fantasy

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ

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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.

It is important that we set parameters early for how bizarre this film is, so I’m going to start by telling you that within the first 15 minutes, one of the main characters gets shot by an organic gun that uses human teeth as projectiles. This happens to her as she is fondling a gadget that looks like nothing so much as a mass of tumorous nipples stitched together and made animate. And it just gets weirder.

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This is the centerpiece of the entire movie

Before we really dive in, let’s stop and talk about why this is a world of toothguns and nipple masses. The overview of the film is that Allegra Geller, programming genius, is doing beta testing for her new game, eXistenZ. Technology in this world has invested all of its R&D in biorganic gadgets. Scientists use genetics to grow tech instead of building it in a traditional way. As such, sometimes guns are grown of bone and shoot teeth. Video games are played through game pods. Game pods start out as some type of frog, but are heavily bioengineered into what is in the picture above. The technology involved here goes beyond virtual reality, as the game pod connects directly to the player through a “bioport,” a hole drilled into the back of anyone who wants to use a game pod. It not only draws its running power from the player’s body but directly accesses their central nervous system to create such a realistic experience that it is indistinguishable from actual existence.

A group of fans has gathered together and are patiently waiting to “port” together and experience the game en masse. eXistenZ appears to be a standard sandbox game. There are general objectives and obstacles, and the player is expected to wander around figuring out what’s going on. The main difference is that the immersion is so complete that the player basically enters an alternate universe where NPC actions are scripted.

This abandonment of reality rubs some people the wrong way, which is why a terrorist uses a molar gun to attempt to assassinate the game designer. There’s a lot of commotion and death, but Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) escape and go on the run. The attack damaged Allegra’s game pod, so they have to port into the game to run it and find out if eXistenZ will still work. They do so, but things get complicated when the story in the game mirrors what is happening in reality. In the game, there is an assassination plot and a toothgun. Ted and Allegra try to unravel the attempt on her life by progressing through the game world, but more worrisome than the murder attempt is that, when Ted unplugs from the game to take a break, reality no longer feels real.

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This movie asks big, important questions. What is technology? Where is it going? How do we react to it, and how does it change us? Cronenberg’s modus operandi is to select a technology or science that exists or seems close to existing, then to exaggerate and extrapolate to explore its effects on humanity. He covers chemical-induced accidental mutation in Scanners and television broadcasts in Videodrome. In eXistenZ, it’s video games. As an avid gamer, it’s gratifying to see a movie dedicated entirely to the societal effects of one of my chosen pastimes. The movie sets up a plausible direction for video games and then shows its effects on individuals and society at large. Societally, there are people who escape into alternate realities as recreation and other people who murder the designers of those alternate realities on moral principle. On the individual level, people range from the squeamish and reluctant Ted Pikul, who does not even have a bioport installed until he has to enter eXistenZ because he is afraid of body modification, to Gas, played by Willem Dafoe, who is a manic-eyed devotee of Allegra Geller’s work. Dafoe has one of the best lines in the movie. The fleeing main pair stop at a gas station, and Dafoe’s character recognizes them and starts gushing about how Allegra’s games changed his life. Ted, who has yet to enter the world of total-immersion gaming, asks him how his life was different because of Allegra Geller. The response is priceless.

Ted: What was your life like before?

Gas: Before?

Ted: Before it was changed by Allegra Geller.

Gas: I operated a gas station.

Ted: You still operate a gas station, don’t you?

Gas: Only on the most pathetic level of reality.

Willem Dafoe’s line is so great because it sums up perfectly what video games do for those who play them (or really any media for those who read, watch, or listen to them): absolutely nothing. If you read a book, watch a movie, or play a video game, it changes absolutely nothing in your external life, but the external is just “the most pathetic level of reality.” The changes that happen within the consumer of media are what’s important – relaxation, an expanded consciousness, heightened emotion – it’s all fake, none of it’s real, but our ability to recognize, respond to, and create fake shit is the trait that makes us human, shared only, and even then only partially, by a handful of the higher animals (chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, etc).

Reality versus irreality ends up being the central conflict of the movie. After entering the perfect simulation of the game, it’s hard to tell what is and is not real. The “what if life is just like, a simulation, man?” conversation seems like an argument that would only be had over a table full of Taco Bell in a room full of pungent smoke, but it’s actually a very old and well-respected existential question. If we are living in an absolutely perfect simulation of reality, there is literally no way for us to tell. A truly perfect simulation would be indistinguishable from reality. Think about it – grab an object next to you and heft it in your hand. Toss it up and down a couple of times. Are you, through the messaging apparatus in your nerves, transferring chemical energy from your muscles to whatever you grabbed, or is a machine stimulating neurons in your unconscious brain to make you perceive all of the effects of that action?

I don’t care about the answer one way or the other, much as I don’t care about whether or not free will exists, because it changes nothing about my life and how I lead it. Right now, I am either choosing to drink bourbon and write this article, or I am predestined to drink bourbon and write this article. Either way, I’m tipsy and typing. In much the same way, a simulation that’s just as good as the real thing is, after all, just as good as the real thing. In the movie, it becomes more of a moral question, as they are actively dropping in and out of a simulation, and killing people in both the simulation and the real world means that it’s difficult to tell if you just shot a piece of code or a human being with a spouse and kids.

You should watch this. It’s one of those movies that Netflix tags “cerebral,” which mostly means that, even if it’s good, you’ll know at all times exactly how many minutes are left until the credits roll. Even if it moves kind of slow and gets kind of confusing, the future it envisions and the important questions it raises make it more than worthwhile. Right now, the closest thing we have to simulated reality is the Oculus Rift:

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She looks so happy in there. Maybe she’s eating salad.

With current technological limitations, it’s pretty obvious what is and is not real, but humanity loves entertainment so much that it probably will not stop striving towards a perfect simulacrum of existence. Cronenberg explores what might happen if we make it there.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Images: Business Insider, IMDB

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms

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.

The Broken Kingdoms is book two of The Inheritance Trilogy. The main premise of this book series is that the inhabitants of this world coexist with and even enslave their gods. There are three main “big G” Gods: Nahadoth, god of the night, Itempas, god of the day, and Yeine, goddess of twilight and the dawn. Any offspring from these three Gods are called godlings, and while not as powerful as their forebears, they have some impressive abilities. Without getting into specifics, I can tell you these Gods have disagreements and war sometimes. During the first book, Nahadoth is actually enslaved by humanity because Itempas chained him as punishment. The humans who had control of him, the Arameri, quickly became the undisputed rulers of the world, because any society that stood against them quickly fell to the overwhelming power of their pet God. The Arameri live in the palace pictured on the book cover – Sky, a castle in a tree. Shadow is the city that has grown under the tree, so called because the massive branches shade most of the city.

The author, N.K. Jemisin, is a relatively new author – book one of this series is her first novel that really exploded. I appreciate how prolific she is: The first book in the trilogy was published in 2010 and the third was published in 2011. That is a whole world, a full story, complete and entire, in less than a couple of years. That is refreshing as hell in the world of The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire, the former of which took twenty-three years to complete, and the latter of which has been going for eighteen years and is nowhere near finished.

Praise this woman – she actually publishes fantasy regularly. It’s impressive.

The story she creates in The Broken Kingdoms focuses on the upheaval and changes in a city newly filled with godlings. For 2,000 years, godlings were not allowed in the human realm, but events in the first book ease that restriction, and now they participate in human society. The action of the book starts with the murder of one of their number, and suspense begins high and fast – who killed an immortal, and how did they do it?

The main character through whose perceptions the reader experiences the search for the murderer is Oree Shoth, a member of a marginalized race, the Maroneh. In the distant past, the rich and powerful island that was her people’s ancestral home was sunk beneath the waves by the fury of Nahadoth, the Arameri’s enslaved God. They were given space to settle in Arameri lands but have never really recovered. What’s special about Oree? Well, for one thing she’s blind, but not really.

The not really part is that she is magic – for some reason, she can “see” anything magical. In the enchantment-doused city of Shadow, this means she can get around easily by the glow of magic everywhere, and godlings she can see perfectly clearly, as they are beings of pure magic. Her magical ability also allows her to use paint and artistic representations to open doors to other places. Equipped with normal and godling friends and her abilities, she finds herself embroiled in the conflict bubbling at the center of this murder conspiracy.

Without discussing key events of the book, I want to talk about what is good and bad about this book. The best thing about this book is the mythos – Jemisin spends a significant amount of time explaining the origin of the world. First, there was Maelstrom, massive, incomprehensible, chaotic, feared by god and man alike. Maelstrom produced Nahadoth, god of the night, then Itempas, god of the day. They were brothers and more than brothers, and loved each other deeply. A few millennia later, Enefa, goddess of twilight, dawn, and life appears. Through her, procreation and the genesis of human life become possible. Later, there is a massive conflict among the Three that creates many of the problems explored in this book. The magic system is also interesting. All magic in this world originates in the gods, but in a world where Gods and godlings regularly had relationships with humans, many humans have a little godsblood in them and can channel a bit of magic. There is a competing form of magic wherein ungifted humans, through extreme study and materials manipulation, can use sigils, inscriptions, and artifacts to tap magical potential. Finally, the book has high readability. It’s a fast read because Jemisin follows a nicely balanced intrigue/payoff rhythm wherein suspense and lack of knowledge is set up, satisfied, and replaced by even more extensive intrigue in rapid oscillations, holding final satisfaction off until the last page of the book.

On the bad side, the characters seem a little light. Almost no one other than Oree is fleshed out at all, and even Oree herself is not an extremely complex character. The same lack of complexity affects the plot. It’s just event, event, event, TWIST, keep reading! It’s well put-together, but it’s built like a carpenter building a chair, not an architect building a cathedral. Also, the world surrounding the story is not very well explored. This could be because the books are comparatively short. I wasn’t sure whether to include this feature as a good thing or a bad thing, because Jemisin sketches out a massive world brimming with history by using a minimum of key explanations and events. This strategy can leave the world feeling a little bit hollow and flimsy, but it’s a blessed change from Robert Jordan’s strategy of describing every fold in every garment and the delicate silverwork on the side of every teapot.

You should read this. Some of the story elements are a bit weak, but it is strong on everything I look for in a fantasy: interesting premise for a new world, satisfying exploration of the mythology of that world, and a respectably put-together and exciting plot. Also, you should reward this author for actually finishing her book series instead of stringing people along for decades.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

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Andrew Findlay

Neil Gaiman has been a darling of fantasy fiction for years. His profile is huge and unassailable – multiple awards, multiple movie adaptations – this is a writer who goes on late night talk shows and people watch those shows specifically to see him. Any two or three of his works are enough to qualify him as a game-changing writer. If you have not read Sandman, go do that right now. It is the best thing he’s ever written, and one of the best 15 things written in the last 50 years. I can’t get into it right now because the story is massively complex and free-roaming, but do yourself a favor and check it out. Today’s book, American Gods, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. To give an idea of how big a deal that is, only 10 books have ever done that, and two of them were written by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, respectively.

American Gods is fantasy, which is a really important genre as it’s the first there ever was. Think about it: In Gilgamesh the main character is the son of a goddess, befriends a wild man, slays an ogre, rejects the advances of the goddess of sex, and slays the skybull she sends to destroy him in revenge. In The Odyssey, the main character blinds an ogre, pisses off a sea god, and is assisted by and given gear by a war goddess. Any number of old stories contain fantastic elements: humans made of clay, humans made of thrown rocks, world-wrapping floods, and so on. These early stories are special, as they all attempt to explain humanity, its place in the world, and how they both came about. There is no whiny asshole running around with daddy issues (I’m looking at you, The Corrections). At the dawn of human cultural life, all of the stories were concerned with how we got here and what we should do about it. Of course, people back then had no fucking clue and just made shit up. The results were amazing. Modern fantasy stems from either that initial efflorescence or from all the stuff J.R.R. Tolkien single-handedly standardized. American Gods is the former. It goes old and deep for its mythology.

I am the oldest character in all of literature, and my beard rings are amazing.

Some people hate American Gods, and those people are wrong. There is plenty to hate, but a lot more to love. The first big hit is that the main character’s name is Shadow, which is usually not a good sign quality-wise. In general, the characters are there to advance the plot and to do cool things. There’s depth there, but not a lot. Shadow is a pretty simple guy who is set up a little maladroitly as a big strong silent type, but with hidden feelings. At the start of the novel, he finishes a three-year bid in prison. Later in the novel, he remembers being a kid and crying while reading Gravity’s Rainbow in a hospital while his mother died of cancer. Jarring mismatches like that rub you wrong and don’t deserve to be forgiven, but there is just so much good to go with the bad. Most of the good comes from the premise in the title itself.

What exactly are American gods? The premise that makes the book is that gods are generated by human thought and belief. For example, Odin (who is a main character), first popped up in America when Vikings visited the Americas, got into conflict, and slew a native in a ritualistic way. The power of their belief created him. Then they left, and Odin spent the next few centuries kicking around the continental US as “Mr. Wednesday” (Wednesday = Wōdnesdæg or Odin’s Day). This method of god creation is upliftingly anthropocentric – our belief is not just their payment or due, but the key to their existence. Unfortunately for the gods, lack of faith leads to lack of food. Without constant, strong belief, they weaken and, if they can find no substitute, they die. The substitutes available normally consist of some type of human interaction tangentially related to their godhead. For example, the half-djinn Queen of Sheba, Bilquis, achieved fame and drew belief as a great seducer. In American Gods, she is working as a prostitute and drawing her power and sustenance from that. An American incarnation of Anubis, the Egyptian death god, runs a funeral home and draws his power and sustenance from that. The hardscrabble landscape of American belief has transmogrified Mr. Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god of war, wisdom, and poetry, into a confidence man. There is definitely a precedent for Odin as a type of trickster god, and his godhood being shaped and reflected by American culture emphasizes and feeds this aspect of him. He gains strength and survives through bamboozlement. For example, he needs money, so he finds an ATM, dresses up like a security guard, handcuffs a briefcase to his hand, and marks the ATM as out of order. When anyone comes up to make a deposit, he apologizes, takes their money, and painstakingly writes them a receipt. He then walks away with a ton of money. He not only gets cash this way, but also acquires the “worship” necessary for his continued existence. The problems associated with lack of spiritual nourishment create the central conflict of the book.

I’m going to need a little bit more than that to survive, Ron.

Old gods are scattered across all of America. All of the immigrants who ever came here, and all of their beliefs, created sub-pantheons filled with strangely reduced gods. Old cultures come over with their old beliefs, then slowly buy in to the new ones. Up to the time of the book, these gods have only had to deal with their transformation and weakening due to the acculturation of their worshipers, but problems arise when they enter into direct competition with the new gods, avatars of tech, finance, and the like. As Americans worship these things with more fervor, so do their respective avatars gain power, to the direct detriment and weakening of the old gods. Once created, gods have staying power, but if they are completely cut off, they will simply fade into nothing. This is an undesirable outcome, so the main plot of the book deals with the old gods’ actions to preserve themselves in the face of the onslaught of the modern world.

Yes, the plot is linear and simple. Yes, the characters could have a little more depth. Yes, the protagonist’s name is Shadow Moon. Do any of those things make this a bad book? I mean, yes, they would, if there wasn’t more to it. American Gods is an exploration of American belief, American places, and the American psyche. Neil Gaiman is an Englishman who settled in Minnesota, and this is his love letter to his adopted country. The whole presents a mythic America, one where the salt of the Earth is the center of the nation and where roadside attractions are the most sacred and powerful locations in the country. The climax of the novel takes place in the holiest spot in the United States – Rock City, just outside Chattanooga, TN. The swindler habits of a major character – Mr. Wednesday – dovetail with the venerable American tradition of getting one over on people not as clever as yourself, from Tom Sawyer getting people to paint a fence all the way down to a more modern Sawyer.

Son of a bitch.

Ultimately, this novel’s passion for Americana and its in-depth commentary on the nature and power of human belief far outweigh any niggling concerns with naming or plot pacing. Much like taking a road trip (which occupies most of the plot), you might go to some less-than-ideal places, but you will still have an amazing time there because of the idea of the road trip. The idea of this novel transcends any flaws that mar its execution. I believe it is a great novel, and as Neil Gaiman himself writes in the novel:

People believe…[i]t’s what people do. They believe.

And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things,

and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts,

with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and

it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.

It is not a perfect novel, but any book containing the above quote has my vote. It is not flawless, but much like the nation it enshrines, the monumental good overwhelms the (admittedly) searing bad.

Image sources: IMDB, Wiki