the journal of the future
Terry Gilliam has made a film about meaninglessness. David Hunt wonders why.
Mélanie Thierry in The Zero Theorem (2013).
There’s something reassuring about Terry Gilliam, regardless of the varying nature of his films. He resides in that rarefied bubble of filmmakers interested not only in creating something wildly inventive and generally out-there, but ensuring his work is full of actual ideas. And even though this means his films can be an acquired taste, he still seems to get to make them in a way true to his original vision, whilst attracting a host of interesting actors. The Zero Theorem continues the trend.
The most striking element of this new Gilliam film is how it feels cut from the same cloth as his masterpiece Brazil. An Orwellian fear of surveillance runs through the film. “Management” is omnipresent, continually observing and continually setting impossible deadlines for Qohen (Christoph Waltz). His job - manipulating data in an attempt to complete the zero theorem - is not just nihilistic (it will reveal the meaningless of life) - it also has an air of gamification that belies its suggested importance. This is, of course, what work in the future will be like: playing glorified block-building under strict time pressures in wearying video arcade environments. It is also very Gilliam.
Qohen, then, is waiting for a phone call, believing it will explain the meaning of his life. An answer to the inevitable nothingness. His indefatigable faith that this will happen drives the man and pushes him into a pattern of repetition that he seems unable to escape from. He can’t see the futility of the situation and how this faith has led him down the path of a life not lived. Watching his monk-like life, seeing him work out of a derelict church - Qohen uses the font as his kitchen sink and finds a camera in the place of a crucified deity’s head - is to be punched repeatedly in the face with a religious allegory. But there’s something about that set design that keeps us rooted: it functions almost like a character in itself.
Outside Qohen’s run-down paradise, the futuristic world is hyper-realised neon kitsch against pan-European grey. It never really sits right, but maybe that’s the point. In any event, we don’t get to see too much of it.
Attempts by Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley to seduce Qohen lead to a CGI beach, a virtual place where he can seemingly find solace away from his search whilst actually “connecting” with another person. It’s stylised to death, of course, and never feels anything less than awkwardly cheesy. Love in The Zero Theorem is nothing but a construct, a product, fated to be virtual in its reality (which, sadly, leaves Thierry adrift in manic-pixie-dream-girl cliché.)
Christoph Walz imbues Qohen with a frenzied mania as he slowly loses control. Comedic supporting roles by Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis and Lucas Hedges provide balance. While The Zero Theorem is intriguing, it is not a game-changer. The ending is frighteningly flat. Perhaps Gilliam and writer Pat Rushin had no clue where they were actually taking the story. More likely, they took the pointlessness idea too far.
Yet it remains one of those films that seems like a rarer and rarer experience as time passes: It has ideas, and is willing to throw them about - success of them all be damned.
Arc’s 2014 Sci-Fi Film Science Competition is now open. Click for details.
Also on the blog: the future of fiction is farce, says Will Ashon.
What if the world’s poor had time to think about the future? Nicholas Blincoe considers a visionary, can-do approach to foreign aid
Subtitled ”why the end of poverty requires the end of violence”, The Locust Effect arrives with kind words from President Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, alongside other formidable experts in the field of foreign policy. The plaudits would command attention in any circumstances, but taken with the subtitle – a promise that poverty can be eradicated by following its simple suggestions – then anyone interested in poverty and the developing world is likely to sit up and take notice. The Locust Effect presents its argument with the clarity of a manifesto: crime, especially violent crime, represents the most serious obstacle to self-improvement in the developing world. It follows that the most effective way to lift millions out of poverty is to improve the criminal justice system by directing foreign aid towards policing and courts, but also by priming teams of foreign lawyers to fight individual cases. Gary Haugen, the lead author, is the founder of the International Justice Mission, which was established by a group of Christian lawyers to pursue such cases in the developing world, especially crimes of sexual violence. Haugen’s co-author, Victor Boutros, is a US federal prosecutor who works with the Justice Department’s human trafficking unit.
The Locust Effect is suffused with a uniquely American optimism, convinced that human dignity begins with individual freedom, the sentiment that underpins the Declaration of Independence. The authors believe that if an individual’s basic security is guaranteed, then self-reliance will do the rest to secure their comfort. This runs counter to a prevailing tradition in post-colonial thought, which tends to argue that the end of poverty requires a political transformation that places the poor, as a class, in positions of power. If we simply tinker with the criminal justice system, so this line of thought goes, we fail to see that the justice system is a key pillar of a system designed to keep the underclass at the disposal of a privileged elite.
The arguments of The Locust Effect could be judged naïve, especially as the key message – go out and prosecute crimes – is so simple that it barely requires a full-length book. Haugen and Boutros bolster their arguments through case studies, many heart-breaking, some stomach-turning. These studies cover land theft, rape and sexual imprisonment, human trafficking and slavery. The authors show that these devastating misfortunes descend upon the poor with a chaotic predictability, like the locusts of the title, making planning for the future impossible and thus spreading failure, despair and pessimism. The most rapacious of these predators turn out to be the police and the security services.
Where more traditional critiques hold that the police are essentially working on behalf of the ruling elite in a two-sided class war, the authors paint a more complex picture. The police are seen to be only one element in an open conflict that includes criminal gangs, corrupt political party machines, as well as industry and elite interests. The authors show that in many situations, from nineteenth-century New York to present-day India, the wealthy elite are often simply divorced from the police force, cocooned in a world secured by private companies. When the wealthy belatedly realise that the police threaten society as a whole, then they can be persuaded of the need to reform the justice system, root and branch. There are indications that India is reaching this point after the recent rape cases, as well as the shocking spectacle of a police force that proved incapable of reacting to terrorist attacks.
One of the reasons that the police are so inept turns out to be the fault of the British. When creating colonial police forces, British rulers consciously chose the Royal Ulster Constabulary as their blueprint rather than the London Metropolitan Police, thereby placing political repression, intimidation and population control at the heart of the police’s mission, rather than the rule of law. The situation is made worse because, across the developing world, the law exists only in statute books, reassuring Western partners but never enforced by the police and courts on the ground. The authors argue that these codes can be made to work, however.
The Locust Effect contains simple, bold proposals that depend upon a measure of pre-existing security (the recommendations would have no impact in conflict zones or for people suffering foreign occupation). Yet the measures are undoubtedly effective, as the many case studies show. The Locust Effect represents an important contribution to the field of foreign aid.
Al Gore wants us all to come to an agreement about the future. Joanna Kavenna wants out. Read her in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out soon. Visit http://arcfinity.org for details.
Also on the blog: Does anyone really believe that having nothing to hide means having nothing to fear? Tom Hunter reports from the latest meeting of GlobalNet21
Age cannot wither Dune, one of the most famous unmade films in history, says Brendan Byrne
Le Palais Harkonnen: concept art for Dune by H R Giger (1975)
The unfilmed movie is always more realised than the filmed. The clamour of the shooting process, the uncreative destruction of personnel, the pathological questioning of studios, and, perhaps worst of all, the baying of audiences cannot taint the stillborn. Existing only in Final Draft or in some last-shot-of-Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-esque studio vault, the unfilmed exists in concept art, casting decisions, storyboards, recollections of collaborators, and the collective imagination of its supposed audience. Kubrick’s Napoleon, Gilliam’s Watchmen, Tarkovsky’s The Idiot have spawned immaculate art books, fevered thinkpieces, and wistful imaginings.
The movie about the unrealised film is a strange, small sub-genre (Fulton and Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha, about Gilliam’s attempt to adapt Don Quixote, being the most recent example), sustained by the charms of the unfilm and its progenitors. Unlike Fulton and Pepe, Frank Pavich, the director of Jodorowsky’s Dune, doesn’t have access to a set, as a set was never erected, and all the work was done forty-odd years ago. At first, that seems to be an unsurmountable difficulty, the film falling neatly into that oh-so-underwhelming genre of Netflix-ready documentary, where critics and celebrity fans pontificate airily about creators’ brilliance while simplistic animation gives us all something to stare at. (Think Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Now. Think American: The Bill Hicks Story.) But Pavich is twice blessed: by the incredible amount of conceptual work still in existence, and by a collection of (mostly) still-living artists whose aesthetic trail-blazing is matched by their ability to tell an engaging yarn to camera.
And the stories they churn out center on Alejandro Jodorowsky himself who, at 84, still manages to hold the viewer’s rapt attention with the same blend of magnetism, vision, and utter disregard for consensus reality that he used to pull together his Dune.
Coming hard off his two arthouse, freak-out successes El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), Jodorowsky was asked by Parisian producer Michel Seydoux what project he wanted to make, constraints, finance and sanity be damned. Jodorowsky’s answer was Frank Herbert’s immensely popular decade-old novel Dune. He’d not read it, of course. (He read it later, and in the documentary he compares it to Proust.) What mattered was the project’s massiveness and potential for perversity.
Jodorowsky assemblsd his production team the way others might assemble, say, a cult (and it should be noted here that despite the multi-national pedigree of Jodorowsky’s team, they are all white men.) Moebius and Pink Floyd handle the design and music for House Atreides and the planet Arrakis; HR Giger and Magma for House Harkonnen. (Neither Moebius nor Giger have worked on film before; Jodorowsky “discovers” Giger while hanging out with Dali.) After dismissing 2001: A Space Odyssey’s effects-whiz Douglas Trumbull for not being spiritual enough and/or kind of rude, Jodorowsky sees John Carpenter’s Dark Star on a whim and picks Dan O’Bannon for his effects man, seducing him with some “very special marijuana” and home-made hypnosis straight from Charles Manson. With Mick Jagger, it takes just a look across a crowded room. Dali is harder work, but Jodorowsky and Seydoux play the dowager empress of Surrealism like a melting fiddle, jumping through Dali’s faux-zen koan hoops and promising to pay him a hundred grand per minute of screen time. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most creepy moment (besides Jodorowsky’s likening of the creative process to raping a bride), Jodorowsky’s twelve year old son Brontis is trained in martial arts in a grueling schedule to prepare for the role of Paul Atreides.
Frank Pavich talks to Alejandro Jodorowsky for Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
The master of the rocketship, Chris Foss, is hired to do design. According to the SFE, Foss “spearheaded a revolution in British sf paperback design in the 1970s… creating for a while an almost tedious predictability in publishers’ book covers”. Foss, like most of Jodorowsky’s other collaborators, hadn’t (and still, to this day, hasn’t) read Dune, but then Foss, as the SFE goes onto explain, “usually does not read the books he illustrates”.
Fuck the text, make the art.
This is a strange position to take on a novel which contains, to quote the SFE again, “possibly the most convincing Planetary-Romance environment created by any sf writer”, but once we delve into the meat of Moebius’ storyboard, it begins to convince. Pavich brings the storyboard to life, zooming through each hand-drawn cell and adding animation when fit. A massive opening pan, meant to surpass Welles’s in Touch of Evil, is titled, “On approach la galaxie”. Originating in the depths of the universe, it eventually comes to a destroyed pirate vessel leaking spice. The dubious nature of such a shot’s completion (this was, after all, 1975) is raised by outside Hollywood figures, but the fetishisation of the Big Dumb Object (based on Foss designs, of course) has seldom paid such reward.
These artists, buoyed with Win-One-For-The-Gipper-style speeches every morning, are unleashed upon an original script (emphasis on the word “original” there), which features a castrated Duke Leto impregnating Lady Jessica via “cosmic love” and an ending where the planet Arrakis blooms into a forest paradise then bops through the universe spreading peace and understanding. Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been, to borrow a phrase from Seydoux, a piece of art from a different world indeed.
At last the Jodorowsky cult hits Hollywood, looking for the final third of fifteen-million-dollar budget, and - obviously - hits a brick wall. Pavich doesn’t linger over the desolation and ruin, but he does show how a man whose passion and energy has convinced a cabal of highly intelligent, idiosyncratic artists to subordinate their vision to his can get absolutely no traction with the studio system. At this point, 2013 Jodorowsky takes money out of his pockets and kneads it as if to tear to shreds, declaring it “shit”. His utter investment in the memory is good theatre; equally diverting is the odd minute or so he spends earlier on film quieting his cat. There follows a Wikipedia-esque “Influence” section where a number of critics and collaborators muse about the influence of the Jodorowsky Dune bible, an assemblage of storyboards, script and concept art, which was passed out to every studio. The theories range from the specious (certain shots in Star Wars seem to resemble Moebius’ storyboards), to the unavoidable (Giger’s introduction to Hollywood and O’Bannon). Most interesting, it makes the argument for intellectual property as a kind of a joyous creative commons from which film-makers draw.
Perhaps the most important result of Jodorowsky-on-Herbert’s failure is that there is currently no reboot of Dune helmed by Chris Columbus hitting the theaters in 2014. The charnelhouse fate of Lynch’s adaptation, deserved or not, has sealed the profanation of Herbert’s vision. (We’re going to pretend that the Sci Fi Channel’s adaptation of the first two novels in the cycle don’t exist.) Jodorowsky might speak of a “cosmic consciousness” molding the youth, he may even invoke the transformative power of art, but the film industry never gave a shit. They just wanted a buck. And so Jodorowsky’s Dune is safe, dead.
In Chromewash (Arc 2.2), coming soon: Brendan Byrne revisits Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. Visit http://arcfinity.org for the latest news.
Also on the blog: Sjef van Gaalen watches The Liquified Sky
Keith Brooke sums up.
Andy Weir’s The Martian is an incredibly accomplished first novel. Hell, it’s an incredibly accomplished anythingth novel.
When a dust-storm envelops the six astronauts of the Ares 3 mission on the surface of Mars, they prepare to evacuate their surface base. Mechanical engineer and botanist Mark Watney is knocked off his feet and lost in the storm. His comms are knocked out, his EVA suit ruptured and his suit’s broadcast of his body’s vitals are cut off. His commander is faced with a gut-wrenching dilemma, balancing the strong chance of saving the rest of her crew against the incredibly slim chance that Watney is both findable and still alive. She makes the only decision possible: the five survivors evacuate, the mission is abandoned and, once they have lifted from the surface, there is no going back.
Which is a bit of a downer for Watney.
So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. if none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m fucked.
It’s a compelling scenario, and the opening page or so does a superb job of setting up the situation and hooking the reader. And then we get this “let’s just step back and explain the rocketry” passage which beautifully illustrates the dilemma of hard science fiction. How do you balance storytelling against the need to prove you’ve done the maths?
As long as the homework is solid, you can, of course, write a scientifically-convincing story without spelling things out in such detail. But Weir is writing for that part of the audience for whom laborious explanation is all part of the hard SF game. (And make no mistakes – this is a novel that has to explain. A lot.) How Weir squares the circle, satisfying the technically-minded without alienating the rest of us, is down to its jokey first-person confessional narration: smooth, engaging, naturally digressive and prone to abrupt jumps.
The Martian is a thriller with sums in it. How much oxygen and hydrogen you need to make enough water to grow enough potatoes (from spuds taken there for Thanksgiving dinner) to produce enough calories to…? One misplaced decimal point and the consequences would be disastrous.
The Martian is worth reading purely for the way it’s written. It’s full of unconventional narrative choices that shouldn’t work but almost always do. We learn about that fateful dust storm only in brief overview early on. Later the scene is explored in detail, which puts us at a curious distance from the action. Later on, there are a few passages where we suddenly pull back into an impersonal third-person. You might think that sticking to a tight first-person would be far more powerful. Having read it, I’m not so sure - but I can’t for the life of me explain why.
One thing’s for sure: The Martian really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Maybe Weir was lucky. More likely, he’s really very good.
Also on the blog: Martin McGrath reads The Echo, James Smythe’s novel of loneliness in deep space.
Jon Turney puts economics in its place.
You can get a flood defence scheme approved by the UK Treasury, we learnt this winter, if it has a projected return on investment of eight pounds for every one spent. Is that proviso remotely likely to survive the current flooding furore? I’m guessing not.
Neither of those facts strikes me as particularly shocking, or even surprising. Cost-benefit analysis of some kind seems a useful aid to some decisions about public spending - let’s apply it to replacing Trident! But the precise conditions to be satisfied are not built into the analysis. The decision to settle on an eightfold return is obviously political, and the number will alter when the political wind changes. William Petty’s term political arithmetick remains apt.
The example reinforces my feeling that the radical critique Philip Roscoe offers of the infiltration of economics into more and more areas of life isn’t quite as radical as he makes out. I’m all for bashing economics, a discipline whose limitations are glaringly apparent yet which retains a mesmerising effect on politicians and policy-makers largely because the alternative, making policy without it, is too frightening. The book is a good antidote to the “Economics can explain everything” genre of the far-too-pleased-with-itself Freakonomics and its inferior imitators. And Roscoe, using an equally expansive definition of economics, offers nice stories ranging over fishing quotas, housing, organ markets, computer dating, and more.
His take home message is that economics makes the world it describes. That is not news to anyone who has thought about the nature of social science, although in the case of economics it has unusual force - from reducing workers to routinised, surveilled production operatives in Taylorised factories, to shifting the behaviour of economics students toward that predicted by the discipline they are studying: that is, more individualistic and seeking to maximise their personal returns.
His preferred method derives from the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), as practised by the likes of David Bloor, Michel Callon, John Law and Bruno Latour. And he uses it well to unpack how economic theory and practice are constructed, while in turn helping to construct the institutions in which they operate. I’d say that the underlying critique, though, is older and more familiar. It turns on the idea that economic analysis is reductive, and ignores essential features of human life as we would like to live it. It is familiar in two ways. First, the critique of economics is as old as economics itself - like Treasury mandarins, economists tend to be seen as a collection of Gradgrinds who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
It is also familiar theoretically, in the form of political economy, a tradition Roscoe clearly knows well but does not allude to much here. Marx is mentioned twice, I think (only once in the index) and while Roscoe mentions alienation, and cites Harry Braverman’s great Labour and Monopoly Capital, you sort of expect other elements of Marxist critique to crop up, but they don’t. The term “cash nexus”, for instance, has no index entry, nor do those good old words ideology or false consciousness.
Perhaps the attack on the dominance of economistic thinking is supposed to be more palatable if it eschews Marxian tropes, and maybe that’s true. But I wanted more of them, if only in the spirit of honouring the ancestors.
The other way the critique is perhaps less novel than it appears may be more important, because it weakens Roscoe’s claim that economics is becoming the universal solvent, used to launder decisions of all kinds. The colossal cost-benefit analysis of options for a third London airport undertaken in the late 1960s for the Roskill Commission did nothing to aid decision-making but a lot to expose the limitations of spurious quantification - and the political argument about airport provision for London remains unresolved nearly fifty years on. Most people, I’d hazard, have a similar reaction to QALYs in health care: what is actually being measured here, and what can it mean?
The clichéd comment when reporting on an unpromising first date is “the chemistry wasn’t there”. It suggests that there is something about individual attraction that remains uncodified in the attributes checked in computer dating profiles. And now that pretty well everyone who works in an organisation finds themselves governed by performance indicators, they also know that such indicators affect performance mainly by inducing people to maximise what is officially measured, not by actually improving outcomes in any way convincingly related to worthwhile objectives.
So two cheers for Roscoe’s tilt at economics’ incursions into new spheres, but maybe only one and a half for his closing thoughts on fighting back. He likes local exchange trading schemes (LETS) and local currencies, like the Totnes Pound, but both have limited leverage, he admits. Babette’s Feast is a great movie, but less convincing as a guide to action. Again, one feels something more forceful and much more radical is called for. As one of Roscoe’s main targets is not just economics, but neoliberal economics, and he titles his final chapter “Occupy Economics”, you’d guess he agrees. But he doesn’t quite seem to know where the ideas for other ways of organising our affairs might come from. Neither, alas, do I.
It’s no good looking in science fiction, for example. The most detailed description of alternatives I’ve found there recently was the production and distribution arrangements in the solar system of the admirable Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. His inspiration? The Mondragon co-operatives in Spain, founded in the late 1950s. They are surely impressive, but there must be other models to inspire us. Where are they?
What happens when the media get their hands on futurology? Read Jon Turney’s “Showtime” in Home Alone Drone (Arc 1.4), out now.
Also on the blog: People make the best robots, says Brendan Byrne.
We fed novelist and critic James Bradley some bitter medicine…
As episodes such as the Tuskegee experiments or Dr Harry Bailey’s use of deep sleep therapies at Australia’s Chelmsford Hospital demonstrate all too clearly, science and medicine are never the socially neutral, objective disciplines their boosters make them out to be. Instead their values enshrine a set of power relations, within which notions such as objectivity and the scientific method are capable of disguising exploitation, abuse and shocking cruelty.
This awareness underpins Hanya Yanagihara’s extremely impressive debut novel, The People in the Trees, a vivid and often genuinely disturbing journey into medicine’s heart of darkness that takes its inspiration from the life of the physician Carleton Gajdusek, who (along with Barach Blumberg) won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on prion diseases and the role of funerary cannibalism in the spread of kuru in the New Guinea highlands, but was later convicted of sexually molesting several of the 56 children he adopted during his time in New Guinea and sentenced to twelve months in prison.
Gajdusek’s fictional counterpart in The People in the Trees is Norton A. Perina, a Nobel Prize-winning immunologist famous for his discovery of the key to a form of eternal life on a remote Pacific island. As the novel opens we are informed Norton’s career is in ruins in the aftermath of his conviction for molesting one of his adopted sons, facts we are alerted to not by Norton but by his friend and disciple, Dr Ronald Kubodera, who has taken on the task of collating and editing Norton’s account of his life and work.
There is from the outset something uncomfortably servile and sycophantic about Ronald (or “Ron”, as he helpfully explains he is usually known), a quality that lends his claim in the opening pages that his “relationship with Norton is the most meaningful one I have ever known” an uneasy charge that does not dissipate as the book continues. Instead as Ron’s pedantic and at times bizarrely obtuse annotations proliferate they begin to seem almost sinister, suggestive less of devotion than some sort of deliberate complicity with Norton and his crimes.
It’s a quality that also lends Ron’s claim that his editorial contribution has been “minimal” a dubiousness it might not otherwise possess, yet in a way it does not matter, for whatever Ron’s contribution the star of the pages is undoubtedly Norton, in whom Yanagihara has created one of the great unrepentant sociopaths of literature, a man by turns brilliant and sickening in his ambition, arrogance and visceral misogyny.
Yet despite his repulsiveness Norton undoubtedly has a tale to tell, a story that stretches from his childhood alongside his estranged twin, the National Book Award-winning poet, Owen, in rural Indiana, to medical school, and finally, and most importantly, to his decision to join an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu.
The expedition, which is led by the anthropologist Paul Tallent and his assistant Esme Duff (for whom Norton quickly conceives a hatred matched only by his lust for Tallent), is ostensibly to search for a lost tribe, yet once they are in the islands it becomes clear that Tallent’s interest in the Ivu’ivuians has less to do with their isolation from the modern world and more to do with the strange stories surrounding their longevity.
Norton is predictably dismissive of these stories, at least until they encounter a group of individuals known as the mo’o kua’au, or “Dreamers”, wandering in the forest.
Despite their physical vitality the Dreamers are, as Tallent quickly establishes, impossibly old, with memories stretching back more than a hundred and sometimes two hundred years. Significantly they all also participated in a ritual known as the vaka‘ina, in which those few Ivu’ivuians who reach the age of 60 consume the flesh of a turtle called the opa‘ivu‘eke which lives in one pool on the mountain. Yet there is a catch. Despite their physical longevity, the mo’o kua’au do not enjoy mental longevity: instead as they age their minds and identities slowly slip away from them, leaving them lost in a sort of dream world.
Norton’s chance for scientific immortality comes when he recognises that it must be the flesh of the opa‘ivu‘eke that holds the key to the Dreamers’ longevity, a realisation that causes a sensation when he publishes his results upon his return to America. Yet his discoveries also spels the beginning of the end for the Ivu’ivuans, whose isolation is soon swept away by the arrival of drug companies and scientists determined to unlock the secret of eternal life.
There are echoes of other texts everywhere in The People in the Trees, ranging from the nod to Wilde’s de Profundis in Norton’s epistle from prison to the obvious influence of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific upon Yanagihara’s depiction of the culture of the Ivu’ivuans. (One of the pleasures of the book is the exquisitely detailed depiction of the island and its inhabitants, although it must be said it is difficult to square some of the invented history with either contemporary understandings of Pacific settlement or those current in the period during which Norton’s expedition took place.) In a way the most obvious literary echo is Nabokov, and Pale Fire in particular, amplified both by the arch, slightly controlling intelligence that underpins the novel and by Yanigihara’s lovely, sinuous turn of phrase (at one point Perina gestures toward the delicious secrets of the science of disease, their “dark, oily pockets of mystery”).
Simultaneously, the device of the dreamers and their longevity places the novel in territory more commonly associated with science fiction. To what extent this is intentional is difficult to tell: although it seems likely the novel is deliberately invoking Heart of Darkness, it also often seems to be invoking the overlapping tradition of late-Victorian Imperial Romance and its descendants. Now seldom read, these accounts of journeys into strange and primitive lands - Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and even Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot and A Princess of Mars - arrive freighted with a set of deeply uncomfortable and troubling assumptions and anxieties about power and race, primitive and modern.
Part of the pleasure of The People in the Trees – if pleasure is really the appropriate word to describe a book that is often so disturbing – is the deft way it simultaneously invokes these associations and then holds them at arms’ length. Norton is cold, ruthless, exploitative, yet his encounter with the Ivu’ivuans is simultaneously a glimpse into the darker impulses underlying all cultures, a recognition that is given shape in Norton’s observation of the ceremonial rape of a young Ivu’ivuans by the older men in the tribe.
Despite this awareness the novel reproduces old assumptions about the static nature of island societies and the gulf between primitive and modern. The Ivu’ivuans are repeatedly portrayed as a people somehow outside of time, absorbed in an undisturbed culture the roots of which extend back into prehistory. It’s a portrayal that’s underlined by the novel’s repeated invocations of the story of Eden and the Fall, with its connotations of innocence and corruption, and more particularly the tension between innocence and the corrupting power of knowledge.
It’s possible this is simply a function of the form Yanagihara is operating within. (Sure. medicine is a set of encoded power structures and ways of thinking - and so is literature.) Or it might simply be a side-effect of Norton’s profound narcissism, his inability to see the world except from his own, entirely self-serving perspective. Either way, this intrusion of anachronistic thinking detracts slightly from the novel’s larger intellectual ambition.
At the same time it’s difficult not to be impressed by the novel’s certainty in the face of such disquieting material. Despite the brilliance of its prose and the sophistication of its conception The People in the Trees is not a book that seeks to ingratiate itself with the reader. Instead it seeks to unsettle and disturb, a process that is given its most shocking form in the book’s final section, in which the nature of Norton’s crimes is made explicit.
For many readers these pages will be deeply shocking, yet in a way they are less confronting than much that has gone before. Certainly the image of Norton Perina that will linger in my mind is not of a rapist, but of Norton the student researcher in a lab before his departure for Ivu’ivu, and the pleasure he took in killing the mice with whose management he was entrusted, whirling them in handfuls about his head until they were so dazed their necks could be broken easily, a task he finds oddly enjoyable, “a small but real accomplishment to mark a day that, like so many other days, seemed devoid of structure, or progress, or meaning.”
“There are fifteen dead people for every person living. What if we unburied them?” Read M. John Harrison in Chromewash (Arc 2.2), out soon. Visit http://arcfinity.org for the latest news.
*Also on the blog: Adrian Hon gives Arc’s Tom Hunter a hundred glimpses of the future
Tom Hunter reports from the latest meeting of GlobalNet21
Photo: Man With Movie Camera (dir. Vertov, 1939)
It’s a whole wild world of surveillance out there, and we know the act of observation can’t help but change the behaviour of the subject being observed. The crucial question is not are we being changed, but how much?
Does it matter more if the watcher is really watching or simply fulfilling an automated subroutine?
Is interpretation of our data potentially more sinister than the surveillance itself?
Does anyone really believe that having nothing to hide means having nothing to fear?
I’m attending a public event coordinated by GlobalNet21, and am not immune to the irony that the debate I’m about to watch is taking place in the Thatcher room of Portcullis House, Westminster, and that I’ve already had to be scanned and badged before I can even get inside.
Liberal Democrat MP Julien Huppert believes that “Britain is sleepwalking into becoming a surveillance state, the like of which has never been seen before in peacetime,” and from the snatches of mostly whispered conversation in the room I can hear as I walk in, a lot of people seem to agree with him. Even the portrait of Maggie on the wall looks less than ironclad in her certainty tonight, and there’s an expectant air of science fiction in the room as Huppert refers us not to Orwell ‘s usual suspect classic to set the scene but to Ken MacLeod’s recent novel Intrusion as a warning of things to come (or maybe already here).
A few stories you probably won’t be reading about in the headlines to get things started:
Last year, says Huppert, the UK police made over 570,000 individual requests for data from telephone network operators. They can’t get the actual chatter of your conversations yet but the when, where and who you called are all there up for grabs. Certainly some of these are going to be of crucial value – a missing person, or a potential terrorist perhaps – but half a million calls? That’s a lot of missing people up to no good.
In other news, it’s widely held that Google has already developed an instant face-recognition technology that can be used with mobile phone cameras and video, only they haven’t chosen to release it due to prevailing concerns about what a networked and mobile populace might unleash with that kind of surveillance tech in their pockets.
And finally there’s Edward Snowden, whistleblower poster boy du jour and currently a man adrift without a nationality but entirely unable to remove himself from the grid of public attention. Snowden is perhaps most interesting for the implied parts of his story that haven’t been so widely reported on. The press’s focus on the human angle obscures a wider, unwelcome truth: that if one government contractor can so easily steal over 1.7 million secure documents and make them public, how many more people might there be walking out of government buildings with illicit flash drives in their pockets but no compulsion to go public with their trove of digital treasure?
So, how easy is it for a country to sleepwalk itself into becoming a surveillance state?
One surprising suggestion is the importance of national narrative. Visit a nation that’s lived under the Stasi or their equivalent and you’ll likely find at least a robust public dialogue around key issues of public and private space, if not outright activism spread across all different social, economic and political divides. Britain’s hard-fought-for freedoms of the past century may very well be part of the modern problem now. Quite simply, our surveillance antibodies are compromised by a national identity that equates the intelligence agencies with James Bond and George Smiley, Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. When called upon to do their duty, our dashing British spies will even jump out of helicopters with the Queen of England to launch sporting events if they have to, global audiences and secret identities be damned.
But what if you’re not British but, for instance, Polish and you’ve recently arrived in Britain? One of what the panel termed “Her Majesty’s loyal immigrants”. Imagine your name isn’t Bond but rather a lovely 21-letter Polish surname, and it’s being entered into new and ever-more complex databases every day, and then imagine there’s spelling mistake in the data entry.
It doesn’t take a rogue UKIP supporter to mistype your name into a database, but if it happens (and we’re told it’s entirely possible) you might just find there are worse places to be than trapped under the spotlight of continual state attention. Having your name disconnected from your postcode for instance - and hence from your credit rating and other key cornerstones of your residential identity. Concern over the surveillance state isn’t just over the data being captured, but also about our limited access to it. How can we know when mistakes are made, and how can we prove ourselves when they happen to us?
Courts now regularly recognise a bias nicknamed the CSI effect, with juries proving noticeably less willing to convict if there’s insufficient forensic evidence (your DNA isn’t at the crime scene for example) but much more inclined towards conviction if there is forensic evidence in play. Genetic surveillance via the UK’s National Criminal Intelligence DNA database may appear unbiased, but couple a tendency to jury conviction with the fact that, for instance, 40% of black males under the age of 30 are included on that database as compared to much lower percentages of other males, and we might begin to worry about how surveillance is mainly visited upon the margins of society. Likewise CCTV footage in the courtroom has been praised in some areas for its ability to humanise a crime, but is this really such a good thing in a space where the objective weighing of evidence is supposed to be of paramount importance?
Of course we’re all busy doing our best to humanise our data ourselves, not to mention spreading it dandelion-like across as many social media networks as possible, up to and including London rioters using wanted pictures taken from CCTV grabs as their Facebook profile pictures. Not such a clever move when you think about it; but then, neither is telling Twitter you’re off on holiday for a week or linking to your mother on Facebook. Not because she’ll start embarrassing you in your newsfeed, but more because it’s a very simple process to follow connections and quickly infer your mother’s maiden name (right after checking out the date of all your birthday greetings and thus figuring out two of your main security checks in the time it takes to watch a skateboarding cat video).
We put out this data for free, and most of the time this works for us just fine, providing we’re happy to ignore (or even click) the best efforts of the advertising industry to attract our fleeting attentions. Perhaps the real cost isn’t in putting our data out into the world where it can be surveilled by ‘Do No Evil’ corporations, but rather in trying to claim it back once it is out there?
Accessing your own digital shadow, or better, getting parts of it deleted, is a challenge to give even Commander Bond pause for thought. It may be theoretically possible, for example, to file a Freedom of Information request for CCTV footage of yourself, but the cost of obscuring other people’s identity before releasing it means in practice you’ll never receive a byte. Likewise, cost is cited as the main reason information remains undeleted. Storage is cheap, but effective deletion carries a heavy price tag for cash-strapped agencies and profit-conscious corporates alike. Data collects long past any meaningful use to the original collector. Perhaps they have an eye on long-term futures and a potential resale value to tomorrow’s data-miners?
Ultimately we have to ask ourselves what is the message that is being conveyed by our surveillance state? Are we safer and happier, or are we merely living under an illusion of greater security while our unconscious behaviors are being modified in ways even the observers can’t begin to guess at?
The challenge of surveillance is often positioned as a tug-of-war between the twin poles of liberty and security, but we should ask ourselves if these really are tradeable commodities. Perhaps our observed reality is not so much a political balancing act as a perpetual state of surveillance creep, as typified by the “thin” protection of watchful CCTV.
Does surveillance really mean what we think it means, and is it really the most useful tool for the jobs we require of it? Security cameras may prove effective enough at curbing certain forms of planned criminal activity - car theft for one - but they are dismal at preventing the forms of crime we instinctively fear such as violence and terrorist activity. Meanwhile the ring of vehicle registration cameras originally installed to combat IRA incursions are now demobbed and finding gainful employment defending London from congestion charge cheats.
Most telling in the argument against the creeping surveillance state is the absence of evidence that any of this really works at all as prevention. It merely authenticates necessary detective work, and lends a grainy sheen of authenticity to our 24-hour news analysis.
The GlobalNet21 event concludes with a single observable fact: for all of the data collected and interpreted and locked away, no satisfying evidence has yet come out of the other side of the black box to prove a convincing case for its existence.
Later, making my way home through the London Underground, I think I hear a busker singing Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower.
“There must be some way out of here,” he sings, but the only exit I can see lies out beyond the Oyster barriers and back under the loving grace of the mobile phone towers, pinging me with welcomes of electronic connectivity.
In EXIT STRATEGIES, out now: Off-grid life is no picnic in Adrian Ellis’s story “The Lost Emotion”.
Paul McAuley embraces a distinctly uncosy catastrophe
Fourth Estate, HB £10 / FSG Originals, PPB $13
From the post-apocalyptic survivalism of young adult literature to the awful warnings of climate-change fictions and the Grand Guignol massacres of zombie-fests, the end of life as we know it has become the dominant theme of imaginative literature in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. Many are what Brian Aldiss has called cosy catastrophes. Nostalgic fantasies that erase the complications of the present and retreat into simplified notions of the past; stories that promote primal struggles of survival. Like middle-class refugees seeking to downsize into a colour supplement dream of the good life, most abandon the city for the countryside, technology for homespun self-sufficiency.
In one of its many tonic correctives to fantasies of better living through apocalypse, Annihilation locates the epicentre of its catastrophe in a pristine coastal wilderness. Area X is a zone transformed in ways still not understood after thirty years. Southern Reach, a powerful and secretive government organisation, has send eleven expeditions across the ill-defined boundary between the known and the unknown; all have met with a variety of disastrous fates; survivors who have managed to find a way out have been utterly and irrevocably changed.
Annihilation, the first of a trilogy, is the story of the twelfth expedition as told by its biologist, who lost her husband to the previous foray into Area X. Like the other members of her crew – the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, the Linguist, the Psychologist – the Biologist uses her profession in place of her name. And although the flora and fauna suggests the southern United States around Florida and Louisiana, the location of Area X is likewise withheld; with brand names and identifiers filed off, VanderMeer’s stark narrative aims for the universality of a fable and escape from the confining expectations of genre.
Equipped with antique technology dating from Area X’s inception, riven with mistrust and fear, the expedition quickly falls apart. During a descent into a deep shaft she insists on calling “the tower”, a counterpart to a ruined lighthouse that stands beyond a stretch of marshland (a metaphorical duality that isn’t as straightforward as it first appears), the Biologist discovers a trail of enigmatic prophesies written in glowing fungal material, and is infected with spores discharged by this living writing. Fungi are to VanderMeer’s fiction as fish are to H.P Lovecraft’s, but this transformation is more subtle and numinous than the shambling fungal humanoids of his Ambergris trilogy. With perceptions gifted by her infection, the Biologist witnesses the fatal psychological disintegration of the other members of the expedition, encounters the monster that excretes the prophesies as well as disturbingly human-like dolphins and a beast that haunts the marshland, and slowly pieces together the fate of her husband and the secret history of Area X’s Lovecraftian injection of otherness into mundane reality.
The Biologist is a passive and wilfully enigmatic narrator, and her formal, somewhat stilted prose initially resists empathy. “It may be clear by now,” she says, “that I am not good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know.” But her stubborn pursuit of the truth gathers an irresistible power, and her evasions are part of VanderMeer’s steadfast control of a narrative in which meanings are unstable and the ordinary surfaces of the world are imbued with nameless dread. Area X refuses conventional interpretation, can’t be defined by measurement and scientific logic: “Sometimes you get a sense of when the truth of things will not be revealed by microscopes.” Nothing is as it seems. It is a very existential catastrophe.
Although the science that underpins several key revelations is a bit shaky – it isn’t really possible to species-type unknown brain tissue or distinguish between cells of different mammals using only a light microscope – VanderMeer scrupulously stitches the truth about Area X from clues scattered through the narrative. And he is very good on how careful observation reveals processes and patterns in the blooming buzzing confusion of raw nature: some of the best passages detail the Biologist’s luminous moments of perception, her glimpses of the universal in the particular:
There were thousands of “dead” spaces like the [abandoned] lot I had observed, thousands of transitional environments that no one saw, that had been rendered invisible because they were of “no use.” Anything could inhabit them for a time without anyone noticing. We had come to think of the border as this monolithic invisible wall, but if members of the eleventh expedition had been able to return without our noticing, couldn’t other things have already gotten through?
As in the disaster novels of J.G. Ballard, survival is not a matter of resistance and rebuilding, but of acceptance and surrender. The Biologist is able to parse the truth because she embraces her infection and transformation. The acquisition of knowledge is inextricably intertwined with comprehending the wreckage of her marriage and her own self. It ends with a slingshot that promises further deeper and stranger revelations, but this first volume of VanderMeer’s trilogy is a tautly told, self-contained story, informed and illuminated by the flawed and very human voice of its narrator.
Also on the blog: an extract from Jeff Noon’s story “Vapours” (in Exit Strategies, out now).
Tom Hunter explores the strategies behind a chilling and uncanny thriller
Annihilation is published by Fourth Estate, HB £10 / FSG Originals, PPB $13
The site of an unknown environmental disaster, Area X appears as a pristine wilderness, but one kept under the strictest levels of quarantine and secrecy by mysterious government agency, the Southern Reach.
Expeditions inside have gone missing, gone mad or simply reappeared without explanation outside its borders. The first part of the Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation, charts the twelfth expedition from the perspective of a reticent, solitary and nameless female biologist with as many secrets as the fabled Area X.
Already gathering massive critical notice and comparisons to genre figures as varied as H P Lovecraft, Margaret Atwood and JJ Abrams, the Southern Reach trilogy is a bold step forward into new territories for multiple award-winning author Jeff VanderMeer.
Arc: Given the whole concept of the Southern Reach trilogy is built around mystery, I guess it’s kind of hard to talk meaningfully about the book without straying massively into spoiler territory, so instead is there anything you can concretely assure us that the book isn’t? (Not that we’ll necessarily believe you, of course.)
Jeff VanderMeer: It’s not going to turn out to be the devil. It’s not going to turn out to be a dream in the brain of a polar bear holding a snow globe, asleep on a distant island. It’s also very firmly based in what the characters can and cannot know, so there’s little to no “By Jove, I just figured this thing out!” But the reader will know everything.
Arc: And how’s the tour itself going? Anything truly weird so far, or is it all starting to blur? Also, I get the impression you put a phenomenal amount of effort into these for both your readers and yourself, so what do you do to prep in advance and keep sane on the road?
JV: The West Coast tour was wonderful - great bookstores, great audiences. I do try to make it a fun experience, and to form-fit it for my fans - especially through Facebook, where I’ll post any number of self-deprecating or just plain adventurous photos from the tour, and I also add some mention of those adventures as a preamble to readings. The readings themselves are combination of funny anecdotes and excerpts from the novel, and a little bit of audience participation. Having seventy-plus people shout ANNIHILATION! in a bookstore is a lot of fun.
The prep starts long before the tour, at pre-pub events. It’s there I test out the anecdotes and the readings, to see what seems to go over better. So by the time I’m on the actual tour, the material is battle-tested. The anecdotes allow me to speak without reading from something, which loosens me up before the more scripted bit. I also research the bookstores or other venues, listen to any recordings from readings there to form-fit material even more for the venue. I also keep a rotating slideshow of wilderness shots relevant to Annihilation in a stick drive, in case any venue has a screen and projector already set up, for a nice backdrop. Then, on the road, I gargle with salt water to make sure I don’t go hoarse, because I’m not just doing the gigs but having a lot of lunches and dinners with people. I generally don’t drink that much so I stay sharp, try to get exercise. I tend to make sure there are at least two days between gigs when possible, and some actual time off - though that get’s filled with productive work. Like, this time around I holed up in Mendocino, California, for two days and took photographs of the Annihilation cover in tidal pools and in wilderness areas, the book eventually degrading into pulp. The photo series might qualify as promotion, but it was also fun to do.
This time around, a park ranger chased me away from a tidal pool into which I was drowning Annihilation, thinking I was up to something more sinister. I also went on an expedition in the pouring rain and mudslides, through a mountain and over a suspension bridge to visit Point Bonita Lighthouse, helped smuggle pugs through a checkpoint (don’t ask), and had a drunk guy on an airplane claim I’d adopted him but now was “selling me and that’s wrong.” So, um, there was that.
Arc: How involved were you with the speedy release schedule up front? Was this part of the initial concept from the beginning or something that came into play once publishers were involved?
JV: There were three great US offers for the novels. Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s was the most complete - it included all of the marketing ideas and had a unique vision. The release schedule came out of that, and then other publishers are emulating it. I must say that I do think it offers certain advantages for readers, and given that it doesn’t necessarily require books to be written faster than they should be, there’s no harm to the writer.
Arc: When I look at your past work it always seems as though there’s a very conscious exploration of the limits of modern publishing. If it was your publisher who came up with the schedule, they certainly picked the right person as their experiment partner. I ask this because I get the sense (from Booklife for instance) that you are quite a planner, so I’m very curious about how you begin, manage and shape your projects.
JV: I just like to jump off of cliffs. If I’m apprehensive about my ability to do something, that’s the signal to me to do it. I’m not at all risk-averse. I just figure we have this one life, and great opportunities don’t come along all that often. But once I’m in mid-leap, I begin to get very analytical, and begin to try to frame the concept or approach in the most practical terms. You have to put in the work to make something seem, hopefully, effortless. So when Farrar, Straus & Giroux, presented not just a great offer but a great plan, I thought, “This is something I can get behind, and that is totally in sync with how I feel about publishing.” Fourth Estate in the UK then ran with that and came up with some very, very innovative approaches to marketing and PR that extend the idea even farther.
Arc: We’re seeing so much change across the publishing industry right now, I was curious as to where you might see the next creative opportunities both for yourself and also perhaps for newer writers?
JV: Although I know some like to talk about the death of publishing, everything I saw on tour was hopeful. Indie bookstores are working harder and smarter, and are sounding more and more upbeat about the future. Things have stabilised and there’s even some growth. The writers I talked to were optimistic: for them it’s a world in which the options have increased. Increased options always mean that you can think more strategically. For example, knowing I could self-publish Annihilation with some success meant I could take the chance of accepting the offer of an aggressive publishing schedule with open eyes, and with the sense that at the very worst I would be left with more readers for my work, in whatever form, than before.
I would also say that people should be wary of self-publishing/trad publishing spats on the internet. Almost always, the information being shared is weighted in a particular way by self-interest. It’s also important to understand that the people in traditional publishing doing cool and innovative things are smart enough not to trumpet their successes except in targeted ways, to avoid undermining their own advantage.
Arc: Another notion that informs your work seems to be a strong sense of paying back into the genre world, whether it’s producing books on writing like Booklife or Wonderbook, or coming up with new twists on book readings and talks. Where does that impulse come from?
JV: I don’t know. I have always felt from the very beginning that being a writer means being a “person of letters” - across not just fiction but nonfiction, and anything that is narrative-related.. In terms of paying it back, that’s part of the wonderful contract: you get some kind of leverage or level of visibility, and that’s not something you store up and hoard, it’s something you use. Writing isn’t a competition - it’s a complex ecosystem, and I want to do my best to support it. I will say that Michael Moorcock’s example to me early on was also a guiding light, in that he was incredibly generous to me when there was no particular reason he should’ve been. So when I think about paying back, I think of Mike.
Interview by Tom Hunter:
Parts two and three of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Authority and Acceptance, will be published in May and September 2014.