Wolverine: Old Man Logan

Comic Series* Mark Millar/Steve McNiven * Superhero Post-Apocalypse * 2008

Synopsis

What a weird thing…. Okay look, I don’t know from comics. They never really appealed to me as a kid, so I never seriously got into them. I think there was a point where I tried, because I had friends who were into the whole deal but it was like, eh. In retrospect I think my problem was largely economic. Here’s the basic proposition to twelve-year-old me: I can spend three dollars to buy a comic book, which will take me approximately eleven minutes to read. It definitely won’t be a self-contained story and I had no way of knowing at the time where to even start. It would be like picking up a novel, starting with chapter nine and setting it down after chapter twelve. Who are these people? What are they doing? Some of this looks cool, sure, but it’s impossible to form a connection to characters or a story like that. Okay, so that’s option A. Option B is me spending the same three dollars at the used book store and buying a schlocky Dean Koontz novel instead. That’ll take me at least a couple of days to blast through, I get a full story and I can move on, satisfied. This is not an argument about how smart I was as a kid, over here reading novels instead of your *sniffs haughtily* comic books. No, I was reading trash then. It was simply a matter of how much entertainment time my limited funds could buy.

Flash forward to being a gross adult and now I have more money but less time. The problem now is that I don’t have that history, that nostalgia, to fuel an ongoing love for comic franchises. Superhero movies, with a few exceptions, are boring. Probably the most notable exception to this rule was Logan, which not only grittified the genre, but also told an affecting, desolate tale pretty much anyone who lives in this country could get into. I liked it so much I sought out the source material, and here we are. Old Man Logan, it turns out, barely has anything to do with the movie. Like, there are a few thematic similarities, but the overall character and plot and setting have little or nothing in common. Logan is a film that requires a basic knowledge of iconic X-Men characters and little else, as the setting is a dire but recognizable future America that looks pretty much the same as right now. The story is affecting because of the way it trades on our sense of lost nobility, of a time when heroes mode sense. The film works even if you only have a broad sense of the iconic American superhero because of the apocalyptic overtones in which that superhero is ultimately overwhelmed by crushing post-modernity.

old man logan3

Clearly the Hulks are the kind of people who follow Slipknot around on tour.

Old Man Logan is a different situation entirely, mostly because it depends more heavily upon an ongoing investment in the characters and stories and overall history of Marvel comics. Pretty much anyone who pays even a little bit of attention to pop culture knows who Wolverine is. The same could be said for most of the other characters who show up over the course of Old Man Logan, either in reference or in person. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a pretty wide reach. That said, even though I recognize most of the characters in here – even the lame Avenger whose superpower is archery – I don’t really have the background information necessary to discern if what they’re doing in this story are faithful to their character or not.

The story is more broadly told than in Logan, which for all its gritty bombast is still reliant on character subtlety. Old Man Logan is not subtle. I don’t know if that’s par for the course when it comes to comics, but here at least personalities are larger than life and motives are simple. America is in shambles. The supervillains took over and destroyed all but a few of the good guys. Wolverine is lame now. He’s a husk of his former self and is basically Amish. The Hulk is a bad guy? And an incestuous hillbilly? I don’t know, but his gross kids force lame-Wolverine to trek across the wasteland to have fucked up adventures with the aforementioned archer guy, who is kind of awesome now. Look, there are a lot of weird things happening in Old Man Logan, most of which I don’t understand at all, but that’s fine. I like weird things. There’s just enough iconic imagery being subverted here that I still dig it, even though I’m sure the proceedings are more surrealistic for me than they would be for someone well-versed in the source material. Maybe there’s a perfectly good reason fuckin’ dinosaurs are running around all willy-nilly! I definitely wasn’t expecting a Jurassic Park mash-up, but whatever, it’s here, I just accept it and move on.

old man logan2

I won’t lie. Pretty much the whole time I was watching Logan I was thinking to myself: “This movie is great, except for the unfortunate lack of dinosaur chases.”

Discussion

Actually, there’s one thing that’s difficult for me to accept, and that’s the mysterious reason a book depicting just ridiculous abject gratuitous violence refuses to swear. Like, every other page of this book features someone getting beheaded or disemboweled or having limbs ripped off or getting an arrow through the nose or munched on by a goddamn dinosaur, but anytime someone says a bad word it gets bleeped. Wolverine rips a motherfucking cow in half but an occasional f-bomb is going to scar the reader? I’m so confused. I can only assume this is some relic of comic publishing that I don’t get. Anyway, moving on.

Old Man Logan isn’t really for me but I enjoyed it anyway, mostly because of the gross subversion of superhero tropes which, let’s be honest, are pretty stale at this point. The world presented here is a post-supervillain apocalypse, in which the bad guys finally stopped fucking around and banded together in order to overthrow the cadre of superheroes protecting the world. As seems to be the standard for this kind of thing, the known world begins and ends with the United States. There’s a throwaway mention about the rest of the world, although Red Skull dismisses this by saying: “who’d want it now, anyway?” Indeed. Anyway, the U.S. is divided up amongst the biggest of the bads, and everything is terrible.

Bruce Banner, otherwise known as the Incredible Hulk, is evil. Having little to no background knowledge, this struck me as odd, and is the first subversion of expectations. Since we’re dealing with comics, the imagery tends to be more important than the setup. The most affecting scenes in Old Man Logan are shocking because they’re unexpected. The bad guys aren’t supposed to win, we all know this, it’s fundamental to the genre. Yet the book begins not only with the bad guys winning, but winning with the help of a supposed good guy, Bruce Banner. He’s become a perverted, distorted version of his usual self. The man himself doesn’t even show up until the end, but the entire adventure kicks off with Hulk’s savage hillbilly offspring who show up and kick the shit out of an apparently pacifist former-Wolverine. The entire setup is an inversion of expectation, and that’s what makes it fun.

old man logan4

Captain America is and always has been a lame cheeseball, but this is still an evocative scene. 

The decimation of the superheroes was nearly complete, and vestiges from their annihilation creep up in the post-apocalyptic world in creepy and unsettling ways. Not subtle, mind you – there’s big old splash pages with people worshipping a broken Thor’s hammer and another of Mad Max-esque Ghost Riders terrorizing the night – but still a constant reminder that the might of the noble and righteous is fragile. If you were uncertain about this, Old Man Logan is still going to smack you over the head with it: Check out this dope Mount Rushmore with Red Skull superimposed on it. Better yet, enjoy this scene in which Wolverine is tricked into thinking the X-Men were bad guys and he just murders the everloving fuck out of them. Oh, speaking of Red Skull, how about the clearest image of the entire book, an old Red Skull wearing the tattered costume of his vanquished nemesis, Captain America, while surveying the trophies of other dead heroes?

There is a stark difference in the approach Logan takes in dealing with the dark, uncertain future and the seeming glee Old Man Logan is enjoying depicting the post-apocalypse. First of all, the film is taking this shit seriously. Logan isn’t some ham-fisted pacifist in the film, shit, the first scene sees him tearing apart a bunch of jamokes because they shot his car. Rather he’s a deeply wounded character, haunted by a horrific past but still scratching a feeble loyalty out of the depths of his being, which is enough to push him forward towards a deeply uncertain future. Meanwhile, Old Man Logan is the stereotyped warrior-who-has-set-down-his-blade-until-he’s-pushed-too-far type. He also has a horrific past which haunts him, but his actions throughout the book don’t really dig into this, he simply reacts by not popping his sick Wolverine claws until the very end, when you get a two-page exclamation of SNIKT! And, okay book, you’ve been waiting the whole time to drop that, so it’s fun, but it’s saying nothing about his character other than “oh shit, Wolvie’s back motherfuckerrrrrr!”

And that’s awesome. I’m not over here trying to tell you there’s no room for both of these stories in the world. It was just surprising to me, having seen the film first, how very different the book is. Also, yes, I understand that this isn’t really a source material. It’s an inspiration for the film, not an adaptation. Even so, the character and world depicted in Old Man Logan have more in common with Mad Max than anything else. It’s a gleeful take on the apocalypse which trades on the disruption of our expectations and joyfully subverts iconic imagery. There’s a primitive exuberance that accompanies a story like this, in which we can enjoy the burning of the old order without actually having to experience it. This book is a good time, dinosaurs and all.

Advertisements
Posted in Books, Dystopia, Superheros | Leave a comment

Point Counter Point

Novel * Aldous Huxley * Nothing Matters! Hooray! * 1928

Synopsis

If The Great Gatsby is the sad, inflatable kiddy pool of Modernist literature, then Point Counter Point is the grandiose, pristine Olympic pool where nobody does any swimming and instead lounge around the perimeter drinking and trying to figure out why they’re unhappy. That metaphor got out of hand quickly, let’s regroup. The Great Gatsby is lame, sure, but everyone has read it at some point so it makes a nice touchstone for Modern lit. One of the hallmarks of that novel is that that nobody is happy and material fatuousness gets in the way of being human. This is true in most Modern literature. Very few people are happy, and when they are even close to happiness, it’s because they’ve eschewed the material trappings of civilization. The thing about Fitzgerald’s novel, the reason why it’s taught in freshman year of high school and not in graduate school, is that the story kind of skims over the underlying issues which cause everyone to be unhappy. That and the ham-fisted symbolism and trite characterization. Aldous Huxley, by contrast, swings hard in the other direction, giving almost too much context for the empty, dire lives of his characters.

Want to know if the book you’re reading counts as Modernism? That’s pretty easy. Does every character suck? Was it written roughly between 1910 and 1940? Is there a sassy, rich female character who’s bored all the time? Cool, it’s Modernism. If all that sounds awful, well it is. That’s kind of the point. But it’s awful in a fascinating, important way. Point Counter Point is filled with terrible people, nearly none of which are in any way sympathetic. That said, they are fascinating and compelling, their massive flaws a fractured reflection of a society decimated by the first industrial war and scrambling to keep up with the sheer speed of technological change. The rules of society are still hard in place, but as we see over and over in the literature of the time, the rigidity of social structure is fracturing, becoming corrupted and less binding. Meanwhile, technology and science continue to advance in great, shuddering leaps and bounds while revolutions in political thought threaten the standing governance of the world powers. The people in Point Counter Point have a lot on their minds.

point counter point3

I’m not sure if this creeper is making a point, or a counter point.

The novel doesn’t really have much of a plot, and not all that much happens over course of its many, many chapters. However, there are many, many conversations between characters and many, many more internal monologues. Point Counter Point is often referred to as a “novel of ideas,” and that pretty much sums it up. Everybody in this novel is very smart, and not shy about expressing their opinions about the state of society. There are many characters, all of whom are some shade of terrible. That’s a flip assessment of these people, but Huxley does nothing to varnish their flaws, and in fact seems to highlight them as opposed to their more congenial qualities. This is not to say that the characters aren’t relatable – they absolutely are – it’s just that Huxley tends to emphasize their negative attributes and it’s often uncomfortable to recognize and identify with characters who behave poorly, have petty, nasty thoughts, and say terrible things to each other. Everyone has personality flaws, yes even you, snowflake, but it’s rare for a novel to magnify those and make you stare right at them. It makes for difficult reading from time to time.

There is an additional layer to the characterizations in Point Counter Point, which is to say that many of the characters Huxley write about are loosely based upon real people in the author’s life. Aldous Huxley, grandson of accomplished scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (who was bros with Charles Darwin, and therefore has street cred), rolled with the Modernist crew of the time. Modernism was a whole thing, even at the time, and all of these now-famous authors and literary heavyweights hung out and drank together. A lot. While this active socializing helped to cross-pollinate ideas and art – which the novel illustrates – it was also a reminder that even brilliant writers and thinkers aren’t immune to petty back-biting, arguments, and otherwise treating each other poorly. Point Counter Point features kind-of-but-not-really facsimiles of people like D.H. Lawrence (who is rad) and more obscure figures such as John Middleton Murry (who kind of sucks) and Nancy Cunard (who sounds exhausting even if she worked toward good causes). If you know who these people are, great. If you don’t it doesn’t really matter, because the important thing are the ideas and actions of these people.

point counter point2

It’s like, if you’re trying for a clean and simple cover, maybe don’t use an atrocious color scheme and a terrible font, I don’t know.

Discussion

The novel begins with probably the best example of the everyone-is-terrible-all-the-time theme at work here. Walter Bidlake, son of a famous painter, is in a pickle. He’s currently living with a woman who’s pregnant with his kid. This lady is insufferably dull, which Walter realized too late because uh-oh, she’s already married and he convinced her to leave her husband for him. Now that they’re shacked up and she’s preggers, her husband refuses to grant a divorce because he loves Jesus too much. Also he’s an abusive drunk. Marjorie, the lady in question, is unhappy nevertheless. This is because Walter has fallen in love with another woman, Lucy Tantamount, even though he kind of hates her. This is because Lucy is the worst, but despite her general awfulness Walter still has it bad for her. It doesn’t really matter though, because at the opening of the novel, Walter is friend-zoned, hard. The first chapter is an internal monologue and Huxley does not shy away from the contradictory thoughts, the petulance and whining, the irrational lusting after a woman who doesn’t give a shit about him while simultaneously treating the woman who does love him like garbage. The thing is, Marjorie is terrible too. Weak-minded and whiny, boring and not all that bright, she should be a sympathetic character but isn’t. So what you’ve got is three people who are varying shades of miserable, with very little to show for it.

What’s the point of that, then? Each character in this unhappy triangle have their issues which are rooted in the shifting and changing society of the time. Marjorie, who should be sympathetic but isn’t, is portrayed in stark contrast to Walter’s circle of very smart, very socially mobile friends. Her husband, a religious relic, is depicted only once and it’s clear that he’s a waste of a human being. However, while Walter doesn’t yell at or hit her, he’s clearly not happy with her dull, moonish personality. Walter, who is bright and fits in with the intellectual circle he moves around with, can’t handle his emotions. He’s the 1920’s version of the ‘good-guy’ who can’t fathom why the woman he’s fixated on isn’t interested. Lucy, fully realized Modern woman (right up there with Sylvia and Lady Brett), likes to drink and fuck. She has zero time or patience for schoolboy puppy love, which is what Walter is offering. Eventually, Marjorie turns toward the solace of religion to soothe the constant, dull, confusing pain of her entire existence. She quickly becomes even more intolerable as her belief makes her condescending and her thoughts even more simplistic. Huxley does not have a high opinion of religion. Meanwhile, Walter’s frustration finally erupts and he basically takes Lucy by force, which she’s into because Lucy’s main enemy is boredom. So they bang for a while until Lucy inevitably gets bored and goes to Paris to take some random lovers and continues stringing Walter along, who takes it because he’s a little bitch who just doesn’t get it, and never will. Lucy is the spirit of Modernism personified: detached from the world, taking her pleasure where she gets it and not worrying about the emotional ramifications of her actions. Meanwhile, Walter is a Romantic throwback, endlessly self-involved and subscribing to a world-view that is hopelessly outdated.

point counter point4

Lucy’s life is a highway, you guys. And she gonna ride it her way, all night long.

Meanwhile, you’ve got a bunch of other ancillary characters running around who pretty much only exist to present ideas and others to contradict them. Almost like, I don’t know, someone making a point and others presenting a counter-point. One of my favorite examples happens early, and is an exchange between a budding fascist politician named Webley and a quiet, awkward old scientist, Lord Edward. They’re arguing about phosphorus, which Lord Edward is very passionate about because modern technology makes abundant use of it in agriculture. The pace of use is not sustainable, of course, and this upsets the scientist.

“Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It’s idiotic, it’s criminal, it’s… it’s fiddling while Rome is burning!” . . .  “You think we’re being progressive because we’re living on our capital Phosphates, coal, petroleum, nitre – squander them all. That’s your policy. And meanwhile you go round trying to make our flesh creep with talk about revolutions.”

“But damn it all,” said Webley, half angry, half amused, “your phosphorus can wait. This other danger’s imminent. Do you want a political and social revolution?”

“Will it reduce the population and check production?” asked Lord Edward.

“Of course.”

“Then certainly I want a revolution . . . The only result of your progress,” he said, “will be that in a few generations there’ll be a real revolution – a natural, cosmic revolution. You’re upsetting the equilibrium. And in the end, nature will restore it. And the process will be very uncomfortable for you. Your decline will be as quick as your rise. Quicker, because you’ll be bankrupt, you’ll have squandered your capital.”

Lord Edward is right, of course. Never mind that he’s arguing with a filthy fascist, he’s one of the few people taking a wide view of the trajectory of civilization. This is one of those instances where Huxley’s scientific background comes forward and makes itself known. It’s important to remember that there have been concerns about the sustainability of modern civilization pretty much from day one. For all the technology and speed-loving Moderns like Lucy Tantamount, people like Lord Edward and Rampion (the D.H. Lawrence analogue) know there’s a price to be paid for it. Everyone in the late 1920’s and the 1930’s knew another major war was coming. It was inevitable because the massive pressure of rapid industrialization and the devastation of the previous war created an environment to create demagogues like Webley to force their vision through, consequences be damned.

In the end, Webley is killed for a stupid reason and his death is a farce. He was never a terribly important character, although his ideas are a major force in the novel. On his way to hook up with Elinor Quarles (wife of Philip Quarles, loosely based on Huxley himself), Webley is cold-cocked by an angry socialist (and assistant to Lord Edward). Illidge, the Communist in question, got himself all riled up by the nihilist and ennui-sufferer Spandrell, who basically double-dog-dared him into action. Illidige murks the fascist, and after a little dark humor, disposes of the body. Of course, the death of Webley only strengthened the resolve of his movement, and British fascism moved a little closer to reality. Meanwhile, Spandrell realized that not even murder could awaken his latent humanity, and contrives of a way to commit suicide by police in a weird scene with Rampion.

Hey, here’s a song that has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than sharing a title. But it’s one of my favorite bands and a great song so deal with it.

It’s difficult to parse the meaning of these actions and thoughts. The novel ends with the super-creepy scene of the editor and manipulative shit Burlap enjoying some weird infantilized fetish play with the girl he seduced and why? Because it doesn’t fucking matter, as summarized by Lord Edward’s impassioned speech above. Huxley isn’t here to kink-shame anyone. Well, maybe a little, but really the detached tone of the narrative doesn’t lend itself to a moral stance of any kind. All of these kind of awful but definitely human characters do and say all kinds of questionable things and there’s no real condemnation of their thoughts or actions. Things just happen. Philip and Elinor’s son dies and even though he was a little shit, it’s still pretty sad and there’s no reason for it. Meanwhile, in the background, industrialization and the constant building of civilization is continuing unabated while humanity scrambles to keep up. Looking around the contemporary landscape of 2017, it doesn’t look like much has changed.

Posted in Books, Ennui, Modernity | Leave a comment

Hyperion

Novel * Dan Simmons * Post-Earth Galactic Empire * 1989

Synopsis

On the occasion when I am asked to provide a science fiction book recommendation, Hyperion is generally my first suggestion. Here’s the quick pitch: it’s a sci-fi Canterbury Tales. If you’re not familiar with Chaucer’s medieval masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales is a framed narrative about a group of pilgrims on their way to, well, Canterbury. Now Geoffrey Chaucer had ambition. The original plan was to have each of his thirty pilgrims tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two stories on the way back. That’s… probably too many tales. Despite falling short of his ridiculous goal, we’re left with one of the towering achievements of English literature, and arguably the most important collection of short stories ever written. Each story is a fascinating insight into medieval English culture, all the more impressive because they’re written in the vernacular Middle English of the time. Each pilgrim is given a platform to present their point of view, and the style of story changes drastically depending on who is doing the telling. Therefore The Knight’s Tale is a tale of courtly romance while The Miller’s Tale is a bawdy romp and The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a look into what the concept of feminism might look like in the late 1300’s. Hyperion is what happened when Dan Simmons finished reading The Canterbury Tales and thought to himself: “Yeah, but what if in space?”

The literary backbone of Hyperion doesn’t end there, and it is my sad duty to report that the title, one of the ancillary characters (and later in the series one of the major players), and arguably the overall theme of the novel is taken from John Keats’ poem of the same name. Down with the Romantics! Down with John “I’m a genius poet who wrote all my brilliant poetry basically as a child before I died of tuberculosis when I was twenty fucking five years old” Keats! Anyway, shady reverence for Romanticism aside, Simmons is steeped in the literature of all eras, and these allusions and themes elevate the entire story. I will also add that Simmons manages to avoid wallowing around in pretension while still using literary canon as his foundation. That’s an impressive skill. I mean, try not to look at the author’s portrait in the back of the book because you will not believe me if you do, but really the literary-ness of the story is not overbearing at all. Of course my tolerance of such things is probably pretty high, so if you’re turned off at the prospect of learning shit between laser-fights, maybe this isn’t for you.

Oh, but there are some amazing laser-fights to be had! And dope spaceships, and androids, and scary A.I.s, and all kinds of awesome science fiction-y things. The world-building involved in creating this universe is top-tier, and the more I think about it the more impressed I am. There are many ways to go about crafting a believable world. You can go the George Martin/Tolkien approach and document every aspect of the world in excruciating detail, ensuring that the reader is fully immersed in the world because they have no other choice. Pretty much any question a reader might have has an answer somewhere in the text. Ever wonder what a lower-class field worker might eat in a seedy brothel somewhere in Flea Bottom? Oh, Martin gots you covered, son. Curious about which vocal inflections to use when pronouncing Elvish poetry? You know Tolkien has your back. Now, that kind of world-building is all well and good, and I love both of those fantasy worlds. Another way to go is to give your reader absolutely zero answers and just let them flail around trying to figure out just what in the actual fuck they’re supposed to be reading. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of this kind of world-building, as you can tell from my increasingly futile attempts to make sense of the works of Gene Wolfe. Hyperion, by contrast, takes the middle road, and is all the better for it.

Hyperion, the first in a series of four books (although it should be noted that the first two books and the second two books, while taking place in the same universe, are better understood as matching pairs as opposed to a four-part ongoing narrative), thrusts the reader into a new world without much in the way of a preamble. Simmons throws a bunch of terms and concepts at you right away, and it’s up to the reader to sort out the meaning of all these things by context. Here’s the thing, though: nothing Simmons comes up with is hard to understand, particularly if you’re a fan of the genre. There’s faster-than-light travel, and a human galactic empire, lots of factions and planets and things like that. That’s not to say that the world isn’t well thought out or creative, it definitely is, but the basic concepts themselves are firmly rooted in traditional science fiction. It’s just really, really cool.

Our pilgrims, then, are on their way to the colonial world of Hyperion to confront a creature called The Shrike at an enigmatic place called The Time Tombs. The Shrike, which is a mysterious, enormous humanoid creature with four arms that is made entirely of spikes and steel. It murders people. The Time Tombs are mysterious structures that are thought to be alien in nature and are thought to be moving backwards in time. Nobody knows why, or what any of this means. The pilgrims, who represent a cross-section of humanity, have all been carefully chosen by various powers to travel to the Time Tombs because the planet Hyperion is being threatened by a race of humans known as the Ousters. While the pilgrims make their way across the planet, they decide to tell each other the stories of why they’re on the pilgrimage. Unlike Chaucer, Simmons reigns his ambition in and as a result there are only six stories. Also, Simmons spends more time with the framed narrative, which is nice because it keeps the story moving and gives the characters something else to do other than tell tales. Like Chaucer, Simmons uses each story as an opportunity to tell a different kind of story. These move from an anthropological study told in journal form to a soldier’s story of war and love to a murder mystery/cyberpunk adventure. Each story is memorable in some way, and a few are just heartbreaking punches in the head. I really don’t want to give away any actual details above the break. If you care about science fiction at all, please just go read the book.

hyperion2

Wow, science fiction cover art doesn’t usually do justice to the source material like this.

Discussion

It is difficult for me to break down this novel without referring to the second book in the series, The Fall of Hyperion. The two books basically comprise a single story, so talking about this first half without referring to things which happen in the second novel is tricky. Thankfully, Hyperion is mostly concerned with its principal characters, the pilgrims, and the fucked-up stories they tell. The framing, which is to say the world in which these characters exist, comes to the forefront in the next book. That said, most of the basic concepts are presented here simply as the way these people live. The World Web, which consists of over two hundred colonized planets connected by millions of devices known as ‘farcasters,’ is the home to the vast majority of humanity. Each planet has its own flavor, although for narrative reasons only a handful are given more than a cursory sketch. People can travel from planet to planet instantaneously, and are always connected to the rest of society via the datasphere. Travel to planets not connected to the Web – like Hyperion – requires FTL travel via spinships powered by the Hawking Drive. While in transit, people aboard these ships are placed in a fugue state and are not aging while the rest of society carries on in real-time. This is the concept of ‘time-debt,’ which means a young man aboard a ship can leave his home, travel to a colony world for like a year of his own time, and return to find his entire family aged ten years. Yet this is simply life in the Web.

This normalcy is important to the overall theme of the series, which is how humanity deals with apocalypse and its aftermath. Yes, I know, there’s more going on than this, but I mean check the title of the blog. Anyway, Hyperion is set in the distant future, but really not that far in the future. That said, Earth is dead, and that’s kind of a big deal. From the ashes of that apocalypse the Hegemony of Man arose and spun the World Web with the aforementioned farcaster technology. Now humanity has over a hundred billion souls across light-years of space. So that’s an upper. More on that in the next book. Meanwhile, each of the pilgrims is a citizen of this post-apocalyptic society, and each has a unique, often painful perspective on the world in which they live.

First up is the priest, Lenar Hoyt, although to be fair the story he tells is that of an older priest named Paul Dure. Catholicism is nearly dead in the world of Hyperion, despite still somehow rating their own planet. Religion is a common thread throughout the series, which of course ties in directly to themes of apocalypse. Paul has fled the Catholic world of Pacem because he was caught falsifying scientific evidence which he claimed proved the existence of extraterrestrial acceptance of Christ. Sure, Paul was just trying to save the Church he loved so much, but he ended up leaving in disgrace and saw his arrival on Hyperion as a sort of purgatory, punishment for losing his faith. Over the course of his stay with the Bikura – an anthropological expedition that Dure only half-heartedly embarked on – Paul got to experience both a rejuvenation of faith and the utter heartbreak of losing it all over again. The cruciform that Paul discovers is an abomination, and in his attempt to subvert it, Paul of course becomes a little Christ-y himself. The main difference being, of course, that Jesus died on the cross as a message of God’s forgiveness and love. Paul Dure suffered on a cross of his own making to purge what he saw as a perversion of God’s creation.

The story of Sol and his daughter Rachel is also clearly wrestling these religious themes. Like the priests of Pacem, Sol is scholar who ends up living on the Jewish planet – and yes, every major religion gets its own planet – and spends most of his time debating the idea of sacrifice in religion. Sol has very vivid dreams about travelling to Hyperion in order to sacrifice this daughter to the Shrike. Sol does not want to do this, as he considers humanity to have evolved since the time of Abraham. He wants nothing to do with a God who would demand loyalty over love. Humanity is in a strange place. There are all these religion-themed worlds around, and the citizens of those worlds all clearly identify with their faith in some way. That said, most of the Web is not in any way religious, or belong to some wishy-washy non-religion such as Zen Gnosticism. Meanwhile, the Church of the Final Atonement, otherwise known as the Shrike Church, is a menacing presence in the background. These guys consider the awakening of the Shrike creature to be a sign of the true end times, an avatar of pain and suffering that will cull humanity of its sinful. Sol, in trying to figure out a way to cure his daughter of her weird Merlin-sickness, has a run-in with these people, who turn out to be no help at all. The Shrike Church does very little over the course of the series, a stand-in for those who await helplessly for the apocalypse while Sol actively tries to fight against the mysterious forces at work on Hyperion.

Look, this is super difficult to write about knowing how all this ends. The plotting is intricate, details come back in the second book to great effect and trying to evade major plot-points while still discussing events of the first novel in any depth is not ideal. Of course, this difficulty still isn’t impeding the word count, so I’ll wrap it up. Hyperion is an excellent set-up, in large part because the pilgrim’s tales stand up as incredible short stories on their own. They are not dependent on each other to make sense, however each tale fills in the world a little bit more, providing details on the world that become invaluable in creating the tension of the second book. Sure, The Consul’s heartbreaking love story is great on its own, but it also introduces the themes of ecological apocalypse which is vital to the next novel and the series as a whole. The stories about men of religion are doing the same work, as is Brawne Lamia’s cyberpunk noir story about the A.I. John Keats. The Fall of Hyperion is about multiple apocalypses in real time – religious, ecological, artificial intelligence and the stagnation of science – none of which will make any sense unless you have an understanding of these characters and the world they inhabit. Hyperion accomplishes all of this pretty much without the reader realizing it, which is an incredible achievement. I like this book a whole lot, y’all.

Posted in Books, Cyberpunk, Entropy, Post-Earth, Religion | Leave a comment

Foucault’s Pendulum

Novel * Umberto Eco * ALL the Conspiracies * 1988

Synopsis

I’m probably never going to read The Da Vinci Code. I tried once. I got like four pages in, my brain glossed over and all I could see was the word “nope!” I know this makes me a hopeless snob, but bad prose just grates against my brain, and Dan Brown writes some truly bad prose. And of course who cares because he’s a bajillionaire and everyone’s read his books and whatever. The reason for that book’s great success is not because the author is actually good at his job, it’s because there was something within that story that resonated with a good many people at that particular time. Despite not having read it, a phenomenon like The Da Vinci Code seeps into the general consciousness, so it’s pretty clear that the kernel within the story is this: reality is not what it seems.

Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, tackles many of the same themes and is generally referencing same kinds of ideas that The Da Vinci Code popularized 15 years later. It’s also a much better book, which I base entirely on being able to get through more than four pages before setting it down in prim, snobbish disdain. This is not to say that Foucault’s Pendulum is without flaws, of course. The main issue I had getting through this – and it took a good deal longer than most of the books I read – is the density of the material. There are a lot of references to things I know little about. These aren’t just glib references or brief asides, either. All the historically based secret societies and occult practices and other fringe knowledge that I recognize from pop culture but have never really got into are mentioned, and then expounded upon in great detail by Eco.

The conspiracies and secret societies and the occult are all here, and at the same time are being made into a long, complicated joke by Eco. The Knights Templar, and the Holy Grail, and the Assassins, and the Illuminati, and the Freemasons, and the Jesuits, and a bunch of other groups that I’ve not yet run across in an Assassin’s Creed game all show up and are given detailed histories. Where pop culture stories like the aforementioned videogame or The Da Vinci Code or, heh, National Treasure use some of those names as a launching pad for fun, silly, nonsense, Foucault’s Pendulum digs deep into the history and background of all these things. Despite this attachment for historical veracity, Eco is still writing a satire here. Despite spending pages upon pages discussing the historical background of the Knights Templar, the idea that their descendants are still around dictating world events are treated as ridiculous. The characters within the story feel the same way, at first, but as they keep digging they eventually become swayed by their own strings of nonsense.

There’s a narrative here, alongside and at times underneath all of the history and philosophy and religious theorizing. The story centers on two major characters, the narrator Casaubon, who is a historical scholar, and his collaborator and friend Belbo. There’s a third guy, but he doesn’t seem to be as vital to the story so for the sake of simplicity we’ll leave him aside for now. Belbo’s a weird dude. He has a passion for creating fiction but refuses to write because he thinks he’s unworthy, so he just hangs out in dive bars, moons over unattainable women, and drinks. Casaubon is also a weird guy, but since he’s the narrator he comes off as the more grounded one. Most of the story is told in flashback form, which can be disorienting when the story snaps back to the present, or skips forward in time (although not quite so far at the actual present), especially when combined with the constant, almost didactic nature of the historical and occult references.

The basic idea of the story is fairly straightforward. These three buddies, while slinging around archaic knowledge about stuff like the Templars, start getting into the conspiracy theories and the attendant secret societies that surround them. At first it’s all hilarious. After all, these are serious-minded (for the most part) historians, scholars, and writers. Then, as a joke, they decide to start injecting their own conspiracies into the world, which they call The Plan. This is all based on totally random connections aided by a computer program designed to randomize information. Once the “connections” are made, the three jokers concoct ridiculous narratives to go alongside them. Oh, you cards. Thing is, they get caught up in their own creation. They become obsessive and strange. Then to add further problems, people who really do take all this seriously, decide that The Plan is real and come after the three scholarly knuckleheads. And who are they to say that their seemingly random connections weren’t real after all?

foucaults pendulum2

Hope you brushed up on your medieval French history, because it’s going to come into play.

Discussion

Reality, that’s who to say. In the case of Foucault’s Pendulum, the viewpoint of reality is given over to Casaubon’s special lady, Lia. She doesn’t show up much, and she doesn’t have very many lines. However, her role is still pretty important. While Casaubon is slowly falling under the spell of his own creations, she remains with him – pregnant with his child – to point out just how extremely stupid all of this is. Not only that, she’s the first person to point out the possible danger involved with these kind of conspiracy theorists. As Casaubon, and to a greater extent Belbo (since he does not have a reality-anchor like Lia in his life), become more obsessed with their material and more convinced of its truth, their overall health begins to suffer. The third guy, Diotallevi, who I’ve totally glossed over, is eventually diagnosed with cancer, which of course he blames on The Plan and the uncovering of dangerous knowledge. Eventually this danger ends up consuming all of them.

What started out as a joke become deadly serious for a modern secret society which calls themselves Tres, which was a random creation of our trio of brilliant idiots. Belbo went too far, pulled too much out of thin air, and was too convincing. He convinced these occultists that he had a great secret, a map, which would point to a crazy Templar treasure which would allow this entirely made-up secret society to rule the world. Rather than admit that all this was total fiction, Belbo eventually runs afoul of these guys, gets kidnapped, and is eventually killed in a super-weird scene involving the titular Pendulum. Casaubon witnesses the whole thing, is then certain that he’s next, and bounces. The novel ends with Casaubon hiding in Belbo’s childhood home waiting for the pack of occultists to show up and murder him. At no point does Casaubon consider going to sane Lia, back in reality. Instead he claims understanding, and waits for the death which may or may not (probably not) be coming.

This is the point where I confess that I do not understand everything which Eco is doing. A lot of text and time is spent describing Belbo’s childhood and his subsequent dysfunctional mode of living and avoiding relationships. I assume there’s a good deal of symbolism (about a trumpet in particular) that didn’t resonate with me. Then there’s Foucault’s Pendulum itself, which I’m told is a “simple” experiment that I don’t understand at all that proves physics or something. Please don’t come to me for science. I think what it does is show the rotation of the Earth, although Casaubon is over here telling me that the Pendulum is attached to the focal point of the universe or some shit, which seemed like mystical nonsense to me until I looked up the Wikipedia article and now I’m looking at something called an inertial frame of reference within the context of Mach’s principle and I understand none of this, and since this is all way over my head, I could easily make my brain hurt less by just inventing explanations to make myself feel better.

foucaults pendulum4

Everyone knows science is better in a top hat.

Humans are not that great at complexity. We’re even worse at accepting the meaningless and the random. The more people who inhabit the earth, the larger the social structures must become to accommodate them, and the more impersonal the world feels. These massive, abstract systems move at their own pace and of their own accord. Individuals, even powerful ones, begin to matter less and less. Events happen and the aftermath which follows seems to unfold for no discernable reason, other than to sow chaos in a world with nothing even resembling a unified vision present to provide solace. Stories which seem to make plausible connections between these events or recognizable individuals have a great soothing power to them. If there’s a Plan in place, no matter how diabolical, at least we can rest assured that someone, somewhere, knows what the fuck they’re doing. That’s why conspiracies are so compelling.

In the case of Foucault’s Pendulum, the entire history of Europe is pushing society towards some great fulmination of secret plans and machinations over the centuries. There’s an entire secret world slowly unspooling unknowable but sacrosanct plans in order to exact control of a society that’s falling apart on the surface. When the time is ripe, the conspirators will emerge from the mists of time and implement their master plan to put humanity back on the straight and narrow. Of course, what’s weird about this is that most of these secret societies and conspirators are depicted as evil, and many of the most fervent believers in these stories are worried for the freedom of chaos. However, that’s a paradox endemic to the concept of conspiracy. These stories, be it 9/11 truthers or those waiting for the Knights Templar to return, are a comfort in their simplicity and as evidence that world events happen for a clear reason. They also present a focal point for animosity. It’s much easier to say “George Bush did 9/11” than work through the socio-political history and trends behind the actual event. This novel pushes back at this notion, while still illustrating the allure of such stories. In the end, none of the things The Plan were concerned with were real. However, real world consequences were born from the belief in them. Blind belief is the danger, not a secret cabal of mystical occult leaders.

Of course none of this means anything, because we all know the world is flat. Duh.

Posted in Books, Conspiracy, Historical | Leave a comment

Dante’s Peak

 

Film * Rodger Donaldson * What If Volcanoes, Though? * 1997

Synopsis

Dante’s Peak is a film that speaks to me. I have a large compendium of dumb stuff I enjoy, and stupid disaster movies are pretty high on that list, slotted right between Lil’ Jon and The Rock. This particular dumb movie came out the year I graduated high school, which ugh, but also coincided with the one time in my life I was watching a lot of movies. Two of my favorites at the time were the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies (which are somewhere around DOOM and weird-flavored potato chips on my idiot-list) and the Terminator movies. Now here comes a disaster flick starring actors from both of those things and – and! It is set in the Pacific Northwest. Look, the best thing about disaster movies are watching familiar things get blown up real good. That’s why they’re all set in New York or London or whatever. Back then, I had been living in California for a long time, but I was from the Northwest. I had a family and a history there, and now here comes this movie basically about Mt. St. Helens and I was downright giddy to see the thing.

Was I disappointed? Pff, you wish. Dante’s Peak hits all the right disaster movie notes in all the right places and is therefore great and everyone should love it. The setup is ideal: you have a sleepy town full of quirky-yet-cardboard characters milling around. You’ve got a brilliant scientist with a tragic history who is frustrated that stupid jerk science won’t justify his obviously superior intuition. You’ve got a strong and sturdy lady-mayor (who also owns a trendy Northwest coffee-shop because that was just starting to be a thing) who is totes single and just so over her ex. Also she has a couple precocious kids who get into hijinks. What else? Oh right, the silly-billy science team who are there to perform broad acts of science (which is not as accurate as Pierce Brosnan’s gut, of course) and provide comic relief, because we all know scientists are unsociable goofballs that are in these movies to amuse us. Oh, there’s a dog. I don’t remember if it dies or not. Probably not.

dantespeak4

More like a campy British super-spy, really.

Then of course you’ve got the actual star of the movie, the volcano. Dante’s Peak is not a real volcano. I’m not sure what the advantage of using a fictional mountain to rain havoc upon the unwitting citizens of the PNW is, but if I had to guess it’s because “Dante’s Peak” is a way better name than any of the actual volcanoes in the Cascades. Turns out boring white explorers gave boring white names to landmarks. All our mountains are named after eighteenth and nineteenth century British aristocrats nobody remembers, and it’s lame. Unless they’re just given super generic names, like the three closest to me.

“Hey, there’s three mountains here, what should we call them?”

“Man, I don’t care, just lump them all together and let’s go home, this place is cold.”

“The Three Sisters!”

“Great, whatever, let’s go.”

“The one in the north is North Sister. The one in the south is South Sister.”

“Oh my god shut up. If I ask about the other one can we leave?”

“The one in the middle? You’ll never guess. Guess.”

“I guess I’m leaving you here to be eaten by bears.”

“No! I’m calling it Middle Sister. Because it’s in the middle.”

“I hope everyone here hates those names as much as I hate you right now.”

“And the one with the broken top? I’m calling it Broken Top!”

“You’re the worst and nobody likes you. I’m not telling you this as your friend, I just want you to suffer as I have suffered.”

…and so on in that fashion until all our landmarks have terrible names. It’s a lake, in a crater. Crater Lake! We did it! Anyway, my point is that Dante’s Peak is significantly cooler than the actual names. Not as cool as the names my wife and I use, of course: Pointy, Stumpy, Lumpy, Bumpy, and Humpy. Sometimes I mix the last three up, but still. What the hell was I talking about? Oh right, the movie. I’m of the opinion that you can’t actually spoil a disaster movie, but it’s time for the break anyway.

dantespeak6

“Ker-ploop.”

Discussion

Hey guys, the volcano erupts in spectacular fashion and wrecks everybody’s day all up, vindicating the heroic, superior scientist and making the nay-sayers look like dorks! The end. Rewatching this movie twenty real years after watching it in the theater (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, linear time is a menace and should be destroyed), I think I appreciate this nonsense even more. Part of the reason is that I work for the Forest Service now, on the flanks of (or literally inside of) an actual dormant volcano, and a big part of my job is to help visitors appreciate what is directly under their feet. Dante’s Peak gets a lot of the actual science wrong, because it is a disaster movie and that’s how these things work. Like, Forest Service vehicles don’t actually have magic, lava-resistant tires, as much as I wish they did. Whatever, though, because as dumb as this movie is, it reminds people of the cataclysmic power of the planet. That’s what I do at work, except without the iffy science.

A massive volcanic eruption is certainly one of the most powerful, cataclysmic events in nature. If you doubt this, take a trip to Mt. St. Helens one of these days. Thirty-seven years later and the area is still a smoldering wasteland. The thing is, though, even such a powerful eruption didn’t cause the widespread, apocalyptic damage that other disasters manage. This is because, in the United States at least, our volcanoes are out of the way. They’re stationary. We don’t build big cities at their feet. Even the fictional town of Dante’s Peak is way larger than most of the tiny mountain towns that appear at the base of the real mountains. Places like Cougar, WA or Rhododendron, OR are barely places. When Mt. St. Helens erupted, fewer than 60 people died as a result because of the isolation of the mountain itself. The eruption of Dante’s Peak, then, is less an apocalypse than a minor inconvenience, at least on a national scale.

dantespeak3

This is an average Sunday morning at my job.

That said, there is a subtle undercurrent to the story of Dante’s Peak that is easily lost in movie featuring acid lakes and lava-defying Forest Service vehicles. In the build-up to the main event, which is to say the mountain blowing up real good, the movie gives us a quick sketch of a small town in the Northwest. On the surface, it looks like the typical middle-America Ohio town popularized by pretty much all of American media, ever. Quaint people doing quaint things in their quaint town. Sometimes they squabble but really everyone has a heart of gold and are clearly superior to filthy city people. That’s the cliché, anyway. Dante’s Peak manages to subvert that, but only a little bit, and then the film totally forgets about it by the end. A volcano did erupt, after all.

The small town of Dante’s Peak is a town experiencing a resurgence. It is implied that before Sarah Connor took over, the town was like many others across the Northwest in the mid-nineties, which is to say, depressed. The vast majority of small towns across Washington and Oregon were founded as centers of logging. Toward the end of the 20th century, this industry – like those in coal and manufacturing elsewhere in the country – began its long decline. Logging became less profitable, workers were laid off, mills were closed. Obviously, there are many complicated reasons for this. Increased efficiency using the product, fewer things are made from wood, increased competition from a world market, all kinds of things contribute to the loss of logging jobs. However, the industry and many of the locals who were affected by the downturn found a much easier scapegoat: the spotted owl. Look, I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, the point is that in the wake of a shrinking lumber market, small towns in the region started to shrink and become just the saddest places. People are familiar with places like Flint, Michigan but I would have to think Aberdeen or Chehalis, Washington are right up there on the list of depressed, horrible towns in this country.

Dante’s Peak is depicted to be such a town experiencing an uptick in fortune. The mayor runs a trendy coffee shop. A Business Man is in town to open a Business, which is exciting to a town which is likely suffering from chronic unemployment. The difference between Dante’s Peak and like, Tenino, Washington is that Dante’s Peak seems to be getting its act together. There’s hope here. In the film this hope is rooted in the aforementioned Business Man, but is more clearly seen in Mayor Connor (no, I can’t be bothered to look up the character’s actual name. That’s Sarah Connor, I don’t care). It’s her coffee shop, on a street catered towards tourists, because guess what? When one industry leaves, it needs to be replaced. If you live in Winlock, Washington, you’re screwed, because there’s nothing for tourists to look at other than a large egg. If you’re in Newberg, Oregon, you’re better off because rich white people like wine and feeling superior to hillbillies. And Newberg’s got both! Dante’s Peak has a picturesque mountain, and is therefore positioned to make an economic recovery.

dantespeak5

It’s all going to be okay. Unless you’re grandma.

Now I’m not sure what the movie is trying to say about all of this, because obviously the town of Dante’s Peak fails. The town doesn’t fail because the economic model is flawed, of course. It fails because a mountain ker-plodes. I think the conclusion I’m forced to draw is that Dante’s Peak is a bleak, nihilistic commentary on small town America. The lesson here is don’t try because even if you succeed in eclipsing meth production as your primary industry, nature will show up and wipe you out anyway. Everyone dies, there’s no reason for anything, your life is meaningless.

Either that, or Dante’s Peak is an incredibly silly, absurdly fun wisp of a movie that nobody should think much about thirty seconds after having watched it. Either way it’s time well spent.

Posted in Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

Ancillary Justice

Novel * Ann Leckie * Galactic Imperial Oppression * 2013

Synopsis

Humans are terrible and never actually change all that much. This is the lesson that I’ve learned by reading a lot of post-Earth and/or distant future science fiction. While that lesson may or may not be a fair assessment of humanity going forward, it’s hard to argue that we’ve changed much looking backward. If you read a lot of literature, people thousands of years ago were basically dealing with the exact same nonsense we’re dealing with now, just with less technology. Far-future fiction like Ancillary Justice reflects on that history of not changing spiritually while continuing to advance technologically and then tell fascinating and horrifying stories based on this truism. This of course belies the existence of nice, wholesome, and optimistic sci-fi like Star Trek and, uh, well I’m sure there are others. I suppose the compelling thing about darker stories is, other than familiarity, the chance at redemption and growth.

Ancillary Justice is really, really cool, and resonates because it manages to weave familiar sci-fi tropes together in new and unusual ways, while still examining the underlying humanity of its world and characters. This is especially compelling considering the protagonist isn’t even human. Rather, it’s a massive starship artificial intelligence which resides in the reanimated body of a human. Look, it gets a little complicated, and that’s what makes it fun. Leckie introduces a lot of concepts and structures right away, which is good because the best part about imaginative fiction (which is a terrible genre term, because all fiction is by definition imaginative, but I guess that’s the term we use now) it getting thrust into an alien world and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. Sometimes authors go too far. This is not one of those times, because despite being an A.I., Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren is a solid anchor to ground us in this world.

Since the story is being told from the perspective of a fragmented artificial intelligence, the narrative tends to feel a little detached. This is actually a skillful act of writing on Leckie’s part. Somehow, she manages to emotionally invest the reader in a protagonist who can only process emotion intellectually. And it feels natural and right, even if it takes a little while to figure out why much of the prose feels a little formal and almost-but-not-quite stiff. This is a first-person narrative in which the person isn’t a person, so the tone and pacing make sense. There’s a good deal of flashing back in time, as we learn about Breq’s history as an actual ship A.I. and what led her to being shut off from the rest of her being and abandoned in a single body.

I realize I should probably sketch a brief picture of this society. I don’t want to get too detailed above the break because figuring some of this out is part of the fun, but most of this you learn pretty quickly. Breq, the artificial intelligence, belongs to the human galactic empire known as the Radch. The Radch kind of suck. They’re strangely retrograde in their structure in that they rely heavily on religion and caste, also they are big into subjugation. One of the things they do when they’re out there conquering colonies is harvest bodies. They don’t kill them, but they push the personality out of the brain until all that’s left is a husk. Then they are frozen. Eventually, they’re reanimated and the ship’s A.I. is inserted so that one A.I. can control a bunch of these meat puppets (as well as the ship) to do the Radch’s imperial bidding. In Breq’s case, her entire existence ended up in a single one of these husks: One Esk. This may be some high-concept kind of stuff, but seriously don’t let this deter you if you’re down with dope sci-fi stories. Ancillary Justice is very cool. Now it’s time to ruin everything.

ancillary justice2

The problem with newer books is that there are way fewer alternate covers. Yet there is still so much fan art. So very much. Too much, maybe.

Discussion

There are a lot of issues up in the air during the course of reading Ancillary Justice, and Leckie isn’t terribly interested in answering any of them for you. In just thinking about it briefly, there’s questions of gender identity, social class, religion, colonialism, what it means to be human, and the power of song. Obviously, these kind of heavy themes can drag a narrative down pretty quickly if you let it. There’s a certain amount of grace and skill needed to navigate these things while still entertaining, which fortunately Leckie has. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Breq, who spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how to live as an autonomous being well outside her comfort zone with vastly fewer resources than she’s ever had. Oh, and did I mention she’s like 2,000 years old? The entire time scale of Ancillary Justice is straight up crazy, and it’s hard to remember that the events told in this novel span huge amounts of time and space.

The story begins when Breq rescues a rather surly human named Seivarden. This character gave me some problems because every time I see that name in print I immediately see the name “Severian” which is a whole other deal. Anyway, Seivarden was frozen for a very, very long time. Like centuries. Nevertheless, Breq remembers her because ship A.I.’s are all thousands of years old and don’t forget anything. Once upon a time, Seivarden was on officer aboard Breq when Breq was the Justice of Toren. Breq remembers not really liking her very much. Once she was unfrozen, it turns out that Seivarden didn’t really fit into society anymore, so she turned into a hardcore drug addict and nearly died before Breq saved her. Their relationship is essentially the backbone of the novel, and keeps the rest of the narrative grounded as it sweeps across the galaxy.

If not for this weird, often unsettling relationship, the even stranger plot is in danger of unravelling pretty much the entire time. Breq, you see, is on a personal mission of revenge, looking to murder the galactic emperor of the Radch. Thing is, Anaander Mianaai (yeah, the names are a little much) isn’t just a single person. Because of the fucked up technology that allows for artificial hive-minds and injecting personalities and whatnot into husks and cloning and who knows what else, the emperor is actually dozens of individuals which are all connected. Or rather, they were. Turns out, there’s a crisis unfolding which rather inadvertently consumed Breq/Justice of Toren. The overarching personality of Anaander Mianaai has split, and are at war with one another. All of this is over questions of empire, and how best to deal with a true alien threat.

The Radch have oppressing human societies down to a science. The all-knowing slave A.I.’s probably help with this, as does the almost omnipotent technology. The Lord of the Radch is certainly ruthless, and there are various demonstrations of cold, calculated slaughter orchestrated by both sides of her split personality. Meanwhile, Breq is out to murder her despite knowing full well the futility of the endeavor, because like almost every other story about artificial intelligence, Breq has learned the meaning of being human is being irrational. That’s not a slam, by the way. The construct and execution of the novel is fresh and original, even if the themes here are all well-trod territory for science fiction.

I haven’t even got to the disorienting gender stuff yet! The Radch don’t differentiate between genders, everyone is simply referred to as “she,” which is confusing at first until we realize that in this world and setting, it doesn’t matter at all. Seivarden is probably a dude, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is social status, which Seivarden used to have but has lost with the passage of time while she was out of the game, frozen. Now her House has lost influence and where she used to be a big wheel down at the cracker factory, now she’s nothing but a curiosity from a bygone era. Now, the Radch don’t have gender, but other human societies do, and when the Radch cultures meet the non-Radch barbarians, shit gets weird. Weird-er.

The hell of it all is, I’m not convinced Leckie has any particular point to make about any of this. Which is totally fine! The entirely of this book is Breq uncovering all this weird crazy nonsense and attempting to contextualize both her own intelligence and the state of the world with the situation at hand. In the end, she’s pulled along by Seivarden to the command of her own A.I.-powered starship while the Empire of the Radch starts to crumble around them. Breq allows this to happen because of her slow humanization, but also because logically there’s not much else for her to do. Her motivation isn’t necessarily revenge, but a desire to do better by those humans who would do better for her. If the Empire should crumble and collapse as a result of her doing the right thing, so be it.

Posted in Books, Colonialism, Dystopia, Post-Earth | Leave a comment

The Return of the Soldier

Novella * Rebecca West * World War I, For the Ladies * 1918

Synopsis

The literature of the early 20th century is dominated by the events of World War I. We see this time and again, whether the war is specifically referenced or not. The apocalyptic conflict is everywhere, affects everything, and in one way or another, changes the life of everyone living at the time. I would specify “living in the West,” but of course such a convulsive, large-scale conflict has unintended consequences across the world. That said, these effects begin in the trenches and work their way out into the world at large. The most horrific and traumatic effects of the war were those suffered by the actual soldiers. Obviously if you’re sawed in half by machine gun fire or blown out of your mud-hole to hang by your entrails in some barbed wire, your experience is about as bad as it can get. The trauma works its way out; that poor bastard likely has a family, who of course are suffering loss as well. Magnify this tragedy by many millions and the sense of apocalypse truly begins to set in.

Since the soldier experience is the most dramatic, it usually gets written about the most. This is not always a direct account, of course, for every All Quiet on the Western Front we get a book that skirts the aftermath like The Sun Also Rises. Both those examples, and the many other novels like them, are of course written by men with direct contact with actual combat. World War I did most of its direct damage to young men; many millions never made it home and many millions more came home grievously wounded. It makes sense for most of the literature about the war to be about these men. Yet literature casts a wide net and is more than capable of presenting different perspectives on the same thing. The war did direct damage to young men, but it also dealt a massive amount of collateral damage to the women who waited back home for them to return. Or not.

return soldier2

This cover just screams ‘apocalypse,’ no?

The Return of the Soldier is a slight work which speaks to the experience of the millions of women waiting in their quiet homes for news of the war. The entire story takes place over a short amount of time, in a peaceful home, where absolutely nothing dramatic happens. Every action is understated, and all of the conflict is expressed as a building, unavoidable dread as we wait for the only thing that can happen to actually happen. This book, in its 90 fleeting pages, manages to tackle an entire suite of issues of the day. Written in the midst of the war, there is no closure here. Until Armistice Day itself, there was no clear indication that the war would ever end. Rebecca West (who was a badass, by the way) was writing from a place of deep uncertainty and was expressing a viewpoint we don’t often see in war literature.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. It’s a tale about three women and one man. The narrator is Jenny, Christopher’s cousin. They’ve been friends since childhood, although the conspiratorial intimacy of childhood has since been lost and Jenny is a little sad about that. Meanwhile, Christopher has married a fancy lady named – ugh – Kitty. Then the war happened and Christopher set off to the Front. The story picks up with Kitty lamenting the fact that Christopher hasn’t written for a fortnight and is obviously worried that her husband is dead. As it happens, he’s not. He is, however, suffering from shell shock. In this instance it has caused a weird form of amnesia, and now Chris thinks that the year is 1901 and that not only is he not married, he’s in love with some girl neither Jenny nor Kitty have ever heard of named Margaret. Now Christopher has returned from the war, but he’s living in the past and doesn’t recognize his wife, and still pines for a girl of his youth.

return soldier3

This cover covers the overall tone of the novel. I kind of feel like this a lot.

Discussion

The Return of the Soldier does a lot of heavy lifting for such a short book. West’s attention moves from issues with social class, to the torment of waiting for a loved one to return from war, to a weird love triangle, to the very concept of reality. Kitty, Jenny, and Chris are all very upper class while Margaret is very much not. Although – and this is still an alien concept to me – Margaret is lower class, but like, upper-lower class, so she totally has a servant but not a fancy servant. And only one. When we first meet her, Jenny and Kitty have nothing but disdain for this poor lady, and West portrays both women as insufferable arrogant bitches. Seriously, Kitty and Jenny’s depictions and treatment of Margaret are gross. This is intentional, of course. Rebecca West, feminist and socialist in the early 20th century, is definitely not on the side of the landed aristocracy.

No, really, you need to see this. The book begins with Margaret bringing news of Christopher’s affliction to Jenny and Kitty in their fancy home. The entire time Jenny is narrating, it’s filled with faux-pity and derisive asides, and disgusting assumptions about the (not really poor, but upper-middle-lower-class, you know) lower classes of society. In this instance, both Jenny and Kitty have the unspoken assumption that Margaret is there to scam them. Margaret claims to have news of Christopher’s shell shock, which Jenny and Kitty think she cannot have because why would this random lady have such information? That’s a fair thing to think, because obviously such news should go directly to the wife and family and not some middle-aged lady apparently unconnected to the man. I’m not sure that excuses the following passage, however:

“I hoped that Kitty would let her go without scaring her too much with words and would not mind if I gave her a little money. There was no doubt in my mind but that this was a queer ugly episode, in which this woman butted like a clumsy animal at a gate she was not intelligent enough to open, would dissolve and be replaced by some more pleasing composition in which we would take our proper parts; in which, that is, she should turn from our rightness ashamed.”

Yet she cried, “But Chris is ill!”

It took a second for the compact insolence of the moment to penetrate: the amazing impertinence of the use of his name, the accusation of callousness she brought against us, whose passion for Chris was our point of honour, because we would not shriek at her false news, the impudently bright indignant gaze she flung at us, the lift of her voice that pretended she could not understand our coolness and irrelevance.

I pushed the purse away from me with my toe and hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.”

Holy shit lady, maybe lay off a little bit! In just a short time, Jenny thinks of Margaret as both a clumsy idiot animal and a gross bug. And when it turns out that Margaret is genuine and not trying to scam anyone? Pff, whatever, she’s still a peasant with disgusting, calloused hands. This little episode, and the cool, casual condescension Jenny emits here is of course Rebecca West venting her spleen at the upper classes. It’s yet another reminder in Modern literature as to how completely reified European (and specifically British) society is collapsing in slow motion. As the trauma of the war grows and spreads, the social structures of the era simply cannot keep up. Here are two women – Jenny and Kitty – who are suffering the absence of this dude they claim to love so much, but spend way more effort being disgusted at the mere presence of a shabby poor than exhibiting concern for their loved one.

Soon after the above episode, Christopher returns and yep, he thinks it’s 1901 and everyone is crazy except for him. Well, that’s not completely fair. Intellectually Chris knows that it’s much later and that he’s a soldier in a war he can’t remember and that this presumably adult human woman who calls herself ‘Kitty’ is his wife, but none of that makes any difference because his heart keeps telling him that he’s a young man in love with a pretty young woman he met while visiting a quaint little inn. This, of course, sucks quite a bit for Kitty, although it’s hard to feel sorry for her because of how terrible a person she is. This is also the aspect of the story where all these themes start to blend.

Christopher and Margaret’s love affair is representative of the erosion of social strata which is beginning to happen even before the war breaks out. Unfortunately, it’s also not real. Chris returns home from the war physically undamaged, which should be a moment of triumph for the women waiting upon his return. However, Chris is still fundamentally damaged by the apocalyptic conflict and his mind has retreated to an idyllic past which, by its very nature, is still a symptom of a rapidly changing society. Even in his shell shock induced fantasy, he cannot possibly ever be happy. Yes, middle-aged Margaret shows up and they’re both clearly still into it, but their cross-class love cannot last. Not because the classes can’t mix – obviously the war is forever changing that – but because what they have isn’t a true thing.

return solider4

Any cover of this book that actually has a soldier on it kind of misses the point. I mean, I know it’s in the title and all, but still.

Since Christopher and Margaret can’t actually hold onto their happiness, because reality is war and struggle and strife, they must eventually embrace what is real. Margaret is the one who makes this happen. This is the early 20th century and so a psychologist shows up because that’s the new hotness, and he decides he can cure Christopher’s amnesia with a sufficient shock. Chris is then forcibly reminded that before he went off to war he had a son who died. Bummer. This of course snaps Christopher back to reality, which is terrible. For him, for Margaret, even for Jenny. It’s bad for everyone except, of course, Kitty, who is the worst.

Kitty is barely a real character and reads most of the time as an insufferable caricature that Rebecca West invented so she could make fun of rich people. I’m fine with that because I love Rebecca West and rich people are gross. Kitty’s entire source of sadness throughout The Return of the Soldier is not the thought of her husband dying a horrible death, it’s the thought of losing her husband to a woman of the unspeakable lower classes. When Chris is cured, she’s ecstatic. Never mind the fact that Christopher’s recovery means that he must return to the Front and probably die or get wounded. Who cares?! He may leave, he may die, but at least when he does Chris will belong to his proper class and his proper wife. Jenny, watching from a distance, at least seems to understand the gravity of the situation. She has come to her senses regarding Margaret, and appears to be saddened by the loss of the idyllic dream in which Chris could be a happy young man and not a grim solider.

The Return of the Soldier ends on this note of final uncertainty, in which the soldier must return to a war still in progress. Kitty, the rather obvious impersonation of a failing aristocratic society (not at all unlike Sylvia from Parade’s End), is joyous at the return of the status quo. Jenny, who seems able to shift with the times, is devastated. Despite not knowing the outcome of the war (because the book was written and published before the war was over), Jenny can see where things are going. Not only is Christopher lost – even if he isn’t killed he’s been through a trauma that will forever mark him), but what the young Christopher represented will be lost as well. World War I. It was a hell of a thing.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The 5th Wave

Novel * Rick Yancey * Oh No Aliens OR ARE THEY * 2013

Synopsis

I don’t read book reviews. Hell, I barely write them. I do read a lot of books, however, and many of them feature a page full of ecstatic excerpts from various outlets. This ain’t a new thing, to the point where it doesn’t even register with me for the most part. That said, sometimes the endless, excessive gushing over a book strikes me as odd. Not because the book itself is bad – The 5th Wave is totally competent – but because I can’t tell how these quotes would look in context.

“Everyone I trust is telling me to read this book” says The Atlantic Wire, whatever that is. “Unfortunately it turns out that everyone I trust is an idiot,” the quote continues. Probably.

“A modern sci-fi masterpiece… should do for aliens what Twilight did for vampires” USAToday.com said. First of all, I don’t trust that ellipsis. Anything could be in there. Like a whole manifesto could be embedded between those two phrases. Also, the following sentence is certainly “and we all saw how that turned out.”

“Step aside, Katniss.” Oh, fuck right off The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Like I’m going to trust any publication with such a 1930’s-ass name as that. Also, just no.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is: a totally acceptable, extremely pulpy, occasionally obnoxious alien invasion story. I read it in two days because: 1. Work was slow and I had a lot of time on my hands. 2. It’s breezy Y.A. fiction that is quickly paced. 3. The story was good enough to keep me engaged throughout. And that last point is super important, because if you’re out there writing genre fiction (young adult or otherwise) that’s what you’re looking for. Get in, tell your story, get out. That’s what Yancey does, and it works.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is not: 1. Better than the fucking Hunger Games. 2. A revelation in science fiction and/or apocalyptic fiction. 3. In any universe comparable to The Road. Jesus Christ, Entertainment Weekly, really? Look, I understand we’re trying to sell books here, but get it together reviewers. Do you get a kickback if you’re featured on the “Praise” page? And if so how do I get in on it? Probably by writing more accessible, punchy, 500 word review blips for a major publisher. Or even better, hyperbolic, gushy praise for absolute trash so I can be the one guy from some website no one’s ever heard of (like this one!) making the cover of the book.

It’s summer now, and you need an easy-breezy book to blast through without thinking too hard. I get it. Dog days, man. Let me suggest The 5th Wave. It’s about a teen girl, because this is Y.A. There’s also a teen boy or two, also because Y.A. This is an alien apocalypse which manifests itself in, wait for it, five waves. The first is an electromagnetic pulse which wipes out humanity’s power grid and electronics. All of it. The second wave is tidal waves? I forget how they pull that off but it eliminates coastal cities worldwide. Then the third wave is a gross plague. After the vast majority of humanity is dead, the aliens send down infiltrators to personally eliminate the rest. The fifth wave is a secret. Why are the aliens doing these things? Who cares!

5th Wave2

Oh no, they tried to make this a thing. I bet this movie is just terrible and I don’t think I want to find out.

Discussion

It turns out that it’s difficult to write about totally competent, mostly unremarkable books. Even when those books are totally in my wheelhouse. The 5th Wave opens with our protagonist, Cassie-for-Cassiopeia, as she navigates a destroyed world. She’s a quirky teen, her thoughts tend to wander and she makes a lot of pithy dad-jokes in her head. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that she’s being written by a middle-aged dad. Again, whatever, all of these internal monologues hustle the pace along and the story keeps moving. Cassie is tonally all over the place, which is usually a bad thing, but here it keeps the book as a whole form bogging down in your typical bad-apocalypse malaise. We get it. The world’s destroyed, humanity is hanging on by a thread and is facing an all-powerful, unknowable enemy. Extinction is all but ensured. But does everyone have to be so dour about it all the time? Lighten up, last remnants of humanity!

I will admit that perhaps my perception of The 5th Wave as an example of a “lighter” apocalypse is unintentional. I mean, humanity really is mostly destroyed. The plague in particular is rather gruesome. There’s the expected noble sacrifices, and almost everyone has experienced traumatic loss. Okay, but for all that Cassie still really seems into the object of her unrequited fifteen-year-old-girl crush. He’s the minor protagonist, “Zombie,” who is quite frankly a jocky douche-turned-survivor. Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect me to take your survival story seriously if you’re spending quality time setting up a motherfucking teen love triangle. Face it, Cassie, you’re going to have to consider broadening the gene pool at some point so maybe don’t get hung up on your prissy notions of monogamy. Nobody’s going to be around to slut-shame you when you’re at risk of being assimilated by creepy ghost-aliens.

The aliens here are, in the end, kind of lame. I was really hoping for a race of big gross Cthulhu monsters to drop down from their mothership and the 5th wave would just be them unleashing Eldritch horror across the flaming ruins of Earth. Alas, no. They’re parasites. Somehow – it’s not really explained too much – they’re incorporeal beings of pure thought or something. Back in 1995 they impregnated a bunch of unknowing humans and left them with random images of owls (screen memories!) and an alien brain-worm. Then, in present day, they activate their alien-ghost-worms and take the human over for the purposes of hunting other humans. That’s the 4th wave. But then it bleeds into the 5th wave, which is using the alien-ghost-people to indoctrinate children into doing the heavy lifting of extermination for them. Personally, I think the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers aspect of the alien attack should be a single wave and that Yancey is totally cheating. Throw like a temporary Ice Age in there or something. Mix it up.

Usually, in this section, I will attempt to push a little deeper into a given text and examine some undercurrent of theme and/or intent pertaining to notions of the apocalypse. I’m having difficulty doing that today. I’m actually acutely disappointed that my copy of this book doesn’t have a section of book club questions in the back, because those are really helpful when I’m not feeling particularly analytic. That said, I suppose whoever is responsible for writing those questions likely read the book and shrugged, kind of like I did. Like, “that was fun,” and then spent an hour trying to think of something clever to ask the reader. Hold on…. ….Shit. They’re online. Okay, maybe just one.

How is Manifest Destiny similar to The Others’ takeover of Earth? How does the American concept of Manifest Destiny differ?

Damn, getting deep there. First of all, nice reminder of the United States’ foray into genocide that we really don’t like talking about. Secondly, the answer is God. Now, if you’re a cynic like me you look at the attitude surrounding Manifest Destiny as a flimsy smokescreen to grab land from what were assumed to be a less worthy species of human. That’s the bit that The Others have in common with American settlers. They just don’t bother attributing their atrocities to a higher power. They are the higher power.

Oh man, there’s a lot of good ones here. Alas, I’m kind of done writing about this. That said, I’m now seriously considering reading the rest of the trilogy which I pretty much wasn’t before. So good job, question-writer. Well done.

Posted in Aliens, Books, Desolation, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

Novel * Gene Wolfe * Is Any of This, Like, Even Real, Man? * 1982

There are other books! Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3

Synopsis

With every additional entry in this series, I feel less and less confident in my ability to grasp just what in the actual fuck is going on. That should probably be the baseline of reading a book, right? To be able to identify incredibly basic things like: Who are these people? Where do they live? What are they doing? And maybe, even: Why are they doing these things? Answering those questions in an artful way is pretty much how you tell a story. At first, The Book of the New Sun seemed to do these things as you’d expect. There is a boy named Severian. He lives in a massive, ancient city named Nessus. He’s a torturer. Eventually he gets kicked out of his home for being nice to a lady (by which I mean he allows her to kill herself rather than continue to torture her). From here he is to travel north and seek his fortune as a traveling executioner (it’s more complicated than that, but we’re talking basics here). His journey is interrupted by weird shit almost immediately, however, and that’s what injects uncertainty into the narrative. This uncertainty continues to ramp up with every page, and by the end of the cycle I barely understand what I’ve just read.

So here’s some pro-tips for folks who are deciding whether or not this series is for you. First of all, maybe don’t skip to an article about the last book in the series. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to actually spoil anything about these books. Anything I’d say about the ending would just be inscrutable to anyone unfamiliar with not only the story, but Wolfe’s delivery of the story. The other tips are pretty straightforward. Read slowly and pay attention. I tend to blast through novels as quickly as possible and sometimes I miss subtleties. Everything in The Book of the New Sun is a subtlety. Try and read them all together. Again, I did not do this, often reading four or five (or more) books in between entries. By the end of each book I felt like I was almost catching on to Wolfe’s rhythms and narrative tricks, and if I had stuck with it I think the following volumes would have been easier to unravel. Instead I’d return to this murky, fascinating world just as confused as I was when I started. Finally, these books probably need to be read more than once to really grasp what’s happening. I read the first novel twice (the first time a couple of years ago, before I wrote about everything I read) and the second time through it made a bit more sense. I’m sure a third time through would be even more enlightening.

This is all to say that if you intend to read The Book of the New Sun, you best bring your fucking A-game as a reader. I understand if you look at the cover art of these things and think to yourself: “Oh, heh, this looks like some pulpy-ass sci-fi/fantasy nonsense” with the intention of enjoying some light summer reading. This is not that. You have to work. Wolfe isn’t trying to make your life easier, he doesn’t care if you like Severian or not, he doesn’t care if you understand when and where this even takes place. The author is obfuscating the narrative to himself, which barely makes sense but that’s what these books are all about. Layers upon layers of obfuscation. Which is fine, because it allows me to use the world “obfuscate” a lot, which I enjoy. Other than that, boy, this was actually exhausting. I’m glad I read them, but I don’t know if I will ever try and read them again. I don’t even know if I can in good conscience recommend them. Yet now that I’ve finished The Citadel of the Autarch, I’m going to try and unravel what I just read. I have assuredly missed things. Like, most of the things. Therefore the following section is going to be more trying to explain to myself what happened, and less identifying and discussing themes. It turns out you have to be able to understand the characters and plot before making grand assumptions of authorial intent.

citadel autarch2

This weird-ass depiction of The Citadel of the Autarch pretty much encapsulates the feel of the novel. It looks rad, is compelling and strange, and makes no damn sense at all.

Discussion

From the very beginning of the series, it has been clear that Severian is writing from a future point of view. Specifically, we know very early on that he is going to become the Autarch, which is like the king/dictator/emperor of the Commonwealth. This kind of narrative framing is not uncommon, but I’ve never been a huge fan, as I feel like it can rob a story of its immediacy. However, The Book of the New Sun ain’t about that. There are action set pieces and moments of dark despair and tense moments fraught with uncertainty, but underlying all of that is the knowledge that Severian, at least, will end up running the place. His life is not in danger. And you know, if it was, whatever. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Severian kind of sucks, and nothing that happens in this final volume has changed that.

Okay, I’m going to try and walk through the plot as I experienced it here. From the beginning Severian has wandered the land with two constant companions: His sword, Terminus Est and the relic known as the Claw of the Conciliator. Terminus Est was real good at lopping heads off and the Claw seemed to contain the power to heal and at times straight up raise the dead. At the end of the previous book, the sword was destroyed and the Claw was shattered but still vital. Oh, but get this you guys, the power of the Conciliator has been inside Severian all along. Because Severian is the Conciliator? That’s less clear. Anyway, Severian is once again in desperate straits, wandering around a fresh battlefield trying not to dehydrate and/or starve to death. He eventually catches up to the war we’ve been hearing about for three books and resurrects yet another poor bastard with his inherent Claw power. These two stumble into a camp for the wounded where people either die or are rehabilitated. Severian kind of does neither.

While in this camp, Severian listens to stories. They’re probably important, I don’t know. One of them is about a rooster who has a hubris, another is about fratricide over a lady, there was another one I forget. Look, like I said, if you’re here hoping I’m going to elucidate something for you, you’re going to be disappointed. After storytime, Severian decides he would like to try a war out. The combatants are the forces of the Commonwealth, who are ostensibly led by the Autarch. The enemies are a civilization called Ascia, of which Severian knows nothing. Eventually we meet a citizen of Ascia, and it turns out they’re fucking weird too. Like, so weird. Fascinatingly weird, but what in these books isn’t? Now the Ascians seem to operate like some kind of individuated Borg. Their minds are utterly assimilated, and they are only able to speak in pamphlet form. By that I mean they speak in formal paragraphs of propaganda, as if their only education is in the form of social indoctrination. Their entire language seems to be comprised of bullet points from some kind of mysterious manifesto. You can understand the words they use, but there is literally no context which makes them coherent. Of course one of the Ascians tells a story too, which other characters “translate,” but come on now.

citadel autarch3

I may be wrong, but I think fantasy art probably peaked in the ’80s.

Bleep blop bloop, some other things happen. Look, I’ll skip to the important bit. Eventually Severian meets the Autarch, a thing which has been destined to happen the entire time. Severian has to succeed him at some point, right? Now, if you recall, during his adventures Severian participated in a ceremony where he ate his dead girlfriend which was spiked with a drug allowing her consciousness to reside in his mind. As the series has progressed, Thecla’s personality has become a part of Severian. He’s literally two people in one body. So that’s weird, but the Autarch has over a thousand. It turns out that this is a prerequisite of being in charge. Now the Autarch is on his deathbed and bequeaths control of the Commonwealth over to this nutbar young torturer. So Severian kills the Autarch while freebasing his brain juice (I have no idea what this process actually looks like) and now Severian has all the Autarch’s personalities within him.

In the end Severian returns to his home in Nessus, and returns to the Citadel where he grew up. Oh, first he catches up with poor, dead Dorcas and chooses not to speak with her. Okay. Anyway, he goes home then some apparently important things happen which serve to leave me confused, just like every other book in the series. There are aliens who might actually be humans who have left Earth to colonize the stars and are now differentiated from the parent species enough to be beyond our reckoning. Severian takes up the responsibilities of the Autarch – because he has assimilated all of the previous Autarchs – but he’s also the Conciliator maybe but we don’t know for sure. There’s a test? If there is he hasn’t taken it yet or maybe he did and created some kind of temporal time wave that sent this document of the future millions of years into the past – which is where live – and straight into Gene Wolfe’s brain and that’s what this whole “New Sun” thing is.

Nailed it.

I’m really trying not to be overly flip about all of this, and am apparently failing, because the world Wolfe has created here really is fascinating. I totally understand that these books have serious fans who really, really get into it. There’s a ton to uncover and disseminate here, mysteries to unravel and theories to argue over. I’m way into the idea of a late, late, late stage version of humanity still around to witness the very death of the sun. It’s a little unnerving that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, but whatever, it’s a cool thing to imagine. Like of course a society staring down the gun of assured final destruction would get super weird and invent a new religion based on a dream of reversing the heat death of the universe. However – and I’m clearly in the minority of readers here, I think – there’s just not enough to really hold on to which would really ignite that drive to discover more about the world. I need a foothold in this world, a viewpoint I care about to allow me to ease into the setting a little bit. As is, Severian is slippery and quite possible insane, which is a difficult foothold to try and understand such an alien society. In the end, I’m glad I forced myself to finish these. I just wish I liked them more

Posted in Books, Entropy | 4 Comments

The Corner

Nonfiction * David Simon & Ed Burns * Total Social Failure * 1997

Synopsis

I don’t read very much nonfiction. My ratio is somewhere in the realm of ten fiction books for every bit of reality I read. Of course I like learning things, so much of my nonfiction reading tends to be an attempt to fill in knowledge. I’ll read a biography about T.S. Eliot, or about the volcano I work in, or about the punk rock scene in L.A. back in the day. Then I went and picked up this book, which was co-written by the dude who created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. Now, I’ve never seen the former and have only seen the first season of the latter (yes, I know, shut up), but if you’re even passingly familiar with those things, you get a pretty good understanding of what this is all about. Here’s the thing. The Corner definitely fills in some gaps in my knowledge, because quite frankly I know very little about living in West Baltimore. However, while learning about life on the corner, I’ve had my worldview upended, and that’s always a difficult thing.

The Corner is the result of these two authors, one a former crime journalist the other a former police officer, spending a year with the residents of a single neighborhood in West Baltimore. This neighborhood is the site of a large, open-air drug market, mostly heroin and cocaine. The book is largely written as a narrative following a few primary individuals – not characters, because these are real people using their real names – over a year of their life. While there many people flitting in and out of the narrative, the center of the story told here is the McCullough family. I use the world “family” loosely. There is a father, Gary, who is a heroin addict. The mother is Gary’s ex, Fran, who is also a heroin addict. They have two sons. The oldest is DeAndre, who is fifteen. He goes to school perhaps once a week and otherwise spends his time selling both heroin and coke on the corner. Then there is the younger brother who mostly just keeps his head down. He’s like nine and doesn’t figure much in the narrative. Thank God.

Their stories are terrible. Once upon a time, Gary was successful. Somehow, someway, he managed to transcend his surroundings and actually make something of himself. Then he succumbed to a fatal flaw, which was to stay put in the neighborhood. Eventually, he hooked up with Fran, who was something of a bad girl. One thing leads to another and suddenly Gary is chasing the blast and as he tumbles, all his money and possessions fade away until he’s living in his parent’s basement nodding off to sleep every night and spending his days looking for ways to score a blast. And that’s the story of The Corner. This book is primarily about these lost and forgotten people of West Baltimore, it’s about the overarching situation as a whole.

Every once in a while, the authors will interrupt the narrative and provide context for what we’re reading. These bits are every bit as important as the narrative, because while they’re just as bleak as the narrative, they at least provide a reprieve from the specific tragic suffering the rest of the book is largely comprised of. These segments are an indictment of the War on Drugs, but do an excellent job of pointing out how and why this problem of extreme poverty and open-air drug markets are so intractable. The Corner is a pessimistic book, there are no answers given here. While the narrative is awash in tragedy, and the commentary mostly boils down to throwing up your hands and saying “it’s real fucked up!” there are still moments of redemption here and there. Yes, it’s mostly terrible, but the authors do manage to dig up some moments of quiet inspiration and goodwill. It’s real rough, but considering not much has changed since this was researched and written (the early 90s), The Corner is still a vital document.

corner2

Oh look, there’s a miniseries. I have no intention of ever watching that.

Discussion

Goddammit, DeAndre.

All of the context, the facts and statistics, the conclusions drawn about national policy over poverty and drugs, all of it, pales when compared to the frustration of following the life of DeAndre McCullough. He’s fifteen years old, and as such is a little shit most of the time. He’s smart, but he’s stubborn, and like every other adolescent on earth can swing wildly between boisterous, sullen, aggressive, and giddy. As the book moves along, two things become fairly clear. The first is DeAndre absolutely has the potential to rise up and out of his surroundings. The second is the boy never had a fucking chance. Over and over again, DeAndre finds himself in situations where his potential flashes and it looks like maybe, just maybe he can get over. He never quite all-the-way quits school like his fucked up friends. He never quite all-the-way commits to the corner. Something in him pulls him back from the abyss over and over again, and every time it happens – whether he’s dressing up in a suit and giving a speech for a school competition or supporting his mother in her effort to clean up – I would get my hopes up. And then, over and over again, he would fail.

DeAndre’s failures are a microcosm of the entire system described within The Corner, which is what ultimately shifted how I think about this aspect of the world. Look, I’m not going to hype this book up and say silly things like “it changed my life!” or even “it changed how I look at the world!” Very few books have the power to do that, especially once you’ve grown up and your views have calcified somewhat. That said, the story of DeAndre and his sad, doomed father and the other poor drug-addled bastards of Fayette Street messed me up. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that environment is a major factor in individual development, it’s quite another to feel it. If someone like DeAndre is born into a quiet, suburban community, he thrives. Maybe he doesn’t go to Stanford, probably like UC Santa Cruz or something, but he gets by. He looks back fondly on his Banana Slug days, smoking weed at the beach and chasing girls and getting C’s, then he gets a job as a middle manager somewhere in the Silicon Valley, gets married, has some kids and a dog and a townhouse in San Jose. Good times. The exact same amount of effort on the corner in West Baltimore gets you maybe a year of wavering back and forth between maybe getting out and falling all the way in.

Early on, the authors give us the ground rules for inner-city, open-air drug markets like that found on Fayette Street:

“The rules of the game are a two-step program to nonrecovery, as valid a living credo as anything on those pamphlets that get tossed around at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. First among them is a declaration of intent as all-encompassing as the first commandment to roll down the slopes of Sinai.

  1. Get the blast.

Get it and live. For whomsoever believeth in good dope shall live forever, or if not forever, at least for that sugar-sweet moment when he chases down a vein, slams it home, and discovers that what they’ve been saying about them Green Tops is true: The shit is right….

If faith and spirituality and mysticism are the hallmarks of any great church, then addiction is close to qualifying as a religion for the American underclass. If it was anything less, if at Fayette and Monroe there was a single shard of unifying thought that could compete with the blast itself, then the first rule would be null and void. But no, the blast is all, and its omnipotence not only affirms the first rule, but requires the second:

2. Never say never.

On the corner, the survivors do what they’ve got to do and they live with it. When mere vice is sufficient to get the blast, it ends there. But eventually, it’s sin that is required, and when sin falls short, absolute evil becomes the standard.”

It, uh, goes on like that for some time, but you get the point. Simon and Burns do an excellent job of illustrating the reasons why society in places like West Baltimore failed, and has been failing for decades. It’s a complicated tableau of social pressures born from various aspects of our civilization. In Baltimore there is an obvious racial component born from the vast migration of former slaves northward after the civil war, in the grim hope of escaping institutionalized racism and Jim Crow. Beyond that, there is a clear decline of good, solid industrial and manufacturing jobs. Globalism and neoliberal deregulation policies shifted those jobs overseas, and vast swaths of the population were left with nothing. There is one booming local economy left, however, and that’s the drug market. When you have a desperate demand for a product like you get with heroin and cocaine addicts, that economy will fill the void. Throw the utterly misguided approach to curtail the drug trade on top of it, and what you get is a scene of destructive chaos that follows the above two rules, and those two rules only.

Once someone like Gary McCullough is addicted, there is very little chance for escape. His entire support system is neck deep in the game with the exception of his poor, overwhelmed, and confused parents. Step one, get the blast. Ain’t no one out there working harder than a junkie trying to come up with ten bucks to get high. The section about the swarm of junkies stripping the city bare of its copper and aluminum is striking because it illustrates an obvious problem as a group of entrepreneurs figuring out a way to get their blast. I actually caught myself almost respecting these thieving addicts for their hard work and ingenuity. Then I shook it off and continued to be sad about it.

There is a success story here, at least. DeAndre’s mother, Fran, finally decides to get clean and get out, and while during the year the story takes place she fails, there’s at least a friendly epilogue to explain that yes, she did finally get clean. Further, DeAndre’s fourteen-year-old baby mama is also able to escape the life on the corner. It turns out that when you follow people around for a year, you get attached to them. So the authors, of course, couldn’t be said to be entirely above their own humanity for the sake of ‘pure’ journalism, and continued to keep tabs on their subjects and friends. Fran got out and stayed clean, Gary is dead from an overdose. Actually, nearly everyone in the narrative is either dead or incarcerated, because the life expectancy of those on the corner is notoriously short. There are many, many ways to die. Either you can overdose, or get some horrible disease from needle-sharing, or you can get shot over a shortage/territory/deal-gone-wrong/total accident.

By the end of the year depicted in The Corner, DeAndre is back on the street, and using as much as he’s selling. Once again, he almost-but-not-quite gets himself out, only to fall back into the rhythms of the street. And really, what chance did he have? Both of his parents are fiends, his only room in the world is the backroom of a shooting gallery. The only people with money in the neighborhood have it from selling dope and coke. The school is an unfunded, mostly empty, chaotic mess, and besides, what the fuck does anything taught there have to do with his day to day life anyhow? There is nothing, nothing, for a kid like DeAndre to hold onto that would look like anything your typical middle-class American takes for granted. So it’s no wonder that DeAndre, despite being smart and sensitive, ends up getting high on his own supply. It’s no wonder that despite having, eventually, a friend that could get him a job in showbiz (DeAndre had a part on The Wire, while his younger brother managed to avoid the corner and got an education, which allowed him to live a better life) didn’t matter much. Back and forth, almost but not quite. DeAndre McCullough died in 2012 of an overdose. Fuck.

Posted in Books, Government, Post Modernity, Urban Decline | Leave a comment