Afrocyberpunk 3: Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983), Gorgon Child (1989), Firedance (1994)

Barnes Steven - Aubrey Knight 01 - Street LethalIn 1993, Claire Sponsler argued that cyberpunk reworked earlier post-nuclear-holocaust narratives (Alas, Babylon; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Riddley Walker) which depicted, with ‘angst and ambivalence’, a ‘physical world [that] is unfriendly, unyielding, and unforgiving’, a ‘hostile and forbidding … no-man’s land where humans must struggle to survive’ (257). In contrast, for cyberpunk ‘destruction of the natural environment and decay of the urban zones are givens that are not lamented but rather accepted’ (257). In ‘decayed cityscape[s]’, cyberpunk found ‘a place of possibilities, a carnivalesque realm where anything goes and where there are no rules, only boundaries that can be easily transgressed’ – and where entry into cyberspace, a disembodied realm of deracinated liberation, is ‘encouraged, not hampered, by a milieu of urban decay’ (261).

Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk criticises this view, reminding us that part of the cultural backdrop against which the cyberpunk imaginary emerged was the discourse of urban planning and development that came to the fore in the US in the 1970s and 1980s – and that its ‘language of urban “ruin,” “decay’” or “blight”’ possessed ‘ideological and often specifically racist subtexts’, providing an encoded way of talking about ‘racialized inner-city ghettoes than cities in general’ (206). (It is well worth having this is mind when reading Delany’s Dhalgren, too.)

Steven Barnes’s Aubry Knight trilogy – among the trashiest of afrocyberpunk fiction and in some ways much more afro than cyberpunk – gets closer than any other cyberpunk I have read to acknowledging this urban-planner/property-developer discourse and its racial content.

Written before William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Streetlethal (1983) sits alongside cyberpunk, developing similar material rather differently. The trilogy’s ongoing negotiation with 51WfmS5e1uL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_cyberpunk is most evident if we judge Barnes’s novels by their covers. Barclay Shaw’s 1983 cover – where it is difficult to tell that the protagonist is black – combines 70s martial arts imagery with hints of a post-apocalyptic scenario, perhaps like The Ultimate Warrior (Clouse 1975). It alludes to Mad Max, but the overturned car and shattered road bridge give way to an airy futuristic metropolis. The jacket blurbs point to a conservative tradition of adventure sf (Larry Niven), made a little more decent (Gordon R Dickson) and perhaps a little edgier (Norman Spinrad) (Firedance (1994) adds a blurb from Peter O’Donnell, the creator of Modesty Blaise). The 1991 reissue of Streetlethal retains these three blurbs but has a new cover by Martin Andrews that builds on the imagery of Luis Royo’s cover for Gorgon Child (1989) (rather 593041more effectively than Royo’s cover for Firedance). Aubrey is definitively black. His costume suggests a black urban cool coming out of the dancier end of hip-hop. His dark glasses turn cyberpunk’s mirrorshades black. The urban backdrop is more ambiguous, with hints of futurity and ruination. The female figure is like a rock video version of Molly, Gibson’s street samurai. (The relationship between the women on the covers and the female characters in the novels remains mysterious to me).

From its first sentence, though intermittently, Streetlethal draws on noir imagery and, like Gibson, science-fictionalises it. The novel begins:

Naked and transparent, the woman’s smooth white body undulated slowly, beckoning to the empty streets. The streets were still slick from the afternoon rain; the hologram reflected back from the wet asphalt, an erotic mirage.

[Maxine] steered him further down the street, past the fluxing, beckoning projections that lined Pacific Coast Highway. Soundloops triggered by their passing cajoled, promising the finest in services and goods, the ultimate in intimate experience. A hungry taxi-drone paused on its eternal run down the central guidestrip, and Maxine waved it on. (1, 2-3)

41XSvGIDuwL._AC_UL320_SR212,320_.jpgThe overall plot is also rather noirish. Maxine uses sex to betray Aubry, framing him for murder as part of his punishment for quitting work as muscle for the Ortega gang. He is arrested and imprisoned in the Death Valley Maximum Security Prison; he escapes, makes his way back to Los Angeles, wreaks revenge.

Unlike Gibson, Barnes also works in a blaxploitation mode. Aubry is large and immensely powerful figure, a streetfighter turned Nullboxer – a kind of zero-gravity MMA. Inhumanly strong and determined, there is at times something of Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree and Jim Kelly to him. He is not very smart, though, or well-socialised; the later novels gradually cure him of this emotional/psychological stuntedness, turning him from a kind of Luke Cage into someone more like T’Challa, the Black Panther. Barnes draws on cultural-political strains of black power, Afrotopianism, Afrocentricity and Pan-Africanism (In Firedance, Aubry discovers he is actually African, an child of the Ibandi tribe of warriors who was orphaned in the US. He returns to Africa to topple the insane, Japanese-backed insane military dictator of Pan-Africa, which is composed of six countries: Zaire (Congo), Tanzania, Uganda, possibly Kenya and two never-named others.) Barnes presents a matter-of-fact multiracial and mixed-racial future. More awkwardly, but in a generally positive way, he includes a lesbian separatist community and a group called the NewMen – physically imposing, genetically-engineered warriors, who are all also homosexual. (This sort of diverse future caught between the ghetto, the gang and the New Jim Crow is developed in Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear’s Concrete Park.)

At the centre of Streetlethal is the Los Angeles downtown:

Downtown Los Angeles covered some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and in the 1960’s and ’70’s it had become run-down. Property values were slipping. There was a major effort to clean the area up, to bring in investors. … [Impoverished, homeless] Scavengers have existed for … maybe a century. They move into ruined neighbourhoods, slums, anywhere nobody else wants to live or work, and reclaim. People have been doing it forever, but I guess they just started organizing during the Second Depression, in the eighties. (177, 180)

Although fleetingly evoked, this historical context points to the still ongoing real-world conflicts between a city government enamoured of property developers and the residents of the garment district, skid row and other communities/areas that also occupy the downtown.

Barnes’s LA differs from the real LA not just because of that Second Depression but also because the Big One finally hit.

It was easy to remember when there had been skyscrapers here. The Great Quake, and the even more ruinous firestorm that followed, had razed the city, sending businesses fleeing to the valleys and peripheral areas. Already decaying by the turn of the century, no one cared about central L.A. anymore. The slums remaining in the area were simply referred to as the Maze, and only the hopeless made it their home. (60)

[It] must have been a street, once. It was hard to tell, with the accumulated layers of trash and debris, shattered fragments of buildings, and the gut-punched wreckage of a bus, stripped of rubber and glass and most of its metal, only a framework of rust remaining. … The wreckage was incredible, as if an orgy of wholesale looting and vandalism had destroyed what little was left by the natural disasters of earthquake and fire. (108, 109)

The Maze is home to the Scavengers, a subterranean co-operative community developed from those earlier scavengers. They live in the ruins, including the secretly renovated PanAngeles Multiplex, ‘the largest underground living complex in the western hemisphere’ (177). And they have a semi-official government franchise to recover valuables and salvage materials from the ruins. The state sees them as ‘hoboes scratching at a trash heap’ (176) and have no idea how wealthy they have grown, how far their trade network reaches, how much their influence and range of alliances have grown.

The most depressing aspects of the trilogy is that by the start of Firedance, the Scavengers have themselves turned property developers, using ‘the leverage of property, money, and manpower, combined with generous grants and federal tax breaks’ to create ‘an empire’ (9). They have turned the Maze into Mazetown, a new and more ethnically diverse downtown – and ‘the label “Mazie” seemed less an insult than a celebration of an individual choice’ (17). The new population might have ‘skins tinted every color of the rainbow … cloaked in the raiment of a dozen lands’ (17), a dozen languages and a hundred dialects’ might fill ‘the streets’, and there might be a ‘thousand savory collations from around the world’ being sold by ‘ten thousand street vendors’ (33), but they also look and sound and smell of gentrification. As if capitalism somehow suddenly – and in LA of all places – dropped its racialising and racialised dynamics.

Works cited
Steven Barnes, Streetlethal. New York: Ace, 1983.
–. 
Gorgon Child. New York: Tor, 1989.
–. Firedance. New York: Tor, 1994.
Thomas Foster, The Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
Claire Sponsler, ‘Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play’. Science Fiction Studies 60 (1993): 251-265.

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Afrocyberpunk 1: The enervated ghosts of Zion

In the South Atlantic Quarterly interviews most famous for coining the term ‘Afrofuturism’, Mark Dery asks Samuel Delany why, in a recent piece on William Gibson’s Neuromancer called ‘Is Cyberpunk a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?’, he did not comment on the representation of the Rastas on the Zion space station.

Dery sees them as bricoleurs offering a quite utopian potential for imagining a harmonious relationship with technology. Delany schools him on how ‘a black reader’ might respond to these marginal, withered figures, concluding

You’ll forgive me if, as a black reader, I didn’t leap up to proclaim this passing representation of a powerless and wholly non-oppositional set of black dropouts, by a Virginia-born white writer, as the coming of the black millennium in science fiction: but maybe that’s just a black thang… (751)

Delany promptly steps back from the ad hominem aspect of this to praise Gibson and Neuromancer’s achievements. And to point out that while the three pages or so devoted to Zion and its inhabitants are problematic, there are far more problematic (Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold) and interesting (Disch’s Camp Concentration) white authored sf novels to deal with, let alone the sf produced by black writers – himself, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes. (He also argues that the dry-run for the Rastas – the Lo-Teks of Gibson’s ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ – are ‘Gibson’s real romantic bricoleurs: they were not specifically black, but rather “fourth world” whites’ (753).)

But there is something interesting about Gibson’s Rastas. In a globe-trotting (and cislunar-trotting) novel, they are the only black people mentioned. In a novel depicting a globalised future in which capitalism has consolidated its hold on the planet, and in which the quality of a commodity is indicated either by its make and model or by reference to its country of origin, there are no corporations or trade names of African origin, and not a single mention of Africa or any of the countries in Africa.

Those enervated orbital ghosts – brittle-boned from calcium deficiency, their hearts ‘shrunken’ from so much time in low-gravity, their Rastafarianism reduced to a Rasta lifestyle of ganja and dub, and their dub easily replicated by computers – are all that are left. A spectral remnant of yet another world-building genocide.

At least in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, we learn in passing that the Nazis are in the closing stages of a continent-wide final solution to the ‘problem’ of Africans. It is a cold comfort, but at least he doesn’t just leave them out.

***

I am currently re-reading a bunch of cyberpunk novels, some of them for the first time in twenty years, as background for an essay I am writing this winter on Afrocyberpunk film (Les Saignantes, Bedwin Hacker, Tetra Vaal, Adicolor Yellow, Alive in Joburg, Tempbot, perhaps Crumbs if I can ever get hold of a copy, perhaps Africa Paradis).

The focus of this reading is on the representation of Africa/Africans/Afrodiaspora in cyberpunk, and cyberpunk by African and Afrodiasporic writers, and I will inflict my thoughts/notes on the world here when I can. My provisional reading list is below, though I cannot promise to get to them all. Please point out the things I’ve overlooked.  (And do we ever find out whether the Effinger novels are set in North Africa? Or are they in the Middle East? (And yes, I know they are ‘really’ set in New Orleans.))

Steven Barnes, Streetlethal (1983)
–. Gorgon Child (1989)
–. Firedance (1994)
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland (2008)
–. Zoo City (2010)
George Alec Effinger, When Gravity Fails (1987)
–. A Fire in the Sun (1989)
–. The Exile Kiss (1991)
–. Budayeen Nights (2003)
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade (2001)
–. Effendi (2002)
–. Felaheen (2005)
Andrea Hairston, Mindscape (2006)
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs (2009)
B Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimoto Wars (1992)
Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988)
G. Willow Wilson, Cairo (2007)
–. Alif, the Unseen (2012)
plus various stores from Afro-Sf, Lagos 2060, omenana and other collections/sites

Afrocyberpunk 2

 

 

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles 1971) and Baadasssss! aka How To Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (t’other Van Peebles 2003)

bigtmp_20824[A version of this review appeared in Film International 27 (2007), 70–3]

In the late 1960s, Melvin Van Peebles, an expatriate novelist and the director of four short films, including The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), which depicted the brief romance between an African-American soldier and a white French woman, was hired by Columbia Pictures to direct the comedy Watermelon Man (1970). His debut feature starred Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a white racist who, one morning, wakes up to find he has become black. Driven out of his community, he eventually finds pride in his new identity. In a remarkable final scene, he is shown working out in a basement somewhere with two dozen other black men, practicing martial arts with mop and broom handles. The camera zooms in over these men and into a medium close-up of Gerber as, yelling, he thrusts his mop handle toward the camera, freezeframing for a full ten seconds.[i]

This image of militant radicalism resonates with the final shot of the anti-imperialist film Yawar mallku/Blood of the Condor (1969), about the resistance triggered by the revelation that the Peace Corps were sterilising indigenous Quechua women without their consent (which in reality led to the Peace Corps’ expulsion from Bolivia). Jorge Sanjinés’ film ends with a still of raised hands, holding automatic rifles. Although there is no reason to suggest direct inspiration or imitation, the connection is not a spurious one, as Van Peebles’s subsequent film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, makes clear. It defied Hollywood conventions of racial representation, narrative structure, the construction of time and space, and the relationship between soundtrack and image. And in its adaptation of nouvelle vague techniques, which it re-radicalised through merging them with Black Power politics and African-American aesthetics, it represents not only a landmark in black American cinema and American independent cinema but also a rare instance of Californian Third Cinema.

In their 1969 manifesto ‘Towards a Third Cinema’, Argentinian filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Gettino identified three kinds of filmmaking: First Cinema (the commercial cinema of Hollywood and its imitators), Second Cinema (auteurist and art cinema, always limited politically by being a bourgeois cinema dependent on First Cinema distribution) and Third Cinema (neither commercial nor bourgeois, an activist cinema directly involved in political struggle). Mike Wayne’s Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema argues that rather than treat these categories as pigeonholes into which we can place films, they should be understood as conceptual categories whose dialectical interaction can be observed in individual films. Regardless of its political impact – Huey Newton devoted all of the 16 June 1971 issue of The Black Panther to a laudatory review of Sweetback, declaring it ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’, and made it mandatory viewing for members of the Black Panther Party nationwide – it retains significant First Cinema elements: Van Peebles’s desire to make it as entertaining as ‘a motherfucker’, its commitment to a narrative about an individual, and its commercial distribution and exhibition (however much Van Peebles had to fight to get it screened, it made $15 million on its initial release and dislodged Love Story (Hiller 1970) from number one at the US box-office; and it has been commercially available on video and DVD for some years).

tumblr_m5vimzquPt1qf5ylso1_500Its Second Cinema elements can be articulated around the figure of Van Peebles himself, who has credits as writer, composer, producer, director and editor, as well as star, while its Third Cinema elements can be detected in the goals towards which he flexed his auteurism. Sweetback is precisely, as the opening titles claim, ‘a film of Melvin Van Peebles’. The narrative is a slender armature upon which a unique – and arguably a uniquely African-American aesthetic – is developed. Growing up in a South Central whorehouse, a ten year-old boy is introduced to sex by a prostitute, who cries out in ecstasy that he has a ‘sweet, sweet back’. Strangely passive and nearly as mute as John Sayles’s Brother from Another Planet, the adult Sweetback seems disconnected from the black community in which he makes a living performing in sex shows. Lent by his boss to some white cops who need to bring someone in for questioning to make it look like they are making progress on a case, Sweetback eventually intervenes when they brutally assault the young black radical Mu-Mu, beating them to death with his handcuffs.

‘Where we going?’, Mu-Mu asks him.
‘Where you get this “we” shit?’ he replies.

But as Sweetback goes on the run, he encounters his community for the first time, and as a result later sacrifices his own chance at escape to ensure that Mu-Mu survives because ‘He’s our future’. Fleeing the police and an army helicopter, Sweetback finally escapes the city and heads for the Mexican border. When the hunting dogs unleashed to bring him down fall silent, his pursuers are convinced they have killed him. But the next morning, the dogs are found dead, floating in a river. And out of the Californian hills flash the words:

sweetback_12

Generically, Sweetback can be understood as an example of the neo-slave narrative which, beginning with Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966), reworked the 19th century tradition of autobiographical writings by escaped slaves so as to explore the ongoing legacy of the West African genocide, the Middle Passage and slavery in the Americas.[ii] It also has (like the final minutes of Watermelon Man) strong affiliations with a group of African-American novels from the 1960s and 1970s by such authors as Chester Himes, Sam Greenlee, Blyden Jackson and John A. Williams which imagine a radical black uprising against white supremacist America.[iii]

Formally, though, it is difficult to think of an American narrative film – even in the midst of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ – to compare. Van Peebles shot the film, with a non-union cast and crew, in about 19 days, and then embarked on five and a half months of editing. The film is a compendium of technique: location shooting, actuality footage, handheld cameras, imbalanced framings, zooms, slow motion, expressive shifts in and out of focus, superimpositions, multiple superimpositions, colour synthesisation, split screens, mirrored split screens, multiple split screens, and so on. An uncharitable view might be that such overt stylisations were nothing more than a bravura attempt to expand the slight narrative to feature length and get around problems with shooting sufficient coverage and recording sound on location. But whatever shortcomings the footage might have had, in its editing this low-budget crime drama was transformed into one of the most important films made in America. While the radicalism of, say, The Spook Who Sat By the Door (Dixon 1973) lies almost entirely in its narrative of black revolution, Sweetback simultaneously developed an aesthetic radicalism far in excess of, say, The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo 1966), even of Tout va bien (Godard 1972).

According to Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, the brutal dislocation of the slave trade was such that Afrodiasporic

historical consciousness could not be deposited gradually and continually like a sediment. (62)

Others have built on this insight to argue that this different experience of historical space-time has led to the development of a diasporic black aesthetic, manifested in contemporary music, for example, in terms of scratching, dubbing, breaking, mixing and remixing. Throughout Sweetback, Van Peebles improvises a similar aesthetic, returning materiality to the film, rendering it sensible through a complex play of prolepsis and repetition, folding and layering, which shatters the white reality constructed through Hollywood’s technical and narrative conventions. (One particularly moving instance has the camera and the soundtrack return again and again to a poor African American woman, surrounded by the children she looks after for the county, repeating with slight variations the lines ‘I might have had a Leroy once, but I don’t rightly remember’ and ‘When they get older and bad, they take them away from me.’)

But rather than an aleatory jumble of fragments, the film coheres through its soundtrack, which includes music by Earth, Wind and Fire. The blaxploitation films which flourished, briefly, in the wake of Sweetback’s success, resulted in impressive soundtracks by James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Millie Jackson, Curtis Mayfield and Edwin Starr, and footage shot on location without synchronised sound was often edited into a montage sequence to accompany a particular track, as with Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly’. Van Peebles went much further – the only comparably imaginative soundtrack of the period is that of the rather different The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – and produced a layered, ruptured, sometimes deeply discordant blend of diegetic sounds, diegetic and extra-diegetic voices, and music. Throughout the film one can sense the dialectical tensions and unities of sound and vision.

In his 1969 manifesto ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’, Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa argued that rather than aspiring to the kind of ‘perfect’ cinema exemplified by Hollywood’s hermetic Teflon spectacles, Third World countries should aim to develop an imperfect cinema, a genuinely popular art created by the masses to aid them in their daily and revolutionary struggles. Sweetback tends towards this kind of imperfection. If financial restrictions mean that Van Peebles’s techniques are raw, that rawness itself is a direct manifestation of and testimony to the marginalisation of African Americans in mainstream America and to the radicalism of the project. As, perhaps, is the extent to which the making of the film became such a one-man show – the opening titles might declare that it is a film ‘starring the black community’, but ‘and Brer Soul’ gets its own, separate title afterwards. Faced with such effective exclusion from filmmaking as a way to express African-American experience(s), and with the US state’s violent and often illegal suppression of such radical black groups as the Panthers in full swing, perhaps there simply was not available the possibility for the kind of collectivism often seen as crucial to Third Cinema. Perhaps, also, there were political and personal factors.

baadasssss-movie-poster-2003-1020233016Mario Van Peebles’s Baadasssss! – a sometimes humorous, sometimes sentimental, sometimes inspiring (in a TV movie kind of way) adaptation of his father’s book about the making of Sweetback – indicates the latter while also, incidentally, revealing something of the former. There can be no denying the sexism and homophobia evident in Sweetback (or, indeed, Baadasssss!) and these problems were not uncommon in Civil Rights and Black Power movements.[iv] Baadassssss! is sufficiently certain of the importance of Sweetback to not need to paint its creator as a saint.

In easily the best performance of his career, Mario plays Melvin as an egotist tormented by insecurity, a bully whose manipulations and threats could also inspire, a radical who might also just be a hustler talking radical, a genius who might also just be simulating genius through a deep-rooted fear of being seen to fail. But he is always meant to be admired, or at the very least excused. The Oedipal conventions of the narrative – Melvin justifies putting thirteen year-old Mario in a sex scene by telling how his father sent him out every day from the age of nine to do demeaning work which might see him beaten up and robbed – further accentuate this, even as they make the phallus as central to the making of Sweetback as Sweetback’s own phallic mastery is to the original film.up-badass2_lg

As the casting of Lawrence Cook, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Robert Hooks and Melvin in Posse (1993) suggests, Mario Van Peebles has always seemed keen to place himself in a lineage of black American actors which reaches back through his father’s generation at least as far as Woody Strode, while also aligning himself with the New Jack Cinema of the 1990s (as attested by his casting of John Singleton as a DJ in Baadasssss!). In Baadasssss!, he captures very well the look of the early 1970s, but sadly very little of the politics or spirit (one is constantly reminded of how its executive producer Michael Mann stripped everything of real political significance from Ali (2001), his own biopic of Muhammad Ali). Mario Van Peebles has made a very competent film in admittedly difficult circumstances, and even made some interesting stylistic choices, but is not really any kind of meaningful successor to ‘the first truly revolutionary black film’. It is First Cinema, longing to be Second Cinema.

At the end of Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema (2002), Fred Williamson is asked about the ‘black Hollywood’ whose success is signalled in the Oscar wins of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Chewing on his cigar, he laughs as he says,

Black Hollywood? Yeah, right. … it don’t exist, man, no, no.

The point of Sweetback was that it was not about integrating into the white Hollywood machine; the sadness which haunts Baadasssss! is that the trail that it blazed in the early 1970s has led many right into that trap.

Notes

[i]
Columbia supposedly had a ‘happy’ ending in mind, in which Gerber regains his whiteness, but Van Peebles reputedly shot this different ending without telling the studio.

[ii]
Other examples include Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of An American Family (1976), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Samuel Delany’s Star in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and arguably every novel by the late Octavia Butler.

[iii]
On this cycle of novels, see Kalil Tal’s ‘“That Just Kills Me”: Black Militant Near-Future Fiction” (Social Text 71) and my ‘Come Alive By Saying No: An Introduction to Black Power Sf’ (Science Fiction Studies 102). In 1973, Greenlee’s novel, The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1969) was adapted as an independent film of the same name. Long rumoured to have been suppressed by the FBI, it has recently become available on DVD. Lacking Sweetback’s formal experimentation, it is nonetheless still a potent Black Power document.

[iv]
See Steve Estes I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement for an acute analysis of why the fight for African American equality was so often articulated around remasculinising the emasculated black man. These problems were also common in the New Left and other radical movements of the period, as well, of course, as in mainstream and conservative politics.

EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s, The Skylark of Space (co-written with Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby)

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

eeds_theskylaWritten: 1915–1920
First published: Amazing Stories, August-October 1928
First edition: Providence, Rhode Island: Buffalo Book Co., 1946
Edition used: London: Panther, 1974 (revised text of 1958)

Richard Seaton accidentally discovers the ability of ‘X’, a hitherto unknown metal,

to liberate and control the entire constituent energy of metallic copper. (17)

This

pure and total conversion of matter to controllable energy [with] no radiation, no residue, no by-products (17)

062provides the key to space travel. Seaton and his millionaire chum, M Reynolds Crane, set out to exploit this source of virtually free energy. An attempt by rival scientist, Marc ‘Blackie’ DuQuesne, to hold Seaton’s wealthy fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, ransom in exchange for X goes awry. DuQuesne’s starship is flung across space at an incredible speed. Seaton and Crane pursue them in the eponymous starship. They rescue Dorothy, DuQuesne and another hostage, Margaret Spencer, from the grip of a dead star. On the low-gravity planet Osnome, they take sides in (and win) a genocidal war, before returning to Earth.

Smith was neither the first to write space opera (Robert W Cole’s 1900 The Struggle for Empire is a more likely contender), nor the first American author of space opera (that distinction probably belongs to Ray Cummings), nor indeed the best of the subgenre’s first flourishing in the American pulps (Edmond Hamilton, John W Campbell, Jr and Jack Williamson consistently wrote less infelicitous prose and demonstrated a better grasp of the potential of sf). But Smith’s work remains the best-remembered. Undoubtedly, this is partly a result of being the-skylark-of-space-fffamong the first pulp sf to be reissued in hardback editions in the late 1940s and 1950s, and of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions finding a substantial following among the fantasy readership created/uncovered by the US paperback editions of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although Smith’s space operas often seem excruciatingly naïve by the standards of more contemporary authors (Iain M Banks, Samuel R Delany, Colin Greenland, Ursula Le Guin, M John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds), the continued popularity of the Star Wars movies indicates that juvenile sf of this sort is still attractive; and while it is tempting to read Smith’s sf as camp, this can only partly (if, presumably, increasingly) account for its appeal.

One of Smith’s central achievements is to capture something of the scale of the universe while also rendering it safe, conquerable, human-sized. Despite postulating new technologies and travelling thousands of light years from Earth, the characters and plotting of The Skylark of Space are firmly rooted in familiar romance conventions. Seaton is a working class boy made good, a scientist and athlete

over six feet in height, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted. (12)

He can withstand higher acceleration than any of his crew, and exercises his super-strength to great effect in Osnome’s low gravity.

Crane,

the multi-millionaire explorer-archaeologist-sportsman’ (12)

is also a businessman, an engineer and

a rocket-instrument man second to none in the world. (13)

Seaton’s love for Dorothy and Crane’s for Margaret is pure, assured, eternal. DuQuesne is

utterly heartless and ruthless, so cold and scientific (90)

003yet strangely honourable in his villainy. And in a world dominated by global corporations, it falls to such individuals to discover, create, explore. Despite such unrealistic characterisations, the very familiarity of these types works to domesticate the universe in which they adventure.

Moreover, the vastness and strangeness of space is also contained by Smith’s repeated failure to depict it. As the crew whiz around the galaxy, they observe it almost entirely through instrument readings, and the few descriptions of what can be seen through the Skylark’s viewports possess a curious contradictory quality:

For the blackness of the black of the interstellar void is not the darkness of an earthly night but the absolute absence of light–a black besides which that of platinum dust is merely gray. Upon this indescribably black backdrop there glowed faint patches which were nebulae; there blazed hard, brilliant, multi-colored, dimensionless points of light which were stars. (88)

In addition to the clumsy simultaneous presence and absence of light in this view, there is blackness to be recognised through its dissimilarity to the blackness with which the reader is familiar.[1] A more telling failure to depict an external view of space comes in the passage in which Crane realises his love for Margaret. Staring out

into infinity, each felt as never before the pitiful smallness of the whole world they had known, and the insignificance of human beings and their works. (91)

As their ‘minds reached out to each other in understanding’, Crane considers Margaret:

He looked up quickly and again studied the stars; but now, in addition to the wonders of space, he saw a mass of wavy black hair, high-piled upon a queenly head; deep brown eyes veiled by long, black lashes; sweet, sensitive lips; a firmly rounded, dimpled chin; and a beautifully formed young body. (91 and 92)

This description[2] displaces that of the view that so enraptures Margaret and prompts her to say

‘How stupendous . . . how unbelievably great this is . . . […]. How vastly greater than any perception one could possibly get on Earth . . . and yet . . . […] doesn’t it seem to you, Mr. Crane, that there is something in man as great as even all this? That there must be, or Dorothy and I could not be sailing out here in such a wonderful things as this Skylark, which you and Dick Seaton have made?’ (92)

This bathetic descent contains and constrains the capacity of the sublime to disorientate and estrange.

Throughout the novel, Smith demonstrates little interest in the implications of his conceits. For example, when a mechanical educator accidentally gives Seaton and Dunark, Kofedix of Kondal, perfect knowledge

down to the finest detail […] of everything that the other had ever learned (117)

it is merely a convenient plot device, enabling Seaton to justify his collaboration with the fascistic social-Darwinist Kondalians against the treacherous Mardonalians (who ‘are the scum of the universe’ (120)).

ill-613Again and again, The Skylark of Space promises novelty but delivers mere novelties.

And herein must lie whatever appeal it has: there is no terrible abyss, just space waiting to be filled should anyone ever look out of the window.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
This practice of describing the indescribability of a phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself reaches its glorious nadir in the explosion of a charge of X:

There was a blare of sound that paralyzed their senses, even inside the vessel and in the thin air of that enormous elevation. There was a furiously-boiling, furiously expanding ball of . . . of what? The detonation of a Mark Ten load cannot be described. It must be seen; and even then, it cannot be understood. It can scarcely be believed. (105)

[2]
It is, of course, equally telling of Smith’s lack of interest in his female characters that not only should Margaret be so beautiful as to distract Crane but also so eminently reducible to a list of clichéd fragments. Elsewhere, she champs at the bit to be a secretary (92).

The Perfect Woman (Bernard Knowles 1949)

4668460913_77a9d048aa_bThis post is based on a couple of old conference papers, delivered at Screen (2005) and ICFA 27 (2006), that I never had chance to develop further and forgot about until I stumbled on a draft the other day.

Bernard Knowles’ 1949 film The Perfect Woman is based on Wallace Geoffrey and Basil Mitchell’s play, which premiered September 11th 1948 at the Playhouse Theatre, and follows it quite closely. The dotty Professor Belmon (Miles Malleson) builds a robot called Olga (Pamela Devis), modelled on his niece, Penelope (Patricia Roc). He hires Roger Cavendish (Nigel Patrick), a penniless man about town, and his valet, Ramshead (Stanley Holloway), to field-test Olga by taking her out in society. Penelope, who has led a rather sheltered life, swaps places with Olga. The threesome book into the bridal suite at the Hotel Splendide. Rumours of Roger’s marriage soon reach his aunt, Lady Mary (Philippa Gill), who returns immediately from Paris. The farce escalates until Roger and Penelope realise they love each other. Their mutual declaration sends Olga, who for no clear reason cannot be allowed to hear the word ‘love’, haywire. She blows up, taking part of the hotel with her.

It is a lovely little film, and a rare example of the science fiction romantic comedy.

Many sf movies provoke laughter, and some – sf comedies – even intend to. Many sf movies also contain romance, but few are romances. And ‘sf romantic comedy’ is a vanishingly small category.

Undoubtedly, the film industry’s gendered assumptions about the audiences the two genres attract prevent the greenlighting of such projects, and thus reduce the likelihood of them even being proposed. But perhaps, too, there is an incompatibility in the generic logics of the dominant forms of sf and romantic comedy.

The romantic comedy narrative is typically intimate. Its characters often withdraw from the social realm to a green space or relatively hermetic equivalent. The genre’s spectacle is also intimate: a star couple talk to each other and, in close-up and luminously-lit, finally profess their love; those moments when William Powell and Myrna Loy enjoy each other’s martini-enhancedThin3-300x225 company, talking to each other but saying nothing in particular and certainly nothing of any narrative consequence. In contrast, however much sf tries to humanise its concerns, its narratives – global crises, interplanetary conflicts – do not happen on the scale of the individual, and its spectacle is environmental: human figures are there to provide a sense of the scale of the backdrop, of just how big the alien fleet is.

These are of course generalisations.[i]

Not all sf cinema is spectacular. Often for budgetary reasons, sf films sometimes tell smaller scale stories. For every dozen 50s drive-in movies in which an alien invasion takes the form of some guy in an old gorilla suit and a deep-sea diver’s helmet wandering around Bronson caverns, there is an sf movie in which smallness is about an intimate human scale: Liquid Sky (1982), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Last Night (1998), Possible Worlds (2000), Chetyre (2005) and the recent ‘low-fi sci-fi’ trend. Moving past the dominant contemporary logic of sf-as-spectacle lessens the sense that sf and romantic comedy are necessarily antagonistic.

So I want to begin by considering The Perfect Woman in the light of Darko Suvin’s and Samuel Delany’s accounts of how sf works. Suvin defined sf as

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment

He argued that

SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional “novum” (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic

and that the

novum or cognitive innovation is a totalizing phenomenon or relationship deviating from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality.[ii]

The Suvinian sf text is one in which the author has imagined some materially plausible innovation, thought through all the implications of its introduction, and then written a story in which that altered world is presented in all its variety without ever necessarily explaining the root of the alteration.

In reality, few sf texts do this.

But there are some common variations on this ideal, such as the gadget story, common in the pre-World War 2 pulps, in which an astonishing device with all manner of implications and potential consequences is devised, operated briefly and then destroyed. This story type demonstrates the powerful conservativism of actually-existing sf, despite the radical potential Suvin and others find in it.

Actually-existing cinema is likewise conservative.

Generally incapable of proposing radical social transformation (it is more interested in robots and monsters than alternative social, political or economic structures), sf film often introduces a novum, whether a terminator or a man’s white suit, into a relatively hermetic social setting so as to briefly play out some of its implications before the possibility of radical transformation is shut down by the narrative reassertion of equilibrium. When following this structure, sf comes closer to the structure of romantic comedy – or at least permits a complementary structure to occur, with the restricted space/time of the novum’s presence paralleling romantic comedy’s green space (the nighttime woodland of Bringing Up Baby (1938)) or other delimited transitional space/time (the road – and several nights – of It Happened One Night (1934)).

This structural meshing of genres occurs in The Perfect Woman.

A novum – the android Olga – is introduced into an otherwise unchanged social setting (admittedly it matches neither the author’s nor the implied viewer’s but the conventional upper class milieu of West End farce, looking pre-World War 1 rather than post-World War 2). But rather than allowing the android to be introduced into this social realm, Penelope substitutes herself for the novum and thus transforms the hotel suite into a romantic comedy’s ‘green space’. Some potential implications of this new technology are hinted at, but the movie concentrates instead on the more intimate concerns of the stars falling in love; and as they declare their love, the android self-destructs, permitting the world to continue as if she had never existed.

Delany argues that different kinds of word-series are distinguished by their level of subjunctivity: reportage says this happened; naturalistic fiction could have happened; fantasy could not have happened; science fiction has not happened (which might include might happen, will not happen, have not happened yet, could have happened in the past but did not).[iii] He argues that as we learn the level of subjunctivity of the text, we simultaneously learn how to read the words from which it is constructed. An example he uses to clarify this idea is the expression ‘Her world exploded’. A romance novel’s clichéd description of emotional trauma might mean something different when describing Princess Leia.[iv]

leia-emotes

Delany argues that the

point is not that the meaning of the sentences is ambiguous … but that the route to their possible mundane meanings and the route to their possible SF meanings are both clearly determined.[v]

However, the ambiguity of such a sentence is vitally important: just because it appears in an sf context does not mean that it must be read in its latter sense; there are more proximate determinants of meanings than genre, although those determinants themselves might be determined – enabled or constrained – by genre (although of course genre is simultaneously determined by how the sentence is read). And in this particular instance from Star Wars it can mean both things at once.

Delany is of interest because The Perfect Woman develops much of its humour through linguistic ambiguity, including some fairly racy doubles entendres and other systems of doubling, other proliferations and profligacies. I will outline some of these, before returning to the question of genre by asking, so who exactly is the perfect woman? Penelope or Olga?

The basic humour of double meanings comes from the fact that Olga must be given explicit verbal instructions; but she is programmed to respond to words regardless of the context in which they are uttered (she consistently ignores genre). And it is not only expressions like ‘hopping mad’, ‘get a kick out of it’ and ‘slap up’ that cause problems.

When Belmon’s housekeeper, Mrs Butters (Irene Handl), takes Olga on the tube, she enquires at the gate, ‘Is this right for Green Park?’ Olga, who is ahead of her, turns right and nearly walks straight into the gents’ loos.

This strand also involves Penelope-as-Olga deliberately obeying such accidental instructions, and Roger and Ramshead’s growing proficiency at working necessary instructions into conversation.

When Belmon hires Roger and Ramshead, he talks at length about a woman he has ‘made’ without ever mentioning that he means a robot. Bubbling below the surface is a sense of impropriety, of everything Belmon says in innocence being taken by the others to mean something else – the viewer knows the real meaning, but can enjoy their misinterpretation. The scene culminates in Belmon explaining that the field-test is to avoid embarrassment when he presents Olga to his fellow scientists: it would do no good to give her a big build up only to find that he has produced

a woman who can’t work.

Ramshead uncertainly responds,

a woman must work, if she’s a working woman, scrubbing and all that.

The meaning of ‘working woman’ shifts from ‘functioning robot’ to ‘woman engaged in work’ to ‘prostitute’; ‘scrubbing’ simultaneously evokes domestic labour and, possibly, a scrubber in the sense of slattern (although the OED’s first recorded usage of ‘scrubber’ in this way is not until 1958).

tumblr_lnlexheZyf1qzdvhio1_r4_500There is a similarly difficult to interpret moment later in the film when Olga smokes a cigarette and breathes out through her ears: was this a joke about fellatio in 1949? and, as in the fellatio joke, is this ability what makes her a candidate for the perfect woman?

This euphemistic humour recurs. There are jokes about the delicacy of the mechanism, and about how beautifully built Penelope-as-Olga is. And when Mrs Butters, sozzled on sherry sits in Ramshead’s lap, he comments on her breath smelling of trifle.

Alongside euphemism is the unintended meaning, as when Belmon tells Roger

A child could work Olga. I’m sure you’ll get on with it.

The hotel is run by the Italian Farini (Fred Berger) and the guests are served by a Swiss waiter (David Hurst), leading to jokes about pronunciation and meaning, including confusion over the respective meanings of ‘to say’ and ‘to talk’. This strand begins when Ramshead tells Roger he has booked them into the Splendide.

Roger: Splendid.
Ramshead: Really, I always presumed it was pronounced splendide.

In a later exchange, ‘vase’ is pronounced three different ways – ‘vorze’, ‘varze’ and ‘vayze’ – in as many words.

When Lady Mary dismisses the waiter, saying

You needn’t wait.

He mournfully replies

That’s what I’m for.

When serving Penelope a second bowl of soup, he gets into an argument about whether or not she wants any more:

But sometimes when a lady says ‘no’ it is ‘yes’ she is meaning so ‘no’ means ‘yes’, no?

All of this wordplay depends upon the profligacy of signs, of signifiers producing multiple signifieds. And by constantly foregrounding linguistic ambiguity, The Perfect Woman draws attention to the contextual derivation of meaning and offers a fantasy of plenty during post-war scarcity. The latter is suggested by the anachronistic upper class milieu. Roger’s penniless condition, his fully-extended overdraft, and his aunt’s refusal to pay his monthly allowance are comic conventions that do nothing to exclude him.

Stanley-Holloway-and-Patricia-Roc-and-David-HurstWhen ordering dinner, Ramshead asks for just

something light. Say some soup, fish, chicken, joint, sweet, cheese, dessert, coffee, anything else that occurs to you … Oh yes, something to drink. A bottle of scotch, two dozen bottles of beer, another bottle of scotch, a small fizzy lemonade, and a bottle of scotch.

At the prospect of food, Penelope licks her lips in a peculiarly lascivious close-up; the shot is more or less repeated when Farini describes dessert.[vi]

YooniqImages_102357432And much is made of the fabulous underwear bought for Olga but modelled by Penelope – its luxury and ‘femininity’ contrasting strongly with Olga’s rather more fetishistic underclothing.

THE PERFECT WOMAN (1949) MILES MALLESON, PATRICIA ROC; IRENE HANDL; BERNARD KNOWLES (DIR); PFTW 002 MOVIESTORE COLLECTION LTDUnlike the Ealing comedies Hue and Cry (1947) and Passport to Pimlico (1949), the war’s devastation of London is hidden, an eradication of history which even includes changing the waiter’s nationality from German-Swiss to Swiss – in another gesture of profligacy, he is called Wolfgang Wilhelm Winkel, the second.

One might regard all this as a consolatory fantasy – a West End big rock candy mountain – in the way it is often asserted that 1930s musicals offered escape from the lived reality of the Depression. Read in this way, and through a lens provided by Andreas Huyssen’s discussion of the two Marias in Metropolis (1927), a central part of this fantasy is the destruction of the machine.[vii] The twinning of Penelope and Olga enables a separation of woman-as-nature from woman-as-technology. And the bridal suite functions as a romantic comedy green space – it is where Penelope clearly belongs and from which Olga, who sparks energy and manically goosesteps around the suite when she hears the word ‘love’, must be ejected.

This decision, the film’s nomination of Penelope rather than Olga as the perfect woman, requires examination.

Penelope asks her uncle

why did you make it like me?

He replies

Well, my dear, I call her the perfect woman … where else should I find such a model? It was either you or Mrs Butters.

When Roger asks him why he calls Olga the perfect woman, Belmon explains

Well, she does exactly what she’s told. She can’t talk. She can’t eat. And you can leave her switched off under a dust sheet for … weeks at a time.

Roger and Ramshead nod approval.

Earlier, Belmon says that Penelope is

 After all … only just another young woman. Flesh and blood and a little calcium … there are millions of them. Mass production. There’s only one Olga.

As with many robotic creations, and with doubles since Hoffman and Poe, this overt reference to mass production in relation to humans evokes the spectre of mechanical reproduction as capital cyborgises and homogenises the subject, as relations between people take on the form of relations between things.

Silvia Federici argues that

the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.[viii]

And what Marxist accounts of the transition to capitalism have often failed to recognise are the ways in which women were removed from the realm of ‘productive work’. Both the domestic and reproductive labour they then undertook were normalised as female activities and as activities which should not be counted as part of the labour necessary for the extraction of surplus-value, despite being essential to the reproduction of labour power both in terms of enabling the labouring man to recuperate and of having children.

It is not then surprising to find jokes about ‘working women’ and ‘scrubbers’, or layers of misogyny underlying Belmon’s lines about the perfect woman. These lines locate the film within a clear sf tradition, exemplified by Lester Del Rey’s ‘Helen O’Loy’ (1938) and Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Andover and the Android‘ (1963), in which a robot woman is preferred to any human female. A more atypical story in this vein is CL Moore’s ‘No Woman Born’ (1944), a sort-of feminist/anti-humanist story in which the cyborged female protagonist loves the superiority her new form gives her.

YooniqImages_102357428The Perfect Woman, by destroying the foreign/industrial/bound female body hidden by dustsheets, constrictive underwear and heavy macs, offers up the female body as a sensuous object, part of a ‘natural’ plenitude in the scarcity of post-war Britain. This, then, is why Olga cannot hear the word ‘love’ without going haywire. If domestic labour is treated as a person instead of a thing, patriarchal-capital logic is under threat. The only thing to do is to design the robot to malfunction should such a thing happen, saving the system and punishing the offending man with the loss of his robot. By thus restoring a ‘natural’ order of class and gender, it suggests that the green space need never end.

$(KGrHqJ,!hgE6Z3Bp3UUBOwjvTUkN!~~60_35But this preference is compromised by Patricia Roc’s performance as Penelope, another of the film’s areas of doubling and ambiguity. She is most enjoyable to watch when she slips between robot and human, when the viewer is invited into complicity with her masquerade. The concluding ‘falling in love’ is as perfunctory as it is compulsory. There is therefore the prospect of her popping out from behind the facade of the normalised gender role of Roger’s wife.

If, as Federici argues, the role of the wife is to reproduce labour, to be subsumed into and as part of the mechanism by which surplus-value is extracted, Penelope has already demonstrated that she lives in excess of such constraints – even if this excess is articulated through a much more post-feminist-seeming making-invisible of labour through fantasising about consumption.

Notes
[i]
The extent of their validity might be judged by considering the spate of overblown sf family melodramas such as Deep Impact (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), the entire Star Wars series, every sf film Spielberg ever made. This turn to melodrama – which is as often about fathers and sons as it is about romance – can be seen as a way of humanising the spectacular scale made possible by CGI, of turning masculine-gendered genres into less masculinely-coded ones. This logic also applies to such movies as Titanic (1997) and Pearl Harbor (2001), which use the technologies of sf cinema to construct melodramatic spectacles. Perhaps another reason for these movies’ relative success is that in melodrama, like sf, the environment signifies. It is spectacular and has meaning.

[ii]
Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp.7-8, 63, 64; italics in original.

[iii]
See Samuel R. Delany, ‘About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words’, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Elizabethtown: Dragon Press, 1977), pp.33-49.

[iv]
See Samuel R. Delany, ‘The Semiology of Silence: The Science Fiction Studies Interview’, Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1994), pp.21-58.

[v]
Delany, ‘The Semiology of Silence’, p.27.

[vi]
Several other pieces of business are repeated, with variations: because she does not believe Roger, Lady Mary sticks a pin in Penelope and then later in Olga. When Roger and Penelope first swoon at each other and make as if to kiss, Mrs Butters, who has just arrived, shouts stop at Olga. Misunderstanding, they stop and look around, and Penelope kisses Roger on the cheek; this gag is repeated, only the second time it is Roger who kisses Penelope.

[vii]
Andreas Huyssen, ‘The Vamp and the Machine: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis’, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp.65-81.

[viii]
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), p.146; italics in original.

So what would have made Jupiter Ascending work?

It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.
It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

Since posting my single-sentence review last week literally (and very precisely) more people than I can count of the fingers of one hand have asked me this question. I would have thought the answer obvious, given the content of my review and the cunning way it replicated the film’s structure by interminably concatenating random elements until it was finally time to just give up and end on a damp squib.

In reply, I could go on about the ill-thought-through galactic setting, undoubtedly made even more incoherent by frantic pruning so as to enable one or two more screenings per day during the opening weekend before bad word of mouth completely killed any box office. I’m not asking for the well-argued space opera universe of Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and I’m actually quite fond of the really dumb single-climate-planet ‘moons of Mongo’ style of sf universe if you give me some reason to give a damn about what happens on them. But it’s not unreasonable to want something at least as good as The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy 2004).

I could go on about the stupid plot, also undoubtedly pruned to even greater stupidity, but plot has never been a Wachowski forte. Neither has pacing, as the swimming-through-cold-molasses Matrix films amply demonstrate.

I could even suggest that film really needed – I don’t say this lightly – to be longer. A little less rushing around might have given those cgi worlds, the main characters and the even-thinner ciphers surrounding them the chance to take on substance and identity. Fore-ordained plot functions might have developed into something resembling characters and relationships. Which might even have led to jeopardy and thus suspense.

Lumbering Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) with each other was a major casting error. At no point is there a trace of chemistry between them – not even early on when he sweeps her up in his arms, and absolutely everybody in the cinema got a little bit swoony. (I am mildly appalled and thoroughly delighted by my own swooniness at that juncture. It was, for all its embossed supermarket romance paperback cover illustration claptrap, the one moment in the film that for me possessed a genuine affective charge – and not just because I have always loved dogs.)

One could respect Jupiter for not falling for such claptrap if it had been part of some sort of consistent characterisation about resisting sex/gender norms. But it wasn’t. Last year both Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow possessed a strong female character – Zoe Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and especially Rita (Emily Blunt) – who was more interesting than the male lead but not permitted to be the protagonist (there is a far more brilliant version of Edge of Tomorrow to be made with Rita as the viewpoint character). With Jupiter Ascending we at last have a stupidly expensive blockbuster sf movie with a female protagonist – and her main functions are: a) clean toilets for rich people; and b) repeatedly step aside to let the male lead become the protagonist. And rescue her. Again and again and again.

But what really makes Jupiter Ascending suck is its humourlessness. It pushes the gaming aesthetic to a new level, linking sequences of fight-and-flight kinetic spectacle with passages of connecting narrative as leaden and joyless as the worst cut scenes.

Sure, it does have one witty moment, which also makes Jupiter briefly credible and likeable as she explains the injured Caine’s good fortune in stealing a woman’s car, and it has four other amusing moments (which I won’t describe because I really can’t remember what they were).

But that is all.

I am not one of those people who thought that Guardians of the Galaxy’s lightly comic tone was a major development, but it certainly helped. Nor am I demanding every space opera be a work of camp genius, such as Flash Gordon (Hodges 1980). I would even have welcomed all that witless lumbering around if Jupiter Ascending had been as absurdly certain of its own significance as is Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or Dune (Lynch 1984) or even Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise 1979). At least then Eddie ‘The Whisper’ Redmayne’s moment of metalepsis, when he steps out of the narrative to explicate the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anticapitalist subtext, would have generated the hoots of derision it deserved.

But a little humour would certainly have transformed the relationship between Jupiter and Caine, a genetically-engineered human/dog hybrid, into something less painful to watch and far more credible.

Why does he fall for her? Because dogs are easily won over by attention and affection. Because dogs are loyal. And because dogs are often really really dumb.

Why does he keep rescuing her? Dogs love retrieving things – sticks, balls, princesses, whatever – and are often really really dumb.

And just imagine being in that audience when Caine did good and the camera swooped round behind him to reveal – to laughter and cheers and applause – his little tail wagging.

I for one would have swooned all over again.

Still more on Jupiter Ascending here.