Aug 19, 2008

War With The Newts by Karel Čapek

War With the Newts (originally Válka s Mloky)

Dark, funny satire. I haven't read any other Czech fiction, so I don't know if those are typical traits of their sf and fantasy, but I'm certainly looking forward to picking up Čapek's best known work, R.U.R..

In many ways, the newts might as well be robots (a word that Čapek himself invented). For most of the novel they are perfectly content to work, without much fuss or complaint, at any job presented to them. They take all abuse and violence against them in stride, as calmly as a little green anole will drop his tail when escaping a cat. It's man's inhumanity that is brought into sharp focus in the passages describing the various brutal experiments practiced upon the salamanders, not the creatures' worth as sentient beings.

I don't know about other countries or regions, but here in the American south we are carefully taught in school about the evils of the slave trade, of the way African people were crammed into ships and allowed to rot and die all the way across the ocean, as long as the bottom line was not too affected by the loss of profit. So when Čapek tells of the newts transported in dirty, sickening water tanks (or even worse, sealed into tin barrels) after being kidnapped from their homes, the comparison is obvious. But for all that, he writes well enough that the symbolism never feels forced - if it is slightly heavy handed, I can overlook that because it still gave me a punch in the gut. When the slave traders pull off a salamander's leg or arm and just shrug and assure the narrator that it will grow back anyway, so who cares?, it got to me enough that I sat the book down for a minute.

So, there's the question that is wrestled with for most of the book - are they animals? automatons? fellow thinking beings? Do they have souls, or are they simply a resource to be sold in carefully grouped batches to the highest bidder? Is education and a decent life the best thing for them, as new members of a human society? Or is that what later leads to their victory in a war that sort of doesn't even happen?

In the end, of course, we bring our downfall on ourselves. We breed them and seed them on every coastline in the world, we arm them and train them despite agreements and warnings to the contrary, we base an entire system of worldwide advancement upon them. And then they take over our airwaves and offer to buy the very land from us, with the comment that they're going to take it either way. Čapek, speaking directly to us in the final chapter, offers some little hope, but I'm pretty sure they won out in the end.

final thought: I didn't even touch on all the references to nazis (the Master Newt Race), fascism, unchecked capitalism, environmental damage, and imperialism. In less deft hands, this would have been unreadable. I'm glad to have "discovered" Čapek.

2081: Everyone Will Finally Be Equal

Welly welly welly welly welly welly well, it looks like they've gone and made a movie, called 2081, based on Vonnegut's story "Harrison Bergeron". I don't know the release date yet, but the site and trailer are hitting all over the intarweb.

This story, which I first read back in middle school sometime, remains one of my favorites. And the ad looks slick. But how much crapass padding will they put in to make it worth filming? And will they keep the ending, depressing as it is?

Aug 18, 2008

Wyndham and King

So, how many times do you think Stephen King's read Day of the Triffids? The bit with Bill and Josella getting ready to leave London, having a final dinner in a lavish, abandoned apartment, was echoed clearly in The Stand, when Larry Underwood and Rita Blakemoor meet in NYC and prepare to escape the city. Heck, the biggest difference is very obviously a matter of the times in which they were written - in 1978, you get pills and sex. Granted, Josella is a hell of a lot stronger woman, as written, than poor, doomed Rita, but go read the two bits and you'll see what I mean.

Not to mention that the whole of King's novel Cell is essentially a reworking of Triffids. For my money, he didn't even try to hide it.

Ah, Stevie, I love ya', but at least attempt to disguise your plagiarism.

Aug 12, 2008

Count Zero by William Gibson

Count Zero

I feel like I've read the Sprawl series as a set of flashbacks. I started with the most recent, Mona Lisa Overdrive, slammed all the way back to Nueromancer, and then wound up filling in the final blanks in the middle. I don't know if it's because I have all the pieces now or just the way this one was put together, but Count Zero is my favorite of the three. (The only big flaw being the complete lack of Molly).

But what's not to like? Corporate rule may be my "favorite" form of dystopia in fiction - it's just so god damned possible these days - and Gibson loves it as much as I do. There's less out and out techbabble and more story (necessary, I guess, when you have at least three plot lines tangling up together and no dearth of worthwhile characters to follow) - although, as usual with the godfather of cyberpunk, most of the techy stuff is right on the nose some 20+ years later.

From what I understand, the reason Gibson let his image of the internet wander so far is that he really didn't have much of a clue about computers when he started writing these things. He heard a few things about it, came up with ideas that sounded cool to him, and went with it. That's how he wound up presenting us with steampunk computers and fractured AI personalities mimicking Vodun spirits and the web itself as a sort of shared hallucination of infinite space and possibility. He didn't know what was considered impossible, so he went ahead and invented it anyway.

Having finished all three of his Sprawl novels, I'd like to see a book of short stories by different authors set in that vast urban landscape. Jack Womack, China Miéville, maybe even someone like Haruki Murakami. Just an idea.

final thought: Putting aside his agile story-telling, his amazing tech predictions, and his ability at world-building, you know what I really do appreciate about Gibson? He offers a sort of hope for his characters at the end, and us through them. Not everyone makes it, but those who do are often better off, thanks to dumb luck and their own effort, at the end than they are at the beginning. And after 8 months of nearly unmitigated dark resolutions, that's something worth having.

Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Planet of the Apes or La Planète Des Singes or Monkey Planet. Whatever. Translated into English by Xan Fielding.

Okay, now, you have to remember that the original novel and the movie deviate in certain major ways. The end twist is completely different, for example, and the main character is a journalist who is essentially just along for the ride, not an American astronaut. He's also a lot less... Hestonish, if you will, of course. More intellectual, less "get your stinking paws off me." I love the movie, by the way, and consider it a classic, but had to sort of ignore it in reading the novel.

You can read this one as a straight ahead 60s scifi story, and a damn good read it is. From the curiosity of the travelers as they first encounter the inhuman humans to the panicked frenzy of Mérou escaping death at the hands of gorilla hunters to the strange love triangle of intelligent human/primitive human/intelligent chimpanzee, there's no mystery as to why the basic concept could be so well translated to the screen.

If you are inclined that way, as I sometimes tend to be, you can also read it as paranoia about "lesser" races rising up to surpass and suppress European culture. With all the devolved people being depicted as beautiful and white - and the common racist portrayal of Africans as apes - this isn't exactly a stretch. But then, I may be playing Boulle false to assume that comparison was intended. I haven't studied him enough to know one way or the other.

The little details, mostly of ape culture, were what I enjoyed most about this one. Their stock market, with various apes flinging themselves around a giant room, climbing into the rafters, all shrieking at the tops of their lungs as they buy and sell, is a memorable image. The idea that the chimp scientists focus so strongly on biological and brain studies because that's the last thing their unevolved ancestors were used for by human was inspired. And, of course, Zira's refusal of the human Mérou because he's "just so ugly" - a great moment.

final thought: Our nearest cousins, and the ones most likely to overrun us in the end. Who doesn't feel that apes are just slightly too human sometimes?

Aug 8, 2008

Dystopias on Film

Somebody's posted up their version of the Top 50 dystopian movies of all time. Not a bad list. I mean, shit like this is fairly individual, but it's a good jumping off point.

For the record, I've seen all of:
50. Equilibrium (2002): terrible movie. No, really, it was so bad. And I can't even remember why I found it so bad. It may have been the gun dancing fighting style.
48. Starship Troopers (1997): I get what they were going for, and I'm all in favor of coed shower scenes, but, well. You know. Anyway, I have to admit this is one of my favorite novels, in a weird way that I completely disagree with.
44. Strange Days (1995): This movie made me sick. Not from the story, but from the style - same with Blair Witch. Motion sickness had me in the lobby, dry heaving.
43. Logan’s Run (1976): I'm a sucker for those 70s-era scifi epics. Between the clothes and the antigovernment paranoia, I could watch this shit for days.
42. I Robot (2004): Wasn't this a Converse commercial? It sure wasn't related to the stories collected under the same name.
41. Soylent Green (1973): See "Logan's Run" above. Plus, Chuck Heston.
38. Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001): A lot of this movie sucked like a Hoover, but bits were exactly as spooky creepy as they needed to be. The Flesh Fair in particular.
35. Escape from New York (1981): Snake Motherfucking Plissken. One of my favorite movies of all time.
30. Dark City (1998): This was a good ride, but I was sort of distracted by the fact that this is the only thing I've ever seen Richard O'Brien in besides Rocky Horror.
28. Mad Max (1979): He may be a crazy, Christian, S/M punchline these days, but Mad Max is still truly awesome. Where did you go, Mel Gibson?
25. Gattaca (1997): I wasn't blown away when it came out, but I do still think about it from time to time.
23. V for Vendetta (2005): I wanted to like this more than I did. I think I kept somehow comparing it to "Children of Men", and it comes out the loser.
22. Planet of the Apes (1968): See "Soylent Green" above. Plus, apes.
21. The City of Lost Children (1995): It was pretty, I was high, and damned if I remember jack shit about what it meant.
18. Battle Royale (2000): Kind of trendy these days, but fuck if it's not a great little flick. I always enjoy movies about killer school kids.
17. Ghost in the Shell (1995): Saw this in the theater, can't remember a damn thing about it, but I seem to recall enjoying it at the time.
14. Twelve Monkeys (1995): My mom's theory is that if Brice Willis is wearing a hair piece, the movie will suck. If not, it should be good. 12 Monkeys lines up with that. Also, I always prefer Brad Pitt when he's playing loopy.
7. The Matrix (1999): It was pretty at the time, but I'm no fanboy. Aside from the Bill & Ted movies and Parenthood, Reeves has no place in film.
6. Children of Men (2006): Blew me away. I'll admit it, I cried all through the last bit with the birth and the gun battle. But it was the nurse's fate that sticks with me.
5. Blade Runner (1982): Just the best.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971): My mom says the summer she and her friends "discovered" shrooms, Clockwork Orange played for two months at their local cineplex. By the end of that summer, they were all speaking nadsat.

So, which of the rest should I see next?