Mona Lisa Overdrive

Welcome back to the BAMA*! At long last, I’ve come to the end of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. For those who don’t remember, this began with Neuromancer and Count Zero many months ago. I had hoped to include this third and final review in short order, unfortunately other books got in the way. And by other books, I mean a tall stack that I’ve been reading, reviewing, and putting down to make room for even more! I tell ya, being a sci-fi reader/writer/reviewer can really burn your brain somedays!

Luckily, I concluded the book just yesterday and am ready to comment on it at last. And let me begin by saying that it’s very interesting, having read every novel that Gibson has written up until this point, to look back and see how his writing began and evolved over the years. It is also interesting to see how certain thematic elements which would appear in later trilogies – i.e. The Bridge and Bigend trilogies- made their first appearances.

Elements common to cyberpunk, such as high-tech and low liing, were common to all three books in this series, but were also an intrinsic part of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The stark divide between rich and the poor and the transformative power of wealth, so important to the Bigend Trilogy, was also to be found in these earliest works. And of course, stories focusing on freelancers who find themselves in the employ of enigmatic figures, and the power plays that go on behind the scenes between various brokers, were present in all of his novels to date.

However, after completing this novel, I can honestly say that I felt let down. Prior to reading it, I was told that it was the greatest of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the reviews claimed that it was Gibson’s “most engrossing story to date”. I came away feeling that it was less than engrossing and definitely not the best of the three. For one, it seemed lacking in much of the cool elements that made Neuromancer and Count Zero so very fun and intriguing.

However, before I get into all that, I should summarize what this book is about. Here goes…

Plot Synopsis:
The story, much like all of Gibson’s works, contains multiple threads that are interrelated and come together in the end. In the first, we see a Japanese girl named Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss who has decided to send her to London in the midst of a war between the various crime families.Her only companion is a construct named Colin, a personality that inhabits a portable Maas-Neotek biochip.

Once there, she makes the acquaintance of a freelancer named Sally Shears (aka. Molly Millions) who has been hired out by her father’s people to keep her safe. In addition, Sally is being blackmailed by Swain, the head of the London mob, who has ordered her to kidnap the famous simstim star Angie Mitchell and replace her with the a body double.

In thread two, we meet the intended double, a 16-year old prostitute named Mona from Florida who travels to New York with  Eddie (her pimp) after he closes some lucrative deal. However, when they arrive, Eddie is killed and Mona is forced to undergo the surgery that will make her look exactly like Angie, whom she knows from all her simstim movies and admires greatly. Angie’s back story, about how she was the daughter of the man who invented biochips and placed bioenhancements in her brain (all of which takes place in Count Zero) is all recounted, as is her failed relationship to Bobby (aka. “The Count”).

In thread three, we learn that Angie has returned from rehab after developing an addiction to a designer drug her company was supplying. After a brief stay in Malibu, she learns that it was someone in her inner circle who was giving her the drug in the hopes that it would alter her brain chemistry, thereby disrupting her ability to access cyberspace and communicate with the AI’s now living there (the lao, or Voodoo god personas the AI’s had taken on).

In the fourth and final thread, we are introduced to three residents who live together in an abandoned factory located in “The Solitude”, an uninhabited area in the Sprawl. Gentry is the defacto owner of the place, a cyberspace jockey preoccupied with the way it has changed since events in Neuromancer where AI’s began to permeate it. Slick is his roommate, a robotics enthusiast who builds giant battledroids with the help of his friend redneck friend Bird.

Things for them become interesting when Slick’s associate, Kid Afrika, drops off a man who’s permanently jacked into cyberspace and asks them to take care of him. He leaves the man (Bobby Newmark) and a registered nurse (Cherry) with instructions to keep them safe. After examining the aleph (a biochip with immense capacity) that he’s plugged into, Gentry learns that it is an approximation of the whole data of the matrix.This is where he has been living for the past few years after breaking up with simstim star Angie Mitchell.

In the course of the story, we also learn that Lady 3Jane has died and now inhabits the aleph as a construct. At some point, Bobby stole the aleph and now inhabits it with her. After checking in with her jockey friend, Tick, in London, Molly learns that 3Jane is behind the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and replace her, and begins to work to unravel these plans. She travels to New York to meet with the Finn, himself a construct now, and learns that since her operation to Straylight, things have been changing drastically in cyberspace.

Now, 3Jane is looking for revenge, and Angie is intrinsic to that plot. After recruiting Swain and key members of Angie’s entourage to help her, she attempts to conduct the kidnapping while Angie is in New York. However, Molly intervenes and grabs Angie and Mona, who is being set up to replace her, and begins to travel to the Solitude. Angie, under the influence of the lao, is directed to Factory to reunite Angie with Bobby.

Meanwhile, Kumiko, who is alone in London, goes to find Tick and find out what’s going on. Ever since Molly left, she is advised by her Maas-Neotek construct Colin to seek refuge from Swain. When she finds him, she too learns about how cyberpsace is changing and how a massive data profile has entered into the matrix (which turns out to be the aleph). When they jack in, they are pulled into the aleph with 3Jane who attempts to hold them prisoner.

Things come together when Molly arrives in the Factory and Sense/Net mercenaries begin to show up to take Angie back. Meanwhile, in the aleph, Colin comes to their rescue by neutralizing 3Jane’s control over the construct. He also reveals 3Jane[‘s motivations. In the wake of her death, after a life of pettiness, greed and obsessive control, she has become jealous of Angie Mitchell and her abilities. Molly, since they know each other from the Straylight run, is pretty much on her shit list as well!

In the end, Angie Mitchell and Bobby die together, but not before their personalities come together in the aleph, to be forever joined by 3Jane and the Finn. Mona is picked up Kid Afrika who assumes that she’s Angie Mitchell, and is taken off to take over her starlet life. Molly takes the aleph and travels off into the distance while Slick and Cherry get together and head off to start a new life together. And finally, Gentry, who refused to leave Factory, stays behind to contemplate the matrix’s growing complexity.

Meanwhile, a final mystery is resolved. Inside the aleph, Angie, Colin and Bobby are picked up by the Finn who explains how and why the Matrix changed. After Neuromancer and Wintermute at the end of the first novel, the combined AI indicated that there was another like him, a construct similar to the Matrix in Alpha Centauri. Apparently, after he went there, he came back changed and divided into the lao, and the Matrix itself changed. Now, the Finn is taking them there, to meet the alien cyberspace and all the mysteries it holds…

Summary:
As I may have said already, this book was my least favorite of the Sprawl Trilogy. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But it was diminished in that Gibson’s usual dark, gritty, and decidedly cyberpunk style – which ranges from opulent to gothic in its appraisal of technology and its impact on society – seemed to be watered down by a much cleaner narrative. In the end, it felt more like reading from the Bigend Trilogy, in that the settings and feel were quite similar.

Aside from taking place largely in London and New York, there was also a lot of buildup and not much in the way of action. And of course, the diversions into the fields of fashion, mass media and the cult of personality; these too felt like they would have been much more at home in the Bigend Trilogy. That was the trilogy that dealt with all these elements, whereas the Sprawl was all about the nitty-gritty, about cool gadgets, mercenaries, cyber-ninjas, deck jockeys, corporate bad guys, high-tech and low-life.

To top it all off, the ending felt quite abortive. Gibson is somewhat notorious for this, but whereas Neuromancer and Count Zero contained plenty of gun-toting and cyberspace runs, this book kept all the action til the very end. And at that point, it was complicated by a rather odd narrative structure and some pretty weak explanations. After learning that 3Jane was pulling all the strings and determined to wreak revenge, it seemed weak that it was all for the sake of punishing Angie out of jealousy.

If anything, I thought her motivations had to do with the Straylight run. That after fifteen years of waiting and plotting, she finally found Molly and decided to kill her and anyone else involved in changing the Matrix. To know that it was motivated by her jealousy of Angie’s abilities just rang hollow. In addition, I thought the usual motivations, like how the wealthy are constantly trying to cheat death, might have been a fitting motivation. I seriously thought at one point that her true intentions were to find herself a vessel, and Angie Mitchell proved to be the perfect choice due to the veves in her hand. Through these, 3Jane could simply download herself, provided she had her in custody and hooked up to the aleph… or something.

However, there was plenty of interest in between all that. While many chapters kind of dragged for me, I did enjoy the scenes where the history of the Tessier-Ashpool clan were reconstructed. The revelation about the Alpha Centauri matrix, which was only hinted at at the very end of the Neuromancer was also very cool. And the detailing of the lao and the evolution of the Matrix since Wintermute and Neuromancer came together, that too was interesting. In the end, I just wished there had been more of this.

And given that this novel did wrap up the previous two novels and brought closure to the whole Sprawl trilogy, I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether or not it was the best or weakest of the three books, it is the final chapter and contains many important explanations and resolutions, without which the series would never be complete. On top of all that, it is hardly a weak read, and I know for a fact that many people consider it to be better than the others. So who am I to stand in anyone’s way of reading it?

Kudos to you William Gibson. I have now read every novel you wrote. I now move on to Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, plus any other bits of short fiction and thoughtful essays I can get my hands on. Despite all the little things I have come to criticize about your work, you remain one of the best and most important writers in this reader’s bookshelf! And if I really didn’t like you, why the hell do I model so much of my work on your prose? Like Aeschylus said of Homer, any work of mine dealing in cyberpunk and high-tech is pretty much the crumbs from your table!

Good day and happy reading folks!

Happy Canada Day!

Hello and welcome to my Canada Day post! As it is the True North’s national birthday – commemorating the day when the original provinces came together and agreed on Confederation, the first act of national building and quasi-declaration of independence – I thought it fitting that I do a post honoring Canada’s contribution to the field of science fiction. The list is extensive, contrary to what you might you think, and includes some of the most critically acclaimed examples of literature, film and television in this genre. But like most things Canadian, it suffers from a potential lack of recognition. Well, I, as a patriotic (but not nationalistic!) individual, shall do my part to promote. Hell, one day I want to be on this list, so I better make sure people know about it 😉

First up, movies that were filmed, directed and produced right here in Canada, eh!

Scanners (1981):
This film, directed by David Cronenberg, is considered a cult classic amongst fans of sci-fi and horror alike. In this movie, “Scanners” are people that exhibit powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities who are being sought out by a corporation named ConSec, a purveyor of weapons and security systems. Ostensibly, their purpose is to register scanners so the public can be protected from them, but it is clear that they have a nefarious agenda as well.

The story revolves around two rogue scanners, the dangerous Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) and the reclusive Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). After a “demonstration” goes terrible wrong where Revok causes Dr. Ruth – head of ConSec’s scanner section – to explode, ConSec becomes dedicated to finding all rogue scanners and stamping them out. On their radar is Revok, a known and powerful scanner who is a homeless transient, moving from place to place in the hopes of staying ahead of corporate spies.

In the end, Vale finds himself trapped between Revok’s renegade faction on the one side and ConSec’s goons on the other. In the end, he is captured by Revok and learns that they are brothers, that Ruth is their father, and that all scanners are the result of drug trials involving pregnant women and ephemerol. This drug, which was designed to combat morning sickness (echoes of thalidomide), is the same one which they now use to control scanners.

Revok’s plan is to now use a captured shipment of the drug and administer it to countless pregnant women worldwide, thus creating an army of scanners. When he learns of this, Vale and Revok begin to fight each other using their powers. In the end, Vale defeats his brother and then assumes his likeness, thus putting him in charge of the rogue scanners. The story thusly ends on a cliffhanger note, with Vale’s intentions open to speculation.

This movie was not only a cult classic, but very heavily inspired. It’s investigation of psychic abilities, with corporate controllers, rogue telepaths, and drugs used to control them, would all show up in later franchises, particularly Babylon 5. In addition, that head exploding scene is considered an iconic imagine, one which has been referenced many times over on the silver screen. Consider the line from Wayne’s World where Garth appears to be having a nervous breakdown on TV and one of their cronies asks: “Did you see that movie Scanners where the dude’s head exploded?”

Johnny Mnemonic (1995):
Though it was widely considered one of the worst adaptations in science fiction history, Johnny Mnemonic was nevertheless a faithful representation of William Gibson’s original work (also a Canadian). Set in the “Sprawl” of the 21st century, the story is about a mnemonic courier who uses wetwire implants (i.e. cybernetic brain implants) to carry information around illegally. This is apparently a common practice in the world of the future, where corporate control is absolute and the most precious commodity is information.

Enter into this Johnny (Reaves), a courier who is given a job to carry a package that is twice the size of his capacity. He takes it, knowing the risk it will pose to his brain, because he’s looking for that final payoff which will allow him to have his implants removed and his memory restored. This is something all mnemonic carriers must go through, which is the sacrifice of their own memories in order to make room for all the pirated data they carry.

Quickly, Johnny realizes the package he contains is incredibly valuable, as Yakuza close in and murder his contacts. His own boss betrays him as well, forcing him to turn to a freelance ninja named “Sally Shears” (aka. Molly Millions) for help. Like him, she has enhancements which are beginning to mess with her body, and she recommends they get help from her friend Spider. As a doctor, he is used to dealing with nervous system illnesses, particularly NAS (nervous attenuation syndrome).

When they arrive, Johnny is informed that he is the one who hired him, and that the information he carries comes directly from the pharmaceutical giant Pharma-Kom’s labs. It is nothing less than the cure of NAS, and the company will kill to make sure it doesn’t get it out, seeing as how they make billions off of treatment and will lose out if it is cured. The race is then on for Johnny to download the cure onto the open Net, and with the help of a group of counter-culture fighters named Lo-Tek, they manage to do just that.

Though the movie was generally panned by critics and did quite poorly at the box office, it remains a cult classic to many because of its gritty, cyberpunk feel and faithful adaptation of Gibson’s characteristic themes. It also boasted an all-star cast, which included Keannu Reaves (Canuck!), Dolph Lundgren, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, and Udo Kier. On top of that, it also made use of pioneering special effects to give visual representation to Gibson’s concept of “cyberspace”, the movie also contained all the elements he so loves to include in his stories. Freelancers, Yakuza, mega-corporations, mercenaries, cybernetic enhancements, dirty environments, urban sprawl, hackers and techy geeks. This movie had all that, and is required viewing for fans of Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy.

Screamers (1995):
Here’s a cult classic I keep coming back to of late! Based on Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety”, Screamers is another adaptation of classic sci-fi which was filmed, directed and financed here in the Great White North. And I mean that literally since most of the filming took place in a quarry in Quebec during the dead of winter. And though the story was updated for the post-Cold War world, set on a distant planet and being a war between corporate interests and quasi-national forces, the basic elements remained much the same.

Taking place in 2078 on a planet known as Sirius 6b, the story revolves around an ongoing war between two factions who are fighting for control of the planet. On the one side is the NEB (New Economic Bloc), a super-corporate entity that controls mining in outer space. On the other is the Alliance, a resistance formed out of the former miners and scientists from the colony.

After the NEB bombarded the planet with nukes, turning it into a radioactive wasteland that is perennially experiencing nuclear winter, the Alliance resorted to creating devices known as the “Autonomous Mobile Sword”, a race of self-replicating machines built by a self-sustaining underground factory. These weapons, which tunnel underground and use high-pitched sonic blasts to paralyze opponents, carry the nickname of “Screamers”.

The story opens when a NEB representative comes to the Alliance bunker offering a ceasefire. After investigating the situation, the Alliance commander JOe Hendricksson (played by Peter Weller, aka. Robocop) realizes that the war still rages back home and no one cares what happens to them anymore. He decides to take the NEB up on their offer to end the fight on Sirius 6b, but during his trip to the NEB bunker, learns that new breeds of Screamers are out there. After meeting with Jessica (Jennifer Rubin), the NEB mercenary commander, they attempt to investigate the Screamer factory and learn that there are in fact four varieties now, each of which is becoming more human!

They make it back to the Alliance bunker, only to see that it too has been overrun. In the end, only Hendrickson and Jessica survive and begin making their way to the emergency escape shuttle hidden in the nearby mountains. Once there, Hendrickson learns that Jessica herself is a Screamer when an identical model of her appears and attacks them. Apparently, she is the fifth variety and the most advanced model to date, one that bleed, cry, imitate human emotions, and even have sex. Jessica sacrifices herself to protect him, and Hendrickson learns that her mission was to find the escape shuttle and go back to Earth where they could be sterilizing it of all life as well.

This was in keeping with the Screamer new mandate which was to destroy all human life, not just their enemies. However, that ended when Jessica became over-sympathetic to Hendrickson and broke with her original programming, thus demonstrating the most human characteristic of all, that of empathy. Hendrickson then takes the shuttle himself and leaves the planet, bound for Earth, and safe in the knowledge that the Screamers will never get off Sirius 6b.

Thought it differed in many ways from the original PKD short story, the thematic nature of the movie was accurate. You have the idea of the Screamers, the automonous, self-replicating and intelligent machines that are left to their own devices and end up turning on their own masters. You have the concept of runaway technology erasing the line between what is real and fake. Thought it ended on a happy note, unlike “Second Variety” where a machine made it off planet, the movie still managed to deliver on its message. And it was pretty damn scary too boot!

Cube (1997):
Here is another cult-classic that practically created its own sub-genre in science fiction film making. Directed by Vincenzo Natali and produced by the Canadian Film Centre as its first First Feature Project, Cube became an instant hit due to its paranoid, Kafkaesque feel and psychological thriller tone. Set inside a giant (you guessed it) Cube, made up of countless adjoining rooms that are numbered and contain different booby traps, the story revolves around a series of strangers who wake up inside and must find their way out.

What is immediately apparent to all the characters in the story is that they all possess different abilities and share the same story. Each and every one of them was carrying on with their daily lives, only to wake up and find themselves inside a cube-shaped room. None of them know each other or can remember how they got here, but once they found each other, they agree to work together and find the way out.

Amongst the captives is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a charismatic police officer who takes command, Leaven (Nicole deBoer) a young mathematics student, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor and conspiracy theorist, and Worth (David Hewlett), a pessimistic man who refuses to talk about himself. Quentin believes they all have a role to play, Holloway believes they are part of a government experiment, Leaven develops a theory that the room’s numbered in prime are the safe ones, and Rennes follows but seems skeptical of their chances.

As they continue, they find that Quentin’s theory about the prime numbered-rooms is flawed. Tensions also begin to rise within the group because of Holloway’s paranoia, Quentin’s controlling behavior, and Worth’s reticence. The group then experiences a bit of a breakdown, during which time Worth finally reveals that he was one of the architects who helped design the Cube. He never knew what it was for or who even commissioned it, the specs merely passed his desk and he added his own insight. He believes that essentially, the Cube created itself, the result of human stupidity and complacency.

However, Leaven concludes from Worth’s description that the numbers might actually be Cartesian coordinates, and the group begins working its way to one of the outer edges. They also come across a mentally challenged boy named Kazan, who Quentin wants to leave behind by Leaven insists they bring. But in time, their efforts prove futile when another feature of the Cube is revealed, the fact that it periodically shifts its rooms around. Another breakdowns occurs as Quentin becomes paranoid and shows his dark side. After a confrontation with Holloway, he lets her fall to her death, thinking she was out to get him.

The group begins to truly fall apart as Quentin’s true nature is revealed. It seems he is a violent man with a penchant for young girls, the reason why his wife left him with their kids. He begins to run the group through bullying and fear. But a ray of hope emerges when Leaven concludes that the numbers are not primes or coordinates by powers of prime numbers. She cannot calculate them, but the mentally challenged boy Kazan – an apparent autistic savant – can. They continue on their way and Worth incapacitates Quentin, who has now gone completely insane.

Eventually, they find their way to the outer edge and prepare to leave, but Worth wonders if it’s worth it considering that there is nothing out there but “boundless human stupidity”. They are about to step out when Quentin sets upon them. Leaven jumps in to help, and the three are pulled back in as the room’s once again shift. Kazan is left alone to walk out into the light of day, free of the Cube.

Where to begin? This story was a masterful piece of psychological thriller and paranoid fantasy! The fact that we never truly learn who built the Cube, what purpose the “test” really served, and the possibility that complacency and ineptitude is what built it not only makes for a mysterious story, but a big, fat existential allegory! For in the end, are we not all prisoners within a giant maze we can’t discern, who’s maker is unknown and who’s purpose in indistinct? Calling to mind Kafka, Sartre and the “Allegory of the Cave” – a la Socrates – these movie was not only a nail-biting thriller but a fittingly dark philosophical commentary.

Last Night (1998):
Filmed and set in Toronto by writer/actor/director Don McKellar, this apocalyptic sci-fi film tells the story of the last night on Earth, and shows various people choose to spend it. Though the date is not specified, and no explanation is given as to what calamity will be bringing the world to an end, it is made abundantly clear that it will be coming at the stroke of midnight, leaving everyone in the story only a few hours with which to live life to the fullest.

Naturally, the streets are filled with people who have decided to riot, loot and generally wreak havoc. But the main focus of the story is on the lives of various intersecting characters who have chosen to use their time more constructively. One is Patrick (played by McKellar himself), who lost his wife not long ago and is spending the time saying goodbye to family and friends, but who seems to want to spend the last of it alone.

His best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) chooses to spend it in a non-stop sexual marathon as he attempts to fulfill every possible erotic desire he has, not to mention those of his partners. This includes having sex with his former French teacher, a black woman, a virgin, and just about any other scenario he can think of. When Patrick comes to say good-bye, he clumsily tries to encourage him to have sex with him as well. Patrick awkwardly declines, but Craig manages to get a sustained kiss out of him before he goes.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Sandra Oh), who has become stranded in the streets, meets up with Patrick and they get to talking. After realizing their time is short and they have only each other to spend their last hour with, they begin talking and sharing. Many times over, she insists that Patrick open up, saying “make me love you”. They agree to a suicide pact on the roof, listening to “Guantanamera” and drinking wine. In the end, they cannot shoot each other and end their time on the Earth with a heartfelt kiss.

The movie became an instant hit because of its personal nature and the realistic way in which it depicted the end of the world. By not specifying how the world was ending, McKellar kept the focus on the people themselves and how they chose to confront death, bringing out the very best and worst in themselves. While some chose to lose all control and commit murder, others chose to spend it with loves ones, or took a chance on forming new bonds with total strangers.

This last performance, between Sandra Oh and McKellar himself, was the most touching part of the film. We have two people who would never have known each other, both of whom experienced personal tragedy, and who came to experience one brief, shining moment of love – the most life affirming thing of all – before all life ended forever. So sad, yet so poignant. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

eXistenZ (1999):
From the same mind that brought you Scanners (David Cronenberg) comes this twisted psychological thriller about reality and the way technology affects our perception of the world around us. Featuring an all star cast that included Jude Law, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Willem Dafoe, this movie received multiple awards and was well received by critics, though its box office gross was overshadowed somewhat by the release of the Matrix that same year.

Set in the not too distant future where organic game consoles known as “game pods” are all the rage, the story revolves around two game companies – Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics – who are competing to create the best in bioware. At the same time, a group of “realists” – people who are opposed to the technology because it “deforms reality” – are engaged in a guerrilla-style fight with both companies.

Enter into this Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the greatest game designer in the world who works for Antenna and is testing her latest virtual reality game, eXistenZ. During a seminar, she is shot in the shoulder by a realist using an “organic gun” – a device which can pass through security checkpoints – and the console appears to be damaged. As a result, she must plug in and test it with a trusted person and asks Pikul (Jude Law), the security guard to join her.

As they enter the game, reality becomes increasingly distorted as the two undergo behaviors which seem odd to them but are “consistent with their characters.” At the same time, they are stalked by characters that appear to be Realist fighters who are trying to sabotage them. Geller eventually realizes that they have been double-crossed by the people who installed Pikul’s bioport, the interface which is inserted into a gamer’s lower back, in order to infect and destroy her game. On top of that, Cortical Systems personnel are also inside, looking to copy the game for their own purposes. Pikul then reveals that he is in fact a Realist agent who was sent to kill her. She answers by saying she knew for some time and detonating his bioport.

However, in a finay twist, the two then appear on a stage with the other main players from the game and realize they were all part of a virtual reality game called “tranCendenZ”. This game was being played by the cast,  mirroring the first scene, but with electronic devices rather than game pods. The real game designer, Nourish (played by McKellar), feels uneasy because the game started with the assassination of a game designer and had an overall anti-game theme that he suspects originated from the thoughts of one of the testers.

Pikul and Allegra approach him and ask him if he should pay for his “crimes” of deforming reality. As Merle (Sarah Polley), Nourish’s assistant, calls for security, Pikul and Allegra grab hidden pistols  and shoot Nourish and Merle to death. As with the other game, the other players appear more frozen than shocked, suggesting that they are still inside. Pikul and Allegra point their guns at another player, who is at first dismayed, but then asks if they are still in the game. Pikul and Allegra don’t know, and the last scene ends with the fear written on their faces.

Much like the Matrix and Inception, this movie was characterized by it’s mind-bending sequences and unpredictable twists, showing how one’s perception of reality can be distorted thanks to the effects of mind-bending technology. But whereas other films chose to delve into the relative aspects of it all or sought to make an existential point about mind control, Cronenberg’s aim was clearly in showing the dangers of such reality-based technologies by equating them with drugs. All throughout the film, the psychoactive nature of the game is played up, showing how the ability to distort reality and tamper with one’s own psyche can be an addictive form of entertainment. The dangers in this are obvious of course, in that one’s ability to tell reality from fantasy will be worn down, leading to potentially fatal consequences.

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Well, that’s movies covered! It will take a few more days to cover the rest, respectively television and literature. These are even more fertile ground than films, so expect some detailed and lengthy posts. I will try to be brief as possible, but this is a tribute to my country of origin so don’t expect any topical treatments. No, sir! In the meantime, Happy Canada Day to all Canucks at home and abroad. Hope you are with the one’s you love and are having a good time. And to you Canada, happy 145th birthday! Cheers!

A Tribute to Badasses!

You know those characters, people who come to us from our favorite movies, TV shows, or pop culture in general. The kinds of people who excel at kicking ass and taking  names? The kinds of people that just never seem to die, they just keep getting bigger and badder the more time passes? Yeah, we all have people like that in our collective imagination, the inspiration heroes and villain who just impressed the hell out of us and made us want to be badass like them!

Well today, I felt inspired to do a little tribute piece to characters such as these. On the one hand, this seemed like a good diversion from my usual conceptual pieces which deal with big and potentially boring stuff. I mean, outside of people like me, who really cares about planetary cultures and mega cities? On the other, it felt like an overdue acknowledgement to all the characters that were well written, well scripted and well executed over the years. Yes, today I’m paying tribute to all the people in sci-fi who were so good at being so bad, or just bad enough…

Here they are!

Alucard:
The main character from the short-lived by popular Hellsing series. Not to be confused with Van Hellsing, also about a vampire hunter, this series was all about an organization in the UK that was dedicated to fighting vampires, ghouls, and other hellish creatures. Their chief operative, a mysterious vampire named Alucard (Dracula backwards), was quite the epitome of badassness!

In addition to his cape, Victorian-era clothes, and massive handgun, he had the supreme confidence and “man of few words” thing going that can only come from being alive for so freaking long. As they say with most vampire series, the longer they live, the more powerful they get. And Alucard has been around for a long, long time!

Ordinarily, he would just dispatch his enemies with a few blasts of his massive double-action pistol. But when faced with truly powerful demons, he would break the really scary shit! We’re talking seriously dark, scary energies that would tear an enemy to pieces, body and soul! Though it was never made clear why he was helping humanity in the animated series, the original comic did a better job of exploring his back story and motivations.

Taking its cue from Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula was apparently defeated by the notorious Abraham Van Hellsing and agreed to become the family’s loyal servant. The main story takes place several hundred years, later when the latest descendent of the Hellsing family is carrying on the tradition of keeping England safe from the forces of evil.

Blade:
Here we have another vampire hunter who’s more than just your average guy! Though his real name is Eric Brooks (according to the comic series), this street hunter goes by the professional name of “Blade”. Little wonder, considering that just about every weapon in his arsenal features an acid edged pig-sticker or a sharpened silver stake! But of course, the real twist comes in why he does what he does.

As if that wasn’t badass enough though, he also alternates between a Gran Torino and a motorbike, wears a leather cape over segmented body armor, and packs enough firepower to take down an entire SWAT team single-handedly! All the while, he utters his few, but cryptic lines through those big, vampire incisors.

Known ominously as the “Daywalker” to vampires who are scared shitless of him, he combines the best of both worlds when it comes to human and vampires. He is immune to silver, garlic and daylight, but can heal almost instantaneously and has super strength. His only weakness however comes in the form of the “thirst”, the need for blood which every vampire suffers from and must eventually succumb to, or die. In order to preserve his humanity, Blade relies on a synthetic “serum” which temporarily satisfies his cravings.

In a theme that has growing in popularity and familiarity since the early 80’s, Blade is a half-man, half-vampire who’s mother was bitten while pregnant with him. Tormented by his split identity, and the supposed loss of his mother, he has chosen to resolve this crisis by hunting those that made him what he is and robbed him of his human life. However, the question of what he will do once he’s rid the world of the last vampire, and what he will do when the serum stops working, are questions that remain unresolved, and help to drive the story.

Boba Fett:
When you hear the name Star Wars and the word badass, what naturally comes to mind? Assuming you know anything about Star Wars, then chances you thought of Boba Fett! This notorious bounty hunter was probably the most badass thing about the series, dwarfing Vader, Jabba, and the Emperor in terms of shear awesomeness!

Hell, this guy not only appeared repeatedly in movies two and three (with a small cameo in a deleted scene in movie one), he also had entire novels, comics, and games dedicated to him. Annnnd, if the Dark Horse series Dark Empire is to be believed, Fett even escaped the mighty sarlacc. Who else amongst the expanded cast of the Star Wars saga can boast that kind of record? Lando? HA!

Though Lucas attempted to explain Boba’s origins in the prequel movie Attack of the Clones, other stories from the expanded universe claims that Boba was in fact a former Stormtrooper of Mandalorian origin.

However, on this latter point, all sources agree. Clearly, Boba Fett was of Mandalorian origin, a warrior race that had become virtually extinct after the Sith Wars and had relegated themselves to the role of bounty hunters and mercenaries. Boba had apparently distinguished himself amongst his rivals by delivering on contracts, charging exorbitant fees, and being very hard to kill. Hell, somebody who crawled their way free of the sarlacc aint no pushover!

The Joker:
Batman’s nemesis, and Gotham’s smiling psychopath, the Joker is one of those villians you just love to hate! And yes, he’s also pretty damn badass! Though he has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, all the variations revolve around the same basic theme.

Basically, the Joker is a sociopathic criminal who thrives on chaos, the perfect polar-opposite to Batman’s vigilante persona. Over the years, he has been in and out of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, examined by doctors, but always seems to escape to stir up shit again.

In his most recent incarnation, as performed by Heath Ledger, the Joker reached new heights of popularity and badassery! Not only did he manage to rip off the mob, turn Gothamites against the Batman, drive Harvey Dent mad, commandeer the mob, bring Gotham to the brink, and stay one step ahead of the Batman and police the whole time. He managed to do it all with a twisted smile on his face! That’s an awful lot for a man who claims he doesn’t do planning!

Looking to the comics and expanded franchise, one sees even more examples of badassery! Here, as well as in the movies, new and old, the Joker is notorious for causing trouble and doing it with a shit-eating grin. In addition to the general mayhem he’s been known to cause, his credentials include turning a psychologist into his willing sidekick (Harley Quinn), kidnapping and torturing the Commissioner’s daughter, killing one of the Robin’s, and nearly killing Batman on numerous occasions. Yet somehow, he always manages to escape, survive, and live to inspire chaos another day. Malevolent? Yes. Psychotic. Oh yes! But a notorious badass as well? You betcha!

Raven:
“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world… Hiro used to feel this way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this was liberating. He no longer has to worry about being the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

That pretty much says it all. Taken from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Raven is one of the chief antagonists of the story and one of the baddest motherflechter’s around! An Aleut by ancestry, he is skilled in the art of harpoon throwing, knife fighting, killing people, and being untouchable. Of course, this might have a lot to do with the fact that in the sidecar on his motorbike (pretty badass in itself!) he has a thermonuclear device stashed. This, apparently, he got off a Russian sub after stowing aboard and killing the entire crew with glass knives, and its wired to go off in case anybody does the unthinkable and kills him. Hence, nobody messes with Raven, as if his size and skill with weapons weren’t intimidating enough!

People recognize Raven not only by his obvious size, leather jacket, and motorbike, but also by the words “Poor Impulse Control” tattooed on his forehead. This is a holdover from his years in the corrections system of the future, where they’ve resorted to tattooing a prisoner’s particular maladjustments directly on their forehead for all to see. But for those who’ve pissed him off, or are just on his hit list, the first indication that Raven’s around is the telltale presence of his harpoon in your chest!

Molly Millions:
Also known as “Sally Shears”, Molly is a recurring character in William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Technically, she is what is known as a “razor girl”, though cyber-ninja works just as well. Basically, she’s a gun (or razor blade) for hire who gets paid by high-rollers to take out anyone who stands between them and their objectives. This, she typically does by slashing people with razor claws that are imbedded in her fingertips, though she’s adept at hand to hand combat and wield firearms with the best of them too!

Thought tough, deadly and ruthlessly efficient, she has shown herself to have a softer, sensitive side, not to mention a sympathetic past. For instance, her first appearance is in Gibson’s short story (and film adaptation) of Johnny Mnemonic. Here, she goes beyond her usual mandate and begins to fall in love with the story’s protagonist, Johnny.

In her follow-up appearance in Neuromancer, she admits that he was the first “client” she overstepped her boundaries with and still mourns him years later. She also reveals that she began as a “meat puppet”, a form of prostitute who allows their body to be controlled by handlers while they are maintained in a blank-outed state. This is how she apparently paid for her cybernetic enhancements and became a mercenary ninja.

On top of all that, she is a fiercely loyal and levelheaded woman who, despite the nature of her job, is committed to her moral code and values the kinds of human relationships that are becoming increasingly rare in Gibson’s world. One might say that she’s tough because she has to be and would much rather live an ordinary life where love is not obsolete and murder for hire is not the only way for street people to get ahead. Still, don’t mess with her! Just because she’s got a soft side doesn’t mean she won’t fillet your ass!

Ripley:
Mother, warrior, humanitarian and xenocidal ass-kicker, Ellen Ripley defined female badassery for an entire generation of moviegoers! From her humble origins as a crewman aboard the Nostromo to her showdown with the mother Alien, Ripley demonstrated the full range of the heroine protagonist. She was began as a regular officer who was put into a terrifying and claustrophobic situation, a lone survivor of a xenomorph attack aboard a confined spacecraft.

But living to fight another day, she faced her vulnerability, overcame her fear, and put it all on the line to save a little girl. And in the course of that, she also strapped on some heavy artillery and kicked some serious ass! And in the end, the showdown between herself and the Alien hive queen was not only cinematic gold, it was so thick with allegory you could cut it with a knife! Two mothers, two titanic forces, coming together to fight for their young!

Let’s face it, this is what makes Sigourney Weaver and her character so awesome and sympathetic. She’s a regular woman who, when faced with treacherous odds, went above and beyond to do the right thing. And let’s not forget that her motives were purer than anyone else’s. Whereas some people were interested in their bonuses and others in shooting shit up, she fought tooth and nail to protect and save the life of a young child, a girl who reminded her of the daughter she lost.

And it worked. In the end, she outlived all the professionals who ignored her or were sent in to “protect her”. When all else failed, this lady came through and showed that you don’t come between a  mother and her child and you don’t underestimate a determined woman, or she’ll kick your ass! Yes, years later and Ripley still remains an inspiration to women everywhere, and a reminder to us boys to respect and honor the women in their lives. In the end, they are a hell of a lot tougher than you think 😉

Vampire Hunter D:
Yet another vampire hunter who’s got some questionable ancestry! Vampire Hunter D is based on a novel series with manga and anime adaptations. Taking place in the distant future, thousands of years after WWIII took place, D wanders through a pre-industrial world hunting the demons, vampires and assorted creatures that have come to plague it. Apparently, in the distant future, vampires have established themselves as a sort of Nobility that control their fiefdoms through a combination of advanced technology and magic.

Much like Alucard, D has a questionable ancestry which is gradually established as time goes on. Right off the bat, it is clear that he is a dhampire, the child of a vampire mother and a human mother. As time goes on, it becomes established that he is fact the son of the ancient Count himself. As a result, he has some pretty badass powers, which include spontaneous healing, super strength, and some pretty dark powers! Unfortunately, he also has his share of weaknesses as well. Sun-sickness, garlic; all the things that are fatal to vampires are pretty harmful to him as well.

Believing that vampires have overstepped their traditional authority, D is dedicated to sending them back to the darkness from whence they came. Though he is part vampire, he values his human side and cannot condone how vampires abuse the humans they have dominion over.

Ah, and his weapon of choice for dispatching vampires and demons? A big katana-style sword! This weapon can decapitate even the most powerful vampire, or rend him from his neck to his navel. Oh, and did I mention he also has a smartass symbiot living on his hand? Might sound weird, but this thing keeps him company, keeps him honest, and has even saved his life a few times.

Vasquez:
Yes, I realize I’m doubling down on a single franchise. But no list of badasses would be complete without mentioning Private Vasquez. Also of Aliens fame, this woman put the  bad in badass, toting that massive smartgun and telling everybody who got smart with her where to go! Seriously, those iconic lines, “Let’s ROOOOOCK!” and “I just want to know one thing… where-they-are!” Bam! There wasn’t a single person in the audience who wasn’t get goose bumps.

Not only was she clearly a tough, take-no-prisoners kind of woman, she commanded the respect of those around her, particularly the men. Hudson, played by Bill Paxton, would get smacked down anytime he tried to sass her. Recall the lines: “Vasquez, anybody ever mistake you for a man?” “No, how about you?” Classic! And of course Private Drake, her partner in arms, practically followed her around, even though he was twice her size!

But of course, she too had a sensitive side. When Drake fell protecting their group, she took it really hard. She was even willing to go back into the den of the xenomorph’s when it became clear he was still alive. Even though it was obvious he and the others were being used as symbiotes and the odds of them making it out alive were virtually nil, she was still willing to risk her life. One seriously got the impression that she loves the big lug after all…

But mainly, she was an ice cold chick and tough as nails. When those around her began to panic and cry “game over, man!”, she raised her gun and started kicking ass! And when at last she was cornered and wounded, did she roll over and die? Hell no! She grabbed hold of that grenade and went down with a bang, taking as many of those buggers as she could buggers with her! RIP Vasquez. You rock!

Well that’s all for now. I was going to include some non sci-fi examples in this list as well, but that would made it too long to post! Stay tuned, I’m thinking I’ll save those examples of mainstream badassery for next time. And I might just have some final thoughts to offer on this whole phenomenon known as badassesness. I love inventing words! Bye!