Watchmen

by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

Watchmen 1986 - Chapter 1 CoverEvery once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.

The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.

The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.

This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.

In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?

Who watches the watchmen?

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Prey

by Michael Crichton

 

I’ve been on a big Jurassic Park kick of late, yada yada yada, I found myself reading Prey. I’d only ever read the one Crichton book, but I knew his schtick: use whatever science/technology has been making advances lately, embellish a little but not so much that it seems unrealistic, and then write a thriller that scares the shit out of people. Not a bad formula. It certainly worked for Park. Instead of genetic manipulation and dinosaurs, however, Prey gives us the convergence of nanotechnology, computer science, and emergent intelligence to create swarms of nanoparticles that evolve predatory behavior towards humans.

Here’s the thing: nanoparticle swarms aren’t dinosaurs. In my opinion, Park has two main things going for it: the simplicity of the (admittedly dubious) science and the audience’s familiarity with dinosaurs. With Prey, Crichton has to pretty much start from scratch explaining the technology and why we should be afraid. Sure, I’m familiar with nanoparticles and I know what an algorithm is, but Crichton spends a lot of time describing the various technologies that he incorporates into Prey. It’s as if he constantly needs to convince us that this menace is legitimate, and not some pseudo-scientific nonsense. It’d be kind of like showing you the t-rex, and then explaining exactly what its teeth would do to you and how unlikely it’d be that you’d escape, and then politely returning you to the story. Since there’s nothing viscerally terrifying about the swarms, Crichton tries to explain to us why they should be logically terrifying.

That said, the book is still a hell of a thriller. People use the phrase “page-turner” these days as a backhanded compliment- the first book to come to mind when I hear it is The Da Vinci Code, which everyone read, enjoyed, and now pretends to hate- but some books just grab you, and that’s a good thing. PreyThe first third or so introduces Jack, a stay-at-home-dad who’s having some career and family issues, as he slowly becomes entangled in some mysterious goings-on. He ends up flying out to the Nevada desert- Prey‘s Isla Nublar, for Park fans- to work as a contractor for his wife’s company, which apparently needs help debugging some of his old computer code. The whole thing turns into a big shit show as soon as he gets there, and by this point I was hooked.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. You know that horror cliché of people in movie theaters yelling at the screen, “Don’t go in there! The one-armed killer clown is in there!” No? Whatever, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies. Jack does a lot of dumb shit in this book, is my point. Pretty soon after he gets to Nevada, they establish that the nanoswarms are hostile and lethal, but that everyone will be safe as long as they stay inside their hermetically sealed lab. But Jack keeps fucking going outside! First, it’s to check out a dead animal that the swarms just killed. “Good idea, that. You just watched a swarm take down this rabbit, but whatever, go check it out.” Jack survives. “Good. Oh, you’re going back outside, even though you barely survived that last outing.” Miraculous escape. “Oh, going out again. Alrighty.” I just wanted to have a heart-to-heart with Jack, and find out whether he’s got a death wish or he’s just a moron. But I guess that’s what puts the thrill in thriller.

The moral of the story: don’t fuck with science. Now, I’m a little unclear on whether Crichton thinks that humanity itself isn’t great at handling discovery, or if corporations are uniquely arrogant. It doesn’t matter much, but I’m inclined to believe the latter, given that Crichton’s scientists always work for companies with names like Xymos, InGen and MoloDyne (Crichton’s ability to come up with terribly dystopian conglomerates is key to his success). Nobody called Xymos is up to anything good. These corporations, whose only goal is profit, embody our collective greed. They’re ideal antagonists for stories about our rush to discovery outpacing our humility and ethics.

But I don’t think that really matters. Sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but only in the same way that Avatar‘s a cautionary tale. As in, “I get your point, but this is too silly to take seriously.” I can get behind the idea that corporations cut corners sometimes, and that diffusion of responsibility can lead to ethical lapses, but these ideas aren’t really fleshed out, making them almost a distraction in Prey. This is a thriller about tiny robots that are smart, indestructible, and hate people, and that’s all we really need.

Prey was tight. It’s basically Jurassic Park with nanotechnology rather than genetics, but it doesn’t quite live up to the earlier novel’s standard. Still, if you’re into thrillers, you’d probably enjoy.

Timequake

by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Timequake (1997), the last novel that Vonnegut published (so it goes), is what I would classify as semi-autobiographical meta-fiction. The story is presented as if Vonnegut were re-writing a previously published work, dubbed Timequake One, in which on February 13, 2001, everyone is suddenly zapped back to February 17, 1991. The nature of this “timequake” is such that every person must relive each minute of each day exactly as they did the first time. This means that every mistake you made in 1993 the first time, you make again the second time, and though you are aware that it is a rerun, you are unable to alter your personal history. Essentially, free will is completely lost during those ten years.

Much of the novel is told through the mouth of Vonnegut’s alter-ego Kilgore Trout, an eccentric writer that has great ideas for stories, but has never had a successful writing career. TimequakeTrout is a fascinating character. To me, he is the epitome of human bleakness, or what I like to call the existentialist’s burden. He is not so bothered by the timequake, as he spends most of those ten years writing, and “rerun or not, he could tune out the crock of shit being alive was as long as he was scribbling”. Throughout the novel, Trout talks Vonnegut through his unorthodox views on human existence. For an example, read Trout’s explanation of the rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS (found here). My other favorite Trout-ism is his version of the Book of Genesis, but I’ll let you read the book to find that one.

Back to the plot. After the rerun ends (on February 13, 2001, Take 2), Kilgore Trout realizes without a shred of doubt what has happened. But as he begins to execute free will again, he also realizes that nobody else seems to have figured it out. Everyone has grown so accustomed to playing out a script that they do not know how to carry on after the timequake. Ting-a-ling. So he begins spreading the mantra “you’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there is work to do” to encourage people to grasp a hold of their lives again.

Trout, however, is not a huge fan of free will. This is exemplified when, at a writer’s clambake post-rerun, Vonnegut asks Trout his opinion on John Wilkes Booth. He responds that the murder of President Lincoln was “the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material”.

There are a few moments in Timequake in which Vonnegut mentions that he is getting old, older than he ever expected to be. There are many side-stories culminating in last words — by characters in history or characters in Vonnegut’s life. My personal favorite is a fictitious account of Hitler’s final moments, in which he considers his options for last words. He ends up saying ” I never asked to be born in the first place”, then shoots himself.

I think Vonnegut knew this was going to be the last novel he published. I think this book is his way of making sure his readers grasp his philosophy on life, as though he wants to get his final two cents in. As he puts it, when thinking about writing, Vonnegut asks himself “why bother?”, to which he responds, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'” He uses Kilgore Trout as a device through which to describe all of his eccentric and extremist views, to find comfort in determinism. He uses the last words of others to say goodbye to his life as a storyteller. He uses the clambake as a goodbye party, and Trout’s speech as an epitaph for himself, written by himself. Perhaps he is just “much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”

For any Vonnegut fan, Timequake is an absolute must-read; it is so unique and special. The premise of the blip in time followed by a ten year rerun is not fully formed, but I was very willing to look past that. Vonnegut’s fictional anecdotes (as well as some autobiographical ones) are enough to make this book well worth a read. His philosophy is presented so hilariously, and parts of this book would make great short stories. As important as this novel was for me, I think it would not appeal to anyone who is not already a fan of Kurt.

If this isn’t nice, what is?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

Created by Joss Whedon

 

Oh yes, there will be spoilers. And if you’ve seen the show, feel free to skip the first section.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a group of friends (the Scoobie Gang) as they fight demons and navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Buffy Summers is a “Chosen One” type, and every season involves her fighting a “Big Bad” antagonist who threatens her world with apocalypse. Since twenty-two episodes is way too many for a single story arc–shorter seasons are one thing that I think HBO/Netflix/the British have actually gotten right–there are plenty of one-off, “monster-of-the-week” episodes, and in the earlier seasons especially these are often meant to symbolize problems that teenagers and twenty-somethings have. ScoobiesTypical examples: Willow, Buffy’s computer nerd friend, meets a boy on the internet who turns out to be a demon; Xander joins the swim team only to find that their recent success comes from exposing themselves to (Soviet-made, if I recall correctly) chemicals that make them better swimmers but eventually turn them into fish monsters; Buffy’s awful college roommate actually turns out to be a demon. These are metaphors for, respectively: the potential for meeting creepers on the internet, seemingly a huge moral panic from the 90’s; steroids; and the difficulties of the transition to college and living with strangers.

Later, the show moves away from after school special issues, and begins to explore key themes without needing to insert a monster as a stand-in for each problem. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons explore relationships, family, and the transition to adulthood, without being tied down by any particular formula. Personally, I feel like the show grew with the characters; as the characters aged, they took on more responsibilities, and the show set its sights higher, as well. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with that, and I can respect that opinion. Perhaps it’s because I’m only now watching the show at age twenty-five, or maybe people want different things in TV shows now. Maybe it defies explanation; it just is what it is. Continue reading

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume I and Volume II

by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

 

Side note/confession session: I love graphic novels. I always feel a little embarrassed when I check out graphic novels at the library. I mean, thank God for self-checkout, right? But really, I think graphic novels and comic books are awesome. Sure, there aren’t as many words to the page, but they provide something special that other books just can’t achieve. Graphic novels provide the reader with context without being boring, emotion without being overly sentimental, and entertainment without losing depth. Plus they’re fun.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, set in 1898, is a steampunk comic about a group of misfits that come together to aid the British government in top-secret missions. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IThis is the coolest thing: these “misfits” are all characters from famous works of fiction. The main character is Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (that’s Miss Murray to you thankyouverymuch), an uptight divorcée who refuses to remove the red scarf that she wears around her neck. I won’t give away who she is if you don’t know already, but you could probably figure it out. She is introduced by British Intelligence agent Campion Bond (any guesses as to who his grandson is?) to Captain Nemo, an Indian ex-pat who captains a large submarine known as the Nautilis. They are sent on a mission to assemble this team of misfits — first to Cairo to recruit Allan Quatermain despite his opium addiction, then to Paris to find a scrawny Dr. Jekyll, and finally back to London to extract Hawley Griffin from an all-girl’s boarding school where he wreaks havoc as the Invisible Man.

Once assembled, this League of Extraordinary Gentlepersons goes on to track down a villain on behalf of Mr. Bond’s unnamed employer. They find themselves caught in a rivalry between two famed villains: Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Putting their lives at risk, they have to make their strange group work together to save London. And that’s all just volume I.

Volume II takes a completely different turn. Now that the League is established and the British Intelligence organization restored, they have to win what seems like an impossible war: the War of the Worlds. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IILoosely based on the novel by H. G. Wells, this Volume begins on Mars and takes the reader through an alien invasion of the London suburbs. Pretty dope if you’re into some serious science fiction. There’s also some heavy material in this volume, from violent rape scenes to animal hybridization to martyrdom, so make sure you’re ready for that.

I have yet to read The Black Dossier, which from my understanding is more of a framing reference-book for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than a third volume. It is set in 1958 after the fall of Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m not sure how the chronology works out, but I’ll find out because I am definitely going to check out The Black Dossier when I get the chance. I’ll keep you updated.

If you are heavy into science fiction or steampunk and appreciate comics, you must read this series. It is especially fun to read if you are familiar with famous british fictional characters and story lines. For the sake of my feminist street-cred, I have to mention that it is absolutely awesome to read a graphic novel with a strong, smart, powerful (though somewhat sexualized) female protagonist. She even talks about how they treat her poorly and make judgements about her intelligence because she’s a woman! Groundbreaking. Read it.