Posted on May 9, 2019
I’ve always thought of Philip Jose Farmer as a fantasy writer and, not being very much into fantasy, I’ve actively avoided him. But lately, I’ve been feeling the need to circle back to the books I skipped during my formative years for whatever reason and since I loved PJF’s take on Vonnegut’s fictional author Kilgore Trout in Venus on the Half Shell, I thought I’d try one of his more famous works.
And, frankly, the title kind of grabbed me.
I didn’t know anything about the Riverworld series so it was just a lucky shot that dropped me into the first book. For those of you who haven’t read the series, it’s about an Earth-like planet that has been terraformed to have its entire surface covered by one massive, winding river. The engineers who accomplished this miraculous feat then resurrected every sentient being who ever lived on Earth into the valley that follows it.
No one knows why they’ve been resurrected and there is precious little logic about how the various races/nations/languages are distributed along the shore. Whoever has done this has not given a reason or communicated with the resurrectees in any way. The only indication of their presence is the mushroom-shaped Grail Stones that provide food, drink, clothing and many luxury items one would not expect to find in Heaven.
PJF made an interesting choice for his protagonist by choosing a man from history who is arguably more interesting in his life than he possibly can be in this made up story. Richard Francis Burton is the epitome of British colonialism and overreach. A classic “explorer” who travels the world to put his lens on every culture and society he encounters.
I think that PJF probably felt differently about this kind of man in 1971 than we do now. Colonialism and Cultural Appropriation being pejorative terms now, I had a tendency to react negatively to information about Burton that PJF presented as bold or heroic. For instance, Burton infiltrated Mecca during Ramadan disguised as an Arab.
Regardless of his historical nature, Burton is presented much like Heinlein’s “competent man” for most of the story. His curiosity about the river valley drives him to relentlessly pursue answers even when the creatures running Riverworld actively try to stop him. He’s also a “competent man” character in the way he is presented with obstacles and consistently overcomes them with logic and level-headed thinking.
He’s not bloodless, though. Burton is presented as a passionate and prideful man whose love for a woman who will not have him is never fully resolved in this first book of the story. He also has a difficult relationship to the legacy he left on Earth, marred as it was by his wife who burned many of his journals and other writings after his death.
Having sort of chipped away at it, I really need to come back around and explain how much I enjoyed To Your Scattered Bodies Go.
PJF’s writing style is minimalist but not to the point of strangling his world building or his characterization. As such, it provides a fast narrative that quickly establishes the environment, introduces the characters, and charges into action. And while I prefer lots of action in the stories I read, I find the ones that consist only of action are boring. PJF avoids this problem by creating real emotional constructs for fully realized characters who expose their true selves through conflict.
An efficient but rich experience. One I plan to continue in the sequels where the mysteries of Riverworld will hopefully be solved.
Art films bore me. Not artistic films like Barry Lyndon or 2001: A Space Odyssey or A Clockwork Orange (wait, those are all… whatever), but self important film school senior projects with long, long, overlong takes and a soundtrack that’s just human teeth falling on a xylophone, with very little dialogue and when the characters do speak they do it asynchronously like they’re having two different conversations.
Essentially, they’re just short stories stretched into novels by abandoning narrative for long shots watching the sun go down on a black lake which end with a synth sting and a smash cut to black.
The sad thing is that you can absolutely make a great, entertaining and engaging film using those techniques, but these filmmakers seem to feel that story is beneath them.
Let’s talk about four movies made in this style:
- Upstream Color
- The Lobster
- Under The Skin
Primer’s narrative is jumbled and confusing because it’s about time travel. Upstream Color has an overwhelming soundtrack because it’s about loss of consciousness. Both of these movies tell a coherent story with lots of long shots, very little dialogue, no exposition or even explanation, and both are highly engaging. You watch them like an addict hovering over a spoon with a lighter because you don’t want to miss anything.
The Lobster, even though it does more world building than the other three, ends up in a universe free of rules and common sense which leaves it in a pile of arbitrary logic. Ultimately, after you finally get through this slog of a movie, you feel cheated because none of it made any sense.
Under The Skin is empty calories. A blank canvas you are meant to project your own story upon. We get the vague notion that ScarJo plays an alien wearing a human skin she uses to seduce men who won’t be missed and that they are deposited in a pool of black liquid to be digested and that she might be curious about humanity. That’s not a movie. That’s not even a pitch for a movie. There’s not enough there to fill one hour and forty eight minutes even if Scarlett Johansson is magnetically beautiful to watch.
She is to be commended for her commitment to this project, full frontal and all, but this movie should have run half an hour at most.
Two strange things about Under The Skin:
- Jonathan Glazer also directed one of my favorite films Sexy Beast. So he’s proven to be a competent, even gifted director, which means everything he did in this movie was a specific choice.
- The book the movie is based on actually tells a complete and complex story so there was plenty to choose from that would have help build an actual narrative suited to a movie.
So, Under the Skin and The Lobster are not recommended. If you want to watch something cinematically intense and narratively weird, go with the Shane Carruth movies Primer and Upstream Color.
Posted on April 24, 2019
We’re skipping episodes now, cutting out the dead wood, going straight to the gold. And we’ve employed new technology: Automatic Gain Control. That’s right, I finally figured out how to use the plug-in for Audacity so our volume isn’t all over the place. Watch the episode and then listen to us talk about it.
The novel Borne by Jeff Vandermeer isn’t so much a science fiction novel as it is a Jeff Vandermeer novel. Really, of all the people writing speculative fiction these days, he is the one who has the most specific brand. What to call it, though? Biology Idolatry? Bio-Horror? Bio-Tech SciFi? Someone smarter than me will have to decide that. I just know that the four books I’ve read by him have all had a perversion of biology at their core.
Borne is about an unnamed city in an indistinct location (Florida?) that came under the unethical control of “The Company”, a shadowy entity that seems to have focused mostly on hubris and illegal human experimentation. In any event, the city has been destroyed and the survivors reduced to scavenging for edible biotech while hiding from a giant, genetically altered bear called Mord.
Rachel, the protagonist, finds a creature tucked into Mord’s fur one day and names it Borne. She takes this piece of biotech, which resembles a sea anemone, back to the hideout she shares with her lover/partner, Wick.
What is so wonderful about the other Vandermeer novels that I’ve read (the Southern Reach trilogy) is also true for Borne. The weirdness of nature, the perverted biology, the aftermath of ecological collapse is not the story. It’s just a fascinating backdrop for the story. Borne is actually about the three characters living together in that hideout.
The stress that Borne puts on their relationship soon begins tugging out hidden details of their lives and it’s the story of their lives that actually unwinds the tale of the city and the company and how things got this fucked up. It’s a story that is very much worth reading.
I crave authenticity in entertainment. I want my stories to be like seeing behind the curtains into some strange world. For that reason, I was truly struck by the management/labor dynamic in Alien. You never see plumbers on spaceships even though you’d absolutely have to have them as liquid management would be critical to any long voyage.
The Voigt-Kampf machine in Blade Runner and the tiny details of Deckard’s gun absolutely sold me on the world they were building in that movie. I’m also fond of the tricks private detectives use, as when Marlowe flips the brim of his hat up and transforms into a nerd so he can interrogate a book shop worker in The Big Sleep (a scene borrowed for Blade Runner).
One of the most stunning acts of authenticity in any movie, for me at least, was the entire process of creating the sensory recording device in Brainstorm. I can’t think of a movie before that one where the technological MacGuffin isn’t presented as a whole and complete product, including marketing input, from the very start.
In Brainstorm, we’re treated to the process of taking the device from a room full of stray equipment latched together by cobwebs of cables all the way down to a large suitcase, which, along with speculative technologies like optical recording tape, just made you feel like you were hanging out with a bunch of tech hackers in their garage workshop in the warehouse district.
The next time I would truly get that feeling would be with Shane Carruth’s inscrutable but hypnotic time travel movie, Primer (2004).
The movie itself, most often remembered as Natalie Wood’s final performance before her murder, is uneven but fun. Christopher Walken plays all the black keys as usual, of course, and the writing brings out some truly interesting ideas. The most fascinating being the sales rep who borrows the machine for a weekend so can experience sex with a pretty blonde on a loop. Afterward, when he comes out of his coma, he tells them, “You don’t understand. It changed me on a fundamental level. I will never be the same again.”
Which raises all kinds of questions about how our experiences form our reality.
It’s a good, if not great, film and an experience that should be in every SF lover’s life, that only truly fails when it attempts to show something unshowable at the very end. But for me, it’s most noteworthy for being the first film about the wave of tech hackers that was just then poised to change the world.
Posted on April 18, 2019
With this episode we’ve finally come to the understanding that doing the first five episodes of any series really isn’t giving that series a chance. It takes a while for the writers and actors to find the characters and slip into a groove.
So this is our last mandated episode. From here on out we’ll watch essential episodes from the first season of a series to get us into the second season when things should have settled down.
Hey, we made it out of Enterprise with some parts of our sanity in tact and we’re on to the first five episodes of Farscape. We’re discovering a theme here: most shows take a season to really get going and by doing the first five (to learn the basics) we’re not getting their best stuff.
But! It was fun. Join us if you dare.
Posted on April 6, 2019
After a great start with a really strong pilot, this series has been struck by a bad case of Rick Bermanitus. We have slogged through the first five episodes as we promised. Come listen to our thoughts on the final one of these.
I have a tendency to jump to Starship Troopers as the book that most impacted me when I was a kid, but that’s not really the case. The first Heinlein novel I read that shook up my world view was Tunnel In The Sky, a story about students training to become colonists whose final exam is to teleport to a place about which they have no information and survive for two to ten days… basically until someone comes for them.
This is one of Heinlein’s “competent man” stories and there was nothing I loved more as a kid because the doctrine of these tales is that if you keep your mouth shut and learn everything you can and work hard, you can do anything. A whole generation of awkward boys who felt like they couldn’t manage to do anything right, threw themselves into these fantasies as a kind of salve for their own inabilities.
I was obsessed with this story during my 5th grade year. There was something about the preparedness that caught my OCD for tactical gear and, because I was so bad at taking tests, the self assured way the main character, an African American teenager by the name of Rod Walker, approaches the final exam.
Something goes wrong and his class is stranded on a different alien world than the one intended so the school doesn’t know where to retrieve them. They end up staying there for something like a year (it’s been a long time since I read it) and the students who survive form a kind of tribe and set about the process of surviving.
All of the minutiae of setting up the camp and obtaining food and struggling for dominance fed right into my groove. But there was also another component to many of Heinlein’s “competent man” stories: a competent woman*. He was almost Howard Hawksian in the way he gave agency to some of his female characters.
That more than anything from Heinlein’s work shaped my attitude toward women as partners rather than pretty burdens. When I look back now on 35 years of marriage, my wife and I have always approached life as a partnership, dividing and conquering, using our best skill sets as the speed bumps require and I have to wonder if this is at least partially due to having Heinlein’s work as an early influence.
*Heinlein was a product of his time so there are plenty of offhandedly misogynistic elements to his work, in the same way the competent woman in Howard Hawks’ films was still a second class citizen, but the basic idea of partnership between man and woman rather than master and burden is still there.
The first season seems to be heavily front loaded with Rick Berman episodes so we find ourselves slogging through another mishmash of tangents without purpose or resolution in this story about a man getting pregnant by an alien.
Have a watch of Star Trek: Enterprise 1×4 “Unexpected” and then join us for some laughs and head scratching at its expense.