Category Archives: commentary

‘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.

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The View from G21: watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Given Paul Kincaid and I were pretty much the last people left who hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’m assuming you’ve all seen it. If you haven’t, and care about these things, be advised I will be discussing all of it. All of it.

Princess Leia was at the cinema yesterday.

She was a very small princess, but she had a lightsabre, and her hair was perfect.

I couldn’t see what her brother was wearing but her parents seemed to be in 21st century British clothes.

I would have loved to ask her what she thought of General Leia, and of Rey, and Finn, and Kylo. And grizzled Han Solo. And bearded Luke.

For that matter, I wonder what her parents thought, given they looked about the age to have grown up with all this.

That growing up with a film or franchise seems to be important right now. I was struck a while ago by people complaining about how the new Ghostbusters would ruin their childhood because they’d watched it endlessly as children. I saw it for the first time when I was 25; it’s one of my favourite films even now, but I don’t have that kind of investment in it. I noticed people talking about the significance of Labyrinth in their childhood after David Bowie died. (I’ve never actually seen Labyrinth; perhaps I should.) And I suspect there are people who feel similarly about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Galaxy Quest now that Alan Rickman has gone. (You know, I completely forgot about the Harry Potter films. Seriously. I have apparently completely wiped them out of my mind.)

But head and shoulders above all these stands Star Wars. I didn’t see the original film when it came out in 1977, for various reasons involving a boyfriend who didn’t like sf films. I first saw it around 1980/81, in a double bill with The Empire Strikes Back. I was the last one into the cinema, because there was one seat left and I was the first person they found in the queue who was on her own (I’d married a man who didn’t like sf films).

The seat was high up at the back of the cinema, higher than I normally preferred. I don’t really remember much about either film from that viewing, except that sequence when Luke Skywalker acts as gunner while Han Solo and Chewbacca fly the shit out of the Millennium Falcon. Had I been prone to saying ‘holy shit’ in those days, I’d have probably said that. It was … awesome. (I didn’t say that in those days, either.) Never mind the carnage, I was all wow! explosions! can I do that?!?

I saw Return of the Jedi six times when it came out. At least six times. Lots of widescreen shooty-shooty but mostly, I loved it for that moment when Luke Skywalker suddenly emerged from the shadows, and hey, we were back in business again. What can I say? I was 24, went to a lot of films on my own, and was coming to the conclusion that maybe I didn’t want any longer to be married to a man who didn’t like sf films.

I didn’t watch sf films critically in those days. I consumed them like sweeties, empty calories to fill the void. I found it hard to disentangle myself from the best of them (Blade Runner. Always Blade Runner) and laughed at myself for going in when I emerged from seeing the crap ones (and if you think I’m going to admit to some of the films I saw …)

Return of the Jedi? Good, definitely. Great? Possibly. But it wasn’t Blade Runner. Nonetheless, it offered a fairy-tale narrative of redemption and renewal, and restoration. We could all get through this and find something better. It would be fine. And I’d go and see it again the following week on my afternoon off, just to convince myself again.

I skipped the prequels. Well, wouldn’t you?

And now, here I am, in a cinema, in Folkestone, married to a man who likes some sf films (the man who took me to see Ghostbusters on our very first ‘official’ date – I pretty much had to marry him eventually), and we’re about to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been thirty-three years since I saw a Star Wars film in the cinema. Holy shit, it’s been thirty-three years!!!

I’d got a rough idea of what to expect, from trailer snippets, from things people had written (I don’t lose sleep about spoilers, as you may know, though it turns out there was one thing I didn’t actually know; we’ll come to that later).

First impressions. It’s a Star Wars film. There’s the summary scrolling up the screen. And the music. Oh gosh, the music. This is like coming home, isn’t it? So exciting …

And then there’s this feeling that everything is all a bit … familiar? Haven’t we been here before? I mean, actually. Been. Here. Before?

Well, ok, it has changed, a little. Rather than bumping off a few innocent civilians while looking for a droid with information, let’s annihilate entire settlements, and show the annihilation in progress. ‘Plosions, space ships, storm troopers, fires, people running and screaming, shooting, ker-pow!!! Isn’t this great???

Er, I don’t know? Is it? My younger self remains silent on this issue, though I suspect she might have liked it. Especially in 3-D, had it existed in the cinema then (I mean, really existed) as her eyes were still about as good as they were likely to be and she didn’t yet wear glasses (although as she had no depth-perception even then she needed them).

Me? I’m thinking ‘holy shit!’, and not in a positive way.

And oh dear god, did they really just do that thing with the bloody handprint so you know which storm trooper to follow? Oh god, they just did.

face:palm as we also didn’t say in the old days.

I just don’t know … Actually, I do know, and am busy composing a brisk paragraph in my head about not trusting the audience, making it too easy, and so on.

A ghastly sense of inevitability begins to impinge.

I’m old, I’ve watched a lot of films in my time, including Star Wars, and it’s actually really not that difficult (mostly) to see what’s coming. Stormtrooper becomes human, decides to rescue captured pilot as ticket out. Escape from the Death Star Mk.II, in one of those cute little ships that looks like a diablo, and … whee, shooty-shooty. Apparently, my inner twenty-something is still big on the space gunnery. Which is handy, as there is going to be more of it. Yee-ha!

Wait! Why are we on Arrakis? Or Tatooine? No, they’re calling it Jakku this time. Was that a sandworm? Whatever, we are back in a marginal desert settlement-thing, allowing everyone to dress up in flowing robes, absolutely not being orientalist, no sir, look, we’ve got goggles and respirators, too, see?

Twenty-something me approves desperately of Rey. Current-me wonders why she doesn’t cover up her lower legs, as though they are magically immune to sunburn, sand burns, bugs, etc. I guess it’s for the climbing scenes.

Finn loses Poe Dameron, his new pilot, who has already lost his cat, sorry, droid (see Inside Llewyn Davis if you don’t get that one; and as Paul Kincaid points out, actually, this time the ‘cat’s lost Poe). Finn finds Rey – are two people incapable of meeting around here without another fucking firefight breaking out? Apparently, they are. Boom. More innocent bystanders shot up.

Let’s fly away. No, that ship’s just been blown up. Let’s fly away and use this ship instead. Holy shit (for real, this time), it’s the Millennium Falcon, hotly pursued by someone who looks remarkably like a remade Bombur from The Hobbit. I’m no longer entirely sure which film I am in.

But this, it turns out, this is what I am here for: this sequence as Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in, out, and upside down, across the face of Jakku, trying to escape Nazis-from-the-Antarctic, with Finn as her gunner. Because I cannot do this in my beloved Peugeot 208, not even on an empty motorway, for reasons involving gravity and traffic regulations. Young-me and current-me have bonded over the joy of watching the Millennium Falcon do handbrake turns all over hyperspace. Sigh.

The reappearance of Han Solo and Chewbacca is almost a grace note but there they are, and it’s all so … sorry, seem to have got something in my eye. Is that a speck of sentiment or is it just something that’s shaken its way out of the air duct? Despite what I might have already said about Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, it was always about Han Solo for me. And apparently, still is. Older … much, much older … and superbly grey and grizzled.

And being weirdly meta- about the whole thing, as though he is also thinking what I’m thinking. Harrison Ford is certainly not phoning in his performance, but I’m not entirely sure he’s always in the same film as the others. It’s funny but also disconcerting, as though he is not taking it entirely seriously. And he reminds me of someone, and I still don’t know who.

Later, once they’ve got back to the resistance planet, and he and Leia are quasi-amicably bickering, I find myself thinking of Fonda and Hepburn in On Golden Pond. And I’m torn. Because on the one hand, I am thinking that it’s fabulous to have an action movie with older people in it, even if one of them is staying at home rather too much (please give her a gun, later). On the other hand, Hollywood still apparently can only account for older couples on screen by having them estranged/squabbling/testy, and I’m kind of hurt by that. I’m looking to Han and Leia to represent me on screen, and … no, it’s not entirely working, is it? Perhaps I am too old for this. I smile as Chewbacca fusses about Han putting his coat on when they’re wandering around in Antarctica, sorry, on the ice planet, looking for the First Order base, but at the same time, I am thinking that this is like being a thirteen-year-old, reading Lord of the Rings, and identifying with Strider because there is a chronic lack of active women who aren’t elves in LOTR, and not realising that this was a problem.

I see it now. Because I’m a 56-year-old woman who is identifying with a character played by a 73-year-old man, and it’s 2016. Maybe I should identify with Rey, and to some extent I do, but not enough. There seem to be a number of younger visible women – pilots, bystanders, vamps, and so on – but this film gives me, me specifically, Leia, the doctor played by Harriet Walter, possibly Phazma but who knows under that armour, and Maz Kanata, the Guinan de nos jours (also played by a woman of colour, a young woman of colour, and a lot less visible under that than Whoopi Goldberg ever was. And I haven’t got time to stop and think about the mystical person of colour shtick). It’s not a lot to go on, is it? Maybe I can pretend there’s a middle-aged mechanic on the Resistance base.

And, wait, I’m lost now … what were we shooting up in this section? As Maz’s trading post is being destroyed, I suddenly realise I’m done with seeing things explode, masonry crumble and fall, and stormtroopers fly through the air every few seconds. The attrition rate is appalling; no wonder they are constantly recruiting. I’m slightly surprised they’ve not yet taken the orc route and started breeding them, but I can see that might be a franchise too far, and anyway, it’s always a good idea not to cross the streams. Sadly, there is a lot more exploding to go; indeed, the entire film seems to be predicated on blowing things up, including planet-sized weapons. I’m going slightly deaf by this point, and my eyes are suffering from the flashes of light as another person or object goes up in flames. And that includes what is now a mere shell of a plot.

I’m getting impatient with the film, which seems to be getting impatient with itself. There’s none of this nonsense about training to be a Jedi. In this generation, Rey can lay hands on a lightsabre and immediately start hacking away at Kylo Ren with considerable aplomb. Of course, she’s used to fighting, as is Finn, and though neither was trained to skewer things they do quite well. Kylo may be trained to fight but to add to his general woes, he’s not that good at it, which is unfortunate, and to compound things, Rey is naturally ace at doing things with the Force as well. Damn. At least he’ll be in demand for his Snape impersonation.

I’m being facetious now, because, really, there is little else left to do. Other than to debate the one thing I didn’t know about. The death of Han Solo. He has to come back, right? Though given the way things have been so far … Paul did express disappointment that Han Solo didn’t cry ‘Fly, you fools’, as the Balrog got him, sorry, as he fell into the void, but I have already warned you about the dangers of crossing the streams. But seriously, does he come back? Logic demands that he must, because the logic of film franchises like this is that no one named ever really dies, unless they die, and he hasn’t died yet. Not properly. I mean: like the White Witch, you can always get them back if you really want to, and probably with more success than resurrecting her. Rather as we’re fairly sure that we’ve not see the last of Kylo Ren, might we hold out some sort of hope for the return of Han Solo? At least so he can get his revenge on Emo Kylo for stabbing him through the heart with a lightsabre (a move that is incidentally used at least once too often, taking an element of surprise out of it)? Or was that it?

I admit, after that, I lost a certain amount of interest, even when Rey goes off to find Slavoj Žižek, sorry, Luke Skywalker, who appears to have gone to ground on Skellig Michael, presumably because he can. Take that, New Zealand!

I did enjoy The Force Awakens up to a point. But only up to a point. I like that there is another Star Wars movie in the world, that includes things I enjoyed about the originals (ok, the Millennium Falcon doing handbrake turns – so sue me, I’m shallow) but I look at it now, and all I can think of is how thin, how stretched, how  like butter scraped across bread this plot is. How this film is really one long series of nods to its predecessors, with very little in the way of newness. Some adjustment of gender roles, to be sure, and some foregrounding of actors of colour, all at long last. And I will just say here that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both outstanding actors. Along with, Harrison Ford and Chewie, they are the most watchable things on the screen. I love the moment when, having evaded the First Order, they’re excitedly dancing around, talking over each other. I love that Rey is so good a pilot she can match Han Solo. I love the giddiness of Rey and Finn falling in love. It reminds me of …

And that’s my problem, right there. It reminds me of … well, it reminds me of things I don’t feel inclined to talk about right now, but if you knew us then, knew us well, back in the day, it reminds me of that. And that takes me back to the hurt I feel about Han and Leia. We can be reminded of, but we can’t actually be …

But back in the cinema, the film was over. Princess Leia was on her way home. She’d obviously had a good time. In the foyer there was a man with learning difficulties, bouncing up and down excitedly, asking us all if we’d enjoyed seeing the film. I enjoyed his enjoyment.

As for me, it was time to go home. I felt hammered by sound. My ears were tired, my eyes were tired, my brain was curled in a foetal ball, screaming ‘enough with the self-referentiality, already. You have ticked every single fucking box, and pleased everyone by recalling their special memory of first Star Wars. Please stop it now’.

On the plus side, there were, thank god, no Ewoks.

Reading Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett

brissettThe text as puzzle

There is a dreadful temptation to treat a text as though it were some sort of puzzle box. Execute the correct series of moves and the object springs open neatly, revealing all its secrets. We are taught to do this at school (or at any rate, I was), and while at university we may be told there is no right or wrong way to approach a text, and that each interpretation is equally valid, some interpretations still seem to be more valid than others. That is, some interpretations receive more support than others, and are more likely to be written about, thus privileging a certain reading of the text over others. When disagreement does arise, it’s more usually a matter of engaging with the reading rather than the text itself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium (Aqueduct, 2014), and I was struck by how it both invites and rejects the puzzle-solving approach to literary commentary. Invites, because the structure of this novel is apparently composed of many thin layers of story that on occasion seem to fuse together, encouraging a careful unwrapping and peeling apart to get at the heart of story. Rejects, because, as the story does unfold, one realises that ‘unfolds’ is in fact a very poor description of what is happening here.

Brissett does seem to provide hints as to how one might approach the text, though they aren’t as helpful as they might initially seem. Which is hardly surprising – why would an author want to give away everything at the beginning? Maybe because it’s fun to hide something in plain view and wait for people to notice? Or not notice. But while I am interested in the way readers approach science fiction and fantasy novels, and the expectations they bring to such a text, I am also interested in the ways in which authors indirectly comment on readers’ expectation, and it feels to me that some extent at least, Brissett does this with Elysium.

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike computer gobbledygook in a narrative?

I suspect I dislike it because I have read so many (mainly unpublished) novels in which the use of ‘programming language’ is a marker of ‘science fiction’. Or, indeed, ‘near-future thriller’, because the two are pretty similar, aren’t they? (We will move rapidly past the would-be author who numbered their chapters in binary.) My tolerance of this kind of thing is very, very low, especially when too often the ideas being conveyed in the ‘language’ pass me by entirely. I’m a user, not a programmer. You may therefore imagine my joy at seeing the opening page of Elysium. I could feel whole areas of my brain closing down immediately, because, yes, like everyone else I have my dislikes and my prejudices, and this is one of them. It took me a long time to get through Gwyneth Jones’ Escape Plans, for that very reason.

This is how Elysium begins.

>>

>> open bridge

Connecting

*BRIDGE CONNECTED*

>>

>>

>> begin program

BRIDGE PROCESS: INITIATED 0000-00-00-00:00 (loc.36)

But this is what comes next:

Floating high above the city, dipping and swooping through the valleys of cinderblocks and concrete, landing on the edge of a rooftop to look down upon the inhabitants below. Watching, seeing, learning. (loc. 43)

What is doing this? A drone seems reasonable, given we’re already being programmed to think about computers. A flavour of The Truman Show, perhaps. But ‘landing on the edge of a rooftop’ sounds more like a bird. Unless they’ve got some unusually cool gadgetry in this fictional world, which might be the case. Either way, I can’t help noticing that it is as though we’re pulling the focus on this possibly non-existent camera, zooming in closer and closer to the street, until we meet Adrianne, in a busy city, on her way to meet a friend for lunch. It’s a human moment: she’s been looking forward to this lunch all week. We forget about the techno-window dressing. This feels … real. Also, unreal. At least, if you think science fiction is all about the techno-window dressing, as many people do. We might, if we expect our sf to look like that, be asking ‘what’s with the woman doing nothing?

So Much Depends On a Green Dot

For that matter, what’s with the elk? And the owl? But especially the elk, because that comes first.

Its antlers rose high upon its elegant head, spreading upwards like giant fingers into a crown as it strode nonchalantly along the bustling city street. Adrianne stopped to examine what she could so clearly see, yet everyone else seemed blind to it. (loc. 53)

How do we respond to the presence of this elk? Is it real? Is it a figment of Adrianne’s imagination. Evidence of a psychosis we’ve not yet seen evidence of? At this stage it’s difficult to know what to make of it. Being the reader I am, I tend to regard its appearance as evidence of some sort of fantastical or mythic intrusion into the world, aimed at Adrianne, so I am happy to see it as being both real and unreal simultaneously. This is a view I am going to have to revise extensively as the novel unfolds. I also have one slight problem with the elk. It reminds me terribly of the Glenfiddich stag advert, though in that instance while the stag seems to be perceived by everyone, the key to the advert’s working is that that its uncertain presence is acknowledged and thus legitimised by the Morgan Freeman lookalike, presumably because he’s cool, drinks Glenfiddich and can thus accept incredible things when they walk down his street.

Returning to Elysium, what I’d like to suggest here is that this opening sequence is maybe asking us something similar. How much of this can we accept simultaneously? It teases – is it sf? is it fantasy? is it a realist novel in disguise? But it is also, though we don’t yet realise it, asking us another question. Possibly two. The first is, why can’t we have all these things in the one novel? And a second: why should it matter if they are all in there together?

The short answer is that no, it shouldn’t matter. The longer version is rather more complicated, in that while it is very easy to focus on discussing the ways in which gender and identity are (or are not) represented in Elysium I think that is only part of the picture. The presentations of gender and identity in what, for the sake of argument I’ll call a science fiction novel, are fascinating on their own terms, but what interests me is the way in which Brissett seems to be using them as a means of talking about science fiction itself. In her sadly rather brief review of Elysium in March 2015’s Lightspeed magazine, Amal El Mohatar notes that the computer program at the heart of the narrative is:

throwing up iteration after iteration of a single story, transforming it every time by changing the variables of gender, sexuality, location, and moment. In so doing, the novel throws into sharp relief our own social programming […]

The iterations are, in a way, echoes, but in the novel they operate in reverse: Instead of becoming fainter with each repetition, the echoes gain substance until we find ourselves at the heart of the shout that created them. The whole text is haunted by it, by a sense of its own lack of substance in the wake of it.

That idea of “echoes” is attractive. It reminds me of the fact that even now the universe reverberates with the faint echoes of the Big Bang, still perfusing our surroundings even millions of years after the event occurred. And I ask myself if something similar, on a shorter timescale obviously, is going on here, given that it seems to me that the further through the novel we move, the more overtly “science fictional”it becomes. It is as though Brissett is tracking the echo, or maybe it’s a ripple, to the source, or the centre, meaning that we’re (perhaps accidentally) taking a tour of the ways in which science fiction has transformed itself.

Of course, delightful as this image might be, it also has its problems, not least among them being that Elysium may be represented as arguing for a return to good old-fashioned ‘genre’ sf, when I see it as doing precisely the opposite. Were I to return to that ‘peeling away the layers’ analogy I discarded back at the beginning, I might want to say that a novel like Elysium ‘proves’ that at its heart science fiction has to have those big ideas to be proper sf: things like aliens, generation starships, underground cities, collapsing civilisations, all that sort of thing. And possibly it does.

If that is true, and I’m not saying that it isn’t, not least because lately, I’ve begun to wonder if I really know what constitutes an sf novel any more, then I’d like to suggest that one of the things that Elysium as sf novel does is to avoid beginning by foregrounding the BIG ideas that allegedly define sf. Instead, we have this staggeringly ordinary scene, of a woman killing time in a street market, which could be anywhere. Only the tiny detail of the smell of ‘urine from the gutters’ suggests that we might not be in London, or anywhere else where public urination in the open is still mostly frowned upon. An overlooked alleyway, maybe, but here?

The sounds were a blending stream of conversations and sighs. The faces that passed here were from all over the world. Each a different shape and color. (loc.75)

This is sensory overload, for Adrianne, it seems, and for me as the reader. Heat and cold, sun and shade, a perfume that “was a mixture of sea breezes and powder” (loc.75). Reading becomes an intense experience, but is that because I’m familiar with many of these smells already? I mention this because the walk through the market, the listing of sights and sounds and smells, seems so often to be a marker in novels for the busy, the bustling, the exotic even, but when I read, the words remain on the page, nudging me about what I’m supposed to experience but rarely evoking it. Here, though … it is that line about sea breezes and powder that does it, for some reason.

Whatever we as readers may feel about this scene, only one thing in it is strange to Adrianne:

She looked up and saw a dot of green hovering in the blue sky. It hung there for a few moments, and then it was gone. (loc.86)

And here is a question. What would I have made of that dot if Elysium had not begun with a piece of computer code? Would I have thought immediately, as I did, of a computer monitor that no longer worked, or a graphics card that was beginning to fail? Which would in turn make me wonder if this street market was quite what it appeared to be. And as for that elk … But again, only Adrianne saw the green dot, so perhaps it is all in her head. The *** SYSTEM FAILURE *** almost comes as no surprise. Maybe it is meant not to be.

But what strikes me too by this point is that the computer language actually makes sense. Rather than just letting my eye slide past it as I normally would, the words are actually conveying something. Bridge. Crash. Delete. Cannot Open. Error. Especially Error. Only Bridge might seem contextually difficult, but if coupled with Connect, and Restarted, it reminds me of the ftp program I use to transmit large files to one of my clients, constantly connecting, closing and connecting…And this, it will turn out, is significant.

*** SYSTEM FAILURE ***

In a long review at Strange Horizons, Niall Harrison says … actually, at this point I realised to my horror that I had evidently previously read and absorbed Niall Harrison’s review, and those ripples and echoes I thought were of my own devising weren’t. Or, if I’m being kind to myself, we were evidently thinking along the same lines. Sort of.

Because while Harrison and I are evidently heading in the same direction, to something possibly approaching the same conclusion, we are, I think, on not entirely parallel paths. The question, of course, is which one of us is taking the shortest route. But back to what he  was saying …

Like me, Harrison was wondering where the novel was headed, speculating as to whether we were in a revision of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), with versions of the same identity in different worlds. I wondered about that, except that at some point I noticed that phrases kept being repeated. “released into sorrow” was the first to catch my attention, because it was a little unusual, but later whole paragraphs, sections and characters began to resurface. I have been rereading Beowulf recently (the Seamus Heaney translation is very good), and thinking again about how orature is often structured around images, ideas, rote-learned passages, that can be recited at suitable points, and indeed how the story itself is structured in certain ways to trigger that recitation – for example, in Beowulf, the arrival at Hrothgar’s hall is very ceremonial, in part because that’s presumably what you do, but I’m sure in part because it facilitates the recitation of genealogies, the giving of gifts, the praise songs and so on.

Which raises another question: how much of this in Elysium is story and how much plot. It’s a fine distinction in this novel, I admit, but is this about the author manipulating the reader, or is there another layer of ‘reading’ in here – that fleeting observer Harrison spots at the beginning but whom I hadn’t paid any attention to? Is it accidental artefact – created by the malfunctioning computer program, or that ftp program that can’t quite mesh with the computer memorial? Is, then, the observer actually receiving the story that Adrian, the computer whizz, wanted to tell?

History is written by the winners … or at any rate, by those who escape …

Adrian is the core of Elysium. Adrian, the omnicompetent man beloved of a certain kind of science fiction; the man with big ideas, and the back of an envelope on which to casually scribble them down, before handing the envelope on to others who’ll bring the ideas to completion. How are we meant to respond to this Adrian, this saviour of humanity, or at any rate, some of humanity …

We come to the core story a long way into the novel. By the time we reach this Adrian, we’ve passed through many stories, or versions of stories, of people called Adrianne, Adrian, Antoine, Antoinette, Helen, Hector, and many combinations of relationship and friendship. Some stories are intensely domestic – like Adrianne’s at the beginning, with only that green dot, displaced animals and an inexplicable time shift, to suggest the science fictional element. My kind of science fiction, I might say, given I’m currently much more interested in sf in which the Incident is tucked in the background, to an extent at least. Things have happened before the novel begins, and Antoine and dying Adrian, Adrianne frustrated by the living Helen to mourn the dead Antoinette, are living in worlds somehow changed. I might be reading for those changes – the games in which animals are set loose on one another – but at the same time I also enjoy the portrayal of the here and now of daily science-fictional life, rather than the heavy-handed emphasis on survival in the ruins.

There is that as well, of course. As we slip past the domestic, and past the muddled history in which the Roman Empire comes to the USA, and Adrianne becomes a Vestal Virgin, we reach two new threads of narrative: a post-apocalyptic world and the rescue from the hospital, the two braided and rebraided as different characters come to the fore. Stories are fast becoming tropes – after everything goes wrong, Antoine rescues Adrian from the hospital, and Hector comes too. They hole up in a supermarket, as you do – but wait, when did Antoine and Adrian suddenly become so much younger? They take shelter in the subways until Antoine, now Adrian’s father, vanishes, leaving Adrian, now the artist, to paint memorials all over the town. All of this seems oddly familiar, not merely in the context of the novel. Similarly, Adrianne, holed up on the upper floors of a high-rise, waits for her father to come home. He has flown away to find food. She knows now that her wings are growing in, and she is afraid, not least of her father’s reaction. Assuming he comes home, which is by no means a certainty.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you put down insect powder?

 Do the ants or the cockroaches die tidily? Or do they change, mutate, transform horribly into something else, at a microscopic level?

Even this is familiar in some respects. Aliens come to Earth, find it inhabited, dust the place with something out of a galaxy-sized container to get rid of the vermin problem. Which is us. Humanity. Later, ‘they’, the aliens, will try to tell us it was because we attacked rather than talking, while ‘we’ will point out we thought ‘they’ were attacking us to begin with. Communication failed before it began. If there is a difference here from the usual scenario, it is that the white-skinned people are the ones who experience the appalling transformations while the brown- and black-skinned peoples of the world are the ones who remain unchanged, the ones who begin to devise solutions. The ones who refuse the refugees who want to join them when they begin to create safe spaces.

Going underground. Building underground. Building cities underground. Deciding to leave Earth. Generation starships.

As Harrison notes, when we reach this point, the story stabilises as Engineer Adrian builds his city. Engineer Adrian is also the basis for the memorial that is inscribed in the atmosphere, when everyone finally departs, and it is that point I shall come back to in a moment.

First, though, to something else Harrison says:

Every knowingly SFnal novel written today must confront or refuse or transform the tropes and patterns laid down over decades, must do something with them; the alternative is to ignore history at the risk of being stillborn in the megatext. Elysium takes such engagement to the next level. It is a knowing SF novel that encodes within itself not just a history of the genre, but the process of examining and revising that history through extraordinary, joyous transformation. Engineer Adrian is the stone dropped down the well, and the first half of Elysium is the ripples from his impact and at the same time he is himself the echo of the fall of a much older stone, a tale told over again in hundreds of novels and thousands of stories and in reality.

I have no quarrel with that, insofar as I had come to much the same conclusion (and I would still like to believe, independently). However, here’s my problem, and I think it is a problem. What might have happened if it had been Engineer Adrianne who was scanned? Because insofar as we agree we are recapitulating a history of science fiction in this story, what doesn’t seem to me to be acknowledged as yet in commentary is that everything we’ve experienced along the way emerges from the mind of a man, a man of colour, yes, but a man nonetheless, and a man possibly with a flair for the melodramatic.

Because, what we are fighting our way through is surely not a dispassionate historical account, however much we might want to see it as that. At the heart of this, we are dealing with one man’s experience, and possibly one man’s hubris. In which case we might want to stop at this point and wonder whether Engineer Adrian hasn’t bigged himself up just a little in his own memory. And whether his perspective isn’t just a little skewed when it comes to recounting certain events. It would account, for example, for the excessive romanticism of the account of the loss of his wife, Antoinette. For that matter, it may go some way to dealing with the otherwise clumsily handled death of Helen, the trans woman nobly sacrificing herself for the sake of Adrian and his brother – if we assume that this is being interpreted to us through the lens of Adrian’s misunderstanding. Having said that, I don’t disagree with the comments made by practically everyone about both sets of events but I do wonder why, when almost everything else about this novel is so admirably dealt with, those two aspects of the story do seem so clunky by comparison. One might suggest that the type of science fiction we are dealing with at this point in the historical tour is inevitably going to lead to these kinds of ill-judged scenes as emotionally stunted men try to write about their emotions, and attempt to second-guess what is going on in the heads of those around them, and that there is no alternative. And that may be so … Except that a ‘but’ hovers, like that green dot which is not a malfunction, I belatedly perceive, but a marker, the way in and out of what we finally learn are projections, immersive environments.

And having criticised the fact that the ‘story’ is a man’s story, here is the mitigation. Perhaps it is not just Adrian’s story that is memorialised. He was the prototype, yes, and not by his own choice (though what would have happened if he’d said no, nominated someone else), but perhaps everyone else’s story has also been preserved as well. The final portion of the novel is given over to Adrianne – by this time we must have noticed that it is almost always a version of Adrianne who seems to have a sense that there might be something beyond the direct experience (though we also see Adrian moving in and out of the virtual environment on occasion) – the last of the actual survivors, who emerges into a world now populated by the aliens, the krestges, to update the memorial in the atmosphere one last time, an Eve of a sort, if you like. Er … is that really a mitigation? I’m not sure. We might try for ‘And it was all a dream’ … except, of course, it isn’t.

And perhaps this is the real problem at the heart of the novel. There is no easy way out. If you follow the history, the visible history, the articulated history of science fiction, there is no other path that Brissett could have taken in this novel. To do otherwise is to tell a different story altogether, a secret history, and maybe that is worse, because then women become the creatures men don’t see, and that reinforces a whole different strand of historical storytelling, one that forever relegates women to the edges of the story. Whereas, as Brissett shows, women do take centre stage, with ease, the moment a certain style of sf is put aside.

The Exhausting of the Author

And here’s another problem with this reading, with any reading for that matter. We place such a burden on the author – the actual author – to account for everything. Too much of a burden, on occasion. Here, Jennifer Marie Brissett has created this extraordinary, amazing text; this cunning survey of the ways in which science fiction is constructed, and what happens when the template is undermined, begins to disintegrate, how much better it becomes when it breaks free.

And still I want more. Or something slightly different. Or I see things in the text that maybe the author didn’t, or didn’t foreground, or left for the reader to discover, like a T in magic marker on a brick.

Of course I do all of this because reading is part of the process too. I could go all Barthesian and mutter about the necessity of the death of the author, but in this instance I shan’t, not least because I know that half the reason this novel is so good is because it isn’t lazy but instead is working hard to bring together so many thoughts and ideas. To complain in great detail about what isn’t there is to burden the author with the requirement to fix absolutely everything through one novel, when that’s clearly nonsensical. On the other hand, it perhaps indicates when we do this that we are – I am – hungry for novels that do more than reflexively support the status quo or else churn out the same old dystopian product while claiming that it is something new and exciting, literary even, when it plainly is nothing of the sort. Our admiration squeezes the life out of the very thing we are delighted with by wanting it to be even better, and Elysium is already awesome.

And perhaps this is the critic’s biggest dilemma. How to love something without crushing it to death with the weight of expectation and analysis, when love can only be shown through expectation and analysis?


Other reviews:

What is Paradise? by Ana Grilo (Kirkus, 13/3/2015)

The Future Fire, Cait Coker (25/10/2014)

The Book Punks, Nicolette Steward (12/2/2015)

The Story-as-Database, by Steven Shaviro (LARB, 3/6/2015)

Locus, Paul Di Filippo (13/12/2014)