Y Marks the Spot: Occupy the Bottom

Viva la Revolucion!

I want to preface this rambling piece by saying that, in over three decades of my existence, this is the first and only year that I’ve been genuinely interested in where America is going.  Sure, seeing Obama get elected was great, but it was still the usual game of token democracy trotted out with Leap Year regularity, and I don’t get involved in that (and I didn’t).  This year, I suddenly found myself bearing an overabundance of newfound pride in Wisconsin as hundreds of thousands of my fellow Midwesterners rose up to tell their tin pot dictator to go to hell.  And then, I’d say almost as a direct consequence, the Occupy Movement turned the greedhate nationwide.  It is simply breathtaking to see Americans get so pissed off that they’re willing to inconvenience themselves to pay more than the usual lip service to our ideals of freedom – and no, joining the Tea Party and trolling the rest of the country doesn’t count as this.

I hope we’re seeing the dawn of the next economic civil rights movement, but I have one pretty big problem with all the uprisings I’ve seen this year.  Okay, two; the coordinated police brutality of recent times has been pretty upsetting.  And while we’re on that subject: who the hell gave bike cops the authority to pepper spray protesters?  Has the world suddenly become a mad version of Pacific Blue?  Is Mario Lopez the new face of the modern police state?

Deep breath.  Back on topic.  Just about every time I hear otherwise wonderful economic insurgents discuss the menace of the current climate of unchecked corporate greed where damn near everything under the sun has been made for-profit, the fears and worries usually end up in one place.  The problem, they usually say, is that the middle class is in danger of disappearing.

I don’t know about you, but my heart doesn’t exactly bleed for the middle class.  It’s a nice enough concept, a subtle endorsement of share the wealth that we peasants could use a lot more of.  It’s also a pretty meaningless term.  In a parallel reversal of the truism that none of the insufferable hipsters think that they are insufferable hipsters, a whole lot of Americans seem to regard themselves as middle class when they aren’t even close.  I’d say that middle class ranges between affording a house and a quarter million dollars, but I think the popular definition has become being able to sleep in your own room, no matter how large or small that room may be.  I disagree.

More importantly, when I think of the victims of capitalism, my first thoughts aren’t of people who can (or who used to be able to) afford a house.  It’s of people who everyday are starving to the brink of death, who can’t afford even the most basic of health care, who live in Third World conditions in a First World country.  It’s the people who live under bridges because the government refuses to divert a cent of defense spending toward feeding and housing the people supposedly defended.  You’ll forgive me if my sympathy for the so-called middle class comes a bit late.

As one of these broke-ass people who live one disaster away from financial collapse, I can say that when I see these well-meaning people wringing their hands and loudly wailing about the gloomy future of the middle class, I get a little pissed and I feel a whole lot left out.  This is, of course, unless we’re fighting to expand the cushy middle class to encompass everybody, which would be a very comfortable brand of communism.  (We are the 100%!)

I know – and yet, still, I hope – that the American protests of 2011 are based on community and kindness and wanting to help out one’s fellow man.  Yet every time I hear the term “middle class,” my certainty fades a bit.  I wonder if these aren’t movements based on social justice but on envy.  I wonder if the suburbanites are just using the proles to skim more off the top of the pyramid.  I wonder whether the poor will once again be the dupes.  In the same vein, imagine bitching about the cost of your rent in front of a person who hasn’t lived indoors for years.  Could the homeless become the dupes of the minimum wage slaves?

One of the genius rhetorical moves of the Occupy movement has been moving past this potential class infighting to paint the conflict as everyone against the super-rich.  “We are the 99%” is a much more inclusive catchphrase than “Save the middle class.”  And as much as people think they’re unwavering bastions of conviction, well, they aren’t.  We’re usually stupid, malleable sheep in public, and as such words and tone matter big time in a mass movement.

Side note: As much as I love the idea of a horde of people shouting down public displays of aristocracy, I still cringe every time I watch a repeat-after-me Mic Check, even as I cheer.  I suppose synchronized disruption is better than blind obedience, but still.

Deep breath.  Back on topic. Summation: If you say you’re going to stand up for (almost) everybody, then stand up for (almost) everybody, even the middle class.  In America alone, that includes the millions of people that you don’t know, have very little in common with, and may in fact dislike intensely.  It’s damn near impossible to maintain that level of idealism.  If you want to get anything done, attempt it anyway.

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The Designer’s Drugs: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – The Fall

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – The Fall

Anno: 2010

 

The second book in this new vampire trilogy is so much better than the first.  While The Strain eventually found its legs, it suffered from a horribly awkward introduction, where the authors ham-fisted the world together with overbearing explanations.  Luckily, The Fall hits the ground running and allows the reader to catch up in its own time.

As its title blatantly suggests, this book chronicles the time when everything goes to Hell.  The Strain’s tale of creeping contagion bursts into full-scale disorder, yet the powers that be, for various reasons, do nothing.  The heroes of the first book are first ignored and later vilified, as tends to happen in stories like this, and they must fight the story’s rogue vampire lord and unravel all mysteries on their own.  All pretty typical, but an interesting element comes in the intervention of the rest of the king bloodsuckers, who aren’t pleased that their brother is scaring the straights.  One of the story’s main characters is recruited by these ancients, assisted by a vampire-hunting vampire, and he draws together a hunting team comprised of street thugs and an old ex-luchador reminiscent of El Santo (by far the book’s best new addition).

The Fall’s greatest strength is its characterization.  Del Toro and Hogan have hit their stride in keeping out of the narrative and filling this failing world with believable, well-fleshed people.  This is especially true in the chapters detailing characters who don’t become a part of the greater struggle, who fall prey to the rampage in short order.  To put so much background into doomed characters, and then to off them, creates a great sense of tension and uncertainty.  So when the next character comes along, and the details of his or her life are given, one can’t help but become skeptical about that person’s chances.  And then someone surprises the reader and triumphs.

With the already established characters, del Toro and Hogan guarantee nothing.  While they don’t come anywhere close to clearing the slate, every character is placed in a position in which certain doom seems imminent.  The authors’ skill is shown in how the humans handle these scrapes; there are no magical, unexplained escapes, but rather instances of dumb luck that shine faintly through the terror.  The fact that a character survived one onslaught doesn’t mean that another one isn’t coming around the corner.

Not everything is sparkling; there’s a weird subplot thrown in involving nuclear reactors and a sappy message stating that a mother’s love is stronger than vampirism.  But most of it works.

This vampire trilogy may have started rough, but its midpoint indicates that it’s only going to get better.  The Fall is a quick and dirty vampire story that cuts out all the crap and leaves nothing but monsters and mayhem.  Old school nastiness at its best.

The Designer’s Drugs: Justin Cronin – The Passage

The Passage

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Justin Cronin – The Passage

Anno: 2010

Like many masterpieces of horror, what makes The Passage one of the finest pieces of vampire literature to come along in a long, long time is that it’s not about the monsters.  So much time is invested into building the pre-bloodsucker world that when the creatures rise up, their presence is both fully formed and yet somewhat secondary.

Though entirely its own story, this first volume in Justin Cronin’s planned vampire trilogy is easily comparable to The Stand, both in plot and scope.  The first act of the tale is set in a United States a few years from now, in a world which has fallen further into the war on terror.  Further acts of mass destruction, committed both inside the country and beyond, have turned America into an ailing police state.  Such a declining state of affairs leads to drastic attempts to reassert American dominance, culminating with a plot to copyright immortality.  You can guess how well that turns out.  A hundred years later, mankind is in its death throes, when a girl from the old world reappears to lead a band of survivors to war.  Their present goal: to travel to ground zero and find the truth about the walking plague.

The main facet of Justin Cronin’s storytelling that sets him apart is his eagerness to infuse his story with consequence.  Too many characters come back when presumed lost, and this does pull the plot into an undue tidiness at times.  That some documents of the times have been preserved as exhibits in a society a thousand years in the future indicates that some form of civilization has survived, which takes away some of the danger.  Then again, Cronin is unafraid to wipe out anyone and everyone, and there’s a lot that could happen in the next millenium.  Despite the hazy future, the suspense in The Passage twists the reader’s expectations right to the very last sentence.

All of which wouldn’t mean a thing if the characters weren’t so well developed.  The people of the old world and the new – both the monsters and their prey – are examined without mercy.  Their flaws are brought into full view, yet at the same time no character, no matter how vile, is without humanity, and one can fully understand where each person is coming from.  The board is black and white, but the pieces are all shades of grey.

The sum total of The Passage is a story that may not reinvent the wheel, but is fully deserving of being called an epic.  If this first offering is any indication of how the rest of Cronin’s trilogy will unfold, this will be the vampire story by which all others will be judged.

The Designer’s Drugs: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan – The Strain

The Strain

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan – The Strain

Anno: 2009

The director behind acclaimed films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy has thrown his hat into the ring of literature. Considering the magnificent visuals and dank atmospheres which permeate his movies, the idea of Guillermo del Toro writing anything at all naturally brings with it high anticipation, but a trilogy of vampire novels seals the deal. The Strain plays the opening notes of this opera, ultimately bringing back the old school monster vampire front and center, sweeping away all the teenage romance that has clogged the genre’s arteries, and then evolving the beast.

The most important word in the previous sentence, however, is ultimately. Despite the promise which this book holds, its opening is very poorly written. This has nothing to do with the story itself, which even in its early stages sweats suspense. The opening act’s glaring fault is in its tendency to overexplain everything, to turn every medical piece of trivia into a lecture. Acronyms are quite glaring, written longform first with the abbreviated form following in parentheses. Having “severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)” or “personal alert safety system (PASS)” in a sentence really busts it up. Yet an even worse offence comes in the description of the solar eclipse which serves as a plot point. The authors spend an entire page describing how its proper term is “occultation,” being that the earth is the object in eclipse. Fair enough, but what becomes ludicrous is that every single person from then on refers to the solar eclipse as an occultation. The authors’ overbearing hits its breaking point here.

Things do catch up, though, and soon The Strain hits a stride on par with the godfather of the leech stories, I Am Legend. Beginning the tale with a landed plane that mysteriously goes dark with everyone inside, The Strain’s authors let the anticipation boil before sending their monsters into the wilds of New York. As the danger grows, a pair of scientists from the Center for Disease Control team up with a ratcatcher and a gnarled old Van Helsing-type to fight back. Like I Am Legend, this story approaches its horrors with eyes of science, incorporating the old superstitions into rational theories – which takes nothing away from these creatures’ ability to terrify.

If the rest of this series is written like the end of its first book, Guillermo del Toro could steer this story into something amazing. It should be taken for granted that he would turn this story into an amazing film.