“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
I know I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but I finally caught a session of Interstellar last week, and before it gets away from me I thought I might jot down a few (slightly spoilery) thoughts about it.
For those who haven’t seen it, it’s Dark Knight and Inception director Christopher Nolan’s new magnum opus, a science fiction epic that marries contemporary anxieties about societal and environmental decline to a nostalgia for the vision of the future’s possibility that drove the space race (and, not coincidentally, also underpins Kubrick’s 2001, a film to which it owes a great deal). Set a generation or two from now, it centres upon Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and trainee astronaut. Now widowed, Cooper is eking out a living as a farmer with his two children when a gravitational anomaly in his home leads him and his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), to what turns out to be a secret NASA installation.
Reunited with his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper discovers two things. The first is that the Earth is dying, and will soon be uninhabitable. But knowing that, Brand and his daughter, Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) have been studying a wormhole that has appeared in orbit around Saturn, and which connects our solar system to another galaxy. Having sent several scientists through twelve years earlier, Brand is now planning one last mission aimed at establishing whether any of those scientists found planets capable of sustaining life, and, by extension, of saving the human race.
Persuaded to act as the mission’s pilot, Cooper travels through the wormhole on NASA’s last spaceship, the Endurance, with Brand and two other scientists. At least at first his focus is on completing the mission as quickly as possible so he can return to his family, but before long their hopes of returning to Earth begin to fade, as relativistic time dilation severs them from their families and various misadventures, including a run in with a dangerously unhinged survivor of the first mission, Wolf (Matt Damon), cripple the mission, until, in the film’s final reel, Cooper is offered a glimpse of the temporal paradox he inhabits.
Nolan is often described as a cerebral director, but the truth is he’s not, unless the handwaving of Inception is your idea of philosophy. What he does have is a brooding visual style (especially when teamed with cinematographer Wally Pfisterer), and a line in the sort of speechifying that sounds deep but doesn’t bear too much close examination (“the human race was born on Earth, it wasn’t meant to die here,” etc etc). Given all that (and the reviews) I went in expecting Interstellar to be titanically stupid, but in fact despite one truly risible speech by Brand (apparently love is a force, like gravity, that transcends time and space, which we’d all know if it weren’t for the fact scientists haven’t discovered it yet) there’s surprisingly little of the overtly stupid philosophising that mars films like Prometheus.
None of which is to say Interstellar is a smart film, or even a particularly slick one, but if you try not to think about it too hard it does have its own daft poetry. Some of that poetry is in the effects: the initial ride through the wormhole (and indeed the wormhole itself) is gorgeous, as are the waves on the first planet the crew visit, and there are any number of extraordinary vistas and images. But it’s also in its peculiar rhythms and weird, slightly dopey high-mindedness, even if it is marred by its absurdly intrusive soundtrack (which sounds like they commissioned the Abominable Dr Phibes to compose a series of variations on Philip Glass and then play them really, really loudly).
Of course you have to try pretty hard not to think about it too much, because as soon as you do the questions start multiplying like a game of whac-a-mole. Why does it take Endurance months to get to Mars yet once the ship is through the wormhole it suddenly becomes possible to fly between planets in no time at all? How come they need a multiple stage heavy lift rocket to get off Earth yet they’re then able to take off and land on other planets unassisted? And where is the sun in the system they visit? Surely it’s not the one that’s being consumed by the black hole? And (and I’m afraid this one’s a biggie) in what way is colonising a solar system with an enormous black hole in it a long term survival strategy? And that’s all before you begin wondering about things like how they could possibly not notice Wolf’s story about a surface with breathable air and organics is bunk (given they’ve seen the planet from orbit) or or how it is the spaceship technology hasn’t changed in a century despite the development of technology allowing us to construct vast space colonies. Or indeed why despite the dire warnings at the film’s beginning the threat of suffocation doesn’t seem to have transpired by the time Murphy figures out the riddle of gravity.
What’s interesting is that despite the film’s constant exhortations to go outwards and beyond, to remember a time when we invented things and embraced possibility, it’s not really about those things at all. Instead at some level its real preoccupation is loss and, more deeply, time.
In a way this isn’t surprising. Despite the glitter of the technology that surrounds us we live in a cultural moment in which we are beset by loss. A large part of that is environmental, something the film acknowledges in the opening sequences and the dust storms and blight that are slowly poisoning the Earth. But it’s also about a loss of faith in the future, a sense that we no longer know how to think about what comes next.
The factors behind this are complex. In part it’s a function of the failure of so many of the narratives of progress that have driven our cultures for so long. But it’s also at least partly a function of the triumph of capitalism and its capacity to crowd out the idea there might be alternative ways of structuring society. In this regard it was interesting to hear Ursula le Guin reversing the polarity of Frederic Jameson’s remark about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism when she said “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings” at the National Book Award ceremony last week.
But whatever its origins, this sense of grief pervades contemporary culture. You can see it in films like Interstellar, in TV shows like The Walking Dead, and in many, many novels.
What’s interesting to me is less the grief, which seems the only sane response to the conflagration surrounding us, but the fact trying to talk about it seems, almost inevitably, to lead us to a consideration of time. This is obviously the case in Interstellar, which plays overtly with the idea of time, relativity and the deep future, but it’s also also visible in a novel like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (a book I think has been roundly misunderstood by most critics), which despite its cast of murderous immortals and journeys toward the land of the dead, is really attempting to find a way to talk about deep time and survival.
It’s possible I’m a bit obsessed on this last point – loss and time and how we think about them are written deep into the fabric of my new novel, Clade, which is out early next year – but I don’t think I am. Because finding the emotional and intellectual tools we need to think our way out of our current predicament clearly requires us to find new ways of thinking about the future and own relationship to it.
What’s surprising about Interstellar is that despite its desire to map out a space for this kind of thinking, its solutions are unreflectively technological and technocratic. This unreflectiveness is visible in NASA’s back-up plan in case the Endurance’s mission fails, plan that will see tens of thousands of human embryos hatched and then auto-raised by computers, allowing a new society to be built from nothing. As Abigail Nussbaum has noted in a slightly different context, it’s a plan that’s nothing short of grotesque, but it’s also of a piece with the film’s suggestion that the solution to Earth’s environmental problems will be to leave Earth and live in orbital colonies.
As Nussbaum points out, neither of these are plans that hold up to any real scrutiny. They’re also contradicted by the film’s unintentional subtext, which is that even allowing for the intervention of extra-dimensional beings with the power to control space and time, space doesn’t want us, meaning we really have no alternative but to find ways of living here on Earth that won’t ruin the planet.
In the end though, these science fictional elements are only really window dressing, because at its heart Interstellar’s real nostalgia is as much for another era of filmmaking as another era of human possibility. Its debt to 2001 is large and explicit, and many of its best bits (the ride through the wormhole, the long sequence in the infinite library, the talking computers) are borrowed from Kubrick’s masterpiece. Yet where 2001 deliberately denies the viewer the tools to interpret what they are seeing, forcing them to find their own meaning (in a very real sense the film of 2001 is the monolith, and it is our own reflection we see in it) Interstellar is a more gimcrack creation, one part homage, one part digital masterpiece, one part awkward, almost naive high-mindedness, a combination that lends it moments of surprising beauty and even power, and which almost allows it to transcend its own absurdities.
I’m very excited to say my story, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, has been included in David Miller’s new anthology, That Glimpse of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written, which was released last week. If you’ve seen the book you’ll know it’s just insanely gorgeous object (and with the Christmas season rapidly approaching would make a perfect gift, hint hint), but it’s also amazingly good, and features stories by Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Thomas Pynchon, Muriel Spark and Colm Tóibín as well as me (and in case you’re wondering then yes, it is a little daunting to be in such company).
Obviously you can still buy ‘Beauty’s Sister’ as a Penguin Special in either electronic or print form, but I very much recommend taking the plunge and checking out That Glimpse of Truth. It’s available in bookstores in the UK and Australia, but if you can’t get to a bookstore you can compare prices on Booko (Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, Canada) or buy the ebook through all the usual channels.
So it’s official. My new novel, Clade, will be released by Penguin in Australia on 28 January. As the blurb says, “A provocative, urgent novel about time, family and how a changing planet might change our lives, from the acclaimed author of The Resurrectionist and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean.”
You can feast your eyes on the very sexy cover below, and if you’d like to preorder a copy you can do so through Booktopia and Bookworld. I’ll pop up more links as it becomes more widely available, and post some more details soon. [Update: you can also preorder through Boomerang Books]
Just a quick note to say I’ve got a story in editor extraordinaire Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology, Fearsome Magics, which is due out today. The follow-up to Jonathan’s World Fantasy Award-nominated Fearsome Journeys, it’s also the second in his New Solaris Book of Fantasy series.
I haven’t read all of it yet, but the bits I have are terrific. You can check out the full table of contents over at Coode Street, but there are new stories by Garth Nix, Karin Tidbeck, Kaaron Warren, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Rowe, Isobelle Carmody and a bunch of other fabulous people. I think – I hope – my story, ‘The Changeling’, is interesting: to my mind it’s less fantasy than a sort of anti-fantasy, although I’m not going to say more than that.
Australian readers who’d like to pick up a copy can check prices on Booko; otherwise you can check out your favourite independent bookseller, head to Amazon or Amazon UK, or pick up the ebook for iBooks, Google Books and Kobo. In the words of the immortal Molly Meldrum, ‘Do yourself a favour …”.
Our sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.
I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.
It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.
In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).
The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.
That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.
Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.
Laniakea. Immense Heaven.
It’s been a while since I posted, and given how much I’ve got to get through over the next few months it may be a while before I get back to posting more regularly, but I wanted to announce a couple of things.
The first – and most important – is that Penguin will be publishing my new novel, Clade, in Australia in February next year, with other territories to follow. I’ve posted a few bits and pieces about it here and there, but it’s a book I’ve been thinking about and working on for a while now, and I think it’s pretty special. At some point I’ll pop up a proper description, but for now it’s probably enough to say it’s about time, and family and climate change, it moves from the very near future to the end of the 21st century, and that it’s got birds, floods, bees and aliens. I rather love it and I hope other people will as well.
Although I’m currently deep in the process of editing Clade, I’ve also spent the first half of the year working on a couple of other projects. The first is another new stand-alone novel, which is slowly taking shape; the second is a trilogy of new novels. I can’t talk much about either just yet, except to say that the first novel of the trilogy is written and the next two are underway, and I’m hoping I’ll have drafts of both the standalone novel and all three books in the trilogy by the end of next year.
In the meantime I’ve got a couple of other bibs and bobs around the place. One is a new story, ‘Skinsuit’, which you’ll find in Island Magazine 137. The full text of the magazine isn’t online but you can pick up the print version at good bookstores here in Australia or order print and digital versions from Island directly (while you’re there you might want to think about supporting the magazine and its investment in Australian writing and culture by subscribing). The issue also features fiction by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Angela Meyer and Sunil Badami, as well as non-fiction by Alison Croggon and Damon Young, so you’re guaranteed value for money.
The other is a piece in if:book Australia’s The N00BZ: New Adventures in Literature. Edited by Simon Groth, the collection is the culmination of a project that saw fifteen writers including attempt to stretch or challenge their writing practice in different ways. Sometimes the challenges were personal – Sean Williams participated in a sleep deprivation study, and charted the effects on his writing – sometimes, as with Benjamin Law’s decision to learn shorthand, they were technical, and sometimes, as with Jeff Sparrow’s exploration of the experience of not writing, they involved an examination of the author’s writing practice more generally. For me the challenge revolved around trying to develop and write the script for a comic, a project that was both about exploring my lifelong fascination with comics and beginning the process of learning to work in a new form.
It was a great project, and one I enjoyed being involved in immensely, and having read the contributions of the other writers I’m confident they enjoyed being involved in the process as much as I did. If you’d like a taster you can read my contribution online, but I really do recommend you check out the entire collection, which is currently available in digital form with the print version to follow in August.