Month: June 2014

Book Review: Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood/MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Trilogy

Awtood trilogy

Jonathan May

I read Oryx and Crake when it came out in 2003, certainly never anticipating two follow-up novels. I was given the next two books as gifts over the years as they came out, but would set them gently next to the first, like glass miniatures on a shelf. Facebook was blowing up recently with news of Darren Aronofsky adapting the three books into an HBO miniseries, so I decided it was time. I read all three books over the course of a week and a half, finishing just fifteen minutes prior to the composition of this piece. As always, I aim for brevity when I write for this site, so pardon my simplifications.

Oryx and Crake is Atwood’s only novel featuring a male, first-person protagonist (named Snowman); the other two novels vacillate between voices, with the third in the series having the most variety of narrators. I mention this only because it seems obvious that we need Snowman to contrast with one of the more prominent narrators in the latter two, Toby, a female Gardener. The whole world of the novels is a future wherein biological manufacturing is the norm and companies serve as the main units of life, housing families in compounds. Eco-groups like God’s Gardeners rise in reaction to the companies and their lapse of morality, maintaining “older” ways of life (keeping bees, gardening, etc.) Since all this doesn’t seem far off at all, the novels maintain a sharp sense of realism, even in the more absurd parts. Being grounded in a future that seems not only plausible but also eventual tethers the novel firmly to the ground, imbuing it with a prescience that I love about Atwood. Her characters and plots always surprise me in how true to life they are. So when you have pigs that think like people and invented bacteria that dissolve people into goo, it’s nice to be able to believe in them.

It’s obvious that Atwood favors Toby as a narrator; she is so true to Atwood’s other narrators, women who see the world as a series of mutable paintings. The only time I cried during the course of the trilogy was when Toby had to tell the bees of the death of a fellow Gardener who had taken care of the hive. The addition of things like talking with the bees and the word smile coming from the Greek for scalpel are classic Atwood (thank you to my Dad for help with the Greek there [see picture below]); I learn more from her books than almost any other author (except Cormac McCarthy, whom I read with a dictionary on hand). Just so you know, lambent means glowing or radiant.

Oryx and Crake, smile, Greek lexicon

All together, the novels function quite beautifully, weaving in and out of the chronology, fashioning from the whole a triptych of corporate dominance, human desire, and the ability to play God. Atwood’s world, before and after the Apocalypse, is so eerily close to our own that I felt an immediate desire to plant a garden and learn how to take care of an apiary, lest the grid fail tomorrow. It’s weird, but the novels most closely resemble morality tales than anything else. In other words, I feel only improved after finishing them.

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

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: BBC America’s Orphan Black

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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. 

Science fiction on television is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Sure, you’ve got your Battlestar Galacticas, your Losts, and your Fringes, but you’ve also got your Sanctuarys, your Revolutions, and your whatever the hell Syfy thinks it’s doing with endless Ghost Hunter marathons. TV is the birthplace of a lot of great SF, but it can also be a graveyard. Orphan Black was born, screaming and healthy, on the airwaves of BBC America. It just finished out its second season, which means it already has more episodes than Firefly will ever have, which is a tragedy. Stretching the baby metaphor way too far, what happened with FOX and Firefly is this: Joss Whedon gave birth to the baby that would cure cancer, and FOX smothered it in the cradle with a pillow because FOX does not like anyone to have nice things (poor poor Arrested Development was smothered by the same villain).

Fox_Broadcasting_Company_(Logo)

These are bad people, and they do bad things.

BBC America started out as a vehicle to get Doctor Who stateside (along with other British shows), but it is branching out into original programming with Orphan Black. The series is spearheaded by a Canadian development team, which, before you think “Canadian SF?” please realize that Stargate: SG-1, arguably the most successful straight-up SF show ever, was filmed out of Vancouver. Orphan Black takes place mostly in Toronto, the lead actress is Tatiana Maslany, and she is amazing.

Following is a brief discussion of the plot, and there are some spoilers. I do not think I spoil anything past episode three or four, but it is impossible to give a précis of the show without spoiling something. At the very start of the show, we meet Sarah Manning, a woman who grew up in London, moved to Toronto, and is generally just in some deep shit. She is trying to flee an abusive boyfriend, scrape together enough cash to get out of her situation, and retrieve her daughter (whom she abandoned) from her foster mother. She makes a phone call on a train platform which hints at some of these problems, then right after she hangs up she sees someone who looks exactly like her, crying, walk up to the edge of the platform and throw herself in front of a train. Without thinking too much, Sarah grabs her purse and runs, planning to steal her identity and clean out her bank account. She is successful with this, but it is a definite frying pan/fire situation, as she discovers that she is one of an unknown number of clones and that someone is assassinating them one by one. To solve this problem, she bands together with the other known clones (again, no idea how many there are total), and attempts to uncover their pasts and the ultimate goal of the organization that created them. There, done, and I didn’t even mention anything that happened past episode three.

One of the main features that makes this show so great is the virtuosity of its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany. There end up being about four main clones that engage in solving the mystery of their existence, and Maslany plays all of them. They are all completely different, fully realized human beings. A lot of this is due to the writing and the costume departments, but most of it is pulled off by Maslany’s talent. She can, through very subtle modifications in body language and vocal inflection, create completely different people. This would be impressive if it was just “oh hey, I filmed a scene as this clone, but now I am filming a scene as this one,” but she plays different people all talking together in the same room at the exact same time, and she also plays different clones pretending to be other clones. If that last one is confusing phrasing, keep in mind that Sarah Manning, the main clone, is a grifter, and that she is really good at deception. The whole show starts out with her stealing the suicidal Beth Childs’ identity. She pulls this trick multiple times with multiple clones, and watching her play Sarah Manning playing another clone badly, messing up the accent ever so slightly here and there, is really entertaining. If you don’t quite get why I’m so impressed, please watch this:

They don’t even rely on goatees!

What-the-fuck-is-happening English con artist Sarah, uptight Canadian housewife Alison, and laid-back stoner American grad student Cosima all meet in episode three, and they all are differentiated by preoccupations, responses to stress, body language, and voice. Not only that, they are all filmed together, which means that Maslany is exhaustively filming each scene multiple times, at least once for each clone. Again, she is amazing. Bravo.

Aside from the great character trickery, this show is really strong in a lot of other areas. Its plotting is tight and suspenseful, perfectly balancing the line between suspense and payoff (unlike Lost, which held payoff until the final episode and fucked up royally). I started this series on Monday, and I finished in the early morning hours of Wednesday (as in 3 a.m.). I did not stop watching until it was done. There are only twenty episodes at this point, so it is still at the level where you could make it a fun marathon, one that would end before feelings of self-loathing set in. It also does right by its SF roots. It does not use SF for cheap one-off episode ideas or plot spackle. Like the Deist’s clockmaker God, the showrunners set up an internally consistent universe, then walk away and let it play out according to the rules set up in the first few episodes. The SF elements of the show are also really powerful. The whole plot hinges on bioengineering, which if you’ve eaten corn, you have probably already interacted with a transgenic organism. This is the really exciting, tension-filled area of SF where all the issues involved could be problems we are dealing with in reality in the next twenty years. The show uses cloning to explore the concepts of identity and self-determination, but it also keeps character, suspense, and humanity at the center of each episode.

Battlestar Galactica and Lost are gone, Stargate SG-1 packed it in, and Firefly was brutally murdered before its time. In the year since Fringe wrapped, we’ve been in a dry spell for strong, original, appealing SF programming. Orphan Black is the monsoon that breaks the drought, and in a TV landscape where terrible SF is produced and cancelled all the time, and intelligent SF is also produced and cancelled all the time, while crapfests like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory will seemingly just not die no matter how many anathemata I perform over pictures of Chuck Lorre, it is nice to see a powerful start and promising future from a show like this.

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 from here.

Tough Questions: What Would Your Yearbook Quote Be Now?

question-mark

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

What would your yearbook quote be now?

Rules are simple: what are you going to be remembered for FOREVER? Nah, not really. They feel important, but you’re a teenager so everything feels important. No one takes these seriously, right? This kid quoted Rob Delaney! Now you’re a little bit older and supposedly wiser, so what words are you putting under a picture of yourself in a tux?

Alex Russell

In high school I went with a quote by an African poet who had an album on Ani DiFranco’s record label. It made sense at the time. There is no better line in my mind for the situation of suddenly being back in high school, though, than Louis CK’s line about optimism:

“Why would anything nice ever happen?”

Jonathan May

Stiviano: I’m Mr. Sterling’s right-hand arm man. I’m Mr. Sterling’s everything. I’m his confidante, his best friend. His silly rabbit.

Walters: His what?

Stiviano: His silly rabbit.

Walters: Does he call you that?

Stiviano: That’s what I call myself. I joke around and I make him laugh. I do things that some people find very silly, or I do things that — sometimes people can’t understand our relationship. I’m his everything.

Andrew Findlay

“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up.”

This is a quote from George Saunders that I used in a previous article. It encapsulates a lot of what makes reading so important to me, and why I dedicate so many hours a day to it (even on absurdly busy days, I make sure to spend at least half an hour with a good book). Literature is not here to say this is right or that is wrong, that is good or this is bad. It is here to expand the horizon of our experience, to allow us to consider multiple viewpoints across multiple times and places and people, and to help us understand and accept. Like most people who have become famous for putting words together, Saunders says it much better than me.

Brent Hopkins

Distance will end any relationship, good or bad, faster than most arguments will. If you’re afraid of commitment choose a contractual line of work.

Gardner Mounce

I wouldn’t have one for the same reason I don’t have a tattoo. There just isn’t a quote or symbol I could use as representational of me that wouldn’t embarrass me in the future. Maybe I’d quote Monty Python or MST3K as a cop out. But also, does it matter? I don’t remember anyone’s senior quote. Maybe it’d be “senior quote,” all meta and ironic. But isn’t that so something high school me would have done? No, because I didn’t do it. I don’t know who I am.

Worst Best Picture: Is Midnight Cowboy 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. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1969 winner Midnight Cowboy. Is it better than Crash?

Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only movie rated X to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. The story of the rating system in American film history is a little absurd. I talked about that a little bit with regards to Terms of Endearment, a really brutal movie with frequent sex scenes and more frequent “adult situations,” getting a PG rating in the early 80s. Still, “X” jumps right off the page. It makes you wonder just how raw Midnight Cowboy could be.

We’re definitely in a different world in 2014. This isn’t an “X” movie, but damn it’s a tough one. Midnight Cowboy is the tale of Joe Buck’s (Jon Voight) plan to leave Texas and be a male prostitute in New York City. He’s a hayseed of the highest order, but his character really shines because he has the depressing trait of “assumed street smarts.” Joe thinks he’s figured out all the angles in every situation, and that’s the worst thing to think when you haven’t at all.

He hooks up with Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, who is excellent), a conman who lives in a condemned building. Joe tries to convince people to have sex with him for money and Ratso tries to convince Joe that he’s more than he seems. Joe is immediately unsuccessful and “moves in” to Ratso’s hole-in-the-wall.

It’s a story about hope and image. Both men think they have the tools to make it in the world, they just need the shot. Ratso needs a guy like Joe that he can “manage” and Joe just needs “customers.” Ratso won’t stoop to shining shoes like his old man and Joe won’t go back to washing dishes like he did in Texas. They want more for themselves, reality be damned.

We all want a little more for ourselves, and you’ll be missing the forest if you pay too much attention to the sex in Midnight Cowboy. It’s certainly a movie about sex, but the sex doesn’t matter. The main thing going on in Midnight Cowboy happens when two people shiver and get sick in an old tenement house because they can’t swallow their pride. The main thing is that we all know that guy who could get it together “if he could just make it to Florida.”

You don’t need to go to Florida. You need something else.

The Best Part: The sadness of the lead characters is extremely hard to handle. In one scene during the “hopeful” part of the movie, Jon Voight’s character has to ask a woman for crackers that he can put ketchup on to not starve to death. It takes a dip towards the depressing after that, but it’s still on the upswing, then! I list this in the “best” because the movie isn’t a direct arc, which is interesting. It’s a risky way to tell a story, but it’s like an actual life with highs and lows rather than one constant line up or down.

The Worst Part: As much as I want to make this about a downright stupid Andy Warhol storyline (sigh), it has to be the entire handling of homosexuality. This movie is from 1969, and that’s a definitive year in gay history in America. Midnight Cowboy came out a month before Stonewall, and it’s a movie about a guy from Texas being scared of being gay. It’s tough to discuss without spoiling it, but Joe frequently finds that he can make a living in NYC as a prostitute, but he’ll have to sleep with men. He’s not willing to – which is not the problem – but the anger and the weirdness of the way they deal with it in the most explosive year in gay history in America is very strange. I can’t fully condemn a movie from more than four decades ago for not handling gay issues head-on. I can be weirded out by hearing Dustin Hoffman say a gay slur about twelve times in a row.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? We’re across the country in Midnight Cowboy, but we’ve got the same kind of “gritty city” story. The NYC of Midnight Cowboy is a sad, angry, lonely place. It’s not dissimilar to the LA that Crash wants to talk about, but this is 1969 New York City. It’s the city before they took all the porn out of Times Square. It’s the bad old days, the days talked about in really good and really bad literature. It’s a piece locked in a time that doesn’t exist anymore, and the grit is there to explain what “1969” is to the audience. Crash, as I’ve said before, exists in a mythical 2005. Racism is extremely real, but as the story of anywhere real in 2005, Crash is a bad destination movie.

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 | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings

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.

Sexual Bravado and Permanent Eye Rolling: “Fight Night” by Migos

“Fight Night” by Migos
Produced by: Quality Control Music, Atlanta, GA

Jonathan May

As is typical of Southern rap music, “Fight Night” by Migos addresses its core audience of young men with all the traditional trappings of unearned bravado, sexual boast, and desperation to prove its own authority. The song is tight, but I’m not here to wax eloquent on the brilliant beat structure or seamless flow between verses and chorus. This song, like so many others, fails to provide even the barest newness beyond the trapping of the video itself: two female pugilists facing off against one another. Curious then that the lyrical content of the song focuses on “beating that pussy up like fight night” (obviously here meant to be sexual and not violent from the artists’ perspective). The problem with this verbiage is that tacitly the violence is inherent in how they would sex these ladies up, should they be present and willing. The camera work doesn’t help with this reading of the video; in it, the camera is often positioned beneath each of the three dudes as they rap, so as to heighten the “victor” effect on their end. Eerily enough, this camera position also functions as if looking up at any one of them in bed as they are “beating that pussy up.” Were I girlfriend to one of the three Migos rappers, I would live in a state of permanent eye rolling. Such bravado is obviously a mere construction, given that the song is not addressed to the women at all, assuring them of sexual prowess, but instead to the awkward, loping group of homies in the background. It certainly does not appear as if the two women boxers need any help from the men, at least not sexually within the confines of the video. If anything, they look like they could beat the crap out of the skinny, chain-laden trio in a second. I only poke fun because the bravado of their lyrics tempts such trying. There have always been songs of sexual boasting and conquest, but none showing such little effort. It is truly unfortunate that the beat is so catchy, as any number of better artists could have used it for a more thematically gestalt, summertime, trap-music hit.

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

Whimsy and Ire: Sparklehorse’s Southern Artistry

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Gardner Mounce

Mark Linkous of the band Sparklehorse had a singular vision and improved it with each of his four studio releases. He was an auteur with enough DIY-ness to impress a Fugazi fan. He recorded his second album in a room of his Virginia home, and two subsequent albums in his backyard shed-turned-studio. It may not seem like a big change, but you can hear the difference. The final two albums teem with texture and shadowy sonic alcoves that demand repeat listening. But don’t get the impression that he’s a “difficult” artist. His music has that chest-crushing nostalgic quality that can only be compared to Mark Kozelek’s earlier work with Red House Painters. And as with Kozelek’s music, as soon as you get sucked in, you’re sucked in for good. Because Linkous possesses the practiced ability to instill in you, dear Southerner, the feeling of that April pre-storm heaviness in the boughs. If you will.

Like his ‘90s post-Pixies predecessors, Linkous found that balance between sweetness and raucous noise, but rode it better than Billy Corgan or even Kurt Cobain. On most tracks he sings with a gold-shot sweetness of dust mote attic worlds, haunted forgotten places. You get the feeling of post-industrial Southern ruralness, of places where machines lie ruined in the weeds. He fetishizes southern knick knacks to the point that you feel nostalgic for those boxes of broken dolls and nails in your grandmother’s attic. His lyrics are full of that warm summer madness.

“The toothless kiss of skeletons
And the summer hail
I’m the king of nails

– “King of Nails” (It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001)

or

I am
The only one
Can ride that horse
Th’yonder

I’m full of bees
Who died at sea

It’s a wonderful life

– “It’s A Wonderful Life” (It’s a Wonderful Life, 2001)

But he can also get boisterously angry. On tracks like “Pig” (Good Morning Spider, 1998) his guitar sounds like electrified chicken wire. And his lyrics are written to match.

I wanna be a stupid and shallow mutherfucker now
I wanna be a tough skinned bitch but I don’t know how
I wanna be a shiny new baby with a spongy brain
I wanna be a horse filled with fire that will never tame

– “Pig” (Good Morning Spider, 1998)

If that’s not the anthem for your sensitive Southern rocker, I don’t know what is.

It is pure conjecture (arrived at while watching a documentary on the band, and a background in special education) that I believe Linkous could have had Asperger syndrome. His lack of social graces, introverted nature, and disarming politeness convinces the listener of his starry-eyed tenderness. When he croons “It’s a wonderful life,” he does so without irony (his band’s name is Sparklehorse, for God’s sake). Add Linkous’ tragic suicide in 2010 and antecedent drug overdose and the listener more fully intuits Linkous’ headspace, that continental divide between whimsy and ire, between buzzing warm cicada fields and the buzzing roar of his electric guitar.

When he was alive, he was hailed by Radiohead as their new favorite band, offered a collaboration with Tom Waits and PJ Harvey, and adored by critics. It’s because he was authentic. And his music perfectly embodies the South: that point where dreaminess and dreariness conflate.

What to listen to

As was stated above, Sparklehorse had a vision that only got better with time. Listen to the albums in reverse chronological order:

  • Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (2001)
  • Good Morning Spider (1998)
  • Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995)

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent.

Comic Review: The Wicked + The Divine: Issue 1

thewicked1

Gardner Mounce 

The Wicked + The Divine: Issue 1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie
Published by Image Comics
Release: 6/18/2014

There are few things as pathetic for adults to engage in as the cult of personality. As a teenager, it’s expected–encouraged, even–to hang posters of pop stars and athletes on your wall. They are your heroes. They inhabit that nebulous world of fame that promises fulfillment and power, etc. But when you grow up, you pull back the veil and it turns out Justin Bieber is a turd and… Creed? (Yes, I had an actual Creed poster on my wall when I was in fifth grade. It’s my life. I wasn’t living it for you.) Image Comics’ latest release The Wicked + The Divine (heretoforth known as WD) finds that balance between idolizing these figures and understanding them to be human, but then tips it. Because in WD, the pop stars are actual gods.

In this world, 12 deities incarnate every 90 years as humans in order to live two years on Earth. Why? I’m not sure yet. But in 2014, they’re pop stars. Roll with it. Let’s touch on which gods we’re talking about, first of all. Is this going to be about a hip Jesus MCing a rap battle between Yah Boi Yahweh and Allah $? No. In the first issue we meet Ananke (Ancient Greek), Susanoo (Shinto), Amaterasu (Shinto), Sakhmet (Egyptian), and Lucifer. Try to guess which of those I didn’t have to Google. So, kudos to writer Kieron Gillen for exploring mythologies not often found in pop culture. Though the reader goes into the story knowing the gods are legitimate, Gillen doesn’t give the reader a god’s eye view. After an explosive introduction, we follow Laura, a 17-year-old fangirl of the gods (i.e. the teenage perspective in that balance I mentioned earlier). But, wisely, Gillen packs the deck with adult skeptics. A reporter accuses Amaterasu and the other gods of being “kids posturing with a Wikipedia summary’s understanding of myth,” and, more hilariously, accuses Amaterasu of being “a provincial girl who doesn’t understand how cosplaying a Shinto god is problematic at best and offensive at worst.”

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Throughout, the dialogue crackles with similar wit and character. But that isn’t the only aspect of the writing that’s on point. The scenes build and explode with heady pacing and smooth transitions. And, suggesting a great trust between writer and artist not often found in comics, Gillen never weighs down the art with unnecessary narration. It should be a major pet peeve of every comic reader when a panel that shows a man running from a bomb also has that man yelling, “I am RUNNING from a BOMB!”

The art matches the writing in quality. Whether or not you’ve read another McKelvie comic, you know intuitively that his art is practiced. The panels are arranged poetically, correctly, becoming denser or larger with the beats of action. Likewise, colorist Matt Wilson endows the panels with a versatile color palette capable of portraying violence, beauty, and fame. In this first issue, the really standout feature of the art is the character design. It is my suspicion that each character has a real-world analogue that may or may not have deeper significance. Amaterasu looks like the lead singer of Paramore going through a hippie stage. Sakhmet looks similar to Rihanna. And Lucifer (Luci, in this case) looks just like Pink.

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Lucifer, everyone.

The promise this first issue shows isn’t in the premise or story, which is, in my opinion, sort of like American Gods (which I really didn’t like) but in how the story is told. Gillen and McKelvie are master storytellers, and the evidence is borne out in the details.

Should you get it?

Yes, most definitely. This is an exciting new release, written with intelligence and wit.

Gardner Mounce is a writer, speaker, listener, husband, wife, truck driver, detective, liar. When asked to describe himself in three words, Gardner Mounce says: humble, humble, God-sent.

Comic Review: Rising Stars

rising-stars-comic(1)

Brent Hopkins

The 24-issue Rising Stars is an interesting tale of a group of children that attain superpowers via an intense flash of light from a comet. These children were all yet to be born and therefore only 113 of them receive this “gift.” They grow up with their powers and become known as the “Specials.”

Story

The story behind Rising Stars is definitely where the main interest lies. There has always been human interest figuring out how life would be if people had abilities that made them a cut above a normal human. This is regularly touched on in X-Men’s Sentinel saga, also with Lex Luthor’s general hatred of Superman being a living god. Rising Stars turns this on its head in a very satisfying way by limiting the powers that are given out to a set group of people and having them deal with being the extreme minority on the planet, yet wielding all of the power.

As can be expected, the Specials have their own personalities and hopes and dreams, as normal people do. They also are not all made equally. There are some individuals who are the Superman archetype and others that fall more into the hyper-intelligent brand of superhero. This disparity in skills causes schisms among the Specials themselves since some individuals feel they are of a superior nature to others.

The main plot gets rolling when a few Specials are murdered and it is obvious that one of their own is committing the crimes. This is all narrated by the last living Special, John Simon (aka Poet). John narrates the discovery that, with the murders the energy from the dead Specials is transferred to the remaining ones (Think Jet Li’s great film The One).

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Like this, but Jet Li has the skill set of a Super Saiyan.

This is just the tip of the iceberg and the reader gets to go on a special journey in the lives of superheroes, which is watching their full lives begin and end. Specials have all the power in the world, yet they have the same limitation normal humans do: time. Another underlying tale unfolds as well, which is how humanity would try to deal with suddenly falling from the apex predator perch.

Art

The art here isn’t really impressive. It isn’t bad, by any means, but the coloring and artwork definitely feel like a typical comic book. I would say if you were playing a game of charades and had to draw comic characters, Rising Stars would be the perfect point of reference. Held up next to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or East of West it fails to have that same visual impact.

rs09-lg

Cap’n Muurrca

Characters and Writing

Considering there are a mere 24-issues and three mini-series to get acquainted with the Specials there is a lot of ground covered. 113 is an impossible amount of characters to introduce and give personality to and intelligently author J. Michael Straczynski doesn’t attempt to. Each of the Specials mentioned in-depth in the comics are all interesting and either have powers you need to actually see to understand or have personalities so strong that you want to know what makes them tick. The inclusion of archetypical superheroes is also done intelligently. How would a real Batman act? You get to see it here. What would someone with multiple-personality disorder do with the ability to control other? Also in here. I found myself loving and hating characters and then merely understanding them by the end of the series and I loved it.

Worth the read and time to complete?

My God, yes. This feels like a brilliant deconstruction of the fantasy of superhero living a la Watchmen (not saying it is as good or anything). There are 24 issues and it really makes you think about what life would be like if you did have amazing abilities but knew you’d die at 70. My only complaint is that it does end very neatly, but I would prefer that over feeling unfulfilled at the end.

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.

Images: Header image from here, other images here and here

America’s Next Top Model: Cycles 20 and 21

America's Next Top Model, Cycle 21

Jonathan May

Cycle 21 of The CW’s America’s Next Top Model starts at the end of August this year. Going along with the 2.0 reinvention theme from last cycle, this latest will feature both male and female models, competing for the top prize. After much brouhaha, Ms. J. Alexander will return to judge alongside Tyra, the fans, and the fabulous Kelly Cutrone. Being from Memphis, I’m proud to say we have a male Memphian representing the River City in the competition. And because Tyra loves to shake it up, this upcoming season will also feature a female African-American contestant with vitiligo—I’ve seen her photos posted on the ANTM Facebook page, and she is gorgeous. I’m glad to see that Tyra keeps pushing the fashion envelope as far as the mainstream is concerned; it’s the same reason I like the United Colors of Benetton ads for their “whole-world” perspective on what is beautiful. America’s Next Top Model over the years has addressed and codified many forms of beauty, but what keeps it from becoming formulaic is the insistence on a model who can actually function well in the industry, perhaps the most important factor.

But let’s take a look at how the introduction of guys to the competition went in Cycle 20. Hormones raged as soon as the final contestants were decided. Romances quickly developed between various pairs; one particular couple, Marvin and Renee, were even termed “Marnee” like so many celebrity pairs. Cycle 20 also proved that the men could be just as bitchy as the women; for example, Chris, the hot and emotional brunette-turned-blond, drains the other contestants constantly with his notes about dishes and yelling about others’ behaviors. I personally blame him for Nina going home as early as she did, because she would spend so much time listening to his emotional quibbling.

This cycle also heightened the suspense by leading up to an elimination (or comeback) right as the episode ends, so you have to tune in the following week to see the results. While this may be an aggravating move for television viewing, when you binge-watch online it makes much less of a difference. One particular episode, however, wherein two contestants are brought back almost broke the emotional will of Phil, the bearded contender. He broke down while being eliminated, only to be told that tonight was the night someone was being brought back, upon which he broke down again. Then Tyra announces that Alexandra is coming back, and Phil breaks down again because he thinks that’s the end. Then Tyra says that she only just announced the female comeback contestant and has yet to pick the male. Phil breaks down again at that point. When he finally loses coming back to Jeremy and breaks down for the final time, I fully expected him to suffer a total nervous collapse. Such is the drama of reality television.

Ultimately, the winner was determined more by virtue of the sponsors (Guess Jeans, Nylon magazine) than by sheer talent. I won’t spoil the results in case you haven’t watched, but let’s just say I wish there were more variety in the lineup. Does a guy stand a chance of winning America’s Next Top Model? I’ll be tuning in this August to find out.

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

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Blade_Runner_poster

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. 

There are four possible responses to the question “What do you think of Blade Runner?” One is “I enjoyed it,” to which the correct response is “Yeah, me too.” The second is “I haven’t seen it,” to which the correct response is “You have a finite span of time on this Earth, and you are using it poorly.” The third is “I do not know what that is,” which, honestly, why do you know this person? The fourth is “I did not like it,” which, good Lord, what is wrong with humanity?

Blade Runner is without a doubt one of the most polished science fiction films of all time. It made kind of a weak showing at the domestic box office, but its influence spans decades and it makes appearances on most “Best Movie” lists, from Time to AFI. Its initial cult status and later critical success spring from Ridley Scott’s genius worldbuilding. In and around a satisfying film noir shoot-em-up, Scott weaves a vivid world dripping with the ominous tones of the film at large.

Before getting more into that, I want to talk about the weirdness of the other mind involved in the project, Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner is based on PKD’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Both the film and the book deal with the question of what constitutes humanity, and what happens to those who do not make the cut. These concepts are pretty vanilla compared to PKD’s other work, in which protagonists regularly consider not the authenticity and substantiveness of their fellow humans, but of reality itself. In Ubik, the protagonist jumps multiple realities and has no way of knowing which one is “real.” In “The Adjustment Team,” (released in theaters as The Adjustment Bureau) the way reality and the world are is under the control of an unseen organization that completely, and completely behind the scenes, manipulates events. This sounds insane, right? That might be because Philip K. Dick was a little crazy himself. He spent the last years of his life convinced that an entity called VALIS was communicating with him via a pink, information-rich beam of light, and that he was leading a dual life: in one, he was an author in the 20th century, and in the other, he was a persecuted Christian living in 1st century Rome. Yup. Whatever – his perception of the world led to a lot of inimitable SF.

PhilipDick

Hollywood has made so much money off of this man’s insanity

The story of PKD’s life is so appealing in an ironic tragedy way because he spent most of his life poor as dirt, even while writing like a fiend. The stories and novels that were being accepted by publishers were not making him a lot of money, partially because they were genre publishers, which did not pay nearly as much as mainstream. After going through a fairly rough life in which he experienced five broken marriages, anxiety and other mental problems, and a disheartening lack of commercial success, he died right before Blade Runner was released. The irony is that while living, his art won him little money, but posthumously his estate has overseen the transformation of eleven of his books and short stories into major motion pictures. For comparison, Stanley Kubrick only has sixteen directing credits. The gap between PKD’s level of success while alive and while dead is absurd.

Blade Runner initiated this posthumous stream of cash from Hollywood to PKD’s descendants. It is a very well-put-together tech-noir film, in which one taciturn guy, Harrison Ford, is pulled back into the police force he has retired from to hunt down androids escaped from offworld colonies. Androids do not have the same emotional responses as humans, so “blade runners” (those tasked with hunting androids) administer a special test that measures iris contraction, breathing patterns, the blush response, et cetera. If you pass the test, you are human. If you do not, you get shot. Sure, this movie is exciting or appealing every second of playtime. Sure, Harrison Ford playing a cynical ex-cop is perfect. Yes, the reflections on what life means and the internal struggles of a constructed entity are important. What gives the film most of its power, however, is Scott’s painstaking, industry-changing construction of LA in 2019 (ha).

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This is what LA is supposed to look like in five years.
Scott’s future LA has people swarming in the streets, monolithic, light-blocking buildings, heavy Asian cultural influences (multiple times the protagonist stops to get noodles for fast food, and English is not necessarily the most common spoken language). Genetic engineers have become so talented that they can create human eyes, bodies, and brains. Flying cars are happening, which, why does everyone think flying cars will be a thing? The differences in technology and culture are only part of what Scott accomplishes. His set design is astounding. In all the exterior shots, we see an LA swarming with people, close packed in the alleys, standing in the rain. Sunlight never makes an appearance in this film. Buildings are monolithically, absurdly huge, plastered with massive moving billboards advertising common products. All of this is so well-done and so threatening the environment itself is almost another character in the film. The strange appeal of the environment is part of what established this movie’s initial cult reception, and I think part of that appeal comes from the plausibility of the imagined future. Urbanization exploded in the mid 20th century, and a few years ago we just crossed the line where now more than half the people on Earth live in cities. As this trend continues, it is absolutely believable that future cities will be dark, dank, crowded, and menacing. Here’s hoping we are headed to a future with the flying cars and without the dense mass of desperate humanity swarming through a bleak cityscape.

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.