It was sometime during one of Mad Max: Fury Road’s quieter moments that I thought how little served such a movie would be if an intrepid scribe had attempted its relentless pace and insane yet inspired imagery. Admittedly, several of the genre’s classic texts offer a surfeit of both. One cannot separate the headspinning brio of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, or William Gibson’s Neuromancer from the details that make these novels live long after the reader turns the final page, regardless of whether those images might be Gully Foyle’s intricate facial tattoos, Rydra Wong’s recruitment of her starship crew, or even the Chiba City’s sky (“…the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”). Often, however, the pacing and imagery (and even other sensory details) tend to overpower the ideas, to the point that many readers might consider them secondary. So rich in detail is Gibson’s Sprawl, for example, that one forgets the novel’s emotional and philosophical treasures.
So it surprised me somewhat that, crazy though guitar players riding mobile multi-story speakers and the title character washing an opponent’s blood from his face with mother’s milk may be, the strange events and surreal landscapes presented in Mad Max: Fury Road complement rather than overpower this tale of reproductive slaves running from patriarchal captors. More surprising still, was how well Mad Max: Fury Road served as a companion piece to Marguerite Reed’s impressive novel Archangel, not only in its presentation of a fully realized ecology and in addressing the warrior psyche on its own terms, but also in its sense of pace and almost poetic visuals. The level of quality of each, too, comes unexpectedly; directed by George Miller 30 years after the previous entry, Mad Max: Fury Road plays on the same level of energy and vitality as any of its predecessors, while Reed works on a level unusual for a first novelist. Both, alas, possess flaws, neither of which hamper the work itself.
The fourth in Miller’s Mad Max series, Mad Max: Fury Road opens with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson in the driver’s seat), haunted by the deaths of children and others who appear to him in sudden flashbacks, as he is chased and captured by the pale-skinned War Boys of self-appointed godhead Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the gang leader “Toecutter” in the original Mad Max), who controls water and other resources in his Citadel, doling it out to dehydrated, starving (but always loyal) followers. Because of his universal-donor blood type, Max is given to War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult) as a “blood bag.” Barely does the viewer register all of this when Immortan Joe assigns Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to drive an armored War Rig to obtain gasoline and ammunition (from, naturally, Gas Town and the Bullet Farm). Furiosa drives only a short distance before she veers off course; within the War Rig hide Immortan Joe’s five reproductive slaves, one of whom pregnant, all of whom with Furiosa’s help planning to escape from the Citadel and reproductive slavery to the Green Place. Immortan Joe sends his War Boys after Furiosa to reclaim his property, with Nux at the wheel of a car and Max strapped to the front, connected to Nux via tubing for transfusions.
Essentially an extended chase, Mad Max: Fury Road offers so many riches that viewers might find it impossible to absorb everything. Given the eye-popping visuals and stunts so over-the-top they scrape the ionosphere (to say nothing of a pace so relentless that it makes Miller’s The Road Warrior look as meditative as Tarkovsky’s The Mirror), this fourth entry runs the danger of overpowering its subtext with its relentless text with every stomp of the accelerator, yet somehow never loses sight of its grand vision. Using very little dialogue or exposition, Miller (along with co-screenwriters Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris) build this post-apocalyptic world though telling details: the War Boys ghostly white skin and obsession with chrome paint, parched deserts resulting from nuclear exchanges, a need by Joe and other tyrannical for healthy children in a land where cancers swell legs and boil across bodies. In this world, patriarchy has killed the world; Furiosa, by aiding the escape of women bound to perpetual birthing, wants to redeem the world (and herself). If Mad Max: Fury Road engages in a bit of symbolic and literal overkill (its message at times becomes a bit too obvious, and its stunts a bit too outlandinsh on occasion), it nonetheless shows how to build a powerful story with only a few details, in the manner of James Tiptree, Jr.’s best fiction.
Marguerite Reed’s Archangel brings to mind Tiptree too, in much the same manner. Dropping only a few clues to the future in this, the first of her Chronicles of Ubastis, Archangel introduces xenobiologist Vashti Loren, who has been chosen to assist in the colonization of the Eden-like Ubastis, one of the remaining hopes for home of a space-faring humanity. Vashti loves Ubastis and its rich ecology and so acts to keep the planet in balance, understanding full well how her species destroyed earth and not wanting to see it lay waste to another world. Indeed, at times Vashti seems to show far more concern for Ubastis than for her fellow human beings, be they the genetically engineered Beasts or the visiting tourists from the rich galactic melting pot, though she also shows great love for her daughter Bibi and her dead husband, who, like Max’s child, haunts her thoughts.
Reed’s narrative moves as such a furious narrative pace that it might dizzy the casual reader. Keeping much of her tale lean and spare, Reed allows herself to explore Vashti and Ubastis with a good deal of depth. Vashti, hardened by life and circumstance, exemplifies the mind of the hunter (brought to captivating life during a safari sequence), but Reed never cheats by focusing exclusively on it. Violence occurs, but always in a matter-of-fact way, and never without psychological toll; indeed, many of the passages in the second part of Archangel focus on the aftermath of violence, something that, for all of its other virtues, Mad Max: Fury Road never quite addresses. At times Reed’s sense of action overpowers the narrative, but she keeps her themes of ecology and civilization in balance, allowing her the same sense of narrative drive one finds in Miller’s fourth apocalyptic adventure. We are fortunate that these violent tales, vividly told, are available.