The Universal Set [Short Story]

The Universal Set
by Grant Gougler

The crazy woman was on the corner again. Of course she was on the corner. There was nowhere else crazy could go.

Bay wondered why the cops hadn’t done anything about her yet. It was obscene she got to spout her nonsense where anyone, including children, could hear it. The woman was beginning to draw crowds!

People came to laugh at her dancing, her screaming, her obscenities, and she fed off their energy and they fed off hers. Bay had laughed at first, too, but now the crazy woman was beginning to worry her.

The woman wasn’t just an anomaly anymore. Now she was there more often than not, standing on the bench for all to see and shouting with every ounce of breath for all to hear. And what she was saying… it was so cruel and mean! How could anyone think like that, much less put that absurd level of badness out into the air where anyone—especially children!—could be exposed to it?

“What’s wrong with her?” Bay’s son asked.

“Nothing, honey. Just pretend she’s not there.”

“Why is she so loud?”

“Just get in the car before your ice cream melts.”

“Maybe we should listen to her.”

“No,” Bay snapped. She’d lost control of her voice, and felt the tears welling up in her son long before they actually pooled in his eyes. “Oh… oh, I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean—”

“I was just asking a question!” he wailed.

“I know. I had no right to shout at you.”

The doors of the car were closed then and the crazy woman’s diatribe had become unintelligible. The air conditioner chilled Bay in contrast to the humid hotness outside. Despite the cold air, the ice cream was streaking down her knuckles and making the skin between her fingers sticky.

Bay could already feel her friends and family sending tendrils of concern in her direction. The tendrils were slow at first, like seaweeds grazing the bottom of a boat, but soon they were enveloping her thoughts piecemeal.

It wasn’t long until the fireflies arrived: macroscopic drones which were as ubiquitous as they were intrusive. A dozen or so surrounded the car, shooting video through the windows.

“That woman out there,” Bay explained carefully, “isn’t an Empath like most people.”

“That’s why I can’t feel what she’s feeling?”

“That’s right. And what she feels… you don’t want any part of it, honey. It’s hatred, plain and simple. And if you catch it, it can damper your own Empathy.”

Bay expected the boy to reel from such a terrible idea, but he did not. Instead she felt the shame shimmering on her son’s forehead like a heat mirage. He diverted his eyes as Bay scrutinized him. All the while, she could feel more and more of the tendrils paying attention to the scene. The story was blowing up beyond a local level as the fireflies streamed it live.

“Son,” Bay said, attempting to limit her tone of accusation. “I can feel your shame. What did you do?”

“Nothing,” the boy said sheepishly.

“Then why do you feel bad about something?”

He was absentmindedly playing with the buttons on the armrest. “I… I kind of took a snapshot of her.”

“You did what?!” Bay had planned to control the anger in her voice, but didn’t catch it in time. First she felt her son’s fear, then a crippling wave of shame from the viewers. The tendrils were angry at her for being so brutish, and they were agitating the water of her psyche. “I’m sorry, honey. I just wanted to know why you would do such a thing. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I just thought she was interesting,” the boy said with a shrug.

The boy’s shame reminded Bay to keep her own reactions in check. She couldn’t afford slipping again, couldn’t afford sending out any more badness. Couldn’t afford upsetting those who were watching.

She had to empty her head of the bad vibes. If they bounced around in there too long they could cause considerable harm. Everybody knew bad thoughts were bad for you. It was the kind of common sense the crazy woman derided during her paranoid monologues, the very reason she had been abandoned by the system. Bay had to shake the badness from her body. Had to take a deep breath to detox herself of the negativity.

Bay asked her son, as calmly as possible: “Were you going to share that woman’s picture with your friends or something?”

A crescendo of good vibes came washing over Bay and she was delighted by the approval. Most of the tendrils agreed with her delicate ways. Yet there were still holdouts, in the very back of the vast network of minds, tendrils sent by people halfway across the country. They were people she’d never known and would likely never meet, yet they were watching the scene unfold just the same.

The story was blowing up. She could feel it.

Bay knew she could win over the holdouts by the end of the discussion. She had to. If she didn’t they could cast her from the waters like the crazy woman. Sure, the waters were choppy and exhausting, but she could not imagine life without them. Bay needed them, needed their good vibes, and they needed hers.

Everybody needed somebody. Otherwise they would end up like the crazy lady, dancing and screaming desperately for attention: “WATCH ME DRY-HUMP THIS BANANA IN EXCHANGE FOR MY BAD VIBES! FREE LUNACY FOR ALL YOU EMPATHIC FUCKS TO SOAK UP LIKE THE BRAINLESS SPONGES YOU ARE! COME AND GET IT BEFORE IT’S ALL GONE ON THE CORNER OF 15TH AND JEFFERSON!”

“Honey,” Bay said, prodding her son. “You’re avoiding the question.”

“I tried to share the picture,” he confessed, “but the feed disappeared.”

“That’s because she’s not a good thing to share, honey. The things she’s saying aren’t even legal to share, which is why the system automatically flags them. And that’s why she goes outside to spread her lies and her fear: it’s the only place she has left.”

Half the tendrils were placated for the moment, but the other half agitated the water even harder. Bay wasn’t sure why they were so upset. WHAT HAVE I DONE? she asked them and they laughed at her ignorance while a few promised they would kill her.

MUST NOT LOSE THE GROUP, Bay thought in a panic. HAVE TO TURN THEM BACK TO ME….

Bay shocked herself with the realization that this thought had taken place in the conscious part of her mind, not in the subconscious wings where selfish thoughts were permissible. She felt the backlash in the form of bad vibes, a great deluge of them drowning her with pain and shame and hatred and anger. The fireflies were pressing against the windows then, making room for the dozens of others which had been drawn to her disgrace.

The story had officially gone global. And in that moment she and her son were the most famous people on the planet. In that moment…

OH, PLEASE! she begged. PLEASE DON’T CRUCIFY ME! IT WAS AN ACCIDENT, I SWEAR!

But the anger came hard and the tendrils were almost uniformly maligned against her. The entire world seemed to hate her then.

SHAME ON YOU YOU PATHETIC EXCUSE OF A PARENT! said the tendrils. HOW DARE YOU TALK TO YOUR LITTLE BOY LIKE THAT YOU RAT FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! HOW CAN YOU CALL YOURSELF AN EMPATH YOU STUPID CUNT??!!

As she choked on the shame she glanced at her son in the seat beside her. So peaceful. So innocent. So naive to the badness in the world… naive was better. Naive was good.

Oblivious to what was happening to his mother, the boy had finally begun to control the melting of his cone. His grin was huge as he licked at the ice cream strategically. He was getting the opposite of what Bay was getting at that very moment. There was a kind of economy to the vibes: if you were getting the bad ones, then that only meant someone had to be getting the good ones.

Cowering against the shame, Bay screamed hysterically. Despite the badness, Bay could sense the boy’s polar goodness in the form of great satisfaction: SUCH A GOOD CONE! VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR! The drowning woman reached for the goodness as if it were a lifeline.

I LIKE VANILLA, TOO! she announced desperately. VANILLA IS MY FAVORITE FLAVOR!

Then the swell of anger split again: some of it Pro Vanilla, some of it Team Chocolate. Yet so much of the anger on both sides of the divide was still aimed directly at her.

SHE LIKES VANILLA? OH, I’M SO FUCKING SHOCKED.

I JUST WANT TO STATE FOR THE RECORD THAT NOT ALL VANILLA FANS ARE TOTAL FUCKHEADS.

FUCK YOU, YOU HATEFUL VANILLAMONGER!

FUCK YOU, YOU UNEDUCATED COCK!

The deeper Bay sank, the more the waters calmed. The anger was ripping itself apart as it attacked anything it could: chocolate, vanilla, music, celebrities, and everything in between. It was a snake devouring itself, a trapped animal gnawing off its own foot.

And then, as inexplicably as it all began, it was over. The waters calmed. Bay was forgiven as much as she was forgotten.

So she ate her ice cream, wishing the cops would do something about the crazy woman. The tendrils agreed. All was good again for several seconds.

Split Second (1992) [Midnight Movie]

It’s the year 2008 and global warming has managed to submerge London in about a foot of murky water. I’m not sure where the mutant rats figure into this poor man’s cyberpunk world, but the little buggers are ubiquitous and the characters will wreck entire apartments just to gun ’em down. Harley Stone (Rutger Hauer) is a loose cannon of a cop who punches and kicks anyone who gets in his way. When a fellow cop inquires about his sanity, the chief of police (Alun Armstrong) replies with that good ol’ “he’s the best there is” cliche.

Actually, calling anything in this movie cliched might be missing the point. It isn’t “only” science fiction, fantasy, horror, and action, but I want to say it’s a parody of all that stuff, too. It even goes out of its way to do the old “meet your new partner” routine with surprising freshness. Or maybe I’m being too kind to it, considering I feel like I’m the only person who likes this movie. And I always liked this movie.

Split Second opens in a scuzzy night club called The Non-Stop Striptease. A spiky-collared Rottweiler attempts to bite Stone’s nuts off in the alleyway entrance, at which point Stone calmly flashes the dog his badge and says, “I’m a cop, asshole.” This placates the dog. We don’t know why Stone is here—we get the feeling he doesn’t know, either—but soon a woman’s heart is ripped out and, somehow, no one saw who was responsible for the murder. This doesn’t stop Stone from racing out into the dark streets, punching and shooting anything that moves (or doesn’t) in an attempt to alleviate his severe anxiety.

See, a long time ago Stone’s partner was murdered by the very thing which is running around town, ripping hearts out and drawing intricate astrological signs in blood. Stone has been steadily going downhill ever since the incident and it’s not until later when we find out why he’s psychically linked to the beast. The monster, by the way, is ten feet tall, has a wicked set of teeth and claws, but turns out to be one of the most disappointing rubber suits you’ll ever see. Never mind that because the ride up until that point is fun as hell.

Featuring Kim Cattrall, Pete Postlethwaite, and Michael J. Pollard, this British production from The Burning director (my favorite slasher film) is a madhouse that rarely loses steam. You’ll laugh at it for the first ten to twenty minutes, then you’ll realize it’s very much in on the joke, allowing you to laugh with it for the rest of the running time. Rutger Hauer is one of the few bonafide actors who fell into these low budget films with the same wit and enthusiasm he had in more serious efforts—you can tell he’s enjoying it, too. I can’t think of anyone else who was equally great in both A- and B-movies, then slipped back into A-movies without missing a step.

Do you like the early 90s ridiculous vision of the future? Do you like Rutger Hauer? If yes, you’re going to like this movie. Early nineties Terminator, Alien, and Predator ripoffs are kind of a guilty pleasure for me, if only because I’m so damn nostalgic for them.

And you know what? Fuck the haters. This is a legitimately exciting movie. It was the perfect cure for the unbelievably disappointing Star Trek Beyond, which I saw on the same day. How a movie can have so much cool stuff in it, and completely fail to excite me, I’ll never know, but I digress. Split Second delivers the speed.

Arrival (2016)

There’s so much I want to say about Arrival, but the movie works so much better the less you know about it. I certainly wouldn’t say the trailers ruined it, just that I was disappointed I saw them before letting the film unfold naturally. I’ve felt uneasy about the idea of a sequel to Blade Runner, but now that I’ve seen director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Sicario (my fourth favorite film of 2015), I can breathe easy. Here’s a director who’s probably going to be a household name like Spielberg and Scorsese. He’s also the guy who’s going to pick up the torch Neill Blomkamp dropped.

This is my favorite science fiction film since last year’s Ex Machina. It might be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Arrival is so far removed from Hollywood’s narrow view of science fiction, it’s no wonder it released in November rather than the summer (it will also help get it the Oscar nominations it deserves). I don’t remember the last time I saw a non-summer movie in the middle of the day which was as packed as this one, either, so hopefully it’s making boat loads of money.

We need more of this.

No, entire cities aren’t destroyed in the opening act. The President of the United States doesn’t look out the window of the White House and whisper, “My God.” Not only are no landmarks destroyed, they’re nowhere to be found—the alien ship which settles over America chooses to do so in Montana of all places. Even though the trailer gives away the reveal, it’s no less breathtaking seeing it within the context of the story.

The characters representing the government agencies provide strong conflict for the scientific characters without becoming the Jaws Mayor. Usually you’re supposed to hate the military character Forest Whitaker is playing, but you typically don’t draw actors as accomplished as he is if you’re so predictable. Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA stooge also has clear and understandable motives, even though he, too, would have been made a villain in lesser movies.

I’ve complained several times on this blog about how scientists are often portrayed in movies. I’m glad I can say Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner nail it. They’re not pizza-eating losers in lab coats and they’re just the right amount of nerdy—the kind of people you would actually see interviewed in science documentaries. Adams’ character especially is complex and to say any more than that might give away some of the best stuff in the movie.

A Boy and His Dog (1975) [Trailer]

I don’t normally post fan edits, but this one’s poignant. (The official trailer, on the other hand, is all kinds of lame). Somehow I’ve never seen this movie despite the fact Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite writers of all time. I’m still deciding whether I want to rent it or buy the Blu-Ray.
As usual, there’ll be a Midnight Movie featured here this Friday so be sure to come back and check it out. Or don’t. It’s a free country, last I checked, but I must confess I didn’t see the results of the election at the time of scheduling this post. 
And I feel fiiiiiiiiiiiiine.

Starship Troopers was a terrible adaptation?

“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!” — Paul Verhoeven

I remember thinking the marketing which led up to Starship Troopers’ release was awful. At first glance the cast looked like it belonged in a teenybopper drama. Meanwhile the over-the-top macho mentalities didn’t come across well in the 30-second TV spots, which didn’t have enough time to convey the fact the filmmakers were indeed in on the joke. My overall preconception of the film was this: it looked like a straight-to-video movie which somehow wormed its way into theaters.

Yet I still went to see it on opening night, shuffling into the theater with the lowest of expectations. I had nothing better to do on a Friday back then. There were maybe six other people there including, I think, a local film critic who occasionally shone a flashlight on his notepad and repeatedly touched the illumination dial on his watch. He didn’t look too happy.

You’ll remember in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop that the narrative is occasionally interrupted by satirical advertisements and news segments, as if the film has absurd commercial breaks baked right into it. (It pains me to think we can expect nothing nearly as creative, original, or daring from anything coming out this summer.) Likewise, Starship Troopers opens with war propaganda, simultaneously establishing the tone for its irreverent attitude and setting up the plot’s simple premise: it’s the future and humans really hate aliens. In fact, humans hate aliens so much that young men and women everywhere can’t wait to fight the bastards.

That’s when we’re introduced to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his high school friends. The film, quite ingeniously, feels like a teenybopper drama for the first thirty minutes or so, but only so it can jerk the rug out from under our heroes’ feet. Rico has a hot girlfriend (Denise Richards), a hunky rival (Patrick Muldoon), a bad girl acquaintance named Dizzy (Dina Meyer), and an ultra-nerdy best friend played by Neil Patrick Harris, whose casting in an R-rated romp was wonderfully scandalous. Remember, he’d yet to shed the Doogie Howser persona we knew so well.

There’s even a cheesy prom scene which hints at what’s wrong with Rico’s life: it’s too sheltered and idyllic for him to have any inkling what he and his friends are actually signing up for when they join the Mobile Infantry. Rico doesn’t get his first hint until he turns in his papers to a double-amputee who assures him, “You’ve made the right choice, son. Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today.”

Rico’s girlfriend is sent off to the space navy, his brainy best friend gets absorbed by the science and technology sector, and Rico himself ends up in one of the toughest squads in existence. (His hardcore drill sergeant is played by the criminally underrated Clancy Brown, who I love to see in genre movies, not only because he takes them so seriously. The same can be said of Michael Ironside, who plays an even bigger part in the story.) There Rico makes new friends for the first time in his adult life, including Jake Busey, whose maniacal appearance instantly washes away the Dawson’s Creek vibe from the earlier portion of the picture.

Just when Rico’s finally beginning to gel with his new life, who of all people should suddenly transfer to his squad? Why, it’s bad girl Dizzy, who has been pursuing Rico since high school. Seems suspicious, don’t it? Here’s something I really love about Starship Troopers: in practically every movie in which the leading character is pursued by two love interests, he or she always ends up with the wholesome, slightly less attractive option. Not our boy Rico. Soon after his girlfriend dumps him via email, Rico hooks up with Dizzy. Good job, Rico.

I can’t even put into words why I find this subplot, like so much of the rest of the movie, so endearing, but you’ll notice I’ve said practically nothing about the action and the science fiction. Starship Troopers is a lot deeper than that and yet I totally get why so many people don’t like it. Different strokes, folks.

The score by Basil Poledouris is as rousing as anything he’s ever done (and he’s done some of the best) while the special effects hold up even though they relied on a lot of early CGI. In fact, I’m a lot more convinced by the effects now then I was back then, when I was still looking for any reason to hate the movie. As for the action, it’s exciting and well-paced, and playfully violent as per Verhoeven’s style.

Yes, the movie’s message is about as obvious as it can get. I scratch my head whenever people suggest that’s a bad thing. I think the bluntness seems quite in line with its comedic aspirations, almost in a Mad Magazine kind of way. Besides, when was the last time you saw a hundred-million dollar movie which had the balls to be about anything of significance? This is not lowest-common denominator kind of entertainment here, it’s just masquerading as such.

Those of you who suggest it goes against everything Heinlein stood for seem to be underestimating how complex, politically and socially, Heinlein actually was in his long career. This is the guy who also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, the argument the film doesn’t do the novel justice is an understandable complaint. I kind of agree (Like, where’s the power armor, dude?), it’s just not a very good argument for me, personally. Minority Report is another adaptation which shares little in common with its source material, but I loved that movie, too, so how can I complain?

I think it’s every bit as good as Robocop and Total Recall. I’d be hard pressed to choose my favorite out of the three. We just don’t get movies like this anymore.

No Man’s Sky might be the most disappointing launch of the year [PC]

  • Current hardware: i5-4690k @ 3.50 GHz, GTX 970, 16gb RAM

No Man’s Sky launched at noon today in my timezone. I got a good three hours out of it before it began giving me major problems. (Naturally, Steam only lets you refund it if you return it before two hours of playtime have elapsed, which means I’m fucked there.) I was having occasional stuttering and FPS drops from the get-go, but for the most part it was playable.

Then, three hours into it, my CPU overheated and the PC shut down. No other game has ever done this to my current setup. I applied a number of fixes from various forums, booted it back up, and tried again. Thirty minutes later: roughly the same problem. This time my computer locked up entirely as the speakers croaked. I’m reluctant to try again even after they release another patch.

Technical issues aside, here are my first impressions about the gameplay itself: so far, it’s nowhere near as fun or polished as Rebel Galaxy. It’s not as satisfying as Elite: Dangerous. The ship controls are shit and I don’t see them improving at all, whether you jump through the hoops required to make a joystick work or not. I honestly wouldn’t bother trying. You can’t even pitch the nose down, as if that makes any fucking sense, while the dumbed down landing and docking procedures would be forgivable in a mobile game, but not this one.

This could have been a decent indie game if Sony hadn’t gotten their hands on it. I have a feeling the developers knew damn good and well it wasn’t a $60 title before the corporation stuck its proboscises into their brains. It’s the same way Facebook managed to corrupt Palmer Luckey and his Oculus VR platform. This is not a fun game at launch and I don’t see it getting much better, although I had a little more hope for it before my technical issues began.

Although I don’t think the dev team is entirely to blame (who would refuse Sony’s money?), I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed. I’ll probably try it again after a future patch, but so far it looks like a major dud.

Here’s a big list of space games you should play instead of No Man’s Sky:

Empryrion – Galactic Survival $19.99

Despite being in early access, Empryion has just about everything you wanted from NMS, but weren’t actually going to get, including real multiplayer, base-building, and satisfying planet-hopping. The only reason I took a break from this one was to give it more time to ripen. It’s tough, challenging, and building your own spaceships is extremely rewarding. If you like supporting developers who actually take early access seriously, this is your game. It’s rough around the edges, but the freedom more than makes up for it.

Eve Online $19.99 (plus monthly subscription)

Eve has one of the friendliest, most helpful communities in the world. It’s dry, but that’s just the nature of this variety of science fiction. (If you love hard SF, you’re probably going to enjoy this.) The only thing I dislike about it is the fact it lends itself better to a mouse and keyboard than my joystick setup. I’m allergic to paying monthly subscriptions, too.

FTL: Faster Than Light $9.99

Deceptively simple at first glance, FTL is more fun per minute than NMS is per hour. If you wanted NMS because you like emergent stories, this is the one you should get. It’s insane how attached you get to your crew members, all of whom are likely to die at any minute.

Kerbal Space Program $39.99

I think everybody knows how good KSP is by now. It’s perhaps the greatest early access title in history. Despite the cartoonish characters, it’s by far the most realistic space simulator on this list. The joy of making it to “the mun” (or successfully rescuing a character who you stranded there) is beyond words.

Rebel Galaxy $19.99

I was skeptical of simplifying what I like so much about Elite: Dangerous and games of that nature, but Rebel Galaxy is tons of fun. In fact, if you haven’t played Eve or Elite (or you didn’t get what all the fuss was about) think of RG as a kind of entry point to those games. A gamepad is a must, so it’s a great option for couch gaming, either via Steam Link or playing on a console. The NPC interaction in this game is leagues better than what I experienced in NMS, and the combat is naval style, meaning you mostly fire from and at the broadsides of ships.

RimWorld $29.99

Okay, this one doesn’t exactly let you travel through space, but it’s one of my favorite games in years. You will die. Your colony will die. It might be best for those who expected a science fiction flavored challenge out of NMS, which I certainly never saw in my admittedly short time with it. I didn’t ever feel like I was in danger once in NMS.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion $39.99

I can’t believe Sins is still $39.99, but it’s probably my favorite 4X RTS this side of Red Alert 2. This one will scratch your itch for deep, tactical gameplay.

Space Engineers $24.99

I love Space Engineers and they’ve been slowly but steadily folding survival elements into it. If you were drawn to NMS because you were drawn to the insinuation you would be able to do just about anything, this is a much better bet.

Starbound $14.99

I really enjoyed my brief time in Starbound, particularly in multiplayer, and it offers better planet exploration, looting, and crafting than NMS at the moment. I also think it has a better sense of wonder.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play Destiny for the first time.