Spacecraft by Timothy Morton

Spacecraft (Object Lessons). Timothy Morton. Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 

Reviewed by Phil Nicholls

Timothy Morton is best known for their writing on ecology and as a philosopher who gave us the concept of ‘hyperobject’.  While Spacecraft (2021) is only a small book of 129 pages, including index and notes, Morton has nevertheless written a dense but enjoyable book with a glittering insight on almost every page. Reviewing any book crammed with so many ideas is a challenge. Spacecraft is a heady mix of pop culture and philosophy, where it is difficult to pick out the unifying theory amidst the glare. 

On one level, Morton has written a performative history of spacecraft, both speculative and real, in the media, with a particular focus on Star Wars. The book examines the role played by these vehicles, not the method of portraying them or the nuances of their design. While the principles may apply to all spacecraft, Morton’s sources are primarily drawn from within Western cultures, especially American. Essentially, spacecraft representations, according to Morton, performed one of the following functions:

  1. the ark, carrying all remaining life forms, such as in Silent Running or the Jupiter ship in 2001
  2. the juggernaut, destroying all before it, such as the Death Star and Imperial Cruisers in Star Wars or the militarized version of the Enterprise from Into Darkness
  3. the frigate, a standard SF warship
  4. the fighter, small military vessels such as the X-wing and TIE fighter
  5. the explorer, such as scouts or shuttles
  6. the machina cum dea, Morton’s phrase inverting the traditional deus ex machina, meaning an alien vessel that sweeps in to dispense justice. Examples being the UFO at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the TARDIS
  7. the coracle, where the spacecraft is a spiritual craft on a mystical journey, such as the EVA pod in 2001 or the real Voyager I probe.

Morton makes a distinction between spacecraft and spaceship, for example, with respect to size, with starships being much larger. Furthermore, starships such as the Enterprise and an Imperial Cruiser are part of an established fleet with a large crew in a fixed hierarchy. In contrast, spacecraft are smaller, often with a fluctuating crew roster: people simply climb aboard one and fly away, such as happens repeatedly with the Millennium Falcon over many films, or The Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Morton notes the “craft” aspect of the name, reflecting the skill required to fly the vessel. There is also a sense that these ships are being crafty, meaning cunning.

Starship Enterprise U.S.S. Enterprise NCC 1701-D, Star Trek series
Imperial Cruiser, Star wars

While Spacecraft draws on many sources, the book is at its heart a love letter to the Millennium Falcon. Morton clearly sees this vessel as the archetypal spacecraft as each chapter casts the Falcon in a new light. Spacecraft highlights the Falcon as a feminist vessel because when the revolutionary feminist robot L3-37 is damaged beyond repair, her data and personality are incorporated into the Falcon’s electronics in the Solo prequel: “The Falcon is then really a ‘she’ insofar as the Falcon is a feminist robot keen to liberate other robots from their status as slaves.”

The Millennium Falcon is also the third important non-human to appear in A New Hope. Moreover, the Falcon is adept at defying the forces of gravity in a film series all about the use of the force. Morton also highlights how the Millennium Falcon is the plot pivot in The Empire Strikes Back. Once the Falcon functions properly and engages the hyperdrive, with the help of R2-D2, the film is emotionally “over” and we await the sequel.

Millennium Falcon, Star Wars

Spacecraft includes only four chapters and an introduction. Each chapter explores one aspect of spacecraft and the Millennium Falcon in particular. In the first chapter, Morton notes a recurring trait of garbage, or the “found-ness of objects”: “we need to consider the Falcon as pure contingency, as something that just happens to you, garbage or not”. The Falcon demonstrates this trait when Rey initially refuses to escape on a ship located off-screen in The Force Awakens, dismissing it as “garbage”. When her first choice spacecraft is destroyed, she concedes “the garbage will do” and we see her and Finn escape on the Falcon. Indeed, through the whole franchise the Falcon is repeatedly found just when it is needed.

Morton specifically notes the role of dirt in the Star Wars series. Unusually, all the good vehicles in these films are dirty, a notable difference from the Imperial vessels or a spaceship like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Dirt seems to be used as a signifier for the rebellion, while at the same time making the setting appear more real. After all, what actually is dirt? Morton shares the definition given by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger of “matter in the wrong place”. How often is the Falcon in the wrong place? Taking the viewpoint of the Empire, the Falcon is forever in the wrong place, typically waiting to be found by one rebel faction or another.

This aspect of stumbling upon the Falcon is a focus of chapter two of Spacecraft. Here Morton explores the concept of spacecraft as winnings, such as how Lando won the Falcon in a card game. More broadly, spacecraft are often outright stolen and become the trophy of the escape. Once again, the Falcon is the epitome of the getaway vehicle, repeatedly evading Imperial entanglements in almost every appearance. Other stolen spacecraft include The Heart of Gold, The Liberator in Blake’s 7 and the TARDIS. Yet, so often these thefts are justifiable and necessary to escape the crimes committed by the state.

Morton’s third and longest chapter deals with hyperspace, that common avenue of escape. One example of a coracle is a passage from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner is taken through the netherworld. To Morton this netherworld reads a lot like hyperspace:

And soon I heard a roaring wind:

It did not come annear;

But with its sound it shook the sails,

That were so thin and sere.

The upper air burst into life!

And a hundred fire-flags sheen,

To and fro they were hurried about!

And to and fro, and in and out,

The wan stars danced between.

The opening credits of Vertigo (1958)

Modern film depictions of hyperspace turn “fire-flags sheen” into a familiar visual, argues Morton. The dominant method arose from the slit-scan technique of computer animation pioneer John Whitney for Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, that impressed Douglas Trumbull who made similar visual effects for To the Moon and Beyond, which in turn brought Trumbull to Kubrick’s attention. Trumbull was thus engaged to create the stargate sequence for 2001. A similar slit-scan technique was developed by graphic designer Bernard Lodge for Doctor Who and was applied in Nolan’s Interstellar in the tesseract scene.

 In Morton’s view, hyperspace is a place of bliss and sensuality. Hyperspace is an expression of Gaussian geometry – the term Morton uses for not Euclidean (but euphoric) space-time. When the Falcon “makes” hyperspace, it is catapulted into a whirling, glittering realm of beauty. The visuals of hyperspace are a liquid tunnel that whisks spacecraft off. Morton invokes the feminist term circlusion, coined by Bini Adamczak to describe these visualisations in the media as circlusion of a spacecraft by hyperspace. The verb circlude was defined by Adamczak as describing any process of enveloping one thing with another: “Indeed circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches a fish, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick”.

This random, democratic and almost chaotic nature of hyperspace is contrasted in the conclusion with the precise orderliness of the Death Star or the Enterprise. These spacecraft resemble giant, open-plan offices in space. Such “middle class” workspaces seem so unlike the rogue-ish Falcon and its crew of misfits. 

Enterprise bridge

There are so many ideas in this small book that I have barely scratched the surface in this review, and I am sure that rereading it will uncover new ideas each time. 

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Global Tolkien – A Roundtable

Following the interest generated by the Tolkien and Diversity panel at Oxonmoot 2020, (hosted by Sultana Raza), another panel on Global Tolkien was proposed and accepted by the Tolkien Society for Oxonmoot 2021. The idea for this panel was formed because of a troubling trend among some SFF and Tolkien enthusiasts against diversity in fandoms and interpretations of SFF writers. Luckily, the Tolkien Society doesn’t seem to ascribe to this view, and has been encouraging further dialogue on this topic.

The panelists included Sultana Raza (also the Moderator), Ali Ghaderi (Iran), María Fernanda Chávez Guiñez (Chile), and Gözde Ersoy (Turkey). Gözde Ersoy (assistant-professor of English Literature at Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, Turkey) also briefly presented a video of an online event she had organized with school children in Turkey, on the Tolkien Reading Day, where they’d read an excerpt from The Hobbit in Turkish.

The following roundtable was written after Oxonmoot was over, and is an approximation of some of the points discussed during the Global Tolkien panel, which was accompanied by comments in the chat from the lively audience. A hybrid event, the Global Tolkien panel took place via Zoom (with 300+ viewers), while the organizers and a few participants logged in from Oxford where they were attending Oxonmoot in person. While there was quite a bit of interaction amongst the panellists, it’s not possible to re-create it in this written format, as the texts were sent in by email. The following roundtable contains spoilers for all of Tolkien’s stories mentioned below. Disclaimer: The opinions presented in this roundtable are those of the speakers, and not necessarily of the Tolkien Society.

The abstract of Global Tolkien was sent to the panellists beforehand, in form of broad but poignant questions:

Why does Tolkien’s fiction have a global appeal? Why are people from all continents drawn to Tolkien’s stories? What does that tell us about common human values? Only works of depth and substance can garner such a massive following all over the world. Conversely, have the 6 Peter Jackson films, and various games drawn in fans who’re more interested in the action/adventure or violence, and war aspects of the films and games than in the core values embedded in the stories? Should we encourage diverse readings of Tolkien from different geographical locations? Can this coming together of readers from different countries foster an international fellowship, as outlined in his books? Or conversely, should his fans be confined to people of just one race or ethnicity? If the interpretations, readings, or ideas of POC readers are not acceptable by some fans, then should these POC readers be allowed to consume these books/films/games? Should POC fans be limited to being consumers, but not commentators or scholars of Tolkien? Is it even possible to limit POC fans from engaging with, and commenting upon Tolkien’s works? Due to the recent wave of cancel culture, to what extent can we re-read or re-contextualize Tolkien’s works to fit in with our fluctuating world view?

Continue reading “Global Tolkien – A Roundtable”

Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future

By Dev Agarwal. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

To state that art does not exist in a vacuum is to loosely paraphrase the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. That in turn leads to his further observation that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.” 

China is home to the largest film production economy in the world, surpassing Hollywood as well as the juggernauts of India and Nigeria. In 2012, it was the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. It has had the largest number of screens in the world since 2016, and in 2020, it became the largest market. CNN reports that Chinese cinemas brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States did that year. 

China has also become a major hub of business for Hollywood studios, encouraging their entry into its domestic market. Yet it is interesting to note that at the same time, in 2016, China passed a law banning film content deemed harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the People’s Republic, and encouraging the promotion of Chinese “socialist core values.” 

Discussing China’s film business (and its science fiction output as a subset thereof) is not purely an economic matter, as to discuss any facet of China’s art is also to discuss the confluence of one of the world’s five remaining self-described communist states, the world’s most populous country, and a nation that may become our newest superpower. As Tarkovsky said, there is no vacuum.

The multi-media artist Lawrence Lek observes that “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows … Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists.”

Sinofuturism is with us, through a wide array of products, individuals and narratives. As a movement it has reached the point where commercial cinema has paid it attention and invested in it, bringing to Netflix The Wandering Earth (2019, Frant Gwo). This was a big SF spectacular, with a suitably cosmic story of moving the earth to safety past Jupiter on its way to the star Alpha Centauri, as our sun turned inhospitable to life. The film was successful both at the box office (posting $700 million in receipts worldwide) and with critics. 

A core theme of The Wandering Earth is sacrifice. The global population has died en masse, and a big problem (the sun is turning into a red giant in three hundred years rather than in its projected five billion years) is solved with a big solution — moving the planet all the way to a new star. The Wandering Earth, therefore, works on a big scale both in terms of the disaster — it’s planet-wide — and of the loss that’s occurred in the backstory. The solution is not about calling on actors to work individually, rather, the characters are representatives of the Chinese state and function obediently within it. 

Continue reading “Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future”

When Was Westworld?

By Paul Kincaid

Westworld Season One

There is no particular issue with the timeline of the original 1973 film, Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton. It is set in the then near future, 1983, and the linear action takes place entirely within the Delos theme park. But when the film became the basis for the television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld (2016-present), time became a complex and confusing issue.

Nolan had already displayed a rather cavalier attitude towards time in his earlier television series, Person of Interest (2011-2016). The first series, first broadcast in the autumn of 2011, was set in 2012, but contained multiple flashbacks to events over the previous decade. Although these flashbacks are often dated, it can be difficult to construct a coherent timeline for the two principal characters, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel). But when it came to Westworld, that tendency to play fast and loose with chronology became an often understated but defining characteristic of the series.

To date there have been three series of Westworld (it has subsequently been renewed for a fourth season). For convenience I will refer to Westworld Season One: The Maze as WW1 (2016), Westworld Season Two: The Door as WW2 (2018), and Westworld Season Three: The New World as WW3 (2020), each of which presents time in a different way, even though theoretically each is a direct sequel to the series before.

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Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi): A meandering rumination about the weightlessness of human existence

Reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad

Please note that this review contains spoilers.

Death can be understood as a scientific/biological phenomenon, but its gravity is experienced as a spiritual phenomenon. Both the scientific and the spiritual perspectives allow one to contemplate death. But when the makers of Cargo (2019) choose science as merely a veil for religious/spiritual ideas in order to comment on alienation and abandonment rampant in contemporary societies, they could have made sure that the film is passionate (or at least compassionate) enough to sustain its slow-paced narrative. Cargo (now available on Netflix) is the first feature length film of Arati Kadav, although she has written and directed several science fiction shorts in the last decade. Cargo highlights the theme of ‘loneliness’ in these times of pervasive social media that creates the impression that one is always connected and hence never alone. Hindu spiritual/religious ideas about karma and the cycle of life, death and rebirth are central to the narrative. The action mostly takes place on a spaceship orbiting Earth where human-like demons called rakshasas are essentially technicians enabling the transition from death to rebirth in a mundane, technocratic and institutionalised process — reminiscent of an airport security checkpoint, medical lab or a prison admissions office. The film terms this process as “post-death transition”, supervised by a department called Post-Death Transition Services (PDTS) that operates under the aegis of Inter-Planetary Space Organisation (IPSO) that has been established by the rakshasas. Owing to the film’s stance of deriving its fictional futuristic technology from elements of Hindu spirituality and mythology, the film has a distinct retro-futuristic feel. Perhaps the datedness of the film’s visual effects is meant to reinforce the 80s inspired aesthetics. 

Continue reading “Cargo (Arati Kadav 2019 Hindi) reviewed by Abhishek Lakkad”

Us: A film about ‘Them’?

By Dev Agarwal

Us (2019) - IMDb

Currently, the horror renaissance sweeps through mainstream cinema and television at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. Horror narratives have always been out there, lurking in popular culture, but until recently they felt like a niche interest, ghettoised with fantasy monsters played by actors in thick make-up and rubber suits, tucked alongside the bug-eyed aliens of science fiction.

However, like science fiction, by the mid-2010s, horror is everywhere, reaching huge cinema audiences and, through Netflix and terrestrial television, coming right into our homes. The horror genre, appropriately enough, has now infected a wider host body, and it is mutating, challenging viewer expectations as to what horror is and what it is capable of. I would suggest that horror as a genre has always carried the power to challenge our thinking, to make us consider what defines a monster, and to pull back the veneer of everyday life to expose what’s going on underneath. However, you once had to be a horror aficionado to appreciate that the genre was more than just jump scares and screams. What’s new is that, by busting out of its culturally marginal position, horror is now expanding its narrative, satirical, and critical powers in front of the very mainstream society that it challenges.  

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Deconstructing the King of the Katz

By David John Beesley

King of the Katz Title shot

Making art can follow many differing paths: allowing the subconscious to do its thing; waiting for inspiration to strike alongside the time to realise craft, developing pleasure in process and deeper understandings of the self. The Neo Liberal market’s force for establishing one’s own name as a brand is a powerful psychological vortex, and for some, it is also imperative to follow the academic establishment’s call for deep research and being precise in defining one’s conceptual intentions. For myself, a commitment to the process of assemblage seems appropriate in an age of polarised economical ideologies; I see this as a way of presenting stratified social critiques –  an ethical choice. 

My favourite indulgence in developing ideas is a long walk or deep soak in the tub – establishing time for reflection. I came up with a draft for my film in about two or three hours… I was twitchingly excited, as I’d conceived an idea to make a Cli Fi Western. 

KOTK1.png

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2019 in TV and Cinema

By Gary Couzens.

As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.

If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament. 

Image result for russian doll
Russian Doll

Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way. Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”

Terminator Dark Fate reviewed

By Dev Agarwal

Image result for terminator dark fate

I went to see Terminator Dark Fate with my regular film going friend, Nik.  Despite going to the cinema together since we were kids, we worked out that this was the first time we’d been to see a Terminator film together in the cinema.  Given Dark Fate’s poor box office and the fact that Schwarzenegger is 72 years old, this felt like our last chance saloon.  

I’ll state my positions now. Firstly, it’s impossible to discuss this film without spoilers, so don’t read further if you don’t want any.  Second, I’m a big fan of the original film and have watched it many times. I had been disappointed in different ways by many of the films in the series and I had high hopes of Dark Fate.  It came with a pedigree of James Cameron’s blessing, the strategic rejection of the dead ends of earlier films, and it was made by the director behind the popular film, Deadpool, Tim Miller.

Like most franchises that have survived decades, The Terminator films are no longer about one single thing, they combine and rework themes and cultural and social issues.  While a principal concern is time travel and the paradox of changing the present by altering the past, the films are also commentaries on machine intelligence, nuclear destruction and individuals striving against a faceless powerful enemy.  

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Nick’s 2018 in SFF Cinema

By Nick Lowe, part of our ongoing look back at 2018.

Image result for the shape of water oscar
Del Toro with a Best Picture Oscar for The Shape of Water. Photo credit: Chris Pizzello

It’s been quite a wait, but the fiftieth anniversary of 2001 – an event exhilaratingly marked by the theatrically-released “unrestoration” and Michael Benson’s ample new making-of book – was also the year that finally saw an sf film take the Oscar for Best Picture. And as it turned out, The Shape of Water was about as 2018 as a film could get: an unrepentant genre nerd-out with a sincere and completely unapologetic passion for the history of sf cinema and its transgressive political power to represent transhuman desires, give voices to the silenced, and enlarge humanity by embracing monstrosity. The making of monsters was a preoccupation of films as different as Sorry to Bother You, Wildling, Smallfoot, The Titan, Overlord, and The Cured, while the unjust monstering of non-human others played out in films as different as Bumblebee, Rampage, Isle of Dogs, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Luis and the Aliens, with full-on alien romances in How to Talk to Girls at Parties and Russian extravaganza Attraction, and in the other direction Beethoven thwarting interstellar genocide in weirdo British two-hander Native.

Image result for a quiet place
A Quiet Place

Continue reading “Nick’s 2018 in SFF Cinema”