Wednesday, January 18, 2017

New Philip K. Dick novel too absurd to be believed - A blast from the past!

Now that the administration of the venal, incompetent, and morally reprehensible Barack Obama is finally coming to a close, it seemed like a good time to revisit my review of a brand-new Philip K. Dick novel, first published over at When Falls the Coliseum on Sept 17, 2012.

Philip K. Dick was one of the most important science fiction authors of the 20th century. His novels explored issues of identity, religion, metaphysics, and politics in a way that few authors, including so-called “literary” authors, ever did. During his lifetime, he published more than 40 novels, and 100 short stories. He won the prestigious Hugo Award for his classic novel The Man in the High Castle in 1962, and the John W Campbell Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said in 1974. His novels and stories have inspired at least ten movies, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Total Recall, and Minority Report. In the years since his untimely death from a stroke in 1982, his reputation has only increased, and his works have gained a respectable following among academics and mainstream literary critics. The Library of America has published three volumes of his work.

When it was announced last year that an unpublished manuscript had been discovered among his papers, it sent shockwaves through the literary community. Now that the novel has been published, however, one can’t help but feel a sting of disappointment.

The Whole World is Totally Cracked the Fuck Up, Hamid Masrur tells the story of the titular hero, who lives in an unnamed country somewhere in a section of the world that roughly corresponds to the Middle East. Every day, Hamid and his friends and family are attacked by robot airplanes (“Drozzers”) operated by remote control by soldiers working in a far-off country called UniStat. The leader of UniStat, Orback Bam, uses Drozzers to kill people who have been labeled “enemies” of the UniStat. No one in these countries – Hamid, his friends, his family – know what qualifies the citizens of MidStan to be labeled “enemies,” and so live in constant fear that one day they will be so labeled.

One day, while attending a funeral, Hamid and the other mourners are attacked by a pack of Drozzers, seemingly killing his wife, Inaya. When Hamid awakens, he finds himself in the UniStat, in the body of an 18 year-old called Munqad Wasem. Munqad’s life is typical of UniStat teenagers – he goes out to movies, listens to popular music, watches supposedly “unscripted” TV progs about outlandish people doing insane things. But he has a friend called Nafi Tahan, who encourages Munqad to build a bomb that he wants to use to blow up a bridge in Detroit-Prime.

All Munqad (who is actually Hamid) wants to do is return to MidStan, but Munqad has been placed on a Trav-Not list, meaning that he cannot leave the UniStat for any reason. When he attempts to find out why he’s been placed on the list, the gov sends him a form letter explaining that evidence against him might or might not exist, but that they cannot tell him because revealing that information could threaten UniStat security. Included with the letter is a package of StickIt, which is apparently some kind of gum, or something.

The problem with this novel is its sheer unbelievability. The events depicted are simply absurd. For instance, we’re supposed to believe that the war-mongering, venal leader of the UniStat was for some reason given a World Peaceful Prize at the start of his term of office, yet Dick never sufficiently explains why any reputable organization would give him such an honor. Also, why would the people of the UniStat put up with a leader who sent robots into other countries to kill people based on secret information? It doesn’t make any sense.

There’s also a genuinely strange subplot in which Bam is running for re-election of UniStat against his own slightly imperfect clone, who constantly accuses Bam of being “soft” on MidStaners, and “apologizing” to them. Yet Bam sends robot airplanes to drop bombs on MidStaners every day. Questions abound, but are left unanswered: Why would a country have an election between one person, and a clone of that person? And why would a supposedly reputable candidate for office make such blatant misstatements? It’s almost as if no one who lives in this world that Dick has created is living in anything resembling reality.

Then there is the big twist, in which Munqad’s friend, Nafi, turns out to be a UniStat gov agent. Ostensibly, Nafi, whose real name turns out to be Porter Alias, was attempting to find “sleeper terrorists” working the UniStat. But if that’s the case, and there really are sleeper terrorists working in the UniStat, why would a gov agent be encouraging someone to commit terrorist acts, rather than searching for actual terrorists? I assume that Dick was trying to make a point about how some people “create their own reality,” but when the stakes are this high, I’m not sure that’s a valid interpretation.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the novel occurs when the UniStat regime’s spokesbots claim that MidStaners are rioting because of a cheesy film no one has seen and might not even exist called It is Based on Lies. Just as it’s never made entirely clear why the people of UniStat would allow their leader to use robots to bomb people in other countries based on “secret information,” so too is it not entirely made clear why anyone would not understand that Bam’s “bomb everything with Drozzers” policy might be at least partly to blame for the riots.

It’s not surprising that Avon considered buying the novel but ultimately passed (they were going to publish it under the title The World in Their Hands in 1963). At their best, PKD’s works hold a fanciful mirror to reality. But this novel is simply too unbelievable to be taken seriously, even as an absurdist fantasy.

We've been in Philip K. Dick's world for awhile now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Will the upcoming DCEU Wonder Woman film suck, or just stink?

Seriously-- how hard is it to make a movie about this Intellectual Property??

According to an unsubstantiated rumor from a third-hand source, the upcoming Wonder Woman film, a major part of the DC Extended Universe film franchise, will be just as good as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice:

On a recent episode of the Schmoes Know show, it was revealed that Wonder Woman may be a big mess. According to host Sasha Perl-Raver, someone with insider info has seen the movie, or at least a decent chunk of the movie, and claims that it is "discombobulated" and not the great movie the trailers have led fans to believe it might be. Here is what was said by Sasha Perl-Raver on the Schmoes Know show.

"So, I don't want to throw anyone under the bus. We have somebody within our community who has gotten insider information that broke my effing heart this week, because I have tremendous belief that Wonder Woman is gonna be awesome and I heard it stinks from the same person who told me that they heard that BvS stinks...The person who I spoke to...their response was 'I'm very disappointed in what I saw, and it seems like all the problems are the same problems. It's discombobulated, it doesn't have narrative flow. It's just very disjointed."

I finally got around to seeing BvS yesterday and, well, it is an endurance test. It essentially feels like a series of prologues that never actually congeal into a cohesive or coherent whole. This despite the fact that there are some truly terrific concepts and performances here and there. I liked the idea of Lex Luthor manipulating the Wayne Industries employee who lost his legs, for instance. I liked the tension that having a “superman” would create for people. But these ideas are just brought up and glossed over in favor of some really middling action sequences.

Zack Snyder is a talented director with a good eye. Man of Steel is actually my favorite comics-based superhero film of all time. (I love the way they fused Siegel and Shuster’s petulant narcissistic id with superpowers and the modern “messianic” version of the Intellectual Property. The DNA stuff was great, and the Kryptonian technology was really mind boggling, bringing to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.") But, tragically, BvS seemed to be plagued by Warner Bros’s desire to use the film not to tell a story, but to serve as an extended trailer for a Justice League film.

If this image excites you then you probably haven't seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice yet.

A lot of people have noted that WB seems intent on building their own superhero franchise by basically reverse-engineering what Marvel Studios did. Rather than building up to their first “team book movie,” they’re forcing the issue. And along the way you have executives and lawyers and marketers and licensers and licensees offering their suggestions that must be incorporated.

This is a major mistake, not just because I don’t care for the Marvel Studios movies (I gave up watching them after that disastrously stupid first Avengers film, although I did try to watch Captain America: Civil War on Netflix streaming a couple of weeks back and made it about half an hour), but because fandom is far too engaged to be “fooled” by the strategy. Instead, WB should look to Universal’s incredible Fast and the Furious films, which constitutes the greatest franchise in movie history. These films feature engaging, authentic-feeling characters with genuine emotions and loyalty to one another—from a variety of backgrounds—saving the world by racing cars. It sounds unbelievable, but for crying out loud, in movies that might run two hours or so, with perhaps ninety of those minutes taken up with insane, absurd, over-the-top and totally unbelievable action, they still manage to give the characters real arcs.

The Fast and the Furious movies also represent a real rarity: An organically grown franchise not based on pre-existing material. Yes, the material is derivative (all great art is!), but it’s put together in an exciting and entertaining way. In the age of the Fast and the Furious, there’ s no excuse for what WB is doing with Superman et. al. For that matter, there’s no excuse for the nonsense that Marvel Studios is doing, either (The Incredible Hulk notwithstanding), but those films are at least successful. There’s no accounting for taste!

As for the fate of the upcoming Wonder Woman film, I’m of course reserving judgment. But given DC’s treatment of her since the death of her creator William Moulton Marston, I don’t have the highest hopes. And after finally making it through BvS, my hopes have sunk even lower. Will this upcoming film even surpass Tori Black's take on the character (which, let's be honest, sucked)?

...This image, on the other hand, is pretty exciting, amirite??

But you know what’s coming out this year that I am excited about? The eighth Fast and the Furious film, The Fate of the Furious. I hope someone arranges a screening for the braintrust in charge of the DC Intellectual Property at WB. They could definitely learn a thing or two, if they keep their minds open.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The brand new Whimsical Doctor Shoe print cover

Whimsical Doctor Shoe, the most brilliant novel ever written, is now available in a beautiful new print edition with a beautiful new "found manuscript" cover designed by me.

"They" say you can't judge a book by it's cover. But if you think this is a compelling cover, then "they" must be wrong, right?

Whimsical Doctor Shoe is available in print and kindle editions from Amazon right this minute!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Really, seriously, totally Hollywood is staying relevant in the age of Trump!

Hollywood is a bubble. The artisans in charge of caretaking the Intellectual Property that entertains the masses have very little interest in understanding those people. They believe that they are more enlightened than the average person. And they’re proud of it. As George Clooney famously speechified when accepting his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award,

And finally, I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in -- in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It's probably a good thing. We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we -- we bring up subjects....This Academy, this group of people, gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy. Proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.

This attitude permeates the entertainment industry, and it’s only gotten worse. With the “surprise!” election of Donald Trump as president, we’ve witnessed meltdown after meltdown, embarrassing videos by celebrities grasping at crackpot ideas to prevent Trump’s ascension to the presidency. They don’t believe that these meltdowns are embarrassing. They don’t think that these ideas are crackpot. Because the vast majority of those in the entertainment industry are leftists, or at least liberals, and they have no friends who might disagree with their most cherished knee-jerk political espousals. Those who disagree with them aren’t worth understanding.

When you have artisans creating entertainment who have no interest in learning how their fellow humans think and feel, you enter a dangerous situation where people ignore their artists. Nevertheless, these artists will struggle to remain “relevant,” if only to ensure they make just enough profit for their particular entertainment conglomerate to get hired on the next show or film or video game. And they’re willing to show-not-tell you just how relevant they really are.

At the Television Critic’s Association winter press tour, the streaming service Hulu had two panels, one for their returning program “The Path,” and another for their upcoming miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, at which the creators insisted that their projects were ESPECIALLY relevant in “Trump’s America.” But is that true, or is that the opinion of people who are out of touch with the real-life ideals of people in “flyover country?”

Regarding "The Handmaid’s Tale":

Samira Wiley, who plays Offred’s best friend Moira in the series, called it particularly relevant to “the social climate now,” especially for women in the United States. “Specifically women and their bodies, and who has control of that. Do we, or does someone else have control over that?”

Well, yes, I suppose that it’s relevant to wonder who has control over women’s bodies. But then, wasn’t that question especially relevant when the government started taking over the nation’s healthcare system through the Affordable Care Act? When the government runs healthcare, your body belongs to the government. Which means that the government has total control over you. That’s kind of scary, no? (Even if you don't think that's scary, can you at least understand why some people might find that scary?) But the ACA was passed in March 2010—why did this question become relevant now?

Remember back in December of 2010, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, stated that the “obesity epidemic” was a “national security issue”:

“Military leaders tell us that when more than one in four young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight, childhood obesity isn’t just a public health threat, it’s not just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well.”

No less than the First Lady herself was saying that the government has a claim on your body because too many of our citizens are too fat to participate in her husband’s wars of convenience and military adventurism. That sounds awfully scary, doesn’t it?

There was no Handmaid’s Tale adaptation in the offing back then. There is one now.

And there’s this about “The Path”:

“I have no idea what’s going to happen” [show creator Jessica] Goldberg said of a Trump presidency. But, she noted, cults and religious fanaticism are “what people do when they’re not feeling included in their country…Our show deals with a lot of those questions.  I think we’re also living in a country where faith  is much more important than we all know about,” she said.

Goldberg and at least one member of the TCA, seem to imply that Trump, his fans, and his presidency, have certain aspects of a cult. Maybe Trump inspires cult-like devotion in his followers (as Kek wills it!). Of course, there were a lot of people sounding an alarm about the behavior of certain intensely devoted fans of “The One” back in 2007 and 2008.

Those concerns were met with derision from liberals and leftists.

And I find it interesting that so many of the behaviors of leftists—smearing anyone who disagrees with them, making excuses for the corruption of their own party members, cutting off friends and family members who stray from the accepted narrative—resemble those of cult members.

No, really, there was nothing to satirize or criticize in the eight years of Obama's tenure. People in the mainstream media behaved totally rationally where he was concerned.

For crying out loud, Obama claimed that his election would change the climate. Can you understand why some might find that a little bit cult-leader-ish, even if you don't?

Our artists need to hold a mirror up to our culture, and critique those who claim the power of life and death over us. It’s crucial that President Donald Trump be held accountable for the way in which he wields his power.

When Barack Obama was re-elected, concerns among Republicans and conservatives that the country they loved was changing for the worse were dismissed, often as “racist.” Now that Donald Trump is the President-elect, concerns among liberals and leftists that the country they love is changing for the worse are met with concern and, well, *RELEVANT* entertainment. Funny how that works— it’s almost like the people creating our entertainment couldn’t care less about half the country.

What it boils down to is, Hollywood plans to remain relevant in the "AGE OF TRUMP" by creating entertainment that flatters its own sensibilities and indulges its own prejudices. Strap in; the next eight years will be full of hectoring and hatred.

Speaking of which, I’ve written two mystery novels that satirize Hollywood’s out-of-touch hypocrisy: First, The Misadventure of Dreama and the Rednecks, in which a redneck falls in love with a Hollywood train wreck and discovers that, for all their smug condescending judgment, people in the entertainment industry will put up with an awful lot of amorality. Then there’s The Misadventure of the Busted Reboot, about a gender-swapped reboot (a “she-boot”) of a beloved 1980s horror/science fiction comedy film and the attempts by the movie studio to co-opt feminism in order to promote it, and the horrible murders that ensure. I promise you they’re better than 90% of the out-of-touch stuff being produced in Hollywood right now.

Madonna Obama tramp stamp pic source.
Obama Rolling Stone New Hope pic source.
Obama Newsweek Second Coming pic source.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn

You can't "spoil" something that's already rotten. That being said, this post contains some specific plot information about the novel discussed. 

For about twenty pages or so I thought I was really going to enjoy Andrew Coburn’s novel The Babysitter. It has the feel of a literary novel, something like Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen or Bret Easton Ellis might write. Then it turns from artful to artsy—and I started to realize I'd been Coburned.

John and Merle Wright come home one Friday night to discover their babysitter, Paula Aherne, horribly murdered and their sixteen month-old daughter, Marcie, missing. The Wrights are more dazed than panicked, and as the book progresses they become downright laid-back.

The investigation is headed by federal agents Cooger and Spence, who spend most of their time playing manipulative games for their own unscrupulous ends. They harass and annoy one of the professors at the college where Paula was auditing classes, Professor Oliver, who has had several affairs with students. Once he kills himself they move on to harass Feoli, the proprietor of a Boston restaurant where Paula used to hang out. Feoli is apparently a made man, or something.

They also work hard to manipulate Ballardville’s Chief Tull, who spends most of the book in a daze, seemingly suffering from heartburn. He’s so useless that at one point he mows most of the Wrights’ lawn. That is a significant symbol of his impotence and Coburn doesn’t let you forget it.

The Babysitter is a bloodless, pretentious, and dull book that thinks it’s making astute observations about human nature. In fact it seems stubbornly unaware of human nature, cynically treating its characters like characters in a novel. There is the raw material for a Kafkaesque nightmare, but Coburn clearly didn’t have the passion or the interest to explore that possibility. Coburn’s style is wholly inappropriate to the story; it's so laconic that you never get a sense that anyone is actually feeling anything, least of all the Wrights, who seem inappropriately calm throughout. They’re confused and angry at times, but they’re also so mild that it feels like they’re just going through the motions out of a sense of obligation, not in a desperate search for their only child. The Wrights don’t seem to feel anything at all. As a result there’s something really off-putting, even distasteful, about the book.

I kept wondering what would have happened if, say, Gil Brewer had written this story. You’d be able to smell the desperation and fear rising from every page, like a funk. Coburn obviously has skill and talent, but his style is too self-conscious to really go for it. He's simultaneously showing off and holding back; as a result you get the impression that Coburn doesn’t care if you are in any way affected.

Or is Coburn making a point about suburban malaise? In Chapter Two one of the characters suggests that the Wrights moved to Ballardville to escape the rat race. Maybe as a result of leaving all that excitement they’ve lost the ability to feel anything—even when their baby daughter is missing. If so, Coburn should have made it more obvious. All the characters act as if they're in an emotionless stupor, even those who live within the "rat race." And the “suburbia-sure-is-soul-deadening-ain’t-it?” observation had whiskers on it when The Babysitter was first published in 1979.

It’s even unclear what, if anything, law enforcement is doing in this case beyond harassing Oliver and surveilling Feoli. Have they sent out photos of the child? Gone on TV? This is a kid that was snatched from the home of a college professor and his attractive wife in a suburb of Boston and the reporters outside their home just sort of… disappear after the first night? What?

Then, in Chapter Fifteen, Merle is approached by a strange man in a grocery store parking lot. This man knows something about Paula— he clearly has some connection to her past. He reveals Paula’s real first name and Merle starts crying. Then this happens:

He jammed something into her hand, and she immediately began spilling things. “Oh, my God!” she said and dropped everything except what he had thrust upon her, a torn color snapshot held together by transparent tape, the face of a child of seven or so, with the eye and smile of Paula Aherne. She tripped over groceries. “Where’s my baby,” she said, trying to grab him and grabbing nothing. He was gone.

She heard the sound of a car taking its time starting and somehow knew it was his car, but she couldn’t determine where it was. Holding the snapshot in both hands, she wandered from one car to another and found hers but not his.

That is pure literary artifice that bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to reality. It’s a contrivance designed to show off authorial style, not to convey the reactions of a real human being whose child is missing and might be dead but might actually be alive and this person might have information that could lead her to her child and she goes into a dreamy literary fog and suddenly the man just disappears and his car struggles to start (this character pointedly has car trouble throughout the book) and she lets this man float off to his car and start it and she’s just lost in a daze, not even the presence of someone who might have information about her child can bring her out of her pretentious fog and focus her for a minute in which she could actually locate this man.

Then, at the end of Chapter Seventeen, the Wrights and Chief Tull learn that the man in the scene above has died in a car accident. They know who he is and where he lives, and they know he has a wife. With time of the essence, their baby daughter still missing, you might think that the Wrights would immediately travel to the town where the man had lived and the wife still lives. But, no. They don’t. They’re so casual, so callous, so lacking in any interest in actually finding their daughter that, well, this passage happens:

“When do we leave for Gardner?” she asked.

The chief sighed. “We ought to give the woman a chance to bury him first.”

“When will that be?” Wright asked.

The chief propped a hand on the table. “I’ll find out,” he said. “Then we’ll all go.”

Yeah, no rush. Our child is missing, there’s a chance she’s still alive but, hey, what the hell, let’s wait for this jerk’s funeral before we go try to find out what the wife knows.

Chief Tull’s cutting of the Wrights’ lawn was pointless. But then, so is this book.

It was here that I finally gave up. It takes a lot for me to stop reading a book three-quarters of the way through, but if the Wrights don’t care about finding their daughter, why should I care what happens? I did read the final chapter and the book ends mid-sentence, with ellipses.

That’s perfect for this vague, pretentious, artificial, half-hearted, and infuriating novel…