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Theyre Getting Better At It All The Time
Science Fiction, Genre and World Building in SF Cinema.
Its a truly wretched movie. Theres a moment when the protagonist first finds the Molly Ringwald character and he says something that indicates that she smells really bad. I think that is wonderful you hardly ever see that in science fiction film.1
What Gibson was talking about were the contextualising details that add another dimension to the fictive space of narrative. I thought of one of my own favourite fragments from a bad film. In Event Horizon there is a spaceship crew in flight suits. On their arms they have patches indicating where they are from. There are American and European Union flags. Sam Neill plays an Australian and his patch is the Australian flag but instead of the Union Jack in the corner, there is the Aboriginal flag above the Southern Cross part of the current flag. Little moments like these create that context.
In the how-to writing book, Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction by Lisa Tuttle, there is a section called World Building. Tuttle writes:
Landscape, in both science fiction and fantasy, is more than just background. It plays a role equivalent to that of a major character. The setting may determine the plot, or have been determined by it either way, it is firmly bound up in the science fiction and fantasy story.2
In fiction of any kind, details build up to create the story fragmented descriptions of colour, sound, textures, odurs, anything all of it adds up in the readers mind to create the world of the story. World building relates not just to science fiction and fantasy, but to all fiction. Tuttle writes in a sub-section of World Building called The Telling Detail, some advice about adding these elements.
Small telling details can be enormously effective in giving the impression of a different reality. A famous example is Robert Heinleins casually dropped-in reference to a door that dilated as a character entered the room. (SF author) Harlan Ellison recalled reading that for the first time: I was two lines down before I realised what the image had been, what the words had called forth. A dilating door. It didnt open, it irised. Dear God, now I knew I was in a future world. 3
In 1926, Virginia Woolf went to a London cinema and saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a silent movie from Germany directed by Robert Wiene, still one of the greatest films of fantastic cinema. Moved to write about the films blending of art direction and narrative devices, Woolf published an article called The Movies And Reality. She wrote that the film was able to conjure up a dream architecture of arches and battlements, of cascades falling and fountains rising, which sometimes visits us in sleep or shapes itself in half-darkened rooms. No fantasy could be too far fetched or insubstantial. Perhaps predicting that the birth of cinema might signal the death of the written word, Woolf went on to remark, For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by words. 4
This is an interesting comment for a writer to make, to think that perhaps there was some sort of synaesthetic experience offered by the cinema that could not be equaled by words. The ability of text to render the world on a page is the task of the writer, to give some form of analogous experience to the reader of how the world is to be viewed in fiction. For the writer of science fiction or fantasy, this is doubly so for, not only does the author have to render their characters as believable, independent entities, they must create the world through which these characters move. The other intriguing notion suggested by Woolfes article is that words are not an inherently visual medium. Putting aside the fact that we use our eyes to read, words conjure up images just as surely as a projector throws images on a screen.
Cinema studies have given us the concept of mis en scene, (in film theory, mis-en-scene is the arrangement of space, that "places on the stage" the characters, props, lighting etc) and although textual analysis of science fiction and fantasy can lead us in a similar direction when contemplating the world building aspects of genre fiction, there is really no equation between the way we experience film and the implied visual aspects of text. What can this compare and contrast exercise explain about the nature of world building in text when we use film as an example? Cinema renders the idea in literal form, a way of explaining and experiencing the nature of the process.
I have chosen 2001: A Space Odyssey as the example but there were many others that came to mind: Blade Runner as the model for the dystopian city of the near future, The Fifth Element for its melding of comic strips and cinema coupled with its multicultural casting that predicts the future in an original way. There was also Forbidden Planet, the 1956 masterpiece of SF cinema for its archetypal alien world and the immortal line A green sky a man could get used to that. And there were of course, The Matrix, AI, Final Fantasy and Ghost In The Shell, four films where art direction and narrative collide to become a single entity.
But keeping in mind the idea of Gibsons fragment, I have selected two scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The two scenes arent fragments exactly, but within them there are some fascinating examples of Tuttles world building. The first scene is the arrival of Dr. Heywood Floyd on a space station orbiting the Earth. The second is from a little later in the film where Dr. Floyd, another scientist named Ralph and an unnamed third character are on board a rocket bus are heading towards what is known as TMA 1.
2001: A Space Odyssey was directed by Stanley Kubrick and was partly based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke called The Sentinel. Kubrick and Clarke wrote the screenplay and the film was released in 1967. Clarke later wrote a novel based on the film and is probably the only example of an author writing the novelisation of a movie based on his own short story. The film was ahead of its time in many respects.
One of the most interesting things about the film in terms of genre is that it wasnt made as a genre film specifically: although the film is set in space and is about an encounter with extraterrestrials, Kubrick directed the film as though it were taking place in reality, and so the film has an odd sense of realism about it. (If you think of a film like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, it doesnt for a second feel like its based on anything real whereas Steven Speilbergs last film Minority Report does.) And that brings me to the second aspect of the film that I find fascinating.
Like Minority Report, the look of 2001 was based on research into what the future might hold for a number of disciplines including food technology, clothing, telecommunications, astronomy and aerospace. Among the organisations and companies that were consulted for 2001 were Bell Telephone, the Chrysler Corporation, General Electric, Honeywell, NASA and the Soviet Embassy in London 6. In total, 68 companies consulted on the film. The result is a film that has a density of detail that seems to pass us by as we watch and has no specific impact , except in the most holistic of ways.
In the Space Station scene we see a number of background details that let us know a few things about this fictional future. We see the Hilton, a telephone booth, a restaurant and some rather fetching designer chairs and tables. The future is corporate but instead of a dystopian future, this is clean and bright. For audiences in 1968 and to some extent now this scene is the essential component in locating the narrative in the speculative future. SFs genre conventions deploy the spacecraft as an icon of the fictive future state, implying numerous extrapolations: industry, commerce, advanced technology three technological advances that place the story in a time frame that is simply not now. The Space Station scene places the viewer into the public space of the future. Of course, there are certain details hidden within this scene that imply a 2001 very different from the 2001 we just lived through. For example, within this scene are ashtrays on the table, Aeroflot bags next to the feet of a Russian aircrew and at least one company that no longer exists, Bell Telephone.
Writing in Sets In Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, authors Charles and Mirella Affron have this to say about the way the art direction frames narrative. Science fiction cinema, they say, is:
posited on the tension between character (the fate of individuals, space ship crews, whole populations) and technologically accessed environments, science fiction narratives must, of necessity, foreground their decors. Whether dystopic or utopic, science fiction tests the values of contemporary society by altering relationships between human beings and their environments. 6
In one sense then, this scene from 2001 is the present of 1967 projected into outer space. The design elements within this scene are modernist inspired, minimalist and saturated with a technological outlook that seems very different from what we experience today. Or does it?
The status of décor as primary narrative marker in science fiction is perhaps best illustrated by 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film in which the future seems, at first to be hospitable. The Orbiter Hilton and the Bell Picturephone provide momentary brand-name comfort before the films disquieting journeys are taken. 7
In this context, I have to disagree with the Affrons since viewed in the very future in which the film narrative was set, the brand name recognition is in fact a process of estrangement from the environment. Things appear familiar, but when we examine this apparently benign environment it becomes stranger and stranger. In the context of science fiction writing, this is the exact process of world building that is attempted in text based narrative.
The Hilton Hotel in the background, for instance, no longer has the talismanic power it once did in the 1960s. The Hiltons are no longer the harbingers of a corporate globalisation in sleepover comfort, they are just another name in a long list of international hotel chains. Bell Telephone no longer exists (nor does Pan Am, the airline that brings Dr. Floyd from earth to the Orion Space Station). Bell Telephone was broken up in a landmark anti-monopoly case in the United States in 1984. Instead of the world-straddling monolith of communications, Bell Telephone no longer exists except as the carrier of long distance calls strangely and presciently appropriate in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Other more obvious things are not quite right: the Russians in the film are Soviets, we have never managed to get videophones happening, the Space Station, although sparse, is over-staffed. Do we really need a stewardess to press that button when we could just as easily do it ourselves?
On the one hand, the verisimilitude that Kubrick attempted with that gang of consultants is off the mark, a charming period curiosity and an optimistic, modernist utopia. On the other hand, however, the film got something exactly right and again this ties back to text narrative. What the film does powerfully is to accurately predict the way technology has become woven into our everyday lives, how it creates a backdrop of casual detail that feels completely authentic and in keeping with real life in 2002.
Take for instance the Videophone scene in the middle of this sequence. I wonder if you noticed how Dr. Floyd pays for his call with a credit card? To us, it seems completely commonplace that you would do this, just as you can pay for calls aboard airliners with your Amex card. To audiences in the 1960s, however, this small but telling detail was outrageously futuristic. When were considering how we will describe our worlds using nothing more than words, we need to think of this kind of texture of life. How we pay no special attention to the technology around us, how it plays a part of our world. To create a world, we need to carefully consider how our characters interact with the fictive reality in which they exist.
In another part of the Sight and Sound interview with Gibson, he makes reference to a remark made by JG Ballard. I think Ballards perfectly right, says Gibson, You cant write a naturalistic novel about (the present) without having recourse to the tool kit of science fiction. 8 Gibson cites Martin Amiss book London Fields as his example, describing how, although the book is set in the present day, the background to the story is a series of science fiction style events war, blackouts, and strange weather. Gibson says Amis made these decisions in an otherwise naturalistic novel out of a necessary naturalistic impulse because he wanted to induce the same cognitive dissonance we feel everyday and try to ignore. Damien Broderick, West Australian academic and SF theorist, asserts that the modus operand of science fiction, and by extension fantasy writing as well, is a process of cognitive estrangement 10. While the reader connects to the world of the narrative, they are constantly reminded of its profound difference. Science fiction isnt about the future, argues Gibson. Its about the present Theres a side to science fiction which is like history inverted, the historical impulse turned inside out and run backwards into the future. In that case, the entire scene we just looked at is both historical and futuristic. How better to describe 2001: A Space Odyssey and all old SF film as alternative histories?
Gisbons claim is also persuasive when you consider that science fiction is a form of fantasy history. If we take UTS academic Graham Williams definition of SF on board as being the meeting of characters and a situation that challenges their perceptions of what constitutes culture, history or civilisation, then the doors of what is admitted to the genre are wide open. Titanic is a science fiction film, Ernest Hemmingways Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises is a science fiction novel. Personally, I find this definition too wide because virtually all fiction novels, films could be considered SF within this definition. Gibsons observation describes the process of fantasy fiction very well, because it only limits the genre to a reality constructed in words, the written form, and restricted only by the fancy dress of the players. Perhaps mis-en-scene in fiction, if I can mix the terminology, is the key indicator of genre. Let me put it another way. Can you have crime fiction in which there is no crime? Romance fiction without Romance? A fantasy fiction without a discernable trace of fantasy? If we place the players on the stage, as mis-en-scene indicates, the props, the details, the context and the dialogue are all part of an understanding of genre.
Lets move to the second scene.
This scene is classic science fiction in almost every way. We see men (and only men) in a space ship (a rocket bus) flying over the surface of another planet (albeit the moon) on the way to find something extraordinary. Unlike the Space Station sequence, the only thing we can latch on to in this scene are the humans, everything else is stylised, speculative, patently unreal yet filmed as realism. Although, some 37 years later, these men with their Brillcreamed heads and gee whiz attitude are more like the historical figures suggested by Gibson. The realism that Kubrick created in the film is present in the scene too the interior of the craft feels completely utilitarian, unlike the comfort of the Pan Am space clipper or the Aries craft that takes Floyd to the moon.
The Affrons have an interesting take on the vehicles in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
True to its title, this is a narrative about voyage, but, distinct from other fictions, it devotes more attention to the vehicles than to the travelers human speech relinquishes its hegemony over plot for unusually long periods of time, time enough for us to concentrate on environments and to allow those environments to overpower the characters. 11
I selected this second scene for two reasons one was the iconic nature of this scene in its deployment of technology and the second was that, as the Affrons pointed out, 2001 utilises dialogue very sparsely. When the characters speak, it seems that they have something to say and even when they dont have anything to say in particular, it seems to have an obscure meaning. In the Space Station sequence, for example, the dialogue alludes to something that is happening but like the Russians, we are none the wiser at the end of the scene. Its interesting to note that the dialogue in the Space Station sequence is almost nothing to do with the plot except for that allusion at the end. The dialogue builds up expositionary detail. In this second scene, however, the dialogue is packed with information, some of it useful, at least half of it is not. Here is an example of the apparently not-so important dialogue.
Guy: Well, anybody hungry?
Floyd: What have we got?
Guy: You name it
Floyd: Whats that, chicken?
Guy: Something like that, it tastes the same anyway.
Ralph: Got any ham?
Guy: (searching through lunch box) Ham, ham, ham
Ralph: There it is
Floyd: (Looking at sandwich) They look pretty good.
Guy: Well, theyre getting better at it all the time. 12
Actually, when you come to look at the dialogue from this scene on paper, its hard to imagine anything more banal. Ham, says the guy, and indeed it is a kind of ham. But the more I looked at this scene, the more I listened to the dialogue, the more I came to realise that this apparently banal detail is as rich and interesting as the visual details. What is that chicken? asks Dr. Floyd. Cant you tell? Something like that, it tastes the same anyway. What is on that sandwich? Who made it? Why cant you tell the difference between chicken and ham? And who are the they who are getting better at it all the time? When Dr. Floyd asks, What have we got the reply is you name it. In the context of the dialogue, the answer isnt particularly ambiguous; we have anything you want. But considering theres a difficulty finding what they want, perhaps you name it is an invitation to name whatever it is they are eating anything they like.
There is no explanation within the scene of what this dialogue is doing, but this kind of referencing indicates a way of putting across information about the context of the society within which the story takes place without having to resort to detailed explanation. The dialogue that follows is of a completely different order.
Guy: Heres what started the whole thing.
Floyd: (Looking at photographs) Oh yeah.
Ralph: When we first found it we thought it might be an outcrop of magnetic rock, but all the geological evidence was against it. Not even a big nickel-iron meteorite could produce a field as intense as this. So we decided to have a look.
Guy: We thought it might be the upper part of a buried structure so we excavated out on all sides but unfortunately we didnt find anything else.
Ralph: And whats more, the evidence seems pretty conclusive that it hasnt been covered up by natural erosion or some other forces, it seems to have been deliberately buried.
Floyd: Deliberately buried, huh? 13
Lisa Tuttle calls this type of dialogue the expositionary lump or info dump in science fiction and fantasy writing. This is where an author arranges for two characters to have a conversation where information is given to the reader. Although it may seem heavy handed or contrived, this scene demonstrates a way to impart the information in a logical, contextualised manner in keeping with the narrative and considering were 43 minutes and 52 seconds into the film, its about time we got some answers.
Its interesting to note that while this dialogue seems to bring the audience up to speed with what the characters know, there is only on further explanation in the rest of the film. Scene after scene unfolds, the dialogue serving only to enhance what is being seen. It might seem that within a film the images tell the story and the dialogue accompanies it. Fiction in short story or novel form needs, it would seem, the descriptive, discursive contextual detail needed to create the world of the story. But like film, I believe, written fantasy and science fiction needs to be as atmospheric, allusive and non-didactic as possible.
The last thing I would like to mention is the novelisation of the movie. Clarke and Kubrick worked on the screenplay as Clarke worked independently on the novel timed to appear three months after the release of the movie. The novel bears only a passing resemblance to the film and neither of the two scenes that we watched were featured in the book as they appear on screen. Interestingly, the only details that Clarke chose to describe in the Space Station sequence was the view from the window and the gravity in the station. The second scene on board the Rocket Bus doesnt appear at all and has its dialogue significantly expanded upon. Clarke has never been the most imaginative of prose stylists - as can be seen from this excerpt from the novels version of the space station scene: In the novel there is only one Russian named Dimitri and in this extract Dr. Floyd is walking along the Space Station concourse with station security chief Miller:
They followed Dimitri out of the main lounge into the observation section, and soon were sitting at a table under a dim light watching the moving panorama of the stars, Space Station 1 revolved once a minute, and the centrifugal force generated by this slow spin produced an artificial gravity equal to the Moons. This, it had been discovered, was a good compromise between Earth gravity and no gravity at all; moreover, it gave Moon-bound passengers a chance to become acclimatised.
Outside the almost invisible windows, Earth and stars marched in a silent procession. At the moment this side of the Station was tilted away from the Sun; otherwise it would have been impossible to look out, for the lounge would have been blasted with light. Even as it was, the glare of the Earth, filling half the sky, drowned all but the brighter stars.
But Earth was waning, as the Station orbited towards the night side of the planet; in a few minutes it would be a huge black disc, spangled with the lights of cities. And then the sky would belong to the stars. 14
Clarke wrote a book about his screen writing experience with Kubrick called The Lost Worlds of 2001 and later made these comments on the occasion of the films 25th anniversary video release.
Why write a novel, you may well ask, when we were aiming to make a movie? It's true that novelisations are often produced afterward, but in this case, Stanley had excellent reasons for reversing the process. Because a screenplay has to specify everything in excruciating detail, it is almost as tedious to read as to write. John Fowls put it very well when he said, Writing a novel is like swimming through the sea; writing a film script is like thrashing through treacle. 15
With the novel far more like drowning in treacle and the film like swimming in the sea, to use Fowls metaphors, I think we can learn far more than we realise from the apparently visual medium of the cinema.
1. Cloning The Future: Science Fiction Film 1895-1996, Sight and Sound supplement, p. 22, November, 1996. 2. Writing Handbooks: Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lisa Tuttle, p. 30, A&C Black Books, London, 2001. 3. Ibid. p.47. 4. Quoted in Film Architecture: Set Design From Metropolis to Blade Runner by Deitrich Neumann, Prestel, Munich, 1996. 5. Listed in The Making of Kubricks 2001, Jerome Angel (Ed.), Signet Books, 1968. 6. Sets In Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, Charles Affron and Mirella Affron, p. 128, Rutgers University Press, 1995. 7.Ibid. 8. Cloning The Future: Science Fiction Film 1895-1996, Sight and Sound supplement, p. 22, November, 1996. 9. Citing Darko Suvin in Reading By Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, Damien Broderick, p.32, Routledge, 1995. 10. Cloning The Future: Science Fiction Film 1895-1996, Sight and Sound supplement, p. 22, November, 1996. 11. Sets In Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative, Charles Affron and Mirella Affron, p. 129 Rutgers University Press, 1995. 12. Transcribed from the Warner Bros. DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey. 13. Ibid. 14. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, p.63, Orbit Books, 2000. 15. Notes from the jacket of the Warner Bros. 25th Anniversary video release.