‘That’s what art’s all about too… they’re all lines of communication. But they’re harder to keep open now because it’s so much easier for most people to relate to a TV set than it is to another person. They get all this data fed into them, but they don’t know what to do with it anymore. When they talk to people, it’s all surface. How ya doing, what about the weather. The only opinions they have are those that they’ve gotten from people on TV shows. They think they’re informed, but all they’re doing is repeating the views of talk show hosts and news commentators. They don’t know how to listen to real people anymore.”

-Charles de Lint – The Conjure Man In The Very Best of Charles de Lint.

 

Quote – Art About Opening Lines of Communication and Resisting Uncritical Media

Meme Zombies

A Review of Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool (Maple Pictures, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As many of you know, I tend to focus Speculating Canada primarily on literature. This is not meant to ignore other types of texts and media, but has been an area that fascinates me.  I have recently been drawn to the film Pontypool through my love of representations of the monstrous. Since it is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, I thought it was worth exploring further.

I am not normally a huge fan of the zombie genre. I tend to find a lot of recent explorations of the zombie to be repetitive – involving the idea of viral contamination, chase scenes, and general body horror. This is not to say that there isn’t value in these zombie depictions, but it has been overdone a bit for my taste. I tend to like innovative new treatments of the zombie, and I think that is what drew me to Pontypool. The zombies in this film aren’t created by biting, scratching, an airborn virus… they are created by language.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the movie features a small town radio station who gradually receives filtered news of a huge event. People have seemingly gone mad and are destroying the downtown, attacking one another, and mumbling gibberish the entire time. There is no official word on what is happening, and the radio station is only getting reports from random citizens as official channels stay silent on the issue.

Things hit close to home when people in the radio station itself begin to repeat phrases, alliterate, and get stuck in cycles of rhyming. This is the first stage of the virus – since the virus is contained in language, the body’s immune system kicks in to try to expel the virus by playing with language. When this immune response fails, the infected host seeks out others, homing in on them by the sound of their voice, fixating on the vocalisation of the English language to find new victims and spread to them.

Pontypool explores the idea that there could be something living in language, in consciousness that replicates itself when the brain of the new host recognises and understands words. This is a personification of the idea of the viral meme, made literal. It spreads through cultural expressions, replicating itself and moving from one area to another, expanding, spreading. Although most zombie movies involve a great deal of physical movement, one of the striking parts of this movie is that all of the movement occurs intellectually. There is little physical movement since the entire plot of the movie takes place in a radio station (and largely in the sound booth). The movement that occurs is through conversations, through hearing of events conveyed through voice and through leaps of awareness. All of the action of this movie is carried in words, through hearing action, which makes it a particularly apt medium for a movie about a virus that spreads through words. As one watches the movie, one becomes very sensitive to sound, noting differences in sound and becoming hypersensitive to the spoken word. Words feel weightier, more significant, louder, and awkward. The viewer becomes alienated from language itself.

Pontypool plays with ideas of fear and the spread of fear, focusing on the idea of voice as a medium for both understanding, but also for the spread of fear. The shock radio jockey star of this movie, Grant Massey (Stephen McHattie), begins his radio broadcast of the morning by trying to shock his listeners when he describes the threat of drug culture and drug dealers coming into small towns to create grow-ops. When his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him not to scare the small town populace, he informs her that fear is what sells news, and getting people angry means bigger ratings. Here, Burgess and McDonald provide a subtle warning about the nature of media and the use of fear as a marketing tool, as well as the conflict that happens in small town Ontario where people often are both attracted to the idea of hearing about threats, but also don’t really want to hear too much about the potential horrors of the world.

The idea of fear in the media is played on further when people come into the radio station in Arabic-face (i.e. white Canadians painted to appear Arabic) in order to play music about the Middle East. Calling themselves Laurence and the Arabians, one of the members of the group is compared to Osama bin Laden and he ends his song on the radio by firing a toy machine gun in the air. This musical interlude occurs as the first inklings of a crisis begin to filter into the radio through reports, and comments well on the state of today’s society where often the Middle East, and images of terror far away, is used as a mechanism for distracting people from threats and issues close to home.

The image of terrorism resurfaces again when Massey talks to a reporter from the BBC who is calling to get clarification about reports he has received that an act of terrorism has occurred. When Massey tells him that they don’t have any details and that information is scarce, the BBC correspondant begins discussing Canada’s history of French separatism and ends his broadcast by concluding that the issue in Pontypool Ontario is actually a terrorist attack by French separatists. The media once again focuses on the notion of easy scapegoats and figures that inspire fear rather than further investigating and interrogating the notion that threats can occur locally. It is easier to search for a pre-established and culturally accepted threat than to look for new threats.

The character Grant Massey brings critical attention to the issue of the military and fear culture when he says to the military personelle who are monitoring his broadcast as they begin bombing the small community to stop the threat: “You are just killing scared people.” He later notes, when talking about how people who have the zombie virus stop making sense: “We were never making sense”, bringing critical attention to the notion of the spoken word and its ability to disseminate confusion. Pontypool evokes in the viewer a sense that more is being said through the figure of the zombie and its location in a centre of media – one finds oneself contemplating the notion that terrorism makes zombies of us all, that fear of terrorism and radical responses to beliefs in the threat of terrorism make us willing to blindly follow the voices that guide us. As a society, we are more willing to follow voices (like the zombies in this movie do when seeking new hosts for the virus) than to think for ourselves and look deeply at underlying issues.

You can check out a trailer for Pontypool at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1386283545/

Upcoming interview with Nina Munteanu on Tuesday November 27th

Nina Munteanu is an author, ecologist, and writing coach, combining the worlds of science and fiction while sharing her love of authorship with aspiring authors. On Tuesday November 27th, check out our interview with Nina Munteanu and share in some of her insights about the interrelationship between science and science fiction, the importance of an awareness of ecology, the role of SF in promoting creative problem-solving, the role of SF in reminding us of the consequences of our actions, and the importance of the search for the strange and wonderful.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Nina Munteanu: “Curiosity feeds our souls. It slows us down so we can pay attention. It teaches us to be interested in our world, to observe and feel. It helps us crawl outside the box, peer around corners into dark alleys where thrilling adventure lurks.”

Nina Munteanu: “I’m a bit of a bohemian and enjoy wandering the world in search of the strange and wonderful.”

Nina Munteanu: “the literature of the fantastic: speculative literature, science fiction, fantasy… explore—nay—celebrate and bridge the gap between logic and imagination, the mundane and the extraordinary, the known and the strange, order and infinite possibility.”

Nina Munteanu: “My fiction and my ecology have co-evolved in a synergistic way. My interest in ecology stems from my interest in preserving this planet as well as my fascination for how Gaia works; these themes pervade most of my fiction and much of my non-fiction articles and essays.”

Nina Munteanu: “Both ecology and science fiction explore consequence in a big way.”

Nina Munteanu: “Writing science fiction has opened the doors of creative problem solving in my scientific pursuits; and my science has opened windows of possibilities in my writing.”

Nina Munteanu: “Science fiction is the literature of consequence that explores large issues faced by humankind; it can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness.”

Nina Munteanu: “I find the concept of “the outsider” fascinating from a psychological perspective. How we treat the unknown (e.g., with suspicion and fear or with wonder and curiosity) tells so much about who and what we are.”

Nina Munteanu: “We are a fickle, multiplexing busy culture who want it now, fast, easily digestible—and already summarized. Letting others decide for you what is newsworthy is so dangerous; it spawns gossip and feeds into propaganda.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction predicts consequence to current conditions. It projects into the future or alternate reality from current paradigms in science, technology and society. Speculative fiction uses the premise, “What if?”:  “What if this continued?” “What if we used that this way?”; “What if this caused that?”. It provides the proverbial “canary in the mine” on society.”

Nina Munteanu: “Canada is a truly multi-cultural country and serves an excellent fractal microcosm for writing about mixed civilizations in the universe.”

Nina Munteanu: “Speculative fiction doesn’t just “tell us”; it can “show us”.”

So, stay tuned for this interview with Nina Munteanu on Tuesday, November 27th to get a quick reminder of the importance of SF and its ability to promote change and creative thought in the sciences.

You can explore Ms. Munteanu’s website at http://www.ninamunteanu.com/ . And, check out my review of Nina Munteanu’s Darwin’s Paradox posted on Speculating Canada on October 20, 2012.

Patient Zero and the Post-Human

A review of Nina Munteanu’s Darwin’s Paradox (Dragon Moon Press, 2007)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Author photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu.

In Darwin’s Paradox Nina Munteanu displays her awareness of scientific discourse: focussing on areas like chaos theory, biological theories of co-evolution, symbiosis and virology, and ecological theories. Her protagonist, Julie, is patient zero in a spreading epidemic that has infected most of modern civilisation. Munteanu creates a civilisation where human society is centred around a few urban locales, leaving large parts of the world unoccupied by human beings, and allowing for ecological development uninterrupted by human interference. Technology in this future world has fused with the viral epidemic, questioning the barriers of the human and the nature of human existence. The nature of humanity has changed with this introduction of other elements into the human biosystem, creating a post-human world in which the possibilities of the future of human existence are called into question, and in which several powers are vying for control of the next stage of humanity and the future of the human race.

Munteanu’s Darwin’s Paradox illustrates a collision of past and future as Julie is haunted by her past and ideas of home, while simultaneously representing a next stage in human evolution. The city Icaria 5 itself is a representation of past and present intersecting: buried under the city of Toronto and rising from the structures of the past. Munteanu’s plot is full of family secrets, the hidden past, and the resurfacing of guilt (particularly Julie’s guilt about being patient zero in the spreading viral apocalypse). She explores the draw of the past and home and the continual pull the past has upon one’s existence. Munteanu explores Julie’s simultaneous desire to return home and her realisation that home has forever changed – becoming a foreign place.

Munteanu explores society’s fear of epidemic and the role of medical technology

Cover photo courtesy of Nina Munteanu

as a mechanism for solving all of the world’s problems. She illustrates that medical technology has its limits and complicates the nature of technological methods of solving problems by allowing virus and technology to meld.  Simultaneously Munteanu explores the continuation of society’s obsession with beauty and perfection by creating a society where one can restore one’s beauty through instant medical treatments: Nuyu and Nuergery, using nanites to restore one’s youth and change undesirable aspects of one’s form. Political groups fearing the over-use of technology and the complications to the idea of the human that these surgeries may cause begin using scarring to assert their difference and reluctance to submit to social controls.

Media plays an important role in Munteanu’s vision of the future, illustrating the continuance of the media hegemony for defining the nature of “truth” as media messages replace facts and political leaders manipulate the media system to enforce their own controls over society and further embed their interests into the developing social system. She illustrates the danger of the current system of using the politics of fear as a mechanism for controlling voters (particularly focussing on the use of fear by political groups to shift cultural ideas, sympathies, and ultimately gain control of the developing social system).  In Munteanu’s vision of the future, it is impossible to trust anyone completely and layers within layers of plot are illustrated, leaving the reader distrusting of every message he or she receives.

Munteanu raises questions and challenges the development of society’s current systems, asking her readers to think critically about messages they are given and to question everything. She illustrates that the truth is socially constructed and that ideas of the truth serve social purposes and can be used to support hidden agendas.

You can discover more about Nina Munteanu’s work at http://www.ninamunteanu.com/ , and can read more about Darwin’s Paradox at http://www.darwinsparadox.com/