Reviews

The Unexpected Protocol of “I, Robot”

irobot-coverI reread Dr. Isaac Asimov’s 50+ year old masterpiece, I, Robot, in preparation for the 2004 Twentieth Century Fox motion picture of the same name, knowing fully well that to appeal to today’s action-thriller rollercoaster-addicted audience there was no way the movie and the book could even come close. I was right. But not the way, I thought I would be.

The movie, directed by Alex Proyas, begins with the three laws of robotics: that robots must not harm a human being; they must obey human orders, so long as this does not violate the first law; and they must protect their own existence, so long as that doesn’t violate laws one and two. Apart from these three laws and the use of the same title and some of the character names, the motion picture appears to radically depart from Asimov’s book, first published by Doubleday in 1950. To give Twentieth Century Fox credit, the film does not pretend to be the same as the book; I noticed that in the credits the movie was “suggested by,” rather than “based on” Asimov’s work. But how different was it, really? I submit that the two are much more similar than they first appear.

Surficial differences between book and motion picture are nevertheless glaring. First off, Asimov’s, I, Robot, is essentially a string of short stories that evolve along a theme; much in the vein of the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The book is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Susan Calvin, a plain and stern robo-psychologist, who gets along better with robots than with humans. Dr. Asimov uses this cold and colorless character as a vehicle to stir undercurrents of poignant thought on the human condition through a series of deceptively mundane tales. I, Robot offers a treatise both of humanity’s ingenuity and its foibles and how these two are inexorably intertwined in paradoxes that speak to the ultimate truth of what it is to be human. Each of his nine stories discloses a metaphoric piece of his clever puzzle. The puzzle pieces successively tease us through the three laws of robotics, as ever more sophisticated robots toil with their conflicts when dealing with perceived logical contradictions of the laws. For instance, there is “Robbie,” the endearing nursemaid robot. Cutie (QT-1) is a robot Descartes in “Reason.” In “Liar,” Herbie has problems coping with the three laws as a mind-reading robot. And in “Little Lost Robot,” Susan Calvin must out-smart Nestors — or the NS-2 — model robots, whose positronic brains were not impressioned with the entire First Law of Robotics. The larger question and ultimate paradox posed by the three laws culminate in Asimov’s final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” which subtly explores the role of “free will” and “faith” in our definition of what it means to be human.

The book jacket aptly describes I, Robot this way: “…humans and robots struggle to survive together — and sometimes against each other … and both are asking the same questions: what is human? And is humanity obsolete?” Interestingly, the latter part of the book jacket quote, which accompanied the 1991 Bantam mass-market edition, can be interpreted in several ways.

Asimov’s stories span fifty years of robot evolution, which play out mostly in space from Mercury to beyond our own galaxy. Proyas’s movie is set in Chicago in 2035 and condenses the time frame into a short few weeks with some flashbacks from several years prior. This serves the film well but at some cost. What is gained in tension and focus is lost in scope and erudition, two qualities often best left to the literary field. Asimov’s tales are quirky, contemplative, and thoughtful. The film version is more direct, trading these for a faster pace, pretty much a prerequisite in the film industry toda

The original screenplay, entitled “Hardwired” by Jeff Vinter, was reworked by Akiva Goldsman into a techno-thriller/murder mystery directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City) with its requisite hard-boiled detective cop (Will Smith) and a ‘suicide’ that looks suspiciously like murder. Smith’s character (a Hollywood invention, so don’t go looking for him in the book) is a 20th century anachronism: a Luddite who wears retro clothes and sets his computer car on manual. The story centers on Spooner’s investigation of a so-called suicide by Dr. Alfred Lanning, robot pioneer and the originator of the three laws of robotics. Lanning was an employee of U.S. Robotics, a mega-corporation run by Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood). Robertson relies on the real brains, V.I.K.I, the corporation’s super-intelligent virtual computer.

i robot end
Where abandoned robots congregate

With a “simple-minded” plot (according to Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) and a lead character who is little more than a “wisecracking … guns-a-blazin’… action-hero cliché” (Rob Blackwelder, Splicedwire), the motion picture rendition of Asimov’s ground-breaking book promises little but disappointment for the literate science fiction fan according to many critics. I disagree. I was not disappointed. This is both despite and because of director Alex Proyas’s interpretation of Asimov’s book and his three laws. Several critics focused on the surficial plot at the expense of the subtle multi-layered thematic sub-plots contrived by a director not known for creating superficial action-figure fluff. I think this critical myopia was generated from critics admittedly not having read Asimov’s masterpiece. Familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is a prerequisite to recognizing the subtle intelligence Proyas wove into his otherwise playful and glitzy Hollywood techno-thriller.

While literate science fiction fans will certainly recognize the names of Lanning, Calvin and Robertson, these movie characters in no way resemble their book counterparts. Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a robo-psychologist, but in the movie she is far from plain and her wooden performance fails to disguise that she is clearly ruled by her feelings, unlike the coldly logical book character. The lead character in the film, Del Spooner (Will Smith) is, of course, a Hollywood fabrication, along with an entourage of requisite techno-thriller components: spectacular chase and battle scenes, explosions, lots of shooting, and some romantic tension. The film is also fraught with Hollywood clichés: for instance, repressed psychologist (Moynahan), who typically speaks in three-syllabic words, encounters cynical anti-hero beefy cop (Smith) whose rude attentions help transform her into a gun-slinging kick-ass warrior.

And: ‘evil’ machine turns against its masters to rule the world. But Proyas also treats us to some of the most convincing portrayals of a futuristic metropolis, complete with seamlessly incorporated CGI-generated robots and an evocative score by Peter Anthony. Dr. Asimov fans will, of course, also recognize certain aspects of the book in the movie, such as a scene and concepts borrowed from “Little Lost Robot.”

Despite the clichés and comic-action razzle-dazzle, Proyas manages to preserve the soul and spirit of Dr. Asimov’s great creation. He does this by allowing us to glimpse some of Asimov’s elevated theme, if not his more complex questions. Indeed the most poignant scenes in the movie are those, which involve the ‘humanity’ of the robot called Sonny (Alan Tudyk). A unique NS-5 model with a secondary processing system that clashes with his positronic brain, Sonny is capable of rejecting any of the three laws and hence provides us ironically with the most complex (and interesting) character in the movie. Sonny is both humble and feisty, a robot who dreams and questions. For me, this was not unlike the several stirring scenes in Asimov’s “Liar,” where the mind-reading robot, Herbie, when dealing with the complex nature of humans, unintentionally caused its own destruction (with the help of a bitter Dr. Calvin) by trying to please everyone by telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. Sonny’s complex character (like any character with depth) keeps you guessing. Sonny asks the right questions and at the end of the film we are left wondering about his destiny and what he will make of it. This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in “The Evitable Conflict.”

I-Robot-Sonny
Sonny hides among his own

Which brings me back to the foundation shared by both book and movie: the three laws of robotics, the infinite ways that they can be interpreted, and how they may be equally applied to robot or human. The laws may apply physically or emotionally; individually or toward the whole of humanity; long-term or short-term … the list is potentially endless. Asimov’s collection of stories centers on these questions by showing how robots deal with the conflicts the perceived contradictions present by the laws. Asimov’s last story describes a world run by a network of powerful but benevolent machines, who guide humankind through strict adherence to the three laws (their interpretation, of course!). Taking his cue from this, Proyas cleverly takes an old cliché—that of ‘evil’ machine with designs to rule the world—and turns it upside down according to the first law of robotics. His ‘evil’ machine turns out not to be evil, but misguided. V.I.K.Y acts not out of its own interests, like the self-preserving HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the best interests of humankind (at least according to the machine). Citing humanity’s self-destructive proclivity to pollute and make war, V.I.K.Y decides to treat us as children and pull the plug on free-will. Viewed from the perspective of the first law, this is simply a logical, though erroneous, extrapolation of ‘good will’; and far more interesting than the workings of simple ‘evil,’ which I feel is much overdone and overrated in films these days. The well-meaning dictator possessed of the hubristic notion that he holds all the keys to the happiness and well-being of others smacks of a reality and a humanity all too prevalent in well-meaning governments today. It is when the line between ‘good-intentions’ and ‘wrong-doing’ blur that things get really interesting. Both Asimov and Proyas explore this chiaroscuro in I, Robot, though in different ways. The challenge is still the same: If given the choice of ending war and all conflict at the expense of ‘free will,’ would we permit benevolent machines to run our world? Or is it our destiny—and requirement for the transcendence of our souls—to continue to make those mistakes at the expense of a life free of self-destruction and violence?

On the surface, Proyas offers the obvious answer. He likens the benevolent machine to an overprotective parent, who in the interests of a child’s safety, prevents the enrichment of that child’s heart, soul, and spirit otherwise provided by that very conflict. Asimov is far more subtle in “The Evitable Conflict” and while these questions are discussed at length, they remain largely unanswered.

In one of his most clever stories, “Evidence,” near the end of his book, Dr. Asimov expounds on the three laws to describe the ultimate dilemma: of defining and differentiating a human-looking robot with common sense from a genuine human on the basis of psychology. Asimov’s Dr. Calvin says: “The three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems.  Every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, is supposed to defer to proper authority. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another. That’s Rule One to a robot. To put it simply, if [an individual] follows all the Rules of Robotics, he may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man.” Proyas metaphorically (if not literally) explores the question of “what is human” with his robotic character, Sonny.

In a stirring scene of the motion picture where Sonny is prepared for permanent shut down, Dr. Lanning expounds on his belief that robots could evolve naturally: “There have always been ghosts in the machine… random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul… Why is it that when some robots are left in the dark they will seek the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter moat of the soul?” Near the end of the film, Sonny, having fulfilled his initial purpose (i.e., stopping V.I.K.Y.), asks Spooner, “What about the others [NS-5s, recalled for servicing and storage]? Can I help them? Now that I have fulfilled my purpose I don’t know what to do.” To this, an enlightened Spooner answers: “I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny… That’s what it means to be free.”

Proyas gives us a strong indication of what his film was really about by ending not with Spooner—his lead action-figure character who has just saved humanity from the misguided robot army—but with Sonny, the enigmatic robot just embarking on his uncertain journey. The motion picture closes with a final scene of Sonny, resembling a messianic figure on the precipice of a bluff, overlooking row upon row of his lesser robotic counterparts.

sonny leading
Sonny finds a following…

We are left with an ambiguous ending of hope and mystery. What will Sonny do with his abilities, his dreams, and his potential “following”? Will his actions be for the betterment of humankind and/or robots? Will society trust him and let him seek and find his destiny or, like Asimov’s fearful “Society for Humanity,” will we squash them all before they get so complex and powerful that not only do we fail to understand them but we have no hope of controlling them? This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in his book. In it, Stephen Byers (a humanoid AI), and robo-psychologist, Susan Calvin, discuss the fate of robots and humanity. Ironically, it is through her interaction with robots that Susan discovers a human trait that may be more valuable to humanity than exercising “free will”: that of faith. It is she who confronts the coordinator with these words: “…How do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its.” Then to his challenge that human kind has lost its own say in its future, she further responds with: “It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand … at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war…Now the Machines understand them…for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable.” This quote in Asimov’s final story may horrify or anger some, even as it may inspire and reassure others. But, if true “free will” is largely a self-perpetuated myth of the Western pioneer movement, then we are effectively left with respect and faith in oneself and in others. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what both Asimov and Proyas had in mind.

It is interesting to note that Harlan Ellison and Asimov collaborated on a screenplay of I, Robot in the 1970s, which Asimov said would provide “the first really adult, complex worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.” Am I disappointed that this earlier rendition, most likely truer to the original book, did not come to fruition? No. That is because we already have that story. You can still read the book (and I strongly urge you to, if you have not). Proyas’s film I, Robot is a different story, with a different interpretation. And like the robot’s own varying interpretation of the three laws, it is refreshing to see a different human’s interpretation expressed.

 

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, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She 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 byEditura Paralela 45. Her latest release is La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), a story about water and climate change.

The Paradoxes of “Aeon Flux”

When I was first tantalized by the high-speed head-smashing trailer for the Paramount motion picture, Aeon Flux, directed by Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) and released in late 2005 (now on DVD), I was blissfully unaware of its history: that it was based on the darkly irreverent and raunchy 1995 MTV Liquid Television animated SF series created by Korean American animator, Peter Chung. The series achieved cult status among a select audience of insoniacs (it played at midnight on MTV, if that tells you anything). This may have worked in my favour. I had no expectations or preconceptions, except for a hair-flying ride. As a result, when the content (written by Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay) had merit as social commentary, I counted it as a bonus. But, then there was the matter of the reviews that emerged between the trailers airing and my seeing the film.

Unfortunately for the motion picture, Paramount’s lack of press-screenings (and subsequent press reaction because of those lack of screenings) may have predisposed critics to dislike it. And many provided negative, though conflicting, reviews; as if they couldn’t all agree on why they didn’t like the film. Kieth Breese (Filmcritic.com) found the film “gorgeously surreal and vacuously arty.” According to Jami Bernard (New York Daily News), “in the dystopian future [of Aeon Flux], apparently, women will be bendable Barbies in leather scanties, and everyone will speak like brain-dead robots…a silly live-action movie.” Justin Chung (Variety.com) decided that Aeon Flux protrayed “the future [as] alternatively grim and hysterical…a spectacularly silly sci-fier.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times said that Aeon Flux was “flooded with colors and chilly effects [but was] drained of emotional interest, to say nothing of narrative coherence.” And, finally, William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “too somber and cerebral for the young action crowd.” Silly or too cerebral? In truth, this disappointment is because the Aeon Flux movie was wrongly perceived (and wrongly marketed) as an action thriller; it is more aptly described as a dystopian political thriller—not the brazen cry of V for Vendetta—but a subtle cautionary tale of the consequences of complacency, greed and living in absense of—and trying to cheat—nature.

In typical dystopian fashion, we join the Aeon Flux story roughly four hundred years after an industrial-related virus has killed 99% of the world’s population. Scientist, Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) has developed a cure and the Goodchild dynasty secures a home for the five million survivors in the last city on Earth, Bregna, a paradise walled off from the unrestrained wilderness that ever-threatens them. Dystopias, like Bregna, often appear utopian on the surface, exhibiting a world free of poverty, hardship and conflict, but with some fatal flaw at their core. A dystopia (“dys”=bad; “topos”=place) is a fictional society that is the antithesis of utopia. It is usually characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government or some kind of oppressive, often insiduous, social control. Other examples that depict a range of distopian societies in literature and film include: 1984Brave New WorldFahrenheit 451The Handmaid’s TaleMetropolisTHX-1138Blade Runner, and V for Vendetta. Built from scientific premise and intended only as a temporary measure, the technocratic society of Bregna continues long after its intended span as the Goodchilds attempt to deal with an internal and enduring glitch (infertility) of the “cure”. Like most imposed provisional governments, this one’s solution to a problem (cloning) has created yet another problem (fugitive memories from the previous clone’s life).

It is now 2415 and the walled society of Bregna appears utopian—clean and organized, beautiful, rich and spatious; but beneath the laughter and contentment, stirs an uneasy disquiet. Bregnans are losing sleep, having bad dreams, and are plagued by memories that don’t belong to them. Rebels challenge the Goodchild regime, run by Trevor and his brother Oren, and among the rebels is a highly competent and ruthless assassin, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), whose tools include whistle-controlled ball-bearing bombs, drugs that allow her to meet people on higher planes of existence, and interchangeable eyeballs. She is aptly named, as she serves a true agent of discord to Goodchild, the guardian of order and all that he naïvely believes is good.

“Some call Bregna the perfect society,” Aeon tells us in the opening scenes of the motion picture, “Some call it the height of human civilization…but others know better…We are haunted by sorrows we cannot name. People disappear and our government denies these crimes…But there are rebels who…fight for the disappeared. They call themselves the Monicans. I am one of them.” Several critics disliked the narrative introduction. I found that it particularly worked, by adding a reflective literary quality to the motion picture. It is noteworthy that in the original animated series, Trevor Goodchild often frames each episode with his reflections; only fitting that Aeon gets her chance in the film version. The reflective narrative of the motion picture is meant to enlighten its audience that this is not your ordinary action thriller. What follows is a fast-paced yet thoughtful story, with elements of romance, that explores notions of longevity, social structure and connection, faith and greed to a satisfying end.

Twitchfilm.net aptly called the motion picture “biological science fiction”. Says Oren, Trevor’s treacherous brother who betrays him: “We’ve beaten death. We’ve beaten nature.” The film’s clean organic high-tech look faithfully captures the “sense of biotech gone wild” of the TV series by exploring several paradigms inherent in a society that lives deliberately in the absense of nature’s chaos. Indeed, the lack of connectivity resonates throughout the motion picture in its exploration of friendship, family, loyalty, and purpose. When her sister is murdered in the beginning of the film supposedly by Trevor’s men (but in actuality by his scheming brother, Oren), Aeon’s mission becomes personal: “I had a family once. I had a life; now all I have is a mission.” We never learn what the animated Aeon’s motives are.

The film truly launches into stylish action and intrigue when Aeon gladly accepts a mission to assassinate Trevor, thinking that this violent act will make it all better. Instead, it unravels her, beginning with when she confronts him; finding him uncomfortably familiar and alluring, she hesitates and decides not to kill him. “What do you want?” Trevor asks her. “I want my sister back. I want to remember what it’s like to be a person.” It is indeed he—or rather what he knows—that holds the key to who she is. The key is that she, like he and all those in Bregna, is a 400 year-old copy of someone before the virus. Four hundred years ago she was the original Trevor’s wife.

Filmed in Berlin, the movie is visually stunning, from the opening shot on the steps of Sans Souci to the labrinthine wind canal used by the Nazis. Displaying an eclectic mixture of spareness and mid-century design the film is acted out in a fluid dance to Graeme Revell’s (Sin City) haunting score. The action is rivetting and seamless with both plot and underlying theme of bio-tech gone awry. Early on we are treated to a thrilling sequence of Aeon and her biotech-altered rebel colleague negotiating the security of Goodchild’s sanctuary that consists of a beautiful but deadly garden, guarded by patches of knife-sharp blades of grass and poison dart-spitting fruit trees.

Aeon champions moral ethics and single-handedly destroys the relicor, the supposetory of the clone DNA, pursuing honour at the expense of loyalty (to Goodchild) and heralding in a new age of “mortality”. The movie ends as it begins, with Aeon’s narrative: “Now we can move forward. To live once for real and then give way to people who might do it better…to live only once but with hope.” This is truly what Aeon Flux represents and what her very name embodies.

The term Aeon comes from the Gnostic notion of “Aeons” as emanations of God. Aeon also means an immeasurably long period of time; the Suntelia Aeon in Greek mythos symbolizes the catastrophic end of one age and the beginning of a new one. This is apt for our heroine, who, at least in the movie version, pretty well single-handedly destroys an old corrupt world, and heralds in a new age. Aeon was “emanated” back after four hundred years by the gentle oracular Keeper of the relicor, whose original version saved her DNA and kept it hidden and safe until the right moment.

Fans of Peter Chung’s baroquely violent animated Aeon Flux will recognize some similarities between Kusama’s 2005 film adaptation and the original MTV cartoon. While admitting that the motion picture version was only based on Peter Chung’s characters (check the credits), Karyn Kusama intended to “honor [the cartoon version’s] wierdness in spirit and…pay homage to its esoteric boldness and…strange energy.” Homages to the animated series include: Aeon’s signature fly-catching with her eyelashes, demonstrating a woman extremely in tune with her body; Monican anarchists (though in the film they are subversives within Bregna rather than from an adjacent society); a virus that kills off most of the population and assassination attempt on Goodchild (Pilot); the harness worn on the torso that transports the wearer to another dimension (Utopia or Deuteranopia?); passing secret messages through a french kiss (Gravity); issues of cloning and two colleagues crossing a weaponized no-man’s land together (A Last Time for Everything). Original and movie adaptation also share at their core the exploration of the consequences and ambiguities of choices in life and the role that nature plays, subversive or otherwise.

Although they share recognizable motifs and characters, the 2005 movie adaptation contrasts in some important ways from the six 5-minute shorts of 1991 and 10 half-hour episode TV series that aired in 1995. Chung’s avante garde series is set mostly in a surrealistic dark future Earth (presumably) where two communities, Bregna and Monica, are juxtaposed but separated by a wall (not unlike East and West Berlin). Bregna is a centralized scientific-planned society and Monica is Bregna’s ‘evil twin’, an anarchistic society. Chung’s innovative use of “camera angles” reminiscient of cinematography, together with a spare, graphic choreography, portrays a sprawling Orwellian industrial world. Peopled with mutant creatures, clones, and robots, it features disturbing images of dismemberment, mutilation, violent deaths and human experimentation as Chung explores post-modern notions of cloning, mind and body manipulation, and evolution through a series of subversive aggressively non-narrative pieces. On the subject of his cloning experiments (A Last Time for Everything) Goodchild says to Aeon: “My work offends you. Why? Human beings aren’t so unique, just a random arrangement of amino acids.” To which Aeon retorts, “These people you’re copying are already superfluous. You’re trafficking in excess.”

The title character in the animated version is a tall, scantily-clad anarchist (featuring the sultry voice of Denise Poirier) skilled in assassination and acrobatics, who infiltrates technocratic Bregna from the neighbouring revolutionary society of Monica. As with the movie character (elegantly portrayed by Theron), the animated Aeon is a stylish dance; completely in tune with her body. Says Chung of his creation: “The way she’s dressed, the way she looks, the way she moves was tailored to seduce the viewer to watch more, even though they may not understand at every moment what was happening.” Despite their similar intelligence, physicality and drive, the two Aeons depart as characters. For instance, one of the major differences between original animation and adapted film is the ongoing relationship between Aeon and her nemesis/lover, Trevor Goodchild (John Rafter Lee). The sexual and intellectual tension between Flux and Goodchild is far more palpable in the TV series and does not explain itself or resolve itself like it does in the movie. The opening of the animated series describes their odd relationship, which suggests that their destinies are bound together: Aeon: “You’re out of control.” Trevor: “I take control. Who’s side are you on?” Aeon: “I take no side.” Trevor: “You’re skating the edge.” Aeon: “I am the edge.” Trevor: “What you truly want only I can give.” Aeon: “You can’t give it, you can’t even buy it and you just don’t get it.”

The Gnostic “Aeons”, emanations of God, come in male/female pairs (aptly represented by Flux and Goodchild). As with the Gnostic “Aeon pairs”, Flux and Goodchild make up inseperable parts, the yin/yang (complementary opposites) of a whole, and represent the paraxical oxymoron of chaos in order. Long-limbed and continually in fluid motion, Flux dances through Goodchild’s rigid scientific world of order with an ease that stirs both his fascination and his fury. He, in turn, enthralls her and ensnares her with his intellectual hubris. The Gnostic “Aeon” male/female pair (called syzygies) of Caen(Power) and Akhana (e.g., Love) closely parallel Goodchild and Flux as they flirt with each other in a complex dance of power and love. Their attraction/antagonism mimics the characterizations of Eris(Greek goddess of discord) and Greyface (a man who taught that life is serious and play is a sin) in the Discordian mythos. Like Eris and her golden apple, Aeon Flux stirs up trouble for Goodchild’s complacent technocratic regime, constantly challenging his hubristic notions of human evolution, perfection and even love.

The cartoon Aeon Flux—and Trevor Goodchild, for that matter—are also far more compelling than those depicted in the movie. Headstrong, foolish and selfish but also dedicated and deeply compassionate and honourable, Chung’s Aeon Flux is a paradox. She scintilates with passionate self-defined notions against an industrial tyranny, while nurturing a naïve desire for personal love; the target of both being found in one man, Trevor Goodchild. Often cruel at times, she shows moments of selfless consideration, compassion and humour. Despite her violence, perverted fetishes and lustful obsessions, she is as appealing as she is strange; a discordant rock tune, which often enough hits a resonating note that draws out one’s interest and captures one’s empathy. In contrast to the super-hero competence and aloofness of the two-dimensional movie Aeon, the animated Aeon is wonderfully flawed; she is a complex paradoxical character, who makes mistakes, blundering often due to over-confidence and poor decisions (usually connected with her feelings for Trevor). Chung’s Goodchild is equally complex, and is, unlike the naïve feckless scientist of the movie, a true equal to Flux’s energetic and often misplaced heroics. Kusama’s Goodchild is neither menacing nor diabolical; rather, he is a well-intentioned and watered-down version of the Machiavelian scientist that Chung created. And, though quite appealing, he is also uncompelling as a result. Chung’s Goodchild is a visionary pedant, who often spouts twisted Orwellian diatribe: “That which does not kill us makes us stranger.” “The unobserved state is a fog of probabilities…” “There can be no justice without truth. But what is truth? Tell me, if you know, and I will not believe you.” Flux cuts through Goodchild’s dogma with her own one-liners—“Trevor, don’t trouble me with your thin smile”—and usually shuts him up with either a smack or a kiss.

The animated series is far more gritty and edgy than the movie version, featuring twisted eroticism and dark humor amid scenes of graphic violence. It oozes with a delicious perversity that the movie version abandoned in favour of cohesive narrative (and a PG-13 rating). Showing a healthy and irreverent disregard for that very narrative continuity, Chung’s animated series successfully makes commentary on various societal notions and behaviours through his uniquely disjointed and liberating form. Chung asserts that this plot ambiguity and disregard for continuity were meant to satirize mainstream film narratives. I think it does far more than this as art form, by providing a journalistic style of reporting the nuances and filigrees of life that gives it an immediacy hard to overlook. Chung’s apparent intention was to emphasize the futility of violence and the ambiguity of personal morality. This is best shown in his six 5-minute shorts and pilot, created in 1991. The shorts commonly featured a violent death for the title character, sometimes caused by fate, but more often due to her own incompetence.

The TV Aeon Flux flows like a subversive movement; punctuated by a series of abstract, often garrish, statements on various themes of souless biotechnology. Each episode is a vignette that explores singular questions of integrity, honour, loyalty, belief and love using the clever platform of the kiss/kill dynamic of Aeon and Trevor. Their interactions scintilate with clever wordplay, often amid physical-play that usually involves a pointed weapon: Aeon: “You’re psychotic. You no longer have a common conscience with your fellow man.” Trevor: “I understand the will of evil…[it] is like an iron in a forge…conscience is the fire.” Aeon: “you’ve lost the substance by grasping at the shadow.” The underlying question of connectivity and what it is to be human filter through his discordant series primarily through the twining of his two main characters, both loners with little connection to anything except to one another (which they both seek and abhor). The motion picture version pursues through a more structured and lengthy narrative, the same theme of connectivity (with nature, with others of our society, with family, and our beliefs) and the consequence of living a life with out meaning, though on a far more simple level. At the end of Kusama’s movie, Aeon challenges Trevor’s assertion that cloning is their only answer for survival: “We’re meant to die. That’s what makes anything about us matter…[otherwise] we’re ghosts.” In contrast, at the end of Chung’s episode, Reraizure, Trevor closes with these words of reflection: “We are not what we remember of ourselves. We can undo only what others have already forgotten. Learn from your mistakes so that one day you can repeat them precisely.”

Kusama’s film version chose narrative coherence to make its statements by sacrificing character for story and challenging its audience cerebrally. Chung’s cartoon version challenges us more deeply, at a visceral level, through the interplay of his characters where cohesive narrative doesn’t matter. In the final analysis, the motion picture version pursues the same questions posed by Chung’s original animated version. Only, Chung isn’t so eager to provide answers, leaving both interpretation and conclusions to the individual. Both versions are mind-provoking and a celebration of excellent art. While the film’s moralistic tale resonated and lingered like a muse’s long forgotten poem, the subversive kick of the comic series (which I thankfully saw later) struck deep chords and left me breathless with questions.

 

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.

“District 9”

Science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself—Frederic Jameson, critic

District-9-01We call them “prawns”: bottom feeders, vermin: feared and hated aliens who descended unannounced—and unwanted—over Johannesburg twenty years ago. Their massive starship hangs poised over the crowded city, casting a daily reminder that we are not alone in the universe.

The ship came and hovered in the hazy skies over Johannesburg, in a pall of silence. Humanity waited for something to happen; nothing did. A United Nations team was finally dispatched to investigate and what they found was not an imposing conquering force of great superiority but a million starving refugees in a shipwreck. Multinational United’s (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs housed them in a compound while humanity decided what to do with them.

Blomkamp leaps into the story mid-stride, effectively skipping twenty years of feckless inter-alien relations to a nexus in the storyline, where we find the aliens incarcerated in a ghetto that resembles the South African townships: they are essentially not allowed out. The analogy between the marginalization of the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid is obvious and further parallels Nazi Germany, Palestine and other scenarios of irrational prejudice and cruelty. The aliens even speak in a language that includes clicking that reflects many native South African languages. So, begins Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9

Jackson and Blomkamp intersperse action scenes with “back-story narrative” provided through the device of expert interviews, ranging from sociologists to entomologists. Blomkamp filmed his opening scenes using hand-held video cameras and stop action in news reels and interview format to capture an authentic immediacy to this powerful social commentary of humanity’s first encounter with the “other”.

We first see the aliens as the humans see them: unattractive unruly and repulsive insect-like creatures, who are not terribly intelligent and are pathetically addicted to cat food—until we meet one. Chris Johnson (or so he’s been named by the humans, reminiscent of the white people’s renaming first nations peoples or the Europeans who came to America) is on a secret mission to get home; along with his son and others Chris has been secretly building a shuttle to get back to the mother ship for over 20 years by collecting a rare liquid to fuel their organic technology. We quickly realize that these creatures possess the intelligence and knowledge that reflects the technologically advanced spaceship hovering above the city and the alien weaponry that only they can operate. The humans just haven’t taken the time or effort to find out.

Enter our not so likeable “hero”, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a shallow, rather insensitive and not so bright Afrikaner bureaucrat, who, like his colleagues at MNU, sees the aliens as no more than pests, not meriting the respect beyond the common insect. For instance, when he is assigned the task of evicting the aliens from the crowded ghetto to District 10, a tent city no better than a concentration camp, he treats them all like imbeciles and potential criminals. When he finds an illegal “nest” (the aliens are forbidden to procreate), he cheerfully kills the growing young by setting fire to them and blithely reflects that their death-cries sound like popcorn popping. He even gives a colleague of his one of the murdered babies as a souvenir. Eric Repphun of The Dunedin School, describes Wikus as both “compelling and chilling”, given that “his casual racism towards the aliens is an uncomfortable mirror of apartheid [and] reflects racism accurately.” 

It is only when Wikus is forced to interact with one as an individual and finally recognizes Chris as a “soul” that he shows true compassion and acts accordingly—which doesn’t happen until the end of the movie, by the way. Until then, he is a lame version of the reprehensible rest of MNU who reflect the fear and insecurity and consequent open prejudice and fear of humans toward “the other”.

We find out that MNU’s primary directive is not humanitarian to help the aliens but is pursuing weapons technology research and conducting experiments on them to acquire the secret to their DNA-manipulated weaponry. Through one of the interview sessions we discover that MNU is the second largest weapons manufacturer in the world. The plot thickens…

Blomkamp chooses his metaphors carefully, from the less than attractive insect-like aliens to the ordinary and feckless bureaucratic “hero”. Blomkamp dissects and lays out a shameful platter of our bullying nature, driven by our insecurities and fears and exposes us as a fearful, intolerant race. “The place is swarming with MNU,” says Chris to his son. I liked the reverse use of insect-terminology.

Chris’s son likes Wikus. “We are all the same,” says the boy with a wisdom that far surpasses anyone else there. He is, of course, referring metaphorically to the universal truth of a “family” of intelligence and compassion.

District_9-alienMeantime, Wikus had become a most valuable business artifact because he could operate alien weaponry. This points out one of our most appalling weaknesses borne from insecurity and greed: the devaluing of human and any other life to the level of commodity. Everything is commodity or product for the “rightful” use of those self-appointed “above the law” moguls.

As he lies on his back, about to fall out of his robotic “insect shell”, now far into his metamorphosis and spewing alien black “blood”, Wikus watches the shuttle rise up toward the mother ship, and smiles his victory; it is the aliens’ victory and ultimately Wikus’s too—for he is one of them now.

Wikus is the unlikable “hero”, more like Dante’s “everyman” a very ordinary man of shallow character with no real heroic qualities. He is a good enough person (he loves his wife and objects strongly to being forced into killing one of the alien adults). Throughout the film, he is offered several chances to elevate himself to “hero status” and each time he fails. It is only at the very end, when he is close to fully transformed physically, that Wikus demonstrates heroic qualities and sacrifices himself to save Chris and his son. This suggests, rather cynically, that humanity’s acceptance of something this foreign can only be achieved once we are forced to directly experience “the other”. It is a sad commentary on our inability to rise above our own limitations of deriving value through “self-image”. But it is one I tend to agree with. One of my esteemed colleagues disagreed. Objecting to this shallow portrayal of humankind, she attested her faith in our evolution. I hope she is right.

Largely overlooked by the Academy Awards, District 9exposes the very worst in human nature with an unforgiving gritty quasi-documentary realism. It’s not a pretty film. It is not a story of humanity’s triumph; indeed, Wikus’s heroism is directly related to his physical transformation from human to alien (hybrid). He only acts as hero once he is mostly alien, spilling alien blood and seeing through alien eyes. Is this why District 9 faired so ill with the Academy?

Eric Repphun calls District 9 a powerful allegory that deconstructs the post-colonial costs and asks unsettling questions about colonial powers. It is subversive science fiction that viscerally grapples with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid. “Its almost unrelenting dark vision of humanity” suggests that horrifying things hang “over the world of men like Wikus, who perform utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality, even after apartheid as an official policy has ended.”

Many viewers saw no further than the thrilling elements of this social commentary: aliens come and there’s a war with kick-ass weapons and cool creatures getting blown apart. But as Brian Ott notes, “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” says Peter Nicholls. Ott reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters.

 

 

 

 

nina-2014-BW

 

Nina 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 Geroge 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.

Nina 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. 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.

“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.

“Pan’s Labyrinth”: Innocence Has a Power Evil Cannot Resist

untitledDo you believe in the collective conscious? How about coincidence? What about fate? I find so often that events, occurrences, observations happen around me as though out of design, as if they are connected like the gossamer web of a spider. For instance, when I’m doing research for a book on a particular subject, certain opportunities and events present themselves as if conspiring in favor of that subject, at which point I usually have a eureka moment of enlightenment. Part of that is, of course, because I’m more open to it, more receptive, unwittingly looking. But not all…What does this have to do with “Pan’s Labyrinth”, you ask? Well, I’ve been dwelling of late on the phenomenon of individual and intellectual freedom (e.g., censorship, book banning and burning)…then, the film my family picks up at the video store is “Pan’s Labyrinth”; and I make the connection. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is about an individual’s choice to bravely and defiantly act—from the heart—against authority rather than blindly remain obedient. The cruel beauty of “Pan’s Labyrinth” shows the power of innocence over evil and the triumph of imagination over prosaic servitude.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a dark and disturbing allegorical adult fairy tale by writer-director Guilermo del Toro. Set in 1944 Spain (the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War) 12-year old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her frail and pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to a remote village to meet her new stepfather, a sadistic Fascist captain named Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is bent on exterminating the last Republican resistance to Franco scattered in the nearby hills. Clutching her books of myths and fantasy, which her mother suggests she cast aside to face the real world, Ofelia refuses to call Vidal “Father.” From the start, she pegs him rightly as a ruthless monster, and her unruly behavior only invites wrath from this psychopath who tortures and kills innocent victims without remorse. Ofelia retreats into the dark labyrinth and down a William Blake-like spiral staircase where she encounters an untrustworthy faun (Doug Jones). This encounter sparks a braided narrative that seamlessly weaves from tragic reality to magical mystery as Ofelia struggles to keep them apart. Alas, collision is imminent. The faun tells Ofelia that she is really a princess, but to prove it and gain entrance into the underworld kingdom of immortality, she must complete three dangerous tasks. Each task is progressively more daunting, from scolding a giant toad in a bug-infested cave to fleeing a Goya-like child-devouring ‘Satan’ with eyes in his hands. And each adventure draws her closer on a terrifying collision with the real world.

The horrors of both the realistic and surrealistic worlds are woven into the beautifully aligned narrative structure of del Toro’s story,” said Gene Seymour of

Ofelia and the faun

Newsday. Glenn Whipp of U-Entertainment, calls Pan’s Labyrinth “dark poetry set to startling images, a one-of-a-kind nightmare that has a soaring, spiritual center.” Gene Seymour further suggests that “as hard as it may be to watch Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tale unravel, one comes away from this magical-realist masterwork oddly invigorated by the way the movie and its principal character triumph over the banality of evil through the autonomy of imagination. The movie may give you nightmares, but it may also give you a few more good reasons to get out of bed the next morning.”

“Pan’s Labyrinth” can be interpreted on many levels from literal to metaphorical allegory to psychological and mythic journey. Every aspect of the film, from tiny visual to people’s names (think of Ofelia’s name, for instance) has metaphoric meaning. Several excellent reviews by Harry Tuttle (Screenville) and Julian Walker (Julian’s Blog) tease out both mythic and Jungian elements of this dark poetic fantasy and I urge you to check these sites for their excellent commentary. From describing the classic Hero’s Journey (described by Joseph Campbell) to making references to the mythic Psyche, these two reviewers insightfully unveil the nuance and filigree that weave the complicated tapestry of “Pan’s Labyrinth”. For me, the allegorical symbol represented by Ofelia’s last task brought out the metaphor that struck me the most: the death of innocence required to protect the birth of freedom. Ofelia is the embodiment of the nation’s innocence. Refusing to obediently accept the deviant orders of the didactic father figure of Fascism (embodied by both Vidal and the faun), Ofelia (innocence) defies authority and sacrifices her life to “die” to protect her baby brother (freedom). Her sacrifice is rewarded by her immortal ‘re-birth’ (hope and faith).

…Which brings us full circle to what I said earlier of art and its role in society: surely the role of art is to push the edge of comfort and light the way to a vivid incontrovertible truth. In order to do this, art must have freedom of expression, and we must be open to its message.

 

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 latest release is La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water, published by Mincione Edizioni (Rome) about water and climate change.

“Contact”, a journey to the heart of the Universe

contact03The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).”

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Ellie Arroway played by Jodie Foster

Well, Mr. Null, I think you’ve missed the point, as have some of the critics I have just quoted. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

This 1997 motion picture by Time Warner examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

Ellie hears the first sounds of contact

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

wormhole “ship” at Hokaidu

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

 

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

 

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, and Europa SF. 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. 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.

 

“Farscape” (Season One)

farscapecover1Okay, I’m a late bloomer, or so I’ve been told by many of my relatives. And they’re probably right: I got married later than most and had my son even later. I didn’t join the 21st Century tecky scene with Internet service, websites, and cell phones until recently (yeah, really!). We still don’t have cable or satellite TV (and don’t plan on it soon either). And I still don’t have a cell phone, much to the chagrin of my teenage son. So, it’s no surprise that I discovered “Farscape” for the first time through an enthusiastic fan demo to re-instate the already cancelled show after four seasons!

Upon seeing a montage of scenes at a “Save Farscape” panel at V-Con, I knew I wanted to see more and out of sheer faith bought the first season on DVD (at no small sum, I might add!). I was totally vindicated, beyond my highest expectations.

This is an intelligent, edgy, subversively imaginative series that can be perceived on many levels. Crafted as a “hero’s journey” in its truest sense, the show’s title speaks of the yearning for home. And this is, on its most obvious level, what the series is all about: finding home. The theme is most literally portrayed by the lead character, John Crichton (played by the consistently attractive Ben Browder), the human scientist/astronaut who is accidentally propelled through a wormhole into a galaxy far far away, peopled with strange and awesome aliens of all manner and shape. On another level, one could equally apply “Farscape”, the name of Crichton’s ship, to his longing for a figurative “home” — a place or state of being he can not find on Earth, where he withers beneath the imposing shadow of his celebrated heroic father.

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Moya’s crew in early Season 1

When Crichton stumbles into this awesome “farscape”, he plunges into the mayhem of a raging space battle of Peacekeeper fighters (called Prowlers) with an immense biomechanoid ship (called a Leviathan). He is captured and brought on board Moya, a living ship linked symbiotically to its Pilot and manned by a rag-tag clutch of escaped convicts, D’Argo, Zhaan, and Rygel.

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John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Crichton finds himself imprisoned on Moya, along with one of the Peacekeeper Prowler pilots who has managed to get caught in the stream of Moya’s starburst (the equivalent to hyperdrive in other SF stories), as the homeless convicts flee into uncharted territory. Crichton struggles to grasp this very strange world and its alien beings who consider him “higher brain function deficient” (D’Argo in Premiere). Upon glimpsing his attractive female cellmate, Crichton thinks he’s found an ally in the human-looking Sebacean Peacekeeper pilot — only to find her hostile and contemptuous (he is, after all, a lowly non-Sebacean).  Crichton’s “Wizard of Oz” journey through this “farscape”, bursting with aliens who think him weak and useless, provides him with many opportunities to prove himself — not as the brawny shoot-em up action-man but as the cerebral, problem-solving diplomat — a different kind of hero. Crichton is a gentle soul, a man of integrity and given rather to humor and silly references to pop-culture to disarm his antagonists. Together, whether they like it or not (and the Peacekeeper certainly doesn’t – at least in the beginning) they must all find a way to work together as they are pursued through the uncharted territories. One of the greatest qualities and gifts Crichton brings to this group is his intrepid explorer’s willingness to see the best of a new and alien situation or phenomenon (e.g., Through the Looking Glass). This is because John Crichton is driven not by fear but by wonder.

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Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

The hidden protagonist of the series, the one who carries the deeper and more resonating metaphor of yearning for “home”, and ultimately the most interesting character, is the Sebacean Peacekeeper, Officer Aeryn Sun (played by Claudia Black) who is brought on board and, as a result irreversibly “contaminated”.

Unlike John Crichton, Aeryn Sun is in her home; but circumstances (of which she is more responsible than she’d like to admit) swiftly render it as hostile and “alien” to her as her homeworld is to John Crichton. While Crichton’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” discovery of the far universe draws our empathy, Aeryn’s struggling journey through her somtimes tortured inner universe is far more compelling. Her plight resonates more universally with us as she is forced to seek her identity and to become more than she was. In this regard, John Crichton’s character serves as a catalyst to Aeryn’s evolution more so than she does to his. In the Premiere episode, shortly after she is declared a traitor by her superior officer, punishable by death, Aeryn fatalistically resists fleeing with Crichton from her Peacekeeper captors: “No. I will not come with you; it is my duty, my breeding since birth. It’s what I am.” To this Crichton simply replies: “You can be more.”

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Aeryn Sun wielding her weapon of choice

Aeryn’s “hero’s journey” is not unlike that of the other main characters she is thrown together with; each fighting their own demons to find their way to peace, their “home”. Hers is just more interesting. A Sebacean (human-looking but incapable of thermo-regulation), Aeryn was born and reared aboard a Peacekeeper Command Carrier, trained from infancy to be an elite soldier and to follow orders without question. Peacekeepers are proud mercenary soldiers, serving as a military force for planets that lack one. Tenacious and clever fighters with massive ships and weaponry, their society follows a harsh, unforgiving meritocracy, with success greatly rewarded and failure mercilessly and brutally punished. Here’s an example: Aeryn’s only transgression was that she spent too much time with non-Sebacean “alien lifeforms” while onboard Moya. Her commander, Captain Crais, declared her “irreversibly contaminated” through her unauthorized contact with these “lower life forms” and sentenced her to death. His true reason for throwing her in with the others was that she brazenly — and foolishly — defended one of them (John Crichton).

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Sun and Crichton work out a plan … or not…

Aeryn Sun’s private struggle to reconcile her former Peacekeeper life with her life in exile resonates through the other characters, with each episode of the series providing its own individual element to the overarching theme. For instance, in the episode Exodus from Genesis, when the ship becomes infested by insect-like creatures (Draks), both Crichton and Aeryn must re-evaluate their notions of lesser creatures’s role in the universe; only Aeryn’s vision of a lesser creature isn’t the “bugs” but — you guessed it — humans.

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Zhaan, a plant-like being

In Throne for a Loss, Zhaan attempts to enlighten a warlike Tavlek about choices, as D’Argo, Aeryn and even Crichton take their turns at donning the powerful device/weapon that removes the very need for choice.  As a Peacekeeper, Aeryn is trained to be extremely independent and self-reliant. In Exodus from Genesis, Crichton tells her, “You’re not in this alone. Everyone on board has had their lives derailed from what they thought they should be. We’re stuck together. And as long as we are, we might as well be . . .” Aeryn finishes for him, almost sneering,“What? Family? Friends? I want neither.” Of which she both learns to value (e.g., DNA Mad Scientist) and cultivate by the end of the first season (e.g., Nerve, Family Ties). In the very episode where she claims no use for such ties, she finds herself relying on Crichton when she succumbs to Sebacean Heat Delerium (which leads to the Living Death).

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Rygel, a banished royal

In PK Tech Girl, both Aeryn and Rygel are forced to come to terms with their vision of the past and of themselves (Aeryn of her status as a traitor banished from the home she loved: “I hate being ambushed.”). Crichton’s vision of her culture (and implicity of her) provides Aeryn’s first challenge. Remarking on the incredible derelict Peacekeeper ship they are investigating, Crichton says, “If you guys only used your know-how to–” Aeryn cuts him off with her own challenge: “To what? To fulfill your vision of who we should be?” Then reveals her idealism: “We are Peacekeepers. Other cultures hire us to keep order, to keep harmony–” What she leaves out — and Rygel is quick to point out — is that in many cases this is achieved through assassination, brutal torture, and kidnapping.

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Aeryn Sun, warrior

In DNA Mad Scientist the crew (namely D’Argo, Zhaan and Rygel) lapse into selfish bickering when a mysterious scientist, Namtar, offers them the chance to find their homeworlds at the expense of Pilot (whose arm is sacrificed) and Aeryn Sun, whom they abandon to Namtar’s unnatural genetic butchery. This is a pivotal event for Aeryn, who begins the discarding of her outer shell of Peacekeeping rhetoric to learn to trust her inner feelings. Emerging from this abomination done to her, Aeryn finds herself: “I always thought of myself in terms of survival, life and death … What Namtar did to me … It was me, inside. The real me.”

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Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black) Season 1

At the outset, Aeryn “has the most to lose and the most to learn” (Rockne O’Bannon, Creator/Executive Producer) when she gets caught up in the escaped ship’s rebellion and her consequent banishment. Despite her growing rejection of the Peacekeeper’s brutal totalitatianism and a society that has already rejected her, Aeryn maintains an affinity for its culture and the status she lost. But as she learns to embrace humility and tolerance (something unheard of for the proud facsist-like Sebaceans) through her interactions with Moya’s crew, specially with John Crichton, Aeryn grows as a person and begins to think in broader terms. She grows to a point where, despite her training “to survive” as a Peacekeeper (Aeryn in PK Tech Girl: “In our world showing pain is a sign of weakness…”), she permits herself the “weakness” of falling in love and chooses to sacrifice her life rather than survive at the expense of another’s (The Flax).

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John Crichton (Ben Browder)

Gradually she discovers, often with John Crichton’s help, that her true strengths lie not in the display of might or stoicism but in the gift of honor, loyalty, and compassion — traits she has always possessed. In fact, it was her sense of honor and her compassion (for which she claimed to have no use) in initially defending John from the fate of a tortuous death at the hands of Crais, that condemned her as a traitor in the first place. This single act of compassion — in itself counter to how Peacekeepers and Sebaceans deal with “lower life forms” — seals her destiny and sets in motion her journey of self-discovery: a journey of slow but inexhorable peeling away of layer upon imposed layer of Peacekeeper rhetoric to release the light burning inside her.

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Pilot of bio-mechanoid ship Moya

Farscape is an elegantly crafted work of art created by Rockne O’Bannon (Alien Nation) and produced by the Jim Henson Company and Nine Network Australia (in association with Hallmark Entertainment). Edged by a haunting evokative score (by Subvision), seamless CGI, and other special effects, Farscape achieves a truly remarkable universe, often of cruel and bizarre beauty peopled by powerfully complex characters who’s journeys of mind, soul and body resonate with what it is to be human and of humanity.  Displaying moments of clever humor, and incredibly sensual interaction, “Farscape” entertains like no SF TV serial I have seen to date. Farscape is both an intellectual feast of imaginary worlds with thought-provoking concepts and a love story told on a grand scale upon a tapestry of elevated themes such as honor, loyalty and sacrifice. The program has won widespread acclaim among both genre and mainstream press and was nominated for an Emmy when news of its cancellation broke out. Matt Roush of TV Guide described Farscape as “the most irreverent, unpredictable, sexy, intelligent and exciting sci fi show on TV.” Says Clare Sainsbury in her article “Who killed Farscape?” in Strange Horizons (Oct. 14, 2002): “Often baroque, visually spectacular and pyrotechnic … [Farscape is] strange, smart, sexy, psychologically rich, superbly acted, and apparently hell-bent on breaking every rule in the book, including its own — as one fan summed it up, Farscape is ‘not your father’s sci-fi’.”Aeryn-John

I recommend this series to anyone who appreciates intelligent science fiction in the vein of Stanislaw Lem (Solaris), Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. USA Today proclaims that, “Farscape is more than just TV’s best space show.” This “simply spectacular” (Desert News) series is “exotic … impressive…” (San Francisco Chronicle), “Eye-catching and energetic … lotsa fun” (Dalas Morning News) and “One of those rare outer-space adventure series that deserve to be called fantastic.” (Reader’s Digest). Farscape has generated an incredible fan-base, many of whom remain commited to bringing the show (e.g., mini-series, and feature films) back on the air or on the silver screen since its cancellation in 2003 (e.g., www.watchfarscape.com; www.savefarscape.com). Google Farscape for more fan sites. DVDs of seasons 1 through 4 as well as the most recent mini-series, “The Peacekeeper Wars”, which had a limited airing in October 2004 are available.  Enjoy it. I certainly still am!

 

 

Love story:

john-aeryn first kissFrom the very first scenes between these two very different people (in PK Tech Girl, John mutters: “I’m not like you,” and Aeryn hisses back: “Not even remotely.”) they have struggled with conflict and attraction. In PK Tech Girl, Aeryn blurts out, “In the beginning I found you interesting,” then quickly qualifies to Crichton’s puzzled half-pleased look, “But only for a moment.” The evolving relationship of John and Aeryn toward their first kiss was wonderfully constructed over several episodes. And when it happened (in The Flax) it combined pathos, explosive passion and humor in a complex and vivid scene that left me panting for more. Whether it is in conflict or in love and passion, or simply working cooperatively to solve a problem, Aeryn and John sizzle on screen, lighting each other on fire. Pivotal episodes of their growing (and struggling) relationship in the first season include: the Premiere; PK Tech Girl; DNA Mad Scientist; The Flax; A Human Reaction.

Ben Browder plays John Crichton with a natural, understated style, portraying a man with an appealing mixture of high moral ethics, weird humor, and innovative intellect and proving that a hero need not be the dark, arrogant loner so common on the screen these days. He’s a nice guy, a scientist and pacifist, who prefers to use his brain and humor over brute force and an arsenal of weapons to solve a conflict. “Ben is an all-American guy. There’s always something going on behind his eyes. He’s got a certain spark that’s necessary for Crichton.” (Brian Henson, President of Jim Henson Co.). As John Crichton, Browder is both very male yet soft, sweet and boyishly vulnerable: “Come on, Aeryn, you bash me all the time for being soft, but the fact of the matter is sometimes it’s an advantage and this is one of them.” (Crichton in PK Tech Girl).

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John Crichton (Ben Browder) in Episode 1 of Farscape

Says Browder of his character in Farscape, “John Crichton is a guy stuck in extraordinary circumstances … He spends a lot of time figuring out what’s going on around him and getting knocked down and dragged around and he pops back up and comes up with an idea to save his butt…” Browder shares a philosophical fascination for the genre of SF: “The thing about doing science fiction is it allows you to explore different ideas , different avenues, in a way you can’t do in standard drama. It allows you to raise very hard and interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it is to be moral and ethical … and also you get to tell really interesting stories and there’s fabulous alien chicks.”

During a quiet moment in The Human Factor, when John and Aeryn are hiding out, he sits beside her glum form and simply leans his head like a great big puppy dog on her shoulder. It is a move both so endearing and sweet that it’s no wonder she reacts the way she does.

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Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black)

Claudia Black is Aeryn Sun: “She’s this beautiful vicious killer who is at the same time a very innocent vulnerable girl deep down that was never allowed out.” (Brian Henson, President of the Jim Henson Co.). “When we first saw [Black’s] audition, we thought: that’s not what we imagined, that’s not really what we saw. Then you watch her for ten seconds and you can’t stop. There’s something so appealing about her; she’s like a magnet. There’s life experience in her. She’s very fit, she can be strong as a person and at the same time , underneath there’s a real vulnerability that you can see through the eyes. That’s pretty much Aeryn. Her energy inside is a pulling energy. We sort of thought we knew what Aeryn was; then we met Claudia and we realized we were wrong . . . Claudia was exactly what Aeryn was.”

Black manages in her facial expressions, voice, body movements and expressive eyes to deliver the subtle nuances of a complex, often paradoxical character: one that is both strong and vulnerable; courageous and crusty yet soft inside; ruthless yet compassionate; confident and intelligent yet often uncertain of her capabilities (particularly her intellect). Black considers Aeryn “a contemporary Emma Peel” (of the original Avengers). Says Black: “When the audience first finds Aeryn Sun they’ll be a little bit surprised by how harsh she is. She’s very tough. I don’t know if she’s very likeable but gradually she’ll find her smile.”

A good example of her complex character can be found in PK Tech Girl.  Soon after Aeryn’s awkward interaction with Crichton when she catches him kissing the PK Tech Girl and blurts out her own confession of being attracted to him, Crichton (and the PK Tech Girl) get trapped by a fire-breathing Cheyang. Aeryn stages a dramatic rescue by leaping down several stories along a hanging chain, to blow away the Cheyang about to fry them. After a swift appraisal of the situation, and without so much as a look at Crichton, she coolly strides off, tapping the chain out of her way with her hand and a glib line, “Sorry about the mess.”

Supporting Cast:

Farscape-season 1D’Argo (Anthony Simcoe), Zhaan (Virginia Hey), Rygel (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Jonathan Hardy), Pilot (Jim Henson Creature; voice by Lani John Tupu), Crais (Lani Tupu) and even Moya (the ship) provide a rich tapestry of imaginative setting whose filigree of characters provide humor (mostly Rygel), spirituality, conflict and drama to a show willing to take risks. D’Argo is the fierce Luxan warrior whose reaction to conflict is to attack first and ask questions never. Zhaan is a Delvian priest, whose dignified gentle demeanor provide a much needed level of balance and spiritual strength to the disparate group. In contrast, Rygel is a Hynerian, formerly royal sovereign of more than 600 billion subjects. His excessive concern with his own self-interest is barely eleviated by his small size and although he appears rather cute, this alien is far from sweet. He often serves the role of comic relief in the show. Lastly, there is the mild-mannered Pilot, who is symbiotically linked to the leviathan. Later in the season, other strange characters join Moya’s rag-tag group, adding spice, grit and confusion to the already careering homeless group (e.g., the wild bratty Nebari, Chiana, played by Gigi Edgley; and the Banik healer, Stark played by Paul Goddard).

farscape cast

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