RED MARS, by Kim Stanley Robinson, A No-Spoiler Review of the Classic Scifi Novel
The Short Review
5 reasons RED MARS is a must-read for the scifi fanatic and anyone remotely interested in planetary geology:
- RED MARS is a KSRobinson classic, published in 1992 and winner of the Nebula and the first of his acclaimed Mars Trilogy
- The story imagines life on Mars in a way that feels scientifically viable and compelling, therefore relevant to the current and growing conversation around Mars exploration
- Scientists are the narrators of this story. They are also the heroes, sometimes the villains, the problem solvers and the work horses. I was especially drawn to the “builder” character, Nadia
- The planetary geology content, naturally integrated into the story, is breathtakingly fun
- Despite being over 170K words long, KSR does not get bogged down in the “how would that ever be possible” science scenarios, but drives the story forward through characters and the politics that pressure a budding Martian community
The Longer Review
RED MARS tells the story of the first 100 scientists sent to Mars by a multi-national Earth entity called UNOMA, United Nations of Martian Affairs. The story PG-13 (for some sexual content) follows about 10 of those scientists closely, though many others are referred to and are part of the action in direct and indirect ways. The novel is broken up into eight parts and each of the parts has a different primary narrator. I do think Robinson’s choice on point of view works in a novel this long, adding a level of complexity and depth to the very audacious idea that Mars might be “tamed” by human beings. Robinson plays with themes around the idea that really smart people might be able to build a better civilization from scratch, and form some kind of utopia, but does not make the task easy on the idealogues within his story.
Various characters, all of whom are scientists in one discipline or another, give voice to ideas of alternative governing and living environments. The sharing of abundant resources is the initial reality for the first 100, but eventually, when new groups arrive on Mars, the corporations who have funded the exploration and building, come calling for the planet’s vast natural resources.
The conflict that arises is somewhat predictable and draws out the best and worst of the people in charge who are trying to manage a fragile, but quickly expanding human presence on Mars.
Meanwhile, Earth is falling into total chaos. Robinson does not spend any time showing the reader Earth itself, but shows it via news stories viewed by the inhabitants of Mars. Earth’s chaos is also a reason why many thousands of migrants are streaming to the new world. Robinson does lean left in his politics (proudly so) and sees corporate giants as the villain, though the villain is also amorphous in the story. Robinson’s ideas don’t come across as preachy to me. He’s a deep thinker and a thoughtful writer, so he understands the grittiness of governing and the probable impossibility of building that utopia even if one does start with 100 brilliant scientists.
Many science fiction readers will not mind the length of RED MARS, but at times, I confess to being a bit bored and wondered…Where is this story going? However, I did stick it out and the payoff was decent. It stands alone as a novel, without the kind of cliffhangers that drive you to the second book. Will I read the next two books in the trilogy? Probably yes, but not this summer.
1899, A No-spoiler Review
If you liked the television series LOST and you’re a fan of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese (creators of DARK) you will want to log into to your Netflix account and start streaming 1899 now. With that said, I give warning, a second season was not renewed. For some, this will be a reason not to watch. However, I wonder if buzz about the show might result in the approval of a second season. I hope so because I really want to understand this world that falls into the category of mystery/paranormal/science fiction.
First, the short review
4 Reasons to Watch the series, 1899
- Excellent production overall, with creepy settings and period costumes
- Well-acted by a diversity of performers, many of whom are new to the American audience, though a few starred in DARK
- Lots of tension and mystery
- Claustrophobic and isolating setting. Ocean-going vessel all alone on the open seas (well…sort of alone)
A Longer Review
1899 is free to Netflix subscribers. Eight episodes make up the first season. I rate it R for sexual content and some violence.
Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese bring to the screen this mind-twisting mystery with a style that broods and draws in its audience. That style will be familiar to fans of Odar and Friese’s imaginative work in the time-travel story, DARK.
1899 opens with the main character, Maura Franklin-Singleton, played by Emily Beecham, waking from a nightmare. The viewer quickly learns that Maura is living in another century. The title of the series is a helpful reference point as are the period costumes. Maura is also aboard an ocean liner with hundreds of other passengers, on its way to America from Europe. She appears to be traveling alone.
From the first moment of the longer narrative arc, confusion about reality is introduced to the viewer through the character of Maura. Her nightmare before waking is a terrifying scene in what seems to be a sanitorium for the mentally ill. She is strapped into a chair and given an injection while the command WAKE UP jolts her out of sleep and into the “real” world. The audience, along with Maura, sense the nightmare holds a degree of reality as she views the red marks on her wrists, where in the nightmare, she was strapped to the chair. She quickly covers those up with her long, victorian sleeves, and heads to the ship’s upper-class dining hall. To add drama to this ship’s community at large, there is a large portion of underclass people living below deck for the duration of the cruise.
Waking from a dream becomes a thread throughout the story as other characters, some of her fellow travelers, experience dreaming and waking to the same command, WAKE UP. The stories of these characters are slowly woven together into a climax that truly surprises.
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, A Review with Minor Spoilers
The third and final science fiction novel written by CS Lewis, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, is touted by some as a fantasy novel. I hesitate to go deeper to explain why that might be, for fear of spoiling, but let’s just say that the story takes place on Earth, not in space, and one of the key characters who acts in a miraculous and decisive way to defeat the enemy, is a wonderfully fantastical character.
As I have talked with friends who have read all three, I get different answers about which is the “favorite” in the trilogy. There are individuals who love Out of the Silent Planet. I personally like it for its length…it is as short as a novella and a tight little narrative. Others love Perelandra. I appreciate Perelandra, but there are portions where reading was a chore. For me, THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is the true novel. It is my favorite of the three.
The Short Review: 5 Reasons I Recommend THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH
- Compelling main character(s) both grappling with interior life, particularly with identity and faith
- A rich setting, a modern academic world and progressive (Lewis’ words) university leadership that feels creepy, yet familiar
- An amorphous and terrifying villain, well written and historically relevant
- In the midst of the horror, a comedic twist that feels like a Shakespeare switch-a-roo
- A companion novel to 1984. Many minds in this era of the 20th century understood the tyranny of government control. Lewis and Orwell were cut from that same cloth. Warnings that are relevant today and always.
For me, the young married couple, Mark and Jane, makes this story compelling in a way that is unique among the three novels in the trilogy. Jane is a crucial player and well developed. In the previous novels Lewis did not present the reader with a compelling female lead who was relatable. The Perelandra Queen is wonderful, but otherworldly. Jane, in this book, is utterly relatable. Her discomfiture with domestic life, her struggle with a husband who is caught up in his own professional world, felt deeply real. Mark is also real. Lewis highlights his hubris and insecurity, showing the reader how one might choose to align oneself with a horrific community. Mark’s longing for belonging, his hope for recognition are powerful human motivators and have the capacity to diminish the moral spine, especially if that spine is wobbly (as Mark’s is). Despite Mark’s poor choices, I got the feeling that Lewis, like the deity he knows and loves, has not given up on this lost soul. When Mark sinks low enough and faces the worst of himself, there is a promise of redemption.
THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH is a story with complex layers. The deeper conversation about nations and their “haunting” is a topic I will not cover in this review, but in case you’re wanting to understand more, an article in The Imaginative Conservative called America’s “Logres”: The Mythology of a Nation helped me muse on what might be the American Haunting. That conversation is a crossover of the spiritual and the literary and takes the reader deeper into the mind of CS Lewis and those who were writing in like spirit, JRR Tolkien being one of those writers.
DON’T WORRY DARLING, A Film Review
DON’T WORRY DARLING is a feature-length film, streamable on HBO after a limited release in theaters. This film, produced and directed by Olivia Wilde, provides a semi-new twist on an old science fiction trope. I won’t say what that trope is in the short review, however it is likely to be sniffed out by the scifi fan. It’s pretty obvious. Also, as typical with HBO productions, the sex scenes are explicit and emotionally intense. I give it an R rating because of those scenes, otherwise, it might have been a film the whole family could watch and talk about. Ah well…
First, the No-Spoiler Short Review
5 Reasons DON’T WORRY DARLING is a fun watch
- Gorgeous highly stylized mid-century modern setting
- Beautiful actors
- The fashion and hair are worth the price of admission
- Eerie undertones and mystery that slowly ramp up tension
- Semi-cathartic ending
3 Ways DON’T WORRY DARLING missed the mark
- I’ve watched and read various versions of highly controlled utopias. The story trajectory of DON’T WORRY DARLING was predictable. Add a few cliches here and there…and its style begins to feel overwrought.
- This film tries to make a statement about marriage by catering to a type of male fantasy around men as providers and women as housewives/stay at home wives. It did not match up to others of this story type in complexity or power, like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
- I wasn’t convinced in the characters themselves, that Jack (played by Harry Styles) in particular, would make the choices he makes
Longer Review (beware of spoilers)
DON’T WORRY DARLING showcases the creative vision of director, Olivia Wilde, along with writers/screenwriters Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke and Katie Silberman.
In the film, Olivia Wilde puts to the screen a utopia in a Southern California desert, a place where beautiful couples live in a 1950s-like fantasy world. Think, Leave It to Beaver, but with racy sex.
Traditional roles underpin the community’s existence. The husbands work each weekday. The wives stay home and though some cleaning and cooking is required of them, they otherwise sip cocktails, take ballet lessons, swim, sunbathe and shop. Children are mostly absent with a few exceptions, but the overall picture is one of leisure and luxury. Hardly a problem exists until one of its female members (a secondary character) goes off the rails and displays what the leader of the community deems irrational, mentally disturbed behavior. The film audience knows that this woman’s rants are the beginning of an unravelling.
The main character, Alice (Florence Pugh) witnesses the suicide of the troubled woman, Margaret, someone she had considered a friend. In trying to help Margaret after she both slits her throat and throws herself from a rooftop, Alice is commandeered and quieted into submission by men in red jumpsuits who seem to police the community. After this, she falls under the treatment of the community’s doctor, is offered meds, and given electroshock therapy. The therapy backfires and causes Alice to remember her “real life”. Everything she is experiencing in this utopia is false, a virtual reality that her husband has committed her to, for reasons that were challenging for me to understand. In theory, her husband loves her and wants this ideal utopia for them both, but by the end, he is willing to subdue her himself, forcibly. My best guess is that he was wanting to give his wife a good life but could not in reality. In real life she is a surgeon, so some of the logic breaks down here because I could not figure out (on one viewing) how he was able to afford this virtual reality without his wife working. Possibly, the “work” he is doing each day is something illegal, and his secrecy about it is a trade he makes for a virtual paradise. However, he is basically imprisoning his wife and forcing her into an identity of his making. That is evil and perhaps Wilde is trying to show via hyperbole, how this can sometimes be the case in an actual marriage. However, the lesson feels forced to me as does the story overall.
Despite that, the film did entertain and I enjoyed the setting, clothing and hair, an artistic landscape with a story that almost measured up to the visual style.
PERELANDRA, A Review
PERELANDRA is the second installment in CS Lewis’ space trilogy. Below is my no-spoiler short review, but the longer review that follows the image of PERELANDRA’s cover, will contain spoilers…beware. This is not a children’s book, but I recommend this novel to all ages who like the story. For all readers, taking the time to discuss after or along the way will deepen philosophical and theological understanding.
Link to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET for a review of the first book in the trilogy.
5 Reasons to Read PERELANDRA, A Classic Science Fiction Story
- One of the more unique portrayals in literature of paradise and/or a pre-fallen world
- Beautiful CS Lewis prose
- The ideas are put forward clearly and by someone well acquainted with 20th century ideas
- Finally…a strong female character (there were none in the first novel)
- Read all three to make sense of what Lewis was trying to accomplish in the longer narrative arc
3 Reasons PERELANDRA is My Least Favorite of the Trilogy
- There are so few characters and the villain does not arrive until about 1/3 of the way into the book
- Not a lot of drama…there is a slow build and eventually, high drama, but it takes the novel a while to arrive (see #1)
- A lot of speech-making in the final pages. Interesting ideas, but coming at me in my least favorite non-dramatic package
The Longer Review (With Spoilers)
While PERELANDRA is my least favorite of the three books Lewis wrote in the scifi genre, it does have its merits.
For one, anyone who has read his Narnia books, knows how well CS Lewis puts his imagination on the page. He has the ability to create a world both strange and fabulous and took on a bold task to put before the reader a paradise, a pre-civilization and pre-fallen planet with only two human-like people. Basically, he created an Eden. And how would one write this in a convincing way?
This excerpt, one of many examples…just gorgeous.
Now he had come to a part of the wood where great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees–clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of a balloon-man and about the same size. He picked one of them and turned it over and over. The rind was smooth and firm and seemed impossible to tear open. Then by accident, one of his fingers punctured it and went through into coldness. After a moment’s hesitation, he put the little aperture to his lips. He had meant to extract the smallest experimental sip, but the first taste put his caution all to flight. It was, of course, a taste, just as his thirst and hunger had been thirst and hunger. But then it was so different than any other taste that it seemed a mere pedantry to call it taste at all. It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasure, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant. For one draught of this on earth wars would be fought and nations betrayed.
Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is the narrator here. He was also the protagonist in Out of the Silent Planet. In this excerpt, he is telling his tale to a fictionalized version of CS Lewis after returning from his mission to the planet Perelandra. Ransom was sent to Perelandra by the angelic ruler of Mars (Malacandra). The reader is acquainted with this ruler from the previous book. In Out of the Silent Planet, Ransom is kidnapped and brought to Malacandra. That is where he meets Oyarsa, the ruler of Mars. Oyarsa does make an appearance in this novel, as does Weston, one of the academics who kidnapped Ransom in the first story. Weston, the primary rival to Ransom, acts as the tempter in this narrative. He does this not by his own cleverness and strength, but by something more frightening. Weston has given himself over to the bent angelic ruler of Earth, Satan. After Weston arrives on Perelandra in his space vessel, Ransom comes to understand his mission, that he has been sent to thwart the bent Oyarsa by thwarting Weston.
In the story, Weston is an academic with the worst intellectual vices; hubris combined with a flamboyant humanism that borders on narcissism. Tragically, he falls under a true evil in his search of spiritual answers to the mysteries he experienced on Malacandra. Weston’s journey into evil reads like something out of a horror novel (or the Bible).
“Idiot,” said Weston. His voice was almost a howl and he had risen to his feet. “Idiot,” he repeated. “Can you understand nothing?…This is the old accursed dualism in another form. There is no possible distinction in concrete thought between me and the universe. In so far as I am the conductor of the central forward pressure of the universe, I am it. Do you see, you timid, scruple-mongering fool? I am the Universe. I, Weston, am your God and your Devil. I call the Force into me completely…”
Then horrible things began happening. A spasm like that preceding a deadly vomit twisted Weston’s face out of recognition. As it passed, for one second something like the old Weston reappeared–the Old Weston, staring with eyes of horror and howling, “Ransom, Ransom! For Christ’s sake don’t let them—” and instantly his whole body spun round as if he had been hit by a revolver-bullet and he fell to the earth, and was there rolling at Ransom’s feet, slavering and chattering and tearing up the moss by the handfuls…
I was in my thirties the last time I read PERELANDRA and I did not remember how clearly this Weston character gives himself over to evil. Nor did I remember that Ransom comes to the realization that he will have to destroy Weston in hand to hand combat if he is to defeat him.
That Ransom believes he must assassinate his rival provoked my horror. Moreover, the scenes of his battle with Weston are brutal. Lewis does not hold back on that reality, but the idea of this existential battle brought to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Lewis might never have known Bonhoeffer personally, but the ideas Bonhoeffer was writing about and preaching about (in Hitler’s Germany) were likely familiar to him…as they were to every thinking Christian of the time.
Bonhoeffer, while struggling to be a faithful clergy member under Nazi rule in Germany, came to terms with the idea that it was in fact a righteous or just act to kill a man who had fully given himself over to evil. That is why Bonhoeffer was executed in the end, as he played a role in an assassination attempt against Hitler. Below is an excerpt of a sermon on Colossians 3:1-4, a sermon he gave most likely after he had made the decision to collaborate with a part of the resistance determined to assassinate the Fürher.
“Instead, and precisely because our minds are set on things above, we are that much more stubborn and purposeful in protesting here on earth… Does it have to be so that Christianity, which began as immensely revolutionary, now has to remain conservative for all time? That every new movement has to blaze its path without the church, and that the church always takes twenty years to see what has actually happened? If it really must be so, then we must not be surprised when, for our church as well, times come when the blood of martyrs will be demanded. But this blood, if we truly have the courage and honour and loyalty to shed it, will not be so innocent and shining as that of the first witnesses. Our blood will be overlaid with our own great guilt.” (DBW 11, 446) (Schlingensiepen, Kindle Location 2427)
Bonhoeffer’s words evoke the idea that a conservative church is potentially an anemic one. His mention of our great guilt in the sermon I took two ways. One, the church is guilty when it does not act (or waits too long) to stand up to evil. Two, if it does join the revolutionaries, it potentially falls under the guilt of questionable acts. When evil can only be defeated by an act that lays outside of the norm of Christian ethics, there is plenty of guilt to go around. However, Bonhoeffer did not shrink back from taking on that guilt for what he (and history) thought to be the greater good. Moreover, his writings on this remain strong pillars in just-war theory and the Christian struggle with realism versus pacifism.
Lewis travels a similar line of reasoning in this novel and it should not surprise the reader that when the character Ransom leaves the planet Perelandra, he leaves having accomplished his task, but with a wound on his foot that refuses to heal this side of heaven.
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, A No Spoiler Review
OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, by CS Lewis came about as a result of a coin toss between JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the 1930s. The understanding between the two men; one side of the coin would mean writing a science fiction novel, the other side would mean writing a time travel novel. The coin was tossed, Lewis was assigned the scifi novel. Tolkien was assigned the time travel novel. Tolkien never wrote his. Lewis did, published in 1938, twelve years before Narnia. In fact, he wound up writing three books of science fiction. OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, which I will review here, was the first. This story is sophisticated, but there is no reason a YA reader or a very learned middle grade reader cannot take on this story. For educators thinking about assigning this book to a young person, a solid discussion on the story would make the experience a profound one.
The Short Review: 4 Reasons to Read OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET
- Superb writing and because this is CS Lewis, when you’re finished reading, your brain will have expanded
- Scintillating ideas that awaken the conscience…Plunge yourself into the mindset of a WWI veteran and a brilliant observer of history and soak in Lewis’ crucial critique of pre-WWII Europe
- Absorb Lewis’ Christian concept of God/Creator…the beauty and the moral implications
- Gain a vision for the power of fiction (imaginative science fiction in particular) as a way to change hearts and minds.
A Few More Details:
When Lewis and his friend and colleague, JRR Tolkien, both veterans of WWI, decided to toss that coin, they had been musing together about the sad state of fiction. They believed that the godless universe theory unleashed to some degree by Darwinists and proponents of the Hegelian superstate/superman, was giving rise to real beliefs (like eugenics which both understood as dangerous and evil) inside academia and government. More troublesome, these theories were making their way into fiction and infecting the broader population through story.
Americans fought in WWII and helped to defeat Hitler, so my nation (I am a US citizen) often forgets how the eugenics movement in the US was accepted and backed by some of our highest state actors, like President Woodrow Wilson. We in the US forget, maybe conveniently so, that we too were traveling on a similar road as the Nazis. This is how pervasive these ideas were and back in that day, they were considered progressive. It turns out, anything can be labeled progressive. A cautionary and hopefully humbling reminder to us in the 21st century.
Marxist ideology was also suspect in Lewis’ eyes. Both Marxism and Fascism preached an exercising of power where the end justifies the means. That idea was an abomination to Lewis and Tolkien, the rejection of which made its ways into the Lord of Rings trilogy, as it did into all of Lewis’ writings. As Christians (Lewis, an Anglican, Tolkien, a Catholic), they challenged the idea that the state has permission to sacrifice an individual for some greater good, not without that individual willingly giving up her/his life, soldiers willing to fight to defeat the existential enemy of a free state being one example of this proper sacrifice, something both of these men witnessed first hand.
In regard to reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET, knowing a little 20th century history and philosophy definitely helps the reader enter into the world of Elwin Ransom, the hero of the story, but even without that knowledge, this is a fascinating and well written tale. Ransom, a philologist, is on a walking tour of rural England. He is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra (the planet Mars). What unfolds is a story about relationship and curiosity (Ransom’s journey) versus dominance exercised by violence (the journey of his kidnappers). The narrative provides a resolution that exemplifies the idea that there is a standard of justice that is literally universal.
This is my third time reading OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET (notice my beat-up copy in the image above…not sure it will survive another read-through) and after finishing the book this round, I found myself dreaming about grace and kindness and goodness while I slept…something that doesn’t often happen for me after reading science fiction before bed.
12 MONKEYS A No-Spoiler Review
My son is visiting Wisconsin and after work, we are alternatingly choosing films to watch together. Two nights ago, we watched a horror flick he chose called Hereditary, which was decent, not awesome, but was made by the same film company that produced Ex Machina(which I loved and realizing now, I have never reviewed this flick on my site…must amend).
Last night, we watched 12 MONKEYS on Amazon Prime for $3.99. This film would probably be rated PG-13 today. No sexual content really, just creepy apocalyptic tension. And wow! This is still an awesome film and has aged well. Today, I asked my GenZ kid…What do you think? Would most GenZers like this film?
It’s been a while since I’ve watched 12 MONKEYS, but given my vague memory of it, I thought…might be worth the time.
One pleasure, as an older film fan, was to remember Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt remarkably in the same film. Not sure it happened in any other, but what Terry Gilliam delivered on the screen between these two, was close to perfection. This is possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting and if you’re a fan, you’re gonna have to watch. A few images below underlie my point.
First, my Short Review: 4 Reasons You Want to Watch 12 MONKEYS
- Weird and dystopian tale, echoing Blade Runner in tone and style.
- One of Terry Gilliam’s masterpieces
- Possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting
- Bruce Willis playing his iconic gritty and misunderstood character
- Great storytelling
Just cannot get enough of these scenes, shots of these two iconic men, culture-impacting actors for the last 30 years.
The Longer Review
Sometimes when you re-watch a film like 12 MONKEYS, you wonder how it’s gonna age. As an older person, you think (because you have experienced this before), was I impressed because of something slightly superficial and trite, or was this film truly great? With this flick, you need not worry. 12 MONKEYS delivers on so many levels. First, it delivers on weirdness of setting, including its gritty urban reality. My son (25yo), who has watched Blade Runner understood the dystopian aesthetic of this world. He even commented on the similarity. That, in and of itself, makes me feel I am doing my job training up my children. Second, 12 MONKEYS delivers on story. There is a clear protagonist, a vaguely enormous villain (that proves to be more personal in the final scenes) and enough mystery to keep the audience in tension. Finally, there is weirdness and surprise and the best aspects of science fiction where the perspective being put forward from one or two of the characters absolutely blows up the assumptions and values of the audience. And, if nothing else, respect these images…bizarre and gorgeous. Terry Gilliam is a genius.
FOR ALL MANKIND, A No Spoiler Review
Apple Plus released its third season of FOR ALL MANKIND this month. I have not viewed any of the 3rd season but I did watch all of 1 and 2 and loved them. What follows will be the short review and a longer review of season 1 and 2. If you’re convinced by the short review…start watching now. If you need a little more data, the longer review will give you a better idea of why this many hours of consumption might be worth your time. The show is rated R for a few racy sex scenes, but if your young person can handle that, the education piece is interesting. A bit of history can be etched out or explained as some of the “alternative” version comes across the screen. It’s portrayal of communist USSR rings true. It also captures something of the spirit of the age for each decade, especially the urgency around the space race of the 1960s.
The Short Review: 6 Reasons I Recommend FOR ALL MANKIND
- If you love alternative history narratives like The Man in the High Castle, you will appreciate this story
- If you love nostalgia settings and music, think Stranger Things, you will love being immersed in this story-world, which starts in the 1960s, but spans decades.
- Most of us appreciate great casting. FOR ALL MANKIND will not disappoint
- Top-notch production value, this includes the writing, the special effects and the acting
- Good pacing. A lot of action, drama and tension throughout
- A thoughtful story. A sprinkling of social commentary for our current time…some of that commentary I liked, some I felt was contrived, but the ideas are worthy of our attention
The Longer Review: (this review contains a couple of small spoilers)
The USSR and the US are in a space race in this alternative history, set during the cold war. The USSR has landed on the moon first, claimed it as territory, and has aims to build a military compound. This traumatizes the US as a nation. The first episode captures the feeling well as it feels like a gut-punch watching the Soviet flag raised on the moon and hearing the first words of the Russian Cosmonaut as he takes the first steps…The Walter Cronkite figure on the television news reports as follows:
The first man to set foot on the moon spoke just moments ago. “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”
FOR ALL MANKIND was created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Outlander), Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. They take the “what if Russia had landed on the moon before we did” scenario and create a similar history to our own, but with differences that intrigue. The writers, I surmise, are progressive in their leanings because progressive values make their way into the script and into a historically white male dominated NASA long before reality. Sometimes, it feels heavy-handed, like the writers are checking the boxes of gender and racial diversity. However, the results do make for a delightfully diverse cast.
In episode 1, the audience meets Margo Madison (pictured above, played by Wrenn Schmidt) at the beginning point of her NASA career where she is the only woman in the male dominated control center. By season 2, she emerges as NASA’s head.
By the finale of season 2, women, a couple of non-binary individuals (though they keep their gender preferences a secret), African Americans and even a Mexican female immigrant who came over the border illegally as a child, are recruited by the NASA of FOR ALL MANKIND. And who can say it might not have been this way had the US felt the pressure of its failure to land first on the moon? Also, the Soviets promote the first female astronaut, shaming the US for its lack of representation.
All the characters are well-drawn and most are courageous and longsuffering in various ways. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Hanna and Altered Carbon) plays Ed Baldwin, an astronaut with a big mouth who in a drunken state reveals to a reporter how NASA lost the space race because of an aversion to risk. He is punished for the reveal (taken off astronaut duty and given a desk job), but his words capture NASA’s very real dilemma. In order to stay equal to, or to get ahead of the USSR, risks will have to be taken. Many characters of significance will lose their lives to achieve the elusive prize of space dominance.
This is where the series gives commentary on current society as it poses the questions that plague our century…Who will dominate the future? US and free societies (in general) have dominated the global order since WWII, but that prize came at a great cost to many of our ancestors. We have inherited something hard fought, but that inheritance is being challenged and chipped away by those who see themselves as more deserving of dominance…and perhaps they are, but some moments in history, even national failures, have the capacity to motivate a new generation of warriors. That message shines through in FOR ALL MANKIND.
SEVERANCE, A No Spoiler Review
6 Reasons You Want to Watch Severance
- Two unique settings within a contained, small-story universe. (I will write more about this in the longer review)
- Amazing cast. Adam Scott as the stoic lead, Mark, with a supporting cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken
- Superb characterization and story-telling. The main character and all of the secondaries are complex, layered and quirky, adding to the slow-building tension
- The underlying moral and symbolic truths within the story are not yet fully baked but seem promising.
- This show has a slow ramp-up to gripping tension at the climax of this first season
- More to watch in the future because this past month, Apple approved a second season.
The Longer Review
SEVERANCE is an Apple+ production, the first season is complete, streamable now and free for subscribers.
Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller, SEVERANCE is not a comedy. It falls into dystopian mystery with a scifi vibe. A futuristic technology at the center of the story, allows those who work at a company called Lumon Industries, to surgically divide their memories between their work and personal lives. Those individuals are called The Severed. Most of the other tech is familiar and not so modern, for example, people still drive cars around the town.
I give this series a PG rating…it’s possible it will warrant a different rating later on, but so far the mystery is more Hitchcock than Ridley Scott. My ratings usually reflect the graphic nature of the show and not the themes which in this case are harrowing for my adult brain. Would kids enjoy the show? Probably not. You won’t see explicit gore, but you will feel tortured for these characters at the center of the story, in part because of their vulnerability, which is childlike. The value in watching it with your teen would be to discuss the ethics that emerge around the tech that is at the heart of the story.
Regarding the setting. There are two primary “worlds” in SEVERANCE that exemplify the two worlds inhabited by the employees of Lumon.
One setting is work, the Lumon Industries office building. It feels familiar upon entering, but creepily weird the deeper in you go. The interior design is sterile, with strangely vacant work spaces and long labyrinth-like hallways. The four employees the audience follows most closely work in a large white room with no windows or access to the outside world. They are forbidden to interact with employees from other areas of the building and spend their days huddled around computers doing a job that the audience sees, but doesn’t really understand. In fact, even these employees don’t fully understand what they do, how they do it and why. It’s described as something they feel. Their work is just one of many aspects of this situation that give rise to a suspicion about Lumon. Most of the workers, including Mark (Adam Scott) submit to the rules of the company. There are a few exceptions and those exceptions give rise to Mark’s suspicion about Lumon.
The second world is Mark’s town. This is a cold, dreary place. It feels like it could be Alaska or Canada and is probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. The cold and the dark and size of the town adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, something that permeates this story. Darkness also dovetails with the theme of grief. In episode 1, the audience learns that Mark’s reason for severing came about because of the death of his wife. Mark lives in a housing complex owned by Lumon where it becomes clear, he is monitored unbeknownst to him.
My recommendation to watch SEVERANCE comes with the caveat that I’m still not sure where the story is going. I have viewed the first season and loved every episode. Not everyone enjoys a slow build to a gripping climax, but I do when it’s done well and SEVERANCE does it well. So, if you’re tempted to stop after episode 1 or 2, don’t. The tension ratchets up and up and mysteries become creepier as the conspiracy is partially unveiled.
In my next post, I hope to discuss summer reading which will include:
THE BATMAN, God and Justice. Warning: So Many Spoilers
Last night I had the privilege of watching Matt Reeve’s THE BATMAN. I enjoyed the film, though it was tough to watch, a tense experience. Graphic violence is implied more than shown, but evil and darkness are palpable in every scene. Not that the film isn’t a beautifully crafted story…it is, but the narrative, the special effects and dingy, but stylized setting of Gotham give evidence of evil in every frame. It’s pouring rain and night during most of THE BATMAN and of those scenes shot in the day, skies are gray.
Of course, this is a familiar setting for our comic book hero, the Dark Knight, but what is less familiar is the tone of utter hopelessness associated with that darkness. Violence plagues the city of Bruce Wayne. In the opening sequence, it is Halloween night and masked hoodlums run wild across Gotham causing mayhem, and at one point a gang of them threaten an Asian American man in a subway station, hitting too close to home for many of us. Halloween is also the night the Riddler commits his first murder.
The brutality of humanity is on display in THE BATMAN, begging the question: When is a society so corrupt, so evil, so far gone, there is no hope of renewal and it must be destroyed? This film earned a PG-13 rating. It’s possible a mature teen could watch this and grapple with the question posed above (and elaborated on at the end of this review). It’s a hard question, but one that pops up in stories across our society because it is true.
Batman versus the Riddler draws out themes of righteousness and justice. In certain respects, both men are the same. Both are trying to root out corruption, Both are straining toward a just society. Batman roots out injustice by defending the good guys and working within the system. Though outside the formal police force, his link to Lt. Gordon cannot be denied, nor can anyone doubt his insider status as Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son of a beloved city father. The Riddler however, also an orphan, stands on the outside. He roots out evil by exposing it, by punishing via execution and making a public example of those who have betrayed justice. The Riddler’s first murder is the mayor of the city and subsequently other politicians and law enforcement, those caretakers of Gotham who have made their beds with the mob. Because of these assassinations and the attention he draws to corruption, Batman along with the audience are forced to focus on what is a massively broken system at the highest levels of the city.
The audience wonders whether ANY politicians or police are clean in Gotham, and can such evil be undone when the gatekeepers of justice have become those who perpetrate injustice? The Riddler sees no way out but total destruction.
On the narrative journey, Batman faces truths about his own father. The idealism with which he has viewed his parentage is shattered, evoking for me the psalmist’s words from Psalm 14, text lifted by the Apostle Paul and placed in his letter to the Romans.
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is none who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
Why do I include this? In the film, I think Reeves is trying to make a theological point. I bend toward theological rather than philosophical because the powerful reality (loaded imagery) at the end of the film is a flood…as in Noah and the Biblical account of the destruction of evil.
In THE BATMAN, the Riddler has set up bombs that line the seawall on Gotham’s perimeter. The Riddler has determined that Gotham is irredeemable. Gotham must die, drown or be cleansed of its evil if the water imagery is to be understood. Only then will it be reborn. A flood to destroy evil? This is as old a tale as humanity, understood within Judaism, Islam and Christianity as that time in the past when society was so broken, nearly every living thing had to be destroyed in order for evil to be rooted out. The Riddler sets himself up as God and judge. He determines that Gotham is a total loss. Total destruction is the ONLY remedy.
Batman represents another side of this argument. Don’t miss the fact that Selina (the Catwoman character wonderfully portrayed by Zöe Kravitz), tries to coax Batman to remove himself permanently from Gotham. I can’t recall her final words to Batman precisely, but they were something like…staying here and trying to save Gotham will kill you.
That comment is an homage to a redemptive sacrifice and Batman as Christ figure…sort of…The audience already knows how much life has been sapped out of the young Bruce Wayne because of his mission to avenge his father but also to help Gotham. Batman’s motives are often mixed here. Interestingly, this Batman, the Reeves’ Batman grows. He realizes that vengeance is not the full story of how he must respond to evil. To truly honor his dead father and mother, he must do more. He must minister good to the people of Gotham. Two images of Batman in the final scenes make my point. One is him diving into the abyss, lighting his flare and leading innocent people by hand, out of the flood, out of judgment. The other is him helping a wounded girl on a stretcher and holding her hand as she seeks his assurance and is flown away to safety, to healing. Why the hand? There is something about connection to humanity with the touch, a touch that is gentle, not violent.
The Russia Ukrainian War is raging as I write. Yesterday, Russian planes targeted a bomb shelter in Mariupol, a place holding hundreds of children and women. On the ground on either side of this structure, the Ukrainians had written in Russian the words “children” in very large script, large enough to see from the air. How do we as a society grapple with such evil and the destruction of so many innocents? (The number of dead is still undetermined…I will correct this when the fog of war has dissipated.)
Update: on March 25, it was believe that 300 had died in the bombing. In early May, after a thorough AP investigation, it was revealed that 600 likely died in Mariupol theater airstrike.
So, I end with this image, Jesus of Sinai, Pantocrator, an icon from the the 6th century. For Christians of the 6th century, most of whom were illiterate, icons like this were essential to their faith because embedded within each icon are theological truths. For them, looking at an icon was like reading a holy text. With Jesus of Sinai, notice the weird lighting on his face, one darker side and one side lighter. That is intentional. Why? The post-modern viewer might not discern what his face represents but to early Christians, they represent two sides of the creator as God looks out over humanity. If you put up your hand and cover one side of the Messiah’s face, you see a bright and compassionate mouth and eye. When you cover the other side, you see a darker eye, an angry glare. The iconographer and the theologians of that time understood that both are sides of God and both are legitimate responses to a broken humanity. The story of God as laid out in the Bible is of God grappling daily with a society gone wrong. On one hand, he is merciful and forgiving, on the other, he is vengeful and ready to punish. Current people of faith struggle with that darker view of God but might do well to ponder it. Noah and the flood tell its story as do Jesus and the cross. And here we see the author of the new Batman series exploring both reactions to evil, but favoring mercy in the end.
We live in a complicated world, but some truths/questions find their way into our art, even if that art is embodied by a comic book character.
Kudos to Reeves for attempting something really big in his portrayal of THE BATMAN.