Monthly Archives: November 2014

Strange Doings

Strange DoingsStrange Doings by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to certain interweb sources, R. A. Lafferty is making a comeback. There are several new (and very well done) websites dedicated to him and his work, a new journal just in time to celebrate his 100th birthday, and (finally) a series of his collected works that might make it incrementally easier to read some of his stuff that’s been out of print for years. Though not much easier. That first volume of his collected works, for instance, is published by a specialty press and is already out of print. It’s so difficult to get one’s hands on, in fact, that even my heroes– the interlibrary loan librarians at my university– couldn’t get me a copy. Instead, they found a few early Lafferty collections for me to read.

Lafferty shines brightest in his short stories. His romping, boisterous, almost drunken exuberance comes across better in these than extended across an entire novel. I’ve read plenty of Lafferty novels, but they’re more of an acquired taste. You have to go into them knowing what you’re going to get and prepared to weather the storm. Because Lafferty’s novels are like riding out the storms at the core of a gas giant: there’s a good chance diamonds are going to be falling, but there’s also a good chance you’re going to get turned inside out before it’s done.

His short stories are a bit easier, not because they’re more muted or less powerful but simply because they don’t last as long. What is it about this guy? He’s not simply a science fiction writer, though he has plenty of stories about humans on new worlds. He’s even less a fantasy author, though there are fantastic elements in almost all his stories. What he is, is a story-teller. He’s someone who tells tall, sweating, shambling, horrifying, and beautiful stories– who tells stories like they used to be told when the world was a lot younger– and at the time he was writing it was only in the fantasy and science fiction and horror pulps that stories like this still found a home.

The pieces in this particular volume seem to cluster around a theme. They are stories of breaking out, of some new, larger reality breaking into the world. They’re stories of superhuman genius (“Rainbird,” “The Man with the Speckled Eyes,” “The Transcendent Tigers,” and “Aloys”) and of making contact with transcendent creatures or transcendent places (“All but the Words,” “World Abounding,” “Entire and Perfect Chrysolite”). Lafferty writes stories of phase transitions, of tipping points, of new or unseen (and sometimes horrifying) worlds breaking in on this one (“Continued on Next Rock,” “Once on Aranea,” “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” “Dream”). They aren’t always the most narratively dense or developed; they don’t necessarily have tight plots or stunning plot twists. What they all are, however, are huge, rollicking yarns told in Lafferty’s unmistakable voice.

And this is what makes them work. There is a grotesque jollity about Lafferty. For him, the world is a bloody, beautiful, terrifying place– but never simply grim or grey. He is more than a little drunk on the world. This is a huge, holy brutality similar to but rowdier than Chesterton and far less tidy than the subdued mysteries of Borges. Wolfe has this in flashes, like shots of light through his stories’ elaborate puzzles. But in Lafferty it’s all there on the surface, naked and undistilled.

If you want to hear Lafferty’s language, head over to Daniel Otto Jack Petersen’s blog, where he regularly lays out slabs of Lafferty prose in all their bloody, dripping glory for passers-by to admire. Besides his language, Lafferty has a strength in creating characters, but his characters are like his stories– super-humans, larger than life, more alive than alive. I’m reminded of the sort of things people say about van Gogh, that he saw colors more vibrantly than other people. When I read Lafferty’s stories, I can’t help but wonder: is this how he saw the world? Is this how he saw people? It’s as though someone was living as Chesterton wrote in Manalive, with a certainty that the world was more gruesome and deep and joyful than could be properly grasped. There’s nothing slow or sedate or studied in his character sketches.

The stories that are the most effective in this particular collection are the ones that attempt the least. “Rainbird,” which opens the volume, tells the story of an early American inventor and the way he did– or did not– shape the modern world. It has all the pieces of Laffertian excellence in an easy-to-swallow morsel: the language that takes an obvious delight in lists and the bright mundanity of the workshop in all its sawdusty glory, the hint of the fantastic and the ease of the impossible that makes the entire, simple time-loop drama shine. And then there’s “The Ugly Sea” near the volume’s end. Again, something as simple as a tale of how a man falls in love with a woman and with the sea– and yet nothing could be more significant. This is what Lafferty does. He tells stories, but they are the stories that live down deep in the bones of the earth. He’s a grave-robber, and he does it all with a deep-throated laughter and terrible bright eyes and words that are thick with soil.

Europa Report

EuropaI grew up in the generation after the golden age of manned space exploration. I never watched the Moon missions. I never held my breath as humanity first ventured into space. Was that terrifying to watch on television? Certainly the drama in events like the Apollo 13 mission must have been electrifying. But the explorers of my generation are primarily robots: intrepid Martian rovers and lonely orbiters. Landers on comets a hundred million miles away. We see new vistas, certainly, and dream big dreams, but the human element is often somewhat lacking.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way, Europa Report eloquently demonstrates. This low-budget, independent science fiction movie illustrates two things. The first is how close the high drama of true human discovery still waits beyond the horizon. The other is that it doesn’t take a studio powerhouse to bring this to life.

Europa Report is a story set in the near future chronicling the first manned mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s large moons and today in truth assumed to be the most promising location for finding life in the solar system. The story is told in the form of found footage and interviews, a bricolage of believable glimpses into the life of the six astronauts living aboard their vessel on its twenty-two month voyage to Jupiter. They have been sent because scientists on Earth have (again, very believably) found strong evidence for the possibility of life on Europa. A private venture has funded the mission—humanity’s first voyage into deep space since Apollo—to ascertain whether or not there are microscopic organisms living beneath the moon’s icy surface.

The story is believable enough that at times I had a hard time separating the science from the fiction. It’s an image of a possible very near future, and there’s no wildly unbelievable piece of technology or contact with alien intelligence that pushes this movie firmly into the realm of the unbelievable. This could be us in a handful of years. There’s great effectiveness in this narrative humility. No epic story arch. No shaking camera angles. No impressive and overwhelming CGI explosions. This is a story about simple wonder and exploration—and that it’s never quite that simple.

Soon into the story it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong. One of the astronauts is killed, and the mission loses contact with Earth. The pieces are filled in as the story continues, but the survivors are faced with deciding whether to carry on and complete the mission. How far are they willing to go, they must ask themselves several times throughout the film, in answering the question of whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system?

You’re not going to find killer aliens or stark insanity or creeping terror here. This is not a psychological space-horror or Lovecraftian tale of unfathomable alien intelligences. There are certainly moments of terror, yes, and an effective story that keeps you guessing until the very end. (There’s a particularly effective twist that upends what you think you’re seeing and who you think survives near the end of the movie that’s expertly done.) The backdrops to the action are the ominous, gorgeous approach of Jupiter through the ship’s windows as the characters continue their voyage. It’s awe-inspiring in a slow, subtle way, a reminder of just how huge these objects are, how vast the distances, how audacious the hubris to venture out on that emptiness.

I loved Europa Report because it was simple. It was a terrifying and exciting drama of discovery against the immense and unforgiving background of space. The cramped confines of the ship were held in a steady, tight contrast with the emptiness through which they traveled, and these were both balanced against the bleak vista where one might find life sheltered against the void. The actors (no big names that I recognized) played the role not of heroes or villains but explorers, with all the shades of heroism and failings that this entailed.

The ending left the door wide open, not in the sense of dangling more mysteries to spin out a sequel (there was definitely resolution) but in the way that the sky remains open: there is more to discover. There is much more to know. In this respect, Europa Report felt like a throwback to the golden days of science fiction in the very best way possible.

My grade: A



If Snowpiercer feels a bit one dimensional, that’s because it is. It’s linear, with a plot as streamlined and direct as a bullet train. But that’s exactly the point. The action is telescoped down to the length of a single train carrying the only survivors of the human species on an endless loop across a frozen landscape. Snowpiercer takes this claustrophobic setting and uses it to tell the story of revolution, a Great Train Robbery where the prize to be won is control of what’s left of the human species.

The background: in the very near future a failed experiment to reverse global warming has resulted in a deep freeze of the entire planet. The only survivors are the passengers of a luxury train with a perpetual engine that ceaselessly travels a worldwide circuit. The train is a closed, self-sufficient system. Seventeen years into the voyage a strict hierarchy between the cars has developed, with the first class passengers living in luxury and worshiping the benevolence of Wilfred, the designer and conductor of the train that sustains them, while the passengers in the rear cars live in squalor eating with children occasionally abducted by the crew of the front cars for unknown purposes. Conditions are, of course, ripe for revolution.

The effectiveness of the movie arises from its linearity. It’s set on a train. There’s nowhere else to go but back toward the rear or up toward the engine. The protagonist is Curtis, a man who leads a revolt to take control of the engine by pushing forward, car by car. This is a familiar motif if you’ve watched pretty much any western ever (or Back to the Future III), but here the difference is the surreal transformation, the slow blossoming of color, as the revolt surges up the train and moves from cars of industrial grime to bourgeoisie opulence. A heavy stamp of the movie’s origin in graphic novel format remains, especially in the elegantly brutal fight scenes when the rebellion reaches its first major obstacle (brutal because bullets are supposedly extinct on the train, so spears, bludgeons, and axes are the order of the day).

When I first heard the premise of this movie with its not-so-subtle commentary on social hierarchies, I assumed the movie would feature a somewhat more metaphysical (or at least futuristic) train that literally circled the entire world. I imagined the revolution was going to end with the realization that there was no front or rear to the train, that the characters would continue passing through a long series of cars only to eventually arrive back where they started from. There might even have been an analogy somewhere in that about the lowest classes themselves being the engine that drove society. Spoiler alert: that’s not what happens.

This is an actual finite train, with a front and a rear, but the revelations Curtis experiences when he reaches the engine are far from unexpected. In fact, the astute viewer has probably figured them out pretty soon into the movie, with the first clues that perhaps this rebellion is not as spontaneous as its participants would like to believe. For most of the movie it feels as though the questions Curtis wants answered are what’s driving the plot, but when those answers are finally given, you realize they’re not really what you wanted anyway.

In retrospect, the engine that actually drives the plot is justified outrage. Any subtly that could have been explored on the side of the train’s crew—embodied in Ed Harris’s portrayal of Wilfred and Tilda Swinton’s wonderful depiction of the minister (probably the best character portrayal in the movie, priceless in her initial speech to the inhabitants of the rear cars)—has to be overplayed with brutality to convince the viewer just how justified this revolution is. The plot skirts around legitimate discussion of how disciplined and carefully managed life on a self-sustained train would actually have to be to instead focus on how heavily-handed this discipline is carried out so sympathies stay firmly with the protagonists. There’s a lot of grey here that could have been explored. As it stands, the moral basically turns out to be something like: don’t be a dickish train manager.

The most powerful reveal, in my opinion, was the stuff that happened seventeen years before the story begins, as Curtis makes his confessions to his last surviving companion at the entrance to the engine car. There are themes of true self-sacrifice here amidst painful brutalities that offer some of the film’s most devastatingly effective lines. Yet all of that is in the past, and we get it here only to better understand why Curtis hates Wilfred so much—in a word, to keep fueling our justified outrage, which at this time might be dulled by seeing what life on the train actually involves.

For an excellent example of a movie that sets itself up perfectly for the sort of action it wants to depict—focused and linear along the length of a train—Snowpiercer is a success. The action is gritty and believable and beautifully orchestrated. The plot is fast with plenty of twists and bumps. As far as social commentary, an analysis of class relations, or apotheosis as god killing, it doesn’t do quite as well. The sermons are too predicable, the moral too pat.

My grade: C

Some spoiler thoughts regarding the end of the movie: Are we really to believe the train didn’t have any way of measuring external temperatures? And if it did, what do we make of Wilfred’s motives for keeping everyone trapped on the train?

And the final scene: I get the feeling, especially with the way the plot played with snow and Inuit heritage, that we’re supposed to find the shot of the polar bear hopeful and optimistic: life persists. But seriously? We have two kids standing in the wreckage of a train, face to face with one of Earth’s most effective predators. How are we not supposed to read this as hopeless?