life after the star wars universe

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Leos Carax’s Holy Motors

holy motors

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 film occupies a deserved and jealously defended place in the international consciousness. French film is where you go to see beautiful acting, dialogue, and cinematography fuse to communicate An Important Message. I’m not exactly sure what the message of Holy Motors is, but it is certainly filled with beauty. It might be my favorite movie of all time. It’s so bizarre and different from anything else I’ve seen. This is the part where I give you a general idea what it is, but I don’t even. Alright, the movie starts with you, the audience, watching another audience in a movie theater. A man in a room finds a secret door and enters the movie theater. A little girl and a giant dog are walking down the aisles. After that, the movie switches to the main flow of narrative. This movie’s goal is not linearity or understandable occurrences, but as far as there is any organization, here it is: the main character, Monsieur Oscar, has a job that involves getting in the back of a big white limousine and going from appointment to appointment throughout the day. Each of these appointments requires him to become something different. He leaves his family in a big white house in the suburbs of Paris and talks business on his cell phone on his commute into the city, fulfilling his role as a high-powered banker. As he approaches the city, he pulls a mirror to him, pulls a costume and makeup from the other side of the limo, and starts changing. When he leaves the limousine, he is a crumpled old woman, begging on the streets, caning her way up and down and muttering about how everyone she loves is dead, and how she’s gotten so old that she’s begun to fear she will never die. He goes through many different appointments: gangster with a vendetta, insane violent person running through a graveyard, old man on his deathbed, sharing a final, teary embrace with his niece. The film never explains how these appointments connect, who sets them, or what Oscar’s profession is. As an audience member, you need to just sit back, absorb without question, and enjoy the many benefits of the movie (although not plot. If you want to enjoy plot, you are out of luck).

This trailer makes about as much sense as the movie, but it’s not about making sense, philistine!

The film is a beautiful, kaleidoscopic, metafictional paean to the art of cinema. There are little interludes between some of the appointments, during one of which (the only part of the movie that even comes close to explaining what is happening) an old man visits Monsieur Oscar and talks to him about how good a job he’s doing, but he looks a little tired and is he sure he wants to go on? To which he answers, “Je continue comme j’ai commencé, pour la beauté du geste” [I’ll go on as I started: for the sake of beauty (more literally, for the beauty of the gesture)]. The only other tidbit this exchange gives, other than the motivation of the main character, is also the reason this is nominally a science fiction movie. Monsieur Oscar is a little tired and a little nostalgic for the good old days. He talks with the old pro who visits him about how cameras used to weigh more than the actors did, then they were the size of their heads, and now they’re so small you can’t even see them. Does this mean cameras are everywhere, invisible, and this is the future? Does Monsieur Oscar belong to some type of commune, creating art for popular consumption? Is this bizarre semi-scripted reality TV? Impossible to know – it is only possible to theorize. The structure of the film allows it to explore a rich mix of artistic themes without having to pin anything down to plot like a dead butterfly in a collector’s box. Parental disapproval, the intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, the irretrievability of lost love, resignation in the face of duty, the nature of beauty and art, all swirl together onscreen in a beautiful, unhinged hurricane of creativity.

You’re going to want to buy a bottle of French wine (maybe make it a magnum) and enjoy this as part of a cultural night. Some French might take issue with this, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more French movie. Screw the audience, screw the narrative, let’s see what we can cobble together as a deep exploration of the methods and techniques of cinema and humanity’s impulse to observe. The result is a resounding success. The lack of explanation might infuriate you, but if you can enjoy the movie simply for la beauté du geste, you will not be disappointed.

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.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Batman: The Animated Series

batman

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.

One of the perennial Batman questions is, “Who played him best?” Do you like Adam West’s camp and goofiness? Maybe Michael Keaton’s slightly nerdy turn did it for you. Perhaps, for some reason, you liked George Clooney and his suit nipples. A lot of people prefer Christian Bale’s elegant Wayne and imposing Batman, but no one has done it better than Kevin Conroy. Pretty much any time you’ve seen a Batman cartoon, Conroy’s been the one doing Bruce Wayne. His stellar voice acting is one of the reasons that Batman: The Animated Series is the best screen interpretation of the Bat. It is an amazing show: beautiful, well-acted, philosophically deep, and highly artistic.

The list of things TAS has done for Batman is long, but foremost among them is steer the public consciousness of Batman away from Adam West’s sunny, hippy, bat-tastic version into the grim persona most are familiar with today. Frank Miller returned grim to the Caped Crusader, but TAS cemented it. Mostly through its action, we went from the hokey, paunchy sixties Batman to the Bale batman who tortures people to get answers and deals with major antagonists by leaving them to die. He didn’t kill people and he didn’t curse (kids show), but he did deal with identity crises, betrayal, and loss, and the art and direction of the show has almost every frame oppressively shadowy.

This is the best intro of all time. It also gives you an idea of the show’s aesthetics.

The art direction of this show is one of the main draws. A lot of cartoons are unimaginative, and the art is just something to throw on the screen to support the sound. Each frame of TAS is original, distinctive, and iconic. Imposing buildings stretch into skylines splashed in ocher and black, the lines are angular and threatening, art deco caught in a Lovecraftian nightmare. The voice acting is another impressive bit of this show. One of the main criticisms of Christian Bale’s interpretation is that his actual Batman voice sounds like a mix between an old bear caught in a trap and the raptor cry from Jurassic Park. It is over the top and ridiculous. Conroy’s Batman voice is deep and threatening, but still within the realm of what humans should sound like. His Bruce Wayne voice is noticeably higher and more friendly. The beautiful thing about Conroy’s Dark Knight is that the Batman voice is the one he uses all the time, with all those close to him, mask on or off. The Wayne voice only comes out if he has to talk to shareholders or reporters, which underlines one of the main keys to Batman’s identity: Bruce Wayne is the mask.

Bruce Wayne’s voice. Chummy and nonthreatening.

Batman’s voice. Small, subtle shift that makes it about 10 times more menacing. Also, as a sidenote for the this-show-is-super-deep-for-kids argument, Batman is dosed with fear toxin, and his biggest phobia is not spiders or heights, but his dead father’s disapproval.

What Faulkner said of whiskey applies to this show. There’s no such thing as a bad episode of Batman: The Animated Series, some episodes just happen to be better than others. There are three key episodes you should watch. “Almost Got ‘Im,” in which many of Batman’s adversaries sit around playing cards and talking about how close they came to finally beating the Caped Crusader. The structure allows for a handful of Batman-kicking-ass vignettes, and the poker game narrative itself is a vital part of the episode. This is a masterful use of frame narrative. You know what else uses frame narrative? The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, and The Canterbury Tales. I wasn’t kidding around when I called it artistic: it shares some techniques with a Greek epic and a foundational text of English literature. Another good one is “I Am the Night,” which starts with a grimmer-than-usual Batman reading an article about yet another criminal’s release from jail. It sends him on a spiral of self-pity and self-doubt, and the focus of the episode is the Bat regaining his confidence and his sense of purpose. This is surprisingly heavy stuff for a children’s cartoon. In this episode, he quotes Santayana, for chrissakes. The last one that I’m listing here, just because it really stuck with me from the time I watched it when I was 12, is “His Silicon Soul.” An impostor Batman is found running around on the rooftops, and of course, an angered Batman explores. The answer to the mystery involves AI, 1950s robotics, and a wonderfully pulpy, flashy plot.

I rewatch these all the time, and they never get old. Watching these is not just about Batman’s gruffness and karate taking you through a rollicking good time. It certainly has that, but it is also visually stimulating and filled with philosophical dissections of who Batman is and what the point of his mission is. The art direction, acting, and intellectual content is much more highbrow than a lot of what is on offer to adults today. It is, always and forever, one of the best things ever to be on television, and now the whole thing is free to stream if you have an Amazon Prime account. Worst case scenario, you will enjoy your nostalgic interaction with a classic 90s afternoon cartoon, but it’s very likely you will be blown away by just how sophisticated it is.

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: Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Dark Souls

dark souls

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.

My wife is out of the country on a business trip, and I bought Dark Souls to help fill the time I spend waiting for her to come back. It’s been on my radar for at least a couple years, but I’ve put off actually giving it a try due to one factor: every time I gave any thought to it, a companion thought came along and said, “Yeah, but do you really want to suffer that much? It’s like the hardest game of all time.” I beat it in six days, and it is actually not that bad. I’m writing about it here partially because it is fantasy, but mostly because it has dominated my life for the past week.

The main piece of buzz the uninitiated know about the game is its overwhelming difficulty. This is a positive feature – it was probably part of the marketing team’s campaign for the game. The problem is that so many people avoid it because they do not want to be punished in their leisure time. Here’s the thing: Dark Souls is not really that much harder than something like Halo or Halo 2 on Legendary. Sure, I died like 983 times, but that’s not as frustrating as it sounds. Death in this game is like jumping in Mario: it is the protagonist’s defining superpower. You are the Chosen Undead, a zombie selected to play a part in the ending or renewal of the world. When you die, you resurrect at the last checkpoint with all items, abilities, and stats intact (the penalty is that you lose all XP accrued since the last checkpoint). Dying and inexplicably resurrecting is a part of almost every video game. When Harbinger eviscerates Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, nobody explains how he’s alive and well after the next load screen. In Dead Souls, resurrection is a game mechanic. The main character is unkillable and will always resurrect at the last place he rested. From that point, the player can move through the level again and learn to avoid the things that murdered him last time. For example, I was fighting a difficult enemy on a stairwell. I rolled backwards to avoid his swing and fell to my death (the first time I met him, I did not avoid his swing and died immediately). On the third try, I got his attention and ran away until I was on solid, cliffless ground. Modifying my strategy slightly with each new attempt led to success, and that’s how it works with every challenge of this game. Die, die, die, succeed. By the time you’ve made all the necessary incremental adjustments, it’s baffling how you could ever have struggled as much as you did – when you finally move past, it seems like the easiest thing in the world. There were only three points in the game where I felt real despair: a ridiculous final boss of one level (Ornstein and Smough, the bastards), an absurd puzzle dungeon where it took me four hours to learn how to not get knocked into a pit by swinging blades over narrow bridges, and one of the very first levels where two zombies and three rats murdered my dagger-wielding, unleveled sorcerer continuously. The beginning of this game is absolutely brutal: you do not know the rules, you do not know how to move, and you do not have the skill points necessary to keep common vermin from destroying you. The great thing here is that it’s an RPG, so after the first 10 hours of pain, you start getting some real power. There is nothing in an RPG that cannot be solved by more experience points, and it is extremely gratifying when enemies who used to laugh at you as you hit them with a piece of blunt metal start disintegrating with an idle wave of your hand and a flash of blue light.

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Dark-souls-gravelord-nito

The thing on the top killed me 23 times straight at the start of the game. Towards the end of the game, I killed the thing on the bottom effortlessly in a giant explosion of ethereal flame.

As far as the fantasy storytelling, I still can’t decide if its brilliant or if the game designers couldn’t be bothered. In the beginning, four Lords came out of the darkness, grabbed the power of the First Flame, and started killing the everlasting dragons. As long as the flame burns, the age lasts. At the beginning of the game, the flame is guttering, the world is ending, and people with the curse of the undead are popping up and being locked away. You escape and go to the world of the gods in order to pursue the power necessary to either save the world or help speed along its end. As far as explicit storytelling, that’s pretty much it, but the designers spend so much time giving weight and texture to every location that the setting ends up telling a lot of the story. It is the end of an age, and everything is rundown and crumbling, so drooping and rusted with age that it’s oppressive. NPC comments, item descriptions, and the setting itself give some hints as to how everything capsized, but mostly you just wander around dealing with the consequences and guessing at the causes. It’s refreshing. In Mario games, you know you have to save the princess. In  Mass Effect, you know you need to save the galaxy from terrifying, enslaving ship-bugs. In Dark Souls, the only thing that is clear is that everything is trying to kill you. I finished the game, and I chose the “good” path, but I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. Whose interests did I serve? Was I just a pawn of the gods? Did I really save anything at all, or did I perform what is at best a holding action against the encroaching dark? I still don’t know, but it was a joy to move through that world.

This game is three years old, a lot of people have played it, and a lot of people have avoided it. If you are avoiding it because of the reported difficulty, please give it a chance, especially if you’re the sort of gamer that doesn’t feel like a game is “finished” until you’ve beaten it on the hardest difficulty setting. The difficulty is bad, but it’s not that bad. Besides, in a gaming environment where difficulty is a constantly lowering bar, it is good to see a game that offers a challenge instead of just an experience. The worst gaming of my life was in Fable II when an entire dungeon consisted of hitting a floating, colored ball through a certain pattern. Here’s the twist: it changed colors, and you had to figure out to use an arrow, magic, or a sword to move it to the next location. It was insultingly easy, and it is important to have games like Dark Souls on the other side of the spectrum.

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: Simon Barry’s Continuum

show

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.

A few years ago, everyone was bemoaning the loss of quality SF programming on television. Lost had delivered one of the most reviled endings of all time, Battlestar Galactica had wrapped up, the Sci-Fi Channel had just been bought out by Swedish media conglomerate Syfy, which for some reason thought Americans only cared about ghosts and those who hunt them. There was a bit of a dry spell there for a minute, but in the past couple of years TV producers have looked at the success of shows like Battlestar and Lost and threw SF into a lot of their primetime fare with a gleeful what-will-stick-to-the-wall type attitude. The majority of these shows are major flops (I do not know first hand, but I hear Extant is terrible), but in defense of the television executives, a lot does actually stick to the wall. One such show is Continuum.

The_Swedish_Chef

Pictured: the man in charge of all Syfy programming.

Its premise hooked me quick. In the year 2077, governments across North America have defaulted, and corporations bailed them out. State sovereignty no longer exists, and the North American Union is administered by a Corporate Congress, where the most powerful corporations run everything. So what’s different, you may ask. Fair enough. Today, if a corporation does not like an organization, they will take a senator out to a very nice lunch and talk to them about all the nice lunches and campaign contributions to come in the future if they sponsor legislation against the interests of said organization. In the future of Continuum, corporations own the police, which is now a private security force, and they would simply pay these security professionals to kill literally everyone involved in any way with this organization. Ah, the invisible and silenced gun of the free market! The show opens with the apprehension of the leaders of a terrorist organization that bombed the Corporate Congress and killed thousands of people. They are going to be mass-executed in a weird future electric-dais thingy, but when the machine activates, the terrorists throw a device into it. Kiera, our hero, is a cop guarding the detainees. She sprints towards the machine to see what’s going on, and then all people anywhere near it disappear in a massive blast. Kiera wakes up in Vancouver in 2012. All the terrorists went back in time as well, and she has to singlehandedly stop them, relying on nothing more than her pluck, determination, and highly advanced bio-implants and supersuit.

The show is hybrid organism, SF-time-travel tissue over a procedural cop drama endoskeleton. The presence of technology in the show is appealing. Kiera is sent back in time solo, but she has many implants (for example, a communications suite implanted directly into her brain/ears, and an eye implant that provides a super-soldier style HUD, can take fingerprints, record evidence, etc) and a standard-issue supercop suit, which is bulletproof in addition to giving her enhanced stamina and strength, cloaking abilities, and a built-in taser. Aside from this, and the advanced technology sometimes employed by the terrorists, most of the show stays in 2012 as far as equipment goes. The technology is central to the narrative, but it is non-intrusive. Kiera’s main weapon is not her suit, but her ability to insinuate herself into the Vancouver Police Department and use police strategies to track down her targets. The story definitely relies on the tropes of future-tech, but it’s not overused, nor is it ever the source of some goofy deus-ex-machina. Kiera herself is the center of the show – torn away from her family (a husband and a little boy), unable to get back, knowing that any change made by her or the terrorists could mean her son will never exist (like Back to the Future, but with less Chuck Berry and more complete isolation and existential terror). The show also does well by not simplifying the terrorists – sure, these are mass-murdering monsters, but the system they want to bring down is horrifying. Kiera wants to take them out to preserve her way of life, which her and many people in 2077 enjoy. Fine, woohoo, let’s root for Kiera! On the other hand, if you go into debt in that world, they implant you with a chip that turns you into a hindbrain-using meatpuppet building microchips in a dark factory forever, so the goals of the terrorists, if not their methods, are eminently understandable. There is a delicious complexity around this issue – as an audience member, do you root for the good person supporting a corrupt system, or for the bad people trying to take down that system?

The season one trailer, to get a basic feel for the actiony parts of the show

The most high-minded trope of the show is time travel. None of the big players fully understand how it works – they work under the assumption that present actions will change future consequences, but they don’t really know anything. The show draws a lot of water from this well, but it’s okay because the well is very deep. Some questions raised are how can the terrorists even know their actions will have the outcomes they want, how can Kiera ever return to her actual future now that her very presence in the past is changing it, and how, over the course of time, people become what they are. This last question is explored mainly through Alec Sadler, Kiera’s hacker buddy (no timewrecked futurecop ever goes long without finding a hacker friend). He meets Kiera because the rig he built in his parent’s barn can access her military-encoded communications chip. This is because he built that chip, or will build it – Alec Sadler is the CEO of the biggest corporation in the North American Union, which makes him de facto leader of the world. He is the one behind many of the evils of 2077, but in 2012, he’s just a shy, geeky tech dude. In a standard cop drama, seeing the hacker buddy becoming ever more competent, more self-confident, seeing him get the girl and outwit the competition, would be a positive thing. In Continuum, there is always an ominous shadow over his character development, as it is taking him ever closer to becoming basically King Bowser.

alec

Pictured: Alec Sadler. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. Of course, in the future, he feeds them with the blood of his enemies, so.

The show uses some tired cop-drama tropes, but it is concept-driven, entertaining, and while it’s not quite as cerebral as Primer, it explores the intricacies and implications of time travel with honesty and detail. You should watch it, and the following five words are the most convincing part of my (or really anyone’s) argument to watch Continuum (or really any show): every episode is on Netflix.

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: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

image source: NPR

image source: NPR

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.

As soon as I heard about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, released September 2nd, I bought a copy on the strength of two of his previous novels, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He’s got a few more books out there, but those were the two I’d read, and both of them are in my personal top 50. Cloud Atlas consists of six nested stories all intimately connected to each other and spanning a cycle of reincarnation that stretches from an 1850s sea voyage to a far-future post-apocalypse society. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plays like an exhaustively researched and excellently penned historical novel about Dejima, a Dutch trading post in 1800s Japan, but it takes a really weird and delicious turn about three-fourths of the way through. Mitchell’s ability to move in established literary circles while cultivating and applying his high-octane imagination makes him one of my favorite authors. He releases books with prose like cut gems and imaginative mythos like the sea in storm, and the juxtaposition is sumptuous and rewarding.

Cloud atlas

The Bone Clocks is organized similarly to Cloud Atlas, in that it consists of six interconnected novellas as opposed to one homogeneous narrative. The first one is the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, living in Gravesend in 1984. Holly is the key character in the book. She is at least a supporting character in each section, and she is the POV character in the beginning 1984 section and the final 2043 section. Mitchell sets her up as an extremely identifiable and appealing character from the get-go by tapping into an emotion and life-situation with which everyone is intimately familiar: helpless teenage angst. Holly is dating a skeezy older boyfriend, Vinny, her mom finds out, and the massive fight between the two leads to Holly running away. She runs to her boyfriend’s house and finds him in bed with her best friend, the poor girl. Really freaked out by this point, she sets off on a walking tour of all of bloody Kent. She ends up picking strawberries at a farm to make enough money to extend her time away from home enough to really make sure her mom feels bad, but then one of her friends finds her at the farm and tells her her little brother is missing, so she comes home. This section introduces Holly as a naive young girl and gets the reader to identify with her, but it also starts setting up some of the weirdness of the novel. Mitchell’s modus operandi is to write a completely standard narrative that could stand all on its own, then fill it with the bizarre. Holly, while internally monologuing, talks about hearing voices, which she refers to as “The Radio People,” while she was young. She is taken to a doctor who touches her forehead and appears to cure her. Before she was cured, she was hallucinating a woman named Miss Constantin, who would visit her in her bedroom. Other weird stuff happens in this section, but I do not want to spoil the mythos for you. This part introduces Holly, shows her making a dumb mistake, and explores her heartbreak deeply enough to get the reader to root for her throughout the remaining 60 years of her life that this book covers. In each future section, Holly is powerful, no-nonsense, and able to detect bullshit from a distance of about one AU, probably due to her earlier experience with the lying, smarmy Vinny. The next section follows the charming, driven, and borderline sociopathic Cambridge scholarship student Hugo Lamb as he poses, lies, and cheats his way through the 1990s to make sure he gets to where he wants in life. He meets Holly during a ski trip to Switzerland, during which they spend one night together. The third section follows Ed Brubeck, a war reporter addicted to adrenaline who has to choose between risking his life reporting on the Iraq War in 2004 and dedicating himself to his young daughter Aoife, the mother of whom is Holly Sykes. The fourth section, set in 2015, follows a past-his-prime English novelist as he deals with various failures in his personal and professional life. He becomes friends with Holly because she has published a book about her paranormal experiences, and they run into each other on various book tours. The fifth section gets its own paragraph — I’ll come back to it. In the sixth section, 2043, the narrative follows a very aged Holly Sykes as she putters about her farm on Sheep’s Head Ireland and attempts to survive and raise her granddaughter and an orphan in a post-Fall society. Some unnamed cataclysm occurred, electricity is hard to come by, the internet is falling apart, and since we relied on it so heavily, so is civilization.

What's up pussy cat? Whoa-oh-oh!

Wikipedia and cat pictures are the lifeblood of civilization.

My two favorite sections are with Ed Brubeck in 2004, because it flawlessly interweaves the conflict and tragedy of the Iraq War with the trials and travails of satisfying the people you love. I also very much liked the final section, with Holly scraping together a living in a post-apocalyptic setting, which allowed Mitchell to bring his full extrapolative powers to bear. Section five gets its own analysis because it is paradoxically the coolest and least successful section. The Bone Clocks is a fantasy novel, but for most of the book, the fantasy lives on the margins. Inexplicable events which range from terrifyingly violent to mildly head-scratching occur to each and every main character, but they are not the main focus and they come off with a subtle touch. I avoided talking about it mostly because I did not want to spoil any big reveals for you, and if you do not want to be spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph. So, here’s the framing narrative that links all six sections: immortality is real, and there are two main types: the type people who reincarnate naturally enjoy (very rare), and the type people who use artifacts to eat the souls of others enjoy (yep, soul vampires). Miss Constantin from the first section is a member of The Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar. Said chapel has a painting of the Blind Cathar in it who, if its devotees bring a psychically gifted child before it, will distill that child’s soul into Black Wine, the life-extending elixir of the soul vampires. They also have magic powers — they study the Shaded Way, which gives them the ability to fire psychic bolts and control matter with funny hand gestures. On the “Good Guys” side of the field, we have the Horologists, who naturally reincarnate, also have psychic powers (from studying the Deep Stream, none of that nasty Shaded Way magic thank you very much), and some of whom have been around since pretty much the start of civilization. The protagonist of this section is Marinus, one of the Horologists. He is living as Dr. Iris Fenby at the time of his section, but was child psychologist Dr. Yu Leon Marinus when he “cured” Holly of the Radio People (going back a bit, Constantin was appearing to Holly in order to harvest her psychically powerful soul, and Marinus stopped this by closing her third eye by touching her forehead).  This name struck a bell, and I had to think for a while before I realized that one of the main characters from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was this immortal bastard, then going by Lucas Marinus. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that happens in de Zoet which indicates Marinus is in any way supernatural. He is a doctor who befriends the main character. He dies late in the book, and he refers to his passing as a snake shedding his skin. The reader assumes he is just being a stoic 19th-century scientist trying to comfort his friend, but nope, he really was just shedding one body for another. All of Mitchell’s books are interconnected, but a b-character from another novel actually being a member of a secret society of immortals is a joyful Mitchellian flourish. The sixth section serves as a coda to the narrative streams of the other parts of the novel, but the fifth section is where the main conflict is resolved. All the little hints and strangenesses of the previous sections, that prowled outside the main narrative like hungry wolves outside the city walls, end up front and center in this here. The horologists launch a plan to invade the Dark Chapel, engage in psychovoltaic (Mitchell’s neologism) battles, and end the reign of these carnivores. This section is full of people beating each other up with their brains, casting psychic shields and throwing bolts from their hands. The fight itself, the final maneuver of the Horologists against the Anchorites, is the main focus, and the book suffers from the shift from realistic, character-driven plotting tinged with the supernatural to all-out fantasy warfare. Mitchell’s gift is in fusing the fantastic with the real, and he leans too far over into fantasy here. It is still rewarding and fun to read, but this section seems somehow cheap compared with the others. It also suffers because it serves as an info-dump – after the delicious anticipation of the previous sections as the reader wonders what the hell is going on, the reader is strapped to a chair with their eyes taped open and bombarded with all the answers at once.

clockwork orange

I mean, it was extremely satisfying getting all the answers, but this is how it happened.

This novel is triumphant and amazing. It is not flawless, but who cares? First-rate imagination melded with first-rate character building and prose results in a product anyone and everyone should read. It gets a little ridiculous in the final battle of section five, but that type of failing is a lot better than being subjected to a novelist whose books all “deal with contemporary Londoners whose upper-middle-class lives have their organs ripped out by catastrophe or scandal” (quote from the past-his-prime English novelist). At this point, Mitchell has more than proven himself, and I will continue reading whatever he continues writing.

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: On the Importance of Pulp Fiction

astounding science fiction cover

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.

Remember the pulps? The old science fiction, mystery, and fantasy magazines published on cheap paper and read in the Golden Age of SF on trains, on buses, and by flashlight under blankets after bedtime? Well, they are still alive, well, and thriving. At the very least, dozens (link takes some scrolling down) are still publishing stories and paying authors. It is a vibrant, vital part of SF, but many superfans who have read every book Asimov ever wrote or won costume contests at ‘cons overlook them. There are tons of them, but two of the most famous are Analog and Clarkesworld. There are many benefits to reading these magazines.

First off, these rough, newspapery pages contain plenty of variety. Each magazine is usually filled with (shortest to longest) short stories, novelettes, and novellas, so the reader can choose how much time they want to invest and pick up the magazine for ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour. They are also full of informational articles that range from editorial commentary, to the state of the field today, to straight scientific fact to supplement the fiction. An article I just read in Analog explained some of the risks of climate change, and the factoid that stuck with me was that, if Greenland’s glaciers melt, the inundation of freshwater into the ocean might stop the North Atlantic Current, which currently brings warm air to Great Britain and keeps it relatively warm. Without this current, it would have a climate comparable to the Yukon. In addition to the variety of features, the collection of stories itself is extremely diverse. Just glancing at the table of contents of the November 2014 issue of Analog, there is a story about a Venusian colonist’s transport breaking and her having to survive in the high-pressure, acid-rich cloud layers of Venus while avoiding falling to the certain-death lower levels, another story about a convict with a life sentence appealing that sentence due to new immortality treatments rendering it a cruel and unusual punishment, and another whose plot concerns an AI who went on an apparent spree murdering dozens of his fellow AIs. Within that small sample, three of the eight stories on offer in the magazine, there is a story that deals with space colonization, one that deals with the social impact of longevity treatments, and one that touches on the dangers and nature of AI. That’s a broad range, and no matter what your interests, you’ll find something that interests you.

asimov

The next major reason that getting a subscription to a few of these is worthwhile is that the publishing environment fostered by the editors of these magazines fights off the bloat of success. Everyone who has read serial fantasy especially has run across this phenomenon: an author writes an amazing first novel that sells on a galactic scale. It is entertaining, the plot is tightly woven, and the characters are identifiable. The second and third entries are similar, but then the quality nosedives, and all of the sudden you are reading about characters you don’t care about in locations that bore you to tears while learning about the finer points of societal etiquette, which makes you feel like you’ve fallen into cotillion class as opposed to the rough-and-tumble who-dares-wins environment of the first book. This, friends, is because the author’s name is now more important than their work. The publisher knows that, whatever is written, it will sell a gazillion copies, so the editor backs off and the book bloats and bloats and bloats. Not so in the magazines. First, the stories average around 5,000 words, so the author has very little time in which to communicate what they need to. Characters, setting, and conflict are all usually extremely clear in the first two pages, after which the action goes gallivanting off towards resolution with nary a hesitation. Second, the editors make choices based entirely on what they think will give the readers who buy their magazine reason to buy it again: stories that entertain. If the characters are hard to identify with, if the ideas and technology explored in the story are not interesting, and if there is no satisfying plot, the editor will not buy the story and the magazine will not subject you to it. It is a hardscrabble environment where only the leanest, fittest stories survive.

clarkesworld

Let’s assume I have you convinced, and you’re raring to subscribe to a magazine or three. Where should you go? Analog Science Fiction and Fact is probably the most storied. It started life as Astounding Stories in the 1930s, and a few name changes later stands as the longest-running continuously published magazine in the genre. Its most famous editor is John W. Campbell, who is to Heinlein and Asimov what Max Perkins is to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It is old, it is established, and it is a must-have for anyone starting down this path. For a shot of the new, check out Clarkesworld Magazine. Started in 2006, it has grown quickly. It and its authors have been nominated for and won the Hugo multiple times. It has achieved a huge profile in a relatively short time mostly due to the quality of its stories, but also because of its distribution method. It exists almost entirely as an online entity, with all of its stories available for free online in text and podcast form. A physical anthology is published each year, and ebook subscriptions are available, but the free podcast is the best way to experience the magazine. I listen to podcast stories relatively frequently, but so many readers have either a voice not suited to hold attention or one made so goofy by putting on a radio announcer style that I have trouble getting into the story. Not so with Kate Baker, the reader for every Clarkesworld podcast. Her voice is clear, normal, with enough variety to hold attention but not so much you feel you’re listening to a circus impresario. I recently listened to her read “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik, one of the most satisfying world-building stories I’ve seen this year. It’s quality, it’s free, it’s multiformat, and you can check it out now with no commitment.

The magazine market is vital to the science fiction community at large. There are the monuments of the genre, the Neuromancers, the Stranger in a Strange Lands, and the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?s, but the beating heart of SF is in these magazines, where the work of old pros and new blood meet and keep the body of SF as a whole vigorous and alive. Do your part to keep SF healthy and subscribe.

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: Doctor Who – There’s a New Doctor in Town

image source: mirror

image source: mirror

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. 

Doctor Who is back, and they’ve got a new doctor. Peter Capaldi, an old, celebrated, and cantankerous Scotsman, is taking over from Matt Smith. On the season premiere night, I sat with equal parts dread and anticipation, hoping that the hole into which the show has been falling since Moffat took over would be filled in somewhat. Good news: it has been. Somewhat.

The major problems of season seven, the glaring, show-ruining problems, included breaking the internally consistent rules of the Whoniverse, not giving a rat’s ass about personal character development (any character from season seven could have died with absolutely no emotional response from me), and a complete lack of dedication to any type of overarching season narrative, which has been a fairly standard piece of television fiction since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Many of these problems have been fixed (on the evidence of two episodes) with varying degrees of success.

First off, there is a new doctor. Matt Smith was fine and all, but I always had trouble understanding the rabid fan dedication to him. He could not communicate the smoldering menace and goofiness of nine, nor could he fully handle the mercy/anger dichotomy and manic wonder of ten. Each new regeneration is a completely new doctor, so it’s completely excusable that he was not the same, but I feel like what he brought to the role was a lot less than his predecessors. He seemed to be running a poor emulation of the last two doctors with an extra dash of silliness, and his acting chops were not equal to the complexity of the character. It also didn’t help that the guy cast to play a millennia-old alien looked like a twelve-year-old. Peter Capaldi’s showing in the beginning of this season gives me hope.

Capaldi is 56 years old. His extensive acting experience and his gray hair help to lend some much-needed gravitas to the role. Doctor Who has always straddled a line between seriousness and silliness, and Smith’s fez-loving incarnation took it too far over the silliness line. Capaldi’s eyes and age help him communicate the anger and weariness of a man who has been trying to save the universe for millennia. Another welcome personality change is that this Doctor is downright mean.

image source: gawker

image source: gawker

These are not the eyes of a man who wears fezzes. Fezzi?

He is old, he is angry, and he wants to do good, but he could not give less of a shit about your feelings. In the beginning of episode two, he rescues a soldier while leaving her brother to die. She expresses anger and loss, and the Doctor’s only response is basically to call her out as an ingrate. In the first episode, when Clara (his companion) and he get in a tight spot, he straight up abandons her. He does the calculation, realizes if he leaves then he has a better chance of saving both of them, and then just goes. At another point in the season, a man is about to die. The Doctor gives him something to swallow, and the audience expects him to be saved, but he is dissolved by the attacker and the Doctor does nothing. Clara yells at the Doctor for this extremely callous act, and he responds by saying the pill was a tracker, and they will now be able to figure out where the remains are stored. This Doctor shows a practical and unfeeling acceptance of death as part of the territory, an attitude that makes sense in his line of work, and one that was conspicuously absent in other incarnations. He also insults Clara repeatedly, but this may be due more to social ineptitude than any intent to cause harm. After David Tennant’s run, in which he would apologize profusely to anyone who was about to die or whom he was about to kill, and Matt Smith’s run, which for some reason I can only picture as him jumping around giving lollipops to everyone he meets, it is an interesting direction to have a Doctor who is still dedicated to doing good, but is significantly less squeamish about the moral dilemma of means versus ends.

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I loved Tennant in the role, but he was a bit of a softy.

The writing team is also doing a better job giving actual depth to the supporting characters. Clara is written as a little egomaniacal and pushy, which is better than being written as the nothing of the previous season. She is still a basically good person, but she has some depth this time around because she has some flaws. In the second episode of this season, a recurring character is introduced and was given a backstory which immediately made me care if he lived or died, something the writers in season seven failed to accomplish over the entire season arc.

The other glaring fault that ruined season seven of Doctor Who was a complete disregard for complex storytelling or internal consistency. It is hard to tell just two episodes in, but that seems to have improved as well. The plot of both episodes so far is pretty simple and silly, but that is absolutely okay — that is part of what Doctor Who is — a handful of stunning episodes supported by a bed of rough-and-tumble, uncomplicated space opera. What was inexcusable in season seven and what is not happening now is that the plot resolution never made sense, was deus ex machina every time, or was just completely unsatisfying and forgettable. As far as complex storytelling, they are doing a much better job setting up the Big Bad and an overarching season enemy. Some of the people who die in each episode end up in a very nice garden setting, greeted by a woman who calls herself Missy and tells them they have made it to heaven. Something in the carriage of the woman or the too-good-to-be-trueness of the afterlife makes it ring false, and this subtle sense of something being wrong makes it ominous.

To really know if the show is coming out of a slump, we’ll have to wait and see how they handle the entire season, but current data hints that our favorite Gallifreyan might be back in the saddle. I fully intend to watch this show for the rest of my life, and I fully expect its quality to roller-coaster up and down over the years, but here’s hoping we’re currently on an upswing.

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: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

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. 

Normally, this feature has me rooting around in the dust heap of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughties to find something to review. I write here based on what I’ve finished reading in the past month or so, and since there is a lot more written in the past 50 years than the past one, more often than not there are a couple decades between publication of the book and the posting of the article on it. I’m excited to say that today, I bring you Ancillary Justice, published less than a year ago. I ran across it a little while ago, but the title seemed like something that would have David Caruso de-sunglassing on the cover, so I passed it by. It won the Hugo on August 17th, and the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Nebula awards are all telling me I made a mistake. Any single one of those awards is enough to get me trust a book, and this one got all four of them. Another tidbit – at the Hugos, the entire Wheel of Time series was also on the shortlist. This beat out the Wheel of Time – not one of the books, all of them. On the one hand, that’s not surprising – I tried to read them. The first one was not that bad, but I had to put it down halfway through the second one, asking myself how many words were really necessary to describe the tapestries hanging on the chill stone of the castle hallways through which our protagonist was running for his life. Still, even if Wheel of Time is kind of bad, it occupies a gigantic cultural niche, and the power the entire series should hold over Hugo voters is impressive, but Ancillary Justice beat it, stupid name and all.

1280px-Tapisserie_de_l'apocalypse

image source: wiki

Yes Robert, it’s beautiful. Isn’t the world in peril or something?

First off, in the context of the book, the name is not that stupid. The premise of the book is as follows: a galactic empire called the Radch is a vast and expanding power, and it conquers through the use of ships and ancillaries. Ancillaries are ex-humans, drawn from the conquered populace, who are heavily modified and slaved to the ship AI, becoming appendages of the ship itself. It is effective (AI brain running targeting, hunting, thinking), it is cheap (feed them water and the minimum, no-frills nutrition, freeze them in the ship hold when they are not in use), and it is good propaganda (they are terrifying in much the same way zombies are – “that could be us” – and the enemies of the Radch call them corpse soldiers). There is a lot more going on in the plot, but to avoid spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that one of the ships, The Justice of Toren, is destroyed, and only a single ancillary escapes. Since she basically is the ship, albeit heavily reduced, she launches on a mission of vengeance (hence Ancillary Justice, slow clap).

Fairly basic plot, so what makes this such a darling of all the most famous SF awards? First off, the entire concept of ancillaries is really cool (and horrifying). The book chapters alternate between the vengeance-mission present and the pre-Toren destruction past, so we get to see the main character function as a distinct entity and as an ancillary. As an ancillary, there are 20 of her, all connected to and by the ship. A single ship possesses thousands (possibly millions) of ancillaries stored in its holds, but the active ones seem to be organized into action groups of 20. The author does a good job of recreating what it would feel like to be a 20-bodied hyperconsciousness, jumping back and forth among all the tasks (guard, administrator, detective, etc.) this group is performing simultaneously, all of them with a constant awareness in the backs of their minds of being in orbit overhead. All ancillaries are heavily modified, each implanted with advanced communications and optic suites, forcefield generators, and other technical goodies. They have, while connected, access to all the processing power and judgment of a ship AI – they are the AI. This creates an interesting problem for the main character when she is left alone – she constantly compares herself to “what [she] was,” that is, compares her existence in one tiny meatbrain to her much more powerful existence as a linked and devastating machine of war.

One thing that makes ancillaries so compelling is their believability. Sure, it seems completely out there right now, but this is the far-future. Let’s think about progress in terms of mere decades and centuries. 1914, one hundred years ago, was the first time anyone successfully completed an indirect blood transfusion, meaning that before that, for a transfusion to work, the donor had to be strapped in the hospital bed next to the recipient. Over the past century, we have developed the ability to transplant hearts, kidneys, eyes, and other organs, and in March of this year, scientists reported that they could use a blood sample from any human to create stem cells. We went, in 100 years, from just barely being able to move blood from one person to another to being able to use blood cells to regenerate any type of damaged cell in the human body. The terrifying thing is, we’re getting faster – just think of where technology was even in 2004 versus now.

The most advanced piece of consumer communications technology available in 2004.

In February, a man received a prosthetic hand that gave a sense of touch. Right now, I have a friend pursuing a biomedical engineering Ph.D, and his main job in the lab is studying monkeys who are hooked up to mechanical arms which they control with their neuronal impulses. Right now, we have man-made hands that transmit directly to nerves and mechanical arms that monkeys can control with their minds. Where will we be in 100 years? 500? 2000? Now, there is the problem of AI, which, like expedient interstellar travel, is kind of a holy grail for science. Accepting AI, it becomes completely feasible that machines and humans could be linked, and that the machine could be programmed as the dominant partner in the relationship. The possibilities are terrifying.

This is a little bit scary to watch. How much damage could that arm do?

Another point of interest in the book is that Radch society makes no real distinction between genders. Every Radch character uses “she” as the third person singular, and this creates a sense of ambiguity that emulates the ambiguity of gender in the Radch itself. It is an interesting choice, and it requires you to form your own opinions about the gender of the characters, which, in Radch society, doesn’t really matter anyway.

There are some weak points in the book. First off, the characters are a little bit flat. They are not unforgivably thin, but they could be more fleshed-out and believable. One of the main characters goes from a disloyal waste of space to an effective and dedicated companion through the mediation of one key event, and the switch was too fast for plausibility. The main character is simple, which could be forgiven due to her being the amputated consciousness of a machine, but the other characters are even less complex. They are by no means inadequate, but by comparison, I’m reading Light in August right now, in which each character has about three pages describing their life story before they actually do anything. The plotting could also be tighter. The book rides on a well put-together mystery plot which drives the reader forward, but it drags in some places, gets lost in exposition or description here and there.

Up to this point, Ann Leckie has built her career on writing and editing short stories. This is her first novel, and it is a great one. In an article of around 1400 words, I dedicate just 158 to weak points in the book. There is a lot more good here than bad. It explores the concept of identity and loss through the ancillary and the contradictions and problems inherent in empire through the history of the Radch. There are some issues, but they tumble away insignificantly in the face of the gale-force imagination with which Leckie infuses her work.

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: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 Deus Ex: Human Revolution

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. 

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a cyberpunk action RPG developed by Eidos Montreal in 2011. Stylistically, cyberpunk is a mashup of film noir (alienated loner protagonist, detective structure, grim outlook) and near-future science fiction. Neuromancer is the most famous work in the genre, and Snow Crash, Blade Runner, and to a certain extent The Matrix are other examples. The setting of most cyberpunk is the point at which corporations and technology begin overwhelming the more traditional structures of power with mixed (but mostly negative) results. In Human Revolution, the technology that is approaching a world-altering paradigm shift is cybernetic augmentation – the ability for a person with a lost arm, a scarred retina, or a faulty heart to get a fully-functional robotic replacement. It opens with Adam Jensen, the protagonist, fulfilling his role as head of security for Sarif Industries, the CEO of which is about to hold a press conference about a huge scientific breakthrough. While Jensen is moving through the labs, they are invaded by a souped-up merc team (the dark side of augmentation is that there are endless military applications, and these guys are armed to their cybernetic teeth). The scientists working on the project are all killed (including Jensen’s ex-girlfriend), and Jensen himself is physically destroyed. Sarif saves him by having him undergo extensive cybernetic surgery, replacing most of his body with mechanical parts, turning him into a kind of cyberpunk Darth Vader, more machine than man. With basically his entire body turned into a weapon, he launches on his quest for answers and revenge.

Here’s the E3 trailer for the game.

The gameplay as he moves through this quest is extremely satisfying and versatile. Your arsenal is a combination of military-grade cybernetic augmentations along with more standard pistols, assault rifles, and grenades. There are multiple paths throughout every level, multiple choices for how to deal with enemies, and really cool tech to use to accomplish those things. There seems to be a bias in the game for you to move through it peaceably, as you get more XP for knocking people out instead of shooting them in the head. Other than this slight benefit to being kind, the moral choices in this game are mostly left up to you. There is none of the ridiculous starkness of choice from the early morality-based RPG craze (in which you could choose to give a beggar all of your money or murder him for his shoes, no middle ground). This deepens the main-character-as-cipher effect that helps the player become the protagonist. With no in-game judgment attached to your actions, Jensen’s decisions are your decisions. I chose to go through more peacefully than not, knocking out innocent bystanders but slaughtering anyone I found to be involved with the attack on Sarif Industries (they killed my ex and left me for dead, after all).

The augmentations you choose have a lot to do with how you play the game, and many interact with each other. For example, if you invest heavily in cloaking, you can just sprint invisibly through a room. If you invest in hacking, you can find a computer and shut down the internal surveillance system. If you invest in hacking and the arm strength upgrades (which by itself allows you to kill people by throwing refrigerators at them), you can hack a turret to make it friendly and then just carry it through the level (this is a game-breaking combo). If you upgrade your sight to be able to see through walls and upgrade your arms to be able to punch through them, it enables you to time your strike so it takes out multiple people. The customization and slow strengthening of Jensen due to unlocking more and more augmentations is extremely pleasurable – is he an invisible ghost, is he an unstoppable, neck-snapping colossus, or is he somewhere in between? The absurd level of strength your character has by the end of the game (playing on normal difficulty) ties into the thematic concerns of the game – augmentation allows one solitary man to become a terror to both powerful governments and nation-spanning multi-billion dollar corporations.

This leads into why this game is here and not elsewhere on the site. It engages deeply with the moral quandaries and personal concerns involved with human advancement. Jensen himself is a little flat, as you are meant to fill him in with your own thoughts and preconceptions, but he moves in a world of people with frighteningly powerful opinions: his boss, Sarif, who thinks augmentation is the next step in human evolution, terrorists, who think augmentation is an abomination, and government officials, who are terrified of this new human potential that can make controlling a population all but impossible. Jensen himself, as one of the most heavily modified humans in existence, stands at the center of all these ambitions and concerns. He single-handedly justifies governmental concerns – if you play the game right, he is unkillable and undetectable. The conversations Jensen has with people, the actions he takes, and the ultimate outcome of the game (much of which is up to player decisions) all heavily involve the age-old SF trope of the benefits and drawbacks of human progress. It is an expertly developed theme planted right in the middle of a satisfying gaming experience, and if you own a console and like cyberpunk, you need to play it.

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: On Failing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

 Dhalgren cover

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. 

Dhalgren is a 1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, arguably his most successful critically and most likely his most successful commercially, with over one million copies sold. It took me a while, even devouring SF like I do, to find Delany. This is a shame, as the man really knows his way around a sentence. He’s also fucking insane, or at least wrote a fucking insane novel. To give you an idea of the strangeness inherent in the book, one of the very first events is a guy (the main character) walking down a highway, seeing a naked woman running across a field, going to her, having sex with her, then later approaching her in a meadow as she metamorphoses into a tree. Freaked out by this, he sprints back out to the highway to hitch a ride and talks with a long-haul trucker about artichokes. The trucker drops him off at his destination, Bellona, and it does not get less strange.

A_lone_tree_at_Caulside_-_geograph.org.uk_-_947847

Yup.

Bellona is a midwestern U.S. city that has undergone a vague cataclysm. No one really understands what happened, but a lot of the city burned down, and a lot of people moved away. What’s left is an anarchic-in-the-bad-way-unless-you-are-kind-of-an-asshole type social structure where people are just trying to get by and don’t really understand the place in which they live, but are powerfully drawn to it. Weird things keep happening. Our amnesic protagonist, who ends up taking the name Kidd, sleeps on a rooftop a few blocks away from the river the first night, then wakes up and cannot see the river. He enters a building by one door and leaves by the same door, only it exits in a different place. The city is constantly encased in a roiling dome of ash, smoke, and cloud. The one time this really clears away, there are two moons in the sky. The place is just weird, and the evocation of this strangeness is what this novel does best: it is huge on atmosphere. Reading it, you are as wandering and confused as the main character. The grimness and foreboding of the place flows underneath every word, like dark water through the sewers underneath a city. Also, strangeness never stops.

Chicago_in_Ruins_after_the_Fire_of_1871,_New_York_Times

Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.

Our fearless protagonist finds a notebook in the city, one in which all the right-hand pages are filled in as someone’s journal. Paper is at a premium, so he uses the left-hand pages to write poems as he moves through the city, but he also glances at what has been written, and these pages sometimes reveal a written version of thoughts Kidd has already had. For example, one of the narrator’s thoughts (assumed to be the internal thoughts of Kidd, but who knows) is him reflecting upon his amnesia:

It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.

First off, look at that writing. Secondly, when he starts reading the journal, he finds this written in it:

It is not that I have no future. Rather it continually fragments on the insubstantial and indistinct ephemera of now.

He is amnesic, so he knows even less than the reader if he is the original writer of the journal, and other than tenuous speculation, there is nothing to indicate a final answer. This novel builds mystery and leaves it there, strong and swirling in mist. William Gibson referred to the novel as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Good, because I am nowhere close. (While we’re talking about SF author reactions to Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick called it trash, and Harlan Ellison threw it across the room, never to return, at page 361. I am on page 349. Because it is so weird, it is very divisive in the community – some think it is incomprehensible pap, others think it is the best thing science fiction has ever done).

While we’re quoting, below is the first dozen or so lines of the book, to give you an idea if the style is something that appeals to you or not:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

So, I quit. Well, not really. This book is too much of a landmark, and there is way too much exciting stuff going on in it for me never to finish. It is really good, I just need some time. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “I can’t quit you babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while.”

There’s a reason 73% of American high-school males go through a Led Zeppelin phase. Led Zeppelin is fucking great.

The problem is not that it’s a bad book. It is amazing. The problem is, it’s fudge. Fudge is good. Fudge is an impressive and rewarding concoction. Eating fudge is better than eating, say, a ham sandwich. But if you eat nothing but fudge, it becomes hard to chew, sensorially overwhelming, and the culprit behind severe digestive problems. I need to eat a few ham sandwiches before returning to my 879-page platter of fudge. Delany crafted a highly experimental novel with a lot of innovative features, but digestibility was not one of his goals.

English_Fudge

The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.

Quitting a book is the sovereign right of any reader. As I get older, I do it more and more. As a youth, it always seemed like it was my failure if I put down a book. This attitude had me finishing a lot of really terrible, highly acclaimed stuff. Now, it’s clearer that it is more the author’s failure than mine. If the author is not delivering, you owe them nothing, and buckling to the social pressure of what a “good” book is and reading it even when you don’t like it gives you misery you don’t need and wastes time you don’t have. I love reading the Big Books, the ones in The Canon, and it’s fine to have social opinion be one of the determining factors of whether you finish a book, but it cannot serve as the sole support of a bad book (Obligatory: The Corrections was super terrible. “I am a well-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, my life is so hard, won’t you follow me as I explain my psychological hangups? Also, I’m a giant asshole and made all my problems for myself.”). So my hatred of The Corrections is sloshing over the rim of parenthetical address. In it, the main character’s life is messed up because, as a tenure-track professor, he had sex with one of his students and got fired. He broke the rules and regulations of his workplace and got canned. He’s super bitter about it, but what the hell did he expect? Can you imagine reading Crime and Punishment if, instead of going through the psychological anguish of nihilism versus meaning, despair versus hope, and anxiety versus acceptance, all Raskolnikov did was bitch about how that dumb old lady he murdered ruined his life and how unfair it all was? That’s The Corrections.

Okay, back on track. Yes, I am taking a break, but Dhalgren is amazing. Hopefully, I will read the remaining 530 pages, and there will be a companion piece up here in a few months titled “On Finishing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren,” but there doesn’t have to be. Read good books, don’t read bad ones, regardless of the opinions of others. When people read books based solely on reputation, bad writers profit and good readers suffer.

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.