Conceal, Don’t Feel by Jen Calonita is sub-par Frozen fanfiction. The fact that it was authorized by Disney and published in hardcover under a Disney label doesn’t make that any less true. If anything, that makes its existence an embarrassment.

I love fanfiction stories. I’ve even written a few. Fanfiction is hard because usually it’s about something you love, something into which you have dived so deep you know much more of the lore than the average person. You have watched that movie or TV show or read those books four or five or a dozen times. You know elements of backstory, about discarded plot ideas and scenes cut for flow or timing. You might work in homages to other works from the writers or actors. You might work in homages to other fanfic writers playing in the same IP.

Conceal, Don’t Feel fails at almost all of this. It takes as its premise the idea that Anna & Elsa were separated after the first incident where Elsa accidentally uses her magic on Anna, and Anna was raised in a village far from the capital. The Troll King, Pabbie, casts a spell on all of Arendelle to make everyone except the King, the Queen, and the two adoptive parents forget Anna ever existed. The writer from there tries to knit together a coherent retelling of the plot of Frozen.

It just doesn’t work. Overall, the plot is broken and weakly motivated, and the setting gets unfairly abused to achieve some coincidences that don’t justify the reversals they herald.

Let’s start with the basics: the Frozen universe has a rule about magic: the more intimate and personal it is, the better. Magic done “in the large,” to affect whole countrysides, always goes badly. Elsa loses control of it in the first movie and sinks all of Arendelle into an eternal winter, and the plot device of the second film is an equally affecting country-wide spell that must be broken. Pabbie knows this rule, and breaks it in the book.

Anna’s illness in Frozen was caused when Elsa struck her heart with her magic. No such incident happens in the book. Anna… just gets sick. There’s some hand-wavery about how the first incident, the “magic of the head,” worked its way down to her heart, but it’s not a credible explanation.

Kristoff is about as useless as the spare button on a coat in this book. Olaf is a cheap Greek chorus.

It’s Elsa who goes to talk to Pabbie, and the scene there is pointless, an infodump that could have been handled a zillion different ways.

It’s Elsa who Hans romances. The book does some work to explain that Elsa’s magic first returned on the day her parents die, her heartbreak unlocking some of it, but that her parents had done a good job of socializing her. She’s shy and introverted, but has spent much more time getting to know her kingdom and her people, and Hans “knows” she’s an only child, so it’s her he tries to seduce. It does not go well.

The idea that Elsa’s regent, a man who supposedly kept the kingdom running for three years while Elsa tried to get control of her grief, would defer to a foreign nobleman and give Weselton control of the palace guard is absurd. Hans’s “man of action” role is slightly more credible, but it’s a plot hole a mile wide even in the film.

We see a lot more of Idunn & Agdar, which is itself a nice touch, before they’re killed about 2/3rds of the way into the book. You know it’s coming, and it’s about the only genuinely moving part of the story.

Fairly, since it’s a book, the scenes where Hans and Weselton are bundled up and put on a boat out of the kingdom have room to give us some fairly funny logical extensions of the dialogue from those scenes in the movie.

So, as fiction, it’s not a great story.

As fanfiction, it’s a terrible effort.

There are two scenes where Calonita works in quotes from Wicked. That’s a commonplace trope in Frozen fanfiction, as the voice actress for Elsa, Idina Menzel, was also the actress for the first run of Wicked, and it’s her voice on the “original Broadway cast” CD. But really, having Hans deliver Glinda’s lines? And the only lines are from Defying Gravity, and not from anything else? No Dear Old Shiz, no Something Bad, no One Short Day?

But there’s so much more to the Frozen universe than just singing along with a Broadway hit. Even if we take out the meta from the comic stories and Once Upon a Time, there’s the extended CD with songs that were dropped, like Life’s Too Short, We Know Better, and More Than Just The Spare, and there’s the artbook and outtakes, with the fan-famous “pig-pie” scene. Heck, knowing that Elsa & Anna are both left-handed is a huge flag in Frozen fanfic that you know what you’re doing with the source material. (I can understand not working in any Tangled references, as that’s a whole ’nother can of worms Disney doesn’t want opened.)

Calonita doesn’t know, do, or care about any of this. This may be a little harsh. I would never tear on an AO3 fanfic author about stuff like this, but if Disney’s going to pay someone to do this I would have expected better than a bad retelling of the original with weak plot reveals and weaker plot reversals. Right up until the moment Elsa loses control of her powers I thought she was doing okay (caveat Olaf), but after that moment the story fell apart because she didn’t know how to make the threats to Anna, Elsa, or Arendelle actually feel threatening.

Speculative fiction of the science fiction and fantasy sort has a classical problem: how do you “show, not tell” when it comes to a thing no one has ever seen and likely will never see? Here’s the thing though; I also love reading romance novels, especially ones that make an effort to be fair to both characters and to give both characters an equal amount of agency, and in doing so I’ve come to a conclusion: Romance writers are trying their damnedest to “show, not tell” a thing that many people have never seen, and in doing so science fiction and romance use the exact same tools.

Cecilia Tan, my once-and-who-knows editor, wrote a fantastic essay, Let Me Tell You, in which she decries the “universality” of writing classes that emphasize “show, don’t tell,” and ban genre writing of any kind. She writes, “What they [writing classes – Elf] define as good writing runs counter to the purpose of science fiction and fantasy, which is to displace the reader from the status quo right from the start and never re-establish it.”

Cecilia should have included romance in that list. Romances, at least the best romance, also displace the reader from the status quo. The sort of literary writing that appears in The New Yorker, like the short story Cat Person, or is praised in books like the recently much-lauded Conversations With Friends isn’t meant to ask “What ifs?” about the human condition. They’re meant to illustrate it and show the misery it leads to, but rarely offer any solutions. “What if” stories aren’t just about the wrecks techonology or magic might create, but often about the joys and miracles, the successes and human flourishing they bright about.

More than that, much of romance and science fiction both involve speculation about recognizably human people in recognizably possible situations, and they need to “tell, not show,” a great deal, because they need to establish, through telling, a setting in which the characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights.

This is why men mock romance but defend science fiction. Science fiction shows the reader a place we can only imagine but never explore: another world, another time, another dimension. Such exploration, we’ve been told, is grand and masculine. Romance shows the reader a place men don’t want to imagine, a place they don’t want to access: the human heart. (All right, go ahead, insert a Fantastic Voyage joke here.)

In all the best romance novels, the writer spends time telling us how the characters are feeling, and they do so in compelling, metaphorical language that accurately puts words to things we’ve all felt or wanted to feel, or believe we could feel. They tell us these feelings to put the character in a place relative to his or her beloved, and then these feelings become the setting in which our characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights, both individually and collectively.

Have you ever gotten distracted? Wanted to do some specific task and yet ended up doing something else? Wandered off into a daydream? Psychologists (and Buddhists long before them) tell us that “we” are not in control of ourselves; our mind doesn’t do what we “want” it to do, it does whatever it does and we’re lucky if that aligns with our wants, or if we have the resources necessary to make it align. To-Do lists are a way we treat our future selves as strangers, piling work onto someone we currently… aren’t. There are days that we wake and we feel sad, or happy, or angry, and we can’t really know why. Some people can’t even name the basic emotions, much less understand or describe the differences between “respected” and “esteemed,” or “annoyed” and “infuriated.”

We don’t understand ourselves.

People want to read stories are good people getting into trouble and then earning the solution out of it. They happen in a given place and a given time. Science fiction tells us about strange and wonderful (or awful) things that the people in them don’t understand, and great science fiction then shows us how those strange things affect the lives of people. Romance novels tell us about a strange and wonderful thing going on inside, and how it affects the lives of two people a great story makes us care about. If the depths of the ocean and the vastness of the stars are both mysterious, valid settings for “a speculative story,” then a story where the mysterious setting is our own souls is surely a speculative story.

I still maintain that Frozen, at the very least the first film, is a romantic film, and that the plot at the core of Frozen was lifted lock, stock and barrel from the classic formula for a romantic story.

The modern definition of a romance story isn’t about sex. It’s a love story between two people each of whom, initially, has a strong reason to avoid being in a relationship with anyone, especially the other person, and then, through the course of the plot, which often involves external antagonists that force them to work together, they understand that they belong together.

At the core of every romance plot is a trope called mask and essence. The mask is the face each character wears at the beginning of the story. It’s made of family, history, circumstance, and persona. Each character wears his or hers, reluctantly or enthusiastically. Through the trials and tribulations of the plot, each character’s mask starts to slip and he or she is exposed to the other. As each character starts to see the essence under the other’s mask, they fall further and further into love. A good writer will be able to reveal the essence of one character to the audience before she does to the other character, so we can root for both to see that the two characters belong together, and always have.

This is literally the meta-plot of Frozen. Elsa not only has a mask, she has a whole damn song about it (“For the First Time in Forever, Reprise”, which is where the “Conceal, don’t feel” bit comes from) and she has literal clothing for it (her gloves). Anna’s mask is about being the wounded sister, the one who had to bury her parents alone. Through the task of solving the twin tribulations of trying to control Elsa’s powers and the machinations of Hans, Anna and Elsa’s masks begin to slip and they realize that they belong together, as family and as the people responsible for the well-being of Arendelle. Each has to struggle to see the other’s essence under the mask.

Anna knows there’s a mask and wants to know what’s under it (“My sister’s not a monster”), but Elsa is terrified, justifiably, that her essence, for all her goodwill, is also murderous (“Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free”). This is the romantic struggle at the heart of Frozen; everything else is just decoration.

And it’s literally signaled at the end of the film. Every romance features a scene where the two characters together face the antagonist and defeat it. It isn’t until Anna and Elsa agree to see each other for who her sister really is, how brave, how wonderful, how giving, determined, loving, and courageous, no matter how terrified, that Anna gets to deliver the coup de gras of a solid, knockout punch to Han’s nose, and Elsa gets an important measure of control over her powers. The masks are down, and their essences as people who love each other and will support each other are revealed.

This isn’t about sex. I mean, the closeness of Anna & Kristoff’s relationship in Frozen 2 strongly signals that Anna’s probably not a virgin and has figured out she’s straight (“Some Things Never Change”), and her relationship with Kristoff is loving but not “romantic” in the literary sense; the two of them have talked a lot in the six years since the incidents in Frozen. (The whole presentation of Kristoff as neither threatened nor inspired to salaciousness by Anna & Elsa’s closeness is one of the best parts of the movie. No, really.) Anna knows what she wants out of a lover, Kristoff fits the bill, and she understands that what’s really important is their mutual willingness to work at it over time. It’s an alternative path to love that’s just as healthy as any “soulmate” story could be, and it’s important that Anna’s relationships with her sexual partner is one the where the communication came without any interpersonal crisis.

None of that applies to what’s going on between her and Elsa. They’re family, and circumstance gave each of them reasons to leave the other behind (“Then leave!”). But each refused. Their essence drove them together.

Psychologists tell us the difference between friendship and love is that friends have something in common outside of each other that they focus on, while for lovers the focus is on each other. Elsa and Anna are in a liminal place in between: their caring focus is on each other, but that focus is informed by their common bond of loving parents they’ll always mourn and a kingdom they must rule. Anna & Kristoff is on each other, but their essences were clear from the beginning, there was never a mask to see behind, so there’s no struggle there between them, only within them, a struggle well-resolved by the ending of Frozen 2.

Anyway, that’s my take. Frozen is a romance plot about two sisters, each of whom has every reason to hate, fear or reject the other, discovering that actually her sibling is a person worthy of her attention, love, and familial belonging, and if doing painful self-work is what it takes, then that work is worth doing.

I want to make clear before I go into the actual review that I was unaware that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, the author of the book, was the notorious blogger “Requires Hate.” I saw the book on a stand at a library, decided it was worth reading, and bought it at Barnes & Noble; it was cheap enough at four dollars USD.

And Shall Machines Surrender follows physician and cybersurgeon Orfea Leung as she visits the AI-mediated Dyson Sphere Shenzen, where humans lucky enough to be chosen by the AIs that run the place live in utter luxury, and where a small superclass of humans get to merge with the AIs over time.

After she gets a temporary residents’ permit and a job as a doctor, she is witness to an impossible suicide, followed immediately by her being paired up with her old girlfriend, Krisanna, from the years when she was a military medic working for the largest mercenary group in known space, and her job is to solve the mystery of why those chosen to merge with the AIs, a choice they all eagerly sought, would likewise choose to commit suicide before the merger was complete. There had been hundreds of these mergers, and on one day three ended themselves, something which had never happened before.

There’s a lot of praise for the book but… I can’t really mirror them. The good stuff is simple: the book is unapologetically queer, which I appreciated a lot. No one even talks about it. Multiple sexes, various roles, all manner of personal peccadilloes, everything is acceptable as long as it’s consensual. There are three sex scenes, and they’re all quite brilliant, although all of them are interrupted as a way of moving the plot forward. For most writers, sex scenes are frequently used to illustrate character, and Ms. Sriduangkaew writes as if, once that goal has been met, the scene needed to end without any satisfaction to the characters or her reader. Her descriptive and vocabulary powers are quite remarkable, although one “big word” moment was also used in a complex metaphor that interrupted the flow of the story. Having to press “define” is easier and quicker on a Nook or Kindle than it is dragging out a dictionary, but that felt like a bit of a show-off.

On the other hand, the book fails in two major ways. The first is that, in a battle between human beings and AIs with large caches of resources, the human beings still have any chance at all. Yes, both Orfea and Krisanna are ex-military badasses with enhanced capabilities, but the idea that their meat could hold its own against metal assassins vast, cool, and unsympathetic came off as a bit unbelievable. The ending is very punchy, as if inflected with one too many watchings of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The second is that the AIs themselves come across as confused and incompetent. There is a trope at work here, that of an AI forging a “unification” such that all other AIs want to join it, leaving the humans without AIs. I’ve used this trope in my own work, so I’ve thought a lot about it, and what bothers me most is the notion that the AIs, having found this capability… don’t use it. No research is being done into further states of uplift, no questions are raised about the possibility of a singularity or rampancy, and no handwaving is done to explain why either hasn’t happened yet.

There are other details at work here that I found off-putting. There aren’t many men in the story, and when they are present they’re depicted as unpleasant, unintellectual, and less capable of a healthy polymorphic perversity than the women. Turnabout is always fair play, I suppose, but it cheapens the effect. One of the “great galactic governments” is the Pax Americana, a full-on rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale “Gilead… in Space!” that somehow has survived after several generations without collapsing from the internal contradictions such arrangements have inevitably produced in the past.

This is Sriduangkaew’s first full-length novel. It’s complete and self-contained and it shows promise. There is the occasional axe being ground, however, although for much of the book that sound is dim and in the distance. Still, you should go into the work knowing that you’ll be hearing it.

Matt Singer’s article Why ‘The Last Jedi’ Pissed Off Star Wars Fans has been sticking with me for a long time. Singer argues that The Last Jedi is different from other Star Wars films in that it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. I know that I need to not wallow in it either.

Star Wars, the original film, was literally nothing but nostalgia: it sold a space story to youngsters, but to the older generation it was every cowboy movie (Han), every samurai film (the Jedi), and every World War 2 dogfight (the Rebels) all rolled up into a sci-fi flavored confection. Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens both continued this tradition, mandating sword fights, gun battles, and space battles, while wallowing in Star Wars’ own traditions. The Force Awakens literally “brought the whole gang back together.”

The Last Jedi, in contrast, literally burns the past. Yoda and Luke destroy the Library of the Jedi. A new generation, with new needs and new problems, has to rise to take on an exhausted and confused monster, a rump junta of the Empire, that is still for all its exhaustion dangerously powerful. The Last Jedi is an argument that we should thank Luke and Leia for their service, but we shouldn’t emulate them; it’s time to change the way the world worked. The Jedi/Sith dynamic had become a problem.

The Journal Entries, unfortunately, fit more than a little of the nostalgia mode. It’s set in an science-fantasy universe that owes everything to the humanist vision of James White’s Hospital Station series, the oversexed pleasures of Andrew J. Offut’s Spaceways series, the 90s-era feminist sensibilities of a lot of romance novels, and my own hearkening back to my various “comings out” over the years. The stories always presented a hopeful, futuristic look at the universe, but one in which people still played in the dirt, literally; the sex was always sweaty and fluid, and a lot of my characters love getting outside and among nature. The sterility of spending a lifetime indoors isn’t for them.

In 2019, with climate change, surveillance capitalism, emergent fascism, and a new, highly disruptive and dangerous variant of “the great game” seeming to press in on every side, it’s hard to find hope. Most SF series these days seem to be about the downsides of technology. Star Trek keeps going further back in time– Discovery is set somewhere between the original series and Next Generation– and this seems to imply that hopeful, optimistic, utopian futures are now beyond the imaginings of most science fiction writers.

I wrote a hopeful novel in 2018 and released it in 2019. Honest Impulses imagines a future where human beings are still hopeful. They imagine a kind of dignified utopia, and they’re optimistic they’ll get closer to it every day. I didn’t write much in 2019; I was focused a bit on my academic studies, and then on getting a new job. The new job comes with a commute, so there’s writing time on the clock again.

Hope and optimism don’t seem to be selling well right now, but I’m not that interested in selling. I’m interested in inspiring. Here’s to 2020, and the hope that hope is still worth writing about.

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