The strange case of Hemlock Grove

A few weeks ago, I started watching the Netflix supernatural series Hemlock Grove on a whim. Somehow I managed to get through all 13 episodes of the first season. Still, I’m not sure if the show is a brilliant mess or a well-meaning failure.

Hemlock-Grove_keyart

Hemlock Grove, based on a book by Peter McGreevy (who also created the show), is a riff on the vampire and werewolf takes we all know by heart. It’s set in a fictional Pennsylvania town that is typically mid-America in all ways (with a touch of Twin Peaks), except for the monsters that roam its streets and woods.

The action begins, harshly, as a girl is brutally attacked and disembowled on her way to rendezvous with her high-school teacher. From there we meet the locals. There’s the powerful Godfrey family, headed by matriarch Olivia (played by X-Men’s Famke Janssen), and her teenage children: brooding, spoiled Roman (Bill Skarsgard), and the awkwardly disfigured Shelley. And we also meet the Rumanceks: Lynda (Lili Taylor) and her teenage son Peter (Landon Liboiron). And then there’s Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), his teenage daughter Leetha and his wife (no name; she doesn’t matter). Norman is Olivia’s brother in law, and Roman and Shelley’s uncle.

hemlock_grove kiss

So that’s the basic setup of Hemlock Grove. Simple enough, except that none of it really makes sense. Everything about the show — from the acting to the writing to the basic plotting — seems off. I could write several blog posts about the strangeness of this show, but here are just a few examples.

–The locals quickly tag Peter as a werewolf because of his “excessive body hair.” The actor who plays Peter, however, has not that much body hair at all. But he really is a werewolf after all (!)

HG transform

–The wildly over-the-top Olivia Godfrey is supposed to be English, but her accent slips and slides all over the place. And Roman’s accent as well is bizarre (it turns out the actor is Swedish)

–Dougray Scott must be pissed off at having to play on this show. He mopes through every scene, as if all he’s thinking of is cashing the next paycheck. At least Famke Janssen gets the joke; she camps it up in every scene she’s in

–There’s some seriously strong gay subtext in the friendship between Peter and Roman. It is not at all subtle, though it doesn’t do much in terms of developing their characters. It’s basically pointless

Peter Roman

–The high schoolers are written way more adult. Roman, for example, zips around in his classic sportscar as he hires hookers, chain smokes, and drinks in bars. And school seems optional

It took me a while to figure out what the hell was up with Hemlock Grove. It’s weird and surreal. It’s badly written and unevenly acted. But I couldn’t stop watching. Then it clicked. It’s produced by Eli Roth, the man behind Hostel. I remember watching Cabin Fever, directed by Roth, years ago. Cabin Fever was a grade B horror flick, nothing groundbreaking about it. But it was so damned weird. And Hostel likewise was just plain bizarre. Apparently Eli Roth has developed his own freaky genre.

Hemlock Grove did manage to wrap up its main story lines by episode 13 in a mostly satisfying way. And it was definitely entertaining as I felt whiplashed between the weirdness and the awfulness.

So would I recommend watching Hemlock Grove? My advice would be to proceed with caution.

Read this book: Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis’s alt history/sci-fi mashup scores big on imagination, even if many of his characters are flat.

bitter seeds 1

Aside from the supernatural/horror/sci-fi, another thing I’m a fan of in pop culture is alternative histories. The “what if” has always fascinated me, mainly because it lets the imagination run away.

In his book Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis combines not only sci-fi, but also horror, with alternative history. Add nazis, arguably one of the best villain groups of all time, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.

bitter seeds 3The plot: in Germany, a mad scientist is creating his own band of supermen, soldiers capable of such things as turning invisible, starting fire, and predicting the future. As war looms between Germany and the rest of Europe, the British government forms a group called Milkweed to investigate these reports. Soon a covert battle ensues as the British group use warlocks to summon dark forces to battle the nazis.

It’s actually a complicated plot to explain in a few tight sentences. Our hero is Raybould Marsh, a pugnacious British secret agent who is sent to investigate the reports of these supermen. Soon he summons his college friend Will, a warlock initiated in a blood rite that allows him to communicate with beings called Eidolons. When you think of Eidolons, think Lovecraft. These mysterious beings are not kindly or benevolent. They see humans as no better than ants. They would gladly destroy us but they exist in a different plane, and can never pin us down. Blood helps them get closer. Tregillis doesn’t fully explain what the Eidolons are, but he doesn’t need to. My imagination filled the gaps just fine.

Meanwhile, the German team of superheroes is on the verge of falling apart. They were Bitter-Seeds 2created when they were just children, bought by a scientist who experimented on them (horribly, one would assume, judging from the body count) until he had his team in place. They wear batteries that are hooked to wires embedded in their skulls, which allows them to access their superpowers. This is one of Tregillis’s strengths — he employs, simple, believable technology suited for the era. Think steampunk circa 1930s.

The German story centers on two characters: Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through walls, and his sister Gretel, an enigmatic sociopath who knows the future (though she rarely reveals it). Gretel is perhaps the most compelling character. Why? She is always a mystery, always unpredictable, and always uncontrolled. She’s fascinating to watch.

The breakdown. What was good about Bitter Seeds?

–The concept was fun. Who doesn’t love watching nazis get beat?

–As mentioned above. Gretel was by far my favorite character, though Will, the aristocratic warlock, was a close second. Tregillis convincingly drew a man who grew more and more tortured, especially as the Eidolons demanded higher blood prices as the battle continued.

–The Eidolons themselves were a fantastic creation. Thoroughly dangerous, extremely powerful, callously indifferent. I want more.

–Tregillis is a skilled writer. As a writer myself, I’m always appreciative of someone who takes great care in the writing of a story.

And the not so good:

Bitter Seeds suffers from something I see a lot in fiction. I call it the running in circles plot. Maybe the writer isn’t sure what to do next. Maybe the writer needs to up his page count. But sometimes a story starts running in circles, where the characters are going back and forth (sometimes literally) and not really getting anywhere. Not much plot movement, maybe a little character development. There were several times when I could feel the story lapsing into this.

–Aside from Gretel and Will, I cared little about any of the other characters. Our hero, Marsh, was fine, but he never made the leap off the page for me. Similarly, Klaus was very one note. His whole role was to protect his sister Gretel, and that’s all he did. The Germans, especially, were largely forgettable.

Nevertheless, Bitter Seeds (which is book one in a trilogy) is inventive, imaginative and thrilling. I’m looking forward to discovering where Tregillis will take us next.

Why not Mars?

World building is an integral part of fiction. When it comes to sci-fi, Mars seems like the perfect world to build. It’s been long ignored. Now, it might get its chance chance.

Writers (myself included) are closet megalomaniacs. When you write, one of the more important, though hidden, tasks is you have to construct the fictional world your characters inhabit. This is true whether you write a true-to-life family drama or a space opera set in unexplored galaxies.

As a writer, I love that part of it. And I suspect most other writers do as well. Why? Because we get to create these worlds. We are in charge.

On that level, it’s all about the worlds. But what about literal worlds?

As a sci-fi fan, I could never figure out why Mars is always forgotten. It’s well represented in print (Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for one example of many). But on film and TV, apart from a few crappy movies, Mars has been largely ignored.

Mars

And it’s right next door. You can see it, if you have a good telescope.

That may change. Spike TV, of all networks, plans to produce a TV show adapted from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars and M1_Red_MarsGreen Mars). I read these books years ago. I have some problems with the books, mostly involving pacing (slow…), but what he did brilliantly in his writing was build a world. Mars.

His books track the colonization and terraforming of Mars over centuries. He includes topics and themes such as genetic engineering and social unrest. His characters run the gamut of human nature. And he has a space elevator,which blew my young sci-fi mind when I first read about it years ago, but is now slowly turning from science fiction to science fact.

If this series comes to pass (which is always a huge question mark) and if it is done well (an even bigger question mark), it would finally give the Red Planet its due in the sci-fi world.

Let’s hope. Here’s to world building.

To life

A famous actor died last month. He committed suicide after reportedly suffering from bipolar disorder. Like a lot of people, it hit me hard. Unlike a lot of other people, it was difficult not just because he was a much-loved actor, but also for more personal reasons.

First, there’s a myth that creative people are more prone to mental conditions such as depression. But research doesn’t support that. If anything, those who are creative (and productive) show higher levels than the general population of psychosis and hypomania. Keep in mind, everyone has these traits, it’s just a matter of the degree expressed.

But in our popular culture, depression, melancholy, etc, are more commonly associated with writers, artists, actors, and other creatives. As someone who’s gone through a deep depression, I can attest that it does NOT enhance creativity. When you’re going through it, the last thing you want to do (or can do) is use your imagination to create something positive. Depression is the enemy of creation. If there is an upside, I’d say that having gone through depression makes you more empathetic to the human experience. It’s a tough trade-off.

Now back to the famous actor. While none of us can know what was going on in his head, I have great sympathy for what he went through. It’s not a cliche to say his death was tragic.

What really offended me, though, was the reaction. Many commented that he was finally at peace. One tweet specifically used the words “you’re free.” And anyone who dared to question this line of thought or point out the negative repercussions of suicide was attacked as heartless until they retracted their position.

I am not here to attack the actor for his suicide. What I am here to do is attack the idea that suicide is a viable “freeing” option for those who are in deep depression. Depression and bipolar are not a choice as much as a brain chemistry problem, but the act of suicide is a choice. And a final one. My heart breaks when I hear of someone committing suicide because I know the pain that led them to that point, and I know that the finality of their decision cuts off any hope of recovery. I’ve had friends who committed suicide. The tragedy rested in their pain and in their choice.

And it was a choice.

Suicide is seductive. When I heard of the actor’s death it awakened long dormant feelings that I thought I’d left behind forever. I hadn’t. What counters that voice—then and now—is the realization that life is pretty damn unique. Whether you believe it’s God-given or whether you believe it’s a random act of the universe, the fact that we exist, the fact of our awareness, is nothing short of a miracle.

Suicide should not be romanticized or glorified as a freeing act. It should be portrayed for what it is: a choice, a final action that is a rebuke to existence.

 

The Leftovers rehashed

A strong premise plus great performances does not equal a successful show.

Leftovers promo

I was looking forward to HBO’s new show The Leftovers for two reasons. The first was that it was created by Damon Lindelof, the mastermind behind Lost, one of my favorite TV shows ever.

The second reason was the premise: two percent of Earth’s population has suddenly, inexplicably vanished. This biblical premise has been presented before, and I was interested to see how it would be handled without an overtly religious point of view.

Once you leave behind the religious element, which The Leftovers did, there were two directions in which to take the show: 1) as a jumping point for a wider sci-fi/mystical/horror story, or 2) as a navel-gazing meditation on loss and grief. Unfortunately, the writers chose #2.

Leftovers KevinI wanted to like The Leftovers. And it seemed promising, even once I realized that the “why” of the disappearance would never be addressed.

I liked the cast, and several of the characters, at least in the beginning. Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey, the police chief, was intense and intriguing. He hadn’t lost anyone close to him in the vanishing, but his family fell apart soon after. He seemed to be losing his mind, and struggled to fulfill his duty as police chief while keeping what was left of his family intact.

Leftovers Patti LaurieAmy Brenneman as his estranged wife Laurie was great at portraying a range of emotions while rarely uttering a word as a member of the Grieving Remnant, a cult that wore white, refused to talk, chain smoked, and harassed whoever they could find, all in the name of reminding people of their losses.

Ann Dowd was brutal as Patti, the local leader of the Grieving Remnant. But part of the problem with this show was not only Patti, but the whole Grieving Remnant. I never liked any of them, and I never understood their motivation, which kept me distant from them.

The ten episode long series seemed to spin in its wheels the whole time. We watched characters struggle to move past an event that occurred three years earlier, yet they never progressed. I wasn’t sure where the story was heading, and halfway through the series, once I realized we would never learn the why, I didn’t care.

However, The Leftovers contained two of the best hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. Usually each episode jumped between different characters, but for two episodes, they chose to focus on a single character.

The first episode followed Matt Jamison (played by Doctor Who‘s Christopher Eccleston). I’ve been a big fan of Eccleston since Shallow Grave. He has a manic intensity, and this episode followed Matt Jamison as he fought to save his bankrupt church. It was a heartbreaking hour of television.

Leftovers Matt

The second episode, which was the best of the season, followed Nora Durst (the sister of Matt Jamison). I’d never heard of Carrie Coon, the actor who played Nora, but she’s high on my radar now. Nora lost her husband and both children in the vanishing. She was left alone. We were given one hour tracking Nora, and it was brilliant, both in the storytelling and in Coon’s portrayal. If only all the episodes were like this, I’d be a fan of The Leftovers, regardless.

Leftovers Nora

I think the fatal flaw of this season was that it followed the Garvey clan, and we were never given any motivation for their surly, strange behavior. There was a flashback episode that showed the Garvey family just before the event, and it did sweeten the bitter Garveys just a bit, but it was too late to change my feelings toward them. If Nora Durst and Matt Jamison were the main characters, I’d be looking forward to season two.

Wanna live forever (well, at least 30% longer)?

Immortality beckons. It’s that one thing unattainable to all of us. No matter how lucky, rich, or good looking we are, the odds are 99.999999% that we will die (there’s always the slimmest of chances that someone, somewhere has outsmarted death).

immortality

But like modern day Ponce de Leons rambling through Florida searching for the fountain of youth (the irony of him searching in Florida of all places), scientists are diligently trying, if not to have us live forever, then at least a bit longer.

One idea that’s been tossed around has been to upload our consciousness onto the web, or some other computer. But that begs the question — even if it would be possible to map our gray and white matter into bits and bytes, would it really be us?

Forget that for now. We won’t be cylons any time soon.

cylons-bsg

Instead scientists are focused on taking what we have — our flesh and blood bodies — and making them better.

The latest: scientists at UCLA have targeted a gene that counterbalances the harmful but seemingly unavoidable aging process, and by manipulating it in fruit flies, they’ve been able to extend life spans (in the flies) by as much as 30%.

fruitflyFirst question: what good are fruit flies? We’re a lot more complex than them after all. Well, fruit flies are easy to study for one thing. Scientists know all the fruit fly genes, and can switch them on and off at will. Plus, their genetics correspond to 75% of our disease-causing genes. It’s not proof, but it’s a good first start.

Second question: what are they doing exactly? They identified a gene called AMPK that, when activated specifically in the nervous system and the gut, spread beneficial effects throughout the body. It is believed that this gene could help offset the damaging effects of a range of diseases.

If this hold true in humans, the average lifespan could be shifted to well over 100. And not only would we theoretically live longer, but our quality of life would be vastly improved. Yes, in a way it’s science meets sci-fi.

Don’t rush down to the nearest gene therapy clinic just yet. This work is all very preliminary. But it’s got to start somewhere.

 

Where is everyone? (by everyone, I mean aliens)

I’m not alone, not by a longshot, when I say I love the idea of space exploration and possible alien cultures.

Look at some of the staples of pop culture — Star Trek and Star Wars, for example. These classic sci-fi stories have given us thrilling images of new worlds and aliens of all sorts. We can add one of my favorites, SyFy’s brutally cancelled Farscape, and one of the newest movie franchises, Guardians of the Galaxy (highly recommended, btw).

Farscape

In all of these, the universe is thick with life. There are countless races of intelligent—and not-so-intelligent—life forms, numbering perhaps trillions of individuals.

But, as far as we know, we are utterly alone in the universe, and we don’t know why.

As scientists discover solar system after solar system, with planets in the habitable zone, it’s dawning on us that our planet is not unique. And the logical assumption would be, if Earth is not unique, then we are not either. Surely if life evolved on Earth, over millions of years, to produce a species that is capable of traveling into space, then at least one of these other countless planets would have evolved similar life as well.

But where are they? Set aside the assumptions we’re making, such as that we would even be able to recognize alien life at all. If other species developed interstellar travel, wouldn’t they have found us by now? Wouldn’t their presence have long been known?

Revelation SpaceOne of my favorite sci-fi books, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, tackled this question. Reynolds had an intriguing, though wholly fictional answer. (SPOILER WARNING) In Revelation Space, there were indeed alien races spread throughout the universe. But they went to war and ended up wiping each other out. To avoid any such catastrophe, a super-entity was established that would snuff out any civilization that got too big for its britches. How would it to that? Simply by waiting patiently for a curious species to contact it, and then exterminating it.

Another theory for the lack of alien life is more simple. Maybe complex and intelligent life is extremely rare — so rare that we’re it. It’s called the Great Filter theory. Several nearly impossible steps had to be overcome for us to be here.

–the creation of molecules that can reproduce

–the creation of simple single-celled life

–the creation of complex, multi-celled life

And that’s not even getting into such things as the rise of intelligent life capable of traveling into space, while also avoiding threats such as asteroid strikes, nuclear war, radiation bursts from space, and so on.

So, maybe we really are alone, and there is no Star Trek style federation waiting to greet us.

The good news? Maybe we’ve already overcome the biggest hurdles to interstellar life, and the universe is ours for the taking.

Tiny monsters, continued

Real-life creepy bugs are one of my favorite science-related topics. Not sure why — maybe because it combines monsters and science.

Here’s the latest. First, we have book scorpions. I’ve only seen a scorpion in real life once. I was in El Paso and one of the suckers, pincers snapping away, was crawling up a bedroom wall. Totally freaked me out.

book-scorpion

Well, it turns out not all scorpions are vicious. Not only are so-called book scorpions too tiny to harm us humans, they’re pretty helpful. These small creatures (there are over 3,000 different species) are only a couple of millimeters in length. What they love more than anything are booklice.

What are booklice? Bugs that eat the glue that binds books. And book scorpions devour these booklice. If it wasn’t for them, all our books would fall apart.

No word on whether book scorpions would help keep your Kindle clean.

The second of today’s tiny monsters is the Demodex mite.

mites

This microscopic critter is a relative of spiders and ticks. And you are very familiar with it. How familiar? Right now there are scores crawling all over your body.

No worries, though. The mites that live among us are relatively harmless, though when their numbers get out of whack they can cause skin conditions such as rosacea.

It turns out that Demodex has been with us for a long, long time, perhaps as long as when humans first left Africa and spread out all over the world. Not only Demodex — there are several species of mites that scientists are just beginning to identify.

Read more about book scorpions here at Scientific American, and more about the hitchhiking mites at Discover Magazine.

(Book scorpion image courtesy of Protasov AN/Shutterstock; mite image courtesy of Alan R. Walker)