Like Tears in Rain Meditations on Science Fiction Cinema
The essays that follow were written out of a love for science fiction in all its forms: on film, in fiction, in video games, in comics. They were written neither for money nor as a means of declaring myself some kind of self-appointed expert on the genre. Many of them appeared for the first time in Amazing Stories, the world’s very first science fiction magazine, while others are original to this volume—but each and every one of them has been revised and expanded for the sake of remaining timely. Science fiction has a hard time keeping up with the world, though, for many of us, it stands ageless and forever relevant in our hearts, a constant beacon of youthful exuberance and wonder at the full breadth of the universe. I hope you’ll enjoy my various explorations of the big-screen myths SF has given us in recent years. Imperfect though they sometimes are, I believe that seeing worlds beyond our own brought to life in a way that’s both visible and readily accessible to the next generation of readers, dreamers, and creators is vital to keeping not only the written literature alive, but also to the mission of scientific discovery that is so often forgotten in this age of hardship and cynicism. Whether or not topics like transhumanism and interstellar flight ought to be among our most immediate social concerns is something I leave up to the reader. But I will say this: Tomorrow is coming sooner than we may think, and science fiction gives us a vast canvas for exploring its various challenges and questions from the relative safety of our imaginations, long before we are forced to face them in reality. So: if the future is Skynet, then science fiction is a kind of “T-850”—a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, reprogrammed with a more benevolent temperament and sent back in time to warn us about the various Bradburian follies we’ll inevitably make as our species advances. (I use this last term in its loosest possible sense.) Alex Kane Galesburg, Illinois 3
April 11, 2014
Like Tears in Rain An essay on Ridley Scott’s 2007 rerelease of Blade Runner: The Final Cut on Blu-ray Disc
You can almost smell the rain, feel it hammer the leather of your trenchcoat. Hear the harmonic buzzing of blue neon all around you. You can taste the Tsingtao, bubbly and cool on your tongue. If there’s a single flaw worth noting about the Blu-ray transfer of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut (’07), it can be only the opening expositional crawl—an almost quaint artifact of its time, given the 2019 date it supplies—which is still valuable for its brief explanation of the “replicant” as a geneticallyengineered, rather than mechanical, variety of android. Blade Runner is a film valued for its stunning visual representation of the future, the relative diversity of its cast despite the quasi-Aryan villain Roy Batty, and the undeniable success of its all too human drama. But what makes it so timeless, a box-office flop that has been elevated to classic status over the years due to its cult audience, is its unpretentious use of metaphor: The replicant serves as a mirror for the countless ways in which humanity draws arbitrary divisions among its numbers, and the horrific conditions those who are labeled as subhuman, or as “the other,” are subjected to through various sociopolitical machinations. It’s only shocking if you choose to ignore our history. For example, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a twenty-first-century bounty hunter—an officer of the law contracted to hunt and kill rogue “skin jobs” amid the golden age of extraterrestrial colonization. Having previously quit the force, he appears reluctant in the film’s beginning to return to his role as the titular blade runner; the expression on Ford’s face as he is briefed on the Nexus-6 synthetics running loose in Scott’s future Los Angeles shows the inner turmoil he faces he each time this sort of work comes his way. His investigation leads him to the headquarters of the all-important Tyrell Corporation, where he’s greeted by the first of the film’s true stars: 5
the replicant Rachael (portrayed by newcomer Sean Young, who is mesmerizing beyond reason in the role)—a Nexus-7, most likely, designed to be virtually indistinguishable from her human counterparts. And the first of her kind to go undetected by the Voight-Kampff test, which is intended to scope out telltale signs related to human empathy, or a lack thereof. Her unique situation, however, is compounded by her creator’s having kept her replicant status a secret. Due to false memory implantation, and sheer ignorance regarding her true origin, Rachael manages to answer “well over a hundred” empathy-based questions without Deckard at last reaching a conclusion as to whether or not she’s human. She is, for the audience, a symbol of the superficiality which is so often used in distinguishing one human being from the next—and one of many clues that suggest Deckard himself may be a replicant, especially given how little we’re told about his past. Setting aside the romantic subplot—and the fact that they end up together, their uncertain fates entwined in the end—the scene in which Deckard reveals to Rachael what she really is, that she’s a living, organic work of human artifice, with few memories or experiences to call her own, is a testament to Scott’s brilliance as a director. This brief exchange also highlights, I’d argue, just how perfect Sean Young is for playing the part of a replicant ripped from the safety of her genetic cradle and told face-to-face what she truly is. When Deckard sees how hurt she is by the revelation, he tries to take back his words, to assure her that it was all a terrible joke. But her innocence is lost in light of the man’s knowledge; he pours a drink, and they make love, all to an incredibly beautiful, spacious piano track by Vangelis. In a later scene, our conflicted blade runner examines photographic evidence while sitting near the piano in his apartment, sheet music laid out in front of him, and daydreams unexpectedly of a white unicorn: a symbol that comes back to haunt him near the film’s end. Left as a calling card by Detective Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Deckard discovers a piece of metallic origami suggesting that the mythic animal of his dream may be a programmed archetype, not unlike the content of Rachael’s own implanted memories. . . . But it is Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable performance as the fierce and relentless Roy Batty, whose ruminations on the ephemerality of time and experience serve as the film’s thematic backbone, that represents the film’s 6
true gift to the realm of science fiction cinema. “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes,” he muses, while trying to extract information about the Tyrell Corporation and its leader from a geneticist who specializes in growing cultured eyeballs. Much of the conflict driving driving the film’s intricate plot stems from the widespread manufacture and sale of genetically-engineered, “artificial” creatures, from snakes to owls to the humanoid Nexus-model replicants. Creations tell of an implicit creator, and Scott seems in this film, as with his more recent effort, Prometheus (’12), to explore the intelligence-design argument for God’s existence: Close examination of organic tissue reveals serial numbers beneath a microscope’s lens; android dreams act as windows into the Jungian interconnectedness of creation and the decidedly social human mind, at least metaphorically. The film presents again and again the dilemma of those seeking in vain for their divine creator, only to find that true divinity is more often found in the mortal subjects of such a cosmic being’s creation. Batty himself is a servant to the undeniable beauty to be found in each passing moment, and the uniquely subjective nature of experience. He reflects throughout the film on the tragedy of both consciousness and memory as fleeting, intangible impressions; he’d no doubt prefer the preservation of his experiences through the relative permanence of, say, art—or even a technology such as the Internet—over the simple act of dying and being ultimately forgotten. His search for the key to extending his Nexus-6 lifespan, limited by his maker to a mere four yours, acts as a constant symbol for the cruel fact of our own impermanence, the finitude of existence. One can’t help but feel for him, and share his pain, even as we strive to fully comprehend Deckard’s. As malevolent as the script forces Batty to become in terms of both his inner anguish and violent methodology, we see in him our own basic fears and insecurities reflected back at us: the basic undesirability of death, despite its inevitability; the harshness of a life spent in servitude; and the oft-perceived futility of revolution against an unjust ruling class. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” he tells his father-figure creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell. And Tyrell asks, “What seems to be the problem?” “Death,” Roy Batty replies. His irreverence toward Tyrell suggests that although death comes to 7
everyone at one time or another, there is a certain moral failure in coming face to face with God (figuratively or literally) and demanding His mercy— in demanding the ageless but elusive prize of immortality. And Batty, much like pioneering corporate investor Peter Weyland, of Scott’s Prometheus, finds that such demands are ultimately fruitless. That, like the biblical Job, a mortal man can find comfort and peace only in the acceptance of his own mortality; and God’s intentions, if indeed there is a god at all, are neither to be known nor questioned. Blade Runner, then, is most successful as an allegory of human beings divided by false social stratifications but united in their universal struggle with the sheer brevity of life. Just as moments glimpsed in the great river of time are invariably washed away—“like tears in rain,” as Batty puts it in the famously improvised monologue that ties the film together near its completion—so, too, are human lives transient and finite.
All Your Rebel Base Are Belong to Us In Defense of J. J. Abrams, or Why Your Beloved Franchise Is About to Become More Powerful than You Could Possibly Imagine
Since the news that J. J. Abrams will be directing the seventh installment of Star Wars hit, back in January of last year, fandom has been more or less polarized on the prospects. For many, cynicism came as the dominant knee-jerk response; others adopted what can only be called a cautious optimism. A collective groan seemed to resound across the net. But I must admit, I found myself rejoicing in the knowledge that these works— which have been such an integral part of my imaginative life for nearly two decades—are to be kept in competent hands. As for all the smugness and nerd rage? I still can’t say for certain what makes Abrams the most triggering name in geek culture. Arguments could be made regarding his occasionally sexist decision-making in the rebooted Trek series, perhaps. That is not something I’m prepared to defend or condone in any way. I strongly suspect, however, that he simply evokes the ire of so many fans for some perceived misstep regarding the final season of Lost, which may or may not have had anything at all to do with Abrams himself. To which I say, it’s Star Wars. These things are bound to happen. There’s simply no intellectual property in existence that has such passionate fans. You give us a character like Jar Jar Binks, you’ll witness an outcry of hate on a galactic scale. You deliver a poor 3-D conversion job for an already shaky, disappointing film, and you’ll find us weeping on our way back out to the parking lot. And plus, y’know, Han did shoot first! Don’t get us started. All that stuff aside—The People vs. George Lucas laid that era of Star Wars fandom peacefully to rest, I’d say—Abrams really is the best thing that 9
could possibly happen to this mythology. To be honest, prior to the official announcement, I hadn’t even entertained the idea as being a remote possibility. He had reportedly declined involvement with the as-yet-untitled Episode VII early on, for one, and he’s been at the helm of the equally colossal Trek franchise since his 2009 reboot. Probably not somebody with a lot of free time on his hands. But now we’re told he’s taking the reins of Lucas’s career-making brainchild, and I genuinely could not be happier about it. Here’s why:
Um, yeah. Star Trek. There’s been a lot of criticism leveled at Abrams’s two Trek films. (Some of it warranted; most of it nonsensical.) People like to give him a lot of grief about the lens-flare gimmick, but seriously? C’mon. I mean, do you go around knocking Tarantino because all his scripts are bloated and dialogue-heavy? Or crucify Scorsese for dropping too many F-bombs in a gangster flick? Gimme a break. Even Lucas used the lens flare technique to great effect during some his key lightsaber duels—in the prequel trilogy, sure, but let’s face it: Revenge of the Sith is one of the best things Lucas has ever given us as a director, outside of THX-1138 and American Graffiti. Before the ’09 Star Trek, I didn’t give a hoot about about Trekkie culture. Whatever Kirk and Picard had to offer just didn’t appeal to me as a kid. I was a Lucas loyalist, I guess, having never seen the original series from the sixties, nor The Next Generation and its various subsequent spinoffs. None of the many pre-Abrams Trek films ever appealed to me. Those early Angry Robot teasers sunk their hooks into me, though. Got me curious enough to watch just this one, and so when the thing finally landed in theaters, I was there. Cautiously optimistic. Buttered-popcorn smell permeating the air. And then . . . suddenly I was reading the Alan Dean Foster-penned novelization. Watching the original series (or TOS, as it’s often called) for the first time and totally digging it. Giving this old, slightly dated bit of filmand-television history a chance after finally having glimpsed a bit of promise in it. Experiencing The Wrath of Khan at long last. Because, my friends, J. J. Abrams had made it all new again: with 10
familiar faces delivering great, memorable performances; with a Beastie Boys song sitting right at home in a galaxy-spanning space opera; with a heightened sense of drama and peril, from the genocidal destruction of an entire planet by birthing a black hole in its core to having a young Vulcan meet his much older, wiser self courtesy of accidental time travel.
He’s bringing science fiction into the mainstream. And unlike the heyday of Michael Bay’s overhyped Transformers movies, we no longer have reason to be embarrassed about it. When Into Darkness landed in cinemas around the world a year ago, it swiftly became the highest-grossing entry in the history of the franchise. Regardless of where you stand on the issues of whitewashing Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as Khan and Alice Eve’s gratuitous stripdown scene, it’s hard to deny the more positive aspects of the film within the larger context of Star Trek as a pop-culture staple with undeniable staying power. (See another of the essays collected in this volume, “Jingoism and the Culture of Fear: A Look at the Politics of Star Trek Into Darkness,” for my exploration of the film’s attempts at social commentary.) If Abrams and the marketing folks at Paramount can make something like Star Trek look cool and exciting to a wider, younger audience—make it feel mainstream, even—then I count that as a very good thing indeed. Science fiction literature surely benefits from a growing interest in cinematic SF. Oftentimes, media tie-ins act as gateway drugs into that otherwise overlooked corner of the bookstore. You grow your audience, you grow fandom as a whole; to count this as a loss simply feels pedantic and elitist.
Can you name a more impressive debut than Mission: Impossible III? With the possible exceptions of Moon, District 9, and The Adjustment Bureau, I’m hard-pressed to think of a recent first-time directorial effort half as much fun as Abrams’s first summer popcorn flick. Sure, it may feel a tad overedited in the second act, and the romance subplot does overwhelm the MacGuffin-centric main storyline a bit, but the third Mission: Impossible film is arguably the best in the series, Brad Bird’s breathtaking Burj Khalifa sequence notwithstanding. 11
Cruise made a solid decision hiring Abrams to give his flagship franchise a gritty, slightly more believable aesthetic for its third outing—and in doing so gave him the conduit necessary to prove his filmmaking chops. It’s undoubtedly the very reason we have the latest Star Trek films.
And let’s not overlook all his metatheatrical theses from Super 8, a film I found to be enormously heartfelt and affecting. No, I’m not joking. The guy’s got a lot to say, and as much as people love to bash familyfriendly fare like Super 8 and its spiritual predecessors in Spielberg’s filmography, it managed to convey a profound love for the art of visual storytelling. The character of Charles Kaznyk in particular (played expertly by newcomer Riley Griffiths) spends much of the film espousing wisdom gleaned from his journey as an amateur screenwriter and director. He discovers through various filmmaking magazines that story isn’t just about action, violence, or mystery, but rather the characters who are made to suffer through it. His inclusion of Alice Dainard’s character (Elle Fanning) in their zombie-horror Super 8 film is meant to add depth and humanity to the drama, thereby gaining audience sympathy. Exactly the kind of thinking that added a new level of relatability and excitement to the Star Trek franchise, in other words. Super 8 isn’t an alien invasion movie. ’S not a monster movie. Not really. It is a story of adolescent dreams, of familial loss and reconciliation, which all the while celebrates the shared magic of storytelling.
“It binds the galaxy together. . . .” George Lucas’s limited involvement with the forthcoming sequel trilogy signifies the end of one era and the dawn of another. By allowing new screenwriters and directors to take up the mantle of Dark Lord of the—well, y’know, to write and create their own worlds, characters, and myths within the larger Star Wars universe—he is giving the fans a real go at shaping his legacy. Something that, arguably, he’s been doing with tremendous success since 12
the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back, when Irvin Kershner, along with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, brought the saga to what many consider to be its very pinnacle. Lucas made film history with the original Star Wars in 1977, and he almost lived up to its brilliance when he hit his stride once more with Revenge of the Sith (’05). But the franchise has unquestionably shone its brightest in the hands of the fans themselves. As with Troops, Kevin Rubio’s award-winning mockumentary film featuring Imperial stormtroopers making their daily rounds across the dunes of a Cops-inspired Tatooine, complete with the familiar “Bad Boys” theme and a certain smoldering pair of moisture farmers. Or Matthew Stover’s Revenge of the Sith companion novel, which I consider vastly superior to . . . well, at least five of the Star Wars movies, in terms of the writing. The examples go on and on: Shadows of the Empire; Robot Chicken Star Wars, Blue Harvest, and the other Family Guy spoofs; LucasArts’ The Force Unleashed and its sequel; the various Dark Horse Comics runs. Some say that the Clone Wars series is the best thing to happen to the franchise since ’77. Star Wars is first and foremost a realm defined and upheld by its fans. Always has been, always will be—and Abrams himself knows that as well as anybody. No doubt that’s why he initially denied any involvement whatsoever with the forthcoming sequel trilogy. As far as this fan is concerned, having one of us behind the lens this time around means the best of that galaxy far, far away is still yet to come.
The Ancient Fear Was Darth Bane Wrong?
Let’s talk about J. J. Abrams’s Star Wars film, the working title of which is reportedly The Ancient Fear. When the official cast list was first announced, my first reaction was that it was embarrassingly male-centric, but there was one man whose involvement I couldn’t help but get excited over: Max von Sydow. The assumption being bandied about by fans is that he’ll play the villain—a part he nailed in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), which happens to be this particular Jedi Archivist’s all-time favorite film. A quick scan of Google search results for his name indicates that the widespread, unsubstantiated theory about his role is that he’ll be playing Darth Plagueis, the canonical Sith Lord who mentored Palpatine for decades prior to and during The Phantom Menace and, later, Attack of the Clones. A member of the humanoid species the Muun, Plagueis was first and foremost a businessman who used his vast wealth and influence to advance his Sith agenda, much like Chancellor Palpatine. With Andy Serkis heavily involved with production of Episode VII, this idea isn’t entirely without merit. Weta Digital’s MoCap technology would be the perfect VFX solution for translating von Sydow’s performance into a convincing alien Sith. That said, I don’t quite buy it. First off: Plagueis was killed—that is, physically destroyed—by Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, in the events of the novel Darth Plagueis by James Luceno, ca. Attack of the Clones (or 22 B.B.Y.); while his life’s ambition had been devoted to achieving immortality through the power of the Force’s Dark Side, Luceno’s book seems to make it sufficiently clear that he failed to achieve that goal. Second, I’m not convinced that Lucasfilm’s goal with the sequel trilogy will be to rehash existing Expanded Universe material that at this point has been deemed noncanonical, or that was only really relevant to the prequels. “The Legend of Darth Plagueis the Wise,” as Palpatine refers to it, is a story 14
best left shrouded in mystery—it was a nice plot element in Revenge of the Sith, but we don’t need it going forward. Were I writing a film called Star Wars: Episode VII—The Ancient Fear, well, I’d first approach the script with thoughts of something decidedly more ancient. If Plagueis was killed roughly twenty-five years before Jedi, then that’d make him old news by the time the events of the sequel trilogy unfold, some sixty years or so after his death. But that ain’t exactly “ancient.” Now, I’m not going to claim that I’m some expert on Jedi or Sith history, or assert that von Sydow is playing Bane. The Lucasfilm Story Group would be lucky to have somebody who’s as passionate about this mythos as I am on board, sure, but I don’t consider myself a Star Wars scholar when it comes to the EU and so forth. What I do feel I’ve got a firm grasp on is that period of the saga’s history beginning shortly before the events of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic and concluding with the final Darth Bane novel, Dynasty of Evil. Drew Karpyshyn has his critics, as does any author given the privilege of playing around in this beloved universe, but I can honestly say that there’s no one whose books I’d more readily suggest to folks looking to get into Star Wars beyond the scope of The Clone Warsand the films themselves. What Karpyshyn did with both Knights of the Old Republic and his Darth Bane trilogy has, in my mind, forever enriched and expanded upon the mythology of the ancient Sith. Again, I don’t suppose that von Sydow’s going to be Bane in Episode VII. But I do think he’s going to be playing at least some form of Sith Lord from the pre-B.B.Y., even pre-Dynasty of Evil chronology. In Ryder Windham’s Jedi vs. Sith: The Essential Guide to the Force, a piece called “The Shadow of Freedon Nadd” explains that: Four centuries after Nadd’s death, . . . Queen Amanoa, wife of Onderon’s ruler King Ommin, was possessed by the spirit of Freedon Nadd. . . . [The Jedi] tracked Amanoa to the deepest sublevels of her palace and discovered Freedon Nadd’s tomb, which had become the focus of dark side energy and enabled his power to pass to his descendants from generation to generation. (p. 17) (We’ll just avoid the obvious pop-culture tangent here, where we delve into von Sydow’s role as The Exorcist, and any implications to be made 15
about Sith “possession.”) In other words, Plagueis failed in his lifetime to do what at least one Sith Lord had accomplished almost four millennia prior. We’re also told by Yoda on-screen in Revenge of the Sith that Qui-Gon Jinn was perhaps the first Jedi to master the Force and commune with the living beyond death, meaning that Plagueis’s goal can and has been achieved by members on both sides of the ageless war. So Darth Plagueis is, essentially, incidental to the larger story of the Skywalker family and their role in the conflict between Jedi and Sith. A quick aside: there exists the possibility, based on the Expanded Universe’s success with the Yuuzhan-Vong War series beginning with R. A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime, that the titular “ancient fear” and any associated characters may not be Sith at all—but if the core six films of the canon are all about the Skywalkers bringing balance to the Force, I very much doubt that we’ll be seeing some alien species heretofore unknown to moviegoers. It’d be cool to see the smart but whacky metadrama of Matthew Stover’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor played out on the big screen, to offer a third possibility, but based on the track records of people like Abrams, I would err on the side of the sequels focusing on the Sith’s reemergence post-Jedi. A Sith Empire, specifically. Windham’s account of “The Battle of Ruusan,” also found in Jedi vs. Sith, describes the Sith Order prior to Darth Bane’s seizing of the mantle (through the eyes of Luke Skywalker, via Yoda’s tutelage) as follows: Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a Jedi named Kaan turned away from the light and formed the Brotherhood of Darkness. The Brotherhood used the dark side of the Force to build an empire, and they were well on their way toward expanding it when an army was raised to opposed them. . . . They were Jedi. (p. 27) Now, as we know from various (now-noncanonical) storylines in the Star Wars video games published by LucasArts over the past ten to fifteen years, the Brotherhood of Darkness was likely not the only Sith Empire ever to have surfaced—but given Darth Bane’s elevated status among the canon, thanks to his brief appearance in spirit on The Clone Wars during Yoda’s journey to the Sith homeworld of Moraband (i.e., Korriban), the Brotherhood’s history is one piece of the Star Wars mythos I’m confident that Lucasfilm’s Story Group considers to be canon. 16
What do we make of this? Well, most importantly, the Brotherhood of Darkness was, in the context of the Expanded Universe, the original precedent for what constitutes the Sith. The so-called “Rule of Two,” established by Darth Bane after he betrayed and murdered the Brotherhood with an ancient, forgotten Force technique called the Thought Bomb, only exists as the normative mode of being for the Dark Lords for a brief span of time—roughly a thousand years B.B.Y., I’d say. Not to mention the fact that the Jedi Order still existed during the Battle of Ruusan. Thirty-some odd years after Return of the Jedi, who knows what remains of its hokey religion and ancient weapons? Probably not much. Suppose Bane was wrong about the nature of the Dark Side. Suppose the ancient Rule of One, with a vast empire of disciples at the sole Dark Lord’s disposal, proves a source of greater power for the Sith, despite the apparent sacrifice of secrecy and stability. Rumor has it that Han Solo hasn’t seen Luke in years at the time of Episode VII’s opening crawl—which could mean that, if Asajj Ventress or Darth Maul is still alive and seeking vengeance, a centuries- or millennia-old Dark Lord of the Sith looking to return from the netherworld of the Force and assemble an empire of Sith acolytes would be in a pretty advantageous position. With no Jedi to oppose him, a Freedon Nadd or Naga Sadow or Lord Vitiate might well cast the whole of the galaxy into a new era of darkness.
Guardians of the Galaxy An Insta-Classic that Goes All the Way
Nobody ever told me I needed to watch Parks and Recreation, that it was the funniest television series since Dave Chappelle broke all the rules over a decade ago. But my fiancée had the good sense to give it a go one night when there was nothing else to see on Netflix, and we’ve watched the hell out of it ever since. Seeing people like Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, and Aubrey Plaza hitting their stride was its own reward—and every episode is eminently rewatchable, which is more than I can say for some of the more disposable programming the big networks are churning out these days—but it’s the sudden and total self-reinvention of familiar character actors, like Rob Lowe, that makes Parks and Rec the finest sitcom I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Enter Chris Pratt, who has made memorable appearances in films ranging from the graphic-novel adaptation Wanted (2008, Timur Bekmambetov) to the unexpectedly brilliant romcom The Five-Year Engagement (’12). As the underachieving shoeshine boy with a big heart and small intellect, Pratt rounds out the core of Parks and Rec’s truly perfect cast, offering up ironic deadpan and lowbrow one-liners with the kind of timing and delivery that have grown to define his raw, enormous talent. When Marvel announced a Guardians of the Galaxy film, I remember thinking, Well, cool. If it’s got more than a hint of Star Wars flavor, which seems a fair guess, how can it not be fun? And then they announced the cast. . . . It was clear Feige and the rest of the people who’d made Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012) such a colossal success were willing to take some chances and play around with the greater universe to which they’d staked their claim. This was around the time of the Marvel NOW! relaunch, which included a new ongoing Guardians of the Galaxy title—a comic that would go on to develop a reputation as one of 18
the best things to come out of the Marvel universe in ages. “It’s got a talking raccoon with a big-ass machine gun!” That was how Stone, the guy who runs my local comics shop, summarized the new series. And it was impossible not to be curious. If Marvel was making Guardians their big post-Avengers tentpole film, something exciting had to be going on. I was pleased to discover that Tony Stark makes the occasional appearance, for starters. And Peter Quill and Gamora both hit all the right notes for me. To say my hopes for the film adaptation became high might be something of an understatement, especially once I’d seen the trailer. “I feel like this is maybe the movie I’ve been waiting my whole life to see,” I commented to a friend online. Then the months flew by, July 31st arrived, and somehow James Gunn didn’t disappoint. The soundtrack alone—from ’70s staple “Go All the Way,” by the Raspberries, to The Runaways’ energetic “Cherrie Bomb,” not to mention Tyler Bates’s epic original score—gives the movie a certain insta-classic quality by balancing modern sounds with a healthy dose of nostalgia. Star-Lord’s introductory sequence on the planet Morag demonstrates Gunn’s competence as a director right away, from the well-choreographed action of Quill’s escape to the polished feel of the wide opening shots of the tomblike world and the augmented-reality technology necessary for StarLord to navigate it. Pratt earns a few laughs right out of the gate, doing what he does best; stellar actor Djimon Hounsou makes an appearance as Korath the Pursuer; the otherworldly Star-Lord mask is a given an immediate closeup, to ensure that its red-eyed stare becomes as iconic as the film itself seems destined to. It never really slows down from there on out. John C. Reilly makes a couple amiable appearances as a Nova Corps officer, with Glenn Close portraying his commander-in-chief, Nova Prime. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel steal much of the show by lending their voices to the wildly lovable Rocket Raccoon and sentient tree-thing Groot, respectively. And by the end of the film’s two-hour runtime, you’re left buying it all— to the fullest extent possible. Instead of just having Rocket be a fast-talking, clever raccoon, the script mentions that he’s the result of experimentation using cybernetic uplift technology. Instead of Gamora (Zoë Saldana) and 19
Nebula (Karen Gillan) having a petty, baseless sibling rivalry, we’re told that only one of them is Thanos’s daughter by blood; Gamora might as well have been called his prisoner of war, her family having been slaughtered by the Mad Titan (voiced and portrayed via MoCap by the inimitable Josh Brolin). The backstories of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Groot are slightly less developed, and the film does its best to avoid the matter of Quill’s crown-prince-of-Spartax heritage—but given Gunn’s deft handling of the material that’s present in the film, I can’t help but feel all this will be handled sufficiently in the inevitable sequel. Ultimately, I suppose, the villains are the film’s one weak point. Benicio del Toro’s The Collector feels criminally underused, despite his space fortress serving as one of the main settings of the film’s second act. And Lee Pace is a bit of a caricature in his turn as Ronan the Accuser, who acts as a kind of Darth Maul to Thanos’s Sidious, to draw an all-too-easy comparison. But Guardians of the Galaxy is, at the end of the day, something fresher and bigger than a mere Star Wars pastiche. Given its place within the larger context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has free reign when it comes to making Starkian references to pop culture and the recognizable DNA of blockbuster filmmaking. And it makes full, unabashed use of its lead’s strengths. When Quill hollers, from the cockpit of his starship Milano, “They got my ‘dick’ message!”—well, you don’t have to roll your eyes. Because this flick has so much heart, and contributes to the fun-loving genre that is home to everything from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Back to the Future, the audience is willing to follow Star-Lord and his ragtag team of Guardians anywhere.
What Is to Give Light The Cultural Legacy of Jodorowsky’s Dune
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) is the bittersweet story of one tremendously ambitious filmmaker’s aborted attempt at bringing Frank Herbert’s seminal space opera to the big screen. Alejandro Jodorowsky describes his efforts as stemming not only from an emphasis on art before commerce, but also from a desire “to create a prophet . . . [an] artistical, cinematographical god.” His early career suggests that he was capable of making such a film: Fando y Lis (1968) incited rioting upon its release, and was subsequently banned by the Mexican government; the western El Topo (’70) reveals a style as avant-garde and psychedelic as anything Pink Floyd or Herbert himself ever wrote. “Soy Dios,” declares the titular gunslinger—played by Jodorowsky himself—in El Topo. Translation? “I am God.” And it appears, given what we’re shown of the director’s vision for adapting Dune throughout Pavich’s documentary, that he truly had a grandiosity and work ethic to match. Of all the conceptual work explored in the film, it is the artist Moebius —a veteran storyboarder and designer who worked on such landmarks as Alien, Tron, and The Abyss—whose contribution seems the greatest overall loss to our culture: his costume and character designs, his futuristic weaponry, his sense of scope and camera movement. While we may have reaped some of the artful fruits of his labor years down the road, no doubt his imagination lacked some of the exuberant, reckless abandon on display in the production design and storyboards for Jodorowsky’s would-be masterpiece. Critics pose the question of what might have happened to popular culture, had Dunepreceded Star Wars, noting that the blockbuster model and all the multimedia and merchandising that goes along with it may well have wound up a very different animal. On a somewhat cynical note, the structure of the Hero’s Journey monomyth could well have taken a back seat to the more problematic White21
Messiah structure at the heart of so many recent films: Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), The New World (Terrence Malick, ’05), The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, ’92)—the examples are fairly endless. This is perhaps the one thing we gained when production on Jodorowsky’s Dune collapsed, though Cameron’s Avatar has ensured that the myth will live on in big-screen science fiction. But what we lost with the film vastly outweighs this one small win. For instance, the drug culture of the sixties and seventies has been immortalized in a handful of films, ranging from Easy Rider (1969) to Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (’98), but the spiritual, exoticized component of hallucinogens and nineteen-sixties countercultural thought left its mark on the eventual David Lynch Dune only as a plot element. One can’t help but imagine the kind of acid-trip visuals Jodorowsky might have crafted with the help of sci-fi pioneers like Moebius and Dan O’Bannon at his side. Not to mention the soundtrack, which would’ve been provided by the inimitable space-rockers who called themselves the Pink Floyd. While working on the picture together, according to an interview with the director in The Japan Times, Moebius and O’Bannon coauthored a comic called “The Long Tomorrow,” serialized in Heavy Metal, which later influenced writer William Gibson’s worldbuilding in the seminal novel Neuromancer, the design aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Imperial probe droid seen landing on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.
Ten of Sci-Fi Cinema’s Best-Kept Secrets A Partial List of My Personal Favorites, with Brief Reviews
You’ve worked your way through Clone Wars, Knights of Sidonia, and Game of Thrones; you’ve watched all the Star Trek films again and again to the point of fatigue. The latestTransformers flick had you yawning and questioning your love of all things cosmic—and Guardians of the Galaxy hasn’t yet opened in theaters. In these kinds of situations, what can you do? Well, it turns out that science fiction cinema is a vast and uneven terrain. Sometimes the best works slide out of memory or go unnoticed. Other movies, perhaps, don’t hit the right chord on a first viewing. To help you out, I’ve compiled a list of ten personal favorites that I think you’re likely to enjoy. You may have heard of some or even most of them, but such is the nature of the science-fiction readership. At the very least, I hope I’ll be able to convince you that most of these films are worth a second look. 1. Source Code (2011) is the kind of film I’m hoping for each time I go to the theater and pay my eight bucks—but I’m not surprised when, as all too often, a movie comes up short. Duncan Jones’s impressive sophomore outing is no such disappointment: it’s smart, tense, and manages to marry two seemingly disparate high-concept ideas into a single (mostly) cohesive whole. It will keep you guessing, as the cliché goes, but in a way that’s ultimately very satisfying. Don’t ask me for any spoilers; just go check it out. Great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan, and Jeffrey Wright round off a flawed but faultlessly ambitious, must-see sci-fi thriller. 2. Director Michael Bay has perpetrated his fair share of failed attempts at telling a story on film, but 2005’s action-heavy biotech thriller The 23
Island stands as a testament to his capabilities as a filmmaker. Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson, scene-stealer Djimon Hounsou, and Sean Bean—in one of his greatest movie roles, The Fellowship of the Ringnotwithstanding—make for a balanced, believable cast struggling to navigate a near-future world where the obscenely rich can own adult clones of themselves for the purposes of harvesting organs and tissue, carrying fetuses to term, and otherwise serving as a living insurance policy. It’s a beautiful film, full of genuine hope, and is notable for being the first film cowritten by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. 3. If there’s one thing The Island did wrong—and I can hear the Bayhaters laughing all the way over here, so I’m going to have to ask you to please, please calm yourselves a moment—it’s the heavy borrowing from other, earlier dystopian films. Especially in terms of the white-heavy, sterile imagery straight out of George Lucas’s full-length directorial debut, THX 1138 (1971), a film I have mixed feelings about but which is nevertheless invaluable for its long-lasting impact on our greater cinematic landscape. Starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie (who, according to IMDb, has acted onscreen only a handful of times since), and Donald Pleasence (perhaps best known as Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter’sHalloween), it’s a slow-moving, sparse allegory about surveillance and—equally relevant, these days—legislated reproduction. An exercise almost entirely in the art of visualstorytelling, THX 1138 foretells of Lucas’s incredible vision, and serves as a stark contrast to the loosely structured, fun-loving feel of his next film, American Graffiti (1973). 4. V for Vendetta (2006) is a film very much of its time—even more so, perhaps, than the Alan Moore graphic novel that inspired it. First-timer James McTeigue brings a seasoned veteran’s eye to this post-Matrix script by the Wachowskis, and performances by the likes of Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, and Stephen Fry make for one of the first defining pictures of the twenty-first century. A grim fact, one might say, but its imagery and resonances continue to pervade the public consciousness even eight years following its opening. The Guy Fawkes mask worn by the titular V, for instance, is immediately recognizable as the one worn by members of the worldwide hacktivist organization known as Anonymous. Whether you consider them cyberterrorists or vigilantes, the influence of the film’s message about fighting injustice is clear: “People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.”
5. Rian Johnson’s a name that might sound familiar, even if you can’t say for sure where you’ve heard it. He was recently announced as the director for Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX, so there’s that—but he got his start doing an inventive neo-noir film called Brick, and later directed an episode of Breaking Bad, titled “Ozymandias.” You might remember it as being . . . well, probably the single greatest episode of television ever to air. But he also wrote and directed an arthouse action film called Looper (2012), about the ugly uses organized crime has found for time travel—namely, its application as an evidence-free, no-mess method of corpse disposal. The mechanics of this technology are left to the imagination, and it gets a little derivative in its willingness to bring 1950s sci-fi tropes like mutant telekinetics into the story, but mostly the film serves up some of the most memorable scenes of near-future crime in recent memory. Bruce Willis plays an older version of the exceptional Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Joe,” but Emily Blunt and child actor Pierce Gagnon each do their best to upstage the leads at every opportunity. This one’s a bit open to interpretation, which is fun. 6. Kathryn Bigelow’s done a handful of really exciting, gutsy films —Point Break, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty—but you probably haven’t seen or even heard of the 1995 William Gibson pastiche Strange Days, starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, and Tom Sizemore, and penned by none other than James Cameron, who at that point was known mostly for his work on Aliens and the Terminator franchise. While the premise of using “SQUID” technology to record one’s perceptual experiences digitally is lifted directly from a number of earlier cyberpunk works, the film’s social commentary (the Rodney King Riots of ’92 are a loud-and-clear presence throughout Cameron’s script), along with some exceedingly clever camerawork, make for a memorable but harrowing blend of dystopian allegory and tech-noir. 7. Moon (2009)—a small-budget psycho-noir picture set on the lunar surface—is the first film from Source Code director Duncan Jones. There isn’t much to be said about the career-best performance by Sam Rockwell without revealing the plot’s key surprises, so suffice it to say, this isn’t one to be missed. Listen for Kevin Spacey as the somber voice of an artificial intelligence reminiscent of HAL-9000. 8. And here’s one I revisited just this morning: Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of A Scanner Darkly, an acclaimed, semiautobiographical 1977 25
novel by Philip K. Dick. An understated tour de force for the Dazed and Confused director, the film boasts a talented cast that includes Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey Jr. Not to mention some groundbreaking rotoscoped visuals that give the film a trippy, comic-bookish aesthetic well suited for a film about substance abuse. It’s also an astute exploration of human psychology and paranoia in the age of mass surveillance. 9. Danny Boyle’s 2007 psychological thriller set in outer space, Sunshine, features early-career performances by Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Inception), Chris Evans (Captain America in Marvel’s The Avengers), Rose Byrne (Insidious, The Place Beyond the Pines), and Mark Strong (Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, Zero Dark Thirty). A lot of criticism has been leveled at the film’s dark, disturbing ending sequences—but I’d argue that it works tremendously well as a horror film in addition to its initial science-fictional premise. Turns out that when the sun is growing dim and life on Earth is desperate to survive, whatever the cost, technical glitches and good old-fashioned fundamentalism will be there to toss a wrench in things. 10. I’ve saved my all-time favorite for last. Everybody knows and loves Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—and I’ve already mentioned A Scanner Darkly as another great big-screen example of Dick’s paranoid, metaphysical storytelling—but Steven Spielberg pulled out all the stops for 2002’s Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, Samantha Morton, Max von Sydow, and Colin Farrell. When the drug addicts of the not-too-distant future begin giving birth to children who dream of real-life murders before they happen, law enforcement steps in to capitalize on the miracle. And while this may sound a bit far-fetched, it’s actually the film’s only Dickian conceit; everything else feels all too believable, and the all-around stellar performances from the cast serve to really sell it all. Thematically, it tackles questions of guilt and innocence, free will and determinism, and the transformative grief of child loss.
Comes the Dawn An Apes Franchise Retrospective
Tim Burton’s reimagining of Planet of the Apes (2001) will always serve as a ready example of why Hollywood reboots are often as forgettable as they are unnecessary. This, in spite of all the love and artistry that went into making the film, is the extent of its legacy. Chalk it up to Mark Wahlberg’s wide-eyed performance, which in the larger context of his filmography makes The Happening look like a masterwork of cinema by comparison—or to the offensively absurd ending. Either way, you are unlikely to find anything redeeming whatsoever within the film’s tedious runtime. These kinds of confused, played-too-safe efforts tend to earn a lot of money by catering to filmgoers’ nostalgia and then under-delivering on the promise of something worthy of the original source material; the movie industry has grown increasingly fond of this lucrative business model, frustrating though it may be. At the heart of this half-century-old franchise lies a sort of bleak, postDarwinian poetry: the notion that two distinct species of sufficiently advanced intelligence, however similar, cannot coexist on the same planet in the same moment. It’s the key cultural meme that permeates the pre2011 Apes films: “The only good human is a dead human.” Owing as much to George Orwell’s Animal Farm as it does to the original ’63 Pierre Boulle novel, La Planète des singes, this conceit echoes the universal struggle between oppressed and oppressor—between those with vast, unthinking power and those who lack the capacity to overcome it. Burton’s film seems a touch too preoccupied with the cutesy ironies that result from its central reversal, and as a result is rife with overtones of racialism, xenophobia, and even latent bestiality. (“No, I think I’ll stick with my chimps,” says one of Davidson’s coworkers aboard the Air Force space station in which the film’s clumsy opening sequence takes place, when asked whether she plans on ever getting an “actual boyfriend.”) 27
But what keeps us coming back to this mythology, I think, are the themes explored so richly in Rupert Wyatt’s inspired Rise of the Planet of the Apes (’11)—a starkly different kind of film, which manages at once to reintroduce the world to its larger, established franchise while also maintaining a sense of novelty and relevance to contemporary audiences. Through Caesar’s viewpoint, we are made to empathize with the apes like never before as they gradually make preparations to escape their abusive habitat and seek refuge and freedom in the wild. Let’s not forget, of course, that Rise also presents the first hard-science explanation for the uplifting of common primates to a level of sentience comparable to that of the average human being. By exploring the human struggle alongside Caesar’s journey, we see that each side has its reasons for the distrust and that ultimately leads to the sort of mutual, militant hatred glimpsed in the series’s 1968 original, starring Charlton Heston, and its handful of lesser sequels. Andy Serkis’s MoCap performance in this entry is arguably the best in the franchise’s long, venerable history. And James Franco, delivering a solid performance, lends heart and believability to scientist Will Rodman, who spends most of the film’s plot trying to reverse his father’s dementia by developing a viral compound to pinpoint and repair damaged tissue in the human brain, effectively curing Alzheimer’s Disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. There’s little doubt that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (’14), which opens later this week, will continue to deepen and complicate the human/simian dynamic introduced in Wyatt’s brilliant 2011 reboot. Having established that a manned mission to Mars on the eve of the ALZ-113, or “Simian Flu,” pandemic has gone awry (a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle reads, lost in space?), we can probably assume that this new timeline intends to leave at least some of the original series’s tentpole moments intact. I think it’s also safe to say that we won’t likely see the Icarus spacecraft returning to Earth in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; particularly if this new take on the mythology is intended to be a trilogy, that iconic moment ought to be kept in reserve for the third and final act. But!—I would anticipate, however, that Dawn has more than a few climactic surprises up its sleeve, given the amount of storytelling ground covered by its predecessor. For instance, the trailers reveal a great deal of straightforward, armed 28
combat between apes and humans following a few well-meaning individuals’ failed attempts at peacekeeping. It isn’t entirely out of the question to expect another apocalyptic moment like the Simian Flu outbreak, or even the nuclear holocaust that was so pivotal to earlier films in the franchise. While the first two Apes entries toyed with audiences’ cultural anxieties about the Bomb, I’d expect the next two Rise sequels to employ destruction on a global scale in keeping with the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Perhaps near-future tech involved in climateering, which we’ve seen handled well in “cli-fi” technothriller novels but rarely on the big screen, will become weaponized by Caesar’s resistance as a last-ditch effort at survival. Or perhaps the film will explore new modes of urbanized living, given the dramatic shift toward a small, endangered human population, that more readily benefit the apes. It’d be quite nice to see arcology and green initiatives play a role in the Apes mythos, in light of changing ideas about climate change, Earth’s biosphere, modern apocalyptic realities, and neofuturism. Whatever path director Matt Reeves, along with screenwriter Mark Bomback and a truly phenomenal cast that includes Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Keri Russell (August Rush), ultimately chooses . . . well, it’s safe to say we’re likely to be spared another atrocity like Burton’s 2001 contribution, which I hesitate to dignify with its unearned, studio-given title. But that’s putting it all a bit too cynically. In truth, the franchise’s future has only brightened following the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes three years back, and I look forward to seeing where Andy Serkis’s Caesar takes us.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes The Decade’s Best Sci-Fi Film Since Inception
As a species, making war is something we’ve gotten pretty good at. It stands to reason that, when the threat of extinction rears its head, talk of machine-guns and rocket launchers and C-4 will follow soon enough. It’s why the United States and its allies invade nations and topple dictatorships so routinely: We don’t like the possibility of another group controlling the resources we depend on, or overstepping established territorial boundaries —as a country, we’ve killed for far less. The idea that our world’s leaders might have questionable intentions when it comes to warfare is something that, while pretty incendiary as a matter of public discourse, has been examined in post-9/11 art and cinema with relative frequency. Films like Green Zone (2010, Greengrass) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Bigelow) set their sights on issues of falsified intelligence, torture, surveillance—and war as something governments and high-profit industries manufacture deliberately for monetary gain. Science fiction has also taken a number of stabs at this sort of subject matter in the recent past, and most have come across as admirable in their ambitions, regardless of critical success: Star Trek Into Darkness (’13), A Scanner Darkly (’06), The Dark Knight (’08). There exists a pervasive understanding in this country that privacy is a thing of the recent past, handed over at will to powerful people ranging from Mark Zuckerberg to the more proactive members of the Bush administration. Films like Christopher Nolan’s have done a fine job of exploring this problem. Never sacrificing the needs of the story at hand to make a political point, however, Matt Reeves achieves a new standard for complexity and nuance in contemporary SF cinema. One surprise standout character is Koba, an ape held captive and tortured by the very same Gen-Sys Laboratories researchers who created the Simian Flu and wiped out much of humanity in the previous film, Rise, several years earlier. A reluctant but helpful ally to Caesar in Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 entry, Koba’s tendencies for violence and 30
deceit bubble to the surface in this tremendously successful, heartfelt sequel. While we are made to empathize with his hatred toward human beings, Reeves ultimately shows us that Koba is incapable of devotion to anyone or anything beyond his own selfish hunger for vengeance, given the harm inflicted on him in the past. And this is an important and understated facet of warfare in the modern age: Our cultures and nations are hesitant to cop to anything resembling forgiveness for the crimes and injustices of the previous century, and it eats at our global civilization like a cancer. Caesar, by contrast, is steadfast in his belief that peace is the solution to most of our problems—and no wrongdoing is so severe that an entire race should be made to suffer for it. No doubt the third film in this newly rebooted incarnation of the Apes saga will present a far more cynical version of the creature Andy Serkis has portrayed twice with such groundbreaking skill and finesse. Along with the apes who stand beside him —Maurice, Rocket, his own growing family—Caesar represents the very antithesis of the human-loathing, slavekeeping apes first seen in Franklin J. Schaffner’s original 1968 masterpiece. I fear the weary leader shall eventually be made to suffer for the goodness in his heart. Overall, the film is an emotional and technical marvel. Its visual effects are used sparingly in light of the MoCap work done by Weta Digital on Serkis’s and the other apes’ performances. Several tense fight sequences serve as tentpole moments to delineate the quieter, more universal tragedies and debates that propel the plot along—but audiences can rejoice at being spared the kind of ludicrous, explosion-riddled battle scenes that plague most summer blockbusters of late. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (no longer the child actor you remember from The Road and Reeves’s own sublime horror film Let Me In) round out a stellar cast that nevertheless surrenders most of its camera time to the scene-stealing apes. I dare say that Dawn can easily be called The Empire Strikes Back of this generation, and, outside of a few high-concept outliers like Source Code and Inception, is perhaps the single greatest science fiction movie of the decade.
My Dream Anthology Recommended Reading (Short Fiction) for SFSignal.com’s Mind Meld
Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I’ve always felt that the literature of science fiction and fantasy—or fantastika, to employ John Clute’s simpler, far more inclusive-sounding term—ought to make us feel uncomfortable in some way. Unsettled. At the very least, a reader of fiction should be left with an experience worth remembering; and an idea presented in a way that’s strange or inobvious is going to stay in the mind much longer than a story told via the path of least resistance. Certainly a work of fantasy should get us thinking about the world in fresh, unfamiliar ways—even, I’d argue, if it makes us feel slightly disturbed. Consider Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Is there any greater conversation-starter for the topic of social responsibility, or the ethics of suffering, in literature? And I’ve always felt a profound sympathy toward Bradbury’s tragic Leonard Mead, who went out for a peaceful walk in the nighttime air and found himself declared a criminal. The short-story form is a graveyard packed full of these kinds of dystopian injustices. I once caught an episode of the Outer Limits reboot, circa 2000, about a scientist who uses the preserved consciousness of his dead son to build an android replacement. The acting and writing were pedestrian, at best, but the quietly horrific nature of the grieving man’s ambition, coupled with the dissatisfying end result of his efforts at resurrecting his lost child, is ultimately an unforgettable piece of storytelling. Not that I wouldn’t prefer to forget it; I simply won’t. This technique made Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a canonical piece of writing. Call it “shock value,” if you like. But it so often defines whatever genre makes proper use of it. Flirting with human deviance and taboos; exposing the faults in all our technocultural hive-making; not to mention the use of nightmarish imagery to evoke a more visceral reaction in the reader. . . . 32
Science fiction often becomes a study in contrasts, painting for us a clearer picture of what it means to be human by filling the negative space with a reality we’d rather not experience ourselves. There is a perceived dichotomy among critics—between fiction that holds scientific progress in a high regard, and that which shows it to be inherently dangerous or wrongheaded. But I sincerely doubt that any writer working in the field of SF believes that science or invention is a thing to be feared; instead, it seems that the literature concerns itself first and foremost with maintaining the humanity in our global society. Whether holding to light the frightening metaphysical implications of idealism, as with Dick’s “The Electric Ant,” or showing us just how utterly different we may one day become in our unending quest for immortality through advancing biotech, as with “Married,” “Jenny’s Sick,” or “The People of Sand and Slag,” fantastika is becoming increasingly more imaginative and diverse. More dreamlike. And I think that notions of genre will prove just as elastic in the years to come, whether the intent is to elevate scientific progress, to terrify the reader, or both.
A Study in Contrasts: Fantastika in All Its Forms • “The Electric Ant,” Philip K. Dick, F&SF (Oct. 1969) • “Jenny’s Sick,” David Tallerman, Lightspeed (Dec. 2010) • “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others • “Married,” Helena Bell, Upgraded, ed. Clarke (2014) • “A Touch of Strange,” Theodore Sturgeon, F&SF (Jan. 1958) • “The People of Sand and Slag,” Paolo Bacigalupi, F&SF (Feb. 2004) • “Real Artists,” Ken Liu, TRSF (Oct. 2011) • “Significant Dust,” Margo Lanagan, Cracklescape • “The Pedestrian,” Ray Bradbury, F&SF (Feb. 1952) • “Anuta Fragment’s Private Eyes,” Ben Godby, Shimmer no. 18 (Feb. 2014) • “The Brave Little Toaster,” Cory Doctorow, TRSF (Oct. 2011) • “She Unnames Them,” Ursula K. Le Guin, The New Yorker (Jan. 1985) • “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy),” Geoff Ryman, F&SF (Oct. 33
2006) • “All My Princes Are Gone,” Jennifer Giesbrecht, Nightmare (Aug. 2013) • “Of Time and Third Avenue,” Alfred Bester, F&SF (Oct. 1951) • “Red Sonja and Lessingham in Dreamland,” Gwyneth Jones, Off Limits, ed. Datlow (1997) • “A Jar of Goodwill,” Tobias S. Buckell, Clarkesworld (May 2010) • “Resurrection Points,” Usman T. Malik, Strange Horizons (Aug. 2014) • “Fragments of a Hologram Rose,” William Gibson, Unearth 3 (1977) • “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” Joe Hill, The Third Alternative no. 37 (2004) • “Six Months, Three Days,” Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com (Jun. 2011)
Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut The Other Mecha Space Combat Simulator on Xbox One
Xbox One owners ought to be able to use their hardware for more than just its Blu-ray capabilities and video streaming apps like Twitch and Netflix. It’s been more than seven months since the system’s launch, yet outside of titles like Titanfall and Battlefield 4—arguably two of the best current-gen multiplayer experiences available, granted—and the nearfaultless remake Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, the console seems to lack the considerable games catalog that made its predecessor such a success. Part of that void, made ever larger given the 360’s continued claim to what Microsoft calls its Xbox Live Arcade, can be chalked up to the lack of small, independent games available for the Xbox One (unless you’re a big fan of Peggle—then rejoice in the coming of Peggle 2!). There is one shining ray of light in all that wasted potential, however, and that is the crowd-funded Kickstarter success Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut. Having raised over $170,000.00, the developers at Born Ready Games brought aboard a team of artists, designers, musicians, and a composer—most of them from acclaimed projects like Homeworld, Appleseed: Ex Machina, and Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino—to bring their vision to life. The marketing folks behind the game inform us, “This Is Space Combat Reborn,” and for the most part they don’t disappoint. Strike Suit gets off to a slow start with a tutorial mission that features a non-mecha player object, but once the story and transformation game mechanics kick in at the start of the second level everything comes together quite nicely. The game’s physics feel real even as the graphics and other production values are highly stylized; it takes its inspiration from properties like Robotech: The Macross Saga and Gundam Wing unabashedly, and the result is pretty incredible, far as this mecha fanatic is concerned. Most importantly, the game manages to be quite graceful about spaceflight. Because up and down are relative in zero-g, you never feel the need to 35
worry about what direction you should be facing, or whether you have to come toward an objective from a particular angle. Strike Suit lets you focus on what matters: taking out enemy ships. And enemies pose a real threat—they’re not the slow-moving slouches common among so many classic arcade shooters and modern FPS titles. If you don’t reach nav points in a timely manner and take out oncoming bogeys, your allies will perish and so will you. Occasionally, the sound mix makes voiceovers difficult to hear and therefore objectives become unclear, or the story feels a touch rudimentary —but the voiceover performances, the design work, and soundtrack are endlessly compelling. If the game’s imperfect or lacks innovation, this does nothing to diminish the sheer replayability and “cool factor” that pervade it once you advance past the opening tutorial. In truth, I find it to be nearly as fun as Titanfall. Something both games have in common is a passion for the familiar: Neither game strives to unveil some grandiose piece of worldbuilding that its audience has never seen before—they just try to give the player a fun experience, some interesting if forgettable characters, and the nostalgia that one can’t help but feel in the presence of classic-style “mobile suits.” A new indie-publishing platform for Xbox One, billed as ID@Xbox, has been announced, but at the moment pickings appear rather slim. This particular game is a nice change of pace, for one—and Max: The Curse of Brotherhood appears to be worth checking out in the near future— but I can’t help but lament the lack of selection. Meantime, it seems we’ll just have to make do with fun but mindless games like Titanfall and Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut until Bungie’s MMO role-playing shooter Destiny rolls out in September.
Karmic Demons and the Power of Compassion Buddhist Philosophy as a Basis for Modern Myth
I would put forward that the next thing is going to be a story, because right now, people really don’t have a big story, a big software. . . . They don’t have a big meta-narrative story; they don’t have a big story like Christianity was a big story. So right now, we need a really big story. And that story doesn’t have to be in conflict or in reaction to the current story, because I would say, right now, you don’t change anything by protesting anything. . . . You give people a more effective way of living their lives, they won’t give a shit about foreign oil, you know? You give them the right story, and you make their cars obsolete, it’s gonna be like, “We are just swimming in oil. What are we going to do with all this oil?” And you can do that within the culture without reacting to the government, the war, whatever. Because in a way, by reacting to it, you’re wasting energy. You are making it stronger by giving it this token little resistance, keeping it in place. So your job, I would say, is to come up with a story like that, that makes all of the things we worry about so much right now completely beside the point. We won’t even think about them, because your story will be so incredible. I don’t know what that story is, but that’s why . . . if I can make my case, somebody’s gonna come up with that story. —Chuck Palahniuk, Postcards from the Future Palahniuk’s words are inspiring because, as readers and storytellers, we would like to imagine that our most beloved fiction could somehow transcend its obligations to be merely entertaining and truthful; that a story could have such profound ideas, and be told in such a monumental way, that we could feel its impact throughout global society in the form of positive change. Embedded in Palahniuk’s lecture is the notion that whatever the earth-shattering myth of tomorrow proves to be, it will have to resemble in no way the current model for human life. It will have to be recognizable right away as something wholly new, that both challenges the current 37
sociopolitical system and calls readers to action—compels them to live as few or none have lived before. David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew, authors of The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, argue that “Traditionally the most important [stories] have been religious. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, religion is the metaphysics of the masses, but it is just as true to label philosophy the religion of intellectuals” (2), and also note that within the context of religious teachings, “it is chiefly the stories that we find meaningful, because stories speak to us and move us in ways that concepts do not” (2). In other words, Palahniuk’s argument makes sense because for most of us, raw ideas in dogmatic form have little or no appeal, whereas a narrative gives readers a blueprint for living their own lives. Stories give us a means by which to understand ourselves and the world. One criticism that many have toward a lot of commercially successful fiction being published today is, despite the obvious resonance and rapport between author and reader, far too often the ideas and morality presented by the work are, frankly, too comfortable. Too safe. They tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, the status quo. Books that confront the ills of modern civilization, that expose tyranny and dispel its illusions, have always been the ones to endure through the ages: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men. These sorts of books outlive their authors precisely because of the authors’ desire for subversion. So what would be the most controversial philosophy to put forth in contemporary fiction? What could possibly have the kind of effect on today’s consumer-driven, individualistic world that those novels had in their own time? Well, how about a philosophy that claims the physical, observable world is empty and impermanent; that says we have no essences or souls, and can therefore not be seen as individuals in any important sense; and that says our only hope for salvation, for enlightenment, is to free the mind of our worldly desires and attachments—to let go of our possessions and loved ones for the sake of purifying our consciousness? On the surface, Buddhism sounds more radical than almost any other system of belief, in stark contrast to notions of egoism and the individual put 38
forth by works like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but within Buddhist thought are some of the most powerful and resonant truths on Earth. Glimpses of ideas like selflessness, compassion, karma, and nonviolence can even be found in countless works of Western literature, in fact. As Loy and Goodhew point out, while Buddhism may not be the primary source of truth in most contemporary English-language novels and short stories, “it makes their Buddhist resonances all the more interesting and important” (7). One exception would be Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “Pocketful of Dharma,” a gritty post-cyberpunk work set in Chengdu, China, whose title explicitly denotes the teachings of the Buddha. In this story, a desperate beggar-boy stumbles into possession of a “blue datacube” (6) that is eventually found to contain the computerized consciousness of the Dalai Lama. After witnessing the murder of a foreigner by a Tibetan criminal, the beggar, Wang Jun, is asked to deliver the victim’s datacube to “the Renmin Lu bridge across the Bing Jiang” (6) in exchange for the pair of light amplification glasses the dead man had been wearing. With money in his pocket for what seems to be the very first time, Jun stops at a street restaurant and orders “Mapo dofu, yu xiang pork, two liang of rice and Wu Xing beer” (9). Soon after, the cube’s buyer shows up and demands that Jun give it to him. Wang Jun hesitates, and the foreigner threatens to harm him. Jun reaches for something silver he spies in the buyer’s pocket, and pulls out the Tibetan’s severed finger, “its tarnished silver and turquoise ring still on it” (10), and, deciding that the foreigner is likely to make good on his threat, shoves “a handful of scalding dofu . . . full of hot chilies and peppercorns” (11) into the man’s eyes. Free to do what he pleases with the cube, Jun takes it to a black-market salesmen called Three-Fingers to find out what it contains. After ThreeFingers attaches the datacube to an appropriate adapter cord, the computer speakers boom with the voice of “Naed Delhi, the nineteenth Dalai Lama” (14). The story then transitions from a primarily socioeconomic journey to an examination of the nature of identity. The Dalai Lama’s voice proclaims, “I am not software. I am the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect. The nineteenth to be reincarnated as such” (14), adding that he is skeptical of his situation: “How do you know I am in a computer?” (15). He describes this bizarre new existence as “Terrible and still” (15), and explains that “I don’t remember anything until now. But it is very still here. Deathly still. I can hear you, but cannot feel anything. There is nothing here. I fear that I am not 39
here. It is maddening. All of my senses are lost. I want out of this computer. Help me. Take me back to my body” (16). Wang Jun is then confronted by a woman in white gloves, who he quickly realizes was the intended recipient of the cube—the man at the restaurant had apparently intercepted the information that Jun was to deliver it to “the person who wears white gloves” (6). Her “foreign companion” explains that the Dalai Lama’s body is no longer viable, as “either the Chinese or the Europeans blew his head full of holes” (20). As a hostage, however, he is no longer deemed to have bargaining power, as intended by his enemies. The woman’s companion explains that “The Tibetans want us to destroy him. Keep whining about how his soul won’t be reborn if we don’t destroy it” (20). When she suggests that they map the Dalai Lama’s consciousness—his stolen “identity matrix” (16)—onto a new body, her companion replies that he will no longer be recognizable, and will no longer have a following (20). The irony here, of course, is that identity is rendered meaningless, or at least trivial, through the theoretical technology of a cerebral-upload procedure. By removing the Dalai Lama’s consciousness from the physical form of the brain, an empty and transient organ of the body, the Dalai Lama ceases to exist for those around him, even as he speaks from a place of being, with sound memories and the ability to articulate his experience. In this way, the story confirms the Buddhist belief in “No-Self,” which Mitchell describes as “the Buddha’s view that the belief in a permanent substantial self is not only false, but also leads to selfishness and egoism . . . the absence of [which] leads to selfless loving kindness and compassion for others” (37). So in this story, at least, even the supreme wisdom of the Dalai Lama is corrupted by the human notion of a self-concept. In another short story, titled “Beyond Lies the Wub,” Philip K. Dick uses parapsychology and metaphysics to describe a very different speculation on the nature of identity and karma. In this work of science fiction, a starship captain named Franco is in the middle of preparing for takeoff when one of his crewmen, Peterson, brings to the gangplank a “wub . . . sagging, its great body settling slowly. It was sitting down, its eyes half shut. A flew flies buzzed about its flank, and it switched its tail” (28). Captain Franco asks what the creature is, and Peterson replies, “it’s a pig. The natives call it a wub” (28). After their departure from Mars, Franco is discussing how best to cook and prepare the creature; and then the 40
wub speaks: “Really, Captain . . . I suggest we talk of other matters” (29). Astounded, Franco examines the creature, and says, “I wonder if there’s a native inside it . . . Maybe we should open it up and have a look” (29). After the captain calls the wub into his office for questioning, the creature describes its diet and survival mechanisms: “Plants. Vegetables. We can eat almost anything. We’re very catholic. Tolerant, eclectic, catholic. We live and let live. That’s how we’ve gotten along” (30). Having revealed its seemingly Buddhist inclination toward compassion and nonviolence, the wub goes on to ask “how can any lasting contact be established between your people and mine if you resort to such barbaric attitudes?” (30), perhaps implying that vegetarianism, or even veganism, is the necessary first step for humanity to take if it is to have an ethical, harmonic relationship with animals and the whole of the universe. A more conservative reading, however, might be that the wub’s intellect qualifies it as a sentient being to be privileged above the realm of the animal; but other short fiction of Dick’s, such as the stories “Roog” and “Fair Game,” both of which affirm his regard for humankind as being equal to animals, serves as evidence to the contrary. Unconvinced of the wub’s relevance to Buddhist thought? This is a question worth asking, but the creature’s intellectual leanings reveal much more of its nature than can be inferred from its grotesque appearance: “Eat me? Rather you should discuss questions with me, philosophy, the arts” (30), it says, before delving into an examination of Jungian archetypes in human myth. It explains, “I find in your Odysseus a figure common to the mythology of most self-conscious races. As I interpret it, Odysseus wanders as an individual aware of himself as such. This is the idea of separation, of separation from family and country. The process of individuation” (31). After much deliberation, the captain eventually decides to kill the creature by shooting it in the head. Later, as the crew is feasting on the wub, Captain Franco—the “only one who appeared to be enjoying himself” (33)— comforts Peterson by saying, “It is only organic matter, now . . . The life essence is gone” (33). Peterson realizes that the wub’s consciousness has seized the captain’s physical body when the man says, “As I was saying before I was interrupted, the role of Odysseus in the myths . . .” (33), and the reader learns that identity in Dick’s universe is like the state of being described by the Buddha himself. Mitchell writes that “The Buddha always affirmed that persons have an empirical selfhood constituted by a body and a mind” (37)—two entirely 41
separate concepts, then, that intersect in complex ways to comprise a living creature. So whereas Bacigalupi’s story describes consciousness as being a very real existence from the sense-experience perspective of the individual, but rendered irrelevant in the context of a society that cannot be certain of that consciousness’s identity, Dick’s “wub” illustrates the manner in which we experience the state of being. To qualify an individual’s distinct identity, especially in fiction and other types of stories dealing with these kinds of issues, we often use the deductive reasoning of exclusive knowledge. We ask the questions which only a given individual would be able to answer. When the wub speaks of Odysseus, we gain an understanding of the creature’s mind, of its distinctive selfhood; when more discussion of the myth is spoken from the captain’s mouth, we recognize that Captain Franco has ceased to exist, despite that his body endures. We also recognize that the wub yet lives, despite that its brain was destroyed and its physical form is being eaten by the starship’s crew. But because there is no definitive methodology for what constitutes identity, we must conclude that the Buddhist doctrine of “No-Self” is generally truthful; and the wub’s physical destruction for the sake of others’ sustenance proves the Buddha’s assertion that “the belief in a permanent substantial self . . . leads to selfishness and egoism” (37). While science fiction may seem the most boundless canvas for exploring the implications of Buddhist thought, authors working within the narrative frameworks of fantasy and even mainstream fiction have managed to illustrate the concepts of compassion, karma, and the bodhisattva ideal with equal nuance. For example, the novels of Joe Hill may at a glance seem to be fairly conventional examples of popular horror fiction: suspense-based, often terrifying, and with an emphasis on mystery, atmosphere, and character. All these things describe his works accurately enough—but they are also so much more, beneath the surface. Loy and Goodhew suggest that when looking at Buddhist teachings, it is more practical to view them with a skeptical, modern eye; that to question whether or not the teaching is literal does nothing to diminish it, so long as human psychology is kept in mind (34). They explain, “Karma need not be viewed as some inevitable calculus of moral cause and effect, because it is not primarily a teaching about how to control what the world does to us. It is about our own spiritual development: how our lives are transformed by our motivations” (36). For instance: The traditional “six realms” of samsara do not need to be distinct 42
worlds or planes of existence through which we transmigrate after death. . . . They can also be the different ways we experience this world, as our character, and therefore our attitude toward the world, change. For example, the hell realm becomes not so much a place I will be reborn into later, due to my hatred and evil deeds, as a way I experience this world when my mind is dominated by anger and hate. (38) Ignatius Perrish, the protagonist from Hill’s novel Horns, is the embodiment of this understanding of karma. Ig’s fiancee Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered a year before the start of the story, serves as the catalyst for Ig’s nightmarish experiences throughout the book; as a source of goodness in Ig’s life when she was alive, she has become for him a fatal attachment—a wellspring of suffering, or dukkha, that can best be described as hell on earth. In the beginning of the novel, after “[spending] the night drunk and doing terrible things” (3), he wakes “the next morning with a headache, [puts] his hands to his temples, and [feels] somthing unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances” (3). Ig Perrish is given the ultimate test of human compassion when his new horns grant him the power to hear the sinful thoughts of complete strangers, and not long after, the darkest, most guarded secrets of his friends and family. His spiritual journey begs the question: In the face of the gravest tragedy, of a total lack of compassion from one’s childhood best friend, and almost no external incentive for justice or closure—other than simplistic, personal revenge—what good are his parents, siblings, and friends, when they all believe him to be guilty of murder? Can they truly be seen as sources of love and compassion for Ig? As the novel proclaims, “It was difficult to maintain close friendships when you were under suspicion of being a sex murderer” (9). During a conversation with his father, not long after the horns appear atop his head, Ig asks his him if he had ever considered the possibility that Ig might be innocent of Merrin’s murder, and his father replies, “No. Not really. Tell the truth, I was surprised you didn’t do something to her sooner. I always thought you were a weird little shit” (50). Things do not get much better for Ig; by Chapter Ten, he learns from his brother, Terry, that his best friend—“tall, lean, half-blind Lee Tourneau” (21)—was in fact the one who killed Merrin (55). The story’s greatest challenge for both Ig and the reader is the prospect of sympathizing with Lee, despite all the evil things he has done. As if it 43
were not bad enough that the reader is made to feel sympathy toward Ig throughout his transformation into the devil, a vengeful Judeo-Christian Satan, Hill, in what may be the novel’s boldest and most ingenious bit of storytelling, offers us an explanation for Lee’s murderous tendencies and objectifying regard for women: he was not born a sociopath, but instead made one through the misfortune of a single childhood accident. A feral cat, we learn in Chapter Thirty-Six, stalked the perimeter of Lee’s home as a child, and at one point even slashed his mother’s hand open. The tom is described as having “ribs . . . visible in his sides [and] black fur . . . missing in hunks . . . and his furry balls were as big as shooter marbles . . . One eye was green, the other white, giving him a look of partial blindness” (271). This is an obvious parallel to Lee himself, who several years later loses sight in one eye when a cherry bomb explodes near his face. Lee’s mother warns him that “He won’t learn to like you . . . He’s past the point where he can learn to feel for people. He’s not interested in you, or anyone, and never will be” (271). This bit of advice foreshadows Lee’s own monstrous fate shortly before he sets out to befriend the cat, to tame it and disprove his mother’s hypothesis about the animal’s antisocial nature. When Lee finally gets close enough to pet the cat, he’s balanced atop a fence, and when he moves to touch it, the cat “[lashes] out with one claw” (274), and Lee “[falls] sideways into the corn” (274). Falling six feet from where he stood on the fence, “The pitchfork that lay in the corn had been there for over a decade, had been waiting for Lee since before he was born, lying flat on the earth with the curved and rusted tines sticking straight up. Lee hit it headfirst” (274). Even though the pitchfork may be seen as a symbol of the modern, traditional Satan, this scene establishes that Lee’s future misdeeds are not the product of some abstract, cosmic evil, but rather the eventual tendency of one who has suffered from childhood head trauma. Loy and Goodhew write that the essence of compassion is that “we commiserate with the suffering of another because we share in it, because we are not other than it” (32). If Hill has been successful in convincing the rest of his readership, one may argue that we feel Lee’s suffering in this one chapter of tragic insight with the same intensity that we experience Ig’s suffering throughout the rest of the novel. Perhaps the most potent example of Buddhist philosophy in mainstream Western culture, however, is the cult success of both the 1996 novel and 1999 film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In his introduction, Palahniuk describes the novel as “‘apostolic’ fiction—where a surviving 44
apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman. And one man, the hero, is shot to death . . . a classic, ancient romance but updated to compete with the espresso machine and ESPN” (xviii); but one could argue that the narrative, and the “rules” that propel it, are really a kind of Dharma, or sutra, intended to show white-collar American males a new way to live their lives free from the dissatisfaction of an empty, consumer-driven existence. Take the ideology of the protagonist’s “apostle,” for instance: Tyler Durden is the embodiment of the bodhisattva ideal, if one can overlook the necessity for consensual violence in the novel. Mitchell explains that the “bodhisattva life begins with what is called the ‘arising of the thought of Awakening,’ or bodhicitta . . . the altruistic desire, or heartfelt aspiration, to attain Buddhahood so that one can help others gain freedom from suffering” (104). In Fight Club, Tyler Durden’s motivations for starting fight club, and later Project Mayhem—a kind of Zen monastic society within a soap production company within an urban terrorist organization—all stem from the most basic desire to jar hard-working, dissatisfied individuals out of their complacency and into a position where they can regain control of their lives and of their spiritual paths. Of the actual violence, the narrator explains that “Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered” (45). Fighting, for Tyler Durden and our unnamed narrator, is an enlightenment in itself; an escape from that which causes our suffering. The narrator describes fight club as a means of overcoming the fear that leads to dukkha: “Most guys are at fight club because of something they’re too scared to fight. After a few fights, you’re afraid a lot less” (45). In other words, a member of fight club is not really fighting his opponent, but is conquering his own inner turmoil. It is not a contest of violence so much as it is a therapy session. The sense of community within Project Mayhem is strengthened through mantras chanted by Tyler and then parroted by his followers. He chants, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile” (126). This sounds dismal, but perhaps that is precisely why Buddhism has had such a difficult time gaining widespread appeal in the Western world; we overemphasize things like individualism and identity. Without them, we would have no capitalism in the way we have capitalism today, and we would have a vastly simpler society overall. 45
For many, this is no doubt the true appeal of Buddhism—it is simply the opposite, more or less, of the ideals that dominate our civilization at present. But we would do well to acknowledge the foundational truths of Buddhist thought, and the merit they carry, and apply them to not only our daily activities and interactions but also to our myths—because after all, stories are quite often the templates by which we pattern our lives. Our lives are impermanent, true, and they are by nature filled with suffering; but through compassion, nonviolent discourse, and seeking to impart kindness to those around us, we may one day cure some of this world’s many social ills.
Works Cited Bacigalupi, Paolo. “Pocketful of Dharma.” Pump Six and Other Stories. San Francisco: Night Shade, 2010. 1-24. Print. Dick, Philip K. “Beyond Lies the Wub.” Paycheck and Other Classic Stories. New York: Citadel, 1990. 27-33. Print. Hill, Joe. Horns. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print. Loy, David, and Linda Goodhew. The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004. Print. Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print. Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. Print. Postcards from the Future: The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary. Dir. Dennis Widmyer, Kevin Kölsch, and Josh Chaplinsky. Perf. Chuck Palahniuk. Kinky Mule Films, 2003. DVD.
Kaiju Rising An Interview with Nick Sharps, Editor of Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters
. . . [When] there was a sound, it carried; the skirl of RAF jets circling high, the faint and irregular rumble of buildings collapsing. And now and then, animalistic shrieks echoed off the low cloud. Sounds made by unnatural things, things with lungs the size of football pitches and throats wider than railway tunnels. —James Swallow, “The Turn of the Card” Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters, released by Ragnarok Publications earlier this month, is a standout project among our industry’s countless Kickstarter-funded fiction anthologies. Inspired in part by Guillermo del Toro’s latest blockbuster, Pacific Rim, the book takes all the excitement— and cosmic terror—that comes with the giant-reptilian-monsters-ravagingurban-cities territory and establishes a foundation for what could very well be a resurgence of the genre. Especially with a new Godzilla flick on the way in 2014. Project creator and co-editor Nick Sharps kindly agreed to an interview. Thanks so much for taking the time to drop by and answer a few questions about the book, Nick. I’ve been a fan of creature horror for as far back as my memory goes, and while the kaiju tend to go overlooked here in the U.S., del Toro’s homage to the old monster films and anime of the East was a tremendously fun reminder of the full breadth of the form. And it is an art form, I think; there is nothing so fundamentally terrifying as the monster that speaks to our most deep-seated fears, both physical and psychological.
I’ve been fascinated by The Creature from the Black Lagoon for years, and reserve a special place in my heart for the Creepshow segment “The Crate,” adapted 47
from a Stephen King novella—itself an excellent work of horror fiction. Do you have a favorite monster film, and can you articulate for us what it is you find so compelling about the beast itself? I know that J. J.’s Cloverfield has its fair share of critics, but it will always be a favorite of mine. I remember reading an article about the origin of the project before the film came out. It said that Abrams visited a toy store in Japan with his son; he saw a bunch of Godzilla toys and decided that America needed its own kaiju. That struck a chord with me. After all, our attempt at a Godzilla movie was a failure. Why drag another monster’s name through the mud? We should have our own. I admired the logic. In a lot of ways, J. J. Abrams planted the seed for Kaiju Rising long before Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim would rekindle that interest in me. I’m going to have to add that I’m a huge fan of Monsters, a film from the director of the new Godzilla movie—Gareth Edwards. If there’s anyone who can do a faithful Western adaptation of Big G., it’s Edwards.
There are a lot of great creature-horror novels and short stories, as well, obviously—any you’d care to recommend? James Maxey’s Dragon Apocalypse series has some fantastic creatures in it. Sure, dragons are a mainstay of fantasy, but Maxey’s dragons? They are integral to the functions of the world he creates. I wouldn’t signify just any dragon as a kaiju, but Maxey’s elemental dragon of fire, Greatshadow, definitely deserves the honorific. When sending out invites to authors for Kaiju Rising, Maxey was towards the top of the list.
A lot of people took issue with the playful tone of Pacific Rim, or just didn’t seem to “get it.” What do you think made the film work for you on an artistic level? Any particular character or moment that stuck out to you as especially memorable or clever? 48
You know, Pacific Rim isn’t a cinematic masterpiece. Charlie Hunnam isn’t going to win an Oscar for his performance (though Idris Elba should win all the Oscars). The script isn’t brilliant by any means, and there are plot holes big enough to pilot a Jaeger through. But you know what? None of that matters to me because it’s freaking fun. I could discuss the artistic direction, the visual stimulation, but other people have done so first and better than I possibly could. No, Pacific Rim works for me because it taps into my two biggest childhood fantasies: giant robots and giant monsters. As far as favorite characters go . . . I’d have to say Newt Geiszler. We’re all kaiju groupies at heart, right?
The mecha and the kaiju go hand in hand, it seems. Both are associated with anime and Japanese science fiction—the series Robotech, for example, presents mecha going up against giant, if intelligent, monsters— and when they come together, the result is often made of unparalleled levels of awesome. Do mecha symbolize some kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy of gaining extraordinary power, you think? Or are they just a means to keep up with the awesome might of the kaiju? Mechs are totally wish fulfillment (for me, anyway). As a kid, I had asthma. I was overweight. I had bad eyesight. I was a dork. I watched Gundam and fantasized about piloting my very own mech. I viewed those large robotic suits of armor as the greatest of all equalizers. The military has been working on its very own “Iron Man” suit for some time now. Maybe this is a fantasy I’ll get to one day live out—and if not at least I’ll always have the upcoming Ragnarok Publications anthology, Mech: Age of Steel. . . .
What about the exo-suits in a game like Titanfall? I recall you geeking out about the beta almost as much as I was. Do you think there’s a valid reason to introduce mecha into a story whose worldbuilding lacks giant, all49
consuming monsters? Titanfall is a blast! Just putting it out there. I don’t recall the last time I had that much fun with a game, especially with online multiplayer. The fact that this was just a beta—I have high expectations for Titanfall when it releases March 11. I suppose if Terminator taught us anything, it’s that our own creations can be our undoing—or salvation. I think there’s definitely overlap between mechs and kaiju, and it’s not just a matter of size. I’ll also add that Titanfall is apparently going to feature some giant hostile creatures, according to online sources. Even more reason to pick up the game!
With the Godzilla reboot right around the corner, and Kaiju Rising climbing the Amazon bestsellers lists with a slew of 4- and 5-star reviews, what’s next for our beloved kaiju in the world of mass entertainment? Are they prepping to take the world by storm, or have they simply always been here, lurking unseen just beneath the water? I think that you can expect a surge in popularity for the kaiju genre. Pacific Rim was a good start, but I expect Godzilla to really ramp things up. I have my fingers crossed for a sequel to Pacific Rim, and if Godzilla is as good as I’m hoping then a sequel to that isn’t out of the question. Meanwhile, Ragnarok Publications may be expanding the Kaiju Rising franchise with a series of novellas; and there’s always Mech: Age of Steel in the works. Oh!—and I just found out today that my favorite big-five publisher, Baen, has its own kaiju anthology in the works, called The Baen Big Book of Monsters, edited by Hank Davis. And Bob Eggleton did the cover! It’s a good time to be a fan of kaiju.
Thanks so much again for your time, Nick, and best of luck with your future endeavors at Ragnarok! It’s an interesting time to be involved with publishing, and I look forward to seeing what you guys do next. 50
Thanks so muchâ€”it was a pleasure!
The Star Wars My first fan letter to Dark Horse Comics
Read the first issue of Dark Horse Comics’ new adaptation of The Star Wars last night, and in a fever of fannish passion unlike any I’ve felt in ages I composed the following e-mail: from: Alex Kane <email@example.com> to: firstname.lastname@example.org date: Fri, Sep 6, 2013 at 9:12 PM subject: The Star Wars #1 I’d like to congratulate everybody at Dark Horse for their phenomenal work on The Star Wars #1. Although I only got into reading comics a few years back, while in college, George Lucas’s universe has been a part of my life since I was just old enough to operate my parents’ VCR. When my dad took me at age seven to see Empire and Jedi during their Special Edition rereleases, at my hometown’s now-defunct Rivoli Theatre, Darth Vader’s revelation on Bespin felt like a religious experience. The Emperor and his Force lightning, given my vague understanding of the Dark Side, left a similarly lasting impression. Not long afterward, the three-year wait between The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones left me feeling starved for the Force. So, like a lot of fans, much of my childhood was spent scouring the Internet—in its dialup-modem era—for whatever artifacts I could find from that galaxy far, far away. One of them was a .txt file alleged to be Lucas’s original draft of a screenplay called The Star Wars, and it began precisely as the first issue of last month’s comic does: with a “Jedi-Bendu” named Kane Starkiller and his two sons encountering a Sith warrior. I never gave that plain-text file much credence. Half of me assumed it to be fake, maybe the longwinded imaginings of a zealous fan. And it didn’t feel like the Star Wars I knew and loved anyway; its DNA seemed . . 52
. different, somehow. Your comic succeeds so admirably in this regard. You’ve managed to take the rough draft of the story we all know and treasure and imbue it with the life that Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnston, Dennis Muren, and so many others gave to Lucas’s seminal vision back in ’77. Nick Runge’s gorgeous cover simply oozes Tauntaun blood—in the same way that his incredible movie posters always have. Mike Mayhew’s drawings? They cut to the heart like a lightsaber, sharply rendered and bursting with the power of the Force. And writer J. W. Rinzler, as always, speaks Galactic Basic with that distinct Coruscanti accent; his is the voice of a fan as well as a writer. My wholehearted thanks to Dark Horse, for making that faraway galaxy seem suddenly so much closer. Sincerely, Alex Kane I recently rewatched The People vs. George Lucas, which I think is a fabulous documentary about geek culture and the Star Wars phenomenon in particular, and it gets at the heart of some of the places where Lucas went wrong with his franchise. But I have to say this: when we see Dark Horse or Lucasfilm doing something that reminds us why we were fans in the first place—things like The Force Unleashed, Knights of the Old Republic, or a novel by somebody like Drew Karpyshyn or Matthew Stover—we really ought to let the creators know about it. If all the fans ever do is complain, well, I don’t think that’s very healthy for either the property or the people who seem to have this immense love/hate relationship with it. Personally, I don’t have much use for all the negativity that comes with being a Star Wars fan. Life’s too short to begrudge somebody like Lucas, who’s given so much fun and creative energy back to the world, the occasional artistic misstep.
Clarion West My Post-Seattle Update, Sept. 2, 2013
I’ve been putting this off for a while. To sit down and try to sum up my experience at Clarion West in a single, immediate blog post is just a ludicrous idea—it can’t be done. I won’t try. But you might notice that my online presence has been scaled back quite a bit since June, and there’s a reason for that: Clarion West was exactly the kind of life-changing affair everybody had claimed it would be. Being a fairly young, impressionable dude, and not very confident in my art in the grand scheme of things, those six weeks in Seattle really did quite the number on me. All the negative crap we tell ourselves as artists? Most of that has been swept aside, for the time being. Replaced with the sense that all that impostor-syndrome garbage, all that doubt, is both a universal and necessary evil. And it goes away when you sit down and do work, rather than just sitting around and bemoaning your station. And all the positive stuff, too. Those milestones we cherish, and quantify, and constantly try to make sense of? They’re not terribly important. Past a certain point, I’ve seen that none of those things ever satisfy the artist. Especially in the context of an emotional low period. Thankfully, I was happy and having the time of my life in Seattle. No regrets there. You hear the consensus that these kinds of situations—eighteen strangers sleeping in a house together, creative work happening, the occasional whiff of friendly competition in the air, alcohol being imbibed— might lead to drama of various kinds. To my surprise and delight, there was little of that for the Clarion West Writers Workshop’s 2013 class. We became family. I think most of us would be comfortable saying that we share a pretty unconditional love for one another, far as I can tell, and that’s an amazing thing. So many egos, so many national and cultural backgrounds melding together to form a household-sized society, might’ve been an ordeal for any other workshop, class, retreat, what have you. But what we had in common 54
with each other won out over our differences, in a big, inspiring way. We became a sort of microcosm for the creative-intellectual types of the world; regardless of America’s political climate, or the idiosyncrasies of the Pacific Northwest specifically, we forged our own small utopia. Saying goodbye to everyone, and leaving those friendships behind to return to the so-called real world, was maybe the hardest thing I’ll ever have to endure. Now, crying is not a thing that I do. Born and raised as a young man in the Midwest, where masculinity is so unaccountably prized, tears are not the norm. But I found myself locking the bathroom door and sobbing for a couple minutes, once most of my friends had departed for SeaTac, you betcha. We’d talked for weeks about what it might be like to have to say goodbye, and see it all end. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the letdown. I owe them all so much. Or you all, if you guys happen to be reading this. I’m so much wiser for having met each and every one of my Clarion West classmates. And if you haven’t read their work, keep an eye out for them. David Edison’s The Waking Engine is forthcoming this February, from Tor, and Jenn Giesbrecht’s phenomenal “All My Princes Are Gone” is in this month’s issue of Nightmare. You can find a handful of other CW ’13 alumni in recent issues of Clarkesworld and Daily Science Fiction. The world certainly hasn’t heard the last of us. Kim Stanley Robinson had some interesting things to teach us about online presence, blogging, social media, and balancing the work of fiction writing with life in general. Hence this blog being dormant from mid-June until tonight. But I’ll save the full elaboration of my thoughts on his provocative Mystery Muse lecture for another time. Suffice it to say, I needed to hear Stan’s ideas about blogging right now, and most of my online thoughts will be found on Twitter (@alexjkane) from here on out, barring the occasional “necessary” update, such as this one, or news about my writing, etc. Other voices floating around in my head at the moment, other than my classmates’, include Joe Hill’s, Neil Gaiman’s, Margo Lanagan’s, Ellen Datlow’s, Chip Delany’s, Liz Hand’s, Paul Park’s, Cat Rambo’s, and Ted Chiang’s, among a host of others. Lot of interesting ideas on storytelling and the artist’s journey that will take a lifetime to fully understand, I suspect. 55
Those will provide fodder for future blog posts, if I decide to talk much about craft from here on out. I may take some time off from talking about process for a while. Meantime, I’ve had another space opera story accepted by Deorc Enterprise, as a media tie-in for their Dark Expanse MMO real-time strategy game, and I’m working on an all-new story I can’t talk about just yet. Not to mention all the revision that needs done on my six or seven Clarion West pieces, two of which are out making the rounds at places like Daily Science Fiction and Nature while the rest sit broken and in need of mending. There are things outside of writing, as well: I’m gonna put more time and effort into gaming, for instance. Everything from my Xbox to my 3DS, and trying out tabletop and card games like Pathfinder and Magic: The Gathering for the very first time. I’m going to deemphasize writing to a degree in order to read more. And, of course, I’m gonna make a more conscious effort to be healthy and spend time with the people I care about. Because writing’s only fulfilling if all the other stuff is in order, I imagine. I’d like my work to be a celebration of this road we’re on, rather than an escape from it. All my love and thanks to everyone who helped me get to Seattle, and where I am in my life today. You know who you are. It’s been a rich endeavor from the very first story I ever wrote, back in Kindergarten. And it feels surreal to have so many of my literary heroes and exemplars, having read my work, be out there rooting for me. The Clarion West program is a worthwhile one, and it has empowered me in countless ways to keep at this thing that I’ve always loved doing, regardless of any doubts or setbacks that might come my way. For that, I owe the organization—and especially people like Les Howle and Neile Graham—my eternal gratitude. I am so honored to be a small, humble part of the incredible legacy you’ve built over the past three decades.
Man of Steel Zack Snyder’s First Foray into the Justice League Franchise is the Superman Film You’ve Been Waiting for, So Long as You Don’t Really Care About Women
In all fairness, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a beautiful movie. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a “New 52”-era DC Comics adaptation: loads of fun, generally on par with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, light-years beyond lesser attempts like Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (2011), and far more mature than its ho-hum predecessor, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (’06). I found myself engaged with the story, caring about the sense of literal alienation David S. Goyer builds around Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), and loving every tense, gorgeous minute of the CGI spectacle. It is easily the best-looking, most visionary of all the DC films to date, and will in all likelihood serve as the company’s flagship blockbuster, in much the same way as Jon Favreau’s Iron Man launched the Avengers franchise into existence. But unfortunately, in light of a number of recent controversies within geek culture, I had my feelers out for gender bias last night, and what I noticed about the film’s portrayal of women left me enormously let down. How could a film released in 2013, in the wake of Snyder’s own widelycriticized Sucker Punch, reduce the role of women as much as Man of Steel does? For starters, the film effectively bombs the Bechdel test. Two women, Diane Lane’s underutilized turn as Martha Kent and Amy Adams’s similarly underwritten Lois Lane, talk to one another on-screen for just a single scene —in which the topic of discussion is, well . . . Superman. That’s it. The remainder of the film finds women in largely trivial, or at least traditional, roles, with the possible exception of Faora: a murderous Kryptonian sociopath. No, I’m not kidding. 57
While Kal-El’s (Superman’s) father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), achieves a kind of ghostlike immortality through his world’s cerebral upload technology just before a heroic on-screen death, his wife Lara dies afterward during Krypton’s destruction—and is never seen or heard from again. Barely mentioned, in fact. While Clark tells his Earth mother, Martha Kent, near the movie’s end, “I found my real parents,” the truth is, he only communes with the phantom consciousness of his deceased father. He doesn’t even bother to ask Jor-El about his mother! As much as I loved the film, and no matter how perfect some aspects of its otherwise rich story are, I can’t help but lament the fact that all women in the film but one are reduced to the roles of damsels-in-distress and childbirthers. It’s more than disappointing; it’s downright sexist. And appallingly so, given the age we live in. Even the gender-flipped Jenny Jurwich character (Goyer’s version of Superman’s longtime pal Jimmy Olsen, evidently) exists solely to get trapped underneath some rubble, and then be rescued by men. Lois Lane begins her journey in search of the alien who will become Superman as just a curious reporter, but quickly becomes enamored with him . . . without much explanation, really, except for meeting the demands of the formulaic Hollywood plot. After boldly following Kal-El aboard General Zod’s Kryptonian warship, Lane carries out her single biggest contribution to the film by discovering how to defeat the superhuman invasion force; but it’s Jor-El’s consciousness, the mind of a man, who shows her—and then the rest of her efforts take place off-camera, while the audience is spoonfed some more flashy shots of Superman fighting Zod and making a catastrophic mess of Metropolis in the process. Even from a less critical, more—(sigh)—traditional view, Kent’s inevitable relationship with Lois Lane ultimately feels thoughtless and forced; they appear to care for one another simply because that’s what they’ve always done. Not because there’s any genuine character development taking place between the two, or because the story serves to build their love. When you’ve got an actress of Amy Adams’s caliber at your disposal, that’s more than a little disappointing, frankly. But that’s no fault of the performers. Doubtless the unquestionable demands of the studio kept the script and final edit as lean and fast-paced as possible, leaving little room 58
for more than a few minutes’ worth of genuine humanity and on-screen chemistry. So why have a love subplot at all? Save it for the sequel. As it stands, Lois Lane in Man of Steel is left utterly objectified. Despite a few good lines—and some truly awful ones (“If we’re done measuring dicks . . .”)—and regardless of how convincing Adams is in the midst of what must have been an ocean of greenscreen. An object of affection, and a damsel to be rescued when the plot demands more overdramatized peril. Last night, my inner child felt ready to proclaim to the world that cinema had found its new Greatest Superhero Film of All Time, superior to the works of Nolan, Snyder’s own Watchmen, and the now-classic Donner outings. But I can’t ignore the trivialization of women’s roles in popular entertainment any longer. What might have been a near-perfect, grand vision is marred by the absence of anything new, commendable, or progressive. Man of Steel plays it safe in its political message—and does a great disservice to twenty-first-century notions of gender.
Ten SF Novels Deserving of Film Adaptations More Recommended Reading that’s Bound to Hit the Big Screen (Eventually)
Science fiction and fantasy are taking over the realm of the Hollywood summer blockbuster, no question about it. Marvel Studios is gearing up to launch the Avengers franchise into space with the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film, Neill Blomkamp’s about to wow audiences with his sophomore full-length feature, Elysium, and Christopher Nolan’s next movie is a high-concept SF epic called Interstellar. Roboticist-cum-novelist Daniel H. Wilson’s works seem more or less destined for film. And let’s not forget about Ernest Cline’s nostalgia-heavy Ready Player One. We certainly have plenty to look forward to. Between the Ender’s Game film adaptation, slated to be released this November, and that of Cherie Priest’s alternate-history, zombie steampunk novel Boneshaker, I think it’s safe to say we’ll all have plenty to geek out about in the coming months—and years. So: what other science-fiction and fantasy novels deserve the movie treatment? Here are some of my own ideas about what stories might look great (and benefit the field by broadening its audience) on the silver screen. 1. Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse) by James S. A. Corey This one’s got a cast of characters you can’t help but love— the Rocinante has just the sort of memorable crew that belongs in a space opera tale of this scale, and even the bit players along the way seem to live and breathe the processed air of this richly-drawn world coauthors Abraham and Franck have dubbed “The Expanse.” Not to mention the diabolical alien presence that reveals itself about halfway into the story. If some studio goon actually greenlit the Battleship movie, why can’t we have Leviathan Wakes? Give it to Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski. Or 60
Ridley Scott, James Cameron—really any of the usual suspects. SyFy reportedly has a television adaptation in the works, with Thomas Jane rumored for the leading role. 2. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor Okorafor manages to believably bridge the two most polarized elements of speculative film: a plausible future world, and magic. The author does so by drawing no clear distinction between spirituality and metaphysics, nor between primitive technology and sorcery. It’s all in how the reader chooses to explain the narrator’s harrowing story—and that’s half the fun. The mysticism feels authentic. But it’d be significantly darker than pretty much anything in its genre, given its subject matter. Harry Potter it ain’t. David Fincher could make it into the film of his career. 3. Crystal Rain (The Xenowealth Saga) by Tobias S. Buckell I don’t know who would be the ideal director for Buckell’s Xenowealth novels (Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, Sly Mongoose, and The Apocalypse Ocean). Anybody from Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) to Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails) could potentially do artistic justice to this fun but harsh postcolonial universe, which is equal parts steampunk and galaxyspanning space opera. 4. Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell Another one by Buckell—this one far more timely and realistic. I could see this ecological technothriller becoming a kind of zeitgeist work, in which the line between industry and government becomes further blurred by the boom in new resources, and new ways to go about getting them. Plus, it’d be big-screen really nice to see a story about climate change and technology that’s not entirely apocalyptic in nature. 5. Mainspring (The Clockwork Earth) by Jay Lake I enjoyed this idiosyncratic steampunk (clockpunk?) novel for its confidence and unique vision. The tale of a young apprentice going out on a quest to save the world isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff—but it’s a mythic story that includes clockwork angels, an Earth whose axis winds and ticks like the movement of a clock, and dirigibles. Somebody like David Fincher or Martin Scorsese could turn this already beautiful novel into a visual masterpiece. 6. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi According to the author’s Whatever blog, this one’s already in 61
development—as a television series titled The Ghost Brigades, after the novel’s first sequel. Wolfgang Petersen’s name was attached as a likely director at one point, but the author reports that the script is being rewritten as we speak, so that leaves open the possibility of someone else taking the helm of this one, depending on what happens through the rest of preproduction. Anybody who’s read the book knows this one is tailored to fit the mold of big-screen cinema, and I think it’ll be loads of fun. 7. Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi But this one could be even better. I like Redshirts a great deal, as well, but Scalzi’s touching homage to golden-age SF author H. Beam Piper reads like a far superior version of James Cameron’s Avatar, on a more intimate, more believable scale. And there isn’t a single character in the novel who wouldn’t blow audiences away, given a few solid casting choices. The novel brings the pop-culture cousinhood of the Fuzzys and the Ewoks full circle with a little tongue-in-cheek reference to Return of the Jedi, and in today’s very postmodern, somewhat jaded entertainment world . . . honestly, I think this courtroom drama in space would kill at the box office. 8. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi Hard to think of a more memorable vision of the future than Bacigalupi’s debut novel. His young adult works may be more likely to receive the eventual big-screen treatment, but there’s something deeply profound about the story of Emiko the windup, a genetically engineered sex slave in a world ravaged by rampant “genehacking” and various resultant foodborne plagues. Either the Wachowskis or Danny Boyle could turn this haunting vision into a believable reality. Who knows—it just might happen someday. 9. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente Here’s a beautiful mythpunk fairy tale that begs for the animated treatment. Try and imagine the folks behind stop-motion masterpieces like Coraline or Frankenweenie bringing this book to life. Or Hayao Miyazaki, who did the sublime animated adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle. Not that this book couldn’t be filmed; I just think that its marvelous witches and spirits, and all the shapeshifting that goes on in the novel, would look stunning in mostly grayscale, old-school animation. 10. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett This is the book I’m reading right now, and I can’t believe it’s been out for so long without being adapted into some form of visual medium. It’s an 62
inevitability, I think—but let’s hope like Hell it gets the witty, literate treatment it truly deserves. Before the End Times come and wipe our slate clean, we should all be so lucky to see so many angels and demons working in harmony to bring about Armageddon. Maybe Gaiman could collaborate with Kevin Smith on the script, and then get Todd Phillips to direct? Or Edgar Wright? I don’t know. Who could truly do a masterwork like this one justice? One thing’s for sure: it’ll be a thrill to watch what lands in theaters over the coming decade, as the field of fantasy and science fiction continues its global invasion of the multiplex.
The Cabin in the Woods Yanking Down the Zipper on the Monster’s Back
I’ll try and keep this spoiler-free, because I think it goes without saying that spoilers can be the film buff’s bane, but I will need to at least hint at a few key aspects of the story in order to properly criticize it in the manner I intend to. Which is to say, I didn’t really enjoy the film all that much on an artistic or intellectual level. Critical reception and popular opinion across social media had both set my expectations high, and in the beginning of the film I felt that the script was poised to deliver . . . but things fell apart pretty quickly. I believe that a good horror film ought to bring the monsters of our innermost darkness to life both on the screen and in our hearts; but all The Cabin in the Woods seems to do is yank down the zipper on the monster’s back, exposing the pale, hairy ass underneath. It doesn’t show much love for the genre. And that’s a big strike against it, in my book. Maybe I’m too jaded, or even a liar masking his own jealousy or insecurities as a creative individual, but I feel like a lot of these highconcept, chain-o’-nonsense-surprises films feel a little soulless. They lack the grit and believability that are the requisite of true, visceral terror— something that the horror genre, particularly in film, is especially lacking these days. It’s not that Cabin doesn’t have its smart or entertaining moments. There is a certain moderate tension that persists throughout the film, more or less holding the audience’s attention, but it can’t ever make up its mind whether it is a high-brow comedy or a horror film. It succeeds only, I’m afraid, as a comedy. That’s what I find most disappointing. And so much of the plot relies on, well, me not revealing the big spoilers that would utterly ruin the entire thing for you. It’s all one massive curtain—which, by the way, you can see straight through the minute the film starts. 64
Hell, the first time you see the trailer, if you’ve a keen eye and a rudimentary understanding of the genre and the metafictional obsession that has grown to dominate the imaginations of horror cinema’s once-great masters. Like that bloody but disgraceful mess Scream 4, The Cabin in the Woods suffers from the reality that the well-meaning audience member is constantly thumped over the head with reminders that she is in fact seated in a movie theater, sipping a six-dollar Coke and comfortably distanced from even the slightest whiff of danger or alarm. Munchin’ on that Buncha Crunch. I dunno. Maybe this is a phase, in which I’m not allowed to enjoy contemporary horror films with quite the same kind of . . . Wait, no. Scratch that. I watched Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien last Thursday night, and damn, that’s a movie, folks. Thirty-three years later, and the H. R. Giger creature is scarier than anything Hollywood has managed to dream up since. Honest. Like I said to my little brother on the way outta the theater, what audiences know—have known for decades—hasn’t quite reached filmmakers’ ears: It ain’t what you show that’s scary; it’s what you don’t show. It’s what the audience thinks it saw, what it imagined. Hence the phenomenal effectiveness, and deserved success, of a film like Alien. So please, enough with the gimmicks. To hell with the no-holds-barredanything-goes expansion of scope, realism, and so-called “artistic freedom.” Set some boundaries. As the film’s stoner-cum-hero says, you gotta draw a line in the sand somewhere. Keep a touch of harsh reality, just a dash of subtlety. Rules and mystery, silence and things left unsaid, leaving that curtain down . . . these things will keep the illusion alive. Richard Jenkins’s character? Well, he just won’t. Nor will the colossal meta-narrative technique of “The Director” and holograms and wagers with the boogeymen of other nations. And don’t even get me started on the imagery in the opening credits and constant bludgeoning of the audience with obvious one-liners and allusions that give away the big “surprise ending” as early on as the opening scene, for chrissakes. Sorry to rant, but I’m so tired of being disappointed by a genre that is so dear to my heart, that is so chock full of potential. I wish we could put the cliches and failed attempts at cleverness to rest in favor of originality, atmosphere, and believable, human characters. Trust me: Romero and Lovecraft won’t mind if we leave the zombies and elder gods behind in 65
favor of artistic invention. Theyâ€™ll thank us for not killing the genre.
Jingoism and the Culture of Fear A Look at the Politics of Star Trek Into Darkness
Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice now, and having very much enjoyed it, my aim is to avoid spoilers here whenever possible, for the sake of those readers who might intend to see the film but haven’t gotten around to it yet. That said, if you’re really worried about it, I’d say close your browser now and get to the nearest cinema. It’s a movie well worth your time (and money)—and is perhaps the best space opera film since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. It isn’t perfect, of course. There’s been a bit of backlash over the controversial racebending of one especially beloved Trek character. And Captain Kirk’s womanizing is in full force, despite the six or seven years that have elapsed since the last Abrams Star Trek picture. Damon Lindelof even issued an apology for the gratuitous, half-nude Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) scene. The film also features a few eye-rolling moments of scientific impossibility played out casually and without alarm or explanation. Not that you really expect a Star Trek movie to be free of such “artistic liberties,” you understand, but nevertheless they are noticeable. But what I took to be profoundly bold, and dealt with in a tasteful, mature manner, is the film’s commentary on post-9/11 jingoism and the culture of fear that has taken root in the West in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s presidency. There are two principal villains in the film: one alienated from his homeworld, whose motivations are at times hard to grasp; and one who holds high office in Starfleet, whose actions and authority make clear his warmongering agenda. I’d argue that Into Darkness’s plot is not deeply allegorical, but rather an intelligent exploration of our notions of good, evil, and the whole spectrum between—of our notions of deterministic destiny, choice, and justice. Back when the news hit of Osama bin Laden’s assassination by SEAL 67
Team Six, I recall feeling a deep sense of dissatisfaction. What had we gained? An alleged corpse. The great CIA story that became Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 zeitgeist film Zero Dark Thirty. Was it justice? I’m still unsure. At the time, I was taking a mandatory college course, called Reflections: Suffering, Evil, and Hope. When the professor asked for our gut reactions to the terrorist’s death, I was the minority opinion. The only one, in fact, who was not elated at the news of bin Laden’s death. Later that day, I said to my ethics and philosophy professor, Dr. C. Hannah Schell, “We’re bloodthirsty,” meaning we as a nation. As a Western way of life: Our culture of fear. Spock (Zachary Quinto) remarks to Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the Star Trek Into Darkness script: “While I harbor only the ultimate disdain and contempt for the individual known as John Harrison, and desire strongly that he receive the punishment due him, I must point out that there is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial—no matter how egregious his offenses.” (Kindle e-book edition, Simon & Schuster) In the final, filmed version of Quinto’s dialogue, Spock instead adds something to the effect of, “—a fact which you and Admiral Marcus seem to be forgetting.” It seems fairly evident that screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof saw the villainous John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) as an opportunity to explore not only the growing threat of domestic terrorism, but also the problems that arise from institutionalized revenge—thanks, perhaps, to the troubling politics at play in American foreign policy. When Kirk, Spock, and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura land via shuttlecraft on the barren, warlike planet of Kronos, it quickly becomes evident that the Klingon race is a stand-in for the political and cultural other. Most likely, given the subtext of more or less every quasi-political Hollywood film of the past decade, for the Middle East in particular. The irony at play in this action-heavy sequence is that Uhura warns of the Klingons’ capacity for torture and murderousness; then, after Harrison intervenes by opening fire upon them in the middle of her efforts at diplomacy, she proceeds to draw the blade of the Klingon warrior in front of her and stab him in the leg. 68
The Klingons as a group are discovered to be far less of a threat than the former Section 31 agent Harrison, despite Admiral Marcus’s earlier insistence that war with Kronos has become increasingly inevitable. Yet they’re the ones Kirk’s crew has been ordered to attack. In other words, Star Trek Into Darkness shows the manner by which we tend to place all blame for any grave injustice not upon entire nations, or specific political blunders, but instead upon a single human scapegoat, regardless of how dubious or vague the facts surrounding a particular conflict prove to be. Even if the war itself ultimately has little to do with the one declared responsible. We want quick gratification. A name and visage toward which to direct our collective hatred. But with tears streaming down his face, something truly haunting Harrison behind those chilly eyes of his, we can’t help but question the narrative at play. Question our justifications for even the most clear-cut of wars. There are those who assert, for instance, that the organization known as al-Qaeda is little more than a fiction of the English-speaking world’s media. Where that’s true or not is irrelevant: Either way, we need a humanistic, peacekeeping force like Starfleet—like the United Nations, like Amnesty International—to propagate the gifts of peaceful coexistence, understanding, and, most importantly, the idea of forgiveness. Abrams’s Into Darkness forces us to give pause, and reconsider the motivations at play behind militaristic campaigns and their xenophobic leaders—the “Masters of War,” as Dylan calls them. As Captain Kirk reflects in the film’s ending, to seek revenge upon wrongdoers is to risk losing our own sense of right and wrong. In Foster’s novelization, the captain goes on to say in his speech: “We are gathered here to pay our respects to fallen friends and family. We take solace in the knowledge that we honor those who lost their lives doing what they believed was right. And no matter what path they took, we hope that in death they can find forgiveness.” (Simon & Schuster) That is something I fear we may be hard-pressed to find in the Western world, even twelve long years after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. To forgive is such a foreign concept to us. And yet in a sense, sealing Harrison away in cryostasis is a sign that we’re somehow, as Kirk would put it, getting better—but as a nation whose deep-seated ideologies stem from the war crimes and bomb scares and genocides of the twentieth century? 69
Well, we still have so very far to go. I applaud the filmmakers and studio heads at Paramount and Bad Robot not only for being willing to admit this, that our collective kind hasnâ€™t quite learned to forgive and get along with one another, but also for having the fullness of vision to dedicate the movie and its bold message to those brave souls who have served among U.S. and NATO Coalition forces in the wake of that single, unforgettable morning that shook the innocence from our oncegreat nation forever.
Alone on the Moon Looking Back at Duncan Jones’s Directorial Debut
I’m sitting with a group of friends in the Seminary Street Pub, familiar faces here and there casting shadows upon near-forgotten memories, making plain the slippery nature of time and life. Red neon lights drench the dark paint of the walls. I watch my last beer swirl, dizzying, half-gone, inside a green glass bottle as I peel off the metallic label. . . . After we went to dinner, my fiancée suggested we skip out on Iron Man 3. There’s always tomorrow, she pointed out—and quite rightly. Hell. We can always watch Silver Linings Playbook at home. True, true. Days later, I’m still thinking about Duncan Jones’s Moon anyway. About the column I was supposed to write half a week ago. Loneliness fostered by distance and time and sheer solitude. One can only imagine how it must feel to live alone on the Moon. Sam Rockwell’s performance—performances?—may be the closest we’ll ever come to knowing for sure. Certainly I wouldn’t advocate for some lone maintenance man patrolling a lunar harvesting field, digging up barrels of helium-3 and firing them off toward home. How long before you’d break? Before you’d be willing to take your life’s work, and just overturn it all? Rockwell’s character, Sam Bell, represents the best in science fiction cinema. He’s a curious little man, childlike in both his ignorance and curiosity; he dares to challenge that which he finds suspicious or otherwise dissatisfactory. Through his stumbling about, watching his mirror image deteriorate before his very eyes and then seeking to unleash knowledge upon an unsuspecting, corporate-dominated world . . . we expect and demand great things of him. We feel the pain of his loss as he realizes that he’s lost his wife already, even before he was born—and as it dawns on him that he’ll only last for the three brief years it takes to fulfill his “contract.”
Such is the curse of the blue-collar man in todayâ€™s world. We are obliged to spend so much of our precious lives on the clock, toiling in the midst of some great machinery at once incomprehensible but also quite basic. Inching our overlords toward some fabled bottom line. But I think the gift of Jonesâ€™s quiet science fiction film may be the sense of hope, of justice, that is to be grasped from the larger tragedy of the working individualâ€™s life amid tedium. We have those rare opportunities to expose indiscretions, and to show the world what profit-obsessed institutions are capable of inflicting on human beings at the level of the underpaid, more-thanlikely desperate individual. How our jobs take us away from the ones we love and the moments we treasure, leaving us with little more than the fading memories of some idealized past, held in high regard but only ever glimpsed in the act of reflection: in some dusty old mirror, near-forgotten in the attic of the mind.
Iron Man 3 as Critique of TechnoDarwinism War Machines, Broken Toy Soldiers, and the Quest for Godhood
Iron Man Three surpasses its predecessor, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, in one very exciting and fundamental way: it feels more like an actual comic book than any single Marvel flick before it—hell, maybe more than any comic adaptation, period. It celebrates the humor and cool-gadgetry flair of the first two Iron Man flicks while simultaneously shoving billionaire “mechanic” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. in the role of his career) into his proverbial dark night of the soul. No small thing for a former military industrialist-turned-Avenger. Defying expectations at a number of cleverly scripted turns, the film proves to be the most intelligent in the series by a marked degree. Whereas in previous installments Stark remarked that he and the hot-rod red suit were a single heroic entity, Shane Black’s first entry in the series establishes that the man makes the suit, not the other way around. It does so by having Stark wear the suit, oddly enough, as rarely as possible. And the movie is no weaker for it. Honest. In fact, we grow to know Tony Stark’s visage as the true face of Iron Man; in Iron Man Three, anyone might be behind the mask. Or no one, even—the suits are now equipped with a Jarvis-integrated AI autopilot system that allows them to act independently of their maker, which makes for some nice Mission: Impossible-style, all-is-not-as-it-seems theatricality. Without getting too pretentious and philosophical, I’ll just say that the film asks important questions about the nature of humanity and our conception of a “soul,” shedding light (and in some cases, explosive heat) on the possible downsides to technological evolution and even transhumanism. But it’s not exactly clean-cut or heavy-handed about it; the very same mutagenic technology that gives the Mandarin and his minions 73
such wicked strength and resilience also saves the life of Stark’s beloved partner, Pepper Potts. A young boy living in rural Tennessee saves Tony’s life at one point. Pepper—and don’t go crying “spoiler,” because it’s in the freaking trailer— dons the Iron Man armor in another tense scene of mass destruction and saves Stark’s life with his own suit. The movie’s endgame features a grandiose spectacle of unmanned—iron men?—arriving to tip the tide of battle during a final showdown with the murderous Mandarin as he prepares to assassinate the president of the United States in downright savage fashion. And no, I ain’t talking about the paint job on Iron Patriot, renamed thusly because apparently “War Machine” was—ahem—a little too on-the-nose in its description of American foreign policy. Stark’s army of iron mirror-selves assists him in his battle against the film’s upstaging surprise villain, played perfectly and effortlessly, it seems, by a transformed Guy Pierce. Not transformed in terms of appearance so much as by the seductive nature of both technological progress’s promise of human perfection and its implications for an inevitable social reordering. A spurned admirer from Tony’s past, Pierce plays a scientist named Aldrich Killian who develops a viral mutagen known as Extremis: the next step toward humankind’s ascent to godhood, save for a few vital flaws—for instance, addictive properties and side-effects like causing the user to explode. The film succeeds so admirably on the grounds of its boldness, risktaking, and Downey’s voiceover narration, which serves to tie the experience together as a self-contained graphic novel-esque story arc within the larger context of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and its flagship achievement, The Avengers.
Oblivion Yet Another Heady, Action-Heavy Science Fiction Epic Falls Short of Its Ambitions
Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) is a love letter to every science fiction film you’ve already seen, and a pretty beautiful one, at that, but it nearly collapses under the weight of its own ambition. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable movie, filled with the kind of eye- and ear-candy you’d expect from the man who directed Tron: Legacy, and it convinces you to truly care about the characters and their various conflicts—even if it has you scratching your head occasionally, uncertain what you’ve just seen, and leaves one massive thread hanging loose in the end. Tom Cruise seems right at home on the set of yet another heady, actionfueled science fiction epic, playing the role of drone repairman Jack Harper. He lives in the raddest apartment on post-apocalyptic Earth, looking a bit like an aging GQ model, living and sleeping with a woman he doesn’t seem all that interested in, despite her apparent admiration for him; instead he dreams constantly of another lovely face, replaying the same prewar memory fragment over and over. We’re spoon-fed a bit of heavy exposition at the beginning of the flick, in typical Hollywood fashion, but it somehow feels more authentic, less hammer-to-the-head than even more successful examples, like Avatar, et cetera. Cruise’s voiceover works because, like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in Looper, he is an actor with the chops to really sell it. You come to believe in Kosinski’s worldbuilding, even if it looks too alien to accept—a real testament to Cruise’s abilities. Not to mention those of Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman in a role reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus (The Matrix), a stoic but likable Nikolaj CosterWaldau, an underused but competent Olga Kurylenko, and the incomparable Melissa Leo in a haunting turn as Harper’s mission controller. Her character lives aboard the mysterious Tet, a colossal tetrahedral orbital habitat we’re told houses a number of post-nuclear-war survivors awaiting final transport 75
to humanity’s new colony on Saturn’s moon Titan. Did I mention our Moon is gone? Yeah, she’s basically an oversized shaft of debris in the sky. It’s a lot more beautiful than it sounds. For reasons that aren’t immediately clear upon a first viewing, command (Leo) informs Victoria (Riseborough) and Harper that they’ll be transferred to the Tet in two weeks’ time, and then rerouted toward civilization on Titan. But—in keeping with the basic Hollywood SF formula—Things Begin to Go Horribly Wrong. Drones malfunction and misbehave; one of the Tet’s water-extraction stations explodes in a fiery nuclear blast; scavengers are afoot. The literal girl of Harper’s dreams falls from the sky, the last remaining crew member of a heretofore unmentioned NASA spaceship dubbed the Odyssey. The less you know going into the theater, or before popping in the inevitable Blu-ray, the better. Kosinski’s treatment of the material—his own original script, co-written with comics writer Arvid Nelson—from here on out is fairly deft, given what a laughable mess a less capable director might have made of things . . . but the plot does sag at times, and I would have preferred to be given more time for certain key information to sink in before moving on to the resultant, somewhat gratuitous action. Overall, it’s a satisfying moviegoing experience—the kind of thing that overreaches a bit, maybe, trying to do too much in too short a time span, with too little development of certain ideas. It also suffers from a couple glaring plot holes, barring a medical miracle. But you can’t help but admire the confidence and passion of the screenwriters, and the actors required to bring it all to life. While it may ultimately fall short of timeless-classic status, it’s an excellent collage of classic-SF film homages and ideas that might pave the way for more mature, far better works from Kosinski and Nelson at some point in the future.
Individualism, Atheism, and the Search for God in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road exemplifies both the acknowledgment of essential human goodness and the flaws inherent in the Emersonian individualism that has grown to define the American identity. In doing so, it achieves a successful, resonant portrayal of human life enduring—albeit not without hardship and great loss—in the face of a hypothetical global catastrophe that has irreversibly altered the state of our planet’s ecology. Nevertheless, McCarthy presents a somewhat false vision of human nature. Despite the merits of American individualism and the truth with which it endows McCarthy’s characters, the Christian moral framework presented in the novel fails to confront properly the rise of American pragmatist ideals in what appears to be the author’s effort to define an antagonist in society’s remnants that may not, in fact, exist at all. Because of his assertions that anyone else is dangerous, and that giving aid to others will only bring the principle characters harm, the father in the novel represents, at least in part, the failure of amoral thought to rebuild humankind through communal endeavor. What caused the end of the civilization goes unexplained, although various contrasting evidence is presented that might be used to support both biblical and scientific explanation, which need not be exclusive. The beginning describes “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (3). The grayness, the cold, and the motif of blindness recur throughout the work; the sun has been permanently obscured by whatever cataclysm, whether cosmic or geological, has blackened the earth with ash. Regardless of the cause, in which humanity itself may have played a role, the world McCarthy envisions is one of a dismal future, in which technology no longer seems to benefit the scattered human beings who still 77
survive. Instead, basic expedience and the allocation of resources necessary for survival drive the plot. Science fiction is a genre of hypothetical future scenarios, in which characters work to problem-solve, making use of whichever scientific fields or concepts are most appropriate, and find some sort of salvation from the ills of the imagined future. In The Road, we discover an Earth no longer hospitable to life, a world which has never existed previously but which is all too plausible, and a microcosmic struggle between the voices of morality and amorality; between pragmatism and individualism; between rationality and faith. Certainly this qualifies the novel as a work of science fiction, despite its reputation as one of mainstream literature, and the genres of speculative fiction have every reason to lay claim to what is arguably the most important novel of the previous decade. The narrator, whose concern is mostly with the viewpoint of the father —ostensibly the protagonist—describes “[t]he cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void” (11). Later, at the sight of a distant forest fire’s glow, the father observes that “[e]verything was alight. As if the lost sun were returning at last” (31), and notes that “[t]he color of it moved something in him long forgotten” (31). Clearly, then, the sun has become little more than a memory for the father and his son; what little light and warmth has kept them alive has come filtered through a veil of gray or from the constant kindling of campfires. In the novel’s beginning, the narrative supposes that any hope for the survival of the father and his son must come from each other, explaining that “they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire” (6). The titular road, then, serves as a symbol not only of the father and son’s progress but also that of humanity as a whole—particularly the ultimate question of whether our species is to survive a flood of breath-stifling ash, be it by Darwinian or moral means. It is the man and his son’s path toward what they hope will be their eventual salvation, and also, reasonably, the trials they’ll face along the way. These very trials are where the moral heart of the novel is illuminated. The biblical atmosphere McCarthy weaves with his vision of a desolate, post-apocalyptic America lends itself to the question of God’s role in humankind’s collective suffering. From the outset, the reader is offered the image of a world “[b]arren, silent, godless” (4)—with “[d]ust and ash everywhere” (7). Upon the reader’s initial introduction to the 78
viewpoint character’s sleeping son, the protagonist reflects, “If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (5). This effectively establishes the son’s most constant and vital role in the novel, which is that of moral authority. Yet later, when the boy is again sleeping, the man is shown to be ill, “crouched coughing . . . for a long time” (11), and even cursing God: “Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally, have you a soul?” (11–12). The father’s anger at his condition—what he fears might prove a fatal illness—and his fear toward the fate of his son is akin to that of many victims of suffering throughout the Bible—especially Job. That he should place the blame on God in the first place is an especially Jobian presumption; no doubt McCarthy was at least partially conscious of this as he drafted the novel. This is an old fallacy that permeates the minds of many religious Americans, and one that society at large would do well to expunge if pragmatism is ever to successfully hold sway over any facet of our society. Contemporary American intellectual Cornel West in his essay “The Crisis in Contemporary American Religion,” examines the pitfalls of modern religious culture in America. He notes that: American religious life . . . lacks a substantive social consciousness. This is so because, like so much of American life, it suffers from social amnesia. American religious people have little memory of or sense for collective struggle and communal combat. At the level of family and individuals, this memory and sense lingers. But at the level of larger social groups and institutions, this memory and sense of struggle evaporates. This social amnesia prevents systemic social analysis of power, wealth and influence in society from taking hold among most religious Americans. Instead, the tendency is to fall back on personalistic and individualistic explanations for poverty . . . and social catastrophe. (358) This seems to pinpoint precisely the basic flaw in the father’s anger toward God in the wake of a global catastrophe. Society refuses to acknowledge any fault of its own; simplicity and institutionalized justice come more readily in the form of blaming a single individual for more complex atrocities, in which we are perhaps a great deal more complicit than we would care to admit. In light of this, West advocates “a profound 79
sense of the tragic character of life and history that generates a strenuous mood, a call for heroic, courageous moral action always against the odds; and a biblically motivated focus on and concern for the wretched of the earth that keeps track of the historic and social causes for much . . . of their misery” (359). This is where the father in The Road commits several grave moral follies and is consequently distanced from his son, who then questions the righteousness of his father. The first such incident involves their discovery of a lightning strike victim. The narrative describes the wandering man as being “as burntlooking as the country, his clothing scorched and black. One of his eyes was burnt shut and his hair was but a nitty wig of ash upon his blackened skull” (McCarthy 49–50). At the sight of him, the boy asks, “Cant we help him? Papa?” (50), and the father replies, “No. We cant help him. There’s nothing to be done for him” (50). Shortly thereafter, the father elaborates further: “He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too” (52). West would undoubtedly take issue with this almost reflexive decision to ignore the injured man for the sake of their own survival. There’s nothing Christian and certainly nothing heroically Christian in merely dismissing the man’s life as a lost cause. Whether the man is ultimately doomed or not, the sort of individualistic selfishness that allows the father, so concerned with his assertion that he is good—because together he and his son are “carrying the fire” (83), to leave the man to die without any attempt to help him is not only un-Christianlike, but also a denial of civilized society’s role in bettering the lives of individuals. Slightly earlier in the novel, the boy observes “the dead roadside trees” (35), just as another starts to fall in the distance. The father comforts him with the notion that “It’s okay. . . . All the trees in the world are going to fall sooner or later. But not on us” (35). Why the arrogance and selfrighteousness? The novel seems to convey that this is simply because, as the father later argues, “We’re still the good guys. . . . We always will be” (77). The innocent, though, are of little to no concern to the father. Farther along on their journey down the road, long after the encounter with the man who had been struck by lightning, the boy glimpses “something move at the rear of the house across the road. A face . . . looking at him. A boy, about his age” (84). Without pause, the boy runs toward the house, and calls out, “Come back . . . I wont hurt you” (84), but his father seizes and scolds him (84–5). To illustrate his point that outsiders can present nothing more than 80
danger, the father asks, “Do you want to die? Is that what you want?” (85). Later, after he has had time to reflect—perhaps in anger—on the sight of the other boy, the son declares, “I’m afraid for that little boy. . . . We should go get him, Papa. We could get him and take him with us. . . . And I’d give that little boy half of my food” (86). To this, the father repeats his typical refrain: “We cant” (86). The scene ends, however, with the son getting in the final word: “What about the little boy?” (86). Our American tendency toward this kind of disregard for those outside one’s own family—indeed, for all of society—is a fault in our collective psyche that can be traced back to the radical individualism put forth by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his profound but decidedly damaging essay, “SelfReliance.” Emerson argues that “[v]irtues are . . . rather the exception than the rule. . . . Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily nonappearance on parade” (Emerson 180). He goes on to elaborate that “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” (181). History has shown the ills of this mentality, especially when coupled with the absurdities of outdated-yetlingering Puritan belief; it is a move toward reclusiveness at best, and the definition of sociopathic thought when taken to the opposite extreme. A thinker like West could never condone this sort of utter disregard for a fellow human being, where individuals hold little more than a superficial regard for the commonwealth of society; it goes against our popular modern conception of goodness and undermines even something as sacred to this nation as patriotism—and yet this mentality endures. The notion of nonconformity is counted among the most prevalent of American ideals and as a result is often exemplified throughout our culture to varying radical degrees. When at last the boy and his father encounter a true external threat, some means by which the father’s fears about outsiders following the collapse of civilization might come true, the father again commits a savage moral indecency—only this time the boy voices no objections, out of what seems to be simple fear. In an apparently vacant house, they find a padlocked hatch in the floor of the pantry, and the father speculates that they might find food beneath it. After prying it open with a spade, they descend to find “[c]oldness and damp. An ungodly stench. . . . An old mattress darkly stained. . . . [N]aked people, male and female, all trying to hide . . . a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt” 81
(McCarthy 110). The food cache the father had hoped to find turns out to be just that: a food store collected by human cannibals. In an individualistic, and perhaps Darwinistic, move, they flee—up the stairs, ignoring the cries of the captives for help, and outside into the yard, where they are spotted by “four bearded men and two women” (111). Once they have reached a safe distance (something McCarthy would not have been able to grant them, had they chosen a pragmatist’s course of action beneath the pantry stairs), the father presses their sole means of protection into the boy’s hand: a revolver with one round in the chamber. “If they find you you are going to have to do it” (113), the father explains, then repeats the basics of an implied prior instruction: “You put it in your mouth and point it up. . . . [Q]uick and hard. . . . Stop crying. Do you understand?” (113). Out in the context of society, an institutional world to be feared in Emerson’s morally desolate America, suicide becomes a suddenly valid course of action. However, in an earlier flashback scene, the father recalls the death of his wife, the boy’s mother, prior to the events of the novel. His wife finds no hope, no point in living in a dying world. “They will rape me” (56), she says. “They’ll rape him. They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen” (56). One might consider the possibility of postpartum depression as a contributing factor for her ultimate choice, but there is also a component of atheism in her argument. She explains that “my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart” (57). There is a seemingly offhand remark made on the part of the father that suggests his wife may have gone blind, at least metaphorically if not literally, following the birth of their son. “Where are you going to go?” (58) he asks, and then: “You cant even see” (58). This seems a telling point, given the scarcity of McCarthy’s mention of the mother, and moreover, that the boy and his father later cross paths with “[a]n old man, small and bent” (161), who turns out to be mostly blind. The boy manages to negotiate a single fireside meal for the man, despite his father’s reluctance (164–5). Later, in a lengthy dialogue, the old man claims, “There is no God. . . . There is no God and we are his prophets” (170). That the wife found no hope save for the nothingness she wished of death, and that the novel began with an image of “some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (3), seems no coincidence. If blindness is a motif symbolic of atheism, of which the mother’s death 82
and the blind, unbelieving old man seem thoroughly illustrative, then an overly simplistic Christian conception of morality begins to take shape near the novel’s end. If the world is cast in varying shades of darkness and gray, clad in “soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop” (4), then the father’s refrain to the son that together they’re “carrying the fire” (83) asserts a duality as timeless and dated as the concept of good and evil: There are those who carry and follow the light of God, and there are those who have gone blind; a fortunate few may hold the hope of salvation, while others are rightfully doomed to a fate of “eternal nothingness” (57). A third category, if one chooses to accept it as such, might include the few surviving human beings beyond the boy and his father: those who have resorted to the savage practice of cannibalism by force. This category is rendered devilish and inhuman for its somewhat Faustian manipulation of God’s natural order; they hold no moral status as their nature is never once questioned—they are simply evil. The American pragmatist Richard Rorty would have likely taken issue with this portrayal of atheism as inherently hopeless—that atheists themselves are immoral, like the suicidal mother. Similarly, the assumption that those who believe in God are inherently moral and upright would not hold up against his atheist pragmatism. In his essay “Religion as Conversation-Stopper,” Rorty argues that “When it comes to morals . . . , every textbook, Scripture, and teacher is offset by a competing textbook, Scripture, or teacher” (Rorty 173), criticizing the assumption that “believers’ moral convictions are somehow more deeply interwoven with their self-identity than those of atheists with theirs” (174). Indeed, Rorty would no doubt have criticized the widespread popularity of The Road for exactly this reason. Its conception of morality does not accurately describe the human experience; one simply cannot assume that religious life is equated with moral life. In the boy’s last conversations with his father before the man’s death, the boy asks, “Is it real? The fire?” (McCarthy 279), confronting his doubts about the inherent goodness that has so far been exclusive only to him and his father. “Yes it is” (278), the father says. “It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it” (279). The final dialogue between them is in regard to the little boy they saw in the window near the beginning of the novel. “Do you think he’s all right that little boy?” (280) the boy asks. The father replies, “I think he’s all right. . . . Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again” (281). 83
The story ends where it should, of course: with the ill father’s inevitable death. The troubling component to this plot arc is that it supports the argument, which seems unavoidable, that the father is in fact the novel’s true antagonist. Although he is presented as the viewpoint character and protagonist through his struggles with humankind’s relationship toward God and the internality of the narrative, the father also drives the real conflicts throughout the story. He presents a decision to either stop or continue down the road; the boy voices a moral argument and is denied. However, rather than realize the failure of his own radical individualism, the father asserts with his final breath that his son, like the young boy glimpsed in the window, is inherently good (281), and in doing so squelches any potential channel toward pragmatic moral discussion and community in favor of simplistic, ancient notions of childhood innocence and blind faith in God’s total control over the fate of humankind and its ever-changing world.
Works Cited Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin, 2003. McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin, 1999. West, Cornel. “The Crisis in Contemporary American Religion” (1993). In The Cornel West Reader. New York: Basic Civitas, 1999.
Metadrama and SF in Affleck’s Argo History as the Theater of the Absurd
I had given some thought to doing an Oscars recap this week, tallying the various gains and losses of the science fiction and fantasy fields within that most prestigious of movie awards ceremonies. But given the controversy surrounding the show’s perceived undercurrent of sexism and other ugly mentalities, primarily attributed to the show’s host, I decided to steer clear. Instead, I wanted to take a look at this year’s Best Picture winner, Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck. The film follows the declassified, mostly-true story of CIA operative Tony Mendez, who received the Intelligence Star when he rescued six American embassy workers from Tehran in 1980 by flying into the city under the pretense of filming a science-fantasy adventure film, called Argo in the movie, based on Roger Zelazny’s novel Lord of Light. Now, I’m no history scholar; I am not ashamed to admit that—having been born and raised in the nineties—I had never heard of the Iran Hostage Crisis prior to the release of this movie. And I can’t be the only member of my generation to admit it, which is why it’s so important that these kinds of stories are being told today. Some have criticized the film for taking artistic liberties with the facts, while others have praised Affleck for his undeniable directorial chops. I, for one, find great value in its postmodern perspective on metatheatricality as a tool for not only examining historical events, but also for shaping them. At the beautiful but chaotic start of Argo, we glimpse a period of civil unrest, in which the peoples of Iran are protesting against the militaristic American presence there, and likely also their government’s perversion of Western modernity, among other causes for discontent. It appears a violent, momentous time—but what does it all mean? What do the Iranian dissenters hope to achieve by forcibly taking fifty-two American diplomats hostage? We see Chris Terrio’s script, which also took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, gesture at answers to these kinds of questions; 85
most brilliantly, I’d argue, in the film’s opening narration, which utilizes colored storyboards drawn in the style of Jack Kirby’s original concept work for Lord of Light. But it is the film’s use of popular science fiction, and the real-life theatricality by which the CIA managed to infiltrate Tehran, that illuminate the power of storytelling as a means of understanding—and, in many cases, simplifying—the complex truths of human conflict. Mendez (Affleck) first begins to see the possibilities for his bold scheme when he visits his son, who is at home watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on television. He goes to makeup specialist John Chambers (John Goodman), who agrees to help with the operation. When Mendez asks him what he’s been working on, Chambers replies, “Monster movie. Target audience will hate it.” Mendez says, “Who’s the target audience?” And Chambers tells him, “People with eyes.” So begins the film’s outside assessment of what was, in 1980 and even well before then, the greater public’s regard for science fiction films. Aside from mega-hits like Star Wars in ’77 and the legendary Apes films before it, or Kubrick’s unsurpassable 2001: A Space Odyssey, SF in the realm of cinema had largely been ghettoized into infamy; a film like the fictional Argo would have existed on the same plane of art as Forbidden Planet, or the Godzilla flicks. One of the diplomats in hiding, upon seeing the Argo script for the first time at the Canadian embassy, remarks, “It’s the theater of the absurd.” And just before we’re shown droves of off-duty Cylons, C-3PO lookalikes, Chewbacca siblings, and a villainous, bearded lord who looks suspiciously like Flash Gordon’s nemesis Ming, Alan Arkin’s composite character, Lester Siegel, explains that a genre or art form is defined largely by whatever images outsiders choose to associate with it: “If it’s got horses in it,” he explains, “it’s a Western.” Terrio’s script, in other words, seems at first to have a low opinion of the science fiction field. Yet we watch as Affleck ingeniously interweaves scenes of turmoil and violence with would-be actors practicing their lines; juxtapositions of Iran’s magnificent architecture with the globalization of Western corporate enterprises, like Kentucky Fried Chicken; and glimpses of a dead man who 86
has been hanged from a crane on a public street corner, and of military transport trucks carrying armed mercenaries as Mendez rides into the city by taxicab. Amid what seems like total pandemonium, we are given a sense of order through the shared act of rehearsed dialogues, monologues, and black-andwhite, good-versus-evil exposition. This fictional drama keeps our heroes safe, to a degree, from the horrors of this-worldly conflict—not through escapism, as science fiction is often reputed to do, but rather through preparedness and the classic spy-thriller device of theatrical disguise. We move from an escalating hostage situation to the CIA declaring, “The United States government has just sanctioned your science fiction movie,” to Siegel (Arkin) lamenting the state of the nation: “John Wayne’s in the ground six months, this is what’s left of America.” Meanwhile, Mendez counters this memorable bit of commentary with the later counterargument that, “I think my story’s the only thing between you and a gun to your head.” Not speaking to Siegel, in this case, but the dialogue nevertheless exists in the film’s metadramatic subtext. One detail about the film that struck me as supremely important is when one of the characters, probably Arkin’s, explains the significance of the title Argo as being the name of the starship in the space opera film, the vessel that carries its heroes to their ultimate destination. Another character insists that it’s named after the ship of the same name in Greek mythology, which was adapted into Ray Harryhausen’s legendary visual-effects spectacular Jason and the Argonauts (’63), which is a close pop-cultural cousin to the kinds of films John Chambers was making in the seventies and eighties. For all its historical significance, which cannot be overstated, it’s hard not to view Argoas a treatise on the grand, mythic power of science-fiction storytelling—the kind of campy, adventure-heavy epics that dominated the big screen throughout the twentieth century, culminating with Lucas’s groundbreaking Star Wars in 1977. Films like the one Mendez claimed to be working on during the Iran Hostage Crisis reflected on the sins of the long century’s many wars before ushering in a new, if all too brief, era of innocence in America.
Nintendo’s 3DS XL The Innovative Handheld that Conquers with Nostalgia
We geeks love our gadgets. Can’t live without ‘em. Granted, I have a dumbphone and a laptop—neither a tablet nor smartphone to boast of. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather own a Galaxy S-III or MacBook Air or Microsoft Surface. But unfortunately, money is sometimes a concern. As someone who is both a young, introverted creative-type and working-class desk jockey, I like to seek a healthy balance between experiencing all the entertainment value and storytelling fun that I can manage, and not going broke in the process. So of course I’m judicious about which gaming console or system I buy, or whether or not a particular film is worth the extra coin to get the collector’s edition Blu-ray as opposed to the DVD. Call it a first-world problem. Nintendo caught my notice when they released the remastered, 3-D version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for their then-brand-new 3DS handheld system, two years ago. Now, I’d long ago jumped ship and fallen in with the Microsoft camp, due to the massive role Bungie’s Halo franchise played in my prolonged adolescence; not since the GameCube and its handful of temptations, like Luigi’s Mansion and Wind Waker, have I paid much attention to Mario and company. But the Nintendo 64, from middle childhood and into my early teens, had an immeasurable impact not only on my childhood but also on the gaming demographic worldwide. You can meet a complete stranger, share pleasantries and smalltalk, et cetera—but you mention Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 64, Star Fox, or Goldeneye? Hell, it’s like you’ve been best friends your whole lives. You understand one another, based solely on that shared virtual experience. Which is a large component of the Nintendo 3DS’s appeal, at least for 88
someone in my age group. It’s not a children’s toy—part of Nintendo’s lasting success comes from their ability to renew the same beloved characters and formulas again and again while also making their engineered experiences feel wholly new. And with the 3DS XL, they take that business strategy and hit one lightyears outside the park. The system features a five-inch primary screen with three adjustable positions, for maximum comfort; a large piece of sturdy, utilitarian hardware that manages to feel weightless in your hands; and a simple ninebutton control layout, with directional pad or “d-pad,” a sliding disc-shaped joystick, and an additional touchscreen-and-stylus combo that feels strikingly intuitive. The beauty of its design, however, is that they actually manage to make the 3-D gimmick work. Without need of specialized glasses or anything else obtrusive, the 3DS and its big brother the XL utilize glassless three-dimensional technology that looks stunning yet natural. Characters like Mario and environments like the Hyrule Field overworld are rendered in such a way that the added third dimension doesn’t distract from the gaming experience; instead, it’s just a means of giving greater depth and emphasis to key objects within the world of the game. And aside from great secondary features like a built-in camera, fourgigabyte replaceable SD card, and downloadable apps like Netflix (free) and various classic games from the Nintendo eShop (cheap), the 3DSspecific cartridges are the obvious heart of the device. My game library is small but somewhat diverse, at this point: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Fire Emblem: Awakening, Super Mario 3D Land, and Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I’ve got Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon pre-ordered through my local GameStop, as well. While Ocarina of Time has proven to be a potent gateway drug back into the Nintendo-verse, as I’d hoped it would, games like Fire Emblem: Awakening and Super Mario 3D Land showcase the system’s true gameplay potential. The marriage of simple, classic game mechanics like turn-based strategic combat modes and stellar, 3-D presentation highlights the untapped power of dedicated handheld consoles—despite the recent, gradual 89
takeover of iOS and Android apps in the mobile gaming arena.
Django Unchained A Brief Word
I thought Django Unchained was one of the ballsiest, most badass flicks I’ve seen in ages—significantly more mature, artful, and honest than Tarantino’s own Inglorious Basterds, I’d argue. Its unflinching portrayal of the abysmal acts committed against an entire race of people for centuries is beyond commendable in its pursuit of exposing the ugliness beneath America’s blood-soaked rug. Christoph Waltz is dazzling, sure, and Samuel L. Jackson is rightfully one of America’s most beloved performers . . . but in my mind, it’s Foxx who steals the show, hands down. His delivery of every line, every avenging gunshot, every angry glance marks him as a criminally underappreciated actor whose career includes roles like Max in Collateral, one of my all-time favorites by the incomparable Michael Mann, and a host of others, including his Academy Award-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in the aptly-titled Ray. Don’t let me get carried away with my naive, young, white-privilegehavin’ self; I’m not gonna pretend to know what this film means to an African-American in the twenty-first century. If it angers people of color, so be it. Slavery was this country’s greatest sin. But I have to say, I think Quentin Tarantino is a master storyteller with guts, craft, and a filmgoer’s eye like nobody’s business. Let them call the film historically inaccurate; let them call it overblown. Maybe there’s a touch of misogyny at play? Maybe. But nobody can rightfully call it a half-assed film without passion behind its angry message. Sure, maybe gunfights aren’t what this country needs to get to the answers, but if it catches people’s attention at the movie-theater doors, let Tarantino have his fun with the great American mythos at the heart of the Spaghetti Western. I think the real takeaway is clear: We’re all loving, passionate human beings with complicated pasts and aspirations for the future, and slavery was the antithesis of human existence. 91
It was a war against the unarmed. A coward’s mad scheme played out across history like a scar on the face of the world. So, let’s never forget it. If we’re gonna deal with vengeance, murder, and casual violence in our art until the end of time, as seems certain, we might as well couple that ugliness—the ugliness of the bloodthirsty present —with the crimes of our past. Ain’t no harm in education. If this film angers people, then Tarantino’s probably just pointing us in the right direction.
The Lost Vamps Bloodthirsty Flicks that Actually Don’t Suck
Vampire flicks have been all the rage since Twilight flooded the box office with sticky, coppery crimson in ’08, and have proven a solid moneymaking strategy ever since, with each of the saga’s four sequels averaging about three hundred million dollars per film, according to IMDb’s Box Office Mojo. But for some of us—and I don’t mean to suck a dead horse dry, here— the vampire genre represents so much more than just antiquated notions of traditional marriage and sparkling demon lovers. For the horror junkie, it’s hard to enjoy a vampire film without anything scary going on in it. So, based on the assumption that I’m not alone in feeling that a vampire movie ought to be frightening, subversive, and a tad allegorical, here are my top ten favorites from the last half-century or so. In no particular order: 10. Bordello of Blood (1996) This edgy, less than perfect exploitation flick is at turns scary, hilarious, sexy, and downright absurd—but it’s never boring. Not even for a moment. Some young men looking for love in all the wrong places find themselves at the mercy of prostitutes who turn out to be vampires. Erika Eleniak and Dennis Miller lend their talents to a mostly unremarkable cast. The ending’s a letdown, but don’t let that keep you from enjoying the rest of this campy classic. Oh, yeah—and Corey Feldman’s bad-boy performance is a nice nod to his role in another, far more brilliant vampire film. . . . 9. The Lost Boys (1987) Saw this one when I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old. Cable television in the ’90s was a gateway to all kinds of terrifying concepts my half-formed imagination wasn’t quite ready for. Seeing it again in my early twenties, far more interested in Jamie Gertz, the film’s true emotional center for reasons that may be too spoilerific to give away, this time around; 93
parsing the film’s homoerotic (and maybe slightly homophobic?) subtext for the first time; and coming to grasp the significance of drinking another man’s blood in an eighties film, at the height of the AIDS epidemic . . . it’s an experience worth treasuring. You’re sure to love it. And I’ll undoubtedly remember the line, “How’re those maggots?” for the rest of my life. (“Maggots, Michael. You’re eating maggots. How do they taste?”) 8. Let Me In (2010) This chilling treatise on both the problem of bullying and budding adolescent sexuality is a profoundly disturbing piece of filmmaking, and for that I’d call it an achievement. Like all great works of horror, it examines real-world problems through the lens of nightmarish fantasy; specifically, an inhuman monstrosity in the context of an already bleak worldview. For young Owen, a kind young girl appears the best possible sanctuary from the harshness of middle school—even if she subsists on human blood alone. 7. The Night Flier (1997) While not the best Stephen King horror adaptation out there—I’d say The Shining (’80), Carrie (’76), and The Mist (’07) have that title under contention—this HBO movie scores high enough on the scare factor, considering its low budget. Miguel Ferrer is truly mesmerizing as a tabloid reporter on the hunt for an airport serial killer whose reflection can’t be found in the mirror. If you’re looking to have a good, heart-thumping nightmare, this made-for-TV film’ll do the trick. 6. Once Bitten (1985) This vampire comedy finds a young Jim Carrey showing up at his high school’s Halloween dance looking pale and gaunt, having been seduced and transubstantiated at the hands of a lusty, immortal cougar. A bit campy, as comes with the territory, but as entertaining a film as you’re likely to stumble upon on cable television these days. Included more for its fun factor than its literary brilliance, admittedly. 5. Dark Shadows (2012) Johnny Depp breaks out his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor in this very Burtonesque flick by Tim Burton. While the film puts much of its energy into a messy romantic subplot or two, not to mention its heavyhanded reliance on nostalgia, its best moments are when it whips out the occasional horror element: the casual slaughter of innocents, the transformation of a young werewolf, the shattered porcelain visage of a 94
spurned, dying witch. . . . 4. Interview with the Vampire (1994) While Brad Pitt’s incomparable voiceover drives the narrative of this modern classic, I think it’s Tom Cruise and a young Kirsten Dunst who give the film its eerie atmosphere and pervasive sense of despair. Even as Louis (Pitt) bemoans the torment that comes with an unending life in a world of mortals, it is Cruise’s performance as Lestat that drives the point home. We see a madman in agony, burned to the ground by Louis and Claudia (Dunst) and then risen from the ashes—a beautiful monster made ugly. An imperfect film, sure, but an epic one worth your time. 3. I Am Legend (2007) Will Smith delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career in this dismal look at a post-apocalyptic urban America stalked by mindless, nocturnal vampires. It’s the kind of film that gets better with age, probably because of its “downer” ending, but serves as a celebration of human courage and triumph despite its depressing juxtaposition of happy memories from the protagonist’s past with a dark, hopeless present. Like Darabont’s The Mist (’07), I’d argue that its power and resonance comes from its ending, despite common consensus. 2. ’Salem’s Lot (1979) While the paperback’s been on my shelf for some time, this is one of the few early King novels I haven’t read yet—but the made-for-TV flick it spawned takes the ingenious premise of its source material and provides some of the most authentic scares I’ve ever experienced from a conventional vampire film. Don’t miss it. 1. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Anybody who enjoyed Robert Rodriguez’s jaw-dropping Planet Terror (’07) or Once Upon a Time in Mexico (’03) will discover that this film is the one they’ve been looking for their whole lives. Boasting an early script by Quentin Tarantino and set in a desert roadhouse called The Titty Twister, the story follows George Clooney and Tarantino as a pair of criminal brothers, who kidnap a family on their journey into Mexico, hoping to escape the law. The ruthless pair soon find themselves in the maw of a vampire stronghold built atop . . . well, I’ll let you see that one for yourself. From the opening credits to its stunning final frame, this is as fine a vampire film as horror aficionados are likely to encounter in this lifetime. 95
David Fincher’s Alien 3 A Contemporary Classic that Most People Hate, but from Which We May Well Learn Much About the Fragile Art of Storytelling
According to my extensive academic research over at Wikipedia this afternoon, the third installment in Fox’s Alien Quadrilogy (’Cause why use the word tetralogy, right? What a lousy word!) went through development hell for several years, and despite the criticism it’s received since from longtime fans and critics alike, it should’ve ended up a much worse film than we actually ended up with. It ain’t as good as Scott’s original classic, granted, or Cameron’s ’86 sequel Aliens—nor as good as Prometheus, which I happened to enjoy a great deal—but it’s sure as hell better than that money-grab atrocity dubbed Alien Resurrection. But I’m building up a modest library of Blu-ray films, including Alien and its first two sequels, and I couldn’t resist the chance to finally revisit David Fincher’s directorial debut, over ten years later. Now, for some reason, I’d gotten it into my young head long ago that Alien 3 wasn’t worth my time; that it was dismal and offensive and, well, trash. Like that friggin’ stinker Resurrection, I guess. But that really isn’t the case—it’s actually quite a decent film, when you overlook its status as a lackluster sequel to two of the most beloved science-fiction movies of the twentieth century. (Sidebar: This is a phenomenon I usually refer to as Raiders Syndrome: Even if Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom had been a masterpiece of cinema, far superior to the original, it still would’ve had its detractors, swearing up and down that it wasn’t as good as Raiders. There’s always somethin’ special about firsts.) It lacks the “science” element that you’d prefer to find in a film with a title like Alien 3, granted, but when viewed as a standalone horror film, it’s not all that bad. Really. It’s got most of the trademark Fincher-isms that we recognize from such great pictures as The Girl with the Dragon 96
Tattoo, Se7en, Zodiac, and Fight Club: moral ambiguity, (incredibly) flawed characters, visceral grit, existential atmosphere, and an unflinching gaze at the hostility that exists in our world (universe?), like it or not. Excellent cinematography, too, if one can forgive the lack of screen time allocated to the creature itself and the primitive CGI employed in bringing it to life. (Additional sidebar: Over ten years ago, the first time I saw the film, I watched the 1992 theatrical release on VHS. This time around, I opted for the studio’s 2003 special-edition “Assembly Cut” of the film, in stellar Bluray high definition. The extended cut does more than toss in additional footage to flesh out the inmate characters; it also harms certain key plot points from the original, such as the origin of the quadrupedal alien variant, and the chest-bursting scene that made the ending so dramatic the first goround. Watch ’em both, when you can, but go with Fincher’s 1992 cut the first time you watch the film.) Despite it being not-that-terrible, however, Alien 3 catches a lot of flak for being, well, less than great. In the scope of the first three installments of the franchise, yes, it’s a disappointment . . . but for anyone who’s seen Alien vs. Predator, AvP: Requiem, or Alien Resurrection, Alien 3 really ought to seem like a goddamn masterpiece. . . . So what exactly can we learn from it? Quite a bit, I’d argue. To wit: When you’ve got a successful series going over the course of decades, it’s tough to maintain relevance and originality after early, major successes. Oftentimes an idea is examined to the point that it ceases to be interesting, and eventually you start repeating yourself. Perhaps, as with the example of Scott’s Prometheus, it’s best to pack up your toolbox and go build something new, something bigger, rather than continuing to tinker with past successes. Audiences are hard to please as it is, let alone when they come into an experience with overly high expectations. Tone, mood, and intensity should waver slightly over the course of a single film, but not within the scope of a four-installment series—movies, films, games, comics, whatever—unless there’s good reason to do so. You’ve gotta give us a glimmer of hope somewhere in all that unrelenting despair.
Having every character but your protagonist be a rapist-murderer, with whom the audience is supposed to sympathize, is risky as hell. Fincher can pull it off, I think . . . but after a film like Aliens, where Cameron established a clear divide between who and what is good and who the bad guys are—corporate slime-balls and aliens on one side, marines and civilians on the other—it’s hard to pull off a spectrum of gray, gray, gray. Also, I can’t understate the importance of keeping primary characters— good, heroic characters as well as innocent children—alive unless the story absolutely demands that they be killed. I’m not spouting dogma here, but as novelist Alan Dean Foster opined of the film, the deaths of Corporal Hicks and Newt are obscene. Neither character deserved to die; both fought valiantly to survive the preceding film; and audiences loved them. In Fincher’s world, as with our world, even the innocent are occasionally made to suffer. But in art, it’s also necessary to be aware from a creative standpoint what kind of reaction a character’s death will elicit from the audience. In other words: Don’t kill everybody’s favorite character, unless you want to piss off your audience—or to try and make a profound point through martyrdom, which is rarely done well on the big screen. And please, for the love of all things sacred and Giger-esque, don’t have an onscreen autopsy performed on a ten-year-old girl in your film, bloody bone saws, exposed chest cavity, and all. Jeezus, that’s just gross.
The Fire Must Be Kept Burning An Appreciation of Scott’s Prometheus
Last Saturday, I spent my morning on the couch with a debilitating migraine, wondering what karmic injustice I’d committed in order to deserve being so miserable on my weekend off. But like the glass-half-full seeker of silver linings that I am, I whipped out the Prometheus 4-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray I’d gotten as a gift this past Christmas, and set to work watching . . . well, all of the included special features. Something like seven hours’ worth of making-of documentaries, featurettes, and commentaries. I’m left feeling—even after a week’s worth of reflection—that those hours were not, in fact, ill-spent. Even after almost a year since the film’s theatrical release, I can’t help but maintain that Ridley Scott’s sciencefictional reprise is, if flawed, also criminally underappreciated. For my money, science fiction is little more than fantasy with an eye toward the future. That’s why it’s so tremendously important in our culture, despite the various stigmas that still cling to its otherworldly exterior: it’s a myth for tomorrow. Quite often the difference between so-called “soft” and “hard” science fiction seems to be the difference between who’s willing to admit they’re faking it and who’s not. That’s not to say there’s no value in scientific rigor within the literature of science fiction—just that the air of intellectual elitism on the part of certain hard SF advocates is a tad misplaced in its priorities, I’d argue. In the realm of fantasy, set pieces like magic spells and secondaryworld kingdoms, hobgoblins and dragons, are utterly taken for granted. The standard by which a fantasy novel’s judged is not the scope of known scientific fact but rather the degree to which the author crafts a sense of verisimilitude; it’s about not breaking the story’s individual “rules,” and just generally smoothing out the edges. But what makes Prometheus worth a second look, in my opinion, is the 99
way it comes together as a cohesive thematic and aesthetic whole after repeated viewings, and especially after you’ve seen the amount of work that went into crafting the audiovisual experience of the film’s faraway world. Sure, the script is shaky. The characters aren’t particularly believable a good deal of the time; Scott made a handful of decidedly bad calls in the editing room, like keeping Fifield’s transformation subtle rather than superscary and cutting down on the final confrontation with the surviving Engineer; and the “purpose” behind much of the alien biology throughout the film has been diluted, likely as a result of Fox having too many hands in the pot: Jon Spaihts, Damon Lindelof . . . not to mention Scott’s own colossal ego. According to what we’re shown in the pre-production and storytelling portions of the special features, the film began life as a straight-up prequel titled Alien: Genesis, which Spaihts wrote with a handful of broad suggestions from Scott. From this, the idea of the Space Jockey as the seeders of sentient life on Earth—even the specific term “Engineers”— emerged as a dominant plot concern for the film. For practical reasons as well as philosophic ones, apparently, the Space Jockey was given an all-too-human face beneath its alien exoskeleton. And as a result, we’re led to question the motivations and history behind the biological weaponry that wreaks such unholy havoc on the crew of the Prometheus. So of course there’s an element of disappointment, of being ultimately underwhelmed, in pretty much every review of the film you read. People want to understand everything; it’s why we have the literature of SF. That’s why Stanley Kubrick’s monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey, while considered by many to be the greatest science-fiction motion picture of all time, still feels inferior alongside its companion novelization by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke, who offers more explicit gestures toward the monoliths’ intended purpose, as well as painting a very striking portrait of their alien creators in the space of a few paragraphs. If we’re being far-sighted in our assessment, however, it’s worth noting that Blade Runner was upon in its initial release a massive financial flop, earning at the box office merely half its budget; and yet Scott reputedly regards the film as his most personal, most artful achievement—especially if we’re narrowing the sample to only his science fiction pictures. And its popularity as both a cult classic and filmmaking achievement continues to 100
grow with every passing decade. Scott mentions in the Blu-ray commentary that he intends to direct a sequel, which news and fan sites have referred to as Paradise (one of the post-Alien: Genesis working titles for Prometheus, if I recall correctly). This leads me to another key point: Without the context of a larger implied universe, without a sequel or two to bring closure about the Engineers’ true goals and beliefs, Prometheus will always feel like a promise unfulfilled. Imagine, for a moment, if George Lucas’s 1977 version of Star Wars had earned little money in its first theatrical run. Would Darth Vader be the chilling, mythic character we see him as today if he hadn’t shone so brightly at the undeniable height of his complexity in The Empire Strikes Back? And furthermore, would the first Star Wars film feel like such a “classic” without the benefit of retrospect and its implications for the later, arguably more interesting installments in the trilogy? I’m not so sure. Take the so-called “Special Edition” scene in Scott’s Alien (’79), for instance: We glimpse the goopy, horrific hive-making habits of the Xenomorph on display with Captain Dallas strung up, helpless and begging for a merciful death courtesy of Lieutenant Ripley’s flamethrower—but this scene is unnecessary and meaningless without the larger context provided by Cameron’s highly competent sequel, Aliens (’86). Blade Runner got away without the sequel treatment for so many years, sure, but that’s because it feels so utterly complete. The ending— Scott’s Director’s Cut ending, in particular—is poignant, puzzling, and appropriate. The script ignored elements of Dick’s novel, like Mercerism, World War Terminus, and the titular electric sheep . . . so we’re left with a film that fulfills every inch of its promise, and reveals something poetic and unexpected each time we revisit it. It’s a compelling visual story, for one, but it’s also thematically timeless. Don’t you think Prometheus will be a hell of a lot better once some of these quibbles get explained? A director’s cut release is all but inevitable. It would have been nice, I think, to see a younger Guy Pierce living out his wildest fantasies at age ninety-six, granted eternal youth through the interplay between cryonics and Scott’s notion of “cyber-sleep,” which didn’t ultimately make it into the film. It would have been perhaps more satisfying to know the purpose of the Engineers’ light-years-spanning biochemical warfare campaign, and the role Earth was to play in all of that mess. . . . 101
Still. The original Alien, for all its dramatic brilliance and classic atmosphere, got away with its fair share of hand-waving. Blade Runner went underrated for years. Given enough time, I foresee that Prometheus will stand alongside some of the great works of SF cinema as a troubling but artful achievement in the realm of cosmic nightmares.
Kubrick’s 2001 Vis-à-vis Clarke’s 2001 Space Odysseys, Silent Simulacrums, and the Advent of Posthuman Intelligence
Almost four years ago, from the time of this writing, I read a book that changed my life: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: Space Odyssey. Up until that point, I’d read a handful of SF classics, like Dune, The War of the Worlds, and so forth—but mostly I was a reader of, well . . . arguably lesser books. Things like Star Wars tie-ins (more than I can count, but most of them entirely forgettable), ho-hum film novelizations, and what have you. I also read a lot of mid- to late-career Stephen King, like The Green Mile, Different Seasons, et cetera. No criticism there; I still read and love King shamelessly. He’s a master of the craft, whom growing storytellers should study with earnest. And, of course, there was that sparse, strange, holy-shit-this-is-fucking-awesome book called Fight Club. Ahem. But my freshman year of community college, long before I transferred to my present alma mater in my hometown of Monmouth, Illinois, I was assigned a Composition II paper in which I was to examine a novel of my choosing, from a list provided by the professor. There was one science fiction novel on the list, so I went with that one. Clarke’s 2001 is nothing short of a treasure. It doesn’t get quite the level of acclaim that Rama or Childhood’s End gets, but I think it’s a damn fine read. The kind of book you never forget, and to which you always sort of aspire. As long as I’m alive, writing science fiction and pushing myself to get better at it, I think 2001 will be the book whose level of wonder, stimulation, and adventure I inevitably compare my work to. That’s not to say that there aren’t better-written, or more interesting books, but simply that the impression of that first transformative read will be hard to beat. It’s like the maybe-arguable-fact that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report are better films from a technical 103
standpoint than The Empire Strikes Back and Ridley Scott’s Alien: Though it may be true, or have at least partial merit, my early experiences at the ages of seven (Empire) and, I think, eight years old (Alien) will remain forever crystallized as defining moments in my upbringing. Which is why, perhaps unfairly, it’s always been hard for me to consider the possibility that Kubrick’s 2001 is even worth my time. I almost universally prefer original books to their film adaptations—Fincher’s brilliant but inferior Fight Club adaptation among them, admittedly—and so with a book like Clarke’s beloved novel, I thought that disappointment with the film was guaranteed. (Final sidebar: I wrote this particular essay in 2012, making it the oldest chapter in the book. In the two years since I’ve come to suspect that Kubrick’s film—and Fincher’s Fight Club—are at least as good as their source material. Let this be a reminder to the reader that it’s okay to change your mind about things. The world would be a much better place if everyone realized this.) Recently, though, I read a Facebook discussion led by author Robert J. Sawyer, who argues that the differences between the film and the novel are sufficient to view them as two entirely separate works, each with its own set of thematic concerns and moral subtext. More specifically, he views the Kubrick film as dealing with the evolution of humankind from its present, organic state to the level of artificial intelligence—therefore concluding that HAL-9000, or “Hal,” is the most important component of the mission. This deviates significantly from the novel, I think, which seems to concern itself more so with the evolution of humankind from the level of sapience to, well, omnipotence. A level of intellect and influence unknowable, and incomprehensible, to the reader. (I watched the film 2010 several years after reading Clarke’s 2001, but have never read the three sequel novels. Perhaps Bowman’s transformation is explained differently than in the two film adaptations; I can’t say whether it is or not.) Anyway, I finally took the time to watch the Kubrick film from start to finish—this morning, in fact—and found it enormously awesome. A stunning, enthralling work of cinema, with at least two or three killer scenes: the arrival of Heywood Floyd and the discovery of the lunar monolith; Hal’s death sequence, which I thought had some chilling dialogue; and certainly the haunting, almost silent simulacrum in which Bowman becomes the enigmatic Star-Child. It was solid enough to stand on 104
its own, but ambiguous enough to demand that after four years of literary infidelity, I finally make a return to the fiction of Clarke, to whom I owe my appreciation of the genre as I know it today.
The Safest Place There Is Revisiting Spielberg’s Minority Report
“The safest place there is. . . .” It’s a dubious, quizzical line, delivered by Lois Smith near the end of her one unforgettable scene as the self-proclaimed mother of Precrime. Dubious because we’re talking about the reliability of the human mind; quizzical because it’s a Philip K. Dick adaptation. But it’s a line, I’d argue, which perfectly describes the experience of revisiting one’s most treasured big-screen story, especially in Blu-ray high definition. Forgive my sentimentality, but it always feels a bit like coming home. Let’s talk a bit about my all-time, personal favorite film: Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). When I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I got my hands on the home DVD release of the second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones—and I became obsessed utterly with the notion that I might have a future as a storyteller. Lucas’s six-film epic has throughout my life, again and again, shown me the beauty of grand, mythic worlds and the heroic beings who populate them. Spielberg’s Minority Report hit me unexpectedly a few months later. I’d missed the film’s theatrical run, having wanted to see it but having neither a car nor driver’s license to get me there. So I used what money I could scrounge together, from mowing lawns and so forth, to buy the DVD. Which suited me perfectly, since I belong to that rare breed of cinephile who is often content to watch and rewatch the same ten-odd films over and over, studying my favorites in hopes of gleaning some unseen meaning I’d missed earlier—finding new cinematic moments to admire, or new, unanswered questions to ponder. The newfound convenience of the disc format allowed me to rewind more easily and better examine the story, and that led me to pen my first-ever review, which appeared in my middle school’s student newspaper. I’d love to track down a copy. Minority Report is one of those movies you can’t help but be impressed by the first time you see it. And, as evidenced by the live-tweeting I did 106
during my most recent viewing of the picture on Blu-ray (storify.com/alexjkane/livetweeting-spielberg-s-minority-report), it holds up to the test of time like few science-fiction action flicks are capable of. Its ideas feel fresh despite the age of its Philip K. Dick-penned source material (“The Minority Report,” first published in Fantastic Universe, 1956); the fictional technology presented throughout the film, with the single obvious exception of psychic phenomena, feels wholly real in a near-future context; and the philosophical concerns at the heart of its script are so vital and complex as to be truly timeless. The film fits Tom Cruise like a tailored suit, in no small part due to the tightness of the script and its Dickian, awe-inspiring implications for the future of law enforcement. In Chief John Anderton we find a haunted man driven constantly by his tragic past even as the legal system he serves propels him toward a single confrontation, with a man he’s never met. Am I getting ahead of myself? That’s always the problem with precognition; with focusing too much on the future, rather than the present. The metaphysical, very Dickian hypothetical at the story’s center is that of the Precrime experiment, in which three brain-damaged oracles, born of the underground drug culture, suffer from nightmarish dreams of the future related to murder. Using these Precogs and their capability to predict future murders, law enforcement officers hunt and capture homicide perpetrators before the crime can take place, often—in trademark Spielberg style—with just seconds to spare. So naturally the District of Columbia Precrime Division’s Police Chief, John Anderton (Cruise), is eventually declared the perp of a “brown-ball” (premeditated) crime, and forced to investigate the possibility that the “perfect system” he has fought for so passionately is, ultimately, fallible. “But there’s a flaw,” Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) tells Anderton. “It’s human. It always is.” And the highly kinetic, emotional ride Spielberg takes us on from that point forward is invariably fun, horrifying, and at turns profound in its scrutiny of guilt and innocence as distinct polarities, teasing out the problems of predetermination in a quantum universe with infinite possible outcomes—but only one we can actually observe for ourselves. Granted, the film is not without its own share of flaws. Spielberg and his casting director seem to have missed the irony of the 107
title completely, since they give screen time to only two or three minorities, by my count—only one of whom can even be called a “supporting role,” at best, which is something of a stretch. And let’s not fail to mention the sleek, mechanical spyders, invasive and utterly without the discretion needed for such technology to function in a believable near-future setting. As I mentioned during my live-tweeting of the film, they owe a great debt to The Matrix, and are made quaint by the likelihood that surveillance technology in 2054 will likely rely on lifelike insectoid drones, or flying bird cams. When the Orwellian eyes of the not-too-distant future begin to hunt, it’s likely their criminal prey won’t even notice them.
About the Author
Alex Kane lives in west-central Illinois, where he works as a freelancer, plays too many first-person shooters, and blogs about culture and technology in his spare time. A graduate of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop, his stories have appeared in Omni, Spark, Digital Science Fiction, and the YA anthology Futuredaze, among other places. His reviews and criticism have also been published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Bookgasm, and SF Signal. Follow him on Twitter @alexjkane.