Peter Watts is one smart dude, and Maelstrom, the second novel in the Rifter series, shows off those chops. In it, a pissed-off Lenie Clarke emerges from the ocean floor after the company’s attempts to kill her and the rest of Beebe Station with a massive underwater earthquake, and she’s a viral weapon with the potential to kill off humanity. She doesn’t, at least not yet…
- This novel is cyberpunk, in a lot of ways. It’s darker than dark, and it incorporates a lot of information science and network technology in ways that Gibson couldn’t dream about (as the legend has it, he wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter).
- And, as the legend of Lenie Clarke spreads and she looks for the father she thought abused her (another tribute to corporate evil, since that memory was implanted in her and is completely false), a fashion meme takes hold that has lots of people dressing in rifter chic, all black and sleek and like something from the bottom of the ocean. Very Pattern Recognition.
- This novel makes its bloodshed happen on a massive scale, with very little acknowledgment of individuals. What that approach buys for Watts is the ability to step out of the doomed-fallen-angel-stalking-the-wasteland genre and into more Bacigalupi territory, as the individual stories matter, but they are dwarfed by the impending apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves (through corporate greed and governmental obeisance, mainly).
- Watts locates humans in the material world (and terrestrial ecosystem) that we in the industrialized world try to pretend we have stepped out of. For instance, a passage like
You’re like any other mammal, Doctor. Your sense of reality is anchored in the present. You’ll naturally inflate the near term and sell the long term short, tomorrow’s disaster will always feel less real than today’s inconvenience.highlights his approach – as mammals, there is a certain amount of hard-wiring that we simply cannot avoid, at least without a lot of work. The inability to override our instincts has led us here…and here is not a fun place to be.
- Watts also extrapolates what it will take for individuals to be able to do things like implement massive quarantines (especially since we no longer have access to the type of cultural horrors that enable folks to be genocidal), and he invents chemical emotion enhancers and soothers that enable individuals to do things like sic heavily-armored drones on humans trying to escape quarantine zones.
- Two in particular are frightening – Guilt Trip makes people not go apeshit and simply order firebombing by drone of entire areas, while Absolution helps them get over the guilt they might feel by sinking ships full of refugees trying to land.
- The Behemoth and Maelstrom of the titles are essentially biological entities that have combined to bring the worst of both viruses and computer surveillance to create the world-destroying weapon that Clarke carries the key to. They are cybernetic but organically-developed, and I think they represent Watts’s worst case scenario of where our tampering is leading.
I wish I could write Watts off as an alarmist, and perhaps this is not the best series to read during a pandemic, but I’ve thinking a lot lately about the need for hope or courage (and perhaps they’re not mutually exclusive). I think what Watts is doing is finding the courage to predict where we might be headed, and that may well be courage that we all need in the relatively near future.
Queen of the Dark Things is the second in the Dreams and Shadows series by C. Robert Cargill, and the series is an interesting mix of elements of urban fantasy, bildungsroman, and teenage-sorcerer. More (hopefully) coherent thoughts below:
- As in Dreams and Shadows, Cargill neatly expands the boundaries that us Westerners (and probably more specifically us citizens of the U.S.) think of when we think of sorcery and fantasy novels. In QOTDT, Cargill brings in aborgines from Australia, and he uses them in a compelling fashion, calling them Clever Men and portraying them as integral to the story.
- In this case, the djinn who raised Colby (Yashar), is about to sleep for a long time – I guess this is something that djinn do – and he has to hand him off. He asks a friend from the outback, a Clever Man, to take responsibility for Colby, and the Clever Man then raises Colby and another young girl who has been stranded wandering in dreamtime.
- Even the Clever Man can’t completely protect them, however, from little demons that have resulted from some pirates who committed atrocities and were hung. Their spirits haunt many places in the world (and serve as the fodder in the final battle in this book), and Cargill’s portrayal of them is fun because they are so dark.
- They are forced to kowtow to the girl, who becomes the Queen of the Dark Things, until she fights her way free with the help of Colby.
- They’re so terrifying that they even scare the 77 demons from Hell, a group with whom Colby bargains in order to face down the Queen of Dark Things, who has an interesting backstory of her own, and, thankfully, does not truly become the source of all evil.
- Colby’s trips with the demons to secure the items he needs for the final battle are fun as hell, and he even cites a real book on demonology, Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.
- The idea of demons clearly affects us nerds, as early coders named some of the more willful elements of their prose daemons, and the connections here are clear.
- A key theme in these texts is the impulsiveness – which can be read as arrogance – of youth. Many of the trials that Colby faces come about because of his own arrogance, a trait he admits.
- As far as bildungsromans go, that is a tried-and-true trope, and folks like Rowling use it as well.
- I am really curious about the theological hierarchy (and belief system) displayed in here, but my guess is that that explanation will take yet another book.
- The configurations of power, especially when thinking of magic, and of the existence of alternate worlds is pretty fascinating, and Cargill’s linkage of all supernatural regions is both fun and makes some sort of odd sense.
Sadly, it looks like there will be no more books in this series, since Cargill’s latest, Sea of Rust, takes place in a completely different world, and he is spending most of his time working on films – he’s supposedly working on the adaptation of Deus Ex, to which I say yes! I can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of Colby Stevens and Austin, Texas.
Dreams and Shadows is actually Cargill’s first novel, I guess. I’ve read Sea of Rust, which is darker than even this novel, one that features murderous dwarf fairies and an all-out battle in downtown Austin, Texas.
- Urban fantasy gets a bad rap, but I enjoyed this. Cargill weaves in several different traditions (we see djinns and Coyote, both of whom have major roles), and the idea that the entire supernatural world shares that realm felt natural.
- The novel intersperses an academic text (not really) explaining some of the features of fairy land with chapters that go back and forth between the two main characters, both of whom are human children who have interacted with the fairy world at a young age.
- The ascent of the human Colby doesn’t follow the usual patterns – he doesn’t have to follow some sort of elaborate ritual, and he doesn’t suddenly discover that he’s a wizard – instead, the djinn who gives him the power warns him that he will not be happy with the results.
- The setting in Austin is also cool – it’s not an ancient city, and the near-proximity of hill country makes the closeness of a wild area real.
Cargill’s novel, although far different than Sea of Rust, was an enjoyable read, tinged with far more sadness at the way that this sort of power divides people than joy at the power.
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
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.
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.