review

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.

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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.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Eight – Cairo

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

I want you to understand: spoilers.

Where do I start?

So if irony is the case where the viewer knows more than the characters, what is the opposite of that called? I’ll start there, because if once was bad enough, Kevin’s lapse of memory is awfully convenient for set pieces. But hey, the guardian angel character knows what happened right? Just in case the viewer is confused?

It’s like that moment when Jill and Aimee argue over whether Aimee had sex with Jill’s dad, and a whole bunch of sarcasm is used, and you still end up not knowing whether it actually happened. Even the twins afterward have a hard time proving or disproving it.

So here’s the problem: just because you use gaps in memory and divine coincidence and sarcasm to fill the cracks of plot with glue does not mean that anything is intact.

How about Liv Tyler? That opening shot with her beating the living tar out of Matt Jamison and her cussing the living daylights out of our ears was probably the nicest part of the episode. That was after the toneless introduction of Kevin and Patti arranging a table and room respectively. Great directorial transitions between the two, excellent lighting, beautiful music, and nothing to show for it. Sure you could claim some kind of parallels, but in hindsight it seems to be some bookend to her death in Kevin’s arms.

Yes, I’m aware also of the parallels between the knife in both Jill’s and Kevin’s hands, but I just care so little. It’s episode eight and Jill is still playing detective. I could say that Jill began the classic adulthood stage of paranoia, in which we all fit the massive amounts of information from Wikipedia into little stories we call our lives. I could say that, whether through divine assistance, or through radical will, Patti was not going to leave that cabin. I could say that perhaps Aimee has some serious family issues like Nora, considering we haven’t seen any of her family and we haven’t seen her leave Kevin and Jill’s house, and she got all shaky and hurt whenever Jill pushed her about “moving on.” But I’m not, because I am tired.

I definitely think this show is for somebody, like that somebody who watched Synecdoche, New York five times in a row and drooled on a clipboard. At least in this episode there were some interesting visual displays: zooming in on both Jill and Kevin’s faces, for example. But I am way too tired of being tugged around by plot. The plot is heavy and the characters are light and they all bow down to the mighty conflict. It’s like that aggressive coworker that explains their whole predicament only to push you verbally to say, “Okay, I’ll help you.”

I think The Leftovers is trying to create an overarching and powerful plot, while at the same time building the story on sand in order to prove that plots are futile, and I think they failed. It’s not like they didn’t work their asses off, it’s just that they didn’t commit to either. You’ve got Nora’s run-in with Wayne, Tommy’s highway stop with the bodies in which the view is “just like his dream.” Kevin’s father is telling him that his “services are needed.”

Yet Gladys gets murdered and we’re told that Patti and the gang killed her. And you realize that any dramatic emotion you had over Gladys was kind of bullshit, and you wonder why you bothered picking up the show in the first place. Or maybe that was their whole point?

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

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.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s 80s Movie About… Frogs: Should You See Hell Comes to Frogtown?

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Gardner Mounce

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out (or have “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in them). You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see Hell Comes to Frogtown?

Hell Comes to Frogtown is a 1988 movie about the last man on earth. Or maybe the last sexually active man on earth. Or at the very least, the last sexually desirable man on earth, given that what you find desirable is a fat Mark Wahlberg lookalike with a glans penis haircut. Piecing together what the movie is about is a pointless task. Most of the lines are mumbled and I had been drinking. But from what Wikipedia can tell me, it’s the story of a group of female scientists who kidnap a man named Sam Hell, put him in an explosive chastity belt, and use him to rescue some prostitutes from Frogtown (more on Frogtown in a bit). The movie is to Mad Max as Krull is to Star Wars. It’s one of those beautifully bad 80s clones that’s lovable for its earnestness (i.e. it’s sincere like The Room rather than purposefully campy like Sharknado).

One reason to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown is that it’s like a time capsule for what was considered funny in 1988. Rape, for instance. Lots of rape and misogyny. You’re not going to believe me but the following still is from a scene that’s meant to be funny.

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Oh, I get it! She’s like a slave but for sex! Zing!

I’m not saying that people don’t still make rape jokes, but how about this: in another scene, our heroes catch a female savage, give her a libido-boosting shot, and then Sam Hell rapes her. But, you know, in what is supposedly a “light-hearted way.” So light-hearted that the next morning the two are seen cuddling. Then the savage hugs and thanks Sam and we never see her again. She’s a plot device in the worst possible sense: she has no function in the movie other than as that which is sexually liberated (against her will). (Editor’s note: uhhh… whoa.)

All this happens before the heroes even make it to Frogtown. What is Frogtown? Frogtown is where the frogs live. Because of an Apocalyptic Scenario, frogs are now human-sized, speak English, and sometimes have three penises. The scenes in Frogtown are so sexually frustrated no one would be surprised if the writers all have frog fetishes.

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No, please don’t. You’re so far out of my league.

There are details I could go into, but that would be a one-way ticket to Spoilertown. And trust me, you want to visit Frogtown firsthand.

The plot holes in Hell Comes to Frogtown are Mexican sinkhole-sized. Why does Sam Hell need to go with them to Frogtown to save the women when they have this girl who just sits in the car and polishes her guns?

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Why do characters inexplicably change outfits from one scene to the next?

Why would the scientists strap Sam in an explosive chastity belt when his dick is the only thing of importance to them?

And who the fuck is this guy?

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God?

Should You See It?

Of all the reasons to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown, it’s the simplest reason that’s the most convincing. That’s this: in the late 80s a movie called Hell Comes to (Motherfucking) Frogtown was released, and for some reason you haven’t seen it.

Watch it on Hulu Plus or stream it on Amazon for $2.99.

Is the Reality of Dwayne Johnson More Interesting Than the Myth of Hercules? Should You See “Hercules?”

hercules dwayne johnson

Brent Hopkins

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: We talk recipes. Should you see Hercules?

Last week I had the opportunity to watch Brett Ratner’s take on the tale of Hercules. This film stars Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. “The Rock” from wrestling fame, as the eponymous Hercules.

I, like many others, have grown to genuinely like Dwayne Johnson as a celebrity. There are so many things he could be — rude, egotistical, abusive — yet he has managed to break the mold for super-juiced up athletes and has this genuinely endearing air around him.

He is constantly doing stuff like this. His life is a perpetual Old Spice commercial.

Now, I could write an entire article about why Dwayne Johnson is awesome but I will leave you all to Ask Jeeves that question. This is about the movie Hercules and there honestly isn’t much good to say about it. Ratner decides to eschew the various trials of Hercules (a.k.a. the interesting stuff) to instead focus on how a super strong (but entirely mortal) Hercules deals with being known as a demigod.

We meet his team of super talented warriors that help him take on the various trials he is known for. His group is an Amazon archer-woman, a rogue who throws daggers, a battle mage who can see the future, a mute berserker, and Hercules as a heavily armored “tank” of sorts. We see that the trials are all just tricks set up by various evil people that have entirely rational solutions. We learn that Hercules becomes about as popular as the Emperor he is receiving patronage from due to these accomplishments and then he is suddenly outcast after a tragic night involving his family (spoiler alert: they dead y’all).

The plot focuses on Hercules doing one last job as a mercenary to help pay for his self exile to atone for his sins. This does not go as planned and an insidious plot is uncovered that requires Hercules to effectively unwin a war he just won. This is all incredibly stupid and never takes the viewer off guard. It truly feels like a poorly written tween version of 300, except with none of the cool supernatural stuff.

Dwayne Johnson honestly does well in the role, and he is one of the few celebrities I could imagine playing Hercules. The main problem I ran into is that the man playing Hercules is honestly more Herculean than the character he is portraying. If the entire film was just about him going to the gym, listing the food he eats on his cheat days, and making Vine movies I would have enjoyed this film more. The supporting cast is completely superfluous and you will not care about any of them in any way, shape, or form. This holds true for the villains as well, who are just dicks for the sake of being dicks.

Should You See It?

There is absolutely no reason to see this film. It is a bad film, and it falls into that category of movies that just don’t have enough heart to be memorable. I wasn’t angry that I paid money to see it like I have been with other films, I just instantly forgot about it when I left the theater.

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: 24

24

Mike Hannemann

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: 24’s triumphant return to television and when a half-season is just right.

When 24 was cancelled back in 2008, well, the word “cancelled” actually meant something. Thanks to digital streaming services and Kickstarter, now nothing is truly final on the TV landscape, which is great when shows like Arrested Development meet their end too soon, but it can be a little alarming when shows like 24 end. It could come back, and who knows what it would be like.

On paper, renewing 24 for another season six years after it left the airwaves seems like a huge mistake. It seems like something that Fox devised to cash in on a once-beloved show to rake in some ratings and advertising revenue when other networks were burning off remaining episodes of the nonsense that didn’t make the cut this year. It’s a no brainer. Put Kiefer Sutherland on screen, let him yell and blow things up for an hour, and it’ll pull in an audience. So when I found out one of my once-favorite shows was coming back I was… cautious, at best, in my expectations.

Anyone who has seen the show knows the dip in quality the final seasons had. The show had run out of ideas. The gimmick, 24 hours of real time drama, had been exhausted. Hell, it had been exhausted as early as season one when the now-expected cliches were used for the first time. But Sutherland’s acting and some genuinely smart storylines kept the show going. And going. And going (cue clock ticking sound here). Then, in 2014, 24 finally realized that it didn’t need to be a gimmick. It could just be itself.

And that’s what happened this summer.

It almost seems like a coming of age story, for a show’s legacy. The writers decided to throw the 24-hour real time aspect to the curb. The season was 12 episodes, and the focus wasn’t “OK, how can we make this one long day that keeps the clock ticking?” it was “Alright. What do people love about this show that has nothing to do with the clock? Yeah, let’s go with that.” The show decided to invest its time in the most beloved aspects: Jack Bauer being an unrelenting badass, Mary Lynn Rajskub’s fan-favorite character Chloe O’Brian hacking every conceivable piece of technology known to man, and a sense of escalation that didn’t need to be calmed back down every five hours to figure out what the hell to do from here.

Not to belabor my point on viewing the show’s lifespan in the sense of yours or mine, but 24 is finally done living in its high school years. It has its own identity now that has nothing to do with the number 24 other than that’s… just what people called it. It isn’t beholden to what it used to be. It held on to the best part of its past and it grew up, got a job and a 401k, and finally started using that treadmill that’s been gathering dust for years (but kept that beat up sofa it loved).

“Hey man, why do they call you 24?”

“Long story, doesn’t really matter anymore. They called me that in college, the name just kind of stuck.”

You can watch 24 on Amazon Instant Video or Fox’s website. It may or may not get another season/mini-series/movie/animated cartoon.

Image: New York Daily News

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Seven – Solace for Tired Feet

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers for Tired Feet

This show is constantly going to push you to wonder if it is worth your time. I don’t mean that in some grocery store aisle kind of way where you have some leftover (haha) cash and you can’t decide between Snickers and 3 Musketeers. What I mean is that the show in and of itself (yeah, I’m using that well-worn phrase) relies on you to provide its interpretation. Let me explain.

It’s not like we weren’t aware of how much the show brings up classic examples of religion only to shoot it down. Matt Jamison’s explanation getting trampled on by Kevin is just another example, but now they seem to trample on their own created religions. Wayne’s Asian franchises brings up the awkward chain of people in history that have claimed to be related to divinity, yet just like the factory scene from a couple episodes back, the one where they put together babies only to have one used as the baby Jesus, all of it is produced in assembly line ways. Wayne’s total awareness and Tom Garvey’s lack of awareness has us all awash with religious insecurity and bullet holes next to our twiddling thumbs.

Great metaphors and symbols for our modern times, right? Except that The Leftovers as a show has been created with little subtlety or regard for tone. Take the first scene in which we hear the all-male chorus chime in during the Guilty Remnant protest while Kevin gives up and turns away from pursuing his father. The easy question to ask is, “How did his father even escape?” but the real question is, “What is the purpose of the music and slowed footage?” The final shot of the three main women in the cult looking at Kevin had me baffled with what I was supposed to take away from that moment. Are we sad that he lost his father? Are we confident that Kevin is crazy and these ladies know it? Is all of it futile? The show never reveals its cards, expects you to play, but doesn’t even bother to explain the rules.

But hey, Nora and Kevin DID IT and boy was that great.

But let’s start to wrap this series up: this show is bad. Christine’s solo water birth notwithstanding, it’s going to take some incredible work to bring all of this back together. Who exactly is receiving the “solace” and who has the “tired feet?” Is it okay to realize only now the extent of Kevin’s medicinal addictions? Is it okay to show Jill a note that we don’t get to see, and then use it as dramatic collateral for a moment with a 1972 issue of National Geographic?

We’re all working too hard. Let’s use something simple. Liv Tyler comes in all hot and bothered by Nora and Kevin’s sexcapade, and she’s writing to Laurie that the dirty deed is being done, and Laurie writes back, “so?” And that is like EXACTLY how I feel. If the wife (ex-wife) doesn’t care, I sure as hell will not care. And she’s known him for years, and I’ve known him for like, what, seven weeks?

And all the while the show is encouraging you to build thematic structures of your own, and yea that’s a cool concept for middle school kids playing Minecraft, but it isn’t very inspiring here.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

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.

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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.

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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.

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Six – Guest

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Spoilers and such.

We get to see another possibly religious event collide with a secular result in this episode of The Leftovers, an episode with Nora kissing dead doppelgangers and stopping conspiracy theorists from taking her name and Wayne sucking the grief out of her AND Nora wanting to be shot in the chest with a gun while wearing a bulletproof vest AND seeing Kevin at the exact same time in court for the exact same reason, a divorce, AND featuring a question on the departed insurance form that gets a 100% response of “yes” until she is cured by Wayne.

All this roundabout summary is to say that The Leftovers is using a pretty big hammer all the time. Would Nora really kiss a constructed cadaver? Oh, she’s on a drug that’s “going to be FDA approved by October.” Many of the characters’ actions, like Jill’s Nerf fire arrow event and Kevin’s dog shooting, seem to be based on the words, “F#$% it.” If you were to really ask me to find the difference between Jill and Kevin, I would say apathy vs. depression. If you were to really ask me to find the difference between Nora and Kevin, I couldn’t tell you. Yet they create shamwow moments and claim it is character, and that’s textbook hitting the carnival hammer really hard. Kevin yells at dry cleaners. Jill steals Jesus. Preacher beats stealer. If The Leftovers wanted to satirize conventional plot, they can’t have this many signature moments and claim it is still coincidence. At some point, we know it’s a show, fellas.

And this review ends up being even more incoherent than the show. Remember when Nora held a dead grenade in her hands? Remember what was written on it? I sure as hell don’t. The sense of value when it comes to scenes is so frayed (what is more relevant, Wayne’s “I don’t give a shit comment,” or her healing Nora?). If it all matters it becomes paranoia. If none of it matters it’s irrelevant. “So, hey man, what’s your story?”

If it is a show attempting to explain modern living in this way, I think it’s going to ultimately fail. You can’t pull the rug out from somebody who wasn’t standing on it to begin with. And if you split the fan base into categories, are you really achieving anything different from Lost? I’m not looking for answers here, I mean I named my series Postmodern Rapture because I’m that guy. But what about questions? “If they get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”

And oh my God Nora and Kevin, just do it already. Put a couple intense scenes around their moments and it feels like Kevin should be pulling Nora’s hair in a game of tag at recess. Kevin says, “I’m a mess” and we’re all nodding our heads, but all for different reasons. I thought of “a hot mess express,” in case you were wondering.

But like, woah man, Wayne “heals” Nora into buying the right groceries, and she replaces the paper towels. It’s a great image, the towel stuff, but it kind of gets lost in the gray. Small tool-like style choices get marred by some “major” plot developments. Nora was compelling when she tipped the coffee cup and broke it because at least it was a small detail that had much larger ramifications, not to mention mystery. Here we have some pretty incredible events (spiritual healing, identity theft, WANTING TO GET SHOT IN THE CHEST WITH LOUD MUSIC ON) that are yes, mysterious, but ultimately boring.

You want to see fun suburban mayhem? Give it a shot.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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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. 

Alternate histories are a strong subgenre within SF. They have been around forever. If you really want to stretch it, technically Livy wrote a hypothetical consideration of what would have happened if Alexander the Great had moved West towards Rome instead of conquering the East. He says Rome would have won, but I mean, his name was Titus Livius Patavinus, so. In 1490, the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch postulated a history in which the Turks never took Constantinople. 1953’s Bring the Jubilee told a story in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. There is an absurd amount of alt-history books out there, but few are as famous as The Man in the High Castle.

This type of fiction starts out by finding a historical pressure point one, two, ten decades ago, flipping what happened, then exploring the ramifications of the strange new world thus created. Here, the pressure point is Giussepe Zangara’s attempt to assassinate President-elect FDR. In The Man in the High Castle, he is successful. His VP takes over, does a bad job, and is replaced by a Republican president who fails to surmount the Great Depression and maintains the USA’s isolationist policies. The end result of all this is that Russia is conquered in ’41, England cannot stand alone against Germany and falls, and then the complete destruction of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor makes America easy pickings. At the start of the novel, Germany controls the east of the United States, Japan controls the west, and the mountain and southwestern states form an autonomous American buffer zone between the two.

Touching a pressure point in history, like touching a pressure point in the body, sets off reactions far from the initial point of contact. The Nazis, their ideology unchecked by defeat, continue in their insane belief in a master race. This obscene self-confidence coupled with German technological prowess leads to the colonization of other planets. It also leads to Nazis hunting Jewish people all over the world and shipping them back to Berlin, and Nazi scientists spearheading a vaguely-referenced experiment in Africa that leads to the extermination of most of its populace. Again – the center of SF is extrapolation, and PKD extrapolates the Nazi dynamic of world-changing scientific progress built on human misery and their inhumanity to their fellow man. Same pattern, wider oscillation. As a brief aside on German technological prowess, NASA probably would not be what it is today without Wernher von Braun, who created the rocket booster system that put Neil and Buzz on the moon. He did the same kind of rocketry work for the Nazis, only it was weaponized as the V-2 rocket. Von Braun has always maintained he just wanted to work on rockets and had to join the Nazis to do so, and is reported as saying, upon hearing the news of the first successful V-2 bombing of London, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” This self-serving attitude and the avoidance of responsibility by wrapping himself in idealism (these rockets were built with slave labor) is beautifully satirized by Mort Sahl, the first modern stand-up comedian. The following joke is pretty much the whole reason for this aside, as it is one of the best I’ve ever heard: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London.”

Out west, the Japanese are comparatively benevolent colonizers. Throughout the Pacific states, the Japanese run things, but tend to be more lenient than their Nazi counterparts. Western Americans absorb much of the culture of their colonizers, including using the I Ching and adapting to Japanese systems of social advancement and behavior.

The first major plot concerns an intrigue between German and Japanese representatives to one-up each other. The Germans want to be the sole superpower in the world, and are covertly maneuvering against Japan. The Japanese are covertly maneuvering against Germany to defend themselves. The second major plot thread is that an author who lives in a fortress in the Rocky Mountain States (the High Castle) has written a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which is a piece of alternate history fiction that explores what might have happened if America had entered the war and the Nazis had been crushed. This book is very popular underground, and a couple of the characters decide to take a road trip to meet the man behind it.

Speaking of characters, most of these are cardboard-flat. In many of his books, PKD puts just enough in his characters to make them move around realistically, then lets them go. I still can’t decide if this means PKD is a master of simplicity, or if characterization is just not his strong suit.

There is a reason this is arguably PKD’s most acclaimed book. Sure, the characters might be stick figures, but the world they move around in is unsettlingly plausible and well-built. Americans grow up with “we are the greatest/we’re number one” hammered into their heads. Our President is regularly referred to (by us, anyway) as the leader of the free world. Even if you take Eddie Izzard’s joke about there being a lot of countries, none of whose mottos are “We’re #2!”, to heart, the USA still has an unparalleled level of power and influence in the modern world. Therefore, reading a book in which America is weak, colonized, subjugated by and dependent upon foreign powers creates a deeply personal sense of horror in the American psyche. The adeptness with which PKD constructs and directs this sense of horror makes this book well worth your time.

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