ST:D – A Most Unfortunate Acronym
Came across this article over at 3:AM yesterday, and its focus on the thematic as grounds for critique of the new Star Trek series struck me as refreshing. I’ve my own gripes, which I’ll probably get to in due course, but they are rather more menial than those detailed in the article.
In brief, Daniel (article’s author) makes a surey of some of the recent criticism, and praise, for Star Trek: Discovery, highlighting the way in which it differs from previous series on a broad level. Apparently, there has been some approval for the shift to a more politicised approach to the content, unlike the way in which The Next Generation or the Original pursued a very pulled-back, future Utopian-esque feel. Daniel mentions in passing the now-super-cringe-inducing way ST: Enterprise had tried to grapple with current events, and, from what I’ve seen, Discovery has thus far avoided this, I suspect it is waiting in the wings. I appreciate the fact that all SF is really about the era in which is it written, but the plotting of ST:E was so ham-fisted it’s a wonder it lasted for the 4 seasons it did.
The article references the very perestroika-era nature of TNG and Deep Space 9, which lead to the rather smug, Utopian triumphalism on display, and picks up on Bifo Berardi’s recent work detailing the decline of a technologist Utopianism of just this sort. Berardi has been, up to now, someone I didn’t have a lot of time for, Autonomism striking me as one of those theoretical frameworks you get less out of than the effort you have to put in to understand, but the work referenced – After the Future – might be worth taking a look at. The bookends of the techno-Utopian project, that of Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and the events of 9/11, seemed interesting, not least for the choice of these events in and of themselves.
This is not to say that the piece derogates the Utopian project outright – far from it, in fact. Counterpoised to Berardi’s pessimism for capitalist-technoUtopianism is the idealism of the early days of the Soviet revolution, espoused most particularly by Mayakovksy and the spirit of which is on display in Star Trek at its most succesful and heavy-hitting. Furthermore, there are good arguments that we need a Utopian focus, as it helps pull us through the drudgery of building a more equitable, worthwhile world.
For all its successes in carving its own trajectory, the article correctly upbraids the ST:D for taking the easy route on xenophobia. As was heavily discussed almost immediately, the presentation of the Klingons as religiously anti-Federation is meant to be a comment on the current state of American politics. However, as the 3:AM article points out, this has got the situation completely reversed. Thankfully, the data is coming to bear, and it is clear that the narrative of the ‘angry white working-class’ just doesn’t match the truth that it was affluent voters that allowed Trump his victory. But –
All of this points to the uncomfortable reality that hate and intolerance often emerge from within largely cosmopolitan societies, not from without. Nevertheless, in Discovery, the ideology of racial purity is assigned to an alien enclave entirely foreign to the Federation, suggesting that racism is not the left’s problem to fix.
It’s true that, despite good intentions, the previous series fell short of their “progressive” ideals in one way or another (<<cough>> <<cough>> rampant misogyny <<cough>><<cough>>). This, then, may be ST:Ds Achilles Heel.
Or it could be that the dialogue is wooden, the acting is crappy, the premise is dumb and rehashed, and the prosthetics are debilitating. Column A, column B?
I stopped watching after the 6th ep, back in mid-October, so I can’t really speak to any developments/improvements since. Still, it’s not too much to expect the series to have found its footing more than half-way through, is it?
This is the first I’ve seen of Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays the lead character Michael Burnham in ST:D, and I get that much of the issue lies with the really crap-tastic dialogue she is provided, but the human-acting-as-Vulcan really doesn’t cut it when it comes to building a likeable, engaging main character. Furthermore, can’t we put away this whole trope of “misfit learns to embrace their humanity”? The success of it in the characters of Spock/Data/Odo/SevenOfNine/whatever the fuck they used in ST:E was that they were part of an ensemble cast, and didn’t have to carry the whole of the series. As is, with the more linear narrative (as opposed to the potted episodes of previous series) of ST:D, Burnham is much too much the focus, and the struggle to come to grips with her human/Vulcan duality stretches pretty thin when it is constantly front and centre.
I know that I’m looking back on the previous series through rose-coloured glasses (I was a kid, alright?) and that they were super hammy, and the dialogue was often so stilted as to be somewhere in the stratosphere, but I can’t recall anything so grim as someone interjecting ‘Computer – add roasted tomato salsa. Cooked tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, remember that.’ Like, I get that they are trying to big up Burnham’s logical thrust, but, shit, it’s salsa. What the hell else is it going to be made from? Clunky.
Talking about clunky, can we address the prosthetics they’ve brought in for the Klingons? I’m not terribly down with the aesthetic changes they’ve made, as I’m not sure how you keep continuity (also, is this series meant to be in the same time-line as the other series? is it in the parallel universe of the reboot films? do we even know?) with what we see of the Klingons later on, but I can appreciate that the show runners wanted to differentiate things a bit.
The problem is, while the visual presentation of the species is striking – or at least, the faces are, costuming is all a bit naff – the actors can barely move inside them, and it leaves the faces rubbery, devoid of emotion. It also undercuts anything they try to say – what used to be an expressive, highly dramatic species is left croaking out lines that are stripped of any impact. And it’s not as if they couldn’t do better – the work on the character of Saru, by comparison, is stellar. I just don’t know why you’d elect to have your major antagonist look as if they have no motor control of their face.
If all this is meant to be in the main timeline, then the writers have done themselves a grave disservice. It irritates me no end when you get some tell-tale leap forward in a novel, some hint about a character’s fate, that completely undercuts any dramatic tension for the rest of the work, and it happens more often than you’d think. Here, if this is part of the same arc as TOS and TNG and all the others, well, we know that nothing actually comes of the Discovery and her crew, because the drive-technology that is so central to the whole series is never referenced in any other canon entity. It’s all moot. It’s bad story-telling, that hobbles itself before it’s even out the gate.
There’s a chance that Star Trek: Discovery will yet sort out its kinks and become a more balanced, interesting series. Sometimes it takes a season or so to hit stride, the start of TNG as a good example. All the same, it can do that on its own time – I don’t reckon I’ll be spending much more of mine on it. The 3:AM article, though, was interesting, and opened up lines of inquiry I hadn’t previously thought about.
These days, seems like there’s a check-list whenever a new sci-fi flick comes out, a formula for articles, think-pieces, and commentary to be made, ritualistically whipping up the internet into a self-righteous froth. These last few days have been more-or-less the same.
Caught the new Blade Runner earlier this week, at the local Vue. Not our usual cinéma de choix, but they’ve implemented a pretty hefty reduction on Monday ticket prices – perhaps they’re feeling the financial pinch.
I’m not a Dickhead (though I’m certainly guilty of being a dickhead…), so I didn’t go into this overly invested. Well, that’s not precisely true – I was concerned by the cutting of some of the early trailers, which seemed to be action-heavy in a way that didn’t sync with my memories of the original film (it’s been about a decade since I saw it last – couldn’t tell you which version, though I recall overdubs – and I’ve not read any Philip K. of novel length) which seemed a shame. I allayed my fears remembering that it was Villeneuve directing (which was a leap of faith in itself – I’ve not yet seen Arrival) and was reassured that the atmos, at least, would be on point. I wasn’t disappointed.
More on the ritualistic criticisms, though – as per usual, there have been accusations of vacuousness (untrue) misogyny (kinda true) and racial insensitivity (pretty accurate). Maybe it’s because I’m not paying as close attention, but I don’t really get the sense that other genres, outside of the speculative like sci-fi or fantasy, get the same sort of treatment. This is not to say there are no criticisms lobbed at your latest Disney effort, or the most recent Scandi-noir police procedural or what have you – when these films are egregiously out of step they are rightly upbraided – but they don’t seem to have the same rubric of criticism applied. Perhaps it’s because, as speculative fiction, sci fi looks at the possibilities for the future, and a future that leaves out large chunks of the present is both morally and structurally myopic. Perhaps it’s because the audience of this genre overlaps significantly with the Tumblr crowd of rambunctious moral arbiters. Who’s to say?
I, white cis het male that I am, feel that the film for the most part avoids accusations of misogyny. It certainly portrays many of its female characters in an overtly-sexualised manner, but, insofar as I can tell, this does not a misogynistic film make—the portrayal of misogyny is not misogyny tout court. Importantly, and this is where the film stumbles on other criticisms, the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is in keeping with that of the original Blade Runner, insofar as the society’s approach to gender is concerned. The world of the original was a grossly sexist place, and so too is that of the sequel. As much as the Blade Runner-verse happens in a time-line adjacent to our own real-world one, it’s probably a faithful representation of what would happen to our society in a hyper-commercialised future – hell, it’s probably what we’re headed towards at the moment. It’s not as if the multi-story holographic adverts that dance above the street-level replicant manifestations of the product don’t have real-world analogues. This is just a dialled-up version of what we already have, with the pop-princess du jour filling our various media with a commodified sexuality, reinforcing and guiding the trends of society’s actual sex workers, the logics of pornography stamped into us day-in, day-out.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t revel in its portrayal of misogyny. It’s not lurid, it’s not exploitative. It definitely has characters that use women, or woman-analogues, in a less-than-positive light (the protagonist foremost amongst them), and shows a society that, much like our own, is pervaded by the otiose relish of the female form, but to do otherwise would be dishonest to the story it is telling. A protagonist who possesses all the right views on women, whilst also on the arc that the story requires of him, would jar. A society that is as steeped in a runaway capitalism as that of Blade Runner but also respects women is a contradiction in terms – sexism, just as racism, is concomitant with capitalism; they can’t be pulled apart. Hell, this is a society that is literally built on slaves – it’s the whole thrust of the story – why would you expect it to have anything but trash gender politics? But, even in showing all this, the film doesn’t become complicit in it. While it doesn’t go so far as to damn what it shows – it’s more harsh on the hollowness of these relationships than the power imbalance inherent – it doesn’t actively enjoy it, either. It has ample opportunity to: the “love scene” between the protagonist and his “partner” could have been much more sordid, aimed entirely at titillation. Instead, it is used to underline the core concerns of the series, that of the nature of personhood and the ambiguities, the uncanniness, of possible human-adjacent realities.
The more accurate complaint revolves around non-white people in the film, or, rather, the lack-thereof. The setting of Blade Runner 2049, much like its predecessor, is Los Angeles and its environs. Picking up on some of the now-standard cyberpunk tropes, this Los Angeles is doused in Asian culture, from signage to the sartorial to gustatory. However, there are few, if any, actual Asian people in evidence. I’ve seen some clever epicycles deployed to explain this, the best yet being a comparison with the diffusion of American culture in our own world. In many countries around the world, so the argument goes, be they European, Asian, or, increasingly, African, you will find American businesses and products, replete with English signage, despite the absence of Americans, on the ground, perpetuating and guiding the effort. This is a product of the success of American cultural imperialism, the victory of American propaganda world-wide, as it portrays itself as something desirable, as synonymous with “success.” It was just this that led to the cyberpunk trope in the first place – during the Eighties, when so much of this stuff was codified, Japan was economically bullish, and the future, so it seemed, belonged to them. Thus, anything set in the near future looked like a fusion of Anglo and Japanese culture, with the hegemony of Japan redesigning the way American streets looked, the language that was spoken there, the food that was consumed.
All good, but the original Blade Runner, unlike its sequel, had plenty of Asian people on the streets themselves, as well as the signage and culture and what all. Where have they gone in the intervening 30 years? There’s been speculation that the Asian countries could have “gotten their shit together” and gone off-world – the existence of the extra-terrestrial colonies is a feature that looms large over both the original and the present Blade Runner – but this can’t account for every individual, and certainly doesn’t make sense of the real-world demographics of LA. The original film had a key character in Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos, who drew from his own mixed background to try and give a poly-racial feel to the film. Gaff is relegated to a few lines in a single scene in 2049, and I can’t recall any other Hispanic character – with dialogue or without – throughout the film. Evidently, much of the shooting was done in Hungary, so I can understand the logistical difficulties in importing the right mix of extras simply for atmosphere. Even so, the absence of nearly any brown or black faces in such a melting pot as Los Angeles is a bit stark.
All in all, I think Blade Runner 2049 comes through bruised but whole. Not a perfect film, but this isn’t a Bergman we’re talking about. The cinematography is beautiful, with very tasteful CGI. The pacing is, contrary to my original concerns, true to the original, and this, coupled with the seemingly-trademark Villeneuve soundscape, allows for a sustained meditation on what it means to be human. Performances were neither stilted nor overdrawn to camp. Could the story have been more nuanced? Were all angles satisfactorily explored? No. Does the plethora of criticism find purchase? Yes. As ever with these things, your best bet is to take a look yourself, and make your own opinions. Especially if you can grab some steeply-discounted Monday night tix.
I recall, a good number of years ago, reading that ‘a philosophical novel is an impossibility.’ I maintain that it was Iris Murdoch who said this – I remember being struck by the idea that, if anyone were to know, it should be her – but I can’t for the life of me dig it up via Google. Irrespective – if this were true, bad news for Sophie’s World and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – but not for Lars Iyer’s 2014 novel Wittgenstein Jr, because, despite the name and the nominal subject matter, it is in fact a love story.
The narrative follows, loosely, a group of philosophy undergrads in present-day Cambridge over the course of their degree, united by the presence of a shared lecturer. A lecturer they half-jokingly refer to as Wittgenstein Jr, as if he were a diminutive version, in all the eccentric mannerisms, of the more famous namesake. The jumbled-together nature of the cast – boys from different backgrounds and with different approaches to and desires from life – is highlighted in the work itself, resulting in moments of humour and pathos in equal measure as they strike off one another and maintain an uneasy friendship. This is balanced against the somewhat abstract maunderings of Wittgenstein Jr (whose real name is never offered up) which, while they don’t necessarily build to a coherent philosophical project, do massage the story forward.
No normal, straight-ahead tale, the prose style throughout the work is in a state of flux: at times, dialogue is laid out as a screenplay – named characters in block print, followed by words that we assume are passing in some manner of ordered temporality. At other times, we have the situation related to us by our protagonist, Peters, in a clipped, present-tense reportage that curtails any worries that he might not be the most faithful of narrators. Thirdly, we have the broad-stroke, hermetic declarations of the titular Wittgenstein Jr, as filtered by Peters, thrusting themselves between the actual events of the story.
It’s somewhat difficult to dissociate my own experiences from those of the novel – I fear that, being situated in Cambridge myself, I’m giving too much of the benefit of the doubt to the book. How much am I filling in gaps within the presentation, when I too have walked along the University backs, drank late at night on Cambridge’s rooftops, spent lazy afternoons meandering to Grantchester? Doubly, I’ve been an undergrad in a philosophy program, too. Much of the experience rang true – Iyer was a lecturer in philosophy at Uni of Newcastle before taking the position of Reader in Creative Writing, so he ought to know, if most recently from the other side of the equation – but how much is just my own insertion? Then again, the experiences we each bring to a reading inform it – there can be no distilled, pure version of any such affair, can there?
My biggest complaint, structurally, is brought on by my own experiences: no women in the class itself, and the female characters outside the main, male undergrad set are little more than set-dressing. In my own cohort, the few female colleagues amongst the majority male crowd were by far the best of us – but, and this is something endemic to analytic departments, few is the rule. Likely, my friends and colleagues performed so much better than the rest of us because of the unvocalised assumption that they were, even in the 21st century, interlopers, and thus had to outstrip the rest just to get by. I can only assume that Cambridge, at the undergrad level, is even worse on this. It would have been positive if Iyer was able to critique this state of affairs in some way, but I appreciate the lampshading nonetheless. The reported romances, those few that involve women, are dealt with on an abstract, allegorical level (and it is the disappointment thereof, the inevitably mundane nature of the amoureuse, that stalls the romance).
Rather than receive reports on the minutiae of the didactic process, the descriptions of the classes the group take with Wittgenstein Jr are opportunities for gnomic, aphoristic utterances that do more to provide an atmosphere to the book than anything of a linear, plotted construction. There are through-lines, such as the idea of the ‘English lawn,’ which resurface at various points. The metaphor is used as a heavy-handed critique of the modern Oxbridge reality, without necessarily hearkening back to a ‘better’ past:
“The English lawn is receding, Wittgenstein says. And with it, the world of the old dons of Cambridge.
New housing estates, where once was open countryside… A new science park where once were allotments and orchards… New apartment blocks near the station, their balconies in shade … And towering barbarisms: Varsity Hotel, looming over Park Parade; Botanic House, destroying the Botanic Gardens; Riverside Place, desecrating the River Cam…
They’re developing the English lawn, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glassy towers on the English lawn. They’re laying out the suburbs and exurbs on the English lawn. They’re constructing Megalopolis on the English lawn.
And they’re developing the English head, Wittgenstein says. They’re building glass-and-steel towers in the English head. They’re building suburbs and exurbs in the English head…
The new don is nothing but a suburb-head, Wittgenstein says. The new don – bidding for funds, exploring synergies with industry, looking for corporate sponsorship, launching spin-off companies. The new don, courting venture capitalists, seeking business partners, looking to export the Cambridge brand. The new don – with a head full of concrete. A finance-head. A capitalist-head.”
Iyer does a good job at presenting the self-important priggishness of overly-clever young men, puffed up on their own abilities and lacking the self-awareness to temper their more brash statements. Your humble reviewer may or may not be able to attest to the veracity of the following passages…
“EDE: Have you noticed how the rahs are all saying literally now? I was like literally exhausted. I was like literally wasted. But nothing they say actually means anything! Literally or figuratively! Most of the time, they don’t even finish their sentences. I was literally so… They just trail off. They barely speak, most of the time. Mmms and ahhs. Little moans, nothing else. Oh reeeealllly. Lurrrrrvely. Coooool.
And they use the word uni, which is unforgiveable, Ede says.”
“We speak of our desire for despair – real despair, Ede and I. For choking despair, visible to all. For chaotic despair, despair of collapse, of ruination. For the despair of Lucifer, as he fell from heaven…
Our desire for annulling despair. For a despair that dissolves the ego; despair indistinguishable from a kind of death. For wild despair, for heads thrown back, teeth fringing laughing mouths. For exhilarated despair, for madness under the moon.
Our desire for despairs of the damned. For crawling despairs, like rats, like spiders. For heavy despairs, like those on vast planets, which make a teardrop as heavy as lead…
Our desire for the moon to smash into the earth. For the sun to swallow the earth. For the night to devour both the sun and the earth.
We speak of our desire for extinction, for cool mineral silence. For the Big Crunch, for the end of all things. For the Great Dissipation, when electrons leave their atoms…”
Truthfully, the only thing that saves these extended sections from contemptibility is the earnest, charming honesty by which they are delivered. As much as they signal – on their surface – entitled, inexperienced boasting, the reality is that of young, nerdy men bonding, building a friendship to push back against the often-hostile, imperfect world they wish they could change for the better, or at least to their conception of what that might mean. Moments of shared, unselfconscious awkwardness – such is the mortar of friendship.
There are passages where the reader is offered glimpses of Wittgenstein Jr’s mounting paranoia – never so sharp, though, as to turn the tenor of the book, which remains fundamentally light in its touch. The sheer outrageousness of it, though deadly serious in delivery, can’t but undercut itself. One can almost picture Bernard Black uttering the below –
“The dons are always ready to pounce, he says. Always ready with their greetings. Hello, they say. Nice weather we’re having, they say. How are you?, they say. How are you getting on?, they say. What have you been up to?, they say. Each time: an assault. Each time: a truncheon over the head. Hello. Nice day. Hello. Hello.”
As I had mentioned earlier, though, the work really shines when it is relaying the essence of Cambridge, descriptions of the physicality and references to the culture combining to provide a hefty psychogeographical distillation. One where you can almost feel the sandy crumbling of acid-rain washed architecture under your fingers, the heaviness of all this accumulated, academic prerogative bearing down on you.
“Flooded pasture. Meadows full of standing water. Salt-water wetlands. Tidal creeks and meres. Rivers braiding, fanning out.
You get a sense of what the Fens used to be like, before they were drained, Wittgenstein says. Settlers building on banks of silt, on low hills, on fen edges. Towns like islands in the marshland.
We imagine the first scholars, expelled from Oxford, founding the new university in Cambridge. We imagine the first colleges growing out of boardinghouses. The first classes, teaching priests to glorify God, and to preach against heresy. The first benefactors, donating money for building projects. The first courtyard design, at Queens College, the chapel at its heart. The first libraries, built above the ground floor to avoid the floods. The lands, drained along the river, and planted with weeping willows and avenues of lime trees. The Backs, cleared, landscaped lawns replacing garden plots and marshland. Cambridge, raising itself above the water. Cambridge, lifting itself into the heavens of thought…”
I started off this review by denying the idea that it should be a ‘philosophical novel,’ and instead declaring it a love story. I think I’ve shown some of the appreciation it has for the particular moment in life the characters share; the physical place they find themselves in. There is a more prosaic, more carnal love story that winds its way through the piece, but, I think, to give it away here would be a disservice to the reader. As much as it comes to the fore towards the end of this relatively short piece, it does a good job of injecting a degree of energy, of providing motion that makes sense of and solidifies the earlier passages.
Suffice to say, if you yourself have come from a humanities background, or really from any space where a volatile, passionate friendship has sprung up – one that hangs together despite itself, and burns the brighter for it – and it’s something you’d like to see represented; if you’ve a desire to get a feel for what Cambridge is like as a place and a head space; if you’re interested in intriguing and challenging narrative forms, there are worse tales to read than this.
Plus, it’s quite funny.
Caught the pre-release screening of the recent Columbian film Embrace of the Serpent last night at the Arts Picturehouse, which was followed up by a Q&A with the director, Ciro Guerra. Described by the Guardian as a “dreamlike exploration of the Amazon’s Imperialist pollution,” the film has won, amongst a host of other awards, the Art Cinema Award at Cannes, and is currently up for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
Before getting into the film proper, I’d like to pause for a moment and comment on how enjoyable it was to have access to this, the film itself and having the director present afterwards. I suppose this is what comes from living in a country with twice the population of Canada, crammed into a third the area of Ontario. What’s more, though, I think there are important cultural differences – that, to continue to support cinema such as this, to have a public that desires and consumes it, there is something not necessarily inward-looking, but perhaps self-regarding, about English culture that can be lacking in Canada. Sure, we get this sort of thing at tiff every year, and I’m sure the Lightbox runs events like this once in a while, but to have a chain of cinemas throughout the country, able to keep afloat fiscally, dedicated to this is something highly unlikely back home. I get that this is an artefact of a preening aristocracy, self-absorbed and eager to display their rarefied quality (no doubt redoubled by the jolly-jumping middle classes), but it is refreshing to see the effects of a conservation-minded Conservative politic, even if all that’s left of it now are ghost-like vapours of culture.
Returning to the film – the critics aren’t wrong. Shot in black and white on 35mm, the film offers a look at the Amazon that is lacking in other efforts. As Guerra expressed afterwards, it simply couldn’t have been shot in anything other than greyscale – trying to effectively capture the colours of the rainforest, never mind expressing their collective importance to the Indigenous, quickly became obvious as impossible. The choice to go black and white also had the benefit of levelling the playing field – everything stands out as equally important because nothing stands out from its surroundings. It’s a different way of seeing the jungle, one that throws it into relief and, surprisingly, aids in parsing the density of scenery. Using 35 mm was refreshing – refreshing in its lo-fi quality. Quick panning, aerial shots of the landscape blurred in a manner less common in the age of digital film, and it was a welcome change. It would be a mistake to think that this was then a muddy, murky film – far from it, with startlingly pristine long takes in several cases – but taking advantage of the limits of the medium allowed for an augmentation of the already dream-like quality of the narrative. Guerra rightly recognises that the world is chaos, and it is we that give order to it – this belief informs his work as director. Seeing the film for the cinematography alone would be worthwhile.
The story itself is dual – one vein, taking cues from the notebooks of historical German explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg, follows the eponymous explorer as he and his assistant are guided along the Vaupes by Karamakate, a shaman who believes himself to be the last of his tribe. The second course, set several decades in the future, also features Karamakate, who now guides the American explorer Richard Evans Shultes on much the same journey. The two paths leap-frog one another, visiting the same locations separated by history, the story becomes a meditation on loss, mistaken effort, and the rotten fruits of greed. The transition between the two is effortless, whether they be super-imposed on one another or transition via seamless tracking shots, the calibre of something out of Hitchcock or Iñárritu.
Seeing this in Cambridge, there was (of course) an Anthropologist in the audience who has spent decades in just this area of Columbia. During the Q&A, he was quick to point out that the film seemed to play into the standard dichotomy, that one could either be fully indigenous, or entirely Western. This is a theme within the work, Karamakate railing against Theo, calling him nothing but a White and deriding his inability to understand the world, and, again, attacking the assistant Manduca, for wearing Western clothing and taking on their mannerisms. Guerra responded to our worthy Anthro by making clear that he did not set out to make the film as any sort of Ethnographic work – none of the plant names are reflective of real, sacred plants, none of the rituals or tribes are reflective of real peoples or their beliefs, beyond overarching, shared Amazonian myths. The character(s) of Karamakate pushes back against this dichotomy, as well – there is a scene where Theo tries to retake his stolen compass from a tribe they visit along the river, fearing that, should they learn how to use it, they will lose their idiomatic understanding of location and navigation. Karamakate smacks him down, saying that it is not for him to refuse them the knowledge. Here, we have the paragon of purity, making the argument for autonomy – even to the point of “sullying” themselves. It is their choice to make. On the other side, we do see the shaman as prejudiced against the Westerners – for all his Paternalism, Theo argues back in a separate clash that he is not here to plunder, he is a man of science, and if he does not bring back knowledge to his colleagues, his people, in Germany, they will never understand and the damage already done will prove lasting.
Both narrative streams, the early and the later, quickly become a sort-of Amazon Tale, seemingly a sub-genre of adventure in the jungle, where odd, fantastic things occur. Already mentioned was the visit to the village – there is also a stop at a Christian mission, both in the initial and the second narrative. The first has direct ramifications on the second, with choices made in the past developing into something out of Conrad – were it not one taken from the genuine history of the area, that is – with a European convinced he is Christ himself and ruling, harshly, over half-way indoctrinated natives, the product of, in Karamakate’s words, the worst of two worlds. There is an altercation with a slave in a rubber-grove, a man whose arm has been lopped off, whose left eye has been mangled, whose body is ribboned with scars, who demands, pleads, that they kill him. The imagery of that scene, the impact of it, has been on my mind all day. All of these, despite their very concrete histories, feel as if they’re viewed through the lens of magical realism, there is something on the tilt about the whole film, an additional potency that is beyond the ordinary.
Guerra stated that they worked hard to open up the forest, to make it less of the stereotypical place of terror and threat to Western eyes, than one of respect and balance – stray too far outside the bounds, and you will come to grief, but there is a path that can see you through. Both Theo and Evans quest for the sacred yakruna flower, the first for its healing powers (he is afflicted by an unknown disease, and it is only by the constant ministrations of Karamakate that he survives at all) and the second for its purported symbiosis with the rubber tree. In the first quest, the European and his assistant must abide by the prohibitions of Karamakate: it is the dry season, and they must not eat the flesh of animal or fish, must not lie with women, must not cut any tree to the roots, lest balance be over-turned. In the second, we see Karamakate lost – his people are well and truly gone, his actions ostensibly listless. It is difficult to pin down for certain how much he returns to his agency versus how much he was guiding Evans the whole journey, but it is not until they have retreaded the original path that he takes the situation in hand, cultivating the American in ways he realises he failed to for the European, due to his own distrust.
Though it needn’t be said, the performances are excellent. I counted some six languages spoken, and, while the Columbian cast will have come naturally to a few, everyone involved does a masterful job. Nilbio Torres’ performance as the young Karamakate is huge – Herculean in emotions, whether in rage or jest. Antonio Bolivár’s take on the older Karamakate is just as good, portraying the character sunk into himself after a life of frustration and defeat, yet retaining a glimmer of cunning, hinting at the Titan he was and could become once more. Neither are professional actors – drawn from the Indigenous population of the area, you can see that Guerra’s statements ring true – when they commit to something, they do it wholesale, without self-consciousness or restraint. Torres’ story is actually rather humorous – as they travelled the area trawling for the cast, Guerra’s team found that the people were only too happy to take part in the experience, to have their pictures taken, to clown around. All save for one. The whole village were ready to commit, but, of course, it was all or nothing, everyone agreeing to do it together or none at all. Despite his whole family beseeching, the man remained intransigent. Finally, he acquiesced, on the sole condition that, if he took part, it would be as the star. Sure enough, one look at the photographs taken and Guerra knew he had his Karamakate. He didn’t make the wrong choice.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put my question to Ciro Guerra. While many questions touched on the role of and the interaction with the Indigenous of the area, I was curious to find out what sort of traction this film, and films like it, get in the wider Columbian society. Is this sort of story seen as an integral part of the national character? How does this fit in the ongoing rise in cultural consciousness throughout the greater South America? Is this the reserve of the cosmopolitan elite, as it is here in Europe, or is this something enjoyed by the average person as well? I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for answers.
Embrace of the Serpent opens for general release this Friday. Do do your best to find a screening.
Despite my reservations, I caved. I saw the Warcraft film.
Coming off the first trailer, I had my trepidations. The dialogue, such as it was, was trite and clichéd. The animation (more on that later) was, frankly, silly looking. I figured this whole venture was nothing more than cynical fanservice – Blizzard has definitely reoriented itself over the last half decade and more towards unscrupulous profit creation, and I thought that this was more of the same.
Banality, as far as the eye can see…
It wasn’t until Mark Kermode’s grudgingly positive review that I decided to commit.
I’d have to say that I largely agree with his estimation – you can see director Duncan Jones trying to hammer this behemoth of an intellectual property into a compelling story, and, for the most part, he succeeds. Unfortunately, it’s telling that it was a struggle every step. There must be some concessions given on the grounds that this is a first-off, for both the Warcraft universe and Blizzard as a whole, so there is necessarily going to be some dry ground to cover, some limbering up before we get to a running pace. That said, I hope the stage-setting that this film in many ways existed for doesn’t stall the whole venture altogether.
I’ll be honest, while I was an avid fan of the series when I was younger, WCII being my first real gaming experience, my enthusiasm started to wane with Warcraft III. WCIII, of course, was a stepping-stone for the genre-defining MMORPG World of Warcraft, and, given my distaste with the prelude, I wasn’t crash hot on the main course. The polygonal animation schema irritated me, and I couldn’t really get behind the pay-for-play scheme, which seems to have become the norm across most platforms now. The storyline, with each successive addition to WoW, has also become a bit ridiculous – it’s telling that the next expansion is revisiting the past, hearkening back to the original vitality (time travel – the plot device of knaves, thieves and people written into a corner!). But, this is meant to be a review of the film, not the whole body of work.
Characterisation: I caught myself on numerous occasions, primarily with the un-animated humans thinking – I’ve seen that actor before… but where? A quick look over at IMDB dissolves the mystery, but I’ll save you the time – Travis Fimmel, playing our protagonist Anduin Lothar, is, as everyone should know, the lead on History’s Vikings. Ben Schnetzer, as Khadgar – the one I had most trouble with – was one of the mains in last year’s Pride. Dominic Cooper, playing King Llane Wrynn, has been in a boat-load of stuff. Ben Foster, whose performance as Medivh overshadowed the other actors, I knew from a bit part in a previous X-Men film when he played the reluctant mutant Angel. Much less hairy at that point. Paula Patton, struggling valiantly against prosthetic tusks, played the pseudo-love-interest come plot mechanism Garona. Amongst the CGI characters, only the character of Durotan, clan leader of the Frost Wolves, was rounded out. He was voiced by Toby Kebbel, whom you may know from Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes.
Fimmel’s portrayal of Lothar borrowed more, I think, from Ragnar Lothbrok of Vikings than from the Warcraft canon – while still a formidable warrior, we see a Lothar that is less of a tank whose primary strength is size than a cunning, wily individual, using his intelligence and speed to overcome stronger opponents. This, by the way, mirrors the characterisation of the humans vs the Orcs – while not portrayed as stupid or necessarily brutish, it is made clear that strength is on the side of the Orcs, while tech and tactics are the humans’ forte. The character development during Warcraft I and II was thin, to say the least, but the impression that was given by accompanying art and lore for the character pointed to something a bit more solid than Fimmel’s presentation.
If the characterisation of Anduin Lothar is thin in the game, that of Khadgar is barely there at all. As such, Schnetzer has more or less a clean slate with which to build the character. What we get is something like the audience’s surrogate – amongst all the characters, Schnetzer’s Khadgar is the youngest, an untried wizard with determinedly benign motivation. His ingénue portrayal allows for some humorous moments with his elder superior in the Arts, Medivh, as well as with the half-breed, half-wild Garona. The character isn’t totally inept, as he shows on several occasions, and there is enough in the performance and the story to allow him some personality. Not totally bland, but neither especially striking.
As much as other characters are given space to show their motivations, to react to the narrative as it unfolds, I thought that Foster’s Medivh, the magical guardian of the realm, was the most nuanced. To be fair, his was probably the only grey character in the bunch, so it stands to reason that we get to see the most facets presented. As he showcases so well on Vikings, Travis Fimmel is no stranger to leaning in to the camp when necessary, but I thought it was Ben Foster, who, if he never was quite able to steal the show, always had the right hammy intensity to fit the scene. Whenever he showed up, in whatever mood was fitting, my eyes were drawn to him. There were problems with the presentation of the character, for sure, but they weren’t generally of Foster’s making – but more on that later.
Kebbel’s Durotan pulls a lot from the character of Thrall as developed in the games Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. No big surprise, as Thrall (thpoiler alert) is Durotan’s son, so, if Blizzard intend to continue with these films, it makes sense that they would want to provide a springboard for that character’s development. In this film, however, Durotan acts as a vehicle for the humanisation of the Orcs, if you will. We see the character with his family, his new-born son, as well as leading his people and facing the moral quandaries that that leadership brings. The voice acting, really across the board, though it is in this character that it gets to run the fullest, is sufficient to the task.
Themes and Story: The narrative hews fairly close to the original lore, telling the story of the Orc’s arrival in the world of Azeroth and their first confrontation with the humans of Stormwind, with a few interesting departures. Primary amongst them, to my mind, is the depiction of the Orcs – while in the early games, the Orcs appear to be a fairly unified force, intent on conquest with only shadowy reference to their barren homeworld, Warcraft: The Beginning seems to take up themes we would see later in the series, with the redemption of the Orcs and their presentation as honour-bound, tragic characters more at home in Warcraft III than Warcraft I. In some ways, this is the theft of the son’s arc by the father, with Durotan taking the role his son Thrall would come to play later on – makes me wonder what they intend to do with future films. Otherwise, this is fairly by-the-numbers, and that, I think, is where it runs into a bit of trouble.
As mentioned earlier, there are moments where you can see the struggle playing out between producers and director – the necessity of delivering the narrative elements the fans expect, against the effort to shape this into a film that stands on its own merits. Unfortunately, the hem and haw undercuts both.
Parent child dynamics are, as Kermode rightly highlights, a throughline for the film. On the side of the humans, the primary one is that of Lothar and his son, Callan – a young soldier who has had a fraught relationship with his father since birth, as his mother did not survive it and Anduin blames him. On the other side of the divide, we have the family of Durotan – his pregnant mate Draka, not to be left behind while the first wave of warriors explore the new world, travels through the portal from Draenor against better judgement (to be fair, Durotan was fully aiding and abetting this scheme, so deserves as much blame himself). She goes into labour while between worlds, and the child is stillborn in Azeroth. Gul’dan, the chief warlock of the Orcs, resurrects the child with stolen life energy using the cursed Fel magic, which turns him the characteristic green of a corrupted Orc (damn, that was a nerdy sentence). The family then become a microcosm for all of Orc kind – corrupted by the Fel magic, and yet literally needing it to survive. Depicting familial relationships on both sides does a good job at showing the commonality between humans and Orcs, as well as allowing for deeper motivations vis a vis duty, honour, revenge, etc. And don’t take that as a disparagement of Draka – while definitely merely a supporting character, she’s arguably the biggest badass in the film.
Regrettably, because of the ground to be covered, and the finite space to do it in, these motivations never get to be much more than skin deep. I can understand cutting certain parts of the backstory – it was a good choice to make no mention of the Burning Legion, for example, as well as to gloss Sargeras into Medivh’s story. There were other instances, and perhaps these were bits left on the editing floor, that would have beefed up the interaction between characters satisfactorily. For example, perhaps references to particular events in their shared past, to get the audience more invested in the three-way friendship between King Llane, Lothar, and Medivh, and have them care about its ultimate fate. Doing so would also have given Medivh’s final scene, especially his final line, the weight that it was lacking.
I appreciate what they chose to do with Garona’s character – starting the story in Draenor, the Orc homeworld, and the use of Draenei slave lives to power the Fel magic of Gul’dan, explains Garona’s half-Orc nature – the absence of said explanation always bugged me in the original lore. Alas, that’s about where it stops. In most everything else, she exists to move the plot forward – whether it be in her interactions with Taria, Lothar’s sister and Llane’s Queen-consort, in her position as romantic interest (consummated? unconsummated? the fact that we can’t tell either way is illustrative of my point) for Lothar himself, or even her role in Llane’s ultimate fate. As much as she gets a healthy amount of screen time, and plays several pivotal roles, it’s difficult to see the character as properly rounded – personal motivations are there, but it’s not as if it’s anything but in service to the story.
Art Direction: As much as it was one of my initial worries, the overall aesthetic choices were the saving grace for the film. The CGI is top quality – most importantly, it has a tactility that is the ultimate test for these sorts of films. Interactions between the live-action and the CGI look physical, not superimposed after the fact.
The colour saturation was a good choice – there was definitely room for this to play out like some grim-dark Zack Snyder film, everything blackened iron and brown blood. Instead, they wisely elected to go with an almost cartoony amount of contrast, sticking true to the feel of the games.
This was continued in the costuming – preposterously large pauldrons on the humans, bone fetishes adorning every inch of the Orcs. One misstep, though, was the fabric used in Khadgar’s cloak. I’m not sure what they were trying for, but it looked like a fuzzy bathrobe. This was more than made up for by the depiction of magic – the characteristic blue sigils of the human arcana, the sickly green of the Fel (the life-drained, gooey corpses of the victims of the Fel were a nice touch). It lent an over the top, camp feel that fit the sporadic injections of levity.
After witnessing many – many – ogres literally explode in WC II, I was a bit surprised by the lack of gore in the film. Several characters are eviscerated, more are bashed by hammers and stones and whatnot, but, outside of the odd blood spatter, we never actually see the results of all this violence. I can grant it to them, though – no doubt it was necessary to slip under an age rating, and it is likely the young that will be a big part of the audience on this one.
The music is probably the weakest link in the film, which is not to say that it is necessarily bad. I can understand that the score of the original games would be ill-fitting in a feature film, game music intended to be unobtrusive where film music is meant to augment desired emotional reaction, but it would have been nice to have a bit of a reference to it, even by way of tongue-in-cheek homage. Especially, given the effectiveness, at least in my opinion, of said music in building the feel of the early games – both the overall atmosphere and the distinct character of the races. As it was, I can barely remember the film score. It didn’t stick to the tried and true Wagner/Williams leitmotif approach, nor did it have the sheer size of a Howard Shore composition. It ticked the boxes as far as dissonance and driving rhythm for the martial scenes, something lighter for more emotive ones, but it’s not as if there were any remarkable themes or particularly memorable passages. The lacklustre nature of the score was even more surprising when I learned that the composer is the same person responsible for HBO’s Game of Thrones series, which has nothing but effective, theme-based music.
All in all, I’d say it’s earned the dubious title of best film I’ve seen based on a video game. Here’s hoping the tug-of-war in the editing room doesn’t sink future efforts in the series.
If you’ve been in Britain over the last couple weeks, there’s little doubt you’ll be aware of the fact that last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s demise. It’s spread beyond our shores, too – seems like everyone in the Anglophone literary world is making hay with this one, whether it be the New York Review tracking his post-mortem uptake, the CBC ginning up attention for goings-on in the Colonies, or LitHub valiantly trying to refocus some of the fervour on his under-appreciated contemporaries. I suppose, then, that this will be my addition to this metastasising glut.
Along with the articles, the radio works, the festivals on offer around the country, the British Film Institute is running several ongoing screenings – both filmic versions of the plays done straight and adaptations of the works in more of a vernacular vein. More to the point, I caught a showing of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic Ran Sunday night. Unfortunately, though there are plenty of other films yet to come in the series, Sunday was the end of the run for Ran and this is definitely one you want to catch on the big screen.
Ran, which loosely translates as ‘Chaos’, is a combination of Shakespeare’s King Lear and the Japanese legends surrounding daimyo Mōri Motonari. Accordingly, the structure and characterisation is loose, the largest difference coming with Lear’s three daughters gender swapped for sons. This allows Kurosawa to examine the familial relations of feudal Japan, as well as the violent, predatory society the story draws from. Ran wasn’t Kurosawa’s first stab at Shakespeare – back in ’57 he wrote and directed Throne of Blood, an adaptation of la Pièce Écossaise, to near universal critical acclaim. It’s worth noting, outside of England, some of the largest Shakespeare companies are in Japan – fertile place for the high drama and comedic spin exhibited by so many of Shake’s works.
Pulling from Lear, Ran’s overarching plot should be little surprise to those current with the play – a patriarch, tired of the rigours of rule, divides his realm between his three offspring. The eldest two fall over themselves in obeisance, while the third stands aloof, seemingly harsh in their contempt. The patriarch banishes this youngest child, alongside a doughty servant. It quickly becomes clear that the first two children were false in the love they expressed; spurred by greed and jealousy, they start on a path that leads to the ruination of the family as a whole.
Unlike the original play, though, the world of the film is, true to its namesake, malevolent in character. Lear was foolish, to be sure, but Hidetora, the Patriarch-figure of Ran, earns what he has coming by way of past deeds. A fierce warlord who won his land through conquest, his previous actions – the blinding of children, the marriage of conquered enemies’ daughters to his own sons, the well-deserved reputation of brutality – sowed his own downfall. If the world of King Lear was uncaring to human suffering, the world of Ran delights in it. Elsewhere, I’ve read it described as Hobbesian, and the characterisation rings true for me. This is lampshaded early in the film, Hidetora’s true son, Saburo, calls him a fool for trusting in himself and his brothers when the world is so bloody and rough. They can’t but turn on one another. With Nature so designed, there is no need for a character the equivalent of Edmund to stir up chaos and bloodshed, it was foregone from the start. For all that, Lady Kaede, the wife of Hidetora’s eldest and, after Hidetora, the most lavishly dramatic of the characters, is possessed of a downright Machiavellian bent – much to the detriment of all others.
With Ran, a battery of the best qualities of film are brought to the fore – the strength of the piece is in its harnessing of the spectacle. Vibrant colours, sharp incongruencies in sound, juxtaposition of multiply angled scene cuts and broad tracking shots that simply aren’t possible on stage. Music is used effectively: a combination of traditional Japanese shakuhachi for heightened emotion and a girthy Mahlerian, late-Romantic score for lengthier passages. There is a scene, a pivotal battle, where all diegetic sound fades and we are left with merely the images and the music – a haunting juxtaposition that lends a dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The viewer is lulled into calm as the violent imagery passes before the eye, only to be brought forcibly back into the action with the crack of a gunshot and the murder of a key character.
In spite of all this, I found the presentation, at least in comparison with the source material, to be opaque. A beautiful spectacle, uncompromising in its presence, concrete, and direct. My initial thought is that this might be resultant of a combination of the Noh tradition the film draws upon, which primarily used movement to express emotion, and the necessary limitations of watching a film in subtitles. There’s only so much that can be expressed by translated words alone, and, given the broadstroke emotions that Noh is renowned for, I was left feeling as if, at least for the foreign viewer, what we get is all surface – beautiful surface – but surface nonetheless. Don’t go into this one anticipating the passionate intimacy that’s idiomatic of Will’s best poetry, intricate soliloquies that bare the soul of the speaker, nor the more subtle play of emotions that’s possible with film, the benefit of viewing the actor from a distance of bare inches as the cast of conflicting emotions that play across the face tell more than words ever could – you’ll get neither.
The surface here, though, is well worth the price of admission. The aforementioned tracking shots are something to behold – 1400 extras were hired for the film, and the synchronised movements of masses of people, the cavalry formations, the sheer scope of it is stunning. The film would go on to win the Academy Award for costume design, and it is well deserved. Much of the film was shot on location, in areas around Mt Aso and the historical castles of Himeji and Kumamoto, and the landscape is as much a character as any of the actors.
There is a punchiness in the effects, the stunts, that is sadly lacking in these latter days of CGI – when you see someone take a fall from a horse, and watch them scuff along the dirt, you know that it hurt – when they get clipped by a hoof, you know that it’ll bruise. The immediacy of running out of a multi-storey building that is literally burning down around you can’t be mimicked by greenscreen. Out of restriction comes creativity, and, when you can only manage one take before the whole scene burns up, you get something real.
If ever you get the chance to catch Ran in theatres, I highly recommend it – it certainly takes liberties with the Shakespearean source material, but produces something equally good. As the final scene winds up, the figure of a blind man lost and alone, standing above a ruined castle and backlit by the setting sun, you are given a sense of the folly of life, stripped of any comforting pathos.
In the interim, though, the BFI is still running a bunch of Shakespeare-themed films. Get down to London and see ‘em!
Malazan Book of the Fallen
A bit pre-emptive, perhaps, but I felt as if it was timely to offer up a review of the past couple fantasy books I’d been reading, that of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The first, re-purposed from an unsuccessful film-script, showed up back in 1999, and they’ve been rolling on since. The series proper tied off at ten full novels, in 2011. However, a prequel trilogy is still being written, with the second novel expected later this year, and various one-off and supplemental works scattered throughout the last decade and more working in the same “world.”
Like some…other… recent fantasy works, the Malazan series grew out of a previously developed table-top gaming setting. Erikson and his friend, Ian Cameron Esslemont, made the setting for their own enjoyment back in the early eighties, which goes some way to explaining why the initial series could be produced with such machine-like regularity – the ground was fertile, and the stories already sketched out. Esslemont, it should be noted, has also written works in the shared property, a six-part series that wrapped up back in ’14, and a new one in the offing.
At two for two, it might be a bit early to make the call, but I’m going to come out and say it – Social Scientists make good fantasy writers. Much like China Miéville, a few of whose works I’ve already written about, Erikson is a trained anthropologist, and it shows in his work. The initial ten-piece series was written as a po-mo criticism of the standard, Tolkien-dominated fantasy tropes – non-linear story telling, inversion of gender roles, dense, unforgiving narrative, little “plot armour” for the multiple protagonists, this was not to be just another repeat of Dragonlance.
You won’t find any elves or dwarves in the Malazan setting (though there are dragons…kinda…), but the series is definitely fantasy. There are plenty of non-human races, and magic – a well-thought-through and novel system, I’m happy to say – is a key part of the story. The scope is of a grand scale, mortal humans interacting with Ascended Demi-gods and the Elder Gods above even them. Erikson and Esslemont have done something I’ve seen very little of in high fantasy, if at all, and it is this that best shows off Erikson’s anthro chops. The narrative extends back into the pre-history of the world, with non Sapien Sapien species the equivalent of Neanderthals, Homo Erectus and others playing a large and continuing role in the late-medieval setting. Some of the most gripping moments, as odd as it may sound, are the points where the puzzle-pieces of how these species interacted in the dim past, their shared history, finally crystallise. If Miéville is a writer possessed by Antiquity, Erikson is haunted by the Palaeolithic.
The series had been on my radar for some time – Erikson and Esslemont are both Canucks, and a number of my friends had read and recommended the series over the years. I’ll confess, turning to finally read it now has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Bad, in that there are so many arcs, so many individual elements in the series that I had wanted to use in my own writing – stuff I’d come up with independently, but feel like I’d either be seen as ripping off from, or, perhaps worse, indeed unconsciously mimic now that I’ve consumed them. However, it is good to know that there is a market, and seemingly a large one at that, for just this sort of fiction.
As I said at the start, I might have jumped the gun a bit on writing this now – I’ve only just finished the fourth instalment in the original series – but I felt as if I’ve got enough of a grip on the style, on the particularities of the content, to at least point the way.
The initial novel, Gardens of the Moon, sets the tone for those that follow – the main story focuses on the eponymous Malazan Empire, or, more particularly, a squad within a legion within an army of that multiple-continent-spanning Empire, called the Bridgeburners. In medias res, the reader is thrust into the latest, offensive, conflict to grip the Empire’s armies, as they struggle to bring the continent Genabackis under Malazan dominion. Things don’t really go as planned, but that’s what makes the story worthwhile. Along the way, the perspective is broadened – other agents of the Empire, the various forces that oppose them – until all the various skeins, the disparate story elements, are brought together in a gripping climax, all the better for being multi-sided.
The next instalment, Deadhouse Gates, largely abandons the characters of the first novel – set instead in another location altogether, within the Empire but on the edge of continent-wide rebellion. The narrative follows the efforts of a Malazan army to guide several thousand refugees to safety across enemy territory, though of course with the multiple view-points, density of characterisation, and well-developed social and religious elements the earlier novel brought to bear. Counterpoint to this is the desperate escape effort of a trio of prisoners, enslaved under false pretences, taking them across deserts, seas, and magical lands themselves under assault. The hatred that drives them forth, the bitterness of betrayal by family and loved ones, will have tragic consequences for more than one continent.
Memories of Ice runs concurrent with Deadhouse Gates, picking up where Gardens left off. Former enemies are turned to uneasy allies as a threat from the south threatens to overtake them all. This threat – in the form of the Pannion Domin, a sorcerous, theocratic empire that drives its adherents to acts of mass cannibalism – is both older and more grave than anyone could have thought. Though I might be wrong, the shadowy forces behind it are likely the antagonists for the series overall. Where Gardens was largely urban intrigue, and Deadhouse a beleaguered dash across a continent, Memories focuses on several siege engagements. While none are as drawn out as, say, Gemmell’s Legend (which I heartily recommend, if you’ve yet to read it), the weightiness, the grind, is well executed.
I thought it was the fourth book, House of Chains, where things really get rolling. Spanning both of the previously visited continents, the start is the most unforgiving yet – the reader is thrown into a society totally different from any yet seen, much more barbaric, with no apparent points of commonality and a prose style tilted on its head – to the point where it takes several dozen pages even to realise that this is set in the same universe. As the narrative unfolds, we return to the continent of Seven Cities, where the nascent rebellion, unopposed throughout the land, awaits the response of the Malazan Empire. What really struck me about this one is the way in which previous characters I’d thought were merely meant to supply local colour, to stand in for an off-the-cuff remark, are shown to be much more central than I could have imagined. This is the complicated, mind-numbingly diverse sort of story-telling exemplified by R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan, with whom Erikson definitely stands equal.
Alongside the aforementioned emphasis on a narrative over evolutionary time, Erikson makes some interesting choices with the societies of the Malazan universe. Most pointedly, women are seen as equal to men – both in soldiery and in places of authority – in almost every society yet seen. Obviously, other fantasy works have had female characters, and more unusually full protagonists, but what’s worthy of remark here is the sheer mundaneity of it, that it just takes it as a matter of course that a medieval army, without the equalising presence of modern firearms, should be at least half female. Erikson doesn’t shy away from the realities of this, either – sexual violence is used, against both men and women, on more than one occasion. It’s nice to see that, at least from what I’ve seen, this hasn’t ever been an example of character-development-by-rape, which is a common failing when an author dares to enter into this territory. Instead, each instance fits the larger narrative and progresses, with appropriate gravity, as smoothly as possible.
There are points where the world-building misses a trick, as could be anticipated. Despite the long historical backdrop, the main story lines take place in a high medieval equivalent that looks to have been stable for some time. True, the presence of explosive munitions (again with the pre-theft!) and their game-changing impact show that that world is changing, and that, this being a fictional construct, there’s no need for it to follow lock-step our own history, but it is a common issue in fantasy that you are presented this world which has had the same tech level for 10,000 years, with no explanation as to why. “Medieval stasis” – don’t do it – it’s bad.
Leveraging the boons of a multi-viewpoint model for the narrative, there are several instances where, just as you’re starting to feel as if the story is slipping into some sort of militaristic triumphalism, a character says something to shift the whole tenor of the passage, redefining the way you look at the preceding chapters and books. Despite it’s own complexity and multitude of story lines, this is something that Jordan’s Wheel of Time series ultimately failed at, I feel (we’re not going to talk about Sanderson’s…additions…). It asks a bit of the reader, but a work that can be enjoyed on multiple levels, and knowing that the author has deliberately constructed it thusly, is an encouraging affair for genre fiction.
So, if any of the above sounds like something you’d enjoy, I recommend you take up Erikson and Esslemont’s Malazan series’, starting with Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s quality stuff – relatively challenging, well-wrought prose that critiques the old modes of fantasy writing without being antagonistic or unfair. Dense, believable characters that act with a bounded rationality. Just my cup of tea!
Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories
Finished the last bit of China Miéville’s new collection, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories, yesterday afternoon. I think the most succinct way I could explain how I feel is that I’ve been conned, but it was so effective that I don’t mind.
I’ll unpack that a bit – the collection contains 28 pieces in all, which cover several styles of narrative. There are longer, self-contained stories, as well as short pieces that only run a few pages, and little vignettes or breakdowns of imagined film trailers which are shorter still. I say it’s a con because a lot of them read more like self-indulgent exercises, especially the short pieces. Whimsy, which is enjoyable enough to read, but not a whole lot to sink your teeth into.
The longer works are better – Miéville has an estimable rendering of different voices, by which I mean that choice of tone, of language, of which details to gloss or hide are in themselves an effective way of characterising the various narrators. The individual pieces are well researched – there is enough appropriately-placed jargon to make believable that these should be the recollections of a New York psychiatrist, that a bourgeois English Doctor, and these others a sectarian Leftist, and so on and so on. He is also able to make use of an efficient development of feeling – with space constraints tight, the ability to get the reader to feel for the protagonist and their relations within the first page is laudable. Miéville achieves this with an economical rounding of his characters – you get a good sense of who these people are, and are thus able to understand their motivations and their reactions, developing a sympathetic attachment to them. They are believable, and, despite some surreal or fantastical situations, they behave in a human way.
Even the longer works, though, generally leave you hanging. I might be wrong, but I think that this is likely by design. Without assuming too much about intention, I want to say that the lack of a satisfying resolution, the failure to draw back the curtain on the mystery, to offer up the background details of the weird and sometimes horrific circumstances, this is meant to mirror the frustrations of actual life. More often than not, reality fails to provide a satisfying, full explanation for the oddities of life, so why shouldn’t fiction mimic this? It’s challenging, it can be a bit of a let down, and, in less capable hands, would fall flat pretty quick, but when done right does a good job at pushing the form forward.
Miéville’s sociological training comes to the fore in several of the pieces. His interest in systems, in the organisation of communities of people and in the flotsam of dead civilisations is on display throughout. Despite the brevity of each of the sections, this stratigraphic depth, this clutter of hidden lives and times gone by broadens out the feel. Without wasting costly words, one gets a sense of breadth, of something beyond the horizons. As I said in my review for The City & the City, it’s a good job that Miéville keeps the lens tight – the more surrealist and weird pieces, they work because everyone is in on the oddity, or because the fantastical is hidden well enough that it doesn’t overturn most everyone’s lives. This works especially well in short fiction, where you don’t have to account for the knock-on effects in the wider world, quick and dirty, you can cut in and out. The lack of exploration of these ramifications is a large part of my earlier grievance – the stories usually cut out before you get the satisfaction of how this is all meant to work, or what it means on a larger scale. Human, thy condition is disappointment.
So, on the whole, pick it up if you’re a fan of China or of challenging fiction. You won’t find much satisfaction here, not of the mundane variety, but, if you’re looking for something that will tease you, will leave you wanting more, this is a solid bet. There are moments of humour, certainly, and some of the longer reads, whether they be apocalyptic, tragic, or horrific in tone, can leave you feeling a bit troubled – a definite sign of effective writing. I found it clipped along fairly well, despite refusing to render up the fulfillment of easier fiction – the bite-size portions break up the 430+ pages nicely. Good for something before bed or a light commute.
This is what science fiction is meant to be.
I read this book so aggressively, I’ve come down with a cold. I’ve slept minimally for several days. And I don’t regret it at all.
Don’t even finish reading this piece. Go out and get a copy now.
Still here? You’re loss.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora was fantastic, I highly recommend it.
I’ll try not to give too many plot points away, though it wouldn’t really matter if I did – it is the way it’s told that makes it worth the while.
The story focuses around an ark ship; when we join her crew, she is nearly arrived at the destination of her nearly two-century journey, the star Tau Ceti, 11.9 light years from our own system. Tau Ceti has planets within the habitable zone, that intermediary space where you’re not so close to the star to have the flesh ripped from your quickly vapourising bones by cosmic rays, nor so far as to freeze instantaneously, the oxygen desublimating while still in your lungs. Two of the planets have moons similar to planets we know here – a moon with a 78% similarity to Earth, with liquid water in large abundance, and another planet’s moon, a Mars analogue, rocky and dry. Seven generations have lived their lives out on the way, knowing little more than the inside of their mobile world. The ship itself, two tori connected by a central spine, is separated out into twelve distinct biomes, mimicking the disparate environments of Earth. Each area holds ~300 people, with a population capped just north of 2000 all told. They also have an assortment of terran flora and fauna, and all the micro-organisms that come along with. Even sizeable, alpha predators share the false environment, sequestered in remote areas of their natural habitats.
The narrative style is a clever one – the tale is relayed to us by way of the ship-board AI, or, proto-AI, after it is told as an exercise/research effort to report the story of the people of the ship and their travels by one of the head engineers. Artful, this provides for many asides as the computer struggles with meaning – in language, in life, in consciousness – that augment the actual goings-on of the struggle to reach a new home. Under direction, the ship focuses this tale on the life of the engineer’s daughter, without zeroing in solely on her. Thus, we have our protagonist, as well as the ability to examine important, synonymous events she wouldn’t be privy to. The tone is sometimes bemused, sometimes sombre, always earnest. Profundities abound, without ever slipping into the maudlin.
One of the best elements of the story, at least for my lights, is the unabashed acceptance of just how difficult this kind of venture would be. The crew leave the Sol system mid-way through the 26th century, after humanity has spread out to the gas giants, have workable quantum computers, and the technology to both accelerate to and protect a massive space station at 0.1 c. The scientific realities are never dictated to the reader, though – there is no talking down. The science serves the narrative, not the Verne-way round. The intricate things that, unplanned for, spell almost instant disaster, the larger, inescapable issues of life suspended in an enclosed environment for two centuries, the bizarre, unheimlich nature of seemingly-barren, alien worlds. This isn’t your grandfather’s space opera. Every interstellar inch this crew are flung through, they travel it a hair’s width away from death. It’s not a matter of if, but of when and how. And they know it.
Robinson may reiterate some concepts, retreading the notion of island biogeography, the losing struggle against metabolic rifts and uneven evolution, the preponderance of psychological biases, to the point of near-tedium. But this, too, serves the narrative, building up the tension the crew feel, confined as they are in an artificial environment that, on a very basic, indefeasible way, they were never meant to live in. The ship is huge, a scaled model of Earth itself, albeit a trillion to one. And yet, the reader can feel how cramped it is, and how it gets continually tighter as systems are strained to and past their breaking points, as tempers flare and order falls apart.
While the narrative structure might prevent us from accessing the inner lives of the human characters, this should not be taken as an assertion that all are cut paper. There are no mobile tropes here – the motivations are understandable, uncontrived. An extraordinary situation, but ordinary, human reactions. It is rounded characters that drive the story forward, just as much as any external circumstance.
Whether the crew are successful in their mission or not is immaterial – this is the best of all possible worlds. Humanity, performing one of the most integral, elemental acts known to us – the use of our intelligence, our ability, our empathy, to overcome. If our species is able to get to the point described by Robinson within the next millennia, it would be the most incredible success. Things will be dark, and dangerous, and unforgiving, but that is reality, especially beyond the comforting gravity well of Terra. As the novel ultimately shows, our worst problems will always be the ones we bring with us, wherever we might be. Alongside our struggle, it may be stories like Aurora that sustain us. I exhort you to read this book.
Bouvard et Pécuchet
Marx has this wonderful quote about “the idiocy of rural life” in the Communist Manifesto. Now, as we all know, Marx was not saying that the agrarian/pastoralist mode is stultifying. Rather, he was making use of the original Greek meaning of idiot, that of being outside of public, political, life.
Despite whatever his intentions may have been, there has been uptake of the more pointed, derogatory meaning since the Manifesto was translated. More to the point, I’ve never seen it better portrayed than in the writings of Flaubert. He has this wonderful way of portraying the backwards-ness, the pettifogging and the naïveté of provincial existence. Or, at least that’s been my experience in translation. I read Madame Bovary towards the start of the summer, where it was well on display, and my recent reading of Bouvard et Pécuchet has done nothing to shake my opinion on the matter.
B & P became a bit of a Baader-Meinhof for me. I first read about it in Said’s Orientalism, where he uses the novel, or, more exactly, the characters, as exemplary of the intellectualisation of European engagement with the East, the development of a narrative approach that both ignored the actuality of life in the Near-East, and, by way of mercantile and Imperial involvement, regimented and policed that life. Anyways, following that, the book and its characters seemed to pop everywhere for me – at least once a week, whether it be in articles I was reading or videos I was watching or whatever. Finally, I figured I’d best read it and get it out of my system.
Bouvard et Pécuchet is Flaubert’s final novel, one he actually was unable to finish, dying while still working on it. An avant garde piece of work, the novel is more of an anti-novel than a proper story – the eponymous characters meet and become friends at the opening, both working as clerks in Paris. Bouvard comes into money, and the two of them move to Normandy. Living without external purpose and flush with money, they set, at first, to yeomanry. Seeing that this might actually require effort, they shift to pomology, and then to gardening, and then to…you can see where this is going. B & P flit through hundreds of disciplines and vocations, never resting more than the time it takes to run up against the first sign of difficulty. A beautifully executed allegory for the earnest, misguided approach to life that so many of our species, to an extent, our whole species, pursues. And Flaubert gives it a good crack. I’m not more than passingly acquainted with half the fields mentioned, but Gustave is able to render each with nuance, writing from an at least ostensible position of expertise. There is a reason it took the last eight years of his life and more to write.
The novel dabbles in the topical, as well. Alongside the interaction with other bourgeois and inferior members of the region, B & P are swept along with the Paris Commune, and feel the pointed terror of the counter-revolution. They dabble in the Utopian fantasies of Proudhon and Fourier, and they experiment with cutting-edge scientific theories. Through it all, they expose the failures the Enlightenment’s positivistic side, the assumption that the world will render up its secrets with a moderate shake. The execution of the haughty, half-baked intellectual, swollen with self-importance and vanity, is cringe inducing in its effectiveness and truth. The mealy-mouthed behaviour, the pride – we’ve all seen it in our lives, more than likely done it ourselves at times. Really quality stuff. Eventually, the two protagonists are meant to retire from their exhaustive pursuit, returning to the staid life of a copyist, forsaking their arrogance and settling in to complacency.
For all that, though, I’m afraid I’m reticent to recommend the book. Rather poetically, I was unable to finish it myself. I was near to, but it was such a slog – I’ve been a while struggling with it – that, come the close of the (third) loan period, I was happy to return it to the library with a few short chapters to go. I wasn’t especially impressed by Madame Bovary – it was an effective, well-constructed story, don’t get me wrong, but it didn’t really live up to the hype. Discarding books, especially when I’ve committed to them for such a period, within spitting distance of the end, is quite rare for me. Only once before have I done it, with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It may have something do, in that original instance as in this, with reading works in translation. I can’t help but worry that, as much as the narrative may be faithfully conveyed, the actual language of it, the meat that gives it flavour, is stuck beyond the barrier of a foreign tongue. French is certainly on the list to learn – perhaps I’ll give it another throw once I’m on the other side.