One of your humble editors (Jonathan Baird) will be participating in Battle of the Nations as a member of Team USA next weekend.We will attempt to put links here on Nuke Mars to the live stream. The Battle of the Nations Web Page
One of your humble editors (Jonathan Baird) will be participating in Battle of the Nations as a member of Team USA next weekend.We will attempt to put links here on Nuke Mars to the live stream. The Battle of the Nations Web Page
The story is at its heart a lament for the end of the mechanical age and a critical examination of the superficiality and commercialism that typified that period of history. The story is broken into four parts the first two each contain a separate song. The first song is sung by the protagonist and the second by his companion Mrs. Davis. The second two parts concern the marriage of the protagonist (Tom) and his companion and the last part their eventual divorce. The characters both celebrate the passing of the age but at the same time fear the unknown age coming. Mrs. Davis states that, “I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort” (Barthelme).
It is important to note that God makes several appearances throughout the story. Fist he is a meter reader who checks on how much electrify is being used then again he appears to enjoy the destruction he is causing in the wake of a global flood. The story can be seen as an elaborate lament of the death of spirituality. Electricity has been discovered to be spiritual Grace. Man has rendered through science the control over the spiritual. The fact that God is destroying the world once again by flooding it could represent the falseness of God’s promise to man. These religious metaphors continue into the songs. Our protagonist sings a song about Ralph. Ralph is a beautiful character perfect yet tragically flawed. He is most certainly the embodiment of the Anti-Christ the perfect salesman. He is even described as having hoofed feet and he is “coming” for us all.
Mrs. Davis’ song is no less religious in nature. She sings about a character named Maude. Maude is certainly a stand in for the biblical character of Eve. She is described as being under a church dome and yearning the first “yearn”. Obviously this is an allusion to the temptation of Eve by Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Maude also named all the tools in the world while I could probably make a sexual reference here it certainly seems she was around at the beginning if she was the one who had the job of naming things much as God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. In the end they both decide they must move on into the new age even if it will be uncomfortable. This seems to place the story into the context of Adam and Eve. Here are two characters who are forced out of their comfortable existence into one of uncertainty and possible strife.
In the second half of the story God is now seen as hiding. First behind a tree (the Tree of Knowledge perhaps) then behind a table (shades of the last supper). God is more separate from Tom and Mrs. Davis further from them than he had been in the first two sections of the story. Tom tries to speak with God and his thoughts are very prayer like, but God disappears and Tom assumes it is to read the meters again. Here again is an absent God who does not hear our prayers. The story ends with the divorce of Tom and Mrs. Davis. They have a child and then go their own way each following Ralph (commercialism) or Maude (knowledge) but not God. God is manning the generators and ensuring light and grace at the end of the age.
The story illustrates the death of religion in the mechanical age and the rise of commercialism and scientific progress. Man follows that which is rational to him and wrestles the irrational such as the supernatural into rational concepts. Even though we do these things we still seem to need to see the world in terms of irrational belief. The marriage is certainly a study in irrationality. The rules make little sense but we engage in marriage because we still have a sense of magic and spirituality that even the mechanical age has not taken from us.
Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.
This post has nothing to do with speculative fiction. I am just rambling on about something that has been bothering me lately. I can do that, I own the blog. I am solidly a member of Generation X. I was born in 1970 which is in the middle of every estimation of when Generation X started. Yes, there is debate about when Gen X began and ended. I believe anyone born from 1965-1985 is a member of Generation X. Others give the dates as a little earlier or a little later. Regardless of which way it goes Generation X is missing from our society. In media, entertainment, and academia, we are no longer seen as a group worth talking about or even acknowledging.
We constantly hear about the Millennials and the Boomers. The Millennials get press because their slacker status actually exceeds that of Generation X. Laziness is not the worst trait of Gen M they have been coddled for so long and their parents have treated them as special to the point they can’t cope with reality. Which leads me to wonder who the hell their parents actually were?
The Boomers, what hasn’t been said about that self absorbed group of losers. They dominate politics, the presidency, and make life a living hell for the rest of us with their constant demands for a tighter regulatory state. The Boomers are like a bunch of suffocating nannies. They want to plastic wrap the world.
Where did Gen X go? I have savaged both the Millennials and the Boomers, but I think I have the worst things to say about my own generation. I think we dropped out and left our responsibilities to others. I spent more than half my working life traveling from job to job working as an archaeologist. I am finally settling down in my forties. How did the children of Gen X get so messed up? I think we let our grandparents do to much of the rearing of our children. Those cloying nannies in the Boomer generation seeing the mess they made of Gen X, by being to permissive, went too far the other way. Participation trophies and safe spaces. They created a generation of emotionally stunted children and it is Gen X’s fault. We let the Boomers do this to our children.
I don’t like to leave an article without some hope. That hope is that as Gen X ages we will settle down and raise our second generation of children to be outgoing and brave. We will get our grand children away from the Millennials for a weekend at a time and let them get dirty and let them play outside. We need to make the next generation brave and Gen X is just the ones to do it. We are the people who invented extreme sports, created MMA, went camping in the most remote places on Earth, swam with the sharks, or in my case waded with the alligators. We are an extreme generation, lets make our grand children extreme.
I realize not every Gen Xer let their parents raise their children and I realize every Millennial is not an age stunted attention whore. These are just my observations of trends in our society.
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
There’s a point early on in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival where a team of scientists and soldiers, entering the alien vessel for the first time, hike through a tunnel until they reach the seeming end of it. One character tosses a Glo-Stick up in the air….and it continues to fall upwards. It is at this point that we realize we have entered, to quote Walter Pidgeon’s Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (like Amy Adam’s character, a professor of languages ), a completely new set of scientific values. Villeneuve’s film may seem on the surface to be just another alien-first-contact movie but it’s actually something much more interesting and unique. It’s a true rarity, a film adaptation of a quite recent, highly-acclaimed science fiction short story that manages to do its source material justice. Continue reading “Movie Review: Arrival” →
First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six. Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. Continue reading “In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom” →
Every time someone misuses the word trope (which is approximately 99.999 percent of the time when it’s used on the Internet), I get ….really upset. Call it blind rage, call it a flash of insanity, but even though Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” immediately starts playing in my head, what I really want to do is subject said person to the same mutilations Al wants to subject to himself in his song “One More Minute.” I want to slam their laptops down on their knuckles so hard that their fingers start twitching like spastic hog-nose snakes, and then repeatedly whack them over their head with it while yelling “IDIOT! IDIOT!” in my best Norwegian death-metal voice. Continue reading “Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)” →
About a year ago I created this meme during a discussion on a Facebook group about alien life. The group consensus was that we would never meet an alien race with a humanoid posture or upright bipedal locomotion because it was highly unlikely that this arrangement would evolve independently again. Now I am at best a curmudgeon and at worst an asshole, so I got to thinking about that contention and the more I thought about it the less it struck me as a hard and fast rule.
Evolution is essentially conservative, there is a conservation of form and function in evolution because of the way natural law interacts with living beings. For instance a creature that swims in water on Earth or on a planet 20 light years from Earth is probably going to look roughly the same. Since life seems to favor an aquatic origin as that life emerges from the sea of an alien planet evolution of that terrestrial life may already be based on bilateral symmetry. Of course something like an octopus might be the first creature on land, but at least on our planet the race to the surface favored creatures with hard internal or external structures whose bodies were structurally streamlined. I believe these types would most likely emerge first elsewhere as well.
If my conjecture is correct, that bilateral symmetry is favored by aquatic environments leading to quicker more agile creatures, then that conservation of form will follow onto the land leading to creatures that mimic our own evolution. In the meme above the T-Rex and the Ankylosaurus predate the Terror Bird and the Glyptodon by 60 million years, but the body forms are essentially the same…in fact the T-Rex probably had feathers. What does this mean for future encounters with alien life? First, don’t discount the possibility that creatures with similar capacities to ourselves may have similar body structures. It is very possible that higher intelligence requires a bilateral body plan and whose ancestors went through an arboreal stage of development before developing true upright posture. Second, don’t discount running into a nightmare like a Tyrannosaurus when exploring alien environments.
This is just my opinion.
There were some surprising science fiction nods among the major Oscar nominations this year. Despite complaints about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS not getting a nomination for Best Picture (and in my opinion, it didn’t really deserve one), both MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE MARTIAN managed to secure Best Picture nominations. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of FURY ROAD on cable, so I can’t really judge it beyond that, but THE MARTIAN while not perfect, was one of the better movies in a mediocre year, and so I have no problem with its nomination. Ridley Scott unfortunately didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which likely punctures (sorry) the film’s chances of winning the top prize, but Matt Damon received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel was nominated in the Best Screenplay category. The best science fiction film of the year, EX MACHINA, didn’t get nominated for Best Picture but I was pleasantly surprised to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay, along with Pixar’s fantasy INSIDE OUT. (My choice for the year’s best film, ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, didn’t get any nominations at all, alas). Continue reading “Oscar Enters The Space Age” →
You only have one chance to make a good first impression on someone. I hope I did so the first and only time I ever met David Hartwell; I know he made a good impression on me. It was at the 2013 conference at McMaster University in honor of Robert Sawyer; I was presenting a paper there and David was one of the guests. After Robert’s keynote address, I had the chance to meet David, as well Robert Charles Wilson and Élisabeth Vonarburg. I remember chatting with one of the Roberts, maybe both of them, along with some other guests when he walked up to our little circle with a drink in his hand and a big smile on his face. I had never seen a photo of him, but seeing his name tag sent a shudder of recognition as I realized that one of science fiction’s finest living editors had just strolled up to me. Continue reading “In Memoriam: David G. Hartwell” →
The idea of the reanimated corpse shambles along the pages of history, and even before there were written records the undead were with us. The modern iteration of the zombie is not one of these creatures, but it is something new. A revenant fueled on modern fears of infection, and mass hysteria, while birthed from the ancient fear of reanimated corpses. The power of the modern zombie comes from the persistent fear of disease and infection. This infection is then paired with different social, economic, and cultural fears to create an ever evolving, but constantly horrifying creature that has become a staple of modern American and even global popular culture. The zombie is a stand in for all sorts of fears. Romero used the zombie to first lay bare the fear of encroaching infectious communism in Night of the Living Dead then he turned 180 degrees and took a shot at commercialism in Dawn of the Dead. Romero proved that the zombie can stand for almost any modern fear because essentially the mindless, raving zombie is man himself.
Four Distinct Origins
Our modern zombie who slowly ambles or even quickly chases our hero across the film or TV screen is really the amalgamation of four separate monsters from different portions of the world. The revenant, the ghoul, the vampire, and the Haitian creature of the same name, but different attributes raised up by voodoo. All these undead forms combine in the modern cinematic zombie. It wasn’t until late in the twentieth century that all these were finally condensed into one by George Romero that we get the fully formed creature.
The revenant who is sometimes confused with the modern zombie is probably the closest ancient creature to the modern zombie myth. Revenants were undead creatures from Western European mythology that rose from their graves at night after burial to harass and attack the living. Traditionally those killed by revenants did not themselves come back from the dead. Instead like vampires in Eastern Europe the revenants spread disease and death to the living they attacked. Chapter 24 of book five of the History of England by William of Newburgh attempts to lay out a chronological history of revenants and their attacks on innocent people.
It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity. (Newburgh)
Revenants were always thought to have been evil personas in life as well and their evil deeds haunted them beyond the grave. The revenant is also killed in a similar way to the more popular vampire. Beheading the corpse and burning it traditionally stop the revenants from returning from their graves. Revenants however do not have a taste for human flesh. They are most often depicted attacking with claws a teeth but not devouring their victims. The revenant is however a mindless killing machine, much like the modern zombie
Ghouls like revenants are undead creatures. They haunted graveyards at night and unlike the revenant they ate the bodies of the dead and sometimes the living. The mythology of the ghoul was originally Mesopotamian and later Arabic but the idea spread into Western culture at the end of the 18th century from the gothic horror novel Vathek.
“At the moment that their attendants were placing two wreaths of their favourite jasamines on their brows, the Caliph, who had just heard the tragical catastrophe, arrived. He looked not less pale and haggard than the goules that wander at night among graves.” (Beckford 99).
Ghouls display some very classic zombie features. These creatures seek out human flesh in Western stories it is usually the flesh of the dead but in Arabic stories it can be either, they are also undead creatures who have left their graves for the land of the living. The biggest difference and like the revenants is that their curse is not transferrable. They may kill the living but they do not infect the living, they are also not mindless often being depicted as cunning hunters.
The vampire unlike the other two early creatures is an infectious disease of a sort. In the vampire we come close to the very modern nature of the zombie. While vampires lack some distinct criteria such as mindlessness, he and his kin are more closely related to the modern zombie than even the Haitian undead which bears its name. Vampires have become creatures of infection and so are the modern zombies. In fact the infectious nature of zombism is what powers the fear of the zombie. Without the ability to infect a zombie would not really be much of a monster. This infectious nature of vampires was not a classical aspect of the monster and other than one or two stories of vampires creating other vampires the infectious nature of vampirism is really a result of an update to the story in the 19th century. Most vampire attributes “are in fact creations of the fictional vampire, as drawn by Western writers of the nineteenth century.” (Wasik, Murphy). As the 19th century wore on more and more was learned about infectious disease and rabies was raging in Europe. Even on the verge of a cure the disease was being linked to vampirism in fiction. Vampires were to come into possession of the most powerful horror that science could conjure…disease. The idea that a sane man or woman could be permanently transformed into a raging blood fueled monster is terrifying. Even more so would be the zombie who is not only a raging infectious monster, but mindless as well.
The final creature needed to create the modern zombie was an undead creature resurrected by magic and controlled by a mystical wizard or witch. The word Zombie or Zombi is relatively new. It is supposed to have been first used in the book History of Brazil by Robert Southey in 1819. The book is online and after an exhaustive search of volume 1-3 in both English and Spanish this elusive first mention of the word was not to be found. Not to be detoured the next mention of zombies comes to us from the Haitian tradition. In Haiti the zombie is the corpse of a person thought to be revived into a sort of half life by a practitioner of voodoo. This necromancer is called bokor. These undead creatures serve at the behest of the bokor, who has removed the living soul from the body and use it to control the zombie. Zombies are not considered to be mythology in Haiti article 246 of the Haitian criminal code mandates that,
“Est aussi qualifié attentat à la vie d’une personne, par empoisonnement, l’emploi qui sera fait contre elle de substances qui sans donner la mort, auront produit un état léthargique plus ou moins prolongé, de quelque manière que ces substances aient été employées et quelles qu’en aient été les suites.“ this roughly translates to “Any qualified attempt on the life of a person, by poisoning , the use made against it without substances that cause death , have produced a more or less prolonged lethargy , however these substances have been employed and whatever may have been the result” (Haiti criminal code)
While zombies are considered people in prolonged states of lethargy induced by chemical substances under the law the mythology of the traditional zombie has little to do with our modern idea. Other than being revived corpses these creatures have very little in common with the popular mythology of the modern zombie. To find the roots of our modern brain eater we must combine aspects of all the undead that have shambled into Western culture.
Since the modern zombie is a combination of several creature archetypes from Western literature how did these creations amalgamate into the modern mythology? George Romero most certainly did not create his zombie creations out of whole cloth. His zombies have a very distinct Hollywood linage. White Zombie released in 1932 is the first zombie film. It depicts the traditional Voodoo zombie controlled by an evil bokor in this case played by Bela Lugos. Lugusi plays Murder Legendre who is a white bokor controlling zombies that work on his plantation. In a way this movie is a social commentary on the evils of slavery which ties into later zombie films which often have social commentary at their core. White Zombie is important because it set the stage for the look and feel of zombies in movie. The shambling dead eyes and even a hatred for the living that the dead exhibit in the movie translates to later work that would make the zombie less controllable and more menacing.
The modern zombie would never have developed without the work done by Richard Matheson in the book I am Legend which was published in 1954 and the movie made from the book called The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Prince in 1964. The film was released just four years before Romero was to film Night of the Living Dead and it is without a doubt a direct precursor to both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Matheson’s book and later movie depict a world that has been wiped out by a virulent virus. The virus kills most people but others it transforms into what are essentially vampires. The vampires have all the classic weaknesses. They can only come out at night, they are allergic to garlic, they can’t stand to see their reflection in mirrors, and they must be staked in the heart and then burned. These are not however the classic vampires in another sense. They are weak and slow. They shamble about exactly how you would expect a modern zombie to do. They do have a limited intelligence and can speak at times, but this seems to be an exception that only certain undead possess. The movie and the book are also social commentary. You discover at the end that not all the vampires are evil and that many of the vampires that the main character hunts down and kills during the day are actually fully human but suffering from vampirism. The moral of the story is a thinly veiled attempt at addressing racism. With his work Matheson sets up almost all the factors you will see in the future concerning zombie films. His work explores contagion, social commentary, post apocalypse living conditions, undead hordes attacking people who have walled themselves off from the outside, and isolation. Isolation is almost certainly the cure to infection but it is also a prelude to fear. Who is to be trusted? Matheson packs all this into his work.
Modern Fears and the survival of the Zombie
Romero picks up where Matheson left off. The importance of these films are that all of Romero’s Zombie movies are social commentaries. In an interview he did with Rick Curnutte in the Film Journal Romero states, “We really were trying to make it as much a metaphor as it was a thrill ride. And I’ve always tried…I don’t know, I’ve never wanted to just do movies about guys in hockey masks with knives, you know? I don’t think that way. I sort of think of what underlies it first.” (Curnutte,Romero). This is at the heart of what makes zombie movies constantly relevant. There is a constant repositioning of the zombie as a social problem. Romero’s zombies are contagious but that contagion is of an unknown origin. In the interview with Curnutte he said, “There were three proposed causes, and we cut two of them out because the scenes were boring and the scenes around them were boring, and that one we left in because it was part of that newscast and it made it seem a little bigger. And that became for a while, people said, “Oh, that’s what happened.” You know, some Venus probe came back and brought some kind of bug. And so I was determined…I don’t want there to be a cause.”(Curnutte, Romero) If the cause were known it may be curable. Romero wanted to keep the audience paranoid and thinking. It worked.
The idea that zombism is an infection becomes real to a modern audience. This realism is important in the staying power of the zombie as a modern monster. Matheson’s vampires were too much a creature of legend. Vampirism is equated with magical thinking. The zombie gave the audience a monster with a scientific cause. A virus that can reanimate the brain and causes the dead body to walk among the living. While this is still a dead body walking around to the modern audience disease, infection, and even inoculation are just as magical. They are things that can’t be seen affecting people in ways that are not understood by the average person. Deep down we see infection as the harbinger of death…why not an undead harbinger.
Zombism as a metaphor for infection and even death was enough to scare the audience but the modern zombie represented much more. Directors like Romero came to link zombies with communism, commercialism, AIDS, terrorism, and even the fear of global warming. Anything that the modern mind feared could be linked to the zombie. At the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty first vampires had been reformed. They sparkled and granted eternal life to good little boys and girls. Werewolves hardly existed on the horror scene replaced by serial killers in masks, who were frightening, but were certainly not world threatening. Frankenstein had stopped being scary the day after the first heart transplant, and forget about the mummy. The mummy was stuck in action comedy. Zombies became kings of horror because the zombie was everything and everywhere. Anyone could become a zombie at anytime.
This brings us back to the real underlying fears of zombism. Infection and Isolation are the currents within the mythology that cause fear to wash over the public. We have talked at length about infection, but what about isolation? In a zombie movie or TV show isolation is the result of the zombie apocalypse. You are left alone in a world of monsters who want to eat you and survivors who want to steal what you have and occasionally they also may want to eat you. You are alone. The reason this is horrifying to the viewer who is not really experiencing a zombie outbreak is the fact that the viewer realizes that they are living in this isolation even without hordes of zombies at their door. Isolation is even more personal than the fear of infection. We all experience isolation. Do we know our neighbors in the twenty first century? Do we trust them? That is a fear that everyone can relate too. It is not a fear that other traditional monsters inspire.
When looking for the roots of the modern zombie the quest can either take you to creatures that are not quite a perfect fit, or to creatures that when combined become the modern zombie. Modern zombies are creatures of modern mythic thinking. They are the embodiment of the fears of modern men written on the template of older monsters. The ancient undead pulling themselves out of the grave pale in comparison to the power modern men have given to our current creature. No monster had the power to destroy the entire world, which was solely the domain of gods in older mythic thinking. The zombie is able to accomplish that feat without a second thought, because infections do not think. Zombies are scary because the zombie embodies any fear we may have as an individual and they embody fears that all humans have such as disease and isolation. This is a very powerful combination. It leaves the zombie in the position of the king of the monsters, a creature so flexible it encompasses any fear.
Beckford, William. Vathek. Paris: Perrin, 1893. Print
Curnette, Rick “There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero” The Film Journal. http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue10/romero.html . Web. 4 Dec 2014.
Haitian Penal Code http://www.oas.org/juridico/mla/fr/hti/fr_hti_penal.html . Web 4 Dec 2014.
Halperin, Victor, Edward Halperin, Garnett Weston, Bela Lugosi, Madge Bellamy, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Frazer, John Harron, Brandon Hurst, Xavier Cugat, and William Seabrook. White Zombie. Los Angeles, CA: Roan Group Archival Entertainment, 1999.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend. New York: ORB, 1995. Print.
Newburgh, William. The Church Historians of England, volume IV, part II; translated by Joseph Stevenson (London: Seeley’s, 1861) Web. 4 Dec 2014
Salkow, Sidney, Robert L. Lippert, Logan Swanson, William F. Leicester, Vincent Price, Franca Bettoia, Emma Danieli, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter, Colli F. Delli, Gene Ruggiero, and Richard Matheson. The Last Man on Earth. Beverly Hills, CA: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2007.
Streiner, Russ, John Russo, George A. Romero, Duane Jones, and Judith O’Dea. Night of the Living Dead. New York, N.Y: Elite Entertainment, 2002.
Wasik, Bill, and Monica Murphy. Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus. , 2012. Print.