Monday, November 30, 2020
Sunday, November 29, 2020
HORRORSTÖR (2014) by Grady Hendrix
As this review is being written (November 2020), the horror novel HORRORSTÖR is being developed into a TV series, which is a good idea – it was made for a movie or a series.
HORRORSTÖR is a satirical horror tale about a haunted ”big-box” furniture superstore, suspiciously similar in design to IKEA (though under a different name).
The protagonists are low-wage workers in the haunted store. They're trapped in limited means, feeling lonely, frustrated and exploited. Their employer corporation condescendingly calls them ”partners” – only one example of the mind-numbing corporate jargon this novel pokes fun at.
These working-class protagonists are very human and relatable; none of them turns into a comic-book hero or disposable moron. When faced with supernatural terrors, they react and behave in a credible manner.
Parts of the book (including the hilarious cover design) are direct graphic parodies of an IKEA catalogue – with furniture names like ”Kjërring” and ”Arsle” (check what they mean in Swedish!). The book is worth having for these pages alone.
The story delivers laughs and sympathy and a good deal of horror – there is some gruesome violence – but even so, the author seemed to be holding back the social critique just a little (or maybe it seems that way from my Swedish perspective). The ”story beats” seemed a little too tailor-made for a movie.
While the novel does succeed as horror and satire – and social critique – I wish it had dug deeper, been less ”functional” and tried to be more daring. I can't say it truly surprised me at any point.
Anyhow, I look forward to the TV series. HORRORSTÖR is recommended for horror and satire lovers – and anyone who ever got sick of wandering around in an IKEA store without finding the exit.
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Monday, November 23, 2020
Warning: Spoilers ahead
In order to make sure this review of
the Netflix series DARK was accurate and fair, I had to watch (and by
”watch” I mean ”endure”) all three seasons, beginning to
How do I describe that experience in a few words...
To quote Leslie Nielsen in one of his comedy movies: ”Do any of you understand how a man can hurt inside?”
plot of DARK can be summed up as ”Back to the Future in
Germany” – which also sounds like the premise of a hilarious
parody sketch. Picture this hypothetical sketch as a send-up of the
crudest German cultural stereotypes.
It would include the following features:
1. The entire story must take place in a single German town, surrounded by a forest so vast and dense, it seems the land has never been cultivated or farmed.
Why? Because a huge forest is ”mysterious” and ”laden with secrets,” just like EVERY DAMN FOREST IN EVERY DAMN TV SERIES EVER MADE SINCE TWIN PEAKS.
2. The atmosphere must be consistently dour, and overdone to the point of pomposity. The color scheme should be mainly gray.
3. Somber fatalism must control every single character. They will try to change the past and future, but it will always prove impossible. That point must be repeated, and repeated and repeated ad nauseam.
None of the characters are allowed to resist being manipulated and pushed around by a ridiculously convoluted plot, because ”follow orders” is the underlying philosophy.
4. Everyone must stare at each other in a very drawn-out, angsty way most of the time. It's called ”Serious Acting.” Stare, stare, stare...
Did I hear someone in the audience titter...? What are you tittering about?
5. What was a joking subplot (or dark undercurrent) in Back to the Future – that hopping back and forth in time might lead to someone becoming one's own parent – must be turned into a vast, dead-serious incest scheme.
Everyone must become everyone's father, mother, uncle, son, daughter... so that in the end there is really just one person ”effing around” with itself – figuratively and literally. Never mind the natural genetic consequences of all this inbreeding!
6. And remember, no laughing. Around the fifth or sixth time a character is ”revealed” to be related to another character through-time travel... or meets his/her own self from another time... this must still be presented as a surprise shocker, with the utmost seriousness.
This is serious drama! I will have no tittering in the audience!
7. The characters must increasingly act and talk in the same way, and since they are all biologically related due to the time-travel plot, there are no ”foreign races” in the story. None of Germany's real ethnic minorities seem to exist in this claustrophobic, incestuous Aryan microcosm – no Jews, Blacks, Muslims etc.
(Perhaps you can have one of the characters say out loud, without a trace of irony: ”Life in this town sucks – but at least there's no racism!”)
8. Heavy-handed references to Nietschze (the ”Eternal Return”) and other dour, very German philosophers should be everywhere to be found. None of them must offer a sliver of optimism.
9. Don't mention the war! There's time travel in Frickin' Germany – and not once must anyone be allowed to say out loud, ”What if we tried to stop Hitler?”
10. Is the whole edifice starting to collapse under the weight of its own pretentiousness? Is the plot getting so repetitive, the audience risks falling asleep?
Quick – play a pop song over the soundtrack to make things seem ”deep”! And a ”meaningful” montage. Sprinkle with some unnecessary slow-motion – the hallmark of a pretentious hack.
11. Uh-oh – it looks like people in the audience are so bored out of their minds, they're starting to think... about how convoluted and ridiculous the plot has become. Time for some distracting ”tell-don't-show."
Play a ponderous voiceover – accompained by a soundtrack sounding like mewing cats – that ”explains” how there is no free will, and the characters must obey the increasingly idiotic plot because...
...because we're saying, over and over, that they have no choice. (Yeah! Just repeat your big, bold bullshit until it is believed! That's writing advice straight from... I forgot who said it first.)
12. Throw in a passing reference to Back to the Future... but otherwise pretend that time-travel is something utterly new and totally incomprehensible, as if neither the characters nor the audience have ever heard about such a thing before.
Not one person in the series is allowed to read science fiction, watch science fiction, or be familiar with it. (This ”We-have-just-invented-the-Wheel-isn't-it-amazing?” attitude is a typical fallacy of mainstream writers who try their hand at speculative fiction.)
13. Finally, wrap up the third season... oh, but you can't wrap it up! All the time-hopping has destroyed any sense of a coherent, meaningful narrative. All you have is a dreary, depressing, meaningless tangle of puppet characters robbed of all agency.
(I mean literally robbed of agency; there's a ludicrous scene where a gun refuses to work only because the script – sorry, ”Fate” – says so.)
So just bail out of the whole mess. Burn it all down. And let the audience breathe a great sigh of relief that at long last, the pointless suffering is over – mainly for them, but also for the characters.
So, have I picked every bone I had to pick with DARK?
What the hell, let's twist the knife in all the way... It's tempting to suspect that this painfully turgid drama is really about what isn't being said.
The proverbial dog that didn't bark in the DARK: World War II is never mentioned or even alluded to. Characters travel back in time to several periods in Germany's history – except the period 1933 - 1945.
What if one of the characters in this series did propose to use the available time travel devices to stop Adolf Hitler's rise to power? Following the basic premise of the whole narrative, that every event must happen the way it does, we'd get into some ”dark” waters indeed:
Angstful, Grave DARK Character #1: ”We could travel back in time to the 1920s and stop Hitler. We won't even have to kill him! Just cripple his capacity for speech. Damage his vocal chords or his tongue.”
Angstful, Grave DARK Character #2: ”No. We cannot prevent Hitler, nor any of all the horrors he caused, for it is predestined by Time. All of it. The mass hysteria, the war, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the destruction, the death of millions, had to happen. If we try to prevent the Holocaust, we will only cause it to happen. We are merely following the orders of our supreme Fuehrer, fate itself... or we wouldn't exist. We are destiny... and that absolves us of all moral responsibility.”
One might respond that Germany's history has nothing at all to do with this fictional story – but that is simply not credible. This story is explicitly about about the impossibility of changing history, through repeated time travel, in a country that is very explicitly Germany.
If the scriptwriter had had the nerve to go that far – to really shock the audience by spelling out that these Germans wouldn't try to stop Hitler even if they could – then I would've been a bit impressed, perhaps enough to scrap this scathing review.
Instead, the ”Hitler is Fate” subtext (which, by the way, is bullshit) lies hidden between the lines. Where others might see ”intellectual” art, I see a piece of prententious art that poses as ”dark” but is actually a cop-out. If it hadn't cranked up the ”dark” posture to eleven, I wouldn't have been so harsh on it.
If the series had offered a morsel of humor, a crumb of irony, all would have been forgiven.
And let me disprove any idea that DARK had to be so humorless because ”Germans have no sense of humor." Before DARK, I watched a German movie on Netflix titled LOOK WHO'S BACK (2015) , wherein Adolf Hitler magically reappears in modern-day Berlin, and immediately continues his career as a dangerous demagogue.
That movie is not only a successful, timely satire, but quite funny – which proves that of course Germans are capable of dealing with difficult subjects and can even joke about them. The ”edge” in LOOK WHO'S BACK is that there's no diversionary talk about ”fate.” The responsibility for the rise of a demagogue is pointed squarely at his followers and those who did nothing to stop him.
To sum up: I would argue – and I'm only half joking – that the plot of DARK could be much simplified (and shortened – God, yes!) if it only involved a single snail (snails being hermaphrodites) that traveled back in time, impregnated its younger self... and then let that younger snail hatch the egg that would later become itself.
A snail would also make a superbly condensed character metaphor, bringing out the very essence of what the DARK scriptwriter apparently was striving for.
It is slimy to the touch... and it has no spine.
All done. I'll pull the knife out now.
But let's be nice – just a little: DARK wasn't the originator of the ”pretending-to-be-deep” TV series as a phenomenon. Before DARK there was LOST (as in ”We lost the plot and couldn't find it”)... and other shows built around hyping up a ”mystery” that in the end amounted to a big meh.
Like Rorschach tests, these ”blots-on-a-paper” stories mean very little except what we read into them. So what is their appeal? I have a hypothesis: Perhaps such TV shows exist to try and fill the spiritual needs that used to be satisifed by religion?
The medieval Catholic mystery play has been resurrected as the secular mystifying TV drama. It promises a revelation that will bring back spiritual mystery to modern life – except that for some reason (which you will have to figure out) it can't deliver.
Sic tedium creatus est.
Sunday, November 22, 2020
EMBASSYTOWN (2011) by China
I struggled to finish this novel, as it tended to drag... and also because of my doubt that its central premise might possibly be wrongheaded.
When I finally got to the end, I felt reassured that EMBASSYTOWN wasn't a dud, and there were some really enjoyable parts.
EMBASSYTOWN deals with linguistics and consciousness – i.e. how language itself shapes our awareness of the world and ourselves in it.
”Embassytown” is a human settlement on a planet where humans try to co-exist with an indigenous alien species, the Ariekei. These aliens have a concept of language that is radically different from all human communication. The Ariekei way of speaking is difficult to explain – and because of this complexity, I soon started to doubt: Are these aliens really credible?
At times, I wondered whether the Ariekei would end up like the aliens, robots and computers in 1960s TV shows that break down if you tell them a paradox or just ask ”Why?” It didn't turn out that way, fortunately, and the Ariekei were allowed to evolve to an impressive depth.
Stylistically, EMBASSYTOWN is slick and has an original ”writer's voice” which I like. There are neat typographic tricks to convey alien speech (and which probably can't be translated to an audiobook). The imaginative depiction of alien environments and characters are the best parts of this book.
But then comes that nagging doubt... are the Ariekei possible?
Of course science fiction should present aliens that are ”different” – it's just that these particular aliens are given such a glaring weakness, and at the same time have advanced biotechnology.
(Okay, we humans have our own glaring weaknesses, so who are we to say that a fictional alien intelligence is ”inconsistent” or ”too vulnerable”?)
I'm still not entirely convinced the alien language in EMBASSYTOWN really is logically possible. Perhaps a professional linguist could analyze it and explain.
(Side note: I had similar issues with Peter Watts' novel BLINDSIGHT (2006), but that one was worse. It proposed an alien species I struggled to find credible, because the author claimed something very important about these aliens but then couldn't prove it. BLINDSIGHT resorted to a ”straw-man” argument to prove its premise, which unfortunately undermined the premise itself – seriously, vampires as an example of alien intelligence? In a science fiction novel? – but that's the subject of another review. End of side note.)
There is also the problem that the novel meanders. It could have benefited from tighter plotting and fewer secondary characters. I skimmed several passages, something I rarely do. But it arrived at a satifying conclusion.
Criticisms aside: I admire the author's skill, and his daring exploration of language, and that made the novel worth reading.
EMBASSYTOWN is recommended for lovers of ”highbrow” science fiction, and for readers who want stories about strange alien cultures.
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Wednesday, November 04, 2020
THE PRESIDENT HAS A TIME MACHINE. BUT DON'T PANIC.
The born-again religious, recovering alcoholic, not-too-bright U.S. President Prescott "Pres" Walker is desperate. He fears he will end his presidency as a failure, and needs a miracle to turn things around...
Then he learns that the military has secretly developed the world's first time machine.
His Vice President, the sinister and secretive Zack Cutter, convinces Prescott to seize the time machine and "set history straight" -- all he has to do is go back in time and make a few small alterations, and all the problems of the present will go away!
That's the plan, anyway. But even the smallest alterations of the past can have unforeseen consequences... especially when you're as clumsy as "Pres" Walker. The greatest misadventure of all time begins. And history... is history!
The novel THE TIME IDIOT is available on Amazon.
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Sunday, November 01, 2020
THE DARK AGES HAVE RETURNED...