“Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!”

The 1973 film Soylent Green is set in 2022. Find out why they may have predicted the future so accurately.

And 2022 is also Soylent Green year, at least according to the movie Soylent Green. I had wanted to find a number of films, TV shows, or science fiction novels set in 2022, but this was pretty much the only one. Well, the only good one that you might be likely able to find streaming.

I didn’t include any films that were in production after 2019 but somehow set in 2022, because those don’t really count — no one knew when they were finally going to come out, after all. But that’s okay, because Soylent Green had enough of an impact on the zeitgeist of the time (it was released in 1973) that a lot of people still know its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here, and the story still holds up as relevant to today because we’re still facing a lot of the same issues.

Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

The film itself is based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room!, which establishes the major themes and ideas that we see in the movie, although it’s set earlier in the film, in 1999. This allows Harrison to be even more off in his predictions of the future, at least in the specifics, but the general trajectory was correct.

In his novel, the world population has reached 7 billion people, something that wouldn’t happen in reality until October 31, 2011. In 1999, it had only just passed 6 billion.

Still, the idea was that the people were consuming the planet’s resources faster than they could be replenished, and if something wasn’t done, there would be a Malthusian catastrophe. Neither the book nor the movie deal too much with climate change, although the world of Soylent Green does seem to be perpetually too hot — and that’s in New York City, although we don’t know the season.

Watching the movie now, a lot of things will look disturbingly familiar, including washes, underpasses, and the like having been turned into vast homeless camps, although in this dystopian vision, that’s extended even further, so that even the steps to our hero’s brownstone walk-up have become sleeping space for more homeless people — and our hero is a cop (Charlton Heston).

The one other big thing that resonates with now is that there are a lot of very, very poor people, and very few rich ones — and those few rich people live in luxury that no one else can imagine — high-rise luxury apartments with incredible views, deluxe amenities, heavily armed security and bodyguards, and access to food — like real steak, strawberry jam ($150 for a tiny jar on the black market), and “furniture,” which actually refers to people who come with the apartments and are pretty much sex slaves to the owners.

Although the only two pieces of “furniture” we see in this really cringey hangover from the 1970s are women, one can only imagine what the full range of the catalog was, considering that the people ordering it could afford what they wanted as well as avoid any criminal issues arising from it.

Incidentally, a lot of thses super-rich also happen to be executives with Soylent, the company that makes the plant-based, processed food that’s pretty much all that’s left. You know. Fill a monopoly, make it scarce, then make everyone dependent on it.

Yeah, not that much different than now.

The film is worth checking out as a precautionary tale that draws closer to reality every day, and despite the obviously dated design — which actually works in the film’s favor, because they didn’t try to go too far out with “futurizing” it — it’s quite watchable and holds up. Heston and his roommate/police partner Sol (Edward G. Robinson) are the center of a piece with an all-star cast, and the opening montage alone takes us through about two hundred years (relative to 2022) of American history and its effect on the landscape, resources and atmosphere, entirely in still pictures.

Check it out of it can.

Sunday Nibble #90: Dune: Part One

My thoughts on the one attempted and three succeeded adaptations of Dune, part one of two.

Okay, I know. I’ve raved about the upcoming film and past adaptations and many other things Dune here before, and while the latest move adaptation did open almost a month ago, it took me a while to get to it mainly because I wanted to see it in an actual theatre — this was not one for streaming at all — but I wanted to wait until the size of the crowds died down.

Plus, I know how the theatre business works, and if you want most of your ticket money to go to the theater (who needs it) as opposed to the mega-studio distributor (who doesn’t) then wait a few weeks.

If you want the minimal number of audience members with you, go on a Tuesday through Thursday early evening, at just after six p.m.

I’m glad I finally did, on a Tuesday evening at 6:50, although I felt guilty in that I didn’t realize before I committed that this was the theater chain’s cheapie $6.50 ticket night (service charge extra.) I would have paid the double price for a Wednesday or Thursday, really.

On the other hand, psychology, it just felt like I needed this bit of self-care on a rough Tuesday and, ultimately, I’m glad I went.

My very short review of it is this: Many have tried, but most have fallen short. Jodorowsky tried and failed spectacularly in the late 60s/early 70s, much closer to the release of the original novel and, honestly, also much closer to its psychedelic roots.

That’s probably the reason this version never happened, because the director behind that one was clearly cranked out of his mind, went way over-budget, and wrote a script that original author Frank Herbert himself reported would have run well over 14 hours.

The first theatrical version of Dune didn’t come out until 1984, directed by David Lynch, and while the producers obviously thought, “This dude makes some really fucked-up looking shit,” they failed to notice that he’s also pretty much straightlaced as hell IRL.

Or maybe the correct term is “buttoned up,” which is literally true — the man always wears dress shirts buttoned all the way to the top, whether he has a tie on or not.

So, while Lynch had no actual experience via which to hook up with the real spiritual and visionary ideas in the source, he nonetheless was a visionary in terms of the arts, knew how to express things visually and how to use art design and cinematography and editing.

Ultimately, his version is a visual feast in which he does create very distinct worlds between those of the Atreides, Harkonnens, the Imperium, and Arrakis. On top of that, his theatrical release came in at two hours and seventeen minutes, which is barely enough time to really even tell the first act of the story.

Still… he had some pretty amazing cast members and some very memorable set, artistic, and costume designs, especially revolving around the Imperial Court, the Guild Navigators and their handlers, and the ships in general.

In a way, he took the way that Star Wars had turned the design of science fiction on its head only seven years earlier in 1977, and then turned it on its head again and gave it a shake. Lucas managed to steal a lot of that back by the time of the prequel trilogy, really.

The third proposed and second produced version of the book was a 2000 miniseries backed by Hallmark, of all entities, and it aired on the then-called Sci Fi under the title Frank Herbert’s Dune, presented in three parts. It was followed up in 2003 by another three-part adaptation of the books Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, probably most significant for introducing James McAvoy to a worldwide audience as Leto II Atreides.

Now, to a Dune fanboy, both of those minis together are just amazing, but the second miniseries is also way out of the scope of things here. Also, the Sci Fi version was really on a budget that focused on hiring very unknown and frequently Eastern European actors in order to put the budget into the special effects.

The two big exceptions, maybe, were William Hurt as Duke Leto Atreides in the first mini and Susan Sarandon as Princess Wensicia Corrino in the second.

But if we’re scoring over/under here… Lynch’s film was a good, “financed by 80s studio suits who wouldn’t know art if it bit their taint but were mostly wise enough to let him go,” while the miniseries was a better, “You can do what you want with the script, and we’ll finance the effects as well as long as you can make everything else cheaply as hell.”

Caveat on the first one: Yeah, the suits left Lynch mostly alone when he made the film, but they also created an extended version for TV that was so bad that Lynch took his name off it, and it aired as “An Alan Smithee Film.”

If you don’t know what that used to mean, go look it up.

The Smithee cut was 40 minutes longer than the theatrical version, but was padded out mostly by a half-hour extremely expositional prologue narrated by a minor character, Emperor’s daughter Princess Irulan, and illustrated completely with pre-production art and storyboards.

In other words, boring AF. The other ten minutes were composed of mostly outtakes and, honestly, they were originally outtakes for a reason.

So… those two and a half versions down, we come to the 2021 Part One iteration, and what’s my Dune Uber-fanboy take?

Oh, fuck, yeah. Denis Villeneuve just gets it and, wisely (unlike the other two directors) he split screenplay credit, so he did not try to do the whole thing himself.

Plus… he also did not try to do the whole thing, which was his wisest move. The book Dune would never fit into a single film, and it barely fit into a nearly five-hour miniseries. Dune: Part One is nearly half-way to that, which is a good sign.

The other good sign is that it ended at exactly the right part of the story, with the exact right line and visual, so that (for me) it didn’t feel unfulfilling. Nope. exactly the opposite.

It was the director planting his flag in the sand and declaring, “Hey. This is what I said I was going to do. Here we are. See you in Part Two…”

And I am so there for that journey.

Also amazing are the things that did not appear in Part One, which are only going to make Part Two stronger.

In Lynch’s Dune, the Emperor appeared early on and, IIRC, in almost the first scene, and we learn about his entire plot right then and there. In Villaneuve’s Dune, though, the Emperor and his daughter do not appear. Neither does Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew, Fayd Rautha, so memorably portrayed by Sting in a blue clamshell speedo in Lynch’s version.

Wait, what?

And if Harry Styles does not show up as the barely-clad and arrogant challenger to Paul Atreides in Dune: Part Two, then the director is not paying any attention to the Zeitgeist.

C’mon — that is the perfect death-cage matchup, period. For one thing, I think the two are pretty well-matched physically, and (spoiler alert) the characters are probably related thanks to the Bene Gesserit and their long-running breeding program, so their physical resemblance actually works.

For another, despite people thinking that it might look like an angry nerd slap-fight in a middle school cafeteria, Timothée Chalomet has already proven that he can hold his own in fight choreography.

The only downside is believing that he’s related to Harkonnen and his nephew (Feyd’s older brother) Beast Rabban, because Styles is just too pretty. On the other hand, the same two characters in Lynch’s version were not at all attractive people and Feyd was Sting, the only nod to them being related their fiery red hair.

Oh — Harkonnen and Rabban are both bald in this one. Hm…

So that’s my take on the latest Dune adaptation and thoughts on the others, but how do the three really compare? I’ll give my take on that one in the next installment.

Hey, if Villeneuve can do his adaptation in two parts, I can do likewise with my commentary. Check in tomorrow. At least I’m not making you wait until 2023.

Friday Free-for-All #81: Book, building, old-fashioned

Major influences, both SciFi and not, including Anthony, Herbert, Asimov, and more.

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. Here are the two questions I had leftover from last week, plus one more.Dune

What is the best book or series you’ve ever read?

I’ve read a few, and it depends upon when you ask me, but I’ll give a few, ranked. I’ve always been into science fiction and history, but with a 50/50 on success.

The first series is Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality, which starts out with a really strong premise: in its universe, set in a world very much like ours, magic is real, and various supernatural entities are actually just offices that humans hold temporarily. The whole thing kicks off with a suicidal human inadvertently taking on the role of Death when the Grim Reaper arrives to collect just as he’s about to shoot himself, but the man panics, shoots Death instead and just happens to make a lucky shot in a spot where Death’s magical cloak does not protect him.

The incarnations are Death, Time, Fate, War, Nature, Evil, Good, and Night, but I think I only made it through about half of book four, Nature (Being a Green Mother) because things had gotten kind of silly by that point.

This is a recurring problem with Anthony, actually, as I learned when I did make it through all of the original books in his Bio of a Space Tyrant, although I never got around to the 2001 6th book that came 15 years after the end of the original series. Again, it was an interesting story that set up the planets of the solar system as analogues to countries on Earth, with Jupiter standing in for the U.S., of course.

The hero, named Hope Hubris (yeah, not heavy handed at all) is a refuge from one of Jupiter’s moons, Callisto, which is clearly a stand-in for Latin America. Over the course of the books, Hubris has to deal with a very Nixon-Like villain named Tocsin (there’s that lack of subtlety again) and is eventually basically declared Dictator by the Congress of Jupiter.

It plays out as a political metaphor but, again, suffers Anthony’s usual problems of being way too obvious and cutesy with character names, and adding up to much less than the sum of its parts.

Yes, I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation series, the original trilogy and all the sequels included, and while I found them to be a fun story full of intriguing big picture ideas, Asimov tends to put the ideas ahead of the characters.

Ironically, the most memorable and compelling character in the entire thing is the presumable villain of the original trilogy, The Mule — but he is actually the most sympathetic character of them all. Ironically, this may have been Asimov’s entire intent, in which case it works brilliantly, except that in retrospect, the real building of the character of The Mule relies on the readers catching empathy and creating him in their head.

Moving away from SciFi, a series of books I got into in probably early middle school was John Jakes’ The Bastard Series, aka The Kent Family Chronicles, which I discovered thanks to used book stores and used book sales where, thanks to the outrageous success of all of the novels in their original run, there were always copies available. This made John Jakes the first author to ever have three titles on the New York Times bestseller list in a single year.

What I loved about it was that it told the story of one immigrant from France, pre-American revolution, and his descendants into the 20th century, and did so in great detail. Each book in the series pretty much followed one generation and took us through U.S. history at the same time. Unfortunately, Jakes stopped with the 8th volume which, IIRC, only brought us up until the late 20s or early 30s, with the latest Kent family heir becoming a stand-in for Huey Long, suffering the same fate.

Enough of the runners-up, though. The winner, for me, is Frank Herbert’s Dune series — and note that I only include the six books that Herbert himself wrote before his death in 1986. All of the other crap that came after is as useless as all of the attempted Star Wars extended universe that is no longer canon, or anything Dr. Who that did not appear on the TV show or its spin-offs.

Sorry, Big Finish, I’m looking at you. Do all the radio shows you want to do, but they will never be canon.

So, to me, what makes the Dune series succeed where the others don’t quite make it? Mainly it was because Herbert had to first build a world totally alien to ours and not obviously based in ours, and he also filled this world with religion, politics, and feuding royal houses.

It also didn’t hurt that it all started out as a teen-boy coming of age story, so I first read it at exactly the right time, meaning that I totally identified with Paul Atreides — yes, yet another “chosen one” in YA fiction, what a surprise. That’s the whole point of YA fiction in the first place.

Although I don’t think that Herbert was writing YA, especially because the concept didn’t even exist in 1965, when the first novel came out. Remember, at that time, our teens were being sold nothing but Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys and other safe drivel like that.

If anything, Dune began as a piece of counter-culture literature, and a friend of mine has always described the first book as “Lawrence of Arabia on acid,” which is not at all inaccurate.

After all, the key struggle in the book is over control of an organic substance that can only be found on one planet, but which is sacred to one particular foreign religious order (the Bene Gesserit), also very important in the rituals of the natives of the planet it comes from, but also necessary to allow the guild navigators to trip balls and navigate their heighliners (the cargo ships of the series) by “traveling without moving,” something that, as Herbert made clear, freaked the hell out of the Bene Gesserit because, as he explained in narrator mode, women could not grasp the concept.

I think he resolved this misogyny by the last book, but certainly put it on high display in book number four, Heretics of Dune. He wrapped the whole series up in book number six, Chapterhouse: Dune, which the same friend of mine dubbed, not wrongly, “Jews in space.”

No, seriously, read it. That is not at all inaccurate.

But getting back to that counterculture thing… I don’t think that the drug in question was LSD. Rather, it was probably either ayahuasca or psilocybin, both of which are naturally occurring plants prized by several different indigenous cultures, and frequently used for religious purposes.

On top of that, they also have the ability to alter perceptions of space and time. Marijuana would be a distant third in this race, but it’s nowhere near as powerful, and is really only a sacrament to Rastafarians, who didn’t exist until the 20th century.

Still… it was this kind of detailed world-building with complex and interesting characters, plus an epic story that covered millennia that sucked me into Dune world and only let me go once Herbert died and stopped creating original content.

So Dune is the winner, and I absolutely cannot wait until the newest film adaptation comes out. SQUEEEE!

What’s the most interesting building you’ve ever seen or been in?

Oh, look. Back to science fiction, and the best part is that I actually wound up at this place for the first time totally by accident. The location: The Bradbury Building, in Downtown L.A. (DTLA).

I only found it because I went to Grand Central Market on one of my random pre-COVID Metro rides, wandered through looking for lunch but found nothing interesting, then came out on the other side only to realize that I was standing across the street from this landmark — and how could I not go over and visit.

In case you’re not sure why — The Bradbury was one of the major locations in the film Bladerunner. It was where the character Sebastian lived, and where Deckard and Beatty had their final showdown.

Of course, in the movie, the building looked like it was really, really tall while, in real life, it’s only five stories. But the other impressive bit is this: At the time that Bladerunner was shot in the late 70s/early 80s, that whole part of DTLA was neglected, so that the producers didn’t have to do a whole lot to the Bradbury to make it look like an abandoned mess.

Ironically, the film itself saved the building by turning it into an icon.

And so, on that day when I walked out of Grand Central Market and realized where I was, I had to make the holy pilgrimage across the street and into the shrine, and it was incredible. Everything had been restored to high luster, with the wrought iron elevator cages rising from the first floor to the fifth, and the staircases also intact.

Although it’s now a working office building, so that visitors are only allowed to go up to the first landing of the grand staircase at the end of the lobby, that was enough. I got to stand there and think of Bladerunner, and how instrumental this holy place was in its making, and that was enough.

Although I guess that this actually takes the place a few steps beyond “interesting” for me.

What’s something you like to do the old-fashioned way?

While I tend to adopt the new ways for everything — and my brain breaks when I see people my own age who are technologically ignorant — the one thing I will always do the “old” way is voting, although the only real definition of “old way” that is still valid in California is “in person.”

I’ve voted ever since I first could when I was eighteen, and I’ve only ever missed one election, which was an off-year, single item and city-only election in either April or May, and the only reason I missed it was because I don’t think I ever got the ballot, etc. on it.

But, otherwise, every other election day in my life, I’ve dressed nice, gotten my ass to the polling place with advance enough time to still make it to work, and done my ballot in person.

Well, until the last two elections, sort of, with the big exceptions being that these are the only two times I’ve actually voted before election day because they’re the only two elections I could have. And that’s totally fine with me.

And I totally love California’s new in-person voting system, which is pretty much like a self-checkout lane (hate those!) in a supermarket.

Scan your sample ballot or QR code, insert big blank thing, make your choices on-screen, print out marked ballot on formerly blank big thing, see it in person to make sure it’s right, then shove it back into the slot to go into the lockbox and get counted.

Oh yeah — at the same time, you can track the progress of your sample ballot and eventual vote via an app that will inform you all along the way.

Is any of that old-fashioned? Honestly, fuck no, and if I were to be honest, there’s nothing I do in the old-fashioned way because that just makes me wonder, “Who the hell would choose to live in this past when our future is far more interesting?”

Sadly… way too many people my age, apparently. Well, fuck them. I’m only willing to be as “old-fashioned” as whatever was possibly six months ago before the latest updates.

Otherwise, all y’all need to either catch up or just get out of the damn way.

Friday Free-for-All #73: 10/10, casino, hotel, lonely

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s your go to casino game?

First of all, everything in a casino is rigged in the house’s favor. Well, not even rigged. It’s just that the way that the odds work, you’re most likely going to lose unless you happen to walk in and win that $500,000 jackpot with your first dollar in a slot machine and then cash in and walk out.

Otherwise, slot machines aren’t known as “one-armed bandits” for nothing. They’re based on the concept of an intermittent reward. After you’ve put in maybe ten coins and won nothing, then you might get a payout of eight and feel like it’s a big deal, but it’s an illusion.

That’s because your brain immediately thinks, “Hey, I just eight bucks gambling one,” forgetting the other nine that went in before that. So you feel like you’re up instead of down, and keep going.

In theory, casinos do have to pay out slightly more than they take in on the slots, but it doesn’t have to be per hour or per day. Instead, they will tend to tighten up the slots — decrease payouts — during times that the tourists are there, then loosen them up — increase payouts — when it’s going to be only locals.

If you want to even have a chance of winning at the slots in Vegas, you want to go play in downtown Vegas in the middle of a day in the middle of the week, in the afternoon.

The other huge sucker’s game is roulette. Avoid this one entirely. The best you can do is bet black or red, but it’s a 1:1 payout on a not quite 50/50 chance. Did you ever wonder why a Roulette wheel has either one or two green slots, zero and, sometimes, double-zero?

That’s right — so that a red or black bet will be less than a 50/50 chance. It also slightly reduces the 1:36 odds on any individual number. But if you’re betting on single numbers, you might as well just take that money and donate it to charity.

Craps can involve a little bit of strategy, but unless you want to take the time to learn the intricacies of it, it’s probably not worth trying. Likewise, poker is the one game you might actually win at, but there are two reasons. One is that it requires skill on top of chance. The other is that you’re mostly playing against the other players, not the house.

Video poker is different, by the way. The actual odds of any particular hand coming up for you have, naturally, been skewed in the house’s favor and those hands are not random.

So my casino game of choice is blackjack, even though I haven’t been to a casino in years. My reasons are simple. It’s a group game where you can be as social (or anti-social) as you want, the rules are easy to learn, and the dealer is on a somewhat equal playing field. Not entirely, but closer than in any of the other games.

I do have a few rules, though. Any time I go to a casino, I set aside a certain amount that I’m willing to lose. Or, as I think of it, this is what I’m willing to spend playing blackjack. When it’s gone, I’m done, period.

Second is that I stick to the really low-limit tables, $1 or $5, although I have a feeling that one-dollar tables are a thing of the past — that’s how long it’s been since I’ve been to Vegas. Or any casino, although I’ve been close to the ones in Palm Springs and have been tempted.

Other than that, always split Aces, never split tens or face cards, learn how to double down, and keep your winnings and what’s left of what you’ve come to lose separate. With any luck, you can keep it going for a while. With a lot of luck, you actually can walk out with more than you brought in.

What three activities would you rate 10/10 would do again?

There’s really not a lot of detail to any of these, so here they are in no particular order:

    1. Canoeing on a mountain lake. Preferably in the front of the canoe. There’s just something remarkably calming about gliding across the glass-like surface of the water and yet feeling the power and control via the paddle while going relatively quickly.
    2. Sex. Even when it’s bad, it’s… okay, but when it’s average it’s amazing. Get up into the realm of good sex and beyond, and you’re already way past a 10.
    3. Visit New York City, only with time to actually enjoy it. I am kind of odd in that I love both dense urban environments and unspoiled natural landscapes, but New York just has an energy that’s unmatchable. (I would have said San Francisco, but apparently she’s not what she used to be.)

If you built a themed hotel, what would the theme be and what would the rooms look like?

I would definitely create the Fandom Hotel & Resort — and yes, that’s a play on Wyndham. Each floor, or group of floors, would be themed to a particular fandom and designed accordingly, with the rooms and suites also being themed.

It could cover fandoms like Star Wars, Star Trek, Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, Firefly, X-Men, Marvel, DC, Pixar, Harry Potter, Disney, Pixar, the Askewniverse, and on and on and on.

Keep in mind that this is a fantasy hotel, because most of the franchises on the list would never license out to a third party or, if they did, the rights would cost so much that rooms would have to cost a million dollars a night to break even.

If this were going to be a real thing, then it would be a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of place, although not based on the books — and the name might have to change. The idea is that the floors and rooms would reflect certain genres, and might even incorporate 3D projection windows to replace the outside views with images appropriate to the genre.

For example, in a SciFi room, you might see a starfield and planet(s) out the window, while adventure might show you towering mountains with a roaring waterfall and wide river from a ridiculously high POV.

The trick would be coordinating the serving staff to match the theme of the floor so that you wouldn’t have a generic bellhop bringing you room service — then again, for a SciFi floor, a dumbwaiter delivery system that would simulate a working replicator might do it, although there’d still need to be some way to tip whoever got the meal together and loaded it in.

As an added touch, there could be nightly shows, separated by theme floor and guests, using motion simulators. The main shopping, retail, and restaurant area might combine all of the themes vaguely separated into zones.

It would be sort of like a Disneyland you could stay in, and participate as much or as little as you wanted to.

Why are there so many people who are lonely? Why is it so hard for people to make real connections when almost everyone wants to make real connections?

The thing holding people back the most is fear. Fear of rejection is the big one, and so people don’t put themselves out there in the first place. You can’t be rejected if you don’t ask, after all. But if you wait around for someone to ask you, you may just wait forever.

But when you have met someone, the next level of fear is that of exposing your true self and being vulnerable. We put up walls, always worrying, “Will they still like me if I tell them that?”

Some people exaggerate and embellish to fight insecurity and try to impress others. The problem is that this always fails when the embellishments and lies fall apart or inconsistencies and impossibilities begin to pop up.

“Wait — you said you remember being at Elvis’ last concert? But you were, like, two when he died.”

Pro-tip: You have to do a lot of work to remember your lies. You don’t have to do anything to remember the truth.

But we won’t break through the walls to meet other people in the first place, and then we all put up more walls which prevents us from making real connections. We say that we want to make real connections, but that scares us, because then we have no secrets and we’ve exposed our true self.

But those are the only ways to actually make that connection. You have to be willing to strip emotionally naked, or no one will ever know who you are or connect with you.

Sunday Nibble #74: Dune, again

Almost a year ago, I did a Sunday nibble post expressing my excitement over the upcoming film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which they are wisely doing in two parts so they can properly cover the scope of the book. It was originally going to come out at the end of 2020, but due to the ongoing COVID situation, it was pushed back, now scheduled for October 22, 2021.

They have released another trailer, though, and the more I see, the more it looks like the filmmakers nailed it. Have a look for yourself. You’ll want to see this in full-screen and HD.

If you’re a fan of the Dune books, or even just either of the two prior adaptations in film and TV, then I hope you’re as excited as I am. If you’re not familiar, then grab a copy of Dune now — you can probably find tons of copies at any used bookstore — and start reading. It won’t ruin your experience of the film, but it will introduce you to the Herbert’s world.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that climate and terrain do change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

This is a short story that managed to win first place in some science fiction writing contest a few years back and it was published on BigThink. Since the subject of meatless meat seems to be coming up a lot lately, it seems only appropriate to dredge it up again. Bon appétit! Or, as my less-cultured relatives would say, “Bone an ape tit!”

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.

Friday Free-for-All #64: Shoes, car, Sci-Fi

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What is the best pair of shoes you have ever owned? Why were they so good?

Oh, this is a fun one. When I was a freshman in college, I bought a pair of black leather boots. I think I did it through the Sears Catalog actually, and mail-ordered them to be delivered in-store. (This was just pre-internet.) Now, at the time, I paid the equivalent of what’s about $315 now, which was insane. I mean, even though I could currently easily afford to drop that much on a pair of shoes, I never would.

But there was just something about these. They made me taller, I could wear them inside or outside of my jeans, and they came two thirds of the way up to my knee.

And they sort of became one of my defining traits on campus. Apparently, to people who didn’t know me personally but who’d seen me around, I was “the guy with the boots.” I also once loaned them to a good friend when he’d been cast in the play Picnic, because one of the defining traits of his character was… ta-da, the black boots he wore.

Funny story there, too. There was an opening night party after the first performance, and he would give me my boots back after each show, which I’d return to to him before the next — easy to do when you all live on campus. So at this after party, I’m wearing the boots and he and I are standing together. One of the big-wig campus Jesuits comes over to say hello to us, and proceeds to compliment me on my performance in the play.

It’s all that my friend José and I can do to not just crack up, so we play it straight as if I was the guy in the play. Okay, sure, we were kind of the same height and similar coloration but, otherwise, did not resemble each other at all.

But the crowning moment for those boots came during senior year (yeah you pay that much for footwear, it doesn’t fall apart) when we had an orientation week magic show, and the middle act was a guy introduced with these words: “Once I say his name, you’re never going to forget it.”

And goddamn, was that true. Turk Pipkin. And he was amazing. He started out with using a jigger, an Alka-Seltzer and a condom to basically create an entirely new visual to the opening theme of 2001, then borrowed a woman’s purse and proceeded to find a tampon in a cardboard applicator and smoke it like a cigar. (Yes, she confirmed later that he’d asked her permission and planted the prop.)

Finally, he said that he could juggle anything, so toss those objects down — and all of my friends immediately started chanting, “Boot, boot, boot.” So what else could I do?

I think he wound up with a scarf, a set of car keys, and my big-ass heavy leather boot. He gave us all the look of death, but the audience went nuts — and then he proceeded to juggle all three, and I could tell by that point that he was actually grateful for the ultimate show-off challenge. It made him look even more amazing.

I know that I still had those boots for almost a decade after college, and they really came in handy once my dad gave me his old motorcycle. But, somewhere along the way, my feet outgrew them.

Meanwhile, Turk Pipkin is still around, and he’s turned his magically skills toward even better things.

What do you hate most and love most about your car?

Oh, there’s so much to love. First is that it’s the seventh one I’ve ever owned (hence its name, Señor Siete), and the first one that I bought slightly used from a dealer. While it’s a 2012 model, so doesn’t have all the modern bells and whistles, it has enough, plus it’s powerful, comfortable, and has a manual transmission.

Plus it’s also been paid off for a couple of years now, so there’s that. And bonus points for that manual transmission: That prevents 99.5% of friends from ever borrowing it because they couldn’t drive it.

What I hate most? It’s a 2012 model, which means that it’s getting older, even though the mileage is low — just over 60,000 right now. Still… it’s approaching that point where regular maintenance on major system stuff might just start to exceed the cost of buying or leasing a replacement, and I hate that. For example, I know that I’ve got about a $300 brake-job and possibly $800 shock replacement to do soon, not to mention that the tire pressure gauge batteries have started to fail ($90 a pop per sensor per tire) and then there’s also that regular X-thousand mile service stuff.

So, yeah. My tax refunds and remaining stimulus checks are getting dumped back in there. Sigh. If only they also had car insurance for maintenance. You know — like health care for cars. But they can’t even manage that one for people, even though the car version would be much cheaper.

What Sci-Fi movie or book would you like the future to be like?

This is a tough one. I mean, Star Trek: TNG would be an obvious first choice if it weren’t for that whole Borg thing. And TOS maybe, except that humanity is still at war with Klingons.

So two other universes come to mind, with caveats. One is the world of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but note that I only cite the original trilogy. Why? Because the books beyond that sort of melded into the universe of I, Robot, brought in the whole idea of “The entire universe wants to kill us,” so the robots meddled with the multiverse in order to create the one in which humankind were the only advanced life forms to ever evolve.

Yeah, no. At least this shit doesn’t come up in the first three books, and the idea of really advanced predictive formulas to guide humanity in the right direction is very appealing. And, hell, even the Big Bad of the second and third books isn’t evil at all. He’s just got a particularly well-adapted genetic… thing.

Now, the other Sci-Fi book I’d go with is the final volume of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series, which comprises 2001, 2010, 2061, and 3001. I’d go with the last volume, in which humankind has made all kinds of amazing scientific advances, including building space elevators, colonizing other moons within our solar system, being able to revive an astronaut dead for a thousand years, creating the ultimate human/computer interface and, finally, figuring out how to keep an ancient and powerful race of non-corporeal entities from destroying the planet. Well, at least for another 900 years.

In case you’re wondering… yes. The third book has a prologue that ends in 2101, which is just as the original moon monolith phones home, which is 450 light years away. 3001 is the year that the answer comes back.

Friday-free-for-all #56: Travel, dark movies, clumsy, genres

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the clumsiest thing you’ve done?

Well, I’ll nominate this one, since it had witnesses. October 13, 2020. This was when I was still working for a Medicare Insurance Broker, out of his house. Generally, there would only be the broker in his office (a converted bedroom), the Office Manager in her office (another converted bedroom), and me in my office (basically, the living room).

The broker’s wife was often there as well, but that kept it generally to four people, all of us masked and constantly sanitizing and washing our hands.

This particular October 13 was a Tuesday — and it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s bad luck in Hispanic culture, not Friday the 13th — it was about an hour and a half into the work day when I got up from my desk to go grab some printouts from another, empty office (the converted den).

Only, when I turned and stepped away from my desk, my left ankle was snarled by the cord that led from my phone to the wall. As I moved forward, it pulled my foot back. I overcompensated and then proceeded to pitch forward.

I stopped my fall with my hands on the floor. Unfortunately, there was a heavy wooden screen, painted with Chinese dragons, close to my desk, and I happened to head-butt it. Hard.

Everyone — as in the boss and office manager — heard it and came running out. I told them, “It’s okay, I’m fine,” but the boss looked like he was going to pass out and the office manager casually said, “You’re bleeding.”

I went into the bathroom and, sure enough, I’d managed to split the skin above my left eyebrow in about a two centimeter gash that was, in fact, bleeding a lot — but I happen to know that any cuts near the scalp do that because there are so many capillaries. Or, in other words, if you’re not William Holden, wounds like that are generally not as serious as they look.

I didn’t think I needed more than a few ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel, but my boss thought otherwise, and so it turned into a Workers Comp claim. And, to his credit, he’s the one who insisted on doing it by the book because he was just like that.

So… the Office Manager drove me off to Kaiser, who was already my provider, but also on the official list of companies the Workers Comp company worked with. It took nearly the whole work day, but I eventually got my wound sealed up — they glued it instead of stitched it mainly because I did not want anyone sewing my face up. I also managed to score a flu shot for free while I was there, but no COVID vax yet, because they weren’t really available.

And that should have really been it. I got treated, I made no claims regarding lost work time and the boss insisted that the entire day I spent at the hospital go on the time card as actual hours worked. As far as I was concerned, I was done with it.

Apparently, workers comp doesn’t, um, work like that, and over the next couple of months he and I were bombarded by paperwork. It was a seriously ridiculous stack, and when it became clear that a lot of it was predicated on me saying, “Oh yeah, this injury put me out of work and I need to be compensated,” I contacted the adjuster directly and said, “Hey, um, no. I’m fine. I’ve got no further claims, so I really don’t feel inclined to fill all this out.”

I did a couple of TelMed follow-up appointments with the doctors at Kaiser to assess the healing, and while it was hard to make out from my cell phone since reception at my boss’s office wasn’t the greatest, they wanted me to come in in person, but that was right before another surge, so I flatly told them, “No. Not now.”

Eventually, the hounding and the mailing stopped, and it might have helped that I left that job at the end of February and started the new one on March 1st. But still… one clumsy moment because I happen to have really big feet led to Much Ado about Nothing and the biggest load of paperwork dumped on me at once since the last time I bought a car from a dealer.

What’s your favorite genre of book or movie?

Well, this is an easy one, especially for people who know me. Science fiction — particularly hard science fiction.

And no, “hard” science fiction does not refer to some sort of erotic element. Rather, it refers to that type of science fiction that doesn’t pull Star Trek physics or other made-up bullshit out of its ass to explain how certain things are done.

Rather, it will actually apply the limits of science and physics to the world in which the story is told, then work around the problems from there.

Probably the finest example of this in movies is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which demonstrates the hardest of science fiction. Maybe the only point where it gets iffy is during the “Stargate” sequence at the end, when Dave Bowman’s pod falls into the monolith (“It’s full of stars!”) and goes on a psychedelic trip to the Marriot at the End of the World.

But… as Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that’s probably exactly what the unseen aliens had.

So the film gets a pass for not following known physics at that point, but certainly for setting it up that “Yeah, this really is a thing that could happen. We just haven’t figured it out yet.”

What was the darkest movie you’ve ever seen?

I can think of a lot of dark movies, but I’m going to immediately eliminate horror, slasher, or torture-porn flicks from the list.

Why? Because while they’re definitely dark, the situations are generally so far removed from reality that it’s hard to feel any connection to any of the characters, heroes or villains. For example, in the entire Saw series, I don’t give a shit about what happens to anyone, and the various traps and the fact that they work at all are so over the top that it becomes meaningless.

The Human Centipede series is another one that, while it is clearly meant to shock, only manages disgust and, again, no sympathy. The premise itself is completely idiotic. Sure, it does rely on some of Salvador Dali’s core concepts of surrealism involving putrefaction, defecation, and decay, but so what?

So when it comes to darkest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s got to be planted square in the middle of human experience and, oddly enough, I have two films that tie as winners. And guess what? They were both adapted from source material by the same author, who may or may not have bene a farmhand in Texas who boffed both William S. Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer.

That man was Hubert Selby, Jr., and the films were Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream.

The first, Last Exit, came out in 1989, and interestingly, the screenplay was adapted by a third-generation Japanese American while the film was directed by a German.

I bring this up because while the film is set in the America of the 1950s, it definitely looks at things from an outsider’s perspective, so the result is a dark and nasty working class America that is probably truer to what really was than any Leave It to Beaver middle class white bullshit.

The film is full of junkies and whores, cross-dressers and rough-trade, teen-age pregnancy and union busting. It’s also notable as one of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s early breakout roles as Tralala, a prostitute who ultimately sacrifices herself, really becoming the Mary Magdalene to the Stephen Lang’s Harry Black, who is pretty much lynched/crucified after he tries to sexually assault a teenage boy.

Nobody comes out well on the other end here, and it’s a bleak portrait of people abandoned by the American Dream.

But it’s only an aperitif to the entrée of despair that is 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and with an all-star cast, it is a dark and hopeless depiction of people with various addictions — speed, heroin, and sex.

A nice touch here is that three of the characters are hooked on “nasty” street drugs — i.e. heroin — whilc the fourth is a respectable Brighton Beach retired grandmother who gets her increasing doses of amphetamines from he doctor. So that’s okay, right?

But all four of them hit a downward spiral, and the conclusion of this film is one of the bleakest and most hopeless things I’ve ever seen. There is no redemption in this story. Only loss and despair.

And, so, it is very dark, indeed.

What’s the best thing about traveling? How about the worst thing?

It’s funny that this question came up at random now, because I just got a save-the-date reminder in the mail for a really good friend’s wedding, The catch is that it’s taking place at a destination that is about 315 miles from L.A.

This means a six-hour drive. Alternatively, it’s an hour and a half flight to Reno (not including travel time to and check-in at the airport, of course) and then a three hour drive west to the venue.

It’s going to involve an overnight stay, and possibly two — drive up on Friday night, stay in a motel, go to the wedding at 4:30 Saturday, back to the motel, then drive back home on Sunday. Yes, the wedding party has booked rooms at the resort where the wedding takes place, but those are all geared toward families and groups, and I’m going to be going it alone.

I bring this all up because this is one of those things I would not miss for the world, and it’s a perfect way to frame the question. Now, I have no idea why the wedding is there. It could be anything from it’s some location equidistant between his people in L.A. and her family elsewhere, or just a location with sentimental meaning, or there’s some other logical reason.

I’m ruling out flying entirely because it’s actually not the best way to get there — not when it involves crossing state borders twice and will take almost as much time — plus I’d have no control over delays, I also have no idea if I’ll have Real ID by that time (“Your papers, please!”) and since I’d have to rent a car anyway once I was up there, why not take my own?

The wedding is also “Black Tie Optional,” but c’mon. Never give me that option, because I’ll take it. Of course, that risks being better dressed than the groom, but at least that isn’t looked down upon as much as anyone but the bridge wearing white.

But what was the question? Right. The best and worst parts of traveling.

The absolute worst parts are the planning and preparing for it — finding lodging and the like, as well as plane or train fare if that’s your thing, making hotel or motel reservations, and arranging for a rental car if necessary, then figuring out the timing of when you need to leave from here and when you need to return from there.

Then there’s all that deciding what you need to take, and packing it, and making sure five times over that you didn’t forget everything — but you always will. And if you have pets you can’t take, you have to figure out how to get them looked after. Hint — in-home sitter is always the best option. I made the mistake one time of boarding my dog at her vet’s for a weekend, and she did not take it well.

Now top this off with budgeting, because all of these steps cost money, and you’re going to need to spend the time finding the best deals and prices and discounts. Don’t forget that you’re also going to have to feed yourself three meals a day on the trip — well, not including the dinner you get with the wedding, if that’s what you’re going to — and then decide how much you’re willing to spend on souvenir crap, attraction admissions, and the like while you’re there.

Got all that? Good. Other than the packing (but make a list of shit to bring) you should have it all locked down at least a month before the trip begins — although it might be longer, depending on the various cancellation and refund policies.

Oh yeah — this one is slightly more complicated by the requirement for all in-person guests to be fully vaccinated for COVID (working on it) and then to test negative three days before. But I really appreciate that part.

So, yeah. Those are the worst parts of traveling, and it really does make it sound like it sucks, whether it’s a weekend trip to a wedding, a weeklong family trip to a tourist spot, or a two week summer vacation with family cross country. It takes a lot of work.

But that leads to the best part of travel: Once you get there. Reaching the destination and doing the thing and having all the fun makes all of the pain in the ass stuff beforehand 100% worth it.

Trust me. Any time I’ve had to travel, even if it’s been something as trivial as a weekend drive to Palm Springs, which is only about two or three hours out,  the days leading up to it have sucked. All that went away the second I parked my car at my destination.

I know it’s going to be totally the same for this wedding. I’m still going to hate every second of putting the trip together — but I’m going to love it once I’m there.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who relocated to America in the 80s, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character is flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorable, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent (at the time) turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven intended and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

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