Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (Trans: Olena Bormashenko), “Roadside Picnic” (1972, 2012); Leslie Stein, “Time Clock: An Eye Of The Majestic Creature Book” (2016); Stanislaw Lem (Trans: Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox), “Solaris” (1961, 1970, 2002)

August 30, 2016

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The key to understanding the underlying philosophy of Roadside Picnic is in the third chapter, the conversation between Noonan and Pillman, which is also an expansion on the interview with Pillman in the prologue. Noonan chastises Pillman for promoting theories that say the alien Visitors didn’t notice or care about the native population of earth, but simply dropped their stuff off and left without a thought. “Where do you get this disdain for man?” Noonan says; but in reality Pillman is not the one with disdain – as seen in his two relatively brief appearances in the book, he is simply skeptical about the idea that first contact occurs because of humanity or earth’s centrality, or that communication is a necessary outcome – as he explains in the prologue, the significance of the event is not the possibility of humans understanding the extraterrestrials, but that the possibility of life on other planets exists at all. He is the face of the ambiguous science fiction concept that provides the novel’s setting, not answering the questions we may ask about the nature of the technology, but telling us that it’s unimportant, that communication and understanding in this situation is unimportant. The only thing that matters is the expanding possibilities in the known universe. He acts as the Strugatskys’ contextualizing tool, but he doesn’t know much more than the readers about what the Zone is – that knowledge is beside the point.

Really, it’s almost every character other than Pillman that has disdain for man – specifically, Noonan’s “friend” Redrick, whose life as one of the Stalkers has driven him to completely reject all but a few people in his life, never realizing how much of his existence has been subsumed by the Zone until the end. Almost every relationship he has with the others on the edge of the Zone is paired with profound hate: hate for the authorities who try to prevent his scrounging, hate for his fellow Stalkers who are in a constant competition to see who can swindle the other, hate for anyone who knows less about the Zone then he does. We are in Rederick’s mind for most of the book, whether it be the introductory chapter where he is the narrator or the rest where he is picked apart but an omniscient one, and every thought seems to be fed by anger and disgust – his feelings about his destroyed hometown seems to melt away, any sentimentality buried by the realization that he has always had essentially nothing, and seems to want nothing. He seems to care for his family, but even that is undercut by his final thoughts in the closing chapter, his desire to owe no one – being a Stalker has become his sole source of meaning, beyond even his desire to make money, becoming the barest sort of survival drive. The significance of the Zone even begins to influence his family life, where two of the only people he shows affection for are casualties of the Zone’s malignant influence.

Redrick’s life is Exhibit A in Pillman’s theories about this story’s first contact – the very existence of the extraterrestrials and their technology becomes the most significant thing in his life, every action revolving around journeying in and out of the Zone or justifying his reaction to the authoritarianism and criminal greed that were themselves reactions to the visit. Many of the characters seem trapped in this cycle, trapped by how much the Zone has changed human civilization – and despite Noonan’s attempts, answers for what the Zone is and why it’s there cannot provide an escape from it. The only question that can seemingly be asked of it is “now that this stuff is here, what can be done with it?”, a question that is the driving force behind the stalkers and the scientists – but even that ends up having no possibility for conclusion.

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Continuing more or less directly from Stein’s previous Eye Of the Majestic Creature book, Time Clock moves the stories in the direction of small-scale internal conflict, a difficult attempt to balance what you want and what you think you want (complicated by what others want as well.) After spending most of the previous books drifting from job to job, Larrybear decides to get a more serious career going, the kind of structure that she seemed to be looking for in previous stories – there seems to be less of a sense of wandering, even when Larry does move to different settings, with a drive for predictability and security. The one big but brief change that occurs in the middle of the book is initiated with a big, dreamy flourish, pages of outdoor whimsy that contrasts the concrete urbanity of the rest – the one thing unifying both visuals, though, is their inability to affect Larry, who seeks some kind of fulfillment in two settings, the pastoral openness of the country and the tied-down structure of a New York job, but can’t seem to make it work. It’s an ambivalent streak that runs through the whole book in a way unlike previous Eye stories.

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Every story here also seems to have Larry become aware of how other people find solace with their passions while she struggles – she goes to a convention for her artistic calling, where she finds camaraderie with the other artists as well as a “nemesis” whose popularity and methods are the inverse of her situation, but after that point sit becomes increasingly difficult to find inspiration for her work. The move back to the country is spurred by her talking guitar’s increasing sense of isolation and his attempt to find his own calling – but while the move benefits him greatly, she has trouble adapting again and in a fit of low-key desperation goes back to her job and the city, seeking something to do other than constantly ponder what’s supposed to happen next. But no decision in this book is ever not fraught, always in some way tainted with regret – no matter how committed one is to their life choices, it always seems like there’s more good than bad and there’s always something better somewhere else. It’s a secret that everyone other than Larry has figured out, it seems, and by the end she seems to have become even more isolated.

In that way, I guess the wandering feeling of older Stein books isn’t entirely gone – but where before it seemed to contain possibilities, now it just feels lost.

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I decided to read Roadside Picnic because of the essay Lem wrote about it in Microworlds (wherein he attempts to come up with the most logical explanation for the whys of the technology, as Lem is wont to do), and it’s easy to understand why Strugatskys’ novel interested him: in its active refusal to show humanity understanding the signs of alien life, they are playing within the same realm of science fiction thought that Lem himself often did. Lem has often explored the difficulties of a true cultural understanding or exchange between species of wildly different evolutionary histories with vast differences in between, and while Picnic uses the unknown quality of the extraterrestrial presence mainly as a background element (an important one) without the depth of argument that Lem gives it in his own work, the strange incomprehensibility of the alien signs and the human reaction (how the limited nature of human cognition would lead to numerous assumptions as obsessive individuals attempt to crack the indecipherable code) is still very much in line with it.

Solaris is many ways the inverse of his other alien contact novel His Master’s Voice in that it involves humans visiting an alien “intelligence” rather than the alien intelligence being visited upon them. Long stretches of the book are devoted to recounting the history of scientific studies of the sentient ocean, the many theories about the hows and whys of its existence and what it can do and whether humans can communicate with it, volumes of study and debunked crackpot hypotheses that shift and change – Solaris becomes a vessel through which the scientific community displays the aforementioned limits of human cognition, bias and the herd mentality of consensus. Kelvin retreats to the vast library of Solaristic material as a way to further understand what is happening around him, but finds that even first-hand accounts and the words of his own mentor only suggest that Solaris can only be understood by humans in entirely subjective terms, a complicated act of interpretation that never reaches any conclusion. Each of the three human characters in the book have their own “visitors”, dealing with them in different ways after very similar initial reactions – subjective possibilities also seen in the reports Kelvin reads – the true picture of Solaris seems to be distorted because it appears in different forms to different people, contorting itself to their minds.

The most wondrous passages in the book describe the series of nature phenomenon that occurs in the ocean, large ephemeral monoliths and complicated acts of mimicry when humans arrive, which constantly straddle the line between deliberate acts of beautiful creation and mindless reactions to stimuli – the possibility of the latter, of course, making the ocean’s power to spontaneously form life and “read” the innermost minds of the station crew all the more disturbing. As an act of a cognizant being that can be benevolent, malevolent, or even just confused, doing something like physically manifesting Kelvin’s guilt into a independently intelligent being could be understood in human terms, but if it is able to do that unconsciously it is psychological violation and trauma without any purpose at all, and uncontrollable loosing of our own unconscious minds. This is the idea of God that Kelvin speaks to Snow about in the final chapter, a thing with the greatest possible power with no understanding of how to use it – what’s more interesting, or concerning, about this form of non-contact is not simply us being unable to reach another mind, but knowing that it can reach yours and reacts in its own inscrutable cosmic way.

Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

July 30, 2016

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

David J. Skal,”The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror” (1993, 2001); John Wagner/Mike McMahon/Brian Bolland/Ron Smith/et. al., “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04″(1980-81, 2011); & Michael Deforge, “Big Kids” (2016)

June 28, 2016

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Horror reflects the anxieties of its time – that’s really not an especially new or interesting observation, and while Skal delves into that here (especially in how the horror movies of the twenties and thirties reflected a depopulated and disfigured post-WWI world, and interestingly shows how the movies of the forties often directly avoided the then-raging second World War even while setting themselves in a mock image of “Europe”), he also shows how adaptive those horror metaphors are (Dracula and Frankenstein, the two primary subjects of the book, appear consistently throughout the decades and in changing forms), and how they are reflected back by society itself. The twentieth-century did not have a one-sided relationship with horror icons (including the ones pulled from previous centuries) – there was a long-standing relationship with horror imagery that appeared before film (as Skal shows in his overview of the Grand Guignol theatre tradition), and in many ways the kinds of body horror and violent obsessions of horror entertainment influenced the way people look at things. By mid-century, horror imagery became firmly ingrained into culture at large (seen in Diane Arbus’ photography, the rise of gory make-up effects “culture”, and even in novelty songs like “Monster Mash”), even as attempts to censor or eliminate the entire genre – and by the time horror became recognized as indelible, the culture became more like the horror it consumed; the latter half of book zones in on that idea especially. Horror is not just a genre, but a lifestyle, and while they are often derived from real terrors, figures like vampires have become potent symbols for marginalized communities as well, taking some of those dark traits and re-contextualizing them to more positive ends. As well, the book highlights how some of the more outlandishly ghoulish ideas from the films seem to become closer to reality as the century moved one – although the desire to find horror metaphors everywhere leads the author to some questionable arguments concerning the trans community and HIV that were contestable in 1993, but seem atrociously wrong these days.

Another fascinating line comes from not just discussing horror movies as some cultural objects that were collectively dreamt up (as these sorts of arguments sometimes lean towards), but as the products of people with their own ideas and their own reasons for making them. Tod Browning is the central figure here, as Skal looks at his fascinating life and brief filmography and finds several recurring themes – Browning’s very peculiar career trajectory is very much apparent in his work, and it’s an especially potent series of events where his childhood as a carnival act (as a man who would be buried in a casket and then “resurrected”, because sometimes things make too much sense) would ultimately lead him to direct Freaks, the film that destroyed his directing career. Browning is the figure the book is most fascinated with, but the history of the stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and the ugly business of securing the film rights) are equally important, and show in microcosm how individual directors, writers, actors, and businessmen interpreted these stories and helped create close-to-platonic conceptions of both those stories, crafting all future reinterpretations of the two most important horror symbols.

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After reading later volumes of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, I decided to walk my way backwards and see what I missed. This volume begins with a very long storyline that, while entertaining in parts, never comes together into much of anything. Considering how few of the stories have anything to do with the main plot (once Dredd and the other judges head into space, especially), one has to wonder if this whole idea was simply because the writers were bored of Mega City One and wanted to have an excuse to set the comics elsewhere for a while – and once they ran out of ideas for weird aliens or planets for Dredd to deal with (and considering how urgent his mission supposedly is, the points where has to stop and do something else because someone asked him are especially head-scratching), they went back to the main plot and finished it on an appropriate (but still maddening, especially if you were reading this weekly back in the eighties) anticlimax. It’s hard for me to even call most of the storyline padding, because most of the stories that happen between the early parts of the “Judge Child” saga and the end don’t even feel like they’re part of the same story – it’s more like they changed the premise of the strip for over half a year.

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It’s also frustrating because of how solid an artist line-up they have for an entire volume, with Ron Smith (who gets frequent opportunities to draw goofy cross-eyed expressions on people), Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, and Steve Dillon trading off stories, and there isn’t a bad-looking comic in the lot. Once the “Judge Child” story ends and you get back to the more anchored lunacy of Judge Dredd, things begin to click again (although the space stories weren’t bad per se, they lacked the spark of the Mega City One stories, with maybe the exception of the “Battlefield” story – one of two opportunities for Ron Smith to do ad parodies in this volume) – the first comic to follow it is a real nice character-focused piece with even nice Brian Bolland artwork, almost reintroducing readers to the actual point of the series. Subsequently, you get real fun premises like “Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic” and “Unamerican Graffiti” (probably the best of the stories in here, about as hilariously bleak as you can get), as well as the ridiculous action piece “Pirates of the Black Atlantic”, which somehow manages to be many different sorts of stories all at once (you go from a story with mutant pirates to “oh, a whole section of the city has just been obliterated with a nuclear missile”, which understandably is a pretty grim turn), and even acts as prelude to the stories they’d be telling not long after (this volume ends up introducing several elements that the series would go back to for years to come.) After what felt like a long time away, the second half of volume 4 felt like coming home.

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One thing that struck me while reading Big Kids was the constantly shifting presence of very specific social power dynamics, a slightly unnerving sort of casual cruelty that sometimes appears in Deforge’s other works. There’s always a need for someone to be at the bottom of the hierarchy among Adam’s peer group, who are arbitrarily (although probably not that arbitrarily) chosen to be the target, and this is never questioned even by the designated target. When Adam changes into a “tree”, the dynamics change – he no longer becomes the target as the other teenagers sense something is different about him, people in his life who are still “twigs” become lesser beings (even when, or maybe especially when, they are former authority figures like Adam’s father, his policeman uncle, and his ex-boyfriend) – the twigs are, as the narration itself explains, not actually lesser in any real way, but they not only lack the gifts of extrasensory visualizing and interconnection. But they are also seen as these expressionless, simplistic shapes that are physically smaller and lack any of the “organic” features that define the trees. In a way, this dehumanizes them in a way that Adam seems willing to take advantage of, his new way of seeing the world allowing him to ignore the other level of reality he no longer has to deal with – like on the page where he simply picks up and throws his abusive uncle out a window, the change in their relative realities giving him the confidence to overthrow those who once domineered his life. But while this seems triumphant in that scene, it’s not difficult to see that this is just another arbitrary hierarchy being used – the trees’ “awakening” is random, and the trees’ distinctive societies and relationships are an unspoken agreement.

Another recurring theme is a strange ambivalence towards art and its ability to construct and deconstruct familiarity. When Adam becomes a tree, every object or concept (like sounds) in the world becomes a Deforge-style abstraction, a flowing liquidy shape or living thing – ideas are anti-Platonic in a way, and no ideas are invisible, always visible. Being able to see things in this seemingly nonconforming, elastic way is the gift and the curse of the trees, the world becoming a formless expression rather than rigidity, but one that ultimately gets in the way of understanding people without this artistic mind, and ultimately robs them of their memories of their older world. The computer program April develops with Adam’s mom is a sort of alternative form of expression, returning to some semblance of “realism” in order to preserve those memories, but it also demonstrates the imperfection of visual memory (an idea helped by the way Deforge draws people in this – simple faces that make the imprecise fudging of details more noticeable), every image of the world around us a always a illustration from a hazy thought rather than anything completely concrete. By the end, we see that there are people who seem to gain something from this new mode of interpretation that they can flow through themselves, a viable community, but to others it is ultimately an alienating force (like Adam’s mom, who chooses to physically deform herself to feel more at home among the twigs like her husband) – artistic extrapolation and reinvention being able to bring people together or keep them separate.

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Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

June 6, 2016

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.

Bill Carter, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle For the Night” (1994,1995) & Harlan Ellison, “The Glass Teat”(1969-1970, 2011)

May 9, 2016

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Rightly or wrongly (probably more of the former), many people look at entertainment industry conflicts as an entirely who-could-possibly-care proposition, a battle between millionaires who shouldn’t want more than they have but apparently do (and not necessarily in terms of money, either – but money is supposed to fill those universal holes in our sense of self-worth, or so we’d like to believe.) For a normal person with a normal job, it’s difficult to fathom what could possibly be so important about being the one spearheading one particular show – and in the two decades since the The Late Shift was published, the idea of something like The Tonight Show having any sort of legacy that was worth fighting for, or that anyone would care so deeply about a format that seems antiquated and intentionally ephemeral, seems even more ludicrous – there were major changes in the television landscape happening alongside the NBC fiasco, and it’s even more significantly different now. That, and the fallout of the events in this book (and later events that were so similar that the same author wrote about them as well) ended up more or less taking the gleam from the Tonight Show – the way the show (and late night television in general) has evolved since Leno took over, left, took over again, and then left again has made it seem like something perfectly fine in its perfunctory and irrelevant niche – it’s mild entertainment for the ones who want it, and that’s pretty much it.

At the same time, considering how television was, it’s not that difficult to see why Letterman put so much into the idea of taking over The Tonight Show – it was destination television, a near-constant in the entertainment world for decades, a showcase for talent (like him and Leno), a venue available to millions of people who always know when it’s on. When you put so much into the idea of being an entertainer, being the lead in what was then the most consistent source of late night entertainment would seem the ultimate prize, the most prestigious position anyone could possibly have – and that’s especially true when you idolize your predecessor as much as Letterman idolized Johnny Carson. Letterman seemed to view The Tonight Show not only as the best venue for his talents, but also recognized it as the origin of his career. That kind of character study, of both Letterman and Leno, makes up about half of the book, the other being the executive wars going on primarily at NBC, where the players are definitely invested but often in ways that go back to that “war of the millionaires” idea (of course, it’s fun to read about it anyway, because the industry and the money involved means we can gleefully observe the bloodletting without any compunction – morality and proportion checked out long ago.) Both seem to have ideas and personalities that are the priority in their decision-making, Letterman’s devotion to craft and Leno’s to the idea of hard work going hand-in-hand with success, rather than just keeping a business afloat or even personal wealth – when the money does come up, it’s rarely the deciding factor (but it’s still there to make us workaday nobodies do a double take and wish we had their problems.) Where does one decide to bring art into the equation when you’re talking about something so inherently crass as television? It seems to be more at stake than would seem rational, but I guess people’s need for creative exposure and prestige would have to go somewhere – and at some point, it was going be with a medium as (seemingly) universal as network TV.

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It’s likely based on nothing but established personality defects, but I can’t help but find that even though there’s rarely anything blatantly wrong with most modern TV criticism, there’s this feeling of stultifying dullness that creeps in. The idea of the “golden age” of television seems to inspire in a generation already raised by TV not a desire for introspection or context, but an assumption that “we’ve already won”, so all we need to do is tell everyone how intelligent and well-made everything is without adding any actual interesting thoughts to the mix. The kind of animating venom that really gets one thinking about the state of a medium, about its failings and what it could be, sometime feels absent – but maybe television has just been around in its current form for so long that everyone just sort of accepts that this is the best we can do, and it might be more sustainable sanity-wise to look at the successes that might be found in this current form and not constantly dwell on the never-ending parade of failings. It’s maybe better for the writers – but as a reader, I prefer the anger, to be honest.

Ellison’s The Glass Teat columns were being written in a very singular moment in American history, and also a very important transition point in the history of television. While there’s plenty in here that modern readers will recognize, there’s also plenty that just seems at odds with how things are now – the timidness and artificiality of TV news (especially in times of major upheaval) is about relevant as ever, but it’s difficult for us in the post-80s/90s media world (where envelope-pushing vulgarity became so common that it stopped having any sort of subversive edge) to grasp just how milquetoast and bloodless the majority of network TV was. For example, the sitcom format can always be accused of being intentionally removed from reality/humanity, but the quaintness of the shows Ellison describes is still very much a product of a decade or more earlier (one of the most interesting columns has Ellison defend the early, unsuccessful pilot version of what would become All In The Family years before it would be picked up and instigate some real change in the sitcom world.) Dramas seemed equally detached, going through cycles of heroic archetypes (doctors, detectives, and western heroes) that seem to ignore everything going on in the world of the common person. The sixties protest culture and its myriad of issues is a constant throughout the columns, presenting the kinds of new thoughts about race, gender, institutions, and freedom that were clearly absent from the world of television, making the few venues for it (like the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of those shows mentioned here that has mostly faded into obscurity) major rallying points.

It’s the sort of media criticism that is still widely practiced among the progressive/alternative thinkers – taking the giants of the entertainment industry to task for their failures to engage with the society of now, and simply pushing out frivolous junk for the lowest common denominator – but in the case of this collection, it’s in the context of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and the 1968 Chicago DNC. The networks are seen as a complacent part of the increasingly authoritarian systems that were shoring up in the wake of civil unrest, placating the masses with shallow entertainment while also undermining the protest movement in often subtle ways. These columns are part and parcel with that movement, pushing back against the form of mass entertainment – and as an underlying thesis statement, it gives each column, no matter where it ends up going, a sense of purpose, becoming a piece fitting into a larger idea gradually building up over the course of two or so years. Just having an guiding vision for criticism rooted in current realities is enough to make it interesting to read, both as a historical artifact and an example of how to write about television in a way that feels meaningful.

Kij Johnson, “At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees” (2012) & David Quammen, “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View Of Science And Nature” (1985, 2008)

April 5, 2016

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Many of the stories in this collection feature an imaginary intersection between humanity and the natural – an unknowable, unmovable force that individuals and whole societies build their identities around. Take for example, the longest (and probably best) of Johnson’s stories, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist”, which uses a fantastical and mostly unexplained concept (the titular mist, which isn’t even really mist) to demonstrate the extent of that intersection, as well as the tenacity of human progress – a public works project with both historical and individual significance. The people at the cusp of the mist have formed economies and individual identities based on their relationship with the mist (most importantly with the Ferry family, the names being the most explicit example of how important occupation and trade is in that society, an idea that reminds me of other books), and the building of the bridge will inevitably impact them both positively and negatively. Even more so, when one’s idea of death (as Rasali’s is, informed by whole generations of her family) is determined by seemingly insurmountable cosmic forces, the realization that it can and will eventually be “tamed” is a cultural shock – the full extent of which is only revealed gradually to the titular man, Kit. Most of the story devotes itself to more “mundane” tension of hiring and building, and the dangers that come not from poisonous foam or massive unseen marine monsters, but workplace accidents – and in those moments we see not just the contrast between the human ingenuity we know and the strange world that is established (and it is tense when they come together – the use of dynamite possibly attracting the attention of the aforementioned monsters, for example, even if it is only for a moment), but also how those accidental deaths are perceived by Kit (who assumes a high level of responsibility as the designer) and the locals like Rasali. There is a level of knowledge that comes with living so close to an untouched (or untouchable) natural world, but it’s also shown how an outsider can learn to appreciate it as well.

Characters defining themselves through a fantasy projection of nature is present in other stories as well, such as the title one – showing another unexplainable natural phenomenon, but one that brings willing individuals a “natural” way to handle grief (taking back its own, animal returning to animal, providing true comfort and peace.)The idea of this mysterious animal power being a gift is also present in “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” – it seems that allowing these representatives of the natural world a level of autonomy and privacy proves emotionally beneficial. More like “Mist” specifically, “The Horse Raiders” efficiently establishes a fictional society that seems to be undergoing radical changes (this time instigated not by human development, but by purely unguided changes in the environment), which in this case instigates violence between different groups – but, as with the other story, there remains possibilities for the future. Understanding and working within these dynamic ecosystems is important in those stories, much as they are in the smaller-scale ones.

The intersection plays out a bit differently in “Fox Magic”, “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles”, and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories….” – the first two being told from the animal’s perspective (both are based in Japanese folklore as well), while the last one includes both human and animal sides of the story. These present whole animal mythologies and societies developed alongside humans, crossing paths out of necessity – “The Cat” requiring human assistance as it pursued its own goals, the “Fox” using its illusions to blur those lines out of love, and the dogs finding themselves outcasts once they learn to think and communicate as we do. While many of the other stories show a notionally optimistic outlook of how we and the rest of the animal kingdom can coexist, only “The Cat” seems to unambiguously fall along those lines – and likely only because its protagonist sees humans as just a part of its world. “Fox Magic” ends in tragedy, as even in love such subterfuge can only be temporary, and “Evolution of Trickster Stories” shows that the relationship between humans and animals they seem to care about can be strained when the terms of that relationship changes, revealing that there have always been grievances we refuse to acknowledge. What seems to be suggested in these is that while humans and other creatures can coexist, it needs to be based on (once again) understanding, and the coercions at heart of existing cohabitation are our primary obstacle.

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Interestingly, many of the columns reprinted in Natural Acts read like precursors to Quammen’s books – some of them are directly referenced (“The Megatransect” is referenced in Spillover, for example, and “The Post-Communist Wolf” covers some of the same ground as Monster of God in a reverse way, too, “Planet of Weeds” is a sort of follow-up to the previously published Song of the Dodo), but in terms of general subject and style they show Quammen’s talents and areas of interest. It’s not simply informing us of some quirky facts about animals or questioning humanity’s part in the natural cycle – Quammen loves context and loves specific, and the longer the columns run, the more he can indulge in both. The first batch of columns are able to quickly establish a unique angle – can a giant octopus be stressed out? How does a butterfly evolve to drink blood? How exactly does hypothermia work? – and in their (relatively) short word count find a sympathetic angle, one that balances the fascinating scientific and human sides of every story. As a regular columnist is wont to do, these stories can involve a personal angle as well – “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and the Previous Few Graying” does this, as one example – but in most cases they focus on others directly involved in the subject in as much detail as the science itself.

There’s an equal fascination with the people who involve themselves in natural studies or who choose to integrate themselves into the wilderness in some way, or even the people on the margins. The articles demonstrate a knack for sketching out the personalities of the people involved – be they interview subjects, travel companions, or historical figures – the people involved are worthy of detail, seemingly independent of their impact on the topic at hand, just so we can get the clearest picture of the scope of each story, the micro and the macro. This goes for setting as well – “Ying and Yang in the Tularosa Basin” finds time not just for the curiousness of the White Sands, but also a local motorcade, the nearby site of the A-bomb tests during World War 2, and the stone art of the mysterious Mogollon people, all of which are important to understanding the beauty and history of the region. “The River Jumps Over The Mountain” is about poetry, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the shaping of the canyon itself, escape from a troublesome life, and the strangeness of going away and having the world change in your absence – the scientific, personal, historical, and human interest parts of the story seamlessly flowing into each other. None of these things need to be separate, treated as their own story, even though our need for compartmentalization and efficiency might dictate they be – all of these things inform each other, and one of the joys of Quammen’s writing is that it knows that, and exhaustively integrates the facts and questions of those systems – otherwise, we might not properly understand why these things happen and why we, or someone else, might care.

JG Ballard, “The Unlimited Dream Company” (1979, 2014) & Jane Mai, “See You Next Tuesday”(2015)

February 29, 2016

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I found it interesting to look at Unlimited Dream Company through the lens of the previous Ballard novel I read, High-Rise. Both revel in the destruction of suburban symbols, the most carefully-maintained orders in our modern society – homes and businesses (the specific identities and descriptions emphasized in the same way the vocations and hobbies of the people are) become enveloped by the chaos unleashed by the events of the book, and the people themselves embrace it, having awaited the chance to throw off the shackles of their quaint lives. The big difference between the two, then, is in the nature of the upheaval – High-Rise was a savage apocalypse, its setting wholly separate from the outside world and left in a disgusting disarray, garbage and death abound – but the apocalypse in Dream Company is one where the urban is retaken by the natural world, with plants overwhelming the concrete and the sky dominated by birds spawned (pretty much literally) by Blake, and the people inspired to look to the freedom of the animal world. Ballard delights in describing these microcosms in their broken state, but only in this one does something more beautiful grow from the cracks – it’s not just erasure, it’s renewal.

In the plot as well, there is a tension between those two types of change (erasure and renewal, I mean), as Blake slowly learns how he will use his messianic powers to instigate what he sees as an improvement of mankind. Although mostly unaware of it at first, he initially thinks that the way is through destruction – and so many of his early encounters with his multiple lover figures is capped off with attempted murder. This is the underlying ethos for much of the book – even in his creation of life there seems to be a lack of empathy on his part, and when he tries to teach, there is still part of him that wants to take and horde the people he is trying to uplift. The natural beauty of his power is diluted by the depraved humanity that underlies him – he knows something important is there, but hasn’t figured out how to handle it in a decidedly unselfish way. His inability to unlink violence from his revolution is reflected also in his search for the person who revived him – an emphasis on their apparent strength, Blake’s musings that whoever did may have also tried to kill him – and although the answer is clear from early on, he still manages to elide that solution by antagonizing the figure in the plane, avoiding it because of its symbolic tie to death. He only fixes course in the end when he realizes that he was not resurrected in an act of violence, but in an act of difficult but necessary self-driven change, and so inspires others to find the same path.

The cynical (but often well-founded) belief in the inevitability of violence has been a core part in much of Ballard’s work, but in this case he presents an alternative view. Not one that eliminates the violence completely, to be sure, but one that shows it as something that is to be overcome, a part of a cycle of human reinvention. The anarchic free-for-all of Ballard’s text, in this case, has a purpose other than solely reflecting our own capacity to perpetuate it.

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This book really plays with its diary/sketchbook format – the scribbled lines and extra text in the margins suggests that every comic is stream-of-consciousness, but also thoroughly considered, reworked and drawn over to best get the story across. There isn’t a time line to any of the comics – which the introduction tells you upfront – so everything feels less like a straight diary and more like a series of recollections – everything in past tense, memories flooding back in response to something – with the short text pages (written in the same brush strokes as the the notes on the comics themselves, but larger, getting you to pay more attention to what’s written) indirectly commenting on the undercurrents of the comics, conflicts of identity and self-worth. The book is often having a conversation with itself, an ongoing project that is constantly self-reflecting even when it doesn’t make direct callbacks.

Identity plays a large part in the humour and sadness in the comics – the book is about a person named Jane Mai (referred to almost exclusively as Jane Mai), who may or may not reflect the life and personality of the author, who is also named Jane Mai. The character introduction includes three different characters named Jane Mai, as well as Nurse Janey, “a fictional character” – in the page before, the text that explains the non-linearity of the stories also says “I’m not even sure I exist tbh” – which is a joke, but also keys you in on one of the main concerns of the book – the identity in something autobiographical is never completely clear. Mai (the author) mentions it directly in one of the text pieces (and even in an introductory “making of” comic at the beginning), but there’s an idea in the world of diary/sketch comics (as part of social media) that you are trying to sell your personality, hoping the amusing or “relatable” details of your life will ingratiate you with the audience (“What is Jane Mai? She is a product I made and sold” she writes, “And the sadder she got the more popular she was” – because depression and self-esteem issues make for funny and very “relatable” comics, it seems.) This is only one manifestation – many of the comics and asides deal, in one way or another, with how you as a person exist for others, be it family, friends, or (if you’re a creative sort) an audience – you perform to meet their expectations, or to shrug off those expectations in your own way – but in either case, it may feel that everything is forced upon you by the rest of the world, and you can’t seem to escape wanting to shape how you are perceived.

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Tailoring your life details like that, however, can also be used as a distancing tool, to help avoid the internal and external pain by making others (and maybe yourself) laugh about it – but in See You Next Tuesday, it’s also clear that Jane Mai’s goal is to eventually be okay with herself, in whatever form that takes. The book is an intentionally scattershot depiction of that journey – there’s no definite line to say why it ends where it does, but that’s sort of the point.

Julia Wertz, “Drinking At The Movies” (2010, 2015) & John Wagner/Alan Grant/Carlos Ezquerra/Cam Kennedy/et. al.,”Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 09″ (1985-86, 2015)

December 14, 2015

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Drinking At The Movies compartmentalizes life in the same way that Wertz’s later book The Infinite Wait does, using both the actual chronology and location (the various apartments she’s lived in, which also means more of her really delightfully detailed drawings of buildings and streets) to set up each section of the book. The big difference here, though, is that this one longer sustained narrative rather than a trio of short stories – so they’re more like chapters in a single story rather than different stories altogether. Having more of a narrative through-line connecting each of the sequences (which, in each chapter, are themselves treated like comic strips that range from one to several pages), recounting Wertz’s beginnings and developing relationship with the city of New York, and how that change in her life connected with several other personal events gives it a real sense of development, even if you’re still mostly reading some jokes about terrible jobs and poor life choices. In this way, it feels more like full memoirs rather than a series of anecdotes like The Infinite Wait.

This book also dates itself in a way that felt very different than the later one – specifically talking about the political situation in a few places, putting the events of the book in the latter part of the Bush years and up to the 2008 elections. These references aren’t extraordinarily prominent, and I don’t think it was necessarily intentional that the stories in The Infinite Wait used fewer specific reference points in that same vain, but it might reflect on the aforementioned compartmentalization – its pretty easy to connect world and personal events in that way, creating further context. Going back to the memoir idea as well, it’s possible that this book’s position as a longer narrative made Wertz want to connect her own story with some of the external ones, creating a sense of America as she acclimated to its biggest city – a much wider narrative overall.

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That internal/external connection is pretty consistent in the book as well, capped off with Wertz’s own realizations in the last pages – that she had no reason to place any blame on the city for her own problems. She seemed to know this throughout – most of the pages about her alcoholism and other problems show a lot of (probably retroactive) self-awareness, and despite all the frustrations with her new life, she seemed well aware of what the impediments, especially in the latter half of the book. She has some cute ways of externalizing those anyway (like the strips about her missing wallet), but they as it proceeds even those jokey formats feel raw, and when real life really intrudes, it sends the whole thing back to reality in a painfully focused way. Even when trying to add some levity, it never loses sight of the real effects these problems have. Meanwhile, those wider world events, and the details about New York life, may seem like distractions from her self-destructive behaviour, but they also give her that final realization, that new surroundings can give her a chance to create a whole new life for herself, or at least change it in important ways.

***

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I would call this another pretty procedural volume of Dredd, if not for the presence of some very important one-offs and story developments, like “A Chief Judge Resigns” and “Letter From A Democrat”, although the effects of those stories are probably felt much more later. The latter is especially effective, maybe among the darkest Dredd has ever been, just by showing how the openly authoritarian nature of the series’ universe plays out when Dredd is explicitly the bad guy – we’ve had many strips and jokes about it, but this one goes entirely straight, and while the comics afterwards more or less go back to the more standard outlandish fare (where the brutality of the Judges can be more or less written off), its difficult to shake the full realization you’ve just confronted. The whole series has made sure that it never went too long without reminding us that the stories are about a frightening totalitarian state, and here those reminders are presented without any fantastical distractions (as in “The Apocalypse War”). This volume has a couple other stories that play into that theme as well (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” and the blackmailed Judge three-parter), and although the other stories aren’t as effectively constructed as “Democrat”, they still give an impression that the writers were starting to recognize the story potential of tapping into the people who have legitimate problems with the whole Judge system.

“Letter From A Democrat” also stands out because it contrasts so heavily with the rest of the stories in this period – if there’s one consistency, it’s that this is consistently one of the most tonally varied of any of the Dredd books I’ve read. There are strips that are straight action (with the first one, “Midnight Surfer”, being the best of those), grotesque horror (like “Nosferatu”), strange Sci-Fi tragedies, and straight-up goofy comedy (with the goofiest of them, especially “The Magnificent Obsession”, working a lot more than others – definitely helped by the greatly complimentary artwork of Cam Kennedy and Ian Gibson), as well as other weird concepts like “The Lemming Syndrome”, which seems to be trying to set up some background idea for Mega City One, but really doesn’t add much. With so many different ideas in play, the quality tends to be all over the place as well – “A Merry Tale Of The Christmas Angel” has nice Steve Dillon artwork, but sort of just peters out by the end, and the big multi-part action story (with a few major continuity pieces) at the dead center of the book is just sort of there (and often kind of uncomfortable with its borderline offensive Japanese stereotypes.) Still, the stuff in there that does work works quite well, and some consistently good artwork from contributors like Kennedy, Gibson, Carlos Ezquerra, Cliff Robinson, and Brendan McCarthy. It’s quite a few different styles in there, but they are generally employed well even in some of the more disposable strips.

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James Tiptree Jr., “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (2004) & Larissa Lai, “Salt Fish Girl” (2002)

November 29, 2015

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There is a deep streak of despair underlining most of the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever – there is very little sympathy for humanity in most of the stories, and a conviction that our darkest behaviours will inevitably show themselves. Despite being science fiction (for the most part), a lot of these stories are essentially horror as well, slowly building towards a sudden realization and the accompanying violence, and usually making one ask “what have we done?” Reading several of Sheldon/Tiptree’s stories in a row is a pretty unsparing experience, even if the level of shock varies between them.

The first story, “The Last Flight Of Doctor Ain”, gets to the point immediately – however, it’s short enough that it’s possible to miss the impact of the final punch. However, it is followed by “The Screwfly Solution”, which is certainly the most disturbing thing I’ve read recently – a gradually escalation of all-out hatred and inescapable violence, fusing both the uncontrollably natural with our tendency towards rationalizing things. By the midpoint, it becomes completely unrelenting, capping off with a coda that could be seen as darkly humorous, but without diminishing the horror of the previous pages. Importantly for the second story, “Screwfly Solution” introduces readers to the gendered violence that becomes one of the most important themes running through all of the stories in the book.

That theme is rather explicit in many of the stories (most distressingly in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” with its slow and subtle series of revelations), but one particular example of it is in the narration of stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” and the first half of “With Delicate Mad Hands”, which seemingly goes out of its way to berate the physical and behavioural faults of its woman protagonists (Philadelphia Burke in “Plugged In” is repeatedly described as a beast, and it’s considered good that she is locked away controlling a more “palatable” girl); its the kind of thing that appears in the dialogue as well, but seems to be even more pronounced when the cruelty is coming from the author itself. In a lot of ways, this seems to culminate in “The Women That Men Don’t See”, which subtly reverses things by having the women able to escape that world of viciousness – which would seem like a victory, but because the story itself is narrated by a man who simply does not understand what they know, that seeming triumph is portrayed in a different light. Likewise, “With Delicate Mad Hands” ends a slightly happier note, if only in a fleeting way.

In “The Women Men Don’t See”, the sex-gender hierarchy is shown as a all-encompassing force that seems outside ourselves (although it may only SEEM that way), which is another major theme running through several of the stories. Humanity discovers that everything it knows could simply be a tool for some unknown force – as in the title story (one of the most bleak, introducing its fantastical element only to further that bleakness) or especially in “A Momentary Taste Of Being”, where humans are a disposable component part of something else entirely (which also mentioned briefly as a possibility in “Slow Music”, with the image of free human consciousness being ground up into cosmic sausage.) That story is one of the ones that ends a note of inescapable destruction that is also seen in “On The Last Afternoon”, “Slow Music”, “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”, and “The Man Who Walked Home” – natural forces seemingly destined to bring about the end, even when there’s a possibility for intervention. The most obvious example of this is in one of the more fantastical stories, “Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death”, where a strange alien animal tries to break its own deadly life cycle – but of course, the natural system is far more durable than it expected, as it always seems to be here. If the plan seems natural, it seems resilient to subversion – and maybe its under that logic that the abuse of our gender-oppressing world seems equally inescapable.

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There are many running parallels throughout Salt Fish Girl, but one particularly interesting through line concerns ideas of homogeneity, both physical and cultural, which has a ominous omnipresence in both halves of the story. The worst thing that seems to happen to the protagonists in both time periods is a loss of varying degrees of distinctiveness, which begins in the very first chapter when Nu Wa gives up her non-humanity, which is accompanied by the searing pain of change that also ends up recurring throughout the book – and the pain is not just in the loss of one’s identity, but in attempting to reclaim it as well (when she steps back in the water.) The physicality of that opening act of conformity is also broadly seen in Miranda’s story as well – much of it taken up by her exuding durian smell, which threatens her place within the extremely stifling suburban world, and also required some painful and arcane methods to eliminate. A snake tail and the constant smell of pepper and cat piss seem like very strange traits to represent this idea, but they are ultimately symbolic of a greater need to hold on to one’s identity, even when one is confronted with the possibility of loneliness as its direct result.

The book’s conception of a homogeneous world is taken into the extreme with the introduction of cloning – physically identical people engineered to fit a predefined role. But where Miranda, by her own volition or others’, is forced to push herself towards conformity, Evie and her family (all clones of each other) as outsiders can subvert that by showing how they can still be distinct people – and along the way manipulate their own genetically manipulated origins to sabotage the corporations. She embraces her non-humanity, and by doing so allows Miranada to eventually do so as well, bringing the story back to Nu Wa

The cultural identity half of that theme is integrated a bit more subtly, but is just as important. It is the most obvious in the middle section of the China story, where Nu Wa is taken to the Island of Mist and Forgetfulness, which is a timeless place in more than one way (oddly removed from any time period, it is described like a culmination of the entire 20th century), but more importantly one that oozes corporate, western monoculture, and has the side effect of “cursing” Nu Wa into forgeting her own language, subsuming part of her cultural identity. But even before then, there are signs of that world – while Nu Wa lives a sort of free, if morally dubious, life as a thief, the Salt Fish Girl is forced to join the legion of poorly-treated workers in an increasingly industrialized South China, itself a sign of encroaching modernity that reaches its nadir in the Miranda chapters, where the Salt Fish’s Girl incarnation is literally a person made to work in a factory. But in the earlier parts of Miranda’s story, however, the same culture that produced that appears in other forms as well – it is emphasized that Miranda’s family is one of the very few Chinese families in the very white, capitalistic enclave of what was once the very multicultural city of Vancouver – which likely makes Miranda’s smell, and the threat it poses to her family’s stability in that social ecosystem, an even more demanding issue to her parents, especially her careerist father. At various points, there is a lot of emphasis in the text on food – from the durian that is central to the story to the some of the dishes served by other Chinese characters – and they signify some of the few places where distinctive culture can still exist apart from the manufactured one. It seems minor, but in that society, it’s an important place to start.

More so on a personal identity level is the songs written by Miranda’s mother, which are crucial throughout the book. There is a large focus on advertising in that corporatist/conformist culture in Miranda’s chapters – which involves turning something personal into something broad and robbed of specific meaning. Miranda selling the rights to the songs is seen as a great betrayal of that, which spirals further when she gets a job at an advertising firm and lets her own artistic visions be compromised in the name of selling, misusing both her and her mother’s artistic talents. Evie and the other Sonias again subvert that by using slogans embedded in foot prints (which also subverts that society’s increasing distrust of physical connection with the planet itself) as a form of protest. Personal expression is demonstrated as another important part of identity, and a powerful tool against encroaching sameness.

Sophie Goldstein, “The Oven” (2015); Andrew MacLean, “ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria For The End Times” (2015); & Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories” (2002)

October 14, 2015

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For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of short, post-apocalyptic comics recently. The Oven, as with Vacancy, uses colour to establish environment – the difference here is that rather than using a blend that gives off the impression of a mess left behind, everything is almost a stark monochrome, a place stripped of all but a few things. Everything is usually detail-less gray, strongly unnatural orange, or bleached white – all of which give off an oppressive feeling of a world where nothing is left, even though life is still obviously going on in the foreground. The outside world portrayed here has a ramshackle feeling like Vacancy as well, but rather than signifying a hasty retreat, it seems more like a place kept barely together with whatever remains. It is certainly harsh, but it still seems pretty lived in – the problem with a term like “post-apocalyptic” is that there is no end, just a shift.

In this case, the shift is a sort of sheltered dichotomy – an indoor city life and an outdoor rural life in a radioactive desert. There are attempts by the characters to define it as a freedom or comfort choice – the main characters leave the city in order to have children due to some unspecified government eugenics program, and the reinforced ideology is “freedom of choice.” But the narrative itself never really buys into it, even when one or both of the couple does (one of the first things said to them is “freedom isn’t free”) – as much “freedom” as the outside world provides, it still ends up reinforcing binary roles for the people (both men and women), and very little actual choice of what their lives can be, just one thankless job or another. There’s no government to tell you what to do, but the drive of basic necessities keeps you in place just as well, as well as numerous unstated community standards – it’s all a series of compromises, which doesn’t sound much different from the little we hear about the city.

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Even the “third way” Eric turns to by the end is a compromise – abandoning everything else just for the possibility of doing anything else in his life, still forced but slightly less claustrophobic. If one doesn’t take to the drudgery or find much solace in a nuclear family (which in turn is part of a far-off promise of creating a community, but one seems to require more of some people than others), it’s basically just drugs (numbing you in the same way the “screens” evidently do in the city) and running away as the alternatives, still kept in check by the inhospitable world around you. What “freedom” is seems to be either a slightly different set of standards, which some take to (as Syd does, after initial trepidation) and others (like Eric) do not – the outside people don’t seem unhappy, but there seems to be ideals that need to be in place for that community to work as it does. It’s a binary of hegemonies, ultimately, dictated by one harsh environment or another, and the delusion saying otherwise becomes part of it.

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Colour plays a part in ApocalyptiGirl as well, albeit in way closer to Vacancy than The Oven – this is another more disorganized world rather than a blasted one, but one that has an environment that has been able to move one. It’s always fascinating to me to see what kind of mark the leftovers of human society will leave when the daily commotion is gone – although built over the natural world, the natural world never really goes away, and it may yet find a way to reintegrate itself. That seems to happen here, as there is greenery, there are actual things to see and places to go in and around the ruined city – and because of that, none of the pages have the colour uniformity that The Oven used to set its tone. The only colour binaries that seem to exist are between the two warring tribes. There is a sense of reclamation in that world – even the mech suit Aria tries to reactivate has become dirt-brown, looking as much like a hill as some explicitly artificial thing. It immediately establishes the idea that there is something still there.

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The land’s acclimation to its destruction is not a wholly separate thing from the destructive events that preceded it, either. Aria tells herself the history of the place as a way to justify it – putting it in mytho-poetic terms in order to make it seem like a natural shift than a war over technology, but she has reason to want to make that argument – after all, the destruction led to the creation of the twin lakes that dominate the background, the natural deriving from the artificial. By the end, we see that the whole story was a lead-up to some kind of judgement – the planet abused its gift, but she decides to spare it because it was “home”, and the way it was portrayed at many points (going back to the colours and the other details) allows us to believe that. Despite the violence in its past and present, it still seems like a real, breathing world, one where life can still thrive. Having spent an extended period of time there, Aria knows that better than anyone else could.

As I mentioned before, apocalypse is usually just a hyperbolic term for massive change – it doesn’t necessarily have to be an end, just a transition to something else. It appears bleak now, in this story, but there is a potential for it to become something more appreciable yet – nothing is set in stone. In fact, the only real apocalypse in the story only comes up as a possibility at the end of the book, when a true end to the planet is proposed and rejected – a complete end to everything there, nullification, not just an end to human civilization or a clean slate. As long as there is existence, there is a chance for it to become something beautiful, and there all are the hints that Earth27 will yet reach that something.

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The stories in The Birthday Of The World continue most of the preoccupations of Le Guin’s other work (and returns to some of the same settings as well), but “free of a damned plot” as Le Guin puts it in the introduction (still my go-to place for additional context), they are allowed to be small, personal stories about the people in these societies. Stories like “Coming of Age in Karhide” (set on the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness) and “Unchosen Love” cover some of the same ground as her novels, but do so in a way that emphasizes the individual mindsets and smaller social mores of these places. While some of the longer stories in the book (which are grouped together as the last of them) show societies in some sort of transition, the others are content to simply demonstrate the life or lives in a place where sex is fluid, where marriage is a much more complicated series of traditions, or where solitude is the norm. Love and familial devotion and hierarchy seem to be constants, but each is always tied up in the specifics of the world, and the nuanced way the people these stories follow work with or around them.

The aforementioned “Coming of Age in Karhide” has an entirely sympathetic air, one that recognizes that fear and joy in discovery are all part of finding one’s way in life – by the end, there’s a celebratory feeling of growth, and a great optimism pervades it more than any other story in the book. This might be because of the way the story is presented – as Sov’s reminiscing, a recollection of such a torrent of varied emotions that would be difficult to process even without taking place in Karhide’s particular human-biological situation (this is also true with the more conflicted first-person narrative of “Solitude”.) It is simply a story of growing up in a science fiction setting, allowing it to feel both very familiar and highly specific, which is one of the recurring feelings throughout the stories that follow it, even as they attempt to be just a little bit more alien.

Or in the cases of “Mountain Ways” and “Unchosen Love”, more adult – those stories are also more interpersonal dramas that use the societal norms of the planet O to show characters dealing with the complexity of domestic relationships. Love and sex are part of it, but there’s the everyday interactions as well, and the way people’s unique personalities interact (it is possible to love someone deeply but still be irritated by things they do), as well as what family and society as a whole expects of your relationship. There is something about both these stories that make them feel more like traditional realist fiction, even with the supernatural (on top of the science fictional) aspect of the former, as they are “just” about people navigating complications in their love life, with outcomes more positive or negative.

“The Matter of Seggri”, which is composed of a variety of different “stories”, is the most experimental of the stories in the book because of that, but thematically it actually feels closer to “The Birthday of the World”, “Old Music the Slave Women”, and “Paradises Lost”, all of which deal with civilizations raised on specific truths going into transition. The difference here is that while the latter three show that transitions with specific characters as anchors throughout, “Seggri” is written like primary research – a smattering of first-hand accounts from those inside and outside the gender-divided world, and even a piece of short(er) fiction, which has an old-fashioned feeling and a delightfully specific writing style – that shows multiple eras of change. All of them are about not just the society, or the way that audience surrogate characters like the members of the Ekumen react, but the way changes within a system affect people of different walks of life, in ways that include both direct (sometimes violent) conflict and just in normal interactions – the stuff that colours all the stories in the book.