An important article from a friend about treatment of homeless gay youth, a far bigger contingent than you’d first suspect.

Science Fiction

I’ve been in a weird headspace lately as far as my writing projects go.  At a party last week, a stranger asked me what I liked to write.  I found myself struggling to describe it in a unique way, that being the pathos of a writer – I must sound so beautifully, astoundingly, cripplingly unique because everyone else is terrible and I deserve all the recognition.  (Well, that might be a bit of an overstatement, but you get the point.)  Also, well-read and intelligent.  Nearly forgot those qualities.  The answer to this question was a battle against time.  How to appropriately and concisely answer this query while staying within the boundaries of acceptable verbiage and time, otherwise running the risk of looking like I was having a stroke or just truly insane.  That is to say, what is the catch-phrase to sum me up?  I have no clue.  What came out of my mouth was essentially this:

“Dysfunctional family dramas or quiet relationship examinations with a weird sci-fi bend.  Well, not sci-fi in the sense that there are space ships and aliens.  Like there’s this theme told through, you know what, I’m going to stop talking.  Speculative fiction?”

Confusion and disinterest beset in this stranger’s eyes, he changed the subject.

Being me, this question got me thinking.  Perhaps I’m misusing the term sci-fi when regarding stories about people who can walk through walls or the one about one man’s question to access a parallel universe or even the memory thief project.  All of these include an important part of the equation: they’re fiction.  (Unless the government is keeping more secrets than we know.)  But what gets me is the sheer amount of research I’m doing to prove that things like this can happen.  I’ve watched so many documentaries and read many papers on the multiverse, string theory and quantum mechanics in general.  Did I understand them?  Only insofar as suited me, sure, but the base knowledge I now possess brings up the other aspect of this age-old distinction of books and film.  Science.

If I offer a proof of ‘impossible’ events in my scripts, am I not ascribing to the nature of Science Fiction?  Granted, the evidence and science takes a back seat to the emotional core of the characters, it’s still there.  Otherwise, I’d just be adding to the already more intelligent documentaries out there.  So, what makes Science Fiction?

The trouble is establishing the divide between Science Fiction and Fantasy in the viewer’s eye.  Fantasy naturally lends itself to elves, subterranean dwarf races and anything involving Mordor (or Tolkein for that matter).  But I’d also like include pieces considering space operas.  Just because the characters are human and the circumstances are decidedly human doesn’t mean you’ve got Science Fiction.  Where those stories may not strictly be fantasy, the setting (a now-impossible space craft, a foreign planet) might be the key ingredient which disconnects them from the likes of Vonnegut or Asimov.  There are exceptions, of course, or genre-benders, but most importantly, I believe Science Fiction regards planet Earth (or at least a world we generally recognize as such) as the setting.  And for good reason.  This allows for the most important ingredient: a strong message about the human condition as it is in present time.  What follows may read like a movie review.  Just a warning.

Last night I watched two movies, both regarded as Science Fiction in the way the movie machine regards it.  Which is to say, very broadly.  These films, In Time and The Thing, both had Earth settings (one in the future, one in the past), both had human characters and both had that one thing that “does not compute” with how we view and understand the world today.  But where one had a message about present day, the other lacked.  Andrew Niccol’s futuristic take on the economy and its subsequent toll applies to Science Fiction.  At what cost is immortality?  Who must pay for such a boon?  And how?  As two characters point out, “For a few to be immortal, many must die”.

The brilliantly succinct introductory scenes expertly draw a three-dimensional society wherein no ages beyond twenty-five, at which age you either work for a pithy amount of extra time to live or you die.  We see Will Salas, your everyman in many ways, wake up in his shamble of an apartment and greet a woman his age.  He says, “Happy fiftieth birthday, Mom,” and we are thrown into a new timeline.  We recognize these people as human with the same problems we face (falling behind on bills, working dead-end jobs, living in a seemingly preventable poverty) and though the exchange of lifetime as currency is new and foreign, it’s immediately recognizable as a human problem.  After several more encounters that set up this world and how people operate inside it (most appalling being the abject, yet ultimately indifferent treatment of the recently “timed out” laying dead in the streets), Will enters a series of disappointingly flimsy plot devices to launch him into different world – the one of the rich and, thus, immortal.  Unfortunately, this is where the film loses steam as most of the decisions that Will makes either appear completely frivolous or are lazily explained too late to excise the damage from the story and character.  While it’s not quite clear until close to the middle of second act, Will becomes something of a Robin Hood hoping to collapse the economy and dethrone the rich and powerful.

This came out during the height of the Occupy movement, so we regard this sect – represented at the smarmiest level possible by Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser – as the 1%.  “The rich get richer and the poor get… deader.”  There.  There it is.  Your message.  Though In Time may have been nothing more than cat-and-mouse chase montage at its core, the attention to detail in regards to the science of an near-recognizable world and its over-arcing message of the current human condition places it in the Science Fiction distinction.  Many could complain that the science aspect wasn’t fully explored vis-a-vis the actuality of prolonging life based on a neon bio-mechanical clock implant, but they’re missing the point.  It is explained enough in the context of the story and, for me, in great suspension-of-disbelief detail.

The inherent lack of message in The Thing prevents it from entering my definition of Science Fiction.  In it, we find Kate Lloyd accepting a paleontologist research position in Antarctica in a swift, unflinching and wholly undramatic fashion and discovering that the alien creature unearthed there is quite the chameleon.  Her research is basic, though competent enough to lay a foundation for the premise.  The setting is a recognizable Earth, 1982 and is effectively shown as such, some prop decisions notwithstanding.  The only difference in this world compared to ours is the presence of this alien creature that mimics what it kills, which is to say it mimics other humans.  Perfect set-up to explore the nature of humanity.  Although there is an attempt to develop the intraspecies suspicion, deception and general mistrust brilliantly explored in the 1982 film by John Carpenter, it falls flat in an attempt to ratchet up the new-school tension of explosions, gun-fire and gory kill scenes.  Sure, popcorn movies are great, but don’t call them Science Fiction.  (If you haven’t seen Carpenter’s version, do it now.  Right now.)

The lead researcher posed as an under-developed and generally flat human antagonist, but when he is summarily dispatched without a satisfying conflict between him and our heroine the film fails to say anything about human nature other than its rational need for survival.  Which, guess what, is the same goal as the wordless alien creature they repeatedly light on fire.  I suppose this might be the message intended and perhaps I’m too demanding when it comes to the exegesis of humanity, but this just doesn’t cut it.  Because survival is literally the most basic goal of all species, terrestrial or otherwise, that’s not much of a message.  Kate does instill in everyone the fear of everyone, yet it never evolves beyond the base fear that everyone could be alien.  Carpenter’s take on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. pits human characters against other human characters regardless of the alien.  The alien is merely a foil to bring out the worst in people: paranoia, assertive assumption, murder.  When backed into a corner, most humans become destructive and poisonous to each other, no matter the cost.  The true enemy is not the Thing.  Rather, Carpenter’s Thing appears more as a metaphor for human nature – infiltrate and destroy.  The recent take calls it like it sees it – it’s an alien, kill it.  Where’s the depth in that?

So, do I write Science Fiction?  Trying to prevent making it sound like I’m blowing smoke up my own ass, I’d say with complete ambivalence that I’d like to think so.

$#|! Everyone Says

I have terrible vocabulary, I swear.  No, literally.  I swear like my life depends on it.  Perhaps not to the degree a rapper might, but definitely on the level of David Fincher (seriously, listen to the director commentary on Se7en).  And the thing is, I don’t disrespect these people for their word choice.  In fact, I greatly admire Mr. Fincher and, to a lesser extent, many rappers (Ludacris reigns).  Is swearing such a bad thing?  A free-spirited use of the English language to someone like me is an affront to the delicate sensibilities of another.  On on the hand, I can’t blame them for wanting to draw the line, but warn of going too far.

NBC Today posed the question, in several presumably short interviews, “what is your opinion of the presence of swear words in pop culture?”  The answers they aired revealed a negative reaction.  And not just from crotchety old folks hosing kids off their lawns.  I have several friends who quietly disapprove of my flippant use of the S-word, the F-bomb and many other crude exclamations too. Under the pretense of the First Amendment, I express myself how I please and expect nothing less from others.  But this is casual discourse – a colloquial expression of myself through words in a private setting.  The backlash of these words comes mainly, I feel, from people trying to protect younger minds from this apparently corrosive vocabulary.  One woman in the piece believes it’s a sign of lack of education.  Education implying higher learning at a state institution, I assume.  What she fails to see is swearing is an education of the times.

Looking back, words come and go from the lexicon.  The death of ‘verily’ is still a point of mourning for me.  But mainly of these dirge-worthy words were, at their own time, considered inappropriate or faint-inducing.  Shakespeare in his time was considered crass.  Though studies of his work now evoke images of hallowed halls and higher education, much of his audience were peasants.  The under-educated lower class who were granted entry to the Globe Theatre for about a penny required entertainment on their level, even if that meant characters flinging insults and epithets left and right.  Or, from my favorite play of his, a character’s basis for marrying a woman solely hinging on the fact that she had pendulous breasts (oh, Touchstone, you cad).  It’s indelicate, but it’s hilarious and a free-thinking expression of an idea.  Who’s to tell that incorrigible Shakespeare to censor himself?  We censor movies and music without much of a thought regarding how useful a curse word can be, as outlined by Monty Python.

To bring education into the equation is a moot point.  My favorite professor in college, a ridiculously well-read and educated man, would occasionally release expletives with grace, humor and intelligence.  There’s the line.  Not just spouting obscenities as if to replace other, more useful words is the true art of swearing.  Taking a lesson from Shakespeare, I suppose most of the use of crass language is most effective and less offensive when utilized for comedy.  Though not exactly Love’s Labors Lost, an SNL sketch featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee Lo Green creates less colorful, yet funny, phrases to describe the hit “Fuck You” and turns up humor in a way that acknowledges the ludicrous nature of trying to match the emotive and cathartic punch of a good F-bomb while ribbing our culture’s obsessive need for linguistic decency.  (The humor calls to mind the ridiculous “replacement phrases” some movies acquire when aired on cable.  You know, the phrases that can humorously ruin dramatic tension.)  The song in question uses the word so effectively, it’s hard to imagine any other word able to describe the feeling of betrayal, but that didn’t stop censors from trying.  The radio edit, “Forget You” lacks the punch the original possesses.  ‘Fuck’ is such an aggressively awesome word, ‘Forget’ is something you do to your house keys on a tired morning.  Censoring in this small regard is stifling, almost making a joke of an artist’s message.  “It’s all the same.”  No.  It’s not.

I can understand the protection of those poor, impressionable minds, but again I must regard this as a failure to keep up with the times.  In an age precariously poised on a ledge, it’s counterintuitive to preserve innocence.  (I’m still working on how swearing intones a loss of such a thing.)  Much like drugs, telling someone not to do something breeds curiosity which leads to secret experimentation.  It’s akin to the Christian guilt thing – keep your ‘sins’ close to the vest, let them fester as shame.  If something is no longer forbidden, perhaps it won’t become such a fascinating thing to use.  We’re so hell-bent on censoring these select words in a myopic battle to reclaim decent language, that we’ve given them power.  (Did you notice, by the way, in the NBC Today piece, the word ‘Hell’ is censored in the background?  So many dyed-in-the-wool Catholics I know are doomed for this one.)  This calls to mind the horror unleashed by the fictional television studio of South Park in an episode constructing the origin story for ‘curse words’.  Daring to say ‘shit’ as many times as possible in one half-hour releases a malevolent force set to destroy humanity.  It’s funny because it’s completely ridiculous.  And certain artists recognize this.  Nick Minaj ends “Roman’s Revenge” with the line “wash your mouth out with soap, boys” as an acknowledgement of how ludicrous it is.  At once venting frustration with censorship, the line is also a tongue-in-cheek finger-wag – what would change if she and Eminem said one less curse word?  (This particular YouTube lyric-fest censors the text, which is oddly funny given the point.)

While decency preservationists build profanity proof shelters for their families, I’ll keep freely using swear words, especially against the new lexicon: the truly evil acronym system of technology.  Call me hypocritical for this, but can we at least agree swear words are actual words?  Whether or not they bring about the End Times is up for scrutiny, but the end of the English language is an absolute affront to my sensibilities.  OMG, BRB, LOL, etc. present a problem bigger than swearing: Language Death.  If you were to ask me, these intone a lack of ‘education’.  Especially consider LOL (or ‘laugh out loud’) in that it is grammatically incorrect as you cannot do anything out loud, but you can aloud.  The free use of lazy abbreviations is a sign of things to come, ushered in by the Broadband Generation.  Read much of the internet and find a gross abuse of the English language without correction.  Take for example Texts From Bennett.  Bennett, being self-possessed and a self-proclaimed gangsta, breaches the limits of incorrect spelling and failed grammar acrobatics.  When the poster deigns to correct him, Bennett lashes back with unparalleled certitude that he is correct and the poster is dumb.  This is an extreme example, but holds water all the same.  In a time of increased impatience for new information, we’re headed for an atrophied language, one that disregards beauty and creativity in favor of ease despite its grammatical improprieties.  Call me a traditionalist, but fuck that.

Obit for the Golden Rule

A mystery is afoot.  The Case of the Missing Golden Rule.  Now I make no claims about being a detective, but you must admit there’s a suspicious lack of decorum.  This stretches from recess hair-pulling to politics (like there’s really a distinction anymore).  Where I’m a proponent for getting into the occasional argument or even fight as a method to build character, it seems the modus operandi of this culture lacks the sufficient foresight to develop a goal.  A goal such as, say, learning something about oneself.  We mudsling each other over the basest remarks.  I myself am no stranger to this, being also a product of current times.  I mean, just ask my opinion of Zooey Deschanel and receive a stream of uncontrollable vitriol.  It’s an inconsequential topic, but it manages to boil my blood.

There is, of course, a difference between opinion and platform, but “difference of opinion” has reached a point where difference isn’t taken into account in regards to respect.  Take, as an example, an event The Daily Show lambasted.  In Tuesday, January 17th’s episode (the 3:30 mark is a good place to start), Jon Stewart highlighted audience response to two distinct points of view.  When Senator Ron Paul expresses a need to return to a global Golden Rule, the audience boos.  It is perfectly acceptable to disagree with, well, whatever you choose, but when such an active verbalization against the most basic foundation of civilized living occurs, it calls to question to state in which we live.  The suggestion that we need to rebound to the Golden is shocking in and of itself, as if to suggest this view fell to the wayside.  From my point of view, the reaction to such a proclamation is rude: unfounded hubris, a national pride built upon the notion that we are the best.  At everything.  Refer to a shocking statistic from Waiting For Superman wherein American students placed very low against 17 or so other developed nations when it came to tests, but ranked number one in self-confidence about their scores (before said scores where posted, of course).

This attitude isn’t a blanket, national notion.  Whether it’s causal or symptomatic, the inflated self-image extends all the way down to the individual.  It goes from “we’re right and you’re wrong” to “I’m right.”  None of this mentality appears to stem from research, foundations of facts or anything other way to effective prove the point.  It’s simply over-confidence.  And it has some catastrophic results.  Exaggerated self-confidence can lead to a bully mentality.  It’s the reason we now have the term bullycide – spellcheck doesn’t recognize it, but we do as a society.  Bullycide is the distinction given to suicides occurring as a direct result of bullying.  (There is a bevy of documented cases, if you can stomach what appears to be online suicide notes.)  Many of these cases are examples of the larger cyberbullying category, which points to a notion of anonymity granted by the internet.  And the internet is nothing but a large crowd, much like the audience at the North Carolina primary.  A comparison can be drawn between the mentality of both (but I stop the correlation there so as not to demean or undermine the implications of teen suicide).  “I’m right and unknowable.  I have the advantage” has become a mantra of the Broadband Generation.

This generation (to which, some say, I belong – the distinctions are fuzzy) is reared by the rise of technology.  But with new technology comes new discourse, most of which hinges on an attitude of anonymity.  And anonymity breeds a lack of respect and, moreso, of accountability.  To be held accountable for one’s actions, there’s an inherent viewer involved, one who can impart judgement to the equation.  Remove the viewer and you remove what you might call guilt from the situation.  Without the viewer, you can say anything you like and the only true compass is yourself.  But if we’re surrounded by like-minded individuals, where are we to learn the behavior of culpability?  Through the lens of cyberbullying or even methods of online education, many turn to parents and teachers.  It’s an optimistic thought, but I can’t wholeheartedly agree as it’s Herculean to assume the outnumbered can police activity of an increasingly obstinate group.  Instant gratification is their goal and such a goal leads to an increase in impulsive behavior.  There’s no denying, however, that the older generations have come to rely on the internet in much the same way.  (Again, causal or symptomatic?)  Though a sort of fluffy generalization, this short article demonstrates the divide between the Broadband Generation and their parents as such: we’ve come to depend on Google to answer our questions for us.

Can we trust the answer, though?  With the profluence of information, some of it is fudged for a platform, some facts avoided or even completely falsified.  When I was in college, it was expressly prohibited to use Wikipedia as a cited source.  For good reason, as it is a user-generated content site, but does the Broadband Generation know this?  (I’ve encountered many people that don’t so I could be over-stepping the assumption.)  A knowledge with falsified foundations leads to dangerous illusions of power.  Many times have I been involved in a conversation with an unwilling participant, in such he or she refused to remotely listen to a differing point of view.  As I said above, I’m all for argument, but when the “opposition” stands resolute even in the face of fact, frustration reigns.  And perhaps this is the malaise.  Listening does not come as second nature in these times.  Note again the North Carolina primary: before Paul can fully finish his sentence, the disapproval begins.  And in internet culture, one doesn’t even have to listen at all.  Make a statement and filter out everything that occurs after.  If you think you have something to say and desire recognition for your proclamation, shouldn’t you then expect someone else to have the same desire?

Isn’t that the Golden Rule?

What we’re finding at the core is a lack of respect.  And as this NPR article points out, the threat of it could go further.  With examples such as Joe Wilson (the “You lie!” Representative) and the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at George W. Bush as a tangible metaphor for the American attitude toward the president, it’s clear this attitude is everywhere.  And being promoted through positive reinforcement (Rep. Wilson apparently received millions in campaign funding after the incident).  As far as accountability, the Arizona governor story has a sadly humorous beat: “I didn’t know when that photo was snapped” being her response to a documented accusation of disrespect.  Perhaps this is the future.  “Every man for himself.”  This truism was designed for times of survival during times of duress.  Maybe that’s where we are, just in a different sense.  Seeking out and destroying via rude remarks under a blanket of zero accountability because we feel threatened by modern times.  All we can ask for is a return to the Golden Rule, however difficult it may be.  Altruism, like policing a younger generation’s internet activity, is a pleasant idealistic theory, but a theory without proof all the same.  Kind of bleak, but I can’t say it’s incorrect.

Re-Cycle

A recent event led me to conduct something of a retrospective of my old work.  The rehash forced me to realize that I don’t recognize the person who wrote these things.

I believe this bit of Los Angeles observation from 2004 will do just fine as an example:

I heard once a woman’s face melted.  Right there, the friend of a cousin of a friend, said she just started bubbling.  He or she saw the whole thing.  Apparently this story teller, however hypothetically or unbelievable the connection to me, saw her face pool around her seven thousand dollar shoes.  His thrice detached companion, my friend, told me the story which, of course, I discredited with my ninth grade semester-long chemistry knowledge.

“You think I’m dumb enough to believe that?  Just because it’s called plastic surgery doesn’t mean it’s actually plastic.”  I tugged at my ultra-hip polo shirt.  “Dumbass.”

Who is this “I” and where was he hanging out?  When I first began writing, it seemed the work produced would act as a time capsule – a comfortable space to which I could return to recount memories, relive them.  Though quite some time has passed and this story in question is one of inconsequential value, I still have no recollection of the event.  (Or much of my time in Los Angeles, as far as specifics go.)  It’s filed under “Personal Essays”, but nothing about what precedes or follows those two paragraphs feels personal.  I draw the conclusion that I need to reconnect with this person and perhaps a return to the blog format is a proper conduit to do so.  I mean, honestly, I’ve never worn a polo shirt in my life.

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