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David Cronenberg's eXistenZ: A Graphic Novel. Illustrated by Sean Scoffield. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1999. 111p. $19.95. ISBN 1-55263-027-7.

Science fiction; movie adaptation

Adults, teens; violence, sexual symbolism

Game designing guru Allegra Geller speaks to a small invited audience of gamers about her new virtual reality game, eXistenZ--a piece of biotechnology that interfaces directly with its players, plugging into their nervous systems to give them a highly realistic gaming experience. But just as she and the other players plug in, a terrorist armed with a flesh-and-bone gun (it shoots teeth) tries to assassinate her. With the help of Ted Pikul, a "PR nerd"-cum-security guard, she escapes, but there's apparently no safe place for them to go, and Allegra doesn't want Ted to call Antenna Research, her company, to reassure them of her safety. [Why this is the case is not explained.] As they drive around, Allegra worries about her eXistenZ pod, which was shot and possibly damaged. It's the only one in existence and worth $38 million--and it's also sort of a living creature about which Allegra feels motherly. She insists that Ted jack into the pod with her to test it out. However, he doesn't have a bioport, and although techs routinely insert the things "at malls," they have to have him fitted with one illegally [this is also not explained]. They go to a gas station where the attendant specializes in such procedures, and Ted is properly fitted out. However, when Allegra jacks into him, the eXistenZ pod blows. At first she accuses Ted of "neural-surging" (i.e., panicking), but when the gas station attendant points a shotgun at them, she realizes that Ted is innocent. The attendant wants the $5 million bounty on her head and the destruction of the game pod. However, Ted shoots the attendant first, and the two flee.

They go to another person who can install a working bioport in Ted, operate on the eXistenZ pod, and provide the fugitives with a place to crash. With everything in working order, Allegra and Ted jack in. They play the game for a while--it's a confusing scenario, sort of like a live-action corporate espionage Myst, where you have to do the correct things that your character "knows" to do before the plot can advance. The plot is centered around game-design espionage and mutated amphibians for some reason. At one point, Ted has to eat some of the amphibians. Eventually, when they exit the game, they discover that it's diseased, and that apparently stuff that was happening in the game is now happening in reality. The story dissolves into a melange of people yelling revolutionary slogans and shooting one another, and then that story dissolves back into reality, where we discover that everyone in the story was playing a role in the real eXistenZ--and it's possible that we're still not out of the story yet.

The book includes a long interview with Cronenberg, who expounds on the philosophies behind eXistenZ.

I haven't seen the movie, but if it's anything like the graphic novel, I'm not going to. Assuming the graphic novel is reasonably faithful to the script, it suffers from some insurmountable lapses in logic. As noted above, several key plot points--the refusal of Allegra to contact her company or seek any kind of protection, and the baffling insistence on getting Ted an illegal bioport--are never explained, so we're left wondering what the big deal is in the first place. (The answer, of course, is to advance the plot.) Other questions that ran through my mind: Why is the technology organic? It's obviously there to have sexual significance (biotechnology has always been much more erotic than plain old plastic and metal), but it seems like a "cool thing" rather than a reasonable extrapolation of technology. It would've been nice to have a glimpse into how such a thing is programmed. And why, oh why, is there only ONE COPY of eXistenZ? No programmer in the WORLD would cart around her/his ONLY copy of a game, especially one that cost so much. (The answer, some of you may say, is that these things took place in the game world and thus don't have to make sense. Nonsense; games have to use reasonable logic too, or the game world will be hopelessly compromised.)

Worse is the feeble understanding of gaming, gaming language, and what gamers expect from their games. (Hey, I've been gaming for almost 22 years; I'm one of the oldest female gamers in Colorado; I know a bit about this subject.) For starters, the eXistenZ world is achingly dull. It seems to consist of a gas station, some roads through wilderness, a Chinese restaurant, a fish farm, a church, and a few dwellings. Big deal. Zork was bigger than that! And when you jack into the game, you have to follow the dictates of your game personality, so there isn't much real gaming involved; you might as well be acting in a play. Also, while Allegra and Ted were obviously player characters (PCs), the rest of the gamers appeared to have been non-player characters (NPCs), and where's the fun in that, especially in a game like this? (Yeah, I know people agree to be NPCs in live-action games, but that's different; you know what you're getting into when you do that. In eXistenZ, the implication is that everyone is supposed to be a PC, and I promise you a lot of irked gamers if they wind up as NPCs instead. A bit part in my own game? No thanks.)

Having demolished the "gaming sensibility" in this book, I'll spend just a moment on the plotting and dialogue, both of which are fairly incoherent. I had to read this thing four times just to get a sense of the second half of the book. I'm still not clear on a number of points, such as why Allegra and her game are the targets of assassins, or why Ted turns on Allegra at the end, or what the hell those stupid salamander thingies are supposed to represent (I guess they symbolize unreality). As for dialogue, well, here's an example:

TED: What's that for? It feels cold.
GAS STATION GUY: New ports are sometimes a bit tight. Wouldn't want to hurt you.
TED: How come bioports don't get infected? I mean, they open right into your body.
GAS: Listen to what you're saying, Pikul. Don't be ludicrous.
TED: Don't you think you could call me Ted?

So tell me: Did any communication take place between these two characters? Whose fault was this--was this terrible exchange really in the script, or did the uncredited adaptor do a lousy job?

Maybe some good art could have helped this sad thing, but eXistenZ didn't get any. What it got were mushy watercolors--rather like stills from the movie had been run through a "Watercolor" filter in a paint program--in the center of deep black panels. The effect is terribly claustrophobic. Most of the panels depict head shots of the principle actors, and their facial expressions don't vary much--a surprisingly uncinematic adaptation of a movie. The less-well-defined organic things, like the amphibian stew served at the Chinese restaurant or almost any game pod, are an unfocused melange of darkish colors that you have to puzzle over to distinguish as actual objects (which is not always possible). Maybe Scoffield took inspiration from some of the more visually incoherent manga, like Record of Lodoss War: The Lady of Pharis.

This book also has poorly designed word balloons, a rarity. Scoffield chose to dispense with the tails of the word balloons of people speaking offscreen, which can be confusing; at one point I thought mysterious disembodied voices were speaking to a character. Also, Scoffield put sound effects in word balloons and didn't use any punctuation, so when guns go off, you see big white ovals with BLAM in them. There were many better ways to do this....

 Existenz pic 1

 Outdoor amphibian hatchery

Would you believe she's supposed to be in a car in this panel?

A "mystery meat" panel; roll your mouse over it for a contextual hint.

 Copyright 1999, David Cronenberg and Sean Scoffield

Oh, yeah, the interview. It's pure concentrated ego; Cronenberg acts as if he's the only one who understands virtual reality. Got news for him: SF writers have been expanding on this theme for decades.

Anyway, this book is only for fans of the movie. Others can safely pass.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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