Annihilation, the film: A Fresh Review

Natalie-Portman-in-Annihilation-photo-Paramount-Pictures-1038x576 (2)

Natalie Portman in Annihilation (2018, Paramount-Pictures)

Scott Ashlin doesn’t pull punches. If he doesn’t like a movie, he will tell you, and he will tell you why. Ashlin, also known as El Santo, writes reviews at one of my favorite sites,  1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Even though he jokingly calls his site “aimed exppressly at wrong-thinking,” Ashlin actually excels at knowledgeable film criticism. That’s why I was so interested in his opinion of Annihilation (2018), based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, directed and co-written by Alex Garland. Many reviews of this film, both good and bad, seem to have agendas. S. T. Joshi, for example, hardly ever likes the most recent books of the weird or their movies, preferring the old, grizzled masters.  For example, he dismisses Stephen King and champions H. P. Lovecraft. It’s almost as though you can’t be that good if your book has been made into a blockbuster movie. Joshi is a great scholar of the weird, and I enjoy reading him, even if I don’t always agree with him.

But here is Scott Ashlin’s unsolicited opinion of Annihilation. He likes it:

 What I am certain of is that Annihilation is suffused throughout with something that’s been largely missing from mainstream science fiction movies for far too long, a sense of the vast and awesome strangeness of the universe that we inhabit. One of my favorite characteristics of the best and most ambitious sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s is that it reveled in the majesty of the unknown. . .

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D. Harlan Wilson’s excellent book on J. G. Ballard

Book Review by Bill Ectric

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

Bill Ectric holding J. G. Ballard book by D. Harlan Wilson

D. Harlan Wilson has made a literary mark in the field of cultural theory, focusing on the loss of humanity in the inescapable rush of accelerating technology, with books like Technologized Desire: Selfhood and the Body in Postcapitalist Science Fiction and Cultographies: They Live. While his fiction tends to be disorienting (a trait his fans enjoy), his non-fiction has the clarity and delivery of a seasoned educator, as in his most recent study of the life and work of J.G. Ballard. 

Ballard was a vital force in the British New Wave of science fiction whose novels and stories inspired the cyberpunk subgenre, but he is most famous for writing Empire of the Sun (1984) and Crash (1973), both of which became movies, directed by Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg respectively. D. Harlan Wilson makes a convincing case that even Empire of Sun contains elements of science fiction.

Wilson writes brisk, lucid text that flows like quicksilver. Clearly respectful of Ballard as an author and a man, his new book analyzes Ballard’s singular style, dystopian themes, and sometimes disturbing plots in a relatively simple, but smart, well organized, and skillfully researched masterwork.

Wilson describes how Ballard was less interested in flying saucers, aliens, and outer space than he was in the inner space of our minds, as we become the future, with relentless input from the internet, television, radio, billboards, working and playing inside mega-malls, gated communities, and high-rise apartments. We are the cyborgs, perceiving reality as dictated to us by the very media we covet. Ballard explores how these conditions affect the evolution of life, society, sex, and death. His influences included surrealist painter Salvador Dali, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transgressive experimental “Beat” writer William S. Burroughs, and media visionary Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the Internet 30 years before it existed. Wilson demonstrates, with fascinating examples, how the landscapes and cities in Ballard’s novels are often extensions or reflections of his character’s mindscapes.

Critics have complained about the violence in some of Ballard’s books. Wilson says, “Ballard didn’t want to see it happen in the real world” and quotes Ballard’s explanation that “notions about the benefits of transgression in my last three novels are not ones I want to see fulfilled. Rather, they are extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressure of the conformist world we inhabit. Boredom and a deadening sense of total pointlessness seem to drive a lot of meaningless crimes.”

In 1924, Andre Breton described Surrealism as thought or art created in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern. This launched an array of weird, dreamlike paintings and theater. But on a darker note, Breton also said that the ultimate surrealist act would be “to go out into the street and fire a revolver at random into the crowd.” Chillingly, we recall Donald Trump’s words on the campaign trail in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters. It’s like, incredible.” As Ballard said way back in 1971, “Everything is becoming science fiction.”

If you are new to Ballard, this book is a good place to start. If you’re already familiar with the man’s work, you will appreciate what Jonathan Lethem calls “a new comprehensive standard.”

Read More at the website of D. Harlan Wilson

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” as an Indictment of Government/Industry Collusion

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson  Company Store

In her short story, “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson symbolizes the power of “big business,” in collusion with the government, to control the private citizens. She published it in 1948, not a particularly strong year for anti-industry rhetoric. Earlier American authors were a better fit for that subgenre, with novels like The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) by Frank Norris and The Jungle (1906) by Sinclair Lewis. Conversely, only three years after World War II ended, most Americans were optimistic about industry growth. On the eve of the Golden Age of Capitalism (Marglin 39). Nevertheless, Jackson placed signs and symbols of corporate tyranny in The Lottery, as this essay will demonstrate. Post-war optimism aside, Jackson knew something was wrong. Her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, probably said it best when he called The Lottery, “a sensitive and faithful anatomy of ours times, fitting symbols for our distressing world of the concentration camp and the Bomb” (Hyman).

The lottery takes place in a small, rural village and is officiated by three men who are, arguably, the three most powerful men in town. The owner of the coal company, Mr. Summers, directs the proceedings of the lottery. Summers enters the town square carrying a black box full of folded strips of paper. Mr. Graves, the Postmaster, performs the swearing-in of Mr. Summers. Mr. Martin, who owns the grocery store, and his son Baxter, hold the box steady while Mr. Summers stirs the papers inside. The men in the crowd talk about “planting and rain, tractors and taxes,” which indicates that many of them are farmers. As farmers, they might rely on Mr. Martin, the grocer, to buy their produce. They might be in debt to the bank for the purchase of tractors or other farm equipment. They are certainly subservient to the government in that they must pay taxes, indirectly supporting the Postmaster, Mr. Graves. Only around 300 people live in the village, so most of the non-farmers must work for the coal business, owned by Mr. Summers.

In this village, the tradition of the lottery goes back so far into the past that the townspeople have forgotten some of the original parts of the ceremony, but they accept the validity of the lottery, mostly without question. They link the ceremony to crop fertility, as evidenced by Old Man Warner quoting an adage, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” It sounds like a pagan rite, and by the end of the story, we see just how pagan it is. We learn why people have collected rocks in preparation for the event. The townspeople kill the lottery winner by stoning. This time around, they kill Tessie Hutchinson. Thus, Tessie Hutchinson becomes a sacrifice, ostensibly for a bountiful harvest.

Why would anyone want to continue such a terrible tradition? Notice that all the slips of paper are blank except for one. The “winning” paper had a black spot on it, “the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company.” Graphite is the main ingredient in pencil lead. Graphite and coal are both forms of carbon. The black spot on the paper represents coal. Notice that Mr. Summers wielded a “heavy” pencil, representing the heavy hand of power. The lottery is a control system.

The most powerful men in the village are perpetuating a violent ritual among the obedient residents of the community, and that makes the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s tale a sinister variation on Girard’s scapegoat mechanism. Girard described the scapegoat mechanism as a small dose of violence that served to avert a more catastrophic violence. Conflicts occur within a community, according to Girard, because of rivalries. When conflicts grow, threatening the existence of the community, the scapegoat mechanism acts as a pressure valve. The members of the community set aside their differences to unite against one person, and that person becomes the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat mechanism, as described by Girard, is a subconscious human phenomenon. What makes the lottery in Jackson’s story so sinister is that the town leaders have consciously institutionalized it to keep the populace docile. Whatever circumstances might normally interfere with docility need not be specified, as conflict is a part of any society.

Governments and corporations often work together, sometimes legitimately and other times in illegal collusion. Singer/songwriter Merle Travis recorded and released a song in 1946 called “Sixteen Tons.” The song described the plight of coal miners who, in return for employment, were required to buy supplies from the company store, which was owned by the coal company and more expensive than other stores. It was often very difficult to get out of debt to the company store. Historian Lou Athey says, “The stores served numerous functions, such as a locus for the government post office…and community center…(Athey). The connection between the coal-company-owned store and Post Office may only be coincidental to the setting in The Lottery, but it illustrates the idea of privately-owned corporations working with government institutions. When coal miners went on strike in 1919, the Federal government invoked a wartime measure that made the strike a crime and sent soldiers and spies into the camps to enforce production (Marcus). The government and police created scapegoats by accusing strike sympathizers, especially foreigners, of socialism and communism, going so far as to arrest some of them (Marcus). Similarly, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw the rise of the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism, in the United States, in which anti-communist paranoia resulted in “systemic persecution of those who were believed to have subversive worldviews” (“The 1940s”). The company stores are closed now, but other collusions abound. As recently as February 7, 2018, President Trump nominated Marco Rajkovich, an attorney who has defended coal mining companies charged with safety violations, explosions, and other disasters, to oversee mine safety cases (Ganim). In March 2017, “A bill approved by Kentucky lawmakers Tuesday would cut back the number of state inspections of coal mines per year” (Jamieson).

In 1939, the population of the United States was 131,028,000 (Clodfelder). In the four years this country was involved in World War II, we lost 418,500 soldiers (Clodfelder), or roughly .32% of our total population. Shirley Jackson tells us there were just over 300 people in the village in The Lottery. When the villagers stone their annual victim, Tessie Hutchinson, they are killing around .32% of their own.    

by Bill Ectric

Works Cited

Athey, Lou. “The Company Store in Coal Town Culture,” Labor’s Heritage, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990 pp 6-23.

Clodfelder, Michael (2002). Warfare and Armed Conflicts – A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000. McFarland & Co. p. 582.

Ganim, Sara and Gregory Wallace. “Trump nominee to oversee mine safety cases is lawyer who defended coal companies.” CNN Politics. 07 Feb. 2018 https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/07/politics/mine-safety-nominee-defended-coal-companies/index.html. Accessed 14 Feb. 2018.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Preface. The Magic of Shirley Jackson, by Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1966, p. viii.

Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” The Lottery and Other Stories. 2nd ed., Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005.

Jameison, Dave. “Coal Country Republicans Set to Cut Mine Safety Inspections.” Huffington Post, 14 March 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/coal-country-republicans-state-mine-inspections_us_58c85cade4b022994fa2eeca. Accessed 14 February 2018.

Marcus, Irwin, Eileen Mountjoy, and Beth O’Leary. “The Coal Strike of 1919 in Indiana County and Its Aftermath.” Indiana University of Pennsylvania. https://www.iup.edu/archives/coal/unions-and-mining/the-coal-strike-of-1919-in-indiana-county-and-its-aftermath/. Accessed 02 Feb. 2018

Marglin, Stephen, and Juliet Schor. The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience. University of Oxford Press, 2011

“The 1940s: Lifestyles and Social Trends: Overview.” American Decades. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. Web. 30 Nov. 2012 http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

 

Ghost Stories at Christmas?

Christmas Spirits

Bill Ectric’s Place is celebrating Christmas with this website called Hypnogoria and the history of Christmas ghost stories:

There’ll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…

So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in his festive favourite It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. And the lyric quoted above has caused much scratching of heads over the years, as not every one is aware of the old tradition of telling spooky tales upon a Christmas night. Indeed some have wondered whether the lines above are merely referring solely, in a hap-hazard fashion, to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But of course there’s more spectres abroad at Yuletide other than just Mr Marley and his crew. To begin with some of the finest ghost stories ever written were produced by M. R. James who notes in the preface to his first collection of tales, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904) –

“I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas…”

Read More   girl-reading-ghost-story

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Robot

A Short Story by Bill Ectric

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Sometime in the future

The little boy shivered in his white hospital baby stroller, which was too small for his five-year-old frame. No one noticed him shiver. That was the first hint that something was wrong. Adopted by the Youth Solution Agency after his parents were convicted of treason for writing pamphlets critical of the government, the boy was now hedged into a world of loneliness, confusion and uneven discipline, for unnatural rules designed by whomever was in charge.

At least he had his plastic toy robot. It was an excellent eight-inch scale model of the robot from an old television show called Lost in Space. His robot was his friend. The little boy’s name was Josh.

Soon after arriving at the Agency, Josh got in trouble for having prayer beads. He only owned two things: the toy robot his father gave him and the Anglican prayer beads his mother gave him.

Josh’s father was a robotics worker in a factory. He gave the boy a toy robot with several little gadgets built in. For example, if you pushed a button on the robot’s chest, a mechanical voice said, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” just like on the TV show. The clear plastic bubble head, with radar gizmos inside, could be raised up and down. When you pushed a button on the robot’s shoulder, its arm popped forward and its little claw hand opened. You could put a pencil in its hand and the spring-loaded claw would click shut and hold the pencil. You could open a small plastic door on the robot’s leg that revealed pretend gears that ran the roller-track “feet.” Josh loved his robot and played with it all the time.

Josh’s mother had given him a set of Anglican prayer beads, consisting of a small crucifix on a loop of turquoise beads. It was against the law to give children religious artifacts, but the bureaucrats overlooked crosses because they had become common as ornaments of jewelry, which the officials usually stored with other things that kids were too young for, like adult-sized rings, watches, and pocketknives.

Josh’s mother had taught him a simple version of a prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi. A large woman in a white nurse’s uniform caught Josh reciting his prayer. The boy held the first bead on the string between his thumb and forefinger and said, “Lord, give us peace.” Sliding his small fingers to the next bead, he said, “change hatred to love,” and moving to the next bead, “change despair to hope,” and so on, each bead signaling the next phrase.

“What are you doing?” the big nurse asked. She had sneaked up behind Josh. “What is that?”

Josh was unsure how to answer because of the tone of her voice.

He said meekly, “Mom’s beads.”

“Let me see that,” demanded the nurse.

Josh held the beads tight.

“Okay, then,” she said. “We’ll see about this.”

At the next staff meeting, she told the Head Administrator about the rosary.

The Head Administrator said, “Well, we can’t have that. I mean, I don’t really care personally, but we’ll get a bad mark in quality control.”

The nurse said, “His mother gave him the artifact. It might traumatize him if we take it away.”

“Kids get upset,” said the head man. “He’ll get over it. Use some strategy. He seems to like that robot. That’s much more appropriate for a young boy. It’s scientific, practical. It’s a testament to man’s accomplishments.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” the nurse said.

Soon enough, Josh also got in trouble with the robot. One night after lights out, he pushed the button and the robot blurted out, “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” in the dark, and a younger child woke up crying in the room full of beds.

The big nurse came into the room.

“Give me that,” she said in a whispering voice that everyone could hear.

Josh held the robot tight. The nurse got an idea.

“Let me borrow the robot for one night and I’ll give it back tomorrow. If I have to take it from your hands, you won’t get it back ever.”

Josh reluctantly handed over the toy robot.

The next day, after breakfast, all the children were on their way to the library when the nurse pulled Josh aside.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” she told Josh. “I’ll trade you the robot for the beads.”

“Mom’s beads…” stammered the boy. He was clutching the small cross in his tight pants pocket.

“Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of it,” the nurse assured him in a comforting tone. “You can have it when you get older.”

Still holding the crucifix in his pocket and trying to change the subject, the boy said, “Library. Library time.”

The nurse reached into a big pocket on her white smock and brought out the robot. The boy’s eyes opened wide. He held his hand out for the toy.

“Not until you give me the rosary,” insisted the nurse.

Josh grudgingly pulled the cross from his pocket, followed by the attached beaded string. Each turquoise bead made a little bump as the string slid over the rim of his pocket, until it hung free down the length of his upraised arm. When the nurse put the robot in his other hand, he let go of the beads and quickly hugged the robot in both hands.

A few days later, the Head Administrator was in a good mood. He told the nurse, “I’m very happy with the progress Josh has made. He shows a lot of potential with hands-on skills. I saw him taking that toy robot apart and putting it back together.”

Josh had disconnected the little speaker inside the mechanical man. That way he could push the button without upsetting anyone with the robot’s loud voice.

To his relief, Josh had discovered that no one could tell what he was thinking. He pretended to read the robot’s mind, pushing the button and then imagining he heard the voice. He could imagine the robot saying whatever he wanted.

The next day, the Head Administrator watched Josh from a distance. The boy was quietly engrossed in playing with the robot’s many gadgets. He seemed to have forgotten the prayer beads. The Head Administrator felt pride and a sense of accomplishment for leading the boy away from superstition and toward a practical, scientific pass-time. He smiled a satisfied smile.

What the Administrators didn’t know was that, as the boy played intently with the robot, his mind was busy with this:

When Josh clicked the button on the robot’s chest, he thought silently, “Lord, give us peace.” Then he extended the clear bubble-like head and thought, “change hatred to love.” The boy clicked the arm spring button and thought, “change doubt to faith.” He clicked open the small plastic door on the robot’ leg and thought, “change despair to hope” and so on. All this was going on in Josh’s head, with the click of each gadget representing a different prayer that nobody but God could hear.