The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, is an intriguing, well-plotted spy drama set in an incompletely subjugated America after the Axis victory in World War II. Germany and Japan share control of the continent, with continued mutual mistrust. A resistance exists under each government’s rule, one that hinges on the transportation of secret films that fuel the rebellion.

Between the Reich’s holdings on the East Coast and the Japanese Empire’s on the West is the Neutral Zone. It is effectively a no-man’s land that provides some safety for Blacks, homosexuals, and other social outcasts. Despite the pressure of the Reich and the Empire, it is apparently quite easy to travel to the neutral zone and back by a regular bus route.

America in The Man in the High Castle
America in The Man in the High Castle

There are a few spoilers ahead.

The Man in the High Castle’s cinematography is quite beautiful, with a muted palate like a faded old film print. The red of the Nazi flags is the brighter for it. There are some strikingly emotional moments, such as the ash falling like snow from the hospital that is burning “cripples, you know, a drag on the state” in episode 1, and the boom shot of mass graves in episode 7. One character leaves origami birds behind him, in a nod to producer Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

The plotting is tight, with nothing wasted even when the story takes its time unfolding. It is intrigue upon intrigue, delicate, building on the increasing tension between the Japanese and the Nazis. Like ripples expanding in a pool, the number of characters grows and the conspiracy expands. By episode 4, though, a main driver of the plot becomes Juliana’s search for answers to her sister’s death rather than the resistance itself.

The acting is as impeccable as the writing allows. The Man in the High Castle suffers at times from the rushed characterization of series television. Characters leap into rebellion or radicalism with little prelude to their sudden embrace of the cause. The exposition is occasionally clunky, as characters ask obvious questions and translate what they just said, effectively repeating themselves.

Secondary characters become more developed as the series goes on, while the primary characters actually become soapier. Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank), the young leads, are unfortunately underdeveloped as they are written. As a possibly wavering double agent, Joe’s moral ambivalence too often comes across as indecision.  And Juliana strikes me as too vacillating and selfish to be a hero. Her determination comes off as a sort of Nancy Drew pig-headedness. I’m surprised the resistance didn’t kill her for a loose cannon when she told them she will not sacrifice for the cause.

But there are a number of very strong scenes in the second half of the series that help add depth to what has gone before. One of the best is between an unctuous antiques dealer and a wealthy Japanese couple. The Japanese are attempting to embrace all aspects of American culture while the dealer rejects out of hand any Black and Jewish cultural contributions. Cultural appropriation is rampant on both sides. The awkwardness feels real.

By the last episode, both the Japanese and the Nazi players are more interesting and more important than the resistance characters. Again, much of it falls back on the script. The bad guys are allowed to display deeply moral decision-making processes and a willingness to shoulder their responsibilities in a way that is missing from the resistance characters. As Obergruppenführer John Smith, Rufus Sewell is a nuanced Nazi, believable as a father wrestling with the state-required death of his genetically diseased son and also as a military man who suspects he is being set up. And in particular, Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), and Officer Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) all display a sense of larger purpose, willing to sacrifice their honors and their lives for the sake of averting further war.

In my opinion, The Man in the High Castle is a flawed yet satisfying show. The cast and production are outstanding. There are many philosophical points to ponder among the plot twists, awkward romances, and action. The final scene left us hanging. This is well worth ten hours of your time, either in a binge or more moderately paced. Since I binged, I will have to read the source novel while waiting for season two. I’ll let you know how that goes.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

The Stress of Her Regard
The Stress of Her Regard

Before I can attempt a review Tim Power’s award-winning novel The Stress of Her Regard, I have a confession to make. I have read this book at least fifteen times. Quite possibly more. Some books are like that, with that kind of pull. I never read another book by Powers, though—I owned a few over the years but never cracked them. Didn’t feel the need to. I had so much fun with this one, why would I risk reading something less wonderful?

Don’t get me wrong, though—this is not a deep philosophical work like some others I have reviewed. Even though The Stress of Her Regard won the 1990 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for its rich use of mythology and literary studies, it is a cheerfully well-written, rollicking, swashbuckling, action-and-garlic packed adventure that swoops from England and Scotland to the Swiss Alps and on to Rome and Pisa and Venice, before it lays its rather amorphous monsters to rest. The Stress of Her Regard is a sometimes-loopy page turner, and a very different view of vampires than is today’s standard.

“…he managed to awaken the mountains enough to talk to them, and he learned about their people, the nephelim,the pre-Adamite vampires, whose petrified bodies could still be found here and there, dormant like seeds in the desert waiting for the right kind of rain” (255)

Our story begins properly in rural England in 1816, with a very drunk Dr. Michael Crawford accidently marrying a statue–a statue that happens to be one of the nephelim. And the nephelim are all vampires. Oops. This action proves to be a major impediment to him marrying his human fiancée—especially when the jealous vampire lover kills her human rival on their wedding night. But this is par for the course with these creatures. The vampires want what they want, and will kill anyone who might distract or interfere with the object of their desire. Spouses, siblings, and progeny all become collateral damage. “Once they’ve focused on anyone, they seem to keep track of him throughout his life. And keep track, keep disastrous track, of his family, too” (53).

Dr. Crawford’s particular creature also happens to be the unnatural twin sister of Percy Shelly, making Crawford his brother-in-law and a well-loved member of the monstrous family. And while the circumstances of Shelly’s and his sister’s birth are rare, the carnal relationship the vampire has with Crawford is not: “The problem is that there aren’t any pure-bred lamiae, pure-bred vampires, anymore” (50). They may be elemental and practically immortal, but they still have to reproduce, somehow—and humans will do just fine for that.

A sphinx, one of The Stress of Her Regard's vampires
A sphinx, one of The Stress of Her Regard’s vampires

Powers manages to incorporate whatever folklore he can lay his hands on into one culture-blind, all-encompassing mythology of vampirism—according to Powers, these creatures predate human culture, and are the source of the legends about the nephelim and lamiae, the Muses, the Fates, the Sphinx, poets and doppelgangers, trolls and Balder, the Graiae and the Gorgons. Lot’s wife is pulled into the mix as a Biblical vampire, since “the nephelim were the ‘giants in the earth’ they had in those days, the descendants of Lilith, who sometimes laid with the sons and daughters of men” (95). Even caesarian sections and kidney-stones are somehow connected to them.

These vampire-serpent-nephelim are the other sentient race on Earth, and are under various circumstances combinations of stone, reptile, humanoid, and phantom. They can marry a human and give him the near-immortality of a grossly extended lifespan, or they can consume a human by drinking his blood and give him the parasitic immortality of a vampire’s host.

A strange and anachronistic connection is drawn between the Sphinx’s riddle and the atomic structure of carbon, silicon, aluminum, and iron to explain the myth’s origins and the vampires’ evolution:

“Each of these spheres is ‘many thousand spheres’…and it’s the number of these pieces of electricity in the atom’s outermost sphere that defines which other atoms the atoms can combine with. The pieces of electricity are the limbs by which the atom can seize other atoms, and three kinds of atoms are the bases for the three kinds of skeletons. Even the surviving legends of Oedipus describe the four-and-two-and-three as means of support” (257).

It is a stretch, but it fits among the scattershot multitude of lore fragments that Powers uses in his vampire mosaic. Many of the associations are so random as to make little or no sense, yet the inherent confusion and ignorance of the main characters lets Powers glide easily over any tenuous connections or inconsistencies and make them functional parts of the narrative. Crawford and Josephine don’t really get the big picture, Byron and Shelly don’t explain it in any great depth, and most other characters assume that everyone already knows all the finer details of the human-nephelim connection.

I know my summary of The Stress of Her Regard sounds quite messy, but Powers is a master at his craft. His pacing is surefooted and intense—constant forward motion is delivered whip-crack fast. He handles his creation with great assurance, although characterization occasionally falls by the wayside. In addition to Powers’s own main protagonists, Dr. Crawford and Josephine, the historical poets François Villon, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Percy and Mary Shelly are all major players in the complicated game. All of them have been marked by the nephelim as sibling, spouse, or prey, and all of them are fighting to break free of the dangerous attention. We can get a feeling for the characters, enough to differentiate them, but too much is going on to feel too deeply for any of them. But that’s okay. There’s no need to cry over characters protected by the very monsters they are fighting.

Venice, where The Stress of Her Regard hides the Graiae
Venice, where The Stress of Her Regard hides the Graiae

I did find that I disliked the main character, Crawford, simply because of the voice Powers used for him. The good doctor is invariably portrayed, both in description and in internal monologue, as a rather awkward and sort of selfish, judgmental, and whiny individual: “He toppled forward into his plodding, splashing run again, resolutely not letting himself think about how cold and wet he was, nor about how cold and wet he was likely to be in the future, now that he would have to give up his employment and return to the life of a penniless fugitive…” (182).

Fortunately, Crawford’s personal qualities are not critical to the energy or execution of the plot. In The Stress of Her Regard, Powers pulls together an amazing narrative from an unexpected range of sources in a way that will make you look at familiar tropes and fairy tales and say “I wonder if that fits…”. Enough of the sparkly vampires, the sexy vampires, the too-cool ones that pretend to be human. These are the vampires you want to read about. More than once.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

William Gibson's The Peripheral
William Gibson’s The Peripheral

Any review of The Peripheral, William Gibson’s most recent novel, has to look at multiple scenarios. The story straddles a too-familiar near-future and a second future that dwells on its many possible pasts. It is plot driven, uneven, and socially observant, quirky and gritty and irreverent and grim. It is a tangle whose devices are explained repeatedly, in nuanced fragments, at regular intervals. The future Gibson posits is pretty dark. It’s also pretty hopeful. It all depends on the elaborate intersection of multiple pasts with their potential presents, and the histories that will come of them. It is a novel I will read again.

Space and Time

The Peripheral happens in two futures—the first a resource-depleted one not far from our present, and the second a depopulated but vastly rich time about seventy years further on. Certain wealthy, second-future “continua enthusiasts” utilize secret Chinese servers through which they can contact and manipulate the past for their own gain.

The two time streams are separated by a drawn out cataclysm called simply “the jackpot:” “It was no one thing… it was multicausal, with no particular beginning an no end. More a climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to have a big event” (319). A slow motion apocalypse, “…it killed 80 percent of every last person alive, over about forty years” (320). This great dying-off allowed for well-positioned survivors to benefit from the new surplus of resources and the snowballing advances in technology: “The richest had gotten richer, there being fewer to own whatever there was” (322). They had, for all purposes, indeed hit the jackpot.

On the near side of the jackpot we have Gibson’s first POV character, Flynne, her family, and her associates. They live in tech-driven poverty in an undefined rural American county, where the primary economic opportunities are in illegal drug manufacture, grey market product fabrication, online gaming for hire, and government disability. Each day is its own struggle, and there is little hope of anything better.

On the far side, though, we have a world rebuilt for the lucky few who survived, in an environment restored through a combination of extensive nanotechnology and less population pressure. The remaining centers of power are London and vague China, and the survivors fill their emptied cities with androids for company. They also use these androids as “peripherals,” short-term containers for transferred consciousness that allow the users to meet each other without the bother of travel. Gibson explains much of this for us through Netherton, Flynne’s contact and this timeline’s POV character.

Motivation

The plot of The Peripheral is set in motion when Flynne, taking a shift in what she believes is some virtual reality, witnesses a woman’s murder: “The woman never moved, as something tiny punched out through her cheek, leaving a bead of blood, her mouth still open, more of them darting in…Her forehead caved in…the woman toppled backward, limbs at angles that made no sense…less a body every inch it fell” (56). In the future where the killing occurred Netherton is assigned to Flynne as a handler of sorts, when she is present in a peripheral body. The hope is that she will be able to identify the murderer.

But first, she has to understand some of what drives the future: “You can’t get there. Nobody can. But information can be exchanged, so money can be made there” (38).

And the money is the crux of it. The continua enthusiasts do not reach back out of curiosity or a sense of responsibility. Most of them don’t concern themselves with the repercussions of their interference because it is an amusement, transactional, and to their benefit—and their manipulations in the past do not affect their present. Each time the future initiates contact with the past it generates what those involved call a “stub,” an alternate timeline that is no longer part of the future’s past. “In each instance in which we interact with the stub…we ultimately change all of it, the long outcomes” (70). From a seventy year remove, it is expected that those making contact will not care very deeply about the effects: “Imperialism…We’re third-worlding alternate continua. Calling them stubs makes it a bit easier” (103). In the grand tradition of exploitation, dehumanizing the exploited is a requirement. Interacting only through phones and peripherals maintains that distance.

Morality Play

“Peripheral” in The Peripheral refers to more than just the android bodies the characters use to travel and interact across time. It also describes Flynne, and Netherton, and most of the characters Gibson names on both sides of the jackpot. They are all peripheral to the real powers in their worlds, and are used by the prime movers to achieve ends they cannot even envision. Even the very wealthy, while free to manipulate time, are not as powerful as they would like to believe. In The Peripheral, the prime movers exist only in the background. Their plots and motivations are like the great beasts of the deep, shadowy and indistinct, but powerful enough that the wake of their passing moves all the smaller creatures.

Although Gibson glosses over the scope of her authority until near the novel’s end, the character of Lowbeer proves to be The Peripheral’s most powerful player. As a government operative with vast resources and overarching objectives. “Lowbeer knows the history of her world, and the secret history of ours. The history that produced Lowbeer’s world includes the assassination of the president” (378). Lowbeer is in the rare position of having lived through the jackpot. She has existed for a century. She has real power, and has had it for many years.

Lowbeer links Flynne’s time to Netherton’s in a way the peripherals and the servers can’t. Her influence spans all of it: “Civilization was dying, of its own discontents. We live today as a result of what I and so many others did to prevent that. You yourself have known nothing else” (384). She is a prime mover, present in multiple time streams, yet she is presented in the novel as a peripheral character in a way that keeps her both of and outside of time. She is the memory of the novel, the character who can understand the entire game, its players, instruments, and repercussions. And now she is working to change one of her own pasts:

“Coldiron and Matryoshka, as your people are calling it, are racing for ownership of your world… Matryochka, which exists in order to kill you, and for no other reason, appears to be employing some more powerful state financial apparatus, here. I need to stop that, in order to enable Coldiron’s dominance, which may enable the prevention of Gonzalez’s assassination. But the politics here are such that I’m unable to do that without first having  proof, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, of who murdered Aelita. I can’t begin to explain how power works, here…” (430).

Wrapped up in the convoluted politics and power plays of the immediate situation, Lowbeer is working towards a moral outcome–to influence whether or not the jackpot ever happens. Her own present is secure, but it is still possible to spare the past.

One Possible Reading

William Gibson
William Gibson

It was good to be reading Gibson again. His prose is clean and vibrant. His ideas are complex. He demands that his readers think. At times it seemed he was repeating himself by explaining and re-explaining the limits of time travel across the continua. And I can’t quite decide how I feel about the pacing. The Peripheral happens over the course of a week—but that week happens over the course of almost a century. It’s a lot to process—and it’s well worth it.

One thought that stays with me long after The Peripheral is done is how alarmingly prescient it feels. Flynne’s time is only about thirty years from now. The tech is recognizable. The corporate dominance is recognizable. The under-serving of veterans is recognizable. Half-hearted stabs at conservation, economic decline, the drug trade pushing in where hope has faded—none of this is much of a stretch. And the conclusion drawn from those circumstances, that the already wealthy will survive and profit as the poor suffer the brunt of depleted resources—that’s not a stretch at all. We’ve seen it before when nations built their empires.

Another is that while The Peripheral is a mélange of murder mystery, social commentary, and cautionary tale, to me it seems that Gibson uses the relevance of history to underscore the responsibility that comes with power. Power is only superficially about manipulating markets for financial gain. Real power in The Peripheral comes from understanding the implications of history as it is lived, and preventing suffering where it is possible. Just because the jackpot happened doesn’t mean it has to happen.

Because history rarely bears repeating.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

We are now three episodes into Ash vs. Evil Dead, and I think it’s time to review where it’s been and see where it might be heading—because once is chance, twice coincidence, and three times is a pattern.

And Ash vs. Evil Dead’s pattern is emerging. Even if you haven’t seen it yet, I’m sure you’ve heard about it. Good things. Very good things. And they are all true.

Spoilers coming.

Our heroes in Ash vs. Evil Dead
Our heroes in Ash vs. Evil Dead

In a magnificent display of misguided machismo, Bruce Campbell chews all the scenery as our hero, Ash. His young, unevenly committed sidekicks are Ash’s coworkers. Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), are much lower key but very funny. Their comic timing and delivery is spot-on.

The straight-man balancing all the comedy is Special Agent Amanda Fisher, played by Jill Marie Jones. She lost her partner to a deadite, and needs to figure out what happened. Rounding out the main cast is Lucy Lawless. As Ruby Knowby, she brings the mystery—who is she, and what does she know about the strange happenings?

Ash vs. Evil Dead is full of familiar camera tricks lifted from the movies, a fondness for antlers in set decoration, the maniacal giggle of the possessed doll that sounds like Ash’s long-dead girlfriend, and of course, Ash’s car.

The cheerfully awful CGI is a nod to the truly cheesy effects from the first movie. There are ridiculous amounts of gore and vats of blood splashed everywhere, and the one-liners are splattered as generously as the fake blood. There’s also classic Deep Purple on the soundtrack and three decapitations in the first twenty minutes of the premiere episode.

Episode 1 reintroduces Ash in all his glory, and establishes him as an unrepentant, ignorant, arrogant pig—because if he isn’t he can’t develop as a character and the show will quickly sputter out. He’s still a stockboy, he still parties too hard, and he’s still quite the pick-up artist. While trying to get lucky while stoned out of his gourd, he and his date read from the Necronomicon and set everything in motion. The epic battle in Ash’s trailer brings back the chainsaw and the boomstick and allows for buckets of blood to be splashed over everyone with much gusto.

A serious note is inserted into Ash vs. Evil Dead through Special Agent Amanda Fisher, who gets sucked into the mess Ash has made. Hints of her importance are dropped, with a deadite telling her “We know who you are”.

Episode 2 gets Ash, Pablo, and Kelly up and moving on the quest to get the Necronomicon translated in order to send the evil back to where it came from. This involves killing off their former boss, a side trip to kill Kelly’s deadite parents, and a decision to work as a trio.

Special Agent Fisher is still on Ash’s trail, now with a police sketch and a possible destination to help her.

In Episode 3, things are settling into the groove required for series television. Ash raises a demon, leaves chaos in his wake, learns to accept the help of Pablo and Kelly and embraces the idea of teamwork as “The Ghostbeaters” instead of being the “alone wolf.” In addition to the ongoing threat from the Necronomicon and the deadites, there is the mysterious pursuit by Lucy Lawless’s still-unidentified and convincingly bad-ass character, and the interference by Special Agent Fisher.

Starz played the original Evil Dead before launching Episode 3. It was refreshing to see Ash’s character as a noob, and a reminder that he’s changed just a little since then.

The only thing I was leery of in the first episode was the show’s ability to balance the silly with the scary. But the serious tone of Fisher’s story line actually, so far, works out well. It is being integrated in a way that makes the comedic characters more human and will give the grim Officer Fisher a chance to have a sense of humor. That will give the premise some fresh meat to chew on and keep Ash vs. Evil Dead from being entirely cartoonish. And I have the feeling Ruby will turn out to be Ash’s worst nightmare, either as another force of evil or the most righteous avenger he’s ever seen.

I know I’m looking forward to Episode 4, and 5, and 6….

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Chappie came out in March, 2015, and its trailers looked gritty and funny and sharp. Writer/director Neill Blomenkamp had expanded the concept from his 2004 short Tetra Vaal into a full length movie. But the reviews upon its release were not encouraging. It earned only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes and 41% on Metacritic. Audiences liked it more than critics did, but opinions were still roundly mixed. I wrote Chappie off as one of those movies I might watch when it got to cable. Maybe.

Then, I spotted this on Twitter from Wiliam Gibson: “Taint of Disneyfication is exclusively from Sony’s excruciatingly misguided marketing. If Chappie‘s not cyberpunk, nothing ever was.”

Chappie
Chappie

I have great respect for William Gibson. If anyone knows what is or isn’t cyberpunk, it is him, and he has been vouching for Chappie since its initial release. So, I watched it. And while I understand some of the negative critical reactions, I also fully understand why Gibson got behind it with the weight of his authority. Despite any flaws in the filmmaking, Chappie is an eloquent, moving, hopeful movie about what makes us who we are.

Chappie happens in that space which Gibson loves so well, the intersection of society’s grey economy fringe-dwellers and its ubiquitous hi-tech. Cyberpunk is defined by this crossing of paths. The rich fund the technology, the disenfranchised steal and adapt it. In keeping with that, the character of Chappie begins his days as a police robot, the apparently sole product of Tetravaal Corporation. The robot is acquired by a desperate gang of abandoned-factory dwelling outsiders and his new awareness molded to support their criminal plans.

This is the barest frame of what drives Chappie’s action. The story, though, is of much wider and deeper scope.

Chappie is portrayed engagingly through voice and motion capture by Sharlto Copley. Chappie’s maker, Deon, is played with almost adolescent intensity by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. The self-named Ninja and Yolandi are members of the South African rap/rave group Die Antwoord. Both are charming in their roles as marginalized criminals, and their personal styles vividly display a retro punk aesthetic. The gang is rounded out by Jose Pablo Cantillo as Yankie. He gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as a thug who learns to care about a robot.

The big-name star power is much less effective. Hugh Jackman is underutilized and underdeveloped as Vincent, a soldier-cum-engineer who carries a gun in the office and behaves in a way that should get him walked out by security. Vincent is crudely and unbelievably religious, and pathologically invested in his own creation. He has to reject the idea of a conscious, feeling Chappie in order to adhere to his own agenda and move the plot along.

Sigourney Weaver, also playing an underdeveloped character, brings her usual cool authority to Tetravaal’s CEO Michelle Bradley. Although her early scenes show some strength, Michelle’s willingness to cave into Vincent’s intense pressure is a glaring plot device and one of the weak points in the movie.

Spoilers ahead.

Set in the too-close-for-comfort near-future of 2016, Chappie is a take on artificial intelligence that focuses on emotion instead of intellect. According to his creator, Chappie is gifted with “proper, full artificial intelligence”—which, here, includes the ability to love.

The robot’s transition into awareness is like the taming of a wild thing. Chappie’s awakening is smoothed by Yolandi, a female gang member who dresses like an anarchic Rainbow Brite doll.  Yolandi is weirdly yet believably maternal toward Chappie, calming him, protecting him, advocating for him, tucking him in at night. The scenes between Chappie and Yolandi are full of sincerely-played, mutual trust and affection for each other.

It is a different relationship than Chappie has with his actual maker. Deon, an ambitious programmer for Tetravaal, passionately believes in Chappie’s personhood and fights for his acceptance as an individual. Yet there is still an element of paternalistic command in the way he interacts with the robot. The gang leader, Ninja, on the other hand, is slower to accept Chappie as anything more than a tool. Yet, with the prodding of Yolandi and laid-back third gang member Yankie, he eventually takes on the role of Dad for the young AI.

The creation of the family unit is extremely well done—often silly, never sappy or maudlin, and without any emotionally manipulative moments. It feels right. That quality is vital, because the believability of this affection is the basis of all that follows.

Dad, Mom, and Chappie
Dad, Mom, and Chappie

The evolution of the ties that bind happens against a background of disenfranchisement and its collision with conspicuous consumption. So much of Chappie’s environment is Johannesburg’s bleak cityscape—all empty, weedy lots, urban rubble, and tin-shack slums thrown against the contrast of sleek, disconnected corporate facilities and rich suburbs.

As part of that, Yolandi’s and Ninja’s real-life South African Zef style is on full display, underscoring the great divide between the wealthy and the marginal.  They cannibalize eighties culture—He-Man, Lisa Frank, mullets, armloads of watches, heavy gold chains—in a way that dovetails with the urbanized decay of the abandoned industrial sites, warehouses, and office cubicles that shape the story.

One haunting scene is set in an abandoned apartment tower emblazoned with a Vodacom logo, decaying and now colonized by a powerful gang. The courtyard is filled with rubble and the sky is far, far away past stories of crumbling balconies. It is reminiscent of the Forbidden Zone in Planet of the Apes, littered with the broken bits of normal life.

While visually effective, f rom a narrative standpoint, there are too many implausible actions taken. There is huge oversimplification of the childish political maneuvering within the company. And there are awkward plot twists that leave holes behind them—why would the gang let Deon come and go at will? How can Vincent use the security key in Tetravaal’s main office without anyone noticing? Why does Michelle cave without question when Vincent wants to put his robot into action?

Having said all that, I now ask you to ignore it. Questions like these may distract from the genuine emotional resonance of Chappie, but they cannot blunt it. Chappie is the real thing.

Because Chappie is a feeling being, the climactic battle between Vincent’s murderous military ‘bot and the gang that is Chappie’s family is heartbreaking. Yankie dies, Deon is gut-shot and will die soon, Ninja tries to sacrifice himself to draw the killing machine away, and Yolandi takes a fatal bullet to save Ninja. Chappie’s outrage at their deaths is wrenching, and his reaction stems from the emotional core of this story. This is his family. He loves them, and they love him. His rage is real, and viscerally honest. When he goes after Vincent his vengeance feels justified. We understand the drive to avenge such a loss. We feel it with him.

And so the true implication of Chappie’s “proper, full” AI is not that a machine is self-aware, or even self-interested. It is that a machine has learned to love another being, to risk and give and strive. For Chappie, love is the transcendence that makes a machine a person like us.

The hope I see in Chappie exists not because any of the characters will escape the fringe where they live—their saved consciousnesses housed in new, robotic bodies almost guarantee they won’t. The hope exists because they love each other. An unexpected sentiment for a genre as cool as cyberpunk—but who am I to argue with William Gibson?

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

Spectre's Bond. James Bond.
Spectre’s Bond. James Bond.

Spectre is a fine, glossy addition to the James Bond canon. It has all the elements we’ve come to expect from the franchise, executed flawlessly. It has wit, and intelligence, and brute force. And it once again has Daniel Craig filling the precisely-tailored suit with his animal physicality.

Spoilers coming.

In terms of stunning visuals and sweeping, breathtaking action sequences, Spectre is at the top of its game. From the long opening shot of Bond walking Mexico City’s rooftops above the Day of the Dead celebration to the fantastic car chase along and into the Tiber in Rome to the over-the-top finale in London, it is absolutely riveting. Between the explosions the pacing is impeccable. There is not a hint of slack over the two and a half hour of running time.

And as in the previous Daniel Craig Bond films, Spectre gives us more than just the dizzying ride.

Spectre brings Bond’s ghosts with it. While some of the echoes are nods to the fans (the Aston Martin, a throwaway reference to Pussy Galore), most of them seem to be there to expand on the themes from Skyfall. Spectre’s Bond is an aging hero among aging heroes and eager new blood. They all have a vital place in the world, but the young turks are having a hard time recognizing it and the old guard are still wary of the pace of change.

So it is fitting that Spectre’s super-villain is disguised as Big Information with all its threats and promises, and brandished by the coy and slimy characters of Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, slightly amused and dangerous as always) and Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott, as a less-mad version of his Moriarity). Their relentless muscle is played with great menace by David Bautista.

Bond’s familiar support crew is filled out with cool righteousness by Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as Q. They are all directly involved in the action on this outing, keeping satisfyingly with the theme of finding the balance between the old and the new.

That theme is less-well executed with Bond’s love interest. I did not get a lasting impression of Lea Seydoux’s Dr. Madeleine Swann. While beautiful and competent, she exists in the shadow of Vesper Lynde. The room in the L’Americain Hotel in Tangier is a visual reminder of the Venetian hotel room Bond shared with Vesper in Casino Royale. The dinner on the train was reminiscent of another dinner scene, as well. The point is driven home more directly when Bond finds the hidden file with Vesper’s name on it. Vesper even appears in a photograph.  While evocative and important to Bond’s character, it is difficult to establish a new romance under that shadow.

Spectre also repeats the parental and sibling-rivalry dynamics from Skyfall, this time between Oberhauser and Bond. That, even more than the raw lust for power, drives the conflict. The villains, the heroes, the love-interests—these people are all damaged and struggling to get past it. There is less banter here, less flirtation, less grandstanding. Among the gorgeous spectacle that is a Bond film, there is a need to confront old hurts and try to lay the past to rest.

What this comes down to is that Spectre continues the recent tradition of a James Bond who is maturing as well as aging, a hard man learning how to own the life he has lived. It drives home the fact that he’s got depth to go with the danger and makes for a more interesting hero with more interesting enemies.

And, of course, it does it all with the exhilarating chases, exotic settings, insane technology, and incredible fashion sense that define James Bond. Go see Spectre. You won’t regret it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Goldfinger--Pan edition
Goldfinger–Pan edition

In all honesty, I had never read a James Bond novel before I stumbled over a copy of Goldfinger. With the impending release of Spectre, though, I decided the time was right to start.  Goldfinger is Ian Fleming’s seventh entry in his Bond series, and by this point his government assassin is a well established character.

I was pleased to find that Goldfinger was surprisingly well written, smooth and very sharp, and with unexpected effort made to add emotional depth to a very cool operative.

In this particular outing, James Bond goes up against Auric Goldfinger and his plot to steal all the gold in Fort Knox. Golf is played. Women are bedded. Fast cars are driven. Double entendres are made. Atomic weapons are brandished. Pretty standard fare for 007. A few plot changes were made for the screenplay, but if you’ve seen the movie (okay, pretty much any Bond movie), you know the basic story.

From Page to Screen and Back Again

I think by now we are all completely familiar with the big-screen versions of Bond. James Bond. From the swagger of Sean Connery, the smarminess of Roger Moore, the serviceable cool of Pierce Brosnan, and the suave brutality of Daniel Craig, Bond has been visualized for us for many, many years. For the most part, these Bonds display flawless self-assurance.

Which is why I didn’t expect the dark introspection of the character as Fleming wrote him. Goldfinger’s literary James Bond has an internal ambivilence that many of the big screen Bond’s ignore. While both books and films have reveled in plot twists and gagetry, Ian Fleming fleshed out his character in a way that only the last three films (and I am certain Spectre, too) have begun to seriously tap in to.

Fleming’s Bond is of course suave yet deeply carnal, eating and drinking well and richly, golfing and carousing and living the good life on his target’s dime. The familiar Walther PPK is there, and the references to his Astin Martin and beating Le Chiffre at the Casino Royale.

But there is much more to him, swimming just below the well-dressed surface.

A Thinking Man’s Operative

The opening pages of Goldfinger give us James Bond as a contemplative antihero, troubled by the killing his job entails. “He had never liked doing it and when he had to kill he did it as well as he knew how and forgot about it”(1). This Bond is stuck on the death of a low-level hit man on the fringes of a drug cartel.

What an extraordinary difference there was between a body full of person and a body that was empty!…something had gone out of him, out of the envelope of flesh and cheap clothes, and had left him an empty paper bag waiting for the dustcart. And the difference, the thing that had gone out of the stinking Mexican bandit, was greater than all Mexico (2).

In Fleming’s Goldfinger, Bond’s doubts only grow heavier as the novel unfolds. “What was wrong with him? Couldn’t he take it any more? Was he going soft, or was he only stale?”(47). When Goldfinger’s ‘secretary’ is murdered, Bond’s internal response is: “This death he would not be able to excuse as being part of his job. This death he would have to live with”(174). And when he plays along with the plan to rob Fort Knox even though it includes poisoning the town’s water supply, he cannot excuse his own decisions:

…whatever else Bond could now do, had sixty thousand people already died? Was there anything he could have done to prevent that?…Bond stared at his dark reflection in the window, listened to the sweet ting of the grade-crossing bells and the howl of the windhorn clearing their way, and shredded his nerves with doubts, questions, reproaches (246).

This is a novel full of casualties and collateral damage, and the way the dead are portrayed is part of Bond’s moral discomfort. Fleming at several points describes a dead body as being “empty,” and connects it to cast-off clothes. For example, as Bond approaches Fort Knox by train a dead man is drawn simply but clearly for us: “Over the levers something white was draped. It was a man’s shirt. Inside the shirt the body hung down, its head below the level of the window” (249). There is something very human about it, and very sad.

With a Few Blind Spots

Alas, that sharp sense of the existential, both Fleming’s and Bond’s, often goes astray. While it may have been considered racy when Goldfinger was published in 1959, the casual, desultory, and frequent sexism thrown about is jarring. The racism (which I will not detail here) is equally crude.

Even though Goldfinger’s female characters are written with intelligence and agency, they are still offhandedly dismissed throughout as “tails” and “tarts” and “little bitches.” Bond likes the challenge of strong women, because he knows he is always stronger—as when he takes control immediately upon meeting a woman for the first time: “Their eyes met and exchanged a flurry of masculine/feminine master/slave signals” (158).  There is no way to avoid being dismissive given that dynamic.

Not even the  infamous Pussy Galore is spared the blunt-force sexism freely slung about. Recruited as a criminal mastermind in her own right, her function is reduced to this: “Miss Galore will, I hope, provide the necessary contingent of nurses. It is to fill this minor but important role that she has been invited to this meeting” (223). And although she is written without any particular subtlety as a “Lesbian,” Miss Galore cannot resist the masculine charms of our James: “He said, ‘They told me you only liked women.’ She said, ‘I never met a man before’”(279). Because, let’s face it, James Bond is the only real man in the book.

Fleming does manage to provide an uncomfortable bit of depth for her, by giving her rape as a child as the reason she is a lesbian:

“I come from the South. You know the definition of a virgin down there? Well, it’s a girl who can run faster than her brother. In my case I couldn’t run as fast as my uncle. I was twelve. That’s not so good, James. You ought to be able to guess that” (279).

Unfortunately, this confession only reinforces the use of Pussy Galore’s sexuality as a plot device. It is yet another defense for James Bond to overcome.

Golfinger movie poster--UK
Golfinger movie poster–UK

Nobody’s Perfect

Despite the most severely dated aspects, it’s clear how Goldfinger and its companion volumes inspired such a long-running movie franchise. Well and cleanly written, Goldfinger turned out to be an exciting read, its plot and gimmicks familiar and surprising and delicious because of it. I’m confident that the rest of the book series, by Fleming and others, matches it in enthusiasm.

Having watched many of the films, I (and everyone else, really) certainly knew to expect the swaggering macho attitude found in the book. What came as a surprise in the novel version of Goldfinger was James Bond’s emotional discomfort and self-reflection tangled in with the war-stained, mid-century cultural attitudes toward women and minorities. The drinking, the gambling, the athleticism, the sexual prowess, even the blatant chauvinism—all these qualities belong to the James Bond we know and love. To those qualities we can now add accountability and a heavy conscience.

Without them, James Bond would be a stick figure.

With them, Ian Fleming gave us an icon.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!