Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Passage Through "The Terror"

How do you create suspense in a novel based on a real tragedy? Dan Simmons does an admirable job of showing us in “The Terror”, a fictional take on the events of the ill-fated 19th century Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
History tells us the British Empire dispatched H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror in 1845, under the command of Sir John Franklin, to find the fabled Northwest Passage – a coveted hypothetical route through the labyrinth of islands, pack ice and ice bergs choking Canada’s arctic waters. The brutal arctic had hurled back many previous attempts (including one by the legendary Captain James Cook via the Bering Strait) and would block many others to come. Franklin’s voyage was beset with bad omens; serious command errors were made; the ships became ice-locked; coal supplies ran low; food poisoning, scurvy and the elements ravaged the crew; the vessels had to be abandoned; and eventually, those desperate men left turned on each other in cannibalism. None of them made it out of the arctic. Many questions about the tragedy still remain unanswered.
As if the hardships suffered by the crew weren’t enough, Simmons, while sticking close to the facts, seasons his tale with a supernatural element of suspense: some thing is also out there in the snowy wastes… not a polar bear (as if they weren’t deadly enough), but something larger, ancient, and full of malice and cunning. Some thing that is deliberately stalking the crew, and not merely for a single, bloody wipe-out, but rather in a seemingly careful strategy designed to deprive the men of the most skilled and stabilizing of their number and of their morale.
On one level, Simmons is masterfully indulging in his love of the tale of Beowulf and Grendel. And yet there are other ways to interpret the nature of the Terror. John Clute has done an excellent job of shedding light on the beast in his Excessive Candour column on the SciFi channel site entitled “In the Belly of the Thing”, so there’s no need for me to repeat him.
Rather, I’d like to explore some of the ways in which the metaphor of passage opens up in the story. For passage in “The Terror” refers to far more than just a route through a geographical obstacle course. To be sure, there are plenty of passages over water (of the usually frozen, but on rare occasions liquid, variety) – that of Erebus and Terror across the Atlantic to the Arctic Ocean and their eventual passage to the bottom There’s the treacherous weather and Terror-plagued run between the two ships once they’ve become ice-bound. There’s the trek from the abandoned ships to King William Land. Then there are the many other voyages across the island and finally away from it as the survivors go their separate ways. It’s been noted untold times that a water journey is metaphorically a trip into the self and that certainly holds true in “The Terror” – these ordeals across the ice are merely backdrops for the real passages throughout the novel.
The entrance tunnels into the igloos of Lady Silence, the mysterious Inuit who haunts the expedition, serve as a literal passage from the world of the British crew into that of the native people able to live off the land. They also serve as bridges for understanding between two of the explorers and the woman.
The coloured maze of Carnivale tents inspired by Edgar Allan Poe reflects the crew’s descent into hopelessness and terror amidst the dark of their winter prison where time passes but the outside never changes and death strikes with sudden, shocking violence.
There are passages from books. Doomed Franklin aboard the flagship Erebus is fond of sermonizing and bores or downright loses his crew with excerpts from the Bible about the road to salvation. Captain Francis Crozier of the Terror, on the other hand, has little use for religion and rouses great interest from his largely uneducated men with quotes from Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan” about life being “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”. While Crozier’s choice may be more obviously appropriate in the context of the story, in a strange and unexpected way, Franklin’s sermon about Jonah isn’t necessarily off either.
There are numerous points with a number of characters where we focus on the passage of air/breath and thus soul into and out of bodies: from the nearly-decapitated young seaman whose body refuses to quit breathing, to the frightening music of the Terror with its special “instrument” on the ice, to the Terror’s encounter with the vicious Mr. Hickey.
And there are rites of passage. Hickey uses manipulation and worse to rise in status. Dr. Goodsir, who begins the novel as somewhat effete, volunteers to engage in physical toil with the other men and over the course of his journey proves his mettle and earns respect.
Given our foreknowledge of the fatal outcome of the voyage, we also know that in signing on to the expedition, the men have booked passage not on Erebus or Terror, but rather with Anubis.
Captain Crozier himself navigates many passages throughout the course of “The Terror”. Among them is that of his final days drunkenness, through detox delirium (plunging into memory and drifting into prescience) and into cold sobriety. His greatest journey though is into understanding of and resignation to the frightening and alien road necessary for survival.
And these passages through terror are but the tip of the iceberg.

Lucas' Galactic Empire Conquers Real History

It seems neither history’s greatest conquerors nor even the generally subdued shores of present-day Nova Scotia are safe from the scourge of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader.
Canadian sketch comedy “This Hour has 22 Minutes” ran a segment in tonight’s new episode highlighting the failed Halifax bid for the Commonwealth Games. The gag also concerned, strangely enough, fallen empires.
Viewers are now being encouraged to take part in an online poll to rank dead empires, including those of the Romans, Ottomans and Mongols. Squeezed in at the bottom of human history’s most ambitious conquerors is a fictional option: the evil Galactic Empire from Star Wars.
And it hasn’t taken long for the geeks of the internet (yours truly included) to come swimming up to take a nibble at the bait. In just a couple of hours, the Galactic Empire has taken a huge lead over the competition with (at the time of this posting) 62% of the vote. The nearest competitor is Rome, coming in at just 11%.
They can build all the walls they want, but the Caesars just ain’t no match for the power of the Dark Side.

Monday, March 12, 2007

BSG Enters The "Maelstrom" Of Suicide

(warning: spoilers)

Here’s a note I posted to the SF Signal site recently in response to a thread about the March 4th episode of Battlestar Galactica, entitled “Maelstrom”.

I think Moore and his writers have put a lot of thought into the presentation of Starbuck's suicide. Putting aside speculations about her supposed "destiny", the writers have deliberately tackled the very human tragedy of suicide head-on with this episode as part of their efforts to create and develope realistic characters and a believable story line.

Starbuck's decision to kill herself came as no surprise. The story lines have been building her death by suicide as a real possibility since the beginning. Starbuck has displayed many signs of someone who is at risk of suicide including erratic behaviour and mood swings, increased use of alcohol, depression, sense of worthlessness (the "screwup"), agression, giving things away (the statue of Athena given to Adama shortly before her death), isolation from loved ones, and previous attempts (the dual with "Scar" was clearly more than just an enemy threat elimination or a competition with Kat to be the top gun). Let's not forget also that we've been told she has a history of childhood physical and emotional abuse (Leoben's cross examination in the interrogation room and the doctor Cylon's medical analysis on the Caprica "farm") which she constantly surpresses. And then there's the added stress of the annihilation of the Colonies and possible accompanying survivors' guilt, imprisonment and personal violation on the "farm", imprisonment and psychological torture on New Caprica, the loss of Apollo as a potential lover (during the conversation in the hanger where Lee says things with Dee are great, Kara looks like she's trying to hide the fact that she feels like she's been kicked in the gut), and of course, frequent, intense battle with the enemy. The manipulations of the apparent Leoben who appeared to her in the cockpit were just the last straw. The writers have been showing us a very fragile, much pained Kara Thrace for a long time.

Given this long history of building stressors, the pacing of the episode was entirely appropriate. Once Starbuck began moving in the direction of suicide, things proceeded very quickly. The pacing also puts the audience in the position of many of her friends who may not have seen the suicide coming, or who may not have suspected that she was hurting that much and who are thus all the more shocked at the apparent suddeness of the death.

As to comments to the effect that Starbuck's actions are "selfish and ignoble" or that she is a "quitter", while these are commonly-held opinions about suicide, it's important to understand that suicide is not about death, it's about finding a way out of pain. People who attempt or complete suicide are in so much emotional pain that they're desperate to rid themselves of it and they can't see any other way out. This is why most people who die by suicide send some kind of warning first - at some level they're looking for another option that they can't see. The problem is whether others understand the warning in time, whether they can get the person to help, or whether they see the warning at all. In Starbuck's case, Helo seemed to have some sense that she needed help (he suggests she see the psychiatrist he's taking Hera to) though he didn't see the imminence of the danger. When Kara gives the Athena statue to Adama, that's a warning too, Adama just doesn't see it, especially given Starbuck's quick shift from being downcast to buoyant. In this sense, Starbuck was trying, on some level, right up until she got in the cockpit, to get help. In real life, of those who die by suicide, some are people who we call heroes - police officers, members of the military, firefighters - people under increadible stress, usually on a daily basis. While we, as survivors, are upset when a person kills him/her self, it's important to remember that everyone, including our heroes, has different tolerances for stresses and different degrees of support to overcome those stresses. Moore and his writers have realized this, and in presenting Starbuck as someone in a highly stressful job who dies by suicide, they have created a painfully human character who has reached her limit, doesn't feel she can talk about it, and can't see another way out.

In the end, I think Moore and his writers are to be praised for tackling the issue of suicide in "Maelstrom". They presented Starbuck as a real human being struggling with, and ultimately overwhelmed by, real problems. In dealing with the subject, they have not glorified her death - the crew (even Tye, who's come to blows with Kara) are visibly shaken and grieving, and whatever this "destiny" alluded to is, the fact that it's pushed on Starbuck by Leoben in a time of emotional fragility should make us highly suspicious. We may ask, what is this supposed "destiny", but ultimately, does that make any difference to grieving shipmates who have just lost a friend? In dealing with suicide on BSG, Moore is helping to remove the stigma our culture has placed on its discussion. By talking about the causes and effects of suicide, we become more aware of the problem and are in a better position to stop it. We can reach out to others and offer to help them help themselves overcome these feelings. To that end, SF Signal is to be credited too for bringing this discussion into the open.

If anyone reading this thread is considering suicide, remember that you can get help to overcome these feelings; there are people out there who will listen to you and who will support you and help you explore other options. If you need help, call your local distress line/crisis centre, speak with your doctor, a counsellor or someone you can trust to help you get to safety. If you are a person who is worried a friend or relative may be suicidal, talk with them, ask them if they are thinking of killing themselves, listen to them without judging them, get them to help (such as a doctor or counsellor) who can help them overcome these feelings, do not leave them alone without making sure they have help, and you can also call a distress line/crisis centre for assistance.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Wild Night At Thermopylae

The steady march of the cinema popcorn season continues like the tramp of an army of sandled feet towards the sea with yesterday’s release of “300”. Based on a Frank Miller graphic novel retelling the ancient Greek tale of the Spartans’ battle against the invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Zack Snyder’s film is so uproariously gory that you almost need a splash guard in front of the screen and garbage bags for everyone in the first ten rows to keep the blood off.
The story is a simple one: the Persians come to town looking to leverage a controlling interest. For Sparta’s King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler), the choice appears simple: kneel and be given a place at Emperor Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) right hand, or fight and be annihilated. What the overconfident Persians don’t quite understand, is that the Spartans get off on facing insurmountable odds and certain death. For them, it’s the path to glory and immortality. But Leonidas has to contend with traitors among his senate who use customs and the laws to block him from taking the full might of his army to battle. So, with a gaggle of his 300 best, the king heads off to Thermopylae, where he thinks he can hold the invaders at a natural bottleneck long enough for the rest of the Spartans to shake off the distractions of the traitors, mobilize themselves and rouse the rest of the Greek city-states into joining the party. The question is, will Leonidas’ 300 last long enough to give the others a chance to get their act together?
There’s a lot to like about “300”. Relentless action from start to finish creates a good pace and keeps the movie honest – it’s a slugfest and doesn’t try (much) to be anything else. The fight sequences are choreographed nicely, although it would have been better if the Persian forces had been allowed to display a little more skill. The special effects were also pretty cool: from the epic grandeur of the landscape to the chaos of a sea storm, the swarming of arrows that blot out the sun to the menagerie of grotesque minions that Xerxes hurls at the sweaty Greeks. And, as with Miller and Robert Rodriguez’ take on Miller’s “Sin City”, “300” has some very slick shots and sequences pulled right out of the comic book. This movie is an impressive thing to look at. Let’s also give credit to the voice-overs of the soldier/narrator Dilios (David Wenham) that add the feel of the classic oral storytelling tradition to the images unfolding before us.
But while the story succeeds as a pure action flick, it lacks depth. Leonidas does a lot of talking about living free and refusing to tolerate tyrants. But aside from its effects on the king himself, you never really get any concrete sense that life for his people would be much different under Xerxes if the king surrendered. Because we don’t really get to see what makes the Spartans’ lives worth living, “300” lacks the emotional punch of “Braveheart” or “Spartacus”. It never really tells us how is one warrior king different than another. Sure, a lot of Xerxes’ people have enough body piercing to keep a whole block of tattoo and piercing parlours busy for a year (at least they have the sense to wear armor – it’s a miracle the Greeks, as portrayed in the film, weren’t dead within days of all the infections they’d pick up in all the many, many wounds they’d receive running near-nude into battle), and yeah, he does keep quite the freak-show of monstrous warriors in the elite units of his army, and to be fair, he does push his pawns carelessly into the face of death, but how is that really more menacing than the psychotic bloodthirstiness of Leonidas and his Spartans? Does Leonidas pride allow him to think for a minute about the slaughter of his people that would ensue if his men lose? We didn’t see any real portrayal of day-to-day Spartan life that would make us feel there was any great value to their way of life, or that life under Xerxes would have been significantly different – especially when part of the Persians terms were the offer that Leonidas would be allowed to continue to rule his people, and, in fact, all of Greece. How precisely, then, do the Spartans stand to lose their way of life? In fact, given what we are shown – a corrupt senate that’s unwilling to defend its people, the heartless disposal of “unfit” infants and the brutal training of the young – it would seem the Spartans are equally savage as the Persian opponents. Xerxes may be a cruel, manipulative megalomaniac, but Leonidas is no prize either: he strongly defends a culture which, as mentioned above, readily practices infanticide, he relishes in unnecessary bloodshed (killing the rude Persian messenger and all his attendants when he could have simply sent him packing) and clearly enjoys the slaughter of battle, and he refuses to allow the hunchback (a human resource with as much potential as the untrained ally Greeks who show up to help – potential that Xerxes was smart enough to see) to fight in the battle, using the formation-fighting techniques as an excuse when let’s face it, most of those engagements degenerated quickly into one-on-one melees where an extra spear-thrust would have been useful to the Spartans, and let’s not forget that by turning the hunchback away, the king insulted a man who knew the tactical weakness of his position! Xerxes and Leonidas are both brutal men living in brutal times. Don’t get me wrong, folks, I’m in no way advocating that people facing invasion should capitulate – far from it. I’m only saying that if a story hinges on the audience siding with one group over another, it is absolutely necessary to convince the audience that one way of life is superior to another. This movie wants us to be sympathetic to the Spartans, but it doesn’t really convince us that we should be.
Is “300” a bad movie? No. As an action movie, it’s an entertaining way to spend nearly two hours. Is it memorable? Not really. Given that special effects and big battle sequences like these are best seen on the big screen, “300” is certainly worth going to a theatre to see, but I think if I had to do it again I’d wait for a matinee or cheap Tuesday.