Friday, May 30, 2014

Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction defines Space Opera as "colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict." Space Opera concerns Big Events, action done on a big scale. Whenever I picture Space Opera, I think of a Star Wars poster by John Berkey I had as a kid. It's likely what drew me to James SA Corey's Leviathan Wakes, since Daniel Dociu's cover art echoes Berkey's work. The cover blurb was just as inviting, including this crucial line: "one small ship can change the fate of the universe." 

Leviathan Wakes jumps back and forth between the limited third-person perspectives of Jim Holden, the reluctant captain of that small ship, and Detective Miller, a cop looking for a missing girl. Their paths are obviously set to converge, and when they do, they not only find the missing girl, but an alien technology that threatens to destroy the solar system. And while Leviathan Wakes has fine moments of interplanetary  political manuevering and Machiavellian plotting, it is more interested in the view of those bigger movements by the small people those events are focalized through.

This is the major theme of Leviathan Wakes, and requires spoilers for me to illuminate further, so if you haven't read the book, it's time to jump ship and take my recommendation that every Hugo, Nebula, and Locus nomination this series has received is fully deserved. It's the space opera any child who read books on our solar system and its planets and dreamed of what it would be like live in the Asteroid Belt, or on one of the moons of the gas giants, has been waiting to read.

Now for the spoilers, and the discussion of how Leviathan Wakes addresses the theme of the individual human in the big wide reaches of space. While the fictional devices of alternating between the limited third-person perspectives of Holden and Miller serve to subtly convey the small, unreliable perspective of Big Events encompassing multiple planets and the civilization living in the asteroid belt, it is Leviathan Wakes' finale that drives the idea home.

Miller's search for the missing girl and Holden's quest for revenge intersect in the discovery of the protomolecule, an alien technology discovered on one of Saturn's moons. Originally destined for earth, the protomolecule has been locked in the ice of Phoebe for millions of years. Protogen, a powerful corporation, hopes to use to protomolecule to evolve human physiology, thereby finally giving the human race the ability to reach the stars. Juliette Mao was one of the people caught in Protogen's experiment to determine the effects of the protomolecule on the human form.

Mao, infected with the protomolecule had fled to Eros, one of the Asteroid belt stations, where she apparently died of the subsequent Bosch/Giger-painting inspired transformations. The protomolecule is then deliberately, systematically, fed into Eros' system, thereby infecting thousands of people, who are transformed into a protean biomass. Miller, detective that he is, discovers the interface between Mao's desire to go home and the protomolecule's original programming have this monstrous entity on a catastrophic collision course with Earth.

The conversation between Miller and the infected and drastically transformed Mao brings the story of two small men trying to make big changes to a climax. When Miller reveals that many people on Earth are certain to die if Eros does not change course, he convinces Mao to set her will against the collective entity that is Eros station. Like Miller and Holden, Mao becomes a type of David in the valley of Elah, set against the giant of Goliath, or better yet, the biblical allusion in the novel's title: Leviathan, the great sea serpent. Mao overcomes the Leviathan and sets Eros on a new course for uninhabited Venus.

In the wake of Miller's resultant death and with the solar system in a state of unstable peace, Holden is in conversation with a leader of one of the solar system's political factions: he recommends that Miller be remembered as a flawed individual - a real person with a real history. The political leader rejects this in favor of making Miller a symbol of people living in the asteroid belt, in a bid to earn respect for "Belters" in the eyes of Earth and Mars, once again underscoring the tension between the reality of the individual against the press of Big Events: "I know it's hard, but we don't need a real man with a complex life. We need a symbol of the Belt. An icon," the political leader tells Holden. Holden replies, "That's what got us here . . . Icons. Symbols. People without names. All of those Protogen scientists were thinking about biomass and populations. Not Mary who worked in supply and raised flowers in her spare time" (559). It was Miller's refusal to treat Juliette Mao, missing girl, as anything less than a human that ultimately saves the day - it is a surprisingly peaceful solution in a book that has been constantly poised on the brink of war.

However, this is not simply an optimistic look at how one person's actions have ramifications on the Big Events; earlier, when Miller and Holden are involved in a hostile takeover of Protogen's secret lab, Leviathan Wakes explores the dark side of how one person can make terrible changes. They find Antony Dresden, Protogen's executive vice president of biological research as the mastermind behind the experimentation with the protomolecule. Like any good villain, Dresden gets the opportunity to monologue, to wax eloquent on the reasons why mass murder in the name of scientific progress is justified: the protomolecule could render humans capable of working in space without wearing a suit, capable of centuries-long hibernation on colony ships. "We decide what we want to be, and we reprogram ourselves to be that . . . You think it's monstrous, but . . . I am giving humanity the stars" (419-20). Miller shoots Dreden in the head to silence his convincing rhetoric, but muses later that he didn't do it soon enough. There are hints that others were influenced by these ideas. And with the rejection of Miller as a real person interested in individuals, the book darkly concludes, with the statement that on the one hand, humanity is faced with the "very real threat of mutual annihilation. On the other . . . the stars" (561).


There are so many, I can't begin to enumerate them, but Miller seems a likely reference to the golden age of SF, when detectives were to be expected, as in Asimov's Robot stories. The protomolecule is the SF version of Lovecraftian horrors and their descendants, such as Carpenter's The Thing, the Alien design by H.R. Giger (and much of his art in general), and the dark liquid of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. The book certainly has more horror elements than I'd expected.

Secondary Sources:

Pringle, David. "What Is This Thing Called Space Opera?." Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. 35-47. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

The Expanse Wiki - everything you need to know about the details of the Expanse trilogy.

Teaching Tips: 

Leviathan Wakes is too big to use in a survey course on Science Fiction, but one might form a discussion around the ideas I've outlined above by putting chapters 41, 53-54, and the Epilogue on e-Reserve. They comprise 37 pages out of 560, which still leaves room to include another chapter of your choosing to help students understand the plot (copyright with e-Reserves allows for up to 10% of the work). I don't know that Leviathan Wakes is the best example of space opera, but it certainly would provide a contrast to earlier examples found in good SF anthologies (My recommended anthology for teaching SF is Heather Masri's Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, though sadly, it looks like it's currently out of print).


Speaking of Space Opera, you've likely already seen this, but the National Post's favorite tweets from Peter Mayhew candids from the set of Star Wars are lovely nostalgia for the SF fan. Aside from my inner adolescent's glee at a few pics of Carrie Fisher in the iconic metal bikini, I love seeing behind-the-scenes--these photos show more than just the "making of." Seeing these actors and crew having a blast making these beloved movies has a strong nostalgia factor that goes beyond scholarly interest, back to the childhood roots of why I study SF and fantasy.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla 2014

This past year has been all about Linda Hutcheon's Theory of Adaptation for me. I spoke on it twice, once at MacEwan University, the second time at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. I designed an entire course around it for Winter of 2015. I am solidly on board with Hutcheon's idea that we need to stop treating adaptations as second-order products, and let them be their own thing. This is difficult for the fan of a franchise to do, especially one like Godzilla, the longest running film franchise under one studio--well, make that two studios (three if you count that adaptation of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms with Matthew Broderick in it from the 90s), now that Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures (damn, make that 3-4 studios) have released their reboot of the series. You're looking at 30 films, 31 if you include the cameo dream sequence from Always: Sunset on Third Street 2, to say nothing of the Bandai toys, the Marvel, Dark Horse, and IDW comics series, the Hanna Barbera Cartoon from the '80s, and the video games.

Such a franchise produces what Henry Jenkins calls transmedia storytelling, where multiple media convey the narrative universe of a character, or world. And sixty years of storytelling in Godzilla's case sees the monster made hero made monster again, hero again, and then ambivalent antihero. Derek McCaw of Fanboy Planet addresses the massive challenge director Gareth Edwards faced in bringing Godzilla to the screen in 2014, given the wide range of expectations amongst Godzilla fans:
"Edwards has tried to balance many different types of expectations. Some people really want a scary movie about a giant monster destroying landscapes and punishing us for crimes against nature. Some have fond memories of guys in rubber monster suits pummeling each other. And in the 21st Century, it's kind of hard not to really start to be devastated by the devastation."
I fall firmly into the first category: for me, the original 1954 Gojira is the greatest daikaiju film ever made. Unless you're incapable of conceding that improvements in special effects render the original ridiculous by modern standards, Ishiro Honda's direction, Eiji Tsuburaya's creature design and effects (especially in the attack of Tokyo by night), and Akira Ifukube's haunting score combined to create a film fully worthy of inclusion in the Criterion Collection. And for those fans, the first third of Gareth Edward's Godzilla is for you (and me). Brian Cranston's performance dominates this portion of the film, which is rife with references to the original movie (Ken Watanabe's character is named for the heroic Dr. Serizawa of the original film), and the real world nuclear tests in the South Pacific that inspired it. When Edwards' Godzilla is in Japan, it remains true to its Japanese roots. Once it moves to America, it heads in other directions.

If I were the sort of fan who demanded his expectations be somehow divined by Gareth Edwards (I'm using Edwards metonymically, to stand in for the writers, producers, etc.), then I could say something like, "sadly, once Cranston leaves the picture, the film goes off the rails, along with several trains." But I'm not that fan. The opening setup seems to be the portion of the film which addresses the expectations of the first type of Godzilla fan McCaw identifies, before moving on to the second type, the ones who either have fond memories of daikaiju WWE, or whose only perception of Godzilla films is based upon the word versus.

Once Cranston passes the focalizing torch to his onscreen son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the film shifts to the expectations of the versus fan: Godzilla will fight other monsters. These fans also fall into two camps: those who want Godzilla to still be the villain while laying the smack-down on benevolent daikaiju like the giant moth Mothra, and those who like Godzilla to be the hero, laying the smack-down on the villanous monsters like King Ghidrah. Edwards tries to fall in the middle here, to create an anti-hero of Godzilla, but leans decidedly in the direction of the heroic.

So much so that I couldn't help but make a number of comparisons to the Gamera series from the '90s directed by Shusuke Kaneko: from the origin of Godzilla as primordial force of nature meant to restore balance to the planet to the design of his opponents, the MUTOs, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Gyaos, flying nemesis of Gamera (the female MUTO was also reminiscent of Cloverfield's giant monster). Some say ripoff, I say homage, since Edwards' film is abundant in intertextual references to other Godzilla movies and daikaiju films (and its fair to say that anything Godzilla rips off from Gamera is fair play, since Gamera was, at first, an unabashed rip-off of Godzilla).  

But the movie works beyond the debt it owes to the Godzilla franchise and the larger daikaiju tradition. The friend I attended with had never seen a Godzilla movie: not one. And for him, the film was an enjoyable experience, made more sweet by the wait for the full-contact versus act. Detractors have panned the slow pacing of the first two-thirds, but many of these were the same who panned Pacific Rim for being too loud and bombastic. If Edwards had gone the route of unremitting mayhem, they'd likely have criticized him the film for empty spectacle. Others have cited a lack of character development or acting chops, but I never know what the hell people mean when they say this in a film: they didn't like the characters? Would we really want character development over more monster mayhem in a Godzilla movie? Isn't that the purvue of real-world disaster films like The Impossible? On that note, I want to address McCaw's last category, of those who find devastation devastating.

Susan Sontag's 1965 article "The Imagination of Disaster" decried  the SF films of the 1950s and '60s for their lack of an intensive view of disaster: this is the view that a movie like The Impossible takes, focusing on the lives of people affected by devastation. Modern blockbusters are not the first to relish the spectacle of destruction: that honor goes to Biblical epics. Instead, most films featuring devastation take the extensive point-of-view, the wide angle that permits us to see buildings crumple, but not people dying. Critics of Man of Steel and Star Trek: Into Darkness were righteously indignant at the faceless devastation of whole cityscapes.

But I challenge the notion that these sorts of films can really address such concerns. Would anyone even want to see a Godzilla movie where Godzilla is only seen from a distance, causing tidal waves which segue to Naomi Watts striving to keep her child alive while she hopes to be reunited with Ewan McGregor? C.S. Lewis said we should evaluate something for what it is - we need to know the genre before we can assess. Godzilla is a giant monster movie. There are but a bare handful of giant monster movies that do anything the intensive view of disaster, and Gareth Edwards made one of them in 2010 with Monsters, as I have argued here. He's capable of a monster movie with the intensive view - but that's not what he's doing with Godzilla. With Godzilla, Edwards has made a blockbuster, which has moments of intensive focus, but is primarily about the extensive spectacle. And while other daikaiju films such as Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys and The Host are able to do something with the intensive view, the reason we flock to these films is to see the world end. Anyone who goes to a Godzilla movie prepared to complain about the representation of devastation is a bit of a hypocrite.

Quality will always be in the eye of the beholder, and I will not make pronouncements of Edwards' filmmaking brilliance here. This new Godzilla is not what I had hoped for, but neither is it anything approaching a disappointment. In truth, I think it is a lovely pastiche of giant monster movie moments, both Japanese and American. It is also a visual spectacle, and more and more, I must argue that this is one of the things cinema is for. Anyone superciliously poo-pooing the spectacle has forgotten what it was like to see Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, or The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. There is something to be said for the eye candy of Pacific Rim coming from the deft hand of the man responsible for The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Ishiro Honda was responsible for the original darkness of Gojira, but also the technicolor satire of King Kong vs. Godzilla (the Japanese version is a revelation). If nothing else, Edwards' film has one of the best moments of Godzilla KOing an opponent with tail and radioactive breath. And for this Godzilla fan, those moments alone were worth the price of admission.

Intertexts: A comparison of Edwards Monsters with his Godzilla wouldn't be amiss, if only to note the way in which news footage and television screens are employed in both as tale-telling devices. As noted in the article, I think Kaneko's '90s reboot of the Gamera franchise would also produce some interesting moments for comparison and contrast. Edwards' Godzilla shares much with Kaneko's Gamera - a giant monster who's on your side, but is unaware you're there to be stepped on or crushed when a building collapses. The study of kaiju collateral damage in Kaneko's films was very innovative in giant monster films.

Secondary Sources: 
For scholarly work on the original Gojira film, check out “Japan's Nuclear Nightmare: How the Bomb Became a Beast Called Godzilla” by Peter Brothers or “Godzilla’s Footprint” by Steve Ryfle.
Some would recommend William Tsutsui's work on Godzilla, but I prefer David Kalat's A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, which investigates every Godzilla movie made prior to Edwards'. Even though I don't agree with all of Kalat's assessments, he makes some great observations. This book is a must-have for serious Godzilla fans, or scholars interested in understanding the franchise better. 

Teaching: I'm nearly done writing up my approach to teaching Godzilla and Hiroshima for an upcoming post, which I'll link here. For now, suffice to say that the secondary sources I've listed above are all used in the course.

Potpourri:  I'm going to list my favourite daikaiju films:
1. Gojira (1954)
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
3. Monsters
4. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Irys
5. The Host
6. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
7. Pacific Rim
8. Godzilla (2014)
9. Trollhunter
10. Cloverfield  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Long, Long Ago; Far, Far Away

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Time and space.

I usually give students hell for this sort of an intro, but in the case of literature, it's true. As far back as we have stories, we were telling tales of fantastic journeys. The oldest story in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh, and it's a tale of fantastic journeys: from wild-man Enkidu's journey from the wild to the fabulous walled city of Uruk, to Enkidu and half-divine hero Gilgamesh's journey to battle the horrid Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, to Gilgamesh's journey in search of immortality, to the journey of Utnapishtim in his ark to escape the wrath of the gods through a worldwide flood (the first apocalyptic/post-acocalyptic story!), the fragmented tablets from our ancient past tell us a story that is big, bold, and blockbuster-style. Were Gilgamesh to be brought to the screen today, it would require the powers of Ray Harryhausen, Pixar, or WETA Workshop to render on-screen. It would likely be marketed as a fantasy.

It's a tale of a long time ago, in a land, far, far away. Time and space.

We love stories that take us on the journey, even if the story itself isn't about a journey. Edgar Allan Poe's "A Telltale Heart" is not a story of a fantastic journey, but it is one for the reader. We, not the narrator, are transported through time and space, to occupy the mind of a lunatic killer in the nineteenth century. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did the same: though her narrator never leaves the room she is effectively trapped in, the reader is transported into the mind of a woman in the nineteenth century, to journey along a slow descent into madness. For a reader like me, the transport not only crosses time and space, but gender as well. Bram Stoker's Dracula makes the reader dance from gender to gender, from nineteenth-century Transylvania to London and back again in pursuit of a monster: in the twentieth-century, Fred Saberhagen would place us in the mind of the monster in The Dracula Tape. What draws us to journey into the mind of a monster, to traverse halls of horror?

These too, are tales of a time that seems long ago, and even though I can visit London and Transylvania, will always be far, far away. One cannot visit the Borgo Pass that Stoker describes, for it does not exist. Stoker's Borgo Pass has a sheer drop off. The real Borgo Pass is a series of rolling hills. Modern London is not nineteenth-century London. Yet through Stoker's tale of horror, I can travel through time and space.
Yet sometimes, the journey isn't to the past: instead, we hurtle towards the future. Be it on a "five-year mission to explore strange new worlds" or into the dark recesses of space where "no one can hear you scream," we are as keen to journey into our future as we are to visit the past. George Lucas's Star Wars imagined a past which felt like the future. Terry Brooks' Shannara series imagines a future that feels like our past.

I love literature's ability to take me places I cannot go, and be people I cannot be. Speculative literature, be it fantasy, science-fiction, or horror, takes me farther than so-called realist literature can. I have loved the transport I experience in these sorts of stories since I could read. I have thrilled to them on the big-screen and small, on pages filled with nothing but text, and those which blend both text and image.  

Sometimes, those stories are meant only to entertain, and I am transported, but not transformed. This is not a bad thing, whatever the champions of "serious" SF, Fantasy, or Horror might say. As Michael Chabon has argued in his essay "Trickster in a Suit of Lights," entertainment is not a low calling. Nevertheless, I believe that these forms of story are best when they both transport and transform. While I will always love Star Wars for pulling me into the world of science fiction, and thereby fantasy, and finally horror, I, like Samuel Delaney, have issues with the white-washed, male-dominated universe Lucas created. I will always love it, but it will always be the SF of my youth.

When I was a child, I read Science Fiction as a child, and preferred Lucas to Asimov. Now that I am grown, I seek greater depth. Yet I have not forgotten how to view the worlds without end in Speculative Literature with wide-eyed-wonder; my desire for depth is not supercilious cynicism or elitism. Just because Star Wars doesn't satisfy my need for depth does not mean I disregard it; I am currently watching the CW's The 100 and enjoying it, with an awareness of who I was when I was 18, understanding that this particular work of SF is not meant for a middle-aged academic.

For many years, my journeys in time and space were theological; when that ended, I was limited for a time to the worlds of fairy tale, and then subsequently to steampunk journeys, while I worked on my graduate degrees. Those journeys are all behind me, and will inform the one I have embarked on this year: to travel back in time through the works of speculative literature that precede this May 4, 2014, but also to travel forward through the works that are yet to come. This is a journey that will take the rest of my life, but I am allotting a decade to traverse a loose "canon" of 200 years prior, starting with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. This new blog is a very bold step in that direction, and I invite all newcomers to join me on this journey, through time and space, to the future, to the past, to worlds beyond this one; through Wardrobe doors and worm holes and witch-woods to places we cannot go, to see things we cannot see, and be people, creatures, and things we cannot be.