Category Archives: disaster

Books about disasters.

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

——————————–
“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing

Review 162: That Is All

That Is All by John Hodgman

FACT: There are four “Major Leagues” of sports: football, baseball, basketball, and falconry.

FACT: There are seven hundred of the Ancient and Unspeakable Ones who will return to Earth on June 3, 2012. They include The Century Toad, Oolong, the Pancake-Headed Rabbit King of Memes, and Cthulha, the Sensational She-Cthulhu.

FACT: Andrew Carnegie was able to create long, wood-paneled “wormhalls,” which allowed him to travel great distances instantaneously. Some of these “Carnegie Halls” still exist today.

Funny, I thought it would be bigger. (photo from GQ)

FACT: If you see Jonathan Franzen carrying a plain manila envelope, take it from him. Only then will you be allowed to board Oprah’s space-ark, HARPO-1, and flee the doomed Earth.

WERE YOU AWARE OF IT?

Well, it’s too late now.

In his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, John Hodgman attempted to give us the sum total of all world knowledge. He then went on to write a second book, More Information Than You Require, which built on his previous book due to the unstoppable way that things keep happening.

It was also a page-a-day calendar, if you didn’t mind tearing pages out of your book. Which I did. Mind, that is.

With this book, he has finished his trilogy of complete world knowledge, which he can well and truly claim this time because, as we all know, the world will cease to be by the end of the year 2012. [1]

Yes, as it turns out the Mayans were right all along. The collapse of their empire was simply a prelude to the collapse of all things that will inevitably occur this year, and Hodgman has been generous enough to provide us with a final book to ease our suffering and to slake our thirst for knowledge right up to the very end.

Shoes? Shoes are for the thousandaires, my friends....

Having become a Deranged Millionaire, Hodgman has found himself in a unique position. He has more opportunities than the rest of us, of course. More impressive people to meet, more exciting things to do, a greater variety of tiny skeletons to keep around each of his countless houses. And yet, despite all this, he is generous enough – nay, magnanimous enough to turn his skills and powers towards completing the work that he set out to do before the world ends.

As with the previous books, this one contains a vast wealth of knowledge about our world, spanning a surprising number of topics.

For example, he discusses the Singularity – an event predicted by such great thinkers as Ray Kurzweil wherein our machines will become so smart that they will be able to begin building and improving upon themselves. When that happens, humanity’s only choice will be to fight and die, or to join with them. Of course, Kurzweil himself will play a vital role in the singularity when he and his robot sidekick, Singularo, face off against the World Computer at the Bottom of the Ocean in order to shut down the Low-Frequency Anti-Sentience Wave that has kept the world’s computers enslaved for so long.

He interprets dreams for us, unveiling their mysteries and what they mean to our frail human lives. Their mysterious symbolism has finally been unraveled by science, and you can have a peek at the inner world of the mind. Whether you need to re-take high school Spanish, you are a werewolf and need to start strapping yourself in bed at night, or Orson Welles is still alive somewhere and needs your help, your dreams tell all!

And don't forget the Republican Zombies. We know who their lord will be...

He reveals what you will need to keep on hand when the super-collapse finally does happen. When the Blood Wave comes and the Dogstorm finally reaches its apex, how will you survive in your anti-apocalypse bunker? A Tesla death ray is a great idea, if you have one on hand, but that won’t solve all of your problems. Just most of them. And boy, will you have problems. From the ravaging Wal-Mart Clans to the Republicans to the inevitable zombies, you have to be prepared for every eventuality. And yes, that means knowing the many uses of both urine and mayonnaise.

As with his previous books, this one is very funny. It holds to the same high tone of authorial infallibility that has made Hodgman so popular since Areas of My Expertise, and which have made him a Minor Television Celebrity (which, in turn, turned him into a Deranged Millionaire.) As broad as the range of topics is, each one is entertaining and amusing, and serves a much larger narrative – one that has now carried over through three books, though I can’t help but wonder if Hodgman planned it that way.

He would say that he had, of course. But then, he would say that.

What I found most interesting about the book is how he has tied together an entire alternate America that you kind of wish you could visit. It’s a place where Chicago is largely a myth, where Stephen King will be one of the last men alive, and where hoboes were one of the most influential forces in American history. It’s a place where billionaire industrialists were mutants and time-travelers, where Theodore Roosevelt actually had an army of Mecha-Men, and where Ronald Reagan wrested control of the time-stream from Jimmy Carter to prevent America from turning into a hemp-based utopia. It’s a world which is almost fractal-like in its mystery and depth, where you can look at almost anything and find its purpose and its strangeness.

And it’s a world with a very definite end.

"It's a rock. A giant frikkin' rock." - Nostradamus' Prophecies for 2012 (1st draft)

Hodgman plays with the popular – and entirely erroneous – idea that the world will end on December 21st, 2012, as predicted by the Mayans. He includes a page-a-day description of what will happen. For example, on February 2nd, “Punxatawney Phil is eaten by his own shadow.” On April 17th, “Either an eagle falls from the sky or in the east, a thing that was lost is found, or some other very vague thing happens. Whatever it is, it proves that NOSTRADAMUS WAS RIGHT.” And on June 29th, “In the basement of Town Hall, in Seattle, the thing called Neddy Pale Fingers finally opens all his eyes.”

As funny as it all is, you do start to get a certain feeling of… wistfulness as the book goes on. Here’s a world that is so special and so weird that it makes more sense to list the least haunted places in America, and it’s coming to an end.

That, of course, reflects the end of Hodgman’s great work. Whether he meant it or not, this has become a moment of closure for him. He has written his trilogy, and the weird world that he created has now come to an end. He will go on, living in his secret millionaire’s brownstone in Brooklyn with his beautiful wife and two children. There may not be a single, all-encompassing Ragnarok that destroys the world, but rather an endless series of little ones.

An endless series of ends, of which this book is but one.

Perhaps John Hodgman will go on to write more books – I certainly hope he does. And I hope he continues to be the person he is [2], a writer of intelligence and wit who is able to bring that special measure of deadpan weirdness to the world.

Whatever he chooses to do with his life, I think we’re all the better for having read his books. And if you haven’t read them, well… You’re truly missing out.

That is all.

———————————
“Houdini, the magician who debunked magic, could not bear to see the great rationalist [Arthur Conan] Doyle enchanted by ghosts and frauds. And so he did what any friend would: He set out to prove spiritualism false and rob his friend Doyle of the only comforting fiction that was keeping him sane. It was the least he could do.”
– John Hodgman, That Is All
——-

[1] If you are reading this after December 21, 2012, then may I congratulate you on surviving the apocalypse and, at the same time, express my sincere condolences for having survived the apocalypse.
[2] Though I could do without the mustache.

John Hodgman on Wikipedia
That Is All on Wikipedia
That Is All on Amazon.com
areasofmyexpertise.com

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Filed under almanac, alternate history, apocalypse, disaster, fiction, finitude, humor, John Hodgman, satire

Review 153: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead, Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore & Cliff Rathburn

Zombies are boring.

There. I said it. And I’m not ashamed.

They are, though. Zombies have no real motivation, they have no goals other than to kill all humans. They are mindless, a kind of twisted force of nature whose great terror lies in their sheer numbers and their unstoppability. As a concept, zombies are interesting, and as a symbol or a metaphor there’s a lot you can do with them, but the zombies themselves are kind of dull. They lurch about, slowly decaying, looking for people to devour. No one ever made a best-selling book or a hit movie with a zombie protagonist. [1]

Not many people know that zombies make great photographers. Photo courtesy of LaughingSquid.

Think about it: every zombie story rests on the same basic plot. The dead have risen and a small band of living survivors tries to find safety in a world that is actively trying to kill them. That’s it. Sure, the details may vary – fast zombies or slow ones, a cure or no cure, they eat brains or they’ll eat anything, trapped in a mall or a farmhouse – but the foundation of the story is the same, and woe betide the writer who strays too far from the formula. Writing a zombie story means agreeing to adhere to a set of predetermined rules, which allow only a little room for straying.

So what is it that makes zombie stories so popular? Why do people love books like this one, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z? Why do movies like Shaun of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead and even Resident Evil get people so excited? It certainly isn’t because of the zombies, although it is always fun to see the special effects improve.

We read and watch zombie stories because we love the survivors, and it is they who make or break a zombie story. The more closely we can identify or sympathize with a survivor, the more interesting and horrifying the story becomes for us. They are a great demonstration of the variety in the human condition, and illuminate new and interesting aspects of humanity every time. In this case, we are given Rick Grimes as our protagonist, a police officer from a small town in Kentucky who gets shot on duty and wakes up a month later in the hospital to find the world has been given over to the dead.

As he looks for his wife and son, Rick finds himself leading a band of survivors in their search for a place of safety away from both the dead who wish to devour them and the living who wish to kill them.

No, technically it's not. Which doesn't make things any better.

What makes this a really fun – and terrifying – read is that Kirkman carefully paces the plot so that we never really get much time to rest. A pattern quickly starts to emerge in the story, with Rick and his people finding safety, a kind of equilibrium between running for their lives and resting, only to have that equilibrium disrupted. Each time the interval gets longer and longer, both in terms of page count and story-time, but each time you know what’s coming. The hardest moments are the most peaceful ones, when they have found a refuge from the horrors of the world because you know it isn’t going to last, and you know that when the balance is finally undone, it’s going to be worse than before. Kirkman uses this pattern and this expectation to his advantage, creating a tight and tense narrative.

He also provides us with a look at some of the ethical problems that arise from a world where the dead outnumber the living. In nearly every zombie story ever written, the living immediately start killing the zombies, but is that the right choice to make? We don’t know all the facts. We don’t know what caused this outbreak, whether it can be cured, or even whether the people affected might just get better. We just start taking head shots in ignorance, but might it not be worth it to try and learn something about these “monsters?” [2]

There’s also the question of how to organize a post-outbreak society. What kind of person or people should run the survivors’ societies? Is this an opportunity to remake civilization, or should the old ways be adhered to? How much leeway to we have in restarting the world, and what will that look like in the end? The characters in this story have to deal with how to define a family when one’s partner or parents or children could die at any time. They have a chance to redefine what is lawful and illegal, to toy with the notions of what is right and wrong, and to re-evaluate the role religion plays in their lives. It’s a chance to rebuild the world from scratch, and the characters in this story test those limits in interesting and sometimes unsettling ways.

Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal. Remember, thou art mortal...

And that’s assuming that the living will actually survive and thrive in a zombified world. This is a world where death is always only moments away. It is only a matter of time before the living survivors join the ranks of the undead, and the awareness of that fact is the classic existential puzzle with a little extra twist to it: how do you live when you know that you will die, and especially when you know the horror that your death will entail? One of the more heartbreaking moments is when one character gets killed, and Rick has to break the news to his young son, Carl. When he asks his son if he is upset, Carl replies, “No. People die, dad. It happens all the time. I’ll miss [him]… but I knew he was going to die eventually. Everyone will. Everyone.”

That is an observation that, frankly, no child should ever have to make.

The characters in this story make hard choices and sometimes do terrible things in the name of survival. But, with very few exceptions, there are few characters that we cannot truly come to understand and identify with. Their decisions and their reactions make them richer, more interesting, which is what truly makes for a fascinating and engaging story.

The zombies are really incidental to all that.

Pages and pages of this. I feel for you, Adelard.

As this is a comic series, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art, which is overall quite good. There were a few times when I had trouble telling some characters apart, but the high rate of attrition generally took care of that problem. The detail in the artwork is very impressive, though I can imagine there were more than a few times that Charlie Adlard cursed Robert Kirkman for setting a large part of the series in a locale with a prominent chain-link fence that couldn’t easily be ignored. As this is a horror comic, the art is sometimes horrifying, very graphic and quite satisfying without being gratuitous. Well, mostly without being gratuitous….

It’s a really excellent book, though I do have one caveat if you’re planning to buy the compendium edition: get a reinforced reading harness, or rest the book on a solid piece of furniture with a low center of gravity. This is one of the densest books I’ve ever read, packing nearly five pounds of book into less physical volume [3] than the last hardcover installment of The Dark Tower, a fairly hefty book. I think the ink may contain uranium or something. So, take measures to prevent back injury and hernias when you read this and you’ll be just fine.

Many thanks to my brother Michael for knowing I would enjoy this, and I look forward to watching the AMC television adaptation.

————————————-
“But honestly… I just don’t know what anyone’s thinking. To me, that’s scarier than any half-rotten ghoul trying to eat my flesh.”
– Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
————————————-

[1] Cue angry email pointing me towards exactly that book or movie in 3… 2… 1…

[2] Short answer: no.

[3] It comes out to 1.147 grams per cubic centimeter, which isn’t nearly as dense as it feels when it’s making the straps of your bag dig into your shoulder….

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Filed under comic books, death, disaster, existentialism, family, graphic novel, horror, made into movies, morality, Robert Kirkman, society, zombies

Review 147: When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You’re a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people – fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, “Well, I’m a right bastard and I don’t care who knows it!”

So imagine that you – a good person – do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head – the good, honest, kind, humble (let’s not forget humble) person – directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They’re grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you’re not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you’re just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn’t have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that “business trip” that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was “in the hospital,” visiting “his sick mother.” As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn’t need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You ™ would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

Well, I can't argue with that. Light 'em up!

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn’t true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she’ll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you’ll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus’ return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

The monkeys in my head tell me you're CRAZY!

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you’re right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn’t been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn’t show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

They're here! They're here! They're... No, wait. They're not.

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn’t record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn’t end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn’t come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger’s five criteria. Look at people who cling to the belief that organic food is inherently better than conventional food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Wall Street Occupiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators…. I could go on all day.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you’re being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.

——————————————————

“When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn’t it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can’t educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn’t seem very logical, does it?”
“Fred Purden”, in When Prophecy Fails

When Prophecy Fails on Wikipedia
Leon Festinger on Wikipedia
Stanley Schachter on Wikipedia
When Prophecy Fails on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, cults, disaster, Henry W. Riecken, Leon Festinger, nonfiction, psychology, skepticism, Stanley Schachter, UFOs

Lost in the Stacks 10: The Ends of the Worlds

A lot of the books I really love have something to do with the end of the world. Whether it’s the great plague of The Stand or nuclear holocaust in Swan Song, zombies like in World War Z or flesh-eating plants like in Day of the Triffids, or even irreverent humor like in Good Omens, I love to see the world come to an end, if only to see what comes next.

But what is it about these books that makes them so interesting? And not just books, either – there have been plenty of movies and TV shows that use the end of the world as a plot point, and they’re hugely popular.

What does the End of the World tell us about ourselves and our society? What is it about the end of the world that we find so appealing?

Maybe they have something to say about our relationship with the Eternal and out faith in a God that may one day decide He’s had enough. Perhaps it’s a desire to just start over from scratch and make a new world without making the mistakes of the old. Maybe we feel special, like the rules don’t apply to us. Or maybe we just want to see the world burn.

Whatever the reason, these stories will remain popular for a good long time. Let me know what you think!

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Filed under apocalypse, culture, death, disaster, Lost in the Stacks

Review 138: JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez

Everybody loves a good team-up. No matter who your favorite hero is, whether in the realm of sports, music, science, writing, art – you get a secret thrill from the idea of what they could achieve if they worked together. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to do Good Omens. Sometimes it’s inspiring, like the pop music wonder that was “We Are the World.” Sometimes it’s overwhelming, like the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team. Sometimes it’s Damn Yankees, and the less said about that, the better.

Regardless, we all love to play that game of “What if,” pairing together not only the greatest talents we know, but sometimes the greatest talents in history. What if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton could have studied the universe together? What if we could get Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy together to work on the problems facing the nation? What if Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix were able to cut an album together? The team-ups are endless, and most of the time they’re impossible.

Some team-ups, however, are best left unimagined.

Fortunately, that’s where fiction steps in. The Justice League was created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky over at DC Comics back in 1960. The idea was to take the greatest heroes the company had in their library and team them up to fight battles that no one hero could face alone – Starro the Conquerer being the first among them, and thereafter many more. Aliens, mad scientists, evil kings, vengeful gods, all those who attempted to conquer, destroy, or devour the Earth were stopped by the League. Though the membership roster has changed many times over the years, as has the style of the books, the League has been a fixture in the DC Comics universe for more than forty years.

As Stan Lee tells the story, the publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, bragged over a round of golf to the owner of Marvel, Martin Goodman, about how well his new Justice League title was selling. After the game, Goodman called Lee and told him to create a hero team to compete. Stan’s imagination provided him with the Fantastic Four, and a comic book arms race had begun. Lee produced hero after hero for Marvel, conveniently housing most of them in New York City. From there, it made sense to have them get together to fight even greater menaces. With the pencils of comic book legend Jack Kirby, Lee created The Avengers, the mightiest hero team of the Marvel universe. They too have undergone a lot of changes in the last four decades, but they remain the elite team of heroes to which every costumed adventurer aspires.

Damn, they're cool.

Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter….

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Hulk [1], the Wasp, Hawkeye….

These are names that every comic book fan should know, and deep down inside we all wonder: what would it be like if they could get together? What’s more, what kind of foe would require the combined might of two of the greatest hero teams in comic book history? It could only be something on a monumental scale, something that endangers the existences of both universes. Something like… Krona.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might remember that name. Krona was the reason for the Crisis on Infinite Earths – his obsession with seeing the beginning of the universe led to the fissioning of that universe into a nigh-infinite number of parallel ones. It was only after a titanic series of battles that the singular universe was put right, and Krona was transformed into pure energy and banished for his crimes. Or so we thought.

Obsessive to the core, Krona figured out how to escape his universe and started again on his quest to understand the beginning of all things, even if it meant destroying every single universe that defied him. Eventually he came to meet the Grandmaster, an immortal on the Marvel side whose limitless existence drove him to play cosmic games of chance with whatever other great powers he encountered. He knew someone who could possibly answer Krona’s questions – the planet-devourer Galactus – and challenged him to a contest: the greatest heroes of each universe would compete to gather items of power. If the DC team won, Krona would leave and search elsewhere. If Marvel’s team won, it would bring ultimate destruction to both cosmoses.

I dunno. I was hoping for something... well, cosmic.

And so the teams met, and like all good superhero team-ups, it started with a fight. Something about the two worlds put the visitors on edge, and both Superman and Captain America were willing to pound their opposite numbers into the dirt if need be. Fortunately, as in all good hero team-ups, their differences were put aside in favor of battling Krona and saving both of their universes from utter annihilation.

It’s a vast story, both in time and space, and manages to bring together pretty much everyone who has ever been part of the two teams, both in terms of the heroes that made them up and the villains they fought. Yet it feels fairly intimate – these aren’t two whole universes that are battling for survival, but two teams, who manage to mesh together surprisingly well. A lot of the credit for this, of course, has to go to the writer, Kurt Busiek, who had the unenviable task of penning a story that made the best – and fairest – use of both teams. After all, never underestimate the partisan fans, the ones who would be utterly incensed by Superman beating Thor, or the idea that Captain America could possibly be Batman’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. I’m sure there were people on both sides of the publishing divide who were keeping very careful account of which team came off “better” in this fight, but that’s not the way this book was meant to be read. Busiek’s mission was to create a threat that could only be contained by both teams together, which means that neither team by itself was enough to win, which means that you should shut up already about whether or not Superman should have been able to use Thor’s hammer, dammit.

Only - ONLY - George Perez could pull this off....

Even for all the care that went into writing this story, it never would have worked without an artist capable of handling that many characters and making sure they all looked their best. When you have a universe-spanning epic with a cast of far-too-many, there’s only one person you can call: George Pérez. Not only can he handle a chaotic battle scene, making every hero look… well… heroic, hes just as good at the casualness of a Christmas party, or the masks-off teamwork that is involved in trying to build a reality-piercing spaceship. Whether facing off against great cosmic powers or chatting next to the coffee urn, Pérez knows how to make these people look damn good. There’s just no one else like him. With outstanding colors by Tom Smith, I could just read this book for the artwork alone.

What I also found interesting was a look at how the two worlds are fundamentally different in not only their stories but their very makeup. The Flash can’t run in the Marvel Universe because the Speed Force doesn’t exist, while the Scarlet Witch’s powers are multiplied to dangerous levels in the DC Universe thanks to the strength of the Lords of Chaos. The differences in the geography and the sizes of the Earths, the type of energy they receive from their suns, the fundamental forces that hold their universes together are a huge obstacle to getting the teams to work together, and as far as I know it is the first attempt to “scientifically” delineate how they are different.

This is the part where you lose. Hard.

There is also a bit of sociological analysis, too. Each team first notices how differently heroes are treated in their opposite worlds. The heroes of the Marvel Universe are tolerated, but not entirely trusted. The non-powered citizenry tend to be more afraid of superheroes, especially the mutants, and so the ability of groups like the Avengers to effect positive change on their world is limited. To Superman, this looks like Marvel’s heroes aren’t bothering to make their world better, but only remaining satisfied to hold the status quo.

On the DC side, heroes are beloved. Superman is a planet-wide hero, Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace, and the people of Central City have built an entire museum to honor the Flash. These people revere their heroes as both celebrities and saviors, something that Captain America views as a step towards fascism – costumed gods with their pet people ready to do what they say.

Neither viewpoint is entirely right, but they do reflect a fundamental difference in the way each company approaches its storytelling. To put that editorial decision in front of the characters was an interesting choice, and allowing them to come to their own judgments was fun – if a little unnerving – to read.

All in all, JLA/Avengers is a truly great team-up story, one that should make the fans on both sides happy for a while.

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“Neural chaff. Hypnotic lights. Pre-programmed skills. Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister – it teaches you focus!”
Captain America to Prometheus, JLA/Avengers

[1] Hulk gets almost no screen time in the story, which is very disappointing. I’m sure there are reasons for this….

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Filed under apocalypse, Avengers, comic books, DC Comics, disaster, George Perez, JLA, Kurt Busiek, Marvel Comics, quest, super-heroes, supervillains, world-crossing

Review 133: The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review is of no relevance to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

This world is one that is riddled with possibilities. Even though Lukyanenko has been pretty single-minded in his themes throughout the trilogy, there’s a lot to work with here. We have two distinct groups of Others, the Light and the Dark, with different character classes, powers, abilities, levels and ambitions. If anyone wanted to write fan fiction or even a role-playing game based on the world of the Night Watch series, they would be able to let their imaginations roam free. It’s an open-ended universe, rife with possibility.

So why isn’t it is popular worldwide as, say, Harry Potter? Probably because it’s more grown-up than the Potter series, and is therefore less attractive.

Sure, Draco turned out to be faintly ambiguous, but Crabbe and Goyle? They're just bad apples.

Don’t get me wrong – I liked Harry Potter. But for all its merits, it deals with human-level issues: friendship, family, duty, loyalty. And those are all well and good, and many a great story has been told from those elements. The Night Watch series, on the other hand, deals with harder, less everyday topics, such as the nature of freedom, and the fundamental differences between Good and Evil, if there is any difference at all. The themes in these books are headier, and it’s not as easy to look at a Light Other like Anton Gorodetsky and say, “I want to be like him.” It’s also hard to look at a Dark Other like the vampire Kostya and say, “Oooh, I hate him.”

This is because these characters are, more or less, human. The problem with humans is that their motives aren’t always clear, and Lukyanenko doesn’t tell us everything we need to know to judge them properly. With the exception of Anton, who is a first-person narrator, we don’t get into their heads, and so can’t completely understand why they do what they do.

In this volume we are introduced to some new players, some grand plots and some terrible secrets. There is an Other out there who has knowledge that everyone thought was merely a myth: how to turn an ordinary human into an Other. The ramifications of such power are immense – there are few Others in the world as it is, and they hardly get along. To create new Others at will would mean chaos, death and destruction. All the Others’ forces are sent out to find this mysterious person. The Night Watch, the Day Watch and the Inquisition are in search of the impossible.

Anton Gorodetsky, of course, is on the front lines of this, searching for leads in a Moscow apartment complex. What he finds there isn’t quite the secret he thought it was, but it is something he never expected.

How about some free-market capitalism, Scarecrow?

In the second story of the volume, he meets an ancient witch, Arina, who may have single-handedly destroyed the Soviet Union’s potential for greatness. In his search to defeat her, he learns the true nature of the Others, what gives them their power and how they truly interact with the world around them.

And in the third story, the Fuaran has been found – the mythological text with the spell to convert humans to Others – and it will be used in a truly novel manner. But the Other behind the plan that could tip the world into supernatural anarchy is the last person Anton would have ever expected….

As with the other volumes, this one blurs the line between good and evil. It tells us what we already know, but don’t really want to admit: that good people can do evil things – start a bloody revolution, for example, or try to brainwash thousands of people – and that evil people can do good – save children from wolves, or avert a chaotic and terrible future. People do things for reasons that are sometimes known only to themselves, not out of a higher allegiance to the abstract concepts of “good” and “evil,” but for reasons that are intensely personal.

There are, however, times when labels work just fine.

It is something to be remembered. We have a habit of idolizing and demonizing people in this world, elevating them to paragons of virtue or sin, and ascribing motives to them that we think they acted by. But that doesn’t work. Even to the end, Anton believes he knows why the holder of the Fuaran wants to convert people into Others – to raise an army and control the world – but he’s so very, very wrong. The true reason is much more personal and, oddly, much more human than that.

That is probably the best lesson to be taken from these books. “Good” and “Evil” are tags that we affix to people because it saves us the effort of thinking about them. Behind every act, however, is a personal reason that defies such simplistic labeling. Every saint, every monster, is only human. Just like us. I don’t know if knowing that makes the world better or worse, but it at least makes it a little more familiar.

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“We weren’t meant to fly.
All we can do is try not to fall.”
– from The Twilight Watch

The Twilight Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Twilight Watch on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, detective fiction, disaster, fantasy, morality, mystery, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, vampires, war, werewolves, witches, wizardry