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Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.

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Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.

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Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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Science and magic would appear to be strange bedfellows. But that doesn’t stop writers from combining the two. Star Trek made use numerous magical cultures whose worldview clashed with the scientific culture on the Enterprise, and we’re all familiar with how all the tech toys in Star Wars meant little without the Force to offer an intuitive, magical alternative to science.

At a recent gathering at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Ms. Nesbet mentioned how the dynamic tension between magic and science played an important role in her story. So as I plunged into her longish (381 pp.) middle grade fantasy, I was expecting something more or less familiar. What I got was something familiar, yes, but also delightfully different. The Wrinkled Crown isn’t sci fi, nor is it fantasy disguised as sci fi. Instead, it’s really an exploration of place, as seen the lens of a girl. And that place is as wildly original as any created world anywhere.

A key word in the story comes right from its title: wrinkled. More than just another word for magic, it also refers to the quality of place, the hill country where young Linny grows up. That quality gets mapped into the minds of people who go there, so that even those who live there are likely to be overwhelmed by illness if they wander too far into areas where the wrinkles dominate the land. Linny has an uncanny ability to navigate through wrinkled places, but that ability gets severely tested when she inadvertently sends her best friend to Away, a place so wrinkled that even Linny can’t go there.

To try to save her, Linny undertakes a perilous journey to the Plain, a place divided into warring camps: those who defend wrinkled reality, and Surveyors who want to stamp it out. While Nesbet presents the Surveyors unsympathetically, she also shows some of the wrinkled rebels to be less than ethical in their dealings as well. While running from members of both sides, Linny finds her animal familiar: Half-Cat, a determined, aloof-yet-loyal, multitalented feline. Half-Cat’s right eye is actually a light, and though her origin isn’t explained, it’s obvious that she is both animal and machine—wrinkled and unwrinkled.

[ALERT! SPOILERS AHEAD!]

Linny goes through a number of hair-raising escapes from Wrinkled and Plain people alike, including a harrowing journey through a maze of underground tunnels she navigates by smell alone. When she emerges, it’s right into a huge celebratory gathering of people, the one time of year when Wrinkled and Plain put down their antipathy and commingle. Linny appears to win over the crowd, who see her as the manifestation of a girl who, the stories say, will wear the Wrinkled Crown and unite the country. But Linny can’t follow this path—yet (perhaps in a sequel?). She still must save her friend Sayra, lost in Away.

I won’t go into all the details here, except to say that Linny escapes back to the wrinkled hills and finds a way to bring her friend back, while thwarting the plans of a crazy Plain man trying to tap into the extreme wrinkledness (wrinkletude? wrinkality?) at the edge of Away in order to bring unlimited energy to the Plain. The analogy to our world here is pretty obvious, because his method would also destroy wrinkles and flatten reality, an unthinkable catastrophe. Nuclear energy, the Keystone Pipeline, Global Warming—suffice it to say we have plenty of ways of flattening reality, too.

Nesbet clearly believes, though, that both Wrinkled and Plain are necessary for balance, and by analogy, so are magic/faith/spirituality and science. As such, The Wrinkled Crown functions as a parable. While the world she paints isn’t a dystopia, really, it has a stripped-down quality (oddly enough, though Linny discovers maps and how useful they are, the book itself doesn’t come with a map) that reminds me of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (reviewed elsewhere here).

Then there’s that word: Wrinkled. I’m sure that this word didn’t just pop into Nesbet’s head by accident. Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time comes immediately to mind. But there’s more to it than that, I think. Wrinkled skin, wrinkled clothes—wrinkles are things we all have to deal with on a daily basis. Our brains are wrinkled—without all those folds, we would lack consciousness itself. And oddly enough, wrinkles have been used by physicists and mathematicians to describe dimensions and space itself. Cosmetologist George Smoot even wrote a book about the origins of the Universe, Wrinkles in Time. Several times in her story, Nesbet presents the possibility that Linny’s world may be like a bubble that could pop and disappear—a prospect that comes straight out of contemporary multiverse theory.

Let’s hope our own world doesn’t do the same. In the meantime, I plan to take plenty of walks on the wrinkled paths in my own neck of the woods.

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Star Wars VII blasts into a post-Lucas galaxy that’s far far away, but all too familiar

By sheer force of numbers, A New Hope (whoops, I mean The Force Awakens) has taken the country of multiplexes by storm. Fans are flocking to the new sequel-that’s-not-a-prequel, critics offer a few light verbal jabs before applauding the film for its freshness and lightness of spirit, and even nonbelievers in the Star Wars canon are admitting that the movie has merit for its entertainment values. Virtually everyone I know who’s seen it has liked it. So despite the fact that I had to shell out an extra 5 bucks because the only seats available were in 3D, I was prepared to like it as well—considering that, back in the day, I thought the original series—especially when Han and Leia’s verbal jabs were more entertaining than swooshing light sabers—to be jolly good fun.

But Han and Leia were a lot older for this one. And though Han could still do that world-weary twinkle in his eye, his age showed. The two newcomers who replaced them as stars—the orphan junk dealer Rey and renegade soldier Finn—come off as much more serious, despite Finn’s occasional comic lines. Rey is scrappy (she works collecting scrapped parts—get it?) and determined and somehow strong with the Force, though we’re never told how she managed to swing that. She also wears the same expression on her face, a kind of blank stare, for virtually the entire movie. Finn is more interesting, but I had a hard time buying his running away from the army when the army had programmed his entire life up until that point. Not that he’d chicken out when it came time for him to kill innocent people—that’s a visceral, instinctive reaction to war. But he’s still just a number, and he only knows people as numbers. How’s he supposed to suddenly decide that he’s got a name—and a desire for freedom–unless someone has planted those seeds in his mind? And this film never shows that side of his backstory.

When these two get together, any chance for developing a relationship with nuance gets blasted away in withering tie fighter tracers and explosions. So here I’m going to go all grumpy on y’all and say that, back in the day, dodging tie fighter tracers and explosions was exhilarating fun. This time after just a few tie fighter tracers and explosions on a much-too-close 3D screen I had had enough, thank you. Yet that was just the beginning. The Force Awakens thus settles into the comfortable and peculiarly American movie diet of loud fast blow ‘em up shoot ‘em up chase scenes that for some reason Hollywood has decided every red-blooded citizen has to enjoy.

Otherwise, like Rey herself, director J.J. Abrams played the scavenger, ripping off chunks of the original Star Wars series and jamming them into his story. Apologists for this call this a nodding tribute to the original tale, but I call it lack of imagination. Did we really need another Death Star, only bigger? More Army officers that look straight out of the Third Reich? A bad guy who looks like a bad cross between Palpatine and Voldemort? Tie fighters that haven’t changed in thirty years? Another bar scene with aliens? Same old stormtrooper suits? Another father-son confrontation on a narrow bridge over an endless chasm? And how did the First Order come into being, anyway?
There was one scene that held my interest, a scene that might have revealed much about Rey’s character had it been explored further. Wandering into the basement of Maz Kanata’s castle, she stumbles on Luke Skywalker’s light saber stored in a box like a religious artifact. After opening the box she’s overwhelmed by eerie sounds and a flashback of herself as a child when her parents are wrenched from her. Had she stumbled on a powerful manifestation of the Force? Would we be granted access to her past and gain insight into what she believes and what motivates her? Perhaps a spiritual awakening, or a great fear would be unleashed on her? And what did it have to do with Luke’s light saber? Unfortunately, the scene ended quickly and Rey seemed untroubled and unchanged by the experience.

Perhaps—but it’s never even hinted as such—this experience enabled her to use the Force, which Luke only learned after numerous lessons from the venerable Yoda (here missing, alas). Because, guess what, she uses the Force to get her stuck-in-the-snow light saber to return to her hand just in the nick of time. Just like Luke.

So maybe in VIII, Rey will turn to the franchise writers and using her best Jedi mind control voice, say “You will unshackle your own creative bonds and do something truly different this time.”

POSTSCRIPT

I wrote this about a month ago and some…force (ahem) kept me from posting it. Could it be Disney himself? Or the threat of legions of TFA followers casting aspersions my way? But now I’ve decided to do the right thing and post it.

I do have one last meme to explore here: Kylo Ren’s cool new light saber. It dawned on me that this young, disturbed villain carried a Christian symbol, since the two crossguards shine red like the shaft. This can’t have been coincidence, and has been noticed by others on the Internet. The red color gives the saber a certain demonic quality, contrasting with Luke’s “pure white” light saber. What does this symbolism intend?

Christians may see it as symbolizing the anti-Christ, though I wouldn’t go that far. It could be a not-so-subtle comment, in visual form, that any religion taken to extremes leads to evil–Muslim, Christian, or Judaism, take your pick. “Christian Soldiers” has all to often been taken literally, leading to behavior directly antithetical to the teachings of Christ.

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“What if?”

These two words provide the impetus for an increasingly popular class of novel known as the alternate history. What if the Allies had lost World War II? What if Jesus had organized an army and overthrown Rome? What if the Black Plague had eradicated European civilization, leading to world domination by Asian countries?

Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, asks: What if the South had won the Civil War? Published in 1955, it was one of the first modern alternate histories to be published. It’s also fairly unique in that it combines the alternate history with the more traditional time travel story, replete with time travel’s inherent philosophical conundrums. Moore manages to converge these two plot devices in a way that makes for a generally good read and an exciting, if predictable, ending.

That’s not to say it’s a typical sci-fi read: no science enters into at all for the first four-fifths of the story. But I found Moore’s post-Civil War world compelling, if not terribly convincing. That’s because he’s essentially written a proto-steampunk novel that takes place in the middle of the twentieth century. Cars don’t exist; instead the fortunate few drive the occasional “minibile,” a steam-powered carriage. Electricity is virtually non-existent; illumination is here provided by the ubiquitous gaslight. It seems that, while the Confederate victory has led to a wealthy South and an impoverished—dare I say dystopian?—North, technology itself has fallen into a kind of Odin sleep.

The main character, a man strangely named Hodge Backmaker, is a bookish sort, lacking in social skills and possessing, even as a teenager, the vocabulary of a formal scholar. He constantly questions himself and his relationship with other members of Haggershaven, a quasi-Utopian community of scholars has joined. As he follows his natural bent to study history, philosophical questions about time, personal responsibility, and the role of the historian crop up now and then, either as part of his nature to mull over his own shortcomings, or in conversation with his fellows at Haggershaven. An action-packed tale this is not, though there is some romance (mixed with the usual recriminations and self-doubts).

At first I found some of Backmaker’s ramblings humorous, particularly when he winkingly references famous people from our historical line in a quotidian way in the alternate history—“Carl Jung,” for example, is a police chief. He presents a brief, but marvelously funny picture of a “Southron” gentleman who gloats over Yankee racism while teasing Backmaker for associating with a “Nigra”:

He made a gargling noise which I judged was laughter. “Wouldn’t know about your damyankee laws, boy. For myself I’d say there’s no harm in it [associating with a black person], no harm in it at all. Always did like to be around Nigras myself. But then I was rared among em. Most damyankees seem to think Nigras aint fitten company. Only goes to show how narrerminded and bigoted you folks can be. Present company excepted.

Unfortunately this sort of interchange, which reveals subtle differences in racism between our history and the alternate one, are few and far between. After he finds his way to Haggershaven, most of his interactions are with other scholars and conflicting love interests.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs reveal plot information that you may wish to remain hidden should you decide to read the novel. If so, skip to CONCLUSION.

One of those love interests is the founder’s daughter, an intense woman who has a prolonged, difficult affair with Hodge. But it’s not until late in the story that we learn that she is a scientific genius—genius enough, it turns out, to invent a time machine, even though Einstein, if he did exist in this history, was probably just a lowly bank teller, and quantum physics lay on nobody’s event horizon. This stretched my credulity—not that the inventor would be a woman, but that she could do this is in a virtual scientific vacuum. Nonetheless, she is rarin’ to go with the “HX-1” (as she calls the machine), and after it proves timeworthy it’s only a matter of, ahem, time before our man Hodge decides to take it on a spin back to the pivotal point of the Civil War—the Battle of Gettysburg—as part of his historical research.

Since the reader knows he is stuck in the past, Hodge’s fate is pretty well cast. Indeed, out of laziness or carelessness, he interacts with some Confederate soldiers just as the battle begins—and the soldiers, rather than advance to where they should have been, instead retreat. That was all that was needed to tip the battle in the Union’s favor, and the North went on to win the War.

And poor Hodge, after failing to return to his own time in 1951, realized that his own time no longer existed. Haggershaven no longer existed, and the loves of his life (the founder’s daughter, plus a woman he’d rescued earlier named “Catty”—don’t ask) no longer existed. The time machine now never existed. And he was stuck in the past forever.

CONCLUSION

I give Moore credit for creating a hero who wasn’t a martial artist, didn’t have any superpowers, and at times revealed an unpleasant personality. The colony provided an unusual social medium for him, and his philosophical thoughts on things historical provided interesting intellectual counterpoint to a plot which, for all its faults, came together in a satisfying way. I cut him some slack, too, for writing in a period—the early fifties—in which female characters were commonly depicted as emotionally overwrought or intellectually vacuous. The main character’s voice was, oddly, convincing for a man in the 1800s but not the 1900s. It was as though the entire culture of the late 1800s got frozen in time. Evidently the Confederacy, as well as other world superpowers, had achieved wealth and culture not evident in the impoverished “United States,” but the story itself takes place entirely in New York and Pennsylvania. And what about the American West? Almost nothing. Subsequent alternate histories by other authors would more creatively flesh out their worlds, but I do recognize Moore as a pathfinder for his efforts.

Postscript: As a copyeditor, I couldn’t help note the recurring, seemingly random absences of apostrophes throughout the text. Example: couldnt, no apostrophe. But on the same page: don’t, with apostrophe. It was as though the editor responsible for the final copy lived between two histories, one in which apostrophes existed and one in which they didn’t.

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