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Pulling a libertarian quote from John Steinbeck out of my book and tying it into the 4th of July, Alak Mehta of the Blaze.com gives me a priceless plug and alerts the folks in Glen Beck Land to the existence of “Dogging Steinbeck,” which he kindly — and accurately — calls “a hilarious, exuberant read that reveals much about John Steinbeck and the diversity of people, places, and attitudes that is America.”

ILM-War-of-the-Worlds-After-092310-PSSeminal sci-fi invasion fiction, legendarily terrifying — and really quite wonderful – radio play that launched Orson Welles’ career, War of the Worlds has crossed mediums, but never has it had a solid movie adaption. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly 9/11-y, starring Tom Cruise at the height of his weirdness version is a very frustrating example. Not because it’s a total wash, mind you, but because it’s incredible in spots, and then goes off a big cliff.

In April, Lindsay Ellis, your Nostalgia Chick (who is always a fun reviewer), correctly describes the movie’s gorgeous design, its kick-ass tripods (which Roger Ebert hated! But he’s wrong, damn it!) as well as its myriad flaws, as well as by contrast the mysteriously wonderful quality of the thousand-fold cheesier Independence Day. The latter movie has more character arc and more things actually change, it’s rather odd.

and part two:

Now some film-dorks are too cool for Spielberg, but I never understood that. (J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, is cold, derivative Spielberg and I hate him!). I also am incredibly susceptible to alien paranoia. I was scared of both The Blob and Mars Attacks! as a child, I watched and then cowered at The X-Files (still do in fact!), and I am only slightly ashamed of being 15 and scared to death of Signs when I saw it in the theater. (I shrieked out loud in one spot. I don’t believe I have done that before or since, and certainly not in a crowded theater.) So for all that, plus my fondness for the book and radio play, plus my undying love for Jurassic Park to this day, it seems like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should be perfect. It is not.

This 2005 War of the Worlds, like the also watchable 1953 one, is incomplete as an adaptation of the book, first and foremost because it has been modernized and turned American. But the book is a rambling narrative itself. Our nameless describer of the horrors even swaps places with his brother for a time for no clear reason beyond faux-journalistic reasons that to describe, one must be there. Those scenes are only memorable because one of the two women with whom the brother flees is bracingly competent for 1898 fiction.

The famous ending is anti-climactic, because, well, the common cold does the invaders in. The whole thing is both early sci-fi, and invasion literature (a fascinating subgenre that seems really, really of the time and that time was like 50 years up to WWI and that’s all) and extremely anti-imperialist. Which is awesome. But big budget Hollywood alien pictures don’t want to end with germs saving the day. Spielberg, to his credit, gives us the classic ending without any final, tacked-on, grand battle.

I do wildly disagree with Spielberg about whether a movie set when the book was written would be boring. (Hell, such a version is on my secret list of movies I would make if money, skill, time, and nationality, were no object.) Nevertheless, though Spielberg’s WotW goes off a cliff I would say exactly when the annoying teenage son says “you’ve got to let me go, Dad” and then hits the ground and smashes into a fiery wreck when Tim Robbins appears to gnaw on the scenery, it’s worth watching and including in my Tuesday Apocalypse list. It is extremely flawed, but has just enough to it that I have rewatched it more than once, and am likely to be entranced (at least for a time) if it is on TV. And when I watch, I rant about how it could have been so good.

Why? Well, Ellis covers it aptly in her reviews above, but some of the scenes in Spielberg’s WotW are just so fucking good you want to pause the movie and just revel in their awfulness. I’ve previously mentioned in Tuesday Apocalypse, that the j nes se quoi dread is what makes a good apocalypse piece, be it cinema or book. Call it dread-porn, or something else, it needs to actually frighten me and it needs to be just so. I know it when I see or hear it.

The radio WoTW’s highest caliber moments of that are its use of dead air interrupting frantic, Herb Morrison-esque “reporting.” Spielberg’s opening shot when the tripods arise is as fantastic as Ellis says and has an element of this searched for quality. So do the scenes of grim panic when Cruise and the kids are carjacked (which is rare, since the humans are your enemy aspect is always least interesting in this kind of fiction, at least to optimist me). Hell, the pulling back camera shot of bodies floating downstream, and particularly the shot of an out of control train entirely ablaze are worth the price of admission (this is an expression we used to use in the pre-piracy days, children).

On the opposite side of that, the completely dull aliens themselves are not scary, even in the claustrophobic, derivative of the raptors chasing the kids in the kitchen in Jurassic Park scenes. How much less frightening they are in design, and in auditory exclamation than the tripods themselves, which look menacing and sound worse!

In spite of his couch-jumping, glib-accusing ways, the acting from Cruise circa 2004 is the most solid of the three characters that matter. Maybe I have a soft spot for jerk-dads, but Cruise is such a believable one here. My father is nicer than Cruise is portrayed as being, but he’s also not some softy, or some Alpha Hero. Desperate, flailing, terrified Cruise has no idea how to help his kids at the start of all this madness. But he never abandons them or freezes, he simply reacts in a human manner to completely insane happenings the best way he can. Later, post movie-cliff, he becomes a hair too action hero, but never completely. I believe him, is the main point. And that is rare in any end of the world fiction, particularly the alien invasion movie types. Most people are much too calm, and much too heroic, unless the are of the screaming, teaming masses.

Some downsides, or at least some oddly dated moments: the 9/11 nods are not subtle. There are missing flyers covering walls. There are (fair) questions from screeching Dakota Fanning asking whether the invaders are terrorists. There’s an alarming downed plane in our heroes’ yard (I can’t do plane crashes in movies, cannot do it). And most effectively disturbing of all is how Cruise is covered in dust as he staggers back into the house after the aliens first appear. His clueless children are clueless, and grab his arm and he flips out, then does so again when he stares shellshocked in the mirror and realizes that the gray matter that covers him must be made from people.

Now, as Ellis points out in her review, the worst, most hamfisted 9/11isms in the film are the teenage son’s desire to “get back at” the alien invaders. Which is a fair impulse, except, well, why would he have that need so desperately compared to any other character? Is he just a teenage moron? Why doesn’t he have the self-preservation to run the other way instead? He doesn’t because 2005 war in Afghanistan and Iraq parallels demand he doesn’t. His motivation is not clear, neither is his loathing of his father. Cruise is the only one with strong characterization, but even he doesn’t change much over the course of the movie. He starts off jerk-dad, and gets a little nicer and a little braver. But even jerk-dad never faltered in trying to rescue his kids.

Spielberg’s WoTW is worth a watch for some stunning scenes — the look and sound of the tripods, the tipping boat scene, the burning train, the morose darkness in shots that works, instead of making you wonder what happened to the color correction! – but it does remain oddly unsatisfying for how fabulously it begins.

And I still want my serious period piece with aliens, dammit.

8282Some years ago, I was in Borders when I saw this new cover for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. I hated it on sight. Out of the Little House series of children’s books based on Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and at least co-written by her daughter, libertarian Godmother Rose Wilder Lane!), only The First Four Years rivals this one for bleakness. Though still a children’s book, The Long Winter is basically about seven months of frozen hell in 1880s South Dakota. A memorable passage describes Laura being weak and stupid from hunger as, again, the snow piles outside endlessly and everything is grim and awful.

Now, the familiar to me Gareth Williams cover is also too sweet-looking for the fight for survival plot of the book. But at least it’s old, and it suggests a story that is older still — it is sweet, demure, and not 2014. (The first edition of the book might have had the best cover, actually. It feels dark.) The family of photo-real people laughing uproariously as they huddle in their cabin is weird. It is telling little 10-year-olds that yes, there’s nothing different in this book! You won’t even notice that it’s set 150 years ago. They are just. Like. You.

51G4Cuyx9YLThe Ingalls family wasn’t like you and I. I grew up homeschooled by libertarians. My parents’ home was initially in the country, but now it is almost suburbia. There is still a bubble of farmland, though. Not to mention my parents’ nearly 12 acres. All of that, and I still always knew my life wasn’t the same as the Ingalls. And that was the damn point. My life also wasn’t Caddie Woodlawn’s, or Anne Shirley’s, or the damn spoiled Boxcar Children’s. And that is why I wanted to read their stories of pioneer life, of being a dreamy Canadian orphan, or just living in a boxcar and cooking wonderful-sounding vegetable stew and getting all your dishes from the dump. I wanted to read about different lives — girls who hid escaped German soldiers, or little mischievous Scandinavian children going to school. Why would I want a heroine or hero who was too relatable? (This was another reason “playing house” baffled me. Building a fort was naturally different. And playing school was a novelty for me, but not most kids. What the hell was “house”?)

TheLongWinterA libertarian railing against potentially-sensible marketing, yes I know it’s silly. And maybe tricking kids into reading historical fiction could lead to them liking history. But it itches at me to see this kind of thing, this laziness, and this belief that children can’t possible suspend disbelief enough to realize that there were times that were not now, and those times had people living in them who were very different in many ways.

(A version of this modernizing should be awful, but isn’t when you look up the history of it is the anti-corset/proto-feminist dialogue by Marmee in the 1994 Little Women film, as well as the anti-slave dialogue by Meg. You think it’s just an awkwardly shoe-horned in piece of 1990sness, so that the audiences won’t be totally bewildered and alienated by the archaic and pious characters. Turns out, the real Louisa May Alcott grew up in a family of radical intellectuals who palled around with Henry David Thoreau and were mad enlightened. Indeed, the reason the last half to last quarter of the book Little Women is so inferior to the beginning is that Alcott was reluctantly goaded by her publisher and fans to marry off the heroically spunky Jo. I like Little Women a lot, I yearn for the Little Women that might have existed in a different market, written by a more honest Alcott.)

Along these same lines, I didn’t even read the Babysitter’s Club books (mostly because their subject matter seemed unbelievably boring), but I was deeply annoyed when I read how they were to be updated for modern readers. Ten-year-old girls can’t be expected to understand that once there were not iPhones, but cordless phones. That there were, shit, I don’t know, scrunchies and those weird saddle-leggings, not jeggings and whatever the fuck tweens wear now in their hair. There were even typewriters for writing on instead of computers. Holy fuck, the children’s heads will explode if we keep that in.

Many kids are not going to spend their entire tween and teen years mooning about the past with aching fascination as I did. That’s fine. But is it necessary to coddle them too much when they’re faced with the reality that yes, these books are from the past? Is it necessary to remove mentions of perms, as they apparently did from the Babysitter’s Club books?

(It also disappoints me that the American Girl books and (painfully expensive) dolls have moved so far into modern, boring stories. The whole point was girls — from plain WWII-ready Molly, to sassy colonialist Felicity, to runaway slave Addy — who were from a different time in American history. Overly tidy history, life lessons, standing up for what you believe in, potentially-anachronistic girl power!)

773514Now, an ironic twist on this complaint is when books are misleadingly old-fashioned in their packaging. The paperback covers for L.M. Montgomery books are all thematically similar: raised lettering, cursive, beautiful heroines staring out to sea, or at something distant. They look soothingly pastoral, but also a bit soppy. And they’re not 1984, nor were they meant to be anything too hard or masculine or sad. But Montgomery, based known for Anne of Green Gables, does not have the reputation for wit — even sarcasm! — and poignancy that she deserves.

Anne Shirley of Green Gables was sweet and bouncy and carrot-red of hair, but Emily Byrd Starr, who only got three books to Anne’s eight, was a much more realistic heroine (though Anne did grow up to worry that her husband was cheating on her with a sexy blonde). An orphan (what star of childhood fantasy books isn’t?), Emily has writer ambitions. She has a creepy relationship with an older man who, Forever Young Adult is not kidding here, kind of grooms her to be his lover. She spends the entire third book in the series being horribly depressed in what feels like a relatively modern fashion. (Montgomery suffered from this as well, and it was recently revealed that she actually died of suicide in 1941).

And through it all, Emily is often funny. And Montgomery, though she writes romantic descriptions of the landscape that try my patience on occasion, is an amusing narrator as well.

And you would never, ever think this if you looked at the covers of her books.

Train_stuck_in_snowSo, yes, romantic lady writers of the teens and ’20s are secret humorists, and pioneer days weren’t as jolly as they might seem. People — both fictional and real — were not the same as they are now, and neither was society, culture, technology, or expectations for certain individuals. Yet, in books that are 80 or 150 years old, you can kind a relatable, understandable, humorous, same kind of spark that exists in characters and in people today. That’s why both history and literature are magic and enough to save me from misanthropy forever more. But that also means folks should leave the damn ’80s perms alone, and marketers shouldn’t imply through a cheap, hacky cover that a seven month winter was just as much fun as sitting inside and watching the latest cat clip on Youtube.

Seriously, this was the winter Ingalls Wilder was writing about.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.

Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies  — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.

61aUlQj4PSLI Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):

Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority, and vampires begin their new society. One of the novel’s many high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.

Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault (it becomes a bit monotonous to read), something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works. And apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. As it stands in the book, I can’t quite buy it when Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.

Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.

51NVOjbTQJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):

This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.

The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.

And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was pre-invasion and current grim survivor now in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.

Things pick up in tension after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.

MV5BMTkwMzEzMTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDc5Nzk1MDE@._V1_SX214_Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):

This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what happened.

The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)

A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she just doesn’t believe her. She is a completely believable harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.

Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.

MV5BMjE4NDE3MjA1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQxMDM5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):

Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.

Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse, it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the apocalypse, trying to figure how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).

The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally and the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president and some other side characters.

I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave just turn and smile at each other at the end.

Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine-gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. And they have no business working in what is still a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.

Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.

04_top10postapocalypticbooks1Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, we have a guest post written by Brian Martinez! His topic is the completely wonderful, eerie, horrible, stayed-up-until-dawn-to-finish-it novel A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Martinez advises that those who wish to remain unspoiled might want to stop here.

The Cold War was still a thing when I came of age in the 1980s, but by then it had taken on a slick Hollywoodized gleam, captured in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn and even (God help us) Rocky IV. The closest I came to a nuclear holocaust was losing my last city in Missile Command. It never felt as palpably close as it must have in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when Joe McCarthy looked for Communists under every rock and typewriter, and schoolkids practiced “duck and cover” drills in case the Russkies unleashed the Big One. That was the Cold War observed by Walter M. Miller, Jr., who went on to write a series of novellas, first published in science fiction magazines, that became A Canticle for Leibowitz. Published in 1960, and a winner of the Hugo Award, it is one of the definitive novels about a post-nuclear apocalypse. I first read Canticle in high school and have re-read it several times since, and it has not lost its power to evoke both laughter at humanity’s foibles and sadness at its prolific and horrifying talent for self-destruction.

Miller himself participated in some of that destruction, serving on a bomber crew in World War II, and taking part in the bombing of an ancient monastery allegedly being used by the Germans for strategic purposes during the battle of Monte Cassino. The experience helped shape the focus of his novel: a monastery established in the aftermath of a major nuclear war, dedicated to preserving what scientific knowledge remained after the so-called “Flame Deluge” had destroyed most of it. The monastery’s founder is Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer who, like Miller did following World War II, converted to Catholicism, and made it his mission to save any books and documents he could find, which became the “Memorabilia” and the monastic order’s raison d’être.

The central theme of Canticle is the cyclical nature of human history — its birth, rise, eventual destruction, and rebirth. It starts a few hundred years after an event common to many religious mythologies: a creator-deity, pissed off at its creation, triggers some type of calamity (usually a flood, or “deluge”) to wipe the known world away, aiming to rebuild it better than before. In Miller’s novel, it’s humankind who sets off the Flame Deluge to scrub the world clean. It leaves behind few survivors, many of whose descendants suffer from horrible genetic mutations due to radioactive fallout. Others, blaming advanced technology for allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate, begin the “Simplification”, a mass destruction of books and other stores of knowledge, hence Leibowitz’ desire to protect as much of these materials as possible. He is eventually martyred for his cause.

Canticle is told in three acts, each separated by about 600 years; the first, “Fiat Homo” (Let There Be Man), is analogous to the beginning of a new Dark Age, where the church is the main cultivator of knowledge, and guards access to it jealously; much of the population remains uneducated, focused on daily survival. Life is a Hobbesian experience, brutish and short. The second section, “Fiat Lux” (Let There Be Light), is a renaissance period, as the church slowly opens its Memorabilia to the outside world, inevitably bringing it into conflict with the rise of increasingly secular city-states (in particular, Texarkana, ruled by the ambitious Hannegan). After Hannegan proclaims that his city is no longer subject to rule from New Rome, the church excommunicates him, declaring he no longer possesses the moral authority to rule. Finally in “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Let Thy Will Be Done), civilization has reached 20th-century levels of technology and beyond, with starships and human colonization of space — and again, nuclear weapons. The Flame Deluge ultimately has not changed the course of human history; it just set the mile marker to zero.

Dom Zerchi, the abbot of the Order of Saint Leibowitz in the final act, comments on this apparent futility, after a retaliatory nuclear strike (“Lucifer has fallen” in the vernacular of the time) has wiped out Texarkana:

“What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil….And Christ breathed the same carrion air with us; how meek the Majesty of our Almighty God! What an Infinite Sense of Humor–for Him to become one of us!–King of the Universe, nailed on a cross as a Yiddish Schlemiel by the likes of us. They say Lucifer was cast down for refusing to adore the Incarnate Word; the Foul One must totally lack a sense of humor! God of Jacob, God even of Cain! Why do they do it all again?”

Zerchi is my favorite character in the book. Bold, acerbic, and world-weary, he gamely stands on the foundation of his church’s doctrine even as the world literally explodes into chaos around him. Of the abbots chronicled in the novel, he is the most at odds with the state. When a doctor employed by the “Green Star” relief agency (the book’s analogue to the Red Cross) arrives at the abbey to assess victims of the nuclear attack, Zerchi enjoins him not to recommend voluntary euthanasia for any of his patients, no matter how grim their prognosis. He has some choice words for the government’s approach to dealing with nuclear disaster instead of preventing it in the first place:

“The very existence of the Radiation Disaster Act, and like laws in other countries, is the plainest possible evidence that governments were fully aware of the consequences of another war, but instead of trying to make the crime impossible, they tried to provide in advance for the consequences of the crime. Are the implications of that fact meaningless to you, Doctor?”

Eventually the doctor does break his promise, recommending that a young woman and her child, both suffering from severe radiation poisoning, visit the euthanasia camp down the road from the abbey. This sets up yet another confrontation between Zerchi and his novices and the state agents protecting the “mercy camp.” It is clear the Church can no longer reconcile the natural laws which “bind men to Christ” and the laws of man, who allow nuclear holocaust and then sanction death for those unlucky enough to survive. But as the Church views itself as eternal, by then it has already made plans to continue its existence off-world, if need be.

If this sounds like an exigesis more than a review, perhaps it’s because Catholic doctrine and imagery permeate Canticle. As an atheist I will not pretend to have any deep understanding of Roman Catholic teachings, but I still find Miller’s exploration of them fascinating. The Church of Canticle is an eternal force in the world, changing little from one age to the next. Miller liberally uses Latin throughout the story, even though the real Catholic Church had begun to abandon its use in everyday liturgy shortly after the novel’s publication. It gives a strong impression of traditionalism which helps ground the dynamic rise and predictable fall of civilization. Miller leavens it all with humor and sharply witty dialogue. Even though the technology of Miller’s future world seems overly mechanical and unimaginative by today’s science fiction standards, it readily fades into the background, bringing into focus what really matters in the book: its ideas.

In each era of the story, the monks of Saint Leibowitz and their leader struggle with the temptations of the world while maintaining their devotion to Christ and the mission of their order. Miller confronts them with some tough questions — What is the nature of humanity? How does one recognize the inherent dignity of other humans? What moral authority grants states the power to govern? Will science and technology ultimately set humankind free, or enslave it and eventually, condemn it to destruction?

To his credit — and the reason why A Canticle for Leibowitz remains such a powerful and affecting novel more than a half-century later — Miller never answers these questions definitively, save perhaps the last. The nuclear explosions which light up the horizon at the end of the novel is Miller’s affirmation that humankind is doomed to self-destruction. It proved a sad foreboding of the author’s own life. According to author Terry Bisson, Miller faded from the science fiction scene following the release of Canticle, and had alienated himself from fans and fellow writers, as well as his own family. Suffering from depression following his wife’s death and his own health issues, Miller committed suicide in 1996 (a grim irony given the passionate opposition to suicide in Canticle’s third act). He left behind an unfinished novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Bisson and published the year after Miller’s death. There was no happy ending for Miller, nor for humankind in Canticle — but its story may yet begin again.

Brian Martinez is a full-time software developer, part-time blogger, and donktastic poker player. He lives in Denver. He blogs at The Libertarian Standard and his own site, A Thousand Cuts. Follow him on Twitter as well.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.

165341)  Cigarette Smoking Man (The X-Files)

Strangely calm — maybe it was the Canadian accent — and occasionally vulnerable (seemingly) in later seasons, there was something compelling about this guy. We seem him as the top villain for Mulder, but then we see that he is just a part of the much bigger conspiracy. He’s the guy they go to for clean-up and it has cost him a normal human existence. His centric episodes are never dull. (Always wondered why he didn’t just take out Mulder, though.) He smokes not like a villain trying to intimidate someone, but like a man with all the time in the world, who isn’t even thinking about any of it.

2) Darth Vader (Star Wars)

Iconic, duh. Think of him in the first movie when he’s the terrifying cyborg, but is beneath Grand Moff Tarkin. And he has that strange commitment to this mysterious religion. We learn more about him. He blows up a whole planet. He can choke people with his hand. He is willing to get into a TIE Fighter and fight — albeit, not very well. And though people usually mock Mark Hamill’s acting when he discovers the terrifying truth about his parentage, well, think how you would feel. Look at Luke Skywalker’s reaction and realize, it’s serious, horrifying stuff to be the son of this man.

3) The Joker (The Dark Knight)

The late Heath Ledger really did deserve those accolades, regardless of their inevitability after his tragic death. Ledger plays the Joker in a transformative, uncomfortable, annoying (those fucking sounds he makes, aaaugh!) disturbing way. It’s such good acting that it’s fun to watch. He’s the best part of the movie, and is on my short list of highly praised things that are not remotely overrated. The greater meaning of the anarchic character isn’t important. Just fucking watch him act.

4) Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones TV show)

Not the sadistic King Joffrey? Not the real power, Tywin Lannister? Nope. Give me Cersei, because we see her struggling to be a villain. She’s a woman, she’s maybe not as smart as she thinks she is, but she’s wily enough to fight hard for what she thinks is hers. She’s funny as hell. And she loves her scary-ass son, because he is just about all she has, but she knows he’s sick. She knows how women gain power, but she still yearns to be playing at the big kids table. You see her when her villainous swagger is on, and you see her being completely dismissed by her father and intellectually trailing behind her brother. She’s fascinating. And she has the world’s most flawless bitch face.

5) O’Brien (1984) and The Operative (Serenity)

Like all good top villains in a dystopia, O’Brien knows all the counter-arguments with which our hero has struggled. He knows them all and can beat them with authority, charm, conviction, and the terrifying certainty of his position. He inflicts the pain, and he is someone to whom Winston Smith can finally speak freely. He knows what he does and he does it because power exists to keep itself alive. No grand motives. Just keeping the system going.

The Operative sees even more clearly than O’Brien does that he does terrible things. But he thinks he is doing them to build something better. Yet, he also thinks there is no place in that world for people like him with so much innocent blood on their hands. He’s the mechanism for improvement at a terrible price, but he has no illusions about being warmly invited into into the new society. Strange character. Very human for a villain, but very frightening.

6) Angelus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

God damn was he a better monster than a hero. Bland, self-hating (understandable, but still), earnest, when he had a soul, he was playfully sadistic without one. He tortured a woman into insanity, he toyed with a lovesick Giles (best character) after killing his ladyfriend. The contrast between that guy and the guy trying to do right makes even the dull fellow more interesting, just because we know what nastiness is inside of him.

What are some of your favorites, dear readers?

This is strangely moving. For Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees in an Italian prison. Two of them were women, one was even Muslim.

And this is still...cool. And it’s also moving. Not all of Christopher Hitchens’ anti-religious pontificating was interesting to me, but his simple profanity, the simple “no, fuck you” as the correct response to Abraham’s order to kill his son Issac speaks volumes. That, offense or not, dear Christians, is what you say to God. That is what you say to anyone who tells you to kill your child. (Jesus, I don’t know, I feel like he had a little more autonomy in the whole crucifiction situation. Maybe I don’t get the trinity.)

Now, a lefty might say that who cares if the Pope washed some damn feet of poor juvenile delinquents — why doesn’t he institute some policies that would help them not be there in the first place? And indeed, the Catholic Church is not necessarily a net gain for the world. But young Roma immigrants in prison are pretty low on the totem pole of life. To see a man who is supposed to have a direct line to God kneeling before people like that seems to be a step in the right direction. And it seems beautiful. Humility in a way that’s not just a lazy word for someone who seems pious.

Besides, it’s easy, I suppose, to sass back to God in theory. Both acts are symbolic after all.

Hitchens’ stance on religion only really offends me when he acts as if non-believers should express nothing but hostility to any religious person they happen to meet. That’s absurd, if only because if I acted that way towards people with whom I disagree on huge issues (oh, say, the Iraq war) I would have exactly three and a half friends. Letters to a Young Contrarian Hitchens is my favorite. It’s from the post-Socialist, pre-9/11 period during which Hitchens’ love of humans, his desire for them to be free (before that was muddled up in his need to smash Islamic theocracies left and right) and his outrage over (his understand of) God as this 24/7 North Korea was highest. And it’s often a strangely beautiful, bracing attitude, even when I don’t always agree. Even his offense over the idea of Jesus sacrificing himself, being tortured, for Hitchens is great in its cussedness. He’s right about so many things, and I’m not an atheist.

I’m not an atheist and I have nothing but sincere feelings when I look at Pope Francis washing the feet of those kids. Even as I overthink those feelings.

The thing is, Hitchens at his heart seemed incredibly optimistic about people. “No, fuck you” in response to a theoretical and theocratic request to kill his children is love. But kissing the feet of kids who may have nobody in the world, who may have done bad things, poor, immigrant, oppressed kids, that’s love, too. Even if you’re doing it because you’re “supposed to”, because some old, stupid book, some ancient voodoo told you to, kissing those feet is love and it’s loving people.