“Science fiction is such a hopelessly vague label,” said Kingsley Amis in a fascinating conversation with C.S. Lewis, (which can be read in full here). He’s right – SF is really hard to pin down. It engages with grand themes – it stages metaphysical encounters with absolute, inscrutable beings, affects to fill out the notion of the sentient non-human and complicates belief in technological progress, illustrating its totalitarian potential.
Amis continues: “You often have these marvellous large themes tackled by people who haven’t got the mental or moral or stylistic equipment to tackle them.” There’s the rub – there’s a lot of profoundly bad ‘poetic’ SF, hamstrung by complex generic expectations and an inability to realise them in their full scope and depth.
Alex Garland’s much-hyped new Netflix release ‘Annihilation’ raises these questions again – SF might be a popular genre, but is it that sophisticated?
Take Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ of 2014, which transplants Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gently into that good night / Old age should burn and rage at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” from its proper status as a rather good poem (nowhere near Thomas’ greatest stuff) into a kind of stylistic motif, repeated by different characters in different contexts throughout the film.
Thomas’ words are sown into a barmy narrative that attempts to deal with big SF themes: the distortion of ‘human time’ (in deep space, minutes take up years in real time) and visual representation of Malthusian-style environmental catastrophe (the planet is sort of ‘worn out’).
But ‘poetic’ SF (or SF with poetry woven into the film’s visuals) can be done well. Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ of 1965 portrays a society regulated by a super-computer called Alpha 60. It works on the principle of absolute governmental power, condemning all to death who behave ‘illogically’ – in Alphaville, to say ‘I love you’ is a crime. The hero of the piece, a proto-Deckard, Lemmy Caution, falls in love with one of the city’s inhabitants, who has, so far in her life, lived without love, without the knowledge of love.
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She discovers what love means on reading a book of poetry – Paul Eluard’s ‘Capitale de la Douleur’ – and, as she repeats his words (“Away away, says hate / Closer, closer, says love” – “De loin en loin dit la haine, De proche en proche dit l’amour” and “Aim straight ahead, towards your love / I went towards you / Endlessly towards the light” – “D’aller droit devant soi vers tout ce que l’on aime / J’allais vers toi, j’allais sans fin vers la lumière”), she reverts to a non-logical state where “Everything happens by chance / All words without thought” (“Toutes les choses au hasard / Tous les mots dits sans y penser”).
The structure of poetry intervenes into the hyper-logical world of Alphaville as a foreign spirit, a force that rehabilitates love between individuals as an ultimate and absolute value – as strong, if not stronger, than the absolute power of the State.
SF can proceed along two thematic strands – either it is an exercise in displacement, casting an alien gloss over real-world problems, or it is a genre that confronts head-on the sublime on a cosmic scale, the total dislocation brought on by contact with unknowable absolute principles.
In Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the oblong rectangular block (the subject of the space mission’s voyage) is implacable and inscrutable. There is never any sense that it is an artificial, created thing, that comes into being and passes away. It is just … there. But it does create change in the world as we know it – it distorts the normal experience of time, colour and motion. It accelerates normal human evolution. The apes it changes by its presence are mysteriously provoked into using the scattered bones of animal carcasses as tools – the first step towards civilisation.
Rather like Danny Boyle’s early noughties film ‘Sunshine’ (screenplay by Garland), ‘Annihilation’ follows a pretty reliable thriller style structure, with a sustained commentary on broader SF themes.
The plot revolves around ‘the Shimmer’ – a strip of land on the coast which has been hit by a meteorite. No-one comes back from the Shimmer once they’ve gone in. In the Shimmer, Garland’s characters lose sight of what is human, animal and non-human. One of the characters is assimilated into the maw of a giant bear; another begins to grow flowers from her arms.
In the Shimmer, there is an absolute order and harmony – an obscene over-abundance of growth: “I thought I was a man. I had a life. People called me Cain. And now I’m not sure. If I wasn’t Cain what was I? Was I you? Were you me?”
Time is distorted: “You don’t remember setting up camp do you?” “I don’t remember anything after we reached the treeline.”
Human tools and buildings no longer carry out their proper function. Guns no longer work properly. At the heart of the Shimmer, guns stop working altogether. The climactic scene takes place in a lighthouse, an ancient symbol of human progress. It is transformed into the very heart of this absolute alien force.
Garland reproduces a vision that haunts Western culture – Jewish ‘Day of Judgement’ apocalyptic traditions dating from the medieval period portray humanity in its final ‘last day’ form at a rich banquet. But our bodies and our minds have been transformed. Our heads are replaced by animal heads – bird, fish or ox. It is transmitted from the Old Testament too: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
In the Shimmer, humanity dissolves, leaving behind moral responsibility, institutional constraint, the self, the immortal soul and the body (all things that we are taught are specific to human experience). But at the challenge of a primordial encounter with the pure soup of matter, things, plant-life and animal, they don’t really stand a chance.
Now that’s a challenging and disturbing thought – and rather answers my question. Any piece of SF is only really as good as the moral and intellectual drive that produces it. Alex Garland’s contribution fits well with that description.