Upcoming Movies that Aren’t Reboots

Believe it or not, Hollywood actually has some movies that are now playing, or coming in the near future, that are not just reboots, reimaginings, or rehashings of old ideas. Much of this info comes from the online source Io9, and I have to say, I was quite impressed. To know that original ideas and long-overdue adaptations are actually in the works… wow. Still, don’t expect that this makes us even Hollywood! You’ve still wasted a ton of my and a good deal more people’s time and money!

Anyhoo, onto the list of coming or playing attractions:

Safety Not Guaranteed:


A time-traveller takes out an ad in the paper, looking for a companion to go back in time with him. A journalist, played by deadpan comedian Aubrey Plaza (of Parks and Recreation, Scott Pilgrim versus the World and Funny People), is tasked with finding a man who’s taken out the ad and determining just what his deal is. As time goes on, she becomes infatuated with the man because of his sincerity and the fact that he’s a true believer.

Produced by the same people who brought you Little Miss Sunshine and based on an actual ad, the movie explores the fine line between cynicism and realism, truth and belief. In the end, it remains a mystery whether or not the man is for real, and whether or not he is a harmless eccentric or a total nut! This movie has already been released and was screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.

The Prototype:


A story of a humanoid robot that contains the consciousness of its designer, a man obsessed with achieving the Singularity, as predicted by men like Ray Kurzweil. After a successful run where his mind is placed into “the prototype” robot, it escapes from its facility and is chased by government agents who believe it to be a malfunctioning military drone. Though it does look a tad cliche and over the top, it nevertheless explores some issues which are only increasing in relevance and getting closer and closer to being real.

Enders Game:
I’m not kidding! After decades of waiting, it seems that sci-fi geeks and Card fans will finally be getting a chance to see Ender adapted to the big screen. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the original, but never got into the sequels, I can tell you that I will be waiting on this movie’s Nov. 2013 release date with eager anticipation.

According to the buzz, Director Gavin Hood (of Tstosi, Rendition and X-Men Origins:Wolverine) is taking great pains to keep it as loyal to the book as possible. In addition, such big names as Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley are attached to play Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham, and Asa Butterfield (of Hugo fame)will be playing the lead role of Ender Wiggin.

Life of Pi:
Now this is one I didn’t expect to see on the silver screen! Director Ang Lee, who brought us such hits as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and The Hulk will be directing this adaptation of Yann Martel’s magical novel about a boy, a lifeboat, and a handful of animals as they visit a strange island.

World War Z:
Not surprisingly, all this zombie-fanaticism of late has encouraged the good folks in LA LA land that it’s time to adapt one of the best zombie novels of all time. Written by Max Brooks, son of famed comedian Mel Brooks and master of all things zombie, the book tells the oral history of the Zombie War and was released as a follow-up to his satirical The Zombie Survival Guide.

According to the studio-related buzz, Marc Forster (Finding NeverlandThe Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace) is slated to direct it, Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) is attached as a screenwriter, and actor Brad Pitt will be starring as the film’s protagonist. Clearly, these folks aren’t pulling punches with this adaptation. I look forward to seeing it sometime in 2013!

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Look what you started, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! Or was it you Snow White and the Huntsman with your decidedly violent take on a children’s classic? Perhaps it was Seth Grahame-Smith with his Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! I don’t know who’s to blame, but for some reason, it seems that fairy tales, classics of western lit and history are all getting the Buffy treatment these days.

But I digress, Jeremy Renner of The Avengers and the new Bourne Legacy movie stars alongside Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace and Clash of the Titans) in this sequel to the classic fairy tale. Apparently, the story takes place 15 years after the traumatic gingerbread house incident, and the now grown-up pair have become a leather-wearing witch hunting duo. Let’s just hope the producers of Van Hellsing don’t sue for plagiarism!

Neuromancer:
I almost jumped out of my seat when I read about this one, but then I noticed the production notes where it said that this movie hasn’t even been green-lighted yet. Ah well, fingers crossed it get’s made, because it would be about freaking time! Much like with Enders Game, fans of this sci-fi, cyberpunk classic have been waiting FOREVER to see a film adaptation! Several attempts have been made, but none have gotten off the ground.

But some details are forthcoming. For one, Vincenzo Natali, the brilliant Canadian writer/director who brought us Cube and Splice, is rumored to be the man who will direct this bad boy, should it ever get made. No other news yet, but my ear is firmly pressed to the ground and I will find out if it’s happening. Bank on it!

Snow Crash:
And another sci-fi movie that’s long overdue, but can never seem to get made! Well, it seems that writer/director Joe Cornish (Attack of the Block and The Adventures of Tin Tin) is set to adapt Neal Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk novel about the near future where America has been privatized, “franchulates” run everything, and a lone hacker named Hiro Protagonist investigates a potent new drug that infects users with a computer virus.

As a long0time fan of Stephenson’s, I for one will be awaiting this movie too with eager anticipation. In fact, I can scarcely believe that so many of my literary favorites are being adapted at the same time. One would think this was just a big tease, or some massive karmic payback!

Fingers crossed, people! Fingers crossed!

Sci-Fi Drugs

The other night, I had one of those moments. It was a moment where I found myself thinking about a cool concept and realized that it would make a damn fine post. It’s also one that interests me quite a bit and has even influenced my own writing. So as quickly as I could, I hopped on my laptop (even though it was 2am) and began making a list of all the sci-fi drugs I knew!

To me, the reasons for including drugs as part of a sci-fi franchise are obvious. For one, drugs and drug cultures are very much a part of our society, so it’s only natural that a sci-fi author should have something to say about it. As Gibson said, all sci-fi is really about the time in which it is written, ergo fictionalized drugs in future settings are really a reflection on the attitudes of today.

On the other hand, creating fictitious drugs and inventing subcultures that use them are a good way to give a story some realistic background. Wherever and whenever a story takes place, you have to assume that they will have narcotic substances there, and what form they take and how they go about dealing with them tells you much about that culture.

Either way, it’s a subject that has fascinated me for quite some time. So here are some highlights from the wold of sci-fi drugs!

Can-D:
Here we have a designer drug that was created by none other than sci-fi great Philip K. Dick. As fans may know, this guy was somewhat of an expert on drugs, having taken part in the Californian drug counter-culture during the 60s and 70s. As a result, he had a lot to say about drug use, their impact, and drug policy.

In this particular case, the drug comes to us from the story of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Taking place in the 21st century, where global warming has sent millions of people off Earth to the hostile environments of the Solar System, people have turned to a combination of the drug Can-D and what are known as “layouts.”

Layouts are physical props intended to simulate a sort of alternate reality where life is easier than either the grim existence of the off-world colonies or life on Earth. By taking the drug in conjunction with the layouts, people are able to experience a sort of shared hallucinogenic state. This in turn has given rise to pseudo-religious cults that have grown up around the use of layouts and the drug, consisting of people who dream of better worlds than the one they are forced to endure.

Dancer:
To complete the semi-dystopian setting of his Bridge Trilogy, Gibson was sure to add a designer drug that was all the rage amongst Californians in the near future. The drug was named Dancer, a powerful and addictive hallucinogen that apparently came in the form of a red dust. People would take it orally, rub it on their gums, smoke it or snort it.

In short, Dancer was like a red cocaine, except that it caused hallucinations rather than manic behavior. People who consumed it would typically become euphoric and mellow, causing them to get all rhythmic and break into dance (hence the name). However, it was was also known to make people violent from time to time, which made it more akin to the the effects of PCP.

Inspired by California’s drug culture and the emergence of designer drugs in the early 90s, Dancer was clearly meant to serve as an allegory for multiple drugs, or as a prediction of what the next big craze could be.

Dust:
Fans of Babylon 5 ought to remember this one. Basically, the drug was a hot item on the black market because it had the ability to give users temporary telepathic powers. It was violently addictive, and known for giving a very powerful and unique high. However, in the course of trying to stop the Dust trade to B5, Psi Cop Bester acknowledged that the drug was originally created by the Psi Corps as a way of creating telepaths.

When they realized it didn’t work, the drug was abandoned, but made its way to the black market because of its obvious appeal. As a longtime fan of B5, I can honestly say it was elements like this that made me like the show. Not only was the concept and the name cool, the fact that it began as a government-sanctioned drug was also believable and clearly inspired by the history of many real-world drugs.

Neuroin:
Inspired by Philip K Dick’s short story, Minority Report was a quasi-dystopian future where the use of precognitives promised to eliminate all violent crime from society. But of course, there’s a dark side to all this, and it just happens to be linked to the underworld drug known as Neuroin, a powerful and addictive psychoactive substance.

Though it is never explained in any real detail, the name suggests that it is of the opiate family and possibly combined with a neural stimulant. In addition to being the drug of choice of the protagonist, it is also the very thing that created the precognitives in the first place. All three psychics were once children who suffered brain damage in utero as a result of their mothers’ neuroin use. Though damaged neurologically, a side effect was the development of precognitive powers, which the state began to use in order to engineer the process known as “PreCrime.”

Based on the film adaptation, the principal means of taking neuroin appears to be through a specialized inhaler. This would allude to the fact that neuroin was taken in vaporized form. In the end, this drug served as both a commentary on the dangers of escapism as well as a plot device. While neuroin was the reason for the precognitives existence, it was also how the main character chose to numb himself over the loss of his son.

Nuke:
The designer drug from Robocop 2, and one man’s attempt at achieving his dream of becoming a Jesus-like figure! Designed by Cain, Nuke was an extremely pleasurable and addictive substance that began making the rounds in Old Detroit by the second movie. Coupled with a Police strike and financial ruin, Nuke seemed to be the thing that would finally break Detroit and allow the greedy bastards at OCP to finally take over.

There are several kinds of Nuke, but by far the most popular variety comes in the form of the red sludge. This is known as Red Ramrod, and was followed shortly thereafter by White Noise, Blue Velvet, and Black Thunder. The color scheme alluded to Cain’s “patriotic” sentiments, as he was known to say that his drug was making “Made in America” mean something again.

Nuke comes only in liquid form and is taken by means of small needles that inject the drug directly into the bloodstream. Because of its highly pleasurable nature and chemical properties, only a few doses are needed before a person becomes hooked and will experience intense withdrawal if they don’t get a regular dose. A commentary on the emergence of designer drugs, it was also served as a means for making some tough observations on drug use and its effect on society.

Snow Crash:
This drug is, admittedly a little off the beaten path. Featured in the Neal Stephenson novel of the same name, Snow Crash was essentially an allegory for a system crash, but in neurological form. Taking the form of both an inhalant and a digital virus, the “drug” had the effect of rendering users docile, passive and babbling an idioglossia similar to speaking in tongues.

But of course, there was more to it than all that. Basically, Snow Crash was designed by an information tycoon named L. Bob Rife who wanted control over people’s minds and daily habits. Using a Sumerian tablet, he basically encoded the ancient “Enki virus” – a virus that altered humanity’s neurology and spawned modern languages. So really, he was looking to reverse the Babel myth, making humanity neurologically simpler and thus programmable.

In addition to being a commentary on the drug culture, Snow Crash was also an observation about the proliferation of computer viruses in the early 90s and an allegory on the similarities between ancient myth and modern technology. It was also pretty cool and weird!

Soma:
When it comes to designer drugs, Soma pretty much takes the cake. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s classic tale of dystopia and social engineering, Brave New World, Soma was the kind of drug that came with the label “good for what ails ya” and meant it literally. Designed to cure any and all emotional problems, the pill was mass produced and a key feature of the World State’s apparatus of social control.

Use of Soma is prescribed at a very young age to citizens of the World State, as soon as children are old enough to begin sleep conditioning. Slogans such as “a gram is better than a damn” are programmed into their minds so that they respond to emotional stress by simply popping a pill. This is often referred to as “taking a vacation”.

To illustrate the effects of the drug, Huxley relied on his own experience using mescalin and other drugs. Apparently, subjects using Soma would enter a dream-like state where everything became pleasant and agreeable, all their worries and unpleasant emotions melting away. This dream-like state could be discerned by observing a person’s eyes, which would become noticeably glazed.

In addition, though the state freely distributed the drug and there were no shortages, Soma was still designed to be non-addictive and with no harmful side effects. This, added to its effectiveness, made it the ultimate designer drug and a very effective means of social control. A commentary on the pharmaceutical industry of his day and on the drug culture of the 1920s and 30s, Soma remains the most popular example of a fictional sci-fi drug!

Spice:
Then again, the spice melange is pretty damn popular too. However, as the only drug on this list that is not designed or synthesized, and is by definition an “awareness narcotic,” Spice is really in a category of its own. Taken from the Dune series, Spice was the most precious resource in the universe in more ways than one.

For starters, Spice could only be found on one planet, the desert world known as Arrakis. Mining Spice was also a highly hazardous duty, due to the inhospitable climate of Arrakis and the presence of Sandworms. And given its many benefits, which included prolonged life and expanded awareness, it’s little wonder why it was so damned expensive!

A clear allegory for oil, all life and commerce in the Imperium of Dune revolved around Spice in one way or another. The Guild Navigators used it to achieve their limited prescience and guide ships through foldspace. The Bene Gesserit used it to enhance their mental and physical acuity and make contact with their “Other Memory”. And every house used it to improve their health and longevity. In short, without Spice, all trade and commerce in the universe would end and countless people would die.

And of course, there never would have been a Paul Mua’dib or a Leto II, and humanity would have died as a result! That’s quite a drug them people got there!

Substance D:
Once again, we have a fictitious drug that comes to us straight from the mind of Philip K Dick. Featured in his 1977 book A Scanner Darkly about the drug subculture of California, Substance D was a powerful psychoactive drug that also went by the name “Slow Death.” The name proved apt, as the drug was not only violently addictive, but resulted in brain damage due to overuse.

According to the story, Substance-D was synthesized from the fictitious blue flower Mors ontologica, which is Latin for “death of being”. In the course of the story, the protagonist – an undercover narcotics agent – becomes addicted to the drug, suffers brain damage and is sent to one of the new recovery centers (“New Path”) to get clean.

In time, he is given the task of working on one of their many farms and learns that these places serve as grow ops for the flower. Hence, we see that “New Path” is the source of Substance-D, and is therefore benefiting from both the drug and the harmful effect it has on society. A commentary on strong-arm governments and the pharmaceutical industry perhaps?

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to fictionalized narcotics, a few basic features become evident. For one, fictional drugs can take one of two forms, being either of the organic or synthetic (i.e. designer) variety. Second, their use as part of a story’s background is meant to call attention to our current drug wars, warts and all. But above all, they seem to serve as a form of social commentary by pointing to the ongoing nature of temptation, escapism and repression. On the one hand, human beings will always be looking for escapes and ways to ease the burden of existence. On the other, we are always likely to feel the need to control the flow of narcotic substances and legislate what people can and can’t put in their bodies.

Finally, I found that just about all the authors here were taking a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach. Essentially, they were content to sit back and make observations on the whole issue of drug use and moral legislation, rather than making pronouncements. This would seem the preferable option considering that you can’t really offer a clear resolution without sounding either enabling or preachy. Some say that drug use destroys society, other say that people have the right to put whatever they want in their bodes. And then there are those who say that human weakness is a constant, and that criminalizing such a thing turns a flaw into a war. Complicated!

On a brighter note, all this talk puts me in mind of my own fictional creations. Years back, when I was coming up with the concept for my Legacies story, I spent a fair bit of time pondering what kind of drugs people would be using in the relatively distant future. I think I might just dedicate a page or a post to just that topic. In truth, I’d like to know what people think about my inventions. Look for it, it shall be coming soon!

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!

Cool Guns!

I’m getting hooked on writing conceptual posts, mainly because it gives me the chance to explore a lot different franchises of sci-fi without being too constrained. Not only that, I really like digging into subject matter of finding the common elements; in this case, the stuff that makes cool stuff cool! So far, I’ve covered the concepts of Galactic Empires, Planetkillers and Ancient Aliens. But today, I thought I’d tackle something a little simpler that’s been known to make sci-fi geeks experience collective nerdgasms! Today the topic is: COOL GUNS!

BFG 9000:
Starting off this review right is the BFG (Big F***ing Gun) that comes to us from the Doom universe. Fans of that old franchise know this one by heart, and I’m sure they remember with some nostalgia what it was like firing this thing. Given that Doom was like most first-person shooters, this weapon would turn up late in the game as a way of dealing with the more tenacious evil critters. And it worked! One shot released a big cloud of green plasma which killed everything in the vicinity. Unless it was a boss, in which case, it might take two or three… Apparently, Quake II and Quake III Arena pay homage by including their own version, known as the BFG10K.

“Blow Dryer”:
Also known as a “burner” or plasma caster, this weapon was the mainstay of the Predator aliens and is featured in the many movies, comics, video games, and novels of the franchise. Mounted on the shoulder, this weapon would discharge a ball of red-hot plasma into objects, causing damage akin to an explosive device, but with none of the messy shrapnel. Though the standard model is shoulder mounted and aimed using a heads-up-display and laser sight, the Predators in later movies were also known to carry wrist-mounted versions of this weapon as well. Like their claws and wrist bombs, they were embedded in the cuffs and served as a backup. One of these makes an appearance in Predator 2 during the meat locker shoot-out.

BR55 Battle Rifle:
This baby is a Halo universe invention, and is the mainstay of the UNSC infantry. Aesthetically, this rifle is based on several bull-pup assault rifles designs from the modern era, a design which is clearly growing in popularity. Some potential sources for inspiration include the Austrian-made Steyr AUG, the French FAMAS, the British L85, the Belgian F2000, and the experimental PAPOP design. Like all bull-pup rifles, this gun loads from the rear and can cut through Covenant opposition with ease! Even when I’m playing as the Covenant, this was my second favorite weapon to be carrying (the first was either two submachine guns or two pistols, or a combinati0n thereof!)

Blade Runner Gun:
In the classic move Blade Runner, Detective Rick Deckard was responsible for locating and “retiring” replicants. And the weapon he used to do just that is featured here. This is the model of a Blade Runner service revolver, for which little information exists, but whose appearance and performance pretty much speaks for itself. Based on a standard service revolver with several extra bits added on for effect, this gun pretty much screams cyberpunk.

In addition, there are several scenes in the movie where Deckard’s gun turned flesh (artificial though it was) into mush! Recall the scene where Deckard uses this gun to punch several holes in Zhora? Or how about the scene immediately thereafter where Leon is beating the crap out of him, and Rachael manages to save him by using his own weapon? Yeah, whenever this gun was brought out of his holster, some big holes resulted!

Blasters:
When asked about his idea for a “Galactic Empire”, George Lucas said that he wanted to create something that was as aesthetically similar to Nazi Germany as possible. This was reflected in the weapons as well. Numerous guns that were modified and used as props in the movie were based on WWII vintage weapons. The first and most recognizable is Han’s blaster, aka. the DL-44. Based on the German C96 Mauser pistol, this weapon was apparently a popular item amongst smugglers and traders, being very powerful and compact. It was also quick on the draw, which comes in handy when in a bar and looking down the barrel of a bounty hunter’s gun (Han shot first!)

The next was the standard issue blaster used by both the Stormtroopers and the heroes, especially in the first movie during their daring breakout from the Death Star. This blaster, known as the E-11, was based on the Sterling submachine gun of WWII. Simple, consisting of little more than a barel, a handle, and a side-mounted magazine, the gun was easily altered with a few pieces of molded plastic and a scope that made it look suitably futuristic.

The heavier T-21 Blaster Rifle was yet another WWII adaptation. Built around a Lewis machine gun, it was featured in the first movie during the Mos Eisley scene where Stormtroopers were seen walking through the streets searching for Luke and Obi Wan.

Last, there was the DLT-19 Heavy Blaster, the heaviest infantry weapon in the Star Wars franchise. In keeping with his love of WWII kit, Lucas’ set designers used a German MG42 to fashion this one. This blaster appeared aboard the Death Star in the hand of the search party that went over the Millenium Falcon, and again when Chewy commandeered one to take out the remote blasters and cameras in the cell block.

GE M134 Minigun Handheld:
How could I have forgotten this one? I mean really, is there a better visual representation of sheer badassery than the handheld minigun from Predator? Sure, the mere idea of a man carrying a minigun around by hand is so unbelievable its makes me want to laugh out loud. Considering the weight of the weapon, even before you factor in all the ammo, coupled with the killer recoil that no human could withstand – all of this makes the physics totally implausible! But what the heck? It was fun to watch! I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the hair on the back of their neck stand on end as those barrels started whirling and the bullets streamed out, so fast it sounded like a turbine! And I know from talking to actual pilots who’ve seen this baby in action that if you add tracers to the mix, its like watching a laser show. WHURRRRRRRRRRRR! Total carnage!

Grammaton Cleric Pistol:
Though it was not my favorite movie, there were undeniably cool aspects to the movie Equilibrium. One of which was all the cool Gun Kata moves pulled by Christain Bale, Angus Macfadyen, and the other Grammaton Clerics with their special pistols. These guns were clearly souped-up versions of the Beretta 92FS. They clearly fire in both semi-automatic and automatic bursts, and were retrofitted in one scene with impact hammers on the handles.

In addition, some rather curious reloading tricks were devised. One involved arm-rails that would deliver fresh magazines from inside the cleric’s sleeve. Another included magazines that could be balanced upright, which gave the cleric the ability to simply slam his gun down on the fresh magazine once the empty ones had been ejected and go right on shooting. It’s all about rate of fire in this movie, making sure the bullets (and dust) keep flying!

The Lawgiver II:
Also known as the Judge Dredd gun, this pistol is also a modified version of the Beretta 92FS, with molded plastic and LED lights giving it a future-city look. In addition to a rapid-fire setting, the gun also boasts a grenade launcher, signal flare launcher, and a special dual round known as the “double-whammy”. It also has a taser device built into the handle so that only a Judge can operate it, and a DNA tagging system that ensures that every slug fired can be traced back to the person operating it.

M41A Pulse Rifle:

The franchise Alien gave so much to the world of sci-fi geeks, not the least of which came in the form of cool guns. And the Pulse Rifle was arguably the mainstay of that contribution. In fact, it was this gun that inspired entire generations of futuristic weapons, and the name itself has been used many times over to refer to energy and slug-thrower weapons in sci-fi franchises.

This is an important disctintion seeing as how “pulse”, to most sci-fi acolytes, refers to weapons that fire out pulsing beams of energy (most likely plasma). But in this case, it referred to pulses of caseless ammo, big bursts of projectiles that would tear through acid-spewing aliens by the dozen. And let’s no forget the grenade launcher that was attached to the underside, how cool was that? The signature, click-click, BOOM! combination was as pleasing to the ears as it was to the eyes.

But in addition to being just so freaking cool to look at, the amount of creative energy and ingenuity that went into making it was quite impressive. For example, the people in charge of set design wanted a prop that would actually fire, so they built their rifle concept around the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun, a WWII vintage weapon that was small and sturdy enough to get the job done. To simulate the grenade launcher, they attached a cutdown Remington 870 shotgun beneath it and mounted the foregrip of the SPAS 12 shotgun on top of that. Then, they applied pieces of molded plastic and a little LED display to the side to make it look especially badass! Remember that scene where Ripley used it to level that room full of egg’s with the Alien queen inside? Iconic!

M56 Smart Gun:
I know, I’m shoving two examples from a single franchise into one post. But I think it’s worth it. And for fans of Aliens and sci-fi junk, you just can’t make a list of cool guns and not include the Smart Gun! Much like the Pulse Rifle, this weapon was the perfect marriage of aesthetics and ingenuity.

To fashion it, the set designers for Aliens used another vintage WWII weapon (like Lucas, they used the German MG42 machinegun) some motorcycle handles, and the arms from a Steadicam mount. The result, once again, was pure badassery! And the name, according to the expanded Aliens universe, comes from the fact that these weapons could aim themselves. Marines would simply employ their eyepieces and helm cameras, and the guns would pick up movement and target it. Oh, and that scene where Vasquez opens fire in the Alien lair… classic! “Let’s roooooock!”

PPG’s:
The PPG, or Phased Plasma Gun, is the standard weapon of security officers and soldiers in the Babylon 5 universe. According to franchise sources, the PPG fires a small charge of superheated helium which retains its shape and small volume via a residual magnetic field. Upon impact with an object, the magnetic field is dissipated and the heat discharged. PPG bolts also cause visible distortion as they travel through air, hence the blurred effects when people in the show fire off their weapons.

The PPG comes in several standard models. First, there’s the service pistol which every security officer and member of station personnel. The heavier rifles are busted out during riots and times of war, along with the vests and riot helmets. In two episodes (S01E20 Babylon Squared and S05E19 Wheel of Fire ) Garibaldi has scenes where he busts out the BFG version.

Reason:
This weapon is both deadly and cheekily-named, and is taken from Neal Stephenson’s smash-hit novel Snow Crash. This picture doesn’t quite do it justice, but its a close approximation. In the novel, Reason was a gatling gun that was the property of Uncle Enzo’s Mafia, an organization that ran a series of franchulates along the west coast of the former US. But unlike your conventional gatler, it fired caseless depleted-uranium slugs, bullets that are incredibly dense and very heavy. Hence, the weapon packed a massive punch and a mad recoil.

During one of the later chapters, Enzo’s men use the gun to take out a pirate yacht while firing from a life raft. A single burst demolished the pirate ship, but the recoil sent their boat about fifty meters in the opposite direction! This scene also had a hilarious set up when the mafiosos first broke it out, saying that if they ran afoul of any privateers, they were sure they’d “listen to Reason.”

Phaser Rifle:
Over the years, Star Trek has been a source of many weapons designs. However, some were arguably more cool than others, at least in my opinion. These came largely from the later spinoffs and movies, in particular DS9 and Voyager. Prior to this, phaser designs were either too boxy, too bulbous, or just too… Buck Rogers-y! When you’re repelling boarders, or on an away mission, one thing you want is a kick-ass weapon to bolster your confidence and inspire fear in your enemies.

These requirements were met by a new model of weapon, known as the type 3 Phaser Rifle. This weapon went through many variations throughout the course of the show. The first design was very boxy-looking, whereas later models tended to be more sleek and menacing (as shown above). Then came a whole new design, known as the Compression Rifle (seen below), which was apparently an even more powerful model. These weapons were specifically created for use on starships where heavy combat was expected, or in times of war.

Final Thoughts:
Man, that was a long list! But that’s the thing with cool ideas, they tend to get around. And as usual, I noticed some key patterns in the mix which I think should be pointed out. In all of these cases, there were apparently two classes  that each weapon fell into.

  1. Directed-Energy Weapons: Arguably the more science-fictiony of the two. These weapons first made their appearance in Saturday morning serials like Buck Rogers from the 1950’s. They come in many forms – ray guns, death rays, beam guns, blasters, laser guns, and phasers – but the core concept is the same. Phased or directed energy, usually in the form of plasma, that is focused into a tight beam and then emitted. The ironic thing is, since the 1950’s, sci-fi franchises have moved away from these seemingly farfetched devices and come to rely on ballistic weapons designs more and more. Meanwhile, Directed Energy Weapons have become more and more feasible, with several prototypes being explored by military contractors today.
  2. Ballistic Weapons: In the context of sci-fi, these often take the form of weapons that use caseless ammunition, electromagnetically-propelled ammunition, or just standard bullets. But in each case, the weapons that use them are adapted to look more futuristic. Interestingly enough, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought. In just about every developed nation, firearm technologies are being explored under the banner of the “Future Soldier” program. Having studied many of these, I can tell you that they put much of what was shown in Aliens to shame, especially where Heads-Up-Displays and portable computers are concerned! Again, the future seems to be coming sooner than we thought!

Cryptonomicon

Having covered Snow Crash and Diamond Age awhile back, I thought it was time to move on to the third installment in my Neal Stephenson series. Today, for consideration, the historic techno-thriller Cryptonomicon! This story took me close to a year to read, in part due to interruptions, but also because the book is pretty freaking dense! However, the read was not only enjoyable and informative, it was also pretty poignant. As a historian and a sci-fi buff, there was plenty there for me to enjoy and learn from. And for those who enjoy techno-thrillers and dissertations on mathematics, this book is also a page turner! Little wonder then why this novel was dubbed the “ultimate geek novel”.

The name is derived from H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious book that has been referenced numerous times in western literature and pop culture. The name is indicative of the book’s main theme, cryptology, as well as the unofficial manual used by cryptologists during and after World War II. In addition to featuring fictionalized versions of real events, it is also chock-full of fictionalized personalities drawn from history. They include Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, Isoroku Yamamoto, Karl Dönitz, and Ronald Reagan, as well as some highly technical and detailed descriptions of modern cryptography and information security, with discussions of prime numbers, modular arithmetic, and Van Eck phreaking.

Unlike his other novels, Cryptonomicon was much more akin to historical fiction and techno-thriller than actual sci-fi, mainly because its narratives take place in the past and present day. However, this is a bit of an arbitrary designation. As most fans of science fiction know, a story need not take place in the future in order to explore the kinds of themes common to the genre. And really, all science fiction is actually about the time period in which it is written, and actively draws on the past to create a picture of the future. So putting aside the question of where it falls in the literary spectrum for now, allow me to delve into this bad boy and what was good about it!

Synopsis:
The story contains four intertwining plotlines, three of which are set in the Second World War, and a fourth which takes in the late 90’s. The first follows the exploits of a man named Bobby Shaftoe, a decorated Marine who has just survived the battle of Gaudacanal and is being transferred to the OSS’s counterintelligence division. The second follows Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician and cryptologist working for the joint American and British cryptology unit 2702. This work involves breaking German codes and leads him to several interesting encounters with famous people. including Albert Einstein and Alan Turing. The third involves a Japanese man named Goto Dengo, an Imperial Army officer and a mining engineer who becomes involved in a a secret Axis project to bury looted gold in the Philippines. The fourth and final perspective which takes place in the 90’s centers on Randy Lawrence Waterhouse, an expert programmer working for an IT company (Epiphyte) that is been doing business in the Philippines.

As the story develops, we see Shaftoe become marooned in Finland where he meets up with some unlikely compatriots. The first is a Catholic priest and physician named Enoch Root, who is attached to 2702, while the second is a Kriegsmarine Captain named Günter Bischoff, who is the commanding officer of an experimental rocket-propelled U-Boat. We learn that an alliance has formed between these individuals, mainly because Bischoff, who became marooned in Finland with the rest of them, has learned that the Kriegsmarine has been given the task of smuggling gold to Japan in order to buy their continued cooperation in the war. He and the others decide to work together to get their hands on some, and soon find themselves back in the Philippines. Before the war, Shaftoe had a sweetheart there named Glory, who he has not seen since the Japanese invaded, and whom he is eager to get back to.

Meanwhile, Waterhouse is bounced around the globe in his efforts to break the Axis’ codes. First, he is sent to a fictional island in the English Channel known as Qwghlm (pronounced ???). On this island, the people wear incredibly thick wool sweaters and speak a language that is loosely related to Gaelic, and incredibly hard to understand. He is then sent off to Brisbane, Australia, to work on breaking the Japanese’s codes. While there, he finds a community of Qwghlmians, who he learns are serving as operators for the British. Whereas the US had their “Wind Talkers”, Navaho signal officers who used their native languages to confuse Japanese listeners, the British had Qwghlmians. Here, he falls in love with, and eventually marries, a young woman named Mary cCmndhd.

At the same time, Goto Dengo is nearly drowned when his troop ship is sunk in the South Pacific. He narrowly survives and drifts to an island where he is forced to survive amidst squalor, decay, and a group of Japanese soldiers who are pillaging and raping amongst the natives. In time, he is found by his fellow officers and is sent to the Philippines where he is put to work on the construction of a series of underground caverns. The purpose of these caves is to store the vast amounts of looted gold which is being shipped from Germany since the Germans are now losing the war and fear being overrun. After many years, the caves are completed and the Americans invade, during which time Dengo is reunited with Shaftoe. Having reenlisted with the Marines, Bobby was sent ahead to organize the resistance, and has learned that he has a son. After convincing Dengo to surrender and defect, he heads off for what turns out to be his final mission. Meanwhile, the sub carrying Gunter Bischoff and a hoarded supply of gold runs aground in the Philippines and the crew drown.

Fast forward to 1997, we come to meet Lawrence Waterhouse as he begins his work in the Philippines. Ostensibly, this involves selling Pinoy-grams to migrant Filipinos, a sort of fiber-optic communication system that allows migrants to speak with family instantaneously. However, he soon learns that his friend and CEO of Epiphyte, Avi Halaby, is interested in using this stream of capital to fund the building of a data haven in the nearby (and fictional) island of Kinakuta. At this point, his job description changes to surveying the laying of the underwater fiber optic cables that will run from the Philippines to Kinakuta, a job which leads him to enlists the help of a Vietnam veteran and mariner named Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe and his daughter, America “Amy” Shaftoe. These people, we quickly learn, are the son and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe. In addition, on the island of Kinakuta, the company that is contracted to build the underground facility that will house the haven is run by a Japanese man named Goto Furudenendu, who just happens to be the son of Goto Dengo.

Over time, there plans to create a haven free of repression and scrutiny comes under fire from various quarters. At this point, Amy and Doug begin to help Lawrence and his company find an alternative source of revenue – a hidden cache of gold rumored to be at the bottom of a Philippine harbor. They find the gold and have the money they need, but in the course of it, they also uncover the plot involving detachment 2702, the Japanese, the Nazis, and an unbreakable code named Arethusa. This discovery makes them more enemies, people who want the gold for themselves, or just revenge, and things start to get dicey! However, through this they also get to meet an aged Goto Dengo, CEO of the construction company and man who buried the gold. He agrees to show them where the cache is hidden so that it can be repatriated; and with his help, they find it, Randy and Amy get together, the haven is built, and just about everyone lives happily ever after!

Strengths:
From the description alone, I’m thinking people will assume that this story was dense, well-conceived and came together quite nicely. And they would be right!  One thing that is immediately clear about it is how well Stephenson weaves past and present together to create a grand narrative that is chock-full of suspense, intrigue and history. This last element is especially prevalent. I can’t tell you how many historical cameos made it into the novel. Through the character of Randy Waterhouse, Albert Einstein and Alan Turing make an appearance. Through his German counterpart, Rudy von Hacklheber, Hermann Goering makes several. Gunter Bischoff, though he never meets Karl Doenitz in the story, repeatedly references him since it he whom he is blackmailing and gets all his orders from! And through Bobby Shaftoe and Goto Dengo, Douglas MacArthur and Isoroku Yamamoto are also woven into the story.

In addition, the way he brings past and present together is done masterfully through his main characters, all of whom are apparently related. Lawrence Waterhouse is the son of Randy Waterhouse and Mary cCmndhd, Doug and Amy are the and granddaughter of Bobby Shaftoe respectively, and Furudenendu is the son of Goto. Hell, even Lawrence ex-girlfriend ends up shacking up with the son of a character in the story! In this way, the sense of connection between past and present is made more clear, as is the sense that destiny or some kind of long-term plan is being fulfilled. The evolution between cryptology and modern computing, how one grew out of the other, is also made abundantly clear.

Weaknesses:
As more than one critic observed, this book tends to appeal to the techno geeks in the crowd. In fact, that aspect of the novel can be quite oppressive at times. In several parts, the descriptions of mathematical concepts as they apply to various things (even the everyday), can go on and on and on. Two examples come to mind: the equation Randy comes up with to describe the rotation of a bicycle wheel, and the section where Lawrence and his peers are conducting some Van-Eck phreaking email surveillance. I mean really, page after page after page of inane detail! I got that the intent was to be comical in the sheer geekiness of it all, but for the non-geeky, the only way to survive these sections was to skip ahead or just keep reading and pray there was a point in there somewhere. Other than that, the sheer length of the book can feel somewhat stifling, which is why it took me a few months to finish it.

However, this book goes far beyond the mere technical. History buffs, fans of sci-fi and people who just plain like a good, complex and interwoven story will find something to enjoy here. Not only was it a good read, it previewed Stephenson’s ability to combine historical fiction and sci-fi, something he would reprise with the Baroque Cycle trilogy and the more recent Mongoliad, all of which I have yet to read! However, one thing at a time. I have yet to finish Anathem, and I’ve been eyeing Readme with keen interest lately…

The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age

Yesterday, I got into one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, Snow Crash! And, as I believe I mentioned, that was the novel that put Neal Stephenson on everyone’s radar as the new voice of post-cyberpunk. Well, if that novel established that reputation for him, it was his very next novel, The Diamond Age, that cemented it for him. Years back, a friend recommended I check it out. It was the first of Stephenson’s novels I would ever pick up, and since that time, I’ve been pretty much hooked on what he has to say.

In fact, a little over a year later, I picked this book back up and re-read it. It’s narrative, themes and content are rich to the point that you can read it multiple times and still feel entertained, intrigued and even a little blown away. What’s more, the premise of the book, which is of nanotechnology and the effect it will have on politics, economics and human interaction, could not have been more timely. Whereas Snow Crash came to us in 1992 and predicted the rise of internet communities, information control and the breakup of the US, The Diamond Age came out in 1995 and tackled what is sure to be the “technological singularity” of the coming century, the big game changer that will forever alter the course of human development.

Plot Synopsis:
The story opens in the Leased Territories, a slum-like community that exists outside of New Chusan – an artificial island built off the coast of Shanghai. This setting is clearly meant to allude to the European trading colonies of the 19th century, which is something the story comes back to repeatedly. Here, we see Bud, a “thete” (tribeless person) making his way through the world of freelance thuggery, body enhancements and tribal loyalties. This is another ever-present theme of the novel – the sense of ethnic and synthetic tribalism that has arisen now that the nation-states of the world have ceased to exist.

We also meet Nell, the main character of the novel and the daughter of Bud’s girlfriend, Tequila. Through a confluence of events, she finds herself in possession of a revolutionary piece of technology, The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is a fully-interactive book meant to educate young girl’s by taking elements of their own lives, combining them with culturally-relevant mythology, and serving as a source of primary education. How she inherits this piece and technology and its role in the story provides the inciting event to the story and helps to introduce the other main characters.

There’s John Percival Hackworth, an engineer who designed the Primer and was trying to smuggle an advanced, illegal copy to his daughter when he was mugged by Nell’s brother, Harv. He is a member of the Victorian phyle, a group of Anglo-Americans looking to recreate a golden age of stability, morality and technological advancement. His activities on the side bring him into contact with Doctor X, a Chinese nanotechnologist and Confucian leader looking to reunite China and free it from foreign entanglements. He manufactures the book for Hackworth, but when he gets into trouble, uses this to blackmail him into designing similar primer’s for the thousands of orphaned Chinese girls he takes care of.

Then there’ Judge Fang, the criminal prosecutor who lives in the Coastal Republic of China and who sentences Bud to death after he’s caught mugging some people. He is also suspicious of Dr. X and is looking to arrest him for what he suspects is human trafficking. However, when he learns that Dr. X has actually created a haven for orphaned girls and is using copies of the Primer to raise them, he comes to enlist with him. Finally, there’s Miranda, a “ractor” (actor in interactive movies) who performs for various clients out of a theater in the Leased Territories. However, her work soon involves performing in the stories of Nell’s Primer, and in time she comes to know her and develops a strong emotional attachment to her.

In between all this, we get a full account of what life is like in a world dominated by nanotechnology. In addition to the phyles and “claves” (enclaves) which have replaced the old system of nation states, people also rely on MC’s (Matter Compilers) to manufacture all of their needs. This has freed people from the traditional problems of manufacturing, supply and demand; but there is still the problem of access, as all MC’s require Feeds (lines that connect them to supplies of raw material) and the more desirable items still cost money.

Things come together when Nell, on the Primer’s urging, leaves her home and joins the clave of New Chusan, effectively becoming a Victorian. Meanwhile, Hackworth, once his own people realize he’s being blackmailed, begins playing the role of double agent so he can find out what Dr. X is up to. His efforts soon lead to his disappearance outside of Vancouver, where he is taken in by a strange society known as “The Drummers”. These people operate in underwater compounds located off the coasts of major centers, perform rhythmic, hypnotic dances and engage in ritualized sex. This act, we learn later, is actually for the sake of information exchange, which is done through the transmission of nanomachines contained within their bodily fluids.

These particular Drummers are working for Dr. X, their purpose being to tap Hackworth’s vast knowledge of engineering so he will be able to complete Dr. X’s secret project for him. For years, Hackworth is amongst them, contributing his knowledge (unwittingly) before he finally wakes up and returns to his people. In that time, he finds that his own daughter, who is roughly Nell’s age, has grown up and his people have all but disavowed him. However, his newly acquired knowledge proves quite useful and he is grudgingly readmitted to Victorian society.

Shortly thereafter, Nell is shown to be all grown up and decides to leave the clave of New Chusan and head back to the Coastal Republic, becoming a ractor just like Miranda. However, before this happens, we continue to see her interaction with the Primer. Gradually, it enhances her numeracy, literacy and problem solving skills. Turing machines make an ongoing appearance, and its clear that Nell is being educated on the evolution of technology by being made to understand increasingly complex machines. Eventually, the story culminates with “Princess Nell” becoming the leader of the “Mouse Army”, a army that when freed, becomes an army of young women. As it turns out, this army are the young girls Dr. X was raising who are in contact with her through their own Primers.

All this takes place against a background of increased tensions as the “Fists of Righteous Harmony” (a reference to 19th century China’s “Boxer Rebellion”) are growing in power and threatening to revolt. Shortly before this happens, Hackworth meets with Dr. X one last time to discuss his plans and what’s to come. Dr. X reveals his intentions which take the form of “The Seed”, a nanotechnological device that grows things out of the Earth like a real seed, and does not rely on Feeds the way the Victorian nanotechnological devices do. The purpose of all this was to arm China with technology that is consistent with its “Chi” (Qi), thus freeing them from having to import foreign technologies that are not compatible with their culture.

Things all come together when the Fists mount their final assault on the Coastal Republic. Hackworth is caught behind their lines and Nell and several clients and coworkers are trapped in their building. They fight their way out, but Nell and her companions are saved with the appearance of the Mouse Army. Seems the girls are now grown, like Nell, and have mobilized to find their leader (Nell) and defeat the Fists. Their army defeats the Fist rebellion just as Hackworth and the other characters escape the violence by heading to another “Drummer” compound located off the coast.

However, there entrance into the compound coincides with another act of ritualized sex. During these rituals, the female participant has sex with several male partners in turn, receiving a store of information which they have in their fluids. When it is done, said female usually undergoes combustion from the sheer amount of heat and energy involved in the process. Hackworth and the others are temporarily pulled in by the hypnotic music, but manage to break away just in time. The story ends with them emerging on the shores of the Leased Territory of New Chusan, hearing the bells coming from the Victorian clave in the background.

Strengths:
Needless to say, I-loved-this-book! It’s exploration of science, society, epistemology, technology, and its many cultural and historical references were both profoundly interesting and downright cool! One could also feel the literary inspirations just piling up throughout, ranging from Charles Dickens and H.G. Wells to the Wizard of Oz and other old Hollywood classics. But what I loved best was the profound sense of historicism that made it into this book.

Take for example the repeated allusions to 19th century China, a time marked by rapid change, growing resentment, and attempts at cultural revival. Stephenson’s predictions for the future played a key role in this respect, predicting that China would split between the interior and the coastal regions, that Communism would be denounced as a “Western philosophy” and the country would return to the state of division and confusion wherein it would be vulnerable to foreign influences. The concept that it would also need or want to find its own way, that it would desire technology that was compatible with its sense of culture, was also very interesting.

In addition, the actual references to historical periods – 19th century China, the original Boxer Rebellion, Confucianism, the Cultural Revolution – were also VERY interesting. As was his explanation of how the moral relativism of the previous century (i.e. 20th) is what led to the creation of the Victorian phyle, a group built on the idea of discipline and moral absolutes (much like their predecessors). His exploration of cultural differences, and how some were “better than others” was also though-provoking, though its not entirely clear if this was a rhetorical or a firm statement.

I was somewhat confounded by this last aspect of the book. True, Stephenson’s predictions have so far been wrong, rather than experiencing collapse and division, China has taken to the path of rapid industrialization and privatization that is likely to make it a solid, albeit polarized and radicalized, competitor in any future world. In addition, I was not entirely clear on whether or not he believed in the idea of cultural superiority, namely how through a commitment to hard work, repression of emotion and the imposition of moral strictures. However, I do believe the point here was meant to be rhetorical and allegorical. Mainly, I think he meant to show how history is full of repeats, how the pendulum swings back and forth and how technology can have a regressive as well as progressive effect on cultures. And in this respect, he was quite apt!

This is not to say that I didn’t love the technological aspects too. Holy crap were they cool! Feeds, Matter Compilrers, nanomachines, rod logic, nanomaterials, etc etc etc. It was to have a profound influence on my own writing as well!

Weaknesses:
I’ve already mentioned one of the main weaknesses of the book, and that is the predictive aspects which felt like they missed. But as I indicated, it’s not exactly a weakness. Nevertheless, for anyone who was old enough to remember the nineties and has seen what’s become of modern-day China, the notion that they would regress to a revamped 19th century version of themselves, or indeed that they would look backwards for solutions instead of forwards, seemed a tad off. But as they say, hindsight is 20-20 and you can’t exactly fault an author for making predictions that didn’t come true. More often than not, these things are meant to illustrate a point, not as valid predictions they would stake their career on!

And this really was not the big weakness of this book, which was (once again) the ending! As I mentioned in the previous review, Snow Crash established Stephenson’s reputation for writing awkward endings. And this book cemented that too! This time around, the ending was even more truncated and odd, the reader being left with the feeling that not one but several chapters were being left out! For example, what became of Nell and the other main characters? Did she stick around in China to lead the Mouse Army, did the country reunite, and what became of Hackworth and his fellow Victorians once they washed up on shore? What happened with Dr. X’s plans for the Seed? Did China become a powerhouse in its own right like the Victorians, Japan, Hindustan, et al?

There was plenty of room for things to still go wrong and several key decisions that felt like they still needed to be made. In addition, readers were given the distinct impression that Miranda and Nell would come together in the end, but this really didn’t happen. Like everything else, I guess we were meant to imagine what would take place next, being left with a cliffhanger of sorts. Still, even the last sentence felt like the closing scene out of The Sopranos, where everything just ends abruptly and no one has any idea what’s supposed to happen.

The story can also be a bit hard to follow at times and feel a bit hokey. This latter part can easily be forgiven simply by reminding oneself that this is Stephenson, a man who mixes wit, satire and genius so freely that it can oftentimes feel a bit comical. But the complexity of the story and narrative is somewhat more daunting. This is one of the reasons I re-read the book, hoping it would be less vague the second time around. I was marginally correct.

Still, these weakness hardly detract from what it a work of genius and in my opinion, a thumping good read! For anyone interested in what the next great technological leap will look like, or who’s interested in a futuristic tale full of cultural/philosophical/technological/psychological and educational departures, I strongly recommend this novel!

Snow Crash!

Snow Crash!

You know how everyone has a set of favorite authors, people that they feel inspired them more than anyone else? Some people are lucky and have just one. Others, the “well-read” type, can name about ten, twenty or more! Me? I guess I’m lucky in that that list comes down to about five names. For me, that list includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson.

Like many people I know, I enjoy Stephenson’s books because they are entertaining and interesting, but also because he inspires thought. Upon writing this, I’ve read Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and just started Anathema. And I can honestly say that each one is a timely creation, combining a cutting-edge knowledge of technology and computer science with a profound sense of history, politics, anthropology, and philosophy.

So, I thought it high time that I actually review one of his books, and what better place to start than with his first big hit, Snow Crash! Although it was his third book to date, released in 1992 and preceded by The Big U and Zodiac, it was arguably this book that established his reputation and put him on the radar of every fan of the post-cyberpunk genre.

Snow Crash:
The story takes place in Los Angeles during the early 21st century. The United States has effectively disintegrated, the vast majority of society now living in privatized areas known as “franchulates” (which are clearly meant to satirize gated communities) and the federal government maintaining islands of influence in between it all. Enter into this world Hiro Protagonist, a comically named freelance hacker/swordfighter, who lives in a storage closet and spends much of his free time in the virtual environment known as the Metaverse.

After an abortive delivery working for Uncle Enzo’s Pizza, he meets a young woman named Y.T. (short for Yours Truly) who works for a the “Kourier” delivery company. In this day, couriers get around by riding high-tech skateboards and “pooning” (i.e. harpooning) their way through traffic. After making Hiro’s delivery for him, she becomes a personal friend of Uncle Enzo himself, a friendship which proves lucrative as the story goes on. Since she also saved his butt, Hiro and her decide to become partners in the “intelligence business”, meaning they now work together to obtain and sell information through the CIC (Central Intelligence Company, the leftovers of the CIA).

Things begin to get interesting when Hiro becomes aware of a new pseudo-narcotic that is making the rounds in the Metaverse. It’s called Snow Crash, the use of which causes anyone’s system to crash and emit total static (hence the name). In the real world, a hard version of the drug is making the rounds which alters the minds of users and causes them to utter some kind of “glossolalia” – i.e. speaking in tongues – and become disconnected from reality. Upon investigating, Hiro and Y.T. learn that the drugs are being distributed by a chain of Pentecostal churches known as “Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates”, which is owned by software magnate L. Bob Rife.

Rife is currently at sea and in possession of the USS Enterprise, which has become part of a massive flotilla of ships that makes periodic crossings from Asia-Pacific to North America. Apparently, everyone on board is infected with this virus as well, the people speaking in strange, monosyllabic tongues whenever they are interviewed. After being encouraged to look into this by his Catholic and linguist ex-girlfriend, Juanita Marquez, Hiro begins to uncover that Rife is at the center of Snow Crash and what his plan is. Essentially, it relates back to the mythology of ancient Sumer when the myth of Babel took place (language becoming confounded and splintered).

According to Stephenson, Sumerian is to modern languages what binary is to programming languages. It affects the user at a far more basic level than acquired/programming language. Unlike modern language, Sumerian was rooted in the brain stem and its culture was ruled and controlled via “me”, the human equivalent of software which contains the rules and procedures for various cultural activity (harvesting grains, baking bread, making beer, etc.). The keepers of these important documents were priests referred to as “en”; some of them, like the god/semi-historical-figure Enki, could write new me, making them the equivalent of programmers or hackers.

In any case, the connection between past and present is demonstrated when Hiro learns how the ancient goddess Ashera created a dangerous biolinguistic virus that infected all peoples. This virus was stopped by Enki, another god, who used his skills as a “neurolinguistic hacker” to create an inoculating “nam-shub”, an anti-virus, that would protect humanity by destroying its ability to use and respond to the Sumerian tongue.

It was this creation, a modern take on the Babel myth, that created modern language as we know it today. However, Asherah’s meta-virus did not disappear entirely, as the “Cult of Asherah” continued to spread it by means of cult prostitutes who spread it through sex and the breast-feeding of orphaned infants. This is turn was countered by the ancient Hebrew priests, men who quashed the cult of Ashera and introduced sanitized, reproducible information with their written testaments.

Furthermore, Hiro learns that Rife has been sponsoring archaeological expeditions to the Sumerian city of Eridu, and has found enough information on the Sumerian tongue to reconstruct it and use it to work his will on humanity. He has also found the nam-shub of Enki, which he is protecting at all costs since it can counter the virus. After making their way to the Raft with the help of the Mafia, Hiro and Y.T. set about trying to find the Enki tablet so Hiro can upload its nam-shub to the Metaverse.

However, their efforts are frustrated somewhat by the presence of Raven, a massive Aleut freelancer who is in possession of his own thermonuclear weapon (which he acquired from a Russian sub and intends to use on America). He is helping Rife because of a score he wants to settle, being the child of people who endured exposure to two nuclear bombs (Hiroshima and nuclear testing in the Aleutians).

In the end, Hiro engages Raven in a virtual battle in the Metaverse while Y.T., Uncle Enzo and his men are forced to take down Bob Rife. Hiro manages to successfully upload the “nam-shub” of Enki, the world is saved, and Rife is brought down. There is also a brief side story of a budding romantic relationship between Y.T. and Raven, but that doesn’t work out in the end. She’s a young girl, he’s a homicidal, giant maniac… what can you do? Also, Hiro gets back together with Juanita and just about everyone lives happily ever after.

Strengths:
In a previous post, I believe I compared Gibson’s Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge Trilogy, to this story, and for good reason. Both stories took place in an America where the country had become Balkanized, marked by privatization, major corporations and weird religious sects. The themes of hyperinflation, hard-living, overcrowding and urban sprawl were also consistent. And finally, the main characters – one a freelance agent and the other a delivery girl – were virtually identical.

However, when it comes right down to it, Stephenson’s take on the whole thing was better. His mix of satirical wit and social commentary was far more effective at critiquing the process whereby America is becoming increasingly privatized and polarized in terms of wealth and power. His fictional money, “Ed Meeses” and “Gippers” – the trillion and very rare quadrillion dollar note – were a nice very touch; and his use of “franchulates” in the story, a clear reference to gated communities, was nothing short of brilliant. His concept for the Metaverse, a virtual environment contained in cyberpace, and the spread of computer viruses also predicted several developments that would be taking place with the World Wide Web up to a decade later.

On top of all that, Stephenson managed to weave a great deal of history, philosophy and a fascinating take on neuro-linguistics into the story. Essentially, he demonstrated how human language and programming language are similar, when viewed in the right light – language is to the human brain what software is to the hardware. In addition, the story was replete with clever tidbits of history – WWII, the Vietnam War, nuclear testing, Biblical myths – and some rather hilarious twists and plot devices. “Reason”, a miniature Gatling gun used by the Mafia as a heavy-duty persuader, takes the cake for me (“I’m sure they’ll listen to Reason”)

Weaknesses:
However, it was also the mythological elements of this story which kind of brought it down in a way. While the allegorical similarities between programming language and spoken language was fascinating – as was the exploration of its biological and psychological aspects – one could not help but feel that the line between literal and figurative was being overstepped. In short, the idea was brilliant when considered from a metaphorical perspective – i.e. that the Babel myth might accord to some primordial event whereby language and human psychology became more complex.

However, the story is clearly presented in literal terms, the reader being told point blank that there really was an Tower of Babel-type event just a few thousand years ago that confounded our language, that made us what we are today and beforehand we were all slaves to social programming. Kind of seems a bit odd, but that’s Stephenson’s thing, using satire that is at once brilliant and at the same time a bit hokey. One can never tell where one ends and the other begins.

The only other weakness, and this is something Stephenson is a bit notorious for, is the ending. Stephenson himself laments that this is something he’s become known for, largely because he feels that its a jinx that’s haunted his subsequent work. Basically, he writes odd endings, ones that feel cut off and sudden. In Snow Crash, that is certainly the case. After a long chase scene, which ends when Rife’s helicopter is brought down by a dozen Kourier harpoons, Y.T. simply says goodbye to Raven (flips him the bird) and then calls her mom to tell her she’s coming home.

An additional chapter where Hiro gets to meet up with his friends in the Metaverse and reunites with Juanita would have been a good addition. Much was made of how his friends, hackers like him, were being specifically targeted by Snow Crash since they were the biggest threat to Rife’s plans. Given all that, it would have been nice to show how they all came through the crisis, not to mention a final romantic scene between Hiro and his ex. Similarly, it would have been nice to see Y.T. actually make it home, her give her usual reassurances to her worried mother (who works for the feds), and for her to see her romantically challenged boyfriend, maybe realize he was okay after all the time she spent with Raven. Just saying…

But overall, Snow Crash was an awesome read and a real tour de force for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, or is just intrigued by history, hacking, computer science, and gritty science fiction. It’s got it all, and some pretty cool departures for the philosophically inclined along the way!