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Book Reviews: Cybernetica, The Blade Runner Experience, The Philosophy of Film Noir, more

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It is interesting to see on occasion how the books that end up on one’s shelves in a seemingly haphazard manner suddenly form a sort of a pattern. I started reading Michael J. Cavallaro’s novel, Cybernetica, which is about a Matrix-like future where the average citizen is controlled by a computer-to-brain neural network, just as The Blade Runner Experience: The Legacy of a Science Fiction Classic arrived. Shortly thereafter, I received a copy of The Philosophy of Film Noir. In many respects, these books come at society and culture from different angles, and yet offer intriguing insights into not only the neo-noir dystopian future but the present state of humanity as well.

Cybernetica

Cybernetica borrows somewhat from the classic “cyberpunk” work of William Gibson and adopts the uncertain mind control concerns of The Matrix in a story where the world is largely controlled by a brain-to-computer interface system called “sublimation.” This networked interface allows for a significant level of control over the general populace, and is the subject of intense conflict between an ever-shifting alliance of shadowy government operatives, corporate interests, and criminals.

The story is set a generation after the conclusion of the “Encryption Wars.” The rise of the sublimation interface means that the overwhelming majority of citizens exist in an interconnected environment in which their perceptions are subtly shaded and shaped by those who manipulate the system. There is a criminal subculture, however, that falls outside the system – a component of which suffer from a condition called blindsight, which somehow prevents them from connecting to the larger culture (according to Cavallaro, “blindsight” is essentially a neurological inability to receive some elements of subliminal information, which essentially means that a component of society is still able to “think for themselves”). From the ranks of these erstwhile criminals, a group of insurgents now seeks to destroy the sublimation system and restart society. (Full review)

The Blade Runner Experience

If any film launched cyberpunk into the mainstream, it was Ridley Scott’s 1982 future noir, Blade Runner. The film opened to middling reviews and lukewarm box office, but its status as a cult classic grew at an exponential rate. A director’s cut of the film (and then another director’s cut) eliminated the clunky voiceover narration by Harrison Ford, the film’s star, and also expanded upon Scott’s original vision of a world in which humans have become disinterested, despairing, and almost robotic in their existence – and where the quest for knowledge (if not the hunt for the divine) is embodied by the replicants, the “almost humans” with their crudely fashioned memories borrowed from “real” people.

This book seeks to examine the film from a variety of perspectives; the series of essays included here consider not only the original film but the other ways in which the story has been expanded by a PC game and a series of novelized sequels (which seek to build upon the tenuous nature of Deckard’s humanity, simultaneously bringing into sharp relief the question of exactly what it means to “be” human anyway). The book also explores the many ways in which the film has influenced a host of imitators, and delves into the interaction between the film’s fans and the nightmarish future envisioned by Scott and his crew. The authors of the essays found here are a disparate collection of philosophers, film historians, and cultural critics, and the book is a welcome addition to the study of an amazingly influential film.

The Philosophy of Film Noir

To most film purists, the “classic period” of film noir ended sometime in the 1950s. And one might well think that a film genre generally concerning itself with crime and often confining itself to the period immediately following World War II might not have much to do with the dystopian futures of so much contemporary science fiction. But I think such a conclusion is, in a word, wrong.

Many of the thematic undercurrents of film noir in fact mirror the fearful realities of a story like Blade Runner, and there is little surprise in why Scott borrowed many of the conventions of noir for his film. The nihilistic and existential fatalism often found in film noir spills over into visions of dystopian futures as well. The alienated protagonists, the femme fatales, the Byzantine plots and the overriding sense of impeding, inevitable doom infuse them both. In this book, editor Mark Conrad and a group of other contributors (among them philosophers, film historians, and English professors) examine film noir through the prism of contemporary thought and find more than just an eclectic fusion of the hard-boiled detective and some fancy German expressionism.

Instead, they discuss how film noir represented an active repudiation of the “American Dream,” and how noir neatly inverted the standard assumptions about morality and progress. It derailed the notion that progress was always beneficial or inevitable, and in fact asked whether “progress” had really done any good at all. I enjoyed Conrad’s lengthy exploration of Pulp Fiction as a contemporary neo-noir, and found the overall discussion of the existential disenchantment associated with noir fascinating.

In keeping with the continuum of noir thought established in this text, one can certainly see the noir roots of Blade Runner or even a contemporary film such as John Cusack’s recent “black comedy,” Ice Harvest (indeed, Ice Harvest is best described not as a comedy at all, but as a bleakly humorous neo-noir).

The Philosophy of Film Noir is at times a somewhat difficult book to read, as the writers delve into some of the more challenging aspects of cinematic analysis to make their various points. At the same time, however, it is quite a satisfying book, as each of the authors brings a unique perspective to the discussion and they are able to isolate, identify, and explain some of the more subtle aspects of a genre which, on the surface, seems all about gangsters and pretty girls who done somebody wrong.

Other titles on the Shelf:

Our Town

Journalist Cynthia Carr’s meditation on the 1930 lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, is a powerful exploration of racial issues brought to a personal level. While the picture that forms the centerpiece of her tale is a famous one, often seen in textbooks as a pictorial reflection of the racial violence lurking beneath the surface, it is also a personal one, as she often wondered whether her own grandfather happened to be there the night a crowd broke two young men out of jail and hung them from a tree in the courthouse square.

The book tracks Carr’s decade-long exploration of her family history and the events of that night as a microcosm of race in America. She conducted scores of interviews with as many of those she could find who might shed light on what happened and who orchestrated the lynching – something that everyone wanted to dismiss as somehow organic and unplanned and yet must have required some sort of spark, some sort of organization and complicity on multiple levels. She also explores contemporary race relations through interviews with a disparate group of current neo-Nazis, KKK members, and others.

Infused with Carr’s own quest to understand the grandfather she senses she didn’t really know (and to discover, if she can, whether he might have been present, or participated, in the horrific crime captured forever on film), the narrative is powerful and evocative. At the same time, there is something unsatisfying about the book, but it is something that is undoubtedly inevitable: there is no closure.

No closure for Carr, really, and no closure for the reader. The story of August 7, 1930, is not in fact frozen in time, and the memories, perceptions, and beliefs of everyone involved reflect the same truth as Kurasawa’s Rashamon: each person remembers things differently, and each brings his or her own prejudices and perspectives to the “truth” of what they tell.

Regardless, of course, Our Town remains a compelling narrative of Carr’s personal odyssey through America’s racial past. Her interviews with James Cameron, who was himself nearly lynched that night and miraculously survived, are certainly one of the highlights, as are her encounters in the wacky, wild underworld of contemporary “Kluxers.” At one point, Carr mentions that a reconciliation expert observed that “truth does not bring back the dead but releases them from silence.” Simply by writing this book, Carr demonstrates that there is a time to be silent no more.

The Water Room

Published last year in hardcover, Christopher Fowler’s novel The Water Room has just recently been published in paperback. The book brings back the protagonists of Fowler’s novel Full Dark House: Arthur Bryant and John May, arguably London’s “oldest and crankiest detectives.” As the leaders of Scotland Yard’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, the two men are well past retirement age and yet find themselves still solving mysteries in whatever unconventional manner necessary.

The sister of one of Bryant’s friends is found dead in her basement, the friend asks Bryant to investigate. While the death seems unremarkable at first, the presence of river water in the woman’s throat (in an otherwise dry basement, mind you), presents clear complications. She appears to have drowned – and yet no one can articulate exactly how that could have happened.

When a young woman purchases the old woman’s house on the recommendation of a neighbor, she hears odd sounds of water in the walls. The neighborhood – a pocket of old London – seems outwardly pleasant and yet each home seethes with unexpected mystery and tension.

Meanwhile, an old flame of May’s has asked him to investigate the rather suspicious activities of her husband, a historian who appears to be working for an unscrupulous businessman with an unspecified interest in underground rivers. Oddly enough, the two cases may have something to do with one another – and as other suspicious deaths start occurring, Bryant and May are left struggling to decipher the meaning behind the bizarre events.

The book features an impressive array of fascinating characters, a clever plot, and a wonderful sense of history. Bryant and May are another bickering odd couple, but one that manages to avoid many of the clichés associated with the “buddy genre.” Their relationship has a sense of authenticity (indeed, even of “age,” as befits two men who have been working together, and enduring each other’s foibles, for decades). Replete with a quirky wit that engages the imagination, The Water Room is an entertaining contemporary take on the “locked room” mysteries of old.

Dark Assassin

Anne Perry’s latest novel to feature Victorian-era policeman William Monk is an engrossing, entertaining period mystery that envelopes readers in the dual worlds of 19th-century London. Newly appointed to his post as superintendent of the Thames River Police, Monk and a boat crew patrol the river one foggy night and happen to witness a young couple fall from a river into the icy water below. Despite the crew’s efforts, all they can do is retrieve two corpses from the water.

The question Monk keeps asking himself is whether it was an accident, an abortive suicide attempt, or something more sinister. After all, he had watched the couple engage in a heated discussion right before she put her hands on his shoulders, and he grabbed her. Was she trying to push him away? Was he trying to save her from falling over the edge, or was he pushing her?

Monk’s investigation leads not to an easy solution but rather to more puzzles. The young woman’s name was Mary Havilland, and she was supposedly engaged to the young man, whose name was Toby Argyll. Mary’s father had once worked for the Argyll Company as an engineer, but died recently under suspicious circumstances that were ultimately ruled a suicide. Mary refused to believe that her father would have done such a thing, and instead insisted that he had been murdered because of his concerns about the new city sewer system being constructed by the Argyll Company.

Monk and his wife, Hester, venture from the elegant homes of the elite to the murky slums where the less fortunate eke out a meager existence in their efforts to understand what might have caused these three deaths. Soon, it appears Monk may well have uncovered a deadly conspiracy, and as he seeks an elusive assassin he enlists the aid of his former enemy Superintendent Runcorn. Together, they hope to decipher the true face of the killer before anyone else dies in the dangerous world beneath the city streets.

Several components combine to make Perry’s work memorable. In Monk she has created a complex character who still struggles with the loss of his memory as a result of a nearly fatal accident a number of years ago. The construction of his “new identity” from the ashes of the old still means that he must confront the relational damage he did on many fronts. His profession and the independence of his wife make for intriguing home dynamics as well. Perry also lavishes loving attention to the details of her historical setting, and deftly shapes the mood and tenor of the Victorian environment. The class distinctions and economic dichotomy of the period are articulately established, and Perry moves seamlessly from the murderous dives of the docks to intricate courtroom intrigue.

The Ethical Assassin

David Liss — best known for his historical novels such as A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader — attempts to channel Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen in his latest book, a manic South Florida caper that sees its young protagonist on the wrong side of a gang duplicitous drug dealers and their redneck sheriff enforcer. His only ally? The philosophy-spouting killer who got him in the mess in the first place.

The story is set in the summer of 1985; from all appearances, just another hot, sticky Florida summer. Lem Altick is a 17-year-old encyclopedia salesman (clearly, the novel had to be set 20 years ago for this aspect to work: not many encyclopedia salesmen anymore, what with the advent of “the Internet”). He’s going door-to-door trying to sell his overpriced sets of books in order to earn money for college so he can escape his current banal existence. He spends several hours with one couple trying to convince them to purchase a set of books, and has just sealed the deal when a killer walks in and shoots them both.

Unfortunately, the killer hadn’t counted on Lem. And since he regards himself as something of an ethical assassin who only kills in the context of a distinct moral code, the killer — whose name is Melford Kean — offers Lem a relatively simple deal. Stay quiet and nobody gets hurt. Make noise, or talk to the police – and, well, Lem will just have to take the fall.

Lem has little choice but to take the deal. However, unbeknownst to either Lem or Melford, the couple he just killed have ties to a local drug syndicate. They’re tied in with the local sheriff, a psycho redneck who enjoys treating his county like his personal fiefdom. And they’re also connected, in a roundabout way, to drug-runners who use the encyclopedia sales operation as a front for their more lucrative business.

Jim Doe, the sheriff, saw Lem near the trailer the night of the murder. While Doe has little reason to investigate the murder itself (and in fact works to cover that up), he does want to know what happened to the stash of cash that was hidden somewhere in the trailer. Meanwhile, Melford appears to have taken an interest in Lem, who he regards as in need of mentorship.

It seems that Melford is something of an intellectual, a semi-Marxist with his own peculiar vision of the world. He regards himself not as a murderer but as a vengeful environmental activist. (Lem and Melford also end up in what might be characterized as the “obligatory” animal research laboratory.) Much against his will, Lem is about to embark upon an odyssey that will undoubtedly expand his mind – should he be fortunate enough to live so long.

Liss’ narrative is a bit uneven, and the transitions from Lem’s first person account and the third person renditions of the exploits of the other characters are somewhat abrupt. At times, the effort to construct the absurdist world so artfully developed by Hiaasen or Leonard seems a touch forced. However, the characters of Lem and Melford are generally strong enough to fuel the story through those potholes; the two present an intriguing philosophical dichotomy.

Melford is a fascinatingly elusive example of certainty in the midst of the existential amorality around him, and his beliefs clearly attract attention (including the attention of the lovely young woman who is the erstwhile enforcer for her drug-dealing boss – at least, until she meets Melford). All in all, The Ethical Assassin is an entertaining, frequently funny, mixture of a disparate crew of bottom feeders – and of ethics as well.

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About Bill Wallo

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    Elements of this article have been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!