie, and my eyeballs fell out of my head when Buffy's little sister dismissed another kid's idea as “retarded.”)

The main reason Rachel is so much more fun to read than Jake is because her personality (of which, unlike him, she has one) really shines through in her interactions with the others. She loves Cassie to death and appreciates her peace-loving steadfastness, but she can't really get over Cassie's lack of fashion sense. She has a smart-mouthed, snarky tendency to trade unserious semi-flirty insults with Marco – they're like Ron and Hermione without the undercurrent of sexual tension. She totally fancies Tobias, which is a little weird now that he's a bird. She is cousins with Jake.

Our narrator takes center stage in this book. The plan is for her to attempt to revive her fading relationship with former second-best-friend Melissa, daughter of assistant principal / Controller / epic douchenozzle Chapman, as a way of spying on him.

Rachel reacts to street harassment by going half-elephant. I don't love her narration's harping on about how dumb she is for walking home alone, but it rings sadly true for internalized self-victim-blaming, and it's pretty impressive for a kids' book about mind-controlling aliens to even acknowledge the existence of street harassment. Yeerks are not the only horrifying things in this world.
As far as feminist wish-fulfillment goes, I'd say going elephant is about on par with this.
“Rachel is going to become a shrew? How will we know when she's changed? How do you become what you already are?” Shut the fuck up, Marco. You're only funny when you're not being a raving misogynist. Rachel lets that one slide, but at least she calls out Jake for talking about “letting” her do a morph: “since when do you let me do things? What are you, my master? I don't think so.”

Rachel morphs Melissa's cat, which is appropriately sassy and self-confident, so as to spy on the Chapmans. She learns that both Chapman parents are Controllers, that the Yeerks on Earth are none too happy with Visser Three as their commander, and that the change in Melissa's personality has happened because she can sense that her parents no longer love her.
Melissa cried. And it came to me, like a vision: All the children all over, whose parents had been made into Controllers. And the parents whose children had been taken from them to be turned into Controllers. It was a terrible image. I wondered how it must feel to see your parents stop loving you.
Rachel morphs again, and Visser Three is all THAT KITTY IS FO SHO AN ANDALITE BANDIT. Oops. 
Maybe if cat-Rachel wasn't so dang SASSY, V3 wouldn't get all lime-green jell-o.
V3 – I can call him that, right? – wants Melissa enYeerked, but the Chapman parents stage a full-on host rebellion, nearly wresting control back from their Yeerks. Humans can't and don't throw off Yeerk control completely, but if sufficiently motivated they can fight, and if they fight publicly it'll make them look totes irrationalpants. (←I invented that; it's the non-ableist version of “crazypants.”) Not ideal for Controllers who wish to remain in positions of authority. As a compromise, the Chapman-Controllers let Melissa alone but take cat-Rachel to V3. Cat-Rachel is accompanied by flea-Jake, whose physical mass is now roughly the same size as his personality, and the other Animorphs roll into town and help them escape, but not before the real Chapman has had the chance to speak a few words to V3.

Turns out that Chapman has willingly accepted a Yeerk into his head in exchange for Melissa's ensured safety. That's right: The reason Melissa's parents act like they don't love her anymore is because they have made the greatest possible personal sacrifice for her. Rachel leaves an anonymous note promising Mel that her dad still loves her, “more than he can ever show you,” but I somehow doubt that's hugely comforting for poor Mel (and I guess her mom doesn't matter at all?). God, it must kill her parents to be trapped in their bodies daily, witnessing themselves treat their daughter like shit and knowing she can't ever know how much they truly love her.

Y'all, these books are so very very upsetting.
Pictured: Me, reading this book.
Moral Quandaries
Rachel and her old friend Melissa have been growing apart for a while. NBD, that's just what preteens do, but Rachel has a lot of guilt about it in this book.
'Melissa is still my friend. Maybe somehow I can help her.'
'Your job is not to help Melissa Chapman,' Marco pointed out. 'You're supposed to be spying on Chapman. You're supposed to be finding some way for us to get at the Yeerks.'
Ouch. Rachel knows the mission should be her number one priority, but she's desperate to comfort her old friend. That's why she takes an unwise risk in morphing Melissa's cat again, which gets her captured by Visser Three (and almost lets the cat out of the bag). (Sorry not sorry.) It's a stupid move that seriously jeopardizes all the Animorphs, but her motivations make total sense. Since Cassie our moral compass, let's hand over to her for the Aesop:
'Don't ever let any of this get in the way of spending time with your dad,' [Cassie] said earnestly. 'He needs you. We need you, too, Marco, but your dad comes first.' She looked at Jake, then at me. 'There isn't much point in doing any of this if we forget why we're doing it.'
Trans* Moments
Tobias is adjusting to being a hawk full-time. 
<There are things you miss... Sitting back on the couch with a can of pop and a bag of chips and no school the next day and something good on TV. That's a good feeling...> He didn't sound like he was feeling sorry for himself. Just like he was mentioning something that happened to be true.
I know how you feel, Tobias.
Pictured: All women's restrooms. All of them.
PTSD: Not All About Capslock
Passing the abandoned construction site where they met their plot last book, all the kids are stricken. Rachel breaks off from recapping the events for readers who missed book one: “You know what? I really don't want to talk about that...” Cassie starts crying. They admit to having nightmares about the Yeerk pool and the horrors of people being Controllers. Even Jake has a sympathetic moment, thanks to his one personality trait of having a Controller brother. Later, Rachel has intense nightmares about the shrew morph.

Hey, It's 1996! Pop Culture Reference Log
Shit's getting way nineties, y'all. I had to google Shannon Miller and Morris the cat, because I had absolutely no idea who they were.
  • Spider-Man
  • Letterman, again, and Stupid Pet Tricks specifically
  • Shannon Miller
  • Tolkien
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger's arms (yes, his arms)
  • Itchy and Scratchy
  • Morris the cat
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Star Trek, of course
  • Fantastic Four, X-Men, Superman

Next time: TOBIAS!!!!!111 !!!!!11!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Last-Minute Fringe Review: S/He Is Nancy Joe

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is by its nature a very mixed bag. There are so many shows – over two and a half thousand last year – that you can't possibly stay on top of everything. All you can do is to keep your eyes peeled, read reviews, listen to friends' recommendations, and hope for the best. Sometimes you will see huge shows by established entertainment giants. Sometimes you will be one of three cringing attendees of an excruciatingly poor production. And sometimes you'll see a performer you know nothing about, based solely on an intriguing title and theme, and it'll be one of the most phenomenal shows you've ever seen in your life.

Walking past the Zoo Southside, I was arrested by the title S/He Is Nancy Joe. The strapline “I was born a girl but I know it’s a mistake” had me buying tickets. It was a really good decision.

Performer Miřenka Čechová of Tantehorse delivers an intense, harrowing, gorgeous hour of deeply felt dance and multimedia performance that explores zir gender journey with heartbreaking beauty. (**Although I have seen reviews and descriptions that gender Čechová female, seeing the show makes me extremely hesitant to do so, and so I use the pronoun zie/zir.**)

The choice of medium is inspired. The process of transition is, for me at least, a process of coming to terms with one's embodiment and learning to relate as an embodied being to the world around you. Dance is appropriate to portray this process since it is an immensely embodied art form, while the incorporation of props, sound, words, and animated images provides a sandbox for exploring the relational aspects of gender. Aesthetically, this is a beautiful show that makes powerful use of the different media involved.

Čechová is a mesmerizing performer. Zir body moves with, against, in, or out of the projected animations as needed to effectively portray the highs and lows of coming to a gendered self-understanding. At times zie is jerked around like a puppet on strings, buffeted helplessly by societal forces far beyond zir control. At times zir agony is a palpable presence on the stage; at other moments, zir sense of freedom and self is expressed through joyously harmonious dancing with zir animated silhouette.

Several standout images remain printed indelibly in my mind. First, Čechová reeling between doubled-over pain and a pose of crucifixion while red bubbles out behind zir to overtake the white projection screen, a menstrual symbol of enforced womanhood and the torment of dysphoria. Second, the tragicomic scene when zie attempts to reject being transgender and dons the hose and polka-dotted skirt of girlhood, only to find zirself so restricted in movement that zie can barely even let zirself be led in demure waltzing steps by invisible partners. Third, the accusatory spotlights that accompany a coldly transphobic voiceover, and the subsequent curled-up agony in the projected glare of television tuned to a dead channel.

S/He Is Nancy Joe packs an awful lot of thought-provoking material into its 55 minutes. Childhood gender stereotypes, dysphoria, denial, self-discovery, transphobia, and anxiety over medical transition are all explored with sensitivity and nuance. At the end of the performance, Čechová told the audience that it was an extremely personal show, and that much had been quite clear in every motion of zir body.

This is an astounding show, both artistically and as an exploration of gender. My only regret is that I didn't see it until the penultimate day of its run, so I can't make everyone I know in Edinburgh go see it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 18th, is the date of the final show, at Zoo Southside at 1:30pm. Drop everything else and see it. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Animorphs Revisited: #1 - The Invasion

In which we are introduced to our five protagonists, the nature of the galactic conflict, and the rules governing the rest of the series. Plus a couple of glaring missteps that will be swiftly retconned away.

The Animorphs books utilize that totally rad technique, inescapable in kids' book series of the nineties, of rotating narrators each volume. Book One is narrated by Jake, the most boring Animorph. He is The Leader: the generic white male who has too little personality to fulfill any other role in the group, and therefore gets put in charge by virtue of possessing the Golden Trifecta of Protagonist Traits (whiteness, maleness, blandness).
My name is Jake. That's my first name, obviously. I can't tell you my last name. It would be too dangerous. … I won't even tell you where I live. You'll just have to trust me that it is a real place, a real town. It may even be your town. I'm writing this all down so that more people will learn the truth.
Initially, that justification sort of makes sense if you don't think too hard about it, but as time goes on you have to start wondering: Why use your real first names? Why give us so much detail about your plans, battle tactics, and (as the series goes on) despair and exhaustion and PTSD, when the bad guys can also see this information? This cheesy-ass narrative set-up recurs every damn time, right down to the eye-roll-inducing “it could be your town!” It gets less and less convincing with every book, but the story gets more and more epic so who really cares.

Anyway, Jake and Marco are BFFs. Marco's three personality traits are being short, funny, and Hispanic. He's like Carlos from The Magic School Bus, only with a lot more hidden angst. Marco and Jake are being quintessential nineties pop-culture kids, playing videogames and looking at comic books at the mall. (Jake has a Sega at home, you guys!) They decide to take a shortcut home through the abandoned construction site with weedy Tobias, Jake's cousin Rachel, and sweet little Cassie.

L-R: Tobias, Rachel, Marco. The 1990s were all about diversity, y'all.
Cassie and Rachel are another pair of Benetton-ad-appropriately mismatched besties. Respectively: gentle, African-American animal-lover; conventionally beautiful, sassy fashionista. Tobias is the drippy friendless weirdo who gets bullied until Jake tells the bullies to stop.

(See, he's the hero because he's the privileged white guy who tells other privileged white guys not to give nerds swirlies. Jake and Hal Jordan should start a club for boring white guys who are inexplicably the hero when somebody much cooler could/should do their job.)

Jake has a big ole boner for Cassie, who, he thinks, “always understands everything on some different, more mystical level.” Because brown people, especially brown women, are totally ~mystical~ and ~close to nature~, you guys. As a short-haired animal-loving plaid-wearer, Cassie has always pinged the hell out of my lesbiandar, but hey, our protags are 2/5 people of color; let's not lay on the diversity too crazy thick.

(The canon ships are Jake/Cassie and Rachel/Tobias. Zzzzz. I could get behind Ax/Marco, I guess, if that were a thing. Ooh, headcanon accepted.)

Jake drops some light misogyny, and Rachel sasses him good. Later books always call her Xena, but here Jake compares her to Storm from X-Men. Cassie might be the dykey one, but Rachel's the grrrl power archetype. She'll crush the shit out of you with her fierce feminism and look a million dollars while doing it. As a kid, I was in love with Cassie, but now I really love Rachel as well.

So a spaceship lands in the construction site, and a telepathic shape-shifting space centaur with stalk eyes and a scorpion tail (Andalite, for short) drops some exposition bombs on our hapless heroes. Parasitic brain-slugs called Yeerks have invaded Earth and are taking over the bodies of human hosts, or Controllers. Controllers are indistinguishable from non-Controllers because the Yeerks have total access to all of their thoughts and memories, and can replicate their personality perfectly while the host is helplessly paralyzed inside their own body. It's a fantastically creepy premise – Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of The Exorcist.

The Andalite, who is injured and dying, whips out his magic blue box and offers the kids the power to morph into animals. They are hesitant, except Cassie (who, we will never be allowed to forget even for a second, is the offspring of two vets and totally hearts animals) and Tobias (who seems to have a mysterious intuitive affinity with the Andalite!! Could the strange otherworldly kid possibly have some as-yet-unknown kinship with the alien?? Find out in The Andalite Chronicles, which we'll get round to reading many, many weeks from now). But – pew pew! YEERK ATTACK! Kind of decides the issue for you, doesn't it?

Captain Expositiontaur conveniently introduces us to the two species that are all enslaved to the Yeerks: Hork-Bajir, who are “walking weapons” covered in blades and horns, and Taxxons, who are giant razor-toothed centipedes. Hork-Bajir were Good Guys, because Appearances Are Deceiving, and their enslavement is a Big Damn Tragedy. Taxxons are Bad Guys and they are disgusting and horrifying and you guys I think I just unearthed the source of my lifelong fear and hatred of centipedes. Their commander is Visser Three, and he is Teh Unspeakable Evils because he is the only Andalite-Controller (gasp, horror, retch). He gloats and is ebil and kills the shit out of the noble Andalite prince who so kindly set our plot in motion. Kids run away from the space monsters, and it's actually really fast-paced and tense, in a pulpy page-turner way.

Now that we know the set-up, it's time for the gang to do the requisite Newly-Acquired Superpowers Exploration scenes to establish Da Rules. Here is what we learn about morphing:
  • First, you have to acquire the animal's DNA, which you do by touching it and concentrating.
  • Now you can morph into the animal. The physical change is always described in graphic detail, sometimes disgustingly so.
  • You experience the animal's consciousness along with your own, and you have to take a moment to tame its instincts. This takes longer with higher-order beasties, but it's a useful happenstance because you can harness these instincts to do shit the animal already knows how to do, like fly or whatever.
  • While in morphed form, you communicate through telepathy. Or maybe French – <it's written like this.> (In the French translations, assuming there were French translations, is the telepathy shown by quotation marks?)
  • OOPS!: In this book, the morphed Tobias can hear the human Jake's thoughts. This will be retconned out of existence, because obviously it makes no sense. Duh.
  • You can morph tight clothes, a swimsuit or a bodysuit, thanks to the Avoid Preteen Nudity Wherever Possible get-out clause of the Contrivance Accords of Fiction-Writing.
  • OOPS!: At some point, I recall Rachel morphing herself a new haircut, another ability that will be retconned away. You do, however, lose all injuries, scars, and body-mods when you morph, because you're drawing on DNA. (Some of the really interesting implications of this get explored in the later books of the series.)
  • Most importantly, you can't stay in morph longer than two hours. If you do, you lose your morphing power and get stuck in whatever shape you've morphed to. FOREVER.
One of the coolest things about Animorphs books, sadly not replicable in my PDFs, was the little flip-book animation in the bottom right-hand corner: flip through, and you'd see a character going through one of the morphs that happened in that book. So freakin' cool.

Lizard morph: uncool, but a vast improvement on Jake's boring-ass face.
Jake's big brother Tom keeps trying to recruit him and his friends to this group called The Sharing. The Sharing is like Bible study group for people whose brains are controlled by alien slugs (so, not far removed from the evangelical Bible study group I used to go to). Yeah, turns out the most interesting thing about Jake is that his big brother is a Controller. Narratively, the function of The Sharing is to set up the primary Yeerk weakness: once every three days, Yeerks need to leave their host bodies and feed on Kandrona rays from their Yeerk pools, otherwise they die.

Master plot of the book: the kids attend a meeting of The Sharing, where they discover that their assistant principal, a charmer named Chapman (a delightful personality even pre-Yeerk, as we'll discover in Andalite Chronicles), is the boss of the local Controllers. Chapman unwittingly leads them to the secret entrance to the Yeerk pool. The Animorphs head to the local zoo to pick up some of their signature morphs – Jake's tiger, Marco's gorilla, Rachel's elephant – and then infiltrate the Yeerk pool to rescue Cassie, who has been captured by Controllers. They succeed, but at the cost of Visser Three learning of their existence. Since only Andalites are known to have the morphing tech, he assumes they are Andalites; this misperception will be the Animorphs' major tactical advantage throughout most of the series. Of course, it also invalidates the whole “I'm writing this because people need to know the truth, but anonymously so the Yeerks won't find out who I am” schtick.

Oh, and Tobias gets stuck in his hawk morph, but he's not too cut up about it.

Tobias, on getting stuck as a hawk.
Moral Quandaries
The big moral debate of this book is whether or not the kids should actually get involved in the war, and it's largely driven by their respective family situations. Tobias feels a moral obligation to fight. Marco feels it is his moral obligation not to fight, because his mom's death a few years ago nearly destroyed his dad, and if something happens to Marco he doesn't think his dad could cope. This isn't an issue for poor tragic Tobias, because he doesn't have any family (or does he and it somehow explains his very personal stake in this war??). Jake is on the fence until he finds out that his brother Tom is a Controller, at which point he can't not fight. Rachel is a gung-ho warrior princess, while Cassie is mostly interested in being able to become various animals. All of these conflicts and characterizations get fleshed out further, and become more and more agonizing, as the series goes on. God these books are awesome.

Trans* Moments
Tobias loves the shit out of his hawk morph, even before he gets stuck in it. <I hate changing back [to human]. It's like going back into a prison or something. I hate it when I don't have wings.> And later: “I'm happy with just my hawk morph. I don't want to be anything else.” DINGDINGDING we have a metaphor for being trans*! Especially when we compare Jake's response. Jake is in dog morph when he learns that his brother is a Controller, and he takes refuge from the horror in the dog's simple emotions. “I didn't even want to morph back into my human body. I knew that I could just let myself go again, and in a few minutes my dog brain would forget why my human brain was sad. … Now I knew why Tobias was so reluctant to leave his hawk's body. Being an animal could be a nice way to escape from all your troubles.” Notice the difference: Jake wants to stay in morph because it takes his mind off his problems; Tobias thinks his human body is “a prison.”

I didn't go into this reread looking for a very simple analogy for the difference between drag and transition, but I think I just found one.

Hey, It's 1996! Pop Culture Reference Log
Here are all the pop culture references I spotted in this book. A couple are fairly timeless, but some of them are almost as incurably 1990s as Seth Green's Nerf commercial.
  • Sega
  • X-Men
  • Star Trek (this one comes up a lot)
  • David Letterman
  • Dead Zone 5, a (presumably invented) “CD game we were going to play on my computer” (LOL 5EVA)
  • Fantastic Four
  • King Kong Vs Godzilla
  • Tarzan
  • Frankenstein

Next time: Rachel revisits an old friendship, the true horror of being a Controller is revealed, and I have lots of feels.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Upcoming Project Announcement!!

So I've been out of the blogging game for a few months (tumblr notwithstanding), thanks to a nearly-career-derailingly disastrous bout of writer's block that rolled over me like a semi truck the moment I hit send on the final paper of my master's degree. It seems wise, therefore, to ease back into bloggery with something gentle and delightful.

I got the idea from Snark Squad, whose archives have devoured many, many hours of my life these past few months. Though they've since graduated to coverage of things like Fifty Shades of Ohgodno and Buffy, the ladies of Snark Squad were initially devoted to recapping horrible book series of their childhood: Sweet Valley High, Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, etc. (If you have a million or two hours to spare, read all of their archives from the very beginning. It will enrich your vocabulary, if not your life.)

Now, I have an odd quirk of the personality whereby I very much enjoy reading other people snark on terrible literature in magnificent detail, but I generally can't stomach bad books on their own. Which is odd, given my documented enthusiasm for cheesy pop music, questionable television, and irredeemable movies; but then books are a greater investment of time, and I have a longer history with them than with any of those other media.

So there's no way I would invest the precious reading time on something without redeeming features. Instead, I thought I would revisit a book series that I extremely loved as a child, and that remains awesomesauce even unto today.

I speak, of course, of K.A. Applegate's superbly rad and stupendous Animorphs books.

If you are not familiar with Animorphs, well, you are in for a TREAT. The Animorphs are five kids who learn that, unbeknownst to anyone else on the planet, Earth is the site of an intense battle between warring alien species. Telepathic shape-shifting space centaurs called Andalites are the good guys fighting for liberation from the invaders. Yeerks are the parasitic slugs that wrap around the brains of other species and control them completely. In the first book, a dying Andalite bestows the power of shape-shifting (“morphing”) on the kids, and the rest of the series – 54 main books, 16 sidequest volumes – chronicles their battles against the Yeerks. It's intensely high-stakes, mind-blowingly cool, surprisingly non-terrible at race and gender sometimes, and extremely nineties.

As I go through the series, expect to see a few notable points recurring:
  • Animorphs displays a moral depth and complexity which is matched by few kids' series even since the great YA boom of the twenty-first century.
  • Animorphs' portrayal of the psychological toll of warfare on the adolescent psyche puts Harry Potter to shame – all the characters' PTSD manifests in much more sophisticated and believable ways than capslock!Harry and the Temper Tantrum of Doom.
  • Animorphs offers a coping mechanism and fantasy outlet for trans* kids (even deeply-in-denial trans* kids), particularly in the characters of Tobias, who spends most of the series trapped in the body of a hawk, and Ax, an Andalite stranded on Earth who must morph to human form any time he wants to interact with humans other than the Animorphs.
  • Nineties pop-culture references are hilarious and deserve to be chronicled in loving detail.
  • Hell, maybe I'll even do some Animorphs-based theologizing at some point, if the Ph.D. I'm starting this fall doesn't take all the fun out of pop theology for me.

Check back soon to meet Jake, Cassie, Rachel, Marco, and Tobias, and learn their superhero origin story!