Dystopian Review: Persepolis and the Iranian Revolution

Hello, everyone!

I just created another Dystopian Review video to examine Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel and autobiography about her experiences growing up around the Iranian Revolution.  It’s a long video, indeed, but it’s worth the effort as I cover the Iranian Revolution, as well!  If you’re a history, politics, or just-general-information buff, this one’s for you!

If you’d like, you can pop the video out of this tab and scroll down to read the original Dystopian Review article from my days as a writer for Suite101.  Enjoy!

 

Dystopian Review: Persepolis

 

http://barclayagency.com/satrapi.html

In today’s world, we hardly think of revolutions as something happening right next door.  Oh, sure, there’s some third-world country undergoing one some time or another, and there was that big “Arab Spring” we heard about a couple years ago, but it’s not like there’s actively any chance of our country radically changing its political ideology any time soon, right?  Considering I couldn’t possibly know what country you’re reading from, well, there’s a good chance I’m just coming up with a clever opening line!

The reason for this line is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel which is really more of an autobigraphy.  Written in 2002, and it’s a rather good reason.  Persepolis is a rather unusual bit, as some of the details of Satrapi’s tale are most certainly skewed in order to protect those of her family who still live in the nation now known as Iran.  As Satrapi illustrates, they have already suffered quite enough.

 

The Price of Revolution

As I sit here with my copy of “The Complete Persepolis,” the first thing which greets me is the introduction.  It discusses some ancient history, up to and including how the nation of Iran gained its current name.  It is a story most Americans are likely unfamiliar with, as Satrapi explains:  “This old and great civilization hs been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.”  It’s hard to argue that the political narrative has been to generalize Iran’s goals; here’s just one example of an Israeli minister stating that Iran wants Israel, well, dead.  Considering some of the riddiculous things its leaders have said, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable perspective save for one critically important point:  Iran is not a nation consisting solely of a bunch of priests and a whack-a-mole president, but rather a country made up of millions of people who do not want war.

Satrapi’s story begins with her youth, and in particular her days as a child living under the pre-revolutionary government.  Back then, the Shah ruled over the country; and, as Satrapi’s parents duly elucidate, there is much more to the background of the Iranian revolution than the simple rise of Islamic extremism.  That fanatic viewpoint just happened to be the victor of a much larger cultural struggle which took place, overthrowing the Western-backed Shah.  Did I say Western-backed?  Well, the Shah only came to power after the deposition of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953; the Iranian Prime Minister who just happened to want to nationalize Iran’s oil resources.  It’s rather well established fact that America and Britain helped to perpetrate this coup, and Satrapi reasonably argues that it was the Shah’s poor, even cruel governance which sparked the revolution in the first place.

Still, while this may be the first lesson Persepolis puts forth, it’s far from the last.  It doesn’t even try to argue that the ultimate victors were somehow better than the previous rulers.  Far from it, the very first page of artwork condemns the fanatic viewpoint.  In fact, Marjane even make clear that the views her parents held about social classes and rulership were, themselves, occasionally hypocritical.  What’s more, things always seemed to get worse; the second Shah was worse than the first, and the Islamic government was worse than the Shah!

Ultimately, the story has a happy-ish ending.  Marjane eventually leaves Iran, sent to a foreign school due to her refusal to conform.  She experiences Western culture, freedoms, and weed!  Wait, you thought that’s the ending?  Nonsense!  Eventually, she returns to Iran after some time in the West; the revolution’s passionate fires had died down somewhat, but oppression was still rampant.  She does eventually return to the West again, of her own volition, but she never fully assimilates to the Western style of life, either.

And therein lies the message.

 

Persepolis shines a light into darkness

While Satrapi certainly lived in a rather Dystopian situation, there is one underlying fact which need to be remembered:  The entire world is not so bad.  Persepolis was written to stand in defiance of the generalization of Iran as a nation composed mostly of lunatics.  Yes, there are bad people; yes, there is a police state; yes, good people die for infinitisimal crimes like satire!  But her message is that most Iranians are not in step with this system, at least not completely, and that there is truly more to her homeland than meets the Western eye.

On one hand, it is easy to compare this story to  Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Both feature oppressed female protagonists who live in defiance of the regieme controlling them, and both tales include characters sympathetic towards her.  These are not the raging hordes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  If one critical difference between the two novels is that between autobiography and fiction, than the second must surely be the devilish details of the message.

Satrapi’s story humanizes an often-dehumanized society, while revealing that it is still incredibly flawed.  It’s a must read for anyone who wants to even begin to understand the insidious nature of religious fundimentalism, while simultaneously demonstrating how – when the time is right, one day – there could indeed be a revolution in the streets of Tehran once more, one that a cruel police state will once more fail to prevent.  Or, perhaps, any city, if needed!  But, until then, Persia’s legacy will live on only as a footnote – forgotten and replaced by a dark conjuration of extremism.

An Open Letter To The FCC: Save Net Neutrality!

You might not be aware of this, but you’re reading this article on the internet.  Okay, you probably knew that; what you didn’t know is that the very nature of the internet is under attack.  The reason you can load my webpage as fast as you can load Amazon or Google is because of a legal and regulatory concept called “Net Neutrality.”  The idea is that the Federal Communications Commission, which governs telecommunications devices such as radio, TV broadcasts, and phone networks, required all internet service providers to treat data flowing through their cables equally, regardless of the source.  Verizon, among other companies (especially Comcast), has led the charge on eliminating this rule; Comcast and Verizon have already used shady pretexts of “peering” to coerce Netflix into paying them what amounts to a tithe so that their data can reach consumers at reasonable speeds.

Now, creative and digital types have talked about this for a while, but the truth is that there’s a lot of abstract terminology and regulation involved.  The media has generally failed to get a hold on it until, well, until now:  John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight (and one of the best-ever The Daily Show correspondents and substitute-hosts, never forget), did an amazing job describing this issue.  It’s thirteen minutes long, but Oliver is a hilarious gentleman who will make it both educational and fun!  And, no, I’m not lying to trick you into watching.

I did exactly as Mr.  Oliver asked.  Well, first I went to the FCC’s website, got the phone number for their boss, and called them!  Then, I visited the FCC’s commentary system, which by the way is archaic (ancient (really fucking outdated)) and posted a comment.  This could easily qualify as a topic for a Dystopian Review video, which I might give a shot at making.  I dunno.  However, if that doesn’t get done, since my comment is already in the public domain, well,  here it is!  Feel free to basically cut/and/paste it when you comment, though I’d like to be credited if you do so.  Just cuz it’s a just cause!

 

 My Open Letter To The FCC

 

To: Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC; the larger body of FCC employees; the rest of the country and the rest of the world!

I know you’re overwhelmed, so I’ll make this very simple, ladies and gentlemen. I’m a 29 year old writer from Long Island, in New York. I’m an independent author. Most of my sales come from electronic books distributed via Kindle. I am, with some caveats, the definition of a “start-up” enterprise. What I do would not be possible without an open internet; Amazon’s rise would not have been possible without an open internet; our whole modern economy would not be possible without, well, you get the idea – an open internet!

There’s more: The government, which is by/of/for the people, paid for the research that ultimately led to such services as ARPANET. In one ethical viewpoint, the internet is already ours – we paid for it! But, that’s unrealistic, so let’s instead turn to the inscrutable source which is Wikipedia: It claims that in 1993, the internet carried 1% of all telecommunicated information. In 2000, it carried 51%, and by 2007 it carried 97% of all telecommunicated information. Since that wikipedia article cites a study by Martin Hilbert and Priscilla Lopez, “The world’s technological capability to store, communicate, and compute information,” published in Science Magazine in April of 2011, I’d wager it’s a legitimate argument.

Therefore, it’s safe to conclude: At least 90% of all that telecommunications companies do is part of the internet. It follows that, for lack of a better term, the internet is telecommunications. Guess what? That makes administering it your job. Perhaps “Commissioning” is a better word? I’ll leave to the side the numerous studies showing that, under your stewardship, our quality-of-internet has plummeted, and that most of our telecommunications companies have carved out little fiefdoms which clearly violate whatever anti-trust statues are on the books. I’m sure you’ve been linked to enough clips of John Oliver citing them to get the point.

But, here’s mine: We paid for it, we paid for it again when we bought a subscription to our cable company, and we pay you to keep it working in a fair manner. The concepts of “net neutrality” and “open internet” are vague and easy for people, even myself, to not quite “get.” However, since you’re the experts here, you know what your job is: Get it right. That’s all the majority of us ask: Get it right.

Regulate telecommunication companies like you would regulate any other public utility, because I can guarantee you that it is easier to disconnect from your local water utility by setting up rain collection buckets than it is to disconnect from your local internet service provider and get any kind of service. I mean, that’s the whole point of utility regulation, right? People need things like electricity, water, and telephones (which are telecommunication devices, themselves).

Regulate them the right way because it’s the right thing to do.

 

My warmest regards,

–Jesse Pohlman

Dystopian Review: Shadowrun Returns

Hello, all!

Just wanted to post a video embed to the latest episode of Dystopian Review, centered around Shadowrun Returns!  Below that, you’ll find a cut-and-paste of the original Dystopian Review article I wrote for Suite101.  It’s been over a year; I can do that, right?  (Note:  I doubt they’ll care; originally written December 20,2012.)

About Shadowrun, the RPG…

Tomorrow, on December 21st, 2012, the world is going to end; at least according to some interpretations of the Mayan Long Count.  In Shadowrun, currently owned by Catalyst Game Labs, that just means magic and dragons return alongside of cybernetics and mega-corporations!  But can a pen-and-paper roleplaying game reallyqualify as a serious Dystopian art form?  The answer may surprise you!

 

Shadowrun – Dystopian Decking

To begin with, Shadowrun is currently in its fourth edition of existence.  I was introduced to the game in college, and as you may have guessed that was during the third edition.  With each edition, the world that players explore has gotten older; 3E (as it’s called in geek-speak) was set in 2060-2063, while 4E is set in 2070 and later.  The first thing a player would notice, therefore, is that technology has advanced – and it mirrors the real world technology of the time.  Let’s take the Matrix…

No, not that Matrix; we’ll get to that another time!  In Shadowrun, characters can have cybernetic data-ports implanted in their body and can connect to a virtual-reality internet called the Matrix.  Remember, Shadowrun was originally created in the 1980’s; this isn’t a bite off of the movie.  In 2060, the only connections typically seen are direct and hard-wired.  By 2070, thanks in part to a massive computer disaster caused by a rogue AI (long story), the Matrix has been rebuilt to be mostly wireless.  The comparison to real-world technology is virtually obvious.

Now, if this sounds a lot like some of the scenes in William Gibson’s work, such as Johnny Mnemonic (in particular, the movie adaptation!), that’s because they are incredibly alike.  Where Shadowrun divorces Gibson is in its interpretation of the Mayan “Long Count,” and the supposed apocalypse we’re in for – at the time of my writing this article – 24 hours from now!  The “fifth” world comes to an end, and the “sixth” begins with a bang.  A magical bang.

Magic returns to the world with a vengeance; those peoples who remained spiritual (Native Americans, Australian Aborigines) are the first to recognize and seize this power – and with it, their former lands.  America is torn asunder as a result, while in Iran the city of Theran is conqured by Aden, one of many Great Dragons which rise from their slumber.  As “the Awakening” continues, people seem to transform at random into Orks, Trolls, Elves, Dwarves, and other mythical “Metahumans.”  Racial discrimination exists in a brand new form, as non-“Human” people are unable to become fully-fledged citizens – never mind the hate-groups which spawn.  Then again, those who are find themselves with a System Identification Number (SIN), which is tracked wherever they go and used to monitor their lives.

As everything settles down, however, the nightmare really begins:  Corporations have steadily increased their strength, and have received a similar – no, probably greater – status than sovereign nations have.  The property they own is essentially independent of the country it exists in.  Without a SIN, working for one legitimately is almost impossible.  Therefore, all too many Metahumans are forced into the shadows, running illegal missions to help one Mega-Corp gain power over another.

 

Running the shadows – for fun and profit.  And nightmare worlds!

So now that we know where the name of the game came from, the first question to answer is whether or not it’s any fun.  The first part of the answer is the old D&D standard – “The rules are just guidelines.”  But even under the most stereotypical of circumstances, Shadowrun is fun.  Yes, it takes hours to play; and, yes, sometimes a bad dice roll can spell doom for your character.  But that’s part of the fun – characters are up against the odds, struggling to survive and make a few “cred.”  It sounds familiar to the starving artist!

As to whether or not Shadowrun delivers a satisfactory Dystopian experience, my answer is simple:  Absolutely.  Novels, movies, and artwork such as comics or paintings each have their own way of injecting the reader/watcher/viewer into the horror, but role-playing adds a new dimension to it.  While it’s fair to say that most forms of art “interact” with the audience, none of them – not even the best modern-day video games – can create as vibrant a dialogue as a player struggling to figure out how to break into Renraku’s newest facility and save their friend.  Pen-and-paper games have no limitations in their programming because they have none.  There is no end to the game; if one player’s character dies, he just rolls up a new one and joins the old team, and the story continues!

Shadowrun is a product of fusion – dungeons of dragons meeting a cyberpunk future, where “street samurais” who are armed to the teeth with cybernetic limbs and firearms end up going toe-to-toe with corporation-employed mages who can fling balls of fire from their hands.  Is it original?  It’s hard to say that any of it’s ideas, taken independently, are brand new.  But as a solution?  As a blended drink?  It’s damned tasty.  It’s also a damned horrifying world, too, satisfying the Dystopian genre quite well.

And if the world does end tomorrow, even if it “ends” the way Shadowrun stipulates it will, hey – it was a great run!

Dystopian Review: Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Dystopian Review is a channel I established on Youtube, mainly as a way to bring back a series of articles I wrote for Suite101 before that site became a truly lame duck.  I won’t distract you from the video with words, however I will put some afterwards so you can get some information on what Dystopian Review was, and what I hope to make it, again.

 

 

Don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe to Dystopian Review!  Also, don’t forget to vote for your next choice of video!

EDITORIAL NOTE:  I’ve decided to re-post my original Dystopian Review article, here.  There’s more info below this, if you’re interested.

 

Dystopian Review:  Oryx and Crake

During the Cold War, there was only one way the world could end in fiction – atomic fire.  It was already proven to be dangerous, and it was something that denizens of that era couldn’t help but consider while doing their duck-and-cover drills.  Only after the relaxing of tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union did we turn, for a brief time, to issues like the environment’s degradation.  This sort of setting – where the world was just too poisoned to live in – had it’s heyday, then it saw the first big airborne pathogen, SARS. The world knew of the potential for a microbial apocalypse far more certainly than ever before, and as readers we were fortunate that Dystopian creator Margaret Atwood was there to put her own, indelible mark on pandemic trend. 

 

The Setting of Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake is not the sort of novel leaving you to wonder where you’ve started off.  Readers are introduced to Snowman.  Within one page we can tell that he was once a normal man – the Dystopian “every-man” who could just as easily be the reader – that has suffered some sort of horrible trauma both in his own mind and in reality.  The term “Zero Hour” is loosely thrown out, and that can only mean one thing – a major catastrophe took place.  Whatever happened, the main thrust of the event was far from subdued.

Within the very first chapter we learn that Snowman is the apparent caretaker of a strange set of children, children who know nothing of the world as it was “before,” to put it bluntly.  Crake, one of the titular characters, had clearly made rules for them – they are, after all, his “children.”  By the end of the first chapter, he is on the verge of suffering delusions of his time with the also-titular (and how!) Oryx, before breaking into a ramble about how terrible a person Crake is.  As the chapter winds down, he declares all-too-ominously, “You did this!”  And now we, the reader, know Crake is a super-villain, responsible for the end of the known world as well as some truly freaky children of the new.

So how did we get here?

The discovery of Snowman’s past is what makes a reader unable to put the book down.  As always, Atwood has come up with ridiculous, almost childish-sounding names for various adult-oriented concerns (ANooYou, BlissPlus, Chickie-Nobs to name a few).  We quickly learn that biological catastrophes were a recognized risk long before the world ended, and that eco-terrorism was alive and well and likely to be the cause of it.  In so many ways, her world resembles ours with certain features magnified.  Atwood’s portrayal of mega-corporate malfeasance rivals that of William Gibson when she puts her mind to it, with the CorpSeCorps’ questioning methods and the surveliance state that the wealthy live in (protecting them from the external threats of the “pleebs,” of course), but that’s not necessarily the focus of the novel.

No, the focus is on Snowman and how he got to be the proverbial last man on Earth.

 

Characterization makes Oryx and Crake outstanding.

Spoiling the novel would be too easy, but despite Snowman’s intricate knowledge of the man behind the end of the world, the truth is that Snowman is far from omniscient.  In fact, his range of knowledge is exactly as limited as his post-apocalyptic opportunities have been.  After all, unless one has time to prepare for chaos, they often have few chances to go exploring.  If one doesn’t have anything they need to protect, then those chances seem to abound – but as they carry risk, and as Snowman has become the de-facto prophet of the Children of Crake, his chance to glean knowledge from the surrounding world is minute.

We eventually do meet Oryx and Crake, of course; we see how their lives are interwoven in Snowman’s, and we catch glimpses – from Snowman’s perspective, of course – as to how exactly this apocalypse emerged.  If leaders readers to wonder if they’ve ever seen a friend of theirs act the way Crake does, at times; and, of course, to thank their lucky stars that their friends aren’t both brilliant and crazy enough to pull off such a stunt.  Aren’t they?

For the writer however, Snowman’s life story holds a special treat.  Describing himself as anything but a “numbers guy,” and instead focusing much more on the words mankind seems to have stopped caring about, Snowman cuts a sympathetic if occasionally bone-headed character.  His “every-man” nature fades as we get to know him, and his “starving artist” nature is one that resonates with any author (or website content creator…) who has struggled at some point to get by.  As a point of fact, he even starts praying for that “dream job.”

But as we see Snowman head for his happy ending, we readers know all to well that, sadly, the dream will not be a pleasant one.  And that is why we lament for him, even as we hope that the last glimmer of light that we see for his world is one which will not be extinguished after the cliffhanger ending.  But fear not!  By the time you’re done reading Oryx and Crake, you’ll be overjoyed that there’s going to be an entire trilogy set in Snowman’s world, too!

 

 

 

So, a little more about Suite, and the original Dystopian Review channel…  It was a glorious place to write, and for a while it offered a decent income, but they changed their models and fell asleep at the wheel, and at this point I’m just debating whether or not I want to go through the hassle of procuring all of the rights to my articles and re-producing them here.  Dystopian Review is probably the best literary critique I do, and as an aside I have absolutely considered doing a “Dystopian Reality” to talk about news articles that are dystopian in nature.  There’s also “Dystopian Reflection,” a format for musing aloud about concepts like the reach of the police, but without a specific event to spur it along. These are all ideas I’ve had, but I’m not exactly an expert with a video camera (and, it’s a Logitech C615, I believe?), so producing a video is an all-day affair.

At any rate:  So far I have done three episodes of this on Youtube, and I’ll periodically re-post them on this site, along with some extra commentary, for your enjoyment and education.  I’ve already done episodes on Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the film version of The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire.  On that note, I hope you’ve enjoyed your first taste of Dystopian Review’s latest location for syndication!