Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders

The stories in George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella (Random House, 1996) are set in an indistinct future, a time advanced in technology, but in many ways as full of human difficulties as our own.  One long story involves a time in which mutant humans, apparently the result of environmental pollution, are the victims of relocation camps and general discrimination.  The story especially connects to contemporary issues regarding undocumented aliens and other marginal groups, and it summons up recollections of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South pre-civil rights era.  (Is there a connection between this story and the X-Men?—the mutants in this story do not have special powers—they suffer physical malformations--for instance, misshapen toes).  Saunders takes a wry, disconnected yet engaged attitude towards his characters, for whom he expresses pity, empathy, and a certain I told you so attitude.  But the autobiographical essay at the end of the volume invested the stories, with their concerns about people struggling against unhappiness and economic hardship and personal failure, with a specific poignancy.  Saunders recounts his years of struggle to find a style and an approach that would work for him as a writer.  He says he often tried to imitate Hemingway.  But he discovered his true identity as a writer by channeling his own personal anxieties about failure and disruption in his family life—he had a good marriage, a family he loved, children he cherished, and though he was not financially secure at least in the early years of his career he had these things.  His worry about what it would be like to lose these reasons for happiness energized him, gave him a subject, and presumably led to the stories in this volume.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois

As a child I read science fiction constantly.  In the third grade the first adult novel I checked out from the library was Clifford Simak’s Step to the Stars, and for the next six or seven years I read as much sci-fi as I could find, before drifting on to other kinds of writing.  Recently, on the Facebook recommendation of Georgia science fiction writer Michael Bishop, I read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (ed. Gardner Dozois; St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013).  It was interesting to find that in some basic ways sci-fi had changed very little over the five decades, and that in others it had advanced and matured significantly.  As standards of comparison, I should add that I have few, not having read widely in sci-fi for 45 years.  Maybe what seems significant progress to me is no surprise at all to other readers.  By matured and advanced I probably mean in prose style and quality.  Many of the stories in the anthology at least had literary qualities—strong prose, characterization, plotting, and themes.  But many of the scenarios in the stories seem similar, and they tend to replicate one another.  Many of the stories concern far-advanced civilizations, some human and some not, completely removed in time and space from earthly origins.  Writers go to extremes to describe the ecosystems of alien worlds, and the results are fascinating if sometimes not quite convincing menageries of creatures.  The stories have in common a concern with technology and how it can transform if not entirely distort or destroy the humans who create it.  Technology in many of these stories means bio-technology, or the fusion of silicate and bio-technology.  Writers imagine self-healing, genetically engineered humans who live for thousands of years, living starships, robots, androids, and so on.  Many of the stories reflect concern with the environment and with the ecology of alien worlds.  Most describe worlds in which attitudes towards sex, gender, and human relations have changed considerably.  A number of the stories seem to come to no particular end.  One of the most fascinating, the final story, “Eater of Bones,” by Robert Reed, goes on for too long.  Among my favorites was Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to the ‘Land of Snow’,” about the settlement of a New Tibet on a distant planet.  “Old Paint,” by Megan Lindholm, is a humorous story about a family car that takes on a life of its own. “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” by Elizabeth Burns, is a murder mystery set in a futuristic India in which a hybrid cat-parrot with amnesia plays a significant part.  Christopher Barzak in “Invisible Men” retells the famous H. G. Wells story from the point of view of a chamber maid who herself feels invisible.  I was interested in how many of the writers had day jobs in physics, and how many had studied Elizabethan literature in graduate school.  Women and writers from places other than the United States were well represented.  These stories were entertaining and diverting.  The best of them were intelligent and evocative.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

A paranoid, right-wing fantasy thriller, Olympus Has Fallen (2013; dir. Antoine Fuqua) imagines what might happen if a North Korean terrorist attacked the White House, killed virtually everyone in it, and took the president hostage. Well, the terrorist is not precisely North Korean—his family was expelled from North Korea, and his mother was killed by an American mine in the DMZ, and he’s angry that North Koreans don’t eat well.  It’s difficult to make out the logic of his motives, but then, hey, so what, he’s a crazed maniac.  What this film imagines is a highly adept group of North Koreans who have compromised all the nation’s security systems, stolen secret American weapons, and have a plan for blowing up all American ICBMs in their siloes, thereby causing the nuclear incineration of the nation.  They have the cooperation of an American accomplice.

Why is the film rightwing?  Because it glories in imagining what the evil North Koreans would do if only they had a chance.  It relishes images of American soldiers and diplomats and government officials being gunned down.  It trembles at the image of the top of the Washington monument crumbling, and the bullet marked White House in flames, and so on.  All of this is causes by nasty foreigners, evil Asians intent on mayhem.  (Recall George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech).  The xenophobic implication being that we should adopt militaristic, hyper-aggressive strategies to keep those verminous enemies out.  This is a parable of sorts, another version of September 11, 2001, a call for vigilance along with a dimwitted, heavy-handed, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing approach to foreign policy abroad and security at home.  Shades of the NSA.

The film takes its title at face value.  Washington DC, especially the White House, is Olympus.  Stirring music with a hushed chorus accompanies each iconic image.  When the President is wounded, the music suggests that Christ’s side has been pierced. 

Despite all the hoopla, this is just another action movie about people (the President) rescued from a tight spot by an unlikely hero (the disgraced Secret Service agent), with empathy and pathos delivered by the president’s young son, hiding in the captured White House, wanted by the hostage-takers who believe that by threatening his life they can force the President to give up a secret code.  The boy is saved, but for reasons I couldn’t discern the President gives up the code anyway.  The Americans win out in this conflict by brute strength rather than intelligence, and the evil Asians lose through their greed, lust for power and wanton destruction, and madness.  There’s no distinction in the action or the story or the scenario.  The film is mildly entertaining—you can sleep through half of up yet be caught up on the action as soon as you awake, because there is not much to catch up with--it’s got a lot of shootings and explosions and noise.