“Advantageous”

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There are women with voices and brains and power and intelligence that have been waiting for this moment.”—Director Jennifer Phang

 

Advantageous is a low budget indie film by Jennifer Phang that explores a near-future world—a kind of “pre-dystopia”, according to Katharine Trendacosta of io9—where jobs have become heavily automated and opportunities for education are cutthroat. Women have been generally forced out of the workplace and onto the streets: the logic being that they will be less violent while living on the street than men.

While the world vaguely resembles a vibrant City with flying ships and some bizarrely futuristic architecture (including a high rise that functions as a giant water feature), a sense of unease permeates most scenes, punctuated by occasional terrorist explosions and snippets of disturbing news reports. Artificial intelligence has supplanted most people in middle management, “The people you do see are either impoverished and disenfranchised or are hidden in the upper floors, the protected places,” says director Jennifer Phang. Unemployment is close to 50% and there are no public schools. The only options for a young girl—if she is not to end up on the streets, either as a beggar or prostitute—is to attend a highly selective free magnet school or a very expensive private school.Advantageous 3

Gwen Koh (Jacgueline Kim) is the spokeswoman of the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a wellness corporation that offers health and beauty treatments to an elite who can afford it. When the Center informs her that she looks too old, Gwen—desperate to secure her bright daughter’s expensive education—submits to the experimental treatment she was initially hired to promote. Jules hadn’t made it into the free magnet school, leaving Gwen to come up with extensive funds to get her into a private school. The corporation has subtly backed Gwen into a corner by reminding her that her generation doesn’t have the skills to compete—all of education currently being STEM-based—and they fully understand that she is too old and too unconnected to do anything other than offer herself up to their new procedure to secure her position and a future for her daughter Jules. Constantly walking the edge of privilege, Gwen struggles to make the elite-connections necessary to place Jules. “Gwen is too old, too female, and too unconnected to do anything other than offer herself up as a sacrifice,” writes Trendacosta.

Advantageous02The true nature of her sacrifice is not understood at first; it unravels slowly, like an internal wound, until we learn that the procedure—putting her memories into a younger person’s body—means that Gwen’s “mother-connection” awareness with her daughter will be lost when her original body dies in the procedure. This is particularly significant, given their close and loving relationship, which is evocatively conveyed throughout the film.

Advantageous “is riveting, emotionally gripping, and offers up a vision of the future that is disturbingly easy to picture, even as some of the technologies it imagines seem out of reach,” says Ariel Schwartz of Business Insider Magazine. While the trope of mind-upload into a younger, prettier body has been around for while in standard SF, how Phang presents it, in the muted notes and pace of “everyday” and “mundane” events, brings a kind of realism to it that both invigorates and chills. Like watching a building explode in person rather than on TV. The immediacy and reality of it is visceral. Phang does this through sparing use of sound, language and colour. And all presented in a pace that does not rush, but lingers and reflects. Long moments of quiet punctuate scenes of significance, giving us the chance to examine, resonate and reflect in “real-time” with the character. These, in themselves, provide some of the most poignant footage of the film as we are given the time to descend into deeper reflection. Each plays out, short vignettes of life that string together like pearls on a necklace. Life moments. Unflinchingly and confidently performed at the pace of life.  advantageous-4

In one of many quietly powerful scenes, Gwen stumbles upon a street woman, huddled in a small grassy alcove under an old blanket. When Gwen asks her if she is okay, the woman instead responds, “Are you okay?” This is a natural response for a woman; we think of others, of their welfare. We carry the “mother” archetype within us, everywhere we go, no matter what befalls us. This natural sense of compassion and altruism runs through our blood.

And, yes, it makes us a different kind of hero.

Gwen’s heroics are not accompanied by percussive violence or gut-wrenching action; they are silent choices that percolate from deep within. They are choices that ultimately bleed into great consequence.

“The plot suggests a standard ‘body swap’ sci-fi storyline,” says Danielle Riendeau of Polygon. “But Advantageous is much more about motherhood, the sacrifices women make for their children, and to a large extent, the difficulties of being a non-white woman in an increasingly intolerant society. The writing, directing and performances are so strong that they elevate the film far beyond a simple twist on a classic trope. Advantageous is a potent, heartbreaking meditation on parental love and the sacrifices women make for their families. It has a lot to say, and it does so with clear-eyed, fearless intensity.”

Trendacosta writes, “People are going to judge Advantageous by the things it lacks. There are no battles, no mustache-twirling villains, and not even any giant science fiction spectacle sets. People are also going to judge it for what it has. There are some intense discussions of classism, racism, ageism, sexism, and elitism. But don’t judge this movie for either of those things—instead, it’s worth appreciating for all the things it does so incredibly well.”

What Advantageous does so incredibly well is portray a near-future vision worth pondering and discussing.

 

nina-2014aaaNina 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.”

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

“World War Z”

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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.