SF

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 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: Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions

DangerousVisions(1stEd)

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

The title of this article is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, but the book is actually the work of 32 different authors. Harlan Ellison serves as both contributor and editor. At the time, and in many ways still now, this was a New and Important book. Ellison put out a call for new, experimental, push-the-boundaries-of-the-genre type fiction, fiction that, due either to editorial opinion or censorship, could not get published in the contemporary market. What he collected is 33 stories, most of which are very good, a third of which are truly impressive, and a handful of which are kinda crappy. It is the distillation of a lot of ideas floating about in the heads of new SF writers at the time. In the 60s environment of general rebellion, experimentation, and radicalization, many SF writers wanted to push the limits of the form, aspire to the quality of general literature, and break with the aliens-and-robots standards of the past. While the ideas behind the movement had been circulating for a few years, Harlan Ellison gave them all a place to roost.

Harlan himself is a very interesting character. He is an important, genre-influencing author, with short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which you can read here, and which is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever found. He also spent a lot of time writing SF for television, and his “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most highly acclaimed Star Trek: TOS episodes ever. His accomplishments as an author have been slightly overshadowed by his accomplishments as an editor and SF personality, but that is only because he edited such an important anthology and he has such a unique personality. One word to describe that personality would be abrasive, and I probably don’t have to tell you any more than that he has a section in his Wikipedia article entitled “Controversies and disputes,” and that it takes up nearly half his entry, for you to get an idea of just how abrasive. This is the man behind one of the most important science fiction books ever written.

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Harlan Ellison in the 80s. Possibly my favorite picture on Wikipedia. Why is there a pipe?

So what’s so great about this book he put together? It largely lives up to its ambitions, presenting stories that are highly experimental, that break social taboos, and that aspire to literary quality. “Evensong” explores a future where God is on the run from his chosen people, who have transcended his guidance, which would be controversial if published today, 47 years on. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a horrifying portrait of a time when the incarcerated are cut into bits for their organs and body parts, thus conferring immortality on the unimprisoned. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers” explores a totalitarian world where the protagonist is dosed with anti-hallucinogens, and when he looks at the benevolent leader when sober, it isn’t human. In “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” God shows up with his angels, all raring to blow their horns and start the Apocalypse, but all they see is dust and ashes. The angel responsible for turning the seas to blood can’t find the seas. Eventually, they find inscribed on the wall of a bunker, “We were here. Where were You?” In the amazingly named “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” the happiest and most productive planet in the galaxy is so healthy because it actively practices incest, which, even as a thought experiment, is highly uncomfortable to read. I could keep on listing and describing the great stories in this book. I made a list of about twelve of them, but it would be better for you to just read it for yourself.

As groundbreaking as this book is, it is not without problems. It is open-minded about sex, taboo, and stylistic experimentation, but it strongly maintains some taboos while transgressing others. One example of this is when, in a story about gambling, the protagonist Joe finds himself playing craps with someone sinister. Fine, games of chance against the devil that don’t go so well for the other player are ingrained in our storytelling tradition. The problem is, when Joe starts getting worried about it, he “[finds] himself wondering if he’d got into a game with a [racial slur], maybe a witchcraft-drenched Voodoo man whose white make-up was wearing off.” What? In addition to the slur being a problem, the author decided to use blackness as shorthand for the hidden, threatening Other. Before, it was a game between compatriots, and as it turns sinister, the main character wonders if maybe he’s not playing against someone of his own race. That’s fucked up. Another example of backwards thinking is in a story called “Ersatz,” which is a pretty standard future-war post-atomic apocalypse story. A soldier finds his way to a care station and starts eating and drinking a bunch of ersatz stuff, because with the world basically over, they can’t get the real thing. He eats a steak made of bark, smokes tobacco made of not tobacco. The post-apocalyptic world is not a nice place, and so far this story is pretty standard. The ending of the story is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. It turns out that, in addition to the other ersatz comforts, the woman that works at the care station and who had attracted the attention of the soldier (there were descriptions of curves) turns out to be wearing a wig and a stuffed bra, and surprise, she wasn’t born a woman. The reason this is the stupidest ending I’ve ever read is that the soldier’s response to this is hitting Eleanora (that’s her name) and running back out into the wasteland, without armor or weapons, to certain death. First off, really? A hardened soldier is so terrified of a penis that he runs in terror to certain death? Secondly, this is a really disgusting portrayal of trans women. This is a story about how everything humanity used to enjoy is fake. The big reveal was supposed to be, oh no! even sexytimes with women are now fake! What it really communicates is the author’s ignorance, and what it states is that trans women are fake women, which is actively reactionary, not ground-breaking. Let me quote part of the ending for you: “He struck the creature with all the strength in his fist, and it fell to the floor, weeping bitterly, its skirt hoisted high on the muscular, hairy legs.” So if you are surprised by a trans woman, who is a fake woman, the correct response is physical violence towards “the creature.” That is the moral of this disgusting little polyp of a story.

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A nice picture of a sea polyp, as you probably don’t want to see a picture of the type of polyp I have in mind.

The editor of this anthology also has problematic attitudes towards homosexuality. In one introduction to a story, he communicates that families with weak fathers often end up raising homosexual children. In another intro, he discusses the old aphorism that you should never meet the person behind the art you love, which, yes, but one of the examples he uses is “the writer of swashbuckling adventures [turns out to be] a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother.” What? Is Ellison implying that he is pathetic because he is gay? Is there something wrong with living with and caring for your sick mom? It’s just weird, and it’s an indication that, however progressive they were then (Ellison participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery), you knock one piece of backwards, reactionary thought garbage down, and there’s more bullshit to take its place. There’s also a story, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” wherein a man’s girlfriend says yes, let’s have unprotected sex to have a baby. She changes her mind afterwards and goes to her bathroom to use spermicide. This future contraceptive method is a bottle of some sort that you can insert into the relevant orifice, push the relevant button, and spray the relevant area with spermicide. Since this is the future, one bottle is good for 40,000 sprays. The boyfriend (the fucking protagonist) becomes so enraged at this that he superglues the contraceptive bottle inside of his girlfriend and makes the button stuck, thus continuously and painfully injecting spermicide into her. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comical or what, but it comes off as horrifying. Hi, you don’t want to do with your body what I want you to do with your body, I will therefore practice violence upon you and cause you great and humiliating physical harm.

Aside from the repugnant stance on some social issues, some of the stories are just not that great. There’s one that is told from the POV of a three-year-old as he thinks about how square his parents are. There’s another, “The Man Who Went to the Moon Twice,” wherein a kid in a small town lies about going to the moon and becomes a local sensation because everyone is too bored to check facts, and then he does it again as an old man because he is sad that no one cares about him (big twist: it’s noteworthy that he’s been to the moon as an old man because at that time, Mars is the main colony). The whole story is just really boring and saccharine. Also, one of the most celebrated stories in the anthology, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” of violence-against-women fame, gets credit all the time for being “Joycean.” Man, there are about two pages at the beginning of this story that are lyrically inventive and that require some exertion to figure out, and then it falls back into pretty standard narrative technique. Ulysses is “Joycean” because it is inexhaustibly inventive, and nearly every single chapter showcases a new, different, and innovative style. This guy writes confusingly for two pages and gets credited as “Joycean?” No.

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This man’s work was Joycean. Not sure anyone else’s ever was.

This book is rife with problems. Let me restate that. This book is not rife with problems, but whenever a problem rears its head, it’s a huge one. As a book that purports to be on the cutting-edge of social advancement and fearless in its striking down of taboos, the reactionary attitudes of some of these authors towards many aspects of social justice are highly incongruous. It might have been impressively open-minded for 1967, but not so much for 2014. You should still read it, though. One reason is that it is a monolith in the field of SF’s past and helped set the stylistic tone for a generation of writers. Another is that, as truly repugnant as some of these stories are, the grand majority of them are not, and the anthologized nature of it means that even if Henry Slesar writes like an asshole, you can still enjoy the weird, mind-bending visions of Lester del Rey or Philip K. Dick contained in the same book. In addition, it is important to read and understand even the repugnant stories, as their presence in a book lauded as taboo-breaking in the 1960s underline the nature of social progress – there is no finish line, and we must always move forward.

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: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

TheThreeStigmataOfPalmerEldritch(1stEd)

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.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mentioned that Philip K. Dick took a lot of LSD and wrote solely genre fiction. They’re both only partially true, and the article has been updated as a result.

Philip K. Dick is the ultimate psychedelic writer. His explorations of the mutability of reality and the fragility of the human psyche are vivid, incisive, and hallucinogenic. Roberto Bolaño described him as “a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage.” However much altered states influenced his writing, PKD did not actually do that much LSD – it gave him unpleasant experiences. Yup, he was just your run-of-the-mill, square, SoCal writer, ingesting massive quantities of amphetamines as he wrote feverishly, and as he wrote this book, he hadn’t even tried LSD for the first time. As I explain the concept of this book, it is very important to remember that Dick had not yet ingested lysergic acid. He was this crazy beforehand. I’m assuming every single novel PKD ever wrote deals with the nature of reality, its uncertainty and unknowability. I can definitely declare that each one I’ve read by him has always had someone losing their goddamn mind. In this 1965 novel, Dick explores the ramifications of self-medication when the medicine you use is powerful enough to make the universe drunk.

This book starts out in the far future, with many of the trappings of futuristic societies. Due to climate change, it is now too hot to be safely outside, and people have to wear special AC suits to prevent combusting while walking to work. The rich and powerful of the world vacation in Antarctica, which is nice and balmy. Most of the moons and planets of the solar system are colonized, but not happily. The UN runs the world, and in order to preserve humanity from the crumbling, condemned planet Earth, they instituted a draft for emigration. A certain percentage of Earthlings have to be induced to go to space colonies. They have to be induced because colonization sucks. On Mars, there’s nothing to do but tend your dying farm and hang out in your subterranean bunker. Well, that and taking powerful psychoactive drugs. Most of the action of the novel centers around the use of Can-D, a “translation” drug. Can-D is useless without Perky Pat Layouts, a company that makes miniature versions of all the stuff that can be found on Earth (this company also illicitly manufactures the drug). Think Polly Pocket, but extremely realistic.

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Your new backyard, colonist!

It is so realistic because Can-D “translates” its users into the world of the layout. Therefore, if you take Can-D, some type of fungal hallucinogen, while sitting in front of a layout with a beach and a convertible, you get to spend a set amount of time living the life of either Pat, the woman, or Walt, her boyfriend, as they enjoy a seaside holiday. For some reason, the hallucination is dependent upon the layout – if you want to take a beach vacation, you better buy miniaturized beach towels and sun umbrellas. A feature that further complicates this already strange experience is that there are only two possible surrogates for the drug-user’s consciousness: either mini-Pat or mini-Walt. Women become Pat, and men become Walt. This means that if three male/female couples trip together in front of the same layout, all three women will be in Pat, and all three men will be in Walt, directing each as one member of a group conscious. Supremely weird, but honestly, if you were exiled to a barren sandscape where, if you’re lucky and terraforming is advanced enough, you might be able to go outside, wouldn’t you indulge in powerful psychotropics? Everyone in this book does, and that is the most plausible part of it – the human reaction to complete loss and mental stultification is to take stimulation wherever it can be found.

The conflict in the book starts when Palmer Eldritch, a kind of insane, spacefaring Richard Branson, returns from a ten-year voyage to Proxima Centauri with another fungus – Chew-Z. He begins marketing it immediately, and the Perky Pat people react with professional terror, because Chew-Z is a reality-altering drug that requires no layout, which means it is perfectly poised to put them out of business. Chew-Z is similar to Can-D in that it creates an alternate mode of existence for whoever takes it. However, it is much more powerful than Can-D. It can translate you into whichever existence you most want to be in – it is chewable wish-fulfillment. The problem is that, whatever new universe you make for yourself, Palmer Eldritch is there, and he exerts some type of control over your personal reality. If that sounds creepy, wait till you hear what his stigmata are: giant metal teeth, robotic eyes, and a metal arm. These are the three indicating marks you see on the people in your hallucination if Eldritch is taking control of them. Worst. Trip. Ever.

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If I could hallucinate my very own universe, it would be the one in which the Nic Cage Superman movie happened.

A lot of the framework of this novel is pretty generic SF – spaceships that move fast and zip between planets, strange genetic therapies, and space colonization, but the social analysis and the ontological questions raised by drug use in this book make it interesting. First off, it is absolutely believable that the disaffected and depressed legions of press-ganged colonists would escape their bleak existence through whatever means necessary. The implications of their method of escape is also terrifying – if this creates a vivid surrogate reality, how do you tell when the high is over? Do you ever get out? Is this reality any less real than the one you experienced pre-dosing? Does it matter if it is or isn’t? These questions are hammered home again and again, and their lack of resolution strengthens the sense of loss and uncertainty and creepiness that permeate the book.

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I love this man.

Philip K. Dick is fast carving out a very special place in my brain. I went on an expedition through his work after rewatching Blade Runner a couple of weeks ago. I have moved through three of his novels in the past couple of weeks, and each one is extraordinary. He went through a lot of his life very poor because, despite his prodigious output, he had trouble making money because critics relegated him to the genre fiction backwater. His catalog is overwhelmingly genre fiction, undoubtedly and unapologetically. What is important though is that this man always, always swung for the fences. It’s like he couldn’t help it. The characters might be lopsided, the plot might have pacing issues, and the setting might be overly lurid or unbalanced, but every one of his novels ends with you questioning existence, reality, and your conception of yourself. I have been a committed atheist for half my life, and one of his books had me (briefly) seriously considering the benefits of Gnostic Christianity. His writing is that powerful – while other books might explore what the problem is, his has you worrying over what “what” even signifies. I will take a sloppy book that asks what existence is any day over a perfectly-balanced artifact of a book that explores the problems of one neurotic family whose daddy didn’t give out enough love (I will never stop hating you, The Corrections).

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

Images: Lit Reactor and IGN

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity

 Gravity_Poster

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Gravity is a space film. It is also the winningest movie of the 86th Academy Awards, bringing home seven Oscars. It deserves every single one. It took me half a year to actually watch this, which is strange considering how I prioritize my media consumption mostly by putting anything that involves spaceships on the top of the pile. What I watched when I finally got around to it was a sparse, tightly-woven film about what happens when something minor goes wrong in an extremely hostile environment. Gravity is devastating in its simplicity. After a fairly brief intro period, there is only one character, and her only enemy is the title of the movie – the force of gravitation.

Gravity’s great! It keeps you from flying off the face of the Earth! Wonderful! However, if you are in orbit, your relationship to gravity becomes markedly less benevolent. Orbit amounts to controlled freefall. In orbit, you are falling at an exact velocity and an exact trajectory that maintains you or your craft in a circle around the planet. At the end of the day, you are still just falling, so if anything at all goes wrong, your orbit will turn into a more everyday type of fall, and you will catch fire and burn to death in the mesosphere. In addition to the falling problem, Earth’s gravity keeps an impressive amount of space debris in a cloud around the planet (19,000 discrete pieces over two inches). It’s fine if it’s just sitting there, but if it or you is moving fast, there is a significant collision danger. The International Space Station orbits at around 17,000 mph. Imagine getting hit in the face with a professionally-thrown baseball (90 mph). Now imagine one or many baseball-sized things hitting your orbital craft at 200 times that speed. This is basically what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Gravity.

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Each white dot is something that could kill you

The initial destruction caused by space debris leaves Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) completely alone in space, desperate to find a way back home. Well, a survivable way back home. If she lowered her standards, she could get home by simply pushing off in the general direction of Earth. In addition to the general destruction of devices and networks meant to keep humans alive in low Earth orbit, communications satellites are also down, which means Stone is alone not only physically but psychologically. With absolutely no communication with Houston and the nearest human being about 200-300 miles straight down, Bullock’s character becomes the most isolated individual in human history. This isolation and Stone’s lopsided struggle with a hostile and decaying environment combine to make one of the cleanest, most perfect pieces of suspense fiction of the past few years.

With only one main character bouncing around in a terrifying situation she neither asked nor prepared for, all the the viewer’s chips are in one pot, so to speak. In Aliens, everyone around Ripley just dies and dies and dies, and that only serves to ramp up the tension for Ripley’s own survival. In Gravity, you only get one, and if you break it, that’s it. From almost the beginning of the conflict, this dynamic forces a stronger level of investment in the character and results in a higher level of terror. The total focus on one character also allows the deep exploration of that character’s psyche – she talks to herself because there is no one else to talk to, and she talks about her daughter, her life, her hopes, and her fears. Following her on her journey from space installation to space installation in her desperate quest to survive is one of the most enjoyable narrative achievements of the past year.

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Probably the best-done female character in all of science fiction

Gravity is billed as a science fiction film, and an interesting question is why? There is no futuristic technology, no aliens, no psychic powers or mutation. This film uses no technology that does not exist, so why is it science fiction? SF is about more than the future, time travel, and warp drives. It is about technology, the changes engendered by it, and the relationship of humanity to it. One of the best science fiction novels out there, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, has at its core cryptography and information science. The science fictional aspects of the book focus on a well-developed technology that has existed since time. It specifically explored its use and misuse in WWII and the 1990s. As the pace of change and technological development increases, science fiction becomes more and more just normal fiction. It is not the milieu into which we project our imaginations, but the milieu in which we live. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the life the grandfather led was the life the father led was the life the son led. My grandfather started a family when color television was a pretty swell new thing, my father started a family when personal computers could process text, process numbers, and play Snake, and now I’m living in a world where this single machine on which I am typing gives me access to more information than I could process in my entire life, videophones are a reality (FaceTime and Skype), people walk around with mobile computers in their pocket more powerful than the NASA computer that sent men to the Moon, medical professionals can literally print human organs, and human beings temporarily live in space. We cannot escape from SF as the basis of many of our stories because the future arrived yesterday, and continues arriving yesterday every time the sun rises. It is simple to build an entire narrative from the basic theories and problems of space habitation as they exist now.

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Pictured: the OS mission control used during the Apollo 11 flight

Cuarón built Gravity on the theory of gravitation (sure) and the problem of the Kessler syndrome. I’ve already discussed the problem of orbit as a controlled fall, but the Kessler syndrome is a very real concern of space agencies today. Basically, there’s so much crap floating around above us that one little explosion or impact could cause an ablation cascade, wherein the fallout from one event then collides with and destroys other objects, the fallout from which then collides with and destroys more objects, on and on until everything upstairs is well and truly fucked. NASA’s main concern with this possibility is that it could take out many of our satellites and render space unusable for generations, but in Gravity, this ablation cascade directly threatens the main character’s life. Bonus: due to gravity, she gets to deal with 17000 mph debris circling around the Earth and returning for another hit every 90 minutes! The danger, isolation, and unknowability of space come to the fore in this film. Terror in the face of the unknown or in the face of forces much larger than we could control or comprehend is a main theme of SF. Gravity shows us that we do not need to go to Alpha Centauri to find those forces – one of them exists right here, keeping our feet firmly glued to the ground.

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.