Month: May 2014

Bad Men Doing Bad Things: How Fargo’s Molly Solverson is the Anti-Walter White

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Mike Hannemann

(Note: This article, outside of character names, contains no spoilers for the show Fargo. There’s a minor one about Dexter, but you probably weren’t going to watch that anyway.)

Before I jump into the point I want to make, I’d like to walk you through my thought process of getting there. I sat down to watch the series finale of Dexter, hoping to find some angle to discuss about jumping into a series-ending episode after not watching the three seasons prior. About halfway through, it dawned on me that the end-game scenario most fans were rooting for was for two serial killers to get out of the country. These people literally hacked their victims into bits and the audience was rooting for them to escape? Something’s wrong here.

It’s not news that television audiences are enamored with the genre “Bad Men Doing Bad Things.” We have Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad…the list goes on and on. What makes these stories work is that, despite their reprehensible actions, the actors portraying the leading men bring enough to the roles where it doesn’t feel wrong to root for Don Draper as he cheats on (another) wife or to hope that Walter White becomes the drug kingpin he aspires to be. For as perfect as those shows are (I’m not including you on this list, you know what you did, Dexter) they have one glaring flaw: For the most part, the female roles are pushed aside due to the intrigue of the Bad Man Doing Bad Things.

Take Breaking Bad for example. I fully admit that it’s my favorite show of all time. However, the fan base was furious at the lead female character because she…wanted a drug dealer away from her kids? The only imperfection on this show was its fans. How could you honestly judge someone for wanting to be out of a bad situation? All of her actions were natural, ones any normal person would have, but because she was in the way of the hook of the show the fan outcry was overly negative and completely unjustified.

But…then there’s Fargo, a show very loosely tied to the movie of the same name, but it also falls into the aforementioned genre. There are some very bad men and they are doing some very bad things. It could easily be another show where the performance of the leading villain (in this case, Billy Bob Thornton’s character Malvo) is the hook. Seeing the next step of his plan, and the gruesome trail of death that lies in his wake, is gripping. It’s addictive. It isn’t why I come back to it week after week, though.

Fargo breaks the mold by finally introducing a strong female character that overcomes the appeal of the bad man doing bad things. Allison Tolman (a name I’d never heard before) plays Molly Solverson, one of the only characters thus far to be the moral compass of the show. When I watch, I don’t care what the villains are up to. I want to know more about Molly’s story. I want her to win. She’s a wonderfully written, fully realized character. She overcomes the hook of the show, the black comedy and murder, as a shining beacon of justice and morality.

I sincerely hope television writers take notice. The female role doesn’t need to be the put-upon wife or just used as a plot device to make the protagonist’s story more complicated. Molly surely does this on Fargo but it’s not done in a way to make the villains have to change their plans. Her story is the more important one. You sympathize with her more than whatever the stereotypical “cool” characters are doing (and, granted, they do some pretty interesting things in their own right). She’s a roadblock, and damn right she is.

This isn’t to say other female characters on television aren’t well written – that’s not the implication. There are amazing performances, but in the eyes of the masses they get overlooked. Don Draper is a household name (even my parents know who he is), even though I would argue that Peggy Olsen should be, too. I hope this is finally turning the corner on televised dramas. Bad men will still be doing bad things, but more empowered women will be a part of the story and not just a plot device to be overlooked by the immorality if the leading man. In comedy, the male performances often unjustly overshadow the female ones. Sitcom characters Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope were able to overcome this and change TV comedy. If people pay enough attention, I have a feeling Molly Solverson is going to do the same for drama.

Something, I may add, that is long overdue.

Image: Philly.com

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Gravity is a space film. It is also the winningest movie of the 86th Academy Awards, bringing home seven Oscars. It deserves every single one. It took me half a year to actually watch this, which is strange considering how I prioritize my media consumption mostly by putting anything that involves spaceships on the top of the pile. What I watched when I finally got around to it was a sparse, tightly-woven film about what happens when something minor goes wrong in an extremely hostile environment. Gravity is devastating in its simplicity. After a fairly brief intro period, there is only one character, and her only enemy is the title of the movie – the force of gravitation.

Gravity’s great! It keeps you from flying off the face of the Earth! Wonderful! However, if you are in orbit, your relationship to gravity becomes markedly less benevolent. Orbit amounts to controlled freefall. In orbit, you are falling at an exact velocity and an exact trajectory that maintains you or your craft in a circle around the planet. At the end of the day, you are still just falling, so if anything at all goes wrong, your orbit will turn into a more everyday type of fall, and you will catch fire and burn to death in the mesosphere. In addition to the falling problem, Earth’s gravity keeps an impressive amount of space debris in a cloud around the planet (19,000 discrete pieces over two inches). It’s fine if it’s just sitting there, but if it or you is moving fast, there is a significant collision danger. The International Space Station orbits at around 17,000 mph. Imagine getting hit in the face with a professionally-thrown baseball (90 mph). Now imagine one or many baseball-sized things hitting your orbital craft at 200 times that speed. This is basically what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Gravity.

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Each white dot is something that could kill you

The initial destruction caused by space debris leaves Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) completely alone in space, desperate to find a way back home. Well, a survivable way back home. If she lowered her standards, she could get home by simply pushing off in the general direction of Earth. In addition to the general destruction of devices and networks meant to keep humans alive in low Earth orbit, communications satellites are also down, which means Stone is alone not only physically but psychologically. With absolutely no communication with Houston and the nearest human being about 200-300 miles straight down, Bullock’s character becomes the most isolated individual in human history. This isolation and Stone’s lopsided struggle with a hostile and decaying environment combine to make one of the cleanest, most perfect pieces of suspense fiction of the past few years.

With only one main character bouncing around in a terrifying situation she neither asked nor prepared for, all the the viewer’s chips are in one pot, so to speak. In Aliens, everyone around Ripley just dies and dies and dies, and that only serves to ramp up the tension for Ripley’s own survival. In Gravity, you only get one, and if you break it, that’s it. From almost the beginning of the conflict, this dynamic forces a stronger level of investment in the character and results in a higher level of terror. The total focus on one character also allows the deep exploration of that character’s psyche – she talks to herself because there is no one else to talk to, and she talks about her daughter, her life, her hopes, and her fears. Following her on her journey from space installation to space installation in her desperate quest to survive is one of the most enjoyable narrative achievements of the past year.

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Probably the best-done female character in all of science fiction

Gravity is billed as a science fiction film, and an interesting question is why? There is no futuristic technology, no aliens, no psychic powers or mutation. This film uses no technology that does not exist, so why is it science fiction? SF is about more than the future, time travel, and warp drives. It is about technology, the changes engendered by it, and the relationship of humanity to it. One of the best science fiction novels out there, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, has at its core cryptography and information science. The science fictional aspects of the book focus on a well-developed technology that has existed since time. It specifically explored its use and misuse in WWII and the 1990s. As the pace of change and technological development increases, science fiction becomes more and more just normal fiction. It is not the milieu into which we project our imaginations, but the milieu in which we live. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the life the grandfather led was the life the father led was the life the son led. My grandfather started a family when color television was a pretty swell new thing, my father started a family when personal computers could process text, process numbers, and play Snake, and now I’m living in a world where this single machine on which I am typing gives me access to more information than I could process in my entire life, videophones are a reality (FaceTime and Skype), people walk around with mobile computers in their pocket more powerful than the NASA computer that sent men to the Moon, medical professionals can literally print human organs, and human beings temporarily live in space. We cannot escape from SF as the basis of many of our stories because the future arrived yesterday, and continues arriving yesterday every time the sun rises. It is simple to build an entire narrative from the basic theories and problems of space habitation as they exist now.

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Pictured: the OS mission control used during the Apollo 11 flight

Cuarón built Gravity on the theory of gravitation (sure) and the problem of the Kessler syndrome. I’ve already discussed the problem of orbit as a controlled fall, but the Kessler syndrome is a very real concern of space agencies today. Basically, there’s so much crap floating around above us that one little explosion or impact could cause an ablation cascade, wherein the fallout from one event then collides with and destroys other objects, the fallout from which then collides with and destroys more objects, on and on until everything upstairs is well and truly fucked. NASA’s main concern with this possibility is that it could take out many of our satellites and render space unusable for generations, but in Gravity, this ablation cascade directly threatens the main character’s life. Bonus: due to gravity, she gets to deal with 17000 mph debris circling around the Earth and returning for another hit every 90 minutes! The danger, isolation, and unknowability of space come to the fore in this film. Terror in the face of the unknown or in the face of forces much larger than we could control or comprehend is a main theme of SF. Gravity shows us that we do not need to go to Alpha Centauri to find those forces – one of them exists right here, keeping our feet firmly glued to the ground.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Thing You’ve Paid More than $50 For?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst thing you’ve paid more than $50 for?

Rules are simple: What do you regret blowing half a c-note on? We all spend money on things we regret, but when did you really mess up? Did you get into an eBay war and lose sight of just how important collectable glassware is? Did you buy a plane ticket to somewhere you didn’t even want to go? Did you go to grad school, like, at all?

Alex Russell

Every year I go to Vegas with a few friends. We go in March, both because Chicago is miserable in March and because March Madness in Vegas is always full of degenerates, but mostly your happier, saner degenerates. A regret story about Vegas is nothing new, but it’s hard to pin down a “bad beat” any easier than this one. We were early for a dinner reservation, because your life in Vegas revolves around when you’re supposed to be where for what, and there was a roulette table right outside the restaurant. Vegas wants you to play, of course, but they want you to play impulsively. The $100 bet on black because I was hungry and frustrated was straight out of an anti-gambling PSA, and even though I know in my heart that Vegas is smarter than me… it’s rarely that damn obvious.

Alex Marino

Remember netbooks? It was that awkward time between laptops getting smaller and the iPad’s debut. People swore that netbooks were going to be the next big thing. I bought it because I wanted something for taking notes on in graduate school. I only installed what was absolutely essential for school stuff to keep it running fast. Well, it wasn’t fast. It sucked. And now I have a $200 dinosaur collecting dust in my closet.

Mike Hannemann

When you go to Epcot, sometimes you will want a drink. When you want a drink at Epcot, you’ll notice each country the park is divided into has a beer from that country. When you figure this out, you will want to go on a beer crawl of every country. When you do this, you will drink nine beers with high alcohol content. When you complete the beer crawl you will go to the Japan portion of the park and buy a $75 backpack that is a Goomba from Super Mario. When you do this, your parents will think you need to go back to therapy.

Andrew Findlay

I bought a pair of Mephisto shoes for 150 dollars. I was in Europe with a group for my friend’s wedding, and after they went off on their honeymoon we went to Paris. I had a pair of old, ratty tennis shoes, and I was ironically worried about them causing foot pain from the miles and miles I would walk there. My solution was to go to a shoe store and buy those damned Mephistos, which are like the Cadillac of supportive shoes. Seriously, podiatrist-recommended. They felt great for the first day and a half, and then I started experiencing sharp pains in the balls of both feet. One day in particular, waiting in line to go up the Eiffel Tower, the standing for more than an hour really did a number on me. Once we got up there, I immediately sprinted to the nearest bench and sat down without informing my friends of what I was doing. Because there are a shit-ton of people at the Eiffel Tower and because I’m an idiot, I did not see them again until we all made it back to where we were sleeping. I spent the rest of the vacation limping around, complaining about my feet, and being generally annoying to my companions. To this day, the balls of my feet still cause me pain, ranging from slight to significant depending on the day. I’ve bought a lot of crap I regret, but these motherfuckers ruined my vacation and gave me a lasting injury, and I paid out 150 dollars for the privilege. Clear winner.

Brent Hopkins

Fifty dollars was much harder for me to figure out than I would care to admit. I am a fan of saving money and spending it on big purchases, so I rarely have things that I am just disappointed in. There was something recent that didn’t sit well with me, and that was a motel I stayed at when my sister came to visit. Now, this motel was 38 dollars per night and we stayed two nights, so it amounted to over 50 in total, but I would have rather roamed like a vagabond than stay there. There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about this place and the bathroom looked like it had seen the Korean War in its prime. This was supposed to be a relaxing vacation but we were both awake by 7 a.m. and out the door to spend as little time as possible there. I was around there a few weeks ago again and just looking at the facade of the motel made me feel dirty. Never again will I go that far by my purse strings again.

Symbols and Sociopaths: Hannibal Season 2, Episode 11

Jonathan May

Spoiler alert, as always.

With two episodes left and the reappearance of Freddie Lounds at large, the question on everyone’s mind is, what’s going on between Will and Hannibal? Is Will playing Hannibal, or playing everyone else on his behalf? Is Dr. Bloom next on Hannibal’s menu, and is that what it will take for Jack to finally wake up? This week, I present the tweets each character would have sent during the action of episode 11.

@Will_Graham: A certain someone was in my dream again last night J

@Will_Graham: Wtf? I have to eat a songbird whole?

@FBI_Jack: Does anyone else think Will and Hannibal are….closer than normal?

@Mason_Pigmaster: I said I only want Tanqueray. Wtf do I pay these people for?

@Alana_Bloom: Hey guys, just running over to Will’s. Someone call me in like an hour.

@Hannibal: If I have to listen to this piggishness further, I might have to whip up a nice Paupiettes de porc later… @Will_Graham will I see you there?

@Will_Graham: I’ll bring the wine.

@Hannibal: You know I like to pick the wine L

@Freddie_Lounds: And then I said to her, How was my funeral, bitch?

Hannibal, episode 11

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Hannibal airs Friday nights on NBC. You can read our pieces about previous episodes here.

Image: NBC

Games Worth Going Back For: Journey

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Brent Hopkins

In Games Worth Going Back For we look at recent games that you may have skipped that should be picked up sooner rather than later. Today: Journey for the PlayStation 3.

Overview:

Journey is an indie game that was released exclusively for the PlayStation 3 in 2012. It was developed by Thatgamecompany, which also made two other exclusives for Sony: Flow and Flower.

Thatgamecompany is known for making incredibly atmospheric, short, and graphically intense games with a minimal yet heavy feel. Flow and Flower were two of my favorite games on the PS3, and I was ravenous to get my hands on this game. Those games each took a specific concept and made that the entire focal point of the game. This could run foul for some gamers expecting a meaty epic, but I feel like even for a single playthrough these games will always stick with you for years afterwards.

Sadly, I was unable to play Journey when it was first released, but I picked it up and promised myself I’d play through it this year.

Story

Journey doesn’t necessarily have a strong story tied to it, which is common for Thatgamecompany titles. You are a robed figure that is traversing a ruined city in an attempt to reach the summit of a mountain. Throughout the game you delve deeper and deeper into the city through sand, then water, and finally snow. Hence you are taken on a “journey,” physically as well as through history. The most interesting point for the story is that this is relayed entirely without words. The entire game is nothing but ambient sounds, with even the player character being unable to speak in any real language other than squeaks that blend in seamlessly with the music.

Gameplay

You explore the city through common means of modern-day transportation: walking, flying, and surfing. To advance further in the game, the player must “sing” to activate banners that cause various things to happen to the landscape.

These are simple puzzles and really feel more like an avenue to force the player to take in the sights that the game has hidden for you.

The game is also multiplayer, so you can tackle the puzzles and things with another player. The game doesn’t have lobbies or anything, instead at the beginning of each episode, a player will anonymously join your game and you can choose to stay together or take divergent paths towards the goal. If you complete the stage together you will continue along with one another, but if one finishes and the other doesn’t you will find yourself alone or with a new person to play with at the beginning of the next stage.

The multiplayer aspect of this game is critical to its success. I had a chance to play the first level alone and I was bored to tears by the game. It was not fulfilling in any way, shape, or form, as it really felt like a walking simulation as opposed to a game,

Since there is no communication in the game other than the singing you have to communicate nonverbally. I managed to find another person who wanted to play the entire game through and I found that if I didn’t see him or her on screen I would wait or search for them to make sure they were following along. It was a strong bond but one that was completely unspoken, like that of a friend you haven’t seen in years. This was in stark contrast to the misery I felt when I first loaded up the game. The drop-in/drop-out method of multiplayer here is completely necessary to get the true feel of the game.

Graphics

This game is stunning. There isn’t really much else to say about it, but the snow and sand effects are absolutely breathtaking and it feels like you’re playing through a photo journal at times. Hands down the sand surfing segments alone are worth the price of admission and will have you wanting to play them a few more times after the first.

Turn this on HD and just enjoy.

Sound

The music might actually be better than the graphics, and that is saying quite a bit. The music matches each level perfectly and the sound effects of your robed character meld into the music as if it were your own instrument. The songs are never annoying and set the atmosphere really well.

Overall

Aesthetically pure, aurally fascinating, and fantastic.

This is what it feels like to melt into a game.

This game contains probably two of the best hours you could spend on a console in the past two years and honestly, Thatgamecompany has compiled three games that I would recommend anyone play. If you have any friends with PS3s, buy their collection, which includes Flow, Flower, and Journey and sit down with them and enjoy all three together. If you like games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, these games are a nice way to hold yourself over while waiting for The Last Guardian‘s release.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.

Image: Thatgamecompany

Worst Best Picture: Is Marty Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1955 winner Marty. Is it better than Crash?

Clara (Betsy Blair) meets Marty (Ernest Borgnine) after being left on the dance floor by her terrible date. The two see themselves as similar and hit it off. It’s a date movie! Love is in the air! Kinda.

Marty is a fat — I mention the “fat” because he does a lot — butcher and the last single person in his family. His ma is ready to be rid of him, so she sends him down to the dance hall to meet a nice Italian girl. He meets Clara, a “dog” of a woman — I use that term only because every single character does even more than you can imagine for real it is crazy — who also has the audacity to be a schoolteacher. There’s a lot of 50s mores going on in this movie: Marty is obsessed with talking about how being a butcher makes him no good, everyone is worried about dying alone in their 20s, one character has to be talked down from saying every man should be 20 years older than their wives, etc.

The world of the 50s explains a lot of what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain Clara’s personality. Nathan Rabin invented the term “manic pixie dream girl” to describe a specific character archetype in film: poorly written female characters that exist solely to further the emotional development of sad, lonely men. Marty is plenty sad — he talks about suicide on his first date with Clara — but Clara isn’t even enough to be considered the shell of a personality that the manic pixie occupies. Clara is nothing; she almost never even speaks. She’s upsetting in a 2014 sense because she struggles in a world that can’t accept her, but she’s ridiculous even in a 1955 sense because she just seems so damn bored in her world.

The Best Part: Marty is a great character, even if the rest of his world is pretty damned mean-spirited. The movie goes pretty far to establish his happy-go-lucky attitude by raining emotional garbage on him from every direction, but it’s a testament to the performance that Ernest Borgnine still seems to be playing a real, unfortunate person.

The Worst Part: It seems like my “worst part” is “the female characters aren’t developed” fairly often, but in a movie like Marty it becomes really impossible to ignore. Everyone in the world of Marty is fairly simple and awful — aside from Marty, of course — but his blushing would-be bride is full-on tabula rasa. She gets no dialogue outside of some short responses and one monologue full of information Marty tells her to say. Betsy Blair does as much as there is to do, but damn there’s not much to do.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashLet us consider a part of Crash we have not considered thus far: Could it be seen as a love story? It’s an absurd way to view a movie that is best summed up as “a defense of racism as the only justifiable ethos,” but it is the way we must view it to compare it to Marty. Both films have essentially only one married couple. In Marty it’s the main character’s miserable brother and his new bride. In Crash it’s a black television director and his wife. Both sets of couples are miserable, but only in Marty is it treated as a sad situation. In Crash, like all the other awfulness, marriage is treated as a sad, unavoidable result of living in the miserable world that Crash creates. In this way, yet again, Marty is a better movie because even a film about loneliness and almost giving up is more hopeful than a boot stomping on the face of joy forever.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org

Life Lessons from Episodes of Louie: “So Did the Fat Lady” and “Elevator (Part 1)”

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Alex Russell

Louis C.K.’s critically acclaimed show Louie’s fourth season runs as two episodes every Monday night. Rather than just answering the question of “are these episodes good,” (because the answer is always yes) we’ll talk about the big lessons imparted in each episode. This week: Louie reluctantly goes on a date and almost loses his daughter.

Episode 3: “So Did the Fat Lady”

No one has perspective immediately. Right after watching a particular episode of a particular show, it feels more important. That one episode isn’t just 22 minutes of entertainment, it’s your Monday. It’s the time you sat in one specific chair and felt one specific way because someone who made something made you pay attention.

The third episode of Louie will get mentioned a ton this year as one of the best episodes of the show, and that makes it tough to digest fully just a few hours after its debut. In it, Louie presents the story of how he’s worn down into a date by a compelling woman at a comedy club that doesn’t fit the standard “expected weight” of a woman on television. It’s not an overdrawn morality play about how weight shouldn’t matter. It’s a story about how weight does matter (even when it shouldn’t), but how we treat people in life matters a heullva lot more.

Everyone will draw the obvious from it: It’s about being kind but still being realistic. It’s about how we think of ourselves as good people even though we sometimes click the “no thanks” button when Walgreens asks for money for breast cancer research. It’s about why we think of ourselves as honest even though we go without mentioning faults to our friends. It’s the story of the faults we all have that we don’t even always consider faults.

The episode will be a smash hit (as much as a Louie episode can be) because a 30-something woman talking about body issues in a real way is great television. It will stick with me because one of the secondary lessons is that it’s important to be a good person, whatever that means to you.

Episode 4: “Elevator (Part 1)

The second episode is a big step down in the “cultural issues” department, but it comes out of the gate with a ton of energy just the same. Louie tells his girls to repeat the “rules of the subway” as they get on the subway. Chekhov taught us that means that the subway rules are going to be broken, and sure enough…

…but the episode’s not really about losing the girls. It’s about Louie finding a woman stuck in an elevator and trying to help in a situation where he doesn’t have any real answers. There will assuredly be more in next week’s second part of this episode that explains how the subway scene relates to the scared woman in the stalled elevator, but right now we need to leave this one somewhat unfinished. It’s a great episode and it has something really sweet to say about language and shared experiences, though it isn’t a finished story yet. Both stories in it have the same lesson so far, though: Don’t bother running away from anything that can catch you.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Isaac Asimov once predicted that by this time, many home appliances would run on atomic batteries. It would be so convenient: no need to use electricity and the battery would not run down within the consumer’s lifetime. Truly a marvel of modern science! In all seriousness, if Asimov’s failure to see anything wrong with a blender powered by nuclear fission does not clearly crown him as the king of all science nerddom, I don’t know what would. One of science fiction’s stocks-in-trade is predicting the future. Some suggestions are eerily accurate, and some are Jetsons-level laughable. Stand on Zanzibar is strange in that a weirdly high percentage of its predictions are absolutely correct.

The novel is set in 2010. The main pressure driving its plot is that there’s just too damn many of us. Brunner correctly placed the 2010 population of the world around seven billion, which is where the name comes from. Apparently, seven billion people, standing upright and shoulder-to-shoulder, would just barely fit on the island of Zanzibar. This foundational problem is not the only prediction Brunner gets right:

  1. “Muckers” go insane and go on senseless public rampages (Columbine, Aurora, Newtown)
  2. China is our main global competitor
  3. Europe has banded into a single political entity
  4. Detroit is a ghost town filled with abandoned warehouses
  5. Consumer culture is dominant
  6. News is highly processed and regurgitated on television in digestible bites
  7.  There is legislation against tobacco but marijuana is legal
  8. Rent is so ridiculous in New York that a high-level executive has to have roommates to help him pay it.

Brunner misses a few things and gets a few other things wrong (in response to the population problem, there is eugenics legislation – people cannot have children unless they prove their genetic health), but the amount that he predicts correctly in this future is impressive. He gives texture and substance to his future world by using the Innis mode.

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I found this while looking for Asimov quotations. Holy shit.

The book opens with a passage from Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, which explains the Innis mode as constructing a mosaic of facts and events without perspective or unifying narrative. Brunner’s use of this mode strongly influences the structure of the book. There are four main types of “chapters.” Chapters labeled “continuity” follow the linear narrative of the story. “Tracking with closeups” present vignettes of characters not directly related to the main plot but part of the same world. “Context,” presents, you guessed it, context for the other parts of the story in the form of fake newspaper articles, works of sociology, and other types of analyses. Finally, “the happening world,” the most Innis-modian of these chapters, is a storm of assorted facts, sometimes as short as a single line, that assault the reader with the vibrance and freneticism of all the overwhelming information in the larger world outside the main narrative. The Innis mode generally and “the happening world” in particular serve to create an immensely dense world without sacrificing main narrative time to do it.

The main narrative consists of two parallel plots: U.S. intervention in an island nation in the Pacific, Yatakang, that is embarking on a “genetic optimisation program” to build a race of supermen, and a massive company called General Technics beginning a training program in a fictional West African nation in order to exploit mineral wealth off the coast. The Yatakangi storyline consists of a lot of great spy action and explosions. The U.S. intervenes because they either want to prove the genetic optimisation program is an impossible propaganda stunt or, if it is true, take steps to make it just an impossible propaganda stunt. One Yatakangi character tells the American spy that Americans just aren’t very good at letting other people be better than them at anything. The African storyline concerns Beninia, a country that is dirt poor, where education could be improved, and where starvation is a major concern. Beninia draws the interest of General Technics because, despite all of this, there has not been a murder there in the past 15 years, there is no open conflict or dissatisfaction, no vandalism, and no theft. In a world where people regularly run amok (the etymological basis for “mucker”) and kill as many people as they can before they are put down, the complete absence of murder indicates an inviting level of stability. GT agrees to put in place a 50-year program wherein they float the Beninians a huge loan, then use it to build all the most modern conveniences and supercharge their education so that, within those two decades, the Beninian population will be transformed into a nation of extremely skilled technicians and scientists with the knowledge set required to exploit the mineral deposits in the ocean nearby. This plan is created and vetted by the General Technics supercomputer, Shalmaneser. GT’s main claim to fame is this computer. It is next-level, near-A.I. type hardware, and its predictions are the main reason the company is so confident that their Beninia plan will work. They are in it for themselves, as they will be more than paid back by the wealth at the bottom of the sea, but they get to change the course of an entire nation for the better. The book tries very hard to sell the point that this is not neocolonialism pure and simple. The President of Beninia is complicit in the plan because he is dying and wants to leave a good future to his nation. Everyone involved in the project has their hearts in the right place and wants to help. Within the book, it is absolutely believable that this is a new and benign form of economic development. Outside of the book, this is basically a company owning a country outright, and in reality that never works out well for the owned. The disconnect between what happens in the book and the real-world probabilities make this conceit of the book ring a little hollow.

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This is what Brunner means when he says “supercomputer.”

Speaking of things Brunner attempts that end up going wrong, he tries to extrapolate the future of race relations while sitting in front of a typewriter in 1968. He gets right that, due to anti-discrimination laws and the easing of overt racism, many positions of power are filled by African Americans, and racial tensions still simmer on. One of the main characters is a black vice president of General Technics. His roommate is white. They are both friends, but in their internal monologue, they each think really angry thoughts filled with racial slurs about each other. The problem is not that they get angry at each other, but that the sole source of a lot of their anger seems to be race. It seems outdated and strange, and indicates that Brunner, while trying to present a realistic future of race, was not fully free from many of his own preconceptions about it: In Brunner’s future, a relationship between equals of a different race seems not to be able to exist without some type of rancor. There is also no shortage of racist slurs against the Asian Yatakangi. Try as it might, this book is definitely a product of the sociocultural milieu of the 1960s.

Treatment of women in this book is just as big a problem as the treatment of race. There are no women involved as main characters, there are only two women in the entire book that have any real agency or power, and the current form of dating is something called the “shiggy circuit.” Codder is a mildly offensive term for a man, and shiggy is a mildly offensive term for a woman. Most young women participate in the “shiggy circuit,” a social construct in which women have no fixed abode and merely cycle around the city, moving in and out of the apartments of the men they sleep with, depending on them for food and shelter, and then moving on to the next one when either the woman or the man becomes bored. The easy interchangeability of women and the fact that they take up with the man and not vice versa necessarily places them at a disadvantage in relation to the men. This dynamic grows out of a problem that runs through many SF books written in the 50s and 60s. Most of the writers at that time were men, and many attempted to imagine new and more open sexual mores. The problem is that most of these new social systems ended up being not so much a representation of sexual progress as a result of the author’s subconscious thinking to itself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if women were just naked? Like, all the time?” It comes off more as male fantasy than as balanced prediction (cf. Stranger in a Strange Land, The Gods Themselves).

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Glad we’ve stopped oversexualizing women in science fiction. She’s a weapons specialist on the Enterprise, by the way.

Despite the jangling treatment of race and women, the book, in the form of Chad Mulligan, delivers wry, incisive, and apt criticism of society and the humans who run it. Mulligan is a pop sociologist and is the author of The Hipcrime Vocab and the amazingly-named You’re an Ignorant Idiot. He is deeply in love with the human race, which of course means he is intensely enraged by its stupidity. He becomes a main character by the end of the book, but for most of it we see snippets of his angry, incisive writings as excerpts in the “context” or “tracking with closeups” chapters. His main thesis is that if we don’t all change drastically we are all going to die, so act a little less insane and a little more rationally and lovingly. To give an idea of what kind of vision he has, I’ve included a handful of definitions from his Hipcrime Vocab.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad Mulligan:

(COINCIDENCE You weren’t paying attention to the other half of what was going on.)

(PATRIOTISM A great British writer once said that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying a friend he hoped he would have the decency to betray his country. Amen, brothers and sisters! Amen!)

(SHALMANESER That real cool piece of hardware up at the GT tower. They say he’s apt to evolve up to true consciousness one day. Also they say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.)

Mulligan is a great character: contemptuous, competent, snarky, and broken-hearted by what he sees humanity doing to itself. He moves through the book spouting wisdom and being right about things, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but “irreverent middle-aged dude who is wiser than others” is a bit of an overused archetype in older SF.

This book has a lot to recommend it. It is a feat of worldbuilding, giving a nuanced and exhaustive picture of the world as it might exist in the future. Its narrative structure is innovative and effective. Its driving conflict is a problem that has affected, is affecting, and will affect the human race for the foreseeable future: increasing population, decreasing resources, and the tension and problems created by that dynamic. Its hope is that humanity finds a method to stop feeding on itself, but it presents the alternatives in horrifying depth and detail. It is a pity that, while many of the facts and events predicted are impressively accurate (the fall of Detroit, senseless acts of public slaughter, 24-hour news, the European Union), the conceptualization of race and women are mere extensions of the patterns extant in 1968. It represents a failure of imagination and a victory of narrow-mindedness in a novel otherwise exultant in its inventiveness, insight, and breadth. You still need to read this for what it does right.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image: LA Times

Symbols and Sociopaths: Hannibal Season 2, Episode 10

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Jonathan May

We always open inside Will’s head lately, and this episode was no different. (Here’s hoping we’re not Roseanned at the end!) He conflates his slaying of last week’s serial killer in a dream of also killing Hannibal, which ties in with the incredibly slow David Lynchian conflated sex scene wherein Dr. Bloom is “had” by Hannibal literally and Will projectively. The use of conflation in this episode is important because Will and Hannibal are finally merging. Before they do fully, however, we will be prone to their flirting (serial killer-style) with one another in front of Jack and Dr. Bloom and everyone else. I didn’t expect Will’s transformation to be so obsequious in regard to Hannibal, but if we take the whole sex scene a step further, then Will, by projecting that he has sex with Dr. Bloom through Margot, is able to “have sex” with Hannibal through that projection. I know, I know, I’ve been reading too much Harold Bloom. In any case, the episode ends with both Will’s and Hannibal’s faces conflated into one another, like some kind of ghoulish Chuck Close painting. If the effect is to heighten the “merging” aspect of these two, the production is laying it on a bit thick.

So, Will gets to (presumably) kill Freddie Lounds, ending the life of yet another part of the closed circle. But Margot and her sinister, pig-obsessed brother are uncovering the dark of the wings and heading for the limelight as we speak. As old ancillary characters die, so must new ancillary characters live. Will murdering Freddie didn’t bother me; she already had figured out, as Alana is coming around to now, what the game is. And tonight, it should come around to Jack, prompting (perhaps) the showdown with Hannibal that began the season. But I think we have to deal yet with further piggishness before we can get down to the bones. Other prediction for tonight: The whole Will and Margot (though I wouldn’t rule out Alana and Hannibal) pregnancy thing is another emotional red herring. Don’t let’s add another complication, Story Gods! This isn’t Passions.

My favorite moment of the episode: when Will is eating (presumably) a part of Freddie, that look on his face—transcendence.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Hannibal airs Friday nights on NBC. You can read our pieces about previous episodes here.

Image: NBC

How Did I Like This? Limp Bizkit – “Faith”

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Brent Hopkins

In “How Did I Like This?” someone looks back at something they loved as a child and wonders how they were ever so wrong. Today Brent Hopkins listens to Limp Bizkit.

Limp Bizkit found its rock and died underneath it many moons ago, snuggling Fred Durst’s sex tape and probably their newest album, Stampede of the Disco Elephants, which will be dropped this year. Luckily, for Reading at Recess’ sake, sometimes your ankle gets grabbed by the rock dwellers and I had the pleasure of listening to not one, but two of their songs this morning on my carpool trip to work today: “Rearranged” and “Faith.”

“Rearranged” came on second and honestly, I have to admit I started singing along. I still remembered all of the words. It isn’t really played too much compared to much of their discography and I hadn’t heard it in somewhere in the vein of 10 years. As I am typing this I still can’t get the beat out of my head, so I am sure it will be stuck with me for the rest of the day.

For those that haven’t heard this song in a decade.

Faith came on first and I was mildly confused as to what I was hearing. Since living in Korea I have grown accustomed to singing in karaoke a few times a year and “Faith” by George Michael is hands down my most belted ballad. I don’t know why, but I absolutely love the song and that is where my singing zone is. Hearing Fred Durst sing the song for the first time in quite awhile (more recently than “Rearranged”) made me grind my teeth in dissatisfaction. I wasn’t too familiar with Michael as a kid so I thought Freddy Faith Bizkit was doing a pretty fine job of it. Wrong. I listened to every second of it and instantly thought: “Well, that’s definitely one of those wrong things from your childhood, Brent.”

This was the first thing I put on after booting up my PC at work to wash the sound of that other “Faith” away. All I have to do now is avoid listening to their cover of “Behind Blue Eyes” and I may be able to live a healthy life.

Brent Hopkins considers himself jack-o-all-trades and a great listener. Chat with him about his articles or anything in general at brentahopkins@gmail.com.