Tag: sci-fi

Friday Nerd Blogging: Now for Something Completely Different

Instead of posting a video, I thought I would present a short book plug/review:

I actually don’t read that much science fiction or fantasy, but I could not resist once I heard the concept of Redshirts by John Scalzi: that instead of writing about the main characters on a starship, he would focus on those extras that tended to get killed on the away teams that get deployed to the planets the starship would visit.  Scalzi is touching on a key piece of nerd culture as we have long noticed that the folks on Star Trek (classic version) who beamed down with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy tended to have short life expectancies.

Okay, so far so good, but it gets even better beyond the break where I spoil away:
The real genius of the book is that the small group of extras that are the focal point become aware of this dynamic that Redshirts die at an amazingly and statistically improbable rate.  Indeed, these folks are new to the ship, the Intrepid, and realize that the behavior of everyone is out of whack.  The captain, the science officer and a few other leads expose themselves to grave dangers but are never hurt, except for one, the astrogator (think Chekhov) who always gets hurt but never fatally.  The crew have figured this out and have learned to dodge the officers when they are looking for folks to build an away team.

Better still, our Redshirts begin to believe in something crazy–that they are all potentially vulnerable to this crazy force that can overcome physics and certainly overcome logic.  This force is called The Narrative.  If it is necessary for the furtherance of the plot of a particular adventure (episode), then a member of the crew will suddenly know things they didn’t know before or suddenly act in ways they would not have, such as foolishly running across an area inhabited by Dune-like or Tremor-like earthworms.  This concept, of the Narrative forcing these real people who are also characters to act, well, it changed how I experienced The Dark Knight Rises.  Much of Bane’s evil plans seem less than logical but driven by that strange mystical force–The Narrative.  Indeed, why Midichlorians?  Because it was required by the Narrative!

Anyway, in the book, our Redshirts start to realize that they are really the victims of bad writing.  That the screen-writer responsible for the show that they are on tends to be lazy and kills extras off for the sake of drama instead of putting the effort into writing a story that makes sense and builds drama more organically.  How do the extras save themselves?  Via time travel, of course.  They must visit Hollywood when their show is being produced and change how it is written.  Yes, really.

Along the way, Scalzi not only sends up Star Trek in a big, big way, but much of science fiction, much of TV production, and much of nerd culture.  It is a very funny book that is so meta it makes Community look as un-meta as Happy Days.  Oh, and after the main story is over, there are three codas which are not only funny and moving but demonstrate how one can write in the first, second and third person.  Yes, the first coda is written in the first person, the second one is in the second person (don’t remember the last time I read something told from that perspective), and so on.

First Coda: To be clear, the Narrative is not an evil force, but can be used for good or evil.  And even for edu-tainment, as I happened to discuss this week over at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Second Coda: You really should read the book–heaps of fun. (Yes, you scoff at my effort to write in the second person.  But then you move on).

Third Coda: Oh, and Scalzi also has a very good blog: https://whatever.scalzi.com/.  He made a big noise recently by making a really interesting suggestion: that being a straight white male was the equivalent of choosing the easy or rookie level of difficulty on a video game.  A perhaps more topical post of his for this blog is on who gets to decide who is a geek or not. Behind the scenes of the Duck, we have had some discussion about whether Friday Nerd Blogging should just be Charli’s bailiwick (my stance) or that anyone can post such stuff (Charli’s).  Of course, hers is the right answer and mine is the free-riding approach.  Anyhow, now that Charli is back from vacation, I expect her to be posting silly stuff on Friday’s, but I will probably keep doing it as well.  Too much stuff that is too fun not to share.


Prometheus and Lawrence of Arabia

[Spoiler Alert: Obviously, you shouldn’t read this post if you want to see the movie unfiltered.]

Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012) is a film about creation, abortion, and redemptive self-sacrifice.  Although elements of the plot do not have as much art or integrity as one might like, the film has moments of complex and sedimented allegory. The film obviously operates at the granular level of biopolitics as well as posing the fundamental questions of philosophy, but it is Michael Fassbender’s role as the android David who is obsessed with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia” that adds the richest and most unexpected layer.

In a meta-theatrical moment, we hear David quote from “Lawrence of Arabia” just as the spaceship descends to the mysterious planet of the Engineers: “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.” However, he is not quoting the blond Bedouin, but Prince Feisal. The original quote from “Lawrence of Arabia” is: 

“I think you are another of these desert-loving English. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Or is it that you think we are something you can play with because we are a little people?  A silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel?  What do you know, lieutenant?  In the Arab city of Cordova, there were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village.”

This is a notable slippage which moves David from the role of the messianic agent-provocateur, to the marginalized colonial subject — from the narcissistic “creator” of another’s nation to the object of imperial intrigues; from an Englishman to an Arab man. I don’t think this slippage or duality is unintentional as it reinforces David’s status of subordinate masculinity which T.E. Lawrence himself came to embrace as he adopted Arab dress and the Arab cause, and particularly after he was raped by Turkish soldiers at Der’a. Of course, even Lawrence’s self-effacement and rejection of hyper-masculinity is problematic and deceptive from a Foucauldian/Butlerian perspective (see Grant Parsons, “Another India” in Philip Darby’s At the Edge of International Relations, 1997, pp. 169-171).  Power cannot simply be rejected. Thus, it is unsurprising that from this position of subordinate masculinity Fassbender’s character works his subtle, seductive, and treacherous charms on the hapless crew members.

At another level, an android quoting the phrase “no man needs nothing” is a ponderous enigma. The double negative turns the nothing into something.  But more to the point, the android reciting the phrase is no man even though he clearly has desires and wants something. In fact, the android desires to kill off his human creators in collusion with the Engineers who seeded humanity but now seek to abort the species. 

The desert setting of the film is also ironic because the extra-terrestrial desert, much like the desert of Arabia, is hardly empty. However, and by way of contrast, the desert of the Engineers is loaded with weapons of mass destruction which are discovered within minutes.  This is perhaps meant just as a quick jab at Westerners who have sought repeatedly to create, abort, and re-create the Middle East in their own image even while unleashing massive slaughter. However, it is not the WMDs but the engineers’ and android’s motivations for aborting humanity that remain an elusive mystery in the film.

We are left without definitive answers, except for snippets of dialogue between David and crew members in which we are told that men created the android simply “because they could,” much as the Engineers probably created man because they could. Perhaps any answer from a film would be trite or perhaps the film is telling us that the motivation for creation is unknowable.  For the motivation for the impending genocide we are only told that all children naturally seek to kill their parents. The one chance in the film to receive a straight answer is scuttled when an alien Engineer is woken only to be transformed into a caricature of Mary Shelly’s modern Prometheus. Thus the film is not interested in explaining motivation so much as means — and here we are referred back to “Lawrence of Arabia.”

In a rehearsal of a scene in which T.E. Lawrence shows his comrades a trick to putting out a match with his fingers, we are told that the key is “not minding it hurts.”  The snuffing out of the generative flame bestowed by Prometheus must be carried out without emotion — a task for which the android who is capable of feigning but not feeling emotion is most well suited, much like the alien spawn created by the Engineers.

The film leaves us with a simple if revolutionary sub-text: to the creators/created, nothing is owed.


The Infected Zone

UK Movie Poster for “Monsters” (2010). Source: Wikipedia.

The post-9/11 generation sci-fi film “Monsters” (Gareth Edwards, 2010) is a kind of “Cloverfield” for the US-Mexican border (or if you’re a real film buff, it is a “Sin Nombre” journey film with real aliens, i.e. gigantic extra-terrestials). But this is more than just a monster flick.

The film takes the notion of a militarized zone and an alien invasion along the US-Mexican border quite literally, but it is set six years after the invasion or infestation. Thus, Mexico is transformed into a late-Occupied Iraq or Afghanistan and Texas into a kind of post-Katrina wasteland. The militarization of the landscape is eerily too familiar. In fact, the power and realism of the film stems from the idea that people acclimate to militarization; horror becomes mostly mundane. At one point, the American protagonists ask a Mexican driver why he and his family live so close to a dangerous area, the response is simply that they have nowhere else to go and they think they can manage the risks.

Throughout the film the cable news networks show scenes of alien attacks and carnage in the background, but the characters generally ignore the flickering media images. The ubiquitous sight of fighter jets and hovering attack helicopters fail to phase the characters or even anyone in the background. It is a world that has overcome the shock of the spectacle of war. The photojournalist protagonist spends much of the film trying to find images which could actually shock a desensitized American audience.

The setting is also noteworthy as a commentary on US-Mexican relations, which is seen as both cooperative and unequal. Both governments attempt to police an infected zone, but it is telling that the infected zone covers most of northern Mexico. For its part, the US builds an immense border wall to keep out the aliens, but the border is porous despite the monumental expenditure and effort. The sight of America’s front door as a forbidding wall is a view of America from the “outside in.”  The Mexican characters in the film see America as a country that has “imprisoned itself” through fear and misunderstanding. While the American side is called the evacuation zone, it is nonetheless also a blighted wasteland, marked mainly by fighter jets speeding to and from the infected zone to drop chemical weapons and reload. This is an image of “Fortress America” which tries to use Mexico as a buffer zone even as its own interior continues to decay.


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