Memory Palace

Kunzru1

From 18 June to 20 October 2013, the Porter gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was home to Memory Palace. Sponsored by Sky Arts Ignition, it is the first graphic arts exhibition at the venue in over a decade. It features one eponymous novella by Hari Kunzru (published separately) and twenty installations by as many artists or studios, and attempts to see “how far [you can] push the format and still call it a book,” to provide “an experiential reading format for a story,” to “create an exhibition that can be read’ (Newell and Salazar, “Curating a Book,” Memory Palace 84, 85). It is also a work of sf.

Curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar commissioned Kunzru to outline a story that would then be developed in collaboration with the artists, who would be co-creators rather than mere illustrators: Abäke, Peter Bil’ak, Alexis Deacon, Sara De Bondt studio, Oded Ezer, Francesco Franchi, Isabel Greenberg, Hansje van Halem, Robert Hunter, Jim Kay, Johnny Kelly, Erik Kessels, Na Kim, Stuart Kolakovic, Frank Laws, Le Gun, CJ Lim, Luke Pearson, Stefanie Posavec, Némo Tral, Henning Wagenbreth, Mario Wagner, and Sam Winston. This process is recounted in Hunter’s dialog-free, short graphic comic, “Making Memory Palace,” appended to Kunzru’s novella.

The British-Indian Kunzru, a former magazine journalist, who wrote about travel, music, culture, and technology, is, like David Mitchell, one of that generation of authors relatively untroubled by genre-policing. His second novel, Transmission (2005), is about a computer virus, and reads like a slimmed-down, nearer-future version of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) spliced together with one of William Gibson’s Bigend novels; his fourth and most recent novel, the historically-sprawling Gods without Men (2012), includes UFOs and aliens, kinda. A rather trendy literary author, his first novel, The Impressionist (2003), attracted a £1 million+ advance, and he has won several major awards and prizes. The central concerns of his particular brand of popular, not exactly demanding postmodernism, sometimes described as “hysterical realism” or “translit,” are non-linearity and connectivity. Kunzru’s commissioning by Sky Arts is, then, relatively unsurprising (especially as he also used to be a presenter on The Lounge, Sky TV’s own electronic arts program).

His co-creators are rather less well known. Intriguingly, in their brief biographies at the end of the Memory Palace book, not one of them self-describes as an artist. They are all graphic designers, graphic artists, typographers, illustrators, comics artists, book designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, and/or architects. One is left with a strong sense of a smug and slightly shadowy commercial world of professionals, talented but perhaps a bit glib, for whom this is just another commission to be turned in on budget and on time. This perhaps explains why the exhibition’s satirical attack on neo-liberal hegemony and state-imposed regimes of austerity and amnesia is so muted.

Kunzru’s novella, Memory Palace, is set in a post-apocalyptic London. A magnetic storm destroyed the global information infrastructure and brought the Withering, a post-literate Dark Age of totalitarian theocracy, in which Westminster is known as Waste Monster, and other moderately amusing sub-Riddley Walker (1980) wordplay thrives. The Thing (as the council of leaders is known) wants to bring about the Wilding, a future in which the remnants of humanity will live in harmony with nature. The Thing has outlawed writing and recording, thereby criminalizing the Memorialists, those who are devoted to collecting and recollecting the past, whom they now hunt. Appropriately, then, the story, while nicely written and more than competent, stirs with faint echoes: of post-apocalyptic fiction by John Wyndham, John Christopher, and Walter M. Miller; of the television series Survivors (UK 1975-1977) and the coda to the film Threads (Jackson UK/Australia/US 1984); of M. John Harrison’s seedy bedsit entropy, China Miéville’s rejectamentalism, and Evan Calder Wood’s salvagepunk.

The book version of Memory Palace is, as one would expect from such a project, a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with selected work from the exhibition and pictures of the physical and electronic installations. If you have read the book, though, the exhibition itself is a little disappointing (I cannot gauge what it would be like to see the exhibition before, or without, reading the book). Le Gun’s life-size model of what someone from the post-apocalypse imagines an ambulance to have looked like – part medicine show, part museum of curiosities, drawn by wolves and driven by a Día de Muertos cross between Baron Samedi and the Child Catcher – is impressively detailed,kunzru2 as is Jim Kay’s reliquary cabinet devoted to Milord Darwing, the author of Origin of the Species (1859), who is misremembered as a rogue GM scientist. In contrast, Oded Ezer’s eight short films, looped on eight separate screens, are all concept with little art, and Erik Kessel’s enormous temple built from bundles of newspapers and advertising fliers, recalling the pre-apocalyptic religious ritual of aakgo9fm2Recycling, has even less art and barely even a concept. The more straightforward illustrations – whether blown up on large light boxes (Tral), arranged in a narrative thread on a white wall so you have to move to follow them (Pearson), or presented on zinc letterpress plates (Winston) – do benefit from exhibition. And it is quite pleasing – after all the corporate profligacy, the privatization and militarization of public spaces, the peonage of cleaners and others, the jingoism and spitefulness, that the London Olympics involved – to see the stadium reduced to slums (Tral) and Anish Kapoor and Arups’ 115-meter tall ArcelorMittal Orbit, a kind of flying spaghetti Eiffel Tower, being ceremonially burned to the ground (Greenberg).

Newell and Salazar write that “Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience” (85). In this case, however, the layout of the space, and the clearly marked entrance and exit, do produce a linear exhibit, whereas reading the book, with its out-of-order narrative and illustrations that tempt one to flick back and forth between them, is more successfully non-linear. Consequently, I would recommend the book over the exhibition, especially as it is available from online stores for less than £10, and unless you live in South Kensington (or “South Keen Singtown,” as it will be known during the Withering), getting to and seeing the exhibition will cost you more than that.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 121 (2013), 596–8.

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Out of the Unknown: ‘Some Lapse of Time’, BBC2 8 December 1965

John Brunner
John Brunner

One of the things ‘Some Lapse of Time’ gets right (and would have probably got right even if it had been a 75-minute episode as originally intended) is selecting to adapt a source of appropriate length – John Brunner’s novella of the same name, originally published in Science Fantasy (February 1963) and reprinted in Brunner’s collection Now Then just a couple of months before the episode aired. A novella has more than sufficient complication for an hour-long drama without any need for additional elaboration (or padding), while also not requiring the compression that adapting a novel might entail, such as season two’s Level Seven, season three’s Immortality, Inc and The Naked Sun or season four’s Deathday.

lapse-02Dr Max Harrow – whose young son recently died of a rare disease, heterochylia, the product of a genetic mutation caused by radiation – is plagued by a nightmare of the distant past, of immiserated primitives dominated by a shaman figure. In the small hours of the morning, after the nightmare has woken him once more, a policeman arrives at the door, having found an unconscious tramp outside Harrow’s house. To the doctor’s astonishment, the tramp seems to have survived into his thirties or forties despite suffering from heterochylia, which is every bit as impossible as him even having the disease since he was born long before there were any nuclear weapons. And he somehow found his way to the doorstep of one of the handful of doctors in the country capable of recognising the symptoms…

These are not the only odd thing about the vagrant.lapse

He carries a finger bone with a distinctive curve, he speaks no known language and is, it turns out, radioactive. He is not from the past at all, but from the future. From after the nuclear war. His language is an evolved or, rather devolved, version of English (like in Threads (1985) or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)).

And when Harrow loses the top of one finger – accidentally slammed in a car door during an argument with his wife – and it goes missing, he realises it is the shaman/tramp’s fetish bone, used to focus his journey back in time. (Nigel Kneale’s The Road (1964) relied on a similar reversal of temporal perspective.)

Also being treated at hospital is Wilfred Fitz-Prior, the Minister of War – precisely the kind of person Harrow holds responsible for causing his son’s death. (What choice does Harrow have but to steal the Fitz-Prior’s’s amputated leg and hide it so that it’s bones, too, can become a fetish object for some post-apocalyptic shaman to use to come back and haunt the Minister?) On a rather less macabre note, when Harrow wants to carbon-date the finger bone, he consults with Gerry Anderson (presumably taking a break from filming Supercar or Fireball XL5).

Brunner’s novella is structurally a little clunky, and bows some under the weight of a compositional principle that seems to consist of cramming in everything he could think of, but this does help to generate a sense of inescapable nightmare. (A nightmare that ties in closely with Brunner’s work with the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests and with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.)

The script by Leon Griffiths – who also wrote John Gillings’ Burke and Hare movie The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), and adapted Raymond F. Jones’s  ‘Divided We Fall’ (1950) and Rog Phillips’ ‘The Yellow Pill’ (1958) for Out of this World (25 August and 30 June 1962, respectively, the latter also reworked for Out of the Unknown (25 March 1969)) – cuts away a lot of the clutter. This reduces the nightmarish quality somewhat, even as the pace of the episode teeters on the brink of hysteria.

The production design is by some chap called Ridley Scott, and includes some impressively moderne hospital spaces, especially an angular corridor. The brief exteriors – filmed at the Technical College and the School of Art in (appropriately enough) Harrow – further convey this sense of the very near future; and one shot, in which the camera hurriedly tracks alongside one side of a fence while Dr Harrow races down the other, is especially effective.

Other things to look out for:
– the copper who finds the tramp is played by a young Peter Bowles, delightfully struggling to do the accent of a rural plod
– one of the medical students lurking in the background is played by Victor Pemberton, who wrote the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968), as well as episodes of Timeslip (1971) and Ace of Wands (1972)

lapse-03Previous episode, ‘Andover and the Android’

Sources
John Brunner, ‘Some Lapse of Time’, Now and Then (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1965)
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

The Mad Maxathon, part three: Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

MV5BMTk0MDQ5NTYxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTA0ODYyMQ@@._V1_SX640_SY720_Part one, part two, part four

This is the one that broke the franchise.

It is the one with the audacity to have a character claim, early on, that ‘We’re dealing with subtlety here’. And the bravery, moments later, to let Aunty (Tina Turner) ask, ‘You can shovel shit, can’t you?’

It is the one featuring the Goonies outback adventure. It is Max Rockatansky’s Kindergarten Cop. His Mr Nanny, his Pacifier, his Game Plan. It is Dad Max.

It is the one that makes Waterworld look not so very terrible after all.

It is a poxalypse, full of pain.

It begins with a drum-machine, for chrissakes.

It is full of other terrible 80s things, such as a shockingly ill-judged Maurice Jarre soundtrack and a dreadful saxophone that, for a moment, fills you with dread MPW-65247that Aunty will be played not by Tina Turner – whose chainmail shoulderpads are even more awesome now than they were thirty years ago – but by Al Jarreau.

Beyond Thunderdome lays bare the insidious effects of LucasSpielbergianism.

Costing five times as much as the first two films added together, it made rather less than them added together. But a bigger budget meant a drop in the certificate. Which meant replacing innovation with competence. Which meant abandoning crude, robust, imaginative and often very skilful filmmaking in order to imitate the less-than-stellar Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Badly.

It nicks sequences and gags and ideas from HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and Island of Lost Souls (1932), from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) but sadly not from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), from episodes six and seven of Flash Gordon (1936) and episode one of Bret Maverick (1981), from Star Wars (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mad Max and a whole bunch of westerns. Badly.

mad-max-beyond-thunderdome-train-chaseIt reworks the climactic chase from Road Warrior.

Badly.

As if Health and Safety finally caught onto some of the crazy shit George Miller was doing.

It is like some Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) knock off.

While Tina Turner is fabulous as the same-sex-yet-somehow-cross-dressing Aunty, it is disappointing to see the queerness of this future has been muted in the fifteen years since the events of Road Warrior. (I have no idea how the scantily-clad musclemen cranking Bartertown’s elevator managed to sneak unnoticed through the straightening of the post-apocalypse, but I’m glad they made it and are thriving.)

Although there are plenty of stereotypical signifiers of non-white ethnicities – Max’s burnoose and camels, the didgeridoos on the soundtrack early on, Maurice Jarre’s delusion that he is scoring Taras Bulba (1962), the plane-crash-surviving kids’ version of Aboriginal art and make-up – it remains a fairly pallid future in which whitey has learned almost nothing from these cultures about practical fashions for desert environments. One can only assume that Bartertown is built in a quarry (some of the time) because they are mining for sunblock. And talc. And, of course, vaseline.

MCDMAMA EC038When the movie came out, Roger Ebert, who loved it, raved about the Thunderdome fight sequence, calling it ‘the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies’ and ‘one of the great creative action scenes in the movies’. It was never that good and doesn’t really hold up that well. But it can be made fabulous by taking the time to set up a second screen so you can synch it to the Peter Pan scene from 21 Jump Street (2012).

Much was also made of the alternative Riddley Walker-lite English spoken by the kids who grew up in isolation without any adults around. This linguistic drift, which has none of the post-apocalyptic horror of the final minutes of Threads (1984) either, would have perhaps seem more innovative if a few minutes earlier it hadn’t been revealed that in Bartertown the meaning of the word ‘gulag’ had shifted to mean ‘to be driven into the desert to die while sitting backwards on a horse with a giant papier-mache head on your head’.

So, besides Tina Turner, is there anything good about Beyond Thunderdome?

Well, it provides an opportunity to admire some of the early work by Terese Willis from Neighbours, formerly Sophie Simpson from Home and Away.

It was nice to see Bruce Payne return, playing a character indistinguishable from the one he played in Road Warrior but definitely intended by Miller to be a different character, which doesn’t quite explain how Max recognises him, unless it is a version of that joke in the A-Team title sequence when Face recognises a Cylon.

And it was nice to see the sarlacc pit get work again, even if it never did manage to break free of the way it was typecast by Return of the Jedi

Oh, and the first thing the kids do after rescuing Max is cut off his mullet. Which at least puts it ahead of Steel Dawn (1987), at the conclusion of which Patrick Swayze is permitted to stride off into the sunset, mane uncropped.

Part four