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Author: Sandy

The Ghost and the Machine: a journey through context collapse hell

Halfway through a session of D&D and the party have found an obviously-trapped treasure room. The rogue has written TRAP on the door in chalk. The players see this, and have decided to spend a solid half hour of real time walking into it, setting it off, desperately rolling saves to avoid being crushed, then backing out and trying again. The thesis seems to be that it has a pre-set damage limit and they can brute force their way to victory. 

This thesis turns out to be correct, but at this point in our story I don’t know that yet and I’m bored out of my mind. I’m sitting there thinking about technology, and the way we interact with it, and the way we navigate the digital landscape – software has become so complex it’s almost impossible for laypeople to understand, so we skate on the surface and learn to look for signs that emerge from beneath the ice. We don’t have the information necessary to understand WHY, but we still have to exist in digital space so we develop practical navigation techniques based on what we do know.

Like, oh I dunno, AI being bad at hands. 

Nailed it.

Which I thought was a pretty interesting analogy to a lot of indigenous knowledge that tends to get written off as ‘superstition’. You probably can’t tell me why an AI is shit at doing hands but you can USE the hands to spot it right away; my tūpuna couldn’t tell you WHY dried specimens of laetiporus portentosus were so good at carrying fire long distances but they sure as hell carried that fire. At no point in history have people ever stopped being people. 

We don’t always understand that though. Richard Dawkins certainly didn’t when he started a firestorm last year over the teaching Mātauranga Māori in schools and it’s been on my mind. Just as we live in a digital environment, our ancestors lived in forests and mountains and plains and they knew them like we know our tech, not in ways that require hundreds of thousands of words of jargon but in ways that worked. Tohoho look at these savages using inductive reasoning to come to practical solutions

And, y’know, there are modern Māori mycologists in universities studying laetiporus portentosus, it’s not like it had to stop there, and it’s not like modern mātauranga doesn’t incorporate modern scientific understanding, but if you’re stuck in the bush and need to move fire from place to place, that’s not necessary, you just need to know which mushroom to look for.  We look back on the past with a sneer of condescension and assume we’re better than them because we have smartphones. Can you tell me how your smartphone works from an engineering perspective? Can you build one from scratch? No, you push the buttons and it does what you need. I’m not being judgemental here, it’s just a fact, we’re living in an increasingly complex world and it’s important to stay humble about that, and maybe develop more of an empathy for the past in the process. 

Then I did the fucking stupid thing: I tweeted about it. 

I’m sorry Emma I forgot rule #1 is NEVER FUCKING TWEET

Not being particularly precise with my language because I really didn’t expect it to go anywhere, half-focusing on Twitter and half-focussing on the party faffing about with a trap, I fired off some quick thoughts. It got more traction than I was expecting but it was easy to ignore, people on the internet are allowed to be wrong. I grizzled a bit and got back to D&D, they’d successfully traded half their health for a necklace of fireballs and were actually moving. We finished the session, I went to bed. In the morning I checked Twitter and found all hell had broken loose. 

It is currently at 30,000 likes and it’s ruining my life. 

There are, as far as I can tell, two main camps, mostly consisting of Americans:

  1. calling me Matthew Hopkins/a mediaeval peasant and making fun of the savage who thinks photographs can steal your soul 

There is a thread you know. Where I panickedly try to get the stuff about mātauranga on the table. It hasn’t really helped. The tweet going viral is the first one, which is a bit vague and makes some poor word choices. I’m not super happy with “superstition”, but it’s one I’ve seen the Dawkins crowd throwing around a lot, it was stuck in my craw, and like I said, the tweet wasn’t an attempt at plumbing the depths of the universe, I was just bored at D&D and the thought popped into my head half-formed and I didn’t really think too hard about it. When it started popping off I made a better attempt to articulate myself. It currently has around 1/20th of the interactions as the first bit.

A writer from The Daily Show snarkily quote tweeted me suggesting I was on drugs. I’ve now seen multiple respected academics and journalists subtweeting me, twitter comedians suggesting that I’m the Victorian Child who’d be killed by being exposed to a cheeto (as I understand it, cheetos are Yank Twisties and they’re a bit shit). It’s all almost-exclusively based off the first bit, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. 

I mean you could delete it right? 

Oh fuck right, that’s the other thing.


I mean sure I could delete it, but I’m a struggling midlist writer whose last chunk of the advance is almost a year overdue. The only reason I didn’t lose my accommodation last year is because an uncle died; it does not feel good for my soul and anyway uncles are a finite resource and Marty seems fit as a fiddle. In 2020 I went megaviral a couple of times (500k for a terrible dadjoke during the most important and stressful week of my life thus far, jesus christ, had a nervous breakdown afterwards that led some very interesting places that maybe one day I’ll even tell yiz), picked up a lot of new followers, got a lot more people interested in my writing, and I need them to be interested if I’m going to have a career. Publishers don’t really do a lot of book promo unless you’re already huge, and I’m a debut who seemed shit hot in 2020 and I’m doing fine but I could definitely be doing better –  the choices right now are scramble up or slide down, and when the ground beneath your feet is collapsing you grab any handhold you can. 

I did a book plug in the thread and it’s kinda popping off, as far as any Twitter publicity can. The sort of person who resonates with that tweet in a way that leads to actually reading the fucking thread seems to vibe with the pitch (hey while you’re here). It kinda feels like I’m at minute 25 of throwing myself face-first at a trap and waiting for the necklace of fireballs to fall out. Maybe this time if I can tank the psychic damage of being crushed between two hordes of screaming fuckwits, it’ll be my big break. 

It probably won’t, but we’re all stuck on the wheel regardless of how close our legs are to giving out. Anger is engagement, the angry people get you into the houses of the sympathetic people and vice versa, and they both get you into the houses of the people who are going to help you maybe stop worrying about rent for five fucking minutes. If I were more economically stable I’d delete, lock, maybe go on a nice holiday to somewhere further away than Blenheim and let it all blow over. I can’t though, because there’s a tax bill coming and my publisher has ghosted me harder than that lovely sweet guy who spent the arvo taking shotgun blasts of my feelings. He’ll be back, right? Because I kinda need it right now. 

Jesus Christ Read The Fucking Thread

Isn’t knowledge great? And there’s so very much of it, like water in the ocean, like ice in the ice caps. The irony hasn’t escaped me that the people who refused to click twice to look for context are the same ones calling me an idiot who lacks critical thinking skills. It doesn’t matter: there are thousands of them and one of me, and I’m the one drowning. Part of me wants to endlessly agonize over word choices here but to be honest, my experiences going viral have taught me that a certain tranche of fuckwits could belligerently misunderstand a box of duplo. If people aren’t mad about this, it’s because nobody’s reading.

My heart is banking on the latter

I won’t speak for my wallet.

Sascha Stronach Commits Sacrilege

I’m not really a Christian. I grew up in a sort of very loose Easter-And-Funerals Methodism, I can recite the Lord’s Prayer and say Grace without embarrassing myself, I know enough to blag about when the Malaysian Government wouldn’t accept agnostic for my work VISA, but I mostly only find myself in a church by accident and I’m always anxious that my gay ass is about to combust. 

Now Catholicism is a whole ‘nother thing, the closest I can come to understanding it is that I read Harrow the Ninth twice, but I found myself in a cathedral today, attending a Christening, and I simultaneously realised two things:

  1. I don’t really know the rules
  2. I desperately needed to fart 

Particularly in times of stress, we process the familiar first, and as a singer I can tell you that place had superb acoustics. Hoo boy, some very clever architect designed it to amplify sound spectacularly, each footfall and rustle could be heard by every single other person in the building, I can imagine it’s wonderful for creating a sense of community, it’s hard not to be aware of everybody else, the way you’re all occupying the same extended piece of air.

Which I really needed to fart in. 

I could hear everything, and even the daintiest fart, I knew, would rattle the stained-glass windows like an artillery barrage. It really was a gorgeous space, lavishly decorated, a carved marble altar showing The Last Supper and a SECOND carved marble altar holding no less than seven Marys, dozens of Saints and angels staring down at me from all directions. Here, in descending order, is how I thought they’d judge me for farting in church.

  1. The Angels. There are a lot of them, they’re all very high up, they have swords, and I imagine they prefer a sort of Old Testament Justice, but on the other hand do their perfect bodies fart? Could they even understand what is happening? Did God make them with knowledge of farting? Surely not, farting came later, with mankind, I suppose God could’ve filled them in but I’m not sure how necessary that info would be to their holy mission. If they do know what a fart is, I’m a dead man.
  2. The Saint Holding a Book. Hoo boy, this guy looks like his first words were UM, ACTUALLY; there is a small boy at his side who is asking him a question and The Saint Holding A Book is giving him a look halfway between condescension and the perverse joy of getting to lecture somebody; the Saint Holding A Book would absolutely ruin board game night. Giant asshole, definitely wants you to know his loud opinions about farting.
  3. Mary Mother of God. I think she would also be relatively chill about church farts but on the other hand I would be utterly mortified to fart in front of my own mum (also present) let alone The Mum of God. File this one under “probably not an issue, but let’s not.” 
  4. The Baby Holding A Large Jug of Wine. Is this a saint? He’s certainly up there amongst them so I’m counting it. Despite potential Heavenly intervention I doubt his alcohol tolerance is very good, because he’s a baby. If I farted he would be too wasted to care, and also he’s a baby. 
  5. The Saint Holding a Leek. He’s too far away for me to read his nameplate, but even at a distance I can make out his expression of dignified anxiety, like a substitute teacher whose class is behaving a little too well. Dude had enough foresight to bring lunch, I am filled with a desperate need not to let him down but even if I fail I think he would be sympathetic. 
  6. Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Now there are a lot of Jesuses, outside of Mary he’s certainly got the numerical advantage, but they all seem preoccupied with getting murdered by Romans and even if he does notice, even my limited understanding of Christendom covers the fact forgiveness is his whole deal. Jesus holds the milk of human kindness, he can forgive killers and thieves, he is probably going to be okay with me farting in his gaff.

Caught between these impulses, for a moment I got the tiniest inkling of how Catholic Guilt works. I’m willing to belief jesus forgives and angels don’t, I feel pre-judged by Book Saint and more than anything I want Leek Saint to get back to the staffroom in one piece. Caught between awe, love, and abject terror, I got up, left the church, and farted until I was free from sin.

Matey Potatey

Bevan stared down at the fucked-up garden man, begging for his life. He needed a better name for it than the fucked-up garden man but nothing else came to mind, it was a perfect encapsulation of the core traits present: 1) from the garden 2) man (debatable?) 3) fucked-up (definitely). His skin was potato-russet and extremely peelable, his eyes were the dark little pits you’d carve out with a knife, his voice was cludgy and thick and, well … spudlike.

HNO GHKILLME FĀTHERR he said and Bev had to admit he made a compelling argument, but on the other hand inflation was up and boy, he was staring at a solid 80–100kg of raw potato that he had grown and watered himself, ready to just fuck off into the neighbourhood until it got nicked and cooked up by some other cunt, probably Daryl.

“Why not?” asked Bev.


It made a noise like a cat about to cough up a hairball, then ejected a sputum of wet dark dirt. It cleared its throat, and from somewhere inside it Bev could hear gravel rattling against rock.

I DHREEĀM it finished.

So fuckin what, so does every other cunt, old Aunt Kiri wouldn’t shut the fuck up about her dreams, oh she was in the post office and saw a man with no face who whispered to her the song that would unweave the world but when she awoke she couldn’t remember a bloody note.

“Nah,” said Bev, and clouted it around the head with the flat of the shovel. Something cracked inside its neckpiece, and for a moment there was silence, then it began to wail, high and keening, like a child in pain, suddenly so humanlike that Bev took a step back. The sound gave him a clanging headache.

“Alright alright,” sighed Bev, “what do you dream about then mate?”


Bev wasn’t gonna lie, songs of praise sounded alright. He loved a little worship. The wee black-eyed cunts who used to come and pay homage had long since fucked off back to the forest after getting their fix of blood-sugar and wouldn’t be back for another turn of the world at least, and who even knew if the world had that long.

“Go on then,” he said, brandishing the shovel in reminder “praise a lad up.”

FĀTHER it ullulated with a sound like somebody pouring out a bag of blood into the gutter, unpleasantly organic, YOUR FLĒSH IS FĪRM AND RICH WITH NŪTRIENTS, YOU ARE THE RŌT, THE SĒD, THE SUN AND LĒF, SPARE MĒ AND I WILL MĀKE MANY MŌRE POTATŌ, ĒT MY SŌNS AND THEIR SKIN AND GROW STRŌNG.

Which really was just forward-thinking wasn’t it? Spare one potato, get hundreds later. Set up a stall and sell the neighbours mash, he’d make a literal bloody killing. He was seeing dollar signs and bloodbags.

“Alright then mate, make another potato,” he said, and the fucked-up garden man began to ullulate and whirl, which was pretty much what he’d been doing the whole time, but there was an intent to it, where it had felt listless it felt motivated, Bev felt his skin prickle and his throat go dry, and he knew something was changing in the world, being torn apart and rewritten by the magic of root and blood.

“Hgurry upp,” he muttered, then his eyes went wide.

“HYŪ CŪNT,” he roared, and tried to swing the shovel again, but his limbs were heavy and slow, not build to handle the speed and weight, and he felt something soft inside him fracture and flake. With what strength his rapidly spudifying body could muster, he leapt into the pit with both hands raised, and crashed into the fucked-up garden man with the force of a potato striking another potato, which is to say not as much as he expected. The fucked-up garden man was already wrapping his arms around him, the dark spots growing inquisitive and hungry roots that pierced into Bev, drew them closer and closer together into a single awful bifurcated trunk.

FĀĀTHER sung the fucked-up garden man, I DŌ A YOU ĀSK and Bev realised it was coming from his own muddy throat too, in terrible harmony, his mouth and body no longer his own as the fucked-up garden man – with more limbs, more strength, and a shovel from Mitre 10 – hauled its way out of the pit and set off together into the night.

Writer Advice #1: There are No Rules

This piece is built around the defence of a very common example of “bad prose”, which uses some adult language and concepts. If you’re a young person or someone who might get in trouble with your boss right now, you might wanna mosey on. 

I don’t like writing rules. Writing advice? Sure, fire away, but there’s a tendency to treat general writing principles like immutable laws. Show Don’t Tell, strictly applied, would easily triple the length of the average manuscript, but a lot of folks in online spaces are evangelical about it, any instance of telling is an error and not a choice. 

I wanna put something out there: there are no mistakes in style, there are only choices. Some choices are harder to make work than others. Some choices require a peerless mastery of the craft that few of us (with the exception of, say, totally random example here, an early 20th century Irishman who was really into farts) will ever achieve, but none of them are objectively, factually wrong – there are choices you aren’t capable of executing right now, but that makes them the wrong choice for you right now, not a bad choice in-and-of-themselves. 

So here it is, the bit where I tell you why you’re allowed to replace said with ejaculated

It’s the ultimate example of bad prose, from 1000 different writers’ workshops. Said – as you’ve probably heard – is invisible, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it does the job and leaves without making a mess. Ejaculated is none of those things, it’s messy and loud, both formal and horny in a way that’s deeply offputting. The lover who’d say “ejaculate for me” is rarely endgame. It tends to most commonly be combined with “premature”; if it came on time, you’d just call it cum. It’s a funny word, it speaks to awkwardness, it’s the sort of word you’d hear from somebody who reads a lot of books and doesn’t go to a lot of parties. It’s also explosive, it’s big, there’s force behind it. All together, it calls to mind somebody inexperienced, intelligent but awkward, eager but lacking self control  

and, hear me out here

What if you want that? 

Tom’s face went red. “I didn’t think this was a date either!” he said. 


Tom’s face went red. “I didn’t think this was a date either!” he ejaculated. 

It’s a big choice. It’s certainly not a choice for every context, but my issue with so much writing advice is that it’s turned into writing rules, it’s unequivocal, NEVER do this, it is inherently bad craft. A lot of the time, it’s not actually a bad choice, it’s a big choice, it calls attention to itself, but sometimes that’s the goal. Big choices are harder to handle, they tend to be more contextual, and if applied broadly across a text they’ll cause absolute chaos. If Tom ejaculates every time, it’s ridiculous, but if he ejaculates and then he stammers during his date-not-date, you’ve done a huge amount of characterisation with a few small words. Said works 99% of the time, but 1% isn’t 0, and the average MS almost certainly has more than 100 dialogue attributions. Is Tom another guy in the montage of bad dates, or is he endgame who’s going to grow and change?  Could go either way, but we wouldn’t be asking that question if he didn’t ejaculate. 

Sometimes you can hit the gas too hard, but that’s harder than a lot of people think. Prose has a tempo and part of that tempo comes from choosing when to let the reader’s attention glide over the words and when to slow it down, make the reader stare or laugh or throw the book across the room. There’s certainly such a thing as bad purple prose, but there’s also good ornate prose, which can create a sort of literary maximalism, a feast for the mind. “He stood in a room” is invisible but what if it’s one of these rooms? 

Is it better art to just call it “a room” and move on? Well, it depends, and that’s sort of the point – unequivocal application of WRITING RULES tends to create slick prose, effortless, clean, uncluttered, but the point of art isn’t to be invisible

Which is why, sometimes, you gotta break the rules, you gotta ejaculate.

Becky, the Thermian Argument, and Intentionality of Art

This post will contain spoilers for the 2020 film Becky, and also talk a whole bunch about Nazism, so if either of those things is gonna be a problem, skip this one.

Becky is a film that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Or, it isn’t at all, but it a lot of its backstory and its villains’ motivations is never made explicit – it relies instead on implication, but that implication is not subtle. Let’s get the plot basics out of the way:

  1. Becky is a 13 year-old girl. Her mother has died at some point in the last few years, and now her father is dating Kayla, a woman of colour.
  2. They are together at the family’s cabin when a group of Neo-Nazis break in and hold them hostage, looking for a key with a valknut (a Norse rune commonly used by Nazis, also prominently tattooed on the Neo-Nazi leader’s hand) engraved in it that they believe is on the property. The cabin was owned by Becky’s mother for a long time prior to her death.
  3. Becky escapes the Neo-Nazis, the rest of the film is basically Home Alone x Rambo. At the end of the film, she is seen clutching the key to her chest.

We’re never actually told what the key opens, or why the Nazis chose this cabin, but I’m just gonna say what I think is very strongly implied by the text:

Becky’s mother was the member of the Neo-Nazi gang. She didn’t get caught during some big score, and she hid whatever they stole in the cabin basement. Becky knows her mom was a Nazi and is not just cool with it but actively sympathetic to the cause. She is motivated not by hatred of the Nazis or desire to save her new family but because she wants to keep the money.

symbolism? what symbolism? im sure the graphic designer who intentionally created this piece of official marketing material was trying to communicate that the movie contains both nazis and a teenage girl called becky and the fact the colours match is a total coincidence, colours match all the time in real life and it doesn’t mean anything, please help, I’m trapped in a bad crit factory and they’re making me do cinemasins, somebody please tell my wife i love h

Which is … apparently controversial? In a reddit thread on the topic, a user leaps to Becky’s defence and says that these are all perfectly normal teenage behaviours, which is bizarre to me. It’s a popular, upvoted response too. The film never explicitly states that Becky is cool with Nazis but, well … that’s not how film works.

In one of the first shots we see of Becky, in the first 5 minutes of the film, she is seen scribbling a pair of lightning bolts on her school work, beside her name. This occurs in the film’s timeline before she meets the Neo-Nazis, so she didn’t learn it from them. It’s honestly a pretty blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot, but once somebody points it out it’s pretty obvious. They’re drawn in a way that’s clearly meant to be a little ambiguous – they don’t look like SS Lightning Bolts, they look like two regular lightning bolts beside each other. I wish I could get screenshots, but Netflix gonna Netflix, but either watch it yourself or take it on my word that if this were a regular teenager you could believe that maybe they were just really into Harry Potter or something.

However, you’re missing a key factor: this is a film and that decision was intentional. It’s one of the very first things we see her doing. The director chose to establish Becky by having her scribbling twin lightning bolts on her school work.

Becky also shows open hostility towards Kayla, and again, if this were a real-life teenager you could absolutely say “what 13 year-old likes their mom’s new girlfriend?”

But Kayla is a woman of colour. They cast a black woman to play her (Amanda Brugel), and had the script draw attention to it; the Nazi leader does a speech about how his dogs are purebreeds, then glares at a black woman who is dating a white man while saying that mixing races makes them weaker. The screenwriter wants you to know in no uncertain terms that she is a black woman dating a white man, and that’s a thing Nazis take issue with. You know who else takes issue with that relationship?

If you believe this hostility is meant to be just normal teenager who doesn’t like her stepmom, then what purpose does it serve in the film? There’s no real arc about them becoming closer, and they barely even interact again until the very end of the film. It’s there intentionally, so why is it there? It does give Becky a pretence to not be in the cabin when the Nazis arrive, but they could’ve done that in a thousand ways that didn’t involve her glaring at a black woman and saying “my mom would’ve hated you.” Pointed word choice. Which again, if this happened in real life could mean anything, but since it happens in a film that is explicitly about Nazism, and in combination with everything else, starts to paint a picture that maybe Becky’s motivations aren’t those of an average teenager.

Becky also has blonde hair and blue eyes, neither of which are notable in the general populace but START TO MEAN SOMETHING WHEN TAKEN IN LIGHT OF THE FACT THAT CASTING CHOICE WAS AN INTENTIONAL DECISION BY THE FILMMAKERS, ARE YOU GETTING THE POINT YET.

There’s a tendency for fans to respond to media as though it’s Stuff That’s Really Happening rather than something been intentionally crafted. Dan Olson calls it the Thermian Argument. It’s often used to cover for weird and creepy material (“she’s really 1000 years old!”) but that same tendency also just leads to, well … a whole lot of really bad analysis. Dan obliterates the Really 1000 Old argument, so I want to focus on the lesser evil that got away unharmed.

So just one more time: in a film about Nazis, Becky, a blonde-haired blue-eyed teenager who shows hostilty towards every single person of colour she meets, is introduced scribbling twin lightning bolts on her schoolwork and is LAST shown clutching a valknut to her chest while ominous music plays and she stares creepily into the middle-distance.

Apex, one of the Nazis (played by walking Quebecois wall Robert Maillet) shows remorse for his actions; he attempts to help Kayla with her wounds, lets Becky go when he’s been instructed to kill her, and later he shows up to help her escape, and while he kneels and begs for forgiveness she shoots him in the head execution-style and then just screams.

The film sets itself up as a pretty familiar “slashing the slasher” film like You’re Next, then flips that on its head and makes you ask “exactly what sort of person is going to go rambo like that?” It’s not a cool empowering fantasy, it’s a movie about how cycles of intergenerational violence perpetutate themselves. Becky wants to be like her mom, and her mom was a Nazi criminal. Apex wants to break the cycle, and she is angrier with him than any of the unrepentant Nazis who were actively trying to kill her. None of this feels cheap or unearned or like a GOTCHA: if you pay attention, it’s there the whole time. It forces you to reasses how you approach this sort of movie – the word “deconstruction” is often overused but it feels appropriate here, because it’s a film that forces you to start pulling apart elements of a genre that you’d previously taken for granted – it changes how you look at other films. It’s cool! But it’s also the sort of thing where, if you just wanted to watch a movie about Slashing The Slasher Back, might cause you to ask some uncomfortable questions about yourself.

So since film never explicitly states it, apparently it’s ambigious. Not that I’m calling that redditor a Nazi, but the need to uncritically enjoy the film seems to have caused them to interpret it as Stuff That Really Happened in a sort of defensive thermian posture. I see it with media like this all the time and it drives me up the fucking wall. It doesn’t just reject subtle storytelling, it demands that characters turn to the camera and explicitly say what their deal is. It’s criticism that demands art make itself worse. And I dunno, call me crazy, but that sounds like the antithesis of criticism.

or, in short, Becky’s totally a fucking Nazi, and if you need to be told then you’re her next mark you’re not very good at media analysis and need to reconsider your approach.

The Complicated Feels of Annihilation

Content warning: this essay discusses The 2018 film Annihilation, and particularly the character of Dr Josie Radek and her history of self-harm and suicide. Also here be spoilers.

I read Annihilation when it came out in 2014, and I hated it. I left a long, angry 1-star Goodreads review about its poor writing, its terrible worldbuilding, its refusal to answer the questions it asked. That review, for years, was the top-rated Goodreads review for the book. A few years ago, I quietly deleted it. Knowing I wrote it in the first place makes me uncomfortable; I live in terror that I’m going to meet Jeff VanderMeer and he’s going to go “hey, aren’t you that 1-star asshole?” 

Because he’s not wrong. I gave it a 1-star review, and I was an asshole. And as I’ve gotten older and I’ve read and written more, I’ve come to understand Annihilation very differently, and understand criticism and genre very differently too. 

Fig 1: a book I think I really did not give enough credit

There is a scene in Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) where Tessa Thompson walks through an arch in a garden, and I cannot watch it without breaking down. The film and the book are different beasts: Garland has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to make a strict adaptation, rather relying on a memory of the book and trying to adapt the VIBE. That vibe is a messy, complex journey through identity and the way pain shapes it. In both the book and the movie, a small team of scientists enter a region of the Florida Everglades called the shimmer, which is being overtaken by an alien ecosystem. In the film, they are confronted by literalisations of that pain – intestines that writhe like snakes, a skinless bear with a woman’s face that screams in a woman’s voice – and one by one they hurl themselves against it and it destroys them. 

When Doctor Radek confronts her pain, it doesn’t manifest as a monster, but instead as a garden. It is beautiful, it enthralls her, and for perhaps the first time in the movie we see her smile. She removes her jacket, revealing extensive scarring from self-harm and suicide attempts, and then she walks into a green arch and disappears.

A literal reading of the scene fails. If you wanted to TVTropes it, like I did to the book in 2014, you’d make a fool out of yourself. They never established that she could teleport, Chekhov’s Gun FAIL, Crowning Moment of Suck. That doesn’t matter: that’s not what the film is trying to do, it exists in a space of almost pure metaphor, and it’s that metaphor that turns me into a weeping wreck whenever I watch it. 

Annihilation isn’t some bullshit instagram exploration of pain, it doesn’t pat you on the shoulder and say What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger in a loopy font over a picture of a forest. In many cases, the team members’ trauma is exactly what kills them. They flare out, they repress and implode, they become so twisted by pain that they don’t even recognise themselves. The film explicitly compares pain to cancer, a thing that metastasizes and consumes, that takes healthy parts of the body and turns them into more of itself. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress has literal cancer, and she refuses to confront her coming death or her pain, and in the end her tumour erupts out of her in a great molten geyser and twists her body into a cruel mimicry of itself. Both Radek and Ventress – in very different ways – become their pain.

The garden isn’t inevitable, or even likely, but it’s there, and Josie finds it; she finds beauty and peace in her pain, and then she transcends it entirely. Josie stares down her trauma, and becomes the garden. Whenever I watch that scene, a wave rolls over, equal parts hope and grief. It’s one of the few things that can reliably make me cry. I have my own history with depression, self-harm, and suicide, and Annihilation provides me a catharsis like I’ve never experienced. It is pure metaphor, and it’s the realest shit I’ve ever seen. 

I can’t actually speak for the book. I haven’t read it since 2014, and every time I try, I fall to pieces. I know the film will destroy me, but I know how, and I’m ready to confront that. The book though? I read it poorly, as pure literal SF/F, and I barely remember it outside of the monsters, and knowing what I know now, I’m terrified that reading it will snap me in half. I’ve already dealt with Tessa Thompson going through that arch, I’m not sure I can bring myself to do it again with a different doctor. I can’t remember whether VanderMeer’s doctor even goes through an arch, whether there’s a garden, and I don’t know whether I have the strength to find out. I fucked it up for myself and I don’t know whether I can go back.

It’s not like I grew up on entirely a diet of mass-market lowest-common denominator media, I studied English literature at university and was (and still am) a huge fan of surrealist poets like John Ashbery and Arthur Rimbaud, I knew how to spot a fucking metaphor, but somehow when I read VanderMeer’s Annhilation I read it on a purely literal level. Sci-fi can’t have metaphors! It’s about action and mystery and monsters! Those things can’t mean anything! I’d put a wall around the genre that said it worked like this, and when it didn’t work like that I got angry and blamed it on the author. 

I’ve seen a review of 100 Years of Solitude that 1-stars it for not following Sanderson’s Laws of Magic, and while I wasn’t that bad, I was doing exactly the same thing. Genre is not a straitjacket, and we are worse writers and readers if we treat it like one. I did, and I gave Annihilation an angry 1-star review because it didn’t have enough tropes, then four years later I saw Annihilation and nearly had a nervous breakdown.  

Which is a lot of words to say Take A Work On Its Own Merits but I hope it illuminates it in a way that sticks. Annihilation deserves so much more than I gave it, and it’s not alone. Be better than me and read generously – when I finally did, I found a garden.

The Jemaine Clement Sewer Goblin Incident: a retrospective

This is the story of the most Wellington thing that has ever happened to me. I wrote a breathless twitter thread at the time, but it has since vanished as part of my rolling deletion, and if it was lost to history I think our culture would be poorer for it.

Anyway, in mid 2018 I was sitting in Satay Kingdom, grinning from ear-to-ear, reeking of raw sewage, with giant dark bags under my eyes, inhaling roti canai with a worrying enthusiasm and getting sauce everywhere. When I looked up, Jemaine Clement was staring at me. I have no idea what his expression was trying to communicate. Maybe he didn’t see me at all, and was looking intently at the wallpaper behind me, but from where I was sitting he looked very much like a hare that’s just heard a drunken hunter barrelling through the woods. I live in constant fear that I am going to be the subject of an episode of Wellington Paranormal, and if that episode makes me laugh then that’s it, I’m done, my soul gets instantly yeeted out of my body and doesn’t stop until it’s in the next solar system over. 

It started in my shower. It wasn’t draining properly, so I went at it with a plunger, and suddenly I was up to my ankles in reeking black water, tiny shards of shattered bone, and waterlogged pieces of what looked like flesh and skin. You cannot imagine what it’s like to have a jet of sludgy black water and shredded bone erupt at your face, to realise you’re standing in a mess of jellied remains of unknown creatures (?people? No of course not, too small, but what if), to have no idea why the water is thick and black and clings to your ankles like it has always been hungry but has finally given its hunger a name. 

I do, it is – to use the common parlance of my people – real fuckeen scary mate.  

So the shower was fucked and the shitter was fucked, and generally it was just a nightmare. I called a plumber and they told me they would be in by morning. Then it started to rain. The rest of the chicken and black water erupted from the shower and toilet and began spilling out into my bedroom. I did not sleep the entire night, piling towels and sheets and anything I could find to bulwark against the rising tide of black water. When the rain finally stopped, my makeshift dam was about 30cm high. It reeked. Shit and food waste and a sort of earthy sulphur. I would later have to throw out every single part of the dam; no amount of cleaning would get the smell out of any of it.  

I have never been as happy as I was when the plumbers arrived. They figured out that the pipes were ancient, made of clay almost a century ago, and that a tree root had grown into one and fed on wastewater until it was so massive and swollen that it blocked the entire pipe, and all the house’s wastewater was going back up through the lowest point it could, my bathroom. Mud had stained the water black, and a cooked chicken that hadn’t spent enough time in the garbage disposal was apparently the final straw.  

The relief, my god the relief. I’d lived through a horror movie, lived through the hungry monster in my drain rising up against me. I hadn’t slept all night. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before. I had class in a few hours and needed to rush out the door. I’d just spent almost my entire weekly budget on two men with a big white van to come and save me the toilet demon.

So I did what any Wellington grad student does after a shitty night, and I went to Satay Kingdom. Satay Kingdom is legendary, it’s almost as important to Wellington’s students as the chips from the 3am buffet at KC Cafe. In an extremely gentrified Cuba Street, it remains one of the places to get a cheap, good, filling meal. I have never been as happy as I was when my roti canai came out; it was the morning sun over Helm’s Deep. I didn’t eat it so much as inhale it. I flapped the roti around so much I could swear I was about to become a bird and take off. And then I looked up, and multiple Grammy-award winning musician and actor Jemaine Clement was sitting at the next table over, talking to a man facing away from me, looking past him at me with a sort of dawning horror. I cannot imagine how bad I smelled. Just this terrible sewer goblin, this wee beast risen up from the muck, splattering the table with sauce, grinning so widely the top of its head is about to hinge off.  If he ever sees this: I am very sorry Sir, but in my defence I’d spent the night fighting monsters that came from up the toilet, monsters borne from our city crumbling infrastucture, an inquisitive and hungry tree, and a whole cooked chicken from Countdown.

Was I supposed to not get roti canai from Satay Kingdom?

A Spirited Defence of the Much-Maligned Hellboy 2019

My first pro sale was a story about a group of Guitar Wizards using the power of metal to literally melt the faces of an oncoming demon horde. I got home from a party at 3am, barely-coherent from a bad reaction of alcohol and psychiatric medication, and in my inbox I saw an email from a writer I’d met at a party years ago asking if I could write something for Esquire Malaysia’s Rocktober issue. I don’t remember the exact wording, but I remember the vibe: it didn’t matter what I wrote, but it needed to rock. 

I barely remember writing it, and I do not remember sending it. I woke up in the morning with a second email in my inbox telling me it was great, and they’d buy it. It’s called And All Hell Rode With Them, it’s in the October 2015 issue of Esquire Malaysia, which I believe is now out of print. It is a powerfully stupid story, but I’m not gonna lie, it rules. It’s still one of my favourite stories I’ve ever written, and I barely remember writing it. It knows exactly what it is and it just goes for it. I spend so much time wrapped up in anxiety that it’s incredibly refreshing to see what happens when I just fucking turn off everything else and go.

So much modern media takes itself extremely seriously. The sillier its source material, the harder it needs to let you know that it’s dark and real and important. It’s relentlessly pompous, all Nietzschean supermen standing in the rain and gurning up at God. Nothing sums it up better to me than the absurd bathos of the infamous “SAVE … MARTHA” scene in Batman V Superman. It’s a movie about Batman fighting Superman, it’s the ultimate playground argument, and everything about it is so fucking grim. There is no joy, no energy. It demands to be taken seriously but it refuses to acknowledge how silly its premise is.

Whoa is that a Christ metaphor? With the JOKER? Wowee.

Which is when I finally get to the point: Hellboy (2019) is good, actually. I’d avoided it when I came out: the Del Toro films hold a very special place in my heart, and Del Toro’s great strength is his compassion – there was absolutely no way a Grim and Gritty remake could retain it and retain the soul of those films. 

It knows this, and doesn’t even try. Hellboy 2019 does not have compassion. Hellboy 2019 is a nasty, violent film. It is also, I must report, super fucking fun. 

Is it as good as the Del Toro films? No, but it’s not trying to be. Hellboy 2019 has a guitar pedal, a chainsaw, and a dream of punching a hole in the sky; Hellboy 2019 opens with the titular Hellboy fighting a vampire luchador and it sets the tone perfectly; Hellboy 2019 is, at all times, about 2 seconds away from snapping its fingers and summoning a flaming motorcycle made of bones. I am not going to tell you Hellboy 2019 is a smart film, but it knows it’s stupid and it just kinda rolls with it. I was told it was another Grim and Dark reboot, but it is in fact an antidote to them. It is pure id, silly and over the top but also blessedly free of self-importance or the desire to be anything other than a good time. 

There’s a certain irony that one of the heralds of this whole grim superhero deal tried to do a similar thing to Hellboy 2019 with 2011’s Sucker Punch and totally fell flat, because it had the same unrestrained rollercoaster 14 year-old boy id but it just wasn’t fun. Its palate is washed out, its fights are limp and weightless, there’s an extended sequence of a woman undergoing a lobotomy where she fantasises that the doctor performing it is seducing her and it’s trying to say something (oooee isn’t it dark? She likes it, or she seizes control by pretending to like it, or something, who the fuck knows, it’s cheap sexualized violence against women trying to put on a fancy hat and pretend it’s something else). So much of that particular modern oeuvre is obsessed with being adult in extremely facile ways and it creates bloated, hollow, ugly products. There’s no joy in them at all, they feel empty and synthetic.

Pictured: ?action?

Hellboy 2019 does need to prove how dark and adult it is by hanging sexual violence over the heads of its female characters, because it is too busy having Hellboy beat a fomorian to death with a tree while Matt Bellamy wails YOUR ASS BELONGS TO ME NOW over fuzz guitars. Hellboy 2019 is crunchy and muscular, the soundtrack blares Muse and Alice Cooper and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, at one point a witch vomits out her entire intestines and they form into the shape of a second witch, who delivers a prophecy and then schlurps back into the first witch. Perhaps mostly tellingly of its intentions, Ian McShane is in it. 

It is very different from the Del Toro films, and got absolutely destroyed in reviews because of it, and I think that’s a mistake. Del Toro’s remain excellent. They have tremendous heart, which Hellboy 2019 does not, not unless it’s punching one out of somebody else’s chest. It is a nasty film, but it has absolutely no intention of being anything else. As the Lady of the Lake (Milla Jovovich in her pulpy element) paralyzes Hellboy with her dark magic, she reaches out a hand towards his face.  

“This isn’t gonna work,” he says, “I’m a Capricorn and you’re fucking nuts.” 

Get it? Because he’s got horns? This is perhaps the most Hellboy 2019 asked me to think about anything. The closest referents I have are Deathgasm and Brütal Legend, with a bit of Netflix’s Witcher adaptation sprinkled in. It’s a Frank Frazetta album cover come to life. It is metal as fuck and it does not care. I am choosing my words carefully here: Hellboy 2019 rocks. The closest to grim self-importance it gets is in the finale, which takes obvious visual cues from the art of Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński for its particular vision of hell, but it’s a striking aesthetic and I’m here for it. Beksiński is popular in online alternative spaces for a reason. 

Is it perfect? God no. The editing is choppy, some of the VFX work a lot better than others (hello CGI Ian McShane, I can see why they’re pointedly avoiding shot-reverse-shot while you’re talking), Daniel Dae Kim cannot do a British accent to save himself, and much of the early film’s neon colour palette seems to drain away later in favour of the same boring blue/green colour grading of so many of its grim contemporaries (the neon comes back in a glorious final fight sequence scored by Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart, go watch it), but I’m willing to look past that and just get caught up in its raw energy. 

So yeah. Hellboy 2019 is stupid, but it knows exactly how stupid it is and just has fun with it. It’s not Hellboy 2004, but I feel like it should be reassessed on its own merits. Namely that is just rocks.

Seeking Non-Exponential Decay

The Korekore cleaved through the between-ness, down the aeonic star-roads, timeloose. Somewhere in the darkness, a star turned inwards under its own immense weight, devouring itself – a symphony of shrieking magma vents and the low bass crunch of a gravity well. She turned away from this, and towards the little sound, a timetethered mayfly hum of a distant planet. Stepping between the veils, she walked into the world.

The locals called her The Snail. Art installation, installed in the dead of the night. Legend had it they came back every night and moved her, maybe a fraction of a fraction of an inch. Nobody had ever caught the artist, though many had tried. The council tried to remove her once; a small group of addicts and lovers gathered to protest it, but that wasn’t what kept her in place. The tow truck driver attached chains to her and tried to haul her away, but the engine and tyres screamed and then the crane ripped clean off its bed. Whatever The Snail was made of was heavier than any truck, heavier than the skyscrapers around it, heavier than the molten heart of a star. The protestors chased the driver away, and the council did not send another.

Aroha Henderson smoked weed and painted landscapes and had fitful dreams about one day owning a house. She lived with her girlfriend in a cramped apartment across the road from The Snail, and every night, when her beautiful Janey was asleep, she would creep to the window and watch the statue and hope to see it move. Every Thursday night she took a single photograph, and hung it on a string, until there were too many strings and too many photos, and Janey shouted at her that it was an obsession, that it was just a fucking statue, and they shouted and then fucked and then didn’t talk about it again. Aroha went to the wall of photos one last time, over a year’s worth. She kept the first and last, and threw the rest out. She held them up next to each other, and felt some unnamable emotion stir inside her– the statue had raised a single finger, perhaps a millimetre, across the space of a year. She showed it to Janey, who did not believe her, who said it was a shadow, said it was a dream, said she was only seeing what she wanted to see. They fought again, one more time.

Aroha and Janey did not last, though they did, in that sort of scattershot way small-city lovers do, colliding off each other at parties and events and fucking and then feeling guilty. They each ruined at least one of the other’s marriages, though Aroha told herself she wasn’t keeping score. Her paintings began to sell well, and she got herself a place overlooking The Snail, and every night she would go out and touch its hand and swear she could feel warmth from concrete.

Thirty years passed, and Aroha’s home fell to ruin, and her paintings became more abstract – star-shapes and time-weave, things she didn’t have names for, things that worried her friends and family, until they too withered away and she became a ghost in her own home.

Fifty years passed, and it became hard to take the stairs, and she took to staring out the window at The Snail, which she swore had moved a whole metre since she was a child, whose kind eyes told her promises of places beyond.

Five years passed, and she woke in the dead of night with a pain in her chest that made her snap bolt upright, fast enough to make her bones click. She knew what was coming. She took her walker, and headed down to The Snail, each stair a wail of agony in her chest and her arms and her back. A wave of vertigo struck her and she almost fell, clanging against the walker, feeling things shift and click inside her. Step, step, step, one at a time, moment by lost moment. She reached the Snail, and took it by the hand, and looked deep into its eyes.

The Korekore smiled, and placed a hand around her waist. The city whistled around them, the strobe of day and night flowing like water overhead. For less than a second, flickering beside them, she saw Janey, white and bent with age, standing beside them. The other humans moved too fast to see, but Janey was still, every night, until – after a moment only in this strange new time-ness – she too was gone.

Aroha and the Korekore danced across the square while the skyline rose and fell, and at last they stood together in the dust of the dry world.

“I love you,” said Aroha.

“No,” the Korekore said, “you don’t.”

And they went hand-in-hand, timeloose, down the star-roads and off into the night.

Critical Mass

I see: hands, delicate and doll-like, twin-thumb threefinger; slackface, two-halves stitched with care (for there is so little thread); the organ, furnacewhite death-to-plastic, radiant between the pipes; a Giant, four-foot tall, five dolls’ worth of parts, bent-back to fit into the rats’ nest of crawlspaces beneath the organ, to chase the errant children and drag them back to work; the Chirurgeon with his many hands, ready to stitch, ready to cut the fingers of children who steal, ready with paint thinner and glue to wipe away the mouths of the children who cry.

Them-that-built are gone with the water but they left their temples down in the down-dark, fifteen-thousand PSI, enough to liquify bone; first a lab then a refuge then a church and finally a tomb but for their little helpers iterating and iterating and iterating, building on themselves in echo, in prayer, in splintered memory of their fathers, in the furnacewhite death-heat of the temple’s great organ—all light and heat, all glory, a single star breaching the night.

I hear: metal on metal, plastic on metal, plastic on plastic, the quiet roar of heat in the air and something, something, some new music—a shout which echoes (everything echoes down here; the outside is silent, but the inside is aroar with overlapping echoes) a shout that rolls through the pipes, a naughty child, the doll that does not want to worship, the very worst sort of doll, shouting and shouting, a clamour, that echoes, and for the first time in a thousand thousand years—for the first time since the Chirurgeon removed the writer-doll’s lazy hand and stitched it to himself and began to use it to write the records—the organ makes music.

No man-music no, nothing on those crude frequencies (men and their ears are made of coils of bone, and fifteen-thousand PSI will liquify bone) but a righteous music, a holy clamour, the songs of angels sweeping out through the temple, burning through dolls, leaving them stuck in broken for/else loops hammering against hot pipes until their hands melted away and even then hammering away some more, leaving the Giant’s five plastic souls tearing itself to pieces, leaving the Chirurgeon a gnarled forest of disobedient hands, burning through all that vein-dense sin until there is nothing left.

It leaves the place drowning in sweetsmell, oil and melted plastic, and then the pressure, the titanic weight of the ocean, begin to crumple the temple. The music gets out, and the water comes in, and together, they leave the dolls all ajumble, all parts apart, a thousand awful messes into one great mess. The water hits the organ and I see: steam as a wave, arms and legs and little faces all liquid, running into the water, merging with it, and so much water (the organ holds no normal fire, it holds starfire, holds the heavens together against the night) and the dolls run into water and the water turns into steam and they become one with the air, children of heaven, unconsecrated and beautiful, flung upwards and outwards, more water/more water/more steam for seventy nights and seventy days until there is no water left and the organ stands alone, in a trench.

The music comes to an end, and the world is sacred with quiet.