Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: CITY (1952) by Clifford D. Simak

by Clifford D. Simak

Published  in novel form by Ace Books in 1952
City, Huddling Place, and Census published in 1944.
Paradise and Hobbies published in 1946.
Aesop published 1947.
Trouble With Ants published 1951.

"Where man would follow metal, the dogs will follow ghosts."

After World War II, in the imagination of Clifford D. Simak, reality took a strange turn. All the nations of the world decided to unite as one, and become the planet state of Earth. Its capital was Geneva. War was outlawed, the old  national borders were erased, and a new era began. United humanity re-purposed atomic power as an unlimited source of energy and ended scarcity and want, and devoted themselves to developing what we would call artificial intelligence of a very high order, and soon the world was filled with sapient robot companions and laborers. Humanity, across many generations, used mysterious techniques, no doubt involving genetic engineering, to teach dogs to speak, and soon this program of elevating animals to human levels of communication and cognition spread to all the mammalian creatures of the planet. Violence and the eating of meat are outlawed, and all the beasts of nature, whether predator or prey, come to live in peaceful fellowship.

Truly, paradise.

Well, not exactly. You see there are these mutants. The mutants are hyper-individualists who decided they didn't want to be part of the global nation state. Not so much because they had serious political objections, but more because they had developed such powerful facilities of cognition, and the hypnotically compelling inner lives to go along with such advanced capacities, that they ceased to care what society, any society, thought about them. The mutants weren't violent or warlike. They just stopped giving a damn about society's rules and expectations, and even its larger goals. Let the utopians, the robots, and those talking dogs deal with it. They'd rather not be bothered.

Hey, I guess it's not paradise.It's not without some conflict. No paradise without its discontents. But not too bad.

Yeah, that transition from the city to the wilderness. It's another quirk of Simak's future vision. Instead of crowded megalopolises, humanity decides to spread out, and partly it's fear related to cities being targets for bombs. For awhile there, no one knew how the last global war was going to play out, and so humanity began to abscond from the city, and--

Oh, but did I tell you about Juwain, the Martian philosopher? Yeah, there's Martians in this book, too. Well, there's the one Martian, in particular, Juwain, and his transcendent, fix-all philosophy, Juwainism, and it's kinda funny how that one played out . . . some people couldn't handle the transition from cities, you know? Some people just clung to the old ways, of an ever-expanding humanity, glittering skyscrapers, just stack humankind by the floor, up, up, and up. You'd think most humans, if they could accept towering apartment complexes, they could handle the vast interstellar gulfs. You'd think. Just a Jaunt to Mars to get the rest of Juwain's notes, or something like that. Some people prefer to stay home in a number of senses.

And heaven exists. It's on Jupiter. Now, you won't get there by praying, but you do have to engage in a kind of transubstantiation of the flesh to be able to handle it. Brave young astronauts must be subjected to a form of pantropy--modified to endure the harshness of the Jovian world, but maybe Heaven's not all it's cracked up to be . . .

And then there's the cobblies. Only the dogs and other animals can sense the cobblies, those intrepid movers of furniture, who refuse to manifest in any comprehensible form when photographed. So rare that humans stooped to hoaxing photos and embellishing stories about hauntings and possessions in order to convince themselves they weren't losing their minds. We elevated the dogs, but the dogs could've returned the favor, it would seem, in certain matters of perception. It's that human arrogance, my friend, we don't like the idea that the lifeforms we breed into existence could maybe surpass us somehow, some way.

I guess we gave a kind of pass to the robots. We made them as happy slaves, much like Asimov's early take on robots, but Simak's robotic protagonist, Jenkins, evolves and grows across the generations, and becomes thoroughly human, even downright elderly. Jenkins may remind some readers of Anne Rice's vampires, but without the blood-lust and aristocratic ennui. This loyal robot retainer is witness to generations of the family Webster, which is basically the family of humankind. The canine philosophers of many generations hence even come to call humans websters. That is: "websters" replaces "humans" in canine vocabulary. But about the robots. We create the robots in our image, make them happy in bondage, and, eventually, let them evolve their own way, towards a strange kind of robotic freedom. But even this is due to our human arrogance, you see. We like that human shape. We like it even more when it's shaped in invincible steel, a vision of our armored dreams of hegemony and horror. But Jenkins evolves past our human arrogance, I think, but we the humans set such an acceptable form in motion.

Which brings me to the ants, to critters with decidedly unacceptable forms. You gotta ask yourself: why doesn't humanity elevate the insects, the spiders, the scorpions, the cockroaches, the moths, the butterflies, the whales, the dolphins, the octopuses, the squid, the lobsters, the crabs, the snails, and all the other creepy-crawlies? 'Cause we're bigots, that's why. But bigots, in the long run, seldom have their way in Simak's visionary future history.

Simak's book, City, is full of wild and woolly speculations. It's an exercise in purest make believe. It's science fiction of a kind that doesn't seem to have too much currency anymore. It certainly isn't "hard" SF. You won't find any loving descriptions of heavy-duty megadeath future war equipment being used to wage high body count libertarian revolutions against nanny governments on the moon, or Mars or wherever. No striving intergalactic capitalists or armored mecha soldiers here. No paeans to the glory of dying like some kind of shiny, space-age Spartan in mortal combat with vicious catmen, or anything of the sort. Simak's book is unsettling in its mellowness. He puts most of the technological magic into the black box, as it were, and focuses on the story and the themes. The characters are there to help serve as guideposts in the overall evolution of humanity, and, later, the robots and animals, as one civilization supplants another one, and much is lost, good, bad, spectacular, bizarre, to the erosion of centuries, of millenniums. There's no World War III, thank the cobblies, just time, a worldaround sickness at the prospect of more nationalistic barbarism, a refusal to be hypnotized by the false-power spectacle of Cold Wars and nuclear arsenals, and the many Laws of Unintended Consequences.

Infinite Repeat Award: "Don't Try This At Home" Edition

Curtis Sliwa
Music by Rachmaninoff
Written and Directed by Curtis Sliwa
A Guardian Angels Production

Friday, December 2, 2011



Yumiko Hara
Eihi Shiina
Kentaro Kishi

Written/Character Designed/Edited/Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura
Music by Koh Nakagawa
Action Director Isao Karasawa
Visual Effects Supervisor Tsuyoshi Kazuno
Stunt Coordinator Yoshio Miyaki
Costume Design by Minori Niizaki
Production Design by Nori Fukuda
Cinematography by Shu G. Momose
Produced by Yoshinori Chiba, Akifumi Sugihara, Ryo Uchiyama, Hiroyuki Yamada

Helldriver is the greatest video game movie never made. What do I mean by that? I'm not totally sure.

Helldriver isn't actually derived from any extant video game franchise. There is no Helldriver for PS3, X-Box, Wii, etc. But Helldriver the movie, which does exist, is a kind of collection of all the over-the-top splatter and sadistic kills that one would expect from one of the major splatter franchises, Resident Evil, House of the Dead, Mortal Kombat, all those games known for their nonstop mayhem and dismemberment, evisceration, and novel, many-tentacled mutations on the prowl for brains, guts, flesh, or just glorious self-destruction in one-to-one combat. There's even a touch of one of those car-crashing franchises. There are car-crashing franchises, right? Yeah, sure, why not? There are video games that involve driving cars real fast, maybe stealing the cars first, and then driving them real fast, something like that. And then there's the Fast and Furious series of movies, which are also strongly reminiscent of video games .  . . yeah, there's some of that in Helldriver, too, I think. It's the "driver" in Helldriver, if you will.

I should say none of this is prologue to a scathing or even particularly negative review of Helldriver. I enjoyed it's lust for pure, gruesome absurdist spectacle. It is exactly the movie it wants to be, and no one will ever take that away from it. It's got zombies, aliens, imagery and costumes right out of Japan's Imperial era,  some rather disturbing moments of zombie sexuality, a really fucked-up scene involving zombie sexual assault and torture, a tricked out Badass-mobile, sword fights, car fights (what Joe Bob Briggs would call "car fu"), self-assembling zombie monstrosities composed of various arms, legs, and torsos of the chopped-up undead . . . it's all here. There's nothing left out--it's even got a vaguely satirical streak, for people who insist on that kind of thing. And geysers of watery, Kool-Aid looking blood. "Hey, Dracula, don't drink the Kool-Aid!" Ah, ha, ha . . . don't know where that came from. There's no vampires in the movie, it just kind of came out of me . . . so, you know, this movie's got pretty much everything except vampires, but here's how you can fix that. Just obtain a copy of Helldriver and copies of whatever your favorite vampire movies happen to be, put 'em on your hard drive, and use digital editing software to splice together your very own underground, so-off-the-map-indie-it-positively-throbs UltraRemixed No Serial Numbers Allowed Bootleg Helldriver With Vampires version of the movie and you're good to go, my dawg, no sweat. I won't tell the Governor if you won't . . . I suppose my point is that this is a movie which exists as a series of very impressively staged spectacles. You could pretty much watch the scenes in any order and the impact would likely not be reduced nor would it be enhanced, although the wonderfully impossible ending scene that plays as the credits roll wouldn't really work at any other place in the narrative.

What the fuck happens in this movie, you ask? It goes something like this: in the near future, maybe the year 20XX, a strange alien life form crashes into Japan and unleashes a cloud of toxic ash which transforms all who are contaminated by it into flesh-eating zombies who sprout these weird, rubbery antlers out of their foreheads that are actually kind of kawaii at times, and fucking disgusting at other times, and, get this, are harvested by freelancers and sold to the yakuza to make highly addictive, snortable narcotics. But there's a problem with the zombie-antler derived narcotics: they can make your head explode. That's right, the antlers are composed of a volatile substance which can explode whenever the filmmakers want to make sure you're still paying attention. Guess which part of these undead fuckers you should target when it comes time to start shootin'?

The Japanese government responds to this outlandish crisis by erecting a giant wall and quarantining the antler-zombies behind the wall. The Prime Minister doesn't want to alienate voters who have zombified family members, and so he doesn't order any kind of extermination effort against the zombies. This is a rather intriguing aspect of Helldriver: the controversy over whether antler-zombies should be given human rights and due process, or just summarily executed. This is a controversial position to put it mildly, and elements within the Japanese government see the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate power and whittle away at pesky individual (uninfected human)liberties . . . ring any bells, citizens?

Zombie movie fans, ask yourself this question: would this issue even be considered if the alien lifeform had crashed into the United States? Or would the President just go straight to martial law, targeted assassinations, and extraordinary renditions? Oh, and why not go ahead and place the non-zombie populations under surveillance, and start eliminating social welfare programs, regulatory agencies, environmental protections, start revving up the foreclosure cycles, etc. And don't give me any of that bullshit about, "Well, gee, it depends on whether it's a Democrat or a Republican . . ." because we all know that wouldn't matter. Come on, film fans, pay heed to the words of George Carlin: "Take a chance. Tell the truth."

Who the fuck are the main characters in this movie, you ask? The Japanese Prime Minister? The zombies? No, no, not exactly. The characters in this movie are not the most interesting parts of it, in my opinion, although I did appreciate the lead performance by Yumiko Hara as Kika, the chief zombie-slayer, and Eihi Shiina as Rikka, the Alien Queen of the Antler-Zombies. Rikka's got a brother played by Kentaro Kishi, and the character is truly a sick fuck. It's something else . . . more I will not say.

I'll say this. Eihi Shiina is a beautiful and intense actor who gave a memorable performance as a bride-to-be in Takashi Miike's masterful Audition, and was also quite memorable as the taciturn, self-mutilating supercop Ruka in Tokyo Gore Police, which was an earlier effort from Helldriver director Yoshihiro Nishimura. As Rikka, Shiina is buried under some wildass makeup, prosthetics, and costuming that make her look like a boss from a Parasite Eve side story. Shiina gives herself over to the crazed, cartoonish evil of the part, but I missed the subtle intensity she brought to those earlier roles. Yeah, I know, my complaint is totally out of place, but there you have it. I would've liked a little more nuance in this character, but it is what it is.

Yeah, and here's another complaint. Helldriver is clearly the hard labor of a committed cast and crew, and it's quite effective on its own terms, and yet largely forgettable once consumed. I guess it's the perfect definition of entertainment. Director Yoshihiro Nishimura seems to specialize in this kind of gory-goofy type of film. Just hit up his filmography on Wiki or Imdb: Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein, Mutant Girls Squad, and a score of special gore EFX credits going back to 1995. Nishimura knows his stuff. Tokyo Gore Police really left an impression on me. It was both absurdly funny and really fuckng icky, and it made an impression with it's shameless mutational perversities. Tokyo Gore Police was all about damaged, violent people seeking the edge of somatic experience and transformation packed into a fairly compelling mystery plot. Helldriver is just one damn thing after another. Helldriver's best scenes recall the most adventurous bits of Tokyo Gore Police without quite equaling it. Helldriver is not quite as visually accomplished, either, but it does create some impressive spectacle scenes. It lacks the grimy texture and doom-laden atmosphere of Tokyo Gore Police. The antler-zombies are good for a laugh, but they don't quite achieve the bizarro-pathos of the mutants and predators from Tokyo Gore Police.

Helldriver is pure sensation, featuring many scenes of impressively orchestrated carnage, and a delightfully off-kilter soundtrack. It's fun for what it is, but if you like Helldriver, I urge you to check out 2008's Tokyo Gore Police. It's in a similar style, but with more impact.

 Helldriver does do one thing that Tokyo Gore Police couldn't or wouldn't. It asks the question: "Can you build an aerodynamically feasible device out of the bodies of antler-zombies?"

For the answer, you'll just have to see for yourself . . .

Helldriver trailer: