For the last few months, my tolerance for unfamiliar content has been fairly low. I've been more excited for sequels than new titles; for several weeks the only thing I could even get myself to read was fan fiction; I put off recommendations from friends for shows I genuinely do want to watch. I just didn't have the capacity for parsing through new things.
The fog seems to be lifting now, and I'm remembering how pleasurable it can be to be surprised by something. Not just surprised — confused. I've been thinking about the particular joy of not knowing what's going on.
When I started reading "Harrow the Ninth", I had no clue what was happening. It's the second book in The Locked Tomb series, the follow-up to Tamsyn Muir's "Gideon the Ninth." The first book has a lot of mystery elements, which meant a lot of unknowns, but I wouldn't say that I found it confusing. The sequel, on the other hand, had me disoriented from the very first page.
The premise of the series is hard to describe, but the tag I've been using to recommend "Gideon" is, "necromancers. In Space. In a mystery mansion." There's also an oft-referenced God King and a lot of meme humor and sword fighting, but I feel like the essential, genre-bending elements are captured in that tag. The book is from the perspective of the titular Gideon, following her in a close third person. She makes stupid puns and dirty jokes and all of that is injected into the narrative tone of the book.
"Harrow" follows Gideon's somber, sarcastic nemesis/reluctant-ally Harrowhark and picks up after the events of the first book. But rather than using the same format, it alternates between two different timelines and perspectives — the present (which is delivered non-linearly, so one chapter might take place several months before the events of the chapter previous) is in the second person. Then there are "flashbacks" written in a close third, the events of which contradict the first book like some kind of "Lost"-ian flash-sideways.
I asked myself repeatedly while reading the early chapters of "Harrow" whether my confusion was from the book itself or if I had missed information that someone smarter (or with a photographic memory) would have picked up. I felt so anxious about not knowing that I rushed through the beginning of the book trying to find the place where suddenly everything would make sense.
At some point (maybe when I realized that attempting to read faster was not helping), I remembered something Rainbow Rowell said before "Anyway the Wind Blows", the third Simon Snow book, came out: "If you read [the book] desperate to find out what happens to [the characters], you will miss what is actually happening to [the characters]."
If you rush through a story to know what happens, you miss what is happening. The way to learn what was going on with Harrow was to be okay with not knowing what was going on. Rather than anxiously searching for resolution, I started focusing on the story and how deftly it was being relayed to me. I mean, THE SECOND PERSON? Who does that!?
I thought of all of this again when I started watching the AppleTV+ show "Foundation" in which, on the macro level, it is basically impossible to discern what is going on. The show is telling an epic, 1,000-year tale of the fall of a galactic empire and the people living through it. It has a lot of ground to cover. The first 3 episodes extent through 35 years, plus a flashback to several hundred years before the start of the saga (which makes this 1,000 tale actually an even longer one). The point of view character we start with isn't even on screen in the third episode.
Like The Locked Tomb universe, "Foundation" has its share of ambiguous loyalties and hard to discern world elements. There is a lot of Space and an enduring God King (less literal in the godliness this time). And, most confusingly, the aforementioned time and perspective jumps.
There's been some criticism of "Foundation" for being unnecessarily complicated, along with arguments that it's constructed in a way that makes it inaccessible to anyone who hasn't read the source material. It's a fair criticism insofar as the story could absolutely be told in a more linear, straightforward fashion and the complexity and ambiguity of it will turn a lot of people off. But I had no familiarity with the source material and haven't felt like the show is more inside baseball than an onscreen story - it just feels too big to get my hands around yet.
I liked the swirling inscrutability of "Harrow" and, thus far, the overwhelming vastness of "Foundation." In both cases, I think trust is a big part of why. To enjoy something confusing, you have to trust the storytellers to be doing things for a reason beyond "because it's cool" or "highbrow." You have to believe they can deliver the value they're making you work for. With "Harrow the Ninth" I was willing to go wherever Tamsyn Muir wanted to lead me because of how much I loved "Gideon." And it never felt like I was lost because the execution was off - something I would have had a lot less tolerance for. “Foundation” benefited from the goodwill AppleTV+ had generated with me for producing "Dickinson" and "Schmigadoon", and it kept that goodwill with its impeccable casting. Lou Llobell, who plays the initial point of view character/narrator, Gaal Dornick, brings both impenetrable intellect and an ingenue air to the character. I want to keep watching her. I want to watch Lee Pace rule a galaxy and Jared Harris be both endearing and opaque. I want to spend time with this universe, even if I don't know to what end yet.
The thing about spending time in a story that's hard to follow is that, for better or worse, you're being forced into the present as the only accessible story moment. If you don't know what the past means, and you don't know what the future will bring, all you can do is take in as much of what's happening in front of you as you can. If a story is good, shouldn't the present be enough? Shouldn't it make us willing to ford the unfamiliar or, at the very least, let ourselves be pulled along in its orbit?
Christina published an extended version of her Superbloom essay on her substack!
This isn’t the first time I’ve had thoughts about Space content! I talked about Star Trek: Picard on the podcast.
Foundation has an official behind-the-scenes podcast and it’s actually pretty good!