The Sunday Magazine: The Gifted

The comic book history of the superhero group, X-Men, has two distinct eras. The first covering their creation in 1963 until they ran out of steam and were canceled in 1969. The early incarnation was all about these powerful mutants helping humanity without too much resentment on display. When they would return in 1975 with a new team they had shifted from teenagers to adults from all over the world. The other significant shift was the world feared them. It has been that struggle which has become the hallmark of the comic book and movie versions. The feared outcasts have always provided a rich vein of stories and the latest television series, The Gifted, has taken that as its starting point.

Over the first couple of episodes we meet the Strucker family. The two children, Lauren and Andy, with parents Reed and Caitlin. Reed is a district attorney known for prosecuting mutants. Which of course means when his son exhibits uncontrollable powers he is split as a father and prosecutor. His journey will be the decision on what is more important to him. Andy’s use of his powers sends them on the run. They encounter a Mutant Underground which will smuggle you out of the country. Of course, it is never that easy and the family finds getting out of Atlanta tougher than expected which covers the entire 13-episode first season.

The other background provided throughout the first half of the season is important. First, The X-Men have disappeared. There are no heroics to be found from the most well-known mutants. Second, the fear and hate from the non-mutant population stems from an incident that happened on July 15 when at a mutant rights protest something, which hasn’t been explained fully, happened to cause mass casualties. The humans hunting the mutants refer to this as 7/15. This is the backdrop which propels the story.

Matt Nix

Over the course of the season there are discussions of how these mutants should react. The large ensemble cast does a nice job of expanding on all the different perspectives. I have liked the overall framework and the general storyline being told but the large cast has created a different problem. I am not invested in the individual story of anyone. There isn’t a mutant I particularly want to see or that stands out. There isn’t a villain which provides me enough animosity I want to see their fall. The strongest emotions I had were when the mutants who have the mind-altering abilities used them..

The show is written and overseen by Matt Nix who was a fan of the same comic books I read. If I could give him some advice for the second season I’d ask him to focus more strongly on a couple of mutant characters. Make them our focus from which stories can expand upon. The foundation is here but it now needs to be built upon so that The Gifted is more like the second generation of the comic book that created an entirely new superhero style.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Marvel’s Runaways

I have written in the past about how much I admire writer Brian K. Vaughan and the stories he tells in comic books. One of my favorites was the series he created for Marvel Comics called Runaways. The premise is simply related; what if a group of teenagers discovered the yearly gathering of their parents was to gain power by sacrificing a human? It is one of the great aspects of Mr. Vaughan is how a simple premise has so much to discover. It is with trepidation when I hear something I admire as much as Runaways is being adapted for television. This leads to something I must start letting go of. In this new television universe being optioned to be made as a tv show does not mean it has to be bad. The transition of Runaways the comic to Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu is a success story.

It started at the top when Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage were brought in as showrunners. They have a knowledge on how to get authentic teenage voices on screen from their work on “Gossip Girl”. Mr. Schwartz created one of my favorite riffs on an action series in “Chuck” so I felt that would also be a great fit for Runaways. The thing which made me happiest was hearing Mr. Vaughan was along for the whole process adding his suggestions which the production team had sought out.

Runaways takes place in Los Angeles which is a fun place for a Marvel Universe series to happen in. There are few of the typical Marvel superheroes on the west coast let alone LA. It allows Runaways a chance to breathe without wondering about if, or when, a more recognizable Marvel hero will pop up. That allows the first ten episodes which just finished to focus on the core team and serve as their origin story.

This is an interesting choice to make as this is perhaps the most in-depth origin story ever done in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through this we learn the stakes. Meet the bad guys/ parents. Each one of the Runaways gets to slowly discover who they are and what they bring to the team. The first two episodes are a great example of this pace. In the first episode our team of Runaways discover their parents dark secret and it is all from their point of view. Episode 2 is the same events from the parent’s perspective. It is 360-degree storytelling which allows for the audience to have an opportunity to connect with a sprawling cast quickly.

Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Savage have an eye for young actors and have assembled a cast of memorable ones for Runaways. They feel the paradox of having to save the world from your parents while also learning they have the abilities to actually do it.

Throughout the first ten-episode season the stakes get progressively higher until our team of teenagers become runaways in the final act of episode 10.

I thought this was a great way to finish the first season. Season 2 can be the showdown. By going slow I am now invested in these characters and am looking forward to their growth into the heroes they are destined to be.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’ve waited a month to write about Star Wars: The Last Jedi because I am going to talk more about the plot and giveaway some of the big twists in my discussion of it. If you haven’t seen the movie yet stop reading now before I ruin your chance to enjoy it without having things spoiled,

If there was one overriding emotion I had after The Force Awakens re-awakened Star Wars two years ago it was, “That was great, but I don’t just want bigger and bigger Death Stars I want something new.” J.J. Abrams who directed The Force Awakens provided jumper cables to a moribund franchise by relying on what made it special in the first place. Handing over the reins to writer-director Rian Johnson was giving him something much more difficult; evolve Star Wars. The difficulty of this has no better example than the prequel trilogy by George Lucas who created all of this. He dared to do something different. You may detest those movies, but Mr. Lucas did not give us the same story. As I’ve mentioned before his problem was as a storyteller we all knew what was on the last page of Episode 3; Annakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. The new movies have an advantage because the audience does not know what is going to happen. Which is why Mr. Johnson has some more latitude when it comes to choosing different paths.

Through the first hour of The Last Jedi I was feeling uneasy as it seemed like it was a next generation “Empire Strikes Back”. Rebels under merciless attack; check. Young Force user being trained by Jedi Master; check. Young Force user coerced into entering the ship of the big bad guy; check. As Rey leaves Luke Skywalker behind to go to meet Supreme Leader Snoke I began to inwardly groan. There was no growth happening it was all just the same as before. Then in literally the stroke of a lightsaber that evolution began as all those familiar things got turned on their heads.

When the big Force showdown between Rey and Snoke ended up with him dead and Kylo Ren offering to rule the galaxy with her there was something exhilarating in what her answer would be. From there Mr. Johnson makes a movie of heroes and villains who aren’t destined to their roles because of their bloodlines but because they are heroic or villainous. When Finn who has spent two movies running away finally proudly declares he is “Rebel scum” his transformation is complete. The story on the screen has shown us his journey from frightened want-away to hero. Finn, like Rey, have no genetic disposition to heroism but the internal desire to be the ones to make things better.

The other choice Mr. Johnson made was with Luke Skywalker who ends up much different than when we last saw him. It is easy to see Leia and Han Solo as older versions of when we last saw them; they are the same people we left before. Luke is the one who has had his optimism shattered. His hope to build a new Jedi Order is destroyed from the inside by the Dark Side. It drives him to exile where he cuts himself off from The Force. When Rey finds him, and asks to be trained his instruction comes not from a place of optimism but from someone who has lost hope. Unlike the relationship between Yoda and Luke in Empire Strikes Back this new teacher isn’t sure it is a good idea for Jedi to exist. His reluctance to be a full-time teacher makes Rey into her own. She fearlessly explores the island of the first Jedi Temple and learns the lessons that exist just by exploring. Luke is less teacher and more guardrails meant to keep her on the path to the Light Side. It isn’t heroic but as we learn Luke’s story it is understandable.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

That loss of heroism has been a major point of contention among Star Wars fans since The Last Jedi opened. Luke is allowed his moment of unalloyed heroism at the end of the movie but everything prior to that is a dramatic change from the Luke who believed he could turn his father from Darth Vader back to Annakin Skywalker. The Luke in The Last Jedi has lost belief. As a proponent for change I liked this choice it asks real questions of what it means to be heroic. It asks whether it is cowardice to hide away with the power to make change while the galaxy burns. The story lays out the changes, but actor Mark Hamill makes me believe that Luke could end up in this place. Mr. Hamill’s performance is brilliant; the best he has turned in in a Star Wars movie. I liked the changes because Mr. Hamill sold me on them with his performance.

This all leads to a final scene which shows that The Force is not only running through those with Skywalker blood in their veins but also young stable hands who dream of Rebellion. If there was a stifling aspect to The Force was its affinity for only those darn Skywalkers. Mr. Johnson’s final nod that for The Light to meet The Dark it is made up of many points around the galaxy from the stables to the palaces. This is an exciting place for Star Wars to be at the end of Episode 8. It leaves the storytelling paths wide open with no previous blueprints to be followed. I am very happy that these choices were made it feels like Star Wars has never been fuller of potential.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Year with Jackson


Mrs. C and I have had standard poodles in the house for nearly twenty years now. All of them have been adopted from rescue agencies. I have loved every one of them to the fullest extent of that emotion. All our previous family members came to us with physical deformities, mostly. There might be some lingering effects of abuse but that was small. A year ago, we picked up our latest rescue, Jackson, and he was full of emotional deformities. Over the past year it has been one of my favorite times with any of our poodles watching him slowly realize he had a family who loved him.

It wasn’t that way at the start. We picked him up on January 2, Gotcha Day. We had been out to visit him the week before to see whether he would be a fit with our other poodle, Henry. Our vet came along to let us know what other physical issues we might face. Jackson’s foster mother warned us he was not fond of men. I was told to leave my hat at home along with any expectations he would warm to me. On that first visit he and Henry played together. Mrs. C and our vet got him to come to them. What I received was a look that would be familiar for the next few weeks; eyes rimmed with white, cut to the side, while panting. To even lay a hand on him I had to lay on the ground while our vet gently moved him towards me. On the way home we decided Jackson would come join us at Poodlesville.

Jackson on the ride home on Gotcha Day

When we picked him up a week later the only one he trusted enough to get in the car with was Mrs. C and only in the backseat. You can see what that looked like above. For the first night in his new home Jackson wanted nothing to do with me. I was always on his radar and whenever I got close enough he moved away. It took remembering that he did relax into my hand once I got him close to me on our previous visit to believe it would eventually work out.. I just had to let him decide when that was going to be.

Jackson and Henry

It didn’t take long, a week or two, for the fear to be breached. When I wake up in the morning I grab my iPad and read the news while sitting against the headboard. Our dogs are welcome in our bed, but Jackson had not availed himself of it. Which was why I was surprised to feel him jump up on the bed. As I looked up over my iPad he began something which gets repeated most mornings. He commando crawled up to my crossed legs and laid his head down in my lap. On this first morning I froze. I wasn’t sure what to do. I kept reading and slowly laid a hand on his head, scratching the ear closest to me. Then amazingly he sighed and fell into a deep sleep as I felt the dead weight of his head settle onto my legs. Mrs. C woke up soon after and he jerked his head up jumped off the bed and looked back at her like, “You didn’t see that.” Later that same morning there was still the same keeping his distance from me which had become familiar.

Jackson and I on Gotcha Day + 1 year

From that beginning day-by-day, step-by-step, scratch-by-scratch Jackson and I have built up a typical relationship I have had with my poodles. We now play, tugging on toys, and fetch. He will bark at me when he wants to play. My heart swelled the first time that happened. Deep inside there are still scars and sometimes if I let out a whoop at something, I see the white-rimmed eyes of nervousness. What is different is he shakes it off and returns to me easily.

I have loved all our rescue poodles but the transformation of Jackson over this past year feels like a blessing. It offered healing to both of us. It was a scar for me that I had papered over for far too long. A year with Jackson has left both of us in a better emotional place.

Mark Behnke

The Saturday Magazine: My Favorite Non-Perfume Things of 2017

The calendar be a cruel mistress. Usually I post my favorite non-perfume things of 2017 on the last Sunday of the year in my usual The Sunday Magazine column. Except this year Sunday is also the last day of the year when I post my column of perfume hopes and wishes for 2018. So, for this week only The Sunday Magazine becomes The Saturday Magazine while I share some of my favorite non-perfume things of 2017.

Favorite movie/TV show/ whatever you want to call it: Twin Peaks: The Return– My affection for this grows daily. It also has created some of my most consistent correspondence with readers. What I think is undeniable is David Lynch and Mark Frost pulled off one of the greatest continuations in media history. In something which could only have existed in the current way we watch stuff Twin Peaks: The Return existed exactly as Mr. Lynch wanted it to. That there is this debate as to whether it is a television series of movie is irrelevant; it is uncompromising storytelling. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think about something that I saw. Oh yeah; Kyle McLachlan essentially held this all together in an acting performance of four different versions of the same character. If there is no Emmy for him my scream will match Laura Palmer’s.

Favorite Album: Melodrama by Lorde– When I went to see what the most played music of 2017 was on my iTunes playlist I was surprised to see this in my top 5 most listened to. I begin to think that is what Lorde’s second album is all about; sneaking up on you. Working with producer Jack Antonoff, Melodrama feels like the work of a much more seasoned musician. If the fun of Lorde’s first album “Royals” was this precocious talent then on “Melodrama” it is as if she has traveled through a time machine straight to experienced. It is an example of how to make electronic music for the pop music world without selling out.

Favorite Single: Bad Liar by Selena Gomez– I know this was not as big as some of the other hits of the year but this was always the most improbable. If the equation of Pop Tart + Talking Heads = Favorite Single doesn’t compute it’s because this should have fallen apart in so many ways. Instead Ms. Gomez takes the incredible Tina Weymouth bass line from Talking Heads “Psycho Killer”. In a restrained performance using finger pops and hand claps as percussion Ms. Gomez lays out that delicious tension of not wanting to let on how much you’re attracted to that person. That Talking Heads signed off to allow Ms. Gomez permission to use the bass line tells you that this is pop music on a different level. Is it wrong I want a mash-up?

Favorite Book: My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris– I read this graphic novel back in the spring; it has never fully left my consciousness. A semi-autobiographical story about a ten-year old girl in 1968 Chicago dealing with a mother stricken with cancer while a neighbor is found dead from a gunshot wound. The protagonist communicates her fears in pen crosshatch drawings in her composition book. The words in the margins take this right to the top of the literary world. Visually and intellectually stunning.

Favorite Spirit: Havana Club Anejo 7 Anos- Free trade with Cuba might mean cigars to many but for me it was the chance to try the full Havana Club line of rum. Usually by the time the frost is on the pumpkin the scotch is in the snifter. This year the honey and tobacco sweetness of this aged rum has been my sipper of choice.

Favorite Wines: 2015 Mendoza Malbecs and Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignons– In the expansion of wine regions there has been some amazing little pockets of excellent winemaking. The Argentinian Mendoza area and the Maipo Valley in Chile among the best. I have recommended these wines as best buys for ten years now. This year they are especially a fantastic bargain because the 2015 vintage which is just becoming available was the best, perhaps ever. These are the kind of nuanced red wines you usually get for over $100 which are commonly available for $20 or less. Drinkable now but will be even better in five to seven years.

These are some of the other things, besides perfume, which brightened my life in 2017.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Merry Jingle by The Greedies

When it comes to odd Christmas song pairings there is very little which beats the classic Bing Crosby David Bowie duet. The Holidays have also brought out some other odd pairings and one of the lesser known ones is one of my favorites on my Holiday playlist. For Christmas 1979 Thin Lizzy would combine with the remaining Sex Pistols under the name The Greedies and record their only record; A Merry Jingle.

By the summer of 1978 the two Sex Pistols whose name you don’t remember; guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook were trying to figure out what was next for them after the implosion of the Pistols. Thin Lizzy lead vocalist Phil Lynott was also dealing with band issues as he had an on-again-off-again relationship with guitarist Gary Moore. 1978 was a particularly turbulent time which made Mr. Lynott just want to find a way to keep playing.

Thin Lizzy was one of the founding British rock bands of the early 1970’s. As the decade was closing out Mr. Lynott was terrified of becoming irrelevant when compared to the punk rock scene taking over English music. One way to stay relevant was if your band is falling apart see if there any of the punks who might like to do something with you. Which leads to him suggesting to Mr. Jones and Mr. Cook about forming a new band. The core of this band called The Greedy Bastards was three Thin Lizzy and two Sex Pistols with a rotating group of others including Chris Spedding, Jimmy Bain, and Pete Briquette.

From there the path to recording a Holiday single as your first record for your new band does not seem like a logical choice. Yet this is what happened. The name was shortened to The Greedies so as not to offend. Instead of original music they would do a mash-up of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells”.

They would play it on BBC’s “Top of The Pops” in December of 1979. It would sell well. It would become a footnote in rock and roll Christmas music. The Greedies would never be heard from again.

When “A Merry Jingle” comes up on my playlist I often wonder what would have happened if they had stuck together. Could the punks have shown Thin Lizzy a few new tricks? Probably not. Instead a crunchy version of two classic Christmas carols is all we have.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: The Star Wars Holiday Special

In just a few days I will continue a tradition I started forty years ago….in a galaxy far, far away. I have been at the first local showing of every Star Wars movie since the first one in May of 1977. On December 14th I have my ticket for the newest; Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Like many, Star Wars has been a big influence on my personal perspective. I’ll write about the new movie sometime after the New Year and after most have had the opportunity to see it. For now, this is the time of year when I write about Holiday-themed things at The Sunday Magazine. You might not know that there is something called The Star Wars Holiday Special. There is, and it was such a disaster that it only aired once and has never been released on any of the DVD extras in any Star Wars set. That’s how bad it was. It is an example of how so many people didn’t know what to do with Star Wars as it met The Carol Burnett Show and produced a misfit toy.

No one had seen anything like the phenomenon Star Wars had become which then became a line of people approaching creator George Lucas about what they’d like to partner with him on. I’m not sure why in mid-1978 when he was approached by CBS on doing a Holiday special it was agreed to. The studio told him it would promote the movie and the toys. With no blueprint to follow the green light was given. Then things took the first of many wrong turns.

They hired writers Pat Proft and Leonard Ripps, veterans of TV variety shows. Upon meeting with Mr. Lucas he gave them the idea of a holiday called Life Day and setting the special on the Wookie home planet of Kashykk with Chewbacca trying to get through the Imperial blockade to be home with his family. Which is the skeletal story frame of what the Holiday Special would become.

Bea Arthur jamming with the Cantina Band

The problem was CBS wanted a traditional assortment of stars to be added into the mix as you would find on any variety special. Which meant Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, The Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur. Each of these were central to typical sketch comedy acts within the show with Mr. Korman playing three different roles as he was accustomed to doing on his regular gig on The Carol Burnett Show. The writing team was supplemented by vets from that show to help “punch up” the comedy material. According to one story there was a moment when Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margaret were considered. I can only imagine what the segments featuring them would have been.

The Jefferson Starship as The Holographic Band

After a chaotic shooting schedule where the movie’s stars didn’t want to be caught “slumming” on television while the television stars didn’t understand a thing about the universe and story they were inhabiting. It all ended up being aired a week before Thanksgiving in 1978 on November 17.

That was the last time it officially appeared.

It was criticized on all sides. What was being thought of as a new Holiday perennial before it aired was quickly buried; but not forgotten. It has become that bit of Star Wars which gets shared on the down low among fans; usually with a knowing grimace. There is a ten-minute animated short within the special which introduces bounty hunter Boba Fett into the greater story. That was the only thing that felt like Star Wars on the night it aired. Everything else from Ms. Arthur singing to the aliens in the cantina to Mr. Korman’s slapstick antics just felt wrong.

If you want to see just how bad it is I include a YouTube link here.

My favorite piece of the bad parts is when the wookie family attempts to distract some stromtroopers with the musical stylings of The Jefferson Starship as The Holographic Band.

There is a reason this is lost to time even Mr. Lucas has said if he had the time he’d track down every copy and smash it with a sledgehammer. Even so I can’t completely hate it, but it is terrible. I watch it almost every Holiday season on my bootleg DVD.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Holiday Snickerdoodles

After unpacking the lights, ornaments, and trimming the next phase of getting into the holiday spirit is baking cookies. It usually means seasonal twists on things I already bake year around. Candy Cane kisses on thumbprint cookies or peppermint chips mixed in with the chocolate chips. The one cookie I only seem to make during the Holiday season probably has more to do with my odd sensibility because there isn’t anything particularly Christmas-like about snickerdoodles.

Snickerdoodles are the soft chewy version of a sugar cookie coated in cinnamon sugar prior to baking. I bake them this time of year and use green and red sugar in the place of regular sugar for the coating mixture. I got curious about their history and found out some interesting tidbits.

Snickerdoodles, by that name, are a purely North American creation. Although it is thought they are probably a variation on a German cookie called Schneckennudel, which translates to “snail noodle” the truth is probably more prosaic. They originated in New England and some baker liked the nonsense sound of the word. Because it seems like they first appeared in New England with the earliest mentions of them from that region. The earliest printed recipe is found from 1902 by a pair of Iowa housewives, Mrs. Barnum and Mrs. Delavan. The origin will probably never be fully uncovered.

There is another kind of debate about snickerdoodles. Do you like them soft or crisp? That comes down to the way you bake them more than any change to the basic recipe. The other unique piece of making a snicker doodle is the ingredient “cream of tartar”. It is a more critical addition if you like them soft because cream of tartar helps make things fluffier by activating some of the other ingredients. It is not a dealbreaker if you don’t have it on hand but the ones with it in the recipe are chewier.

The recipe is as simple as it gets:

½ cup room temperature butter

½ cup shortening

1 cup sugar

½ cup brown sugar

2 eggs

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ¾ cups flour

Mix the butter, shortening, sugar, brown sugar and eggs together with a beater until they form a smooth batter then add in the cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, and vanilla extract; beat until they are all mixed in. Then add in the flour a little at a time until it all forms a smooth mixture. Take a tablespoon out and roll into a ball. Then roll the ball through the coating mixture of 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon.

Put the balls evenly spaced on a cookie sheet and cook for 8 minutes at 400 degrees.

After they are done transfer to a wire rack to cool. This recipe usually makes thirty or so cookies.

As I mentioned above I use a holiday sugar mix of red and green colored sugar with the cinnamon to give them a holiday theme.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: A Universal Translator for the Holidays

As anyone who reads this column knows we have now entered my favorite time of the year. Starting on Thanksgiving and lasting until the New Year everything about these next few weeks are what makes me happiest.
As I have mentioned in the past beginning from from the day after Thanksgiving I wear a Santa hat and a different Holiday themed earring until January 2nd. Dressed up like that I receive many smiles followed by “Merry Christmas!” Because anyone wearing that hat and that earring “Merry Christmas!” is the thing to say. It has also been a great way to start conversation while waiting in lines or attending tree lighting ceremonies or The Nutcracker. When I say this time of the year makes me happiest it is because it is when I feel like we are more connected to each other. Which is why the few who insist on policing the way we greet each other during this joyous time put some frost in this jolly old gentleman’s beard.

Last year I saw more than I ever have of people correcting others when they wished some one a “Merry Christmas!”. “I’m not a Christian.” “We’re Jewish!” We don’t celebrate that!” were among the answers I heard. I was wondering why there was a need to correct someone who was clearly wishing you the Joy of the Season. Which then got me to thinking about Star Trek.

One of the great things about Star Trek from the very beginning was creator Gene Roddenberry realized if different races and species couldn’t communicate living peacefully would be nearly impossible. The whole concept of trying to communicate with another intelligent life form and the difficulties inherent in it were displayed beautifully in last year’s movie “Arrival”. So, Mr. Roddenberry’s version of the future included a device known as a “Universal Translator”. This allowed any race to speak to any other race in their own language translating to the listener’s language simultaneously. Throughout the series in all its incarnations the ability to speak to someone else in their own frame of reference while using your own words is what leads to a wide universe where words can rule over phasers. Which brings me back to Holiday greetings.

I am hoping that more people will employ their own Universal Translator when people wish them a happy greeting. When I say, “Merry Christmas!” Please translate that to Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Festivus or what ever you celebrate over the next month or so; because that’s what I mean.

Mark Behnke

The Sunday Magazine: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Back at the beginning of the computer age the most speculative science fiction extrapolated the future in a genre called cyberpunk. They would correctly foreshadow a time when the world was more plugged into cyberspace than the real world. The problem is once the real world catches up to the printed page it is time to reset. What this means lately is that new writers are looking at recent developments and wondering what can be extrapolated from its new scientific infancy. Some of the best new science fiction has been considering what the new genetically derived pharmaceuticals might mean for the world. In my mind I’ve begin thinking of these novels as pharmapunk. I’ve been waiting for the novel which captures that. Autonomous by Annalee Newitz is that book.

I became aware of Ms. Newitz through her co-creation of the website io9. The name comes from a fictional piece of hardware which allows one to see into the future. The website focused on the intersection between sci-fi and actual science. Ms. Newitz was uniquely positioned as a forerunner of this kind of writing as she straddled both worlds. Autonomous is her first novel but she had written several non-fiction books as part of her early career in journalism. Her background comes out in every page of Autonomous.

Annalee Newitz

The plot follows two sets of characters as they travel through a post-apocalyptic world. This time the apocalypse comes in the forms of multiple plagues as nature rebels by thinning the herd. The saviors are the drug makers who come up with pharmaceutical solutions and save the world. Naturally, they also take over the world each controlling different economic zones. The world remains safe if they supply the drugs which keep it spinning. One of these drugs is called Zacuity which enhances focus while giving a pleasant emotional reward for tasks completed.

As it is in the present day there is a black market for pharmaceuticals where new drugs are reverse engineered and made illegally. One of our antagonists is one of these pirates, Judith Chen, who answers to Jack. After she starts to sell her underground Zacuity people begin to die. When she discovers that it is a real side effect and not a mistake in her production she wants to engineer a cure and expose the manufacturers.

Law enforcement in this dystopian future consists of robot trackers and their human handlers. The newly minted robot Paladin is put on the trail of Jack. Paladin’s handler is named Eliasz. Some of the most provocative writing in the early chapters is focused on the idea of property and who is owned by whom. Throughout the parallels between owning intellectual property and beings is compared and contrasted. Ms. Newitz plows some new territory within the area of robots being sentient with this perspective.

Gender norms are also highlighted as Eliasz feels an attraction to Paladin but can’t fully let himself go until he determines Paladin’s gender which in a manufactured being is meaningless.

Ms. Newitz places our characters in a Canadian setting where current Canuck touchstones pop up throughout. The more you know about Canada the more Easter Eggs you will find.

Autonomous brims with challenging societal conundrums served up with spare prose. Ms. Newitz writes in a straightforward manner similar to a news article especially when some of the words turn to the higher concepts.

I have been enjoying the whole idea of the pharmaceutical industry becoming the next bleeding edge of science fiction discovery. Autonomous is the first great pharmapunk novel.

Mark Behnke