Author Archives: maureenkspeller

Review: Mothlight by Adam Scovell

At the heart of Adam Scovell’s Mothlight (2019) lies a mystery. Why did Phyllis Ewans hate Billie, her sister, so very much? To the extent that when the elderly Billie scalds herself with a hot drink, Phyllis ignores the fact until Thomas’s grandmother discovers the situation and has Billie admitted to hospital. Thomas’s grandmother is already caring for Billie, despite Phyllis sharing a house with Billie, and at this point Phyllis effectively turns over all responsibility for her care to Thomas’s grandparents. When Billie dies, it is they who arrange her funeral and deal with the legalities. Meanwhile, Phyllis has gone about her business as usual, even as far as going on holiday, apparently determined to forget as soon as possible that her sister ever existed. That  any photographs of Billie still exist is because Thomas’s grandmother, realising what Phyllis Ewans would do, rescued them, to ensure she was not forgotten.

As mysteries go, the solution will prove in some ways to be comparatively banal, although underlying it is a matter of profound importance to Phyllis , and to another person. Yet Thomas, the narrator of the story, will apparently be unable to comprehend the nature of the mystery or its solution, refusing to see what is apparently staring him in the face. Perhaps it is simply because he is so completely out of kilter with the world around him, though why that might be is unclear. We could maybe start with his having been “a shy and inward-looking boy” (11), at least according to his grandmother. Why he spent so much time with his grandparents is not explained, but there is already a sense of something lurking unacknowledged in his early childhood.

His parents seem to be entirely absent, and his grandparents have taken on some sort of parental role. They are also the facilitators of his first meetings with the Ewans sisters even as they later forbid him to keep in touch with Phyllis Ewans. Their own connection with the Ewans sisters seems to be purely business—Thomas’s grandfather runs a grocery business and they are customers, albeit customers who rarely pay their bills. With hindsight we may wonder why it was that Thomas’s grandparents tolerated this running debt, but it is not a question that Thomas ever asks himself.

As he grows older, Thomas will describe himself thus:

I became a lonely teenager, interested only in things that could excuse such loneliness. These were namely an insistence on long walks in Wales at the weekend and an increasing interest in moths.

Scovell, Mothlight, 28

Whether the loneliness begat the walking and the pursuit of moths, or whether the walking and the pursuit of moths begat the loneliness is unclear, not least because Thomas himself seems uncertain, but as the novel unfolds it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that Thomas ever had an existence that was separate from either Billie or Phyllis Ewans so closely is his life entwined with theirs. Indeed it is almost as though they somehow brought him into existence. When, after Phyllis’s death he painstakingly begins his examination of her possessions, one has the sense that Thomas is as much hunting for himself as for the explanation of Phyllis’s animus towards Billie, and the deeper secret that Phyllis herself hides. And it’s difficult not to conclude that, for all he has been obsessed for years with Miss Ewans, he has come to stand in relationship to Phyllis much as she once stood in relation to Billie, and that she is as much a necessary part of his life as she is an annoyance.

By his own admission, Thomas begins to haunt Phyllis’s life, infected as he is by “the parasite of her interests” (37), and yet he seeks to suggest too that his early interest is superficial, something he has picked up “in the way that many do when young and impressionable, and so I took to the most obvious ways to express this interest by fumbling around in an amateurish manner, and with little success ” (39). But the opening words of the novel undermine all of this:

To my knowledge, Phyllis Ewans had only two great preoccupations in her long life: walking and moths. An interest in these same two subjects also grew within me after a number of years of knowing her; such was the power of her influence.

Scovell, Mothlight, 10

So which is it to be? Has Phyllis exercised a magnetic influence over Thomas since almost the moment they first met (although, by his own admission, Phyllis first takes an interest in him because Billie has already taken an interest in him), or has Thomas, for whatever perverse reason, modelled himself on Phyllis Ewans, and taken on her interests and, perhaps also, her life? There is undeniably something strange about the interest that both women take in him, and indeed about their relationship with one another. Billie is described as being “much older than her sister” (11) and Thomas will later say “they were only sisters in name, and I still harbour daydreams surrounding the likelihood of their differing parentage” (11). One begins to wonder if in fact Billie is Phyllis’s mother rather than her sister. And, eventually, one can’t help wondering if Thomas has come to imagine he is Phyllis’s son.

Meanwhile, Thomas’s narrative proceeds in fits and starts, as though he cannot even find the right place to begin the story. He constantly backtracks in his attempt to tell the story, pulled between the past, present and future, apparently unable to locate himself in his own narrative. Or perhaps, more accurately and more appropriately, he is circling the story, like a moth drawn to a flame, only to find himself caught in a death spiral, unable to resist his attraction to the light but unable to explain it either. At one point, just after Billie’s funeral, Thomas talks of “following blindly towards the light if only to uncover the reason for [Phyllis’s] character. This was the curiosity she had imbued in me with parasitic precision” (28). Which is to imply yet again that Phyllis Ewans herself is responsible for causing Thomas to stalk her as obsessively as he does—and let us not mince words; he stalks her—when it is his own fascination that drives him, a fascination that his grandparents do their best to counter: “I was not allowed to write or converse with her due to the great divide between her and my family”, this presumably referring to the quarrel when Phyllis left Thomas’s grandparents to take care of everything after Billie’s hospitalisation. But then, by Thomas’s own admission, he “could not have done so at any rate as there was no forwarding address for her new London home” (41).

All this in itself might be enough for a short novel: how Thomas accidentally rediscovers Phyllis Ewans in London, when he starts work in a university entomology department and hears her name mentioned. How they begin to meet regularly and talk, how Thomas begins to sense a deeper mystery, and how he insinuates himself into her life, becoming her de facto carer. Whether she actually requires this is not entirely clear, but as Thomas puts it: “She needed to be healthy for as long as conceivably possible in order to pass on her secrets to me” (68).

What does Phyllis Ewans get from this arrangement, apart from a devoted slave? According to Thomas, it’s stories. “This was an explicit requirement, as Miss Ewans seemed to draw energy from them, almost as nourishment” (68), and Thomas devotes much of his time to telling her stories of his experiences when out moth-hunting, or retelling them, altering them, embellishing them.

And it is at this point that the novel takes a strange turn. Or, rather, that something that has been happening already becomes more explicit. Thomas calls them “visions”; the first occurs at the graveside when Billie’s coffin is lowered into the grave. Thomas describes himself as being somehow attacked by “a skein of moths”(27), an image drawn from a photograph of Billie with, behind her, an ornament of some sort that looks precisely like “hordes of moths” (27). The fluttering of paper wings will dog Thomas as his mental health appears to deteriorate, but that is not all.

Another time, walking alone in Snowdonia, long before meeting Phyllis Ewans again, Thomas experiences a vision of a lake, and from a jetty a woman staring at him. “I had become aware of my own detachment from reality. I could feel the spray of water from the breeze and sometimes felt a hand holding mine” (42). Later, he finds a photograph taken by Phyllis Ewans, documenting precisely the scene he had encountered in a Welsh forest, and asks himself, “whose hand had held mine” (43). By his own admission these teenage experiences have an “accumulative, traumatic effect on my own psyche” (43). And later, as an adult, the hand returns. In one particularly disturbing scene, as Thomas tells Phyllis about a visit to a nature reserve, one they had both visited, though not at the same time.

I felt a hand grasp my own. It was, I just knew, the same hand that had held mine in the forest in North Wales: a woman’s hand, slender and friendly. […] More unnerving than the feeling of the hand in mine was the uncanny change it seemed to make to my own. I looked down to my side in my memory of walking around the serve and found my hand to be slender and feminine with longer, ill-kept fingernails.

Scovell, Mothlight, 70-71

These occurrences increase after Phyllis Ewans’ death, particularly when Thomas is sorting her photographs, many of which appear, uncannily, to document places that he has also visited, although more than once Phyllis Ewans has denied having ever visited them. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Thomas chooses to interpret these synchronicities as Phyllis Ewans attempting to send him messages, and maybe he is correct insofar as Phyllis has chosen to retain these photographs for a reason, though not to communicate with him from beyond the grave.

All first-person narrators are unreliable to some extent, but Thomas regularly undermines his own recollections by repeating them with variations, particularly when it comes to his own creation story, rather in the same way as he has repeated stories to Phyllis. Yet, while his interpretation of the strange encounters might be suspect, there is a sincerity in the way he describes the encounters themselves that suggests that some of them at least are genuine, for values of genuine that presuppose a belief in the supernatural. It’s not entirely clear what Thomas believes but it is clear that he continues to find the experiences deeply unsettling. His mental breakdown after the death of Phyllis Ewans only makes matters worse while at the same time driving him to finally solve the central mystery of her life, following a breadcrumb trail of hidden photographs, entries in an address book, and a name: Elsa.

Indeed, the answer has, to some extent, been within Thomas’s grasp all along had he not been too naive to fully understand the meaning of that ghostly hand in his, and the associated “feeling of nervousness about this, [that] no one could be allowed to see us holding hands, whosoever she was […]. It was not simply down to the fact that our affection was a secret […] but that it was considered highly improper as well” (71). It comes as no surprise, in the end, to learn why it was that Phyllis returned so often to North Wales, or to find that Billie had discovered her secret and had acted upon that knowledge to the detriment of those involved.

For all that he claims at the end that he has always known, but can only accept if “the confirmation was spoken out loud” (150), one wonders what it is, at this stage, that Thomas does know. Or, perhaps, more accurately, what he is willing to accept. He seems convinced that Heather, Elsa’s daughter, can tell him for sure, but this is the one thing that she will not do, although she knows the story well enough, and has already confirmed Billie’s betrayal. This suggests that she suspects that Thomas wants her to tell him something else. Heather’s refusal to meet Thomas’s unspoken demand, in the very last sentence of the novel, is remarkably powerful; a moment of clarity after all of Thomas’s own evasions, underlying the fact of his having intruded into a story that is in fact not his to fully know.

And perhaps Thomas has also had the answer to the “hauntings”, if such they are, all along. As a teenager he realised that place is often emphasised in the visions, and later recalls Phyllis Ewans talking of “place being essentially the ghost of all our lives” (44).

I imagined her amused look, peering over my shoulder when the synchronous moments occurred, and found much likeness between her past and my past, albeit my past already had hers intertwined within it. Such dizzying thoughts would plague my mind as if we were, in fact, the same person: a reflection of simulacra displaced by some impossible mistake. All of this could simply have been down to our shared geographies and our shared passion for moths, but it went deeper than that.

Scovell, Mothlight, 44

All this would be enough in itself to make Mothlight a diverting read, if maybe a little mannered in its telling, as if Scovell is trying just slightly too hard for effect. Unsurprisingly, the inside of Thomas’s head is a rather exhausting, self-pitying and self-justifying place to be for long periods of time, not to mention having to spend much of the novel watching him fail to grasp what is so obvious to anyone reading it.

But this is not where the novel ends, and perhaps is not even where the novel begins. For this is a novel with photographs. In the acknowledgements at the end of this book, Adam Scovell tells us that Mothlight is constructed around a series of photos, which, apparently, he inherited from his grandmother and the “real ‘Phyllis’”, although the circumstances remain vague. It is therefore some kind of “found” piece, insofar as the photographs act as prompts of some sort and the novel is constructed around them. If we take the acknowledgements at face value, the co-opting of the photos into a story is assumed to have been permitted (and for all we know the story being told is indeed the story they told, or some version of it), but there is something disconcerting about the thought that these photographs could have as easily come from somewhere else, and that perhaps, one day the subjects of the photographs, or their descendants, might accidentally find themselves, pressed between pages, in a piece of fiction that is really nothing to do with them.

This is perhaps the risk a creator of “found” pieces runs, and maybe it adds a frisson to the act of creation, but something always feels vaguely wrong to me in these cases. As readers we become reluctant voyeurs, colluding in someone else’s act of appropriation. One might argue that this in fact sets the tone for the entire novel because it is in part a massive act of appropriation but equally, it can feel a little as though the author is producing this extra evidence as “proof” when it is nothing of the sort. Which is not to say that novels with photographs are inherently bad, but in this instance their inclusion feels jejune rather than illuminating. Although there is no denying that the first photograph of “Phyllis Ewans”, in which the female figure lurks in the background, hidden behind an English bulldog that sits front and centre, is remarkably striking. It is surely just a trick of the light that the sun glinting on her large round glasses make it look as though she has the eyes of an insect.

I think, though, that these photographs are not so much about co-opting unsuspecting people into the story as they are about signalling a connection with another text, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a novel that is intensely present throughout this text, but perhaps never more so than when Sebald mentions Thomas Browne’s Musæum Clausum, and his inclusion of the bamboo walking canes in which two Persian friars smuggled silkworm eggs out of China, a section illustrated with a black and white photograph of a plate from a book of moths. By contrast, the only visual representation of a moth to be found in Mothlight is in Vince Haig’s beautiful collage cover design, where the moth’s wings are a patchwork assemblage of the photographs which lurk at the heart of this novel.

Sebald’s approach to writing Rings of Saturn is pretty much self-evident (and I do urge you to read his narrative; there was nothing else quite like it at the time, and since then, while many have attempted to emulate him, they have done so without really coming as close as they like to imagine). The text’s framework is a record of a walk he makes along the coast of East Anglia, in part as a celebration of recovering from illness, described at the beginning of the narrative. Each chapter spirals out from Sebald’s direct experience to a consideration of previous inhabitants of East Anglia (most notably Thomas Browne, writer of the incomparable “Urne Burial”, itself a meditation on the history of the area, and of past burial practices) and beyond, intertwined with the history of Sebald’s own family in Germany. Although it is at heart a narrative in search of a rootedness, it is noticeably a very outward-looking book, even if the narrative returns to home at the end of each chapter, “home” being wherever Sebald happens to find himself at that point but also a process of finding or relocating “home”. Importantly, it is also illustrated with a mixture of Sebald’s own photographs of his journey and appropriate material from photographic archives. Scovell’s approach is, we might say, Sebaldian, but it is also antithetically Sebaldian. While Sebald looks outward, recording his discoveries, Scovell’s narrator turns ever inward, somehow finding less and less to record.

Sebald’s photographs can be seen in terms of a very mundane act, documenting an account of a journey—sophisticated holiday snaps, but holiday snaps nonetheless; their interest lies as much as anything in the fact of Sebald having taken or curated them—but can the same be said of the photos taken or collected by Phyllis Ewans? What is it that Phyllis is actually documenting? We can choose to read them as documenting an innocent series of journeys through North Wales, or, covertly, documenting a love affair, if one knows how to read the signs, which Thomas clearly does not. But, talking about a particular series of photos Phyllis Ewans takes of Billie’s bedroom after Billie’s death, as if to underline her sister’s absence, Thomas notes that ‘Phyllis Ewans forced the ghost into the space, capturing it within an image of itself to control the existence of its memory” (31), and seems almost to be proposing that Phyllis uses the photograph to capture her subjects and memories, almost in the same way as she captures and mounts a moth.

There are many other influences in play, many of them folk horror-related, as one might expect of the person who devised the Folk Horror Chain. I was reminded of M.R. James’s neurasthenic academics, hastily scribbling down their accounts of dealings with the supernatural while awaiting the next act in their personal drama of revelatory horror drama: at the beginning of the novel Thomas alludes to being “plagued by my illness”. Phyllis Ewans’ alleged preoccupation with walking makes me think of Nan Shepherd, writer of The Living Mountain, and patron saint of so many modern walker-writers (though I am not aware she had any particular interest in moths). The novel’s dedication “For Nan” thus takes on a certain ambiguity—is he honouring his grandmother or someone else?

And there is more than a whiff of Great Expectations about this novel, the film as much as the book. Thomas’s initial meeting with Billie and Phyllis, a small boy’s encounter with two strange women, is memorably recounted.

Much of the furnishing was incredibly old and a thin mist of dust and debris was always visible. I’d never seen dust such as this before and quietly enjoyed disturbing it with my hand to create shapes and tiny whorls in the air. The walls were covered with mounted moths and, with hindsight, I imagine this dust to be an atmosphere of scales comprised of [sic] insect wings.

Scovell, Mothlight, 10

Billie certainly has a flavour of Miss Havisham about her, with Phyllis taking on the role of Estella. Billie ‘still had the air of a great and fashionable lady, brought over from her youth which was one filled with expensive fur coats, pearls, jewels and silken stockings’ (11), and everyone is surprised at her great interest in Thomas. The narrator describes how ‘Billie reached for a small purse tucked under numerous layers of clothing and blankets. Her spindly fingers, no doubt thought of as delicate and desirable some forty years previous, wrapped themselves around a rolled-up note. […] This bought my attention for some time on that visit, during which I all but ignored Phyllis Ewans’ (12). One cannot help but wonder whether Phyllis wasn’t also enacting a long and complex revenge for being overlooked, not least in the way she deliberately shows him a mounting of a poplar hawk moth, almost forcing it upon his attention.

As my grandfather went to leave, Phyllis Ewans decided to show me a specimen she had hanging in the furthest part of the hallway. Seeing an opportunity to discuss her favourite subject, she took the mounted insect off the wall and began to tell of its history with great gusto and character […] The moth had stood out from the others due to its great size and its solitary mounting. […] It seemed to my young eyes even then to possess some secretive important, some unique position ahead of all the other moths.

Scovell, Mothlight, 13

Clearly, for the adult narrator, this is an important moment in retrospect, but at the time? Later he will claim that Billie attempted to disrupt ‘my own burgeoning interest in walking and moths’ by showing him photographs, and perhaps with good reason if she associates moths with sexual transgression, but we are left with a powerful sense of two women bickering over the young Thomas’s future, and in effect crushing it before it has even begun, even as the mounting of the poplar hawk moth is later smashed: we are told this from the outset then spend much of the novel waiting for it to happen.

Then I began to wonder about the novel’s title, which I incidentally like very much. Was “mothlight ” Scovell’s own coinage, I wondered, or was it another of those words that Robert Macfarlane is seeking to reintroduce to our daily vocabulary? When I searched online, I found something unexpected. “Mothlight” is not original to Scovell but is in fact the title of a very short collage film made in 1963 by Stan Brakhage.

Unusually, Brakhage’s film was created without the aid of a camera; it involved pressing found objects between strips of splicing tape and then running them through a projector. Brakhage was inspired by seeing moths drawn to a candle flame. He identified powerfully with “these crazy moths […] flying into the candlelight, and burning themselves to death” and wanted to incorporate them into his artistic practice. He struggled to film live moths and eventually turned to dead ones instead:

Over the lightbulbs there’s all these dead moth wings, and I … hate that. Such a sadness; there must surely be something to do with that. I tenderly picked them out and start pasting them onto a strip of film, to try to … give them life again, to animate them again, to try to put them into some sort of life through the motion picture machine.


Watching “Mothlight” online is an odd experience – an intense storm of detritus appears on the screen, some of it identifiable as insect body parts, the rest of it unrecognisable. There seems to be some debate about how it would have originally been experienced, but there is an idea that the whirr and clatter of the projector would evoke the idea of wings beating, while the light from the projector would illuminate the dust motes floating in the air, as Scovell describes them above. It is difficult to know how to respond to these images of carnage; the natural impulse is to construct a narrative around them but the story, such as it is, lies in the film’s provenance rather than the film itself. The insect parts are momentarily animated but they die all over again once the film is run.

Which might be another way to read Mothlight; not as a text constructed around a series of found “prompts” or clues but more as a series of artefacts pressed between the pages of another book, tumbling out into the reader’s vision, to be made into a story according to how they fall. Which is a pretty conceit, reinforced to a degree by the recurring image of fluttering wings, as though supernaturally emphasising that this text is not what you think it is. But no, that feels a little too clever.

By this point the novel as artefact is becoming as much a treasure hunt as it is a novel. On the one hand, I’m up for a treasure hunt, yet on the other it quickly becomes annoying. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Or is the fact that I have to go away and do the research a mark against me, in that I don’t already know? But still I continue, uncomfortably aware that as a reader I am now, like Thomas, painstakingly, if reluctantly in my case, rummaging through the material made available.

The epigraph quotes words spoken by Jacques Derrida in Ken McMullen’s 1983 film, Ghost Dance. The film itself claims to explore the beliefs and myths surrounding the existence of ghosts and the nature of cinema, which might in turn prompt us to consider Mothlight as an act of cinema on the page. I am, I admit, suspicious of this as an idea. I don’t think the two are entirely analogous, and inserting pictures into a novel really isn’t going to change that. Having said that, Ghost Dance is a mesmerising film, making me think of nothing so much as Chris Marker’s La Jetée, another “found” story. Derrida appears near the beginning of the film, as himself, theorising to one of the characters in a very entertaining cameo. He’s obviously enjoying himself, and in turn we enjoy his pleasure at being in the film. But it is what he has to say about ghosts that should be the focus of our attention. “To be haunted by a ghost is to remember something you’ve never lived through. For memory is the past that has never taken the form of the present.” And this seems to me to be at the heart of Thomas’s experience. He might be reliving Phyllis’s memories through his handling of her photographs, or maybe he is trying to relive something that never happened at all.

It was a section of narration later in the film that really caught my attention. An unseen man says: “The more things break up, the more myths flourish, attempting to make historical sense out of historical chaos”, and this seems to me to be very much how we are initially invited to read Mothlight. Yet, one of the characters poses a question that undermines this: “Do you think these myths are an attempt to avoid something?”

The question remains, hanging, as the novel ends. As does another question:  does this novel need to parade its props and influences when the story itself is sufficient?

On wanting to be astonished by science fiction

boneI’ve been trying to find the perfect way into a series of posts about what I’m grandly calling my ‘critical practice’. The trouble is, I’ve been reading so many different articles lately, and thinking ‘oh that fits with X, and I need to work that into this piece somehow’ I’ve managed to both comprehensively distract myself and stall myself when it comes to writing down my thoughts. It’s a known issue – I’ve been exasperating people with it for years. So, rather than striving to encapsulate Speller’s Grand Unified Theory of Something or Other in one neat, unimpeachable blog post, it seems simpler to invite readers to join me on my meandering journey to achieve a better understanding of what it is I think I’m doing when I sit down to write about science fiction and fantasy.

But even before that, I have a problem. It is a problem I’ve had for a long time but it is only within the last year that I’ve realised I really need to address it in some way. Those of you who have been reading my critical writing for a while will know I tend to employ a very subjective definition of sf and fantasy, deriving from the ‘what I point to’ school of thought. Or, as I sometimes term it, ‘stuff Maureen likes’. It is by no means ideal but over the years it has accommodated my preference for the kind of fiction that blurs genre boundaries and takes more pleasure in subverting or ignoring genre tropes than in reinforcing them.

Yet it is not enough to rely on this when you talk to people who are not familiar with your tastes. But neither do I want to be one of those people who defines science fiction or fantasy in excruciating taxonomic detail, working through layers of subgenre to achieve the perfect description of an individual text. It’s one thing to classify living organisms but I’ve never been entirely convinced that applying this ‘scientific’ approach to a piece of fiction is remotely effective.

Or, rather, it might have a limited use in making the broadest distinctions in subject matter – space opera, or military sf, for example – but I can’t help thinking that the moment you begin categorising titles according to the minutiae of content, it is possibly time to move on. Of course, taxonomy, classification, categorisation, call it what you will, brings with it a pleasing sense of rigour, because it is science of a sort, and as we know ‘science’ is good, and especially pertinent to science fiction. Except, of course, that this is not science but performance. This is not deep textual analysis but prescription, boundary-building, gate-keeping, exclusion, scent-marking, and so on. Indeed, I’d say there’s an unsettling implication of a desire to avoid contamination. I’d go so far as to say it is a form of literary germophobia, and something far more pernicious even than the endless debate about the differences between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction. Hint: there are fewer than you think.

I’m always slightly surprised, though frankly relieved, that no one has attempted an Aarne-Thompson-style classification system for tropes in science fiction (I’m discounting TV Tropes at this stage, for obvious reasons). Perhaps the nearest we come to this is Gary K Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction, listing thirty-three definitions of science fiction. I’ve read them but none of them seemed to be entirely what I was looking for, and to manufacture one of my own would be to provoke just one more round of discussion on a topic I have now devoted five paragraphs to trying not to talk about. Well done, me.

It was only when I read a piece by Adam Roberts last autumn that I realised I might have been coming at the problem from the wrong angle entirely. That there was another way of thinking about science fiction and fantasy, and it had been staring me in the face all along. Adam’s blog post is entitled ‘How I Define “Science Fiction”’, but it’s not necessarily what you think. Which is in part why it caught my attention.

Adam begins by discussing what he calls ‘the most famous jump-cut in cinema’, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know, the ape man throws the bone into the air, and just as it begins to return to earth it is replaced by a shot of a bone-shaped spacecraft. Adam says:

…this seems to me an extremely beautiful and affecting thing, a moment both powerful and eloquent, even though I’m not sure I could lay out, in consecutive and rational prose, precisely why I find it so powerful or precisely what it loquates.

In other words, it would appear that the beauty lies in part in the observer’s inability to properly articulate what that image fully represents, even though the observer, here Adam, experiences the meaning. The image defies interpretation even as it invites it. In fact, I’d happily argue that 2001 is full of such moments. It is visually one of the most beautiful sf films I know, but another thing that distinguishes it, and which is worth taking hold of now, as I pursue the discussion, is how little the film itself engages in interpretation. The elements that are most clearly remembered, I’d suggest, are HAL’s attempt to ‘save’ the mission, and his subsequent demise, because this is fully explained, and the hyperspace sequence, because it is not explained at all, only experienced. The rest is open to interpretation, and therein lies its interest.

I’m interested too in Adam’s difficulty in laying out what that sequence means to him. Words are all he has, and are indeed his stock-in-trade as writer and academic, but here somehow they are not, perhaps can never be, quite enough to explicate that experience. Or, maybe, they are too much. Might it be that when Adam starts to try to explain the sequence something is being lost? Obviously, because words are all I have too, I’m going to struggle to fill in what it is Adam cannot articulate, but I wonder if it might go along the lines of the image being so ‘right’, so perfectly wrought, so replete with potential meaning, it almost seems wrong to even begin to essay an explanation.

And if that is true, perhaps I should stop here, now, and never write another thing.

Except, of course, as Adam continued to pursue his argument, so shall I continue with my discussion. I can’t speak for Adam, but if I’m talking about my critical practice, it’s driven as much as anything by a need to make sense, however imperfectly, of the words and images I encounter. So, that is one thing I now know for sure.

Adam’s point is that the ‘bone’ image works ‘not by a process of rational extrapolation, but rather metaphorically [original italics]’. It actualises the ‘vertical “leap” from the known to the unexpected that is the structure of metaphor, rather than the horizontal connection from element to logically extrapolated element that is the structure of metonymy’. For Adam, then, sf is ‘more like a poetic image than it is a scientific proposition’.

This particularly catches my attention because of my own reading background. As a child I read fantasy rather than sf. Such sf as was available to me consisted primarily of Heinlein juveniles and things like the Tom Swift stories. Consequently, sf presented itself very strongly as being ‘for boys’, which probably wouldn’t have concerned me as I tended to run a mile from anything presented strongly as ‘for girls’ (I had no interest whatsoever in the Chalet School, for example). But insofar as I tried most things that came my way, I’m fairly sure I tried Heinlein and Tom Swift and discarded them for one very simple reason – they bored me. They tried to educate me rather than entertain me.

I definitely read some Andre Norton – Moon of Three Rings sticks in my memory, and I think that may be as much because it presented itself as more fantastical than didactic. Slightly later, I read Wyndham but never really thought of it as sf because of the obviously terrestrial settings, then read Foundation to please a friend at school, and hated it. It was only when I started reading Le Guin in my early twenties that I found science fiction that possessed what we might, at this point, think of as poetry. All of which is a slightly overblown way of explaining why I’ve never had much truck with the idea of sf serving as a way of getting children into science, or whatever, so take that, Hugo Gernsback. This is not to say that it might not do so as a corollary, but I still don’t believe that is what science fiction or fantasy are really about. But back to the discussion.

So, let’s run with Adam’s notion that ‘science fiction is a fundamentally metaphorical literature because it sets out to represent the world without reproducing it’. There is a part of me that wants to say, but isn’t that true of all literature, in that even if it is avowedly mimetic, it cannot be fully mimetic, otherwise we’d all be lost in some kind of Borgesian nightmare, all labyrinths, forking paths and no opportunity to forget anything. But seriously, while all fiction is to some extent mimetic, some fiction is more mimetic than it is metaphorical. Unless one wants to argue that some science fiction is mimicking other science fiction … and am I the only person stuck on this solipsistic merry-ground. I do hope not.

But this does bring me to a genuine problem I have with science fiction, or certain strains thereof. The painstaking extrapolation from known to unknown, based on what we currently know about the world, the rivet-counting, the insistence that X cannot happen without Y, and so on. For years I thought I could only be a good science fiction critic if I assiduously read New Scientist every week, and for a long time I did, and watched Horizon (when it was still good), and even made it all the way through A Brief History of Time. Which was, I think now, to miss the point somewhat. It’s one thing to be a science geek, and I like to be informed about science, and am genuinely interested in the history of science, but if I can only fully appreciate science fiction by putting myself through this sort of training programme, then possibly something is wrong. Because it really doesn’t matter how rigorous the science is if a science fiction novel actively sucks as fiction. And bluntly, a lot of it does, even now. A novel that would rather you fawned over the accurate use of equations rather than appreciating the storytelling as a unified thing is not a novel I’m especially interested in reading. But then, that’s not the kind of science fiction I’m interested in writing about.

Large deviations from what is permissible in science fiction are, Adam suggests, more liable to bounce the reader ‘out of her reading experience’. I take that point then I found myself thinking, well why not? Why shouldn’t the experience of reading science fiction be as ‘alien’ (not about aliens) as the concept of sf itself? Suppose we take that to mean that sf invites some sort of detachment from the truly mimetic. Adam invokes Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief; it seems to me that surely the very notion of sf is to invite the willing suspension of disbelief, to think ‘what if’ in the broadest way possible. What does it say about readers if they don’t want that? And yet, too often, I suspect they really don’t. Half the problem with ideas such as ‘the genre heartland’ is that they reinforce the status quo rather than challenging it. The city on the hill is transformed into a citadel. None shall enter, none shall leave. Another version of M John Harrison’s ‘clomping foot of nerdism’, perhaps. Or, as Adam suggests, while ‘worldbuilding is part of the system of a science fiction text […] the point of sf is not its system’. Certainly, I don’t think it should be all about the system.

The point [of sf] is that it transports us – that it takes us somewhere new, that it brings us into contact with something wonderful, that it blindsides us, makes us gasp, unnerves or re-nerves us, makes us think of the world in a different way.

Good science fiction should, Adam suggests, achieve ‘escape velocity’. It should achieve ‘rapture’. It would, I think, be tiring if all science fiction were to go for the full-blown Sense of Wonder, though it would be wonderful if more of it even aspired to that condition. I also really like the way that Adam equates the idea of Sense of Wonder with the Sublime, prompting us to look back to Romanticism. The concept of the Sublime has been overlooked of late and I’d love to see it come back into critical play. But Adam is making a serious point – where is the science fiction that is ‘wonderful, or radically new, or strangely beautiful, or beautifully dislocating’. Or ‘at least flavoured with Strange’. And this, which should be tattooed on the forehead of every science fiction writer, in mirror image so they can read it when they look at themselves in the morning:

[g]reat sf can never situate itself inside its readers’ comfort zones, though commercially popular sf can and often does.


We encounter a bump in the road at this point. Not all sf is great. It’s the way things are. On the other hand, not all less-than-great sf is actively bad. It’s just ‘not great’. Often, the most rewarding things to write about are those which have aspired to greatness but, for whatever reason, have not quite achieved it. The gaps in the carapace are inevitably far more revealing than a smooth, shiny surface. As the oyster requires grit to make a pearl, so a critic often requires less than sublime science fiction on which to work. There is also science fiction that isn’t necessarily great but does what it does incredibly well. We might call that commercial sf. It’s very saleable, and while it may not be elevating it’s very satisfying to read. Maybe it’s the difference between a rare and exotic vintage and a decent workaday wine. You yearn for the one but happily accept the other because it’s fine to drink on a daily basis.

But having said all that, there’s a difference between science fiction that is trying to do something interesting and not quite making it, or that knows what it’s doing and does it to the absolute utmost of its ability, and science fiction that refuses to even look for the way out of the comfort zone. I’ve already mentioned the phrase ‘genre heartland’. It may be an attraction for some but to me it smacks of ‘comfort’ and ‘more of the same’, and I’m not here for either of those things in my reading or writing.

Returning to Adam’s post, for now I’m skirting the discussion of Roman Jakobson’s theories – that’s not an area I want to go into at present – but I find the metaphorical model of science fiction that Adam lays out much more to my taste than the metonymic model that holds so many of us in its thrall.

I want to be surprised by science fiction. Always. I want to be surprised by everything I read, but science fiction and fantasy more than most kinds of fiction seem to offer such a promise, only to all too often snatch it away at the last moment. Having acknowledged that need, that desire, for metaphor, the sense of wonder, even the barest nod to the sublime, this seems to provide a starting point for how I might write about science fiction and fantasy literature in the future.


2017 in Review

Paul Kincaid being rather more efficient about summarising his year’s reading than I ever manage.

Through the dark labyrinth

It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.

2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.

Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks…

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The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

Before other things got in the way, I’d hoped to write about some of the books other Sharke judges had put on their shortlists. Since then the actual Sharke and Clarke shortlists have been chosen, and the award finally made, to Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad in case you missed it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t return to my original plan. I’ve been wanting to write about Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives. More fool me, I didn’t include it on my own shortlist, which was silly, given that I’ve argued often enough that the novella is the word length par excellence for sf; and given too that we’re in the middle of a resurgence of interest in the novella as a literary form.

I will talk about the science-fictional elements of The Arrival of Missives in due course, but I’m going to begin by thinking out loud a little about what Arrival initially most reminded me of, certainly in its initial stages, and that’s Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, the story of Jean Brodie, the outspoken teacher with unusual methods, working in an atmosphere of stultifying conformity to transform a group of girls into la crème de la crème by countering the school’s emphasis on hard knowledge with a diet of art, romantic poetry, and her own extensive views on the world. It’s funny, yes, but tragic too, though not necessarily for the reasons I think people generally suppose. It’s tempting, perhaps, to see Jean Brodie fighting a lonely battle against a Gradgrindian emphasis on facts, but turn back to Spark’s original novella and you are quickly reminded that it is about Jean Brodie, an egotistical monster, overweening, self-regarding, deeply manipulative. She cares very little about the future of her girls, or about what they will do in the world, but a great deal about what they can do for her.

Thus, Brodie’s pleasure lies not in educating the girls for their own sakes, but in using them as proxies to play off her ex-lover, the one-armed art teacher, Teddy Lloyd, against her would-be lover, Gordon Lowther, the singing teacher. One of the most striking things is Brodie’s cruelty towards her protégées, especially poor put-upon Mary, who can do nothing right, though her behaviour towards Sandy and Rose is not that much better, as she manoeuvres Rose towards Teddy Lloyd’s bed, and attempts to enlist Sandy as her spy. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that Mary is desperate to please Miss Brodie whereas Sandy is much more detached. Yes, she and her friend Jenny are, in their way, obsessed with Jean Brodie, but their obsession is articulated through the collecting of knowledge about her. And what it is to have knowledge, as Sandy will come to realise.

For, after all, train a girl as a spy, and what is the likelihood that she will spy on you as well? Thus, much of the fascination in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie lies not in Brodie’s hideously misguided enthusiasm and admiration of Mussolini and Hitler, but in the fact that Brodie has sown the seeds of her own destruction by creating a figure who will watch her, cold-eyed, learn her strengths, such as they are, and her weaknesses, which are many more than she will ever allow, and then use them against her at the right moment. If Jean Brodie has played a long game, then Sandy, her pupil, has played an even longer one, and played it better, not least because she recognises the damage that someone like Jean Brodie can do to genuinely impressionable minds. In fact, the key thing about most of the Brodie Set is that for all Jean Brodie’s careful selection of them, they will mostly escape her influence, though she will inevitably leave her mark on them. Sandy’s method of escape will prove to be possibly the most extreme, perhaps because she has paid most attention to Jean Brodie’s ways.

But what has this to do with The Arrival of Missives? It was the presence of Mr Tiller, the school master with a war wound, physically disabled, ‘not a real man’, that set me off on that particular train of thought, but the question I eventually found myself considering was the girlhood of Jean Brodie. Where does a creature like that come from? Arrival does not directly answer that question, but I feel the two novellas are somehow in dialogue with one another. Having said that, I believe Arrival is also loosely in conversation with a whole group of narratives published in the late 1920s, early 1930s, all written by women, and addressing issues concerning class and the education of young women. I’m thinking of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Alison Uttley’s A Country Child, and Nan Shepherd’s The Quarry Wood, to name but three I happen to be familiar with, but there are many more. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in 1961, but it’s set within the same time frame, as is arrival.

If there is a difference between Shirley Fearn and the other protagonists, it is perhaps that she is never less than utterly sure of herself, and of her destiny. There is little in the way of struggle, little to cause self-doubt. She knows with a burning certainty that she is intended for greater things than life as a farmer’s wife, and has determined that becoming a teacher will be her route out. For the reader, Shirley’s ambition is a disappointment, for it is not teaching in and of itself that absorbs her but the thought of teaching alongside Mr Tiller, her own teacher, with whom she believes herself to be in love. Thus, her horizons are already more limited than she seems to realise, even though she is aware that those set for her by others – her parents, the villagers – are just as limited. So, Shirley’s determination is less focused than she might believe.

But there are things that Shirley is aware of, not least that she is under constant scrutiny – her daily routines are so well-known she needs to account for even the slightest deviation, despite all her protestations that she can come and go as she likes – yet she is naively convinced that somehow, when it counts, she is invisible. She assumes she can apply to the teacher training college in Taunton without anyone noticing, whereas the moment she takes her letter to the post office, it becomes the talk of the village. She believes that her love for her teacher is a secret, yet everything about her screams the knowledge to even the least observant person. She may believe herself to be devious and powerful, but bookish Shirley Fearn is herself an open book.

The village, as we will learn, has a completely different plan for Shirley – and I don’t think it would be going too far to say that the entire village does connive in this. As the only farmer’s only child, Shirley will inherit the farm, but it is already presumed that she must marry in order to maintain the farm. Shirley might present herself as being as free-spirited as Bathsheba Everdene, but unlike Bathsheba, she has made no attempt to understand how the farm works, and from the village’s point of view she cannot be relied on to run it properly. And this is important for the village, at a time when many would still be looking to it for work of one kind or another.

Post-World War One, the need to maintain continuity is even more important, perhaps, given that so many have not returned. There is the perceived need to restore what has been lost, and to prevent it being lost again. That deeper attachment to land and family lends a folk-horror flavour to the narrative as the farmer and the church elders settle among themselves that Shirley will be May Queen, with all the attention that brings with it. It is also, though they don’t quite say it, a sexually charged occasion, and everyone has already settled on who Shirley’s husband will be – Daniel Redmore, the younger son of the blacksmith: clever, bookish, not unlike Shirley herself, and with absolutely no interest whatsoever in running a farm, although no one seems to have realised this. Like Shirley, his intention is to get away. In many respects he understands better than Shirley does what is involved in getting away. The question is, how can they achieve it when so many people have already determined their future.

As a result of a fumbling encounter during the May Day celebrations Daniel, whose lack of interest in farm affairs is brutally underlined by his having no idea whatsoever about how sex works, believes that he has ‘compromised’ Shirley, and must therefore do the decent thing. Shirley knows perfectly well that this is not the case – the encounter holds more significance for her because she is an active participant and has become acutely aware of her power over Daniel, and how different her feelings are to those she has for Mr Tiller. She wants Daniel as much as he wants her, if not more. The ‘compromise’ is a technicality, and yet she is willing to abandon her plans for teacher training for the immediacy of marriage, and a new status within the village.

We might argue that Shirley’s interest lies in finding a situation where she remains the centre of attention: “It will soon be past midnight, and I will no longer be anyone’s Queen’ (84). That, though, would be a little unfair to Shirley. She is struggling to understand what has happened and seemingly powerless to stop the marriage bandwagon as it rumbles on. Everyone assumes, approvingly, she is pregnant; that is what was expected of her. She knows full well she is not, and that she has effectively deceived Daniel.

They said I was clever.

I see now they meant that I was bookish, and suited to becoming a learned woman. A learned woman is a very different object from a wise man. I have had no experience of life; how could I see all the traps, particularly the ones that looked like my own choices, my own happiness? Keats did not warn me, and neither did Dickens. I did not find myself within their writings. (85)

Whether Shirley does truly understand, even now, I’m not sure. To be bookish does not mean one is necessarily suited to becoming a learned woman (and how eighteenth-century that sounds). But if she is correct in realising that books could not warn her, Shirley is nonetheless not asking another question a bright girl ought to ask – why are there no books that might warn her? Evidently, she has not read Middlemarch; one can therefore only assume that Shirley’s access to reading material has also been somewhat limited, and this comes as no surprise, given her situation.

There is a mystery embedded within this story, and it takes us back to the presence of Mr Tiller, and hence to the presence within Mr Tiller. As the story opens, Shirley sees all her happiness as lying with Mr Tiller, the school teacher whom she idolises yet we know very little about him. What we do know seems mostly to be conjecture. He was apparently, wounded badly during the war; he moves stiffly, uneasily. The rumour in the village is that he is ‘not a real man’, which is usually code for his injuries being such that he has no sexual function. Shirley knows well enough what the term means but believes she will engaged in a relationship that is sacred, above such base needs, because her love and their holy mission as educators will be sufficient to sustain them. We might smile at her naivete, but it is as well to recognise that this is a stage in growing up – the interest in relationships coupled with the unwillingness to commit to an idea of physicality.

At this stage, Shirley’s obsession is such that she resorts to spying on Mr Tiller, and thus makes the discovery that indeed Mr Tiller is not a real man: he is in part composed of rock. This is the single most remarkable moment of the narrative, so much so that, rather like Shirley, we might find it difficult to comprehend.

It is solid, and juts forth from the bottom of his ribcage, making a mountain range in miniature, sunk into the body in places and erupting forth in others. There are seams of a bright material within it that catch the lamplight, and glitter, delicate and silvery as spider thread (15).

Isn’t that an extraordinary image? My first thought was to imagine Mr Tiller as one of Milton’s fallen angels. However, it would seem that Shirley has not studied Paradise Lost as the thought does not occur to her. In fact, she seems not to have any frame of reference whatsoever other than the geological. And of course she doesn’t. In this world, there is no science fiction. Hugo Gernsback has not yet invented science fiction as a genre, and it seems unlikely that Shirley Fearn has yet encountered the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. One wonders what she will make of them when she does. And will she later chance upon the work of Olaf Stapledon? Because it is his perception of a massive future history of Earth that seems to me to come closest here to Mr Tiller’s account of being a vehicle for a being or beings attempting to shape the history of Earth, and the massive distances in time and space that their story encompasses.

Even his name is evocative, suggesting, as it does, his role as a means of finding a safe passage through potential dangers. But whose hand, we might ask, is on the tiller? His story implies that Mr Tiller himself is entirely reliant on whatever entity it is that resides in him – he says as much – and thus in no position to question its diktats if he wants to remain alive. And one might suspect that having survived the war to end all wars, he would be only too willing to ensure that the same does not happen again. Yet he, the supposedly educated man, does not question the story the beings have told him. Instead, he is focused on ensuring that Shirley Fearn fulfils her destiny as the mother of great men. Like everyone else, he knows that Shirley is infatuated with him, and he exploits her feelings, unformed as they are, for what he perceives to be the greater good.

What we have, then, is a mirroring on a macrocosmic scale of the situation in Westerbridge. For the villagers, it is important that Shirley marry Daniel, and that they keep the farm going. How would they respond to hear Daniel proposing that he and Shirley might move away and live their lives as they want? For the mysterious rock, it is vital that Shirley and Daniel marry. Or, to be precise, it is vital that Daniel does not marry Phyllis Clemens. So Shirley’s significance resides in the fact that she is not Phyllis rather than in the fact of her being Shirley. It’s not her they want except as a convenient receptacle for Daniel’s sperm. Tiller, and the people he represents, are in it entirely for themselves – there is no interest in either Shirley or Daniel. They are pawns in the biggest game imaginable.

It is only late in in the story, when Shirley demands to speak to the people controlling the rock, that she begins, finally, to question the story she has been told, and to see what is really going on: the absence of women in the world created by the men of the rock, the absence of anyone except old white men. We have moved from a Stapledonian apprehension of vast historical cycles to a much more human dimension. Shirley is faced with a dilemma: will this world come about if she and Daniel do not have children, or if they do? And does she even want this world to come about, given what has already happened? Tiller has committed murder to save the people of the rock, and it’s clear that Shirley’s life is of little interest to him; the same is true of Daniel’s. Their job is to fulfil the prophecy; and it’s probably not World War Two that Tiller is concerned with but something so far in the future it’s beyond human comprehension.

It’s at this point that Shirley makes a genuine sacrifice. She has come to understand that she and Daniel might have a real future together, though it won’t be quite the one she might have romantically imagined.

Truth be told, the more time I spend with [Daniel] the more I appreciate that I could love him. For love is not the high ideal of beauty, of sacrifice, of noble deeds and chaste embraces that I had imagined when once I dreamed of Mr Tiller. It is a dirty business, of wanting and struggling and making do, and being each other’s comfort because the world is cruel and there are few who want to do right by you with no thought of their own needs. I feel the glimmerings of that kind of love with Daniel, I think. And when he touches me I feel something altogether different. Not love, but want. I want him. If I will not get anything else from this life that I desire, why can I not have this one thing? Why can I not have Daniel to distract me? (88)

This is an extraordinary passage, where Shirley finds truth in uncertainty rather than in the beauty offered by Keats, as provided by Mr Tiller. Almost too late she realises that Keats and his ilk were nothing but a palliative. Similarly, she has come to understand that her infatuation with Tiller was just that, and nothing more. Her revealing to Tiller that she is not pregnant, and her decision to call off the wedding to thwart Tiller’s plans, prompt him to take more drastic action, murdering Phyllis Clemens, Daniel’s other potential partner, and then vanishing.

Perhaps the most surprising person in all this is Shirley’s mother, who has seemingly thwarted her ambition all along. Now, when it is far too late, she finally confides in Shirley. Through Shirley’s eyes we have seen her as someone who can’t be trusted or relied on, someone Shirley cannot turn to. Now she says:

‘I wanted you to be better, to be beyond all this.’ She gestures at the ground, the sky. ‘But the more you learned, the further you got away from me, until I could not recognise myself in you. I have been so lonely, watching you make your plans from such a distance, with your head in the clouds. And I became bitter as you excluded me. I could not understand it. But this act [Shirley’s breaking off her engagement] – this I understand.’ (109)

Jonathan McCalmont suggests the novella’s ending is botched, and I’m not going to disagree with that, though I’d perhaps say fumbled. It’s all a little bit too hopeful, a little too Wellsian – the presence of the tandem a little bit ‘Daisy, Daisy’; Shirley and Daniel wobbling hesitantly into an uncertain but perhaps hopeful future has a flavour of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica about it. If they stay together, will they make something of their lives? One wants them to, of course, because they are young, but old enough to know they can’t go one as before. But are they hungry enough to survive? Will they ride out of a Wells novel into something a little more J.B. Priestley? And either way, what will Shirley do? She has rejected the idea of teaching: ‘No more rooms of quiet, seated, suppressed children’ (109), and with that no more thoughts of shaping young people’s lives. She has observed, like Sandy, but unlike Sandy the stories in Shirley’s head have up until now been about herself entirely and have not included others. Where Shirley is like Jean Brody is in her inability to genuinely share and confide, though she is belatedly coming to realise the necessity to do so. In the moment where she says to Daniel ‘I know my own body’, one senses both her frustration, and the beginnings of a path through the world.

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.


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.




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 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.


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.


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.


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.