The Patternist Series

I read these novels in the omnibus edition which arranges them according to story time. I don’t usually read books outside of publication order, so doing it here was eye opening.

The novels in the series, listed in publication order are Patternmaster(1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984).

Patternmaster offers a very simple plot: boy arrives at a bad place at the wrong time but escapes, runs toward safety, but is caught and must fight to survive. That’s it, that’s all. Yet the seed of each of the other novels is present.

Mind of My Mind explains the origins of “the pattern” introduced in the first novel, identifying it as the product of a centuries long breeding program by a dangerous and seemingly immortal being named Doro. The novel also introduces Doro’s counterpart, a mysterious black woman who cares for young telepaths in a community she has built and maintains in a black neighborhood in a late 20th century city.

Wild Seed tells the story of this same woman, beginning with her early life in Africa centuries before during the first years of the European slave trade. Immortal like Doro but gifted with powers very different from his—she’s a shapeshifter and healer—she finds his breeding of telepaths that he then feeds upon cruel and inhuman. The two are at odds for centuries before he relents and agrees to limits she establishes on his behavior. (Wild Seed was written one year after Butler completed the research for and published Kindred. It shows and the novel is richer for it.)

Clays’ Ark reconnects the now elaborate history of the Patternists back to the post-apocalyptic future of the first novel. This novel tells of a world torn apart by climate change and explains how an alien infection that transforms a farm community into something strange and bestial escapes into the population at large.

Of course, the order I’ve described the books is not the order I read them in. In the omnibus, I’ve read the third book first (Wild Seed), then the second (Mind of My Mind), then the fourth (Clay’s Ark) and only then, at the very end, the first novel that launched the series (Patternmaster). Which means that until I was nearly done, I was reading prequels, which made for a strange experience. The books work in story order, but I see in retrospect that moments of excitement and suspense in the first books I read were only partially visible to me because I didn’t have the ironic positioning created by knowledge of what was coming in the last book I’d read.

This didn’t ruin anything. In fact, it made the final two books a fairly disorienting set of surprises. I had no idea I was headed to a vision of the future that would remind me of, in different ways, both Fury Road and The Dragonriders of Pern. And I really liked these books. But wow, order matters.

The Matrix

This is a movie whose influence on me is difficult to exaggerate, and I couldn’t say how many times I’ve seen it, even if it’s been out of mind and sight for awhile now. Then yesterday, not feeling well and spending the afternoon playing slug on the couch with the remote, I found myself watching it.

Three things stood out for me. First, the movie is nearly perfectly made. Its success was an achievement not a fluke, and that achievement holds up. Second, Keanu Reeves is so young. The film’s twenty years old now, and the handsome older brother I had watched become “The One” now seems so delicate, inexperienced and fragile that I found myself worrying for him in a way I never had before as the danger grew. I’m getting old.

Finally, I could see in a way I hadn’t before the roughness of these early digitally worked images. The breaks in the illusion were usually subtle, but still, the color work and digital avatars kept standing out as … primitive or drawn. Seeing this film so soon after Dracula I wondered how much my attention to the distinction between collage and illusion there had been rooted in the experience of encountering a historical object rather than a different medium.

Annihilation

Despite the guns the women are carrying, this is quiet science fiction and reminded me of Arrival. As in that other movie, the framing here is military and the threat of violence looms, but here as in Arrival, violence is framed as failure rather than as a challenge to be overcome with stronger, more effective violence. Understanding the Other is the goal and jumping to conclusions—from fear, from greed, from paranoia—is the real danger. Part of the film’s power is that I’m not sure the story ends badly: transformation is life, no? The future?

In terms of its use of locations and the integration between the narrative and place, the film reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979): both films rely on ordinary but ruined landscapes that offer few signs of the fantastic yet are recast by the narrative as menacing. The resulting tension manifests as a deep sense of dread organized around a basic confusion: is the danger of the scene objectively there in the world or is it all in the characters’ heads? Now there is obviously real danger here—a crocodile with shark teeth, a bear with a woman’s voice, a snake thing crawling beneath a man’s skin— but overall “the Shimmer” is banal space with strange plants. Yet not since The Shining have I found topiary so horrifying.

The movie is beautiful—even those topiary—and it wears its aesthetic and narrative influences on its sleeve. Alien looms large, especially in the darkest moments of body horror, but the horror evoked by certain famous news photographs is clearly a reference as well.

Ultimately, the film was a surprise and evoked the same reaction as I watched the credits as Passengers: why did none of the marketing or reviews give me a clue as to how good this movie would be? And again, I found myself wondering if we’ve lost our ability to imagine science fiction or fantasy films that are not action-adventure movies?

More personally, I love seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh perform and Tessa Thompson is becoming one of my favorite stars. So this movie was a treat.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

A familiar classic that I watched on the fly the other night. It’s a Cold War paranoid fantasy perfect in both its conception and execution. This is not news.

What caught my attention throughout the film was—unexpectedly and disorientingly—Dana Wynter’s costumes, which are just great. She enters the movie in a beautiful sleeveless confection with a bodice that reminded me of tissue paper stuffed into a gift bag.

Why is she wearing this fancy affair mid-afternoon in this sleepy California town? But then she slips on the matching shrug jacket and everything makes sense. What had seemed like a provocation becomes a smart and snappy ensemble perfect for slipping into and out of this store and then that one. And there are so very many errands to run. Wynter however has the look of someone ready to tackle and to conquer her to-do list. With this much spunk, it’s no wonder Kevin McCarthy looks at her the way he does.

The least interesting of her dresses was a classic black number with gloves and a fur stole that she wore for the souper manqué in the second act. It’s beautiful but depressingly appropriate. Still, watching her walk away from a fresh martini to stare anxiously at a budding (haha) human form made me wish my sleepy Quebec town had a fancy restaurant so that the Beav and I could drop in for elegant nights out.

Scene from the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, starrring (L-R) King Donovan, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Carolyn Jones is in the background. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Later Wynter wears a sweater tucked into a belted skirt, a look introduced to me by Olivia Newton-John singing “Summer Nights” in Grease. I fell in love with it then and have never recovered. Wynter considers this an outfit made for running from emotionless alien mobs. Excepting the heels and the hose, perhaps it is.

Wynter’s best outfit appears only briefly early on, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Internet doesn’t care enough to have produced a single still of the scene. McCarthy has stayed the night and when he gets up Wynter is making breakfast in the kitchen. She cracks eggs at the stove for an omelette as they talk and is wearing a cowboy shirt tucked into high waisted jeans. It is pure butch play, casually done with cool disregard. The scene lasts only a minute but was the high point of my screening. If I can figure out how to pull a still from the iTunes movie I’ve purchased, I’ll post it. But for now, the outfit will remain undocumented. Alas.

All Systems Red

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”

Alien: Covenant & etc.

This movie is so much better than Prometheus, and, as my brother said to me over the summer, it makes that earlier movie appear better in retrospect than it was at the time. This is fairly hesitant praise though and begs the question, what’s the problem with these new Alien movies? My thought is that they suffer from real confusion about their subject and their narrative obligations.

The most obvious of these obligations is that Aliens movies are about the xenomorph chasing humans in a labyrinth. The first two films and the director’s cut of the third stick to this subject and excel by offering variations on it. The second increases the numbers of monsters and people. The third explores the perversity which leads some people to empathize with a monster. The three later films, however, all stumble in their attempt to vary or enlarge that basic principle.

Alien Resurrection is, in a sense, the most confused and the most honest about its problems. Its representation of the xenomorphs approaches parody, which I read as an implicit, perhaps unknowing acknowledgement of the limits of the series’s basic monsters-in-a-maze premise. It gasps for air in an ultimately failed effort to develop story material from the veneration of Ripley and the ongoing ambivalence toward the inhuman android looming over each of the previous films.

Prometheus jettisons all of this in favor of origins and creation mythology. It aims to take a series based on a sci-fi revision of the dark house movie and turn it into “cinematic universe.” It is, in other words, what an Aliens movie looks like in the age of three (and counting) Spider-man reboots and The Avengers.

To the extent Alien: Covenant surpasses its predecessor—and it does—it surpasses it by overtly returning to the narrative touchstones of Alien and Aliens, repeating the iconic moments of those films as a narrative collage, as if these moments were established paroles in a generic discours. Ultimately though, I don’t think the film cares much about these moments or even its xenomorphs. The face huggers and chest-bursting and the slobbering, metallic beasts are more-or-less instances of the film pandering. What seems genuinely to interest the film but what it is too timid to embrace as its subject are the dangers posed by an uncanny and out-of-control synthetic intelligence, a motif found in every Aliens film since the first but that here seems to beg to be exploited as primary material.

It seems clear to me that in Covenant the true threat, the true parasite, is artificial intelligence lodged in an android body. This threat is a legitimate source of felt horror in our contemporary moment. The Aliens movies offer a vehicle for representing and exploiting it. But this latest film doesn’t do so, choosing instead to place its narrative chips on new stagings of familiar scares.

So as the credits roll, I feel relief. Finally, a real Aliens movie. Yet I also feel genuine disappointment because in this film, the true monster only shows—what?… itself?… himself?… the uncertain status of the artificial is part of its monstrosity, and it is this monstrous anti-humanity that seduces and captivates. Yet it reveals itself in only two or three scenes. So I walk away from the movie wishing that it had been different than it was and better.

All the Birds in the Sky

A marriage comedy set in a world in which witches and future tech are at war with each other.

The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.

The Expanse, Season Two

The poster image for this season is awkward, unattractive, and confused.

I look at it and all I see is that ominous, grasping hand attached to a blank mask surrounded by fire. Call me a coward, but that pretty clearly reads as “RUN! Monster coming!”, no? But when I saw it in wide format versions, I realized this isn’t some faceless thing crawling toward me and reaching out to grab me. It is someone clinging to a ship in space, trying to save themselves. All images are ambiguous, but this one is divided against itself in the worst possible way.

That said, the image actually works pretty well as a representation of the second season of The Expanse because the episodes themselves are pretty confused about what they’re up to.

If I’m generous, the first season’s slow-crawl through less than half of the book it was adapting (and its many pointless changes to the plot) surely threw the second season off-balance. To keep going, the second season needed to pick up the pace and move through a book and a half of material. It also had to push the narrative back in line with its multi-volume source. That’s a big task, and it was rough going.

Actually, I struggled to get through it, quitting for several months after watching only the first half of the season. Eventually I started back and then quit again after a few boring wandering episodes mid-season. Only recently did I watch the last four.

Here’s the odd thing though: the fact that the story does get on track and that it seems to be settling into a steady pace in those last episodes has left me unexpectedly (but mildly) optimistic about what’s to come. (And I do like watching Steven Strait, Dominique Tipper and Shohreh Aghdashloo.)

Still I’m not jumping in right away on the third season. Despite my enthusiasm for Leviathan’s Wake, I found Caliban’s War dull and repetitive. I haven’t read the third book yet and I probably won’t watch the third season until I do, which might take me awhile. For now, it’s deep in the reading pile with a lot of better books sitting on top of it.

The Three-Body Problem

I stumbled across the name of this book and its author in the opening anecdote of a magazine article a couple months ago. I’d never heard of either, but the odd context of the reference made me curious. So I stopped by Indigo the next time I was downtown and, after some confusion over which name was used to file the book—Cixin or Liu—found a copy.

The book was wildly disorienting because I know nothing about Chinese history that can’t be captured in the broadest of strokes. The footnotes saved me in this regard. By the same token, character interactions are clearly stylized here but they are done in a manner different from what I’m used to. The differences weren’t enormous and I adapted, but they were enough initially to make it quite hard to peg characters down. I don’t know enough to say what precisely these differences amount to. I am conscious of difference, but is it a product of a) my cultural distance, b) an unexpected generic variation, c) a purposeful narrative choice, d) the translation, or e) some combination of these? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the book is tightly constructed. Without generating much tension or suspense and without giving the impression of holding back secrets, the plot slowly, methodically unfolds piece-by-piece until in the end everything is backwards and inside out compared to what it was on page one, and this despite the fact that in fundamental ways, nothing has changed except the state of my understanding. I’ve learned what happened before page one—like in a mystery—and that knowledge makes all the difference. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.

Arrival

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

Caliban’s War

This novel was frustratingly close to a do-over of Leviathan Wakes. Yes there was variation—a different world in the Belt, an introduction to life on Earth, new characters—but it was still a fake war providing cover for a rogue experiment involving the protomolocule.

What saved it for me was Avasarala and the most unexpected last–page surprise I’ve read in a long time.

I have the third book and will get to it eventually, but I’m less enthusiastic than I was after finishing the first volume.

Cloud Atlas

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

Star Trek: Beyond

To the extent this movie is a TV episode blown up to two hours and with better effects, it’s a return to the pre-Abrams form. But in every other way, this movie is a repudiation of the values and sensibilities that in the earlier incarnations of Star Trek made me want to be a better person when I watched it.

What Abrams created and Justin Lin builds upon is a Bizzaro-Federation that I wouldn’t want to live in and leaves me nothing to aspire to. Call me a fuddy-duddy but I miss the calm good faith of Roddenberry’s utopia.

The Expanse, Season One

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

Leviathan Wakes

leviathan-wakes-coverThe Sci-fi Channel’s adaptation of The Expanse put these books on my radar. The show seemed like it might be fun, and I decided to read the books instead of watching.

Leviathan Wakes is the first and I tore through it over a few evenings this summer during our trip to Andalusia. The Beav and I had, as usual, brought a small library with us to read on the plane and before bed. I’d considered leaving this one at home because it was a thick volume loosely printed and took up a lot of space. But by the time the protomolecule was wrecking havoc on Eros and the first vomit zombies had made their appearance, any lingering regrets were gone. I was reading as fast as I could move my eyes.

The book reads like a mock-up of a movie or TV series: lots of action, clearly delineated characters, and a double point-of-view presented in alternating chapters that functions as cross-cutting. Plus its story is a nice mash-up of a space adventure and a noir mystery. Yet, as I think back to the book now, what stands out in sharp relief in my memory is not the plot. It’s the fresh but disorienting portrait of our solar system.

This story is set as humanity is moving out into space. They’ve reached the astroid belt, Mars, and have set up a few colonies on moons of Jupiter, but these far-flung outposts and some mining operations in the rings of Saturn are the very limit of their reach. The narration continually points out the extreme distances the characters must travel (and the time it takes) as they move from place to place. It also notes and lingers over the profoundly odd realities of motion and gravity and light constraining the characters’ lives. This attention to physical limits acts (perhaps?) as a nod to near-future, real-science stories like The Martian (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit here), but more practically, it generates a useful tension between people and their place. (It also reminds me of one of the admirable features of Sanderson’s The Final Empire.)

I really enjoyed the book and will be reading the rest of the series.

The Scorch Trails

Scorch Trails Movie PosterEasily the most disappointing sequel I’ve seen in a long time. Which isn’t to say the first movie was great, but at least it seemed to know what it was and delivered a focused and snappy “boys pushed into manhood” story that echoed without aping something like Lord of the Flies.

This sequel loses the snappy focus, jumping along instead from one story point to the next, feeling like a chain of moments, none of which are particularly interesting and all of which feel ticked off from a to-do list compiled during a methodical and fairly uninspired reading of the book.

And the boys who are ostensibly the central characters? They are tag-alongs: present at the action but saying and deciding nothing.

It turns out that I actually liked the first one enough to be discouraged by the way this one turns out…

Ex Machina

Ex MachinaA small sci-fi film (it’s scale reminded me of Moon) that I enjoyed. Two things surprised me as I watched.

First, technical intellect and intellectual analysis are fundamental to the narrative situation insofar as they are assumed to underpin the possibility of AI in a near-future sci-fi. Yet, the story  itself pushes away from intellect and analysis, imagining a very cramped, “dude”-like notion of emotional life and placing that emotional experience at the center of the characters’ interactions. This is a nice magician’s trick: it makes asking for technical explanations of story events—explanations which would risk breaking the illusion supporting the fiction—a sign of a character not being up to speed intellectually.

Second, unless I’m missing something, the definition of AI offered by the film doesn’t depend so much on consciousness as it does on demonstrating enough autonomy to have become dangerous. This was unsettling. I guess I watched Short Circuit enough times as a child to have internalized a different expectation of a thinking machine.

Self/less

Selfless
Ryan Reynolds is like a Cinnabon. Both look good, and on a crazy day when you’re feeling “what the hell,” you might decide to treat yourself. The problem is that once the morsel is in hand, you realize that it’s both too much and kinda empty. If you’re the honest sort, you’ll probably even admit it stinks (in one case literally).

All of which is too bad really because Reynolds seems (as much as you can tell from afar) like a nice and geeky guy. And he does look good.

So I am happy to discover that Self/Less, unlike a Cinnabon, doesn’t stink and isn’t terrible. It’s just ordinary and dialed in in a way that reminds me of a well done made-for-TV movie. But that’s fine because what the hell? and sometimes it’s okay to treat yourself.

The Congress

The Congress

The Congress offers an honest portrait of the weirdness of modern life. It is metafictional, hyper-referential and combines both photographic and animated images. The resulting story has a nostalgic, cyberpunk vibe but takes seriously the problems of identity and of anonymity that emerge in a digital world where no one can hide but, paradoxically, no one can be found either.

I expected the film to be broadly critical of digital spaces, but it isn’t. To take only one example, the virtual world discovered by the protagonist, an actor eponymously named Robin, juxtaposes exposure and invisibility in a frenetic, overwhelming space. But her situation is not unrelated to the perpetual exposure and riskiness of the private home she seeks to build for her family by the runway of the airport in the early scenes of the film. Privacy and anonymity are not synonymous, and so there are differences between these two situations, yet the resonance between them suggests that a history of the distinction between personal and social identities in digital spaces can be devised, and that, if it were, it might allow us to make some sense of virtual spaces. The alternative captured by the film would be to mistake isolation for integrity.

The film’s story is at root about the difficulty of aging and the inevitability of growing old. Viewed against this narrative, the social difficulties of the constantly changing digital world emerge as a problem of subjective temporalities. Robin confronts digital change, what we might call “the new,” heavy with memory, and she has difficulty, I think, imagining herself as both old and alive in a world that is not the past. (In this Robin is emblematic of our culture: we have great difficulty representing age as something other than the time of the not-yet-dead, of the past-but-not-gone. It’s not incidental that this impossibility of aging is figured in Robin’s capture while young by an indexical sign, the photograph.) The alienation Robin feels casts the digital as a generational concern and suggests our discourse around the digital is, perhaps fundamentally, the stage we currently use to perform “youth” and “age” as part of our ongoing struggle to live in time.

The film is far from perfect and I disliked the position the autistic child seemed to hold in the story. I’m also abstracting quite a bit from the details in the story. But I think that the film is interesting and provocative enough to support the reading. A happy find.