Monday, December 7, 2009

This Week on SyFy (Outer Space Astronauts, Annihilation: Earth)

SyFy goes the animated comedic route again with Outer Space Astronauts, premiering at 9:30 P.M. EST tomorrow (December 8).

I have a soft spot for science fiction-based (and especially space-set) comedy like Red Dwarf and of course, Lexx. And at this point it's also nice to see something-anything-besides the tiresome parade of reality shows added to the prime time line-up. However, this is also the sort of thing that is very, very easy to botch, which is what happens more often than not, the audience getting stuck with not much more than lame parody and cheap gross-out humor (as was, for instance, too often the case with Tripping the Rift as the series continued).

On a related note: there was a more than usual amount of buzz surrounding a Sci-Fi movie-of-the-week titled Doomsday because it was associated in some minds with the theatrically released film from 2008 (no classic, but it certainly has its following), and had some speculating (incorrectly) about a TV series version of the concept. This Doomsday also attracted the notice of some Lexx fans because of the casting of series star Xenia Seeberg in it, in what is probably her most visible role on American television screens since the end of that series.

As predicted by the film's writer Rafael Jordan (who's made a career off of Sci-Fi/SyFy's Saturday night fare, a couple of better-than-average entries included) when commenting on the confusion regarding the move's name, the title has been changed to Annihilation: Earth-which airs this Saturday (December 12) at nine P.M., EST.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Stargate: Universe (A Reaction)


Picture this: a mixed group of military and civilian personnel (including a senior politician from back home) brought together for a highly ceremonial occasion leap into the unknown depths of space to escape a devastating, planet-destroying surprise attack from orbit. They subsequently find themselves aboard a clunker of a spaceship, engaged in a desperate struggle to survive in which they are dependent on a British-accented scientist of doubtful reliability (who appears to be getting a message from Beyond); the civilians argue over control of the group with the military officers (one of which happens to be played by a three-named actor who was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit award for his performance in 1988's Stand and Deliver); said people also fight over whether to focus on getting home or cope with the situation at hand; and a crisis arises in which someone must be sacrificed to seal off part of the ship and thereby save the rest-all at the start of a trip which will hopefully get them to Earth.

It sounds astonishingly like the early hours of Battlestar Galactica (even before one gets to the pseudo-documentary style used for much of the camera work, or the heavy reliance on flashback, throughout the series), but it's pretty much what happened in the pilot of Stargate: Universe, which aired on the Sc-Fi (excuse me, SyFy) Channel this Friday, and is being aired again on it right now.

That there were similarities is hardly a surprise. When I first read about the show my first thought was of Star Trek: Voyager (and there is something of it here), but from the start the commercials hinted at this other direction, with their dark, tense, flashy look and feel (indeed, sitting at this computer with the TV on I'd hear someone shout "This ship is falling apart!" and expect to see Edward James Olmos's Commander Bill Adama, and then be surprised to find Lou Diamond Phillips's Colonel David Telford on the screen instead), and later, the promise of a good many baggage-heavy characters people will find it hard to like. (There is also somewhat more sex than previous entries in the Stargate franchise featured.) Even the acronym continuously flashed-SGU, just one letter away from being BSG-seemed to be exploiting a vague association with Galactica.

Still, that the new show went this far in following BSG's lead in the development of its premise and style (which show is being reinvented again?) did surprise me, and it makes me wonder: does this mean that BSG is now the template for future television space opera (at least, in the live-action North American market)?

I should make it clear that I didn't dislike this pilot (though I was surprised that we didn't find out anything about characters, locations, plot elements likely to figure in later episodes outside the little group of lost humans at the story's center), and expect to keep tuning in, at least for a while. However, given that BSG was a triumph of style (and cheap button-pushing) over substance (a point I'm not going to belabor here, having talked about it at length in the past), I don't think that bodes particularly well for the genre's vitality in the coming years, and this makes me wonder about the longer-term viability of even this series, which is in danger of just ending up BSG "Lite."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Problem of Belonging in Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in FOUNDATION: THE INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, Summer 2006, pp. 34-46.

While Robert Heinlein's work has received a great deal of critical attention over the years, Friday, one of his last works, has been little commented upon, least of all as a work of cultural criticism.1 A number of reasons for this exist, the most important of which may be the widespread view that Heinlein's later works merely repeated earlier ideas, preoccupations and themes that he had better explored on previous occasions. Another is that the novel is frequently attacked as sexist. While that charge is leveled against Heinlein's work time and again, the outcry is never so loud as when Heinlein tells the story from the standpoint of a female character, as in the oft-maligned I Will Fear No Evil, and the book presently at hand.2 However, while Friday echoes earlier works in its approach to questions of cultural and societal decay, freedom, community and the frontier, Heinlein's title character grapples with them in the fundamentally different context created by post-industrial society-placing a Heinlein heroine in (and confronting the Heinlein ethos with) a quasi-cyberpunk milieu.3 Belonging, explicitly and repeatedly declared by Friday to be her greatest desire and the quest unifying her various misadventures is problematic not because of anything so coherent or discrete as a repressive world government, but the diffuseness of contemporary life, and its recklessly accelerating pace. In Friday's America, the pressures of the present erode a sense of the future-and therefore the common future implicit in the notion of belonging-while driving unanswerable questions of identity-which concern who one was in the past-to the center of experience.4

Since it is a result of a different problem, the inability to fit in and the escape to the frontier take on new shades of meaning, while remaining consistent with ideas Heinlein had developed earlier. Consequently, while the novel covers new ground it is well worth touching on these ideas before continuing.5 Like so many of Heinlein's earlier works, Friday is partly an exploration of two contradictory ideas that H. Bruce Franklin has observed "branching" throughout his work.6 The first is a monadic individualism which critics like George E. Slusser see as rooted in Calvinistic-Emersonian ideas of "self-reliance" and individual salvation, which has frequently been termed "libertarian."7 The other, less commonly discussed, is Heinlein's understanding of morality as founded on the principle of group survival, a "sense of the individual as part of a human collective, organically joined to a death-defying timeless racial identity"8, a sensibility that other readers have sometimes termed "fascistic"9. Franklin observes quite correctly that this contradiction is never resolved, but the conradiction is dynamic nonetheless, the two ideas intertwined in a dialectical interplay branching throughout the author's career. That process drives Heinlein's characters to the outer limits of human possibility, from the communalism of Smith's water brothers to the solipsism of Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love, impregnating female clones of himself, making love to a mother who is a mirror image of himself and at the end of it all learning that there was never anyone or anything in his universe but himself.10

For the most part the extremes do not work well in his fiction. Heinlein is ever alert to the danger of the community trampling on the rights of the individual, an idea reflected in his succession of works from the 1940s on depicting heroic rebels against repressive governments. He is equally alert to the sterility as well as the temptations of solipsism. Bob Wilson in "By His Bootstraps" believes at the end that his had been a "good life, a grand life . . . [which] beat anything the ancient past had to offer," but is nonetheless cosmically lonely.11 While the lone, self-created "Heinlein Individual" is one who can pull themselves up "by their bootstraps," so to speak, alternatives to participation in society, like withdrawing from it or taking it over and bending it to one's own will, are usually characterised in Heinlein's work as unethical, unrealistic or untenable.12

Solipsism thus has the quality of a cosmic joke, as with Wilson's time loop, or the "Solipsistic Tournaments" that are a favorite pastime in heaven as described in Stranger, an approach to life possible for angels but not human beings. The same goes for communalism, attainable for Michael Valentine Smith's water brothers, but equally impractical as a societal-level solution. In what Slusser has characterised as this "fallen" world, ethical engagement with other human beings is necessary for fulfillment, but humans within it must be free to realise themselves in order for that community to have meaning.13

A synthesis of these antitheses is consequently a necessity, and Heinlein typically finds this in a community comprised of free individuals coming together to create a society where authentic human development is possible.14 Starship Troopers, in which the people of an "Earth that works" embrace collective survival as the foundation of their morality, yet provide for their defense through a radically volitional military force in the Terran Mobile Infantry, is one attempt by Heinlein to imagine such a community. Friday likewise concerns the quest for such a synthesis, one which is unattainable on Earth.

The state of Western civilization in Friday is characterised by Heinlein as fundamentally unhealthy and less a new phase or type of civilization than civilization's collapse. Moreover the novel's response is not acceptance but resistance, the question how to "restore health to the sickness devitalising this sweet land of liberty."15 In Starship Troopers, the establishment of a quasi-military government was adequate to arrest this process, but he appeared to conclude by the late 1960s that America's "moral, political, environmental, social, and economic" sickness was a "terminal" case16, which "not even special organizations"-or the heroine's actions-"can reverse."17 Nevertheless, the spirit of resistance to civilization's decline is never broken, and when collapse is recognised as inevitable there is a looking-ahead to a future rebirth. Recognising that Western civilization is beyond salvage, Boss in Friday decides that "we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper" (235). Equally important, Friday is not reconciled to her lot until she finds a lot with which she can genuinely be content-and this is found only on the frontier planet of Botany Bay, where she is at last able to build a life for herself with other people, in her own word, "belonging."

As is commonly the case with works of cultural criticism, the title character and narrator claims the advantage of an outsider's viewpoint. Nonetheless, this claim has to be taken with a grain of salt. Her claim to being an outsider lies specifically in her lacking "the human viewpoint" (203) on the grounds that she is an Artificial Person. However, this begs questions about what exactly constitutes a human, and why such a definition should exclude Artificial Persons.

Heinlein has dealt with the issue of Artificial Persons before, as with the twinned female clones of Lazarus Long and the flesh and blood avatar of the computer Minerva in Time Enough for Love, all of whom represent even more exotic creations than Friday. The humanity of all of these was never in question, and the same goes for Friday no such definition of humanity forthcoming, though it is clear that some "posthuman" entities are not human, like self-aware computers and the humanoid robots that these computers make possible (96). These being baldly non-human are wracked by a "psychological crisis" which cripples and destroys them. While Friday's agonising over the question of her humanity might be said to be similar, it does not affect her in the same way as a crashed supercomputer. Indeed, Boss regards her preoccupation as being more along the lines of "neurotic weakness" than anything comparable to a computer's psychological crisis. In the eyes of George's Perreault, a designer of living artifacts, Friday's "human essence" is undiluted by the manner in which her human genetic material was assembled (129), and the same goes for Boss, who declares her to be "as human as mother Eve."

Those who would disagree can scarcely articulate a position, the line typically drawn by "ignorant laymen" rather than on the basis of a provable fact. The mere identification of artificial persons is close to impossible, not only for the average person, but for those who would presumably know better. This includes not only the geneticist Georges, but Friday herself, who has a difficult time making those she wishes to know believe her when she chooses to reveal the fact (69), and fails to recognise Trevor as another AP (201-202). Even if Friday's DNA features an array of modifications ranging from an immunity to cancer to the manual dexterity necessary to pick a fly out of the air with thumb and forefinger, these are not characteristics that are immediately obvious (44).

Biology aside, no mental or psychological difference between Artificial People and "woman-born" humans is suggested, either; no basis is ever even suggested for an equivalent of the Voight-Kampf empathy test from Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The lack of a soul alleged by the churches is an unprovable theological point rather than a scientific one. The commodification of Artificial Persons and their corresponding lack of citizenship (which results in Friday's marriage contract being declared null and void in New Zealand) is not a demonstration of their lack of humanity, but rather a refusal to recognise their humanity.

Indeed, for all of her anxiety over whether or not she actually is human Friday's own words give away the reality of the situation, that the distinction between human and non-human in the case of Artificial Persons is arbitrary: humans just "decided" that her "sort are not human and therefore not entitled to equal treatment and equal justice" (70). Friday's position in this regard is compared to that of a member of a human ethnic group being prejudiced against, a point emphasised when she blows her cover, so to speak, in an argument over a family member's marriage to a Tongan.

While that may suggest an alternative source of belonging for her there are difficulties. Artificial people are custom-tailored for their functions, so that they do not necessarily share much in the way of common genetics or common experiences. While many artificial people are indistinguishable from human beings, others are plainly visible as artificial creations, as with a "man creature with four arms or a kobold dwarf" (44). Friday is able to choose to "pass." The lack of group loyalty makes that choice more probable, and that lack has been constructed. Friday explains, that while she's "heard that Frenchmen will die for La Belle France . . . can you imagine anyone fighting and dying for Homunculi Unlimited, Pty., South Jersey Section?" (58).

Nevertheless, despite the practical impossibility of providing a rigorous definition of humanity that excludes Friday, making her claim to outsider status ambiguous, real anxieties over belonging do exist for her that may appear to be less an issue for ordinary human beings. The fact that she is a biological artifact deprives her of many of the ways in which human beings not necessarily know themselves to be human, but by which they identify themselves within the human community. While others may come from families that are non-traditional to say the least, she can only say that "'My mother was a test tube, my father a knife'" (34). She was not conceived and born but was rather "designed in Tri-University Life Engineering Laboratory, Detroit" and her "inception formulated" by Mendelian Associates, Zurich (32). Friday, moreover, is quite conscious of the fact: "Wonderful small talk, that!" she quips. "You'll never hear it; it doesn't stand up well against ancestors on the Mayflower or in the Domesday Book" (32).

Even where the contributor of the genes used to manufacture her are concerned, her strongest link is to a deceased "Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Green" to whom she is "something between a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter." She cannot claim to be a member of a racial or ethnic group on the basis of her genes any more than she can claim a national or religious one since these were derived from persons of virtually every conceivable background, from Finnish to Korean to Hindu to Swazi (243). Boss may have been her adoptive father, but because of his secretiveness about his own background he can scarcely give her one, and she is apprised of these facts only after his death. Friday's occupation, that of an intelligence operative whose commander is also her father, invites a parallel between Friday and The Puppet Masters, though the comparison only reflects the fundamental differences between the two works. Boss's paternity is a highly qualified one, the validity of which in the story only demonstrates just how much more complex human relationships had become in Friday's world than in Sam/Elihu Niven's, where fatherhood can more or less be taken for granted. That the Old Man is Sam's father comes only as a surprise to the reader, not to Sam, who had apparently always taken this fact for granted.18 Certainly calling the Old Man "dad" twice in one month is a bit much for him, but even the fact of estrangement is a reminder that the character of their relationship was never in doubt.19

The choice of nickname is no less telling. Old Man can be a term of affection, one commonly synonymous with paternity, unlike "Boss", which has a more functional, work-related connotation; as the Old Man observes in The Puppet Masters, "a boss is the man who does the bossing."20 Anybody can be the "Boss," but not anybody can be the "Old Man." Perhaps more important is the meaning of this relationship for the protagonist. Sam never finds his sense of who he is questioned; the danger to him is that he will lose his well-established sense of self to a puppet master. Friday, on the other hand, has yet to find herself, to have something that she can lose in a sense.

There are striking parallels between the two characters in that neither of them ever knew their mother, though Sam (whose given name "Elihu" was his maternal grandfather's, giving him at least that connection) seems to have had an otherwise normal upbringing. However, Friday was raised "in a creche," so that aside from not knowing her parents, everyday matters of human experience, "a million little things that are the difference between being reared as a human child and being raised as an animal" (36) are alien to her. As Friday reports, she was an adult before she ever saw a pregnant woman (45) or used a fork (64), finds herself at sea when she lands in situations where there are "no established protocols" (31) and claims to be befuddled by human sexual taboos. Rather than having acquired such cultural idiosyncracies organically-which she sometimes confuses with being human rather than a member of a specific human culture (206)-she finds that she must take pains to memorise them (205).21 Because she lacks the connections with blood or soil implied in nativity, she can not consider herself a "native" of any place. Consequently, she can not claim an affiliation with any group on the basis of culture.

Even so, what is for Friday a personal crisis is a universal problem in her milieu. Were she a traditional womb-born human she would still lack the sense of belonging she desires so strongly, this being imperiled in general in a world where human relationships are so short-lived.22 Urbanization had already changed the experience of intimate contact with a small number of persons to one of contacts with a far larger number of individuals, contacts which are necessarily briefer and more superficial because of their greater number.23 The number and superficiality of such contacts is accelerated still further by the compression of time and space.24 Can anyone be truly said to belong to a group when they are continually shifting from one group to another? In a world where the rate of change is overwhelming, belonging may be the last thing that a human being can do, since nothing lasts long enough for anyone to belong to it properly speaking.

While Artificial Persons like Friday may be unique in having no mother or father to speak of, traditional notions about sex, heredity and family had fundamentally changed so that Friday's ignorance of or disconnection from them would appear to matter much less. The earlier medical advances that delinked sex and reproduction, like contraceptives, have been surpassed by developments like in vitro fertilization, allowing a woman to carry a fetus to which she has not contributed anything genetically to term (which became a reality shortly after the book's publication). To Friday, natural birth means having babies "like a cat", rather than going through an essentially human experience. It is also inconceivable to her that sex could be a motivation for marriage, since, for all the troublesome taboos, "sex is readily available everywhere" (40), and the implicit divorce between sex and reproduction, genetics and parentage has acquired explicit legal and social recognition. The nuclear and extended families have been replaced by the "S-family" and the "group marriage" underpinning it, children in such arrangements typically having some parents with whom they have no biological connection.

At first glance, something like the S-family may appear to be a common enough feature of Heinlein's writing. However, the context of the novel makes them something more. In The Puppet Masters for instance, Sam and Mary have their choice of marital arrangements: "Term, renewable, or lifetime . . . either party, mutual consent, or binding."25 In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, group marriages represent an adaptation to demographic realities, men outnumbering women two-to-one in Luna City.26 To the extent that the relations of Valentine Michael Smith with his "water brothers" can be considered a group marriage, the sexual relations in Stranger in a Strange Land are simply an extension of communalism to that sphere.

In any of these cases, the sense is not that the function of marriage has changed, only that it has been somewhat modified for the convenience or desires of those who choose to wed, or adapted to the circumstances posited in his stories. Such a position is made explicit by Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love, in which he openly and forcefully espouses the position that the specific marital arrangement is far less important than the institution of marriage itself. Regardless of whether it is "monogamy, polyandry, polygyny, plural and extended marriages with various frills," what makes it marriage is that "the arrangement both provides for children and compensates the adults [with] companionship, partnership, mutual reassurance, someone to laugh with and grieve with, loyalty that accepts foibles, someone to touch, someone to hold your hand."27

In Friday, group marriages have a fundamentally different character. The artificial quality is emphasised: "S" actually stands not for security, siblings, sociability, sanctuary, succor, safety or sex as is widely supposed to be the case, but "synthetic" (40), a term which would not seem applicable to an institution which, driven by "the blind forces of evolution", came to exist "among human beings everywhere . . . long before it was codified by church or state."28 Indeed, marriages have taken on a nakedly contractual character, with S-families acquiring and spinning off members the way conglomerates do subsidiaries, consistent with a world where the "irresponsible, antisocial brand of self-interest" Heinlein condemned seems to prevail above all other values.29 While it can be argued that marriage has always had a financial or economic aspect, an S-family is explicitly defined as as something that one "buys into" (39). Purchasing a share in a family as a stockholder purchases a share in a public corporation, and the contract is negotiated much like any other business deal (46-48).30

In the case of Friday's first marriage, she had made her rather disproportionate financial contribution in order to experience belonging, an experience which is shattered when she is let go upon being found out as an Artificial Person (73). Anita, the S-family's matriarch and herself a prime example of antisocial self-interest, used the breach of contract represented by the truth of Friday's origins as an excuse to strip her of her share, and that is the last she ever sees of her former "family," the children she had helped to raise no longer hers; legal loopholes trumped emotional connections. Some families appear more hospitable and caring than others, but the fundamentals of the S-family arrangement are the same. By contrast, money was never even mentioned when the O'Kellys of Luna City voted new members into their family, and familial bonds were almost unbreakable, virtually every spouse having to vote in favor of a divorce.31

Occupational groups are similarly problematic as a basis for belonging. Friday is, again, a special case. Her profession was that of undercover courier, one which by definition requires her to keep her work a secret (in short, to conceal her true affiliations, whatever they may be). Moreover, because of the arcane character of her skills, she does not have marketable skills that will allow her to earn a living in civil society; there is, as she observes, little demand for supermen. Nevertheless, her problem reflects a larger problem in the information age: work had become so abstract and specialised that people had jobs instead of trades, so that they were identified with their position rather than by their activity.32

The same economic dynamics mean that jobs will be changed frequently enough, with still more corrosive effects on belonging. Occupations arise and pass quickly out of existence, sometimes before they can be properly named, and Friday has this problem at one point when she becomes what is later termed a "staff intuitive analyst." It is Friday, incidentally, who asks that her occupation be named, rather than receiving the label with the job, which causes Boss to quip that she is developing a bureaucratic mind (223). The explosion of temporary employment, the higher rate of job change and consequent relocation, increase the difficulty of maintaining human contacts, and for all practical purposes, render it impossible in a great many cases.

Insofar as citizenship is concerned, one school of thought in political science holds that states per se are in decline. Present-day nation-states, proponents of this idea believe, are divesting themselves of responsibilities, fragmenting and combining to create new political arrangements, perhaps akin to the Christendom of the Middle Ages. Such predictions appear to have materialised in Friday. At least three-quarters of the four hundred nation-states represented in the United Nations are "ciphers, aboard only for quarters and rations" (160), entities with more past than future, Germany and the Soviet Union long since reverted to being a mutually hostile Prussia and Russia (37).

As such developments suggest both nation-states and the national cultures that they were supposed to shelter and develop were both in decline. States had lost both their capacity to manage their own affairs, and the loyalty of their citizens. The "income and outgo [of national governments] get out of balance and stay that way" (249) in far too much of the world, and legislation has long passed a point of diminishing returns, weighting down the law books while only creating unenforceable, counterproductive regulations.” (249-250)

Even as states grow more oppressive, turning to "conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts" (250), they lose the capacity even to maintain simple law and order, "little incidents of violence" like mugging, sniping, arson, riots, bombing and other sorts of terrorism "pecking away at people day after day" (250). Moreover, "particularism", which is defined by Friday as the cessation of identification with the country and instead with "A racial group . . . a religion . . . a language. Anything, so long as it isn't the whole population" (249) is rampant. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that these groups acquiring their own states will produce political entities more viable than those they left behind, that it is a relatively simple matter of redrawing borders. State failure aside the hold of local or "particularist" cultures-implicitly a negative phenomenon – was itself weakening in the face of a "worldwide culture" (251) that transcends such lines, and the broader decline of "gentle manners" (251).

Consequently, the diversity of the world's cultures may make Friday's sex life more complicated, but they scarcely seem sufficient to confer a sense of belonging and the nation-state, as a place where people can strive to belong allows nothing of the kind. Not surprisingly in such an environment, multinational corporations like "Interworld" having equal weight with nations, fighting wars and nuking cities. If anything, they may be even more powerful, given that the dispersion of their assets through the territory of hundreds of states makes them virtually invulnerable to counter-attack (40-1). Friday herself is employed by a private intelligence outfit, rather than a country's secret service, and when Boss, a professional above all else who had recently become dedicated to the salvation of civilization seeks a new basis for world order, he looks not to any Great Power, or any other sort of human community, but to the Shipstone corporate empire. The Old Man in The Puppet Masters, by comparison, is a government official who wears his patriotism on his sleeve.

This may suggest that "corporate loyalty" is newly endowed with meaning, but short of the Shipstone corporation bringing the world together, something which never does happen, this would appear to be merely another unstable particularism, especially given the transience of employment in general. Moreover, the structure of a corporation like the Shipstone company is by no means transparent, making it difficult to tell exactly who owns what or works for whom and thus to know where the loyalties lie. Shipstone may be a single company, but it looks on paper like twenty-eight separate companies (230).

Implicit in the decline of citizenship and states more generally is the death of politics. The Balkanised America through which Friday must make her way includes a myriad of political forms democratic and undemocratic, with many places reverting to monarchy even when they had never had it before, such as the Chicago Imperium. Political ideology, which assumes a coherent vision of the world and a basis for acting correctly in it (something necessarily contrary to the fragmentation of time into blips), has become the purview of cranks and fanatics like those who claim responsibility for the terrorism of Red Thursday: theocratic "witchburners,"
"retarded schoolboys" pushing "fascist socialism," "hard-boiled pragmatists who favor shooting the horse that misses the hurdle" (102). Ultra-democratic California, where politics is the "favorite sport" of the citizenry (136), is a "freak show" where the disease is, if anything, most advanced (235).
For the rest survivalism, its sanctification of emergency and implicit withdrawal from political life is the order of the day, with homes fortified (77) and bunkers proliferating underneath houses in wait for falling H-bombs (101-107), as they had been in Farnham's Freehold. Old-fashioned Plague is again a world-threatening problem (218-221), the spread of which had required outright alien invasion in The Puppet Masters. In the end, Friday too must look to her own survival, and Boss counsels her to do so by literally leaving the world behind, advice which she takes. Ironically, Friday only manages to do so through a process that itself involved no small amount of emergency and accident, an escape from still more assassins out to keep her from finishing her last mission-for-hire. While the coincidence that led to her arrival on Botany Bay into the arms of a loving family she had encountered back on Earth is implausible, the details are consistent with the pattern of events in the novel thus far, the sense of racing from one crisis to another, until, fortuitously, she arrives in a place beyond crisis.

Certainly, many of Friday's personal obstacles to the attainment of an identity do not disappear. She remains, as ever, an artificial person without a lineage, a past to speak of. Nor does she find a new occupational niche: she is a housewife, something that she had tried before. Nevertheless, the principal problem, the transience which has had such a savaging effect on belonging, disappears. Botany Bay is about as far from Earth as a human being can get in Friday's future, a staggering one hundred and forty light years, and just as disconnected from Earth's relentless pace of change (343-344). Where communication between any two points on Earth was virtually instant, it takes four to eight months for mail to make the round trip between Botany Bay and Earth. Additionally, Botany Bay is very much a frontier planet, thinly populated and lawless, and Earth's decrepit institutions conspicuously absent so that much of what had earlier distressed her has ceased to matter.

Out on this frontier, Friday begins to build a life for herself. The distance from Earth and its problems aside, no reference is made to the flight to the frontier as a culling process which weeds out the baser human stock and leaves an improved product behind, a major point in many of his works, like Time Enough for Love. In keeping with the role played by corporations in this novel, for instance, the pioneers do little more on a planet like Eden than prepare it for old, wealthy retirees from Earth (293). What gives the experience value is something different, if not entirely separable. Where one came from does not matter out on the frontier, and Friday no longer thinks about her "odd and sometime shameful origin", the past no longer privileged at the expense of the present and future.

As it was for Lazarus Long when he was trying to make his longevity a non-issue, the frontier is a place where Friday and her companions "could quit pretending . . . ignore the difference, forget it and be happy."33 "Neighbors have never asked snoopy questions about parentage" (341), the frontier is a place as free from sexual taboos as governmental restrictions.34 "Nobody cares here, babies are welcome on Botany Bay; it will be many centuries before anyone speaks of 'population pressure' or 'ZeePeeGee'" (341). She lives in an 8-group family, but informally; there are few laws regarding marriage on Botany Bay, and unlike with her family back on Christchurch, she never signs a contract or sees family members acquired and spun off like subsidiaries. Where Friday's continuous movement and suspect origins had barred her from participating in so many different types of community, political, familial and religious, Friday finds herself at the center of numerous associations:
Last week I was trying to figure out why I was so short on time. I'm secretary of the Town Council. I'm program chairman of the Parents-Teachers Association. I'm troop mistress of the New Toowoomba Girl Scouts. I'm a past president of the Garden Club, and I'm on the planning committee of the community college we're starting (344).
Removed from the pressures of transience, with space and time "decompressed", human relationships, while more limited in variety on Friday's frontier planet, are not only more durable, but reacquire meaning because people are together in one place long enough to be connected. It is notable, moreover, that membership in voluntary associations appears so prominently in her claim to have found a place where she can belong. Civil society, associated with the frontier since Alexis De Tocqueville's Democracy in America, was conspicuously lacking back on Earth, where it would appear, as Benjamin Barber has suggested of present-day civil society, to have been squeezed out of existence by a decrepit, oppressive public sector and the "rude, wolfish pursuit of self-interest" that was a "mark of a sick and dying culture."35

Invested in a "healthier" society providing actual opportunities for community, Friday's problems with her own identity vanish not only because it has ceased to be a practical liability, but because she can look ahead rather than back. Where Friday's concerns had previously centered on the past, or on the emergency right in front of her, whether an assassination attempt or a recurrence of Black Death, she now looks to the expansion and improvement of her community, as her participation in the planning committee of Botany Bay's community college demonstrates. This restoration of scope for a healthy, "ethical" individualism, and for durable human relationships and associations, makes possible the eventual rebuilding of the civility and civilization lost back on Earth. At last, Friday can know the "warm and happy feeling" (344) of belonging because not only is she in a place where she is allowed to belong, but because that scope for activity allows human beings to build something that is actually worth belonging to.

1. Leon Stover, Robert A. Heinlein (Boston: Twayne, 1987), p. 67.
2. Diane Parker-Speer "Almost a Feminist," Extrapolations (Summer 1995), pp. 113-125.
3 The characterization of this novel as quasi-cyberpunk or "proto-cyberpunk" may seem problematic, given that while the depiction of corporations and the exploration of biotechnology are there, information technology has a relatively low profile. Nevertheless, in contrast with earlier Heinlein novels, such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (in which computers perform select functions for large organizations while Chinese shopkeepers still use an abacus to keep the books), computers are absolutely ubiquitous in Friday. Moreover, while they do not come together to create the "consensual hallucination of cyberspace" (51) epitomised by the Matrix in William Gibson's Neuromancer (New York: Ace, 1984), they nonetheless form a global network that effectively keeps the world's population under constant surveillance. A computer net indistinguishable from today's Internet is a part of daily life in Friday (227-28) and as the title character observes, "a credit card is a leash around your beck. In the world of credit cards a person has no privacy" (203). Indeed, the situation is such that "there is a moral obligation on each free person to fight back wherever possible-keep underground railways open, keep shades drawn, give misinformation to computers" (5).
4 See Zaki Laidi, A World Without Meaning, trans. June Burnham and Jenny Coulon (London: Routledge, 1998).
5 David Samuelson, "The Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein," in Joseph D. Olander and Martin H. Greenberg eds., Robert A. Heinlein (New York: Taplinger, 1978) p. 23.
6 H. Bruce Franklin, Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction (New York: Oxford UP, 1980), p. 19.
7 Slusser, of course, does not call Heinlein a Calvinist, but rather suggests that his works manifest its broad cultural influence in a secular parallel to Calvinist theology. George Edgar Slusser, "Heinlein's Fallen Futures," Extrapolations (Summer 1995), pp. 96-112.
8 Franklin, p. 19.
9 Barton Paul Levinson, "The Ideology of Robert A. Heinlein," New York Review of Science Fiction April (1998), pp. 1, 8-10.
10 As he lays dying what the Gray Voice says to him is that "You are you, playing chess with yourself. You are the referee. Morals are your own agreement with yourself to abide by your own rules", and the face of the Gray Voice, of course, can be glimpsed in "a mirror." Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1973), pp. 602.
11 Robert Heinlein, "By His Bootstraps," in The Menace From Earth (London: Dobson, 1966), p. 110.
12 Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension (Chicago: Advent Publishers, Inc., 1968), pp. 164-169.
13 Franklin, p. 189.
14 Franklin, p. 87.
15 Stover, p. 71.
16 Franklin, pp. 172-173.
17 Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree (New York: Atheneum, 1986), p. 387.
18 Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 67.
19 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 132.
20 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 158.
21 Of course, it should be noted that the codes seem less controlling than such statements suggest. Friday says that an AP can not look at sex the way a human does (205), which is supposed to be an explanation of her polymorphous sexuality, but humans commonly look it just as she does, being freely available "everywhere" (51), with few objecting save for groups like the Angels of the Lord. As Boss tells Friday, geniuses "always make their own rules on sex as on everything else" (223). For more on this theme, see Warren G. Rochelle, "Dual Attractions: The Rhetoric of Bisexuality in Robert A. Heinlein's Fiction," Foundation (Summer 1999).
22 Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 89.
23 Toffler, p. 84.
24 Again unlike The Puppet Masters, or for that matter Stranger in a Strange Land, there are no "tempus" pills or time sense-stretching techniques to give human beings some respite from such pressures by allowing them to speed up their time perception and effectively squeeze more than twenty-four hours into a day. The only way to beat the strictures of time and space in Friday's world, in fact, is to journey through hyperspace, in a word, through the space travel that offers the sole escape from her crumbling civilization.
25 Heinlein, The Puppet Masters, p. 111.
26 Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1966), p. 166-167.
27 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 211.
28 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 210.
29 "The Heinlein individualist always acts the gentleman" rather than embodying "'rugged individualism' as the critics habitually see it." Stover, pp. 28-29.
30 Elsewhere, Lazarus Long observes that there is "'no use in written marriage contracts; they can't be enforced . . whereas if the partners want to make it work, no written instrument is necessary . . . a nod of your head is enough." Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 435.
31 Heinlein, Moon, pp. 216-219.
32 Laidi, p. 100.
33 Heinlein, Time Enough, p. 315.
34 Heinlein, Time Enough, pp. 355-57.
35 Stover, p. 75.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Metatemporal Detective, by Michael Moorcock

New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 370.

Michael Moorcock’s recent collection, The Metatemporal Detective, contains eleven stories centering on the adventures of Sir Seaton Begg, a crisp, clever, Sherlock Holmes-like English detective with a classic stiff upper lip who travels the moonbeam roads of the multiverse solving crimes, carrying on a long-running duel with his nemesis, the enigmatic Monsieur Zenith.

As readers familiar with Moorcock might guess, there is a lot more to these stories than this simple premise suggests. Once again Moorcock is writing in his Edwardian adventure story mode, with both Begg and his antagonist homages not to Holmes, but the stories of Sexton Blake, and his sometime opponent, the original Monsieur Zenith. (The Sexton Blake tales are relatively obscure today, the books no longer even in print, but those interested can learn more about them at "Blakiana," a web site devoted to the phenomenon which Moorcock himself recommends on his acknowledgements page and which includes, among other things, Moorcock's own thoughts on the character in his article "The Odyssey of Sexton Blake.")

Moreover, this is a story deeply rooted in Moorcock's multiverse, where the primal forces of Law and Chaos struggle against one another, and the precarious balance between the two is maintained only by the Knights of the Balance, like the various incarnations of the "Eternal Champion," the most famous of whom is very much present. The black sword-wielding Zenith, as the image of the pale, crimson-eyed gentleman on the book's cover hints, is none other than Elric of Melnibone.

As one might expect given Moorcock's rejection of simplistic notions of good and evil, and his insistence that Elric is not an anti-hero, but a hero, period, Elric does not precisely take a villainous turn here. While often on the wrong side of the Law that Begg is sworn to uphold--and certainly as capable of cold-blooded acts as ever--his adventures nonetheless have him acting not out of selfish personal gain, but his familiar role as rescuer, righteous avenger and servant of the balance. Additionally, his contest with Begg is an honorable one, played by rules they both recognize.

As a consequence, the tone in these pieces is rather lighter than in most of Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, which so often tended toward the brooding and the tragic, and they are quite effective in this mode. The individual stories in the collection are witty, intricately plotted without being confusing, and at the same time Moorcock never shies away from going over the top, the outstanding example of which is the "The Mystery of the Texas Twister," with its caricatures of well-known figures and wild climax. Additionally, even working within the Edwardian adventure mode they also manage to reflect Moorcock's trademark versatility, from the hard-boiled crime story "The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade" to the Western "The Ghost Warriors," the satirical spy caper in "Twister" to the Parisian-set police procedural of "The Affair of the Bassin Les Hivers," which helps to keep them from being repetitive, and the worlds across which Begg pursues Zenith have an interest of their own.

As is commonly the case, particularly in the Pyat Quartet, Moorcock's settings come alive, urban ones especially, and the element of alternate history, which Moorcock earlier used to good effect in the Oswald Bastable tales, is compelling because of the uniqueness of his approach. Instead of fictionalizing plausible counterfactuals, or nightmares which make history as it turned out seem like a relief for all of its horrors, his main use of it is the visualization of alternative paths that may have had more rather than less attractive outcomes--which as he demonstrates is not a barrier to interesting and at times extravagant world-building. In most of the worlds Begg visits it is not a dwindling supply of oil but electricity which powers cars, as we can only wish was the case today; and instead of squeezing aboard crowded, paranoid passenger planes, long-distance travelers enjoy the amenities of a more gracious age on airships. The neoconservatives are not only confined to the rogue state of Texas, but find their war-making schemes thwarted and their reign cut short. (Moorcock's political sympathies are not one of the book's mysteries.) Adolf Hitler, who so often triumphs in genre stories that Gavriel D. Rosenfeld recently devoted a book-length study to them, 2005's The World Hitler Never Made, is here checked long before his regime wreaks anything like the damage it did in our world. While this sometimes has Moorcock going over ground familiar from his other works, sometimes later ones which treated the subject in greater depth (as in "The Case of the Nazi Canary," which deals with some of the same history as the Pyat novel The Vengeance of Rome), the distinctiveness of this series keeps his handling of them fresh.

The collection was also put together with an eye to making it more than the sum of its parts. As with the fifteen-volume reissue of much of Moorcock's earlier writing under the Eternal Champion heading in the 1990s, Detective retroactively puts these disparate series into a more or less linear sequence, and there is some unevenness. A few are only tenuously connected to the Begg-Zenith duel, particularly the oldest pieces, 1966’s "Sylvia Blade" and "The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius" (one reason why in some editions the stories have been revised retroactively to make them a closer fit). The same goes for "Sir Milk-and-Blood," which is basically a piece of supernatural horror in which Bad People get their comeuppance from something far scarier than themselves. Nonetheless the first story in the set, "The Affair of the Seven Virgins," is a fitting start to the saga, which develops through most of the stories that follow, particularly the last two pieces, "Les Hivers" and "The Flaneur des Arcades de l'Opera." While "Les Hivers" vaults over quite a bit of narrative territory I would have preferred to see more thoroughly fleshed out here, it succeeds in advancing the relationship between Begg and Zenith, and in deepening the world they both inhabit. "Flaneur," which here appears for the very first time, is ambitious and grandly imagined, bringing together other threads from the Elric and Von Bek sequences, and makes for a very satisfying close to the volume.

Moorcock's polished, lucid storytelling makes these pieces accessible and enjoyable for newcomers, but as the elaborate background to them suggests, they will not get quite all of the layers and nuances to them. It is mainly longtime readers of the author's works who will appreciate the dizzying interconnections, the crossovers and the in-jokes that form a significant part of this series' full entertainment value, here even more so than in most of Moorcock's fiction. (The Von Bek family mythos Moorcock established in The War Hound and the World's Pain is not much less important than Elric's own sprawling saga to the stories in Detective, which is as good an argument as any for a comprehensive, thorough and up-to-date encyclopedia of Michael Moorcock's writing.) Old fans will likely find themselves going back to earlier works, while new readers may find their curiosity sufficiently piqued to look up his earlier books-and lose themselves on the moonbeam roads of the multiverse.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Warehouse 13: A Reaction

I've seen SyFy's Warehouse 13, and had some time to think about it.

At first I was hesitant, all the more so because of the initial description of the concept: Indiana Jones meets Moonlighting.

I was fine with the first half of that in theory, skeptical about the realization-but distinctly discouraged by the second, since while I remember that something called Moonlighting existed, I have only very fuzzy memories of it, and the distinct impression that it is a show in which the writing essentially consists of two idiots annoying each other.

Usually, I'm the one who ends up getting annoyed by character dynamics of that sort.

Fortunately, the core characters showed some signs that they won't be nearly so annoying as that, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it included Joanne Kelly, who I remembered from Jeremiah (2002-2004), back when Showtime was into this sort of thing (an underappreciated show, season 2 of which is not even available on DVD). Parts of the pilot were frankly better-written than I expected. And at this point, anything that isn't a reality show (such as those which have been cluttering up the channel's prime time schedule as of late) is something of a relief. However, as many a hardcore fan of science fiction television suspected, it is very far from being the sort of show that breaks new ground. Instead think of it as a twist on Eureka, a very lightweight cop/investigative show with one big gimmick (tending toward the generic) as the central plot point in each episode. It's the kind of SFTV that people who don't much care for SFTV can enjoy, and for those who are more deeply into this stuff, and frankly more demanding, it is still watchable, though far from being a must-see.

Personally, I don't have a problem with SyFy airing "grounded" series as such, something it has long been doing, as with The Invisible Man (2000-2002) or The Chronicle (2001-2002). The difference is that back then such shows were clearly part of a richer variety of programming, existing alongside material for a more hardcore audience, like Farscape or Lexx. Of course, there will still be Stargate: Universe, and Caprica, and Sanctuary (which showed some promise by the end of season 1), but there is no denying that the prospect of pleasant surprises is weaker than it once was in a line-up clattered with the cheap, annoying reality TV (Scare Tactics, Ghost Hunters, etc.) that the channel's marketing people push shamelessly and relentlessly. They've gone so far as to include a "complimentary" episode of Ghost Hunters on the Caprica DVD, which strikes me as only too indicative of things to come.

New in Strange Horizons (Statistical Study of the Book Market, Dinocivilization)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir, by Toby Young

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003, pp. 368.

As those of you who know anything about me might guess, I am an unlikely reader of this sort of book, which I guess is why I had never heard of the book until after seeing the movie.

I don't remember ever picking up an issue of Vanity Fair, even while sitting in a doctor's office, even in that period when I read Variety religiously (thinking I would find some key to the film business in its pages, as of course I didn't); was in fact somewhat confused by Christopher Hitchens' association with the magazine given that he mostly seemed to write about political stuff (if you don't know him, you could do worse than read Alexander Cockburn's take on the man, as well as Hitchens' comeback if you'd like to see his defense, here); and had never even heard of Graydon Carter until after I found out that the movie was based on a true story.*

Indeed, I've never been much for celebrity gossip of this sort. When I saw O.J. Simpson's white Bronco on TV, the first thing that occurred to me, even at that comparatively tender age, was that we would never hear the end of it, and how sick I already was of hearing about it.

Yet, I enjoyed the book.

Granted, apart from being surprised that a few of the incidents from the film were based on things real people were alleged to have said and done (the "seven rooms" speech about which I wrote before included, this apparently having been put into the film almost word for word), the gossip that was probably the book's main selling point business-wise (and likely, for many another reader too) was ho-hum for me.

But Young makes an engaging (and highly quotable) narrator, and his relation of his adventures is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. This is, in part, because he captures quite well a certain position that I think a great many of us not nearly so famous can identify with: of having a bit (or more than a bit) of education and culture and intellectual substance but being drawn to some (or more than some) lowbrow things; of being intensely attracted to that world of fame and riches and status and privilege and celebrity and all the things that go with it when you know very well that you are "supposed" to regard it sardonically as something trivial and beneath you; of feeling like you have your nose pressed up to the glass, especially in a moment of youthful frustration, and thinking that maybe, just maybe you will be able to join the party, but never getting in.

There is a great deal more of interest, not least of it the sociology, specifically the Briton-in-America stuff (and how Britain looks from over here; we too rarely get this sort of thing right in America, as I was reminded while watching my first and last episode of Bones, the execrably written "Yanks in the U.K."); his observations about the sycophantic timidity and outright cowardice of so much American journalism; and especially his thoughts on social class and wealth in these respective countries. He is not often original, but sharp nonetheless.

The distance between Toby and parents who were not merely respected intellectuals but a father whose work in the Labor Party qualifies him to be called "one of the architects of Britain's post-war consensus," also founded "dozens of organizations enriching the lives of tens of millions of people, from the East End of London to the Horn of Africa," and as if all that was not enough, happens to be a "minor immortal" in the world of sociology for his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy; and a like-minded mother prominent in her own right as editor, television producer, novelist, educator and activist; is also of interest - especially because his feelings about it are so contrary to the zeitgeist of these times, as seen from where I'm sitting now, this one a
generation of cyberpunk anti-heroes, alienated and alone for all the promised connectiveness of their technology, abiding by no rules in its scramble to survive and succeed, and incapable of even imagining a different sort of world.
There is also an element of interest in this book's being a study of failure (not total, not irredeemable, of course, indeed partially redeemed before the last page, but failure all the same). We all too often underestimate failure's interest, which when presented honestly is really greater than the interest of your average account of success. Winners, after all, are not pressed to take a hard look at themselves, or think much about the reality of the world around them. (The worst of them wallow in their exaggerated idea of their own worth - as indeed, many of the insufferable figures in Young's story do - a luxury failures don't have.)

Besides, failures have the virtue of not being invested in the system they're talking about, or grateful to it, and free to burn the bridges they were unable to successfully cross in giving the facts and telling the truth, especially when the truths are of the sort the relevant Establishment would prefer went unspoken (as quite a few of the truths in this book are). This is a story of a man for whom America was not the land of opportunity, but the "land of the unreturned phone call," a reality not just for the newcomer, but many an American as well; of the man who failed to take Manhattan, who tried to make it in that place where if you could make it there you could presumably make it anywhere, and didn't make it.

Of course, this is probably starting to sound unfamiliar to those of you who saw the film but never read the book (there may not be many of you, to judge by the box office receipts - the global gross being $17 million, and the movie's North American take actually less than that of Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne when inflation is factored in - but then I was one until this week), and there's a reason for that: most of the best stuff is left out of the movie.

This was all too predictable, of course, given the changes one should have seen coming from a long way off, like the filmmakers' changing many of the characters' names to protect the not-so-innocent; downplaying the essential crassness of the hero's motivation by adding a touch of tragedy to his childhood (as well as sanitizing the character with regard to his alcoholism, drug use and womanizing, the last more often attempted than successful); turning his romance with Caroline Bondy into a clichéd tale of giving up on the glamorous but manipulative, self-centered starlet who captured his fantasies, in favor of the smarter, nicer office girl who for much of the film is the only one willing even to talk to him (and true to romantic comedy convention, spends much of the film giving our hero grief for simply having a male id); marginalizing the themes of politics and class, not least through the change of his parents' occupations and accomplishments (dad's "a philosopher," mom's an actress); and last but not least, having the younger Young learn What Really Matters in Life when he is in room seven, instead of after he's been kicked back out into the street from room one. The film was advertised as a "testosterone-laced The Devil Wears Prada," and while I have only seen bits of the latter film while flipping channels (so that I am in no position to make a proper comparison), it strikes me that turning Young's memoir into that entails not merely the usual compression, combination, exaggeration and sanitization, but an outright reimagining.

* Incidentally, a remark by Christopher Hitchens (in a review of Zachary Leader's bio of Kingsley Amis for The Atlantic, brought to my attention by David Langford's Ansible via the pages of Interzone) inspired this little piece of mine a couple of years ago in Tangent Online.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (A Meditation)

While not as funny as other Simon Pegg comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and certainly no stand-out for originality of concept, surprising plot twists or satirical teeth (everyone who's ever come into contact with this kind of material can probably tell from early on how it's going to end up, the targets are easy, and I imagine I'm not the only one who thinks we've got too much media about media as it is), How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was more enjoyable than I expected, and actually contained some surprisingly good bits.

One of these is the scene in which Jeff Bridges' character, magazine editor and "linchpin of the media-industrial complex" Clayton Harding, launches into an extended metaphor about "seven rooms," explaining to our protagonist Sidney Young (Pegg) that while he thinks he may have arrived, he's "only in the first room." Now,
"in about a year, maybe longer, you will discover a secret doorway in the back of the first room that leads to the second, and in time if you're lucky you'll discover another doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms altogether."
It is, of course, part of a rather unsubtle dominance display in which Harding reminds Young of their respective places in this particular hierarchy ("You're in the first [room]. I'm in the seventh. Don't you forget it."), but it's also much more than that, a truth that we're generally inclined to avoid: that instead of a straightforward meritocracy, and ladders ascended with talent and the "hard work" that is the subject of many a sanctimonious lecture, making one's way through the world means navigating the uncharted and unchartable paths to which those hidden doors open. (That's what all the talk about "networking" comes to, for instance, upping the odds that you'll find your way to one of those doors.) The truth is that even when you are doing everything right, there's no guarantee that you'll find the door-or even that there is one of those secret doors in the particular room you've found your way into. Far from it, you can get old without getting out.

This necessarily means a much more worried life for anyone pursuing any particular ambition, and while this goes for people in any and every career path (especially in an age of economic strain, especially when one doesn't have someone already inside positioned to open some of those doors for them), it seems to me an especially troubling point for those who want to be writers in the "author of fiction" sense of the word: because there are so many jockeying for a very few slots (book deals that will let them live from their writing); because the career track is necessarily so ambiguous (it's not like becoming a lawyer or doctor, for instance); because it is so damnably difficult to correlate performance with success (there always being plenty of atrocious books on the bestseller lists, plenty of careers dragging long past their productive periods, and hype muddling everything); because every conversation writers enter into that gets beyond the face of sunny optimism complacent insiders present to anxious outsiders betrays just how much those who are not in the "seventh room" or close to it are stuck going by rumor and speculation. The how-to industry sells the idea that you just write the book (or maybe just the proposal), send out the query letter and . . . well, they don't usually say much about what happens between then and the deal (and what makes the difference between the rejection letter and the acceptance), which for most of us is probably not just a gap, but the gap.

It all comes down to those doorways, doorways you might not always be cognizant of facing or going through given how much of the decisionmaking happens out of the writer's sight and mind (and maddeningly, outside their control), and while the people in room seven can afford to be easygoing about it, those desperate to even get into room one can only worry that they never will.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Racing Down the Information Superhighway: Computers in 1990s Film

By Nader Elhefnawy
Originally published in the THE INTERNET REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, February 2009


When President Barack Obama recently pledged to "renew our Information Superhighway," it struck me that I hadn't heard that phrase in a long time. Indeed, this wording, which was supposed to evoke the futuristic, instead has acquired the exact opposite quality. It's retro, recalling 1990s-era thinking about computing and computers—and among other things, their depictions in pop culture. In particular, I think of the decade's outpouring of computer-themed films.

Of course, Hollywood had sporadically made computer-themed films before, like 1957's Desk Set or 1977's Demon Seed. Quite a few are clustered in the early 1980s, shortly after the introduction of the personal computer, like best screenplay Oscar nominee WarGames (1983), the early cyber-romance Electric Dreams (1984), and the John Hughes comedy Weird Science (1985). The related interest in household robotics in that decade (which proved to be just a flash in the pan) also turned up in the background in quite a few films and shows, like the TV series Silver Spoons (1982-1987) and Rocky IV (1985)—though these generally took a backseat to more dramatic mergers of robotics and AI, as in The Terminator (1984) and Short Circuit (1986).

Nonetheless, the theme would be far more prominent in the films of the 1990s, and this was no accident. It was the falling price of computing power, and the widened availability of Internet access, which turned the personal computer from an expensive toy, status symbol, or at best, occasionally useful luxury, into a consumer essential at that time (at least, for the industrialized world's "middle classes," though access also increased outside this group). And of course, there was the "tech boom" surrounding it, the idea that this was the one sector of the economy that really mattered, and that it was truly exploding. (1)

Put another way, this was a time when computers were both ubiquitous enough for unprecedented numbers of people to be in conscious, direct contact with them—and at the same time, new and novel enough for the fact to be topical. While only a comparative few of them were significant successes, and these outnumbered by mediocre and commercially disappointing films, even the flops make for interesting time capsules, and several of them would go on to be surprisingly influential, both via cult followings, and the inspiration they would provide other, more successful creations.

Hackers as Heroes
Just as computers became more commonplace in the popular consciousness (its cinematic component included), so did the sorts of people associated with them, and in particular, hackers. By the mid-1990s there had already been a handful of films featuring hacker heroes, like the aforementioned WarGames, but they became increasingly common as the 1990s progressed. The caper film Sneakers was slightly ahead of the curve in 1992, the deluge really hitting around the middle of the decade. (2) Sandra Bullock followed up her success in 1994's Speed with The Net the next summer, in which she played a software analyst who finds herself caught up in an elaborate computer infiltration scheme. The film was a middling performer at the box office, but spin-offs followed nonetheless, including a television series that lasted for one season (1998-1999), and more recently, a straight-to-video sequel, 2006's The Net 2.0.

That was more than could be said for Hackers, which centered on a number of young hackers who end up finding out about (and forced to combat) an oil company's cyber-security chief attempting to bilk his employers out of millions (in part, with a plot extorting a ransom in exchange for not staging multiple oil spills using a computer virus). Released the following autumn, it is remembered (by those outside its cult following) more for its cast than anything else, which included a very young Angelina Jolie in her first starring role in a major feature film (she'd already starred in the 1993 cyberpunk B-movie Cyborg 2), Jonny Lee Miller (who would be made famous by Trainspotting the next year), and the ever-obnoxious Matthew Lillard.

This turn naturally presented filmmakers with the challenge of somehow conveying the experience of hacking besides pointing the camera at a sweaty face staring into a screen, a pair of hands pounding away at a keyboard (which manages to both be uninteresting to look at, and explain almost nothing about what they're really doing). (3) Appropriate visual metaphors were hard to come by, however, as the considerable and much-argued-over efforts in Hackers demonstrated. And of course, for sheer spectacle and visceral excitement, computer battles come nowhere close to more traditional hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, car chases and explosions, so that computers were most interesting when creating big effects outside cyberspace. (4)

Not surprisingly, a more successful approach than centering a whole film on hackers and hacking was the inclusion of those elements in a broader plot. In its updating of the Bond series, 1995's Goldeneye, besides offering a host of unmistakably early post-Cold War tropes (Russian mobsters, loose Soviet nukes, leftover Cold War vendettas), prominently featured a pair of dueling computer programmers, Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming) and Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco). (5) And in Independence Day the next summer Jeff Goldblum's David Levinson took out the alien mothership with a computer virus in a twist on the denouement of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Of course, this did not prove to be the last time a computer programmer had the fate of the world in their hands.

The Neon-Lit Alley Up Ahead: Cyberpunk on Screen
The future envisioned in cyberpunk was commonly viewed as a reaction to many of the economic and political developments of the 1980s: American industrial decline relative to Europe and Asia, the intensification of global economic integration, the "privatization" of economic life and the unshackling of corporate power that went with it, a greater polarization between the rich and poor. Putting it that way, of course, makes it seem rather dated, but sure enough, these far outlasted the decade. If anything, in the '90s it enjoyed greater force as a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc (opening a large part of the world more completely to those same forces), and the economic stagnation of Japan (and the fad for neo-mercantilism that its rise had encouraged). "Globalization," no longer hindered by the division of the world into rival ideological blocs, or petty, predatory economic nationalisms, was now the watchword.

And of course, there was a certain inertia that carried a stereotyped '80s-style "bleak future" through the science fiction films of the early part of the decade, turning up even in some unlikely places, like 1992's Freejack (in which it proved a far less colorful backdrop than the future Robert Sheckley portrayed in the source novel, 1959's Immortality, Inc.) and 1993's adaptation of Nintendo's classic video game, Super Mario Bros. (the directors of which were, notably, the co-creators of the Max Headroom television series).

Still, it became less fashionable to depict urban decay and discuss the darker side of corporate power, and more so to anticipate cheerful consequences to neoliberalism-run-amok, as Nora Ephron did in You've Got Mail.(6) One result is that the 1990s saw no English-language cinematic expressions of that vision on a par with 1980s films like Blade Runner (1982) or Robocop (1987, sequels in 1990 and 1994). However, even as the long-anticipated Neuromancer film continued to languish in "development hell" (as it still does today), there were film versions of two of William Gibson's classic Sprawl stories, Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and New Rose Hotel (1998) (admittedly, not a computer-themed story, biotech being the source of the MacGuffin). (7)

Neither film was a notable commercial or critical success. However, Johnny Mnemonic is noteworthy for being based on a script by Gibson himself. Contrary to what one might guess, he considerably fleshed out the plot of his short story, producing a conventional chase film which we have little difficulty following, and in which we do, ultimately, get to know what is in Johnny's head, and why it matters. The movie, which suffered from, among others things, laughably bad acting from just about all the principals (Dina Meyer, perhaps, excepted), is also worth noting for giving us a visual depiction of Gibson's highly influential vision of the experience of cyberspace. (Some also view the casting of Keanu Reeves as the protagonist as a precursor to his later starring in The Matrix.)

New Rose Hotel stuck surprisingly close to the original story, which was a strength as well as a weakness. The original short story is dazzlingly crafted and quite poignant, but its particular tale of love and betrayal, depicted as a succession of remembered moments in the memory of the nameless narrator, hardly lends itself to cinematic adaptation. The result is stylish and atmospheric, but heavily dependent for its effect on the cast, which included Willem Defoe as the narrator (credited here as "X"), Christopher Walken as his buddy and partner in crime, Fox, and Asia Argento the clear stand-out as Sandii.

Realities, Real and Otherwise
The cyberpunk social vision aside, there was also the matter of the particular technologies on which those stories so often hinged, in particular the mind-machine interfaces that redefined the nature of experience—which, by this point, had far escaped cyberpunk's bounds. Indeed, by the early 1990s stories of people sucked into video games (in the manner of 1982's Tron), and computerized figures which emerge into the real world (as with Kelly LeBrock's Lisa in Weird Science), were already so cliché that I remember science fiction magazine submission guidelines including them in their lists of story topics they did not care to see in their slush piles. (8) Nonetheless, the hype surrounding virtual reality injected new life into the basic concept by making it appear that it would not be long before we could lose ourselves in virtual environments, or see virtual entities so "real" as to be indistinguishable from ourselves.

There was, of course, the Stephen King story "The Lawnmower Man," which hit the big screen in 1992 and spawned a big screen sequel in 1997. Like the Michael Crichton book on which it was based, the 1994 film Disclosure shoehorned the use of the technology into its bigger story about gender politics. So did 1995's Virtuosity which, twelve years before American Gangster, had Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe battling it out (except with the good guy and bad guy roles reversed). VR also figured prominently in Strange Days that October, and 1999 gave us David Cronenburg's Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, and of course, The Matrix.

As the list indicates, most takes on the subject were epistemological (and other) horror stories, the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy a source of nightmare rather than dream (even in 2000's The Cell, in which a therapeutic use of the technology was explored). In Existenz, the allure of the virtual actually fostered an ideological reaction against it, and the film begins with an attempt by a fanatical anti-VR activist on the life of celebrated game designer Allegra Gellar. Most other films, however, were less ambiguous in their sympathies, their heroes clearly the ones battling the masters of illusion, most dramatically in The Matrix.

The Computer Apocalypse
With so much attention paid to networked computers, and so much anticipation regarding the speed with which the technologies involved would develop, it is hardly surprising that some were anxious; or that villains emerging from these technologies, like malignant artificial intelligences, would again become popular cinematic villains.

They were on the whole less popular during these years than catastrophes of a more natural sort (like the tornadoes, volcanoes and menacing celestial objects of so many big-budget releases), or science fiction tropes with a more "retro" quality (like the aliens of Independence Day, and 1998's Godzilla). Still, they turned up in films like Virtuosity and The Lawnmower Man 2, and of course, The Matrix, the last of which, as the comments in the previous sections indicate, could be seen as cap, summary and synthesis to this whole thrust in filmmaking, drawing together all these previous streams (as well as a great deal of other elements old and new, from the revival of interest in martial arts films to Cornel West, who had bit roles in the sequels) in by far the most successful cyber-film of the decade.

In the future posited by the film, the world has been conquered by artificial intelligences. In need of an energy source after the humans struck back by blotting out the sun (to cut them off from the solar energy on which they relied), they proceeded to enslave humanity as a substitute, sustaining it in a perpetual simulacrum of 1999 in order to harvest electrical current from human bodies (the titular "Matrix").(9) However, a group of humans escaped, and founded the underground fortress-city of Zion, from which they carry on their struggle against the Machines, liberating such humans as they can in the hope of one day freeing the whole species. And in the middle of it all is Keanu Reeves's "Neo," a prophesied newcomer who just may be "The One" to end the war in their favor.

The result was not just a much-quoted, oft-imitated and frequently parodied blockbuster, but a cultural moment that impacted everything from fashion and interior design to philosophy, evident in the vast academic literature to which it gave rise. (10) Its two sequels, while still commercial successes which had their fans, did not have quite the same impact as the original, but it is hard to see how they could have. The unrealistic expectations so often surrounding the later installments of a series, and the practical difficulty of delivering on the first film's promises in a cinematically satisfying way aside, by November 2003, when The Matrix Revolutions hit theaters, the '90s were clearly over.

And Afterward
At the other end of that stream of filmmaking, we have also found ourselves on the other side of a crucial transitional period in regard to information technology, just as we previously had with many of the technologies that came before it, from the airplane, to atomic energy, to the space launch rocket. As in all those other cases, ideas that once seemed radical have become simply a part of the background—while assumptions common among the True Believers were dashed. It has become a banality to say that today's crop of young adults (at least, above a certain minimum of affluence) grew up "online," taking cell phones, e-mail and Internet search engines for granted as ever-available utilities, the alternatives to which they are scarcely aware of. Yet, other, associated ideas have fallen by the wayside, like the prospect of the virtual quickly and conveniently substituting for the physical. (Consider, for instance, how little driving to work telecommuting has actually spared us, as the oil price spike of 2003-2008 painfully reminded us all. (11))

Naturally, film has reflected this. Hacking became a standard action movie trope, sometimes more central to the plot, as in 2001's Swordfish, or 2007's Live Free or Die Hard (a fun film, though to me at least, the idea seemed more dated than its makers must have intended), at other times less so. (12) And tellingly, the requisite skills increasingly became part of the repertoire of more well-rounded protagonists. In 2000's Charlie's Angels, the team hacks an air-launched missile in mid-flight, but we were never really meant to take it seriously, to instead see it as just one more preposterous testament to the titular trio's talents. By 2006's Casino Royale, though, the quiet mention of a rebooted James Bond doing his own hacking was simply a detail.

The same goes for other cinematic uses of the computer, where the novelty faded even faster. The publicity for You've Got Mail highlighted the movie's "introduction" of IT into romantic comedy (essentially, by remaking 1940's The Shop Around The Corner with AOL substituted for old-fashioned letter writing), but this did not stay "innovative" long enough for the list of distinctly computer-themed romances to get much longer. When American Pie hit theaters the following summer, the technological innovation of the sequence in which Jim's clumsy attempt to seduce Nadia ends up being web-cast to their whole school attracted little notice. In short, just as hackers became a standard part of action movies and thrillers, an online component became routine in movie romances and sexual liaisons.

Unlike personal computing and e-mail, virtual reality never became part of our everyday lives with the speed expected (in 1999 Ray Kurzweil predicted that "VR" would be standard stuff in our households by 2009), let alone the means by which we interact with cyberspace as suggested in the Sprawl stories of William Gibson. Accordingly, it retained something of its exoticism even after interest in it waned. (13) Interest in the cyberpunk conception of the future waned, too, with movies set in the near-future less prone to reflect that stream of thinking about how society will develop in the future. (14) Indeed, it is the earlier version of the machine apocalypse presented in The Terminator that continues as a franchise on the big screen, the next film in the series coming out this summer. As that fact demonstrates, computers will go on appearing in movies, prominent in them to varying degrees, but the combination of ubiquity, newness and expectation that existed in the 1990s is now behind us.

1. This of course proved to be nonsense, as many investors realized to their pain back in 2000, but it did affect popular attitudes profoundly.
2. "In Hollywood, where there's around one idea a year, movie concept '95 seems to be 'anything computerized,'" ran a Newsweek article covering a slew of films appearing that year which included Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, The Net, Strange Days and Hackers. "Hollywood's Big Idea: A Hard Disc's Night," Newsweek Jun. 19, 1995.
3. Through it all, however, the viewer got little sense of what hacking actually involved, and came to assume that it was a sort of black nerd magic that could support any plot convenience. Indeed, the viewer got little sense of what computer use in general was like. (Just compare the speed and dazzle of the Internet in The Net with what computer use actually was like at the time, or what it's like now for that matter.)
4. Or at least, in a version of cyberspace that looked much like that outside world. Part of the success of The Matrix, certainly, was its presentation of cyberspace in exactly that way, as a simulacra of 1999, except more exciting from an action movie perspective, because the laws of physics didn't apply there, and the principals could act as if they had superpowers.
5. Rather more low-key, 1994's Clear and Present Danger included a hacker among Jack Ryan's allies, Greg German's "Petey," and an online confrontation between Ryan and his antagonist, Robert Ritter.
6. Perhaps more noteworthy than the film's rather weak serving of romantic comedy was the film's paean to New Economy capitalism (and expression of "postmodern" New Economy conservatism), not only in its celebration of corporate superstores, Starbucks coffee and plain old consumerism-as-self-realization, but its presentation of business mogul Joe Fox as the Nice Guy Everyone Loves (Tom Hanks, just being Tom Hanks), while left-wing intellectual Frank Navasky is a pretentious jerk, played by the Nasty Guy Nobody Loves (Greg Kinnear, in the kind of role he seems to have specialized in ever since).
7. Both stories appeared in the Burning Chrome collection, which I reviewed for Tangent Online back in 2007.
8. The list of such films is lengthened considerably if one counts in stories revolving around the prospects of artificially implanting memories, as in 1983's Brainstorm or 1990's Total Recall (a theme which notably was part of Strange Days).
9. The idea of the human race confined to virtual reality simulations was not quite as novel as it seemed to many then. Olaf Stapledon posited such a scenario in his 1937 classic, Star Maker, over six decades earlier. However, there the technology was used on the "Other Earth" in an attempt by the planet's elites to control a working class that technology had made superfluous. This Marxist speculation, of course, was recast in the films as a question of the balance between human and machine, rather than an extension of social conflicts among humans themselves, though some have read the films human vs. machine conflict as a metaphor for the latter.
10. In particular, the Matrix was widely embraced as a metaphor by all who believe the reality we are conventionally presented with is not representative of how things really are, especially if the veil mistaken for the actuality is a system of control, as with many Marxists.
11. The ubiquity of work-at-home scams (they seem to outnumber real opportunities by a factor of 48 to 1) testifies powerfully not only to the desire of people to be able to work at home, but how rare it is for those who want them to actually find such jobs.
12. Live Free or Die Hard, notably, was based to John Carlin's "A Farewell to Arms," an article he published in the May 1997 issue of Wired magazine.
13. Instead of convincing sensory immersion, what we got was fuller detailing and more intricate interactivity in the worlds we see on our computer screens, as in the Sims series of games, and World of Warcraft (which have yet to be the subject of their own English-language film, despite a few memorable sitcom appearances, included a celebrated South Park episode, "Make Love, Not Warcraft"). Whether that will link up with the promise of photo-realistic video games in the next couple of generations of console remains to be seen.
14. There have been exceptions, of course, including 2002's Minority Report (based on the Philip K. Dick short story by that name), 2003's Paycheck (again, based on the Dick story), 2004's I, Robot (which actually hybridized both Eado Binder and Isaac Asimov), 2006's Children of Men, and 2008's Babylon A.D. (an adaptation of Maurice G. Dantec's novel Babylon Babies). (Stretching the meaning of "near-future," one might also include 2001's A.I..) Nonetheless, that most of these films were based on older science fiction (even when incorporating some more recent concerns and anticipations, as with rising sea levels in A.I.) is noteworthy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Heckler

The documentary Heckler (2007), co-produced by and starring Jamie Kennedy, is about the "heckling" of artists (in the main comedians, but creators of all sorts).

It consist mainly of interviews with celebrities running the gamut from a "Who's Who" of stand-up comedy, to filmmakers both celebrated and reviled, to journalist Christopher Hitchens.

The subject appears a valid one.

There is no denying that critics are often ignorant, narrow-minded, unfair, petty and just plain vicious in their assessments. (Indeed, it is both striking, and sad, how inspired people can get when tearing someone else apart, and especially in the case of "Internet" critics, how much time and effort they're willing to put into their attacks.)

There is no denying that certain prejudices tend to prevail among critics, and that playing the critic too much for too long can produce an undue harshness, and even an obsession with finding fault, in their reviewing.

There are also some grounds for suspicion on the part of working artists toward critics who are not coming from the same place (more commonplace, I suspect, in film than literature, where there are more practitioners, a large portion of which are active reviewers). No one should review a work in a medium or genre they do not like or understand, or without some sense of how artists actually work.

Nonetheless (and this is, admittedly, coming from a critic), to say that there is a lot of bad criticism out there, and that it can be problematic for performers and other creators, is not to say that no one has the right to express an uncomplimentary opinion (or that all such opinions are necessarily "heckling"), which is an absurdity. To suggest that any opinion about a movie, or a comedy routine, proffered by anyone not in the business is baseless and illegitimate is equally absurd.

And those on camera in the documentary seem to say exactly these things, frequently, perhaps unsurprisingly as most of it seems to consist of the interviewees venting about the raw deals they feel they got in the past in an exercise in catharsis and revenge rather than reasoned argument. The result is not only unbalanced, but backfires in making an astonishing number of the interviewees look like raving, hate-filled egomaniacs, at least as bad as the hecklers against which they are lashing out. (Kennedy appears especially clueless in his apparent inability to understand that someone out there might have a valid and honest dislike films he has made.)

Making matters worse, the line-up presented here is likely to make even a broad-minded viewer feel that some of them deserved at least some of what they got (even while they feel sympathetic to those of the interviewees they do admire)-all the more so after seeing them at their nastiest here. (Interestingly, some of those who appear in the film have publicly "heckled" each other, a point not mentioned in the course of the documentary, though the response to that would have been interesting.)

And of course, the fact remains that for all their troubles, the people doing the complaining here are the ones who've won the Dream Jobs. There are far, far worse places to be than theirs--something most of those depicted so unflatteringly in the documentary certainly realize, not that you'd guess it from this doc.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Star Trek's Box Office Performance

The widely anticipated success of J.J. Abrams's recent reboot of Star Trek has of course impressed many observers (like the "Box Office Guru"), who have frequently noted that it has left its predecessors in the dust in terms of box office receipts. (Following its $75 million opening weekend, it has enjoyed relatively good legs for a highly publicized, wide-opening summer release to rack up $148 million in just ten days.)

After all, the thinking goes, the series has rarely been in that first rank of blockbusters, only the fourth Star Trek film even breaking the $100 million barrier at the domestic box office.

However, adjusted for inflation (pegged to yesteryear's ticket prices, courtesy of Box Office Mojo), Star Trek IV's $109 million translates to a much more impressive $212 million.

Even so, it is still a lower gross than that of the first Star Trek movie, which pulled in $82 million in 1979, so that after adjustment for inflation, it may be said to have taken in a still heftier $235 million. (Admittedly, this was regarded as a disappointment at the time, but solely because of the giant production budget, and of course, the expectations of studio executives who, displaying their typically poor grip on reality, believed that making a space-themed film automatically entitled their studio to Star Wars-like success.)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn earned $78 million in 1982, or $193 million in today's terms, while Star Trek III: The Search for Spock brought in $76 million, equal to $163 million today, two years after that. Star Trek: First Contact fell just short of the $100 million mark with $92 million in 1996, but this is equal to $150 million now, and even the ninth Star Trek movie, Insurrection, with its comparatively underwhelming performance, is a $100 million grosser in current terms.

In fact, of the first ten movies, after adjustment for inflation, all but Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek: Nemesis grossed over $100 million-and V actually came close, its $52 million in 1989 equaling $94 million today.

Of course, $100 million just isn't what it used to be-theatrically or otherwise. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that each of the four early, high-grossing films made its respective year's list of top ten earners (with numbers one and four making the top five).

That being the case, the trajectory the current film seems to be tracing (toward the territory of $250 million domestic, according to the Guru) is a return to that earlier form, rather than an unprecedented event in the history of the series-another implausible case of the 1980s all over again, much like the Batman and Indiana Jones franchises (out of which came the two biggest movies of 1989) producing the two biggest movies of 2008.

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