Living in the franchise flow

My last post might have ended up sounding shockingly bitter or defeatist. Maybe it sounds like I’m engaging in an activity that I don’t even like anymore? But that’s simply not true.

I suppose pop culture fandom is a bit like an addiction. You could definitely keep consuming past the point of enjoyment. You might take deep reward from fandom, or you might merely remember at one point feeling a sense of reward, and after all you’re so invested that there’s no reason to quit.

But I could quit if I wanted! I say this jokingly, of course; that phrase is the recognizable cliche of any addict ever. Yet there’s truth to it. I bashed pretty hard on Marvel films last night, but I don’t have the history with Marvel to feel any sense of personal identity bound up in its IP. I could walk away and never look back. But they’re still fun films!

Rather than a true addiction, it’s maybe more appropriate to look at my franchise fandoms as junk food. It’s way too easy to take in way too much of it, to keep consuming beyond any possible benefit. And just like junk food companies, these big studios are always trying to sell you on way more than you need, way more than you would otherwise want, way more than you should have. It all feels good–until you’re way past the point you should’ve stopped, and you feel a little bit sick. The metaphor is definitely not original to me, nor is the recommended treatment: moderation. Limit the junk food, and try to mostly eat healthy.

I admittedly don’t mostly eat healthy. Figuratively, or, uh, literally. But I try–both in the metaphor of media consumption and in my real-life dietary habits.

My big franchise fandom is, of course, Star Wars. But I’m more broadly a fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres. And this of course means that there are plenty of original works out there without the burden of franchise. In the past few years, I’ve read plenty of Star Wars and revisited writers like Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft and George R.R. Martin, but I’m very glad to say that I’ve also read works from writers I hadn’t before, like Molly Glass and Victor Milan and Marie Brennan and Naomi Mitchison and Octavia Butler and even Carrie Fisher. I’ve also kept a steady stream of nonfiction works in my reading rotation, including a couple histories of Indiana, a few books on the paranormal, and a recent streak of true-crime books. I similarly try to keep my mix of films and games a combination of franchise favorites and new material.

I’m actually not trying to be prescriptive or judgmental. My own frustrations with franchise juggernauts, and my own efforts to counter my overexposure to the biggest commercial cash cows, are merely my own. I’m not an expert in, say, media studies or psychology. If you think that there could always be more Marvel movies, and you could never have enough, I’m not here to say that you’re wrong! It’s just my subjective experience.

What I’m trying to get at is that I get frustrated with my fandoms, and I recognize that these franchises are not healthy as one’s sole source of entertainment. But I still get a lot of enjoyment and engagement out of them, and I sometimes get a lot of inspiration or insight too. It’s just important to splice that with more enriching material. At least, it is for me.

Review: A Natural History of Dragons

Note: I originally posted the below review on Goodreads. It has only been lightly altered here.

Encountering Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons was a happy accident. I read a review of the novel on io9 several months or years back and promptly forgot about it. Then, in preparation for a day trip, I came across the ebook at a heavily discounted price and decided it might be a fun diversion. It proved to be far more than that. I devoured the book in my free time, first on a Friday car ride and then over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Especially during the car ride, when my wife was a captive audience member, I would read particularly clever or gripping passages aloud. And I laughed aloud, frequently–Marie Brennan has a knack for funny asides. This book is narrated with such a rich voice, that of the fictitious Lady Trent as she recounts the events of her life, that it’s almost hard to believe that she’s not a real person.

I absolutely loved this book and look forward to future opportunities to read the later books in this series and other writings of Ms. Brennan.

A short synopsis: Isabella, Lady Trent, is now an older woman who retells the story of her misadventures as a great natural historian who specialized in and largely developed the study of dragons. The book imitates the form and conventions of a Victorian novel, and it is set in a parallel, similar-yet-alien world where dragons are real. The initial chapters are a coming-of-age tale and courtly romance, but it quickly blossoms further into an exciting fantasy adventure and climaxes with the investigation and revelation of certain dark conspiracies. The book shifts between and blends genres beautifully–bildungsroman, faux memoir, fantasy, classic adventure story, mystery, and so on. Furthermore, Brennan’s anthropology background is evident in her ability to effectively develop and clearly convey fantasy cultures that are similar to recognizable nineteenth-century cultures from our own world. Plus, she explores issues of historical and contemporary sexism and classism and highlights concerns about technological development and destruction of the natural environment, all while taking a scientific approach to the depiction of dragons.

Shockingly, in a fantasy adventure book, the most affecting and effective narrative might in fact have been the courtship and sweet friendship between Isabella and her husband Jacob. This relationship is complicated and real and not a simple romance, and I could say a lot more about it but would rather that you simply read the book if you have not done so already. It’s not a knock on the adventure elements; I was just impressed by the human core of the book (for that matter, Isabella’s relationships with her father, her mentor, her scientific rival, and her local maid while overseas are all excellent and complicated).

Reading this book felt a bit like if Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker and Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur Conan Doyle were all combined into a single authorial entity. That might sound messy–just like the premise of this book might sound a little messy or pulp–but it works out really, really well.

I would highly recommend this novel. A Natural History of Dragons has overnight become one of my favorite books and a high point, to me at least, in contemporary fantasy.