Saturday, September 23, 2017

Midlife Crisis Year One: Thoughts on 41

Birthdays are a time to stop and contemplate one’s life, to celebrate another revolution around the sun.  And of course to eat some cake.

Last year marked my 40th birthday.  I wondered, “Which midlife crisis is right for me?”  My next birthday is nearly upon me, so it’s natural to reflect on how that midlife crisis has been going.  

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Where Did Far-Future Science Fiction Go?

Many of the most beloved science fiction series of the 20th century are set thousands or even millions of years in the future: Frank Herbert's Dune series, Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, and so on.

By comparison, relatively few science fiction stories written in the last 20 years take place more than a couple hundred years in the future and most take place in the 21st century.

Where did all the far-future science fiction go?

This is a question I've thought about a lot lately.  I recently re-read the last book in the Dune series and am working my way through the delightfully/impossibly difficult Book of the New Sun, which my Goodreads review describes as "like taking an acid trip through a thesaurus."

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Adaptations: IT (2017)

IT is not just a scary clown, but that clown is scary.

Having read the book two years ago (see my review), having vaguely creepy memories of the 1990 TV miniseries, and having read some positive early reviews, I was excited to see the new film adaptation of Stephen King's IT.

Is IT a good adaptation?  Is IT a good movie?  The answer to both questions is, "Yes, but IT is not perfect."

The book as everyone notes is long, really long -- a door stopping 1,100 pages.  There is simply no way to faithfully adapt the details into a single film (or even a miniseries).  The biggest decision made in the new film is to only cover the childhood parts of the book.  The second biggest is to set those scenes in the 1980's rather than the 1950's.

In the book the childhood and adulthood sections are interspersed, which creates (and muddies) a sense of connection between the characters and children and as adults.  Focusing on the childhood parts is an eminently practical choice for a film adaptation given time constraints, but it does completely remove one of the deepest themes of the book: namely, that we are to some extent the same people as adults as we were as children, but on the other hand we aren't.  Adults don't really remember who they were as children.  Adults' childhood nostalgia is necessarily false.  We are always projecting forward and backward in time, and our identities are, as Buddhists will tell you, more fragile than we like to think.

The new film does manage to keep some of the related themes about death and loss (although they have a different hue given the absence of the child-adult theme).  Bill's (Jaeden Lieberher) grief and coming to terms with the loss of his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is particularly poignant.  I got a bit misty eyed a few times, but I have no way of knowing if this is because it triggered memories of the book or if the film itself was able to touch an emotional nerve.  Perhaps viewers who haven't read the book can say.

As long as we're talking plot choices, I should say that a certain bizarre and controversial scene from the book is not present in the new film.  I wasn't offended by that scene so much as utterly confused.  I think King was drinking and doing a lot of drugs at the time.  The scene is sort of replaced in the film with something much tamer that almost makes sense (it's still a little lame, though, for how it uses Beverly's character).

IT contains some of King's most beloved and feared characters.  How does the film do?  The new incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is as terrifying as you'd hope.  I don't think I've seen the miniseries since it aired 27 years ago, but I do remember Tim Curry's Pennywise.  So creepy!  So malevolent!  Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård had a tough job filling the giant red shoes of Tim Curry and an even harder job giving form to the nightmares of King's readers.  He succeeded.  His Pennywise captures the malevolence and otherworldliness of IT, which simultaneously pays homage to Tim Curry while doing his own new thing.  Some critics have complained that Pennywise has far too much screen time so that his scare factor has diminishing returns.  I agree to some extent, but when the scare factor starts as high as this, it still works okay the 12th time.

As for the beloved Losers Club, the kids are great.  Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie is good, although he's not nearly as wacky as the character is in the book.  He only does his weird voices once or twice and you barely notice.  Maybe they thought it was too corny for 2017 audiences, but I missed it (to be clear, I blame the filmmakers for this problem -- I can't criticize Wolfhard himself given my love of Stranger Things).  Sophia Lillis does a great job as Beverly, and they manage to make her more than just "the girl" of the group as she does her best Molly Ringwald impression (remember, this is the late 80's).  She and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) trade jokes about The New Kids on the Block, which for people about my age who were kids in the late 80's is pure hilarity.

My major complaint, however, is that Mike (Chosen Jacobs) seems to barely be in the movie or have any lines.  In the book he was one of my favorites, and I remember him being more a part of the group even though he shows up last. And they seem to completely cut out his research into Derry's past.  They only show Ben doing this research in the movie, although I'm pretty sure they both did in the book. Of course, part of this is that the book is just much longer and richer than a film could possibly be.  Also, Mike's key role as an adult may be influencing my opinion.  Still, especially since he's the only African American main character, it'd be nice to see a Hollywood film do more with him.  So that was a disappointment, but maybe he'll shine more in the sequel.

As a fan of the book it's impossible for me to completely separate whether IT works as a movie from whether IT is a good adaptation, but I'll try.  I do think this movie will do well (as the early box office returns indicate) because it manages to combine what fans of the book and miniseries love about the story with all the trappings of a hip, contemporary horror film.

My wife (who rarely sees horror movies with me, but remembered the miniseries enough to want to see this) commented that it's like a scary Goonies.  The kids-solve-a-problem-on-their-own-because-the-adults-in-their-lives-are-garbage has a totally 80's vibe to it.  The book was published in 1986, and it's fun that one of the kids from Stranger Things is starring in a Stephen King adaptation, since Stephen King was a major influence on Stranger Things.  And of course a King story also inspired Stand By Me, a classic in the kids-go-it-alone genre.  The death of "free range" parenting in America may have killed that genre for any film set after 2000, which makes me sad as a consumer of entertainment and as a human being.  I guess nostalgia will have to do.

But IT wouldn't be so popular if only nostalgic oldsters like me were into it.  The filmmakers manage to merge the 80's style kids story with the look and feel of a contemporary horror movie, which is perhaps the doing of director Andy Muschietti.  There are jump scares and CGI aplenty.  The scary parts tend to be in dark, dank hovels that could be leftover sets from a Saw movie.  Waiting for Pennywise to show up is as creepy as anything any of those dime-a-dozen 2010's ghost movies could conjure.  I predict that Pennywise himself will inspire legions of teenagers and 20-somethings this Halloween.  Get ready for your pumpkin spice latté to be delivered by "Sexy Pennywise."

At the end of the film there is a strong hint that a sequel is coming, which is apparently actually in the works at New Line.  I'll be glad to see it, not just because the story requires it and it will take place around 2016, but because I think it might be able to make up for the faults of this one while doing more of the good stuff.  I also hope they will be able to explain why this story is science fictional and not supernatural horror, a subject about which I have some mixed feelings given King's attempts as science fiction.  Nonetheless, I hope to see this part of the story adapted into film.

If I can be permitted a flight of metaphor, it occurs to me that the issue of adaptations of the book-miniseries-movie variety is merely one level of adaptation.  To go a bit deeper, this is a story about adapting to new life stages as well as horrors as old as humanity.  My favorite thing about the new film is that is managed to adapt the deepest theme of the book, although you have to dig a bit more into the film to find it: the true horror is not some malevolent clown, but the horrors within ourselves and others -- hatred, bigotry, and the sheer cruelty of our inhumanity to one another.  You can find a similar theme in many of King's other works, like Carrie or The Shining.

We can adapt to these horrific aspects of our natures by letting go and allowing them to dissolve the better parts of our characters, or we can fight against them to the best of our ability, forcing them to adapt to our decency, knowing all along that the horror may be too much and we may be devoured by it (or IT) in the end. The enduring popularity of IT is explained, I think, by its message about one of our deepest struggles as human beings: if we have any hope at all of fighting the horrors writhing within the human heart, it is only if we losers stick together.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

What if Everyone Stopped Talking about “Political Correctness”?

I’m not going to tell people to stop talking about “political correctness”, because that would instantly cause some internet denizens to label me a member of the SJW thought Gestapo for daring to express an opinion about what people should do that can’t be reduced to “suck it up, snowflake!”  

Instead, I encourage us all to engage in something essential to both philosophy and science fiction: a thought experiment.  Imagine a world in which everyone woke up tomorrow and stopped talking about “political correctness.”   If you find that too far fetched, imagine you are a human, alien, or robotic historian in the year 2117 trying to understand the Culture Wars of the late 20th and early 21st century.  

Friday, August 25, 2017

Rediscovering Humanity: Chapterhouse: Dune by Frank Herbert

This is my third time through the original Dune series.  I always enjoy a visit to the Dune universe, but it's not because I'd actually want to live in that universe.  It's all too intense for me.  I love the books but I have to admit they're pretty bleak with all those "plans within plans within plans" in service of the raw pursuit of power.  Dramatized with internal asides in italics!

For all their machinations and glorious battle, nobody in the Dune books really seems to be enjoying themselves in anything approaching a healthy way.  At least until Chapterhouse: Dune, the sixth volume in the series and the last Frank Herbert wrote before his death in 1986.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer Movie Round Up, Part 2: Wonder Woman, War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Dark Tower

I need a little break from thinking about all the terrorism, natural disasters, and general upheaval in the world in the last week, so I figured it was finally time to write my follow up to my Summer Movie Round Up, Part 1.  I think I saw most of the big budget Hollywood science fiction and fantasy movies that came out since May (I deliberately skipped the new Transformers, but I'll bet my review would be, "Lots of explosions.  Kinda dumb.")

So does the 2017 movie season redeem Hollywood from the mostly terrible 2016 summer movie season?  Let's find out!

Wonder Woman

I'm not the biggest fan of the super hero genre or its domination of the SF/F movie domain in recent years.  But even a super hero curmudgeon like me could see that Wonder Woman was going to be special, seeing as Hollywood has managed to reboot Spider-Man three times in the last 15 years but had yet to make a big budget movie about the most iconic woman super hero.  And they even had a woman at the helm with director Patty Jenkins.  The best part for me: seeing this will annoy MRAs and other loathsome types.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Invisible Men: Wells and Ellison

Receptionist: Doctor, there's an invisible man in the waiting room.
Doctor: Tell him I can't see him.

H. G. Wells and Ralph Ellison each wrote a novel about an invisible man.  The titles are actually slightly different.  Wells's is The Invisible Man while Ellison drops the "the."  Aside from sometimes being confused with one another (as in the meme above), the books are typically thought to have nothing in common.  It's not even clear if Ellison, writing 50 years after Wells, was familiar with Wells's novel, although his protagonist does allude to one or more of the films based on Wells's work.

I think for all their vast differences these two books have some surprising connections, especially when it comes to the complex relationships between the individual and society.

I'm starting with Ellison because I happened to read his book first, although for me the connections reach both ways.