The Future Will Be…WET: New York 2140 and American War

Two new releases came out this month along a similar motif: Climate Change!

That’s right! The liberal bogeyman in the closet! The biggest lie since Al Gore said he invented the internet!

I’m just kidding. Anyone who thinks climate change is a hoax, I have a Hummer I’d like to sell you.

NEW YORK 2140 By Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s a capital “M” Message in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 that is worthy and frightening. If we continue to abuse our planet, we will pay the consequences. Those consequences are wide-ranging, from the destruction of habitats and species, shrinking coastlines, an ever widening gap between the classes, housing crises, to devastating ecological events that turn the streets of New York City into canals.

Robinson creates an astonishing vision of the future, excessively detailed, smart, complicated and imaginative. Though the POV doesn’t veer often from NYC, the glimpses outside of the city provide tantalizing possibilities of the way the world has changed just one disastrous century hence.

But all too often, the action is focused on NYC, and the canals and stranded skyscrapers and sky bridges grow a little stale after the hundredth visitation. The “Plot” (and I use that term loosely) focuses on a cast of characters living in the former MetLife building. Characters that are by-the-book carbon copy archetypes: the ambitious woman, the douchey finance bro, the impish street kids, the wise yet doddering old man, the grouchy Slavic building super…et al.

The very real possibility of Robinson’s ecological future is undermined by goofy, pie-in-the-sky plot machinations like a people’s revolution that brings down the existing financial system, a treasure hunt, a polar bear transport gone awry, a hurricane, a mysterious kidnapping, and nefarious private security firms. It’s a veritable kitchen sink of plot ideas with no editor in sight. Further bloating the text are an endless stream of quotations and list that, in the audiobook, has its own narrator!

The book reads almost like a pitch for a TV series, and would probably make a good own, as TV creators are often adept at enlargin a novel’s given universe and elaborating on character development (though not always *cough* Walking Dead.)

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

In a slightly less distant future, author Omar El Akkad imagines one that is equally devastated by climate change, such that the southeast borders of the U.S. have moved drastically inland, while the shrinking East and West coastlines have sent scores of displaced citizens fleeing towards the Midwest. This leads the government to ban fossil fuels, resulting in a rift that starts the second American Civil War.

In contrast to New York 2140, the novel charts the life of one little girl living far south in the Louisiana swamp and her genesis towards adulthood and the fate of a nation. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by context-setting excerpts from memoirs, reports, and history books. This provides a nice balance that heightens the plot tension as it barrels towards its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

There is a fascinating parallel between this “American War” and the wars America has fought overseas. The North is the dominating status quo, viewing the dissident Southerners as backwards hicks. The Southerners wage their war with guerilla tactics, strapping on “farmer’s suits,” fertilizer-fueled bombs and martyring themselves for the Southern cause. They set mines and ambush transports.

But they are no more unequivocal enemies than the North is righteous. The North engages in brutal interrogation techniques, suspending human rights as a wartime necessity. The detainees suffer cruelties that include sensory assault and waterboarding.

American War doesn’t waste subtleties on drawing these distinctions. Taking the war to our own backyard is a sobering shift in perspective.

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Both books are set against the backdrop of climate change and the way it will drastically change how humans live. It will drown cities, start wars, spread disease, widen the economic divide, and extinguish species.

It’s hard to believe that in 2017 we’re still equivocating over whether or not climate change even exists, all the while ensuring a shittier future for every living thing on this planet.

When We Mess With a Good Thing: Adaptations Haunting Hill House

Just recently, it was announced that Netflix ordered a series based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. 

My first reaction: Yay!

Second reaction: Why, god, why?

Third reaction: Is it here yet?

The Haunting of Hill House is my favorite novel of all time and if you ask me about it, I will tell you all about Shirley Jackson’s spare, impactful prose, kaleidoscopic characters and overall brilliance.

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There have been two film adaptations of the book. Now there will be a Netflix TV series helmed by the director of the sequel to Ouija (your classic horror film based on board game fare), the fun-bad Oculus, and a couple of better-received films, Absentia and Hush. 

I am of two minds about this project. Since I can’t decided if I am happier than I am sad, I made a pros and cons list to assist me in my decision making process.

PRO: Jan De Bont is not directing. 

In 1999, a  wholly superfluous remake of The Haunting was directed by Jan De Bont. His previous films included two “hits,” Speed and Twister before he devoted the remainder of his directorial career, so far, to a superfluous remake and two superfluous sequels: Speed 2 and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Can I emphasize the word “superfluous?”

De Bont’s foray into horror included dumbing down all the nuances that characterized the original, adding a metric crap-ton of special effects, and basically shitting over everything that was good about the original. The result was a mediocre film with a surprisingly better than average cast (Lili Taylor, Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta Jones, Owen Wilson…well, mostly better than average.)

I’m not gonna lie. The film scared me when I first watched it. I was also 14 years old and watching it by myself, so. The greatest gift that film gave me was an interest in the source material. I would eventually read the book and come to love it, despising the travesty that the remake inflicted on Jackson’s masterpiece.

CON: Robert Wise is NOT directing it. 

The first adaptation of Haunting was released in 1963 and directed by Robert Wise, whose ouvre consists of some strange bedfellows, including The Sound of Music and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Besides introducing some revolutionary sound editing in The Haunting, he managed to distill the subtleties of Jackson’s story and characterizations, in particular the complicated Eleanor and her fragile state of mind, and create a film that was scarier for not knowing what was on the other side of the door.

Sadly, Wise is no longer with us, and his vision of Jackson’s great novel draws an even starker contrast between the original material and De Bont’s abomination. Wise’s The Haunting represents for me, that elusive book-nerd unicorn, the perfect book-to-movie adaptation.

PRO: TV today is so freaking good!

Forget your Walking Deads. Forget your American Horror Stories. A newer, better brand of TV horror is reinventing old standards, from Hannibal and Bates Motel to the upcoming Twin Peaks and The Mist, there’s a revolution taking place in television. Netflix and Amazon have thrown their hats in the ring, and it’s made for better TV. Sure, there’s some mediocre horror shows floating around out there (did we really need MTV’s Scream ?) but it’s a promising trend.

CON: The temptation of the cheap scare

The most jarring difference between the two film adaptations of Haunting is the use of special effects and cheap scares. Whereas the original used effects sparingly, to enhance the story, in the remake, the philosophy is basically “throw all the shit at the wall and see what sticks.” In 1963, the SFX was limited to camera angles and sound effects. Shadows and reaction shots, implication and POV was used, often to great effect, because there was no CGI. Now CGI is cheap, a shortcut to easy scares. My fear is the director might resort to these cheap shots because “that’s what the audience wants.” Maybe that assumption is right, but I hope for better.

PRO: The slow burn

The Haunting of Hill House is a slim novel that packs a rich story with fully realized characters and a deliberately paced plot. This GQ article describes the novel as a “tense, almost unbearable book at times.” The format of TV allows the full slow burn to bring shades and nuance to Haunting that can’t necessarily be accomplished in a two-hour film.

CONCLUSION?

A peculiar aspect of rabid bookish fandom is that we as readers tend to freak out when our beloved books are adapted in a film/TV format, even though the majority of the time we know our expectations are just setting us up for bitter disappointment. We sit there with our “The Book was Better” flashcards even when the movie/show turns out to be pretty good.

In a way, we are preemptively ruined by the book. Primed to critique. Because at the bottom of our fanaticism is hope, hope for a perfect distillation of perfection. Will this time be “the one?” If not, there’s always next time.

Unless you’re a Dune superfan. In that case, you’re screwed.

 

 

 

 

Turtles All the Way Downs: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Americans have no idea what’s going on in the library. It’s not your normal library, and Carolyn, David, Michael, Margaret, and their adopted siblings are not normal librarians. They always seem to bring chaos and carnage as sidekicks. Their thrift-shop fashion is too weird even for Macklemore.

Turns out this oddball group are orphans raised under tutelage of Father in a badass library. Each studies a specific “catalog,” such as war, healing, language, nature, and death. None are allowed to know the secrets of the others’ catalogs under the threat of brutal punishment.

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I’ve been trying to write about this book for months now. It’s a beautiful novel that traffics in equal parts brutality and hope. I enjoyed it in a way that’s difficult to qualify. That doesn’t happen often.

There’s a concept in the novel called “Regression Completeness,” explained as “the idea that however deeply you understand the universe, however many mysteries you solve, there will always be another, deeper mystery behind it.”

“Regression Completeness” is a phrase of the author’s invention, but it’s related to the concept of Infinite Regress, in which a proposition must be explained by another proposition, which in turn must be explained by another…ad nauseam. Like the optical effect of two mirrors creating an infinite image, the explanations never cease except to end in a tautology.

I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I think. (Descartes was a jerk.)

There’s a charming anecdote, most likely apocryphal, but the best illustration of the Infinite Regress conundrum:

There are many versions of the “turtle” story. Here is one of the best known:

“William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles-turtles-turtles, all the way!”

— from Wilson, R.A. (1983, 1997) Prometheus Rising. Phoenix, AZ: New Falcon Publishers, 1983. (source)

I’m not going to pretend I’m smart enough to have parsed all the implications of “Regression Completeness” in The Library at Mount Char. It’ll just lead me to a mixed metaphor rabbit hole full of turtles.

As readers,  we have to be content with accepting a mystery that we can’t explain: the mystery of a book that insinuates without a clear reason. We have to be content with it, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

There’s a moment at the end of Mount Char, where the title of the book is finally elucidated, and it packed such an emotional gutpunch for me that I had to set the book down for a while.

Now I must lay to rest the idea that I need to explain something to enjoy it. Instead, I put it in the box with Anna Karenina’s final moments and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as beautiful, devastating moments in art living outside my critical mind.

I hope everyone has a book or song or film or painting like this. Something that causes us to surrender to Infinite Regress and accept the mystery. To borrow from Milan Kundera, these mysteries are what fills out our lives with a “dimension of beauty.”

 

*forbidden catalogs

  • It’s pronounced “Char” as in “Charbroil” not “Char” as in “Charlotte” which is how I pronounced it until I figured out the context.
  • There’s a wonderful psychological concept coined by sociologist Erving Goffman that offers a kind of mental version of Infinite Regress. As explained in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: “[Erving] disputed the romantic notion that behind the masks we show other people is the one true self. No, said Goffman; it’s masks all the way down.”
  • Another fun, related concept is the Munchausen Trilemma, the episode in which the Baron pulls himself out of the mire by his own hair. Hijinks!

On Being “Team Human” – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

You can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.
– The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The sympathetic zombie is a rare, yet well-established pop culture trope. From the forlorn “domesticated” Bub in George Romero’s Day of the Dead to the tongue-in-cheek living dead modern comedies like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet, the sentient zombie is an exercise in contradictions. Intelligent people don’t desire human flesh; zombies are meant to represent the dead-minded mob, the consumerist masses, the brainwashed masses. They’re humans without humanity. Our reptile brains run amok.

The metaphor of the zombie asks the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? The answers vary, from our ability to control our desires, show empathy, “love,” and probably NOT want to eat human flesh.

The existence of the sentient zombie asks a similar question, but the answer is fraught with dissonance. What happens when you have the intelligence of a human packaged in with the ultimate taboo of cannibalism?

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Most of the zombies in The Girl with all the Gifts are your prototypical, braindead, flesh-hungry monsters. They’re called “hungries,” based on their dominant drive, which should be obvious. Their dish of choice, of course, is human flesh. But there’s a select group of hungries, all children, who are also capable of all those human qualities like learning and language. They are more terrifying than the regular hungries, because they can think and plan and work as a community. They look like children, not monsters.

The star of this select group of smart hungries is Melanie, a little girl who is precocious and imaginative and full of questions. She is the star of the novel, the protagonist who guides us through this post-apocalyptic nightmare of abandoned cities and roaming herds of flesh-hungry monsters.

I was lucky to discuss this book in book club, and the best question came up: Are you Team Hungry or Team Human? A lively debate followed, and I reflected on the question long after the meeting ended.

Team Hungry or Team Human?

A more precise question might be this: Are you Team Human or Team Melanie? As the reader, we are invited to view the disaster from her perspective. We’re set up to sympathize with Melanie, a human monster feared and despised by almost everyone around her.

Her nemesis is Dr. Caldwell, a scientist whose ambition to save the world doesn’t exactly inspire the warm and fuzzies. Her willingness to slice open Melanie’s skull in service of humanity ironically renders her inhumane. The novel draws battle lines with the reader firmly situated on Melanie’s side, the characters trapped in their assigned roles: Heartless scientist, empathetic teacher, realistic soldier, and the tragic monster. Melanie’s responsibility is great, and her loneliness, like Frankenstein’s monster, is unbearable.

In the end, Melanie is faced with a decision that will either doom her and those like her, or the entirety of the human race. The reader is stuck in the uncomfortable position of cheering on a monster or accepting Dr. Caldwell’s policy of prioritizing the human race above all others (which, TBH, we’re pretty damn good at doing.)

So what do you do? Choose Melanie, as Ms. Justineau, the kind-hearted teacher does, and the human race as we know it faces extinction. Although Ms. Justineau might not have predicted such a bleak end, in essence she takes Melanie’s place as the lonely, if less hungry, Other.

Choose humans and choose Caldwell’s brand of impersonal experimentation. Condone the sacrifice of the few to save the many. It sounds easy but there’s an aspect of human psychology that prevents us from seeing the big picture, to stomach the means to a noble end when those means are unsavory. It’s both a weakness and a strength that allows us to inflict both kindness and cruelty.

There’s a difference between fighting for your family and friends and ruminating on the worth of the human species in the abstract. Hypothetically, it’s easy to say “screw it, we had our chance” but the world and our choices are so much more complicated than the novel implies.

The survival of humanity is not an either/or proposition. It’s not about choosing one over the other, but figuring out how we’re going to live together without destroying our planet. If we keep leaving it up to the next generation, maybe we deserve to turn into fungus. Ashes to ashes, dust to mushroom.

*spores

  • If the Sentient Hungries indeed took over the world, what would they eat? I suggested at book club that they could probably learn agriculture and farm animals for their sustenance. It didn’t occur to me until later that one of those animals they might start farming might be humans.
  • Evolution and progress are not always synonymous. What’s best for our genes might not be the most “humanitarian” option. They’re just trying to build a better machine.