Perdido Street Station

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Novel * China Miéville *Steampunk Mothpocalypse * 2000

Synopsis

Have you ever read a China Miéville novel before? If so, you might know what you’re in for. On the other hand, I’ve read two other of his novels and yo, this isn’t like either one of those. The first was City and the City, which was a trip, but otherwise enjoyable. I wouldn’t call it breezy, but it didn’t overstay its welcome. The other, Un Lun Dun, is a young adult novel, and proceeds as such. I liked it too, even if it did suffer from Too Many Proper Nouns. Perdido Street Station has a few things in common with both of those novels. Like City and the City, it’s quite often bonkers. However, City and the City is focused weirdness. It has a thematic concept (if you’re unaware of this novel, the conceit is that two cities that have entirely different cultures are directly overlapped in the same physical space and the citizens of either city refuse to acknowledge each other) whereas the Perdido Street Station is just widespread weird. And all that weird has a name, often expressed with Proper Nouns. So it’s like if Un Lun Dun were gross and violent and full of swears.

I can’t decide if I like this kind of world building or not. This book is dense with it. The name of the city is New Crobuzon, and it is the home of several million weird fucking fantasy people. There are bird-people and bug-people. There are frog-people and cactus-people. There are Remades, which are regular people who are spliced up with all kinds of weird shit. I would say it’s like a grown-up Adventure Time, but that’s essentially Rick and Morty, which you know, isn’t entirely off the mark here. Well, the book isn’t all that funny, but there is an important character who is a bird person. He doesn’t have gross sex with a human high school girl, however the actual protagonist, Isaac, is in love with a bug-lady. If I’m kind of all over the place trying to explain this thing, well, that’s because Perdido Street Station is also all over the place. It’s a long, messy, often confusing novel filled with a ton of extraneous detail. It’s the kind of book that takes like 200 pages to really get into its own plot, and even then there are constant detours. And all that is totally fine if you’re into the world Miéville is crafting. If so, I think there’s two more books which take place in it.

There are some decent characters in Perdido Street Station, but really the star of the show is New Crobuzon, that’s the focus. It’s a massive, grimy, unsavory place, but as a setting it really does come alive. Eventually a plot materializes, and our characters move throughout the city, usually in its seedy underbelly. Isaac, the one in love with a woman with an insect head (yes there’s a sex scene, and I don’t care if it makes me bug-racist I cannot even deal with it), is also a large scientist. He’s like an edgy science man, but whatever. He’s contacted by the aforementioned bird-person, who is missing his wings and would like to fly again. Eventually, his studies lead him to discover a kind of fucked up psychedelic caterpillar which in many very weird ways promises doom for the city of New Crobuzon. After the break I’m just going to talk openly about the story, and how I liked it once it eventually happened, and hated the denouement. If all this sounds intriguing, though? Well, I guess I enjoyed it overall. If you’re into dark urban steampunky fantasy, you’ll get some great cosplay ideas out of this thing.

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Is there a bunch of unsettling fan-art of the bug-people out there? You know there is!

Discussion

The thing is, considering the avalanche of details and names and descriptions, Perdido Street Station is too much. The characters get lost sometimes in the effort to make New Crobuzon come alive. There’s also the sense that the city exists in and of itself, independent from a larger world. That’s not to say there is literally no other world. All the various hybrid races come from distant lands, and there are references to other areas and environments, not to mention rival cities. However, the entire novel takes place within the city and everything else just seems vague, like rumors in a tavern. While that might be the intended effect – all but one of the main characters are natives of New Crobuzon – as a reader it can alienate you from feeling like part of a larger world. To be fair, there’s two more books in this series that I haven’t read, so maybe the lore and whatnot get expanded. I kind of hope so.

Aside from the density issue, there’s also the fact that this novel switches its plot up maybe halfway through. The initial story of Isaac and his rebellious science takes a while to spin up itself, but eventually bird-person shows up in an effort to regain the ability to fly. Isaac becomes all-consumed by his desire to work on this project, and yes, I am very aware that it is his mania to collect as many flying things as possible which leads to his acquisition of the caterpillar which eventually becomes the main plot. When the caterpillar changes into a slake-moth, who then goes on a jail-break thus unleashing the apocalyptic moths onto the scene, the narrative gets a beat switch. What began as a supremely dense fantasy world with a relatively slight-but-intriguing story suddenly becomes a ragtag-group-saves-the-world story. And I don’t know. It’s not like the main plot comes out of nowhere, but the stakes of that plot does. It’s jarring.

Also, I’m not entirely convinced I like how everything plays out. There’s too many loose threads, not the least of which is what the fuck is up with the Weaver? It’s like a humanoid spider demon what flickers in and out of meat space? Whatever, you have to learn to roll with a lot of weird shit. I mean, the slake-moths are insanely destructive hunters which eat the mind-vibes of its victims leaving them drooling vegetables, so whatever. It’s mostly that there are character threads which never really pay off. We see the repressive arm of the State, get their perspective, but after a while it just peters out. Characters disappear for large swaths of narrative. Some are mere mentions, then they get their own POV section, then are never mentioned again. It’s werid.

But that’s the whole book, actually. For all its detail and density, Perdido Street Station just kind of… ends. Our heroes save the day, but they can’t go forward and live in the city because too many powerful factions want them dead. For saving the city I guess? Meanwhile, the story tries to come around full circle as Isaac tries in vain to fulfil his promise to bird-person. He’s got his crisis engine (and this might just be me, but I kind of hate reading about fantasy science, just call it magic, it’s fine) which something something algebra is going to made bird-person fly again. OH BUT WAIT, then there’s the last second reveal that bird-person is actually a piece of shit, because the lady bird-person he raped showed up and asked Isaac to maybe not revoke bird-person’s punishment. And I just cannot fathom the reasoning behind dropping this in the last few pages. Nothing is resolved. Lin is a drooling invalid, everyone else is all bummed out, they’re exiled, and bird-person is a rapist fuck. Look, I’m a Modernist, I do not require a happily ever after. I do, however, prefer an ending that isn’t just a big middle finger to the reader.

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Posted in Books, Fantasy, Urbanization | Leave a comment

What Happened to Monday

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Film * Tommy Wirkola * Overpopacalypse * 2017

Synopsis

What Happened to Monday is a concept movie, which pretty much means the film lives or dies by the execution of said concept. The good news is, I think the concept is pretty cool. The movie imagines an overpopulated world, which is not exactly a stretch. The film begins with the time-tested montage of various news clips smooshed together to let us all know about the state of the world. There’s too many people, you see, and they’re ruining everything. In order to combat this, Glenn Close, who is definitely in charge of something, institutes a one-child policy throughout the EU (this, despite a few higher-profile American actors, is a very Euro movie). Of course, this policy has been instituted in modern history before, but there’s a sci-fi twist here. Instead of China’s program, which enforced their program by both onerous fines and forced sterilization/contraception, What Happened to Monday envisions a one-child program that’s enforced in what is presented as a more humane way. Any family with more than one child is in violation, and has the sibling forcibly removed and cryogenically frozen until such a time that the overpopulation crisis has passed. Easy peasy!

That’s part one of the concept. What Happened to Monday is essentially a dystopian future in which the oppressive state power is represented by the Child Allocation Bureau. You’ve got the same military checkpoints that are common in this kind of world, and everyone has the same surveillance-state software encoded literally in the palms of their hands. The only bit of dystopian flavor here is that the repressive power of the state only seems interested in how many kids you have. More than one? The offending sibling gets shoved into a truck and taken to the citadel of power where they are frozen and filed.

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Left to right: The rebellious one, the ditzy one, the serious one, the tough one, the slutty one, and the geeky one. I may have confused them because very little time is spent setting them up.

Part two is where our story comes from. A lady has seven kids. She dies. The grandfather of these kids would like to raise them in secret, and so he does. His ingenious plan of sneaking beneath the radar of the Child Allocation Bureau is to only allow one child out of the house at a time. Since they’re all identical, that shouldn’t be a problem. And, except for a couple wrinkles, it isn’t. What Happened to Monday begins thirty years after the initial application of the whole Child Allocation thing. Anyway, the seven kids are all handily named after the days of the week, each name corresponding to the day of the week they get to leave the house. Throughout their entire life, each of the seven kids have been playing the role of Karen Settman. They went to school as Karen, they got a job as Karen, they’ve avoided relationships as Karen. The rest of the time, they hang out at home, cooped up in a not-very-large apartment with their six adult sisters. Sounds like a great life.

I’m not going to get into specifics above the break, but remember how I said up top that concept movies live or die by the execution of their concept? Well, What Happened to Monday doesn’t execute the concept particularly well. I’m not going to say I hated the movie, because it wasn’t a disaster. It’s just that the concepts here need a lot of work to be even remotely believable, and that work isn’t done. Simple questions unravel the entire thing, and even worse, the movie’s big-reveal ending is obvious pretty much right away. Now, the film isn’t an entire waste of time, and here are the saving graces. First and foremost, Noomi Rapace is extremely fun to watch. She’s basically doing the Orphan Black thing by playing seven different people at the same time, and it’s impressive. The only issue here is, since this is a movie and not a series, Rapace doesn’t really have the time to flesh out the personalities of the seven siblings. They’re all relatively flat characters. That’s mostly fine, since this turns out to be a rather grisly action flick most of the time, which of course saves the movie from being too tedious. Okay, now I’m gonna ruin it.

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There are lots of “seven identical sisters sitting around a table” shots.

Discussion

As I said above, What Happened to Monday’s concepts are generally undone by a few simple questions, which I’m going to ask here. The first question is common to any kind of dystopian fiction, which is answered by storytellers maybe half the time. That is to say, what’s happening in the rest of the world if this overpopulation thing is such a disaster? Follow up to that, why would sovereign national governments hand over so much power to a single, multinational agency? Follow up to that, why would the director of this singly powerful agency desire or need to advance to another leadership position? The Child Allocation Bureau is shown as pretty much the sole power in this society. They have the same kind of lethal, unlimited power as any totalitarian secret police. The populace mostly seems to accept this, and no resistance movement of any kind is depicted. This begs another similar question.

What is the nature of this society, then? The Child Allocation Bureau seemingly has unlimited martial power over the citizens, yet there still seems to be freedom of movement and press? Considering how the movie ends, Glenn Close’s character appears to be vulnerable to external pressures, yet none of those are shown up until she is undone. It’s clear that What Happened to Monday is only really focused on the one-kid thing, but it’s just as clear that the agency is all-powerful. Such power is not toppled by a single grainy video. Now, the montage at the beginning states that the world is in serious trouble, but none of those effects are really seen throughout the movie. Nothing in this nameless Euro city seems all that dire. There’s a few shots of the underclass here and there, but nobody is particularly interested in them. Most of this is just down to poor world building. No care was given to the details of this world, and as a result the dystopia feels lifeless rather than oppressive.

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I do like grimy, half-dilapidated cities.

Then there’s the issue with the seven siblings. Seeing how much trouble they have with the one day of normalcy we get so the film can establish a baseline, I have a hard time believing this crew can keep it together for thirty years. Well, there’s that one time the rebel sister skateboarded her finger off (which, how? Also, gah!) so grandpa had to chop off six more little girl fingers, but other than that, no problem! The ruse is flimsy at best, and that it only comes undone when one of the sisters sells out the other six is not only unlikely, but undermines the menace of the dystopia. And look, I’m happy to suspend my disbelief if the story helps me out, but What Happened to Monday just doesn’t take the time to do the work. If the state is routinely and easily fooled, they’re automatically less menacing. It’s like, yeah, your converted Aerostars are super scary but apparently all I need is a wig and I’m safe.

Towards the end of the movie, there are two big reveals, neither of which are terribly surprising. The first is that the Child Allocation Bureau isn’t actually freezing kids for the future, they just kill them. Like any self-respecting dystopian state would! If that surprised you, I will assume you either spent most of the movie scrolling Twitter or that this is your first piece of dystopian fiction. Of course they were murdering siblings. I thought that was implied from the beginning, and that it was one of those totalitarian lies that nobody actually believes. Apparently not, because one cell phone video was enough to upend the entire monolithic, all-powerful Child Allocation Bureau. The other big reveal is that Monday is a lying, murderous, traitor. She sells out the other siblings, which leads to the death of most of them, so she can be the “real” Karen. This plan fails spectacularly, but it’s hard to care too much. This is because there is no primary sibling to get invested in. I guess the short-haired “fuck up” sister? Because she lives? Again, there is next to zero time spent actually developing character. And it’s a shame, because with a little more care and detail, the world could have been something special. As it stands, What Happened to Monday is yet another in a long line of mildly entertaining, mediocre dystopian fiction.

Posted in Dystopia, Film | Leave a comment

The People of Sparks

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Novel * Jeanne DuPrau * Fallout Junior * 2004

Synopsis

The People of Sparks is the direct sequel to The City of Ember, so if you’ve not read that take twenty minutes and burn through it real quick. Yeah, it was okay! This one is okay, too! That said, there’s two more of these and I doubt I will get to them anytime soon. The thing is, most of what I said about the first book applies to this second book, to the point where I’m legit wondering if I have enough words in me for an actual article. Ah, who am I kidding, of course I do. Those words may or may not have anything to do with this book, but you know how it goes. Anyway, to reiterate, The People of Sparks is intended for a younger audience. I’m well aware that “family” entertainment can appeal to adults, and that good fiction is good fiction, regardless of how many swears are in it. That’s why I took a shot on these books. Like the first book, though, the quality of the world-building is brought down by the thin characterization.

The novel starts not long after Lina and Doon (I’m going to sing the Doon song now!) escape from the Vault, I mean the cave-city of Ember. At the end of the first book, they’re justifiably gob-smacked by the open, outdoor world. They do, however, manage to drop a message into the doomed city, which is fortuitously picked up by Lina’s guardian. Following that is a mad rush to the boats and supplies to escape Ember before goes dark forever. There are many casualties, including the jerk Mayor. Anyway, eventually a few hundred people make it out, and of course they’ve all lived in a closed, subterranean city for generations. And, for reasons that are never made clear, information about the surface world was not left behind for the citizens of Ember. As a result, they’re all ignorant about, well, basically everything.

Shortly after their escape, the refugees of Ember stumble onto another human community, the village of Sparks (get it?). These surface-dwellers have made a home in the ruins of civilization, scratching together an existence in the countryside a few days out from an ancient, ruined city. The people of Sparks are doing well, all things considered. They’ve started to figure out how to survive with some amount of comfort, even though their community is small. Then a massive wave of despondent, confused refugees show up basically demanding food and shelter and of course there’s conflict. Most of the novel consists of learning very clear lessons. Sharing is good. War is bad. Don’t be a petty little wiener like Torren. Speaking of Torren, The People of Sparks features one of the most unlikable, obnoxious, horrid little-kid characters I’ve ever seen. DuPrau eventually tries to redeem this little garbage-boy, but it never really works because she did her job too well in making this kid the absolute worst. Okay, now I guess I’ll tell you what happens after the break.

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This is such an odd illustration, considering.

Discussion

They have a fight. The people of Ember and the people of Sparks, I mean. Also, racism is bad. About halfway through the novel, the Sparks natives start referring to the Emberites as “cavepeople,” which is a little on the nose, you know? Regardless, the two groups obviously don’t get along, and most of the novel is spent reading about these people being mad at each other for existing. To be fair, the moralizing is done with a little bit more grace than the first book. It’s a little less sermon-y and there are fewer instances of the author straight-up wagging their finger in my face. I also appreciate that the two main characters aren’t “fixed.” Doon is still an overly-serious, quick-tempered dork who likes public praise a little too much. Lina is a still an impulsive flake who doesn’t think things all the way through. They get a touch better, maybe, but honestly they’re twelve and it makes sense that they don’t really learn their lesson. Negative character traits are something pretty much everyone has to work on for a lifetime.

The world is still entertaining, although not much light is shed on the nature of the apocalypse. The surface dwellers at least have an idea that things used to be better. They know that some Disaster befell humanity and ruined the cities and killed most of the people. There doesn’t seem to be any issue with radiation, so I assume all the damage was conventionally done. One of the better bits in the novel is when Lina impulsively absconds with a couple of Roamers, Caspar and Maddy. Caspar is the older brother of the horrible little Torren, and it turns out both of these kids suck. Caspar is a blowhard dummy who is this world’s equivalent to a conspiracy theorist. He seems to think there’s fabulous treasure buried under the dead city. Maddy, on the other hand, is sage and wise and strong. Almost too much, but comparted to pretty much anyone else in these books, she’s rad.

As for the rest of the book, there’s not much in the way of suspense. Tensions between the Sparkers and the Emberites grow and grow until the situation pops off. Doon spends most of the book being a scapegoat and getting radicalized by a rabble-rouser named Tick, who is actively pushing for a war. In the end, Tick gets his way and the stage is set for a major battle between the two factions, which of course mirrors the larger scale of the original Disaster. Subtle. Anyway, Sparks has an ancient weapon, which I think is a machine gun of some kind, which they pull out. It doesn’t work and ends up maiming the momo who tries to fire it (unsurprisingly the uncle of both Caspar and Torren) and setting fire to the City Hall or whatever. Well, in the end both groups realize the folly of warfare and decide to work together to blah blah blah. Look. These books are entirely serviceable post-apocalyptic novels for kids. I really mean that! When my nephew(s) turn like nine or ten, I will absolutely gift these to them. However, for a general audience, they’re just a bit too on the nose. That’s fine for the target audience, but I think I’m done.

Posted in Books, Post-Post-Apocalypse | Leave a comment

Constantine

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Film * Francis Lawrence * Ted “Theodore” Logan vs. The Devil * 2005

Synopsis

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that I know absolutely nothing about the Constantine comic. I know it exists, and that is all. I didn’t even Google it because frankly the movie should stand on its own. And it does, mostly. That said, Constantine has the feel of a movie made with the understanding that the audience knows something about this character or the world already. Some things are hastily explained, or not explained at all, and there are clear references that I don’t understand that undermine the story somewhat. Still, I think I prefer this approach to another tiresome origin story, you know? I’ll take being confused by a more interesting storyline than being bored by another version of the same thing. The two minutes of backstory-exposition are plenty. As for the rest of the movie, well, it fairly comfortably fits alongside the other slowly-paced, dark Christian-fantasy movies of the late 90s and early 00s. As someone who saw Stigmata in the theaters, I’m mostly down.

Here are the things that I understood immediately about John Constantine. He’s a bit of a dick. He likes cigarettes. He does not like demons, or in the parlance of the film, “half-breeds.” Early in the movie, after he does a sick exorcism by trapping a demon in a mirror and hucking it out a window onto Shia LaBeouf’s car, we find out that he is dying of lung cancer and only has a few months to live. Of course he’s still Keanu-handsome and physically fit but he coughs up blood sometimes so you know he’s basically doomed. Eventually, as the film slowly moves along, we discover that our demon-slaying protagonist has a heart of gold after all. Well, mostly. He’s an anti-hero in that he does the right thing, eventually, but is a real douche about it. I can get behind that. Other than John Constantine, Rachel Weisz is there (as twins!) to provide a plot point and also a counter to Constantine’s selfish whininess There is also a lot of strong, scenery-chewing work done by a bevy of character actors, including Peter Stormare. Oh, and the lead singer from Bush is here for some reason.

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This is mostly what this movie looks like, just so you know.

The reason why Constantine mostly works is the aforementioned scenery-chewing. Pretty much everyone aside from the two leads are hamming it all the way up, and the movie is better for it. Something like this needs to take itself incredibly seriously, otherwise it ends up a total farce. And like, we know it’s silly. I mean, this is a movie about a dude who’s trying to get to Heaven by “deporting” (not a fan of the terminology) semi-demons back to Hell. Gabriel the arch-angel tells him to his face that “he’s fucked.” There’s a fight with a bug-demon in the middle of Los Angeles. It’s all goofy, that’s part of the appeal, but Constantine the movie doesn’t know it. If it did, the same hambone acting would feel trite and irritating. The script would be full of sly wink-wink moments that would suck all the fun out of it. When you’re writing an over-the-top God versus Satan story, you have to go all in. You can definitely have fun with it – see Dogma – but at bottom you have to take yourself seriously.

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I do appreciate that Hell basically looks like Sarah Connor’s dream sequence in Terminator 2, though.

Discussion

Look, even for the kind of movie that it is, Constantine is not perfect. This article is not meant as an unqualified recommendation. The biggest issue I have with the movie is that it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. Above I mentioned the movie Stigmata, which is the first time that’s happened pretty much since that movie came out, but it was part of a trend. At the time, which is to say at the turn of the millennium, there was an entire mini-genre of religious horror/thriller movies that have since fallen by the wayside. End of Days, of course, but also things like The Prophecy or The Ninth Gate, and there were probably others I’m forgetting. None of the films were precisely good, but there was a clear fascination with the Christian apocalypse, and specifically Catholic dogma. Part of Constantine wants to be one of these movies, which is not something it should aspire to. All of those movies (with the possible exception of End of Days, because Arnie is rarely boring) move extremely slowly and trade in a sort of religious dread. The other part of Constantine wants to be a comic book action movie. It should have leaned further in that direction.

Perhaps aspiring to be an over-the-top comic book action movie that also takes its Christian apocalypse seriously is too much to ask for. Constantine has its moments, but is simply too muted and muddled to really make an impression. I’m glad the Bush guy is there to act poorly, and that Peter Stormare is there as Satan to lighten up the proceedings. Hell, I’m even grateful for Shia LaBeouf, who disappears for most of the movie only to show up at the end to get murked. There were some fun set-pieces, like the aforementioned bug-demon (oh I don’t like bugs no I do not and that scene was a nightmare) or the brief spurt of action at the end where John Constantine goes all Blade on a bunch of not-demons. Unfortunately these bits were too few and too spread out to keep the overall movie from dragging. Also, and maybe this was just Netflix, but the version I watched was quiet as hell. It felt like two hours of Keanu Reeves whispering angrily at the camera.

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I’m really just so very fond of this version of Lucifer.

I know that overall society is becoming less religious because at the turn of the millennium, people didn’t freak out all that much. A bunch of movies came out that basically asked “what if all this nuttiness is actually true?” instead of what happened in like, 999, when hordes of pilgrims descended upon the Holy Land and really donked up the economy and whatnot. The eternal battle of Good versus Evil, at least on a dogmatic scale, has been relegated to fiction at this point. Look, I know there are exceptions, but I just finished reading both the King James Bible and the mid-19th century history book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, both of which highlighted the incredible role of religious delirium had in society until very recently. All of the above films, Constantine very much included, posit a kind of ancient, lost knowledge of Catholicism, as if the Church is dead or dying. And it’s very much not, as large swaths of South America and Africa can attest, it’s just the role is different. This is a weird thing to hold Constantine accountable for, though, so I’ll just peace out now. The movie’s fine.

Posted in Demons!, Film, Religion | Leave a comment

The City of Ember

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Novel * Jeanne DuPrau * The Post-Apocalypse… For Kids! * 2003

Synopsis

Before we get into it, be forewarned, this is not a young adult novel. The City of Ember, and its sequels, are kid books. The protagonists are twelve, and that’s about the age these books are directed toward. In Harry Potter terms, this is more like the first two books than the last two. If you’re an edgy teen, these aren’t for you. If you’re twelve, you’re not reading this blog because it’s boring, even with the swears. If you’re an adult who likes a well told story, though, you might vibe with The City of Ember. Maybe. I’m of two minds about the book, as I’ll expound upon, but that’s mostly to do with some of the writing and not the story or the world. For the most part, though, reading this book was a breezy and entertaining experience. The novel fleshes out an intriguing premise, and while the characters are a little thin, the book reads quickly so you’re never really mired down too much.

It’s made immediately clear that The City of Ember takes place in the distant future, over two hundred years past some future calamity. The citizens of the titular city of Ember believe themselves to be the only community of humanity, and they’ve lived for generations in the same city. In video game terms, the city of Ember is like a larger version of Fallout’s Vaults. This community has been sequestered somewhere (obviously underground) and isolated from whatever disaster befell the surface. The story begins long past when anyone knew anything about that disaster. In fact, it seems that nobody in Ember is even aware that there was ever any kind of existence outside of the city. They have no concept of life on the surface, are not even aware that they are underground. No one has ever left, there’s not even any solid idea that there’s anywhere else to go. All they’ve ever known is the City, which exists in perpetual darkness. The only thing keeping them going are seemingly endless stores of necessities and a generator that keeps the dark at bay.

I don’t know about you, but after coming to terms with that premise, I had just about every single question. It’s a cool idea, and I just went with it, but I’m of the opinion that humanity is simply too curious to accept such a limited existence. Of course, that’s what The City of Ember is actually about, because as the book begins, the city is ending. The lights keep going off. They’re running out of supplies. Things are going poorly and are getting worse. Luckily, there are two plucky kids in town who are determined to save the dang day! These kids are Lina, the girl, and Doon, the boy. Doon is a bad name. Anyway, Lina is lighthearted and carefree, although she does have a responsible streak due to her orphan status and her toddler sister. Doon is a bummer most of the time, and serious-minded and boring. The characters are fine, but DuPrau has a bad habit of overtly moralizing. She just hits you over the head with their primary characteristics and flaws so that even a kid would be like, “yo, I get it, Doon has a temper.” It doesn’t derail the novel entirely, but it’s definitely noticeable. Now, the ending to this thing is pretty easily guessed, but just in case spoilers beyond the break.

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That’s a nice cover. Also: Apparently they made a movie of this? With Bill Murray? I really need to get out more, I guess.

Discussion

I’m not sure what the psychological effect is called, but there’s something innately fun in reading about other people’s ignorance. I suppose that’s why fish-out-of-water stories are popular. Obviously, the people who populate the city of Ember have some significant blind spots about the world. One of the things that Lina enjoys, as an energetic and imaginative twelve-year-old, is to draw fantastic pictures. Mostly, she draws pictures of a fantastical city that she’s kind of obsessed with. At one point, on a whimsical flight of fancy, she draws one of these with a blue sky. And then she laughs at herself, because whoever heard of such a crazy thing? But of course the reader is there like, “joke’s on you, you dumb idiot.” It’s kind of a meta-dramatic irony thing, I suppose, but that’s the novel’s primary trade. And it’s fun! I don’t intend to be derogatory here, and watching these ding-dongs figure out how a candle works is honestly a big part as to why the book works more than it doesn’t.

The city and the situation are well-crafted and are the reason to read The City of Ember. I may have mentioned this. Still, the idea that this self-contained city is falling apart because it’s older than it should be is fascinating. Of course the reader should have a bunch of higher-level questions, most of which go unanswered. It’s fine, there’s three other books. Still, there are plenty of intense situations that arise when the kids start digging around and uncovering just how donked up the city is. I just wish the characters weren’t so flat and obvious. Honestly, for most of the book I was worried that this whole thing was going to be a Christian metaphor (it isn’t), and that’s down to how the author characterizes. There is zero subtlety. Doon, for instance, is very smart and brave. But he has a temper, and instead of just writing a scene where he loses it and goes off on people, we get a couple of pages of obvious internalizing which might as well end with a sentence like “and Doon has committed the sin of WRATH.” Doon is also way into the idea of public praise. His primary motivator seems to be getting high-fives from the riff-raff. “And Doon has committed the sin of PRIDE.” It’s all a bit much.

I get that it’s a book for kids, and that many classics of children’s literature do this. My issue is that it’s so blatant that it’s borderline insulting, even to a ten-year-old kid. The saving grace, however, is that Lina is mostly fine and we spend most of our time with her. She has her glaring, obvious flaws that end up causing trouble, but she’s a bit less transparent than Doon or the other characters, all of whom are relatively flat as well. Whatever, though, the main draw here is the world, and that’s still cool as heck. Lina and Doon eventually decipher the message left from The Builders and have found a way out. That’s good news, because entropy is finally winning out and the self-contained city of Ember is literally dying. The kids battle the unsavory leadership of Ember (who have committed the sin of GREED) and find the escape route. The novel ends with the kids escaping via boat, and finding themselves in an incomprehensibly vast new world where, get this, the sky is blue. Shortly thereafter they realize their entire life was lived in a big cave (duh) and that most of their assumptions about life were incredibly short-sighted. Yeah. Anyway, the ending sets up some sequels, and hopefully the world-building is as on-point as what we get here. Also, maybe (crosses fingers) these characters get a little more depth. I guess we’ll see because this was at least good enough to get me to read the next one in the series.

Posted in Books, Entropy, Post-Post-Apocalypse | Leave a comment

The Man in the High Castle

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Novel * Philip K. Dick * O.G. “What if the Nazis Won” Story * 1962

Synopsis

Here’s my confession: This is the first Philip K. Dick work I’ve ever read. Considering the width and breadth of my science fiction love, this is a significant oversight. Even worse is my reasoning. Up until very recently, by which I mean a couple of months ago, I just bought the books I read. Whatever, don’t judge me, I like having books around. The thing is, though, I’m a value conscious shopper. I’m not out here buying brand new hardback books, because I’m part of the problem as to why nobody wants to pay for art. Anyway, the point of this is that for some reason, Philip K. Dick novels only seem to come in these novella-sized paperbacks that cost like $15 each. Say what you will about paying for art (and you should!), it’s different when the artist is a legendary author in the genre and also dead. Copyright laws are wack. Whatever, now that I’ve remembered what a library is, I can check stuff like this out. Turns out I was right to wait and read it for free.

There are a lot of cool and experimental things happening with Dick’s writing, but by the end of the novel I was bored. This is a prime example of a squandered premise. I imagine The Man in the High Castle isn’t the first bit of speculative fiction about what would have happened if the Axis powers had won World War II, but it’s arguably the most famous. And the actual world that is imagined here is fascinating! Japan has taken over the governance of the Pacific states while the eastern seaboard has, for all intents and purposes, been assimilated into the Reich. Meanwhile the South is independent insofar as it aligns with Germany and oh also slavery is back. The only remnant of the United States to really survive are the Rocky Mountain states, and they’re a backwater. That’s a good set up. There’s also quite a bit of political intrigue, since of course superpowers never get along and Japan and Germany are no exception.

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Most of the covers for this novel highlight Nazi imagery, which makes sense because Nazis are the fucking worst, but no part of the novel takes place in Nazi-occupied territory.

Beyond the principal setup, there are also quite a few ominous touches concerning the state of the world under Axis rule. Africa, for example, no longer exists. The Nazis “Final Solutioned” it. Obviously it’s dark times for Judaism. Anyone who is even remotely Jewish is immediately extradited to Germany where they’re sent to still-functioning gas chambers. Having slash-and-burned their way through Earth, the Nazis are also busy trying to colonize the solar system (which is a concept that the recent Wolfenstein games have fun with). Meanwhile, the Japanese colonizers are better mostly by virtue of the fact that they don’t immediately murder anyone they disagree with. The Man in the High Castle is at its best in its depictions of Americans living under Japanese rule. It’s a “what if the colonizers were colonized” premise that is extremely well done. The prose in these sections does its best to mimic what Americans trying to sound Japanese might sound like. There’s also plenty of evidence of American citizens accepting and then adopting Japanese culture, and vice-versa.

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That’s some expensive custom barbed wire there.

Discussion

Unfortunately, the stuff that ultimately makes a novel worth reading, which is to say character and plot, are less compelling. The characters are fine, I guess, but not enough are done with them. The novel begins with Mr. Childan, a white, American shopkeeper who trades in relics of old Americana. His clientele are generally the ruling elite Japanese. He’s both extremely racist and also extremely eager to curry favor with the Japanese. Being in his head is exhausting. Actually, that goes for pretty much everyone. The Man in the High Castle is one of those books where everyone kind of sucks. There’s a delicate web of these people who are all interconnected in subtle ways whether they know each other or not. Mr. Tagomi is a high-ranking Japanese official who has doubts about this society they’ve built in what used to be California, but he takes his superiority for granted. Juliana yearns for freedom but is shallow and basic. Joe’s a Nazi. Frank Frink is wish-washy. Their lives touch each other in major and minor ways, but none of them have actual functioning relationships.

The plot, such as it is, involves all these people being extremely anxious. Childan is anxious because he’s trying to please his Japanese rulers so that he can continue his comparatively comfortable existence. Mr. Tagomi is anxious because he’s having secret dealings with an element of the Nazi Reich that he’s not sure if he can trust, oh and also the Nazis are planning a secret nuclear campaign against them which could trigger the end of the uneasy stalemate between the two world powers. Juliana is anxious because she’s banging this Joe dude she knows nothing about and he’s kind of scary, although considering how that turns out Joe should have been the anxious one. Frank is anxious because it’s terrifying being a Jew in this horrible world. Anxiety being the watchword of the novel makes sense, of course, since totalitarian powers now rule the world. It’s just that even when the stakes are seemingly high – Germany nuking Japan would be a big deal – there never seems to be much urgency.

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My favorite alternate cover, I think. Something about the billboards representing America stands out.

Part of the reason for this is that the characters are not entirely invested in this hell-world. That makes sense. Everything’s gone as bad as it possibly could, so why would citizens of this place care if it all went away? That’s part of the reason The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is such a big part of the novel. Grasshopper is a novel-within-a-novel which is like the opposite of The Man in the High Castle, in that it posits what would have happened in the Allies had won the war instead. It’s a mirror-world version of what actually happened, which is kind of funny, but otherwise? There just don’t seem to be any real stakes where Grasshopper or the titular Man in the High Castle are concerned. The Nazis ban the book and are trying to kill its author, but there’s nothing particularly significant about either the book or the man who wrote it when Juliana eventually finds him in the end. Mr. Tagomi has a weird hallucination where he discovers the “real” San Francisco, and decides he hates it. Frank goes back to work.

I wish The Man in the High Castle wasn’t as dull as it is, because again all the details about how awful this world is are fascinating. I just can’t help but think there are more interesting stories to tell in this world other than a shopkeeper trying out some new merchandise, you know? That’s probably why the parts of this that kept my attention best was the high-level political intrigue bits. It was fun reading about how dysfunctional the Nazis are and how bad at governing their own new world order they are. What seems to be most lacking, though, is any kind of resistance. Everyone in the occupied territories seemed resigned to their fate, which, hey maybe that’s how it goes. But reading about people who have basically given up is not compelling to me. Even a doomed resistance would be better than these broken, sad people fumbling around what used to be their own country. As a result, The Man in the High Castle just feels lifeless. Which is a shame, because the potential is here.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Historical, Totalitarian | Leave a comment

Rampage

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Film * Brad Peyton * Dwayne “The Rampage” Johnson * 2018

Synopsis

I don’t know what y’all do when you’re feeling a little bit down. I assume endlessly watch tepid episodes of Friends on Netflix considering how much they spent on that atrocious show and I cannot think of another reason people would subject themselves to it if they were feeling okay. As for myself, I appreciate and embrace the allure of really stupid nonsense to really numb the brain. Disaster movies starring The Rock are pretty much exactly suited to make me feel better. It’s like ninety minutes of shit blowing up for no reason and Dwayne Johnson doing stuff with his eyebrows is the equivalent of a couple tabs of Celexa (note, dumb movies are not an actual alternative to taking your meds). Rampage is no exception to this, nor did I really expect it to be. All the trailers suggested that it was basically San Andreas with CG monsters instead of an earthquake. That’s… pretty much exactly what this movie is. It’s great.

Rampage, if you weren’t aware, is actually a video game movie. It is based on one of my favorite arcade games from when I was a little kid. I loved that game because you played as the monster and the entire point of the game was to smash up buildings and move from town to town. Rampaging, as it were. I would always play as Lizzie, the Godzilla analogue, but your other options were George the fake King-Kong and Ralph the enormous wolf. The first few stages in the game are suburbs of Chicago, then you get to beat up Chicago! Pump enough quarters and you can tour the entire United States, knocking buildings over. It’s not a great game. But when you’re eight? Man, I just wanna knock down Portland! I’ve been there!

If you couldn’t tell from the above description, there really isn’t all that much to adapt. Three big monsters? Check. Big monsters beat up Chicago? Check. You did it! You’ve perfectly adapted Rampage for the big screen. The problem is, audiences expect stories and characters and bullshit like that, so the screenwriters had to put in some work to make any of this make sense. Still, the disaster movie template is pretty well established, and they managed to get Dwayne Johnson, so they found a way. Is it a good way? It’s better than The Core! It’s not as good as Deep Impact! This is largely because the disaster in this situation is courtesy of three very large CG monsters, which, mmm, doesn’t have quite the same gravitas as a planet-killing asteroid. Basically The Rock is an employee of the San Diego zoo. He is the science-man in charge of the gorillas. He likes them more than people, because of his dark past as a Special Forces anti-poaching, uh, guy. Anyway, one of his gorillas – George – is hit with a canister of DNA juice from space and he turns enormous and angry. As do a wolf and a crocodile. Rampaging ensues.

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I know the ape has personality and whatnot, but Lizzie is still the best.

Discussion

The time elapsed to actual rampaging in this movie is just about thirty minutes, in case you were wondering how much boring set-up there is. The villains are an evil brother-and-sister team whose company developed the aforementioned DNA juice in space. The introductory scene takes place in the super-secret evil satellite where they were doing the illegal research. One of the space rats got all huge and crazy and wrecked up the place. The one remaining survivor managed to rescue the DNA juice, but blew up in re-entry. That’s why the monsters happen. Then the baddies set off a beacon they’ve hidden in the giant antennae on top of the Sears Tower, which calls the monsters to Chicago so that they can, I dunno, harvest the juice? It’s not important. What is important is that the rampaging happens, and it is cool. Also, the villains remind me of Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant as the Mayflowers in Hudson Hawk. Oh, I love Hudson Hawk, by the way. You can judge me accordingly.

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I’m pretty well convinced that Rampage is going to look terrible in a few years when I see it on TBS.

Man, I have this whole section subtitled “discussion” and I have very little to discuss. Okay, well, one thing I enjoy about disaster movies is that there’s always an Important Ecological And/Or Moral Lesson to be taken away from the experience. I somehow haven’t written about it yet, but The Day After Tomorrow is a good example. In that absolute classic, there are these monster death-storms which super-blast the United States with mega-ice and snow-hurricanes. The point being that climate change is real and don’t be dumb. Here in Rampage, the progressive ecological lesson is that poaching is bad. Don’t, like, go to Africa and illegally hunt gorillas. Okay, movie, I won’t! Nor will I purchase or support whatever monstrous products people make out of dead gorillas. Seriously, what kind of nightmare person would hunt a gorilla to make ghoulish products out of their humanoid-ass corpses? Oh, wait, I figured it out.

Alrighty, things we’ve learned about Rampage:

  1. It’s a good smashy-smashy-kaboom movie if your brain enjoys that kind of thing.
  2. Dwayne Johnson is always a delight.
  3. George the gorilla flips people off a lot, so that’s, you know, hilarious.
  4. The movie invokes fond memories of bad arcade games and extremely stupid Bruce Willis movies.
  5. DNA juice = bad.
  6. I like that the movie makes you wait to see Lizzie, my old fave, and when she shows up she is suitably badass.
  7. Poaching. Not cool.

And that’s about it, I think. About my only disappointment with this thing is the missed opportunity with the ending credits. You’re telling me you couldn’t do an old school arcade theme as a call back to the game? Pretty weak, guys. Ah well, maybe next time. Rampage 2: Rampagier.

Posted in Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

Norse Mythology

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Myths! * Neil Gaiman * Ragnarok and Whatnot * 2017

Synopsis

Books are an evergreen joy, and it barely matters when in life you read a good one. I read the Harry Potters in my mid-twenties and I clearly love them as much as I would have if they had been a part of my actual childhood. Of course I had my own set of influential books growing up, which I’m not sure I could improve upon given the miraculous option of sending newer books back in time to myself. I had The Lorax for whimsical lessons in ecology, I had Harriet the Spy for learning that being an introvert is not an excuse to be a little bitch, and I had Where the Red Fern Grows to fuck me up emotionally. RIP Old Dan and Little Ann, you beautiful hillbilly smell-hounds. I also had a whole mess of glorious non-fiction books and almanacs from which I could hoover up useless tidbits of information that have made me a formidable Trivial Pursuit player. And, of course, there were the collections of Greek mythology. The stories of Zeus and his dysfunctional family were fascinating. Especially since I had access to the cool versions with the murders and stuff. What I did not have, what I did not even know existed, was a similar book about the Norse myths. If I could send a book back in time to twelve-year-old me, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology would be a strong contender.

I never had that experience, sadly, so instead I come to this book with a hodgepodge of cultural detritus in my mind instead of – and I use this term so very loosely – the canonical stories. I know, settle down, you can’t have a canon if there’s no reliable source, you know what I mean. What I have, up until pretty much now, is ephemera. I read the stories in this collection trying not to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of Thor and Loki in my head. I mostly failed. Also this year, I played through God of War, which was all about this stuff. It was a great game, but of course the game takes a lot of liberties with the source material. That’s the great thing about mythology, though. Since there’s no hard and fast source, anyone can pretty much do whatever they want with it. The “characters,” or the gods and their freaky buddies, basically have one or two characteristics and are otherwise fair game. It makes sense that Marvel made Thor a superhero back in the day. Superheroes are basically our modern day myths, with the same broadly-drawn template characters in lieu of gods.

The reason I think this stuff would have clicked better for me as a kid is fairly simple: my imagination was better. Actually, let me rephrase. My imagination was wilder, less structured. Reading through Norse Mythology now, I’m having a pretty good time. It’s cool having a more grounded referent for these figures and myths which I’ve lacked until now. Back then, though, these jerky gods would have lived in my head. Loki would be compelling and terrifying by turns. I probably would have over-sympathized with the giants, sensitive little wiener kid that I was. Norse Mythology would have been one of those books I pored over, again and again, skipping around to my favorite bits. Probably revisiting the more grisly stories more than is healthy, but still, it would have just resonated more. That’s not to say that adult me didn’t appreciate this. It’s just that my awful, reified, adult brain files Norse Mythology under “reference” as opposed to “this is the raddest thing I’m going to live there in my mind.” That’s okay. Adulthood happens.

Discussion

In the beginning is the beginning, and in the end is the end, but in the end is also the new beginning. That the end is also the beginning is the very idea of apocalypse. Pretty much every social worldview, ancient or otherwise, operates on this kind of comic timeframe. Cycles and cycles, and the midpoint of each is a cataclysmic destruction of the old to make way for the new. The Norse were no different, they were just a little more flamboyant than some. Ragnarok, the end of the Norse mythology cycle, is framed as an epic battle between the gods and giants (yes they have proper names, but get the book and you can enjoy the glossary there) where just about everyone kills each other and in so doing destroy the Earth. Whoopsie! Of course there are survivors, and it these who will recreate the world and set forth a new cycle. This is a bit different than the Christian vision of apocalypse, in which the Earth is destroyed but the new revelation is that of eternal life in heaven, rockin’ with Jesus and the boys. The point is the same: the old crumbles and gives way to the new. The main difference is the flavor of the text, and the kind of sick cover you want on your metal album, Thor all ripped out and whipping his hammer around or like, Satan.

Make no mistake, Ragnarok is metal as fuck. First of all, you’ve got Loki, who according to the mythology is currently in an unpleasant place. He is, at this very moment, in some dark unknown place, strapped to a cold stone with the entrails of his dead son and unable to move as vicious poison continuously drips into his eyes. It’s no fun being Loki. However, when Ragnarok rolls around, he’ll get his. Endless winter will reign the land, sending the balance of the world into chaos. Loki will escape and round up a bunch of pissed off giants, and enact their revenge upon the Norse gods who, let’s be honest, suck every bit as much as their Greek counterparts. Odin and Thor and the rest get what they deserve. Of course, the price for their comeuppance is the destruction of the planet and the gruesome and painful death of humanity, but you know, that’s how it goes in the apocalypse.

Obviously there’s more going on in Norse Mythology than the end of all things. I just have a specific interest here at Apocalypedia. All the Norse gods are mercurial dicks, but that’s part of the fun. There’s no real rooting interest when everyone sucks, so you may as well sit back and enjoy their hijinks. I enjoyed Freya quite a bit, as the sad, powerful goddess who is extremely sick of being used as a bartering chip by her brothers. “If you do x, you can have Freya’s hand in marriage!” “Yo, how about you get my hand upside your head and you can go marry yourself.” Probably the only real disappointment is that there just isn’t enough of this stuff. That’s hardly Gaiman’s fault. As he points out in the introduction, very little Norse mythology actually survived. That’s what happens when this stuff was orally transmitted (a technical term that just sounds gross) and never written down until it was mostly too late. In fact, the only reason we have what we have is because these things were referenced in other writings considered worthy by the people doing the writing. Not unlike the heroic monk(s) who wrote Beowulf in the margins of their Church writings, we have only a handful of these myths because of a few guys in monasteries who weren’t total squares. Well that’s okay. Maybe after Ragnarok happens we’ll do it better on the next go-round.

Posted in Books, Religion | Leave a comment

Pattern Recognition

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Novel * William Gibson * The Post-9/11 World is Weird, Huh? * 2003

Synopsis

William Gibson has an esoteric sense of style. Back in the day, when Neuromancer came out, it was a revelation. I wasn’t there. I mean I was a cool five-year-old and all, but not that cool. Still, it’s one of those landmark sci-fi novels you just know about if you’re into the genre. Everything about that novel is concentrated cool. It’s an entire world crafted out of style. Cyber-ninjas and monolithic A.I.’s and deck cowboys and whatnot. Imagine a world where cyberpunk was fresh and new, is what I’m saying here. And a big part of what made William Gibson’s first novel so distinct and important was the nature of the writing itself. Neuromancer takes for granted that you, the reader, are cool enough to vibe with the language being used. Now, since Gibson is a science fiction writer and his audience is the kind of person who would read science fiction in 1984, everyone involved is likely a huge dork in real life. But man, the slick style on display in Neuromancer made dorks feel rad as shit.

I’m not sure if that sense of stylish cool carries on in Gibson’s ensuing work. I can’t really say because I’ve only read one other novel of his (the world is a big place and there are a lot of books in it, I’m doing the best I can, dang it!). That one was totally fine, if a little lackluster in comparison to Neuromancer. Of course, the problem with having an absolute banger for a debut novel means you’re spending the rest of your career chasing that high, but I guess that’s a good problem to have. Anyway, both of the Gibson novels I’ve read up to now take place in the same world. Pattern Recognition is very different. It’s not a near-future, cyberpunk world dominated by global corporations and income inequality. Rather, the book takes place right around when it was written, which is to say in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The novel very much has the feeling of a thing written in response to how the world was changing around the turn of the millennium.

Here are things that we’ve established about Pattern Recognition:

  1. It is written in Gibson’s signature style. He has a way of writing breezy sentences out of unconventional pairings of words. It’s hard to explain. The opening sentence of the book refers to jet-lag as “ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.” So far, every Gibson novel is worth reading for his specific writing style alone. Although maybe that’s because I’m a writer and enjoy original approaches to the craft.
  2. It is decidedly not a cyberpunk novel. It’s not science fiction at all, actually. It takes place in 2002 or 2003, which is right around when the book was written/published. That does not make the book any less strange.
  3. That’s basically it, because I don’t actually know what this book is about. I followed the plot and the characters and while page to page I was enjoying myself, I still couldn’t tell what happened or why it was important. Pattern Recognition is told from the perspective of a woman named Cayce. She is not a cyber-ninja of any kind. Rather, she’s a “coolhunter,” which automatically makes her uncool. Sorry, them’s the rules. Her job is to help companies figure out what the hot new trends are so that they can leverage their brands. Cayce is very sensitive to branding, you see. She’s literally allergic to trademarks and designer labels. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. Oh, and she’s also obsessed with these random video clips that are getting uploaded to the Internet. Put a gun to my head, and I would say that Pattern Recognition is about Cayce attempting to track down the source of these clips. Please do not put a gun to my head.

Discussion

A brief sketch of the plot is not a compelling reason to read this book. A very menacing thing that happens to Cayce early on in the book is coming home to her apartment and finding a stuffed Michelin Man hanging on her doorknob. Yeah, the things that happen over the course of this book are not terribly compelling taken out of context. Cayce spends most of the novel jet-lagged and exhausted, which, in conjunction with Gibson’s style, makes everything seem dream-like and disconnected from a concrete reality. Even the once scene of visceral violence feels off somehow, like all the actions the characters take are one step behind reality. Cayce is buffeted around a strange, modern world, and her choices seem almost incidental to what actually happens. Over the course of Pattern Recognition, she finds herself in London, Japan, Russia, and even though Cayce intends to go to those places her agency is still questionable. She’s an oddly passive protagonist.

At its heart, Pattern Recognition is coming to terms with 9/11. Cayce lost her father in the attacks, although the way the situation is presented he was literally lost. Her father is one of the missing, and his death could never be confirmed. He had ties to the intelligence community, back in the Cold War, so his disappearance sits uneasy. As does, of course, 9/11 itself. This is a book which was written when the aftermath was unfolding, and nobody could quite figure out what the long-term consequences were going to be. Now, in 2018, that trajectory is a little more clear. Back then, however, everything was uncertain. Well, other than blundering into an endless war, of course. That was pretty obvious from the jump. One of the weird things about 9/11 that I’m not sure gets talked about much is something that Pattern Recognition seems to deal with pretty well, which is to say things didn’t actually change all that much.

Cayce, a New Yorker with a marketing job, is going on with her life. New York is going on with life. Obviously London and Tokyo are as well. 9/11 is present in this novel, specifically through Cayce’s father, but what’s conspicuous about Pattern Recognition is that the focus is less on terrorism or the response to the attacks and more on how corporations are evolving. Given that Neuromancer and cyberpunk in general are a scathing indictment of late-stage capitalism, with their global corporations and vast wealth inequality, this makes sense. Pattern Recognition, then, could be considered a launching point for how these multinationals learn how to navigate a new world of the Internet and instant communications. Cayce flits from country to country, and the only thing that really changes are the time zones and some light cultural flourishes. Wherever she goes, despite the “mirror-world” differences, Cayce is able to function and pursue her cool or whatever.

I’m still not sure how much I actually liked this book. As I said, moment-to-moment, I enjoyed the writing. That said, there are several levels of disconnect throughout that keep the reader at a distance. I never felt particularly connected to Cayce, mostly because she was always so removed from others and her own environment. As for the plot, it’s hard to take entirely seriously. This is due in some part because of where I’m sitting in 2018. The whole thing with the random video clips never really pays off. I mean, it literally does as Cayce makes a grip of cash from a Russian bazillionaire after she finds the author of the clips. The thing is, the clips were valuable because of how they were marketed. They were viral videos, which is old hat now. The only difference between the viral videos in the book and how they actually came to be a cultural imprint is that the real viral videos are dumb, lowest-common-denominator things. People hurting themselves, cats, Russian dash-cam videos. You know, the Internet. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson imagines the first viral videos as art-house pieces that very smart, cool people are into. Turns out, the world is a lot dumber than Gibson wants to admit.

Posted in Books, Corporations | Leave a comment

Hazards of Time Travel

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Novel * Joyce Carol Oates * Wisconsin Dystopia * 2018

Synopsis

Somehow, despite the fact that Joyce Carol Oates has written approximately 17,000 books, I’ve only ever read her short stories. Well, thanks to my new best friend the library, I was able to read her newest, Hazards of Time Travel. The premise of which is exactly my jam. That’s because the novel is about a near-future dystopian America. I like those. I suppose I shouldn’t, considering the way my country has been acting for the last couple of years, but I still think there’s value in considering how much worse things could be. Trump is a lot of things, but grossly incompetent is near the top of the list, which has inadvertently helped us out. His methods skew authoritarian, but he’s sloppy and bad at execution and lacks organization, which a true authoritarian regime needs to succeed. Lucky us. So instead of a methodical move toward destabilizing institutions and organizing physical repression, we get chaos. The future depicted in Hazards of Time Travel is not of our current world.

This novel reads like an alternate-history dystopia, which is intriguing because that’s not usually how this genre works. Most of the time, an author imagines a dystopia as a near-future consequence of current events unfolding in the worst possible way. The famous ones, like 1984 and Brave New World, are intended to be instructive. Something like It Can’t Happen Here is very plainly saying, “yes it can, idiot.” In Hazards of Time Travel, we’ve already avoided the future being depicted. The novel is clearly set in a time very close to our own. The protagonist, Adriane, is seventeen and her parents have distinct pre-9/11 memories. Despite this, the world is very different. In this world, the United States used the terrorist attacks to expand the role of Homeland Security to essentially envelop the government in partnership with a cabal of corporations and billionaires. The result is a society restricted in thought and speech. Anyone who questions how things work or how things used to be are quickly removed. Or, in the novel’s parlance, “Deleted.”

Adriane, like any good dystopian protagonist, asks dangerous questions. She doesn’t do this with any sort of malice or agenda, she’s just a naturally curious young woman and that’s the kind of attitude that can get you in trouble when the government actively murders dissenters. Adriane, all innocence, finds herself in the dangerous position of class valedictorian. Most people understand that calling attention to one’s intelligence is in itself dangerous, but Adriane is kind of a ding-dong that way and just blithely asks questions. Her school principal, ever a good citizen, calls Homeland Security, who promptly disappear Adriane. Luckily for her, Adriane’s youth and inexperience are taken into account, so instead of being immediately Deleted, she’s given another option. Instead of being erased from reality, she’s simply sent back in time to a bucolic Wisconsin college in 1958. If that seems like a weird move for a totalitarian state, well, it is.

There’s a lot of things about Hazards of Time Travel which don’t really fit together. As mentioned, there’s the disconnect of a dystopian state that we’ve already avoided, which is kind of neat but also serves to undermine the sense of relevance these kind of novels usually have. The beginning of the novel is also pretty clunky. I don’t mean the writing. Joyce Carol Oates is a master craftsman and the writing is crisp and clear. That said, conceptually, it takes a while for Hazards of Time Travel to get to the point. A lot of time is spent throwing out new Proper Nouns in lieu of world-building, and by the time we get to Wisconsin, it’s hard to care too much. Then, once Adriane arrives, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of thematic glue to hold the narrative together. I’m being a little vague, so as to not reveal story beats. As ever, spoilers after the break.

Discussion

One thing dystopian overlords like to do is force compliance through oppression. The idea is that there is more to be gained by forcibly converting people to support the totalitarian state than simply murdering them. I mean, they do that too, obviously, but quite a lot of time, energy, and resources are spent in forcing their worldview onto individuals. It’s not efficient, and I’m not sure there’s a real-world analogue for violent, authoritarian states spending a good deal of time forcing troublesome individuals to believe that 2+2=5, you know? The easiest way to quiet dissent is to kill or imprison, which is generally what happens. Orwell, king of dystopian exposition, gives his explanation as to why Winston should be made into a believer. Oates, who is far more efficient in her storytelling, doesn’t bother. It’s a problem, though, because without any real attempt at explanation, the mere existence of 1958 Wisconsin doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Adriane finds herself in an alien culture and is slowly being suffocated by loneliness and terror for her life and family. Hazards of Time Travel is at its best when depicting poor Adriane’s struggle to acclimate herself to her new reality. She spends most of her time hiding from human contact, trying to find air clear of cigarette smoke, and studying. The atmosphere of dystopian dread is juxtaposed with the more innocent environment of a small-town cow-college in the 50s. Before too long, that juxtaposition becomes conflation, and the college campus itself becomes claustrophobic and the small-mindedness of Adriane’s fellow students becomes apparent. Before too long, however, Adriane finds a fellow-sufferer, someone she’s convinced is also in exile alongside her. This man, with the unfortunate name of Wolfman, has been exiled in Wisconsin for far longer, and is actually a faculty member. Adriane immediately falls in “love,” which is more a mix of youthful infatuation and sheer desperation. After that everything gets sad.

Well, sad and confusing. Adriane is a mess, which you’d expect. She’s also the best part of this novel, because the rest of the narrative doesn’t really hold together. Towards the end, Oates introduces narrative doubt into what is already an unstable situation. Eventually, Adriane and Wolfman (seriously, it’s hard to take the dude seriously when I keep reading his name as Wolf Man) become fraught with their situation. Wolfman is a condescending dickhead most of the time, a real exploitative piece of shit who is perfectly happy to take advantage of a young, distraught teenager (although I guess he gets a bonus point for doing the bare minimum and not sleeping with her). Once his own position is compromised, he then introduces all kinds of unreliability into the narrative. Wolfman breaks character, and tells Adriane that this whole Wisconsin experience is a virtual construct. He is extremely convincing. It’s a “what a twist!” moment that is actually way more plausible than the actual story being told. Then he reverts back to “no, actually time travel is real.” This, naturally, confuses Adriane and the reader.

Shortly after this confession, Wolfman maniacally decides to take Adriane and escape to the West Coast, in direct violation of The Instructions (so many proper nouns!). This move makes no sense if Wolfman knows this is a virtual construct. However, his plan fails spectacularly, as there is no way out of the ten-mile radius they’re seemingly trapped in. Which is a point in the favor of the virtual-construct idea. But then Wolfman disappears, presumed dead, and Adriane is zapped into a much more malleable form. She loses her memories, and then winds up on some hippie farm with some dude she “loves,” without ever understanding how she got there or where she came from. Then she reads a book and it’s made fairly clear to the reader that she’s dreaming. How much of Hazards of Time Travel is a dream? What was real? Any of it? The reason this kind of plot device is unsatisfying is because once you introduce this kind of unreliability to the proceedings, it’s really hard to care. Is Adriane even real? I don’t know and neither do you, so whatever. It’s a shame, because there are some cool elements. The novel just never really feels particularly vital.

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