Tom Freeman reports on the aftermath of the Bangkok outbreak. Thousands died in the slaughter, torn apart, when a toxin spreads through the population, turning them into vicious zombies. Disturbed by what he discovers he returns to the States and tries to alert the world, but slowly life push his fears to the back of his mind. Until one morning, what happened in Bangkok is happening in New York.
All three books read fast, acerbic observations follow deadpan humour, churning through the action with the urgency you’d expect from a trilogy subtitled “a zombie apocalypse survival series”. There’s a filmic brevity to proceedings, with each of the three books working as the acts in a feature screenplay. Each new discovery raises the stakes, twists the knife, as Tom and company battle to stay alive.
The second book has more political complications, swiping at the religious zealotry at the heart of government, and the psychopaths who would thrive in the chaos. It also reveals the cause of the outbreak, a Bangkok variant of Cordyceps, the same fungus that cause the apocalypse in The Last of Us (2023- ). Book two runs heroically into three and the possibility of a vaccine to stop Cordyceps, but there’s two thousand miles between Tom and the CDC labs in Nevada. Can Tom and his friends save the country, the world?
Not a perfect series by any means, but enjoyable enough while it lasted.
Darren Aronofsky makes challenging, thought provoking, films that live in the moment of gasping breath, just after you’ve been punched in the gut.
The Whale (2022) isn’t as viscerally bombastic as Mother! (2017), nor does it have the frenetic chaos of Requiem for a Dream (2000), instead it stares unflinchingly at loss and grief and self-destruction.
Online english teacher Charlie (Brendan Fraser) grieves the loss of his partner, the love of his life, by eating. He carries the crushing weight of his grief as pounds of flesh, hanging off his body like hundredweight bags of offal, suffocating his organs, straining his heart, and crushing the breath from his lungs.
Charlie is killing himself with calories. He knows it, his only friend Liz (Hong Chau) knows it, but when food is a compulsion, and binging until you vomit is routine, death is all but inevitable.
Before that happens Charlie wants to reconnect with his estranged daughter, the smart but angry Ellie (Sadie Sink). She’s sixteen, hasn’t seen her father since he left, and is angry at him for abandoning her. Hurt she tries every way possible to reject him, but Charlie refuses to give up on her.
Sinks performance is powerful. Complimented by Ty Simpkins as the evangelical Thomas, and Chau as Charlie’s friend, nurse, and confessor. Samantha Morton is beautifully brittle as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, hardened by life’s disappointments. But the film belongs to Brendan Fraser. He is unflinching as the positive but self-destroying Charlie. Somehow he finds the funny in the rawness of his grief, there’s something in the eyes, in the soft tone of his voice, remaining vulnerable and strangely optimistic despite his imminent demise.
Samuel D. Hunter’s screenplay is demanding, emotionally complicated, often pulling in contradictory directions. Liz cares for Charlie, loves him, but facilitates his eating, and is ultimately assisting his suicide.
Aronofsky has taken Hunter’s screenplay, and the stage play it’s based on, and concentrated the visuals for cinema, wringing them tight until the colours have faded, taken on the pallet of sweat stained furniture.
I thought during the opening minutes, there was a technical problem with the film’s brightness, until I realised Charlie is a shut-in, he never goes out, never opens his curtains. This gloominess is more than just atmosphere, it’s designed to make the light, when it finally floods in, feel ethereal.
Similarly Aronofsky has cropped the film’s aspect ratio, reduced the frame to accentuate mass. When Charlie stands, lumbers to his feet, balancing, unsteady, imminently crashing to the floor, he’s as wide as he is tall, filling the almost square four by three frame.
All of this works to make a uniquely cinematic experience. It’s hard to imagine getting the same punch watching it on a domestic screen. There’s something about the scale in the cinema, projected high, huge, that is brutal.
I slid down an internet rabbit-hole and landed in a science-horror-show, that asks more questions about the state and future of humanity than you’d think possible.
In what could be a sketch written by Chris Morris, a story has been dragged from the internet archives, exposing the first organic modular body, OSCAR.
I found the entrance to Oscar’s warren while scrolling through the hosepipe of content that is DeSo. The headline “Scientists Have Built the First Modular Body” caught my attention, piqued my interest. Bait swallowed, I clicked through to Yahoo, and was met by a reposted piece from Popular Mechanics.
Yahoo retells the story of Cornelis Vlasman, a biologist who “envisions the human body as a working biological LEGO system” fully modular with “each part interchangeable” allowing a body to be organised in “unique arrangements”.
Personally, I find this kind of thing fascinating, grist to the mill of science-fiction speculation. Stories about scientific developments that are as fascinating as they are concerning surface every day. Tim Newcomb’s story had me imagining chimeric monsters churned out by some apocalyptic future.
A couple or three years back, Dan Robitzski wrote about a material made with synthetic DNA, able to “continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself in a process so similar to how biological cells and tissues grow” researchers likened it to an “artificial metabolism”. That discovery brought with it visions of self-replicating nonobots, consuming and reproducing, until there’s nothing left of the planet but grey goo.
Comparing Newcomb’s story to the reality of cultured meat “grown from animal cells in a factory rather than on a farm” and the “organic modular body” doesn’t seem that far-fetched. All kinds of unethical but not beyond possible. Just another idea made real by research and experimentation.
Then I watched the video. Cornelis Vlasman presents the creepy looking organic robot, Oscar. About the size of fat Barbie Mattel, wearing a chicken filet dress and matching bacon gilet, it has all the charm of a parasite escaping a David Cronenberg character, especially when it starts moving, thrashing around like some newly hatched bird.
The video is just shit enough to make Vlasman’s brief presentation feel authentic, but something about it feels off, not right. For a start, the low angle looking up at Vlasman is wrong, it’s too deliberately framed. Scientist are all about proof. It should’ve been framed higher, wider, including as much of the scene and possible. My guess, they were trying to make a basement look more like a lab, without dressing the background too heavily.
Curious and curiouser, I went looking for more. The original article wasn’t hard to find.
Almost immediately you see Yahoo’s retelling is different from the original. In paragraph two there’s a one word difference, one word that changes everything.
In a (fictional) experiment, Vlasman created OSCAR, a living, organic being formed from his own cells, albeit one that functions with the help of technology.
Supposedly the same author, with contradictory intentions and conclusions, presumably for Yahoo’s clicks and giggles.
While looking for the Popular Mechanics piece, I landed on a couple of other publications who’d picked up on the story.
Shaw Johnson, who at the time of writing has an impressive 9573 stories under their belt for Business News, rehashes the Yahoo effort with the kind of care you’d expect from headless chicken.
Mason Regan, another prolific poster, this time for Canada Today, does a less than sterling job of cutting and pasting Newcombe’s original story.
They both claim a by-line but inexplicably include Newcombe’s bio?
The staff reporters at The Rio Times at least took the time to “rewrite” the story. Same sensational science-horror-show but more concise in the telling of it.
Both Business News and Canada Today reference someone called Andrei Tapalag, clumsily reorganising one of Newcomb’s sentences, taking “In the video from a few years ago, recently unearthed by Newsbreak’s Andrei Tapalaga” to “recently appeared in the video newsbreakAndrei Tapalga” and “In the video from a few years ago recently dug up by newsAndrei Tapalaga” respectively.
Andrei Tapalag seems to be the source for this reappearance of Oscar. His story, posted on 01 February 2023, profiles Vlasman as the heroic “biologist who believes that the path less trodden is, by definition, the least interesting”.
I think Tapalag botched his quote? What he’s done is rewritten “the well-traveled path is by definition the least intriguing” and cocked it up. In a keen example of the internet eating itself, the latter is Tapalag writing for History of Yesterday a day or two before his NewsBreak story appeared.
Undeterred by misquoting himself, Tapalag continues singing the praises of Vlasman for conducting “experiments with organic materials on his own initiative, with his own resources, and with his own crew” and successfully “creating new life from cells collected from his own body”.
If we believe Tapalag, Vlasman is a true outlier, an innovator, a true maverick, a scientist on a hero’s journey?
I don’t think it will surprise anyone to learn, this student from Guildford, with an extensive experience history on LinkedIn, is founder and publisher of History of Yesterday.
Apart from being picked up for Popular Mechanics, Tapalag’s NewsBreak story seems to have struck a cord with most of its readers. Only one guest flagged it as a “science fiction story”. The rest take it at face value, landing their opinions somewhere between outraged and horrified.
Yahoo’s comment section is a little more circumspect, but it’s still crazy how many of the opinions go along with it the bastardised Popular Mechanics story, and respond with similar sense of outrage and horror.
The thing is, the truth of Oscar is far more interesting than the science-horror-show presented by Yahoo or Tapalag.
If you search “Oscar” and “Cornelis Vlasman” you’ll quickly find a YouTube channel. If you get to it as I did through their app, you immediately know it’s “part of online science fiction story http://www.themodularbody.com – by Floris Kaayk” because it’s there, in the channel’s bio.
Floris Kaayk is a Dutch digital artist and filmmaker, whose work explore the relationship between technology and humans, commenting, unpicking, exposing, both its positive an negative impacts.
The Modular Body is one of several storytelling projects he’s released online, using the internet and social media as his medium. Created in 2016, Oscar consists of fifty-six interconnected documentary clips telling the story of the modular life-form. Kaayk’s fiction picks at the role biotechnology has in our lives, scratching at the distinction between natural and artificial until the metaphorical scab starts to bleed.
I suppose, if you were being unkind, you’d call this satire. If you did I think you’d be missing the point. It’s more complicated than that. By asking big questions in such a provocative way, Kaayk is able to make really profound observations about the state and future of humanity.
Certainly it’s more intelligent and challenging than the sensationalist science-horror-show favoured by Tapalag. A generous interpretation might allow him to be part of the dialogue, but his lack intention places him outside the discussion. He functions in the territory of clicks and commerce, not questions and insights into the human condition.
For me Kaayk’s intervention is the purest piece of science-fiction storytelling I’ve seen in a long while. He made me consider the possibility, because for a brief moment the idea was real, alive in that space between what’s actual and our fantasies.
That space, rare, illusive, is art revealing a truth.
Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s book is not your usual walk through the apocalypse. A deadly flu ripping through the population, killing almost everyone on the planet, is pretty standard. A story connecting multiple timelines, mapping the interconnected lives of an actor, his wife, their son, with an artist, mentor, actress, and healer, is not. Neither are the links each has with the enigmatic Station Eleven, a graphic novel that takes on an almost mystical significance in their post-pandemic world.
To describe it as complex undersells what unfolds.
Twenty years after the pandemic, the Travelling Symphony makes a living performing Shakespeare’s plays to communities of survivors. I have a feeling this troupe of “strolling players” trundling through the decaying remains of civilisation, atop horse-drawn RVs, is something Shakespeare would recognise. The Symphony’s wondrously staged productions, and gloriously inventive costumes, tease meaning from the harshness, a living “Museum of Civilisation” connecting with the past, keeping a dying culture alive.
Not everyone shares the Symphony’s reverence for the time before. The Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) has a more antagonistic relationship with life past. It’s in this tension, between all things pre and post pandemic, between those connected with civilisation, and the “post-pan” children, for whom the world before is a myth, that the drama unfolds. When the Symphony repeats the mantra “we don’t leave the wheel” they’re not only talking about the route they take, the communities the perform to, but the culture they cling to. If Shakespeare is culture, written down, Station Eleven is the return to, the re-emergence of, the oral traditions of storytelling, of keeping history.
It’s the culture gone full circle.
Narratively inventive, the story’s fluid relationship with time, jumping back and forth, weeks, month, years before and after the pandemic, leaves the feeling of memories alive in your mind. For the infant and adult Kirsten (Matilda Lawler and Mackenzie Davis), the Symphony’s best actress, they’re more than just memories, they’re real and active, alive. There’s a sequence, you might call it a dream, where younger and older Kirsten are together, fully engage, talking to one other, communicating across time.
This dynamic approach to storytelling brings depth to apocalypse.
The Little Things (2021) feels like a film from another time. Yes it’s set in the early nineties, but it’s more complicated than that.
Rural policeman Joe Deacon (Denzel Washington) returns to Los Angeles on routine business, where he gets drawn into the hunt for a serial killer, that may be connected to one of his old cases.
Washington does that brooding thing as the man haunted by personal and professional mistakes. Jared Leto is in full needs-a-wash-creepy mode as the suspected serial killer. And Rami Malek is all clean-cut confidence as the lead investigator, who looks like a child next to the seasoned Washington.
John Lee Hancock complicates this standard procedural with hints of coverup and vigilantism, that has the good doing bad for good reasons.