Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Revisiting Brian Garfield's DEATH WISH

More than seven years ago, while I was writing KILLER INSTINCTS, I read Brian Garfield's 1972 crime novel DEATH WISH for the first time. I'd seen the Charles Bronson film a couple of times before, but I wanted to read the novel because I'd been told it was significantly different from the film adaptation, and indeed, that is the case. Now, with a remake coming out this weekend starring Bruce Willis (no comment...), I've gone back and read the original novel again.

So I don't repeat myself, you can go here and read my original review of the novel.

Reading the novel now, I am struck by how, forty-six years after it was first released, the conversations that take place about crime and punishment, liberal and conservative politics, the role of the judicial system in criminal reform, the right of the individual to defend themselves versus the role of law enforcement to protect the public - basically every conversation we're having now, in 2018, they were having in 1972.

In fact, although it is closing in on being a half-century old, the novel is an incredible fictional exploration of walking through the transformation of a pacifistic, liberal, "bleeding heart", into a bloody-minded vigilante with a compulsion to stalk the streets, looking for just about any excuse to kill. Paul Benjamin is certainly the sort of guy who, if he was living in 2018, would be donating to GoFundMe campaigns for spree shooting victims, and changing his Facebook profile photo to "stand with" victims of the latest public tragedy. He would certainly vote for gun control, and insist that it is the role of law enforcement to deal with crime, not the private citizen, and he believes, to a degree, that a lot of violent crime in NYC is hyped up, that it is exaggerated by the media and by the conservatives demanding tougher laws - that it is, essentially, "fake news".

But of course, when the violence happens to him, Paul discovers that the system fails him at almost every turn. The police can't find the attackers, have essentially no leads at all, and it is immediately clear that Paul's personal nightmare is just one more file folder in a large stack sitting on the desk of a tired and over-worked police detective. Paul is overcome with helplessness and rage, incredulous at the notion that he's now just another statistic, that his friends and co-workers express just enough shock and sadness to fulfill their social obligation to him, but no more, because his tragedy makes them just too uncomfortable. Those scenes are almost textbook examples of "compassion fatigue", and when viewed from Paul's perspective, you can see how it just makes him even more angry at the situation he's in, and society's inability to, quite simply, do something about crime.

Of course, even more important in his transformation into a vigilante is Paul's all-consuming fear. He is nearly paralyzed by fear every time he leaves his apartment. A perfectly normal stroll down the street to get a newspaper turns into a terrifying experience - every rowdy youth or minority Paul passes by is a potential assailant, ready to turn and attack him at a moment's notice. At one point, Paul crosses the street and discovers himself a few steps from a black man just casually leaning against the side of a building, just chilling out, and Paul becomes a sweating, petrified mess expecting an attack. Only after running in fear from the man, who he later realizes was probably just minding his own business and laughing at the scared white guy, does Paul realize how deep the terror has taken hold of him.

Paul eventually arms himself with a roll of quarters in a sock for self-defense, and when he scares off a youth making a half-assed attempt at robbing him, the sense of power at being able to defend himself is almost a narcotic. Paul winds up buying a gun while on a business trip to Arizona (where all the locals tell him they can roam the streets safely at night because everyone has a gun), and he starts carrying it once back in NYC. Of course, with the gun in his pocket, Paul isn't unafraid - far from it. He is terrified of someone bumping against him and finding the gun. He's terrified of dropping the gun, or being stopped by a cop and having the gun discovered. He carries a wad of cash with the gun that he hops he can bribe the cop with if the gun is ever found, since he doesn't have a permit for it.

In fact, Paul only leaves his fear behind once he starts killing. The first murder is, ostensibly, self-defense, although he does begin wandering the streets and going into areas where he knows there is a high chance he might get mugged. His intentions the first time around aren't necessarily to kill a mugger, but a combination of determination to not let the criminals dictate where he can and cannot go, and a sort of symbolic "whistling past the graveyard". But, after the first shooting, and after he recovers from the initial emotional and psychological shock of shooting and killing another person, he loses his fear, and begins to actively "stalk" and go after criminals.

All in all, Paul kills eight people over the course of the book, and really, the action doesn't even take up eight pages. One of the victims is killed in only a couple of short sentences. All of the violence takes place in the second half of the book, most of it in the last third, really. And, once you reach the end of the novel, it is clear that the book is in no way about the shootings, but rather, Paul's vigilantism is used as the lens through which the author is addressing crime in the modern society. I can't say for sure if an answer to the problem is ever really reached, because while in the novel the police admit that crime is down, the reader can tell that Paul is not really in a mentally stable condition - his drive to punish criminals compels him to go out night after night, and he becomes a sort of junkie seeking a fix, so to speak.

After the success of the novel - and its adaptation into a film that addresses the problematic nature of Paul's vengeance to a much lesser degree than the novel - Brian Garfield wrote DEATH SENTENCE as, according to him, "penance" for the first book and the film, which he didn't really like. I will address the second novel in another post, but it does go a long way towards mitigating the direction that Death Wish seems to be driving us at the story's end.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

20 Random Thoughts While Binging TRUE BLOOD

When it first aired, I watched all but the final season of HBO's series TRUE BLOOD, based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries series written by Charlaine Harris. The television series took extensive liberties with the characters and plot of the books, but I'm guessing since Harris is likely sunbathing on a mountain of gold doubloons thanks to all that HBO money, she didn't really mind.

Now, over the last few months, I binge-watched the series in its entirety, because while vampire-related things aren't really my bag, the show did have some hilariously over-the-top moments, and I wanted to finally see the last season and close out the series. Being able to watch it a second time and muse over other aspects of the show, I had many random thoughts while watching. So, in no particular order:

  1. By the end of the series, I felt the same way about Sookie Stackhouse as I did about Jack Bauer - I was so damn tired of people saying her name, that the sound of it made me cringe every time. Especially when Bill said it. "Sookie!" Ugh.
  2. Speaking of Bill, he's just such a dick. Despite being one of the main characters throughout the series, I just hate his guts the entire time.
  3. Eric, on the other hand, is AMAZING. He is everything awesome which Bill is not.
  4. Sam really is that handsome, middle-aged guy who manages to charm the pants off of every single (and not so single) woman in a hundred mile radius. When he gets called "silver fox" by his girlfriend's mom, I just lost it. Howls of laughter.
  5. Werewolves really get the shaft in this series. Clearly, Harris/HBO aren't using World of Darkness rules as reference material.
  6. At some point in this, we definitely needed a werewolf to go full Crinos and tear a truck in half, then beat a couple of vampires to death with the scrap metal.
  7. Why don't these damn vampires use swords? If you move faster than the eye can see, and you're strong as hell, a sword would just be an amazing force-multiplier. Especially since many of these vampires were around before the gunpowder age.
  8. Seriously, how can you have a thousand-year old vampire viking who never uses a sword?
  9. Okay, he takes a couple of wakizashi from some Yakuza guy and double-stabs him, but that doesn't really count.
  10. If I was a vampire, I'd also be rocking some body armor with a ballistic hard plate over my heart front and back. Try getting that broken-off broom handle through a half-inch plate of hardened steel, buddy.
  11. I love how vampires, with their preternatural senses, almost never use guns firing wooden bullets to kill each other (which would be the easiest way to close the age power level gap), but some redneck hillbilly dipshit who has no idea how to shoot a handgun can make an offhand shot at a centuries-old vampire and hit the vampire's fist-sized heart without aiming, killing them.
  12. I'm not sure if vampires turn into a blood ragout in the Harris novels when they die, but it is hilariously disgusting in the TV show. Especially when the death is dramatic and emotional and someone is embracing said vampire. Gross.
  13. The behavior and intelligence of the average Bon Temps resident can be confirmed as realistic by spending five minutes in any political group on Facebook.
  14. I don't care if it has magical healing properties, drinking blood is disgusting.
  15. The single coolest kill in the show is a shifter turning into a fly, then getting swallowed by a vampire, and shifting back to human inside the vampire, causing the vampire to explode like a blood grenade.
  16. Given that vampires aren't really alive, and I'm guessing their hearts don't actually serve a functional purpose, why doesn't someone open up a business implanting vampires with titanium heart-armor inside their body cavities? You could totally make some kind of armored housing that just snaps together around the vampire's heart without severing the arteries.
  17. It's really kind of sad how the Harris novels were meant to use vampires as an analogy towards viewing discrimination and society in the South, but HBO just largely turned it into a show about sex and they do just about everything else.
  18. Jason Stackhouse is a moronic dipshit, but man, he's pretty much what every guy wants to have as their pickup-driving, beer-drinking, horsing around best friend. Although he really is the personification of that "you versus the guy she tells you not to worry about" meme.
  19. Not killing Lafayette at the end of season 1 was the smartest decision HBO ever made, aside from writing that big goddamn check to George R. R. Martin.
  20. And, finally:

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


There's nothing I can say about NEUROMANCER that hasn't been said ten thousand times in the 34 years since the book was published. I read it first maybe...fifteen years ago? Some time not too long after college, so in the first couple years of the 21st century. At the time, we didn't have a lot of the advancements we had today, such as smart phones with the sort of power we enjoy now, or a lot of the social media available to us, but we had a good idea where things were leading, and a lot of the technical capability was there, we just weren't taking full advantage of it quite yet.

If you have any interest at all in Science Fiction literature, you know something about the Cyberpunk genre, and if you know Cyberpunk, you've either read NEUROMANCER, or you feel somewhat guilty not having read it yet. It was the defining work in the genre, with pretty much every written or visual work coming after it in the genre taking elements from it, and some elements even bled into more traditional science fiction. For example, in THE EXPANSE series, full-sized computers are referred to as "decks", which is the term Gibson uses for the computer systems used to interact with Cyberspace. Point of note: while Gibson didn't invent the term "Cyberpunk", he did invent "Cyberspace", a term that has become almost universally used by people who don't quite know what they're talking about to discuss That Which Is Accessible On The Internet.

Gibson's imagining of Cyberspace, while tremendously evocative, has never caught on, despite decades of computing advances. The idea that you would access the Internet through some kind of neural interface, and "fly" through a vast cyber-space landscape in order to reach and access data is the sort of thing that Hollywood salivates over (see also: Jurassic Park's "Unix System" scenes), but even in the here and now of 2018, it's just easier to tap an icon on our phones, or click on a bookmark. In fact, when it comes to traditional desktop and laptop computing, the way we use computers is, I would argue, not much different than the way we used them in 1983, when Gibson wrote the novel. Computers at the time had all the basic components of the modern desktops of today, some even using very basic Graphical User Interfaces and mice. Indeed, I would imagine that if you took a computer user from 1983 forward in time 35 years to today and set them down in front of your average modern desktop, it'd take them only a short while to understand that you clicked on icons to launch programs rather than type commands, and from there, you used the mouse to select functions and the keyboard to enter data. The difference lies more in what we use the computers for, rather than how we use them.

Of course, I do not in any way fault Gibson for not predicting the future, especially since the world in which NEUROMANCER takes place is probably well over a century from now, some place likely in the mid-2200s. There are references to a dynastic family existing for over two centuries, so depending on when they started, the book could even be set in early 2300s. By that point, it may very well be that the easiest way to access data is through direct neural interfaces. Of course, there are some odd anachronisms in the novel, such as using traditional telephones! Indeed, like may other science fiction writers Gibson didn't anticipate the pervasiveness of wireless connectivity, except on the largest scale, such as satellite transmissions. Decks are carried around and jacked into wall interfaces, often requiring special jack adapters in order to make them compatible. Data is also quite often carried around and transferred physically, either in the form of tiny sliver-like "microsofts" or larger data cartridges. I always enjoy reading older science fiction works (and truly, NEUROMANCER isn't even that old) to see what older technological paradigms they imagine will still exist in the future.

But of course, that's not what people really read this novel for - they read it for the atmosphere. In fact, it's probably got one of the greatest opening lines in the history of science fiction:

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." 

If you can picture that image in your mind's eye, you're most of the way to understanding the aesthetic of the dystopian Cyberpunk setting. The glaring, clashing intermingling of the old world and the new, the gleaming cities of chrome and glass built on the crumbling brick and iron of the old. There's a layer of grime on everything, even new tech, and everyone's got an angle. Anything you eat or drink is recycled from something else, and non-artificial environments are difficult (and expensive) to come by. Weapons are a mix of highly lethal new tech and battered but reliable old tech, and absolutely everything has a price. It is a largely amoral world, where people are simply trying to cling to a life worth living, because if they let go, even for a second, there is no merciful net to catch them, no social welfare program worth giving them the security they need.

So, is there anything NOT to like about this book? Well, to be fair, there are times when Gibson's (usually successful) attempts to be evocative of the setting wander a bit, especially when detailing Cyberspace itself. These moments aren't so much poorly written as they are a bit too lingering, causing breaks in the action, especially at the end of the novel. I suppose this is inevitable in describing something that most people in 1983 couldn't really imagine, so I have no problem with this. The other big pain in my butt with this book is one of my pet peeves in fiction and visual medium - that moment when, in the middle of a climactic moment, the protagonist finds themselves in some kind of idyllic dreamland, where they suddenly are offered paradise, if they just didn't wake up / accept their fate / whatever. I hate this device pretty much every time I encounter it, and there is a moment at the end of this book where that occurs, and it seems to go on forever.

Other than that, and a couple of other quibbles here and there, I enjoyed the novel immensely, and although I don't read a lot of the Cyberpunk genre, it did whet my appetite to go out and find more titles in the genre - specifically, I want to re-read Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH, which is a *great* novel.