The Birth of an Idea: Fascis Ardens!

Inspiration is a funny, fickle thing! As I’m sure anyone who’s ever attempted to write knows, ideas seem to come when you least expect them. On the one hand, a person can go months without coming up with an original idea. And then, just like that, inspiration can strike suddenly and without warning. You find yourself not only coming up with an idea, but the concept for a full-length novel!

That’s what happened to me this weekend. Myself and my wife were preparing to head up island to see her family. I was contemplating books that deal with the concept of alternate history, and how ones that deal with alternate outcomes to World War II and the Civil War seem to be especially popular. In the former case, you have The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris, two seminal novels that address what would have happened had Germany won the war.

In the latter case, you have stories like A Rebel In Time by Harry Harrison and The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, which merge time travel and alternate history to examine what would have happened if The South had won the Civil War.

In both novels, the plot revolves around a single or group of White Supremacists who use a time machine to bring modern guns to the Confederate Army. This allows the South to prevail, which they hope will prevent the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the end of Apartheid, and other equality movements.

That’s when it hit me! Why the heck hasn’t anyone done an alternate history story where White Supremacists go back in time to make sure Germany won the Second World War? Sounds like something that ought to have been done by now; but to my knowledge, no one’s tackled it yet. I got to thinking long and hard about it, about the plot, characters and potential twists. Eventually, I had what I felt was the bare bones of an idea. It varies slightly from the premise I just mentioned, but in ways I think work! I plan to call it…

Fascio
For those familiar with the Fascist movement of the 20th century, the concept of the Fascio is probably a familiar one. This was basically just a bundle of sticks with an axe tied on that was set afire at public gatherings. The ritual dates back to Ancient Rome, where the burning of these ceremonial bundles was meant to symbolize lighting the way to the future. Italian Fascists, under Mussolini, especially loved this ancient ritual, which they used to draw a connection to the past as much as to point to the future. Like all Fascist rituals, it was an inherent contradiction, more regressive than progressive in nature. But hey, the Fascists didn’t do logic…

Plot:
The story opens in 2050, where the world is reeling from the worst ravages of climate change and Fascist parties are once again taking hold of Europe and North America in response to numerous humanitarian crises. Two young history enthusiasts, believing that the worst is coming, decide to take advantage of an experimental new technology: Time Travel!

Using a machine they gain access to, the duo plan to travel back in time to Germany in 1920, where they plan to find a despondent young military officer named Hitler. Using futuristic technology, they plan to kill him without leaving a trace, and return to the future where things are surely to be much better.

Unfortunately, the time machine sends them to 1941 by accident. Unsure that they will be able to use the machine again in the future, they resolve to kill Hitler during the height of World War II, before he can enact the Final Solution and invade Russia. Relying on their knowledge of history and advanced technology, they manage to kill Hitler at his headquarters weeks before the Battle of Britain was to end and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) began. After making a hasty retreat, they jump in the return module and set course of the future.

However, once again the machine drops them off in the wrong year. Rather than traveling 109 years into the future, they arrive in 1962, at roughly the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis from their own timeline, and find a world starkly different than the one they read about in history books. Rather than finding a world dominated by the two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, two different but equally menacing empires are in place. On the one side, there’s the Pan-American Alliance, led by the US, and on the other, the Axis Forces.

After combing through some records at the local library, they learn the terrible truth: assassinated Hitler in 1941, rather than ending the Second Word War, led Germany to victory. Without Hitler’s questionable and erratic leadership, Germany avoided making several mistakes which were directly attributable to him. For one, Germany did not give up the Battle of Britain a few weeks shy of victory. By choosing to maintain their operations against the RAF and its coastal airfields, they eventually overcame Britain’s air defenses. This allowed them to come to a cease fire agreement which took Britain out of the war.

Then, in 1942, they invaded Russia and were successful in capturing Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, all within the space of a year. This led to the creation of Germania, an Empire which reached from Northern France to the Ural Mountains. In the Mediterranean, Italy became the dominant power, with possessions in the Balkans and all across North Africa. The US still went to war with Japan in the Pacific, where they were victorious, but in Europe, the Nazis and their Fascist allies were never defeated.

Thus the world was divided into two major power blocs. The US, Canada, Mexico and all of South America joined together and maintained alliances with India, Japan, China and Australia to safeguard against expansion into Asia and the Pacific. Germany, Italy, and their subservient allies came together to dominant Eurasia and set their eyes on the Middle East, Africa, and further East. Both sides developed nuclear weapons, and by 1960, tensions had reached an all-time breaking point.

Hence, the two historians bear witness to a different “Missile Crisis”, which still takes place in 1962, but was between the Axis and Allies, and actually took place. When the bombs begin to fall, they die, since the future they left is now erased from existence. In their last few moments, they realize the folly of tampering with timelines. Such things are just too complicated for people to handle!

And I was thinking about a possible epilogue chapter where the two main characters meet each other in the alternate future they have now created. The world they live in is a post-apocalyptic landscape, roughly ninety years since World War III, where life is hard and people live by a new form or “Iron Rule” – the rule of survival at all costs. Not sure, we’ll see…

So that’s my latest idea, a time traveling alternate future addressing World War II and the rise of neo-fascism in today’s world. I humbly submit to my followers for their approval. So tell me, what do you think?

Modern Warfare 3

Hey gamers! Today, I will be wrapping things up in my Modern Warfare commentary with my review of the third and final game in the MW series. Having just purchased it a few weeks ago, and played it through for the second time, I can honestly say that I was pretty pleased with it.

As the climax to the series, it was chock full of action and expanded on many of the strengths from the first and second games. And of course, it took things a step further from the last, developing the multiplayer and special ops features even more. This consisted of larger, more detailed environments, more immersive game features, and plenty of new weapons and added features. But of course, all of that takes a bit of a backseat, at least in this reviewers mind, to the plot.

Naturally, it had its share of drawbacks too, most which were similarly consistent with the previous installments. There were plot holes, some over-the-top elements, and an unnecessary scene (which, like last time, pushed the boundaries of good taste). But overall, I’d say it was a fitting and very fun final installment. But like I said, the plot first…

Plot Synopsis:
The story picks up where MW2 left off, with a grand introduction that lets the player know that they are now in the midst of World War 3. In fact, that’s probably one of the coolest aspects of the intro, where after a montage of chaotic scenes from the first two games, we see WW3, and then the first letter flips to reveal the title MW3. Effective, and accurate since the actions of Makarov and Shepherd in the last game led to an open state of war between the Russian bloc and the US.

The intro then extends to a movie/flash-back scene where what is left of Task Force 141 is heading to a field hospital run by Russian Loyalists in northern India. Things in this scene take place from Soap’s POV as Nikolai and Price are hauling him off the chopper and rushing to get him inside. All the while, Soap experiences flash-backs of everything that brought them to this point, including Zakhaev’s death, Makarov’s terrorist acts, and Soap killing General Shepherd. Price’s voice provides narration, saying how the actions of one man can change the world, even bring it all to the precipice.

Once inside, they begin fighting to save Soap’s life. However, matters are complicated when Makarov’s forces arrive on the scene hoping to take out Soap and Price and anyone helping them. Here, you play as Yuri, one of Nikolai’s men, and are tasked with defeating the assault with the help of a remote-controlled drone. Together, the four of you (Soap, Price, Nikolai and Yuri) escape together, as the last of the now-disavowed Task Force 141.

Cut to New York City, where the Russian offensive against the Eastern Seaboard continues. Here, you change POV’s to a member of Delta Force Team Metal named Frost, which is being sent in to Manhattan to take out a Russian jamming device which is preventing US forces from achieving air superiority.

The fight takes you through the streets of downtown Manhattan and into the NYSE, which is itself being occupied by Russian troops. Once you reach the roof and destroy the device, US air forces move in and take out the remaining Russian choppers and Migs, and you get to fly around in a Blackbird and gun some down yourself!

Next, your team joins a bunch of SEALS as you head underwater to take on the Russian fleet that is still occupying the East River. This journey involves traveling through the Lincoln Tunnel, now underwater, and then into the river itself, avoiding Russian mines along the way. Once you reach the sub and force it surface with some charges, board the sub and take out its crew, you set the sub’s ordinance to target all remaining Russian ships in the harbor and make a daring escape on zodiacs.

With this latest victory, the Russian assault on the US which began in MW2 is now defeated. Afterward, Russian President Boris Vorshevsky announces plans to make peace with the United States at a summit in Hamburg. However, Makarov’s men hijack the president’s airfcraft, causing it to crash land while you (playing from the POV of one of his protective detail).

Once on the ground, you and the other survivors rush to find him and his daughter, but Makarov arrives, taking the President hostage and shooting you. In your last seconds, you hear Makarov demanding the launch codes to Russia’s nuclear stockpile, saying he will see Russia standing over Europe, even if it’s a pile of ash.

After recovering from his wounds, Soap and Task Force 141 proceed to Sierra Leone where they are told Makarov’s bomb maker is hiding. After fighting your way through the local villages, which are in the midst of being raided by local warlords, you find your way to the pick up point. Unfortunately, the shipment of chemical weapons is shipped out via helicopter seconds before you arrive. Price then calls up his contacts in the SAS, warning them that the targets are London, Paris and Berlin.

The POV once again shifts to an SAS unit in London which is tasked with raiding one of Makarov’s store houses along the Thames. After an intense chase, which takes you through the London Undergound and back up to Big Ben, the main attack (against Parliament) is thwarted. However, you soon learn that one of the other trucks made it to its destination nearby and is detonated, killing hundreds of people in the immediate vicinity. Similar detonations happen in Berlin and Paris, paving the way for a Russian invasion and World War III.

Team Metal is then sent to Hamburg to rescue the US Vice-President who is still there. The invasion scene calls to mind COD’s many awesome recreations of historic WWII battles, in particular D-Day. After landing on the riverfront and fighting your way up into the streets, you are to provide cover for the tanks as they make their ways down the boulevards to where the VP’s convoy got stranded. Also, you get to be a tank gunner in this mission (finally!), and take out enemy infantry while the M1A1 drives around and blasts the crap out of enemy vehicles.

Meanwhile, Task 141 heads to Somalia to track down a local warlord who was also involved in the shipment of the chemical weapons. After taking him prisoner, Price learns the name and location of Makarov’s bomb maker – a man named Volk who is currently in Paris.

Task Force 141 heads there and teams up with the French GIGN to capture Volk, which involves making your way through some chemical-infested areas. After taking him prisoner, you are then required to get out of Paris before Russian troops can overtake you. Ultimately, this ends in a desperate airlift off of a bridge as the Eiffel Tower is bombed and falls in the distance.

Volk gives up Makarov’s location, who he says will in Prague for a high-level meeting . The next mission involves infiltrating the occupied city with the help of an old friend – the Loyalist commander Kamarov (not to be confused with Makarov, damn anagrams!) As Yuri, you and Soap take up a sniping position in a church overlooking the hotel where the meeting is going down.

However, the op goes awry when Price gets inside and sees that Makorov has taken Kamarov (again, anagrams!) hostage and is onto them. He then sets off a series of bombs which kill Kamarov and blow up the bell tower, sending Soap and Yuri out the window and down onto a scaffolding.

Before the explosion, Makarov reveals that he knows Yuri, information which Soap gives to Price once the three make it to cover. Soap dies on a table from wounds sustained in the fall, and Price puts a gun to Yuri’s head and demands explanations.

Yuri then tells him that he used to be a soldier in Zakhaev’s army, whereupon he met Makarov. Through a series of flashbacks that show events from MW1 and 2, we see that Yuri was there with Makarov when Price shot his arm off outside of Pripyat in the early 90’s.

He was also there when Zakhaev detonated the nuke he gave to Al-Asad, destroying the capitol and killing thousands of American Marines and millions of civilians. Finally, he was there when Makarov and his men murdered hundreds of civilians in the Moscow International Airport. Yuri attempted to prevent the massacre, but was shot by Makarov beforehand, leaving him to die amongst his many other victims.

Having heard all this, Price decides to let Yuri live and begins planning an assault on Makarov’s fortress in the Czech Republic. As Yuri, you storm the old castle and learn that Makarov is holding Russian President Vorshevsky captive and is seeking to capture his daughter who is in Berlin. Rescuing her becomes a priority now, as the President continues to refuse to hand over the launch codes, but wis likely to reconsider if Makarov threatens to kill his daughter. Yuri and Price destroy the base and relay the information to Team Metal.

Switching back to Frost’s POV, you and your team are now responsible for fighting your way through Berlin, which is still contested, and finding the President’s daughter before Makarov’s men do. In the course of this mission, things go sideways, Frost is killed, and the President’s daughter is taken.

However, they are tracked to a Siberian diamond mine where Makarov’s men are also holding the President. A joint strike is planned to rescue both from the mine, which succeeds, even though Metal’s team leader (Sandman) is forced to stay behind and sacrifice himself.

With the Russian President and his daughter alive and well, he travels to D.C. where a truce is declared and all forces with withdrawn. WWIII is over, but PRice is still determined to find Makarov and make him pay for his crimes. In a final mission, he and Yuri travel to hotel in Dubai where they learn Makarov is staying. Now, as Price, you and Yuri break into the buidling wearing Juggernaut suits and fight your way to Makarov on the top floor.

In the ensuing chase, Yuri is impaled and he and Price lose your armor. Price then corners Makarov on the roof as he attempts to board a chopper and the two fight. Makarov gets the upper hand and nearly shoots Price, but Yuri manages to intervene and is shot dead by Makarov. Enraged at the loss of another comrade, Price grabs a hold of Makarov and beats the holy hell out of him.

Realizing that they are also lying on a glass roof that is about to break, he ties the chopper’s metal line around his neck and falls through the roof with him. Makarov is hung while Price falls to a landing below. With Makarov dead and his work done, he pulls himself up and lights a cigar. Mission accomplished!

Summary:
First off, let me just say that this game is stupid-fun! I mean, holy shit, the action and intensity! Boom! Boom! Explosions! Russians! Thugs and militiamen! Urban warfare and infiltration, predators and submarines! Yeah, it was pretty damn bad-ass. They essentially took what they started in MW2, which was to push the boundaries by putting war directly on American soil, and pushed it that extra mile. That was the aim of course, picking up where the last left off with World War III in the wings.

And they expanded on the warfare by adding new environments, most of which involved destroying landmarks and historic places! And there new twists on the available missions, involving underwater infiltration, working with local resistance, tank gunning and wearing a Juggernaut suit. And like last time, they threw in the AC-130 gunships and predators, giving you the ability to deal death from above. Always nice! On top of that, they really went the extra mile to mix up the action. Fighting aboard a jet airliner while it’s in a nose dive, effectively leading to a zero-g gunfight.

As for the multiplayer and special ops, things are similarity awesome. The multiplayer feature has been upgraded with new weapons, new game profiles, and more options, all taken to the extreme! Endless hours of entertainment are available here for those who have a fast machine and internet connection. As for the special ops, things are much the same, but with some noteworthy additions. For example, in the special ops section, there’s the added Survival option alongside the usual Mission feature. In the former, you fight in different environments against increasingly difficult enemies, each win allowing you to upgrade your weapons and options. In the latter, you’re doing much the same as in game two, fighting in different scenarios with different goals, unlocking new missions as you go

I also enjoyed the flashbacks, where material from the first and second installment was included. It was pretty seamless they way they did that. It even added some explanations and background which added a moment or two of plausibility to the plot. Providing Makarov with a dossier was something they neglected to do in the second game, which left a lot of questions of where he came from and why he was conducting terrorism against his own people, especially since the Ultranationalist are supposed to be in charge at that point.

But of course, there was some problems in and around all that. For one, the game shifts locations so often that you really begin to question how the main characters are able to move so much. Especially Task Force 141; how do they get from India to Sierra Leone to Somalia to Europe to Siberia with such ease? All this feels highly unrealistic, especially since this Task Force has been disavowed and don’t have access to government resources anymore. Is Nikolai flying them everywhere? How is he able to do this? What kinds of resources does this guy have?

And for that matter, there’s the issue of Makarov. In this game, his abilities and resources are even more staggering than in the last one. Isn’t this guy supposed to be a freelance terrorist? How then is he able to find an endless supply of men, guns, choppers and chemical weapons to fund his crusade against the west? In Zakhaev’s case, it was understandable. He was leader of a Russian Ultranationist faction in the middle of a civil war. He had almost half the resources of the Russian military at his disposal, including a nuke or two.

But as I recall, his movement went on to win power after he was killed. After that, Makarov took his place and continues the campaign, clearly not happy with the extent to which the Russian government has gone and wanting it to go further. Makes sense, and since General Shepherd was helping to create WWIII, some of what he pulled of in MW2 made sense. But this time around? The way he is able to always get away, take the Russian President hostage, allude the SAS and Task Force 141, and start WWIII is all kind of ridiculous. It’s like the Joker in The Dark Knight, where the villain has some massive master plan and is somehow prepared for everything.

And there was a small trace of the same controversial aspect that made MW2 a bit iffy. This time around, they avoided the scenes of big shoot ups in crowded airports. Most importantly, you aren’t the one doing it! I still don’t get that, that was messed up! However, there is the one scene where you watch one of the chemical bombs going off in the middle of a London street. It all takes place from the POV of a father who’s recording a video of his wife and little daughter as they walk along the sidewalk and point to Big Ben. Then boom! The truck blows up, and the little girl and mother are the first to die. It’s not gruesome or graphic, but what the hell? Was it really necessary to illustrate how bad the bad guys are? We already know they’re setting off bombs in civilian centers and shot up an airport. What else needs to be said?

In the end, the weaknesses smack of a plot where the creators are trying too hard. More action, more locations, more twists, more adventure. It all makes for a pretty skookum gaming experience, but it’s not what you’d call in-depth, and it’s definitely not what you call realistic. But of course, all that can be overlooked the moment you remember that it’s a first-person shooter! Be thankful you get a plot at all, fool! Now get back to shooting stuff and blowing shit up!

Happy Hunting!

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

The Book of Eli:
This 2010 movie – starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and directed by the Hughes Brothers – takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States thirty years after nuclear war has left it a scarred and desolate place. Enter into this a wandering nomad named Eli (Washington), a man who is wandering to the West Coast with a mysterious book that “a voice” commanded him to take there. As he travels, the importance of his task is made clear, as the history of the post-war world he is making his way through.

Along the way, he encounters a town run by Carnegie (Oldman), a  man who dreams of building more towns and controlling their residents through the power of a (again) a mysterious book he has heard about. His men are busy at work, searching the surrounding countryside for this book, but so far to no avail. When Eli arrived in town, Carnegie forces him to stay, as he is the only other literate person he has ever encountered.

Ultimately, it is learned that Eli has the book Carnegie is seeking, and that this book is none other than the Bible. He escapes from town and is pursued by Carnegie’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis). He explains to her that the Bible he carries is the last remaining copy since all others were destroyed after the nuclear holocaust. He was guided to it by a voice, he says, and has since been making his way across the country, guided by his newfound faith.

Eventually, Carnegie catches up to them, mortally wounds Eli and takes the Bible for himself. However, Solara manages to escape from his custody and begins transporting Eli to San Francisco so he can complete his mission. They come at last to Alcatraz where a group of survivors has been holding up under the watch of the curator named Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell). When Solara reveals they have a copy of the King James Bible, they let them in. Eli, who for the first time is revealed to be blind, begins reciting the Bible from memory.

Back in Carnegie’s town, he manages to unlock the Bible and is horrified to see it is in braille and that his wounds will soon kill him. Meanwhile, Eli dies in Alacatraz just as the printing press there begins printing copies of the Bible and the curator puts the original on a shelf next to the Torah, Tanakh and the Qur’an. Solara decides to leave and head back home, taking with her Eli’s possessions in the hopes of making a difference. She, like him, has become a wanderer guided by faith.

Granted, the message of this movie might seem a little over the top. I, for one, can’t imagine why post-apocalyptic people would destroy Bibles. If anything, I would think they would take their frustrations out on science and turn to religion for solace. Still, the point is made very clear through several key acts of symbolism. Eli, though blind, is guided by faith and it keeps him alive. And though he is robbed of the Book, the true source of it’s power, which Carnegie wants to abuse for the sake of power, lies in Eli’s own self. Really, the message couldn’t be more clear, and yet it is demonstrated with a degree of subtly that one would not ordinarily expect from a movie with a religious message. But it’s not so much about the Bible itself, it’s about maintaining hope and faith in a world where these things have been abandoned.

A Canticle for Leibowitz:
Published in 1960 and written by Walter M. Miller Jr., this novel is a considered a classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by genre fans and literary critics alike. Renowned for its themes of religion, recurrence, and church versus state, this book has generated a significant body of scholarly research, yet it was strangely the only novel Miller wrote in his lifetime.

Inspired by Miller’s own participation in the bombing of the monastery  at Monte Cassino in WWII, the story takes place in a Catholic Monastery in the South-Western US after a nuclear war – known as the “Flame Deluge” – takes place. Known as the Albertian order, the monks who inhabit this monastery are dedicated to preserving humanity’s scientific knowledge and rebuilding civilization over the course of thousands years.

The story opens roughly 600 years after the war takes place, in a time when science and technology, even the idea of literacy itself, has been almost wiped out by a campaign known as “Simplification”. At around the same time, a Jewish electrical engineer named Isaac Edward Leibowitz, who worked for the military, converted to Christianity and founded the Albertan order.

After generations of hiding and smuggling books to safety within the orders walls, Leibowitz was betrayed and sacrificed by “Simpletons”, at which time the Catholic Church had him sainted and ordered the monastery beatified. Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science. The story is structured in three parts titled: “Fiat Homo”, “Fiat Lux”, and “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let There Be Man, Let There Be Light, Thy Will Be Done), with each part comprising six centuries each.

In Fiat Homo, which takes place in the 26th century, events revolve around a young novice who while on a Vigil, finds his way to a bomb shelter with the help of a mysterious Wanderer. The discovery triggers an uproar at the Monastery, as it seems that the shelter contains relics belonging to Leibowitz himself. Some fear the sensationalism triggered by the discovery will hurt Leibowiz’s canonization, which is still being debated. After many years, the canonization is given the green light and Francis is sent to New Rome to represent the order at the Mass. Unfortunately, he is murdered in the wilderness and is buried, by none other than the Wanderer himself!

Fiat Lux opens up  in the 32nd century, 6 centuries later, when the New Dark Age is coming to an end and a New Renaissance beginning. At this point in time, the Abbey is coming into conflict with the city-state of Texarkana, a metropolis’ who’s growth was hinted at in the last pages of Fiat Homo. The mayor, Hannegan, is essentially an upstart dictator who intends to become ruler of the entire region my manipulating alliances and gaining access to the Abbey’s own stores of knowledge. In the end, Hannegan’s intentions to occupy the abbey and make war on his neighbours leads to a schism whereby Hannegan is excommunicated by the Pope and he declares loyalty to the Pope to be a crime in his domain.

In the last part, which takes place towards the end of the 38th century, humanity has once again returned to a state of advanced technology, complete with nuclear power, weapons, and even starships and extra-solar colonies. As a state of cold war sets in between the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition, the Order begins to enact a contingency plan known as “Quo Peregrinatur Grex Pastor Secum” (“Whither Wanders the Flock, the Shepherd is with Them”). As the nuclear bombs begin to fall, members of the Order board a starship and launch for deep space. With Earth about to succumb to nuclear war yet again, the Order is heading out to ensure that both humanity and its knowledge survives.

The stories central themes, which include the rivalries between church and state and the cyclical nature of history, are what make it such a memorable and enduring classic. Even though it is set in a fictitious future, it is loaded with allegories that connect it to the past. Nuclear war in the near future is the fall of Rome, the ensuing New Dark Ages a reiteration of the last, and the final nuclear holocaust between the Coalition and Confederacy represented contemporary fears of nuclear Armageddon.

By the Waters of Babylon:
Also known as “The Place of the Gods”, this short story was originally published in 1937 by Stephen Vincent Benét. Taking place in a future where industrial civilization has been destroyed, the story is narrated by a young man named John, a son of a priest who’s people live in the hills. In his day and age, John’s people believe that past civilizations were in fact Gods. There homes are considered hallowed ground and only priests are permitted to handle metal artifacts taken from them.

Eventually, John decides that he will go to the Place of the Gods, an abandoned city that was once part of industrial civilization. In order to gain his father’s approval, he claims he is going on a spiritual quest, but keeps the intended location a secret. John then journeys through the forest for eight days and crosses the river Ou-dis-sun to make his way to the sacred place.

Once he gets to the Place of the Gods, he finds abandoned buildings, statues and countless indications that the “Gods” were in fact human. When he finally finds the remains of a dead person in an apartment, he comes to realize the truth. The Gods were in fact humans whose power overwhelmed their better judgement, hence they fell.

Upon returning to his tribe, John tells his father of the place called “New York”. It is at this point that it is made clear that the “hill people” live in the Appalachians, and the river he crossed was the Hudson. In the end, his father warns him that recounting the experience to the other tribe members will have destructive consequences. The truth, he claims, can be bad if not conveyed discretely and in small doses. The story ends with John promising that once he becomes the head priest, “We must build again.”

Farnham’s Freehold:
Based on his own experiences in building a fallout Shelter, this 1964 novel by Heinlein involves a family that is transported to the future after a nuclear explosion puts a dent in their reality. In addition to the thematic elements of nuclear war and time travel, the book also contains some rather interesting commentary on race relations and segregation in the United States at the time.

The story begins with the Farnham family holding a bridge game in their home, which is attended by Hugh, his alcoholic wife Grace, their son and daughter (Duke and Karen), her friend Barbara, and a black domestic servant named Joe. After they are alerted to the fact that nuclear war is commencing, the people rush to the bomb shelter and wait for it to pass. When it seems that the bombs have stopped falling and their oxygen is running low, they walk out and begin to investigate.

What they find is that they’ve been transported to Africa, where an advanced civilization now exists that uses white people as slaves. Initially, they suspected they had been sent into an alternate dimension, but quickly realize that they are in the future. They are spared because Joe, their black domestic servant, is able to communicate to their captors in French.

In time, Hugh and Barbara agree to take part in a time-travel experiment in exchange for their freedom. They are sent back to their own time, where they escape from the bomb shelter just as the bombs begin to fall. However, they soon realize that they are not in their own time, but an alternate dimension where things are just slightly different. They survive the war and agree to spend the rest of their lives trying to prevent the future they saw from coming to pass.

The Quiet Earth:
Originally a novel written by New Zealand author Craig Harrison in 1981, this story went on to inspire the loosely-adapted film of the same name which was released four years later. In both cases, the story revolves around a small group of survivors who awaken to find that the world is now devoid of humans and most other forms of life, and that time itself seems to have stopped.

The story begins with John Hobson, a geneticist who was experimenting with using radiation to activate dormant genes, which was meant to have an accelerating effect on human evolution. He wakes up in a hotel room from a nightmare where he was falling, only to find all clocks stopped at 6:12. Upon leaving the hotel, he finds that all clocks have stopped at 6:12 and that everyone appears to have simply vanished. He dubs this phenomena “The Effect” and begins looking for other survivors.

His journey takes him back to his research facility where he finds the corpse of his partner, Perrin, inside the radiation chamber. Retrieving Perrin’s locked box of papers and grabbing some weapons and supplies he sets out for Wellington. Eventually, he finds someone, a Māori lance-corporal named Apirana Maketuin, who agrees to accompany him. They eventually reach the capitol and settle in, hoping to find other survivors and run tests on “The Effect”.

Things deteriorate before long, as Hobson begins to worry that Api might be a psychopath due to his wartime experiences in Vietnam (he finds pictures of him posing with the mutilated corpses of Viet Cong). His plans to kill him with sleeping pills are interrupted when they accidentally run over a woman in the street while joyriding. They return to the hotel and make her comfortable but know she will inevitably die. This leads to a further breakdown between Hobson and Api and they fight. Api dies in the confrontation after apparently giving up.

Finally, Hobson breaks open Perrin’s box and realizes that his partner had him under surveillance because he considered him unstable. Hobson comes to the conclusion that the Effect was his doing since the the project cause the unraveling of animal DNA, and hence only those with the dormant gene pair would be spared. It is at this time that Hobson begins to have flashbacks from his last days at the facility, during which time he sabotaged the machine because of growing misgiving about the project and mistrust for his Perrin’s motivations. It was this sabotage that caused the Effect, and the reason Hobson slept through it was because he took what he thought was a fatal dose of sleeping pills.

Maddened with grief and guilt, Hobson jumps from the window and begins to fall to his death. But then, he wakes up in the same hotel room he found himself in at the beginning, recalling the same dream where he was falling. He checks his watch and it says it’s 6:12… Spooky! Though it bears a strong resemblance to such works as I Am Legend, The Quiet Earth went beyond in that it chose to focus on the themes of perception, culpability, and alternate states of consciousness. All throughout the book, it is not quite clear if Hobson is dreaming, in an alternate dimension, the last man on Earth who is responsible for the death of countless life forms, or just plain crazy.

Shadow on the Hearth:
This post-apocalyptic novel, which was the first novel to be released by Canadian sci-fi author Judith Merril (1950), takes place a week after nuclear bombs have devastated, but not destroyed, civilization as we know it. The plot revolves around a mother named Gladys Mitchell and her two daughters – Barbara and Ginny, who are fifteen and five years of age – as they struggle to deal with worsening conditions and a system that is quickly becoming an abusive dictatorship.

For starters, all civil authority has broken down in the wake of the war and been replaced by the Security Office, a form of emergency services that exercises all power. Gladys’ contact with the services is the local “emergency squadman”, Jim Turner, a neighbor who begins to display a rather creepy fascination with Gladys along with a desire to turn the emergency to his own advantage.

Similarly, the difficult situation breeds suspicion and intolerance on behalf of the authorities who begins see enemies everywhere. The Mitchell’s maid, a woman named Veda, comes under suspicion when it is learned that she was off sick during the time of the attack. Much the same is true of Gladys’ old science teacher, who predicted that nuclear war would be inevitable and now fears the paranoid Security Office might suspect him.

Meanwhile, Gladys tried to maintain a disposition of stoic calm, mainly because she believes its her role as a mother to act as though everything is fine. While her intentions are good, she’s slow to admit that Turner and the authorities are corrupt, that their situation is bleak, or that she might need to manipulate certain people to get her way. But in the end, she is willing to go to great lengths to protect her family, from both external threats and the threat of dissolution.

In several key aspects, this story demonstrates some of the overriding themes and feelings that were present during the early cold war. We have the specter of war and dictatorship, the focus on the single-parent family, the idea of domesticity and sexism, and the affirmation of the mother figure who will do whatever it takes, even if she seems naive and silly, to keep her family safe and secure. While it might seem dated by modern standards, it is nevertheless a fitting and accurate portrayal of life in the 1950’s and the likelihood of what would come of it if the bombs started to fall.

The Time Machine:
Last, but not least, we have the story that has made my lists in one form or another on numerous occasions. In addition to being an example of utopian and dystopian fiction, The Time Machine is also a fitting example of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This is part of what makes H.G. Wells novella a timeless classic, in that it transcends or jumps between genres and can therefore be read from a number of different perspectives.

In this respect, the Time Traveler’s trip to the distant future, where the world has degenerated into a two-tier structure between the monstrous Morlocks and the stagnant but beautiful Eloi, can be seen as an example of post-apocalyptic society. What’s more, their respective degeneration is seen as the result of humanity’s obsession with class distinction, the masters becoming lazy and ineffectual while the workers have become cannibalistic and brutish.

Another apocalyptic element in the story comes towards the end when the Time Travelers recovers his machine from the Morlocks and travels another 30 million years into the future. Once there, he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, a red landscape similar to that of Mars which is covered by lichenous vegetation and crab-like creatures wandering across blood-red beaches. As he jumps further, he sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die out, the world falling silent and freezing as the last organisms die off.

In a deleted section of text, which H.G. Wells apparently included in the original serial version at the behest of his editor, but cut from the novel once it was published. Here, Wells demonstrated “the ultimate degeneracy” of man by having the Time Traveler escape from the Morlocks and jump once more before traveling 300 millions years into the future. Here, he found an unrecognizable Earth populated by furry, hopping herbivores, which he interpreted to be the descendents of the Morlocks and Eloi. Thus, in addition to first losing the instincts that defined humanity at its greatest, the Morlocks and Eloi, themselves descended from humans, even reverted to an earlier state of evolution in the end.

Though not a post-apocalyptic tale in the strictest sense, this story does contain the necessary elements of such a story. You have humanity degenerating as a result of cataclysmic events or its own inherent weaknesses, civilization as we know it being destroyed or disappearing, and even the world itself coming to an end.

Final Word:
And that’s all I got for post-apocalyptic sci-if. Sure, there are countless more examples that could be included, but three lists is enough for me and I’m neck deep in other concepts that are vying for page time. In the coming weeks, expect more news on technology, space exploration, the upcoming anthology, Data Miners (set for release in August) and plenty of assorted tidbits on stuff that relates to the world of science and science fiction. Take care all and see you again soon!

Dystopian Science Fiction

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of dystopian! Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m working on an anthology of dark science fiction with some fellow writer’s over at Goodreads (called Writer’s Worth). Or it might just be that this seemed like the next logical step in the whole “conceptual science fiction” thing. Regardless, when it comes to the future, sci-fi writers love to speculate, and it usually takes one of two forms. Either humanity lives in a utopian society, where technology, time and evolution have ferreted out our various weaknesses. Or, we live in a dystopian world, where humanity has either brought itself to the brink of annihilation or is living in dark, polluted and overpopulated environments, the result of excess and environmental degradation.

As with all things science fiction, the aim here is to use speculative worlds of the future to offer commentary on today. As William Gibson, himself a dark future writer, once said: “Science fiction [is] always about the period in which it was written.” So today, I thought I would acknowledge some truly classic examples of dystopian literature and the books that started it all. Here they are:

Earliest Examples:
Dystopian literature, contrary to popular conception, did not begin in the 20th century with Brave New World. In fact, one can find examples going as far back as the Enlightenment, when philosophers and scholars used fictional contexts to illustrate the weaknesses of society and how they might be reformed. And, in many ways, this form of social critique borrowed from Utopian literature, a genre that takes its name from Thomas More’s seminal book that describes a perfect fictional society. But where More and earlier writers (such as Plato and St. Augustine) used perfect civilizations to parody contemporary society, this newer breed of authors used dark ones to do the same. In short, Utopian literature showed society how it could be, dystopian literature as it was.

Candide:
A true classic, though it is sometimes difficult to classify this work as a true dystopian work of fiction. For one, it is set in the contemporary world, not in a fictionalized society, and revolves around the life of a fictional character who travels from one region to the next, seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. However, this book remains one of the principle sources of inspiration for science fiction writers when constructing fictional worlds for the sake of satirizing their own.

Published in 1755 by the critic and philosopher Voltaire, the story was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the church’s and Leibnizian’s attempts to rationalize it. At the beginning, Candide – the main character who’s name means “optimism” – lives a sheltered existence where he is busy studying and living with his friends and companions. However, this existence is quickly interrupted by the arrival of war, and Candide and his companions are forced to travel from place to place, witnessing all the problems of the world.

These include war, slavery, rape, imperialism, abuse of power and exploitation, and takes them from Europe to the Middle East to the Americas. Eventually, they return home and reflect on all they have seen and whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. They conclude that it is not, but offer a resolution by saying that “we must cultivate our garden”.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Another classic example, but which is often considered a combination between utopian and dystopian novels. This is because the plot involves the travels of one man – Gullliver, who’s name is a play on the world gullible – who’s journey takes him through many fictional worlds where life is either perfect or tragically flawed in various ways. However, since the purpose of these worlds is to parody English society of his day, it is often included as an early example of satiric literature that falls into the utopian, dystopian and science fiction camps.

The story involves four journeys where Gulliver travels to several fictional societies and records what he sees for posterity. The first voyage takes him to the land of the Lilliputians, a race of tiny people who’s morals match their physical size. After some rather brief descriptions of how these people select their leaders (limbo tournaments and other stupid games) we learn that they are a parody of the British system of parliament.

His second voyage takes him to a place which is the polar opposite of the first. Here, in the land of the Brobdingnagians, he is presented with giants who’s physical size mirrors their moral outlook. They consider Gulliver to be a curious specimen, who’s descriptions of his country disgust them. In the end, they consider him a cute sideshow attraction and refuse his offer for technological advances (like gunpowder). Gulliver then leaves, thinking the people are out of their minds, but ironically states that he witheld the worse about England out of a desire to save face.

His next voyage involves a little “island-hopping”, first to the flying city of Laputa, an island nation where technological pursuits are followed without a single regard for the consequences. He then detours to another island, Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures. Then onto Luggnagg, where he encounters the struldbrugs – an unfortunate race of people who are immortal but frozen in old age, with all the infirmities that come with it. Gulliver then reaches Japan, which is in the grips of the post-war Shogunate period, and is narrowly excused from taking part in an anti-Christian display which all foreigners were forced to perform at the time.

His final voyage before going home takes him country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horse-people who see themselves as “the perfection of nature” and who rule over the race of Yahoos – deformed humans who exist in their basest form. Gulliver joins them and comes to adopt their view of humanity – that of base creatures that use reason only to advance their own appetites. However, they soon come to see him as a Yahoo and expel him from their civilization. In the end, Gulliver returns home to regal his family of his adventures, but finds that he cannot relate to them anymore. His journeys have filled him with a sense of misanthropy which he cannot ignore.

Throughout the narrative, Swift’s point seems abundantly clear. Each voyage to a fictitious world serves as a means to parody a different element of British society and civilization in general. And ultimately, Gulliver serves as the perfect narrator, in that his ignorance and naivety allow him to absorb the lessons of the journey in a way that is both ironic and sufficiently detached. Can’t just hand the reader the moral, after all! Gotta make them work for it!

The Time Machine:
Published in 1895, this science fiction novella inspired countless adaptations and popularized the very idea of time travel. In addition to introducing readers to the concept of time as the fourth-dimension and temporal paradoxes, H.G. Wells also had some interesting social commentary to share. In this story, the narrator – known only as The Traveller – recounts to a bunch of dinner guests how he used a time machine to travel to the year 802, 701 A.D. where he witnessed a strange culture made up of two distinct people’s.

On the one hand, there were the Eloi,  a society of elegant, beautiful people who live in futuristic (but deteriorating) buildings and do no work. Attempts to communicate with them prove difficult since they seem to possess no innate curiosity or discipline. He assumes that they are a communistic society who have used technology to conquer nature and have therefore evolved (or devolved) to a point where strength and intellect are no longer necessary to survive.

However, this changes when he comes face to face with a separate race of ape-like troglodytes who live in underground enclaves and surface only at night. Within their dwellings he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He then realizes that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured class of the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes that have devolved into the brutish Morlocks. In the course of searching the Morlock enclave, he learns that they also feed on the Eloi from time to time. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not a benign one, but one characterized by animosity and the occasional act of kidnapping and cannibalism.

Is there not a more perfect vision of industrial society or class conflict? Written within the context of turn of the century England, where discrepancies in wealth, class conflict and demands for reform were commonplace, this book was clearly intended to explore social models in addition to scientific ideas. And the commentary was quite effective, if you ask me…

The Iron Heel:
This dystopian work was written by Jack London, the same man who wrote the classic Call of the Wild, and was released in 1908. A clear expression of London’s own socialist beliefs, the novel is set in the distant future when a socialist utopia – known as the Brotherhood of Man – has finally been created. Overall, the plot revolves around the “Everhard Manuscript”, a testament which details the lives of the story’s two main protagonists and which takes place between 1912 to 1932 in the US. The work is known for its big “spoiler”, letting readers know outright that the protagonists die in the course of their pursuits, but that there efforts are rewarded by providing inspiration to later generations who succeed where they fail.

In the course of this speculative story, we learn that an oligarchy – the Oligarchs or “Iron Heel” – has seized power in the US by bankrupting the middle class and reducing farmers to a state of serfdom. Once in power, they maintained order through a combination of preferential treatment and control over the military. After a failed revolt (the First Revolt) takes place, preparations are underway for a second which is expected to succeed in restoring the Republic. Unfortunately, it too fails and the protagonists are killed. However, centuries later, when their Manuscript is discovered, the Oligarchy has been unseated and a debt is being acknowledged to these characters and their actions.

Thus, London speculates that a socialist society would someday emerge in the US, but only after centuries of dominance by oligarchs who would come to power by decimating the middle class, controlling trade unions, and transforming the military into a mercenary front. His main characters, though condemned to death in the present, will be vindicated in the distant future when humanity will at last overcome its greedy tendencies and usher in a state based on equality and fraternity. Apparently, this novel inspired such greats as George Orwell, but not in the way you think. Whereas London chose to offer his readers a sense of consolation by showing them everything turned out okay in the distant future, Orwell chose to take the hopeless rout to make his point!

We:
The story takes place in the distant future, roughly one thousand years after the One State conquered the entire world. After years of living in a perfectly synchronized, rational and orderly world, the people of the One State are busy constructing a ship (the Integral) that will export their way of life to extra-terrestrial worlds. Published in 1921, and written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the story was clearly inspired by life in post-revolutionary Russia, with its commitment to “scientific Marxism, but was also a commentary on the deification of reason at the expense of feeling and emotion.

The story is told from the point of view of D-503, chief engineer of the Integral who is keeping a journal which he intends to be taken on the voyage. As we learn in the course of the novel, everyone in the One State lives in glass apartments that are monitored by secret police known as the Bureau of Guardians. All sex is conducted strictly for reproductive purposes and cannot be done without state sanction. However, the main character soon comes into contact with a woman named I-330, a liberated woman who flirts with him, smokes, and drinks alcohol without regard for the law.

In time, he learns that I-330 is a member of a revolutionary order known as MEPHI which is committed to bringing down the One State. While accompanying her to the Ancient House, a building notable for being the only opaque structure in the One State where objects of historic and aesthetic importance are preserved, he is escorted through a series of tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world – humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aim of the MEPHI are to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.

In his last entry, D-503 relates that he has undergone an operation that is mandated for all citizens of the One State. Similar to a lobotomy, this operation involved targeted x-rays that eliminate all emotion and imagination from the human brain. Afterwards, D-503 informs on I-330 and MEPHI, but is surprised how she refuses to inform on her compatriots once she is captured. People beyond the wall even succeed toward the story’s end in breaching a part of the Green Wall, thus ending the story on an uncertain note.

In addition to parodying the worst aspects of scientific rationalism, imperialism and the notion of progress, the story also went on to inspire some of the greatest satires ever known. In addition, many of its more esoteric elements have appeared in countless novels and films over the years, most notably the concepts of encapsulating walls, secret museums, government-sanctioned breeding, and machine-based programming.

The Classics:
And now we move onto the dystopian classics that are most widely known, that have inspired the most adaptations and sub-genres of noire fiction. Although updated many times over for the 20th century, these dystopian novels share many characteristics with their predecessors. In addition to timeless social commentary, they also asked the difficult question of what it would take to set humanity free. Whereas some chose to confront this question directly and offer resolutions, other authors chose to leave the question open or chose to offer nothing in the way of consolation. Perhaps they thought their stories more educational this way, or perhaps they could merely merely think of none. Who’s to say? All I know is their works were inspired!

Brave New World:
There’s scarcely a high school student who hasn’t read this famous work of dystopian fiction! And although Aldous Huxley denied ever reading We, his novel nevertheless shared several elements with it. For instance, his story was set in the World State where all reproduction is carried out through a system of eugenics. In addition, several “Savage Reservations” exist beyond the veil of civilization, where people live a dirty, natural existence. But ultimately, Huxley’s aim was to comment on American and Western civilization of the early 20th century, a civilization where leisure and enjoyment were becoming the dominant means of social control.

This last aspect was the overwhelming focus of the novel. In the World State, all people are bred for specific roles. Alphas are the intellectuals and leaders of society, Betas handle high-level bureaucratic tasks, Deltas handle skilled labor, Gammas unskilled labor, and Epsilons menial tasks. Therefore, all vestiges of class conflict and generational conflict have been eliminated from society. But to further ensure social control, all citizens are sleep-conditioned from a young age to obey the World State and follow its rules. These include the use of Soma, a perfectly legal and safe designer drug that cures all emotional ales, promiscuous sex habits, and “feelies” (movies that simulate sensation).

In the end, the story comes to a climax as two of the main characters, Bernard Marx and Lina Crowe, go to a savage reservation and find a lost child named John. His mother was apparently a citizen of the World State who became lost in the reservation and was forced to stay after she learned she was pregnant. Having experienced nothing but alienation and abuse as a “savage”, John agrees to go with Bernard and Lina back to “civilization. However, he quickly realizes he doesn’t fit into their world either and expresses disdain for its excesses and controls. Eventually, the people who sympathize with him are sent into exile and he is forced to flee himself. But in the end, he finds that he cannot escape the people of the World State and commits suicide, a tragic act which symbolizes the inability of the individual to find resolution between insanity and barbarity.

Overall, Huxley’s BNW was a commentary on a number of scientific developments which, under the right circumstances, could be used to deprive humanity of their freedom. In many ways, this was a commentary on how the expanding fields of psychology and the social sciences were being used to find ways to ensure the cooperation of citizens and ensure good work habits. Nowhere was this more apparent than in factories and in the creation of “assembly-line discipline”, which was exemplified by how the people of the World State revered Henry Ford. In addition to performing eugenics on an assembly-line apparatus, the people worship Ford and cross themselves with a T (a reference to his model T car).

But above all, Huxley seemed to be asking the larger question of what is to be done about the process we know as civilization. If it was inimical to freedom, with all its rational, sterile and domesticated luggage, and the alternative  – a dirty, superstitious and painful existence – was not preferable either, than what was the solution? In the end, he offered no solution, allowing the reader to ponder this themselves. In his follow-up essay, Brave New World Revisited, he expressed some remorse over this fact and claimed that he wished he had offered a third option in the form of the exile communities – people who had found their own way through enlightened moderation.

1984:
Ah yes, the book that did it all! It warned us of the future, taught us the terminology of tyranny, and educated us on the use of “newspeak”, “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime”. Where would dystopian literature be today were it not for George Orwell and his massively influential satire on totalitarianism? True, Orwell’s work was entirely original; in fact, he thoroughly acknowledged a debt to authors like H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. But it was how he synthesized the various elements of dystopia, combining them with his own original thoughts and observations, and crystallized it all so coherently that led to his popularity.

But I digress. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1984 (Orwell completed the book in 48 and supposedly just flipped the digits), the story takes place from the point of view of an Outer Party member named Winston Smith. Winston lives in London, in a time when England has been renamed Airstrip One and is part of a major-state known as Oceania. As the book opens, Oceania finds itself at war with the rival state of Eurasia, though not long ago it was at war with Eastasia and will be so again. As a member of the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s job is that of a censor. Whenever the enemy changes, whenever the Party alters its policies, whenever a person disappears, or the Party just feels the need to rewrite something about the past, men like Winston are charged with destroying and altering documentation to make it fit.

Ultimately, the story involves Winston’s own quest for truth. Living in the constant, shifting lie that is life in the totalitarian state of Oceania, he seeks knowledge of how life was before the revolution, before the Party took control, before objective reality become meaningless. He also meets a woman named Julia with whom he begins an affair and rediscovers love. However, in time the two are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love, where they are tortured, brainwashed, and made to turn on each other. In the end, Winston accepts the Party’s version of reality,simply because he discovers he has no choice. His tragic end is made all the more tragic by the implicit knowledge that he will soon be killed as well.

For discerning fans of science fiction and dystopian literature, the brilliance of 1984 was not so much in how the totalitarian state of the future is run but how it came to be. According to the Goldstein Manifesto, which is the centerpiece of the novel, World War III took place sometime in the 1950’s and ended in a stalemate, all sides having become convinced of the futility of nuclear war. Shortly thereafter, totalitarian revolutionaries with similar ideologies took power all over the planet. In time, they became the three major states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, whose boundaries were a natural extension of the post-war spheres of influence.

Also interesting is Orwell’s speculation on how these totalitarian ideologies came to be in the first place. In short, he speculates that dominance by a small group of elites has been an unbroken pattern in human history. In the past, this arrangement seemed natural, even somewhat desirable due to poverty, scarcity, and a general lack of education. However, it was within the context of the 20th century, at a time when industrial technology and availability of resources had virtually eliminated the need for social distinction, that the most vehement totalitarians had emerged. Unlike the elites of the past, these ones had no illusions about their aims or their methods. As the antagonist O’Brien says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

This message still resonates with us today. Even though western civilization did technically dodge the bullet of WWIII and does not resemble the world of 1984 in the strictest sense, the cautionary nature of Orwell’s critique remains. Even if the patriculars of how 1984 came to be did not happen, the message remains the same: human freedom – meaning the freedom to live, love and think freely – is the most precious thing we have. Beware those who would deprive you of it for your own safety or in exchange for some earthly utopia, for surely they will themselves to be your master! There is also an ongoing debate about which came true, 1984 or BNW, with the consensus being that it was Huxley’s dystopian vision that seemed more accurate. However, the jury is still out, and the debate ongoing…

Fahrenheit 451:
Here is yet another dystopian novel that has become somewhat of a staple in the industry. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, society is permeated by mindless leisure and decadence. Virtually all forms of literature have been banned, and local “firemen” are responsible for enforcing the ban. Wherever illegal literature is found, firemen are responsible for arriving on scene and putting them to the flame. Yes, in a world where all houses are fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting fires out, but starting them!

In the course of the story, the main character – a fireman named Guy Montag – begins to become intrigued with literature and discovers a sort of magic within it that is missing from his world. In addition, Guy is told by his boss that society became this way willingly. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of sloth, they chose convenience, ease and gratuity over subtly, thought and reflection. In time, Guy’s choices make him a fugitive and he is forced to flee and seek refuge with other people who insist on keeping and reading books. It is also made clear that nuclear war is looming, which may provide some explanation as to how society came to be the way it is.

In this way, the book has a lot in common with both 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, their is active censorship and repression through the destruction of books and the criminalization of reading. On the other hand, it seems as though the people in Bradbury’s world surrendered these freedoms willingly. It is a fitting commentary on American society of the latter half of the 20th century, where entertainment and convenience seemed like the greatest threats to independent thought and learning. This, in turn, could easily form the basis of dictatorship. For as we all know, a docile, narcotized society is an easily controlled one!

The Handmaids Tale:
Here is another novel that few people get through high school without being forced to read, especially in Canada. But theres a reason for that. Much like 1984, BNW, and F451, The Handmaids Tale is a classical dystopian narrative that has remained relevant despite the passage of time. In this story, the US has been dissolved and replaced by a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this state, women have been stripped of all rights in accordance with Old Testament and Christian theocracy. The head of this state is known as the Commander, the chief religious-military officer of the state.

The story is told from the point of view of a handmaid, a woman who’s sole purpose is to breed with the ruling class. Her name is Offred, which is a patronym of “Of Fred”, in honor of the man she serves. Like all handmaidens, her worth is a determined by her ability to procreate. And on this, her third assignment, she must get pregnant if she doesn’t want to be discarded. This time around, her assignment is to the Commander himself, a man who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Over time, the infatuation leads to sex that is done as much for pleasure as procreation, and he begins to expose her to aspects of culture that have long been outlawed (like fashion magazines, cosmetics, and reading). She even learns of a Mayday resistance that is concerned with overthrowing Gilead, and that the Commander’s driver is apparently a member.

In the end, Offred is denounced by the Commander’s wife when she learns of their “affair”. Nick orders men from “The Eyes” (i.e. secret police) to come and take her away. However, he privately intimates that these are actually men from the resistance who are going to take her to freedom. The story ends with her Offred stepping into the van, unsure of what her fate will be. In an epilogue, we learn that the story we have been told is a collection of tapes that were discovered many generations later after Gilead fell and a new, more equal society re-emerged. This collection is being presented by academics at a lecture, and is known as “The Handmaids Tale”.

In addition to touching on the key issues of reproductive rights, feminism, and totalitarianism, The Handmaids Tale presents readers with the age-old scenario for the rise of a dictatorship in the US. Apparently, the military-theological forces who run Gilead in the future seized power shortly after a staged terrorist attack which was blamed on Islamic terrorists. In the name of restoring order and ending the decline of their country, the “Sons of Jacob” seized power and disbanded the constitution. Under the twin guises of nationalism and religious orthodoxy, the new rulers rebuilt society along the lines of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy.

This angle is not only plausible, but historically relevant. For as Sinclair Lewis said back in 1936 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This is paraphrased from his actual, more lengthy comments. But his essential point is the same. If a  tyranny were emerged in the US, he reasoned, it would do so by insisting that it was religiously right and that it was intent on protecting people’s freedoms, not revoking them. In addition, the angle where an Islamic terrorist attack spawned the takeover? Tell me that’s not relevant to Americans today! Though written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian scenario received a shot of credibility thanks to eight years of the Bush administration, a government that claimed religious orthodoxy and used security as justification for questionable wars and many repressive policies.

Final Thoughts:
After years of reading dystopian literature, I have begun to notice certain things. For starters, it is clear why they are grouped with science fiction. In all cases, they are set in alternate universes or distant future scenarios, but the point is to offer commentary on the world of today. And in the end, utopian and dystopian satires are inextricably linked, even if the former predates the latter by several centuries.

Whereas Utopian literature was clearly meant to offer a better world as a foil for the world the writer’s were living, dystopian literature offers up a dark future as a warning. And in each case, these worlds very much resemble our own, the only real difference being a matter of degree or a catalyzing event. This is why there is a focus in dystopian literature on explanations, how things came to be the way they are. In many cases, this would involve a series of predictable events: WWIII, a terrorist attack, more overpopulation and pollution, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster.

And in the end, the message is clear: whether it is by fear, poverty, or the manipulation of critical circumstances, power is handed over to people who will deliberately abuse it. Their mandate is clear and their outlook is the exact same as any tyrant who has ever existed. But the important thing to to note is that it is given. Never in dystopian literature do tyrants simply take power. Much like in real life, true totalitarianism in these novels depends upon the willingness of people to exchange their freedom for food, safety, or stability. And in all cases, they inevitably experience buyers remorse!

Quicknote: Since getting “freshly pressed”, a lot of people have wrote in and asked me about my thoughts on “The Hunger Games”. Sorry to say, haven’t read it so I can’t offer any commentary. I will however be commenting on a number of more modern dystopian franchises, specifically examples found in film and other media, in my next post. Stay tuned, hopefully something you like will pop there!

Equilibrium

Equilibrium

And we’re back! I tell ya, I’m mentally burnt from reviewing so many classics that I actually enjoyed! But I guess that’s to be expected. Somehow, its just easier to burn and mock bad movies, as opposed to dissecting and delving into movies with real themes, plots, memorable characters and complex messages. And I have covered a few movies in the last while that I had mostly good things to say about. So its about time I got back to bashing something worthy of it! Yeah, that seems about right. Here’s Equilibrium!

Now I already know that I’m stepping on some toes just by implying that this movie was fluff. As it turns out, Equilibrium is a cult-classic with its own dedicated fansite. That’s right, people actually came together and created a website strictly for fans of this 1984-ripoff. Go check it out, its actually pretty respectable: Equilibrium Fans

That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, people love an underdog after all! And considering the bashing it took and how little money it made, its little wonder why its fans would be so dedicated…

(Background—>)
Yes, as already noted, this movie did very poorly at the box office, grossing just over five million dollars, which was roughly a quarter of the movie’s budget. And it was generally panned by critics, earning only 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a metascore of only 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. Little surprise. The general consensus amongst critics was that the movie was a rip-off, a “reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies” as one review put it. Or, as the NY Times claimed, that it borrowed heavily from such classics as Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other science-fiction classics. Roger Ebert was the only one to be gentle, giving the film 3 out of 4 stars and saying that “Equilibrium would be a mindless action picture, except that it has a mind. It doesn’t do a lot of deep thinking, but unlike many futuristic combos of sf and f/x, it does make a statement”.

On the other hand, the movie did manage to attract a cult following that saw all this “borrowing” as signs of quality, who enjoyed the combination of action and sci-fi/satirical elements. But regardless of whether it was seen as a weakness or a sign of quality, the fact remains: Equilibrium borrowed HEAVILY from many sci-fi classics, particularly 1984, and tried to repackage them into an action movie riddled with plot holes, contrivances and topped off with a happy ending. You either loved it or hated it, and I personally thought it was pretty damn funny!

(Content—>)
So the movie opens with scenes of destruction and debacle, telling us that humanity was brought to the brink of annihilation by what was clearly WWIII. In response, a new order was formed, this one dedicated to creating a perfect society through the eradication of human emotion. Hmm, interesting spin on the 1984 concept (not to mention F451 and Brave New World!) So apparently, the civilized people live in a walled city called Libria (obvious reference to the movies title and their value system), the rest live in the “Nethers” where emotion is still practiced. The people of Libria take a drug named Prozium which “eliminates the highs and lows” of emotion (thinking they just mashed the words Prozac and Valium together) and the law is enforced by people called “Grammaton Clerics” who go out and arrest “sense offenders”. Oh, and the religious/political leader of this world is known as the “Father”. He’s the guy who founded the Librian philosophy and leads the state through the “Tetragrammaton Council”, even thought no one sees him except on big huge TV screens making his famous speeches.

Okay, first impressions… Obvious! For one, we have some clear satire on the culture of pharmaceuticals, the pills people pop when they are manic or depressed. Except here, you pop one to cure it all! Echoes of Soma, hello Brave New World! Then we have the Grammaton Clerics who go out and arrest “sense offenders”… They ARE the Thought Police, “sense offense” IS thought crime, and the way they burn the people’s houses and possessions out in the Nethers is every bit what happens in F451. Oh yeah, and the Father is totally Big Brother, and its already pretty clear he doesn’t even exist! And the religious angle is also very clear. The name Tetragrammaton for example, which is Greek for “a word having four letters, is clearly a reference to the Hebrew name of the God of Israel (YHWH). And the Grammaton Clerics, need I say more? Essentially, what they are trying to say is that the philosophy of unemotion has been elevated to the status of holy canon, making it unquestionable and the state’s authority total.

But the action is still pretty cool. For example, in the opening sequence after the intro, we see John Preston (Christian Bale) – cleric extraordinaire – go into a Nether compound. There, he shoots up an entire room of people after jump-kicking the door down and sliding into a room full of gunmen. Seems this is an example of what’s called the “Gun Kata” (or as some people called it “Gun Fu”), where clerics get into the middle of a crowd of hostiles and do a gun dance, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum amount of targets. After clearing this place out, they uncover a cache of art (sense offense materials) and burn them. We also see his partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), steals a book from the scene by WB Yeats and claims he’s turning it in to be destroyed. But you totally know he isn’t! The man is clearly a “sense offender” (dammit, that sounds like sex offender when you say it fast!). Preston quickly realizes this and meets up with him in an abandoned church in the Nethers. There, they have a chat about why he’s chosen to break the law, forsake his career, and condemn himself to death. Bean claims that the price of emotion is a “cost I would pay gladly”. Not sure where that quote is from. Closest thing I could find was “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” by Wimpy, the hamburger addict from Popeye.

Then, in a move that isn’t totally contrived, Preston accidentally breaks his last vial of Prozium and the clinic is closed so he can’t restock. That’s right, an elite cleric lets his stock of mind-altering drugs run out and the factory just happened to be closed so… yeah, he’s screwed until they open again! Then, wouldn’t you know it, he begins to experience emotions and finds the awakening quite appealing (and disturbing because he now feels remorse for killing his ex-partner!) Alas, he has to hide his emotions now because he gets a new partner, some career-minded dude named Brandt who is clearly gunning for the spot of top cleric. Preston’s kids, like something out of children of the corn, are also pretty suspicious (echoes of the Spies from ’84), so he has to be careful at home as well. Only place that’s totally private and safe is the few inches that lay inside his head (’84!)

Oh yeah, we also learn a few things in the course of this that also make little sense. One, Preston had a wife that was arrested and incinerated because SHE was a sense offender. When he meets with Dupont (Angus MacFadyen), the head of the Council under the Father, he is asked how this could have happened. How does an elite cleric, best in the business, NOT notice sense offense in his own home? He replies that he himself has never been able to figure that out. Well, that makes all of us! That and the death of his partner clearly tell us that he’s going rogue real soon! Oh yeah, we also learn that there’s an Underground apparently that operates within Libria. But unlike in 1984, this resistance ACTUALLY exists and literally lives underground. Its now Preston’s job, with his new partner, to find this group and eliminate them.

They then do a mission together where they find a new batch of people in the Nethers, one of them the enigmatic Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson) who has a cache of classical music and antiques. After saving her life, Preston goes through her stuff and has a deep, emotional moment as he listens to some Mozart. This is right out of ’84 again, where Winston found an antique shop in London and was totally enamored by everything he saw in the place. Preston than commits the same act that Partridge did in the beginning, pocketing a book and claiming he was going to get rid of it himself. He then rescues a dog because (holy evil Batman!) dogs are illegal and are have to be put down. He tries to let the dog loose at the edge of town, but that ends badly when a bunch of police show up and he’s forced to kill them using some of funky, acrobatic, Gun Kata moves! Also, in the course of interrogating O’Brien, he finds himself falling in love with her. We learn in the course of things that this lovely red-headed “sense offender” knew Partridge and led him down the path of sense offense in the first place. She’s slated to die now, and he’s obviously not too happy about it.

Shortly thereafter, Dupont summons him again to talk to him about his suspicious behavior. Convinced that Preston is not telling him the truth, he slams his fist down on the table and yells “DON’T LIE TO ME!” Uh, hello? Isn’t emotion supposed to not exist for these people? And this is just the first instance of this kind of plot oversight. Afterward, while practicing what appears to be truncheon Kata, Brandt comes in and starts fighting with Preston and he lets a lot of emotions fly. For one, he keeps smiling! Second, he taunts him by telling him that since some cops turned up dead (his work), there’s going to be a big offensive in the Nethers and all sense offenders will be wiped out on site. No more arrests are processing! Last, he seems disappointed when he looses their match. And these people are suspicious of HIM? No wonder he never suspected his wife, the man’s been surrounded by sense offenders all this time and he can’t even tell! (Still sounds like sex offenders to me!)

So he rides along on one such assault, sees lots of people die and feels bad about it. Then he tries to rescue some hideaways, but Brandt finds him and orders him to kill them. He even hands him his gun to do it. He says “no, you do it”, and hands him his gun back. As if Brandt’s suspicions weren’t already confirmed, he then catches him as he runs out of the “processing center” (where O’Brien has just been incinerated) where he breaks down and start to cry right there in the street. Arrested, Preston has his ass dragged before Dupont (again!) where Brandt tells on him and says that he’s the one who shot those officers. Strangely, Preston doesn’t seem too afraid because, you see, forensics can match bullets to a specific gun. Turns out, the gun used to kill those officers was Brandt’s! We then get a quick flashback to where Preston was handing Brandt back his gun while they were together in the Nethers. Brandt is then hauled off, claiming (screaming, in fact) that he has no feelings. Okay, two things here: One, that whole gun switcheroo happened AFTER he killed those cops. How could he have shot them with Brandt’s gun if he didn’t even have his hands on it yet? This is a major plothole! How could it have gone unnoticed?! Second, Brandt once again is blatantly demonstrating emotion. How is no one noticing this?

Regardless, Preston now seems to have gained Dupont’s trust, so he’s sent on a special mission to infiltrate the Underground. Seems right up his alley, since he’s already decided to become an offender himself. But before that can happen, he must rush home and get rid of the cache of Prozium that he hasn’t been taking. He gets home and rips off the bathroom mirror (he’s been hiding them inside the wall) and is confronted by his son who tells him he needs to do a better job of stashing his vials. His son then smiles! Turns out, his kids are sense offenders too, have been ever since their mother was incinerated! How sweet… Whoa, hang on here! You’re telling me that this guy’s KIDS have been offenders for years now and HE NEVER NOTICED?! What kind of cleric is this guy? First his wife, then his kids, then his partner??? Didn’t he say near the beginning that the key to his success as a cleric was being able to get inside the head of sense offenders? How can he be suspected of being a sense offender when he’s the only one in Libria who HASN’T been sense offending this whole time?

After this close shave, he goes to the Underground and begins plotting with them. Seems they have a plan: they will stage their surrender, Preston will get the credit for the arrest and, as a reward, a chance to meet the Father. He will assassinate him while their people attack the Prozium factory. With the shipments shut down, the people will experience emotions again and rise up against the system. Ah, but there’s a snag! Turns out, as he gets there, that the Tetrarchy have other plans. They sit him down, hook him to a polygraph, and then reveal that he’s been had! Brandt is alive, it seems, and it was all a set-up! And then a video of the Father, which suddenly turns into Dupont, comes on to address him lets him in on the double-cross. The Father (like we didn’t already know) has been dead for years and Dupont has been the real head of state since that time. Oh, and that whole thing of sending him to find the Underground? Part of the set-up! You see, they could tell he was a potential offender, and figured they could use him to locate the resistance and get their hands on them. Letting him beat Brandt was just a ruse so he would feel comfortable and able to fulfill his purpose.

Yeah, this isn’t totally contrived either! According to Dupont, they were looking for an infiltrator to get into the Underground, someone who could think and feel like they did, but who wasn’t aware of it yet. Now how the hell is that supposed to work? This guy couldn’t even spot his own wife and children, and he’s supposed to be an elite cleric AND a latent sense offender? Second of all… what are they, psychic? If he was the perfect candidate for knowing how sense offenders worked, why screw him over? Last, but certainly not least, the only reason he started offending was an unlikely accident! Remember, he broke his last vial and the Prozium factory was closed? Or did they set that up too? Once again, we have a climax where the bad guys somehow foresaw everything, how everything proceeded based on their designs, even though there’s no way they could have planned this without being psychic. Whatever, it’s not supposed to make sense, it’s just supposed to tie everything up into a nice little package!

In any case, Dupont tells him to surrender without incident, but Preston isn’t about to! His polygraph levels go flat, he breaks out the sleeve-guns, and starts blowing everyone away! Yeah, this is another pretty cool action scene, but that doesn’t prevent it from being totally stupid too! I mean, how did he get those guns past the guards? Also, he makes such short work of them that the fight isn’t even suspenseful. A few bullets, a few cuts with his Katana, and everyone’s dead. His ultra-fast fight with Brandt is especially bad; not once did their swords even cross! It was just, swipe, swipe, swipe, and Brandt’s face falls off! No joke! He then takes down Dupont in a Gun Kata fight, but not before Dupont begs for his life, confessing that he himself is a sense offender (he “feels” he says). But Preston kills him anyway, quoting that killing him is “a cost I would gladly pay”. So even Dupont is a sense offender, huh? No surprises there, he’s done enough emoting to put William Shatner to shame! But I guess this was meant to be in keeping with the whole 1984 motif, where the rulers are total hypocrites who don’t follow their own rules.

Anyway, the Underground then attacks the Prozium factory, killing all the guards with ridiculous ease, and then proceeds to blow the place up. The movie then ends with a closeup of Preston’s eye as he sheds a single tear. And that’s not the only piece of blatant symbolism before the movie ends. There’s also the part where Preston wipes his bloody fingers on one of the TV’s boasting the Father’s image, right before he blows this and every other screen in the building away (somehow, this shuts down every screen in the city). So between that and the destruction of the Prozium factory, the system is now in ruins and the people of Libria free to feel. Yaaaay, the sense offenders won! (STILL sounds like sex offenders!)

(Synopsis—>)
I think I better start with what I actually liked about this movie since that is a much shorter list. Yes, some of the action scenes were cool, but Kurt Wimmer (who wrote AND directed this movie) has a thing for action sequences where people die way too quickly. Again and again, we see people sprayed with bullets, tons of dust flying, and dozens of people dropping in the same second. The scene at the end where the Underground is storming the government buildings is the worst of the lot, entire squads of guards drop in seconds as untrained resistance fighters shoot at them. What kind of guards are these? Whoops, supposed to be covering the good stuff here… Okay, the classic sci-fi bits were also cool at times – like how people in the Nethers stockpile whatever emotional materials they can (art, literature, music), and how the clerics are required by law to confiscate and burn them. But here too, things get unbelievably hokey! At the beginning, for example, it turns out that the rogue house was keeping priceless pieces of objets d’art hidden in the floor, which included the (REAL) Mona Lisa! Are you kidding me?

Damn it, did it again! Okay, uh… the shooting locations, which included the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and the subway station under the Reichstag building. Yeah, the way they worked their sets into these locations, that was pretty cool. And the direction wasn’t bad. The camera work, casting and acting weren’t bad either… except for Taye Diggs, who smiles way too much (you’re supposed to be emotionless, dude!) The Gun Kata was neat, and the whole “sense offender” rating system (EC-10, which has to do with the MPAA’s emotional content rating system) was kind of clever as well. Last, there was the clerical/religious angle, which was kind of cool and ironic since the state is supposed to be a society of pure reason, free of emotion, and these terms can’t help but make one think of faith – something inherently irrational.

But other than THAT, this movie sucked! The plot was totally contrived, it was riddled with plot holes, some of them glaring (i.e. the gun switch), and the ending was so totally over the top it was ridiculous! Sure, some of us were encouraged that the good guys won, unlike in the real 1984, but that didn’t make it any more believable or respectable. In fact, it really just felt like Wimmer ripped off some respectable sci-fi classics, splashed them together with a cheesy action plot and called it a movie. I’m reminded of Demolition Man, and the less said about his other flop, Ultraviolet, the better! Uh oh, I’m sensing more bad reviews to come… Equilibrium, folks! Not bad if you’re looking for a guilty pleasure, check your brain at the door!

Equilibrium:
Entertainment Value: 7/10
Plot: 3/10
Direction: 6/10
Total: 5.5/10