Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I’ve hardly been hiding the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of YA fiction. Call me crazy but as a fucking adult I tend to prefer fiction that actually tries to challenge me. However, as I’m also the kind of fucking pathetic individual who is always swayed by popular opinion, I can’t seem to stop giving it a go when a book proves popular enough. Back in 2014, George RR Martin, you’ve probably heard of him, gave Station Eleven his seal of approval so I figured ‘why the fuck not’. Then, unsurprisingly, the book sat at the bottom of my TBR pile looking beautiful whilst I couldn’t give a shit about opening it’s pages. Until the day when my increasing guilt proved too much and I gave in. I’d just read a supposedly ‘revolutionary’ YA novel that was the biggest load of shit I’d ever read. It’s safe to say my hopes about this one weren’t high.

Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel starts in dramatic fashion with the death of an actor, Arthur Leander, whilst on stage playing King Lear. There is barely enough time to process the tragic event before the world finds itself in the midst of a global crisis. A severe strain of flu, the Georgia flu, is quickly spreading throughout the human world and those infected are beyond medical help. Within weeks about 99% of humanity has been wiped out and the rest are left alone in the wilderness.
Mandel’s narrative leaps between the events preceding the pandemic right up to the 20thyear after humanity fell and, even in death, Arthur is constantly hovering over the action. The modern day chapters give us insight into the actor’s life before his final performance; mainly focusing on his troubled marriages and desire to discover who he really is. We meet his oldest friend, Clark, and some of his past loves, most importantly Miranda, an art school graduate who has been working on the ‘Dr Eleven’ comic book for some years. The section of the narrative revolving around Arthur’s history is truly engaging and Mandel shows great insight into human nature and relationships.
Arthur is kept relevant even 20 years after the flu decimates humanity thanks to actress, Kirsten Raymonde, who was part of the infamous King Lear production at the age of 8. She remembers little of her past life but obsessively searches for any mention of Arthur that survived the destruction of society. Now in her late 20s, Kirsten is part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the country performing Shakespeare. The Symphony’s motto is an obscure quote from Star Trekthat tells us “Survival is insufficient” and they do what they can to ensure art thrives in the desolate landscape that has arisen.
That is what Mandel’s novel is all about when it comes down to it. Choosing to avoid the usual traps of post-apocalyptic literature, she ignores the years directly following the crisis and picks up years down the line. The scenes of chaos, looting and violence that one would normally see are replaced with images of humans trying to regain their civilization. Mandel’s novel isn’t one of desperation and despair but one of hope. The idea that human decency can survive and civilization will endure if life remains.
It’s an approach that has gained Mandel a lot of respect and is undeniably refreshing in a sea of dystopian fiction. However, I can’t help but feel that there is something naïve about her approach. As someone who is about as jaded as you can be with this fucking genre, I appreciate that Mandel wanted to avoid copying every other YA author out there but there is something weird about the complete lack of danger within her created society. What was obviously meant to be a message of hope that humanity, and with it art, can survive even the bleakest times just feels fucking childish.
Obviously, danger and violence are implied within the novel but it is as hidden as Mandel can manage. Kirsten was supposedly too traumatised during the year directly after the flu hit to remember anything about it. This seems like a fucking huge cop out to me: after all, what is the good of showing hope winning out in the end if there is no real sense of hopelessness? It’s the same over-simplified, fairy tale world of YA fiction that we have seen so many times before. Let’s not be afraid to shake things up and show teenagers how shitty humanity can be.
We live in a world where violence is the answer to everything and it can rear it’s ugly head with only the slightest provocation. There is something incredibly flawed in Mandel’s assumption that there would be such a small amount of tension and danger within the 1% of humanity that survived the ‘plague’. Maybe I’m just cynical but the message of ‘things will be okay as long as people keep performing Shakespeare’ is kind of laughable. I have hope that humanity would win out in the end but not in Mandel’s rose-tinted manner.
However, Station Eleven was still a joy to read because Mandel, despite her overly positive approach, is an incredibly talented writer. Her prose is fucking beautiful and she manages to create a dream-like atmosphere that counters its post-apocalyptic brothers and sisters. The novel is refreshing thanks to its stunning visuals and extremely light in tone. Although, for a book that has been billed as part mystery, Mandel leaves so many fucking signposts all over the place that the end reveals aren’t a shock to anybody. Still the journey there is pleasant enough: it’s the kind of book you can easily get lost in.
And not just because of all of the narrative strands Mandel is tying together. To be fair, Mandel handles all of the interweaving storylines with great skill. It’s just a shame that it can’t quite make up for the overlying sense of improbability that surrounds everything. It’s all so fucking coincidental and you need to suspend nearly all of your disbelief. The fact that all of the narratives come back to Arthur even after everything (for instance, that Kirsten forgets her entire family but remembers a man who had such a small impact on her life) is a teeny bit convoluted. All the links are just fucking too in-your-face to seem realistic.
I was excited by the thought of an original post-apocalyptic novel but found Station Elevenstill wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. There were too many fucking cop-outs and simplifications for my liking. As much as I want an escape from the norm, I’m just too old-fashioned and prefer my dystopians to be fucking horrible. Enough of this, ‘everything works out if we keep art alive’ hippy bullshit.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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Ready Player One is the debut novel of Ernest Cline, a writer who, before its release, was best known for writing the original script of the super disappointing Fanboys. Despite this potentially damning connection, it was one of those books that was fucking everywhere recently. For a few months it was the only bloody book that anyone seemed to be talking about. I guess it helps when your primary audience are too young to have watched the shitty films you helped write. I hoped that I liked Cline’s novel because it does contain lots of things I’m very fond of. However, as a YA dealing with a dystopian future, I was sort of predisposed to fucking hate it. However, I just couldn’t stop myself reading it. It took a long time, admittedly, but I couldn’t stop reading it.

Ready Player One is the story of Wade Watts and his experiences inside the Oasis: a MMORPG virtual reality simulator. The novel is set in 2044 when life on Earth has become fucking unpleasant thanks to the human dependence on depleting fuel resources. Humanity has abandoned real-life and spends its time having adventures in the Oasis. Why bother living in the shitty real-world when you can ignore the trouble and enjoy a high-definition wonderland that is only as small as your bank balance.

The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, is the kind of eccentric and shy tech-nerd that has become such a popular figure these days. On his death, a video is released introducing the users of the Oasis to a new quest that will see his vast fortune and control of his company handed over to the victor. The world’s largest, most important and incredibly complicated Easter Egg hunt. For five fucking years, people keep trying and failing to solve the first clue.

Halliday was obsessed with the 80s, the decade in which he grew up, so all the clues are an intricate attempt to rattle off page after page of pop culture references. Essentially, Ready Player One isn’t really a novel but more of an encyclopaedia. Cline has decided, for whatever reason, to show the world just how much he knows about video games, films, and television. It’s an exhausting stream of references and allusions. It’s no wonder readers are lapping it up so readily. When it’s basically just a list of things that make them go “I understood that reference”.

As far as I can tell, people love Ready Player One so much because it carries with it a warm sense of familiarity and safety. Wade is the kind of person Cline is targeting and has the kind of interests that most YA readers will share these days. In this day and age, it’s not a gamble to write a book for teenagers that’s about video games and is full to the brim with references to all things 80s and 90s. Cline isn’t writing well here: he’s writing clever.

When you take away all these references what is there really about Ready Player One? It’s not even a good YA dystopia. There are more than enough uninteresting and tired clichés for you to play YA dystopia bingo. From the first page there is no doubt about how it will end and it’s so simplistic that it’s not even funny. I can’t be the only one who found it a little insulting that Cline wrote a novel set in the future whilst only referencing the past. Can I? Although, why bother to write a fully fleshed out narrative and create your own pop culture when you can just ride the coattails of the things other people created? It’s fucking pandering at its most desperate.

It’s part of the reason I’ve become so disillusioned with Simon Pegg over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I love Spaced as much as the next guy but, if we’ve learnt anything over the last few years, it’s that without his endless Star Wars references Simon Pegg just isn’t quite the same. You can’t make up for an interesting premise or creativity with your in-depth knowledge of John Hughes movies or Rush songs. I’m a fully paid up member of the geek clan so love a good discussion of all things. I just don’t think it’s the be all and end all. Ready Player One just didn’t offer enough beyond its endless supply of nerd-bait.

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TBT – Mad Max (1979)

TBT – Mad Max (1979)

With the release of Mad Max: FuryRoad it seems only natural that people will start to look back on Max’s place within cinema history. George Miller’s 1979 film not only introduced the world to fledgling actor Mel Gibson but also helped to define the action genre as we know it to this day. As a former emergency room doctor, Miller had a personal experience of the type of injuries he would go on to depict and saw them as the natural consequences of the type of mentality that would have people turn to violence in the face of a fuel shortage. Mad Max is an important film for plenty of reasons but it has survived for the last 35 years because it’s also a fucking great one. Whilst it never quite had the same impact of it follow-up film The Road Warrior or the final film in the trilogy, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, it it always worth revisiting the cult classic.

You may have noticed but dystopian is in these days: with the recent onslaught of YA adaptations of books like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, or Insurgent, dystopia has apparently become something to strive for. In the ultimate hipster sense, Mad Maxwas helping define this film genre way before it was the cool thing to do. Set in Australia in the not too distant future, we are introduced to a society dominated by violence, anarchy and chaos. Biker gangs rule the roads and are only challenged by the Main Force Patrol (MFP), the leather-clad law enforcers of the day.
Their top member is our titular hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), who is a skilled driver and lover of the chase. Already feeling the lines blurring between morality and immorality, Max is keen to get out of the game and spend time with his family. That is until Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang roll into town. With his friends and loved ones in danger, Max has to decide which side of the line he belongs on.
Mad Maxwas an odd film even by 1979 standards: in an attempt to make the film more accessible to international audiences by badly overdubbing the thick Aussie accents American ones. It’s fucking weird and just awful. It also helped propel the fresh-faced, pre-prejudiced Mel Gibson to stardom after Miller and producer Bryan Kennedy decided to cast unknown actors in all roles. Although, Mac Maxdidn’t find great success upon release and it wasn’t until the sequel that Gibson found his first American hit.
The film sets itself, and the franchise, up pretty nicely by avoiding any nasty exposition and getting straight into the nitty-gritty of the car-chase that would become Miller’s trademark. The future is bleak here and violence has taken over. It is a film about road rage and there is plenty of energy behind the action scenes. Even with his limited budget and lack of experience, Miller shows that he’s a director knows what he’s doing. The stunts are still on-point thanks mostly to the fact that they are real. Rather than making things less exciting, the shoestring budget as only made the film greater.
When you look at it in 2015, Mad Max perhaps does look simple and clumsy but there can be no denying that the passion and energy are enough to keep you invested. There are some frankly amazing moments during this film: there is a certain amount of weird, dark humour, some quieter emotional moments and plenty of action to keep any film fan happy. It also looks bloody great: cinematographer David Eggby used the Australian landscape to perfectly capture the vast and arid landscape of the future.
Really, Mad Max is all about the visuals because there’s not much else too it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film but there’s no denying that it’s a slow burner. It’s the least memorable of the trilogy because, in all respects, it is an origin movie. This is the story of how Max became Mad. The dialogue is hardly the greatest and mostly falls back on awful clichés. The characters are mostly undefined and forgettable and, even the main ones, are given no real depth. Max himself is hardly explored and you don’t really get any sense of him as a character.
Until the final act of the film when the narrative ramps up a gear and the revenge plot is born. Max suffers a great loss and cuts all ties with the MFP, choosing to go after Toecutter alone. This is where Miller steps things up a gear and shows great promise for the future. Max isn’t the great anti-hero we will eventually know him to be. Mad Max, though great in its own way, is an undeniably bleak film. Once Max’ has found his revenge (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that) there is no real sense of catharsis. This isn’t a world that has any real answers but just creates new problems. Mad Maxgave birth to a major franchise that has stepped up a new gear with the release of Fury Roadbut don’t expect it’s opening gambit to leave you with warm, fuzzy feelings. Just one epic ride. 
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

mad_max_fury_road_whv_keyartIt’s been 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was released and the continuation of the franchise has been brewing for a fucking long time. George Miller first had the idea for a fourth instalment in 1998 but it has taken 17 years for that seed to grow into the bat-shit crazy tree that is Mad Max: Fury Road. With Tom Hardy taking over from Mel Gibson, Fury Road has more in common with the second film than the third. During the final moments of The Road Warrior, our hero is pursued by a violent gang whilst driving an oil tanker to safety. In his update, Miller has stretched that concept to a full-length film and if that sounds like a flimsy premise then fear not.

Fury Road is high-octane, non-stopping action from the first scene to the very end and its fucking spectacular. What is lacks in dialogue and intricate narrative, it more than makes up for with dazzling stunts and awe-inspiring visuals. The chaos is continual and during the first half hour or so there isn’t even time to draw breath. The film is one long chase sequence that feels more like a silent movie than the post-apocalyptic blockbuster we’re used to these days.

Tom Hardy is the almost silent, brooding Mad who is chased by the ghosts of his past. Taken prisoner by Warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original film) and his War Boys. During one of his many escape attempts, Max is fated to become entangled with fellow rebel and escapee, Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Employed to lead raids and transport commodities like fuel and bullets, the warrior has finally had enough of Joe’s tyranny and agrees to transport his harem of young, beautiful women to safety, whilst being chased by a whole host of supercharged and heavily armed vehicles.

Tom Hardy is commanding in the title role and brings about a brooding intensity that works well. He slowly and uncomfortably eases into the role of action hero but, for the most part, is pretty impassive. The problem is, Max isn’t really the film’s lead; that honour can only be given to Charlize Theron as the tough, resilient and memorable Furiosa. It is her inner drive that fuels the film not Max’s. With plenty of possible connections to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, Theron is on top-form here. Without the words to back it up, the actress shows everything she need with a simple look.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that women define Fury Road in way that the genre isn’t really used to yet. Furiosa is a women who certainly doesn’t let her sex define her but she does embrace it. She has hope that future generations can have a better future and does what she must to protect that. This is a film oozing with messages and images of female empowerment as women are inherently the ones who keep hope alive. Amongst all of the testosterone filled, macho nonsense we see from Joe and his War Boys, Fury Road is actually an enlightened answer to the genre norms. It is something that has caused quite a stir with some hardcore action junkies.

Which is utter bollocks for a number of reasons but mainly because the action is never pushed aside to make way for a debate about gender. This film offers spectacular pacing, sound design, editing and music are all miles better than one could hope for with a film of this type. The first chase sequence is one of the best action sequences in film history and that’s just Miller’s warm-up. Just when you think the team have pulled off the greatest stunt of all time something better will come along almost instantly. It is a film that keeps on pushing itself further until it eventually runs out of time.

Fury Road is also one of the most visually stunning films you could ever hope to meet. The design is so detailed and intricate that it demands multiple viewings to take it all in. From the simple colour change between orange during the day and blue at night to the grotesque bodies Miller delights in parading in front us, Fury Road is fucking beautiful, man. The CGI backdrop is like a fucking painting with its whirlwinds and dust storms providing the perfect canvas for the relentless car-chase. And Miller makes use of it too. He creates the tension he needs through overhead shots and wide-angles that define the dimensions of the action on screen. We can see exactly how far away the pursuit vehicles are and how quickly they’ll catchup. It’s fucking terrifying.

As a director who’s work has inspired so many contemporary filmmakers, Miller has taken a step to show that, whilst he is still working from the same sheet as before, he is never one to rest on his laurels. There is no sense of repetition from his earlier films as Miller has once again redefined his futuristic landscape. Miller has taken the action template that he helped to create and has updated it. Whilst the credits were rolling in the cinema after my viewing, a teenage boy sat next me to lamented that the film was a cliché that relied too heavily on explosions and deaths. Yes, there are dozens of car crashes, explosions and dead bodies in Fury Road but there is never any sense of repetition.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of film that Michael Bay and his followers wish they could produce. What seems like nothing more than explosion porn is a sophisticated film that deserves to be celebrated. We may walk out of the cinema knowing almost as much about the society we were introduced to as we did going in but it’s fine. This shouldn’t, in any way, be seen as a lack of substance: Miller is a shrewd director who knows that stopping for long soliloquies of exposition wouldn’t work. The landscape we are viewing is a harsh one where its inhabitants must use their energy for survival rather than idle chit-chat. The stripped to bones plot and dialogue is as much of an indicator of the world we have accelerated into as anything shown on screen. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film full of split-second decisions where every bullet, every drop of water and every single moment counts. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film that has no time for bullshit of any kind; it’s the fucking real deal.