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Popkes: Agent of Change (May/June 2011)

(3 posts)
  • Started 9 years ago by geoffhart1962
  • Latest reply from geoffhart1962

  1. geoffhart1962

    Popkes returns with one of his skewed—and very funny—pokes at human nature in the context of a very SFnal situation. A Norwegian whaling ship is sunk in the north Pacific while following a herd of whales, the crew are rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and (to set a suitably ironic tone that will be maintained throughout) by the Greenpeace boats that are dogging the ship’s heels. The captain claims he hit some kind of rock, never mind that there’s nothing on the charts and the ocean bottom lies 2000 feet deep. No, really, the Captain protests: “Do you think we hit a big fish?” Well, no... not exactly.

    [Spoilers] Wackiness ensues, since there’s film of the collision and sinking that makes it clear that some kind of giant reptile is out there pursuing (and feeding on) the whales, and it doesn’t take kindly to competition. The more hard core of the scientists call it some kind of mosasaur; the more whimsical immediately dub it Godzilla. And as Popkes tells his story through a series of news briefs, committee minutes, fundraising letters from wildlife protection agencies, and meeting transcripts, we get to see how humans cope, and fail to cope, with this tempest in a teapot. I particularly enjoyed that amidst the flurry of news stories, the Weekly News of the World (which manages to make Fox and CNN look like hard-core journalists) is the only news agency to get the story right. Later, when they report George Bush chatting with the creature from a dock in New Orleans, you have to stop a moment and ask yourself whether they might have gotten the story right again.

    There are so many good bits it’s hard to know where to begin, and what to leave out so you’ll have something to read yourself. If in doubt, read the story now and then come back to read the rest of this review; I’ll wait. [Whistles tunelessly and looks up at the ceiling.] The governments of Norway and the U.S. squabble over salvage rights to the sunken ship, never mind that it’s lying under 2000 m of ocean and therefore probably not recoverable. Toho, the Japanese company that pioneered the monster movie industry (and particularly the Godzilla films) immediately claims ownership of the creature and launches a copyright infringement suit against the U.S. and Norwegian governments and everyone, including all main news agencies, that used the Godzilla name in a story—while simultaneously insisting that even though they own Godzilla, they’re not responsible for any damage it causes. In a delightful inversion, when the U.S. sends one of its submarines after the creature, they locate it not by high tech means, but rather by calling on a journalist they’ve embedded in one of the media ships.

    The committee of scientists studying the situation are particularly delightful: they span the range from conservative “let’s wait for the evidence” types and bureaucrats to whimsical and subversively funny people, they gossip, and they renew old acquaintances and partially veiled feuds. These scientists have warm blood, not antifreeze, running in their veins, and reminded me of the many times I had to bite my lip in science committee meetings not to burst out laughing at the games being played, unperceived by many of the players. Impressively, we learn as much about their characters from a few lines of verbal sparring as most authors convey through pages of description. This includes the rekindling of an old, thwarted romance between two old flames unable to bring together their incompatible worlds, Gus (Greenpeace scientist–activist) and Winifred (government(?) scientist). And then there’s the delightful notion that the scientists become sufficiently distracted by their own wordplay that they begin debating the merits of the various cinematic incarnations of Godzilla and have to be brought back on task by the chairman.

    Favorite bits of dialogue:
    - In discussing the creature and pondering what to name it, one scientist notes: “He’s a two-hundred-foot-long reptile that lives in the sea. What do you call him?” Another immediately replies: “Sir.” The joke’s no less funny because it was inevitable; it emerges so appropriately from the preceding dialogue and the character of one participant that you can’t help but laugh.
    - To illustrate the difference between skepticism and bloody-minded unwillingness to believe, we have the following: “That’s impossible.” “No, *Godzilla’s* impossible. This is just hard to swallow.” “I don’t think he would have much trouble swallowing anything.”
    - In deciding whether it will be necessary to resort to desperate measures against the creature, the consensus seems to be that it’s doing no harm to anyone but whalers. Then one raises the inevitable question: “What if he decides to attack Tokyo?” Another immediately provides the realpolitik reply: “Depends on the relative value of the yen.” Sadly, it probably would.

    Gus and Winifred do eventually find a way to merge their incompatible lifestyles: they set up to market ecotourism excursions to follow Godzilla around the world. And in one of the many pleasures that comes from close reading of stories, I note that the operators of the helicopter tours offered by their company are the two Coast Guard pilots who rescued the original Norwegian seamen—seemingly a throwaway bit of naming that Popkes cleverly turned into an Easter Egg.

    There’s no deep message here. The closest Popkes comes to preaching is the observation that once all this wackiness leads the international community to the conclusion that risk to the global environment has caused Godzilla to arise, an international committee must be launched to consider the situation. As one might expect, the Bush administration agrees to participate enthusiastically, but not from any commitment to the environment; rather, the problem is the connection to the Biblical Leviathan, which is too strong for the party’s religious right to ignore. Mostly, this is a deceptively simple-seeming exercise in painting the full range of human behavior through the guise of clever wordplay. Using deft stabs of the authorial pen, Popkes masterfully creates a sense of character while showing how we silly humans adapt our worldview to our sometimes bizarre world, but plays it completely straightfaced, so the humor emerges naturally and with impeccable comedic timing. “Agent” is a delightful way to start your morning, and it’s a shame the short-fiction awards almost never go to funny stories.

    Posted 9 years ago #
  2. JohnWThiel

    The title seems more philosophical than the story; I could not quite grasp where an agency of change would be involved.

    Posted 9 years ago #
  3. geoffhart1962

    You should pardon the pun, but I don't think it goes any deeper than the surface: Godzilla is the agent of change. I doubt Popkes is seriously proposing that the appearance of Godzilla would suddenly shake entrenched interests out of their myopia; I do suspect he'd cause all the changes Popkes described (including a dramatic reduction in the population of Pacific whalers).

    Worse things could happen.

    Posted 9 years ago #

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