World War Z + swine flu = paranoia

May 2, 2009


worldwarzFROM JASON’S BOOK SHELF — I might have picked the exact wrong time to read World War Z, Max Brooks’ geek-celebrated “oral history of the zombie war.”

I was raised in a deeply superstitious household that embraced Christian mysticism. One of the most basic tenets of Christian mythology is that resurrection from the dead is actually possible.

I’ve since shrugged off the shackles of that thinking in exchange for atheism. But no matter how much intellectual growth you experience, childhood religious indoctrination leaves behind a tiny, immutable nag in the mind that panics at the sight of religious iconography.

So you can’t help but jump and shiver and glance over your shoulder when dealing with tales of the undead. America being so thoroughly saturated by Christianity (76 percent of citizens self-identify as adherents), maybe that explains why we hold such a fascination with works of horror and supernatural thrillers.

I was reading Brooks’ novel with that baggage already weighing me down, and then reports of the swine flu hit the airwaves.

Now, it’s important to understand that one of the reasons that World War Z works is that it shows how real people would react to news that a mysterious epidemic is spreading. It portrays complacent characters who don’t react until too late; folks who discount media reports and underestimate the danger of the zombie plague. They disbelieve accounts of the living dead. They look for a rational explanation under the seeming supernatural tide.

And it all started off small, with reports of a mysterious, unstoppable disease spreading across borders. You can see why “swine flu” had my Spidey Sense tingling.

Compounding my Brooks-induced paranoia is an RSS toy built by our fellow Front Row Crew forum friend, Sonic. The gadget, called A.Z.O.N.S., or Automated Zombie Outbreak Notification System, is a gag based on the ol’ nerd joke about the “pending zombie apocalypse.”

I mean, any geek worth his salt has thought about what they would do if suddenly dropped in a nightmare world out of the mind of George Romero, right?azons A.Z.O.N.S. scours Web news sites for a list of terms related to said apocalypse. It analyzes them and reports “threats” to your RSS reader — in my case, to a widget on my iGoogle page.

Some of the key words it hits on are “strange disease,” “unknown disease,” and other medical terms. Guess what has its alarm klaxons sounding these days, right as I finish up World War Z?

I’m not honestly suggesting that I believe swine flu has anything to do with zombies. But when a work of fiction interlaces just so with real-world meta events, it can be enough to make your skin crawl. I did a literary double-take before I could settle down and remind myself that it’s just a book.

zombiehippyThat’s the beauty of Brooks’ writing. He makes the undead uprising seem so plausible. Sure, his zombies are the shambling, moaning ones. They aren’t the rampaging, quick-footed plaque zombies of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (which I really liked).

But that doesn’t make them cartoon-ish Scooby Doo apparitions, either. They aren’t for instance, the lovable reanimated clowns of ExtraLife artist Scott Johnson’s 56 Zombies Project.

They are terrifying and unstoppable demons. They are the traditional horde zombies that sweep down and close in, never stopping, never giving quarter. They are not afraid. When one falls, another takes its place. And every human they kill joins their cause.

Oddly enough — and here is where I was happiest with World War Z — the zombies aren’t the most intriguing part of Brooks’ work. They provide an excellent backdrop, but they aren’t the soul of the book. Like the very best plot devices, they are merely there to facilitate character stories.

In this case, the zombies are just the grind stone used to wear down the humans. The real genius of the novel is how deep a psychological toll is taken on the survivors of the war: They suffer everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to self-delusion, cannibalism, multiple personality disorder, and stunted cognitive progression.

Some, called “quislings” in the book, are so badly damaged that they are knocked into a dissociative state where they actually think they are zombies though they remain uninfected. A suicide pandemic strikes other survivors, while others are so hope-lorn that their minds shut down. They simply go to sleep and never wake up.

This is my fear for the big-screen adaptation helmed by director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster’s Ball): That it will be an action film and not a story of the human spirit’s breaking point. Perhaps Forster’s track record with thinking-man flicks is why he was chosen to spearhead the 2010 project. I can certainly hope that he finds the right angle instead of just cutting and running with another living dead gore-fest.

‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.

Read This: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher

January 11, 2009
trips11 trips2 trips3

FROM JASON’S OVERFLOWING BOOKCASE — If you survived a low-level college literature course, or ever read Watchmen, then you’ve probably at least heard of Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias.

The short verse — written 191 years ago today — describes a broken statue of Ramesses the Great, ruler of Egypt, and the desolate desert it inhabits. Shelley’s theme is that the pharaoh’s empire and all the work of his 66-year reign are now turned to dust. In the wind.

A month after Shelley’s poem was published in 1818, his friend Horace Smith published a competing poem of the same name and subject. The second half of his work wonders whether centuries from now, the “modern” civilization will appear just as anciently alien to our descendants as Ramesses’ appears to us.

“We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

I bring this up because I just finished re-reading John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, science fiction novels written between 1967 and 1968 for young readers. I first encountered these books about age nine, and my wife was clever enough to hunt them down as stocking-stuffers this Christmas. I was very happy with her.

Like much sci-fi and fantasy novels of the 20th century, Christopher’s are re-skinnings of the old Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth. The young male protagonist, Will, is discontent with the tripods, huge War of the Worlds-inspired machines who rule over a post-apocalyptic Earth, and must journey the path of “the Hero With a Thousand Faces.”

The set-up: the tripods graft mind-controlling mesh “caps” onto the heads of humans at age 14. The caps keep people complacent and incurious, causing society to revert to pre-industrial agrarianism. There are no more large cities. There are no more machines. There is no more war, but neither is there invention or exploration.

At the start of the first book in the series, The White Mountains, a vagrant named Ozymandias approaches Will and tells him freedom fighters still exist who fight the tripods. They live in the Swiss Alps; following Campbell’s formula, Ozymandias charges Will to leave his tiny English village and quest across France to find the last human stronghold.

Like the hunter of Smith’s poem, Will and his incidental traveling companions come across the ruins of a 20th century city — not London, but Paris, destroyed 100 years past. They are amazed by horseless carriages, a subway system, and wrist watches that seem like magic to their limited technological understanding.

These books have a real My Side of the Mountain vibe, in that they focus on pre-teenage boys who choose to live apart from establishment and provide for themselves. (I’m sure I will end up writing someday about how much I love that book.) Along the way, Will and his friends are forced to contemplate the value of humanism and self-determinism. They have to decide whether it’s better to embrace their own manifest destiny with its inevitable pitfalls and pain, or to have the tripods decide humanity’s destiny in exchange for peace and security.

And you know what ol’ Benjamin Franklin said about that: “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” It’s funny how science fiction tends to be progressive along those lines, instead of regressive like religion.

That gave me a lot to chew on at all of nine years old. And there’s no shame in reading these books as an adult, either. If you like them, there is also a prequel titled When the Tripods Came, which explores how the tripods used subliminal messages to spark the initial takeover of Earth. It was written 20 years after the launch of the series; I recommend reading them in the order in which they were published.

Forget what you know about ‘The Princess Bride’ and pick up the book

January 16, 2008

FROM JASON’S FIRE HAZARD OF A HOME LIBRARY — Even the cover looks gay. I mean, let’s be honest. My love of The Princess Bride doesn’t stem from its vast, not-so-manly marketing. On the outside (of both the movie and the book), this looks like sissy business.

That’s been the biggest problem in trying to get non-believers to watch and enjoy this movie. I’ve had a few friends — and a wife — who think it’s too fairy tale pink to be good. When they object, I just grin and think about young, pudgy-faced Fred Savage judging his grandfather’s (Peter Faulk! Columbo! I suddenly sound old!) book by its cover in the same way.

So I’ve been hovering over my keyboard for about an hour, jotting notes and trying to find a way to seriously talk about the literary style of the novel without talking about the greatness that is the movie at the same time. I can’t do it, so you’ll have to bear with me while I use both as foils for each other.

The film was released in 1987 and I saw it maybe two years later on VHS (those are big, old, clunky tapes, children) and I remember revolting against the wishy-washy love story and pastel-painted backdrops in the first 10 minutes, too. I didn’t necessarily want to watch this girly movie with clouds on the jacket and two slavering lovebirds staring vacantly into each others’ eyes.

Back then, it was the shrieking eels and sword fighting and poison that drew me in. Today, it’s the craftsmanship of William Goldman’s script (which came from his book) that has me reeling.

If you love movies, you know Goldman’s name. In the foreword to The Princess Bride novel, which was authored back in the ’70s, he talks about writing the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He guesses — pretty damned wrongly — that it will be the most popular piece of art with which he’ll ever be associated.

In the intervening two-plus decades, he’s been the mastermind behind scripts for the original version of The Stepford Wives, All the President’s Men, Heat, Misery, Chaplin, Maverick, The General’s Daughter, and Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. Right now, he’s been named to write the 2009 Captain Marvel movie, Shazam!.

Those are some mighty fine credentials. Eat your heart out, Kevin Smith.

If I convince you of nothing else, just wander into your local public library and read Goldman’s introduction to The Princess Bride. It’s not what you’re going to expect from a high-fantasy, high-romance, ostensibly happily-ending romp, but it will show you exactly how human and flawed the author is. He talks about how he nearly had an affair with a Hollywood starlet — one that was avoided only incidentally — and how he admittedly doesn’t feel romantic love for his wife. It’s soul-crushing.

From there, he launches into a tale all about true love.

But it’s also a parody. Goldman contends with a straight face that the book was actually written by the immortal S. Morgenstern, an author from the land of Florin. Of course, history tells us that Florin and its enemy, Guilder, are fictional countries (they’re actually Anglicized names for two old Dutch currencies). Morgenstern never existed, but Goldman credits him for the book and pretends only to be its abridger.

Goldman also pretends that Morgenstern’s original was a highly artful satire about Florinese politics, and constantly interjects editor’s notes into the text about how he’s cut 80-some pages of Morgenstern’s dialog about hats and shoes and the imagined royalty of Florin’s habits that were apparently quite boorish. It’s a tremendously inventive deception that makes the book very smart.

The novel also goes far, far more in depth about the orgins of Fezzik and Inigo (but sadly not about the dread Sicilian mastermind, Vizzini — that I would really love to have read).

nametag.jpgWe see Inigo’s early life and how the six-fingered man killed his father. By the way, the six-fingered man is played by Christopher Guest of This Is Spinal Tap fame, and I can’t watch the movie anymore without wondering if he’s going to crank his machine up to 11. We learn all about Fezzik’s youth as a circus freak. Did you know that Goldman’s second choice behind Andre the Giant was the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwartzenegger? I re-read the book recently and tried to imagine Arnold in the role instead. It was unnatural; he isn’t lovable enough.

The book even has a very adventurous trip through the Zoo of Death to the prince’s underground torture chamber where Westley is killed. That part never made it to the screen.

But perhaps the best part of Goldman’s book is the ending. Where Hollywood left a nice, sappy happily-ever-after at the end of the film as Westley, Buttercup, Fezzik, and Inigo ride into the sunset on white horses, Goldman is a realist. He comes back to his jaded vision of love set forth in his foreword and calls happy endings to task. It’s bitter. It’s sweet.

So that’s it. If you’ve read this far — and it’s been a long stinking blag entry today — then I think I can be pretty sure I can twist your arm to read The Princess Bride. Just do it. Just shut up, stop arguing with me, and go do it.