Equals

With a wealth of sci-fi movies about the future, the trope of a society which suppresses the emotions of its citizens has become so frequent that watching them is like playing a game of spot-the-differences. In this sea of similarities, there are a few that stand out for their excellence (and some for their failures). Not many make their way into the grey zone of uncertainty, but the sci-fi dystopian romance Equals fits in there quite comfortably. Contrary to what reviewers will tell you, it’s a movie that will leave an impression—just not for the reasons one might expect.

The movie tells the story of a post-apocalyptic society in which all illnesses have been cured except one: Switched-On Syndrome, called S.O.S for short, which causes infected people to experience hypersensitivity and emotions. The infected go through four stages, after which they are taken to a special care facility and isolated from the rest of society. There they undergo electrical shock treatment to be “cured”.

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Image from popsugar.com

The protagonist of the movie is an illustrator named Silas, who discovers that he has this very illness. The movie follows the story of how he copes with the illness, and how it transforms him into the kind of person we would encounter in today’s society: laughing, crying, and feeling sad, but above all: falling in love. The subject of his affections is his co-worker Nia, a writer, and the two struggle to find a way to maintain their relationship in a society where emotions are frowned upon and any intimate physical contact is a sign the illness has reached its peak.

Unlike most dystopian movies, Equals doesn’t begin with the familiar prologue of how humans were on the verge of destroying each other before some organization stepped in and stopped them. In fact, the movie does very little to provide even a vague framework of why things are the way they are. There is a brief mention of a war and how only two populations managed to survive, but beyond that nothing else is revealed; no details of the vaguely-described bombings or why it was decided that emotions are a hindrance.

The positive result of this decision is that viewers can focus on the relationship between Silas and Nia without worrying about extraneous details. In this sense, Equals has a rather minimalistic approach to its storyline. The plot only contains the details that are deemed most necessary. This will prove challenging for an attentive viewer who hates loopholes and loose ends, as there are quite a few of both that pop up over the course of the movie. For instance, a whole scene is devoted to citizens sitting in an outdoor amphitheatre to watch the landing of a spacecraft. The broadcast states that space exploration has always been important, but why this is the case is never specified, and the topic is never touched on again.

Similarly, the documentaries that Silas illustrates for the company are given no context, while the articles Nia writes are given no more than a few brief mentions. All of these are missed opportunities in the end, for if there’s one thing the reviews are accurate about, it’s the fact that Equals brings barely any innovation to the sci-fi genre.

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Image from tv.belta.by

What makes the movie memorable and worth seeing? If there is something that director Drake Doremus was able to do beautifully, it was the minimalist aesthetics. The movie is a true wonder from an artistic and architectural perspective, all straight lines and pale lighting that accentuates the paleness of the actors. The entire movie is shot in a cool colour scheme with white and grey as the dominant colours. Some shots integrate Instagram-like filters and effects similar to a ray of sunshine across the screen. This is where Kristen Stewart’s typically expressionless face lights up, like a subject stepping out of a painting.

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Image from beautifulballad.org

The movie lays out all its cards from the beginning, and it is up to the viewer to decide what to make of the story of Silas and Nia’s romance. The Shakespearean twist near the end will come across as cliché for some, though I admit I sat and yelled at the screen for the two of them not to repeat the same mistake.

It’s a movie that won’t leave an immediate impression. It’s not one that can be readily talked about—much is left to the eyes and ears to experience, though some thought provoking moments do swim up at times. Equals is what you make of it, leaving a lot of unexplained ambiance, a cliffhanger ending, and a mostly unexplained title. The rest is left up to the imagination, and to how much one is invested in Silas and Nia’s journey.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

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The Sins of Professor X (Part Two)

Hey, did you miss me? Well I missed you! Welcome back to:

The Sins of Charles Xavier! (Part Two)

Let us jump in right where I left off on the good Professor, with…

4. Danger!

So the X-Men’s training room is pretty cool, right? For some reason Xavier saw fit to build a work-out chamber in his school called the Danger Room. It’s basically a room that can make all kinds of robots and hard-light projections so that the X-Men can practice getting shot at and train as a superhero team in a controlled environment.

It also serves as a pretty good backdrop every time Cyclops or Wolverine decide that the only way to solve their emotional issues is LARP violence. The Danger Room is basically the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation dialed up to 11.

So it really shouldn’t come as any surprise when the danger room eventually gains sentience, names itself Danger, and tries to kill all the X-Men, right? Because that is exactly what happened in Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday.

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and she has human shaped boobs because Joss Whedon’s feminism is confusing

While that all seems like a pretty run-of-the-mill amazingly insane day for the X-Men, there is something deeper and unsettling about the story of Danger, who believes that she was trapped in the Danger Room for years and forced to run out simulations for the entertainment of others.

She was right. When Professor Xavier gave the Danger Room a science-fiction style upgrade using Shiar alien technology (because the X-Men fight a surprising amount of aliens), Danger was born. She was born the moment the Professor flipped the “on” switch. And he knew.

02

So much for a symbol of peace and acceptance for all intelligent life, eh Chuck?

5. He erased an entire X-Team from existence.

Okay, look. Some of the stuff I’m pulling from here was in the 70’s, which was a weird time for comics all around. But hey, it’s canon, so here we go!

The original X-Men consisted of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, Beast, and Iceman. Then in 1975 the original team was kidnapped by an evil living island because comics are amazing. Professor X and Cyclops recruit a new team to save the old one. This is the first appearance of Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Sunspot, and Thunderbird. This comic is a big deal. It was the first to be written by the aforementioned Chris Claremont, and begins the saga of what most people recognise the X-Men to be today.

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The new X-Men save the old ones, end of story, right? Well… no. Between the old and new teams, the Professor actually recruited X-Men team 1.5. This team included Vulcan, the secret other brother of Cyclops. This team goes to the island and all of them die.

So naturally, instead of owning up to his responsibility in this tragedy, the professor wipes the memory of these events from Cyclops’s mind and pretends it never happened. Ha-ha. That’s nuts, Chuck.

6. He seriously messes up the lives of children.

Look, if I’m not careful this list could go on forever. I could talk about the Xavier Protocols where the good Professor created a plan to kill every one of his X-Men. I could talk about the time he and Magneto fused into a big dumb 90’s villain called Onslaught and tried to destroy the universe. I could talk about the time he faked his death to go marry an alien princess. Heck, I could just talk about how he constantly lets Magneto go because they are old buddies.

But instead, let’s talk about the state of the original X-Men, i.e. how being recruited by the good Professor ruined these people’s lives.

     6.1. Iceman

Bobby Drake aka Iceman is actually doing fine. He came out as gay recently, which is nice. I just wanted to get that out of the way. If you like the X-Men and are mad about this, I don’t think you understand what the X-Men are about.

     6.2. Beast and Angel

Okay. So when Beast joined the X-Men, he was a smart guy with big feet. Sure, he was a mutant and people bullied him about his big feet, but that’s not so bad, right? Well… after a Jekyll/Hyde style experiment, things changed for good old Hank.

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Hank these days is big, blue, and increasingly more cat-like. Do I relate to a smart guy who is covered in fur and can growl like an animal? I sure do. But not only did Beast’s body change, but he must also fight to stop his mind from turning feral as well. It is an uphill battle, and the big fuzzy genius must always be afraid of permanently losing his mind to a creature that just wants to chase a ball of string forever. That’s gotta suck, right? But Beast isn’t the only one who turned blue and lost his mind!

Angel was the most boring X-Man. His power was literally just having wings and being blond. So then to spice things up he was kidnapped by Apocalypse, tortured, brainwashed, given blue skin and knife wings, and used as a killing machine!

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As you can see from their expressions, both of them are thrilled by what being an X-Man has done for them.

     6.3. Jean Grey

Jean Grey has had it pretty rough. She died and came back to life as the Phoenix, with almost limitless power.

She could not control her power and lost her mind over time, becoming Dark Phoenix. In the Dark Phoenix Saga, she beats up all the X-Men, destroys a solar system by eating a sun, and then, when she regains just enough of her mind to see what is happening, allows herself to die before the Phoenix can take control again.

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Whoops.

Since then, Jean has come back to life again, married Cyclops, been cheated on by Cyclops, and died again (and is about to come back to life . . . again). Great job, Professor.

     6.4. Cyclops

And then there is good old Scott “Slim” Summers. Poster child of the X-Men, the Professor’s golden boy.

At least Xavier did a pretty good job raising Cyclops, right?

Well…

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Whoops x2

So over time, Cyclops became more and more militant and single-minded. He became so obsessed with saving mutants and living up to Xavier’s dream that he eventually lost his mind.

When Mutants became an endangered species, Cyclops gathered all the survivors onto an island called Utopia, and turned them into a military unit for protection. Through all of this, the Professor simply gave the thumbs up to his number one son.

But all of Charles’ good fatherhood skills kind of went down the toilet as Cyclops replaced Magneto as the mutant extremist who believes humans are his enemy, went to war with The Avengers, took control of the Phoenix force that had once consumed Jean Grey, and finally killed Charles Xavier in a mad rage.

Charles Xavier founded the X-Men with the dream of a world where Mutants and Humans could live together in peace and harmony. Over the years he tried to achieve his dream through cohesion, manipulation, violence, and driving kids insane.

This is the end of the list. This past February, Sir Patrick Stewart graced the silver screen as Professor X one last time in Logan. As always, he will continue to be kindly and elderly and all that is good in the world.

And that is all he will ever be remembered as because as far as I know, the good Professor has been wiping all our minds just as casually as he does to his precious X-Men.

And if you are wondering why I have now attacked the qualities of both Albus Dumbledore and Charles Xavier, yes, the answer is because I’m super bitter that neither of them let me into their awesome schools. Even though dashing good looks and the ability to make cats like me are obviously mutant superpowers.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

VA-11 Hall-A: Through the Broken Glass

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Jill by Koyoriin. Check out more of their amazing art here

Playing the bar-tending simulator VA-11 Hall-A was like looking into a shattered mirror. Every time I booted up the game I noticed the way its setting—the cyberpunk dystopia of Glitch City—reflected my own. Although the issues Glitch citizens face are greatly exaggerated in comparison to our own (we don’t have to deal with alcoholic talking dogs), they likewise struggle with alarmingly fast technological progress. The symptoms of this struggle revolve around a sense of fragmentation.

With the increasing importance of the virtual world, many people are spending less time in touch with the real world. We are being mentally and physically split between the two, and VA-11 Hall-A portrays the extreme result of that schism. As the game’s protagonist Jill, I served drinks to a variety of customers who were either physically or emotionally fragmented in some way. These characters included a 24/7 live-streamer who was constantly split between her present reality and entertaining over 6000 viewers, an android prostitute who surgically modified her body to suit her clients’ tastes, and an online news editor who seemed emotionally detached from his harsh treatment of his over-worked staff. This theme of fragmentation is consistent throughout the game, and is even shown in its setting.

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Image from YouTube channel TheDkmariolink

The Augmented Eye is Glitch City’s number one news source, and is a good example of how this game utilizes what I like to call ‘micro-narratives’. These stories are more or less the length of a Tweet, often begin in medias res, and end without a conclusion. The fragmentary news articles of The Augmented Eye weave together a patchwork image of the world beyond Jill’s room. I encountered even more micro-narratives that contributed to this impression at Jill’s workplace. Every drink that Jill serves has its own unique naming-story, making each one a small piece of history that reflects the preferences and personalities of Glitch citizens. Then there’s the jukebox. Many of the song titles end in ellipses, emphasizing their fragmentary nature by suggesting incompleteness.

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Image from va11halla.wikia.com

While I could go on about the many other micro-narratives I encountered in-game (like an online forum, or a pop idol’s blog), I think it’s clear that fragmentation is not just an aesthetic theme for VA-11 Hall-A, but one that is deeply intertwined with its mode of storytelling. Even though the game rarely ever goes beyond Jill’s room or the confines of her bar, its use of micro-narratives provided me with a richer understanding of Glitch City as a setting. The most important micro-narratives are the ones told by the characters who chat with Jill at the bar. Each of these encounters is a break from the game’s virtual world, providing a growing intimacy rooted in its real world.

Despite that the most complex gameplay element is the mixing and serving of drinks, I would say that the main goal I had as a player was to learn more about the characters on the other side of the bar counter. Each character was intriguing because none of them were completely fleshed out. Whether they stop by the bar once during an entire playthrough or come by nearly every in-game day, each character has their own life outside of the bar from which Jill—and therefore the player—is always excluded.

Each character brings their own experiences to the counter. When Kimberly La Vallete mentioned she was a journalist for The Augmented Eye, I ended up looking for her articles on the app to see what she wrote. And when Sei Asagiri, the “White Knight”, explained that she does search and rescue operations, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was involved with a news story about a person who was rescued from a burning building. By interacting with these characters, I was beginning to draw connections between the micro-narratives I had uncovered, turning the various bits of information into an interconnected web of names, songs, stories, rumours, and most importantly: people.

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Image from YouTube channel Off Frame Games

VA-11 Hall-A offers a solution to the fragmentation that we encounter in a world that is becoming more virtual and less real. It showed me that the mirror could still be pieced together no matter how small, or how disparate, the shards were. The game’s titular bar is a place where people come to tell their stories, to connect with other human beings in a world that is often disconnected, to understand one another through conversation and a good drink. However, nobody calls it by its official name “VA-11 Hall-A”; customers and workers alike call it Valhalla, the name of an eternal feasting hall in Norse mythology’s after-life for brave warriors who died in battle. It is the yearning to understand and empathize that turns the fragmented VA-11 Hall-A into the complete Valhalla. Like us, the people in Glitch City’s Valhalla live in a world as fraught and chaotic as any battlefield, and after a day of fragmented life, they come by for a drink in their night-lives – their after-lives – that brings them all together.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen

10 Strange Facts for Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.

Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter? 

Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.

You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.

1. E.T.

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Image from camiseteria.com

No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.

2. Dungeons and Dragons

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Image from roebeast.blogspot.com

I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon. 

3. Alien

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Image from bustle.com

The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.

They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.

4. Stephen King

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Image from stephenking.wikia.com

I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.

5. Star Wars

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Image from heavyarmor.wordpress.com

This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

6. Nightmare on Elm Street

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Image from elitedaily.com

Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.

7. The Goonies

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Image from mentalfloss.com

Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).

8. X-Men

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Image from comicvine.gamespot.com

X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.

9. The Thing

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Image from culturecreature.com

The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.

10. Minority Report/Fringe

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Image from movle.blogspot.com

Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.

Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.

So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!

-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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

No Ghost, Just Shell

Scarlett Johanson
image source: imgur.com

The speculative community has been nurturing a climate of social equity in the past few years. From the removal of statuettes depicting the openly racist H.P. Lovecraft from the World Fantasy Awards, to Cixin Liu winning the Best Novel Award at the 2015 Hugo Awards (the first Asian novelist to do so),  it is clear that mind-sets are changing.

However, with each step forward, there is always a step back.

Major Motoko
image source: myanimelist.com

When I heard that Hollywood was casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaptation of the manga Ghost in the Shell, I knew there was going to be trouble. Ever since the news was released, many fans have criticized the studio’s decision to cast Johansson in the role of an Asian character. Hollywood’s casting decision goes against the speculative community’s goal of social equity by perpetuating misrepresentation, while also revealing an integral flaw within their understanding of the manga.

Whitewashing is still commonplace among Hollywood films—just think The Last Airbender and Gods of Egypt. Moreover, Paramount and Dreamworks studios’ choices to whitewash their major characters reveals a very common and deep-seated fear: almost every big studio is afraid of losing money on film projects. According to Max Landis, a Hollywood screenwriter who defended the Ghost in the Shell casting decision in a YouTube video, there simply aren’t any A-list Asian actors that would ensure the film’s financial success. Not only is this assumption wrong (fans were hoping that Rinko Kikuchi would get the role), it is offensive, and indicates the industry’s financial motivations for the film above all else. Apparently, offering break-out opportunities for the many Asian-American actors struggling to find work in the industry just doesn’t seem to be an option. While this decision affects the social aspect of the film, it also affects its merit as an adaptation.

beat-takeshi-section-9-chief
image source: nerdreactor.com

The studios’ selection of the film’s lead, screenwriters, and director indicates an important misunderstanding of the concepts established by its Japanese predecessors. Scarlett Johansson is most well-known for her action-oriented roles in The Avengers films, while screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton) have only ever written action-thrillers. To top it all off, the film’s director is Rupert Sanders, whose only movie is Snow White and The Huntsman. The fact that the director and screenwriters are all inexperienced new members of the industry who have only ever done action films, with action-star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, definitely points to a focus on action over thought.

However, gunfights and action scenes were never the focus of Ghost in the Shell. Of course violence is present, but its use is minimalistic and often only as a last resort. The point of the series has always been about asking questions that challenge the concept of the human condition. What does it mean to be human if your body is entirely prosthetic? Is artificial intelligence humanity’s next evolutionary step? What defines individuality if memories and thoughts can be hacked, deleted, and replaced? These are all questions that the original manga and its anime adaptations successfully tackle, with the cyborg Major Kusanagi being the embodiment of those themes as she is literally a ‘ghost’, or collection of her original memories, within a prosthetic body or ‘shell’. Ghost in the Shell is about questioning the human condition. It is quiet, introspective, and delicate—never loud.

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image source: rogerebert.com

While I have no doubt that a successful live-action adaptation of the manga can be pulled off, Hollywood’s decisions should serve as a warning for most fans to prepare for disappointment. Ghost in the Shell would’ve been a perfect opportunity for an Asian actor to play an intriguing character and to potentially break out into the mainstream. Instead, Hollywood is content to stick to its routine of whitewashing roles, perpetuating cycles of misrepresentation, and creating adaptations which fail to convey the themes of the source material. This film may have the title Ghost in the Shell, but I doubt it will have the heart of its predecessors.

The only good thing that has come out of this controversy has been the response from fans and the wider speculative community as a whole. By forcing Hollywood to recognize that their actions are outdated and harmful, hopefully the industry will be forced to change its behavior in the future. While the outlook of this film may seem bleak, as it is scheduled to be released in 2017, with not enough time for any major changes, perhaps enough time for its studios to at least consider the community’s response.

-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen