Posts Tagged ‘Leslie Stein’

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.

David Quammen, “The Song Of The Dodo” (1996, 1997) & Leslie Stein, “Bright-Eyed At Midnight” (2015)

September 10, 2015

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Amongst many things, The Song Of The Dodo is about a history of a scientific idea, its extrapolation, and its many permutations. The reason why the first section of the book (and, rather subtly, the later sections) focuses so heavily on Alfred Wallace is not just because Quammen feels he has been duly undervalued as one of the founders of evolutionary biology (at least compared to Darwin), but also because the evidence and experiences he alone had provide the basis for pretty much everything in biogeography. He investigated different island environments (and comparable continental ecosystems), and sought to answer how place changes different aspects of species – and following his ideas was a calvalcade of other scientists, in both field biology and statistics, who took them further and further, finding how consistent the “rules” of biogeography were, and that they could be applied even more broadly. Island biogeography isn’t just AN important idea, but one of THE most important ideas in modern evolutionary biology, helping illuminate the core phenomenon of organisms: evolution and extinction.

Of course, it’s the latter of those two that gets the bulk of the focus in the book, being the major biological issue of our times (even as far back as 1996!) As one would expect, humans have played a major part in the mass extinction of island species (just look at the titular animal), but what’s more interesting is what Quammen learns about the specificity of island extinction, and how isolation directly affects such things. Take the concept of ecological naivete, where particular animals have lived without natural predators (increasingly remote islands often leading to lower populations of carnivorous species who have greater needs) for so long that they are seemingly unable to identify anything as a threat – this was observed by Wallace and Darwin in their time, and Quammen finds it still among the birds and tortoises. Combine that with the smaller living space leading to smaller populations – even a stable island population might be considerably rarer than most mainland species – and it becomes painfully clear how even one change, especially the introduction of human or non-human hunters, can easily devastate island species.

But even so, there’s a surprising resilience in island species, and the information to replenish population numbers when some are eliminated is one of the most important aspects of their study – the destruction of Krakatoa and its reformation as Anak Krakatau providing a perfect example of how an island is repopulated. That an island can be reclaimed by various species so relatively quickly is why, as Quammen explains at the end of the book, the loss of species (usually balanced by gains through speciation) is growing at an alarming rate – through the microcosm of islands, we have become aware that (as is still being written about today) we are in a period of mass extinction, related to a number of changes mostly brought about by us. The latter parts of the book move into explaining this, and applying island concepts to mainland (especially in the area of conservation, where isolated ecosystems, separated by open land, are treated almost exactly the same way as islands) – the transition very subtle, though set-up by Quammen in the first section especially. This was not just about island biogeography; or, more accurately, island biogeography was never just about islands – its a field that has vitally important information for all of biology. Earth is, after all, just a series of islands of many different sizes.

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Although very different in format, Bright-Eyed At Midnight has many of the same qualities as Stein’s Eye Of The Majestic Creature comics: the way it portrays day-to-day living, drifting from events of varying significance, going back and forth in time. There are some things in the comics that seem like they’d be more important than others, like the bouts of insomnia early on or Stein quitting her job near the end, but the egalitarian outlook of the strips means that they become part of a broader context rather than as definitive events – all the things that are drawn here seem equally important to each other, even if they don’t obviously connect. The flow between the strips is less demarcated in the book than they there on the web – days seem subsumed by the cycle of events, which follows a very identifiable rhythm (see the number of pages that begin or end with her in bed, or drawing one the page that we are currently reading) – there are job stories, band stories, comics stories, ongoing internal monologues, bleeding into each other from page to page. The ritualistic/on-the-fly nature of the project kind of necessitates this – each page is a reaction to that specific day, and so the multitude of experiences constantly overlap each other, giving the book a natural non-progression.

There’s also a charming handmade quality to the comics here – again, being daily made Stein use an evolving minimalist style, but that allows her to experiment with her use of watercolours, collage, and text, giving each day a distinct feeling. The speed-and-ease-oriented drawings give the pages extra space and freedom for those elements to really shine through even more than in something like Eye of the Majestic Creature. Some pages, connected or disconnected from what came before them, become a splurge of scribbles, paint splotches, and disembodied forms – and some days, that is an exact representation of one’s outlook. Despite being originally posted online, every comic proudly wears its physicality, the use of whatever materials seemed to be nearby – the colours and layouts of the pages straddle the line between spur-of-the-moment and innately considered.

Which is probably the most interesting part of going through these strips again, in book form: being given the opportunity to see how those elements came together outside the scheduled production these comics had when they were being posted. They were not meant to be read together in this fashion when they were being produced (as we can tell just by seeing the context of Stein’s drawing in the comics themselves), but they (maybe only sort of) accidentally feel part of a continuum. That was probably one of the aims when compiling the strips, but it manages to do that without compromising the original aims of the daily comics.

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Leslie Stein, “Eye of the Majestic Creature Vol. 2” (2013) & Lisa Hanawalt, “My Dirty Dumb Eyes” (2013)

September 8, 2013

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I have a difficult time properly summarizing Leslie Stein’s comics. Are they whimsical? They certainly are in spots, but one can’t really say that’s a consistent tone – the comic often deals with difficult subject matter, from awkward stuff to downright distressing family issues. But the way the comics tells these stories, not just in Stein’s cartooning, or in the regular injection of fantasy or absurdity in the margins (the anthropomorphic instruments, Larry’s obsessive hobby being counting grains of sand), but also in the sort of quieter, introspective approach to them – it seems to drift from moment to moment, never focusing too much on one thing, allowing itself to be uncluttered by extraneous details. It’s a mode that remains evident in this volume, even with the protagonist more tied down, with a regular job in the city – the tendency is towards capturing a series of small events, even when working under a larger sort of narrative as in the first story in the book.

The collection of short stories in the middle of the book are prime examples of that. The longest of them, “Jonathan”, is a perfectly low key sort of strange personal story, one that interestingly backgrounds Larry to instead focus on her mother and other adults (could that possibly be because it was published on Vice as its own thing?), and exemplifies the very odd, specific kind of experience that typifies these comics. The other stories follow the same beat, encompassing subject matter that is light (“That Sticky Machine”), indirectly personal (“Brown Heart”), or straightforward adolescent realization (“Lithium”), or, in the case of the last story, all three at once (just replace “adolescent” with “adult”). It just seems that no matter where the stories go, they never try to get bigger or more pronounced than they need to be – they are treated seriously, but deftly handled in a way that makes them very approachable. It is enjoyable to follow the lives of these characters, and they never feel particularly distant or exaggerated (even when we’re talking about those anthropomorphic instruments, who have their own little stories in here.)

I also noticed that, as a continuation of the previous book, there is an underpinning to many of the stories that seems to be examining the idea of stability in life. As mentioned before, the book gives Larry a regular job and a new home, and while this doesn’t completely change the course from the last volume, it has a major presence in the first and last stories. In “Sister Carrie”, the problems of urban life, which includes Larry’s dissatisfaction with her job, seem to be resolved by the end, but it continues again in the final stories, leading to another big status quo change, much as what happened at the end of Volume 1. Real stability just doesn’t seem in the cards, and in this way, the two books not only parallel, but are in keeping with the drifting feel of the entire series.

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Hanawalt’s comics usually seem to work with two major elements: the very naturalistic, detailed illustrations, and the absurd, exaggerated ideas and details. Now, either of those can be funny on their own (her descriptions just seem to pop a little bit more when we have a near-immaculate representation of the thing she’s describing on page beside it), but often times, these two kinds of drawings are mashed together, juxtaposed in such that they enhance each other. Sometimes, it’s just spices up things – the accurate renderings of Clint Eastwood and Dustin Hoffman on her “Stoic-Heroic-Autistic” scale sort of make that joke – but in other places, it’s applied wholesale, as is the entire concept of the “animals-in-hats” pages, or in many of the standalone illustrations, like the drawing of flowers coupled with penises. The drawings work so well that sometimes they are downright horrifying – she takes advantage of that big time in “Extra Egg Room”, where it becomes nightmarish body horror.

The animal imagery alone in her work is the biggest beneficiary of this. While there are stylized animal drawings throughout My Dirty Dumb Eyes, in most of her longer pieces, they are drawn “realistically”, often down to the really tiny details – and, as mentioned before, that enhances the humour of the drawings. One thing that brings out the humour is the animals’ low range of expression – they have one very generalized kind of look that never really changes, which is fun to contrast with the weird things going on around them, as in the hat drawings. It also makes it a little easier to feel sympathetic for them as characters – the “Therapy” strip works by having the “deerdog” just sort of doing deerdog things (also highly contrasted with the frightening pancake-faced therapist, with that relentless, plastered-on grin), and while we can understand the situation in “Moosefingers”, I can’t help but feel that the moose lady just looking like of an actual moose makes it a little sadder (Hanawalt sort of talks about this with in her piece on War Horse – concluding that it and movies like it are always about “projecting human ideals, emotions, and and symbolism onto animals”, which is probably what I’m doing here.) Maybe this is just a personality thing that brings out these thoughts – maybe being innately sympathetic towards animals makes me think one way, while someone without that sympathy would just find the drawings gross. The thing is, they could still work for someone in either mindset.

It’s also interesting, then, to compare that to the way she often draws people, where she takes complete advantage of our range of emotion. The faces are often taken to extremes, contorted and warped, or they can be given the more subtly goofy looks – either way, humans seem more often to be absurd figures, which is where a lot of the fun in those drawings are. Meanwhile, the fun in the animal strips is often that the absurdity happens AROUND them, and they just sort of endure it in their animal way.