Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Nis-Momme Stockmann: Der Fuchs

Nis-Momme Stockmann’s debut novel Der Fuchs is an entry in a 41NqF-ey1iLvenerable tradition of encountering the ocean as a liminal and often uncanny space. Moby-Dick opens with a wonderful description of the mysterious pall that the presence of the sea casts on Manhattan, drawing the people constantly towards the ocean. Closer to the world of the novel, there is Theodor Storm’s Rider on the White Horse (Der Schimmelreiter), where the project of dike building becomes an encounter with the barely sublimated supernatural qualities of the ocean.

Stockmann’s novel is set on the fictional island of Thule, a reference to the island in classical cartography at the very edge of the known world. Thule is located somewhere in the North Sea, a setting not far from that of Storm’s novella, with which there are many obvious affinities. At the beginning of the novel, the village milieu of the petit bourgeois has been swept away by a flood that has drowned the village, and Finn Schliemann is stranded on a rooftop. Surrounded by the flood memories and images of the past (and future) drift across his consciousness. Thule, it turns out, is like a cosmic naval where the world of humans and gods intersect.

The novel contains some interesting moments: it traffics heavily in the grotesque, with a series of unexplained murders and a severed arm that washes up on the beach; it extends from Schliemann’s immediate past into an imagined (?) post-Earth science-fiction future, and it unbinds and ultimately rebinds its various narrative strands in a way that deserves further consideration. On balance, though, I found the novel underwhelming. Its reflections on, well, God and the world, seem bloated (the novel clocks in at 715 pages). To compare it to the examples I opened with, I was missing the philosophical depth of Melville’s novel, or the understatedness of Storm’s novella. Nor are some of the intriguing aspects of the narrative particularly compelling or original. Having different levels of narration on the same page is something that Terezia Mora did in her 2013 novel Das Ungeheur, reviving the gods in a world of disenchantment is something I encountered in the novel I am now reading, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Nor did it do much for my reading experience when around page 350 I turned to the acknowledgements and found that Stockmann thanked himself. Reading this novel was part of my effort to keep well abreast of the contemporary German literary scene, especially since I deal mostly with historical genres and authors. I picked up this novel because the fantastic element and the apocalyptic nature seemed promising, both to my taste but also to my interest in ecocriticism. In the end I mostly regretted not having gone instead with Julie Zeh’s new novel Unterleuten, the other alternative in the bookstore.

The Dubious Politics of “Interstellar”

Techno-optimismInterstellar_film_poster is not a necessary ingredient to science fiction, but one can appreciate more of the genre by looking past the rosy view of human innovation. It’s a stance that holds together Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar, which may be no worse than Star Trek in envisioning space as an arena for cowboy-like adventurism. But its political content papers over the murkiness that the Star Trek franchise has had five decades to confront, however indirectly.

The film sprawls over two hours and forty-nine minutes, giving it plenty of time to hit lots of bad notes before finally arriving at its core thought: parent-child relations through the lens of the theory of relativity. The first third of the film is centered around a farmhouse somewhere in the corn belt. The earth has experienced some sort of ecocatastrophe, where dust storms terrorize the community and crop blight destroys one source of food after another. The character of the catastrophe is unclear, but it has forced Cooper, a former NASA engineer and pilot, to take up life as a farmer. Cooper harbors open contempt for the occupation, complaining at one point that whereas humans used to reach for the stars, the species is now oriented towards the earth. The film endorses Cooper’s contempt; his son, who embraces farming more willingly, becomes an antagonist of sorts later in the film, and the others in this agrarian society harbor what the film presents as a reflexive and irrational suspicion towards science and technology. It is as if the only possible ways of thinking about modernity were an all-or-nothing embrace or rejection of an absolute notion of progress (that assumption is also what allows people to toss around “Luddite” as a pejorative, which it most certainly is not).

It’s not hard to imagine a disaster scenario that might produce a very justifiable suspicion towards science. Withholding the backstory makes space for us to share the film’s scorn for characters such as the teacher who insists the moon landing was a fake, or the brother who will not leave his farm to take his asthmatic son to fresher air (even though there is no such a place on the planet). The lack of context also strengthens the film’s trafficking in right-wing imagery. An enormous dust cloud descending on a mostly white community of corn growers somewhere in the “heartland?” No symbolic associations there, surely!

What makes the film a right-wing play, though, is the basic plot of projecting a kind of white masculine Americana vision into outer space. The North American continent is an inhabitable wasteland, but the stars and stripes flutter on space stations and planets in other galaxies. Cooper’s frustration at the beginning is that historical circumstances prevent him from a kind of self-realization in a space cowboy career. The film ends with a happy restoration, where we glimpse an idealized vision of small town America recreated in the interior of a space station. Special narrative concern is given to Cooper’s status as a parent, and while the father/daughter plot has its moments, it is mostly there to give Cooper a reason for confronting the adversities the plot presents him with. Supposedly he is interested in saving his family and (and other families, too!), but this ethical motivation ultimately really bends back on himself. The children are extensions of Cooper’s self, the fact that his daughter has children, and has established herself as a savior of humanity in her own right, does not change this, not in the least because her scientific career his contingent on her father’s space adventures. And in one scene on the ice planet between Cooper and Mann, Mann gives voice to what really motivates Cooper: self-preservation for him is really about their surivival. But if that is so, isn’t that equivalent to saying that their survival is important because they are an image of him?

It’s the narrow ethical field that makes Interstellar particularly problematic. The characters’ ethics of care do not extend to anyone beyond the immediate tribe, and we have to listen to extensive dialogue positing this stance as “natural.” It certainly does not extend to the earth, as the characters’ sole objective is getting off the planet and leaving it to its wretched fate. We may have been born on earth, we are told, but that doesn’t mean we have to die here. And if that weren’t enough to complete the film’s death-denying fantasy, we have a selected quotation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” offered as a leitmotif. It’s a far cry from, say, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and its retelling in Blade Runner, both of which are profound as explorations of broken people living on a broken world.

Interstellar, on the other hand, is a very safe film, delivering an ideology that comports with a view of the world from Silicon Valley while making sure that we get a good cry in at the end. The director Christopher Nolan is famous for giving us such ostensibly mind-bending films as Inception. But like Inception, the film relies on its curious but empty visuals to reach that effect. That’s why it falls short of Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey the film has no choice but to borrow from. Kubrick knows to pull the rug out from under our feet, as with the final minutes of 2001, or the last shot of The Shining. In Nolan’s films we see worlds folding into themselves hoping, perhaps, that we don’t notice that the film is reinforcing our conventional assumptions about narrative, cinema, and the world more generally.

On Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”

Watching Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin brought to mind the infinitely cheesier 1995 film Species. Both share a similar premise: an alien is loose in the world in the guise of a human seductress, and male specimens of our own species had best watch out. Species is a fairly conventional entry in the horror film genre, Under the Skin aims for a more muted Grauen.

Laura, the alien in human form, drives a van (no horror there) through numerous environs evocative of different aspects of Scotland: elegant commercial districts, gritty urban streets, the preserved ruins of a medieval castle, and of course the Highlands.The film is beautifully shot, and savors the effect of each of the places it visits. There is a subtle exploration of spectatorship and the way that nature is experienced here. In one scene Laura is standing on a stormy beach at the foot of some cliffs attempting to lure in another victim. Nearby a woman has gone swimming into the surf to rescue her dog, only to be followed by her husband; all of them are ultimately doomed, and their baby is left abandoned on the shore. Together with Laura, we regard the destruction of the family from a distance, so that the catastrophe taking place at the level of the individuals seems very far away as they are destroyed at the foot of the cliffs.

Later in the film, after Laura has begun to experience something of moral agony over her actions, she is wandering in a forest trying to come to terms with her own increasing humanness. She runs into a logger there who asks if she’s out for a ramble, and stutters on about the forest as a space of solitary contemplation. There’s something more going on here other than the ominousness of a woman alone running into a strange man in a forest, although the man will later attack her. The film touches here on the commonplace of landscapes as being devoid of humans. That is, the interruption of the forest solitude (yes, Tieck’s Waldeinsamkeit), the experience the man blubbers about, is precisely what makes the scene alarming.

The film is all about gender and performance, and in that sense it is a very self-conscious film. Sady Doyle points out in her essay “Under the Skin’s Weird Feminism” that in the scenes where Laura finally does her victims in (if they are “done in” in any conventional sense), the film reverses the convention of directing the gaze away from the male body and making the female the object of visual consumption. That is to say, we see some erect male appendages. I might add that this film deserves lots of credit for casting someone who actually has neurofibromatosis in the role of the character with the condition, as opposed to slapping prosthetics on an actor and having him represent somebody else’s experience of social marginalization. In the end, we get to see Laura stripping off her own skin, and contemplating the face that she has been wearing.

Undertheskin2Under the Skin 1

The climax of Species offers us a showdown between final girl and monster. In Under the Skin Laura transitions from being the monster to someone hunted in the forest by a rapist. Without saying too much (my love of spoilers notwithstanding), the more one considers the roles of each character in the resolution, the more deeply unsettling the film becomes.

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

2312 Cover Kim Stanley RobinsonI gave up on literary science fiction when I was in eighth grade. That year I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two and Childhood’s End, and found that both left me cold. I was underwhelmed by what struck me as a blithe Prometheanism on Clarke’s part. At the end of 2010, for instance, Jupiter becomes our system’s second sun. The narrator tell us this was welcomed by “farmers, mayors, police, seamen, and all those engaged in outdoor activities” while it was hated by “lovers, criminals, naturalists, and astronomers” (1984 : 326f). The ecological catastrophe that unfolds is briefly glossed over until the narrator arrives at a paean to mankind’s Faustian drive.

As problematic as Clarke’s triumphalism may be, it is indicative of one of the deeply political nature of the science fiction genre. This is hardly an epiphany – even as I was sick of Clarke, I remain a fan of the never politically dubious Star Trek.  I picked up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 novel 2312 because I was curious to see how the novel deals with the ethics of terraforming other planets in the solar system, life in artificially produced space environments, and Earth after the consequences of our species’ mistreatment of the planet have been visited upon us.

The plot of the novel follows Swan Er Hong as she begins pursuing an investigation left open by her recently deceased grandmother, which turns out to be into a “terrorist” scheme involving artificial intelligence. The situates the readership as occupying a time in a much more distant future, looking back on a crucial historical moment in the solar system. The chapters are punctuated by bits of material that do most of the labor of world building – instructions for terraforming celestial bodies, summaries of future historical debates on periodizing the era of the novel’s story, a series of lists that might be poetry. We see Earth dealing with the consequences of global warming: politically fractured, impoverished, materially dependent on the off worlds. New York City has been flooded, so the residents have fled to up into the skyscrapers and Manhattan has come to resemble Venice.

The core question that runs through the novel regards repetition: is the universe one of eternal return? To what extent is the repetition of days subverted by even small deviations? And so Earth biomes are reproduced in celestial bodies, even as those biomes have long since been destroyed on Earth. To escape the repetition, the people in space have their bodies modified: Swan has a cluster of avian brain cells that allow her to sing bird songs, other characters have had reproductive organs of both sexes involved so that copulation is an act of reciprocal penetration. Some people on impoverished Earth, unable to have their own bodies modified, see the class difference manifesting itself in speciation, and have suggested classifying their non-terrestrial counterparts as  Homo sapiens celestis.

Repetition and iterability are ultimately the core issues at stake in 2312, driving the novel’s political reflections. The production of artificial intelligence in the shape of humans raises a familiar question from other science fiction, that is, the question of extending moral consideration to a constructed thing that may or may not be sentient. But it extends to the environmental politics at work in the novel as well. In a key reversal, earth animals that had previously survived only in biomes reproduced in outer space are airlifted into their former habitats on Earth as a “rewilding.” Swan, and perhaps the novel itself, celebrates this as a kind of ecological redemption, brought about by the protagonist’s own sense of Prometheanism. But unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, we also learn that the people of Earth do not universally share in the enthusiasm, and the narrator gives us a strong hint that the reproduction of the Earth’s past condition on the present planet is not without friction, much of which stems from the class tensions between the on- and the off-worlders.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer_posterIf you happen to be of an eco-Marxist frame of mind, it’s tempting to regard global warming as the moment when capitalism will finally hit its limits. Endless growth cannot be sustainable, and so it is not difficult to imagine the planet itself as the ultimate barrier to capitalist development. While it is not outside the realm of possibility, it is a grim fantasy for the incredible human suffering that will likely have to happen first, and moreover it is one that severely underestimates the dynamism of capital. What’s more, it is not impossible to imagine a “sustainable” mode of production that also allows for continual growth.

This is the world of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s entry into the eco-apocalypse genre. The film is set in 2031, after a 2014 geo-engineering project to reverse the effects of global warming left the Earth in perpetual winter. What remains of the human race live in a self-contained environment aboard a train that continually circles the planet. In the front of the train the people live a life of comfort, the rear is a site of immiseration. Poor conditions and political repression of the dwellers of the rear spark a revolution that aims to reach the front of the train.

The train is an interesting space, as all divisions and functions of society are projects linearly, so that in each car the revolution moves into, we glimpse some new aspect of what sustains the hermetic environment on board: food production, water supply, and in the front education, relaxation in “Nature,” and recreation. The train distills spatially what readers of Foucault will recognize as a kind of biopolitics. Remaining in one’s place is the reigning ideology of the train, as Mason, played by Tilda Swinton, makes clear in a lecture that is laughable for the fact that she is filling the time while the rear dwellers watch brutal punishment meted out to one of their own. As we learn at the end, the biopolitical program extends beyond the organization of the train.

I get pleasure out of seeing the return of decadence topoi as anxieties over economic inequality seep into the motion picture industry (the outlandish fashions of the Capitol in The Hunger Games films comes to mind), and it makes a productive appearance in Snowpiercer as the revolutionaries push their way through a dance club car where the revelers are tripped out on Kronol, an industrial by-product that is also a drug.

We are treated to plenty of views of the world outside, as snowy mountains give way to the icy ruins of civilization. As we move through the train, we see the front dwellers sit by the windows and watch the scenes of devastation with the detachment in which train passengers have always experienced the sliding landscape through a train window (a history documented by Wolfgang Schivelbusch in The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century).

How one feels about the film will probably depend on how one reacts to its farcical element. Mason’s party line speeches are comically banal. We witness indoctrination at work in the school car in a way that is laughably over the top. I found the violence too to be quite farcical – and there is a lot that could be said about the mutilation of bodies in the movie. The film is even complete with an indestructible Übermensch of the variety that you get in the early James Bond films.

So the train is a distilled image of late capitalist society, complete with the violent policing necessary to maintain the system. But this is where “sustainability” comes in. The term is a pillar of the ideology that structures life on board, it is invoked to justify the sentence of mutilation at the beginning, and it is invoked in a bizarre scene where the revolutionaries sit down to dine on sushi. But it is also a code word for the eternal recurrence that really underwrites the experience of the train, the maintenance of which turns out to be the end of the biopolitical program (without giving too much away, this is the crux of the major revelation in the film). It is not an accident that the train eternally follows a circular route.

While I personally roll my eyes at “spoiler alerts” (because I believe everything should be “spoiled”!), I’ll limit my comments on the ending to this: the film spares the protagonist the full weight of the final ethical dilemma, which from a storytelling standpoint could not have been resolved in an especially satisfying way, I suspect. What we get instead is a perspectivization on eco-apocalypse. In spite of what we thought we saw through the windows, Nature’s history has not ended, and in the last shot it looks back at humanity with a somewhat puzzled indifference.

Scattered Thoughts on Glowing Trees and Other Transgressions

The New York Times website ran an article this morning about a bioengineering scheme to create glowing plants that could replace our current lighting technologies through their bioilluminescence.  Evidently hobby scientists in “communal laboratories” are making use of crowd-sourced fundraising in order to finance projects such as this.  The predictable, and probably justified reaction to this story might be to call to mind the common reading of Frankenstein as a cautionary tale of scientific overreach.  I might add that this reading does not even begin to unlock what is most intriguing about Mary Shelley’s novel, but I don’t care to get into that here.1  Emancipated from the old channels of funding, like Victor Frankenstein the people profiled here are working outside of the structures of institutional knowledge.

What struck me instead was the connection to Singularity University, a Silicon Valley based collective of technophiles in the academic and business sectors.  On a slow news day they can usually be hauled from the pages of Wired magazine onto more general interest domains to air their fantastic predictions of the future.  This is the crowd that you hear telling us that within a generation technology will allow for the transcending of our limited, slowly decaying biological bodies into a state of pure consciousness on a hard drive somewhere, where we will live forever in fear of nothing, except perhaps for the occasional stray kitchen magnet.  It’s a fantasy that doubtless looks more convincing if you happen to be a wealthy white employee of Google living in a gentrified San Francisco neighborhood with a reliable source of electricity.

Grandville-large

On a related note, NPR yesterday aired a story about one Corinna Lathan, another who has drifted from academia into the private sector.  Lathan is interested in more thoroughly saturating daily experience with those technologies with which we are already amusing ourselves to death (sensors on clothing that can read our emotional and physical states, glasses that display information about our surroundings, etc.).  In the introduction NPR draws a connection to another vision of technological excess more recent than Mary Shelley’s, the Borg from Star Trek.  As a Star Trek fan myself, I have more than once been drawn into a discussion of the Borg as an allegory for this or that.  It’s a topic that can occupy fans for days.”  I don’t tend to argue much with the “Borg as communist” thesis, although if we wish to go down that road, we should say more specifically that the Borg can be read as reflecting American Cold War ideological anxieties about the society in the “Second World.”  But like so many common sense readings, this one in my view misses what’s really interesting about the Borg.

If we start asking about the difference between the Borg and the set of relations that govern life on the U.S.S. Enterprise, then the apparent differences between the two start to collapse.  If the Borg are an allegory for communism, then surely that is so because they completely level the chain of command that structures Starfleet and that is the subject of so many plots.  But in this they have only put into practice the Federation’s democratic platitudes.  More than that, though, is the relation to technology.  Like the Borg, the people on the Enterprise live in, with, and through technology, and when minute 40 to 45 comes around and it’s time for the thrilling climax, the day can always be saved by pulling a rabbit out of some kind of techno-hat.  The key difference, it seems to me, is the illusion maintained on the Enterprise that the edges of the human body delineate some sort of border, marking off the physical interior as a sovereign space from the inorganic.  The illusion is maintained in spite of the fact that they all eat food from a kind of 3D printer.  Picard’s assimilation is a major moment of trauma in the series, but we already know he was pursuing his career with an artificial heart beating in his chest, and as we learn in the episode “Tapestry,” that piece of equipment signifies a watershed moment in his own subject formation.  Perhaps the real horror of the Borg with their cubic vessels and grotesque bio-technical bodies is simply that they present to the Enterprise an image of itself stripped of the aesthetic layers that support the illusion.

1. Instead I can recommend Paul Outka’s essay “Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in LeMenager, Stephanie (ed.) Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2011. 31-48