July 21, 2009

Julius Shulman, 1910-2009.

American architectural photographer Julius Shulman has passed away. Known as one-shot Shulman - because he seldom had to take more - his images defined the postwar architecture of southern California, making its modernist structures famous around the world.

July 18, 2009


It seems fitting that there should be a film about Man on the Moon exactly four decades after men first set foot on it. Not that Moon is a film about the American feat, or the Earth's sole natural satellite itself. No, director Duncan Jones' first feature is a film about what it means to be human, set on the Moon simply because its stark environs provide an excellent background for examining what precisely it is that makes us who we are. In this dusty and pockmarked petri dish, the film inquires which is more crucial to our identity: our physical presence or what we accomplish in our lifetime. (It's also fitting that Moon pays homage to the film that inspired director Jones' more prominent father's breakthrough forty years ago.)

The film tells the story of Sam Bell, the sole human employee of Lunar Industries' helium-3 extracting station Sarang ("love" in Korean,) tucked away on the far side of the Moon - the lunar hemisphere permanently turned away from the Earth. Bell only has weeks left of his three year contract as the station's acting grease monkey. He's had his fill of the mentally gruelling solitude, and can't wait to return to Earth, to his wife and his daughter. But, with only days to go, he suffers an accident that shatters his identity, and forces him to question not only his very own existence but also the role he actually plays in the obscure machinations of Lunar Industries.

Shot in only 33 days, Moon is the kind of science fiction film that's rarely made anymore. Apart from the occasional "sound in space for dramatic effect" and the odd slip (like the lack of lag in direct communication between the Moon and Earth,) it gets the science right. Helium-3 is not a variety of Kryptonite but an actual isotope, the potential application of which in nuclear fusion currently fuels the renewed interest in Moon "exploration." No action packed adventure, the film contains little that could easily be recognised as a special effect, no senseless battles or wire-stunt orgies. Instead of CGI, it relies on the almost lost art of model miniatures, its "exterior" scenes created using models constructed under the supervision of Bill Pearson - perhaps best known as supervising model maker for Ridley Scott's Alien.

The eerie resemblance goes further; like Scott, Jones got his start in commercial film. His interest in film was stirred upon visiting his father on set in Montréal, where Ridley Scott's younger brother Tony was directing the TV serial The Hunger. Moon also mirrors Alien's focus on the working class of space. Its main protagonist isn't a daring space captain, or inventive scientist. He's a grunt, undoubtedly accepting a ludicrous contract in exchange for an incredibly lucrative reward, who - like the protagonists of Alien - receives the runaround from his cynical, unscrupulous employer as a bonus. Where the two films differ, and where Jones' film is closer to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris, is that Alien fundamentally was a horror story with venereal overtones, whereas Moon is a psychological drama.

While all these film have a languid pace in common, Moon is also closer in sentiment to Kubrick's 1968 epic and Tarkovsky's partially successful 1972 adaptation of Stanisław Lem's novel, centering on humanity's - and specifically a single human being's - isolation in the vast void of space, a species clearly out of its element. However, director Jones isn't entirely dismissive of the films that occupy the other end of the fantastical spectrum, as Moon's "infomercial" introduction clearly references Paul Verhoeven's much more aggressive contributions to the genre, like RoboCop or Starship Troopers.

Yet Moon also shares a remarkably similar design with the science fiction classics of yonder, as if interstellar interior decorating hadn't progressed much beyond minor wear and tear in the last three decades. It's not clear whether this is an intentional tribute or simply a trick played by director Jones; Moon's designs mimic those of films set in the future we now (supposedly) inhabit. It's logical that a base on the Moon, fifteen minutes into our future yet eight years after the action in 2001: A Space Odyssey, should look as if it belonged in the same era. Here, Jones appears to probe a hitherto largely unexplored, paradoxical territory in scenography, one that toys with nostalgia without "going retro."

For Sam Rockwell, the role of Bell, written especially for him, is an outstanding opportunity to display his talent. His third foray into science fiction isn't just the first that's not a comedy, but also the first where the drama almost entirely relies on his skill alone. Apart form a quantity of previously recorded messages, the supporting cast is only fleshed out, in a manner of speaking, by GERTY - an exceptionally rudimentary mechanical version of Kevin Spacey, indubitably cobbled together by that very same corporation that furnishes all spaceships and bases with sophisticated machinery of imprecise utility. Rockwell displays magnificent prowess considering the challenge.

Having earned a degree in philosophy, specialising in ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, and endured the travails of long-distance relationship, it's not surprising that director Jones should chose to explore the fragility of human nature, how our memories and emotions can be distorted and lost to time and distance. Moon's biblical references on the other hand - the recurring trinity, machines named for apostles, are somewhat more intriguing, if not perplexing. What truly enables Jones' first feature to stand out among the canonical dystopian visions of the (immediate) future, is his extrapolation of a system where identity has become a resource in the hands of the powerful, manipulated to exclusively serve their purposes, and allowing those in power to impose a previously unimagined level of alienation on those ruled.

July 17, 2009

Rear View: Alien.

"You have come for knowledge. There will be pleasure.
For knowledge is sexy. There will also be pain.
Because knowledge is torture."

- Jeff Noon, Vurt, 1993

Thirty years ago the release of Alien completely changed science fiction film. Its pioneering design and hyperrealism became a template for futuristic visions in the decades that followed, spawning novels, comics, video games, toys, and an additional five films (including two crossovers with the Predator "franchise"). Its visual impact and the plausibility of the plot, combined with a new, more violent aesthetic to create a story far removed from the sterile, shiny surfaces of the classic space operas in whose wake it arrived. Though Star Wars had introduced rundown settings and rumbustious machines two years prior, that film's plot remained true to the conventional romantic romp in space - as was the case with Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the more immediate attempts to cash in on the success of Star Wars. While Alien certainly benefitted from their success and particularly the reinvigoration of the genre they signified to film producers, it was a fundamentally darker creation which provided a breakthrough for a new subgenre, ostensibly labelled science fiction but significantly different in several important ways.

It depicts a dark dystopian future technocapitalist society, where omnipotent dictatorial and mercenary business conglomerates grapple for control over people and machines. Its aesthetic obtaining suggestive power and inspiration from various areas of contemporary culture, with a particularly obvious connection to Punk in its films' artificial revolt and exaggerated expressionist violence. It also parallels the rise of the literary genre later known as Cyberpunk, and its disrespectful attitude towards genre conventions, as well as innovations in fantastical art and comics - something exceptionally explicit in the case of Alien, a film designed by some the leading pioneers in those fields. As principal Cyberpunk writer William Gibson pointed out, this scientific fiction didn't deal so much with the future as with the time it was created in, extrapolating tendencies and phenomena already in existence - gone was the utopian future in which humanity had rid itself of the dark, turbulent 20th century's burdens.

No other genres attach so much importance to visual presentation as science fiction and horror films do - and Alien is both. But it was only during the 1970s and 1980s that they achieved a level of realism and persuasion to match the visions of filmmakers, and begun to erase the boundary between what could be imagined on paper and realised on screen. Alien achieved a greater degree of realism by as intensely as possible transferring its fantastical script to the screen; its audience was provided with a visualisation so powerful it appeared to be real. Its plot coupled the intimate with the clinical, while quite intentionally seeking to shock with the same brash attitude as Punk - a revolt that reverberated beyond popular music, in art, literature, film, and continues to resonate in mass media and popular culture. Under the guise of Punk it was suddenly possible (if not permissible) to exaggerate and enhance beyond the normally acceptable. With its shocking clarity and frank violence, Alien also serves as an example of how the film industry can assimilate a subculture and incorporate a school of thought.

Though a great success, Alien was born from disaster. In 1975, Chilean enfant terrible Alejandro Jodorowsky was preparing to make a film based on Frank Herbert's 1965 science fiction novel Dune. The second director among the quartet who'd attempt to adapt the novel, in a process protracted well over a decade, Jodorowsky envisioned a massive project, calling for enormous sets and gigantic scenes, entire armies battling each other in the desert. He assembled a pre-production team in a large Paris office, and among the many famous artists whose participation Jodorowsky was able to secure were three relative unknowns who'd go on to create Alien: Dan O'Bannon, Hans Reudi Geiger, and Jean "Mœbius" Giraud. An old acquaintance, the French comics artist Mœbius had been hired by Jodorowsky to provide storyboards for Dune, having already permanently altered the aesthetics of science fiction comics through Métal Hurlant, the magazine he'd helped found in 1974. Swiss surrealist Geiger had been hired by sheer fluke to create sets, when Jodorowsky came across one of his exhibition catalogues while negotiating Salvador Dàli's participation in the project.

Dan O'Bannon was hired to create special effects on the strengths of his contribution to Star Wars, and the 1974 feature Dark Star he'd conceived with fellow USC student John Carpenter - but only once Douglas Trumbull (who'd created special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but turned down Star Wars) revealed himself too expensive for Jodorowsky's taste. But O'Bannon only arrived in Paris in time to witness the bloated project collapse. Jodorowsky's approach to failure was to change direction entirely, and when his remarkable version of Dune was cancelled he simply moved on. Geiger and Mœbius too returned to their established careers. For O'Bannon, who'd planned the next several years of his life around the project, it wasn't as simple. He returned to America, broke and homeless, and begun channelling his frustration into screenplays - one of which, Star Beast, would morph into Alien with considerable help from producers Walter Hill and Ronald Shusett. Both O'Bannon and Hill considered directing the film themselves, but their final choice fell on Briton Ridley Scott - after mulling fellow American Robert Aldrich (The Flight of the Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen), and Britons Jack Clayton (The Great Gatsby) and Peter Yates (Bullitt).

Though a successful set designer and commercial film maker, Scott had only one feature, the 1977 period drama The Duellists, to his name. He was not only new to the science fiction genre but somewhat of an outsider in the film business. (Curiously, Scott would become the third director to tackle Dune, working on that film for seven months in between Alien and his next feature, Blade Runner.) However, Alien's success relied more on the creatures spawned by Geiger's extraordinary imagination. The son of an introverted pharmacist, Geiger had become known for surreal airbrushed images of "biomechanoids," symbiotic interconnected organic bodies and machines. Frequently imbued with fetishistic erotic imagery, they were likely inspired by Geiger's catholic, sex- and gun-obsessed youth in the shadow of atomic Cold War paranoia, as well as a lifetime of suffering night terrors. When director Scott engaged Mœbius, whose comics as a fellow draughtsman he admired, to design costumes and spacesuits for Alien, Mœbius hinted at Giger as someone capable of creating a truly alien creature.

Eager to redeem himself after infamously creating a "space monster" in the shape of a beach ball with claws for Dark Star, Dan O'Bannon commissioned Geiger to devise a "monster" for Alien that wouldn't even remotely resemble "a guy in a rubber suit." In February 1978, director Scott accompanied by a couple of the film's producers visited Geiger, who by then had completed almost thirty conceptual paintings for the project in roughly three months time. Convinced that the artist was indeed the man for the job, they invited him to Shepperton, where the film was to be made. So Geiger, assisted by his future wife Mia Bonzangio, came to work directly on the creature which would win him an Oscar for best visual effects, and with which he would henceforth be intrinsically linked. Ironically, Alien also won three awards for best original score, despite the fact that much of Jeremy Goldsmith's original music for the film was rejected by director Scott, patched with interspersed segments from a score Goldsmith had composed for John Houston's Freud in 1962, and excerpts from the first movement of Howard Hanson's second symphony. Regardless of the film's success and the awards, Goldsmith apparently never forgave Scott.

Basically a story about things that go bump in the night - before they kill you - Alien is an exploration of human ignorance, negligence, and greed. The crew of an interstellar tugboat, hauling a massive ore refinery back to Earth, hatch from their artificial sleep upon intercepting a nearby distress call. Obliged to investigate, they trace the signal to an alien shipwreck on a small planetoid where one of the crew manages to become impregnated by an alien creature whose main circulatory fluid just happens to be a universal solvent, and whose offspring hatches explosively from his chest, grows rapidly in size and strength, and proceeds to eliminate the crew one at a time. The slow pacing of the film, reminiscent of thrillers past, is its greatest strength. The suspense is allowed to build slowly, there's no instant gratification of the kind common today. Effects are used sparingly, the realism intensified by the fact that the alien creatures mostly appear in brief fragments, with the handheld camera-work done by director Scott himself lending the film a certain cinema vérité quality.

Much of the dialogue was improvised, further adding to the realistic tone, as did the small ensemble of character actors with few instantly recognisable stars. Populating a spaceship with older actors (the median age of the cast was 40) of practically equal stature also made it almost impossible to surmise their fate, and guess beforehand who would or wouldn't survive the ordeal. The rumour that only John Hurt, portraying the unwittingly impregnated second mate Kane, knew what would happen in the infamous "chestbuster" scene is partially true. It had been explained to the cast, but not in great detail. They weren't told that real animal guts would be used, hence the scene was shot in one take, with four cameras set up to capture the quite genuine reactions of surprise, revulsion, and shock. The parasitoid nature of the alien creatures serve as a very powerful metaphor for non-consensual reproduction - rape, actually - and the fact that a man is subject to it broadens the threat to include all of mankind. Everyone is at risk, not just of death, but total corruption of the human body.

This aspect is contrasted with the complete disregard of the crew's employer, the Earth-based resource conglomerate, whose intent of bringing a specimen of the alien creatures back to Earth is kept from their employees - they're expendable, mere tools, simply "doing their job." Here perhaps lies the clue to why the spaceship, Nostromo, and its shuttle, Narcissus, are named after characters that appear in the stories of Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad. For though Alien has little in common with Conrad's fin de siècle novels, conceived at the apex of the British Empire, they all share a critical view of the excesses of imperialism. The names of the vessels serve as reminders of humanity's hubris, as signifiers of colonialism. They remind the audience that the conglomerate is interested solely in resources, not research; in expediency, not empathy; in profit, not progress. And that no amount of spacefaring Mates are to be spared when there's a dollar to be made.

With the exception of West Germany, where the film received the camp subtitle "Das unheimliche Wesen aus einer fremden Welt" (The Eerie Creature from an Alien World,) and Hungary, where the slightly more philosophical "A nyolcadik utas: a halál!" (The Eighth Passenger: is Death!) was added, around the world the title was commonly appended with the line "the 8th passenger," which is misleading, particularly as the as the spaceship in question is no pleasure craft nor are the people aboard mere passengers. Theirs is a working vessel, they are its crew - hired grunts doing the bidding of an unscrupulous employer. They are, truth be told, mercenaries hired to harness vast profit, not adventurers or explorers. The titular alien is therefore - at best - a stowaway. But while depicting the people who do all the heavy lifting in space is unusual, Alien is truly remarkable for possessing a female protagonist who's not a damsel in interstellar distress. Perhaps not entirely surprising, given director Scott's unabashed fondness for powerful, emancipated female characters. But third mate Ripley is also Alien's least sympathetic human character, one the audience would consider least likely to survive right from the very beginning.

Ripley's no rebel, she's no lone wolf. On the contrary, she's the only crew member consistently playing by the book, insisiting on following the rules despite being relentlessly thwarted by the cowardice of her colleagues and the ulterior motives of their employer. Ripley is a stickler for the rules, until they no longer apply. At which point she's forced to rely on her own intelligence and initiative instead. An early draft of the script featured a male Ripley, but during rewrites all the characters became androgynous, allowing not only for less rigid casting but also strengthening the idea of humans as incubators, mere tools. Meryl Streep were among the actresses approached, and Veronica Cartwright - who ended up portraying the anxious junior navigator Lambert - was originally cast as Ripley. But the part ultimately went to the (then) rather unknown Sigourney Weaver, whose breakthrough this quite unique part ensured. Unique until the very last act, that is, when for no particular reason Ripley romps around in skimpy togs that are supposed to pass for underwear, and the camera lingers on her waistline. Although this in itself is an interesting comment on how people can become mere cogs in the machinery of economic power. At least Ripley's affair with the ship's captain was dropped from the final version of the film.

Cinema can provide the illusion of exploring new, unknown worlds offering the audience new, unique knowledge. This is particularly true of "scientific fiction" aiming to depict an imagined, future, or contemporary universe. It's also true of the psychological thriller, delving into the past, or detective stories, or various types of horror films. They're all variations of the same, mystical plot: an undiscovered world penetrated by the curious in their quest for obscured knowledge. What makes their quest so suspenseful is the question what attaining this knowledge will entail. Will it be a blessing or a curse, will it involve life or death? Films about forbidden or obscured knowledge can serve as reminders or real scientific risks and problems, but most often dispense ominous warnings regarding the quest for knowledge itself - as do many other contemporary as well as ancient convention shaping stories and myths. The idea that the established order of things is connected to a "higher order" can be discerned lurking behind this cautious stance. If one is altered, or affronted, so is the other.

An exaggerated thirst for knowledge thus becomes something suspicious, capable of provoking a deities' anger or "nature's" revenge. The disrupted order then necessitates restoration, often through ritualised punishment, or a "purifying" sacrifice - in Alien's case, the death of practically every character. To persist in obtaining the obscured or secret despite such obstacles further represents the quest for absolute knowledge. In such cases, it's not merely the story of the lure of the forbidden, but also of the power that resides in owning or performing the exceptional, the astonishing. The attraction lies in possessing knowledge that no one else has previously possessed. In this sense, Alien is as critical towards science and the quest for knowledge as practically every science fiction film before it - yet not nearly as openly hostile as the sequels that followed it. It's likely no coincidence that the ships' science officer turns out to be a rogue; the sole member of the crew attempting to engage the alien creature with curiosity and logic is very much a product of science itself. Not only the sole representative of science aboard, the android Ash - an archetypal evil scientist - is an embodiment of the principles that guide science in Alien's universe.

Curiously, despite the seeming aversion to science, the film commits few scientific faux pas, rarely straying from the boundaries imposed by the universe it imagines. There is of course the plausibility of the alien creature itself, in particular its incredibly rapid development from chest-bursting parasitic banshee to fully fledged bipedal killing machine. Even an unknown, alien biology is unlikely to run counter to natural laws - so called because they appear to be unbreakable practically everywhere. The alien creature's accumulation of mass in particular appears to skirt the first law of thermodynamics, as the audience never actually witnesses it consuming anything it kills - or anything else of substance. There are of course life forms on our planet known to utilise other species as incubators, or increasing their size by ingesting large quantities of liquids. But these traits are rarely combined among them, and certainly not on the scale of the film's antagonistic xenomorph. (Never mind that it would have to be made of teflon to have acid for blood.)

However, keeping in mind that Geiger's creation is a biomechanical symbiont, it may have been designed as a living weapon capable of adapting itself to whatever environment is happens to be deployed in. Though the audience never sees its metamorphosis - in order for the suspense to build - it may acquire part of its bulk from mechanical items it comes across. That would certianly explain some of its vacuum cleaner-like appendages. Indeed, the alien wreck from whence it came may not be a simple transport but something akin to a bomber, lost on its way to egg the face of an enemy with the contents of its deadly hatchery. After all, the plot does suggest that the Earth-based conglomerate, whose interest include not only mining but also armaments, appears not only aware of the alien creatures' potential as biological weapons but in fact possesses some prior knowledge of their existence. This still leaves plenty for continuity fiends to gripe about, but most (f)actual errors in Alien require a level of specialised knowledge not commonly found even among science fiction fans. (Like the fact that the density of the planetoid where the alien wreck is discovered is quite improbable in relation to its reported gravity.)

For the most part, Alien's creators manage to conjure forth a believable setting for their story. Genre conventions, such as practical artificial gravity aboard spaceships, or ventilator shafts sturdy and large enough to spelunk in, do not detract unduly from the logic of the plot. Neither do the scenes with sound in space - something few science fiction films bother getting right, likely because of the importance of sound to their human audiences - even though, as copywriter Barbara Gips pointed out in Alien's legendary tagline, "In space no one can hear you scream." But they still like to hear your spaceship go wooossssh!

July 16, 2009

Phyllis Gotlieb, 1926-2009.

Novelist and poet Phyllis Fay Gotlieb, one of the first published writers of contemporary Canadian science fiction, has passed away. A quintessential Canadian writer, preoccupied with what constitutes identity and communication between peoples, Gotlieb first came to prominence as a poet before trying her hand at SF to cure a bout of writer's block. Following years of rejections, Gotlieb broke through in 1964 with her first SF novel, Sunburst, for which the annual Canadian prize for SF literature is named.

July 9, 2009

Shelf Aware: Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Though many viewers of the purportedly unscripted television show Big Brother may be aware of its title's origin in George Orwell's last novel, to a vast majority it simply seems to denote the omnipresent arbiter of the show. Its quite malignant connotation appears to have evaporated from the public consciousness in the six decades since Nineteen Eighty-Four was published - perhaps in the wake of ordinary people's surprising eagerness to exhibit themselves, warts and all, on television. Despite lasting linguistic contributions - neologisms like "thought police" lifted straight from its pages, or the practically universal reference to anything repressive as "Orwellian" - the novel appears relegated to the heap reserved for Cold War relics. Which is a pity, for though its dystopian account of life under a totalitarian heel is far from unique, Orwell's exploration of what motivates such systems - what makes them tick - remains one of the most perceptive, and has aged surprisingly well. While clearly referencing the time and place in which it was written, it reveals how people can be crushed mentally as well as physically by restrictive, authoritarian, and mendacious governments of any stripe. Every libertarian provoked by society's impositions may well reach for it to decry curtailments of personal freedom, but Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn't particularly promote nor vilify any specific ideology. "Ingsoc," Orwell writes, "grew out of the earlier Socialist movement and inherited its phraseology," but only paid lip-service to its ideals. So, despite charges of being "pro-Communist," or assertions of the opposite, it pertains to any regime or self-aggrandising autocrat striving to shove their particular brand of "truth" down people's throats.

It's a much darker and more complex novel than Orwell's more popular Animal Farm, particularly in its fascination with the morality of language. That aspect alone makes Orwell's prescience increasingly impressive in an era of readily available editing tools and alarming impermanence of records. But it mainly retains its currency because totalitarian regimes as well as attempts to corral reality are still common in our world. The blocs and spheres of influence may have shifted, but the oppression continues unabated. In view of the last decade, Nineteen Eighty-Four appears even more prophetic as even nominally democratic governments around the world claim it necessary to record all private communication in the "fight against terror." An archetypal Orwellian concept; a conflict virtually without end against a vague enemy practically anyone could be accused of colluding with. An enemy portrayed every bit as pervasive, shrewd, ruthless, and imperceptible as the poorly defined adversaries in Orwell's novel. Requiring our constant vigilance and, likely, the sacrifice of our essential right to privacy - as mass surveillance is persistently presented as the ultimate remedy for terror. Yet, Nineteen Eighty-Four is not a bold prediction so much as an account of the forces that have always threatened liberty. It seeks to expose how expedient lies enable those in power to exploit the ruled. It remains a vital protest against the authoritarian in each of us, against the passive conformist in each of us, and against the orthodoxies we leave unquestioned.

It was written in the wake of both personal tragedy and public success, in circumstances that very likely contributed to the writer's death. In 1946, despite the international success of his fifth novel Animal Farm, George Orwell was a struggling widower and single parent. His chain-smoking black rolling tobacco exacerbating the decline of his health. Following his wife Eileen's death the previous year during a routine hysterectomy, Orwell supported his infant son Richard and himself as a contributing writer to several publications. He'd been a literature reviewer and correspondent with The Observer weekly since 1942, and its editor David Astor now offered to lend Orwell a remote Scottish farmhouse in which to complete his next novel. In May 1946, shortly after his older sister Marjorie died of kidney disease, Orwell arrived at the abandoned Barnhill house on the island of Jura. Twelve kilometres from the nearest phone, forty kilometres from the nearest pub. Far from the hubbub of literary London, Orwell - whom the locals knew by his real name, Eric Blair - shared four small bedrooms over a spacious kitchen and a large bedroom that doubled as a storeroom with his younger sister Avril, his son Richard, and - for a while - his housekeeper Susan Watson. No electricity, a battery-powered radio the only link to the world at large. The spare surroundings may have influenced those of Nineteen Eight-Four almost as much as the atmosphere of constant conflict and random terror in wartime London must have done. The winter of 1946-1947, which Orwell spent in London, likely contributed as well. One of the century's harshest, the national fuel shortage left the writer no choice but to burn his furniture and his child's toys to stay warm. Having visited Jura in the New Year, Orwell left London for good in April 1947.

The idea for his new novel had germinated sometime in 1943-1944, with the working title The Last Man in Europe. Orwell later claimed the meeting of Churchill and Roosevelt with Stalin - one of the aggressors of the Second World War - at the Tehran Conference served as inspiration. Orwell was convinced the recently allied leaders consciously "divided the world up" among themselves. But he only began working on the novel in earnest in 1946, eight months after reviewing a French translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's 1924 novel We, from which he borrowed several elements. In May 1947 Orwell had completed a third of the draft, and informed his publisher that he expected to have it finished by October. However, Orwell, Avril, and Richard nearly drowned in the Jura sound's Corryvreckan whirlpool - the third largest in the world, practically within earshot of Barnhill house - upon returning from a boat trip along the coast in August. The incident did Orwell's frail health no good, and in November the writer collapsed with pneumonia. The draft of the novel was a mess, two-thirds of which in Orwell's own estimate needed rewriting. Just before Christmas 1947 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. There was no cure for TB in 1947, but to Orwell's - and many future reader's - benefit his mentors managed to procure a small amount of an untested drug, streptomycin, imported to the UK from the US for experimental purposes.

It's possible that Orwell received excessive doses of the recently discovered antibiotic, as the side effects he experienced were quite horrific. One can easily imagine how the throat ulcers, the blisters in his mouth, the loss of hair, peeling skin, disintegration of toe and fingernails inspired the physical degradation that Orwell's protagonist comes to experience in the novel. Yet after three months of treatment Orwell's TB symptoms vanished, and the writer returned to his draft - with added pressure from his publisher to finish by the end of 1948, earlier if possible. Again it would be easy to imagine a further autobiographical tinge, as Orwell might have felt as much a shell of his former self as his protagonist becomes towards the end of the novel. He finished the draft by October 1948, though had still not decided whether to stick with the original title, The Last Man in Europe, or Nineteen Eighty-Four - a date derived from the fact that (in the draft) the narrative occurs successively in the years 1980, 1982, and, finally, 1984. Ultimately, Orwell's publisher Fred Warburg suggested that the latter was a more marketable title, and the many popular explanations of the title's "mysterious" origin are little more than publishers' hype. A perennial favourite among the many myths is one originated by the novel's American publisher, later furthered by the conservative Anthony Burgess in his reactionary rebuttal 1985, claiming that Orwell simply reversed the last two digits of 1948. As if the terror he sought to describe didn't exist regardless of time. With this novel Orwell made clear it can occur anywhere, whenever we become negligent of the challenges to liberty. In fact, the reason why Orwell chose to set his story in (what was then) the future could be to convincingly describe a totalitarian state at its fullest extent.

By November 1948 the now bedridden writer had typed up the draft himself, and had it delivered to London - as promised - in December. In January 1949 Orwell left Jura for a TB sanatorium in the Gloucestershire village of Cranham. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in June, and during that summer the Orwell's fortunes appeared to be looking up. But though the writer's finances improved his health continued to decline. In September he was transferred to the London University College Hospital, and though he was "rediscovered" by many old acquaintances, Orwell appears to have been increasingly lonely. In October he married Sonia Brownell, whom he'd unsuccessfully courted nearly four years earlier. But despite plans for the future and a steady stream of visitors, on January 21, 1950, Orwell suffered a massive haemorrhage in his lungs and died alone. His sister Avril and son Richard, who were still living on Jura, first heard of his death on their battery-powered radio.

"My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realised in Communism and Fascism. ... The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasise that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."

George Orwell, June 16, 1949.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin