Friday, February 2, 2018

Reading Log 1.3--Can Xue, The Last Lover

I tend to try and finish every book I've started, even if I'm not into it. I admire those who only read books that they are really into, setting them aside when they are not. I started reading The Last Lover, my first book by the Hunanese author Can Xue this week. I've known about her for over a year and have read scores of interviews with her. In fact, Ive never been so moved by and taken up with a writer I'd not yet read. I've also heard that all translations of her work have been problematic (she's had at least three seperate translators). So, I'm not giving up on her just yet, but why push on when I'm just not connecting with her work? She has several short story collections already translated, so I'll probably try one of those next.


I made the following post a few days ago on FB:

I don't hear this commented on too often. The real reason Trump is so popular isn't because he's racist or sexist, let alone a "job creator," it's because he pisses off the left. I am continually seeing his supporters say, "he must be doing something right, look how hysterical the left is."
At least this is what they tell themselves, because it is still uncomfortable for all but the worst of his supporters to admit that if you like a guy like this then you are to varying degrees racist and sexist.
EDIT--I want to emphasize I'm not calling everyone who voted for Trump racist and sexist, especially those who hate him but like hid policies. I am referring to those who love the guy and everything about him.

I want to retract this now. I am not comfortable with it for two reasons. First, because I don't feel there is any intellectual or moral integrity to casting broad judgements across a large group of people. Second, because while I believe there is a place for loud and confrontational debate (sometimes a shout or cry is the only rational response), that has never been my default style. I prefer to treat another person as, to use Martin Buber's famous phrase, another "Thou" to confront rather than an "it" to label. This is how I've read William Blake's line, "The greatest act is to put another before you." Blake does not mean to put another's needs ahead of our own, rather, to place a person in front of you, confronting them face to face in an I/Thou relationship.

That said, I would like to say something about what angers me most about the current president and the Republican party, why I think they are so harmful, and what my own position is (surprise, surprise it is not the Democrats).

1. DT's rhetoric and communication style. He regularly uses incendiary language, language that invites aggression, division, partisanship, and suspicion. He feeds on and amplifies the fears of the populace.

2. But DT, it seems likely, only intended to use the presidential race as a publicity stunt. His rhetoric may very well be hollow, an opportune ploy to get attention in the hopes of revitalizing his brand. To put all of our anger on his shallow (albeit extremely reckless) rhetoric is to miss the real harm being done (harm that would most likely been more efficiently carried out under a seemingly more normal candidate) by the Republican party.

3. This harm includes:
a. accelerating inequality by reducing funding for public support programs, suppressing political activism, and providing tax cuts to the rich.
b. deregulating businesses and so harming our natural habitats and resources as well as local cultures and populations.
c. continuing to place vastly disproportionate attention on the needs and wants of corporations. Alongside this is the American corporations tendency to focus only on short term (quarterly) goals. There are too few long term plans, plans that not only look to the next 5-10 years, but generations in advance. We do not have anything like China's Belt and Road Project.
d. ignoring the suffering of the most vulnerable by maintaining a culture of silence. This includes sexual harassment, racial profiling, and the systems of power that prevent victims of these crimes from receiving justice.

I realize all of these points need considerable fleshing out, just think of these points of departure for a longer essay down the road.

Regarding my hope for the future. I think there are several things we need to do to not only preserve what vitality America still has, but to preserve the vitality of our planet, which is rapidly becoming unsuitable for life for many living beings.

1. Develop long term plans for providing food, energy, and materials.
2. Develop unifying purposes that provide not only jobs, but also a common bond amongst disparate peoples. My personal favorite is develop a Mars Colonization mission. Such a mission would require countless projects (countless jobs), enough jobs for several large countries (including our own).
3. In order to achieve these goals, we must invest heavily in education, innovation, and technology.
4. There also needs to be continued investment in literature and culture to ensure that the population is able to think deeply and humanely over the very important questions we will be faced with in the future.
5. In order for this to be worth doing we have to preserve our democracy. We can do this by strengthening the political activism of the populace. Government programs will free up the time and resources of more individuals so they are able to participate in the polls. There should also be a complete overhaul on how money plays a role in politics. We need ideas to take center stage. Perhaps have information sessions on diverse opinions and then have randomized selections of voters (like a jury) make their decision.

All these ideas are in the easiest stages, although all point to bidding interests of mine. Perhaps I should close with a short vision of what a future utopia might look like, a utopia I find very hopeful and possible:

The one scenario not conceived of as remotely likely by any faction of futurians—the reverse really of all their competing auguries—is the possibility, and then the final achievement, of a generous and benevolent One World government, solving humankind’s problems and adjudicating its disputes through the consent of the governed. The end of capitalism and its plutocrats and bought politicians. An antique among futures, that one, and impossible to envision on any grounds: political, economic, sociological, or simply the ground of basic human nature.
So that will be it. The future will consist of a new kind of universal anarcho-totalitarian system which is, on the whole, pretty successful at fostering human happiness and diversity as well as ensuring social justice and welfare. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs: Karl Marx’s formulation has always applied very well to individual families—it’s how the best-run families function—but in the future it will define the Family of Man. Immanuel Kant’s distinction between public and private, which is exactly opposite to the one in common use today, will then be universal: the private is the particular ethnic, religious, political, clan, or company loyalties we own; when we are public we engage the world and one another with the tools of a plain reasoning that belongs to us all and commands the assent of all.
A command economy, of course: that idea failed in the past because of lack of timely information and a disregard of personal desires, but the Internet 4.0, born out of the primitive workings of Google and Amazon, will fix that, and what you want—within reason—you can get. It seems impossible to us that, absent the Invisible Hand, entrepreneurial innovation can flourish, wants be met, and well-being increase—so it’s clear that’s what is to come.
Often the prudent, far from making their destinies, succumb to them; it is destiny which makes them prudent.
—Voltaire, 1764

This may sound like the commonest hopes (and doubts) we have had for technology, particularly information technology, for a century and more. But such hopes and doubts always foresee plenty as a consequence of the right worldwide deployment of powerful means, rapidity and noise as a function of interconnectedness, manipulation of fickle desires and dreads by Hidden Persuaders. No. The future will show simplicity, asceticism (possibly as a result of scarcity: there may be enough for all, but not a lot more) and taking care, maybe too much care. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. Certainly a democracy with as many parties as there are citizens, a parliament of all persons governing through a sort of fractal consensus which I cannot specify in detail, will spend a lot of time pondering. In fact it will be amazing (only to us imagining it now) how quiet a world it will be. A woman awakes in her house in Sitka, Alaska, to make tea, wake her family, and walk the beach (it runs differently from where it runs today). After meditation she enters into communication with the other syndics of a worldwide revolving presidium, awake early or up late in city communes or new desert oases. Nightlong the avatars have clustered, the informations have been threshed: the continuous town meeting of the global village. There is much to do. 

from John Crowley's essay, "Totalitopia."

Reading Log 1.2--Thomas M. Disch, The Businessman

The second book I read for January was Thomas M. Disch's "The Businessman." It is the first in a series of four books referred to as "Supernatural Minnesota." The book is composed of a series of mostly short chapters, it begins rapidly and only gets more charged as it progresses. It was not only a fascinating book, but a lot of fun. In fact I can confidently rank it with books like "The Man Who was Thursday," "The Crying of Lot 49," and other books that seemed crammed with invention, page after page. It is a tribute to the book, that even at a superficial level it can still generate exciting suggestions. One being the recurring parallels I noted between it and David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks. These were a few similarities I noticed:
1. Both have a red room.
2. Both have (emerald?) rings.
3. The chief villain in both is named Bob.
4. Both center around a murder.
5. Both have spiritual beings center stage (demons and tulpas).
6. Casinos play a significant thematic role in both.
7. Both juxtapose a joyful innocence with terror.
8. Both juxtapose disparate emotions (humor, terror, pathos, the surreal, etc).

The writing is very strong as well. There were many passages of great power, I'd like to quote to that affected me most.

The Red Room
There was another world off at an angle from the world she'd known till now, that world six feet above her full of its cars and houses. Sometimes this other world seemed to be inside her, but when she would reverse her attention inward and try to approach the threshold to that dimly sensed world within, it would go out of focus or fade, though never disappear entirely. It was always there, as real as the furniture one stumbles over in a dark room. 
Her first clear view of it came in a flash. She saw, across the threshold, a field of pure geometry and color, like a painting that was simultaneously flat on the ground and covering every wall. It bore a general resemblance to a red gingham tablecloth, except that it wavered and the bands of red were just as bright, in their way, as the patches of white, which in fact weren't really white but some other indefinable color. It seemed incredibly beautiful and important, but before she could grasp why, it was gone.

The Demon/Halfling
Only ten feet away the heron stopped in its tracks to cock it's head sideways and give Jack a long, level stare. Jack made one last adjustment for focus, then snapped the shutter. At that moment of alignment between the eye of the heron, the lens of the camera, and Jack's perfect and entire concentration, the halfling slipped across the diaphonus psychic barrier between bird and boy and took possession of his physical being.
At first the halfling's control was less than complete. Jack resisted the halfling's will along whatever channels of volition remained to him. He attempted to scream; the halfling constricted the muscles of his throat, and the scream became a dry little cough. He fought the halfling for control of his legs and fell sideways on the dewy grass, alarming the heron, which, regaining its autonomy in the instant Jack lost his, took to the air with a yawp of fear.
The heron's flight was the last image to reach Jack through his own eyes. One by one the halfling sealed off the avenues of sense. Jack felt himself plunged into the black well of his unconscious. Struggle was useless. The waters closed over him, and his mind drifted in a confusion amounting to terror, in a featureless void, a mote of uncomprehending consciousness in an ocean without surface or shore.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Reading Log--book 1.1--The Book of Dust

I finished reading the first volume of Philip Pullman's new trilogy, the Book of Dust, last night. The second half of the book is concerned with what we learn to call "the Secret Commonwealth." I can only speculate how Pullman will develop this concept, but from what we are given I can sense that it is more than enough to justify a new series. In the same way that Lynch was able to recreate Twin Peaks Pullman is now recreating His Dark Materials. If the theme and structuring motif of the last series was Paradise Lost then the new series' is The Faerie Queene. Personally, I am very excited with this turn of direction since I've always preferred Spenser to Milton. The change of theme also begins to justify Pullman's decision to mesh this story through the old (it occurs before, during, and after the original books).  I'd like to say something about what I think Pullman is up to.
Pullman, in titling the series "The Book of Dust" suggested to me, years ago when he still in the earliest phases of conceiving this new material, that he was creating a kind of ur-text. Dust is the grounding metaphor as it were for the whole series. What could the book look like? I almost expected a kind of Bible or Encyclopedia. What we are given instead is "the Secret Commonwealth," another reality that seems separate from the alternate worlds of the previous series. This is a world of magic and seems to embody imagination and creativity as well as being a metaphor for spirit and consciousness. By separating the book over three different time periods he will make the whole of the trilogy more about this theme than any individual character, or so I think, although Lyra too is a kind of spirit that is present in all of them. In short order, I loved it.
Next on the bookshelf, the Businessman by Thomas M. Disch.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Year in Review--2017

2017 was an exhausting year. Of course it was exhausting. Exhausting for me, exhausting for the majority of Americans. The political and personal blurred together despite my desire to maintain perspective on both. There is little I can do to change the political situation, but I have made significant strides in several key personal areas, many of which I can't share here. I do want to talk about some of them though as well as share my goals for 2018.

For starters, I've been feeling somewhat disappointed with the amount of reading I'd accomplished this year. I don't feel as bad about the number of movies I've consumed, there being so few worth watching. One of the only movies I really wanted to see, Katheryn Bigelow's Detroit,  I finally got around to watching today. It more than lived up to its promise and was for me the best movie of the year. I also watched the latest Alien and the latest Star Wars movies, but I don't feel the need to say anything about them now having already discussed them here and on Facebook earlier. I still need to see the new Blade Runner and Get Out looks good. Are there others?

My goals had been modest to begin with. I started the year intending to buy less books and read more of those I already have. My book list was therefore composed mostly of books that had been lying on the shelves for awhile. I decided to focus on genre works, but I also agreed to participate in a book club my brother-in-law wanted to start (we never got past the first book though). 

For the first quarter of the year I started off relatively strong. I read Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the first volume of Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania quartet, and Ivan Morris's The World of the Shining Prince.  

Things slowed down a bit for the second and third quarters. I started reading Frank Trentmann's Empire of Things (a book I continued to read through the summer and still haven't finished) as well as David Rothkopf's Power Inc. I also read most of Angus Fletcher's final book on topology, The Topological Imagination. Fletcher died last November. The book is very rich and is a fitting culminating work in the career of one of our greatest literary critics. Harold Bloom had a book out this year, a short character study of Shakespeare's Falstaff. I had started reading Lewis Trondheim's Donjon comics at the end of 2016 and continued reading them through this summer. As for novels, I read Paul Auster's 4,3,2,1 and the second volume of Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota trilogy. I also started exploring the rich body of work of Hunanese author, Can Xue.  It is weird to talk about her, never have I been so taken with a writer that I have read so little of.  

At the end of the third quarter I began training for the United States Post Office. My official start date was September 25. That means that I have passed my 90 day probation period and am official USPS employee. I enjoy the job tremendously and hope to continue working there for the foreseeable future. 

If the third quarter was a relatively quiet period for reading, I made up for it with a rededication to drawing and painting. I started an art page last October (October 5, 2016) on Facebook and have been posting on it regularly ever since. This was a significant move for me. I have always been extremely introverted and it felt like a violation at first to open myself up in this way. That said, the shock quickly wore off and I post on it regularly now without any of that initial sense of exposure. I had to double check when I actually began my art page. I had thought it was this past summer and was surprised to learn that it had already been over a year. 

Starting the page put me in the mindset of making regular strides to advance my art. Making these strides public has been helpful in keeping myself accountable. My next step was to have an art show. This I did at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, Mass this past November. Going forward I plan to join an art group, network with other artists, and collaborate on projects with other artists. I've already made some steps in this area. I submitted a cover design for a critical edition of The Chemycal Wedding being put together by my former classmate, Michael Martin. I've also been brainstorming ideas for a short graphic novelization of my dear friend Ron Drummond's 9/11 memorial, "The Garden Steps." 

Speaking of Ron Drummond, I spent a good deal of the third quarter working with Ron to put together a reading copy of his collected works, The Frequency of Liberation. This has been a very exciting project that I'm honored to have been a part of. Ron's collection is the culmination of a life's work. The book comprises essays, fictions, memoirs, letters, and diary entries. It is a tribute to Ron that he has brought together such diverse materials into a single unified work. In truth, I did little more than help him find a printer and help negotiate the printing arrangements. We ended up selecting the Harvard Bookstore's print on demand operation, "Paige." We are all very happy with the selection, not only was it the cheapest option, but also produced a very good looking book. The man overseeing Paige, Ben, said that Ron's book was the best looking project he had ever worked on. Working with Ron on this project is by far the most satisfying accomplishment I've had this year.

The fourth quarter was spent, alas, with mostly work, long long hours of work delivering mail. I did manage to read Ron's book nearly twice as well as John Crowley's latest (perhaps final) novel, Ka. I started the first book of Philip Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. I also just read the latest Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet collaboration, Satania. This last book was a particular thrill. Their previous book, Beautiful Darkness, was a sublime epic that I still have not come to grips with. Satania has confirmed Kerascoet, the husband and wife duo, as my favorite artist storytellers. 

And that just about sums up my year. Oh, I can't forget Twin Peaks. There is a lot I want to say about Twin Peaks, but I will hold off for now. I plan to write an extended appreciation in the weeks to come. Let it only be said, that I've spent the past few months watching and rewatching both the new and original series as well as some of Lynch's other films. Of course there are the books, interviews, and online commentaries, all of which I've been going over, as well as the brilliant podcast Diane, but that will have to wait for another day. 

So with that, I will set out my plan for 2018. I don't make these plans as rigid laws over what I can or cannot read, but rather as motivators and general guides. 

1. Finish some of the books off my list from 2017.
2. Work on my utopia book list.
3. Dig deeper into Hans Blumenberg.
4. Read some of the modern American and World history books I've accumulated. 
5. Finish off some of the books on economics and politics I'd started last year.

Lastly, I have a stack of Shakespeare books I've been meaning to get to. I hope to write a monthly blog post reflecting on my readings. I am not sure how much time I will have, but if possible, I will try to write focused essays rather than mere generalizations on my readings. We will see how that turns out. So, this is a rough plan for next year. I think I will flesh it out more in a week or so. For now, I think I will start 2018 by finishing off the latest Philip Pullman. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Book Review: Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"

“The Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang
Read Tuesday, September 5, 2017

First, let me say, I watched Arrival, prior to Chiang's story which it was based on. I found Arrival’s plot moving and ideas compelling. I was surprised, after reading the story itself, at how much of a departure the film was from it. I would like to say something about that departure and what I think of it, but let's start with the story itself.


I don’t like pigeon-holing any creative work, but since you have to start somewhere, I think it is safe to say this is a story primarily about two things: free will and language's effects on how we live. After reading the story I recommended it to my  mom, whose first response was, “it’s sad.” Considering Chiang's overall story arc, that is an interesting first observation to make. The structure of “Story of Your Life” is composed of two interweaving plots. The first arc concerns Laurie Banks as she narrates her daughter's life to her, as yet, unborn daughter. This narration is told from multiple historical perspectives and so prefigures the sense of timelessness that the second structural element will deal with. The story of the family is fairly simple, Laurie meets her husband Gary during a research project. They eventually fall in love and have a daughter. At the age of 25 their daughter dies during a hiking trip. After her death, we assume, Gary leaves Laurie in grief. 

The second story concerns this research project. An alien species, referred to as heptapods, have mysteriously appeared on Earth. They have presented communication devices called "looking glasses" that the military and scientists are using to communicate with them. This second story arc is concerned primarily with the nature of the heptapod's language. Their language is reflected by their anatomy. The heptapods have a cylindrical structure, no front, no back. The military recruits the mother of the family, Louise, a linguist, in an attempt at interpreting the heptapod’s language. Her partner in research, Gary, will ultimately become her husband. We know from the first page of the book that their daughter will die and that they will divorce. What links these two story lines is the nuance the heptapod language adds to each of their responses to their daughter’s death. To go back to my mom’s reaction, is this a sad or a happy story? The meaning to that question is tied to the meaning of the story.

But before I can say more about the story’s larger purpose, I have to give a fuller account of the heptapod’s language. Chiang is doing here what SF does best, he is conducting a thought experiment. He imagines a civilization with a language based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. Fermat’s principle runs contrary to our basic intuition of how the world operates. We see things as operating causally. From our perspective events occur linearly, in a string. Object "A" hits Object "B" causing Object "B" to roll over and hit Object "C." Fermat’s principle, on the contrary, presents a view of physics that is teleological. In other words, events are dictated by their end, not by a cause. For example, a refracted beam of light as it enters a pool of water moves in the direction it does because that is the best way for the beam of light to get to its destination, not because something compelled it to move in the direction it is moving. Its goal is to reach its end in either the minimum or maximum amount of time. This strange idea, that a beam of light could know where it would end up, suggests a physics that is not causal but teleological. 

Chiang's example of causal relations is depicted through the military figures in the story who want to conduct a series of gift exchanges with the heptapods. Their logic is, "We give them some of our technology, they give us some of theirs." Their interactions with the heptapods are much less nuanced and subtle than Laurie and Gary's interactions. Unlike the military, Laurie's initial interactions are grounded on trust rather than suspicion. Laurie also realizes that coming to understand the heptapods is far more important and valuable than gaining any technological information. 

Chiang refers to the heptapod’s language as semagrams. We are likely intended to think of Chinese ideograms, where a picture represents an idea rather than a sound. Semagrams, unlike glottographics (writing that represents speech), represent thought without any reference to speech. They are semasiographic, that is, they conveys meaning through signs or icons rather than speech or sound. The consequence is that this language is not confined to the linearity that speech and sound are necessarily confined to. We listen to sounds from beginning to end. Pictures can be viewed from any point. They are not dependent on time. It is these images independence from time that gives them their multidimensionality and freedom from causality.

Another friend of mine, Larry Jamison, noticed the link between the viewing screen, called a “looking glass” and the looking glass from the second of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. Alternate languages suggest alternate ways of being and existing, like another dimension, or Alice’s Wonderland. I think Larry is on target in making this link.

I say all this, but I still sense I’m missing significant elements of Chiang’s story. What is the final verdict? Is the story merely asking us to think in a broader and less localized, cause and effect, type mentality? Or is it richer than that? The purpose of the story of the mother and daughter is to illustrate how one might think in a non-casual mode. The mother seems to examine the life of her daughter from many angles of time, always taking into account the past and future of that moment. This is part of what Chiang is up to. 

One other aspect to consider is where this story fits within the larger scope of science fiction. Surely, there are scores of stories that consider how one's language shapes one's world view. I'm not deeply read in classic SF, so my examples are limited, but the two books I first thought of were Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and China MiĆ©ville's Embassytown. Unlike Chiang's short story, these novels give much greater scope to the potentials and pitfalls of language. Delany's Babel-17, as an added bonus, has given me one of my favorite opening quotations:

"Nowhere is civilization so perfectly mirrored as in speech. If our knowledge of speech, or the speech itself, is not yet perfect, neither is civilization." 

Mario Pei 
(As quoted in Samuel Delany's Babel-17)


The film radically underplays the death of Louise’s daughter, a central element in the story, by adding an entirely new scenario—the conflict of nations as well as localized panic in the streets. Surely, one reason for these changes was to heighten the tension of the film and so make it more attractive to a general audience. Likewise, they radically simplify the language component of the story. Not surprisingly, the heptapods are now seen “face-to-face” and not on a video-screen. None of these changes significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the film. And there was one great innovation that I suspect Chiang might have been envious himself, the heptapods are now able to “write” by emitting a cloud of ink from their tentacles. In the story the heptapod script is described as being something like an MC Escher print. I imagined them to be more rectangular. They are elsewhere described as being like mandalas, which can be circular or rectangular. There is in the story the suggestion that the script is like calligraphy and there are also suggestions that it is similar to Chinese ideograms. There is one scene in the story where their script is described as being like frost growing across a windowpane. This is likely where the director took this image from. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Film Review--Alien: Covenant

"Who was the author of Ozymandias?"
"Shelley, when one note is off it destroys the whole symphony."

Alien Covenant

Shortly after I finished watching the latest Alien film I felt compelled to write something about it. I didn’t feel like Alien: Covenant was a great film, but I was curious why I was drawn to it and the other films in the series. I knew that I didn’t necessarily want to write solely about Covenant itself, but rather about its place in the series as well as within the larger genre of SF.

First of all, let it be said that I enjoyed this most recent installment and think it fits in nicely with the rest of the series. I knew going in that the reviews were mixed and not terribly high. This didn’t faze me much considering that every film, save the first two, has reviewed poorly.

                                                Metacritic:      Rotten Tomatoes:       My order of preference:
Alien                                        83                    97                                1
Aliens                                      87                    98                                3
Alien 3                                     59                    46                                2
Alien Resurrection                  63                    54                                6
Prometheus                             65                    68                                4
Alien Covenant                        65                    60                                5

There have been many criticisms launched at Covenant. I’ve heard the second half of it described as torture porn, others complained that there were not enough aliens while ironically admitting that the android scenes were the best parts of the film. It has been said to be both too serious and shallow. Like Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection it has been said to be so bad as to have turned people permanently off from the series.

Regarding the “torture porn” aspect, while I agree it is there, the depictions of torture in Covenant didn’t sink the film for me, as much as I hated having Shaw killed off. The series has always straddled the line between horror and SF. The screenwriter of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, was pretty explicit about his intention to create a film that assaulted its viewers in the most graphic means possible (see the article in Cracked).

Killing off Elizabeth Shaw and the Engineers before the movie began was a personal disappointment, although I have to admit that this too has precedent in the earlier films. The reasoning is, I assume, that each film, while obviously interconnected with the others, is also clearly a stand-alone work. One can merely note the variety of directors and tones in the first four films to see that they were never intended to be a seamless whole. 

That brings us to the question of genre—are these films SF, horror, or something else? Of course, they have obvious SF elements. SF itself has no single definition and many SF films, such as Star Wars, are more akin to romance than hard SF. Amongst SF's many definitions, the one I most prefer is Samuel Delany’s. Delany describes the work of science fiction to lie more in redefining or re-creating reality rather than in providing metaphors for reality. His famous example is of a dilating door. To describe a door as dilating is to expand our view of how doors can operate. This is the kind of work SF does best. That said, when we consider the Alien films from a literal and hard SF angle they can seem rather absurd. The earlier films pushed too hard on the idea that the aliens posed an existential threat to humanity. The refrain, most prevalent in Aliens, that if the aliens reach Earth they will wipe out humanity, is comical. The aliens’ slow reproductive cycle and the fact that they each require their own human host are evidence enough that impact would be slight. Nonetheless, they remain terrifying as images and this is why I feel the films are better seen as fables or allegories. The aliens are more threatening as metaphors than as a reality. As visions of the insatiable drive for survival they are vivid and arresting, fit horses for Shelley’s blind charioteer in his poem, The Triumph of Life.

Another criticism of Covenant is that it takes itself too seriously. The viewers who don’t mind the references to Wagner and Shelley, still find them unsubstantiated by the rest of the film. I don’t mind the references because I see them as serving two simple functions. First, they point to the Romanticism of the series and second, they work to outline the dimensions that creation has in the film. To these ends they are successful.

Covenant makes clear an argument first began in Prometheus. The pathos of Prometheus is found in Shaw’s drive to find the creators of life on Earth. Even after these creators present themselves as violent and hateful of Earth life she still holds out hope that she may be able to pry a reason for humanity's existence out of them. Just as there is an antagonism between the Engineers and humanity, so too is there an antagonism between humans and androids. Prometheus depicted the beginnings of this antagonism, showing the human crew of the Prometheus as generally looking down on David as something less-than-human. David responds, as if in spite, by making a creative gesture all his own. Covenant centers on this storyline, abandoning Shaw’s gnostic quest for knowledge entirely. There is a theme in these films of creations turning against their creators, mostly out of envy. Why? Well, if God is the creator then humans most closely approach godhood in so far as they are able to create. So why is this a horror SF film? It is interesting to observe that Frankenstein, often claimed to be the first SF novel, is also a horror novel. Just as there is an awe of god and a terror in Frankenstein’s creation, so too is their terror in the act of creation in these films. Covenant is successful for me because of how it advances these themes of biological creation with artistic creation. As far as I’m aware, the series remains unique as films in its juxtaposition of biological and artistic creation.

I’m hesitant to read too deeply into the Alien mythology. The series, for whatever intricacies it may possess, seems to be more important for the pure visceral reaction it creates. Whether this be from the disturbing sense of gestating and giving birth to an alien in the first film to the fear of an android subsuming the throne of God in Covenant. There is a great Slate article that traces the history of scholarship on the first film and can serve as a hilarious warning to the dangers of over-reading (it even includes a bibliography).

In conclusion, what was most attractive to me about both Prometheus and Covenant is not only Scott’s explicit Romanticism, but also a noticeable lowercase “g” gnosticism. The depiction of the creator as a tyrant and one’s world as a prison is central to Gnosticism. Likewise, the act of defiance seen most strongly in the films’ leading women are the central elements of the Gnostic mythos. In Covenant the colonists desire to recreate Eden. If Prometheus depicted the creations being both rejected by their creators and in turn the creations rising up against their creators. Covenant hardly seems to be a new pact being formed between creations and creators. What is being promised? What we do know is that before the promise came the flood.