books

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

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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. 

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.

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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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

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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. 

There are two main classes of SF author: those who have broken into mainstream success, and those who have, while creating a vibrant and diverse body of work, remained largely unknown outside of the hallowed halls of SF fandom. In the first category, you have your Ursula K. Le Guins (who is actually in a category all by herself because dear God is she amazing), your Neal Stephensons, and your Robert Heinleins. In the second category, you have your Roger Zelaznys, your Vonda McIntyres, and your Poul Andersons. The work of those in the second category is not necessarily worse than those in the first. Indeed, many of the ideas explored are right on par or better than those from the first-category authors. Their work simply tends to be less geared towards wider audiences, so it does not have the wider appeal of the first-category authors.

One way to make SF appeal less to wider audiences is to construct a hard SF tale. Hard and soft SF are terms which denote an overwhelming focus on technology and innovation for the one and a focus more on the social developments and psychological effects of technology for the other. In hard SF, you’ll get an explanation of how the propulsion system of the spacecraft works, the main character will be an engineer, and the main conflict will be his struggle to repair the craft before everyone dies. In soft SF, everyone will be on the same spaceship, but it’ll just fly because that’s what spaceships do, and the narrative focus will be more on character development and social concerns. These two directions are not mutually exclusive – you can have good explanation of tech in soft SF, and you can have strong character development in hard SF – it’s just a question of focus. Tau Zero is considered a perfect example of hard SF.

First off, the name itself is a scientific term. Tau is the symbol which denotes proper time in physics. Proper time is time as measured by a moving observer, meaning that at relativistic speeds, proper time for someone in a ship is very different than proper time for someone outside the ship. Time dilation is a central concept of this book, and tau is a central measure in time dilation. According to Anderson (Wikipedia says he fudged this a bit), as tau approaches zero, the gap between experienced and objective time becomes more and more significant. This is the main conflict of the book.

A team of scientists boards the Leonora Christine, a new ship with a Bussard ramjet propulsion system. Bussard ramjets are theoretical engines that use massive magnetic fields to collect hydrogen from space as they travel interstellar distances. The faster the ship goes, the faster the hydrogen is collected. The magnetic fields and the acceleration combine to compress the hydrogen to the point where it fuses and creates a massive amount of energy, which is then directed by those magnetic fields out the back of the engine, creating thrust. This proposed propulsion system solves the problem of holding onto fuel for interstellar travel – no ship would be able to lug around all the crap it would need to burn to get from one star to another – the prohibitively high weight would render it infeasible.

Anyway, they got themselves a ramjet, and they’re using it to go on a twenty-year exploratory mission. The way the trip works is that the ship spends half of its time accelerating and half of its time decelerating, so at the midpoint it turns its engines around and reverses thrust. The astronauts are prepared for time dilation to make twenty years go by on Earth, but there’s a hitch. Right before the midpoint, the ship passes through a nebula. All that dust collides with the deceleration system and renders it nonfunctional. The astronauts cannot slow down, so they sit and try to solve the problem while everyone they have ever known dies on Earth. They decide to accelerate even more and go to an entirely new galaxy, so they kiss human civilization goodbye and ramp up their speed. The main struggle of the book is fixing the decelerator and finding a place to live now that all of human civilization has been gone for millions of years.

The character development of the book is severely lacking. It exists, and it is passable, but it was clearly not a priority. They were so paper-thin that they had less substance than the gangsters from that fake mob movie that Kevin McCallister watches in Home Alone. A grizzled war veteran holds the entire crew together as they bounce from crisis to crisis, never giving up hope because he’s just got too much damned grit. That in itself is a pretty slipshod job of character building, and he’s really the only character I remember from the book. That and the fact that I spent more than half of this article talking about spaceships and about five percent of it talking about characters should indicate the severity of this book’s character problem.

Despite all that, I enjoyed it. The overarching direction of the book is humanity boldly going where no one has gone before, which I’m a sucker for. A very simple, clear, and horrifying problem arises when their propulsion system goes on the fritz, and the hard work of a handful of dedicated individuals solves the problem in a very interesting way. It has a very interesting and clear central idea, but the surrounding elements do not quite come together. It is a novel expanded from a short story, and maybe it should have stayed a short story. Problems aside, you should give this one a shot.

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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: René Barjavel’s La nuit des temps (The Ice People)

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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. 

French SF is relatively unknown in the United States. Discounting La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) and Jules Verne, it has not carved out a strong presence in America. It might be that high-quality domestic product is glutting the market, as the only nation ever to put human beings anywhere other than Earth is also kind of a world leader in producing fiction about space and science. Most everyone who cares at all about books knows the names Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. Let’s repeat that list with some big French SF authors: Jean-Marc Ligny, Xavier Mauméjean, and Pierre Bordage. If the final question at bar trivia had asked about anyone on that second list, would your team have been anywhere close to winning a free pitcher? I understand this imbalance to a certain extent. Having a strong French presence in the American SF market would make about as much sense as California merlot being the best-selling wine in Paris. The weird thing is, there’s almost no French presence in the market. Its profile is so minor that it’s the equivalent of people in Paris not knowing that California exists. It’s not because of lack of quality. La nuit des temps is among the best 1960s SF I’ve read. It’s certainly the best French SF I’ve read since Vingt-mille lieues sous les mers. Its quality derives from a combination of technical inventiveness, delightful early-SF pulpiness, and haunting social commentary.

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America: being amazing since 1776

The opening paragraph of La nuit des temps (translated literally as The Night of Time, sold in Anglophone countries as The Ice People) signals a Big Problem from the get-go:

My beloved one, my abandoned one, my lost one, I left you there at the bottom of the world, I returned to my city apartment with its familiar furniture over which I’ve so often run my hands, the hands that love them, with its books that nourished me, with its old cherry bed where my childhood slept, and where, tonight, I sought in vain to sleep. All of this decor which witnessed me grow up, grow bigger, become me, today seemed to me strange and impossible. This world which is not yours has become a false world, in which I have never had a place.

Already, on page one, the narrator is reflecting upon the loss of his beloved. The reader knows from the start that this story does not end well, and this creates a tension that builds higher the closer the ending gets. The general background of the story is that, during the Cold War, a team of French scientists discover the ruins of an ancient civilization deep under the ice of Antarctica. When carbon dating places the ruins at 900,000 years old, hundreds of thousands of years older than human civilization, it incites international interest and passion. Pretty soon, an international team of scientists and a new research station are assembled at the location. They dig, and they find a buried city filled with wonders. Unfortunately, all of these wonders melt with the ice that held their molecules in place. All except one – the contents of a special Egg. Within the Egg, there is a strange generator and two human forms, male and female, encased in solid helium, preserved in a state of suspended animation at near absolute zero. The scientists decide to revive the female first. She wakes up, and the main narrative takes off. The main storyline is twofold. The first is concerned with international reaction to scientific developments at the station, the interrogation and assistance of Eléa, and the general tensions of the modern world. The second concerns the story of Eléa’s life in her ancient world, which the reader also knows will not end happily because her civilization has been annihilated.

The inventiveness of Bajarvel is a pleasure, and the book is filled with little pieces of technology either invented by the scientists or recovered from the ruins. One of the first that he introduces is the “eating machine,” which supplies Eléa with nourishment. It is a squat dome with buttons. She presses those buttons in a certain order, and the device produces colored spheres. These spheres are perfectly-balanced nutrition, and when the scientific team dismantles the device, they cannot find any raw materials. Eléa says the food is created from universal energy, the use of which her society had mastered through Zoran’s equation (the prospect of plucking limitless energy and materials out of thin air gets everyone on Earth’s attention). Unfortunately, Eléa is not a scientist and does not know the equation.

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This is Zoran’s equation. Yea, the Antarctic scientists didn’t know either.

Another invention is the “serums” of her society, one of which increases the hardiness of the human organism, so much so that the word “fatigue” all but fell out of Eléa’s language. An experimental one that she took in order to survive the freezing process of suspended animation confers biological immortality. Biological immortality means that if you get hit by a truck, you still die, but you’ll never die from old age. Sadly, most futurists predict that, were humans biologically immortal, the average life expectancy would still be only about 200, because shit happens. Anyway, attractive tech. I love the next two examples of technology because they are so blatantly story-enabling. First off, there is a giant computer, the Translator, whose basic function is to provide translation between the many different languages of the international scientific team. Everyone wears an earbud connected to the computer, and the computer takes in whatever is said to the person, converts it to their language, and pipes it back into their ear. The blatantly story-enabling part of this machine is that they feed all the data they have on Eléa’s language into it, and after not really that long, her 900,000-year-old language is one the computer fully understands, enabling communication.

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Did someone say implausible but plot-essential translation skills?

The other piece of tech that’s more narrative trickery than a machine is a brainwave reader. This is a device that, when put on the head, transmits thoughts. Its intended use is to pair it with another such device, thus allowing two people to communicate directly by thought. The scientists modify it so that it broadcasts to a television, meaning that, instead of Eléa having to talk about her life, she just puts on the circles, and up it pops on the Jumbotron. After they recover her, communicate with her, and turn the inside of her brain into quality TV programming, the narrative switches directly to describing what happens on the screen as the scientists watch. It explores the ancient civilization, which leads to a lot of the delightful pulpiness of the book.

First off, Eléa’s country is called Gondawa. It existed on Earth during a time when there was really only it and one other country, Enisor, on the same technological level with a few weaker nations scattered here and there (sound familiar?). The majority of their country was leveled by nuclear bombardment from Enisor, so they lived in extensive and beautiful underground cities, filled with plants and animals bioengineered to subterranean life. There are factories on the lowest levels of each city, factories which use Zoran’s equation to manufacture tools, structures, and implements from nothing. A central computer calculates the GDP of the country each year, and disburses an allowance equally to each citizen, to be used to purchase clothing, transport, and housing, and whatever other luxuries they might need. Very few people spend through their entire allowance, and it disappears at the end of every year to prevent the accrual of wealth. All of the machines and services are activated by a special ring worn by all citizens after their Designation ceremony. The Designation is a rite of passage from child to adult, at which citizens receive their numerical identification (Eléa’s is 3-19-07-91), their rings, and their partners. Yup, there is no dating in Gondawa. The central computer matches personality profiles of children to each other, finds ideal pairings, and designates them. This is probably the most utopian dream of the book, as the pairings result mostly in great happiness and sometimes in ineffable joy. Even bad matches are amiable and peaceful. Eléa had one of the second kind of matches, the perfect, soul-shatteringly intense level of love. The tragedy and pain Eléa feels from the second she regains consciousness is that as far as she knows, the love of her life, Paikan, has been dead for nine thousand centuries. The modern narrative circles around her inability to recover from this, and the ancient narrative circles on the development of her relationship with Paikan. The pulpiest parts of the book come from this relationship, which is high-octane, high-emotion, crowd-pleasing idealism. It is Romeo and Juliet, except the two people involved are not separated by a misunderstanding, but by the death of a civilization. The personal tragedy of two lovers is just one casualty of worldwide destruction, which forms the basis of this novel’s social commentary.

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Their match.com profiles were 95% compatible!

There’s the standard advanced-civilization-versus-ours dynamic at play here, in which our society seems barbaric by comparison to the society of the visitor, but little things like Eléa not understanding why nudity is such a big deal (1960s male SF writer, folks) are not the main punch of the commentary. The frightening social commentary of La nuit des temps, doubly frightening when it was published at the height of the Cold War and when the collective insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue, centers around the fact that an ancient humanity existed on a world with two superpowers and that there is now almost no trace left of that civilization. I will not get into specifics, but the Gondawans, in an attempt to avoid another war, built “l’Arme Solaire,” the Sun Weapon, as a deterrent. The function of the Sun Weapon is to concentrate the Sun’s rays on Enisor and basically melt the entire country. It backfired, both as a deterrent and as a weapon. The civilization that gave birth to it was wiped from the face of the Earth. Terrifying stuff to read, in 1968 especially.

You should give French SF a chance. Sure, if you search “Best French SF” on Google, the entire first page of results consists of the highest quality French restaurants in San Francisco, but you can always go to the French science fiction wikipedia page to look for good stuff. It is a vibrant and inventive branch of the genre. It produced La nuit des temps, which is a great novel filled with a heart-wrenching love story, fear-inducing social commentary, and a rewarding exploration of an extremely advanced society.

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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World

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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. 

Haruki Murakami has an awesome how-I-became-a-writer story. His parents expected him to snag a job with Mitsubishi and find a nice wife once he was secure. He married young and started a jazz bar, the Peter Cat. One: That is an awesome jazz bar name. Two: Something about saying “fuck stable employment, I’m going to open a jazz bar” seems like an especially risky thing to do in Japan. He continued running the bar until, at 29 years old, he saw a player hit a home run at a baseball game, and he suddenly knew he could write a novel. A lot of people say “I can write a novel!” to themselves. Not a lot then immediately go home and write an award-winning one, which is what Murakami did. At 65, he is one of the foremost practitioners of the post-modern novel of the weird. He usually builds the reality of his book out of the materials at hand, i.e the real world, but then takes those parts and subtly bends them until the world he bases on this one becomes haunting, unsettling, and strange. The proximity of the completely normal, unassuming world with the depths and strangenesses Murakami weaves through it creates a tension that is central to most of his work. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, that dynamic is in full play, but he more explicitly includes science-fiction and fantasy in the mix.

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I desperately want to travel back in time to the Peter Cat Jazz Bar.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World comprises two interwoven narratives, one science-fiction and one fantasy, that play out in alternating chapters. In the SF world, a data encryption specialist gets in way over his head. In the fantasy world, a newcomer with no memory of his self gives up his shadow in order to enter a strange town. The weaving itself is impressive – one of the signature Murakami pieces of weirdness is that these narratives are connected in a strange and unknown way that is very hazy at the beginning of the book. What is extraordinary is how perfectly Murakami hits the tone of each genre in the alternating chapters. In the SF chapters, Murakami creates a gritty, slightly grim world of loneliness and serious men doing serious things reminiscent of cyberpunk, and in the fantasy chapters, he perfectly captures the importance of place and the sense of timelessness that permeate a lot of the genre.

In the SF chapters (Hard-Boiled Wonderland), the narrative follows a man as he gets more and more involved in a dangerous conspiracy that he does not understand. The main science-fictional element of this world is that the main character is a Calcutec, an individual who has undergone brain surgery and training to transform his subconscious into a data-shuffling device. He takes a series of numbers, puts a pencil in his hand, goes into a trance, and then when he wakes up, he has run the data through his subconscious and shuffled it into a new, nearly-uncrackable code. Something about the uniqueness of each person’s consciousness and the chaos of the human mind make this the most secure form of data encryption – without the key, there is almost no way to decrypt the information. This is important, as the System, the giant data-protection agency which fields Calcutecs, is battling the Factory, an underground organization composed of Semiotecs whose main motivation is finding, decrypting, and selling top-secret information. The protagonist is hired by a mad scientist to protect his cutting-edge research. He does his normal thing, encrypts the data, but then people who desperately want that data make his life difficult. The main conflict in the Hard-Boiled chapters comes from the protagonist’s desire to stay safe and discover what is going on and why people are chasing him.

In the fantasy chapters, the narrative follows a newcomer around a mysterious town as he tries to figure out what is going on and reunite with his shadow. There are many magical elements to The End of the World, such as the protagonist having to give up his shadow, which becomes a separate, autonomous entity. There are unicorns that wander around the town during the day and are sent out the West gate at night. The central magic of these chapters, however, is dreamreading. The protagonist is assigned a job, as all inhabitants of the town are assigned a job. His is dreamreading, which consists of going to the library at night, going into the stacks, which contain shelves of unicorn skulls, taking them down, tracing the glowing lines on each skull with his fingers, and attempting to read the thoughts and dreams contained within. The point and method of this process is just as mysterious and unknown as the data encryption in the SF world, and each protagonist is just as confused and lost as the other. In addition to the magical aspect, another trait that makes these chapters a strong example of fantasy is Murakami’s attention to maps and places.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It ain’t fantasy without a map.

The Town itself is a major character of the fantasy chapters, and one of the major differences between the two narratives is how much more important not just what is happening but where it’s happening is important to this one. The Town is a community which stands at the End of the World. It is surrounded by a gigantic, perfect wall, with only one exit: the West Gate, which is tended by the Gatekeeper. These locations are primal: There is only the Library, the Woods, the Pool, the Barracks, et cetera. Each location is just the capital-letter archetype of what it represents, and there are no clear place names. This adds to the haziness and nonspecificity of these chapters. All of the characters here are named for their occupation: the Librarian, the Colonel, and the Dreamreader, in addition to the Gatekeeper. A mildly sinister tone is set in the first chapter when the protagonist has to give up his shadow, and when the Gatekeeper starts seeming more like a warden than a keeper. The main conflict in The End of the World chapters comes from the main character’s desire to find out what the secret of the Town is and to reunite with his shadow.

The greatest success of this book is the flawless interweaving of each separate narrative into a cohesive, if jagged, whole, and Murakami’s masterful switching between tones and styles each chapter. To give an example of the perfect and nuanced difference in style, following are two excerpts from the book.

First paragraph of first SF chapter:

The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was not telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know? 

First paragraph of first fantasy chapter:

With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.

In the SF opening, the focus is on the thoughts of the narrator as he interacts with a piece of technology – an elevator. Rational, analytical thought dissecting all possibilities of movement and speed for the elevator he is riding to his job. In the fantasy opening, the focus is on rich, mythical description. The narrator describes the autumn coats of the unicorns, and they are not just gold and pretty; their coat color is a Platonic form of gold, “poised between all heaven and earth.” The focus is not so much on the analysis of the mundane as it is on the observation and experience of the mythical. This slight but powerful stylistic difference reverberates throughout each narrative, keeping them distinct even as the reader discovers how they are connected.

The main pleasure of this book comes from the dense accumulation of small, vivid details. The SF narrator spends a lot of time drinking whiskey, listening to jazz, and reading books. The fantasy narrator spends a lot of time going on long walks within the town walls. These sound boring, but Murakami’s descriptive power makes it pleasurable to read about the SF narrator eating a sandwich or the fantasy narrator walking to the Library looking at the sky. That is, Murakami’s talent makes his book interesting in parts that a lesser author would make unforgivably boring. Another strong point of this novel is its deep meditation on the nature of self. As the narratives cycle more and more tightly around each other, the major thematic focus of the novel shifts to questioning who each narrator actually is, what the significance of self is, and what identity means. The SF narrator becomes more and more preoccupied with who he is and what motivates him:

Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.

Everyone deals with constructing their own identity, trying to modify themselves either by strengthening their identity or trying to get away from it, and Murakami profoundly captures the futility and beauty of the struggle with that amazing line, “I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.” In addition to these discrete thoughts on self and identity, the narratives begin spiraling around each other in a way that structurally supports meditations on what existence is – I can’t really get into that part of it without hitting spoilers.

If you’ve been hearing buzz about Murakami for years but have not yet read anything of his, this is the place to start. It is not as long and sprawling as 1Q84, is more plot-driven than The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and is a great book all on its own. The creation and sustainment of two distinct but intertwined worlds, the depth of detail he creates in each narrative, and the shattering profundity of the final reflection on what selfhood means all mark this as a book well worth your time.

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.

Images: Map from here and Jazz Bar from here.

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

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bernard Werber’s Empire of the Ants

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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.

Imagine this: you are absolutely crushed with exhaustion. You’ve been working for 12 hours straight, or you’ve just run 10 miles, or you’ve just moved all of your furniture to a new apartment and only one of your friends actually showed up to help. You are about to fall down with fatigue, but you turn to your friend, who offers you nourishment from his or her own stomach. Once you lock lips and do the exchange, you feel reenergized and ready to take on the world. This process is called trophallaxis, and for ants, it’s a way to bond, exchange pheromones, and get valuable caloric units to the members of the colony that need it most. I know this because I have just finished reading a book called Empire of the Ants.

This book is strange in that the majority of it is narrated from the point of view of ants. Werber weaves three distinct threads through the book’s narrative: ant POV passages, human POV passages, and fictional encyclopedia entries. The encyclopedia was written by a deceased mad scientist, the relatives of whom form most of the human characters in the novel. Its subject is unknown at the beginning of the novel, but its author, Edmond Wells, was deep into myrmecology and wanted to establish communication with the ants. His nephew, Jonathan, inherits his old apartment and finds a note saying “Never go into the cellar!” Following story logic, of course he ends up going down there, where he discovers a massive subterranean cavern. The narrative thread of the human POV section deals with the dangers, mysteries, and discoveries of the late Uncle Edmond’s secret underground laboratory. The ant POV sections actually dominate the book, which raises the question –  how do animals with brains the size of an asterisk (*) sustain any type of comprehensible narrative? This is where the fiction part of science fiction comes in.

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Formica Rufa, the main character(s) of this novel

Ants undeniably use language. A lot of animals use basic pheromones, but ants employ a massive dictionary of them: scientists think that they can recognize hundreds of chemical combinations (side note: the scientist in that article is attempting exactly what the fictional scientist in the book is – translating and using the ant language). Werber takes this fact of ant society and expands chemical signals like “Food this way!” and “I am dying!” into a structure that can handle phrases like, “Something weird is going on here. We need to communicate this to the swarm.” It is an established fact that ants have language, and Werber simply asks his readers to apply suspension of disbelief and accept that ants have a language nearly as complex as ours. He does not abuse this anthropomorphization of his principal characters. They use their ant language to run around doing ant things – at no point do two disgruntled ants get drunk at a bar and whine about how the Queen is working them too hard. We see ants going out into the dangers of the world foraging for food, ants taking care of larvae, ants making war with a different species of ant, and any number of other antish activities. Werber does a good job illuminating the subtlety and complexity of life in an anthill and making these explanations part of the action of the story. For example, most ant colonies have a queen whose only responsibility or influence over the swarm is constantly laying eggs. Most of these eggs grow into sterile female worker ants, but some are fed better than others, and these better-fed larvae develop into sexually mature, winged females. Unfertilized eggs develop into male ants, which do nothing but sit around eating. When the weather is right, all the males and sexually mature females fly away from the colony, sometimes over very long distances, and mate along the way. The male deposits his gametes in the female then dies, and the female can then use this genetic payload to lay eggs for as long as the next thirty years. She then lands, tears off her own wings, starts digging a small burrow to lay eggs in, and builds the entire populace of a new city.

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This newly-landed queen is already stocked with every worker that will ever be a member of her colony.

Werber takes all of this information and weaves it into a tense action scene in the book. Out of the millions of virgin queens who swarm off, only a handful actually survive. They are eaten by birds, they are killed by competing ants, or they simply fail at setting up a new colony. This high failure rate allows Werber to add a lot of suspense to the situation when narrating the nuptial flight of one of the main ant characters. She flies hard as birds pick off her comrades left and right, she tires and can fly no more and falls in a river, she gets trapped in a spiderweb and faces almost certain death there, and then she lands, eats her own wings (high-protein nourishment after an exhausting ordeal), and starts the laborious process of bringing a new nation into the world. This melding of action and explanation throughout the book creates a strange phenomenon whereby, as Werber advances the plot, the reader learns a ridiculous amount about how ants work. I know about trophallaxy, the nuptial flight, where and how they store food, their symbiotic relationship with aphids, how they wake up after a long hibernation, how they use their antennae, how they care for their young, how they wage war (they can actually shoot acid from their abdomen!), and a host of other facts. The interplay between information and plot advancement creates a pleasurable sense of ambiguity around whether the book is a reference text or a fiction book. I mean, it’s a fiction book; it has talking ants for God’s sake, but from what you can learn from it, it may as well be an encyclopedia.

Which brings us to what might turn you off of this book: If you do not care about ant facts, you will be bored to tears. The main payoff of the novel is the painstaking exploration and elucidation of an extremely alien culture that exists just a few feet underneath the earth, and if you are not into that, your experience of the novel will be missing its main selling point. The humans are hands-down the weakest part of the novel. Their thoughts are simplistic, their dialogue is uninteresting, and their path through the narrative is not nearly as appealing as that of the ants. Werber does not construct solid mimetic aspects for his characters. James Phelan’s theory of character splits character creation into three aspects: The mimetic aspect is how much the character resembles an actual person, the thematic aspect is how the character serves to advance the ideas of the novel, and the synthetic aspect is how the character serves as an artificial construct that advances the narrative. Many SF novels skimp on developing the mimetic aspect of their characters (consistent character traits, subtle emotional responses, believable interactions with other characters). Having fully-developed characters along all three axes is often what separates SF books that escape the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of bookstores from more well-recognized (but not necessarily less worthwhile) SF. For example, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are not considered genre literature, whereas the less character-centric Starship Troopers, The Gods Themselves, and Planet of the Apes are almost always found next to the Star Wars books.

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One of these categories of SF has much better book covers than the other.

In some SF novels, the subsumption of character-as-person by character-as-idea is a symptom of SF as a literature of ideas – the SF novel is an exercise in philosophical extrapolation, and everything else takes a backseat to that. It is forgivable to have two-dimensional characters in the service of ideas, but Werber’s humans are stunted both mimetically and thematically. Their only purpose is synthetic – they stumble through the world of the book and advance the plot.

The flimsiness of the human characters and the relatively lackluster plot are the only sour spots in an exact, exciting, and enlightening study of how a society completely alien to our own might function if it had just a little bit more brainpower than we give it credit for. Ants are amazing. They are arguably the most successful animal on the planet. They are on every continent, everywhere except for the highest mountain peaks and the poles. They have been around for 140 million years (humanity = 200,000 years). The total weight of all ants on Earth roughly equals the total weight of all humans on Earth. If they can communicate the way they do in this book, and we piss them off, we’re screwed. Maybe you should read this as a primer on how best to welcome your new ant overlords.

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.

Should I Read This: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry Winner 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri

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Austin Duck

As the committees announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry this month, we find ourselves once again in that season where, all of a sudden, people read a book of poems. Sure, it’s only one (and usually not the best one of the year), but hey one figures, all these poor suckers are writing these books that maybe five hundred people ever read, and if this one has made it atop this year’s pile of dreams (a la the scene in World War Z) we might as well. Maybe we’ll feel something.

If you’re feeling this way, 3 Sections might not be for you. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t read it—really, it’s astonishing—but, in 3 Sections, Seshadri grapples not with the known, reducing the world to something we can see or hear or think; there are no easy answers or feelings of beauty or satisfaction in these poems. Yes, they’re beautiful, yes, they’re satisfying, but, in some ways, his subject matter is so foreign, so simultaneously abstract and concrete that even when you make it through a poem, or the book, or the book twice, it seems to have been a dream, a dream you didn’t understand, a dream that gestures and satisfies at the very idea that, if you understood something, you’ve dominated, destroyed, and reconstructed it in your own image; that astonishment and beauty and meaning in the world luxuriate all around us inaccessible, and that that is the pleasure, to see and fail to assimilate it, to feel the meaning slip always through your fingers. Like I said, not, conceptually, a very simple book, nor a book in which the author has much chance of succeeding.

I mean, it doesn’t take a philosopher to see the logical problem of making a book in which poem after poem (each, in and of itself, a meaning machine) concludes unable to make meaning, or makes meaning of not being able to make meaning, not being able to know, always just outside of the world taking place before the mind. Add to that the collection itself, 3 Sections, is not actually delineated into three sections and you wind up less with what you might consider classically as a book of poems (title, body, meaning / title, body, meaning), or a logical piece of work, precisely because both logic and “classical definitions” are ways of understanding the world by categorization and rules, both of which assume that we truly know the world. Rather Seshadri crafts a story about failed attempts, of trying and failing to break into what we think of as the “sensible” world in which we know how to make meaning, precisely because we allow our minds to to categorize and sort things we don’t understand.

What we get instead is a book unable to separate itself out, or, in case some of you think about books as put together by an external author, unable to be separated. While it parses like this—a bunch of short poems, then a long prose piece about commercial salmon fishing, and then a really long philosophical poem—and while each of the pieces does have its own title, its own thud of meaning, we have a singular mind working its way through a singular problem so that the “sections” seem formal rather than thematic, new approaches to the same problem, new strategies that land in different, though (in many ways) equivalent valences of failure of access to the world.

I know that I’ve talked about this book very abstractly, and for that, I apologize. Here’s an alternative way to consider this book and its project: Imagine you’re looking at a very beautiful woman (or man) by whom, inexplicably, you’re filled with an enormous amount of feeling and affection. At this point, if you’re in any way conscious of what it means to fantasize about someone, you acknowledge that there are two paths you can take: 1) you can project your dream of them, all of your ideas and fantasies about who they are and what their life means onto them, or 2) you can accept the frustrating, terrifying reality that they are only, exclusively themselves, and that, no matter what happens, or how much you pay attention, all you will ever come to is that what they are, what they think and feel and what makes them beautiful is entirely inaccessible to you, and that that singularity, that inaccessibility, that inability to ever know something well enough to separate out its parts and to theorize it, is exactly what makes it beautiful and astonishing and worth looking at and trying towards again and again.

In many ways, this is a book of prayers, a book of trances, a book in which, ultimately, things can only be seen exactly and perfectly and separately as they are. It’s not a pleasant book because the mind in the world is not pleasant; the mind wants to steal from the world, to make comfort and simple beauty, and to ask god what’s the meaning of life and to get a satisfactory, comprehensible answer, and the world and god refuse. Seshadri’s 3 Sections is a story of how to live in that refusal.

Austin Duck lives and blogs in DC. He can be reached at jaustinduck@gmail.com.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Short Stories of George Saunders

Author George Saunders

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.

George Saunders is one of the greatest short story writers alive today. He is currently positioned to become a household name (well, in houses lined with books), but he has been killing it for nearly two decades. The New York Times hailed his latest short story collection, The Tenth of December, as the “best book you’ll read this year.” Saunders came to the art by a strange path. He graduated from college in 1981 with a B.S. in geophysical engineering and spent some time prospecting for an oil company in Indonesia. He then found a job as a technical writer for an environmental engineering company. By the late 90s, he’d published CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and had gotten a professorship at Syracuse. His unorthodox literary training leads to a fresh and interesting style. Saunders himself describes the phenomenon as “just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”

A welder-designed dress would at least be an interesting and new thing, and that’s what Saunders’ stories are. The humor, language usage, and emotional impact of his stories are what makes them powerful. Saunders employs dark humor and tragicomedy to great effect. This feature of his stories has drawn comparisons between him and Kurt Vonnegut, and like Kurt Vonnegut, some of his humor is laugh-out-loud entertaining, but it is mostly the humor that comes from the sudden revelation of a deep truth, humor that does not manifest in laughter but in a swift body-blow to something a lot deeper in you than simple amusement. It is absurd humor, and it mostly arises from horrifying situations and people living through them as if they were more or less normal. The best example of this humor comes from the first sentence of “The 400-Pound CEO”

At noon another load of raccoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron.

Murdering animals is not ha-ha funny, but the shock of that situation, the world of the story in which a company exists that surreptitiously murders raccoons with automotive maintenance implements, and the realization that, if it were lucrative, there would probably be a company in real life that did exactly that, combine to create a much more profound, more affecting, and less flashy humor than the standard fare.

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You would not believe the profit margin on these things

Another example, from “Tenth of December,” is the interior monologue of a not-too-bright kid who is remembering his runaway father:

Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?

Is there icing on it? he’d said.

Dad had done that thing of squinting the eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.

Sure, basic humor comes from how stupid the kid is. Stupidity is a very deep well for amusement, but couched and laced throughout that more mundane entertainment is deep emotional involvement. The dad is gone, the kid is remembering his advice, the kid has to deal with being stupid, and the kid is remembering his dad “squinting his eyes” as he most likely thinks about how stupid his son is, which dealing with fatherly disappointment is par for the course vis-a-vis life, but this boy’s father actually kicked standard disappointment up to abandonment.

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Delicious.

The language Saunders favors tends to be simple and immediate, as most of his narrators spend a lot of time relaying the stream-of-consciousness of his main characters, and very few people think with showboating words while navigating the trenches of actual life. The informal style and immediacy add punch to the emotional impact, so the reader experiences what the character experiences with very little processing lag or separation. More so than simple language, the situations and descriptions of the characters creates a massive emotional impact. Saunders does not choose as his subject big heroes and villains. He explores not the grandness of exalted victory or crushing defeat, but the petty brokenness of everyday life and the small consolations wrested from it, which is what most people actually deal with. These small consolations are affecting because they are all we can manage, but also, if we shift our perspective, all we need.

It just so happens that a lot of his stories are science fiction. I got a chance to ask him about his sci-fi chops, and he responded that he wasn’t a superfan (as in, he has not seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation), but that he really enjoyed writing in that mode and that it helped break you out of lame writing and bad habits, which, yes, a lot of self-consciously literary books are full of lame writing and bad habits (I really hated the 100 pages I read of that book). Saunders’ writing style is mostly absurd and surrealistic. Many of his stories are full of ghosts, ridiculous people, and nonsensical events. In a decent number of these stories, the enhanced-reality style turns to science fiction. Why am I reviewing this author as a science fiction author if he just dips his beak in every few stories? He is quite simply one of the best practitioners of the form. One of the methods by which SF gains it power is cognitive estrangement, wherein the author presents a reality that is clearly different from the empirical environment of both the author and the reader, but is a plausible extension of it. In this dynamic, the clash between the world of the story and the real world brings heightened clarity to the readers’ perception how things actually are. Saunders’ SF is great at this. It is only a hop, a skip, and a jump into the future, and only extrapolates the technologies and societal norms that form the most rampant pathologies at play in U.S. culture today, namely capitalism and fear. One story takes the form of a sales representative from KidLuv trying to dissuade a dissatisfied mother from returning her I CAN SPEAK!™, which is a molded mask you fit over your infant’s face that, through an implanted speaker, gives the impression that your child can talk. This is of course at the cost of the comfort of the infant. Another chronicles the penalties a man incurs by taking off his shoes to walk more comfortably in NYC, incidentally preventing the advertising sensors in the sidewalks from reading the identification tags in his shoes and projecting the most relevant ads in front of him as he walks.

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Completely implausible storyline.

Another is about a new type of incarceration, where prisoners can opt to go to research stations, receive a MobiPak™ (an implanted drug delivery system) and participate in dangerous pharmaceutical research. The current ascendancy of consumer culture and capitalism make these possible futures all too plausible, and by forcing his readers to consider these futures, he highlights the dehumanizing and unsustainable nature of the present system. Above all, he hammers home the perennial truth, formulated by his forebear, that there’s only one rule: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Read these stories. They hit hard, and they hit deep. Saunders has said that a novel is just a story that hasn’t yet figured out to be brief, and the power behind the brevity of his stories gives a lot of support to that statement. More than anything else I have been reading lately, they have an active effect on what I think and who I am. Read these to be changed, to be awoken. It sounds cliché as all hell to say that, but just because something is cliché does not mean it does not apply, and one of Saunders’ main goals in writing is to break us out of habitual thought patterns and to crack us open to what is really going on – in the world, with other people, within ourselves. If you’re still not convinced, my last shot is one of his quotations about literature, which is one of the most accurate I’ve ever read:

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.

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: The New York Times

When Superman Was a Communist: A Review of Superman: Red Son (2003)

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Brent Hopkins

Everyone needs a Comrade sometimes.

This comic comes from the Elseworlds series of comics from DC wherein slight changes in how the superheroes personalities and actions affect the world they live in. This particular story follows typical Superman over three issues. He has the power, speed, and boring invincibility he always has. If this was another tale of Superman insta-winning his conflicts through sheer unkillability it wouldn’t be worth writing about. However, there is much meat in this short arc.

The Story

The storyline divergence comes from Superman not landing in the United States, but instead landing in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. As you can tell from the image, he goes hardcore communist and that changes the personality of Superman completely. Throughout the normal DC universe, Superman has always intervened in humanity’s affairs but tends to believe that humans deserve to have their own free will to make decisions. Red Son Superman eschews that silly freedom thing completely and takes over the communist regime using superpowers to convert nation after nation to communism. When you have a live-in god to protect you and all of your people from disasters it is amazing how good any flavor of government can be — and Superman is big brother. Eventually, the only country resisting communism is the United States, run by Lex Luthor.

The main conflicts in the series come from Lex Luthor trying to bring down Superman with all of the economic backing of a democratic America he has managed to keep from complete ruin without the constant intervention of Superman. This goes against the entire notion that Superman’s method is the only method of salvation in the world.

There are also internal conflicts within the Soviet Union, with a few usurpers to Superman’s throne (child Stalin for one). Batman and Wonder Woman both make appearances, though Batman is also a member of the Soviet Union this time around and Wonder Woman is the only person who can relate to being the nigh-unkillable leader of a nation with Superman.

Art

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The art in this is fantastic. It really makes you feel like Superman isn’t residing in America, which is critical to the premise. I actually felt like Superman looked and came off better as a Soviet monolith than he does as Captain “Almostmerica” because there is no question of why he doesn’t just conquer the world. Russia remains the same throughout with the artists making the technological advances feel as if they were made more by Russian minds than a more Western-influenced superpower.

Writing

The writing for Red Son focuses a lot less on the action of Superman, since he is seen as a god on Earth. That being said, there is a lot more focus on the questions most people have asked about what Superman is like when he isn’t tethered by the complete morality expected of the American Man of Steel. You never quite want Superman to win and his means of keeping dissent under control is more akin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — forced brainwashing for those that rock the boat — than anything sane. This just leads to someone with ultimate power and more or less omniscient capabilities slowly feeding into their own quest to save humanity from themselves. This is portrayed amazingly well and still manages to include enough familiar faces to make sure the series doesn’t feel like it’s taking place on an entirely different world.

Worth the read and time to complete?

I was able to read all three issues of this in one sitting. Comics are naturally pretty quick reads no matter how long they are but I found the plot development in this to be almost perfect. Considering how little time the author and artists have to explain an entire world, a reader with a little background knowledge of Superman in general will feel like they are picking up right where another issue has finished. This is definitely worth the read and I would honestly like to see this as a Superman movie because it is captivating and everyone likes a nice “what if” story.

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: Comic Vine

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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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.

Writing about Jules Verne is daunting. A science fiction enthusiast talking about a book like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is like a music writer discussing Revolver. It’s important to talk about and remember, but Jules Verne, like The Beatles, had such an outsize influence on his field that it’s hard to even approach. There were others before him, sure. Voltaire’s Micromégas chronicles the adventures of a 20,000 foot tall man from the Sirian system, and Shelley’s Frankenstein introduces the world to mad scientists. The former is really more of a philosophical fable, and Frankenstein is to Mary Shelley what “Sex and Candy” is to Marcy Playground.

Sure, this song is great. Name another one they wrote.

Point is, Verne is the first author to focus specifically on the “science” part of science fiction and put out a huge body of work that is consistently centered around technology. This body of work is hugely popular – the only author translated into more languages than Jules Verne is William Shakespeare. Verne achieves this popularity by taking the science that’s available to him, exaggerating it, and weaving a story around it. Around the World in Eighty Days focuses on transportation technology, Journey to the Center of the Earth focuses on geographical exploration, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea focuses on marine exploration.

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Jules Verne. Just look at this magnificent bastard.

This book is, above all things, an adventure novel. One misconception that may be as widespread as “Frankenstein” being the name of the monster is that the titular 20,000 leagues is how deep the submarine goes. Seeing as how the average depth of the world’s oceans comes to three miles and that 20,000 leagues equal about 69,000 miles, the leagues in the title refer to how much ground (water?) the submarine covers. Nemo and his crew travel nearly far enough to circumnavigate the Earth three times. Who is in his crew, and how did they get there?

Nemo’s official crew are a bunch of faceless sailors recruited from here and there around the world. The main characters of the novel, however, enter his vessel, The Nautilus, in a much more interesting way. Early in the book, all the nations of the world decide that the Nautilus, which is observed going around sinking ships and surfacing while jetting water all over the place, is some heretofore unknown sea monster. Pierre Aronnax, scientist, Ned Land, harpoonist, and Conseil, Aronnax’s servant, are all on an American warship sent to dispatch this creature. The ship fails miserably, and Aronnax et al find themselves on the back of the creature, which surprisingly feels a lot like metal. Nemo appears, makes introductions, and informs his charges that they are his prisoners, as maintaining the secrecy of the Nautilus is important.

As prisons go, the Nautilus is not a bad one. Verne did not invent the concept of the submarine, but his version is a lot nicer than what was puttering about in the world in 1870. The Plongeur, the first machine-powered submarine, was launched in 1863. The Nautilus is extremely advanced compared to the Plongeur. Substrate of actual science, upon which Verne builds his fiction. First off, the Nautilus can travel underwater for five consecutive days thanks to its mercury-sodium batteries (the sodium for which is extracted from seawater). When it has to surface, it is to replenish the air supply in the ship. It also has distillation facilities to create drinking water and food processing facilities to draw all the nutrients the crew need from the sea (lots of kelp and fish). Finally, the luxury of the Nautilus sets it apart from its contemporaries. Captain Nemo has a massive viewing gallery with a huge wall of tempered glass affording views of the ocean, a dining hall, and a study/library with an organ, lounging chairs, biological specimens, and a massive collection of books.

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The Nautilus’ main room, complete with pipe organ.

Alright, so we have the setup. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the main characters pretty much just go around in a submarine looking at cool shit under the sea. The most compelling part of the book is Nemo’s story. Nemo means “no one” in Greek, and Nemo is a man who has, after some barely-referenced atrocity, withdrawn himself from the society of men and started living for revenge. He takes his revenge by using the superiority of his vessel to sink pretty much any ship he runs across. He is kind of evil, but he is also a super-genius, and we all know how much audiences love intelligence and competence regardless of the moral questions involved. There are two parallel plots. One is what mostly defines the book in the cultural consciousness: going around the ocean and doing cool stuff. The other is the growing conflict between Captain Nemo and his three prisoners. I don’t want to spoil you on the latter, but talking about the former won’t hurt anything.

I said earlier this is above all things an adventure novel, and adventure novels are nothing without destinations. The destinations of the Nautilus include the South Pole, an enchanting underwater forest (through which the principal characters hunt using electric harpoon guns and scuba suits), old shipwrecks (the gold from which finances Nemo’s outfit), and the lost city of Atlantis (dead and gone, with columns sticking out of the ocean floor). Aside from the extremely technical descriptions of how all of Nemo’s gadgets work and the central maelstrom of Nemo’s dark personality, the main appeal of the novel comes from the ability of Nemo to take the reader into the unexplored regions of the world, for the narrator to describe outlandish adventures there, and for everyone to then retire to the comfort of a luxury liner and discuss their excursion over algae salad and walrus steak.

If you decide to read this, be careful not to get a bad translation. One of the main reasons Verne is considered more a literary author in France and more a genre author worldwide is that his work suffers from notoriously bad translations. While we’re talking about language, I’ll say that the linguistic feel of the book is a lot like a Charles Dickens novel – it might be a little work, and the formulation of character thoughts and dialogue may be a bit drier than we’re used to, but it’s more than worth it. Bad translation or not, outmoded dialogue or not, this is a seminal work of science fiction. Humanity’s fascination with the unexplored is what wins Verne’s masterpiece its place of primacy in today’s culture. The modern reader can still get a lot of mileage out of this book. After all, we have still only explored five percent of the ocean. Who’s to say Atlantis is not actually down there?

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.