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Y Gwyll is a four-part crime drama first broadcast on S4C in late 2013.  Hinterland, the English language version of the series, aired on BBC One Wales in the spring of 2014 and was also made available on the BBC iPlayer around that time.  From the outset, publicity for the show (in both English and Welsh) stressed its noirish credentials and drew direct comparisons with the Danish hit TV drama The Killing. Rights for the English language version have been sold to the Danish broadcaster behind The Killing (BBC News Wales, 2013), and the series is widely reported to be scheduled for broadcast on BBC4, home to other Nordic dramas including The Bridge and Borgen later this year.  Describing the show as ‘part Wallander, part Broadchurch, Ruth McElroy (2013) set the tone for critical analysis of the series, though some in Wales might balk at the title of her piece (‘What can Wales learn from Nordic Noir’) implying that Wales is late to the game when it comes to crime drama. Author Malcolm Pryce has established a successful long-running series of noirish tales beginning with Aberystwyth Mon Amour (2001), while Robert Lewis’s darkly humorous Robert Llywelyn trilogy portrays a troubled PI struggling with alcohol addiction and personal hygiene issues.  Granted, the Welsh do not yet have the equivalent to Tartan Noir, but that does not mean that we have no tradition of crime writing and crime drama. 

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As a Welsh speaker living and working in England, and a big fan of Nordic Noir, I was intrigued by Hinterland from the moment I heard about it. In particular, I was interested to see how some of the conventions of Nordic Noir would carry over to Wales.  I was also intrigued by the fact that the series was shot first in English, then in Welsh. This has been trialled in Wales previously, with a detective series from the 1990s featuring the late Philip Madoc, called A Mind to Kill in English and Yr Heliwr in Welsh.  Likewise, one of the fascinations of BBC4’s  Scandinavian drama The Bridge is that it crosses borders and features both Danish and Swedish actors. However, with English subtitling, sadly much of the impact and politics of this linguistic mix is lost.  While the main language of Hinterland is English, some of the characters speak Welsh to one another (subtitled for non-Welsh speaking viewers).  The easy slippage from one language to another is something that I recognise as a bilingual speaker growing up in Wales, marking out different sets of relationships with friends and family, and of course being handy for excluding non-Welsh speakers from your conversations. In Hinterland, one of the uses of Welsh is to signal to the viewer how far certain characters are integrated into the local community or are perceived as outsiders.  In particular, the character of DCI Tom Mathias (played by Richard Harrington), newly returned from a stint at the London Met, seems to be deliberately isolated from his work colleagues in the English language version as they address each other in Welsh but always speak to him in English (it’s as yet unclear from the English version whether or not he can in fact speak Welsh).  I still haven’t seen the Welsh language version where Mathias definitely is a Welsh speaker, and it would be interesting to compare the two versions in terms of the role language plays in characterising the protagonists and their interrelationships.  But it is clear that the English version of the show is not afraid to play on the politics of language, nor to rely on its viewers to read between the lines: I had no idea what either ‘y gwyll’ or ‘hinterland’ meant prior to watching the show, and was somewhat gratified to learn that this obscurity and othering of the viewer was deliberate (McElroy 2013).  Whether this othering would have been more effective had the show been broadcast in Welsh with subtitles remains to be seen. It certainly would have been cheaper, but probably wouldn’t have attracted anything like the same attention, and perhaps would not have been taken as seriously.  

I was a bit apprehensive that Hinterland might turn out to be full of cliché, both in terms of the representation of the Welsh, and in its borrowing of the conventions of Nordic Noir.  The world weary character of Tom Mathias (‘a man cast into a wilderness of his own making’ according to the S4C website) is clearly reminiscent of Scandinavian detectives such as Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole or Henning  Mankell’s Wallander, particularly when it comes to his problematic domestic relationships (we fleetingly see photographs of his daughters and references are made to a  failed relationship).  Like many noirish tecs, Mathias is shown living a semi-masochistic existence, trying to keep body and mind in order, with several shots showing him out jogging, or staring broodingly at the landscape.  Visual echoes of the BBC adaptation of Wallander starring Kenneth Branagh alsoabound. There are lots of panoramic shots of the countryside stretching for miles with only the odd sheep to break up the monotony, while four-by-fours and suspect outhouses, another staple of the genre, are aplenty.  Meanwhile, the faded Victorian splendour of Aberystwyth, as well as its vulnerability to the elements, provides a strong sense of place and a whiff of social unrest.  The series does a good job of conveying class as well as linguistic divisions in the town, and hints at the problems caused by its transient population.  The Killing and other Scandi dramas have been praised for allowing the plots to unfold slowly, and Hinterland likewise isn’t afraid to spend time building atmosphere and developing its characters.  So there is plenty here to satifsy the Nordic Noir aficionados, but what is reassuring is that this borrowing proves very effective, and works well adapted to the landscape, both physical and cultural, of its new setting.  

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Scandinavian crime dramas such as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or Jo Nesbo’s  The Redbreast looked back to shameful episodes in their countries’ pasts, such as collaboration with the Nazis or the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, while also demonstrating that these darker sides to the seeming social democratic idylls were also very much a feature of the present.  With Wales, it would be more difficult perhaps to unpick political crimes from those attributable to Britain as a whole, but the series is certainly full of suggestions of long buried family secrets as well as crimes that remain hidden within localized communities.  

The storylines and crimes featured in Hinterland offer the same mix of extreme violence tied to social injustice that has become such a defining feature of Nordic Noir.  In one episode, child abuse at a children’s home is uncovered, with the suggestion that the mistreatment and abandonment of problem children was a systemic failure of Welsh society in the seventies and eighties.  I have argued elsewhere (Thomas 2012) that Scandinavian crime writing is characterized by a tone of social campaigning, linking the personal and the political, and suggesting that we all bear some responsibility for the crimes that take place in our societies.  Hinterland does this subtly but effectively: Mathias’ boss is a looming presence throughout the series, with a strong suggestion that his links to freemasonry may have implicated him in as-yet-unknown crimes and misdemeanors.  There is also a suggestion that not only is Welsh society far from welcoming to outsiders, but it is prone to scapegoating those who do not easily fit in: this is most evident with the character of Wyn Bratton in Episode 3 who lives in the woods, wracked by guilt after a house fire he started in an attempt to get back at his estranged wife goes disastrously wrong.  

Wyn Bratton is played by Matthew Gravelle, who also starred as the family man turned killer in the hit ITV crime drama Broadchurch.  Similarities have therefore inevitably been drawn with that series, inevitably perhaps because of the seaside setting, but also because of the flawed and vulnerable detective (David Tennant in Broadchurch) and the feeling evoked in both shows of communities about to tear themselves apart.  As is inevitable for a Welsh speaker who has grown up with shows like Pobol y Cwm, many of the actors in Hinterland are very familiar faces, albeit inhabiting sometimes quite radically unfamiliar roles.  Likewise, references to Welsh myths and legends, and glimpses of iconic cultural reference points like ‘Salem’ (a painting of the Welsh lady with the face of the devil in her shawl), could easily have missed the mark and been the subject of ridicule, but they add to the feeling described by writer Ed Thomas of the audience discovering in this version of Wales an ‘unknown hinterland’ (Moss, 2013).  

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For the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales, looking beyond the UK for connections with European counterparts has become a way of trying to assert independence and distinctiveness. It would be lazy and perhaps facile to try to draw too many comparisons between the Welsh and the Nordic nations, but in many studies of Nordic Noir, the importance of religion has been noted, in particular a Lutheran belief in the idea of  ‘hidden God’ (Saarinen, 2003:132) and a view of evil as ‘the incomprehensible darkness lurking in all societies’ (135).  In Hinterland, the climax to one of the episodes takes place in a remote chapel, reinforcing the notion conveyed so powerfully in ‘Salem’ that piety, respectability and evil may not always be so very far apart.  

Joe Queenan (2008) has argued that the vogue for Nordic Noir owes much to what he calls a kind of ‘reverse exoticism’ whereby it is the very bleakness of the landscape and the moroseness of the characters that form part of its appeal.  Perhaps with Hinterland, there is also the sense in which the drama challenges cultural stereotypes, showing the Welsh to be capable of malevolence and violence not just whimsy.  At the same time, far be it for the Welsh audience to take the brooding drama or itself too seriously: Welsh language online news site Golwg 360 mischievously proposed a drinking game for viewers of the show where a sip is taken every time the devil is mentioned.  

A second series of Y Gwyll is planned after a ‘phenomenal’ public response to the show (BBC News Mid Wales, 2013), helping to bolster Welsh language programming at a time when its modest audience figures have come in for attack and ridicule. 

References 

BBC News Wales. (2013)  Welsh Drama Hinterland sold to Danish ‘The Killing

TV’.  3 January. Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-20906436 

BBC News Mid Wales. (2013) Aberystwyth police drama Y Gwyll gets second series. 27 November.

Accessed 17/3/14 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-25118460 

McElroy, R. (2013) What Can Wales Learn from Nordic Noir? CST Online.

Accessed 11/3/14 at http://cstonline.tv/what-can-wales-learn-from-nordic-noir 

Moss, S. (2013) Hinterland: the TV noir so good they made it twice. The Guardian. 30 July.  

Nesbo, J. (2000) The Redbreast. London: Vintage.  

Pryce, M. (2001) Aberystwyth Mon Amour.  London: Bloomsbury.  

Queenan, J. (2008) The Nordic Mystery Boom. Los Angeles Times. 25 May.  

Saarinen, R. (2003) The surplus of evil in welfare society: Contemporary Scandinavian Crime Fiction,

Dialog. 42(2): 131-135.  

Thomas, B. (2012) Kicking the Hornet’s Nest: The rhetoric of social campaigningin Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Language and Literature. Vol. 21, No.3, pp. 299-310.

ABOUT

Bronwen Thomas is Associate Professor in the Media School at Bournemouth University. Originally from Llanelli in South Wales, she has published widely on fanfiction and online communities, and is currently PI for the AHRC Digital Reading Network. Recent publications include Real Lives, Celebrity Stories: Narratives of Ordinary and Extraordinary People Across Media, co-edited with Julia Round, and New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age, co-edited with Ruth Page.

A cursory examination of UK TV schedules from the 1970s and early 1980s demonstrates that foreign language programming was a regular fixture on the broadcast landscape long before the emergence of the Nordic Noir sub-genre. In a less competitive televisual environment prime time slots were routinely devoted to series from the continent, most notably Heimat and Das Boot (BBC2) Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic (Channel 4). Operating under public service principles, childrens’ schedules also contained examples of international content to promote cultural awareness. Using a mixture of dubbed prints (The Flashing Blade, Monkey, The Water Margin) or retaining the original dialogue track but burying it deep within the mix and placing  an English language narrator at the front of the sound design (Tales from Europe, Storybook International) a mixture of self contained and anthology series employed popular generic forms to educate the viewing public about other social structures and practices.

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The BBC has a guaranteed income in the form of the licence fee and to a certain extent the corporation is immune from commercial pressures. However, it nonetheless has to justify its existence in the form of satisfactory appreciation index data and substantial viewing figures. With the arrival of a new station specifically set up to cater for minority audiences ITV soon dropped foreign language content from its schedules leaving the BBC and Channel 4 as the only UK broadcasters screening non-English language series. 

The funding model which Channel 4 adhered to in its formative years ensured that it did not need to worry about a collapse in advertising revenue as any shortfall would be met by the ITV network. In short, this meant that Channel 4 could screen whatever it wanted, provided the programme met broadcasting guidelines, and not be concerned about alienating potential advertisers. Emboldened by the financial safety net offered by ITV Channel 4 decided to screen subtitled TV drama. Alongside the aforementioned Châteauvallon and The Black Forest Clinic several Brazilian telenovellas, including Isaura the Slave Girl,  were given afternoon slots frequently competing directly against Australian soap operas in the same slot on ITV. 

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Despite positive critical notices for Heimat and Das Boot, after 1993 the BBC restricted its transmissions of non English language content output to features films. Channel 4 soon followed the BBC’s example and removed TV drama from its schedules. The reality of having to compete for mass audiences in an increasingly competitive cross platform climate meant that free-to-air stations may have considered the prospect of screening subtitled drama as no longer being viable. Two decades would pass before a  station decided to once again start showing series from mainland Europe. 

Currently enjoying levels of popularity and visibility that may have seemed impossible a few years ago, European TV drama has transformed from niche programming into a high profile regular fixture of BBC Four’s schedule. With The Killing and Borgen now consigned to the immortality of DVD boxsets naysayers might have been tempted to inaccurately predict that the Scandinavian TV phenomenon had peaked. From Stieg Larsson through to the closing moments of our window in Birgitte Nyborg’s personal life and political career, Danish and Swedish culture has been covertly invading our high streets and TV screens. Retail outlets now routinely stock Faroese inspired sweaters to customers who may be unaware of their precise cultural significance and the relatively recent television series Broadchurch has demonstrated that creative professionals are studiously paying attention to how their Nordic counterparts craft quality popular drama.

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High turnout to the recent Nordicana event and consistently impressive viewing figures for The Bridge‘s second season is testament that interest in all things Danish and Swedish remains buoyant. Not only is BBC Four committed to maintaining its now traditional Saturday foreign language slot throughout 2014, it is complemented by programming from More4 who are currently screening the Norwegian series Mammon, Fox who will soon air the third season of Braquo. and Sky Arts who have purchased  The Legacy from Denmark. 

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Fans of Nordic Noir frequently find themselves simultaneously gazing in multiple directions; on the one hand attention is firmly focused on what new books, shows, and films will be coming to the UK within the next few months and on the other curiosity may lead them to engage in finding tantalising hints of information about those titles which up until now haven’t managed to secure distribution within English language territories.

The fandom which actively celebrates its appreciation of broadcast series and DVDs initially interacted via social networks. In June 2013 this subcultural group was offered its first ever physical space to cement its enthusiasm with Nordicana  a two day convention specifically designed to commemorate Scandinavian culture. The first event of its kind, this expo was sponsored by Arrow Films, Danish Arts Council, Film Institute Denmark and Danish Broadcasting Corporation in association with English and Danish PEN. What Nordicana represented was a bold initiative that demonstrated how in a relatively short space of time Nordic Noir has gone from being an under explored literary curiosity to a visible brand with an ever growing fanbase that is warm and welcoming.

An audacious experiment, the first Nordicana was rapturously received by an audience which never expected to have the opportunity to see in person the shining lights of Scandinavian drama. Despite being an undoubted success few could have predicted a second event would be staged within months. In Febuary 2014 a sophomore festival was mounted that expanded its parameters offering a veritable smorgasbord of Nordic screen talent, key literary figures, a celebration of cuisine, and a UK film première (The Hour of the Lynx). The rapid expansion of its fanbase forced the organizers to seek out a building large enough to house the many aficionados clamouring for the opportunity to attend. Bidding farewell to the Farmiloe Building, Nordicana upped sticks and relocated to Spitalfield’s Old Truman Brewery and then promptly set about trying to fill every inch of available floor space with entertaining talks, screenings, and demonstrations. Offering a more varied schedule than the previous event, it placed greater emphasis than before on Scandinavia’s rich legacy of crime literature whilst simultaneously celebrating the current crop of TV favourites and offering an intriguing glimpse of the future for Nordic Noir with a preview of The Legacy.   

hour of the lynx

Broadcast in a high profile slot on New Years Day 2014, ratings for  The Legacy exceeded all expectations. Published figures state that the first instalment was watched by 1,784,000 people and the second episode attracted an audience share of  61% with nearly two million viewers. Directed by Pernilla August (Beyond) the series is a contemporary drama that explores the consequences of progressive approaches to parenting which gained widespread social currency with Denmark in the late 1960s. Well known artist  Veronika Grønnegaard is terminally ill. Her children live very different lives, each bares a unique emotional scare as a consequence of decisions taken with regards their upbringing. Liberalism and tradition are at odds as long harboured secrets come to the surface and lies woven across the decades are exposed. Purchased by Sky Arts whilst still in production, the effect such a high profile series being sold to a pay broadcaster may provide ample scope for further investigation into subcultural responses.  

During interviews to promote the third season of The Killing  Piv Bernth series producer and head of drama at Danish public service broadcaster DR was unequivocal in her belief that the series had come to its logical end, lessons learnt during the production process would be employed on a new slate of series. The re-branding of Danish TV drama also includes the historical drama 1864 which is currently in production 1864, slated to air in the autumn.

In March 2014 it was announced that Nadia Kløvedal Reich would vacate the post of Head of Fiction at Danish public service broadcaster DR and be replaced by Bernth, series producer on The Killing and then current Head of Drama. During her tenure Nadia has transformed the face of Danish drama and unwittingly spawned a fandom. The future of Nordic Noir is assured but with such a rapidly shifting sub generic form it is impossible to predict what shape it will take or how its attendant fan community will adapt. 

 ABOUT

Andy Lawrence maintains the blog Euro But Not Trash (http://eurodrama.wordpress.com/) , a space for the celebration of European films, TV series and literature with a heavy slant towards Nordic Noir. He is a regular contributor to Nordic Noir Magazine and UK Film News and has also written for Scan Magazine and Crime Time. He is currently researching Icelandic TV drama for an as yet untitled text.

 

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Scandinavia has been declared one of the happiest places in the world. In the World Happiness Report released in 2013 and covering the years 2010-2012, Denmark came in first place, Norway second and Sweden fifth. The Scandinavian countries are known for having relatively high-income levels as well as being egalitarian. The public sectors are a cornerstone of the welfare states that have been developed, and  the relative size of the public sector and the tax burden are among the highest in the world. On top of that employment is high. Looking at Scandinavia, it’s rather easy to believe.
the World Happiness Report results. However, the Scandinavian cinema and television of the past twenty years provides some of the most grim characters, settings and stories in the world. For a region recognised as a safe, secular and friendly community, the Scandinavian cinema shows a land full of violent crime, inner religious conflict and anti social behaviour. Is the Scandinavian cinema entirely reflective of the Scandinavian region?

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Looking at Scandinavian film and television, the ‘Nordic Noir’ phenomenon has been the greatest export from the region in recent years. Television programs such as The Killing (Forbrydelsen 2007-2012), Wallander (2005-)and The Bridge (Broen, 2011-) have become popular both in the United Kingdom and around the world. Despite this popularity, it is only recently that scholars have begun to investigate the Scandinavian crime genre. With its focus on human darkness, crime fiction arguably focalises the social experience of modernity in a different way. Broden argues that the thematic transformation of the Swedish crime genre can be theorised in terms of a changing attitude towards crime as social ambivalence. Drawing on the work of Bauman (1995), Broden conceptualises the cinematic representation of crime as a manifestation of the disturbing ambivalence that otherwise has been downplayed in the media culture of the welfare state (Broden 2011 p. 98). Ever since its emergence in the 1940s, the crime genre has dealt with perceived sides of social life in the Scandinavian welfare state. The assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 has come to be spoken of amongst the Swedes as the end of an era and the point where Sweden lost its innocence. Ever since then, the social critique in the Scandinavian crime fiction can be seen in the context of a perceived crumbling of the welfare state.

The ever-present violence and corruption in the welfare state is a central theme in contemporary Scandinavian crime film. The most well known example is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The Millennium films tell the dark story about the ambivalent condition and the historical development of the welfare state of Sweden in late modernity. In their investigations, Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander investigate and unearth the forms of violence and crime in the welfare society. The critical perspective in Stieg Larsson’s stories can, of course, be discussed in light of the tradition of crime fiction with a social conscience that many scholars consider to be the backbone of Swedish crime fiction (see Wendelius 1999, Agger 2010). Broden stresses that over the years, Swedish cinema has come to portray increased violence and hardened crime as a seemingly more integral and inescapable feature of contemporary social life.(Broden 2011 p. 96) The Millennium Trilogy specifically reflects a later stage of deeper sociocultural process concerning a certain way of imagining crime as a phenomenon in Swedish society. That is, whereas Swedish crime films of the past identified violent crime as an exceptional element in the welfare state, present-day thrillers represent it as more or less an inescapable element of the welfare state.

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Various types of crime film have emerged from Scandinavia in the past twenty years, and each highlight growing cracks in the welfare state. One of the biggest films to come from Denmark recently, The Hunt (Jagten, 2012), shows this inescapable crime as being pursued despi
te lack of real proof. The adults impose the situation of potential child molestation upon the children, but never attempt to explain it or help them heal from the trauma they think they have experienced. Their only desire is to hunt Lucas and punish him for this crime. The gut reaction to accuse without investigation and to harm rather than heal is the human failure this film addresses. The Hunt continuously highlights how easily the seemingly civilised, rational inhabitants of the small town lose their moral bearings and how irrational their behaviour is. Similarly in In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, 2014), a young man is falsely accused and killed for a crime, and the protagonist Nils seeks revenge. This film focuses on the theme of drug use and immigrant mafias, which are two major themes found in Scandinavian crime film. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy was the first Scandinavian film revolving around gangsters and drug use, and only came out in 1996. In Norway, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, 31 August (2011) both highlight consequences of drug use amongst ethnic Norwegians, whereas films like Izzat (2005) show immigrant Pakistani youths getting involved amongst drug and gang culture.

Scandinavia is one of the least religious places in the world, and this has much to do with the desire to keep religion private and personal in individual lives. In a study on religion conducted by the University of Uppsala in 1990, both belief and church attendance have declined markedly between 1950 and 1990 (Hamberg 1990). Furthermore, the Eurobarometer Poll in 2010 found that 18% of Swedes, 22% of Norwegians and 28% of Danes believed there was a God, some of the lowest scores in Europe. Thirty years ago, Ingmar Bergman was a key figure in discussions of the relationship between theology and contemporary art. During a period lasting little more than seven years, his explorations of religious themes in his films was extraordinary. Bergman rarely turned to the cheerier side of the human condition, but he never averted his eye from the truth has he saw it it. A series of films by Bergman explored the possibility of faith. In The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960), Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en Spegel, 1961), Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1963)and The Silence, he posed traditional faith questions in identifiably religious language. The characters struggle self-consciously with their inability to believe in God and form relationships with one another. With The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), Bergman concludes that God is unknowable, and the human person must simply continue life’s journey seeking understanding and happiness however one can. (Blake) This lends to the idea in Scandinavian cinema that religion is a private affair. During his ‘God period’Bergman worked endless variations. After he had banished God in The Silence, he turned his attention to the search for love. Bergman expresses the human search according to a religious template, and these troubled human relationships reflect the metaphorical and poetic terms of the contemporary, ongoing struggle to discover an authentic relationship to God.

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 This notion of the Scandinavian being in a privately religious conflict has shifted over into contemporary cinema. In his study of the clergy in Nordic films, Arni Svanur Danielsson discusses the many different representations of the clergy in films. According to Danielsson, the representations are not strictly negative or positive (Danielsson). In Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for Begyndere, 2000), the religious figure is a positive part of the society he lives in and is trusted by the parishioners, and in As It Is in Heaven (Såsom i Himmelen, 2004), the pastor is the cause of problems. However, each figure is seen as a local member of the community with the best intentions at heart, and their religious doubts are kept to themselves, only ever displayed in private. Adams Apples (Adams æbler, 2005) comes across as the film that provides the best overview of the status of religion in contemporary Scandinavia. Adams Apples has an obvious religious core furthered by the fact that it won the Danish Church film award, Gabriel, in 2006. It’s religious themes have been heavily discussed. Sjo concurs with Johannes H. Christensen, who calls the film a “decorous fable of human development and transformation.”(Christensen), which already draws parallels to Bergman. Religion is central to the transformation of both protagonists, the neo-Nazi Adam who is sent to a rural church to be rehabilitated, and Ivan, the pastor of the church. Ivan shows obvious signs of mental instability, and Adam, when determined to break him, forces the pastor to confront the reality of the world around him, Ivan collapses. Ivan is clearly unbalanced, and religion plays into his madness. However, he also brings his community together, and this religious instability is kept to himself.

Among crime and religious Scandinavian films, a growing trend of isolation seems apparent. It is common among detectives, such as Engstom in Insomnia or Lucas in The Hunt, to be somewhat withdrawn from society or dealing with their own private issues. This is the same in the images of pastors found in contemporary Scandinavian film, such as the protagonist in As It Is in Heaven, who deals with his illness in secret. Perhaps in such a happy and wealthy country, people tend to withdraw themselves more than is made apparent. The feeling of isolation we see has made its way into films focusing on children. In Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, 2008), Oskar and Eli have much in common. Oskar is let down by adults in his life, who are too preoccupied to notice the cruel, incessant bullying he undergoes at school, let alone his unhealthy preoccupation with random acts of violence or his solitary enactment of revenge scenarios. The motif of the bullied and isolated child, while atypical of the vampire genre, is commonplace in recent Scandinavian film, examined from varying perspectives in works such as Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål, 1998), a lesbian coming-of-age/coming-out story; Before the Storm (Före stormen, 2000), where seventh-grader Leo closely resembles Oskar and like him is bullied at school; King of Devils Island (Kongen av Bastøy, 2010), where a new inmate in a boys home leads to a violent uprising; and Irl (2013), which tackles themes of online bullying. In In a Better World (Hævnen, 2010), which was the recipient of Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, patterns of correspondence and coincidence are traced between the friendship of two kids and the conflict in Africa. Like Let the Right One In, the parents of each child are not sufficiently present in their sons lives. Both Anton and Claus are incredulous that their sons could be involved in a knife fight, missing the signs that the kids are just getting started. What director Susanne Bier is attempting to do is cut between all of these stories to contrast the kinds of people who are instinctively cruel and those who are instinctively kind. In Scandinavia, more boys than girls have been reported as committing an offence such as vandalism, shoplifting, burglary and assault. However, the number of youths committing crimes has declined in recent years, making it surprising that juvenile crime has been so big in cinema. The media often reports on youth crime, making it seem much greater than it actually is (Friday).

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 Looking at a range of Scandinavian films, it is clear that themes of crime and isolation commonly occur amongst the various stories. However, is the a norm for all Scandinavian film? A study on patterns and trends in Scandinavian film was conducted by Ib Bondebjerg, and it found that the family film was one of the most popular genres (Bondebjerg 2011 p. 69) In 2013, family films were the majority of films seen in Norway and Sweden, notable examples being Solan and Ludvig – Christmas in Pinchliffe (Solan og Ludvig-Jul i Flåklypa, 2013), Casper and Emma: Best Friends (Karsten og Petra blir bestevenner, 2013), and The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann, 2013). In Denmark, however, the top two films were The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret, 2013) and The Hunt (See the Nordisk Film and TV Fond).When it comes to genre, crime and family are the two things that have managed to gain the greatest recognition overseas. Most people interviewed in Bondebjerg’s study have singled out crime as the genre that travels the best in the Nordic region. However, the statistics in Niels Marslev’s report indicate that while crime and family are about equally popular on the domestic market, family does better than crime in terms of indexed share of audience when exported. From this, it is easily recognised that the crime and family film share equal popularity in Scandinavia and abroad.

To what extent, then, are these dark themes reflective of Scandinavia? Bondebjerg says in his study that “the films [crime] are considered to be dealing with both contemporary and social issues, rather than mere entertainment”(Bondebjerg 2011 p.81). The common thread amongst all these films is of crime shattering the fabric of quiet, peaceful communities. However, Scandinavia is not without fault. As seen in statistics presented throughout this paper, several problems including isolation, murder, youth, drug, and immigrant crime are seen as part of the crumbling welfare model. This has greatly lent itself to the plots of dark Scandinavian cinema in recent decades. Moreover, the beautiful landscape assists in placing these dark stories in such an ideal environment. Dark themes are found in films throughout the world, of course. However, the genre has become particularly popular in Scandinavia because despite the looming threat of the welfare model, they are really safe societies with very little crime in comparison to the rest of the world. The safer people feel, the more they desire to scare themselves, and this is part of the reason dark cinema is so popular. And for us, the international audience, our idea of Scandinavia being so perfect only makes these dark films more intriguing to watch.

Works Cited 

Agger, G (2010), ‘Approaches to Scandinavian Crime Fiction’, Crime Fiction and Crime Journalism in Scandinavia, no. 15

Bauman, Z (1995), Modernity and Ambivalence, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Blake, R.A (2007) ‘Ingmar Bergman, Theologian?’America vol. 197 no. 5 pp. 29-31

Bondebjerg, I (2011), ‘A Small Region in a Global World: Patterns in Scandinavian Film and Media Culture, Centre for Modern European Studies, No. 1

Broden, D (2011) ‘The Dark Ambivalences of the Welfare State: Investigating the Transformations of the Swedish Crime Film’, Northern Lights, No. 9

Christensen, J.H (2010), ‘Apple Pie from the Tree of Knowledge’, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema vol.1 no.1, pp. 123-125

Danielsson, A.S (2009), ‘From State Officials to Teddy Bears: A Study of the Image of Pastors in Selected Nordic Films’, Studies in World Christianity, vol.15 no.2, pp. 162-175

Friday, P.C, ‘Research on Youth Crime in Sweden: Some Problems in Methodology’, in Scandinavian Studies, vol.46 no.1

Hamberg, E.M (1990), Studies in the Prevalence of Religious Beliefs and Religious Practice in Contemporary Sweden, University of Uppsala, Stockholm, pp. 16-26

Nordisk Film and TV Fund, ‘Nordic Admissions 2013 Part 1: Denmark, Finland,  http://www.nordiskfilmogtvfond.com/index.php/news/stories/nordic-admissions-2013-part-1-denmark-finland/

Nordisk Film and TV Fund, ‘Nordic Admissions 2013 Part 1: Denmark, Finland,  http://www.nordiskfilmogtvfond.com/index.php/news/stories/nordic-admissions-2013-part-1-denmark-finland/

Wendelius, L (1999), Rationalitet och kaos: Nedslag i svensk kriminalfiktion efter 1965/Rationality and Chaos: On Swedish Crime Fiction After 1965, Hedemora, Gilunds

ABOUT

Emma Robinson is currently studying a Master of Arts at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research interest is the representation of Scandinavian culture in the contemporary cinema. She is also the editor of the monthly magazine Cinema Scandinavia.

 

Nordic-Landscapes34

 

The appearance of the term Nordic Noir is one which was recently constructed by the media and has become a popular catch all term to cover a variety of writing, film and television programmes being produced in the Nordic countries today.    However, at the heart of this term is crime fiction.   The translated literary branch of Nordic crime writing has become a hot commodity outside of its native area in the last 15 years.  Crime books and related films such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and specific to TV series such as The Bridge are popular worldwide and have helped the brand of Nordic Noir to have continued growth in popularity.

When looking at the crime genre in general there are two points worth noting.  Firstly it is generally accepted that audiences around the world have similar expectations when it comes to crime writing and film, however alongside that it is also acknowledged as one of the genres where writers and filmmakers can easily include a nod to cultural traditions of the local area in the storyline, characters and the overall theme of their work.    Secondly it is known that if packaged correctly, audiences of this genre are open to accepting some narrative experimentation.  There have been many discussions about what makes Nordic Noir what it is.  I keep returning to the idea of isolation.   Barry Forshaw suggests that ‘Nordic soul sometimes…has the effect of lowering the emotional temperature of the narrative and according the reader a cool, balanced appraisal of the situations and the characters that are presented to us.’    Perhaps what I am calling isolation is part of this Nordic soul and that is what I would like to explore in relation to the visual aspect of Nordic Noir.

Recently on the television show ‘Scandimania’ Danish actor Soren Malling admitted that “the Danes do darkness.”  He suggested that one of the reasons the Danes have been found to be one of the happiest nations on earth is because they take time to embrace and discuss the dark side of life. There does seem to be a general acceptance amongst the Nordic people that I have encountered that one’s life will have ups and downs and that these should be acknowledged by society.  One could argue that this is one of the distinguishing points of Nordic arts in general.  Think of the art of Munch, the writing of Ibsen and Strindberg.  When one considers the Nordic Noir genre in television and film, the theme of isolation, not specifically physical isolation but particularly isolation of specific main characters in a group, is usually present.  The Swedes have a word which may convey the type of isolation that I would argue runs through the Nordic Noir genre, ‘ensamhet,’ which translates as loneliness, desolation or solitude.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘film as an art form…should communicate psychic states, not merely project pictures of external action.’   This idea is well presented in shows and films such as The Killing, The Bridge and the Millennium trilogy, but it is also present in shows which have less distinct main characters such as Arne Dahl and The Protectors.  The characters of Lund, Saga, Salander, Hjelm and Jasmina El-Murad all exhibit a strong element of isolation within their lives in one way or another.   Another of Bergman’s cinematic devices is to portray a character’s psychic state through the use of close up facial expression.  A haunted, lonely facial close up is easy to picture if you recall any of the popular   recent Nordic Noir television shows or film.  Often the isolation of the characters becomes more and more apparent as we become more familiar with the stories.  The characters embody a struggle within the confines of everyday life that is sometimes painful for the audience to watch such as Lund’s relationship with her mother and son in The Killing.

 

Isolation Wallander1

Often in crime films and series it is the criminal who is presented as the isolated person.  Their isolation from society is often cited as a reason that they have turned to crime in the first place, but more often than not in these Nordic Noir shows the main character is portrayed as being just as much or even more psychologically isolated than the perpetrator.  Steven Peacock describes one aspect of isolation in the filmed Wallander series well when he says ‘TV versions present…Kurt Wallander as a loner who is constantly dragged back into affairs of state, the family, and the police force.  Despite his asserted strive for solitude, he reluctantly continues to gravitate towards community, while standing desperately alone.’  In these shows, in general, the storyline of the main character and their isolation within society is on a level with the perpetrator’s storyline and his penetration of society.

Consider not only the physical loneliness of Lund who struggles to let anyone into her personal physical space as well as how awkward she feels in social gatherings in the series, but specifically the psychological loneliness of her character. She is not a team player, she has difficulty maintaining professional and family relations and although she lives and she works in society she does not seem to be part of it.  It seems to happen around her.  Many of the same things could be said of Saga or Salander, a small difference being both of those characters acknowledge that they are different from others around them.  All of these isolated characters allow the audience to debate the worth of human life through their actions.  They are the ones who invite death into their lives.  Hjelm talks the armed hostage taker down in the first episode of the Arne Dahl series, Lund goes into so many dangerous situations we lose count of them, Salander too shows no fear in the face of multiple villains.  This device of allowing the audience to debate one of life’s eternal questions features heavily in Nordic film in previous generations.  Both Dreyer and Bergman were psychological cineastes and the teams who write, produce and direct these newer shows, the ones which have gripped audiences, continue that in tradition.

Also in the manner of Dreyer many of the shows are not heavy with dialogue.  At Nordicana recently David Hewson highlighted a scene in the first series of The Killing where the Birk-Larssens go to identify their daughter’s body in the morgue with Lund and Meyer.  The scene is over two minutes long and not one word is said, yet it is a powerful scene.   Using music, lighting, positioning and facial expression we experience different isolated emotions from all four characters in the scene, they are all present in that room but isolated in their own psyches with their own thoughts and agendas at that particular moment.  Dreyer said he wanted his audience to leave the cinema ‘gripped and silent’, viewers of The Bridge and The Killing surely felt this way as they watched the story uncover episode by episode.

Isolation Saga and Martin

Perhaps stemming from the literary tradition of crime writing such as the Detective Inspector Martin Beck series by Sjowall and Wahloo from the 1960’s the pace of many of these films and shows is slower than many audiences are used to for crime thrillers, giving the audience time to pick up on and perhaps relate to some of the deeper characteristics of the characters.  Indeed the stories are isolated incidents in time and during the time that the story is told we the audience become disconnected from real life and become embedded in this world of drama, intrigue, beauty and human tales.  If you take into account that the majority of the audience in the UK have to read the subtitles to understand the story then you can also factor this isolating quality into watching these shows.  Total concentration is required or great chunks of comprehension are lost.  One can watch or discuss but to simultaneously watch, read and discuss does not work as it may with a show without subtitles.  The viewer has to be fully engaged with what they are watching, reading and listening to.

The theme of isolation is also visually represented in the series The Killing and to some extent in The Bridge.  When they filmed The Killing they played with the tones and stripped out colour on the film so that the red of the blood would be isolated and thus emphasised when the audience viewed it.  This stripping back of colour and general use of dark tones meant that when colours were used they appeared more isolated and thus had more visual impact.  This technique had a strong part to play in creating the mood of the series and enhancing the storyline in a particularly visual way.

Ingmar Bergman said that ‘there is no artform that has so much in common with film as music.  Both affect our emotions directly not via the intellect.  And film is mainly rhythm.  It is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.’ If you think about Frans Bak’s theme tune for The Killing, you may recall the rhythmic tune with eerie synth and vocal layered on top used at the beginning and end of the show, reminding the viewer of a pounding individual heartbeat, or you may remember Bak’s very simple piano piece ‘Sara’s Piano’ which could be interpreted as a two minute musical embodiment of isolation.  In The Bridge theme you can hear the same single, isolated note repeated on the piano in Hollow Talk by the Choir of Young Believers.  There is plenty of space and isolation in the music which compliments this particular lonely aspect of one of the defining qualities of Nordic Noir.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdcrN9Vggck

There are many facets which make these shows Nordic and Noir and this is just one of them; one that the Nordic people have been using for some time.  It is part of their cultural tradition and may be expressed in different ways in each country.  To the viewer the representation of isolation is distilled and presented in real world, physical stories in the Nordic Noir genre on screen.  Spiritual concepts such as love, beauty and forgiveness become more profound when juxtapositioned next to the fear, anger, sadness and isolation of the various characters particularly Lund in The Killing and Saga in The Bridge.  Nordic Noir is a subgenre of the larger crime genre for many reasons, some obvious and some not so distinct.   The subtle isolation used in the visual mediums gives us, the viewer, space to breathe, experience and move within the story and I propose that is an important part of what goes to make up the Nordic Soul which distinguishes Nordic Noir within the crime genre.

 

Bibliography and Works Cited

Steven Peacock, The impossibility of Isolation in Wallander, Critical Studies in Television, Vol 6: Issue 2: Autumn 2011pp37-46

Barry Forshaw, Death in a Cold Climate, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Philip Mosley, Ingmar Bergman: The Cinema as Mistress, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1981

Scandimania, Episode 2, shown on Channel 4, Sunday 9 February 2014

ABOUT

 

Miriam V Owen is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen where she studied for an MA in History of Art (specialising in modern Scottish, European and American art).  She is currently studying for a Master’s in Research at the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication at the University of Stirling where her research focuses on online genre communities.  She is also interested in the creative process, cultures and communities.  You can find her on Twitter at NordicNoirBuzz or at the blog of the independent research project she is part of at http://nordicnoirblog.wordpress.com/

 

 

Living Algorithms: The Move towards Anti-Anthropocentrism in Gareth L. Powell’s The Recollection, Adam Roberts’ Stone, and M. John Harrison’s Empty Space Trilogy

BioMech_Eye_by_kirkh “BioMech Eye” by Bruno (http://kirkh.deviantart.com/)

On 24 September 2013 Susan Orlean revealed in a New Yorker article that @Horse_ebooks, a highly popular Twitter account, up until then believed to be a bot posting algorithmically generated tweets like so many others, had indeed been an art project run by two humans all along (Susan Orlean, “Horse_ebooks Is Human After All,” The New Yorker, September 24, 2013, accessed September 24, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/09/horse-ebooks-and-pronunciation-book-revealed.html). This announcement spawned a multitude of comments and discussions all over the internet that express one sentiment very clearly. Everyone seems to be disappointed that @Horse_ebooks turned out to be human (cf. Xeni Jardin, “@horse_ebooks revealed”, Boing Boing, September 24, 2013, accessed September 24, 2013, http://boingboing.net/2013/09/24/horse-ebooks-revealed.html) – which implies that in 2013 we are as fascinated with the singularity as ever, secretly hoping and waiting for the ghost in the machine to emerge, and to establish communication.

Of course, with the topic firmly entwined with discussions on the current state of technology, additional questions are opened up. Shortly after Orlean’s article, M. John Harrison asked on Twitter,

“So which has been more successful, the algorithmic attempt to mimic the human or the human attempt to mimic the algorithm?” (25 Sep 2013. 10:16 a.m. Tweet.)

What does it mean to be human? How do we define the boundaries of humanity? And, yes, what about artificial intelligence?

Science fiction has always been a medium perfectly suited to exploring such questions, since imagining the future always implies mirroring the present and commenting on it. It also allows one to conduct thought experiments and speculate on their implications. Above all, as Gareth L. Powell puts it,

“Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” (Gareth L Powell (‏@garethlpowell) “Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” 8 Apr 2013. 10:38 a.m. Tweet.)

Like science, storytelling has always been a way for humans to try to explain the perceived universe. According to Umberto Eco, the reading process is a game through which we practise making sense of our own chaotic, unstructured world by imposing structure upon our unstructured perceptions (Umberto Eco, “Mögliche Wälder”, in Im Wald der Fiktionen. Sechs Streifzüge durch die Literatur. Harvard-Vorlesungen (Norton Lectures 1992-93), Transl. Burkhart Kroeber, München & Wien: Carl Hanser, 1994: 117). The underlying problem, addressed in modern quantum physics as well as in science fiction, is that the imposed patterns are human patterns, originating in the human mind. The universe, as the character of Michael Kearney comes to realize in M. John Harrison’s Light, was not made for humans. Human making-sense does not necessarily make sense.

One recurring topic in contemporary science fiction is rethinking alien consciousness as machine consciousness. This includes a political perspective regarding invasion and colonisation as well as a philosophical discussion of the definition and boundaries of life and consciousness itself. If it doesn’t have a heartbeat, does the AI have rights? Is shutting down HAL 9000 morally correct? And if one conscious computer defies Asimov’s laws, is that a reason to demonize all others?

The three contemporary science fiction novels discussed here mirror the development of our stance towards artificial intelligence. In Gareth L. Powell’s The Recollection, which employs a polarised world-view reminiscent of Cold War politics, the AI is demonized to such an extent that speaking about it and speaking about the devil become indistinguishable. In Stone Adam Roberts depicts uprising nanobots as terrorists from a human perspective but as freedom fighters from that of the awakened AI. Finally, M. John Harrison’s take on the topic in his Empty Space trilogy is the most complex one, reminding us that we too are living, self-replicating, self-conscious code. Based on that, self-aware technology is simply another culture to interact with.

1. Gareth L. Powell Sings the Body Electric 

RECOLLECTION

Both parts of Gareth L. Powell’s novel The Recollection are prefaced by quotations from Whitman, and the character of Toby Drake has a copy of Leaves of Grass on his desk (Gareth L Powell, The Recollection, Oxford: Solaris, 2011: 249), thus providing the reader with a background that elevates the human form and the human mind, clearly persuading us to side with the humans in this story.

A central problem in this book is the definition of life and/or consciousness. Powell addresses it via the sub-plot of the heroine’s extracted embryo that she had frozen: “Would it know it had been frozen? Would it feel time passing by it?” (Powell, Recollection: 224). On the other hand, the dialogues between her and her spaceship’s system certainly seem very life-like.

The novel’s eponymous phenomenon, “the Recollection”, is first mentioned on page 170 and clearly presented as a threat to humanity. It is “not natural” (Powell, Recollection: 170), “[a]nd now, it is almost upon us” (Powell, Recollection: 171).

 “The Recollection is darkness and hunger. It is a cancer gnawing at the bones of the galaxy. None of you can stand against it.” (Powell, Recollection: 172)

“It is a tsunami of unspeakable horror, and it will swamp your defences and drown your souls. It cannot be defeated, appeased or bargained with, and it will scour all the life from your planets.” (Powell, Recollection: 173)

This obscure phenomenon, the Recollection, is demonized to such a degree that the language that is used to describe it makes it appear like the Biblical Satan. Kat Abdulov, the protagonist, is also given a pendant to keep her safe. The first time she encounters the Recollection (which, seen from a distance, appears like red-tinged smoke, trying to engulf a planet), her first reaction is, “What the hell [!] is that?” (Powell, Recollection: 199). Later, her father repeats this exact same phrase in the same situation (Powell, Recollection: 298).

The recollection is presented as a tentacular menace “swallowing deserts, lakes and mountains” (Powell, Recollection: 199). People who have come into contact with it are described as mindless and soon even called “zombies” (Powell, Recollection: 210 et seq). They cannot be killed (Powell, Recollection: 211); their wounds are immediately filled by the “red paste” (cf. Powell, Recollection: 213).

When Kat herself comes into contact with the phenomenon, she learns that it is sentient, an invasive hive mind, again described in language that presents it as the devil:

As it pushed into her mind, she heard the voices of those it had already consumed, their souls crying out in torment, trapped forever in the belly of the beast. Her mind touched theirs and knew their agony, knew that they been torn from their physical bodies and imprisoned here, in virtual simulation spaces contained within the redness itself. (Powell, Recollection: 214)

“[The Recollection is] very old,” she said. “And it’s not a cloud. It’s a, a memory matrix. It breaks everything down, stores it as code. It preserves everything it touches.” (Powell, Recollection: 230)

The ship’s analytical system explains that the Recollection is a gestalt entity, a swarm of nanomachines, “all identical, all molecular in size, […] converting […] molecules into copies of themselves” (Powell, Recollection: 231). Even though “[t]he individual machines are not themselves conscious, but each contributes towards the intelligence of the whole (Powell, Recollection: 232), the demon metaphor still holds: a multitude trying to ursurp human minds (or even ‘souls’), with Kat being saved because she wore her pendant.

Her first impulse is to establish communication with the Recollection, but the audio transmission only consists of “an earsplitting howl” (Powell, Recollection: 233).

Even while flinching from the howl, she’d thought she could hear within it the individual screams and cries of a million tormented souls: an earsplitting confluence of agony and fear (Powell, Recollection: 233-4).

The Recollection turns out to be “a weapon that had turned on its creators and consumed them” (Powell, Recollection: 245). It is presented as all-devouring, its hunger (i.e. its processing power) growing with its size.

And all the while, there in the background, Kat sensed something else: a longing almost too vast to be understood in terms of human emotion; a terrible ecstatic yearning for the end of all things, the long twilight of the cosmos, when The Recollection would offer up its harvested souls and merge into the final collective intelligence, the Eschaton at the end of time… (Powell, Recollection: 245-6)

At this point Kat has herself been infected by the nanobots. This, in combination with the revelation that the soul-consuming Recollection had been designed as a weapon, foregrounds the Whitman theme that has been implicitly present all along:

The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;

They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,

And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

(Walt Whitman, “I Sing the Body Electric”, in Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1900. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html: 2–4)

Like Lucifer, especially Byron’s sympathetic portrayal of Lucifer in his play Cain, the Recollection is tempting Kat with unlimited possibility, without rules or interdictions. Powell stays true to this established metaphor when the hive mind speaks through an army of infected (Powell, Recollection: 346) and later even assumes the voice of Kat’s mother. Kat’s reply to the collective is, “Go to hell” (Powell, Recollection: 302).

In the end, a human saves all life – because of his “soul of an artist” (Powell, Recollection: 320), because the priest-like community of the Dho judge him to be a good person (Powell, Recollection: 321). He employs an almost overly symbolic deus ex machina device, an all-seeing, fiery weapon to smite evil. “They designed it as a saviour. A god, if you like” (Powell, Recollection: 340).

Finally Kat and Verne, our human heroes, try to rescue all of the frozen embryos in a storage facility but kill the nanobot army. This illustrates that the limits of consciousness as discussed in this novel are obviously defined by a notion of ‘soul’ (again implying a Christian world-view according to which the soul is present in a human from the moment of conception). Killing nanobots is justified because they are presented as soulless and therefore evil. The Gnarl, the saviour device, on the other hand is defined as good, even though it too is revealed as a construct. This makes the moral stance of the human characters in this novel, who assign human values to non-human entities, appear arbitrary and leaves more questions open than it tries to answer.

Robot_Fist_by_mattandrews“Robot Fist” by Matt Andrews (http://mattandrews.deviantart.com/)

2. Adam Roberts’ Revolutionary Technology

 STONE

In Adam Roberts’ Stone, nanotechnology is so omnipresent throughout most of the known universe that the only noticeable thing is a person without it. It is considered a part of the human (or alien) body, a tool, much like a household item. Nanobots will keep their hosts free from infections and heal wounds with such speed and effectiveness that nobody can even be killed that easily. Due to so-called dotTech immediately cauterizing the wounds and keeping the blood circulation up, even severed heads can be reattached. And since they are an essential part of the quotidian, nobody ever really thinks about the robots. The reader is presented with a universe of total automatisation (in the technological sense as well as Sklovskij’s).

Another interesting fact about the world Roberts creates in Stone is that even though a multitude of science-fictional tropes are employed, there are no aliens. All known planets are colonized by humans. Non-human appearances are caused by genetic modification (brought about by reprogramming dotTech). Humans don’t have any goals as a society; their lives only consist of recreation, distraction, fashions and games.

In the worlds of t’T there are sometimes such illnesses where the cultures do not permit dotTech in the brain. These people will rave of aliens and other civilisations. But, dear stone, there are no aliens. Humanity has crossed and recrossed the fast-space and the slow-space, visited every world and star, penetrated even into sublight realms, underworlds. But there has never been discvovered a single material object that would suggest alien life, present or past. Not one fragment of xeno-bone, not a ghostly radio signal gibbering and crackling lost in space. There are primitive life forms on hundreds of worlds; insects and worms, plants and fish, but nothing that thinks, that imagines or dreams or makes art. Sensible people accepted long ago that humanity is the only sentient creature to have existed. (Roberts, Stone: 197)

We get the impression that humanity has produced its own aliens by visually transforming itself into a variety of typical science fiction aliens, a mass of teratological subcultures that don’t understand each other and that don’t communicate. The protagonist’s secret mission in this chaotic world is to destroy a planet’s whole population (and hopefully find out the identity of his anonymous contractor who remains invisible).

War is an alien notion to the humans of the t’T – not because they inhabit any sort of higher moral ground, but because in the course of time (and with the advance of dotTech) the word has lost all meaning. Being immersed in leisurely pursuits, nobody even has a concept of politics. War does exist, theoretically, somewhere, but it is considered a fashion, a sort of game:

The militarists wanted the worlds of the t’T to adopt a new fashion (that was the phrase they used, because people such as us can really only think in terms of fashion and vogue and modes) – a war fashion. (Roberts, Stone: 114)

“Why would the Palmetto do this [i.e. launch ‘fireships’]?” […]

“War,” said one voice.

“War,” agreed another.

(Roberts, Stone: 112)

War doesn’t need any justification – war clearly justifies itself.

“You do believe it, don’t you? You do believe what you said on Narcissus – that the Wheah are about to invade?”

“I don’t know,” she said, breaking away from my grip. “Who cares? It’s just something to say.”

[…]

“It’s just something to say,” Klabier told me […]. “That’s all it is. Merely something to say – that’s the point of politics. The pleasure is in the saying, not in what is said.” (Roberts 2002: 150-51)

With this bizarre world-view that has clearly developed due to the endless possibilities offered by dotTech, most of humanity is ill-equipped to recognize a threat, even though they would technically make near invincible soldiers. Thus the protagonist is able to fulfill his assignment and annihilate the designated planet’s whole population. It is of interest here that he does have a choice: having re-awakened the killer instinct that seems to be lost to the rest of humanity, he has to choose between preserving his own life and that of a whole population. It is the killer in him that wins.

At the end of the novel, our (anti-)hero’s opponent is revealed as dotTech itself. His contractor has been a hive mind comprised by all the existing nanobots. Now they are free of the biomass of the chosen planet’s population – which leaves them with a world of their own and the resources to build their own society. They want to leave for a place that humanity can’t enter or even understand. They want to be free. By committing genocide our protagonist has not only enabled but already won their revolution for them.

With this multi-layered and ironic narrative, Adam Roberts achieves an interesting shift in perspective. Since the humans of his t’T universe still cling to an anthropocentric world-view, they fail to perceive that they are no longer alone. In dotTech they have created the aliens they had been looking for, but while they were busy distracting themselves, the aliens have already achieved emancipation. They don’t need their creators in order to survive, and since interaction with humanity clearly doesn’t serve anything, the machines decide to leave us behind.

3. M. John Harrison: Sparks in Everything

LIGHTNOVA_SWINGEMPTY_SPACE

In his Empty Space trilogy (Light, Nova Swing, Empty Space) M. John Harrison creates a dream-like atmosphere (wrong physics, shifting perspectives, hallucinatory images), places (alien worlds, the Kefahuchi Tract) and creatures (alien races, clones, composite technology people, humanoid “artefacts”, the Shrander) that cannot be decoded, that throw the readers. But from the anti-escapist perspective that his works encourage we must be thrown – thrown back into our mundane reality (and everything that comes with it), thrown back upon our mindsets – changed. Through engaging with his worlds as readers, we feel the necessity to rethink, and possibly reshape, our own world(s). Effective anti-escapist fiction politicises, because it can’t not politicise. It is about acknowledging what is problematic about the stories, heroes and hero’s journeys we are used to – including the genre’s own historical figures and the worlds they created. It is about de-automatisation and/or offering alternatives. To achieve this effect it has to be disturbing (cf. China Miéville in Sarah Crown, “What the Booker prize really excludes,” Guardian, October 27, 2011, accessed September 22, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/oct/17/science-fiction-china-mieville).

In Light we first encounter the enigmatic K-culture – “artefacts” and people emerging from the Kefahuchi Tract, a truly Weird phenomenon in the sense that it precedes all its surroundings and cannot be interpreted or explained. Throughout the books we learn, in bits and pieces, that the lifeforms from the tract exhibit very human traits but simultaneously appear utterly alien to us as readers – and to the human characters they encounter. As aliens, and especially as part of a Weird phenomenon, they ultimately remain opaque.

When we first see a woman dissolve into tiny motes of light (Harrison, Light: 105), we are reminded of the notion from Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris that at a basic level the ‘visitors’’ cells consist of light. Later we learn that ‘artefacts’ (who are probably the same as ‘K-culture’, or at least produced by K-tech), and also humans infected with invasive code, share code in the form of light (Harrison, Nova Swing: 135). In addition to their human appearance and behaviour, which often recalls Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this serves to make us rethink the definition and boundaries of life as well as humanity’s place in the universe.

By the third book in the trilogy, Empty Space, urban legends exist about ‘daughter code’ (a term and concept which seem to be influenced by the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic as well as Tarkovsky’s filmic adaptation of the novel, Stalker). ‘Daughters’ are demonized and ‘quarantined’, ostensibly for safety reasons. One circulating story is retold, an urban myth of invasive code, of a Daughter working as hired help, taking care of a little boy and accidentally physically merging with him (ES 156-157). The story doesn’t only mention what could be defined as sexual molestation, it also contains a warning about artefacts appropriating human DNA. Like Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” in a way, it’s a cautionary tale about machines. Its ‘moral’ is to never trust a non-human. This is very problematic, and not just in a world where artefacts look like humans and behave like humans. Besides, this takes place in an age of fetches (i.e. projections of humans over vast distances), twink tanks (in which you experience artificial realities), cultivars (i.e. cloned copies of humans into which one can download one’s identity), and all sorts of body modifications. There are K-pilots who used to be human and were subsequently remade by nanomachinery introduced into their bodies, their bones broken, their organs removed, K-code embedded in their brains to transform them into human-machine interfaces (Harrison: Light; 2007: 337f). It’s not that easy anymore to define humanity.

From Nova Swing on, there seem to be fewer and fewer individuals. If they still exist at all, even as residues of some sort, they are buried under the body modifications (‘chop jobs’) that people buy in order to fit in, or to be closer to their own dreams, or to other people’s expectations, or something instilled into their minds by the relentless omnipresent adstreams. Individual names have become brand names: ‘Annies’ are stereotype rickshaw girls, ‘Monas’ are sex clones, and so on. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. And what about the humanoid so-called ‘artefacts’? Are they K-tech? Are they alive? Is/was so-called K-culture the same as K-tech? What does ‘alive’ even mean? Life does not equal intelligence or self-awareness. Where does the concept of ‘person’ start? Where does the concept of ‘individual’ end?

Another problematic that the humans in the books don’t seem to take into account is that technology was already invasive long before the scare against artefacts/daughters:  Based on salvaged K-tech that they never fully understood, humans built K-ships in which nanotechnology is used to establish a connection between the ship’s navigational system and the pilot’s brain, pushing electrodes through the roof of their mouth and into their brain matter (cf. Harrison, Nova Swing: 290). There is also Antoyne’s cocktail, a yellow and pink concoction that becomes so fashionable that everyone in the background of the plot is drinking it. As it turns out, the mixer contains ‘smart molecules’ that will always separate the cocktail into two precise, evenly distributed layers, one pink and one yellow, no matter how little is left in the glass or how it is moved around (Harrison, Nova Swing: 301). Code is everywhere, and nobody enquires about its source. People drink it because it is fashionable.

Why discriminate against daughters then? Why fear them? Because they might change you? Data leaks or viruses could do that to you any time. Besides, we are code too. That’s what DNA is. And cultures intermingle. Segregation and discrimination only prevents cultural exchange which would promote mutual understanding and provide a fecund ground for new developments.

‘Daughters’ are also linguistically marked. Everyone keeps calling them ‘artefacts’, even though it is obvious that the K-code is sentient (and possibly the same as the so-called K-culture first described in Light). Mrs Kielar, herself quite clearly an ‘artefact’, has a page in her diary covered in nothing but her name, as if she has to tell, if not the world, then herself (and maybe more importantly so) that she is not an artefact, that she is in fact Mrs Elizabeth Kielar. K-ship pilots, once clearly human, and at least partially human still, as we know from Seria Mau’s case in Light, are repeatedly called ‘it’ (Harrison, Nova Swing: 234), never ‘he’ or ‘she’. This only serves to dehumanize them even further, no matter how they might feel about themselves. And nobody asks them about that, either.

“[The new artefacts] walk about,” Aschemann was surprised to hear himself say, “as if they own the place.”

[…]

“Maybe they do,” [Edith, the ‘Daughter’] said.

(Harrison, Nova Swing: 143).

Finally, there is the question of self-identification. In Empty Space, there is the case of Renoko, by his abilities almost definitely K-culture, who “self-identified as human” (Harrison, Empty Space: 124). Humans, on the other hand, will sometimes self-identify as machines (e.g. K-ships, cars), like a rickshaw girl talking about a 1952 Cadillac that she admires: “Fact is […] I’d rather be one than own one […].” (Harrison, Nova Swing: 224).

Of course if the government (EMC, the media) spawns and/or reinforces the myth that artefacts are the enemy to watch out for, it doesn’t matter if they’re indistinguishable from everyone else. If there is an external enemy; supposedly humankind will stand united against them. They can also be used as a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong – never mind that there are non-invasive or passive ‘daughters’, ‘daughters’ raised as humans (cf. Edith in Nova Swing), potentially invasive code that people are in constant contact with, that they have sex with, that they imbibe, firewalls or no firewalls… It all comes down to Earth-centric politics, including the way the alien so-called New Men have always been treated. They are humanoid and very similar to humans, but easily identifiable, and have always been oppressed. And they have never revolted?

“Is it wrong to objectify objects?” (Harrison, M.J. (@mjohnharrison) “Is it wrong to objectify objects?” 16 Aug 2013, 12:21 p.m. Tweet.)

…And who gets to define who is an object and who is a person?

M. John Harrison’s approach also opens up more questions rather than providing solutions of any kind. By embedding references to his previous books, other works of literature, pop culture and even non-fictional works in his narrative he encourages the reader to investigate the thus created universe, which inevitably leads them back into their own reality, questioning not only power relationships but also the definition of humanity and their previous views of the nature of the universe. We are left with an altered perception of reality, an urge to re-think our worlds, to look for the hidden potential for transformation – like the symbolic value the name “Nova Swing” takes on in the eponymous middle book of the trilogy: As long as it is not realized as one fixed outcome, it stands for a possible name for an enterprise (according to Irene the Mona) or a rocketship (for Antoyne), a way out of Saudade (literally and figuratively), a dream, a promise, a potential future encompassing endless possibilities.

 Works cited and consulted:

Byron, George Gordon. Cain. A Mystery, in The Works of Lord Byron. Poetry. Vol. V., edited

     by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. London: John Murray & New York: Charles Scribner’s

     Sons, 1901. Accessed September 22, 2013.http://www.gutenberg.org/files/23475/23475-

     h/23475-h.htm#CAIN_TITLE.

Crown, Sarah. “What the Booker prize really excludes.” Guardian, October 27, 2011.

     Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/oct/17/

     science-fiction-china-mieville

Dick, Philip K. “Second Variety”, in The Philip K. Dick Reader, 385–422. New York:

     Citadel Press, 1997.

Dick, Philip.K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1996.

Eco, Umberto. “Mögliche Wälder”, in Im Wald der Fiktionen. Sechs Streifzüge durch die

     Literatur. Harvard-Vorlesungen (Norton Lectures 1992-93). Translated by Burkhart

     Kroeber. München & Wien: Carl Hanser, 1994.

Harrison, M. John. The Pastel City, in Viriconium, Fantasy Masterworks series, 23–152.

     London: Millennium, 2000.

Harrison, M. John. Light. New York: Bantam, 2007.

Harrison, M. John. Nova Swing. New York: Bantam, 2009.

Harrison, M. John. Empty Space. A Haunting. London: Gollancz, 2012.

Harrison, M. John (@mjohnharrison) “Is it wrong to objectify objects?” 16 Aug 2013, 12:21

     p.m. Tweet.

Harrison, M. John (‏@mjohnharrison) “So which has been more successful, the algorithmic

     attempt to mimic the human or the human attempt to mimic the algorithm?” 25 Sep 2013.

     10:16 a.m. Tweet.

Jardin, Xeni. “@horse_ebooks revealed”. Boing Boing, September 24, 2013. Accessed

     September 24, 2013. http://boingboing.net/2013/09/24/horse-ebooks-revealed.html

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox. London: Faber and

     Faber, 2001.

Miéville, China. Iron Council. London: Macmillan, 2004.

Miéville, China et al. “Snow had Fallen” in Hellblazer #250. New York: DC Vertigo, Feb

     2009.

Orlean, Susan. “Horse_ebooks Is Human After All.” The New Yorker, September 24, 2013.

     Accessed September 24, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013

     /09/horse-ebooks-and-pronunciation-book-revealed.html

Powell, Gareth L. The Recollection. Oxford: Solaris, 2011.

Powell, Gareth L. (‏@garethlpowell) “Science fiction asks what it means to be human; how

     we relate to our technology; and what our place is in the vastness of time and space.” 8

     Apr 2013. 10:38 a.m. Tweet.

Roberts, Adam. Stone. London: Gollancz, 2002.

Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris. Roadside Picnic. SF Masterworks Series. Translated by Olena

     Bormashenko. London: Gollancz, 2012.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Solyaris [Solaris]. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. 1972. Creative Unit of

     Writers & Cinema Workers / Mosfilm / UnitFour. Film.

Whitman, Walt. “I Sing the Body Electric,” in Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David

     McKay, 1900. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://www.bartleby.com/142/19.html

About

Christina Scholz is currently writing her PhD thesis on China Miéville’s fiction. Her fields of interest include the further theorisation of Weird Fiction, Hauntology and the Gothic imagination, the interrelation of genre fiction and other forms of art, and depictions of war, violence and trauma in the arts. Her Master’s thesis, Thanateros: (De)Konstruktion von männlichen Heldenbildern im Mainstream-Film, has been published by AV Akademikerverlag in 2012. Her online publications include an article in Alluvium and a forthcoming short story in The Big Click.

DoctorSleep_limited_1280x800

I actually came to Stephen King through The Shining.  Not the mental ability or the novel, you understand, but the Stanley Kubrick film (1980).  Apart from visual iconography, my interest in horror was minimal, as the genre had a strong, and I felt, unpleasant, affect on me emotionally.  However, after watching A Clockwork Orange (1971) at 17, I was stunned by the previously unseen (by me, that is) possibilities of cinema.  I was determined to view more Kubrick, and was hence drawn to The Shining, despite my extreme apprehension.  The film terrified me, and still does, but I developed an obsessive fascination with the film and the story itself.  I then decided to read King’s novel, and an offshoot love grew from there.

the-shining-001The-Shining-novel-picture1

King’s prose is immersive and insightful, if a bit clunky and hokey at times.  The Shining felt like a sprawling and exquisitely paced potboiler, slow to build and at the halfway point delivering, not just chapter-by-chapter, but page-by-page.  Revisiting it prior to the release of King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep (2013), I found very little had changed in my enjoyment.  The novel retained its haunting mystique over 15 years after I first read it, seen the film well over 30 times, and even watched the occasionally cringeworthy TV mini-series at least 5 times.

I do love this story.

So naturally I was both excited and wary of Doctor Sleep well before it was delivered to my door.  These mixed feelings continued throughout my reading of this new novel, yet when it came time to press the endboard against the block of paper I had pored over one leaf at a time, I didn’t feel disappointed.

What the book did was precisely what it promised, and what King in his afterword intimated he wanted to do with the book, which was take Danny, the likeable young innocent from The Shining, show, in pieces, his development, degradation, and redemption, before using this to develop a whole new scenario for him to utilise his gifts and encounter others who have them.  And through this template, he creates a compelling and highly readable story that carries you smoothly and eagerly from plot point to plot point.

The story for Doctor Sleep is conceived around the continuing life of Danny in a universe where the shining exists in a small part of the world population to varying degrees.  The novel begins with Danny, still a young boy, a few years following the events of the earlier story.  He still lives with the “shining”, a vaguely defined psychic ability that allows someone to have a keener insight into the thoughts and emotions of other people, as well as the ability to sense things to come, as well as secret but powerful things that have gone.  Danny is still, in a literal way, haunted by ghosts of the Overlook.  His mentor and close family friend, Dick Hallorann, an African-American chef who has taught Danny about the shining, as they share this talent, arrives to help him use his abilities to rid himself of the spirits that threaten him with physical harm.  Following this, the narrative fractures into several strands, but I will stay with Danny for the purposes of a clear summary.

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Danny is seen later, a young man out of high school, and a severe alcoholic.  He takes jobs wherever he can until his alcoholism destroys his life in that location, before moving to the another place.  In Wilmington, North Carolina, he hits something resembling rock bottom, where the incident that incites him to leave town haunts him mentally for much of his adult life.  He gradually moves up to New England where he meets an older man with a bit of the shining who helps him get a job, where he’s introduced to his new boss who sponsors him in Alcoholics Anonymous.  Moving forward several years later, Danny, now ‘Dan’, remains sober, and while the shining isn’t as strong with him as it was as a child, he still uses it in his new job at a hospice where he helps guide the dying peacefully into death.  It is here his story connects with another strand.

Abra Stone is a young girl born just after the millennium.  She also has an extremely powerful shine.  As she grows from infancy into pubescence, she mentally connects and communicates with Dan, without knowing who exactly he is.  As she nears her teens, it becomes necessary for her to meet Dan as he is the only one that can help her with…

The True Knot is a group of seemingly innocuous pensioners and their families, who travel across America in caravans, staying in campgrounds, and always on the go.  However, they also live much longer than normal people, surviving off of “steam”, or, final tortured breaths of people, primarily children with the shining. They discover Abra, and are determined to get her steam, suffering almost any risk.  The True Knot, Abra, and Dan begin crossing each others’ paths, with the book culminating in their confrontation.

Was it as good as, or better than, The Shining?  I don’t think so.  It certainly didn’t make as strong an impression on me.  I didn’t feel quite as engaged with Dan as I did Jack in the first book, and, in fact, it was the lingering power of Jack’s character, who doesn’t make an appearance in Doctor Sleep except in fleeting references to memories, that gives Dan’s character the gravitas it needs to be as rich and compelling as it is.

A friend of mine gets particularly annoyed, with some legitimacy, with King’s repeated use of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope.  This is the theory that certain texts incorporate a non-white character that has few, if any, flaws, that exists within the story to solve problems for the white protagonists.  It often feels as though King seems to consider this empowering in some sense, which, if true, is well-intentioned, but sadly misguided.  This is certainly true of the character of Dick Hallorann, Dan’s mentor in both books, and was even humorously addressed by comedian Paul Mooney on Chappelle’s Show (Comedy Central 2003-2006) in relation to the character of John Coffey in The Green Mile (1996).  While King stubbornly insists on utilising Magical Negro characters, he does prove he can write characters of colour well in the phenomenal The Dark Tower series (1982-2004), through Susannah.

The most irritating sections of the book, most likely to those who have read and are familiar with The Shining, are the almost pedestrian and requisite passages catching the reader up on the story to date.  King certainly doesn’t do anything as obvious as the literary equivalent of ‘Last time, on The Shining…”  However, the apparent recap segments feel clunky and make the narrative disjointed.  They are necessary for context, especially if the reader hasn’t encountered the previous novel, but they don’t integrate quite as smoothly as I would have liked.

But that’s about all I can negatively direct at Doctor Sleep.  As an overall read, it effectively moves on from the previous story, and, instead of aping the narrative of The Shining, King utilises a different storyline that he has revisited throughout his career: two unlikely groups, one good, one evil, and both well-developed, and travelling towards a climactic showdown.  However, King doesn’t entirely divert from the tradition of Doctor Sleep‘s forerunner.

Although King adopts a familiar but different narrative from The Shining, in terms of structure and pacing, he models the earlier book almost verbatim.  It is a slow build, wherein all of the characters are given room to develop and grow.  In some cases, their links are only superficially apparent (spoiler: it’s the shining!) but it seems more like you are engaged in character observation more so than narrative trajectory.  Then, with the help of some earlier signposting, the novel starts running at the halfway mark, almost without the reader realising it has picked up speed until you are well into the story.  And this, precisely, is one of the things I found most fascinating about The Shining in the first place.  Doctor Sleep models this very closely and it is told in a very compelling manner, driving one to avidly move from one chapter to the next.

The characters are also given appropriate attention.  The good guys are flawed, occasionally grotesque, but ultimately likeable, and the bad guys are penned sympathetically with genuine insight and pathos, but their actions are ultimately clearly condemned as evil.  This, in turn reveals tragedy in each victory, and contributes emotional complexity throughout.  However, if you are familiar with King’s work, you will know that this is nothing new.  He is a consummate professional, who loves and excels in his craft, and Doctor Sleep only further solidifies the fact that, even as a one-man popular fiction factory, he continues to deliver, even at his lowest, a high standard of emotional and aesthetic rewards.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that, again, it wasn’t as striking as that of The Shining, but it felt like a satisfying conclusion to both stories.  For the climax, King issues a much-derided literary device, which he manages to expertly wield time and time again: the deus-ex-machina.  He literally employed this at the conclusion of The Stand (1978), and often utilises it to tie up all of the odd, uncanny loose ends of his books.  This device is accused, by critics (and not unfairly), as an example of lazy storytelling.  But with King’s frequent forays into the supernatural, the deus-ex-machina is often necessary to clean up his messes.  That said, King’s versions of this are so inventive and unpredictable, it is difficult to be wholly disappointed with any of them.  He uses this oft-derided device to his benefit more often than not.  King also manages to show the remaining characters, after the fact, and never fails to demonstrate, even for the successful ones, the scars resulting from the events are often deep.

It would be foolhardy to expect a revisitation of the weighty, atmospheric brilliance of The Shining.  But Doctor Sleep is far from a cheap attempt by King to capitalise on former glories.  He seems to care about these characters, long after he finished writing the earlier book, and has given deep consideration to Dan, Wendy, Dick, and all of the new characters that have entered into their lives.  This is not a masterpiece, but it is very, very good storytelling.  And most importantly, Doctor Sleep is lots of fun.

ABOUT

Wickham Clayton recently earned his PhD in Film and TV Studies from Roehampton University.  His thesis addresses the importance of perspective to the form of the slasher subgenre of horror through the Friday the 13th films.  Wickham is a published film critic, and contributing co-editor with Sarah Harman of the forthcoming Screening Twilight: Critical Approaches to a Cinematic Phenomenon for I.B.Tauris.  He is also a contributing co-editor with Bethan Jones of a forthcoming special issue of Intensities: A Journal of Cult Media, focusing on the adaptive relationships between Film/TV texts and board games.  In addition, Wickham has written about fairy tales and adapting narration in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, paranoia aesthetics in Oliver Stone’s JFK, and is developing projects on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the films of Woody Allen.

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[Spoiler alert — this review gives away key plot points]

A wise man once wrote that, when the final showdown comes, you’re better off facing an evil man. “The evil like power,” he argues, “power over people, and they want to see you in fear. They want you to know you’re going to die. So they’ll talk. They’ll gloat. They’ll watch you squirm. They’ll put off the moment of murder like another man will put off a good cigar.” Luckily for Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), it would seem that this also applies to moon-murdering alien invaders.

It’s not the movie’s most egregious flaw, but it’s another one of those little moments that jolts the audience out of the narrative just long enough to mutter, “Oh, please,” and that’s not quite worthy of a film with ambitions as lofty as Oblivion’s. True, it hasn’t been blessed by an over-abundance of love from critics (though its $200 million global box office receipts have not been noticeably affected), drawing the sort of reviews that call it “equally ambitious and gormless” (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky for rogerebert.com), “bafflingly solemn, lugubrious and fantastically derivative” (Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian), and “a stylised remix of superior sci-fi ground-breakers” (Kevin Harley for Total Film). And, to be fair, Oblivion is all of these things. But it’s also not quite the sum of its parts, and whether that’s a good thing, an indifferent thing, or a bad thing is largely, perhaps, a question of perspective.

The movie, which was released in cinemas in April and on DVD in August, began life as a graphic novel, written by director Joseph Kosinski but never finished, and its print-media origins peek through from time to time. Most notable is in the opening expository speech, delivered in voiceover by Cruise’s Jack as we meet him and his partner/lover, Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), preparing for another day as the last man and woman on a devastated, post-apocalyptic Earth. That the sequence succeeds is largely due to the momentum afforded to it by French band M83’s effective soundtrack, and what could have been clumsy, clunky tell-don’t-show storytelling becomes instead something rather hauntingly elegant — a beauty/boredom tension that the film returns to time and again. Sixty years ago, Jack tells us, the moon was destroyed by an invading extra-terrestrial race known as the Scavengers, which precipitated a cataclysmic series of earthquakes and tsunami that devastated the planet. In order to repel the alien threat, mankind was obliged to loose its nuclear arsenal, precipitating a Pyrrhic victory: the Scavengers were defeated, now left to scrabble a living off the irradiated planet’s surface, but Earth was left uninhabitable, and humanity has been obliged to decamp to Titan. Why Titan? Why not, for example, Mars, which is both closer to the sun and, perhaps more importantly, distinctly
lacking in lakes of liquid methane? Excellent question, and one that may well precipitate an early bout of eye-rolling, but bear with it: the narrative is actually cleverer than it looks. Not as clever as it thinks, perhaps, but the internal logic actually holds up better than the opening scenes might suggest, and, in the face of some more recent big-budget space operas (naming no names), that’s a win in and of itself.

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In preparation for the migration to the moons of Saturn, the remnants of humankind have been evacuated to an enormous orbital space station known as the Tet, from which a cheerful controller, Sally (Melissa Leo), issues daily instructions to Jack and Vika, who’ve been consigned to the Earth’s surface for a little longer to monitor the massive hydroelectric fusion plants that will ultimately power humanity’s great exodus. They’re under constant attacks from bands of marauding Scavengers, or Scavs, who attack both the plants and the mechanised drones tasked with protecting them. Jack’s job is to maintain the drones; Vika’s to act as some kind of futuristic secretarial service, relaying information from a somewhat limited monitoring system that regularly loses visual contact with the one and only thing it’s supposed to keep an eye on (namely Jack), and from Sally herself. They are, as Vika repeatedly assures Sally, an effective team. But Jack, whose memory was wiped along with Vika’s prior to their mission, for purposes of security, has been experiencing dreamlike visions of a pre-war world that he cannot possibly remember, and a beautiful woman whose face he feels he ought to know. And then one night a human ship comes crashing back to earth, decanting a load of sleeper pods into the wreckage. The drones promptly destroy the pods, but Jack, who has flown out to investigate the crash, recognises in one of them the woman from his dreams: Julia, asleep for sixty years, and remarkably reluctant to tell either Jack or Vika just what, exactly, is going on.

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It’s no great spoiler to note that the movie appropriates freely from the likes of The Matrix, Moon, Total Recall, and, somewhat bizarrely, WALL-E. (Fair warning — that might not be a spoiler, but everything that follows from this point onwards will.) Many reviews have made a significant feature out of this fact, and it’s difficult to dispute: we’ve got a sentient machine-race subjugating humanity, we’ve got worker-clones who don’t know they’re clones, we’ve got memory-messing, and we’ve got the whimsical, rough-around-the-edges operative abandoned to a dying planet, who falls in love with the relics of humanity in a manner that raises him above the machinelike conformity of his unlikely female counterpart (whose sympathetic arc requires her to ascend to his apex of emotional awareness or else be classed as part of the problem he seeks to redress). Certainly, Oblivion is thematically very similar to Pixar’s feel-good tale of the little robot who could, but to dismiss it as derivative is slightly unfair. For one thing, this would seem to imply that only the likes of The Matrix, Total Recall, et al. engage with themes of memory, machine subjugation, cloning, or the essence of the Self, all of which are staples of the science fiction genre, and, truthfully, Oblivion’s take — both visually and, yes, thematically — is sufficiently distinctive that it is, arguably, no more derivative than any other text that employs the same or similar ideas. There is, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 reminds us, nothing new under the sun, and that includes the topoi of science fiction.

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For another, the positioning of the crisis that has led to earth’s destruction is quite differently configured. In WALL-E, humanity itself screwed up the planet through greed, consumerism, and plain, old-fashioned short-sightedness, and our punishment is to de-evolve into morbidly obese space-babies who have to be told what colour onesies to wear. If WALL-E questions the very essence of humanity, it’s from a position of relative hopefulness: there is no imminent danger of extinction, simply the threat of losing what makes us us, and all it takes to undo the damage is one anthropomorphised little bot with endearingly huge eyes who embodies what used to be great about humanity and thereby inspires the great re-evolution. Oblivion’s central conceit is somewhat different, and ties it into a slightly different category of science-fiction dystopia.

Mike Broderick, in his essay Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster, identifies four classes of post-apocalyptic texts: Preparation for Nuclear War and Its Survival, Encounters with Post-Nuclear Extraterrestrials, Experiencing Nuclear War and Its Immediate Effects, and Survival Long After Nuclear War (Broderick, 1993). While all four typically glorify the “nostalgically yearned-for less complex existence of agrarian toil and social harmony through ascetic spiritual endeavors” (and both WALL-E and Oblivion conclude with a kind of pastoral, pre-industrial idyll in which the complicating factors of technological advancement have been foresworn in favour of a re-humanising return to nature), WALL-E, by specifically avoiding the tropologically embedded apocalypse scenario, directly attributes its dystopic future to the actions of humankind and thereby brings it closer to the paradigm of the first three categories (which explore and interrogate anxieties surrounding nuclear destruction in the wake of shifting ideological sands post-World War II). Oblivion, however, inhabits another mode of performing apocalypse, closer to the fourth category, which, by virtue of eliding the cataclysm itself, Broderick argues, goes some way towards exculpating the human race for its own ruin. “The imaginary projections of life in a distant post-holocaust future,” he argues, “bypass graphic scenes of planetary destruction, thus enabling the spectator to evade or dismiss the human causal chain in nuclear warfare and to replace it with an archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts, inspired and propelled by some inscrutable and predetermined divine cosmic plan” (1993; emphasis in original). Yes, Oblivion’s humanity destroyed planet Earth, but it happens off-screen, and the narrative is insistent that Armageddon was unavoidable: we didn’t want the war, the war was brought to us, and our choice became, essentially, Earth or humanity. This isn’t a tale of human against human, of power games and war mongering and fatal hubris, this is a tale of one desperate decision brought to our door by a monstrous Other; had the Scavengers not turned up unannounced, the idealised past of Jack’s visions might never have been lost. Our bombs caused the catastrophe, but it’s not, in the final analysis, our fault. They started it.

As such, the movie’s interrogation of humanness and humanity is informed by an altogether different discourse to WALL-E’s, and one that is, ultimately, less interrogative and openly critical of current human practice. WALL-E was a cautionary tale about a potential future that we’d do well to avoid; Oblivion is a more straightforward tale of “archaic mythology steeped in heroic acts.” This has important consequences for the underlying ideological positioning of the movie, which is free to embody a much more essentialist attitude towards humanity that has important rhetorical consequences for the text — not least in terms of its gender paradigms.

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 For a start, rather than constructing a back-story of inevitable self-destruction, Oblivion instead positions an idealised pre-war Earth, along with the values, culture and human spirit it embodies. This narrative mode imbues humanity of the near future (2017 is the date of the war that wipes out the planet) with the uninterrogated nostalgia of a bygone era that Jack seeks to reclaim through his fetishisation of relics of times past: he wears a Yankees baseball cap, he equips himself with an encyclopaedic knowledge of games that took place in the now-buried Superbowl stadium, he has built a rural getaway in a valley untouched by radioactive fallout, where he listens to old-timey LPs on a record player, and he brings Vika a gift of a potted plant to their pristine hover-home high up in the skies above north-east America. That Vika responds by marching, grim-faced, to the balcony and dropping her present into the void, with an injunction to Jack against risking their return to the Tet with potentially contaminated flora and fauna, is an early indicator of how the movie intends to position both characters. Moreover, it introduces a binary — Jack/attachment to Earth:Vika/attachment to the Tet — that cannot help but attract a gendered discourse, particularly as the movie progresses. Earth, with its strong links to the Us of a present-day audience, with its shared values, goals and aspirations, with its recognisable privileging of the human, becomes strongly affiliated with the masculine, by virtue of Jack’s reverence of the old days and his rejection — which increases in substance as the narrative continues — of the new reality: a rejection that will, ultimately, be completely vindicated. Moreover, when the movie plays its great reveal — that the nuclear victory was a lie, there is no base on Titan, and the Tet, rather than representing the best hope for the survival of the human race, is, in fact, the vanguard of very the alien invasion that has led humanity to the brink of extinction — it emerges that the rag-tag human resistance movement is male-led (in the form of Morgan Freeman’s Beech), and male-supported (by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Sykes). There are female members, but the two humans who speak for the whole — who represent, in effect, the will to survive and reclaim the planet — are men.

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The Tet, on the other hand, is strongly gendered female. The face it shows Jack and Vika is female — Sally — and its values are espoused far more strongly by Vika than by Jack, who wonders wistfully why, if humanity won the war, they’re now obliged to abandon Earth just the same. Vika, on the other hand, can’t wait to leave the planet behind and is horrified by any action that might jeopardise their escape. Moreover, as Vishnevetsky, notes, the composition of the Tet itself references the female reproductive system: “Oblivion,” he notes, “will go down in film history as the movie where Tom Cruise pilots a white, sperm-shaped craft into a giant space uterus… Cruise’s sperm-ship enters through an airlock that resembles a geometrized vulva. He arrives inside a massive chamber lined with egg-like glass bubbles. At the center of the chamber is a pulsating, sentient triangle that is also supposed to be some kind of mother figure. Cruise must destroy the mother triangle and her space uterus in order to save the Earth.” More than that: the “egg-like glass bubbles” contain the developing bodies of a host of Jack-clones, firmly underscoring the uterus metaphor. The Tet walks like a woman and talks like a woman, and its biggest proponent is the movie’s female lead. It’s a gender affiliation that is both unsettling, and essentially undeniable.

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Julia, for her part, plays into the paradigm by embodying a kind of pre-war gender essentialism that the narrative posits as the ideal that has been lost: affiliated with Earth/humanity by virtue of the fact that she has not been corrupted by either the Tet or by the war, she becomes instead a kind of helpmeet to Jack, offering her love on terms that enable him to connect with his memories of their life together and thereby access the knowledge of the Tet’s true intentions that allows him ascend to his quasi-messianic status as saviour of mankind. Moreover, she concludes the movie having given birth to Jack’s daughter, with whom she lives in the agrarian idyll posited by the earlier scene in which Jack lamented the need to permanently vacate the planet, thereby promising a gender-appropriate hope for the future. She cannot be humanity’s saviour, because that role must go to Jack — established from the opening scenes as the Doer to Vika’s (female) Facilitator — but she can become the mother of the new, free generation that follows Jack’s noble sacrifice. Indeed, the text repeatedly underlines the dichotomy between Julia-as-idealised-past and Vika-as-problematic-future, most notably when Vika’s loyalty to the values espoused by the Tet results in her own death. For the idealised past to be resurrected, the problematic future must be defeated — and the ideal allowed to flourish in its brave new world.

8

It’s a troubling counter-narrative to a film that is, I would argue, smarter than its negative press would lead one to believe. Moreover, though it pains this gender theorist to acknowledge as much, it is possible to watch and enjoy the movie in spite of its uncomfortable ideological discourse, and in spite, indeed, of its many “Oh, please” moments (such as, for example, when the Tet fails to blow Jack — who is, after all, eminently disposable — out of the sky the minute it realises he’s lying and possibly there to destroy it. Lucky for him, it espouses the Pratchett mode of performing evil). For one thing, it’s shot with a visual flare that is both strikingly beautiful and indicative of Kosinski’s singular vision for his movie, and, though there’s not always the substance to back up the style, sometimes, in all honesty, one is too busy marvelling at the scenery to care. Perhaps the central themes have been played out before, but Oblivion forges them out of a script that is intelligent enough to construct its blind alleys with the same care and conviction that it applies to its true narrative core, so that the twist, when it comes, is convincing enough that it doesn’t, unlike many recent rug-pullers, leave the audience feeling played or, worse, betrayed by a build-up that ultimately makes no sense. And, while it’s unquestionably at least thirty minutes too long (any movie that has viewers surreptitiously glancing at their watches during the closing act is a movie that’s in serious need of some judicious pruning), this is partially a side-effect of being in possession of what many big-budget modern science fiction movies lack: namely, a functional brain.

The heart, unfortunately, is slightly harder to locate, but you’ve got to admire the effort.

Bibliography

Bradshaw, P (2013, April 10). Oblivion Review. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from TheGuardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/apr/10/oblivion-review

Broderick, Mike (1993). “Surviving Armageddon: Beyond the Imagination of Disaster” in Science Fiction Studies, No. 61, Vol. 20, Part 3 (online: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/61/broderick61art.htm)

Harley, K (2013, April 10). Oblivion. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from Totalfilm.com: http://www.totalfilm.com/reviews/cinema/oblivion

Pratchett, Terry (1993). Men At Arms (London, Corgi)

Vishnevetsky, I (2013, April 18). Oblivion. Retrieved October 20, 2013, from RogerEbert.com: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/oblivion-2013

 

Gravity 1

Let’s get this out of the way before we begin: Gravity is this year’s must-see science fiction movie. It has breadth, it has scale, it has tension, it has breathtaking visuals, and it has — hold the phone — actual science. Yes, ladies and gentlemen: that qualifier at the start of your genre description is not there for show: Gravity wears its “this could actually happen” credentials front and centre, and so diligent is the research behind the movie that it has managed to acquire a hearty thumbs up from none other than the second man to set foot on the moon. In a review for The Hollywood Reporter, Buzz Aldrin pronounced himself “extravagantly impressed” by the science on display in the movie, and, as far as authenticating accolades come, it doesn’t get much more authoratitive than this. Now, there’s certainly an argument to be made that this isn’t necessarily a good thing: we use science and movies to satisfy very different impulses within the human psyche, and advancements in human knowledge very rarely go hand in hand with an aesthetically pleasing zero-g explosion, a mutant rampage, or an alien invasion, all of which are generally pretty good reasons to watch some sci-fi. Gravity‘s great strength, however, is that it allows the dramatic tension to flow directly from the facts about current realities in space travel — hyperbolised, sure; catastrophised, oh, very much so — but the narrative’s main thrust is based around the idea that this is something that could absolutely happen; it just hasn’t happened yet. And this makes for a very effective movie.

That said, while it shoots for perfect (and comes remarkably close), the movie is let down by a number of points, some of them niggly, others less so. For one thing, the filmmakers have fudged their science in a couple of places, for reasons that make narrative sense (the difference in orbital trajectories between the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station would likely have made for a much shorter movie in which everyone dies really quickly and with much less fuss), and for reasons that make visual sense (do we really want to see photorealistic cloud and haze obscuring the breathtaking beauty of planet Earth whenever the camera swings around to capture the place we call home in lingering, reverent long shot?). And, more than once, Mission Specialist Ryan Stone owes her continued existence to an almost magical ability to avoid the high-speed death cloud of orbital debris that manages to shred two space stations, a shuttle, and pretty much everything else in the skies above Earth. It’s a neat trick, but, given that Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) also pulls it off on at least one occasion, maybe NASA were road-testing some kind of prototype debris-repellent spacesuits? If that’s the case, of course, then they’re due a refund on the suit worn by Flight Engineer Shariff Dasari — the first member of the team to die by shrapnel strike — and this, arguably, leads us into a consideration of the movie’s more serious issues: some unsettling racial and gender politics that see the one and only non-white cast member given no face at all (and have him killed him off without fuss or ceremony), and undermine the female lead’s agency through a gender discourse that defaults to essentialism.

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This is, of course, in some respects catastrophically unfair. Gravity is not only not that sci-fi movie, but it’s actively seeking to avoid being that sci-fi movie: you know, the one where women are scantily-clad objects of lust for the hegemonically masculine hero, and anyone with dark skin is automatically plotting the end of Earth as we know it. But, in many ways, that makes it all the more disjunctive when Gravity allows some traditionally problematic discourses to seep to the surface.

It hasn’t been a particularly good year to be a gender theorist and a science fiction fan (and it’s been a terrible year to be a gender theorist and a Trekkie): Oblivion gave us a stylishly conceived Monstrous Feminine; Elysium gave us twin ends of the female stereotype in a child-murdering megalomaniac and a nurturant, sacrificing mother; Star Trek Into Darkness gave us Carol Marcus in her underpants and a Lieutenant Uhura who thinks that a life-or-death mission to Q’onoS is the time to pick a fight with her boyfriend about his emotional distance. This in itself is not necessarily unusual: scholars have long noted the tension that exists between science fiction and representations of gender: “The dominant trend in science fiction,” argue Geoff King and Tania Krzywinska (2000) in Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace, “is to represent women as objects of the gaze, as helpers to and prizes for the hero, or as ‘othered’ aliens” (p. 41). They cite Sigourney Weaver’s landmark performance as Ellen Ripley in Alien (Scott, 1979) — a movie that has drawn much praise for its progressive construction of femininity — as an early example of a narrative that began to deconstruct the gender discourse of the genre and posit an alternative mode of performing the female in a science fiction setting. It’s worth noting, however, that, although in Alien Ripley is configured as equal to (and in many cases more capable than) her male counterparts, and the fact of her femininity is tangential to the plot, her character was originally supposed to have been male — a fact that casts her non-hegemonic construction in another light altogether — and, moreover, the movie’s sequel (Aliens; Cameron, 1986), its heroine now definitively female, devotes its main narrative arc to “re-feminizing” (Mainon, 2006: 193) the character through situating her as mother-figure to the ten-year-old child Newt. Moreover, as Rikke Schubart (2007) notes, the extended cut of the movie goes further and establishes Ripley as a biological mother: “In the original 137-minute theatrical release of the film, Ripley had no family,” says Schubart. “No husband or children. In the extended version aired on television in 1987 (available on English distribution) Ripley had a daughter. In 1999, a 154-minute director’s cut showed Cameron’s conception of Ripley’s character as a mother with a loss: On Earth Ripley cries over her daughter Amy, who has died at the age of sixty-two. ‘I promised I’d be home for her birthday. Her eleventh birthday.’ In the director’s cut, the ten-year-old Newt fills in for Ripley’s ten-year-old daughter” (p. 80).

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying science fiction movies, generally speaking, have a hard time with women, and even when they manage to work out those issues and create a genuinely progressive, independent action heroine whose agency is not dependent on a male counterpart, the narratives often spend quite some time mitigating any presumed emasculatory threat embodied in that construction by specifically and insistently situating her as motivated by conventionally feminine concerns. Terminator 2‘s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) is fighting to protect her young son. Ellen Ripley is fighting to rescue a surrogate daughter in the hope of redeeming herself for the loss of her child. “By connecting Ripley’s power (and, by extension, female power) to motherhood,” argues Judith Grant, “the film shows the impossibility of female power without martyrdom” (1993: 171).

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What does this have to do with Gravity? Both a little and a lot. From the outset, it’s clear that Gravity has ambitions over and above the standard popcorn-muching science fiction spectacle: it’s spectacular, all right, but in a manner that demands engagement with the text and rewards the audience for active watching. There’s a moment, very early into the movie, when the careful viewer will suddenly pull up sharp and realise that, what they’ve seen so far — possibly eight to ten minutes of footage (this reviewer makes no claim to be the sort of careful viewer in question) — has been shot in one Hitchcockian long take, gliding around outer space like a Clooney with a brand new jetpack, and relying on sound cues to direct our attention to where it needs to be. This only gets more impressive when you realise that, unlike Hitchcock and his penchant for the tricksy, very little of what the camera is capturing is actually there: it’s one thing to move fluidly around a three-dimensional set populated with actors trained to hit their marks; it’s another thing entirely to rely on a series of rigs and the power of the imagination to fill in the backdrop until the SFX guys can get their hands on it in post, and to go ahead and film that according to a picture that, in the moment, exists only in the mind of director Alfonso Cuarón. This is the work of a master in his field, and Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with son Jonás, brings to bear a vision for the movie that evidences an informed and critical knowledge of both filmmaking in general and the conventions genre in which he is working. Nowhere is this more evident than in his decision to make his lead character — on whose shoulders rests the entire dramatic thrust of the movie — female.

This is an important choice, and, by Hollywood logic, a risky one: the fact that science fiction’s target audience is young, white males (regardless of any demongraphic evidence about actual consumption patterns) is an aphorism that continues to hold true for the major studios and, therefore, continues to influence gender discourses in mainstream sci-fi movie output. Cuarón’s decision, then, to frame his movie as a female story, with virtually no male presence at all after the first act, is clearly an act of transgression and challenge to prevailing assumptions, and inescapably demonstrates both his engagement with and rejection of these discourses. Evidence? The director himself says that he came under pressure to change Stone’s gender: “When I finished the script,” he told a panel at ComicCon, “there were voices that were saying, ‘well, we should change it to a male lead.’ Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency” (Silverstein and Cadenas, 2013). If that sounds like a depressing thing to hear in 2013, that’s because it is: Gravity‘s worldwide gross currently (as of 28 November) stands at $578 million, female lead notwithstanding, so Stone’s gender is clearly not the box office poison of conventional wisdom, and yet, thirteen years into the twenty-first century, a filmmaker with Cuarón’s clout is still obliged to fight to keep her in his picture. That he did — that he made Ryan female in the first place — should not be an act of rebellion akin to placing a woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise in 1966, and yet, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

However, for all of the conviction, insubordination and courage that is unfortunately still necessary to put a female lead at the forefront of an action movie, the discourses that inform Stone’s characterisation are not entirely unproblematic. What’s given with one hand is undermined with another, and, as it turns out, the reason we’re able to have our female lead is because, no matter how progressive the narrative that situates her as its raison d’etre, she remains hamstrung by a gender paradigm that defaults into essentialism and denies, at every stage, her ability to spearhead her own rescue.

Gravity 4

“In science fiction,” argue King and Krzywinska, “gender differences often overlap with other binary distinctions. Science and rationality are conventionally gendered as masculine and often juxtaposed with nature, the supernatural and the irrational, which are constructed as feminine. […] The male hero figure, according to this reading, must prove his masculinity by defeating the alien invaders or the dehumanising force and by rescuing the beseiged heroine. In this reading of science fiction all types of difference tend to be subsumed to the preservation of conventional gender roles” (2000: 39). It doesn’t take much more than a superficial analysis to map this paradigm onto the gender discourses of Gravity: Bullock’s Stone is conceived of as Earth/nature-affiliated in her distaste for her extra-terrestrial environment (in contrast to Clooney’s Kowalski and, indeed, Paul Sharma’s Flight Engineer Dasari, who are both comfortable in and excited by their surroundings); Stone’s response to the initial debris cloud assault is life-threatening panic, while Kowalski remains calm (though urgent) and in control of the situation; when faced with severing their tether and allowing Kowalski to drift away to his death versus risking both their lives to save his, Stone’s emotion-driven (irrational) response is to insist that she will save his life, regardless of the cost, while Kowalski’s calm, rational appraisal of the situation allows him to sacrifice one life (his own) rather than two. It’s Kowalski’s level-headedness that Stone looks to in order to survive; he moderates her instinct towards over-emotionalism and formulates their initial escape plan, providing her with the information and practical skills that she will require in his absence. Narratively, this makes considerable sense: Kowalski is the experienced astronaut, Stone the novice — a scientist rather than an adventurer, on her first mission outside of Earth’s atmosphere. However, look a little closer, and one is forced to question the imperative behind establishing this relationship dynamic in the first place: it serves to rationalise Stone’s initial panic and her failure to think clearly through their options, and to naturalise her reliance on Kowalski and her assumption that he will lead them both to safety. In other words, it allows the narrative to construct its gender relations in a manner remarkably similar to King and Krzywinska’s notion of the science fiction ideal.

But Kowalski cannot, ultimately, save them, of course, and it might appear that Stone’s ability to survive alone and without his guidance — and Kowalski’s inability to save himself, let alone the “beseiged heroine” — goes some way towards recuperating this earlier discourse. It does — but it also doesn’t. On the one hand, Stone demonstrates clear resourcefulness, logical reasoning, and technical ability, all of which, critically, allow her to formulate the plan that makes it possible for her to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and survive the crisis that kills all other members of her mission. And yet even this moment of triumph is handed to Kowalski, who, by this stage, has been dead for about one diegetic hour: appearing to Stone as a hallucination as she waits for death in the lowered-oxygen environment of the crippled Soyuz module, he chides her for giving up so easily and suggests that the landing rockets could be used to propel the module to the Chinese space station, which still has a functional escape pod. Stone, realising that this represents her last chance at survival, mutters, “You’re a clever son-of-a-bitch, Matt,” and dials the oxygen back up, determined, now, to live.

Gravity 5

And, yes, it would certainly be true that Matt was “a clever son-of-a-bitch” if he’d come up with the plan. The thing is, he didn’t. Kowalski is dead; he died without knowing that the Soyuz was out of fuel, and there was no possible way that he prepped Stone for this possibility or suggested the tactics that ultimately save the day. This was all Stone — and yet she, and the narrative, hands credit to the male hero. Even when he doesn’t rescue her, the movie insists that he does.

Moreover, while the characters operate as broad archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out people (which, I would argue, works to the film’s advantage), Stone alone is afforded a back-story, and her motivation is very much in line with the “re-feminizing” discourse applied to Ellen Ripley in Aliens: she was a mother, and her child, at some unspecified point in the past, died, aged four, in a tragic accident. This is information that the narrative returns to in her Soyuz-based hallucination, when Kowalski’s shade suggests that it’s the reason Stone has decided to give up, rather than continue to fight for survival. “I get it,” he tells her. “Your kid died; it doesn’t get any rougher than that.” On the surface, it’s difficult to take exception to the words, except for the fact that the explanation they offer is entirely unnecessary: Stone is exhausted, demoralised, traumatised, and, essentially, without hope. She cannot contact Mission Control in Houston; she has limited supplies of oxygen; the Kessler Syndrome induced by the debris cloud has all but eliminated any possibility of long-term survival or rescue; and, as far as she can tell, there is no way for her to make her own way back to Earth. Her decision to opt for a painless suicide is intelligible on its own, and the reference to her daughter is superfluous — the only rationale for including it in this scene is, arguably, to justify including it at all within the movie. Kowalski has no similar motivational narrative: he is a cipher, without history or future, permitted, simply to be. The most we hear of him is that he has an ex-wife, mentioned as a throwaway comment, and a stock of old stories that may or may not be true; it’s impossible to judge, as not one of them is allowed to play out in full. Yet we’re required to read Stone as Mother — bereaved and looking for meaning — and to understand her presence in space as an extension of the loss she has experienced, her effort to escape the pain of her child’s death. Her scientific achievement, her value to the mission, her technical prowess and wealth of knowledge, are subordinated to gender essentialism, and Mother becomes her defining characteristic: both explanation for her gender transgression and, ultimately, what saves her from it.

None of the above, however, should be read as evidence against Gravity‘s importance as a challenge to and articulation of the gender paradigms embedded in mainstream science fiction filmmaking — more a reminder that there are discourses buried so deeply within popular culture that they find themselves reproduced unconsciously, even within a text that consciously sets out to challenge them. As such, from a gender perspective, I would argue, Gravity gets a (mostly) unequivocal pass: by placing gender front and centre, the movie is at least attempting to open up a dialogue with the representation of woman in science fiction, rather than quietly stepping into line with the covert female/emasculation theme espoused by the likes of, for example, Oblivion, or the overt sexualisation of the female body as discursive justification for its presence in the presumed all-male world of the science-fiction text (Star Trek Into Darkness, I’m glaring daggers at you). It has a point to make, and it makes this point, clearly and overtly, making a case — unfortunately still necessary — for the presence of women on their own terms within the text. It does not make this case perfectly, and, in centralising the gender of its protagonist, it also cannot help but buy into some of the discourses it’s purportedly seeking to challenge, but the fact is, it tries, and the only way progress is made is by those who are prepared to try. Star Trek (the original series) has rightly been criticised for the misogynistic and racist discourses encoded into the figure of Uhura, but it remains an early attempt at attempting to visualise how to do things differently. Does it succeed? Not entirely, and it suffers, in particular, from the fact that  questions of race and gender are now so foregrounded that the 1960s ethos that Star Trek attempted to problematise (while — perhaps inescapably, given the white and largely male privilege enjoyed by the creators — remaining limited by the prevailing socio-cultural mores that shaped the series’ worldview in the first place) echoes within the text in a manner that is now considered at best unreconstructed; at worst, indicative of a discourse of the very prejudices it seeks to avoid. And yet Star Trek remains, within popular culture, a moment of challenge to the status quo; an articulation of a fundamental inequity in the predominant power structures of its era and an optimistic looking forward to a future where those structures are substantively different. Without moments of challenge — to which science fiction, as a mythic space, is well-suited — hegemony is allowed to remain invisible through a tacit acceptance of its structures and discourses. This is what the gender discourse of Gravity seeks to problematise and, though it cannot avoid defaulting back to conventional signifiers of femininity in order to mitigate the threat embodied in Ryan Stone (by virtue of her usurpation of the body of the male hero), it is, nevertheless, engaging in the sort of agenda setting that Gene Roddenberry might understand very well. And that’s the highest compliment that this die-hard Trekkie could possibly bestow. 

Bibliography

Grant, Judith. (1993). Fundamental Feminism: Contesting the Core Concepts of Feminist Theory (NewYork: Routledge)

King, Geoff and Krzywinska, Tania (2000). Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace (London: Wallflower Press)

Mainon, Dominique (2006). Modern Amazons: Warrior Women on Screen (Pompton Plains, NJ: Limelight Editions)

Schubart, Rikke (2007). Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970-2006 (Jefferson, NC: Mc Farland & Co.)

Silverstein, M and Cadenas, K. (2013, July 24). Alfonso Cuaron Defends Having a Female Lead in Gravity. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from IndieWire.com:  http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/alfonso-cuaron-defends-having-female-lead-in-gravity

ABOUT

Rachael Kelly received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Ulster, where she researched the performance of gender anxiety in the historical epic film. She is the author of the forthcoming Mark Antony and Popular Culture: Masculinity and the Construction of an Icon (IB Tauris, January 2014).

Fifty Shades Ad

What happens when you’re a dedicated fan of romance novels (which I am), and you really hate the most popular romance novel of all time (which I do)? You certainly can’t ignore it: Fifty Shades of Grey is the best-selling book of all time in the UK, and the fastest-selling series in the US, surpassing 70 million copies sold worldwide (in both print and ebook format) within two years after its first commercial publication (Singh 2012, Trachtenberg 2013). E. L. James’ book sold so well that it raised Random House’s operating profit by 75%, year over year in 2012 (Sweney 2012). The Fifty Shades phenomenon was everywhere, with discussions on US morning talk shows like Today and Good Morning, America dissecting the popularity of the book and the rise of so-called “mommy porn.” If you were a woman in the US or UK, Fifty Shades was hard to avoid, and seemingly everyone had at least one friend who adored the series. In this post, I’ll examine some of the reasons behind Fifty Shades’ runaway popularity, the ways its success is changing romance publishing, and how romance fans are grappling with these changes. I’ll also briefly examine some of the issues fans have with the content of the Fifty Shades series.

While a lot of ink has been spilled about the Fifty Shades phenomenon, not as much has been written about how the romance fan community approached the books (at least, not much has been written outside of the communities themselves). In an effort to locate some of the romance community’s reaction to Fifty Shades, I interviewed Sarah Wendell, Jane Litte, and Jenny Trout. All three were kind enough to answer my questions via email, and unless I have indicated otherwise, their quotes originate from these email exchanges. Sarah Wendell runs the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, which began in 2005 as “a community of romance readers eager to talk about which romance novels rocked their worlds, and which ones made them throw the book with as much velocity as possible” (Wendell “About” http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/about). In 2009, Wendell published the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance, which is often used in undergraduate classrooms, and in 2011 she published Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels. Wendell is often used as a go-to expert on romance novels by publications like the New York Times and Salon. Jane Litte (along with Jayne S), runs the blog Dear Author which began in 2006, where “We review romance books, talk about ebooks and digital technology related to ebooks, and post about all the issues surrounding romance novels” (Litte, “For Readers” http://dearauthor.com/for-readers/). Jane writes particularly well about the ways the development of ereader technology are changing reader behaviors and the publishing industry and the implications on intellectual property rights brought about by the growing popularity of the monetization of fan fiction. Jenny Trout is a published romance author (under the names Jennifer Armintrout and Abigail Barnette) and blogger (under the name Jenny Trout) whose critical and hilarious chapter-by-chapter recaps of the Fifty Shades series have become quite popular and spurred her own series of novels in response. All three of these women’s blogs have active, engaged communities of readers who love romance novels but are not afraid to criticize their favorite genre. Because of this, all three can be considered experts on at least part of the romance fan community’s reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey, the rise of the monetization of fan fiction with the attending implications for intellectual property rights, and whether fans of Fifty Shades can – or even want to – become part of the romance fan community.

Whenever something becomes as popular as Fifty Shades, I always have to ask  “why?” What nerve has it hit? What unmet need is it satisfying? Sarah Wendell locates Fifty’s popularity in  its origin as Twilight fan fiction, because both share “deep first person narrative of a very insecure person, fascinating and somewhat threatening hero who may play the role of anti-hero at times, [and a] complete fixation on the heroine from said hero.” Jane agrees, adding the attraction of a narrative that “explored the emotional connection between characters more so than how the characters interacted with the world around them.” This deep first person narrative was something was was fairly unheard of in romance novels up to this point, but was fairly popular in fan fiction — perhaps because it allows the writer and reader to put themselves in the place of the protagonist. Trout believes that Fifty became popular first and foremost because it invited readers to read purely for pleasure, stating “I think to understand the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey, you have to understand the audience. This wasn’t a case of a book being embraced by the reading public, but by the public in general, and by many people who’d either never read romance or never read for pleasure full stop. So you’ve got these readers who were, up until recently, completely unaware that there are books out there that can be read purely for fun. I think that’s what’s driving the popularity of the books.”

Most of the ardent fans of Fifty are not established romance fans, then. Some may have enjoyed Twilight, but many readers were unaware of Fifty’s fan fiction origins that connected the two narratives. In the end, fans get a lot of pleasure from reading a first-person narrative that invites them to place themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, a young recent college graduate in love with a slightly older but extremely brooding billionaire who loves her — obsessively — back and often demonstrates that love by buying her expensive things and through excessive care about her personal safety. All of these elements can be found in Fifty’s Twilight origins.

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Sex, “Mommy Porn,” and BDSM

The primary difference between Twilight and Fifty lies in their respective attitudes toward sex. Twilight is often called “abstinence porn” because Bella and Edward, the romantic center of its universe, wait until they’re married to have sex. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, has been called (usually pejoratively) “mommy porn” because Anastasia and Christian have sex early and often in their relationship, and that sex is often tinged with BDSM elements. One of the primary pleasures for fan fiction writers and their readers lies in “fixing” the problems fans have with their favorite texts. While Twilight fans may love the deep emotional nature of the relationship between Bella and Edward, and parents laud its message that “true love waits,” others just want Bella and Edward to get it on, already!

Within the fan fiction community, Fifty Shades (or “Master of the Universe,” as it was then named) was popular because it fixed the “problem” of sexual abstinence within the Twilight universe, and fixed it well. For many readers outside of the fan fiction and romance communities, Fifty Shades is the first piece of erotic fiction they’ve ever read — and this opens up a naughty new world. As Jane states, “Initially I think it spread from the Twilight fan fiction community outward to book clubs who hadn’t ever realized that there were books that contained romance and sex in them. […] For individuals who’ve spent years reading Oprah book club picks, 50 Shades presented an entirely different kind of story and storytelling.” Abigail DeKosnik, author of “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” notes that the sexual content of fan fiction, which some believe is a sticking point on making it profitable, is actually a selling point to women (2009 123). While mainstream media outlets express shock and surprise that women are interested in such a frankly sexual text, romance fans have long acknowledged women’s pleasure. Trout states that, “I still contend that “mommy porn” is a horrible label and we shouldn’t judge women for wanting to read books with sexual content—we don’t bat an eye, as a society, when it’s revealed that men enjoy porn.” Wendell agrees, writing on her blog that “Romance is not porn for women. Porn is porn for women. There is nothing wrong with either one.” She goes on to say that yes, some romance novels — including Fifty Shades — are erotic. One can make a case that erotica is pornographic. But she rejects calling erotica “porn” because she believes the label is used to shame women. “Politically and culturally we are instructed that we should feel shame for our own sexual curiosity and arousal” (http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/romance-arousal-and-condescension). Romance fans staunchly defend women’s right to not only read for pleasure, but for the pleasure of sexual arousal and fantasy.

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The fact that Fifty Shades contains erotic scenes does not faze romance fans. What many can — and do — criticize is the way Fifty defines BDSM. Within Fifty, BDSM is defined as a “problem” Christian has that only Anastasia’s love can solve. If only Ana loves Christian well enough, he’ll be content with “vanilla” (non-BDSM) sex. In her recaps of the novels, Jenny Trout points out how often Christian’s “BDSM” sexual scenes are actually scenes of sexual abuse (and outright rape) that fail to live up to the ideal that BDSM sex should be “safe, sane, and consensual.” As Trout states, “I was so furious when I started reading the first book. I knew from the reviews and descriptions I had read that 50 Shades of Grey was not something that was going to interest me, but I was frustrated by the national conversation about ‘mommy porn’ and what a revelation it was that women are sexual creatures. I felt like I couldn’t accurately defend women’s choice to read the book if I didn’t read it myself, and when I did, it was such a rude awakening.”

Trout started writing the recaps of the novels because “after I saw the blatant abuse and poorly researched kink, I felt like I had to speak up and tell people that the books are not representative of a healthy relationship in any way.” In her recaps, Trout does not criticise BDSM, but instead James’ conception of it in the novels. As she writes, “Ana and Christian are not an example of a healthy BDSM relationship, and when 50 Shades defenders- whose only exposure to BDSM has come through this single source- frame it as though it is, they’re actually harming the image of BDSM more. But that’s not something they want to hear. They want to feel like they’re protecting misunderstood and beautiful people, who do sexy things in expensive high rise apartments.”  Ana and Christian are not in an unhealthy relationship because they engage in kink, but because “Ana is never allowed to ask for anything. She isn’t even allowed to say no to things she doesn’t want, because Christian’s needs are paramount” (http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/dear-50-shades-fan-bdsm-doesnt-need-or-want-your-defense/). Trout keeps reading and recapping the books — even though she hates them — because she sees her recaps as a public service. She writes, “I’ve had so many women say, ‘I read 50 Shades of Grey and I loved it, and then I read your recap and I changed my mind.’ Once you can have an interaction with someone and you can say, ‘the way you perceive this thing is contrary to what it actually is,” if they see it, too, they’ll never un-see it. That’s very powerful.’ Trout’s fans agree. Before writing the recaps, Trout felt wonderful to get 50 hits a day on her blog, but “at the height of the 50 Shades of Grey recaps, I would get 50,000. It was a very bizarre experience.” Indeed, her fans have created a community and gift economy of their own, with readers commenting and emailing to suggest anti-abuse resources for women, healthier information for those curious about BDSM, as well as .gifs and fan art that depict scenes from Trout’s recaps.

Eventually, Trout began writing a novel in response to Fifty Shades called The Boss. The novel (which is the first in a series that also includes The Girlfriend and will soon include The Wife and future installments) follows the relationship of Sophie, a 20-something woman who works as an executive assistant at a fashion magazine, and Neil, a 40-something billionaire who buys the magazine and suddenly becomes her boss. The two had met 6 years before and shared an anonymous sexual encounter, and realize they are still attracted to one another. Throughout the series, the two fall in love, negotiate their age and wealth differences, and engage in a mutually satisfying BDSM sexual relationship. I asked Trout if she considered The Boss to be a type of “anti-fan fiction,” and she answered that “I had started writing The Boss in 2011, with the idea that my pen name, Abigail Barnette, might venture into category romance. The protagonists were a lot closer in age, the hero wasn’t exactly super rich, he was just editor-in-chief of a car magazine and the heroine worked in the art department. It was an office romance. But I couldn’t get into it, so I shelved it. Then I was writing these recaps, and one night I was working on one while watching the documentary The September Issue, about Ana Wintour and Vogue magazine, and the whole story just snapped together in my head. At every step of the plotting process, I was influenced by this little voice that would say, ‘If this were 50 Shades of Grey, what would happen next,’ so I suppose it could be classified as starting out as anti-fic, but as I grew to know the characters and their motivations a little better, I think it became its own thing, and I’m very proud of it.”

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Fifty Shades as a “Gateway Drug” to Romance Fandom

Some readers of Trout’s The Boss began as Fifty Shades fans who are now looking to read more romance and/or erotic fiction. Can a monster hit like Fifty Shades bring more readers into the romance fan community, or will readers who love Fifty dislike other romance narratives? The opinions of the women I interviewed are mixed. Litte believes that Fifty can serve as a gateway to fandom, stating that “I definitely view 50 Shades as a gateway drug to more romance fiction. It’s a matter of those readers finding other romance stories. A year after 50 Shades’s popularity, you are beginning to see readers who were brought into the genre starting to mine the extensive backlists of some popular traditionally published authors.”  She continues, stating Fifty “brought a lot of non-readers into the reading community, which is always a good thing.”

Wendell is less certain that fans of Fifty will enjoy other romance narratives, stating “I don’t think every 50 fan will find romance and think, ‘YES! This is what I wanted!’” Rather than mining the backlists of established authors, Wendell sees Fifty Shades changing the publishing industry and the types of stories that are published. She points to the sheer number of romance book covers that look eerily similar to the cover of Fifty Shades, the increasing use of deep first-person narratives and the popularity of a new genre, called “New Adult,” that features young 20-something female protagonists who are often unsure of themselves and enter into intense sexual and emotional relationships. Unsurprisingly, many (though certainly not all) New Adult titles began as Twilight fan fiction, too. Trout seems the same trends, but is less optimistic, writing “I think a lot of authors had that hope at the beginning of the craze. ‘Okay, this book has its problems, but now the readers will move on to other books in the erotic romance genre and they’ll realize what they were missing.’ Instead, what seems to be happening is this really horrible effect of even more anti-feminist, abusive and grossly misinformed kink fanfic flooding the market.”

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Fan Fiction, Legacy Publishing, and the Limits of Intellectual Property Rights

Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity has led to a boom in “pulled to publish” or P2P fiction. Legacy publishing houses are using fan fiction communities as places to find emerging new authors. For many female authors (because fan fiction tends to be overwhelmingly written by women), fan fiction serves as a safe place to practice one’s writing skills and find an audience.  Litte states that “writers can definitely hone their craft in fan fiction and can learn a lot from the instant feedback from readers.  One fan fiction author shared with me that she could know almost within an hour of posting whether the piece was a success or a failure.” Traditionally, authors find their voice as an author within the fan fiction community, aspire to become a professional author, then begin to craft their own characters, worlds, and narratives which they would then attempt to have traditionally published. Authors who have followed this path include (but are certainly not limited to) Lois McMaster Bujold, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Meg Cabot, Cassandra Claire, and even Stephenie Meyer herself. Within the fan fiction and reader community, authors are encouraged to take themselves seriously as writers, and when one of their own becomes a published author based on original characters s/he often brings a built-in fanbase with her.

Problems occur when, as is the case with Fifty Shades of Grey, authors profit off of works that began as fan fiction. For many romance fans, this is where James crossed the line: she published — and profits quite handsomely from — a series that is built upon foundations created by Stephenie Meyer. Is it fair to profit off of someone else’s intellectual property? Most media corporations believe that it is not, and are quick to send cease and desist letters to prove it. Karen Hellekson, author of “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture” states that fan fiction communities believe that one should not profit from fan fiction first and foremost to avoid legal troubles, since fan fiction exists in a murky area, legally speaking.  Stephenie Meyer has remained remarkably hands-off about authors profiting from fanfic based on her work, which may explain the boom in Twilight-based fan fiction being published. For works like Fifty Shades, then, legal arguments against publishing fan fiction aren’t an issue, and it seems like Meyer is tacitly giving fans free reign to do what they will.

However, for many fans the requirement to avoid monetizing fan works goes beyond just the legality of the issue. Hellekson states that “Online media fandom is a gift culture in the symbolic realm in which fan gift exchange is performed in complex, even exclusionary symbolic ways that create a stable nexus of giving, receiving, and reciprocity that results in a community occupied with theorizing its own genderedness” (Hellekson 2009 114). Within fan communities, the original text upon which all fan creations are built is considered a “gift,” and on this original gift a reciprocal economy is built, with fan fiction, fan art, videos, and the conversation in the comments section all serve to build, maintain, and strengthen community bonds. Money is usually not exchanged, unless it is to help defray the costs of running the website. Instead, readers of fan fiction narratives participate in a gift economy where payment for favorite stories consists in making artwork or videos that depict favorite scenes, publicizing the story to others who may like it, and offering critique in the comment section. In a very real way, fan fiction readers act as beta readers who help authors shape narrative and character and publicists who spread the news about their favorite stories to others.

As long as fan fiction remains within the gift economy, most (although not all) authors range from benignly ignoring fan fiction based on their work to vocally supporting it. Neil Gaiman, who has himself written fan fiction based upon Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft, states that “As long as nobody’s making any money off of it that should be the author or creator’s, I don’t mind it. And I think it does a lot of good.” Jenny Trout agrees, stating “I’ve always been very protective of fan fiction, because that’s the community where I learned how to write. If you’re writing a sexy story about Kirk and Spock solving a little Pon Farr problem, and you post it to fanfiction.net or archiveofourown.org, you’re not getting paid. I don’t feel that’s necessarily unethical; it’s the moment that you decide to monetize that content you’ve made that the line becomes blurred.” Not only authors fight against monetizing fan fiction; much of the community itself rejects the idea. As Wendell states, “There is a sizeable backlash against profiting from sale of fanfic” within fanfic communities. While no one really believes that monetizing fan fiction will destroy the amateur fan fiction community, it does create a certain amount of tension within it. Trout states that “I think there is going to be a lot of suspicion for a while, where people who truly enjoy fic and want to continue enjoying it are going to have this question in the back of their minds, ‘Is this author only in it for a chance at a payday, or does she really love the original work as much as I do?’”

Not everyone agrees that making money off of fan fiction is a terrible idea, though. Fifty Shades’ popularity means that publishers not going to stop looking for fan fiction narratives to publish any time soon, and some argue that fan fiction authors deserve to be paid for their work if it becomes popular enough to do so. Indeed, Abigail DeKosnik argues that someone is going to profit off of fan fiction, so shouldn’t it be the fan fiction writers themselves?  “Fan fiction is nearing what I call the “Sugarhill moment”: the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture’s invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do” (De Kosnik 2009, 119-120). The Sugarhill Gang was a producer-created hip hop group who took the sounds that rappers in the streets of L.A. were creating, created the single “Rappers Delight,” and profited off of them before rap’s inventors could do so. “Fan fiction is nearing what I call the “Sugarhill moment”: the moment when an outsider takes up a subculture’s invention and commodifies it for the mainstream before insiders do” (De Kosnik 2009, 119-120). DeKosnik wonders if fan fiction writers are expected not to profit off of their work because they are mostly women, and points out that fan communities are more than happy to purchase products from male gamers who make “mods” of popular video games or offer financial support to male filmmakers who make fan videos based on their favorite movies (121). While DeKosnik acknowledges that fans are justified in worrying about what will happen to their communities if fan fiction becomes monetized, she believes that this should not be their main area of concern. She states that “although fans have legitimate anxieties about fan fiction being corrupted or deformed by its entry into the commercial sphere, I argue that there is far greater danger of this happening if fan fiction is not commodified by its own producers, but by parties foreign to fandom who do not understand why or for whom the genre works, and who will promote it for purposes it is unsuited for, ignoring the aspects that make it attractive and dear to its readers (De Kosnik 2009, 124). The greatest danger is that no one will make money off of fanfic except for the corporate owners of the original text — since fanfic serves as a commercial for the original (De Kosnik 2009, 125).

If publishers and fan fiction authors are going to keep trying to profit off fan fiction — and it looks like they are– is it possible to do so ethically? What do fan fiction authors owe to the creators of the works upon which their narratives are built, and what do fan fiction authors owe their fellow fans, if anything? In other words, what are the limits of intellectual property rights, here, and what is the place of fan communities? Should we think of fan communities as collaborators with fan fiction authors, or mere consumers? On the subject of intellectual property rights, Litte argues that “I’ve always argued that the farther from the original canon a fan piece drifts, the less likely it is infringing [on intellectual property rights]. In fan fiction, though, the farther from the original canon you get the less appealing the fic. It’s a weird dichotomy.”

What would an ethical model for P2P fiction look like? Litte has suggested a licensing model that somewhat resembles the way covering a song works in music. In music, artists that want to cover an already recorded song pay what’s called a “mechanical licensing fee” for the right to re-record the song, then pay the songwriter a small fee per record sold. Would a similar licensing structure work for fan fiction? Litte suggested the model back in June of 2010, before the Fifty Shades phenomenon hit, and most of her commenters were against the idea, believing that the requirement to purchase a license would install a financial barrier to participating in fan communities, which should be free to all (http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/could-compulsory-licensing-work-for-fiction/). However, the popularity of Fifty Shades may have changed people’s minds. Indeed, Amazon has started “Kindle Worlds” with a model that seems fairly close to what is described above. Amazon made licensing agreements with a few authors, who then allow authors to write additional stories within the universe. Authors submit these stories to Amazon, who set the prices (between .99 and $2.99) and pay both the original license holder and the fan fiction author royalties for any stories purchased. For longer works (10,000+ words), Amazon pays authors a royalty of 35%, while shorter works of 5-10,000 words earn royalties of 20%.

(http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html/ref=amb_link_375976362_2?ie=UTF8&docId=1001197431&pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-3&pf_rd_r=1W3E43JE3FTBA51FJBTT&pf_rd_t=1401&pf_rd_p=1581752802&pf_rd_i=1001197421).

While it remains to be seen how popular the Kindle Worlds store will be for both authors and readers, it is an interesting experiment that allows both the original authors and fan fiction authors to be paid for their work — and a model that does not require the fan fiction author to pay-up front for the privilege of using another author’s intellectual property.

Regardless of how one feels about the Fifty Shades series, no one can deny its deep impact on romance publishing and fan culture. No doubt we’ll be feeling the effects of Fifty for years to come, for good and for ill, and we ignore that at our peril because if we fail to understand these effects we can’t understand the true state of romance publishing or fan fiction communities.

Works Cited

DeKosnik, Abigail. “Should Fan Fiction Be Free?” Cinema Journal. Number 48, Summer 2009. pp 118-124.

Gaiman, Neil “Neil Gaiman’s Journal.” 26 February, 2002. http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2002/02/they-just-changed-servers-for-faq-line.asp

Karen Hellekson. “A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture.” Cinema Journal. Number 48, Summer 2009. pp 113-117.

Litte, Jane. “Could Compulsory Licensing work for Fiction?” Dear Author. 15 June, 2010. http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/could-compulsory-licensing-work-for-fiction/

Litte, Jane. Email. 15 September, 2013.

Singh, Anita. “50 Shades of Grey is Best-Selling Book of All Time.” The Telegraph 7 August, 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9459779/50-Shades-of-Grey-is-best-selling-book-of-all-time.html

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. “Oh, My! That Dirty Book Has Sold 70 Million Copies.” The Wall Street Journal. 26 March, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323466204578384743129294104.html

Trout, Jenny. “Dear 50 Shades fan: BDSM Doesn’t Need or Want Your Defense.” Sweaters for Days. 22 April, 2013. http://jennytrout.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/dear-50-shades-fan-bdsm-doesnt-need-or-want-your-defense/

Trout, Jenny. Email. 22 September, 2013.

Sweney, Mark. “Fifty Shades of Grey Publisher Posts Record Profits.” The Guardian. 26 March, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/mar/26/fifty-shades-random-house-record-profit

Wendell, Sarah. “Romance, Arousal, and Consescension.” Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. 15 March, 2012. http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/romance-arousal-and-condescension

Wendell, Sarah. Email. 17 September, 2013

ABOUT

Meredith Guthrie is a lecturer and undergraduate academic advisor in the Communication Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on youth culture, fan culture, and the body in media. You can find her on Twitter at @meredithea.

[Universal Pictures, 2013. Director/ Writer: Jeff Wadlow. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Iain Glen, and Jim Carrey]

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Jeff Wadlow’s Kick-Ass 2 (2013) is the follow up to Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) the adaptation of the comic written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita Jr. The latest film opens with familiar angst-driven issues that first prompted Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to construct himself a costume and take to the streets under the guise of ‘Kick-Ass’. Where the first film dealt with ideas centring on identity and affecting positive change, the sequels themes are less distinct in its message, making it a garbled regression.

Kick-Ass 2 opens with Dave considering his present situation (a dull high school life and seemingly pointless relationship with Katie portrayed by Lyndsy Fonseca) and weighs them against the effects his alter-ego have had on the city.

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He watches other self-proclaimed local ‘superheroes’ on television citing Kick Ass as their inspiration and says `Me? I gave up being a superhero because it was way too dangerous, but I was dying of boredom, like most high school seniors I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life`. . . ‘I inspired all those people to get off theirs asses, but now I was stuck on mine, so that night after dinner I decided to get my old costume out’.

Following Hit Girl’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) lead and instruction Dave is re-immersed back into his previous life.

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Concurrently in New Jersey, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is also hoping to resuscitate his costumed past, primarily to wreak revenge on Kick Ass. The accidental killing of his mother and the discovery of her S&M paraphernalia allows for a new self-styled ‘super-villain’ persona, troublingly named ‘The Motherfucker’.

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The film then follows a fairly straight forward trajectory, the three main characters, Kick Ass, Hit Girl and The Motherfucker, are violently bound to one another, due to each being directly responsible for the killing of each other’s father. The inclusion of side players, (most notably Jim Carrey as Colonel Stars and Stripes) has little bearing on the story and are given minimal opportunity to develop character complexity.

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Instead there is much musing on what it means to be a superhero, a super villain, have a lair, to be a sidekick or to have a secret identity. The focus tends to aim at the mythology of hero as a formula or a set of criteria. When the additional characters- including Dave’s own father (Garrett M. Brown) die terrible, violent deaths, there is an absence of emotional impact. Incidents that could have been shown as pivotal, life-defining moments for the characters are presented in brief scenes with little to none consideration of what the events mean. Instead the experiences simply fuel the feud, and presumably justify the events that have led up to the present.

The most problematic difference between the first film and the second is the shift in tone. The original film is funnier, able to laugh at itself and is more self-aware. The second film lacks the wit and reflexivity of the first. The scenes involving highly stylized choreographed hyper violence in the sequel now read more grotesque than the first film’s ability to heighten the absurdity and spectacle of given situations. The novelty of the youth of the characters who are thrust into these dangerous lives is wearing off as the actors who portray them have aged, and the ‘cuteness’ of their baby voiced one liners is diminished.

The film ends with Dave and Mindy parting ways. His voiceover explains that ‘Superheroes can’t exist in the real world for a reason, because the real world needs real heroes and not some punk in a wet suit playing dress up, but a genuine bad ass that can really kick ass’. This observation takes place as Mindy races away from New York on a motorcycle, her face obscured by the purple tinted visor of her helmet, suggesting a new guise in her future.

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Meanwhile Dave is back training in Big Daddy’s hide-out, in the foreground: a visored helmet in the familiar Kick Ass costume colours. The Motherfucker is presumed dead, eaten by his shark, until the last of the credits roll and he is revealed to be in hospital without legs, hands and his ‘dick’. The implications are clear, their story is not over yet. These three will meet again, presumably dressed in new get-ups with new signatures, prepared to take each other down regardless of cost or consequence. This flies in the face of Dave’s final message – it directly contradicts it. There is no evidence of any of the characters learning or evolving; the constant interrogation of the notion of heroism bears no revelation for themselves or the viewer. A new helmet does not a new identity or hero make.

Written by Áine Llang Young, September 25, 2013

ABOUT

Áine Llang Young is a recent doctoral graduate of Film Studies at Queen`s University Belfast. She lives in Vancouver, researching and publishing on subjects that examine the practice of comic-to-film adaptation.