Shagreen, or chagrin: the shadows begin to gather

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,

And he shows them pearly white

I’m going to try keep the shark references to a minimum over the next few months, not least because my fellow Shadow Clarke Award judge, Vajra Chandrasekera, is already staking out that piece of territory quite nicely, but that snatch of song just popped into my head. ‘The Shadow knows!’ flitted through my brain as I finished that sentence; I have no idea why, as I’d mostly been preoccupied with thinking about Babylon 5 until that point. Sometimes, the early-morning brain is a startling mish-mash of cultural fragments. But now, after a cup of tea, it’s time to work.

A week ago, Nina Allan announced that a group of writers, critics, readers and Clarke-watchers have come together to form a shadow jury for the 2017 Arthur Clarke Award. As Nina goes on to say:

We will be following the Clarke Award right from the beginning, selecting our ideal shortlists from the submissions, reading and reviewing those books and picking our own winners. Then, when the official shortlist is announced on May 3rd, we’ll be reading and reviewing those books, too, before having our own virtual judgely huddle and selecting the shadow winner of the Clarke Award, to be announced, in the honourable tradition of most shadow juries, the day before the unveiling of the official winner.

Other awards have shadow juries – the Booker, for one, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for another. But I can’t think of an sff award that has had a shadow jury before. (And yes, I am aware of the Not-the-Clarke panels at Eastercon, but I’m obviously going to argue that this is a different kind of project.) I did carry out my own informal shadow project on the Clarke Award a few years ago (The Shortlist Project), which was something of an eye-opener. I enjoyed the process on some levels but missed the discussions with other people and didn’t do it again. Which is one reason why I’m so glad to be involved in the Shadow Clarke jury this year. More people to talk to, and such people!

But more seriously, Nina’s initial post raised some important points, I’d like to reiterate here:

To survive and thrive, every branch of literature needs a robust, engaged and diverse critical hinterland. I’ve been concerned for some years that the discussion around science fiction literature in general and the Clarke Award in particular has not been as robust or as challenging as it might be …

I’ve shared Nina’s anxieties for some time, arising from my own reading, and from conversations with Nina herself. But how to articulate that feeling of dis-ease? It’s very easy to jump up and down and shout ‘what was the jury thinking? Was the jury even thinking?’ but that is unfair to each individual Clarke jury. They set their terms anew each year and go about their business as best they can. I’ve been a Clarke judge myself and it is no picnic. I’m sure a lot of people imagine it’s all ‘wow, free books’, but a look at the submissions list will tell you that the jewels are accompanied by a lot of dross – and yes, let’s be blunt about this, dross. This is not unique to the Clarke Award, by any means. I’ve been a Tiptree judge, and witnessed a Campbell Award judge at work; it goes with the territory. But while it’s worth being mindful of the fact that one woman’s dross is another man’s treasure, some dross is just dross …

If there is a problem, with the Clarke and other juried awards, it’s that … actually, there are two problems. One is that the jury’s deliberation is private, and indeed it should be, but as a result we have no access to the debate and can never know what prompted them to make certain decisions. There is probably horse-trading some years, and publishers are not always willing to have their titles submitted if they’re trying to market a book a certain way that is emphatically not science fiction. We don’t know, we can only guess, and it makes things difficult when a book doesn’t appear on a shortlist, and we ask ‘why didn’t they put that on?’ not knowing that the publisher couldn’t or wouldn’t submit. Judges can ask for books but that doesn’t mean they’ll arrive.

But the other problem is that when the shortlists roll out, ‘what were they thinking?’ is a quick and easy response, because it’s really hard to come up with anything else, in the absence of prior debate. And too often this becomes a veiled attack on the competence of the judges, which is not fair on them. They were asked to judge and they did their best in the circumstances. The one thing I will say is that it has seemed to me in recent years that the organisations who nominate judges have tended not to nominate practising critics, which means that one particular approach to sf has been neglected. And that may look like special pleading, but critics have their place in the ecosystem too, alongside the readers.

Which is the other reason I’m glad to be a part of this project: the freedom it affords to have a wide-ranging discussion about the whos, whats, whys and wherefores of science fiction in 2017, and how they pertain to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I can’t speak for anyone else involved, but I’m taking it as an opportunity to test everything I’ve ever thought or felt about science fiction, using the submissions list, and the shortlists (ours and the actual Clarke Award shortlist) as bench marks.

I am a slightly late arrival, as ever, to the introductory posts-party. Nina Allan has already posted about the Shadow Clarke on her own blog, while Paul Kincaid laid out his stall over at Through the Dark Labyrinth. David Hebblethwaite isn’t blogging much at the moment, but he’s posting on Facebook and on Twitter and is well worth following in both those places. Megan AM, known to some of us on Twitter as @couchtomoon, has opted for a classier level of punning, invoking Gene Wolfe, and has posted about her involvement with the Shadow Clarke at her own blog, From Couch to Moon. Megan and I talked about the Clarke Award 2016, with Jonah Sutton-Morse, on his Cabbages and Kings podcast here and here, so I’m particularly pleased to be working with her again on this project. Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture but hasn’t said anything about the Shadow Clarke there as yet; you can also find him being pithy at @apeinwinter (I said pithy). Victoria Hoyle gives her thoughts on the Shadow Clarke here, with moving pictures and all (but don’t expect that from me as it isn’t going to happen. I have an excellent face for podcasts). And Nick Hubble can be located at @contempislesfic on Twitter. You already know where to find Vajra’s blog but he is also on Twitter at @_vajra

But most important of all, this project is taking place under the auspices of the shiny new Anglia Ruskin Centre for Research into Science Fiction and Fantasy, based in Cambridge, and run by Helen Marshall. This is incredibly exciting, not least because we hope it will bring even more people to the discussion. We’ll be publishing our thoughts there as well as on our blogs, and talking on Twitter (#shadowclarke).

I’ll also try to collate material from the internet about this project on Paper Knife as we go along.

File 770 has already covered the launch of the Shadow Clarke; some of the comments were interesting, especially from people who had never encountered the notion of a shadow jury before. And I utterly refute the Puppy comparisons.

Also, we have no influence whatsoever on the actual Clarke Award, as people have asked. We don’t get to put any titles on the shortlist. I rather hope the Clarke judges will entirely ignore us until it’s all over.

But that’s all for now. The Arthur C. Clarke Award submission list is out later today, so the work will begin in earnest.

Two final thoughts.

Sharkskin is also known as shagreen, and was once used as an abrasive to achieve a fine finish on wood. I’m not quite sure what that means here, but it feels significant.

And lastly, to finish off the verse I quoted at the beginning of this post,

Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear

And he keeps it out of sight.

I mention it only because this is of course Paper Knife.

Reading Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

 

Another Interzone review, this time from late 2015. I’m still sad I didn’t like this novel more.

mcdonald_lunaThe publicity surrounding Luna would have us read it as a gritty species of space opera: The Godfather on the Moon. Ian McDonald is already known for taking others’ ideas and pushing them in new directions, as if to see just how far they can be made to go. In that case, why not take stories from other genres and do the same? The question is what, if anything, does this sidelong hommage bring to the main story? Do we accept it as a literary shorthand to get us beyond the corporate wars of something like Ben Bova’s Grand Tour novels and into a new, more intricately corrupt world. McDonald is quite clear that the battle for the Moon and its resources will be ugly, and a million miles from the utopian cooperation beloved of a certain kind of sf novel. Or should we simply regard it as an opportunity to experience gang wars in space? And if this latter, is there really any point?

McDonald’s Moon is run, inevitably, by five clans, the Five Dragons, under the impotently watchful eye of the Eagle of the Moon (a nod perhaps to the original explorers of the Moon). The peace between them is uneasy, maintained by an elaborate series of dynastic and, unsurprisingly, mostly loveless marriages. Business is all, and everything, including friends and family, is liable to be sacrificed to that. Of the five families, Corta Hélio, headed by the formidable eighty-year-old Adriana Corto, is the brash young kid on the block. Corta’s ambition lifted her out of poverty in Brazil, and brought her to the Moon, where she spotted a business chance and turned it to her advantage. AKA, Mackenzie Metals, VTO and Taiyang have only grudgingly admitted Corta Hélio to their ranks, and only because it is so powerful they can’t afford not to. Lunar high society, reluctantly tight-knit as it is, seems also to be riddled with secret groups, hoping to leverage things to their own advantage. And around them the beautiful people, for whom money is no object, meet and party, while out of sight the workers get on with making more money for them, while paying for the Four Elementals that keep them going: air, water, carbon and data.

McDonald employs the montage technique that has served him well in the past – one thinks inevitably of Desolation Road – but while we may jump from Adriana, contemplating her death and seeking solace in the religious beliefs of her past, to Lucasinho, youngest male scion of the clan, on the run from his repressive father, to Marina Calzaghe, saviour of Rafael Corta after an attempt on his life, to Ariel, the brittle lawyer, only daughter of the clan, none of this seems to move the novel forward significantly. The more interesting parts of the narrative dwell in the glimpses of those elements of family life that are avoided in polite conversation, and which are of course precisely those places the reader wants to go.

We are also directed to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance of them as the norm. In truth, it’s difficult to find a reason to care about the Corta children and their business, perhaps because rich people being rich, and worrying about remaining rich, just aren’t that interesting. Adriana’s autobiography, her final confession to Irma Loa, a Sister of the Lords of Now, is the meatiest, and maybe most traditional part of the story, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the novel. We might wonder about Lucasinho’s charming but incomprehensible interest in baking cakes, or be drawn, as Marina is, to the discovery of the perpetual run taking place in the tunnels of João de Deus, as much a spiritual as a physical exercise. We certainly crave to know more about Wagner, the moonwolf, the Corta outsider. All these are elements of the Ian McDonald whose work I love for its verve and daring, but they remain underexplored, somehow constrained by the form and setting that he’s chosen for this novel. Adam Roberts noted that Luna has much in common with the soap opera Dallas, and this is true, but I think also of The Great Gatsby, and of Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clear up the mess they had made’. They have much in common with most of the Corta family.

A month of things read, things watched – January 2017

It’s hard to think straight at the moment, given I seem to be living in every pessimistic sf novel I’ve ever read.  The nightmares of my teens and twenties have all come true in the last ten days and writing this seems excessively indulgent when other things need to be attended to. At the same time, I remind myself that I do all the other things in order to carry on doing this, so it would be pointless to stop now.

So, here’s a round-up of things I read and watched in January 2017.

Books:

black-and-britishDavid Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) is linked to the recent BBC series of the same name. It’s a good basic introduction to the history of black people in the UK, if you’re new to the subject: my historical interests in the last few years have been such that I already knew something about most of the pre-20th century material (and quite a lot about Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson’s anti-slavery work – I recommend Adam Hochschild’s Bury These Chains, if you want to read more), though there was enough new detail to keep me interested. I was less familiar with the late nineteenth/early twentieth-century and post-war material so that took up most of my attention. The book did show some signs of being published in a hurry – there are more editorial mistakes than I thought seemly – but it does have a decent critical apparatus. It also reminded me to buy Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which I’ve been intending to read since forever.

the-ash-treeI’m nothing if not eclectic in my reading (actually, I’m not – it’s pretty much equal parts history, various kinds of nature writing, fiction – predominantly science fiction and fantasy, and criticism these days) so next is Oliver Rackham’s The Ash Tree (2015) one of the Little Toller Monograph series. I find these to be something of a mixed bag (Iain Sinclair’s The Black Apples of Gower was entertaining, though possibly not for any reason he intended; my favourite by far is Adam Thirlwell’s On Silbury Hill). I was eager to read this because, well, I like ash trees, but the book felt rather leaden and dully fact-heavy until, towards the end, Rackham started taking a pop at various authorities over the ash dieback crisis.

wolf-borderSarah Hall’s The Wolf Border turned out be less than I was expecting, after a promising start.  I was hoping for something a bit more wolfish than I ended up with. I did not expect to get what is, to all intents and purposes, a contemporary version of the Gothic romance of the 1970s. Hated them then, really don’t like them now, even with a fresh spin. All the really interesting stuff was going on in the novel’s interstices, where we and the protagonist could only glimpse it. As a novel about national identity, it seemed have a lot to say about pregnancy. Exquisitely written, exquisitely frustrating.

weird-and-eerieI was only dimly aware of the existence of Mark Fisher as a writer, and it took his death to draw my attention to his last book, The Weird and the Eerie, which came out last year. I’ll not say much about it now as I’m planning to reread it and write about it, but I will note that I did not expect to read a piece of work published in 2016 that was so white and so male in its critical approach. Only three texts by women were discussed, and a lot of the material discussed was old. The section on Alan Garner focused on ElidorThe Owl Service and Red Shift, as though Strandloper,  Thursbitch and Boneland, all equally pertinent to the discussion, had never been written. I’m also not sure whether Fisher realised that Yvonne Rousseau’s Murder at Hanging Rock (which he discusses in the section on Picnic at Hanging Rock, bu unforgiveably does not mention in the bibliography) was intended as spoof scholarship. And yet, there was much about the basic critical thesis that I found very useful, hence much of my irritation with the text.

loveLast but not least, I read Love Beyond Body, Space and Time: An indigenous LGBT Sci-Fi Anthology, edited by Hope Nicolson. I’ve a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons so I’ll link to that when it appears.

 

 

 

 

Chiang.jpgI also read (possibly reread) Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Lives as I was going to see Arrival and wanted to read ‘Story of Your Life’. Ted Chiang is an excellent writer of a particular kind of sf that I happen to like, so job done.

 

 

 

book-cover-green-knowe Other rereads were Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and A Traveller in Time, and Lucy M. Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe. I’ve never much cared for A Country Child as a story, but see now that’s because it isn’t, not really. To my adult eyes, the descriptions of landscape and country ways are beautifully done; Susan Garland remains annoyingly priggish. For that kind of thing I would rather read Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford.

 

 

Films/TV:

We went to see both Arrival and Rogue One, both very well done. I’ve already written about Arrival  so I won’t repeat myself here. Rogue One is, in many respects, everything I missed from The Force Awakens. Diverse cast, women flying X-fighters, enough nods to the original without being overwhelmingly cloying and sentimental in its fan service, funny, sarcastic, genuinely tragic, bizarrely life-affirming. This is my favourite Star Wars film.

We also went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of The Tempest. The general view seems to be that the special effects probably work better if you’re in the theatre; they do not come over well on broadcast relay. (N.B., for anyone who has ever asked me what it’s like to have no depth perception without glasses, if you saw this play as a relay broadcast, now you know.)

Much as I have always loved Simon Russell Beale as an actor, I’m forced to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he now does Simon Russell Beale in a play rather than the character he’s playing. His Prospero was … okay, better than his god-awful Lear and the so-so Timon for the Royal National Theatre, but I’d been expecting more and I did not get it. Ariel and Caliban were far better, and that set me thinking about them as physical embodiments of the two aspects of Prospero’s character. Miranda was also rather gutsier than I’m used to, which is good, and Ferdinand was wet, as usual.

I’ve written about watching the BBC productions of The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time on DVDChildren has fared well over the years, Traveller not so much. I’m glad to have the DVD but the production has entirely lost its magic for me.

I’ve also just finished catching up on the BBC’s fourth series of Father Brown, which I continue to regard as alternative history, in a Britain where the Reformation never happened. The series bible now seems to be firmly stuck around about August 1953, though the background culture is quite clearly changing constantly. I’ve been struck in this series by the sudden influx of actors of colour, and not all of them playing villains, for a wonder. The only way to cope with the series is to entirely forget about G.K. Chesterton and think of it as Midsomer Murders in the Cotswolds, with a Catholic priest, though the last episode of the series featured John Light’s disturbing Sexy!Flambeau. The writers of this episode seemed to have some slight understanding of the complexities of the relationship between Flambeau and Father Brown, for a wonder, and it was rather enjoyable in its own funny, fuzzy way. There must surely be a spin-off series called Flambeau! any moment now.

gene-mapper-taiyo

Gene Mapper by Taiyo Fujii

This review first appeared in Interzone 260 in 2015. I didn’t like the book very much, unfortunately.

Gene Mapper – Taiyo Fujii, trans. Jim Hubbert.

Haikasoru, 297pp

Translation is not a cheap business. Which makes me curious as to why Haikasoru thought it worth translating Gene Mapper for the English-language market when, to me at least, it doesn’t really seem to be that good. The answer may lie somewhere in the novel’s slightly confusing genesis: Fujii originally published a version of Gene Mapper as an e-book and it sold 10,000 copies. At this point Hayakawa Publishing, well-known as a publisher of science fiction in Japan, apparently contacted Fujii and asked for what one newspaper has described as ‘a full-length novel’, suggesting that the original version was probably rather shorter. Subsequently, Orbital Cloud, Fujii’s second novel, not yet available in English, won the 2014 Japan SF Grand Prize.

Here, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. So far as I am aware, I have read no Japanese science fiction in translation, so I have no idea if Gene Mapper is typical of Japanese sf or whether the problems I have with it arise simply from Fujii’s being an inexperienced writer. I incline to the latter, and Fujii himself freely admits that he later signed up with a traditional publisher to benefit from editorial advice, so this review is conducted on that basis.

Mamoru Hayashida, the narrator of this story, is a gene mapper: that is, he is a designer programming the DNA of rice crops. The story is set in 2036 and crops are being ‘distilled’ from scratch in order to combat world hunger. My first difficulty arises here – it is remarkably difficult to get a sense of what it is Hayashida actually does. Whether this is because it is incredibly complicated or because Hayashida can’t properly explain it isn’t clear. Which is curious because, if there is one thing that Hayashida likes doing, it is explaining. His narrative is one long explanation of everything he sees, does, and uses (especially when it comes to software and augmented reality) to the point where the novel seems more like a speculative description of the future with a few shreds of  plot gathered around it for modesty’s sake than it does a full-blown novel. It does, though, make the failure to explain what Hayashida does seem far more obvious than it otherwise might have been.

Which suggests to me that Fujii himself is much more interested in showing how Hayashida and his colleagues use augmented reality than he is in telling the story. And indeed, in that newspaper interview, Fujii observes that ‘a world with augmented reality is a better place to live’, in which case it  would make sense to show how AR might work for someone living in the future.

But this is my second problem: Fujii’s fascination with the trappings of the future threaten to overwhelm the actual plot, what there is of it. It flickers fitfully, like the light from the jellyfish genes that will become significant as things progress. It is a simple enough story. Even in 2036 environmental activists are eager to put a stop to artificially produced crops, though in this instance they appear to have adopted bizarre measures to do so. It is up to Hayashida to figure out what is happening before his company’s credibility is destroyed. This involves Hayashida travelling in person to the site, along with his colleague, the mysterious Takashi Kurokawa, headhunting a number of hacker types to help with research, and then, right on cue, being handed most of the answers on a virtual plate. We have, so to speak, been here before, many times.

Nonetheless, there is a certain attractive quality to Fujii’s main characters. Dialogue is not among Fujii’s core skills as a writer but every now and then something sparks on the page. Hayashida’s relationship with Kurokawa, his putative mentor, is oddly charming, while his growing relationship with Shue Thep, the researcher overseeing the rice-growing project, is expressed in conversations that actually feel convincing, not least when she’s complaining about a lack of equipment. The villains of the piece, however, look and sound like stock villains throughout. We realise quickly that Hayashida and his friends are unlikely to come to any notable harm as they try to solve the mystery at hand.

Given that Fujii’s primary interest lies in the way humans interface with technology, I hope he will in future address those issues more directly in his work and give his readers something richer to deal with, rather than simply bolting a flimsy plot onto lavish descriptions using AR in the workplace. That Fujii recognises the need for editorial advice and guidance seems to me to be a positive thing. Nonetheless, it is a shame that our first encounter with his writing must be with something that still seems strangely unfinished.

The Children of Green Knowe and A Traveller in Time – a tale of two novels

Among other Christmas presents I received the DVDs of The Children of Green Knowe (1986, from the novel by Lucy M. Boston [1954]) and A Traveller in Time (1978, from the novel by Alison Uttley [1939]). The two novels have been favourites of mine since I was young and I remember enjoying both adaptations immensely when they were first shown. I’ve seen Children a number of times over the years, thanks to a video transfer available on YouTube, but Traveller only finally came out on DVD in late 2015. The BBC never repeated it after its initial airing and I had been longing to see it again.

The short version of this is going to be that the tv adaptation of Children has lasted far better than the adaptation of Traveller, in part for technical reasons, in part because the adaptation of Traveller manages to highlight all of the novel’s weaknesses and none of its virtues. There is only ten years between the two tv adaptations but technically a lot apparently happened in that ten years. The Children of Green Knowe looks as fresh as ever; it’s very difficult to believe that it is thirty years old. A Traveller in Time, only eight years older, looks visually awful; in parts it seems terribly bleached, and there is occasional interference visible on the screen. This was very much a quick and dirty transfer to DVD, with very little in the way of titivation. The shifts between indoor studio scenes and outdoor scenes are often extremely awkward, and the painted backdrops of ‘outdoors’ seen through doors are quite obviously artificial. The soundtrack is also very fuzzy at times (though the poor choice of a very over-ripe orchestral version of Greensleeves as the theme tune is another matter altogether). It’s made even more awkward by a decision to update the story, moving it into ‘the present’, a decision which provided some unexpected visual distractions that I’ll return to.

book-cover-green-knoweBefore I deliver a more detailed verdict on both adaptations, I’d like to step back slightly and look at the novels again. The Children of Green Knowe, I’ve written about before, but not A Traveller in Time, though I know I’ve mentioned it in various places at various times. Oddly, what hadn’t struck me before my Christmas viewing was how similar in some ways the two novels are. Each concerns a child moving effortlessly, inexplicably, through time, becoming somehow caught up in the stories of the people they meet, in the history of the house, and also having to face up to the deaths, long since, of the people they have encountered. I tend to call these novels ‘ghost stories’ simply because that’s what I’ve always called them, but the very title of A Traveller in Time indicates it should be thought of as a story of time-slippage, though the situation in The Children of Green Knowe is made a little complicated by the awareness of the seventeenth-century Oldknow children that they are dead. Here, it is not Tolly who moves through time so much as the other children who fade in an out of Tolly’s own time.

traveller-in-time-coverAnd in each novel, the house – Green Knowe and Thackers – stands as a character (each fictional house has an actual counterpart – Hemingford Grey manor house, owned by Boston herself, and Dethick Manor farmhouse, originally owned by the Babington family, and known to Uttley in her childhood); each house is dominated by a woman, Mrs Oldknow, and Tissie/Dame Cicely Taberner, respectively, who functions as the genius loci of the place, and possibly bears some slight resemblance to an idealised version of the author in each instance. Beyond that, it would also be not unreasonable to say that Boston and Uttley themselves had a certain amount in common, given that they both seem to have had rather challenging personalities.

Both novels begin with a decision made to send the child protagonists away to the country. In Green Knowe, Toseland, or Tolly, is to spend Christmas with a great-grandmother he didn’t know he had, rather than languish at the rather dull boarding school where he normally lives, his parents being in Burma; in A Traveller in Time, the three Cameron children but Penelope in particular, have been unwell, and their mother decides to send them to an aunt in Derbyshire, to recuperate. So the first major event in each novel involves a train journey, with the protagonists moving away from all that is familiar, heading deep into the uncertainty of the countryside. Both train journeys present us with a picture of close-knit community; in both cases, the children are identified by other passengers as not being from around here, and in neither case is there a clear sense that they belong although they have a loose family connection to the area. Tolly’s first name, Toseland, is recognised as a local place-name but oddly, despite the family being known locally, there seems to be no awareness that Toseland is also a family forename. For all that he has lived in the interim setting of a boarding school (and possibly abroad himself) we are to understand Tolly Oldknow as returning to his house. Boston specifically frames his arrival as a return, and has Tolly anxiously ask if the house is partly his. Penelope’s attachment to Derbyshire is indicated first by her middle name, Taberner; it is her mother’s maiden name, and the family name of the aunt and uncle, brother and sister, with whom they will be staying. Penelope, we will also discover, is also a Taberner family name, so Penelope’s attachment is doubly emphasised by her naming. Her family name, though, is Cameron – her mother married a Scot, and I think by this we are supposed to see Penelope as both belonging but being somewhat ‘other’ too, in that a part of her belongs even further north.

So, in part, you could say that both novels are about strengthening that connection to a family place by involving the protagonists in the history of the houses they are staying in, houses which are, if you like, also ‘family’. The treatment of the two houses mark the first major point of divergence between the two stories, a divergence which I think makes The Children of Green Knowe the more successful of the two novels as a story. Boston provides Hemingford Grey/Green Knowe with a mostly fictional history, filling in what might have been lost along the way, but begins from a point of utter familiarity with the house itself (unsurprising given she bought it pretty much as a wreck and then restored it). Uttley never actually lived at Dethick/Thackers, although as a child she played with the child who did live there, and this only partial familiarity does show. The descriptions of the house are doubtless accurate but there is always the slight sense that they come from an outsider. I can’t help feeling that Uttley rather badly wanted to have lived at Dethick – I find it more than a little suggestive that when she bought a house in Beaconsfield from her royalties, she called it Thackers, although it was about as unlike Thackers or Dethick as one might possibly imagine – and that A Traveller in Time was, if you like, her attempt to write herself, as Penelope, into that history. There is an obsession with the house as artefact that isn’t present in Children in the same way. And while Tolly doesn’t have to claim his family history because it comes to him, in Traveller Penelope’s real fascination is with the Babingtons rather than her own Taberner family. (The question that is never posed is how, if this is the Babingtons’ house, does it come to belong to the Taberners now. The implication is that they reside there now as stewards of the Babington history, but a few uncomfortable questions are elided.)

The tv adaptation of Children was mostly filmed at Hemingford Grey; even if one didn’t know that one would feel a ‘rightness’ about the adaptation’s setting, inside and out, in a way that just isn’t there with the adaptation of Traveller. My sense is that the interior shots are mostly studio-based, simply because of the enormous amount of room available for the actors and crew to move around in, not forgetting those unconvincing outdoor backdrops glimpsed through open doors. Having said that, the shots of the modern-day farm interior, the kitchen at least, seem to have been filmed on location, which makes the juxtaposition all the more uncomfortable.

The second major difference between the two novels lies in the protagonists themselves. In Green Knowe, Tolly is seven years old. Alec Christie was twelve when he played Tolly in the tv series, and I’d place the character he played as being about nine or ten. Either way, in both novel and series, he is a very active child, exploring, investigating, asking questions, eager for encounters with the other children living in the house, eager for stories about them. As Mrs Oldknow comments, he’s ready for anything. He is, if you like, coming into his birthright, finding out who and what he is. He might start as an outsider but he is very quickly subsumed into the house and his history.

greenknowetolly

The central theme of the novel is celebratory restoration. Tolly’s arrival at Green Knowe sets in train a process of rejuvenation. While his great-grandmother is aware of the existence of the children it is Tolly’s open desire to engage with the children, not to mention his hunger for stories about them, that initiates a series of discoveries – the key to the children’s toy chest, Linnet’s bracelet previously lost in the shrubbery – as well as a series of curious experiences, such as the encounter with Toby’s horse, Feste, and, at last, the lifting of the curse laid on the topiary man, Green Noah, by the mother of the gipsy horse thief. We might suppose that the encounters with the children are simply the imaginings of a very lonely little boy stuck with an elderly relation, except that Mrs Oldknow matter-of-factly confirms his experiences. She might be humouring him, of course, except that Boggis, as much a genius loci as Mrs Oldknow, also knows all the stories, and can add one or two of his own. By doing so, either Boggis is engaged in some sort of unholy conspiracy with Mrs Oldknow, or he acts as a confirming second party. This is all very real if you are part of the family, and Boggises have been associated with the house probably for as long as Oldknows. For the most part the novel is remarkably unthreatening. Tolly is being inducted into the history of his family, and the house where it lives, the house that by implication will one day be his. The Children of Green Knowe is an introduction to his inheritance, tangible and intangible.

By contrast, A Traveller in Time is an account of that which has been lost and can never be regained. It begins as nostalgia – Penelope is clearly writing as an adult, describing childhood experiences; among others, she notes how, when offered a treat, she chose to rummage through the old things in a family chest – but somehow ends as mourning the loss of old ways. We are, I think, supposed to see Penelope as being a little old-fashioned even in her own time. But if Tolly is part of the presiding family in his house, Penelope Taberner Cameron is very different. She is much more passive, an observer but not a participant, and I think this is in part because she is a Boggis rather than an Oldknow, so to speak. Aunt Tissie is aware of the continuing presence of the Babingtons at Thackers – ‘the secret of Thackers’ – but this is something that is not discussed. And, of course, the job of Taberners is to keep secrets. As a Taberner, Penelope can never be a participant, only a guardian. The novel may try to account for this by representing her as a sickly, solitary child, as ‘fey, but the fact is that the linear inevitability of history precludes her doing anything other than witness the beginning of the downfall of the Babington family. She can tell Francis (and in the novel, Anthony) what is going to happen but insofar as either of them believes her, neither of them can do anything to prevent it happening. And this is the biggest problem with the novel as novel. Even though Penelope is ‘family’, she must remain an outsider, because she is a Taberner and not a Babington. The history being played out before her is not her history, although her family has witnessed it and participated in it.

dressinggown

One of the enduring difficulties of the novel is how to account for Penelope’s presence at Thackers, how to excuse her comings and going, her strange clothes, the fact that unlike most girls of that time, she can read and write, but that unlike her aunt, she has not the remotest idea how to do anything practical, such as identifying herbs. Her position at Thackers is constructed in such a way that she is constantly privileged and her odd behaviour excused; she rides out with Francis Babington, waits on his mother and step-grandmother, but works in the kitchen too. And to round this off, Francis falls in love with her, and she with him. It is the perfect teenage relationship.

gipps-kent

This is not to say that A Traveller in Time does not have a story but it always comes back to what cannot be done. Anthony has lost his heart to Mary, Queen of Scots, and is plotting to rescue her while she is at Wingfield. An old tunnel between Wingfield and Thackers is to be reopened and the Queen is to be brought along it to Thackers and hence onward to freedom. The plot, though, will be discovered, though at this stage Babington will not be implicated, and a handy fall of snow will conceal the digging at Thackers. But while this may be the story, it is not the plot, not least because Penelope already knows what will happen. There is a sub-plot in the novel, when Arabella, the Babingtons’ jealous cousin, suspecting Penelope of being a spy, imprisons her underground in an abandoned tunnel, from which she is rescued by Jude, the mute farm boy. He is believed to be ‘touched’ but seems to be more fully aware of Penelope’s nature than everyone else. But even this sub-plot only comes to the fore quite late in the novel and while it is given more prominence in the adaptation (complete with Arabella roasting the wax figure of Penelope that she’s made), it’s not really what the novel is all about.

According to Denis Judd’s biography of Alison Uttley, Alison Uttley: Spinner of Tales, the novel was originally rejected by her publisher and had to be reworked, though he provides no detail as to what this involved. He does, though refer to Uttley describing it as the ‘darling of my heart’, and sees Uttley as having written herself into the novel as Penelope, unsurprisingly. However, he seems to regard the novel as being rather more successful in its construction than I do. If Alison Uttley does have one great theme as a writer, it is her childhood in rural Derbyshire, at Castle Top Farm. Her love of the countryside, and of rural ways, is reflected in much of her output, from The Country Child (1931), through the myriad Little Grey Rabbit books, to A Traveller in Time. By far the most successful parts of the novel are the descriptions of country life – if we assume that the novel is originally set in the late 1920s and early 1930s, or maybe even earlier given that the voice of Penelope Taberner Cameron is that of an adult or near-adult, recalling a time when she was a child, we can assume that Uttley is drawing on her memories of her own childhood. Indeed, a comparison with The Country Child show that many of the scenes, customs and events described in that resurface in A Traveller in Time, where they are often used to establish a continuity between the Elizabethan period and the novel’s present day. By far the best passages in The Country Child, which is anyway fictionalised autobiography, are the descriptions of farm life and the evocations of the natural world, the things that Uttley knew well, and the same is true in A Traveller in Time as Uttley’s instincts as a storyteller override her attempt to tell a different story.

The disparity between the two stories is reflected in the two tv adaptations. Although both stay close to the original novels, A Traveller in Time has inevitably been abbreviated to remove the long, lingering descriptions of farm life, meaning that there is very little meat for the adaptor to work with. The adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe is visually gorgeous (perhaps unsurprisingly, given most of it seems to have been filmed at Hemingford Grey). The opening sequence, as Tolly travels deeper into a flooded landscape, swapping train for taxi, taxi for the taxi-driver’s back (reminding us of St Christopher, who plays an important part later in the story) and then piggyback for Boggis’s boat is utterly magical. And that is the point. This is supposed to be a magical story and the adaptation captures that. Which is not to say that it is not at times remarkably atmospheric, and sometimes a little scary. The sequence where Tolly sits on a book so that Linnet cannot read it and she invisibly drags it across the floor is disturbingly effective, as is Tolly’s ill-fated trip across the garden in the dark, when Green Knowe is walking, though for my money, the best, most unnerving sequence is when Tolly is wandering around the upper storey of the stables, searching for the children he can always hear in the next room but can never quite locate. In odd places it also visually reminds me of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘Lost Hearts’ (1973), when young Stephen (coincidentally played by Simon Gipps-Kent) is wandering in the grounds of Aswarby Hall and hears children’s voices.

Strangely enough, A Traveller in Time also reminds me strongly of ‘Lost Hearts’, and that’s probably a lot less of a coincidence given that there is only five years between the two. While the novel seems to be warm and sunny, the tv version is bleak, misty, grey, and altogether lacking in joy. I’m not sure where they filmed the outdoor shots but they seem to have gone looking for the most unprepossessing fields they could manage, while the railway station was not exactly a gateway to adventure. Even the shots purportedly in the farmhouse garden look less than magical, and the shots of Wingfield are grim in the extreme. One can only assume that the programme makers were in some way trying to emulate Gordon Clark, even though it was utterly inappropriate to the story. There was indeed one sequence when Penelope was riding with her uncle in the land rover and looked out to see Jude scaring birds in the field which might as well have come from ‘Lost Hearts’. I suppose all this might be argued as tying in with the rather more furtive nature of Penelope’s experience but it seemed to be a strange artistic decision.

I noted earlier that the story had been updated for a modern audience, although the visual clues were maddeningly vague at times. Mostly, one had to rely on what Penelope was wearing as a guide, given the farm, the farm vehicles, and the Taberners themselves were of course behind the times. And here is the problem. In the original story, set maybe in the 1920s or early 1930s, Penelope would be dressed in clothes which, if outlandish by Elizabethan standards, could at least be excused as ‘London fashion’. 1970s Penelope by comparison would one moment be in jeans, boots and a smock top like any normal teenager of that time, and the next wearing something oddly formal or out of time, because of course she was about to move back in time. There was a quilted dressing-gown which was very frequently brought into play because it could pass muster as some sort of over-dress that wasn’t too un-Elizabethan. Also, a cloak that no self-respecting teenager of that period would have been seen dead in.

In conclusion, I have to admit that despite my fond recollections of it, I am disappointed in the tv version of A Traveller in Time. I’m glad to have seen it again, and to have it to hand for reference, but the novel, for all its faults, wins hands down. The series is awkwardly put together, emphasising the novel’s flaws, and just can’t seem to find a story for itself. I wonder now if the production team was struggling to present it as a softer version of the old ghost stories, but simply couldn’t find the right register for it. By contrast, the tv adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe, despite its own occasional moments of clunkiness (we’ll draw a veil over the business of the walking tree) is joyful and magical, capturing the spirit of the novel very effectively. It’s a lovely thing to look at. Watching it will, I think, become a Christmas tradition, rather like rewatching The Box of Delights. There is the same sense of craftsmanship about it.

‘Recordings alone aren’t sufficient’ – speaking Arrival

As is customary at Paper Knife, I will be discussing the whole of the story, the whole of the film. If you want them both to be a lovely surprise when you get to them, I suggest you click away now. In the meantime, let us continue.

Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Before all else, I want to say that I enjoyed Arrival immensely. Indeed it acted so powerfully on my imagination that I dreamt a whole sub-plot for it the night I saw it, something to do with people discovering things about past situations they’d found themselves in, information that would have been helpful at the time, and now vouchsafed to them because they’d at last slipped free of the constraints of time and language.

Will Elwood wondered on Twitter whether Arrival really is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, which is an interesting point, not least because my first thought, having read the story just before I saw the film, was how do you adapt a story like this, so heavily reliant on shifts in time and narrative tense, into a film? After the film, Paul Kincaid and I initially thought that Arrival could be seen as an improvisation on ‘Story of Your Life, but thinking about it some more, I wonder now if it isn’t perhaps a commentary on the difference between telling a story with words and telling a story with images. To which you would pityingly say, ‘well, obviously, because it’s a film, right?’ And it is, and you are right, but what I’m thinking about is the different ways in which words and images (sounds, too) evoke thoughts in the mind.

I have said before that I am generally not that keen on film or tv; in part this is because I don’t like the way film-makers attempt, sometimes very crudely, to manipulate my emotions. Obviously, writers do this too, but I’ve always felt that words are something I have control over – I can stop reading if it all gets too stressful – whereas images I don’t – I cannot pause the cinema film. Images are just there, projected into my mind, something I find much more difficult to filter out unless I close my eyes and stuff my fingers in my ears.

‘Story of Your Life’ and Arrival tell the same story, more or less. Odd details change – Gary Donnelly becomes Ian Donnelly, Hannah’s cause of death will be different, but essentially, the stories remain the same. It’s the emphases that are different.

One of the several reasons why I like Ted Chiang’s stories is that while they contain much in the way of ideas, on the page they are very pared down. He gives me as much as I need and no more. He is not a writer who indulges in lush description unless for a very specific reason, and if he does, I would take notice, because. Mostly, he leaves it to me, the reader, to bring my own imagination to bear, as much as I need it to, in order to fill in the gaps between the words and the sentences. I don’t want or need it on the page. It doesn’t seem like promising material for a film.

One could imagine a film-maker looking at ‘Story of Your Life’ as nothing more than a synopsis, an opportunity for the special effects department to run riot, and I don’t doubt we could think of directors who would have done just that, allowing spectacle to overwhelm all else. But, for the most part, that didn’t happen here. At the heart of ‘Story of Your Life’ is an achronological, universal language, in which everything is said simultaneously, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things Arrival is trying to do is to explore how the film image tries to be everything simultaneously, but how the experience can differ, according to what visual memory you bring to it. OK, so this is hardly original, but too often it seems to me that locating the intertextual references in film turns into an easter-egg hunt. How smug we all feel for spotting the shop called Micklewhite’s in the Muppet Christmas Carol, knowing that Michael Caine was originally called Maurice Micklewhite. That’s an in-joke, not an intertextual reference; it’s also an artefact, and I’m thinking much more about mood.

Let’s take a few examples from Arrival, some more overt than others. If Arrival is in direct dialogue with any film, it is surely Close Encounters of the Third Kind, though I must admit I also read it in part as a riposte to or subtle reproof of some aspects of CETK, particularly the Special Edition. To begin with, while the huge space ships have shown up all over the world, the film focuses on one that has taken up station in Montana, which I do not doubt is meant to prompt us to think of the Devi’s Tower in Wyoming, the dominant image in CETK. But I’m thinking more of the moment when the helicopter sweeps over Louise Banks’ house at night, before landing in the meadow. The slanting light through the slats of the blinds, the confusion of dark and light, the distortion, the figure at the door, all echo the events when Barry is taken from his mother’s house. And are meant to – the audience is anticipating what Banks is likely to find when she opens the door, and there is the sense of relief that it’s Colonel Weber (though anyone who recalls E.T. might perhaps wonder whether authority figures should be trusted).

The shots of the house by the waterside, the child playing at the water’s edge, and the way the water moved, all made me think immediately of Solaris (and as Andrew M. Butler pointed out after the film, there is also the shot of the wheat field moving in the breeze). The reference to ‘the zone’ can’t help but invoke Stalker, but what about the quality of the stillness of the vast ship, hanging in the air. I thought then of District Nine. And surely everyone who has seen Arrival had at least one moment when they thought of 2001 and the monolith. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, any more than it is a coincidence that every film I’ve mentioned here is very specifically about attempting, or failing, to communicate with an alien group in ways that don’t simply involve trying to shoot them out of the sky.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that Villeneuve is very specifically offering a bank of references for the watcher to draw on if they so desire, his version of leaving spaces between the words. Because, one of the things that does strike me about this film is how comparatively sparse everything is on the screen. Not the space ship, perhaps, but we’ll come back to that shortly. It is as if Villeneuve has striven to put the minimum necessary on screen to actually tell the story. We see unremarkable public spaces that are in no way distinctive (the campus, the garage); they could be anywhere. Contingent spaces, like the cafeteria, could again be anywhere, and the people in them could be anywhere as well. Banks’ own house is more distinctive, but what we note mostly is how isolated it is, how impersonal, how see-through. The army camp is inevitably marked as temporary – we see it put up, and taken down. We see a hundred little reminders – in the furniture, fittings, cramped accommodation, banks of phones for the soldiers to call home – that this is not a place where people will settle. The room where Banks sleeps is small, functional, a place to lie down but not to be comfortable. The only space we ever see that actually seems to belong to someone is Banks’ study, with its book-lined walls; this is where she spends most of her time, and it’s the place she goes back to while everyone else is wondering how to deal with potential alien invasion. (It’s noticeable too that the lecture theatre is the only other place that seems in any way ‘warm’. It’s bigger than her study but it’s still a cocoon; she is prepared to keep on lecturing in the face of the arrival of aliens, no matter how few people attend.)

In all of this it seems to me that Villeneuve is giving us what we need, but no more, unless we want to bring it in ourselves. It’s the visual equivalent of saying ‘Banks’ office’ or ‘the army camp’. The camera rarely lingers; it’s always scurrying along behind Banks, on her way to somewhere else, taking no notice of her surroundings, because they do not interest her. We only really notice the surroundings when, in Montana, Ian is also present, or when Banks is with Hannah. These are the things that are important to the story. Perhaps we might see them as a visual equivalent of the passages in the story that are directly addressed to her daughter. The richer settings reflect engagement, affection.

Earlier, I excluded the space ship from my discussion on the minimalism of the settings. In Chiang’s story, the ships are simply referred to as ‘the ships’. Indeed, they’re really not important to the story except as vehicles to bring the heptapods to Earth. What’s really important are the alien devices, deposited on the ground. They’re called ‘looking glasses’ and described as being ‘semicircular […] over ten feet high and twenty feet across’. Later, it will turn out they’re made of fused silica, nothing exotic. Chiang’s description renders them as being nothing fancy, and I think that’s the point. You could imagine one, on a smaller scale, as a mirror over a mantelpiece in an ordinary house. It’s just that these are bigger.

The story doesn’t need a space ship; it’s taken as read, but the film? Well, maybe it panders to a section of the audience by including an actual space ship, but I wonder too if a twenty-foot mirror isn’t harder to explain than a space ship. And here the space ship can be used to tell us something about its inhabitants as well. What I particularly love about the space ship is its texture, which will echo, to some extent, the texture of the heptapod when we finally see it in detail. (Paul Kincaid thinks this is as part of a dream sequence; I am not so sure of that, but even if it is, the texture has clearly imprinted itself on Banks’ dream consciousness as well.) I like too how the curvilinear form resonates slightly with that curved-mirror artefact that Chiang describes. And also, and maybe this is my imagination, when it finally turns in the sky, I couldn’t help thinking of a contact lens, a huge, grey contact lens, but something else that says ‘seeing’ rather than hearing, and again picks up on something that is present in both story and film, the dichotomy between speaking and writing, and the need to utilise both in order to make contact. I could get all Derridean about this and start invoking ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ – maybe at some point, when I’ve refreshed my memory, I will – but for now I will simply draw your attention to Colonel Weber’s impossible demand that Banks translate the alien speech from a tape recording, with no other clues at all.

Here I should back up slightly – the reference to the mirror in Chiang’s text suggests faces; something that is very noticeable in the film is the emphasis on faces. We see often them very close to, closer than I think is always necessary. Paul Kincaid notes in his own post on the film how often the film focuses on Banks’ face at certain points, but there are instances of it with other characters, and it occurred to me that these moments we are being urged, literally directed, to take note of those expressions. Why? It could be frantic telegraphing of points, yes, but I don’t think so; this film is too good for that kind of cheap manipulation. Instead, it seemed to me that Villeneuve was quietly suggesting that not only should we not be relying on words alone when it came to communicating, we can’t.

The facial thing struck me in particular because I experience tinnitus and deafness in one ear, and it turns out that I’ve been compensating for this for years by lip-reading; I really don’t like it when I can’t see the lower portion of people’s faces when they’re speaking, and that includes in films. What brought it home to me in Arrival is the scene when they first enter the space ship in hazmat gear and attempt to communicate with the aliens. It was screamingly obvious from the beginning that at least some of the team would have to eventually divest themselves of the gear in order to communicate properly, but while one might think of this in terms of showing oneself as a ‘human’, and what a human actually looks like, it is also about revealing the face, the place where communication starts with humans. Similarly, when Banks lays her hand on the screen, it’s tempting to imagine the heptapods thinking, ‘okay, now we can talk’ because she has, perhaps inadvertently, acknowledged their means of communication.

But, of course, this also links back to Colonel Weber’s inability to ‘see’ that communication isn’t simply about words, or recordings, but about bodies, faces, presences, positioning. And as it turns out, vocalisation is not actually the heptapods’ primary means of communication. In Chiang’s story, which is made of words, the emphasis is on figuring out what the heptapods are saying and what this means; by contrast, I’d say that the film is more about how they figure it out, inevitably, because it is a very visual thing. In the story, the heptapods’ writing is described first as ‘a doodle of script, vaguely cursive’; later, as they learn more, it becomes like ‘fancilful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance’. Later, as Banks begins to appreciate the full significance of the heptapods’ written language she talks in terms of calligraphic designs, while noting that ‘No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no one human could.’ And this, to my mind, is one place where the film does something the story never can – it can attempt to represent the semagrams, shown as ink coalescing in liquid, in black and white literally. The designers have opted for circular forms, with complexes of strands branching off all over the place, as if emphasising the conceptual all-at-onceness of heptapod communication. Chiang’s story has scientific diagrams, but it doesn’t, and I think can’t, ever have anything quite like this, because words don’t work like that (as I am inevitably showing here).

And there is one thing I haven’t yet raised –how much of this film is about a lack of communication. Inevitably, perhaps. It would be impossible to resist in a film about first contact, but Villeneuve is as subtle about that. Yes, later, we get the inevitable great big diplomatic tantrums, and threats of war, and it would be wrong perhaps to exclude them, in the same way that we know the military is going to attempt to function on a need-to-know basis, and close down discussion when it most needs to happen – there is something inevitably perverse about the way in which the US military always seems to try to control the flow of information in any given situation while apparently being staggeringly inept at achieving any kind of meaningful exchange. I’m sure that is a point not lost on Villeneuve.

But think back to the beginning, after we’ve seen the death of Hannah, at the point where we might still be thinking that Banks is grieving. By the end of the film, those who don’t know the story should have made the connection, and realised that first contact comes prior to the birth of Hannah, in which case, what is striking when the alien ships arrive? Yes, we note that a linguist is ignoring all the screens as she walks through the campus building, and has failed to notice everyone gravitating towards them. Yes, we note that she presses on with her lecture even though the auditorium is almost empty (you do – I’ve given that lecture, too). But what happens in that lecture theatre? People’s cell phones start ringing, with others passing on the news that the aliens arrived. Now, we could say that for the sake of professionalism, Banks has switched her phone to silence while she lectures, but for the sake of the film, let’s assume she didn’t, and that it was on ‘vibrate’. It didn’t ring before she went into the lecture theatre, it doesn’t ring while she’s in the lecture theatre. The students have to ask her to switch on the screen so they can see what’s happening. In other words, the communications specialist has no one communicating with her socially, has no one to communicate with socially. We can only speculate on what her life at the university is like; apparently, it does not involve collegiality, yet she equally obviously has nothing to do outside except gravitate back towards her university office.

By contrast, everyone one around her seems to be communicating furiously but with little effect. Screen after screen of news reports, the bank of screens communicating with specialists at the other contact sites, and yet no one can figure out what’s happening. The screens provide a handy visual reference for the compartmentalisation of information that is going on. Everyone has a question they want to ask, variations of the question Colonel Weber asks: ‘what is your purpose here?’, but it is as if everyone has suddenly forgotten the etiquette of communication. And both story and film suggest that people are surprised, outraged even, that the aliens abide by the same rules of not giving away anything. Except, of course, that they’ve given away everything if people choose to collaborate; or finally recognise that they must collaborate.

It’s here, I think, that the film seems a little weaker, presenting us with the idea of Banks seeing into the future, and saving the world from global war. The story is rather more low-key – as I said before, it’s about ‘what’, so the problem-solving is, in and of itself, sufficiently satisfying. A film needs more overt drama, I assume, so we have the sub-plot of the group of soldiers deciding to blow up the space ship, for example. I did like how this was done. It’s never discussed but is raised for the viewer through expressions, significant glances, a mention of something on the radio. I particularly liked the way it was assumed by the plotters that the aliens wouldn’t, perhaps couldn’t understand what was going on, so it was fine to bring in the explosives in plain view. Or, because they were aliens, maybe they were invisible. There’s a lot going on in just that small sequence.

The larger sub-plot, how Banks saves the world, reaching forward in time to memorise a phone number, stretched my willingness to believe just slightly, but if you look back at the original text, while there is no Chinese general, the text does begin to break down in such a way as to suggest that as Banks works with the heptapod language it is changing her experience of the world, moving back and forth in time. It’s subtle; I missed it the first time but it is there. In the film, though, it seems to need to be made more explicit.

And yet, having said that, it is reinforced in less immediately tangible ways. Paul Kincaid and I have disagreed slightly over the film’s opening. I thought initially it was a little deceitful in synopsising what comes later, perhaps tricking the audience into assuming that Banks is grieving rather than being crashingly lonely, only to reveal later that … The story, I realised after a second reading, is actually a circular thing. The end is the beginning – the question ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ is asked twice, once at the beginning, once at the end. There is an overlap. The film doesn’t do that, I thought, until Paul Kincaid pointed out that at the beginning of the film, in the first shot of the house’s interior, there are two wine glasses, as there are at the end of the film, when the question is asked. The overlap is, as it must be, visual.

And finally, I go back to Will Elwood’s query. Is Arrival an adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’? And I think the answer has to be no, because it is a translation of the story. Or, if we ‘spoke’ Heptapod, there would be a frighteningly elegant semagram which would bring together words like ‘adaptation’ and ‘translation’ and ‘reworking’ as facets of a larger concept. But we are stuck with words and images and do the best we can.

Watching The Good Dinosaur

Someone recently lent me this, saying it was, and I quote, ‘a bit weird’. It certainly was.

The Good Dinosaur comes billed as the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made, and there is no denying that it looks gorgeous. Exquisite scenery, some of it so well animated you’re hard-pressed to believe it’s not cine-photography. The water in particular looks … er, watery. The mountains look as though they might have been borrowed from Peter Jackson’s extended hymn to New Zealand, although later it becomes fairly obvious that the story is using American settings (and indeed, the film’s Wikipedia entry lists a number of them, though not Monument Valley which was also clearly visible). After that come fumaroles, boiling mud pots, geysers. There were moments when I was strongly reminded of my own geological travels down the western seaboard of the USA. And that’s still not all. The realisation of the trees, plants, incidental birds, insects and small mammals is just awesome. For those old enough to remember how revolutionary the film of Watership Down was in its day, it’s the 2015 equivalent of that opening sequence showing the field of broad beans.Pixar-Good-Dinosaur-Landscape-Technology

Except that when the animators on that film introduced the main protagonists – the rabbits – they mostly still looked like rabbits. Yes, they had been slightly humanised but they were still recognisably rabbits. For The Good Dinosaur, we unsurprisingly have dinosaurs, but if you’re imagining slightly humanised Jurassic-style dinosaurs, you will be sadly disappointed. The Good Dinosaur might feature dinosaur shapes – apatosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex, pteranodon, a styracosaurus (like a triceratops but with more horns), and some velociraptors – but that is pretty much where it begins and ends. In some ways, this is inevitable. We’re dealing with Pixar, and they have a certain way of doing things. Their dinosaurs are to real dinosaurs as their character Sadness is to me, i.e. not very. There is a conceptual relationship of sorts but only of sorts. So, in the case of Arlo, the good dinosaur of the title, he might look like an apatosaurus, but his skin is cartoon-frog green, only lightly patterned, and very polished, plastic almost, while his facial expressions betray the technical director’s previous involvement with things like Monsters University, which is similarly marked by highly polished, plastic-looking characters. Or, as I couldn’t help thinking, it was as though Wallace and Gromit had been transformed into one dinosaur. Those teeth! That faintly worried expression. One half-expected someone to say ‘cracking corn, Arlo’. It might have improved things slightly if they had. The tyrannosaurus rex fared slightly better in that they were allowed to be craggy, but this was because they were ranchers rather than farmers (we’ll get to that in a moment – it’s going to be a good moment).spot and arlo

I acknowledge that I am being slightly unreasonable by expecting any verité from what is, after all, intended to be morally uplifting entertainment. One might justify this by pointing out that the plot is not remotely realistic, so why should the dinosaurs be? It’s a fair point, but nonetheless, I would contend that if you’re going to go to all the trouble of producing such realistic animation for the landscapes, you might also want to go to a little more trouble with your main characters. Alas, Pixar did not. The dinosaurs look as though they have been parachuted into an exquisite landscape by an over-zealous toy manufacturer, which is probably not so far from the truth. This is a Walt Disney film, after all. We’re not dealing with an indy film-maker, but an arm of a multi-million-dollar enterprise with a very particular view of the world it wants to push.

Now for the story. Its initial premise is alluring. Dinosaurs were not wiped out by a meteor collision. There was no K-T extinction event, just a bright light briefly zipping through the sky. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years go by and dinosaurs remain on the earth. Except, somewhere along the way they have upped their evolution game and acquired the trappings of what we might consider civilisation. That is, the vegetarian apatosauruses have become farmers, growing and harvesting maize, which they then store in rock-built silos. This enables some amusing shots of apatosauruses ploughing the ground with their snouts, and using their long necks as a way of spraying water across their fields, raising probably enough corn to keep one apatosaurus in light snacks for a winter’s day, or at any rate to feed their chickens. What they subsist on the rest of the time remains unclear. Later, we will see that the tyrannosaurus rex are raising what they call ‘longhorns’, bison with enormous auroch-like horns, and herding them on the plains (though I couldn’t help noting that no mention was made of why they might be herding them, i.e. for food – the script was too busy being amused at portraying T.rex as a goodie). And everyone lives happily side by distant side (lacking only a chorus of ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends’).Good Dinosar corn silo

This is a nonsensical model of sustainability, of course, but it isn’t intended to be believable so much as to reinforce a sense that life would have always turned out this way in the United States, be it with humans or dinosaurs. Manifest dinosaur destiny, if you like. Or, a failure of imagination, if you prefer. Either way, this is going to be a film about good old-fashioned white American values, played out in an alternative Big Country, and sure enough, much of the early part of the film focuses on Arlo, the runt of the dinosaur litter, struggling to find some way of ‘making his mark’ on the world – literally, in this case, as it involves making a muddy dinosaur footprint on the corn silo, which is pretty much at the centre of this story. Arlo is a small dinosaur, frightened of everything, in awe of his father, and determined to make him proud. When Henry, his father, puts him to guarding the silo and find out who is stealing their corn, Arlo sets to with a will, catching the miscreant, who turns out to be a very small boy, at which point Arlo baulks at killing another creature and the boy escapes. Henry insists that they track the boy and so they head off up-river as the clouds gather, a storm breaks and the father is swept away in a flash flood. Cue shot of gravestone, at which point I was seriously in WTF territory.

And cue shots of clouds. When in doubt, show some clouds. There are lots of clouds in this film, to the extent that they almost become characters in their collective right. The reason for this is apparently that the film-makers have developed a new technique for making Volumetric Clouds, that is, clouds that actually look like clouds (to the extent that the credits feature a whole section on the people who worked on the Volumetric Clouds).This is perhaps a clue to what is really going on with this film, but first, back to the plot. The apatosaurus family struggles on, trying to get the harvest in – these are homesteading dinosaurs with no near neighbours, obviously – but when Arlo discovers that the small boy is back, he chases after him, falls in the river, and floats way off downstream. Once he has recovered from this mishap he determines that he must go home, and he knows that the best way to do this is to follow the river upstream. Astonishingly, considering how many miles Arlo must have travelled in the water, considering how long it takes him to get back, the small boy is still there, and given that Arlo is utterly useless in the wild, the small boy starts to look after him.arloandspot

The small boy is represented in the soundtrack by what I would characterise as pseudo-native flute music, so one might argue that he is taking up the role of the Good Indian, but the chronology is complicated here if we assume that such evolution as has occurred (and it frankly doesn’t look like that much has, other than the plasticisation of the dinosaurs and their taking up farming as a marker of civilisation) still places humans as having come after the dinosaurs. On the other hand, there are clear views about who owns what in terms of land and produce, and the small human boy is initially regarded as vermin by the apatosauruses, so who knows. It doesn’t get much better when Arlo calls the boy Spot, pushing him into the oh-so-amusing role of pet dog (he even howls like a wolf). And yes, we are supposed to understand that Spot is far cleverer than Arlo when it comes to survival, though it’s uncertain whether we should read that as a foreshadowing of the delayed but inevitable rise of humans.arlopteranodon

Arlo and Spot make a picaresque journey through the mid-West, trying to get home, and along the way they meet all sorts of western film tropes, as well as other creatures, including the bizarre styracosaurus who prompted Arlo to call the boy Spot, after a competition to see which of them would keep him; and a small flock of pteranodons, whom Arlo mistakes for rescuers after a storm, but who are quartering the ground for displaced creatures to eat. This is possibly the most realistic moment in the film, but for the sake of the story the pteranodons become the villains of the piece.the-good-dinosaur-trexs

Arlo and Spot are rescued from this confrontation by a family of cow-punching tyrannosaurus rex, and Arlo and Spot in turn help them find their herd of longhorns, which are being rustled by velociraptors. It belatedly occurs to me that the pteranodons and velociraptors are rather more accurately represented in their appearance and behaviour than the good characters (though admittedly this is for values of accuracy that apply only to this film).The_Good_Dinosaur_velociraptors

So, finally, Arlo is almost home but has to stop and rescue Spot from the vengeful pteranodons one last time, to underline the fact that they are friends, equals, etc. (though not before he has a confrontation with the ghost of his father and makes his own choice about what to do). At this point a set of slightly better dressed humans (they have furs, and are possibly refugees from the Frozen kingdom) rock up and Spot finds himself torn between them and Arlo, until Arlo picks up an earlier theme of family and sends Spot away with them. Here family is clearly designated as ‘people who look like you’ rather than creatures with whom you have formed a bond, and we can doubtless rest assured they will teach Spot better manners and better dress sense. And if you’re thinking this seems rather like the end of Disney’s original The Jungle Book, you would be justified in thinking that, : there are a few other resonances as well, not least the similarities between the crows and the pteranodons.schlock

But after all this Arlo has come home, and finally gets to make his muddy mark on the silo. And that’s it. This entire 90 minutes of ‘did they really just do what I thought they did?’ is predicated on Arlo’s now being enough of a dinosaur to be able to mark his muddy footprint on a rock. Ninety overly-moralised minutes of my life I won’t get back again.

My initial theory, going back to the Volumetric Clouds, was that The Good Dinosaur is actually a show reel for the animators, and having read a few bits and pieces about the struggles to get the film made, I’m inclined to stick with that idea, especially as the ‘struggles’ seem to centre on the actual story … the need to find one. To me, the most successful moments of the film are when Spot and Arlo aren’t really doing anything except bouncing joyously through the landscape, a dinosaur and his boy, playing together. The scene in the prairie dog town, as they blow the prairie dogs out of their holes, is genuinely hilarious, while the encounters with fireflies are moments of wonder and beauty. But the moment the film turns to anything serious, the heavy hand of good old-fashioned Disney morality descends and the whole thing buckles and collapses under the weight of noble but misguided intention. This film may have exquisite background visuals, but it has very little else, and I am disappointed in Pixar. Admittedly, I don’t think they always get it right (Inside Out, to me, has similar problems with its story though I know many people adore it, and Up is two films bolted together, one of them tiny and exquisite, the other overly long and crudely executed) but generally they do better than this. I love the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc and especially The Incredibles. And the difference in each case is that the film has a story. Maybe they had a story first. I remain suspicious that The Good Dinosaur was nothing more than those Volumetric Clouds and all that beautifully animated water looking for a place to disport themselves.

Compare The Good Dinosaur with something like Zootropolis, which I’ve also seen recently, and it’s clear that it doesn’t matter how much great animation you have, and how many good sight gags you include, without a strong story (and Zootropolis has a very strong story indeed), you’re lost before you start. Zootropolis and The Good Dinosaur are working in similar territory, with rampant anthropomorphism and a life-affirming tale of surmounting the odds, but the script for Zootropolis has wit and verve, while the script for The Good Dinosaur limps along, rather as its main character does at various points.