Million Mile Road Trip by Rudy Rucker

I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.

Imagine Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy involving a car instead of a space ship.

Now imagine that car driving across a parallel universe that is flat with valleys of lands instead of a sequence of globes hung in space.

Now imagine the characters and their encounters have more in common with cyberpunk attitudes and sensibilities than space opera.

If you’ve got all that in mind, then you’ve got a pretty good mental image of what you’ll find in Rudy Rucker‘s novel Million Mile Road Trip.

Now add a giant bagpipe the size of a mountain as the big bad, a Mayan pyramid as the ancient advisor, and three teens (18, 18, and 16) as the heroes. This is one road trip you don’t want to miss.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Rudy Rucker prior to picking up this book in my local library. The cover offered praises from William Gibson and promised a humorous scifi adventure. Once I’d finished the novel and read the afterward, I discovered that Rucker was influenced and mentored by Robert Sheckley, a personnal favorite scifi author I’ve mentioned in a previous post and one of the true kings of comedic scifi.

I really enjoyed this one and recommend it to all fans of scifi, humor, comedic scifi, and anyone else looking for a different spin on so old scifi themes.

I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.

Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds

In a previous post, I discussed the socio-poltical aspects of scifi stories in terms of The War of the Worlds. The selection of this story is intentional for two reasons. First, there is a timeline of the telling and retellings of this story that can be viewed in parallel to socio-political events. The second reason for selecting this text is because over on The New Yorker website, there is an article titled “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds” by staff writer Jiayang Fan. The previous post serves as a sort of background introduction for this post.

Regular readers here will note this is not my first post on Cixin Liu. A previous post discussed one of his latest Chinese-to-English translated novels, Ball Lighting. However, here the focus of this post and the related article is on his first major set of English translated works, the Remembrances of Earth’s Past Trilogy.

Fan’s article is based on interviews conducted during his visit the U.S. to receive an award for his works’ impact on American scifi readership. Liu sees Chinese modernization programs creating a “future… ‘full of threats and challenges'” resulting in “very fertile soil” for scifi works.

However, Fan notes at one point that Liu “briskly dismissed the idea that fiction could serve as commentary on history or on current affairs. ‘The whole point is to escape the real world!’ he said.” Later in the article, Fan writes of Liu: “’I’m a writer,’ he told me, with a shrug. ‘I don’t begin with some conceit in mind. I’m just trying to tell a good story.’”

These statements would appear to place Cixin Liu firmly in the camp with the persons who believe scifi should be absent of socio-political issues. And it would be easy to accept author/artist intent at face value. However, Fan’s article discusses the impact that The Three Body Problem has had on and the number of high profile fans of the book who work in scifi, science, and politics.

Further, Fan remarks that “Liu, unlike many Chinese writers popular in the West, is no dissident” and quotes Liu making the statement that “the relationship between politics and science fiction cannot be underestimated.” Here we have Cixin Liu himself acknowledging that scifi cannot be completely separated from socio-political issues it addresses and raises, even if they may perhaps be unintentional statement.

Fan offers a description of scifi that allows for socio-political issues by stating that “Speculative fiction is the art of imagining alternative worlds, and the same political establishment that permits it to be used as propaganda for the existing regime is also likely to recognize its capacity to interrogate the legitimacy of the status quo.”

So, while Cixin Liu may shy away from direct connections between scifi and socio-political issues, he acknowledges that scifi is by necessity about socio-political issues. And, I think it’s because of his ability to make the socio-political issues in China relatable to readers in the U.S., despite his support for, and my refusal to accept, the current political structure in China, that Cixin Liu stands as one of my favorite scifi writers.

The War of the Worlds and Socio-Political SciFi

I’ve always been baffled by the complaints by certain groups in recent years that too much scifi addresses social and political issues. The verbal and voting wars over the scifi Hugo award stands out as one of the biggest fights over socio-political scifi. The complaints baffle me because scifi is always about socio-political issues!

To discuss this, let’s just take one example story, H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds (TWotW). From its original publication to the present, TWotW is always a socio-political (s-p) story.

When Wells first published TWotW, he was making a s-p statement about the British Empire and its imperialism and colonization program. Wells offers a look at imperialism and colonization from the perspective of the conquered, especially during the Victorian Era period of Empire expansion.

A few years go by then TWotW reappears in the form of the Orson Welles radio drama in 1938. The resulting chaos from public reaction demonstrates that once again, TWotW was making a s-p statement. This time, it was addressing the spread of Hitler’s Third Reich across Europe.

TWotW fades from memory for a while until George Pal’s 1953 movie version of TWotW emerges in theaters. This time, TWotW was making a s-p statement about the recent (at the time) Korean War and the larger Cold War taking place between the Soviet Union and the United States.††††

Again TWotW vanishes from the public consciousness until the 1978 album, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of TWotW, appears. Appearing in record stores and on radio stations, this time the s-p statement continues the fears of the Cold War while also addressing the uncertainty of the non-victorious U.S. military after Vietnam.

Public interest in TWotW disappears again until the 1988 tv series brings TWotW into American homes. Once again s-p statements are made in a world where the Cold War is winding down, the Soviet Union appears to be collapsing under its own economic weight, and the U.S. appears to be rising as the new empire of the world.

TWotW once again drops out of sight until Stephen Speilburg’s 2005 movie version of TWotW. And again, the s-p statements are in forefront. Here the fears of terrorism in the post-9/11 world are addressed as well as the clash between parents and their children over the nature of duty and service on the part of children who want to fight the new evil in the world.

The War of the Worlds has once again been sidelined in the minds of the general public. In the current state of the world, I think it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable return of The War of the Worlds and its latest socio-political statements addressing the current chaos of the world. Until then, there’s a whole host of scifi stories making socio-political statements.

The Silence vs The Silence vs A Quiet Place

I recently watched The Silence on Netflix, just trying to clear some shows and movies from my watch list.  I immediately noted some of the similarities between this movie and the movie, A Quiet Place.  Along with these similarities, I also noted various comparisons online implying Netflix had simply copied A Quiet Place with a mockbuster knockoff.

However, I also noted that The Silence opening credits had a reference to a novel, also titled The Silence, written by Tim Lebbon.  I decided to do a little reading, do a little research, and decide for myself which was the original concept.

Movies and books always exist in a weird love-hate relationship.  A movie only has so long to tell the story and must leave out some threads while reducing others to focus on the ones that best help tell the story the director wants to tell. This fact is compounded when a movie is based on a book that tells a specific story that is similar in nature to another movie’s story.

This will bring to mind the inevitable comparisons that took place between the movies Hancock and Ironman 2, despite Hancock coming out first, but Ironman 2 being based on an Ironman comic book storyline that was published in 1979, Demon in a Bottle.  Comparisons between the film Alien and the A.E. Vogt short story “The Black Destroyer” also come to mind.  And similar discussions are already taking place with comparisons of Brigthburn and Superman.  In fact, even as I write these words, the Netflix original movie, I Am Mother, is playing in the background and I’m already noticing similarities between it and Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Search for WondLa.

Before I start any comparisons, let’s start with some important notes:

  • A timeline:
    1. The Silence (novel) written by Tim Lebbon and published April 2015
    2. A Quiet Place (movie) released April 6, 2018
    3. The Silence (movie) released April 10, 2019
  • A quick outline of post-apocalyptic literature:
    1. The Event = how the current world ends
    2. The Journey = leaving home for better survival
    3. Survival in the Wild = survivors vs the aftermath, the elements, the new world
    4. Neo-Social Darwinism = strength, weapons, or numbers equals fittest for survival
    5. The New Normal = survivors reaching the place that promises better survival and surviving beyond the initial survival story
  • A note on spoilers:
    1. There is no way to do a comparison of this sort without including spoilers. There are elements between the two movies that require comparisons that will spoil the movies for some viewers. There are elements of difference between The Silence book and the movie that require comparisons that will spoil both for some readers and viewers.
    2. To avoid Spoilers, please do not read beyond this line.

Spoilers beyond this point. You’ve been warned..

In the case of these two stories, or three, depending on your opinion of movies based on books that modify the book story, there is a certain amount of inevitability of similarities that comes just from the nature of the story genres, post-apocalyptic (PA) literature and movies.

PA stories always begin with The Event that demonstrates how the world ends.  Sometimes, the event is directly revealed at the outset.  Sometimes, the event is part of the tale itself. Other times, the event is something that took place before the story begins.  No matter how it is presented, The Event ends our world while beginning the world of the story.

In the case of The Silence, both book (SIN) and movie (SIM), The Event begins the story.  A group is excavating a cave and breeches an inner wall that separate the Vesps, the bird-sized reptilian monsters, from our world.  Chapter lead-in notes and Ally’s internet reading imply the vesps are a product of a separate evolutionary strain resulting from their underground separation from our world. In the movie, the cave breech is shown as cold open lead-in of the movie.  In the book, the cave breech is seen by two of the main characters the father Huw and the daughter Ally while watching the Discovery channel.

In A Quiet Place (AQP), approximately 89 days prior to the film’s opening scene, the event takes place when a meteor shower brings the never-quite-named extraterrestrial monsters to our world.  When we see them, they are approximately human-sized and are somewhere between humanoid and animal in nature. The creatures causing The Event are definitely significantly different in size, but not capacity for lethality in the three stories.

After The Event, The Journey is the next part of the PA story. This is where the main character(s) of the story flee their location at the beginning of the story for the promise of a better chance for survival elsewhere.

This is probably where the biggest divergence begins between the three stories. In AQP, it’s never clear that “the journey” we see the family on at the beginning of the movie is a true journey or anything more than a scavenging supply run.

The Journey from SIN and SIM is much more in-line with the traditional PA story journey. However, these journeys are still slightly and significantly different. In SIN, the family is fleeing London after determining the vesp speed of infestation will bring them within range of the English Channel in a matter of days. And this is after, a rather dramatic journey by Huw to return home from a project site. The journey in SIN also involves a longer, more prolonged series of journeys before they reach safety of the initial house and then the safety of the north, which SIN never makes clear this secondary journey succeeds.

In SIM, they leave the same night as the broadcast of the cave event; and reach the initial house shortly after the incident with the SUV flip. The secondary journey still takes place, but this is more implied than demonstrated until the final scene of the movie showing Ally and her boyfriend having found each other in the north and hunting vesps in the wild.

Survival in the Wild is the part of a PA story that comes after the initial journey. This is where the survivors of the story must battle whatever exists in the aftermath of The Event, the environmental hazards that already (or new ones that result from The Event) existed, and the discovery that the world they knew truly is gone and a new world exists.

In both SIN and SIM, the stories demonstrate this as early as the beginning of the journey. In both stories, the vesps are their own aftermath. They attack at the slightest sound above a whisper and they reproduce at an incredibly excelled rate. The environmental hazards are the same as before, with the exception of normal sound being a life-threatening hazard. The new normal is whispering, silence, and sign language as the difference between life and death.

AQP‘s aftermath is the extraterrestrial monsters now exist everywhere presumably. Reproduction rates never mentioned or acknowledged. The only thing we know for sure about the monsters is that like SIN and SIM, any noise above a whisper can be deadly and whispering, silence, and sign language are the keys to survival. The environmental hazards remain the same to the best of our knowledge since no mention is made of additional results of the meteor crash.  However, the AQP family lives on a corn farm, which of course, adds its own dimensions of traditional horror story problems. With the AQP timeline and approach to the story, the viewer could almost believe this is the world of SIN and SIM at a later date with the vesps now extinct and the new monsters run amok.

The next part of PA stories, sometimes is part of The Journey, sometimes is part of the Survival in the Wild, and sometimes part of The New Normal. A form of Neo-Social Darwinism always takes place in PA stories as society breaks down and might is right, weapons equal right to survive, and strength in numbers rules the day.

The most significant part of AQP is the almost complete absence of this aspect of the PA story. The closest we get to it is a scene where an old man whose wife has just died screams out to attract the monsters to kill him in front of the father and son.

In SIN and SIM, however, Neo-Social Darwinism is a major subplot of the story.  In both, there is an incident where a man uses a shotgun to attempt to carjack Huw’s vehicle. SIN has the man trying to save his own family after an accident, shooting his own wife, and then fleeing with the family’s minivan, causing Huw and his wife to need a new vehicle. SIM has a different outcome, friend of Huw’s family, Glenn, shoots the would-be carjacker, who is on his own, and the family flees with their own vehicle.

However, there is another example of Neo-Social Darwinism in both stories that is far more significant. Certain religious types have determined the vesp attacks to be God’s Judgment and in the local area of the initial house Huw’s family occupies, they encounter the leader of one of these groups which calls themselves The Hushed. Once the leader of The Hushed sees that Ally knows sign language he tries to persuade Huw to have his family join them. In SIN, they want Ally as a teacher of sign language. In SIM, they want Ally for breeding purposes. In both versions, this involves an encounter on a supply run, a confrontation at the house, an attempted murder of the family by the cultists using cell phones to attract the vesps, the attempted kidnapping of Ally, and the grandmother’s self-sacrifice to save Ally. In SIN, the leader gets away, while in SIM, we see HUW beat the leader to death with the butt of the shotgun.

The New Normal is the aftermath of the successful PA story journey. The characters reach the promised place of refuge and survival and begin to live their lives as normal as possible once they’ve adjusted to this new normal.

AQP ignores this part of PA stories as well. While the father has sacrificed himself to save his kids, the family doesn’t depart the home and instead the screen goes black after mom and daughter discover that the daughter holding her Cochlear implant held in front of radio equipment generates enough feedback to distract the monsters so mom can shoot them with a shotgun. Do they survive? We don’t know.

SIN also largely ignores this part, instead leaving us with the knowledge that the family has resumed their original trip intent and are bound for Scotland in an uncertain world. The author has left the question open for us to decide the fate of the would-be survivors.

SIM, however, demonstrates this boldly by showing a final scene where Ally narrates over a scene of her firing an arrow into a vesp with her boyfriend now with her also on the hunt. She discusses a battle of evolutions, whether the humans or the vesps would evolve to the reality of the new world first.

And, I think that’s where these three stories really differ. AQP is a story of a family’s survival and their ability to recover and carry on after the loss of a child in this harsh new world. SIN and SIM are stories about evolution and Darwinism. While SIM does get some parts of the book’s message right, it does miss in a few areas.  Of course, one of those misses could be merely there to demonstrate misunderstanding of evolution and Darwin. However, SIM redeems itself with Ally’s closing narration. SIN is a book about evolution and the dangers of mucking around with nature. But, returning to my initial goal for this post, a comparison of the three. Obviously, the novel, The Silence, came first. Beyond that, it is difficult to believe that the writers of A Quiet Place came up with their ideas completely independently with no one having read Tim Lebbon’s novel. Even with the changes made to the movie version of The Silence, there is enough of the original story and concept there to conclude that The Silence movie adapts The Silence novel and does not copy the movie A Quiet Place.

Kraken by China Miéville

I will avoid spoilers here and request that any comments remain spoiler free as well.

Imagine Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on a novel and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the novel Kraken by China Miéville is like.

The novel begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the theft of a giant squid, and its full tank of preserving fluid, from the Darwin Centre of the Natural History Museum in London.

From there, we are introduced to a host of characters to include a living tattoo, a police squad that focuses on the unusual, characters without bodies, an ancient hitman team made of an older man and a little boy, and a whole host of apocalyptic cult groups.

Some characters are racing to bring Armageddon, others are racing to stop the end, and still some others who are part of end of the world cults are fighting against the other end of the world cults to try to ensure their version of the end of the world is the one that sticks.

One part Discworld, one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one part Cthulhu Mythos, one part Good Omens, and one part a new original voice to comedic scifi and fantasy, Kraken is not a book to be missed.

I again request that any comments remain spoiler free.