Archive for July, 2014

For EmmyOne work that had a big influence on me as both a writer and a reader was Alan Moore’s run on D.C.’s “Swamp Thing” comic books, which I read when I was in college back in the ’80s. I was never a big comics fan. But I read them at a friend’s suggestion and was blown away.

In particular, I admired Moore’s approach to symbolism. The way he employed classic monsters to represent some larger point about society or the human condition.

He wasn’t the first to do that, of course. From their inception, monsters such as Dracula and Mr. Hyde personified malicious forces lurking just below the placid surface of Victorian society. You could argue that horror fiction — stretching back to ancient folklore and myth — has always served as a Rorschach blotch where a careful observer can pick out the anxieties of the individual or society that produced it.

What I liked was the fact that Moore was so obvious about the symbolism.

A couple of my English professors, the same blinkered souls who told me that comic books and speculative fiction are artistically worthless, insisted that obvious symbolism is a failing on the part of an author. Symbolism is supposed to be some elusive entity hiding among inert plots and passive characters, unknowable to the unwashed masses and detectable only to those who truly understand “great literature.”

Moore’s attitude? Fuck that. The zombies are the undying legacy of racism. The werewolves are simmering female rage in the face of institutionalized sexism. Boom.

I’m not talking about symbolism where the author bonks you over the head because he or she clearly feels you’d be too dumb to pick up on it otherwise. I’m talking about symbolism that’s out in the open because the writer sees no reason to hide it. There’s a narrative to tell. A point to make. Why not let the power of the story directly engage the reader, rather than play some coy game of hide-and-seek as to what it’s about?

I thought of that approach to symbolism when I read “For Emmy,” a novella by Mary SanGiovanni — another story that openly states its larger theme and proceeds to illustrate it in an indelible manner.

The theme, and I’m not really giving away any spoilers here since it crops up at the beginning, is despair in face of our inability to guarantee the safety of those we love. In this case, initially at least, the loved one is a missing little girl.

That’s an old theme, of course. From folklore dealing with fairie kidnappings all the way up through “The Exorcist” and beyond.

But what makes “For Emmy” distinctive is that it isn’t concerned as much with the initial terror of the disappearance so much as its aftermath. It’s more about the way that the corrosive residue of a tragedy can continue to eat away at those touched by it for years afterward. And it leads up to a conclusion that’s subtly rendered, but gut-wrenching in its impact.

I was impressed that SanGiovanni was able to convey this sense of lingering tragedy and long-term psychic damage in a mere 107 pages. She’s a propulsive, efficient storyteller with a good sense of the telling details that move a narrative along, but I wouldn’t describe “For Emmy” as a slam-bang read. Her technique is refined. Almost delicate. For all the horror in the story (and make no mistake, it is scary) the pervasive mood  is a kind of despairing melancholy. Which makes a quietly devastating final twist that much more affecting.

Ultimately, the book is about the extent to which the realization of our inability to protect loved ones can warp us. Not a reassuring message, to be sure. But then again, we don’t really read horror fiction to be reassured, do we?

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Well, it pains me to do this. But I’m going to renounce what I said in an earlier post, titled: “Affairs With Robots — Does That Even Work Anymore?” Read the post here.

In that post, I came to the conclusion that the answer is “not really.” But last night, I finally got to see the Spike Jonez film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Technically, the female love interest wasn’t a robot, but a computer operating system. But we’re still talking about an electronic simulation of an actual, flesh-and-blood woman. And the answer as to whether it works is an emphatic “yes.”

I was inspired to write the earlier post after watching a performance of “Comic Potential,” which is a comic love story set in the near future about a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful female robot. “Comic Potential” was cute and entertaining, but pretty lightweight. It also took a fairly trite approach to what’s already a hoary science fiction cliché. (None of this is a dig at the community theater company that performed it, by the way. They did a great job.) The female robot is essentially an idealized male fantasy. A beautiful  naif whose only flaw is her fragile innocence and her need to be taught the ways of human love. (Though that last one ain’t exactly a failing, ifyaknowwhatImean … wink wink, nudge nudge.)

A few conflicts come along. A few people try to tell the hero that he can’t love her because she’s only a machine. (Boo! Hiss!) But in the end, true love prevails.

My contention in the earlier post is that the modern digital age has killed that romantic scenario by making it borderline feasible. Men really do become romantically obsessed with electronic simulations of women, as evidenced by all the erotic Lara Croft fan fiction in existence. And the result is more sad than romantic and inspiring.

Yet “Her” works so well precisely because the film acknowledges that reality. I won’t give you a full replay of the plot. Very briefly, Phoenix gets an advanced new operating system — voiced by an unseen Johansson — with a simulated personality so complex that it’s indistinguishable from an actual human. The two fall in love.

That’s a very simple explanation that doesn’t do this psychologically complex movie justice. It has some extremely funny moments, but doesn’t go for any of the easy, cheap laughs that the premise could generate. Instead, it functions mainly as a bittersweet exploration of how the digital age has simultaneously eased and deepened our loneliness.

I’m not generally big on romantic stories. Nothing wrong with them. Just not my thing. But I have to say that this movie was wonderfully, joyfully, achingly romantic. Its ability to achieve that effect when one of the romantic partners was just a voice emanating from a computer and a hand-held digital device is testimony to both Phoenix’s and Johansson’s talents.  Don’t want to give away any spoilers here. By the end, the film has explored some mind-bending ideas about the nature of consciousness without ever losing its tight and personal focus on the two main characters.

So bottom line: I looked at an old science fiction trope and concluded that it needs to be retired. Spike Jonze looked at it, realized it’s more relevant than ever, and made a brilliant work of art from it.

Guess that’s why he’s one of the greatest and most visionary directors of his generation, and I’m … me.

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Here’s a refresher course in American history that’s particularly important and relevant for this year’s 4th of July. For some reason, I just remembered it this morning and found it on Youtube. If you were an American kid in the 1970s, you might remember those wonderful “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. They were catchy little snippets of educational material that ran between less edifying cartoons during Saturday mornings. Which a lot of kids of my generation spent camped out in front of the TV, wolfing down bowls of sugary cereal. So don’t be fooled by those bullshit sanctimonious re-posts on Facebook by middle-aged people about how *sniff* OUR generation didn’t need electronic gadgets to stay entertained because we were out riding bikes and organizing community patriotic rallies when we weren’t busy plowing the fields. We’re just jealous because our electronic gadgets weren’t as cool. But I digress.

Anyway, I actually felt a little but guilty when I found this. Because much as I loved Schoolhouse Rock as a kid, I always wanted to change the channel when this one came on. It was one of those women’s lib (that’s what we called it in the 1970s) things. Girl stuff. I found it not only irrelevant to me as a boy, but offensive. What? Were these “women’s libbers” implying that they were somehow BETTER than men?

No. They were simply claiming their rights as human beings in a free and democratic society. I hope the boys growing up today have a better understanding of that principle than I did. How suffragists should be heroes to them, as well as to girls. How whenever people are denied basic rights for no good reason, that’s a threat to everyone. How being part of one group that oppresses another doesn’t ennoble you, but demeans you.

So here’s a tribute to some true American heroes. The women of the suffrage movement. Pour yourself a bowl of sugary cereal and enjoy.