The Visitor

visitor1

Novel * Sheri S. Tepper * Fantasy Post-Post-Apocalypse * 2002

Synopsis

I enjoy stories which take place after a hard reset of humanity. The immediate aftermath of an apocalyptic disaster are always going to be the more visceral experiences – they’re survival stories, after all – while pre-apocalypse stories are sort of the slow-motion car accident you can’t avoid kind of deal. The idea of visiting a society which has not only risen up out of the ashes but has followed its own history to its own identity outside of the nation-states we’re familiar with can be fascinating. Often, these stories turn into fantasy, which is fun but maybe not exactly what I’m looking for when I want to ruminate what Earth will be like a thousand years after a near-extinction level event. These stories, be it the unbridled goofiness of Adventure Time, or the inscrutable weirdness of a Gene Wolfe novel, take some major liberties with the physics of reality. The Visitor is the same kind of story.

The conceit of the the book is that once upon a time in the 21st century, a large celestial object smashed into Earth and ruined everything. This aspect of the story is told from the journal entries of a scientist who ended up hiding from the effects of the errant asteroid in a big science-bunker for a thousand years or so. There’s cryogenic freezing involved, if you’re asking. Anyway, these flashbacks provide a context for what the story is actually about, which is the post-post-apocalyptic society of Bastion. This society has some problems. The first is population, which is still recovering from the near-extinction of humanity some thousand years after the apocalyptic event. Bastion is small, and it is purposely isolated. However, it is growing, slowly but surely, which is putting pressure on its pseudo-totalitarian state to keep up. Bastion has a strange, fascinating structure. There’s a dictator who does awful things, and a deep, intransigent bureaucracy that is slowly rotting the society out from the inside.

It becomes quickly obvious that Bastion needs something to shake it up. The state is fixated on rediscovering “magic,” which they think is a supernatural power source that will bring everlasting power to the chosen people, which of course they think they are. There are still vestiges of “magic” in this world, you see, because people still discover artifacts of great power. Like matches. And if you’re thinking “oh, I see what’s happening here,” well no you don’t because I made the same assumption and was surprised/disappointed in the direction the novel takes. There are a lot of fun surprises throughout The Visitor, which I’d rather not spoil here so I’ll get into them after the break. Suffice to say, if you’re cool with sci-fi/fantasy mash-ups you’ll be fine. If you’re looking for a hard look at a post-apocalyptic society a thousand years after the event, maybe roll on. You’ll be missing out on a good time, though. The characters are well-drawn and fun to root for/against. Tepper’s style is almost story-bookish, although from time to time there’s a lack of intensity where you might expect a more visceral experience. Like, horrific things happen and you barely feel it as a reader. That said, it’s still worth your time. Just adjust your expectations.

Discussion

The Visitor is one of those novels where I enjoy the story but spend the entire time wishing it were something else, which it turns out is not a great way to read a book. Some of this is on the author. As I mentioned above, Tepper’s style is relaxed and evocative, almost as if she’s telling a long-form fairy tale. Horrible things happen but they don’t really register because they’re told from an emotional distance. The principal character for the first two thirds of the novel, Dismé, doesn’t help matters. Her life is not great, and she’s definitely cast from the oppressed Cinderella mold, evil stepmother and stepsister and all. Quite frankly, Dismé doesn’t have much of a personality. Part of this is due to narrative reasons. She has to keep her intelligence and personality to herself to avoid further verbal and emotional abuse from her stepmother and sociopathic stepsister Rashel. That’s all well and good, but we don’t get a terribly detailed look into Dismé’s internal life. Since the entire narrative is told from an emotional remove, her detachment from her own life means she’s always at a distance from the reader. There’s just not much to hold onto.

That detachment and distance applies to pretty much the entire story, now that I think about it. In addition to the fairy tale-ish quality to the writing, there is an overall lack of menace to the entire situation. It’s frustrating because the pieces are all there. I mean, you’ve got this weird pseudo-medieval totalitarian police state, which is a fascinating concept, but The Visitor never really captures the oppressed sense of menace you get in a 1984-like dystopia. The dictator overlord is clearly an evil man, and in case you were confused it’s made obvious when he sacrifices his own daughter in a dark rite to further his prestige. That said, he’s never really presented as a threat. Instead of exercising absolute power over his society, he’s just a bumbling social climber with no real understanding of the wider world. And I get this is part of reason why Bastion is on the precipice of collapse. A closed society has no real chance of growth and progression, and Bastion has made it part of their religion to disavow the entirety of the outside world. Bastion is supposed to seem limited and doomed. That said, it’s all most of the characters know, and as such it should feel more dangerous when these characters start pushing to escape.

As for the story, I spent most of the time wishing something else was happening. This is on me, or rather on my expectations. Early on we’re introduced to Nell Latimer. She’s a scientist who works on an observatory crew that eventually discovers a fat comet or asteroid or whatever making a beeline for Earth. Obviously it’s going to hit, that’s rather the whole point. Nell separates from her husband, who has gone all in on the idea that Jesus is going to be riding said comet to save the believers from discomfort. Nell, the scientist, basically resigns to the fact that he’s a nutbar and joins some fellow scientists in a fancy bunker to restart society on the other side of the immediate post-apocalypse. So far, this is all rad. Nell wakes up every hundred years or so and checks up on her descendants and guides the rebuilding of various human societies. Her group makes the questionable decision to do this via mystical constructs, creating various mythologies to help as to not give themselves away. As the centuries pass, they turn into legend. That’s a very cool concept, but here’s where I wish the book was different. I was hoping for a further exploration of the concepts of myths and legends and how these reconcile with lost technology. Nope! Instead it’s actually magic.

Or aliens. But probably magic. See, the comet or asteroid was actually neither. It was a sentient being sent down from her superiors to shake things up on Earth. By “shake things up” I mean literally scramble the continents and kill billions of individual life forms and also whole species of animals. The visitor refers to herself as a little god. Not really omnipotent and omnipresent but you know, close enough. This visitor has been pulling strings this whole time, and turned myth and legend into reality. Dismé and her friends aren’t just themselves, you see, but they’re hosts to their mythical counterparts who show up to defeat the similarly mythical Baal or whoever. The story turns into some good versus evil plot about two-thirds of the way in and we kind of lose sight of the smaller, frankly more interesting story about Bastion. I’m not really convinced that some of the late-story developments were fully earned, and in a similar fashion early story threads were just kind of dropped without fanfare. Rashel was the principal villain for most of the book, her storyline just kind of peters out. She gets turned into a cyborg murder machine? But then even Dismé’s story feels like it takes a backseat once all the mythological figures take over.  Like I’ve said, I just wanted a different book, I think. That’s maybe not fair to the author. After all, she had a story she wanted to tell. However, I do think it’s fair to say that even if I was down for the story she was telling, The Visitor loses focus about two-thirds of the way through. I still enjoyed it, though, and I’d recommend it just so long as you know what you’re getting into.

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

Robocop

robocop1

Film * Paul Verhoeven * Buying That for a Dollar Since * 1987

Synopsis

Robocop is an important generational touchstone. I mean, yes, it’s a good movie, a sharp commentary on its time, and a rockin’ action flick, but it’s more than that. Ask any dude in his 30’s what movie of his youth fucked him up the most, and I can all but promise you the answer is going to be Robocop. This film traumatized an entire generation of young men, because we all saw it, most of us saw it illicitly, and the shit in this movie will absolutely damage young minds. As for myself, I was probably nine years old. Fourth grade? I don’t know ages. Anyway, I was not allowed to watch R rated movies because my parents were sensible and PG movies in the eighties were already pretty rough. However, my neighbor and best friend at the time had no such restrictions. It’s the friend’s permissive parent loophole, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. So, spend the night, stay up late, and watch grossly inappropriate movies! I saw Predator and Commando this way. And, of course, goddamn Robocop.

The movie wastes no time before jumping into the old ultraviolence. One of the first scenes takes place in a corporate conference room as an executive is unveiling a rad (for the time) killer robot. It glitches out and mows down some poor bastard in a flurry of bullets and blood and giblets. If you’re 9 this was both extremely awesome and extremely horrifying. ED-209 wasn’t traumatic, though. Literally for weeks after that my friends and I would be running around shouting “you have 20 seconds to comply” in cute nine year old robot voices before pretending to shoot each other to death. Precious. No, that’s not the part that fucked me up the most. I can’t speak for everyone, but the scene that haunted me for years – and is still a bit tough to watch – is the scene where Clarence Boddicker starts shooting apart a helpless Murphy in a grimy abandoned factory. Because holy shit, he just shoots that poor bastard’s hand right off! If you’ve seen the film you know how stark that image is, too. Murphy, caught flat-footed, lying on his back with all these guns pointed at him, baddies surrounding him and cackling like hyenas around him, and Boddicker just messing with him – ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne – before they blow him apart. Yeesh.

robocop3

I spent a significant part of my childhood being terrified of the guy from That 70’s Show.

The thing about watching Robocop as a kid, aside from the deep psychological scars, is that you miss pretty much everything else the movie is doing. Verhoeven is not particularly subtle, but his vision for the future of America is striking in part because he does everything as large and as loud as possible. The story being told here demands a comic book presentation, because while the film’s premise is preposterous, the actual world itself is upsettingly plausible. The main conceit here is that corporations run the world, and are slowly but surely taking over previously not-for-profit enterprises. The main entity of the film, OCP, runs the police department of Detroit. They’re not super great at it, as you can see from the background of the film. Detroit, or more specifically “Old Detroit,” is a burned-out wasteland dominated by roving gangs of violent thugs. Yet the public has ceded the police to a private company, and it turns out that their priorities aren’t necessarily that of protecting the public. The reason ED-209, and later Robocop himself, are introduced is to clean out Old Detroit so that OCP can build a big prefab “city” and fill it with well-to-do, ready-made consumers. Meanwhile, the actual police are getting killed by the dozen out on the streets.

robocop2

By contrast ED-209 is adorable. Look at that lil’ guy go!

Discussion

Once you get past the hyper-violence and the gross-out scenes and the garish TV parodies and the hyperbolic personalities, Robocop actually has something to say about the state of the 1987 United States. If you flip through the archives of this site, you’ll come to see that media produced in the eighties often have a dark undercurrent beneath that smooth eighties veneer. As a society it seems like we’ve been waxing nostalgic for the eighties since like 1998, and that nostalgia seems to have no end to it. Shout out to Gen X: we’re just as bad as the Boomers we used to make fun of, the world has no use for nineteen Transformers movies, I don’t care how much you loved the toys back in the day. That nostalgia focuses on the surface elements of that decade, though. The over-the-top hairstyles and the pop culture effluence that clutters up our perception of that time. Even something like Stranger Things, which walks that line between period piece and flat-out nostalgia fairly well, still succumbs to focusing on the fluff. Oh yeah, I remember Ghostbusters and Dragon’s Lair and whatever the hell, gosh being a kid was great. But then you remember things like The Day After and it’s readily apparent that beneath the Family Ties fiction was an uncomfortable reality of uncertainty and anxiety. Robocop, somehow, provides an iconic bit of pop culture while simultaneously underscoring what was going horribly wrong in society.

Robocop’s depiction of Old Detroit is hideously predictive, although to be fair to the city they seem to be turning it around. Verhoeven also had a keen eye for figuring out a source for the downfall of a major American city, and the forces which would allow a once great town to decay and fall apart. That source is, of course, the age-old issue of income disparity. In the film, and arguably in 21st century America, corporations are the mechanism behind the degradation of social structures and behind the decay of civilization itself. In some ways, Robocop is reminiscent of something like Blade Runner or Neuromancer. Both of those seminal works present a future dominated by corporate interests, and their glittering towers dominate the landscape and the populace. The teeming masses live and work in the squalor below the corporate towers, but the rich lead lives of incomprehensible wealth. The world of Robocop isn’t there yet, but it’s definitely in the planning stages. OCP, the big bad corporation of this story, are working toward the complete demolition of Old Detroit in order to build one of these massive planned communities for the rich. Before they can do this, however, they have to clear out the undesirables. Thus the killbots.

robocop4

Turns out these guys are way more evil than Clarence Boddicker.

The problems that Robocop sets forth do not have easy answers, even though the movie does a decent job of making those problems very clear. Of course corporate self-interest is the principal issue. The various TV parodies that are inserted randomly into the film SNL-style depict another, which is the rather rote “TV is the opiate of the masses” observation. Robocop gets a lot right but it’s weird Verhoeven thought that Benny Hill was a big enough deal to become the basis for the next TV sensation. Beyond the confines of Old Detroit – rather like in Blade Runner or Neuromancer – is a nebulous understanding of not-city. We get a glimpse of the world beyond the urban hellscape when Robocop goes to find his old house in the suburbs. In stark contrast to the filthy streets of Old Detroit, the ‘burbs are pleasant. America is still found there, even if the occupation of real estate agent has been automated. Presumably the middle class still exists and is actively uninterested the horrors of the underclass in what’s left of the decaying city. Robocop’s overstated style is just the kind of shock to the system that the middle class might need to see to begin to understand life doesn’t end at the border of the housing development. It’s too bad that at nine years old the message was wasted on me.

Posted in Film, Urban Decline, Corporations | Leave a comment

Jesus’ Son

jesus son1

Short Stories * Denis Johnson * Personal Apocalypse * 1992

Synopsis

People are fucked up. There, that’s pretty much the end of it. Enjoy the stories, everyone.

Okay, that might be a bit of a glib dismissal, although it’s the obvious take away from this book. Jesus’ Son, and if you don’t get the reference Johnson puts it right up front so you know what you’re in for, takes its name from The Velvet Underground song “Heroin.” So, guess what the book’s about? What makes it stand out from other addiction fiction is that the actual drugs don’t make much of an appearance. While there is some obvious shared DNA with a book like Naked Lunch, Johnson isn’t dealing with graphic representations of junkie debauchery. There are moments of violence, there are moments of empty sexuality, but they feel detached and matter-of-course. It’s a different aspect of the portrayal of addiction. Johnson doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with gross-outs and appalling scenes. Most of what happens within Jesus’ Son is not extreme. That said, it’s still unsettling and strange. Oh, and fascinating.

The stories told in Jesus’ Son are all interconnected, and I’m pretty sure the narrator is the same in all of them. It’s a string of first-person recollections told by a young addict and the people he interacts with over an indeterminate period of time. It is aggressively non-linear. At one point the narrator tells a story about two men, and then immediately forgets to talk about the second man. Toward the end of the collection he’s like “oh yeah, my bad” and finishes the story. It’s that kind of book. It mostly works, though, and the first story of the bunch will pretty much determine if this is for you. It’s called “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” and brace yourself, it’s about a car crash while hitchhiking. The story drops you right into this poor bastard’s life while he’s hitchhiking in the dark and rain. He’s been hitching for a while, and most of the people who pick him up are as strange and on-the-fringe as the narrator himself. They all give him drugs. Eventually a family in a station wagon pick him up out of some kind of Christian charity or something, but then there’s a horrific wreck. The story is a clear image, but it’s also highly disoriented and surrealistic.

That goes for the entire collection. Johnson’s style is clean and quick, but he packs a lot into these stories, which are more a series of semi-hallucinatory images than any kind of coherent narrative. You can try to string everything together logically, I’m sure there’s a timeline you can trace out if you’re so inclined. However, that’s rather beside the point. The narrator is adrift in a drug haze, and it takes him to unsavory yet compelling places. He’s not a nice dude, but he’s not explicitly evil. The best way to experience Jesus’ Son is to just go with it. It may or may not make sense, but it will likely leave an impact. Johnson is an effective writer, and even if the subject matter is dark and unsettling there is still a compulsion to experience the odd life of its narrator. It’s not voyeuristic or exploitative either. It just is. What happens, even if it’s strange or creepy or fucked up, happens.

jesus son2

Man, the alternate cover game for this book is weak.

Discussion

I suppose a valid question to ask of a book like Jesus’ Son would be: well why would I want to read about a bunch of fucking junkies? I guess I’m not sure you would, but you probably should. One of the major reasons to engage with stories is to gain new perspectives as an attempt at understanding people who are in vastly different places than you. This slight volume is a good way to do that without having to subject yourself to the grim insanity of Naked Lunch, or the unrelenting hopelessness of something like The Corner. Both of those are good, and The Corner in particular is absolutely worth your time, but something like Jesus’ Son is an easy way into this dark, upsetting slice of forgotten America. While the stories are about damaged people doing unusual and unpredictable things. As such, despite the moments of casual violence, this book has a sense of humor. It feels lighter than your typical ‘seedy underbelly of America’ fare. There’s a lot of weird non-sequiturs which can elicit the occasional uneasy chuckle, but mostly the narrator rolls with whatever is happening.

There’s a fine line to be walked with this kind of fiction, of course, because it’s easy for people with no connection to this kind of life to consume something like this and dismiss it. It’s incredibly easy in this country to simply ignore those who don’t fit the middle class profile. This world, the world of junkies and transients and hobos and drifters and burnouts, is always right there. It has a presence in every town in the country, existing right alongside everyone else, hidden in plain sight. And somehow, someway, there’s still the lure of romanticism embedded in what appears to be abject poverty and addiction. These are people who live outside the system, in a world with its own set of rules and social standards, and there is an opportunity for outsiders to look in and simultaneously feel a sense of exasperated superiority and a dark yearning for that kind of freedom.

Of course, the author’s style and intent while writing about these kinds of people has a lot to do with how the reader interprets this parallel American reality. Johnson embeds his stories with a sense of twisted adventure and the freedom of the hitchhiking hobo. The narrator is young and free from the shackles of school and work and social expectations. He goes where he pleases, even if most of the time he’s in dive bars or violent situations or being a creep. There’s an allure to that kind of lifestyle for people ensconced in the typical middle-class-American experience. That experience is a myth in itself, of course, but the treadmill of school-work-family-mortgage is a real weight that can fire up the imagination of escape. Obviously Johnson laces these stories with grim reality. Life expectancy is much shorter for these people, violence is ever present, it’s probably double awful for women, oh, and you’ll be addicted to a drug which makes you feel like death more often than not. That’s why something like The Corner resonates more than this collection or weird fiction. Scratch the surface of semi-romantic strangeness and what Jesus’ Son is actually about is the dark duality of the American experience.

Posted in Books, Drugs, Ennui, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

The Day After

day after1

Film * Nicholas Meyer * Good Old Fashioned Nukes * 1983

Synopsis

When I was a teen, the town I lived in would annually test their civil defense sirens. Not because we were particularly worried about a nuclear attack in the mid-nineties, but because I was living fairly close to Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and hey maybe someday that thing will melt down and it’ll be a real bad day in Arroyo Grande, California. Anyway, I don’t think they do those siren tests any longer because they are alarming. Yeah, I know, they’re alarms huh-huh, but for real the peculiar tone those things make sounds like the world is ending. Once again, that’s rather the point, since they were originally used during the apocalyptic event of World War II and were continually deployed as a warning system for imminent nuclear war. This is partly the reason I used to really enjoy siren-test day. We’d get a little notice in the mail and I would specifically set aside the two minutes of the test to go sit outside and pretend someone finally let fly with the nukes. No, you’re weird.

The best scene in The Day After is about halfway into the film, where the movie just stops every storyline in its tracks to mark the moment when it’s all over. The only real sound is the mournful wailing of these sirens while everyone just freezes and watches the rising contrails of the Minuteman missiles lifting off. In a movie featuring a lot of vintage visual effects, this scene works perfectly. Even more than the mushroom clouds and the radiation sickness and the ensuing chaos of the immediate post-apocalypse, the utter stillness of this scene evokes more of what America would lose in the event of a nuclear exchange. It’s the moment where everyone realizes, oh shit, this is real, these things have been underneath us all these years and we barely gave it a second thought and whoops there they go. Those contrails and that siren can only mean one thing: they were either launched in retaliation or the retaliating missiles are on their way. It doesn’t matter which, you’ve got about twenty to thirty minutes to get out the way before your day gets extremely bad.

day after2

This is normal for Kansas, right?

The Day After is a hell of a thing, but I suppose in the year 2017 it needs some context to properly understand. It was a TV movie, for one thing, and what might be difficult to understand for those of you who do not have tangible pre-Internet memories is that TV used to be a big deal. People would gather around grimy 19” screens and all watch the same thing at the same time. I know, just like those radio dramas of the thirties and forties but with washed out video instead of old-timey podcasts. The Day After was an event when it aired. Something like 100 million people watched this thing when it was on, which is incomprehensible in this day and age – we just don’t consume media like this any longer. ABC aired this film, and then followed it up with a special panel led by Ted Koppel with Carl Sagan, Henry Kissinger, and Robert McNamara, which shows how seriously this whole project was taken by not only the network but the country as a whole.

The film itself is a fairly straightforward disaster story. Yet Meyer sets The Day After apart from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood disaster flick. The movie is set in Kansas, because it’s more effective to have these events take place in the heartland rather than big coastal cities. The first hour follows a variety of everyday folk going about their lives because we need a human anchor for the apocalypse to follow. You’ve got an older doctor and his family, which is on the verge of becoming an empty nest. You’ve got an irrepressible young lady who’s about to get married to some goof. There’s the young black soldier who’s about to head off to New Orleans to meet his wife’s side of the family. Also Steve Guttenberg is there. So far, it’s standard disaster fare. The key to making The Day After effective, however, is the effort put into making the actual disaster as real as possible. The entire first hour of the film is spent setting up these characters and following them as they go through their mundane lives. Yet in the background, the entire time these things are happening, the radio and televisions are giving us exposition. It’s all kind of vague but as the film moves along these radio and TV alters get more and more urgent. The Soviets are mad about missiles staged near them. The Soviets are closing off West Berlin. The Soviets are invading West Germany. NATO has launched tactical nukes at Soviet troops. As the characters internalize these events, their actions become fraught until finally we get the scene described above.

day after4

I guess that went as well as could be expected.

Discussion

One of the more illuminating lines of dialogue comes a little before everything goes sideways. A bunch of fellas are hanging out in the barber shop, like you do, and are discussing the unfolding drama in Europe. Somebody dismisses the threat by saying something like “I’m not worried about this, why would anyone drop a bomb on the middle of nowhere?” Keep in mind these people are in Lawrence, Kansas, which isn’t all that far from Kansas City. A baby John Lithgow speaks up and says “there is no nowhere anymore,” and that’s all the truth we need in this matter. He is referring, of course, to the thousands of ICBM missile silos located throughout the Midwest and greater Western states. I just did a quick check and we’ve got that number down to a little over 400 active missiles, but in the heyday of the Cold War we had way more, and they lurked right underneath the heartland. I would imagine this fact escaped most people living in these areas, and the fact that they were a major target probably alarmed a lot of people. It’s easier to not worry about a nuclear attack if you don’t live near Washington D.C. or New York, but the reminder that not even Wyoming is safe would have been something of a wake-up call for a lot of people.

The plausibility of The Day After is rooted in the actual science of the movie, and unlike pretty much every other disaster movie ever made, Meyer went out of his way to ensure that the portrayal of a nuclear exchange was accurate. The scenario explained over the radio and TV broadcasts was feasible. Not unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was plausible that a major conflict could erupt between the two Germany’s (yes, kids, when I was a lad there were two different Germany’s). There was every danger that the Cold War could turn hot at any given moment, and once that happened the possibility of nukes coming into play increased dramatically. From there, the attack itself was spot on. First, a preliminary EMP attack (later explained by my boy Lithgow as the film’s science-explainer) would take out all vulnerable electronics. The power grid, yes, but also cars and planes and anything with a computer chip or wiring in it. The film did a mostly admirable job depicting this, although I guess they didn’t have the budget to show passenger jets dropping out of the sky and later people are running around using flashlights, but whatever. By showing these things, and by taking the time to explain them, Meyer succeeds in rooting the apocalypse in reality, which of course makes the scenario all the more harrowing.

day after3

They paid locals $75 to put on makeup and cram onto this basketball court and pretend to be dying. Sounds like a fun day, honestly. 

After the bombs drop, The Day After pulls no punches. I’m watching this 34 years after this movie aired – on television – and it’s still effective. Yeah, some of the effects are bad, specifically the “vaporization” bits when the missiles hit. The back half of the movie is dealing with the immediate aftermath, however, and watching these characters deal with radioactive fallout and widespread destruction is grim in the extreme. Characters who spend significant time exposed to the fallout get sick, and again Meyer depicts this realistically. It’s not pretty. Even the sheer charismatic magnetism of Steve Guttenberg is not immune to radiation sickness. The Day After is not here to make you feel better about the apocalypse. If you’re not fortunate enough to die in the initial conflagration, you’re going to have to deal with radiation, a complete lack of infrastructure and communication, and roving gangs of bloodthirsty hillbillies. The movie ends with our heroic doctor weeping in the ruins of Kansas City, and the only positive in that situation is that we know he’s going to die soon and not have to deal with the nightmare of the post apocalypse.

If there’s anything to be said about the accuracy of The Day After it’s that the scenario depicted isn’t quite dire enough. The film actually addresses this at the end, because it rolls a bit of text which explains that “hey, if a nuclear exchange actually happened it would be probably be much worse, to the point where there wouldn’t be enough people left to tell a proper story.” This is the same direction the novel Warday took as well. You have to limit the scope of a nuclear apocalypse story because otherwise you simply won’t have people to talk about. So Meyer dialed it back a little, and the film is no less effective for it. What’s especially crazy about The Day After is that it had a real effect on official policy. Reagan is said to have been particularly moved by the movie, and became a little less cavalier about the whole “mutually assured destruction” thing as a result. That’s not something many movies can say, but if you take the time to watch this upsetting little time capsule, it’s easy to understand why.

Posted in Film, Nuclear | Leave a comment

Outrage Burnout is Real and Totally Fine

outrage1

According to all of my social media feeds, the year 2017 has been the worst in human history. By a mile. Everything’s on fire and is only going to get worse and if you’re not out in the streets you’re part of the problem. I’m probably not alone in this. This is something that liberals and conservatives of all shades of intensity can agree on. Everything is the fucking worst. If you’re on the left, the gaping black hole centered on the White House is sucking American discourse into its fathomless depths. If you’re on the right you’re under constant, unrelenting attack from all manner of nebulous monstrosities of the modern world. Imagine Donald fucking Trump being the one bright, shining beacon of hope in your otherwise dismal world view. Anyway, wherever you place the blame, 2017 is an unrelenting, screaming nightmare and it’s only a matter of time before we all just drop dead, probably because of something the other side Tweeted. You know, I tossed that sentence off as a joke, but I guess we live in an era where what passes for the President compulsively Tweets antagonistic “thoughts” at nuclear-armed foreign leaders so that’s a real concern. Shit. Okay, let’s regroup.

There’s a very real disconnect between how the Internet perceives reality and how individuals perceive reality, which can be chalked up to the disparity between a sense of shared national community and a more concrete reality lived in real time. In other words, 2017 is probably the best year in human history, all things considered. Just from a day-to-day perspective, things are most likely better for more people than they were in 2007, or 1997, or 1987. There’s plenty of inherent biases working to lead us to believe otherwise, of course, depending where you reside on the political spectrum. If you’re on the left, we’re looking at a very real regression of progress made under the previous administration. If you’re on the right, the current administration is a hastily assembled bulwark against the unremitting degradations of American culture. Either way there’s a bit of obfuscating nostalgia at work that makes things seem worse than they are. None of that changes the fact that we are still, somehow, someway, pushing our way forward as a society. It’s messy and painful, and it happens in fits and starts, but it happens.

outrage2

One of the many dire things jamming my various timelines full of morose, depressing news in 2017 has been the plethora of sexual assault/harassment accusations and reprisals. I know I’m expected to get outraged each and every time someone else goes down. Just today – Wednesday, November 29th if you’re coming to this later – Matt Lauer of the Today show is the latest in a long line of politicians and entertainers getting outed and terminated as a creep. I am very much not outraged by this news. I just don’t have it in me. Further, I don’t think anybody should be outraged. Now, let me be as clear as I can be: instead of being loudly outraged, we need to be clinical. This is difficult, because the topic is deeply rooted in emotions, and it’s super easy for me to talk about because I have no first-hand experience with sexual assault. Individually, feel how you feel. That’s obvious and not what I’m talking about here. As a social whole, however, we’re at a moment of potential change in the status quo. It’s a tenuous moment, but with each new accusation with actual consequences, the closer we get to changing things for the better.

Let’s try to illustrate this a little better. I mentioned Lauer, so let’s roll with him as an example. At this moment we have no real details, nothing concrete about his behavior other than someone complained and his employer believed there was enough damning evidence that they termed him. That’s great. Of course I’m sorry for what the accuser had to go through, and I admire the strength of character it takes to come forward, but at the very least it outs another creep. Toss Lauer aside. Put him in the bin with Weinstein and Spacy and C.K. and all the rest. The reaction shouldn’t be surprise or shock – this relationship between sexual harassment/assault and power is a known quantity. It should be clear that people in positions of power have ambition, and that many times those people have a looser moral code than others to achieve that power. That doesn’t stop at advancing their career. If you’re used to getting what you want, that extends to sex as well. So yeah, not a shock that these guys are gross. Our reaction should be – and to a certain extent has been – to cut ties and discard them. If we’re going to embrace this moment of reckoning, a certain amount of ruthlessness is needed.

outrage3

This kind of ruthlessness runs contrary to commonly held ethics and values, however, which makes taking a hard line an uneasy experience. For instance, I happen to believe in rehabilitation and shades of grey and the concept of innocent-until-proven-guilty. The suggestion that someone is accused of a crime – or in some cases not even a crime but inappropriate behavior – should immediately be cast aside is troubling. But we’re at the moment in our social history where it must be done, and that’s because of a very entrenched status quo. Believing accusers and removing the accused from power has to be done if we’re going to move forward in creating a society where this kind of behavior isn’t expected and allowed. While I think people can and do change for the better, in these instances it doesn’t really matter. They got to where they were under the old paradigm, and there are still plenty of people in similar positions who did not abuse their position. They had their moment and it was ill-gotten and I never want to hear from them again, especially if I used to like them (hard look at Louis C.K.).

The shades-of-grey issue is a tough one for me, because part of discourse is subtlety and nuance and black-and-white thinking is antithetical to how I see the world. Like there is a clear and obvious difference to me between, say, Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken. In this moment we can’t really afford to take that difference into account. From my observations, most rank-and-file liberals seem to understand that. Many, many progressives are calling for Franken to step down, and I’m one of them. Yeah, we know, all things considered what Franken did isn’t as bad as what most of these other guys did. But it’s also clear that the Democrats are fucking this up by trying to parse these shades of grey. Now is not the time, and Franken clearly needs to take this one for the fucking team because by wavering and stalling and parsing words with mealy-mouth apologies it looks to all the world like hypocrisy. If this is going to be a moment of change, we simply can’t afford to get caught up parsing terms and being cagey about “our own.” If anything we need to be more ruthless with those called out on our side.

outrage4

The consequences of not doing so are clear when we consider the case of noted flaming pile of semi-human garbage Roy Moore. Look, I’m all for civility in discourse, but this guy ceded all notion of respect long ago. Anyway, this cretin is going to be a Senator. If you’re not somehow not aware, he’s been accused by something like six different women of making hugely inappropriate sexual advances toward them when they were minors. As in he tried to ply a 14 year old girl with liquor and tried to date 16 year olds when he was in his 30’s. That’s. Disgusting. Remove the politics from the case and pretty much anyone would agree. Yet here we are, and he’s almost certainly going to be elected. And it’s partly because people spent too much time being outraged.

Look at the defense of this lyin’-ass bitch, this mouse of a man who would try and seduce a child. First and foremost: oh, it’s fake news. Flat denial, right? It’s so much easier to go through life if you don’t have to think about anything. Honestly, why do you think Fox News and the like have been so successful? They’ve spent 20 years telling their audience that literally every single other news outlet is untrustworthy, and for the most part they’ve succeeded in their messaging. When these accusations first came out, most people who have their brain and/or morality intact were rightfully disgusted. But wait, the Washington Post broke the story. Never mind that the allegations have all been corroborated, never mind that the reporting is solid. None of that matters, because for a significant portion of the audience, the Post is not real news. Full stop. And for a significant portion of the Alabama electorate, that’s enough. Any further outrage from the left is just so much noise. Now, if Democrats were more clinical in cleaning out their own house, perhaps the case against Moore would be stronger. As it is, it has simply reinforced Moore’s position. At this point liberal outrage has become the desirable result for conservatives.

outrage5

The right is extremely comfortable with hypocrisy, because they’ve accepted a world in which their viewpoint is not challenged. If every single other perspective is a fantasy, which is the implication of the term “fake news,” then only their view is reality. Once you do this, you don’t even have to surrender your moral code. It’s important to remember this. People are going to vote for Roy Moore. Lots of them. Like, he’s gonna win. Pretty much nobody doing so is “making their peace” with the fact that he’s a pedophile. That’s not the line of thinking, because to them it’s not a fact, so they haven’t violated their moral code. Trolling for underage girls is still wrong and reprehensible, they’re still good people, and somehow liberals are even worse for committing to the lies and slander. Yes, if you’re an outraged liberal you’re committing to this bit in order slander an innocent man. The louder and angrier you are, the more these people are entrenched in their belief of innocence. When you’ve decided to believe a man like Moore or Trump, regardless of the horrible reality swirling around them, you’re dedicated to that decision. No amount of loud, angry Tweeting is going to change that.

So what, then? This is what feels worst about this level of public discourse, I think. There’s a point where we have to accept that social change is excruciatingly slow and often painful. Wasting energy being angry at Twitter trolls and Fox News relatives is a by-product of that. A clinical detachment from the accused helps, to a point. It sucks when someone whose work you’ve appreciated goes down, but not as much as the person they’ve violated while keeping their privileged position. Politically, if we dispassionately keep our own house in order it’s a lot easier to cast the opposition in a darker light and maybe – just maybe – shame some people into crawling out of their fantasy kicking and screaming into reality. Like, we should have thrown Bill Clinton in the garbage years ago. That’s the past, though, and going forward we simply need to hold people accountable. Maybe someday, in the dim distant future, we’ll be at a place of greater equilibrium and we can start taking shades of grey into account.

outrage6

These are legit the only people I want to deal with some days. Until they start getting obstinate about what kind of furniture I have in my camp, that is.

In the meantime, it’s totally okay to take a break. There’s a new cause every single day, which makes it hard. Between the unending fight for equality, and taxes, and healthcare, and net neutrality, and the sexual harassment reckoning, and every Trump tweet, and the attack on public lands, and every other damn thing we have to worry about, being an active member of society is exhausting. There’s simply too much to be angry about, and after a while that outrage can be toxic. The instinct is to withdraw entirely, and that’s how causes are lost. Giving up is how the libs are actually owned. The solution to giving up is, of course, to pace yourself. You ain’t gonna save the world in a day, and you don’t have to get up in arms every single day. Momentary escape is not only okay, but required if we’re going to be here for the long haul. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have campsite with adorable animals to attend to, and this cool tent ain’t gonna build itself.

Posted in Politics! | Leave a comment

American Gods

american gods1

Novel * Neil Gaiman * Godpocalypse * 2001

Synopsis

America is a vast and strange place, and that’s coming from an American who has lived here his entire life. It’s the early 21st century, and there is still a sense of desolate wildness available for those willing to look for it. I’m not even referring to the expansive forests and deserts, either (although where I live those are nearby and pretty much the reason I live where I do). Our cities tend to grow outward, consuming the wild lands and filling them with asphalt and strip malls and franchises. We specialize in homogony, forcing over 300 million people to accept a sense of community despite the sheer geological size of the country. It would be easy to look around and see the fast food joints, the sub-divisions crammed with identical tract homes, the massive, crumbling highway systems, the banality of most television programming, and everything else that screams ‘Merica to the rest of the world, and dismiss the very idea that this country could be anything except sterile, dull, and devoid of mystery. That would be missing the point, though. All those criticisms are totally valid. But there’s a reason I don’t eat McDonald’s and have no interest in living in a cookie-cutter house and going to work in an office park. The point is, this country is big enough, and has so many people in it from so many places, that weirdness is there to be found.

American Gods is a novel about that weirdness. It’s a novel about the in-between places, a novel about American strangeness, and about where Americans came from and where we’re going. Then there’s the extra added wrinkle concerning the author, who is British. Of course, here in the 21st century, it’s easy for the rest of the world to get a general and accurate sense of what being in this country is like. We’ve kind of left them no choice in the matter, culturally speaking. We’re not some mysterious, mythical land known only by rumor and legend – those days are long gone. That said, there is a subtle vibe here that is difficult to explain if you’ve never been. I’m sure this is consistent with any kind of travel – that’s been my experience travelling. New York, Paris, London, and Rome are all big fat cities crammed with all kinds of people, but they all have a distinct feel to them beyond aesthetics and language that can only be felt if you’re there. The United States is no exception, despite our unique position as world superpower with unprecedented cultural reach. This novel is also about Neil Gaiman’s experience with this weird country of ours.

american gods2

I can tell this novel is beloved because it has a million alternate covers. This one’s classy.

The story is about a man with, and I’m sorry but even after enjoying the novel tremendously I still feel this way, the incredibly dumb name of Shadow. Look, there’s only one dude out there who should have that name and it’s Shadoe Stevens. Anyway, Shadow is a jailbird, doing a bid in prison because he was involved in a robbery. He’s large and quiet and kind of spooky because his name is fuckin’ Shadow. Sorry. So the story begins when Shadow is being released from jail. Turns out his beloved wife was involved in a car wreck and died, so he gets out a few days early. Shadow is shell-shocked by the news and by further details of the accident, so he’s not exactly in a clear frame of mind when the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday approaches him with a job. It becomes readily apparent that Mr. Wednesday is not your average job-creator. Yo, I’m just going to tell you, I mean it’s in the title and everything. He’s a god. American Gods supposes that when people emigrated to America, they brought their weird beliefs and gods with them. Then, once here and subsumed in the American experience, they eventually discarded said beliefs from the old country. The gods, however, remained manifest. Weaker now, since they kind of require human belief for strength, but they persist nonetheless. Mr. Wednesday, as a kind of speaker for these abandoned gods, hires Shadow to assist him in a fight against America’s new beliefs: technology, television, and things like that. It’s Ancients versus Moderns all over again, and it’s a pretty entertaining battle.

american gods3

I like the throwback cover a lot, too. Is that Shadow? Is he wearing mom jeans? Is that Mr. Wednesday or The Colonel?

Discussion

I began to feel a lot better about American Gods as soon as I realized that the real protagonist of the story was America itself. At first, I was mostly just annoyed with Shadow. Not only does he have a stupid name, he is barely a character. He gets a little better as the story moves along, but even by the end there’s not a ton of depth to the dude. To be fair, quite a few terrible things happen to him right away which quite believably leave him numb to the world. I mean, the dude goes to jail to protect his beloved wife. While he’s doing his time, said beloved wife totally cheats on him with his best friend who then wrecks his car because he’s all distracted by the road head he’s receiving on their way to pick Shadow up from jail. It’s fucked up. I mean, that alone is enough to emotionally traumatize someone, but oh wait, this sordid tale is then confirmed to him by his dead, beloved wife because she’s a sentient zombie now. As weird as that is, Shadow’s relationship with his reanimated corpse of a wife is like the least interesting thing to me about this novel. Also, even in these scenes, there is a remoteness to Shadow’s emotions that just makes everything he says and does seem flat. He never seems particularly involved with the nutty nonsense going down all around him. He barely has a personality.

It’s a good thing the gods show up, because at least they have a sense of humor, or menace, or an air of defeated ambivalence. That is to say, the gods are actual characters and spend a good deal of time playing off of Shadow’s neutral blankness. Of the pantheon, I probably enjoy Anansi the most. He seems like he’s having a good time. Mr. Wednesday, which is to say Odin, is fun to read even if he does suck more often than not. Gods are capricious, after all, and not to be trusted. It’s that very unpredictability which breathes life into a narrative that might otherwise get away from Gaiman. Obviously the man has some experience in writing for larger-than-life supernatural beings, and to be fair most of the ancillary human characters are pretty well drawn as well. Shadow’s blankness also allows the reader to enter this strange parallel world as a cipher, experiencing this strangeness at face value. That’s a benefit to a novel which packages the impossible in the mundane.

american gods4

I’d like to watch the show, but I’m pretty much maxed out on streaming services.

The idea that America is a poor place for gods comes up repeatedly throughout the story, which is commentary enough about what kind of country the United States is. We’re shallow and materialistic, obviously, and all too ready to believe in our own mythology. We’re energetic and practical, hardworking and tenacious. When we dream, we’re not worried about gods and monsters, we’re worrying about clearing out the best path to material success. And, mmm, sure. There’s also like 300 some-odd million people living here so any kind of declarative statement about what Americans are or aren’t needs to be taken with about 300 million grains of salt. Yet American Gods still hearkens back to that national vibe I was talking about way up at the top. By and large we are motivated by material success, and when that’s not happening we tend to feel weird about it. As someone who dropped a career in his mid-30s for a seasonal forest ranger job, I have personally disregarded this aspect of American social standards. And it often feels weird and wrong. Despite how much more livable my life feels now, despite the fact that I’m objectively happier, there’s still the sense that I’m letting down the team. Team America, I guess. There’s a certain sterility about that kind of thinking which informs the statement that America is a bad place for gods. I could have kept that career that made me miserable in order to own a nice house and feel more like an American. I didn’t, and people like me add to the weirdness of this country.

Look, I’m not that weird. In the summer I explain how volcanos work to the curious summer tourist and otherwise keep myself occupied by maintaining this blog which is ostensibly about the apocalypse. I’m not a conspiracy gonzo making creepy YouTube videos about how round-earthers are keeping us down. But that guy exists too, and all kinds of other weirdos all across the insanity spectrum because America is a breeding ground for strangeness. It’s the cult of freedom expressing itself in strange ways. In my time visiting the UK, I got the sense that British citizens are pretty free, actually, they just don’t crow about it constantly like we do. They have their whole own brand of strangeness, after all. Our own American mythology has gone to our heads, which makes for a society of conformist weirdos. The political consequences of this willingness to embrace the different has obviously led to a nightmare scenario regarding the executive branch, but the reason that kind of thing happens here is because of our own self-mythologizing. We don’t need additional gods because America worships itself.

Posted in 'Merica, Books | Leave a comment

NieR: Automata

nier automata1

Game * PlatinumGames * Robot Existentialism * 2017

Synopsis

I played this game three times. Then I replayed the final bit of this game twice more. In addition to this, there were three or four other joke endings I stumbled upon, and I begin with this bit of information because this is a weird fucking game and it’s hard to come at it head-on. On the surface, NieR: Automata is a Japanese action-RPG. In this game you play a ninja android named 2B. You flip around in a short leather skirt and a blindfold which seems like it would hamper your fighting ability but it doesn’t, and because it’s a Platinum game the swordplay and laser shooting and flipping around look and feel pretty good. This is important because you do a lot of this. As in most RPG’s, as you flip around and slice up hordes of enemies – in this case adorable robots – you earn experience and money and you know, video game shit. All that is fine in this game. The systems work, there is character progression, it’s a bit on the easy side which means the combat can get a little stale eventually, but none of this really matters because the reason to play Automata is to experience this bonkers story.

Here’s the initial set-up, and I’ll try to keep things simple. As noted above, you play as a combat android named 2B. This is your model number, there are plenty of other combat androids around who look exactly like you. When the game opens you are not actually doing the cool ninja fighting, you’re in your ship, and the game plays like an old school, not-quite-a-bullet-hell style shooter. As your teammates keep getting exploded because they are clearly unobservant, the game parcels out some information. Long ago aliens visited Earth. The aliens introduced a plague of machine life which rampaged across the planet, decimating humanity. Also there was a widespread apocalyptic virus, I think. Look, don’t pin me down on the details, there’s a lot going on here. Anyway, the important thing now is that humanity bailed on Earth, set up shop on the moon where the bad robots couldn’t reach them, and sent their android attack-bots to clean house for them. This android versus robot war has been raging for centuries, and it has long since settled into a stalemate. Androids, however, are programmed for loyalty and so it doesn’t occur to 2B to question any of this. She flies down with her squad to eliminate a big robot baddie.

nier automata2

Not an overt spoiler, but this giant awesome oil rig robot has a name and backstory.

I think that’s all I’ll say about the story above the break. Suffice to say, the same subverts your expectations along the way, and the more you play the more is revealed. I’m not going to say there are any shocking revelations – most of the story twists are pretty well telegraphed beforehand – but the story is well told and is absolutely worth seeing in its entirety. This means, of course, you have to play the game three times. And look, that sounds bad. I get it. But the second time you’re playing from a different perspective, and the third time is a whole other deal. It’s cool, don’t sweat it. So, shortly after 2B’s squad is wiped out, she’s introduced to another character, 9S, a reconnaissance model. He swoops in as support and together they blow up a whole shitload of giant robots. The rest of the game is 2B and 9S having adventures on a dilapidated, blown up, machine-infested version of Earth.

Probably the biggest knock against the game, aside from the possibility of getting burned out on the combat (which didn’t happen to me, but I can see it happening pretty easily), is the game world itself. I love the idea, considering it’s so post-apocalyptic that all the humans have to live on a moon base to avoid being caught in the android-robot crossfire. However, in practice the game world is fairly small and the environmental design team was clearly working on a budget. Running around in the world just doesn’t look great, I’m afraid. Think middle-of-the-road PS3 game and you’re close. To the game’s credit, there are some nice graphical touches that make up for this. The androids live on an orbiting space station from which they launch their raids. There’s not a lot going on up there, but when you’re on the station the game is in dreary shades sepia, which is perfect for the atmosphere. Also the menus are great in that they’re presented as your android interface. Throughout the game you’re collecting chips which you can swap in and out to provide skills and whatnot. It’s all very cool, especially when you realize that the game’s UI are technically chips which you can replace with other skills. So that’s neat. Oh, and it would be a crime not to mention the music, which is top class. It’s just really, really good throughout. Okay, I need to talk about specific things that happen in the game now.

nier automata3

Oh yeah, that’s my aesthetic.

Discussion

It doesn’t take very long to start questioning the status quo of the world you find yourself in while playing Automata. There’s a centuries-long war going on, that much is clear. You’re a soldier in this war, a true believer to the point that one of your first acts is one of heroic self-destruction. Of course, you’re an android so you have a back-up personality ready to install in a new body so no harm no foul on that account. Once you’re reconstituted, you’re sent back out to the battlefield and that’s when things start to feel a little off, like maybe the protagonist isn’t seeing the entire picture here and as you see more and more of the world it becomes clearer and clearer that these androids are oblivious to the nature of their own lives. Eventually this gets frustrating for the player. Sure, you take it for granted that the player character is playing for the good team – there are some exceptions to this rule but generally most people want to feel like they’re controlling a sympathetic character. That’s tough to do in this game as you work through the story.

First of all, the machine enemies are too cute to be evil. I mean look at them. They have little round bodies and little round heads and they toddle around and are precious. Yeah, eventually some bigger machines show up and look more like sinister kill-bots, but for the most part the teeming machine hordes are cute little guys. Watching 2B and 9S mow through them like an unstoppable whirling death machine is upsetting, even before we start getting clues as to their true nature. It doesn’t take long, however, before Automata starts making the machines sympathetic. Now that I think about it, it happens in that introduction scene. The machines you’re slaughtering start asking “why?” start saying things like “help, please, stop” as you lop off adorable round heads and blow up hundreds of rotund robo-bodies. The androids dismiss all this as “huh, these robots say the weirdest random things,” because they’re conditioned to believe that robots are not sentient or intelligent. So now we have artificially made sentient lifeforms dismissing the notion that other artificially made lifeforms could have the same sentience. It’s weird.

nier automata6

That’s right little guy, waving the flag IS fun! Oh boy oh boy oh boy….

It only gets stranger as the game goes along. Soon enough you find yourself in an abandoned amusement park inhabited by non-aggressive robots programmed to party. I suppose you could cut these fun-loving robots up if you’re so inclined – there is a point where 9S tries to convince you to kill a tank whose only crime is shooting confetti and balloons at you – but I did not do this because I’m not a fucking monster. Then there is a very good boss fight against an insane robot who is trying to be beautiful by crucifying the corpses of androids, I think? So that’s a red flag right there. What is beauty, why try to be beautiful, why would a robot want to be beautiful? Our androids are not exactly prone to reflection, never mind how much evidence the world is showing them. Even when they meet and befriend the delightful pacifist robot Pascal do they ever really begin to believe that robots are maybe not inherently evil.

The third time through Automata is where the game shifts into its final gear. The story is not finished, and this run picks up where the first two left off. All is not well after all, and there is an immediate emergency. A virus is running rampant through both machines and androids, turning them all into mindless kill-monsters. Eventually, 2B contracts this virus. She’s doomed and she knows it, and this gives way to the third playable character, A2. She’s like a rogue android who we first meet when she stabs a damn baby robot, but she’s sassy so I guess she gets a pass? Man, I didn’t realize how convoluted the plot was until I started to break it down. Anyway, A2’s whole deal is to kill as many machines as possible for as long as possible until she dies from killing so many robots. Meanwhile, 9S witnessed A2 mercy-killing 2B and is now consumed with rage and revenge to the point of being willfully ignorant and crazy. He’s annoying from here on out.

 

nier automata4

2B and A2 are cool, but Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb Dot Com put it best: “9S is a fuckboy, fuck him.” Can’t say I disagree.

I know I should wrap this up but I need to talk about the most fucked up moment of the game because goddammit what a bummer. Pascal the friendly robot has a lovely little pacifist robot village and it’s all very cute and fuck this game because it sets me up. I’m a mark. So you visit the village as A2 and do some adorable quests for the child robots and it’s all idyllic and A2’s icy heart is melting and it’s totes obvious so of course the next thing to happen is the robo-virus hits and the zombie-bots attack and everything is on fire so Pascal takes the little kid-bots to safety and oh boy you follow to try and protect them, and you do! You save the fucking day but then you return to where you were hiding the children and they’re dead. Not because the kill-bots got to them, but because they were so scared they fucking killed themselves. What the fuck, game? Now Pascal is obviously devastated because it’s his fault because he went and taught the child-bots fear and now he can’t even deal with the sadness and guilt, so he asks A2 to either kill him or wipe his memory. I did neither, because part of being human is dealing with grief, and as I slow motion walked away Pascal says “A2 how could you?” and how dare you make me feel bad for not killing you, robot. Woof.

nier automata5

While the overall look of the game is a little sterile, NieR has its moments.

It’s all downhill from there. The humans are dead, and 9S can’t deal with this information. It was all a lie, his entire existence as been to protect some data on the moon. The entire message of the game seems to be “what’s the point?” Not of playing the game, but of living, of aspiring to some kind of life. Androids and robots are trying to create lives for themselves, but ultimately they fail. The “endings,” various outcomes to the narrative of A2 and 9S, are almost incidental to the overall bleakness of Automata’s tone. Sure, let’s go to the moon maybe we can make something out of this mess or maybe not whatever. At least the war, which again existed for no reason, at least appeared to have a purpose. Blow those guys up. Easy. Now that all pretense has been stripped away, what is there? This is some serious Sartre shit, and to its credit Automata doesn’t shy away from these implications. Once you’re fully self-aware, what left is there for you to aspire to? Now, if you finish finish finish the game – ending “E,” the game throws you a little life preserver in this sea of nihilism. The pods, your little buddies that fly around and shoot things for you, have also been gaining self-awareness. They pick up your pieces and back up your memories and now 2B and 9S get another shot. The point being, life has no definitive purpose, that basically there’s no fate but what you make for yourself, and if that little T2-ism sounds trite, well, it’s a far sight better than the alternative.

Posted in Aliens, Games, Plague, Post Human | Leave a comment

Arbitrary Lists are Fun!

arbitrary list1

Utterly Subjective List 1: 80’s Pop Songs

Lists are dumb, but they’re fun. Christ, Buzzfeed has built an entire empire out of creating completely and totally meaningless lists for a reason. Of course, part of the game is to place a firm foot down and declare this or that list as definitive and objective. FIGHT ME INTERNET. Well, I can do that. So here’s my perfect list of pop songs from the 1980’s, which I understand is all the rage nowadays. I saw that Stranger Things, I’m down with the zeitgeist. I decided to not worry about genres here, though. There’s no hair metal butt rock or ‘80s rap here, those are different lists. Oh I’ve got lists, don’t you worry. Now, time for my unconventional list that you’re going to hate. There’s 26 songs because round numbers are for dorks.

26. “The Reflex” – Duran Duran

Right away I’m starting with the unpopular opinion that Duran Duran is overrated. I don’t like their biggest hits all that much. “Rio” and “Girls on Film” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” are overplayed and nowhere near as good as similar Eighties staples from Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. So, deal with that. That said “The Reflex” is a good time, and my favorite song of theirs. A refrain that’ll come up throughout this list is simple fun. It’s pop music, it should probably be a good time. Most of these songs are chemically engineered to get awkward white people on the dance floor, and this is no exception to that. Enjoy having “whyyy-ayyy-ayyyy-ayyy-ayyy” in your head all day.

25. “Freedom of Choice” – DEVO

As a whole, I probably like DEVO more than most of the artists on this list. However, most of my favorite songs of theirs were either released in the late Seventies or weren’t singles and therefore not pop. And let’s be clear, DEVO isn’t really a pop band. Their biggest hit, “Whip It,” is perilously close to a novelty song. At the time it was probably considered such because it’s just so weird. But then that’s DEVO for ya. “Freedom of Choice,” was a single, and it’s more of a standard song, and I like it a lot. As someone who used to watch people spend upwards of twenty minutes trying to pick out a kind of toothpaste, its message resonates. Also: holy shit this video wtf.

24. “Alive and Kicking” – Simple Minds

I know, it’s not the Breakfast Club song. That song is a cliché at this point, and I feel like “Alive and Kicking” is more representative of the decade and I personally enjoy hearing it more. I’m not sitting here thinking about Emilio Estevez when it comes on. Instead I’m thinking about how absurdly optimistic pop music was back then. I barely remember the Eighties, but in retrospect there were just so many songs that make you want to climb a big hill and raise your fists in the sky like “yeah, I’m still alive and kicking!” That’s definitely not a bad thing.

23. “Dance Hall Days” – Wang Chung

While it lacks the best lyric Wang Chung ever wrote, “everybody Wang Chung tonight,” this is clearly the superior song. It’s simple, mellow, and still oddly compelling. I have no idea what the hell he’s singing about, it seems weirdly violent, but I can’t be upset about it because the song is just so soothing. Now I’m listening to the words. Is she dead? Jesus. Whatever though because here comes the incomprehensible chorus: something something something dance hall days!

22. “Our Lips Are Sealed” – The Go-Go’s

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that The Go-Go’s were one of the original L.A. punk bands, from the same scene as X and The Germs. They were playing the same kind of noisy, poorly performed garage rock and then suddenly morphed into a pop powerhouse. Weird! Since I’ve learned that I’ve tried to hear that original edge and nope, just nice and smooth pop rock. Whatever, it works for them and this song is great.

21. “Call Me” – Blondie

Blondie was also punk-adjacent, although I feel like that connection is more apparent than The Go-Go’s. They also have a much larger stable of hits. Like DEVO and a few other bands on this list, their best work spans decades so I’m stuck finding the song from the ‘80s I like best. Now, I am not a Blondie superfan. I think they’re fine. I saw them this summer, and while I was actually more interested in both opening acts (John Doe and Exene from X and Garbage) they still put on a fun show. And they’re still out there with new music! I always respect that. Anyway, now that I think about it, this is probably my favorite Blondie song. I would be “Rapture” but I still can’t even deal with Debbie Harry trying to rap. It burns.

20. “And She Was” – Talking Heads

This is not their most iconic song, that’s probably “Once in a Lifetime.” I like that song a lot, it’s like the Eighties version of “A Day in the Life.” However, “And She Was” is way more upbeat, way more pop, and more fun in general. You’ll notice the overall theme here. Does the song make you feel more upbeat and happy? Then it’s doing its job. “Once in a Lifetime” is a great song, but it succeeds in making me feel introspective. “And She Was” is a just a good time. You’re right, Talking Heads guy, she was right there with it. Woo hoo indeed.

19. “Roam” – The B-52’s

Yeah that’s right. Not “Love Shack,” not “Rock Lobster.” Now, pretty much all The B-52’s do is fun, feel-good music. That’s like their whole brand. Well, that and being delightful weirdos. I appreciate the aforementioned songs, which were bigger hits and are more recognizable, but “Roam” always brings joy. I suffer from pretty much permanent wanderlust, so this one resonates with me. Plus you still got your good time hand-claps and sing-along bits and even though it doesn’t have a Chrysler that’s as big as a whale I still like it better. This video is perfect. God I love these fun loving dorks.

18. “Let’s Go Crazy” – Prince

Oh, by the way, the heavy hitters of the 1980’s aren’t going to fare as well as you might expect. This is not to say that I don’t love and respect these artists – I’m a goddamned American after all – it’s just that aside from having to sift through a million hits to pick my favorite, I’m not here to pick the most influential songs. Or the most culturally resonant songs. If I did that it would just be a bunch of Prince and M.J. and Madonna. Obviously Prince was a genius and a weirdo and once-in-a-lifetime talent. He gave us truly great songs all over the genre spectrum. This one, I think, is one of his best good-time jams. Like you hear that intro and all right, time for a five minute micro-party up in here. If Prince tells you to go crazy, you best do it. Note: Oh snap Prince is on YouTube now… hmm, not worth it.

17. “Only In My Dreams” – Debbie Gibson

No, Debbie Gibson is not better than Prince. Technically this song probably isn’t as good as the other songs on this list. Or, for that matter, as many songs that aren’t on the list. Yet here we are, me and Debbie, swaying along to the most Eighties-ass Eighties song you’ve ever heard. Like, this is a song that could only have been made in that weird, bygone era. If you’re someone with no context for life 30+ years ago, just play this song. It’s pure Eighties. It’s even got the sax solo! I don’t know, it’s hard to justify, but I listened to this so hard this summer. It evoked more nostalgia in me than pretty much any other song on this list, not because I remember the actual song, but because of what the song sounds like. Yellow sax man in an abandoned warehouse is perfect. This whole video is perfect. I love it so much.

16. “Express Yourself” – Madonna

Unlike the Debbie Gibson song above, which evoked a kind of general nostalgia, I have a more direct sense of nostalgia for this particular song. Basically, the video is directly responsible for my sexual awakening. Sorry, I know that’s gross, but you kids nowadays don’t have a good frame of reference for the sheer force of hot, sexy nature that Madonna was back in the day. I guess you could argue that she still is, but that’s nothing compared to the Madonna of the late-80’s and early 90’s. She’s just another semi-damaged celebrity now. Back then she was a true cultural icon, one that implored you to get laid. This song in particular is uplifting in the extreme. Are you feeling bad about yourself? Like you’re just not good enough or don’t deserve nice things? Fuck that. Express yourself girl, you deserve the best because you are the best. Thanks, Madonna. Note: I forgot the video was a sexy, sexy dystopian nightmare.

15. “Another Part of Me” – Michael Jackson

The King of Pop is not in my top 10 and I don’t care. Any one of his major hits could be number one, and everybody knows that. M.J. was and still is the baseline for pop music, he made the template, and even now artists are still chasing what he made. You literally can’t overstate his presence. That said, he’s so omnipresent and great as to be a little dull, so number 14 it is. And a song that’s not even on his personal top, like, 20 hits of all time. That’s how great he was. I like this one a lot, obviously, which is why I chose to highlight it here. It’s a jam, and for practically any other artist of the time this would have been a number one hit. Nah, instead it’s pretty much album filler and yet it’s still works as a single. Michael Jackson in his prime was unstoppable. If you have any doubt about that, watch the video. That kind of sheer domination will never be seen again.

14. “Hold Me Now” – Thompson Twins

I guess I don’t have a ton to say about this one? It skew a bit more mellow than some of the party-pop above, and it’s just nice. It’s a pleasant song, and whenever I hear it I feel a little less anxious, a little less cranky. I think about my lovely wife. I think about my favorite passive-aggressive line in the song: “I’ll ask for forgiveness though I don’t know just what I’m asking it for.” Ha. Maybe leave that one out if you’re trying to make up, dude. I also enjoy the falsetto backup vocals. They don’t overpower the song itself, but they’re there to remind you what decade you’re in.

13. “Drive” – The Cars

Get it, because you drive cars? Ugh, sorry. Anyway, I’m all bummed out now because my go-to Cars songs were all released in the 70’s. “Just What I Needed” and “It’s All I Can Do” are two of my favorite songs of the era, but hey turns out they miss the cut. Oh well. Instead, enjoy the one Eighties ballad on this list. I tend to enjoy more upbeat fare, as you may have noticed from the other songs on this list, but I do like a slower song if done well. This is such a song. There’s a quiet intensity to it, and the constant questioning borders on aggressive, but it’s so smooth and mellow it’s hard not to be taken away by it. It’s also a nice reminder that The Cars were early masters of arty music videos.

12. “It’s a Mistake” – Men at Work

Again I’m going with the lesser known hit because I like it better. Actually, Men at Work surprised me with their solid catalogue. It’s tempting to think of them as a one or two hit wonder, but it turns out that their two major albums are pretty good all the way through. Obviously they’re always going to be the “Land Down Under” band, but check this song out! It’s right there in The Police/XTC wheelhouse of kinda alternative pop-rock. Plus this song has the advantage of probably being about a nuclear holocaust, and it’s not the only one on this list. The Eighties had a dark undercurrent of anxiety which would appear every now and again amidst the lighter fare. This video is precious, btw. They seem fun.

11. “Automatic” – The Pointer Sisters

Now this is a jam. Also, like many songs on this list, it is immediately identified as an Eighties song, even if you’re not familiar with the song itself. The synth lines, the bouncy-ass beat, all of it. This song came back to my consciousness quite a while ago, during the first wave of 80’s nostalgia. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, specifically. That whole brilliant, insane soundtrack reminded me of how much I enjoy the pop from that period, in a way that transcends nostalgia. Yeah, this song couldn’t have come from any other time period. But if you can put this on in the car and not sing along, you just failed the Turing test, you goddamned android.

10. “Where the Streets Have No Name” – U2

Shocking confession: I don’t really like U2 all that much. Bono is a wanker and outside of The Joshua Tree I just don’t feel it that much. That said, I’m not a total philistine. I know a great song when I hear it, and that album has at least three of them, of which I feel this is the best. The intro is probably on the all-time list, just a perfect lead-in to not only the song, but the album as a whole. I’m a sucker for a slow build, and this one definitely delivers. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is just one of the sweeping, epic songs that has the ability to the lift the listener up and out of the world, and I can’t help but respect it for that. It’s also striking, watching some of these videos, just how big these bands were and being a little sad no artist is ever going to be that big again.

9. “Synchronicity II” – The Police

Sometimes I think people forget how good The Police were. Also, that they were ostensibly as much of a Seventies band as they were an Eighties band. Lucky for me, their best song was released in the proper time frame for this list, so I can use it. Yes, it’s a pop song because it has a nice hook and a good beat and I enjoy singing it. But it’s also about some real shit, you know? The Police are one of these bands that enjoyed massive pop success while still retaining integrity. Like the song above, I was re-introduced to this particular song in a strange place, which is to say the in-store radio of K-Mart. I was obsessed with it, because it would play like once a day and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the name of it. I finally tracked it down thanks to one of the older employees. Rarely is a pop song so evocative and atmospheric. Sting is a fashion god. That is all.

8. “Generals and Majors” – XTC

XTC are lesser known than either The Police or U2, despite being a fairly influential outfit in their own right. They skirt the line between alternative college rock and pop, although they had their share of hits. “Generals and Majors” is one of their more jaunty songs, fun to sing and whistle along with. Plus it’s about the apocalypse! Which you know, automatically makes it more fun. This probably isn’t my favorite XTC song, but it’s probably the most fun to listen to, if that makes sense. That’s kind of the watchword of this entire list: “yeah, but does listening to it make me feel good?” In this instance, despite making me think about nuclear annihilation, yes, it does! That’s an achievement in and of itself. Meanwhile, this is a very silly video.

7. “Just Can’t Get Enough” – Depeche Mode

Two things about this entry. The first is that Depeche Mode’s seminal album Violator came out in 1990 and therefore doesn’t qualify for this list. That’s why this isn’t “Personal Jesus” or “Enjoy the Silence.” Also, even if that admittedly brilliant album came out in ’89 I still might have gone with this one. You’ve seen the trend of this list by now, right? 80’s pop should be a good time. Violator is not a good time. It was ushering in the Nineties, which in comparison were a bummer. “Just Can’t Get Enough” is a fun, bouncy love song and I’m rarely not in the mood to hear it, which I can’t say for most of Depeche Mode’s catalogue. I mean, there’s a reason The Cure isn’t on my list (although they almost were). Also, this video is like the band wandered around and collected the coolest motherfuckers they could find, including Rob Halford’s doppelganger. Depeche Mode were 80’s hipsters.

6. “Something About You” – Level 42

This one is a bit of an outlier. I get it. When it comes to artists there’s a lot of heavy hitters on this list, and Level 42 ain’t one of them. They were a two-hit wonder, and this was one of them. Both songs are solid, synth-flavored New Wave songs that you’d probably recognize without knowing who the artist was. All that’s fine. I don’t have a real justification. Sometimes music is like that. The reason this is so high on my list is because for some unidentifiable reason, it hit me just so. I guess it’s because, like most everything else here, I never don’t want to hear it. If it come up on shuffle, it’s not getting skipped. Sounds like reason enough for me.

5. “Stand” – R.E.M.

R.E.M. is my favorite band, full stop. “Stand” is not my favorite R.E.M. song. It’s not even my favorite song of theirs from the 80’s. I suppose the difference is that most of the songs that I love are from their early records, which were not pop albums. Now, by 1992 they’d be the biggest band in the world, but their ascension didn’t really start until Document, their 5th album. This song was maybe their third or fourth big single. It also hit 9-year-old me at just the right time. It’s a goofy, fun song. It’s light and effervescent and I don’t know what it even means. Who cares, because it’s easy to sing along to, and that’s all I cared about as a kid, you know? I have fond memories of sitting on our horrid beige-and-brown couch and playing NES while this song was on the radio. It evokes some of my fondest memories of being a kid, therefore it ranks pretty high on my list, even if when I’m making my “best American band of all time” arguments I probably leave this song out. Okay, the video remains wonderful. Cow butt for no reason. Michael Stipe with long hair. Delightful.

4. “You Make My Dreams” – Daryl Hall and John Oates

Anyone who says they don’t like Hall and Oates is a goddamned liar. If it wasn’t for the existence of Michael Jackson, they’d be the reigning champions of pop music, right straight up. In fact, I think there’s probably a pretty strong argument to made that they’re it. This song in particular is a creation of pure pop wizardry. It’s so simple! Simple and pure, it gets right to point. It’s pure, distilled Eighties pop and it’s damn near perfect. This video makes cocaine seem like a real good time. I will go to war for John Oates’ mustache.

3. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” – Tears for Fears

This is a song I doubt I need to spend much time justifying. I suspect there’s a contingent of people out there who would have this as number one without much in the way of argument. It’s a great pop song, it’s a great song, and unlike a lot of songs on this list, it’s pretty much timeless. Yeah, there’s a little 80’s synth-bounce in there, but man, it holds up. It’s a joy to listen to, now and forever. It’s also impressive that for a song that’s way, way, way overused in media, I still enjoy listening to it. Imagine still wanting to hear “Fortunate Son” or “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Bad to the Bone.” I feel like this song is right up there for easy go-to songs to make it clear such-and-such character has ambitions in whatever tepid-ass script you’re writing, and yet somehow it doesn’t hurt the song any. I also appreciate that Tears for Fears are secure enough to go find a couple of dope black dudes that are way cooler than they are for their video. Nah just kiddin’, everyone’s a goof here.

2. “Hero Takes a Fall” – The Bangles

This is not their most popular song, but it’s their best and I don’t think it’s particularly close. Goddammit, this is so good. It’s the cascading voices, the intense harmonizing, the razor-sharp hooks, Susannah Hoff’s breathy, probably-the-sexiest-I’ve-ever-heard voice, all of it. It’s a straight fucking masterpiece, I don’t have much else to say about it, other than I sometimes listen to it twice in a row because I can’t help myself. The video confirms that I’m going to go back into time and have all of Hoff’s babies.

1. “In a Big Country” – Big Country

“Shyaa!” I don’t know what they did. Somehow, these particular notes in this particular order was the combination to cold, cynical heart. I don’t have an answer for why this song always, always, creates a well of positive feelings in me. If there are big, emotional things happening in my life, this song has and will make me cry. Look, I’m not trying to come at you all tough-guy but that’s not a thing I normally do. I’m just broken that way, I guess, but under certain circumstances “In a Big Country” has that ability. I should stress that it’s always in a good way. This song is just so broad and open, so life-affirming and positive. It’s too good for this world, and it’s a tragedy that this was their only hit. Obviously they thought so highly of it they named their damn band after it. They totally knew. Anyway, the rest of their music is good, and it all kind of sounds like this, and you should listen to it. But this was rightly what they’re remembered for. What a great fucking song. Video note: “MTV needs a video, what do ya wanna do?” “I dunno, ride around on ATVs all day and then go scuba diving?” “Sounds good!”

So that’s a list! All these songs are perfect and are in the objectively correct order. Obviously. If, against all reason, you disagree, then I don’t know what to tell you. Get better at listening to music I guess… ha ha, whatever, I forgot probably six hundred songs. Oh well, fight me anyway.

Posted in Arbitrary Lists, Music | Leave a comment

Nexus

nexus1

Novel * Ramez Naam * Nano-Drugs is Mess You Up * 2013

Synopsis

Envy is unbecoming but let me tell you a thing that is true: people like the author of Nexus make everyone else feel worse about themselves. Here we have a published author, one who has been able to publish his whole sci-fi trilogy and hey, it’s deserved because this book at least is pretty good. Yet this thing is like a hobby, a ‘whatever I guess I’ll write a book because how hard could it be,’ because Naam’s day job was helping develop software for Microsoft and starting nanotech companies and being all sciency. He’s probably also excellent at sports and your mom would love him. Anyway polymaths are the worst and yes I’m just salty because mathematics elude me which makes real science all but impossible for me and I’m bad at sports. Your mom would probably still love me, though. Anyway, I guess I’m still qualified to talk about Naam’s novel, which is a decent techno-thriller. One of the critic blurbs refers to it as an “airport” novel, which sounds like a burn to me but actually describes the book pretty well.

This novel moves. Not only does the plot race along at a breathless clip – action, action, action – but Naam’s style is comprised of short, staccato sentences that just zip along. As a book it works, and you can blast through the thing in no time. Like waiting for your plane in an airport, perhaps. The action scenes, of which there are many, are brutal but quick. It’s paced like a Bourne movie (I know I know, but I haven’t read the books), and there are a lot of fights popping off the entire time. There are sections of the novel which almost feel like you’re reading a screenplay, and while that may sound bad it works more than it doesn’t. Now the downside of ripping through a novel like this is that while the action is tight and controlled and exciting, the characters skew towards being flatter than you might like. There’s Main Guy, Kade. Then you’ve got Woman Lead, Samantha. And the rest. Again, this sounds bad but really you just have to adjust to what kind of novel this is and go with it.

Weirdly, Nexus is also a book of ideas. It’s not socially profound like a Huxley novel, but Naam is a man of science and ideas and this novel is uncomfortably rooted in real world science. Now I say it’s not profound, but again I don’t mean that as a knock against the book. It’s not trying for a place in the literary canon here. Naam is much more interested exploring the ideas behind nanotechnology and its place in neurology. Oh, and also writing a rip-shit action story. He succeeds in both areas. Nexus is about a drug of the same name. This drug allows people to directly interface with each other’s brains. It also installs some kind of operating system in your brain which allows you to override all kinds of things, including motor signals. Nexus is a near-future novel, and everything here is based on current and ongoing research. We’re probably not quite to the level of mastery displayed in the book; certainly if there’s a drug out there which would allow people to connect mind-to-mind in a reasonable facsimile of telepathy it hasn’t been announced. Such a thing would be a volatile discovery, which of course Nexus takes to various extremes.

nexus2

I get it the cover looks like pills.

Discussion

Nexus, in between sick chase scenes, is asking a couple of very important questions of its readers. Are we as a species ready to cope with the fundamental questions of new technology? What does the notion of “post-human” mean, and is society going to be able to function if and when humans start evolving beyond our natural abilities? These questions are at the root of most good science fiction, and of course there are as many answers as there are sci-fi novels. Personally, I have two great literary loves in my life. Science fiction and Modernism. Sci-fi is obviously forward looking, and even at its most apocalyptic tends to be optimistic more often than not. Nexus is certainly a positive, optimistic book. Modernism, of course, is generally pessimistic in tone. While many of the Moderns were out there trying to “make it new,” and there were whole movements out there embracing technology and change – there were manifestos and everything – most of the actual literature seems like a lament for the fracturing of society. I’ve written about several examples right here on this very blog, but I bring up the Moderns because they have the same concerns about humanity’s ability to deal with technology.

The good guys and bad guys are pretty clearly delineated in Nexus, with the good guys embracing the free dissemination of the Nexus drug and the bad guys are basically the government who want to suppress it and keep it out of the public’s hands. In between is Samantha, the Woman Lead. She’s a government agent who has been augmented to be more than human. Now, Sam has a whole tragic history which has led to a deep distrust of technology like Nexus and doesn’t care for her augments but understands that they are necessary to keep the playing field level with baddies who are trying to make Nexus and the like easily accessible. Sam and the government are of the opinion that humanity can’t handle a drug like Nexus. The ability to interface directly with other people’s minds is just too dangerous, because of the opportunity to misuse it. Sam, who grew up in a fucked up cult situation, is all too aware of the potential for telepathic domination and subjugation. Nexus straight up allows you to control other people’s motor functions, after all, and the danger involved is legit.

Despite the danger, you’ve got guys like Kade out there trying to improve the product and push humanity ever further toward artificial evolution. Early in the novel, Sam is infiltrating Kade’s hippie commune in order to put the government clamps down on Nexus production and distribution. In order to keep her cover, she takes Kade’s newest version of Nexus, and her mind is totally blown, man. The peace-and-love hippie circles that ensue are probably the novel’s weakest moments, but they’re necessary to illustrate the power of human connection. And while I could live without the whole “let’s just hold hands and vibe with the universe, man” bits, I can live with them for that reason. Also these moments are generally undercut by scenes of horrific violence, so it all balances out. These experiences also wear away at Sam, who goes from black hat bad guy to white hat good guy over the course of the novel. Eventually she just gets it, and is able to move past her horrible cult childhood. Yeah, it’s all a little ham-fisted, but this is a book of broad strokes.

In the end, the good guys win. The government baddies, and of course the higher up the chain you go the worse they are, are unable to control the dissemination of the Nexus formula. Kade is able to transmit the knowledge needed to make it in basement laboratories and the NSA are unable to stop it. The Internet always wins. Nexus makes the proclamation that humans are more good than evil, and that the ability to connect directly with other humans outweighs the immediate and obvious dangers of evil people misusing the ability for profit. Perhaps it’s my inclination toward Modernist thought and writing, but I’m not so sure. I remember Brave New World and the effects of two apocalyptic wars on society. In terms of human history, those wars and those books were not that long ago. If history indicates anything, it’s that we’ve had trouble keeping up with our own technology, that it ends up getting the better of us because the powerful and ambitious wind up exploiting it to further their own aims. I look around at the word of 2017 and I’m not exactly filled with hope for society figuring everything out anytime soon. Maybe something like Nexus – the instant ability to empathize with anyone and everyone would change all that – but who knows. There are serious discussions to be had about these issues, and books like Nexus, despite being an action-thriller, help us prepare for them.

Posted in Books, Drugs, Government, Post Human | Leave a comment

The Blair Witch Project

blair witch1

Film * Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez * Nature is Scary * 1999

Synopsis

Memory is tricky, especially when you’re old like me. If asked before looking it up, I would have sworn that The Blair Witch Project was a mid-nineties thing, an assertion that I feel is backed up by watching the film. But no, it came out on the cusp of the millennium where everything got weird. I was twenty when this movie came out, but I guess I can forgive my memory because my brain as a teenager and my brain in my early twenties weren’t that different and everything from that era has a kind of flannel filter on it. Anyway, I totally saw this movie in the theatre, I totally fell for it, I totally got irritated with all three main characters, and still got scared. Found footage was a novel thing back then, I swear, and the marketing for the movie was pretty much perfect. I mean, anytime you can make a movie for $60,000 and make $160 million you did something right.

The film itself is pure simplicity. Three twenty-something amateur filmmakers head off into the woods and get lost. These filmmakers, who are college kids, are making a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. The movie is comprised of “found footage,” which is purported to be film from the actual documentary itself and ancillary footage recorded by Heather, the director. It’s this ancillary footage that strains the credibility of the whole endeavor, by the way. It becomes apparent right away that the only way to properly tell the story is if there’s a person rolling film most of the time, even when not capturing B-roll for the movie they’re making. Since we’re in a pre-smart phone era, it has to be part of Heather’s character to compulsively film with one of the cameras. The film makes an attempt to explain this via Heather’s desire to make reality less real by filming it constantly, but it’s a fairly transparent attempt to explain how there is so much footage available.

blair witch2

No, you’re the one who dealt it!

That’s pretty much it. The beginning of the movie is simply setting the mood, which it does pretty well considering the budget. The team goes out and talks to some locals about the Blair Witch legend, and parses out some creepy details which become important later. Once they’re satisfied with their testimonials, they head out into the supposedly haunted woods that the Blair Witch is said to inhabit in an attempt to find evidence of her existence. They promptly get lost, because none of these kids have any outdoorsy skills at all. I’m surprised they were able to pitch a tent and start a fire, to be honest. So they’re lost, and they wander around, and they yell at each other a lot, and all the while creepy shit starts to happen to them at night. It’s really hard to spoil this movie, you know? Like, if you title your film The Blair Witch Project there should probably be a witch in it. Technically there isn’t, but you know some witchy shit is going down. The ending scene is a horror classic, and it definitely holds up.

blair witch3

Oh, the movie looks terrible. That’s kind of the point, although it makes it difficult to find still images.

Discussion

Okay, so The Blair Witch Project still retains its spookiness despite the fact that most of the movie is the three main characters screeching at each other and/or huddling in fear in the dark. Like pretty much any horror movie, the plot requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief. However, instead of rolling my eyes at the dumb teen girl going up the stairs of the ancient haunted mansion to check out the mysterious kill-noises coming from the attic, in this I’m sitting here trying to figure out how people get lost in Maryland. I’ll admit my West Coast bias right here. Not only do I live in Central Oregon, which if you don’t know is like Outdoorland U.S.A., I also work for the Forest Service, helping visitors out who want to check out Newberry Volcano, which is incidentally about the size of Rhode Island. I bring this up because the East Coast is foreign and strange to me. Having lived my life in California, Oregon, and Washington, the states back east seem more like counties. When I visited Vermont a couple years ago, the countryside was beautiful but it seemed domesticated compared to the Northwest Cascades and the vast Southwest desert. Even here it’s hard to find solitude. In the summer you can climb up into the cradle of the Cascades, right up on the feet of Mt. Jefferson or South Sister, and you’re going to have dozens of strangers running around the alpine meadows and splashing around in the glacial lakes. People are everywhere, always, and while out here it’s absolutely possible to lose a trail and get lost fifty miles from the nearest road, I don’t see how that’s a possibility when you’re always like an hour away from a major city.

Being accustomed to being constantly around people and human structures is where most of the horror comes from in Blair Witch, because the movie takes that away. Obviously the trio of lost filmmakers find themselves alone due to supernatural, witchy means. I don’t know from experience, but it seems to me that finding your way out of the Maryland “wilderness” would take maybe twenty minutes. Regardless of my glib dismissal of East Coast forests, our three filmmakers follow a stream which would otherwise get them to a road eventually so we know the Blair Witch is behind all the spookums. The film manages to make an East Coast forest seem claustrophobic and terrifying, and it does so by removing the security blanket of early 21st century urban sprawl. Now obviously the city, or the suburbs for that matter, have their own inherent dangers. Yet if our intrepid trio found themselves stranded in like, Anaheim, it would be a comparatively trivial matter to get home.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Heather Donahue

Rare image of Heather that’s not just the top of her head.

The United States is huge, and even at this late date there are still vast stretches of emptiness and wilderness. Most of it is in the West, where I live. Sometimes I get bored and drive out into the middle of the Eastern Oregon high desert and there is nothing out there. And when you’ve driven twenty miles without seeing another car, and then you turn down a rutted gravel road and keep going, and suddenly there’s nothing by sky and sagebrush and the occasional ground squirrel, it can be unnerving. Once you’re way far out there, you almost don’t want to see another human, because god knows what kind of person hangs out in the middle of nowhere. I mean, besides me. Anyway, I don’t know that you can do that in Maryland now. But you could a few hundred years ago. The Blair Witch is, of course, a supernatural force, tethered to the land in a vicious and fundamental way, still lashing out against the crushing forces of modern urbanity.

Posted in Film, Urbanization | Leave a comment