Stay at Home
by Andrew Porwitzky
The air was clear,
cleaner than it had been in centuries,
when the aliens came.
They wondered why
we all sat at home apart from one another
instead of gathering.
They landed in major cities,
landing in public parks where people still came together,
hoping to get an answer.
“Why do you live apart?”
They spoke all our local dialects without any accent.
Even in Alabama.
An alien coughed.
Then more of them coughed. Then they all fell over dead.
It was unsettling.
That’s when we learned
that despite all our hopes and worries surrounding alien life,
H.G. Wells had been right.
I recently discovered Clifford D. Simak and it has been nothing short of a revelation.
To say that Isaac Asimov is my favorite author would be inaccurate. I have a short list of top authors but I don’t put Asimov on that list because he is on a much more selective list and I generally don’t believe in redundancy. Or duplication. No, Asimov is not on my list of favorite authors because he’s on my list of favorite humans. I have somehow, slowly over the last twenty years, fallen in love with Isaac Asimov. I have read more of his works than most, devouring not only his science fiction but his nonfiction essays and books, which are written with as much clarity and charm as his fiction. I don’t deny that a good deal of my nonfiction style comes from his, and Asimov himself said that he was puzzled by the trend of most authors to not acknowledge their influences. It was in that very spirit that Asimov cited Clifford Simak as his greatest literary inspiration alongside P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Of course I’d heard of the latter two, but who was Clifford Simak? I had never heard that name in all my dealings with science fiction. At first I thought he was a 1950s author that had since fallen into obscurity. Even now I’m not entirely sure I’m incorrect.
Clifford D. Simak, who lived from 1904 to 1988, was an active science fiction writer for most of his life while making a living as a newspaper reporter and editor. He won three Hugo awards, one Nebula, and was the third recipient of the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master award. (Isaac Asimov was the eighth recipient, in case you were wondering.) What really caught my eye about Simak was that although he had many accomplishments as a science fiction writer he also was one of the three winners of the inaugural Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement for his influence on the horror genre along with Fritz Leiber and Frank Belknap Long. It intrigued me that a science fiction writer who Asimov absolutely adored would be associated with horror since Asimov never wrote with even a whiff of horror. Still, I did nothing with that information beyond filing it away in the dusty storeroom that is my brain before heading to my favorite book store to see what they had of Simak.
I found Special Deliverance, which apart from having an enviously great title had a front and back cover that got me excited for some wacky old school science fiction adventure.
“It all started when Professor Edward Lansing wanted to know who really wrote that great term paper on Shakespeare and learned that his student had bought it from a slot machine. Going to investigate, the good professor found the machine, which gave him two keys and sent him in search of other slot machines. The third machine he tried took his money and transported him to a strange new world.”
When I reached this point of the back cover blurb I was already sold. Normally I wouldn’t have read any further, but I just couldn’t stop. It only got more zany.
“Here Lansing meets up with an odd assortment of fellow travelers – including a take-charge Brigadier, a pompous Parson, a female engineer, a lady poet, and Jurgens, a caretaker robot – all of whom are as mystified as he. Plucked from their own timelines, they were players in a game without rules and, seemingly, without a goal.
“Thus begins an extraordinary quest by these unwilling adventurers, one that leads them to an immense, featureless blue cube and into an ancient and mysterious city, tempts them with even stranger worlds, and, finally, provides them with a life-or-death challenge…”
How could I not immediately start reading that?
So I got home and started reading… and I was reading Isaac Asimov. When he mentioned the influence Simak had on him, Asimov said that he tried to copy Simak’s clear descriptive style. He succeeded. I not only immediately enjoyed reading Special Deliverance, I was ecstatic because I’d found an author who read like Asimov but would have his own take on the world and on the science fiction genre. I saw that in action half way through the book, when, without warning, this science fiction/fantasy tale of a band of unlikely adventurers began to incorporate some very chilling Lovecraftian horror elements. I don’t want to give anything away, so I will just say that this book – and Simak in general – are forgotten gems of both science fiction and horror.
If you like your science fiction with a bit of horror, or your horror with a lot of science fiction, then do yourself a favor and get a copy of Special Deliverance. Personally, I have a lot more Simak to track down.
My two favorite Star Trek movies (one from the original cast and one from the reboot) are thematically linked. It’s sort of a subtle link if you’re not well acquainted with the soul of science fiction, but they are undoubtedly connected.
At its height science fiction presents a reflection of some aspect of our world through the fantastical looking glass of a future existence. Simply put, we’re talking about metaphor. Once I became old enough to appreciate the historical context of a science fiction film I fell in love with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the start of the film an environmental catastrophe all but cripples the Klingon economy. Left unaided, Klingon society will undergo a complete collapse within decades. With no other option the Klingon government asks the United Federation of Planets for peace negotiations. They can no longer afford a state of constant war. When Star Trek first aired during the Cold War, the Klingon and Romulan species both represented different aspects of the Soviet Union. Star Trek VI premiered in 1991 and at the time the Soviet Union had been in a state of decline for a few years. Ironically, its complete collapse would occur within weeks of the film’s theatrical release!
Star Trek VI is all about change amid great political upheaval. When the Starfleet admiralty is discussing options going forward one member asks if they’re “talking about mothballing the Starfleet,” to which an admiral responds that Starfleet’s exploration mission will remain. This line always struck me because the Original Series made it clear that the primary purpose of Starfleet was exploration (an idea that we’ll come back to when we discuss the other Star Trek movie). This short exchange is pure metaphor. Without the Soviet Union what is the need for the military industrial complex? Well, there are still peacekeeping needs.
The Enterprise is ordered to personally escort the Chancellor of the Klingon government to the peace accords, when the Chancellor is assassinated aboard his own ship with Kirk and McCoy framed for the crime. Though not guilty, Kirk is not entirely innocent in all this. Kirk privately tells Spock that the smart move is to “let them die” because he carries racial hate against the Klingons for killing his son (Star Trek III). He’s not the only one. We learn that a lot of the crew hate the Klingons, in particular Scotty who is apparently a racist bastard. In the end, the Enterprise crew save the day and peace is made with the Klingon Empire, Kirk having been inspired by the words of the Klingon Chancellor who desired peace even with his dying breath.
The Chancellor quoted Shakespeare when referring to “the undiscovered country,” which in the film is little more than a code word for “the future.” What does the future hold after centuries of fighting the Klingons (or decades of hostilities with the Soviet Union)? What does such a world even look like? There are those that are entirely unprepared and unwilling to face it. Kirk has every reason to hate the Klingons, and through the events of the film comes to realize that he can no longer carry the hate he has inside him. He comes to this conclusion after seeing the hate of those like him reflected in a massive conspiracy that he was a partial victim of. The idea is that if Kirk can accept this change then most should be able to, though it won’t be easy.
Thematically this is similar to Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the rebooted franchise staring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Rejoining the crew of the Enterprise three years into their iconic five year mission we find a listless Kirk struggling to find meaning in the “episodic” exploration of space. One day bleeds into another as stability gives the impression of a lack of adventure. Kirk has applied for command of a massive star base, looking to leave behind the life of a starship captain. Fundamentally, he struggles to see his place in the Universe.
Unexpectedly the Enterprise comes into conflict with a powerful army led by a man named Krall who seeks to destroy the Federation in order to return the galaxy to a period of chaos, ideologically believing that only chaos breads strength. Through fortuitous circumstances the crew discovers that Krall is actually a hundred plus year old human Starfleet captain mutated by the ancient alien technology that has kept him alive. Krall (formerly Captain Edison) was made a captain and given one of the first ships after the Federation was formed. Before that he was a highly decorated MACO, a member of a tactical response unit in Earth’s military (first introduced in Star Trek Enterprise). He fought in both the Xindi and Romulan wars and felt he was discarded by the Federation and asked to “break bread with the enemy.”
Star Trek VI was a film of its time, reflecting a fear of the future that was very real to those living through it. Star Trek Beyond is the same, working through a fear of globalization.
Globalization has brought about an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in our world, but at the same time that stability has resulted in a loss of identity for some. For those of us that have grown up in this period of stability it is easy to forget the old warhorses that helped make it possible. Institutions like NATO and the EU have brought about the longest periods of sustained peace in human history, and as a direct consequence we now question what use they are because for us they seem to do nothing but rob each nation of its sovereignty. While globalization ensures peace by bringing all peoples closer to one another it simultaneously blurs cultural lines. Societies mix and blend into new flavors. Depending on ones perspective this blending can appear to be contamination, infiltration, or corruption.
When Krall launches his terrorist attack on the star base Yorktown we see Federations citizens running in fear. We see many races but a single people. The United Federation of Planets is the utopian vision of liberalism, its society a homogeneous blend of all cultures of the member worlds; an interstellar melting pot. Krall sees humans and aliens working side-by-side and can’t stand what that does to his vision of humanity, but more importantly he can’t reconcile what that means for his understanding of himself.
Krall is a veteran, having fought to protect the human race. He feels he was discarded and disrespected by the Federation. Out of “respect” they made him a Starfleet captain, dressing up a soldier as an explorer. Kirk tries to explain that the wars were won and the prize is peace, but Krall will hear none of it. He can’t let go of his hate for the alien.
Just like Star Trek VI, Beyond is about change in our world. Both films are about those that can’t move beyond the ways of the past. They would rather prevent forward motion and drag society backwards to what they consider “the good old days.” The only good thing about those days is that they felt they understood the world order. Where we are now, and where we are going, is confusing to them. When a personal value system is based on superiority and opposition, understanding and acceptance are hostile concepts.
Great science fiction is steeped in metaphor, and these two films explore important aspects of our culture in entertaining ways. Plus that Beastie Boys number is solid.
Fahrenheit 451 is, perhaps sadly, a timeless tale. In the 65 years since its publication, the original novel by Ray Bradbury continues to haunt us in times of ignorance and fear. HBO’s latest film adaptation staring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon updates the basic concepts of the book into a story that triggers our latest fears.
Jordan and Shannon are riding high right now from their successes in Black Panther and The Shape of Water, respectively, so their presence draws more eyes to this movie than may have otherwise pointed its way. Poetically, this fact suits the movie because though the book may be timeless, this adaptation isn’t. The source material is pureed and poured into a mold shaped by today’s headlines and fears of where we may be heading tomorrow. The world of the firemen who burn books is not brought about by a government trying to control our thoughts, but by Americans sick of the complicated nature of life. By political correctness disgusted by the word “nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By too many opinions on the Internet confusing us as to what is right and wrong. The Second American Civil War outlawed literature, philosophy, and any form of media that exists outside the sanctioned “9” – the new tightly controlled Internet. (An Internet seemingly free of any Net Neutrality regulation.) The movie plainly states that “The government didn’t do this to us. We did this to ourselves.” We chose this life, just like we’ve elected horrible leaders.
While idly sorting through a large cache of books before lighting them on fire, the firemen find great works of literature clearly worth saving, yet also among the piles is Mein Kampf. In this scene political correctness is brought up, and by ending the scene with Hitler’s infamous book we are reminded that the freedom to read comes with no strings attached – it must. Even in this future world three classics of literature are allowed: The Bible, To the Lighthouse, and Moby Dick. The inclusion of The Bible is clearly meant to poke at America’s de-facto Christianity, but all three of these books are objectively literary classics. Anyone can read these without punishment, but all other books have “problems” and contain only madness.
This is America. An America that censors books for any and every reason. An America where Texas conservatives call for the banning of books because they feature LGBT characters. An America where California liberals ban fifty year old books for racial slurs. To ban even one book is to risk walking confidently into Bradbury’s nightmare.
It is not hard to turn today’s American headlines into tomorrow’s dystopian America. It is comically easy to turn Homeland Security’s trademarked slogan “If You See Something, Say Something” into the catchphrase of any oppressive government run by fear, and Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t pass on the opportunity. I’ve always been a fan of modern film adaptations of classic novels because they can bring the cultural influences of today to bear on the iconic stories of yesterday. Streaming video and a thinly veiled mockery of the Twitter feed pervade the society of Fahrenheit 451, keeping everyone occupied and entertained without wanting to part the pages of a paperback.
Fahrenheit 451 is a novel for people who love books, and this latest adaptation is a film for people who love books. The passages read from outlawed books all “coincidentally” fit the mood of the film at that point in the story, thus the character’s actions are contextualized through other works of literature. The movie strives to remind us what we lose when we turn away from books that make us feel flawed and small, towards the instant gratification of our social media feeds. It is not a perfect effort, but it is worthy of praise as being a film for the current mood in America.
4 out of 5 stars.
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I could not have written a more poetic arrival in Las Vegas than the one reality presented me with. I deplaned at LAS, which looks like any other major airport in America save for the enormous banks of slot machines evenly deposited about. Each row ends with a sign that reads “seats are for slot patrons only,” after spending three days in Vegas I’m certain that rule is ruthlessly enforced.
The slot machines at the airport, like in the rest of the city, do not portray the true Las Vegas. Nor are they the poetic arrival I mentioned. That occurred when I reached baggage claim. Here LAS set itself apart from other major airports I’ve visited. Baggage claim occupied a cavernous three story space that housed the numerous carousels. As I entered my eye was drawn to the twenty foot diagonal television screen mounted on the ceiling playing a loop of Las Vegas tourism propaganda. Accompanied by the happy poppy music that pervaded the epic baggage claim arena, the TV spit images of young sexy men and women lounging around a pool in skimpy swimwear, dining in fashionable evening wear, and enjoying opulent hotel rooms. As I panned my vision back to ground level, leaving the dream of Vegas, I observed the truth of Vegas. Middle aged men and women in baggy shorts and beer bellies groped for cheap luggage, wrangling children that were either screaming or eating boogers. Rather than being well-heeled fashionistas, I was surrounded by average people drawn by the dream image of Vegas.
Walking The Strip was a similar experience. The hallmark of The Strip is that everything is accentuated, and this feeling received such a treatment. The sky was aglow with the lights, glitz, and glamour of Vegas. Even during the desert daylight the digital billboards were bright to the point of painful. Back down to earth, The Strip is four miles of grime, sex, solicitation, and stink. The nonstop solicitation in particular aggravated me. Solicitation for your money directly, but sometimes solicitation for your money by way of first soliciting your time. Everyone in Vegas, it seems, has a timeshare. Everyone, it seems, desperately needs to sell their timeshare.
“If you come to a short presentation I’ll give you free lunch and two tickets to such-and-such famous show.”
“It will just take a minute and I’ll give you twenty dollars cash!”
“Where are you staying?” is the pervasive question in Vegas. When asked by a waiter or retail employee it is a polite inquiry. When asked by a random individual on the street it is a question with no correct answer, because by virtue of the question being asked you can not respond with “In your timeshare,” which would be the only acceptable answer. Walking The Strip inevitably forces everyone to either be rude or lose hours each day to dodgy conversation and timeshare presentations.
Though the legendary Strip falls far short of the beauty portrayed in tourism promotions and Hollywood, the numerous shows of Vegas exceed all reasonable expectations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Vegas tourist is that shows only happen at night, meaning that even the best scheduling master who is willing to run from hotel to hotel can at best see three shows in one night. For mere mortals it is a one show per night affair.
Whether acquiring tickets through a timeshare presentation for purchasing them like a rational human being, undoubtedly the best performances on earth are presented nightly in Las Vegas. To my mind the redeeming part of Vegas is the shows, and I encourage any visitor to see a show every night they are there. When purchasing tickets it is never necessary to pay full advertised price, and never buy tickets before arriving in Vegas – with the exception of purchasing tickets for a limited time show, such as when an international superstar has a two week nightly engagement. Major hotels on The Strip have concierge desks that can sell tickets for that night or the next at large discounts. We purchased ours at Caesars Palace despite the fact that we weren’t staying at Caesars Palace. There are no gimmicks when purchasing tickets at the concierge desk, it is simply a concerted effort by all of Vegas to sell out every show every night and make a minimum acceptable profit on each seat. As such, ticket prices in Vegas fluctuate wildly even within the same show on the same night, so pay only what you are personally willing to pay and accept it. For instance, my wife and I saw Blue Man Group (which I can not recommend highly enough – it was an absolutely magical performance), which on their official website states that Las Vegas tickets range from $86 to $150 for VIP seats. We were in the back row of the theater in the Luxor so were firmly in the $86 seat range. Purchasing tickets from the concierge we were able to see a show the next night for $53 a seat. (An aside about purchasing seats. The seating floor chart that comes up is intentionally deceptive in making you think that a back row seat is in the nosebleeds. In particular the theater in Luxor is very intimate and I’m pleased that I didn’t pay a penny more for a row closer because even the back row had an outstanding view.) A good concierge can also recommend shows based on what you’re interested in, which is how we ended up seeing “V – The Ultimate Variety Show,” which was an insane performance in the best possible sense.
Having talked about The Strip in general and Vegas shows in detail, I now come to the most important part of my commentary on Las Vegas. Over the last few decades, the Las Vegas tourism industry has attempted to rebrand it as a family friendly destination. They have demonstrably succeeded based on the number of young children I encountered while in Vegas. This idea, however, is absolute bullshit. Las Vegas is unquestionably the least child appropriate city in the United States.
Walking The Strip at eleven in the morning isn’t early enough to avoid men handing out business cards featuring pictures of topless women that you can see at the listed location; cards which inevitably become adhered tits-up to the ground as people discard them. One frequent sight on my three days there was the obese elderly woman handing out event cards while wearing a bright read shirt that read “ORGASM LESSONS” on the front and back.
Children can be seen accompanying their parents in strollers through the smoke filled casinos at all hours of the day and night. Time doesn’t flow right in Vegas, which adults seem to be perfectly comfortable with but this fact wreaks havoc on children. Our first night in Vegas we ate at the Rainforest Cafe, a family restaurant chain where diners eat in an elaborately decorated animatronic jungle. It’s a fun gimmick, and I’m essentially a giant child so I love it. As you’d imagine, it’s a popular destination for families with children of all ages, so while we were there I saw at least a dozen children under the age of twelve. It was sometime while we were waiting for our dinner to come out that I realized it was ten thirty at night. Many of the children looked exhausted, and the youngest ones were crying having not yet eaten. Walking The Strip close to midnight we saw numerous children in strollers and wagons gawking at the high heeled police women – who inexplicably lost every part of their uniforms save their hats and handcuffs – soliciting passing men to take pictures with them.
On our last day we decided to have a somewhat swanky lunch at the cafe attached to the botanical garden in the Bellagio, and were seated next to a baby barking happy screams. This kind of thing has never bothered either my wife or myself, so we were fine with it. Truth be told, this was a super cute baby of about nine months and was very clearly enjoying hearing the sound of his own voice. The mother and father looked financially well off. Dad wore those shiny dress pants that have come in style the last few years, along with an immaculate dress shirt and shoes to match, designer sunglasses hooked into his shirt neck. Mom looked like she’d spent the Vogue-ideal time in a tanning booth, blond hair combed and styled perfectly into rows, designer dress and shoes. Dad was trying his best to keep his son quiet, even leaving the restaurant to try and walk it out of him. Mom looked exhausted; she’d clearly had enough. I don’t fault any of these people. I certainly don’t fault the baby for babying, and I’ve been there with my own son so I feel for these parents. As I watched them struggle it became obvious what was happening. Mom and Dad were frequent Vegas visitors, but this was the first time they came since baby showed up. They probably thought, “Of course we’ll take our annual trip to Vegas! We’ll just bring the baby along.” They either didn’t think it through or they believed the hype, having seen so many other babies in Vegas. Clearly, things were not going well for them. Having a kid changes things, and I hope they accept that fact quickly, for the sake of their mental health.
Las Vegas is a place of pluses and minuses. It is a place where citizens of the world come together to collectively buy into the Hollywood dream of a place while ignoring the fact that they are walking daily through a veritable river of shit. Vegas is an exhausting experience in every way. It physically drains you due to the extreme amount of walking necessary to see various sights, and it is psychologically exhausting just being around so much stimulus.
Everyone can find their own Las Vegas. For some it’s the gambling. For others it’s living the high life for a little while. For my wife and I it was the shows, the art galleries, and the related art books we came home with. In retrospect I realize that our Vegas is a remarkably nerdy Vegas. Perhaps that is the real truth of Las Vegas; it is a place that is whatever we want it to be.
But really, I think it’s just a place run on money, sex, and alcohol. So essentially it’s the only place where Americans are honest about who we are.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.