One Too Many Eves: A Review of “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson

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Review by Curtis Cole

A planet: culture, religion, philosophy, race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender, technology, and nature. These are some of the defining aspects of this planet and of humanity, that biological organism crawling on the husk of the planetary body known as Earth. Such a differential plethora, that vast multitude constituting the near-infinite intertwining of purposes with agents is the focus of Neal Stephenson’s latest epic: Seveneves.

Set against a backdrop of Earth in crisis and a future spawned from that terrible chaos, Stephenson’s thread weaves together narratives of the highest order—the reason for events, human mission in a seemingly mission-less world, etc.—to depict something of a postmodern flare: a story about the production of myth and how metanarratives lead to societal parody, the semiotic becoming satirical in—and for—itself.

Earth of the not too distant future is the setting of the story. In this timeline, however, not all is well. One day, out of nowhere, an unknown force—evocatively called ‘The Agent’—destroys the moon, shattering it into seven gigantic pieces. Unfortunately for humanity though the disaster doesn’t end there for the pieces soon begin to collide with one another. The proliferation of new pieces continues unabated and soon a new disaster is predicted: in but a few years’ time the pieces will reproduce to such an extent that as soon as the moon’s mass falls into the atmosphere (“The White Sky”), and onto the planet’s surface (“The Hard Rain”), the resulting destruction will wipe out all of humanity during a five-thousand year extinction.

With this prediction, the die is cast!

All the nations of the world scramble to save the human species. Humanity endeavors to build a space arc, a massively refitted and expanded international space station, to house the best and brightest minds of the human race; the idea being that humanity will save themselves by roughing out the storm in such habitable environments, to which after the Hard Rain ends, they will remake the Earth and live there once more. Fast-forward five centuries to witness the reclamation of the Earth, along with the social discord which follows: first contact, Cold War-esque stand-offs, and the meaning of duty all make their mark during this epoch, the ‘era of the seven races’.

Divided into three parts, the novel’s first two parts focus on the trial and tribulations of 21st-century humanity in saving their skins while the third part concerns itself with the journey of their ancestors to reclaim the planet. With a whole new set of characters from the first two parts, the third installment, although radically different from the first storyline, offers some startling observations of social customs, revealing the, what in semiotic terms is called “the referent”, or the original sign, of present day society. Though not expecting a treatise on semiotics and grand narratives when I opened Stephenson’s novel, the third installment screams for the semiotic treatment (something which, unfortunately, will only be touched upon in this review).

If the pieces of the moon represent anything, it is what poststructuralist semiotician Jean Beaudrillard called (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the evasion of the dialectic of meaning”, of how the “infinite proliferation of things” managed to dissociate themselves from the original signification. As the catalyst for the whole plot the moon’s fragmentation represents the culmination of the decay of the chain of signification: from the moment the moon dies to the final chapter five thousand years later, the (semiotic) sign, riding on the coattails of culturally constructed ‘metanarratives’ of struggle and survival, degenerates until nothing but parody remains, the base of the sign which had originally, before the Agent battered the moon, existed as a hidden regulatory function; the sign which informed cultural and social reproduction.

The post-“Hard Rain” society bears the wounds of this decay extravagantly. From the two great powers dubbing one another merely as “Blue” and their foe as “Red”, to the casting of television producers as military generals (in order to literally direct, as in film directing, the armed engagements so as to garner societal support for any armed confrontations; manipulation of the fighting, accordingly, of how the battle is handled, who is killed and who is shown mercy, becomes all mere factors in engagements. Truly, wars in this society are truly televised as neo-Roman spectacles), the realities of contemporary (21st century) society reflect their future parallels as the pale and sickly phantoms of their formerly full-blooded selves: no grand labels or names are superimposed on conflicts—a war which happened in the woods is merely known as “The War in the Woods”, media is spotlighted as just as important to the war effort as the soldiers themselves. The masking of the pre-Hard Rain epoch, as framing conflicts as grand tapestries of emancipation or of mass-media outlets acting as supposedly impartial observers, in actuality acting as impromptu public relations firms for the military, has been thoroughly effaced. The function of society, its bare bones, and how it truly functions, becomes perceptible in Seveneves through its semiotic deforestation.

Of Neal Stephenson’s previous works Seveneves stands out. Said another way it is either greatly enjoyed or hotly despised. I tend to side with the critics of the unfavorable disposition. Across the board, the writing is inferior to Stephenson’s previous novels; while a reader could devour a work such as “Reamde” and enjoy every second of the narrative’s pacing, stellar character development, and universe, without becoming fatigued, the same cannot be said for Seveneves. Each and every character is one-dimensional, often offering little—if any—in originality, save but for a quip here or there; the pages are filled with monotonous tech-jabber that becomes unintelligible unless one has an engineer’s degree or a sophisticated understanding of the sciences, and slows the reading down to a barely managed crawl every time the author starts a track concerning the logistics of how the space station is expanded or how a certain machine functions; and the story, while ultimately one about cultural parody, is still nevertheless, a silly idea—the “Agent” is never identified (the moon was simply destroyed and nothing more is said on the cause), the actions of the characters swings between wildly perceptive, the sort of which is only possible in Hollywood-style movies where the protagonist has a one-in-a-billion hunch which turns out to be correct, and those characters which are dizzyingly irrational (infighting on humanity’s only hope for survival over trivial political matters? You bet!); and then, the worst offender, being that of Stephenson’s reactionary depiction of race which borders on the legitimation of racialism: aside from the genetic alteration of each of the so-called seven “eves”, or the most prominent woman capable of procreation, being a laughably absurd happening, even after one takes into account the satirical angle offered through the decay of (semiotic) signification attached to (pre-Hard Rain) conceptions of race, the discourse of each of the Eve’s races possessing genetically defining traits determinative of how they cooperate, or lack of, therefore, with the other races, becomes at once both a kindergarten-level understanding of racial dynamics, as well as a deeply insulting characterization of race through the erection of contemporary racial stereo-and-arch-types. The novel ends with an unsatisfying conclusion which, though meant to draw readers out on the question of metanarratives, fails to make its point suitably perceptible to the average reader.

As it stands Seveneves is a mixed bag. While the world-building is fairly well-done, if not a bit opaque and ponderous at times. For better or worse, Part Three stands out as a defining point in the novel; still, for everything which has been said, one cannot ignore that there are qualities to this novel worth mentioning, the best of which is Stephenson’s ability to keep the story moving forward with the big picture in mind. Some readers this will find this to be an (inter-)stellar time: something that combines some hard-nosed geeky research with a fantastical social-sciences adventure through the cultural stars. For others, however, it will be the opposite: the literary equivalent of a leaky spacesuit. Whether this is a suit you want to wear, I will leave for you to decide.

Seveneves

Neal Stephenson

861 pages. Published by HarperCollins. $16.99 (Kindle), $35.00 (Print). 2015.

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Emily Dickinson Symposium Schedule

Thursday 4/21
1:00-2:30 Student panel: Papers by Sun Weiheng, Julie Guerra, Nathanial Duggan – Emery Arts Center

2:45-4:15 Round table discussion: Jeffrey Thomson, Kristen Case, Joseph Massey, Ben Friedlander, Shana Youngdahl -Emery Arts Center

7:30 Poetry reading: Joseph Massey, Ben Friedlander, Shana Youngdahl: The Landing, Student Center

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Friday 4/22
10:00 Presentation of student adaptations/creative work – Emery Arts Center

11:45 Keynote Lecture, Ben Friedlander: Emery Arts Center

 

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Olive Kitteridge Adaptation

As part of our participation in the Adaptation CoLab (a CoLab is a UMF experiment that connects several different classes through a shared topic), American Texts and Contexts students read Elizabeth Strout’s  novel Olive Kitteridge (2008) and then watched several episodes of the 2014 HBO mini-series based on the book. The award-winning mini-series starred Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher Jr, Zoe Kazan, and Bill Murray. As a contribution to our discussion of this adaptation, student Cameron Gelder interviewed his cousin Riley Fearon, who had worked as a production assistant on the film, about his experience during the production of Oliver Kitteridge:

This is an interview of Riley Fearon, about his first major filming production, Olive Kitteridge. Riley worked as a production assistant, doing errands for the filmmakers to help move things along. He had inside experience regarding the production of the miniseries, detailed in the interview itself. Riley is currently an Editor and Motion Graphics artist at Maverick Productions, LLC, where he helps create promotional films, advertisements, and assists with films and television. He also has his own company, Riley Fearon Productions, where he works on digital production and completes freelance work. Both are based in the Boston area, so the productions Riley works on are usually done in or near Boston.

Cameron Gelder is a Secondary Education-English major, currently in his sophomore year. He’s also Riley’s cousin, which helped facilitate the interview. He wrote the questions himself, and Riley answered accordingly.

 Olive Kitteridge Q & A

What was your job during the production? What did your job entail?

Olive Kitteridge was my first big break in the film industry. It was my first time working with a big name production company (HBO). I was hired as an Office Production Assistant, which meant I spent most of my time working in the production office and less on set. Job requirements ranged from printing scripts, creating shooting schedules, and buying office materials for the office and set. It was the perfect first job because I got to meet and network with the crew and actors in every department when I delivered the scripts and shooting schedules.

Did you read Olive Kitteridge before beginning production? If so, how did you think the miniseries and the book compared? If not, when, if ever, did you read it?

I hadn’t read Olive Kitteridge before beginning production. I was hired just a week before shooting and I had to familiarize myself with the script first. It was a backwards way of doing things, but I actually enjoyed that reverse process. I was able to read the script without any prior opinions. After reading the book though, I do wish they integrated more characters and made it a 13 part mini series instead of 4; or at least added a few more episodes.

Did you work directly with the director? If so, what was your experience with her? Were you confident in her direction?

I had a few interactions with the director, Lisa Cholodenko, during the production. Mostly it was delivering her a new script if there was a change or an update. I believe she was a great choice to helm the project. She is excellent at capturing strong women and depicting emotions such as depression; a disease most directors avoid or struggle depicting. Frances McDormand was actually the one who approached Lisa and asked her to direct the film because of her work on The Kids Are Alright.

Did you work directly with any of the actors? If so, what was your experience with them? How do you think they did in their performances? What did they do to achieve these performances?

I was lucky enough to meet most of the actors in the film. All the actors were kind and no one created any drama on set. The casting was, in my opinion, spot on, but I suppose that’s because I read the script first and automatically pictured the actors as the characters. It’s all about chemistry on screen and I think Frances and Richard Jenkins melted perfectly together.

What issues/challenges did the production face? How did you overcome them?

One of the most challenging parts of the production was finding areas in Massachusetts that look like Maine. Though I wasn’t working on the film yet, I heard that the scouting process took months. I think in the end they did a pretty convincing job depicting the Maine coastline. Most of the film was shot in the North Shore of Massachusetts. The towns included, Gloucester, Salem, Beverly, Ipswich, and Rockport.

Many people consider this to be a faithful adaptation of the book. Do you agree? Do you think this was the intent of the production?

Being faithful to the book was definitely a main priority for the filmmakers. When Frances decided to produce this she wanted to be sure it was faithful. She made sure it wasn’t a two-hour movie and convinced HBO to do a 4 part (4 hour) miniseries.

Were there any funny or interesting behind-the scenes stories?

I think the most memorable experience I had with an actor was with Bill Murray, of course. I had to deliver him his new rental car one day and he invited me into his trailer where we tried on different hats that the wardrobe department wanted him to try on. We eventually decided on a purple beanie, which you see him wearing in the film when Olive finds him in the park. According to Bill, it looks better on him.

You’ve since went on to work on such films as Joy, Black Mass, and the new Ghostbusters. How did your work on Olive Kitteridge compare to these experiences?

Olive Kitteridge was my first real experience working on a movie, so I was lower on the totem pole and didn’t have much of an input. As each movie comes along, I’ve been able to slowly work my way up and have more of a creative input into each movie. For instance, on Ghostbusters, I was able to research and purchase props and decoration for different scenes within the film.

Is filming an adaption of a book different than filming an original movie? How so?

Working on a film that is an adaption of a novel is extremely different from working on an original film. When working on a movie that is adapted from a novel, you have to make sure details such as clothes, locations, and even the actors lines match up with the characters and setting in the book. Working on an original script, however, the filmmakers have complete creativity on creating the characters and the world around them.

Is working on a miniseries different from working on a film? How so?

Feature films and mini series are very similarly structured when in comes to production. The only difference I noticed while working on Olive Kitteridge is that we had the same amount of scheduled shooting days as that of a feature film. So in our case, we had to film 4 hours of usable footage compared to a regular 2 hours for a feature film. The result is longer days and less sleep, but it’s always worth it in the end!

Batman or Superman?

Batman always wins!

Los Angeles AWP Conference: Adaptation and Bringing the Novel to the Big Screen

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There has been an ongoing discussion in the English Department at UMF about the process of adapting literature; and once created, what these adaptations mean to the original text and how are they related. I recently took a trip to Los Angeles to the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs Convention and attended two panels which dealt with this notion.

Since Hollywood, California is such a film-oriented city, you can imagine the different types of scenarios and conversations that circulated in these panels. Some writers have had wonderful experiences watching their novels come alive onto the big screen. Other writers have seen their memoir twisted into a strange story without their permission.

The first panel I attended is described below:

“If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic.” —Harper Lee on the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. What makes a novel worthy of adaptation? How should we measure the success of an adaptation? How faithful should a screenwriter remain to a novel? Is the author’s intent relevant? In this panel we explore these questions from the perspective of prominent screenwriters.
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The four screenwriters who were present at the panel included:
  • Graham Moore, who is a New York Times bestselling novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter. His screenplay for the film The Imitation Game won an Oscar and a WGA award.
  • Also, Nicholas Kazan who is a playwright (Blood Moon, The Good Soldier, Mlle God), screenwriter (MatildaAt Close Range, Reversal of Fortune, Fallen, Bicentennial Man, etc.), and a writer/director (Dream Lover).
  • Amber Tamblyn was present; and has been nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her work in TV and film. She published three poetry books, including the critically acclaimed Dark Sparkler. Most recently, she adapted and directed the feature film Paint It Black, based on the novel by Janet Fitch.
  • And lastly, Robert Nelson Jacobs who has had seven of his screenplays have been produced as films. His script for Chocolat was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.
This particular panel was interesting to me because I learned about the process in which a piece of writing is transcribed to film. It is a massive evolution where the screenwriter will have to take the piece of writing and interpret that writing into what would fit best in a screenplay, but then a director will buy that screenplay and interpret his own tone and direction – and try to hire actors and actresses to convey it. So it’s a long and complicated process to try and keep the spirit of the novel alive.
Nicholas Kazan wanted to discuss the meaning of the word “adaptation” and wanted to argue that a more accurate term is a “transformation” since he believes the change of media to be something completely unique, and it should be something unique. “The way it goes, is that you go ahead and devour the book, right? And there’s a spirit in it that you love. Close the book, lock it away, and then create your own.” He went on to say, “When I tackle onto writing a screenplay from a successful book, I ask myself, ‘What are the new challenges I have in front of me? How can I embrace them?” The task of adding and eliminating elements from the original text can be both scary and liberating but what is important, as Kazan expressed, is keeping the spirit.
Amber Tamblyn had the opportunity of working with the author of Paint it Black and they wrote the screenplay together. They emphasized that this particular situation doesn’t always work perfectly, but it did in this case since Fitch and Tamblyn had a certain relationship and . Tamblyn said, “You want to feel the same emotions as when you read the book, but sometimes you can’t always transfer it onto the screen. You have to be creative.” She went on to explain that the book was very internal, and was mainly about the process of grief. Tamblyn changed it in a way where the movie instead made you feel grief. She even removed one of the main characters in the book. “You have to kill your darlings,” she explained. “What to leave in and what to leave out is the most difficult decision in this business. You’re blind to your own work for a while, you’ll cut out a certain scene but then another scene can become richer.” She then elaborated on the process, calling it “music” and “detective work” trying to find a new, but similar, story and how she decided to remove the character and why.
I’m currently researching contemporary adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility, and by going to this panel, it was interesting to hear about WHY we adapt. The panelists talked about Sherlock Holmes and Romeo and Juliet and why there are hundreds of adaptations of them and they said, “There’s so much room to play. There are boundaries, and there is structure, but within those lines, you’re able to get really creative.” They also explained that from an economic standpoint, it’s a lucrative business to adapt since there is a market for familiar stories. Whether it’s a classic, or “based on the best-selling book” it will bring audiences to the theatre to see how they’ve translated the story to the screen.
Overall, the adaptation of novel to screenplay is difficult since screenplays tend to be “the spine of the movie,” with dialogue and notes, and the director and actors needs to fill in the rest. The writing has to be very simple and novels tend to be complex. The interiority of feeling and emotion has to be expressed in a different way and sometimes visuals can and cannot convey them. Afterwards, the film is an entire different beast and those who work on completing it have ownership of their creation – it’s a cousin of the original text.
I’ll be covering the second AWP adaptation panel next week, “Adapting to Adaptation: Making the Most of Going Hollywood,” which included panelists from the opposite standpoint: authors whose novels have been adapted into Hollywood films and the pros and cons associated with the process.

Emily Dickinson Symposium

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‘When Everything Feels Like the Movies’ (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

The funny thing about living in a capitalist society is that narrative runs your life, whether you recognize it or not. Jude, the young protagonist of Raziel Reid’s first book When Everything Feels Like the Movies, does understand this principal and so utilizes it as a coping mechanism, as a tool for him to help him deal with the homophobia present all around him. Jude is a movie star…! Or is in his mind, at least; he is correct, however, for he is the star of his own life: Jude, the Movie! We are all stars of our own lives and so it is the same with Jude: homophobic graffiti on your locker? Looks like the tabloids are running wild with speculation again; the betrayal of a former friend? What a plot twist! Bullies? You mean rapid fans. You get the idea—Jude’s life is one lived in a self-imposed fantasy because that is what he needs to embrace in order to cope on a day-to-day basis.

In the fashion of many teen novels, the plot of Movies is simple: Jude struggles through school while trying to find himself and hopefully, a romantic partner. Navigating a horde of hostile cis-gender, heterosexual teenagers when you are the only (out) gay, cross-dressing teen in the school, obviously, produces some tough results, and so it is unsurprising that Jude’s only friend is a dog and the school “slut,” Angela. Jude understands loneliness and what it feels like to get the emotional and physical daylights beaten out of you. Coming from a broken home, with an alcoholic father-in-law, absent biological father, and caring yet desperate mother, Jude does not exactly have a loving support system in place to help him through the rigors of adolescence. So he invents one, and being a (stereo)typical teen who loves celebrities, gossip, and the grandeur of stardom emanating from Hollywood, he, of course, places himself within the confines of what he loves and imagines himself as a yet-discovered star struggling through their low-key discovery phase. Other than the gay-bashing at the beginning of the book, details about Jude’s life, and the search for a long-term romantic partner while he saves up money to flee to Hollywood, there is not much to the plot other than the anticipation of discovering what next will happen to poor Jude.

In this sense, Movies sometimes feels like a cross between a drama, a snuff film, and a teen comedy, but this is the point: the ‘difficult’ subject matter, the frank discussion of sexuality, the bullying and violence, the delusion… all of this is a statement on narrative: on the romantic narrative differences which exist between gay and straight youth (of the double standard in courting and dating), on the narrative differences between bullied and non-bullied youth, how the latter do not need elaborate mythologies to keep themselves together, as well as the narrative of the media itself, how the oppressed are portrayed as the oppressor because they do not fit into the hetero-patriarchal norm. Jude’s cinematic delusion of starring in a movie, is an outgrowth of such a statement on narrative and so his manner of coping becomes a framing device capable of revealing the stark truth of narrative and the way it unclothes societal prejudices and class antagonisms. This is why Reid’s novel has garnered so much attention, both positive and negative, from the literary and cultural world—because it challenges conservative notions on sociality and youth culture; after Reid won the Governor General’s Literary Award, a prestigious Canadian prize, reactionary vultures came from all quarters to try and discredit Reid’s novel because it so threatened their own narrative delusion, that is, on society being ‘threatened’ by the outside perverse, the ‘radical’ youth and sexual minorities; what Reid has managed to do in a short period of time is to re-orient the debate on children’s literature to the vulnerable and disadvantaged, essentially returning a voice to the oppressed. So, of course the ruling elite, those counterrevolutionaries with a vested interest in maintaining the heteronormative status-quo, have attempted to smear Reid’s writing as ‘pornographic,’ ‘licentious,’ and ‘vulgar.’ To them, a world where the cis-hetero yells ‘faggot’ at the slightly effeminate kid is the norm and accords to a supposed human nature: Reid understands that this is not natural and accords to social processes where people, especially youth, are molded in accordance with the social-materiality of their surroundings, culture, media, and upbringing. There is nothing ‘natural’ about hatred.

Reid firmly stands with the silenced. Any friends who do likewise should purchase this book, should read and talk about this book, and share it with teens and Queer youth; the debate ignited around this text should not be forgotten but embraced and the fires flamed. Movies is a tour de force of humor, wit, and writing. With a film adaptation in the works, it seems likely that Reid’s project will continue to live and continue to harass the small-minded. I, and those who wish to see a better, more equalitarian world, should carry Reid’s banner and never let it go. Five out of five stars.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies

Raziel Reid

176 pages. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. $9.99 (Kindle), $1.83 (Paperback), $19.15 (Hardcover), $12.24 (Audible audiobook)[1].

Age level: 12-18, Grade 6 and up[2].

 

[1] Page estimates and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

[2] Recommended age range and reading level provided by Amazon.com.