Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Neuropath - a review

R. Scott Bakker is a Canadian writer who has penned what is in my humble opinion the greatest fantasy series ever (I will probably write about this at some point in the future), the 'Prince of Nothing' series.

Drunk with having completed the 5th book (The White Luck Warrior), I went to my local library and took out the only novel he has completed that isn't part of the series, a near future science fiction/horror novel called 'Neuropath'.

Quite frankly it is the most disturbing novel I have ever read.

However much I was bothered by it, it was not for all the reasons people might normally be disturbed that you might think. It does have a serial killer (or two), several violent deaths that are both strange and unnerving, and even the hoary old trope of putting kids and pets into danger makes an appearance. But none of these explain why the novel was so upsetting for me.

A little background is probably in order. My university education included a philosophy degree - one that came with a lot of study in epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), philosophy of science, evolutionary cladistics, and a variety of political philosophies and history.

One takeaway from all this liberal arts education is that I know that as faulty as science is at revealing the world, it is still the best and perhaps only method for uncovering what is really going on.

Another more specific takeaway would be that the nature of human consciousness is derived from our reality as biological beings, and that things like 'the mind', and 'free will', are illusions generated by our brains that are difficult to shrug off precisely because of how we are wired to view the universe.

The plot of Neuropath takes these very conclusions as their starting point - and then proceeds to drive them off a cliff into violence and nihlism.

Just as it is the people who you love the most that can hurt you the worst, it is always the people who understand and share your perspective of the world who can shake it the hardest.

In the novel the protagonist is a professor, who is sought after by national security powers to help catch a friend of his from his university days. A friend accused of, among other things, operating on helpless victims in gruesome and horrifyng ways. The evidence presented is in a series of compact disk recordings of the murders.

Among the examples given to our protagonist is a woman who's pain and pleasure centers have been rewired so that whenever she cuts herself with broken glass she achieves an unearthly orgasm. She is unable to stop herself - more accurately, she is unwilling to stop herself from carving her body to pieces. Another is of a preacher who's brain has been meddled with so that the killer himself appears to him to be God. A third (and fourth) victim is a congressman who is well known for bloviating about free-will and responsibility - in his video he continues this line of banter while nevertheless being incapable of recognizing that he is holding the dead body of a child and eating flesh from it.

Our protagonist (with the improbable name of Tom Bible), is forced to conclude that his friend is indeed behind these killings as they echo facets of 'The Argument' they had when both were in College together. An argument about the nature of human consciousness, and our illusions about it. An argument that suggests the experiments and videos are actually meant to be a message to the protagonist himself.

The novel's creepiness is unrelenting, and includes skin crawling first person accounts of a serial killer at the beginning of each chapter. The narrative is propulsive and quick paced, but does stop for some (occasionally repetitive) digressions where Bible explains the modern scientific understanding of some particular brain function or process.

In the end though what was so totally unnerving for me wasn't the gore, violence, or even the first person serial killer perspective (you can get all of that by renting 'Henry- Portrait of a Serial Killer. Not that I recommend you do though) - no what was disturbing was that Bakker had plumbed my own understanding of human nature and the world and then showed me how easily it lead to nihlism.

Neuropath may be the first philosophical horror novel I am aware of (though perhaps Shelley's 'Frankenstein' counts too).

Bakker asks us; without our illusions of free-will, or of our own consciousness and morality - what are we? Then to answer that question Bakker strips his villain of all these things, these false, but human traits, and in doing so creates a monster so terrible I won't soon forget him.

It is one thing to live with knowledge that these things are illusions, it is quite another to see what living without those illusions is actually like.

Nietzsche said that 'if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you', and finishing this novel felt very much like the abyss was gazing back at me.

In short, I highly recommend it - especially if you have any background in philosophy (though you don't need one), and or/a strong stomach for horror.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Seven Types Of Short Story Openings

The glorious geeks at iO9 have compiled a list (with examples) of common short story openings.

My favourite (of course) is the one by William Gibson.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quentin Tarantino's top 20 movies since 1992

QT gives an elliptic and esoteric list of the best films from the last 19 years.

Given I have seen remarkably few of them (though I suspect, more than most people), I can't comment intelligently on how good or bad the entire list is.

Of those that he includes that I have seen, I can say that I am occasionally in agreement. 'Memento Mori' (Memories of Murder) is haunting and simply excellent, and overlooked because of its foreign origin. 'Fight Club' remains one of my all-time favourites, and have watched it repeatedly. The Takeshi Miike flick he picks (Audition) isn't one I have seen, but I include Miike's 'Old Boy' among my list of the best, so we do still share similar tastes.

'Speed'? Really? I just can't buy it. It's junk. Seriously junk. I have similar problems with 'The Matrix', not that I don't enjoy it, but when the premise of the film is that humans are being used as batteries by machines, when alternatives exist that any schoolboy could point out, makes the inclusion of it strange. It is still compulsively watchable, even if it is the Jesus story retold as PK Dick sci-fi epic.

I also don't share his enthusiasm for Lars Von Triers, though I know most serious film critics do.

Most gratifying for me was the inclusion of 'Unbreakable', a film I thought was misunderstood by critics (and even fans), and that is the high-water mark for M. Night Shyamalan's film making career.

Here is the trailer for the movie QT thinks is the best flick released since he himself started making movies, Battle Royale;

My own 'Top 20' list would look very different, and as with Tarantino's list, the flicks are in no particular order except for my favourite;

- A History of Violence

Cronenberg's meditation on violence is simultaneously creepy, sexy, and affecting.

- Fight Club

A study on masculinity, modernity and madness, wrapped in the shirtless torso of Brad Pitt.

- Unbreakable

Arguably still the greatest comic book movie ever made - in part because it takes itself and its premise seriously.

- Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Redefines what it is for a story to be 'epic'.

- No Country For Old Men

Deservedly won the Best Picture Oscar, it's debatably the Cohen Bros. finest work (The Big Lebowski is the other contender IMO)

- Pulp Fiction

QT's masterpiece.

- Little Miss Sunshine

Smart and laugh out loud funny. A rare combination.

- The Dark Knight

Like 'Unbreakable', DK rises well above the source material, in this case to reflect cogently on terrorism and state violence. Heath Ledger's performance is nothing short of legendary.

- Moon

Not all great science fiction needs to have explosions, space battles or Frankensteinian sub-themes. In this case, it doesn't even need a cast of more than a few people. Sam Rockwell is never short of mesmerizing despite being on camera for almost the entire movie.

- Apollo 13

Ron Howard's accounting of the near tragic mission to the Moon, and the inventiveness and courage that got the astronauts home alive.

- L.A. Confidential

Future film studies of film noir will have L.A. Confidential as the ideal modern example of the genre.

- Old Boy

Disturbing and exhilarating discourse on revenge.

- Memento

Christopher Nolan's murder mystery is filled with fine acting (especially the lead Guy Pearce), has a riveting story about a man with no short term memory, and totally goes for broke by having the narrative play out backwards. Film studies classes will have this in their canon for decades.

- Gosford Park

If any film can be described as being utterly British, this is it. A giant metaphor for the class distinctions of British society, it is ruthless in its examinations and yet never fails to deliver the goods as a straight up mystery procedural. Perversely, it would be an American director (Robert Altman) who achieved this.

- A Scanner Darkly

An innovative film technique (rotoscoping), coupled with one of the most difficult P.K. Dick novels, and a hit/miss cypher of an actor (Keanu Reeves) are the ingredients for one of the most unexpected - and even horrifying science fiction movies ever made.

- Ronin

Best. Car. Chases. Ever. And it has Robert DeNiro in the lead.

- Heat

All-star casting from top to bottom, a propulsive story line about a high-end gang of bank robbers, and realistic action sequences (especially the gunfight after the bank robbery), transform a straight forward morality tale of cops and robbers into a masterpiece. Also, Moby covers Joy Division on the soundtrack, which is no small thing.

And my favourite movie since 1993;

- Crash (Cronenberg)

Here's the decidedly non-plussed review of Crash offered by Siskel and the more forgiving response by Ebert.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Joanna Russ RIP

Science fiction lost another great recently with the passing of Joanna Russ.

Author of many groundbreaking works, and remembered especially for her injection of intelligent feminism into the boys club of sci-fi, she will be missed.

The story 'When things changed' was published in 'Dangerous Visions 2' and remains a classic.

It can be read online here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Time Travel

I'm avowed fan of science fiction, and one my favourite tropes to explore is 'Time Travel'.

This short story by Desmond Warzel updates Time Travel by drawing from contemporary internet culture to frame the narrative in a novel way.

The story itself is built around one of the most common time travel conventions, that of 'going back and killing Hitler', but manages to stay away from cliche.

Some short stories, especially science fiction short stories, can be built around a single tiny fact, and if that fact is sharp enough, it can puncture the entire trope. The Time Traveler by Gavin Raine, makes a very satisfying 'pop'.

Last but not least, good ideas are often found in strange places. Balloon Juice is typically a political blog (and a good one for the most part IMO), but one day they opened a thread to their readers to discuss 'what events in history you would change if you had a time machine?'.

As with most internet discussions it rambles a bit, but along with the aforementioned 'kill Hitler' suggestions were a number of very interesting ideas;

- intervene in the battle of Yarmouk
- stop the Black Plague
- prevent the assassination of Julius Caesar
- stop the destruction of the Library of Alexandria
- prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

...and lots more. Its the kind of thread that is fertile with ideas and easy to get lost in.

Part of the thought experiments answer is also a revealing look at ones own priorities. Is stopping the holocaust the most important thing? What if that might have unintended bad consequences? Would the largest appeal be getting rich off Microsoft stock?

What if you could be the first person to write the novel 'Ulysses', or the poem 'Ozymandias'?

Welcome to the X-Ray

I can't think of a better way to start off a blog that is the extension of a self-publishing enterprise, then by linking to a blog post exploring the success of someone who went the way of self-publishing.

Read about how Tucker Max, the author of 'I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell', hit the New York Times bestseller list here.

And welcome to our blog!