"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

{book} of all possible worlds…

best of all possible worldsThe Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Ballantine Books|Del Rey, 2013.

hardcover, 303 pages. Library borrow.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race — and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team — one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive — just may find in each other their own destinies… and a force that transcends all.—Publisher’s comments.

You know how an occasional character or two will channel a familiar voice or face? Dllenahkh, the third-limited narrator (in alternation) of Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds, brought the dulcet tones of Spock with an edge of Sherlock to surface. His situation of a recently annihilated nation didn’t hurt either. But the predominant first person voice of Grace Delarua rather pleasantly brought my friend Leah to mind. Think: intelligent, emotionally sensitive, snarky, laughter-loving, possessively independent, fiercely loyal to tribe, lover of the pretty and companionable. She will underestimate herself at times, admits to vulnerability, but is incredibly courageous. Even thinking beyond the measures of these attributes Lord concocts for her heroine, Leah would even share similar psi-abilities. She is smart, loving, and funny—Delarua, my friend Leah, and Karen Lord.

“He frowned in puzzlement as he tapped in our destination. ‘Why are you thanking me? I haven’t done anything yet.’

‘You listen to my crazy ideas and make sense out of them. That’s worth some thanks.’

He let the autopilot take us and turned to face me, eyes flashing. “What you describe as the product of a mental imbalance, I would classify as swift, intuitive thinking to arrive at creative solutions.” (249)

Carrying off a light-hearted amusement amid a pretty serious occasion is a trick Karen Lord makes appear effortless. Moving forward and remembrance, maintaining histories and beginnings, the tensions of what is “appropriate” in any give situation are reflected in the solemn and the lightness of being. Setting elements of romantic-comedy amid relief & rehabilitation post-mass-genocide is daring, and with Lord’s confidence, successful. The fulcrum upon which The Best of All Possible Worlds is hope…and grace. Relationships require both and the novel centralizes its story around the discovery and recovery of relationships.

“I have come to the conclusion that while superiority may be our most obvious flaw, it is not the most dangerous one. […] I believe that our main flaw, and one I acknowledge in myself, is not that we consider ourselves superior but invincible. This makes it difficult to ask for help, even from our own”  (188).

Having worked with Second Assistant Delarua as a biotechnician helping the Sadiri homestead on the Cygnus Beta, Councilor Dllenahkh enlists her aid in a survey of the planets other emigrants who, in any way (phenotypically, traditionally, genotypically), would be a good source for mating partners. Delarua discovers a lot about herself along the way, but so does Dllenahkh and other crew-members whom Lord makes irresistible. The social commentary is served alongside endearing characters and the gorgeously bizarre—e.g. The Fearie (119). Conversations surrounding pregnancy and the female professional (158), victim-blaming (i.e. p 152), and human trafficking (~171) to name a few, are nestled among action-adventure sequences, physical comedy, workplace-friendship-family drama, and time-travel.

There is plenty of science in the fiction. I was especially drawn to the inclusion of lore. But I dig the multi-faceted discipline of Anthropology, which is the predominant science of the novel—thus the Ursula K. LeGuin allusion in jacket copy. Lord is not at subtle as LeGuin, lulling you into critically considering an alien race before realizing she is really talking about humanity and our conditions (individually/socially), and her tone is more conversational than her predecessor. Neither does Lord try to rename the familiar like the impulse seems to be for many science fictions. The vernacular is close and pop cultural references feel as recent as now (not future-alien-earth)—watching “holovids.” The time-travel is pretty complicated , the telepathic, psionic elements of particular interest. Lord proves herself a capable conversant on these subjects but does not bog down the story. It is as if Lord is less interested in hiding the SFF fact that we are talking about humans and contemporary social realities, and more interested in the transparencies SFF have to offer. I’m thinking about how she begins with the humanoid-familiarity first before introducing the alien, or even the science. She draws from human experience in imagining The Best of All Possible Worlds in plenty of interesting ways, but I am presently infatuated with one in particular.

The End of the Laughter. I recognize this one,’ said Joral. ‘Is this the adaptation of Enough, the taSadiri tale of a man who kills his unfaithful wife and her lover?’

‘No,’ said Tarik, shaking his head firmly. ‘You have made a common error. In this one, he kills the man that he mistakenly thinks is her lover while her real lover gets away. This is an adaptation of the Ainya play Deception, not Enough.’

“Okay, not meaning to muddy the waters,’ I said, ‘but I’m fairly certain that what we have here is a version of Otello, one of the old Terran standards. Kills his not-unfaithful wife on the says-so of a man who was out to get him.’

Lian approached the poster more closely and read the fine print at the bottom out loud. ‘Based on the Italian opera Pagliacci.’

We crowded around the poster. ‘Who dies?’ asked Tarik with interest. ‘And was the infidelity real or alleged?’

‘Is there some other production we might attend which does not illustrate that dysfunctional pair bonding is endemic in most cultures?’ asked Dllenahkh with heavy disapproval. (140)

In my albeit limited experience with science fiction, I am almost always left with the impression that a planet is homogenous. When encountering this “new life and new civilization” (Star Trek) on (or from) planet $@#!, the life-forms and society  depicted is indicative of the planet’s whole. As Lord traverse’s Cygnus Beta, its Terra-formed populations become reminiscent of our own diverse global landscape; folk lore is one indicator (Celtic, Chinese, etc.), an isolationist island country that observes hierarchy and strict decorum?? and Cygnus-Beta is proud of its shared heritage among the emigrated natives: “There isn’t a group on Cygnus Beta who can’t trace their family back to some world-shattering event. Landless, kinless, unwanted—theoretically, the Sadiri would fit right in” (9). The Cygnian society is willing to host and aide the refugee. Lord moves in and out of time, uses fictional and non-fictional allusions, but the references are Earth-as-we-know-it-based. A planet can and does support diverse life and civilizations. And a single government may; which is where the global exploration works to demonstrate. The planet could be seen as a single country, or no; but there is the greater government with its structures in place. There is policy and protocol that presides over the mission and the civilizations met. This government then, is influenced and linked to one greater than itself. The problems and pleasures of multi-culturalism is explored and the end result of the relationships within the novel can evidence a powerful message.

Or you can just be wildly entertained by The Best of All Possible Worlds, but I find Karen Lord to be too assertive and intelligent of perspective to ignore. She just makes the reading easier. The easy familiarity fosters the human potentiality of allowing the other their dignity and value; exhibiting hope and grace; that maybe we could do all of this without losing our-selves: a relevant anxiety for many right now. Lord explores this with humor and grace.

——————

recommendations… an accessible novel for non-readers of SF. for those looking for depictions of people of color and culture that differ from White and nuclear.

Was one of Carl V’s favorites of 2013 over at Stainless Steel Droppings in which he writes:

“In addition to the way in which the story is different than most science fiction one would pull from the shelf, the reason it stands out is that you get to know these characters and develop an emotional bond with them. You care about what happens to them and you keep reading hoping that your desires will find fulfillment. This was my first experience with the work of Karen Lord. It will not be my last, she is a true talent.”

thanks again Carl for the book recommendation!

of note: I’m still working to articulate this: but I didn’t want to leave this post w/out suggesting that there is something Karen Lord does as a storyteller that only she, as a female storyteller can do…in an argument as to why we need published-access to female writers and/or a writer of color: The Best of All Possible Worlds is the most positive consequence of greater diversity in Literature.

2014sfexp400read for The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience…and my own desire to read toward Diversity in Lit.

karen lord————————author———–

Born in Barbados, Karen Lord is an award-winning author of Redemption in Indigo (2010). Expect Rafi Delarua’s return in August 2014 w/ The Galaxy Game. She has BSc in Physics and cites martial arts/fencing as a hobby (link). She has “has taught physics, trained soldiers, worked in the Foreign Service and earned a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion” (2013 Bookpage interview w/Gavin Grant).  From the Bookpage interview:

“I know you read far and wide. Have you read anything recently you’d especially recommend? [recs linked]
I love to recommend Caribbean science fiction, [like] Ghosts by Curdella Forbes (2012) and The Rainmaker’s Mistake by Erna Brodber (2007). I’ve gained a new appreciation for short story collections. I recently read Ted Chiang’s brilliant Stories of Your Life and Others (I know, I’m late). Karin Tidbeck’s recent debut collection Jagannath is beautiful, and The Weird anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is essential reading.”

Learn more about Karen Lord: her site; & note her “Reading List”.

"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} life-altering lenses

eye in the sky coverEye in the Sky by Philip K Dick

Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin), 2012 edition

orig. written 1957 & published by Ace Books.

Tradepaper, 243 pages.

What does it say about me that this was a Christmas gift?

“When a routine tour of a particle accelerator goes awry, Jack Hamilton and the rest of his tour group find themselves in a world ruled by Old Testament morality, where the smallest infraction can bring about a plague of locusts. Escape from that world is not the end, though, as they plunge into a Communist dystopia and a world where everything is an enemy.
Philip K. Dick was aggressively individualistic and no worldview is safe from his acerbic and hilarious take downs. Eye in the Sky blends the thrills and the jokes to craft a startling morality lesson hidden inside a comedy.” (jacket copy)

As you may have guessed from the synopsis, Eye in the Sky employs the ridiculous with an indiscriminate hand. Such brand of humor isn’t for everyone, nor is the novel. Not to come across as snotty, it is one of those reads that comes out better if the reader has a good grasp on their history lessons. That said, it does have that timeless quality as the U.S. hasn’t progressed that far from extreme political paranoia and race- and class-ism. And apparently, helicopter parenting is not a new phenomena after all. In true Dickian fashion, Eye in the Sky is bizarre, but incredibly relevant.

I heard a bit of a humming sound as I read the science in the fiction (more the physics than the electronics, oddly enough); so forgive me if I do not observe plausibility. As it was, I was quickly swept up into the impossible (but familiar?) situation the Hamiltons, and then the tour group, finds themselves in.

If they’d expected to wake at all after the accident, it should have been in a hospital. Instead they wake in what increasingly appears to be an alternate reality—but whose? and how? It isn’t a deserted island destination but a dystopia of frightening—and amusingly imagined—proportion. And the next reality after they’ve survived the first is just as terrifying. Our guide and protagonist Jack Hamilton reads a lot like Rick Deckard (for those of you who’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)—though instead of a young Harrison Ford, I cast Cary Grant. He is wry, and a bit bewildered.

It becomes clear as the novel progresses that regardless of the diverse perspectives/utopic visions, there is little room for Jack and his wife Marsha’s less conservative views. And they are not the only ones who do not belong, finding the ‘reality’ conflict-ridden, to say nothing of oppressive. Eye in the Sky introduces a question of social tolerances; what one is able to abide, arguments toward degrees of moderation in the face of extremist points-of-view. The young black tour guide and physicist, Bill Laws, and free-thinking, feminist Marsha Hamilton are the most intriguing to watch. And it is also interesting to think about how are protagonist reads and responds to the shifting landscape about him. For fans of character-driven novels, Dick is a favorite spiked dessert. He is nothing if not provoking.

And he knows how to set up a good thriller. I should have seen the end coming, and I know I owe this book a second read at least. Dick is excellent with the surreal and painfully concrete. His imagination and social critique are love letters, exactly what I need to know exists out there; so eloquent and messy, yet precise.

——————

2014sfexp200recommendations… If you are a Philip K Dick fan, this one should not escape your notice, unless the occasional religious and/or nationalistic irreverence is not your cup of tea—though now I am wondering when/where he doesn’t make such commentary? If conspiracies and paranoia are a Sunday afternoon, Dick continues to dispense thrillers with a delight in the darkly absurd. Eye in the Sky is especially bizarre, but it is a quick and compelling read for fans of such things.

of note… this is a read for the Sci-Fi Experience 2014.

"review" · Children's · fiction · juvenile lit · Picture book · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · Tales

{book} bound-picture-page-funny-tale-carrier

fortunately the milk coverFortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman

illustrated by Skottie Young (as this is the U.S. edition)

Harper (HarperCollins) 2013. hardcover.

 

While mum is off at a conference presenting her paper on lizards, dad is tasked with minding the kids’ schedules, heating pre-made casseroles, and groceries–like the milk supply. Mum isn’t gone long and the milk supply is depleted. So dad, wanting to provide a breakfast of cereal for his son and daughter, as well as some milk for his tea, heads to the shop and takes a very long time returning. Once home, he has quite the story to tell.

fortunately-the-milk-croppe

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.”

Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.” (jacket copy)

The eldest sibling is skeptical, the younger only cares if there are ponies–which there are, suddenly. The tale is marvelously outlandish with a time-travelling stegosaurus, pirates, a primitive tribe who worships a volcanic god Splod, and, of course, aliens (who bring Douglas Adams to mind…). There is a musical interlude put on by space dinosaurs (yes, Whovians, dinosaurs in space), and it is hilarious–and it is a reminder that this book should be enjoyed by the older crowd who will appreciate some of the humor.

FortunatelyMilk_USExcerptReveal-3

Fortunately, the milk (always emboldened in the text) happens to save the dad from all sorts of scrapes. Too, is his and Professor Steg’s wit. It is all pretty silly. And It is left up to the children and the reader whether the tale is true or not. It all depends on how you read the evidence, or how possible you think the world can be…

FtMink0061

Skottie Young illustrates the US version and Chris Riddell the UK*. They are fun, the rough sketch and energy reflect the tale the dad and book (as narrated by the son) tells. And there are a lot of illustrations, so the slim volume is chock full of visual and textual wit you won’t mind revisiting time and again, w/ or w/out the young-read-to-person in your life.

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FTM06-349x500

*Child-Led Chaos (provider of above image) compares the US/UK versions–it is excellent, so check it out–for instance the dad in Riddell’s version is inspired by Gaiman himself. and spoilers–it comes down to preference, the reviewer is happy to own both.

{all images belong to Skottie Young (whose linked deviantart page is fab), except the final pairing where the upper is evidently Chris Riddell’s doing, and as such,  belongs to him.}

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the time travel (“transtemporal metascience” (88)), the aliens, and the outer space makes this a Sci-Fi Experience!

Uncategorized

{event} sci-fi experience

2014sfexp400According to its creator Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings, seven years ago, The Sci-Fi Experience was born to:

a) Continue their love affair with science fiction
b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or
c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.

Choose your options and Join us! This year the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience moves to a start date of December 1st and will run through the end of January 2014. You can link your blog up with others at Carl’s announcement page, post friendly content here (email me), and/or keep tabs on the review site.

I tend to watch more sci-fi than read it, but who knows what I’ll be up to over Winter Break.

{image: “Strength and Honor” by Stephan Martiniere, used with the artist’s permission}

"review" · cinema · foreign · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{film} mr. nobody

M

“We cannot go back; that’s why it’s hard to choose.” (Nemo)

mr_nobody08Nemo Nobody is 118 years old and the only remaining mortal human in the year 2092. Who is this man called Mr. Nobody? No one knows, including himself. There are no records of his 118 years of existence and the stories he tells a young reporter are contradictory. After an opening tutorial on the adaptive behavior of a bird stimulated by varying conditions, we are given a sequence of a 34 year old Nemo dying in multiple ways. We then meet the 118 year old Mr. Nobody who is confused by the psych doctor mistaking his age, which he believed to still be 34. We “learn” who Nemo is through interviews with the physician and a reporter only to wonder, as they do, which choice was the one actually made? And where do these death scenes come in?

 Nemo occupies four primary ages in the multiple storylines presented: 9, 15, 34 and 118. The transitions are most usually facilitated by an emergence from sleep, water or story. Birth imagery, railways, roadways, dreaming…The divergences in timelines stem from multiple sources, but the most significant choice is whether at age nine he goes with his mother or his father when they divorce. At 15, depending on with which parent he resides, it is with whom does he fall in love and how does that play out? At 34 he is at another crossroads, often of a reassessing nature: where had his choices gotten him.

mr_nobody10

There are three girls from Nemo’s neighborhood who dictate three primary love interests who are cast in multiple outcomes. Anna appears more central than the other two, associated with red; Elise with blue, and Jean, the least and most forgettable (to Nemo, anyway), of the three in yellow. They are visually very different, so the color associations are of interest, though I am stumped by the blue. Nemo’s hair and glasses change depending on which branch and limb he is occupying in the story. The special effects make-up—especially the old-age make-up and the scar—is phenomenal. The casting of the younger Nemos is smart not only in looks but abilities. I do not know how you feel about Jared Leto’s performance in his band 30 Seconds to Mars, but he does exceptional work in Mr. Nobody.

The personalities of the primary characters are consistent irrespective of timeline/situation. The settings vary and fluidly move from “sets” to models to locations. Mind the detail in the sets. Writer/Director Jaco Van Dormael moves through levels of consciousness, even taking us to Mars via a story a teenaged Nemo is writing—even as travel to Mars is shown to be possible by 2092. There is a “timeless” quality that is facilitated by “classic” objects mixed among the new—with the future being an exception. But 2092 is supposed to be an exception, a terminus of anything that is suggestive of a life being lived; sex was rendered obsolete, there is “quasi-mortality,” it is antiseptic. The terminus questions what a life “lived enough” looks like, this is where those few stories involving Jean reside so importantly in juxtaposition with the other two love lines, e.g. on one line, a 15 year old Nemo lays out and pursues a set of goals with a “safe choice” (however “fated” in appearance) and to what end (for either of them)?

mr.-nobody-screenshot

Nemo Nobody aged 118: “Most of the time nothing happened… like a French movie.”

As with that opening, the Carl Sagan-esque lectures (by an iteration of Nemo) interspersed throughout inform the narrative significantly (see “Big Bang” here). The platform for the hypnotic state visited informs as well, but the presence and repetition of argyle is disturbing on so many levels (Halloween costume anyone?). The repetition of objects, colors, patterns contribute to meaning and tension, and help with a fluidity in the narrative–despite the increasing confusion and exasperation of viewer and interviewer. Which memory is a true one? What choice did 9 year old Nemo make, and every age after, that caused him to be where he is—a position that has confounded their record-keeping? Natalya* was not satisfied with the film’s explanation. Annoyance with a film she decided was taking too long exhausted her patience with the outcome. And the film does linger in moments, in precious interactions, in gorgeously composed scenes. Mr. Nobody is a film that takes its time and I thought it paid off (at least up to a scene I will call “5:50”). In what amounts to a contemplation on choices and the infamous “what if,” Mr. Nobody employs hard and soft sciences for its fiction(s). It is visually entrancing and oft uncomfortable. And not just uncomfortable in the realization that no ‘hunky-dory’ line exists.  What does it mean to live, to remember, and to imagine a life unfold before (and behind) you? What would make Mr. Nobody somebody?

Mr-nobody poster

Mr. Nobody (2009). Written & Directed by Jaco Van Dormael; Music by Pierre Van Dormael; Cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne; by Editing by Matyas Veress & Susan Shipton; Produced by Philippe Godeau; Studio Pan-Européenne; Starring: Jared Leto (Nemo Nobody: 34/118), Rhys Ifans (Nemo’s father), Natasha Little (Nemo’s mother), Diane Kruger (adult Anna), Sarah Polley (adult Elise), Lin Dam Pham (adult Jean), Thomas Byrne (Nemo 9), Toby Regbo (Nemo 15). Belgian (English-speaking version).

Running time 141 minutes. Not-Rated, but equivalent a PG-13, due to language and sexual content. *Sean and I were able to censor our 12 year old, having seen the film before.

IMDb. wiki.

a 2013 science fiction experience.

13sfexp300

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · philosophy/criticism · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · Uncategorized · young adult lit

{comics} pluto vol 1-7

If you are going to check out this manga series by Urasawa x Tezuka from your local library, please be sure they have all 8…As it is, I need to carve out time to find the 8th volume somewhere. Believe me, one volume will throw you into the next and you’ll not want to hit a wall. You know that dramatic Noooooo! that one can hear outside the house as it echoes down the street, from above the city, and even into outer space? Yeah, that was me.

URASAWA Preeminent manga artist Naoki Urasawa, collaborating with editor, producer and manga writer Takashi Nagasaki, creates a daring revisionist take on Osamu Tezuka’s timeless classic Astro Boy. Conceived under the auspices of Tezuka’s son Macoto Tezka, a visual artist in his own right, Pluto: Urasawa × Tezuka is more than just an homage piece — Urasawa takes Tezuka’s masterwork and transforms it into a new groundbreaking series of his own. Pluto: Urasawa × Tezuka will surely delight loyal Tezuka fans, but it will also capture the imagination of anyone who loves a compelling work of great science fiction.

× TEZUKA The legendary Osamu Tezuka is arguably the most influential person to shape the landscape of the narrative art form known as manga. In 1964, Tezuka created a revolutionary story arc in his Astro Boy series called “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” Tezuka’s engaging tale struck a chord with the children of that time to become the most popular story line of the series. It would also prove to profoundly influence and inspire a generation of manga artists to come. –Powells “about the author

This is where I admit to not reading much manga and my touches with Astro Boy are fleeting. I’m proof that Pluto will be accessible to just about anyone. It will help to know how to negotiate the right to left movement of the book and page, but it isn’t that hard to figure out. And Pluto is well worth the effort to step outside your norms and pick up manga.

note the mimicry of the top two panels. this portion of Pluto: 001 involving the story of North .02 is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Theirs is an idealized world where man and robot should coexist. But not everyone cares for robots and someone or something is out to destroy both the seven great robots of the world and key robot’s rights figures. Gesicht, a Europol detective and one of the seven, is brought in to investigate the serial murders marked by the composition of the remains, horns coming from the victims heads. What follows is a puzzle steeped in a near past and a race against time to stop the murderer from striking again.  Visiting Asimov’s rules, the conversations on Artificial Intelligence and its potential evolution fascinate. As for the political messages…who didn’t find weapons of mass destruction and declared war anyway?

All destruction and creation is not without consequence.

Pluto was created as a tribute to Urasawa’s hero Tezuka and the challenge was, in part, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Astro Boy. Loosely based on Astro Boy, Urasawa refers to Atom as he’s called, and apparently references the original series throughout, including imitating a few classic images.

{image: source}

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Gesicht could use a vacation from his work, and he and his wife keep talking about it, even as his work interrupts the best laid plans. Pluto writes a familiar script for both human and robot alike. Indeed, many people in the story have a hard time discerning the differences between the most advanced robots and humans. Even so, Urasawa creates very human connections with the most obvious looking robot, primarily by placing them in very human situations. There is some discussion as to the fairness and the value of creating humanizing expectation while yet holding robotic expectations as well. The conflicts on the level of characterization as well as the greater arcs are beautifully balanced and interconnected. There are a lot of philosophical ideas, and historical parallels, a lot of action, an incredible amount of intrigue. Not one piece works without another.

Moving in and out of time, ranging all over the planet, the transitions are easier than one should expect. The progression of the story wasn’t expected. I’m not going to give anything away, but there are moments of absolute dread. I really need to read volume 008, except I worry. But I have to read it. I need to know how it could possibly end happily. And I have to know more about that creepy teddy bear. Yes, Urasawa manages to make a teddy bear more terrifying than a demented robot kept in pieces and raving in the boiler room.

If you get to very little manga in your time, consider Pluto worth some of it; especially you sci-fi fans.

*also Hiromu Arakawa’s Full-Metal Alchemist (Viz Media).

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 Pluto by Urasawa x Tezuka

Viz Media, 2009 (orig. 2004); tradepaper.

w/ post scripts and interviews and the like in each volume.

—-2012 Science Fiction Experience–@ “Stainless Steel Droppings”—-

cinema · philosophy/criticism · sci-fi/fantasy

film can make visible what is invisible

I believe I mentioned that it was in all likelihood that my experiences of science-fiction for the Sci Fi Experience 2011 would occur through film or television. In a preparatory manner, I pulled the Cinema oriented textbooks/guides I had from University off the shelves and followed all the index entries on “science fiction.”

Susan Hayward’s Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, 3rd Edition (Routledge, 2006) was easily the most provocative.

Hayward begins by pointing out the difficulties of categorizing genres, particularly science fiction. It seems to depend on the culture as to whether it is a sub-genre to horror, sub-genre of fantasy, or a genre of its own.

Next it is a travel through time, beginning with the literary sires Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. “Film, in so far as it can make visible what is invisible, seems a natural medium for this kind of narrative” (336). Yet it took time for science fiction to take hold in the film industry.

Hayward makes an observance of the newly forming film genre:

“Apart from [Georges] Méliès’ work, which was very loosely based on Verne’s writing, films in this genre have tended to be grounded more in the Wellsian fear of science outstripping our understanding and taking us over. Science-fiction films produce a futuristic vision where we are no longer in control of what we have created (this curiously assumes that we currently do control science). This genre relies on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief and does so by playing on our fears of science. The few science-fiction films made before 1950 tended to focus on technology as the science-demon that would destroy humanity.” (337)

Alongside the historical highlights, cultural remarks are made, illuminating influences on the industry and the narratives. For instance, The 1950s were when Hollywood identified science fiction as a genre, not seeing enough in production to this point to give it distinction. “After 1950 the trend was for humanity to be at risk from alien intruders that either invaded the earth or caught up with humans in outer space in a spacecraft or on an alien planet (upon which the humans unquestioningly had the greater right to be, it would appear)” (337). The Cold War period proved perfect fodder for the genre.

“’Reds under the bed’, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s witch-hunt of supposed communists, the threat of the nuclear deterrent (albeit only the Americans ever used it, in WWII against Japan: Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the threat of fear of totalitarian regimes—all of these elements fed into the American political culture of the 1950s and found a steady reflection in contemporary film production.” (337)

Hayward moves to how “the American paranoia and neurosis at alien threats (real or imagined) was differently expressed in Britain during the 1960s” (337). Looking at the films The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, Val Guest) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Hayward reads the fears of a nation stuck between two super powers armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Hayward moves through history and the genre up to just prior the publication date 2006: “By the turn of the century and into the new millennium sci –fi seems to be solidly embedded in the technics of fear. We are now in an age of genetic engineering, ecological destruction, and formally labeled ‘weapons of mass destruction’. […] the enemy is invisible, possibly even virtual” (340).

Hayward’s concluding paragraph, in which she also breaks science-fiction film into three main categories:

“The science-fiction film, then, is politically motivated but for the most part not in a challenging sense. In general, the genre functions to assert the status quo (destroying the enemy, getting home to safety, etc.). Its ideological effects are mostly (albeit not exclusively) hegemonic. Sadly, because technology should be questioned and attitudes to outsiders should come under scrutiny. But this is rare, as a quick gloss over the three main categories of films discussed below will show. The three types within this genre are: space-flight, alien invaders, futuristic societies. [Fritz] Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the prototype of this last category. But it also set the agenda for a critique of futuristic urban spaces by challenging the 1920s modernist belief in technological progress as a source of social change—a challenge still apparent in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997). Space-flight films, on the other hand, have traditionally devoted more energy to exposing the virtuosities of film technology and as such have functioned as a vehicle for prowess (in real terms for the film industry, and metaphorically for the space industry) until the arrival of [Stanley] Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001, which placed grave question marks on man’s faith in and assumed superiority over technology. Finally, alien invader films, because they are probably the most prolific of the three categories and, arguably, the most conservative—in that they point at otherness as threatening to life and/or social mores—represent the most ‘worrying’ category of all with their innate potential for misogyny, racism and nationalistic chauvinism.” (342).

Hayward spends a reasonable amount of time arguing her point on the last category. Star Wars didn’t fare well under her scrutiny: “Sadly technophilia failed to disguise a very passé indulgence in comic-book adventure-culture and a deep nostalgia for boys-own stuff—and with it a return to a far more misogynistic worldview”(339).

The read is fascinating. Alongside Hayward’s cultural read of the history of the genre, her feminist perspective is thought-provoking, and explains much of the tone of disdain toward the genre.

“For all its appearance of promoting woman, this Alien quadrology ultimately, in a backlash way, addresses the effects of feminism on patriarchy and male sexuality. Thus, rather than a political culture feeling under threat (as in the 1950s), it is now (White) male sexual culture that feels threatened. […] Although this is not the first series of science-fiction films to attract feminist critics to the genre, it sums up why this genre is of interest to them: because it shows the danger of science and technology, explores the underlying social anxieties regarding experiments in reproduction technology, and the ideological effects of this genre which often construct female sexuality as monstrous.” (339-40).

“Mistrust of the female has shifted little over time. What, in the final analysis, separates the projection of female barrenness (intellectual and sexual) through the evil robot Maria in Metropolis from the drive to rid the world of the need for the womb as exemplified by The Matrix and many other films that precede it? We could cite the numerous cross-genetic nasties and womb fantasies made by David Cronenberg (The Brood, 1979; The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988) amongst just so many others that wish eternally for the womb to remain absent (Jurassic Park, Spielberg, 1993; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Branagh, 1994). Curiously, too, we have come back to robots—but this time to boy robots (and not just the ‘boy’ robot Schwartzenegger of the Terminator series). We have the boy robot of Spielberg’s A.I. (2001) who rivals the real boy for the love of his mother—and guess what, for a while he wins. What do we make of a mother who bonds with the robot-child whilst her own son is temporarily put on ice (literally in the hope that a cure can be found for his congenital disease)? Here the robot exposes just how untrustworthy a mother can be.” (341).

Hayward makes me curious about the fears we harbor…

John Belton does not undermine Hayward in American Cinema/ American Culture, 3rd Edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009), but his critical approach differs in how he addresses the manifestation of our fears in science fiction films. I will post on this soon.

Meanwhile: A few of the Questions that come to mind after the reading:

A: Is it that women pick up on their extermination the reason why relatively few women are credited fans of the genre? Who wants to watch a film in which your “sexuality is monstrous?” (This question would naturally exclude women are conscious proponents of Patriarchy.)

B: Not having watched (or read) a great deal of sci-fi, is Hayward exaggerating the space invader films’ “innate potential for misogyny, racism and nationalistic chauvinism?”

C: I had just watched Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian science fiction Children of Men (2006). I was thinking how Children of Men might return the value of the female and her womb to science fiction? Acknowledging Man and Technologies failure to supplant Nature; in their bid for domination destroying themselves? In the end, Theo (Clive Owen) as an Adam figure sacrificing himself for the sake of Eve?… [more on this as a post is in the works.]

D: Children of Men is set in Britain and directed by a Mexican. What current differences do you see in science fiction coming out of Britain, France, the U.S., Japan, etc.; most especially in relation to the U.S.?

E: Has anything changed since the 2006 publication date that might convince Hayward that science fiction might be a genre she would no longer see as a stronghold for misogynistic, racist, and nationalistic chauvinism?

F: How much do her readings of the films correlate to the literary genre? For instance, to read Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is not necessarily to read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)—something I plan to compare very soon. Would Hayward see notable differences?

>note<

I do not automatically view fans of science-fiction as misogynistic, racist, or nationally chauvinistic; nor have I found all to be so.

Also, I don’t intend to be argumentative (this time)…looking for thoughtful, not defensive or attacking.