Showing posts with label Thinking Horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Thinking Horror. Show all posts

Favorite Freebies on Amazon Part 2 of 2: Horror & Sci-Fi Edition

So last Friday, I talked a bit about my favorite ways of finding free ebooks on Amazon.  I saw that a lot of people visited the site and shared it with others (thank you!).  I hope part 2 is equally rewarding.  In particular, I've focused on Science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.  So enjoy and let me know what you may have found that I didn't know about!

A couple other places that I found that regular post free Kindle books include:

There is of course, the Free Book Collections site on Amazon itself.  There's also Freebook Sifter, which sorts books into categories for you to explore better than the Amazon interface.

There's also these Twitter accounts that are fairly prodigious in their outpouring:
EbooksAddict
FKBT Blog
Free eBooks Daily
Free Kindle Books
Free Kindle Ebooks
Free Kindle eBooks
Free Kindle Fiction
FreeKindleEBooks.com
Kindle Free Books
Hundred Zeros

And here are some more of my favorites "free" purchases that I've found on Amazon, including some very popular science-fiction, fantasy, and horror authors.

SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY
Sentiment, Inc.
Poul William Anderson
Poul William Anderson titles.

Looking Backward 2000-1887.
Edward Bellamy
Edward Bellamy titles.

The Dueling Machine.
Ben Bova
Ben Bova titles.

The Planet Savers.
Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Monster Men.
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs titles.

Invaders from the Infinite.
John Wood Campbell
John Wood Campbell titles.

Let'Em Breathe Space.
Lester Del Rey
Lester Del Rey titles.

The Hanging Stranger.
Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick titles.

Northworld Trilogy.
David Drake
David Drake titles.

Rastignac the Devil.
Philip José Farmer

The Misplaced Battleship.
Harry Harrison
Harry Harrison titles.

Operation Haystack.
Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert titles.

Wool - Part One.
Hugh Howey

The Moon is Green.
Fritz Leiber
Fritz Leiber titles.

News from Nowhere, or, an Epoch of Rest : being some chapters from a utopian romance.
William Morris

The Time Traders.
Andre Norton
Andre Norton titles.

The Hated.
Frederik Pohl
Frederick Pohl titles.

Starman's Quest.
Robert Silverberg

Empire.
Clifford D. Simak
Clifton D. Simak titles.

The Big Trip Up Yonder.
Kurt Vonnegut

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington).
David Weber
David Weber titles.

The Invisible Man.
H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells titles.



HORROR
Famous Modern Ghost Stories Anthology.
Various

The Book of Were-Wolves.
S. Baring-Gould
S. Baring-Gould titles.

The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1.
Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce titles.

The Wendigo.
Algernon Blackwood
Algernon Blackwood titles.

This Crowded Earth.
Robert Bloch

The Dark Star.
Robert W. Chambers
Robert W. Chambers titles.

The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories.
Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany titles.

The Screaming.
Jack Kilborn
Jack Kilborn (A.K.A. J. A. Konrath regularly has his titles for free on Amazon).

A Stable for Nightmares or Weird Tales.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu titles.

The Great God Pan.
Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen titles.

Varney the Vampire Or the Feast of Blood.
Thomas Preskett Prest

Frankenstein.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Mary Shelley titles.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson titles.

Dracula.
Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker titles.

So what are some of the interesting treasures you've discovered on Amazon for free?




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Top 7 Films That Creeped the Hell Outta Me

We’re obviously into “Halloween” season as Boston.com has provided a photo-slide show of the “Top 50 Scary Movies,” a completely arbitrary list that looks to entertain rather than distill a clear and accurate depiction of the best 50 scary movies. While the creators of this show have collected an interesting assortment, it’s just that; a quirky but largely irrelevant collection. They follow it up with the 20 Best Zombie Movies ever made. I’ve watched some 90+ zombie films in my life…trust me, there’s only about 20 good ones (and that’s stretching it) despite the hundreds that have been made. But the folks on the Horror Listserv  (a must for anyone who likes to talk details about horror films) are apt to rip it apart and deliver some 100 more films even better than what Boston.com has.

The most striking and surprising on their scary movies but upon second thought, most agreeable, was Willy Wonka (The original; not the remake). Gene Wilder doing his eccentricity to the fullest; a bunch of Umpa-Lumpas with bad orange fake-n-bake skin tanning, and little children getting their EC Comics-derived “just desserts” and you definitely have something that is rather haunting and dastardly. However, by contrast, the list also included Open Water, a film that hovers in my (completely arbitrary) top 5 worst films ever list.

But we all like lists, so I’ve compiled the Top 7 Films That Creeped the Hell Outta Me. I chose 7, not because it was an especially evil number or to be different; but mostly because it’s 7:00AM and I’ve been up all night. These were all the films my diminished brain could conjure. Bare with me! (And spoilers for sure).
Image from a scene in John Carpenter's The Thing

The Thing (1984)

The concept is haunting and I certainly appreciate its attempt to be authentic to John Campbell’s “Who Goes There.” For me, there are just those scenes when the alien lets loose in unexpected ways that threw me for a whirlwind (and this is a film I didn’t see until my late 20s). I remember my eyes bulging when they go to deliver a second charge from the defibulator to the guy on the table and his chest opens up to chew off the guy’s hands. Equally striking and nerve-grinding, the thud-thud of the soundtrack that apparently is there throughout the entire film but sometimes just played very very low.

Saw 5 (2008)

I’ve been squeamish with the torture-porn run of the Saw films but I believe it is #5 where the last 2 survivors have to push their hands into a saw-blade. Yeah, I writhed in my seat; distorted my face, and fidgeted profusely…and kept watching. But even now as I type and recall it, I keep shaking and making faces.

The Exorcist (1973)

Image of Regan possessed in The Exorcist
A film I didn’t see until its theatrical re-release special 20th anniversary in 2000 or so. Overall, it was a pretty haunting and disturbing film, but ways in which evil played out on the young girl was impressively freaky. Of course, I think I slipped into the realm of the unreal and stopped remembering it was a film when Regan began to stab herself repeatedly with the crucifix, screaming that “Jesus wants to fuck you.” I know for a fact that I was completely disturbed and way more scared than my date. Probably why there was never a second date.

Blair Witch Project (1999)

The inability to actually see something clearly is a central part of my dreaming life. My dreams consist of all sorts of crazy shit going on (half the time at least) and me being completely incapable of opening my eyes or control them in any significant degree; so I’m continually battling and trying to see things and make sense of them; with increasing fear that bad things are going on (I’m driving into traffic, the killer is right behind me; I’ve arrived somewhere in the buff, but can’t see that I’m totally naked). Yeah, Blair Witch Project pretty much turned that into an on-screen experience for me.

Mother’s Day (1980)

It was just a strange and freaky movie to begin with. Two hillybilly brothers, living with their decrepit old mother; it was like Deliverance meets Psycho. Most horrific for me was the ending in which after the mother makes a return when the girl believes she has escaped. When I came back to it years late, and I realized the sexual violence involved; it made it horrific in a whole other sense. And they’re making a remake; I should be surprised.

American Psycho (2000)

Image of Christian Bale in the film American Psycho
I’ve seen this film no less than 10 times. And every time I watch it, I get to the end and can’t decide whether I really like it or really hate it. It’s filled with some of the most bizarre scenes and uncanny moments. I’ve since read the book and that doesn’t help me any better. I love Christian Bale because he can be a charming Newsis, a swinging Nazi-Youth member, Batman, and a complete and utter psychopath. His power to play charming, dominant, and axe-wielding executive is not to be missed, disturbing as it is.

I'm Not Scared (2003)

This Italian film was pivotal for me. It was the film that showed me, you could create pitched moments of fear, without gore, without violence, but with a well-developed and delivered plot. I’ve talked about the book by Niccolo Ammaniti elsewhere on here. The film did keep me anxious and uncertain and worried for the two boys and its use of the countryside works well to exhibit a childhood wonderland of exploration but also the danger and “edge of the civilization” that develops in the second half of the film.

QUESTIONS


What are other favorite horrorific movies do people have located in the dark recesses of their minds?  What stands out as a powerfully scary film (or film moment) for you?  



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Author on My Radar: Steven Niles

Since the demise of E.C. Comics, horror comics in the US have always been something in the background; left untouched, unacknowledged, or held tenuously at arms’ length by the publishers.  Sure there was Eerie, Creepie, Dracula Lives and a slew of others that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; along with works such as Deadworld and the like (In fact, horror comics can be found throughout comics consistently since the late 1940s as showed by The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics edited by Peter Normanton).  Despite this, when I think about horror comics today; Steven Niles seems to be a major modern voice on the horror-comic landscape.  There are others and in fact, I think it’s hard to divorce him from his regular collaborator, Ben Templesmith (an Author on My Radar for a later date) and Robert Kirkman (yet another one for a later date; I should probably get cracking on these things!).  However, I think Niles as a horror comic writer has helped the genre become more solid, marketable, and at times, more mature or sophisticated by rebuilding classic motifs (freakshows, mad scientists, vampires, and walking dead) with interesting twists and a strong use of modern day realistic settings and character approaches/reactions.  It shows that he’s well read in the genre, and can pay tribute to his predecessors.  
Book cover to The Mammoth Book of Horror Comics edited by Peter Normanton

His ability to work with the genre conventions, particularly reoccurring characters (vampires, other undead, mad-scientists, demon gods, etc) and make them real on their own while also providing also sorts of nods and winks to readers familiar with the characters.  His graphic novel, Wake the Dead includes a college-age scientist named Victor, determined to reanimate a corpse with his friends' help...even if it means his friends become a central part of his work.

My first encounter with Steve Niles' work as Remains; which remains by far, my favorite of his writings.  The story is the classic Zombie-apocalypse, we're all waiting to come true some day.  But Niles seeing the emerging trend within modern zombie films, pits not just humans against humans but zombies against zombies.  The story contains the slow-shambling mindless zombie, made famous with George A. Romero's films as well as the fast-paced, high octane and over-achieving zombie, seen in more contemporary films like 28 Days Later (of which he also does a comic of) and the Dawn of the Dead remake.  At the time, I was doing research on zombie films, so of course, it was love at first bite...ahem, sight.

His most famous series that people are most likely familiar with is 30 Days of Night, a story about a group a vampires taking over a town in Barrow, Alaska since it is emerged in darkness for 30 days.  The original mini-series has spawned (ironically) numerous sequel mini-series since its release and of course, a movie.  The concept is unique and certainly, Niles tells a compelling story, but that’s not what made it a success.  For readers of the series, the movie felt shallow and lacking by and large because it wasn’t just story (Niles) but presentation (Templesmith) that made it such a dark, compelling, and horrifying experience.  Templesmith’s art made the book.
Book cover to Steven Niles' Remains
He moves back and forth among highly original materials into clearly intertextual pieces and pieces existing in specific continuities.  For instance, Aleister Arcane explores a horror TV show host who is put out to retirement but enacts a vicious revenge on the town reminiscent of the Pied Piper but also invoking the nostalgia of monster-movie marathons on television of the middle to late 20th century.  By contrast, he also worked on several series that blended noir and horror such as Criminal Macabre and Dead, She Said.  He’s also worked on series related to 28 Days Later, Night of the Living Dead, and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology.

Niles has had minimum exposure in the major publishers DC & Marvel.  He has written regularly for a few series in DC (including Simon Dark), but nothing major.  His work has increasingly been published Image Comics and IDW Publishing (the latter being a major icon of horror-publishing within comics).  I don’t tend to think this is a “failing” as some would presume but it make senses given his desire to get real deep into the dark realms of the human psyche.  It’s not exactly where Marvel and DC really like to explore as directly as people like Niles do.  They do horror; but not often to the degree that Niles takes it.



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The Orphan, Or Lessons on How Films Code Our Fears

Recently, I sat down to watch “The Orphan” and while in many ways it is a movie that is all together forgettable; it did stick in my mind for the next day or two.  Initially, I didn’t know why.  I wasn’t giving it a close viewing and wanted to watch it, if only to have in hovering somewhere in my mental library should I ever need it.  But by the next day, I found myself returning to think about the film and what it seemed to offer up.

The basic plot of the film is that a family adopts a young sweet-appearing girl from an orphanage who eventually turns out to be evil, trying to kill the family and others.  Basic horror fare, no doubt.  But there were particulars that spoke to the cultural anxieties and battlegrounds.  In particular, this film is loaded with meanings that suggest and reinforce the fear/anxiety/disgust with the place of young girls in our culture.   Keep in mind, there are lots of spoilers from here on in.

The most evident and complex is the orphan herself, Esther.   Esther is an orphan, supposedly from an orphanage from Eastern Europe.  However, when the mother searches for this orphanage; they have no record of Esther.  

Lesson 1:  By the fact that Esther has no actual origin, she is becomes an “every-girl”; no origin, but just existing.

Eventually, the mother discovers that Esther actually belonged to a mental institute because she had some strange and rare illness that caused her to not age.  

Lesson 2:  Girls in mental institutions are just deranged women trapped in young girls’ bodies.



Poster for the film, Orphan
As Esther’s truer nature reveals itself to the mother, she tries to do everything she can to stop the child but it becomes completely evident, she has no control over Esther.  

Lesson 3:  Parents let their children run wild and are essentially powerless to stop them

 While her mother is powerless, Esther plays the innocent and sweet child to her adopted father. 

Lesson 4:  These girls wrap men around their fingers from the time they embody “Daddy’s little girl” up through “adulthood.”  

And eventually, Esther dawns her mother’s dress, puts on make-up, and attempts to seduce her adopted father. 

Lesson 5:  Girls have a “Daddy complex” and are hypersexualized beings who seduce of older men.   

When she can’t get what she wants, she targets the person and either kills them outright or threatens them into silence; through fear and intimidation.  

Lesson 6:  Girls have mean streak about them that is sociopathic.

Beyond Esther, we see other elements that also explain or hint at what’s wrong with our culture.  Both the mother and father are presented as having significant faults.  The mother had a stillborn baby and is a recovering alcoholic and the father had an extramarital affair (elements of both are blamed on each other).  

Lesson 7:  The reason girls are bad is bad parents.  Reinforcing this point is that the parents are impotent; unable to produce a “healthy” baby.

They are not capable of producing a good child (this also taps into Lesson 3 since their impotence translates into lacking the power to control Esther).  By contrast, the good daughter in this film is Max, the deaf child is friendly yet passive who tries to befriend and please everyone.  

Lesson  8:  Girls are meant to be pleasant and seen; not heard.

Even the brother, Daniel plays his cultural role; interested in video games and fitting in with his friends, he resists accepting Esther into the family out of jealousy, and publically humiliates her at school.  He starts to piece things together about Esther, but is too late and undone by Esther.  

Lesson 9:  The boys of today (men of tomorrow) are slackers and can’t even handle girls.

When taken to the “professional,” a therapist, Esther is considered to be absolutely normal with nothing wrong with her.  

Lesson 10:  Therapeutic approaches to children is clearly part of the problem.

In the climax of the battle, Esther and the mother battle on the ice pond, the same site that we learn she previously failed at performing her maternal duties in protecting Max when she was drunk.  The battle ends by the mother declaring to Esther that, “I am not your fucking mother!” and kicking her hard enough in the face that her neck snaps and she sinks into the hole in the ice.  

Lesson 11:  Some kids real do deserve to be beaten/killed.

And that’s just a preliminary reading; there’s a lot more I could connect and develop if I looked at it further (but given the vitriolic content; I’d rather not).  Granted the above is not a perfect or completely developed analysis, but the elements are there to piece together something that could be further developed.

QUESTIONS

What other themes or elements of The Orphan did you pick up on if you saw it?

What other films attempt to demonize youth in such manners?  How do they go about doing it?

Where else in culture do we see the coding of children as bad/evil/monstrous?



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The Case Against Dracula: Circumstantial Evidence and the Novel

I'm a moderate fan of literary-alternative stories.  The stories that retell a story that's been told before.  The most recent and well-known version of this is Gregory Maguire's Wicked (now a series, containing 3 books), which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz, through the eyes of the Wicked Witch.  In doing so, Maguire, makes the Witch, the misunderstood and tragic character while the others are bad or questionable people.  The most literary of these attempts to re-visit a past story is most likely John Gardner's Grendel; the retelling of the epic poem, Beowulf, through the monster's eyes.  Indeed, the act has been described as post-modern by some; reinvent the narrative to favor the villain and there might be some truth in that; and yet, we have other long-ago texts that do this same thing, including Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We are enamored with a shift in perspective and the ways an author will tease out a new narrative from the original material.

A retold tale is much like a sequel, a mash-up, a fan-fiction, an adaptation, etc in that it allows us to reengage with a particular narrative we enjoyed.  It can give us “more” of the story or just bring us back to those moments we so thoroughly enjoyed.  But often, the retold tale tries to re-imagine the story in a way that is oppositional to the original text, decentering the hero/protagonist in favor of other a lesser character(s), antagonist or villain.

Dracula Retold

Book cover to Renfield: A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed
This brings me to Dracula.  Given the deep and lasting influence of Dracula as “the vampire” and the instantaneous connection we all make when we hear Dracula or vampire separately,  (although, that could be currently usurped—at least of the time being with Edward Cullen),  a person could argue that all vampire stories are retold stories of Dracula.  While vampire tales do exist before him (Poldoris The Vampyre; Rymer’s Varney the Vampire, and of course, that sexy vixen Carmilla, by Joseph LeFanu—who was inspirational ground zero for Stoker’s Dracula), it seems the weight of each vampire story is held up against Dracula.  Defined in relation or against the Count’s definition.  Thus, Edward Cullen maintains the tall and dark alienated persona associated with Dracula, but does not given into his bloodlust (mostly) and attempts to coexist with humans instead of snack on them.

However, I’m more interested in discussing the most interesting pieces out there that attempt to re-interpret what Stoker has written.  There are four that come to mind, though I’m sure there are dozens more out there.  With these four, they perform some interesting re-interpretative feats.

Renfield:  A Tale of Madness by Gary Reed and Galen Showman (1995)

I mentioned this, mostly because I found it really enjoyable and a great example of getting more out of the story.  This graphic novel retells the story of Dracula, through the eyes of Renfield, who is my favorite character in the book (Mostly because I read this graphic novel before my first thorough reading of Dracula).

The Dracula Tape by Fred Saberhagen (1975)

This book serves as the starting point of a series by Saberhagen about Dracula with him living throughout the 20th century encountering all the changes and differences it brings and eventually coming face to face with the Harkers’ children.  In fact, the story starts with Dracula confronting the Harkers’ grandchildren and providing them with cassette tapes that record the story from his perspective.  He recounts how his acts were misconstrued—either accidentally or purposely by the protagonists as well as his loving relationship with Mina.  

Dracula, the Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt (2009)

This is a “sequel” written in part by the great grand-nephew of Stoker, which attempts to give it some legitimacy.  The story picks up a generation later, when Quincy Harker is attempting to achieve his dream as an actor and stumbles upon Bram Stoker who has written a book called “Dracula” that’s all about his parents.  Dracula, again reemerges as a misnunderstood figure, trying to find true evil creature, the vampire, Elizabeth Bathory who is the embodiment of evil vampires (while Dracula is the epitome of “good”).  This version also has battles and scenes that are evocative of a modern-day superhero narrative and unlike other versions, chooses not to tell itself in the epistolary manner that the original and other texts tend to utilize.
Book cover to The Dracula Tapes by Fred Saberhagen

Dracula, My Love by Syrie James (2010)

Here again, Dracula’s story is retold by Mina; who in addition to aspiring wife of Harker, also is seeking her own origin (being an orphan), and having inner battles about being appropriate in Victorian culture.  Her falling in love with Dracula comes from a series of interactions that she chose not to write in her journal that she submitted for the events, but kept to herself.

Within the pieces discussed above and many other pieces, we find that there are several elements that are continually reconsidered and negotiated due to plot holes, cultural privileging, and reflection on interpretations of the text.

Mina’s Relationship With Dracula

There’s lots of room for interpretation on this one; after all, when Mina is caught in the bed with Dracula and Jonathan is out cold; one has trouble believing her innocence.  Typically, it is cast as a love affair.

What Happened on the Demeter

This interesting tidbit provides lots of food for thought.  Both James and Saberhagen argue that it was indeed a mad man who did it and not Dracula.  Saberhagen has Dracula admit that he was actually stuck within his coffin, unable to escape, while Syrie points out that it would not be useful for Dracula to kill everyone on board and risk losing his precious cargo of boxes of native earth.

Overreliance on Van Helsing and his Knowledge

I think this is the most intriguing element.  If the 19th century privileged knowledgeable people (except when there was a fear of them learning too much or “the wrong things” a la Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll), then the 2nd half of the 20th century has been to challenge, undermine, and be highly suspicious of privileged authorities such as doctors.  And given that Van Helsing is an authority on nearly everything (he has several different degrees and everyone seems to roll over and play dead for him), Dracula the Undead, Dracula, My Love, and The Dracula Tape all open up this line of questioning.  How does Van Helsing know what he knows?

Lucy’s Death

Intriguing because, taken with the bit above about Van Helsing, Lucy’s death falls at his feet.  Since blood types aren’t established till after the publication of the book, many writers are quick to attack Van Helsing for injecting Lucy with no less than 4 people’s blood in a very short period, not knowing their blood type and thereby, quite possibly being the true cause of her death.
Book cover to Dracula, My Love by Syrie James

Dracula’s Death

Obviously, if Dracula is then considered the protagonist, he is spared his death since it is evident that Van Helsing doesn’t know what he is talking about.  Dracula’s death turns out to only be temporarily or even faked.

So going way back to the top, I did name this post as the “The Case Against Dracula” and I’m actually getting to my point here.  What these writers do is pin together various narratives based upon the shortcomings of Stoker’s writings and this is where it gets interesting.  The goal of an author is to lead the reader through a narrative, but at times, the narrator, to create mystery, suspense, curiosity, etc, will not take the most direct route.  In fact, to do so, undoes the darker nature of many stories or transitions the suspense into gore.  It gives away too much; too easy.  Thus, the author tries to let the reader connect events.  In the case of Dracula, not only is the reader supposed to connect facts and understand what’s going on; but Stoker has his characters doing the same thing.  After all, the book is a collection of journal entries, newspaper articles, and letters that become a central part of the story at one point.

Therefore, Dracula has both intentional gray areas and actual mistakes by the author.  A good example of an intentional gray area are the events on the Demeter.  No firsthand account comes forward to say that Dracula drank his way through the crew, but by the fact that it’s included in the collection of writings for the protagonists’ case, leads us to believe that it is.  As for actual mistakes, there are several inconsistencies within Stoker’s writings about the nature of the vampire.

The circumstantial evidence when properly aligned, leads us to believe Dracula is the anti-Christ as Stoker implies through his characters.  However, if Dracula were put on trial, what actual evidence would there be against him?  The baby in the bag?  Harker never sees the baby; only hears noise; and so Saberhagen calls it a piglet.  His actions on the Demeter, again, are never proven.  His murdering of Lucy?  Of Renfield?  Still no dice.    It’s interesting that there are college courses and written works other there that look to apply the standards of the law against the facts in a piece of literature (whether an actual courtroom scene, a mystery, or something other debatable element within a story).  In some ways, that’s what the writer does when he/she first starts to explore the idea of re-telling a tale.

QUESTIONS

What are other stories (besides the ones mentioned) that attempt to reinterpret the text?  (Don’t just name them, actually discuss them if you have firsthand knowledge).

Are there examples of stories where the reinterpretation surpasses (in some capacity) the original?

What other gaps are there in Dracula?  What other alternative Dracula texts are there?

Why would an author tackle a story that’s already been told? 



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Spreading the Word: Intolerance?

This article sparks some rather interesting albeit for many challenging issues.  At its center is a study that finds devout religious people to be more likely to have more prejudice views of different minorities.  Some of the explanation stems from the fact that as a group such as monotheistic believers fixates on their religion/superior being as the sole one, they often slip into a dualistic mentality of followers and nonbelievers, with the nonbelievers inferior or wrong.  The article goes into a great more detail and is worth checking out.

Articles like these can be hard to digest, process, or accept.  Some may read it and feel that “well, I’m religious and that’s not me, so it must be wrong.”  But it’s not quite that simple.  So often when we read something that paints something we highly regard in a negative light, we are instantly resistant.  Our barriers are quickly drawn up and quite hard to pull down.  To that, I would say, that some of that might actually also have relevance to what the article is trying to get at with regards to challenging our fundamental or traditional beliefs as well.

Though it’s easy to either blindly accept or reject what the article has to say about some kind of pre-programmed bias, I think it’s more useful to step back and ask several different questions about what inherent biases you might be operating under or influenced by.

Do I do that?  And this might be the hardest one of all since it requires a degree of reflection, self-awareness, and honesty that many of us have trouble attaining or maintaining.  If you answer is an immediate and resolute “no” without thinking, reflecting, or running over in your head the various times you’ve had negative encounters with any person of any type, I think you might be not really digging as deep as such a question asks.  Getting outside our heads is an impossible task, but also a good exercise to better understand one another.  In this case, looking at how you act towards not just specific minorities, but particular social situations; such as the waitress who is slow with your order or gets it wrong, or the person at the coffee shop getting you the latest fashionable coffee drink, or the person doing your nails, or the person in the beat-down car in front of you, not moving as fast as you’d like them.  We often say these are situational circumstances that tick and tweak our negative response, but how much quicker are you to be triggered when the person doing it is part of some “Other” group to which you don’t identify, know about, or feel hostile to?

Another question to ask is what the culture at large (or my particular sub-culture) has to say about something.  In this case, I’ve included the two videos below.  One is of Pat Robertson blaming the major earthquake that struck Haiti in winter of 2010 on Haitians making a pact with the Devil and suffering the consequences.  The other is Jerry Falwell and Robertson again, discussing the destruction on September 11, 2001 to be the fault of feminists, gays, and other people of “alternative lifestyles.”  In both, the rhetoric of the minority as being dubious and troubling is pretty loud.  Both illustrate in some way; how cultures shape and influence, direct us to “right” and “wrong” answers.









It’s also useful to try to make analogies or comparisons with other situations of that may not always be equal in comparison, but help you to frame where your biases fit.  I often step back from any situation where I feel that a person is not doing the “right thing” and ask myself, if I am sure that I’m angry/frustrated/annoyed at the proper thing.  So let’s take the case of the coffee.  If I’ve gone into a store and ordered it.  If the order is taking a long time; and I get annoyed, I may find myself feeling negative toward the server.  But I step back and ask, am I always angry waiting this long?  Is it because of how I’m interpreting his actions?  Do I feel that she isn’t being nice enough (and yes, I intentionally switch the gender-pronouns to show what else might be having an effect in the situation)?  Is it because I’m tired?  Running late?  If I’m running late, then I’m much more aware and conscious of time, than this person may be and their lack of expedient delivery of my coffee might not be a slight towards me, but it can be hard not to think of it as.

All of this brings us back to the problematic “Other”  (Problematic in the sense that we find problem with the “Other”—not that the “Other” is inherently problematic of its own accord).    The one who is not me and whom I have trouble identifying and connecting with.  Within history, these differences have been the source of anger, resentment, violence, destruction, but we still are challenged by and fearful of outsiders of many different sorts.  The general answer to why there’s such problems around the “Other is just that we fear strangers, but I think articles like this help us to better understand why and how we fear others.  

Thoughts?




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Moral Quandaries...from Outer Space


Poster for film, District 9 by Neill Blomkamp

This post from the NY Times posits some interesting (albeit not entirely new) ideas on the concept of human and potential-alien encounters.  The author, Robert Wright is drawing upon a quote of Stephen Hawking, the work of Peter Singer, and his own (which he promotes just below "too much" but it did evoke a scene from "The Critic" for me).  The discussion also seems to come in a year following two rather influential and powerful films impressed audiences throughout the world.  The first is District 9, directed by Neil Blomkamp.  Though the film was not as widespread, it was certainly well-received (made over $100 million) and had a compelling and intriguing premise about the types of aliens we might expect to encounter when they come here.  By contrast, there was Avatar, which of course, became the highest grossing film ever (until another film beats it…probably by James Cameron…probably in about 10 years).  Again, here we see an interaction between human and sentient alien life and the troubles of humans to be something other than what they’ve tended to be (though the disregard of non-sentient life in this film is also telling).

One element of the discussion is the debate about history:  Have we actually learned from it?  What are we to expect in the future when we encounter alien life or alien life encounters us?

What constitutes alien life?

If we encounter alien life, the first question that will challenge many of us is "what constitutes alien life?"  We may say that it seems obvious but for many, "alien life" will not mean much if it's single-celled organisms.  Many would not blink in acknowledging or bothering with deeper ponderings about these life-forms.  After all, the majority of us don't recognize them here, unless they're in our way.  The underlying assumption about "alien life" is that it's sentient.  Although even then, we would do well to consider in some ways the Prime Directive from Star Trek.  Although in this case, I don't mean it in regards to prevent sharing of technology but rather, to prevent interfering with their natural evolutionary growth.

Image from film, AvatarActually, I take that back.  That's a question that I don't even know how to come at it.  Do we interfere with any life that we can't actually communicate?  What gives us the right?  What's our larger goal in this?

Like Wright, this may sound like one big mind game, but it may someday have sincere consequences and speak to the kind of "Earthling" we will potentially be as we explore the universe.

This question of what will life look like comes to me from two different angles.  The first is insightful and challenging documentary, Earthlings where its opening sequence explains, that though humans assume (and so much of science fiction proves me right here) that "Earthlings" refers to humans; it actually refers to all life forms from Earth; and that's a lot of life forms.  Who will the aliens choose to engage with, should they come here first?  That also reminds me of the moment in Ishmael by Daniel Quinn when Ishmael points out that the first primordial creature to crawl out of the water, probably thought of himself as the big-cheese (or big fish?) because he was at the height of the evolutionary chain and in hindsight; he's not.  That is, as the current self-proclaimed head of the herd, we too think certain things are self-evident--like humans will be the species aliens choose to contact.  We base that on "civilization"; our ability to alter the physical earth to suit our needs.




But what if the aliens have other criteria?  What if they are looking for the most populous?  Then they might consider ants, plankton or beetles.  As JBS Haldane once quipped, “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other…”  Or maybe, the aliens will look to plankton.  These are all what we consider lower-intelligent creatures but we presume that
1.  Aliens are looking for intelligence.
2.  That humans are intelligent in the ways that are important to aliens.
3. That the interaction/contact is how we perceive interactions on a human level; they might different significantly).

There’s lot of concern around how humans will act; regardless of the alien life we encounter.  On an individual level, we look at one another and hold one’s history as a means of understanding their present and future.  We are obsessed with each other’s history.  Whether it’s a job history when applying for a new job, your relationship history explained to a new partner, or a criminal history when it comes time to sentencing, we look at a person’s past as a barometer for future interactions.   So when it comes time to weigh in on the chances of positive human encounters with other life, we have to consider how the dominant human cultures have encountered other human cultures and even nonhuman cultures.  After all, if the alien species doesn’t have a recognizable face (meaning something we can register and process as a face), we’re apt to have trouble with accepting it on some level since our facial-recognition mechanisms are part of what allows for empathy.

Why do I say “dominant human cultures” instead of just human cultures?  It tends to reason that the dominant human cultures at a given time may also be the more likely to be sending forth people to other parts of the universe (although even then “dominant” might need some tweaking since it implies an all-arena dominance whereas we’re recognizing some countries/cultures dominate in certain ways: militarily, religiously/spiritually, scientifically, financially, etc.  There’s often overlap, but it doesn’t always mean one has dominance in all ways.

It’s a curious idea for sure; not expecting to have answers, just more questions.

QUESTIONS

For history students; what are some examples of more positive first encounters between different human cultures?  What about positive encounters between human/nonhuman species?

In what concrete ways have we learned from the past that might help us in positive future relationships with alien species (sentient or not)?

For my popular culture and monster students, what sense do you make out of all the alien-human movies, comics, books that have come forth in the last century?  How do you think they engage/help us with dealing with the potential encountering of alien life?  Do they help and in what possible ways? 



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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.