Insects and Corporate Infighting: A Bug’s Life


In its initial release, A Bug’s Life had the dubious fortune of getting released in a year with not one, but two computer animated films about bugs, a deliberately created rivalry that did neither film any favors. Since then, A Bug’s Life has had the dubious honor of being perhaps the least remembered of the Pixar films, and perhaps the least regarded—depending upon how you feel about the various Cars films and, more recently, The Good Dinosaur—rarely if ever listed among the Pixar “greats.” At the time, however, it was proof that just maybe Pixar could be more than a one film wonder.

Pixar’s original deal with Disney had been for three movies. Nonetheless, the technical and story challenges with Toy Story had been so great that rather than follow Disney’s policy of having at least two, and occasionally three or four, films in development at the same time, allowing for one film per year—a habit immediately installed by new rival DreamWorks—Pixar animators devoted nearly all of their attention to Toy Story until that film’s script and story issues were ironed out. Only in 1994—three years after the three film deal had been signed, and when Toy Story had a set release date for 1995—did Pixar animators and directors start the process of tossing out new ideas.

The filmmakers were united on one thing: the new film needed to avoid depicting humans, if at all possible, or at least limiting the depiction of humans, if at all possible. Trying to replicate the look of human skin and movement had been one of the most difficult technical problems with Toy Story, and one which had not been entirely solved. Instead, the Pixar directors thought, they could focus on things like monsters. Or fish. Or bugs. The monsters, however, might have to interact with humans. And the fish would have to swim in water—something not yet tried in computer animation. Bugs, though, could make use of the techniques already developed for Toy Story—individual blades of grass and leaves, for instance. And a bug film could presumably allow the filmmakers to replicate many of the various perspective and other in jokes that were working so well for Toy Story.


On that basis, the monster and fish films were temporarily shelved—something that several scenes from A Bug’s Life would prove to be the correct decision on a technical level, particularly for the fish film. Instead, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft continued to tinker with the bug story for another year before pitching it to Michael Eisner in 1995. Eisner liked the concept, and agreed that A Bug’s Life could be the second Pixar film. The concept still lacked a script, however, and since everyone at Pixar was frantically trying to complete Toy Story’s finishing touches and last minute changes before its November release, the bug film, too, was temporarily shelved—to the point where even after Toy Story’s release, Pixar animators found themselves heading back to work on commercials instead of feature films. And—occasionally—speaking to Jeffrey Katzenberg, just to toss ideas at him.

By this time, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had helped guide not just the Disney Renaissance, but the original Disney/Pixar deal, had left Disney after a major fight with Michael Eisner, setting up his own company, DreamWorks, with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen. He remained, however, on friendly terms with Lasseter, who admired Katzenberg and liked to toss ideas around with him. Including—at least according to Lasseter—some ideas about animated bugs, and more specifically, the plan to create a film about animated bugs for Disney. In what could be called an “interesting coincidence,” at some point after this chat, Katzenberg put an animated bug film of his own, Antz, into production in May 1996. An infuriated Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, who had not been part of the Katzenberg/Eisner feud, accused Katzenberg of stealing their idea for a bug picture.

It is only fair to note that Katzenberg, in turn, noted that he’d first heard a pitch for a bug film back in 1991 (some sources claim this pitch was actually made in 1989 or 1994) and that his decision to release Antz shortly before A Bug’s Life (which in turn, was scheduled for release at about the same time as DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt) had absolutely nothing—nothing—to do with his fight with Michael Eisner or the tiny fact that Disney had failed to pay him his contract bonus. Steve Jobs was completely unconvinced, and headed to the media. Other Disney executives attempted to pretend that the feud wasn’t even happening, but the rival bug films kept the media buzzing for a bit, and allegedly did not do much to improve corporate morale.


Internally, Pixar was dealing with another issue entirely: resentment towards how Pixar’s initial 1995 public stock offering had been handled, greatly in favor of just a very few Pixar executives that Disney had demanded sign long term employment contracts, leaving other long term Pixar employees—including many animators who had toiled endlessly over Toy Story—out of the investment bonanza.

The combined internal resentment and external irritation and concern about the rival bug films meant that film production was considerably tenser than it had been during Toy Story. Disney’s decision to order a direct-to-video sequel to Toy Story while A Bug’s Life was still in production and while the company was still churning out a few additional television commercials (contracted after the release of Toy Story, but before the script for A Bug’s Life had been finalized) was another burden on an animation studio which, until this point, had only needed to focus on one production.

Some of this tension may have found its way into two sideplots of the film, particularly in scenes of grasshoppers complaining about their exploitation of the ants, only to face the wrath of their supervisor, and between the hard working but underpaid circus bugs and their temperamental manager, who abandons them for days, returning only after his realization that they can, indeed, make money for him, and who later ruins their major production by setting it on fire.


The studio also struggled with three other technical issues: namely, how to make bugs look cute and friendly and cuddly instead of like, well, bugs, and how to animate large numbers of ants (enough to mimic an ant colony), and how to get their computer systems to handle the more complex models required by this film. The final problem ended up being “solved” in a way all too familiar to many computer users even now; just accepting that the modeling process would often be sluggish. But for the film to work, the bugs had to be cute and friendly and cuddly, and an ant colony had to have lots of ants.

Cute and friendly bugs proved difficult for two different reasons. For one, these were, after all, bugs, and for two, the Pixar rendering systems were still not capable of creating “soft” looking, variant textures, but only hard, shiny, plastic like surfaces. In many ways, that plasticity was ideal for portraying the often smooth exoskeleton of ants—but unfortunately, the more the ants looked like ants, the less friendly (to humans and small children) they seemed. The usual cartoon touch of just creating bigger eyes, often associated with “cuteness” (what Disney had done, well back in the day, to make Mickey Mouse look “cuter” and more approachable) also tended to backfire, since large eyed ants on a huge movie screen looked, well, like rather terrifying giant ants with unusually large and scary eyes.

Stuck on both the eye and surface rendering problem, the animators tried a different approach: making the ants more human looking. Instead of the standard six ant legs, for instance, the ants in A Bug’s Life have two legs and two arms—and fingers and toes. Even more importantly, they walk—or scurry—upright—making them look a little more like humans dressed in bug costumes than actual bugs. For the circus bugs, the animators tried to focus on “friendlier” insects—a ladybug, a plump caterpillar, a gypsy moth, a delicate praying mantis—but then added a black widow spider, kinda defeating the purpose there.


And to keep the insects as lighthearted and friendly sounding as possible, the producers decided to stick, for the most part, with well-known comedy actors: with one major exception: Kevin Spacey, who had admired Toy Story and other Disney films, and was more than willing to voice a very mean bug. This focus on comedians had the later adverse effect of making me feel that really, the best thing the ants could do was immediately remove Princess Atta, voiced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, from her current role as second in command, and nod in emphatic agreement whenever she expressed doubts about her ability to lead the ants—but the directors could not possibly have foreseen either Veep or Selina Meyer… Otherwise, the voicing is decent to excellent, with the arguable exception of Dave Foley, who rather fades into the voice of major ant Flik, not really doing much with it.

Though to be fair, that probably has more to do with Flik than with Dave Foley, or, more specifically, the writing for Flik and the other characters, which tends to be superficial at best. Which leads to A Bug’s Life’s biggest problem: too many characters, and too many character journeys. No less than three characters—Flik, Princess Atta, and Dot—all go through some sort of major self-doubt/heroic journey, and A Bug’s Life also tries to give three of the circus bugs and one of the grasshoppers a touch of character development as well. The end result: no one gets much character development or depth at all.

The second result: a film that despite its relatively short length, meanders, and meanders, and meanders. The basic plot is simple: the grasshoppers have been terrorizing an ant colony for years, and after a well-intentioned Flik manages to topple over the ants’ annual offering, infuriating the grasshoppers, the ants happily send Flik off to go find help, so that they can collect the replacement offering in peace, without worrying that Flik will knock it over again. Off Flik goes, with a little flying bit that makes no sense if you’ve ever watched ants crawl up and down walls, but moving on, eventually encountering a group of circus bugs. The naïve Flik believes that the circus bugs are genuine heroes; the circus bugs believe that Flik is a genuine talent agent. Hilarity ensues, but not quickly.

The final confrontation between the ants, the grasshoppers and the circus bugs definitely has its amusing moments and spectacular animated effects, and a chance for nearly everyone to shine—but creates questions. Many questions. Mostly, why do the ants and circus bugs feel the need to come up with such an elaborate, dangerous, labor intensive plan that could lead to everyone’s downfall—a plan that does end up setting a good part of the area on fire? Why go to the effort of creating a fake bird? I mean, they have a black widow spider standing right there. Surely she could just weave some webs and toss some venom around?


I’m also unconvinced by the romance between Flik and the princess. Sure, Flik has apparently adored her for years, and understands her self-doubts. And sure, Flik—eventually—is responsible for freeing the ant colony from grasshopper oppression, and gratitude has been known to lead to other emotions. But against this, they don’t exactly meet as strangers: the early scenes clarify that Princess Atta has known Flik for a long time now, and been underwhelmed by him for about the same period of time, to the point where she’s more than willing to send him off to his probable death. Later, he lies to her, about something rather important—the true identity of the circus bugs. So, she’s underwhelmed by him, willing to let him die; he then lies to her, and… they live happily ever after. Er. What? I can’t help feeling that just maybe Flik would be better off waiting for Dot to grow up—sure, the age difference would be considerable, but at least Dot believes in him.

And speaking of questionable romances, we should all probably not inquire too closely into how, exactly, a praying mantis and a gypsy moth are managing love and marriage, and instead just be grateful that two such disparate species have found love and hope together in a circus.

And, not to keep going back to the spider problem, but on a biological level, I kinda have to question why, exactly, these circus bugs are willingly hanging around a black widow spider. I mean, sure, she’s part of the act, but as P.T. Flea points out, mournfully enough, it’s not as if their circus is exactly attracting large audiences. POSSIBLY BECAUSE A HUGE PART OF THE PERFORMANCE INVOLVES A SPIDER CAPABLE OF EATING THE AUDIENCE, AND NOT A SPIDER TRAPPED IN A CAGE, EITHER.

But the fundamental problem is that A Bug’s Life simply doesn’t live up to being, well, a Pixar film, and not just in the lack of character development. Where most Pixar films take joy in subverting the expected on some level, A Bug’s Life rarely does. The passion found in other Pixar films seems to be missing, quite possibly because of the internal tensions besetting the corporation. And on a purely visual level, A Bug’s Life simply doesn’t look as good as the other Pixar films.


Granted, A Bug’s Life thankfully avoids the weird, slightly off-putting humans of Toy Story by simply not including humans at all, while also having several of the customary Pixar touches: sharply defined blades of grass that move individually in the wind, background art filled with various jokes (including one Hidden Mickey) and fine detail. The animation work for Gypsy is also beautiful, and the initial circus performance scenes are great. As are the “outtakes” that play during the closing credits.

But against this are many other problems: water that simply does not look like water (looking worse, in fact, than the water in The Little Mermaid, a hand-animated film released a full decade earlier), bugs that do not look like bugs, but do not exactly look cute and cuddly either, and moments where the various bugs move distinctly unnaturally.

Initially, audiences didn’t seem to care. A Bug’s Life pulled in a more than respectable $363.3 million at the box office, below Toy Story, but well ahead of Antz, which brought in $171.8 million, as well as the other film released by DreamWorks in 1998, The Prince of Egypt, at $218.6 million, and just beating out Disney’s own Mulan, at $304.3 million. Disney also licensed a video game, A Bug’s Life, and built a theme park attraction, It’s Tough to be a Bug!—a 3D film that, spoilers, also included some non-visual effects—for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, putting the film inside the park’s defining huge artificial tree, and for Disney’s California Adventure. Learning its lesson from the unexpected popularity of Toy Story, Disney also licensed some of the standard merchandising products—T-shirts, toys and mugs.

But slowly, all of this, except for the theme park attractions, vanished from Disney property, apart from a few mini plush toys (Heimlich and Flik) that still can be found online and in some theme park stores, and the occasional, hard to find Disney Trading Pin. In part, of course, this is because A Bug’s Life was released nearly twenty years ago, and unlike other Pixar films, never had a sequel. In part, this was because of the growing rift between Pixar and Disney that, as we’ll see, began in 1999 and continued through 2006, when Disney solved the problem by buying Pixar outright. Thanks to that rift, Disney had little incentive to push Pixar’s less popular products during this period, helping A Bug’s Life sink into comparative obscurity. In part, this was because Pixar had never really managed to solve the cuteness problem; small viewers happy to snatch up Buzz Lightyear toys were less excited about ant toys.


But some of this could also be said about other Disney and Pixar products that Disney continued to push aggressively, even as A Bug’s Life started to fall into comparative obscurity. In the end, I think A Bug’s Life largely vanished because, apart from the Pixar name, it has little else to distinguish itself from other computer animated films. Cute, but ultimately, ordinary. And Pixar was trying for the extraordinary. Or at least the very very good.

Toy Story 2, coming up next month.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

Starz Reveals American Gods Poster and Premiere Date

American Gods poster Starz premiere date April 30

We finally have a premiere date for Starz’s American Gods, the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel from showrunner Bryan Fuller! Entertainment Weekly announced today that American Gods will premiere on Sunday, April 30. Starz also released a cool new poster for us to feast our eyes on, featuring Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and a very significant buffalo.

For those of you who haven’t read Gaiman’s fantasy novel, here’s what the series is about:

American Gods posits a different kind of war brewing—one between Old Gods and New. The traditional Old Gods, with mythological roots from around the world, fear irrelevance as their believers die off or are seduced by the money, technology, and celebrity offered by the New Gods. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is an ex-con who, left adrift by the recent death of his wife, becomes bodyguard and traveling partner to conman Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane). But in truth, Mr. Wednesday is a powerful old deity, on a cross-country mission to build an army and reclaim his lost glory.

Now to watch the trailer a dozen times until the premiere…

Announcing the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards Nominees


The Horror Writers Association are pleased to announce the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards Final Ballot. The presentation of the Bram Stoker Awards will take place during the second annual StokerCon, aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California on the evening of April 29, 2017. Tickets to the banquet and the convention can be purchased here, and there will also be a live-stream of the event.

The nominees are as follows:

Superior Achievement in a Novel

  • Hard Light: A Cass Neary Crime Novel, Elizabeth Hand (Minotaur Books)
  • Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones (William Morrow)
  • The Fisherman, John Langan (Word Horde)
  • Stranded: A Novel, Bracken MacLeod (Tor Books)
  • Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay (William Morrow)


Superior Achievement in a First Novel

  • Barnett, Barbara – The Apothecary’s Curse (Pyr Books)
  • Chapman, Greg – Hollow House (Omnium Gatherum Media)
  • Deady, Tom – Haven (Cemetery Dance Publications)
  • Garza, Michelle and Lason, Melissa – Mayan Blue (Sinister Grin Press)
  • Wytovich, Stephanie – The Eighth (Dark Regions Press)


Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel

  • Snowed, Maria Alexander, (Raw Dog Screaming Press)
  • Last Days of Salton Academy, Jennifer Brozek (Ragnarok Publishing)
  • Holding Smoke, Elle Cosimano (Hyperion-Disney)
  • When They Fade, Jeyn Roberts (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
  • The Telling, Alexandra Sirowy (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)


Superior Achievement in a Graphic Novel

  • Blood Feud, Cullen Bunn (Oni Press)
  • Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe, James Chambers (Moonstone)
  • No Mercy, Vol. 2, Alex de Campi (Image Comics)
  • Outcast by Kirkman & Azaceta, Vol 3 This Little Light, Robert Kirkman (Image Comics)
  • The Steam Man, Mark Alan Miller and Joe R. Lansdale (Dark Horse Books)
  • Providence, Act 1, Alan Moore (Avatar Press)


Superior Achievement in Long Fiction

  • The Sadist’s Bible, Nicole Cushing (01Publishing)
  • That Perilous Stuff , Scott Edelman (Chiral Mad 3) (Written Backwards)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (
  • The Jupiter Drop, Josh Malerman (You, Human) (Dark Regions Press)
  • The Winter Box, Tim Waggoner (DarkFuse)


Superior Achievement in Short Fiction

  • “Time is a Face on the Water,” Michael Bailey (Borderlands 6) (Borderlands Press)
  • “A Rift in Reflection,” Hal Bodner (Chiral Mad 3) (Written Backwards)
  • “The Bad Hour (What the #@&% is That?),” Christopher Golden (Saga Press)
  • “ArbeitMacht Frei,” Lisa Mannetti (Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories) (Crystal Lake Publishing)
  • “The Crawl Space,” Joyce Carol Oates (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Volume #2016/Issue#8) (Dell Magazines)


Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection

  • Swift to Chase, Laird Barron (JournalStone)
  • A Long December, Richard Chizmar (Subterranean Press)
  • The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Joyce Carol Oates (Mysterious Press)
  • Lethal Birds, Gene O’Neill (Omnium Gatherum Media)
  • American Nocturne, Hank Schwaeble (Cohesion Press)


Superior Achievement in a Screenplay

  • 10 Cloverfield Lane Campbell, Josh Campbell, Damien Chazelle, and Matthew Stuecken (Paramount Pictures)
  • Stranger Things: “The Vanishing of Will Byers” (Episode 01: Chapter One) Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer (21 Laps Entertainment, Monkey Massacre)
  • Stranger Things: “The Upside Down” (Episode 01: Chapter Eight) Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer (21 Laps Entertainment, Monkey Massacre)
  • The VVitch, Robert Eggers (Parts and Labor, RT Features, Rooks Nest Entertainment, Code Red Productions, Scythia Films, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Mott Street Pictures, Pulse Films, and Very Special Projects)
  • Penny Dreadful: “A Blade of Grass,” John Logan (Episode 03:04) Showtime Presents in association with SKY, Desert Wolf Productions, Neal Street Productions)


Superior Achievement in an Anthology

  • Chiral Mad 3, Michael Bailey (Written Backwards)
  • The Beauty of Death, Alessandro Manzetti (Independent Legions Publishing)
  • Borderlands 6, Thomas F. Monteleone and Oliva F. Monteleone (Samhain Publishing, Ltd.)
  • Fright Mare-Women Write Horror, Billie Sue Mosiman (DM Publishing)
  • Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Doug Murano and D. Alexander Ward (Crystal Lake Publishing)


Superior Achievement in Non-Fiction

  • Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural, Leo Braudy (Yale University Press)
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
  • Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”: Studies in the Horror Film, Danel P. Olson (Centipede Press)
  • In the Mountains of Madness: The Life, Death and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft, W. Scott Poole (Soft Skull Press)
  • Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula, David J. Skal (Liveright Publishing Corporation)
  • The Gothic Worlds of Peter Straub, John Tibbetts (McFarland)


Superior Achievement in a Poetry Collection

  • Sacrificial Nights, Bruce Boston and Alessandro Manzetti (KippleOfficinaLibraria)
  • Corona Obscura: Poems Dark and Elemental, Michael R. Collings (self-published)
  • Field Guide to the End of the World: Poems, Jeannine Hall Gailey (Moon City Press)
  • Small Spirits, Marge Simon (Midnight Town Media)
  • Brothel, Stephanie M. Wytovich (Raw Dog Screaming Press)


You can find more information about the Bram Stoker Awards here. Congratulations to all the nominees!

Caterpillars and Butterflies: The Expanse: “Home”

The Expanse - Avasarala on her roof

Well, that might have been the best episode The Expanse has given us yet. This week’s “Home” was an incredibly tense balance of hard sci-fi and hard-won emotion. Let’s dig in.

Spoilers ahead.

The UN Council realizes that Eros is on a collision course with wackiness—er, Earth, and they all deal with their tension in various ways. Avasarala calls for a mass evacuation (presumably to Luna?); the Deputy Director leaves a scathing voicemail for Jules-Pierre Mao; the President calls up the nuclear arsenal. Only Avasarala has the presence of mind to warn Mars, so they don’t think Earth is picking another fight with them.

Only one problem: the second the nukes fire, Eros disappears! Wait, no, it’s still there, it’s just not appearing on radar. Fred Johnson and Holden appear in quick succession on the UN’s comm screens, offering help.

This is a perfect culmination of season one—these are two hated vilified terrorists. Most Earthlings have no idea that Fred Johnson is a hero, and only Avasarala has any empathy toward Holden. But here are these two guys, popping up on a 15 minute delay, saying that they can see Eros and can guide the missiles manually in order to save Earth. It’s the delay that really gets them: they have to decide immediately whether or not to trust them, because if they hesitate there won’t be time to change their minds.

“There’s no time to bargain. We can only choose to trust each other. I pray that we will.” Holden says, and then cuts transmission to get back to helping Miller.

The Expanse—Avasarala in her office

Backed into a space corner, Earth’s president hands the reigns of the missiles over to Johnson, who in turn asks the Roci to steer them. Then the Earth, and all of its people, just have to wait.

Avasarala chooses not to evacuate. Earth is her home, and if she can’t save it, she’s going down with the ship. She makes one last call to her husband Arjun, and he makes a half-hearted attempt to get her to come to Luna, which she rejects:

“If I left, you wouldn’t respect me anyway”
“Why did I marry such a great woman?”
“You got very lucky, didn’t you?”

Having said her goodbyes, Avasarala climbs out onto her favorite spot on the roof, stares up into the stars, and waits.

Meanwhile, in Space…


The sections of this episode set on Roci and Eros were among the best work the show has ever done. The interactions between the Roci crew were perfect—they’re all checking with each other, finishing each other’s sentences, communicating more with a look than with words. It’s beautiful to watch, both on the show level of loving these characters, and the meta level of appreciating the actors. Every time Amos and Naomi check in with each other I smiled, no matter how tense the situation was. Especially the two of them, because while Holden and Alex will work themselves up into a guilt-ridden frenzy, they’re the two who actually love Miller.

The Expanse—Amos

While the Roci tries to keep tabs on Eros, redirect missiles, and map the station for Miller, Miller gets to do the really hard work of “taking his pet nuke for a walk” deeper and deeper into the station. He wants to find a “hot spot” to leave it, schedule a detonation, and then hopefully flee so he and the Roci can get clear of the blast right before Earth’s missile make contact.

If you think that happens according to plan, you haven’t been watching The Expanse very long.

But that’s an easy thing to say—out in space, everything goes wrong, and the sci-fi show ratchets the tension up with a series of mishaps.

The interesting thing is how they twist the knife. The Expanse has always been special because of their version of hyperdrive—they don’t have hand-wavy FTL, they have the Epstein Drive, which has only existed for about 150 years at this point in the show, and which wreaks fucking havoc on the human body when it’s used. When the Roci chooses to keep Eros in sight with the thin hope of saving Miller, they’re doing it knowing that accelerating like that might kill them. When Alex kicks them into high gear and says “here comes the juice” he literally means that a drug cocktail is pumped into their bodies, and it’s excruciating. Yet they have to take it, think through it, steer the ship through it, talk to Miller through it—this isn’t Scotty coming up with some miracle in engineering, this is a choice for physical sacrifice. And the detail of the scene, where Holden the Earther yelps in pain, but Amos seems to almost get off on it, is perfect.

The Expanse—pachinko

Even better? Miller’s slow, torturous progress through the space station, dragging a nuke behind him. He finds a dolly, but he has to put the nuke down and laboriously unload the dolly before he can wrestle the nuke onto it. The dolly tips, it gets caught on bodies strewn across the floor. At one point the floor itself opens up beneath him and almost swallows him nuke and all. All the while hard-drinking Miller wheezes and coughs and side-eyes the proto-molecule wisps dancing around him. This is hard, painful work, but if he stops he’ll die, and even if he doesn’t stop he might die, and the entire Earth might die, too. He even has to trudge through the Pachinko Parlor all over again, while one of the dead voices whispers “Everybody’s a winner on Eros!” in his ear.

And of course then the episode goes in a direction I was not expecting. Miller realizes the “hot spots” are leading him back to Blue Falcon Hotel—i.e., where they found Julie’s body. And Miller quickly realizes that she’s still in there, that her consciousness has survived the proto-molecule takeover and she has become the “seed-crystal” that is currently steering the station. Earth’s only hope is for him to walk into that room and reason with whatever is left of her.

Here my brain split into two warring factions.

The Expanse—Miller's fairy tale ending

One: I am a sucker for the cynic-who-becomes-a-romantic plot, and I thought this was a perfect resolution to Miller’s arc. (For now, at least, I have no idea whether he comes back.) He briefly thought he might get out of this alive. Now he knows he’s trapped, he cuts the comm link and accepts it. The new, humanist Miller is the one who speaks to Julie, who assures her she’s not alone, and who accepts whatever fate comes to him as he helps her veer the station into Venus. He saves Earth and achieves communion with Julie, the only thing he’s ever believed in. I love that the show’s writers allowed this to play out in an unbroken scene, and that they really went for it emotionally, from having the bird from Ceres lead Miller into a fairytale setting, to his vulnerability as he removes his helmet an gloves, to the way he kneels at Julie’s side. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

Two: Julie doesn’t know who he is, where she is, or why any of this is happening. She wakes up, seemingly, in a strange place, melded with the proto-molecule, She has no idea where she is. Eros has been rocketing toward Earth only because she was dreaming about going home. Suddenly this strange man shows up, wakes her out of her dream, doesn’t truly explain the situation, and offers to die with her. He says he believes in her, but she doesn’t know what that means. She hasn’t experienced his visions of her, from her perspective. There’s no indication that she’s led him here. She is literally trapped on this station, and this man kneels beside her and kisses her, and then the nuke goes off. If the Julie that we meet is a fragment of Julie’s old consciousness, she blacked out and/or died alone in a hotel room, woke up next to a stranger, lay there helplessly as he kissed her, and died again.

The Expanse—Julie Mao's view of the fairy tale

I love this and have serious issues with this in equal measure.

Random Thoughts Floating in the Void of Space

  • As the president decides to launch the missiles, he murmurs, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” So apparently the writings of Richard Bach have survived into the future? Are we going to encounter a ship called the Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
  • I really, really love the throughline with the Pachinko Parlor
  • I feel bad about doubting Miller’s love for Julie. Thomas Jane sold the heck out of those last scenes.
  • Naomi saying “Don’t get all Holden on me” to Miller was priceless, as was Miller teasing them about their not-so-secret relationship.
  • Speaking of Holden…

The Expanse—Holden

  • OK. I’ve been mean to Captain Emo this season. But this week’s episode paid all of that off, I thought. Once again, Holden’s arc is to relent, to give up control, and give up his hope for a heroic ending. Last week he tried to be the good guy and let the Humanitarian Space Doctors leave, but instead had to kill them all for the greater good. This week he risks his own death and makes a wrenching physical sacrifice to save Miller, but in the end, has to submit to Miller’s choice. And in yet another perfect moment, he doesn’t even really get to apologize, or have the man-to-man bonding he’s looking for: Miller tells him he owes him a bottle of gin, and then cuts the link so he can find Julie. Miller’s an adult, a Belter who’s seen some shit. He knows when he has to face the unknown alone. And this time Holden accepts it, doesn’t yell or curse, just gathers everyone for a toast to Miller’s empty seat after everyone’s safe.
  • I also love how Fred Johnson’s attempt to be the good guy was immediately screwed. Now the Earth might think he took the missiles for his own purposes, and he’s back to square one of being a hated terrorist.
  • Fred Johnson: The Eeyore of The Expanse? Discuss.
  • How about this nuanced view we’re getting of Chrisjen Avasarala? We’ve watched her do some cold-blooded shit, but when her home is threatened, she chooses to stay and die with it if she has to.

What did you think, Internet humans? Again, I’m not reading ahead, so the twist in Miller’s story came as a genuine shock to me, and I loved it. I love that this show keeps surprising me, and remains dedicated to challenging, character-driven sci-fi. I hope other non-book readers are watching!

Leah Schnelbach never expected her high school guru Mr. Bach to show up in a serious sci-fi show. What’s next, Edgar Cayce getting a cameo on The Magicians? Come join her in the illusion that is Twitter!

Five Amazing Women Warriors of the Middle Ages


So I watched Batman v Superman. You don’t need a medievalist wandering through your digital space just to pile on with the many things that went wrong with the film, so instead let me say this:

In a dark world of brooding boys, Wonder Woman’s every moment on screen was like the light of a sun threatening to break through the clouds. There were many reasons for this (number one: Gal Gadot is a terrific actress), but what struck me as I was watching the film was the fact that Wonder Woman seemed to be the only person on screen with a clear sense of purpose. No brooding and self-doubt and angst and what-not for her: Wonder Woman knows exactly who she is.

And who she is, obviously, is a woman who kicks ass.

Go back and watch the final battle again. Near the end, when seemingly all hope is lost, after she’s just been pounded through the fourteenth car on a ruinous landscape, she slides to a stop in the debris and the camera closes in on her. And in that moment of peril and pain, she smiles.

Because this is what she is. She’s a warrior. She was born to do this. She lives to do this.


Which reminded me, because I am a medievalist, of the long line of amazing women in history who don’t always get the notice they deserve. During the publicity for the release of Shards of Heaven, I wrote a short blog post about “Five Amazing Women in Ancient Rome,” so today I thought I’d follow that up with “Five Amazing Women in the Middle Ages.”

Awesome, right? Except, well, the list of amazing medieval women that popped into my mind is massive. Amalasuntha, Christine de Pizan, Isabella of France, Hrotsvitha, Catherine of Valois, Hildegard of Bingen, Isabella of Castille … I could write post after post on these (and so many other) remarkable figures. And that’s just dealing with some of the Big Names. Because there are so many whose songs have gone largely unsung.

For instance, in 1999, Father George Dennis found a note slipped into the pages of an obscure manuscript in the Mediceo-Laurentian Library in Florence. Stuck in between the writings of the Byzantine monastic theologian Maximos Planoudis, a poem on meter, and the works of the late antique Greek rhetorician Libanius—I told you this was an obscure manuscript!—was this passage:

In the part of Karia just opposite Chios, it is reported that, in our own day, a mature woman, with some facial hair, named Makouraino, married and with children, displayed her valor and leadership when the occasion presented itself. What she did was no less than what a man would do, indeed what the bravest men would do. For her ability to stretch tight and stiff bows was awesome. It is said that, by herself, she stood up to two pirate ships and drove them from the shore by firing arrows at them. In the year 1341.

We know nothing else of her. The story is nowhere else preserved. But she sounds amazing.

All this to say, even if I’m going to confine myself to a list of just those amazing women whose stories have survived, it would be far too long. I have to cut it down somehow. And what with Wonder Woman and Makouraino both being warriors and all, I give you…

Five Amazing Women Warriors in the Middle Ages

Matilda of Tuscany

Matilda giving directions to the Pope and a penitent King. No joke.

Matilda giving directions to the Pope and a penitent King. No joke.

The Great Countess was a force of nature in Italy for nearly forty years. A brilliant and multi-lingual woman, Matilda was a key figure in the long and complicated Investiture Controversy. After an excommunicated Emperor Henry IV walked to her castle at Canossa and for three days knelt in the snow at its gates, it was Matilda who convinced Pope Gregory VII to meet him and restore him to the Church. In the years that followed she was one of the papacy’s staunchest allies, often taking to the field at the direct head of her forces to defend first Gregory and then his successor Pope Urban II against Henry IV and his own successors. Through decades of political dynamics and military maneuvering, it was Matilda who came out on top. In 1111, Emperor Henry V crowned her Imperial Vicar and Vice-Queen of Italy, a title she would hold until her death in 1115. In 1645, her remains were transferred to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, one of only three women to hold such honor. The stunning facade of her tomb was designed by the famed sculptor Bernini himself.


Lithograph of Lathgertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

Lithograph of Lagertha by Morris Meredith Williams (1913)

One of the best books no one has heard of, the Gesta Danorum, by the 12th-century monk, Saxo Grammaticus, recounts the story of Lagertha. Born into the family of King Siward of Norway, she and other female relatives were forced into prostitution by King Frø of Sweden when he defeated Siward. The dead king’s grandson, Ragnar Lodbrok (the protagonist of The History Channel’s Vikings show) went to war against Frø to avenge Siward, and several of these abused women took arms alongside Ragnar’s forces. Lagertha is described as an Amazon among them, hewing her foes and leading them all to victory. Ragnar eventually courts her as his wife—killing a bear and a hound with a spear and his bare hands to do so. Because, you know, Vikings. He eventually divorced her in favor of a political marriage to a Swedish princess, but Lagertha still came to his aid when he was in need and saved his life when he faced civil war in Denmark. And then, when her second husband proved unworthy, she cut him down with the point of a spear that she concealed in the folds of her dress. After that, she ruled over vast lands in her own authority (and as a badass, still) until the time of her death.

(For the sake of transparency, I should admit that Lagertha might well be a fiction. There is good reason to believe that her story and her name are the result of a series of misreadings of tales about the minor Norse deity, Thorgerd. But there’s a chance she was real. And by the gods, I want her to be so!)

Jeanne Hachette

Illustration by H. Grober

Illustration by H. Grober

Born Jeanne Fourquet or Laisné, this peasant girl earned her name in history by wielding—you guessed it—a hatchet. On June 27, 1472, just over four decades after the death of fellow Frenchwoman Joan of Arc, Jeanne was a citizen of the town of Beauvais, which was besieged by the forces of the Duke of Burgundy. That day, the Burgundians made a furious assault, and according to the stories they managed to make their way onto the battlements of the town. In declaration of the impending victory, a Burgundian planted a flag upon the battlement—a deeply symbolic act of victory, as the Americans who raised the flag on Iwo Jima can attest. In that perilous moment, with the future of her city in doubt, Jeanne took in hand an axe and rushed the flag. She smote the man, tore down the flag, and the tide of the siege was turned.

Joanna of Flanders


When the Duke of Brittany died without heir in 1341, there were two rival claimants for the duchy: Charles of Blois and John of Montfort. John traveled to the court of King Philip VI of France to press his claim, but Philip —who just happened to be Charles’ nephew—instead imprisoned him. Rather than capitulate to this act, John’s wife, Joanna of Flanders, declared their infant son the de facto leader of the Montfort claim and promptly declared war against the House of Blois. What would become known as the War of the Breton Succession became a kind of “Cold War” during a time of supposed truce in the Hundred Years War when Joanna called upon King Edward III of England to defend her claim. In one of her many moments of triumph, she was besieged in the two of Hennebont by the forces of Charles. Touring her fortifications, she saw that the enemy encampment was ill-defended and so, donning armor and taking arms, she led a raid that burned the enemy’s tents and supply lines and then went on to seize another nearby town. For the daring action she is known as “Jeanne la Flamme,” and it was just one of her many exploits. The chronicler Jean le Bel declared that she “was indeed a courageous woman,” and the famed writer Jean Froissart agreed: “she had the heart of a lion.”

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc depicted in a manuscript dated May 10, 1429

Joan of Arc depicted in a manuscript dated May 10, 1429

Of course. I mean, obviously. The Maid of Orléans is one of the most remarkable figures in history: of any kind, of any gender, of any age. At the age of sixteen, with the kingdom of France teetering in the Hundred Years War with England, she walked from her home in Domrémy to the town of Vaucouleurs. She asked to see the garrison commander, and she informed him that God had told her that she needed to stand at the king’s side in the war. According to legend, she told him that divine revelation had also informed her that French forces had been defeated at the Battle of Rouvray. When word later arrived that this was, in fact, true, she was granted an escort to Chinon, where she met the king. Within months she led the French forces that lifted the siege of Orléans—the first in a striking series of victories. Captured in an ambush on 23 May 1430 (she could have escaped but stayed with the rear guard in order to allow others to do so), she was transferred into English hands and put on trial for ecclesiastical crimes. She was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431. Whether you or I believe that she truly heard voices of divine inspiration is immaterial: she believed that she did, and so did the many men who fought and died behind her banner.


There you go. Five amazing women warriors of the Middle Ages. Already I want to add more!

If you want to read more about some amazing medieval women (including many I didn’t discuss here), take a look at “Sex, Society, and Medieval Women,” a wonderful web resource by N.M. Heckel, hosted by the Robbins Library at the University of Rochester.

gates-hellMichael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Literature at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy series set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven and its sequel The Gates of Hell, is available from Tor Books.

The Collapsing Empire Sweepstakes!

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

We want to send you a galley copy of John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, available March 21st from Tor Books! Read the first three chapters here.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible—until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war—and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal—but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals—a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency—are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

Comment in the post to enter!

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States and D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec). To enter, comment on this post beginning at 12:30 PM Eastern Time (ET) on February 23rd. Sweepstakes ends at 12:00 PM ET on February 27th. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor:, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Warbreaker Reread: Chapter 19

Warbreaker Brandon Sanderson

Welcome back to the Warbreaker reread! Last week, Siri had everyone blushing with her new bedtime routine, while Lightsong tried unsuccessfully to call in sick. This week, Vivenna’s prejudices are on full display, even as her inexperience sets her up for further manipulation.

This reread will contain spoilers for all of Warbreaker and any other Cosmere book that becomes relevant to the discussion. This is particularly likely to include Words of Radiance, due to certain crossover characters. The index for this reread can be found here.

Click on through to join the discussion!


Chapter 19

Point of View: Vivenna
Her new digs in T’Telir
The morning after Chapter 18: Vivenna’s third day in T’Telir

Take a Deep Breath

Vivenna and the two mercenaries tour their new house, less ostentatious than Lemex’s but still in a nice enough area to be safe. The mess they left at Lemex’s house will be compounded by a gang of burglars, Lemex’s body will be dealt with by the authorities, and what’s left of his property seized in forfeit—all neatly taken care of with no ties to Vivenna or Denth. Bothered by this casual disregard but still off balance from the events of the previous two days, she lets it slide; they turn to discussion of how to disrupt Hallandren’s ability to make war.

Denth provides a list of ideas: meet with Vahr’s associates in organized crime to stir up revolts in the flower plantations; raid the Lifeless storage warehouses to mess with their functionality; disrupt the city’s food supply by raiding merchant caravans. Vivenna is appalled at the violence of the options presented, but is finally convinced that it needs to be that way.

The door bangs open and a Lifeless soldier barges in, sending Vivenna into a panic until she realizes that the mercenaries are laughing at her again. Jewels enters behind the creature, bringing supplies and the news that he is in the city. Vivenna is nearly hysterical about the presence of a Lifeless on her crew, but Denth makes it clear that they’re a package deal. She finally dodges the subject by asking about the large quantity of weapons Jewels brought; Denth explains that it’s all part of the aforementioned violence, and that she could really make herself useful by learning to be an Awakener. Revolted by the thought, she categorically refuses.

Jewels interrupts with a reemphasized worry over him beating them to the city, and with a supply of Breath granting Fourth or Fifth Heightening. From her brief description, Denth is convinced that the man she saw is someone he wants to kill—a man they call Tax, now calling himself Vasher, who killed a friend of theirs a couple of months ago. Listening, Vivenna realizes they’re talking about the man she saw watching her at the Arena on the previous day. When she describes the event, the team realizes that this Vasher is one step ahead of them again; Denth tells Vivenna that there are no coincidences around Vasher, and that he is probably planning to kill her.


“He killed a good friend of ours over in Yarn Dred a couple months back. Denth used to have four people in this team.”

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Jewels said. “Arsteel was a brilliant duelist—almost as good as Denth. Vasher’s never been able to beat either of them.”

“He used that… sword of his,” Tonk Fah grumbled.

“There was no blackness around the wound,” Jewels said.

“Then he cut the blackness out,” Tonk Fah snapped, watching Denth belt a sword to his waist. “There’s no way Vasher beat Arsteel in a fair duel. No way.”

More hints for the reader—or the rereader—regarding the notion that Vasher has a trick for dealing with duelists when it matters… but the first time through, most of us probably assumed that Vasher was just a lot better than these people are willing to admit. Pretty sure that’s what I thought, anyway.

Local Color

In the annotations, we’re reminded that Denth has deliberately told Jewels to stay away for a couple of days, and she’s only pretending she doesn’t know who Vivenna is. It was also a deliberate move by the author, in that Jewels was the perfect character to be controlling a Lifeless, but he needed to give Vivenna a little time before learning about Clod. Too many shocks at once stretch the limits of belief.

In a second note, a small detail is pointed out: the more Breath you hold, the easier it is to learn to Awaken. Denth keeps reminding Vivenna of the amount she holds, hoping to get her so frustrated about carrying it that she passes it to him.

Finally, a few more thoughts on the relationship between Denth and Vivenna. One is that the activities Denth is planning are calculated to make Hallandren more likely to attack Idris, not less… but like Vivenna, most of the readers are taken in by his rationale. Another—which coincidentally answered one of the questions in my notes—is that while Denth presents these suggestions as “what he could figure out of old Lemex’s plans,” they’ve been his own plans all along. Like Vivenna, Lemex was merely a tool for Denth; unlike Vivenna, he was becoming difficult to manipulate, which is another reason that Denth poisoned him. And Tonk Fah’s creepy line about how many bodies would fit in the storage space was supposed to be creepy…

Snow White and Rose Red

Poor Vivenna—every time she begins to get a grip on herself and exert her habitual self-control, she gets her feet knocked out from under her again. This is the morning of her third day in T’Telir; after the shocks of Lemex’s death, her non-complicit acquisition of a large quantity of Breath, the imminence of war, and her discoveries regarding her father, today she finds herself approving a set of violent attacks on the Hallandren people, and a Lifeless in her employ.

Today’s evidence of slipping control:

“What’s wrong with you?” Jewels said, glancing at Vivenna. “Some Awakener come by and steal your colors?”

Vivenna paused. “What?”

“She means,” Denth said, “why do you look so surprised?”

“That, and her hair is white,” Jewels said, walking over to the canvas bags.

Vivenna flushed, realizing that her shock had gotten the better of her. She returned her hair to its proper dark color.

Not only did her hair involuntarily go white with the shock of having a Lifeless walk into her new house, she wasn’t even aware it had happened. She’s becoming so numbed by repeated blows that she didn’t even feel her hair change. I realize I’m saying this pretty much every time we get in Vivenna’s head, but I really feel bad for her. I can no longer honestly view her harshly for her prejudices and assumptions; we all have them, but Vivenna’s are being pulled out and used to beat her every time she turns around. Thus continueth her slide into helplessness.

About that Lifeless, her opposition to the concept is completely rational, despite Denth’s twisting of words. If buying someone else’s Breath is immoral, using it to Awaken objects is more so—and taking someone’s dead body and Awakening it with another person’s Breath has to be just about the pinnacle of evil. Whether we agree with the basic premise or not, Vivenna is doing her best to be as moral and ethical as she can be in this crazy place. It’s worth a little respect.

In Living Color

Though of course we don’t know it yet, we’ve just been introduced to the enmity between the remaining of the Five Scholars. Vasher defeated and killed Arsteel in a duel a few months ago, though no one can figure out how he did it. Denth, already at odds with Vasher, hates him even more after that, and can’t wait to meet and fight him. How much of this is hatred of Vasher, and how much desire to prove his own skill, is anyone’s guess.

Don’t Hold Your Breath (Give it to me!)

We don’t actually know much about this “Clod” yet, so… for the time being, I won’t say more. Feel free to talk about him in the comments, though.


By the end of this chapter, we’ve got most of the pieces in place. Siri has found a way to get the priests off her back (and get some sleep), Vivenna’s full team is assembled, Lightsong is poised to get involved in the political scene, and Vasher is … watching and preparing. If I recall correctly, the pace begins to increase in the upcoming chapters, as we shift from worldbuilding and positioning into major plot movement. Ready for the ride?


That’s it for the blog—now it’s time for the comments! Join us again next week, when we will cover Chapter 20, in which Susebron reaches out to Siri for the first time. If I can pull it off, we’ll also cover Chapter 21, when Vasher sneaks into the Court with the help of some bizarre distraction techniques.

Alice Arneson is a SAHM, blogger, beta reader, and literature fan. She has very little new news about the Oathbringer beta; she has finished Part 3, and Part 4 will probably arrive early next week. As expected, more answers generally result in more questions.

Rereading The Handmaid’s Tale: Parts V-VI

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

The moon is full and it is time for the Ceremony. Or at least, the first part of the Ceremony, which is waiting on the Commander. While these sections take place entirely in the Commander’s household, we learn a lot about the women (and one man) who depend on this powerful man for their survival. While Serena Joy awaits the monthly ritual with dread and tears, Offred retreats inside herself, to recall a very different household: Luke and their daughter, as they attempted to flee the country.

The index to the Handmaid’s Tale reread can be found here! Remember that because this is a reread, there will be spoilers for the rest of the book, as well as speculation about the TV series.


V: Nap


Last we left Offred, she was composing herself in preparation for the Ceremony. But what we had forgotten, and what she had to learn during her time at the Red Center, was that part of the process is the blank time—the waiting, “the amount of unfilled time,” “time as white sound.” The Aunts encouraged the Handmaids-in-training to “practice” at the Center, both what sounds like kegels or some other sort of firming up (“Arms at the sides, knees bent, lift the pelvis, roll the backbone down. Tuck. Again. Breathe in to the count of five, hold, expel.”) as well as the mandatory hour of rest each day between 3 and 4 p.m. It’s meditative, but it’s also a preview of their lives, as Nick says, of “hurry up and wait.”

So, Offred spends her catnap returning in her mind’s eye to the Center, to the first time Moira appeared. It was about three weeks after Offred arrived at the Center; though they recognized one another, they knew not to announce that fact to anyone who might be watching. Instead, they found excuses to go to the washroom at the same time—different times on different days, so as not to arouse suspicion—and speak standing side by side in stalls, with only a small hole in the wood through which to touch fingers. (Not to be crass, but it’s a glory hole, right? Offred/Atwood never explicitly says, but it’s described as the “legacy of an ancient voyeur,” and it would fit into Offred’s observations about sexualized spaces in this former school. Also, there’s something wonderfully ironic about Offred and Moira using this chip in the wood for forbidden communication.)

Of course, they have to time their conversations so as to slip away during unobtrusive times. Before she’s able to talk to Moira for the first time, Offred must sit through the weekly Testifying, which brings to mind an AA meeting. Janine—the pregnant Handmaid that Offred spied in one of her daily shopping trips—tells the same story two weeks in a row, about how she was gang-raped at fourteen and had to have an abortion. Offred observes:

She seemed almost proud of it, while she was telling. It may not even be true. At Testifying, it’s safer to make things up than to say you have nothing to reveal.

Almost like a high-school game of Never Have I Ever, or the monthly required confession I had at my Catholic school—if you say you have nothing to share, then you must be hiding something. I remember racking my brain for some minor sin to tell the priest, just so he could give me ten Hail Marys and send me on my way. If I had not engaged with the ritual, it would have been worse.

The first time Janine tells the story, Aunt Helena uses her experience to push Gilead’s teachings:

But whose fault was it? Aunt Helena says, holding up one plump finger.

Her fault, her fault, her fault, we chant in unison.

Who led them on? Aunt Helena beams, pleased with us.

She did. She did. She did.

Wy did God allow such a terrible thing to happen?

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

Janine bursts into tears, and the other Handmaids-in-training hurl insults of “crybaby” at her, because they despise how pitiful she looks and fear looking the same. But the second time, before she can be the object of disgust again, she says that it’s her fault, that she deserves the pain. Very good, Janine, Aunt Lyda congratulates her. You are an example.

Back in the present, in her nap, Offred has two more snippets of dreams: one highly symbolic, in which she’s standing in an empty version of her and Luke’s first apartment, staring at a cupboard full of clothes belonging to his wife, none of which fit her, and Luke can’t hear her, perhaps because he’s dead; the other is the memory of the day her daughter was taken from her. The two of them are running through the bracken, but her daughter is sluggish due to the pill Offred gave her so that she wouldn’t panic or give them away during their escape. Offred could run fast enough to get to the border if it were just her, but instead shots are fired and the two of them drop down to try and hide. Offred tries to curl herself around her daughter without smothering her, whispers to her to be quiet, but it’s no use:

She’s too young, it’s too late, we come apart, my arms are held, and the edges go dark and nothing is left but a little window, a very little window, like the wrong end of a telescope, like the window on a Christmas card, an old one, night and ice outside, and, within a candle, a shining tree, a family, I can hear the bells even, sleigh bells, from the radio, old music, but through this window I can see, small but very clear, I can see her, going away from me, through the trees which are already turning, red and yellow, holding out her arms to be, being carried away.

Cora wakes her from her reverie, as it’s time to go downstairs. Offred wipes her wet face and thinks, Of all the dreams this is the worst.


Part of the wonder of this reread has been rediscovering all of Atwood’s gorgeous prose that I don’t remember between reads because I’m always so hung up on the big ideas. Yes, this is the kind of story that needs to be adapted to all mediums; yes, the visuals on the TV series will be oh-so-striking; but this had to be a novel first, it had to have these words as the baseline.

My first response to Janine’s Testifying was just to write the very ineloquent “oh shit” next to that passage because wow, the Aunts are just completely leaning into the “she was asking for it” frame of thought. And why wouldn’t they? In a future where “there is no such thing as a sterile man […] only women who are fruitful and women who are barren,” of course a foundational teaching would be that rape is the woman’s fault. Women, but especially Handmaids, seem to be a contradiction: the objects of temptation for men and objects of disdain for other women. They are simultaneously held up for their noble service of conceiving and birthing the next generation yet put down for doing the nitty-gritty work required for conception.

The Handmaids are expected to be passive objects, and yet they are credited with such strange control (and, yes, unfair blame): by this reasoning, they are the ones who inspire arousal, whose bodies dictate when sex occurs, whose wombs can support life.

Despite the next passage where we see how much the Commander’s household literally waits on him, the date of the Ceremony is nonetheless determined by Offred’s ovulation: Even the Commander is subject to its whims, she thinks. Before that moment, she considers her body before Gilead and after:

Treacherous ground, my own territory. […] Each month I watch for blood, fearfully, for when it comes it means failure. I have failed once again to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons of one sort of another, make things happen. There were limits, but my body was nonetheless lithe, single, solid, one with me.

Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and cured like that, though black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like a famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.

Gah, again with these poetic passages. I wish I could just sink into these like Offred in her bath, but alas, we must commence with the Ceremony.


VI: Household


The household—that is, Serena Joy sitting, Offred kneeling, Cora, Rita, and Nick standing behind—assembles in a bizarre tableau as they wait for the Commander in the sitting room. This waiting is part of the ritual, or at least their version of it; they await his arrival, as of a father returning home to his family from the office. During that time, Serena Joy watches the news, which allows them to watch the news, especially updates from the war: “The Appalachian Highlands, says the voiceover, where the Angels of the Apocalypse, Fourth Division, are smoking out a pocket of Baptist guerillas, with air support from the Twenty-first Battalion of the Angels of Light.” It all looks so cinematic that it could be full of actors on a set, Offred reflects in a callback to Part II:

Such as it is; who knows if any of it is true? It could be old clips, it could be faked. But I watch it anyway, hoping to be able to read beneath it. Any news, now, is better than none.

An anchorman, with his kindly eyes and white hair “looking like everybody’s ideal grandfather,” tells them that Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. You must go to sleep, like good children. The news reports also show the Eyes cracking an underground espionage team run by “the heretical sect of Quakers,” and the resettlement of the Children of Ham in National Homeland One, formerly North Dakota.

Nick stands too close to Offred, so that the tip of his shoe touches hers—twice, even after she shifts away. Instead of responding, Offred recalls when she, Luke, and their daughter tried to sneak over the border into Canada on a Saturday morning in September:

My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, which my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.

They packed a picnic to fool everyone from the border patrol (with their forged passports and fake one-day visas) to their unsuspecting daughter (We didn’t want to lay upon her the burden of our truth). Offred was too scared, Luke too falsely cheery from the adrenaline, as they had been warned not to look too happy.

For now, we return to the Ceremony, finally, as the Commander—acting surprised to see the group assembled all prettily just for him, almost reluctant to have all the attention focused on him—reads from the Bible as if it’s a bedtime story. He reads the usual stories: God to Adam, God to Noah, Rachel to Jacob from the epigraph. All with an emphasis on being fruitful, multiplying, and replenishing the Earth. And, for added effect, Rachel’s plea of Give me children, or else I die. Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of my womb? Behold my maid Bilhah, etc.

Offred remembers these prayers—plus some fake Beatitudes—being delivered like medicine at the Red Center, and Moira’s decision to flee. She cut out vitamin C to induce scurvy and get a brief reprieve at the hospital. But either she was found out there, or she tried to escape, because she was brought back to the Red Center and punished: her feet lashed with steel cables with frayed ends so that they were too swollen for her to walk. It’s brutal, and the Aunts don’t care if it’s permanent, because as Aunt Lydia says, For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.

As the Commander finishes reading about Rachel, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Serena Joy begins to cry—a regular occurrence at every Ceremony. It’s the kind of emotional release in a tense atmosphere that’s almost absurd, like a fart in church; it makes Offred want to laugh, but not because it’s funny. But the Ceremony must go on.

We’ll address the specifics more in the Commentary section, but this is what happens: Offred lies between Serena Joy’s legs—her head on Serena Joy’s stomach, above her pelvic bone—as the two of them clasp hands, to act as if they are one person experiencing sex with the Commander. He props himself up above the two of them and has sex with Offred’s lower half, looking as if he is distractedly doing his duty and nothing more. Everyone is fully clothed.

After he finishes and leaves the two of them, Serena Joy is supposed to let Offred lie there for ten minutes with her legs up, to aid in conception. Instead, she dismisses her so quickly that as Offred stands, some of the Commander’s semen drips down her leg.

Back in her room, Offred changes into a nightgown and uses the stolen pat of butter as moisturizer. The Wives forbid the Handmaids from having anything that might make them look attractive (For them, things are bad enough as it is), but it’s a trick she picked up at the Red Center.

Offred feels restless, like she wants to steal something, so she sneaks downstairs, unsupervised. Back in the sitting room, searching for some small trinket or dried flower to hide for the next Handmaid in her room, she runs into Nick. Something about the forbidden nature of their presence, both together and apart, lights a match to the attraction that had sparked when his foot touches hers:

He too is illegal, here, with me, he can’t give me away. Nor I him; for the moment we’re mirrors. He puts his hand on my arm, pulls me against him, his mouth on mine, what else comes from such denial? Without a word. Both of us shaking, how I’d like to. In Serena’s parlor, with the dried flowers, on the Chinese carpet, his thin body. A man entirely unknown. It would be like shouting, it would be like shooting someone. My hand goes down, how about that, I could unbutton, and then. But it’s too dangerous, he knows it, we push each other away, not far. Too much trust, too much risk, too much already.

[…] I want to reach up, taste his skin, he makes me hungry. His fingers move, feeling my arm under the nightgown sleeve, as if his hand won’t listen to reason. It’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy. Luke, you’d know, you’d understand. It’s you here, in another body.


He breaks away and tells her that the Commander wants to see her, in his office, tomorrow. She leaves before she can do anything else.


I still remember my stunned surprise at reading this passage, my thought of oh, she actually went there. It’s one thing to establish a world in which Commanders and Wives use Handmaids as proxies for having babies, but it’s another thing entirely to depict the act of conception.

My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.

Strangely, despite all evidence to the contrary, teenage me thought this scene was still somehow the slightest bit erotic. Probably the pointed use of the word fucking, the unflinching description of the act when most of the sex scenes I had read at the time tended toward either the fade-to-black or the very explicit slash fanfiction. Then again, it’s like Offred’s reflection about supposedly erotic art: There are the familiar symbols (there, harems; here, fucking), but the meaning is something else entirely.

I’m always surprised to remember that even the Commander finds no joy in this act. Despite Offred’s wry rhetorical question about isn’t this everyone’s wet dream, two women at once?, he attends to his duty with dedication but also distraction: It’s as if he’s somewhere else, waiting for himself to come, drumming his fingers on the table while he waits. Despite the way that Serena Joy and Offred are posed, there is no enticing visual for him, no enthusiasm (certainly not real, as Gilead society cares little for women’s arousal or orgasm; but not faked for his benefit, either), no encouragement. When he comes it’s a relief, as much about the biological release as it is about fulfilling his part in the ritual and getting to leave the room.

It ties into the moment, earlier in the Ceremony, when Offred considers the Commander with some small measure of empathy. They’re both people who are watched, though for very different reasons; she is an object to be consumed visually, without her control, while her observations of the Commander are always wary, as she is constantly reminded of her dependence on him:

To be a man, watched by women. It must be entirely strange. To have them watching him all the time. To have them wondering, What’s he going to do next? To have them flinch when he moves, even if it’s a harmless enough move, to reach for an ashtray perhaps. To have them sizing him up. To have them thinking, He can’t do it, he won’t do, he’ll have to do, this last as if he were a garment, out of style or shoddy, which must nevertheless be put on because there’s nothing else available.

To have them putting him on, trying him on, trying him out, while he himself puts them on, like a sock over a foot, onto the stub of himself, his extra, sensitive thumb, his tentacle, his delicate, stalked slug’s eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big again, bulging a little at the tip, traveling forward as if along a leaf, into them, avid for vision. To achieve vision in this way, this journey into a darkness that is composed of women, a woman, who can see him darkness while he himself strains blindly forward.

She watches him from within. We’re all watching him. It’s the one thing we can really do, and it is not for nothing: if he were to falter, fail, or die, what would become of us? No wonder he’s like a boot, hard on the outside, giving shape to a pulp of tenderfoot. That’s just a wish. I’ve been watching him for some time and he’s given no evidence, of softness.

But watch out, Commander, I tell him in my head. I’ve got my eye on you. One false move and I’m dead.

Still, it must be hell, to be a man, like that.

It must be just fine.

It must be hell.

It must be very silent.

For some reason, I find the Commander’s who, me? act infuriating. Yes, you’re the head of the household, you’re the only one who gets to read the Bible (or read anything), stop acting like you’re constantly surprised that everyone hangs on your every word and action, and just fulfill your part of the Ceremony already. I’m also fascinated by this description of the Bible itself:

It is an incendiary device; who knows what we’d make of it, if we ever got our hands on it?

Yes, only the women would do something bad with that book…

He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it, once.

Offred’s regrets about “squandering” her freedom in the past keep hitting me like punches to the gut. As does this reflection on her unorthodox beauty routine and the camaraderie it inspires in the women:

As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will someday get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire. We have ceremonies of our own, private ones.

What’s funny is that the specifics of the Ceremony have always stuck in my mind, but I forgot that Offred and Nick have this actually erotically charged encounter at this point in the story. It’s the forbidden nature of the touch, the kiss, that makes it so appealing, that makes it about more than the two people involved—because how much do they even know about each other?—and that’s so human. Perhaps that’s why the Angels and Eyes are more attracted to the Handmaids than the Commanders; for the latter, it’s a duty dictated by the government, to the former, it’s something they can never have in their current states. Perhaps if they gain enough clout to get a household of their own, complete with a Handmaid, someday they’ll perform the Ceremony with the same level of distraction and wanting it to be over.

Natalie Zutter found it incredibly bizarre to reread this section during that time of the month. Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Join the Crew for a Last Supper in the Alien: Covenant Prologue

Alien: Covenant prologue last supper toast Michael Fassbender Katherine Waterston James Franco Billy Crudup

20th Century Fox has released the latest footage from Alien: Covenant, being described as “a new chapter in [Ridley Scott’s] groundbreaking Alien franchise” and a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus: a four-minute prologue to the film, in which the crew of the colony ship Covenant enjoys a final meal before going into cryosleep.

What’s immediately interesting is that the crew is made up of all couples plus their android, Walter (Michael Fassbender, who played android David in Prometheus). After their captain (James Franco) departs the cockpit to start his long sleep early, his wife (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s Katherine Waterston) and the rest of the crew eat, gamble, carouse, toast, and thankfully don’t recreate the iconic scene from the original Alien—though there is a moment where you think it might go that way…

Really sweet, right? It’s a great way to introduce the crew before they land on the planet they’ve been searching for and all hell breaks loose:

The official synopsis, from 20th Century Fox, doesn’t give much away, but feel free to speculate:

The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape.

The movie stars Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, and Benjamin Rigby.

Alien: Covenant explores new worlds on May 19.

Storytelling Through Costume: The Allure of the Red Dress


A dress the color of ripeness, of warning, of danger, of invitation. It’s cut in a way that beckons the eye, but it skims the edge of probability—how can it stay up? What kind of woman is comfortable wearing that?

What kind of woman, indeed?


The red dress is a staple of costuming. It communicates a thousand ideas at once. It draws the eye instantly — the primate brain in the skull of every viewer knows to watch for that color. It’s the color of a toadstool, the color of a berry, the rings on the coral snake and the best apple on the tree all at once. It’s tempting and alarming. “Stop,” it says, but also, “reach for me.” The canny costumer will use the red dress to alert the audience: look here.

But the red dress isn’t just a costume; it’s an archetype. When we see the red dress, we already have an idea of what we can expect from the woman inside of it.

She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.


It’s sexy. There’s no way around that. It’s a sexy piece. It’s form-fitting, and it’s daringly cut—sometimes so daring that it feels outright dangerous. Sometimes so daring that it’s not even flattering.

Consider Number Six from Battlestar Galactica. Her iconic red dress is stunning, architectural, sexy as all get-out, and… not terribly flattering. The bodice is cut so low as to create a sense of both suspense and confusion—it seems to not quite fit, to stay put via some technology that is beyond human comprehension. There are oddly-placed seams and cutouts that don’t quite make sense, and spaghetti straps that are not only superfluous but which, when viewed from the front, don’t appear to connect to the bodice at all. The sum of these parts is a dress that insists upon its own sensuality and upon its own architectural complexity.

In this way, the red dress is a perfect preview of the wearer.


The viewer knows not to trust the woman in the red dress. The moment we see her, we know that she must be up to something. Why?

It’s the sexiness of the dress. Like the flourish of a magician’s brightest scarf, the sexiness is a blatant grab for attention. A lifetime of patriarchal indoctrination has impacted most of us thoroughly enough that we immediately distrust a woman who requests attention—especially one who requests attention using her sexuality. We’ve been taught over and over again that women who use their bodies to make money or to garner fame are morally bankrupt. We see the woman in the red dress and think: I’m being tricked.


And because the red dress is a tool drawing upon tropes that we as an audience know and love, we’re usually right. This is the part where the red dress becomes a perfect tool for a fourth-wave feminist narrative of female agency: it is a trick. It’s a simultaneous reinforcement of and a strategic use of the societal narrative of female sexuality as devilry. The woman in the red dress wears that dress because she knows that it will draw in her target, and the costumer uses the red dress because they know that it will alert the audience to the character’s moral complexity.

Because she is morally complex. She’s doing bad things, but she’s doing them for the right reasons. Or, she’s doing them for the wrong reasons, but she doesn’t care that they’re the wrong reasons because they’re her reasons. The woman in the red dress almost always has her own motives, her own goals and dreams. She is usually tied to a man, but the audience can see her chafing at that man’s ineptitude and at her own objectification at his hands. The red dress is usually ill-fitting, and that’s no accident: it is, after all, a costume.


Here is the part where the red dress becomes one of the most reliable cards in a costumer’s hand. It’s incredibly meta: it’s a costume for the actor and a costume for the character. A costumer will select the red dress because of what it says to the audience; the character will select the red dress because of what it says to her fellow characters. She is an actress in a play-within-a-play, and her part is that of the sexpot.

But the woman inside of the red dress always has an ulterior motive. She will invariably reveal them in a scene that is meant to shock, but which instead tends to satisfy. She draws a snub-nosed revolver that had been tucked into her garter, or she slams her target against a wall in a choke-hold, or she leads him into an ambush. This is set up as a betrayal—but upon analysis, it becomes obvious that the woman in the red dress rarely makes promises to the men who she betrays. The promise is made by the dress itself: she lets her costume do the talking, and the man she leads to his doom always seems to listen. He follows her into the ambush, or he gives her the access codes to the security mainframe, or he signs away his soul—and then she does exactly what she always intended to do. The audience’s suspicion of her motives is rewarded: we were right all along, and we get to feel the satisfaction of knowing that the woman in the red dress is never to be trusted.


So why does her target never seem to suspect what we as an audience know from the very start: that the red dress is a warning sign?

By choosing the red dress, the costumer is inviting the audience to consider that maybe the target does know. The costumer isn’t only telling us about the character who wears it—they are also telling us about the character who she will manipulate throughout the course of the story. Because everyone knows that the red dress is dangerous, and surely this character knows, too. He recognizes the danger—but he is drawn to that danger by the same instinct that draws one to stand near the crumbling edge of a cliff and look down.

His hubris, or his death-wish, or his willful ignorance: one of these will play a major role in his story. Without them, the red dress would be a simple ornament. But the woman in the red dress sees those aspects of her target’s personality, and she crafts her lure accordingly.


The costumer who chooses the red dress is turning the first appearance of the character who wears it into a prologue: here tonight shall be presented a tale of weaponized feminine sensuality, of deception and betrayal, of hubris defeated; a tale of masculine indignation at the revelation that a woman can have an entire life’s worth of motives outside of her interactions with a male protagonist.

In this way, the costumer shows us an entire story in a single garment. It’s the story of the woman who wears it, and the story of the man she will effortlessly seduce and destroy.

It’s the story of the red dress.

riverteeth-thumbnailSarah Gailey’s fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside Fiction; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable and Fantasy Literature Magazine. You can see pictures of her puppy and get updates on her work by clicking here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from in May of 2017.