Sunday, November 30, 2014

Living on an Alien Earth

In finishing this review of William Gibson’s new novel “The Peripheral,” I tried to find a quote about how science fiction is sometimes more about the present than the future. I found this quote on William Gibson’s Wikipedia page:

"I felt that I was trying to describe an unthinkable present and I actually feel that science fiction's best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going... The best thing you can do with science today is use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now."
— William Gibson in an interview on CNN, August 26, 1997.

That’s what reading Gibson often boils down to: the best way to describe his work has often already been said by Gibson himself. That aside, the point is interesting to me when considering this novel. To keep things non-spoilerly for a moment, “The Peripheral” charts the connections and relationships between two very different visions of the future. In one, a young woman named Flynne attempts to survive in a dingy, run-down near-present version of the American Southeast. in another, a hyper-aware media publicist Wilf Netherton struggles to perform damage control when one of his clients sabotages a media campaign. The connection between these two stories, expressed through a disturbing murder observed in a game that’s not a game, forms the bulk of the plot. Although the story weighs in a more than 400 pages, the actual story is very aerodynamic. An event happens with consequences to both futures and the characters are left to navigate the wreckage.

As someone who devoured “The Sprawl” trilogy, Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novels from the 80s and 90s, "The Peripheral" was a very comfortable return to form. The characters, setting, and overall atmosphere wouldn’t be so unfamiliar to anyone whose cracked open a science fiction book written in the past two decades. The central idea behind the story, the “connection” that I mentioned above, is both the most interesting and subversive thing about the novel and the thing that is hardest to describe without spoiling the story. I’ll leave it at “The Peripheral” is a challenging but energetic exploration of several ideas churning through speculative literature circles in the past few years. If you like meditations the big ideas of the future hot-glued to the back of a breezy techno-thriller plot, this book is for you. If you’ve never read Gibson, cyberpunk, or much science fiction, I’d start with Neuromancer and work your way up. One’s man’s opinion.

SPOILER TIME: Okay, now, if you’ve already read this novel, there are a couple things I’m left thinking about after finishing it.

William Gibson remains a challenging writer to read and write about. On one hand, “The Peripheral” is a speculative fiction novel. Of that there is no doubt. You go maybe half a paragraph before encountering the tone and language of current post-cyberpunk genre writing - unfamiliar technology, sociological extrapolations, and buzzy, exotic language. If you are in the habit of reading such novels (which I most certainly am) this is all like a slightly musty, but nevertheless completely familiar and comfortable quilt that you draw over yourself, luxuriating in the decadent warmth. 

However, Gibson is unquestionably a “real” writer by which I mean he also writes fiction that non-genre fiction types don’t get nervous reviewing, most notably his near-future trilogy from past decade. There is also a self-aware, ouborobic quality to his writing, the sense that he is own best audience. His sentences chop, scatter and fragment, spinning off in idiosyncratic directions as though snippets from a conversation you’re only getting one side of.  This presents its own layer of challenge to appreciating a novel like “The Peripheral." An agreeable layer, but nevertheless a barrier to genre types used to reading four-square, non-flashy sentences following the established object verb subject format.

"The Peripheral” does take a while to get going and the first 100 pages or so are like walking into a party mid-way through the night, hopping from one group of strangers to the next, looking for familiar faces. Gibson doesn’t really bother with much explanation or hand-holding. You either know what a thylacine is or you don’t, he’s not going to explain what it is or why one would be walking around a character’s apartment. So you coast like this, soaking the ambiance of the work, quickly picking up that this novel has two distinct levels. On the lower level, the level you encountered in the first chapter, you find a sort of not-so-distant future version of an unspecificied American Southern State. The characters in this part of the party are decidedly living an impoverished and crippled existence, surviving on disability money provided to a veteran of an unspecified foreign war and the occasional gig play-testing a game. Play-testing what they think is a game. The description of this grimy and yet flashy future is probably what most people think of when they think of a Gibson novel.

There is another level to the party, and that is the upper deck. You read about this too, and what will strike any genre aficionado are the great numbers of post-singularity tropes. There is a little Ian Banks description of malleable identities and body modification. But there’s also a dash of Charles Stross’ fragmentation of an impossibly wealthy post-capitalist society through the ubiquitous use of technologies - nanotechnology, body augmentation, and augmented reality. The pervasive sense of otherness. This is the elite section of the party and right from the start you feel out-of-place, slightly menaced by the events narrated here.

These two sections, however separate they appear are nevertheless connected. The game allows characters from the lower level to see characters from the upper level. And ultimately, that proves disastrous. The protagonist of the lower level - Flynne, the younger sister to the disabled and shell-shocked veteran Burke, sees something in the upper level she should not have, the murder mentioned at the beginning of this review. An apparently the fact that she lives in a completely separate time period from the upper level does not matter at all. Her witnessing of the act must but be addressed by the unspeakably powerful forces of the upper level. They begin to pervert the structure of her world, in order to marshall enough force to end her life.

This aspect of a future preying upon a past civization is not without precedent. A story included in the  “Mirrorshades” anthology, the collection that along with Gibson’s Neuromancer popularized the idea of cyberpunk, included a story called "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner that described the imperialism of a time-traveling future preying on the past. Gibson acknowledges as much in his afterword, but offers a vision of that interaction between future and past that is if anything, more disturbing. With the earlier story, the predation is material and physical. The future is literally robbing the past of resources. In Gibson’s world, the only interaction is through teleoperate drones and digital processes. But the very act of interacting with the past cleaves off that time-line into what the upper level characters call “a stub reality.” This one idea really seized my imagination - the idea that reality itself could be curated by some future power, that the time stream and population of an entire universe could in a sense be edited like some website, or game. Shortly after the big reveal of what’s really going on, the nature of the connection between upper and lower levels, the powers of the upper begin to take over the economy and political structure of the stub reality for their own ends. Racing against the clock, the two future powers are not gentle and nearly destablize the entire world’s economy in the process. Because certain forces become artificially more valuable, the entire market economy of the stub is distorted. One is reminded of certain flash crashes from the past decade with discomfort. What if everything that you knew was simply a means towards a very personal act of retribution and vengeance, your reality hacked by future gamers. 

Ultimately that’s the notion that sticks with me long after the sketchily drawn characters and plot twists. To his credit Gibson hones in on this aspect of the novel to just the right degree. Describing it, delimiting it, and then gently unspooling its ramifications. If you can get past the first 100 pages or so, what emerges is a description of the central dislocation of our “alien Earth." The sense that our lives’ significance is being actively, aggressively peeled away by technology even while the possibilities for an individual and committed social group are magnified. Gibson suggests that the future is not just a destination but an agency in itself, actively pulling the present away under our feet, sweeping us forwards.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Further Thoughts on Interstellar

Now to the SPOILERS:

I suppose I could approach Interstellar from a number of directions but the thing that stuck with me checking in on the reactions to the story is how incomprehensible the negative reviews of this movie are. The one that +Ludovic CELLE  shared with me from over at i09 really crystallizes the problem for me. Interstellar is not just being held to a different standard, it’s being held to a ridiculously unfair standard. 

Basically, the article by Annalee Newitz boils down the criticism of Interstellar to one of using "new-age platitudes" like the universality of love to muck up hard science fiction. I think this reaction stems from one of the weaker conversations depicted in the movie, the one where Brandt (Ann Hathaway at her most à les miserables) emotes all over the screen about the power of love to inform decision making. I do think this is a troubling moment in the movie, not so much for the sentiment it shares, as who does the sharing. Of course the female astronaut would be the one that allows emotions to cloud her normally analytic reasoning, one that the male characters are able to overcome through an healthy application of man-logic. I like to think that Nolan was savvy enough to realize this in suggesting that Hathaway’s position is ultimately the more or less correct one. However, the dialogue is clumsy and warrants a certain amount of derision.


But that’s not where the i09 article winds up. Instead, the article conflates Brandt’s speech with the final scenes of Cooper entering the Tesseract. The movie, to the best of my memory, never says that it is love that powers the Tesseract or that allows him to transcend time and space. Rather, the movie posits that love comes from meaningful connections between people and that within the infinite continuum of fifth dimensional space, it would be that connection that allows a being to find a specific time and place. This doesn’t exactly privilege love over another emotion. I suppose that fear could have also allowed Cooper’s character to sift through the Tesseract to find a specific moment and place. But to fit the larger themes of the story, the Nolan brothers seized upon love. Within the fiction of this movie, this choice doesn’t seem arbitrary or even particularly sentimental. It seems human. 

I actually rather enjoy a strain of recent movies that contrasts the cold, merciless facts of the unfeeling universe with the fragile hope that comes from being a single, confused human being doing the best with what is given.

I thought Gravity did this very well, and I think something similar happens in Interstellar. Let’s face reality, folks. Interstellar is a massively expensive cinematic endeavor that needs, at some point, to make money for its backers. A cold, completely objective look at space exploration may be a movie I’d like to watch, but I suspect I’m a minority of opinion in that regard. A big movie needs big emotions to sell tickets. And honestly, there are worse ways to go about this.

Take Sunshine for one example. Up until Gravity, this was the one example of hard sci fi in recent cinema. And if you haven’t seen it, it is well worth a watch. It also brings a certain stark realism to space travel, dramatizing the struggle of fragile life in a vast, indifferent universe. The movie also has its moment of beauty and Newtonian physics; the terrifying ballet of transferring between two spaceships under a hellish solar inferno is worth watching on its own. Then we get to the last act and all of the careful world-building and speculation of the first two thirds of the movie go out the window.  We're left watching one long gruesome chase scene, and some preposterous special effects.

My point here is not that Sunshine is a terrible movie for including that element. When you make a film for a wide audience you have to give people something to feel as well as think. To its credit, Interstellar goes for an internally consistent emotional approach. This is a movie about the conflict a father feels between caring for his family versus doing the right thing as a member of the human race. You might not like that particular theme but at least credit Nolan for finding a way to bring emotional resonance to very science-heavy story.

Finally, I’m going to dust off my heart, pin it to my sleeve, and ask: what’s so wrong with love anyway? Love does, to my limited perspective, pervade most aspects of life in one form or another. It brings people together, provides meaning, and allows for continued existence. It also creates conflict, pries people apart, and impairs decision-making. That seems like a fairly complicated and potent force.

Perhaps Nolan could have handled this topic more deftly but to denigrate this one emotion as somehow ‘new-age’ seems a rather blinkered view of the world.

Update: Finally fixed the annoying font style problem. (1/2/14)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


You should watch Interstellar. Because I’m going to write a follow-up article that will be full of spoilers I thought I’d get a quick non-spoiler review out there. 

Christopher Nolan has created one of the biggest and most encouraging movies of the past decade and this work, flawed though it might be, should absolutely be watched and appreciated on its own terms.

For starters, this is a beautiful film. That in itself should be all the recommendation the average person needs. Why should you listen to Beethoven, or see Michelangelo’s David ? Because they bring a certain amount of aesthetic enjoyment. For three solid hours, this movie creates arresting, mind-blowing imagery. 

Interstellar also represents a serious exploration of realistic science. While I’m not totally convinced that all of the science checks out, enough of it does to have kept Kip Thorne on as a scientific consultant. The parts that aren’t realistic are defensible in terms of extrapolation from existing science. In other words, this is not Guardians of the Galaxy (as much as I enjoyed that movie), and this is not a fantasy film. This movie does what I think Jurassic Park did, take a certain set of ideas percolating unseen in the scientific world and popularize them for the general public. Say what you want, I think that represents altruism. People passionate about paleontology knew about the warm-blooded dinosaurs and fleet-footed velociraptors for years before Spielberg ever put them on screen. But once that movie came out an entire generation of movie-goers began to view dinosaurs in a way more harmonious with modern thinking. 

In a similar way, Interstellar incorporates ideas such as time dilation, wormholes, and exoplanets that have been staples of science fiction for decades. But to have them displayed, framed and elevated upon an IMAX screen is another experience entirely. I refuse to be one of those sci fi fans that treats this art like some sort of walled private garden. The insights of speculative fiction and science in general should be shared and discussed by as many people as possible. Interstellar takes the concerns of hard sci fi and makes them accessible and real. 

Finally I would say you should watch it because the movie plain works. On a storytelling level. On an emotional level. I’m not sure it’s my favorite Nolan movie, but I do think it represents a step forward in his powers as a movie maker. Unlike his typical hermetically sealed puzzle-box style of film-making (Inception, Memento, and the Prestige), this movie opens up, offers characters unafraid of suffering and agonizing over decisions in a messy, complicated, human way. 

As I suggested, this movie is not without serious problems. Leaving discussions about the science to other more knowledgeable folks, I'd just focus on the quality of the ideas presented. While I enjoyed the rumination about individual survival versus the continuation of humanity, I think in places it could have been better handled. I don't have an issue with the sentiment as much as the periodically clunky dialogue. 

Also, parts of this movie feel retrograde. The world Christopher and Edmund Nolan created deliberately rolls back the technological development of their future, because of war and the hazily described Blight. Fair enough. But, compared to recent space opera such as Peter Watt's "Blindsight," I'm not sure enough was done to really explore the ramifications of artificial intelligence like the show-stealing TARS and CASE. The societies seem basically the same as  today. I guess what I'm trying to say is, Nolan's take on future humanity isn't weird enough

But those are quibbles. I'm sure if you watch it you'll find a few things that don't sit right or bother you, but the point is - watch it. We, as fans of science fiction, have a say on what is produced in Hollywood and beyond. If Interstellar is a success, more films like it will be produced. Who knows, that might just allow the creation of that Platonic ideal of a hard science fiction movie that pleases every single science fiction fan without reservation.

In the meantime, Interstellar is here and it's spectacular.