How Brienne of Tarth Saved “Game of Thrones”

game-of-thrones-brienneI’ve been following the insanely popular—yet excruciatingly brutal—Game of Thrones for several seasons now. I must confess, partly because I don’t own or watch TV, that I am a little behind. I’m currently watching Season Four, while still metaphorically shaking in the violent wake of the shocking and brutal Red Wedding episode of Season Three. As the Internet buzz revealed, this was an extremely difficult show to watch for everyone. What was the purpose of its graphical brutality? Who needs to see that level of violence? I am reminded of an introductory scene in the show in which character John Snow counsels his little brother Bran to not avert his eyes when his father executes a deserter, by chopping off his head—an act that foreshadows his own decapitation later in the series. It is as though the producers of the show are counselling us in the same way as they subject us to grisly scene after grisly scene. Many cheap and gratuitous, as far as I am concerned.

The Red Wedding scene, in which several beloved characters are brutally slaughtered set into play a new set of rules for audience engagement: that of total distrust. Distrust in the storytellers (primarily in the producers of the show, whose scripts, I’m told, have deviated from the novels in some important ways). Distrust that creates an uneasy tension. Distrust that precipitates a panicked wish for clairvoyance. This is because we have no concept of fairness in the story; yet we’ve so invested in the characters. That is the storyteller’s worst act of cruelty: to hold us hostage to the characters. The rules of fair play in story have been broken. We’re stuck in a kind of free fall, desperately hoping that our beloved characters will make it through the night intact, if not unscathed. And when they don’t, its like watching our children die, as we stand powerless by.

Good fiction—as opposed to reality—tells a purposeful story. A story with fictional characters, who play a purposeful role. All good stories make a promise in the beginning; a promise they keep in the end. They create a covenant with their audience to participate in a fulfilling journey. This doesn’t have to mean a happy ending, but it does include meaning and fulfillment—even if only for its audience. And that must involve victory of sorts—and hope—whether it is through redemption, acceptance, enlightenment, or some change that gives us “more”—not less; something that allows us to prevail alongside.

If I feel that I am simply witnessing a cesspool of meaningless chaos and brutality, dominated by ruthless and insane people, in which heroes are equally powerless victims as they are true agents of change—with no rhyme or reason to tell the difference—then I must ask myself the question: why am I watching this? What does this story mean to me? I start to feel like a misanthropic voyeur, as perverse as Joffrey or Littlefinger as I watch people get tortured, flayed alive, dismembered, and worse… with no recourse. This is NOT entertainment and it certainly isn’t of any value to me. For such an offence to the senses to have value, there must be an element of—or at least a grain of hope of—prevailing and movement.

By Season Three end, both the series and I are feeling a little tired. And for good reason; most of the characters—the women particularly—are trapped in an incessant pattern of simple endurance. That seems to be all they are able to do: endure. Certainly they manage to act and create within their limited sphere of influence; but mostly to colour their position, not change it. So, we endure alongside; and we can endure only so much.

Then enter Brienne of Tarth. Also known as Maid of Truth.

And with her, a breath of much needed fresh air.brienne of tarth-close

When Brienne was first introduced in “What is Dead May Never Die” in Season Two, she brought with her the anachronistic romanticism of a true knight. We first see her besting favored champion Ser Loras Tyrell (Knight of Flowers) in a tournament. When she presents herself to King Renly Baratheon and removes her helm, the crowd hushes in surprise. To his offer of prize, Brienne requests a place in his Kingsguard, which he gladly grants, despite her gender and lack of formal stature as a knight.

Brienne is the iconic knight of the chivalric sagas: noble, virtuous, compassionate and brave. Singularly honest and loyal. So much so that her contemporaries deride her as simple, naïve and stupid. As though embracing such virtues is outmoded, foolish and weak. That she is a woman—albeit tall, ungainly and considered unfeminine—makes her virtues all the more powerful and refreshing.

BrienneoftarthWhen King Renly is assassinated, Brienne swears fealty to Catelyn Stark and becomes her sworn sword. Catelyn charges Brienne to return her captive Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing to exchange him for her two daughters held hostage there. Their journey provides some of the best scenes of the TV series and some of the most fulfilling interactions. Throughout Jaime’s insufferable taunts about her appearance and likely dismal history with the opposite sex, Brienne remains stoically silent. Except when she speaks:

“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”—Brienne to Jaime Lannister, Game of Thrones

Essayist Brent Hartinger suggests that Brienne’s character is a well-written departure from fantasy novels where the main characters are commonly “the slender… average-heighted, the conventionally abled and traditionally gendered.”

Essayist Caroline Spector describes Brienne as a “study in heartbreaking contradictions. She embraces the romantic ideals of her culture, both emotionally and through her actions, but is continually betrayed by the real world simply because she cannot turn herself into the woman the Westerosi legends tell her she should be.”

By upholding her ideals of integrity, Brienne refuses to conform to the established cultural expectations. Her very nature—from physique to comportment to idealism—defies the notion in Westeros that women are to be taken or coerced, and meant to endure their lot; not be agents of their own change. Spector describes Brienne as a woman who has “taken for herself most of the attributes of male power.” She embodies “how women who dare to take male power for their own are judged and treated not only in Westeros but in all conventionally patriarchal societies.”brienne-jaime-GoT

The journey of Brienne and Jaime is a fine tale of initial antagonism, discovery, surprising tenderness and ultimate friendship, based on honour and mutual respect. Throughout, Brienne defends and encourages a flagging Jaime and he, in turn, saves her on several occasions, culminating in his return to rescue her from a brutal death in the bearpit.

What makes “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”—or any other scene in which Brienne and Jaime appear—so pleasing? We witness in the interactions between them an evolution in character, great opportunities for learning and redemption, and finally the development of an iconic friendship based on respect and equality—something normally reserved for individuals of the same sex—that neither had previously enjoyed. Like two souls missing something, each is a gift to the other. And though delivered differently, it is the same for both: honour, self-respect and faith in humanity. And neither is the same for their interaction.

brienne-jaime-swords“The bathhouse had been thick with the steam rising off the water, and Jaime had come walking through that mist naked as his name day, looking half a corpse and half a god.”—George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows

Brienne is the catalyst hero. She gives us hope. She gives us hope to save the world. She does this through her influence on others. By shear strength of her genuine goodness, Brienne transforms, challenges, and supports. She is über-strong, yet vulnerable; which Jaime recognizes and appreciates as something truly beautiful. The reason he returns to save her in the bear pit.

“I am grateful, but… you were well away. Why come back?”

A dozen quips came to mind, each crueler than the one before, but Jaime only shrugged. “I dreamed of you,” he said.—George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords

Jaime slides back to his scoundrel-self once returned safely to King’s Landing and out of Brienne’s sphere of influence—and beneath the shadow of his overbearing father. He is a chameleon, a shape shifter, who struggles to lift himself out from the shadow of his soulless father. Despite some continued reprehensible behavior (particularly to do with his sister, with whom he had formed a perverse relationship), Brienne’s light of honour appears to burn inside him in some form. His actions—tasking her to find and secure Sansa’s safety and giving her his own sword—maintains their honour-bond. When he gives her his longsword, forged of Valyrian steel, he asks her to name it; showing the cooperative respect between the two. She chooses the name Oathkeeper, fulfilling again her role in their story.

In fact, Brienne’s story follows a more traditionally male narrative. Her quest is to save the beautiful maiden (Sansa), but not to marry her or benefit from the quest; it is simply to secure her safety. Feminist writer Rihannon tells us that this is a storyline that “the mother, the young girl and the shieldmaiden are all given equal weight and worth…She uses her strength and her skill to respect and help other women in ways that most men in Westeros would never even think to attempt, because she understands, more than any other knight, that women are truly worth something as individuals.”

Are other women of Westeros poised to rise as true agents of change and takebrienne-of-tarth command not only of their lives but to save the world? Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon mother, liberates slaves; courage and a sense of justice animates the independent Arya. And we’ll see what becomes of Brienne…and Jaime.

I will continue to watch this series with uneasy anticipation.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

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“Interstellar” Is Love the God Particle?

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Cooper (Mat McConoughey)

Critical reception for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction blockbuster movie Interstellar was widely mixed. Reviews ranged from being dazzled and awestruck to thinking it utterly ridiculous and silly. Much of the range in opinion had in fact to do with the hard science: hard science that Nolan insisted he get right by hiring theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to best approximate what a black hole and a wormhole will look like and behave. Science so good that it generated a discovery worthy of reporting in a scientific journal (see below). The forums and chats that debated the last half-hour of the movie and its significance were entertaining, if not informative. Interstellar also generated a spate of vitriolic, accusing the film as propaganda for American colonialism (see a few examples below).

I first watched it in an IMAX theatre (the only way to see such an epic–it was filmed using 70mm Imax film, after all), which helped achieve its grandness. Since I was five, I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. And I’ve always been a sucker for good space adventure–especially well-researched, realistic depictions defined by a good story. And that is exactly what Interstellar is. 

I’ll admit openly that this film swept me up like a giant wave. I was humbled and exalted at the same time as it dropped me into some magnificent alien worlds. Deep space; a powerful spherical wormhole; vast shallow waters between mile-high waves of a tidally locked planet; skimming beneath ice-clouds of a barren ice-planet; and falling—literally—into a black hole. All to the recursive echoes of a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer. While I was openly moved during the film, its aftertaste caught me unawares and impressed me the most about Nolan’s talent for subtle paradox. I realized that the journey–and deep space–felt inexplicably vast and intimate at the same time.

The research by Thorne and Nolan’s visual team generated a scientific discovery. To accurately portray a black hole in the film, Thorne produced a new set of equations to guide the special effects team’s rendering software. Black holes apparently spin at nearly the speed of light, dragging bits of the universe along with it. Based on the notion that it was once a star that collapsed into a singularity, the hole forms a glowing ring that orbits around a spheroidal maelstrom of light, which curves over the top and under the bottom simultaneously. The team then discovered that “warping space around the black hole also warps the accretion disk,” explained Paul Franklin, senior supervisor of Double Negative (the visual experts). “So, rather than looking like Saturn’s rings around a black sphere, the light creates this extraordinary halo.” Thorne confirmed that they had correctly modeled a phenomenon inherent in the math he’d supplied and intends to publish several articles in scientific journals, based on these findings.

Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer defines good science fiction as: the literature of change; it’s about something “large” (world-important), arises from a scientific premise; and is generally pro-science. Interstellar achieves all of these criteria, particularly the latter.

Cooper and his daughter Murph
Cooper and his daughter Murph

The movie begins in the near-future on a post-climate change Earth, plagued by dust storms and failing crops in a society reverted to parochial superstition. Cooper (Mathew McConaughey), once a NASA pilot and now a farmer, laments: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

In a scene reminiscent of present day schools removing cursive writing from the curriculum or the controversy of teaching evolution (e.g., in favor of creationism), Cooper’s daughter’s teacher, Ms. Kelly, informs him at a parent-teacher meeting that the history textbooks have been rewritten to make known the “truth” about the moon landing: “I believe [the moon landing] was a brilliant piece of propaganda,” attests Ms. Kelly, “that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…And if we don’t want to repeat the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century, then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.”

The danger of turning away from scientific exploration—particularly space exploration—in times of great social and economic insecurity is a theme that runs deep in the film. Not only are scientists and engineers portrayed as whole individuals, both smart and compassionate, but they are also marginalized in a future world looking more to blame than to fix. “We didn’t run out of planes and television sets,” the principal of the school tells Cooper. “We ran out of food.”

Gargantua-black hole-planet
Black hole Gargantua

When a gravitational anomaly leads Cooper and his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) to a secret NASA base in the middle of nowhere, an old colleague, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), recruits him to pilot the interstellar Endeavor, NASA’s “Noah’s Ark”, into the far reaches of outer space to repopulate the human race. NASA has turned covert due to public pressure against “irrelevant or politically unfeasible” spending. After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” Cooper rejoins: “I’ve got kids.” To which Brand answers: “Then go save them.”

Millar's planet
Millar’s planet

Unbeknownst to us—and to Cooper, who leaves his precious children behind on Earth for what turns into a one-way mission—the intention is to literally leave the rest of humanity behind. You see, Cooper’s ship—headed toward one of three potentially habitable worlds beyond a wormhole near Saturn—contains the seeds of humanity and other life that the four astronauts aboard are meant to distribute and nurture. Cooper and Brand’s daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), one of the other three astronauts onboard, both believe that the real ark sits back on Earth in the form of a huge spaceship—awaiting Brand’s solution to the gravity issue. Brand knows, but keeps to himself, that the solution is insolvable and sends his intrepid crew off, knowing that Cooper will never see his young son and daughter again.

While Nolan admits to some iconic comparisons with Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey, Interstellaractually shares much more with the film Contact (in which Kip Thorne and McConoughey also participated). Contact also centered on a ground-breaking scientist daughter who misses her lost father. Mark Kermode, in a Guardian review also saw the relationship:

“In both movies, it is these daughters who detect the first stirrings of an “alien” encounter: Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) identifying recurrent sequences in the white noise of interstellar radiation in Contact; Murph (very affectingly played in her younger years by Mackenzie Foy) spying Morse code in poltergeist disturbances in Interstellar. From such discoveries are missions launched, voyaging across time and space at the apparent instruction of a superior intelligence offering cryptic hands across the universe. Intergalactic portals are breached, timescales bifurcated, science and faith reconciled. Crucially, for all their astro-maths exposition, the constant in both stories is neither time, space, nor gravity, but love. More than once I was reminded of Contact’s Ellie striking the outer limits of the universe and breathlessly declaring: ‘They should have sent a poet.’”

Interstellar’s American-centric presentation generated some criticism (e.g.,

Mann's planet
Mann’s planet

NASA acting alone without any international help; all American actors; American flags erected on settled colonies). Some even vilified the film as “a dangerous fantasy of US colonialism”. Journalist Abraham Riesman raises valid issues to do with human-centric expansionism in Interstellar:

“Coop and his coterie make one assumption that the movie never questions: Humanity (which, for all we ever see, is white, English-speaking America with a couple of black friends and one British guy) deserves to go to the stars and will suffocate if it’s confined to its current environs. That logic was, of course, one of the main justifications for most imperial expansions since the dawn of the 1800s. No one stops to ask whether this civilization (which, in the movie, appears to have murdered its home planet through human-caused climate change, though, for some reason nobody talks about that) needs to make some fundamental changes in its approach to social construction and resource use. Indeed, when we see the bright new future on Cooper Station, it’s all baseball and manicured lawns. Perhaps more important, no one questions whether human expansion will kill off the new planets’ current residents. Sure, we’re told that the planets are uninhabited … but uninhabited by what? Carbon-based humanoid lifeforms? What if we immediately kill off whatever fragile ecosystems we find once we take off our helmets and exhale our Earthly germs? Of course, I’m reading too much into a movie that isn’t even implying any of the messages I’m inferring, but that’s the problem right there: No one’s even asking the questions, and for humans, that kind of attitude usually leads to bad answers.”

Amelia Brand of the Endeavour
Amelia Brand of the Endeavour

What saves Interstellar from skidding into 20th Century pseudo-jingoistic expansionism with undertones of patriarchal rationalism, is its subversive theme. And because of it, the movie transcends into artistic commentary.

I speak of love. Love embodied by two of the main characters—both women: Cooper’s daughter, Murph, and his shipmate, Amelia Brand. Love that is irrational. Love that is unscientific. Love that is inexplicable. And love that is all powerful. Inviolate. Eternal. And, I believe, our salvation.

Aspects of “imperialist expansionism” and “patriarchal rationalism” interplay through Cooper, who embodies both in his “cowboy” science. Love propels his evolution to transcend them. In Cooper, we see the constant tension between rationality of science and the “irrational” faith of love. Related to this, Cooper must continually choose between the personal and the whole in defining his humanity and ultimately his hard choices. First with his daughter and her “ghost”, then with Amelia Brand in their mission to another galaxy.

After a botched mission, Amelia appears to abandon the very tenets of hard science to ask the defining question: “Maybe we’ve spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.” She describes love as a cosmic force, a kind of empathic drive that provides the very basis for humanity’s survival: a link to our wholeness as living beings within a breathing multi-dimensional universe. When Cooper challenges Amelia’s unscientific notions, she responds with, “Love isn’t something we invented. It’s observable, powerful … Maybe it’s evidence, some artifact of higher dimensions that we can’t consciously perceive.” Amelia nails it when she, in turn, challenges Cooper: if the second choice turns out bad, they will have enough fuel to do only one of two things: go on to the third planet in hopes of distributing the seeds of humanity OR go back home to his children. Which will he choose? It’s interesting what he does end up choosing: he chooses love. Love drives him to do impossible feats, like dock his shuttle with a damaged and recklessly spinning Endeavor:

CASE: That’s impossible

COOPER: No, it’s necessary

Love for Murph drives Cooper into the black hole … and out of it. Love directs him to that precise quantum moment where his love for Murph transcends into love for all humanity: to save the world. This is the secret. The secret Mann in his intellectualized definition of what it means to be human could not touch. The window for connection to the whole is through a single tiny grasp of it. The glimpse into Eternity is through the lens of love. I am reminded of a quote in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” In Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Itzhak Stern quotes the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Cooper travels into Gargantua
Cooper travels into Gargantua

So what is love, then? Is it gravity? Does it communicate through the God particle in the fractal fabric of the Higgs field? What other phenomenon grows from nothing? What other phenomenon is not lessened but in fact grows by giving it away? What other phenomenon provides the very weight and structure (the meaning) of our existence? What other phenomenon is like a whisper in a crowded room, yet creates the most beautiful symphony? Is it that simple?

If gravity is a plane of existence, a fifth dimension that can exist across space-time, is a black hole simply a doorway? Like death? Is love the fuel of evolution, lifting us up into a higher state?

Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft shares: “…Gravity is love on a material level. In fact, [gravity] has two movements: one is towards union, back to the center, the big bang, the past by gravity. And the other is to give itself out to all other beings, out into the future, the expanding universe, by energy and by entropy, which is energy giving itself out to the empty places.”

What struck me the most about Interstellar was how it simultaneously evoked my breathless awe in the vast universe’s existentialist grandeur with a personal connection and intimacy. Interstellar was soul-nourishing, dream-engaging; and its recursive themes called of “home”.

 

Definitions: 

Wormhole: Officially known as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would fundamentally be a shortcut through spacetime.

God Particle: Also known as the Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the God particle is believed to be the subatomic particle that gives everything mass. Without it, nothing would have weight or even structure. The Higg boson is an elementary particle with no spin, electric charge or colour charge. It is considered the smallest possible quantum excitation of the Higgs field that unlike the more familiar electromagnetic field cannot be “turned off”; instead it takes a non-zero constant value almost everywhere.

Higgs Field: In two papers published in 1964, Peter Higgs posited that particles obtain mass by interacting with a mysterious invisible energy force field that permeates the universe: the Higgs field. It is the stuff of stars, planets, trees, buildings and animals. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t stick together to make atoms; atoms wouldn’t make molecules and molecules wouldn’t make us. The presence of the Higgs field explains why some fundamental particles have mass while the symmetries (laws of nature) controlling their interactions should require them to be massless, and why the weak force has a much shorter range than the electromagnetic force.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction. Strange Horizons, IROSF, Europa SF and others. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her latest book, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua is a post-climate change story and essay published by Mincione Edizioni (Rome).

“Snowpiercer” and the Machine of Life

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Curtis stands up to the goons

What’s left of humanity—after we broke the world—is crammed in a speeding train that circles a frozen Earth … forever.

Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer is a stylish post-climate change apocalypse allegory. A dark pastiche of surrealistic insanity, welded together with moments of poetic pondering and steam-punk slick in a frenzied frisson you can almost smell. Joon-Ho casts each scene in metallic grays and blues that make the living already look half-dead. The entire film plays like a twisted steam-punkish baroque symphony. Violence personified in a garish ballet.

snowpiercer-violent balletThe train’s self-contained closed ecosystem is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. This film isn’t so much about climate change—which serves the premise of a study on how society functions—or rather copes—within a decadent capitalist system, based on an edict of productivity (which may indeed correlate with climate change): serve the machine of “life”. Satisfy the sacred machine at all costs; complete with subterfuge, oppression and references to cannibalism. Beneath the film’s blatant statement on the emptiness of the pursuit of capital at any cost lies a deeper more subtle exploration on the nature of humanity. Die to live or live to die?

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Curis Everett (Chris Evans)

In a recent interview with io9, Joon-Ho said, “the science fiction genre lends itself perfectly to questions about class struggle, and different types of revolution.”

Revolution brews from the back, lead by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), who confesses to a forced recruit, along the way, “A thousand people in an iron box. No food, no water. After a month we ate the weak. You know what I hate about myself? I know what people tastes like….I know that babies taste best.”

Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling

snowpiercer-mason
Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton)

class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that, “Eternal order flows from the sacred engine. We must occupy our preordained position. I belong to the front, you belong to the tail. Know your place!”

It’s all about the engine for both front and tail. It saved humanity, after all. It is their future. Curtis tells his colleagues that they will move forward: “We take the engine and we control the world. It’s time we take the engine.”

“Reform and revolution are shibboleths that distinguish liberals from radicals,” explains Aaron Bady of The New Inquiry. “While liberals want to reform capitalism, without fundamentally transforming it, radicals want to tear it up from the roots (the root word of “radical” is root!) and replace capitalism with something that isn’t capitalism…If you’re the kind of leftist who thinks that the means of production just need to be in better hands—Obama, for example, instead of George W. Bush, or Elizabeth Warren instead of Obama, or Bernie Sanders instead of Elizabeth Warren, and so on—then this movie buries a poison pill inside its protein bar: soylent green is people.”

snowpiercer-Yona
Yona (Ko Ah-sung)

The train “eats” the children of the poor; using them to replace the sacred engine parts that have worn out in a kind of retro-transhumanist collaboration of human and machine and creating a perverse immortal cyborg entity. Only, the individual children die in the process and need to be constantly replaced to maintain the eternal whole. They have become cogs in a giant wheel of eternity.

Curtis’s revolution is doomed from the start; once he reaches the front, it is revealed to him that the entire conflict and resulting deaths were orchestrated all along to help maintain population balance. Wilford (Ed Harris), the genius who created the train with a perpetual motion engine, tells Curtis once they meet that, “this is the world…The engine lasts forever. The population must always be kept in balance.” Which begs the obvious question: why not just get rid of all of the lower class “scum” (as Mason calls them)? That would make room for the privileged. What purpose do these lower class serve? Well, aside from providing their children as parts to the sacred engine, they are there to be hated, feared and despised by the elite. When the soul is empty and needs “filling” but can’t be filled, then it finds a substitute.

snowpiercer-revolution
Curtis leads the revolution

Aaron Bady of The New Inquirer relates, “Instead of giving Texans a health care system, for example, late capitalism gives them the illegal immigrant, to hate, to fear, and to dis-identify with. Prisons do more and more of the system-maintaining work that was once done by schools and hospitals: instead of giving us something to want, they give us something to fear, hate, and kill. And so, we eat ourselves.” We die to live.

Ed Harris
Ed Harris as Wilford

Wilford grooms Curtis as the new engineer and reveals to him the true nature of the engine. “You’ve seen what people do without leadership,” says Wilford to Curtis. “They devour one another.” This is dark irony considering what the train is doing. And it is when Curtis discovers this awful truth that his reformist revolution comes to a dead halt and he makes a decision that takes him into the realm beyond the train.

This movie is about hard choices and transcendence. … Save humanity, but at the consequence of our souls? Or transcend a machine that has robbed us of our souls at the expense of our mortality? The film continually questions our definition of what life is; what makes life worth living.

snowpiercer-gilliam2
Gilliam (John Hurt)

The film, whose script by Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson is based loosely on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, graphically portrays the fecklessness of a reformist/revolutionary movement to transcend the decadent capitalist machine (the train). It begins with the adoption of a failing system from a previously failed system. Perhaps it is a truism that most reformist movements fail to challenge the true hegemony of the system they intend to overtake, given their origin. What we get is little genuine change; just a shuffle in protocol.

Peter Frase of Jacobin Magazine shares that, “it’s all the more effective because the heart of that critique comes as a late surprise, from a character we might not expect.”

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Namgoog Minsoo (Song Kang-Ho)

Namgoog Minsoo (Song Kang-Ho) is a spaced-out drug addict that Curtis ‘liberates’ from a drawer to help them open the gates to the forward sections. Like everyone on the train, Nam is a little crazy. But he differs in one important way: he believes there is hope outside the train. Unlike his reformist brothers, he’s looked outside the construct, studied the realm beyond the train. Perhaps it is drug-induced fantasy. Perhaps he’s simply had enough of a lifetime of “non-life” onboard the train and would rather die outside to truly live, even if for a brief moment. When the chance for this moment materializes, we, like Nam and his daughter Yona (Ko Ah-sung), are more than ready to jump the train. In fact, we’re desperate to get off this shadow game of bread and circuses. Even if it means freezing to death in moments.

Only Yona and one of the rescued children from the engine, survive the train crash, thanks to Curtis’s truly revolutionary decision.

“Is it more revolutionary to want to take control of the society that’s oppressed you, or to try and escape from that system altogether?” asks Joon-Ho.

snowpiercer-posterI felt a cathartic surge of relief when the train came to a violent crashing stop; even though it effectively meant the end of humanity. My visceral response was incredible relief. The scene following the train crash was —despite the inhospitable and cold environment—surrealistically fresh, invigorating and serene. Along with Yona and one of the children Curtis rescued, we’ve escaped the rushing perversity: the obsession to survive at any cost. We’ve chosen to live to die.

As Yona and the child crunch through the snow in the quiet depth of coldness, they glimpse a polar bear. There is life! Perhaps not humanity. But life on Earth.

And in that connection, we live. Even if just for a moment.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction. Strange HorizonsIROSFEuropa SF and others. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her latest book, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua is a post-climate change story and essay published by Mincione Edizioni (Rome).

“Orphan Black” Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

orphanblack-EWCanadian science fiction thriller Orphan Black, written by Graeme Manson and directed by John Fawcett—now in Season Two—stars the extraordinary multi-talented Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles of herself—really.

Shot in and around Toronto, Ontario, the series focuses on Sarah Manning, a fringe-dweller with questionable friends, who assumes the identity of her clone, cop Elizabeth (Beth) Childs, after witnessing her suicide. In Season 1 alone, seven clones are revealed. Those still alive include suburban housewife Alison, university evolutionary biologist Cosima, corporate mogul Rachel, and crazed sociopath Helena. So far, two more have been revealed in Season 2.

Orphan Black is a slick, sophisticated and edgy exploration of human evolution that raises issues about the moral and ethical implications of bio-engineering and genetic tampering—specifically human cloning, personal identity and intellectual property.

Toronto is filmed brilliantly in a vague every-city pastiche that combines the look of London’s eastside, NYC and northern Europe all in one. Like its characters, the show is both sparsely existentialist and baroque funk. Besides Sarah’s own diverse clones there is foster brother Felix and his various friends or cronies who add significant colour to this film-noir set. Unsavory antagonists not only add intrigue but provide significant texture from sophisticated and subtle to the banal and truly terrifying. And like biology itself—perhaps the true main character here—all the characters are shape-shifters; looking for balance in a shifting world where “normal” keeps chasing itself.

helena-sestra on the go
Helena (Tatiani Maslany)

The metaphoric and allegorical nature of science fiction positions itself as a major commentary art form on our nature and evolution. With its emphasis on identity, rights and intellectual property, Orphan Black has positioned itself at the forefront of evolving science fiction.

“While other stories, including Jurassic Park and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, could certainly be categorized as biopunk science fiction, very few television shows and movies today delve into the idea of biology,” says Isabella Kapur in her article “Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black.”

Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

Orphan Black

Human cloning recently made a media comeback when three different research groups created embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells.

designer genesIssues, brought on by GMO foods and medical genetic research, have propelled a major debate in gene patenting. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled against patenting sequences of the human genome in Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al., reports Isabella Kapur in her article: Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black. “Myriad Genetics had patented two genes they had isolated that were identified as genes involved in increased ovarian and breast cancer risks,” said Kapur. “Companies, like Myriad, that spend money to identify nucleotide sequences want to be able to patent those discoveries. However, the patenting allows for monopolies on illness treatments and allows companies to have exclusive access to portions of human DNA. As of June [2013], companies like Myriad Genetics can’t legally copyright portions of DNA they have isolated in the human genome, but they are, according to the Supreme Court, allowed to patent synthetically created sequences of complementary DNA.”

leekie talk
Transhumanist Aldous Leekie promotes “self-directed evolution”

In Orphan Black, the ownership of the clones’ genomes by The Dyad Institute would be lawful if all the clones’ DNA was entirely synthetically made. The company would also have exclusive rights to study the clones’ genome, effectively placing the clone Cosima under copyright infringement if she decided to study and apply her research (on herself) outside of the Dyad Institute. If the clones were synthetic, like the DNA created by scientist Dr. Craig Venter, then the Dyad Institute would be in a unique situation with regards to ethics and newly emerging considerations of human rights yet to be determined. For instance, how much of the clones really belong to company that made them? What even constitutes a person?

Felix-neolutions
Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at a Neolution club

The series unravels a frightening panoply of stakeholders in this biological transhumanist game, spanning from the ultra-sophisticated to the deranged fanatic. Proletheans are religious extremists, who seek to systematically eliminate clones as “abominations” against the natural order of things. Pastor Henrick, a Waco-style cult “prophet” who quotes Einstein, conducts Mengele-style “breeding” experiments to recast humanity in his version of “perfection”.

eugenics-propaganda GermanyThe Dyad Institute, a biotech corporation with arcane connections to invisible powers and eugenics, patented the clones as theirs to do with as they please—which might be anything. The Neolutionists, a transhumanist movement pursuing “self-directed evolution” evokes social Darwinism and the Übermensch. All bring to mind the early American eugenics programs that inspired the fascist sonderweg and Hitler’s aggressive application of eugenics in the Holocaust. All are frightening.

For instance, why were the clones made? Who exactly is the Dyad Institute and who is behind them? In the latest episode (2.8: Variable and Full of Perturbation), we discover that not only are the clones female prototypes (of what?) but that they were purposefully created to be sterile.

Conditions of Existence…From Perfect Human to Perfect Society

Cosima
Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818—often regarded as the first science fiction story written—the “mad scientist” has endured and evolved as an archetype in literature. Literary works from science fiction to thriller, mystery, action adventure and even literary fiction have often portrayed scientists as sociopathic, and so consumed with their experiments that they are either oblivious to or outright disregard their social consequence. Most stereotypes and cliché derive from a realizable archetype based on social experience. In reality, ambition and political motive are dangerous bedfellows in the pursuit of science (to use another cliché). A recent book jacket introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shares the following examples: “the brains behind the nuclear arms race, scientists who create super bacteria, and laboratories that experiment with artificial black holes. But most notably is the area of science devoted to gene manipulation, both in genetically modified foods and human cloning. Frankenstein has much to teach us in a world where we constantly test the limits of science and human ambition.”

Eugenics congress logoWhere do we draw the line in our tightrope walk across the sea of chaos to find the Holy Grail? When does a Transhumanist’s individual expression of “transcendence” become a movement toward the Singularity? When does a singular powerful thought encompass an entire society?

The political ambitions that wish to use science to “enhance” humanity, based on someone’s idea of “perfect” carry great social implications. Enter the pseudoscience of eugenics, a concept as old as Plato, and one that has haunted humanity since the biblical portrayal of Adam and Eve. Simply put, eugenics uses science and/or breeding techniques to produce individuals with preferred or “better” characteristics. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenic strategies flourished in the USA in the early 20th Century when thousands of people underwent forced sterilization. Ultimately, these same principles inspired the Nazis to exterminate people with disabilities and those considered to have “lessor” ethnic or philosophical backgrounds.

orphan-black
Tatiana Maslany as several clones

“Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives,” says Cosima Herter, science consultant for Orphan Black. “Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with ‘scientific panaceas’,” Herter adds. “…Science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world.”

What is perfect and how do we measure it? What is the risk of even suggesting a recipe for such a thing? A perfect society? Isn’t a Utopia an oxymoron of unresolvable paradox? Science fiction literature has given us many visions of where so-called utopias may descend (e.g., Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451A Stranger in a Strange LandThe Handmaid’s TaleThe MatrixThe Hunger GamesElysiumDivergentClockwork OrangeDeliriumAlways Coming Home, and so many more). The very act of being an individual provides complexity and diversity that promotes stability in change. Stable chaos.

Perhaps, what Orphan Black demonstrates the best is that even clones—who are exactly the same genetically—can differ significantly, given free reign in a diverse environment.

What Orphan Black does exceptionally well is ask those hard questions. OK. It’s not asking the questions so much as presenting the “then” scenario to some pretty important “what if” premises. It’s doing what all good art—versus polemic—does: it’s providing the seeds for viewers to engage in intelligent conversation on emerging social issues via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media.

Join in.

You Want to Go to “The Island”

island-the-movie-2005From its metaphoric title to its powerful end, Director Michael Bay’s The Island had me fully engaged. Told in the genuine style of great science fiction commentary by screenwriters Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (in 2005), The Island reflects the escape-from dystopia films of the 1960s and 70s such as Fahrenheit 451, THX 1138, and Logan’s Run. This elegant story examines a full range of human foibles—consumerist greed, racism, fascism and isolationism—through a premise that is as frightening as it is possible.

In the year 2019, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) live in an isolated community where behavior is governed by a set of strict rules. This includes the avoidance of too close contact. Everything is the same; residents all wear the same white uniform and carry out simple duties. They’ve been told that the outside world is too contaminated for human life with the exception of one island. Everyone lives for the weekly lottery, where the winner gets to leave the compound to live on the island.

It’s a simple and banal existence. We glimpse a scene of adults reading Dick and Jane out loud. When in the opening scene Lincoln Six Echo finds a shoe missing in his provided wardrobe, this becomes a major focus of his day (when greeted by a colleague with, “How are you doing?” he responds with, “I’m missing a shoe.”)theisland-clones

Lincoln can’t accept this mundane existence. In an interview with Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), the scientist who runs the compound, Lincoln naively unleashes a tirade of items that frustrate him, like why everyone wears white, who determined tofu Tuesday, and then ends with: “I want to know answers and I wish there was more than just waiting to go to the island.” He also suffers from dreams about a life he doesn’t understand—they are, in fact, memories of his ‘sponsor’, the original man (Tom Lincoln) that he is a copy of. When he discovers a moth and follows it, he stumbles into the hidden part of the compound. There he witnesses what really happens to “lottery winners”: they are killed and used for organ harvesting, surrogate motherhood, etc. for each one’s sponsor.

the-island-merrick
Merrick (Sean Bean)

Lincoln is just an insurance policy. An ‘agnate’ according to Dr. Merrick, who describes them as in a “persistent vegetative state that never achieves consciousness” to clients, willing to pay millions of dollars for a second chance at life—and blithely unaware that ‘agnates’ are alive and fully formed with thoughts and feelings like them.

When Lincoln learns the truth, and knowing that Jordan just “won” the lottery, he convinces her to escape with him. Merrick hires Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), a mercenary and former GIGN veteran, to find and dispatch them.

The Island received mixed reviews from critics, island-helicopterwith a 40% “Rotten” rating, based on 185 reviews. Variety’s Justin Chang called the film an “exercise in sensory overkill.” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek lamented that when the film got really interesting, Bay seemed to think he needed “to throw in a car crash or round of gunfire to keep our attention.” If these critics found fault with this elegant action-thriller, I hate to see what they make of 90% of the so-called SF movies out there today. Unlike them, The Island provides a refreshing meaningful face to action-adventure.

Roger Ebert suggested that The Island missed the opportunity “to do what the best science fiction does, and use the future as a way to critique the present.” Again, I disagree. The Island does what the best science fiction does well: it examines the nature of our humanity through the choices we make in adversity within a future world and premise that provides great opportunity for abuse.

the-island-lalalala
Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou)

The theme of this parable is carried evocatively by Steve Jablonsky’s score. Like a swelling tide it sweeps us on a journey to some distant shore. From the melodic strings and yearning chorus, the music builds to a powerful conclusion at the film’s end, when it lifts us to victory, resonating with our divine evolution.

the island-Djimon_Hounsou-smileI was particularly struck by the timing of the strings and chorus with the appearance of Albert Laurent, walking among those he had just liberated. It is a pivotal and powerful moment that escalates into a resonating vibration of liberty and victory as his eyes meet briefly with Lincoln and Jordan, reunited, and he smiles—for the first time. A beautiful smile of inner joy. It is the smile of a man who has “come home” and is finally free.

Laurent’s subplot is particularly compelling and carries one of the principle elements of the film. In some ways, Laurent represents you and me, caught up in our societal ‘duties’, seduced by self-serving entrapments only to awaken to a path of courageous compassion for all of humanity. Laurent’s journey from jaded mercenary to liberating hero begins when he notices Jordan’s skin branding and, recognizing a connection with her plight, helps her free the mass of ‘defective’ lottery winners about to be incinerated. We learn that his father had been killed as a rebel and Laurent was ‘branded’ as less than human. So, there he walks, brilliantly black among the white-clad ‘agnates’ who slide down the hill after emerging from the underground bunker in which they were incarcerated.

the-island-escapeThis motion picture is ultimately about finding dignity in the face of adversity and ridicule. It is about confronting the bully and gaining victory over one’s own barriers of fear and doubt toward compassion. It is about the power of love and connection with humanity. It is about retribution and finding one’s true path through the knowledge that we are all one.

 

I am you; you are me. You are the waves; I am the ocean. Know this and be free, be divine.” Sri Sathya Sai Baba

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

 

“World War Z”

wwz-pitt-family running
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) gathers his family

I don’t watch zombie movies.

I steer away from them. I find them generally tasteless, unimaginative and lacking anything remotely connected to “story”. Most appear, at least from their trailers, to focus on violence and gore with little interest in anything else (what could be more gruesome than a person stalking then eating another?).
As a writer of science fiction and fantasy and avid fan of this genre in motion pictures, I lamented that zombies had become the “in thing” in stories and film these days. We’d just gotten over werewolves and vampires. Now I felt doomed by an infestation of the “undead”. I mean, how many ways can you portray such listless deadbeats?
Now there’s the action thriller “World War Z”. Despite my intrigue with the trailer, it took my trusted friend’s insistence for me to go see it. Remember: it’s a zombie movie and I don’t watch them.
I was vindicated in my trust of her good taste.
“World War Z” is not your typical zombie movie. In fact, to call it a zombie movie is to fail to acknowledge the deeper thematic reflections portrayed. What struck most was that this action thriller focused less on what zombies did (all that missing blood and gore that some reviewers lamented over gave me relief and gratitude) than on the effect of a plague that turned most of humanity into them. It actually had a story! While the motion picture apparently honored the iconic lore and criteria established in the zombie mythos, director Marc Forster and screen writers J. Michael Straczynski and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the book by Max Brooks) cleverly did not let themselves be limited by it. In fact, zombies per se serve more as plot tools in a far more interesting and deeper story arc and theme.  wwz-jerusalem
I’m referring to the subtle notes of ecology, biology and co-evolution interlaced throughout this visually stunning and rather disturbing film. What happens when you disturb Nature? The opening titles and scenes show a montage of curious and subtly dark reflections on the consequences of our general indifference to Nature and her growing unbalanced ecosystems. “Mother Nature is a serial killer,” virologist Andrew Fassbach tells our hero during his first—and last—ten  minutes on screen. During that short time they spend together, Fassbach shares some key insights into how Gaia plays. And she doesn’t always play “fair”. Fassbach also tells us that this zombie plague started with a virus. Which brings up some interesting questions. Was it an “intelligent virus”, manufactured and introduced? Did the virus co-evolve with some organism as an aggressive symbiont and was spontaneously triggered by a disturbance? What was that disturbance and was it an accident or a mistake? How did it come to be?
I didn’t fail to notice the reference to swarming ant colonies in the title montage that foreshadowed a later scene of zombies piling onto each other on the walls of Jerusalem in a frenzied search for warm bodies to eat. This is clearly a film about Nature’s powers and mysteries. You can be sure that questions about what triggered and defined the zombie plague will be addressed in the sequel, already scheduled. Because, like any serial killer, Mother Nature wants to be caught, says Fassbach.
Co-Evolution & Symbiogenesis
Which brings me to what this film really touches on: how Mother Nature takes care of herself and her own… whether we like it or not. The key is evolution and something called co-evolution: this is when two normal aggressors cooperate in an evolutionary partnership to benefit each other. Ehrlich and Raven coined co-evolution to explain how butterflies and their host plants developed in parallel. I wrote about it in an earlier post called “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Aggressive Symbiosis
  
wwz-zombie-ant hillVirologist Frank Ryan calls co-evolution “a wonderful marriage in nature—a partnership in which the definition of predator and prey blurs, until it seems to metamorphose to something altogether different.” Co-evolution is now an established theme in the biology of virus-host relationships. The ecological “home” of the virus is the genome of any potential host and scientists have remained baffled by the overwhelming evidence for ‘accommodation’.“Today…every monkey, baboon, chimpanzee and gorilla is carrying at least ten different species of symbiotic viruses,” says Ryan.
“Why,” asks Ryan, “is co-evolution [and its partner, symbiosis] such a common pattern in nature?” Ryan coined the term “genomic intelligence” to explain the form of intelligence exerted by viruses and the capacity of the genome to be both receptive and responsive to nature. It involves an incredible interaction between the genetic template and nature that governs even viruses. Symbiosis and natural selection need not be viewed as mutually contradictory. Russian biologists, Andrei Famintsyn and Konstantine Merezhkovskii invented the term “symbiogenesis” to explain the fantastic synthesis of new living organisms from symbiotic unions. Citing the evolution of mitochondria and the chloroplast within a primitive host cell to form the more complex eukaryotic cell (as originally theorized by Lynn Margulis), Ryan noted that “it would be hard to imagine how the step by step gradualism of natural selection could have resulted in this brazenly passionate intercourse of life!”
Aggressive Symbiosis
In his book, “Virus X” Dr. Frank Ryan coined the term “aggressive symbiont” to explain a common form of symbiosis where one or both symbiotic partners demonstrates an aggressive and potentially harmful effect on the other’s competitor or potential predator. Examples abound, but a few are worth mentioning here. In the South American forests, a species of acacia tree produces a waxy berry of protein at the ends of its leaves that provides nourishment for the growing infants of the ant colony residing in the tree. The ants, in turn not only keep the foliage clear of herbivores and preying insects through a stinging assault, but they make hunting forays into the wilderness of the tree, destroying the growing shoots of potential rivals to the acacia. Viruses commonly form “aggressive symbiotic” relationships with their hosts, one example of which is the herpes-B virus, Herpesvirus saimiri, and the squirrel monkey (the virus induces cancer in the competing marmoset monkey). Ryan suggests that the Ebola and hantavirus outbreaks follow a similar pattern of “aggressive symbiosis”. All you need is a perceived hostile trigger. A disturbance in an otherwise balanced ecosystem, for instance.
Aggressive Symbiosis & Human History
The historian, William H. McNeill, suggested that a form of “aggressive symbiosis” played a key role in the history of human civilization. “At every level of organization—molecular, cellular, organismic, and social—one confronts equilibrium [symbiotic] patterns. Within such equilibria, any alteration from ‘outside’ tends to provoke compensatory changes [aggressive symbiosis] throughout the system to minimize overall upheaval.”
So…what triggered the zombie plague of “World War Z”? And how will humanity prevail in this new paradigm of nature? I guess we’ll have to watch the sequel…

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange HorizonsIROSFEuropa SF, and Amazing Stories. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. Nina teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“Oblivion”: Earth is a Memory Worth Fighting For…

oblivion-high-rise-cliffsI just recently experienced the visually stunning motion pictureOblivion in an IMAX theatre and I highly recommend it. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (based on his graphic novel), this SF action thriller is worth seeing on the big screen. It takes place in a devastated NYC (no longer recognizable as a vast lonely landscape of buried skyscrapers and dried up rivers). It’s 2077, sixty years after aliens invaded and destroyed the moon and much of the planet as consequence. This film is LARGE. Kosinki’s spectacular imagery and M83’s other-wordly and evocative score must be seen large.

Technician Jack Harper (Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Andrea Riseborough) are assigned to mop up the remaining resource extraction of a “fallen” Earth, before they join what’s left of the human race, who have settled on Titan, Jupiter’s moon. Victoria oversees operations and communicates with mission commander Sally (Melissa Leo) in the Tet (a large space station orbiting Earth) from the 3,000-foot high Sky Tower, a posh high-tech home/work station where she and Jack live. Meantime, Jack risks his life daily, servicing the droids that chase after “scavs” (remnant aliens), who keep sabotaging the giant resource harvesters.

Oblivion harvesters
Harper has lunch with harvesters in background

Jack and Victoria have been stationed there for five years and are due to leave in two weeks. Faced with the prospect of leaving Earth, Jack grows maudlin for humanity’s home. Without disclosing to Victoria or Sally, he’s been collecting Earth memorabilia (e.g., baseball cap, toys, sunglasses, books); It doesn’t help matters that he is haunted by dreams of living in pre-war NYC with another woman (Olga Kurylenko).oblivion-tom-cruise

Every day Jack leaves his ultra clean and tidy Sky Tower home and descends to Earth’s gritty and dangerous landscape. On some level, he thrills in the place, finding a strong connection between its vast and lonely landscape and his own identity. Jack is a man in search of an identity; he was ‘mindwiped’, after all (to keep the scavs from getting important intel if he was ever captured). Jack desperately summons shadows of memories and collects Earth memorabilia every chance he gets. “Is it possible to miss a place you’ve never been, to mourn a time you’ve never lived?” he reflects. When he finally learns what he truly is and the heinous role he (and those like him) unknowingly played in the near-destruction of humanity, Jack does the only thing he can; he sacrifices himself to save what’s left of humanity and those he loves: “If we have souls, they’re made of the love we share. Undimmed by time, unbound by death.”

Oblivion-TET
The TET orbiting Earth

Showatcher.com calls Oblivion“a slick 21st century science fiction pulp actioner” with genuinely amazing CGI and action set pieces. Showatcher adds that “it was refreshing to witness a film that, though it did not break new ground, held the attention of a jaded sci-fi audience.” A large part of its attention appeal lies in its “techno-bass” musical score composed by Joseph Trapanese and Anthony Gonzalez with M83 (a French electronic/shoegaze band named after the spiral galaxy Messier 83). They elegantly orchestrated a score that was locked in step with the narrative imagery of Claudio Miranda in a viscerally synchronized life-pulse. The score surges and ebbs like an intelligent sea; at times assaulting the senses with an open-throated tsunami of crushing sound; at others a throbbing caress of longing nuance.

Oblivion-Movie-TET
Harper’s ship enters the TET

Many reviewers (see the litany on Rotten Tomatoes) have trashed the film for various reasons, from plot holes and appropriation, mismanagement of suspense, to it being a Tom Cruise film. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls Oblivion “bafflingly solemn, lugubrious and fantastically derivative sci-fi, which serves up great big undigested lumps of Total RecallAIPlanet of the Apes–with little snippets of Top Gun.”

Oblivion-morgan freeman
Morgan Freeman plays a rogue Earther

Roy Klabin of Policymic is less kind: “Unfortunately, I got to see an early preview and doubt it will satisfy even the most dim-witted of audiences…the film’s unsubtle commentary on our own use of robotics in warfare is lackluster and anticlimactic…the weak story is sprinkled with a heavy dosing of famous actors [with] wooden-faced expressionless performances.”

 

David Dizon of ABS-CBN News calls Oblivion “an idea-movie, except the idea seems like a rehash of ideas from other, much better sci-fi flicks.” He and others cite Mad MaxMoon2001: A Space OdysseyHaloMatrix, and Star Wars Episode 1 as examples. Dizon calls Oblivion “a pretty movie served cold.” He claimed that the movie’s sin wasn’t in the “idea” department, but in the way it was executed.

I couldn’t disagree more on all counts.

oblivion-movie-directed by Joseph KosinskiOblivion is not a “pretty movie” and certainly not served cold. Vast. Beautiful. Eerie. Elegant. Visceral. Memorable. I also saw many similarities with the various films Dizon and others mentioned (I would include Bladerunner and Solaris in the mix). But here’s the thing: science fiction is the literature of “the large”. SF metaphorically explores our evolution, the meaning of our existence and our place in the universe through premise and idea. It is not surprising that viewers will see similarities with other films in Kosinski’s meditation on the nature of the soul, identity, self-actualization, love and community.

Several reviewers suggest that the film flirts with such big questions” yet makes no effort to fully answer them. Showatcher adds, “Where the film falls short is not in its visual styles; and its pacing can be forgiven in that it actually builds to a satisfying conclusion. The film falters with its need to include cliched action set-ups… the film addresses some very interesting questions of the human soul, religion, and the meditation of loneliness; however, it never takes it as far as it could. Instead we are left with a slick visual style and action scenes.”oblivion-skytower sunset

Good art always asks the big questions; unlike propaganda and polemic, good art also lets the viewers answer those big questions for themselves. This concept is not as palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers.

Some movies are like appetizers or snacks. Others, like Kosinki’s Oblivion, returns the film experience to a full meal, engaging all one’s senses and where sound (its own character) marries with setting and actors to create an epic and heart-thrilling experience. Like many things in life, and certainly in good art, the most potent aspect of communication lies in the often subtle and oblique non-verbal narrative. Good art “shows more than it “tells”.

For those receptive to his art, Kosinski–like Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Soderbergh in Solaris–lets the imagery and score express a sensual dance that invokes both mind and heart.

In the final analysis, Oblivion is a simple film dressed elegantly. Oblivion goes beyond surface plot constructs and intellectual proselytizing; it dives deep into thematic representation to pose questions on identity, love, community, and the meaning of “home”. Rather than offer up a platter-full of rhetoric, Kosinsky keeps the narrative slim; instead, he provides us with a multi-filigreed tapestry of sensual possibility.

And choices.

After making the startling discovery of who and what he is, Jack transcends his “mind wipe” and remembers what is worth remembering. In a final scene, Jack tells Sally why he is doing what he must do, even though it means his certain death. He quotes from an old book that he’d picked up earlier in the movie (Lays of Ancient Rome narrated by Centurian Horatius): “to every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late. And how can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods.”

Ben Kendrick of “Screenrant” summarizes what lies at the core of the film: “Oblivion could have easily been a convoluted and indulgent movie-going experience; instead, the film keeps a restrained focus on Jack’s character journey—which, thankfully, is an “effective team” of drama and post-apocalyptic adventure.”

Do me a favor; when you go into the theatre to watch this film, park your intellectual self at the door and bring all your senses with you. This film needs to be FELT. Prepare to participate.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

“Solaris”

solaris01Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox (and recently out on video), eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris (released on video this past fall), I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

This review originally appeared in April 2004 Issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.