Tag: Criticism and Reviews (Page 1 of 2)

Review: Freedom(tm)

(Post originally published on my other blog, GrogMonkey, back on Jan. 27, 2011. Still trying to figure out how to divide the work between the two blogs.)

Freedom(tm) is the sequel to Daniel Suarez’s brilliant Daemon. It’s going to be impossible for me to review Freedom(tm) without spoilering Daemon to some degree. Daemon told the story of a genius online game designer who over years set up a hidden system within the Internet to awaken upon news of his death. That’s where Daemon begins, upon the activation of this servant process, or, computer daemon. In Freedom(tm), the daemon has won the first stage of its plan, it has started a revolution.

The novel takes place in today’s world, and in today’s reality. Everything that happens, every technology that’s used, is either currently in use and available as consumer electronics, or is military. Some examples include sonic placement which allows for a voice to sound as though it is coming from a specific point in space, even one’s own head (this is currently being used by advertisers), suits that bend light around it so as to render the wearer near-invisible (military development), aerial drones that can be tagged with a target’s cell phone GPS and send deadly darts to rain upon them from 10,000 feet (guess who uses that), power systems that can pull fuel-use hydrogen from the rock while creating water as a byproduct (in use currently where the oil industry doesn’t kill it), vehicles that can be equipped with sensor arrays which allow it to drive by itself following road lines and signs, FMRI machines that can virtually read minds if the subject can be asked a series of questions like a polygraph, etc.

Although, the one negative about the book, as that a lot of this technology gets used by the revolutionaries in quantities that strain believability. Even in the system of commerce and trade that is set up for the revolution to use, it’s difficult for me to believe that they can be equipped in such a short amount of time with mass quantities of wireless “augmented reality” glasses, power station-building equipment, invisibility suits, etc. But, fortunately, it’s written in such a way to to be forgiven.

Yet, that problem weighs heavy, I think, because of just how otherwise believable the story and situation is. Suarez writes a story that in all other aspects demands to be believed, so when a very crucial element of the revolution is questionable, it makes the verisimilitude of the entire story weaker.

Revolution. Let’s get back to that. That’s what Freedom(tm) is about — the true revolution for the modern age, the only kind of revolution that can happen in the western, developed world that could lead to fundamental change in economics, politics, society in general. Freedom(tm) illustrates a revolution that would have to take place in order to change the entire economic system from modern capitalism where boom-and-bust cycles are inherent, where unemployment is a necessity to keep the process working, where exploitation is not just a cost of doing business but a vital component — and brings about a system of true democracy controlled by the people and not by politicians who do the will of their richest contributors (corporations). Freedom(tm) does what SF author Kim Stanley Robinson advises we all must work towards: a post-capitalism society. Every stage of socio-economic-politics in history was thought to be the best one at the time, and at each new stage we looked back on the previous and questioned how we ever thought that last one was the best we could do. We need to get to that next stage. Freedom(tm) creates a believable means of doing so.

But it’s not an easy revolution. In Daemon, the daemon and some of its top human servants, are seen as evil. Killing people, infiltrating networks, implanting network worms, setting up processes by which corporations are held hostage and economic disaster looms…. The daemon is undeniably the villain of that novel. But Freedom(tm) shows us the reason behind it. And we come to realize that revolution is messy, and bloody. The point of revolution is to rip power from the hands of those who are in control, and obviously, those in control aren’t going to go down without a fight. Take what may be arguably a “worthy revolution,” the U.S. revolution. By most people, it’s seen as a just and necessary revolution — but think of how many people were killed fighting it. How many innocents, caught in the middle, suffered. How much was lost so that power could be ripped from one elitist class to a new, American class of elitists. The French Revolution was the epitome, the culmination, of the destruction of feudalism and control by royalty and the rise of democracy and private ownership — and it was horrifically bloody beyond belief. The “good guys” in that revolution were responsible for mind-numbing amounts of death.

Freedom(tm) doesn’t shy away from the necessity of “evil” things in order to bring down the multi-national corporation empire and establish true democracy and freedom. And, most importantly, create modern freedom where technology and modernization is not sacrificed, and is available to all, without the sociopathic economics of corporate oligarchy.

I doubt Suarez would call himself a leftist, I don’t know. He never uses terms in his novels like socialism, or communism, or anything like that. And that’s too his credit! Those words have a lot of baggage (most of which erroneously applied and misunderstood), that I’m sure if he used them or their ilk, he’d turn off readers out of hand. But the society, the economy, that he illustrates in Freedom(tm) is absolutely one of state-less communism, or anarcho-socialism. The government is undermined and rendered unnecessary, the corporations are rendered unnecessary and a violent hindrance to freedom and democracy. The society that is envisioned is absolutely the one that Marx said would follow capitalism, the one that could only be brought about thanks to the self-destructive mechanations and benefits of capitalism.

Like Cory Doctorow did with “wuffie” in his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Suarez imagines an economy based on individual reputation and the acts one commits, good or bad, against other people and society. It’s a system that can only work in extremely small societies where everyone knows each other, or with modern/postmodern, technology dependent upon the interconnectedness we all scrape the surface of in our use of the Internet. The plus side is we have the means now to realize a post-capitalism society! The downside, is it’s dependant upon technology. And that only works so long as energy supplies are good. Suarez deals with that by describing system of creating and distributing energy power that is sustainable and not reliant on non-renewable fossil fuels.

You’ll notice I jumped in talking about the grander themes and ideas of Freedom(tm) and haven’t really talked about the plot or characters. Sadly, those are the weakest parts of the novel — but that’s not to sat they’re bad. Where Daemon was all about plot and character, Freedom(tm) often feels like it uses characters (many from the previous novel) simply as a means to portray the ideas Suarez wants to get across. The characters, some of whom were so vivid in Daemon, come off here as two-dimensional. Especially the only significant female character, Agent Natalie Philips. In Freedom(tm), she’s acted upon and used as a tool to advance exposition. In fact, in the climax of the novel, she’s on the brink of actually doing something, discovers some vital information, is ready to jump into action, and suddenly everything she did up to that point is rendered pointless by the actions of other characters and she’s even saved by her lover in a way that makes her entire character arc of rising action meaningless. I get the feeling that Suarez was intending more for her — he placed her in a very important, vital location in the story, gave her access to important information and means to get more and do more, but then in a swoop makes it all a complete anti-climactic waste. I was very disappointed about that. Perhaps as he wrote the novel and found ways around her character to advance the plot and reach the grand climax, he forgot to bother with going back and writing her out of the novel, because she ultimately has no point in even being in the novel at all.

The plot that involves the way the government, basically in control by the multi0national corporations, fights back against the growing revolution, authentic and scary. Using increasing fear-tactics governments have always used to try to keep people in line and too powerless to act and too distracted to even speak out (economic crashes, high unemployment, outlandish fuel prices, and a patriotic surge of anger toward illegal immigrants), they find ways to use corporate, private military forces (fictional analogs of the real Blackwater/Xe Services, KBR, DynCorp, Aegis Defense, Raytheon, International Intelligence Limited, Executive Outcomes… these sound like fictional organizations, don’t they?) to do in the U.S. what they do in reality all over the world — divert public outrage toward those the powerful want undermined, and keep revolutionary elements (and the people in general) under check, with force if necessary.

Freedom(tm) is in many ways a terrifying novel because of how realistic it is (e.g.: the way in which corporations currently control government, and private corporate military operates around the world, and how the government could believably act against its own people in the attempt to maintain its own power); but it’s also one of the most inspiring, hopeful books I’ve read. So many people ask me what this fantastical anarcho-syndaclist, government-less communism, could possibly look like, and I too often have to use far-future SF like Blue Mars to offer examples — now, there’s Freedom(tm) which sets it in the here and now. Sure, it has some flaws, but there’s no such place as utopia. Oligarchic capitalism has serious problems, but so many people think it’s the best we can do — it’s certainly better than slavery and feudalism. I say we deserve to fight for a post-capitalist system that is even better than capitalism, even if it’s not perfect. Better is better, utopia or not.

Oh, critical theory aside — it’s really a fun and exciting book. Don’t let my socio-political ramblings dissuade you from readingDaemon and Freedom(tm); it’s my job to give voice to the overt socio-politics that’s only hinted at and implied and told through narrative in novels.


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Review: Altered Carbon

(Post originally published on my other blog, GrogMonkey, back on Jan. 27, 2011. Still trying to figure out how to divide the work between the two blogs. I only have a couple more to cross-post in a batch after this one.)

Well, I’m on a roll now, I just finished Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon this week, making it two books in a month! *sigh* Yeah, I’m not impressed either. Back in the good ol’ days of jr. and high school and undergrad, it was nothing for me to read three novels every two weeks. I guess I shouldn’t feel completely lame; the last few years of grad school I was reading non-fiction maybe four a month, or two and three plus handfuls of articles. No, I still feel lame.

Anyway, enough pity, the first month of my New Year’s Resolution to read more fiction, on a daily basis, is going well! After all, Altered Carbon is a rather longish novel. And a good one to boot! Though… somewhat flawed. Well, let’s get to it!

(As usual, I’ll try to keep it non-spoilery to begin with, and then if I have to talk about spoilery things, I’ll keep that for the end and with decent warning.)

I don’t like to recap novels, you can go read what it’s about somewhere else. But the short of it is it’s a noir mystery novel set a few hundred years in the future, and told by the protagonist “detective,” Takeshi Kovacs. He’s a reconditioned ex-special forces-esque soldier with a shadowy past, skeletons in closets, grudges tightly held, and a pencahant for losing his temper and killing people. But that’s OK, sorta, because in the future, death is rarely permanent. Most everyone has a “stack,” a computer chip in the brain that holds their identity, memory, personailty, and should you die (and not be a Catholic), you can be re-sleeved in a new body. (So long as your stack remains undamaged. However, Kovacs ocassionally finds the need to damage stacks.) He’s been given an offer he can’t refuse, literally, to solve the suicide of a wealthy “Meth,” or a Methuselah — a person who’s been around for a couple hundred years or so. Hired, of course, by the victim who doesn’t believe his own death was a suicide.

And so begins Kovacs’ tale of pavement-beating detective work while being gunned for by crazy assassins, tortured by people he gets in the way of, and involved in love affairs (or just pheromone-enhanced sexcapades) with girlfriends of the man whose body he’s wearing and wives (singular, actually) of clients (also, singular). Yeah, it gets pretty crazy, plot-wise. But one of the great things about Altered Carbon is how it keeps the twists and turns well-organized, easy to follow (with some furrowed eyebrows), and more or less within the realm of internal consistency. Very impressive for a first novel, by the way!

(Pause for scene cut…) Yikes! Since I started this review, I’ve read and finished another novel and started another! If I’m going to have any hope of getting reviews out the door, I need to keep them quick and superficial.

So, general thoughts: Basically, Altered Carbon is like a marriage of a Charles Stross novel with early 80s William Gibson. Morgan creates a future world where, because of the ability to re-sleeve your mind, life has become cheap and the commodification of the human has reached an apex. Or at least a crisis moment. The plot is superficially a noir in which the hero is a reluctant near-anti-hero who, thanks to becoming a target of the “bad guys,” takes the case personally, and jumps from femme fatale to femme fatale to get closer to his goals.

The writing was extremely compelling, expertly balancing descriptive and utilitarian. Morgan writes so you can easily picture the people and places, almost smell and touch it. The pacing was excellent with even the “slow parts” situated and developed within the narrative so as to remain compelling. While it’s a relatively thick novel, I read through it and a good clip, and never found myself lost or confused as to what was going on.

The posthuman elements and the depiction of future technology was quite convincing and believable, although we only see a very narrow slice of this future world, depicting both the lifestyles of the ultra-rich and the seedy underbelly of the dispossessed and terminally exploited. Nothing of the in-between classes.

And, for that matter, neither did the early cyberpunk of Gibson. His goal was to show the machinations and motivations of the corporate capitalists which controlled humanity, and the lower-class of people who were the only ones with the relative freedom to fight the system. Altered Carbon inhabits the same essential world.

In closing, I had dog-eared a few pages where something that resonated with my Marxist-materialist Critical Theory outlook jumped out at me. Granted, the entire novel is a critique of postmodern capitalism (again, just as cyberpunk in general is), but here are a few passages that really stood out. Instead of commenting on them, I present them as-is:

But this was worse than personal. This was about Louise, alias Anenome, cut up on a surgical platter; about Elizabeth Elliott stabbed to death and too poor to be re-sleeved; Irene Elliott, weeping for a body that a corporate rep wore on alternate months; Victor Elliott, whiplashed between loss and retrieval of someone who was and yet was not the same woman. This was about a young black man facing his family in a broken-down, middle-aged white body; it was about Virginia Vidaura walking disdainfully into storage with her head held high and a last cigarette polluting lungs she was about to lose, no doubt to some other corporate vampire. It was about Jimmy de Soto, clawing his own eye out in the mud and fire at Innenin, and the millions like him throughout the Protectorate, painfully gathered assemblages of individual human potential, pissed away into the dung-heap of history. For all these, and more, someone was going to pay. (437)

.

“The value of it. The value of a human life.” Kawahara shook her head like a teacher with an exasperating student. “You are still young and stupid. Human life has no value. Haven’t you learned that yet, Takeshi, with all you’ve seen? It has no value, intrinsic to itself. Machines cost money to build. Raw materials cost money to extract. But people?” She made a tiny spitting sound. “You can always get some more people. They reproduce like cancer cells, whether you want them or not. They are abundant, Takeshi. Why should they be valuable? Do you know that it costs us less to recruit and use up a real snuff whore than it does to set up and run the virtual equivalent format. Real human flesh is cheaper than a machine. It’s the axiomatic truth of our times.” (491-92)

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“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.” (524)


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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

(Post originally published on my other blog, GrogMonkey, back on Jan. 13, 2011. Still trying to figure out how to divide the work between the two blogs. I only have a couple more to cross-post in a batch after this one.)

I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Finally. Pynchon is a paragon of postmodern fiction, often named in the same breath as Kurt VonnegutJ.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo. In fact, reading ‘Lot 49, I was heavily reminded of Breakfast of Champions (which I read back during High School, so the memory may be tenuous).

This brief review — more like simply a response — will be minorly spoilery, but I’ll have more spoiler content toward the end, preceded by a warning.

In short, it’s about educated, bored, and possibly a little delusional to begin with, housewife, Oedipa Maas, who gets pulled into a conspiracy involving secret organizations and rival postal services. As I read it, I also was heavily reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. In fact, I’m convinced ‘Lot 49, as much as The Principia Discordia, was primary inspiration and influence. In both books you have a protagonist who accidentally stumbles upon conspiracies and shadow organizations that begun centuries ago. The clues about the conspiracies are revealed in lost versions of literature (a play, in ‘Lot 49), and can be found as signs and signifiers all over the place in the most incongruous locations and ways.

And like Illuminatus!, the evidence for the conspiracy itself being a conspiracy to fake a conspiracy, is also evident. So by the end of the novel, you’re just as confused about what is real and what may be a giant ruse, as the protagonist is.

Ironically, while I love postmodern and surreal conspiracy novels, what makes them so compelling is also what frustrates me to no end. The conclusion, such as it is, of ‘Lot 49, left me incredibly unfulfilled. The buildup of events and clues and danger Pynchon crafts hits a brick wall and leaves the reader standing on the side of the road, while the story continues you in such a way as it’s certain much will be revealed and explained if only the book held four more pages.

This is what separates the good, early postmodern surreal conspiracy novels like ‘Lot 49, from the banal, late postmodern realism conspiracy novels like Dan Brown’s The daVinci Code. Pynchon is writing fully aware of how he’s toying with, manipulating, side-swiping the reader. He does it without maliciousness, perhaps, but he’s forcing the reader to look away from the details and instead focus on the Big Picture — not just in the story, but in the socio-cultural conditions in which a story like this can even take place (and its audience can live in). Pynchon, like Ballard and Vonnegut and DeLillo, and Philip K. Dick (who was a pre-postmodern master at crafting the uncomfortable conspiracy tale), is using his story to get the reader to start paying attention not to the ephemera of material existence where details have no significance outside themselves, but to look at the way they themselves, like the protagonist in the story, are manipulated and deceived by the “conspiracy” of capitalism and the culture of commodities. How nothing today has inherent significance because we no longer have any awareness of an object’s history, its creation, its conditions of creation, its provenance.

This last is pointed up in ‘Lot 49 by the theme of the stamps. Actual postage stamps in which, with the help of an expert philatelist, Oedipa learns about the lost importance of provenance (a theme heavily interlaced in P.K. Dick’s amazing The Man in the High Castle. Pynchon is commenting on the banality of modern culture.

While on the other hand, books like Dan Brown’s have fully embraced the banality and are inseparable, both in form an content, from postmodern commodification. The tropes and elements of conspiracy and shadow organizations are not used, like Pynchon, to illustrate cultural conditions with tongue firmly in cheek, but rather embraces the elements with an attempt to represent them as part of the “real” in earnest sincerity. The daVinci Code truly takes pastiche and becomes unaware parody; The Crying of Lot 49is self-aware from beginning to end.

Spoilery from here on:
Is the conspiracy real or not? Did Oedipa’s deceased former uber-rich boyfriend set the whole thing up as an elaborate practical joke? The answer is it doesn’t matter, Pynchon himself probably doesn’t know, and that’s what make the themes of the book more effective, but at the same time, the abrupt end more unfulfilling to the mind that’s used to and expecting resolution and denouement. The rich boyfriend manipulating people, exploiting labor, setting up the conditions of what people accept as “reality,” literally crafting the dominant culture from buildings to artwork all around the protagonist — if this isn’t a comment on modern capitalism and its cultural logic, I (nor Fredric Jameson) don’t know what is! Whether the conspiracies are real or a joke, either way, the absolute constant underlying everything that happens in the story is the effect that those who own the capital control what people do and believe, sometimes overtly, usually with the subtlety of a shadow organization.

When Metzger, the lawyer hired to co-execute the millionaire’s will, tells Oedipa at the beginning of the novel (after they’d had sex), that her dead former boyfriend told him she “wouldn’t be easy,” naturally we assume he’s talking about getting her in bed. But by the end of the story, when we’re left to wonder what’s real and what’s scam and what’s the result of pure paranoia and delusion, that line at the beginning of the novel carries more meaning. Was it a comment on her ability to be fooled or not?

Questions like this, the reader’s search for clues and meaning in the same way the characters are, should reveal to us that there’s only three choices — we’re surrounded by conspiracy so deep it’s endemic in the culture around us, we’re surrounded by conspiracy that turns the mundane into unintended signifiers, or we’re paranoid and delusional.

(Lacanian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek would surely say the “truth” is all three.)


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I gots books!

(Post originally published on my other blog, GrogMonkey, back on Jan. 8, 2011. Still trying to figure out how to divide the work between the two blogs.)

Hooray for books! Hooray for holiday gift cards!

Thanks to family members’ generosity with Barnes & Noble gift cards, I recently acquired a stack of books I’ve been pining for for months, and in some cases, years. Every once in a while I’d visit them on my Amazon Wish List and coo, “one day, my pretties, one day.” Now, I gots ’em! And, thanks to my continued adherence to my New Year’s Resolution (which, in part, includes mandatory reading of a new short story or novel chapter daily), it looks good that I’ll be able to actually read them.

Without further ado, I present, the new residents in my library which I shall soon get to know better:

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
I’ve heard of this book for some time, and has the endorsement of my brother. (But then, he also like The Wheel of Time series, so, pfft! *wink*) Published in 2002, it catches the post-cyberpunk wave and is considered a groundbreaker in the current wave of post-/transhuman fiction. All qualities which appeal both to my entertainment and my scholarly research interests.

Freedom(tm) by Daniel Suarez
The sequel to Suarez’s outstanding page-turner, Daemon. That’s the story of a computer genius and online game mogul who programmed a massive network of computer systems and programs to start the process of taking over the world the moment his obituary is detected. The scary-cool thing is that nearly 100% of all the tech and processes that are used in the book, are real and available to the consumer.

The Wee Free Men: The Beginning by Terry Pratchett
Big fan of Sir Terry Pratchett (what SF/fantasy fan isn’t!?) But I’ve only read a few of his books. He has so many, and so many refer to each other and are part of mini-series within series, that I generally have no idea where to really dive in. Well, is latest book, I Shall Wear Midnight came out not long ago, and it’s gotten huge raves on many of the SF podcasts I listen to and blogs I read. It’s the fourth and I believe final book of the “Tiffany Aching series” of his. It’s a part of his Discworld . . . world, but it’s a stand-alone series, described as a funnier (and occasionally, better) Harry Potter with a female protagonist. Intended as a “young adult” series (just like Harry Potter), but adults are loving them.

Anyway, The Wee Free Men: The Beginning is the first two books in the series. Interestingly, the Amazon reviews for those first two books, Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, both rank 4.5 out of 5 stars, but this compilation only has 2.5 stars. When you read the reviews, you find it’s entirely because people bought the book thinking it was a new book in the series. Idiots. Sorry, but c’mon. It’s your dumbarse mistake you bought the book thinking it was something it wasn’t not even bothering to, I dunno, read the description of it where it says “Contains the complete text of Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky,” and you give the book a bad review for that? As if it’s the book’s fault? Idiots.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This one has universal praise from those SF podcasts and blogs as a great epic fantasy. I also heard about this one about a year ago and stuck it on my Wishlist, this at the end of the year the bloggers and podcasters started up singing its praises again.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
And finally, this near-future dystopian, and extremely realistic, vision of a world where peak oil has been passed and calories are used like money. Also heard of this one nearly two years ago, recommended by Cory Doctorow. Since then it’s won both the Hugo and the Nebula, and now finally I can read it!

 

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“Sucker Punch”; the perfect postmodern flick

sucker punch posterNow, don’t get me wrong: when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean Sucker Punch is a perfect film in general. On the contrary. It’s a bad film! The script is spare, uninspired, and tedious, and the acting (with the slight exception of supporting actors Oscar Isaac as “Blue” and Carla Gugino as “Dr. Vera,” and the pathos-saturated sad face from lead Emily Browning as “Baby Doll”) is equally tedious and as thin as tissue. Fortunately, this isn’t exactly a review of the film but a critique.

Now, don’t get me wrong. . . again. While I declare the film as bad, I also loved it. I had fun time watching it and would willingly see it again in the theater a couple more times. The action sequences are as amazing audio-visually as they are the epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing. And pardon me if I prevaricate about the shrubbery and mention the 800-pound gorilla only so much as to say I can’t really discuss the 800-pound gorilla. (By which I mean the 800-pound gorilla that’s the object of 15-year-old boys’ dreams dressed up in fetish costumes not lacking in stockings and garters. How’s that for a disturbing image).

I don’t want to discuss the over-saturation of objectified female sexuality in the film (which is difficult as that’s basically what a solid half of this film consists of), because while I count myself as a feminist and constantly aware of the use and effect of themale gaze, I do happen to be a privileged male and the owner of a male gaze. On top of that, while I don’t accept all (or most) of what evolutionary psychology claims, I also don’t dismiss the concept and some of its hypotheses out of hand. So, if I try critiquing the blitzkrieg use of sexuality in the film, I’ll likely get accused of being too sympathetic to its use or unqualified to critique (even to criticize) it since I am a target consumer of the cinematic male gaze. (A criticism I often hear about many subjects and ideologies. Which I, obviously, don’t believe. I think it is indeed possible to critique a thing even while existing within its sphere of effect. If that were true that it weren’t possible, then, for example, since all of western culture operates within the contradictions of postmodern capitalism, any kind of Marxist criticism would have to be impossible. Sorry, Fredric Jameson — you need to find a new career!) So, end of topic right there. (Except to mention this amusing and sadly accurate comic I read just today, by feminist blogger Jen McCreight.)

What I do want to discuss is how Sucker Punch exists as the distilled and purified essence of postmodern production. And to do so, I’m afraid I’m going to need to be spoilery. So, if you’ve not seen the film and want to remain surprised (it would be much too easy to insert a joke there), read this after viewing.

The film exists in three realms or reality: layer one is the “real world” which lands somewhere in the 1950s, best I can tell from the brief view of automobiles, layer two is the fantasy-world brothel inside Baby Doll’s head as she tries to cope with being institutionalized by her abusive stepfather and an impending lobotomy back in the real world, and layer three is the action vignettes that represent the fantasy world of fantasy world’s Baby Doll. Now, I have to give writer/director Zack Snyder a bit of credit here for not trying to trick the audience into thinking layer two or three is the Real World or that layer one is actually layer two and there’s a unrevealed layer one to be pulled out as a shock ending. However, this doesn’t get him off the hook for making layer one just as fantastically impossible as the other layers — and that complete disregard for any semblance of reality within the real is one of the primary reasons for the film being perfect postmodernism.

The movie opens with a slow-motion montage of scenes showing Baby Doll’s mother’s death, funeral, establishing threat of violence from stepfather, accidental death of Baby Doll’s younger sister as she tries to protect the younger sibling from their evil stepfather, and then her being institutionalized. The only sound on top of this establishing background setup, is a cover of The Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams” with the lyrics “Some of them want to abuse you” placed like a delicate sledgehammer on top of the scene of stepfather entering the bedroom, like an auditory Lord Privy Seal. And it’s from this opening segment that the dislocation, the crisis of historicity and sincere schizoidness, that mark late postmodern artistic production is established. We, the viewer, are given clues to the setting being some olden day of curvy cars and men wearing hats, but the sound places us in modernity. (Not to mention the fact that the song is a remake which adds yet another layer of separation from any idea of the original, or the authentic.) The film situates us in a simulacrum of an historical moment with no interest in actually representing authentic history. The quasi-1950s setting of the movie essentially becomes nothing more than style — not setting, not placement.

The dizzying, disorienting confusion of time and place only increases from there. In the layer two world, in which we spend most of our time (actually, that may be debatable; the wall-to-wall action scenes of world layer three seem like interruptions, but actually may account for half the film or more), Baby Doll, as the “new girl” trapped in the brothel, is compelled to dance as part of her job to entertain the sleaze the establishment caters to. We never see layer two Baby Doll dance, as that is when she enters her head and we’re transported to various war/fantasy/sci-fi battle sequences, but we do get to hear the music that gets played on the 50-year-old reel-to-real or radio. And that music includes such classics as a souped-up remix of Björk’s “Army of Me,” a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” a hip-hopped mashup-remix of Queen’s “I Want it All” and “We Will Rock You,” and a cover of the Beatle’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” (which, ironically, sounds in its original 1960s form like a 2000s Chemical Brothers’ techo-rave track. Weird, that).

Now, as I admitted already, I’m a wall-of-sound mindless-action-flick fan (to an extent; Jurassic Park 2 was the worst film I’ve ever seen and I have no interest in the current Transformers CGI porn), so a significant part of me really loved the music, it’s grab-your-eardrums-and-feed-them-to-you-with-gunpowder sonic brutality. But the cognitive dissonance of hearing the thumping indie-industrial music of “Army of Me” played by a Slavic-ish choreographer on a reel-to-reel in a mid-20th century dance studio in a brothel-prison, was enough to actually short-circuit my thinking for a moment and leave me literally disoriented. That kind of guerrilla attack on the senses, leaving one’s thinking disconnected and susceptible to better apprehending Lacan’s Real, was an intentional tool of “theatre of cruelty.” (The 60s attempt to use the technique of Artaud and surrealism ended up being just a late modernism parody of surrealism, by the way.) Sucker Punch’s use of sensual-shock-treatment is, I believe, entirely unintentional and without any greater purpose than an exercise in style. Thus, exhibiting, no, embodying, one of the arch-typical qualities of postmodern art — that of pastiche.

What Zack Snyder intended by the title, Sucker Punch, can only be guessed at. The film implies that Baby Doll’s dancing, unseen by the film’s audience, leaves all who view it stunned and bewildered — sucker punched by a performance only they are exposed to. Though, that might be too subtle for Snyder. Maybe he’s referring to the beatdown the various baddies in the layer three fantasy worlds get (giant samurai, steampunk Nazis, orcs ripped right from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, terrorist robots…). Perhaps he’s being meta-aware enough to be commenting, tongue in cheek, on what the movie delivers to the audience: The mismatched and cobbled elements that make this Frankenstein’s monster of a film hits the viewer from beginning to end with a relentless barrage of simulacrum, washing over the viewer and pulling them into a riptide of hyperreality. At best, maybe he is self-aware enough to consider that he’s hitting the audience with an audio-visual shock to the senses — after all, the poster tagline is “You will be unprepared.” But this only supports the contention that Snyder’s only goal with this film is to have no goal, only to affect. Only to create sensation disconnected from anything concrete, anything with a veneer of tangibility. Snyder wants to blind-side pummel the audience and then disappear without a trace before the viewer knows what hit them. When your only interest is in stylized effect, there’s no reason not to use re-makes of music without connection to the setting, which is itself a carnival mirror reflection of an attempted setting, punctuated by completely unreal collages of literally pointless action (albeit exciting and expertly crafted) appropriating and blending elements from across multiple genre.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I sat for the ending credits, how much of any of this analysis could apply or appeal to the younger members of the audience. I wonder if filmgoers who don’t know what a reel-to-reel is, couldn’t tell a 1950s car from a 1920s from a 1980s, feel an iota of the disorientation I felt watching it. Do younger viewers, who have entirely grown up in a culture inherently of pastiche and ahistoricity, feel the least bit of anxiety when exposed to cultural production which seeks to simulate, blithely unironically, a reality that doesn’t exist? Does the obvious fantastical elements counteract the fact that the movie, apart from the fantasy, exists in crisis? Or does all of it exist to the viewer on the same plane of blatant unreality? I compare this film to last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie was skillful on many levels and entirely fun while managing to have a solid storyline and characters one can feel something for. But from the beginning of that film, which is solidly set in contemporary Toronto-area, the viewer is asked to accept that the world of the film exists in a different reality from our own as videogame elements co-exist with the presumed real. What makes Scott Pilgrim simply a postmodern production while Sucker Punch is postmodernism itself? I think it comes down to how while both films attempt to anchor time and place to our own reality, we can recognize reality in Scott Pilgrim even though it’s superseded by the impossible. Sucker Punch presents us, from the opening seconds, with a lie. It promises to be rooted, at least on one layer, in reality, and it (the gestalt of the filmakers) may even believe it’s sincere in doing so — but the fact that the reality it believes it’s anchored to is as fantastical as the 40-foot, machine gun-totin’ samurai it presents, we’re fed the very antithesis of what science fiction provides: discognitive estrangement. And this mirrors the very condition we live in, in late postmodern cultural logic.

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io9 suggested reading list.

pattern_recognitionio9.com recently (well, OK, a month several months ago — I’m a little lot late) published their 20 Best Science Fiction Books Of The Decade” list. This really is a compelling list of SF over the last ten years, much of it dealing with issues of late postmodern culture and our sense of rootlessness and lack of historical perspective (The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson; Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson; Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger are primary examples, although nearly all of them have living in postmodern times as an underlying theme). Some of it dealing with posthumanism and the way technology is not just “helping” humanity, but changing it at very fundamental levels–or exploring changing perceptions of what it means to have gender or racial, or even species identification (Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge; Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville; Down And Out In the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow).

The following is their list and my status, as of this moment, on that book — whether I’ve read it, have it and plan to read it, don’t plan on reading it, etc. I’d like to read most on this list by the end of the year (eep! half over already!). Updates may come… now and then.

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Brust on Capital

First, a little story:

I’ve been a huge fan of SF author Steven Brust since circa 1988 when Taltos came out. (I didn’t know at the time that was not the first in the “Vlad Taltos” series, but it worked out OK.) After becoming a fan, I discovered Brust was a self-described Trotskyist. Being in my teens, early to mid-20s, I really didn’t have any idea what that was but I knew it was somehow connected to GASP! evil Communism! One part of my brain processed this information something like, “Huh, his writing is kick-ass, he seems really cool…perhaps whatever Trotskyism is it’s either a) inconsequential to who he is, or b) it’s not some all-encompassing evilness as my culture leads me to believe.” The other half of my mind processed more like, “LA LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING! I SEE NOTHINK! I HEAR NOTHINK! MOVE ALONG, CITIZEN!”

So the cognitive dissonance was dealt with by ardently ignoring it.

Until around 2007 when I started grad school and my first instructor was Dr. William Burling: the most influential professor, and one of the most influential persons, I’d ever met. I had the privilege of being a student of his for three (almost four) fantastic classes. What his greatest influence on me was to introduce me to the idea of questioning culture, society, government, art, everything. Everything is, to a greater or lesser degree, either a product of or a reflector of the socio-economic base of a culture and nearly everything in the culture is in service to those who control the wealth in society. In short, Dr. Burling was a Marxist, and by the fortune of serendipity, happened to come into my life just as I was questioning political structures.

At that time I was moving from Democrat to vague libertarian. It took nearly a year of questioning and study and investigation and debate, but eventually I too became a self-described Marxist. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface still of Marxist theory.

So, at one point as Dr. Burling and I were discussing Marxist theory and SF and fantasy literature, I realized something from the long forgotten recesses of my mind… (See, I kinda stopped reading Mr. Brust’s books by this point–not because I stopped liking them, but I’d pretty much stopped reading for pleasure altogether! I am glad to say I’ve since picked pleasure reading back up and have caught back up with all of Mr. Brust’s “Taltos” books at least.) I recalled that tidbit of info about my favorite fantasy author being a Trotskyist. I asked Dr. Burling, who had introduced me to Stanley Kim Robinson, and China Miéville, and Philip K. Dick, and a Marxist outlook of William Gibson (who, now, I have no idea how you couldn’t read Gibson with a Marxist outlook! My god, the man is postmodern materialist cultural criticism up and down!) if he had read any Steven Brust. He replied, somewhat dismissively that he didn’t have time for any pleasure reading. Then I mentioned Mr. Brust was a Trotskyist and, if I recalled, wrote in a couple of his novels about a peasant uprising in his fantasy world.

Dr. Burling grabbed a pen and asked me what that name was again.

Sadly, Dr. Burling passed away a couple of years later. I never did find out if he started looking into Brust’s writing. Probably not; he was pretty busy, in addition to teaching, editing a book of essays on Kim Stanley Robinson and working with  Miéville on a book of criticism about Marxist SF. *sigh* I still feel acute sense of honor of having been able to know the man and learn from him. He changed my entire way of looking at life and I could have missed it if I’d been a couple of years too late.

Anyway, so now that I’m deep in trying to learn and understand Marxist theory, both as it applies to literature and culture, guess what my favorite Trotskyist fantasy author has started doing? He’s reading and commenting on Karl Marx’s seminal work on socio-economics, Das Kapital.* (Volume 1, I believe, which is the one Marx had worked mostly on before he died, while Engels wrote the other volumes.)

What’s really cool is that just before this he had read through and commented on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (arguably the father of and the manual of modern capitalism). This kicked-ass because not only did I learn something from it (unfortunately I came in rather late), it just goes to show that Brust is interested in exploring all the angles of modern socio-economics and doesn’t just surround himself with material that fits his perceptions or ideologies. That’s certainly a quality to admire and emulate.

marx-victoryI’m looking forward to reading what he has to say about the tome. And I’m very glad that one side of my brain stopped being a pest and started paying attention. Marxism is not evil, Trotskyism is not evil, communism is not evil. These are just ideas, concepts, ways of investigating and ideas are never evil. They may not be good or practical ideas, but one should never dismiss a way of thinking, a way of investigating, because authority has proclaimed it verboten, taboo, out of bounds. Question everything, especially authority. There’s a reason why they are in power, and a means by which they stay in power.

* I think he’s moving his blog over to a new location. I’ll try to update this link if I can when it happens.

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Dies the Book

Book: Dies the FireAs a new year’s resolution, I’m hoping to do more quick, literary themed writing, i.e.: book reviews and the like. I’ve been reading a lot of books lately (e.g.: the entire Vlad Taltos series, again) and would like to review them. (Actually, I’m in the early process of writing a scholarly paper on Steven Brust’s Dragaeran books and their use of Marxist theory.)

Anyway, here’s my first review of the year, and it’s a bit of a cheat…I didn’t finish it. I couldn’t finish it. It’s S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire: A Novel of the Change. It’s the first in a trilogy, which is itself the first of two trilogies (so far). The conceit is really fascinating: for some unknown reason all modern (circa last 1000 years) technology stops working: electronics, gunpowder, internal combustion. The book follows two separate groups as they deal with what’s happened, find and join with other people, and try to find a place to set up and survive. One group led by a competent ex-Marine and pilot, the other by a stereotypical red-haired Celtic music playing Wiccan and her merry band of Wiccans.

The setting is compelling and intriguing and has so much potential! But it’s utterly squandered by Stirling. This is the first book, I think, that I’ve ever intentionally put down half-way through (as opposed to just kinda forgetting about and losing interest in). To review why requires spoilers:

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Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears; redux.

I read Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears (edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling) when it first came out in 1995. I bought and read… no, devoured all of the collections of “modern fairy tales” when I was an undergrad those early 90s — Snow White, Blood Red, Black Thorn, White Rose, etc. Now, the series is being re-released for a new audience and I’d like to take the opportunity to review the third book in the series… in what I’m afraid is a rather mixed review.

The edition I’m reviewing is a reprint — and when I say “reprint,” that’s exactly what it is. The version of the book I received, as the new reprint, has the cover seen here and a publishing date of 1996 under Prime Books. The original mass market paperback I have was from Avon Books and released 1995 (although Barnes and Noble is showing it published in a different year and publisher than I’m looking at right now in the book itself). Amazon shows another cover for Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears also published by Prime, but listed as 2008. There are a couple more covers and ISBNs available through Amazon and B&N. Regardless of this very confusing collection of Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears iterations, one thing I can deduce from my looking and primarily from comparing the two editions in my hands, is that while there may be a multitude of covers the insides are exactly the same. Exactly! From the table of contents and the introduction straight through to the intros for each story and the very page numbering, the contents of the books are identical.

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Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be said that I have not read John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon; so, it will be assumed throughout this essay that what the NPR book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan, has to say about it is accurate for the basis of an analysis of cultural production. From a standpoint that “text is a social space,” this is not altogether inappropriate as one of Roland Barthes’ main contentions is that there is no absolute and empirical meaning behind a text — in contrast to the liberal humanist point of view held up through the 1950s (and continuing today in some corners). In the traditional view, it was believed that a work of literature had only one inherent meaning, one appropriate way to examine and interpret the work. Barthes, on the other hand, promoted the idea that the work itself, its form and its function, is at least as important and valuable of a subject of examination as the text — if not more so.

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