Sunday, 18 December 2011

Cheating Death: Star Trek II and III

I watched the first three Star Trek movies back-to-back last night, tweeting as I went. I've always liked the first film for the things that it usually gets criticised for: its slow pace, 'transcendent' story, lack of 'action'. Its special effects by Doug Trumbull (with help from John Dykstra) are striking, with clear nods to 2001's Stargate sequence when the Enterprise penetrates V'ger's cloud, and the opening tour around the Enterprise in space-dock is so good that it's reprised at the beginning of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan. This was partly for budgetary reasons, re-using the first film's footage, but the recognisability of some of the shots (as they pass the Enterprise's rear bay doors a man in an environment suit descends head-first; when the Enterprise gets under way, a worker in a suit stops to wave them goodbye) lends familiarity, a very literal sense that we've been here before.

Wrath of Khan trades on this familiarity. Its opening, with Chekhov and Captain Terrell landing on Ceti Alpha VI, a desert planet assailed by high winds, is straight out of a show from the original series (TOS): it's set-bound, the sand-storm effects are low-grade and when they find Khan and his remaining followers sheltering inside what appears to be a couple of shipment containers, we're definitely back on recognisable ground. Ricardo Montalban, of course, reprises the role of Khan from the TOS series 'Space Seed', again signifying recognition and familiarity. 'This is what you were expecting from the first film', Wrath of Khan tells us.

If Wrath of Khan is a sequel to 'Space Seed', then Star Trek III: the Search for Spock is a direct sequel to the second film, forming a mirrored pair within the sequence. Spock, of course, dies in saving the ship in Wrath of Khan, only for his 'soul' to be downloaded into McCoy's brain and his body resurrected on the planet Genesis in Search for Spock. There are strong parallels in the narratives of the two films. In both, a rogue antagonist springs a surprise attack on the Enterprise (Khan/ Commander Kruge, who is played by Christopher Lloyd with similar relish to Montalban); the damaged ship is abandoned while Kirk and others are stranded on a planet below; Kirk pleads for a mano-a-mano confrontation with the antagonist as a strategy, his passions at full tilt ('Khaaan!!'/ 'You Klingon bastard, you killed my son!'); Kirk triumphs by pulling off a kind of trick (the flight to the Nebula/ destroying the Enterprise).

Wrath of Khan begins with the 'Kobiyashi Maru' training simulation which, it is revealed, Kirk defeated in his own youth by re-programming the test before the event to allow him to rescue the damaged ship: 'I don't believe in no-win situations', he tells Saavik (Kirstie Alley). The 'Kobiyashi Maru' becomes the key to both Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock. In Wrath of Khan, it becomes an index of Kirk's problematic heroism, his unwillingness to yield, to 'lose': this means that he has never really faced death (this is instead, especially notoriously in TOS, visited on many a red-topped and expendable 'security officer'). He has never faced grief; he has always 'cheated death'. Spock's sacrifice ('But he'll die!' - 'He's dead already') causes an ethical re-alignment for Kirk, a means by which to re-assess his own heroism: the mission, this time, has been paid for 'in our dearest blood', and Kirk is contemptuous of a young crew-man's wish to have a homecoming parade. Although the end of Wrath of Khan was altered to more directly foreshadow the next film, it ends on a somewhat melancholic note, with a return to Earth and the loss of what Shatner will call 'the better part of me' in Search for Spock.

The third film, then, swiftly goes about inverting Wrath of Khan. Where the second film ends with death, the third one quickly enjoins the possibility of resurrection; where Kirk's tricky heroism was problematic, it becomes heroic once more in Search for Spock: as they stand on Genesis and watch the stricken Enterprise plummet through the atmosphere as a fireball, Kirk says: 'My God, Bones, what have I done?', to which McCoy replies: 'What you always do - turn death into a fighting chance to live.' Where Wrath of Khan was explicitly critical of Kirk's tendency to 'cheat death', Search for Spock unashamedly returns to Kirkian heroism, to the extent that he even defeats Kluge in a brawl, a real return to the double-fisted ethos of TOS. (Perhaps sacrificing the Enterprise is different from sacrificing an old friend, though even the ship is resurrected by the beginning of Star Trek V.)

As the film series wanders through the successful The Voyage Home (IV), the execrable The Final Frontier (V), and the solid The Undiscovered Country (VI) - the last also directed by Nicholas Meyer, who directed Wrath of Khan - it becomes apparent that the most pressing problem for the crew of the Enterprise isn't death, but ageing: even in Wrath of Khan, Kirk had opined that he was getting to old to be warp-driving around the galaxy. There's no way out of this battle, no trick to be pulled off (except in the ludicrous body-double shots Shatner uses to film 'himself' as Kirk climbing a mountain at the beginning of the fifth film, the outrageousness of which simply re-inforcing that which was meant to be hidden). While the title of the last film to feature the original cast in its entirety refers to Hamlet, and his pondering on what-comes-after, the final line of the film really indicates where it's coming from. Asked by Sulu, for a final time, what heading he should pursue (in Wrath of Khan, Spock says, unexpectedly, 'indulge yourself'), Kirk tells him: 'Second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning.' The destination for the crew isn't the 'final frontier', in their dotage, but Neverland. Perhaps, when he gets there, Kirk will engage his lost boys and girls in unending battles with the Pirates, and face off once more with Hook, who is played by Ricardo Montalban.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Man Who Fell to Earth

I read Walter Tevis's The Man Who Fell to Earth over the summer. At the beginning of the novel, as in the film, a man walks out of the American desert into a dusty town. There, he pawns a solid gold ring for cold cash. Outside the town, he checks both a roll of cash, and a hundred more gold rings: this is his 'stake', so to speak, his means by which to operate in 20th century America. He buys food and returns to a camp outside the town. In a following scene, he seeks out a patent lawyer and asks him to act as an agent; the basic patents he shows the lawyer would net him a further $300 million - which 'isn't enough'.

Enough for what? The man who fell to Earth is Jerome Thomas Newton, a literal alien from a drought-stricken planet, who finds that not only does he have gold rings and technology to sell America, he is an excellent businessman. Soon he accrues a large fortune and control of a major corporation; so major, in fact, that it begins to attract ths attention and suspicion of the US government. Strangely, the story of both film and play is a classic American immigrant story, a Horatio Alger myth: arriving with little, he becomes a financial success story.

Nic Roeg's film, which casts David Bowie as Newton, plays on both Bowie's languid effeteness (his androgyny too) as well as his British accent to mark out his alienness. (When he sells the gold ring, Bowie brandishes a fake British passport as proof of his bona fides.) It's a film very much like Roeg's prior Walkabout, in which two very English Australian schoolchildren are abandoned in the Outback by their father, who kills himself. Their 'walkabout' is a journey across the desert accompanied by an Aboriginal lad (David Gulpilil, an actor used in Australian cinema in the 70s and 80s as a go-to presence when an Aboriginal actor was required, from The Last Wave to Crocodile Dundee, to even Rabbit Proof Fence). The sense of alienation from an unknowable Australian landscape, a classic motif of Australian cinema (Picnic at Hanging Rock, the aforementioned Crocodile Dundee, or in parody, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), is repeated in the literal alien figure of Newton, who relocates to the American South-West so the film can engage the imagery of desert, one that reflects the parched and desiccated dune-scapes of Newton's own world.

Roeg's film is itself disjunctive. Where Tevis's novel takes leaps forward in time to indicate Newton's longevity, but also the accelerated pace of expansion of his business empire, Roeg's film incorporates commercialised Country songs on the soundtrack, unexplained shifts in time and space, and curious scenes of Bowie's body, fitted inside a kind of white-grey stillsuit, being hurled acrobatically through (cinematic) space. If not joky, there's a kind of flatness or affectlessness in Roeg's film which not only inhabit's Newton's psychology, but the landscape of television that he comes to find impossible to resist. In a sense, the film is about addiction, to tv, to booze, to dreams or fantasies; the hardest of all for Netwton to give up is the dream of returning to his own world. He attempts to build a starship to take himself there and return his dying kinfolk; but his plan is interrupted by the US government.

Here, post-Watergate paranoia intrudes in the film (it was released in 1976). Where, in the novel, Newton is made prisoner and experimented on by the government, and eventually blinded by x-rays (accidentally), in the film it is the human contact lens that Newton wears to hide his own more cat-like native pupils that are bonded irretrievably to his corneas, ending, in a way, his literal alienness. His boozy numbness, also inhabited by human lover/ helper Betty Jo (Mary Lou in the film, played by Candy Clark) and the scientist Nathan Bryce (played with off-kilter intensity by Rip Torn), indicates not his alien peculiarity but a kind of 'human condition'. The final scene in book and film sees Bryce locate Newton in a bar, having discovered that Newton had made some recordings of language from his planet. In the final shot of the film, Newton succumbs to drunkenness, his head falls on to his chest, and all we see as titles roll is the wide-brimmed hat that Bowie wears. In the book, the hat falls on to the table, and Newton sobs; Bryce, in a gesture of human contact and communication largely absent elsewhere, moves around the table to put his arm round Newton's shoulders, saying that the man needs help. (Don't we all?) Roeg's evacuation of this empathic, even sentimental moment leaves us only with blankness.

This, of course, is all too true to the persona Bowie himself inhabited prior to making The Man Who Fell to Earth. Lost in America, Los Angeles a hell of cocaine, black magick and bad vibes, the covers of two successive albums make reference to Jerome Thomas Newton: Station to Station and Low. Where Station to Station was self-confessedly an album informed by Bowie's magical readings and dabblings while in LA, matched his soul/ funk stylings of Young Americans to the motorik beat of Krautrock, and has a shot of Bowie entering Netwon's spaceship (a soundproofed room), Low marks his return to Europe, and is the first of the 'Berlin trilogy'. Though recorded largely in France, it marks the beginning of his collaboration with Brian Eno and an embracing of both the energies of punk and the sonic possibilities of synthesized sound. Low, as is well-known, has a first side with short, Krautrock-inflected songs including 'Sound and Vision'; the second side is 'ambient', atmospheric, cinematic. On the cover, a profile shot of Bowie as Newton, collar turned up, against a lowering orange sky. (For more on this album and all of Bowei's work up to Tonight, so far, see the brilliant blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame.) Here, the alien is subject to a very Earthly anomie.

Newton is a man who, ultimately, finds himself trapped by the delusive energies of the America he had come to use for his own ends. Bowie, however, escaped, with a sequence of brilliant albums to come. The Man Who Fell to Earth is, as its title suggests, in some senses a tragedy, about the fall of an ethical being when confronted with the addictive corruptions of Earth. For Bowie, the film was yet another transition point, and Newton another character, another persona, to be added to the gallery.

Writing Shiva

Over the past two weeks I have been publishing a twitternovel called 'Shiva' (@SciFiBaker), in 14 parts, 10 tweets per 'set'. I wrote it partly because of my interest in the literature of constraint, such as that prouced bhy the OuLiPo group (Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and others) who devised arbitrary constraints (Perec's A Void lacks the letter 'e') or mathematical processes as compositional tools: the constraint itself was intended to be generative, to produce an imaginative response.

This was the way I approached writing the text. I had been writing an article about science and literature using the idea of 'bifurcations' found in dynamic systems in physics, an idea drawn from the work of Ilya Prigogine. I originally used this back in my MA dissertation in the early 1990s, in writing about William Gibson's 'Sprawl' trilogy of cyberpunk novels, but returned to it after I found references to Prigogine in the work of Manuel de Landa, who sutures together Prigogine's ideas about far-from-equilibrium systems with Deleuze and Guattari's concepts about bodies and flows.

Deleuze and Guattari are taken up by Mark Amerika in his remixthebook, a rather ecstatic paean in praise of the potentialities of new media for remixing as a cultural practice. I found the writing of remixthebook exhilarating, as it becomes a kind of Whitmanesque prose-poem, full of repetitions and hallucinatory recombinations, and seemed to offer an original path for critical writing that parallelled by own experiments in 'Iterative Architecture'. However, I still remain unconvinced by the political/ resistance potential offered by remix practices.

The question that struck me as I was writing the article, part of which considered 'literature machines', was: what if HAL narrated 2001: A Space Odyssey? In his essay 'Cybernetics and Ghosts', Italo Calvino tries to think what an Artificial Intelligence would produce as a writer, and suggested that it would eventually begin to challenge traditional literary forms and produce new ones of its own. This informed what I tried to do with 'Shiva'.

In writing it, the 140 character limit for Twitter proved to be a generative constraint: in trying to narrate from the point-of-view of an intelligent machine (one who acts in loco parentis), the text resolved itself as a series of Imagist 'poems', the connections between them not always narratively driven but through association, memory, thought/ emotion. Form and content became interconnected; the disjunctive, spare writing it produced was generated by the need to strip away all redundancy, to use each word carefully. It made me think differently about writing, and about how poetic effects (and forms) could be used even in critical writing. For me, it was a very interesting critical/ creative experiment, and I hope to do more with it (a 'graphic novel drawing upon Tom Phillips's A Humument, perhaps).

'Shiva' is available here as an archived 'book'.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Annakin

Last night, I watched a couple of episodes of series 2 of The Clone Wars with my 6 year old daughter, Isobel. We both like The Clone Wars, and for myself, the series does a much better job of articulating Lucas's ideas about the Jedi than the prequel trilogy is ever able to do. In particular, Annakin's journey from padawan to Obi-Wan's equal to Darth Vader always seemed under-motivated to me, partly through the execrable script in Attack of the Clones, and partly through Hayden Christianson's limitations as an actor in that film and in Revenge of the Sith.

The idea that Annakin wishes to forestall the death of Padme as a kind of psychological effect of the loss of his mother doesn't really work for me; how does this explain his fall to the 'dark side', and in particular the scene where he enters the Jedi temple to slay all the younglings? How does this square with him soon to become a father? While I think it's an interesting thing for Lucas to do to make Annakin so monstrous at this point, the 'fall' is insufficiently convincing psychologically. This is where The Clone Wars comes into its own.

The series fit into the gap between the second and third films, where Annakin has grown from callow and precocious teen-warrior (as in Attack of the Clones) to the brooding presence of Revenge of the Sith. The Annakin of The Clone Wars is heroic, his reckless courage the resolution to many of the narratives, but he is also placed in the role of mentor to the female padawan Ahsoka Tano. This 'father' role (in which the young girl comes to resemble Annakin in temperament and recklessness) plays against the Revenge of the Sith in an interesting way, shading the characterisation of Annakin to make him far more sympathetic. He has flaws, but he is one of the good guys.

However, in the second series, just what Annakin has been trained to be, and what the Clone Wars are turning all the Jedi into, becomes increasingly apparent. In the episode 'Voyage of Temptation', Obi-Wan accompanies the Mandalorean Duchess Satine (an avowed pacifist) and protects her from assassination by a war-mongering dissident group from a Mandalorean moon. It is revealed, as the episode goes on, that Obi-Wan and Satine were once unrequited lovers, the object of ironic commentary from Annakin, who expresses surprise that Obi-Wan has come close to violating the Jedi code not to allow personal emotional entanglements to cloud their judgement.

At the end of the episode, a traitor kidnaps Satine and is pursued by Obi-Wan. Satine escapes the traitor's grasp, and she holds a blaster on him, while Obi-Wan has his light saber in close attendance. The traitor baits them both, noting that if Obi-Wan kills him and saves the ship (the traitor has a device to cause the ship to explode) he will be a hero, except to the ultra-pacifist Satine, who will abhor him; if Satine kills the traitor, she will violate everything she holds dear. This no-win situation is ended when Obi-Wan calls up the need for a 'cold-blooded killer'; the next moment, a light saber protrudes from the chest of the traitor, wielded by Annakin, who catches the device as it falls. 'What?' Annakin asks, to their horrified looks. 'He was going to blow up the ship.' The insouciance with which Annakin dispatches the Mandalorean (no mere droid) is purposely chilling: the act has no ethical weight for Annakin. He has become so inured to battle, to violence, to killing, that this moment of ethical decision is entirely lost on him.

But who is to blame? Is it Annakin himself, or is it the Jedi training and warrior role he has assumed? One of the things The Clone Wars is able to do is to complicate Obi-Wan, not only by offering romantic entanglements in the past, but to suggest that his judgement is awry at crucial stages of the narrative. This is most evident in the confrontation in Revenge of the Sith, during the light saber battle between he and Annakin. In a pause, Annakin declares that to him, 'the Jedi are evil'. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan shouts back, 'then you are lost!" It's actually one of the most striking lines of the film, but it points out Obi-Wan's failure as a mentor to Annakin: even here, he could explain things, try to show Annakin where he has done wrong; but instead he only repeats that he has 'failed' Annakin. Later in the sequence, he calls Annakin 'brother', not 'son'; it is, in a sense, the failure of patriarchal authority at work here. Annakin becomes what the Jedi need him to be, the warrior nonpareil; unfortunately, the warrior-prince finds another father and brings about the doom of the Jedi that made him.

In Revenge of the Sith, the failure of the Jedi is partly couched in heroic terms, in the personal duels Mace Windu and Yoda have with Palpatine which fail to kill the Emperor-to-be. However, I think The Clone Wars more cunningly reveals that it is not a failure of heroic action which is at the root of the Republic's downfall: it is an ethical, strategic and political failure on the part of the Jedi - a 'peace-keeping' order who assume the role of pursuing martial victory - that is the real cause of defeat. It's a shame, then, that the prequel trilogy, in its inability to tell the personal/ dynastic AND political narratives of the fall of the Republic (most apparent in the clumsy structure of Attack of the Clones) at the same time, has somewhat marred the reputation and reception of the Star Wars films as a whole; The Clone Wars, with its painterly animation and more shaded (though still heroic) storylines, recovers much of the lost ground admirably.




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Saturday, 5 November 2011

on Starship Troopers

Here's a short section from my book Masculinity in Fiction and Film:

The rhetoric of the frontier [...] is clearly crucial to science fictions that involve contact (and warfare) with alien species. Alasdair Spark suggested that Heinlein should be considered a ‘Social Darwinist, whose ideal society is one in which the individual is free to rise to his “natural” level of power, wealth, and authority'. The same may be said of the model of competition, between humans and Bugs as competing colonists, that Heinlein employs macrocosmically in Starship Troopers. Victory, in the MI troopers war, will produce the colonial hegemon. Ziauddin Sardar has suggested that ‘Wherever we look, the colonising, imperial mission of science fiction is hard to miss. Space, the final frontier, is the recurrent frontier on which Western thought has been constructed and operated throughout history, or time’. Domination is legitimated through the pseudo-Darwinist competition for resources. Politically, this is legitimated through the novel by yet another authority/ father figure, Major Reid, who operates as a similar mouthpiece to Dubois. Underpinning the authority of the state, he argues, is force: the law is secured by violence.

“To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives – such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! – the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or ten billion, political authority is force.” (p. 155)

(The bundle of Rods is another symbol of fascism, itself appropriated from the Roman republic.) [...] In his film version of Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven manipulates this speech for satirical effect: ‘force, my friends, is violence, the supreme authority from which all other authority derives’, put into the mouth of the character of Rasczak (Michael Ironside, who performs the roles of both the teacher Dubois and the original leader of the Roughnecks). Where Heinlein made the franchise the prime authority (made so by elective citizenship), Verhoeven exposes what he sees as the legitimation of military aggression in this rhetoric. Indeed, his cynicism about the construction of a military state approaches that of C. Wright Mills: he said, at the time of the film’s production, ‘The US is desperate to find a new enemy… Alien sci-fi gives us a terrifying enemy that is politically correct’. The threatening Other is a necessary legitimation of the militarised nation-state.

Although Starship Troopers is clearly a Cold War text, deploying what David Seed has called the ‘Communists-as-bugs trope’ common to science fiction of the 1950s, Verhoeven’s film version emphasises Western intertexts rather than either the war film or the Cold War. Arriving on a disputed planet, Rasczak, Rico and the Roughnecks seek out a human outpost that has lost contact with the fleet. The landscape they march through is red desert; in the visual rhetoric of the Western, this is Indian country. They come across the fort to find it overrun and all its inhabitants slaughtered. I.Q. Hunter is surely correct in identifying Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers as a ‘parody of Heinlein’s novel [and] a wicked deconstruction of the xenophobic militarism of both 1950s sci-fi and the war film’, but here, his identification of the ‘Bugs as Indians fighting off genocidal colonists’ is more pertinent. One of the most spectacular images in the film is when the Bugs emerge to surround the fort: the mixture of alien other, flood or tide, and imagery from countless Westerns is telling. The MI troopers [...] must withstand the ‘red tide’. Even if the film is camp and overblown, which it certainly is, Verhoeven is intent on exposing the underpinnings of militarism in narratives of the frontier, and how the price of ‘colonialism’ and ‘expansion’ is often death and destruction on horribly vast scales. The citizen-soldier, the Starship Trooper, becomes a troubling presence, whose violent means are not obscured by ideologically-sanctioned ends.

(End of extract.) I do not think Starship Troopers is a fascist text, but it certainly relies upon a rather naked expression of power or force as the primary relation between states, and between individuals. For liberal sensitivities, this makes Starship Troopers an uncomfortable book. It is, I think, a peculiarly American one, in terms of the ideals of the Republic, the ideologies of the Cold War, and its 1950s (re-)constructions of masculinity and fatherhood. But remember: the main character is Juan Rico, whose first language is Tagalog. He is a Filipino. In a novel which articulates a rather disturbing relationship between us and them, self and Other, Heinlein's protagonist and focus is from the developing world and not the USA, whose ethnicity is not 'white': no small thing for a science fiction text from the late 1950s.

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Time Machine

‘Scientific people know very well that Time is only a kind of Space’, says the Traveller in Wells's The Time Machine. That being so, of course, it is incumbent upon him to explore it. He mounts his chrono-cycle with only a few items in his pocket, and sets off into the future. I'm always reminded of pictures taken of Empire explorers and adventurers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Mallory-Irvine expedition to Mount Everest in 1924. In the photo here,
(from the Natural History Museum website), the expedition look as though they might be about to have a walk in slightly inclement weather somewhere on Hampstead Heath, rather than trying to ascend the highest mountain in the world. This is how I imagine the Traveller, somewhat unprepared, somewhat naive, about to trust to luck and his own wits.

The adventurer-hero of Imperial Romance is easiest identified with the figure of Allan Quartermain, protagonist of several books by H.Rider Haggard, and more recently re-booted as an opium-addicted time traveller of increased longevity in the Moore and O'Neill comic books The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (At the end of Volume 1 of the Collected versions of LoEG, Quartermain actually meets and has an adventure with Wells's Traveller.) Moore's ironic imagination of the Imperial adventurer pricks the balloon of his competence (if, unlike the Traveller, the advneturer had much to begin with); uptight, rather weak, his masculinist and Imperial ethos undone by encounters with Mina Harker and Captain Nemo, Quartermain is re-discovered as a rather more attractive figure for his all-too-human weaknesses.

In The Time Machine, Wells allows the Traveller to tell his own story (though the narration is framed and doubled with another narration, by a narrator not revealed to the reader); as in The Island of Doctor Moreau, narrated by the castaway Prendick, Wells allows a gap to open between the Traveller's experience of the world, his narration, and how we might process his words. For instance, the Traveller continually speculates about the nature and state of the world he finds himself in; continually, his hypotheses are proved wrong. A keen experimenter, of course, this does not put him off: he simply reformulates the evidence into new hypotheses. For the reader, however, the constant mis-apprehensions reveal to us the existence of partiality, of blind spots, of gaps in knowledge or understanding. Wells is a sophisticated enough writer (not always allowed in criticism of his work) to afford several of his scientific romances some linguistic or formal play, and first-person narration is one of those devices. Through this, Wells can expose some of the assumptions of the world of Victorian England that produces the Traveller and his science.

That is not to say that Wells does not have his own blind spots, his own ideological silences. If 'time is a kind of space' is an alibi or pretext for Imperial adventure, how might we process the evolutionary discourse (mapped onto class) that structures the visions of the future? Is class only a kind of species difference, in a Darwinian model of competition and selection? And how is it that agency is gendered?

However, the Traveller's machine is not a gunboat, a machine of war and domination; its nearest analogue is a bicycle. In a decade when cycling became all the rage (and Wells wrote his own bicycle-themed novel, The Wheels of Chance), the Time Machine itself seems best suited not for Empire, but a day-trip to the countryside.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Two-a-day


I've found keeping up to date on the blog difficult over the last few months. Tiredness at the end of the last academic year, then a need to rest and recuperate over the summer meant that I only posted again last week. With the new year, new ENGL365 classes beginning tomorrow, I'm going to post once a week until Christmas on a topic related to the classes the week after next is Wells and The Time Machine, so expect a post on that later in the week.

The title comes from Gibson, and Count Zero. I've never quite known what it refers to. But if I can't mange two-a-day, I'll go for once-a-week.

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Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Close Encounters

The other day, I caught the end of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1990) and thought: so, alien beings are angelic jellyfish that read text messages? It’s all very bathetic. The mock-profundity of the sequence where Ed Harris is saved by the underwater beings conspicuously lacks the sense of wonder that Steven Spielberg achieves in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), let alone Kubrick’s much more radical means by which to imagine the transcendent in the Stargate sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). When the giant sea/spacecraft emerges from the deep, with US Navy ships left stranded on it like so many bathtime toys, the result is curiously unengaging. There is, of course, a long-standing connection between the oceanographic and the cosmological, not least in Arthur C. Clarke’s long-standing love-affair with the sea (he abandoned Europe and went to live in Sri Lanka), but The Abyss, with its ending of a clinch between husband and wife Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, standing on the wet deck of the alien mega-submersible, is a very literal damp squib.

So I went back to Spielberg and Close Encounters. The opening of the film is wonderfully evocative, figures battling a sandstorm to discover a flight of Grumman Avengers lost in the Bermuda Triangle, including Francois Truffaut (playing it very straight) as the scientist Lacombe and the excellent Bob Balaban. There’s a strangeness to this sequence which shows what an off-kilter opening it is – we won’t see Truffaut again until much later in the film, and the film shifts to Indiana, where a passenger flight is buzzed by a UFO before the film focuses on two characters, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) and Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), whose young son runs off into the night in search of his extra-terrestrial playmates. The sequence where Neary, an electrical engineer lost in his truck in browned-out Indiana, encounters a UFO is full of iconic moments: standing at a level crossing, what appear to be a car’s headlights approaching behind him ascend vertically over the truck’s roof; the blinding white light and the objects in the truck’s cabin set loose from gravity; the truck, in long shot, zooming along a moonlit highway as a large, circular shadow passes across the screen; after having just avoided hitting Barry Guiler (Cory Duffy), standing in the middle of the road, Neary and Jillian watching (with a group of silent locals) the bright lights of the UFOs hurtle down the highway then carry on through a bend and up into the sky.

This spectacle is both superseded and completed by the end of the film. Under a kind of psychological compulsion, and accompanied by Jillian, Neary travels to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, where scientists have constructed a base or kind of landing pad for alien visitors. Doug Trumbull’s effects in this sequence are marvels of light: their colours unearthly, upper-saturated neon, bespeaking their extra terrestrial origin. They shine too brightly; yet they are not threatening, even when the huge Mothership decends. Spielberg, in a typical visual gesture for him, renders the spectacle less anxious by arraying diegetic spectators. One or two run to the toilet, but most stand and watch, beguiled by the play of light. And play is crucial to the representation of the aliens in Close Encounters, from Barry Guiler’s toys at the beginning of the film (compare the sinister scene in the children’s bedroom in the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist (1982), where the toys come to ‘life’), to the playfulness of the lights chased across Indiana by Neary and thee police cars, to the child-like aliens milling about on the landing field at the end.

Of course, at the end of the film, Neary abandons his own wife and children in search of wonder; he is chosen by the childlike alien entities (after gatecrashing the close encounter) and ascends to the stars. But this is the imperative of playtime, for Neary: he wants to discover, to inhabit a sense of wonder, to play. It countermands everything else. No wonder then, at Lacombe’s parting words: ‘Monsieur Neary, I envy you.’

Friday, 24 June 2011

La Question Humaine

After five months' silence...

Anyway. Nicolas Klotz's La Question Humaine (2007), released in the UK as Heartbeat Detector, is presented on the dvd box blurb as a near-future dystopia in the the tradition of Godard's Alphaville, a film that uses contemporaneous Paris as a setting for a narrative that seems to be set on another world. Klotz's film self-consciously restricts the viewer's perception of a wider world: the narrative is limited to office buildings, nondescript urban streets, and one short automobile ride taken by a secondary character to a car park, where he is left by his chauffeur. While the plate-glass, overlit offices resemble the kind of architectural indices used by Alan J. Pakula's paranoid conspiracy movies in the early- to mid-1970s (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) to signify a cultural and political pathology at work, what La Question Humaine seems to probe in its first hour is a Ballardian anomie. The film's protagonist, Kessler, played with glassy automatism by Mathieu Amalric, is a psychologist in a French subsidiary of a German corporation whose professional skills are put to work (a) in recruitment and (b) much more worryingly, in devising technical criteria by which employees may be made redundant. As in the typical Ballard text, beneath the professional protocols and social codes is a fundamnetal alienation and a kind of perverse, pathologised reaction to dehumanising structures of corporate life. In a very oblique sequence in what is already an oblique film, Amalric and some co-workers enter a rave in disused warehouse or factory, sign of the post-industrial. Intoxicated, thrashing around with a bottle of clear spirit to his lips, Amalric violently assaults a female co-worker and then gets into another fight before being ejected. He later denies any memory of the event, a moment that will become increasingly significant later in the film. So far, so satisfying: a Ballardian trajectory seems mapped out to increasing disintegration and pathologisation.

However, the film then takes an interesting swerve. Detailed to monitor one of his superiors, played by Michael Lonsdale (who was the villain Hugo Drax in the Bond film Moonraker back in 1979), Amalric discovers the hidden history of some of his co-workers, and of the company itself. Both are deeply embedded in the history of Nazism, and are guilty of complicity in genocide. As the second half of the narrative unwinds, the film begins to construct a fundamental homology between the technical facility of Kessler as a psychologist, whose approach to his work enabled the corporation to dispose of a thousand workers without provoking in him any kind of ethical qualm, and that of apparatchiks in a genocidal state, where a focus on systems allows the 'human question' to go overlooked. The shots at the beginning of the film of a large refinery, smoke billowing into the air, take on a rather more urgent political and ethical meaning than the generic dystopian coding suggested by the Alphaville references on the dvd packaging. The smoke rising from the chimneys is meant to remind us of the death camps; the crudity of this visual signifier, its very obscenity, recapitulates the obscenity of another kind of human 'disposal'.

The film ends with Amalric tracking down a former employee to Le Mans, a man who has been sending him threatening letters. In a bar-tabac, the man reveals the legacies of complicity in genocide that marks the personal and economic post-war history of Europe. Cunningly played by Amalric, the glassy dislocation of the first part of the film becomes the self-alienated gaze of someone whose own complicity is finally revealed to them. Much as I love Ballard's work, this is somewhere he never would have gone; his relentless internalization/ pathologization of social and political formations do not generally allow this opening out into history. Only, perhaps, in the late books, in Super-Cannes, and particularly in Kingdom Come and the political history of the father, does this enter explicitly into the Ballardian trajectory. It is perhaps the particularly French context here, of Occupation and collaboration, and of the wars in Indochina and particularly Algeria ('la guerre sans nom'), that insists upon the political necessity to speak that history of violence and complicity that underpins the ethical blankness of the technocrat.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Toy Story 3

contains spoilers!

Upfront, let me say this: I love Pixar's films, and have done since Toy Story came out in 1995. I cried in the silent montage sequence at the beginning of Up; wondered at the dazzling beauty of Finding Nemo; even, belatedly, enjoyed Cars (which is about Route 66 Americana rather than NASCAR) and in fact got my biggest Pixar belly-laugh from that film. My favourite Pixar film, though, is Toy Story 2, a work of absolute genius: smart, very funny, self-conscious, beautifully designed and engineered, and with a marvellously circular script that gives a very satisfying sense of completion. And it's utterly postmodern, in that it's a sleek, shiny object of desire that complicitly critiques consumerism and spectacle.

Therefore, I was in two minds about Toy Story 3. If you can make a sequel that is better than the original (as I think Toy Story 2 does with Toy Story), could even Pixar make lightning strike twice (or catch lightning in a bottle twice, more like)? I was very happy to see the reviews lauding the film, relieved too; but when I saw the film at the cinema, I must confess, I was a little disappointed. It isn't better than Toy Story 2, though having just watched the film again on dvd, it is probably as good as the original. It is very good, but the yardstick I measure it against is so high that it inevitably doesn't quite reach.

One of the things I really liked about Toy Story 2 was its playfulness with regard to genre and genre history. In my book Masculinities in Fiction and Film, I wrote about films such as Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys which married a sense of the heroic superannuation of the old-time cowboy with images of Kennedy's New Frontier, the Space Race. I began this chapter with Woody and Buzz, and Toy Story 2:

"Woody discovers his origins or history when Jessie plays him the last episode of Woody’s Round-Up. Woody mis-recognises the ‘real’ on-screen puppet Woody as himself, and identifies the cancellation of the show with the end of his utility (his ‘owner’, the human boy Andy, will not play with him any more) and the end of the 1950s (in the rhetoric of the film, the Age of Innocence and the Age of the Western). Stinky Pete’s revelation that there was no more Woody’s Round-Up is delivered in the fateful shorthand: ‘Two words: Sput Nik. After that, children only wanted to play with space toys.’

"Of course, the fear of replacement (by space toys) had haunted Woody in the first Toy Story film (1995). Stinky Pete’s own superannuation is pointedly compared with Woody’s threatened (and impending) ‘retirement’; the promised Japanese toy museum becomes a kind of old folks’ home, where the toys can be admired at a safe distance. Although Woody buys this argument for a short time – until Buzz himself reminds Woody of his own rhetoric, that ‘you are a child’s plaything’, and toy existence gains meaning only in moments of play with the ‘owner’ – the film reasserts the group or team ethic which had provoked the rescue mission in the first place, incorporating Jessie and Bullseye into a reconstituted ‘Round-Up Gang’ in Andy’s bedroom. (Stinky Pete is excluded from the new consensus.) Toy Story 2 validates the importance of the team over the individual while providing plenty of space for quasi-heroic escapades. Though it starts as a science fiction film, the end of Toy Story 2 completes the ‘missing’ final episode of Woody’s Round-Up and casts the whole narrative as a kind of captivity Western manqué. Centrally, Woody and Buzz ‘wouldn’t miss for the world’ Andy’s growing up, even though it will result in their own abandonment. Woody and Buzz sacrifice themselves for the greater good (Andy’s happiness), consoling each other that at least they will have a friend to rely on in their (or Andy’s) old age.

"Woody and Buzz seem to represent different times, values and conceptions of masculine heroism, organised around the generic imagery of the two toys: the Cowboy and the Space Ranger. Woody’s masculinity is ‘soft’; his leadership of the toys is consensual, open to challenge, and reaffirms the importance of group cohesion rather than individual heroism. Initially at least, in Toy Story (then replayed through the ‘other’ Buzz in the sequel), Buzz Lightyear is the individual Hero, the Action Toy, whose single-minded heroic world-view is at first attractive to the other toys, then irritatingly at odds with reality. In the course of the two films, which negotiate their initial antagonism into friendship, Buzz is acculturated into Woody’s values, while Woody learns to accept this potential male rival (who produces ‘laser envy’ in him) into the toy community. Generically, of course, the opposition between the two is also between the Western and Science Fiction. They are initially seen to be in conflict, their associations with the past/tradition (the Western) and the future/change (Science Fiction) rendering them incompatible. Toy Story 2 works to achieve the resolution of this generic conflict through the male ‘buddy’ system of contemporary action cinema."

Toy Story 2 begins as science fiction (Buzz Lightyear's attempt to penetrate Zurg's lair, soon to be revealed as, in fact, a computer game played by Rex) and ends as a Western (where Woody and Jessie 'find out' what happens in the cancelled episode of Woody's Round-Up); Toy Story 3 begins as a Western (Woody, Jessie and Buzz chase One Eyed Bart and One Eyed Betty - Mr and Mrs Potato Head) and develops into science fiction, or, more precisely, a dystopia.

For this is what Sunnyside day-care centre is for the toys that have been donated. Lotso the bear is a dictator who uses force, threats and (most notably dystopian) surveillance to keep the toys in his 'pyramid' of power; the nursery, at night, becomes a prison. The generic hybridisation in Toy Story 3 comes when Woody breaks back in to Sunnyside to rescue his friends, whereupon it becomes a kind Great Escape. (One of the great moments in the film is where Mr Potato Head, sent to The Box (the sandpit in the yard outside, aka 'the Cooler' or solitary confinement in The Great Escape), escapes through a knothole in the wood, which is two small to allow his plastic-potato torso to pass through. Jessie spins him a tortilla under a door, with which he transforms himself into a monstrous/hilarious wobbling Mr Tortilla Head, who eventually falls to pieces.) When Woody engineers the toys' escape, they come to 'the only way out' of Sunnyside: the trash chute. On the point of deliverance, Lotso appears, threatening to throw the gang into the garbage bin if they do not return to their alloted positions ('disposable' fodder for the toddlers room). When Woody reveals Lotso's duplicity to Big Baby, Sunnyside's uncanny chief enforcer, Big Baby lifts Lotso above hie head, in a clear echo of Darth Vader's terminal rebellion against the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi, and throws the bear into the trash, slamming the lid shut (and blowing a raspberry).

When watching the film for the first time, I was expecting it to work to a quick conclusion at this point, and would have been satisfied with this denouement: the tyrant overthrown by one of his soldiers, with a nice generic reference thrown in - equivalent to the justice meted out to the violent boy Sid in the first film ('PLAY NICE!') or Stinky Pete in the sequel (who 'learns the meaning of playtime'). However, the film does not end there: Lotso reaches out to grab Woody's leg, and in trying to save him, all the toys are transported to the dump.

Sunnyside itself is first thought, by the 'donated' toys, to be a kind of utopia. Playtime is eternal: when children grow up they are replaced by other cohorts of children (in a neat inversion of the horror of 'replacement' that haunts Woody and, as it is revealed later in Toy Story 3, Lotso himself). However, when the toys are sent to the toddler's room, the physical battering they take (they are not 'age appropriate') starts to reveal the dystopian reality of their new home. Buzz overhears Lotso's lieutenants say that they do not expect the new toys to last a week: none of them are 'keepers'.

However, when the toys find themselves at the city dump, the generic register switches from utopia/dystopia to inferno. The dump is a wasteland of wreckage, and the toys barely escape being splintered into the same milled detritus they stumble around on. Finally, they are cast into a literal pit, a vast silo where the rubbish is incinerated. I cried in the cinema, and did so again just now, as the toys are sucked down the scree-slope of shreds towards the flames: silently, they take each others' hands, and face the furnace, in a terribly ironic and hellish consummation of their wish to go into the future 'together'.

The logic of the film, in fact the logic of all three films and their anxieties about superannuation, about loss, about neglect and being 'thrown away', insists that it ends there. The toys face the flames bravely, together - because this is the fate of most toys. (In fact, if one wants to see the films as a kind of parable about old age, then cremation is an end that many of us humans will face too.) What follows is the most literal of deus ex machinas, so obvious, in fact, that I think the film-makers tip their hand at this point: this is where the film really ends. But it can't end there, it's a Pixar film, it's about the beloved Woody and Buzz and Jessie and all the gang, and it would say something rather unpleasant about us and our willingness to slough off the unnecessary, the outmoded, the unwanted, if they go down into the pit. (We'd be worse than Lotso.)

So the gang are saved by a machine from the sky, and they reach not utopia, but Elysium: Andy takes the toys to the young girl Bonnie, who has as active an imagination as Andy once had, and where playtime is a joy, not a punishment. It's a reward for the gang, and takes place in an idealised garden, filled with sunshine. It's a leavetaking too, for the films and their audiences as well as for Andy and Woody.

So far, so good, and so sentimental. (Yes, I cry at the end, too.) Having seen the film again, though, it's also clear that Toy Story 3 is intent on ironising, or at least complicating, some of the emphases of the films as a whole. As in Toy Story, playtime can be a horror, as well as a joy; though it contrasts the different modes of authority and leadership of Woody and Lotso, it is anxious about power: Barbie is given an arch line about power not deriving from force, but from the consent of the governed (as a good daughter of the Republic); and then there is what happens to Buzz.

After being 'reset' by Lotso, and then by his friends, Buzz transforms into 'Spanish Buzz', a gallant, flamenco-dancing and impassioned admirer of Jessie. In Toy Story 2, of course, there is some nice play with the idea that Buzz Lightyears are mass-produced plastic figures when the toys mis-recognise another Buzz as their own - the 'original' status of their friend attested to, somewhat ironically, only when Buzz reveals the name 'Andy' scrawled on the sole of his boot. For a while, though, the gang think the doppelganger is their Buzz, only acting somewhat strangely. Buzz's identity in the three films is unstable, subject to change (and even, in Toy Story, subject to a kind of collapse or breakdown when he is taken into Sid's house and forced to take his place in Sid's sister's toy tea-party). Woody, by contrast, never undergoes such crises of identity.

In the third film, the 'return of the astro-nut' (Hamm's phrase) suggests that not only can Buzz 'revert' to the 'deluded' Space Ranger he was when emerging from his packaging, this originary subjectivity is deeply problematic: Buzz is dragooned into being one of Lotso's enforcers, and becomes the guard of his friends' prison. Although, in the end credit sequence, Jessie is able to part-revive 'Spanish Buzz', setting his hips a-spinning when she plays him flamenco, this only in part defrays the first image of Buzz's 'reversion' to a prior subjectivity: as fascist cop. What is within?, this film asks. It is the romancer, and the tyrant.

And so the friends are put out to grass (literally), Andy drives off into the future, but playtime goes on: the final (virtual) helicopter-shot shows a receding Woody at the centre of his new, extended family of toys, starting to organise them as he once did in Andy's room. Playtime to infinity, and beyond? Maybe. Freshened up with the hose, the toys look as good as new in this beautifully-rendered Elysium; all those years playing with Andy has left on them nary a scratch nor a scuff. For these aren't 'real' toys in a 'real' world, of course, not subject to wear and tear, old age and tiredness: Woody doesn't even lose his hat (permanently). It is in the computer animation itself, in the beautifully fashioned films Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, where the toys can 'live forever'. Well, sort of.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Afrofuturism

Almost exactly a year ago, the blogosphere proclaimed 'the death of science fiction' (see, for instance, here or here). In a reaction to what was perceived as the institutional biases within sf as unreconstructedly patriarchal, white, ideologically conservative/reactionary and incapable of properly dealing with (a) science and (b) the changing nature of contemporary technology and its impact upon everyday life, several writers lamented the state of contemporary sf, suggesting that it must change or die. This, of course, is an old story: Ursula LeGuin, in putting together the Norton Book of Science Fiction in the late-1990s, inveighed against such biases and attempted, in her selection, to tell another story about sf. We cannot undo the history of sf, however, while admitting those biases; the consternation among some (male) sf writers about LeGuin's revisionist project (and the way she handled the selection of some stories by white male writers) was not only a sense of aggrieved pride, but that LeGuin had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Is sf incapable of 'representing the Other' without falling into a Derridean binary, a hierarchy of value which places 'us' above 'them'? Is sf determined to repeat the representational imperatives of (post-)imperialism? Is it racist, strictly Anglophone, culturally irrelevant? I think the answer to this is no, but even if it were, in the phrase of Fredric Jameson, it is the 'failure to imagine the other of what is' which is the true locus of critique and the diagnostic focus of sf.

Several times, I have seen sf characterized as 'the literature of change' in these blogs, by writers who see science fiction as having failed in a progressive political project. Contemporary sf from the 'West' (Anglo-American sf) falls into facile post-apocalypticism or the adventure-narrative structures of 'cowboys in space', it is alleged. What we have here, I think, is a confusion of discourse, and my reference to Jameson is key here. It is not 'science fiction' that has 'failed', but utopianism. However, as Jameson has long argued (see 'Of Islands and Trenches'), the imagination of utopia succeeds by failure, because the dialectical relationship between utopia and contemporary ideological formations means that utopia is never achieved, but the struggle to imagine it goes on.

Of course, sf is not only written by white, heterosexual, Anglo-American men. While Mark Dery, in his famous article ‘Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0’ writes:

‘Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other -- the stranger in a strange land -- would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists? Yet, to this writer's knowledge, only Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders have chosen to write within the genre conventions of SF.’

Jetse de Vries, who wrote the blog asking whether sf should die, noted:

‘throughout its history novels and short stories by people of colour have been — and continue to be — published: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor and David Anthony Durham immediately come to mind, and then I realise I am overlooking many, many others.'

There is racism in sf, certainly, but sf is not a racist genre. In fact, as Mark Dery and others have argued, sf provides a crucial formal vehicle for the African-American literary imagination. This finds its most important manifestation in the form of ‘afrofuturism’. Although a recent Guardian commenter revealed their ignorance in assuming that afrofuturism was a critical neologism essayed by a reviewer (of a hip-hop album), the term has a history as far back as Dery’s article (published in 1995) and its cultural manifestations go back much further. What is it? Dery’s definition runs thus:

‘Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture -- and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future -- might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.’

On Gary Dauphin’s ebogjonson.com website, where he hosts a page called ‘Afrofuturism archives', in an article commemorating the African-American sf writer Octavia Butler, he offered this definition:

‘Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness.’

Afrofuturism is essentially bound up with 20th century developments in the political self-consciousness of Africans and African-Americans: from Marcus Garvey, to Pan-Africanism, to anti-colonialism, to Black Power, lensed through sf and, markedly, through music. One of the first Afrofuturist artists is Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader and visionary, who David Toop, in Ocean of Sound suggests ‘may be contextualised in a mystic-political undercurrent of black American thought alongside Marcus Garvey and the turbaned founder of the Moorish Science Temple, prophet Noble Ali Drew’ (p.27). The connections to Garvey, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism are crucial here, but so is science fiction, for it is that which enables the visionary nature of Sun Ra’s music, its attempt to ‘imagine the other of what is’. Toop goes on to describe Sun Ra’s performances with his Arkestra like this:

'With sound, light, words, colour and costume, Ra concocted a moving, glittering hallucination of Ancient Egypt, deep space, the kingdoms of Africa [...] a history of the future with which he battled for the souls of his people against the legacy of slavery, segregation, drugs, alcohol, apathy and the corrupting powers of capitalism.' (pp.28-9)

Sun Ra, acknowledged as a musical innovator, is also crucial to the development of another Afrofuturist musical innovator, George Clinton. Releasing albums under the names Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton constructed an Afrofuturist sf mythology to articulate similar concerns to Sun Ra: the deliverance of people from slavery (in ‘Funky Dollar Bill’ from Funkadelic’s 1971 album Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow, servitude to the imperatives of materialism and consumerism) through the ‘holy Funk’. Clinton’s funk cosmology takes sf as a means by which to narrate an alternate history and consciousness, an alternate and enabling mythology of human consciousness based on spiritual enlightenment and sexual awakening, which is clearly utopian in character. Funk may lead to the kingdom of heaven within, but it also leads to the reconstruction of human consciousness.

All this leads me to Janelle Monae.

Mark Bould, in his article ‘The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF’, published in issue 104 of Science Fiction Studies (34:2, 2007), wrote:

‘Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker positions hip-hop in “the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment” (“Loving the Alien”). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in terms of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its parallels and affinities with bebop and hip-hop have generally gone unacknowledged.’

For Bould, sf (particularly cyberpunk) and African-American cultural production (particularly bebop and hip-hop) have close affinities, especially in the light of appropriation, collage and what the Situationists called ‘detournement’, the turning of a cultural practice or technology away from its intended use and to more resistant or radical possibilities. Mark Dery, in ‘Black to the Future’, argues in a very similar vein:

'African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart, literalizing Gibson's cyberpunk axiom, "The street finds its own uses for things." With trickster elan, it retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us
that:
"Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures..."Reading," in this sense, was not play; it was an essential aspect of the "literacy" training of a child. This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition."
Here at the end of the 20th century, there's another name for the survival skill Gates argues is quintessentially black. What he describes as a deconstructionist ability to crack complex cultural codes goes by a better-known name, these days. They call it hacking.'

Janelle Monae’s two releases, Metropolis Suites I (The Chase) (2007) and The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010) have found wide critical acclaim.
Monae’s music mixes hip-hop, funk, pop and soul and marries it to an overarching sf narrative which draws upon Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Monae’s alter ego is the messianic rebel figure Cindy Mayweather, whose story is told in the two albums. In an interview with MTV UK, Monae said:

‘Cindy is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new “other”. People are afraid of the other and I believe we’re going to live in a world with androids because of technology and the way it advances. [...]The first album she was running because she had fallen in love with a human and she was being disassembled for that. This time around we’re talking about The Arch Android the chosen one, the Neo of The Matrix or the Archangel from the Bible. She (Cindy) finds out that she is indeed the one and is the mediator between the haves and have-nots. She’s the one who can get rid of all the discrimination within the android community. It deals with self realisation as she realises that she is that.’

Explicitly, then, Monae, in her own Afrofuturist music, attempts to ‘represent the Other’. Her music attempts to imagine a politically better world. It does not fall prey to apocalypticism or ‘cowboys in space.’ It uses science fiction as a means by which to create a concept-driven musical collage which narrates the experience of otherness. Like Sun Ra and George Clinton’s music and mythologies, it wants to liberate the slaves.

So science fiction is dying? Fantasy fiction is the future? (One of the blog entries was written by Mark Charan Newton who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fantasy writer. His most facile argument was that in bookshops, more space is dedicated to fantasy titles than science fiction titles. The crude commercialism of this is breathtaking, let alone its seeming ignorance of the economics of the contemporary bookstore, i.e very little of anything appears in them.) Science fiction, like utopia (with which it has, in the words of Darko Suvin, ‘degrees of kinship’), is a resource, which is always available to writers who want to imaginatively critique contemporaneous cultural and social formations in an estranged form, and represent alternatives.

Lavie Tidhar, one of those cited by Jetse de Vries as criticizing sf for its Anglophone bias, in fact criticizes award panels and shortlists, not sf itself (and Tidhar does not spare fantasy from criticism, either), and paints a rather more positive picture of the health of global sf: ‘I take international speculative fiction – that whole wide and exciting world of Malaysian horror and Japanese manga, of Israeli fantasy and French steampunk, of African magic realism and Chinese science fiction – seriously, because it’s seriously cool’. If we think of sf as the broad church of speculative fiction – and I do – then there’s plenty of reasons to think of sf as a still-vibrant world literature.

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