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Book Review – Existence

January 11, 2013 by and tagged ,

Us science-fiction fans have been waiting for a long time for a new full-fledged novel by David Brin since Kiln People. It is finally here: Existence. I think Existence is on a par with the Uplift trilogy or Earth. It does indeed read like a more elaborate version of Earth. I remember re-reading Sundiver a few years ago and thinking how great it still is.

Existence is a big book. And by that, I don’t just mean that it’s long (although it is, clocking in at 553 pages on my Kindle) but that it aims at big ideas about… wait for it… existence. At the same time, it is an entertaining sci-fi work on the “first contact” theme starting when astronaut / space garbage cleaner Gerald Livingstone grabs a crystal out of orbit and brings it back to Earth, and it turns out that the crystal contains alien avatars and they are sending a message, “Join Us”. Somewhere in China, an impoverished salvage collector makes a similar discovery in an underwater abandoned mansion, except the alien in his crystal is calling the other liars.

But that is only one story line in a book that weaves many threads (and ends up with a lot of loose ends as a result). Brin has created a futuristic world that has obviously suffered massive environmental and social catastrophes (Awfulday, the Autism plague). Global warming has drowned big chunks of the world.

Not everything has been lost, the Mesh (the Internet) connects everybody. Most people have implants that constantly plug them in with AIs, information from the web, smart mobs, and varieties of overlays. Different social movements have emerged, the so-called God-makers (the technology makers and pushers), the Renunciation movement who wants to slow things down and rejects some technology advancements, various religious movements. It sometimes felt like Brin was more interested in the whole gadgetry than his characters or his “world”.

Overall, the world seems to be stratified according to a hierarchy of estates. The First estate is that a global caste of super-wealthy oligarchs who rule behind the scenes but are depicted as benevolent yet possessing a quite clear sense of entitlement. But Brin leaves this stratification system quite incomplete. Most of the characters are privileged people (except for the Chinese salvage collector). Even though it is mentioned in the book at some point that starvation has disappeared, this Chinese example shows that not to be true. And as global as the novel is, Africa is remarkably absent.

Somewhere, in there, one also finds the roots of Uplift, although that storyline is abruptly brought up, then abandoned, and does not do much for the whole book except give the Brin faithful the Origin story of Uplift. Abrupt changes of direction and loose ends left hanging abound in Existence. One such brutal change in direction is when the alien storyline really gets interesting, then, the book fastforwards decades out of nowhere… and then does it again until the end. I guess this last one is supposed to bring all the plotlines together but does not really and the book ends with no ending. Those last 30 pages were a bit of a slug for me.

Oh yeah, and there is a cloned Neanderthal child in there as well.

The cast of character is vast is it is not hard to keep track but one never knows if any of them will make another appearance once a chapter is over. And a lot of them don’t. Hence the loose ends impression. To add to the confusion, supposed “excerpts” from books, manifestos, etc. are interspersed between chapters.

Up until the abrupt fast-forward, I was really enjoying the book although never knowing whether a character would reappear or had been dropped was annoying. After the fast-forward, I confessed to losing interest and I really had to drag myself across the finish line.

Posted in Book Reviews, Science-fiction | No Comments »

Eco-Fiction Rising

October 23, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

The inspiration for this post came from my just having finished Tobias Buckell‘s Arctic Rising. I have been a fan of Buckell’s work ever since I read Crystal Rain. Arctic Rising is part mystery / thriller, part what Yannick Rumpala has called eco-fiction (as opposed to strict science-fiction, like Crystal Rain), borrowing the term from Christian Chelebourg’s Mythologies De La Fin Du Monde. Eco-fiction refers to these stories that refer to a future where environmental collapse has dramatically altered societies, leading to dystopian social formations.

Arctic Rising takes the reader not to a distant future, as his previous novels had, but to a close future where it would still be possible to reverse environmental degradation, but enough damage has already occurred to create ecological damage and transformations (such as warming all the way to the Arctic as well as land loss South due to rising sea levels).

So, new lines of conflicts have opened as new trafficking routes became available (such as the Northwest Passage). New balances of power are being negotiated between declining powers and rising ones (the “Arctic Tigers”). And there are also corporate powers involved as well, in particular, the Gaia Corporation whose name will be familiar to Buckell’s regular readers. And there is also a mystery man from Anegada… there has to be one or it wouldn’t be a Buckell novel!

The Gaia corporation – which resembles a lot a fictional version of Google (I couldn’t help thinking that the name of the founders, gender aside, Ivan Cohen and Paige Greer sounded a lot like Sergey Brin and Larry Paige) with an environmental twist. In the context of generalized legitimation crisis and inability of governments to collaborate to stop the ecological predicted catastrophe, corporate actors decide to flex their muscles, but they are not exactly the good guys.

The atmosphere of the whole novel is that of impending doom as people try to figure out what to do in an increasingly anomic context. That is the backdrop. The main character is Anika Duncan, a Nigerian, bi-sexual, UN pilot (how cool is all this?) whose job is to patrol the new routes opened by the melting of the Arctic to monitor for smuggling. One day, she detects something fishy on a ship, decides to investigate only to have her plane blown out of the sky and her partner killed. She is later herself victim of assassination attempts. All this tells her she has bumped into something big (a super weapon in the form of high-tech terraforming little balls initially designed to stop the warming, it turns out) and soon, she’s on the run trying to figure things out.

The story was a bit too much shoot-’em up action and there are some convenient plot points (the Anegadan spy always comes up with the right resources at the right time thanks to mystery contacts that just happen to always be available and always come through at the right time with the right stuff). I really disliked the “torturing the torturer” stuff (especially the “I’m so ashamed of what I have done to other that I need to be tortured to expiate my sins” stuff, I really did not like that, it was both convenient – it allowed the “good guys” to engage in brutal violence with immediate moral exoneration – and contrived).

That being said, I really liked the main character, Anika. How often does one get a black woman, with a fluid and non-problematic sexuality, with intelligence and skills as lead? Close to never. I also really liked the whole social / global / environmental background to the story. I wish there had been more of that. But then, I always wish for more context. Part of the issue for me was that, on balance, it was a bit too much on the thriller side, and not enough on other aspects, such as life in the world-risk society. But again, that is my bias.

Actually, Arctic Rising feels like the original point for all the other novels that Buckell has written (kinda like when Brin wrote Startide Rising before Sundiver). I wonder if his plan is to progressively plug the gaps between these two and finally giving us the full story in-between. I certainly hope so.

So, Buckell’s book takes the readers to the turning point, where things still could change but won’t because of political inability to act collectively and globally. This is the time before manure really hits the fans, destroys societies, leading to radical social transformations of the dystopian type which seems to be the theme du jour. But the dystopian genre, very present in the young adult literature, usually picks up at a much later time: all the bad stuff has happened. Society as we knew it has disintegrated into chaos and conflict. Some new power rose to reestablish order, but did so in a not-too-pretty fashion: enter The Hunger Games.

By now, the whole background story is well-known. After The Dark Days (initiated by weapons of mass destruction and environmental degradation), the Capitol rose to claim control over Panem, creating its own world-system, with a strict division of labor between 12 districts (D13 having been destroyed, or so denizens of the other districts are told) who produce everything needed for the Capitol denizens to be a well-kept leisure class.

And every year, each districts has to send two teenagers (boy and girl) to fight to the death in the Arena both as entertainment for the Capitol and clear reminder to the districts that they’d better not mess with the Capitol again or try to rise up in rebellion.

See my comparative analysis of the Hunger Games v. Battle Royale (also a product of anomie and social disintegration where generations turn on each other and adults take it out on teenagers perceived as responsible for the persistent chaos).

In HG, one can detect a theme that one finds in other dystopian, young adult, ecofiction: the rise of the youthful hero, incarnating a rejuvenation of humankind, symbolically, politically, and environmentally. The youthful hero (boy or girl) is always “different”, not politically aware (often thrown somehow against its will into the politics of his/her world), but questioning of the system at the micro level, and somewhat on the deviant side. This is true for Katniss Everdeen in HG, what with her hunting skills that could get her killed. But this is a theme pursued also in Divergent.

Now, as I mentioned in my review, I never made it past the first book of the as-of-yet incomplete trilogy and Roth does not provide much context for the structure of society  but it seems clear that something environmentally catastrophic has happened. And the current social structure, then, is an attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by avoid them. Hence the different castes, based on which human trait is identified as the one most detrimental to humankind and therefore to be avoided at all costs.

In Divergent, the rise of the youthful hero, always marked for her difference, is clear. The author takes great pains to make her readers understand that Beatrice is special, not fitting in, out of sync with her caste, etc. but bound to have a great destiny.

The theme of the eco-fiction combined with the rise of the youthful here is also what drives Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock. In my review, I wrote the following:

JC’s 22nd century America (actually, the Earth) is environmentally devastated. The planet finally has run out of oil which triggered catastrophic conflicts, plagues, mass sterility and death and therefore major population reduction. In this context, human societies have regressed, having to give up most of the oil-related technology. The end of oil has meant major social, economic and political upheavals.

In the United States, political power is divided between the official power structure of the Executive and the Senate, and the unofficial authority of the Dominion, a theocratic organization that rules society and has engaged in tremendous historical revisionism and controls what gets published, and pretty much everything pertaining to culture and religion. Needless to say, it is extremely powerful and fundamentalist and often plays the role of Inquisition, with torture and all against those it defines as deviants.

Julian Comstock, the main character, is the nephew of the current President. Julian’s father, the brother of the President, a war hero, had been executed for treason on trumped charges as his brother feared his popularity. For fear for Julian’s safety, his mother sent him away under the protection and mentorship of a veteran soldier, Sam Godwin. It is in this exile in what is today Alberta. It is there that Julian meets the narrator of the story, Adam Hazzard. It is this threesome that the story follows.

22nd century America is a highly stratified and conflicted society. At the top are the Aristos, those who had property when society collapsed. Then are the leased people, those who lost everything in the collapse and had to sell their labor to the aristos. At the bottom are the indentured servants. This arrangement has the stamp of approval of the Dominion. It is a caste system based on a highly unequal distribution in an economy of scarcity.

On top of it, America is at war with what is now called Mittleeuropa over control of parts of Canada. Resource wars indeed. Julian, Sam and Adam get caught in their attempt to avoid drafting into the war and end up there anyway. Julian becomes a war hero and therefore a threat to his uncle who then puts him in charge a suicide operation with no reinforcement, hoping he will die. He does not but this last maneuver cost his uncle the loss of military support. He is deposed and Julian is appointed President in his place.

Julian always resented the Dominion for their suppression of the past and of knowledge, scientific or otherwise. As president, he takes it on. All the political maneuvering that is required to handle the different power groups (the Senate, the Dominion, and the military) take a toll on Julian and his presidency, along with his life, are short, having only managed to weaken the Dominion but not destroy it as he had hoped. This is a coming of age and its costs story not just for Julian but for Adam, the narrator as well. And Julian also has another reason to resent the Dominion. He is gay.

In many ways, the rise of the youthful / rejuvenated hero as legitimate ruler on the ashes of a decaying world ruled by illegitimate tyrants is  a theme out of the medieval mythology (all the way back to Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable). Take this scene from John Boorman’s Excalibur where, having drunk from the Holy Grail, Arthur, the legitimate king, is back in the saddle and nature recovers as he rides into battle:

I had issues with the war hero theme of the book and the fact that military exploits seemed a bit repetitive to me. But Yannick Rumpala had some stronger issues with the book. His blog is in French so, I’ll just summarize his thoughts: the book never really explains how total resource depletion of fossil fuels would lead to such a dramatic technological regression. Basically, it’s back to horse and buggies, and old-fashioned trains (like in the old Westerns). Electricity seemed to have completely disappeared from collective conscience of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. Rumpala asks how it is possible to so completely forget all accumulated knowledge so quickly, even in the context of the dominance of religious fundamentalists. It seemed the past just disappeared, leaving no traces whatsoever, ruins of any kind. Where are all the abandoned cars, planes, etc.? Was nothing recycled?

And then, there was Ship Breaker. As I wrote before, the setting is a dystopian future where climate change has run its course and drowned parts of the Earth and civilization has run out of oil. It is an environmental and social mess of a world with extreme stratification. At the bottom of the social ladder are the ship breakers, who dismantle old oil tankers – remnants of what people call the Accelerated Age, our age – to scrap for whatever is valuable for larger scavenging firms like Lawson & Carlson.

The ship breakers themselves are divided between heavy and light crews (mostly kids small enough to crawl through pipes and small spaces). This is work highly reminiscent of The Devil’s Miner. The main characters of the book are kids from one such light crew, mainly Nailer and his friend Pima.

Nailer’s world is one that is dangerous for poor kids like him, subjected to violence at the hands of a variety of adults, including his father and his crew employer. The work itself would never lift anyone out of poverty and is highly dangerous. At the same time, to be part of a crew means to have taken a blood oath and involves some mechanical solidarity and Gemeinschaft-type bonds between crew members (“Ship breaking was too dangerous to not have trust.” Loc. 634). There are strong sanctions imposed on those who break these loyalty bonds, as one of Nailer’s crew learns the hard way after leaving Nailer to die in an oil tank still full of oil.

Geographically, the story takes place mainly in the Gulf Coast. New Orleans has disappeared under water and in its place is a bunch of slums where people eke out a living. This is where Nailer ends after he and Pima rescue a “swank” girl (one of the über-wealthy few that manage to make tons of money through maritime freight using clippers). She and Nailer become crew and he calls her ‘lucky girl”. She herself is the victim of a corporate conspiracy to overthrow her family’s control of a giant shipping corporation. This is what the action in the book revolves around: getting Lucky Girl back to a ship whose crew is still loyal to her father. It does not turn out that way and the adventure begins, as they say.

But as Rumpala asks on his blog, does the post-oil age doom us to dystopian futures? Is there no collective, ecological imaginary where everything does not collapse miserably? For Rumpala, there is a literary, imaginary space to be occupied that would envision a more positive, non-dystopian future where sustainability would have won the day. Why does it matter? Rumpala argues that the science-fiction or eco-fiction of today can shape the technological imaginary of tomorrow and related concrete technological developments. After all, the dystopian terrain has been pretty well covered by now.

I would argue, though, that a less-dystopian future is not necessarily a matter of technology, but of political legitimacy as well. In these dystopian futures, the issues are not predominantly technological (technology still exists but is restricted in HG and Divergent). They are social and related to concentration of power in few illegitimate hands. And I also think that there is still territory to cover on the dystopian side especially as the reality of climate change and peak oil sets in, where world risk society meets legitimation crisis and economic stagnation for the masses.

And I also think there is a lot to investigate on the Planet of Slums theme, as was done in Metatropolis, in the urban-fiction genre.

Posted in Book Reviews, Environment, Science-fiction, Social Change, Sustainability, Technology | No Comments »

Caster Semenya V. Harrison Bergeron

September 8, 2012 by and tagged ,

A few weeks back, I wrote about Caster Semenya’s degrading treatment at the hands of sports authorities, having her take hormones to make her more feminine, which would also lower her performance level, putting her in line with the way women in sports are supposed to be.

I mentioned that example in class and I asked my students to imagine what such a thing would look like if we applied it to education: let’s make smart kids a bit dumber (I am sure we can find some medications to do that). A few days later, one of my students brought me Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Bergeron (full text). I did not know that story but it certainly relates to what I was talking about. Except for one major difference: in Vonnegut’s story, the equalization and handicapping are applied equally throughout society. In the Semenya case, the central aspect of is that it is applied exclusively to women in order to solidify the essentialist gender binary and keep women in their place.

Interestingly enough, there was a television movie made out of the short story:

And ironically, this television movie (1) misses the point, and (2) proves the point of the KV story. It misses the point by making Harrison a bland and sweet young man played by Sean Astin who you cannot imagine hurting a fly, rather than the raving lunatic of the story. The worst distortion of the story is the ending. The director / producer must have thought that audiences would be not be able to handle the pessimistic ending of Vonnegut’s story. So, they tacked on a sappy, happy ending that opens up the possibility of change where the story provides none.

Vonnegut’s story is about a form of social engineering that not just dumbs down the population but turns them into childish beings thanks to dumb entertainment as well. The television movie does exactly the same twice: with this ending, of course, but also with the sequence when Harrison takes over a TV studio, all he can come up with to accompany the wonderful works of arts he shares with his audience is dumb, childish commentary, especially when he addresses his family.

Way to miss the point, totally.

How often do TV programs infantilize audiences through a variety of childish emotions? All the time.

This seems to stick closer to the story (trailer only):

Unfortunately, it also seems to miss the madness of Harrison and turning him into an individualistic revolutionary. Compare the text of his speech as opposed to what he says in the film. There is no heroism in the story, just a grotesque and brutal character.

Now, it is tempting to interpret this story as some sort Randian rant against socialism. Think again, what this society has is a minority that dominates the population through dumb media, extensive surveillance and a police state when all else fails. Sounds familiar? It also assumes a pre-existing meritocratic society where only individual characteristics matter and class / race / gender are no longer issues.

A nice contrasting story is Star Trek’s The Cloud Minders, which I have mentioned before.

Posted in Science-fiction, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Divergent

August 7, 2012 by and tagged , ,

As part of my never-ending quest to find some YA science-fiction to use in my introduction to sociology class (I currently use the Hunger Games), and based on a student recommendation, I read Veronica Roth’s Divergent, the first volume of a trilogy. I am trying to anticipate the time where Hunger Games’s shelf life will have expired and I will have to move on to some other materials.

The reason why I pick YA scifi is because I teach at a community college and therefore cannot assume that my students will easily read at college level. It is bothersome but I have to meet my students where they are. The other requirement for a book to be “eligible” to become course material is that there has to be enough social stuff in it.

There has to be fairly substantial developments on culture, history of the society (especially in the case of dystopia, readers have to know what happened), social structure, deviance, stratification and power through institutions, at least. it is usually not hard to find some resocialization as it is often the basis for drama. If a book is all plot and story and no or limited social background, then, it won’t work for me. That is why Hunger Games works so well for this.

The goal is for students to apply sociological concepts and theories to a “foreign” society, without having to rely on their common categories of understanding and without moral judgement while reading something entertaining and interesting (as opposed to textbooks which are a chore to read even for me).

Unfortunately, Divergent will not make the list. I initially picked it up because the premise seemed promising: a indeterminate futuristic society located in what is today Chicago, a dystopian context and a strangely reorganized society according to five factions involving different value systems and behavior as well as functions for the system as a whole:

  • Abnegation (selflessness)
  • Dauntless (bravery)
  • Erudite (knowledge)
  • Amity (peace)
  • Candor (honesty)

The factions live somewhat separately (although children attend the same schools). They are socialized into their faction of birth. But at the age of 16, they get evaluated as to which faction they are best suited for and they get to choose where they want to spend the rest of their lives. The test is usually straightforward but a few individuals are divergent (a never spoken word), that is, they do not fit neatly into one faction. Once they have chosen their faction, teenagers get initiated into it (and the actual substance of the initiation is determined by the characteristics of the faction: service for Abnegation, violence and risk-taking for Dauntless).

Those who fail the initiation join the ranks of the bottom of society: the factionless. Factionless live in poverty as they have no place in society. Members of Abnegation (who control the government, since they are selfless) provide some charity, but otherwise, factionless live on the margin, as an underclass.

Each faction then, has its own culture, clothing, symbols, ways of speaking, walking, behaving, its own structure (Amity being the most egalitarian and democratic faction). Absolute loyalty is expected from faction members (“Faction before blood”) and a certain amount of ethnocentrism is expected.

The story itself follows Abnegation member Beatrice as she turns 16 and therefore goes through the sorting mechanism to determine her faction. Things start going bad when her test is inconclusive, making her a divergent, and get worse when she chooses to transfer to the Dauntless faction and her brother chooses the Erudite as it is assumed, in most cases, that children will choose their faction of origin. As with Hunger Games, I liked the idea of a strong female character.

So far so good, and you can see why I was excited about this book. Alas, as good as the premise was, the treatment ended up being quite shallow. First off, one can tell that this society is the product of some major disaster but that is never explained. There is basically no history provided. That is a big chunk of context missing. Maybe this will come in the second and third books in the trilogy but for  something to be usable in class, the information has to come in the first book because I can’t make students read a full trilogy (and the third one is not even out yet).

All we get is this:

““Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality— of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”

(…)

“Those who blamed aggression formed Amity.”

The Amity exchange smiles. They are dressed comfortably, in red or yellow. Every time I see them, they seem kind, loving, free. But joining them has never been an option for me.

“Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite.”

Ruling out Erudite was the only part of my choice that was easy.

“Those who blamed duplicity created Candor.”

I have never liked Candor.

“Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation.”

I blame selfishness; I do.

“And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”

(…)

“Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life.”” (42-3)

And that’s pretty much it.

Then, as soon as Beatrice joins her new Dauntless faction, it is all story, action and not much else as most of the book is her initiation (the book is about 500 pages long), but one narrative shift around page 410, which is so predictable and trite as to leave the last 90 pages or so relatively uninteresting. The initiation itself gets repetitive at some point since it’s all about conquering one’s fears and getting used to the daredevil ways of the Dauntless.

There is some interesting stuff about the friendships / hostility that develop between the initiates, some in-group / out-group dynamics but that remains at the superficial levels.

And there is the thing that was already so deadly boring in Hunger Games that is present here as well: the romantic / love interest. Good grief, can’t we have a 16 year old girl in a book without her obsessing about which guy she loves and is in love with her? This stuff goes on and on (no sex, though, the author is a bit on the Jesus-y side, see the acknowledgement page). Pages and pages of boring navel-gazing of the “he loves me / he loves me not”, “but if he loves me, why is he so mean to me!!”  variety. It is so tedious (it was not bad in the Hunger Games, but it got to dreadful levels in Catching Fire and Mockingjay).

Another aspect that makes this heroin no Katniss Everdeen is the fact that, until she switches factions, she has led a relatively privileged, if a bit bland, life and has had none of the hardship that roughened Katniss. This renders her more superficial.

So, my enthusiasm for the book progressively evaporated as I got to the end. I am not even sure I’ll read the rest of the trilogy (unless reviews drag me back into it). There is definitely not enough social substance in it to make it a viable reading for class.

This book as the Hollywood treatment written all over it though.

And so, the search continues…

Posted in Book Reviews, Science-fiction, Sociology | 1 Comment »

Book Review – Amped

July 5, 2012 by and tagged , ,

I have probably already mentioned that I am always on the lookout for some new materials to make my introduction to sociology classes more fun and interesting, without sacrificing the content. And, I still live by the mantra the good science-fiction is good sociology. Good science-fiction is always a reflection of our societal fears and anxiety, often related to the side effects of technological advancements and their impact on behavior, social relations, social institutions, etc.

It is with that in mind that I started reading Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson because I was really interested in the premise: in a really not too distant future, technology allows the curing and fixing of many medical (or non-medical) conditions through implantation of technology to the brain (or other body parts) that corrects malfunctions and allow people to function better mentally and physically. This creates a new category of individuals – amped – that have extra skills and abilities. Needless to say, with a premise like that, the potential for sociological analysis seemed really great and I looked forward to adding it to my scifi reading list for sociology students. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

The main problem is that even though a lot of sociological concepts are indeed applicable to Amped (discrimination – individual and institutional -, segregation, prejudice, structural violence, in-group / out-group dynamics, etc.) and the story is interspersed with extra-narrative features like Supreme Court rulings (that basically deprive Amps of legal existence), political speeches and newspaper articles, there just isn’t enough content there. Once one is past the introductory chapters, it is basically nothing but fight scenes.

And that is a another major issue: there is only ONE (count ‘em: one) female character (Lucy, as poor Samantha commits suicide in the opening chapter) and her justification for being in the book is not that she is a character in her own rights but that she reminds other male characters of their humanity. Her role only exists in relations to male characters (Lyle, Owen, Nick), as sister, love interest (who also washes his clothes) and mother. If there were a Bechtel test for books, this one would definitely not pass it.

And the most disappointing aspect of the book (and the reason why it lacks content that I can actually use) is that very quickly, anything the implanted devices can do is reduced to creating super soldiers (hence, the whole fighting thing) and we are repeatedly treated of development of the ways the implants turns one ordinary teacher (the main character) into a super-soldier, fighting other super-soldiers. So, it’s all fight – fight – fight - escape - fight – fight – fight – escape (from super secure facility but it’s a piece of cake for a super soldier) – fight – fight – escape for real – the end.

It is a shame really, because there could have been so much more depth and societal exploration without detracting from a good story (the way China Mieville does it, for instance or the way it is done in David Brin’s Kiln People).

So, I am sorry to say that I will not be using this one in my sociology class. There just isn’t enough there.

Posted in Book Reviews, Science-fiction, Sociology | No Comments »

World-System 2.0 – In Time

February 4, 2012 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sorry about the lack of recent posts, guys. Between the beginning of the term and the massive amount of academic writing I have foolishly and irresponsibly agreed to do, I will be swamped until February 15th.

That being said, while taking a break from The Writing, I watched this film, scifi fan that I am:

The movie was directed by Andrew Niccol who also directed Gattaca (which I really loved) and Lord of War (ditto). Now, the main plot is rather stupid and the main characters were poorly cast, in my view, but, as usual, I got more interested in the social background underlying the story.

For those of you who have not seen it, the story takes place in a dystopian future (aren’t they all?) where the dominant currency is time. People are genetically programmed to grow up until they reach 25, then, a clock embedded their arms starts and they have one year to live unless they can get extra years through labor, gambling, prostitution, or financial dealings. Everything is bought and paid for in time (minutes, hours, days, etc.). The whole language reflects the prevalence of time. When your clock gets down to zero, you just (literally) drop dead.

This society is highly stratified in a very Wallersteinian way. Financial investors are at the top of the social ladder and they live in wealthy (gated and highly secured) time zones that resemble Wallerstein’s core areas. There are middle time zones (the semi-periphery) and the ghettos (the periphery) where people are fully precarized in terms of time. They work for a few extra days, take out loans that deplete their clocks. The whole time system (financial system) is controlled by very large corporation, controlled by time-financiers who continuously extract time-value from the less wealthy time-zones (through labor, loans and control of the costs of living… when they need a time boost, the wealthy – in New Greenwich, a major core time zone – bump up the cost of living in the ghetto which extracts more time from the poor, that is transferred to the wealthy.

This translates in different behavior. In the ghetto, people are constantly checking their clock and rushing and running everywhere. That is how the main character gets spotted as “different” when he crosses into wealthier time zones. In the wealthy time zones, people move slowly. They have time.

There is more than enough time for everybody but the wealthy want to live forever, so, in that zero-time game, someone has to die for that to happen. And so, while the poor live highly precarized lives, doing anything to live a few more days, including engaging in fights through organized criminal groups where the goal of the fight is to deplete the other guy’s clock, the wealthy live lives surrounded by luxury but also lots of bodyguards in order to avoid the only deaths they can expect, through crime or their own stupidity (accidents).

In this society, law enforcement takes the form of poorly paid (based on a limited per diem allotment of time) time-keepers who keep track of time and maintain the stratification system. They are what Guy Standing would call the salariat, ideologically aligned with the global time elite, and making sure the precariat in the ghetto does not steal someone’s time even though they are economically closer to the precariat.

As I mentioned, the rest of the film is pretty much either garbage (the rich have it hard too!) or teenage nonsense (the bad boy from the ghetto and the poor little rich girl fall for each other and turn into Bonnie and Clyde 2.0). Apart from that, I think it is definitely meant as a metaphor for our times.

Posted in Commodification, Corporatism, Economy, Globalization, Labor, Movies, Poverty, Precarization, Risk Society, Science-fiction, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Social Theory, Sociology | 2 Comments »

Book Review – Embassytown

June 25, 2011 by and tagged , ,

Embassytown is the second book I have read by China Miéville (the first one was the great The City And The City). Those who expect a fast-paced, action-packed space opera kinda of science-fiction will be deeply disappointed. Embassytown does have the basic ingredients of a science-fiction novel: humans on a alien planet whose inhabitants – the Hosts – tolerate them along with some trade but there is no symbiosis here.

The Hosts – the Ariekei – have a strange language that only pairs of modified humans – the Ambassadors – can speak. The humans live in proximity to the Ariekei city (in which they cannot breathe), in an area called Embassytown. The only communication between humans and Hosts goes through the Ambassadors. Embassytown is itself a human colony of another human world, Bremen, with whom politics are tense and complex.

But the key to the novel is the Hosts’ language. So, brush up on your Saussure (signifier / signified), or Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations or Levi-Strauss. The Hosts’ language is thought. The two are not separate. Language does not signify, it is. It is language and referent at the same time. Which is why the Hosts cannot lie because their language makes it impossible to say something that is not. This language is spoken at two levels (cut / turn), which is why it takes two modified humans speaking it at the same time to be understood by the Hosts. A single human speaking the language sounds to the Hosts like meat making unintelligible sounds.

And to convey ideas, sometimes, humans are used as similes, that is, literally experiencing what the Hosts want a simile for. The main character of the book, Avice Benner Cho, an Embassytonian native, is such a simile. She has also traveled beyond Arieke and has just come back.

Now, setting the context for all this, in addition to Avice’s biography takes about half the book. I suspect a lot of people have given up before reaching the point where the “action” starts, with the unprecedented arrival of two non-Embassytown-born Ambassadors from Bremen (actually, a modified human pair = one Ambassador, and they all have double names such as CalVin, EzRa, MagDa, etc.).

It turns out that when the way the new Ambassador speaks Language is like a drug to the Ariekei. They get addicted to it, let their civilization go to waste and otherwise behave like complete junkies. This might become a source of power for the humans but they rely on Ariekei for food and supplies so, their lives are at stake too. And the Hosts are constantly demanding their fix of EzRa speech and the humans provide. And then one of the humans that is part of EzRa commits suicide. What now? What happens to the addicted Hosts? What happens to the humans who can only hope to be rescued by Bremen and what… leave the Hosts to a slow and painful death?

And so both humans and Ariekei try to separately find a solution: a new drug-Ambassador for the humans, a way to be immune to the infected speech for Hosts, even if it involves horrible mutilation. This leads to the culmination of the conflict and the unraveling of Bremen political machinations, as well as some not-very-pretty truth about the way Embassytown gets its Ambassadors.

So, as I said, I am sure that a lot of people will be bored and give up on the book fairly early on. Another aspect of the book that might be off-putting is that the Ariekei remain resolutely alien throughout the story. Miéville does not try to humanize them or anthropomorphize them. And the human characters have no more real comprehension of their Hosts as the reader does.

And then, there is the main character herself. As she returns to Embassytown after years of space travel, she is determined to remain distant, so it might be hard for a reader to “engage” with a character who wants to remain detached from her environment. In the end, though, she has to get in deep. But the reader should not expect big emotional pay-offs from the book and I am sure this will frustrate a lot of readers.

Overall, then, this is a demanding book. No doubt about it. The long developments on being socialized in Embassytown, and learning the limits between the two civilizations, as well as the detours into Language may make the book an obstacle course for anyone expecting typical scifi adventure.. But ultimately though, this is a fascinating tale.

And I’m with Ursula Le Guin (read her whole review if you haven’t yet):

“The picture of a society shaken, shattered, wrecked to the foundation by a universal drug addiction infecting even the houses, even the farms, for they are all biologically akin, is apocalyptic vision on the grand scale – curiously beautiful, alien in every vivid detail, yet psychologically and socially only too familiar. Science fiction, like all fiction, is a way of talking about who we are.”

Sociologist me could not agree more.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Science-fiction | No Comments »

This Doctor Who Fan is in Mourning

April 20, 2011 by and tagged , ,

So long, Sarah Jane Smith.

SJS (as brilliantly portrayed by Elisabeth Sladen, RIP) was the best early companion to the Doctor because she was not a naive young thing. She didn’t just run around, shouting “Doctor, watch out!” or “Doctor, look!” throughout the episodes.

She was the one and true precursor to Rose Tyler, Martha Jones, and Amy Pond (not so much Donna Noble because Donna had a different relationship with the Doctor, in her awesome Catherine Tate-esque way). She started that line of female companions, young women, who could really hold their own.

Of course, they all added a sentimental / romantic (and yet denied) dimension to the Doctor / companion dyad. But, as Sarah Jane told Rose, it was worth it getting your heart broken.

Here is SJS, making her first appearance in Doctor Who (3rd Doctor, Jon Pertwee), in Time Warrior:

And then, she left the original series (here with the 4th Doctor, Tom Baker):

Thankfully, she made a great comeback in the new series, in the episode School Reunion:

Heck, I even enjoyed The Sarah Jane Adventures:

So, we lost two major Doctor Who actors / characters this year: Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen. This really stinks.

Posted in Gender, Media, Science-fiction | 2 Comments »

Book Review – The City and The City

October 25, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The City and The City is the first book by China Mieville I have read. I got myself a Kindle copy when it got the Hugo Award. It is an awesome novel, and as usual, it is a great source for sociological analysis. At its most basic, The City and The City is a murder mystery coupled with a touch of conspiracy theory. But, as usual for sociologist me, the most interesting part of the book is the social context underpinning the story.

The story takes place in an unusual urban context of two city-states, Besźel and Ul-Qoma, that occupy the same physical space somewhere in Eastern Europe. The cities are divided between areas that are total (totally in one), alter (totally in the other) or crosshatched (in either). In areas that the cities share, citizens of either city have been socialized to unsense the other: to unsee, unhear, unsmell everything from the other city. And at the center is Copula Hall, the official border between the city and the city.

What this means is that when one is walking – or driving through – the streets of Besźel, for instance, one must NOT see, hear or smell anything from Ul-Qoma (and vice-versa). People from either city practice this constant act of dramaturgy of not sensing the other city that exists in the same physical space. Goffman would have had a field day with all the studied non-0bservance that takes place as people, more or less automatically and immediately unsee things happening in the other city. In fact, the entire social structure of both cities is based on that unsensing so much so that when things happen that make that almost impossible, social order is on the verge of collapse and extreme measures are taken.

So, this common space has two social structures, one for Besźel and one for Ul-Qoma, two different cultures, languages, food, clothing, etc. And it looks like Ul-Qoma (a vaguely communist country, boycotted by the US) is the more economically dynamic of the two.

In this context, people are expected to thoroughly respect the division between the city and the city. If they violate the separations, they breach. They are then spirited away by Breach, the mysterious force in charge of enforcing the division. No one knows what happens to people who have been taken by Breach. In this society, breaching is the most serious offense that deserves the most serious punishment (although what that is remains a mystery, for most part of the book). It is a given that, at some point, someone will breach and we, readers, will get to figure out what Breach really is and what it really does. Breach is perceived as a kind of omniscient Big Brother with the power to detect any breach and swing into action when that happens. Not breaching is a major fear for all the citizens of the city and the city.

Needless to say, the city and the city are themselves marked by social conflicts: each city has its own nationalist movement, strict supporters of the Cleavage (the separation between the city and the city) as well as its Unifs, the unificators, the movements promoting the reunification of the city and the city.

Throughout the book, we follow the detective in charge of solving the murder as he navigates the complexities of this intricate structure in the course of his investigation. He is from Besźel, but at some point is assigned to Ul-Qoma so that we get to compare the two cultures.

Ultimately, his own breach is what gives us an insight into the way Breach works and to the conclusion of the book, which one could read as a perfect manifesto for the social construction of reality or ethnomethodology as his Breach avatar explains to him:

“Nowhere else works like the cities,” he said. “It’s not just us keeping them apart. It’s everyone in Besźel and everyone in Ul Qoma. Every minute, every day. We’re only the last ditch: it’s everyone in the cities who does most of the work. It works because you don’t blink. That’s why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn’t work. So if you don’t admit it, it does. But if you breach, even if it’s not your fault, for more than the shortest time … you can’t come back from that.”” (5664)

“Doing” the city and the city is a matter of minutiae of social interaction (accomplished and denied at the same time) and constitutes an enormous amount of interactive collaboration (also as necessary as it is denied). It is this architecture of interaction that sustains the dual social structure and collective underpinning of the city and the city.

A fascinating read.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Dramaturgy, Science-fiction, Social Interaction, Social Sanctions, Sociology, Surveillance Society, Symbolic Interactionism, Urban Ecology | No Comments »

Sociology, Science-Fiction and Sturgeon’s Law

September 10, 2010 by and tagged ,

Here’s a lil’ presentation I used with my students:

[Formatting note: Dang it, the center won't hold]

Posted in Science-fiction, Sociology | 2 Comments »

Fans of Science-Fiction Should Rejoice

July 31, 2010 by and tagged ,

I have already mentioned repeatedly that I am a huge fan of science-fiction, which I see as not separate from sociology. Said it before, say it again: good science-fiction is good sociology.

So, it seems to me that fans of science-fiction should rejoice because there have recently been quite a few good scifi movies (in addition to good TV revival shows, such as Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who). Let me just mention a few examples of things that I thought were great.

Of course, the scifi movie of the month is Inception. Love it or hate it (I liked it, didn’t like the end but was not bothered by the fact that this is not a movie about getting attached to characters, thank goodness for that actually), it has an intriguing storyline, neat special effects. In many ways, it reminded me of Dark City (another good recent scifi film). Exploring the dimension of human consciousness and mind is not a new theme for science-fiction. When Dark City came out, Roger Ebert declared it the future of science-fiction films”

“”Dark City” by Alex Proyas is a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like “Metropolis” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then “Dark City” is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects–and imagination.”

Quite frankly, I am not sure whether the space opera sub-genre of science-fiction has much left to offer, since Star Wars sorta killed it (although the latest Star Trek movie gives me hope), so, quality in scifi movies has to be found elsewhere, and both films do that: telling you an intriguing story you have not seen before, which is more than most movies have to offer (you know, the kind where you can tell not just the ending, everything that is going to happen between opening and end credits just by watching the trailer).

In addition, in both cases, great care has obviously been taken regarding cinematography, special effects, set designs and soundtrack. Going back one step further in film history, I would argue that both films are the descendants of Brazil, minus the sarcasm and dark humor. Brazil remains an all-time favorite of mine.

In all three films, a lot of the has to do with dark urban settings (whether real or imagined or manufactured / and re-shaped on a regular basis) and characters struggling with reality (such as it is and pushing back against its oppressive nature, and sometimes paying a price for it. In all three films, the city is a dehumanized environment, impersonal or hyper-capitalized where other urban denizens are anonymous figures, easily interchangeable. Holding on to one’s individual identity gets tricky and a form of resistance.

In terms of construction and malleability of reality, I should mention the very scary, highly intriguing Spanish film Time Crimes even though one might argue it is not strictly science-fiction, it involves (very short) time travel, so, to me, it counts although I would concede that it straddles the fence between science-fiction and horror, not that there is anything wrong with that.

And when there is time travel, there is always the question of whether one can change the past to right some wrong (even if the wrong took place just an hour or so in the past) or whether such attempts keep making things worse. It is a movie that was probably shot on a shoestring budget but it grabs you and does not let go until the end.

Moving on, science-fiction has also always explored “what if” scenarios, exploring what happens after the big disasters that we fear actually do happen. In this post-apocalyptic genre, one can find zombie movies (the old living dead movies of the 50s reflecting on the fear of Soviet invasion, or the post-nuclear holocaust sub-genre). More recently, of course, the disaster genre has focused on environmental devastation whether due to climate issues or planetary “malfunctions”. More interesting, from a more strictly scifi point of view are a couple of films related to the scarcity era: once we run out of vital resources, then what. I think two movies stand out:

Moon is not an artistically elaborate film. It is actually quite simple but deals with what it means to be human. I like it precisely for its simplicity. And it is more entertaining than Solaris (yeesh, I never got that one, old or new). The movie also involves the consequences of the commercialization of everything and how far economic and labor exploitation can go.

The other movie, of course, is Pandorum. I am usually pretty good at figuring movies out and solving enigmas. So, I especially appreciate a movie that keeps me guessing for a while, and this one did. It does deal with being forced off the Earth for various reasons and what happens on the way to getting to some other planet. Along with ethical issues pertaining to being the only humans left.

So, I guess, my main point for fans of intelligent science-fiction, there are a lot of interesting things going on right now in movies and on television (as opposed to crappy, misogynistic, homophobic and reactionary adaptations of comic books), and not just from the US, but from Europe as well.

And I may have mentioned before how much I liked this animated film as well. Again, a simple and relatively short story but very well done and carefully crafted (even though I did not like the end, seemed like a cop out to me).

I don’t know whether we can speak of a “renewal” or “revival” of the science-fiction genre and its various sub-genres. That might be pretentious but it just seems to me that there just has been a series of interesting films that show that young directors with distinctive artistic visions are interested in scifi and its narrative possibilities.

I am just glad to see there is still life in that genre (as opposed to romantic comedies, and doods movies) because quite frankly, wizards and hobbits and superheros are annoying.

Posted in Movies, Science-fiction | 7 Comments »

Book Review – WWW: Watch

April 25, 2010 by and tagged ,

Usual disclaimer: good science-fiction is good sociology, and Robert J. Sawyer is one of my favorite scifi writers (along with fellow Canadian Robert Charles Wilson). WWW: Watch is the second volume in the WWW trilogy (the first volume, WWW: Wake reviewed here). I have to say that I enjoyed this one more than I did the previous volume. I would confess that, while reading Wake, I skimmed some passages (especially the emerging consciousness parts).

In Watch, the emerging consciousness come into his (since it’s decided to make it masculine… hmm) own and starts to deal with the complexities of humanity. At the same time, it’s becoming more present attracts the attention of the agencies of the Surveillance Society, especially from the US. And a decision is quickly made by the US President and his representatives, WebMind (the name the entity is given) has to be destroyed. I am guessing its survival will be at the heart of the third volume.

For now, in Watch, Webmind gets busy absorbing information and trying to put it to good use. There is no doubt that Sawyer is fascinated by the ethical questions raised by the emergence of a virtual consciousness and how this reflects upon humanity. Although, as a sociologist, the “everything can be explained by game theory” meme can get a bit annoying and a gross simplification of human relationships.

The first volume also wove together other storylines: Hobo the half-chimp / half-bonobo. We find that story again in Watch. However, the Chinese storyline is remarkably absent from Watch. I’m guessing, it will be picked up in the third volume. It might be a matter of economy of storylines as the introduction of Watch (the US spying agency) takes quite a bit of space here. There is also more involvement from the characters of Caitlin’s parents.

As with Wake, Watch is still organized around the character of Caitlin Decter, the blind American teenager who gets her sight back thanks to a device from a Japanese scientist. Actually, she got more than her sight back. She can also “see” the web. In Watch, there is still quite a bot of space dedicated to her struggling with viewing and how it affects her relationships with her parents and friends… and boyfriend (the least interesting part of the book… but teenagers are notoriously uninteresting in that department).

Again, the most interesting part of the book, beyond being a great story, deals with questions of dealing with an Other, the nature of consciousness and human relationships. The book seamlessly weaves together great storytelling, science-fiction, philosophy and science and that makes it a real page-turner, again, more so, in my view, than Wake.

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the third volume.

Posted in Book Reviews, Science-fiction | No Comments »

I Liked 9 More than Avatar

February 5, 2010 by and tagged ,

Darn it, how did I miss this smart and clever animated film?

I wish the ending had been different but I completely agree with Roger Ebert’s review:

The visuals are indeed stunning but they do not substitute for the story. And I am a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories and this one is way better than Terminator. It feels like what would have happened to the society of Brazil (the movie) if the machines had decided to exterminate the humans. This supposed futuristic society, as in Brazil, has a Baudrillardian nostalgic feel to it, with a very 1940s look, complete with a Hitler-like dictator and a Nazi aesthetic (I would argue that Brazil is a futuristic extension of Nazism).

Posted in Movies, Science-fiction | No Comments »

Movie Review – Avatar

January 1, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What can I say about Avatar that has not been written already, especially in this often-cited post:

As mentioned all over the place, this is Dances with Wolves meets The Last Samurai where noble savages who, unlike modern white folks, have not lost their connection to nature and are happy in their spiritual bliss and gentle nature stewardship (see how the Na’vi connect – literally – with animals and other natural elements, including souls). Cameron’s noble savages are very new-agey and, in a very 2009-fashion, they are connected to each other and the entire ecosystem through a global network (as Grace the biologist – Sigourney Weaver – tells us).

Against them are lined the superior forces of global corporations and military contractors who do their bidding and get well paid for it. And the battle is over resources that Pandora has and that Earth needs. The corporation wants it and it will take it one way or another. The message on environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples is not exactly subtle.

And so, the movie culminates in the final battle between mean Goliath against the gentle David. But the Na’vi have a joker card which answers the question asked in the post cited above:

I have a different view. It’s not about having a character to relate to. It’s about white supremacy. Let’s look at the evidence: Jake Scully gets initially introduced into the tribe because of some religious sign that designates him as special and he will be the only one to be able to connect with the big-ass red bird that will come so handy in battle and reinforces his spiritual status as “Super Na’vi”. And that is on top of the skill set he brings to the tribe: his marine and military training, which will ultimately save the Na’vi. The noble savages, with their bows and arrows, need a white military man to save them and become their leader. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah, in tons of movies. The white man in the avatar becomes a better Na’vi than the true Na’vi (and gets the girl, of course).

So, even though we are presented with a story that is designed to convey a message of environmentalism, multiculturalism and peace, we end up with the maintenance of white supremacy… oh and apparently, violence works, especially when based on military training, it’s what allows the Na’vi to win, once all the tribes are united under the leadership of Jake Scully. Without him, they’d be toast.

And, by being a super Na’vi, Scully can erase his being a defective / inferior white man due to his disability who initially agrees to spy on the Na’vi to regain his legs and therefore become a full man again, as promised by the über-patriarchal man delightfully played by Stephen Lang.

Oh, and let’s not forget who tells the story: Jake Scully. He is the narrator all through the movie. White man’s voice and perspective.

As I watched the movie, I could not help thinking whether all these people in the movie theater would think twice about drone bombing in AfPak? I don’t think so. It seems that the sociologists over at Sociological Images are skeptical as well:

In other words, because it relies so much on common colonizer history revised through multicultural lenses that more befit the enlightened 21st century, the story is entirely predictable, almost plot point by plot point.

Another interesting aspect of the story is detailed by Antonio Casilli (and links to a full peer-reviewed article in French for those of you who read it). Casilli’s argument is that cultural analysis shows that there is nothing really new about the avatar trope, including its blue color.

So, why is it blue?

Do check out the illustrations over at Casilli’s post. The theme is ubiquitous.

And the disable hero? Another common cultural trope:

Do read the whole thing or the paper itself if you can.

All that being said, the movie is certainly enjoyable and not boring (even though the final battle scene was getting a bit long for me). I saw it in 3D and the visuals were indeed stunning (the images of the forest at night were beautiful) but again, it has to be viewed with a critical eye beyond the technical prowess.

Posted in Corporatism, Environment, Gender, Ideologies, Indigenous Populations, Institutional Racism, Mass Violence, Militarism, Movies, Neo-Colonialism, Networks, Patriarchy, Racism, Resource Wars, Risk Society, Science-fiction, Sociology, Sustainability, Technology | 4 Comments »

Book Review – Agent to the Stars

December 4, 2009 by and tagged , , , ,

Believe it or not, this is the first book by John Scalzi I have ever read. I figured I had to start somewhere since he is now one of the heavyweights of the scifi world. I have to say that Agent to the Stars had me at “We have seen The Blob  and it is us.” That line alone cracked me up and kept me going. The book is fast-paced, funny (which is not hard when you get to take potshots at Hollywood).

The book falls into the first contact category. The problem is, the aliens are friendly enough but they’re ugly and the smell awful, so, how can they make a peaceful introduction to humanity? Simple: hire an agent to come up with a PR plan. The book reads as a sort of screwball comedy as the agent in question, Tom Stein, has to deal with the resident alien he has custody of, along with his Hollywood human clients. And, of course, one of the funniest aspects of the book is the fact that the aliens have “observed” humanity before contacting an agent, mostly by watching TV and so, they have a lot of fun quoting American popular culture. It’s a fun read… for a while

And then, a pattern begins to emerge, one which almost made me throw the book across the room and ruined the entire thing for me. Agents to the Stars is a very sexist book. One only has to consider the gendered distribution of characters. Let me count the ways:

The big movers and shakers in the book are all white men (Carl, Tom, and even Jim). They are the dominant figures and the ones who get things done. It’s all a men’s world and they navigate it with competence and skills. Now, the women? Oh boy:

- Michelle Beck, the movie star, typical ditzy blonde who becomes famous in movies that guys get to jerk off of and, stupid and clueless that she is, wants to act serious parts and therefore has to be manipulated into a reading that she is scheduled to fail. Then, thankfully, as she botches her own suicide attempts and falls into a coma, her stupid brain gets destroyed and replaced by that of a much smarter (and masculine acting) alien who then gets the serious and meaningful part that Michelle wanted.

- Miranda Escalone is supposed to be the smart (and yet attractive with a shady past) woman of the book. She can fight too. She can even kick a man’s ass and proves it, although, in typical feminine fashion, she does so in the midst of being hysterical. And as smart and witty as she is, she’s only a secretary and love interest for one of the big men AND ultimately, her big part in the book is to have her FEMALE brain used as template by the alien to replace Michelle’s destroyed brain.

Strike that as the two major female characters used as containers or templates… to be fair, the alien had training: he used a dog first, then, upgraded to human females.

- Amanda, the newbie agent promoted from the mailroom, who Tom uses to dump the clients he no longer will have time to deal with as he has to focus on his new alien clients. Poor little Amanda who will need guidance and only comes into her own as she mimics Tom’s habits. Oh, and whom does she inherit as her first client?

- Well, none other than Tea Reader, a nasty bitch of a singer turned actress who has only one thing going for her: her tantrums.

- For the sake of diversity, we also have the angry black woman. Actually, she is the mother of Rashaad Creek. We all know how incompetent black men are, so, here it is his nasty and domineering mother that manages his career.

Should I go on? Yes, because we should not forget

- Avika Spiegelman who is the relative of a Holocaust survivor / Civil Rights activist whose lifestory is the serious part that Michelle Beck had in mind. Of course, initially, Avika is vehemently opposed to Michelle having a reading for the part. So, once the dumb Michelle has been sucked out and replaced by the smart alien with the smart human female brain template, how can she be convinced to give the “new” Michelle another chance? Well, nothing like a good verbal bitch-slapping, in front of two men. Put the bitch in her place!

And I quote

“”I don’t need to be insulted by you,” Avika said [After a couple of rounds of being called a bitch by the "new" Michelle"]

“Well, you need to be insulted by someone,” Michelle said. “And it looks like I’m the only one here with enough interest in you to do it. Sort of sad, really.”" (340-1)

See? Being insulted is actually being paid a favor. Oh, and there is better. The bitch-slapping works, Michelle reads for the part, and, of course, with her new and improved brain, she is great…

“After an hour, Avika dropped the script at her feet. “I wouldn’t have believed it,’ she said, simply.

“I know you wouldn’t,” Michelle said, as simply. “And I thank you, Avika, my friend, for finally letting me show you.”

Avika burst into tears and headed towards Michelle. Michelle burst into her own tears and met Avika halfway. They stood in the middle of the room, crying hysterically. Roland and I looked over at each other. Both of us had these incredibly smug smiles on our face.

We were in business.” (343)

Emphasis mine… get me the puke bucket.

Posted in Book Reviews, Gender, Patriarchy, Science-fiction, Sexism | No Comments »

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