The other day I was listening to Owl City (as one does) and came across a track featuring Hanson. This being something utterly unexpected (I suppose you all already knew that Hanson was still making music), I hit play. The song, “Unbelievable,” was poppy, a veritable bop, a fast-talking list of 90s highlights meant to appeal to our desire for nostalgia, but it left a bad taste. The chorus, meant to be cheery, seemed frightened: It’s unbelievable / This is as good as it gets / It’s unbelievable / Don’t know what’s gonna happen next / It’s unbelievable / You haven’t seen nothing yet. And you know how it is, once you start thinking about something, an idea, a name, a fear: it pops up everywhere. I started thinking about time, the way we use it in our stories and narratives, how we try to control it, manage it. It’s like trying to pack a duvet into a too-small box: it pushes back, it doesn’t fit, it comes back unexpectedly. We want the duvet to fit.
Soon after my encounter with “Unbelievable,” I saw two different films that stirred the pot a bit more, that kept me thinking about time, about sequels, about repetition, about stories — stories for recreation, stories for politics, stories for engagement, stories for distraction, histories… The first was Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival; the second, Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One. In the former, a lovely and echoing drama, a languages professor learns an alien language that enables her to perceive time beyond linearity: she experiences her teenage daughter’s death, from a rare and incurable disease, years before the child is born. We realize, as the film unfolds, that this daughter is the child of the professor, Louise, and a particle physicist, Ian, and that Ian’s anger at Louise’s decision to love him, to marry him, and to have their child despite knowing what would happen, ultimately poisons their relationship. In the latter, a pointed and gripping prequel to Star Wars, a group of rebels sacrifice their lives to bring about the events that kickstart the series. Both films press heavily against the line between the known and the unknown, depending on it — what has happened, what has not yet happened, what is happening again. As North American pop culture flounders under the weight of sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and reboots — stories fixated on the endless return, the loop, the cycle, the inevitable outcome that has already occurred —it is not the building blocks of stories (Joseph Campbell, etc.) that interest me, but something else. Reboot/nostalgia culture is different: not primordial, but directly imitative: Tarkin’s CGI face, Karl Urban’s DeForest Kelley impression, the upcoming shot-for-shot remake of Beauty and the Beast. We say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but replication… What about that?
When I drove home after Arrival it was late. The streets were quiet and empty and although the film had attached itself to me, moved me, I imagined what I considered a cleaner, sharper resolution — that instead of death as we saw it at the start of the film, with Louise sitting alone beside her daughter’s body, Ian would return. That knowing the future, the couple would together try to change it, would face that grief together. But time in the world of Arrival is not so much a series of sequential events, chains of cause and effect, but all that which is always already happening. There are no butterfly-wing hurricanes here, and nothing changes if Louise turns left instead of right: she is always already experiencing her child’s death. But by the same token, she is also always already experiencing everything else. My desire for a different ending could not compete with the poignancy of the film’s choice, of Louise’s choice, because its lesson was that there could be no different ending. There was no ending. The last words spoken in the film come from Ian, at that point her husband — “let’s make a baby,” he says — and knowing, always already, that she will lose both of them, Louise says yes.
Regarding fatalism, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy tells us that “the word… is commonly used to refer to an attitude of resignation in the face of some future event or events which are thought to be inevitable.” Rather than the broader traditions and scholarship of the philosophical schools, it is this common understanding, often conflated in a blur with nihilism (the common understanding of which suggests that nothing matters) that concerns me here— this niggling sensation that we have no power over the events that shape and move us, only recourse to the simple platitudes used to get through our own regular, non-prescient days. It is what it is or c’est la vie or not my circus, not my monkeys or God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. We say and hear that a lot these days, watching the news like deer in headlights. Louise, though, enacts a life that belies that shrugging fatalism. “I know why my husband left me,” she tells Ian, at that point not yet her lover, much less her husband. The first time they embrace, she says, “I forgot how good it felt to be held by you.”
This outside vision, something that writers overtly play with, is something too that impacts everyone’s perceptions — meaning, in plain terms, that musing on the nature of time is not the exclusive territory of navel-gazers. When I write in my journal, although I have no intention of sharing it, I imagine it being read by someone in the future. When I look at my grandmother’s yearbook, I imagine being able to talk with her at seventeen, what it might be like to have hinted to her all that was coming. In Food, Sex and God, Michèle Roberts writes of Doris Lessing,
“Lessing pictures herself, early on in this wonderful autobiography, watching her parents sitting outside their mud and thatch house in the Rhodesian bush, both of them irrevocably wounded by their losses and suffering in the First World War: ‘There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty, and — much worse — secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories… I stand there, a fierce unforgiving adamant child, saying to myself: I won’t. I will not. I will not be like that… Don’t be like them. Meaning never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.’”
Lessing, then, figures entrapment within circumstances as integral to human experience. In the language of Arrival, this is entrapment within linearity. Yet even when Louise transcends linearity, she remains, by choice, inextricably tied to the earth — to sex, birth, death. Conversely, her husband is that wolf in the trap that gnaws off its leg: though Ian is no more or less “trapped by circumstances” than she, he breaks with her, angry that she “made the wrong choice” and unable to look at his daughter as he once did. Both Louise and Ian seek order, but she accepts an experience while he wants a resolution.
Come with me if you want to live
Arrival appeals because I love fantastical stories that play with time: Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Dianna Wynne Jones’s Hexwood, The Lake House, Donnie Darko, Groundhog Day, Meet the Robinsons, Outlander, every special time travel episode of Star Trek where someone inevitably gets hit by a car, The Terminator — you name, I’m into it. Time-travel and time-based stories are puzzles, putting everything into unexpected yet fulfilling order; they are aerial pictures, constructing a fictive outsider’s perspective on the present. They also provide a mechanism through which we can conceptualize the complexities of our actions — not simply the butterfly effect, but the impact of a word, a left turn, a foot in a puddle, the cycles of our behaviours. While we might abstractly understand that all of our actions have consequences (how nice were you to the supermarket teller this morning?), time travel stories make this tangible and overt. Take Doctor Who: Donna turns right, meets the Doctor, or turns left, doesn’t. Take Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”: Dr. McCoy saves a woman’s life, the Allies lose the Second World War, or Kirk watches her die, space travel is saved.
Time-based stories similarly drive home inevitability. In Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Henry is killed outside of Clare’s house years before the end of their life together. In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Claire and Jamie try to stop the Jacobite Rising, but instead bring it about in the attempt. And while the satisfaction to these kinds of stories, to figuring them out, is not inherently good — at their darkest they show an impulse toward order, toward certainty, toward a Great Man — it is undeniable. We gain a sense of completion, of understanding, and this in itself can be joyful. Take Donnie Darko: Donnie laughs as his death comes down on him, laughs joyously, because everything that’s happened to him finally makes sense.
Since the American election, I walk around, I go to work, I buy my groceries, I sit at my computer or cook in the kitchen or read my books, and I keep thinking of a line from V for Vendetta, no matter how dreadfully trite that makes me:
“I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events that stretched all the way back… I felt like I could see everything that happened, and everything that is going to happen. It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.”
Don’t you feel like you’re in a history book? Princip shot Ferdinand, so the First World War happened. Helen of Troy was a total babe, so a bunch of dudes committed ritualistic military suicide. Logic applied retrospectively and irrespective of events. All the pieces fit together. Chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools.
What kinds of stories are we telling?
Take Star Trek again and consider how two very different eras in the franchise treat time. (I’ve written about this before). The Voyage Home, released in the late 80s, confronts inevitability with action (the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time to change their present, not their past), while Star Trek, released in 2009 as the first of J.J. Abrams’s reboot series, uses time travel as both a weapon (the villain seeks a pre-emptive strike on those would later fail to save his planet from destruction) and a get-out-of-jail-free card (a literal reset that smashes the reboot’s fictive and functional links with its past). The summary of Abrams’s film reads, “The brash James T. Kirk tries to live up to his father’s legacy.” Remember Lessing, “trapped by circumstances”? Abrams created a story dependent on the fatalism of the temporal loop: a young man trying simultaneously to live inside and outside his father’s life and the life of his future self, a franchise trying simultaneously to live inside and outside its history. For in the end, despite the claim that time travel liberated them from the so-called constraints of the past, everything in Abrams’s Star Trek films happens much the same, regardless. The pleasure of Star Trek: Into Darkness, such as it is, is the pleasure of recognizing the regurgitated narrative elements of The Wrath of Khan. Surprise, it’s Khan! See, it’s Kirk dying of radiation poisoning this time, not Spock! Twist!
Abrams went on to do much the same with Star Wars: the pleasure of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — apart from the loveliness of Boyega, Isaac, and Ridley, of course — is in its repetition of patterns. Many reviewers commented, generally, “the old Star Wars is back!” For it was back, very much so: The Force Awakens is A New Hope in new clothes. Leaving aside the commercial reasons for these kinds of decisions, let’s consider the impact on the narrative, of what it might signify to love a story such as this. Is The Force Awakens not wrenchingly sad, once you consider what’s happened? As a young man, Han Solo watches, helpless, from the deck of a planet-killing machine, as a genocidal villain murders his aged mentor (or tries to — don’t be fussy about what does or does not happen to Obi-Wan); then, as an old man, Han becomes the mentor and two young people watch, helpless, from the deck of a planet-killing machine, as a genocidal villain murders him. Did life go on so miserably just to end up in the same place?
Go back in time to the events of the crisp and terrifying Rogue One and the anxiety of The Force Awakens crystallizes. Did Galen, Bodhi, Chirrut, Imwe, Cassian, and Jyn die so that 40 years later an angsty white boy could build a copycat death machine? Or in our own world, did millions of people die to, among other things, stop Nazism so that 70 years later, white supremacists could run the White House?
You see that it is difficult to avoid fatalism in the common sense. (Perhaps that is why it is the common sense!) In the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, Javier asks Luisa why she keeps reading old letters. “I don’t know,” she says. “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”
Open the door! Open the door!
We are choking on this utterly manufactured sense of staving off the inevitable.
But this depressing inevitability, this common fatalism, this “oh fuck, there goes humanity again, that C4-loaded wind-up car” was missing from Edwards’s Rogue One — not combated, challenged, or ironically mocked, but simply ignored. It was not manufactured, replicated—it was made irrelevant. Rogue One is very obviously a movie about fighting fascism: early in the film, when Cassian asks Jyn, the only white lead, if she wants to live under the imperial flag, she says glibly that it doesn’t matter too much, if she doesn’t look up. Soon enough, though, it matters a great deal: she comes to understand that she cannot keep her head down.
Let’s go back to talking about time, patterns, our impulses toward order. Every half-joke you’ve heard about 2016 is an impulse toward order: the things that have happened happened because of the year, that is why, 2016 did this to us, next year will be different. Yesterday Carrie Fisher had a heart attack; I saw a Tumblr post that said that Mark Hamil survived a car accident and Harrison Ford survived a plane crash, so Carrie Fisher would survive this. Order. Patterns.
Going in, we know everything that will happen in Rogue One: the rebels will sacrifice their lives to steal the plans for the Death Star. We know that, but they don’t — they are as “trapped by circumstances” as Lessing, as inevitably doomed as Han Solo. The human condition! In space! But their deaths do not have the ignominy of Han’s death, the nihilistic sense that their actions, their lives didn’t matter, that their endings were both pre-determined and non-dependent on them. At one point, Jyn saves a child inadvertently trapped in a shoot-out; within 20 minutes, the entire city is levelled anyway — should she not have bothered? No one could say that. Does that make it any less terrifying as the rebels pass the computer disc hand-to-hand down the hallway? As one of them bangs frantically at a broken door, knowing that he can’t get through, that he’ll be killed? The entire Star Wars franchise is built on the certainty that the disc gets through, and yet it’s still frightening. Theirs is a feminist fatalism,* if I can call it that: get out of the building and down to the water and if you die, die with everything left on the floor. I was moved by the story Edwards told because it surprised authentically: as a story and as a money-making enterprise, it rejected sequels, repetition, resolution. Its characters will never see what their lives bought.
We know how it ends; it still matters. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to you see. You don’t get to see the pattern, the aerial view. You only get to live.
Shut up, white girl
I recognize the frailty of my claimed ability to talk about conflict, to talk about what it means to die, when I am safe and warm at home, eating three squares and preparing for Christmas. Have I been moved by a film, but not the news? I am not vain enough to say that this little blog post holds cosmic significance, but even so, I struggled with finishing it. We’re heading into a nuclear arms race, so what does it matter, what is the point, who cares? But I want to talk about stories, because I think that the story of Rogue One matters a great deal, not exclusively but in concert with the rest of our experiences.
Here is why: because as it turns out, Lessing’s human condition—“to be trapped by circumstances”—is not the same as resignation. In front of Arrival, I was obliged to watch a trailer for Patriots Day, ostensibly about the bombing of the Boston marathon, but more obviously a spectacle of grotesque white American nationalism, in which the state wears Marky Mark’s face. If stories like that are going to battle for pride of place in our cultural consciousnesses, we need most severely and urgently, then, stories in which the struggle for life, for actual liberty, against that state is obviously, deliberately, and overtly played out. Star Wars merchandise is covered in stormtroopers, characters modelled after Nazis. I saw, the other day, a Christmas stocking printed with Kylo Ren’s face. The spirit of imperialist genocide past. (You are frowning, you are rolling your eyes, but remember: Kylo Ren is a character who intentionally seeks to destroy entire solar systems. Would you give a child a Christmas stocking printed with the face of Milošević or Assad? Jackson or Reagan? John A. MacDonald?)
What stories will we allow to shape us, our actions?
While it is in the nature of time travel stories to butt up against inevitability, that same common fatalism is less recognizable, though no less present, in the self-feeding loops of reboot culture, where the past is re-imagined as something so wonderful, so glorious that the only future we can imagine is its pale imitation. (Does that sound familiar? Something, something, great again?)
Infamously, in Nevil Shute’s post-nuclear-war novel On the Beach, a submarine crew crosses the ocean in search of a mysterious signal, hoping against hope that someone in the United States has survived. The signal is made, it turns out, by a billowing curtain hitting telegraph keys at random. Meanwhile, back in Australia, the survivors of the war gather with their friends and families to take suicide pills provided by the government rather than die of impending radiation sickness. Shute’s novel was favourably received and has been favourably remembered as a warning, fear instigated for a reason, a story meant to head folly off at the pass. And yet a 2000 television adaptation criticized that apparent meekness of humanity, found it unreasonable to imagine a world in which humanity went quietly into that good night — no looting, no chaos, no scavenging amongst the scraps. But why is it so unfathomable that, in the face of terrible suffering, humans could make a choice toward their better selves — not suicide, no, but the refusal of monstrosity? We are terrible creatures, much of the time, but resignation to our own monstrosity is only the shifting of blame. (Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.)
Several years ago, a friend told me about a presentation in her environmental sciences class, the notion that the stories we told about the future and the settings we imagined created that future. This is not a new concept, but it was, then, new to me, and even today, I think about it often. If you already believe it is inevitable that we will end up living in the dark, wet streets of Bladerunner (or, god help us, Bladerunner 2049), do we not create that inevitability? There is no particular reason to compare Arrival and Rogue One, except that — for me — they overlapped in the same week: a coincidence, an accident of time, a possible pattern, a semblance of order amongst chaos.
We are all going to die. What kind of person will you be until then?
* Regarding “feminist fatalism”: I struggled to find a phrase for what I mean, the decision to act understanding that your actions matter not so much individually but as small parts of an indeterminate whole. A search for “feminist fatalism” will reveal discussion of the suicide at the close of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; my thoughts here are not intended to correlate.