‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Ready Player One (dir Steven Spielberg, 2018)

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Several of the set-pieces are very well handled, and there's plenty of visual wit on display. I'd say it's better than the book, but that's not saying very much. The book really isn't very good. And however flashily-competently Spielberg adapts the novel, he's stuck with the main throughline of his mediocre source material: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with video games and 80s pop culture instead of sweets and chocolate. It's a tick-box adventure that, once all the boxes have been ticked, leaves the viewer feeling ... meh. This (to shift literary allusions for a moment) is a movie that scrambles breathlessly up its over-busy staircase only to burst into fulfilment's desolate attic.

So: James Halliday, creator of OASIS, the world's favourite immersive gaming-VR environment, (Halliday is played with an oddly distracted air and a silly wig by the usually dependable Mark Rylance) is the story's Willy Wonka. He has left a series of puzzles hidden in his games, the solver of which will collect the Easter Egg that gives him/her ownership of the Chocolate Factory that is OASIS. Our Charlie Bucket is Wade Watts, an orphan who lives in a shanty-town in the shithole that the real world has become. He goes through the various chambers of OASIS with his pals, finds the egg and wins. In Dahl's story five lucky kids, chosen at random, get the chance to ‘win’ the factory. In Cline's novel the entire global gaming population has that chance, and yet, somehow, it's only Watts and his four feisty companions who are able to figure out the Dan-Brown-level-of-obviousness clues and win through. There's a lot of chasing about, and all of it happens in a world of real examples of intellectual property: Back to the Future and Akira, Excalibur and King Kong, Pizza Hut and Fruit Rocks and Minecraft, all prominently displayed. They should have called the movie Logo's Run.

The film ends with an absolutely unearned panegyric to ‘the real’, such that on becoming the new owner of the OASIS young Wade Watts shuts it down on Tuesdays and Thursdays to compel people to spend time with their real-world loved ones. As we were leaving the cinema, I asked my ten-year-old Dan, a dedicated gamer (and if I'm honest the only reason I went to see this movie at all) if he'd do something similar, were he ever to be gifted ownership of the internet. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. ‘Er, no?’ he scoffed. ‘That's like the worst idea in the world.’ And we can be honest: no matter what it pretends, this movie actually agrees with my son on this matter.

So, yes, target audience and so on. Maybe this flick just isn't for me. That's fine. And Dan did enjoy Ready Player One, he assured me. But although it's now been three days, he hardly talks about it. There have been films he has seen, and books he has read, that have resulted in literally weeks of excited chatter and speculation and fan-engagement. Despite the fact that he really is passionate about his gaming, this one ...not so much.

There's one granule of full disclosure I need to make, which may explain and indeed might be thought to invalidate the sourness of my reaction to this film. So here goes.

It has to do with one alteration, amongst several, that Spielberg makes in adapting his source material into his movie. Presumably unable to clear the rights to Blade Runner, whose universe and voight kampff test are important to Cline's story, Spielberg replaces that proprietary universe (which is at least the kind of thing Halliday would think cool) with the universe of Kubrick's The Shining movie (which, though Halliday might respect, he would surely not love in his heart of hearts). It makes for a tonally incongruous central section of the movie's larger narrative-line, I think. But I also had a more personal reason for tut-tutting this interpolation.

The situation in which the inhabitants of a degraded future-world take refuge in a more gratifying virtual world is an old warhorse of SF, going back at least as far as Neuromancer and doubtless earlier. Last year I published my own take on it: a book called The Real Town Murders. In this novel, the vast majority of people have migrated into a shared VR world I call ‘The Shine’, leaving a few people struggling in the dusty and decaying real world. Cline's book has been globally successful and it piqued the interest of one of popular cinema's undeniable geniuses; my book hasn't and didn't, so I don't offer the following observations in any comparative-evaluative sense. There's no question how that exercise would shake down. But you'll understand my personal attachment to my little novel, and this is my blog after all, so I hope you'll indulge me.

The Real Town Murders is a near-future-set whodunit written in intertextual relation with Hitchcock. I've now completed a sequel called The Pricking of Her Thumbs, also a whodunit, set in the same world and written this time in intertextual relation to Kubrick. This sequel includes an interlude inside a VR-recreated Kubrick movie (2001 in my case). My petty personal annoyance is that now people will think I'm ripping-off the movie of Ready Player One. I'm not: though I had read Cline's book, the The Shining interlude isn't in that version of the story, and I completed my novel long before seeing the film (I'm fielding the copy-edits at the moment, in fact). Ah well. Can't be helped. And though I say people will think ... in fact not that many people are going to think anything at all about my forthcoming novel. Indeed having a few thinking it's a rip-off of Spielberg's movie would probably be a small gain for me.

I'm approaching my larger point via Real Town Murders because it's easier for me to frame it that way, although it is a point that stands irrespective or me, Cline, Spielberg or anybody, I think. So: my novel is set (as I say) in a denuded future reality which most people have abandoned for glitzier, more gratifying online virtualities. And not just set there: my story entirely plays out in the real world. Various characters blather on and on about how wonderful the Shine is, but the novel doesn't ever go there. It simply didn't occur to me to write my novel any other way. Because: well, duh.

Cosmoi predicated upon the notion of frictionless gratification are inimical to conflict, and therefore drama, and therefore storytelling and the larger remit of the novel. In such environments nothing is really earned, everything is a succession of weightless, affectless sparkles and swooshes. More to the point, a text like Ready Player One is like this not in the ‘good’ estranging-deracinating mode of old-school postmodernism but in a ‘bad’ feel-good sugary all-pals-together vacuousness of an existentially pathological ludic passivity. There can be no story of any merit in such places, and the art of such places exists within a very narrow band, aesthetically-speaking (some of the visuals in Spielberg's Ready Player One are, I admit, pretty cool; some of the in-jokes and gags are kind of fun). It's not just the specular ennui of watching somebody else play a video game—although it is that, and this movie is nothing but that—it's the formal inability of story-spaces entirely predicated upon wish-fulfilment to provide anything other than the sterile fulfilment of commodified wishes. Wade solves the clues, beats the bad guy, gets the girl and literally not figuratively wins the internet. That's the whole story. The obstacles placed in his way are purely notional obstacles. There's more narrative and aesthetic drama in Marcel trying and failing to fall asleep in the opening chapter of Swann's Way than in the whole $200 million 140 minutes of this text—not because one is high art and the other popular culture, but because one is about the resistance of reality to human desire and the other about nothing but that desire.

To nail this to specifics is almost to miss the point. But still: in the big bossfight at the end of the movie, handsome young Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his friends have to defeat evil corporate Suit Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn delivering a performance more smarmy than menacing). Since the fight is happening in a VR, our heroes send in the Iron Giant—in the novel this is Ultraman, but again presumably Spielberg couldn't clear the rights to that particular giant. Sorrento presses a magic button in his magic dimension and conjures a mechagodzilla with himself in its mechadriving-seat. The two big robots fight, with lots of crunchy-punching and lasers and explosions, which is good if you like crunchy-punching and lasers and explosions, although is unlikely to provide any deeper kinds of aesthetic satisfactions even if you do like those things. Sorrento's mechagodzilla is defeated, so he scrambles away to effect Plan B, a magic button that deletes all the players from the game. Why doesn't he just reboot his mechagodzilla I hear you ask? He's in charge of the game, after all. Why doesn't he deploy a million mechagodzillae and stomp all opposition to a desert of shattered pixels? The reason is: because that's not his function. His function is to provide a temporary impediment to the heroes on their inevitable-from-the-outset journey to fulfilment-of-wishes-town.

Since everything in the VR is arbitrary, narrative struggles and achievements are arbitrary too, set by designer fiat and player-adjustable. In-game difficulty is dirigible in order for it never to be too difficult. Nobody enjoys playing tennis entirely without a net of course, but video games allow players to set the net at any height they want, increase or reduce the diameter of their rackets, add musculature to their forearms and so on. I daresay that's fine if what you're interested in doing is playing a video game; but its death to drama and storytelling, and a text that purports to be doing the latter by actually doing the former is doom. The hero wins because his opponent is incompetent, or because the game designer has allowed him to, or both; not because s/he has actually achieved anything or proved anything.

I don't mean to rant. The long-story-short is: when I sat down to write my shitty real world/gleaming VR fantasyland story it seemed to me a no-brainer that a story about the former would be much more interesting than one about the latter. Despite a few nods to the real world, Ready Player One is all about the latter, though, a world with which it is in love. The prodigious commercial success of Cline's novel (and Spielberg's film), as set against the manifest commercial failure of my novel, its cultural profile so low it could double as a map of the Netherlands, might incline you to think I'm wrong about this. In terms of public success and adoration I probably am. But aesthetically I'm right.


  1. Don't worry Adam, I felt pretty much the same way about my own, partly VR based novel regarding the success of Ready Player One. Actually, the success of that book and similar others have led me to have some fairly frank internal dialogues about the artist's (I still can't seriously regard myself as such) dilemma. Do you aim for the aesthetic and intriguing, or plug into the rules-set for commercial success? You can be unsuccessful at either, of course, but I think it is very hard to be successful at both. All these stories like Ready Player One or, my personal bugbear, Robopocalypse, follow cast-iron narrative laws dating from prehistory. You can draw a line from these things through Grimm's fairytales all the way back to any mythology you care to name, plus or minus degrees of wish-fulfilment and/or dark warnings. Is this because we have made stories this way, and have come to expect them to be so, or because human brain architecture dictated they be that way? No matter the era, really successful stories seem to tap into self-validation on the part of the reader. I'm good, I'm smart, I'm not different, being different is okay, and so on. Ready Player One follows the curve and validates today's obsession with facile cultural artefacts. Whatever. you're the professor of literature, you can give me D- for this pseud-ish nonsense :). But, at the end of the day, it is a very sad but true thing that a cut and dried, predictable story following age old narrative paths is most likely to have the greatest success. It's comfy slippers for the mind. Basically, a film where a nerdy boy fights a cardboard villain dressed up as Donkey Kong to get the girl is probably going to make x to the power of forever more money than one of your excellent, illuminating novels, or one of mine less excellent, less illuminating ones. That's ludicrously unfair, but it's the way it is. Personally, I know I'd rather read one of your books.

  2. Have you read Unplugged by Donna Freitas - another teen novel about being forcibly expelled from a VR paradise? Not as superficial as Ready Player One because it's more sceptical, but pretty bad nonetheless.