Friday, July 26, 2019

My 25-Year Voyage to IKARIE XB-1

By Michael Popham
Back in the late 1970s I was a junior high school kid living in rural Minnesota. My dad had been lured out to the wilds of Isanti County by the promise of cheap land, but he got swindled into buying 30 acres that were mostly swamp. He moved an old house onto a relatively dry part of the property, and that’s where I grew up.

I spent my summers hanging around the house and slapping mosquitos, trying to stave off boredom. I devised pointless and obsessive projects: I once tried to rebuild an air-cooled VW engine without guidance or spare parts; on another occasion I built a miniature set for a stop-motion animated short that never happened because I had no money for 16mm film magazines.

On the warm humid nights I would sit up late, watching movies on television. This was the era before home video, and if you were stranded in the sticks all summer, as I was, you got your movies from broadcast TV or you didn’t get them at all. There were only 5 channels, but nearly all of them ran movies. In fact there was usually a movie playing on at least one channel from early afternoon until all the stations played The Star-Spangled Banner and signed off for the night, around 2 am. 

Late one evening I caught a strange black-and-white sci-fi film that I had never heard of, and which never turned up on TV again. The movie was obviously dubbed, and had both robust production values and a tone that was a lot more serious than most sci-fi I’d seen up to that point.

In the film a group to travelers are on an interstellar journey in a gigantic spaceship, but the toll of the voyage is tremendous: the trip takes years, and the travelers become increasingly disheartened. They encounter a number of perils, some of which get members of the crew injured or killed. The travelers nearly succumb to exhaustion and ennui, but eventually arrive at their destination. 

I thought about this somber film a lot in the months and years after I saw it, but I couldn’t find any information about it. I remembered the title as “Journey Across the Universe” but none of my friends had heard of it. I tried looking it up in film encyclopedias but couldn’t find a single reference to it.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that I’d had the title wrong. It was a 1963 Czech film called Ikarie XB-1, released in the U.S. the following year as Voyage to the End of the Universe by American -International Pictures. AIP was the cheapo distributor of Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon flicks, and to keep product in the pipeline would buy up the rights to eastern bloc sci-fi films, strip out anything that might smack of commie propaganda, and release hacked-up, dubbed versions. To disguise their foreign origins, names of the cast and crew were anglicized  (top-billed actors Zdenek Stephanek and Franisek Smolik, for example,  magically became “Dennis Stephens” and “Frances Smollen”; director Jindrich Pollich was credited as “Jack Pollack”).

But even though I now knew the title of the film, there was no way to see it. It had never been released on video. In the early 2000s I began corresponding by email with a film collector in Poland who had an interest in Eastern bloc sci-fi. He had a particular fondness for Ikarie and said he would try to answer any questions I had about the movie. I only had one.

“How does it end?”

For me, the movie I’d seen on TV all those years ago had only been marred by its ending. The space travelers reach the mysterious “Green Planet” they had spent so many years trying to find. Through their viewscreen the clouds part and the new planet is revealed: there is a grainy stock shot of lower Manhattan, and then the Statue of Liberty. In a twist ending, the spaceship is revealed to be from another solar system, and the “Green Planet” they’ve been traveling to all this time is actually – gulp – Earth! 

Even as a kid it didn’t ring true to me. It was too cheap a gimmick for such a carefully made movie. I didn’t want it to end that way.

Happily, it didn’t. My contact had never heard of AIP’s cheesy recut ending, and thought it was amazingly daffy.  In the fall of 2004 he tipped me off that a Czech company called Filmexport would be releasing the movie on DVD soon, and I ordered a copy the first day it was available. The DVD menu was in Czech, but one of the subtitle options was English. So finally, after a quarter-century of searching, I finally got to see Ikarie XB-1.

I was fully prepared for a letdown, but sometimes life is kind. The uncut Ikarie XB-1 actually exceeded my expectations. It's a stylish film that, while not widely seen in the west, was influential. Stanley Kubrick was known to have seen it when he was preparing to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gene Roddenberry clearly borrowed elements of his Star Trek series concept from it.

Ikarie XB-1 is a rare sci-fi movie from that era that’s actually about something: the inadequacy of even the most towering human ambitions when set against the frailties of individual people and the indifference of a vast universe.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Nebula's Arc

by John Petrila

This essay contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame

Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
I've seen Endgame twice now, and after letting it settle a bit I just had to write out a post talking about how phenomenal Karen Gillan is as Nebula in this film. I'm going to talk about the entire arc of her character in this movie, so if for some reason you missed the spoiler warning in the title, get thee hence and go watch this movie, then come back.

Cool? Cool.

One of the things I loved most about Endgame in general is the massive amount of long-term character payoffs we get in this film, and Nebula is one of the most significant examples of this. From the very first time we see her, she is playing a game with Tony and is clearly so warped (still) by Thanos' upbringing that she assumes the only way to win is through raw aggression. Once Tony explains the rules of the game, and then Nebula actually wins, the look of shock on her face speaks volumes. The point of the game was just to have fun, not to prove anything, and the handshake at the end of the scene was exactly the sort of gesture that she'd been so hellbent on walling herself off from earlier in her life, viewing it as a sign of needing support; of failure and weakness (we'll come back to that in a bit).

Then you have the heartbreaking montage of Nebula insisting Tony eat the last of the rations and fixing him up while he sleeps, a far cry from her "of all our sisters, I hated you the least" declaration to Gamora in Guardians 1. To add to this, in his message to Pepper, Tony describes Nebula as "only slightly sadistic". Which, even taking Tony's sense of humor into account, is a far cry from the Nebula of old.

When she gets back to earth, Nebula immediately comforts Rocket, and then in her scene where she explains where Thanos has gone, she is mirroring almost exactly Gamora's speech to the Guardians and Thor in Infinity War ("For as long as I knew Thanos, he only ever had one goal...", paraphrasing/"My father spent a long time trying to perfect me..."). These two moments are very elegant ways of showing just how far Nebula has come in terms of confidence and emotional vulnerability/openness.

Her reaction at Thanos' death is also poignant, but unlike Gamora's weeping in Infinity War when she kills the Reality Stone illusion version of Thanos (which I will forever hold up as one of the most perfect examples of the counter-intuitive mind-screw that is mourning an abusive relationship that I've ever seen in a film), Nebula merely solemnly closes Thanos' eyes and moves on. She has made her peace with what was done to her, gets her closure, and walks away.

Later in the film, we come to what is perhaps my favorite character moment: Nebula's conversation with Rhodey in the Temple of the Power Stone. I know most of the fandom is highlighting and underlining the all-female superhero moment in the finale as a powerful moment of representation, which it is. But as someone with a physical handicap, seeing two people who have been literally, physically bent out of shape or torn apart by circumstance bond over their shared trauma and resolve to continue kicking ass anyway (because damn it, that's just what needs to be done to save the universe) was incredibly powerful for me to see. In my particular minority, it's very uncommon to see representation in an action movie in a role that isn't relegated to something like tech support from a wheel-chair. So thank you for that one, Endgame.

Of course, on the heels of that we get the jewel in the crown of this performance: when Karen Gillan plays two versions of the same character at the same time, and you can clearly see just how different each of them is. 2023 Nebula knows exactly how to go for the throat of her 2014 self "You're weak/"I'm you", and leverages what she knows about Vormir to start winning over 2014 Gamora-- displaying a level of emotional openness and concern for her sister that 2014 Nebula would never show, as evidenced by the earlier moment where she slaps away an offered hand from Gamora. Later on, 2023 Nebula connects with Gamora and takes her hand, echoing her moment with Tony at the beginning of the film and directly counterpointing 2014 Nebula's prickly aggression.

Which leads, near the end of the film, to the most heartbreaking moment of her whole arc. When the two Nebulas face off, you can see 2014 Nebula hesitate, and try desperately to believe that she could, in fact, become the version of herself she sees before her eyes. But her trauma overcomes her, she breaks, and says "He won't let me [change]." The way she says it killed me each time I heard it, and the look on 2023 Nebula's face after she kills her is haunting. To say nothing, of course, of the pained look on 2014 Nebula's face and the tear that falls out of her eye as she slumps dead on the floor.

Basically, Gillan's performance is a master class in portraying the journey from abuse and pained isolation to self-acceptance, agency and emotional vulnerability and trust-- while also showing, via the 2014 version, just how far the 2023 version has come. Gillan plays two radically different versions of the same character equally convincingly, and manages to display a shockingly large range of emotions for being covered in facial make-up. I love everything about this performance, and I think that if it took place inside of a standard prestige drama movie, she'd get a nomination for an Oscar.

I'm so glad McFeely, Markus and the Russos let her take center stage for Endgame on the heels of her supporting role in Infinity War, because she brought the three-movie arc of this character to a resoundingly powerful conclusion.

I just hope Gunn isn't tied up too much longer by Suicide Squad 2, because Endgame made me so much more excited than I even thought possible for Guardians 3.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Book Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

By Fire Above, the latest novel by Robyn Bennis, is not the adventure story it deserved to be. This is a hard thing to say as I quite enjoy the irreverent and slightly manic quality the author brings to her stories. Sadly, while there are passages in Fire that work well, the book as a whole is sufficiently weighed down by its flaws that it struggles to stay airborne. 

Fire is the second novel in Bennis' Signal Airship series, a steampunk offering centered around protagonist Josette Dupre, captain of the airship Mistral. Bennis' first novel, The Guns Above, followed Dupre's trial by fire as the first woman to command a combat airship. Her need to prove herself and gain her crew's confidence as captain provided that book's primary source of dramatic tension. At the close of The Guns Above, Dupre's command bone fides are established, both with her crew, and the Ganarian Kingdom's high command. Even the enemy Vin, awed by her heroics, refer to both Dupre and the Mistral as "The Shark". 

By Fire Above begins where Guns left off, aboard the battered Mistral in the aftermath of the first novel's climactic battle. It's a tricky starting point. The dramatic energy and tension, expended in battle just ended, are at low ebb. The wounded Mistral and her depleted crew head back behind the lines for refit, replacements and some much deserved R&R. Spare parts shortages and logistic snarls delay the Mistral's return to combat, forcing Captain Dupre to spend her time attending galas, rubbing elbows and playing politics with Ganria's upper crust, and dallying romantically. Despite two ship-board incidents inserted to boost the tempo of its early chapters, the first half of By Fire Above drags badly.

Even in the absence of action sequences, the nuanced shadow play of high-stakes political intrigue is endemic to seats of power during wartime. This should have provided ample edge-of-your-seat story telling opportunities. Unfortunately, in By Fire Above, Bennis never really engages their potential. In large part, this is Josette Dupre's fault.

In order to convince us of the captain's badass bone fides, Bennis continually resorts to dumbing-down the other inhabitants of her steampunk world. At times this is such a naked device I'm reminded of Spengo, the planet of idiots from Mom and Dad Save the World.  Faced with the kingdom's political and social elites Dupre yawns her way through one political or social confrontation after another, either deflating or overawing imperial aristocrats and bourgeoisie, according to the needs of the plot, with unrealistic aplomb. Amusing at first, this device quickly becomes tedious. By hobbling Dupre's supposedly dangerous political opponents in order to make the Captain appear formidible, Bennis jettisons much needed opportunities to inject dramatic tension and narrative velocity into the story. 

Absent drama from Fire's political intrigue, Bennis is forced to keep the reader engaged by playing for laughs. But humor and the odd dallop of pathos (particularly when so much of the humor depends on her lead characters smirking and rolling their eyes) aren't enough to sustain By Fire Above through the novel's early chapters.       

Finally, in chapter eight, Dupre and the Mistral depart the capital to besiege the city of Durum, occupied by the enemy Vin, and the story gradually picks up much needed steam. While Durum has no strategic value, it's Dupre's home town and her mother and assorted friends are trapped there. In order to free them, Dupre has convinced the King of Ganaria that the city is only lightly defended: a perfect training mission for a newly minted army division (jokingly referred to as the Fearless Fops) in need of 'blooding'. The Mistral accompanys the mission, only to find that Dupre's intelligence as to the defenders' strength is on the unreliable side. Hijinks ensue.

This is where Bennis seems most comfortable, and where the steampunk world she's created comes to life. The city provides a well drawn backdrop for the book's second act, and its siege is a marvelous set piece with many moving parts. Shifting her point of view between Dupre, aristocratic second son Bernat, and young Ensign Kember, Bennis deftly shows the parts off in detail while keeping the larger action moving at a brisk and steadily rising tempo.

Even here, though, Bennis' characters and plot often ring false. She repeatedly breaks through the belivability envelope in order to push the plot forward, or to deliver Dupre and her companions from disaster. Events hinge too often on characters acting against character, or wildly improbable strokes of luck becoming unaccountably probable, causing the story to lose its natural flow and become forced. Fortunately, the brisk pace of events Bennis maintains in the second half of the book are sufficient to keep the story aloft.

Bernat, the preening aristocrat, largely delivered comic relief in The Guns Above. He begins By Fire Above in much the same vein, but as the book moves from the capital city to the front Bennis begins adding depth to his character. By the end of the book Bernat is in many ways becoming more interesting than the tin-typed Dupre, who has gained scar tissue from the adventure, but little by way of wisdom or insight. Indeed, during By Fire Above's denouement, Bernat shows himself the wiser of the two, and gets the book's best line in the bargain.

Ensign Kember's character ends By Fire Above much as she began it: primarily a vehicle for reflecting Josette Dupre's brilliance. Despite negligence on Dupre's part that puts Kember and the Mistral in avoidable peril (and could result in the ensign's court martial on capital charges) her hero worship remains undimmed. It will be interesting to see whether, should the series continue, she will cease to see her captain through rose tinted aeronaut goggles and move past the role of dutiful side-kick.

When all is said and done, By Fire Above is bouyed up despite its flaws by the irrepressable sense of fun Bennis brings to her writing. It's a quality that will allow many readers to ignore (or at least quickly forget) the smoke and occasional clanking eminating from the steampunk engine room, and simply enjoy the airship ride. In the current science fiction and fantasy zeitgeist, fun action-adventure stories are often dismissed as 'pulp' fiction: comfort food written by lesser writers for lesser readers. Happily, Robyn Bennis doesn't read those memos.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Unsafe Spaces

by J.D. Popham

The world is trying to kill you.

Really. Not a joke. Just ask Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The universe in general, and the Earth in particular, are working very, very hard at your untimely demise. From your first breath until you shuffle off this mortal coil, you are on a cosmic hit list as the world conspires to lay you low.

Image Credit: NASA/Don Davis
The good news is it’s not personal. The universe has it in for every living thing. It’s all part of the vast celestial clockwork we inhabit. Think of the universe as an unthinkably massive threshing floor on which the evolutionary wheat is continually and repeatedly separated from the evolutionary chaff. Its fell machinery is relentless, implacable and it never stops. Not ever. Like all other organisms on Earth or in the universe at large, humans are never far from the shadow of the winnowing fan.

To readers for whom being fed, warm and safe is the baseline state, this may sound a tad alarmist. Even in a year rife with natural and human-made disasters, things probably seem far less…perilous than I’m making them sound. In fact, if one were to put together a Relative Peril Scale showing the degree of immediate threat to which individual humans and the overall species are exposed, we’d find that humans are relatively safe at the moment.

Relatively. At the moment.

As they say on financial prospectuses, past performance is not an indicator of future results. Humanity's track record for dodging the universe's efforts to knock that smug look off our collective face only goes back a few hundred years. That's slim to the point of being non-existent when held up against a geological (let alone a cosmological) time table. The universe has plenty of time on its hands. It plays a long game. 

Such a long game, in fact, that human thinking goes a bit wobbly when we try to play on the same temporal game board. It’s hard for humans to take seriously threats that haven’t occurred within living memory, or that come at us so slowly and incrementally that our short-game brains dismiss them. This is why, against all common sense and scientific evidence, we have anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and the 'raw water' craze.

Science fiction, of course, has been tossing around the apocalyptic football for well over a century. With little required by way of pesky science, one can remake the world pretty much as one pleases in order to deliver a cautionary tale, moral message or post-apocalyptic theme park. The end of modern civilization is prime real estate for issuing doleful cautions and commentaries on the shortcomings of modern society and its institutions. Or for positing better worlds that might bloom from the ruins were apocalyptic upheaval to hit the the civilization reset button.    
Still, for all our noodling over the end of the world as we know it, science fiction’s post-apocalyptic societies of late seem, more often than not, surprisingly familiar places. They tend to reflect mindsets and moralities that have emerged during humanity’s moment of relative security. It is ironic that we raze our civilization to the ground so often and so blithely in our flights of fancy these days, yet seem reluctant, even a bit squeamish, when it comes to acknowledging the degree to which such events would also remake who we are.

Rachel, the protagonist of Jeff Vandermeer's Borne, for example, is presented as a hardened scavenger under constant existential threat. She lives in a devastated city situated on the banks of a toxic river, and afflicted by a giant flying bear who gobbles humans by the pawful. The city is chockablock with lethal traps and pitfalls. Sudden death lurks around every corner. Yet Borne's violence tends to occur offstage or at a far distance, rendering the humans who suffer death and dismemberment comfortingly anonymous. As a result, Rachel's character renders more as a twenty-something liberal arts grad living in a transitional urban neighborhood than as the hard-bitten survivor of a cruelly dystopian city.

In part this is endemic to story-telling. Audiences enjoy a tale more when they can admire or sympathize with an author's characters as they confront mutants, zombies, and roving gangs of apocalyptians® with perfectly horrible table manners. That's difficult to do if the chords of reason or emotion struck by the characters don't resonate with the audience. Stories that reflect the target audience's cognative biases are much more likely be successful than those that challenge them. Authors who peddle safe, comforting stories rarely want for work.

However, social media seems to have exacerbated this tendency, narrowed the spectrum of character with which it's acceptable to engage. Genre fiction in particular has become prone to literary ethnocentrism, with authors and audiences self-selecting into isolated cultural pockets, each confident in its own superiority and speaking only to its own. We have become dabblers around the edges when it comes to cultural collapse. The deeper waters are murky and have an unwholesome look. They teem with dark, discomforting ideas about who we are, and why, and what we are capable of becoming. Authors who enter the deep, who dare stir up such dangerous creatures, are rarely loved by those whose social paradigms they ruffle.

Yet, science fiction at its best dares those darker waters. It trades in unsettling ideas, gives witness to dangerous visions. It seeks to divine our essential nature: to look beyond the zeitgeist of our current cultural moment, pull down the mask of ought-to-be and catch us up in an unsparing glimpse of our own true selves. It forces us to grapple with our mutable nature, which is both curse and gift.

The universe, meanwhile, cares not a fig for our social paradigms. It merely subjects them to the relentless binary test it applies to everything: Will a given tendency improve your odds of avoiding extinction? That's it. Yes or no. Pass or fail. It will continue to shape us. At the margins for the moment, and wholesale should the institutions that protect us fail. Truths we think universal and immutable will be scoured away, and scoffed at by futures that (as most futures do) imagine themselves superior to the past.

Assuming there's anyone left to remember us at all.