Mad Max: Fury Road — Blossoming In The Desert

If there ever was a piece of media that acted as my editorial/sexual awakening, Mad Max: Fury Road would be it. It wasn’t the first film to make me think critically about movies and their themes and messages. But It was the first one that made me really want to understand media (be it books or movies) on a deeper level than “I’m sixteen and this is deep.”

Obviously, for a movie of this magnitude, there are plenty of reviews, think pieces, and film analyses already out there. Hell, I’ve read a bunch myself over the years. But you’re not here for that, this is a book website. Why the hell am I talking about a movie? Well folks, it’s because Fury Road offers a window into worldbuilding that fantasy and science fiction readers should all take a gander into. I looked into that abyss, and have yet to turn my head around and walk away. So come, sit by the fire, let me tell you a story about a story. Stay awhile, and listen to learn of the halls of Valhalla, so that you too, may ride eternal, shiny and chrome.

What Is Fury Road?

For those who don’t know, it’s a 2015 film, directed by George Miller, starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. It’s a post-apocalypse film that is loosely related to the events of previous Mad Max films, but it stands completely on its own. Max (played by Tom Hardy), wanders the wasteland alone and is the will to survive embodied. In the first minutes of the film, he is captured by Immortan Joe and his army of war boys. Immortan Joe is the ruler of this region of desert, controlling the one source of water, or as he calls it aquacola. One of the leaders of that guzzoline fueled army is Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). During a routine supply mission, Furiosa detours the suped up caravan and makes a break for it, offering freedom to Immortan Joe’s five wives, whom she has hidden away in her war rig. Soon her plan is discovered and she has to fight not one army, but three as Immortan Joe summons his allies the Bullet Farmer and the People Eater to hunt her down and reclaim his property. Max is along for the ride as a blood bag for one of the war boys, and ends up entangled in Furiosa’s quest, despite his feral need to just run away. What follows is a two hour long car chase full of stunts that should make every other car-based action movie retreat into its shell.

There is a lot going on. It doesn’t help that my brain has been religiously steeped in the tea that is this movie several times a year. Its vocabulary, while not a part of my everyday vernacular, is deeply embedded in my brain folds. It’s nearly impossible to describe the movie without it. Thankfully, a lot of the words make sense, but I think part of the fun is hearing them and drawing the conclusions for yourself. Fury Road certainly thinks this is the case; the film thrusts its lexicon in your face. No explanation, no audience-insert character to explain things. The movie just throws you in, and expects you to catch up. Words like “organic mechanic,” “guzzoline,” and “the bullet farm” breeze by and as the audience you just have to make the connection yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it helps that it’s in a visual medium, so the words are associated, most of the time, with an image.

Why is this special? Well, for me it speaks to the appreciation the creators had for their world. Whether it was designed from the get go, or had input and additions later, there is a strong sense of how it operates, and how people within it live their lives. It then organically reveals itself to the audience. There isn’t an exposition dump in the beginning. Instead, the movie opens with the words “my world is fire and blood,” and proceeds to show you that world. It’s a visual feast of a movie that blends its visuals with dialogue so the two act in concert. I can feel it now: “Alex, it’s a movie, of course those can be implemented visually.” True, but let’s take another movie that is a visual treat as a counterpoint example: Inception. Most of the movie’s dialogue focuses on explaining how the world works. It’s been the butt of many jokes, with several episodes of different cartoons making fun of it. But, when you really think about it, the visuals within the movie don’t tell you much about what is happening. In some ways, it informs you that a dream may be occurring, but even that is purposefully muddied. If there was not a single bit of dialogue, could you even describe the insane heist plot at the center of it? Could you describe the movie as a series of dreams within dreams, within dreams?

Where does Fury Road differ in this regard? Everything you know about the story, the characters and how they should be viewed, is shown. Someone doesn’t immediately tell you Immortan Joe is a bad guy. The movie highlights his abuse of power through his doling out of water to the poor, by dumping it on the ground and telling them not to get addicted to a thing they need. He lives in a castle made of rock, gardens adorn the top of mesas, hundreds of feet above the masses, with hydroponic gardens hidden behind bank vault doors. Max is a rabid dog, fighting for his survival, acting without thinking to the point where they literally muzzle him. Furiosa is calm and commanding, her presence itself enough to elicit respect from other characters and the audience. Over time, these aspects of the characters are highlighted, broken down and changed or reinforced as necessary, specifically through their choice and action. Not only that, but their world is revealed in much the same way, piece meal throughout the movie giving life and meaning to every aspect. Why do the war boys fight for Joe? Because he has promised them eternity in his Valhalla if they die for him. Why does Max run? Because he needs to escape his past.

The Awakening

After my first viewing, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the movie. I had a good time, but I had trouble deciding if I was missing something, or if the movie was less than I expected. It was a splinter, caught deep under a fingernail. I had to get it out, otherwise it would fester. But in order to get it out, I would need to remove parts of, if not the entirety of my nail. I had to know: Was I the dummy? Or was the movie bamboozling me? So I read. I read reviews and thought pieces, I dove into film analysis on YouTube and started to watch breakdowns and analyses of other films to just get an understanding. I tore down the teenage movie critic I had inside me and rebuilt him from the bottom up. Then, Fury Road came to blu-ray and I immediately bought it. I went straight to my friend’s house, and we watched it before a camping trip. It was a completely different movie to me. It spoke to me on so many different levels. It was no longer just an action movie. It had everything I ever wanted or needed in a movie, and I was only scratching the surface.

Fury Road showed me a world that was stark and absurd. It was a desert devoid of plants, but teeming with life. I never knew you could make so much color out of red, orange, yellow and brown. Every scene was bursting at the seams with meaning. I could feel it start to seed the fresh soil I had just prepared  in my mind. My friend and I couldn’t stop talking about it during our camping trip, yelling at each other “witness me” from atop stones 3 feet off the ground. We listened to the soundtrack on our way to Shenandoah Valley and on the way back. We immediately watched it again upon returning to his apartment, still covered in the stink of three days of hiking. I was hooked. I felt I had been enjoying media wrong most of my life.

Of course, this voracious need to dig into film spilled over into my reading habits. How could it not? No longer was entertainment, just entertainment. It was a doorway into the creator’s head. It was something I could separate from them entirely, and imbue with my own meaning. Everything became a statement, consciously or unconsciously, about how I or the artist(s) viewed the world. Of course, reading was different. I didn’t have the camera to direct my attention, or the actors to make me feel for them. I just had words on a page. Big words, small words, run on sentences, cut off dialogue, first person and third person perspectives all started to be imbued with something more. Fury Road handed me the keys to the car, and I’ve had my foot on the pedal since.

Hope Is A Mistake 

Fury Road did one more thing that absolutely changed how I thought about media and really turned me toward the path I walk today. Max and Furiosa, along with their rag tag group, find who they have been looking for among the wastes, and finding the green just as barren, decide that they should continue into the desert in the hopes of finding something more. Before they commit, however, Max offers an alternative. Instead of running away, with a high chance of dying in the desert, they could turn around. They could smash through Immortan Joe’s army,  trap them in the canyons, and take the Citadel with its water and farms back for everyone.

Even on my first viewing, this hit me so hard. Inundated with so many science fiction and fantasy books and movies about finding a greener land, Fury Road did something different. Clear as day, the characters, the world, and metaphors all collided in a single phrase that reverberates in my mind every day: “hope is a mistake.”  Max and Furiosa, along with Immortan Joe’s wives and the women they found, all in this moment realize, you can’t run from the world and you can’t flee your demons. You can only turn to face them, and fight for the world you believe in. It is also suggested by a character who has no personal qualms with Immortan Joe, only the utmost respect for the lives of the people around him.

If it weren’t for this moment, I probably would have walked on, in search of media that was more suited to my tastes. I wouldn’t have tried to learn more about myself, along with the craft of storytelling. It would have been just another movie that was alright. Instead, I look for all these details wherever I go for stories. If I don’t like something, I ask why, and I question the text, and I feel out the characters. Stories I like often revolve around people coming together to fight for life beyond mere survival. The world needs to be a living breathing place that has connective tissue everywhere. No longer do “big ideas” or “neat technology” revolving around poorly drawn characters with passable and predictable stories make the cut.

It’s why I read books I don’t like all the way through. It’s not just about being a completionist, it’s trying to see the whole picture, and whether the little pieces work together. I have to know if the author throws the emergency brake for a 180 degree turn without rolling the car. Or if the characters learn about themselves and the nature of their world. I can’t understand the world without seeing someone else’s perspective of it, in their own language. In some sense, that’s what world building is, seeing reality through someone else’s senses. You get a gauge of what they think is important.

And I have to talk about it, I have to dive into it all, and break it down. I can’t just enjoy something based on its technical merit. Purple prose is fantastic, but it’s not enough. I love a good character study, but it doesn’t stand on its own. Worlds can be built and destroyed, but they mean nothing to me if they don’t mean anything to a character beyond being the setting. I feel the need to write about books because I hope others will see what I see, or even more. There is so much beneath the surface in every story, from the moment it’s an idea in someone’s head, until it’s seen by the eyes of a reader.

Fury Road helped me understand that art informs the world, just as much as the world informs art. They’re impossible to separate, and the worldbuilding in the movie speaks to this idea so much. To tell you all of the things the movie shows you, would cheapen the experience, and belittle your ability to draw your own conclusions. A good book does the same, and gives an even more intimate chance to do so.

Made Things – Pulls The Right Strings

44581532I have a fear of dolls. Or maybe not a fear, so much as I find them intensely off putting. Their miniature faces are creepy, and any horror story that involves dolls coming to life and murdering people deeply upsets me. So, when the lovely people at Tor.com sent me Made Things, a novella by Adrian Tchaikovsky about a dollmaker who brings her creations to life, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, Tchaikovsky is one of the most imaginative writers of the last decade and I generally like almost everything he writes. On the other hand, creepy murder dolls that might infest my nightmares. It is safe to say that I was negatively disposed to the concept from the start, thus the fact that I loved this novella should say something about Tchaikovsky’s skill as a writer.

The plot of the book is short and sweet: Coppelia is a street thief, a trickster, a low-level con artist living in a famous magical city. She is an urchin barely scraping by in a metropolis run by elite archmages. Normally this would spell doom for a person in her situation, but Coppelia has a little magic up her sleeves. She is a skilled puppet maker and has survived by stealing money from unsuspecting tourists through a puppet show. However, recently her creations have been coming to life. She discovers she has the power to infuse tiny homunculi with life, and she is not the only one. By teaming up with these made things they have opened doors for her into new opportunities. They don’t entirely trust her, and she doesn’t entirely understand them, but their partnership seems to work well. However, when they make a magical discovery that threatens to destroy the city they all call home, they must make some hard choices.

I know that plot description was fairly vague, but this is a novella and I didn’t want to spoil too much. The story is a lot of fun and involves a lot of politicking, character growth, a heist, and some really cool magic. The world-building has an impressive amount of detail for a novella. The city feels fleshed out and lived in, the magic feels complicated but adheres to clearly stated rules, and the threats/antagonists are easy to identify and rally against. A lot of this is helped by the cast being so likable. There are essentially three leads and a large support cast. For the leads, we have the aforementioned Coppelia and two homunculi: Tef and Arc. All three are wonderful and each have unique wants and agendas that are explored through the story but revolve around a core theme – survival in a harsh world. For Coppelia, that means scraping together a living in a world that cares nothing for her. For Tef and Arc, it means scraping together an existence in hiding when the world would pull them apart to see how they work.

The homunculi, in general, are fascinating. Tchaikovsky has done an impressively imaginative job of exploring all sorts of made people. There are one made of wax, paper, steel, wood, and any other substance you can think of. Some are small, some are large, some can fly, others are immobile. And for each, Tchaikovsky provides a window into how their existence, and personalities, are defined by what they were made from. A large steel doll might be courageous and brash, but have a phobia of water and rusting. A homunculus made of paper sees threats to her existence everywhere, as a simple tear could mean the end of her. Together they make an eclectic and fascinating people that are fun to explore.

The book is a rollercoaster ride with a fast pace and an explosive end. I read it in a single sitting and never thought once about putting it down. The ending does feel slightly abrupt, but that is often par for the course with novellas and is more a problem with the medium than anything else. Tchaikovsky’s Made Things is a fun, well built, adventure that helped me look at magical dolls in a new way. It has an interesting world, likable characters, and attention to detail when it comes to bringing these homunculi to life. Hopefully, this novella will be the starting point of a new novel as I want to dig a little deeper into everything. I would love to come back and overturn more rocks, dredge more canals, and explore more magical vaults to discover what else Tchaikovsky has hidden in Made Things. You probably can’t go wrong with this short story, and I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Made Things – 8.0/10
-Andrew