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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Doctor Who – There’s a New Doctor in Town

image source: mirror

image source: mirror

Andrew Findlay

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

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

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

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

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

image source: gawker

image source: gawker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

Andrew Findlay

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

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

1280px-Tapisserie_de_l'apocalypse

image source: wiki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

 Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Andrew Findlay

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

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

Here’s the E3 trailer for the game.

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

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

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

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

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On Failing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

 Dhalgren cover

Andrew Findlay

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

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

A_lone_tree_at_Caulside_-_geograph.org.uk_-_947847

Yup.

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

Chicago_in_Ruins_after_the_Fire_of_1871,_New_York_Times

Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

to wound the autumnal city.

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

The in-dark answered with wind.

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

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

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

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

English_Fudge

The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.

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

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

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

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

The_Man_in_the_High_Castle

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.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

 Snowpiercer-Movie-Poster-Chris-Evans

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. 

Snowpiercer is a delightful sci-fi concept film. The concept is that, amid concerns of climate change, humanity released a relatively untested “cooling” chemical into the upper atmosphere – an anthropogenic solution for an anthropogenic problem. By the way, if you are a person who still denies that something is happening to the climate and that humanity is largely responsible for it, please leave. Even offering a counterargument to deniers is creating a semblance of rational disagreement and debate, which only serves to allow major actors to continue down a path that, unmitigated, will quite literally end the world as we know it. Many scientists are worried that there is a point of no return, and that, once we pass it, there might be a runaway greenhouse gas effect that will radically alter the makeup of the only known body in the solar system that can support human life. Current governmental response to it is insane. Not only are they not freaking out, a full 58% of Republican lawmakers – over half of one major political party – doubt that it exists. The people responsible for legislating measures that might save us aren’t doing anything because a quarter of them are idiots. As a brief aside – a lot of climate change deniers are also evolution deniers. Evolution denial is similar to climate change denial, if the consequences of denying evolution made the whole human race lose their neocortex. That’s the thing – you can deny evolution all you want, and it will change nothing. Dismissing sound climate science, or even just fostering the appearance of any debate on the issue, weakens our ability to respond, in a measured and timely fashion, to a set of circumstances that could lead to mass famine, destruction, and loss of life. I don’t get it. During the Cold War, everyone was terrified of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust. There’s an outside chance the world might end if we don’t stop freely burning fossil fuels, and about a quarter of us are responding with  “Eh, fuck it.” (25% being the rough number of people that actually deny it. Probably a lot more don’t give a shit).

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, around 2128, Mars and its citizens stood as an oppressed colony of Terran corporate interests. Martians get a fighting chance when a major humanitarian crisis strikes Earth and diverts resources from harvesting efforts on Mars to relief efforts on the homeworld – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, dooming all Terran coastal areas with slow but inexorable inundation. Robinson, writing a far-future novel in 1996, trying to think of a semi-plausible disaster for purposes of his plot, came up with that. It happened eighteen years later. If that isn’t enough to terrify you, a science-fiction author’s future apocalypse scenario coming true less than two decades after his book was published, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, they release this quick-fix chemical into the upper atmosphere, and the immediate consequence is that they cool the Earth to far below the threshold for sustaining an ecosystem. All life on Earth is flash-frozen, save for a small enclave on a constantly-moving train run by a perpetual motion engine. Snowpiercer is a great example of the type of science fiction that takes a real science problem from the world, extrapolates it, and then uses it as a backdrop to have Captain America beat the crap out of people. Chris Evans, of Captain America fame, plays the rebellion leader Curtis Everett. Don’t come here for that though – other than hitting people with blunt (or sharp) objects, he’s not very Captainy. This film is way too grim for that.

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He also starred in this movie. We do not speak its name.

The grimness comes from the fact that on the train housing the last remnant of humanity, you have your first-class passengers, your coach passengers, and your oh-my-god-the-world-is-ending-let-me-on passengers. This last category is kept in constant poverty and misery, beaten by guards, and despoiled by the rich. They eat protein gelatin while first-classers eat steak and fish. They pile in squalid bunks while the rich lounge in private cars. The whole drive of the movie is Chris Evans’ character fomenting a rebellion, the stated purpose of which is to reach the front of the train and gain control of the engine, thus gaining control of the entire train. There is a lot of ingrained hierarchy and a lot of guards in place to keep them from doing just that. There is also a lot of propaganda, whereby the owner of the train is cast in a numinous aura of near-godliness. The lead propagandist is probably my favorite character in the film, and she is played marvelously by a ridiculous Tilda Swinton.

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Oh, Tilda.

The most remarkable achievement of the film is its transformation of the vertical, metaphorical rich on top/poor on bottom dynamic into a horizontal, literal rich in front/poor in back dynamic. The protagonist and his band struggle through car after car, moving from industrial-revolution level squalor, to clean and economical, to absurdly elegant and polished. This results in visual cues signaling Curtis’ progress – the further up he gets, the nicer everything is. It is a physical diorama of oppression. Another thing the film does nicely is the action – there is plenty of gritty, bloody scuffling as they inch forward to the engine. Much of the killing is done with improvised weaponry, as the oppressed poor are of course not permitted firearms. Some of the scenes, while not nearly as cool, reminded me of the transcendental hammer hallway fight scene from Oldboy. If you have not seen Oldboy, it is on Netflix. You should probably see Oldboy. Here’s the scene I’m talking about:

This is pretty much what happens as they move through the train cars.

The movie is well worth seeing. Its idea-driven plot, its ambition, its worldbuilding, and its unique sets more than win it the right to your time. However, it does fall apart in some areas. First off, the majority of the characters are pretty simply sketched out. There’s no real change or development throughout the film. Also, the ending is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. It’s fine, it’s fine – I still like the movie. But watch out for that ending. Overall, it’s nice to see small concept-driven sci-fi being produced as opposed to ginormous explosion-driven sci-fi (cough Transformers cough). Take an afternoon for yourself and check it out.

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: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

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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. 

This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.

Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.

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If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.

The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.

I. Intro

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.

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The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?

II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)

These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.

And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.

This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.

The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.

Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism

I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.

Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”

III. Social Commentary

Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.

So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.

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Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.

IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass

A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:

I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.

So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.

You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.

Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is.  At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:

“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.

When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.

A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.

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I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.

The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.

American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.

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: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: BBC America’s Orphan Black

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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. 

Science fiction on television is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Sure, you’ve got your Battlestar Galacticas, your Losts, and your Fringes, but you’ve also got your Sanctuarys, your Revolutions, and your whatever the hell Syfy thinks it’s doing with endless Ghost Hunter marathons. TV is the birthplace of a lot of great SF, but it can also be a graveyard. Orphan Black was born, screaming and healthy, on the airwaves of BBC America. It just finished out its second season, which means it already has more episodes than Firefly will ever have, which is a tragedy. Stretching the baby metaphor way too far, what happened with FOX and Firefly is this: Joss Whedon gave birth to the baby that would cure cancer, and FOX smothered it in the cradle with a pillow because FOX does not like anyone to have nice things (poor poor Arrested Development was smothered by the same villain).

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These are bad people, and they do bad things.

BBC America started out as a vehicle to get Doctor Who stateside (along with other British shows), but it is branching out into original programming with Orphan Black. The series is spearheaded by a Canadian development team, which, before you think “Canadian SF?” please realize that Stargate: SG-1, arguably the most successful straight-up SF show ever, was filmed out of Vancouver. Orphan Black takes place mostly in Toronto, the lead actress is Tatiana Maslany, and she is amazing.

Following is a brief discussion of the plot, and there are some spoilers. I do not think I spoil anything past episode three or four, but it is impossible to give a précis of the show without spoiling something. At the very start of the show, we meet Sarah Manning, a woman who grew up in London, moved to Toronto, and is generally just in some deep shit. She is trying to flee an abusive boyfriend, scrape together enough cash to get out of her situation, and retrieve her daughter (whom she abandoned) from her foster mother. She makes a phone call on a train platform which hints at some of these problems, then right after she hangs up she sees someone who looks exactly like her, crying, walk up to the edge of the platform and throw herself in front of a train. Without thinking too much, Sarah grabs her purse and runs, planning to steal her identity and clean out her bank account. She is successful with this, but it is a definite frying pan/fire situation, as she discovers that she is one of an unknown number of clones and that someone is assassinating them one by one. To solve this problem, she bands together with the other known clones (again, no idea how many there are total), and attempts to uncover their pasts and the ultimate goal of the organization that created them. There, done, and I didn’t even mention anything that happened past episode three.

One of the main features that makes this show so great is the virtuosity of its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany. There end up being about four main clones that engage in solving the mystery of their existence, and Maslany plays all of them. They are all completely different, fully realized human beings. A lot of this is due to the writing and the costume departments, but most of it is pulled off by Maslany’s talent. She can, through very subtle modifications in body language and vocal inflection, create completely different people. This would be impressive if it was just “oh hey, I filmed a scene as this clone, but now I am filming a scene as this one,” but she plays different people all talking together in the same room at the exact same time, and she also plays different clones pretending to be other clones. If that last one is confusing phrasing, keep in mind that Sarah Manning, the main clone, is a grifter, and that she is really good at deception. The whole show starts out with her stealing the suicidal Beth Childs’ identity. She pulls this trick multiple times with multiple clones, and watching her play Sarah Manning playing another clone badly, messing up the accent ever so slightly here and there, is really entertaining. If you don’t quite get why I’m so impressed, please watch this:

They don’t even rely on goatees!

What-the-fuck-is-happening English con artist Sarah, uptight Canadian housewife Alison, and laid-back stoner American grad student Cosima all meet in episode three, and they all are differentiated by preoccupations, responses to stress, body language, and voice. Not only that, they are all filmed together, which means that Maslany is exhaustively filming each scene multiple times, at least once for each clone. Again, she is amazing. Bravo.

Aside from the great character trickery, this show is really strong in a lot of other areas. Its plotting is tight and suspenseful, perfectly balancing the line between suspense and payoff (unlike Lost, which held payoff until the final episode and fucked up royally). I started this series on Monday, and I finished in the early morning hours of Wednesday (as in 3 a.m.). I did not stop watching until it was done. There are only twenty episodes at this point, so it is still at the level where you could make it a fun marathon, one that would end before feelings of self-loathing set in. It also does right by its SF roots. It does not use SF for cheap one-off episode ideas or plot spackle. Like the Deist’s clockmaker God, the showrunners set up an internally consistent universe, then walk away and let it play out according to the rules set up in the first few episodes. The SF elements of the show are also really powerful. The whole plot hinges on bioengineering, which if you’ve eaten corn, you have probably already interacted with a transgenic organism. This is the really exciting, tension-filled area of SF where all the issues involved could be problems we are dealing with in reality in the next twenty years. The show uses cloning to explore the concepts of identity and self-determination, but it also keeps character, suspense, and humanity at the center of each episode.

Battlestar Galactica and Lost are gone, Stargate SG-1 packed it in, and Firefly was brutally murdered before its time. In the year since Fringe wrapped, we’ve been in a dry spell for strong, original, appealing SF programming. Orphan Black is the monsoon that breaks the drought, and in a TV landscape where terrible SF is produced and cancelled all the time, and intelligent SF is also produced and cancelled all the time, while crapfests like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory will seemingly just not die no matter how many anathemata I perform over pictures of Chuck Lorre, it is nice to see a powerful start and promising future from a show like this.

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

Image from here.

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

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Andrew Findlay

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

There are four possible responses to the question “What do you think of Blade Runner?” One is “I enjoyed it,” to which the correct response is “Yeah, me too.” The second is “I haven’t seen it,” to which the correct response is “You have a finite span of time on this Earth, and you are using it poorly.” The third is “I do not know what that is,” which, honestly, why do you know this person? The fourth is “I did not like it,” which, good Lord, what is wrong with humanity?

Blade Runner is without a doubt one of the most polished science fiction films of all time. It made kind of a weak showing at the domestic box office, but its influence spans decades and it makes appearances on most “Best Movie” lists, from Time to AFI. Its initial cult status and later critical success spring from Ridley Scott’s genius worldbuilding. In and around a satisfying film noir shoot-em-up, Scott weaves a vivid world dripping with the ominous tones of the film at large.

Before getting more into that, I want to talk about the weirdness of the other mind involved in the project, Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner is based on PKD’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Both the film and the book deal with the question of what constitutes humanity, and what happens to those who do not make the cut. These concepts are pretty vanilla compared to PKD’s other work, in which protagonists regularly consider not the authenticity and substantiveness of their fellow humans, but of reality itself. In Ubik, the protagonist jumps multiple realities and has no way of knowing which one is “real.” In “The Adjustment Team,” (released in theaters as The Adjustment Bureau) the way reality and the world are is under the control of an unseen organization that completely, and completely behind the scenes, manipulates events. This sounds insane, right? That might be because Philip K. Dick was a little crazy himself. He spent the last years of his life convinced that an entity called VALIS was communicating with him via a pink, information-rich beam of light, and that he was leading a dual life: in one, he was an author in the 20th century, and in the other, he was a persecuted Christian living in 1st century Rome. Yup. Whatever – his perception of the world led to a lot of inimitable SF.

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Hollywood has made so much money off of this man’s insanity

The story of PKD’s life is so appealing in an ironic tragedy way because he spent most of his life poor as dirt, even while writing like a fiend. The stories and novels that were being accepted by publishers were not making him a lot of money, partially because they were genre publishers, which did not pay nearly as much as mainstream. After going through a fairly rough life in which he experienced five broken marriages, anxiety and other mental problems, and a disheartening lack of commercial success, he died right before Blade Runner was released. The irony is that while living, his art won him little money, but posthumously his estate has overseen the transformation of eleven of his books and short stories into major motion pictures. For comparison, Stanley Kubrick only has sixteen directing credits. The gap between PKD’s level of success while alive and while dead is absurd.

Blade Runner initiated this posthumous stream of cash from Hollywood to PKD’s descendants. It is a very well-put-together tech-noir film, in which one taciturn guy, Harrison Ford, is pulled back into the police force he has retired from to hunt down androids escaped from offworld colonies. Androids do not have the same emotional responses as humans, so “blade runners” (those tasked with hunting androids) administer a special test that measures iris contraction, breathing patterns, the blush response, et cetera. If you pass the test, you are human. If you do not, you get shot. Sure, this movie is exciting or appealing every second of playtime. Sure, Harrison Ford playing a cynical ex-cop is perfect. Yes, the reflections on what life means and the internal struggles of a constructed entity are important. What gives the film most of its power, however, is Scott’s painstaking, industry-changing construction of LA in 2019 (ha).

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This is what LA is supposed to look like in five years.
Scott’s future LA has people swarming in the streets, monolithic, light-blocking buildings, heavy Asian cultural influences (multiple times the protagonist stops to get noodles for fast food, and English is not necessarily the most common spoken language). Genetic engineers have become so talented that they can create human eyes, bodies, and brains. Flying cars are happening, which, why does everyone think flying cars will be a thing? The differences in technology and culture are only part of what Scott accomplishes. His set design is astounding. In all the exterior shots, we see an LA swarming with people, close packed in the alleys, standing in the rain. Sunlight never makes an appearance in this film. Buildings are monolithically, absurdly huge, plastered with massive moving billboards advertising common products. All of this is so well-done and so threatening the environment itself is almost another character in the film. The strange appeal of the environment is part of what established this movie’s initial cult reception, and I think part of that appeal comes from the plausibility of the imagined future. Urbanization exploded in the mid 20th century, and a few years ago we just crossed the line where now more than half the people on Earth live in cities. As this trend continues, it is absolutely believable that future cities will be dark, dank, crowded, and menacing. Here’s hoping we are headed to a future with the flying cars and without the dense mass of desperate humanity swarming through a bleak cityscape.

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

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

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Andrew Findlay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from here.