Category Archives: Dystopia

The Zero Theorem

I’m a big-time fan of Terry Gilliam; I’ve seen every feature-length film he’s directed except for Tideland, and I know I’m (almost) always in good hands (the very obvious exception being The Brothers Grimm, which had a handful of great moments amidst a largely chaotic mess). Brazil and Twelve Monkeys number amongst my all-time favorite films, which is why I’m so excited that Gilliam has played to the strengths of both those movies for his latest near-future masterpiece, called The Zero Theorem.

Gilliam has had a number of problems with distribution for this film, which is why he’s taken the interesting tactic of pre-releasing it for video-on-demand streaming to places like iTunes one month before its theatrical release in the US. I’m guessing that the hope here is to generate lots of buzz by word-of-mouth in order to get butts in movie theater seats, and I really hope it works, because this film deserves to be seen on the big screen; it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the next several weeks. I bought it on iTunes last night, and have watched it twice (I think I’ve got a better handle now on the symbolically heavy ending than after the first viewing).

Ever since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, I’ve tried to pay much more attention to the visual vocabulary of films, and The Zero Theorem would seem to reward this approach; Gilliam has never been a particularly strong storyteller on his own, which is why his best works are collaborations with others who are (Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on Brazil, Chris Marker and David & Janet Peoples on Twelve Monkeys, and now Pat Rushin on The Zero Theorem). His strength remains the visual rather than the verbal, and this new film exemplifies his command over the image; a freeze-frame on any moment in its 107-minute run-time is like a high-definition painting, the mise-en-scène always in control and artfully composed.


There’s a scene early on where our hero Qohen Leth (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) has been invited to a party by his gregarious supervisor Mr. Joby (David Thewlis, in one of his best performances), being held in a soon-to-be foreclosed mansion; nearly every single person in attendance is dancing to music that only they can hear through their white earbuds, plugged into devices that look suspiciously like next-gen iPads and iPhones. The mansion is full of people absorbed in their own little worlds, refusing to engage with anyone else in the real world. When Qohen—who only came to the party to persuade Management (Matt Damon) to let him work from home—starts choking on a grape, no one comes to his aid (and one person even takes a photo of him as he’s gasping for air), except for an enigmatic sexy young woman named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who will play a significant part later on (although she’ll drift dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory).

This striking scene encapsulates what Gilliam is more preoccupied with these days: not so much the oppressiveness of authority (although there is still a bit of that here too), but how “social” technology has isolated us from our fellow human beings more than ever. From The Guardian: “I find myself sitting at my computer and seduced by the internet. The web gives me access to all the knowledge in the world—but I worry to myself: do we have real relationships any more, or only virtual relationships?”

Qohen himself works as a “cruncher of esoteric entities” in the Ontological Research Division, sifting through vast oceans of public personal data (buying habits, favorite colors, political preferences, clothing brands), an extrapolation where the Facebookian proclivity to share all has been pushed to the extreme, so that it may be interpolated by the intelligent neural-net mainframe at Mancom, a shadowy megacorporation that wants to solve the question of whether all life and mass and energy in the universe will just disappear one day in The Big Crunch, so that everything and everyone that has ever existed will turn out to have been utterly pointless, reduced to zero. When Qohen is tasked with solving this question, called the Zero Theorem, he’s put in direct conflict with his unerring faith that the phone call he’s been expecting for most of his life will finally reach him and reveal his purpose in the universe.

Though so much of Qohen’s existence throughout the course of the movie is the internal landscape of his calculations and entity-crunching, it is his physical environments, and his relationships with Mr. Joby, Bainsley, and Management’s 15-year-old computer wunderkind son Bob (Lucas Hedges), that humanize him. His home is a burned-out church adjacent to a sex shop, abandoned long before by monastic monks, so gorgeously adorned and set-dressed that I was astonished to discover it was a created set rather than an actual rotting church, and it becomes another character in its own right. It’s interesting to note that while Qohen is engaged in solving the ultimate existential question, his home and his friends are what keep him grounded in the real world, and ultimately open him up to the implications of solving the Zero Theorem itself.

Supporting performances by Tilda Swinton as the buck-toothed Scottish virtual therapist Dr. Shrink-ROM (a kinder sort of companion to her northern English character in Snowpiercer), and Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw as the doctors who evaluate him for disability leave, and Gwendoline Christie (better known as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones) as one face of the intrusive interactive advertising that follows Qohen throughout his nameless European town, fill out the absurdities of Gilliam’s world. As opposed to the drab grey bureaucracy of Brazil, and the bleached-out duotones of the post-apocalyptic future in Twelve Monkeys, the exterior world of The Zero Theorem is a riot of color. The film has been called the final installment of Gilliam’s dystopian triptych, but this is a dystopia oversaturated to the point of neon, where the consumerist impulse is fed by bright sensory data rather than human nature being controlled by force, although in the end it is all just one more form of manipulation.

There are many echoes and callbacks to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. Slim and Chubs, two Laurel-and-Hardy-type clones in charge of bringing Bob to and from Qohen’s church, recall the Central Services technicians Spoor and Dowser. Mr. Joby feels like a kinder and more generous version of Michael Palin’s Jack Lint. The hairless physicality of Christoph Waltz echoes the baldness (and nakedness) of Bruce Willis’s James Cole, and Qohen’s existential angst is a direct descendant of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry. Bob calls everyone else Bob, just like the homeless prophet in Twelve Monkeys. The tubes-and-wires bio-technological system that Qohen uses to crunch entities, and the lighting used in Qohen’s church, are reminiscent of both films. The gigantic mainframe at Mancom, referenced from a grimy disused boiler room, feels like the inverse of the cooling tower used in the torture of Sam Lowry. And instead of Sam Lowry’s magical fantasies of escaping his reality by becoming the Hero, we get Qohen Leth’s inverse obsession about the meaninglessness of existence.

(Unrelated, but I also loved the musical touch of including a jazzy piano cover version of Radiohead’s “Creep” as the background music on Bainsley’s website before she and Qohen have haptic virtual sex.)

So there you have it, an existential visually stunning retro-futuristic dystopia directed by an American, starring a German, co-starring a Frenchwoman and a Briton, and filmed in Romania. See it however you can.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Dystopia

SWF 2013 Schedule

Earlier today, the programming was released for the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival (this year’s theme: Utopia/Dystopia), including the full list of invited authors and speakers. It looks like they haven’t yet linked up the authors with their events, but if you’re inclined you can check out my author page.

In addition to the usual suspects, I’m particularly excited to see the following folks at this year’s SWF: Dean Francis Alfar, Fatima Bhutto, G. Willow Wilson, Guo Xiaolu, Jo Fletcher, Mohsin Hamid, Paolo Chikiamco, Sjón, and Terri Windling (!).

Here’s my schedule of events:

02 Nov: Brand New Books: The Last Lesson of Mrs de Souza by Cyril Wong | Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe | Best New Singaporean Short Stories edited by Jason Erik Lundberg
SMU Campus Green, Festival Pavilion, 1130am-1230pm

A psychological examination of a student-teacher relationship in the 1980s, The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza is acclaimed poet Cyril Wong’s inaugural novel. Ministry of Moral Panic is Amanda Lee Koe’s fresh collection of short fiction that examines the improbable necessity of human connection in strikingly original prose. This launch of their latest literary offerings is moderated by author and editor Jason Erik Lundberg of Epigram Books.

Best New Singaporean Short Stories is Epigram’s biennial anthology series, with Volume One showcasing the best short fiction from Singaporean writers published in 2011 and 2012. Join Jason and five notable contributors in a discussion of their works.

(I’ll be moderating this entire session, since I edited all three books. Pressure!)

03 Nov:Alternate Realities
Singapore Art Museum, Glass Hall, 400-500pm

Life on this planet doesn’t seem to be panning out – is it time to build a new reality? Three speculative fiction writers discuss if it is easier to create stories or to live in the worlds they have created. Whose world would you like to be a part of?

Moderated by: Rajeev Patke

Featuring: Dean Francis Alfar, G Willow Wilson, Jason Erik Lundberg

(I can’t tell you how intimidated I am to be on a panel discussion with these folks.)

06 Nov:Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales Screw Us Up
Fringe 2013: Once Upon A Time
The Arts House, Living Room, 730-830pm

It usually ends with the prince and princess living happily ever after (or some variation to that end). However, life doesn’t often turn out that way. Do fairy tales skew our view of the world, and paint a picture too rose-tinted for our own good? Do they still have a role to play in our world today? Two teams of writers debate on whether fairy tales, in fact, mess with your minds, damaging you forever.

Moderated by: Carolyn Camoens

(I’m not a natural debater, but I’ll think of something to come up with.)

09 Nov: Brand New Books: The Tower by Isa Kamari | Confrontation by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed
SMU Campus Green, Festival Pavilion, 230-330pm

Join prolific authors, Cultural Medallion winner Isa Kamari and three-time Singapore Literature Prize winner Mohamed Latiff bin Mohamed, in conversation with acclaimed playwright Alfian Sa’at, for the launch of the English-language translations of their seminal works. Isa’s The Tower is a masterful allegorical tale of success and failure, translated for the first time into English by Alfian.

From Mohamed Latiff, Confrontation is a brilliant dramatisation of the period of uncertainty and change in the years leading up to Singapore’s merger with Malaya. Seen through the unique perspective of the young boy Adi, this fundamental period in Singaporean history is brought to life with masterful empathy.

(I don’t technically have anything to do with this launch, but I did edit Confrontation, and I published Isa in Fish Eats Lion, so want to support the both of them here.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Dystopia, Lit Festivals, Publishing, Singapore, Writing

Dystopian Deathmatch! Fight!

Orwell and Huxley

Yesterday, Letters of Note unearthed a letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell upon the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He starts off by thanking Orwell for instructing his publisher to send Huxley a copy of the book, and compliments him on its importance, then goes on to challenge the plausibility of Orwell’s dystopian future:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. […]

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

What Huxley failed to realize, however, is that science fiction is crap at prediction. Very little of what has been written in the nearly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has actually come to pass. It’s a common conceit, although I believe William Gibson is most famous for saying it, that science fiction is never about the time being written about, it’s always about the time in which the author wrote the book. Orwell’s world of Oceania and Air Strip One is a thinly-veiled analogue to post-WWII England, down to the destroyed buildings, rampant poverty, and chocolate rations. He was never honestly trying to predict the future; instead, he created his counterfactual masterpiece to help ensure that this future never actually would come to pass.

This being said, Huxley was much more spot on about the path humanity was about to take in terms of how it is often distracted so that those in power can remain both wealthy and powerful. We may not have Soma, but we do have reality television, political punditry, LOLcats, and product worship (you’ve seen the queues for the new models of iPads, right?). In terms of loving our servitude, how many of us are addicted to Facebook? We’re not to the stage where the class system is concretized in utero, but we don’t need to be; the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else has never been more pronounced. However, while Huxley was an astute observer of human nature, Brave New World fails as a science fiction novel.

So Nineteen Eighty-Four was not an actual prediction, but it was a narrative masterpiece. Orwell was a student of Huxley’s at Eton, and had to have read Brave New World when it was published in 1932. Both men had read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ur-dystopia We, which both books bear a strong resemblance to in terms of premise. But in terms of sheer storyNineteen Eighty-Four trounces Brave New World, which is really more of a thought experiment than a novel. To paraphrase Henry James, story is character. Huxley gives us an assortment of point-of-view characters, only one of which (John the Savage) has any kind of narrative arc, and even this is not present throughout the entire book. Orwell gives us Winston and Julia and O’Brien, characters with depth and humanity and tragedy that stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel. Thought experiments are fine for intellectual exercise, but a story is something that resonates and becomes part of who we are.

Both books have incredible merits, but only one of them remains my all-time favorite novel, and has held that number one spot for twenty years. I’m sure you can guess which one.

As a final note, I’ll point y’all to a webcomic drawn in 2009 that illustrates a passage in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death that contrasts these two books quite succinctly.

Orwell vs Huxley

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Dystopia, Writing