Horizon: Zero Dawn Has a Secretly Upbeat Message About Human Destiny

I’ve been playing a decent amount of the new game Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s been justly praised on the basis of its very capable following of the open-world blueprint of games like Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Far Cry. But the world has also gotten a lot of attention – the game imagines a distant future where civilization has basically collapsed, but there are many technological holdovers from a long-forgotten past.

That includes lots of huge robots which, I’m sure for Reasons, resemble dinosaurs and sabretooth tigers, and which make up the (really, really fun to blow up) main enemies of the game. But it also includes a lot of mundane objects, from ceramic mugs to corkscrews to a Bluetooth headset (more or less) that’s central to the game’s plot and mechanics. The humans interacting with this stuff have no idea how it works – the entire setting hinges on the dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic.

The game’s approach to time and human collective memory, though, are what I think really set it apart. Post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen, but that’s not what this is, despite the sense that there’s been a technological catastrophe. In Mad Max or Fallout, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the lost past, and a struggle to survive in a harsh present. They seem to reinforce, in that way, the inherent value of the real world we live in now – they suggest that we should treasure what we have, because look how horrible things would be if we lost it.

But things aren’t that horrible at all in the world of Horizon: Zero Dawn (these dual titles are really unwieldy, execs). There are wars and conflicts, but humans now live in fairly well-structured, semi-primitive tribes and proto-nations, including farming and hunting societies. They’re not 21st Century America, but they’re not some sad vestige of a glorious past. They’re just different, functioning societies.

And they don’t pine for any past, either. The builders of the technology they see all around them are more mysterious ‘others’ than direct forebears, closer to ancestral gods than actual people. There’s no powerful sense that protagonist Aloy and her people have ‘lost’ anything – this ecosystem of strange and dangerous robots, and occasional technological scraps, is simply the world they live in, and make their living from.

This sense a much different message about human fate than the standard postapocalypse narrative, and considering that we’re likely headed for something catastrophic pretty soon, it’s a bit of a light in the darkness. Humanity (according, ahem, to this video game) is robust enough to survive up and down cycles – while we may recede from the progress and horror of the 20th century, there will still be an essential humanity to us, and we will continue. We will make hunting armor out of car reflectors, and maybe that’ll be enough to propel us to the next good patch.

On Lucius Shepard, The Novella, and Weirdness

I’ve become moderately obsessed in the last few months with the writer Lucius Shepard. I was lucky enough to hear his name dropped on a weird fiction podcast, I’ve actually forgotten which, maybe Cromcast. I was initially underwhelmed when I had a look on Amazon – almost none of his work is in print, except in ebook editions whose design makes them seem, frankly, just short of amateurish.

Of course, many of you will know that Shepard was a luminary of sci-fi for a time. But, now that I’ve read a mid-sized sampling of his work, I find the fading of his star since then totally baffling. He was something close to a genius, and he demonstrated with blinding clarity the most profound potentials of weird fiction. His stories melded emotional depth with surreal imagery and supernatural happenings, using effortlessly beautiful and believable language to render the electrified ghosts of Vietnam casualties, a sleeping dragon casting subtle spells, a poisoned jungle plotting to save itself from destruction by man.

He manages the itself-supernatural trick of perfectly balancing finely detailed, realistic and emotionally weighty characters, substantive and propulsive plots, and unhesitant strangeness.

Shepard completely avoids cliche – none of the ghosts or dragons do quite what you expect them to. Even more impressive are the junkies and brain-damaged boxers and construction workers who themselves become implicated in the unreal, who slip into realms beyond and make that transition part of the still very real lives they lead.

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In his heyday, Shepard was hardly unknown – he won a Nebula award and a World Fantasy Award, among others. Yet his work is less visible than the latest “Cthulhu by Gaslight” schlockfest. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps inevitable and structural, but also some that fans and writers of weird fiction should pay serious heed to, if they care about the long-term health of this community.

It doesn’t help that he was an older (and now, tragically, dead before his time) writer, in a genre full of young-ish men and women who are at readings and on Twitter frantically clamoring for your attention. But he’s not, at the same time, old enough to join the mythical pantheon ala Lovecraft, Howard, or Clark Ashton Smith (the last of whom, by the way, Shepard is vastly superior to).

He was awkwardly in-between in another way. Shepard’s obituary pointed out that his taste for writing the novella helped keep him marginal. It’s the perfect length for what Shepard does, long enough to draw a reader into a very detailed dream-like world, to generate empathy for a central character, and to unfold a meaningful plot – but still lean, without, in particular, the novel’s lengthy dialogues.

It’s also, unfortunately, long been a wildly uncommercial form. Now that we live in the heyday of the edited volume, even short stories are far more marketable than novellas – a moderately successful writer and writing coach recently posited to me that 4,000 words is the most salable length for a short story. The best works in The Best of Lucius Shepard are closer to 12,000 words.

But that, I have some hope, might be changing – if not in time for Shepard’s own legacy, then at least for future fans of the novella. The rise of electronic publishing makes the physical dimensions of a book almost irrelevant. And novellas can be easily sold for the appropriate-seeming price of 99 cents or so.

(I’m actually about to experiment with this myself.  Before I had any sense that stories were things you sold, I would simply write them until they felt like they were done – which is how I ended up spending 12 years on and off trying to sell an 11,000-word story now called in night we coax things out of hidden shapes. I will be releasing it as the first Blown Horizonz publication in a few weeks – please sign up for our newsletter for updates and some upcoming giveaways.)

For another underappreciated genius, read here about M. John Harrison.

But there’s another, more deeply worrisome interpretation of Shepard’s marginality – one which might be blamed on one of Shepard’s own most important heirs. Jeff Vandermeer may be the living Weird writer whose command of the intersection of truth and weirdness is closest to Shepard’s. But it was also Ann and Jeff Vandermeer who – for a lot of very good and laudable reasons, and with a lot of laudable results – have really given life to The Weird as a genre. They’d maybe object to that characterization of their editorial project, but it’s essentially inescapable.

And genres, and their audiences, are inimical to writers like Lucius Shepard. He has been often compared to the Latin American writers of Magical Realism, and the contrast is productive. Those writers, from Marquez back to Cervantes sideways to Borges – are part of a tradition, not a genre. They have a command of a worldview, not a set of tropes. And a genre can’t be anything so nebulous or alive, because ultimately it’s a market category. A set of recycled tics and monsters and scenes and gestures. On some level, it’s a shell for mediocrity, in readers as well as writers.

Luckily, I don’t think weird fiction is there yet. There is undeniably a lot of lazy crap out there, in fact an increasing amount of it. But the darkness could be neutered, if we’re not careful. Probably the best insurance against that is to cast skepticism on mediocre recyclings of the predictable, to continue venerating uncomfortable freaks like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Cisco – and to add Lucius Shepard to that list.

Centaur, an Excellently Bizarre Pinball Table

One of the (very few) great cultural institutions we have here in the Tampa Bay area is the Replay Amusement Museum, a collection of vintage pinball and arcade machines in Tarpon Springs. Pinball is an incredibly fun, invigorating, challenging thing, and a pretty great mental exercise – imagine, there was a time when hitting a ball against spring-loaded bumpers could be an interactive metaphor for everything from piloting a spaceship to rafting a river to exploring a haunted house.

The tables are also often stunning capsules of the creative and cultural environment of their time. They’re collections of art, sound, and language, in their way not unlike a film. There are lots of tables that are weird in various ways, but one of the weirdest has to be the 1981 table Centaur, which has a direct line to the bizarre science fiction and horror that dominated the 1970s and 1980s – and, more generally, to the grim undertones of that era.Centaur

The “story” of the Centaur table – and yes, pinball tables tell stories, sometimes elaborate ones – has the player facing off against a strange creature that’s, apparently, half orc and half motorcycle. The illustrations on the backboard and play surface are all black and white, and the costuming of the characters seems inspired by a mix of Conan/Frank Frazetta and The Road Warrior (which came out the same year, but I’m not sure whether the table came after). The artist, Paul Faris, was then just at the start of an illustrious but undersung career in video game art, which included work on Double Dragon.

The table is lit by almost entirely red bumpers and lights, giving the whole thing a powerful heavy metal vibe.

But what really makes this a pinball game worthy of treatment in a blog dedicated to weird culture is the game’s intimidating, bleak audio. The narration comes from a robotic, granulated voice drenched in reverb (provided by a dedicated sound chip – this was 1981, when this stuff took real work). And the music today sounds like abstract noise, looping and grimy and guttural. On the table at Replay, at least, the bass was so powerful I could feel it through my hands as they rested on the cabinet.

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