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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”
I grunted, said nothing.
It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.
John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.
As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.
The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.
Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online. This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.
However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.
Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.
In any event, there is one conclusive answer to “it’s only a movie.”
That answer is: You’ve already bought a book whose whole purpose is to discuss meaning and consequence in the Star Wars Universe! Everybody who contributed, from accuser to defender, believes there is something worth arguing about. We’ll do it because the topic matters, or because it’s fun to argue, or because we’re being paid to argue. Most likely, all three.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People Vs George Lucas (interview for Filmink magazine here). The film itself is well worth checking out, as it perfectly captures the – to outsiders – seemingly inexplicable fanrage of Star Wars devotees. However, even if the rantings and ravings on camera are not something viewers can relate to, a person would be very hard-pressed to claim they had no idea what Star Wars was, or who George Lucas is, or even – what is the Force? So from that point of view, it is difficult to write off the science fiction franchise as being ‘just for kids’, although on the opposite extreme it is equally hard to insist that it is actually a twentieth century monomyth with a straight face.
Confusingly Lucas himself has made both claims. That is just a hint of how contradictory the man’s relationship with Star Wars is.
Star Wars on Trial amusingly sticks to a court-room cross examination of the franchise itself, its strengths and failings, and the effect it has had upon the various industries swallowed up by Lucas’ empire. David Brin, following on from his evisceration of The Phantom Menace in 1999 for Salon, argues for the prosecution. Matthew Woodring Stover, also a science fiction writer, is our plucky court-appointed defence lawyer.
Perhaps that is where the problem lies with this book. Brin is presenting a critique of a series of films and their subsequent spin-off materials on the understanding that this is an intellectual exercise. Stover appears to think he is in Law and Order. The banter between the two ‘opposing counsels’ starts off being amusing, but as the argument progresses, the Lucas loyalist seems worryingly earnest, becoming insulting even at times. To wit, his attempt to frame Jeanne Cavelos’ excellent piece ‘How the Rebel Princess and the Virgin Queen Became Marginalized and Powerless in George Lucas’s Fairy Tale’, as an appeal for overt onscreen cruelty towards female characters (this is in response to the complaint that the heroine Padmé dying of a broken heart is dubious at best in this technologically sophisticated universe).
The witnesses are themselves writers or cultural theorists, who present their evidence and are then questioned by Brin or Stover. Amusingly a ‘Droid Judge’ presides over these interactions. The topics argued include the political subtext of the series, its status as science fiction – Brin argues that it is fantasy literature in drag, the would-be mythic significance of Lucas’ work, alleged plot-holes, mischaracterisation of women within the franchise and finally its legacy for the film industry.
This book has one undeniable highlight for me, a moment of pure ‘gotcha’ brilliance. For years I have heard that the Force draws upon Buddhism, Taoism, y’know that whole ‘Eastern’ lark, to pad out its pseudo-religious significance. Witness for the prosecution John C. Wright disabuses Stover of that notion quite brilliantly during the cross-examination. Robert A. Metzger mounts an especially, uh, interesting defence, arguing that Lucas has actually created a work of Gnostic significance. I found that quite fun, but hardly convincing.
One point that is made, and relates particularly to Stover who has written novelizations of the films, is that this ‘Lucas empire’ has provided a lot of writers and creators starting out with excellent opportunities. However, the counter-argument is that this in turn has led to a monopolization of both film and publishing, with science fiction itself sandbagged by the imagery and concepts of Star Wars, excluding ideas and concepts too alien for a galaxy far far away.
Overall I found this to be an intriguing and entertaining dialogue on Star Wars, but also an occasionally frustrating one. Thankfully it is more thoughtful and well-reasoned than your average chatroom debate though.
Lint’s first novel was published by Dean Rodence’s Never Never company in New York. The relationship between Rodence and Lint was one of complete mistrust, rage and bloody violence. When submitting work in person, Lint insisted on appearing dressed as some kind of majorette. ‘He was a large man and clearly wasn’t happy at having to do this,’ explains Fleece. ‘He blamed Rodence, was resentful. I still don’t know where he got the idea he had to dress that way when handing his stuff in.’
Obviously I had to come back for more.
Lint is the biography of a eccentric science fiction author named Jeff Lint, detailing his career writing for pulp magazines such as ‘Startling, Astounding, Baffling, Useless and Terrible‘ to his abortive animated show Catty and the Major and finally his retreat into reclusiveness, interrupted by the occasional obsessive fan. Steve Aylett describes the circumstances surrounding the conception of novels such as One Less Bastard, The Stupid Conversation and I Blame Ferns, as well as his controversial comic book The Caterer.
Aylett also discusses Lint’s series of failed marriages, including one union which collapsed when a presumed facial scar belonging to the author was revealed to be a sleep-crease and then there’s his fractious rivalry with fellow author Cameo Herzog, who goes out of his way to destroy the career of the bemused Lint. Success came tantalisingly close for the writer. His forays into entertainment produced scripts that eventually became Patton and Funny Girl - although the final screenplays were entirely different (George C. Scott is revealed to have been quite fond of Lint’s original piece Kiss Me, Mister Patton) He had less success with Star Trek, deciding to emphasise the essential boredom of Gene Roddenberry‘s future utopia with an episode titled The Encroaching Threat. While the teleplay was never filmed, Aylett shares with readers some highlights of the script including:
For the duration of ‘The Encroaching Threat’ the new character Chekov is said to be ‘flirting with McCoy’ and Sulu is repeatedly seen ‘lurking’ near a doorway while ‘sinister theramin music’ plays.
As it happens this book has been made into a film, a documentary in fact on the life of the mysterious Lint, with the likes of Stewart Lee, Jeff Vandermeer and Alan Moore appearing to discuss the legacy of the author. Here‘s one of the teaser trailers released.
This is possibly the funniest book I have read in….it’s the funniest book I have read! Jeff Lint is part Philip K. Dick, part L. Ron Hubbard, with a couple of other parodies thrown in to the mix as well. Aylett’s insistence on the writer’s genius, investing great meaning into his every utterance such as this line from his autobiography The Man Who Gave Birth To His Arse: ‘What I wrote then was a surrender to the bathysphere part of the human mind. Despite platitude universes beyond the door, I dealt in squalls of unimaginable intensity. I was in the fully-fledged moment. Happy and volatile, I roared through the labyrinth of bad gems,’ - making for a very amusing, neat satire of academic overanalysis.
One final story. While I was enjoying Lint on the train home from work one evening this young woman across the aisle started loudly conversing with a friend on the phone. I very quickly knew more than I cared to know about her social life, her education and opinions on said friend’s intelligence – so I, in turn, began to read from Lint, loudly and clearly, declaiming Aylett’s absurdist wonderland to the carriage at large.
I still maintain that my obnoxious performance was the more entertaining of the two.
Read Lint. It’s good.
First of all, flick that Doubting Thomas switch. Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, by current X-Men writer Victor Gischler, is an insane train ride full of Go-Go Girls, home surgery transexuals, cannibalistic hicks and … train rides. The situations are so incredibly unbelieveable that it walks the fine line between absurdity and genius.
Thankfully Mr Gischler manages to dance on both sides of that line, making for a fantastic character driven story which is silly, ridiculous, sexy, moving and horrifying all at once. The post-apocalyptic world that Gischler has created may not be believeable but it certainly is plausible. The world is in chaos. Fuel and food are in very short supply. Governments have fallen. All that remains are the most important of things, booze and nudey girls. Nowadays, boobies make the world go round.
Insurance salesman Mortimer Tate runs away from his wife so that she can’t serve divorce papers on him. Fearing the end of the world if his marriage were to dissolve he flees to a mountain cabin, just in time for the world to end. Governments have crumbled and society has all but destroyed itself. After spending nine years by himself, living of canned food and a coffee a day, he leaves the cabin only to run head long into trouble. It’s at this point that we are introduced to Buffalo Bill. Bill is the rootinest, tootinest gunslinger that Mortimer has ever met. Bill has taken on the appearance and personality of THE Buffalo Bill. Bill and Mortimer wade through an endless sea of psychopaths and backstabbers all in an effort to reach his ex-wife, to ensure her safety and face the music.
Gischler’s wry and sardonic wit make it incredibly enjoyable to watch our players battling flesh eaters and rapists. Such dark material could easily have set the tone for the entire story, however, Gischler has managed to create some very believeable characters. Rumour has it that a feature film is in the works which is no great surprise. This novel reads like a gritty, high budget action film full of action and adventure, freaks and geeks, cannibals and sexy gals. The story is filled with some really great dialogue and I can only hope that the film reflects this. This is where the stories heart lies, in those quiet moments away from the madness and mayhem. A moment of peaceful reflection shared between two characters in a world gone mad.
Part homage, part satire of the post-apocalyptic genre, Go-Go Girls… is a wonderfully written piece of modern fiction comparable to the work of Vonnegut and to a lesser extent Douglas Adams. It’s rather tricky to locate here in Australia so perhaps a visit to Amazon would be easier. Regardless of how you get it, this is a fantastic read for those who don’t mind having a laugh at the sick and twisted. If you’re easily offended… read it anyway.
Tark peered through the undergrowth at the cave. All seemed peaceful and quiet. But appearances could be deceptive, especially in the Forest.
Tark had never taken on a dragon before. He’d never even seen one. He was just a common thiever and dragons were well out of his league. No one below a knight, second class, would attempt such an encounter. And yet, here he was.
‘Oi!’ Tark shouted as he approached the cave.
‘Dragon! Ya in there?’
Years ago when people still spoke about the Matrix films with an air of awed respect, I tended to be the one curmudgeon in the room who would pronounce Mamoru Oshii’s Avalon the far better film. Actually, now that I think about it, I am still saying this, except exchange The Matrix for Inception and it is pretty much the same argument.
Anyway, the reason I chose the more obscure film about characters attempting to escape from a virtual gaming world, was because I felt Oshii was far braver in his approach. In keeping with the Cartesian split between what is and what is fantasy, sf stories that deal with unreal worlds often insist that it is possible to return to an original ‘real world’. Oshii turns away from that and presents us with an infinite series of virtual worlds. ‘Reality’, is nothing more than a different perspective.
To find similar themes in a work of Young Adult fiction was certainly a great treat for me.
Tark and Zyra are thievers, trapped in a game-world that mixes medievil monsters with hi-tech artistocrats. The opening has Tark stalking a company through a dark forest, confident that the guards he sees protecting the company of travellers are little more than holograms. Instead his attack quickly goes wrong. Turns out the guards are quite real, their swords equally so and instead of the hoped for chest of gold, they are protecting a spoiled princeling named Galbrath. Through a combination of sheer luck and a refined ducking ability, Tark survives the encounter and even makes away with a powerful weapon – a power sword of pure light.
Meanwhile his partner Zyra is engaged on a job of her own, stealing a much-prized ‘key’, to Designer’s Paradise from a rival thiever named The Cracker. The key allows players within the gameworld to escape and can usually only be afforded by the very rich. Tark and Zyra have been stealing gold in order to purchase one, but now they have a key of their own they can leave this dangerous world of treacherous assassins and dragons behind.
Except little do they know, but both thievers have intruded upon the plans of the evil Fat Man. Sending his agents in pursuit of the two, they discover there is no safe place for them to hide, even beyond the borders of Designer’s Paradise.
I was mightily impressed by this book and am eagerly looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Gamer’s Challenge. Yes this is a book for teens, but it does not stint on its own ambitious themes as a result. One aspect I loved was the near religious worship of the Designers, who instilled certain moral laws into the games these characters are trapped in. Tark and Zyra are in love, but the rules prevent them from any physical contact.
The story is quite fast-paced and introduces a series of increasingly outlandish villains and monsters as it progresses. An early stand-out is the ‘rat-mage’, a hivemind of underground tunnel rats who can create convincing illusions. The Fat Man himself is a diabolical force within the game, attempting to corrupt the gameworld to his own designs.
What I most enjoyed about the book is how Ivanoff has presented his readership with ideas and fictional concepts that they are no doubt familiar with due to the gaming industry – but they have perhaps not encountered before in books. Tark and Zyra even speak in the same kind of pidgin Old English familiar to those who have played any of the generic Fantasy RPGs of recent years. The closest comparison to this book in literature that I can think of is Charles Stross’ Glasshouse which was reviewed early on in this blog and dealt with similar material.
Exciting, imaginative and forward-looking, a real treat.
With thanks to the author for my review copy.
‘We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’
‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.
It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?
Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.
To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.
The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.
Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.
While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.
However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.
I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.
Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!
Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.
I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.
Hey kids. Do you remember this!? Ah. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I used to love that show. Now maybe you would think I wanted to take after Spider-Man. After all, he is the star. Or how about Iceman? But no, my favourite character was always Firestar. Not because I wanted to be a girl or anything…..let’s start again – fire powers are cool!
So I was always curious about her character. Imagine my surprise when I eventually started to read Marvel comics and discovered not only was she not ‘friends’, with Spider-Man – she did not even exist in comics before the show. Eventually she got shoved into the X-Men almost as an afterthought, but I don’t think my child self ever got over that disillusionment (cos…y’know…fire powers….cool!).
This book is not all about my girl Firestar. In fact it is a ‘non-team’, comic, focusing on several random young superheroes who have all been somewhat forgotten. First off there is Gravity, one of Sean McKeever‘s own creations, a nominally cheerful young hero, who has begun to question the legitimacy of arrested superpowered criminals, as they only just escape to wreck havoc again. Then there’s Araña, recently depowered and so unknown most people call her Spider-Girl. Nomad is a girl from an alternate world where she was a highly trained sidekick to the most famous superhero on her Earth – here she is no one. What’s worse she had a friend on this other Earth named Benito Serrano, who has his own counterpart in her new home. Though he takes the same superhero name, Toro, and has the same abilities, he has no idea who she is. What’s more only Araña is capable of speaking Spanish with him (at one point Gravity mutters regretfully that he took German in school).
What brings these heroes together is a violent gang of young villains, the aptly named Evil Bastards, who torture and kill New Yorkers for fun and then upload the footage online for their ‘fans’. Gravity in particular is horrified by the callousness of the gang and is pushed to the edge, in danger of himself becoming a killer in retaliation. In their first encounter with the Evil Bastards, one of the villains detonates a massive explosion on the site of Ground Zero itself.
McKeever has stated that the theme of this book “was that [the Young Allies are] fighting for the soul of their generation”. In a neat piece of meta-commentary it is made clear that what McKeever is referring to is the morals of comic books themselves. The Evil Bastards (sounds like a Warren Ellis rock band) claim to be the sons and daughters of supervillains themselves. Their contempt for the value of life, to my mind, reflects the persistence of shock tactics and ultraviolence in contemporary comics. As the older villain Electro comments, to violate the sanctity of Ground Zero itself would be unthinkable for him. It is a horrific moment in the book itself, but Gravity’s obsession with finding justice for the victims properly addresses the true horror of this event.
I found myself comparing McKeever’s use of an actual site of tragedy, with what has been revealed in the trailer for the upcoming X-Men movie. The plot will involve the superheroes in an actual historical event – the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think ultimately McKeever is respectful in his use of 9/11 as a feature of the plot. The Evil Bastards are reminiscent of message board users making horrible jokes about actual tragedies. One of them even describes her crimes as being like playing an MMO. Marvel Comics frequently used nuclear radiation as a plot device and McKeever refers to this again throughout the book. Firestar, for one, suffers from her constant exposure to incredible temperatures and is in fact a cancer survivor. It is a neat reversal of the comic-book science that allowed for characters such as The Hulk, or Spider-Man gaining superpowers from radiation.
This flirting with realistic concerns and comic book absurdity is ably managed by McKeever, who has a great partner in crime in penciller David Baldeon. The art reflects the threatened innocence of the characters. I particularly like his designs for the Evil Bastards themselves, all quite creative in their callbacks to the absent parents they draw inspiration from.
So Young Allies is that rare thing – a quietly ambitious superhero comic with a lot of heart. Recommended for comic book fans looking something less cynical than certain popular titles out there.