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:

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     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.

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     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.

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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

 

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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.

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“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.

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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

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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).