I Hate Dystopian Literature

That isn’t entirely true.There are quite a few dystopian novels I like, a lot. But, I don’t like contemporary dystopias. There, I said it. In fact, with very few exceptions, I don’t like the genre at all. But, with the new Hunger Games knockoff Divergent (quickly followed by two visually cloned dystopian films, The Giver and The Maze Runner), I don’t think it’s going away soon, at least in the movies Hollywood chooses to adapt. (Edit note: As far as publishers are concerned, though, it’s kind of yesterday…)

So, let’s first look back a little at the development of the modern and contemporary dystopian story and where we have this odd, new trend. Because, it is an odd trend. The Mean Girls and 16 Candles of today now feature evil governments and martyr protagonists taking the place of school dances and popular kids. It’s a sociologically interesting trend.

Our stories have gone from this:

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To this:

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In many ways, the first real, modern dystopia was We by Zamyatin, a Russian author whose dissenting work made him one of the most banned writers in the USSR.

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We is a story about social philosophy. In the USSR, there were artistic and social movements from Russian Constructivism to Taylorism, which deemed that one could create a rational utopia through mathematical harmonies and collectivism. In the novel, the dystopian society thinks and communicates through numbers and mathematical formulas, all while living in a literal protective bubble. The main character, rather like in Orwell’s later work, 1984, briefly has a chance to change his life, through the influences of a woman and the discovery of the outside world. This is the basis for the entire novel. I would not go so far as to say this was a brilliant work of fiction. For one thing, the mathematical aspect of the novel is not entirely realized, since the author was not really a mathematician, and furthermore the technology and speech makes it very dated. There are also some troubling racial politics, as the dystopian society is racially integrated, but the narrator still, for some reason, has to constantly say negative things about the only black person he knows. Classy. And I can’t help but note that integration seems kind of tied to the negative aspects of the collectivist society. However, one cannot deny that this is really the kind, if not the quality, of dystopias that should be written. Zamyatin was writing against a powerful and corrupt government, and used the science fiction story to illustrate concerns he had with the world he lived in. He also risked a great deal to write this book, and it widely banned in his home country. That’s a key that most fans of dystopia forget. Almost all fans and writers take exactly 0 risks these days. I mean, The Hunger Games has a hilariously unironic Subway tie-in deal, so if anything screams that that dystopia isn’t coming true, it’s a Hunger Games meatball sub.

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What I am saying is that dystopia does not have its roots in stories about oh-so-special people who are special, and there’s some kind of baddy government or something, and the special people have a love triangle, and bang! Boom! Bang! Exciting!

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That really isn’t the history of dystopia. Also… I would not suggest reading that…

Other landmark dystopian classics followed. 1984, which I’m just going to assume almost everyone has read by now, is the quintessential dystopia.

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It draws heavily from We, but creates a far more sophisticated world. Orwell’s understanding of language not only provides crisp prose, but also a world where language, as opposed to numbers, is the key. The twisting and distortion of language, through New Speak, is a huge element, almost as popular a concept as the iconic Big Brother Is Watching.

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Another landmark text is Huxley’s Brave New World, which, for some reason, is faddish to pit against 1984. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “Ahem, so, lyk, we thought we would be in 1984, but really we’re, lyk, in Brave New World, because of TV and stuff…”

Yeah…

(By the way, speaking as a non-TV owner, let’s stop bragging about how unplugged we are when we all, yes all of us, binge-watch shows on our computers. True Detective in one sitting, am I right? We aren’t superior to TV viewers. We’re just more efficient…)

It really pains me when literary criticism gets turned into this sort of nonsense. What, did Huxley only write one book? Did Orwell? Are they necessarily at odds? Are there only two dystopian novels worth talking about? What is with this insanity? To make the books an either-or decision, pitted against one another, and to simplify their messages to “1984 has tough gov’ment” and “Brave New World totes choses ur own captivity” is really to lose the value of each novel. Dystopias are, by necessity, abstracts of social concerns, and each address specific concerns within the context of a novel’s structure. Therefore, a concern in 1984, such as the loss of communication through increasingly politicized language, is not at odds with the bread-and-circuses deadening of the senses in Brave New World. Neither are either of these books at odds with the critique of collectivism and constructivism present in We. I have no idea why the so-called literary analysis of dystopia has become, “Pick one, and only one!” but it’s seriously counter-intuitive when discussing a genre that is entirely about different social critiques. It would be best to look at all angles, would it not?

Or can there be... only one?

Or can there be… only one?

And, it think that kind of, “Pick one angle! Only one!” reading is something that will come back and bite the genre in the butt. People really start arguing about is the baddy in a dystopia, as if one political side is full of heroes and the other is full of google-eyed monsters.

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Another noteworthy book is actually from a very different writer than the previous three. This is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a different writer for a number of reasons. For one thing, where Huxley, Orwell, and Zamyatin were intellectuals, approaching abstracted theories through science fiction modes in a rather Dante-esque fashion, Bradbury was a self-taught writer. His sources came from observation, newspaper writing, and his imagination was formed by classic Hollywood genre pictures and pulp fiction. He was a man of dinosaurs, sideshows, spaceships, and his love of literature and the imagination came from his own pursuits and studies.

Here is a quote explaining why I love this man:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

Greatest mind ever? Oh, maybe… maybe…

He never went to college. He was not a major political figure. And, he remains one of the best writers of the era. Bradbury’s fiction is often, almost always, interested in imagination, and the way people approach and love books is a huge part of what inspired his work and what he feared in society. Good characters value books, imagination, robotic Poe-themed houses, movie animatronic model dinosaurs, and they value these things even more than life, at times. Imagination, for Bradbury, is something akin to keeping innocence in the world, and the loss of both wonder and fear is a sign of something deeply wrong with society. This theme is most obvious in his dystopia, but many readers forget that it appears in many of his works. In Graveyard for Lunatics, a character’s loss of his beloved movie models is the impetus for his loss of innocence, and the loss of innocence for many others. His love of his art, the creation of worlds, not unlike creating novels, is his connection to life and humanity. In The Marian Chronicles, characters fleeing government censorship build robotic monuments to Poe, and yet the human characters are also destroying the leftover culture of the Martians before them, replacing beautiful, ancient cities with hotdog stands.

Bradbury, perhaps more than anyone else in the genre, placed a primacy on beauty, understanding that it is not simply the freedom to think of a particular ideology or moral, but also to enjoy and appreciate art that can be so very important. So, when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, the story doesn’t just focus on government restriction of thought. The characters burn books, but what replaces the books is given equal attention. The world left behind is not only misguided in thought, but also bereft of meaning. The characters have no real purpose to live and their actions of either violence or passion do not seem to matter. On the other hand, the good characters are willing to risk death and even die in order to maintain meaning.

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Bradbury was quoted saying that one does not have to burn books. One only has to get people to stop reading them. I would add, one could replace great books with a sort of thoughtless page-consumption and get the job done just as well. The empty consumption of entertainment is as critiqued as the excision of literature.

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I think that often when talking about dystopias, A Clockwork Orange gets left out. I think a lot of people do not remember that it is actually set in the future, and also a lot of people have a set image of dystopias as Evil Empire vs. The Little Guy. However, this need not be the case, and a true dystopia is merely one which uses political and ideological issues to illustrate a particularly bad future. I say “true dystopia” to differentiate between this and what are really post-apocalyptic stories like The Road or I Am Legend, which are more about survival after the disaster and may not even discuss ideology at all.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

So, this is Post-apocalyptic, not dystopian.

Clockwork Orange manages to provide a great deal of detail about the setting without ever telling the reader too much. It’s a corrupt future. Crime is rampant. And, there is a great social disorder, a bankruptcy of morality, a nebulous lack of purpose. The main character spends the first segment of the novel committing acts of violence and maintaining his primacy in his gang. Then, he goes through the infamous Ludovico Treatment and is unable to choose anything but goodness. The novel uses this contrast, a character who only chooses evil being forced to only choose good, to ask questions about free will and morality itself.

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And, what I like about this novel, and why it is one of my favorite books of all time, is that it doesn’t make the evil some sort of empire. True, the evil empires in Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin do influence the main characters to do evil things, but the evil is clearly stemming from the fact that the characters are under a bad rule. That is the focus of the moral examination, and this is something I do not especially care for in large doses. In Clockwork Orange, Alex, the antihero and narrator, commits acts of horrific violence and depravity, and really just because he enjoys it.He has the same uncomfortable truth we see in The Dark Knight, in the portrayal of The Joker: there is something too human, too entertaining, too understandable in the enjoyment of evil, and that, not scary clown makeup or one false eyelash, is what makes these characters so frightening and so hard to ignore.

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Alex takes pleasure in doing wrong, as though it is an art to him. This is illustrated in the way he also loves Beethoven, and how the Ludovico Treatment actually takes from him his ability to feel pleasure in Beethoven’s music. His freedom to do evil is also his freedom to choose beauty. This creates a complex character dilemma, where the reader both sympathizes with and abhors Alex as both demon and victim. And, the evil Alex does, which is truly chilling and disturbed, is not caused because there is a Big Bad Government, but because Alex chooses to be evil. In fact, when the government intervenes, through the morally terrifying treatment itself, it forces Alex to be good. Therein lies the paradox, as it were. Furthermore, if you read the version with the author’s original last chapter, added later on by publishers, you see that Alex’s only real, true cure for evil is boredom. Evil, in the end, becomes tedious, and the sociopathic main character has nothing left to live for.

And that is a very important message! That evil isn’t some exotic, different Other, totally outside of ourselves. It’s not monsters, scary-looking people, political opponents, people who look or live or worship differently than we do. Society has a strange way of othering and glorifying evil. Othering, by making evil something that is not us, even if it means believing conspiracy theories or propaganda. A good example is how every group calls every other group Hitler, and then compares itself to Holocaust victims.

–Also, don’t ever do that.

I cannot tell you how much I love this sort of dystopia, as opposed to the governmental big-bad. This is because instead of giving readers a venue through which they may feel put-upon or victimized, the book forces readers to question their own capacity for right and wrong.

First, a few other mentions in the realm of classic dystopia. One author whose name may not immediately jump to mind is Philip K. Dick. Many people outside of science fiction and online communities do not know this man’s name. And yet, we know his stories, because they have made up a great deal of our pop-culture landscape. Ever see movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report? Yeah, these all came from one Mr. Dick, a strange writer who believed that aliens communicated with him. No, really.

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Philip K. Dick’s views on science fiction are far more in line with Bradbury’s, if Bradbury thought his Martians were real and was a conspiracy theorist. Although Bradbury is by far the more popular writer in the mainstream, with literary circles fondly embracing him, Dick is actually more successful in Hollywood. And, yet, most people have no idea that these movies are based on books, let alone books by one author.

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Probably his most famous work is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, from which we get the movie Blade Runner. The movie is a rather loose adaptation, but the story is simple. In the future, there are humanoid robots which do work for a civilization that has depleted its natural resources. They, however, are not supposed to be integrated into human society as real people. The line between humans tracking down robots, and robots themselves becomes increasingly blurred. Now, we have seen this before, most notably in the film Metropolis, and the animated remake of the same name.

The depressing as hell animated version...

The depressing as hell animated version…

At first blush, this seems like it may not even fit with the dystopian genre, and would instead be at the most a post-apocalyptic story. However, further reading shows that both the story and Blade Runner are in fact based on an ideological dystopia. Unlike Big Brother and other evil empires, this is about corporations. The story is about consumerism, and through the unbridled corporatism of the setting, humanity becomes commodity and the robotic product is indistinguishable from the human producer. Product and producer are one.

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You see this theme again in the sci-fi portion of Cloud Atlas.

Moving back to the evil empires, there is one more angle, that being the evil theocracy.

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Margaret Atwood took the formula of 1984 and We and gave it a feminist bent when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a story about a future where a dictatorial theocratic society has taken rule, and created a sort of Christian Taliban social policy of female oppression, regressive sexual politics, et cetera. It introduces another category of evil rule into the dystopian complex. In a genre where often the Stalinist themes pits evil empires against religion, Atwood looks at contemporary societal conflicts and creates a religious empire, like a cult that also runs the government.

For the last two landmark examples, I’ll cite two very different writers. One is Orson Scott Card, best known for book and subsequent series Ender’s Game –and also for his controversial politics. The other is Alan Moore, the man who brought the idea of literary graphic novels to the mainstream –and also known for his controversial politics. Card’s Ender series really does not initially seem very dystopian.

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It’s futuristic, but the future is one of aliens and spaceships. However, it is what happens on earth, and the backdrop for his story, which is very dystopian and provides his criticism. Focusing on the first book, Ender’s Game is about a third child in a population-controlled future, the downtrodden hero, Ender. Ender is taken from his abusive sociopathic brother and saintly sister and placed in a space-school to learn how to defeat aliens by playing lots of cool video games. It’s actually somewhat better than that sounds. But, the dystopian aspects take the form of the government control itself. When is it okay to commit acts of violence and who may morally be used? Is what they do justifiable? The story also has a parallel plot about the brother and sister taking over the government through the use of what is basically a blog.

I’ll remove any ambiguity. I don’t think Card is a great writer. I think his prose style is basic and his ideas tend not to be very well… thought out. The blogging aspect requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, for one thing. For another, I do think that Card lets his characters get away with making morally indefensible choices based on the fact that they have no idea what they are doing. While that leads to some good questions about the nature of war, I feel like, from a story standpoint, he chose a very safe route for his character. Ender does not know about his major conflict, and so it isn’t a conflict for him. Instead, he has these Harry Potter conflicts of fitting in at special school and being a special boy, none of which is as interesting as the big conflict that the main character never knows is a conflict and therefore is never conflicted about.

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It’s like having a story about dropping a nuclear bomb, but making the main character totally oblivious to what is happening. I think the moral could be sustained far more interestingly in a short story than a novel, which leaves us with pages and pages of a character playing strategy games that don’t feel very connected to the actual point of the story. Adventure, ho.

However, I would say that Card is one of the most influential writers in terms of where the genre is today. He gave us a magic boy character. Oh, sure, Ender is actually a genius, not magic, but the archetype is still there. And, more than anything else, this trait will influence the dystopian trends of today. Although the trends of today may just be miming Harry Potter, not Ender, so I don’t really know.

"Yer a special main character, female-Harry."

“Yer a special main character, female-Harry.”

Also, Card is kind of a bigot, but that’s extrinsic to the quality of his work. I just had to address that elephant in the room.

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Moore, on the other hand, is far to the left of conservative, Mormon Card. Moore is an anarchist who believes in wizardry. And, when I say anarchist, I neither mean rioter or dork-with-an-A-symbol-hoodie. I mean that Moore is philosophically in-line with Bakunin and Bookchin and Dorothy Day and the band Chumbawama. And, he uses his work to illustrate his politics and philosophy through the pop-art of graphic novels. Does it work? Hell’s yeah! I may like Clockwork Orange best of these novels, but Moore is the writer I have read the most. It’s not just that he managed to seamlessly melt literature and comicbooks into one glorious pop-art entity, like some superhero Warhol. It’s not just that he mixes pop-culture with philosophy. Oh, no, he’s also just kind of brilliant. That’s all. Just a great, great writer with smart, intellectual plots, and memorable characters.

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So, what’s so dystopian about Moore? Well, his most obvious and purest dystopia is V for Vendetta, but I would argue that The Watchmen is also a dystopian story. In V, the future is ruled by fascism, and the titular antihero works as a vigilante against the Nazi-esque government. This sounds straightforward, and in lesser hands (like, say, the makers of the V for Vendetta movie, which sucks), it could easily be pretty simplistic and stupid. However, Moore understands perhaps more than anyone else in his medium the idea of moral grays. V fights against a government that is undeniably evil. But, he does so through acts of terrorism, and he quite literally tortures an innocent.

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He is chaotic anarchy personified, the first wild blasts against the armor of a dictatorship. The evil empire of the story is also more interesting than the parody of the Bush administration in the movie, although one would be crazy not to realize that it is also a parody of the Thatcher administration. But, more than any specific leadership, the rule is one of fascistic abstraction: limited communication, 1984 style Big Brother, curfews, control of the populace, Nazi-like concentration camps, theocratic corruption, censorship, control of the media. V’s fight can be seen as both a necessary attack on evil, and also a morally ambiguous action of someone who commits atrocity because he has no army. Interestingly, the same may be said for many people called terrorists today, which leads to some very interesting questions about who we root for. Do we root for V’s actions, which can be legitimate terrorism, if we see the trappings of Hitler on the enemy? Furthermore, how much of V’s vendetta is personal, based on his own experience in a concentration camp? The end, with Evey Hammond donning the iconic mask, says that anarchy, as an ideal, will go on, but in the hands of the gentler, the post-revolution proletarian rule.

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The Watchmen is also a dystopia, if one doesn’t become too fixated on the superhero aspect. The story parallels actual history, and asks how much freedom are we, as a society, willing to give up for protection. And, after we have protection, who protects us from the protectors. Who watches the Watchmen? That is the central theme of the story, and one which, in a world of government spying and other miscarriages of justice, feels all the more apt.

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So, if you can’t tell, I really, really, really love these graphic novels….

Also, Ayn Rand wrote Anthem. So, honourable mention, even if it is by Rand. It’s actually not bad. Like, at all. Even if you hate Rand, it’s a pretty decent retread of the ideas in We. It’s not extremely influential, but it’s a decent, little book.

So, my purpose of outlining these books is to note that dystopia has a rather varied past. Which really begs a very important question: why do they so often sound exactly the same now?

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And why, if I love many of these novels, do I kind of dislike the genre as a whole?

Well, first of all, I am going to posit that we, as a reading populace, have sort of forgotten what dystopia means. I don’t just mean writers passing off vague apocalypses as dystopia, just to create an easy baddy for our preternaturally sexy protagonist. I mean that as readers we have forgotten how to read a dystopia. For one thing, dystopias are not prophesy.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

Pictured here: Not dystopia.

They are not predicting the future. They are, instead, focusing on a problem in the era of the author and discussing it through science fiction as a sort of metaphor or analogy. 1984 is analogous to problems in the USSR, for instance. Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the problem with losing books and great thought. But, even beyond this, many issues in dystopian classics are not about a particular power, but about individual problems, problems which readers may even find within themselves. Have we stopped reading great works? How do we judge the actions of others? How to we value freedom? What would we do?

"Which boy do you choose?" isn't actually a dystopian issue.

“Which boy do you choose?” isn’t actually a dystopian issue.

And, I think that the personal aspect of dystopia, the part which makes Alex such a compelling and frightening character in Clockwork Orange, this is the part that has been excised from reading. Instead, dystopia has become the biggest nail-biting, pants-wetting act of hysteria since people realized they could call all their enemies Hitler.

Stop me if you’ve heard this, “So, lyk, my political opposition is like Big Brother! Or, the people I disagree with are like Brave New World! Also, The Hunger Games is going to happen!”

Yeah… isn’t that all-too-familiar? How often to we hear horribly lame excuses like this, “I wanna say [insert extreme racial slur] without ever being questioned ever! Because people might question me or not want to hire me, that’s New Speak! Political Correctness is New Speak! I am entitled to be hired, even if my rampant racism makes me the very opposite of a team player!”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re on the brink of being shot as a First Amendment hero for your brave use of the n-word. Nevermind that even Westboro ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead Baptist has been legally protected as free speech, this status affirmed in 2011, so that the most hateful of speech is legal in the US. Nevermind that you’re not entitled to, say, getting paid piles of cash to say whatever you want to a major TV audience (*cough* Duck Dynasty, you’re not constitutionally entitled to a reality show *cough*). Nevermind all that. Some New Speak law is comin’ ‘round the bend, yo!

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Furthermore, what is interesting is how vague dystopias have become and how both sides gleefully use dystopia to say not, “Hey, let’s talk about our problems!” but “OMG, that’s exactly what my political opposition will do!!!! Run for the hills whilst pissing yourself dramatically!”

Perhaps there is no greater example of this trend than the way in which people read The Hunger Games. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Hunger Games became this popular. It capitalizes on two extremely popular tropes: a magic boy (or, in this case, extremely talented girl) archetype, and the love triangle of teen angst. It’s the natural offspring of Harry Potter and Twilight, two of the biggest publishing trends of the entire history of print. (Wrap your mind around that for a while…)

What many people seem to forget while thinking about which HP character they would want to date and which Hogwarts house they’d like to be in, is that Harry Potter is actually pretty political. The story may be about a magical boy who does magical things in a charmingly magic place (and, I’m not making too much fun, because I actually do like this series). Harry Potter is also about an evil ruler with a racist agenda, classist and racist issues in the wizarding world, the problem of media control, and even government corruption. For a story that started out with a wee orphan boy learning that he is magic and getting a fluffy owl friend, it ends with a huge bloodbath surrounding an anti-racism resistance of young people forming basically vigilante bands.

Thank, JKR… That was… exactly how I wanted to end my kiddie reads session. With horrific slaughter and attempted genocide. Happy reading, kids!

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War... Happy reading.

The magical world of Harry Potter. Book 7: Harry and the Harsh Reality of War… Happy reading.

But, again, this kind of ending, and the maturing of the HP audience, mixed with their sudden interest in love triangles and escapist romance, made for the perfect meld for The Hunger Games. We were, as a world, apparently okay with seeing massive child-murder, and were also a little excessively jacked about the young vigilante groups. And political revolution in general.

Feel the magic.

Feel the magic.

The political climate has been one of resistance and revolution. Even the conservatives have adopted revolutionary rhetoric. And, we, as a society, were getting really comfortable with being doomsdayers. Religious apocalypses, ecological doom, even facebook all had write-ups about how doomed we were in our doomy doom. And, with a pre-existing template called Battle Royale (which is just better, sorry), it’s really not shocking that the story of a talented main character girl in a dark, scary world of evil would have a love triangle while kicking ass. That’s like the least shocking trend ever.

What is shocking is our lack of sophisticated reading. Both the left and right have had this weird argument about whose enemies are more like the dictatorship in this teen adventure series. What is even worse is how happy these people apparently are in seeing themselves as, well, the victims.

And, here’s where things get stupid. Well, stupid-er. Because we’re already arguing whether or not the right or left are the big baddies in a children’s book series, which is already pretty dumb. But, apparently, some people are actually arguing that The Hunger Games, a teen love-triangle story based on a pre-existing Japanese novel about media violence, is actually going to happen.

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And this is really where I start to have a problem with dystopia, as a whole. I am not the first person to point out that our society’s obsession with dystopia is actually pretty narcissistic. Oh, our problems today are just so much worse than ever, ever before? And, really, when confronted with this, many people have told me, Yes. They do believe this. Furthermore, they believe we are either in a secret, unknown dystopia now, or about to go into one, and then they scream about Hitler, because reading history, like reading legislation, is less fun than screaming. Yep, today we’re worse off than the victims of slavery,the Holocaust, the Gulags, the Cultural Revolution, and the Black Plague –combined. Not because we’re suffering. Most of these people are very comfortably situated in a privileged class, because those who aren’t don’t have time to argue about dystopia. No, because something bad is going to happen. In the future.

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The trouble with dystopia as a trend is that it really isn’t doing justice to these authors in context, or doing justice to the books themselves, or being literary at all. Dystopia, especially dystopia that allows one to insert themselves as the hero and their political opposition as the enemy, is escapism. We are imagining our own martyrdom and delighting in it.

" You've got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What's say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it." Christipher Titus

” You’ve got life on backwards, come here let me flip it, there see, now your past is behind you. What’s say you climb down off the cross use the wood to build a bridge and get over it.” Christopher Titus

We aren’t escaping from reality to enjoy a magical adventure with Harry and buddies, or even a silly romance with sexy vampire boys. We’re escaping to imagine ourselves as heroic martyrs in a world of extreme violence, and to imagine our suffering at the hands of people whose politics we don’t agree with.

 

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn't vote for my candidate.

The main character is me, the hot boy is my crush, and the bad guys are anyone who didn’t vote for my candidate.

 

Okay, so that kind of freaks me out.

I don’t really blame the authors, anymore than I blame Burgess and Kubrick for copycat Clockwork Orange crimes, or think that American Psycho is the reason we have spree killings. I think that Collins wanted to write a smart story about the media, and, in fact, the games themselves were inspired by reality shows like American Idol, not by any legislative policy. No, I blame our poor readership, obsessed with escapism, obsessed with characters whose skin they can fill, and unable or unwilling to read more intellectual texts which may put history and culture into some kind of context. It may sound harsh, but I think we read very poorly.

And, I think that this obsession with dystopia has fostered a breeding ground for serious paranoia. Remember how I said I would get back to Card’s politics? Well, he may write fiction, but he also thinks about the possibility of a “satirical” (but totally possible, and Obama is evil) future, where youth police the streets and we live in a dystopia. And, the fact is, when your rationale comes from a reading body that mostly consists of teen books and stories about doom, and not much fact-checking or study, there is no dystopian possibility that seems too insane or remote.

Whaaaat? It could happen!

Whaaaat? It could happen!

I’m sorry if I’m coming down hard here, but there is a reason. Here’s the thing, if you believe your enemy is evil, is going to make kids fight to the death on TV, is Hitler, is the devil, then you are justified in your mind to do whatever you want to this enemy. After all, you’re a hero. You’re preventing Nazi-1984-Hunger Games-Voldemort! So what if that person is totally innocent NOW. This is NOW. Now is just before the dystopia. In the future, that person will be guilty, so any pre-emptive strike is justified.

And, this is why I like dystopias like Clockwork Orange and sci-fi like Minority Report, and the works of Bradbury and Moore, better than other examples. I don’t like examples where evil is because of a big bad. Even if the stories have subtle dissensions from this, that’s clearly not what readers are getting. This is even worse, to me, when the evil is a specific group that isn’t actually doing this evil. Now, if your group is the Nazis, that makes sense. They did do these horrible things. But, if your group is liberals, conservatives, Christians, Jews, Muslims, gay people, feminists, et cetera, then you run a risk of paving the way for pre-emptive strikes against them. This is why I don’t even like Atwood, despite her acclaim, because I think it breeds bigotry against religious people who haven’t actually done the terrible things in the novel. And I don’t like Michael D. O’Brien’s Children of the Last Days series, because it specifically says that liberal media is covering up for an evil dystopia of left-wing, gay, feminist, Satanic, hippie, Gaia-worshipping Nazis (yeah… he has a lot of axes to grind, I guess…). It’s all based on “what if…?”. I don’t like “what if…?”.

In Burgess’s novel, Alex is our narrator, our guide, and we see the world through his eyes.

His scary, scary eyes...

His scary, scary eyes…

We sympathize with Alex, the raping, murdering, thug. We sympathize and this makes us question ourselves, morality, freedom, and the evil that we ourselves could do without choosing to do right. We all have a choice.

Dystopia too often becomes shorthand for lazy political accusations based more on personal feeling and emotional gut-reactions to people and parties we dislike, than it is used for helpful social critique.

We talk a lot about remembering history, almost always in reference to remembering that Hitler was a thing and so therefore Hitler is everyone the speaker dislikes. I say, remember all of history. There’s another scary, bloody era that we might want to recall: The Salem Witch Trials. And, this talk of dystopia and preemptive strikes has far more in common with that than with any heroic rebellion against any teen series baddy.

Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

Remember, the people who killed witches and burned devils and werewolves were also afraid, and trying to protect themselves. But, in the end, they are the ones we remember as the monsters. So, the next time you want to call someone Hitler, ask yourself: Has this person started a genocide and invaded countries, bringing about a World War? If the answer is no, chances are good that this person isn’t Hitler, or a dystopian villain, or a witch.

paranorman

 

And chances are, the one you fear is just as scared of you as you are of him.

And in that dreadful place Those spooky, empty pants and I were standing face to face! I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked. I howled. I yowled. I cried, “OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!” But then a strange thing happened. Why, those pants began to cry! Those pants began to tremble. They were just as scared as I! I never heard such whimpering And I began to see That I was just as strange to them As they were strange to me! So… I put my arm around their waist And sat right down beside them. I calmed them down. Poor empty pants With nobody inside them. And now, we meet quite often, Those empty pants and I, And we never shake or tremble, We both smile and we say…”Hi!” -Dr. Seuss

And in that dreadful place
Those spooky, empty pants and I
were standing face to face!
I yelled for help. I screamed. I shrieked.
I howled. I yowled. I cried,
“OH, SAVE ME FROM THESE PALE
GREEN PANTS WITH NOBODY INSIDE!”
But then a strange thing happened.
Why, those pants began to cry!
Those pants began to tremble.
They were just as scared as I!
I never heard such whimpering
And I began to see
That I was just as strange to them
As they were strange to me!
So…
I put my arm around their waist
And sat right down beside them.
I calmed them down.
Poor empty pants
With nobody inside them.
And now, we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble,
We both smile and we say…”Hi!”
-Dr. Seuss

Literati outrage of the day.

Outlit C

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The Fascinating Badness of The Host (movie review)

For those of you who have lives and don’t obsess over film lineups, let me tell you something. 2013 kicked so much ass. It was a great year for film.

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We had one of the most honest and compelling stories about slavery and race ever put on film. We had a love story about humanity’s tenuous relationship with technology and where that leaves us as a species. We had the Coens doing a music-based period piece. We had a visually spectacular (if screenplay-challenged) space drama that has literally transformed the way we can even talk about cinematography. Disney hit it out of the ballpark with their most cohesive animated picture of what people are kind of stupidly calling “New Disney” (but I’ll get to that later). And that’s just looking at the really obvious pics. Miyazaki was back. We had The Wolf of Wallstreet. Matthew McConaughey shocked everyone and made it like his big, bad year of the Matthew in Matthew land (seriously, who would have guessed?).

 

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Blue Is the Warmest Color enchanted and shocked everyone. Man of Steel was, at least, hugely controversial in the tentpole community, dividing critics and audiences into raging fanboys of pure wrath. We had Frances Ha, A Touch of Sin, Nebraska… Sophia Coppola made a film, and so did Soderbergh.This year made us discuss civil rights, the human person, love, desire, and the fact that you may not actually be as talented as you think you are. Even our biggest financial hit was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which, despite being in a trend I really loathe (I keep trying to write a post about my problem with dystopia, but it’s not ready) was still pretty smart. But, this was the year that gave us experiments like The Act of Killing, and hard-hitting documentaries like Blackfish, and it marked the year former Disney stars joined with the guy who made Trash Humpers to recreate what I can only call a pop-music vision of hell!

Spring-Breakers-film-by-Harmony-Korine

And, from the looks of things, 2014, what with its Lars von Trier-ism and Wes Andersonianism, among other things, will be pretty damn cool.

But, in the midst of all this, there was a strange, mega-flop movie. A strange, strange, little trainwreck that I can’t really understand. It topped multiple worst lists for 2013. It was adapted from an infamously bad YA novel. It is The Host.

Even the poster is bland as wonderbread. That takes talent.

Even the poster is bland as wonderbread. That takes talent.

Spoilers a-plenty, folks!

–And my friend and I just had a conversation about this, so I’m going to blog about it for no other reason.

What is with this movie? Where do I even begin? For one thing, any movie so roundly hated by critics is, in my book, intriguing. Just how does one fail so greatly?

Being the Paul W.S. Anderson of literature helps...

Being the Paul W.S. Anderson of literature helps…

But, what was even more intriguing was the fact that there is a vocal minority who really love the movie. And, even more than this was the fact that I could not really look away from what I saw on screen. I heard from many critics that it was bad because it was utterly devoid of interest, and while I agree that the script is flaccid, there isn’t any real tension or drama, and nothing exactly happens, I wouldn’t say that it’s uninteresting. It’s too awkward to be uninteresting, like watching someone deliver a really bad speech, or being stuck in an elevator with a sobbing stranger.

For the apparent majority of the world who did not see this movie, The Host is a film with a glorious 8% approval rating on RT (no, really), and follows the story of Melanie. She lives in a prettied-up, typically YA version of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers universe, where aliens have come down to earth and done the whole body-snatching bit. But, instead of pod people and scariness, we have ancient, glowing starfish creatures from beyond worlds and a whole lot of meh. The glowing starfish aliens have inhabited human bodies and ended all conflict, resulting in peace and cleanliness, a situation which never ever makes the heroes question humanity or free will. Seriously, it’s like if in A Clockwork Orange no one ever really questioned the part about the Ludovico Treatment that stopped Alex from killing and raping, and therefore gave us a meaty moral quandary to begin with. Kind of hard to ignore that aspect, once you bring it up, but it’s never addressed. In fact, once on earth, most of the aliens are pretty passive, even to the point of blindly believing one another like the characters from the rightfully-forgotten, utterly-stupid Invention of Lying.

But, Melanie, you see, is not alone. She is a heroic, baby-brother-saving, loving, kind, personality-free bundle of attractiveness, and she gets captured by the not-pod people. They put an alien in her head, an alien with the incredibly unoriginal name of Wanderer. But, Melanie, through the same specialness that stops Edward from reading Bella’s mind but never gives Bella any active personality traits, overcomes. She doesn’t vanish, and now we have two minds in one body, and Melanie is out to find the last of the humans while Diane Kruger-Javert pursues in her best Gap summer collection…

GAP, for all your clichéd "obsessed character" needs!

GAP, for all your clichéd “obsessed character” needs!

…and Wanda learns about love. Will Melanie get her body back? Will Wanda and Melanie ever understand one another? Will the survivors believe that Melanie exists or will they kill her for being a not-pod-person? Will little brother’s sudden injury make Wanda have to save the day like Lassie? And, more importantly, how will two minds in one body handle having two separate crushes on two hot boys? Whaa-whaa!

Two generically attractive boys?! Scifi adventure, ho!

Two generically attractive boys?! Scifi adventure, ho!

Yes, this is from the same author who brought you Twilight.

But, I’m going to try and be fair here. I think a lot of people just saw this as Twilight’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except with a love square instead of a love triangle. This isn’t exactly correct. And, I want to first say something about the infamous Stephanie Meyers. She is… about average. Really. In the demographic, that nebulous YA… thingy that everyone talks about, she’s nowhere near the bottom of the barrel. As a former librarian, trust me, there are so many worse books out there. However, few have become so ubiquitous and with so many obsessive fans, and without really offering a whole hell of a lot in terms of content or… prose style. It’s sort of become its own thing, outside of the whole paranormal love stories for teens trend, where you have people insisting that they are incredibly well-read for having obsessed over the series, (and fanfiction writers making their own horrific hits by adapting the story as a really lame erotic novel). So, while I understand the hate, and I really do, I think it’s sort of misapplied. A lot of people say that these books are terrible, but then go on to praise books that are just as bad, or even worse. People lament the lowering of reading standards, but then refuse to budge from this swamp of teeny romance adventures.

How is this in any way better than Twilight?

How is this in any way better than Twilight?

I leave you with this: If you A.) are reading great literature and find the influence of Twilight to be detracting from literary discussions, B.) a teacher trying to get students to read something else, or C.) a reader of highly intelligent children’s and young adult fiction who hopes to see trends change in favor of The Book Thief or Looking for Alaska, then you can complain. Although category C does not include readers of YA paranormal romance novels or thinly expressed dystopias that serve as a backdrop for love triangles.

So, that being said, I don’t hate Meyers as much as I get annoyed with ostensibly educated adults picking Twilight over Chronicle of a Death Foretold and The Unvanquished. Meyers is sort of incidental. And, for a writer who gained so much popularity in basically mainstreaming her subgenre, it’s actually admirable that she did somewhat mix up her formula. Which, she did. At least, judging from the movie. I haven’t read the book and don’t intend to.

I think part of what is facinating about the movie is that it actually has some interesting concepts. The story is about the emotional microcosmic effect of the Body Snatchers story, which could be interesting. The two minds in one body idea could have been very interesting, as well. There is a lot at stake for these characters, and how they grow to trust one another and what this might mean for them could be great fiction. There is a scene toward the end when Wanda (they do call her that) is going to sacrifice herself so that Melanie can be free, and the two become very emotional and call one another sisters, and this could be really moving except… we never see this. At all. All emotion is just told to the audience and we’re supposed to infer that it’s real.

This is why people say the movie is so boring. Which, technically, it is. The story takes a high-concept scifi plot, and it uses it to study these two characters and their relationship. It should be an intimate portrait of two literally alien minds finding unity, and not one that is out of place in today’s world. But, we never really get to see these characters at all. Bizarrely enough, the story is actually very much driven by plot, through some Hunger Games style tough-girl action, a cat-and-mouse pursuit, and other chase and action sequences. This is what propels the story and its changes, and the characters really only act or react based on these external forces. What is Melanie like? We hear about how strong and brave she is through others, and she does sacrifice herself for her brother at the start of the story. But, we only really get to hear about Melanie’s abstract goodness and see her do… things. But, what is she like? How is she strong? What is her personality? I have no idea. For that matter, what is Wanda like? She’s ancient and is supposed to have all this wisdom, but most of the dialog just sounds like two young girls getting catty, emotional, insecure, scared, or just exposition-dumping. Oh, and most of all, having crushes on OMG BOYS!

I wish you DID choose to love, instead of just telling the audience that you are in love.  Would have been nice, since this is apparently a central theme... OMG BOYS does not count as a romance.

I wish you DID choose to love, instead of just telling the audience that you are in love. Would have been nice, since this is apparently a central theme… OMG BOYS does not count as a romance.

And that brings me to the next and probably biggest issue of this film. You know how some really high-concept movies chose to use an emotion or a sense, or maybe a framing device, and it just doesn’t work on screen. Take the scent scenes in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. They’re awkward because the filmmakers can’t convey smell through the medium. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but these filmmakers can’t do it. Well, this story has a script problem that works like that. Melanie and Wanda share a mind, and so we are treated to a script which is dominated by Melanie and Wanda’s thoughts. And, for a film about their thoughts, it’s unfortunately not very interesting or revealing. Melanie doesn’t want to disappear, and she doesn’t want to do what the aliens want, and she doesn’t want Wanda to kiss her boyfriend. It’s not very revealing, and it sounds really funny to have this angry girl voiceover interrupting scenes with lines like, “It’s… crowded.” when thinking about how she feels with two minds. Wow, that’s really deep, Melanie. And, furthermore, this kind of writing always feels like it’s done by an amateur who thinks that her one-liners are so golden that they can replace any actual character development. Oh, snap! She said it’s crowded and she has two minds in her body! Ooooh, the brilliance!

But, the thing is, Melanie really isn’t that interesting as an independent person, either. Her scenes with her boyfriend are basically as follows: Escapee survivor Melanie runs into generically hot male survivor. He kisses her. She says that he must not have kissed anyone in a while. Next scene they’re together and an item. Then, she’s been taken. That’s basically all of her epic romance, and yet her memories of this romance are part of what make Wanda take her side. Why? Has she never taken over a body that kissed before? Wanda has taken over bodies before. Do they not have romance? Is that specifically human? What about the rest of the humans? Were their romances not romantic enough because they didn’t involve kissing on an abandoned sofa? What makes this romance special? Nothing! The story gives us nothing.

To illustrate, I, like all the many non-fans, really struggled with telling the difference between the two male love interests, Wanda’s and Melanie’s. I don’t remember one, single personality trait or attribute other than “kisses Saoirse Ronan” and “has hair”. And they both qualify for those traits. I THINK Melanie’s generi-boy was more angry at Wanda-ified Melanie than Wanda’s generi-boy, but that could have been the other way around because, in the end, they both have this weird romance thing going on with Soairse Ronan’s two-minded body. Wanda’s boy even asks if Melanie can step aside, aside in her own body, so that he can use her body to have an intimate moment with Wanda. The moral quandaries present in this are never, ever addressed, other than Melanie feeling jealous when her boy kisses her when it’s actually Wanda. The getting of boys is more important than the ethical issues.

That is basically the story. Melanie convinces Wanda to go with her so that Diane Kruger doesn’t put Wanda in a new body and kill Melanie, because Diane Kruger is a bitch in this movie. Oh, but her driven-like-Javert obsession and emotional outbursts that are totally unlike all the other not-pod-people hide a secret! Can you guess why this supposedly calm alien being would be so stressed out about an alien whose host is still there? What secret could that be?! Yeah, she has a host still there. It’s pretty obvious from the start, and there’s really no conflict about this. You just kind of know that this is the case, and then it’s revealed at the end and the audience goes, “Yup.” I don’t know if it was supposed to be a surprise, because they don’t dwell on it very long. It’s just kind of a thing that the filmmakers forgot about through most of the shooting.

Other than this pursuit, Wanda and Melanie find the survivors, led by William Hurt in his best Jeff Bridges impression. The story really just kind of fizzles out into… stuff. The people don’t trust her and want to kill her. For no apparent reason, Hurt lets her live. For no apparent reason, Melanie won’t let Wanda say that she’s still alive. She could easily tell Wanda things that only Melanie would know. Their lives are at risk. But, nope, she lets everyone she knows and loves think she’s dead, including her supposed one-true-love of this tale, and her beloved brother, because reasons. Maybe they are explained in the book, but not here. Then, people want to kill her, but then they don’t. I have no idea how Wanda gets a love interest, but it just happens. Melanie’s love interest kisses Wanda, and that makes Melanie mad, and somehow that tells love-boy that she’s still there, I think? I don’t remember how that worked. Eventually, they accept Wanda, but then the brother gets an infection on his leg because we don’t have time for character development. So Wanda and Melanie save the day by getting medicine from the aliens. Diane Kruger almost finds them, but doesn’t, but then she does, but then she fails and is sent away into outer space while her host is okay. Stuff just happens.

Mostly this stuff.

Mostly this stuff.

If you’re sensing that there’s not much of a central conflict, that’s because there isn’t. Most of the actions are not propelled by anything other than the assumptions people make about what stock characters should do. It’s sort of like the way fanfiction writers don’t need to provide their characters with motivation, because the characters come from a pre-existing source and the fans know how they will react in a given situation. This doesn’t work when you have original characters and they don’t seem to react at all, or at least not in a way that makes sense. And, the weird part is that this could be fixed. I think part of what is so fascinating to me, besides the way no one acts like a real person, is that the problems aren’t insurmountable. Melanie and Wanda should have more conflict, a Gollum-type struggle, except one that ends with this conjoined-twin style sisterhood. But, they opt to simply tell the audience what the characters are like and the interactions aren’t revealing. Often Melanie just says things like, “Oh no!” and other dull phrases we could probably just assume she would say. Wanda pouts, which is inconsistent with her character as an ancient, wise alien being, and says things like, “You’re angry when I kiss a man you do love, and you’re angry when I kiss a man you don’t. It’s very confusing.” Wanda, it’s confusing that you even love a different species, one which doesn’t look anything like you and has a much shorter life span and no personality, especially under these circumstances. Care to elaborate at all? We can literally hear your thoughts, and yet we don’t know them. Who is Wanda? She’s a collection of traits, but no soul, and her alien lifeform is LITERALLY called a Soul!

From the Avatar school of "shiny things replacing good visual design". Oh, the wonder...

From the Avatar school of “shiny things replacing good visual design”. Oh, the wonder…

The conflict between the survivors and Wanda could also have been fixed. Wanda could have risked herself to save conveniently-injured-brother-who-always-needs-sacrificial-saving at the beginning of her meeting with the survivors, thereby earning their trust. It’s cliché, but it’s better than, “Oh, Wanda, we trust you now! Because feelings!” Diane Kruger could have been a better threat, maybe actually placed them in real danger, maybe been believed by the other aliens instead of being kind of brushed off and impotent. The stealing missions (a weirdly minor plot point, considering that these serve as our action scenes for a lot of the movie) could have had higher stakes, killed characters we remembered, put people in grave danger. The brother could actually be torn up about seeing his sister but not having it be her, and that could be an emotionally strong part of the story. Instead, he just kind of exists so that Melanie can have someone to save, and then Wanda can have someone to save. The scene where Wanda gets the medicine could actually have some stakes. The aliens could not believe her. She might have had to sneak inside. She might have had to get past some security. There could have been tension, but instead it just works itself out perfectly and everyone goes home, and little brother is okay. Everything just resolves itself too easily.

And, this brings me to my biggest problem. The emotional core of the story should be Melanie and Wanda’s relationship as… I guess brain-sisters. They call each other sisters, and supposedly love one another by the end. I guess. I mean, they say they do, and that’s what counts for character development in this movie. People just say Melanie is strong and special, and Wanda is wise, and that people are in love, and that romances are powerful, and that Wanda and Melanie love one another. But, they never really show it. We just have long, drawn-out shots of the desert, which is probably one of the cheapest things a scifi drama could show us. Blade Runner gave us a neo-noir, space-age, Tokyo-influenced city.

bladerunner

Star Wars gave us multiple planets and space wars, and giant space stations that look like evil moons, and Cloud City.

Cloud_City

2001: A Space Odyssey gave us innovative space effects, prehistoric lands, new technology, and mind-bending visuals.

images

Paprika took us inside dreams.

paprika6

The Host shows us where they filmed Gerry. Adventure, ho.

And before you say, "But Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't take us to new worlds!" remember: THAT was a horror movie. It relied on humans not knowing what was happening and then finding out the truth. This is pure scifi, post-invasion, and does include scifi elements in technology and visuals. It has no excuse for being this lazy. Also, Invasion doesn't look lazy. Both movies. They're both more visually interesting.

And before you say, “But Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t take us to new worlds!” remember: THAT was a horror movie. It relied on humans not knowing what was happening and then finding out the truth. This is pure scifi, post-invasion, and does include scifi elements in technology and visuals. It has no excuse for being this lazy. Also, Invasion doesn’t look lazy. Both movies. They’re both more visually interesting.

No, the problem is that at the end Wanda is going to give up her life for Melanie. It should be a really sad scene, but the weight is lessened by the lack of character development. Still, Ronan is a good actress and conveys real emotions at this scene. It has some genuine stakes here. People aren’t just doing stuff that fizzles out and becomes nothing. This is the big, emotional core, the conflict, the ethical dilemma. I thought, “Okay, movie. I didn’t like you, but this is something. You’re being daring. Way to go. Life isn’t a pretty package where everything resolves itself, like in Twilight. Actions have consequences and reactions, and the consequences of Wanda’s epiphany about humanity and the value of life means that she cannot also have a teeny-fantasy ending with a cute boy and all and… no.” Nope, at the very end we have deus ex random-dead-hot-chick, and Wanderer gets a new body without any moral obligation to the previous owner. Nevermind that her boyfriend is apparently okay with making out with the dead girl they had just moments before. Yeah, that’s not creepy. At least Wanderer can have no consequences or emotional stakes. And, hey, good thing that corpse was hot and all. And of age. And not elderly. And female. Bam! Conflict gone! And in the end they find other aliens and humans living happily together as they have learned to do, and it’s all going to be okay.

Thank God we had this dead Emily Browning on hand, or else Wanda might have had to live in a yucky, not hot body! That's the real tension here, folks.

Thank God we had this dead Emily Browning on hand, or else Wanda might have had to live in a yucky, not hot body! That’s the real tension here, folks.

Now, I actually do like one part of this story. I like that in Meyer’s books she foregoes killing all the baddies to solve everyone’s problems. I think that killing all the baddies is a horrible lesson for young readers, especially when creating a group or race that is just bad and okay to slaughter.

They're ugly and not obviously Western, so kill them with impunity.  Slaughter their families. Who cares?

They’re ugly and not obviously Western, so kill them with impunity. Slaughter their families. Who cares?

I like that the aliens are just kind of confused and living as they know how. I like that Wanda is good. I like that most of the aliens are not as obsessed as Diane Kruger. I like the message of peace. But, Meyers doesn’t know how to express this message in a way that still retains storytelling drama. The Twilight “Saga” builds up to a climactic battle that just kind of fizzles out, and our protagonists never actually have to work for their happy ending. In The Host, Wanderer doesn’t die, the alien’s peaceful reign is never expounded upon, how aliens and humans can live together if aliens have murdered most of humanity (at least their minds) is never explained. At one point in the story, Wanda discovers that humans have been cutting out aliens and killing them, in order to free the human hosts. But, after a brief emotional breakdown and a, “How could you?” moment, that’s resolved. People say sorry, and that’s it. Wanda has literally been living right next to a room where her people are being cut apart, and she pretty quickly understands. Conflict isn’t important. It’s just kind of left alone, and we’re not expected to care because the cute girls got the cute boys in the end.

That is Meyers’s real interest: her romantic fantasies. That’s her focus, that’s the cause of all character motivation, and that’s what interests her. And, sure, it’s okay to be obsessed with young romance above everything else. If you’re young. And have a major schoolyard crush. And are Tina from Bob’s Burgers. Otherwise, grow up, writers and audiences. You give us ethical dilemmas and ideas, but you leave us with OMG BOYS! That isn’t good storytelling. That’s Tina’s erotic friendfiction.

Tina-Belcher

Like Tina’s stories, this is more about how cute people are and how much they want to kiss (or, in Tina’s case, pinch butts). This isn’t even a romance, as it tells us nothing about the nature of love. This is a middle school rush of hormones.

The story alone, however, isn’t why this is awkward. It is a huge part, true. Meyers does like to forego all storytelling in favor of cute young people making out, and the alien invasion becomes backdrop for another of her weird romantic fantasies. However, the way the movie tells the story is also very strange. Like I said before, the voiceover is unintentionally funny… until it becomes annoying. Melanie and Wanda never seem to say anything very important or interesting. But, beyond that, we have a lot of scenes where the director just cuts back to Diane Kruger looking intense and wearing all-white clothes. I guess this is to remind us that she still exists, since her threat of pursuit is pretty unevenly handled. So, many of these cut-aways are just pointless shots of Diane Kruger in the desert. However, important emotional scenes and character development are rushed over in favor of explaining how the survivors grow wheat and… more shots of the desert.

"I'm still in this movie, right? Do I have a scene? No? Okay. Send my paycheck. I'll be in my trailer drinking campaign and waiting for the next time Tarantino calls me."

“I’m still in this movie, right? Do I have a scene? No? Okay. Send my paycheck. I’ll be in my trailer drinking campaign and waiting for the next time Tarantino calls me.”

And this is another thing. This movie looks terrible. I mean that in the extreme. For some strange reason, I have heard fans say that this movie is beautiful, but I think what they mean is that the actors are beautiful. Or, maybe they are so used to sloppily color-filtered, CGI explosions a-la Michael Bay that they are actually enchanted by clear imagery and takes that last longer than two seconds. Or maybe they have seen every previous film in their entire viewing history on a very small cellphone and only now have witnessed a movie on a big screen? I have no idea, because the movie does not look good. The director is Andrew Niccol, and he’s not a stranger to directing scifi. He did Gattica, and he wrote and co-produced The Truman Show. But, this film just falters. The use of the desert feels beyond cheap, never even exploiting the dramatics of the landscape, and the cave sequences look like the cheapest and least believable sets.

Gee, this looks SO real! It looks like a perfect representation of a low-budget set from 1972!

Gee, this looks SO real! It looks like a perfect representation of a low-budget set from 1972!

They are so boring and uninspired, and never once reflect any of the interest or even visuals of being inside a cave. It looks like of like a play structure in a dinosaur-themed amusement park, but without dinosaurs. It looks like it was thrown together in a week with some plaster and spray paint. The most interesting things that we see are wheat and wheat production, and some glow-worm things. None of this is interesting, and the GC moments feel very obvious. The flashbacks are shot in this corny, golden light, so swoony that you’d be forgiven for thinking a freeze-frame was the cover of a romance paperback.

Yes, this is exactly what I would do if I were being pursued by aliens.

Yes, this is exactly what I would do if I were being pursued by aliens.

Furthermore, the pacing and editing are so listless that many of these scenes feel like they should just be cut. They don’t create atmosphere, because we aren’t seeing anything all that interesting (other than a very cheap shooting location and a very cheap set), and they do nothing to further the plot because there is no conflict.

Now, I love a good, low-fi, low-budget, little picture. And, if the director wanted to make that, that could have been interesting. But, these movies, like, say, Wendy and Lucy or Wristcutters: a Love Story or a Dogma 95 production must rely on a strong understanding of visual language, and powerful emotional and/or intellectual cores that keep the viewer invested in the piece. Wendy and Lucy has beautifully composed shots and a gritty, unrelenting realism that propels the plot and heightens the emotional outcome.

Also, shot composition. Learn about it.

Also, shot composition. Learn about it.

Wristcutters uses its minimal special effects to a quirky advantage, to create a world just off-kilter enough to me fantastical, and also has a snappy, smart, funny script.

Another movie filmed in the desert in an "off" version of our world. It can be interesting.

Another movie filmed in the desert in an “off” version of our world. It can be interesting.

The Dogma 95 movies, and semi-Dogma films (I don’t always know all the rules) follow a specific aesthetic code and use their low-fi look to create an intentional effect meant to force viewers to question and contemplate the moviegoing experience.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves

If The Host wanted to be a small picture, it needed to be much smarter, tighter, and more emotional, and actually do something with its technique, instead of mime the action sequences and romance scenes of other movies.

I kept thinking that the book must be really short and so the director didn’t have much story to work with and had to fill in the gaps with scenery. However, it turns out the book is enormous. I wondered why the director would spend so much time on nothing at all when there is so much book to cover. Then, I remembered it’s a Meyers book, and that means probably 800 pages of story are devoted to the protagonist whining and to descriptions of hot boys. Because she really is Tina Belcher.

thehosttrailer

So, with a movie this bad, why do I find it so interesting? I think, in part, is how the concepts really should be so much better than they are. I like the paranoia of the original and 1970s versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so it stands to reason I would like to hear a new take (just… not this one). However, I also just find the awkward choices really intriguing. Why are all the conflicts resolved so quickly? Why isn’t there more tension or emotion? Why the voiceover that doesn’t actually tell us anything important about the character and yet never shuts up? Why cast two male leads who look so much alike? Why is the store just called Store? Did the aliens change it? Why? And, what is the tone supposed to be? It’s not romantic, because we don’t get enough development of our characters, and they don’t have any chemistry anyway. It’s not an action movie, because there is no tension. It’s not a character piece, because there isn’t any character development. It’s not really scifi, because it doesn’t explore its concept so much as create a reason to put two voices in Ronan’s head. It’s not realistic, however, as most people behave in a truly bizarre way, dictated more by what the plot just says they must do than by any natural action. Melanie needs more anguish over her helplessness, more conflict with Wanda, more passion and drive, and, for the love of moviemaking itself, a personality. Her romance needs to have more development so that it feels romantic, since it is what drives Wanda to action. Wanda needs to seem more like a wise, interstellar traveller and ancient being, and less like she has amnesia. She needs more conflict with what she believes is normal and right, and her new connection with Melanie, and she needs a lot more conflict when she finds out that her race is being killed by the survivors. Also, her interspecies romance must be explained and, again, be romantic. I’m not against love stories, but if this is a love story, give us love. I don’t want to see schoolyard crushes, and I don’t believe that an ancient glowing starfish from deep space would have such a crush. And, the survivors need to qualify just why they decide to trust Wanda. And Melanie needs to qualify just why she wants to be kept a secret, even at risk of her own possible execution.

Pictured here: not a replacement for character and story.

Pictured here: not a replacement for character and story.

I think this movie makes me want to fix it. That’s my best explanation for why it fascinates me so much, other than the uncanny valley feeling of watching actors portray totally unhuman emotional responses. I think this movie makes me annoyed because I think there is a need for this kind of story. I think scifi needs to be able to look at the interpersonal and the human, as well as the high concepts and imagination. I think that young adult stories need more messages of peace and integration, and solving problems through unlikely but gentle solutions. Sometimes the gentle touch really does solve everything. It can happen in real life. But, the story needs someone to tell it who is not obsessed with boys. This OMG, BOYS motif in YA fiction is really irritating. Just having cute boys around is not in and of itself a love story, and certainly not enough to carry a novel or a feature film.

Unless you’re Tina Belcher.

Then Tina grabbed Jimmy Jr.'s butt.

Then Tina grabbed Jimmy Jr.’s butt.

Outlit C.

 

Literature, Genre Fiction, and Loving the Bomb

I wanted to address some issues concerning “genre fiction”. In most book discussions, genre is a sort of nebulous figure. It can mean ideas of category, in such broad-sweeping terms as library collection labels (science fiction/fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, et cetera). It can be more subjective, however. For example, a lot of cross-genre stories have crept up where various YA fantasy elements have melded with other genres, like historical fiction or dystopia.

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk... I don't know...

A historical fiction, young adult, science fiction, alternative universe, steampunk… I don’t know…

Furthermore, readers in today’s media-saturated world often have very, very precise ideas as to what they want, often based more on a collection of tropes than on any clear idea of genre. Usually these can be picked out in a very TV Tropes sort of way: “I want a YA series with a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds anti-hero, who is also a Draco in Leather Pants character, who is in a love triangle with an All Work and No Play woman who is Conveniently an  Orphan, and a love rival Starving Artist who believes Ambition Is Evil…”

I think that this devotion to trope collection is often what prevents good literary discussion. When someone gives a very vague I -couldn’t-get-into-it excuse about a book, often it is because the person reads to fulfil a certain love of trope. With women, especially, I see a lot of readers who have a real romance for some blend of the Draco in Leather Pants and Woobies. For the uninitiated, these are TV Tropes terms for specific character types. The Draco in Leather Pants is basically what it sounds like, a hot badboy, like the 2004 version of The Phantom of the Opera or every love interest in every Cassandra Clare book ever.

Or Spike. Spike also works...

Or Spike. Spike also works…

The Woobie is a put-upon character that you feel sorry for and want to hug because nothing goes his way, which is often kind of a favorite for certain female audiences.

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme...

So, basically Angel, to continue a theme…

Audiences who really like to fix people, to be exact…

Woobie Destroyer of Worlds is when the woobie might, you know, destroy things. But not intentionally.

Frozen

Frozen

A lot of people really hate these tropes when applied to romance, saying that they encourage girls to get into bad relationships in order to “fix” someone. But, I’m not sure if that’s really fair. I think there is a sort of safety in living out the bad romance within the confines of fiction, and that appeals to people.

And some choose to express their fantasies in song...

And some choose to express their fantasies in song…

It’s also not just for women. Film Noir is laden with femme fatales, who could basically just be the female Draco in Leather Pants, and the idea of “taming” the wild woman isn’t too very different from fixing the bad boy, in my opinion.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

The Big Sleep, one of the greatest movies of all time.

However, there is definitely a subset of the population who really fetishize the tropes, intentionally seeking out books not for quality or enlightenment, but because they want to fall in love with angsty bad boys who would be good if only they had wub, sweet wub.

12751687

The romantic, angsty, dangerous love interest is named… Patch. That is hilarious…

This sets off my outrage.

Male readers often gravitate toward another wish-fulfilment fantasy, often with Chosen One narratives where a character is special and gets to have adventures and love and awesomeness because he’s just special. Eragon is a particularly dreadful example of self-indulgent wish-fulfilment writing.

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free!

All the literary credibility of a fanfic you could be reading online for free! (And, yes, I know that women read this trope, as well.)

I believe I mentioned a meme in a previous post, about how one reads to escape life, and I said how this is really a very irresponsible way to live. I think that a lot of these Chosen One narratives create a reading environment where literature is not about humanity or raising up ideas and culture, but rather abandoning reality like the children in the Ray Bradbury Story, “The Veldt”.

The problem with collecting tropes is that it often makes it very hard to talk about literature as literature. A lot of people really promote the idea of obsessing over a trope as a positive thing, like it is part and parcel of the reading experience. While it’s not wrong to really like particular tropes, a collection of tropes does not actually make a story. It’s how the piece is used. For example, dystopian tropes can be used well, or they can be…

200px-Modellandcover

There have to be better ways of talking about literature. What does the author address? What about the writing style? What are the questions the author is asking or answering? How does the author enter into the dialogue of art itself? A trope can exist in a really great piece of writing, and also in some abysmal pile of shit. It has no quality requirements. Again, see the picture above. No quality requirements.

Trope collecting is more about filling a certain emotional need, such as loneliness or boredom, and has very little to do with literature. And, sure everyone has emotional needs. Sometimes everyone needs a quick escape, a way to de-stress.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

I get mine from watching terrible, old horror movies, like Attack of the Killer Shrews.

The problem isn’t from these books. It’s totally fine to read easy books, or even terrible books. It’s no worse than watching TV or watching really bad horror movies about giant rodents. There is, however, a problem in only reading these books, from only being able to read these books, or from refusing to read anything else. No Draco in Leather Pants in As I Lay Dying? I guess it’s a bad book, then… Not as good as Clockwork Urban Angel Vampire Romance of Doom and Fate 7, which is clearly the real masterpiece.

"I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!"

“I never wanted to date any of these characters! What a hipster piece of trash!”

The idea of “genre fiction” is another misuse of the word “genre”. What does that even mean? I understand that literature is supposed to transcend genre, and there is this Sontag-fuelled argument about genre not being necessary to quality. However, I think that the popular notions about genre have really corrupted these ideas.

The problem is, I do agree with this: There is no good or bad genre. There are simply good and bad works of art.

Good vampire novel...

Good vampire novel…

Cornball crap.

Cornball crap.

Good science fiction series.

Good science fiction series.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

Hilariously bad John Travolta alien.

However, many people interpret that to mean: There is no literary fiction. There are simply entertaining and boring… whatever that means.

Art.

Art.

The trouble is that genre fiction has come to mean not “fiction that fits within a particular genre rather well” (something which is actually less clear than anyone seems to think), but it’s own thing. Genre fiction has become a blanket term for popular literature that usually has a low reading level, lots of action, snappy dialogue, and mass appeal. Very often, these books aren’t even strict, one-genre reads, like a YA fantasy historical romance, and are more defined by the tropes than by genre at all. Why do you think cross-genre selections of YA reads are devoted to love triangles? Because that trope, not any one genre, is popular.

Dystopia love triangle...

Dystopia love triangle…

Vampire and werewolf love triangle...

Vampire and werewolf love triangle…

Urban fantasy love triangle...

Urban fantasy love triangle…

Sort of like Modelland love triangle...

Sort of like Modelland love triangle…

Twilight with angels love triangle...

Twilight-with-angels love triangle…

Furthermore, good has been replaced by “entertaining”, which in turn often means “it has my favorite tropes and I am in love”. Entertaining doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with quality. Jangling keys in front of a baby can entertain that baby, but would probably not work on your boss.

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull...

I am wildly entertained by The Screaming Skull…

I think those who study pop-culture can definitely discuss something’s popularity and mass appeal in semi-objective terms, such as why The Avengers was generally beloved while Man of Steal is so divisive. But, it doesn’t automatically mean that one’s personal entertainment is a sign of goodness. Again, Screaming Skull. And, often entertainment comes with the ability to access the media.

If one cannot understand Shakespearian English, for example, one cannot be entertained by his plays, even though they are filled with exciting plot devices and timeless characters. And the funny part is that many works of literature actually do have the tropes that people love. If readers gave the books a chance, and put forth the effort to get through the pages, they might discover that…

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants...

Heathcliff is a Draco in Leather Pants…

Frankenstein's monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds...

Frankenstein’s monster is a Woobie Destroyer of Worlds…

You don’t actually have to get rid of your favorite tropes. They exist everywhere.

Most art, and that includes literature, is concerned with addressing humanity in some sense, in asking questions, in answering questions, and it participates in a dialogue with other artists, eras, cultures, as well as politics and social issues which concern the author and the audience. This isn’t boring. If this is boring, then life is boring. However, it isn’t as easy to consume as the fast-food reads that pack bestseller lists, and that makes some readers think it is boring. It’s not boring. It’s just asking the reader to do something. If we do not bring anything to the table or do any work while reading, what are we but consumers?

We're all monkeys!  (12 Monkeys)

We’re all monkeys!
(12 Monkeys)

And, again, not everything will interest every reader ever. That’s okay. That’s normal. But, never, ever being interested in anything that isn’t about sexy spies, explosions, chosen boys, woobies, angsty love, and more woobies, that’s just being obstinate. There’s a large portion of the population which is happy to laud privileged, well-to-do, educated people for being able to read basic stories in their native language by the time they are adults. I think this should happen by around age seven. No, no prize for you, college-educated person who only reads Twilight. If you were a child, maybe. Probably I would suggest that you read something else, however.

This isn’t to slight children’s and YA books. I’d praise educated adults for reading The Phantom TollboothSounder, Holes, Tuck Everlasting, Paper Towns, The Giver, The Book Thief, The Westing Game, Coraline, A Wrinkle In Time, A Cricket In Times Square, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Little Women, Alice In Wonderland, The Hobbit, Skellig, The Book of Three, House of the Scorpion, The Fledgling, The Neverending Story…

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

 I don’t think that quality is determined by age group. However, I won’t praise them for their ability to read, or for actually deciding to read –only for picking some damn good kids’ books. And, I certainly wouldn’t extend that praise to someone reading yet another Twilight knockoff, or ghost-written, mass-produced grocery store novel, or a dystopian version of America’s Next Top Model… gah! That book…

Read it if you want to, but don’t expect the world to bow before your ability to be literate by age 26.

Didn't Disney teach you anything? You get a medal when you save your country from unrealistically muscular invaders!

Summer Reading Contest Winner, 2013. She read three books, so we gave her China.

There are kids in refuge camps who are learning to read in incredibly hard conditions. College-educated, well-to-do adults, especially those currently in college, and especially those in college and not working, should not be praised for doing what they should already know how to do.  That is what college students should be doing already. It’s a unique environment where you can spend years learning as much as you like, with professionals there to help you along the way. Anything less is just ungrateful squandering of a great privilege. When one considers the sacrifices people have made for education, from enslaved people teaching themselves, to bravely fighting for education rights for all races, to women trying to get the right to education  throughout history, to the struggles of the poor to even attain higher education, to the journey of integrating people with special education needs, it seems a little silly to praise people for just taking advantage of being in an educational environment. That’s like praising someone for eating food while at a table full of food.

Eating: not always a really good idea.  (Pan's Labyrinth)

Eating: not always a really good idea.
(Pan’s Labyrinth)

Now, none of this is to criticize fandoms. These can be very good, fun, supportive groups which address great ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s something really refreshing about people who get excited about the things they love. It’s like this awesome John Green quote:

“…because nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. Hank, when people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is ‘you like stuff.’ Which is just not a good insult at all. Like, ‘you are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness’.”

And, surely it’s better than squandering higher education by being a generally useless person for four years.

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It's so hard to tell...  (Spring Breakers)

Undergraduates or characters from a movie by the director of Trash Humpers? It’s so hard to tell…
(Spring Breakers)

However, it’s not a problem of fandoms or really liking something. That is usually really positive. The problem is with being indiscriminate and not taking advantage of education. The problem is in conflating the ability to read for entertainment with being literary. Congratulations on your ability to amuse yourself, but don’t expect a medal.

Actually, the world of literature really can learn from the world of what people call “genre fiction”. That is, literature needs to learn to be more nerdy. We need to teach people to learn to love literature, and love it in that enthusiastic, omg-I-am-so-excited, wonderful way. Because, yes, it’s not about the genre. Books of any genre can be great literary works. But, the focus should be on the “great literary works” part. And the focus of teaching should be about WHY these are great. I think a lot of the reason for anti-literature reading habits come from educators who just failed at making literary works interesting. They created a gap between popular “genre” fiction and literature, and one which really shouldn’t exist. Very often, students are left in a sea of jargon, just trying to figure out what literary even means. This makes people forget all the literature that is exciting, beautiful, smart, fun, and interesting, that makes life more illuminated rather than offering a way to ignore life for a while.

So, stop worrying and learn to love the… literati-inclined, high-brow masterpieces.

strange09

Outlit C