Unoaku lives alone

Watching Mika Rottenberg and Mahyad Tousi’s Remote for New Scientist, 26 October 2022

From her high-rise in a future Kuala Lumpur, where goods flow freely, drone-propelled, while people stay trapped in their apartments, Unoaku (in a brilliant, almost voiceless performance by Okwui Okpokwasili) ekes out her little life. There are herbs on her windowsill, and vegetables growing in hydroponic cabinets built into her wall. If she’s feeling lazy, a drone will deliver her a meal that she can simply drop, box and all, into boiling water. Unoaku’s is a world of edible packaging and smart architecture, living rugs (she spritzes them each day) and profound loneliness. Unoaku lives alone — and so does everybody else.

Though Remote was filmed during the Covid-19 lockdowns, it would be a mistake to consider this just another “lockdown movie”. Unoaku’s world is by no stretch a world in crisis, still less a dystopia. Her vibrantly decorated apartment (I want her wallpaper and so will you) is more refuge than prison, its walls moving to accommodate their occupant, giving Unoaku at least the illusion of space. Had it not been for Covid, we would probably be viewing this woman’s life as a relatively positive metaphor for what it would be like to embark on a long space journey. One imagines Lunar or Martian settlers of the future settling for much less.

Hers is, however, a little life: reduced to self-care, to hours spent gesturing at a blank wall (she’s an architect, working in VR), and to evenings sprawled in front of Eun-ji and Soju, a Korean dog-grooming show (Soju is the terrier, Eun-ji (Joony Kim) its ebullient owner).

Then things start to go very slightly wrong. Unoaku’s pan is returned dirty from the cleaning service. Eun-ji turns up drunk to her live show. Unoaku notices that the goofy clock on Eun-ji’s wall has started to run backwards. When she points this out on the chat platform running beside the programme, she triggers a stream of contempt from other viewers.

Unoaku is far more fragile that we thought. Now, when she leans out her window, bashing her cooking pan with a wooden spoon, celebrating — well, something; maybe just the fact of being alive and being able to hear other human beings — she is left shaking, her face wet with tears.

Soon other women are contacting her. They too have been watching Eun-ji and Soju. They too can see the clock going backwards on the dog-groomer’s wall. Bit by bit, a kind of community emerges.

Commissioned by the arts non-profit ArtAngel in the UK and a consortium of international galleries, Remote is that rare thing, an “art movie”. It belongs to a genre that became economically unviable with the advent of streaming and has been largely forgotten. (“Where are today’s Peter Greenaways and Derek Jarmans?” is a question that may not even compute for some readers, though these figures towered over the “arts & ents” pages of decades past.)

Director Mika Rottenberg, an artist working in upstate New York, is best known for her short, cryptic, funny video works like Sneeze (2012), in which well-dressed men with throbbing noses sneeze out live rabbits, steaks and lightbulbs. Her co-director Mahyad Tousi has a more mainstream screen background: he was the executive producer of CBS primetime comedy United States of Al and is currently writing a sci-fi adaptation of The Tales from a Thousand and One Nights.

One can’t expect this pair to revive the art movie overnight, of course, but Remote offers up an excellent argument for making the attempt. Like a modern Japanese or Korean short story, Remote explores the tiny bounds of an ordinary-seeming urban life, hemmed in by technology and consumption, and it surprises a world of deep feeling bubbling just beneath the surface.

Plastic astronauts

Watching Petrov’s Flu, directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, for New Scientist, 16 February 2022

Petrov (Semyon Serzin) is riding a trolleybus home across a snowbound Yekaterinburg when a fellow passenger mutters to a neighbour that the rich in this town deserve to be shot.

Seconds later the bus stops, Petrov is pulled off the bus and into the street, and a rifle is pressed into his hands. Street executions follow, shocking him out of his febrile doze—

And Petrov’s back on the trolley bus again.

Ambitious, mischievous, rich in allusions to Russian history, literature and cinema, Petrov’s Flu is also (lest we forget the obvious) a painfully precise, gut-wrenching depiction of what it’s like to run a high fever. Seeing the world through Petrov’s sick and disjointed point-of-view, we find the real world sliding away again and again, into often violent absurdity.

The worst is over. Petrov is on the mend. But it takes us the longest time before we can be confident that his friend, the drunken mischief-maker Igor (Yuri Kolokolnikov), is real, while Sergey (Ivan Dorn), the struggling writer pal who browbeats poor Petrov on every point (and is determined to achieve literary immortality through suicide), is a figment of Petrov’s own fever-wracked consciousness.

As Petrov’s fever breaks over the course of the film, fantasy and reality begin to separate, and what we might have feared was just a bag of bits (some tender, some shocking, all horribly entertaining) turns out to be a puzzle that, once complete, leaves us exhausted but eminently satisfied. Petrov turns out to be a comic-book writer, separated from his wife but still dedicated, as she is, to their son, who for his part is determined not to let his own fever stop him attending a kids’ New Year party.

Petrov’s Flu begins as a sci-fi movie. The whole city languishes under an epidemic that arrived accompanied by lights in the sky; Petrov’s wife (Chulpan Khamatova) is possessed by a demonic alien force during a library poetry reading; here and there, UFO-themed street graffiti come to life and wiggle across the screen.

As reality and hallucination part company, however, it becomes something different: a film about parents and children; about creative work, pretension and ambition; also, strongly, about Russia’s love of science fiction.

At its birth, western science fiction, and especially American science fiction, celebrated adventure and exploration. Russian sf has always been more about finding and building homes in a hostile environment. (The film’s location here is apposite: wintry Yeketerinburg, just east of the Urals, may as well be on the moon.) Russian sf is also strongly religious in spirit — and was indeed for many years one of Russia’s very few outlets for spiritual feeling, under a regime devoted (often brutally) to the suppression of religion.

The aliens in Russian sf invariably offer some form of redemption to a struggling humanity, and Petrov’s Flu, for all its iconoclasm and mischief, is no different. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Petrov, mad with fear, in dashing with his son to a local hospital, when the pair are intercepted by a kindly UFO.

Such are Petrov’s fever dreams, coloured by his space-crazy childhood and his adult career drawing comic books. At one point he remembers his mum and dad decorating a Christmas tree with festive plastic astronauts; Petrov’s possessed wife, meanwhile, pursues her latest hapless victim among the climbing-frame rockets and spaceships of a delipidated playground.

Fans of Andrei Tarkovsky (director of sf classics Solaris and Stalker) will enjoy director Kirill Serebrennikov’s knowing nods to key moments in those films. But it would be a mistake, I think, to watch this film purely for the in-jokes. True, Petrov’s Flu is shocking and funny contribution to Russia’s centuries-old tradition of absurdist literature. But it’s also a film about people, not to mention an extraordinary evocation of febrile delirium, and its assault on the mind.

“The working conditions one has to put up with here!”

Watching Peter Fleischmann’s Hard to be a God (1989) for New Scientist, 19 January 2022

The scrabble for dominance in streaming video continues to heat up. As I write this, Paramount has decided to pull season 4 of Star Trek Discovery from Netflix and screen it instead on its own platform, forcing die-hard fans to shell out for yet another streaming subscription. Amazon has canceled one Game of Thrones spin-off to concentrate on another, House of the Dragon, writing off $30,000,000 in the process. And Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel, set millennia before the events of The Hobbit, is reputed to be costing $450,000,000 per series — that’s five times as much to produce as Game of Thrones.

All this febrile activity has one unsung benefit for viewers; while the wheels of production slowly turn, channel programmers are being tasked with finding historical material to feed our insatiable demand for epic sci-fi and fantasy. David Lynch’s curious and compelling 1984-vintage Dune is streaming on every major service. And on Amazon Prime, you can (and absolutely should) find Peter Fleischmann’s 1989 Hard to Be A God, a West German-Soviet-French-Swiss co-production based on the best known of the “Noon Universe” novels by Soviet sf writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

In the Noon future (named after the brothers’ sci fi novel Noon: 22nd Century) humankind has evolved beyond money, crime and warfare to achieve an anarchist techno-utopia. Self-appointed “Progressors” cross interstellar space with ease to guide the fate of other, less sophisticated humanoid civilisations.

It’s when earnest, dashing progessors land on these benighted and backward worlds that their troubles begin and the ethical dilemmas start to pile up.

In Hard to be a God Anton, an agent of Earth’s Institute of Experimental History, is sent to spy on the city of Arkanar which is even now falling under the sway of Reba, the kingdom’s reactionary first minister. Palace coups, mass executions and a peasant war drive Anton from his position of professional indifference, first to depression, drunkenness and despair, and finally to a fiery and controversial commitment to Arkanar’s weakling revolution.

So far, so schematic: but the novel has a fairly sizeable sting in its tale, and this is admirably brought to the fore in Fleischmann’s screenplay (co-written with Jean-Claude Carriere, best known for his work with Luis Bunuel).

Yes, progressors like Anton have evolved past their propensity for violence; but in consequence, they have lost the knack of ordinary human sympathy. “The working conditions one has to put up with here!” complains Anton’s handler, fighting with a collapsible chair while, on the surveillance screen behind him, Reba’s inquisition beats a street entertainer nearly to death.

Anton — in an appalled and impassioned performance by the dashing Polish actor Edward Zentara — comes at last to understand his advanced civilisation’s dilemma: “We were able to see everything that was happening in the world,” he tells an Ankaran companion, breaking his own cover as he does so. “We saw all the misery, but couldn’t feel sympathy any more. We had our meals while seeing pictures of starving people in front of us.”

Anton’s terrible experiences in strife-torn Ankara (where every street boasts a dangling corpse) do not go unremarked. Earth’s other progressors, watching Anton from orbit, do their best to overcome their limitations. But the message here is a serious one: virtue is something we have to strive for in our lives, not a state we can attain as some sort of birthright.

Comparable to Lynch’s Dune in its ambition, and far more articulate than that cruelly cut-about effort, Fleischmann’s upbeat but moving Hard to be a God reminds us that cinema in the 1980s set later sci-fi movie makers a very high bar indeed. We can only hope that this year’s TV epics and cinema sequels take as much serious effort over their stories as they are taking over their production design.

Chemistry off the leash

Reading Sarah Rushton’s The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein for New Scientist, 27 October 2021

In 1817, in a book entitled Experiments on Life and its Basic Forces, the German natural philosopher Carl August Weinhold explained how he had removed the brain from a living kitten, and then inserted a mixture of zinc and silver into the empty skull. The animal “raised its head, opened its eyes, looked straight ahead with a glazed expression, tried to creep, collapsed several times, got up again, with obvious effort, hobbled about, and then fell down exhausted.”

The following year, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein captivated a public not at all startled by its themes, but hungry for horripilating thrills and avid for the author’s take on arguably the most pressing scientific issue of the day. What was the nature of this strange zone that had opened up between the worlds of the living and the dead?

Three developments had muddied this once obvious and clear divide: in revolutionary France, the flickers of life exhibited by freshly guillotined heads; in Edinburgh, the black market in fresh (and therefore dissectable) corpses; and on the banks of busy British rivers, attempts (encouraged by the Royal Humane Society) to breathe life into the recently drowned.

Ruston covers this familiar territory well, then goes much further, revealing Mary Shelley’s superb and iron grip on the scientific issues of her day. Frankenstein was written just as life’s material basis was emerging. Properties once considered unique to living things were turning out to be common to all matter, both living and unliving. Ideas about electricity offer a startling example.

For more than a decade, from 1780 to the early 1790s, it had seemed to researchers that animal life was driven by a newly discovered life source, dubbed ‘animal electricity’. This was a notion cooked up by the Bologna-born physician Luigi Galvani to explain a discovery he had made in 1780 with his wife Lucia. They had found that the muscles of dead frogs’ legs twitch when struck by an electrical spark. Galvani concluded that living animals possessed their own kind of electricity. The distinction between ‘animal electricity’ and metallic electricity didn’t hold for long, however. By placing discs of different metals on his tongue, and feeling the jolt, Volta showed that electricity flows between two metals through biological tissue.

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took these experiments further in spectacular, theatrical events in which corpses of hanged murderers attempted to stand or sit up, opened their eyes, clenched their fists, raised their arms and beat their hands violently against the table.

As Ruston points out, Frankenstein’s anguished description of the moment his Creature awakes “sounds very like the description of Aldini’s attempts to resuscitate 26-year-old George Forster”, hanged for the murder of his wife and child in January 1803.

Frankenstein cleverly clouds the issue of exactly what form of electricity animates the creature’s corpse. Indeed, the book (unlike the films) is much more interested in the Creature’s chemical composition than in its animation by a spark.

There are, Ruston shows, many echoes of Humphry Davy’s 1802 Course of Chemistry in Frankenstein. It’s not for nothing that Frankenstein’s tutor Professor Waldman tells him that chemists “have acquired new and almost unlimited powers”.

An even more intriguing contemporary development was the ongoing debate between the surgeon John Abernethy and his student William Lawrence in the Royal College of Surgeons. Abernethy claimed that electricity was the “vital principle” underpinning the behaviour of organic matter. Nonsense, said Lawrence, who saw in living things a principle of organisation. Lawrence was an early materialist, and his patent atheism horrified many. The Shelleys were friendly with Lawrence, and helped him weather the scandal engulfing him.

The Science of Life and Death is both an excellent introduction and a serious contribution to understanding Frankenstein. Through Ruston’s eyes, we see how the first science fiction novel captured the imagination of its public.

 

 

A lousy container for thought

A critical survey of climate fiction for The Bookseller, 18 October 2021

A genre to contain our imaginative responses to climate change was only ever going to be a house built of straw. Climate change is not like any other problem — the nuclear threat, say, or the hole in the ozone layer, or big tobacco, or big pharma. We are used to satirising, vilifying and sometimes even explaining and humanising our societal mistakes. But our species’ role in the earth’s average temperature rise isn’t, in any meaningful sense, either an accident or an oversight; nor is it a deliberate act of malevolence or of willful blindness. It’s a wicked problem, embracing generations living and dead and still to be born, implicating everyone on earth, and calling into question every stab we’ve ever made at progress.

Calling attention to the problem has been the easy bit. We had tools we could use. Science fiction, in particular, had over half a century’s experience exploring risks of all kinds, not all of them goofy or existential, when George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987) turned a generation of SF readers on to the firestorms to come.

The work we these days most easily classify as “climate fiction” has hardly got beyond that early, siren-sounding stage. That sounds like a problem, but I’m not sure it is one. Promoting a genre means giving it clear lines and simple definitions. Of course work labelled “cli-fi” remains wedded to an essentially dystopic view of the future: those are the rules we set for it. Nor, come to that, is there anything wrong with informing emerging generations of the problems they must face. Marcus Sedgwick and Paolo Bacigalupi and their peers have built worthwhile careers on this minatory effort. There’s no point complaining about how “cli-fi” aestheticises the disasters it depicts. Artists communicate through beauty, not disgust. (Go look at Goya, if you don’t believe me.)

And there has been progress. The genre’s brief has widened. The Swan Book by Australian Aboriginal author and land rights activist Alexis Wright (2013) highlights how the colonial abuse of peoples goes hand in hand with the land’s exhaustion. Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (2017) would have us stop treating the world as a series of problems to be solved.

This approach, it is true, has less appeal for those of us who have more of our lives to look back on than to look forward to. For us, solutions to the End Times can’t come quickly enough.

Bruce Sterling’s Viridian Design Movement and Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project promised to amass fictional thought experiments to solve our difficult future. Though their calls for submissions of socially useful fiction were directed at younger writers from diverse backgrounds, they were, in essence, activities aimed at old western men in a hurry. These projects fell short of their promise, but not, I think, because they tried to be positive, and not because they came from an unfashionable corner of the culture. They failed *because fiction is the wrong tool for that kind of work*. Fiction is — let’s be frank here — a lousy container for thought.

One of the most successful climate-engaged books of the last couple of years, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, is, dramatically speaking, also one of the most underwhelming: little more than an animated Wikipedia trawl through contemporary abuses in the forestry sector. James Bradley contracts a milder version of the same disease in his recent novel Ghost Species (2021): a thinly fictionalised series of opinion pieces on the role of synthetic biology in addressing biome loss.

These books are symptoms of our moment, not shapers of it, and that’s because fiction undermines received opinion far more effectively than it establishes it. It’s a solvent, not a glue. Far more influential on the cli-fi scene are David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy — works that, significantly, leave us questioning the very idea that climate solutions are possible.

Writers! Let’s leave dealing with climate change to the grown-ups, and go back to our proper job: teasing out what it feels like to be in a climate crisis.

Yun Ko-eun’s 2020 satire The Disaster Tourist describes an economy geared to our appetite for disaster. Gathering Evidence by Martin MacInnes and The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott (both 2020) spin twisted eco-fables thick with guilt and dripping with cognitive dissonance. Jeff Vandermeer dons the motley of a private eye to solve the murder of the Earth in Hummingbird Salamander (2021); and Laura Jean Mckay gives our doomed biome a voice in The Animals in That Country (2020).

These books and others are at last addressing the subjective experience of climate change. That’s vital psychological work, and socially useful with it: you can throw facts at our heads all day long, but people will deny and avoid that which they cannot feel.

Meanwhile, within science fiction and the high-concept thriller, and from out of the recent glut of “dystopian” fiction, a much keener, cleverer, more properly fictional approach is emerging to address the climate crisis.

It’s the creeping uncanny of the coming apocalypse that’s engaging the current wave of climate-engaged writers. Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise both exploit the fact that anything on the scale of a climate disaster is going to be slow. Civilisation will collapse, but the shelves won’t empty overnight, and the flood insurance won’t bankrupt you just yet. Wise goes even further, projecting beyond climate disaster towards a workable new world. All around us, the city’s 3D-printed buildings are spiralling into being, while a few hardy saplings in the derelict neighbourhood park are “evidence of the blight’s end”. Whether Wise’s heroine will ever be able to wrap her pre-apocalyptic head around this post-apocalyptic future is, however, uncertain.

In the Goldsmiths-winning The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (2020), to take an even more powerful example, M John Harrison leads his readers around the archaeological leavings of Ironbridge picking his way between the foetuses of discarded genetic experiments spilling from the back of an aquarium shop. This is a world where current tools and technology can find no purchase in a reality that’s already wedded to the future.

This new crop of climate fiction won’t, after all, help us save tomorrow — but it will, and for the first time, help us picture it. For as long as they were wedded to what might happen in the future, writers of climate fiction could only amount to a bunch of Cassandras, trumpeting their own importance. Now they are feeding on much richer meat. Cli-fi has stuck its teeth into the present.

Just you wait

An essay on the machineries of science-fiction film, originally written for the BFI

Science fiction is about escape, about transcendence, about how, with the judicious application of technology, we might escape the bounds of time, space and the body.
Science fiction is not at all naive, and almost all of it is about why the dream fails: why the machine goes wrong, or works towards an unforeseen (sometimes catastrophic) end. More often than not science fiction enters clad in the motley of costume drama – so polished, so chromed, so complete. But there’s always a twist, a tear, a weak seam.

Science fiction takes what in other movies would be the set dressing, finery from the prop shop, and turns it into something vital: a god, a golem, a puzzle, a prison. In science fiction, it matters where you are, and how you dress, what you walk on and even what you breathe. All this stuff is contingent, you see. It slips about. It bites.

Sometimes, in this game of “It’s behind you!” less is more. Futuristic secret agent Lemmy Caution explores the streets of the distant space city Alphaville (1965) and the strangeness is all in Jean-Luc Godard’s cut, his dialogue, and the sharpest of sharp scripts. Alphaville, you see (only you don’t; you never do) is nothing more than a rhetorical veil cast over contemporary Paris.

More usually, you’ll grab whatever’s to hand: tinsel and Pan Stick and old gorilla costumes. Two years old by 1965, at least by Earth’s reckoning, William Hartnell’s Doctor was tearing up the set, and would, in other bodies and other voices, go on tearing up, tearing down and tearing through his fans’ expectations for the next 24 years, production values be damned. Bigger than its machinery, bigger even than its protagonist, Doctor Who (1963) was, in that first, long outing, never in any sense realistic, and that was its strength. You never knew where you’d end up next: a comedy, a horror flick, a Western-style showdown. The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver was the point: it said, We’re making this up as we go along.

So how did it all get going? Much as every other kind of film drama got going: with a woman in a tight dress. It is 1924: in a constructivist get- up that could spring from no other era, Aelita, Queen of Mars (actress and film director Yuliya Solntseva) peers into a truly otherworldly crystalline telescope and spies Earth, revolution, and Engineer Los. And Los, on being observed, begins to dream of her.

You’d think, from where we are now, deluged in testosterone from franchises like Transformers and Terminators, that such romantic comedy beginnings were an accident of science fiction’s history: a charming one-off. They’re not. They’re systemic. Thea von Harbou wrote novels about to-die-for women and her husband Fritz Lang placed them at the helm of science fiction movies like Metropolis (1927) and Frau im Mond (1929). The following year saw New York given a 1980s makeover in David Butler’s musical comedy Just Imagine. “In 1980 – people have serial numbers, not names,” explained Photoplay; “marriages are all arranged by the courts… Prohibition is still an issue… Men’s clothes have but one pocket. That’s on the hip… but there’s still love! ” (Griffith, 1972) Just Imagine boasted the most intricate setting ever created for a movie. 205 engineers and craftsmen took five months over an Oscar-nominated build costing $168,000. You still think this film is marginal? Just Imagine’s weird guns and weirder spaceships ended up reused in the serial Flash Gordon (1936).

How did we get from musical comedy to Keanu Reeves’s millennial Neo shopping in a virtual firearms mall? Well, by rocket, obviously. Science fiction got going just as our fascination with future machinery overtook our fascination with future fashion. Lang wanted a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond and roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre tall liquid- propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building one eleven metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily they ran out of money.

What hostile critics say is true: for a while, science fiction did become more about the machines than about the people. This was a necessary excursion, and an entertaining one: to explore the technocratic future ushered in by the New York World’s Fair of 1939–1940 and realised, one countdown after another, in the world war and cold war to come. (Science fiction is always, ultimately, about the present.) HG Wells wrote the script for Things to Come (1936). Destination Moon (1950) picked the brains of sf writer Robert Heinlein, who’d spent part of the war designing high-altitude pressure suits, to create a preternaturally accurate forecast of the first manned mission to the moon. George Pal’s Conquest of Space, five years later, based its technology on writings and designs in Collier’s Magazine by former Nazi rocket designer Wernher von Braun. In the same year, episode 20 of the first season of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Colour was titled Man in Space and featured narration from Braun and his close (anti-Nazi) friend and colleague Willy Ley.

Another voice from that show, TV announcer Dick Tufeld, cropped up a few years later as voice of the robot in the hit 1965 series Lost in Space, by which time science fiction could afford to calm down, take in the scenery, and even crack a smile or two. The technocratic ideal might seem sterile now, but its promise was compelling: that we’d all live lives of ease and happiness in space, the Moon or Mars, watched over by loving machines: the Robinson family’s stalwart Robot B–9, perhaps. Once clear of the frontier, there would be few enough places for danger to lurk, though if push came to shove, the Tracy family’s spectacular Thunderbirds (1965) were sure to come and save the day. Star Trek’s pleasant suburban utopias, defended in extremis by phasers that stun more than kill, are made, for all their scale and spread, no more than village neighbourhoods thanks to the magic of personal teleportation, and all are webbed into one gentle polis by tricorders so unbelievably handy and capable, it took our best minds half a century to build them for real.

Once the danger’s over though, and the sirens are silenced -– once heaven on earth (and elsewhere) is truly established – then we hit a quite sizeable snag. Gene Roddenberry was right to have pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios as “Wagon Train to the stars”, for as Dennis Sisterson’s charming silent parody Steam Trek: the Moving Picture (1994) demonstrates, the moment you reach California, the technology that got you there loses its specialness. The day your show’s props become merely props, is the day you’re not making science fiction any more. Forget the teleport, that rappelling rope will do. Never mind the scanner: just point.
Realism can only carry you so far. Pavel Klushantsev’s grandiloquent model-making and innovative special effects – effects that Kubrick had to discover for himself over a decade later for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – put children on The Moon (1965) and ballet dancers on satellite TVs (I mean TV sets on board satellites) in Road to the Stars (1957). Such humane and intelligent gestures can only accelerate the exhaustion of “realistic” SF. You feel that exhaustion in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, the boredom and incipient madness that haunt Keir Dullea and poor, boxed-in HAL on board Discovery One are the film’s chief point: that we cannot live by reason alone. We need something more.

The trouble with Utopias is they stay still, and humanity is nothing if not restless. Two decades earlier, the formal, urban costume stylings of Gattaca (1997) and The Matrix (1999) would have appeared aspirational. In context, they’re a sign of our heroes’ imprisonment in conformist plenty.

What is this “more” we’re after, then, if reason’s not enough? At very least a light show. Ideally, redemption. Miracles. Grace. Most big- budget movies cast their alien technology as magic. Forbidden Planet (1956) owes its plot to The Tempest, spellbinding audiences with outscale animations and meticulous, hand-painted fiends from the id. The altogether more friendly water probe in James Cameron’s The Abyss took hardly less work: eight months’ team effort for 75 seconds of screen time.

Arthur Clarke, co-writer on 2001 once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He was half right. What’s missing from his formulation is this: sufficiently advanced technology can also resemble nature – the ordinary weave and heft of life. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) both conjure up alien presences out of forests and bare plastered rooms. Imagine how advanced their technology must be to look so ordinary!

In Alien (1979) Salvador Dali’s friend H R Giger captured this process, this vanishing into the real, half-done. Where that cadaverous Space Jockey leaves off and its ship begins is anyone’s guess. Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) adds the dimension of time to this disturbing mix, putting hapless strangers in the way of an alien lifeform that’s having to bolt together its own lifecycle day by day in greenhouses and shack laboratories.

Prometheus (2012), though late to the party, serves as an unlovely emblem to this kind of story. Its pot of black goo is pure Harry Potter: magic in a jar. Once cast upon the waters, though, it’s life itself, in all its guile and terror.

Where we have trouble spotting what’s alive and what’s not – well, that’s the most fertile territory of all. Welcome to Uncanny Valley. Population: virtually everyone in contemporary science fiction cinema. Westworld (1973) and The Stepford Wives (1975) broke the first sod, and their uncanny children have never dropped far from the tree. In the opening credits of a retrodden Battlestar Galactica (2004), Number Six sways into shot, leans over a smitten human, and utters perhaps the most devastating line in all science fiction drama: “Are you alive?” Whatever else Number Six is (actress Tricia Helfer, busting her gut to create the most devasting female robot since Brigitte Helm in Metropolis), alive she most certainly is not.
The filmmaker David Cronenberg is a regular visitor to the Valley. For twenty years, from The Brood (1979) to eXistenZ (1999), he showed us how attempts to regulate the body like a machine, while personalising technology to the point where it is wearable, can only end in elegaic and deeply melancholy body horror. Cronenberg’s visceral set dressings are one of a kind, but his wider, philosophical point crops up everywhere – even in pre-watershed confections like The Six Million Dollar Man (1974–1978) and The Bionic Woman (1976–1978), whose malfunctioning (or hyperfunctioning) bionics repeatedly confronted Steve and Jaime with the need to remember what it is to be human.

Why stay human at all, if technology promises More? In René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973) the gigantic Draags lead abstract and esoteric lives, astrally projecting their consciousnesses onto distant planets to pursue strange nuptials with visiting aliens. In Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), Darren Aronofsky charts the epic comedown of characters who, through the somewhat injudicious application of technology, have glimpsed their own posthuman possibilities.

But this sort of technologically enabled yearning doesn’t have to end badly. There’s bawdy to be had in the miscegenation of the human and the mechanical, as when in Sleeper (1973), Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) wanders haplessly into an orgasmatron, and a 1968-vintage Barbarella (Jane Fonda) causes the evil Dr Durand-Durand’s “Excessive Machine” to explode.
For all the risks, it may be that there’s an accommodation to be made one day between the humans and the machinery. Sam Bell’s mechanical companion in Moon (2009), voiced by Kevin Spacey, may sound like 2001’s malignant HAL, but it proves more than kind in the end. In Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Theodore’s love for his phone’s new operating system acquires a surprising depth and sincerity – not least since everyone else in the movie seems permanently latched to their smartphone screen.

“… But there’s still love!” cried Photoplay, more than eighty years ago, and Photoplay is always right. It may be that science fiction cinema will rediscover its romantic roots. (Myself, I hope so.) But it may just as easily take some other direction completely. Or disappear as a genre altogether, rather as Tarkovsky’s alien technology has melted into the spoiled landscapes of Stalker. The writer and aviator Antoine de Saint- Exupery, drunk on his airborne adventures, hit the nail on the head: “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”

You think everything is science fiction now? Just you wait.

Waiting for the End of the End of the World

Watching the 2021 European Media Arts Festival on-line for New Scientist, 19 May 2021

For over forty years, the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrueck has offered attendees a glimpse of the best short films coming on-line and to festivals over the coming year. It’s been a reliable cultural barometer, too, revealing, through film, some of our deepest social anxieties and preoccupations. This year saw science fiction swallowing the festival whole.

It’s as though the genre were becoming, not just a valid way to talk about the present, but the only way.

This was the quite explicit message of the audiovisual presentation Planet City and the Return of Global Wilderness  by London-trained, LA-based architect Liam Young, much of whose work is speculative — not to say downright science-fictional. Part of Young’s presentation was a retrospective of a career spent exploring global infrastructures, “an unevenly-distributed megastructure that hides in plain sight… slowly stitched together from stolen lands by planetary logistics.”

Forming a powerful contrast with his past travels — through container shipping, the garment supply chain, lithium mining and other real-world adventures — Planet City also featured a utopian future in which humanity sagely withdraws “into one hyper-dense metropolis housing the entire population of the Earth”.

It’s the impossibility of this utopia that’s Young’s point. Science fiction used to be full of such utopian possibilities. These days, however, it has become, Young says, just our favourite way of explaining to ourselves, over and over, the disasters engulfing us and our planet. The once hopeful genre of science fiction cedes ground to dystopia, leaving us “stranded in the long now… waiting for the end of the End of the World”.

We’ve confronted the End of the World before, of course. Marian Mayland’s film essay Michael Ironside and I  weaves between three imaginary rooms, assembled from still and short clips from three iconic science fiction films. The rooms are uninhabited, cluttered, uncanny, and cut together to create an imaginary habitation connected to the outside world via shafts and closet doors. War Games’s bedroom in a suburban family house (1983), Real Genius’s California campus dorm room (1985) and the bowels of Sea Quest DSV’s futuristic nuclear submarine (1993) fold into each other to create a poignant fictional 1990s childhood, capturing the effects of Cold War thinking on a generation of geeky male adolescents.

Mayland’s film, which won a German film critics’ award at the festival, is exactly the sort of work — moving between film and performance, document and experiment — that the festival has been championing for over forty years.

Other science-fictional experiments included Josh Weissbach’s A Landscape to be Invented, a collage of wobbly 16mm and Super 8 footage set to excerpts of audiobook sci-fi from the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Cixin Liu. It’s a kind of “how to” manual for terraforming a distant world, only this world is not verdant, but violet, not green but purple, as Weissbach passes his footage through a digital, faux-ultraviolet filter.

Zachary Epcar’s more obviously satirical The Canyon sees the calm pace of life in a sunny waterside housing estate turn increasingly strange, as the blissed-out, evesdropped lines of the inhabitants (“Sometimes I come to in the glassware aisle, and I don’t know how I got there”) give way to the meaningless electronic gabble and vibration of phones, toothbrushes and keyfobs.

If this all sounds rather grim, rather unsmiling, even rather hopeless — well, I don’t think the selection, or even the works themselves, were to blame. I think Young is right and the problem lies in science fiction itself: that it’s ceased to be a playground, and has become instead a deadly serious way of explaining increasingly interconnected and technological world. And that’s fine. That’s science fiction growing up.

But what the artist-filmmakers of EMAF have yet to find, is some other way — less technocratic, perhaps, and more political, more spiritual — for imagining a better future.

Oh, shut up

Watching Chaos Walking for New Scientist, 12 April 2021

Young Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is learning to be a man, and in Prentisstown (ostensibly the only settlement to survive humanity’s arrival on the planet New World) this means keeping your thoughts to yourself.

Something about the planet makes men’s thoughts both audible and visible to others. Men are constantly constantly having to hide their thoughts, by thinking of something else, by rehearsing daily chores, or even just by reciting their own names, again and again. Women were unaffected, apparently, but the native (and rarely glimpsed) Spackle killed them all years ago.

(If this account of things seems a little off, imagine it delivered by an especially troubled-looking Mads Mikkelsen, playing the settlement’s mysterious mayor. Watching his settlement’s secrets come to light, one by one, is one of this film’s chief delights.)

Viola, played by Daisy Ridley, has arrived from space, scouting for a second settlement wave when her landing craft all but burns up, leaving her at the mercy of the men of Prentisstown. You’d think they’d be glad of her arrival and her company — but you would be wrong.

Chaos Walking arrives under something of a cloud; to begin with, no one could fix on a script they liked. Charlie Kaufmann (of Being John Malkovich fame) got first bite of the cherry, before the project was passed from pillar to post and ended up being crafted by Christopher Ford (Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)) and Patrick Ness, author of the book on which this film is based, The Knife of Never Letting Go. Chaos Walking should, by all measures, have ended up a mess.

But if it’s not the blockbuster the studio expected or needed, Chaos Walking is nonetheless a real accomplishment: a disconcerting little masterpiece of sensitive acting and well-judged design.

In this film, men quite literally cannot shut up, and in her very first conversation with Mayor Prentiss, it dawns on Viola that this gives her huge advantages. She can lie, she can keep secrets, and she’s the only one here who can — crucial points made almost entirely in dialogue-less reaction shots. Daisy Ridley’s talents weren’t wildly well served in the last three Star Wars films, but she’s given her head here.

Tom Holland’s Todd is a naif who must save Viola and get her to a neighbouring settlement he never even realised existed — a place where women survive and (understandably) dominate.

Todd is the model of what a man must be in this New World: polite, honest, and circumspect. Holland’s bid to “be a man” in such circumstances is anything but straightforward — but Holland keeps our sympathy and our regard.

Indeed, the great strength of Chaos Walking is that it interrogates gender roles by creating genuine difficulties for its characters. Even Prentisstown’s lunatic and misogynist preacher Aaron — surely David Oyelowo’s most unrewarding role yet, all beetle brows and gnashing teeth — turns out to make a dreadful kind of sense.

No gender is well served by the strange telepathic gifts bestowed on half the human settlers of New World. Only good will and superhuman patience prevents human society going up like a powder keg.

This has happened once, in Prentisstown, and — given the weirdly stalled settlement of the planet — it has almost certainly happened elsewhere. The planet’s architecture and technology are an uneasy and creative mishmash of battered industrial machinery and Western-genre make-do-and-mend. The effect is oddly unsettling, particularly in the sequence where horse-riders pursue each other through a forest that had very obviously been planted in rows.

Chaos Walking is not a western. Neither is it, in any easy sense, a feminist fable. Chaos Walking is about people’s struggles in unreasonable circumstances, and for all the angst bound up in its premise, it becomes, by the end, a charming and uplifting film about love and reconciliation.

Just dump your filth on somebody else

Watching Space Sweepers, directed by Jo Sung-hee, for New Scientist, 24 February 2021

Tae-Ho is a sweeper-up of other people’s orbital junk, a mudlark in space scavenging anything of value. In Jo Sung-hee’s new movie Space Sweepers, he is someone who is most alone in a crowd – that is to say, among his crewmates on the spaceship Victory. They are a predictable assortment: a feisty robot with detachable feet; a heavily armed yet disarmingly gamine captain; a gnarly but lovable engineer with a past.

Tae-ho is played by Song Joong-ki, who also starred in Jo’s romantic smash hit A Werewolf Boy (2012). Song is the latest in a long line of South Korean actors whose utter commitment and lack of ego can bring the sketchiest script to life (think Choi Min-sik in revenge tragedy Oldboy, or Gong Yoo in zombie masterpiece Train to Busan).

Tae-ho has a secret. As a child soldier, culling troublemakers in orbit, he once saved the life of a little girl, adopted her, was ostracised for it, hit the skids and lost his charge in a catastrophic orbital collision. Now he wants her back, at any cost.

The near-magical mega-corp UTS can resurrect her using her DNA signature. This is the same outfit that is making Mars ready for settlement, but only for an elite 5 per cent of Earth’s population. The rest are left to perish on the desertified planet. All that is needed to restore Tae-ho’s ward is more money than he will ever see in his life, no matter how much junk he and his mates clear.

Then, as they tear apart a crashed shuttle, the crew discovers 7-year-old Kang Kot-nim (Park Ye-rin), a girl with a secret. She may not even be a girl at all, but a robot; a robot who may not be a robot at all, but a bomb. Selling her to the highest bidder will get Tae-ho’s daughter back, but at what moral cost?

South Korea’s first space-set blockbuster is, in one aspect at least, a very traditional film. Like so much of South Korean cinema, it explores the ethical consequences of disparities of wealth – how easily poorer people can be corrupted, while the rich face no moral tests at all.

But what do all these high-minded, high-octane shenanigans have to do with space junk, like the 20,000 artificial objects with orbits around Earth that can be tracked? Or the 900,000 bits of junk between 1 and 10 centimetres long? Or the staggering 128 million pieces that are smaller still and yet could wreak all kinds of havoc, from scratching the lens of a space telescope to puncturing a space station’s solar array?

Nothing, and everything. Space Sweepers is a space opera, not Alfonso CuarÓn’s Gravity. The director’s interest in the physics of low orbit begins and ends with the mechanics of rapidly rotating bodies. And boy, do they rotate. On a surprisingly small budget, the movie ravishes the eye and overwhelms the ear as Victory hurtles through a cluttered, industrialised void, all right angles and vanishing perspectives. You can’t help but think that while space may never look like this, it could easily feel like it: frenetic, crowded, unreasonable, ungiving, a meat grinder for the soul.

Similarly, while the very real problem of space junk won’t be solved by marginalised refugees in clapped-out spaceships, this film has hit on some truth. Cleanliness isn’t a virtue because it is too easy to fake: just dump your filth on somebody else. It is just wealth, admiring itself in the mirror. Real virtue, says this silly but very likeable film, comes with dirt on its hands.

Seventy minutes of concrete

Watching Last and First Men (2020) directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson for New Scientist

“It’s a big ask for people to sit for 70 minutes and look at concrete,” mused the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, about his first and only feature-length film. He was still working on Last and First Men at the time of his death, aged 48, in February 2018.

Admired in the concert hall for his subtle, keening orchestral pieces, Jóhann Jóhannsson was well known for his film work: Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) are made strange by his sometimes terrifying, thumping soundtracks. Arrival (2016) — about the visitation of aliens whose experience of time proves radically different to our own — inspired a yearning, melancholy score that is, in retrospect, a kind of blockbuster-friendly version of Last and First Men. (It’s worth noting that all three films were directed by Denis Villeneuve, himself no stranger to the aesthetics of concrete — witness 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.)

Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men is, by contrast, contemplative and surreal. It’s no blockbuster. A series of zooms and tracking shots against eerie architectural forms, mesmerisingly shot in monochrome 16mm by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, it draws its inspiration and its script (a haunting, melancholy, sometimes chilly off-screen monologue performed by Tilda Swinton) from the 1930 novel by British philosopher William Olaf Stapledon.

Stapledon’s day job — lecturing on politics and ethics at the University of Liverpool — seems now of little moment, but his science fiction novels have never been out of print, and continue to set a dauntingly high bar for successors. Last and First Men is a history of the solar system across two billion years, detailing the dreams and aspirations, achievements and failings of 17 different kinds of future Homo (not including sapiens).

In the light of our ageing sun, these creatures evolve, blossom, speciate, and die, and it’s in the final chapters, and the melancholy moment of humanity’s ultimate extinction, that Jóhannsson’s film is set. Last and First Men is not a drama. There are no actors. There is no action. Mind you, it’s hard to see how any attempt to film Stapledon’s future history could work otherwise. It’s not really a novel; more a haunting academic paper from the beyond.

The idea to use passages from the book came quite late in Jóhannsson project, which began life as a film essay on (and this is where the concrete comes in) the huge, brutalist war memorials, called Spomenik, erected in the former Republic of Yugoslavia between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“Spomeniks were commissioned by Marshal Tito, the dictator and creator of Yugoslavia,” Jóhannsson explained in 2017 when the film, accompanied by a live rendition of an early score, was screened at the Manchester International Festival. “Tito constructed this artificial state, a Utopian experiment uniting the Slavic nations, with so many differences of religion. The spomeniks were intended as symbols of unification. The architects couldn’t use religious iconography, so instead, they looked to prehistoric, Mayan and Sumerian art. That’s why they look so alien and otherworldly.”

Swinton’s cool, regretful, monologue proves an ideal foil for the film’s architectural explorations, lifting what would otherwise be a stunning but slight art piece into dizzying, speculative territory: the last living human, contemplating the leavings of two billion years of human history.

The film was left unfinished at Jóhannsson’s death; it took his friend, the Berlin-based composer and sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman, about a year to realise Jóhannsson’s scattered and chaotic notes. No-one, hearing the story of how Last and First Men was put together, would imagine it would ever amount to anything more than a tribute piece to the composer.

Sometimes, though, the gods are kind. This is a hugely successful science fiction film, wholly deserving of a place beside Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001. Who knew that staring at concrete, and listening to the end of humanity, could wet the watcher’s eye, and break their heart?

It is a terrible shame that Jóhannsson’s did not live to see his hope fulfilled; that, in his own words, “we’ve taken all these elements and made something beautiful and poignant. Something like a requiem.”