Friday 14 December 2018

Mortal Engines & the Tyranny of Realism

Urgh. How very unrealistic.

I love realism in my speculative fiction, but I am by no means beholden to it. I can enjoy realistic science fiction like The Andromeda Strain, 2001, Interstellar, Silent Running, and Moon at least as much as I relish scientific romance & space operas like the Space Trilogy, the Barsoom saga, & Star Wars. It's answering the question "Do you like hard or soft science fiction" with "yes."

Take dragons, for instance. I greatly enjoy the likes of The Last Dragon/Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real, which offered a fascinating pseudo-palaeontology for dragons, from the early draconic creatures of the Late Cretaceous which survived the K-T extinction, to the variety in forms which led to Marine, Occidental, and Oriental forms. Similarly, Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George and its spiritual companion, Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons (both inspiring the fascinating Rankin-Bass cartoon sharing the latter's name) offer inventive extrapolations into dragon society in fantasy settings, as well as the anatomical nature of dragons.

8-year-old Aly ate stuff like this right up. In this age of the Internet, daft nerds like me can explore further than ever. Shad Brooks' series Fantasy Re-Armed does for other fantasy beings what has been done for dragons, from dwarves to elves, orcs to mermen, minotaurs to centaurs, fairies to giants, while also exploring traditional fantasy elements like dungeons, castles, paladins, and barbarians. It's a great time for those people in the middle of that very niche Venn diagram that loves hard science and complete invention.

At the same time, however, I don't need my fantasy creatures to be realistic (imagine that). I don't scoff at the unrealism of Ancalagon the Black being ludicrously huge, nor will I be over fussed if one dragon or another defies the laws of aerodynamics. I will not immediately dismiss a work of fiction because one thing or another isn't realistic, and I cannot believe I'm actually saying these words about stories with freaking dragons in them. Speculative fiction does not have to adhere to the constraints of our current reality: it doesn't even have to acknowledge them. All it has to do is be true to what it is trying to achieve.

What an implausible series of events.

Ashley Csanady wrote a fantastic piece about the weird modern fixation with "realism" in dystopian fiction:

... a sort of intellectual cottage industry has sprung up attempting to figure out just how these imagined dystopias fit into our present idea of reality. It’s as if the goal of speculative fiction was to paint the most realistic portrayal, as opposed to tapping into a universal shred of truth, unravelling a societal flaw to its thinnest end and laying bare the threads that bind where we are now to where we are going. 
To take dystopian fiction literally, to weigh its reality, is to miss the point; it’s to lose the nuance of the imagining, the act of wonder and reflection...
... Dystopian novels are, in essence, adult fairy tales. They warn us about what happens when we allow totalitarians to take power or let science and consumerism or the pursuit of happiness deflate our humanity, or the perilousness of female autonomy. The best that the genre has offered this century has been able to hold up a Black Mirror (to borrow a phrase) to our technology and social media obsessed lives. The ones from the 20th century – with which we are currently obsessed – hold slivers of truth about how we now live precisely because they weren’t confined to the conditions of the time in which they were written. 
I remember being one of those nerds who talked about how unrealistic something was. "There's no way they could survive that fall, it would surely break their legs!" "That's not how the laws of thermodynamics work!" "That wouldn't have happened at this point in space and time according to what we know of that space and time!" It was a great pastime for me to nitpick away at the science and history of films. Certainly it was better than moaning about divergences from source material (which, as we all know, is serious business).

But that nitpicking was fun. It was entertaining; it made me think about the work, and the world, differently, by seeing how fiction interacts with reality, and how people are willing to forgive unrealities that make fiction seem more "real," like exaggerated and invented sound effects. For science fiction, we wouldn't stop there with "it's impossible": we'd think "how could we, theoretically, make it possible?" We could grouse about things, even get quite animated and angry, but if realism was not the primary purpose of the story, then why would the creators limit themselves needlessly? There's always an acknowledgement that nitpicks are part of the analysis and process: they are not necessarily examples of a film's failures.

Hence how I can only shake my head at folk whose main takeaway of "Fifteen Million Credits" seems to be to question how possible it is to power a society using exercise bikes:

On the popular BBC science program Bang Goes the Theory, they showed that 78 people were required to cycle intensively to power just one shower. Due to heavy energy losses throughout the conversion of exercise to electricity, a reliance upon cycling as our next energy source isn’t very plausible in its current state. So it seems like the idea of a future where the poor power the world through cycling is probably quite far away and that can only be a good thing.
 - Justin Hedworth, The Science of Black Mirror
As far as world-building goes, “Fifteen Million Merits” isn’t one of the strongest “Black Mirror” installments. (Why do people sign up for this new world order, exactly?) However, if you don’t question the underlying logic too hard, this is easily one of the most emotionally affecting “Black Mirror” stories.
 - Indiewire
The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say? 
Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5
 - The New Statesman

Maybe it's a sort of metaphor? Maybe!?! It's... like... are you serious? A story which is entirely about the loss of humanity to consumerism & the abstraction of power might have more going on than literally using bikes to power a society? Has anyone criticised Brasil for being "unrealistic"? Brave New World? Metropolis?

Thus we come to Mortal Engines, a fantasy film that people seem to be demanding act like a science fiction one. I haven't read the books, and I have a... complicated relationship with Peter Jackson (who didn't direct, but wrote the screenplay with his longtime collaborators-in-crime Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), but it caught my interest by virtue of the teaser, which seemed to play at every screening at the Greenock Waterfront Cinema for a year:

So we have a gigantic, sprawling city-state on treads, led in front by monstrous British Lions, crowned with St. Paul's Cathedral, decayed Union Flag decorating its champing metal teeth, absorbing smaller polities into its gaping maw like some vast predatory beast. As dystopias go, it's a pleasingly bombastic one, and the applicability of a metropolis actively hunting down and devouring little towns and villages is pretty obvious. Ambulatory cities have been explored by groups like the Archigrams for a while, like Ron Herron's famous 1964 walking city and Manuel Dominguez' very large structure. It's also very reminiscent of some classic science fiction, from The Land Leviathan to The Amtrak Wars, arguably evoking the early scientific romances of Wells & Verne with their then-fantastical machines & neo-Victorian aesthetics.

The reasoning for why cities have taken to the metaphorical road in Mortal Engines is simple enough: a terrible war waged by unholy weaponry in the distant past wrecked the Earth's crust so profoundly that settled civilisation would be impossible. To deal with the regular and devastating earthquakes, cities had to adapt or be swallowed by the raging planet. After a period of reverting to something like a nomadic, fluid, post-civilisation society, humanity then decided to rebuild their precious cities - symbols and monuments to their history and pride - and put them on gigantic tracks.

The reaction to the trailer online was to ponder the physics of the thing, the structural integrity, the energy demands. The premise is utterly ridiculous, everyone says - as if that makes the case for automatic disqualification, that any and all fiction set in the future with futuristic technology must at least try to be "realistic."

Transformers, of course, have their own idea of ambulatory cities...

Yet having seen the film, I can see that many of the criticisms not only miss the mark, they don't even realist what they're looking at. The traction cities are ridiculous within their own narrative - they're expensive, unsustainable, destructive monsters which consume the little resources the planet has left, all because their inhabitants cannot see a different way. They are fanatically devoted to their cult, giving it the veneer of science & reason under the euphemism "Municipal Darwinism," with anyone suggesting a better way denounced as "Anti-Tractionists." The enormous energy and material demands necessary to make the machines work isn't a narrative fault, a plot hole, a botch - it's the whole point of the story.

It's in the thing's very title - what does "Mortal Engines" refer to, anyway?

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. Oh, now forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
 - William Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene III

Oh, right, it's literally a Shakespearean reference. The "mortal engines" he refers to are generally thought to be cannon, their "rude throats" the tubes, the "immortal Jove's dead clamours" the thunder of the guns' report. Othello is saying goodbye to his life as a soldier, indicating the end of war - and without war, what are cannon but dead chunks of metal? Hence the book talks of the mortality, or unsustainability, of the traction cities, right there in the title.

There's no real obligation for Mortal Engines to be hard science fiction any more than for Snowpiercer - another film which, bizarrely, received criticism for its lack of "realism" - especially when films with even more outlandish constructions like the Death Star in Star Wars, the upside-down floating city of Dalaran in Warcraft, or the Tyrell building of Blade Runner.

Perhaps this is all part of the great battle between Worldbuilding and Worldconjuring Lincoln Michel was talking about:

At the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America page, Patricia C. Wrede offers a large list of worldbuilding questions for writers such as “How early do people get up in the morning in the city?” and “What shapes are tables/eating areas (round, oblong, square, rectangular, etc.)?” Wrede doesn’t expect authors to know all these questions, but they give a good idea of the level of detail at which many worldbuilding authors are asked to think...
... And for all the worldbuilding love that The Lord of the Rings gets, Tolkien’s work would fail the worldbuilding guides I’ve linked to here. He may have set the table for high fantasy, but he doesn’t even pass contemporary fantasy author Brandon Sanderson’s first “law’ of magic. The focus on worldbuilding has moved far beyond simply creating some interesting backstories and complex politics to increase the drama of the tale, to expecting a writer to have mapped out every detail of a world as if they were producing an encyclopedia instead of a story. Would the mythic The Lord of the Rings be improved by more discussion of elvish trade agreements and Mordor dining room etiquette?
Was Star Wars improved by midichlorians and trade negotiations?
I love Worldbuilding and Worldconjuring, and indeed view both on the same continuum - I don't love when something is criticised or dismissed for being something it wasn't meant to be.

Anyway, I haven't talked about the film, have I? Mortal Engines was... interesting. The detail & love which went into the world itself were, as expected from Weta, superb: indeed, the visuals did a lot of the heavy lifting in storytelling, be it a barely-glimpsed illuminated wanted poster for a character we'd meet later, or the stratification of London society visualised on a level-by-level basis. The acting was also competent for the most part, with Stephen Lang's tragic cyborg (seriously, is he trying to outdo Malcolm McDowell & Rutger Hauer in "being too good for the film he's in" stakes?) a particular highlight for me, while Hugo Weaving was dependably charismatic & compelling too. The music & direction was generally good too, albeit with some really bizarre editing decisions that didn't sit well with me. The script was... I didn't like it. At all. There's something about Jackson-Walsh-Boyens' scriptwriting that just drives me absolutely up the wall, and I don't know why.

Overall, I think Mortal Engines would've worked a lot better with a minimal script (preferably by another team), about half the set pieces expurgated, and a half-hour cut from the runtime. It's a film that desperately wants to be a dark fairytale in the vein of Caro & Jeneut, Gilliam, Bong Joon-ho, or Tarkovsky - presenting a world to the viewer and letting them determine the story, with a minimum of narrative clutter and plot diversion. This isn't Gravity or Star Trek, it's The City of Lost Children, Twelve Monkeys, Stalker, The Truman Show, Synecdoche New York - it's a fable, not a considered prediction of the world to come.

A book I love that I never get the chance to talk about is Colin Thomson's The Tower to the Sun. It's a picture book set a century in the future, where pollution has blocked the sun from the Earth's surface. The richest man in the world decides he wants to feel the sun on his face before he dies, and for his grandchildren to have that same experience. So he spends two decades and all his wealth to build a tower to pierce the smog using every resource he can find - rocks, scrap, entire buildings - all to see a clear sky again.

If you were to view The Tower to the Sun from a science fiction standpoint, of course you would critique the logistics of piling the Parthenon and Empire State Building on top of buildings from all across the world; of course you would question whether it'd be more efficient & cost-effective to spend all that money trying to make life more bearable for Earth's inhabitants under a smog sky; of course you would wonder how the richest man in the world could get all of humanity to build a second Babel just like that. But in doing so, you'd be epically missing the point of the book.

Mortal Engines could have been a great film, but the outlandishness of its premise is not one of its faults - indeed, it's one of its strongest aspects. If it isn't successful, I dearly hope it doesn't discourage filmmakers from rejecting the tyranny of realism in favour of doing something different.

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