A princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912-1917)

tumblr_nwyem1mvdk1thiezso1_500

A princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912-1917).

Score: Historical must-read.

For those of us reading from this side of the publication of Neuromancer, pulp fiction is a bit like the embarrassing bigoted grandparent of science fiction. We wouldn’t be here without it.

As the descendants of dime novels, pulps were cheaply produced and sometimes poorly written. They relied on stereotypes and cliffhangers to make readers come back week after week, and were written so you could start the serial midway through and still figure out what was going on. It was fiction written for the lowest common denominator of book consumers: the uneducated majority of the population of the first half of the twentieth century.

But you know who wrote for pulps, too? You will recognise these names: Asimov, Bester, Bradbury, K. Dick, Heinlein, Herbert, Lovecraft. Without pulps, we wouldn’t have had the Big Three, who set out to take science fiction out of the ghetto. We’re still at it, by the way.

One of these people was Edgar Rice Burroughs. A princess of Mars is the first of a saga that spawned a total of eleven novels, all of them serialised in magazines in the first place. It tells the story of John Carter, a gentleman from Virginia and a Confederate war veteran who is teleported to Mars from a cave in Arizona. There he meets the Green Men of Mars, a cruel and warlike race, and lives multiple adventures. He punches his way up the martial social ladder, befriends a huge fiend that becomes his guard dog and falls in love at first sight with Dejah Thoris, a beautiful, damsel in distress, princess of the Red Martians.

There’s racism. There’s sexism. There’s clichéd storytelling. Characters are not very developed and the plot is quite disperse, divided in short chapters that can be read separately of the rest and still get an idea of what’s going on if you miss one of them. Now that I’m thinking of it, it’s what our grandparents had instead or Saturday morning cartoons.

And maybe for that reason Burroughs’ work is so insanely influential. Ray Bradbury called him the most influential writer in the entire history of the world, probably to piss intellectuals off. John Carter’s super jumps on the reduced gravity of Mars inspired Jerry Siegel to create Superman. John Carter’s mingling with a different culture and marrying a native princess predates Avatar, The last samurai, Pocahontas andDances with wolves by decades. There would be no space opera without planetary romance.

All in all, loving science fiction and being unfamiliar with John Carter of Mars means missing out on a lot.

Sources:

Pulp magazine – Wikipedia.

John Carter Files – The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003)

tumblr_ny8g8zukk61thiezso1_500

Monster, directed by Patty Jenkins (2003).

Score: Excellent.

Monster follows the late criminal activity of notorious serial killer Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron). It starts with her meeting her would-be lover, Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), when she is a homeless prostitute, and follows her trying to quit prostitution and how she finally starts killing her johns to steal their money.

Being a film adaptation of real-life events, there isn’t much to say about whether the plot or the characterisation are realistic: it happened in real life. In this case the merit is in giving us a glimpse of the life, tragedy and villainy of Aileen Wuornos only via dialogue and internal monologue. That kind of writing is not easy to do, and Jenkins does a great work at it. The story unfolds smoothly, showing us first Aileen’s situation of extreme social exclusion, her euphoria at meeting Selby, her desire to provide for her and her downward spiral to murder.

Aileen and Selby are two aspects of the failed American Dream for women. The first lines of the movie have her speak about how she fell for the lie that in order to be a star, you only need to be beautiful and sexy enough: “When I was little I thought for sure that one day, I could be a big, big star. Or maybe just beautiful… beautiful and rich, like the women on TV.” This, coupled with sexual abuse as a child, shows how much sense it makes that she ended up being a prostitute. After trying to leave that life behind and failing miserably, falling a victim of mental disease, she closes with: ‘“Love conquers all.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “Faith can move mountains.” “Love will always find a way.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “Where there is life, there is hope.” Oh, well… They gotta tell you somethin’’. Shelby is rejected by her own family for her sexual identity, made feel guilty and inappropriate, which partly leads her to Aileen.

While Aileen’s story is quite tragic, her murders are not justified. We might feel sorry for her, but she’s not validated: Aileen’s not guilty for having been abused and marginalised, but she’s guilty of her murders. Same thing goes for Selby. The last backstab for Aileen must have been that her lover sold her to law enforcement while Selby was an accomplice and instigator.

While the technical aspects are not brilliant, Charlize Theron’s portrayal is jaw-dropping. The physical transformation is the least impressive. It’s the way she moves, the way she looks around herself, the grimaces she makes. You’re actually seeing a tortured, marginalised woman on screen. Like Roger Ebert put it: it “isn’t a performance but an embodiment”.

I was genuinely surprised by the movie. If you haven’t seen it, give it a try, it’s worth watching.

Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)

tumblr_nxz15zzez11thiezso1_500

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915).

Score: Interesting and still current.

Herland is a curious little book. Written by a first wave feminist and usually described as a feminist utopia, it didn’t sound very entertaining at first. But I have to admit I had fun with this little mind experiment, equally encouraging and frightening due to how much we’ve achieved and we’ve still got left to do.

Herland is narrated by Vandyck Jennings, a sociologist who discovers an isolated society comprised only of women while in an expedition with two of his friends, Terry and Jeff. The three men are welcomed as guests and encouraged to a cultural exchange with this ideal society, who managed to eradicate crime, war, disease and scarcity.

Gilman does many things here. The most obvious one is having the three men represent different stereotypes and attitudes in men: Terry is a blatant misogynist, while Jeff starts out as a romantic and is effectively converted into a feminist by the end, while Van, serving as a narrator, stands in-between. You’ve gotta love Terry, in the sense that you want to punch his sorry face. He starts up assuming that there must be no technology in a place run by women, then refuses to believe women made it on their own when he sees their highly developed technology. He tries to lure a girl by presenting her with a piece of jewellery, because, obviously, all women love jewels, just like magpies. He assumes that these women must be young, attractive, submissive and dumb, and when they’re not, he proceeds to try to degrade and subdue them. Fortunately, they’re having none of it.

It’s surprising how many features of Terry’s worldview are still present in society exactly a hundred years later. If you think about it too much it’s actually infuriating. Gilman does a great work at writing the dialogue between the men and of the men with the women. Most of her ideas and portrayal of sexism happen through dialogue and it feels surprisingly fluid and natural for this kind of work.

On a deeper level, the utopia in Herland serves another purpose: being, to a limited extent, an inversion of a patriarchal society. Terry, as well as Van and Jeff, occasionally, shows frustration for being in situations that women have actually endured for a very long time. “Here we are cooped up as helpless as a bunch of three-year-old orphans, and being taught what they think it’s necessary– whether we like it or not”, he complains. Also: “The only thing they can think of about a man is FATHERHOOD! FATHERHOOD! As if a man was always wanting to be a FATHER!” That sounds kind of familiar.

But that’s not all that the book is. Because Gilman does a fair bit of mouthpiecing her own reformist ideas here. I think it’s a mistake to think that she believes this is what a society without men would look like, or that men should be excluded or even worse, exterminated. She’s using the context as an excuse to show what a society where everyone is equal could be like. That is, a feminist society. A society where there are no toxic gender roles. Gilman does two things regarding her utopia: she upholds, develops and praises traditionally feminine qualities, such as nurturing, patience, sweetness or constructiveness. In the other hand, she shows that her women also have some positive qualities that are traditionally attributed to men: they are physically fit and strong, practical, expeditious, curious and thorough. This means these qualities are not exclusive to any one of the genders, as well as the flaws of character that are usually gendered: we would be better off if we rejected them.

All in all, an interesting read if you are interested in feminism, utopias or just sociology or politics in general.

Broken Age (Double Fine, 2014-2015)

tumblr_nwp0z3yjl81thiezso1_500

Broken Age, developed by Double Fine Productions and directed by Tim Schafer (PS4, 2014-2015).

Score: Outstanding.

In Broken Age you control Vella, a girl who is being to be offered as a sacrifice to a giant monster (but is having none of it) and Shay, a boy who is travelling through outer space in a spaceship with a rather infantile decor.

I started playing this because it was free for PSN+ subscribers, and even though I’m a fan of Schafer’s work, I had failed to notice this game had been released. For the first hour or so I didn’t know what I was going to play but I was very surprised at its quality. When I looked up who had developed this game, I was more excited that I have been in a long time!

The dialogue is fun and witty, in the best tradition of The secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. The plot and setting are quite original and surprising, and watch out for social criticism where you’re least expecting it. All in all, exactly what you’re expecting from Tim Schafer in an excellent shape.

The gameplay is quite fluid. The 2D stages are a wise choice, since the pointer changes in shape so you can know if you can interact with an object or transition to another screen, so the only difficulty is with actually solving the puzzles. Which can sometimes be annoying, but in general make quite a lot of sense when compared to other classics of the genre (I’ll never forgive the “monkey wrench” pun in Monkey Island 2. I was playing the game in Spanish. How could I have known.)

The backgrounds and sprites are painted in oils and they are just adorable. The voice cast includes Elijah Wood, Masasa Moyo, Jack Black and Wil Wheaton.

If you love old-school point-and-clicks, you will be happy to know there is a new one to play. What are you waiting for?

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

tumblr_nxb1mwIlBN1thiezso1_500.jpg

The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott (2015).

Score: what science-fiction is made of.

What made me want to watch this movie is that it’s really hard science-fiction. And it delivered. Everything that happens in this movie could happen in real life, if only more money was devoted to research and enough time had passed. This is not an adventure film, nor a thriller. No surprises here, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a movie about human ingenuity overcoming a hostile environment. It’s not about love, it’s not about loyalty, at most it’s a love letter to science. If you’re not interested in engineering at all, this movie is not for you.

During the Ares 3 expedition to Mars, a sandstorm forces the team of six astronauts to leave Mark Watney for dead. Against all odds, Watney survives and finds himself stranded on Mars. The movie follows Watney’s efforts to survive and have the NASA know that he is still alive.

It reminded me a lot of Carl Sagan. I think he would have loved this movie, it has the combination of scientific exactitude, sense of wonder and desire for exploration that he loved in science fiction. I’m convinced a couple of decades from now this movie will have created astronauts and researchers. Aside from the realism, the technical aspects are brilliant. Just about nothing feels fake or out of place here.

It has less time to give technical details than the book, for obvious reasons. While the book has pages over pages and internal monologue to expose Watney’s train of thought, the film’s visual medium forces Scott to shorten the process of discovery and makes him phrase his thoughts aloud. Any more detail would have been tedious, so read the book if you want to know more.

I’m not a big fan of Matt Damon but he does more than well, even bearing in mind he has most of the screentime. It has a nice, diverse coral cast of characters: five women and about a dozen of men, five people of colour and another dozen caucasians, not counting the whole Chinese National Space Administration. Not perfect, but better than most films that come out every day.

Do you enjoy hard science fiction? If the answer is “yes”, what are you waiting for?

La migliore offerta (Giuseppe Tornatore, 2013)

tumblr_nx3ybkhpwl1thiezso1_500

The best offer, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (La migliore offerta, 2013).

Score: Quite good.

Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush) is a rich and prosper master auctioneer. He is mostly friendless, though. His only friend is Bill (Donald Sutherland), with whom he’s running a scam to keep the best pieces of the auction house to themselves. Everything changes when he is hired to catalogue and auction the antiques in a villa owned by a mysterious and troubled heiress (Sylvia Hoeks).

Geoffrey Rush does a great job as the finicky and awkward Virgil, later becoming more careless and passionate by the nature of his obsession. The rest of the actors do very well too, though none stands out. The script feels well-paced, with nice dialogue. The score is by Ennio Morricone; I especially like the moments when distorted electric guitars are used to give the feeling that something is not quite right.

You really don’t want this movie spoiled, so I’ll do some analysis after the spoiler tag. This movie is definitely going to give you a good time, go watch it.

***SPOILERS***

Continue reading

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

tumblr_nwyejdvm4f1thiezso1_500

Dracula, by Bram Stoker (1897).

It’s hard to read Dracula today as if you had never heard of everything that it influenced, which is a whole lot. Bram Stoken didn’t invent vampires, those exist in most cultures in one form or the other, but he did invent a way of looking at them.

What you might not know is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It requires a bit of reconstruction from the reader and despite being the eponymous character, Dracula is hardly in it. It starts with Jonathan Harker, a new English solicitor, going to visit Count Dracula in his castle in Transylvania, to assist him in buying property in London and move there. Very soon Jonathan learns that Dracula is up to no good.

I had been wondering why the terrifying Count Dracula had been deformed into charming lovers and tragic heroes such as Lestat the Vampire and Edward Cullen. Reading and analysing this novel as the origin of everything with my fellow students and Prof. Rabkin in a Coursera course I’m taking has convinced me that the book, and vampire lore drinking from it, is overflowing with sexual symbolism, and demonic symbolism, because we all know that those two are not mutually exclusive, even more so they usually go together.

Vampires visit you at night and represent an inversion of the acceptable suitor that visits you during the day. Fangs can be thought of as phallic symbols and blood as other bodily fluids, by metonymy. The transformation of Lucy from lovely maiden to wanton wretch leaves no place to doubt. Vampirism bears numerous similarities with sexual transmitted diseases. At the same time, Dracula transforms into bats, which can be thought of anti-doves and drinks the blood of other people forcibly, which makes him also an inversion of Christ, who offered his blood willingly in the Last Supper. All of it is already there if you know where to look.

For modern audiences, the book is probably going to be too slow. And it’s hard to be surprised by it if you are already familiar with vampire lore, the same lore this helped establish. But I have to admit that the middle part, when Lucy is being bitten and finally transforms, does a very good job of maintaining suspense, even if you already know what’s going to happen. Also all the reconstructing you have to do to follow the story is refreshing and estimulating.

What can I say? It’s a classic, and as such it requires a smal effort to read. But if you’re interested in vampires, Gothic horror or horror in general, you have to read it.