Dredd 2012

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Hey all! My apologies for my absence of late, but life has been very busy on the teaching front. Cold season always brings big stretches of busy work, and I’ve been on call steadily for the past three weeks. Luckily, I find myself with a day or two to catch up on other things, and so I decided I’d get back on this horse and start things off right.

Today, I’d like to share a review of a movie I recently enjoyed, the summer remake known as Dredd. Based on the graphic novel Judge Dredd, this movie was an attempt by writer John Wagner and director Pete Travis to reboot the franchise after the semi-disastrous 1995 adaptation that starred Sylvester Stallone.

Though the film failed to recoup its production budget at the box office, which was expected, it was reviewed much more favorably than the original and earned a small following. What’s more, it is expected the movie will continue to gross now that it is released on DVD and will be available on cable and home movie providers.

Synopsis:
dredd-1920x1080-1024x576The movie opens in the streets of Mega City One, a post-apocalyptic urban environment that stretches from Boston to Washington DC. Dredd’s voice provides voiceover, describing the urban environment in all its bloody, crowded, and dirty glory. We then cut to a scene where Dredd (Karl Urban) is pursuing three criminals that have been spotted by an aerial drone. A tense chase ensues, during which time multiple civilians are killed. After taking out their vehicle and chasing the last man into a Block – one of the cities many massive apartment structures – Dredd concludes that the men were carrying a new drug known as Slo-Mo.

dredd_mamaWe then cut to Peach Trees, another major block, where we meet Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). She is a notorious crime boss that runs Peach Trees and is responsible for the manufacture of Slo-Mo, and who is plotting to expand production and bring it to the rest of the city. We get a glimpse into just how ruthless she is when she dispenses justice against three men who have been dealing in their Block and that she decides to make an example of. This consists of skinning them and then dropping from the top floor to the bottom level, but first giving them a hit of Slo-Mo so it will seem imperceptibly long.

dredd-anderson-2Dredd is then called back to the Grand Hall of Justice to inspect a new recruit named Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is reportedly a psychic. She and Dredd are dispatched to Peach Trees as part of her final evaluation to investigate the dead bodies. After the paramedic examines them, he explains that they all had Slo-Mo in their system, and gives them a rundown on who Ma-Ma is and how she came to be the master of the Block.

They then proceed to the nearest distribution center on the Block and take it down, securing one of Ma-Ma’s men (Kay) in the process. Anderson probes his mind and deduces he was the one who threw the men over the balcony and they decide to take him in for interrogation. When word reaches Ma-Ma, she has her thugs seize control of building security and lock the entire Block down, which consists of external shields closing in around the structure to resist a nuclear blast. All communications with the outside are cut off, and Ma-Ma announces over the PA system that she wants the Judges killed.

dredd_gunsDredd and Anderson begin fighting their way through several groups of armed residents with Kay in tow. Eventually, Ma-Ma orders her men to bring out their greatest weapon, a bunch of Vulcan cannons, and use them to shoot up an entire level. Dredd and Anderson narrowly survive by breaching the outer wall and calling for help, and Dredd then tosses Caleb, one of Ma-Mas henchmen over the balcony in full view of her. Down below, two Judges show up on the scene, but are unable to get through the Block’s sealed walls, and Ma-Ma’s hacker insists this is all part of a security drill.

Retreating to a school house, Dredd concludes that Ma-Ma is desperate to kill Kay to keep him for revealing her secrets and begins beating him. Anderson intervenes and begins mind probing him instead, learning that Peach Trees is the center for the production and distribution of Slo-Mo. Shortly thereafter, Dredd and Anderson are distracted by some armed teens, which allows Kay to kidnap Anderson and escape using the freight elevator to get to the top levels.

Judge Dredd Still ImageDredd continues to work his way towards the top, prompting Ma-Ma to call in four corrupt Judges. They relieve the men at the front, enter without incident, and agree to take down Dredd for one million credits. Meanwhile, Kay attempts to kill Anderson using her gun, and loses his hand in the process. She escapes and begins working her way down, and becomes a target of the crooked Judges as well. Between the two of them, they manage to take out all four and meet up in the Slo-Mo production lab. Dredd is wounded by Lex, the last of the Judges, but Anderson saves him and the two carry on.

After finding Ma-Ma’s hacker, they manage to obtain the code from him to her private cell. Rather than Judge him, Anderson sees that the man only worked for Ma-Ma out of fear, and that she was the one who took his eyes, forcing him to get bionic enhancements. She lets him go, even though Dredd tells her it could result in an “automatic fail”. She responds by saying she was already taken hostage and her gun was confiscated, which is also grounds for an a fail grade, and they move on.

dredd-lena-headey-ma-maThey finally reach Ma-Ma’s cell and take out the last of her men, though Anderson is also wounded in the process. Ma-Ma then tells Dredd she has the upper levels lined with explosives and the detonator is mounted on her wrist. If her heart stops, the device will go off and everyone in the top 50 floors will die. Dredd shoots her in the stomach and responds by saying the he doubts the device has a range that can reach from the ground floor to the top, and Judges her. Sentencing her to death, he gives her a hit of Slo-Mo and tosses her from the balcony. She falls in slow motion to her death, and the building doesn’t blow up.

Convening with reinforcements and paramedics below, Anderson hands her shield to Dredd and walks away. However, when the Chief Judge comes to him and asks how she did, he replied that she passed. The movie then ends with Dredd providing voice over once again, about how the city is a corrupt mess, and the only thing standing between it and total chaos are the Judges.

Summary:
dredd_mega_city_oneConsistent with what I heard in advance, this movie was actually pretty good. And even though it didn’t do well at the box office, the result of the meme working against it, I can see it developing a cult following and becoming something of a personal classic to many in the coming years. Despite some flaws, such as the excessive gore and some self-indulgent special effects, it had some noticeable signs of quality.

For starters, the look and feel of the Megacity environment was pretty awesome. The gritty, grimy nature comes through immediately, and without any of the overdone campiness of the original movie. Rather than shooting it in a massively constructed environment with flying cars and lavish costumes, the movie is shot in Cape Town and Johannesburg and uses real locations as a backdrop and relies on CGI and models only to supplement the already dense and dirty urban environment.

dredd_atriumAnd of course there was the attention to detail with the centerpiece of the movie, the building known as Peach Trees. As a Mega City Block, this building is essentially an arcology where all the basic needs of the residents are taken care of in-house. This includes schools, medical care, food, entertainment, and all of these were illustrated at one point or another in the film. And you’ll notice that in all cases, their was graffiti on the walls, garbage on the floor, and metal bars on everything, signifying just how dirty and dangerous the environments are.

And I really enjoyed the whole “lock down” procedure, which was more than just a convenient plot tool. In a world where nuclear holocaust has already taken place and every Block acts as a self-sustaining arcology, the concept of shield walls was just plain genius in my mind. Visually it was quite cool, but it also made perfect sense and it beautifully illustrated the shock mentality and survivalist instincts that are so common to this world.

Dredd-1And of course the movie was thematically consistent. On the one hand, you had the nature of the city, which was packed to the brim with 800 million people and with a homicide rate of 1700 people a day. Whereas Dredd is the perfect symbol of social fascism in this context, a man who has little faith in people and absolute veneration of the law, Anderson is the bright-eyed rookie who wants to help people and believes there is good to be found, even in an overcrowded block like Peach Trees.

dredd_peachtreesThese archetypes are offset by characters such as Ma-Ma and Lex, the leader of the crooked Judge. As her back story presents it, Ma-Ma is essentially a sociopathic product of the Mega City environment, a former prostitute who killed her pimp after he cut up her face and who has been on a non-stop mission ever since to bring her own sense of order to the city. Lex, meanwhile, is an embittered veteran who has lost all faith in the system and helping people and is simply looking out for number one.

Through it all, Dredd is softened somewhat by his encounter with the corrupt Judges and Anderson’s gentleness. Naturally, his war of ideology with Ma-Ma ends with him taking her out, but not before a long battle of wills takes place. This is exemplified by the way the two dual for control over the hearts and minds of people in Peach Tree. Whereas Ma-Ma uses their fear to obtain their help in hunting Dredd, Dredd fights back with his unflinching dedication to take her down and anybody who gets in the way. Ultimately, Dredd wins in part because Ma-Ma’s insanity and willingness to kill her own convince people to keep out of the way and let Dredd do his job.

JWhat’s more, the movie was well cast. Karl Urban fits the bill as the surly, sour-faced Judge who never shows his face and is never to be found doing anything other than his job. And Thirlby pulls off the role of the green, untested rookie who comes through in the end quite well. And Lena Headey, whom fans know from 300, the Sarah Conner Chronicles, and (best of all) as Cersei Lannister from a the HBO adaptation of A Game of Thrones, was also very convincing as Ma-Ma.

I was surprised really, seeing as how the previews kind of lent the impression that her role was overdone or just too plain evil. But it is a testament to this woman’s ability to act that she pulls off the psychotic crime boss who knows no mercy. Somehow, between her cut up face, evil eyes and bloody grin, you become convinced she was a victim who turned her abuse into complete madness and shouldn’t be messed with! What’s more, Urban’s usual combination of deadpan frowns and monotone voice worked in his favor, much like how Keannu Reeves same combination of method and monotone allowed him to pull of Neo.

dredd_slomoAnd of course, there were the visual effects. There are those who would say that this movie was just an ultra-violent gorefest with overblown special effects. But to that, I’d say it was a lot more genuine that the original, and much of the gore and violence was appropriate given the setting and tone of the movie. Mega City One is a massively overcrowded, decaying cesspool of humanity, where thousands of murders happen a day and human bodies are recycled for food and goods.

Such a place is neither safe nor sanitary, and violence is a constant, pervasive element. And sure, the concept of Slo-Mo may very well have been an excuse to employ some over the top 3D and slow motion sequences. But after watching the movie, I was forced to admit, it was a pretty damn good one! In the end, you can’t help but feel that these two factors are somewhat excessive but still appropriate.

Naturally, the original movie tried to gloss over this since they wanted to give it as wide an appeal as possible. This failed, as much of the material was just too adult for kids, but the tone and feel of it was too cartoony to be taken seriously. Basically, the movie tried to hedge its bets and ended up flopping for it. But this time around, the directors and producers were going for a cult appeal and stuck to their guns, which I have to respect. By aiming for a smaller range of consumers and a less broad appeal, they were able to keep the movie honest and truer to the source material.

In short, I give it a 7.5/10. And man, I want to see more of Mega City One! That urban landscape had a kick-ass art team putting it together! I’d recommend the movie for that much alone, especially to fans of the Blade Runner, urban noire and post-apocalyptic series’, but the rest of the movie is fun watching too. So get it and contribute to the cult following people. The producers still need to recoup their dough!

Awesome Sci-Fi Movie Mashup!

Behold, the cool scenes from every science fiction movie ever made, all in one video. Well, not necessarily all of them; in fact, true geeks may noticed that some of their favorites might be lacking. However, I think you’ll agree, this is a pretty good sampling of a wide array of classic films. In fact, the creators merged footage from 100 movies here, a collection of classic and more recent sci-fi films, and set it all to music (Glitch Mob remix of “Monday,” by Nalepa). Enjoy!

Arcology in Popular Culture

arcologyHello and good evening. Welcome to the third and final installment in my Arcology series, addressing the use of the concept in various popular culture sci-fi franchises. After researching the term and learning all about Paolo Soleri and the concept he created, I’ve come to see that his vision of future cities where the needs of ten of thousands of inhabitants could be met in sustainable ways helped to inspire the a great deal of speculative fiction.

Here are just a few examples that I can recall or have been able to find…

Chi-Town:
Many years ago, some friends of mine came to me with a new RPG by the name of RIFTS. A sort of sci-fi/fantasy crossover, the game was set in a post-apocalyptic world where inter-dimensional gateways, known as “Rifts” had led demons, monsters and mythical creatures into our universe, where they began wreaking havoc. After many years, several new nations emerged, the most powerful of which were the Coalition States, a dictatorship dedicated to fighting the invasion and reestablishing order.

The seat of this government is a large arcological city known as Chi-Town, which was built on the ruins of Old Chicago (hence the name). A self-contained city, the structure is somewhere between a pyramid and a rectangle in terms of shape. And of course, its hierarchical structure mirrors the social divisions at work within. The lower levels are the most densely populated, have the most indigents, and experience the most crime, while the upper levels are more spacious, opulent, and well-maintained.

In addition to being a fortress city and a safe haven for human beings in the ruins of the United States, Chi-Town is also a fitting example of an arcology. Within its walls, all things, including water, air, food and energy, are providing by internal systems and subject to recycling and treatment. Again, the issue of quality is dependent on where someone finds themselves within the structure, but the principle is still the same. In a world that has been devastated and rendered inhospitable, the response was to create a mega-structure that could both shield and provide for its many, many inhabitants.

Coruscant:
coruscantFans of the Star Wars franchise are certainly familiar with this planet-encompassing city, even before it was featured in the prequel trilogy. As the capitol of the Old Republic, Empire and New Republic, respectively, it has a very long history of habitation, and a very sizable population! As a result, its architects and engineers had to get very creative with the use of space on this planet, and several massive buildings were the result.

In truth, Coruscant was not so much a single city as thousands upon thousands of interconnected arcologies that ran across its surface. These various mega structures measured roughly a kilometer in height, dwarfing even the nearby mountain chains, and housed hundreds of thousands of residents each. In addition, the need to feed and provide for the staggering number of inhabitants required that every structure come equipped with a massive network for recycling water, waste and food.

Officially divided into megablocks and levels, every section of the city had its own means for providing food, water, and manufactured goods. This in turn required the presence of internal systems for processing air, drinking water, food waste, human waste, and industrial waste from its manufacturing warrens. In addition, in the sub-city where natural light did not reach, holograms and artificial lights were also built in to the environment to provide its inhabitants with illumination. In addition, it is also indicated in a number of sources that agricultural operations were housed in various sections and relied on recycled water and either artificial or filtered light.

Though food and waste still required a great deal of shipping and processing, which resulted in a staggering amount of transport traffic, much of the cities needs were taken care of by means of these internal measures. This ensured that the roughly three trillion inhabitants of the planet would never become wholly dependent on outside sources of food and goods, as well as ensuring that pollution and harmful waste wouldn’t accumulate to disastrous levels.

Habitats:
In the works of Peter F. Hamilton, particularly the Night’s Dawn Trilogy, much attention is given to the kinds of futuristic living spaces humanity will someday occupy. For starters, there is planet Earth in this future setting, which is so overrun by human beings that all cities have evolved to become self-contained arcologies. On top of that, there are what’s known as “Habitats”, floating megacities which exist out amongst the stars.

One of the most notable of these is Eden, the first ever habitat to be created, and in orbit around Jupiter. As the closest thing to a capitol in the Edenic culture, it was built using Bitek – aka. Biotechnology – which resulted in a living structure that was psychically linked to its inhabitant through a process known as affinity.

Here, as with other Habitats, the structures are massive, measuring several kilometers in length and width. In addition, each is entirely self-supporting, providing food, water, electricity and artificial gravity to its inhabitants. The latter is created through the rotation of the whole structure around its axis, while a central light tube which runs the length of the station provides light. Food and water are produced via biological processes and are recycled to ensure minimal waste, which in turn is also processed and converted for later use. In addition, interstellar material is frequently intercepted by the habitat and converting into any and all goods which its people require.

Ultimately, the only thing a habitat needs is a supply of external matter which it will use to grow and mature during its formative cycle, and an external power supply to maintain its functions. This is last necessity is provided by a series of external conductor cables which grow on the outer hull of the structure where they are positioned to pick up charges. Due to the rotation, these cables then cross the electromagnetic flux of the nearby gas giant and thus produce electrical energy. All is provided and nothing goes to waste. A true future city!

Urban Monads:
The setting of Robert Silverberg’s fictional study in overpopulation, The World Inside occurs almost entirely within the hyperstructure known as Urban Monad 116. As the name implies, this massive, three-kilometer high city tower is but one of many on the planet, which have become necessary now that war, disease and starvation have been eliminated, but people still continue to procreate without restriction. During the telling of the story, which takes place in 2381, the total population has reached 75 billion.

Much attention is given in the novel to how urban monads (or “Urbmons”) are arranged and meet the needs of their 800,000 respective inhabitants. For starters, groups of these skyscrapers are arranged in “constellations” so that one’s shadow does not fall upon another. Each Urbmon is divided into 25 self-contained “cities” with 40 floors each, in ascending order of status, with administrators occupying the highest level with population and production centers sequestered below.

In order to see to the needs of this rapidly expanding population, all arable land not currently occupied by Urbmons is dedicated to agriculture. However, within the Urbmon communities,  resource management still counts for a lot, with all foods and goods being held in common and the people expected to share them. Beyond that, however, sustainability is not exactly the name of the game, as the right to engage in free expressions and sex and reproduction are considered the highest forms of activity.

Hence, Silverberg’s Monads break a few of the basic rules of arcology, but the basic premise is still there. Designed to house a rapidly expanding population that threatens to overpower the Earth, Urbmons take advantage of the concepts of megastructures and 3-D planning to ensure that every living soul is housed and provided for. Now if they could just stop reproducing so much, they’d be in business!

Tyrell Corp Building:
Though not specified as an arcology in the strictest sense, I couldn’t possibly make this list without including the infamous Tyrell Corp building. I mean just look at the thing. Imposing, Gothic, and very, very big! And let’s not forget highly symbolic, as the design, size and scale of the thing was meant to evoke the feeling of awesome power that the corporation held.

Though not much is made clear of what life inside the building is like, it was clear that it was made up of many, many levels and sections, each of which fulfilled a different purpose. At ground level, the building was protected by automated systems which “fried” one of the story’s Nexus 6’s when they tried to break in. Farther up are various industrial areas that are dedicated to the production of the company’s Replicants, as well as office spaces and administrative areas. Another Replicant was detected in one of these sections, right before it shot the man who had detected it – Detective/Blade Runner Holden.

At the apex of the building is the living area for Tyrell and Rachel, the experimental Nexus unit that was modeled on his niece. This level is accessible only by elevator which runs along the outer edge of the building, and can only be accessed by authorized personnel. Here, Tyrell lives amidst opulent surroundings, vast marble floors, stone columns, and even an aviary for his pet owl. Although it is not explicitly said, it appears that Tyrell spends all of his time here, never venturing to the outside city or to another domicile. Hence, we can only assume that all of his needs are seen to here, even if everything he consumes is flown in and all the waste produced is shipped out.

Mega-City One:
judge-dredd-megacity-oneThe setting of the Judge Dredd franchise, Mega-City One is essentially a massive urban sprawl which stretches from the Quebec-Windsor City corridor to the peninsula of Florida in the south, growing out of the Northeast Megalopolis to occupy Southern Ontario the entire Eastern Seaboard. And in addition to stretching so very far and wide, this city is also made up of arcologies in order to see to the needs of its roughly 800 million inhabitants.

These arcologies come in the form of huge apartment blocks which house roughly 50,000 people each. Within each block, citizens are attended to by automated systems which recycle everything, waste, water, and even food. As for manufactured products and consumer goods, these too are largely created in industrial warrens that housed within specific blocks.

This system of every need being handled by automated systems and machines was designed to ensure that the survivors of the nuclear holocaust (aka. The Apocalypse War) would be tended to. However, it had the unwanted side-effect of also leading to rampant unemployment and listlessness amongst the population. This is one of the main reasons why Mega-City One is awash in petty criminals and organized crime syndicates. This, in turn, is what led to the creation of the Judicial System and its army of Street Judges.

Trantor:
Perhaps the first example of a ecumenopolis appearing in fiction, Trantor went on to become a source of inspiration for many science fiction franchises. And according to Asimov, it represented what he believed would be the end result of industrialization and human technology, which was an encapsulated population living in cities that spanned entire planets.

Consisting of buildings that reached deep into the ground and reached several kilometers above sea level, Trantor was home to roughly 45 billion people at the height of the Empire. It’s overall population density was 232 per km², and just about every human being was dedicated to the administration of the Empire or the needs of its population. Though by the time of Foundation, most of the population’s needs were met by importing food and basic necessities from every major planet in the region.

However, according to Prelude to Foundation, Trantor’s basic food needs were once fulfilled by the planet’s vast system of subterranean microorganism farms. Here, yeast and algae were produced as basic nutrients, which were then processed with artificial flavors to create palatable food sources. These farms were tended to entirely by automated robots, but their eventual destruction during an uprising forced the planet to turn to external sources

The Sprawl:
Also known as the Boston-Atlanta-Metropolitan-Axis (or BAMA for short), this mega-city is the setting for the majority of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. Encompassing the classic cyberpunk tales of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive, the concept of arcology is raised on numerous occasions in reference to the massive apartment blocks that make up the city.

On such building is Barrytown, an arcology in the projects which is the setting for much of the second novel. Throughout the novel, it is indicated that the people here generate their own food, such as the catfish farms that exist near the top of the building. Trees are also grown on specific levels to generate oxygen which is then fed into the building’s air recirculation system. And finally, mentions are made that there are air turbines on the roof of many project buildings which generate electricity for the inhabitants.

Being such a massive, futuristic city, the Sprawl features many such structures, all of which are described as giant skyscrapers that house tens of thousands of people within their tall frames. And ultimately these are all contained beneath the a series of geodesic domes which encapsulate the city and generate peculiar weather patterns consistent with micro-climates. In this way, the BAMA itself is one massive structure, containing hundreds of millions of people under a single roof.

Zion:
The last remaining free city that humanity could still call home, Zion was not a megastructure per se, but nevertheless fit the definition of an arcology to a tee. An underground habitat that was home to roughly 250,000 men, women and children, Zion was the picture perfect representation of a self-contained living space that handled all the needs of its inhabitants internally.

As Councilman Hamann intimated in Matrix Reloaded as he and Neo walked along the Life0-Support Level, all of Zion’s needs are attended to by machines. These provide power, heat, water, and are constantly recirculating and recycling them.  Meanwhile, food seems to be either grown in special hydroponic areas, or synthesized in bio facilities dedicated to that purpose.

In terms of its internal layout, Zion is ovoid in structure and consists of many levels, each with its specific purpose. At the apex rests the Dock, where Zion’s army of hovercrafts are stationed and automated defenses protect against intruders. Beneath that are the Gathering Spaces, where new arrivals who have not yet been assigned permanent quarters are temporarily housed.

The middle section is entirely dedicated to habitation, made up of family quarters, and the Council Chambers which houses Zion’s ruling council. The lower levels consist of the Meeting Hall, Life-Support Level, and Geo-Thermal Generation, where the cities power and heat are supplied from. At the very bottom lies the Temple, a large cavern where religious gatherings are held and people gather to hold celebrations and mourn the dead. This area also serves as a last defensive position in the event that the automated defenses were destroyed and the Dock overrun. This of course became the case in Matrix: Revolutions when the machines attacked Zion and nearly destroyed it.

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What did I tell ya? Clearly, the idea has made the rounds since Soleri’s time. And in all likelihood, we are sure to see the concept popping up more and more as the problems of overpopulation and environmental impact become more acutely felt. There are some who might express disgust and even fear at the idea of living an encapsulated existence, but given the growing need for sustainability and places to put people, will we really have a choice? One can only hope!

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!

The Post-Apocalypse in Sci-Fi (Part II)

Akira:
This futuristic tale takes place in Neo-Tokyo, an ultra-modern city that was built on the ruins of the old after an incident touched off World War III. This is a major them in the movie Akira and manga it was adapted from. Throughout the entire story, there is a pervasive sense of shock and horror over the destruction of the old city, and a sense of dread that it might happen again very soon…

Enter into this story the characters of Kaneda and Tetsuo, two orphan boys who belong to a biker gang that is constantly engaged in battles with other gangs for control of the streets. Being children of the system after their parents died in the war, all they really have is each other and the other members of their biker gang. These surrogate families and their ongoing feuds provide a sense of community and an outlet for their pent-up energies, living in a world characterized by boredom and angst and haunted by a past filled with horror.

In addition, you have Colonel Shikishima, a man who witnessed WWIII and has dedicated himself to the rebuilding and ensuring that it never happens again. In addition to being a main character, he is representative of the generational gap in the story. As a stern, disciplined military man who was shaped by apocalyptic events, he is appalled by the sense 0f self-indulgence which he feels has set in with the younger generation.

And the apocalyptic nature of the story is something which is demonstrated over and over through intense scenes and nightmarish visions. In short, it’s an awesome take on the post-apocalyptic scenario, which could only come from firsthand experience.

Alas, Babylon:
This 1959 novel by Pat Frank is one of the first post-apocalyptic stories of the nuclear age and has remained a science fiction ever since. Taking place in small town in Central Florida, Fort Repose, the story opens with a veteran-turned-lawyer named Randy Bragg who gets a cryptic telegram from his brother who works for the Strategic Air Command. He informs his brother that he will be sending his wife and kids to stay with his Randy, and ends it with “Alas Babylon”, a biblical reference which his brother uses as a euphemism ford disaster.

In time, he learns that the bad news concerns a potential Soviet attack, which inevitably takes place after much escalation. After bringing his sister-in-law and her kids to their home, they are all awoken in the night to the sounds of Miami being bombed. They residents awake to witness a mushroom cloud forming over Tampa shortly thereafter, and the events which characterize the following 24 hours they come to name “The Day” – i.e. a one day war.

The story delves into the effects of “The Day”, which are felt differently by people in Fort Repose. Tourists are trapped in their hotels, convicts escape from jails and prisons, the local retirement homes are filled with panicked people, and just about everyone tries to withdraw their money from the local bank and buy up supplies. The only reliable means of news comes through short wave radio.

As chaos begin to set in, Randy begins to organize neighbors to provide housing, food, and water for themselves and organizes the community to defense itself against highwaymen. As an active Army Reserve officer, Randy learns that he has the legal right to exercise martial law, and an order comes in over the short wave from the acting Chief Executive (who is governing from a bunker in Colorado) for any surviving officers to form local militias.

In the end, military helicopters arrive to evacuate people, but are refused as the locals tell them that they want to stay in the new home they have built. They learn the war is over, that the USA prevailed, and that country is now being run from Denver. However, the victory came at a tremendous cost, Millions are dead, entire stretches of the country are irradiated and won’t be habitable for a thousand years, and the US is now a third-rate power that is dependent on third world countries for aid. Faced with this prospect, the people of Fort Repose settle in and decide to face the “thousand year” night that is coming.

This book not only introduced readers to the likely prospect of what would happen in the event of WWIII, it also presented a likely scenario of how that was going to happen. While it the Soviets were apparently planning an attack in the first place, it was an accident that touched everything off. And in the end, how people went about rebuilding and trying to restore some semblance of normalcy was quite classic. In addition to inspiring numerous generations of nuclear holocaust fiction, numerous apocalyptic franchises owe an allegiance to him, not the least of which is the re-imagined series of Battlestar Galactica.

The City of Ember:
This post-apocalyptic story, written by Jeanne DuPrau in 2003, takes place in an underground city named Ember. After many years of continuous habitation, the city is slowly running out of power and supplies. Similar to in tone and structure to Suzanne Martel’s 1963 story The City Under Ground, this city was apparently built to ensure that humanity had a place to live and wait out the effects of nuclear war.

The story begins when a two protagonists, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, receive a message which is apparently left by “the Builders” containing clues that could lead them back to the outside world. This message was kept in a box that was passed down from mayor to mayor, with instructions that it be opened after two hundred years. Until recently, the box had been lost, but as soon as Mayfleet and Harrow find it, the race is on to decipher it and find a way to the surface.

In the end, the children follow the note’s instructions through a series of caves that lead them towards the surface. When they see the city from above, they realize that they are underground, something which they never knew before. This scene, which calls to mind Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, provides the story’s big revelation. The story then ends on a cliffhanger note with the girls trying to alert the other inhabitants of what they’ve found.

The Matrix:
The setting and back story of the Matrix revolve around two fundamental facts: One, that a terrible war between humanity and AI’s took place in the future; and two, that what is left of humanity lives underground due to the devastation wrought on the planet’s surface. Enter into this the concept of the Matrix, a simulated reality where humans are kept docile by being fed the lie that they live in the pre-millenial world, at a time when human’s were still in charge.

But of course, not all human beings are able to accept the program and experience a sort of existential crisis as a result. When Mr. Anderson, hacker alias Neo, is presented with the answers he so desperately seeks, he is horrified to learn the terrible truth. Not only was it the year significantly later than he thought, but the world as he knows it was destroyed long ago. All major cities reduced to rubble, the sky itself has been “scorched”, and the surface rendered a cold, uninhabitable shadow of its former self.

This is a crucial element of the Matrix, which is not just a sci-fi story set in a post-apocalyptic world, but a metaphor for truth and “false consciousness”. With reality so displeasing and harsh, there are many who would prefer the warm comfort of a simulated world, which just happens to be a recreation of happier, stabler times. The metaphor is not just thick, but multi-layered!

It is for this reason that the majority of human beings accept the programming of the Matrix, even if they are only aware of this acceptance on an unconscious level. It is also the reason why those who choose to opt out of it, due to an innate feeling that their reality isn’t real, is a choice which must be made many times over. As Cypher himself demonstrated in the first movie, not everyone has the stomach for the real world, and will willingly betray their comrades for a chance to be put back inside. Others however, find hope in the prophecy of “The One”, the person who’s arrival will herald the end of the war and peace for humanity at last… or so it seems!

The Omega Man:
Released in 1971 and starring (once again) Charlton Heston, this movie post-apocalyptic film is a classic amongst film buffs. Based on the 1954 novel, I Am Legend, this story has gone through many adaptations over the years and has been spoofed and imitated endlessly. Though the plot was updated for the most recent version (2007, starring Wil Smith), much of the elements – a post-apocalyptic world, a lone human survivor, fighting against mutants – have remained the same.

Essentially, the plot takes place in a world that has been devastated after a terrible plague was unleashed and wreaked havoc on the world. In the film versions, this involved biological warfare between the Soviet Union and China – or a mutated cure for cancer – but was only hinted at in the book. In any case, the story revolves around a man named Robert Neville, a doctor who seems to be the last man on Earth, hence the term “Omega Man”.

Though technically not the last living creature, Neville appears to be the last human being who has not succumbed to the most dreaded aspect of the plague – transformation into a flesh-eating mutant. Whereas most of humanity died after exposure, a small minority was converted, leaving an even smaller minority of infected to be hunted as prey. Living in a fortified apartment with an arsenal, Neville spends his days patrolling the abandoned city and killing members of “The Family” – the albino mutants who are hunting him.

At the same time, Neville is dedicated to finding other survivors who have not turned. Eventually, he is saved by one such group of people, but discovers that they are not immune as he is. He decides to treat others using his own blood as a serum, while at the same time escaping to the wilderness to start a new life while leaving the mutants to die in the city. Ultimately, Neville is forced to sacrifice himself to stop the Family from overtaking the rest of them, but the survivors make it out, carrying with them a vial of his blood.

Though significantly different from the original novel, all versions of the story deal with a world in which all of humanity has been wiped out by a biological agent, not nuclear war or a natural disaster.

The Road:
This 2006 novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was adapted into a 2009 movie of the same name, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a father and son wander the landscape together. Though it is not specified what caused the destruction they are forced to witness and endure, what is clear is the effect it had on the survivors. Most people have given up hope in the ashen landscape, while others struggle to stay alive and some even turn to cannibalism to survive.

The plot involves an unnamed father and son who are venturing south towards the coast because they have realized that they will not survive the winter where they lived. Though the father is dying and they have barely any possessions to speak of, and the land in between is filled with horrors, the two keep going, fending off roving bands of cannibals and raiders and maintaining hope that the coast will be their deliverance.

All along, is father assures his son that they are the “good guys” who are “carrying the fire” through a dark terrible land. In the end, they find no refuge when they reach the sea and are forced to venture back inland, but the father finally succumbs to his illness and dies. He tells his son to maintain hope and to speak to him in his mind after he is gone, and the boy holds a vigil for days over his father’s body when he finally passes on.

With no idea what to do or where to go, he is eventually found by another family who claim to have been tracking them. The father of the group assures him he is one of the “good guys” and asks the son to join them. With no other options available to him, he agrees to join them and they set off together to find a new home.

Inspired by McCarthy’s own relationship with his son, and a great deal of speculation about what the apocalypse would look like, this story is a very personal take on the end civilization and the struggle to survive. Whereas a great deal of the survivors have resorted to unspeakable acts in order to stay alive, McCarthy redeems humanity by showing the lengths to which regular people will go to protect their families and ensure that good people live on when all the world goes to hell.

The Scarlet Plague:
Here we have a post-apocalyptic classic that predates the nuclear age. Written by Jack London and published in 1912, this story was the original “last man on Earth” scenario which inspired such works as I Am Legend and many others. In addition to being based on the idea of a plague wiping out nearly all of humanity, the stories resolution involves the main character imparting his knowledge to others to ensure that something survives when he is gone.

The story is set in San Francisco in the year 2073, sixty-years after a terrible epidemic, known as the Red Death,has depopulated the planet. Enter into this the story’s protagonist, a man named James Howard Smith, a survivors from the pre-plague era. As an aging man living in the San Francisco area, he is faced with the unpleasant question of what will happen when he dies. As one of the few people who is old enough to remember the pre-plague days, he possesses rare knowledge which will be lost.

Through Howard’s narrative, we learn how the plague spread throughout the world and of the struggles of the handful of survivors it left in its wake. This is apparently being told to his grandchildren, who he has decided to teach everything he knows to ensure that his knowledge will not be lost.

Much like the novels it helped inspire, the Scarlet Plague’s real value lies in its personal nature, relating how the struggle to survive goes beyond the mere physical. In the end, it is when people are facing death that what is most important in life is realized and affirmed. Or to put it is as Commander Adama did, “It’s not enough to survive. One must be worthy of survival.” Sorry! My mind keeps going back to BSG with all this post-apocalyptic talk. More on that one later…

The Terminator:
Central to the story of the Terminator franchise is “Judgement Day”, the day when humanity was nearly destroyed in a nuclear holocaust that was triggered by the sentient machine known as “Skynet”. This serves as the backdrop to the story, along with the ensuing war between the human resistance and the machines its spawned.

Though the majority of the story takes place in modern-day Los Angeles, a great deal of attention is dedicated to the war in the future and what life is like for those who survived Judgement Day. Kyle Reese described his life in the following way: “There was a nuclear war… There were survivors. Here, there. Nobody even knew who started it. It was the machines… I grew up after. In the ruins… starving… hiding from [Hunter-Killers]. Patrol machines built in automated factories. Most of us were rounded up, put in camps for orderly disposal. ”

Eventually, these camps were liberated by John Conner, the leader of the Resistance. After training and equipping the survivors, effectively turning them into a fighting force, Conner led them in a protracted war against the machines. For the most part, the resistance lived and operated out of underground facilities and went out at night to fight HK’s and Terminator’s, guerrilla-style. Survivors and refugees were gathered in these facilities, and their defenders were forced to constantly be on guard against infiltrators. Eventually, John Conner organized all his fighters into a massive offensive force and led them against the Skynet’s central HQ, destroying it and winning the war for humanity.

It was for this exact reason that the machines built their time machine and began sending Terminators back into the past. Since they could not defeat Resistance in the present, they reasoned that eliminating their commander before he was even born was their only recourse. This provides the set up for the entire franchise, with both the machines and the Resistance sending people back in time; the former to kill him and the latter to protect him and ensure that the war could be prevented.

The Walking Dead:
Fans of this franchise will know instantly why I’ve chosen to include it on this list. Not only is it a gritty, realistic take on the zombie apocalypse, but it also manages to capture the essence of survival and the struggle to stay human when everything around you has fallen. Part of what makes this show so bang on is the fact that the character’s personal struggles go well beyond the need to stay alive.

In addition to finding food, ammo, and a place to set down, there’s also the constant battle to keep hope alive. This takes them at first to the CDC, where the expect to find answers, a cure, and some protection. But of course, all they find is a single scientist who can explain how the zombie illness works, but has no idea how to cure it.

And of course, the familiar and realistic themes of loss, suicide, procreation, betrayal, and brutalization play a central role to the development of the story. Everyone who has survived the zombie apocalypse has lost people near and dear to their heart. As a result, many people have a hard time going on, some of whom commit or actively contemplate suicide. Rick and Sarah, the show’s main protagonists, also face a tough choice when they realize she is pregnant. Essentially, they’re not sure it would a good idea to bring a baby into this post-apocalyptic world. Much like the decision to carry on, it often seems that embracing death would be a far more merciful decision.

Amongst the other main characters, there is also the extremely difficult choice between survival at all costs and maintaining one’s humanity. Whereas Shane seems to favor survival, and becomes a hardened, amoral man who will kill anyone who gets in his way, the elderly Dale is committed to not being pulled down into a world of misery and letting it change him. With everyone else, the decision is the same, with people falling to one side or the other and divisions setting in.

Giant Robots (vol. 3)

As Smith said that ambiguous sequel known as Matrix: Reloaded, “More!” And what better way to start this latest list off than with an example from that franchise…

APU:

Concept by davpea1 at deviantArt

Starting off today’s list is the Armored Personnel Unit (or APU) from the Matrix trilogy. Making it’s first appearance in Matrix: Reloaded, it’s real c0ntribution came in Revolutions when every single unit in existence was used in the defense of Zion.

Hydraulically operated, the APU was run by a single operator who sat in a central cage and operated everything through a series of hand controls and leg straps, much like the Cargo Loader from Aliens.

It’s weaponry consisted of two 30mm cannons which are mounted on the arms. Loading these weapons required the assistance of an ammo carrier who would feed the ammo boxes into the back with the assistance of the APU’s crane. Due to its flexible reach, a single APU could defend itself from multiple Sentries without much difficulty.

During the battle for Zion, some 350 APU’s took part in the defense. Unfortunately, they faced overwhelming odds and all were lost. Though some were still functional even after their pilots died, their systems were rendered inoperative after the Hammer arrived on scene and detonated its EMP device.

Arm Slave:
https://i0.wp.com/ih2.redbubble.net/image.10793093.2886/flat,550x550,075,f.u1.jpgThis next example comes once again from the manga and anime world of Full Metal Panic. Officially, the name “Arm Slave” is short for Armored Mobile Master-Slave System, referring to their coordinated unidirectional control system. Basically, this means that a single pilot would be controlling multiple suits, either from inside a command mecha or from a remote location.

Built by the US in the fictional FMP universe, these powered suits went on to become the mainstay in every western army, giving new meaning to the term “mechanized infantry”. However, these mecha were featured chiefly as the weapons of Amalgam and Mithril, organizations to whom the main characters were members.

In the course of the story, every state produced its own variations of the Arm Slave and the design went through several generations. Beginning as smaller variants powered by internal combustion engines, the later models would feature cold fusion reactors and electroactive polymer muscles, making them faster, more mobile, and capable of much better performance. In terms of weapons, the Arm Slave is limited only to what it can carry, making many different configurations possible.

These include, but are not limited to, two 12.7 mm chain guns, two XM18 wire guns, a single 40, 57, or 70 mm smooth-bore cannon, a single missile launcher, or hand to hand weapons such as the M1108 anti-tank dagger or the GRAW-2 Monomolecular cutter. And given its raw power and strength, it can also attack with its bare hands and just bash things to death. Good to have options!

AT-ST:
The other famous walker from the original Star Wars universe! Designated as the All Terrain Scout Transport, the AT-ST was a bipedal walker that was created by the Republic for use in the Clone Wars, but saw more extensive service with the Empire during the Galactic Civil War.

Appearing in both Empire and Jedi, the scout walker was basically the reconnaissance version of the AT-AT, often serving in a support capacity during major assaults. However, in situations where the terrain was more dense and difficulty to navigate, as was the case with Endor, the AT-ST was considered more favorable. Hence why the Imperial garrison chose to deploy several in the field while keeping their AT-AT closer to the shield generator station itself.

In terms of armaments, the AT-ST carried a twin-blaster cannon on the front of its module, along with a light twin blaster and a concussion grenade launcher mounted one either side. While relatively fast and able to negotiate Endor’s heavily wooded terrain, its bipedal configuration and relatively thin armor made it vulnerable to the Ewok’s log traps.

Two were destroyed in this way, while another was commandeered by Chewi and two Ewoks and used to destroy a fourth. Without any walker remaining to provide cover, the garrison was quickly routed and all their speeders destroyed. Not a very good record of service, being beaten by furry wooded creatures and their flying logs!

Dreadnought:

Concept by garr0t at deviantArt

Back to the good ol’ universe of Warhammer 40k with another installment! And this time around, boy did we bring out the heavy hitters! Here we have the Dreadnought, a heavy cybernetic mecha that is similar in concept to the Dragoon and Immortal from Starcraft.

Basically, whenever a Space Marine is mortally wounded in combat, they can have their remains transferred into one of these behemoths so they can keep on fighting. Entombed within the unit ceramite skin, the pilot controls the Dreadnought through a series of neural links from a command “sarcophagus”.

As a heavy mech, the Dreadnought’s primary function is that of infantry support. Its weaponry can take many different configurations, but often involves laser or gatling cannons mounted in the arms, missile launchers embedded in the shoulders, and additional launchers or cannons mounted over the head. Smaller weapons are generally mounted under the upper body for point-defense against lighter infantry as well.

Enhanced Powered Armor:
Enhanced_Powered_ArmorThis next example comes from the F.E.A.R. gaming universe. Known as EPA’s, these bad boys are the latest generation of powered armor to come from this universe and are by far the biggest and baddest of the bunch!

Much like its predecessor, the Elite Powered Armor, the Enhanced was designed for combat against both infantry and vehicles. For these purposes, it is armed with two GAU-19/A heavy rotary machine guns, one on each arm. In addition, it has three sets of rocket launchers, mounted in the shoulders and above the right arm, that launch homing missiles.

For strictly defense and maintenance purposes, the EPA also has an automatic repair system which activates when the unit is heavily damaged and a new shielding system. Although it does not have the ability to engage in melee attacks with its hands, it is still capable of generating powerful stomp attacks with its feet that send powerful shockwaves in all directions. Because of their power and obvious expense, these units are rarely encountered in the game, and only ever at the end of a level.

Gun X Sword:
Gun-X-SwordBack to the world of anime, this time for a robot that puts the swash in swashbuckling! Officially known as “Dann of Thursday”, this mecha comes from the anime of the same name and was the personal powered armor of Van, the show’s main protagonist.

Built to resemble its user, who is also tall and lanky, this mecha is unique amongst its peers in that it has no ranged weapons. All its capabilities revolve around its central blade, which while in compact form, causes the mech to resemble a giant sword. When in humanoid form, this blade can be wielded as a single sword, or broken down for use as two.

In additi0n, Dann has also has an electromagnetic shield which protects it from ranged attacks. This allows van to close ranks with enemy mechs and eviscerate them with his blades. But by far, the Dann’s greatest feature is its ability to heal its pilot once they enter the cockpit. Pretty handy when you need to recover from some wounds, or just shrug off a hangover!

Iron Giant:
iron_giantThere’s something to be said about a gentle giant, even if he is 40 feet tall and made out of solid metal. Taken from the 1999 Disney movie of the same name, the Iron Giant is distinguished amongst its peers here in that it is not only an alien machine, but a sentient one. As such, it is as much at home on a list of AI’s as it is giant robots.

Apparently, this robot was meant for first contact purposes, possessing the ability to learn and boasting some rather impressive defensive protocols. When activated, these weapons are capable of evaporating tanks, aircraft and entire platoons of infantry. However, as was demonstrated, these only become active when the robot is threatened, or he becomes angry.

And few things make an Iron Giant more angry than threatening his best friend in the world, which in this case was the little boy Hogarth Hughes. In addition to seeing past his massive metal frame, Hogarth taught him how to understand English and acted as his guide to the confusing world of humans.

Above all, the Iron Giant demonstrated a tremendous capacity for emotion. Aside from anger, he also demonstrated love, attachment and empathy. This last aspect was demonstrated when he chose to sacrifice himself rather than bring destruction down on the town of Rockwell (obvious allusion to Roswell). Having learnt that a nuclear missile was heading for him, he chose to fly away to intercept it rather than let it destroy everything and everyone around him. So sad when gentle giants are misunderstood!

Nova (Black Hawk):

"Blackhawk 1st test run" by pinksniperiii
“Blackhawk 1st test run” by pinksniperiii

Back to Battltech, once again for an Omnimech that is the workhorse of the Clans that employ it. Known as the Nova by its inventors, it also bears the name of Black Hawk by the Inner Sphere who captured one and began producing their own variants of it.

Designed initially for infantry support, the Nova was unique in that it was built with hardpoints which allowed infantry soldiers to easily mount and dismount. As such, the Nova could function as a mech and a sort of battle taxi, ferrying infantry into battle alongside it.

In terms of armaments, the Nova was again unique in that it could be armed exclusively with energy weapons, 12 of them to be exact. However, in other configurations, it could be outfitted with machine guns, autocannons, gauss rifles, or even a sword. These would be mounted almost entirely on its arms, but also in two large clusters around the head.

Unfortunately, production of this model soon ceased after a unit was captured by Inner Sphere forces and duplicates fashioned. Believing that their mech design had been compromised, the Clans began to focus on other models to serve as their omnimechs of choice.

Sentinels:
This example is kind of obvious, surprised I didn’t think of it sooner. While I was never much of a fan of the comics, I did see a few episodes of the animated show, and these things certainly made an appearance! As a potential shout out, they were also featured in the movie X-Men: The Last Stand, appearing in the Danger Room as a simulation.

In the comic books and animated series, however, these massive robots made several appearances and were quite important to the overall story. Designed for hunting mutants, the Sentinels went through several different models. However, the most common were three stories tall, capable of flight, employed energy weapons, and had advanced sensors which could detect mutants.

In addition, their programming ran from the semi-intelligent, involving advanced tactical thinking and decision-making skills, to the fully self-aware. But of course, these were few in number, usually designed for the sole purpose of commanding other Sentinels (such as the Master Mold). Many Sentinels were designed to be capable of learning from their engagements, adjusting strategies to deal with mutants of varying ability.

Often serving as the antagonists in the X-Men universe, these robots were nothing if not a prime example of terrifying gigantism! Can’t believe I didn’t think of them sooner!

VF-0 Pheonix:
And last, but certainly not least, we return to the Macross universe for another example of an over-sized mecha! In this case, we have what’s known as a variable fighter, which is basically a mecha that is capable of transforming from an aircraft to a humanoid form.

As part of Earth’s plan to counter a Zentraedi invasion, the Pheonix was a merger of fighter designs with Overtechnology. Composed of titanium/carbon composite, space metal alloy and SWAG energy converting armor, this mecha is capable of operating in space, upper atmospheres, lower atmospheres and even underwater. It’s clipped wing air design also ensures a great deal of maneuverability when in flight mode.

In terms of armaments, the Pheonix prefers energy weapons to autocannons due to a lack of internal storage space. As a result, it comes equipped with either one VF-0A/D or two VF-0S fixed Mauler laser cannons, and multiple micro-missile launchers mounted in the shoulders and chest. In flight mode, it is also capable of carrying a GPU-9 35 mm gatling gun pod and up to twelve air to air or air to ground missiles or guided munitions.

The Pheonix also comes with the added feature of being able to carry reactive armor for added protection. In fighter mode, it has two seats, one for the pilot and one for a radar engineer, similar to the F-14 Tomcat. And like most variable fighters, it can also deploy in GERWALK mode (or Ground Effective Reinforcement of Winged Armament with Locomotive Knee-joint ), a sort of half-fighter, half humanoid configuration which allows for ground assaults and quick take off.