TRAIN TO BUSAN is the story of a father and daughter trying to make their way from Seoul to Busan. While on that journey, a viral outbreak that turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, begins to ravage the country.
TRAIN TO BUSAN, set in Korea, is subtitled for English (and other language) speakers. This film was written for the screen by Sang-Ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park and directed by Yeon. The film would probably receive a PG-13 rating for gore, the zombie kind, nothing worse that what you might see on AMC’s The Walking Dead. You can view this film for free if you are an Amazon Prime member. I loved it. In fact, I think the writing is brilliant.
Click here for the film’s trailer.
- Perfect writing/storytelling, including the pacing that ramps up quickly at about 10 minutes in
- Sympathetic characters. The father/daughter story at the heart puts this zombie flick in a category above most others
- Another fresh setting. By now, if you’ve read a few of my reviews, you know I am an advocate of consuming stories told outside of the Hollywood bubble
- Once the action starts, it doesn’t stop and much of it takes place in the close confines of a train or a train station
- A pitch-perfect ending
You may or may not be a fan of zombie stories. If you’re a fan, you have plenty to choose from and have probably already seen TRAIN TO BUSAN. If not, drop everything you’re doing and watch now. However, even if you don’t love zombie flicks, this story and the characters that inhabit it might win you over.
Seok-woo, a divorced father of one 10yo (or so) daughter, Soo-an, is a fund manager who works long hours. While he works, his mother cares for his daughter. They are based in Seoul, Korea. On the day the audience meets this family (the first minutes of the film), Soo-an is anticipating her birthday on the following day. She longs to be with her mother on her birthday. The problem, her mother lives in Busan, so Seok-woo must decide if he will accompany his daughter to Busan during a time when he is overwhelmed with work. He decides he will. In the first minutes, the audience has learned he has NOT been the most attentive father due to his demanding job. Is it guilt or something else that urges him to make this decision?
The decision is a sacrifice from his perspective, though he assumes he will be able to go very early in the morning, deposit his daughter in Busan and still return to Seoul to work a half day. The train trip (normally) is about 3 hours.
However, as they embark on the journey, a few unusual situations emerge, scenes the audience anticipates and knows are signs of something gone wrong.
The father and daughter board the train. The audience meets a number of the passengers, those who will become important characters in the story, and at the last minute, the zombie sickness manages to board with them.
The rest of the narrative is not a simple zombie story. Seok-woo must fight and learn to sacrifice, not just for his daughter, but for others. While he journeys, he will have many teachers, including his daughter. Amid all the stress, he grows and changes.
I gave this film a 10-star rating on IMdb, the highest available as I am becoming a huge fan of South Korean cinema. I LOVE the epic nature of the stories that are emerging from their film makers and will seek out more in the coming year. *stay tuned!
During COVID, I have been watching older science fiction films, whose theatrical release I might have missed. EQUILIBRIUM falls into that category. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, starring Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs and Emily Watson, this film is rated R for violence, released in 2002. You can rent it as an Amazon Prime member for 4 dollars.
I recommend this film. It’s not the most thoughtful science fiction around, but it was entertaining on a few levels.
Short Review, 4 Reasons to watch
- Christian Bale gives a nice performance
- The one idea that drives the plot does create tension and makes the audience think at least a little…(see longer review)
- Stylized fight scenes–if you like martial arts/Matrix type battles
- Tight, linear story…easy to follow (given I just watched Tenet in the theater, it’s nice to watch a film that is relatively straightforward)
Earth exists in a dystopian reality, post WWIII, led by a man the population calls Father, though the ruling powers are likely something broader than one man. These decision makers have determined that Earth will not make it through another world war and have created a rigid society for the sake of survival. Emotion is outlawed, so are all things associated with emotion, in the film’s case: art, music, nostalgia items, love/affection, sensual pleasure, pets. The ruling class gives the population a drug to dampen emotions. Most faithfully take their doses a few times a day, including Bale’s character, John Preston. Preston is called a cleric, which the audience learns is a highly trained enforcer of the government’s anti-emotion policy. He roots out the rebels and those who indulge in art of all types.
The incident that brings upheaval into Preston’s life is when his partner Partridge, played by Sean Bean, steals a poetry book they had confiscated. Preston confronts him when he catches Partridge reading Yeats for his own pleasure. He is sentenced to death, but not before he reads a few lines of poetry out loud. Soon after, Preston discovers Patridge’s lover, played by Emily Watson. When he realizes that his former partner had gone down this road toward emotions, even falling in love…it seems, he cannot go back….something in him is triggered.
The unraveling continues as Preston dreams and recalls his wife’s conviction and execution. She was caught “feeling” outside the bounds of what the society permitted. His son is a rigid rule keeper, but his daughter is obviously more emotional and possibly disturbed (who wouldn’t be in this world?). Preston stops taking the drug and begins to truly feel a lot more. His new partner, Brandt, played by Taye Diggs, begins to notice his odd behavior. In the meantime, the rebels begin to recruit Preston. They want him to kill Father.
There is a strange interaction between Preston and the leader of the rebels where the leader makes sure that Preston cannot allow himself to feel if he is going to do the job he needs to do. The leader also indicates that he himself buried his feelings. That raises an interesting question about feelings and soldiers who are called upon by society to perform a “justified” killing. The audience can see in this a reflection of Father’s maintenance of the population…Father has told his followers that they must not feel in order to perform righteously. I think the audience is supposed to ponder this and reflect on what it means to kill another human being (like killing the spirit of the person by outlawing art!), but the interaction does pass by pretty quickly and there is no further discussion on it. Moreover, many people die in this film, so if we’re supposed to feel horrible about murder/a crazy amount of killing…hmm…not sure.
There are almost zero female characters in EQUILIBRIUM, which begs the question…
Is a non-emotional world a place where women have a hard time existing? I suspect so, at least in this film world. All of the female characters who have significant screen time (which isn’t much) are in the rebel category. Even Mona Lisa cannot exist in this world. (Da Vinci’s masterpiece is destroyed in an early scene). I appreciated the Emily Watson character, but she is one among six guys who dominate every scene. I realize a lot of folks don’t care about this issue…but I like to contemplate…Does it have to be this way? Would this film say something deeper and broader about humanity if one of the hardcore cleric characters was a woman? Or maybe the filmmaker was showing us what a world might look like without women, without mothering, nurturing and emotional connection…and maybe without them…art could not exist. That is an interesting idea, but I don’t think this film quite got us there.
Good science fiction does often grapple with the question, what does it mean to be human? The equilibrium sought out by the government in this film, is tentative and only possible because of the numbing of the population through a constant intake of a drug. EQUILIBRIUM portrays characters who will forego taking the drug, are willing to die and choose to sacrifice all for the sake of feeling. Art, poetry, music, love, affection and warmth in relationships…we cannot be human without them. We cannot live without them.
For that reason, I found EQUILIBRIUM a hopeful picture of humanity. Love, creativity and expression will burst forth. It cannot be contained. It can never be fully squelched and is a hopeless task of any government to try to do so.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.
However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.
I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…
Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:
- The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
- Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
- So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
- Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
- Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)
So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.
The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.
So, let me just nit-pick a little…
If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.
In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.
There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.
The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.
I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!
If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.
To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.
KINGDOM is brilliant.
Rated R for violence. No sexually explicit content at all. Not even a kiss. And yes, this is a zombie story, but with a twist, which I’ll explain in my longer review. However, be prepared for gore. I watched 2 seasons, but apparently a 3rd is being made to be released in early 2021.
First, the short review…
6 Reasons I Recommend KINGDOM
- Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead. If the two stories got together and had a child, KINGDOM would be that child.
- Gorgeous costumes, especially the hats
- Palace intrigue galore
- Amazing performances by talented actors many of us have never seen
- A refreshingly different setting and world
- Lots of “scare” moments where you jump out of your seat. These filmmakers know the tropes and use them well.
The story is based loosely on the Manga series, The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Yang Kyung-il. The story for television was written by Kim Eun-hee, directed by Kim Seong-hun.
Set in late 16th century Korea (The Joseon Period), Crown Prince Lee Chang, our protagonist, discovers a plot to unseat him. His father is ill and dying and the Queen Consort (not the Prince’s mother) is pregnant with a son…potentially. She and her father are angling for this newborn to take the throne. However, the King must not die from his illness before this child is born, so the the palace doctors are asked to keep him alive at all costs. There is an herb, called the resurrection plant, that must be administered to him in a particular way at death. From this herb, the brain comes back to life, but the creature that resides in the body now has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Thus, the zombie angle.
The audience is introduced to this creature, the King in the first episode, so no spoilers here. The King is not only a zombie ready to devour any attendant who comes his way, he is being controlled, in chains, by the Queen’s family. She bans the Crowned Prince from seeing his father and although he suspects the King is dead, he cannot prove it. Knowing his life is in danger without his father’s protection, the Crowned Prince flees and while he goes into hiding, the zombie plague is carried to a small village through a body in a coffin, whose death was caused by the King creature.
As the Zombie plague spreads and begins to ravage the region, the Prince comes into his own, fighting to protect his people, but this is a complicated two-front war. The Prince is being chased by his step mother’s clan while fighting the zombie masses. While on the countryside, he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the condition of his father and does eventually come back to the palace, face to face with the creature. I say no more, lest I spoil…
A few of the secondary characters that emerge are wonderful and as compelling as the Prince and the Queen, including the Prince’s bodyguard, a nurse who escapes the scene of the first zombie outbreak, a perfect villain in the Father of the Queen (although the Queen gives him a run for his money on that score), and a rogue hunter who eventually aligns himself with the Prince.
I loved the writing, all the dialogue is perfect and no scene is wasted. KINGDOM often reminded of Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular…That is how well put together these characters are and the stage is…well, many lovely locations in South Korea.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough. If you do watch it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.
To watch the official trailer, click KINGDOM trailer
This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.
First, the short review…
To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.
5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ
- If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
- The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
- Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
- Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
- In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.
Fiat Homo…Let there be man
Fiat Lux…Let there be light
Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done
The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.
The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.
An excerpt from the novel:
“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”
A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?
Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.
I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.
YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.
Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER
Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.
- Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
- BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
- This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though many fans adore that version of the film.
- Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
- You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
- You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
- Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!
- The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
- This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
- Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.
To buy Dick’s novel, click this link Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond
The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?
- I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
- I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
- I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
- I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
- The writing style was unique and often beautiful
Why avoid reading?
- Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
- Disappointing ending
- The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse for my tastes)
- Not only does VanderMeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
- I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing
To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.
To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.
The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE
If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was introverted and anti-social. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.
What to say about VanderMeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:
In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.
I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?
Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess VanderMeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books, Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want satisfaction by the end of the third book. I don’t want to have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.
Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded more or less in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.
I am delighted to introduce this third guest post. Professor Liam Corley, an old friend from my early years as a University pastor at UC Berkeley, writes on Jemisin.
First, Professor Corley will show us why Jemisin is worth reading. Second, he will comment on Jemisin’s deft handling of the story-telling craft. The latter part of the post contains spoilers, but for anyone who cares about writing great characters in epic novels, the professor’s sharp analysis will be incredibly helpful. Enjoy!
Five Reasons…(no spoilers)
Sure, N.K. Jemisin has won all of the top prizes in the industry, and every one of the books in The Broken Earth trilogy has won the Hugo. But you’re a discerning reader. You don’t follow trends or hype. Why will you be glad you read Jemisin’s amazing novels?
- You’re a mom, and you have fought with your daughter. Maybe been mean. Apologized. Did it again. Jemisin’s work is all about the woman protagonist, especially mothers, and the tangled relationships she depicts will have you thinking about YOUR relationships in a new way.
- You know Black Lives Matter, but you don’t know how to talk about it without bursting into flames or tears. Jemisin’s work is a treasure trove of insight into how to confront, live through, and go beyond racial injustice and all of the horrors it has inflicted. From lynching to the casual use of the N-word, it’s all there, in sci fi clothing.
- You care about the environment–really care–and wonder what humanity is doing to its survival prospects by destroying our home.The Broken Earth faces up to the end of the world. Again and again and again. Why are we destroying the world? Because we’re greedy and hate each other. Yup, that’s pretty broken. But Jemisin also shows people learning how to survive in the aftermath and figuring out how to make things right.
- You think Toni Morrison is the best writer ever. Hands down. Ever. If Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had a love child, it would be N.K. Jemisin. If you can remember reading Beloved in college or watching the movie with Oprah and bawling your eyes out because it was all just so wrong, so beautiful, and so painfully wrong and beautiful, you’ll want to read The Broken Earth.
- You love great science fiction and fantasy world-building and character-driven plots. If you are an avid sci-fi reader and especially if you write it, you’ll want to immerse yourself in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. For more on this point, see my longer review on Craft and Culture in Jemisin’s work below.
Click here to buy the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. Click here if you want to buy all three.
Warning: there are spoilers below, so in case you haven’t read Jemisin yet, you may want to stop reading and pick up the first book of the trilogy.
Craft and Culture:
Notes on N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy
Readers of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) have embraced N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, and every installment of the series has won the coveted Hugo Award. Consequently, this post is not meant to introduce new readers to the series. Instead, I will be pointing out elements of Jemisin’s writing that contribute to the magic of the reading experience. Other SFF writers will find this of interest, but so will readers who want to understand why the novels affected them as they did. I’ll touch briefly on how Jemisin weaves her alternating timelines into a narrative fabric that turns flashbacks into a strength, not a weakness, on Jemisin’s incorporation of racial politics that are already part of her reader’s core emotional lives, and on the genres novels’ connections to more literary traditions.
I found myself reflecting on Jemisin’s woven chronologies when I was trying to think through the best ways to incorporate character backstories in my SF work-in-progress. Writers know that flat characters live only in the moment, and their motivations tend to have more to do with survival or accomplishment than working out emotional consequences of their past. Yet providing a character’s past can be a distraction from engaging readers in the drama of the story’s “now” time. How then can authors deepen their characters without losing narrative engagement? Jemisin’s solution is brilliant.
In the first book of the trilogy, Jemisin takes her main character’s timeline and slices it into three parts—childhood, adulthood, and post-apocalyptic adulthood. The character has different names in these time periods and acts in much different geographies and societies, so it takes a while before most readers realize that the chapters which alternate between these three perspectives are actually all the same character at different times of her life. What this allows Jemisin to do is to provide the entire scope of her main character’s life in a nonlinear fashion that is as engaging as it is emotionally excruciating. Getting to know the main character at three very different stages of life gives readers a clear view of the character’s depth, journey, change, and motivation.
This technique shouldn’t simply be adopted wholesale by authors wishing to provide an engaging saga, but it makes evident a point that could be adopted more broadly: backstory needs to be as engaging as the main story or it shouldn’t be indulged in beyond broad strokes and hints. All narrative is a dance between scenes and interludes, scenes and interludes, scenes and . . . Flashbacks, to be compelling and to maintain the hooks of engagement, should be fully realized scenes and not inert paragraphs of backstory.
The Broken Earth series is almost entirely a story about race-based injustice and the ways that civilizations built on exploitation create systems and stories to obscure or recast their dependence on a despised underclass. Jemisin is incredibly effective in evoking readers’ feelings about American racial politics by incorporating parallel dynamics in her fictional world. The first, and probably most overt, instance is her use of a racial epithet, “Rogga,” to indicate orogenes, the enslaved and exploited earth magicians. The sonic similarity of the epithet to the N-word is obvious and intentional. Indeed, even the complex ways the term is used in the series—as slur, as indictment of injustice, as insider labeling—mirror the many ways the N-word is debated in our society. This instance of labeling leaves no questions in the readers’ minds about the allegorical nature of racial politics in Jemisin’s world.
What makes Jemisin’s evocation of contemporary race so powerful is precisely such correspondences that, despite their overt nature when reflected upon, fit so well within plot of the novel that readers can escape the sorts of mental coping mechanisms they have for engaging racial issues in their non-reading lives. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this technique. His tales of the grotesque and macabre are set far distant in time and geography from the slave-owning Southern states where he lived, but their depictions of torture, fear, guilt, and sadism draw indirectly on the repressed experience of those dynamics on plantations. Jemisin’s incorporation of lynchings, segregation, dehumanization, and other tools used by racist societies to subjugate their victims both draw on and make explicit the prevalence of these practices in our own world.
I’ll pivot here to Jemisin’s relationship to African American literature because the series has numerous plot points and characterizations that evoke masterworks by Toni Morrison, one of the most important American writers of the last century. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in a distinguished career that exploded into prominence with the publication of Beloved in 1988. Morrison’s novels often focus on a strong African American woman character, something Jemisin also does through her allegorical association of orogenic ability with African American identity. [spoiler alert] Several key plot points in The Broken Earth draw on Sethe’s world in Beloved, most notably when Sethe murders her own child to prevent her from being taken back into slavery.
There are at least a dozen other correspondences between Morrison and Jemisin that occurred to me as I read The Broken Earth, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by listing them all. Suffice it to say, SFF editors and agents interested in fostering more #ownstories in the genre should expect to see more explicit borrowing from more established traditions in the future. Most importantly, I think that editors and agents should take note of what Morrison and Jemisin already have expressed through their work: #ownstories aren’t niche or sideline stories; they are central to the human condition, and in the case of the United States, foundational to our national identity and culture.
Related to the issue of a society’s foundations in racial injustice, i.e. SLAVERY, is how Jemisin draws on another classic of SFF literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s immensely powerful and well-known story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story poses a philosophical question about injustice and the related phenomenon of scapegoating: would I live in a society that seemed perfect if I knew its perfection depended upon the suffering a single nameless child? The Broken Earth stages this epiphany and existential crisis time and time again throughout the series, with the added element of the unmerited scapegoating being race-based.
On the whole, I’ve become quite a fanboy of Ms. Jemisin’s work, and I hope someday to assign it in one of my classes on American literature
Liam Corley is a professor of American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is also a Navy Reserve officer, and he returned to creative writing as a way of understanding the world after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009. His work on literature and war can be found in Badlands, Chautauqua, College English, First Things, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and War, Literature, & the Arts. He is currently at work on a science fiction manuscript about genetics, time travel, and humanity’s irreligious future. He lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and four children.
Watch and Enjoy. BIRD BOX is an Entertaining Film as Long as you Know that These Images and Themes Have Been Seen Before
BIRD BOX was produced by Netflix and released for public consumption on December, 21, 2018. According to Netflix data, 45 million people watched BIRD BOX in the week before Christmas.
For those who didn’t watch it over Christmas, like me, here’s the review…
This story is a Quiet Place, but without the husband (there is a stand-out dude…Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes…who becomes a stand-in husband and Father, but for a short portion of the film). The story portrays a mother, Sandra Bullock, as Malorie, who gives birth shortly after a catastrophic alien invasion? The film does not make this clear…Is it really aliens? At one point, there is a reference to North Korea and bio warfare…but one can be pretty sure it’s more along the alien invasion spectrum. Creatures are mentioned in one of the early scenes. Most eager scifi fans will swallow yet another apocalyptic scenario and accept the tragedy as instigated by something otherworldly that impacts every person, mostly in a negative way. (99% of the human race does not thrive under its influence…yes, that’s a spoiler of sorts, but then you probably knew this).
Here’s the premise…After an alien invasion (I think) every person becomes infected with a psychosis. This is spread from person to person through what they see. What do they see? That remains a mystery, but the results can be seen and they are catastrophic. Those infected figure out ways to kill themselves. Society drifts into destruction. Those who survive either do so by covering their eyes or a few see and don’t kill themselves right away. However, they become crazy people who attempt to get everyone else infected. The aliens are never seen by the audience, though they are heard and they are drawn in charcoal on paper by one survivor (one of the crazies). The aliens appear (in his drawings) as demons or devils. It’s possible this is some kind of bio-tech warfare and the creatures/aliens are all imagined, part of the psychosis. The audience isn’t in the know on that one.
Sandra Bullock finds herself responsible for two children and needs to figure out a way to get them to safety and a place where they can thrive. For that to happen, she needs to float them down a river, blindfolded. The story opens with her getting on the boat after lecturing the two little ones on the dangers of the trip and the importance of never taking off the blindfold, but the real body of the film takes place in backstory.
BIRD BOX portrays what A Quiet Place never did…the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic alien invasion that jacks up humanity. In BIRD BOX, the audience sees the unraveling. In A Quiet Place the viewer needs to imagine that unraveling. However, in BIRD BOX, the audience needs to imagine the villain. In A Quiet Place, the audience gets a clear view, eventually, of the alien that is bent on destroying humanity and by the end, a possible way to defeat it. That “ending” note is missing from BIRD BOX. It does not deliver enough answers about the mystery. Does an unseen villain ruin this film? Not exactly, but if a sequel is ever made, I will expect answers.
Regarding the similarities between the two films…It did strike me right away that in BIRD BOX, covering eyes is important, while in A Quiet Place not speaking is essential…which begs the questions…is this a theme that our current audiences want to explore? What if we had to survive in a post apocalyptic world without our sight or without speaking? Maybe the post apocalyptic universe is too easy…or maybe too familiar? I suppose, the next film of this ilk will explore surviving without hearing, or how about without tasting. Apparently, the public hungers for the answers to these question. I suspect, the quandary has to do with our over-teched and over-connected reality, but maybe there is another yearning I don’t yet comprehend. Another similarity between the films is the prominence of a pregnant mom as a survivor during a horrid moment of human existence.
I will say, the film (free for Netflix users) BIRD BOX is an entertaining jaunt. If you can get past the unknowns that are never explained…watch it and enjoy the drama that can only unfold at the end of the world.
Science fiction pops up in the darndest places, some of those places are quiet places. Okay, okay…so that’s a bit of a spoiler, but why the heck did it take me so long to hear from someone/anyone that this film was about people surviving an alien invasion. I think some of why is because of the code of mystery that surrounded this film when it came out. Everyone seemed reluctant to tell…
I assumed A QUIET PLACE was horror/suspense. Most of the trailers indicated that this was so. I did not get the chance to see this film in the theater, but I might have tried a lot harder had I known about the scifi underpinnings. At some point, both my kids saw the film and told me with a wink and a nod that I should definitely view it. “It’s really good,” they said, “and not gory like a horror flick.”
That comment from them made me think it was for sure a horror flick, a well done horror flick, but still, horror all the way.
So…I didn’t get it. In fact, I might have missed the film altogether had it not been for a friend spilling the beans recently.
“You’ve seen A QUIET PLACE, haven’t you? There are aliens in this film.”
Okay, so now I know and now you know and it’s not a huge spoiler. The first view of the alien comes by the end of the beginning sequence, about 7 minutes into the film.
However, this story is not alien-centric. It’s family-centric in a really great way. The premise of an alien who hears its prey and only then comes to destroy, but leaves survivors alone if they are silent, now that is a fun and new angle on the alien invasion story.
Five reasons I recommend A QUIET PLACE, directed by the lead actor, John Krasinski
- Superior storytelling, lots of tension and heart. The idea of watching a silent film has been lost to the modern audience. In this creepy portrayal, there are powerful swaths of storytelling in which the visual completely dominates the viewing experience. That feels new and vibrant, in part because the visual story telling in A QUIET PLACE is well done.
- The family unit (not one individual) is the protagonist and each of the members are smartly drawn. A deaf character adds depth to the unfolding drama. We root for all of them. (Dad played by John Krasinski. Mom played by Emily Blunt. Daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress.)
- Powerful and brutal villain(s). Ugly too.
- Inspiring examples of the will to survive and the costs we incur, AKA the suffering we endure, to love one another.
- Juxtaposition of idyllic scenery/cinematography and the unknown, the mystery of that which is not seen, the horror that is waiting to besiege.
The story unfolds in a post-alien invasion rural US (the locale is possibly somewhere East of the Mississippi, maybe Vermont). The aliens, rarely present, including their spaceships are not seen in the film, have come to Earth and have destroyed all living creatures who make noise (even animals that sniff about and snarl). It seems the aliens have no visual acuity, but can hear from very very far away and once they hear, they come to kill almost immediately. Those who survive the invasion are attempting a life in silence, including the protagonist family. The audience meets them initially as they tiptoe through a drug store (they are all barefoot) and scavenge for medicine and goods. The audience deduces, this is one town of millions of towns and this is one family among thousands of surviving groups? One other survivor is seen in the film…Let’s just say, he doesn’t last long.
Imagine your family trying not to make any noise. Imagine trying to communicate, trying to thrive without vocalizing. Imagine feeling pain without crying and playing monopoly without table chatter. Imagine that your life depended on staying silent. Herein lies the tension of the film. Also, there are discoveries to be made about the villain and how to defeat it/them. Might something be unearthed by our protagonists? Perhaps, but at what cost? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. $5.99 to rent on iTunes.