On Thomas Ligotti

A follow up on my review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets:

I have now read Thomas Ligotti.

It changed my life.

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Thomas Ligotti can paint tableaus with his adjectives that repulse me. He can fill my head with images that burden me as they burden his protagonists. But no one has ever made me want to draw the way Thomas Ligotti does.

Justin Steele’s comment that Ligotti is not for everyone feels unavoidable, but nevertheless, I think everyone should read Thomas Ligotti. The things that make him difficult are, like with all good authors, the things that make him enchanting. His stories are immersed in an almost academic rhetoric that pushes the mind beyond quotidian engagement with the universe. In contrast to other kinds of contemporary fiction, he strays from the traditional depiction of the everyman. What makes his protagonists ordinary is their tendency towards base emotion: curiosity, irritation, selfishness, egotism.

More than all that, Ligotti is a Transcendentalist.

He follows in the footsteps of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, exploring the possibility of an interconnected universe. He leaves no doubt; his universe is interconnected. There is a higher knowledge, a greater understanding, and sits just beyond our usual sphere of perception.

But unlike Whitman or Thoreau or New Age prophets, his interconnected universe is not nearly so pleasant. Ligotti writes of a world where higher knowledge, undeniably satisfying to achieve, is always a burden. The existential project is a fruitless one, to understand the universe is to destroy the self. When you can see the cardboard trees for what they are, when you understand—truly understand—how the universe is all strung together, and what things exist, just beyond the blue sky – you might wish you hadn’t.

Book Review: The Grimscribe’s Puppets, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. ED. Miskatonic River Press, 2013

“I don’t really want to see a ghost, but if someone said, ‘Do you want to go to a haunted house and see a ghost?’ I would say, ‘Yes’.”  — Kelly Link. Oct. 6, 2015. Brown University

A review of The Grimscribe’s Puppets by Justin Steele on arkhamdigest.com said, “Thomas Ligotti, one of the finest horror authors, can be a tough pill to swallow. […] His work is definitely not for everyone though, casual horror readers would most likely be turned off by this particular brand of philosophical horror, yet everyone should read Ligotti at least once.” Though I have never read Ligotti, I can easily (and eagerly) imagine his desolate cityscapes, and agonized protagonists who lurch through them, revolted by the existential truths they have uncovered. Their miserable voices call to me saying, “We are all connected. None of us is alone.”

Book photo from MIskatonic River Press

Pulver’s collection here is (according to Wikipedia) award-winning and rightfully so. The stories in it bring a range of voices, both narratively and creatively, together in a dizzying rush through the darkened, greedy corners of our universe. I started the book in the middle, with Jon Padgett’s 20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism, and from there explored outwards from the center of the book, devouring the stories and letting the thread, whatever Ligottian impulse Pulver had called forth from them for this collection, which bound them together, thread its way through me and draw me in, another puppet for the Grimscribe, or whatever else is hiding out past the blue veneer of the sky.

Of extra special note are Livia Llewellyn’s Furnace, Kaaron Warren’s The Human Moth, Robin Spiggs The Xenambulist, and Gemma Files’s Obliette (which I didn’t save for last, and highly recommend you take the editor’s implicit recommendation and let it be the last morsel of this collection you savor to end the experience). The Human Moth left me feeling like Ms. Link, now that I know stories like it exist, though I might prefer to have eschewed that knowledge, I must seek them out.


An unexpected triumph: Jupiter Ascending, the most feminist sci-fi film of the year

Jupiter Ascending got wrecked on the critical shores. The most recent film from the Watchowski siblings (who brought you The Matrix), is a critique of capitalism, disguised as a space opera romance. I can see some of you shaking your heads, thinking, “She’s both drastically overselling this film” and “Come on, sure, the Matrix had some philosophical undercurrents, but this is a film about Channing Tatum helping Mila Kunis become a space princess.”

Give me a moment to sell this movie to you again.

Your average hard sci-fi fan will find a lot to complain about with Jupiter Ascending. But we need to take a moment and remember that most hard sci-fi fans will complain about Star Wars, too. And everyone is about to fall over in excitement for the JJ Abrams Star Wars sequel set, so I’m not sure “It’s not hard SF” is enough to pronounce this film DOA.
Let me be entirely clear: Jupiter Ascending is a space romance. It’s primary function is to serve up two beautiful people who fall in spectacular love with one another, while elevating Mila Kunis’ Jupiter from a life as a toilet scrubbing illegal immigrant. But in the process it does a number of surprisingly lovely things.
For example, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The monotony of free-falling action sequences, explosions, space battles, and beautiful CGI alien worlds is broken up with moments of foot-in-mouth humor, and a bureaucratic scene unlike anything we’ve seen since Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Buried underneath the verbal faux pas of Kunis’ and Tatum’s courtship is the plot that drives the film forward, throwing the characters together in life-or-death situations to help them fall in love. It is a plot that relies on rather well-developed world building that draws the more indulgent viewer into the politics of a genetically-driven economy.
In fact, the hand-wavey science of genetics undergirds the entire world Jupiter (and the viewers) are thrown into. (I remind you again, that the Force is basically magic. And that a decent number of people sat through the scientifically unteneble Limitless and Lucy. So demanding a strict adherence to “real science” seems somewhat excessive.) With sufficiently advanced technology, the film argues, we will no longer be slave to our natural genetic code (with various characters having been genetically engineered before birth as soldiers, Tatum among them), and not even to time itself, but at a cost.
Ultimately, the film seems to say, it is not the science that produces real evil, but the economic structure with its commitment to profit, and product, that will play out the real evil. There are literal human costs to this system, which uses raw genetic material to produce longevity. Kunis’ Jupiter has been drawn into a battle between the siblings of a corporate empire by virtue of her particular genetic code.

But what of the romantic genre itself? In the quest for better female representation in popular media, Romance as often been called upon to come to the rescue. After all, girls like love and having their social station elevated to grant them access to more finely made clothes, right?
I posted a number of months ago about the Bechdel Test, and asked you to think back on how many films had female characters interacting with each other (an order so tall that even with all the weight of Disney behind it, Marvel has only managed to pull it off on the small screen). Jupiter Ascending succeeds without any huge fanfare. The primary exposition for the film takes place when Tuppence Middleton shuffles Kunis into a vague understanding of her new station. In the words of my father, “What? Exposition between two women? But that’s ridiculous, everyone knows women don’t know anything!” Jupiter also has a relationship with her mother and her aunt, one of the women she keeps house for, and the lady captain of a space police ship.
Walking the tightrope of hyperbole, I would be willing to suggest that this is the most feminist science fiction film you’ll see this year. Certainly by this time this year.

I promised you social commentary on the nature of capitalism and I feel I should deliver. The film is split into a few factions: you have the Egiss who are a regulatory body, they are referred to at least once in the film as “space cops” and they serve as the instrumental power of the state, essentially to try and curb the greed of the ruling semi-aristocratic class who will lie, and murder without compunction to achieve their ends of growing their profit margins. Then you have the “Entitled,” who are a sort of landed gentry. They own planets, which they harvest to create a product that essentially renders people immortal. Bureaucracy makes its appearance as a hinderance, but also a neutral entity that can be used or abused pretty much entirely due to one’s familiarity with the process.
After that, violence is a commodity that can be bought, much as in our world. Bounty hunters abound, and can be made instruments for the Entitled in their battle to get their hands on the best source.

It is not a complex film. If you follow the surface plot, it’s a rag-to-riches, harlequin romance, complete with a handsome and loyal soldier for the romantic lead. If you fall to the second level, it’s a simple parable cursing the rich and their greedy, thoughtless practices, with a coming of age plot about reassessing your place in the world and making the best of your new station.
It also has lovely computer generated sets, that create a lush backdrop for the slightly humorous costume choices (space society is big on corsets). While it is not a film set to win any awards, it should neither be thrust in the category of “completely unremarkable” nor should it be cast out as “foolish” or worse “confusing” (that last one has left me perplexed, as there did not really appear to be anything that actually needed explaining, any “science” working as a large scale plot device devoid of anything resembling math or biology).

If spectacle, a dash of romance, and having a good laugh when space capitalists fail to produce offspring competent in hand-to-hand combat are things you enjoy give Jupiter Ascending a shot. It is, in the honor of a particular science fiction tradition, a damn good time..

Lessons in Solidarity

In 1984, members of the gay and lesbian community in England banded together to support the miners’ strike happening in the country in response to Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies. Despite the cultural differences and the often contentious relationship between the two groups, a commitment to solidarity and support brought these people together.

PRIDE (2014) photo from The Guardian

In the summer of 1985, after the strike ended, after nearly a year of fighting, and not with the outcome the strikers had hoped for, the miners lead the Gay Pride march in a show of solidarity with the community that had worked with them.

This is the story of the movie Pride which came out this year, where it one the Queer Palm award to Cannes.

Over the long weekend, here at UMass Amherst, three incidents of hate speech were written on the doors of students of color. This has not only shaken the community, for obvious reasons, but also brought with it an outpouring of emotion relating to the way the campus community treats students of color, the retention rate among students of color and the consistent failure of the community to address concerns regarding race on campus.

More often than not I have heard the words, “I am not surprised.” And that’s it. There is no further examination of that statement, there is no outrage, there is no anger or fear or sadness. There is a tacit acceptance of the fact that racism is alive and well on our campus.

Ben Schnetzer, as Mark Ashton, says in Pride, “I don’t understand how people can be for one thing and not another. How can you be for labor rights and not women’s right?” [badly paraphrased]. And as I look at this campus, I ask myself the same thing. How can we hope to make progress, together, if we won’t stand together? 

Schnetzer’s character is met halfway by one of the miners, Dai Donovan, played by Paddy Considine who refers to a banner his town has, of two hands clasped, where he explains that the way he sees it, the banner shows, “If you support me, I’ll support you.” And indeed, the National Union of Mineworkers voted to enshrine gay rights in the Labour Party’s platform, as well as leading the parade in ’85.

This is what we need; the solidarity, the community, and the will to fight the darkness of hatred and racism wherever it is hiding. Our black students should not be facing this alone, our hispanic students should not be facing this alone, students of color should not be facing this alone. We should take our cue from stories like that of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. But we should also remember the miners, and our organized labor groups, all forms of organized peoples should be working to end this kind of behavior on our campus and in our community.

We are fighting for all of us.