From Fantasy to Collective Action

The relationship between speculative fiction (sf) and human liberation is perhaps not as straightforward as the old formula “science fiction is progressive, fantasy is reactionary” touted by many leftist literary critics in the past few decades, but it is nonetheless important to understand the ways in which the fantastic can illuminate our world by laying bare its contradictions and oppressive structures. Octavia’s Brood is a collection of sf writings compiled by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha which engages in a grand experiment to test this relationship by offering amateur writers — who happen to be social justice activists — the opportunity to publish original work which explicitly deals with themes of struggle and oppression. Alongside several non-fiction essays and excerpts from novels written by LeVar Burton (of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame) and Terry Bisson (of the left-wing sf classic Fire on the Mountain fame), the collection represents a powerful collective project aimed at exploring the relationship between art and politics.

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“There’s Still So Much to Adjust:" Jamaal May’s Hum

The blood and bolts of the city of Detroit run through the veins of Hum, Jamaal May’s debut collection of poetry (Alice James Books, 2013).  Lyrical, sometimes political, but always honest, to read these poems is to enter a hive bursting with music and sound, image and purpose. The themes and subjects vary, but we quickly learn to trust the voice that guides us from one poem’s density to the next.

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Echoes of the Mockingjay

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

Mockingjay takes us away from the arena of the first two films in the Hunger Games series and into a revolution. The film lurches between quiet moments and battles, peaceful riversides and an air raid. The audience constantly feels destabilized. Everything is in flux. Nothing seems certain. Mockingjay is dark, appropriately so. With the exception of a few humorous lines — a couple of which fall flat and are subsumed by the film’s darkness — Mockingjay commits to its tone. As a dystopian fantasy film, it strikes the right balance between mirroring a world that is familiar to us, a world that in fact, we recognize as our own, and placing enough distance between our world and Panem to demand we suspend our preconceived notions of what is possible.

I’m not a film critic, so instead of assessing the film aesthetically, I want to use the tools I do have as a revolutionary historian, to consider the contributions, weaknesses, and importance of the film to us and our world: a world in crisis and upheaval, a world in which revolution and rebellion can seem distant ideas until suddenly we find ourselves thrust into them, a world which will not stop and wait for us to address the inadequacies of our current level of political organization and preparedness. This is the first contribution to what I hope will be a debate in this magazine and elsewhere over the politics and meaning of this film.

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A Contemporary Satire With No Contemporary Basis

As I sat down to watch the Oracle Theater’s performance of Gore Vidal’s Romulus I was giddy with anticipation. After all, Romulus, directed by Kasey Foster, is the closing act in a season of daring political theater that has demonstrated the excellence of Oracle, a black box theater company with the mission of providing “free art for all.” As the communist son of a working class single mother, I was moved to tears by Oracle’s adaptation of Brecht’s The Mother. The President, a comedy about the conversion of a young red into an aristocratic capitalist over the course of a single day, followed The Mother and what it lacked in political insight it made up for with wit and enthusiasm. When my partner and I failed to reserve seats for the adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a production hailed by Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet as “a stunningly effective piece of agit-prop theater,” we were devastated. So, sitting in a pit converted to look like the inside of a decaying swimming pool, I was ready to once again be awed. Ninety minutes later, I left the theater feeling quite conflicted.

Romulus is a “historical play with no historical basis” that tells the story of the western Roman Empire’s final emperor. The titular Romulus spends his days raising chickens and reluctantly holding court beside an empty and peeling swimming pool. He stubbornly sits idle while his courtiers panic over the collapse of the empire and the advancing Gothic army headed by King Ottaker. It quickly becomes apparent that Romulus is a sort of absentee accelerationist, disgusted by Rome’s decadence and willing to do anything (i.e. nothing) to ensure its collapse. Whether he succeeds, after expending a great deal of non-effort, is left for the audience to decide.

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Dead of the World Unite

I would love nothing more than to watch a film that was dedicated to the resurrection of Soviet forces to stomp some Nazi zombies but this just wasn’t entirely the case with Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. Sure it is true the Soviet comrades are raised from their frosty graves, but to be honest they don’t get much screen time and they only kick ass for a few minutes. This film is much more about Martin and his gaggle of American sibling sidekicks. Yes DS2 was incredibly entertaining — I laughed out loud, and raucously so, a number of times, but it was not exactly what I was expecting considering the caliber that the first film hit viewers with.

This sequel was much more about playing with the zombie genre. And rightfully so! Director, Tommy Wirkola, clearly understood that if you can’t top the first film you should always err on the side of humor, particularly with a genre like horror. This film had a lot going for it. It had gore; it had a bizarre nerdy team of Americans that the film affectionately jabs at. And it has an audience who is already on the right side of seeing Nazi zombies stomped into the dustbin of horror-comedy. This proved a good combination and it certainly deserves a watch this Halloween season.

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The Strain: Master and Slave

It is rare for a TV show in the current environment featuring such now cliché tropes as vampires and an epidemic of the living dead to surprise its audiences, but The Strain is undoubtedly an example of such a surprise. Part conspiracy thriller, part outbreak saga, and part homage to genre classics, it tells the story of an outbreak of the supposedly real creatures behind the cultural mythology of vampires. The self-referential nature of this work, something not uncommon with fiction featuring vampires and zombies, is nonetheless a key interpretive lens through which to view its uniqueness. The Strain manages to present something unique in an overpopulated genre, while nonetheless maintaining strong connections to the very best genre material, from Bram Stoker himself to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954).

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Memories of Solidarity

The story of an encounter between a group of left-wing gay activists in London and a remote mining community in southern Wales would seem calculated to provoke applause from both crowds. It is rare enough these days to see a film that celebrates labor struggles. To have one that commemorates a moment of solidarity between the “old” cause of labor and gay rights, the movement that serves as a paradigm for “new social movements” based around identity rather than class, is practically a miracle. Pride shows that for a brief time in 1984 and 1985, gay activists and Welsh miners came together, and found that together they were greater than the sum of their parts.

Hence, it would surely be enough from a socialist standpoint to celebrate Pride as an inspiring story that should be remembered in a time of austerity and defeat for all social movements, labor and gay rights among them. Writers in many left-wing newspapers and websites have done this, and will likely continue.

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"Lost In Light": The Poems of Octavio Quintanilla

If I Go Missing (2014 Slough Press), the first full collection of poetry by Octavio Quintanilla, explores the ambiguities of loss. As the title suggests, something has gone missing in many of these poems, but something else is to be found. In our culture of “more is better,” loss is almost always seen as a bad thing, unless it is adipose tissue. But while he acknowledges the pain of loss, Quintanilla is always aware of the important possibilities that open up when a part of us is removed.

One of his most powerful metaphors is the idea of the boundary, which he deftly uses to suggest both the complexity of personal identity and the problems of poverty, immigration, and race in the the US. The poet eschews abstractions, rooting every line in simple but resonant imagery. His language is starkly, beautifully simple, which is well-suited to the variety of topics addressed in this volume.

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A First Rate, Second Rate Film

In 1862, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips described Abraham Lincoln as a "first rate, second rate man." Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln might likewise be described as a first rate, second rate film. Much of the film’s criticism on the left has decried it for portraying a history of emancipation that is revisionist at best, reactionary at worst. While these criticisms are not without basis, neither are they apt. Spielberg’s film should be judged first as a cultural object, a biopic with political underpinnings, and judged only secondarily by the merit of those underpinnings. The questions "good film?" and "good politics?" must be separable, even if they are not separate.

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