Friday, April 5, 2019

Quick Sips - Serial Box: The Vela [episodes 5-6]

I’d say that reading The Vela was a little bit like being trapped on a runaway train as it barrels toward a cliff, but if we’re being honest I don’t think that does it justice. The train has already crashed through the boundaries and into the open air and is plummeting down, on fire, while on board there are hungry lions, bandits with guns, and maybe a murderous AI for good measure. The phrase “going from bad to worse” definitely applies in terms of the issues the characters are facing, all while building up a stunning science fiction setting with high stakes, brilliant action, and shattering emotional moments. I’m tired just reading about what these characters are enduring, but I’m also super excited to find out what happens next. To the reviews!


“The Heart of the Web” by Yoon Ha Lee (serial episode 5)

No Spoilers: After the revelations of the previous episode, this one finds Asala and Niko mostly dealing with the fallout, with Asala in particular having to navigate not knowing who to trust or how to move forward through a sea of interests, plots, factions, and intrigues. A few new faces are introduced, a new “truth” is revealed, and there’s a whole lot of running and fighting as Asala has to stay on her toes and hopes that Niko knows enough to keep up. As with everything in the series so far, the episode is a sort of running retreat, a slapdash cascade of Things Going Wrong and Asala just barely able to stay ahead, alive, and with the appearance that she knows exactly what she’s doing. As long as she can manage the first two of those, though, the third one is one she’s very much willing to fake. It’s a fun, thrilling ride that brings the characters from one disaster to a new one and once again sets them up to change scenery on their crisis tour of the solar system.
Keywords: Space, Refugees, Science!, Queer MC, Trans MC, Betrayal
Review: The series has done a great job of not really giving the characters, and especially Asala, with the time to really get her feet under her. She’s operating while in unfamiliar territory, while dealing with the emotional scars from her own childhood and immigration, and while no one is really telling her the truth. And now it’s starting to all catch up with her. Because it seems like she’s finally starting to untangle the web of lies that have confounded her mission to this point. And as the title of the episode implies, the heart of the web is occupied by a spider, a new player named Hafiz who presumably explains the true stakes of what’s going on. Of course, how much of the truth they’re telling is anyone’s guess, and I love how frustrated Asala gets with all the people around her she can’t really check out as much as she’d like. She’s just asked to trust everyone, to believe the admittedly outlandish stories they’re telling, and accept that they are doing what’s best. Of course, it’s hard to trust the moral character of a man on a space station full of near-starving refugees who lives in luxury.

The trouble is, of course, that it’s hard to trust anyone no matter how noble they seem. No matter how much good they seem to do. And in a system as corrupt as the one in the series, everyone has to have ulterior motives. Everyone has to be pragmatic. Because otherwise you’re dead. The episode packs a lot of action in, having Asala and Niko running not once but twice, always just barely getting by, and always landing in a situation that’s even more dangerous than the one they just escaped. It’s a big part of the charm of the series, that there’s really no break in the action, no chance for them to get a breather or really assess what’s going on. And with Niko it’s still not sure how much they know, how much they’re hiding, or whose side they’re on. Asala is finally starting to see that, despite her wanting so badly to be able to trust someone in this mess, but she also knows that to survive she has to remain detached and professional and, sadly, self sufficient. I suspect that’s part of what keeps the story feeling like a series of errors, a domino effect of death and destruction. That regardless of how good Asala is, she’s still having to face everything on her own. There is no one else she can trust, no one else who is loyal to her, and until she can get that, she seems doomed to finding no peace and no real choice in her mission. Every step she takes, the next one is already plotted based on survival and need. She can fall. She can stumble and die. But at the moment she can’t really guide where she’s going, and until she can it’s going to be incredibly difficult to do much beyond react.

The season is in its meaty center at the moment, and it’s very much delivering with the thrills and chills, and even manages to bring moments of levity (the gladiator drama, of instance, is just amazing). For every answer given, though, more questions sprout and multiply. More danger looms. And the spinning plates that Asala has so far managed to keep going threaten to fall to pieces. It’s a thrilling read, and another wonderful episode!

“Fortress World” by Rivers Solomon (serial episode 6)

No Spoilers: This episode opens hot on the heels of the last, with Asala and Niko trying to survive a disastrous descent to Gan-De. As I said in the last review, the pair haven’t exactly had a chance to rest in a long long time, and this episode really isn’t any different. The mood of the piece changes, though, pushing the characters further and further into a moral gray cloud and draining them of their remaining emotional, physical, and intellectual reserves. If the season has a low point, I’d say the characters are just about there, though that might be a little premature (and I’m almost afraid to see if I’m wrong). But it’s another wrenching, action-packed installment full of a glimmer of hope among an otherwise sea of disappointment and danger.
Keywords: Spaceships, Refugees, Militias, Queer MC, Trans MC
Review: This is the point in the story where the characters really seem to be at their exhaustion point. After everything that happened on Hypatia, then their narrow escape there (and the people they left behind) and the resulting action on Camp Ghala and the things they learned there—the pair are running on almost empty and can’t seem to catch a fucking break. Really, the only bit of hope they get is in the small community that helps them when they arrive and gives them supplies and aid without question. And I like how the story builds up these small fragile moments when there are people trying so hard and at such risk to themselves to do right, and yet who still can’t really stand up to the systemic problems. Their resistances are smaller and vital, but often feel drowned out by the larger abuses on display. Asala and Niko are helped, but directly afterward they are also attacked. They manage to restore some small part of their faith in humanity only to learn once again that the solar system is a fucked up place where most people are only really looking out for themselves.

And I like the moral complications that the episode confronts, the need that Asala has to stop this cycle of violence, of wrongs done. In part because she cannot separate herself from this life she didn’t even want. The sacrifice that so many people made to get her off her home world, to put her into a life of relative luxury. That wasn’t luxurious at all, that was also a loss for her of her family and her culture. That brought with it extra scrutiny, racism, and danger. And yet that also makes other people see her as a traitor, as choosing to work for who she does in a much more personal way than she feels. It’s something that she has to navigate all the time, and yet it’s not something that Niko or even many of the refugees seem to see or understand. They are fighting their own wars, drawing their own lines, unaware that those lines invariably run directly through Asala, treating her like she can separate out the various parts of herself. And so she needs there to be a way to move forward that allows herself and those like her a future. That might break down the cycle of violence instead of seeing it to its ultimate and bloody conclusion.

And for me it’s how I think Asala is keeping on going. She’s searching for a way that doesn’t involve reacting to everything with an escalation, hitting back harder and harder. She’s a soldier, a mercenary, and yet she’s hoping so hard to not have to fight. Maybe that’s the exhaustion, the weariness she has, but I think rather it’s the desperate hope that there’s a way for everyone to live. For people to reach out in compassion despite their hurt. To trust despite their trauma. She’s trying so hard, and yet every time she tries to avoid killing she’s met with violence. I’m not sure where the story goes from here in part because I feel the characters will have to soon decide what they will do proactively rather than how they will react to direct threats. It’s a stunning episode, full of action but most of all full of humanity with all its messiness and hope and fear and hate. A fantastic read!


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