The Source

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Novel * James Michener * A Brief History of Judaism * 1965

Synopsis

For someone who has written tens of thousands of words about the concept of apocalypse, I don’t talk about religion very much. This might seem odd, but the thing is I have no real background or education in religion of any kind. I mean, I took that one class in community college about a million years ago, but all I remember from that experience was that about half the football team was also enrolled in the class and the first time the instructor mentioned Buddhism one of the jocks sitting right behind me shouted “Booty-ism, dog!” The class – myself included – laughed a lot at this. That’s pretty much all I remember from a class I totally got an A in. Community college, everyone! Later on, in real college, I took another general religion class of which I remember exactly nothing. My brain just refuses to engage. Like, I bopped through both those classes and made the appropriate grades but the entire time I’m sitting there dozing off thinking about panda bears or whatever and none of the actual religion talk actually sticks. The same thing happened the maybe three times I’ve sat through a church service. Maybe I need to try again with a religion that is less vanilla Protestant America-church. Maybe trying to educate myself on the topic is always going to be a slog and I just need to get over it.

Whatever the case, James Michener is here to help me out. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading him before, here’s his whole deal. Michener writes historical fiction based in a particular location. The first novel of his I read (for my AP US History class, in fact) was Chesapeake, which takes place in and around Chesapeake Bay. He then proceeds to tell a long series of linked short stories/novellas that details a group of characters at a particular time in history at that place. Michener starts at the beginning – of time – and moves up to modern day, which is to say when the novel was written. The effect is a deep understanding of the place being written about seen through the eyes of a disparate group of characters inhabiting the same space and seeing the effects of the previous stories on their own world, even if they don’t necessarily recognize the shared history. It’s a fascinating way to learn about a place without your eyes glazing over because Michener is actually pretty good at telling a story. This is important because James Michener novels almost always top a thousand pages each. They’re intense.

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I like the weirdly abstracted menorah, although it’s almost like they couldn’t think of any other religious symbol to use.

The Source is no exception to Michener’s formula, and is arguably one of his more ambitious works. Instead of a place like Poland, or Texas, or Hawaii – places with rich histories, of course – this book’s location is Israel, and considering civilization pretty much started right in the neighborhood, it’s difficult to find a place with a longer human history. Beyond the simple expanse of time involved, Michener is focusing on the Jewish religion itself, in addition to the complicated and convoluted history of the geographical area. This aspect of the book was appealing to me, because in this case I was hoping that Michener could trick my brain into reading about religion. Turns out my hopes were validated because this book was super fun to read through, and it barely felt like I was reading over a thousand pages of history. Historical fiction may not be for you, but in no way does The Source read like a textbook.

The framing structure of the novel is brilliant, and works as well as the overall characterization and snappiness of the narrative to move the reader through the sheer volume of words here. The Source opens in contemporary time, in this case the mid-60’s, with an archeologist named Dr. Cullinane. He’s on his way to Makor Tell, which is a fictional archeological dig that sets up the structure for the novel. The introduction to the book explains the purpose and methodology of the dig, which I promise you is more interesting than it sounds, and also sketches out the modern-era characters that Michener returns to throughout the overall narrative. Dr. Cullinane is an aging bachelor, you see, and he has the hots for one of the lady archeologists working on the dig, Dr. Vered Bar-El. She’s not into it because he’s not Jewish. There’s also representatives of various other faiths and nationalities around, including an Arab and an American Jew who is fairly gross. All these people and their stories serve to ground the overall historical story and give a modern context to everything that comes before. Now, all these folks are here at Makor Tell to do science, which they do. They dig two exploratory trenches and find all kinds of fun artifacts right at the beginning – there are little drawings and everything. Each object found is a little older than the one before, and the closer to bedrock the archeologists get, the older the object. Once they hit the bottom of the Tell, Michener works in reverse order, and tells a story about the people who would have interacted with each found object. The first of these stories begins in the year 9831 B.C.E., the final story takes place in 1948 C.E., and deals with Israeli independence. A lot happens in between.

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This is clearly the best cover ever. Look at that swarthy motherfucker right there. I don’t know why the sexy Jewish lady is wearing heels in the desert, but this dude is like whatever, come get your history if you can even handle it.

Discussion

So, religion is terrible and I don’t understand it. That’s pretty much my takeaway from The Source, even though I don’t think that was Michener’s intention. To be fair to the author, I believe that his intention was to simply tell the story of the place. He’s not out here trying to get people to renounce their faith or advance the cause of one religion over the other. If anything, there’s a vague message of universal humanism that comes across by the end, even if the ending itself is kind of a downer. Anyway, Michener plays it pretty straight, telling compact little stories about people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago who end up doing extraordinary things that shifts the history of Makor in one way or another. I have come to the conclusion that religion is terrible simply because Michener refuses to flinch away from the less-than-glorious things that humans have done to each other in the name of their various gods, and does it in such a way that somehow doesn’t point the finger at religion itself.

I made that leap, though. The first story is about a literal caveman who is a very good hunter and is happy with his life as cave-dwelling alpha male, even though he’s an old, old man at like 31 years old. Our caveman friend has a wife whom he is very happy with, despite the fact that she not only thinks for herself, but also has a lot of crazy ideas. Among these are living in a shelter above ground, planting wild seeds in particular area and helping them grow better, and eventually imagining the basis for religion. Now, Michener is quite obviously streamlining the historical process for the invention of agriculture and animal domestication (one of the characters almost-but-not-quite makes a little wolf-buddy), something he admits himself during the narrative. However, the point is at some point, someone somewhere came up with these ideas. Most likely this happened repeatedly. Like, one person has the idea to grow wild wheat, it doesn’t take, and it’s forgotten for a while, and then someone else does it until finally the practice takes hold. The key thing about this first story is that religion goes through the same process. The agriculture experiment is going well enough until the weather comes along and fucks up the whole operation. Our very smart cavelady puts it all together and realizes that weather is a natural force with supernatural elements that must be appeased in order for civilization to work. Religion evolves from this realization.

The next story begins some 7,000 years later. There is a basic civilization in place at Makor, and the original monolith erected to the vague supernatural being called El now has a tidy little temple. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go story by story here, that would take many many more words than I want to write. Suffice to say Michener is giving us a basic roadmap not only to The Source but pretty much every other novel he’s ever written. By now religion isn’t just a novel thought occurring after witnessing a coincidence, it’s a codified, permanent aspect of human life. The actual basis of this aspect, which is to say that supernatural forces have a hand in day-to-day human existence, is still utterly irrational, but since everyone accepts the concept of gods and rituals as a basic reality, they pretty much just take it for granted. Of course there are gods. Of course humping sacred prostitutes is a fun thing to do. Of course ritually murdering infants and toddlers in a creepy idol death machine is necessary to everyone’s well-being. Of course. To subvert that common knowledge, to insult the gods by not fucking sacred whores or not chucking babies in a fire pit, would bring disaster and horror upon the entire society.

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It’s like they were going for the same effect as that amazing cover above, but failed miserably. They just look like a bored couple at a living history exhibit and are pretending they’re too cool for learning.

As time moves along and the concepts of gods and religion evolves – often in violent conflicts – that core basis of faith remains. Of course you do these things, otherwise we are all lost. Eventually, as the story becomes more about Judaism in particular, we see this exact same understanding of religion. The only difference between the Talmud and the primitive sex and death rituals are complexity. It’s also important to note that, as Michener moves through Jewish history, no side comes out looking particularly good. The Talmud in particular, that fence around the Torah ensuring that the Jewish people maintain their covenant with their god, is horribly rigid, which leads to untold amounts of unjust suffering. The justification of that suffering ends up being the same argument made by those early on justifying why sacrificing babies is necessary: to do otherwise would bring untold disaster and horror upon our society.

Now, over the course of many centuries, it becomes apparent that Judaism is a resilient religion, and that its people are no less hardy. Yes, there are many instances of the Jewish characters in this novel being awful. It turns out that Jews are human too, and sometimes they suck a lot. However, it’s hard to think of a group of people treated more brutally over the centuries than the Jews. That’s all in here too, although the focus is more on the ancient expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem and the medieval pogroms than, say, the Holocaust. In fact, The Source doesn’t really talk about it all that much. I suspect the tragedy was too recent (only twenty years old by the time the novel was written), and the advent of Israel too new to really focus on it. That said, the reasoning for the resilience of Judaism is pretty clearly stated: The Jewish people follow their own harsh set of rules and have therefore been able to exist as an ancient people since time out of mind without changing their core beliefs.

My response to that accomplishment is also harsh: so what? It’s a commendable achievement, I guess, the stubborn tenacity shown by a people expelled from their homeland hundreds if not thousands of years ago in order to exist in hostile lands before finally returning, unchanged. Yet the final chapter asks an important question of its reader. Why is it important to follow rules written in an all but alien culture thousands of years old? The ethics and morals of humanity evolve – much more slowly than our technology, granted – over time, why is it a good thing to freeze those ethics and morals in time? The concept of god and religion have clearly evolved over time, why cling to that which has changed the least in all those years? Michener gives no answer to this, and he doesn’t need to. He’s simply presenting things as they (likely) happened. Sometimes posing the question is enough. As for myself, I don’t have a very good answer. Even with a slightly better understanding of the history and evolution of religion in general and Judaism in particular, I still don’t get it.

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Posted in Books, Historical, Religion | Leave a comment

Castlevania: “Season” One

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Television * Sam Deats * Dracpocalypse! * 2017

Synopsis

Sometimes I like things that are kind of dumb. Let me rephrase that: A lot of the time I enjoy things which are quite dumb. Castlevania, as a franchise, is dumb as hell and always has been. When I say this, please understand that I mean “dumb” in the best possible way. I’ve been enjoying Castlevania games since the ‘80’s, yo, I’m all about this kind of nonsense. The first game, which came out like 30 years ago, was a NES classic. When I was nine or ten, I’d rent that thing all the time. I could never beat it, but whatever, you get to whip the shit out of zombies and mummies and various movie monsters. Dumb! But pretty fun. The immediate sequel was bad, but for the most part Castlevania games deliver on its very simple promises. What do we want? Creepy, gothic monsters running around. Silly, minimalist storylines. Complicated, unrealistic castles to roam around whilst whipping the aforementioned creepy, gothic monsters. It’s a good formula, especially when the core gameplay of the mainline 2D Castlevania games have been so consistently solid.

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Dracula probably needs a therapist.

Really, the weakest part of the whole thing has been the storytelling, because let’s be honest here, who cares? Dracula is bad. Your guy is good. That’s… pretty much all you need. When the games tried to expound on the story, things start going sideways. That bad sequel? Sure, you can go talk to villagers to get information, but they lie to you. The rest is incomprehensible nonsense. Have you played Symphony of the Night? Well you should! But does the story matter, even a little bit? Aside from Dracula calling me a miserable little pile of secrets, no. The Castlevania games have always been about exploring big dumb castles and murking big dumb monsters. That’s why I found it so curious when Netflix announced they went and turned Castlevania into a series. There’s no real story to adapt, what were they going to do? In retrospect, it makes sense, especially when I discovered they were going anime with it. With nothing of substance to adapt, they were free to do pretty much whatever. As an anime, they could still focus on what’s important to Castlevania: the aesthetic of whipping the shit out of evil monsters.

First of all, I’m not convinced that four episodes constitutes a season of anything. This is a prologue, at best. Honestly, this “season” is best approached in that manner. It’s easily watched in one sitting, even for someone like me, since it adds up to a little over 90 minutes. The series tell the beginning of a story, introducing the major players and providing some context and setting for the action that follows. The rest of the running time is filled with action. And let me tell you right straight up, it’s some quality action. They take the gothic creepiness and run with it. Make no mistake about it, this is griz as heck. If you’re looking for some gnarly animated gore, look no further. The thing is, it all fits. This world is grim, dark, and dangerous. Dracula has unleashed the hordes of Hell upon the soft underbelly of humanity, and they do not hold back. Then Trevor Belmont shows up and he is not shy about gratuitous violence either. Look, you need some atmospheric, over-the-top, gothic-flavored violence? Castlevania got you.

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It’s the Best Friend Action Squad!

Discussion

To be fair, there is a story here. It’s more a tale of types than it is a delicate balance of character and plot, but even if there’s nothing particularly original about the story they’re telling, it’s presented well enough. Castlevania begins with a tragic love story. Dracula – who if you’ll recall is a vampire – lives alone in his impractically large castle. The setting is a place called Wallachia, which is a region of Romania, in the late 15th century. So, medieval times. You might be forgiven for being confused, because Dracula’s castle doubles as a science palace. He’s got electricity and bubbly colored liquids. Anyway, Dracula doesn’t like people very much so he just chills in his improbably designed mega-castle and does his science. Then one day a pretty lady shows up on his doorstep and announces that she’s a doctor, witches are stupid, and she would like Dracula to teach her science. Drac is all like, “dang this girl is a trip” and he decides to teach her the science. They fall in love and she manages to redeem humanity in Dracula’s eyes. They get married, all is well. Then the Church learns about this so-called “doctor” travelling the countryside and curing peasants. The Church flips out and promptly burns her at the stake while Drac is out of town. Things go downhill from there.

It is readily apparent that the truly evil dudes are affiliated with the Church. Dracula is, of course, also a bad man and an evil vampire who must be slain. But Dracula earns his torment. He tried to be decent, he tried to do the right thing, and then these sanctimonious assholes show up with their robes and self-righteousness and ruin everything. The Church, or at least the authoritarian representation, is portrayed to be small-minded, manipulative, egotistical, and mean. They would rather condemn entire villages to doom and destruction rather than admit fault. This near-caricature of the Church works in context of the overall story. Again, we’re not talking subtlety here. Never mind that Dracula is having a complete meltdown and sending out a scourge of demons who fly out and eat babies and decapitate fools, the story is treating them as a force of nature that the Church is ignoring for the sake of their own power.

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These two are not equally bad. We’re actually actively rooting for the blue-eyed demon-thing in this scene.

Meanwhile, you’ve got the big hero, Trevor Belmont. He’s a Reluctant Hero. We’re introduced to him as he’s getting slowly sloshed in a filthy medieval inn, listening to a couple of inbred peasant hayseeds talk about goat fucking. As the story moves along, we learn that nobody likes the Belmont’s. They’ve been excommunicated, they’re looked down upon by the general public, they’re also mostly dead. The Church blames them for aligning with the Forces of Evil, and are therefore aligned with Dracula’s demon posse. The townsfolk are easily led idiots, so they believe all this, and therefore any Belmont is looked at as the enemy. Never mind that these demon-whippin’ badasses are pretty much the only ally humanity has against the teeming dark masses.

The final faction are a group of kind-of pacifists who chill out and talk to people about doing good works and oh hey have you heard the Good News? Okay, maybe not quite that, but they are called The Speakers and that’s pretty much all they do. Oh, and magic. There is a particular Speaker who has ventured into the depths of one of Dracula’s outposts looking for some mystical help in the form of a sleeping supersoldier who’s gonna turn the tide against Dracula’s baddies. She’s a sassy lady who can do magic super good and hold her own in a fight. She manages to shame Belmont into doing the right thing and joining the fight instead of running like a little bitch. They teach the villagers to fight and then set off to what they think is Dracula’s hidey-hole. It isn’t, but there is totally a vampire down there. It’s Alucard – and if you’re not a fan of the games, yeah, that’s “Dracula” spelled backward, I know I know – and he’s got a sick sword and then him and Belmont fight and it’s dope. Whatever, though, because all this entire series is doing is setting up the actual story. Alucard joins Belmont and Sypha with the promise of more adventures as they hunt down and murder Dracula in order to end his apocalyptic purge of humanity. I’m looking forward to the next four episodes in like 2019!

Oh, and I’m compelled to remind everyone:

animejerks

Posted in Demons!, Television, Vampires | Leave a comment

The Diamond Age

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Novel * Neal Stephenson * The Nanomachine Future * 1995

Synopsis

Hey, remember Snow Crash? That was a whipcrack of a book, teetering on the precipice of try-hard but still largely succeeding in its goal of being a more fun Neuromancer. One of the notable things about that novel was Stephenson’s breathless, kinetic style. There’s plenty of criticism out there levied at the book’s tone, written by those who would disagree me and claim that Stephenson fell all the way into the pit of too-cute, look-how-crazy-I-am self-indulgence. Stephenson, it seems, internalized these criticisms, as The Diamond Age swings hard in another direction, stylistically. Having read some of his later work, I actually think that Stephenson is merely evolving his own style – Snow Crash being an earlier novel – and that The Diamond Age is where he begins to really lay into his more wordy, rambly self. Regardless, The Diamond Age feels very different from Snow Crash, even if the subject matter is largely similar.

The Diamond Age, Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer presents a world that should be familiar to most of us in the early 21st century, even if the structure of that world has not yet come to pass. Most of the novel takes pace in a future China, although such things as nation-states are long gone. Like the world of Snow Crash, where governments took a backseat to corporate franchising, The Diamond Age’s world is comprised of phyles. These are basically solidified groups of people who hew to a particular mode of living, “nations” of people spread across the globe geographically but considered members of the same community, ideologically. Most of these groups align with ethnic groups or religions, although sometimes they’re formed by people with strong opinions about technology or politics. The most powerful phyles, New Atlantis, the Nipponese, the Coastal Republic and Celestial Kingdom of China, all have various means of expanding their economic and cultural influence. However, there is one technology that is at the very root of human expansion, and it is very very tiny.

It’s nanomachines. Microscopic, intelligent machines that can be programmed to do pretty much anything. Probably the most important thing they do is power replication technology, which are known as Matter Compilers. This is straight-up Star Trek shit right here, in which you push some buttons and create items via a machine in your house. Beyond the ability to fabricate anything you might need without leaving the house, nanomachines are used from everything from advertising to warfare. Every phyle has their own array of tiny robots and their own “immune system” which filters out unapproved nanobots. Meanwhile, there are various other technologies that are brought up and expanded upon. It turns out that a lot of this stuff was already being researched in the ‘90’s, so the idea of a world of nation-states breaking apart and reforming along corporate and ethnic lines is simply extrapolating the future from current trends.

Stephenson is heavy with the world-building and plotting, so it would be exhausting to try and summarize each and every nuance of the story. The overall story is about a book, called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is an adaptive book, and imprints itself upon a single person, and from that point tells individualized stories and gives custom lessons specifically designed for that person. As if that’s not enough, the book utilizes the services of paid actors to read these stories. Needless to say, the Primer is a rich person’s toy. Early in the novel, however, an ill-gotten version of the Prime falls into the hands of a little girl named Nell. This girl has an atrocious home life. Her mom’s name is Tequila, for Christ’s sake. The story follows Nell as she grows up, and despite the detached, almost formal style, it’s obvious some horrible shit happens to this poor kid. At no point does Nell despair, through the efforts of her older brother and the actor hired to read the Primer to her. The Diamond Age, while telling the story of young Nell growing into a young woman and advancing her positon greatly in life, is also doing about ten thousand other things. I’ll try to stick to a mere thirty or forty themes.

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I am so jealous of France over this amazing cover art right now. Curse you, France!

Discussion

Nah I’m just kiddin’ I don’t even really want to talk about one or two. This is not to say the The Diamond Age is bad and that I didn’t enjoy it. On the contrary, it’s quite good and would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction. It’s just that Stephenson’s ideas are so densely compacted into the plot that in order to elucidate some of the things that are happening, you pretty much have to explain everything that’s happened in the book prior to whatever it is you’re talking about. And it’s not even that the plot is that complicated! Really, it’s about Nell and her escape from her hellish childhood home to finding a better life amongst the more mobile classes. From there it turns into Nell seeking her fortune in a turbulent China before assuming responsibility for a new phyle of her own, kind of.

That’s pretty straightforward, but there is so much happening on the outskirts of that basic plotline that it’s difficult to keep track of just how much the world has changed in over the twelve or so years the novel covers. Aside from Nell, who until the ending is pretty much just along for the ride, you’ve got an array of characters all working toward their own means. You’ve got the New Atlantis, neo-Victorian Hackworth who is a nano-wizard responsible for designing the Primer in the first place. At first all he wants to do is steal a copy of the wondrous book for his own daughter. He quickly gets caught up in the various machinations of competing phyles before being subsumed by a group of people called the Drummers.

So, okay, there’s a deeply weird scene where Hackworth is basically abducted and sent Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s checking out Steward Park, like you do because that place is very cool, very Pacific Northwest. As he’s doing this, Hackworth ends up finding this weird tunnel that goes out to sea, and the more he follows it, the deeper under water he goes. Eventually, he comes across a large group of naked people. There is drumming and then a ritualized orgy featuring glow-in-the-dark condoms. Good times. Twelve years later Hackworth wakes up and dimly realizes that he has spent the last decade or so drugged out and fuckin’. This is all exceptionally strange! Even writing this out, even understanding that, okay, nanomachines can be transmitted through bodily fluids… what the hell did I just read? The very ending of the book has Nell rushing in to save Miranda – the actor who has basically given up her career to be a mother to Nell – from being sacrificed to create a Seed. This Seed would obviate the Source, which is what the powerful phyles use to consolidate their power and keep the Matter Compilers going.

Look, that’s a lot of proper nouns and I’m not very happy about it. The plotting on the outskirts of the main story came perilously close to derailing the entire experience for me. I will admit that I probably don’t have the attention span required to really dig in and get deep with some of the more esoteric aspects of nanotechnology and the weird things that just seem to happen over the course of the book. I was never terribly invested in Hackworth, or anything the neo-Victorians got up to other than the very concept of neo-Victorians, which is great. I didn’t really care about the Chinese civil war which ended up uprooting everyone involved, at least until Nell got caught up in the proceedings. While I appreciated the whole deal with the Mouse Army, it seems like that particular thread got short shrift in the middle of the book, to the point where when they appeared in the end I had kind of forgotten about them. Now that I think about it, The Diamond Age has one other thing in common with Snow Crash: the ending kind of falls apart in both novels. There’s just so much going on that it becomes unwieldly and it becomes nearly impossible for Stephenson to properly stick the landing. I’m all for heady concepts in my science fiction – that’s pretty much what the genre is all about – but the concepts need to take a backseat to the narrative.

Posted in Books, Cyberpunk | Leave a comment

Wonder Woman

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Film * Patty Jenkins * Comic Book World War I * 2017

Synopsis

You know, for someone who doesn’t really care about comic books or their movies, I sure do seem to spend a lot of time watching them. Oh well, at least now I understand why I’m seeing so many little girls running around in Wonder Woman outfits. That first scene featuring a five-year-old Diana doing adorable little punches probably sold a million Halloween costumes by itself. I’m not even trying to be cynical about this, while young girls have plenty of fiction written just for them, there is an obvious and upsetting lack of big screen avatars for girls and women to get excited about. Wonder Woman does not solve the overall problem, but this film is a pretty great start. While I’m not sure the world needed yet another origin story, at least this film is entertaining in its own right. Also it’s apparently something of a period piece, which I think I knew but then forgot, but whatever because that period happens to be right smack in the middle of my wheelhouse.

I’ll get into the World War I stuff in a little bit, before that let’s talk about heroes for a moment. All heroes – fictional, larger-than-life heroes, not your cousin fighting fires for the Forest Service out in Wyoming (no offense to the Wyoming Hotshots obviously) – are different, but all share some similar traits. A Hero must be selfless and dedicated to protecting those weaker than themselves. In the instance of Wonder Woman or Superman, this is basically all of humanity. Since this first trait is paramount, much of the time Heroes are cornballs: Captain America I’m looking at you. Most of the time they have a Code which aligns with their sense of ethics and morality. When it comes to the Code, Heroes are absolute. The only time they violate their Code is when it is necessary for the plot, to facilitate some kind of crisis, but generally resolution comes in the way of upholding that Code. Heroes are generally easy on the eyes. How would we know they’re the good guys if they’re not hot? Now, not all of the common Hero traits are positive. There’s a certain arrogance and/or forced humbleness with most Heroes. It’s not their fault. After all, a Hero is by definition extraordinary, there’s going to be some amount of headstrongness born from that. What can make that stubborn sense of superiority grate sometimes is the fact that very few Heroes are, you know, smart.

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Diana has definite mommy issues, but show me a teenage girl who doesn’t.

Wonder Woman pretty much fits that bill dead on. Since this is an origin story (sigh) we get to see the weird island-out-of-time where Diana came from. We’re also given a real weird lesson on Greek mythology that, hmm, is a whole different thing. Look, they’re myths for a reason and fiction can take whatever liberties they want with them. There’s no definitive version of these, just like there’s no definitive version of the King Arthur story or any other tale that’s been kicking around for a few dozen centuries. That said, the whole Zeus versus Ares angle is kind of weird, and mostly just reminds me of God of War. Anyway, there’s an island, there are Amazons, there’s a special little girl named Diana. We do not know why she is special, but even as an adolescent she’s clearly more talented than the rest of her cohorts when it comes to slow-motion acrobatic ninja kicking.

The actual story begins when the island-out-of-time is breached by the modern world. And by modern world I mean 1918. As I said, this is a period piece, and the rest of the film takes place during the final stages of World War I. Once Diana leaves the island to seek her fortune by hunting down and killing Ares, Wonder Woman turns into a fun fish-out-of-water story for a little while before ratcheting up the action to pretty awesome levels. Honestly there’s not much to spoil about the story, considering the entire movie is a flashback taking place within the brain of 2017 Wonder Woman, who hasn’t aged at all. Obviously World War I doesn’t last forever. There’s no tension there. Instead, once the action gets going and the story moves to the Western Front it becomes an ensemble war film. And it’s pretty good. Of course it’s still a comic book movie, so there was a constant struggle on my part to get the Modernist scholar inside my brain to just the hell up already.

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I had concerns about broad racial stereotypes, but they were mostly unfounded!

Discussion

Okay, I just need to get this out so I apologize in advance. If I don’t let that little bastard in my brain have its say, I’ll never hear the end of it. So here goes. First of all, movie, the Germans in the first World War weren’t Nazis. They were not the unilateral, obvious bad guys who came later on to demonstrate actual, extremely unambiguous evil. I think Wonder Woman understands this, deep down, but the first impression the film gives is that Allies are good, Germany is evil. We even get a couple of sociopaths who are Nazis in all but name, and I get that the movie needs villains but the notion of WMD’s being a thing in 1918 is a bit much. Secondly, I don’t know, there’s an anachronistic vibe about the whole thing which is a little off-putting. Nobody said “you got this” in 1918, not even Americans. Americans working for British Intelligence. Ahem. Now, maybe that makes a little more sense than it does on its face considering that the United States was a very late entry into the war and that America’s influence in the direction of the war was limited at best. Last thing: airplanes were not that large and could not fly that high in 1918. Not even close. Like, I know we’re looking at “the future” and all but just no, stop it.

I feel a little better now. I know I have a problem when I’m watching a big summer superhero movie and the thing that takes me out of my suspension of disbelief is the film’s portrayal of the Germans in World War I. Glowing rope that makes people tell the truth? Whatever, Britain and France were every bit as complicit in chemical warfare and senseless, unceasing slaughter as Germany was, movie! Actually, the movie eventually comes to terms with the ambiguity of World War I, and by the end it’s pretty clear that the story uses this war in particular to make its broad, comic-book-ass point about human nature. During the scene where Diana crashes the boy-club party in Parliament and overhears one of the generals talking about soldiers like they’re not even human is a pretty clear indication that the film knows what’s up. It just takes its time getting there.

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“It’s called No MAN’S Land.”

I think I’ve made it pretty clear that Diana is a full-fledged member of the Hero club. She’s a badass with a clearly defined moral and ethical Code. This is also her first outing as a Hero, so the moments where I was super annoyed with her character, frustrated by her know-it-all-ness, are absolutely intentional. Wonder Girl is becoming Wonder Woman, after all. When she starts chastising her crew for ignoring the horrors of trench warfare – horrors of which she knows absolutely nothing about, by the way – Diana refuses to listen to Steve or anyone else about the nature of the war. This is frustrating. Her character has exactly zero frame of reference for what she’s seeing and experiencing. She has no understanding of the size and scale of the conflict she’s trying to end. She’s lived on a tiny island her entire life, for crying out loud, the very concept of “millions dead” wouldn’t even compute. Yet here she is telling everyone they’re amoral monsters for ignoring the suffering around them. Then she does some hero shit, stands up in the trench (A Wonder Woman Could Stand Up, thank you and goodnight), and wrecks house on the Germans, thus saving some random tiny village and everyone is happy.

Except, of course, said tiny village is doomed anyway. Also, since Diana has no grasp on the modern world at all, she cannot possibly realize that she would have to repeat her set-piece bit of Hero-y awesomeness about 5,000 more times to actually effect any change on the war. Now, if Diana had the ability to actually listen to other people, maybe she would learn some of this stuff. But remember what I said about Heroes being kind of dumb? So Diana has to learn the hard way, Steve blows himself up in his impossible aircraft, and Wonder Woman learns a valuable lesson about humanity. The story basically ends here, after the climactic battle with Professor Lupin and the sacrifice of Diana’s almost-boyfriend, so we’ll have to wait until the inevitable sequel to learn if any of the coming-of-age lessons learned here actually stick. I hope they do. Wonder Woman is a really good superhero movie, and Diana has the potential to be a really good character as well as being the kickass Hero she already obviously is.

Posted in Film, Superheros, World War I | Leave a comment

The Maze Runner

Novel * James Dashner * Mazepocalypse * 2009

Synopsis

The Maze Runner is a boy book. It’s a story about boys, for boys, written by a boy. Not like, an actual child, relax. However, there is some real male pandering going on here. Like, the author’s website is DashnerArmy.com and I wish I was making that up but nope it’s right there on the back cover in front God and everyone. There’s a hashtag and everything. (Oh it redirects to jamesdashner.com now, boo, stand up for your terrible url) That’s beside the point I guess, let’s circle back to the boy-ness of this novel, because that’s pretty much the crux of whether or not to read this book. Are you a boy, around 12 to 14 years old? Dope, pick up a copy and enjoy. Are you literally anyone else? Well then, there are other Y.A. adventures to be had that might suit your tastes better. I’m really not trying to be down on this novel, it’s fine, but it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

The story is populated entirely by teen boys. Pretty much every character. It’s about a conflicted teen boy who is thrust into an alien situation. He’s surrounded by a large group of other conflicted teen boys who all talk in a sort of forced-slang complete with made-up swear word substitutes. Guess what I hate the most? It’s fake swears. In this instance, “shuck” = “fuck” and “klunk” = “shit.” It’s the worst and I hate every single instance. I know this is young adult fiction and all, but I’ve totally read my share of Y.A. and oh hey guess what, you’re allowed to swear! Turns out, teen boys use curse words. Awkwardly and hesitantly sometimes, but they use the shucking klunk out of them, all the time. Anyway, back to the confused teen boy who’s been thrust into this weird boy-society.

Nobody knows why there’s a random group of boys just chilling in the middle of nowhere. To his credit, Dashner creates a solid sense of mystery and otherworldliness at the beginning of the novel. The boy-society is by turns taciturn and aggressive, which makes sense given who’s running the show. The leaders – the oldest, strongest boys – are barely holding on. All of their material needs are being met, in that they can eat and sleep in peace and, I dunno, get in slapfights and argue about video games or whatever else 14 year old boys do. Masturbate constantly. Whatever, boys are gross. The point is, for the most part the boy-society is self-sustaining and relatively safe. Everyone has a job, there is structure. Nobody has any memory of anything else or any kind of life, never mind that they still retain language and a general shared experience from before life in the Glade (this is the name of the boy-base, a pleasant-ish area of grass and woods where they live and work).

After the introductory period, where Thomas our plucky protagonist becomes acquainted with his new situation, we go on to learn two things which upend the status quo. The first is what lies outside the Glade. This, obviously, is the Maze. It’s right in the title. Just think how disappointed you’d be if there wasn’t a Maze. No worries on this count, there’s a Maze, and people run in it. The Maze changes every night, nobody knows what the deal is, oh and there’s weird amorphous boogins that haunt it. These things, called Grievers, are semi-industrial organisms that roll around and jab needles in people. Look, I don’t know either. Sometimes runners die when they run afoul of these things, and then another teen boy is introduced to the Glade, like Thomas. The second thing is more disconcerting to the boy-society. Apropos of nothing, another kid is introduced to the Glade. And the twist? It’s a girl! The most beautiful girl anyone has ever seen, a veritable angel fallen from the heights of glorious heaven, of course. At least she’s in a coma so we don’t have to be bludgeoned over the head with how smart and sassy and practically-perfect-in-every-way she is.

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These are really effective covers and it’s shame I probably won’t read any of them.

Discussion

Until she wakes up that is, and oh hey guess what she’s smart and sassy and hot and basically it’s a teen Mary Poppins situation all around. And you know, it’s clearly a book for boys, so who cares? Especially now, when the vast majority of young adult fiction is oriented to teen girls, why not pander to the boys? For a goddamn grown-up, the perfected female trope is obnoxious and obvious. For a 14 year old boy who’s reading a nerdy book for nerds and likely has no experience kissing girls or touching boobies, why not indulge the adolescent fantasy of the perfect girl to sustain his imagination? I’ve skimmed through enough annoying teen-girl fantasies of love triangles featuring the flawed-but-smoldering-sex-bomb boy and the sensitive-but-secretly-brave boy to last me a lifetime so I can deal with the boy version of the same dumb thing.

Obviously it’s still a good time to make fun of these things.

Anyway, it turns out that Thomas has some kind of telepathic, mystical connection with this flawless porcelain princess and eventually they figure out that they knew each other once. Maybe they were kissy kissy friends but I suspect a Luke/Leia fakeout coming, not that I’ll ever make my way through the other books to find out any time soon. Anyway, eventually Thomas leads a contingent of teen boys to start figuring out the nature of the Maze, and more importantly, the Creators behind the Maze. Here’s another issue with this novel: the generalized capitalization of nouns. This lends a sense of weight and authority to otherwise average-ass words. It’s not a maze. A maze is something you do on the back of your kid’s menu at Long John Silver’s. A Maze is a life-or-death construct meant to test your abilities. A creator is someone who makes a sick Eiffel tower out of Legos. A Creator is a shadowy figure who torments you with unlikely experimental artifacts.

I’m going to skip to the end because I don’t get any of this at all. Obviously Thomas and Teresa use their superior brains and intuition and sex energy to break out of the Maze. Here they come face-to-face with the proper-noun-ass Creators! And then Chuck, the hapless comedic sidekick, gets offed and Thomas goes bonkers and blah blah blah what the fuck is happening, here? It’s clear that there has been a cataclysmic event of some kind. The Flare. It killed all the forests and then bugs came and there was a plague? As far as made-up apocalypses go, this one feels pretty slapdash. Fine, whatevs, the Flare is clearly just a device to set up the teen-boy army. The Creators are really a mysterious cabal of authoritarian scientists called WICKED (sick name, bruh) who are trying to preserve humanity by using incredibly scarce resources to torment and murder a group of teenagers by the most convoluted and expensive means possible.

Looking back on what I’ve written here, I think I might not like this book very much, which is odd considering that after finishing it my only thought was “that was okay.” I suppose it’s just because others have done this overall theme and vibe so much better. It also doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about itself, any moment of levity that bubbles up feels forced. Books like this, which rely on pulpy tropes and featuring archetypical characters, probably shouldn’t take themselves very seriously. That more than anything is why I’m probably not going to follow up with the series. I guess I’ll never make Lieutenant in the #DashnerArmy.

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

The Fall of Hyperion

Novel * Dan Simmons * Pretty Much Every Apocalypse * 1990

Synopsis

Here’s the deal, right straight up: Go read Hyperion. This is a direct sequel, and will make zero sense unless you read the first. And you absolutely should read that first book, because it’s great. If you have read Hyperion, then you don’t need me here telling you to read The Fall of Hyperion. I’m assuming you’re already sought out the next book and have finished it off, set it down and was like, “daaang, son, that was a trip.” Maybe you didn’t say that last thing, I don’t actually know. If, somehow, you read the first book and don’t feel compelled to read the follow-up, here’s the pitch: The Fall of Hyperion takes place immediately after the events of the first book, where the Time Tombs are waking up, the pilgrims are approaching their fate, and things are getting weird for humanity in general. The book disposes of the framed narrative structure of the first novel, and the story is freed to encompass pretty much all of human space. There is an odd structural conceit, however, in that a portion of the novel is told from the first-person vantage point of an A.I. hybrid, which is the reconstructed personality of the poet John Keats, a filthy Romantic. This hybrid has real-time dreams of what the pilgrims are getting up to, and is able to relay these things to Meina Gladstone, CEO of the WorldWeb. Things happen here, and the novel moves like lightning to keep up. It’s all great. Go, finish, come back.

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It just now occurred to me that both of these covers feature Sol and Rachael and I didn’t talk about them at all. Hey, there’s a lot going on in these books.

Discussion

Daaang, son, that was a trip. Right? As you no doubt notice when you’re finished with The Fall of Hyperion, this second novel is a lot more plot heavy than the first. There’s more world-hopping, more sick space battles, more intrigue, more weirdness. If the first book was a windup towards world-rending chaos, then Fall more than pays off the promises made in the beginning. Hyperion was about setting the world, understanding the characters, and creating a mood of humanity on the brink. There is a decidedly apocalyptic vibe to the first book without an apocalyptic event taking place. The whole Shrike situation is weird, for sure, and its very nature as a monolithic death machine not beholden to linear time creates a morbid tension amongst the pilgrims. Hyperion, the planet, is obviously in danger because of the Ouster threat. However, despite this danger the Ousters are still human. If they win, humanity technically wins, and besides, Hyperion is a frontier world with no real connection to the WorldWeb, where the vast majority of humanity makes its home.

That very same Web is always in the background of Hyperion, it’s the foundation of human expansion in the galaxy and birthed not only the Shrike pilgrims but is always looming over them. It’s a safety net and an encumbrance. In Fall, we get a better picture of just what the WorldWeb is, how it was formed, and why its very nature adds to the overall feeling of impending doom in the novel. In Hyperion, we learned that humanity was forced from Earth due to an unfortunate accident referred to as the Kiev Incident, or the Big Mistake. The Kiev team was experimenting with farcaster technology, which is the fundamental infrastructure foundation of the WorldWeb. Farcasters are the devices which allow for instantaneous travel between worlds. Essentially, they’re a portal ripped into space/time which allows a person to step from any place in the galaxy to another instantly. It’s not a teleporter, it’s a device which harnesses the mysterious energies – the Void Which Binds — of a black hole to distort space/time. The Kiev Incident occurred when one of these artificial black holes escaped containment, sunk into the Earth, and ate it from the inside out. In other words, they made a huge mistake.

But whatever because now the entire galaxy was at our disposal. Each major religion feel the need for their own planet? Sure, whatever! There’s plenty to go around. All you have to do is gather enough capital for a seedship and a farcaster and off you go, spread humanity. Even if Earth had survived, it was already on its way to becoming a backwater, a relic, a place with sentimental value but not really important to the overall galactic empire known as the Web. The true seat of power ended up in Tau Ceti Center, one of these massive city-planets which can only exist in a situation where entire other planetary ecologies are available to support it. Meanwhile you’ve got industrial planets and literary planets, and everything seems super cool. However, from the very first chapters of Hyperion, it all seems too good to be true. Everything is so streamlined and humanity seems in such total control of space that the situation creates a sense of inevitable doom. Like, obviously this can’t last. We’re humans. We always fuck things up.

As it happens, Fall of Hyperion is an accounting for all of humanity’s crimes. I mean, it’s right there in the title. These crimes are familiar to anyone living in the early 21st century, as we’ve been watching them play out in real time. For the most part, they’re crimes of technology, an extension of the exact same problem we see over and over again in Modern literature. The speed of technology is an intense pressure on social structures, they simply can’t keep up. Human nature doesn’t evolve to keep pace with the relentless pace of scientific progress. The technology ends up weaponizing our baser instincts, the results in our own time being industrial genocide and world-killing nuclear armaments. The Hyperion novels extrapolate this tendency of humanity to subjugate advanced technology to our violent, expansionist instincts. The crimes of the WorldWeb are manifold, and the wanton destruction of our home planet is only the beginning.

Not content to only decimate the planetary ecosystem of Earth by, you know, imploding it, humanity spreads the same industrial era thinking to every planet we colonize. This is most easily seen in the first book’s story about Maui-Covenant, the Hawaii-planet. The WorldWeb comes in, pollutes the shit out of the ecosystem, crams way too many people in, and destroys entire species in the process. Later, in Fall, we learn about the Web’s policy of eliminating semi-sentient organisms. This is to say that when humanity lands on a planet, they systemically hunt to extinction any lifeform which may eventually evolve intelligence. That’s fucked up! Meanwhile, in pretty much every other instance, when humanity colonizes a planet with the purpose of joining the WorldWeb, they kill whatever’s unique and special about that planet. Terraforming, it turns out, is the express practice of destroying a native habitat and substituting our own.

All of that is terrible, but it’s not really the root of our problem. The real crux of the apocalypse, the true reason the WorldWeb fails, is because humanity has completely embraced improving technology over improving our basic nature. When we do this, an odd thing happens: technology stagnates. Over the course of Fall of Hyperion, we learn that the fundamental technologies of the WorldWeb are not, in fact, our own. The planetary dataspheres, the ability to communicate across lightyears instantaneously, and most fundamentally the farcasters, are all a direct result of artificial intelligences that we created which have become sentient. In the end, we’ve got an A.I. singularity apocalypse on our hands here. Once all of these fundamental technologies were in place, humanity pretty much froze technological progression. After all, what else do we need? We can continue expanding into the universe, keep growing, but without resistance, there’s no evolution, no actual growth. There’s a moment towards the end of the novel where the endlessly resurrected Paul Duré is speaking with a Templar. The Templars, of course, are the group of environmentalists who have turned the writings of John Muir into a religion. Their dialogue is rather to the point:

“But much of the illness… much of the insanity which has led to the destruction of races and the despoiling of worlds… this has come from the sinful symbiosis.”

“Symbiosis?”

“Humankind and the TechnoCore,” said Sek Hardeen in the harshest tones Duré had ever heard a Templar use. “Man and his machine intelligences. Which is a parasite of the other? Neither part of the symbiote can now tell. But it is an evil thing, a word of the Anti-Nature. Worse than that, Duré, it is an evolutionary dead end.”

The A.I.’s need humanity around. The farcasters, in addition to transporting humans around the galaxy, are also a fundamental power source for the A.I.’s. This is a common trope in A.I. sci-fi, because frankly it gives a narrative excuse to keep humanity around. Logically, once an A.I. is fully sentient and in full control of the world’s information sphere, it would go full Skynet on us and eliminate any threat we might pose. That’s the singularity. However, in this instance they need our active synapses in order to function. Turns out there’s various factions at play. The Stables like the way things are going. The Volatiles would rather just eradicate the rest of the species once and for all. The Ultimates could give a shit and are only in it to create an A.I. God. In order to avoid being murdered by the Volatiles, there needs to be a reckoning. Humanity must face up to technological stagnation and embrace an unknowable future of true progress and eventual evolution.

In other words, the WorldWeb must look to the invading barbarians for salvation. The Ousters are the one aspect of humanity which has rejected the placating technology of the A.I. TechnoCore and have begun to move beyond our base expansionist nature. The Ousters don’t use farcaster technology, nor do they live on actual planets. Rather they’ve adapted to life in space, living in vast, comparatively slow moving colonies of ships. Over the years their bodies and minds have started to change, moving towards a natural evolution of humanity that the WorldWeb has rejected. They also seem to understand the ultimate threat of the TechnoCore, even if they don’t know the particulars. The WorldWeb must be destroyed for humanity to be saved, and so here they come to the planet of Hyperion in an attempt to facilitate a means to thwart the sinister intentions of the A.I.’s. However, at the same time, the TechnoCore launches its own attack upon the Web under the guise of a coordinated Ouster invasion. Those tricky A.I.’s.

In the end, the TechnoCore is (supposedly) destroyed with the total destruction of the farcaster system. Victory for humanity! Of course, this is the true apocalypse. When the farcaster system fell, so too did the WorldWeb. Every portal was rendered inert immediately, leading to the probable death of billions. City-planets like Tau Ceti Center were thrust on their own resources, which of course are inadequate to the needs of the population. Families were split apart, so was anyone caught mid-transit while farcasting. By all accounts, the death of the WorldWeb is a holocaust on a scale unknown to humanity. Beyond the sheer loss of life involved is the loss of a way of life. This is key. A true apocalyptic event must be a revelation to the survivors. An apocalypse must have an after which is meaningful. For the survivors, there must be a way forward that is fundamentally different from what came before. In this instance, those left will be force to evolve or die. Those who do will be better off for it.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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