Sunday, June 25, 2017

June Reads Part Three

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus
Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I thought Binti was really good, but not great, so it was a surprise for me to find the second book in this trilogy (the third comes out in January of next year!) was better in almost all aspects. Okorafor has jettisoned much of the violence and spectacle of the previous volume for an increased focus on the protagonist's emotional state: her experience with PTSD and her increased feelings of alienation when returning home. Everything I said in the previous review holds true, if not more true: Okorafor's novella is an excellent examination of what it means to be the Other through a science fictional lens. I don't entirely love the series so far—there's such a major focus on the Bildungsroman element over the aforementioned PTSD aspect—but I'm suitably impressed. As with many bits of Adam Roberts' work, I can't quite shake his essay on YA and the Neo-Victorian (here). In an long and wide-ranging post (he touches on Moorcock, Lewis, Tolkien, The Hunger Games, and countless other texts), Roberts tries to grapple with YA's fascination with Victorianism and fantasy. His argument is wonderfully summed in the elegant final paragraph:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it.
Likewise, Binti and its sequel (and probably its third entry) grapple with the classic tropes of coming-of-age using as its distant backdrop the "public school" like Harry Potter and countless other YA books. The titular Binti spends her first adventure on the way to the school while the second novel has her leaving the school. Her literal and figurative journey to the school changes her identity through what is essentially magic (tentacle aliens reshape her DNA). Again, it's not mimesis as Roberts points out which is the driving force for the poetics of her growing emotional maturity—it's magic handwaved as science. While Roberts' argument doesn't fully apply to Binti, as Okorafor's novella is not rooted in Jameson's diagnosis of postmodernism as the "replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles." Instead, Binti mobilizes Afrofuturism (the aesthetic movement) in its depiction of Binti's development and her grappling with the spectre of the past. Binti's family, mathematically and practically inclined, disapprove of her escape to the stars. A recurring theme in the second novella is the exhaustion of Binti's possibilities for marriage; her trip to space, her flight from her people marks her as unfit for wedlock. Likewise, she comes face-to-face with a doubled Othering: her abandonment of traditional ways and her reshaped DNA code her as Other even to her own people, while simultaneously, Othered by non-Himba people for being black. Binti: Home brings all this to force along with the standard second-entry-in-a-trilogy revelation that "everything you know is wrong" via a secret history with which Binti was hitherto unaware. Where Okorafor takes the novel can't be too much of a surprise; Binti: Home ends on a cliffhanger: the strained peace between humanity and the Meduse collapses in violence, leading Binti to charge into danger, on a quest to unite people, an extension of her internal quest for "atonement" (at-one-ment), to reconcile the Othered parts of her identity, to coalesce into who she really is, while donning the mantle of humanity's saviour.

All the above makes it sound as if I was uninterested or apathetic about Okorafor's project and Binti's journey. While I confess Bildungsromans don't really tickle my fancy, I still adored this second entry, more than the first, and hope the third also jettisons the classic excess of violence which mark conclusions.

An aside about trilogies: probably my favourite moment in any third entry in trilogies occurs in Return of the Jedi, which so wisely anchors its climax on two emotional arcs (Vader's and Luke's). After departing Dagobah, Luke surrenders to Imperial forces and enjoys a moment of quiet with Lord Vader. There's no need for violence or even confrontation. Their mutual respect is palpable and speaks to the emotional maturity of the sequence: Lucas and his crew trusts the audience gets both characters know the conflict is now spiritual, not physical. Other than the Tatooine sequence at the beginning, this is the only bit in Return of the Jedi I find interesting and of course, it's the least violent or showy of any.

Maurice Broaddus and offer us Buffalo Soldier, a steampunk adventure heavily influenced by Jamaica and their culture of storytelling. Like Kai Ashante Wilson's two novellas, this is a fantasy speckled with an awareness of code-switching and the utter specificity of the black experience. I'm very skeptical of steampunk, going so far as to dub it politically dangerous, but it feels like Broaddus has anticipated my reservations. Instead of the bland, implied celebration of Empire that usually characterizes the genre, Buffalo Soldier is explicit in its condemnations of imperialism. Its plot concerns rival nation-states in a fractured North America vying for political power. They seek this power through the manipulation of a clone, a resurrected Messiah with murkily-defined powers. The plot follows a mercenary with the young, naive clone under his wing as they escape the various competing powers. In terms of execution, the novel forgettable. Its details slip my memory immediately. But what sticks is Broaddus' interest in storytelling as oral history. The short novella finds time, three times, to arrest the forward momentum completely and have a character tell a story. The Jamaican protagonist tells one, an Indigenous character tells one, and a Southern Belle archetype antagonist tells a final story. They're more interesting than the plot of the novel and Broaddus executes these digressions with precision. Less attractive is the finale, a chaotic mess of noise and violence, which did nothing for me.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi's Kintu was recommended to me by Aaron Bady, a Twitter acquaintance, and an expert (would he agree with such a compliment?) in African literature. He, in facts, introduces the novel in this edition. Touted to be the Great Ugandan Novel, Makumbi's text is fascinating and compelling. Starting with the historical figure of Kintu (pronounced "chin-tu"), the novel tracks the curse which befalls him and his many descendants in 21st century Uganda. Each section works as a standalone short story, detailing the fate suffered by the particular protagonist, but each section lacking an ending, leading to the climactic and final section, a huge family reunion and attempt at lifting the curse. Makumbi wrote the novel in English, but avoids translating any word in common usage not in English. Most words can be figured out through contextual clues, but sometimes, I just didn't know what they were talking about and that's okay. Kintu is, like Okorafor's Lagoon, not made for the Western gaze. Where the great Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart for Western audiences, a movement against colonization by using the tools of the colonists (read: the English language), Makumbi writes in English for her audience. Thus, the novel is multi-lingual and doesn't laboriously explain the history of Uganda. Readers are expected to be already familiar with Idi Amin, history, colonialism, and geography among other subjects, and of course, they would be: citizens of Uganda (I hesitate to say "Ugandans" as "Uganda" is an arbitrary border drawn by colonizers and not even the proper pronunciation of the word describing the ethnic group Bagandans) these citizens lived through this and wouldn't need the refresher. This made moments in the novel a smidge difficult for me, as I'm not terribly familiar with the specifics of Ugandan history.

Regardless of my own awareness of history, Kintu remains entertaining and productive throughout. One of the things I liked most about Okorafor's Lagoon and Adichie's Americanah, a major novel of Nigeria, was the reminder "Africa" isn't this monolith of poverty and AIDS and the rural. Instead, like any country, Nigeria is complicated, a tapestry of rural and urban spaces, of poverty and affluence, of criminality and bourgeoisie. Like Lagos, Uganda's Kampala (the setting for a good chunk of Kintu) is complex, a place of contradictions and synchronicities, a space for hustles and for families, for crime, poverty, AIDS, sex, affluence, love, etc etc etc. While Kampala doesn't figure into the novel as a character in the same way Lagos does in Lagoon, a portrait is quickly erected of a city wrestling with the legacy of colonialism while forging on its own.

Most affecting in Kintu was the widowed father, suspicious his wife died of AIDS he gave her, and utterly terrified of finding out if his only son has the virus as well. From interviews, Makumbi has stated her novel is "masculinist":
focusing on the fragile edifice of paternity, she emphasizes the toll that patriarchy takes on the people who happen to be men. For that same reason, it’s also one of the most feminist books one is likely to read.
(here). Paternity and patriarchy looms menacingly over Kintu. The father who suspects he has AIDS probably got from his unprotected sex with women from when he was a DJ. It is patriarchy which exhorts men to "sow their seeds," and it is patriarchy which demands men erect an impenetrable shell of strength around themselves. The father can't bear to learn whether or not he or his son have AIDS because he can't bear to lose anything more. The guilt eats at him, both the guilt of probably infecting his wife and thus killing her and the guilt of not knowing. His is a Schrödinger's Virus; he won't know until he looks but for the time being, he acts as if he doesn't and does have it. This man's whole section is harrowing, not just for the cruel reality of living in a world of AIDS, but for the ways in which patriarchy supports and even encourages his behaviour. At the funeral, men gather around the widowed husband, assuaging his guilt by offering milquetoast observations that all people must die, it's just a matter of time. They tell him what's done is done, and any further introspection or reflection on his behaviour isn't warranted. A chilling scene for the ways in which patriarchy extols the virtues of men forgiving men for their masculinist crimes.

I didn't love the final section, the reunion in which the curse is confronted. The section tried to juggle too many balls, leading to some confusion about who is where etc, and I wasn't terribly convinced by some of the happy endings afforded to the cast. Yet, the exorcism/exhumation sequence was utterly gripping. Like a lot of first novels, Makumbi tries to do everything and not all of it works, but I'm completely in thrall to her writerly powers; I eagerly await her next novel:
But when I asked her why she didn’t call it “feminist,” she laughed, and explained that I would have to wait and read what she was writing next. When I had, she said, I wouldn’t have to ask; that would be feminist.
(here again)

Monday, June 19, 2017

June Reads Part Two

Stone by Adam Roberts
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Oh Adam. Recently, I read somebody describe him as an "overachiever" and nothing in his entire life will ever better describe him. Stone is one of his early novels, showcasing his fascination with individual criminals and their hapless journeys through time and space. Where his later novels feel to be a bit more focused, Stone, like Gradisil, jump all over the place and let Adam indulge in his ability to toss out as many science fictional/fantastic ideas as possible. Where Gradisil meandered, Stone has a more classical narrative hook: whodunit? Who has employed the protagonist to murder an entire planet? Unfortunately, the middle bits aren't quite as tight as I think the narrative would like you to believe. After escaping an inescapable jail (a classic Roberts overachieving trope), the protagonist wanders from planet to planet, being pushed over the edge of sanity by the existential question of who and why? She visits multiple one-dimensional planets, the kind of stuff Star Wars traffics in: a planet under constant drumming of rain; a planet composed mostly of mountains; an oceanic planet with "land" being stiff fossilized plant material. While the ideas are always fascinating (what would a planet be like if it never stopped raining?), they didn't feel integrated into the overarching narrative. The protagonist's emotional arc, if what transpires could even be dubbed such, purposefully waffles around, finally reaching resolution in the final stretch, but getting there is a bit of a chore. This and Gradisil might be my two least favourite novels by Adam, and even then, the two are enjoyable, readable, clever. Perhaps I just prefer Adam's more abstract novels of his present career.

And so, in the year of 2017, I struck another tome off the Bucket List of famous novels to tackle in my lifetime. I worried I would abandon Moby Dick quickly as its reputation had me believe the novel is difficult, digressive, impenetrable, with difficult archaic language. While these attributes are definitely true, they didn't hinder my enjoyment or even my usually speedy pace. From the very beginning, I was enthralled with Melville's absolutely genius manipulation of language. Reading the Wikipedia page, a place to start to harvest critical works to consume later, critics have observed Melville's internalizing of Shakespeare's use of language with great success. While my knowledge of poetics and linguistics is amateur at best, even I can appreciate the lexical magnanimity and poetic dexterity sublimated from Shakespeare: lots of addresses, rhythmic interjections, asides, and similes, of which there seem countless. At first, I attempted to mentally note when similes were grounded in metaphors of the earth, such as when Ishmael would compare whales to mountains or the sea to plains. But as the production of similes seemed cornucopic and endless, I lost track. Part of my inability to keep it all in my head was Ishmael's adoration of digressions. The novel feels almost rhizomatic in its efforts to understand the whale in its totality—leaping from subject to subject, handling the aspects within and switching to without immediately. This is intentional, no doubt, as Ishmael never really "conquers" understanding the whale, just as the crew of Pequod never conquer the whale. Whatever the whale symbolizes, and I'm not convinced it can be reduced to a one-to-one analogue as with similes, this purposefully escapes the grasp of its cast and crew. The barrage of similes never seem to amount to a full cognizance, as if Ishmael is quixotically tossing as many as he can in a strenuous attempt to capture the whale through words, mirroring Ahab's monomaniacal quest. The language, even in non-narrative chapters, when Ishmael is digressing, is always a treat to read, making the "boring" parts pleasing. In fact, much of the digressions are wholly fascinating, not only as a glimpse into whaling but through Ishmael's wondrously evocative language. I was never bored by Moby Dick!

Anybody who was "willing" to listen to me during the time it took me to read this novel was forced to hear my praise for Moby Dick as the best horror novel ever written by a non-horror writer. Melville imbues everything with this overwhelming sense of malice and malevolence, an almost mystical evil from the very beginning. There's two bits which will stay with me for all time: how Melville describes two glasses of booze in the beginning, as if the glasses themselves were warped by the very world; and the moment with a shark eating its own intestines only to have them spill out again. I'm finding a lot of how the dialogue works reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates, frankly; how people stutter and exclaim reminds me so much of her characters struggling to articulate themselves. I shouldn't be surprised by how much of a shadow this casts over American horror, but I was taken aback by how horrifying the whole thing is. The novel is surprisingly gory for a 19th century one, though this shouldn't take readers aback as the practice of hunting whales is inherently violent. Melville describes so poetically the waves of blood rushing from whales, the innards spilling with a splash onto the deck of the Pequod. Another great moment features a man tumbling into a hole bored in a dead whale's decapitated head, only for the head to plummet into the sea. Ishmael describes how Queequeg leaps after the fallen head with sailor entombed, and deploys obstetrical language to convey the man's escape from the sinking jail of whaleflesh.

I kept exclaiming to my partner how surprised I was at myself for making it so far into the novel. They kept replying, "but aren't you enjoying it?" and of course. Even with my critical eye merely skimming against the surface of this abyssal novel, I was overjoyed. I'm excited to dive into the critical corpus built around the novel. I've got my eye on a couple anthologies of essays available at my university library. There's so much in the novel, it risks overwhelming the reader with sheer quantity of detail, but there's a pattern, a plan in place which is discernible, apprehendable.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Lawnmower Man

This technology is simply a route to powers that conjurers and alchemists used centuries ago. The human race lost that knowledge and now I'm reclaiming it through virtual reality.
One of the most quintessential films of the 90s arrives on Blu ray from Scream Factory, who have done as good as a job as they can with the transfer. Included in the package are two cuts: the theatrical, at 103 minutes, and the director's cut, at a whopping 141 minutes, making this the Terrence Malick of 90s horror flicks. I've been excited to rewatch this for some time as I've always been a fan of early cyber culture, including the early attempts at CGI contained herein.

And I'm happy to report all 141 minutes are worth a watch, especially for fans of say, Albert Pyun's Arcade and the late great television show Beast Wars. (I haven't seen enough of these, but here's a great list from Phil Sternwise which collects a huge amount of "cybertronic" films.) The Lawnmower Man is a 90s-flavoured Flowers for Algernon: Jobe Smith, the titular landscaper, is born with an intellectual disability, but through the miracle of science, he achieves a sense of normalcy with an increased intelligence. Like Charlie in Keyes' novel, Jobe reaches a peak of extreme intelligence, at which point, he sinks into ennui: what's the point of being smart? Unlike Charlie, though, Jobe never yearns for the days of being "simple," and unlike Charlie, Jobe seeks freedom through oppression and power. He uses his new powers, telepathy and telekinesis, to punish those who had wronged him. Jobe's godlike powers speak to a generalized and a specific fear. In the general sense, science fiction often reckons with a vague distrust and unease of technology. What new advancements in science can wrought, the novum of Darko Suvin's parlance, represents an all too human fear of progress. In the specific sense, this film speaks to a fear of the intrusion of a new space into our old conception of space, that of cyberspace, a world where the laws (of physics, of the state) no longer apply and chaos reigns. The Lawnmower Man helpfully visualizes this by integrating, through ecstatic scenes of death, the two worlds: Jobe introduces a tempest of virtual insects into the "real" world leading an orgy of violence; Jobe atomizes a corporate stooge, but reintegrates him, only to atomize him again, leading to a cycle of decorporealization and disassociation, calling up a metaphysical/technological Prometheus image. These two spaces, one abstract and one tactile, collide with awesome force, resulting in a fantastic (in the literary sense) unreality. The fear, the unease, the allure, is in the possibility of cyberspace acting upon the "real world" and in the possibility of what happens in cyberspace having real world consequences. In other words, the horror elements of this film speak to the vague, unspoken distrust that on-goings in cyberspace, on the Internet, could potentially impact and change political/economic/social status quo.
This technology has peeled back a layer to reveal another universe. Virtual reality will grow, just as the telegraph grew to the telephone - as the radio to the TV - it will be everywhere. 
We might recall that cyberpunk is not a genre of science fiction, but an aesthetic mode, with all the ideological baggage which comes with that. Despite the “punk” suffix, cyberpunk was not really about anti-authoritarianism but rather a libertarian techno-fetishism that persists even today. Punk is meant to evoke a DIY, rigorously political aesthetic that critiqued the status quo and destabilized it with grand performative gestures. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, ended its dominance of the science fiction market by reaffirming many characteristics of the status quo, such as a deep nihilism, questioning even the point of trying to take back power, and the perpetual dominance of the straight white male, even in a postcolonial world. Cyberpunk should have been queer, in the political sense of the word, regarding that which is “normal” or “natural” with holistic suspicion. And in many ways, it did. Science fiction had never been so Marxist or radical in its critique of economic oppression. But the alternatives the genre seemed to offer were simply reiterations of pre-existing power structures, still distributed unequally.

Part of cyberpunk’s ethos was a distrust of the radical progression of technology up to that point, and the fearsome possibilities of its progression into the future. Suspicion of biomechanoids and cyborgs was rampant, despite Donna J. Haraway’s famous remark that she, “would rather go to bed with a cyborg than with a sensitive man.” The parallel but never intersecting evolution of humanity and machine was paramount to cyberpunk, as the writers (obviously a rhetorical construction on my part, as the writers assembled under the marketing term of cyberpunk were not a monolith of beliefs and ideologies) expressed the common fear that technology could indeed further embed the economic oppression of the lower class, or specifically, the gruff white dudes with trenchcoats and cigarettes.

Any emancipatory power suggested by the movement was exhausted by its repetition of the same old narratives, the same old nihilism, the same old white dudes. The Lawnmower Man, coming after the "end" of classic cyberpunk, does the same thing: in the end, a white man with unlimited power wrests control of the narrative from another white man with lots of power and wreaks havoc upon the world. Perhaps it's not even fair to critique this film for its abandonment of cyberpunk aesthetics and cyberspace suspicion for cheap thrills in the form of classic horror narratives. After all, the film didn't set out to be cyberpunk or evince any of its ideological or narrative trappings. But the film's success does speak to the ever-present colonization of anticapitalist movements by late stage capitalism. In 1993, Scott Bukatman identifies a new discursive motion in contemporary culture, the emergence of the “terminal identity”: “an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen" (in his book Terminal Identity). The computer, no matter how emancipatory its possibilities can afford, still owes its existence and prominence to late capitalism, the ever-flowing waves of products, the assembly line production.
I'll become pure energy. My birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison!
Subjectivity is at stake in this film: Jobe's subject position shifts as intelligence increases. His very identity, that of lawnmower man, is obliterated by his integration with technology. The deeper he goes in virtual reality, the faster he loses himself. He seeks not to merge with the internet, but to become the Internet. All of this slippage of subjectivity is contained in the wonderfully frightening and absurdly awkward virtual sex scene:

After being seduced by the promiscuous widow, Jobe finds himself eager to introduce Marnie to the pleasures of the digital. They enter the laboratory and hook themselves into the gyroscopes with their cybersuits on. Immediately, they being embracing in the virtual world, earnestly moaning with pleasure provided by the artificial feedback. They are not touching; their physical bodies are separated by at least 15 feet. Still, they experience pleasure. Or perhaps they perform pleasure. The line is blurred, just as their subjectivities blur: when they kiss, their digital avatars stick; when they pull their heads back, their faces stay melded together. The discreet pleasures of the digital mean a loss of the discrete analogues.

Their subjectivity is doubly articulated: the physical bodies, decaying in their cybersuits (literalized later in the film, when Jobe dispenses with the flesh entirely, leaving behind only a desiccated husk); and the digital blurring. As one state of existence affects the other, so does the opposite. Jobe's quest for knowledge leads him to transcend the earthly bonds of bodies, but he can never leave the physical world behind entirely. In the film's climax, he shows a brief bit of remorse when his sole friend Peter is endangered by his decisions; he helps the protagonists escape the ticking clock of the bomb, but he is not consumed in the inferno. Instead, he escapes into the internet, where he proclaims he'll be connected to "over 5,000 computers!" Still, his escape is not from the physical. His birth cry, he tells us, will be in the ringing of all the telephones. His subjectivity is spread out, doubled infinitely. Through cyberspace, he can now affect the globe simultaneously. Even our notions of time are upended by his godlike powers. Though he has no desire to make any systemic change. Instead, in true generically nihilistic fashion, he seeks only to cleanse the world of the infestation of humanity. Whether or not his plan is the same after his moment of doubt (with regards to Peter) remains to be seen. Like cyberpunk, his upending of the status quo merely rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic, which is to say, the same inequality and injustice persists, but this time, power has shifted from the analogue expression to the digital avatar. Freedom for Jobe is not freedom for us all, unfortunately.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Wonder Woman

My review format has become stagnant. I've been repeating myself over and over again. I observe a moment or two from the film, represent those moments as representative of the rest of the film, or so tonally opposite as to be from a different film entirely. The reason for this, I think, is because of my enduring love for Roland Barthes' book on photography, Camera Lucida, published just before his tragic death. While Barthes himself wasn't a photographer (nor was Sontag, but that didn't stop her), his contribution to my understanding of photography was absolute, almost oppressive in its totality. Not the sum total of the book itself, but its methodology, its approach to understanding how photography works with the viewer. Combined with Mulvey's understanding of the gaze, complicated by her later work, Death 24x a Second, Camera Lucida represents the key methodology for my viewing practices.

Camera Lucida concerns itself, through personal narrative on the death of the author's mother, with the effect of photography on the spectator. Barthes argues, laterally from his usual "Death of the Author" thinking, that photography affects both the mind and the body. This is literal and figurative: the emotions photography can elicit are biochemical reactions, physiological changes within the body. Photography does this with two elements: the studium and the punctum. The studium is the literal subject of the photo, the cultural, political, sociological, contextual, aesthetic aspect of the photo: its framing, its composition, its "hailing" of the viewer, the signifier and the signified.

The punctum, on the other hand, is the detail in the photo which establishes an immediate, intimate relationship with the viewer, one that wounds the viewer, hence the name. Where the studium is that which the viewer looks for, the punctum operates on its own terms. Barthes writes:
This time it is not I who seek it out (as I invest the field of the studium with my sovereign consciousness) , it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. (26)
This element, the tiny pricks which pierce, is the punctum, the inescapable, highly personal detail. It's also highly subjective. It relates to the subject personally, emotionally, physiologically. Barthes continues, "A photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)" (27). It would be Barthes' stratagem to disguise the usefulness of the idea within an parenthetical phrase, of course; the punctum is useful for describing poignancy. Or, poignancy is easily described using the punctum.

Hence, we have the theoretical scaffolding for my own personal viewing habits. My habits aren't unique to myself, obviously. Many other viewers find themselves struck by a detail, a moment, an image, a thing which arrests the viewer, unfolds the envelope of immersion and pierces the illusory bubble. My spectatorship is own built of moments and I can't help myself from focusing on these puncta. I can no more unfocus on the pain and poignancy than a fish can breathe the air. I am drawn to these moments as they are sharp. I prick myself on the knife; I touch the plate I'm warned is hot. I feel these moments because I must feel the moments. If Barthes' technique in Camera Lucida is that of sentimentality, so is mine, for better or for worse.

Wonder Woman, then, if I must eventually reach the subject of this piece, calls to me with one singular moment, a moment of such quiet poignancy as to be supremely painful, a moment of beauty so exquisite as to be terrifying. I speak of the moment Chris Pine's Steve Trevor follows Gal Gadot's Diana into the hotel room and quietly shuts the door behind him. The camera stares into his face on the right side of the frame, while on the left, in near distance, his arm closes the door. He maintains his gaze on Diana, and it is Pine's facial expression which I found to be the most punctum of puncta in recent film.

Pine, a charismatic if underutilized actor, conveys a tempestuous miasma of affect with but his face. His eyes are searching, eager almost, for the pleasures of the flesh with what he perceives to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. At the same time, those open, moist eyes telegraph a sorrow, a sadness so holistic. Diana's optimism, he knows, will be crushed under the machinery of war. All this lays in the future. For the moment, his eyes glisten of painful joining and sweet partings. His mouth is grimly taut, yet slightly agape. He has just been dangerously close to her and his lips wait for hers to touch.

Does this speak to Pine's skill as an actor? To Patty Jenkins' forceful direction of actors? To her credit she would instruct her DoP to capture this moment? Whether this is intentional is beside the point, really. Barthes would have you believe the most effective puncta are unintentional, accidental. He writes:
Hence the detail which interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional, and probably must not be so; it occurs in the field of the photographed thing like a supplement that is at once inevitable and delightful; it does not necessarily attest to the photographer's art; it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same as the total object. (47)
The moment in Wonder Woman, regardless of its intent, "arouses great sympathy in me, almost a kind of tenderness" (43), as Barthes puts it. Since seeing the film three days ago, I haven't been able to forget his eyes, the slightly parting lips, the soft slump of his shoulders. I can't shake the delicate dance of misery and hope in his face. The moment is metonymic. When speaking of the punctum as metonym, Barthes, again, coyly puts his point aside in an parenthetical phrase. He writes:
(here, the photograph really transcends itself: is this not the sole proof of its art? To annihilate itself as medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself?) (45)
That delicate dance I spoke of in the previous paragraph speaks to the whole text's strenuous, if not altogether successful, attempt at balancing the brutality and drama of combat for entertainment and the inspirational pablum of the film's superficial feminism. The moment works better because it is a punctum than the studium works as a text.

Of course, my citation of Barthes and Camera Lucida for this film is no accident. The film begins with a photograph, allegedly the original photograph of Diana, Steve, and the rest of the crew which Bruce stumbles across in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wonder Woman opens with Diana receiving the original and this, like a Proustian madeleine, triggers her memory of the studium, the events which lead her to life among the humans. The rest of the film doesn't adequately capture the complex mix of emotions she feels at the photo, but it certainly tries.

Similarly, my two short paragraphs of the moment itself can't convince my reader of its poignancy or power. Indeed, as the punctum is so subjective, it's practically impossible to convey with words the degree by which the moment affected me. Another person, even a person enjoying the film more than I did, might not even have responded to Pine's eyes as I did. This piece, this clumsy attempt at capturing in words how a facial expression shook me, is a simply an effort to explain why I continue to signal these moments in my reviews. Why the puncta persists in pricking me.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

June Reads Part One

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Another book recommended by the Twitter crew I follow, Europe in Autumn is the first of a tetralogy which cross-pollinates genre signifiers to great effect. Opening slowly as a spy thriller set in a near-future Europe, with the continent split into ever-smaller polities, city-states, micro-nations, etc, the first novel introduces Rudi, a cook-turned-courier for a nonpartisan shadow network of trumped up mail carriers. Most of what they smuggle across the ever-increasing borders is data and information but sometimes people too. Despite the banal spy subject, Hutchinson livens things up with confidence in the reader's ability to suss things out. To wit, information is parceled out quietly, without much fanfare; readers are required to deduce and conclude. Not that the plot is intricate or complex. Rather, Hutchinson's sequences dispense with telling the audience things, preferring to show instead. As the spy "conspiracy" ramps up, with complications stacking up, a worrisome trend in the narrative begins to rear its head. Similar to problems with spy novels in general, Europe in Autumn does that annoying thing where any interaction the protagonist has with a civilian is immediately revealed to be an interaction with a fellow spy. When staying a bed-and-breakfast, Rudi meets two Scottish girls holidaying; within two pages of quotidian conversation, the girls come out as operatives working for [redacted]. There are no instances of meeting "civilians" in the novel, which is somewhat irritating. Any time a civilian is introduced, no matter how banal the interaction, the reader can confidently assume they're part of the global espionage network. Perhaps this "smallness" of the world is purposeful: similar to how Star Wars feels intensely small with Skywalkers turning up no matter what planet you go to, the Europe of Europe in Autumn feels claustrophobic with spies running around each other.

As the novel goes on, Hutchinson introduces an element of science fiction—this Europe is possibly a parallel universe and this secret must be kept at all costs. The clever bit shows itself in the last thirty pages: Rudi now couriers people from one universe to another. Hutchinson's reticence with his science fictional trope is not motivated by coyness or—hopefully—embarrassment with genre. Instead, the slow introduction of science fiction appears to be aesthetically and generically motivated. I'm reminded again of Mark Fisher's critical intervention The Weird and the Eerie. The possibility of a parallel universe isn't simply a revolution in conceptualizing the world but another element of the strangeness of geopolitical borders. Here, I use strangeness in the same way Fisher does: that which does not belong. The artificiality of the borders in this fractured Europe mirrors the artificiality of this well-guarded border between universes. The powers-that-be in this fictional world have politicized the border between universes for profit and power. Rudi's growing awareness of the strangeness of this world is an effect of the author's instrumentalizing of The Weird. The very knowledge of the strangeness of the world creeps in on the self. Hutchinson wisely begins most chapters after the halfway mark with a different character through which he focalizes. Rudi is then introduced through strange but familiar signifiers: his youthful good looks, his accentless English, his limp, his tics of speech, etc. The self the novel is centered on is made familiar but not at the same time, mirroring the disassociation Rudi feels as the Weird impinges further on his sense of reality. Thus, the Weird motivates the generic cross-pollination. I eagerly await reading the next one.

Binti is another one of the novellas, this time the first in a trilogy written by esteemed Nnedi Okorafor. At the risk of essentializing, one reason why I'm often drawn to science fiction written by black authors, such as Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, is that their perspective on science fiction as the Other generates much more intellectually stimulating and aesthetically different fare than the usual stuff. Case in point, Binti takes a single isolated black African and deposits them into a science fictional world populated by people who regard the protagonist as Other already. When bounced off the traditional science fictional Other of Alien Antagonist, Binti's emotional journey is made all the more unique and enthralling. As I've gotten older, I've found myself increasingly drawn to science fiction which opts to avoid ending things in the usual cathartic orgy of violence. Similar to how I find sincerity far more alluring than ironic detachment, nonviolent climaxes to narratives interest me more for its non-hegemonic status. Recently, I watched notorious B-movie Star Crystal, and I fell head over heels with it. Similar to my life long adoration for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Voyage Home, this film and Binti feature "antagonists" who are simply misunderstood or are the "true civilized people all along!" It's a trope in of itself, of course, but these revelations are usually paired with sincere affect, emotional catharsis, and a genuine optimism to which I'm drawn more and more.

 Star Crystal, an ostensible Alien clone, depicts a spaceship crew being stalked by an unknown alien threat. At the beginning of the third act, the alien, named GAR, opts to learn about humanity and reads the Bible, from which he learns about forgiveness and grace. When the protagonist armed with flamethrower begins his final confrontation with the alien, he is interrupted by GAR solemnly asking for forgiveness. Thus, the climax of the film is a montage of the burgeoning friendship between the surviving crew and GAR, including a cutesy moment of GAR attempting to help with repairs with his telekinesis. In the very final scene, GAR makes the ultimate sacrifice, ending his life to save his friends. The last words of the film are "I will always cherish your friendship."

Binti ends in a similar way, but is much more influenced by Octavia Butler. Binti, with her long braids, volunteers to negotiate on behalf of the alien threat. The Meduse have killed everybody on the spaceship save for the pilot (a necessity) and Binti, and not by choice; a device Binti carries allows for her and the aliens to communicate; the device allows protects her. The plan is to invade the galaxy's greatest university where the alien chief's stinger has been displayed in a museum, a dishonorable and lowly act, according to the antagonists. Once Binti learns more about the Meduse, she comes to understand their culture isn't so alien after all. In fact, it is Binti's African-ness, her Himba ethnicity, which allows for cross-species understanding. Her traditional otjize, a paste of oils and clay used as protection from the harsh desert sun as well as a natural cleanser substituting for the sparse water, turns out to have healing properties for the Meduse. In the last sequence, they infect her with Meduse DNA, turning her braids into bright blue tentacles, turning her Otherness into something more—hence my comparison to Butler. Binti reminded me a lot of Butler's masterful short story "Bloodchild," which imagines a physical symbiotic relationship between human and alien which had never really be conceptualized before. The intimacy of the relationship between Meduse and Binti isn't quite symbiotic as the one in "Bloodchild," but the reconfiguring of subject positions by reconfiguration of physicality struck me. In the denouement, Binti attends the university, now made alien doubly so (she is the first Himba person to attend and now she is part Meduse) with the university's first Meduse student. They are both Others, forever tainted by the world outside their home, unable to return. Black science fiction understands deep in its bones the mantra of "you can't go home again" and depicts it with a flair and aesthetic novelty not often seen in white cis straight science fiction. 

I do worry about exoticizing black science fiction. My gaze is certainly that of whiteness and massive privilege. I also worry about essentializing black science fiction; not all of what I've read mobilizes the metaphor of the Other through blackness (which implies I'm astute enough to discern this metaphor prima facie, as if the white gaze is a superior one!). I hope my admiration for black science fiction is as non-territorializing and nonviolent as possible. Though, I am always open to critique, especially in regards to subjects in which I am not an expert. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

May Reads

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones
Necroscope IV: Deadspeak by Brian Lumley
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Autumn by Ali Smith

Even though I own 5 other Jones novels, including her first contact trilogy, I went with her most recent publication, a novella. Tor has been doing great work with these novellas, taking chances on writers who might not have the name recognition of bigger writers. They've also been taking chances on writers normally left out of the major publishing machine, such as Kai Ashante Wilson (so far I've read two spectacular novellas) or Brian Evenson. Jones' Proof of Concept is a fairly rote science fiction narrative which front loads all its exposition in dumps and uses the deaths of secondary or tertiary characters to motivate the protagonist into action. It's the kind of genre fiction devoid of aesthetic or conceptual novelty, coasting on the audience's shared understanding of how these narratives play out. Which isn't to say that the novella is of poor quality; it's certainly readable and goes down smooth. Its ending, done better by Dick (Dickian endings are best done by Dick), left me a smidge irritated as it's all wrapped up so unbearably ambiguously in the way these endings must always be. I keep complaining about this slim book but I didn't dislike it. I supposed I wanted more... not so much plot but more either in aesthetics or invention. Proof of Concept didn't put me off reading her other work, as I've heard Jones throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks in White Queen.

Oh boy, I can't believe I've read four Necroscope novels and there are 15 in this series or somesuch. I plan to leave it at eight, which includes five main series and then a trilogy about the vampire world. This fourth one, which returns to the same pattern as the second, doubles down on everything the novels are bad at: characterization, especially of women, and retcons. The second novel, if we remember, retroactively added another villain into the history of the vampires, necessitating another long sequence of flashback to detail the rise of this antagonist from poor schlub to ultra-powerful, ubermensch supervillain. The third novel, which I did not review, took a left turn and introduced the Vampire world, a parallel universe from which the vampire spores emerge. Dispensing with the spy stuff mostly, though there is still some, the third novel becomes a fantasy epic, with bizarre vampire analogues of dragons and barbarians. It didn't entirely work but at least there was some ambition. This fourth novel dials back the weirdness, much to my disappointment, and retreads the structure of the second novel. There's yet again a hitherto unknown spawn of the first vampire who must be destroyed. There's yet again an artificial obstacle preventing Harry the wunderkind from dispatching this threat with great haste. Throw in some spy nonsense and long flashbacks and you have a repetition of the second novel. What makes this one a little worse than the others is the treatment of women. In previous books, women were simply sexual objects or hags. This isn't changed with Deadspeak. Instead, it's intensified: a woman who has fallen madly in love with Harry turns out to be a spy charged with watching over him, but her love is genuine, you see. The phrasing by which she is described is insufferable: heaving bosom, sheer nighties, dark thatch of pubic hair, an intense love of sex with Harry, etc etc etc. Her death at the climax is of course necessary because she's been infected by the antagonist vampire. In other words, she's used goods and must be destroyed. The whole novel is vibrating with fragile masculinity: much of what transpires can easily be read as the fear of impotence. The main flashback includes a bit where the master vampire stumbles across his son fucking his own mother, which instigates the circumstances by which the master finds himself now. An illustrative example: Harry's inability to communicate with the dead (the obstacle preventing him from vanquishing the villain) causes temporary sexual dysfunction. None of this is subtext, by the way. It's all text. I shouldn't be surprised as Lumley has taken all the psychosexual hang-ups of Lovecraft but has grafted them onto hyper-masculinist genre fare such as spy novels. In other words, he's sort of misunderstood what made the psychosexual horrors of Lovecraft work so well.

Red Shift was a fascinating and difficult read. A friend recommended it, I had forgotten about it, then I read Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, in which he makes a vigorous recommendation for it. Luckily, the novel is easily acquired, in a nice NYRB edition with a forward from the author himself. Set through three discrete time periods, the novel is composed mostly of dialogue, bouncing, snappy, beautiful dialogue. Rooted firmly in English folklore and myth, Red Shift follows a young romance in the 20th century, a village during the English Civil War, and a group of Saxon soldiers in Roman-occupied Britain. The dialogue of the lattermost corresponds roughly to 60s/70s Vietnam soldier jargon, a purposefully anachronistic choice, but works wonderfully. The middle period, the Civil War, wasn't quite as gripping for me, if only because there wasn't a singular emotional or narrative arc to which I could attach. The most present of the periods was suitably enthralling and bitterly romantic. What unites the three threads are an ancient hill, an ancient axe-head, and the cold uncaring nature of the universe. And themes, of course. The highest compliment I can pay this novel is that once I had completed it, I felt the need and the desire to start it all over again. Despite being only 200 pages and composed mostly of speech, the novel is dense, packed with ideas and moments spread across the vast gulfs of time.

Ali Smith, one of my favourite writers, has finally delivered a mediocre work. Autumn isn't bad or anything. It's readable and clever in the ways Smith can be and sweet and heartbreaking and thoughtful, but it feels lifeless and inert. Advertised as the first post-Brexit novel, Smith inserts the requisite hand-wringing about the plight of immigrants and the frustration with white British folks. Not that I'm opposed to the politics of the novel. I'm sympathetic, of course, but I wish the ideas had been integrated a bit more smoothly. Smith has never been a subtle writer; hers is a magic of pyrotechnics and pronouncements. But Autumn just did not work for me in the way her previous novels did. Of course, even a mediocre Smith novel is better than most, and Autumn is packed with all the painful cleverness one expects. It can be touching in places, thankfully, but never does the novel coalesce into something as good as There But For The or The Accidental.