Saturday, October 21, 2017

Futures Before the Internet: of Star Trek and Blade Runner


   Since the mid 1990s, the thrust of American technological progress has come through the commercial Internet.  Streaming video, smartphones and MMO games such as Destiny are but some of the many advances that owe their mass adoption to Internet connectivity.  It is difficult to imagine a world today without the ad-supported commercial Internet, so much that a vast amount of today's futuristic science fiction stories don't even try.  What kind of a world would exist without the ad-supported Internet--or, possibly, if it was replaced by something else?  Some of the more interesting approaches to creating a speculative world without the commercial Internet have been demonstrated by two sci-fi franchises created before its existence.

   For all the sophisticated technology shown on the various Star Trek series, none of them has ever demonstrated a world in which the Internet as we know it exists.  This is a world which has incorporated, over the course of several series, video games that have become so sophisticated that they can simulate actual life experiences (the Holodeck), androids that have become nearly human (Data), starships that can travel considerably faster than light, and matter replicators that could create numerous objects.  Of course, since the Star Trek world is both post-capitalist and post-scarcity, any online connective system that exists in it would likely be very different from the ad-laden, user-data hungry Internet of today, but actual storylines involving "hacking" and the data side of technology can be surprisingly rare over the course of the various Trek series.  Even the latest series, Star Trek Discovery, which has gone out of its way to conform to the tropes of "Prestige TV" in utilizing a darker atmosphere and a very serialized narrative, still does little to explain how a world of such technological wonders would exist without the current Internet.  As its narrative continues to evolve, it seems more preoccupied with conspiracies in the Klingon Empire and the bizarre "Tardigrade Drive" creature than how its technological wonders could work.  Ultimately, Star Trek has always been defined by its striving for a better future than a painstaking analysis of exactly how such a future could work, and Discovery seems likely to maintain this legacy over the course of its run.

   Another pre-online culture sci-fi series that has not incorporated the modern commercial internet is the Blade Runner films.  The first Blade Runner, though set in 2019, was released in 1982, before online services were widely available; its portrayal of a world 37 years from its release date is understandably different from our own.  Its visual aesthetic, of blocky shapes, bright neon, and visible "cyberpunk" technology seems very different from our current 2017 reality.  And yet, it is a world that, if different from ours, is in many ways parallel to it; although there is no "Internet" in Blade Runner, computers clearly have some form of searchable databases and online connectivity.  It is a world that is far more advanced than our own in many ways (complete with flying cars!) and  no less commercially oriented, with gigantic neon billboards for corporations and loud audio advertisements bombarding the citizens of the future megacity Los Angeles at every waking moment.  If not quite the same as our current timeline, Blade Runner in many ways anticipated it from the perspective of the early 1980s.

   The unique aesthetics of this world make a return in its sequel, this year's release Blade Runner 2049.  The various Star Trek series have very different looks in terms of production design; the bright colors of the 1960s original series seem particularly jarring when contrasted to Discovery's comparatively shadowy hues.  Unlike this, the two Blade Runner films strongly resemble each other; 2049 retains the blocky look, flying cars, and gigantic billboards of the original, as well as its dark, noirish color pallete.  But a closer analysis reveals that the advertising technology of 2049 has grown far more advanced than its precursor, with eerie, aetherial holograms populating the sides of buildings and numerous digital billboards...and even the main character, "K"'s apartment.  The "Joi" hologram in K's apartment serves partly as an incredibly sophisticated evolution of the various "personal assistants" available now like Amazon's Alexa; like these, she can obey voice commands and search requests for her owner.  But she is far more advanced than any currently available personal assistant; she is able to perfectly read the emotions of K, arrange her holographic appearance in any manner he desires, and respond to his wants better than a human being could possibly hope to.  The Joi holograms have such an uncanny ability to intuit human emotion that K's final encounter with one occurs in a haunting way that will have the viewer question the motives and programming of them during the entire film.  Though 2049 lacks the familiar "social networks" of our age, it presents a world in which the soul of our Internet--the advertising--has become so incredibly sophisticated that it can achieve an almost human status in our physical world.  What will happen if that technology that Silicon Valley has invested so deeply in--the adware of our current "primitive" Internet--becomes so advanced that it no longer needs a computer screen to reach into our lives?  This is one of the true questions that 2049 poses for our age, as much as the techno-utopianism of Star Trek's seemless replicators was a project of the now-lost optimism of the 1960s.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Horror in an Age After Imagination

   This October, in a month of candy, costumes, and commemorative rock music, take a minute to ponder the fates of our original cinematic horror icons.  Vampires have become identified more as the stars of trashy YA romance lit such as the Twilight series than as the classic Lugosi inspired figure.  Frankenstein's Creature is rarely seen onscreen anymore, and succesful films featuring it are even rarer.  Mummies are perhaps the rarest of all, and the last major film featuring a mummy, a poorly reviewed Tom Cruise starring vehicle, inspires little confidence. What's happened to these creatures that once haunted our dreams?

   When these creatures first appeared onscreen, there was still an element of surprise and awe in seeing a legendary horror made flesh. Films about legendary horror creatures date to the very dawn of commercial cinema; the first Frankenstein film dates all the way back to 1910!  During the silent era, the cinematography, makeup, and stylistics of monster films rapidly became more sophisticated, particularly in 1922's Nosferatu, an unlicensed adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula novel.  Early sound films such as 1931's Frankenstein, the beginning of the classic Universal Monsters series, could not match the wondrous cinematography of Nosferatu, but featured amazing acting from horror stars such as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  These films, relatively short (especially by modern standards), and far from the most expensive of Universal releases, were among the most resonant in an America racked by the poverty wrought by the Great Depression and racked by the racial cruelty of Jim Crow laws.  This was a transitional phase in America, a country where people still rarely left the state of their birth and could be awed by Karloff as a mysterious, Egyptian stranger who just may have powers from beyond the grave.  It was a nation that could only see its injustices mirrored in the horrors endured by Frankenstein's creature because the Code and other censorship of the time prevented the honest depiction of racial and other injustices endured by millions of Americans.  In a darkened theatre, in an imaginary realm of shadows and darkness, Americans confronted the strange and the mysterious in the only environment that felt safe to them in a changing, foreboding world.

   Then the worst thing that ever happened to the American horror genre occured--the victory of the Allies in World War II.  America enjoyed a burst of postwar prosperity as the only nation involved in WWII that had not seen its manufacturing centers bombed into a ruin.  In the period of success and equality that followed the war, class equality and incomes grew, racial injustices were slowly rectified through the efforts of civil rights leaders, and the once-formidable Universal Monsters became little more than a punchline in a joke.  It's quite telling that their last collective appearance, in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, was a solely comedic one; the "classic" Universal Mummy would also make a last apperance in a comedy, the 1955 film Abbott and Costello Meet the MummyThe Abbott and Costello Mummy film represented the end of Universal's interest in its classic monster films and the death of mainstream Hollywood's interest in horror themes, as the studio's only remaining use for its old creatures was as matinee rereleases and fodder for local TV horror hosts.  The banner of memorable horror releases during the 1950s fell to those nations that were far more devastated than America by WWII, ranging from Japan's Godzilla to Britain's Horror of DraculaProducts of anguished and wounded nations, these films were more graphic and brutal than the American horror that had preceded them, and those foreign studios that had created them, Japan's Toho and Britain's Hammer, frequently had superior production budgets and better directon than the remaining low budget American horror fare.

   Only as America's involvement in Vietnam lingered on and as storm of societal unrest gathered, did major Hollywood studios finally regain their interest in horror films.  Even as releases like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist gathered critical acclaim, the classic monsters (no longer were they Universal-made) were typically relegated to poorly made schlock like Dracula vs. Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Castle of FreaksEven during the 1980s, a decade full of sexual trauma over the AIDS crisis and the end of the "free love" era, the old creatures were mostly displaced by newer slasher film villains like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.  The legendary creatures would receive one last loving homage, the memorable 1987 release The Monster SquadA sort of "horror Goonies", this movie managed to make its creatures both funny and scary at the same time, and featured great monster design and makeup which resembled that of the Universal creatures while retaining enough imagination to not being totally derivative of them. Sadly, the aim of horror had already moved past the age of matinees and and films that could still be seen by children; The Monster Squad did not fit the appetite of an audience that had come to value gore and lurid thrills above all else, and the film bombed as a result.

   Now, in the late 2010s, Universal has finally taken interest in its back catalogue of horror films once more. However, the early results are...not optimistic.  Universal's interest in its legendary creatures is no longer a thing of mists and shadowy castles but the stuff of massive franchise crossovers; the studio wants to invest hundreds of millions into creating a "Dark Universe" to rival the imaginary worlds of Marvel and DC, and fling boatloads of expensive CGI at its viewers while doing so. The Dark Universe's first release, the 2017 remake of The Mummy, is emblamatic of this; much of the film isn't even about the mummy itself so much as it is about Tom Cruise's hero character interacting with a pseudo-SHIELD organization that fights monsters around the world.  The mummy wanders around and does stuff, draining the life force of men to sustain herself (conceptually, she's more a vampire than mummy, although I don't know if the screenwriters considered this too heavily) and sets boldly get exploded, but this is a film entirely devoid of imagination, of the striving for the mythic darkness that the old Universal films and even older silent films evoked.  This is the product of an age beyond suggestion, beyond subtlety, beyond thought itself, and in its cynical attempts to rip off the "Marvel model", it evokes another poorly regarded entry in a long-running series, Godzilla: Final Wars, which also pilfered Marvel's SHIELD model of a secret organization and featured CGI-laden fights that were perfunctory and unsatisfying.  There has been no further movement on the Dark Universe following The Mummy's disappointing summer release, suggesting Universal has put its legendary menagerie to rest once more.  Could Universal regain the old vital spirit of madness, that spark that once animated its creature in 1931 while Dr. Frankenstein yelled "It's Alive!"?  Such a thing would mean that our own cinematic dark age, the Age After Imagination, would finally be coming to an end.     

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Zombies Redux

     Before chairing a panel at Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity that was largely devoted to zombies as a focus of speculative fiction, I had promised to return to the topic, so here are some further thoughts.  The first thing that struck me from talking with John Maberry, Lester Yokum, F. J. Talley and Sandra R. Campbell (and at an earlier panel on the topic with Weldon Burge an Belinda Gordon) was that zombies, or more properly neo-zombies are now ubiquitous, just folks you might meet around the neighborhood.  I'm surprised they haven't been taken up by Sesame Street.  Americans have become so inured to them that there are now whole sub-genres of fiction devoted to zombie romance, zombie comedy, etc.  Their role as agents or creations of an impending Apocalypse is so mundane in American culture that it no longer gives rise to disputes or surprise.  Indeed, that familiarity may eventually begin to breed a certain contempt, since according to the adage tout beau, tout nouveau, a fad that ceases to draw a spark of recognition is often doomed.  Will zombies soon become the new kid in town who loses his cool when people start to take him for granted?

    Maybe not yet, because zombies have rooted themselves deeply in the sub-structure of American capitalism, below the personal level.  The former Wall Street operative become Wall Street critic Michael Keyser often lambastes zombie banks and zombie finance that rise from the apparent death of insolvency to feed off the flesh of the living citizens, fashioning the bizarrely counter-intuitive economy that has progressed over the past two decades.  Behind the "too big to fail" approach to debt and banking is the same haunting attraction/fear of death that spawns the zombies of page and screen. Americans have existed  for decades now on the edge of a financial precipice, always conscious that the tilt of a recession, a housing crisis, sudden workforce downsizing, medical emergency, a credit disaster, or other series of unfortunate events could set off a dizzying social descent that can dispel family cohesion like a mist and send the proudest middle-class wannabes straight to the homeless shelter without passing go.  Apocalypse is all too obviously now.  

     The Christian heritage fuels zombie angst.  After all, wasn't Lazarus the original neo-zombie?  Didn't Ezekiel prophesy that the Valley of Dead Bones would rise again?  Wasn't Jesus himself a kind of zombie forerunner as he grasped the hand of doubting Thomas and thrust it into the wound in his side? Doesn't nearly every liturgy include a Credo calling for faith in the resurrection of the body?  And what sort of body? What Sunday School teacher has not had to deal with a child's innocent question about whether they will emerge from the grave with rotting flesh?  What has been a sure path to canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, if not the capacity of a dead body to unnaturally refuse to decay?  It is somewhat ironic that, apart from Ancient Egypt, it has mainly been our Christian churches and the Communist Party that have given undertakers and embalming a glorified role.   Afraid of death, we recoil against our own organic condition, reluctant to let go of that dear fleshy karma and distrustful of even the most perfect dharma that could await us.  We sing about that strength of faith in the final verse of Luther's mighty hymn ("let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also..."), but how many quaver at the difficulty of putting it into practice?

   We have to face it: zombies have, in a way, become cozy.  While zombies have to be initially horrifying to elicit the desired chemical response in the audience, making them willing to pay $12.00 (not counting over-priced concessions) to sit and be scared for 120 minutes in a gigaplex theater, the end effect is to desensitize the public to death.  Especially when so many pathetic characters deserve it. As with any other sort of violence and gore, this ultimately serves the purposes of the State by making for a compliant citizenry.  More willing to step out into harm's way if ordered to do so and not complain about the VA hospital. To live placidly on top of a toxic waste dump.  To shelter in place as the tidal surge approaches, when the lawgivers have forgotten to implement an escape plan. To accept to be collateral damage.  To take for granted that those pills might have side effects.  Zombies might actually be the ideal subjects.  Give them a Good Conduct Certificate.

   It is significant that the popularity of zombies has come at the expense of the good old staple of horror, the ghost.  What trick-or-treater, besides Charlie Brown or ET, dresses up as a ghost?  I think I can tell you why: ghosts are unforgivably individualistic and downright scornful of the flesh.  They are ectoplasmic anarchists.  Ghosts don't just stumble about in crowds, they think, they plot, they are selective, they have definite preferences.  They care very much about how humans perceive them, or don't.  I remember the affable ghostly couple in the old television program "Topper" who were always playfully manipulating the feckless Leo G. Carroll, alternately thwarting and protecting him.  Who ever heard of a ghost without a personality? A ghost is nothing but an individual who persists once the body is gone, while a zombie is a (partial) body that persists after the individuality has gone.  It says something about the United States as a culture that we have all but forgotten about the ghosts of individualism to embrace the depersonalized fungibility of the zombie.  

     This lamentable truth does not, I maintain, mean that the zombie is inevitably doomed to be dismissed as an insignificant character type.  Indeed, I believe the future of the zombie genre lies in a further development -- the anti-zombie.  The very differentiation of zombie literature into sub-genres such as zombie romance and zombie comedy promises that zombies will regain that which they lost, that is ti say, personalities.  I would foresee zombies who become conscious of the limitations of their zombified state and search for an anterior consciousness, rather like some of the latter-day Borg in the Star Trek universe who had to deal with the anguish of having to function without the mindless conformity of The Collective.  Seven of Nine in "Voyager" showed that, with the requisite pectoral development, a zombie could actually manage to steal the show from less interesting human characters. The anti-zombie could then join many other mass culture phenomena such as the X-men, the Watchmen, and Spiderman, who have do adapt to their sheer freakishness through understanding, self-discipline, and cunning.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What an explosion of Russian interest in our blog the past couple of weeks.  Welcome to our new friends.  Let's start a comment thread and give us some updates on what's new in Russian science fiction!  We want to know.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Valerian as Espionage 

     It is not by accident that we chose this poster as an illustration.  Unlike much of the publicity for the Besson film, it conveys a richness of character and diversity that better corresponds to the story than the images that focus only on the characters of Valerian and Laureline in an uncharacteristically threatening pose.  
     Like Besson's earlier sci fi classic, The Fifth Element, this movie has generated heated controversy between its proponents and a large body of detractors who have, we feel, misunderstood and hence misjudged the film as an art work.  The primary reason for this split is probably because Valerian demands the viewer's attention to a degree that is uncommon today.  With most action films, a spectator can run for a pee-pee break or stand in the popcorn line for a few minutes without missing too much, since a few explosions more or less will not vary the plot line, nor will omitting several iterations of "Go! Go! Now!" change the impressions of a character. Not so for Valerian.  The action is non-stop, but the events are also tightly interwoven.  This is because it is more than a science fiction action film.  It is also, fundamentally, a spy film.
     We are probably more sensitive to this spy designation because our own second novel in the Forlani Sage, Spy Station, is also centered on espionage.  Espionage always demands mystery more than direct confrontation.  Another word for spy is secret agent, so espionage presumes secrecy.  Valerian and Laureline are not truly military personnel, but intelligence operatives.  Their primary mission is to retrieve a stolen generator organism.  To perform it, they must employ disguise, deception, and cunning, rather than just blasting their way into an enemy base and destroying it.  Of course, as with any espionage, there is always collateral damage.  But the point is to minimize direct confrontation so as to complete the mission: slip in undetected, snatch the object, escape as intact as possible.  
     Of course, there are lots of fancy accessories.  Just as James Bond has his specially equipped spy cars and his Walther PPK, Valerian and Laureline have morphing body armor and impressive sidearms.  Like those subject to JamesBondage, sci fi fans sometimes put undue emphasis on these technical gadgets to the detriment of story line and character (a classic example that pokes fun at fan obsessions is the wonderful parody Galaxy Quest). However, the discerning spectator needs to avoid excessive concentration on details in order to keep the overall operation in focus -- one needs to see the forest as well as the trees.  It is essential to "follow the money," or in this case, the predicament of the Pearls and their last surviving pet generator beast.  This is what all the critics and viewers who complain that Valerian is "hard to follow" have failed to do.
     Another complication in this confusion is that this film departs from the usual trends of military sci fi, since it is the military that has caused the problem and that ultimately poses the greatest threat to the survival of The City of a Thousand Planets, Space Station Alpha.  It is important to remember that the Pearls' home world is ravaged as collateral damage in a military engagement that they have no part in.  It is the human space rangers who are responsible for the very radiation that threatens Alpha, since they turned the Pearls into galactic refugees.  For their part, the Pearls do not envision any threat to the other species on the station and take great pains to "slime" their opponents rather than killing them when they have the chance.  The danger lies in the military chain of command (the backbone of much military sci fi), while salvation eventually requires the space rangers to essentially mutiny in support of "humanitarian" ends (how strange that phrase sounds in the face of an interplanetary, interspecies reality that we all may have to face sooner than we imagine). The Space Cadets in the audience will always have trouble accepting a conflict where the military is at fault, just as war buffs cannot help finding issues with Platoon.  All the more so when the smarter of the spy pair is -- unforgivably for some -- a woman.
     For anyone who has made their way through one of John le Carre's contorted spy tales, Valerian is not truly that hard to follow.  In many ways, it can be compared to one of the cinematic adaptations of Fleming's Bond stories, though in this case the spies have to navigate the interdimensional Big Market instead of the canals of Venice, deal with slinky females who can shape shift, and avoid an enforcer who looks like Ghostbusters' Zool and tears apart space ships instead of just throwing an iron hat.  It is a travelogue where the viewer is zipped through space and time as well as mere geography.  In fact, this is cleverly underlined by Besson in the Big Market sequence when a couple of kitsch-collecting American tourists provide a humorous homage to Sheriff J. W. Pepper on vacation in The Man With the Golden Gun.  It can be said that Valerian is, in typically French fashion, very intertextual as well as interdimensional.  Very nouveau roman!  
     In some ways, Valerian and Laureline are unlike Bond in that they are super-conscious of their role as secret agents and the human price they pay to do their jobs.  They are closer to the realm of George Smiley.  Their courageous friend Bubbles, done to surprising perfection by Rihanna, belongs more with the endearing figures in Smiley's People than the tinsel superficiality of the Bond Girls.  Laureline, who is, we must remember, an "old-fashioned girl" from the Middle Ages in her comic strip genesis, forces Valerian to renounce his philandering ways as a tombeur de filles to an extent that Bond, even in On Her Majesty's Secret Service or Casino Royale (sic),  never has to endure.  How appropriate, since Laureline is never a fille but a fully conscious and unrepentant woman.  
     The espionage plot in Valerian unfolds in stages, as most spy intrigues must.  On the surface, things begin with what appears to be a simple caper, recovering an object of dubious legitimacy.  Casino Royale begins as an attempt to recover money embezzled by a labor official,  Dr. No with the disappearance of a bird watcher, Goldfinger with a vacationer cheating at gin rummy.  There is always more going on than is apparent, a seemingly sinister organization at work, many levels of things being covered up.  There are obligatory escape sequences that have to introduce surprise after surprise, preferably contrasting extremely bizarre elements with others that are mundane and ironically comical.  There is spycraft and the inevitable awkwardness of dealing with superiors who always demand more than is reasonable and reveal less than is necessary.  In Valerian there is even the arch-enemy, the mole in the system who has a personal agenda that is counter to the general welfare.  
     We will return to Valerian in a future post to deal with some further issues of characterization.  We hope that this discussion of the "spy side" of the movie will cause people to return and review it with a fresh perspective.  Clearly, it is a film that, like The Fifth Element is destined not just for cult popularity, but ultimately for a classic status.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Countdown Sale on Amazon UK!

Can a renegade political prisoner and an alien pleasure worker find happiness and meaning while threatened by sinister human corporations, giant parasitic locusts, and rampaging viking octopi? Klein, who reads Faulkner and makes love to music by Schumann, is not your average rocket jock. Entara, who can have up to six babies at a time and becomes the most famous singer on her home world, is not your average call girl. Add in a pacifist organic farmer who buries bodies under his cucumbers, an Iranian nuclear tech who cuts hair for a living, a chatty raccoon-like doctor who can put Humpty-Dumpty together again and creatures that can transmit racial memory through touch telepathy and you have just a sample of the wild characters in Life Sentence.

We will be having a Kindle Countdown Sale on Amazon UK that runs from August 8-15.  On the first three days, you can order our exciting science fiction adventure for the lowest possible price, but hurry, because after three days, it rises by one pound, but is still a great bargain for the rest of the sale.  Just go to :

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Another Close Call for our World

We're just back from a wonderful cruise along the the Norwegian coast on the Hurtigruten Line's MS Nordnorge.  As we docked briefly at Risoyhavn on the Vesteralen island of Andoya, we learned about a scary and unlikely incident back in 1995.

Andoya is home to Norway's modest space program, which is located on the seaward side of the island.  Therefore, sailing up the coastal channel, we did not see it, but only the mountains between it and us.  

Launches at Andoya are strictly scientific and employ Black Brant missile systems.  Most of the research focuses on Arctic phenomena, such as the aurora borealis and its relationship to the magnetosphere.  

Such was the 1995 mission that almost led to a global nuclear conflict.  A missile aimed at the Norwegian far-north archipelago of Svalbard unfortunately assumed a course and a radar profile similar to that which would be produced by a US Trident nuclear-tipped missile launched from one of the numerous submarines we maintain in Arctic waters close to Russia.

The incident only lasted ten minutes until the Russian military was able to determine that this was not a first strike against their country.  Nevertheless, their version of the Nuclear Briefcase was brought to President Boris Yeltsin and a retaliatory strike was being organized when the stand-down was given. You see, there is not much time to think, since it would take an American sub-launched missile only ten minutes to reach Moscow.  This was at least the second time that cool-headedness on the Russian side saved the planet from an apocalyptic war, the previous time being a 1983 incident that is still not completely explained in a convincing manner.

When the several thousand natives of Andoya learned of this after the fact, they were astonished their little municipality could have such far-reaching influence.  They celebrated the big misunderstanding with a droll Norsk sense of humor by printing up a batch of t-shirts inscribed with the message "We Started World War III!"