Monday, February 24, 2014

A Brief Elegy for Dr. Spengler

Egon Spengler is dead. The man who built proton packs and told us to not cross the streams, the man whose only hobby was collecting spores, molds, and fungus, the man who would tell us about the Twinkie -- he's dead. And so, too, begins the long, slow death of my childhood, the dissolution of those small flashes of nostalgia that remind me of a time when maybe the world was no more innocent than it is now, but I was.

I'm part of a generation between generations, an interstitial collective of people who don't quite revere Joy Division or sarcasm as much as their older siblings, but who also can't name a single member of the Rugrats or say we never lived in a house without a computer. We're not Gen X and we're not Millenials; we're Gen Y, pre-Millenial, babies of the Reagan 80s. People talk about us like we might be part of Gen X, but that's a falsehood -- I did not even exist as a cellular cluster during the 1970s and I think you really had to experience at least a glancing blow of that dark decade in order to be called a Gen X'er. But I'm not a Millenial, either -- I never won awards solely for participation and I do not rank Miley Cyrus amongst my contemporaries. No, I'm part of a lost generation that falls between the cracks, a generation typified by anomie.

But there are a few cultural touchstones that always let me know whether or not you're a part of my generation: singing the entirety of the Ducktales theme song, knowing what will happen when this baby hits 88mph, having recurring nightmares of David Bowie as a dark elven lord, caulking your wagon to float it across the Platte River even if you know you'll lose two days, and, perhaps above all else, understanding that bustin' makes you feel good.

Ghostbusters has been with me since I can remember. I was three years old when the movie was first released and there seems to be no era of my life that wasn't influenced in some way by its quartet of scientist superheroes -- Venkman, Stantz, Zeddmore, and Spengler (okay... Winston wasn't a scientist, but he was one of the team). When I was really little, they made me feel that even the scariest monster could be wrestled to the ground and defeated, imprisoned in a big red container where it might never frighten me again. If THEY could bust a ghost, then so could I. If THEY could beat demon dogs and androgyne gods, then what chance did the creeps in the shadows by my bed stand?

As I grew older, I wanted to BE the Ghostbusters. I wanted to fight the evils that lurked in the closets of the universe; I wanted to learn as much as I could about ghost and ghouls, aliens and cryptids. Tobin or not, I wanted to write a spirit guide and explore the unknown. Ghostbusters fostered in me an interest in both science and all those things science cannot explain. It made me believe in the power of technology and the infinite possibilities of the paranormal. It helped mold me into a person who believes that the boundaries between the empirical and the supernatural are much, much thinner than we might like to admit.

As a teenager, I lost a bit of the sense of adventure that swirled around the Ghostbusters but gained the sense of humor that tinted their world. I got the joke -- the ridiculousness of their entire endeavor, the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of their "science," the reverential parody of all things horror and dark fantasy. And, again, Ghostbusters took on a new meaning for me, became a more interesting, more multifacted idol of my cultural history. Thus it's remained for the past 15-ish years.

Ghostbusters is a comedy of horrors and a sci-fi adventure. It's a gleeful celebration of technology and spirituality. It doesn't ask you to not laugh at its ghosts, but it also doesn't try to make them cute or cuddly; it's not a didact that tries to make you worship at the altar of skepticism any more than it is an evangelist of the supernatural. It's a movie that defies static identity, that defies being just one genre or taking just one ontological stance. And that's why it's the perfect movie for an interstitial generation, for people who just don't quite fit anywhere, either.

And now a part of that is gone. A little thread of my non-generation's loosely woven identity just unraveled. A little totem of my childhood just cracked and fell to the earth. In some ways, Egon will live forever, yes. But today he's a reminder of how my generation still can't seem to define itself by anything other than the tracings of popular culture and how my childhood -- all our childhoods -- are growing more faded, more frayed, day by day. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Vandermeer's Annihilation and the Sublime

So... I finished Annihilation -- the first of Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy novels -- last night and I'm extremely impressed and excited for the next chapter. Why? Because the novel partakes, quite expertly, in an aesthetic tradition that I'm indebted to in my own writing and in my academic work: the sublime.

Let me take a brief aside here to explain what I mean by "the sublime." I wrote my doctoral thesis on this subject and it's one I find particularly germane to speculative fiction. The sublime, as an aesthetic concept, has a long and involved history. It's been variously explained as a rhetorical sleight of hand that overrides logic (the Longinian sublime), an indicator of the limits of human imagination (the Kantian sublime), and, most pertinent to my interests, as a hybrid feeling of terror and wonder (the Burkean sublime). When I say "the sublime," I'm talking about this dualistic feeling and the objects that evoke it. (If you want more on the sublime, check out my dissertation -- a book unto itself -- here.)

That being said, the overarching aesthetic at work within Vandermeer's Annihilation is precisely a combination of wonder and terror. At no point in the novel are we ever so privy to logic or reason that we can feel safe or secure in the world of Area X -- the strange, overgrown wildland that the characters of Annihilation are tasked with exploring. Vandermeer shades every scene with a sense of foreboding, with an implication that some reality-altering force or knowledge slouches just beyond our reach (our Southern reach, perhaps?!). On one hand, this force/knowledge is terrifying; it causes people to lose their minds, to commit acts of violence against one another, to mutate and dissolve and -- without giving too much away -- become literal shadows of themselves. It should evoke within its reader a sense of unease with both the world of the novel and reality writ large (and this, I believe, is why so many readers are calling the novel "Lovecraftian" even though Vandermeer is an avowed non-disciple of Lovecraft). At the same time, however, the force that operates within Area X is wondrous. It allows near-magical forms of life to evolve, creates a complex, self-sustaining ecosystem for the area, and causes changes within people that may, sometimes, be quite beneficial -- even salvatory -- for those individuals (as is the case for the novel's primary protagonist).

It is this dichotomy at work within Annihilation's Area X that makes me salivate. Area X is a sublime world, both menacing and glorious. It has equal power to build and destroy. Whatever forces galvanize Area X, they are laced with infinite possibility and, as is the nature with such expansive possibility, sometimes the manifestation of those possibilities is beautiful, mesmerizing, and life-affirming while, other times, it is horrible, grotesque, and death-dealing. Annihilation plunges us into the vastness of an unknown sphere of potentiality and refuses to let us come up for air. Rather, it holds us under, grants us the opportunity to see the universe as a place of terrible metamorphoses and wondrous revelations, and forces us to realize that, sometimes, great changes require great sacrifices.

Of course, there's plenty more going on in Annihilation than just aesthetic promulgation. There's the metaphorization of relationships and interpersonal alienation as a journey into strange, dark, fantastical lands. There's the celebration of nature as a sublime force in and of itself. And there's the implicit condemnation of science as an incomplete tool for exploration -- especially where matters of self and matters of the heart are concerned.

In Annihilation, Vandermeer pours the foundation for what could become a classic of weird literature and I hope that with the next two volumes of the trilogy, he expands on that foundation in a way that adds additional complexity and nuance to the ideas that gird this first book of the series.