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Prometheus: In Which The Gods Of Plot Punish The Characters For Their Precious Agency

(Beware. Below be spoilers. Also, I’m posting this Sunday, but it’s my Monday post. Shut up.)

If you’ve come to find out whether I liked the movie:

I liked it.

You now may go.

Go on! Shoo. Shoo. Ah, you’d prefer I offer up some kind of… valuation. A grading or ranking of sorts. A 3.5 out of 5! A B, maybe a B+! One thumb up and the other thumb kind of herkily-jerkily turning up and down in a most uncertain manner. There. Done. Graded. Off with you, then.

Aaaaand you’re still here.

Well, since you’re stuck to me like gum on a shoe, I suppose you’ll forgive me rambling a bit about the film? And the story? See, this is a fascinating film. Fascinating for its strengths, and fascinating for its (many) flaws. A number of folks on Twitter tried to turn me off of seeing this film (which is a bit curious — I mean, if there’s a bridge washed out on the way to the theater, please do warn me, but otherwise, assume I’m capable of making this decision) as if a lack of enjoyment was reason enough not to go. It isn’t. Not really. Because even in a flawed film I’ll still find value — it may not be an entertainment value, but storytelling done badly has educational value, at the very least.

And so I knew going in I’d likely get some education.

I did. Not because it’s a bad film. It’s not. It is to my mind quite good — it’s beautiful, elegant, icy, and has some truly gut-churning scenes of body horror. Just the same, it’s a film that misses its mark, but that’s okay — the mark was quite small and quite far and it was brave of them to shoot for it. I appreciate a film that aims for the bullseye and misses more than a film that tries only to hit the broad side of a barn and then — nicely done, chap! — hits. Aspirations matter in storytelling. They’re not the only thing. But they matter.

Here is where the aspirations of Prometheus fall down — and, also, where the storytelling lessons lurk.

This is a film about ideas, not about people.

Put more crassly, it’s a film about plot, not about character.

There exists a mode of storytelling that some call “plot-driven,” and Prometheus is most certainly that. The plot is a machine. A program, of sorts. Things happen — or, to the storyteller’s mind, “need” to happen — and the characters are forced to either catch up, strap in, or retroactively become part of the mechanics. The plot-driven storyteller says, “I need the White House to explode,” and so they arrange events and shuffle characters to make that happen. It’s all a bit of artifice. Sometimes it’s done well. Most times it’s done so you notice it — you see the puppet characters living in the shadow of the sequence, relegated to catalysts or bystanders or square pegs hammered into circle holes.

BUT ENOUGH OF ALL THIS SEXY TALK OF PEGS AND HOLES, you say. What, then, is character-driven storytelling? A plot is a plot is a plot, so what’s the problem?

Well, as I’ve said in the past and will say again and again because I quite like the way it sounds and I think it’s clever and I am at times in love with my own cleverness, “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.” By which I mean, plot does not exist as a mechanism for characters to hop into, but rather, characters — by being characters with their sticky wants and trembling fears and all their other foibles and peccadilloes — create the mechanism by making choices based on their motivations. They’re building the machine as they go. They’re not cogs. They’re prime movers. They’re the motherfucking engineers.

Mark that word. “Engineers.” We’ll come back to it.

The storytellers of Prometheus — or so I like to imagine — sat down and said, “Okay, we need to retrofit an origin for the Alien mythology, and we’ve got this basket full of lofty ideas we can play with. We’ve got fate and free will and faith. We’ve got questions of science and ethics. Plus we’ve got all these other little awesome things — body horror and sci-fi tropes and spaceships and corporations and, y’know, aliens. It’s great!” And they went off to the races imagining the sequence of events necessary to bring the story backward far enough to explain the origins of, oh, all of mankind and then forward enough so that the audience starts to see where the Alien mythology comes from.

Somewhere, I like to also imagine one of the writers squinting and lifting a delicate finger and, when someone calls on him he says, “Ummmm. So. What about the characters?” * blink blink blink*

And then there’s a lot of ohh and mmmm and ahh yes right of course, and then they get to figuring out the characters. But that’s already the wrong order. The machine is built. Now the characters can only fit into it — like plugs, like gears. It’s an inorganic fit, as if characters are just automatons shuffled onto the stage.

And it shows. Yes, our lead scientist has “issues” of faith, but they feel painted on — as shallow and shiny as lipstick, and just as easy to rub off and forget. Characters make decisions not because they’re characters, but because they’re serving the Great And Powerful Plot Machine. One character gets inexplicably drunk because… the plot needs him to be drunk. Another character — a biologist — cares nothing for biology at one point and then gets lost (because the plot needs him to be lost) and, upon meeting some squicky Star Wars trash compactor creature decides now that he loves biology so much he wants to play a game of grab-ass with the damn thing. Again, because the plot demands it. (A tiny note: this film is filled with scientists and they are easily the shittiest scientists ever put to film.) David the android is a cipher because… drum roll please, the plot demands it. The plot demands things left and right and soon characters are constantly betraying good sense and their own motivations to feed the howling mechanical beast.

The plot is in service to ideas and ideas drive the film — but again, the connection is missed between plot/character and idea/human. Ideas are the most human thing in the world. They’re ours. All life is subject to genetics but only human life is subject to memetics and so it is a great shame to separate people from ideas. Science obeys laws outside of us but the study of those laws are uniquely, well, us.

Ahh, but here’s where it’ll really bake your noodle. Remember, I asked you to bank that word, “Engineer.” Well, that’s what the characters in this film call the aliens that “made” us (and who are apparently an exact genetic match despite being easily twice our size) — and it starts to occur to me that the problems I’m having with the film are in a way the problems that exist in the film’s storyworld and mythology, too. In the world, characters discover that humanity was made by uncaring titanic space-psychopaths who engineered events without regards to any kind of emotional intervention that they can parse. And I, as a film-goer, feel the same thing about the film itself: the plot and characters are made by the “engineers” (the storytellers) who have little interest in the emotional intervention of the characters. The plot is the plot. Mechanisms — let’s call it “fate” — exist outside the characters and beyond the audience. The characters have minimal agency because the Space Gods — whether they be the writers or the albino xeno-titans who created us — don’t want them to possess that agency.

The storytellers are the titans. The titans are the storytellers. Man — and character — is puppet.

Prometheus serves as a commentary on its own storytelling.

Probably not intentional.

Though, if it is, pretty much genius.

So, to conclude: I liked it. I did. I was entertained and educated. It’s a beautiful film and its many ideas and questions are still ping-ponging around the ol’ skull-cave.

But it’s not a character-driven piece. If it were, it would’ve been an A+, I think.

Oh, and P.S., it’s basically just the first Alien movie retold in a bigger, weirder way.

No, seriously.

The Providence Rider, by Robert McCammon

(Providence Rider art by Vincent Chong)

Here’s how I know that I’m connecting with a book — or, if you prefer, a book is connecting with me:

When I lay down at night to read, the book will generally nibble away at my awakened state. It’s not that the book is boring. It’s just, reading all those little words on a the page or the screen leaves my lids heavy. I start to drift off, my mind shutting down one synapse after the other. After a half-hour or so, I know I’m done.

That’s true nine times out of ten.

But around, mmm, 10% of the time, I find a book so good, my eyelids don’t get heavy. They go the other way. Hell, they get jacked up like the awning outside a double-wide meth-lab. And that’s what happened when I picked up a copy of McCammon’s newest, The Providence Rider. Now, to be very clear about all this, I’m a sucker for anything McCammon writes. I’ve been reading this guy since I was a teenager. His novel, Swan Song, is one of the scariest I’ve read. Boy’s Life made me want to be a writer. I am, without reservation, his target audience. I’m just that way with some authors — Joe Lansdale’s another one. Or Bradley Denton. Or Robin Hobb. Whatever I read of theirs I know I’m going to like.

Now, McCammon’s last novel — The Five, his trippy rock-and-roll horror terror opus — was great, but it was a slow go for me in terms of reading. I felt like I needed to take my time with it, to move cautiously through it, to pick apart all the musical riffs and let the cold septic creep settle into my bones.

My experience with The Providence Rider was the opposite — fast, fun, and frankly, all kinds of fantastically fucked up. (Sorry for the alliteration. It is what it is. Let’s move on.)

The Providence Rider is next in McCammon’s Matthew Corbett series, a pre-Revolutionary War set of stories featuring the up-and-coming “problem solver” (think detective but with a far wider purview). Each book has been a different creature than the one before it, which is a bold choice for a series — the first book, Speaks the Nightbird, has Corbett investigating a supposed “witch” in the Carolinas. It’s something of a meditation on good and evil, faith versus science, a story at the moment the times and tides started to turn for this country in terms of enlightenment. The second book, Queen of Bedlam, is a raucous gallop of an adventure, a thick meaty book that takes Corbett to the early days of New York City and sees him accept a position the adventure-having, problem-seeking Herrald Agency. Then came Mister Slaughter, where Corbett’s story turns into a gruesome manhunt for the brutal slayer-of-men, Tyranthus Slaughter. It’s not exactly a horror novel — but it’s pretty damn close.

And now, The Providence Rider.

Beginning with Bedlam, Corbett’s been tangled up in the schemes of the imperator rex of the criminal underbelly, one “Professor Fell.” Fell has been a distant player for the last two books, his influence keenly felt while he himself remained an elusive faraway figure.

Providence Rider changes that.

Fell comes calling. Though he’s been trying to kill Matthew, he decides that he’ll stay his executioner’s hand if Matthew will come to his private Caribbean island and, during a gathering of Fell’s top lieutenants, help Fell solve a mystery. I’m not big on writing spoiler-heavy reviews, so I’ll just say this: the book is chock-a-block with action and adventure. Continuing on the tradition of doing something a bit different with each book, Providence Rider is Matthew Corbett in a far pulpier tale. We get explosions! Boat chases! Cannon fire! Fights galore! The evil Irish Thacker twins! The mysterious knife-throwing Minx Cutter! Impossible automatons! A lost Indian princess! A giant octopus! A global criminal conspiracy! An earthquake!

It’s got everything. Humor. Sex. Action. Adventure.

(And it’s also got one of the grisliest decapitation scenes in recent memory. McCammon really knows how to skeeve you out during scenes like this — whether it’s the hand-go-bye-bye scene in Swan Song or this page-long description of a head being sawed off at a formal function, his descriptions will squick you out.)

It’s an interesting approach, isn’t it? I think as authors we assume that readers want the same from us again and again — we’ve got this comfort zone in our heads and expect that readers want to remain herded up and huddled together in this safe place where they receive something approximating the same thing each time. But McCammon disproves that — or, at least, he disproves it for me, and given the fact that more of these books continue to reach shelves I have to hope that it’s paying off in terms of sales, too. But it goes back to what I said earlier in my “Don’t Get Burned By Branding” post — what readers will ideally respond to is your voice as a writer, not the genre in which you write. Every author brings with him certain things, be they themes, motifs, character archetypes, unanswered questions, grisly scenes of limb dismemberment, whatever. The reader, in this weird way, wants to carry the author’s baggage — but that doesn’t mean the reader requires the same reiteration of story or genre.  You don’t read McCammon — or Lansdale, or someone like Cherie Priest — and expect the same old recycled pap every time. What you can expect is a quality of writing and a another visit with those elements the author holds dear.

The Providence Rider was just what the doctor ordered. We have an infant in the house so it’s hard to carve out as much time for reading — and when I do, I don’t necessarily want something heavy. This book did the trick. It’s lean, mean, and wild-eyed — a Caribbean adventure with buckled-swashes and pulp-soaked goodness. I had a blast reading it, and I suspect so will you.

If you haven’t read any in the Matthew Corbett series, I might recommend jumping right in with Queen of Bedlam — then go back and read Speaks the Nightbird after the others as kind of a “prequel.”

The Providence Rider drops in May.

You can pre-order direct from the fine feathered folks at Subterranean Press (click here).

Needless to say, looking forward to the next Matthew Corbett adventure.

No Happy Endings: Choose Your Doom (Zombie Apocalypse!) Review

Books are not usually much fun to read.

“Bullsnot,” you proclaim. “Books are totally fun. You’re an asshole.”

Shh, no, you’re not understanding this literally — stories are fun, yes, but once you leave childhood the physical act of reading a book (whether it’s an ancient hardbound tome like they used to make way back in the 21st century or on one of them fancy Kindlemachines) becomes a fairly rote endeavor. Pick it up. Read left to right, top to bottom, get to the end, have a snack, go to bed.

I am here to report that the fun has once more been returned to the act of reading a book.

Remember CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE books? Of course you do. Unless you’re some kind of moon dweller, you probably had at least one. Or, if you were me, you had damn near all of them. Those books offered branching stories — “Want to kick down the door? Turn to pg 72. Feel like pouring the witches’ brew into the sewer grate? Turn to page 89.” Then you’d make your choice, turn to a page, and you’d be eaten by rats or stuck in quicksand or turned into a flying monkey.

It was easy to die in those books. Every turn, a new inventive death. Only a few ways out “alive.”

Well, those books are back.

Um. Sort of.

CHOOSE YOUR DOOM: ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE — penned by fellow penmonkeys DeAnna Knippling and Dante Savelli — is just like those early iterations except for the fact that the book has no happy endings. It has awesome endings. But none of them are particularly happy. The book even advertises this on the cover.

Each page, in addition to generally offering you a choice, also offers a sketch of the action on that page. The PDF version allows you to click links to get to the next choice, which feels keenly interactive.

Gist of the book is this: you’re a guy at a bar when the zombie apocalypse hits town. After a few pages of basic exposition, you’re thrown into a series of choices. What to do when the bartender Marty starts to turn into a zombie? What to do when survivors come to the door, when zombies come crashing through the window, when you see an ambulance outside full of medical supplies (and also an orgy of zombies)?

You will navigate the town and find your friends Bob and Bennie, your girlfriend Addie, and your father. You might visit the zoo. You might find yourself at Cheyenne Mountain. You might even become a zombie.

It’s a fun story, cleverly written, with doses of humor throughout. If I had any complaints, they’d be minor — it’d be nice to have some of the side characters get a little more “character juice” and become more fully realized (before you perhaps dispatch them or they dispatch you), and also, some of the sketches, while fun, didn’t always match up with the action as it was described.

Even still, it comes together as a quick, engaging, humorous read.

Chiggity-check it.