“There is a Bear in the Woods” [the playlist]

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is named after a Ronald Reagan campaign ad, from 1984. It’s a classic in high-strategy fear-mongering, and I recommend watching it while listening to the soundtrack to The Witch, for full horrific effect.

My story, “There is a Bear in the Woods,” is the first directly political (that is, about politics) story I’ve published that’s been set in the U.S. instead of Indonesia. One other is forthcoming, at this time. “There is a Bear in the Woods” is also the first to be set in the same universe as a series of to-be-written novels that is very close to my heart. Part of the reason I’ve stayed away from American politics is because I didn’t want to publically commit to writing these books. But now I am, so let me say a little about it, because I think it’s as good an explanation as anything else to what drove “There is a Bear in the Woods.”

I wrote the first version of these books – the trilogy now named after Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty – from ages twelve through thirteen (1999-2000). They formed books 2 and 3 out of a series of 7 (“just a kid with a pad and a pen and a big imagination”), and they were an absolute mess that demanded suspension bridges for all the disbelief. But when I was in grad school I started toying with the idea of resuscitating and rewriting books 2 and 3. I don’t remember what spurred this decision other than the feeling that I had some thing here, some seedling of an idea, that I thought was worth saving. Many of the details have changed in the intervening years – obviously, I took a buttload of political science classes between points A and B – but at its core, the series is about the following:

An alternate-universe United States is dominated by a politically-corrupt, democratically-elected center-left coalition of parties, called the Alliance. Horrified by the morally-depraved decadence of the Alliance’s long reign, a radical deliverance church and a new conservative opposition join forces to oust the Alliance, and end up installing a tenuous and uniquely American fascist regime. Although the accidental fascists are the antagonists, it’s very important to me that they be kept sympathetic throughout – because otherwise, how would they have been voted in? And yes, because I’m a horror writer, there are a few BOB-like demons involved, but, as reflected in “There is a Bear in the Woods,” the demons came to take advantage of an opening that was entirely manmade.

This story is about a plucky grassroots campaign trying to put one of the would-be fascists, Rick McFarland, into Congress. They, of course, think they’re on a noble cause – literally, saving America. And then they have a fateful campaign stop…

“There is a Bear in the Woods” is in Autumn Cthulhu, edited by Mike Davis.

“I’d Love To Change the World” – Jetta: I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.

“Aenema” – Tool: Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. Don’t just call me pessimist. Try and read between the lines. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t welcome any change, my friend.

“2+2=5” – Radiohead: Are you such a dreamer to put the world to rights? It’s the devil’s way now. There is no way out.

[Note: What a perfect video, eh?]

“Coward” – Hans Zimmer: [Instrumental].

[Note: I rarely include soundtrack-like music here, but the combination of title and sound actually make this match perfectly with the appearance of “The Bear.”]

“Warning” – Incubus: All left standing will make millions writing books on the way it should have been.

Tagged ,

The number of the bEast is 999

When our old travel agent died, we asked the private investigators next door for a recommendation. They gave us the number of a Joe Pulver who they swore could get them to hell and back, by any means necessary. I figured that by “hell” they were talking about Kansas or Baghdad, and “any means” meant Amtrak or Greyhound. Turned out I was wrong.

I called Joe the first time about booking my boss on a round-trip flight to Los Angeles for a one-day conference. “City of Angels,” said Joe. “More like City of Demons.”

“Right,” I said. “Can we book a flight that gets in on the night of Monday the 21st, and then back on the morning of Wednesday the 23rd? Just one business class ticket.”

“You got it,” said Joe, even though I hadn’t heard any typing from his end. “I’ll be sending your confirmation shortly.”

It showed up in my inbox almost immediately. It was all wrong. It had my boss coming back from a two-day, $999 trip on Thursday the 23rd from a Los Angeles whose airport code was not LAX, but CRC. “Please check to make sure that you are happy with your itinerary. Let me know if you have any questions. BEST! !!”, he’d written. I quickly hit Reply.

“Dear Joe,” I wrote, “What is CRC? And it should be Wednesday the 23rd, right?”

His calm reply reassured me: “It’s a regional airport, not LAX. I made sure the return trip is confirmed for the 23rd. You should be all good now.”

My boss barely noticed when I gave him his itinerary. I thought all was well until he called me after landing, and the static was so loud I could barely understand his words. There was something about roads of glistening bone and seas of battered flesh and a pale yellow moon. I figured that he had forgotten to take his medication. I told him to eat some dinner and go to bed.  But two hours later he called again, hysterical, saying that people were chasing him and chanting.

“Are you at the hotel?” I yelled into the phone.

“The hotel was swallowed,” he replied. I thought I could hear a very old bronze bell, or something, tolling in the background. I tried to think of where such a bell existed in Los Angeles, but I don’t know the West Coast. “I was forced to flee. Oh God! The moon!”

So I called Joe, even though it was the middle of the night, and told him that we had to get my boss out of L.A. and back to his doctors immediately. “Please change the return flight to Tuesday the 22nd. I’m going to try to get him back to the airport.”

“No can do, sister,” said Joe. “He has to do his time, the time that was given to him.”

“He’s having some kind of breakdown! What if he hurts himself?”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Joe. “Put him in touch with my colleague on the ground in L.A. She’ll keep him safe. The name is C-A-S-S-I-L-D-A.”

I gave Cassilda’s number to my boss, and then he stopped calling. In fact I tried calling him on Tuesday the 22nd and it went straight to voicemail. I sent Joe an email, asking him who exactly Cassilda was and what she did. I’m going to be honest: I was afraid she was a hooker, and that my boss hadn’t even shown up at the National Conference of Auctioneers and Appraisers.

Fair Cassilda will be your master’s guiding superstar light in that dead City, Joe wrote back. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I repeatedly typed out “Dear Joe, what the fuck?” But for some reason I kept hitting the backspace and I eventually just decided not to send a reply at all. I paid our bills and re-organized my filing cabinet, and then went out and took a really, really long walk home. I collapsed into bed just before the rain started and when I woke up, it was Wednesday the 22nd. So said all the newspapers, the good morning TV anchors, my computer, the paper calendar from the Chinese restaurant. I sat down at my desk and put my head in my hands, convinced that something fundamental had changed, but not sure what. Once or twice I thought I saw someone watching me from the hallway, but I couldn’t seem to muster up the strength to get up and check.

Of course my boss didn’t come back that day. He came back the next, on Thursday the 23rd. Just as Joe said he would. He seemed better now. Calm. He took his coffee and read the paper and asked me, with great enthusiasm, if I’d be going to the fair tonight. “I hear it’s the talk of the town!” But we don’t have a fair. At least, we didn’t used to. “I’m taking Cassilda.”

This time it was Joe who called me. When I saw his number I crouched beneath my desk so my boss wouldn’t see me. “Just wanted to make sure you made your flight back all right,” he said. “The Storm is growing, so I hear.”

“I want to book another flight,” I whispered. “To wherever I was before.”

“I’ve already booked you. Sunday the 27th, back to Carcosa, the home of Truth.”

So I went home, packed my bags, sat on the stoop of my apartment, and just waited. From the hill where I lived, I could almost see the fizzling lights of the fair.

Tagged

“Pro Patria!” [the playlist]

In college I tried to argue that Peter Pan was a post-colonial fable. I based this on the scene where the revolutionary but already somewhat dictatorial Peter, having defeated the imperialistic Captain Hook, puts on Hook’s coat and hat, pantomimes a hook with his hand, and smugly smokes Hook’s pipe in the captain’s chair. For what it’s worth, my professor said she didn’t quite buy it, but that the essay was entertaining.

peter pan

When I first read Robert Chambers’ “The Repairer of Reputations,” it was immediately obvious to me that the psychosis-inducing The King in Yellow needed to be transposed to the unique horror of the post-colonial setting: the fiercely-independent newborn state, warped by centuries of domination by a foreign culture, that more often than not grows up to have a very genocidal adolescence.

History is littered with evidence that “hurt begets hurt.” The great tragedy of post-colonial states is that so many of them are forged in the fantastical hope that humanity can overcome its base, Hobbesian instinct to shamelessly overpower the weak and the different. But as my protagonist in “Pro Patria!” knows, shaking off the bonds of colonial subjugation is incredibly difficult even after the imperial troops have retreated. Your society has become defined and delineated by the colonists’ caste system, your artificial borders are utterly absurd and meaningless, and you learned everything you know about power, leadership, and right-to-rule from your abusive oppressors (in this story’s case, resurrected by the arrival of the foreign treatise on power, The King in Yellow).

In the country I grew up in (Indonesia), like many others, leaders that held onto republican (small r) ideals of individual rights and social contracts and limits to state power were shoved to the side; the rest – the survivors – fell into the same “might makes right” tautology that justified colonial rule, and became proto-fascists, aided by a whole bunch of justifications: the people are too stupid to be free, these are Asian values, Communists are right around the corner. Incidentally, my dad (Farchan Bulkin) was one of those political scientists who ended up shoved to the side, which is part of the reason this horrible cycle is so personal to me. He died two months before Indonesia finally shook off thirty-three years of dictatorship – indirectly brought about by three hundred years of colonial rule – and never had the chance to see Indonesia become the messy-but-free democracy it is today. Colonialism is one of those historical sins that keeps on giving – resurrecting – no matter how fast you try to run from it. Sometimes, the faster you run, the faster it catches up.

“Pro Patria!” is in Cassilda’s Song, edited by Joe Pulver.

“Mezzanine” – Massive Attack: I’m a little curious of you in crowded scenes, and how serene your friends and fiends.

“Declare Independence” – Bjork: Print your own currency. Make your own stamp. Protect your language. Raise your flag (higher, higher). Damn colonists! Ignore their patronizing.

“The Glorious Land” – PJ Harvey: How is our glorious country plowed? Not by iron plows. Our land is plowed by tanks and feet, feet marching.

“Crumbs From Your Table” – U2: You were pretty as a picture, it was all there to see, then your face caught up with your psychology. With a mouth full of teeth, you ate all your friends, and you broke every heart, thinking, “every heart mends.”

“Living on a Thin Line” – The Kinks: All the stories have been told of kings and days of old – but there’s no England now. / Then another leader says, “Break their hearts and break some heads,” is there nothing we can say or do? Blame the future on the past, always lost in blood and guts, and when they’re gone, it’s me and you.

[Note: This is the definitive song about post-colonialism. So much so that I quoted it in my thesis. The British nationalists using this song as a rallying cry need help.]

Tagged ,

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” [The Playlist]

As is appropriate for a story that’s a reworking of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” “Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is named after two songs centered on color: 311’s laidback, beachy “Amber,” and Hole’s angry, feminist “Violet.” I doubt that MRA types would like this story. In my defense, though, “The Colour Out of Space” practically demanded a feminist revision. It’s fundamentally a story about a cranky farmer who keeps his family increasingly isolated, then imprisoned, resulting in the deaths of all. There’s a neighbor who seems to check in a lot. Oh yeah, and something’s off about the water and the crops. And the woman locked in the attic is the crazy one?

feminist

Nick Mamatas wrote a great essay about writing Lovecraftian fiction as a social outsider in Lovecraft’s Western Civilization despite Lovecraft being a “racist clown.” His conclusion: “we don’t side with his sallow protagonists and their nervous fits-we see ourselves in the glory of the Outsider Things.” My Lovecraftian fiction tends to be of this bent (see “Truth is Order and Order is Truth”). What I love about cosmic horror is its total blindness to any notions of society or morality or anything else humans might use to define themselves. Like the Arcade Fire song “Black Mirror” goes, “The black mirror knows no reflection/ it knows not pride or vanity/ it cares not about your dreams/ cares not for your pyramid schemes.” The colour out of space doesn’t care about Nate’s fixation with being the house’s final authority. It doesn’t care about the family farm. It doesn’t care about the lines of familial sanctity being broached by the neighbor. It doesn’t even care about Abby or her children. But in its willful, violent nonchalance, it (like death, and all great monsters) is the great equalizer. Or in this case, the great fertilizer.

“Violet is the Color of Your Energy” is in She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula Stiles.

“Black Balloon” – Goo Goo Dolls: What’s the things they never showed you that swallowed the light from the sun inside your room?

“This Bitter Earth and On The Nature of Daylight” – Dinah Washington and Max Richter: This bitter earth, what fruit it bears. If my life is like the dust that hides the glow of a rose, then what good am I?

“The Hollow (Constantly Consuming Mix by Paz Lenchantin)” – A Passive Circle: Screaming “feed me here, fill me up again, temporarily pacify this hungering.”

“We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” – Sufjan Stevens: When we are dead, we all have wings/ And when we receive to see a change at last.

“Insect Eyes” – Devendra Banhart: And the neck her head’s on is a tunnel of dawn, but darkness will come.


 

Tagged , , ,

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” [The Playlist]

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” is named, of course, after the terrible suburban teenager party game. Like my protagonist-narrator, I never played this game. Despite going to middle school and high school in Middle America (Nebraska), I always felt like too much of an outsider to get in on any of those Americana rituals of teenagerhood – culturally different, and an awkward, quiet, hyper-sensitive bookworm on top of that. When I felt defensive I deflected with anger: my father died when I was ten, and I knew about death and loss and suffering when none of my privileged classmates with their self-described charmed childhoods had any idea. Of course I had no way of knowing whether this was true, and I’m sure it wasn’t. But it’s easier to punch back if you feel like you’re the only person in the room who’s onto the truth. I even had a keychain that said, “If you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention.” It was political, but it was more than that. Amanda Stone is a prototypical example of my type of character, and in case you’re wondering about the skull tattoos, think Tate in American Horror Story:
tate

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” was also inspired by several stories I had heard from different friends – one friend who, in Annapolis, commented that its Church Street looked exactly like the one in her hometown; another friend who, on an island off the coast of Sicily, stumbled into a cave that no one in town seemed to acknowledge existed – as well as Aickman’s story, “The Same Dog.” I wanted to hit that unshakeable deja vu, the creeping feeling that you’ve forgotten something critically important to the very meaning of your life. And like I always do, I wanted to put someone messed up, some injured animal I could recognize, at the center of this waking nightmare. (I’m starting to think that putting broken people in incomprehensible situations is just what I do.)

“Seven Minutes in Heaven” is in Aickman’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas.

“Soft Shock” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Ever lasts forever / Hey, what’s the time, what’s the day, don’t leave me

 

“Nobody Likes You When You’re Dead” – Zombina and the Skeletones: If they could see me now, that little gang of mine, you can bet your ass they’d run a mile

 

“If I Die Young (Band Perry cover)” – Conexus: The sharp knife of a short life / Funny when you’re dead how people start listening

Because while I like the song, there’s no way Amanda Stone would listen to the Band Perry. Sorry. Amanda Stone would listen to a band whose musicians wear DBZ shirts.

“Take Me to Church (Hozier cover)” – TETRA: My lover’s got humor – she’s the giggle at a funeral, knows everybody’s disapproval / I was born sick, but I love it; command me to be well

“The Suburbs (Arcade Fire cover)” – Mr. Little Jeans: You always seemed so sure that one day we’d be fighting in a suburban war / But by the time the first bombs fell, we were already bored

Tagged ,

a walking study in demonology

In responding to accusations that her character Amy Dunne in Gone Girl perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes, Gillian Flynn says:

the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish … I don’t write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she’s a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness.

And also, in explaining her predilection for writing villainous women in general:

I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some. The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves — to the point of almost parodic encouragement — we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side. Dark sides are important. They should be nurtured like nasty black orchids.

As someone who is writing her own female villain right now, I would like to suggest a few of the noteworthy “bad girls” that came before her and helped to inspire her – female villains that are authentically scary, violent, and arguably evil (I’m generally uncomfortable throwing around “evil,” despite writing in horror). They’re also so enrapturing that you just can’t look away. Clearly, there are many other types of female villains – the Bad Nurse, the Vain Actress, the Jealous Wannabe. The girls on this list, and the one I’m writing, are what I’ll call Superpredators.

Merricat Blackwood, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

merricat

It’s to Jackson’s credit that you don’t quite realize it at first, but Merricat is a mass-murdering little psychopath who kills nearly her entire family for no reason and allows her older sister to take the blame. She exhibits no remorse and no regard for anyone except herself (and maybe her cat) – even her “care” for her older sister is ultimately an attempt to resist any undesired change in her life regardless of the cost she inflicts on others. She’s completely lacking in empathy – completely absorbed by her own logical system, a self-made witchcraft – and completely fine with that.

Tomie, Tomie, by Junji Ito

tomie

Tomie was also born bad to the bone, but she’s more demon than psychopath. Always appearing as a beautiful, conniving high-school girl, Tomie breaks up relationships, ruins friendships, and inspires murder. Inevitably, she always winds up on the wrong side of somebody’s knife, but Tomie is unkillable – an eternal embodiment of the cost of desire. I’ve always thought there was something very bold about Ito’s decision to make his demoness both unquestionably evil at the elemental level and also a perpetual victim of horrific, very human violence.

Beloved, Beloved, by Toni Morrison

beloved

Beloved was the first female character to scare the shit out of me, because Morrison writes her so incomprehensibly alien, so “not right.” She is clearly dead yet clearly corporeal, and imposes an oppressive gloom over a makeshift family that is already struggling uphill to stay together. Like Tomie, Beloved reflects the evil of human society and the darkness of the human heart. Her ultimate childishly selfish objective is to drive everyone else away from her mother using whatever means necessary so she can have her mother to herself – and, apparently, to consume and destroy life.

Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

daisy

Daisy is oft-dismissed as an ineffectual non-character, but I consider her a non-violent, slothful psychopath. Daisy is vapidly selfish, does not demonstrate capacity to feel for anything except objects (over-the-top melodramatic performances aside), and I think there’s a compelling alt-reading of this book in which she murders her husband’s mistress in cold blood and manipulates her brutish oaf-husband to have her cloying lover killed because he’s begun to inconvenience her. The fact that none of the male characters see this is demonstrative of how well she’s learned to game them.

Callisto, Xena: Warrior Princess

callisto

Try as I might to root for bad-ass and rather boring Xena and idealistic jokester Gabrielle, it was unstable, evil, hyena-laughing Callisto, a female mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Apocalypse Now‘s napalm-and-surf-loving Kilgore, who always stole the show. She was such a shameless fiend. Callisto wasn’t born bad – she was driven mad by watching bad Xena kill her family. Like any classical supervillain, Callisto is completely warped by her desire for vengeance over Xena, which she also frequently mistakes for a desire to be Xena.

Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity

katie

It’s hard to pick just one female horror spook – they are all over the place, and are usually the angry victims of a patriarchal society – but I went with Katie, the demon-possessed heroine/antagonist of the Paranormal Activity series, because her transformation from relatable girl-next-door to a non-human uber-monster is so shocking and tragic. Katie is also the victim of the patriarchy, having been saddled with the demon by her brother-in-law, and despite her unthinking post-possession brutality, the PA series loves her like Scream loves Sidney Prescott – she’s the bleeding heart of the franchise.

Maybe it’s because I’m absorbed with horror that I think there’s no shortage of evil women. The horror-related question I’m asked most often by friends is “why do all ghosts seem to be women?” and no matter how you answer (I have several stand-by explanations, and I’m sure there are many others), there’s no avoiding the very close relationship that women have with evil, or at least the dark, in horror. Things are different in political fiction – there are some morally corrupt Mata Haris, the Bond Girls who are on the wrong side of Western civilization, but they’re the women Flynn would dismiss as vamps. A lot of political novels have either one female character – a love interest or ingenue, flat with goodness – or no female characters (except a revolving door of prostitutes). It’s easily argued that politics and governance are a man’s game, but real life shows that women can very easily be political villains, no matter whether you think that’s Margaret Thatcher or Jane Fonda. Lady Macbeth aside, I’m not sure fiction has quite reached its full potential on this front. But I hope my girl Carly will be a worthy contribution.

Tagged ,

Black Mirror [review]

I’ve been thinking lately about the difficulty of writing political fiction, especially speculative political fiction. The main pitfall of political fiction is highlighted by Anthony Burgess in his foreword to A Clockwork Orange: “too didactic to be artistic.” I disagree with Burgess that A Clockwork Orange suffers from that problem, but I’ll leave that entire conundrum for another time. Watching the British TV show Black Mirror drew me to another issue: political realism. This is actually the primary problem I have with most YA dystopias – I just don’t believe that this terrible, unequal, totalitarian society could possibly exist or function long enough for a revolution to need to take place. As Ben “Greasnin'” Platt on Something Awful once said, “I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty huge willingness to suspend disbelief. Hell, I watched Dragon Ball Z for years and enjoyed the fuck out of it. But somehow this just asked too much of me.” Yes, there is North Korea… but that’s the exception that proves the rule. There are many, many more examples of “soft authoritarian” regimes that provide room for rich and fantastic stories – I grew up in one.

Black Mirror is a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series exploring near-future technological/social media horror scenarios created by Charlie Brooker. Netflix put up the first six episodes and the American digital media got very excited about “the best show you’ve never seen,” so I decided to check them out. It’s a very well-acted and well-directed series, generally sleek and elegant and nuanced. I was also surprised by how blatantly political the show is – out of six episodes, four revolve around politicians or the power structure as a whole.

The National Anthem

“The National Anthem”: The royal princess is kidnapped, and the ransom video goes up on YouTube – either the Prime Minister has sex with a pig on live TV, or the princess dies. It’s a tense and interesting exploration of how a completely democratic society – at least, a government that is completely kowtowed to public opinion – would deal with this situation, and I appreciated the very sympathetic portrayal it gave to the Prime Minister. However, I cannot imagine a society in which such a ransom demand would be entertained. Perhaps I say this because I have never lived in a monarchy? I also can’t imagine a society in which the decision would be determined solely by public approval ratings. Polls matter, yeah, but a nation is more than the sum of its parts. And a state is way more.

15 Million Merits

“Fifteen Million Merits”: Strong “statement” episode, if you buy the premise that the outdoors have been destroyed and the only way to power the remaining sad claustrophobic world is through pedaling bikes all day. This is the only episode that focuses squarely on that least sexy of social topics – economics: you must pay to skip the advertisements that enclose you in your little shiny prison cell, you spend your “merits” buying useless digital accessories for your useless digital persona. And at night, when you’re not jerking off to pay-for-porn, you’re watching an X-Factor type show where your fellow bike-riders try to sing their way off the bikes. Very grim, very bitter (I almost want to say hateful), and a little overly-telegraphed (didactic?), but it gets points for elaborate and punchy world-building. This is the kind of story that would get nominated for Hugos if it was written down, but wouldn’t work nearly as well without visuals.

The Entire History of You

“The Entire History of You”: Episode 1 that has nothing to do with politics. No qualms on the political realism spectrum here – this is basically life now, except with embedded “grains” that let you play back everything you see. The whole marital angst over infidelity thing isn’t really my cup of tea, and I can see why Robert Downey Jr. feels he can sell this to Hollywood, but characters and dialogue are convincing in their banal flaws and weaknesses. To be honest, if there’s an episode that I felt didn’t belong in Black Mirror, though, it’s this one.

Be Right Back

“Be Right Back”: Episode 2 that has nothing to do with politics, and by far, this is the stand-out episode of Black Mirror for me – admittedly, this hit me right in the nerve. Lead actress Hayley Atwell, aka Agent Peggy Carter, is extraordinary as a woman overcome by grief when her partner dies in a sudden crash. Because her partner was a social media addict, however, he has left behind enough bread crumbs for software to create an alter version of him who can talk to her, responding as the software thinks he would. This reminded me very much of Her, which I thought was great (but “Be Right Back” is better), as well as the Rachel Swirsky story “Eros, Philia, Agape.” Uncliched, very realistic, harrowing as hell. I straight-up cried several times.

White Bear

“White Bear”: If only they had hired a different main actress, I would have loved “White Bear.” But I hate watching hysteria, and the main actress is very much of the scream/cry school of dramatic acting. That aside, “White Bear” is a very clever little episode-within-an-episode about voyeurism and by-stander rubbernecking. The critique of the “angry mob, hungry for justice” is solid. I actually even liked the internal episode, but that may be because I really enjoy the techno-transmitted zombie-ism featured in indie horror movies Pontypool and The Signal. This is where I realized that Brooker’s overall statement about the hazards of technology is this: while empowering “the masses,” it turns people into sheeple, and sheeple into… well, carnivorous, brutish, and surprisingly easily amused sheeple.

Black Mirror - The Waldo Moment

“The Waldo Moment”: If there were any doubts about Brooker’s aforementioned statement, “The Waldo Moment” bludgeons them to death with a hammer. This is a downright Burke-ian episode about a cartoon bear that starts off as a talk show gag and ends up a joke candidate running for office, beloved for his profanity and apolitical irreverence. I actually had to wonder if this was a jab at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (a pretty poor one, if so). Despite some good moments about the role of corporate funding in political campaigns, the episode was disjointed and not particularly interesting. The “apocalypse” ending was laughable in its un-reality, and judging by the rest of the episode, I don’t think there would have been a satisfactory explanation for this turn of events.

So in sum, in Brooker’s world, people are incredibly stupid (especially in crowds), technology will make them dumber, and politicians will either find themselves utterly hamstrung by the whim of the mob or will find a way to channel that mob’s demand for entertainment into something useful. Not the most radical message, and fairly curmudgeonly for my taste – I unabashedly love the Joker’s social experiment on the ferries in The Dark Knight (“what were you trying to prove, that deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?”), and hated that this sentiment was overwritten in The Dark Knight Rises. But Black Mirror deserves credit for complicating the message with astute depictions of consumerism and corporate financing, and keeping its characters very well-rounded. I would simply question whether people are as ugly – or as influential – as Brooker thinks.

Tagged , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34 other followers