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Dear Philip K. Dick

13 Nov

Dear Philip K. Dick,

We know you died in 1982, but we’re contacting you in the hope that the metaphysical state you’re in now might be like ‘half-life’ in your novel  Ubik – a condition that allows the departed and the living to communicate, at least for a time. Here’s hoping.

Many of your plots deal with the question of reality. We recall your short story, Faith of Our Fathers, for example, and your novels The Man in the High Castle and “Flow My Tears”, the Policeman Said. We could name others, but you know your oeuvre a lot better than we do.  We’re living in the US in the year 2016 (or at least, we were), and we think we’ve ended up in an alternate reality, cut off from our fellow citizens back in ‘normal’ (for want of a better word) reality.

multiverse

Is it just us, or are you in a parallel universe, too?

The parallel universe into which we’ve  just  been thrust features an orange-hued alien who apparently has the power to bend people’s perceptions on a mass scale. This entity has just been elected president of the U.S. We know something in our neck of the multiverse is out of whack, Philip, because things just don’t add up. For example, during the campaign:

  • Said candidate (the aforementioned orange-hued one) came into the race with a complete lack of qualifications, never having held office, even at the local level.
  • He insulted women and minorities, and even encouraged violence at his political rallies.
  • Candidate exhibited insensitivity to the grieving parents of a slain soldier.
  • He bragged about his business success, yet went bankrupt several times, with a string of business failures in his past.
  • He ran a dubious operation that he called a University. Defunct university currently under litigation.
  • In videotaped footage, he bragged about his ability to grope women’s genitalia and get away with it.
  • He paid no taxes for twenty years. Further, he failed to release his tax returns as many who sought the Presidency have done.
  • Candidate said he was blameless for not paying taxes, suggesting that his opponent was responsible for the tax code. In general,  he exhibited an inability to take responsibility for anything – it was always someone else’s fault.
  • He had a server that communicated inexplicably with a bank in Russia.

The thing is, Philip, any one of these things would likely have torpedoed the candidacy of anyone else, but what the hell, he won! He WON! That’s why we think we’re in Bizarro world with an alien who has the power of mass hypnosis, because we can’t believe the American people could elect such a total loser. We desperately want to get back to the universe we came from, where facts mattered at least a little and things made at least some sense.  At this time, we’re not sure if we’re the only ones trapped in La La Land, or whether our fellow citizens are in the same boat.  If you’re in half-life, we’d appreciate any observations you may have.

Regards,

Harry Calnan

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Ekkekos, Elections, and “Er Ist Wieder Da”

17 Oct

We’ve not written much about the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. The thing’s already a surrealistic debacle, so we didn’t think we had anything to add to the mess.  And what the heck, we don’t, except to notice that many people treat their favored candidate like their own personal ekkeko.  “What’s an ekkeko”, you ask?  So did we. Years ago we received a gift of a small open-mouthed guy in a brown suit and bow tie.  He’s  festooned with a tiny basket, bags of grain, small play money, a box of laundry detergent (go figure),  a small pair of huaraches, and the like. (There was also something in a small plastic bag, but we put him on our workbench in the basement and a mouse ate whatever was in there – we forgot what that was.) We lost the tag that goes with him, which explained that one puts things on him related to what one wants to manifest in one’s life, so his burden of treasures increases over the years.  (When we were studying computer science, our youngest daughter thoughtfully drew a picture of a computer and put it on our diminutive plaster person. What the heck, we got an A.) Only after a Web search did we recall that this droll little man is called an ekkeko, and it comes from the Incan tradition.

ekkeko

We’re on Facebook, and some of our friends (and people we don’t really know – we’ve gotta adjust our filters) like to post things of a political nature. We wonder if the candidates are emotional ekkekos of sorts, something for people to pin their hopes and dreams on.

—————

We’ve seen David Wnendt’s “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“He’s Back”, or “Look Who’s Back” in English) twice now. The first time, we didn’t realize that there were optional English subtitles on this German language film and we missed about half of what’s going on.  (Nevertheless, we have long believed that if you want to see if a film is engaging, watch it with the sound turned off – if it still holds your attention, then the film is cinematic.  Some very good movies may fail this test, but on the whole, it’s not a bad way to judge a movie.) “He’s Back” could be described as “Borat meets Network meets Rip Van Winkle.” It’s based on a novel of the same title by Timur Vermes, and the one who’s back is none other than Adolph Hitler (played by Oliver Masucci.) As the film begins, we hear Hitler’s voice over expressing amazement that the German people have survived World War II, despite his order that all Germans be killed.  We see shots of clouds, and it’s not clear if Hitler has descended from the sky or been vomited up from the bowels of an Earth that has rejected him, as we then see him lying in the dirt near the former Führerbunker. In the course of the film, a hapless videographer named Fabian begins an uneasy relationship with the dictator, thinking him a demented actor who refuses to break character.  He takes him on a road trip of sorts around Germany. We don’t want to say too much else about the picture, as we’re always cautious about revealing plot points, but we found the film intriguing, funny, and disturbing all at the same time.

look_whos_back

We suspect that the novel is less Borat-like than the film is.  Oliver Masucci, the actor who plays Hitler has said that during scenes shot at the Brandenburg gate, many people seemed happy to see him, and unprompted, begged him to bring back concentration camps.  (One woman hit him, and he felt that it was the healthiest reaction he received.)

The one quibble we have is that Masucci, a 6′ 1″ tall actor, is too tall for the role (Hitler was 5’9″.)  Nevertheless, the film is worth your time, and it raises some disturbing (and in this election season, timely) questions.

Trumpe l’oeil

15 Mar

We just got an idea for a sci-fi screenplay. Being the layabouts that we are though, we know we’ll never get off our lazy duffs to write it. We’ll pitch it to you and maybe you can do something with it.

It’s a dirty story of a dirty man and his clinging wife doesn’t understa – wait, that one’s been done…

No, actually, this one takes place in the not-too-distant future. A guy is running for President. He’s rich, he says racist things, and he’s a bit of a bully. He actually encourages his supporters to use violence at his rallies. (Remember is a sci-fi dystopian future-type story, so if the scenario we’re describing seems really far-fetched, just remember, this is fiction.) The guy is not as wealthy as he makes himself out to be – he has bankruptcies in his past and the book he’s written is not the best-selling book of all time, despite his assertions that it is. Our character has an overweening ego and always uses superlatives to describe himself.

By now, you’re probably saying, “Wait we know who this guy is – it’s the bad guy from Steven King’s ‘The Dead Zone.'” OK, we’ll admit, there may be similarities between King’s villain and ours, but we’re trying to go in a different direction with our story – it’s sort of a Dead-Zone-meets-Citizen-Kane-meets-Philip K. Dick mashup.

Citizen_Kane

Dead-Zone-meets-Citizen-Kane-meets-Philip K. Dick

In our screenplay, we drop hints that the guy is an alien, with an orange-hued visage to suggest he just might be from some other planet or perhaps another dimension. We’ll also suggest his other-worldliness by the hypnotic effect he has on his followers. No matter how outrageous his statements, his followers praise him for his “straight talk” and for “telling it like it is.” They even raise their arms in a gesture reminiscent of the Hitler salute. OK, we know we’re now straining credibility to its breaking point, but stay with us.

To cut to the chase, the guy keeps winning primary after primary, racking up impressive wins without anyone understanding how he’s doing it. After a rancorous convention, he wins his party’s nomination. In debates with our anti-hero, his opponent makes reasoned arguments, only to see them fall flat. With a combination of bluster, bullying, and low humor, our dystopian candidate wins every debate.

We then cut to Election Night. Things are going well for our anti-protagonist as several states fall into his column. It looks like he’ll soon be slouching toward Washington to be inaugurated. His supporters are ecstatic! It’s then that the CIA (those wonderful folks who brought you MK Ultra) make their move, sticking a hypodermic in the almost-President-Elect’s derriere and spiriting him away in a black limo.

We then see the CIA guys head for a shadowy underground location with scientists in lab coats and armed, burly MPs at every door. Using the latest in Virtual Reality technology, they construct a scenario where our anti-hero sees himself in front of adoring masses who hang on his every word. We see subjective shots where he tells them that a neighboring country has just acquiesced to his demand that they pay for the large wall that has just been completed on his decree. The crowd cheers. The almost -prexy is blissful. The scientists will keep him in this state for at least eight years

Meanwhile back at the ranch, our would-be dictator’s followers undergo a shocking reversal. It’s as if the mind-link connecting them to their hero has somehow been severed. With the polls still open, they head to the polls en masse, and to the surprise of  the pundits, vote against their erstwhile idol! The country is saved! (well, not really saved, as the opponent is not all that great, but much better than our orange-hued alien.)

OK, that’s the gist of the thing. Some of it might need punching up and you can change the ending if it’s too cliche. Again, this is so far-fetched as to be laughable – American voters certainly aren’t as naive as we suggest, but suspension of disbelief is at the heart of the movie-going experience.

Confessional Hit Men

23 Jun

St. Augustine is said to have prayed “Lord, make me pure, but not yet!” John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man would likely relate to that statement; there seems to be quite a gap between his realization that his professional life is an amoral one and his abandonment of that life.

We didn’t know anything about Perkins before we read this book, and from what we gather, his other work is about the teachings of shamans he met in South America. Perkins seems to be sort of a latter-day Carlos Castenada without the drugs. In Confessions, Perkins explains that an economic hit man (EHM) is one who travels to Indonesia, or Panama, or wherever and persuades officials of that country to accept development projects with inflated growth projections. The terms of the contract stipulate that American firms do the work, so the boys from Bechtel or Halliburton, or Perkins’ (now defunct) employer Chas. T. Main come in and make lots of money. If the debtor county struggles under the weight of the debt that they’re saddled with, no problem – the creditor nation (the US) can trade that for favorable United Nations votes, or access to the debtor’s natural resources, or to force the nation to allow American military bases.

Perkins seems to be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy (or in Greg Palast’s assessment, a guy that you hate then come to love http://www.gregpalast.com/john-perkins-jerk-con-man-shill/).  Some think him a complete nut job who made up everything in the book while others laud him for mending his ways and telling it like it is.

As per usual, we’re on the fence.  We don’t quite know what to make of Perkins’ tale of being brought into the shadowy EHM world by an attractive woman named Claudine Martin, who then vanishes without a trace.  This story seems far-fetched, but to us, its not the main point of the book, so we don’t ultimately care how he got into the biz. What strikes us are the parts of the book that don’t seem far-fetched. Call us conspiracy freaks if you wish, but  Perkins’ accounts of ‘corporatocracy’,  collusion between the US government and corporate interests in various places around the globe don’t seem all that hard to believe.  (Given the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and Allende in Chile, to name just two examples, many of the book’s assertions seem quite plausible.)

We’re not sorry we read the book, but it’s not as substantial as we had hoped.  Perkins also shades the truth at times to make himself appear in a better light.  After he leaves the EHM life, he lands a lucrative position as an expert witness for a nuclear power company.  He writes: “Unfortunately, the longer I studied the issue, the more I began to doubt the validity of my own arguments.  The literature was constantly changing at that time, reflecting a growth in research, and the evidence increasingly indicated that many alternative forms of energy were technically superior and more economical than nuclear power.” Perkins doesn’t state the exact time frame, but this seems to be in the early 80s.  The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in 1979, making this claim seem a mite disingenuous.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have (but probably didn’t)  opined “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like.”  That reflects our feelings.  We generally liked the book, but many who suspect Perkins of being an unreliable narrator have a valid point.

silhouette of a man

Confess, hit man!

Babbittry and a Guy from the Sky

17 Sep

Our spouse picked up a couple paperback books that had been sitting on the ‘free’ table of the local college and presented them to us, thinking we’d actually read them. What the heck, we did. One was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). The other was Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968).

Babbitt was a best seller in 1922, and it’s the book from which we derive the word ‘babbittry’ (sometimes spelled ‘babbitry’) which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means ‘a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.’ Yep, that’s that main character, George Babbitt alright. George is the Nietzschean herd man, careful not to form an opinion without first checking with his next door neighbor and the members of the Booster’s club.

We read that Lewis had planned for the novel comprise a twenty-four hour period in the life of his character. He apparently abandoned this approach, so that only the first four chapters follow this structure. These early chapters are slow-going and Lewis often tells us rather than shows us his characters’ traits. For example, an early passage informs us “She [Babbitt’s wife, Myra] was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one save perhaps Tinka, her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Babbitt would not be an interesting character if he did not have a crisis of faith, which comes when his best friend commits a shocking crime. Babbitt then goes off the rails a bit, flirting with infidelity, and even more disquieting to his friends, begins to form opinions counter to common dogma. Hearing his friends discussing a labor strike, Babbitt pipes up “Oh rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn’t notice any bombs.” This seemingly mild statement and other similar statements endanger his standing in the fictional town of Zenith.

Though not tightly plotted, the novel is often funny, and despite a slow start, it kept us interested. It’s satirical snapshot of America before the Great Depression.

Give it a look

Give it a look

Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, on the other hand, deals with life in the future, as least the future from the point of view of 1968, when the book was published. On December 25, 1998, Vornan-19 descends from the sky naked, traveling at several thousand feet per second. He lands in Rome, proclaiming himself a visitor from the year 2999 and administering an electric shock to the policeman who tries to clothe him. Vornan-19 is nothing if not randy; he almost immediately inquires as to the location of the nearest ‘house of intercourse.’

The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specializing in sending sub-atomic particles into the past. Leo is the mentor of Jack Bryant, a brilliant student who quits physics just as he’s on the verge of discovering a means of totally liberating the atom using neither fission nor fusion. Jack marries a woman named Shirley and hangs out in the Arizona desert, where Leo is frequent guest.

A lot of the story revolves around the question of whether the bisexual Vornan-19 is a visitor from 2999 or a hoaxer. Leo alternately believes him to be a fraud and the genuine article. He eventually joins a team of scientists (and rather poorly behaved ones at that) who show Vornan-19 around the US. The government is using the supposed man from the future as a counterweight to the nihilistic doomsday cult that has arisen in advance of the millennium.

The novel has been derided as a rip-off of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but although both deal with the theme of an interloper who transforms a culture, we don’t think that Silverberg is ripping off Heinlein.

There’s a whole bunch of sex in the novel (it was written in the 60s after all), and the ending is a little weak, but we nonetheless found the book entertaining (the ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is weak too, and that novel is still beloved.) Despite being written over 45 years ago, it holds up rather well. It’s not top-drawer, but it’s not a bad read.

Takin’ names

3 Oct

government shut downOK, now that they’ve done the boneheaded thing and shut down the government, remember the names of the ones that did it.  These jokers need to be voted out of office pronto.

Just like the cone of silence …

1 Oct
cone of silence

It doesn’t work, but they keep using it …

As I write this, a government shutdown is several hours away.  If they actually go through with this, it’ll be just like the “Cone of Silence” on the “Get Smart” show.  It never worked, but they kept trying to use it.