Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Reivew: HARDFOUGHT (1983) by Greg Bear

The true end of history . . .

In the novella Hardfought, humans are at war with the Senexi, a strange alien race with a hive mind consciousness that gives them true racial memory. Any branch of the Senexi has access to all of the memories and experiences of the whole. They have evolved as a vast, sentient organic computer. They don't build their technology, they grow it as a part of their life cycle. Humans and Senexi are so strange to one another that meaningful communication is impossible.

When both races seek to colonize the same expanse of interstellar turf, war is inevitable. Human beings must adapt themselves via cellular machine technology and genetic experiments to the harsh conditions of deep space travel and combat. At first, homo sapiens are at a distinct disadvantage. The Senexi are naturally adapted across billions of years of cosmic evolution to exist in extreme environmental conditions that are instantly lethal to unprotected and unmodified humans. The Senexi also have a profound unity of culture and thought that allows all of them to be rapidly mobilized in defense of the species. But humanity is a quick study, and they are more experienced in war and genocide by many thousands of years.

A slim lead, to be sure, but it just may be all they require.

Hardfought tells a strange and complex story of a human/alien conflict, well-worn terrain in science fiction literature. Greg Bear works some brilliant changes on the formula. It is told in an unusual fashion using a kind of pared-down language which efficiently incorporates superscience and slang to reflect the integration of human brains with vast technologies of artificial intelligene and combat apparatus. The human protagonist is a young female soldier named Prufrax, who is trained to operate a high tech battlesuit that is a kind of highly evolved version of the armor used in the human/insect skirmishes of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Prufrax is known as a Hawk, a warrior, and she undergoes extensive genetic, cybernetic, and psychological modification and indoctrination in order to merge with her machine and to be able to battle the Senexi on their own turf.

The Senexi protagonist is Arryz, a segment of the hive mind known as a Branch Ind. Arryz is designated by the controlling consciousness to become human, to become an individual, so that the Senexi can better understand their enemy. The Senexi do not understand human culture or psychology. They come to find it repugnant, and as Arryz becomes more human, he becomes more alienated from the hive mind. It causes him much pain, distress, and confusion.

Bear doesn't really take a side in this conflict. The Senexi aren't a stand-in for America's enemy of the moment. They are not science fiction analogues for the Soviets of the 1980s or the terrorists of the twenty-first century. Rather, Bear is attempting to explore, as best he can, what a war between humanity and a truly alien and all-but-incomprehensible species would be like. Bear takes this exploration to places beyond the intergalactic war zone. He asks tough questions about the consequences of a human or alien culture that evolves to be built around the perpetration of total war against an enemy.

Bear packs a lot of detail into this novella. It could've easily been a full length novel or a whole franchise of books chronicling the derring-do of battlesuited human warriors, but the author has something else in mind. Instead of an adventure story, he wants to simulate what it would take to wage intergalactic warfare. His central concept is that as humans further refine the war machine they become less human. They become more like the Senexi, the very thing they claim to oppose. On the opposite side, the Senexi find themselves pressured to become more human, and less Senexi.

The farflung command and control apparatus of the human war machine begins to select out the finest warriors to be rapidly cloned and decanted for combat. Individuality is only useful as it relates to the war. Only those individuals who fight the best are preserved. Soon, there are only three or four types of people replicated over and over again. Such is the logic of human militarism carried to a far future extreme.

In the long term, only the essential elements of human culture and history are preserved, lest the clone warriors start surfing the online libraries and asking tough questions that don't fit the logic of the war machine. The intellectual and historical heritage of humankind is systematically edited and propagandized to legitimate the ongoing, everlasting conflict.

Hardfought isn't just some high concept rehash of Starship Troopers. It's a rebuke to Us vs. Them sci-fi sagas of intergalactic conflict.

Movie Review: SOYLENT GREEN (1973) Dir. Richard Fleischer Starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, Brock Peters

Soylent Green tells a story about a nighmare future where the population bomb has exploded. People are everywhere. Clogging the streets, the stairwells, the hospitals, the jails, the prisons, the schools, the homeless shelters, the supermarkets, the social services offices, the unemployment lines . . . the only places that are free of excess people are the high rise luxury apartment buildings reserved for the wealthy and the power elites, and the fenced off ditches that serve as barricades between the haves and the have-nots.

Real food is a scarce luxury. A small hunk of beef can go for hundreds of dollars on the blackmarket. Hygiene items like soap and toothpaste are also equally rare. Forget about real sugar and spices.

The populace is fed various product lines of kibble called Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and, the latest, Soylent Green. Soylent is the name of the super-corporation that cranks out the artificially engineered and flavored all-purpose nutrition products. Soylent food isn't all that flavorful, but nobody much remembers the flavor of real food anyways, so few complain.

Or maybe the population bomb hasn't exploded. Maybe there are just too many poor people.The wealthy and the powerful don't give a good goddamn about the downtrodden. They are more than happy to cling to their luxury and influence, and ghettoize the excess people in the world.

No more social safety net, no more due process, and no more public education. The younger generations coming up are barely literate. The only people with any knowledge of the past are the elderly and the middle aged. The middle aged are already starting to forget. The elderly are dying off. History is an obsolete profession.

Police work is an interesting affair in this world. Meet NYPD homicide detective Robert Thorn, played by Charlton Heston in one of his best screen performances. Thorn's partner is a "bookman" named Sol Roth, a former university professor who does all the background work on Thorn's murder investigations. Sol is played by screen legend Edward G. Robinson in his final film role. Thorn and Sol aren't just partners. They're roommates in a cramped apartment. Thorn is edging into middle age. Sol is elderly. Sol remembers everything that is gone in the world, and Thorn gently teases him about his griping. Sol remembers the taste of real food, real fruits, real vegetables, actual meat. Thorn eats his Soylent Red, Yellow, and even Green, and doesn't get too upset about the pleasures of a world he never knew.

That's not to say that Thorn doesn't appreciate the good things in life when they come his way. One of the perks of his job as a homicide dick is that anytime he goes to investigate a murder in one of the luxury high rise apartments he gets to loot the place. The deceased have no use for that lightly used bar of soap, that odd cut of beef in the fridge, or that bowl of apples and bannanas. Maybe he'll take a few hardback books home for his partner Sol. Hell, while he's working the crime scene, maybe he'll take a shower break, and revel in the sensation of high pressure, scalding hot water. Top it off with a solid hump with one of the bonded concubines who are part of the package deal for the elite renters. These concubines are known as "furniture." The furniture are sex slaves who are, presumably, sterilized, and exist to serve the mostly male occupants' lusts.

There's little pressure on Thorn to actually solve any homicides. He's got a backlog of cases about two years or so deep. Homicide is just another form of population control, when you think about it.

When Thorn isn't on homicide duty, he's on riot duty. That involves him and other cops putting on facistic looking football helmets and suppressing frustrated hordes of starving people with clubs. They're supported in this duty by bulldozers which come in and scoop up people and take them off to who knows where. Most of the riots seemed to be triggered by scarcity of the Soylent food products. Citizens queue up to get their weekly ration, but the rations run out, and there's still a line, and the riots begin. Thorn isn't a great cop, but he doesn't much like cracking the heads of hungry, desperate people.

Soylent Green is notorious for its surprise ending, so I won't say anything about it. If you have no idea what the ending is, then you're in for a helluva story.

But even if you know the ending, but have never actually seen the whole film, it is well worth watching.

First off, it features a great performance by Charlton Heston as Thorn. Heston could've sleepwalked through this role. He has the chiseled looks and the booming voice of a classic actor. He could've overplayed it. Instead, he embraces the flaws of the character: his casual larceny and corruption, his griminess, even his sexual frustration. Thorn isn't exactly evil, but he's not perfect, either. And he's still got some strong instincts as a detective.

The other great performance comes from Edward G. Robinson as Sol. Robinson was dying while making this movie. He gives a humane and humorous performance as a kind of Last Man On Earth. He is the last man who remembers history, literature, and good food and drink. He also, perhaps, has some memory of the atrocities of the twentieth century that helped pave the way for the world of Soylent Green. His final scene is mindblowing and reveals a depth of strangeness and absurdity to the world of the story.

The plot of the film revolves around a murder which sets Thorn on the trail of both the murderer and a possible link to a larger political/business conspiracy related to the murder.

Soylent Green has been much parodied over the years. I knew the secret of its ending going into it, and had seen plenty of spoofs in TV shows and sketch comedy, but what surprised me was how serious the actual film is. It has an outrageous conclusion, and yet it doesn't play as camp. It is the final condition of a world subjected to the nightmare logic of business as usual.