Last year I did a general favorite books and favorite short stories of 2019 post. This year, I thought I’d do my year end favorites post a little differently. Some of my favorite books I read this year were also kind of huge bummers and I don’t really have the energy to talk about them at this juncture. I do have the energy to talk about my faves that were hopeful or brought me joy or nourished me in general. So I’m just focusing on those stories for this year end post- they all would have wound up on my favorites anyway.
Some of these I’ve talked about previously in my monthly reading reviews, but others I haven’t, since I don’t normally write about movies or videogames on here. Also these aren’t really “finger on the pulse” recommendations, given that one of them is from 1986. Some things did come out this year, however, like The Four Profound Weaves, and The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish.
This was a hard post for me to write, because it’s hard for me to talk about things that are meaningful to me in this way without just devolving into crying and saying “I just think it’s really beautiful.” So all of the stories in this post are things that I think are beautiful, and that did make me cry, to get that out of the way up front, and to make room for hopefully some slightly more in depth discussion about what I think makes these stories resonate with me.
Horizon: Zero Dawn I made two big “man, everything sucks and I want to be happy sometimes” purchases this year: an accordion and and a PS4. The accordion is a machine for joy. The PS4 is a machine for Zero Dawn.
On a mechanical level, this game is superb. It looks wonderful – the color palettes, location, character and creature designs are all gorgeous. There’s a special kind of small, odd joy to be found in running around the ruins of your hometown in a post-post apocalyptic setting, seeing statues and buildings that you pass everyday, overgrown with vibrant, bursting plant life and the heavy thumping of robotic feet. I’ve played tons of games and watched tons of movies set in future versions of D.C., Seattle, New York, all the big expected cities of the U.S. But none set in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve never 100% completed a game – item collections become boring, meaningless distractions, achievements don’t offer any deeper insight into the world or narrative. But the metal flowers and Banuk figurines and the poetry and stories that accompanied them deepen the world, and at times stuck me with their genuine beauty. Scattered audio logs told very human stories, of corporations and greed leading the world into ruin, ignoring all warning signs. Of people doing their best to get by in heinous conditions. Of people reaching out to one another as everything came crashing down. It all matters to the story, to Aloy, to the player, and never feels like filler.
On a narrative level, I think this is one of the few AAA video games that is truly meaningful art. On a narrative level, this game is one of the most personally important stories I’ve ever interacted with. It reckons with the horror of complete environmental collapse, of unchecked greed, of militarism. But it also illuminates the better parts of humanity, of people working together to solve problems, of reaching out to one another. While occasionally sardonic, Alloy is such a fundamentally kind character. She helps people in game not just because it adds sidequests for the player to do, but because within the world of the game someone should help those people and Aloy happens to be there. As Aloy tries to uncover who her mother was, she uncovers the story of how the world ended, and how Elizabet Sobeck sacrificed everything to try and save the world, to try and save everyone, to try and save just a handful of people at the end.
This is the kind of climate fiction for me. It’s dire – all life on earth does end due to the machinations of human greed and narcissism – but it’s hopeful too. Elizabeth Sobeck and her cohort of experts ensure the survival of humanity, of trees and plants, of animals. They make a future against all odds, because life should be protected. Aloy follows in their footsteps, protecting the delicate ecosystem of people, machines, and the broader environment, because someone has to, because you can’t not try.
Star Trek IV: The Journey Home – Kirk and crew have to bring whales back from extinction via time travel. One of my favorite episodes of the podcast Criminal is “Dropping Like Flies,” about the poaching of Venus Flytraps. Some of the poaching potentially goes back to a company using mashed up flytraps as a “miracle cure” and one of the people interviewed talks about the tragedy not just of the potential extinction of flytraps if the poaching continues but the loss of their potential – what if they actually could provide some real cure for something, but by the time people figure that out, there are just no more flytraps. I could not stop thinking about that dire warning while watching this goofy space movie about whales. Its the sci-fi equivalent of that – the loss of the whales is a tragedy in its own right, but is further compounded by their loss causing a greater disaster, when the aliens attempt to respond to the whales’ song, and nearly destroy the planet in the process. Both of these take a somewhat self-centered utilitarian response – the loss of species is tragic because humans lose what those species could offer. But they do ultimately still reckon with what a tremendous loss the extinction of a species is.
Anyways, this is a list about things that brought my joy in 2020, and here I’ve talked about species extinction and the loss of biodiversity twice. Wowee.
The Voyage Home is a movie that culminates with a group of people joyously cheering and waving at the first two whales to exist on earth in centuries. It’s a very funny and kind and joyous movie. Dr. Gillian Taylor’s travels to the future to continue to look after the whales strikes at a similar same emotional cord to the episodes of Star Trek where a member of a planet-bound species sees their planet from space on the bridge of one of the ships for the first time. Just awe at the beauty and fragility of the ecosystem we all inhabit together.
Bones regrows an elderly woman’s kidney, and while her yelling “the doctor gave me a pill and I grew a new kidney!” is the funniest line in the movie, it also points to the emotional core of Star Trek. The world can be better. We can be kind and heal the sick and cheer for the return of whales.
As an aside, Wrath of Khan is overall pretty low on my personal ranked list of Star Trek movies, but it is worth it solely for the “I have been and always shall be your friend” line. I have been thinking about it nonstop for months since watching, and the people who I feel that way about in my life. 30 seconds of Wrath of Khan makes it on to this list.
The Good Place – Four doofuses, a demon, and Janet have to overhaul the afterlife system to save humanity. I’ve seen some critique of the show that the gang overthrows the point system in the afterlife, and doesn’t actually enact any material change on earth. The hypothetical dude buying flowers Michael brings up in one episode isn’t losing points for his flower purchase anymore, but he is still interacting with a chain of events where the flowers came from a farm that underpays its workers who work in unsafe conditions, and where the farm was plowed into a grassland that can no longer function as a carbon sink, and whose runoff pollutes the nearby watersheds. I think it’s a fair critique, but I also don’t really expect a comedy show on a mainstream t.v. channel to be able to offer up the solutions for the way our real world is and wrap it up in 22 minute increments, even one as engaged with ethics and morality as the Good Place is. I also think Tahani, and to a lesser extent Jason, really got sidelined in the last season.
Critiques noted, I think the show succeeds at what it tries to do, which is point out the flaws in the system, and show that you can’t not try to fix it. Friendship and a love for one another can be a scaffolding to build a better system. The ending of the show is perfect – it’s really important to me in our current media landscape that the show did end with an ending. Not a backdoor pilot, not an open-ending to allow room for a sequel. A finite ending, because things do have to end, and that’s okay. At the same time, within the narrative, things do end, but they continue. What we do matters and has impacts on people we’ve never even met before, as what remains of Eleanor has an impact on just some guy.
As a minor point, I was absolutely delighted at the appearance of Hypatia of Alexandria (finally I can just bring up Hypatia in day to day conversation without having to preface the convo with her Wikipedia page). Loved the meta joke of Michael asking the judge if she’d really deny Phoebe from Friends entry into the Good Place in an earlier episode, and then Phoebe sort of appearing in the Good Place via Lisa Kudrow playing Hypatia.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany – A king marries the daughter of the king of Elfland in an effort to bring magic to his kingdom, and then goes on a decades long search for her after she returns to Elfland. His son hunts unicorns, and is drawn towards the magic across the border of Elfland that is his birthright. What really pleased me about this story was the pacing of it. Its a slow, rolling pace, with the highest points of action being a short sword fight in Elfland and the hunting of unicorns. The rest is very introspective, with scenes of magical creatures who exist outside of time experiencing it for the first time, watching dust motes filter down through sunlight, or the king on his quest to find his wife again, walking for years besides the barren wasteland where Elfand used to rest against his kingdom. The writing is beautiful, and the yearning of the characters for time, for magic, for loved ones, is palpable.
The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg – Will I ever stop talking about The Four Profound Weaves? It’s not likely. What a joy to have been one of the last books I read in 2020. Lemberg has created such a rich and living world, with the lore of deep names and profound weaves. The pacing is gentle even as the protagonists must struggle against a tyrant, and against stifling and cruel boundaries on how it is allowable to exist as a person. But the protagonists also prop each other up, and find allies, and make their own ways of being in the world.
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti – Alastair Sterling wakes up after dying in an android body, and goes to an ex-boyfriend for help figuring out what happened. This comic approaches its world, characters, and its readers with such generosity. The exploration of gender through both metaphor and actuality felt very true to life and relatable to me. The world felt expansive and hopeful, while also feeling very cozy and zeroed in on its protagonists, even as they struggle to make sense of the way they exist in the world.
The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish by Jo Miles. Elja watches over her sleeping people as she tries to reverse an ecological tragedy that has ravaged the tea fish her species exists in symbiosis with. This story fed a similar need in me to Horizon: Zero Dawn. It is also a story about resilience and responsibility to a broader network of beings than just ourselves, and also features a mother-daughter relationship as part of its emotional core. It is ultimately bittersweet, but hopeful. In the face of great tragedy, what else can one do but persist and strive towards a better tomorrow? What else can one do but tend gently to the delicate health of waters, the feeding of fish, coaxing the bigness of the future to come forth against all odds, from these small and necessary things?