Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

France David Bowie
Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

rocktrain.net
Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

highsnobiety
Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Lonesome no More!

Different writers speak to different people. There can be lots of writers that you like, and lots that you don’t. But I think for each of us, there are a few writers who speak to us in a way that most do not.

isfdb.org
Image from isfdb.org

For me, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is one of those writers. Slapstick, or Lonesome no More! (1976) is not the most famous or celebrated of Vonnegut’s work—in fact, it was poorly reviewed upon release. Nor do I think it is necessarily his greatest book. It might be more fitting for me to be writing on Slaughterhouse Five (except I’ve already done that), or The Sirens of Titan, due to my love of stories concerning interplanetary travel and aliens.

Instead I’m going to talk about Vonnegut and my affection for him through the lens of Slapstick, because in a very personal way, I think it’s beautiful. Because this book is very much about being personal, and about finding a connection with other human beings, whether it is rational or not.

Hi-ho.

That’s the storytelling hiccup of Vonnegut’s narrator. Whenever the story has to change pace, or jump to a different part of the narrative, that is how he signals it.

When reading someone like Vonnegut it’s important to read the foreword, a tiny, honest slice of the author’s mind as it was when the strings of the book were all pulled together.

So I will preface what the story is about with what Vonnegut says on the very first page of my copy.

This is what life feels like to me.”

Hi-ho.

wychwords.wordpress
Image from wychwords.wordpress.com

Slapstick is the autobiography of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11, the last president of the United States of America, who tries to solve the problem of American loneliness before Western civilization is destroyed by a plague unleashed by China.

Like so many of Vonnegut’s works, the narrative is wonky, anecdotal, and often non-linear. He explains much of Wilbur Daffodil-11’s life story right from the get-go, because the slow reveal of information has never been Vonnegut’s style. His storytelling is more about his desire to share an idea, or to bring himself closer to his reader in some way.

Wilbur and his twin sister Eliza are born looking like ugly, Neanderthal-like creatures. When separated, neither twin is very smart. Believing that they are brain damaged, Wilbur and Eliza’s rich parents lock them away in a mansion in Vermont, where they are expected to live out short half-lives and then die.

But Wilbur and Eliza survive. Slowly, they discover that while apart, each of them operates as half a brain. Wilbur is the left brain: logical, rational, and able to communicate. Eliza is the right brain: vastly creative and with high emotional intelligence, but unable to communicate herself properly.

All throughout the novel, Wilbur repeatedly claims that Eliza is the smarter of the two, but nobody ever knows this, because she cannot read or write.

Through a strange telepathic power, Wilbur and Eliza become a single great intelligence while in physical contact with each other, far beyond that of an ordinary being. Together, Wilbur and Eliza realize that it is their bond that has allowed them to survive their childhood. It was their togetherness. While hidden in the mansion where their parents kept them locked away from the world, Wilbur and Eliza devise a plan to save all of America from the loneliness that they have saved each other from.

Their plan is to give every American a new middle name based on random objects and a number from 1-20. Everyone with the same name is to be cousins, and everyone with the same name and number are to be siblings.

This is how Wilbur Rockefeller Swain became Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11.

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Image from goodreads.com

But then Wilbur and Eliza are separated for revealing their intelligence. Because he can communicate, it is deemed fit for Wilbur to enter society, while Eliza is condemned to an asylum. Once apart, neither of them is a whole person, and they become unable to think of themselves as the special geniuses of Wilbur and Eliza, but as two dull entities, which they nickname Bobby and Betty Brown. Eventually Eliza leaves the asylum and emigrates to the planet Mars. She would die there. Her tombstone reads like this:

Here lies Betty Brown.

As for Wilbur, living the life of Bobby Brown without his sister, he runs for President of the United States and wins. He runs the campaign that his sister had created when the two of them were children, with the slogan that became the subtitle of the book itself.

Lonesome No More!

And even as western civilization crumbles around him, at the very least, nobody is alone. Everybody in America has a great wealth of brothers and sisters and cousins. Nobody is left alone.

Hi-ho.

There is more that I could say about the novel itself. I could get into what happens with Wilbur’s parents, his grandchildren, and his doctors. I could get into his interactions with life after the fall of western civilization. But I won’t. I don’t want to spoil it. If the tidbits that I’ve given you are enticing, then go read the book. But what I have laid out, that desperate need to be close to another person, is the point of Vonnegut’s novel.

Instead, I’m rolling all the way back around to the preface of the book. Vonnegut gave this story the title Slapstick because that is how he sees it. He sees this story as something grotesque and horrible but also somehow gut-wrenchingly funny, like watching someone fall down the stairs in a Laurel and Hardy movie. Situational poetry, he calls it.

On the third page of the preface, Vonnegut sums up his thinking with a small anecdote. When about to go away, one of his three adopted sons said to Kurt: “You know—you’ve never hugged me,” So I hugged him. We hugged each other.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote this book because of his sister Alice. Three days before Alice Vonnegut died of cancer, her husband died in a train accident. Kurt was with her when she died. After, he adopted her three children. One of them is the adopted son he hugs in the preface to Slapstick.

So this is a novel about closeness. It is about the closeness one can have to family, or simply to other people in general. It is an examination of the sense of closeness that Kurt Vonnegut felt with his sister Alice. It is very funny, and secretly very brutally sad. It’s slapstick comedy.

Hi-ho.

I wanted to write a post on here about the strange closeness one can feel to a person they have never met. I wanted to write about the way a book can speak to you, even though you never have and never will enter the author’s thoughts. I wanted to write about Kurt Vonnegut, because his many novels, short stories, and lectures speak to me in an alien and personal way. These are novels that have had an unnaturally large effect on my life, and the way I live my life.

So I picked Slapstick, a meditation on the strange and alien closeness human beings can have for one another. Perhaps Vonnegut doesn’t speak to you the way he speaks to me. That’s okay. There are many, many other books and other writers out there, perhaps waiting to speak to you in the same or similar way. I pick up one of his books, and I read it as if the author is speaking to me in that strange and personal way, a small stab to attempt the premise of the book, to be lonesome no more.

Thank you, Kurt.

Hi-ho.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

5 Speculative Anime You Must Watch!

This post caters towards those who have already watched most, if not all, of Studio Ghibli’s classics such as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, The Cat Returns, and so on. All of the anime on this list include either fantastical or science-fiction themes, and are highly recommended for anime-loving enthusiasts of speculative fiction.

These are five of my favorite anime that have not been produced by Studio Ghibli. They are beautifully illustrated, and have plots that truly touch your heart. If you haven’t watched these shows already, I recommend that you do so!

  1. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
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Image from filmtakeout.com

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a science-fiction romance that centers on a girl who accidentally gains the power to travel through time. Although a bit more slow-paced and less well-known than the other films on this list, this movie remains one of my favorites. It leaves a subtle but lasting emotional impact that will remain long after the ending credits roll through. Recommended for solo viewing on a quiet or rainy night.

  1. Paprika
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Image from leffatykki.com

Paprika will leave you wondering if you were hallucinating straight from the beginning to the end of the movie. It is based on the novel Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui—the same novel that inspired the influential blockbuster film Inception. Although both Inception and Paprika revolve around the concept of dreams and the illusion of reality, Paprika has less of a structured plot, and the animation lends a fluidity to the scenes that is not achievable in Inception. Be prepared to absorb the mass of color that will entrance your eyes, and let the wonder of visuals and plot twists entangle your mind.

  1. Your Name
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Image from thehypedgeek.com

Your Name follows two Japanese high school students that miraculously swap bodies in the aftermath of a celestial event. It offers a light-hearted depiction of their individual hardships of living life in a body that doesn’t align with their gender. Yet viewer anticipation gradually builds up as the possibility of the two protagonists meeting grows. Your Name is irresistibly sweet yet frustrating—what you want the most seems to always slip through your fingers—and it is a must-watch film. Recommended for dual-viewing so you can squeeze each other’s sweaty hands in anticipation of what’s to come next. P.S.: Don’t forget the tissue box.

  1. Parasyte -the maxim-
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Image from pageprophet.blogspot.com

Parasyte -the maxim- is not a show for the faint-hearted (if you don’t like blood, beware!). It’s a science-fiction horror anime series where parasites take over human hosts. What’s engrossing about this show is that there’s no clear black-and-white division between the parasites and the humans—we are shown different perspectives that allow us to form a holistic view of this particular world. The animation is stunningly created, and I personally thought Migi was the cutest alien I’d ever seen. I don’t usually recommend pulling all-nighters, but it’s definitely worth considering for this show.

  1. Psycho-Pass
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Image from moarpowah.com

The society of Psycho-Pass revolves around a system that dictates how people should live to obtain maximum security and happiness. The system determines their medical needs, job prospects, potential for criminality, and their potential for treatment (e.g. through therapy). It’s set in a pretty depressing and dystopic world, but the show is filled with action and drama that allows you to be entertained while wondering if that’s what our future could possibly look like. Recommended for those late nights when you feel like being distracted from your work.

I hope you enjoy these recommendations. Let us know below if you have any differing opinions, or if there’s another list you’d like us to make!

-Contributed by Ariana Youm

4 Heroes. 4 Movies. 4 Mistakes. 4 Puns.

Fantastic FOur cover
image source: d.gr-assets.com

There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.

Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.

I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.

The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.

Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.

1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.

In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.

Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.

A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.

Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)

See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom
image source:vignette2.wikia.net/marveldatabase/images

Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.

In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.

None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.

The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.

In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.

If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?

2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds! 

Galactus
image source: cdn1.sciencefiction.com

Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? 

I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.

This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?

Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.

The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.

And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.

So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.

I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.

3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire

Silver Surfer
image source: s-media-cache-ako.pinimg.com

Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.

Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.

That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).

So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!

The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.

In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.

So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.

We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.

We can handle it.

4: Family                                                                     

Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.

The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.

Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.

Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.

Give us the Fantastic 4 movie we deserve!

– Contributed by Ben Ghan

I Aim to Misbehave – The Confusing Gender Politics of Firefly

Firefly.jpg
Image Source: vodzilla.co

Warning: Spoilers ahead, potentially offensive language, and mention of sexual violence.

Let me be upfront about this: I think the space western Firefly might be the greatest television show to ever be axed before its time, and its sequel Serenity is a damn fine movie. Yes, I’m willing to die for these beliefs, though that ain’t exactly Plan A.

However, as much as I love Firefly, I’m often left with a not-so-shiny and unsettling disquiet in regards to the roles of women in the ‘verse and the roles available to women in Firefly.

When a bounty hunter sneaks onto the ship, he beats Mal senseless, and threatens to shoot Simon. But what does he do when he encounters Kaylee? He ties her up, and says that if she screams for help or alerts the others, he will rape her.

The threat of rape is pervasive in this show, and often comes up in relation to the Reavers, insane cannibal pirates who roam the edges of known space. As if it’s not enough of a threat that the Reavers will kill and eat those that they capture, it’s stated repeatedly that they also rape their victims. There was a disturbing proposed episode that wasn’t made, in which Inara is captured by Reavers, but I’m going to refrain from critiquing what we know of episodes that never got made. Instead, I’m sticking to what we have.

Interestingly, the criticism I’m about to make is (mostly) unapparent by just looking at the crew of Serenity itself. Zoey is the second-in-command, a gun-toting veteran and decision-making badass, who isn’t emotionally removed or cold, and her marriage with pilot, dinosaur play expert, and “leaf,” Wash, is a playful dynamic of equals. Zoe is an African American woman in a position of power, who gained that position through skill, and because she is truly the best person for the job.

Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. She’s sweet and clever and capable, and she manages to have the ‘verse’s most adorable crush on the fugitive Dr. Simon Tam without it diminishing her character at all. Kaylee is great. If I had to be any character on the show, I’d be Kaylee.

I do sometimes have a problem with the treatment of River Tam. She plays into the damaged little doll trope—more of an object to be looked after than a character. She is literally disguised as an object in cargo in the show’s pilot episode, where Simon describes her as “more than gifted, she was a gift.”

However, even in her case, River is slowly developed as her mental state improves and as it becomes clear that she is actually displaying psychic powers. Still, River never gets to be quite as fully fleshed a person as she should be, and she is far more often a catalyst for the plot than a character.

Now we get to Inara, and I’m not going to make the criticism you think I am. In truth, her role as a Companion feels more akin to a paid spiritual advisor than a sex-worker. Inara is strong and respected, she picks her clients, and her occupation is honorable as opposed to degrading—in fact, more so than anyone else on the ship. But apart from her character, Inara is the motivation for the lead-in to my criticism.

Firefly lasted only fourteen glorious episodes, and in every single gorram one, somebody gets called a whore. When Mal calls Inara a whore, or some random guest character calls any given female character a whore, it is always playful, but never apologetic.

This might be easier to swallow if it was a conflict set between only Mal and Inara, but it’s not. All the female characters the crew meet tend to be well-rounded, fantastically three-dimensional characters, more so than in almost any other show I’ve seen. However, nearly all of them also happen to be prostitutes.

Please don’t misunderstand my criticism. These are all characters acting with their own agency and by their own choice. They have often found their way to good status, and none have pimps or are controlled by a male figure. But that so many of these characters are prostitutes stands out.

In the episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal accidently gets married to a girl named Saffron. The episode spends its first half promoting the notion that a woman isn’t something to be owned or bartered or possessed by men. It’s actually a fairly on-the-nose feminist message. But there is something strange about its delivery, as it’s a man explaining feminism to a woman.

There is also a great scene halfway through, where Shepherd Book informs Mal, “If you take sexual advantage of that girl, you will be sent to the special level of hell, the one reserved for child molesters and folks who talk at the theatre.”

It’s a hilarious scene, especially Mal’s affronted reaction, but it also serves as a reminder to the audience that sleeping with someone under any term of false pretense is wrong. Now this shouldn’t be shocking, but please remember that we live in a world of TV where sleeping with a woman under false pretenses is often played as a source for comedy.

So later when it turns out Saffron is a former Companion like Inara, it’s a little jarring. Yes, she was trying to trick everyone and steal Serenity, but it is indicative of a larger problem.

Other than Zoey and River, every female character in Firefly gets ahead by using their “feminine wiles.”  Even in a scene of backstory, we learn Kaylee got the job as ships mechanic because she was sleeping with the original mechanic, and then fixed the ship when he couldn’t. While this doesn’t diminish or demean her, why is it that Kaylee gaining her position had to do with sex?

It’s strange when the crew goes in to defend a whorehouse on a Western planet from rabid misogynists. There’s no problem with the women themselves, the rabid misogynist men are clearly the villains, but this continued subtext that women can only forward their independence through their sexuality is problematic.

Now, the common defence of this is that Firefly is an American Western set in space. There is a great twisted Civil War metaphor, where Mal and the Browncoat independents actually represent the Confederate South. The show’s creator Joss Whedon has even admitted this to The New York Times. So the thing is, it is clear that the show’s creators could pick and choose what elements of Westerns they wanted to keep.

But the problems with gender remain. It is worth noting that all of the derogative language or negative actions against women in the show are almost always answered with enormous cosmic justice, whether the offending characters are shot, stabbed, kicked into an engine, or thrown into space. It is made clear: misogyny is not welcome.

The one real exception to this terminal punishment is Jayne. But it’s interesting that when Jayne says something piggish, everyone gets mad at him for it. He is representative of traditional masculinity, and nobody puts up with it. Actual gender on the crew of the ship is no boundary at all. Everyone is treated equally, and everyone is equally capable.

But what does all this mean? Did Firefly have a more concrete plan or message it would have developed later? If we’d been given more time, would we have started to see female guest characters with more diverse careers?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws or if this is a real problem. I’m not sure if this argument is heading anywhere either or if I took it far enough. And if I did, would it just devolve into vague hand gestures and a shrug? It’s confusing for me to argue this while also arguing that Firefly has one of the most dynamic casts of fully developed female characters I’ve ever seen in a TV show. It’s so confusing it’s almost dizzying, and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these things. There really is only one certain conclusion I can draw from all this:

Jayne is a girl’s name.

I think the only solution is for me to go binge watch Firefly and then Serenity again on Netflix, and no power in the ‘verse can stop me.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Review of Wychman Road by Ben Berman Ghan

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It’s an age-old question, one that has embedded itself in the consciousness of humanity for as long as we can perceive, and that dares us to consider the impossible: What would we do with god-like powers? What if we could enter the minds of our peers; if we could be faster than they are, stronger; if we could make them do whatever we wanted?

Ben Berman Ghan’s Wychman Road is the newest installment in the literary exploration of this particular tantalizing possibility. His novel follows the journey of two characters, one who is thrust into a world of unimaginable power, and one who has gone way too far down a dark path and yearns to regain his lost humanity.

First and foremost, what is rewarding about Ghan’s novel is the bond forged between his protagonists. Joshua Jones is a traumatized, century-old veteran trapped in the body of a twenty-two-year-old, while Peter Alexson’s inexperience in his harsh new world runs far deeper than his adolescence. The novel dedicates much of its time to carefully developing the brotherhood between these unlikely companions, and it is the strength of their friendship that drives the plot forward, leading to moments of self-realization and sacrifice.

The characters themselves are believable and unique in their own right. Joshua’s strong, stoic exterior reveals a softer, more childlike nature; and Peter’s complex feelings as a kid who receives ultimate power at the cost of great tragedy realistically flips between him feeling like Superman and wanting his uncomplicated life back. With this novel, Ghan demonstrates awareness for both its genre and the nature of youth.

The horror elements of the story stand out as the most refined and skillfully crafted. Ghan’s real talent shines in creating moments of suspense and foreboding, and his villains are a particular treat, combining a sadistic charm with some truly horrifying action. Ghan’s vision of the corruption of ultimate power is embodied in the characters of Christopher Patera, whose detachment from humanity after millennia has twisted him into a kind of monstrous god-figure, and McGrath, whose gleeful fascination with children, and with breaking them down into sad empty shells, evokes the bad-touch-spine-shivers every time he appears.

As we delve deeper into Joshua’s twisted past, we get some truly excellent flashback sequences, darkly humorous and deeply disturbing. These are some of the best in the novel, as Ghan’s wit aAnd wickedly black comedy shines through in these horrifically entertaining scenes.

Wychman Road is a worthwhile read for any fan of the speculative. This novel does well in carving out a hidden fantastic world within the familiar landscape of our own Toronto streets. It is an absorbing beginning to what I imagine will be an action-filled and engaging series.

-Contributed by Amy Wang

Star Wars: the Force Awakens—We’re Home

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It’s been nearly ten years since the release of the almost universally loathed Star Wars prequels, and over thirty since we first witnessed the Star Wars that generations know and love. When Disney revealed that they are making a new trilogy, with new filmmakers, of course we were nervous. But the release of The Force Awakens proved those nerves to be unfounded. J. J. Abrams and company have not only given us a return to form for the galaxy far, far away, but they have delivered a movie that in the Star Wars series might only be outshined by The Empire Strikes Back.

From the opening shot of the movie, Abrams reveals what kind of ride we are in for: one that reverently loves the original trilogy and is going to deliver a new twist on a familiar world.

Just to get it out of the way, yes the original cast are back. Carrie Fisher slips in as General Leia in what is more of an extended cameo, along with C-3P0 and R2-D2. Yes, Luke Skywalker is in the movie. That’s all I can say about that.

Harrison Ford is also back as Han Solo, alongside Chewbacca. Watching them feels like coming home. Ford is fantastic as a grizzled, older Han. At no point while watching do you think “look, it’s Harrison Ford in a costume” the way you did when watching the fourth Indiana Jones movie. He is Han Solo. He slips back into that role, and he owns it. That really is Han Solo strutting around the Millennium Falcon.

But this isn’t just two hours with the cast of A New Hope in their old age. The new characters of The Force Awakens are incredible, and I’m happy to admit that within the first half an hour I was sold on following the adventures of this new generation.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is the first new character we meet. He’s described as the best pilot in the Resistance, and he knows it. Isaac brings a swagger and charm to the role so easily that if I look him up in the dictionary I’d expect the word “likeable” to be written next to his name. His is a character we don’t get enough of, and I hope that he makes a bigger return in episode VIII.

The real stars (pun intended) of the show, are John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey. A Stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn is a dorky, lovable guy just trying to get along in the universe and escape the villainous First Order. Finn is all-around just a good guy. His chemistry with Rey, Poe, Han Solo, and even Chewbacca will make you smile, and it’s worth mentioning that Finn is funny. Many of the films best laughs come from him, and it’s hard not to love how much John Boyega clearly enjoys being in Star Wars. But Finn is not alone; a lot of his best material comes from the chemistry and clear friendship between him and Rey.

Simply put, Rey is amazing. Between her, Jessica Jones, and Mad Max’s Furiosa, it is a refreshing year to be a fan of great female leads in science fiction movies. A scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rey is both fierce and kind. She charges through the movie with an emotional and physical fervor that the Luke Skywalker of yesteryear never quite managed. A silent introduction of her sliding down a desert sand dune, buzzing around on a speeder, and watching the sun set through a dusty rebel pilot’s helmet sets the tone for the character without a word. Her reaction to seeing a forest after spending her whole life in the desert pulls at heartstrings, her friendships with Finn and Han Solo make you cheer, and when Rey gets down to battle, you’re on the edge of your seat. Without the friendship and capability of Finn and Rey this movie would have been great, but with them it’s damn near perfect.

Also, the new droid of the film BB-8 is surprisingly lovable. I was ready to find him just as annoying as the infamous Jar Jar, but no. BB-8 is great. He bleeps and bloops lovably and capably along. I’d happily accept a BB-8 of my own. I’d call him buddy.

Of course, you can’t talk about Star Wars without talking about villains. The shiny Captain Phasma does far less to deserve her spotlight than Boba Fett ever did, First Order General Hux is appropriately Naziesque, and Supreme Leader Snoke isn’t really enough of a presence to justify a real opinion.

This leaves the weight of villainy on the shoulders of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. There was always a threat of delivering a villain who was just not as good as Darth Vader (something Lucas’s prequels fell prey to each time), but The Force Awakens cleverly circumvents the issue. In fact, the long shadow cast by Vader’s image is one of Kylo’s principle motivations. Kylo Ren is different kind of villain, and it works. When he meets our heroes for the climactic lightsaber duel (I don’t consider saying there is a lightsaber fight a spoiler), he delivers the dynamic exciting clash between the dark side and the light that Star Wars must always have.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without spoiling the movie, but I can talk about the structure. The plot of this movie is simple, coherent, and easy to follow. Yes, there are elements and beats we have seen before. This is a movie that needed to convince us that Star Wars is back, so there are certain things it needed to do. This is not a criticism, because while The Force Awakens is nostalgic for the original 1977 film, A New Hope was in turn nostalgic for Flash Gordon and the Westerns of the 1950/60s. Star Wars was always nostalgic for something, so the reverence shown in this film was rightly placed. I went into a movie theater to see Star Wars, and that is what I saw. I couldn’t be happier.

Yes, there are small problems, but hey, nothing is perfect! The fact that I only really find issues when I go in to nitpick (one interaction between Leia and Chewbacca didn’t ring true for me) means it was a pretty good ride.

One word of warning: if you walk into The Force Awakens expecting a completely original plot with nothing you’ve ever seen before, you’re going to be disappointed. J. J. Abrams has come on record to say that A New Hope is his favorite Star Wars movie, and it shows here. But for me, I went in to watch Star Wars, and by gods, Star Wars is what I got.

In fact, after two hours, if I’d walked out and been told the next one was playing right away, I would have happily walked right back in and taken my seat. Ladies and gentlemen and variations thereupon, here are my thoughts on The Force Awakens summed up: Star Wars is back. It’s the best it’s been since Empire.

May the Force be with us all!

-Contributed by Benjamin Ghan