Monday, September 26, 2011

In medias res in Neuromancer

William Gibson's 1984 Neuromancer is pretty dense. It begins right in the middle of things, and never explains the science fiction world's background. We the readers must piece it together on our own. Initially, main character Case seems like a sort of deadbeat alcoholic American living in future Japan. Well, we assume he's American. North America is referred to only as the Sprawl.

We figure out that some sort of apocalyptic event happened to North America (I specify "North America" instead of "United States" because Gibson is American-Canadian), and there's a wave of shady immigrants from this Sprawl now living in Japan. The story takes place in Chiba, a real-life suburb of Tokyo. This is important. I don't think the world of Neuromancer would seem as gritty or real if it took place on some distant planet; the fact that it's a place that exists in the real world, even if it's across the Pacific, makes it a bit more identifiable.

The iconic first line of the novel--"The sky above the port was the color of television, turned to a dead channel"--gives way to an opening scene in a bar, with a one-armed futuristic bartender. It's all very evocative, but incredibly foreign as well. We've seen plenty of stories about pubs with troubled inhabitants, but the bartender Ratz with his prosthetic limb makes the scene alien to us.

I've got a point of reference, though: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, in theaters only two years prior to Neuromancer's release. Both works take place in a dystopian future where Americans bump elbows with the Japanese, and as a result, through my reading of the book I imagine Case as Harrison Ford.

But there's really no exposition. Gibson assumes the reader has a certain level of intelligence, and we have to put the puzzle together ourselves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Frankenstein vs. Of Mice and Men

The story of a smart man and his gigantic, burly, innocently-stupid companion who unwittingly kills people. It ends in tragedy.

Is this Frankenstein or John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men?

On the surface, these two novels have a number of similarities, but once you get farther into the novel, these likenesses run even deeper.

From the time I started reading Frankenstein, I saw parallels between the monster and Of Mice and Men's Lennie Small. But as the story shifts to the perspective of Frankenstein's creature, I realized just how tragically alike they actually were. George is the only difference.

Victor Frankenstein and George Milton are polar opposites in many ways. While Frankenstein is melancholy and reserved, George is outgoing and cynical. Both are greedy, but in different ways. Frankenstein creates his monster for selfish reasons, to fulfill an inner curiosity and play god. George, on the other hand, is a schemer; he wants to work his way up the social ladder and own his own land. George is in and out of work, and doesn't really have any larger dreams other than to make more money.

Ironically, George is much more personable than Frankenstein. The former adopts Lennie and acts as his protector, while Victor is distant towards his friends and family (even his "lover" Elizabeth), and immediately disowns his creation.

Frankenstein's creature uses violence in an unwitting, childlike way. Lennie is the same way. While Lennie only wants to "stroke" things and ends up accidentally killing them, the monster's violence comes about slightly differently. The monster actually tries to assimilate to human culture, and his murderous tendencies come out because humans don't accept his hideous body, and he's filled with anger over this neglect.

But maybe the monster wouldn't have killed anyone if Frankenstein had been a bit more like George. Frankenstein cannot deal with his creation in any capacity, and virtually all the interactions between the two in the book are hostile. This is mainly Frankenstein's fault. The creature tries to reach out to him, and Frankenstein can't accept him. At one point, Frankenstein agrees to create a female companion for the monster, but that doesn't exactly go as planned.

George is a bit more complex. He stands by Lennie until the very end of the book, where he must "put down" his partner like a pet at the animal hospital. Here's another place where Frankenstein and Of Mice and Men coincide--both novels end with the death of the monsters. Lennie is unknowing and violent until the end; Frankenstein's monster commits (implied) suicide because of remorse over his murder of his creator.

This a strange role reversal. George kills Lennie at the end of his story, and deals with the guilt of this euthanasia but survives. Frankenstein's monster, on the other hand, kills Frankenstein, and then deals with the guilt through his own death. At the end of the day in both novels, everyone's bummed out. But through compassion, George survives his story. Frankenstein... does not.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Frankenstein vs. The Terminator

Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein is arguably the world's first true science-fiction novel, the predecessor to modern-day robot stories. One would think Frankenstein's monster is more closely connected to today's zombie flicks (it's risen from the dead, after all), but its connection to artificial intelligence is much more important.

One of the central themes of sci-fi is the idea of "man vs. machine," where computers have advanced so far that they become self-aware and rebel against their human creators. Frankenstein swaps lasers and hard drives for rotting limbs and yellow eyes, but it's the exact same concept.

The most iconic Man vs. Machine story in pop culture is without a doubt James Cameron's 1984 blockbuster The Terminator. Set in the near future of 2029 (everyone loves the "near future"), the plot is fairly contrived, but the parallels between it and Frankenstein are astounding. How do they compare?

Both Frankenstein's creature and the Terminator were created by humans at the cutting edge of science. Both had noble intentions that went horribly wrong. Or did they?

Victor Frankenstein is a lonely, melancholy man who seeks mainly to satisfy his own curiosity. The Terminator, however, was created by a United States military super-soldier robot program. Perhaps the mission of "national security" is noble, but as we know from real life, "national security" has been used as an excuse by the U.S. military to do some sinister things.

Neither Frankenstein's monster nor the Terminator are evil by nature. Both are tragic characters, forced into violence by their circumstances. They're small children who break things in their parents' house--not necessarily always by accident, but not for evil reasons, either. It's curiosity mixed with a heavy dose of "not knowing one's own strength."

The audience doesn't immediately empathize with the Terminator nearly as easily as we do with Frankenstein's creature. The tragic side of Arnold Schwarzenegger is not really explained until later in the Terminator franchise.

Why is the Terminator so much more evil? Because it sells more tickets at the movie theater. The Terminator was made to make money. Coincidentally, film adaptations of Frankenstein seem to share much more in common with The Terminator's shallow action than with Mary Shelley's original novel.

When money is thrown at art, we end up with the lowest common denominator of complex expression. This is something else Frankenstein and The Terminator have in common.

So what do you think a Frankenstein film adaptation in 2011 would look like? What should it look like? And why do the "would" and "should" conflict with each other?