Post Apocalyptic Archive

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Book Review: Seveneves

“Choose Your Own Survival” – A Review in Stages, Depending on Your Taste for Spoilers

By Rollen Lee

When it’s a book of this size (only 861 pages) by an author who habitually puts out a new work every three years, there are many different ways to want to first encounter it, let alone to discuss and review it. To explain my choice here, a little background: I remember a professor recommending Snow Crash and The Diamond Age back in 1997, though I didn’t end up picking up either until 2003. Since Quicksilver, I’ve been picking up each of his books as they came out, and even reviewed the previous book, REAMDE (2012), for the Page of Reviews then.

So I decided that I wanted to go into this book blind, knowing nothing whatsoever of it. I didn’t look for pre-release extracts, like I did with REAMDE, and I didn’t look for reviews in advance, since I knew that I’d be buying it as soon as it came out and reading it. Not even looking at the flyleaf or the front flap of the dustjacket, I plowed into the book.

For anyone looking to read the book in a similar fashion, then by all means pick it up and read it. I recommend it highly, and put it up on par with my favourites of Stephenson’s – The Diamond Age and Anathem. If you’re considering this book in this fashion, you’re likely also an ardent reader of his books, or at least of hard SF. It is thrilling, but it’s by no means a techno-MMORPG-thriller like REAMDE. It’s a work of grand sweep and depth, but it’s not as dense with philosophy and neologisms as Anathem or with philosophy and theology and history as The Baroque Cycle. It has a diverse cast of characters, but it’s not a multi-chronological rollercoaster like Cryptonomicon. It has many strong female characters and plenty of science and robots, but it’s very different from The Diamond Age. And there are no samurai-sword-wielding hackers like in Snow Crash. (It’s also not like Zodiac or The Big U, though some of the horror and chaos of the latter comes through in this book, though not many have bothered to read his juvenalia.) It fits in with his other books well, as a sort of lost Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel modernized and given the Stephenson finish.

If any of that appeals, then pick it up. If you’d like more information, read on. In true Stephensonian fashion, there’s lots to consider.

AFTER HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST HUNDRED PAGES OR SO, THOUGH NO WORSE THAN ON THE FRONT FLAP OF THE DUST JACKET

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

In Seveneves, Stephenson opens with this arresting sentence. He proceeds to explore the end of the world as we know it. You can, however, feel somewhat fine because he’s given humanity about two years to prepare for it. He chooses not to dwell on the cause of the disaster – the earth’s moon is sundered into seven pieces by an unidentified Agent, as it’s termed in the novel. Assigning cosmic blame may be satisfying, but the task of survival at hand is more important than that search. This is perfectly reasonable, as, once the seven pieces soon become eight, multiple analyses by the scientific community demonstrate that the pieces will continue to collide, fragment, and steadily become more chaotic until they blanket the earth’s sky and then become a “Hard Rain” that will persist for millennia.

For about five to ten thousand years, actually. After that there’ll be some pretty Saturn-like rings, but that’s not important right now.

Some time is given over to the change of affairs on Earth as everyone has to face up to a definite end date looming: how does schooling change in such a setting? What do people do with their lives? How will governments come together or protest the situation? What becomes of euthanasia in such a setting? None of these take up substantial page real estate, but they do suggest the issues that most people on Earth would have to endure. The primary focus of the book at the outset is with the efforts of the world to prepare for a massive space mission, dubbed “The Cloud Ark,” to try and save humanity. From every country, a certain number of candidates are to be chosen for rapid training, and all efforts are to be directed towards preparing “Arklets” to share out smaller portions of humanity clustered in space.

By the way, the setting is in the near-future: some things are different or surprising, such as a meteorite attached to the end of the International Space Station as a testing site for different drone robots for mining, or the persistence of Sears and its Craftsman tools. Facebook and Skype are still part of people’s lives, but so are throwback communication forms like telegraphy and morse code for characters like Dinah MacQuarie, the geology/robotics expert assigned to the ISS, who uses them to stay in regular contact with her father at his mine site in Alaska. Television, of course, is also still an essential part of people’s lives: favourable notice is given of a Neil deGrasse Tyson-type science personality, Doctor Dubois Harris, who briefs the American President on the impending disaster and later becomes involved in the Cloud Ark, while some incidental remarks later note that the people aboard the ISS have become reality TV figures, to the disgust of some on board.

Stephenson explores many issues in the book, as he does in any of his novels. The key issue, of course, fits in with a common theme for him over the last decade – currently, humanity has not put enough attention into expanding our exploration and presence in space, with dreams focused more on software and miniaturized personal technology rather than hard sciences and engineering that can allow humanity to achieve more. The endless argument in Stephenson’s books between the perspectives of the “technocracy” and of the politicians or social critics continues here, as well, though issues like this will be taken up later in the “greater spoiler” section. Glimpses of possibilities for nuclear energy, the resources offered in near space, the future of genetic study and research, and the costs of flexible, risk-taking space exploration are all examined here, both for their positive elements and for their drawbacks. Any further exploration of themes here would start to crowd us into the realm of spoilers, though, so be warned.

The next part of this review has a spoiler from the front flap of the dust jacket – it gives away an important detail about the final third of the book, though not the resolution. (You may be able to guess the final result from reading it, though.) Trust me, if you’re happy with this level of detail in the review so far, then resolve to find the book and to either remove the dust jacket without reading it, or else put a cover over that inside flap when you sign it out from the library. (Or, I suppose, ignore the book altogether or just read the review since you don’t care anyhow.)

SIZABLE SPOILER, AND ONE I REALLY WISH I HADN’T ENCOUNTERED HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK

The result of these issues and devastations are explored five thousand years into the future, as humanity begins the gradual process of their return to the surface of the Earth. This portion covers the final third of the book. I foolishly looked over the dustjacket at a tense point about halfway through the book, and would have almost rather not known that. (I’ll get into that issue in the “greater spoilers” section. Trust me: that one is a much bigger spoiler than this is.)

Before going to that, though, I should summarize here: again, this is a very interesting and oddly inspiring book. As ever, it has many ideas explored well, several interesting characters to follow, and plenty of conflict to drive the action. It’s not yet fair to compare this to either Anathem or to The Diamond Age at this point since I’ve not read this one a half-dozen or more times yet, but it feels like it will end up closer to that level of achievement as I re-read it. It feels more substantial and essential than REAMDE did, although I did enjoy much of that book as well. At times, though, Seveneves may feel as though it shares the primary issue that I had with the previous book, in and that somewhat too much attention seems given over to “chase scenes” instead of ideas, though in Seveneves the chase is in the middle rather than at the end. One of the many quotes I treasure from Stephenson, after all, is from Snow Crash: “After that – after Hiro gets onto his motorcycle, and the New South Africans get into their all-terrain pickups, and The Enforcers get into their slick black Enforcer mobiles, and they all go screaming out onto the highway – after that it’s just a chase scene.” There’s times where the chase doesn’t need to be played out. Although it may feel like a tense chase sequence here, that’s primarily because of the high stakes and complicated technologies at play while other drama plays out back in the Cloud Ark. It’s not like the cross-country pursuit played out in the final hundred-plus pages of REAMDE.

The book feels like a thrilling chase, though, once all is in space and then once the final portion of the book moves to a close. Set-up and the doling out of information is always done judiciously, and though you may chomp at the bit as you will things to move along, wanting to know more, Stephenson blends character beats with the work of exposition effectively and well. Granted, there are portions where characters provide exposition in response to others’ explanations, though at this point with Stephenson and the genre of “hard” SF you should expect some degree of that as standard operating procedure. The exposition factor is just as notable in the future portion, which starts us with a character and adds on technology, setting, and connections to the past as needed, rather than as one long catalog of updates.

GREATER SPOILER WARNING SECTION – HEREIN THERE BE IDEAS, ISSUES, AND QUESTIONS WORTH MENTIONING OR EXPLORING BUT WHICH WILL GIVE AWAY PARTS OF THE BOOK AND PLOT

Are you sure you want this?

After all, the book’s still interesting and engaging enough without this up front before you read it.

Alright, it’s a free country and a free internet.

So: should we trust the democrats or the technocrats to save us?

In spite of all the good that governments do to build up the cloud in space, Julia Flaherty, the President of the United States, defies a global treaty banning government officials and leaders from going into space and avoiding death by escaping into orbit in a Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle, designed for maintenance of military satellites and other secretive missions. She arrives soon after the commander of the Cloud Ark declares that, with the Hard Rain falling on Earth, all people in orbit are no longer subject to the nationalities and laws of the destroyed surface. While people adjust to the new situation, the equivalent of martial law is declared.

Now, this issue can be explored in a few ways: yes, the commander moves quickly to establish order in the Cloud Ark, under the aegis of the laws prepared for the project. However, it can also be seen as a heavy-handed gesture rather than a measure to deal with future worst-case-scenarios. There is a definite divide between those in the centre of the ISS and those “Arkies” who live out in the Cloud Ark, who only dock with ISS for a tenth of their time while otherwise floating around in formation and waiting to be told where to go. The ex-POTUS goes out into the Arkie population, and very quickly works to galvanize a majority of them to set out for Mars instead, taking vital gear, resources, and expertise with them. It’s fair to concede that the population of the Cloud Ark think that they’re being neglected by the crew on the ISS, but at this same moment, the commander himself, Dinah MacQuarie, and two other experts are trying to bring in a comet that was steered to them on a suicide mission by a space mining entrepreneur. Rather than have the Arkies provide new organization or new ideas or negotiate for changes to the governance structure, the mutineers instead come off as petulant and impatient children by comparison. The President, typically, comes off as a manipulative, power-seeking dilettante without any skills to offer in space other than misguided and uninformed leadership. Now, many would make the same criticism of modern politicians in general, and I’m certainly not innocent of such statements. Most of the characters are shaded with enough strengths and weaknesses on both sides that it doesn’t prove to be too problematic overall, but to some degree the President is made out to be a straw-woman for this scenario. The argument, as usual, favours the technocrats, and the President comes in somewhere above G.E.B. Kivistik from Cryptonomicon and below Fraa Lodoghir from Anathem in the annals of non-STEM thinkers and leaders in Stephenson’s books.

Another issue: should we be more adventurous in space?

Under such a time crunch, it’s understandable that the careful testing, simulating, and reassessing of space missions and technologies would be compressed. Safety for astronauts and cosmonauts who are backed by many years of valuable training are not to be put into unacceptably risky situations, after all.  With such a limited time to prepare for millennia in space, many technologies are thrown up into orbit to be later brought together in a flexible and adaptive fashion. But the level of threats from space – small and large fragments from the moon, other space rocks, radiation, decaying orbits, among others – is daunting, and the deadline for all is spectacularly fatal.

A primary example is that of proposed efforts to capture asteroids or even comets for human use. The distances and forces involved are immense, and fraught with danger. The presence of an asteroid tethered to the ISS indicates that the ability is there, but its difficulties are made clear. Early in the first part of the book – the pre-”Hard Rain” portion – the space mining entrepreneur for whom Dinah works sneaks up into space in an experimental space tourism capsule, and is shortly followed by a private space vessel to allow him and a crew of five more to chase down a comet, break off a sizeable fragment, and steer it back to the cloud. The water in the comet, mixed with the heat from their nuclear reactor, provides enough propulsive force to bring it back towards the cloud less than two years later, but the accidents and failures lead to the reactor’s radiation – as well as those rays from space itself – producing enough damage to kill the entire crew before they can return.

A great many characters die because of space-related injuries and hardships in Seveneves. The first set of workers sent up by the Russians are not expected to even come aboard the ISS, but instead live in their suits and in onion-like air and plastic “lifeboat” bladders while they build up the exterior of the station. Only a few of these survive. For later members of the Cloud Ark and the crew of the ISS, many are wiped out by stray rocks, by accidents, and by cancers due to their proximity to nuclear and space radiation. The death toll for humanity in this book approaches Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy levels, though we come to know many more humans and victims than we did in Adams’ book (which was written for a very different purpose anyways).

Which leads to another issue: at what point does all society and humanity collapse?

(Incidentally, this was when I chanced a look at the dustjacket and discovered that the remaining 300 pages did offer something beyond the imminent collapse. I wasn’t exactly looking for reassurance of a happy ending – and, given the issues, I assumed that Stephenson wasn’t going to end the book on a note of hopelessness – but it still took the impact away somewhat.)

Cannibalism enters the picture in some of the Arklets. At first as the Mars mission fails due to blights and crop failures in their ships, a few self-cannibalize, arguing that their legs are relatively useless in zero-G. Later, several others are killed to become food. The gruesome advent of this moment occurs as the rebels against the President begin to strengthen themselves for the struggle to retake some of the ISS so that they can bargain from a position of strength. Most of the combat is with pipes and knives, or else with weightless grappling. The fight between the ISS population and the returning Martians ends with barely a dozen survivors from an initial orbiting population of nearly two thousand from a terrestrial population of over seven billion.  The survivors manage to take their ship (built out of the asteroid, the ISS, the Arklets that stayed, and the comet fragment) and successfully dock it in a larger chunk of space rock. Once there, the remaining population of men rapidly pass away from a range of maladies and injuries.

Safe at last, shielded from hazards, the remaining eight women have plenty of resources to support them, but any stored genetic material – other than digital records – were lost long before in an accident. One of the eight has gone through menopause, and so seven women remain to try and rebuild the human race. The technology, their geneticist is confident, will allow them to make enough changes to their eggs to allow them to produce a sufficiently diverse and robust population. A high-stakes debate ensues over the changes available and the likely benefits offered by depressive and bipolar personalities. This debate is pushed to a solution by an ultimatum, and is then capped with a curse by the surviving cannibal leader, who assumes that her descendants will be judged by what she had done in the name of survival. (I’ll come back to this in the next, most spoiler-intense, section.) This moment provides the title of the book, then, with “Seven Eves” who will become the mothers of a future humanity.

An aside before the big spoilers: What becomes of privacy in the future and in the Cloud Ark?

In the space vessels of this future, all your moments are recorded – unless you know how to counteract the surveillance. This is first hinted at with the reality show, but later it becomes a greater issue after the commander at the time of the Hard Rain promotes the assistant of the computer system guru to head up surveillance and systems rather than retain the original man, an obvious NSA-type whose allegiances the commander cannot trust.

Either due to this demotion or to allegiances, the President quickly prevails upon NSA-type to shut off surveillance in their Arklet while they plan for their Mars mission. He, in turn, had placed a bug in the command module of the ISS, and this sort of panopticon for those in charge gets a fair degree of mention. It’s never expressly brought up as a key theme in the first portion of the book, but it’s never elided, either. It’s treated as a fact of life in space, much as it is in this post-Snowden time – and as was fretted about in a different fashion in Cryptonomicon.

The surveillance records return in the latter portion of the book, as the files and pictures left in their computers, in their “Spacebook” and blog posts, and in the surveillance videos come to constitute “the Epic” which informs later generations of the formation of their future humanity. Scenes we have earlier read become cited episodes to inform everyday living later, or mines of information to be used by characters to control pivotal events later on. One can deplore the manipulation of these episodes by others, but one can also appreciate the endeavour to examine how history could be done in such a paperless milieu.

SPOILER ON SURVIVORS AT THE END OF THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF THE BOOK COULD BE INFERRED. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO READ THIS IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE BOOK?

On reproduction, survival, and race: to what extent is it racial profiling when these are characters who have been cloned?

The front flap, again, spoils the reader to the development of “seven distinct races now three billion strong,” so if you read that, you knew this was coming. But again, this spoils you on the survivors of the Epic, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The women who survive to reproduce are generally from the global north, or acculturated to it. The balance is more skewed towards standard “white” characters, but only 4:3.

Each woman, essentially, becomes the “Eve” of the ethnicity that grows from them. Each, to some extent, bears a race of similar properties – determined engineers and operators, thoughtful scientists and organizers, tough and disciplined operatives, wise and wily figures, determined and amplified strivers, supportive and non-combative assistants, and, finally, individuals who are genetically unsettled such that they can change in response to trauma and challenges – particularly in response to the actions of the ambitious and unsettling. These properties become more important than skin tone, though some sequences at the end do rely on pigmentation to drive the action, too.

To some extent, each may well be considered to be a caricature, or even a stereotype, by some readers. Part of this issue must be considered in light of the earlier scenes and developments that were given to each of these characters, though. A couple are given a substantial amount of page-time; most of them are given much less time than these two, though consistently present throughout; and one is given very little time before the pivotal debate, though she speaks volumes in that short scene. Given what we are shown through the first two-thirds of the book, nothing which follows with their clones is too divergent from the characterizations already developed as they focus on traits necessary for survival and expansion in space, though some may be given greater portions of heroism or villainy in the descendants we encounter. In the truncated account of the history that follows from that debate, Stephenson details various stages and phases the re-populating effort follows, with some parts more inclusive, and others more focused on building up particular “racial” characteristics over time.

Some long-time readers of his works may recall the critiques that dogged earlier novels of Stephenson, whether related to depictions and discussions of race or to the primacy and privilege of male characters over female characters. Personally, although I may have seen how some could criticize such books through that lens, I never found myself losing interest in or affection for those works, seeing them instead as novels and explorations of issues rather than definitive statements on all problems. These are works of thoughtful fiction, not social tracts, after all. Making these novels into expansive templates for social order would entail a substantial amount of extra writing. Since Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s novels have tended to reside in the neighbourhood of a thousand pages, give or take 10%, and although there are many words on the page, one doesn’t usually get the sense that he’s wasted words in his storytelling. Part of his style is a high-impact, high-use wordiness and referentiality, and although you could edit out certain asides or passages, something of the character of his phrasing would be lost in the exchange. Doing so to add in these supposedly missing statements to solve racial issues or gender representation would likely be insufficient or at odds with his usual style. To be honest, such an effort would likely lead to the application of the telling and new label of “mansplaining” to such attempts to “fix” this issue anyhow. I wonder if less literary and more “gripping yarn”-style SF is criticized for these issues as well? I suspect that there’s not the same level of expectation or attention given to them, though.

In terms of Stephenson’s intent, I believe that his level of interest and concern in people and the ideas that impact them has been steadily evolving, with focus gained without proving to be a “correction.” In terms of effect, though, Seveneves goes further in the development and presentation of these concepts. For example, in REAMDE, the strong and interesting character of Zula is somewhat too compelling for and beloved by every male character in the book, to the point where she seems close to pedestal installation at times. Here, both before and during the fight for control as the counter-mutineers return, it is noted – and made manifest as woman is tasered to keep her from returning to battle – that men are more expendable at this point, while women need to be saved so that they can restore humanity. Perhaps the argument can be made that this reduces female characters to a womb, but the stakes involved, the sacrifices made, and the dire numbers at this point in the story, the difference between Zula’s elevation and the issues in Seveneves is noteworthy.  (The situation is such that the victorious survivors don’t even eliminate some mutinous figures, as the greatest possible genetic diversity is needed at this point.) As a different example, female characters such as Nell in The Diamond Age and Eliza in The Baroque Cycle had to endure sexual degradation at various points in their novels, but such trials are absent in Seveneves. Whether the accounts of Dinah’s love life in orbit or of lesbian couples forming between different known characters count as a degradation of character or mere titillation is a question of personal taste; although the term used at times in the novel may be base Anglo-Saxon, the details of the act are generally lacking. When this is compared to the clarity of mind that the Waterhouses gain in Cryptonomicon after ejaculating – and the in-depth and hilarious detail of the senior Waterhouse conjures about the hypothetical Ejaculation Control Conspiracy which he needs make peace with if he is to advance in life – then Seveneves becomes a far more demure text.

The verdict

Even with all these issues in mind – and probably because of them – the novel is well worth your time. As a starting point for discussion of these themes and others, let alone for thoughts and questions about humanity’s destiny and place, its resiliency and its failings, or just as a gripping tale of survival and reconstruction, Seveneves is an informative and entertaining ride. I can’t wait to re-read it.


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Movie Review: The Colony

A quick Google search for The Colony reveals a movie with the dubious distinction of a 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, the sheer and unadulterated acrimony directed toward this movie gave me some pause for consideration. It’s my observation that critics love nothing more than a good pile on, especially when it comes to misunderstood diamonds in the rough. Sadly, The Colony is no such hidden gem. Rather it is an interesting example of how a movie can offer little in the way of meaningful characters, conflict, and visuals, and still manage to get made.

The set-up for this frosted failure is nothing the average genre viewer hasn’t seen better executed in other movies. For one reason or another, the Earth’s surface is wrapped in perpetual darkness and snow – also known as Winter in Southern Ontario. Laurence Fishburn leads a small colony of survivors, who have taken up residence inside a seed vault. Despite keeping hope alive, all is not well within this colony. A protracted and clumsy voice over  from Sam (Kevin Zegers), the colony’s resident guy who has sex with sexy ladies, informs the audience of a virulent strain of influenza that ravaged most of the colony’s population. The survivors of the survivors have since been turned into an ill-tempered herd of germophobes.

“Ah ha,” I thought to myself as Fishburn’s goons locked a married couple into an isolation chamber for showing signs of infection. “Clearly this is going to be a movie that probes into Foucaultian rights of the individual to decide when they are sick. On the one hand state actors will do unspeakable things in the name of the greater good. Meanwhile Fishburn’s and Zegers’ characters will champion individual rights. I am so smart for figuring this out.”

I managed a solid five minutes of feeling extraordinary smug at my ability to deduce what so many of my critical peers had obviously missed. Minute six of my victory tour saw the movie going off the rails, and with it my hope for an intelligent story. Instead of a debate on rights, I witnessed Bill Paxton’s transformation into an amalgam of every heavy handed cliché of dystopian pragmatism known to science fiction. Meanwhile, a distress call from a neighbouring enclave of survivors sees the plot switch gears into a rescue mission. Yet the transition and execution therein is so dull that I found myself thinking about the ways in which a colony sealed off from the world could randomly generate an influenza outbreak.

How would the virus stay alive on a perpetually frozen surface bereft of animals acting as a vector? If the colony has a test for the flu, and new, asymptomatic survivors are the most likely vector for infection, couldn’t they have just tested all new arrivals on their way in? And thanks to walking sequences that would put Peter Jackson to shame, I had ample time to ponder these thoughts.

Yes, I said walking sequences. Is there anything less exciting in a movie than watching the characters walk and offer small talk as bad exposition? I’ll abide that in Middle Earth, if only because there’s something visually appealing to the setting. Unfortunately, there’s no such consolation in The Colony.

When Fishburn and his intrepid duo arrive at the distressed colony, the movie shifts gears once again, paving the way for a “feral human” zombie apocalypse. It is as if the writers realized that the first half of the movie was devoid of any meaningful conflict, so they attempted to cram an entire feature’s worth of action movie tropes into the remaining forty-five minutes. With the death of Fishburn’s character signalling the end of the second act, the story confirms all of its past telegraphing of Sam as the story’s true protagonist and humanity’s only chance at salvation. Snore.

It’s quite a shame, really, since Mr. Zeger’s character offers all the charm and charisma of a half-boiled potato. Certainly Zegers is capable in his portrayal of a partly cooked tuber, but I doubt any actor could have rehabilitated the utter tedium with which Sam’s character is crafted.

The would-be hero’s return home sees an utterly unsatisfying wrap-up to the movie’s two central, but uneven, conflicts: Bill Paxton’s character being draconian ass-hat and the looming horde of feral humans, who have somehow lost the ability to speak or feel empathy but maintain the ability stage a complex siege of a fortified storage facility with nothing more than their bare hands. Apparently the apocalypse brings out the MacGuyver in everyone.

Even the third act’s action sequences are as derivative as the tropes they personify. I won’t begrudge the ambition that the movie is attempting to bring to bare in its final minutes, but the camera work is so shoddy, the fight choreography so dull amid constant cut-aways and reverse angle shots, and the stakes so utterly lost under two feet of snow that it’s hard to feel anything but relived for the end of what is otherwise a very long walk for a small drink of water.

The real tragedy of The Colony is that it didn’t have to be this way. The cast is competent enough despite the nonsense they are forced to spout. The visuals are suitably grimy and industrial as to evoke a good sense of the end of the world. But rarely is it so obvious that a movie was written by committee as in The Colony’s utterly inconsistent and unbalanced story. This attempt to homogenize the zombie outbreak and killer virus tropes into a single glass of post-apocalyptic milk is an abject failure.

The Colony

Starring: Kevin Zegers, Laurence Fishburn and Bill Paxton

Written by: Jeff Renfroe, Svet Rouskov, Patrick Tarr, and Pascal Trottier

Directed by: Jeff Renfroe


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Movie Review: Doomsday Book

Prior to getting into the movie, I wasn’t sure what to make of Doomsday Book. Now, a week after viewing it, I’m still not certain what I should take away. As a Korean language film, I know there’s a geographical and cultural subtext that is likely lost in both the subtitles and my own lack of expertise on that part of the world. On that note, I’ll ask my readers’ indulgence if I’ve missed some obvious reading contingent upon having lived in Korea.

Taken together, I’m not quite sure how the three constituent short films of this anthology fit together. I don’t see a clear meta-narrative that brings together these three very divergent approaches to the end of world. Two stories represent physical apocalypses, while the third is a more metaphysical affair. If I squint and look sideways at the movie, I suppose there’s a way to view each story as a study into the destruction of an aspect of the human condition: body, soul, and mind, respectively. But that’s stretching interpretation to the point of snapping. Despite this, the triad of end-of-days movies are quite capable, even if they don’t exactly break the mould in terms of genre story telling.

The first film, A Brave New World, is a study into the Korean zombie apocalypse. The focus is a on a gangly 20-something excluded from a family vacation. Naturally, his mother leaves him with a list of chores, which includes taking out the recycling and garbage. You’d think this would be no great inconvenience, except for the fact that the protagonist’s family are singularly the most slovenly middle-class people I have ever seen depicted on film.

There is so much rotten food and garbage strewn about his apartment that I’m surprised the family hasn’t contracted dysentery and died. This cringe worthy post-consumer horror serves to catalyze the remainder of the story. Viewers are taken through waste treatment plants wherein a mouldy apple is processed into cattle feed, which then ends up partially embedded in the steak our protagonist eats on a date with his would-be girlfriend. Thus begins a mad-cow variant of the zombie apocalypse.

Consequently, A Brave New World’s focus on how both zombies and humans are creatures driven by primal desires to feed is about as subtle as the tight shots on maggoty food and people making out. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but as a criticism on consumer culture it does get the job done.

Beyond that, the “oh my god, shit just got real” montage which takes the audience from patient zero to widespread epidemic, could be seen as a means of exploring information as a further infectious vector during a time of crisis. And had I not seen Contagion, I’m sure that idea would be blowing my mind. Now it’s just sort of par for the course. So while there’s little that is particularly innovative about this interpretation of the zombie apocalypse, it’s certainly competent and reasonably chill inducing in its photography.

The anthology’s second entry, The Heavenly Creature, is another story that is competent, but not ground breaking. Where other robots-among-us narratives explore the consequences of machines achieving sentience, this movie is concerned with an android finding spiritual enlightenment.

It’s hard to miss the Asimov inspired motifs driving a story about a service android turned Buddhist monk. The big, and possibly evil, robot manufacturer, views the RU-4 android as an affront to human supremacy on Earth. The monks, naming the machine An-myung, recognize his capacity for personhood and his potential embodiment of Buddhism’s teachings. What follows is some metaphysical talk on perception, objective reality, and the ability to self-identify as the core of consciousness. Not knowing much more about Buddism than what I’ve learned from movies and the odd book or two over the years, I’m sure there’s an entire layer to the story that I’m missing.

What is clear, however, is the movie’s outstanding ability to employ a non-human character that is capable of resonating on an emotional level. Setting aside a personal tendency to anthropomorphize machines, the puppetry and voice acting behind An-myung is genuinely stirring. Even though it’s a clunky near-future looking doll, there’s a compelling amount of soul to the character. The value for pathos, more so than the cookie cutter metaphysical conflict between man and machine, is what makes this story stand out within the collection.

Finally we come to Happy Birthday, Doomsday Book’s nod to the absurd. The story begins with a little girl throwing her father’s favourite pool ball out a window. Why pool balls? I have no idea. Maybe it’s big in Korea? When she tries to order a replacement she inadvertently logs on to an extraterrestrial version of ebay. Frantic hand waving and weak exposition attempt to explain this event, but the effort is quite sad considering the eloquent way A Brave New World charts the origins of the zombie apocalypse without saying a word. Nonetheless, the alien ebay results in an 8-ball the size of Texas hurdling toward the Earth. Following that, there’s some panic, hysteria, and one newscaster pimp slapping another on the air. Unfortunately the writing and acting lack any clear indication of if this is supposed to be Stooge-ish comedy or a cutting criticism on how crisis brings out the worst in people.

Would that there was any sort of pay off for asking the audience to suspend their disbelief to the point that they can accept an alien internet merging with our own through some convoluted take on chaos theory, this movie would be instantly better. Instead, it just feels like the product of writers who have blown all their good ideas on the anthology’s first two projects.

As anthologies go, I suppose two out of three stories getting the job does isn’t a bad track record. So while there’s nothing revolutionary to Doomsday Book, at least not for this Westerner with little-to-no knowledge of Korean culture, it’s hardly a waste of time. The first two episodes are good attempts at the go-to stories of science fiction. Even if these conflicts are somewhat Western in origin, there’s a clear uniqueness to their telling through a Korean lens. While the third movie wants for anything beyond absurdity and a cloying attempt to create sympathy for a little girl deprived of her childhood, it can be justified as a strange palate cleanser following a heavily metaphysical second act.

Doomsday Book

Written and Directed by Pil-Sung Yim and Kim Jee-Woon

Starring Yoon Se Ah, Donna Bae, and Joon-ho Bong


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Movie Review: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

On its surface, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World appears as a comical, if late to the table, reaction to the big budget apocalypse movies of the 1990s. This particular story opens with call backs to Deep Impact and Armageddon as a mission to divert an asteroid on course for Earth amounts to a spectacular failure. Humanity is thus left with three weeks before an extinction level event. The audience then witnesses Dodge Petersen’s (Steve Carell) wife abandoning him in the face of disaster. What follows is Steve Carell at his sad clown finest. Rome burns around Dodge, yet he continues to go about his life as best he can without ever really picking up a golden fiddle. This tone of stoic existentialism is likely why the movie didn’t sit well with a lot of people, as evidenced by its 55% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Seeking a Friend, for all its foibles, is probably closer to the truth of the apocalypse than most people would want to admit.

The movie suggests some people, for want of a sense of normality in their lives, will keep going to work when presented with calamity. Others will lock-on to the film’s Carpe Diem motif, auctioning off their virginity, or hiring assassins to kill them rather than looking death in the eye as it falls out of space. William Petersen of CSI acclaim voices one of the movie’s central ideas when he says, “A person should not know when their time is up. That sort of knowledge changes a person.” Nowhere do we see his notion better reflected than in the film’s first act when Steve Carell’s suburban friends turn a dinner party into a heroin fueled orgy, complete with Rob Corddry encouraging his children to power back martinis and “drink through the burn.”

The entirety of the first act is thus a necessary comic catharsis which not only leads into a buddy comedy/road trip story, but also makes the audience poke death in the eye. Well, either that or it alienates the audience entirely with its underage drinking and moral relativism in the face of impending doom. It could really go either way depending on the psychological baggage a viewer brings to the table.

Steve Carell and Keira Knightly make for an unusually effective pairing. In the past we have seen Steve Carell put into uncomfortable romantic situations with younger actresses, Anne Hathaway in Get Smart comes to mind. But the odd couple chemistry between Carell and Knightly works quite well. The relationship is combination of gradual friendship mixed with ‘devil may care’ recklessness. But because the genesis of their relationship is an act of genuine kindness on Carell’s part, the romantic attraction doesn’t seem quite so forced as it has in other Carell catastrophes.

As the movie enters its third act the laughter is all but gone. The comedy of the first act, which told viewers “Hey it’s okay to laugh about the end of the world” gives way to an equally poignant tragic sensibility. Carell has a reconciliation of sorts with his estranged father, aptly played by Martin Sheen, and resolves himself to facing the end of the world with only the company of a dog. The movie could have ended there and been wholly satisfying. While the actual resolution is somewhat predictable given the script’s tendency to remind us that Knightly’s character is an optimist, it doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of a last second apocalypse aversion, thus cheapening the entire experience for the sake of pandering to an audience’s desire for a happy ending. The world ends, we all die, and life ultimately proves meaningless. Still, Knightly and Carell face their end with eyes open and more courage than I could muster in such a situation.

Perhaps that’s one more reason why this movie put off its audience. Were a giant asteroid about to slaughter us, I don’t think I would be the guy who made peace with his life and quietly died in bed. I, and I suspect many others, would take a page from Rob Corddry’s book and lapse into hedonistic denial. Many more would call upon the movie’s “Hire an Assassin” option, which is just a less icky way of saying “commiting suicide.” In a situation where humanity would be at its worst, Carell and Knightly are at their best, and damn if we don’t resent and admire them for it.

While some of the film’s transitions may seem a bit jarring, the movie’s flow from black comedy to life affirming tragedy – just in time for all life on Earth to be wiped out forever – works quite well. The characters’ enduring charm owes much to directing that puts as much emphasis on the pauses between conversations and words left unsaid as it does the dialogue itself. It should also go without saying that the movie requires a certain nihilistic acceptance of life’s inevitable end. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is best approached as a contemporary tragicomedy; it will make you laugh, but that laughter only makes the poignancy of the tragedy hurt that much more later on.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Written and Directed by: Lorene Scafaria

Starring: Steve Carell and Keira Knightly


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Movie Review: Stake Land

Stake Land first appeared on my cultural radar in the most inauspicious of ways. I saw banner ads promoting the movie floating about the Battlestar Galactica Online home page for about three days. When the ads disappeared, I forgot about the movie. Recently, it made an equally stealthy appearance on Netflix, so I thought why not check it out. Its description, however, invited some trepidation on my part.

“This genre-bending thriller combines vampires, religious fanatics and post-apocalyptic horrors with a coming-of-age tale that finds drifter Mister training young Martin to survive the nightmare that has become America as they journey to New Eden.”

Say the words “Vampire Apocalypse” out loud and tell me you don’t wince at the sound of your own voice. You should. And if you don’t, I don’t know if we can still be friends.

Make no mistake, I appreciate a good annihilation fantasy as much as the next person. Yet a shuffling of the monsters within the cinematic trope has to be sign that this particular genre niche is running on vapours. Despite this, and some incidental similarities in nomenclature and format to 2009’s Zombieland, Stake Land manages to turn out a reasonably unique take on the post-apocalyptic monster story.

Stake Land’s best selling feature is its realization that post-apocalyptic movies are the figurative bull in a china shop. The narrative must be violent and convulsive but not so much so that it shatters the audience’s tentative acquiesce to the end of the world; I’m looking at you, Rolland Emmerich.

We want the bull to break things so long as it doesn’t bring the roof down on our heads. Stake Land executes a few gambits to achieve this task. Even though Mister (Nick Damici) exudes a gruff and cold exterior, his dialogue and actions steer clear of the grumpy hero clichés. His protégée Martin (Connor Paolo), whose name I actually forgot because Mister only ever addresses him as “boy”, is not the dough-eyed neophyte whose misadventures drive the plot. The two are survivors, each dependent upon the other for purpose and protection. Beyond that, Damici and Paolo’s well placed scenes of “Stake Jitsu” training manage to evoke a Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san style of relationship. Routine as the relationship between the two characters may be, it is all but forged in silence, allowing the audience to shade the protagonists as they will.

When Martin and Mister come across additional survivors, the writing is smart enough to avoid any of the big apocalypse clichés: we can’t trust strangers; we can’t take them with us; somebody in the group is infected; and Sexe Diem, which is (fake) Latin for, “It’s the end of the world; we might die tomorrow, so let’s bang.” Though Mister’s reputation as a hunter lands him no shortage of action when the two call upon various free city states, the sex is always off camera. More importantly, there’s no clumsy romantic sub-plot for Martin.

Oh and it should go without saying that there’s no sex with vampires, no sparkling vampires, and no misunderstood vampires who want to atone for past deeds. The blood suckers range from semi-sentient to outright feral and their sole motivation is to feed on warm bodies.

How odd that annotating all the things the movie doesn’t do almost encapsulates a review in and of itself.

In terms of story, Stake Land is at its best when examining humanity as its own worst enemy. Yeah, I know, Battlestar Galactica and The Road pretty much wrote the book on that particular post-apocalypse motif. Still, Stake Land’s use of religion to explore this theme is rightly satisfying.

Amid the ruin of America a religious sect called “The Brotherhood” controls much of the hinterlands between pockets of civilization. The Brotherhood believes the vampires to be god’s means of cleansing the Earth of the impure and unworthy. Though firmly Christian in origin, they are not beyond loading a truck with vampires and ramming it into the gates of a city state, thus unleashing some divine vengeance.

Yet the religious themes do more than vilify the story’s human antagonists. One of the first survivors Mister and Martin come across is a nun known only as Sister (Kelly McGillis). It would be all too easy to turn Sister into a “god has a plan” sort of bible thumper. Instead, she symbolically carries, and perhaps compartmentalizes, her faith in her pocket in the form of a figurine of the Virgin Mary; however Sister also picks up a gun to defend their group. She, like Mister and Martin, embody compassion within a broken world.

This is where Stake Land really delivers as a post-apocalyptic movie. Compassion is regularly the first victim of this genre. What better way for a director to show the end of the world than to end any sense of obligation from one person to another. Keeping a sense of loosely chivalrous heroism, violent and visceral as it may be, about the POV character and his mentor defies the audience’s expectations about this type of story. Martin and Mister become easily identifiable to the audience without sacrificing any of the plot’s high stakes.

On a technical level, Stake Land makes excellent use of its modest budget. External shots in heavily wooded rural areas effectively build a ruined world for free. The camera work is steady enough to convey a grand sense of location and isolation, but never dwells on the setting as a means of filling time. Fight sequences between the hunters and vampires are fast and brutal, as befitting an actual fight. The make-up and gore on the vampires is as good anything one would expect from a big budget production. My only real complaint is that the director’s effort to show Mister and Martin’s professional detachment left the final vampire battle sequence rather understated. In fact, Martin’s “graduation” to full hunter is a blink and miss it moment. A few extra seconds of camera work here and there would have contributed so much more emotion to these important scenes.

Strong as Stake Land may be, it wasn’t the movie to redefine the sub-genre in 2010 nor shall it do so today. What it does prove is a high level of technical and storytelling proficiency from director and co-writer Jim Mickle. While not quite as cerebral as something like The Road, Stake Land proves that there is room to improve the formula within the supernatural post-apocalyptic genre.

Stake Land

Director: Jim Mickle

Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

Stars: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici and Kelly McGillis


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Who is Captain Power, and Why Does He Deserve a Reboot?

The year was 1987. Transformers was all the rage, and Hasbro was filling dump trucks with money having successfully paired a line of toys with a fantastically addictive children’s cartoon. Enter Gary Goddard and Tony Christopher. They had an idea for a post-apocalyptic science fiction series that would pit man against sentient robots without any of the space Mormon BS of Battlestar Galactica. Enter Mattel. Mattel’s executives were frothing at the mouth with envy over Hasbro’s Transformers revenue. So they came up with a plan to insinuate light gun based interactivity into Goddard and Christopher’s series. Thus was born, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future: a series meant to cater to the whole family, but in doing so appealed to nobody…well nobody except me and a few other loyal resistors. Seriously, I took a beat down for bringing my XT-7 Powerjet toy to school for show and tell.

So what went wrong? Captain Power’s story was dark. I mean Ron Moore Battlestar dark. Set in the 22nd century, it saw a scientist named Lyman Taggart (David Hemblen) take control of the world’s robot armies by linking his mind to that of a sentient computer. The scientist came away from the encounter seeing “machine life” as the next phase in human evolution. Therein he began a pogrom against humanity, digitizing humans into computer code so they might be reconstituted into machine bodies at a later date. Taggart’s machines nearly wiped the planet clean of life save for small bands of refugees, scavengers, and resistors. Just picture all the worst parts of the future as depicted in Terminator and Terminator 2 and you’ll be in the right ball park.

Enter “Captain” Jonathan Power (Tim Dunigan) and his father Dr. Stuart Power (Bruce Grey). Stuart was working on a secret weapons project within a hidden base in the Rocky Mountains. “Project Phoenix” would have turned the tides in the “Metal Wars” in that it transformed a single human soldier into a mobile weapons platform capable of resisting digitization.

Sadly Pap Power died before the “Power Suits” could go into mass production. Vowing revenge for his father, Jonathan and a band of four other resistors took up a campaign of asynchronous warfare to bring down Lord Dredd and his machine Reich.

In concept, it’s fantastic. Dread was the embodiment of every nasty bit of 20th century nationalism, only in a cyborg body and commanding legions of machine soldiers. The language of hegemony, empire, and resistance permeated each episode. Characters had back stories which gradually unfolded throughout the season allowing for some great narrative depth. In particular, the youngest member of the team Jennifer “Pilot” Chase was a former “Dread Youth” stooge, liberated by the Captain. The series was even a little avant-garde in its treatment of genetically engineered soldiers, biological weapons, WMDs, and the Internet. Of course with Joe Straczynksi, who would later go on to write and show run Babylon 5, posting writing credits for half the episodes such quality long-arc story telling is hardly unexpected.

Ultimately, the show’s biggest strength proved to be its undoing. Children, except bookish power nerds like me, were not apt to catch-on to the subtleties of the story. Meanwhile parents, including my own, had a problem with plopping their kids down in front of a show where the bad guy espoused his plans for a new order. Say nothing for the dubious image of certain human antagonists walking about in regalia reminiscent of a certain German political association. Also, the toy’s “shoot at the bad guys on TV” selling  point barely worked.

After one season the series was canned and Landmark Entertainment, Captain Power’s production company, began a slow fade into the ether. Until recently, this was the end of the story for Captain Power. Now it seems the Captain may be on the brink of a renaissance.

Via Topless Robot and Ain’t it Cool News we’ve learned that Gary Goddard’s new production company has entered negotiations with former Paramount executive Jeffrey Hayes to resurrect Captain Power as Phoenix Rising, a one-hour weekly drama. Noted Star Trek writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens have signed on as both developers and writers for the new series.

With the promise of details to come, it’s hard not to speculate based on a single press release and a lone promotional video. Which network/cable channel will have the stones to pick this up? When the original series cost $1,000,000 per episode in 1987 money, can the new show look good on a manageable budget? What does Joe Straczynksi think about this, and is he going to get involved with the project?

Here’s what we know.

Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens have said that their intent is to begin again the story of Captain Power, NOT to “fix Captain Power.” The new series will explore how the world of the Machine Age came into being, while delving into the rich history of the characters. Though the actors will likely be different, fixtures such as Jonathan Power, Pilot, Scout, Tank, and Lyman Taggart/Dread will all be in play. Former series star Tim Dunigan has also said that he is involved with the process “on some level.”

It may be early days on Phoenix Rising, and maybe I’m channeling a bit too much of the energy that I had as a sixteen year old writing a spec script for season 2 of Captain Power, even though I knew it was a fruitless exercise, but for fans of the series this is some pretty interesting news.

Here’s the promo video for Phoenix Rising.

Now to find a way to get Gary Goddard, Tim Dunigan, and/or Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens on the podcast.


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Book Review: Blood and Water

I’ll borrow a favoured term from Margaret Atwood when I say that Blood & Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm and published by Bundoran Press, is a tremendously compelling collection of speculative fiction. The anthology’s theme is one of near future conflicts emerging out of resource scarcity and climate change, all from a Canadian perspective. In the initial call for submissions Mr. Trenholm placed no limits on genre, indeed stating in the book’s introduction that he was open to “cross-genre and even urban fantasy”. By and large, the stories included in the final cut are science fiction of the first order, what some might call “hard” SF, but what I’d rather recognize as the sort of work where the authors very clearly did their homework. While one or two stories do borrow too heavily on the clichés of “Can Lit” the greater focus remains on the fantastic challenges and the no less awe inspiring opportunities that Canada, as well as the rest of the world, will face in the century to come.

Although the quality of the writing, even in the stories I didn’t care for, is second to none, this is not an anthology to be read in a single sitting. The visions of the future offered in Blood & Water are, in all likelihood, more in tune to the reality of our world than most people would care to admit. The potential hard truths deserve a moment or two for reflection and exploration after the fact. Where a good friend once told me people read to escape, I would argue there is little sanctuary to be found within Blood & Water. Yet the best stories within this book do not present tales of privation with an accusatory finger pointed squarely at the reader and their carbon footprint. They offer solutions to problems and in doing so they posit on the price that we must pay for sustainability and survival.

Honours Candidates

Phoebastria by Jennifer Rahn

Considering the background of the authors within this anthology, it should come as no surprise to see the academy as a central setting in a number of stories. Jennifer Rahn’s Phoebastria is memorable in that it takes the concept of the ivory tower, and drops it into a version of Edmonton that is not quite post-apocalyptic but certainly on course therein. The theme of resource conflicts are taken quite literally within this story as a graduate student is exiled from the university into a largely lawless and waterless wilderness. There is some obvious criticism of officious bureaucracy as seen in contrasting graduate student competition with gang loyalties. However, I think the truly interesting message emerges as a discussion on the “knowledge economy” where people cease to be valued as individuals and are instead reduced to their varying skill sets.

Bad Blood by Agnes Cadieux

Bad Blood is unique within the anthology as something that subverts the generally established approach to resource scarcity. Herein the resource is not oil, electricity, or water, but human antibodies. Racism, racial intolerance, and individual rights are juxtaposed against the practical application of a Rousseauian greater good during a viral outbreak. Tales like this also shine a light on the unique hubris encompassing discussions of manmade climate change. As we discuss carbon emissions it is easy to overlook nature as a complex beast capable of striking down humanity at the cellular level. Bad Blood is a viscera filled reminder of this truth, a horrifying voice quietly whispering in the back of our minds that no matter how careful we are, with ourselves, with the planet, we are not safe. More than any other within the collection, this story chilled me to the bone.

We Take Care of Our Own by Kate Heartfield

While others may have used the word “foodlegger” in the past, We Take Care of Our Own was my first exposure to this particular neologism. Heartfield’s story offers a non-cataclysmic breakdown of modern macro agriculture and the subsequent economic protectionism which rises in its wake…and cheese smuggling into New York. Yet this story is more than a parallel of Canada’s dubious past in alcohol smuggling. It frames critical thinking, a politically astute populace, and youthful outrage as scare resources in the face of growing apathy within Canada’s population (Montreal notwithstanding of course). Furthermore, there seems to be a suggestion on the part of the author that a critical mass of people living their lives in a “plugged-in” condition is contributing to a lethargic hive mind like mentality. Pairing this serious dialogue with something as deceptively whimsical as an illicit grilled cheese sandwich allows for fantastic exploration without becoming abrasive or preachy.

The Parable of the Clown by Derek Künsken

At first, I did not know what to make of this story. Who would when the first sentence discusses the serious problem of clown farts? Yes, I said clown farts; it’s a significant issue in forestry and bio-fuels. In an anthology heavily invested in exploring problems of a planetary magnitude, Künsken’s story is a necessary oasis of comedy. This does not imply The Parable should be taken any less seriously than the rest of the stories in this book. Comedy by its very nature demands more of its audience than tragedy. The selling point in this case is the author’s deft ability to balance the inherently didactic nature of a parable with poignant absurdity on par with the likes of Terry Gilliam. So what is there to laugh about in sustainable resource development? Quite a lot when we stop to look at short sightedness in the face of long term problems.

Watching Over the Human Garden by Jean-Louis Trudel

Many years ago a high school teacher of mine suggested the planet was not over populated, simply unbalanced in its distribution of resources. This was back when Earth’s population was a shade below six billion. Trudel’s contribution to Blood & Water is the perfect response to any such notion, and is ideally placed as the final tale within this book. Though its exploration of shifting population patterns due to climate change is not unique within the anthology, it is the only narrative  that looks at alternative fuels, nuclear fusion, and conservation as a stall in the face of the planet’s real problem: humans need to consume things. Layered within its art on art discussion, is a cruel but arguably necessary recognition that humanity may be an overgrown garden in need of pruning. Moreover, Human Garden takes aim at the culture of cognitive dissonance fueling our collective inability to manage climate change. “…people rapidly get used to transformations of their own environment. Much too rapidly, in fact.” Consider well the author’s words as we reflect on this summer’s record breaking heat and water starved crops.

The Bottom Line

There’s little doubt in my mind that Hayden Trenholm has assembled a fantastic collection of highly relevant, but equally accessible stories. Where I’m normally content to recommend an anthology if at least half the content within rates as “decent”, I would call no less than eleven of Blood & Water’s stories outstanding. Of the remaining nine, only four failed to find any real traction with this critic. For those particularly concerned with cost/value equations, I would point out that five of the stories in this anthology are reprints. Yet they are, save for one, very fine contributions which are quite in line with the theme of this collection.

For readers with the fortitude to gaze into a future without the comforts of cornucopia technology, a place where perpetual crop shortages and radical climate change are less than a lifetime away, then Blood & Water is a must have.

Blood & Water is edited by Hayden Trenholm and published by Bundoran Press.


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Gears of War: Judgement – A Missed Opportunity?

Gears of War Judgement promises more of the same, now with 50% more snark and 60% more of the only black guy in the game.

For a moment, let us ignore the likely future where everybody who owns an XBox 360 is going buy the fourth installment in the Gears of War franchise. And while we’re employing our cognitive dissonance, we might as well disregard the obvious fact that a fourth Gears game, from a narrative point of view, is nothing but naval gazing. I could also point out that prequels are generally an indication of creative bankruptcy within a property, but that might belabour a point that better people than me have made a long time ago.

Make no mistake, I do not begrudge Epic a chance to make more money with an established brand. And mark my words; Epic is going to make money with Gears 4, if only out of consumer loyalty. Yet as a fan of the series, and somebody who even read a Gears of War novel, this new game seems like a missed chance to shift the focus of Gears while maintaining its spirit.

In the scant calms between bouts of gunfire, the Gears of War trilogy offers a compelling story of redemption and loss. Marcus Fenix’s introduction is that of an ex-convict who had been left to rot in a military prison for putting loyalty to family above loyalty to the state. Dominic Santiago, Marcus’ best friend, begins as a man on a quest to discover the fate of a wife lost to the vicissitudes of war. By the end of the second Gears of War game, these quests are resolved. Therein the story of the third Gears game is that of a search for purpose.

*Spoiler ahead for Gears of War 3*

Arguably neither of the two main characters are able to find a purpose in life. Despite winning the day, Marcus ends Gears 3 as an accomplice to the Locust genocide. As he strips off his armour, Marcus admits to fellow Gear Anya Stroud that he doesn’t know what to do without the fighting. Dom’s fate is found somewhere between heroic sacrifice and suicide, probably closer to the latter. In finding his wife’s mind and body shattered by Locust torture in Gears 2, Dom effectively loses the one thing that kept him fighting.

Yes, there is senseless gunplay in the Gears franchise. And yes, there is a lot of blue collar dialogue from Delta Squad. However, beneath its base trappings, Gears of War is one of digital media’s foremost war stories. Rather than undermining the narrative authenticity of these two characters, a smart decision, Epic is shifting the focus of Gears of War: Judgement to Delta Squad’s two other members: Damon Baird and Augustus Cole. The potential problem is that Baird and the Cole-Train don’t quite fit the established character model.

The most obvious incongruity with Gears: Judgement is Delta’s favourite misanthrope being billed as Lieutenant Damon Baird. Gears of War has always been a war story told from the “working man’s” point of view. Lieutenant Kim, Delta Squad’s commanding officer in Gears 1, dies at the end of the first act. From then on out, Marcus, a mere Sergeant in the Coalition of Ordered Governments’ Army (COG for short), acts as Delta’s leader. The narrative pay off in such a decision is that the player is always as much in the dark, with respect to the larger scope of the war, as the game’s central characters. Hearing the taciturn Colonel Hoffman tell Marcus that something is “need to know” becomes a shared experience between gamer and character. Maintaining that shared experience with Lt. Baird may prove a difficult proposition as officers by their very nature know more about strategic matters than the men under their command. Not to mention this casting might seem a retread of established motifs given that Gears: Judgement will tell the story of Baird and Cole’s fall from the COG’s grace. We’ve already explored redemption as a conceit with Marcus, is it going to work a second time with Baird? Are players going to empathize with Cole, a millionaire sports star turned fighting man due an “alien” invasion? I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced that Cole has the chops to be anything other than comic relief.

Redemption also misses an opportunity to tell a story set before Emergence Day. Prior to the Locust’s attack, Sera was a planet divided between two supra-national entities, the Coalition of Ordered Governments and the Union of Independent Republics. We know from game lore that these two entities fought a series of conflicts known as the Pendulum Wars. The details of those conflicts are scant save for references to resource scarcity and control of the super fuel known as Immulsion. In fact, other than the Gears of War novels, the canonicity of which are up for debate, what little gamers know of Sera’s back story is gleamed through in-game ephemera. Propaganda posters nailed to crumbling walls, overheard conversations, and throwaway references hint at the world that existed before the Locust’s emergence. Nothing would say, “the same but different” like bringing the oft hinted at pre-Locust world of Gears of War to life. Then again, maybe only political science geeks and history nerds would want to know about the Cold War conflicts that happened before the underground monster apocalypse.

In the end, Gears may always be a man versus monster experience; if only because chainsaw bayonets are a monstrous weapon when used on a human. It’s easy to feel mighty chopping up an over sized Locust drone. Gears draws quite heavily on the classic “alien other will unite mankind” theme as seen in novels like Starship Troopers. But are the dogmatic and geopolitical differences between the COG and UIR sufficient to merit battlefield butchery? Probably not. If that’s the case, it’s probably a better business investment to keep treading the same ground for a profit, then risking jeers for neutering the combat experience just to push the franchise’s fictional frontiers.


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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.


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Short Story Review: Alien Apocalypse – The Storm

Summary Judgement:  It’s incredibly difficult to pull off an innovative alien invasion story.  Alien Apocalypse manages that task in just under ten thousand words.

Written by: Dean Giles

Alien invasion stories are an interesting sub-genre of science fiction.  They compare quite nicely to high fantasy in that the seminal entries were written about a century ago, and in that time we haven’t really come up with any interesting ways to divert from the formula.  Consider that Independence Day is for all intents and purposes War of the Worlds only bigger and bloated with American jingoism.  Despite the ninety-eight years that separate the two stories, the ending is still the same:  all the armies of man couldn’t defeat the invaders were it not for a humble virus; a computer virus with respect to the latter but the conceit remains a constant.  Therefore in evaluating an alien invasion story only one all-important question comes to my mind: Does it do something new?  Alien Apocalypse: The Storm, most certainly does.

The story, though a discrete unit on its own, represents a first episode in a much larger narrative.  Yet it would be mistake to assume that this is a blasé introduction.  There’s no filler or extraneous back story as the plot shifts between the story’s two principle characters. Elliot Weber is an eleven-year-old living with his grandparents in the English countryside.  Leon Weber, Elliot’s father, is serving out the last few months of a four year prison sentence.  For reasons that are both deceptive and poignant, Elliot has not seen his father since Leon’s incarceration.  In spite of the physical isolation, the two maintain a relationship through phone calls, email and letters.  At the beginning of the story, their most recent correspondence involves a comet that passes very near to the Earth.

My first thought when I read about the comet: “Great.  Here come the tripods, heat rays, and black gas.”

I’m convinced that Mr. Giles took this approach just so he could have a laugh at the expense of readers like myself who jumped to a false conclusion.

Either by accident or design, the close pass of the comet deposits a form of semi-sentient plant life on the Earth. Excreting acid and multiplying at exponential rates, the moss eats everything that it comes into contact with.  Earth and all its life upon it have no natural defence against the invading life form.  In that sense these “aliens” are more akin to the virus from The Andromeda Strain than any sort of grey alien.  Of course, the green moss assimilates biological life with such terrifying efficiency as to make Andromeda look like a bad case of the sniffles.  At this point, I could draw a line between the red weeds that H.G. Welles’ Martians used to terraform the Earth.  However those plants were nowhere near as pernicious as the green moss and only took root, pardon the pun, as a consequence of tripods and war machines.

After only a few days of exposure to our planet’s biosphere, the green moss has brought civilization, or at least England, to an absolute ruin.  Leon wakes up in his solitary confinement cell thinking that the prisoners are rioting only to find that society has collapsed in around him.  From there, the plot is rather straight forward; Elliot must survive the encroaching moss long enough for his father to rescue him.

I will admit that at first I found both of the characters to be a little archetypal.  Granted invoking familiar archetypes is necessary in a story that very quickly moves from everyday life to a post-apocalyptic environment.  While Elliot remains little more than a goal for his father throughout the story, Leon’s personality develops quite nicely beyond the cliché of an ex-military ex-con with a heart of gold.  In fact, by the time the story was done I felt genuinely connected to Leon as a character.

There are also hints of environmental and colonizing force motifs at play within the story.  It begins with Leon’s attempts to maintain his sense of self within the brutal environment of Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs.  The metaphor continues with the nature of the green moss as a literal colonizing force upon the Earth.  In both instances an environmental force is acting upon a pre-existing system to forcibly convert it into something made in the former’s own image.  Since the grand narrative is still very much in its nascent phase, the over arcing ideas remain somewhat undeveloped.  However, the seeds have clearly been planted for some interesting extended metaphors in subsequent editions of the series.

Overall, Alien Apocalypse deals with what I call the “Welles Paradox” (Where the capacity for narrative depth within an alien invasion story is proportional to the efficiency of the invasion) by destroying the world and then turning his characters loose within it.  This setting results in an immediate empathy with the story’s adult protagonist as he embarks on a routine but wholly accessible quest.  The nature of the story is focused enough to keep a reader interested while maintaining a natural potential for serialization without feeling pulpy.  I for one can’t wait to see what Mr. Giles come up with next.

Overall score: +3

You can buy yourself a copy of Alien Apocalypse: The Storm as well as reading its free prequel story at TWB Press.