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Posted by Matt | March 16th, 2011

SF36 logoFebruary marked the 36th annual Boston SciFi Film Festival, and the first night of the SF36 was devoted to five recent short films under the program title “Dangerous Visions” (no connection to the famous 1967 anthology). I thought it might be worth examining these films briefly, to see what today’s “dangerous visions” were, and to capture something of the state of contemporary short film SF. Given how Neill Blomkamp’s short “Alive in Joburg” begot his big-budget feature film District 9, these may be directors to keep an eye on in the future. And a few of these films, at least, are very much worth watching in the present.

Some caveats. First, I am not a film critic. There will be cinematic areas and techniques–matters of directing, editing, cinematography, acting–that may be crucial to fully appreciating a film, but that I simply won’t recognize enough to comment on. I am writing this from the standpoint of a casual watcher of film but a more-than-casual consumer of science fiction, in the hope it might be useful primarily to a similar audience. Second, I should note that this review of one night’s program should not overly reflect on the SciFi Film Festival overall, which included ten days of other programming.

Finally, please also note that my presumption is that most people reading this will not easily have access to view these films, so I will be describing plots in detail, including “spoilers.” However, for “Planes de Futuro” and “Solita” I have included links to watch the films online; you may wish to do so before reading those sections below. Although, because these are such short films and each goes by so quickly, I think knowing what happens in them and why may lead to a greater appreciation of the films while watching them.

Time’s Up Eve

US, Patrick Rea (writer and director), Jon Niccum (writer)

Times Up, Eve poster imageWe open the film, and the Festival overall, with a black and white shot of the mean streets of a nameless city at night. A damsel in distress gives us voice-over as she runs, avec trench coat, away from shadowy pursuers. Yes, we’re on planet noir. As she runs, our protagonist Eve explains to us that she is one of the last humans left, that aliens have come to Earth to harvest our souls. Eve takes refuge in her office building, where she looks longingly at framed videos of her BFF and a boyfriend. There is a noise from below. She uncovers a peephole in the office floor, watches as her downstairs neighbor–a “dealer” who facilitated the harvesting of souls–is himself taken by the aliens. Then the noises move to the stairwell. Eve flees to the streets, only to encounter two shuffling human forms. They are (surprise!) the zombie-like husks of her best friend and her boyfriend, come wanting their souls back–because (surprise!surprise!) Eve, too, is a dealer in souls, who sold them both out to prolong her own freedom. She reveals that she has kept her boyfriend’s soul in a small box shaped like a treasure chest, rather than giving it to the aliens (no mention is made of the BFF’s soul). And rather than giving up her boyfriend’s soul to the aliens now, she tosses it into a sewer, leaving her former friend and her former boyfriend to hold her down as the aliens take her own soul. Time’s up, Eve. It’s not hard living without a soul, a slumped and inert Eve muses as the film ends, when you haven’t had one for a long time anyway.

Some of these individual elements are well done: Eve fleeing not to her home but to her office, and the related sense–if underdeveloped–that the aliens are simply doing a job as well; the tiny shining marbles of the souls, which are the only bit of color in the film. The storytelling is well-paced and, with a run time of only 12 minutes, economical. But while literalizing the idea of selling souls in this manner might have been a dangerous vision in 1950, today it feels not so much retro as dated, an extended setup for final lines that don’t cut as they once might have. And the film’s central image–a professional woman, a sexual woman (and indeed Eve, the proto-woman) as a soul-stealing but otherwise undeveloped character–makes an unfortunately apt introduction to this collection of short films, considering how often that image will be repeated.

Cosas Feas (“Nasty Stuff”)

Mexico, Isaac Ezban (writer and director)

Cosas Feas poster image“Cosas Feas,” for example, is a film not improved by its proximity to the misogyny of some of the other films. Kriko Krakinsky is a schoolboy in Mexico attending his first sexual education class. As the diagrams and descriptions offered by the teacher become more and more explicit, Kriko begins first to sweat, then to tremble, and finally he flees the classroom, to the mocking jeers of his classmates over his apparent embarrassment. When he returns home, however, we realize that something more than boyish embarrassment is afoot. His parents, and his older brother and accompanying girlfriend, all act in a parody of domestic tranquility. Random pictures and objects hang crookedly on the walls for decoration; Kriko’s mother cooks without having any idea what food should look like; the father reads non sequitur excerpts from the newspaper; the brother and his girlfriend scream and moan and shake from their upstairs bedroom all night long without sleep at all–and Kriko has been forbidden to disturb them. Meanwhile, clips of classic SF films of alien invasion play on the TV, and Kriko himself totes around a small planet on his keychain. When he asks his parents where they are from originally, they only reply that they’re from far away indeed. “Cosas Feas” announces loudly but cleverly just how knowing it is.

Which is important for what comes next: one night Kriko can no longer bear the thumps and screams from his brother’s room, and sneaks in. He encounters his brother performing oral sex on his girlfriend–except her vagina is a monstrous toothed-and-tentacled maw spewing green slime, H.R. Giger-like in its mix of insect and reptilian qualities. My first reaction was mortification: if the somewhat distant, off-camera fear of female sexuality present in “Time’s Up, Eve” wasn’t bad enough, here was SF’s oft-implicit fear of female sexuality made vividly explicit. The scene went on and on. I began to sweat, and then to tremble. I contemplated walking out, in protest and disgust–at both the visuals, and the message. And that’s when I realized (I can be kind of slow) that this was precisely Kriko’s reaction to the depiction of human sexuality at the start of the film. I realized that my reaction was precisely what filmmaker Isaac Ezban had hoped to evoke. Alien sex doesn’t mean scantily-clad blue-skinned humanoid aliens who fuck in exactly the same way humans do; alien sex means alien sex. This is science fiction in the sense of Kij Johnson’s “Spar,” or in the sense Peter Watts frequently deploys: that the human way isn’t necessarily the only way or even the best way, and that true aliens would be just as likely to find us disgusting as we so often find their portrayals.

Screengrab from Cosas Feas

In “Cosas Feas,” Kriko imagines what his older brother and his girlfriend are up to that causes so much noise to come from their bedroom at night.

On further consideration, if there’s anything truly wrong with “Cosas Feas” it is that it goes on for about five minutes too long after this point, leading up to Kriko’s own first mating ceremony. (Also, the quality of the print was iffy, and the subtitles often belated). On the other hand, the acting is all very well done in a necessarily over-the-top sort of way; and the close, somewhat fish-eyed cinematography very ably conveys the claustrophobic world of a solitary child aware he doesn’t quite fit in. In this way the film ably straddles the line between depiction of the truly alien, and more everyday human experiences of coexistence and assimilation–for youth into the world of adulthood, and for many “aliens” into new cultures. So: a true SF film that’s interesting and undeniably effective in retrospect, although not a lot of fun to sit through.

Zombie Radio

UK/Hong Kong, Lawrence Gray (writer and director)

The breezy tone of “Zombie Radio” made it a good respite after the visual and thematic assault of “Cosas Feas”; on the other hand, that very breeziness, and the film’s placement here between the night’s two most memorable shorts, combined to make it largely forgettable. But here’s what I remember: “Freak of the Week” Frank, a conspiracy nut and claimed alien abductee, is a frequent caller to a radio news and opinion show–a show hosted by a sultry woman who apparently rejected Frank when they were in school together. During one such call, Frank’s car collides with a bicyclist–ridden by another attractive woman–while he fumbles with the phone trying to report a Bigfoot sighting. He and the bicyclist make common cause and chase the Bigfoot together; later, she takes him to bed, calling into the radio show and taunting the host that she must be a heartless zombie for rejecting Frank. Later, however, when they find Bigfoot, she is lured away from Frank by Bigfoot’s gifts and his primal manliness. Frank, upset at this turn of events, breaks into the radio studio and beheads the host, revealing–when the head keeps talking–that she is in fact a zombie. Frank then commandeers the microphone, and starts reporting on the real conspiracies and catastrophes of the day: the economy; climate change; etc.

Trailer for “Zombie Radio”

“Zombie Radio” is amusing enough in its sense of the ironic truth that the worst fears of conspiracy theorists pale in comparison to the real disasters occurring in the world. I think it might work well as a Pixar (or Python)-esque prelude or bonus clip to a feature film like Shaun of the Dead–it has the same understated British humor, and the colorful cinematography and cast ably convey a world that’s just slightly larger than life, supersaturated. Bigfoot, for example, is portrayed simply as a very large, unselfconscious man: John Candy playing “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. This realism–exaggerated, but realism nonetheless–gives the film’s ending some extra bite. What pulls the film through to that ending is an ensemble cast that collectively delivers the best performance of any of these films.

Planes de Futuro (“Future Plans”)

Spain, Ivan A Solas (writer and director)
IMDB | Watch Online

Planes de Futuro poster imageThis is closer to what I hoped to see: a film where, I’d imagine, the limited budget dictated a focus on using qualities particular to film to generate interesting, economical storytelling. It has a storytelling technique that could only work in film. So we are again in black and white, although the setting here is a brighter, more airy bedroom. A young man, David, awakes from slumber, whereupon he’s startled by a somewhat older woman standing by the bed in a slinky black dress (here we go again). She reveals that she is Eva–and there’s that most SFnal name again–the girl who recently broke up with him, come from the future. But he does not believe her, and orders her from the room. And then we begin again with David awakening: this is a groundhog day story, facilitated by time travel. Eva must convince David that she is who she says she is, that something terrible will soon happen to him. And, with this terrible event unavoidably on the horizon, that she wants a child from him to remember him by. With each misstep, each unconvincing statement, she learns and adjusts her argument, and so the film is actually a very small set of lines and scenes repeated again and again. Not a film for the impatient: I heard some sighs from the audience as the film progressed and the repetitions piled up, although I myself thought the pacing well-judged and never grew bored. If the ending is not unexpected–a message of getting what you need, as opposed to getting what you thought you wanted–it is also not at all belabored, and well composed. The scene is bright, Eva’s slinky dress is gone, her hair is down, and the camerawork is evocative of the hazy, powerful state of half-conscious association, compared to the methodical quest for proof that had gone before.


US, Steven Fine (writer and director), Barrie Potter and Evan Puschak (writers)
IMDB | Watch Online

After the previous films I was all set for “Solita” to be a robot version of Lolita. That at least might have been dangerous. Instead, the film opens with the Argo, a spaceship on a mission of exploration, whose crew has been lost but for a sole surviving man, David Pierce. Attempting to complete the ship’s mission, David sends an odd farewell message to his brother, sets the warp drive, and dons the virtual reality goggles that the crew use to pass the time during long spaceflights. The ship is not heard from again. A salvage/rescue mission is eventually launched–the space tug Solita–which includes David’s brother, Robert Pierce. After turning down an invitation from Solita’s lovely navigator Marta to pass the time in warp together, Robert instead dons the VR goggles during warp, as his brother David had done, and somehow catches a glimpse of David inside the forested VR world. The rescue tug emerges from warp, they find the lost ship, and Robert discovers David dead, still wearing VR goggles. Solita arranges to tow the lost ship home, and on the warp back, our man Robert again dons the goggles; at the journey’s close, he is discovered dead, still wearing them. The lovely navigator sobs, throwing herself upon his inert body. Then we shift back to the VR world, where Robert at last meets up with David at the edge of a large body of water (see: SAIL AWAY), ready to begin their journey into whatever happens next, together.

Trailer for “Solita”

Of these five films, “Solita” feels closest to Hollywood-style science fiction. Along with “Cosas Feas,” it is the film that uses the most special effects–holographic computer interfaces, exterior shots of spaceships–wrapped around a not-terribly-scientific story that would feel several decades old were it to appear as written science fiction. In terms of popular awareness, however, it may be quite topical–as I write this, Time magazine’s cover story is on transhumanism, and a “robot opera” on the theme is set to begin a national run. What “Solita” does reasonably well, as a bridge to these concerns, is a more down-to-Earth twisting and mixing of the natural and the synthetic, in a way that does seem to be increasingly happening in today’s world. The scenes of the “real world” in the film are those that will appear to the audience most obviously unreal: the ship moving through space; the very spare scenes of the ship’s interior–chairs around a table, a lounge chair–which might be sets for a minimalist stage play. On the other hand, the “virtual reality world” is set around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s temple of the natural, with its dense woods, chirping birds, sandy beach, and water lapping the shoreline. Which would seem to be stacking the deck, except there’s also some brief dialog where Solita’s crew sit around the table eating synthetic goop, commenting on how much they prefer it to older real foods. And in another scene, Marta comments that she has trouble telling her sleeping dreams from VR.

That sounds suggestive, but there’s nothing particularly complex going on here, no nested realities. What there is, is honest human confusion and uncertainty. The result is a film that’s endearingly and engagingly conveyed, if not in an especially meaty way. “Solita” can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a film about an individual character’s personal choice, or the broader pattern of choice factors that exist in its world, and so ends up feeling a little spare from both angles, a little simplistic. Yet by intent or coincidence, “Solita” does describe a certain trajectory in popular thought about the future–away from space, and to matters of authenticity in self and place. It comes across as almost meta-commentary on SF itself. On one hand, the choice made is a rejection of traditional genre SF tropes; on the other hand, the chosen VR realm is in a sense SF itself, an artificial world of expanded possibility. In Robert’s choice there’s thus a sense that SF may capture some important element of human life that cold and empty depictions of reality, however sleekly futuristic, do not; but tempered by the awareness of the wish-fulfillment potential of that expanded possibility, the awareness that it’s describing something not really there and so may be delusion-inducing. Humanity, the sense seems to be, needs a home, whether imaginary or not. And as compared to many big-budget Hollywood treatments of virtual reality and transhumanism, which tend to be monster stories advocating knowing one’s place, “Solita” earns points by its refusal to moralize about its choice made, for capturing something of the appeal of both sides.

* * *

Trying to extrapolate trends and patterns from only five films is probably an exercise in trying too hard, but it is at least worth noting a few data points. In addition to being the only one of these science fiction films set in space, “Solita” is also the lone film set in the future (although “Planes de Futuro” does feature a character from the future). None of the films pass the Bechdel test; more of an issue is that there are no conversations between men and women that are not about sexual relationships, and there is only one woman whose character is not defined by her sexual pairing with a man (the exception is Eve’s best friend in “Time’s Up, Eve,” who of that film’s characters gets the least time on-screen). Unmarried sexual women–who seem to always be wearing black in these films–are portrayed at best as distractions; at worst they are soul-stealers. Quite possibly related to this, none of these films had women directors or writers. This may suggest that the limited number of women in Hollywood involved at a high level with SF films [edit 23 March 2011: as John Scalzi has picked up on] is unlikely to be bolstered by new blood any time soon, alas.

Given the “girl cooties” treatment of sexuality largely on display, it’s probably not surprising that ties of blood and the nuclear family are a frequent solace to the characters in these films. In “Solita” fraternal ties, and the chance to continue living life with an older brother, trump a possible romance. In “Cosas Feas” it is only Kriko’s family who are capable of looking out for him and providing him with what he needs. And in “Planes de Futuro” it is only when Eva sheds her image of seductress, and assumes the image and gestures of a mother caring for a young child, that she gains the inner peace she had sought.

So, science fiction as a genre for backward-looking mama’s boys, then? As a fan of SF I know this isn’t always the case, but I did have an uncomfortable sense of it, watching these films in succession. Given the frequent backward glances the films cast at science fiction’s history, what is scary to contemplate is that this “Dangerous Visions” suite of films on the Festival’s opening night was to be followed on the third night by a program of five more films collectively titled “Retro Speculatives.” I skipped it. I had expected a large, young crowd the opening Friday night of the Festival, what with media fandom being a big industry these days and Boston being the locus for so many colleges, high-tech companies, and increasingly for film-making and gaming companies. But after watching these short films, the sparsely-attended theater and the largely middle-aged attendees made more sense. This was a program that seemed designed for insiders, for people who wanted to belong to something, rather than for bringing in casual viewers who simply wanted to see intelligent and challenging films, and understood that such films would necessarily include science fiction. And yet some of these films can offer intelligence and challenge–although for me, only after I had mentally shaken off the associations between the films that the collective program had given me.

Posted by Matt | December 31st, 2010

Kaaron Warren, Walking the Tree. Angry Robot 2010 (US & UK): paperback.

Somewhat belatedly, I should mention that my review of Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree has been published by Strange Horizons. When Kaaron Warren is writing, she tells us in an Author’s Notes section at the end of the book, she keeps a notebook of “threads,” ideas she wants to interweave throughout the text. In the Notes section she gives us several pages of such threads. In a small case of congruence, when I read a book for review I do something similar: I jot down the threads I’m seeing, the repeated or emphasized elements in the text that might be interesting to write about. So I thought here, since Warren shared with us some of her threads, I’d share some of mine that didn’t make it into the published review:

Warren as a writer known for horror short fiction, and many themes and images Warren has dealt with in her short fiction are clustered here around the Tree like a bleak Christmas–beach and bones, babies and blood, birds and masks of clay.

Basic premise is also reminiscent of horror films like Friday the 13th: young female camp councilors put on front of respectability, but really are eager for the kids to fall asleep so they can hook up with the men. Like those movies there’s the sporty one, the brainy one, the kind one, etc. Like those movies, one by one they drop out of the story. But here, often in a more positive (or at least neutral) way. Is Warren playing on expectations, of the story type and/or of her own reputation in horror fiction?

Although there is some of the usual horror movie plot logic used: bad things–death or rape or both–happen mainly (only?) when women make errors in judgment, typically due to overconfidence or insecurity.

Also feels a bit like a feminist take on the traditional male post-apocalyptic narrative: typically lone man leading single child or woman, here that image and its implications–generational, educational, species survival/reproductive–have been thoroughly domesticated.

Metatextual elements, the focus on stories. Each Order has a different origin story of the Tree. Most contain a seed of truth, none are wholly true. Also game of “telephone” Lillah and her brother invent. How stories get distorted by the passage of time and distance seems a recurring theme.

Selected past reviews at other venues:

Posted by Matt | November 29th, 2010

Darin Bradley, Noise. Spectra 2010 (US): trade paperback.

My review of Darin Bradley’s debut novel Noise has been published by Strange Horizons. When I came to write this review, I had the notion to mention a few other books I had reviewed recently that shared some similar qualities. That’s when I realized that these books all had the same publisher, and, checking further, the same editor. I wrote the following paragraph. But it ended up not fitting into the review I went on to write, so I present it here, as an outtake.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Juliet Ulman had acquired Bradley’s book for Bantam Dell/Spectra, before her untimely downsizing. In several ways Noise is very characteristic of the late run of Ulman’s editorship that I’ve read–books like Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest, and Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing. These works all feature excellent, refined prose; most include small but effective experiments with narrative structure; most can be read as speculative updatings of classic stories (Palimpsest of the Narnia-like portal fantasy, One for Sorrow as a speculative take on The Catcher in the Rye, elements of The Love We Share echo Sleeping Beauty, and Bradley’s Noise can read like an Americanized, post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies). And all these works chronicle the dissociation of America’s Generation Y, that generation’s–my generation’s–complex relationship to the classic narratives and myths embedded in our society at large and in the specific places we live, our fascination with secret knowledge, and our at-times scary susceptibility to more overt forms of story.

Selected past reviews at other venues:

Posted by Matt | August 20th, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch. Underland Press, 2009 (US); Corvus, 2010 (UK).

There has always been an awareness of the sequence of history in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction, an understanding that for any given place and time there will have been someone there before and will be someone there after. An early series of short stories dealt with this explicitly: “Ghost Dancing with Manco Tupac” (1989, expanded 2000), “The Emperor’s Reply” (1993), and “The Compass of His Bones” (2004) were tales of the end of the Inca empire at the hands of Spanish Conquistadors. Veniss Underground (2003), a novel, derived much of its pervasive low-level dread from the uplifted meerkats who saw themselves as the next evolutionary step up from humanity, the heirs of the world in waiting. And most notably, historicity is deeply ingrained in VanderMeer’s best-known fiction, his Ambergris cycle. “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” in the City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel (2001, expanded 2002, further expanded UK 2004, revised US 2006) established the basics: the seizure of the strange city of Cinsorium on the River Moth by a band of whaler-pirates fleeing from an empire’s collapse; the driving underground of the city’s mysterious inhabitants, the gray caps, by the new settlers; the razing of the old city and its reconstruction as Ambergris; the subsequent territorial battles with neighboring tribes and nation-states in its rise as a center of art and commerce. The cycle’s second volume, Shriek: An Afterword (2006), conveys more subtly by its very title that this is a tale that follows another story; the book’s narrative conceit is that one character, the historian Duncan Shriek, is making notes and commentary over a core text written by Duncan’s sister Janice as an {auto}biographical afterword to one of Duncan’s own historical works.

And so we come to Finch, the third and perhaps final book of the Ambergris cycle. We’re a hundred years after Shriek, and Ambergris is a blitzed mockery of its former decadence. The gray caps have risen, long preparation during their exile in the city’s cavernous underground resulting in a swift takeover of the surface. Most humans in the city now live a shell-shocked existence, ameliorated by hallucinogenic mushrooms provided by the gray caps that remind the inhabitants of better times. Rebels exist outside the city, but are under constant threat of discovery and banishment to work camps–or more mysterious forms of disappearance. And a few humans hover in-between, trying to find meaning in a world turned downside-up. Among them is the titular John Finch, one of the pool of human police that the largely-nocturnal gray caps rely on for daytime legwork in criminal investigations.

Finch-the-character is the first of several areas where Finch-the-novel shines. There’s the natural tendency to see Finch as a traitor to his species, a collaborator. The book as a whole serves as an irreducible response to this first impression, an answer to the question of why he is working for the gray caps. As Finch conducts his investigation into a dead human and a bisected gray cap who seem to have materialized together in a deserted apartment as though fallen from a great height, the case more and more requires Finch to revisit his past and the reasons for his present situation. What VanderMeer does effectively over the course of the novel is develop our understanding of Finch as someone trapped by both personal history and cultural zeitgeist, a decent enough man doing the best he can in a world without clear-cut answers. He’s somewhat akin, on the surface level at least, to a hardboiled version of Gene Wolfe’s Severian the Torturer, engaged in a quest to fight a future that he does not fully comprehend at the behest of those whose agenda he does not fully know.

Which is to say, while guns and blood (and other fluids) are involved–copiously–in the tale, Finch is no action hero, and Finch is no fantasy of political agency. While there is plenty of action, it’s generally taken at the behest of the either the gray caps or one or another group of rebels. Finch is a character, to suggest another unlikely but I think useful comparison, in the vein of Yeine Darr from N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: someone in an environment of complex constraints, physical and cultural, whose actions must be parsed in light of these constraints. What does it mean to live in occupied territory, to have one’s life (and even body) colonized? It’s a question that runs through the novel. Finch, mind you, is by no means perfect in this regard–that is, he’s very human. But he’s someone VanderMeer invites us to consider on several different axes: what is his hierarchy of loyalties to family, loves, friends, and city; how sympathetic is Finch; how likable is he; how worthy is he of respect?

VanderMeer is among the most versatile contemporary shapers of narrative, combining a sense of the right story to tell for any given place and time, with a willingness to experiment–and borrow from the best–in determining the right narrative style for that story. So it’s no surprise that another highlight of Finch is the manner in which this shattered tale is told. We are deep in hardboiled crime territory here, echoes of the staccato, “telegraphic” neo-noir of James Ellroy:

[Finch] shouldn’t even have been on this case. [...] Never do police work anywhere near your own area. Never let the people where you lived know your job. And yet, 239 Manzikert Avenue was only a mile from the hotel [where he lived]. Why had Heretic put him in charge? Didn’t trust Wyte anymore? Or was there some other reason? Leaned forward in his chair. Had to make some progess.

This fragmented prose isn’t an affectation: the noir stylings carry with them a host of characteristics and connotations that perform important work for VanderMeer. The chopped up sentences continue to emphasize that idea of sequence: it’s almost always one distinct, singular action or perception following another. There’s an individualistic quality and an immediacy to this style, the sensation that we’re experiencing the story at street level through Finch’s eyes, with no narrative pauses to see what comes next and then report back later in more complex sentences. It emphasizes that Finch is on his own, and is quite different from the narratives of previous Ambergris novels that were layered in time and voice. At the same time, VanderMeer often uses Finch’s sentence fragments to break the narrative chain of causation, to separate the actions of characters from their results–which all conveys something of the dissociative mood and mindset of the citizenry of Ambergris. The Ambergrisians have experienced events they do not understand, whose cause and ultimate results are unknown to them. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the rules of the world have been broken, and the broken grammar reflects the sense of uncanny dread that results. But this is also a textbook example of the dissociation of torture, which becomes clear when the story moves to a scene of torture and the style does not change.

Couldn’t feel his feet or hands. A kind of mercy. Because early on the Partial had cut off one of Finch’s toes. Had busted up his knee again. Cut a slit in his right cheek that bled into his mouth.

“Confess,” the Partial kept saying. “Confess.”


Finch laughed. An unhinged laugh that ended on too high a note. [...] The Partial crept behind him. Felt a soft sawing around his numb hand. A sudden flowing release. [...] The Partial placed Finch’s bloody pinkie finger on the table. It looked like a white worm.

Indeed, as we realize that the whole novel is interspersed with a recording of this interrogation and torture of Finch, the prose style becomes that much more appropriate. If the textbook definition of a sentence is a completed thought, VanderMeer’s noir-serrated writing conveys a populace–and a character–unwilling to complete a thought for fear of what that thought might be, what it might confess.

As I noted when discussing China Miéville’s The City & The City, however, VanderMeer’s noir takes a somewhat different shape and is put to a very different use than most of the other fantasy-crime hybrids published in recent years–Miéville’s novel, Jedediah Berry’s Manual of Detection, Zoran Živkovic’s The Last Book. These other works adopted noir as a retro-styling, a conception of the world-as-failure dating from the era between the World Wars that, the implicit message is, we’ve never quite been able to overcome. The classic noir they reference was an outgrowth of industrialization and urbanization, combined with subsequent economic downturn, combined with the lesson of Prohibition that trying to legislate morality only makes everyone a criminal. This original noir was an expression of dazed despair over the failure of our dreams, at a world we had created and then seemed to become stuck in. VanderMeer’s noir feels more modern, millennial. His achievement with Finch is to recreate urban noir based on contemporary concepts of post-colonial religious and ethnic conflict, drug culture, the panoptic state, and the post-9/11 (mis)understanding of the world not as something we helped bring about, but as something done to us. Common contemporary fears are more organic than technological–chemical and biological weaponry, disease like swine and bird flu, ecological issues like global warming–or more based in ideology: underground cells rising to unleash horrors, the intersection of terrorism and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the questions of the day surround a Western world awakened to its colonialist past and now wondering how we would have reacted if what we did to others had been done to us, how then to co-exist with those whose worldview seems truly alien–and so the uncertain tenuousness of hope, of relying on unproven, unprovable narratives that communication, understanding, and living together might be possible; wondering how much miscommunication and conflict are inevitable. Finch reads as if VanderMeer took all these key components of contemporary politics, scrambled the subjects and actions and objects beyond allegorical recognition, laid them out in their new form as a series of fragments very much akin to the novel’s prose, and seeing that they still made sense in their scrambled form and still told a believable story, challenged the reader to decide for themselves what exactly this means.

Finch can nominally be read as a stand-alone story, but it seems important to me to read it as part of the whole Ambergris cycle for reasons not least that it is only in the previous volumes that the falsity of the impression of current circumstances as something done to the Ambergrisians is fully revealed. And a key reason to read the cycle in order–beyond an appreciation for how much groundwork was laid early on, and a greater understanding of various characters, historical events, and mysteries solved and unsolved–is to experience the visceral transformation of the city that VanderMeer has wrought. For as the prose style is different in Finch than in VanderMeer’s previous Ambergris novels, so too the city of Ambergris has been transformed.

Six years and I can’t recognize a goddamn thing from before.

Harsh blue sprawl of the bay, bled from the River Moth. Carved from nothing. The first thing the gray caps did when they Rose, flooding Ambergris and killing thousands. Now the city, riddled through with canals, is like a body that was once drowned. Parts bleached, parts bloated. Metal and stone for flesh. Places that stick out and places that barely touch the surface.


Beyond the Spit, the silhouette of the two living domes covering the detention camps. Broken by the smoke, hidden by debris. Built over a valley of homes. Built atop the remains of the military factories that had allowed the two great mercantile companies, House Hoegbotton and the invading House Frankwrithe & Lewden, to dream of empire, to destroy each other. And the city with them. Finch had fought for Hoegbotton. Once upon a time.

Between the domes, the fiery green glitter and minarets of the Religious Quarter, occupied by the remnants of native tribes. Adapting. Struggling. Destined to someday be wiped out. He can see the exposed crater at the top of the Truffidian Cathedral. Cracked. All the prayers let out.

We’re again seeing the march of history in VanderMeer’s work, transformation and change. What the quote above also illustrates is how Finch ramps up the intensity across a wide spectrum of urban life: political-economic, military-industrial, racial, spiritual, science fictional. Many horror-tinged works rely on keeping their horror concealed, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks. When the horror is finally revealed, its very corporeality can render it trivial compared to what we imagined. But because Finch distributes its alienation across so many spheres of life, the changes the gray caps have wrought feel unrelenting and powerful.

Here it is also useful to stop talking about thematics and give appreciation for the breadth of visceral, sensorial imagination on display: fungal memory bulbs that extract the last memories of the deceased and replay them when consumed by the living; the gray cap’s pet skery, which seems like a small domesticated black hole; Partials, humans converted by gray caps into walking organic surveillance cameras; and innumerable other uses for mushrooms, spores, and mold. My favorite may be the method by which the underground gray caps communicate with their above-ground human assistants:

A soft, wet, sucking sound came from the memory hole beside his desk. Finch shuddered, put aside his notes.


Exhaled sharply. Peered around the left edge of the desk. Glanced down at the glistening hole. It was about twice the size of a man’s fist. Lamprey-like teeth. Gasping, pink-tinged maw. Foul. The green tendrils lining the gullet had pushed up the dirty black spherical pod until it lay atop the mouth.


Finch leaned over. Grabbed the pod. Slimy feel. Sticky.

Tossed the pod onto his desk. Pulled out a hammer from the same drawer where he kept his limited supply of dormant pods. Split Heretic’s pod wide open.


In amongst the fragments: a few copies of a photograph of the dead man, compliments of the Partial.

And a message.

In this vein, it is also worth mentioning VanderMeer’s rare accomplishment in giving us fully-realized iterations of a fantasy setting at such different times and in such different conditions. It speaks to the excellence of Ambergris as a venue for possibility, a setting open to story–as opposed to many fantasy worlds that seem to exist, as critic Gary K. Wolfe has noted, only to tell a single intended story. It’s one of the good aspects of Tolkien that the Tolkien clone factory always forgets (or like Peter Jackson, can’t bear) to steal. Among recent fantasy, Daniel Abraham takes this long view somewhat in his Long Price quartet; Martha Wells does it, too, in her Ile Rien novels, which begin in a fairly stock medieval setting, progress through the dwindling of magic and beginnings of an industrial age, and ends with her city under siege much like the London Blitz–which makes me wonder what it is about the WWII era that makes it so often a terminal point that fantasy cannot pass through; perhaps it’s the time when it becomes impossible for fantasy to progress any further and still be fantasy.

The few issues I had with Finch were when the imaginative and thematic thrusts seemed to get in each other’s way, where it feels like VanderMeer is trying too hard to enforce a certain reading of the text. “Everyone’s a collaborator. Everyone’s a rebel” is a hard-hitting line to hit readers with on the first page, but its somewhat random insertion on later consideration comes to feel forced; so too does a later line about Finch being a good man in impossible times.

Similarly: roles, the peril of becoming the roles we act out, and our tendency to be fooled by the appearances of roles are concerns throughout the Ambergris cycle. This is true in terms of jobs, in terms of the humanity or inhumanity of the gray caps, and it is true in terms of nearly all of the series’s female characters. From the short story “Dradin, in Love,” in which a newcomer to Ambergris falls in love with a woman seen only through a window, to the triangle in Shriek: An Afterword between Duncan Shriek, his sister Janice, and his lover Mary Sabon, the alientating quality of the male gaze, the difficulty men have of seeing women as individuals (and vice versa) is a recurring pattern. Finch’s lover Sintra is fully a piece with this pattern; what feels conflicted here is when the imagination displayed by the rest of the novel meets the fact that there’s not a word Sintra utters that she didn’t learn in Femme Fatale 101. While VanderMeer isn’t unaware of this and allows Sintra a biting last say, her character is too undeveloped for this to bite as much as it should–instead it is again rather over-blunt and forced, important thematically but dull on a sentence-by-sentence level in a way that the rest of the novel is not. It would be nice to give Sintra the benefit of the doubt as a complex character, to see her as someone who perhaps bought into her assigned role too much and started to become it in her own mind, or used it to justify her actions–I’m not sure her criticism of how Finch saw their relationship was warranted, for example–but she’s too thin a character, her interactions with Finch too limited, to make that reading supportable. This is all exacerbated because the novel’s other female character [edit, see comments: who Finch has any normal interactions with], Finch’s neighbor Rathven, is likewise potentially interesting but never becomes more than a device to keep the story moving.

Of course the inevitability of the story moving forward is, in a sense, what Finch is all about. We return again to VanderMeer’s use of noir. Classic noir tells a tale of entrapment in a cycle of behavior, a fly quixotically bumping against the cage of a screened door, yearning for the unreachable outdoors beyond. Finch suggests that sometimes the door can open–sometimes as the result of our actions, sometimes through the actions of those we choose to act for us, sometimes because of historical pressures we may not always fully understand, or be comfortable with. But openings happen, and they bring change. We cannot change the massive past accumulation of history, but we can choose who we are as individuals in the present: it’s perhaps the only way individuals can interact with the mass of history, ignoring it but at the same time shaping it. In this Finch reads like a plea for engagement with the world.

And it is with this understanding that the dual components of the novel’s conclusion form a perfect summation of all that has gone before, in Finch and in VanderMeer’s Ambergris cycle overall. As the text of Finch is framed by an interrogation, so the novel ends with, quite explicitly, a confession. Yet this has the quality of a religious, or at least spiritual, confession: a true and honest communication between two people that is freely offered and cleansing, rather than the forced result of torture. And this is interesting because the other half of the book’s conclusion is one that has been deployed frequently by more explicitly religious fantasies. There is a leave-taking by boat. There is a sense that, for better or worse, a choice has been made, that history has advanced and some measure of possibility removed from the world. And there is an awareness of the inevitability of this, of change; that history never ends–in the world of fiction at least–and so every ending is really just a new chance to take part in the always-contentious shared decision of what happens next.

Posted by Matt | July 19th, 2010

Chill cover image

Elizabeth Bear, Chill. Spectra, 2010 (US): mass market paperback.

My review of Elizabeth Bear’s Chill, the second volume of her Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, is now online at Strange Horizons. Reviewing the middle volume of a trilogy is an odd and discomfiting business. A review of a complete work allows for something approaching definitiveness–not in capturing an author’s intentions, but in giving one’s own reading of a text. When reviewing the second book of a trilogy, however, that reading becomes highly provisional. I wondered in this review, as an example, at two characters using the same metaphor for the same story element within a few pages of each other. Was this just a slip, a metaphor that had been in the author’s mind and so was used twice inadvertently? Or was it a way of signaling something within the story? I’ve seen similar repetitions used in science fiction to indicate that characters were clones of each other, to give one possibility–in this case, both characters are bonded to symbiont nanocomputers, and so it might also be a way of indicating the manner in which such symbionts shape and constrain thoughts; maybe the shared thoughts are a sign of decreasing bandwidth. Or more prosaically, maybe both characters simply heard another person use the metaphor and it stuck with both of them. There’s no way of knowing at this point. To call it out critically is thus to say, and to say only, that I can’t see a possibility latent in the text that makes the awkwardness of the repetition necessary.

But this assumes I haven’t missed a possibility. And that, of course, is a possibility.

Selected past reviews at other venues: