Wednesday, June 7, 2017

To Wang Chung and Die in LA

Ever wonder how well all the gritty movies and TV shows of the 2010s will age? It's worth thinking about, as the popular culture of an era so often defines it in the future, being a present reflection of how we think about ourselves and our situations.

And also because the "gritty" stories of ages past have aged about as well as unpasteurized milk.

To Live and Die in LA is a good example. A gritty neo-noir action thriller by that grittiest of directors, William Friedkin, it is a ludicrous parade of 80s cliches and adolescent characters. Or really caricatures - like Chance, played by the inexplicably respectable William Peterson, a Secret Service agent chasing the counterfeiter who killed his partner. His partner was of course two days from retirement and Chance is a loose cannon who gets results and blah blah blah, we've all been here before.

But Death in LA is something else because of how it cranks these usual cliches up to 11. Chance doesn't just play fast and loose with agency procedure, he also bungee jumps and sky dives and carries on a parasitic relationship with a criminal informant, usually with lots of angry sex. Combined with his dialogue being nothing but tough guy talking points, and Chance achieves the Platonic Ideal of the Reagan era's Manly Man. And that ideal is hilarious to watch when it tries to be serious.

Willem Dafoe is along too as the villain and it's easy to see why he went on to a long Hollywood career while Peterson had to settle for network TV. As Rick Masters, the counterfeiter pursued by Chance, he's both more charismatic and offers a more compelling narrative. The way he strings Chance along demonstrates much more intelligence than the nominal protagonist and his own romantic relationship with a dancer and her girlfriend demonstrates greater depth. You find yourself rooting for him as Chance pursues ever shadier means to bring him down, culminating in robing an undercover FBI agent and a high speed chase down the wrong way of the LA freeway, which is all anyone ever remembers about this movie.

This contrast of a suave villain and a snotty hero is likely intentional. Friedkin has been praised in the past for this film, the argument being that he updated The French Connection for the 1980s - however that just means he tried to do the same morally ambiguous cops and crims drama with double bloodpacks and a Wang Chung soundtrack. The end result is a very dumb film that clearly thinks it is very deep, which just makes it all the dumber.

And this is at least a story grounded in everyday reality. Imagine what The Avengers or Wonder Woman will look like in thirty years, or even the more "mature" superhero shows on Netflix. Popular culture today takes itself just as seriously as William Peterson's bungee-jumping secret agent, and now adds brightly colored tights and Nazis from outer space. It's going to make Miami Vice look like Middlemarch.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Most Important Book of the 21st Century

Climate change is not coming. Climate change is here and it's a motherfucker.

That is the single undeniable truth at the core of Loosed Upon the World, a science fiction anthology in the best tradition of the genre. Writers from around the world exploring possible near futures on this rapidly warming world, some more optimistic than others, but all grounded in very harsh realities.

Rains are a common motif. The entry by Kim Stanley Robinson begins with a flooded Washington DC, punctuated by a light political joke which doesn't keep with the overwhelming new normal of the District swallowed by the Potomac. Rain is desperately prayed for elsewhere, such as in the parched Amazon Basin of Vandana Singh's "Entanglement." We're already experiencing this reshuffling of the rainy seasons, with droughts across the hot countries while the wealthy Nor'east drowns.

Smog makes an appearance too, especially in stories by Chinese authors. Sci-fi is a growing thing in Chinese lit, from Cixin Liu's space opera to Ken Liu's silkpunk (no relation), but "The Smog Society" by Chen Qiufan is as much about the alienation of modern cities. A toxic atmosphere, both literal and metaphorical, chokes the life and joy from everyone, depression fueling sickness in a feedback loop similar to the one increasing particulate matter and necessitating the face masks that are already so popular in China.

And then there's the plain weird and gross speculations of a future world closer to Earth's primordial era than are temperate modern world. The aptly title "That Creeping Sensation" by Alan Dean Foster postulates a world where rising carbon dioxide energizes soft plant matter - like kudzu - causing a spike in the oxygen percentage in the air. We only breath about 20% of the stuff now, more being both flammable and discombobulating. And it makes insects grow larger. Foster's post ice cap world doesn't just feature wildfires and humidity, but footlong wasps and dog-sized cockroaches - all desperately culled by an elite US Army exterminator division. It's a losing battle, though, especially as the ants - already organized - get big enough to start making plans...

Gross-out shock stories like this are good fun - and drive home the horror of global warming far better than rising sea levels - but let's return to Singh's "Entanglement." It goes well beyond the dried Amazon, looking in on an arctic researcher and a Texas widow-turned-activist, among many others. All united in a mission to make the world more livable for one another and future generations. Of all the stories here, it best contextualizes the global nature of global warming by presenting a global response. Not the technocratic geo-engineering of Robinson and other hard SF guys - and yeah, that's always guys - but through an international solidarity that puts every socialist movement to shame. More than a vision of the future, Singh's single work of fiction provides a blueprint for facing down the biggest existential threat to human civilization.

And there's so much more here. Not since the most pessimistic fiction of the Cold War has fiction been so close to fact. And so necessary.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Brief Adventure of Bodo

The air always felt like so much cold water at this time of year. Especially at this time of night. Bodo, his tunic dirty and his leggings damp, trudged through the once familiar woods on the way to the little cottage he'd shared with his family on the mense. He'd carried a heavy stick for protection halfway from Courbevoie, but had to let it go as his shoulder ached with every step.

Things just kept getting harder every day. Ever since the Plague drove them all from their homes, claiming both prince and pauper, the clergy and the laity, the old and the young and all those in-between. The Church blamed it on miasma and lack of piety while Bodo's neighbors - the few who still lived - claimed it heralded the End of Days. The timing was right, for did not the Savior himself say He would return after a thousand years?

Would that he hurried along, Bodo thought blasphemously to himself. For every day since their flight, he'd been needed in the fields along with all the other surviving men. His back couldn't take it anymore! He'd grown too used to Gerbert, his eldest son, doing the hardest plowing while he worked in the Abbé's house repairing shoes. But the Plague took Gerbert and so many others. Only Bodo remained to care for little Wido and Hildegard and he wouldn't be able to much longer...

Read the whole thing at Blood Moon Rising Magazine!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Dreams Reoccurring

All of this has happened before.

That's what I think when I read the news. The protests, the executive orders, the apocalyptic rhetoric from every corner - all of it happened a decade ago, as the Bush II presidency charged into one military failure after another. And then the hosing market dropped dead.

In between the Women's March and the Department of Homeland Security taking Muslims' side for a change, the Trump administration has been taking a slash and burn approach to Wall Street regulations. There's been about as much resistance from liberals as when Obama extended the bailouts, which is less surprising the more you think about it. These same liberals rallied around Hillary Clinton last year, the Senator from Goldman Sachs. More than eight years on and the loyal opposition still can't think in terms of wealth, labor, and real power because those concepts are alien to their experience.

I spend a lot of time in the sort of New York City neighborhoods that voted Clinton. Not just in November but in the primary that was closed off to churlish independents like me. None of them are hurting like the people I saw in Albermarle County in 2005 to 2007 - the good years of the Bush recovery. They're hurting in other ways, grandly affluent ways, but no one is losing their heart meds because an insurance company revised its fine print. Not even if Obamacare gets repealed - and increasingly unlikely prospect - as they were too well off to need it in the first place.

You see these urban liberals and you understand the disdain of the heartland rubes. Neurotic and overcaffeinated, but affecting a patrician concern for the "less fortunate" who don't do internships or grad school. If you've met enough people with masters degrees you know its no indication of intelligence. It is an indication, however, of social and economic status, something that grows more rigid and stratified with every passing year.

That's one thing you know Trump isn't going to change. The poor aren't real to him, except as adoring suckers at his campaign rallies. And they're not real to Democrats either, except for when they need a scapegoat for their own electoral failures. Something we all saw already when they rode to the rescue in the 2006 mid-terms on an anti-war ticket and proceeded to fund the Iraq War through Obama's first term.

All of this will happen again.