Stardust Memories

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The Creative Chrysalis: On Neal Stephenson’s ‘Seveneves’

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The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first.

If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots.

We are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it.

In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion.

The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime:

The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time — and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it.

Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet.

That gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle — that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe — it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books.

All of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay.

What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell.

It’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news:

Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now — most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen.

That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers.

There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas.

The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick.

But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.

Star Wars, Apatow, and the Death of Classic Comedy

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My wife and I recently watched I Love You Again, a 1940 comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The film’s setup is preposterous: Powell plays a small-town stuffed shirt who, conked on the head at sea, develops an amnesia that reverts him to his former self — a smooth-talking con artist with no recollection of the tedious man he’d become. When his ship returns to harbor, Loy, his bored and long-suffering wife, is there with divorce papers — but she soon becomes intrigued by this magnetic version of her husband.

Complications ensue, and as is generally the case with Powell and Loy, the movie glides along on a draft of high-toned pleasure. Though its running time is roughly an hour and a half, it felt like forty minutes. And as the credits rolled, my wife and I asked what we always ask when such comedies — not just those of Powell and Loy, but of Grant, Stewart, Katherine Hepburn and the rest — come to an end: Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?

The question isn’t rhetorical, but neither do we need it answered; the reason seems fairly clear. Films like I Love You Again, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story aren’t made anymore because they’re simply out of style, like short ties or fedoras or Chicken à la King.

This explanation, though, does not satisfy. Unlike adventure movies or “issue films” of similar vintage — the Oscar-winning but now-excruciating Gentleman’s Agreement comes to mind — those old comedies haven’t aged. Both Holiday and Judy Holliday remain sharp and smart; decades later, they still do what they were meant to do — extract our laughter — as efficiently as anything made today. To watch a Cukor or Thin Man film is to take a Packard for a spin and find, to your shock, that it outdrives current models.

So why don’t they make such Packards anymore? A recent New York Times Magazine essay, “‘The Hangover’ and the Age of The Jokeless Comedy,” touched on an answer as it outlined the movement from joke-a-minute comedies to The Hangover, Part II — which it called a “Saw-style torture-porn movie with a laugh track.” But the piece, for all its passion, didn’t say much about a possible root cause for the change: modern audiences’ overall sophistication, which has paradoxically rendered comedy less sophisticated.

There was a time when sci-fi directors could hang planets from strings and Dr. Zaius could speak through laughably stiff ape-lips. Audiences understood that effects had limitations, and could tolerate hand-painted backgrounds and monsters in rubber suits. But in 1977, Star Wars slashed a light saber through that tolerance. George Lucas’ exacting visual sense, aided by his own technology, instantly made his antecedents look baldly ludicrous. Godzilla was trounced by a nerd with a pompadour.

As he and Steven Spielberg bulldozed through the ‘80s, audiences came to expect no visual seams at all — and in the process, lost the willingness to do some of the work themselves. This expectation — that movies, whether set in space or in a Temple of Doom, should be effortless to watch — bled into comedy. The genre, dependent on setup and dialogue rather than effects, did more of the work by becoming more believable. The biggest comedies of the pre-Star Wars ‘60s and ‘70s — A Shot in the Dark, What’s Up, Doc?, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H — felt no need to put us at narrative ease. Much like their screwball forerunners, they burst from the gate at a sprint and didn’t slow for stragglers.

Through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, however — as film technology advanced, culminating with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park — comedy grounded itself, its setups and settings becoming fully mundane: two Illinois losers do public-access TV and sing along to Queen. Texas teenagers get high and drive around. Clerks crack wise at work. Even hits of the era that in retrospect seem outlandish — Mrs. Doubtfire, Liar Liar, The Santa Clause — took ample time to explain their premises lest audiences squirm. Tim Allen couldn’t just be Santa Claus; we had to have the details — as well as a side-story about divorce, insanity, and visitation rights.

In recent years Judd Apatow and friends, with their hyper-familiar brand of hairy-assed humor, have issued a crushing blow to the suspension of disbelief — and made the gap between old comedy and new unbridgeable: William Powell’s amnesiac con man is now Bradley Cooper’s rohypnoled best man. My Favorite Wife was set into motion when Irene Dunne returned from a desert island; Forgetting Sarah Marshall begins when Jason Segel gets dumped and flies to Hawaii to sulk. The comedies of today must make us feel as if these things could happen to us: events like getting drunk, dumped, and knocked up are, rather than minor elements, now the meat of the thing. Seth Rogen, rumpled and unshaven, doesn’t look like a movie star, and that’s exactly the point. We’ve become unable to laugh along with anyone but ourselves.

All this has turned comedy — once a genre of experimentation — into cinema’s narrowest style. 1976 saw the release of the following comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, The Sunshine Boys, Shampoo, Smile, The Return of the Pink Panther, Let’s Do It Again, Cooley High, and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. There is no clear through-line here; it was a year of satire, farce, screwball, and silliness. By contrast, this year’s comedies have been The Hangover Part II, Bad Teacher, Bridesmaids, Hall Pass, Take Me Home Tonight, and No Strings Attached — all featuring People Sort Of Like Us doing Naughty Things. Even The Change-Up dulled its body-switch setup with crap joke after crap joke. Individually, these may be funny movies; as a whole, the effect is smothering.

So this is not a heady time for fans of an older, less common comedy; Powell and Loy, breezing through nonsense plots, have never seemed more distant. Yet even now, there is hope from an unlikely source (and it’s not Johnny Depp, driver of a dreaded Thin Man remake). Woody Allen, once a specialist of just-go-with-it comedy — Bananas, Sleeper, Stardust Memories — has a legitimate hit with his Midnight in Paris. In it, Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender time-travels to the Paris of the past, getting his novel reviewed by Gertrude Stein and hanging with Dalí. He falls for a beautiful girl even though she might not exist. The film’s time-travel mechanics are never explained; Gil just hops into a limousine and gets out in the ‘20s. As vague and irrational as the device is, it works because it allows us to fill the blank spaces ourselves. Midnight in Paris proves that a sense of familiarity is an unnecessary cinematic crutch. One might say that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

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