Dystopia Archive

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Fighting Words – Episode 4 – Neuromancer

Gather around, humans and extraterrestrial refugees, alike, the fourth episode of Fighting Words is upon you.

In this week’s edition of the fastest podcast on the internet, I share a few thoughts on William Gibson’s seminal novel, Neuromancer. Said musing is not particularly flattering toward the book. I mean, the show is called Fighting Words, so it wouldn’t be much of an episode if I spent three minutes telling you how much I love Neuromancer. If that’s what you want, then I recommend you tune into one of the podcasts I run in an alternate universe; it’s called, Make Love Not Derp.

That is one freaky alternate universe. Can you imagine? Me being happy and full of good cheer on matters of popular culture? What a nightmare. I imagine it would look something like this.

 

That’s just about enough of that.

Here’s the audio.

Music Credits

“Pump Sting” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


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Catching Fire: A Shaftoe Rant

I like to think that my ability to suspend disbelief is healthy and robust. So long as a author/director/showrunner isn’t completely clumsy in their work, I’ll climb on board with almost anything. Only one thing taxes my ability to ignore fallacies and liberty taking: stupidity. The moment a story treads into the realm of stupidity, a word which I’m going to use as a catch-all embodying a lack of research, deus ex hand waving, and narrative dishonesty, I start mentally checking out. Which brings me to the subject of today’s rant, Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire.

Even though I haven’t quite finished Catching Fire, I could make a pretty strong case against this novel. The pacing is terrible. The protagonist is as utterly unlikable. The plot and dominant themes are inferior to and derivative of Stephen King and Koshun Takami. Yet I could forgive all of those things on the grounds that Catching Fire and the entire Hunger Games trilogy are aimed at a teenage audience and I’m a miserable bastard of a 32 year old. Then I came upon a chapter where Peta, a character who might as well ride around on a white horse in a shiny suit of armour, walks into a force field and dies.

Huzzah, I thought to myself. Collins is finally doing something dangerous. She’s making like George Martin and capriciously killing off a main character. My joy was short lived when another gladiator began performing CPR upon Peta’s lifeless corpse. Thus is Peta brought back to life. Please to note that when Katniss checks Peta’s pulse, she finds him absent vital signs. He’s not a little dead. He’s not mostly dead. He’s functionally dead. He is t-minus five minutes from irreparable brain damage and t-minus ten minutes from full on brain death. There is only one thing, no matter in which post-Roman dystopia a story is set, that will resuscitate a person in Peta’s condition: an electrical charge.

CPR is a stall. It’s a thing that you do to a person to keep their brain oxygenated until such time as a defibrillator can shock the heart back to life. No defibrillator, no resuscitation, end of line.

But Adam, I once heard from my company’s designated first aid person that CPR could restart a person’s heart.

Let me stop you right there and refer you back to my previous statement, this time in bold and with swears. No defibrillator, no resuscitation, end of fucking line. Finnick had a better chance of restarting Peta’s heart by throwing him into the killer force field a second time.

Now at this point you might accuse me of being needlessly pedantic over a tiny and otherwise unimportant detail. Fine, maybe I am, except for two things.

Thing one – When Collins was writing Catching Fire all she had to do was Google “Can CPR restart a heart?” to learn that it can’t. Even if she embraces the Baywatch approach to treating cardiac arrest as de rigueur, it’s hard to believe that nobody on Scholastic’s editorial team caught the mistake. Stupidity. J’accuse.

Thing two – Collins and/or the editors did catch the mistake. Rather than fixing it she/they simply said, “fuck it, they’re kids, they don’t know any better.” and left the novel as is.

It’s been a while since I was a teenager, but back then I knew that Baywatch got CPR wrong – as did every other kid who took swimming lessons, as did all of the dozens of teenagers I trained to be lifeguards when I was in university. So fine, maybe I’m being fussy, but that doesn’t change the fact that the author/editor are either completely ignorant of basic physiology or intentionally sneering at their target demographics’ ability to pick up on fine details.

While I had my issues with The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, those criticisms never entered an area where I saw fundamental stupidity at work within the text. When Peta, against all reason and sense, didn’t stay dead, my suspension of disbelief toward Collins’ world took his place on the reaper’s list. If the author and/or her editors aren’t going to the effort of making sure the novel nails the details in a scene which otherwise alters the trajectory of the plot, why should I, as a reader, bother taking the novel seriously?


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Nuke the Dome and Bring on Ben Richards

To date, I have watched every painful episode of Under the Dome. Who knew the “bottle episode” could be stretched out into an entire series? Furthermore, I have no idea how this series has managed to sell a great many people on the idea that maudlin human drama is a suitable substitute for meaningful conflict. I mean, did anybody actually think that the bomb was going to so much as scrape a single knee in Chester’s Mill?

In lieu of flogging the already dead “adapting this series was a mistake” horse, I’m going to offer a better idea. Next summer the powers that be should adapt The Running Man into a 13 episode summer mini-series.

Despite what the movie of the same name might lead a person to believe, The Running Man is probably Stephen King’s most prescient novel. Almost every part of the original manuscript would resonate with a modern audience. Even a semi-skilled screenwriter and showrunner could adapt TRM into an Emmy worthy project.

King’s dystopian vision of America hinges upon a divide between rich and poor so pronounced that the two socio-economic groups have their own currency. To have even a few New Dollars in the slums of America is to leverage a significant amount of material wealth. In the wake of Detroit filing for bankruptcy protection, I think reality has paved the way for the story’s conceptual framework

Then there’s Ben Richards, the eponymous running man. Richards has the perfect story for television. He’s a family man living in the slums of Co-Op City. After knocking up and marrying his teenage girlfriend, Richards drops out of school to began working in a factory. Despite quick wits a quicker temper leads to a fist fight with his boss. The black mark disqualifies Richards from all but the most menial and dangerous labour. So when Ben’s daughter gets sick and his wife takes to prostitution to afford a doctor, Richards goes to “The Network” to submit himself for consideration in “The Games.”

The sadistic game shows are much more than just cheap entertainment for the masses. They’re also a means of social control. Oh, by the way, it’s at this point that Suzanne Collins can doff her hat to King. Despite Richards’ bad attitude and lack of education, he proves to be something of a radical sprit – the kind of person who might, one day, make trouble for the established order. This fact qualifies him for prime time’s hottest game show, The Running Man.

The premise of the game itself is a potential gold mine for a producer apt to find cities whose cups runneth over with tax credits. Branded a fugitive, Richards must survive in America for 30 days. The novel sees Richards running across the Eastern seaboard. Why not take some creative liberties and have Richards run to Atlanta for some sweet Georgia tax credits?

Of course the fun doesn’t stop there. The Running Man is the embodiment of social media gone wrong. Remember when in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing the whole city got locked down and everybody became a social media vigilante? Recall how innocent people had their name and reputation smeared when twits on twitter circulated misinformation, and the legitimate media legitimized the nonsense? All of that mob mentality in a non-real space is a part of The Running Man’s experience. In the novel, a confirmed Ben Richards sighting earned spectators 100 New Dollars. A tip leading to Richards’ capture or death was worth 1000 New Dollars. Imagine how much smart phone product placement could be naturally worked into this series without breaking the story. Update TRM’s audience interaction so that a still picture of Richards is worth X, but a youtube clip is worth Y and it easily interfaces with modern technology. What’s more, the commentary on digital culture practically writes itself.

But where’s the conflict? What is there to carry the story from week to week? First and foremost there is Richards’ survival. For playing The Running Man, Richards earns 100 New Dollars every hour he eludes the Network’s Hunters. If he runs for the whole month, he earns a pardon and one billion New Dollars. A few callbacks to a tricking wife and sick kid should be enough to keep hope at the core of this story, at least out of the gate. But there’s another rule to the game. For every law enforcement officer a Runner kills, he earns 100 New Dollars. While Richards is far from possessing a murderer’s personality, thus keeping him accessible to the audience, he does make a few necessary kills along the way. Insert inner turmoil and “ends versus means” rationalizations. Also, Richards’ cop kills morphs the spectacle of a game show into an outlet for future America’s collective anger.

This outrage, in addition to the fact that the Network’s audience is brain addled by a near-Orwellian ubiquity of television, brings us to the final layer of The Running Man’s story. Every corporate entity in the novel is born out of a liberal mind’s worst Reaganomic nightmares. Think OCP from Robocop, only worse. Richard’s flight from the law reveals a world on the verge of environmental collapse at the hands of the established order. The best/worst part therein is that the problems, mostly pollution related, could be fixed at any time. Instead, the corporations choose to ignore long-term issues in lieu of maximizing short-term profits. Meanwhile, the people on the wrong side of the economic tracks are too poor to do anything but survive from day to day. Those with the money and means to affect change spend their lives watching TV and getting stoned out of their respective trees. But a Runner, possibly the best Runner ever, is positioned to make a change with the world watching his every move.

But Adam, there’s no room in this would-be series for an obligatory strong female character.

Fine. Ben Richards is now Betty Richards. And with the stroke of a pen The Running Man is the most progressive show on television. Betty Richards, unwilling to watch her husband sell himself to buy antibiotics for their kid, goes down to the Network and becomes a contestant on The Running Man. I can already see Dan Killian, the African American president of the Network in the novel, tenting his fingers at the thought of bringing in a female Runner for sweeps week. Did I say an Emmy for TRM? I meant Peabody.

Despite the giant steaming dump Arine’s movie took on The Running Man’s name, the 80’s schlock came nowhere near the novel’s core ideas. Over the last few decades, these themes have only grown more apt to work within the existing technological and ideological framework of our world. Six seasons of Mantracker should be more than enough proof to show that a “reality” series about people being hunted makes good television. Now all we need is a production company that is willing mobilize the inherent fiction of reality TV into telling a scripted story.


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Trailer Breakdown: The Purge

A few nights back I saw my first TV spot for The Purge, a near-future semi-dystopian home invasion thriller from sophomore director James DeMonaco. For your viewing pleasure, here’s the feature trailer.

 

My initial reaction came along the lines of, “is this an adaptation of some Stephen King novel/short story?” For those who don’t know why I would ask such a thing, a few months ago I found out that apparently everybody in the world except for me knew that King wrote The Running Man. Since there is something of a lowbrow King-meets-Atwood vibe coming off the trailer, I thought it best to double check. A quick IMDB search proves that The Purge is both written and directed by DeMonaco.

With that settled I found myself having a hard time suppressing my rage at the creative bankruptcy which this movie would seem to employ in its ruthless appropriation of Star Trek TOS’ Return of the Archons. Therein Kirk et al beam down to an ideal human society freed from violence and crime, except for during a twelve hour “festival.” During the festival, assault, arson, (implied) rape, and murder are just some of the events a visitor to planet Beta 3 can look forward to enjoying. So congratu-fucking-lations, Hollywood. All this movie needs is a super computer running society and your journey to the dark side will be complete.

Okay, deep breaths, Adam. Deep breaths.

In tone, the trailer’s first twenty-five seconds seem intriguing. The world goes from our contemporary mess to some waspy-suburban paradise. Seriously, where are the black people?

We then flash to the big reveal; this American utopia is only possible through an annual night of no-rules. Ethan Hawke then spells it out for us, just in case we couldn’t figure out what was happening from the title cards and the surveillance camera footage. I think somebody needs to go back to first year creative writing class and learn why showing is better than telling. Also, the kid’s name is Johnny? My god these people are white.

Moving on, Lena Headey reminds her children, who are obviously going to screw things up, that the Purge is a good thing. Once again, we’re telling rather than showing. Save for the armour plating over the doors and windows, the Purge begins to look like any other Tuesday night until…a black guy shows up. You’ve got to be kidding me. This is where it’s going? I hope there’s some really good subtext to back this up.

Rather than ignoring his pleas for sanctuary, Johnny McWasperton lets the black guy into the suburban fortress. An angry mob of white folk then show up and demand the McWaspertons surrender their house guest. Conflict: established.

Cut to: creepy people in masks and Lena Headey asking the oh-so-pointless question of “They can’t get into our home?”

Well of course they are going to get in. Mark the time at 1:53 when my hope for a clever story on social engineering died. Out of the ashes of my shattered expectations rises a much more basic haunted house/survival horror story. This is a shame.

The trailer leaves me thinking that The Purge will probably end up a pretentious and self-serious affair, which constantly has Hawke and Headey wringing their hands over giving the black guy to the mob. One of them will be in favour of it, the other won’t trust the mob not to kill everybody – despite talking about the “target of the purge” –  and the kids will spend their screen time echoing the audience’s preconceived outrage at the inherent barbarism of the Purge. Remember, kids are innocent things incapable of visiting horrors upon anybody. Except then the daughter will do something horrible, like try to shoot the black guy, because that’s just how these things go in crappy horror movies.

I know Headey and Hawke will give their roles the old college try, but I doubt they will be able to do much to salvage this story. Since the trailer builds to a crescendo of slashing, stabbing, shooting, running, and shakey-cam I don’t think it is inappropriate to assume the focus will ultimately land on these and other tropes of a thirty-year-old cinematic/narrative gimmick.

There is certainly manoeuvring room for The Purge to be a smart, capital-H, Horror movie. Yet pulling off such a switch would necessitate the screenplay echoing the sentiments of my friend Matt Moore, who just happens to be a noted SF and Horror writer. On Horror, Matt has often said that it is an inherently moral genre. Some parts of this trailer make me think The Purge could very well be a story driven on morality. Delivering on those flashes would require abandoning the standard slasher go-to move of alternating tension with yelling “boogie boogie boogie” at the audience in lieu of a more cerebral conflict.

The Purge opens in theatres on June 7th. Expect a review, or maybe a podcast, from me shorty thereafter.


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Book Review: The Anthology of European SF

In the introduction to the Anthology of European SF, editors Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes outline their intention to use an exploration of European identity as the framework for an anthology of science fiction. Specifically, they assert that “Europe has a political union and a common market, but not a cultural common market or a publishing common market.” As a result, the editors are keen to showcase this collection as a means of mobilizing Europe’s native talent for a European audience while also bringing it to the world at large.

As a result the Anthology of European SF is rather broad in its approach to the genre. For example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Dead Orchards opens the book with a story that lands at the intersection of fantasy, post-apocalyptic story-telling, and horror. Jetse de Vries’ Transcendent Express stands out as classic “hard” SF, and is perhaps one of the best stories of the anthology for the effort. There’s even a bit of Lovecraftian horror, in both style and form, from Liviu Radu’s Digits Are Cold, Numbers Are Warm. Even without the safety net of an explicit theme or trope to hold the anthology together, a great many of these stories are strong enough to stand on their own. Generally those tales which fall short of the mark do so in terms of failing to present a measurable conflict; the strength of their prose is undeniable, but from my point of view a story must do more than build a world and end on a note of introspection.

Honour Roll

Starsong by Aliette de Bodard

As a rule, I tend to avoid recognizing reprints in this section of my anthology reviews. I think I better serve my readers by highlighting new works of fiction, rather than dwelling on stories which have already received an initial publication credit, and likely critical praise, outside of the anthology. I’m happily breaking this rule for Starsong.

The first few hundred words of Starsong almost put me off the story. The prose is elegant but somewhat difficult to parse. Further adding to the story’s opaque nature is a structure which shifts between ethereal and temporal narratives. Whatever confusion I initially felt, however, was put aside as the two layers effortlessly folded into each other. By the end of my first read through, I couldn’t believe I had even considered writing off the write-off. Mea culpa.

Starsong grounds its inner/outer universe dialogues in terms of a double story about humanity’s relationship to technology and its relationship to itself. It does so through focusing on a young woman’s marginalization from society at large. While this motif is nothing new within science fiction, Starsong pulls at the threads of this vast tapestry in a very compelling way. Ideas of racism and alienation are teased as to make the reader wonder if the “other” is indeed a literal alien. This was the hook for me. The finisher was when the story made me wonder why I thought the former question was somehow a relevant distinction.

For its ability to blend contemporary issues of racism, race loyalty, and xenophobia within a far-future human civilization, Starsong is not a story to be missed.

Repeat Performances by Carmelo Rafala

It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a story which is so much bigger than the few thousand words it comprises. Using near-future Mexico as a setting, Repeat Performances invokes elements of Latin American culture as a base for the story’s extended metaphors – FYI: de Bodard’s story does the same thing. How interesting that this part of the world prove such a fertile ground for European storytelling.

The conflict at hand is driven by an attempt to reclaim agency and reunite family within a world of exploitative flesh traders and post-humans who have symbiotic relationships with alien parasites. I believe this to be something of an intentional commentary in that all of the story’s post-humans are all children who have willingly embraced having their bodies changed at the hands of an extraterrestrial McGuffin. Where children are curious enough to forfeit part of their humanity to become something else, the adults only seem capable of recognizing an opportunity to appropriate something for their own ends.

Though this was my first exposure to Rafala’s writing, I think I would gladly read a novel set within this world.

News from a Dwarf Universe by Dănuţ Ungureanu

A very simple concept drives News from a Dwarf Universe: that of a machine capable of shrinking anything and then returning said object to its original size. Using a documentarian’s voice, Ungureanu shows how this technology could usher in a golden age for humanity, at least until a significant percentage of the population gets stuck in their shrunk down state. In that light, it is hard not to look at this story as a parable on the dangers of becoming dependent upon a technology which is not fully understood.

Beyond that, this piece is commendable for its efficiency in storytelling. It’s one thing to read a work of fiction where the author says “what if” with a new piece of technology. Witnessing Ungureanu introduce said technology only to remove it, and in turn showing the ways in which this upsets the apple cart, all while working within the confines of short fiction is no small (no pun intended) achievement.

While News from a Dwarf Universe is something of a lesson in hubris, it’s also an optimistic, if cautionary, tale on a sustainable lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

If the goals of this anthology were to A) expose readers to quality content from the European science fiction community and B) promote ISF Magazine and Europa SF at large, then I would say mission accomplished. The majority of the stories in this anthology are quite good, and a few are absolutely great. Those that failed to deliver, for me at least, did so because actual story proved secondary to style, remarkable as the latter may have been. Overall, the Anthology of European SF is a solid read and a promise of great things to come from its editors and parent publisher.

The Anthology of European SF

Edited by Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes

Published by ISF Magazine and Europa SF


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Book Review: First Impressions of Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds, an anthology of dystopian short fiction edited by John Joseph Adams, came my way via Netgalley. I knew I wanted to review this collection when I saw the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, and Kim Stanley Robinson, just to name a few, in the book’s table of contents. When the review copy landed in my inbox, it proved to be something unexpected. Rather than a complete anthology, Netgalley sent me the additions included in the book’s second edition: three new short stories and a few essays.

Ah well, better than nothing.

Even on their own, these three stories work quite well as explorations of dystopian themes. As ambassadors for the larger anthology, the works of Robert Reed, Jennifer Pelland, and Ken Liu demonstrate a sound understanding of what the sub-genre owes to past writers while simultaneously examining the innocuous but potentially dystopian elements of our own contemporary world.

For want of a full anthology to review, I thought it would be fun to drill down on the stories at my disposal.

The Cull by Robert Reed

Reed approaches the dystopia through the lens of a small colony of humans who have survived the collapse of civilization. While there is still some life left on the Earth, it endures in a handful of self-contained enclaves. Thought control and social engineering contribute to most of the story’s dystopian themes. The central conflict itself speaks to the more specific issue of managing exceptional people in a controlled environment.

Orlando, one of the story’s two central characters, is equal parts bully and genius. He believes himself to be special while living within a community which necessitates an enforced egalitarianism as a means of survival. As readers we’re left to wonder if genius is capable of elevating a small community, or if such natural talent is inherently destructive for its tendency to raise the individual above society?

Personal Jesus by Jennifer Pelland

Personal Jesus is an exposition on American theocracy. Set in the near-future, the story reads as an informational brochure for new arrivals into the Ecumenical States of America. Within this devoutly protestant nation, citizens are expected to wear a “personal Jesus,” which monitors their actions for any indications of sin. The device and the state it represents are couched within the language of loving correction, but ultimately they create a national panopticon, complete with all the Orwellian trappings of anonymous informers, thought control, and forfeiture of self to a greater power.

The story evokes memories of Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and even some elements of Frank Miller’s “Martha Washington” series of graphic novels. Fascinating as the story is from a thematic point of view, Personal Jesus leaves any immediate plot or conflict as a purely sub-textual element. I would be quite surprised to find out this piece isn’t a Rosetta Stone to a larger work.

The Perfect Match by Ken Liu

Liu plays the allegory very close to the surface in his tale of technological ubiquity. In fact, I was quite leery of this story when protagonist Sai talks to an AI named “Tilly”, who acts as a combination of personal assistant and life coach, and subsequently chides his neighbour for the technophobia she directs against search engine turned tech giant Centillion. Yet the narrative, through a few twists and turns, proves wholly satisfying. Equally interesting is the The Perfect Match’s discussion on the digital age turning humans into Cyborgs, after the fashion of Donna Haraway.

The most compelling question is found when Centillion’s CEO asks Sai what he expects to find in an off-the-grid world where privacy is “protected.” Amid real world discussions on Facebook and Google mining personal information, it seems apropos for Liu to examine the endgame from both perspectives. How do we reconcile a desire, perhaps even a need, to be connected with privacy as an abstract concept? The Perfect Match does not attempt to answer these questions outright. Instead it positions itself as a think piece, challenging readers to consider technological integration, and its market impact, as an imperfect solution for an imperfect species. Is a Google crafted infosphere not a better thing than some Hobbesian state of nature? Is the self-same data aggregator a gilded cage, or a study in practical post-industrial efficiency?

Verdict

With only these stories as a sample of the entire anthology, I’m quite confident Brave New Worlds would appeal to readers with even a passing interest in exploring dystopian themes.

Brave New Words

Edited by: John Joseph Adams

Published by: Night Shade Books


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A Week With Daily Science Fiction

I’ve been an on-again off-again reader of Daily Science Fiction for the last year or so. While I have always appreciated their offerings, I only recently signed up for their story-a-day subscription service. After enjoying two weeks worth of stories mixed in with my morning coffee, I’m left wondering why I waited so long to subscribe. Even when a DSF story fails to resonate with me as a reader, the critic in me finds it impossible to dismiss the quality of the prose, not to mention the editorial variety that founders/publishers/editors Michelle-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden offer on a day-to-day basis.

In that light, I thought I would hide from my ever growing TBR pile and review a week’s worth of DSF short stories.

Image via: jflaxman on DeviantArt

For the People by Ronald D. Ferguson

For the People is a near-future politically themed dystopia, likely representing the worst nightmares of American Tea Partiers and their ilk. The story struck me as a combination of something drawn from Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 cycle paired with a splash of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid “Patriotmythos.

It’s particularly interesting to see how this story explores the line between domestic terrorists and freedom fighters. While hardly a new discussion, Ferguson’s story is quite striking in its attempt to portray the terrorist as a powerless pawn in a larger game. Moreover, elements of horror manage to add an unexpected level of humanity to the main character. Though I anticipated the ending, I don’t think the author is making any serious attempt to dissemble on his denouement. The delivery is strong, the prose is evocative, and the underlying subtext on the dysfunctional elements of American government is not lost on this reader.

The Needs of Hollow Men by K.A. Rundell

Among the five stories within this particular week of DSF content, The Needs of Hollow Men is my choice for first among equals. From the title I had a horrible vision of a story about invisible people. Instead, the text presents itself as a grimy story of individual agency subjected to the good of a city-state amid a period of social decay.

Perhaps the strongest element of this story is its treatment of the psychic trope. Therein an empathic detective takes emotional suppressants as a means of amplifying the residual psychic footprints left on objects and people. The greatest crime the noir narration expounds upon, however, is not rape or murder, but two empathic individuals sharing an emotionally charged memory. It is certainly common enough to see science fiction mobilizing gifted individuals as resources, but the balance between pathos and logos is rarely so evenly struck as it is within this story. Pair this structural strength with the image of the broken down cop who has seen too much and it amounts to a truly compelling narrative.

My kudos to K.A. Rundell.

A Hairy Predicament by Melissa Mead

One of the benefits to a review project such as this is its ability to force me out of my critical comfort zone. Thus A Hairy Predicament is not something I would have read on my own. Yet it is impossible to ignore the inherent cleverness contained within this piece of writing.

The story combines the Brothers Grimm tales of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk, examining the logical aftermath of both stories. In doing so, Mead is able to turn these tired staples of storytelling into something new. With relatively few words she adds a significant amount of depth to what would otherwise be cookie cutter character archetypes. Nobody quite lives happily ever after in this piece, but the application of modern social responsibility to classic, and often grotesque, stories meant to scare children works quite nicely.

Maps by Beth Cato

There’s a definite “real” world setting to the history of a woman who, through some supernatural power, keeps drawing maps indicating the significant life events of loved ones. Yet the story is set within a world where social workers and professional magi exist hand-in-hand. As a result, framing this story became something of a puzzle; is it new age mysticism or outright urban magic? Mayhap I should just call it slipstream and move on.

Since the protagonist, Christina, is something of a self-aware Cassandra, the narrative focuses on her self-imposed isolation from society at large. Naturally it’s hard not to feel some level of sympathy for the character. I initially read Christina’s self-mutilation as an attempt to mobilize body horror for shock value. Upon further thought, I think there’s some merit in seeing her self-harm as an allusion, if not an outright commentary, on society’s perceptions of those struggling with mental health issues.

My only point of contention with this story rests in its ending. The end is both sudden and jarring, leaving me unsure what to take from it. The story flows through Christina’s life, steadily building toward an act which will free her from foreknowledge. Once that act happens, her existence is left somewhat overly ambiguous. Can she actually live without the lifelong companionship of her maps? Or is one act of freedom going to lead to the ultimate act of freedom?

Five Minutes by Conor Powers-Smith

After reading this story I immediately thought, “This is what that Next movie should have been like.” The film, which drew a loose inspiration from PKD’s The Golden Boy, dealt with a con man who could see two minutes into the future. Five minutes’ protagonist more than doubles the abilities of Dick’s character.

Though five minutes of foresight is by no means a marginal thing, the story itself is a study into mediocrity. The protagonist doesn’t even rate a name; he is simply referred to as “the man” throughout the story, and he’s a Mets fan to top it all off (at least he’s not a Cubs fan). His heroism is a variation of the limited sort demonstrated in Greek myth when Jason carries Hera across a river. But where Jason went on to form the Hellenic Justice League, the man only catalyzes events within an appropriately small scope. We could then best view Five Minutes as a working man’s super hero story. There’s none of the perpetual handwringing of Spider-Man, but it also eschews the fetishes and god complexes of Watchmen. The man, like any normal, non-prescient person, seeks to find a purpose for himself, independent of his particular powers. In that, he is an endearing character in a story which presents a positive outlook for humanity.

Wrap-up

Two dystopias, two stories of ESP, and one twisted fairy tale amounts to a good week of reading. I look forward to seeing what Daily Science Fiction offers up in the future. Also, at the time of this post, all of these stories are available to read, for free, on the DSF website.


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Podcast Episode 22: Chatting With the Job Hunters

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe, Forest Gibson, Kristina Horner, and Tara Theoharis.

Topics under discussion include:

-   A primer on Job Hunters.

-   Dystopian, roommate, comedy…How? Why?

-   Working in web media.

-   Unicorns.

-   Expert techniques in starship command and Chatroulette

My thanks again to Forest, Kristina, and Tara for taking the time to come and talk to me.

Make sure to check out the first episode Job Hunters below.

Head over to http://www.watchjobhunters.com/ for news and updates about the series.

 

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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Web Series Review: Job Hunters

I was immediately sceptical when I first read the press release for Job Hunters. How often does a person see the words “dystopian roommate comedy” within the same sentence? By its very nature, the dystopia is not something that lends itself to comedy. Nonetheless, I watched the first episode on the day the series premiered on youtube. After eight minutes and forty-five seconds, Job Hunters had demonstrated two things: a brilliant taste for black humour and bang for the buck production values that put traditional television to shame.

For the record, I gave Job Hunters another four episodes before putting pen to paper on this review.

The premise of the series capitalizes on popular culture’s current fixation on young adult death matches while keeping a healthy distance from other established properties. The setup is straight forward: as a means of population control and social engineering, college graduates report for mandatory arena combat. Within the arena, the grads spend the work day battling each other to the death as a means of showing off their talent to potential recruiters. Their off hours are spent in a safe house where the majority of the series finds its focus. Therein newcomers Devon (Forest Gibson), Avery (Kristina Horner), and Paige (Meagan Naser) form a co-existence pact with arena veterans Max (Joe Homes) and Tiffany (Tara Theoharis). But with an 80% mortality rate, the arena is a dangerous place to make friends.

First question: if this is what happens to college grads, what’s life like for the people who don’t get into a university? Do high school drop outs become Soylent Green?

Initially, I thought that the series might be trying too hard to be all things to all people. Upon further consideration, I’m content to chalk this feeling up to a side effect of pairing something as mainstream as comedy with a sub-genre as specific as near-future dystopia. What emerges, despite the “roommate comedy” branding is a comedic sensibility that is often very dry and very black. Think along the lines of Episodes with a dash of Community’s paint ball oeuvre thrown into the mix. The comedy can often be subtle, but so are the dystopian elements.

There’s also a soft spoken, but decidedly intense, dedication to professionalism within the production of Job Hunters. The post production effects are subtle but add a Mass Effect inspired aesthetic to the gadgets of this near future. The interior of the safe house, as well as the location shots for the arena, are stunning. In addition to the primary cast, there is a venerable army of extras adding to the “this isn’t your average web series” vibe that permeates the production. The music which accompanies key scenes could be mistaken for the work of Bear McCreary or Clint Mansell. And did I mention that each episode is nearly ten minutes long? With the first season funded entirely via kickstarter, and probably no shortage of sweat equity, I can only imagine what wonders the producers would be capable of with a grander budget.

Granted, there is the odd bit of acting ends up chewing the scenery rather than conveying an expected emotion. The character of Doctor Monroe stands out in my mind on that point; the actor in question could have made an at-his-prime Paul Darrow blush. Yet these minor imperfections never amount to much. Instead, the story has kept my focus on the complicated relationship between a group of characters who, in all but one case, refuse to acknowledge that they are going to likely end up killing each other…for a job offer.

And that sense of polite yet high stakes competition speaks to where I think is Job Hunters is going to find its core audience. Consider the series as a metaphor for anybody who graduated university within the last ten years only to find the job market saying “Nah, we’re going to go with somebody older/more experienced/better connected.” Friends quickly turn into rivals when competing for work in a shifting economy. Cognitive dissonance is often the only thing that keeps those relationships from devolving into outright hostility. If I set aside everything else that makes this web series work, the fact that it is using humour rather than a soap box to channel a generation’s anxiety about finding meaningful employment is enough make me sign up for the rest of the season and any others that follow.

Bravo to the entire Job Hunters team. I know I’ll be contributing to the kickstarter for season 2 when it comes around.

You can watch the first episode of the series below and head over to http://watchjobhunters.com/ for updates on the show and behind the scenes video.


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The Daily Shaft: Karl Schroeder and Non-Violent Resistance in The Hunger Games

Weeks ago I was wasting time on twitter when Canada’s own Karl Schroeder began a series of tweets about non-violent resistance and Suzanne Collins’ YA novel The Hunger Games. I’ve reproduced his ideas below so that we can all get on the same page.

“Hunger Games: good movie, but suffers the same flaw as the book: it does not present nonviolent resistance as a valid moral option”

“No character chooses to deliberately demonstrate a willingness to be killed rather than kill–not even Peeta”

“This removes an entire moral stance from the table, making The Hunger Games’s conversation about moral choices incomplete”

“Note especially that the value of nonviolent resistance cannot be judged by its immediate effectiveness, i.e. as a means of ‘winning’”

“Imagine Hunger Games with a tribute character who yells “I will not play your game” and then jumps off a cliff. That’s what’s missing”

“The reason it’s missing is that such an act would undermine every other moral choice in the story–actually raise uncomfortable questions”

Though I’ve yet to see The Hunger Games screen adaptation, I was captivated by Schroeder’s ideas. At no point during my own critical interaction with the text did I ever stop to think about non-violent resistance on the part of the tributes or the people of Panem’s districts. For the sake of this post, I thought I would work through the first question that I came up with upon thinking about Mr. Schroeder’s words.

What would happen if a tribute said no?

Let us assume that our would-be tribute has found the remains of some pre-cataclysm library, and is therefore intellectually and spiritually prepared to reject any role in the institution of the Hunger Games. When Reaping day comes, their name gets called. Yet our tribute is nowhere to be found. As a show of protest they decide to sleep through Reaping day.

I imagine the state’s response would be two-fold. First the Peacekeepers would track down the offending tribute. Then I expect the Capitol’s representative would begin a systematic shaming against the family of our tribute; after all it is an honour to be selected for the Games. Assuming the limited free-market economy that exists within district twelve, as seen in the novel, is endemic of all of Panem, exclusion from society could be a powerful weapon of social control. However, shame is a tricky thing. It assumes that the people instigating the shame can appeal to shared values with those evoking the shame.

Despite the fact that some critics like to draw comparisons between Collins and Orwell, Panem is not Oceania. It’s not even Rome. The people who live in the districts are not subject to systematic thought control/modification. The Capitol primarily holds its power through the apathy of the districts and its military might. In fact, if we trust Rue’s description of district eleven and Katniss’ vision of district twelve as accurate, then the vast majority of the people who live in Panem’s districts actively dislike the Capitol and President Snow, including the Peacekeepers who deal in Katniss’ black market goods. Ergo, attempts at state sanctioned shaming might have the opposite effect whereby they generate a sense of community within a district.

Things get less optimistic once the tribute is relocated to the Capitol. At that point non-violent resistance must take one of two forms, suicide or willing slaughter in the arena. An interesting question then emerges: is it still an act of non-violent resistance if a tribute steals a knife from the dining room of their quarters and cuts open their wrists in the bathroom? If death is inevitable, how much value do we put on the agency of that death? Is a conscious decision to self-terminate equal to allowing oneself to be killed?

If the Medium is the Message, make sure to control the Medium.

Remember that those in power within the Capitol are experts at manipulating the media. The message of non-violent resistance, the essential refusal to be a party to blood sports and its associated social structures, would never make it out into the districts. Be it a bedroom suicide or a tribute stepping into the active mines surrounding their entry point into the arena, the facts would get edited, spun, and managed into oblivion. This begs the question, if there’s no audience for non-violent resistance, does it still have a purpose?

From a critical and moral point of view, I can completely see what Schroeder means about not letting the discussion happen within the book. Yet questions of non-violent resistance within the world of The Hunger Games would likely turn into a discussion that rationalizes suicide. Personally, I think that would be interesting. But I wonder how many publishers would want to add that particular layer to a book that already pushes boundaries of acceptable taste in framing state sanctioned teenage death matches within the lens of faux-Orwellian dystopia.

To put it another way: how would the public respond to a young adult novel that legitimized suicide as a form of political dissidence? If you thought the Harry Potter controversies were bad, imagine Collins’ novel being framed within the context of self-immolating Buddhist monks.