A Study in Psylocke (2): Olivia Munn

Munn as PsylockeLast week, I discussed the circumstances surrounding Betsy Braddock A.K.A. Psylocke both inside the fictional world of the X-Men comics, and within the offices where her stories were created. This week, I want to pick up this megatextual odyssey by turning our attention to the big screen narrative offshoot established by 2000’s X-Men. After two successful X-Men movies, Bryan Singer walked away to direct the disappointing Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to complete the original trilogy with the choppy mess that is 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. One of the bit parts in that movie is a mutant called (so the credits claim) Psylocke, played by Meiling Melançon. You could be forgiven for not connecting Melançon’s character to Betsy Braddock, however, or indeed for never noticing her at all. In a very practical sense, the opportunity to bring Psylocke to the big screen was still substantially open.

 

Enter: The Munn

We come at last to Olivia Munn’s role in our story. She was auditioning for the role of Vanessa for Deadpool when somebody (nobody seems clear who) spotted the potential for Munn to play Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse. Another significant ambiguity is whether Psylocke had been written into the screenplay for that movie by this time, as she wasn’t originally part of the plan. Indeed, the Fourth Horseman would have been Xavier, a plan that began to feel hollow during production, since James McAvoy does very little in the final act of the movie beyond whinging. So a mutant character needed shoehorning into the story to make up the requisite number of minions for the dullest of all X-villains, Apocalypse. Whether because Munn had been auditioning for a role in Fox’s branch of the Marvel movie megatext and an opportunity was spotted, or because Psylocke had already been chosen to plug the gap in the story (which seems less likely), Munn was thus brought into the production.

This helps explain in part why Psylocke has so little backstory in the film, and very little to do other than provide another foe to fight in the rather flat final act. But the other side to this coin is that it would have been highly difficult to provide any context or origin story for Psylocke for the reasons explored last week: Betsy’s character is a clunky amalgam of three separate storylines,  the Captain Britain continuity from Marvel UK, the original Psylocke character that brought her to the US comics, and the Jim Lee-designed Lady Mandarin Psylocke who has lost all the vulnerability and ambiguity of Betsy’s previous incarnations and serves as yet another kick-ass anti-heroine to throw on the pile of scrappy new characters added to the X-megatext by the future Image artists (e.g. Gambit by Lee and Claremont, Cable and Deadpool by Liefeld).

Adding Psylocke to the already crowded story-space of Apocalypse must have presented director Bryan Singer with something of a conundrum. There wasn’t enough narrative space to do justice to the characters they already had, especially since Singer set himself the task of getting a solid X-Men team together by the close of business but had only Beast, Professor X, and Havoc left in play at the end of Days of Future Past. (I’m not counting Mystique, whose role has been utterly transformed in the movie megatext from second string villain to full-on heroine through the sheer popularity of Jennifer Lawrence). There was no plausible way anything substantial could be done with Psylocke. So what to do?

The first play in circumventing this problem was a stroke of simplistic genius: Singer announced Munn’s casting on Instagram by saying:

Excited to welcome @oliviamunn as Betsy Braddock! #Psylocke #XmenApocalypse #XMEN

The key point here is that he announced that Munn would be playing Betsy Braddock, which was not strictly the case. The credits to Apocalypse report only that Munn’s role is Psylocke, which is also the only name that is ever used to address her on screen. So here we have a situation whereby if we take solely the movie as our source of canonicity, Singer’s announcement is either incorrect, or a lie. But of course, the ultimate source of all canonicity in anything licensed from the X-men comics are the comics themselves – these are always serving as subsidiary props in the background of the ‘games’ being played by those who are watching the movies whenever they possess the relevant background knowledge of the comics, a complex form of play I explored in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”.

 

Playing with the Backgrounds

When creating high-profile derivative works from a corporate megatext, you have unusual choices. As long as nothing in the foreground narrative (the X-Men movies, in this case) contradicts an element of the subsidiary text (the comics in this case), the ‘players’ of the movie are free to establish the viable narrative connections in their own minds. So as long as Psylocke as presented as having plausible continuity with her comic progenitor, fans of Psylocke are free to inject her backstory into their experiences of the movies along whatever lines of imagined adaptation they want to apply. Movie-goers without the knowledge of the source megatext are excluded from this game, of course, but to them Psylocke is just another bit player in a film franchise that is packed with such throwaway extras – just look at first draft of movie-version Psylocke in The Last Stand.

Now whether through agreement with Singer or just brilliant PR instincts from Munn or her agent at EBA (most likely through Munn’s own well-developed geek-sense), Munn takes the gift that Singer provided the fans by publicly announcing she was playing Betsy (rather than just Psylocke) and spins it into a brilliant piece of extra-textual play. For through a single press interview that was picked up and run through dozens of nerd-leaning internet news sources like Screen Rant, Collider, and Nerdist, Munn takes the foundation Singer had provided and builds upon it every possibility that could be used to support just about every game of canonicity-alignment any sufficiently interested X-nerd might want to play. Here’s a great example:

If Psylocke had a chance to tell her story, it would be great to start with the genesis… I think maybe like right as she’s getting out of university and before her whole family… We jump in right before all of her family is taken out and we have an understanding of what she had to lose. Then her figuring out he powers and how powerful she is. It’s something that I always loved about her. That she came from a good family and lost everything. Yeah, I would just like to tell that story.

Yet of course, if the comics canonicity was to be held faithfully, it would be essentially impossible for Munn to tell that story – for Betsy at this point is a blonde Anglo-Saxon aristocrat. And cast your imagination around how you like, you’ll not find a viable way for the first part of Betsy’s backstory to be comfortably converted to the big screen, nor for that matter for something as offbeat as Mojo and Spiral to be part of the events, nor for that matter the Ninjas-R-Us craziness of the Lady Mandarin story, whether in Claremont’s original form or Nicieza’s retroactive adjustments. Betsy’s story, in its most canonical form, is simply unfilmable. But Fox never needed to offer it on the big screen, because Singer and Munn had managed to offer fans a chance to play this game themselves, without creating any complexities for the film franchise.

In no way am I impugning Munn’s honour in drawing out this strange and wonderful side story that hangs ethereally off both the comic and the movie megatexts, bridging the two without ever having to establish anything substantial. Even if it is taken that the above quote invites the inference that Munn is falsely claiming to have read the Marvel UK Captain Britain stories (which she could not have done directly as they were UK-only) no US nerd could viably indict her since they too, like Munn, must have picked up this backstory from secondary sources, of which there are an endless supply of options, from trade paperbacks to internet databases. Honestly, I admire the way Munn managed to generate such incredible publicity from nothing more than the appeal of canonicity and the faithfulness of X-fans. I challenge anyone to find such commitment to a frankly minor acting role in any other corporate megatext adaptation ever.

But because of Psylocke’s canonical history, it would have been impossible for Munn to ever portray Betsy’s backstory without transforming it to the point that it was no longer canonical, thus breaking with the faithful community that care about such matters. All that could be done was to hold out a hope, a carrot of possibility, that would enable fans to create their own bridging stories in their minds. Precisely because storytelling with corporate megatexts concerns a manifold of practices, a set of different ways of drawing connections across impossibly distinct continuities, the satisfaction of the fanbase has become a vital corporate practice whenever adaptation is in play.

The management of the kinds of possibilities I have outlined here are now absurdly big business – a billion dollar business, indeed – and the risks of a misstep cannot simply be ignored or taken for granted. We geeks have a strange kind of powerful powerlessness: we were essential to the initial commercial success of any and all comics that come into contention for adaptation, and we are equally central to the hype-making and cross-megatext story-weaving practices that accompany transitions into television and film. Yet, we are also expendable, in the sense that satisfying the punters in the cinema or the binging box-setter is vastly more important to on-going commercial success than placating fanboys, fangirls, or other kinds of fan-entities. While it’s true that the corporations need us more than we need them, for those of us whose imagination and loyalty is bound to contemporary megatexts, the dependencies are far harder to unravel.

More nonsense soon.


A Study in Psylocke (1): Betsy Braddock

Captain Britain No13.borderWith X-Men: Apocalypse now leaving the movie theatres having pulled in decent box office returns but lacklustre critical response, the future of Olivia Munn as purple-haired mutant miscreant Psylocke is currently a matter of speculation. Here is a situation where the demands of adapting from a corporate megatext into a substantially more commercially valuable subsidiary megatext create subtle and awkward pressures. Psylocke, now a fan favourite in the comics, has a long and complex history that vastly predates her transformation into the Asian character that Munn was a fit for – and Betsy Braddock, who becomes Psylocke, was in no way Asian, and indeed, was resolutely and inescapably Anglo-Saxon British. What are we to make of this strange collision of ethnicities, and what can it tell us about contemporary megatexts?

 

Psylocke in the World of Marvel Comics

The choice of Olivia Munn to play Psylocke on the big screen is an act of casting genius on behalf of either Ronna Kress or Roger Mussenden, or one of their minions. Not only is Munn the spitting image of recent forms of the psychic knife-wielding fan favourite, the complex web of cultural forces bearing upon Munn’s childhood provide a plausible means of dismissing just about any ethnic argument that could possibly have been advanced against this casting decision. I wrote recently about Jon Tsuei’s objections to the casting of Scarlett Johanson as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi as part of the Corporate Megatexts serial. The issue there was the casting of a non-Asian actress in a quintessentially Asian role, and the corresponding undermining of authenticity this engendered in the community around Ghost in the Shell. In the case of Munn’s casting, however, the Gordian knot that exists around Betsy Braddock provides no viable means for any equivalent complaint to be levelled.

But there is still a potential authenticity crisis surrounding the transferral of Psylocke to Fox’s cinematic adaptation of the X-comics megatext, and it is one that has been handled with either ingenious strategy or great luck on behalf of prodigal director Bryan Singer, the founder of the movie branch of the X-Men narrative tree. At its heart lies the problems entailed in taking a character whose backstory in the source materials is utterly unadaptable to a movie format, and which includes within it an ethnicity conflict that would have generated substantial furore had it occurred anywhere but pre-internet comics. Actually, that’s not strictly the case: there was an internet at the time, but it was largely only accessible to elite computer nerds, and it was substantially before its mainstream adoption, and certainly before internet nerds were a community with a power base that needed to be wrangled. Before we can adequately explore this topic, however, it is necessary to recap the rather strange biography of a character who had very little fan support before her transformation into ‘psychic ninja’.

Betsy Braddock debuts as part of the 1970s line up of comics published by Marvel UK. There is very little talk about this offshoot of Marvel Comics, which is unfortunate as incredible work was done by writers such as Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Dave Gibbons on the Doctor Who magazine (which, under a different publisher, continues today), not to mention in original stories never printed in the US for Star Wars Weekly by Archie Goodwin, Chris Claremont, Michael Golden and, once again, Alan Moore. But the lasting legacy of these unique British comics in Marvel’s superhero megatext is the creation of Betsy Braddock, who will eventually become Psylocke. Betsy, it should be clear is British… indeed, English, and a daughter of the aristocracy. Chris Claremont, writing for Marvel UK, added Betsy to Captain Britain (another UK-only title) in 1976. Her notorious purple hair begins as a dye in 1983, in a storyline by Alan Moore and Alan Davies, and she goes on to have a stint as Captain Britain in one fateful Alan Davies issue from January 1986 (pictured above), long before Marvel US took a penchant for gender-switching key characters. It ends badly for her, and she loses both of her eyes.

Claremont, never one to waste a loose end, rolls Betsy back into his run on Uncanny X-Men in the back end of the 1980s. In October 1986, nine months after Davies had left her blinded and broken as Captain Britain, Claremont and Davies remake the character via the second annual of The New Mutants, marking her first appearance in the US marvel comics, the creation of her new identity as Psylocke, and the changing of her natural hair colour from blonde to the trademark purple. The transformation is pure comic book hokum, and happens as a result of tinkering by Mojo and Spiral, two wonderfully peculiar extra-dimensional villains created by Ann Nocenti and Arthur Adams the previous year. But the strange creation of telepathic plot device Psylocke out of Betsy Braddock is dwarfed in weirdness by her metamorphosis into Lady Mandarin as Claremont’s contribution to the 1989-90 Acts of Vengeance crossover. Marvel’s bottomless bucket of ninjas, the Hand, somehow remake Betsy into a Japanese psychic ninja (later retconned to a body swap by Fabian Nicieza in 1993), making her one of very few fictional characters to have changed ethnicity. It is this that establishes the utterly English Betsy as now definitively Asian (specifically, Japanese), and kicks off a previously unprecedented popularity for Psylocke.

 

Psylocke in the World of the Marvel Offices

The circumstances of the ethnicity transplant that made Psylocke’s career are a source of tremendous speculation, and particularly because it involves one of the most pivotal writer-artist encounters in comics history. Many fans suspect that Korean-American artist, Jim Lee, who was the artist on the X-Men’s Acts of Vengeance issues, somehow pushed for the new look Psylocke. But this isn’t entirely plausible. Lee was 25 in 1989 and a virtual newcomer to comics while writer Chris Claremont was 39 and had worked on Uncanny X-Men for an unprecedented 14 years at that point. (Claremont’s work on these comics had vast influence on other writers, not least of which upon future nerd-god Joss Whedon.) Claremont and Lee had first worked together on issue 248, when regular artist Marc Silvestri wasn’t available, after which Lee returned to replace Silvestri for the three issues in question. Interviews with both have failed to reveal any way in which Lee influenced Claremont, and it’s unlikely he did: Lee was a newcomer and Claremont was a legendary veteran; at this point in time, Claremont would certainly have been in the driving seat.

Examining the construction of the panels in issues 256-258 reveal great attention to details that clearly come from Claremont’s plotting – such as detailed references to Betsy’s earlier life and the dream-twisted inclusion of Mojo and Spiral, all of which demonstrate connectivity to the longer narrative arcs Lee would have known little or nothing about. Clearly, Claremont was in control of the storytelling at this time, yet he would certainly have seen Lee’s sketchpad, and would have had a sense of the new artist’s strengths. It seems far more plausible to surmise that Claremont created the Lady Mandarin plot as a vehicle for Lee’s talents. Allegedly, Psyclocke would have reverted back to her Anglo-Saxon body soon after – but the popularity of the character as drawn by Lee was too great for a reversion, or for matters to remain the same as they had been at Marvel. Lee was soon signed on as the regular artist, and he (and other talented artists such as Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and the aforementioned Marc Silvestri) began to be recognised by new Marvel comics X-titles group editor, Bob Harras, as critical to the growing popularity of the franchise.

Psylocke thus becomes a symbol for the transformation of Marvel Comics at this time, precisely because her radically more popular post-Lee poster-art form usurps some of the narrative control from established writer Claremont. Claremont and Lee produce the first three issues of new hyperbole free X-Men in 1991, after which Claremont quits, citing a lack of support from Harras whose mandate was to keep their new hotshot artists happy so that sales could continue to build. The first issue of X-Men is the highest selling comic of all time – because Marvel printed five different versions of it, and foolish fans (including 19 year old me) bought every version, thinking they would grow in value like other number 1 issues in the past. Marvel sold 8 million copies, mostly five at a time to befuddled nerds with a sketchy grasp of economics. Afterwards, not only Claremont but many of the fans left because, like me, they felt manipulated and used, and no longer wanted to support Marvel’s lust for profits over storytelling.

Despite the compromises that Harras made to try and keep Lee and the other artists at Marvel, they all eventually broke away (in what has been dubbed, in tribute to the awful crossover names of the time, ‘the X-odus’) and founded Image Comics, a revolutionary artist-owned line of comics, which with the exception of McFarlane’s Spawn did not have a great deal of commercial power until Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead in 2003. Lee may not have enjoyed tremendous success with his Image title, WildC.A.T.s (which always felt rather too much like a second rate X-comic clone), but his nearly limitless popularity with fans ultimately led to him becoming co-publisher at DC Comics in 2010, effectively taking the top job at Marvel’s biggest rival. (Bob Harras, who had joined Lee at his Image company, Wildstorm, was appointed editor-in-chief and Vice President at DC, seven months after Lee was handed his half of the crown.)

Through both her transformation and the circumstances surrounding it, Betsy Braddock, an obscure scion of long defunct Marvel UK, symbolises the transition of Marvel from comics publisher to media corporation, a change that reaches its apex in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But before Marvel worked out how to effectively monetise their stories through making movies of their own, there was Bryan Singer’s hit licensed film X-Men in 2000. And that lucrative franchise extension is where Olivia Munn comes into Psylocke’s megatextual story.

Next week, the final part: Olivia Munn


Prezi: Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to the Red Gallery (or for interested souls not able to make it to the Futurism v Fatalism event), here is my Prezi for my presentation Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow so you can explore it with me:

Click the button to start the Prezi, then use the arrows (or arrow keys) to advance the slides, or you can explore the content freely by zooming in and out and dragging the canvas. I also recommend using the button in the bottom right to put it into full screen. You can also view it over at the Prezi website by following this link for the Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow Prezi.


Corporate Megatexts

Corporate Megatexts was a serial in three parts that ran here at Only a Game from May 3rd to 17th 2016. It considered the way that we ‘play’ with the fictional worlds of books, movies, and TV shows as if they comprised a single conherent setting and the conflict between authentic expansion of such megatexts and the commercial custodianship required to make this happen. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the three parts:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Canonicity
  3. Faithfulness

Special thanks to Chris Billows, Rob Briggs, John Brindle, Geek Boy (AKA Al Swettenham), Scott Gibbens, Auriea Harvey, Alex Hempel, It's John, Matti Karhulahti, Metal Blackbird, Cuchlann, J.P.J. Garvin, Jeroen Stout, Jacek Wesołowski, and Jose Zagal for contributing to the discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial.

If you enjoyed these serials, please leave a comment. Thank you!


Corporate Megatexts (3): Faithfulness

Flash Gordon Star WarsThere are just three screenings of the new Star Wars-branded movie left in my city and I'll have survived the new release with my honour intact, and the film unseen. This is a small and entirely personal victory, a test of my free will and my principles. It does not matter to me whether the new film is ‘any good’, because my concerns are not about being entertained... there was never a shortage of ways to be entertained. My concern is about the meaning we make of our megatexts (i.e. fictional worlds with many contributing works), and our relationship to the corporations that own them. I want to examine this topic as a question of faithfulness, which is to say a matter concerning the practices of authenticity (discussed two weeks ago) – and this is categorically not just about ‘being a fan’.

Surviving J.J. Abrams’ heavily promoted Star Wars film was challenging because I actively wanted to see it. I fell in love with the 1977 Star Wars as a five year old (the movie that would later be retitled A New Hope), and although I don’t consider myself a fanboy and have had a love-hate relationship with George Lucas ever since – I endured Caravan of Courage for a start – I never stopped caring about how the Star Wars megatext was being handled. Taking the classic Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials of the thirties and cross-breeding them with E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensman space operas, Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a sprinkling of World War II aerial dogfight movies was a creative masterstroke.

Mind you, it was also extremely inventive to take the Hollywood Biblical-Historical Epics of the 60s as a template for the prequels, and to layer in a positively prescient reflection on US foreign policy – not that anyone noticed. (The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, four years before Operation Enduring Freedom). But errors in aesthetic judgement matter more to audiences than grand designs: Jar Jar was the harbinger of doom both in and out of the fictional universe of Star Wars as far as a great many fans were concerned. As a matter of custodianship, however, the prequels were unquestionably a commercial success, with returns on investment that outstrip Abrams’ movie, and challenging any of Lucas’ films on authenticity grounds seems like a losing prospect. No matter how disgruntled some fans of the original trilogy might have been in respect of the prequels, they were in no position to overthrow the House of Lucas. That particular throne had to be abdicated.

At a more personal level, I have to decide what my relationship with Disney and with Star Wars will be going forward. Working this out involves difficult questions about corporate megatexts, community, and even friendship. Fiction matters, but it can matter for good reasons and for bad ones. My rejection of the newest Star Wars-branded movie was a chance to test my own principles, but it was not just knee-jerk nostalgiarism that provoked me. Disney and LucasFilm owe me nothing as a childhood fan of Star Wars: fans ‘buy in’, they don’t and can’t ‘buy out’ like Disney can. What troubles me here is the sheer extent of my entertainment money going to one creative economy – Marvel, Star Wars, The Muppets, Pixar, Disney Classics... it’s a rare day I find myself in a cinema without paying the Big Mouse these days. Of course, you can say that Disney is just the money behind these productions, and that different creative forces are being funded by them. Or you could take a hard-line stance and simply refuse to pay them (although it’s worth noting that refusing to pay while still watching the movies through piracy still supports the corporate megatexts through indirect patronage and cultural participation).

The commercial power of fiction in our century lies in the megatext, and the corporate powers will always acquire the successful megatexts. There are no blockbuster movies without media corporations (nor AAA videogames and ‘event’ mini-series for that matter), so to reject Disney outright is to give up spectacle cinema cold turkey. Yet I don’t want my son to never experience this media form even if I also don’t want it to be his only experience of narrative media. And I don’t want to have to give up going to see the latest dumb superhero movie with an old friend, for whom each new release gives us an excuse to get together and reminisce about comics from our youth. What I need is a principled way of declining to participate in popular culture, one not based solely upon the mere capacity to entertain.

A few years ago, I wrote about the concept of faithful adaptation in the context of the Peter Jackson movies collectively entitled The Hobbit. Here, the question was the role of the source book in the ‘game’ being played with the movie. Faithful adaptation requires the source materials to accord authentically with the new production (in terms of make-believe theory, for the book to be a viable secondary prop in games played with the film). This concept can be extended to new works: a faithful extension of a megatext is one that offers ‘games’ to be played with any combination of earlier works that are part of the relevant canon. Thus determining faithful works depend upon the notion of canonicity, discussed last week.

Although last week’s discussion focussed on how creative people ended up in the role of ‘arbiter of canon’, it is also clear that fictional canonicity is a community practice. Sole authors wear the crown by tradition; in bigger projects, there are always multiple heirs to the throne, which can be passed down in a family but need not be. It is the ‘players’ of megatexts who determine, through agreement, or rather, alignment, who have this role. It seems as if we want a person to have a claim to Regent of Canon because then there are always answers to the ambiguous questions, as if our imaginative experiences were anchored in part upon them existing outside of us, always offering a final court of appeal. Perhaps we learned this habit from Plato’s view of reality, and if so it would be no coincidence since the nerds who sustain the practices of canonicity are also greatly into the sciences.

This means the concept of a ‘faithful work’ leads to the notion of a ‘faithful community’, and thus of faithfulness. A person displays faithfulness to any given canon when they withhold their support from works that deviate from it (the ones that are heretical, if you will). This all sounds overtly religious, and it should: prior to the twentieth century, the megatexts that nerds fought about were holy scriptures. It is no coincidence that the term ‘canon’ being applied in this context comes from the code of church laws in the Middle Ages. Contemporary usage of ‘religion’ as a derogatory term often obscures the way our religious practices are quintessentially human practices, and as such are shaped by situational factors such as tradition and ideals, whatever their ultimate meanings might be. These practices never go away, but they change – often radically – over the centuries.

So is my resistance to the new Star Wars movie an act of faithfulness? Not exactly. The faithful community of fiction I belong to that grounds my non-co-operation with Disney in this case is not Star Wars but Star Trek. In this regard, it is noteworthy that demands of custodianship could be invoked to explain why Abrams had to ditch almost every aspect of the thematic and moral background to the Star Trek megatext in order to bring it to as wide an audience as possible in the cinema. One of the things that was lost in this popularising move was the ethical role of the Prime Directive, which Roddenberry and his writers created to serve as a surrogate for Westphalian sovereignty by transposing the relationship between nations into the relationship between planets. It is noteworthy that a great many Trekkies and Trekkers do not support this concept in or out of the fictional world they love, since they favour international interventions around the world on ethical grounds that would be judged utterly unacceptable by any Starfleet captain. Here, as with the religious megatexts, there is a notable gap between faithfulness to the works in question and faithfulness to the moral practices they extol.

My own faithfulness to the Star Trek megatext is a key reason I withdrew my support for Disney’s Star Wars. It is because Abrams could not (indeed, would not) faithfully extend the Star Trek megatext (as I outlined last week) that I object to Disney handing him the keys to the Death Star just so he can blow it up. Again. Perhaps the new movie is a faithful extension of the Star Wars megatext for many of those who rejected the prequels – I have certainly heard fans of the original trilogy treating the new movie as if it were akin to the vain promise of mum and dad getting back together after an unpleasant childhood divorce. Most likely Disney’s custodianship of Star Wars is just yet another fork in the canon, creating ever more splintered communities and endlessly propagating the arguments over minutiae. This has been what communities of nerds have done for nearly two millennia, after all, and these days it is at least mostly harmless.

Corporations are not the enemy, but they cannot be our friends, for all the money they spend securing that mythos. They need us more than we need them, and they are adept at getting us to take them for granted. The challenge of twenty first century ethics increasingly entails forging and maintaining communities that are more than merely commercial, and in this regard corporations are indeed opposed to us. They are vested in the commercial communities of so-called late capitalism because this is what sustains them. It also happens to be what entertains us. In so much as faithfulness in fiction might give us reasons to break from the status quo, it could become something more than just pugnacious geeks arguing amongst themselves. My suspicion, however, is that our established loyalty to specific megatexts is a force stronger than faithfulness and authenticity. For myself, at least, I have strived to assert my humanity by resisting the inevitable pull of my childhood nostalgia. It is through nostalgia, after all, that the power of the corporate megatexts accumulates.

A new serial begins later this year.


Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow

Pleased to announce a new talk by me as part of the “Futurism vs. Fatalism” event at London’s Red Gallery.

Cyberfetish and the World of Tomorrow.lo resIn the 1980s, the literary science fiction movement known as cyberpunk explored the fractured cultures left in the wake of an uncontrolled rate of change in our technologies. Writers such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and Rudy Rucker offered new future visions that blurred traditional sci-fi beyond recognition. But within a decade, cyberpunk had been reduced to yet another glossy corporate branding, a vacuous fantasy where hi tech cool replaced the serious concerns of the movement. Cyberpunk was dead. All that was left was cyberfetish.

Acclaimed game designer (Discworld Noir, Ghost Master) and philosopher Dr Chris Bateman traces the history and influences of cyberpunk, from Enlightenment philosophy and the 1939 New York World's Fair with its promises of a glittering "World of Tomorrow", to the erosion of the movement's themes and its post-cyberpunk epilogue. In this engaging and provocative talk, he challenges today's heirs to the cyberpunk legacy to take charge of our unruly technology and develop the critical perspective necessary to understand it. Come explore the lurking dangers of our seductive age of cyberfetish that has made the World of Tomorrow an all-too-convenient lie we all buy into.

Thursday June 16th 2016, event begins 6:30 pm at the Red Galley, Old Street London. Tickets appear to be free and can be reserved from Ransom Note's Eventcube site.


Corporate Megatexts (2): Canonicity

Star Fleet Technical ManualThe reboot of a franchise has become so commonplace that seldom a second thought goes into pushing the button and burning continuity to the ground. However, for fans and lovers of any given megatext (i.e. fictional world with many contributing works) there is always an expectation of some degree of authenticity to each new addition. In science fiction and fantasy, genres where geeks form the bedrock of support, there is one particular ‘game’ that dominates questions of what is authentic: canonicity.

There is an inherent tension between the commercial viability of a franchise (the value of custodianship) and the demand for authenticity in the adaptation and extension of fictional worlds (last week’s theme). This aesthetic and moral conflict structures the growth and development of all the contemporary megatexts. In cases where nerd culture has a foothold (or indeed, a stranglehold), the question of what is canonical – of which works constitute the canon, or official components – is both fraught and crucial to understanding how nerds approach authenticity. The underlying process of defending canonicity against the impossibility of ever integrating disparate fictional works as if they were referring to a single universe is something I touched upon in Imaginary Games, but in the context of authenticity and megatextual networks it is worth reconsidering the rules of this game.

Last week, I suggested that it was possible to trace the networks for megatexts, and also to detect different games being played with them via disagreements. When it comes to authenticity, the networks foreground the relationship between fictional works and their creators, with the specific practices also varying to some degree depending upon the relevant medium. It is worth starting in books, where the situation is simplest. For any written story, the presence of a clearly identifiable sole author gives that person unprecedented power to establish or deny the authentic, authorised ‘games’ that can be played in our imagination. J.K. Rowling, for instance, is the final arbiter of any question about the Harry Potter universe as long as she lives. This power can be transmitted down the family line – from Frank to Brian Herbert, for instance, or from J.R.R. to Christopher Tolkien – although in such cases the ‘player’ of the megatext can choose to seal the canon, and treat the continuations as apocrypha or secondary texts.

Films, however, are conceptualised somewhat differently. Perhaps because they are inevitably produced by large teams, the mantle of arbiter of canon rarely falls onto an individual’s shoulders. The same pattern applies to TV shows, which are similarly the product of collaboration. In these cases, a ‘claim to the throne’ lies with a number of different people, depending on quite different circumstances. Directors, writers, and especially actors, all have a capacity to assert a claim to authenticity, even though the audience is not bound to accept it. Highlander 2, for instance, has clear continuity of cast but was outright rejected by fans like a failed organ transplant. There was simply too thin a claim to authenticity.

Star Trek is a particularly interesting case, one where multiple competing claims for creative inheritance lead to many available ‘games’, each with their own canon. There are fans for whom only the classic show ‘counts’, and others for whom the five live action TV series form a single megatext, with the animated series as apocrypha. Gene Roddenberry still held the crown during production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, passing it down to Rick Berman in 1989, who lost the throne with the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005.

It’s interesting to ponder what might have happened had Roddenberry died in the 1970s. Would Dorothy Fontana have become ‘Queen of Trek’ by the implied line of succession? It is notable that she is the only writer on the animated show whose work is given merit in canon discussions. She was also the only classic writer brought back to work on the Next Generation. The claims to the throne of canon arbiter become stronger the longer someone has been involved with the megatext in question.

The oddest branch in canon also relates to Star Trek. The technical artist Franz Joseph created blueprints for the USS Enterprise and other starships from the classic show, which were blessed as ‘official’ by Roddenberry. But in the 60s, megatexts were peripheral to media production and corporations were lax about subsidiary rights until Astroboy and Star Wars made it clear that successful monetisation of franchises was about more than the core product. Joseph licensed his drawings to Task Force Games, who then made the seminal tabletop wargame Star Fleet Battles. Canonicity forks here: the Star Fleet universe has all the races and ships of the Star Trek universe (the legal case TSR vs. Tolkien having established that races could not be copyrighted), but this secondary megatext clearly isn’t part of any of the Star Trek canons. Joseph had a disputable claim to the throne, but it remained securely with Roddenberry and Paramount, who became more vigilant about potential usurpation in the future.

When we come to the post-Berman resurrection of the Star Trek franchise, J.J. Abrams did not hesitate to cry “Code zero zero zero destruct zero” and detonate the existing continuity. But of course, this created a gap in the claim to authenticity, a problem pragmatically hurdled by having Leonard Nimoy bless the new movie by appearing in it as Spock. This act did not bridge the canons of the Star Trek megatext, which were irrevocably forked, but it met the minimum requirements for authenticity. In this regard, it is worth comparing William Shatner’s presence in Star Trek: Generations. Fans of the new TV shows were already on board, of course, but the majority of the cinematic audience weren’t necessarily in the same boat. Once again, a bridge to secure authenticity was required – and once again, it was an actor that did it.

It is thus clear that the defuse nature of the manifold of ‘games’ played with corporate megatexts permits extension only by the simultaneous risk of an ‘orthodox’ counter-fan base that rejects the new works and remains faithful to the originals (a theme I shall pick up in the final part of this seial, next week). Tactics to suppress or placate such resistance then becomes part of the corporate task of brand management. Yet it seems as if the role of actors as props in these imaginary games might outrank creators in establishing film canonicity, perhaps because by being on screen they are more prominently associated with the relevant fictional world. That’s why Nimoy had to bless Abram’s all-action, hollowed-out version of Star Trek (which could still be judged inauthentic against any and all prior games of canon up to that point, despite the legal authority of the owning corporation).

When Abrams was also tasked with continuing the Star Wars megatext in the cinema, the mighty G-canon (as LucasArts termed George Lucas’ primary continuity during his reign) represented a cult of resistance that needed to be addressed. In this case, on top of the claim of authenticity granted by securing the original cast (which was vital but not decisive) was the added power of Lawrence Kasdan – Star Wars’ very own Dorothy Fontana, since he co-wrote the latter two parts of the original trilogy. Since fans rate The Empire Strikes Back as the best of the movies, this play was both shrewd and effective. Avoiding the necessity of a reboot, Abrams used the heir apparent to secure his title as pretender to the throne long enough to validate his movie – yet had no interest in claiming the crown. Abrams role was as kingmaker in the consolidation of authority for Disney, whose acquisition of LucasFilm had set up the conditions for a potential ‘Star Wars of the Roses’. It is to the impact of this situation that the final part of this serial is addressed.

Next week: Faithfulness


Corporate Megatexts (1): Authenticity

Kutanagi v JohanssonWhen Paramount announced that Scarlett Johansson had been cast as Major Kusanagi in the live action adaptation of Ghost In The Shell, it launched another outbreak of accusations about ‘whitewashing’ – the appointment of white actors and actresses into roles with a clearly established ethnicity. Comic book writer Jon Tsuei advanced a strong criticism of the casting, not on the grounds of racial politics, but claiming that Ghost In The Shell is “inherently a Japanese story, not a universal one.” What are we to make of this claim, and of the circumstances that led to it?

This incident is an example of a clash of narrative communities, a phenomena that – with a notable exception I’ll save until later – is peculiar to the last hundred years. The reason we are facing these conflicts today can be traced to a serious gap between the aesthetic and ethical values that sustain contemporary media production. On the one hand, the giant global corporations that produce our most popular entertainments are propelled by an ethical and economic commitment to sustain their franchises by ensuring the money they make will exceed the cost of production. This is the burden of custodianship. On the other side is the question of authenticity in adapting or extending story materials, the demand that all materials be faithfully related. Tsuei’s objections to Johannson’s casting is a good example of an authenticity argument.

The problem of custodianship is often dismissed as pure profit motive, yet no-one is going to stump up millions of dollars to make (say) a blockbuster movie without the hope it can take even more money at the box office, or through other channels of monetisation. To be opposed to custodianship is to attempt to opt out of popular culture altogether – something Marxists certainly have reason to do, but that most people do not. The continued production of content is something most seem to view as beneficial, except where to do so would undermine the authenticity of what was made. Conversely, those pushing against the production of further content can appeal to the diminishment of the core materials, which is another argument from authenticity.

The question of authenticity relates directly to the kind of ‘game’ being played with the fictional world in question. We are not accustomed to thinking of films or books as being ‘played’, but whether this term is taken literally or figuratively, the point remains that there are multiple ways a work can be experienced. As I argue in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s legendarium”, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit movies are ‘played’ differently by someone who takes them as an adaptation of the book of that name than by someone who takes them as a prequel to Jackson’s movies of The Lord of the Rings. The problem of authenticity is always tied to a context.

Now there may be a temptation here to dismiss the issue of authenticity entirely as ‘subjective’, and a corresponding mistake of thinking that custodianship must be objective since the money, after all, can be counted. But successful custodianship must meet minimum requirements of authenticity lest the franchise be ‘milked dry’, and thus depends upon the very subjective elements that the economic factors are contrasted against. The desire to dismiss the subjective elements of a problem stems entirely from the mistaken assumption that they are infinitely variable, and thus cannot be meaningfully engaged with. However, once it is recognised that the experience of fiction entails different games, we are no longer dealing with the irreducible infinite. We are simply dealing with a manifold of practices, that is a set of different ‘games’.

Just as Bruno Latour has demonstrated that a grounded sociology is about tracing relations, a grounded study of fictional interplay is about identifying the network associated with the practices of the ‘game’ being played. This network includes all the works that form the megatext of the fictional world. This term ‘megatext’ is Charles Segal’s idea for understanding Greek mythology as inter-related, and I have extended this in my philosophy to contemporary media franchises like The X-Men, Star Trek, and Tolkien’s legendarium. The network also includes both the causal ‘players’ of the megatext (“I saw that movie”) and the hobbyists (“I’ve read every issue”), and all the people and companies entailed in creating the original media. The situation is further complicated by the interdependences: the X-Men megatext links to the Marvel comics megatext, and to the broader science fiction megatext, and more besides! The task of tracing such a network may seem insurmountable, but it is nothing of the kind – it is simply (as Latour notes for sociology) that you must trace things carefully, one step at a time.

While short cuts in network-tracing are risky, a subset of the manifold of ‘games to be played’ can be constructed to provisionally interrogate any megatext. In Implicit Game Aesthetics I took the conflicts between aesthetic values (evidenced by the arguments that are stated) as distinguishing between different ways of playing (indeed, of playing anything). I do not think it a coincidence that Latour uses the same method to trace his ‘modes of existence’. The provisional manifold for every megatext is thus the different ‘games’ revealed by the arguments between ‘players’. Some games are disagreements about the values of authenticity, but some are clashes between custodianship and specific values for authenticity.

In the case of Jon Tsue vs. Paramount, this is precisely the case: taking an authenticity position based around cultural embedding as his aesthetic context, Tsue argues that any attempt to disembed Ghost In The Shell from Japanese culture is a breach of authenticity. The unstated counter-argument from Paramount would presumably be that custodianship dictates a lead actress with box office draw. Without Johansson, therefore, there would be no movie. (This argument was indeed traced, on Paramount's behalf, by the Hollywood Reporter.) Supporters of authenticity could argue in such a case that it would be better not to make the film at all than to compromise the faithful relationship of the new work to the rest of the relevant megatext. Here, in brutal simplicity, is the crisis in authentic fiction brought about by the practical dominance of corporations in the ownership of all contemporary megatexts.

Next week: Canonicity


Moffat's Schizophrenic Continuity in Doctor Who

Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.

Heaven Sent TeleporterWhen it comes to Moffat’s Doctor Who, I have to wonder: can he repair the problems in the show’s infinitely compromised continuity faster than his own problems tear new holes into the Whoniverse?

In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.

It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!

With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.

The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.

Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.

That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.

Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.


The Martian as Robinsonade

Contains spoilers for the 2015 film The Martian, and one moderate swear word quoted from it.

The MartianThe 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars proudly declares on its poster: “This film is scientifically authentic! It is only one step ahead of present reality!” You can guess, simply from the year and title, what we would make of this claim today. Fifty years later, Ridley Scott’s The Martian plots exactly the same vector, just from a different starting point.

The most realistic aspect of Scott’s The Martian, adapted from the self-published novel by Andy Weir, is that its protagonist, botanist and astronaut Mark Watney, never questions his faith in the power of science to save him. Beyond this earnest depiction of contemporary non-religious zeal, the movie’s claims to showcase anything that might be called ‘real’ evaporate. This, indeed, is inevitable: the lesson from The Martian, should we choose to accept it, is that ‘realism’ describes accordance with whichever mythologies we align with our concept of ‘reality’. That does not mean nothing is true: it just highlights the problems entailed in trying to assert terms like ‘realistic’ in connection with imagined events.

The Martian is real to positivists  (those who put their faith in the sciences) in precisely the same way something like The Greatest Story Ever Told is real to Christians – right down to the way either cultural cohort would approach nit-picking the content. There is a quasi-religious fervour to the way ‘scientific inaccuracy’ is reported in connection with films such as this, a duty to educate on the back of entertainment, all while extolling the need to witness the film in question for its edifying qualities. While there is no denying (for instance) that the Martian dust storm that serves as the inciting incident would be harmless because of the thinness of the atmosphere on Mars, as the author of the original book acknowledges, I was personally more bothered by the internal problems this creates. If killer storms are an aspect of Mars in the fictional world of The Martian, it cannot be the case that the rockets for departure are recklessly sent by NASA years in advance and ready-to-fly, a key plot device upon which hangs the resolution of the film’s crisis. Mind you, none of this matters in terms of claims to this being a ‘realistic’ story, since such a claim is not about what could happen but about how we conceive reality.

To call The Martian a Robinsonade i.e. a tale in the form of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, is perhaps not too surprising. Surely many expected they were going to see Castaway in Space, rather than Apollo 13: Martian Edition. But herein lies the insurmountable rift at the centre of any claim to realism leveled against the film; not that physics, chemistry, and biology are neglected (rather, they are lavishly worshiped, however inaccurate some details may be), but that the central character is not a character, but a mere cipher through which the miracles of Science are channeled. I would compare Mark Watney to Moses, if it were not for the fact that Moses could barely believe the incredible superpowers that flowed through him. Like the preacher upon the pulpit, Watney doesn’t have to be human; to have our frailties, our weaknesses, to fall prey to depression, to slip from sanity – all this is impossible in the given role. Watney, like a good fundamentalist, never questions, and never doubts the agent of his salvation. “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this!” he declares. Hallelujah, brother, testify!

It could reasonably be objected that The Martian doesn’t work as a Robinsonade because so much of the story entails the work of NASA to line up all the necessary science-flavoured plot devices involved in its hero’s rescue. It is certainly a twist on the format! But in many respects this helps reinforce the way that both stories are deeply colonial in their perspective. Writing in the same year as Robinson Crusoe on Mars was released, the Irish author James Joyce noted that Defoe’s protagonist was the “true prototype” of the colonialism of the British Empire. Joyce remarks upon Crusoe’s “manly independence” as well as “the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” This description matches Watney perfectly. Certainly, some of the “efficient intelligence” is outsourced to Earth in The Martian, since many of the characters in the movie exist solely to deliver a domain-specific plot device to its proverbial desert island. But it is Watney's “manly independence” that is always the focus of the action.

The principle difference between Watney and Crusoe is that the latter, as with British colonials, had to deal with the indigenous ‘savages’, and only truly turns to faith at the denouement of the novel. Watney on the other hand is alone, and disturbingly unfazed by it. Perhaps his perfect Earth-agricultural potatoes – utterly implausible given what we know about plant growth, incidentally – are his companions? The colonial reference is made internally to the movie, and it would have been interesting to see the film accept that potato plants grown on Mars would be utterly different vegetables to the ones we know. It would have been an acknowledgment, however small, that what we were seeing was palpably unnatural, in the sense this term is usually deployed. Perhaps coming eye-to-eye with an unrecognisable tuber would have allowed Watney to encounter something other than what his scientifically-flawless sainthood projects: mastery of all, dependence upon no-one.

In both Defoe’s novel and The Martian, we are presented with a mythos whereby one soul is able to survive against the odds. This is not coincidental. While separated by nearly three centuries, both stories build upon a conception of the human soul that was given mythic breath by Descartes’ philosophy. The contemporary sciences, in a brutal irony, deftly unweave the idealism of pure individuality implied by Descartes’ cogito: we are a social species, we cannot be human in isolation. Yet a great many contemporary scientists and their fans, swept up in a mythology they cannot quite perceive because of its status as background assumption, continue to presume this individualism, a narrative massively intensified by the Enlightenment – originally to our benefit, now to our considerable loss. We have been colonised by this way of thinking; its truth has supplanted older ways of being that now seem ‘savage’ by comparison. Of course we must idolise the individual as the embodiment of freedom! Anyone who doesn’t is not ‘one of us’.

The Martian offers to reassure you that you can exist as a pure individual provided you place your faith in the sciences (while ignoring what these discourses reveal about us), and that humanity will act to deliver you from evil – at astronomical expense! – provided you do not live on our own planet. This does not exhilarate me the way it has other cinema goers. I find it somewhat pernicious that we can be entertained by this, for reasons directly parallel to the critique I leveled at Interstellar and Sunshine. I enjoyed the movie only guiltily, quietly concerned by what it reveals about our contemporary mythologies. The sciences cannot save us because they have become quintessentially bound to our problems; not quite their cause, but inestimably far from being our salvation. We cannot go on without their help, but in ascribing to them the unique capacity to determine what is ‘real’ we extend the power practices of our officially dismantled Empires indefinitely. Perhaps it is time to apply the deeply questioning methodology we ascribe to the sciences to our notion of ‘realistic’ and bring an end to the colonialism of truth that underpins far too much of our cultural baggage.