What I Like: July
I realized that I am currently immersed in narratives about humans with special abilities. I don’t know what that says about me right now, or about pop culture: wish fulfillment? Interest in the post-human, the next stage of evolution? The insidious spread of superhero narratives? A bizarre and ultimately meaningless coincidence?
I’ve been binge-watching my way through the most recent season of Agents of Shield, now available on Netflix. I’m a fan of the show, especially of the relationships that have developed amongst the characters, although I can tell that the writers are struggling at times to tell a compelling story that stays within the boundaries of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) without actually intersecting with the films.
I mean, here’s Phil Coulson and his team just time traveling to the future, as one does, foiling Hydra, as one does, and averting the literal tearing apart of the earth, as one does — while the Avengers are off battling Thanos. It’s a little bit much, you know?
But as always in the show, the best part lies in the very human struggles to find a place and to learn how to use abilities, inhuman or not, when life takes unexpected turns. Plus, I’m crossing all my fingers that Fitz and Simmons just might be the first happy and successful romance in a Whedon-run show.
My second pop culture narratives of supernatural abilities come from Marvel as well. After watching Runaways on Hulu, I’ve started reading the comics, starting with Brian Vaughn’s run in the early 2000s. (Side note: you should definitely read his independent series, Saga and Paper Girls. Really, go find them now.)
I’ve quite enjoyed the comics. They differ some from the Hulu show, as I expected, and the differences have kept the story fresh even as it overlaps with what I watched. But I’m definitely a sucker for a coming-of-age series about a bunch of young people with emerging powers and complicated parental relationships. I’ve been enjoying Brian Vaughn’s writing, and I’m very excited to work my way up to Rainbow Rowell’s run as writer of Runaways.
(And another side note: I ❤️❤️❤️ Rainbow Rowell soooo much, and squee she’s writing another Baz and Simon book! If you have never read her novels, there’s still plenty of summer left to read at least Fangirl and Carry On. Do it. Do it now.)
Moving away from Marvel, I just finished V.E. Schwab’s Vicious. The ExtraOrdinary humans in this novel (the EOs) gain their powers from near-death experiences, which raises the question of whether those who come back with super-human abilities are still, in fact, human. Schwab doesn’t answer the question, but each EO in the novel provides a different angle on the question of whether these gifted individuals are more, or less, than human.
Fair warning: it’s a dark novel. Whether “vicious” refers to EOs, regular humans, or particular individuals remains an open question, but the novel offers plenty of viciousness in a variety of forms. But throughout the viciousness winds a tiny thread of hope that second chances are possible, which is what hooked me in the narrative more than anything else.
The sequel, Vengeful, comes out in September, and I will definitely be reading it.
To round out my theme of supernatural abilities, I’m very much enjoying The Bright Sessions. (It’s four-season run has just concluded, but I’m only about halfway through.) It’s about a therapist for “atypicals” — people with special abilities, like telepathy and dream walking — and the government agency that, er, helps them. (“Helps” them.)
The unfolding relationships between Dr. Bright and her patients forms the heart of the show, especially as Dr. Bright becomes more human, revealing more about herself. The show also manages to balance big stories about shadowy government agencies and ethically-compromised experiments with smaller stories about teenage romance and the quiet growth of confidence. This is what makes the show extraordinary (see what I did there?): not the special abilities or even the unfolding secrets, but the very human stories that anchor us in this alternate version of our world.
On a practical note, I also love that the episodes are relatively short. I can fit a whole episode in when I drive to and from the grocery store, for example, which is convenient.
Plus which, if podcasts aren’t your thing, the writer of the show has signed on with Tor Teen to publish three YA novels based on the show; the first is scheduled to release next year. I’m exited that I’ll get a chance to return to this universe even when I run out of podcast episodes — and I’m really interested to read a book when I already have the voices of the characters so firmly in my head.
I’m not sure why the stars in my entertainment life have aligned on the theme of supernatural / superhuman abilities. Thanks in large part to Marvel, we’re having a superhero moment in pop culture: their films and television shows range from solid to excellent, and their strategy of recruiting writers like Rainbow Rowell, Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the comics means that people like me who don’t really follow comics are more inclined to read them.
But Marvel isn’t just creating the moment; they’re also tapping into our hopes and fears about technology and medicine and the future of humanity. As V.E. Schwab wonders in Vicious, at what point do we begin to lose our humanity? And as we see in The Bright Sessions, how do people cope with being different? How do they cope when others want to take advantage of their special abilities?
And as Agents of Shield asks, what are we willing to sacrifice to gain power? To protect others from our own power? How far will we go to stop the power of others?
Thinking about these questions through the lens of super-powered characters provides plenty of entertainment. But the questions behind the narratives are real questions that speak to some of the dreams and nightmares generated by the technological advances of the modern world.
As you may have noticed, I’ve linked to the Amazon pages for the books I mention. These are affiliate links, which means that I earn a small percentage when you, dear reader, purchase a book through the link.