Thursday, 20 December 2012

Ian Sales's The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself


Ian Sales’ second novella in his Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, will be published in early 2013. The first, Adrift on the Sea of Rains (which I wrote about here) projected an alternative 1970s during which the Apollo program was not discontinued, but was developed to found a moonbase, a research station for the investigation of Nazi ‘wunderwaffe’ (miracle weapons). These ‘wunderwaffe’ include die Glocke, ‘the Bell’. In a short story available as a chapbook or ebook, Sales imagines a pre-history for this wonder-weapon, in which the Nazi scientist Rotwang constructs a cyborgised ‘Maria’ to travel through the portal that the Bell opens in space-time, he presumes to another part of the planet. When the protagonist follows Maria through the portal, he discovers that the Bell is no teleportation device, but a means by which to travel into the far past, or (perhaps) another, parallel world. ‘Wunderwaffe’ is a highly enjoyable mash-up of Metropolis, Nazi myths, Ultima Thule/ Atlantis legends and time-travel sf; in its playful use of a range of generic and pop-cultural material, it corresponds to a story like Charles Stross’s ‘A Colder War’, where the Cthulu mythos is stitched onto the Cold War and Space Race eras.

‘Wunderwaffe’ also has a bibliography; so do Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself. In some ways, this seems like an extension of Sales’s preference for verifiable, science-based sf that didn’t need implausible gosh-wow special effects and OTT space-operatics to be good science fiction, or indeed to entertain’ (from his Introduction to the collection Rocket Science, 2012, edited by Sales himself). The bibliographies seem to privilege fact, not fabulation; research , rather than making up worlds out of whole cloth. We can, however, see the bibliography as part of the apparatus of the text itself, part of a world of documentation, a textual world: the world of scientific reports, NASA manuals, technical files. In both novellas, much of the historical backstory and framing context is given in a ‘Glossary’ section, which ostensibly concentrates on the technical details of the story (Apollo or Ares missions, names for craft and suits) but is a kind of parallel texts, a means of providing information without disrupting the economy of the novellas’ narratives. In The Eye With Which..., an important ‘Coda’ is placed between the Glossary and Bibliography. So, while seeming to offer a transparent, hard-sf narrative, Sales’s texts actually reflect the playfulness of what once might have been called ‘postmodernist’ fiction, and require the reader to do a bit of decoding.

This is also true of the actual story of The Eye With Which..., because, as the second text in the Apollo Quartet, one might expect a continuity with the world of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Not so. Careful examination shows that the latter novel is, in fact, on a subtly different time-line, though both novellas extrapolate from the Apollo program. In Adrift..., the extended Moon program is a direct extension of the historical Apollo; in The Eye With Which..., the point of divergence is the moment in the descent of Apollo 11’s LM when Armstrong, in ‘our’ world and history, piloted the module manually to a safe landing. The Eye With Which... predicates NASA’s Mars program (named Ares) on Armstrong’s decision to abort the landing, which then gives the opportunity for the Soviet Zond program to land Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov on the Moon first. (In our history, the catastrophic failure of the 3 July 1969 test of the N1 rocket delayed the Soviet program for 2 years, and no Cosmonaut ever walked upon the Moon.) This failure drives the US to land a human being on Mars, which is the Ares program; this first man is the protagonist of The Eye With Which..., Major (later Brigadier General) Bradley Emerson Elliott.

The Eye With Which... is a narrative with a double time-frame; in 1979, Major Elliott lands upon Mars, and makes a discovery that will alter the possibilities of human exploration of the galaxy; in 1999, Brigadier General Elliott (long since absent from NASA) is invited to travel to a distant star aboard a craft powered by the technology that is a result of his Mars landing. It’s a cunning device, and works really effectively: time is itself in a kind of flux, unstable, just as it is under the influence of die Glocke in Adrift... and ‘Wunderwaffe’. Sales ties in the second mission with Elliott’s growing estrangement from his wife, a consequence of his career as an astronaut (and the kind of desires and gratifications that career entails). The characterisation of Elliott is an advance on the heroic Peterson of Adrift..., and the sense of those left behind (the astronaut’s wife as a kind of symbol) becomes crucial to the emotional import of the story. A later novella in the quartet is promised to feature an astronaut’s wife in the centre of the narrative.

One of the strengths of The Eye With Which... is how it handles fairly hoary sf tropes (FTL drive, alien artefacts) within a concrete world not very far removed from the technological development of our own. Eliott travels to the FTL craft aboard ships not noticeably more refined than Apollo Command Modules; the interiors of the stations he visits are recognisable from Skylab or Mir. Inter-service rivalries and resentments are apparent, and the Space Command astronauts seem at once respectful of and suspicious of their distinguished visitor. There’s a human emotional complexity to The Eye With Which... that is an advance upon the technical homosocial group of Adrift..., though it’s is still predominantly a masculine world. The consequences of that gender imbalance are, though, much more apparent.

Both Adrift... and The Eye With Which... are published through Sales’s own Whippleshield Books imprint, and the impressive design of the first novella (and high-quality feel of the book as object) look to be repeated here. If you bought and liked Adrift... (or ‘Wunderwaffe’), The Eye With Which... is a worthy sequel and impressive advance, a  must-buy; if you don’t know Sales’s work, I thoroughly recommend it. It’s detailed, thoughtful, artfully constructed, and highly impressive sf. It will be published in January 2013.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Space is the place (utopia and silence)

Even though, in his 1962 guest editorial-cum-manifesto 'Which Way to Inner Space?' in New Worlds, JG Ballard repudiated a science fiction of 'robot brains and hyper-drives' and instead proposed a fiction which explored 'inner space, not outer', he consistently returned to the figure of the astronaut. In fictions such as 'A Question of Re-entry' (1963) (which posited the arrival of a dead astronaut in the South American jungles as a kind of cargo cult) to the 'fugue time' stories of the late 1970s ('News From the Sun', 'Memories of the Space Age'), where the NASA space programme 'cracks the hour glass of time' and leads to various forms of 'space sickness', the astronaut is a central and symbolic figure, a kind of evolutionary mistake which leads nonetheless to a pathway out of time.

Ballard's refiguration of the NASA programme as a symbol for both human error and human potentiality, while at the same time abandoning the actual possibilities of orbital, lunar, inter-planetary or deep space exploration, foreshadows the fate of both NASA and the Soviet space programmes at the hands of science fiction. In my book on Masculinities in Fiction and Film, I noted how few science fiction films used NASA imagery (environment suits, Saturn Vs and LMs), or extrapolated from Apollo. There is Marooned in the mid-60s, about a disaster in space; Capricorn One, about a faked Mars mission; the historical pictures The Right Stuff and Apollo 13; De Palma's Mission to Mars and Clint's Space Cowboys; but not many others. Recently, Ian Sales has done an excellent job of imagining an alternate history of the Apollo programme during the 1970s (which turns to military missions) in Adrift on the Sea of Rains; and I can also think of Sterling and Gibson's 'Red Star, Winter Orbit' (collected in Mirrorshades), which imagines a decaying 'Kosmograd' space station at the point of its cancellation, with the central character a cosmonaut - the first man on Mars – whose weakened bone structures will not allow him to return to Earth.

I've always wondered why this was so, as, even though I was born in March 1969, and so was only three months old when Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the majestic Saturn V and the fragile, delicate Lunar Module have always been iconic and deeply resonant objects for me. (I wish I had bought Airfix kits of them when I was a lad.) The Space Race still excites me, there seems something grand and extraordinary about it, even though it was obviously profoundly implicated in the Cold War and what Dale Carter once called 'the American Rocket State'. (His book, The Final Frontier, is now some 25 years old.)

Thinking about space and silence recently (about the cosmological register of RS Thomas's later poems about God, for instance), I came across a piece written by Eduardo Rothe and published in the Situationist International number 12, 'The Conquest of Space in the Time of Power', which pointed towards a contemporary critique of the Apollo programme and why sf writers may have shunned it. Rothe conceptualises the space programme as part of 'spectacle', the Situationist figure for both ideology and media representation, and the astronauts as media 'stars'. Rothe suggests that the 'science' involved is both militarised and ideological, and is used in the service of placing a human upon the moon in order 'to make people march to the time of work'. 

Most importantly, Rothe posits the space programme as 'part of the planetary hope of an economic system which, saturated with commodities, spectacle and power, ejaculates into space when it arrives at the end of a noose of its territorial contradictions. Functioning as a new “America”, space must serve the states as a new territory for wars and colonies - a new territory to which to send producer-consumers and thus enable the system to break out of the planet's limitations'. This reading would view space exploration as a form of primitive accumulation, the acquisition of new territory (new space) to enable the further expansion of capital (and thereby forestall the otherwise inevitable crisis of the exhaustion of expansion of terrestrial markets). There is also an inescapable colonial or imperial imperative to this expansion.

At the end of Rothe's essay, he proposes that 'once the walls have been smashed that now separate people from science, the conquest of space will no longer be an economic or military “promotional” gimmick, but the blossoming of human freedoms and fulfilments'. If the exploration of space is to be taken away from technical specialisation, bureaucracy and the military-industrial complex, then what will take its place?

The Sterling/ Gibson story I mentioned above, 'Red Star, Winter Orbit', offers one possibility. At the end of the story, with the cosmonaut Korolev seemingly trapped on a damaged station in a decaying orbit, he is surprised to be 'visited' by travellers from detourned 'solar balloons, mirrored geodesic spheres tethered by power lines', a failed solution to an energy crisis taken over by raggle-taggle 'new frontiersmen' who have 'made the big jump' (by firing booster rockets in mid-air) to orbital space. This colonisation is democratic, unplanned by governments or bureaucracies, to be inhabited by parents and children rather than technocratic astro- or cosmonauts.

It's difficult quite to know how to read this story. In one sense, it's a part of a Gibsonian 'the street has its uses for things' politics of detournement, retrofitting and appropriation. On the other hand, it seems to privilege a sentimentalised idea of the frontier which speaks to a peculiarly American mythos of can-do, individualism and rejection of government. As is perhaps typical of cyberpunk era sf, it is legible in terms of the politics of both left and right.

The possibility of space exploration as the imagination (and settlement) of an autonomous space brought to mind the activities of the AAA, the Association of Autonomous Astronauts, who were active from 1995-2000, and whose avowed aims were to democratise space exploration and promote the building of working-class spaceships, and thereby offered a critique (expressed in Situationist and absurdist terms) of the techno-militarism of Soviet and NASA space programs. The AAA were part of a wave of marginal, avant-gardist individual and groups that operated in the 1980s and 90s and whose documents were collected by Stewart Home in Mind Invaders (1997), some of which were written by Home himself. The AAA's 'dreamtime mission' was itself to destroy a dualism between outer and inner space, and the 'craft' used to travel in space could be mental or psychic as well as physical. Strong echoes of Ballard here, then – the outer collapsed onto the inner – as well as the suggestions of occultism that also flavoured some of Home's more outré and provocative documents.

Tom McCarthy’s later ‘International Necronautical Society’, a part-pastiche avant-garde group (also including Simon Critchley) which disseminated communiqués and manifestos in time-honoured Modernist tradition, was clearly influenced by the work of the AAA. In a ForteanTimes piece on the INS, McCarthy claims the influence of both Situationism and of the AAA directly, and an interview with the Autonomous Astronauts appears on the INS website. Stewart Home’s critique of the INS (partly through a mocking blog review of a 2009 talk held at Tate Britain) was that, although they inherit the ‘merciless assault on authenticity’ which connected the Neoist/ Psychogeographical/ Luther Blissett/ AAA groups in the 80s and 90s, it was rendered in a discourse that is more literary and academic: where the AAA’s ‘craft’ are explicitly connected to the politics of a working-class appropriation of space flight, the INS’s ‘craft’ are purposed to journey into, and occupy the space of death itself. For me, death isn’t the interesting part of the project: it is, rather, the sense that we live in a world of aetheric transmissions, signals, ‘programming’, that ‘thinks us’, a radical critique of subjectivity (and, in terms of poetics, of ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ or Romantic ideas of genius) that chimes entirely with my own thoughts – and, in terms of ‘receiving’ messages from the Outside (Jack Spicer’s word), also hints at my own writing practice.

While I find the INS documents collected in The Mattering of Matter (and re-played/ remixed in McCarthy’s e-book essay Transmission and the Individual Remix) stimulating, and work as a parallel endeavour to the kind of texts and ideas I have myself been working through over the last couple of years (Orphée, Burroughs, transmission, Kraftwerk, Rilke, EVP, tape, radio) it seems to me that this is a retreat from the world of politics into the world of art. The INS’s provocations – often using the language of Marinetti’s Futurism or the work of Heidiegger, as well as less problematic figures from post-war critical theory such as Blanchot or Derrida – speak the language of the academy rather than the 'street' or the everyday. Death may indeed always be with us, but the concept of occupying the space of death is figural rather than utopian.

And this is where I would like to return to space, and to silence. In my last post, I noted how Derrida posited the impossibility of silence, of ‘saying nothing’, and ‘how not to say’ was implicated both in silence and in speaking properly. Silence, then, may be thought of in terms of a Utopian dynamic, what Fredric Jameson identifies as the ‘failure to project the Other of what is’, failing to imagine the future, a failure that (in positive terms) always returns us to the urgent political imperatives of our own world and time. This may explain the recent controversy in the sf world to do with the ‘exhaustion of sf’, which Paul Kincaid associated with a failure to imagine the future that is diagnostic not simply of generic exhaustion but of a cultural and political moment. Can we imagine the future? Can we imagine space? Can we imagine death? If we build symbolic craft to journey into them and to return, this in itself becomes a utopian project, an encoding of the desire to imagine, to represent, to comprehend the Other – and to transmit those findings.

In a world of transmissions, Twitter, blogs, social media; and considering that I need to write as part of my job; perhaps my attraction to silence, the space of silence, the Other of language (which is God), is a Utopian yearning that I should always strive for, even if I always fail to achieve it. (And in the worlds of Beckett, quoted so often in the texts I have read recently: fail better.)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Mr Thompson tweets, or Silence part 2

One of the little ironies about writing a blog that not many people in the world will actually read is the possibility of silence (continuing from my last post) is seemingly easily achievable by no longer writing it. This had occurred to me. And it’s a possibility.

But as Derrida points out in his essay ‘How to Avoid Speaking’, the very act of thinking ‘how to avoid speaking’ is itself ‘speaking’, part of language; and ‘how to not speak’ shifts into ‘how not to speak’, that is to say, ‘how to speak’ (properly). In that same essay, in which Derrida writes about negative theology (a field of thought of much concern to my friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, who has explained it to me goodness knows how many times, but is essentially about coming to a conception of the divine by way of what He is not – for instance, God is not ‘good’, for this limits the conception of the divine to reductive human categories), Derrida ascribes the desire for silence to metaphysics, to an unknowable and unsayable beyond language, which is God.

Science fiction often uses this silent register to represent an unknowable otherness, when it doesn’t employ direct iconography to point towards the transcendent. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the beginning of consciousness is conveyed through sound, in the choral music that accompanies the monolith, or in the use of Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ when Moonwatcher picks up the animal and uses it as a weapon. In space, HAL’s murderously conflicted subjectivity finds expression in silence: Poole’s death at the (literal) hands of the pod is signified by the end of his breathing, and his body spins fatally in space, in silence. This silence is the silence of death, the infinite; but also the silence of HAL’s madness, his radical alterity, incommensurate with the human crew.

In Derrida's famous reading of Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’, silence is not a metaphysical condition associated with the transcendent (other): in relation to madness, silence is a silencing, ‘because the silence whose archaeology is to be undertaken is not an original muteness or nondiscourse, but a subsequent silence, a discourse arrested by command’. This in itself suggests an ideological reading of silence. The post-structuralist Marxist critic Pierre Macherey argues in A Theory of Literary Production that ‘the speech of the book comes from a certain silence', and that ‘Silence reveals speech – unless it is speech that reveals the silence’. The work of the critic is to ‘make this silence speak’.

In a sense, Macherey’s approach is to acknowledge the limitations on what can be said about what is said: rather, the critical act should attempt to reveal what is not said by focusing on the formal gaps and absences in the text itself. As Macherey states most explicitly: ‘What is most important in the work is what it does not say’. 

This means that the text is always incomplete: ‘the work has its margins, an area of incompleteness from which we can observe its birth and its production’, but it is not the work of the critic to complete the text (in a sense, to become its author, to restore the ‘plenitude’ or fullness of language, to make everything ‘speak’ the truth of the text). What the critic must do is to ‘investigate the conditions of possibility of the work’, that dialectical tension between what is said/ spoken and the ground against which this speaking takes place: silence.

Making the silence speak: can one do so? This is what I tell students they should do when I lecture on their Theory and Criticism course. That this is my method, one I would like to share. Speaking, writing. Exposing the silences, the gaps, of ideology, of discourse, of representation, as a critic. This is what I do

Should I?

Should I be silent instead? Can I be silent instead?

The answer might be ‘no’. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes a man, Mr Thompson, who has suffered irretrievable memory loss. In a kind of compensatory strategy, Mr Thompson proliferates narratives in an endlessly extemporised performance, at times farcical or comic. But Sacks diagnoses a terrible loss beneath this performativity, beneath the flow of speech: ‘for here is a man who, in some sense, is desperate, in a frenzy. The world keeps disappearing, losing meaning, vanishing – and he must seek meaning, make meaning, continually inventing, throwing bridges of meaning over abysses of meaninglessness, the chaos that yearns continually beneath him.’ 

The nurses, when asked by Sacks, feel that there is an absence in Mr Thompson, and absence of ‘feeling’ or emotional effect which is only lacquered over by the performance: ‘if only he could be quiet, one feels, for an instant; if only he could stop the ceaseless chatter and jabber; if only her could relinquish the deceiving surface of illusions – then ... reality might seep in; something genuine, something deep, something felt, could enter’.

Mr Thompson, I feel, is an emblematic figure for today; for me. His endless linguistic performance, the narrative bridge-building over the abyss, is the contemporary subject produced by social media. Mr Thompson tweets, he posts on facebook, he writes a blog (called SF365) because he cannot allow himself to confront the abyss. I am myself on Twitter but have tweeted less than 500 times because I find that I have little to say on it. As I have nothing to say, I don’t tweet. (As I have nothing to say, I blog.)

I do realise, of course, that this isn’t the point of Twitter, and most who tweet have little or nothing of substance to say: they are trying to entertain, themselves and others, by doing so. Entertainment as distraction: the feelies, soma holidays. Twitter isn’t a ‘conversation’, it’s a multi-user performance, the crowd-sourced entertaining of the crowd. Building bridges over the void.

Twitter enables, just as facebook does, just as blogs do, just as self-publishing does; and I am positively inclined to each of them. But the noise. The noise. Because everyone in the crowd speaks at the same time, they can all be ignored. 

Just as much as I have pretty much give up television, and live in a small village on a North Wales hillside, I am increasingly attracted to RS Thomas’s journey ever further and further west in Wales until he ended up at Sarn on the Lleyn peninsula, in a freezing cottage bulked out of the rock itself, walking the hills and writing.

Thomas sometimes writes in a cosmological register in his later poetry, a cosmonaut on the way out of the Solar system, the human system. Into deep space, into the infinite, unto death, into silence. 

Silence, death, God.  

Not surprisingly, perhaps, I’ve recently turned to Beckett. The nothingness of being, the void, is always with the Beckettian subject. But they all speak, and even in the later, minimal texts, they are often articulated just through the voice. In a sense, the voice, speech, is the remains, the (im)material fact of human life that persists in the face of the void. Famously, Beckett ends his trilogy ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’: speech, writing, life itself, goes on. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Pandemonium*, or an infernal cacophony

Here’s something different.  Something personal.  Something spoken. 

Words. Too many words. Too many books. 

I scanned the LRB this week and saw advert after advert for books, published by American University presses, books that may be sold to libraries, books whose print runs maybe in the hundreds, books no-one will read. 

As an academic working in Britain, we are now on the treadmill known as REF, the submission of four items (books, articles) to a panel which judges the quality of your work. [I gave up on speaking and started to type here.] This system requires continuing productivity, churning out articles, books and so on, without rest, without thought, without pause, without silence.

There is only the ongoing clamour of voices, all wanting to say something, all wanting to be heard.

Often the journals in which articles are published are hidden behind paywalls that only those with the economic power of the institutional subscription gives them access to, or the books are published in hardback with a cover price of £60. Often an article or a book is published that speaks only to those who themselves publish articles and books in an endless round, because no-one else has access. Self-publication is completely frowned upon inside the academy (nothing self-published could be submitted to REF; it has to be produced inside the traditional institutions of communication); (open-access) internet is still deemed inferior to print (and in my own university, the library is essentially turning away from large-scale print acquisitions); publishing outside a hierarchy of ‘quality’ journals means excluding yourself. Publishers are extremely conservative and would rather a re-working of the same old forms, ideas and texts because newness and innovation is a risk in a wobbly marketplace. And why should they risk their money?

Sometimes I feel like Kilgore Trout, the old science fiction writer who recurs in Kurt Vonnegut’s fictions. In Timequake, Vonnegut imagines Trout as an old man, homeless, who still carries on writing short stories but, with no magazine market to which to sell them, simply leaves the shelter he sleeps in and deposits the most recent story in the trash bin.

Everyone speaks; nobody listens.

Today I googled ‘Beckett silence’, as I was trying to feel my way through this reaction against words. (My old friend uncle Bill Burroughs, with his conception of the ‘Word Virus’ that occupies the human being and keeps speaking, talking, words words words incessantly, makes more sense to me now than he ever has. RUB OUT THE WORD.) I came across a little blog entry at This Space, which considered the idea of silence in an admirably economic way. I then looked down at the comments at saw that several of the comments appended a URL of their own blog. (I notice commenters below the line doing this and it irritates me.) And I thought: the commenters aren’t actually particularly engaged with what’s being written. They’re advertising their own voices.

Everybody speaks; nobody listens.

In a world of iPods, iPads, smartphones, the computer I’m writing on and its ambient hum, there is no silence. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of transmission, particularly artistic inspiration as transmission, symbolised by the poet Orpheus writing down poems broadcast over the radio in Death’s limousine in Cocteau’s Orphée, an image taken up by Tom McCarthy in his INS essays and ‘Transmission and the Individual Remix’. I wrote about what I called ‘Tape Spectra’ here, concerning ‘haunted’ media technologies and phenomena such as EVP (the recording of ghost voices on tape), what Joe Banks calls ‘Rorschach Audio’ (the human brain processing white noise to create the impression of signals, where no signals exist); but it seems to me that the clamour of voices, everyone wanting to be a writer (or a pop star on X Factor), to publish a book, to write a blog, to have their voice heard, is in fact a condition of the infernal cacophony** of voices that were are surrounded by every day. Not only do we make signals from noise, we want to shout above the clamour.

What I’m saying is important!

Yes, no, yes, no. Both. I’m indicting myself here, of course; I have three books currently under contract or being considered, with a fourth written; I’ve already published four. And who reads them? Some students, hopefully. And I write this blog. Occasionally.

This isn’t me wondering whether I’m talking into a void. There is no void. There is only noise.  

Then why write? That is, indeed, the question. Do I write because I have to, as many writers confess? I write sometimes because I have to. It’s my job. Not from hunger, or need, though. But I often play chicken with deadlines because I can’t sit down to write, I feel blocked. Like Orphée, I’m waiting for the radio to come on, waiting for the signals broadcast from somewhere.

Not that I want to mystify the writing process, make it some kind of occult transaction or part of an expression of Romantic ‘genius’. I’m very suspicious of that. But I wonder whether I do not want to make writing work: I want it to be mysterious, to feel the breeze blowing through my mind, to get excited by the transmissions I’m receiving.

In his last novel (just as Timequake was Vonnegut’s last novel), William Burroughs in The Western Lands describes an old writer who sits in front of his typewriter. A visionary book appears, hovering over the writing machine, and the writer types down what he reads. That image has stayed with me since I bought the book, on its hardback publication, back in 1987. I never knew quite why it was important to me but, 25 years later, it fits in with Orphée, with Tom McCarthy, with me sitting at the kitchen table right now typing this into a laptop.

Is this science fiction? Is Orphée?

Rather than Isherwood’s ‘I am a Camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,’ I am a radio. Receiving, transmitting. Voices, words. Noise. Pandemonium.

* Pandemonium: the name Milton gives to the capital city of Hell - a place much on my mind the last few days - and the word for uproar, chaotic noise, confusion. Pan, panic, demons, noise, everywhere.

** ‘cacophony’: I just looked this up in Wikipedia, where it is contrasted with ‘euphony’, a pleasantness or beauty of sound present in poetry or literary prose. The work of the writer is then to draw euphony from the world’s cacophony, signal from noise, beauty from ugliness.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Shining

To be honest, I was never much of a fan of Kubrick’s film of The Shining. But then, I was a fan of the book. I’d scared the pants off myself reading it at night when I was 13 or 14, and had become a big King fan, getting all of his books from the local branch library (the ones my Mum hadn’t dropped in the bath, blowing them up from hamburger to quarterpounder size). I was a teenage fan of horror films, like many, and my folks kindly let me see mainstream horror films from the video store (pre-Blockbusters). This was the era of the video nasty, but with no elder brothers, and little real inclination, I didn’t see the mother-lode of banned horror until much later. A taste for a certain kind of horror fiction ran in the family: my Mum, as I’ve said, was also a reader of King, and my Nan, usually a reader of Catherine Cookson sagas, extolled the virtues of Carpenter’s Halloween to me after she’d watched it on late-night tv. My Dad was no fan of the genre, preferring Westerns (which I also love), but tolerated me watching them.

I remember being thoroughly disappointed by Kubrick’s film when I saw it, also on video. (The white box  of the Warners’ video packaging, with Nicholson’s face grinning out of it, was iconic.) I thought Nicholson was hammy, the scare-effects crude, the death of Hallorrann ludicrous, and the whole thing a misunderstanding of the genre by a director who had no feel for it. I kept this opinion for years, and while I love Dr Strangelove and 2001 (and admire The Killing and Lolita), The Shining went on to the pile of Kubrick films that I dismissed: A Clockwork Orange (also found wanting compared to the novel), Full Metal Jacket (its Beckton gas works petticoats showing all too clearly for me), and latterly Barry Lyndon (which I found a static bore) and Eyes Wide Shut (which seemed to me like bad Dennis Wheatley. And that’s pretty bad).

What’s changed? Well, the first thing was, I decided to put the book and film on a course I was teaching on literature and film. And returning to the film, I saw there was a subtlety I’d missed, particularly in Nicholson’s performance; and that the adaptation was designed with a purpose in some ways antithetical to King’s book and its emphases, but was coherent in itself.

I recall watching the dvd extras to the standard recent release of The Shining, which showed an interview with Nicholson saying ‘They want to see real? They haven’t seen real. I’ll show them real’: and I thought, with Nicholson so over the top, it seemed, how can he have thought this ‘real’? His performance in The Shining seemed to me to anticipate his later scenery-chewing turn in Batman, cartoonish and overblown. But I watched the scene where he drives Wendy and Danny to the Overlook more closely, and just as the back-projection is dislocating (an old Hitch trick), so is Nicholson’s performance. It’s off. There seems to be a delay between the other actors and his response; the timing is all wrong. And in the scene where he is interviewed for the caretaker’s job, there’s the same dislocation, the same absence of timing, what seems to be woodenness: plain bad acting. Then it clicked. It’s not Nicholson doing the bad acting in these scenes: it’s Torrance. Torrance is performing a role, badly, trotting out set responses, learned reactions, just a fraction too late. The Overlook’s manager buys it: but I didn’t, and I saw why. This wasn’t a failure of acting technique, but acting technique itself.

The problem is, I think, that having these scenes so early in the film means that, unlike in King’s novel, there is little real development in Jack Torrance’s state of mind: he’s sociopathic to begin with, and the Overlook just develops this into flat-out psychosis. But King’s Jack Torrance is, at heart, a good man, beset by inner demons: his troubled relationship with his Father, his failure as a writer, his alcoholic dependency (and, I think, suggestions that he has repressed his own ‘shine’). The Overlook preys on his weaknesses, in the book, eroding his sense of himself and replacing it with a brutalised version of his own Father, a violent patriarch, tempting him with the possibility of a writerly scoop, the Overlook’s own history. This material is found in the basement, where the boiler is; and the absence of the boiler from the film is a crucial development which completely alters how the text works.

In King’s novel, the boiler – the thing which should not be forgotten, but is, ultimately, by the degenerated and monstrous Torrance – is a symbol of depth psychology, the damage inflicted upon the son by the Father, wounds which have never healed. Jack succumbs to the Overlook because of repression, the hidden desires and needs brought into being by his childhood traumas; Danny, in a testament to how Jack has battled his demons and not passed on trauma to his own son, has the strength and confidence to face the Overlook and deny its power. In the film, there is no boiler. Instead, there is the maze or labyrinth: actually, in the hedge-maze that Danny flees into at the end of the film (and of which we see Torrance looming over a scale model and his wife and son stroll around the real thing before the snows), and symbolically, the space of the Overlook and in the spaces of Jack’s own psychosis. The maze is flat, one-dimensional, where the boiler relies on three dimensions for its effect, and this very flatness corresponds to Kubrick’s hostility to psychological depth-models (to Freud) in this film and throughout his works. (I like Dr Strangelove and 2001 particularly because their lack of psychological ‘depth’ and human ‘characters’ fits perfectly with the worlds shown in them, the caricature Cold War apocalypse of the former and the mystical science fiction of the latter.)

The lack of the boiler also indicates the extent to which Kubrick brackets off history in the film; where the Overlook, with its Mob past and parties taking place on dates of particular 20th-century resonance, is a symbolic American stage in King’s novel, its violence and pathology reflecting that of the United States itself, Kubrick internalises the drama, the Overlook becoming an extension of Torrance’s (and previously, Grady’s) psychopathology. But in Kubrick’s The Shining there is nothing below the pathology: no past, no trauma, no Father-figure, no wounds. Nicholson’s Jack therefore is more monstrous because less humanised, more Michael Myers than conflicted and struggling Father to Danny. In a scene very late in the book, entirely absent in the film, Jack traps Danny in an upstairs corridor, and under the influence of the hotel, aims to kill his son with a roque mallet. Danny refuses this ‘mask’, this ‘false face’, and attempts to contact the ruin of his daddy who still exists somewhere within. It’s an affecting scene, as when Jack really does re-surface and tells his son ‘Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you’, Danny stays, takes his daddy’s hand, and kisses it: ‘It’s almost over’, he says, meaning Jack’s pain, as well as the narrative itself. (Danny has not forgotten the boiler.)

In Kubrick’s film, there is no ‘Daddy’ Jack, no normal man within, overtaken by the Overlook. King’s story is of a haunted house, but also a haunted man. Kubrick’s entire narrative takes place on the stage of Jack’s deranged mind, the Overlook a kind of projection of what was always there. In a sense, then, Kubrick’s film doesn’t let Jack off the hook the way the novel does: King implies that it wasn’t really Jack doing those things after all, it was the hotel. Kubrick does not spare his protagonist, but he also does not humanise him, or show us his struggles either as a writer or as a father. All work and no play might make Jack a dull boy, but all flatness and no depth takes away the human element of the drama.

Space, not psychology, is then the key to Kubrick’s The Shining, the space of the vast set that he had constructed to be the Overlook, the rooms and corridors that Danny pedals down on his go-kart followed by the Steadicam (a gyroscopically-mounted camera popularised by the film), an eerie or ghostly presence that haunts the boy and the film. It is this space, a space that Nicholson’s Jack is ultimately lost in (the final shot of the photograph of a party from 1921 with Nicholson centre frame, emphasising that Torrance has ‘always been the caretaker’, is chillingly effective as a visual coda) that is central to the film: the labyrinth of Jack Torrance’s madness. The reduction of the narrative to this stage has other effects, too: poor traumatised Shelley Duvall essays a Wendy that is nowhere near as resourceful or strong as the character in the novel; Scatman Crothers’ Hallorann comes all the way back from Florida to no purpose whatsoever; and even Danny, seemingly younger than the boy in the novel who can intuit things because of the shining itself, is not afforded the kind of scene that reveals the strength of his love for his father.

The Shining is a film which has become much more highly regarded as time has gone on, and the much longer US cut now in circulation will again allow the opportunity to see it afresh. I now like the film, though not as much as Dr Strangelove or 2001; and certainly not as much as I like King’s novel, still one of his very best.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Moorcock's Mars

In the 1960s and 1970s, alongside the experimental, non-linear Jerry Cornelius texts, Michael Moorcock also wrote heroic fantasy in the popular Elric books, as well as a sequence of novels that re-wrote or pastiched classic British fiction, including the Nomads of the Time Streams trilogy (1971-80) that re-worked Wellsian scientific romance, and the Dancers At The End Of Time sequence (1974-6) that took fin-de-siècle literature as a starting point.  The first of these sequences, published between 1965-7, pastiched the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve been reading these for another project and enjoyed them, despite my lack of appetite for fantasy.

Both the Nomads trilogy and the ERB pastiches have frame-narratives. In The first of the ‘Kane of Old Mars’ books, City of the Beast, the frame-narrator stumbles upon Kane at a cafe on the French Riviera. After introducing himself, the narrator listens to Kane’s adventures, whereupon he disappears from the novel until the end, when he is revealed to be ‘EPB’: Edgar Price Burroughs? In the Nomads trilogy it is ‘Michael Moorcock’ himself who narrates the frame. This multiplicity of first-person narrators is a classic estrangement device. Where once such a frame might have been used as an authentication device, a testament to the veracity of the tale through external witness/ documentation, here it works the other way (as it always does, even if the effect is suppressed): the doubling of the narration makes the textuality and artifice of what we are about to read more visible, not less. Considering Moorcock uses pastiche to explore generic tendencies and encoded ideologies from within, this self-consciousness is no surprise.

Where Burroughs’s Barsoom novels, beginning with A Princess of Mars (1917), narrated the adventures of John Carter, a confederate soldier somehow transported to a Mars populated by four-armed Tharks and warring human cities, Moorcock’s re-writing had a scientist as the protagonist.  Michael Kane, a physicist, is inadvertently beamed to ancient Mars when a matter-transmitter experiment goes wrong.  Kane, like Carter, forges a place for himself there through the strength of his sword arm and, like Carter, wins the friendship of a non-human Martian (Argzoon/ Thark) and the love of a Martian princess.

Kane brings his scientific attitude and world-view to Mars, in a revision of the Barsoom script.  He attempts to use the abandoned technology of a departed elder-species, and devises and a ship to travel in the thin Martian atmosphere.  By the third novel in the series, Masters Of The Pit (1967), however, in typical fashion Moorcock begins to temper the heroics with ethical doubts and difficulties.  Kane and his companions stumble upon a totalitarian city that suppresses all individuality and humanity in the name of machinic regularity and cold logic. A character who inadvertently creates these conditions spells out the central binary for the novel:

You have either the Beast or the Machine. [...] Here the Machine in Man has been encouraged and, if you like, it is the stupidity of the Beast which has encouraged it – for the Beast cannot predict and Man can. The Beast in Man leads him to create Machines for his well-being, and the Machine adds first to his comfort and then to his knowledge. In a healthy land this would all work together in the long run. (17)

Kane himself says ‘that seems like an oversimplification’, and Kane himself has to find another way. When the machine-like horde march upon Kane’s adopted Martian city, he encourages the people to flee rather than fight, renouncing violence as a means by which to resolve conflict. This anti-heroic strategy is of a piece with the generic revisions Moorcock offers elsewhere, re-writing genre from within. The Kane trilogy develops from offering fairly ‘simple’ pleasures of heroic adventure in the first novel to something more problematic by the third, disrupting the pleasures of masculine heroism. (In the Nomads trilogy, the third book  - The Steel Tsar – was a self-confessed failure, and it is one of the books that Moorcock has subsequently returned to and re-written. Another is the Elizabethan fantasia, Gloriana, or, the Unfulfill’d Queen.)

Moorcock is, then, a serial re-writer of his own fictions as well as those of others.  Elements of the first Cornelius story (‘Preliminary Data’, 1965, which became part of the Cornelius novel, The Final Programme) recapitulate scenes from the first Elric story, ‘The Dreaming City’, published in 1961, particularly the protagonist’s attempt to rescue his loved one from a tower inadvertently causing her death. In City Of The Beast (1965), Moorcock returns to the scenario.  Kane rescues the princess Shizala from a tower where she is menaced by the treacherous would-be consort, Telem Fas Ogdai, but here, in more heroic vein, this does not result in Shizala’s death.  All three scenes are patterned upon Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue Eurydice, but it is only in Moorcock’s Martian trilogy that Orpheus’s tragedy is undone in the rewriting. Kane of Old Mars is Moorcock in lighter vein, but by the end of the trilogy, darkness and doubt intrude.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Romancing the Telescope with the Heroes of Science

The other day, Terry Gilliam posted a photo on facebook with the caption: 'This is Nicola Tesla, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known ... and you probably have never heard of him. Without him we wouldn't have AC electricity or the radio. I wouldn't be communicating with you know if it wasn't for him'. Actually, since the film of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, 'you' might very well have heard of Nikola Tesla. He has become a kind of science-hero who is seen to be a neglected genius: see this page from The Oatmeal, for instance. This BBC page even calls him 'the patron saint of geeks': some title, that. And Tesla even has a Wikipedia page that catalogues his appearance in popular culture, mainly in sf. (The title of this piece is lifted from OMD's 'Romance of the Telescope', which featured on their 1983 lp Dazzle Ships; a single the following year was called 'Tesla Girls'.)

The Oatmeal's line on Tesla is that he was done down by Thomas Edison, whose capacities for self-promotion  and the exploitation of the inventions of others are a matter of record. Edison becomes the villain in a zero-sum game narrative, where Tesla's true fame is eclipsed by the fraud Edison. The truth, of course, is more complex than that, but conflict between the two is central to Brian Wegener and Scott Clevinger's comic book Atomic Robo, where the central character, the eponymous atomic-powered Robo, was invented by Tesla, who himself is engaged in a clandestine battle with the malevolent Edison.

Robo, who develops across the comic books (which are narrated non-chronologically) from a gosh-wow college kid, hungry for adventure, in the 1920s, through fighting in Europe (against Nazi wunderwaffe) and the Pacific in WW2, to the head of the 'Tesladyne' corporation in the present day, a mixture of secret agent, superhero and science researcher. While I find Robo enormously entertaining, as he battles Lovecraftian monsters, giant AIs, and other stuff lifted from the history of sf, fantasy and the Weird, there's also a kind of didactic purpose to the series. A side-comic is called Real Science Adventures, and both that and the main series offer Robo as scientist-as-hero (in a half-joky way), although Robo is as often willing to solve things by outre physical violence (Thoom! Clang!) as by the application of reason and science. In a sense, Robo is in the tradition of both Indiana Jones and pulp-sf inventor-geniuses, engaged in the public and secret histories of the 20th century.

I was struck by the scientist as culture-hero while reading Michael Moorcock's 'Kane of Old Mars' trilogy, his mid- to late-1960s homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom narratives. Michael Kane, unlike the Civil War veteran John Carter, is a scientist, whose translation to Mars is the result of an accident during a physics experiment. While on Mars, caught up in the battles between Thark-like 'Argzoons' and the fading cities of the Martian plains. Like Carter, Kane fights, journeys across Mars, and wins the hand of a Martian princess. Kane, however, is much more concerned with logically puzzling through the difficulties he encounters, with inventing machines (such as airships), and ultimately, with the ethics of waging war.

Despite its bad reviews, reading Moorcock's Kane books made me want to see John Carter. The SFX  website, from which this image was taken, provided a good corrective to the received idea of the film as a $200million flop. I missed it at the cinema, but recently got the dvd to check the film out. And I was pleasantly surprised.

I cannot really see what the fuss was about. Yes, it has plot holes (what happens to the '9th Ray' technology McGuffin, for instance?); yes, the backstory about the loss of Carter's wife and children is a bit pat (and would have been much more telling if Carter had evinced qualms about the ethical rightness of the Confederate cause, which would have motivated his unwillingness to fight for the city of Helium more convincingly); the 'present day' 1880s New York sequences unfortunately reminded me of another adaptation, Simon Wells's 2002 The Time Machine, not a flattering comparison; and yes, some of the moments of levity fall a bit flat. But: I thought the film was paced quite nicely, was definitely spectacular with some excellent design (see the ships above), had some decent set-pieces, and in the figures of the malevolent  and eternal Therns, who feed on the destruction of planets and civilizations that they manipulate (with the suggestion that Earth is next) has a soft ethical message. Elements seemed familiar from the Star Wars prequel films (particularly the arena sequence from Attack of the Clones) indicate the indebtedness of Lucas's conception of desert worlds like Tatooine or Geonosis to Barsoom itself, and the indebtedness of the whole Star Wars universe to planetary romance, (light-)sabers and all.

The crucial thing about John Carter is displacement, literal and symbolic, which is why the film is called what it is, rather than 'John Carter of Mars'. We see this title at the very end of the film, but only when Carter has himself chosen to go back to Mars and effected his plan to circumvent the Therns and return to Dejah Thoris's side. (In John Carter, the princess is herself a science-hero, but her invention is sabotaged.) To become John Carter of Mars, he must commit himself, to a cause, to romantic love, to a community (the Tharks as well as Helium). If Carter is problematic as a white colonial male leader of an indigenous people (see Avatar), perhaps Andrew Stanton could have been more subtle in shading the ironies that abound, particularly considering American overseas involvement in desert countries in the last 10 years. I don't think the film is a simple apologia for US adventurism, but the science-hero or the hero of planetary romance (albeit one wounded by loss  in contemporary fashion) helps sweeten the heroic and masculinist narrative. All that said, I liked John Carter, though with Stanton's Pixar background, and the success of the painterly animation of Lucas's The Clone Wars series, I also thought that it could have been a very successful animated film.    

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


I've been struggling for a while to piece together quite how some of my interests in certain forms of science fiction and the fantastic in general can fit into an overall project (I realise I've been concerned with androids and transmissions for a while too, but these are kind of coalescing). In particular, the kind of stuff I've been interested in is: time, Wells's The Time Machine, Borges, Roussel, literary experiments, science, bicycles, clocks. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with this stuff, but a week or two ago I went with wife Deniz and daughter Isobel to the Ruthin Craft Centre where they had an exhibition of the jewellery and other works by Wendy Ramshaw. Ramshaw began in the 1960s by making Op-Art and paper jewellery, but has since developed into a wide range of materials and pieces, from 'ringsets' mounted on extraordinary steampunk-ish holders, to the large frames and gates such as the one shown above in the V&A in London. Her touring exhibition, Room of Dreams, was fabulous, and demonstrated not only the extraordinary range of influences on her work - from Russian Constructivism to Moholy-Nagy, from Pop to Op, from pulp sf to clockwork - but her interest in worlds of the fantastic, as the exhibition was organised around Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. (By coincidence, I was just finishing reading Wonderland to Isobel when we saw the exhibition.)  

I can thoroughly recommend anyone to go along to the three remaining stops on the exhibition's tour. The works are fascinating. Next to a maquette of the two frames shown above was a mobile whose title referred to the Time Machine; as Isobel crouched to look through the lens of  one of the frames, she said, 'it's the fourth dimension!' It's that kind of exhibition.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Aliens: the pods that failed

I tried. I really did. I tried to like Aliens, James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, and watched it again when it was on tv this week, to give it another chance. Because it’s always felt like a much lesser film than Alien to me. I know some folk like it, prefer it to the first film even. But for me, where Alien wields the scalpel, Aliens wields the bludgeon. Where Alien is about interiors, tension, horror, Aliens is about spectacle, action, excitement. Alien is sharp, economical, surprising, and quite British; Aliens is forceful, long, unwinds to a fairly predictable conclusion, and is Hollywood spectacle sf.

That’s not to say that I don’t find things to admire in Cameron’s film. I like the audacity of hiding the aliens away for almost 90 minutes. The last hour is gripping, well-paced, and has some iconic scenes, particularly Ripley’s fight against the Queen. But the bad guy, company man Burke, is cartoonish in his yuppie malevolence; the Marines are straight out of central casting (weak, inexperienced but ultimately redeemed Lieutenant; cigar- and scenery-chomping veteran Sarge; a few expendable red-tops mixed in with blowhard Hudson, good man Hicks, and Chicano warrior-woman Vasquez); the film painfully under-uses Lance Henrikson as Bishop, who is off-stage for the majority of the film; the set-up, with Ripley’s ‘trial’, revelation about her daughter and kids/ families-in-peril schtick is all too mechanical; and, as ever in Cameron films, he loves him some hardware, a fetishism revealed in the opening pan around the empty hangar of the Sulaco which reprises the wandering camera at the beginning of Alien, but this time showing racks of assault rifles, missiles awaiting loading and the military drop-ship.

And yes, I know it’s meant to be a Vietnam allegory, but that doesn’t pay off either, above a toy-town political message that grunts are ill-disciplined, officers are useless, the system is bent, and the Others (Vietnamese/ aliens) are unknowable and implacably hostile. For all Cameron’s wish to introject an emotional arc into the film (Newt’s role, Ripley as mother and her lost daughter, Bishop’s ‘redemption’) I also think this is really where the film is at its weakest. The characters, their emotions and their motivations are one-dimensional.

The most powerful moment, I found, was when Ripley stands, not quite knowing what to do next, before the Queen in a chamber full of eggs. She wants to destroy, to revenge, but there’s a moment of stillness before the fighting-and-destruction of the last 20 minutes. It’s almost a moment of decision: do I become a destroyer? And, of course, she does choose this, having backed herself and Newt out of the chamber first. One of the things that Cameron does introduce is the sense that the conflict between human and alien is one between communities, not just a lone predator stalking and picking off the flock (in a sheep-fold named Nostromo). The storing of injured Marines in cocoons for later consumption introduces a conceptually different reading of the aliens’ social and biological organisation, as does the implied hierarchical relationship between Queen and drone aliens. The egg-chamber is mirrored by the cocoon-larder. Ripley wants to destroy both.

This leads me to something that struck me while watching the beginning of Aliens: the opening shots of Ripley’s lifeboat drifting through space, and the music over the end-titles when Ripley, Newt, Hicks and Ash are in hyper-sleep pods, is taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the beginning of the Jupiter mission section when we see Bowman and Poole at their daily routines, running the circumference of the Discovery’s spherical command module or sketching colleagues in cryogenic hyper-sleep. I have since read that production over-runs meant scoring the film proved very difficult for James Horner, but the use of the 2001 score twice is significant, particularly as the sequences in both films concern the hyper-sleep pods. Interesting, I thought at the start of the film; maybe I’ve misjudged it. In point of fact, I don’t think Aliens is elsewhere capable of that kind of intertextual sophistication, or making you think: the film is designed to be much more visceral, a ‘ride’. But what did Cameron mean by using this piece of music?

It’s as well to remember the fate of those astronauts and scientists ‘sleeping’ within the pods at the beginning of 2001: HAL, of course, fearing for the mission and slipping into a kind of AI psychopathology, kills them as they sleep, turning off their life-support systems. This scene is perhaps more horrifying than the ‘murder’ of Poole: the intercut shots of the sleeping humans flat-lining, and HAL’s unblinking red ocular camera, indicates a lack of affect that is chilly even by the standards of Kubrick’s usual blank ‘human’ characters. 2001’s pods are no cocoons, places of transformation and life: they are technological coffins.
In Alien, the emergence from the pods at the beginning of the film is clearly a kind of re-birth, part of the continuum of ‘monstrous’ other(ed) forms of reproduction found throughout the film. The crew of the Nostromo even awake wearing a kind of diaper. At the end of the film, the pod is sanctuary for Ripley and the cat Jones, finally rid of the alien predator. In Aliens, this sanctuary is itself marked with death; awoken like Sleeping Beauty in the tower, Ripley finds that she has ‘slept’ for 57 years, and her 11-year-old daughter has lived until her mid-60s, then died prior to Ripley’s revival.

The emergence of human forms from pods uncannily calls forth images from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). There, the ‘pod people’ are ‘taken over’ by alien life, which extinguishes both individuality and emotions. A classic text of paranoia, famous for Kevin McCarthy screaming at the camera at the end of the film ‘They’re here already! You’re next!’, Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents ‘pod’ life as one of an emergent conformity and totalization. Pod people are like us, but uncannily other; they might be your next-door-neighbour; they might be me (or you). This erasure of difference between self and other, markers that are deeply significant in the Alien films and are highly visible in the forms as well as behaviour of the ‘xenomorph’, suggests that the 1956 Invasion may have its finger on the political pulse much more acutely than any of the Alien films. Even if one reads Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a Reds-under-the-bed allegory, its blurring of the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is very disruptive. (There’s a great scene in the film where Kevin McCarthy’s wife makes him breakfast, and there is much visual play with eggs. Eggs/ pods: Don Siegel was there first. In the mid-Fifties.)

If there were no Alien3, the ending of Aliens, with the music from 2001 suggesting the cold deaths of hyper-sleeping crew members, is an interestingly dark note for the film to finish on. While the Nostromo’s life-boat might drift through the ‘core worlds’ for 57 years and be found by a ‘one in a thousand’ chance, there’s not much likelihood that the Sulaco will be overlooked. What menaces these sleeping pod people, then? I think it’s genre itself, the space sf of ‘discovery’ traded on by Prometheus, where human beings in the vast vacuum of interstellar space are themselves vulnerable, organic air-breathing bodies inside metal shells. Pods inside pods inside pods. (In Alien, a human being is another kind of pod: a womb.) Little wonder that both 2001 and Aliens have scenes where the protagonist has to battle the violent danger of hard vacuum without a full environment suit: Ripley opens the hangar airlock, while Bowman has the blow the hatch of the Discovery’s own perambulatory ‘pod’ and get back inside the ship without his helmet. Out there, in space, no-one can hear you scream, because sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Human beings can, of course, but leaving their fragile ‘pods’ (usually) entails death: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come’, dreams of aliens, and of what might become of us.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Virginity of Androids, part 3: final thoughts

In this last post on Prometheus, I am going to concentrate more directly on the mythic or religious implications of the film, in particular the issue of Creation and the condition of innocence.

As I noted in part 2, one of the most ham-handed scenes in the film is where Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), in emotional discussion with her partner Holloway, reveals that ‘I can’t create’, breaking down in tears; reproduction as ‘creation’ of life leaves a kind of spiritual barrenness, the motivation perhaps behind the overt displays of faith (the crucifix she wears around her neck, for instance). Another way to read David’s experimental infection of Holloway with the alien DNA is to do something that he also cannot do, which is to create life (Shaw and David are paired throughout the film); not only is the android not a womb, the android is also barren: neither a mother nor a father can it be.  

The connection between Creation and space fiction is a very long one of course, and it is a signal feature of the ‘transcendent’ vein of science fiction that encountering the alien Other is represented through a register of Christian iconography: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Soderbergh’s Solaris, for instance, repeat the gesture between God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel frescos. (The inverse of this is when the alien entity wears the clothes of the demonic, such as in Event Horizon or, more bathetically, Star Trek V.) With its classical allusion, Prometheus seems to offer a variant on the Christian Creation, where the origin of human beings is founded on an external transgression (the theft of fire) rather than an internal one (the Fall). This would seem to suggest not that Prometheus re-situates human beings as part of a divine cosmology, but that it suggests human beings are a technical by-product of some kind of radically unknowable Engineering project. 
The myth of Prometheus is analysed by Bernard Stiegler in Technics and Time, who takes Jacques Derrida’s concept of the ‘supplement’ to analyse the relation between the human and the technical. In the classical myth, Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus are given the task of allotting different powers or attributes to mortal species by the Gods. Epimetheus persuades Prometheus to let him do the job; unfortunately so, as Epimetheus distributes all the attributes amongst the animals and forgets to leave anything for human beings. Prometheus is therefore forced to steal skill in the arts, and fire, to compensate human beings for this originary lack. For this, of course, he is punished.

Stiegler reads this myth as a founding discourse of the relation between the natural and the technical, and more specifically between ‘man’ and his tools. It also points towards what Stiegler calls ‘le défaut d’origine’ with regard to the human subject: an originary fault [défaut] or lack is compensated for by Prometheus’s gift, but exposes the foundational state of human subjectivity as one of a radical lack, and in fact, the defining characteristic of the human is a lack of characteristics.

Rather than being a compensatory addition to the human, the ‘defaut d’origine’ suggests that technics are the necessary and constitutive supplement to the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ at their very point of origin. In the words of friend and colleague Arthur Bradley, ‘technology is a supplement which exposes an originary lack within what should be the integrity or plenitude of the human being’. Human beings are characterised by an ‘originary technicity’.

Prometheus, I think, for all its failings, offers an imaginative rendering of a Stieglerian conception of human beings as technological artefact. It isn’t hubris or overreaching ambition that drives human beings to the stars (a transgressive quest for knowledge which informs Event Horizon and, it should be noted, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the most recent quasi-sf movie in debt to von Daniken), it is lack, begetting the questions: who, or what am I? Is this all there is?*

*I’m echoing Spock here, of course, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He’s talking about V’ger, the Voyager probe that returns to Earth to seek his own Creator and merge with it, transcending his own limited condition, satisfying the need to ‘evolve’. It’s noteworthy, therefore, that both Star Trek: TMP and Blade Runner displace these central questions on to artificial subjects, the ‘intelligent machine’ V’ger or the replicant Baty, thereby once again indicating the other is us. Where Kirk and Spock act as midwives and bring a new entity into being, Tyrell’s own failings result in his death at the hands of the ‘Prodigal Son’.

I don’t think Prometheus is equipped to handle these questions, as I noted in previous posts. The greatest sense of ‘lack’ is felt by a triumvirate of characters, rather than one (as with Roy Baty), and this disperses, rather than intensifies or makes more complex, the need to ‘meet one’s Maker’. The three characters are Weyland, David, and Shaw: father, son and woman, with Weyland’s actual daughter shunted unceremoniously (necessarily) off the stage at the end of the film. As friend and colleague Andy Tate suggested to me, there’s is too large a cast in Prometheus, allowing inadequate time for their characterisation and development, and this is most evident in this central triangulation. Weyland spends too much time in hyper-sleep for his own quest for knowledge (or life) to have much narrative traction: as viewers, there isn’t enough investment in him or his own lack. Combining his desire to confront his maker with David’s sense of wonder and engagement with universe would have paid considerably dividends, but would have made the composite android too close to Baty for comfort, perhaps: Blade Runner in space.

Baty, as played by Rutger Hauer, manages to combine both a childlike energy and capacity for wonder with a fundamental sense of his own mortality; in him, innocence and experience exist side by side, and this gives the concept of his character both power and pathos. Baty is not a fallen being, despite the (altered) quotation from Blake he offers to Chu: ‘Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc’. His is not an Infernal subjectivity, a fallen angel in search of redemption from his God. Rather, Batty is outside sin itself: ‘I’ve done... questionable things’, he confesses to Tyrell, which isn’t much of an acknowledgement of sin. Baty commits acts of monstrous violence but remains a child: when he looks down, at the end of the film, at Deckard hanging on to the girder by two fingertips, and says ‘It’s painful to live in fear, isn’t it?’, his face betrays curiosity rather than anger, lust for life rather than world-weariness.

David’s innocence is of a different kind, but similar order. As an explicitly technical being, defined by lack but not driven to compensate for it, David is not subject to the myth of lost plenitude that haunts the Fall, the desire to redeem lost Eden. He is not driven by Baty’s rage against mortality, to demand ‘more life’: his agency (such as infecting Holloway) is without defined purpose or end. He simply does and observes the results. David occupies a space of radical innocence, the innocence of the Alien other, unconcerned with ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’. This, then, is perhaps why Ridley Scott could not make David, as he should have done, the centre of the narrative, paired with Shaw as the human, desire/ quest-oriented subject, and excluded the redundant ensemble clutter. 

Bizarrely, it might have taken Spielberg to do so, to narrate through the point-of-view of the child, to more fully grasp that sense of wonder: but I suppose he had, in a way, already done that with AI. And the failures of that film, in finding an adequate ending to a narrative of a being in search of his maker (while fully embracing the Pinocchio story), indicate the difficulties of this kind of sf film. I find AI a stomach-churning, heart-wrenching experience, and probably the darkest thing Spielberg has ever done, though again, I wish he’d been even more bleak; and of course, in Haley Joel Osment’s artificial boy, there we find another David, another innocent abroad in a world of terrible, unknowable, hostile forces.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Virginity of Androids, part 2

Before I turn to Prometheus, a quick word about the androids in the other Alien films. The excellent Lance Henriksen plays Bishop in James Cameron’s noisy Aliens (1986), and was seen at the time as a revision of the android figure, almost an apology for Ash. Ripley is deeply suspicious of Bishop throughout Aliens, but he is ultimately revealed to be a redemptive and heroic figure. In the ‘knife trick’ scene, Henriksen puts his hand over that of the ‘grunt’ Hudson and whirrs a combat knife between their fingers: ‘trust me’, he says to Hudson. During the course of the film, Ripley does indeed come to trust Bishop, though she is antagonistic for much of the film, and on first realising Bishop is an ‘artificial person’ (his preferred term) had threatened him and told him to stay away from her. That Bishop insists upon self-definition, not as robot but as ‘artificial person’, indicates a subjectivity that is denied to Alien’s Ash, and this subjectivity is an index of the android’s redemption in the figure of Bishop.

At the climax of the film, Bishop is himself violated by a spear-like appendage of the alien ‘mother’ and then torn in half, but his dismembered, abjected body carries on heroically until it is itself saved by Ripley. Henriksen makes a small appearance in Alien3, which otherwise concentrates upon the dynamic of the female body within a strictly homosocial environment; in Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997), however, one of the cast members is again revealed to be an android, but again, in a revision of the malign role of Ash, one who is helpful to the human survivors. This time, the android is Annalee Call, played by Winona  Ryder. Call is a youthful member of a crew of the mercenary ship Betty that becomes involved with the cloned-Ripley and the military operation that attempts to produce aliens as weapons.

One of the many disappointments of Alien Resurrection is its failure to completely develop Call’s role, or to fully construct an android subject which does not fall into the malignant/ helper binary that inflects their representation in the other Alien films. When Call recognises Ripley’s name, she proceeds to try to kill the cloned being to prevent the use of her DNA to make more weapons. When Ripley awakes, Sigourney Weaver’s performance gives the ‘new’ Ripley, created from spliced alien and Ripley DNA, an uncanny physical presence and alien attentiveness, against which Winona as Call is ‘normalized’. As Ripley takes the role of uncanny other in Alien Resurrection, even down to squirming in a Lovecraftian tentacular embrace, Call is established as the ethical being who takes it upon herself to stop the alien predators, a role Ripley herself played in the first three films. The placing of Call as the subject is confirmed in a deleted scene from Alien Resurrection, where Call confesses to Ripley that she dreams, a suggestion of interiority and autonomy radically at odds with the depiction of Ash. Even here, though, there is a missed opportunity: Call’s actions suggest both individual autonomy and a secret knowledge that must have come from elsewhere. Alien Resurrection could have established the androids as the repository of ethical behaviour repressed by the military and scientists aboard the Auriga, ‘artificial persons’ who took on the moral attributes of the ‘human’ which are placed in contradistinction to the creature without ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’ in Alien. Is there a kind of secret organisation of androids, a guild or even sect that seeks to do good? This would truly displace human beings from the ethical centre of the narrative.

And so, to Prometheus. I have to confess that I loved the opening couple of minutes of David (Michael Fassbender) aboard the ship Prometheus while his human colleagues remained in stasis. The shots of him cycling the spaces of the ship (and shooting hoops while he did so), or watching Lawrence of Arabia, brought to mind the one- or two-hander scenarios of classic ‘serious’ space fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey, inevitably, with Bowman and Poole running around the circumference of their living quarters on the Discovery, or Sam Rockwell’s tics and habits in Moon, or the rather less calm demeanour of Bruce Dern as the ecologist (and murderer) Freeman Lowell in the geodesic domes of Silent Running. David’s imitation of Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence is at once touching and disquieting, because it bespeaks a kind of yearning for subjectivity on David’s part (a performance that, like Ash’s, may be indistinguishable from human) but also a callow narcissism: the shot of David brushing his hair while watching O’Toole could be used to illustrate Laura Mulvey’s Lacanian arguments about the cinematic apparatus and the spectator’s mis-recognition of the ideal image of the subject.  

What struck me most about Fassbender’s appearance was not the imitation of O’Toole, however; it was how much David (significantly named) resembled the ill-fated alien of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie). I’ve written previously about the film and book on this blog, but Bowie’s portrayal of Newton clearly stands behind the rather uncannily stylish David. Newton's  weakness is all-too-human (addiction an index of his true humanity, despite the fact that he comes from another world) and his slow-motion betrayal of himself, his family and his homeworld renders him a pathetic figure by the end of the narrative. Newton’s alienation is expressed most deeply in his succumbing to the temptations of human vice (especially alcohol); this blurring of the divide between human and alien, the ‘man who fell’ offered as the focus of sympathetic identification and pathos, suggests a revision of the potentialities of the android as narrative focus.  David is the emotional ‘hero’ of Prometheus, but one whose agency is consistently repressed in the narrative, and in fact the film consistently fudges the fact of David’s centrality by reinstating a human/ other binary. If Ash is a marionette operated by the Company, David is a costumier’s mannequin, albeit one who understands his own condition to be deficient in comparison to human beings. (The Pinocchio motif returns to haunt the Alien films in Prometheus.)

Where Call dreams, David taps into the dreams of the hyper-sleeping scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) as a kind of voyeur, but this somewhat sinister act signifies a curiosity and sense of wonder that is entirely absent from the rest of the human crew of the Prometheus. Indeed, the crew are a group of unattractive and barely-credible yahoos (especially the scientists) who seem to have no reliable methods, practices or intellectual frameworks through which to grapple with what they are encountering. In Alien, the collective ignorance of the crew in the face of the alien creature is understandable and commensurate with the fact that the crew are all working stiffs, subject to ‘the contract’, and ultimately expendable. In Prometheus, there is no such rationale; no-one seems to know what the hell they should be doing. When David asks Shaw’s partner Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) why human beings made androids, the reply is ‘because they could’. David’s rather dismissive response, that human beings might be disappointed if they received the same reply from their Creator, reveals the shallowness of Holloway’s appreciation and insight into the nature of being: Holloway simply assumes that David is significantly inferior to human beings, as a ‘robot’. Considering David’s self-possession, and the significant fact that he saves Shaw from some kind of pyroclastic storm-front soon after they have landed, such assumptions on Holloway’s part are self-evidently unfounded.  The scientists in Prometheus wear ideological spectacles as dark as an arc-welder’s visor.

Although I think Fassbender is the most impressive part of the film, his casting in this role, and the connections to O’Toole and Bowie, destabilises any sense that David might be a mere ‘butler’. Where Ian Holm was physically small and slight, no-one’s idea of a leading man (or villain), downplaying his significance, Fassbender is tall, imposing, aquiline, glamorous: a literal star/man. Not only that, but the film goes out of its way to mark David as the only true repository in the film of one of science fiction’s oldest motifs: a sense of wonder. When he penetrates the fallen ship of the ‘space jockey’, recognisable from Alien, David is able to follow the holographic ‘ghosts’ of the Engineers (an unexplained and rather convenient phenomenon, one might add) to start up the ship’s navigational array. The circular rostrum of the flight-deck becomes an illuminated globe, a star-map, and here the film switches into the register of classic space fiction: David has made an awe-inspiring ‘discovery’. Again, David is placed in the role of the masculine hero, and in many ways, he conforms to Vivian Sobchack’s characterization of the astronaut that I discussed in part 1: ‘superb physiques, wooden movements, hollow cheerfulness, and banal competence ... cool, rational, competent, unimaginative, male, and sexless’ (107). Not unimaginative, though: it is difficult to imagine any other character in Prometheus responding with such awe and delight to the universal star-map.

The question of virginity, however, is important to consider in relation to David; while there is no Ash-like symbolic oral rape, he does end up in a parodic reich der zwei with Shaw at the end of the film, and as I noted above, saved her from the storm earlier in the narrative. What does David want? Not sex, perhaps, but romance.

David’s spiking of Holloway’s drink with alien DNA, thereby killing the scientist, seems to place him as just another android villain, as bad as Ash had been. However, if we remember that David has seen into Shaw’s dreams, surely he must know that she is incapable of conception, that she is unable to ‘create’ (revealed in one of the most weakly scripted scenes in the film). By poisoning Holloway, David is able to romance Shaw at one remove, to give her what she wants, what Holloway cannot: a baby. This is the romance of the virgin android. That the fetus is alien and monstrous is, in a sense, irrelevant; the fact of pregnancy is enough. It is telling that the word that the film cannot use in the scene where Shaw uses the surgical pod to remove the alien embryo is ‘abortion’, for this is, essentially, what she conducts, a termination by Caesarian section. Unlike Kane, or Bishop, Shaw circumvents her own role in monstrous birth, and returns her own body to a state of astronaut 'virginity'. Where Alien represented the body of the woman as the body of the alien, Prometheus represents the body of the mother as itself a techno-body, eventually stapled together and sprayed with antiseptic paint.

Ridley Scott himself staples together elements of Blade Runner with the Alien series in Prometheus’s emphasis on meeting with one’s maker, but the aged Weyland is no Roy Baty, and cannot demand of the Engineer ‘I want more life, father [fucker]’ (though this is clearly what he’s after). In fact, he cannot even speak the Engineer’s language; this is left to David, who receives a pat on the head for his efforts like a schoolboy, before he suffers the same fate as Ash and Bishop. The Frankenstein motifs that give Blade Runner such depth, and the meeting between Baty and Tyrell such awful resonance, are thrown away in Prometheus, largely because the meeting takes place between the Engineer and a character who has been largely absent (secreted away aboard the ship in hyper-sleep) in a language that remains untranslated. There is no grandeur, no horror, no climax, and the Father visits fatal violence upon the sons (rather than vice versa); the transgressive kiss that precedes Tyrell’s murder becomes a scene in the Headmaster’s study, where the patriarch Engineer metes out appropriate punishment to errant young ‘uns.  

‘It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker’, says Baty, but David has already done so, every day. The question he asks Holloway is moot; perhaps he is already disappointed. For a human being to meet their maker is to undergo an extremity of terror and violence, in Prometheus; but not for David. His is a quotidian revelation, and he faces it calmly. As the film ends, in sanguine fashion, he contacts Shaw as the one being left alive who can re-attach his head to his body. Bathetically, she dumps the body out of the alien craft before zipping David’s smiling head up in a holdall. The dialogue between the two almost made me break out in awful laughter in the cinema; when David wonders about having (and not having) feelings, a crude marker of species difference in Alien, Shaw tells him that he cannot understand and that ‘I’m a human and you’re not’. This reductive binarism, if not an ironic undermining of this particular Final Girl's appreciation of all she has experienced (and I deeply suspect it is not), is a betrayal of all that was challenging and interesting about the Alien films in the first place, and it almost felt as if I were David in that holdall, about to be zipped up.  ‘Know your place’, ‘be quiet’, don’t ask questions’, Prometheus tell us: or you’ll find your head in a bag.

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