At play in the universe of S.M. Stirling
The old world goes away and the new one comes in with strife, terror and death …
These days, that seems to be the only story, told well or poorly. One of the better ones, though — one with depth, complex and emotional characters, incredible details from the food the characters eat to the armor they wear to the lands they travel through — is The Change series by S.M. Stirling
Back in 1998, Nantucket Island was suddenly whisked off to Bronze Age Europe. That was the start, three books worth, but then Stirling turned his attention to a part of the world that was left behind, and thus began the Emberverse Series. That started in 2004 with Dies the Fire and has continued through ten more books with the 12th, The Desert and the Blade, due in September. What happened to the world wasn’t pretty — electricity stopped flowing, steam power lost its punch, explosives lost their bang and internal combustion engines stalled forever — and the books have chronicled how a real post-modern history has unfolded with the rise and fall of kingdoms, petty tyrants and religious fanatics (with a real edge to them). And underneath it all, good people trying to find answers and create new societies.
Though Stirling gave us a peek at some of the rest of the U.S. — his characters had to traverse the continent on a quest, after all — and some hints about the rest of the world (hint: Prince Charles does not come off very well), he, like any author building new worlds, has to limit his scope in order to keep the story on track. So he generously opened his world to other writers, asking them to write short stories, setting them wherever they liked as long as the rules of the universe are followed.
The result is The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth (ROC, $27.95). Fifteen authors telling 16 stories (Stirling tells one of his own) in several places around the globe, including Florida, California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Canada, Australia and Greek galleys battling it out in the Mediterranean,
Authors, both known and upcoming, include A.M. Dellamonica, Kier Salmon, Lauren C. Teffeau, M.T. Reiten, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, John Birmingham, Walter Jon Williams, John Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Jane Lindskold, Jody Lynn Nye, Emily Mah, and Diana Paxson.
And Terry England. Yeah, me. And I can tell you I’m proud and honored to be a part of this.
The summer the buildings fell, the cities crumbled and civilization turned to dust
In the last four weeks, I watched as city after city was destroyed, buildings collapsing like Lego blocks at a day-care center. Nations collapsed, infrastructure wiped out, millions of people killed, millions more injured, probably billions more left starving and homeless.
“Probably” because we don’t know for sure; the human toll isn’t mentioned much. Not a big concern, evidently.
The damage is horrendous, spectacular, awesome; damage that just boggles the mind. Is there anything left? Well, the planet itself is sitting there just waiting to be smushed like an overripe plum. That will happen soon, no doubt about it.
I’m not fooling anybody, right? Y’all know I’m talking about movies. Particularly the four “tentpole” movies this summer. They all have one thing in common: utter destruction. The people who made these are gleefully destroying cities — mostly American, but a few foreign metropolises (metropili?) tossed in, too for good measure. Is there a message here? Are they saying that American, Western, civilization is doomed, and we’d better be prepared for the apocalypse that will either rain from the skies, roar out of the oceans or start with the bite of an infected neighbor?
Or are these guys just having fun?
Guys, yeah; the four directors — J.J. Abrams, Star Trek: Into Darkness; Zack Snyder, Man Of Steel; Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim; Marc Forster, World War Z — are all guys, and so are the screenwriters. Little boys playing with their toys, toys that cost millions to use. Where before the destruction of Tokyo once could have been done by dressing a guy in a rubber suit and having him stomp around on a cheap model of the city, now the work is done on computers (with an occasional miniature or large model thrown in). But the cost is on the scale of the virtual destruction: horrendous and spectacular. Meaning we consumers better march in droves down the box office and show our support for these magic-makers. (Heh, good luck with that, Lone Ranger.)
You wouldn’t think — at least I wouldn’t; maybe I’m just a drudge — to see this kind of thing in Star Trek. As one character in Start Trek: Into Darkness points out, the Enterprise was built for exploration, not war. Same with the Star Trek franchise. Alas, everything is dark, nowdays: Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Alice in once-but-no-more Wonderland. Now that the ST series has turned into action movies of mostly bad-guy-seeks-revenge-against-James Kirk and/or Mr. Spock (even at the cost of his own planet), exploration has been pushed to the back burner. So, where to go for a nasty villain? Why Khan, of course. (And no,
Bandersnatch Cumberbund Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t Khan. Only the Shakespeare & Melville-quoting Ricardo Montalban has the proper [if over the top] gravitas.) And what does the remade Khan in the remade Star Trek do? Drop a starship on San Francisco. The apocalypse from an avenging angel.
Let’s pause for a moment among the carnage to ponder a few questions STID poses for us. How could a renegade admiral build a giant super-starship off Saturn (or Jupiter, I forget which) without anyone noticing either A, a giant starship hangar hanging around the solar system; or B, the drain on Starfleet resources in building said super-starship? How could Mr. Scott could approach said giant super-starship-construction complex in a shuttle without being detected? And how he was able to integrate into the crew without being unmasked? And most important, where the hell did Bones McCoy get that tribble?
Ahem, sorry. The producers, director and writers don’t want us to concern ourselves over such tribbles–uh, quibbles, instead just look in awe at that epic Vulcan-to-uberman fight on top of a speeding shuttle (or whatever it was) between the re-booted Spock and the ersatz Khan. Cool, huh? (No.)
Kirk does suggest, at the end of the movie, that the Enterprise will be going ahead with its 5-year mission to explore strange new things, etc., etc. Better get going, boys, ’cause I have a feeling your mission will be side-tracked by another crazy person ready to take out whole planets — maybe even a solar system or two — gunning for Kirk or Spock or Kirk and Spock.
I suppose someone will eventually ask who’d win a man-to-man fight: Khan or Superman. The answer has no meaning, of course, but corporations are building whole franchises on such ponderings. Take Superman, for example. Here, yet again, is another rewrite of his myth. (Boy, did Siegel and Shuster hit a nerve or what?). Only this time he’s more conflicted, darker, not so goody-goody anymore. Yes, that’s what we need in this world, a darker, moodier, conflicted superman.
Man of Steel (notice the clever way they never mention the name “Superman,” knowing we’ll all be fooled) spends a lot of time on Krypton, Kal-El’s birth planet. It’s an ugly world, with genetically engineered people doing only what they’re programmed to do. Kal-El is different, of course; the movie starts with his mom, Lara Lor-Van, Mrs. Jor-El giving birth to him the natural way. And that’s pretty much it for her. Thanks, Mom, for the birth scene, and a little bit of sad mom-love as Dad prepares to send the tyke off to Earth, now go die in a fireball. Dad, of course, will pop up now and then in virtual form to give his son advice.
Clark Kent (as he is known on Earth) does get to explore a bit more into what it would be like to grow up knowing he’s practically a god. He tries to fit in, but he looks like a nerd, so he’s treated like one (of course; he wouldn’t be heroic if he were, say, the quarterback on the football team). Don’t give in to your anger, (huh ‑ I swear I’ve heard that somewhere else), says adoptive Dad even as young Clark puts a dent into an iron fence post. Turning bullies into red mush would not be polite, you see.
As a young man Clark goes out in the world to find himself. The film switches to an episode of The Deadliest Catch as he’s confronted with a choice of exposing himself (with flames, no less) or letting men die on a collapsing oil rig. Everywhere he goes he’s faced with the same sort of dilemma and word starts getting around. An enterprising reporter named — oh, come on; who do you think? — starts tracking him down, threatening to expose him even more. The theme of taking odd jobs between his farm days and his super days was explored in It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven (2005). De Haven’s wandering Man of Steel does a stint as a Hollywood stunt man, which makes so much freaking sense you wonder why they left it out of this movie. Well, because then they’d have to pay De Haven royalties, wouldn’t they? He doesn’t get any credits in this movie, but I believe his mark is there.
General Zod, the bad guy here, is the apocalypse personified. He and his prison-busting Kryptonite cohorts plan to remake the Earth into a new Krypton. That it means the death of every human is no matter. Humans are soft, weak creatures. Time to replace them with strong, disciplined beings a step up on the evolutionary chain. Despite the best efforts of the American military, only Superman can stop them. If he’d just get over his angst and stand up like a man.
A big stickler in any Superman movie is his costume. It’s easy to portray it in comics; a few brush strokes can cover up the weird parts. Man of Steel gives him one that looks like the rubber mats you put on the floor; it must’ve been hot as heck for the actor. (And he wears his undershorts inside for the first time in Superman history.) But the movie also makes a point about the downside of capes when Zod grabs it, spins Superman around and around before letting go and sending the Man of Steel smashing through several buildings.
Now let’s talk about this smashing buildings stuff. By the end of Man of Steel, I was exhausted just watching the destruction of the city and watching building after building fall. Even the Daily Planet building is destroyed. In all this carnage, you have to ask, what happened to all the people? The buildings are empty as the combatants tear through them, the falling buildings land on streets devoid of bodies and no one inside is screaming as the structure comes apart around them. Only one person is trapped in rubble, but she’s part of the cast, so she’s rescued. If 9/11/01 taught us anything, it’s that collapsing buildings cause a lot of casualties. At the end of the movie, the Daily Planet staff is back in its newsroom as if nothing had happened. Amazing how these cities get rebuilt so fast.
OK, OK, it’s a comic-book movie. But sometimes when you ignore reality, when you ignore all of the consequences of what you have happen even in your fictional story, it all becomes just background noise. Not worth watching, not worth reading.
(Addendum, July 23: Buzzfeed.com had someone calculate the casualties and property damage. The result, as I expected, is horrendous.)
Coastal cities around the world are being ravaged by monsters from the sea. By now, we’re pretty sure the seas aren’t teeming with giant lizards or dinosaurs, radioactive or not, so where can they be coming from? Why, a portal in the bottom of the ocean. This means they’re aliens despite the attempt to put a home-grown spin on them. They come stomping out of the ocean like they did in the old Japanese monster flicks. And, as we all know, the standard military response just isn’t enough. Something else is needed. Something better, bigger, more powerful, more awesome. What can save us?
Giant robots. Yeah, that’s the trick.
That’s Pacific Rim in a nutshell. Oh, there are the stories of the pilots of the giant walking war machines, and stories about the people who design and maintain the robots (which in this case should be called “waldoes,” right, Robert Heinlein?), stories about the scientists trying to figure out what is going on, stories about idiot politicians who decide that giant walls are enough to hold back the horde. (“Hello? China here. Bad idea. Is anyone listening?”) But the main thing is the robot-versus-monster fights. Epic fights. Yes, cities are destroyed, but with such style, such panache. I mean, come on, when a giant robot picks up a cargo ship and uses it as a club, you’ve just got to sit back and let it roll over you.
There is a plot here. It’s the apocalypse, after all, and we need to keep that in mind. The monsters had come before, you see, but the atmosphere was not to their liking. So they waited as we humans pumped carbon dioxide and all sorts of other nasty things into the atmosphere. Now they’ve come to stay. Western culture to blame, right, so we’ll just stomp it into powder. But the nations of Earth cannot stand idly by and watch the destruction (though in real life several would like to see the United States get its ass kicked), so they band together to fight the invaders. A bit of fantasy there, eh? We can’t even agree to band together to cut carbon emissions.
But, just to be a stuck-in-the-mud, how many people are killed by these battles? We see people taking shelter (not always the safest place), but even so, it has to be at least in the thousands in each battle, but like STID and Man of Steel before it, the figures are just glossed over. Also, filmmakers still under-estimate both the power of nuclear-weapons blasts and the after-effects. Nice visuals, but remember how Indiana Jones survived a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator? That’s the level of physics we’re at here.
Pacific Rim does get one thing right: if there is profit in monster bones, parts or poop, someone will cash in. Greed — there’s your unifying force of humanity.
I don’t like zombies, movies about zombies, TV shows about zombies, comic books about zombies. I do not like zombies period. So I thought I could go without seeing World War Z because it is a zombie movie. However, a colleague urged me to see it, so I said, “all right,” girded my loins and went. I can’t say the surprise was pleasant — not for this movie — but more, say, intriguing.
Oddly, this film is the most human of the four. (But make no mistake — it is the most brutal of the bunch.) The central character doesn’t have super-powers, nor does he have access to super-powered technology. Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is a normal man with normal powers (despite the odd haircut). He’s just a guy trying to save his family.
The film does suffer from what I call the Only One Man Syndrome: only one man in the entire world can see the solution to the problem, only one man in the entire world can save humanity despite medical, scientific and research teams all over the world trying desperately to find the solution. Nope, all the scientific teamwork in the world is no match for this one man’s intellect.
That aside, the movie starts off innocently enough, a family headed to their respective destinations only to get stuck in traffic. Things slowly fall apart as the virus spreads and Lane finds himself in a desperate situation trying to save his family from people going berserk. Unlike the standard zombie film, though, the victims don’t just shamble around muttering “Brains, brains,” they hurl themselves at the uninfected, bite them, and move on. Lane times it and discovers it takes about 12 seconds for the infection to take over the human body. He works for the U.N. (the U.N. was in Pacific Rim, too; are Hollywood movie-makers trying to tell us something?), and his expertise is needed to lead a team in the search for a cure. He starts out with an expert in viruses and a squad of SEALS, but quickly he’s the only one left (see? the Only One Man Syndrome at work). He does save an Israeli soldier from the plague so she joins him.
A rogue CIA agent (are there any other kind?) tells him the Israeli saw it coming and quickly built walls to seal the plague-carriers out. Walls again. In Pacific Rim, they were ineffective from the get go; in WWZ, they’re more effective … for a while. They have as much success at keeping the zombie plague out as did the high walls around castles in Medieval Europe had in keeping the Black Plague out. Well, who in Israel could foresee zombies piling up their own bodies until they top the walls? There’s another message from your movie-makers: Walls might make good neighbors but are porous to weapons of the apocalypse.
Zombies don’t make physical sense, but they sure are popular. They can be seen as undead beings just wanting to eat like everyone else, or they can play the role of metaphor. What scares you the most? What’s happening in the world that makes you so damn sure the real apocalypse is coming? Pick your plague: zombies = plague-infected people, zombies = gay people, zombies = atheists, zombies = fundamentalists, zombies = immigrants; zombies = liberals, zombies = conservatives, zombies = teen-agers, zombies = adults, zombies = poor people, zombies = old people, zombies = people of color, zombies = white people … the list goes on and on. So when we see zombies stack themselves against a wall and go over the top to infect the “pure” people within, that’s the apocalypse. And it’s what makes them so popular.
So, there’s your message of the four films: be prepared for the apocalypse. It’s a popular subject these days; it seems everyone’s convinced it’s around the corner. More apocalyptic films are in the pipeline, several have come and gone already. So is Hollywood telling us Western civilization is doomed? The amount of destruction in the films seems to say yes. On the other hand, maybe it’s just some people having fun pretending to destroy everything.
But I’ll tell you, it sure gets wearisome.