Reading the Gonzo Apocalypse

At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I had read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.

After the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve I kept reading post-apocalyptic fiction. For whatever reason — maybe because every daily headline was more absurd than yesterday’s — the stories I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world. For the interested, here’s a quick update on the stuff I read.

Sea of Rust and Oryx and Crake

Machine or Mannequin With Parts Made in Japan

It’s ridiculous how much I enjoyed Sea of Rust (2017), C. Robert Cargill’s cinematic novel of what happens after the robot apocalypse, in which the tin-man rebellion that exterminated all human life is immediately followed by a civil war among AIs.

The result is a scorched planet inhabited by the few remaining freebots trying to keep one step ahead of warring mainframes, which want to assimilate them (and each other) and ultimately become the Earth’s singular intelligence. With factories under the dominion of the mainframes, freebots like Brittle must scour the wastes for the spare parts needed to survive. Unfortunately, Brittle is also one of the last remaining Comfortbots — an automaton nurse and caregiver — which puts her in literal crosshairs when the only other remaining Comfortbot starts to fail and needs her parts.

Cargill, a screenwriter, keeps the thrill-ride steamrolling along, peppered by flashbacks to the events before, during, and after the robot uprising. His style is perhaps a little unpolished — among other flaws is a tendency to punctuate. Sentences. Like. It’s. Twitter. Circa. 2016. — and for a self-aware toaster oven, Brittle doesn’t seem to have much on her mind beyond PTSD.

That said, it’s hard to stay angry at a novel in which an assortment of Futurama robots battle hive-mind drones atop a speeding Mad Max battle wagon. Alexa, make sure to pre-order the sequel — and please, don’t kill me.

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Yet what to think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)? On one hand I found it every bit as unputdownable as Sea of Rust, largely due to its kindred vision of created usurping creator. On the other, I learned the darling lefty author of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has some rather narrow worldviews.

Just as Handmaid originated from Atwood’s anxiety over the state of women’s reproductive rights during the 1980s evangelical movement, Oryx and Crake has its genesis in her clear concern over GMOs. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a bedsheet, cared for by genetically modified people called Crakers. While wallowing in his own stink and self-pity — our protagonist brings to mind Thoreau’s jibe that “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” — Snowman recalls his years as Jimmy, living in a crony-corporatist America where sequestered scientists churn out GMO medicines, enhancements, and food for consumers in the pleeblands.

You’d have to be very inattentive to miss where the book is going once Jimmy encounters a transfer student named Glenn but that predictability doesn’t diminish enjoyment of Atwood’s dystopia. Glenn is a sociopath and a genius, and he and Jimmy spend their days watching crush videos on the dark web and footage of pleebland riots on the news. Glenn’s eventual rise as a master gene-splicer (along with Jimmy’s simultaneous plateau into mediocrity) is merely background exposition for the real mystery of how Oryx, a woman loved by both men, fits into mankind’s final act.

Which brings us to Atwood’s cringeworthy depiction of women. Female characters in the novel are sparse (Jimmy’s mother, who’s arguably the most interesting of them, is felt more than seen). Oryx, meanwhile, appears late in the book, usually in scenes of degradation as an Asian child prostitute. Somehow she rises to the level of executive career woman, presumably by sleeping her way up corporate ladders. We never know for sure, nor are we privy to any inner development because she’s presented as — ahem — inscrutable. Ultimately her character exists simply to inject jealous tension between Jimmy and Glenn.

Feminists might argue that’s exactly Atwood’s point — that women are nothing but playthings in a world of male corporate plutocracy — but for me, it’s just weak writing. I kept turning the pages, hooked on thrilling action scenes of a man pursued through the ruins by carnivorous chimeras and Atwood’s lush metaphors (“Amanda Payne shimmered in the past like a lost lagoon, its crocodiles for the moment forgotten.”). But even with all that going for it, I’ve zero interest in reading any of the sequels Atwood has since penned.

Star Man's Son, Damnation Alley, and The Man Who Japed

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire

Andre Norton’s first full-length novel, Star Man’s Son (1952), panders to its audience. Having clearly learned what notes to strike in her previous career as a children’s librarian, Norton laid out YA’s ur-outline some 45 years before Harry Potter with this science-fantasy of rejected teenager turned hero.

Fors is a both an orphan and an outcast, a silver-haired mutant among an enclave of pure-strain human survivors of the Great Blow-Up. After being passed over again for promotion to a higher echelon of his community, he’s faced with the prospect of being a farming drudge for the rest of his life, all because of his dirty blood.

Rather than submit, Fors runs off to explore the wasteland where his father perished, picking through urban ruins and crossing deserts melted into glass by atomic fire. Eventually Fors must consolidate several hostile tribes into an alliance against a rising tide of mutant Beast-Things, who aim to supplant mankind — mainly by eating us.

It’s a boy’s adventure tale set against the backdrop of crumbling skyscrapers instead of castles and dungeons, but Norton took her job seriously (she legally switched her first name from Alice to foster legitimacy among her young readers — I mean, who wants to read a book written by a girl?). The writing doesn’t stray far from simple sentences and straight-forward dialogue, but even so, she managed to sneak in some radical messaging for the 1950s. “Why should there be distrust between the twain of us because our skin differs in color?” asks a black character of Fors, who’s white. “In peace there is trade, and in trade there is good for all,” says another, later. “When the winter closes and the harvest has been poor, then may trade save the life of a tribe.”

Lessons of tolerance and free trade? These days, that’s crazy talk.

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It’s hard to say nice things about a novel that even its own author disliked. Roger Zelazny expanded an earlier novella into Damnation Alley (1969) solely with an eye toward a film deal (which eventually came to fruition in 1977 — and which Zelazny similarly reviled). As a writer myself, I can’t fault his pecuniary motives; but as a reader I have to wish he’d put more thought into what’s fundamentally a great idea.

Hell Tanner is a captured murderer diverted from prison and put behind the steering wheel of a futuristic big rig for a suicide run from Los Angeles to Boston, carrying medicine to cure an East Coast outbreak of plague. Seeing his chance for escape, Tanner puts pedal to metal and strikes out across a United States blasted by nuclear hellfire and infested with swarms of giant bats and other mutations.

The novel’s plot is laughably linear and so steeped in its late sixties atmosphere of California motorcycle gangs, cops, and counterculture that it’s hard to picture the characters sporting anything other than bell-bottoms and fringed leather vests. And while the high concept of the book is matched by Zelazny’s terrific descriptions of monsters and killer tornadoes, secondary characters come and go and subplots are nonexistent, which is why Zelazny’s conceit of a bad-guy-as-savior thrown into a dystopic/apocalyptic setting has seen much better interpretations (e.g., Escape From New York). If given the choice between the two versions of Damnation Alley, read the novella instead — if only because it’s shorter.

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As if we needed more proof that our contemporary reality is a phantasm sprung from Philip K. Dick’s Benzedrine imagination, I submit his early novel The Man Who Japed (1956) as exhibit Z.

Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where civilization has rebuilt after a devastating nuclear exchange, Allen Purcell has lived a strait-laced life under Moral Reclamation, the conformist and puritanical one-world government that safeguards against immorality, which in its adherents’ view is what led to World War III. Purcell is such a good citizen, in fact, that the government promotes him to head its propaganda department.

Except Purcell also has a dimly remembered night life in which he “japes” society through vandalism, drunkenness, and other petty transgressions. His scaling the peaks of success has produced a psychological schism between his square public persona and his inner critic of Moral Reclamation’s inertia and claustrophobia. This conflict comes to a head when Purcell the propaganda chief orchestrates — wait for it — a fake news broadcast.

Later Dick is so much weirder and darker than early Dick, and here Moral Reclamation doesn’t come off as particularly sinister; nonconformists, for example, are exiled to a vacation planet that sounds more like a reward than a punishment. But Dick’s trajectory is still easy to see: his love of psychology and pharmaceuticals, the authoritarian setting, the questionable value of our perceptions. In other words: drugs, dystopia, and gaslighting. Welcome to the future!

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That’s it for 2018. Cash me at the bottom of 2019 to see where the endtimes took me this year. Fingers crossed we’re all still alive.

Let the Dead Bury the Dead

At Electric Lit’s Blunt Instrument advice column, an author asked how to absolve herself from the shame of publishing a book she now feels is “juvenile:”

I saw a tweet a little while ago from someone who said, “I would never forgive myself if I wrote a bad book.” I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself, either, and I can’t figure out how to move on. For a time I thought that I would just work hard and write something else that would be so much better and erase the collective memory of my first book (I think I flatter myself to even think there is a collective memory), but I remain filled with doubt. And self-loathing. This might be a better question for a therapist, but here’s the short version: how do you recover from publishing shame?

Elisa Gabbert, the Blunt Instrument’s fount of wisdom, replied in part:

It makes sense that young people, because they lack experience, would tend to undervalue experience and overvalue talent, which may be all they have. It also makes sense that older people would place a higher value on experience, now that they have it. I am not especially young, so you can take my bias into account, but I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer.

I don’t disagree with anything Gabbert said and her entire response is worth reading, particularly for her discussion of how the vagaries of publishing often result in a disparity between the fondness an author feels for a work versus its popularity among readers.

Yet what’s significant to me is that Gabbert explicitly underscores such shame being an issue of experience. Writers who are early in their careers — regardless of their age — have smaller portfolios and therefore are more conscious of it. If you only have ten published pieces to your credit and one is awful, that’s ten percent of your bylines; but if you’ve written 100 pieces and one is bad, the stink is confined to a negligible percentage.

All writers produce bad copy — God knows I have. Thankfully most of it is lost to the mists of time, but before you tell me that Google forgets nothing, keep in mind it works both ways: yes, some of my bad stuff has fallen down the memory hole but so have some pieces I’m particularly proud of, even though they were authored in the age of search engines. Publications come and go, and often they take their servers with them. The Internet is no elephant.

If you dug up one of those old pieces of mine, the kind I’d prefer were forgotten, and waved it my face, I wouldn’t be happy. But neither would I lose sleep over it. I have a number of aphorisms I’ve developed over the years. For example: The best response to a piece of bad writing is to create another piece of writing. When I start something and realize it’s not proceeding well, I set it aside and write something else. Sometimes I will cannibalize it for words or ideas but at the very least the act was a warmup, a prelude to a new thing. To the inexperienced, a setback or criticism can seem monstrous but to the jaded rodeo clown it’s like, Meh whatevs.

This subject resonates with me, I think, because this week I’m putting the finishing edits on my current WIP, a 37,000-word novella. Today I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, but while I can’t imagine ever hating it, five or ten years from now I may view it more critically. That’s OK because I’d like to think that in five to ten years I’ll be writing even better stuff.

And that, ultimately, is what you have to ask yourself: Does what I’m writing today reflect the best I can do in this moment? Is it a product of my current talent and ability? If not, throw it in a drawer. But if it is, then hustle it, and if your future self doesn’t like it, then tell him to STFU and get cracking on something better. Move forward. Forget the past. Let the dead bury the dead.

Make Mine Wakanda

Let the Dance of Friendship begin!
Fantastic Four 53, August 1966. In the previous issue, Black Panther had invited the FF to Wakanda to test his skills against them. Also, STFU Ben.

My senior year of college, I had a part-time job in the student union. It involved being something like a facilities manager, only I wasn’t an actual manager. I made rounds through the union to keep it clean and functional. If a bulb was out or something was broken, I filed a maintenance request; but if somebody had spilled coffee, I broke out the mop. I counted rolls of toilet paper in utility closets and removed outdated announcements from the bulletin boards. Sometimes I manned the information desk. Those kinds of things.

My shifts began at an awkward time in the evenings after I had eaten in the union dining hall. The difference in time, usually less than an hour, wasn’t long enough to be useful — not enough to study in earnest, although sometimes I would catch up on my assigned reading. Besides, who wants to prep for work by doing work?

Instead, I would watch TV. The union had two TV lounges. At that time of day, one was usually dark and silent. The other was packed so solid some people had to sit on the floor.

The first time I ducked into the popular lounge, I froze in my tracks. The entrance was to the right of the television, so I saw the entire audience illuminated by the glow of the screen in three-quarters profile. Every single face was black.

Now I have to confess what threw me off wasn’t just the black audience — it was also the show they were watching. It was Star Trek: The Next Generation. It had been Patrick Stewart’s baritone, overheard in the hallway, that lured me into the lounge in the first place. I thought to myself, Black people like Star Trek?

In hindsight, it’s not at all strange when you consider Trek history — even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fan — but this was my first encounter with black fandom, or what’s sometimes called black nerd culture.

Watching TV with this group became a regular habit during my senior year. After dinner I would often stop by the TV lounge, wade deep into the room, and (usually) find a seat against the back wall to watch. Alas, since I arrived after the show began and departed before it finished, I never spoke to anybody. We were all too busy watching.

And this audience didn’t just watch Star Trek. Oh no. There was commentary.

What transpired in that lounge was essentially a live version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, only a thousand times funnier. Before me was the screen broken by the anonymous silhouettes of the people in front, all of them cracking wise at the perils faced by the crew of the Enterprise-D. Imagine watching TV with a room full of your favorite comedians — that’s what it was like. I learned to chew gum while watching so I could bite down sometimes to keep from screaming with laughter.

While they often made fun of the interior Star Trek, the crowd also criticized Star Trek the TV show. There’s one episode I remember in particular. Picard and the gang had beamed down to a planet inhabited by blonde, blue-eyed people. It might have been some kind of shore-leave episode. The natives wore flowey garments and were very friendly to the off-worlders — theirs was a perfect, utopian world, full of beautiful white people with blonde hair and blue eyes.

The room went off.

“Oh, they on the Planet of the Aryans.”

“It’s the Hitler World!”

And on and on. They shredded that episode. I think I might’ve been crying in the back.

But you know what? I had a little epiphany in that TV lounge. The Enterprise crew flew hither and yon across the galaxy encountering all sorts of extraterrestrials with sagittal crests and bumpy nose prosthetics, and yet usually those aliens only had one skin color. Black actors would turn up as Klingons like Worf but even that wasn’t consistent because some Klingons were just white actors wearing shoe polish. Just as every alien planet mysteriously looked like southern California, likewise the aliens themselves always coincidentally had pink skin.

So when I see stories about Black Panther breaking records for advance tickets or Presidents’ Day weekend openings, I get it.

Fantastic Four 52, July 1966, was the first appearance of both Black Panther and Wakanda. Stan Lee wrote the script with Jack Kirby’s artwork at full throttle.

If you’ve read my previous thoughts on Black Panther, it may not surprise you that I was very excited to see Wakanda’s realization on the big screen. I didn’t have to wait long. Early in the film we experience a flyover of the countryside before piercing the shield dome to encounter Wakanda’s main city. The skyscrapers have none of the gloomy spires of Gotham or even the blocky pyramids and temples of Egypt (which might be expected since BP’s tribe worships Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess); instead the rounded organic forms of the skyline strongly reminded me of the beehive structures and asymmetrical curving walls of Great Zimbabwe. There are too many details I could geek about — the dragonfly VTOL ships, the throne rooms, the five tribes’ distinguishing customs and clothing and palettes — but suffice to say, Wakanda makes every Star Wars planet look gray and ho-hum by comparison.

Black Panther is unique in comics in that the character is inexorably entwined with his setting. Even Batman can’t share that claim: the Gotham of the Bob Kane era is indistinguishable from any generic cityscape, featuring none of the Gothic art deco we now associate with the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, the very first appearance of BP in the July 1966 issue of Fantastic Four takes place in his home country. Wakanda and its mashup of African culture and super science was baked into the mythology of Black Panther from the very beginning.

Often the settings in fiction are interchangeable; the action can be switched from city to suburbs to rural country without much trouble. In others, the setting is intrinsic. In much the same way as cutting a major character changes a story, moving a Western to New York City radically transforms the original intent into a very different work. Setting, in other words, itself becomes a main character, a silent player on the stage — excise the character, and the original concept is wounded or at least altered so drastically it becomes something else.

Black Panther would not be as successful a character (or now, a franchise) without Wakanda, and the tightly written script by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole understands that. A major theme of the film asks what responsibility does Wakanda have to the rest of the world, and more specifically, to the black world. When you are rich and powerful, is hermitism and quietude a valid strategy of self-preservation or is it complicity with evil? If engagement is preferred, what shape should it take? The film’s plot is an internal monologue of Wakanda the character, expressed through T’Challa and Killmonger. More than just visually depicting the country, Coogler and Cole perfectly communicate the tension inherent in the whole concept of Wakanda.

Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther 8, January 1974. What’s funny is that this map differs from the map printed just two issues prior in which the Atlantic Ocean is shown in the lower left-hand corner. Now it points to the Indian Ocean, which means north is south and vice versa. This whole geographical slipperiness just adds to Wakanda’s mystique — it’s like the place is so damn secret, even Marvel doesn’t know where it is.

Black Panther is a solid film with strongly defined characters and great acting (I couldn’t decide which antagonist I loved watching steal scenes the most: Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, Andy Serkis’s Klaue, or Winston Duke’s M’Baku). Is it the best MCU film yet? I’m still partial to Winter Soldier, but Panther is definitely at the top of my list. I suspect that with its box-office success and the difficult job of introducing a whole slew of new characters behind it — and assuming Marvel keeps Coogler and Cole onboard — the next Black Panther may be the next Winter Soldier. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be patient and go see this one again.

All images taken from Black Panther Epic Collection: Panther’s Rage. Copyright © 2016 Marvel. Fair use! Discussion purposes!

Update: The capital city of Wakanda, so I’ve learned, is Birnin Zana, and Chadwick Boseman has said the cinematic version of Wakanda is based upon the real-life kingdom of Mutapa, the 15th-century successor state to the kingdom of Zimbabwe. Great Zimbabwe, which was built beginning in the 11th century, was the capital of the Zimbabwe kingdom.

Reading Among the Ruins

The World in Winter and The Sixth WinterIn case you missed it, in 2017 I took a deep dive into the post-apocalyptic genre and then posted a mega-review at Medium of what I found.

It wasn’t until I went on J.G. Ballard jag a few years ago that I realized the depth and variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. One book led to two more, and soon what I thought was niche sci-fi turned out to be much richer and plentiful than I had imagined, so much so that I now believe it’s unfair to label post-apoc a subgenre or subcategory of something else.

I scribbled thoughts and impressions as I turned the pages, and eventually I wondered if those notes might act as breadcrumbs to other readers seeking to wander a literary wasteland—especially in these seemingly end times. I present to you the result.

My criteria for the list was often based on obscurity, so there’s no Leibowitzes or Lucifer’s Hammers. Instead, the more off-beat the book, the more likely it appealed to me. There’s some J.G. Ballard in there, naturally, but also some Leigh Brackett, John Christopher, and even Jack London. Still, the list of books I didn’t get to is even longer: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (which I’m told is more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic), and on and on.

Strangely, as I read I felt like every book had something to say about the state of America in 2017, so if you’re looking for something to read that speaks to current times without being too on the nose, check it out.

Take the Next Chance, and the Next

This Is the Noise That Keeps Me AwakeFor Christmas I received the memoir This Is the Noise That Keeps Me Awake, a big coffee-table book about Garbage, probably my all-time favorite band. Incredibly Mrs. Kuhl and I saw them live for the first time this past summer when they toured with Blondie, and it’s strange to think I’d never seen them in the twenty-plus years of my fandom; but then I remember that in the 90s I was ramen-noodles poor and by the time we had money and were doing well enough to afford concert tickets and big nights on the town, we had babies and toddlers.

Flipping through the book at random I was immediately struck by a quote from Shirley Manson. In 2005 the band took a seven-year hiatus, and during that time Manson acted as a killer robot on the show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It’s not as weird a transition as you might think; Manson had been a print model in her teenage years and intended to segue into acting before, as she said, she “stumbled into music.” She took acting lessons with instructor Sharon Chatten, and although she hasn’t acted much since the show was cancelled, Manson considers it a positive experience:

“She completely changed my attitude to being an artist and my approach to making music,” says Manson. “She taught me how not to focus on results but instead to focus on ideas and taking creative detours and risks; how to cut the strings of who I thought I was and instead be in the moment, completely free of external appraisal.”

No musician, I suppose, begins her career with anything more than a vague idea about playing music. Then one day she may say, I want to record an album, but she has little idea of how the final product will sound, perhaps only a blurred notion at best. There can be no real understanding of the result; she can only understand what she is doing in that day, only in that moment.

She can only record one song, one idea, then another, and another, until she has enough to fill an album. Then later she does the whole process again, then maybe again. Eventually she has albums and albums of music and can look back and see a career and a trajectory which was completely opaque at the beginning.

Having two sons, our family is not immune to periodic Star Wars excitement whenever a new installment appears, and Manson’s sentiment dovetails with a line that hooked me while recently rewatching Rogue One. Toward the story’s climax the heroine Jyn Erso explains her strategy for infiltrating the Empire’s top-secret base. “They’ve no idea we’re coming,” she tells her misfit team. “No reason to expect us. If we can make it to the ground, we’ll take the next chance, and the next, on and on, until we win or the chances are spent.”

Take creative detours, take risks. Take chances. That, I think, is the best new year’s advice I can provide, to myself and to everybody.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.