There was a belief for a while that cyberpunk was dead, with Gwyneth Jones its perhaps last practitioner. After all, the epiphany that William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy invoked shook up scifi in all the right ways, and produced a subgenre that moved the main genre away from its fascination with deep space and its flirtation with post-apocalypses to an engagement with the reality that networked computers and the systems that connect them. But the implications of what Gibson (and Sterling and Cadigan and all the rest) had played out, and the resulting weak revisions of the original cyberpunk vision were at best boring.
At the time I hoped that the death of cyberpunk was not true, but there wasn’t a lot of forward movement in the genre. Since then, it’s been reawakened and re-envisioned. I’ve already posted a couple of times about Richard K. Morgan’s Kovac series, and Morgan’s update of the genre is compelling and fascinating, with Kovacs’s first-person narrative simultaneously infuriating, energizing, and powerful.
Even acknowledging the power of that series, I’m particularly happy to have stumbled upon Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods, an interesting new take on the movement. Drayden adds a whole new realm of inquiry to the genre in part by locating the material action in South Africa while maintaining cyberpunk’s reliance on far-flung systems. The fact that cyberpunk can go global (following Gibson’s good-guy Rastafarians in space and Morgan’s intentional opening up of the ethnic make up of human attempts to explore the universe) is a heartening one.
More thoughts below the fold:
The Castlevania animated series on Netflix was a hoot. You might be surprised to know that I have some thoughts…
- The animation felt very old school, which makes sense since the series is based on the legendary game, which dates back to 1986 and pixels. The series riffs off the Belmont family’s obsession with killing vampires, and features (sorry for the spoiler) the death of Dracula.
- It doesn’t move as fast as modern series – we spend almost an entire episode, for instance, in the Belmont family archives, watching as Sylpha (mage/scholar for those keeping score at home) learns the spells that will transport Dracula’s movable castle to their location.
- The setting is all quasi-legendary, and as always I wonder why the creatures of hell have to wait for Dracula to want revenge for the death of his human wife at the hands of a corrupt bishop to start wreaking havoc on the villagers, who seem pretty poorly equipped to handle any of this.
- There’s a lot of looking in this for a pure church, and that search for purity and its origin drives the narrative. Even Dracula couldn’t help searching for the return of the purity of his love for his wife, and it’s the world-destroying anger that unleashes his search for revenge.
- Belmont plays the last son of a storied family character to the hilt, complete with drinking far too much (and getting beaten up by townspeople) when he’s not actively engaged.
- His story is an interesting take on the hero legend – his flaws are not the stuff of legend, and his skills are more of the super-hero variety. I’m guessing that this portrayal points to a mesh point (a liminal space worth investigating) between the heroes of games and the heroes of, oh, say 10,000 faces.
- The gore in this series is epic. It’s billed as for adults only, and that makes perfect sense. We see people (and monsters) get killed in all sorts of horrible ways, and the spilling of blood by the animators takes on the aesthetics of the poetry of kung fu movies.
- For all that gore, there is absolutely zero sex. We know that Belmont and Sylpha will hook up by the end, but it’s a chaste, subtle pairing, one in which we never even see them kiss. Not pairing sex and violence feels pretty un-American, and I’m okay with that.
I watched Altered Carbon before I even knew about the books, and I enjoyed the series (so much that I blogged about it here). The book was even more interesting, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
- For me it was hard to read this without recalling Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and at least the first book in the series compares favorably. The AI-hotel that defended itself and its clients was actually better done in the teevee show, but the concept is still pretty cool, and the generic expectations of cyberpunk are built upon neatly, without too much rehashing.
- In particular I thought that this novel caught the tone of exhaustion and desperation that permeates Gibson’s work. Kovacs (the detective who has been resleeved, and who might or might not be a war criminal and/or rebel) seems to be constantly on the verge of figuring out just what *this-all-means*, but if that knowledge is possible to attain he doesn’t get there, and the frustration is palpable.
- I thought the novel’s ending was far better than the way that the show ended, but its complexity would have been hard to capture in a visual medium.
- The most interesting idea of course is the immortality that the rich have gained. Morgan very clearly makes the case that the rich alone have the power to keep endless quantities of sleeves available, and they use that power to accumulate fabulous amounts of wealth.
- They also have to find increasingly exotic ways to become sexually excited, leading to the murders that drive the plot narrative.
- I hope that Morgan explores the identity issues more thoroughly as the series proceeds.
- On the one hand, Morgan’s comments on the results of immortality are fairly straightforward – people become increasingly horrible, and the accumulation of wealth by the 1 percent becomes increasingly striated.
- On the other hand, though, the identity questions become tangled, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to bring God into all of this (there is a constant movement of Catholics against the resleeving of people throughout the novel). Making those questions of identity transparent leads beyond questions of good and evil, capitalist vs. communist.
- Instead, the implications of having these godlike powers become a meditation on the path to get there, given the many options that humans have already taken (and the environmental destruction that has led the rich to live on Mars, and leave Earth to those who can’t afford to leave).
- Kovacs himself has a relationship with some sort of cult movement, as he often remembers his home planet and its much stricter cultural mores. It’s also clearly the home of at best a founding father of sort, since it’s called Hansen’s World (or something like that).
The Field Guide to Evil is a crowd-funded horror anthology, and in my recent viewing at the Nightlight we went with some other horror fans who had decidedly mixed opinions about it.
- Being crowd-funded made some of the choices make sense, and it’s sort of hard to imagine a horror film these days that doesn’t use green screens or other types of digital effects. The old-fashioned types of trick camera work and stunts that they used were really cool and an homage of sorts to the films of the 60s and 70s that didn’t have access to digital camera effects.
- Each focused on a folklorish approach, but they treated all kinds of texts as ones worthy of producing folklore, including texts that are more recent. In particular, I liked one that the rest of the group found hoky – a story about big-headed children in the forests of California, children who are actually the product of a mad scientist (as we find out). The mix of genres felt like a particularly useful way to look at the ways that we create folklore.
- I think my favorite was one of the first ones, featuring a tinker who went from village to village and who was told by an evil spirit that if he ate the heart of corpses he would be all-powerful. He ends up in a jail cell, but the vignette finishes with him listening to the sound of troops marching off to war, as the emperor has obviously taken on the powers by doing the crimes that he has committed.
Us, directed by Jordan Peele, has already generated a ton of theory-mongering, which makes sense since Peele’s last film (Get Out) generated a bunch of its own. Those theories show a willingness to engage with the film’s content as well as simply enjoy a good scare, and they’re backed by the box office revenue the film generated in its first weekend – $70 million, according to Variety. My thoughts on the film are below the trailer:
- The idea of an entire underworld of doppelgangers evokes what I think is one of the ultimate fears of most of us living in a corporatist world – the ease with which we can be replaced.
- Few of the scenes in this film are made scary by effects. There are no greyed out screens or stop-motion photography (unless it’s done as an homage, of which more later). The fact that the film relies on its story to carry the fear is pretty cool.
- I lost track of the number of films that Peele references, but some of the clearest are the slasher movies, especially A Nightmare on Elm Street. Building on the filmic codes established in early films often saves director’s work, but this film doesn’t use the expectations generated by those common references as shortcuts – instead, it interrogates them.
- As an example, the killers in Us use scissors as their weapons of choice. The choice of killing implement in horror is iconic – it’s not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for nothing, after all, and Freddie Kreuger’s knife hands still make me shudder.
- Peele though I think is using the scissors not just as icons – they carry weight, both narratively and visually. The gold color, the variety of purposes, the idea of matching pieces of metal joined by a bolt, implying duality and connection – that’s more than the average horror weapon.
- Using the idiocy of the Hands Across America is a beautiful metaphor for ridiculous corporate gestures made by an economic system that is about to run head over heels into extreme income inequality.
- The arguments about race are far more muted in this – My guess is that class is his focus. Still, it’s not a surprise that the black family surprises, and that mom has them immediately head to Mexico, a la Sarah Conner. And of course the assumption that this doppelganger phenomenon is not happening in Mexico is probably true – Mexico has its own problems, but this tethering-to-our-shadow is uniquely American.
This seems to be a film review morning…
We watched The Haunting of Hill House, a new Netflix series. Here are my thoughts:
- I’ve talked to folks who didn’t find Shirley Jackson’s novel scary. I did, and I thought it was particularly effective because it never clearly told us what action occurred in the characters’ minds and what actions the house itself actually did.
- I think that the teevee series does the same, at least until the end.
- The reconfiguring of the Crains’ interest in the house was a particularly adroit move on the series creator’s part. The old-time Boston Brahmin feel of the house – and the way that feel invokes the Victorian Gothics – especially in that period’s American Gothic forms – made me think about the links between the Old and New Worlds that those texts interrogated.
- One of the appeals of this genre to me is watching the ways in which those who survived and thrived on the American continents attempt to reconcile everything they love and hate about the New World with what they loved and hated about the Old. Shutting themselves up in these spaces that are both full of cheap attempts to recreate classic European art – paintings and sculpture mostly, but architecture as well – *and* ways to show their own financial success directly contrasted with indigenous peoples’ ways of life, and the psychological stresses are clearly powerful (and hallucination-inducing, perhaps).
- This series updates that with its version of the Crains. The parents are a couple making their way by flipping houses, and this is clearly the biggest risk they have taken, the culmination of their success at building wealth by restoring the not-so-recently departed architectural past. Their obsession with thinking of houses in terms of getting rich (and not without a ton of hard work) is a beautiful twist on the US’s Puritan heritage.
- Each of the kids is invested in their own impressions of the house, and we’re never sure (until the very end) exactly what the house is, with one exception: it serves as a locus in which space and time are bent. Characters routinely see into the future and the past. The mechanisms of this are of course never explained, but if I continue thinking about this house from the perspective of the intersection of the New and Old worlds, then the Hills – with their New World-derived (and thus tainted) wealth – have paid the price for climbing past their proper social class.
- The series also works on our own culturally-produced ideas about sensitivity to the paranormal, and our obsession with understanding reality in terms of linearity and rationality. This series makes the argument that sometimes what we see simply doesn’t make sense, and we construct a whole series of ways to rethink what we see so we can place it neatly into a linear narrative that we understand.
- Or, in contrast, it fits itself into our desire to make the material world more than it seems. We want to believe that there’s more, and this series might simply fit that narrative instead.
- Finally, the use of a house as a symbol of the attainment of the American dream, and beyond, as houses signify wealth and status and also provide new money Americans with an opportunity to show just how refined (or unrefined) they are.
Pop culture fascinates me (even if I can’t stand auto-tune and often think green screens should be burned). Every once in a while a nugget from it explodes with meaning in ways that I would have never guessed.
Such a moment occurred last week, as I was walking through downtown Canton. I sat down at a coffee shop, enjoying a green tea and reading a book (I am clearly a party animal), when four young people started singing along with a song.
It was one I knew, the one I’ve embedded here. And it reminded me of battles and lost lives and found friends and transformations.
I’ll leave the interpretations up to you, but in addition to the very specific marginalized group that adopted the song in the early aughts I always think of friends who died in the first, scary moments of killer diseases ravaging a very specific population, and the ways that that community fought back, to take care of itself and to confront the ugliness that others often directed at it with grace, anger, wit, and beauty.
Somehow, in one of those perfect pop moments, Train captured the essence of what it meant to grow up different, so different that others were so threatened by you that they denied you your own dignity. The cosmic quality of the lyrics remind me of those Heavy Metal stories that had a schooner sailing the stars, with no inconvenient spacesuits needed (illustrations borrowed by dozens of other series including Final Fantasy and ), and probably bringing back those drops of Jupiter.
Why not sail the stars and get a chance to dance along the light of day and fall for a shooting star and feel the light of the milky way?