Homestuck: the monolithic webcomic that inspires eye-rolling in some, fond nostalgia in others, and confusion in all the rest. Reactions to Homestuck are as varied as the content and history of the piece itself. Clocking in at over 8,000 pages, it is perhaps the first piece of great literature based on and created on the internet, hailed by some as a Ulysses for the internet generation.
In short, Homestuck is a story by cartoonist Andrew Hussie, about four friends who play a game together and unwittingly bring about both the creation and the destruction of their world. Its long, convoluted plot features over 100 main characters, told through multiple timelines and intergalactic settings. Humans and their alternate versions—grey-skinned aliens called “trolls”— animated chess pieces, and winged dogs all play a role in the story, which is told through still-images and GIFs, flash animations with original music, interactive games, and lengthy text chats between characters, known as “pesterlogs”.
Homestuck‘s massive success lies in its ability to tap into a uniquely millennial humour that many books or films fail to understand. Its diversity is its strength—it is a parody of every genre: from film-noir, to comedy, to sci-fi, to everything in between. Moreover, its characters are vastly different, featuring personalities and interests so varied that it’s easy to keep reading Homestuck.
It was ‘Rose Lalonde’ who stuck out to me: a witty violinist who loves wizards and knitting. In fact, Rose Lalonde was my first and only cosplay. It was Homestuck that encouraged me to emerge from my shy nerd shell and unite with other shy nerds at an anime convention.
This is another quality of Homestuck: it is unifying in its strangeness. If you like something as weird as Homestuck, you want to find people who also enjoy something as weird as Homestuck. It is because of this that the fandom flourished at incredible speeds. At the comic’s peak, the phrase “let me tell you about Homestuck” actually became a meme, often superimposed over photos of confused civilians watching the antics of Homestuck cosplayers.
Homestuck is undeniably influenced by the internet and pop culture. Its characters know each either chiefly through the internet. Though they do eventually meet in person, their friendships are established through an online bond.
The comic contains countless allusions to literature and film; evidenced, for example, by John Egbert’s obsession with the hilariously terrible Nicolas Cage movie Con Air. John’s interest in this film is ridiculed by other characters and by Hussie himself. Hussie is poking fun at the fixation many fans have on the comic—a running theme that wouldn’t be possible if the piece were found anywhere but the internet.
It is this interactive quality that makes Homestuck so innovative. In the very early stages of the comic, Hussie was able to take fan advice in naming characters and creating the plot. Once this became impossible due to the sheer scope of the fandom, the comic continued to feature fan-contributed music and artwork, blurring the line between reader and creator. The fandom became known for throwing together cosplays and fanart mere minutes after an update (or “upd8”, as per the tumblr tag) was released.
I speak of this in the past tense because Homestuck finally ended on April 13 of this year, seven years to the day after it began. But the legacy of Homestuck is nowhere near complete. In 2012, Hussie launched a Kickstarter to fund Hiveswap, a computer adventure game precluding the events of Homestuck and following a human girl who finds herself transported onto the troll planet of Alternia. The campaign raised upwards of $2,000,000 dollars in support and the game is slated for release in early 2017.
For a quick taste of the absurdity of Homestuck, check out the Kickstarter trailer. Or, if your schedule is cleared for the next few years or so, you can read (or reread) Homestuck here.
Discussion around mental health has been growing over the past few years. Though the graphic fiction medium isn’t one to shy away from such discussions, it’s always a treat to find a comic, like Look Straight Ahead, so focused on understanding this issue.
Penned by up-and-coming Canadian author, Elaine Will, this fantastically real journey follows high school student Jeremy Knowles through his struggles with mental illness, depicted in one of the freshest and most accurate takes on the subject in years. I was recently fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Elaine about her book and the importance of representing mental health in graphic literature.
How long did it take to write Look Straight Ahead?
Well, it took four years to draw the graphic novel, but it probably took more like ten years altogether to figure out how to write it.
Any specific reason?
I couldn’t decide exactly whether I wanted to tell a story about myself or a fictional analog, or whether I wanted it to be grounded in reality or more sci-fi. There was a version I started in about 2003 that was a lot more sci-fi and I was in it as a character and there were some completely fictional characters in it, and it was a prose novel, and I decided, “well I’m not that great at writing prose, so…”
Well you can draw pretty darn well, so that turned out well.
[Laughs] Thank you.
So where did the inspiration come from?
In 2002, I suffered a nervous breakdown in my senior year of high school—I guess I always call it a nervous breakdown, but I guess it was really a psychotic episode.
So it’s both a bit based on you and a bit based on a fictional analog as well?
Yeah, and I decided to do that in the end because a problem with writing autobiographical stories is there’s always the danger of alienating your friends or family if they don’t like the way they’re portrayed. I thought it would be best to fictionalize everything. So the characters—some of them are based on real people and some of them are composites.
You have some really great fantastical visual elements, you said it was almost a science-fiction story. Why did you choose to depict Jeremy’s mental illness in that way?
It was just the best way I could think of to describe it, like I had to have some sort of visual metaphor because it’s such a difficult concept to try and put into words—or even images—especially for someone who hasn’t experienced it. And I wanted to give an impression of what it was like for someone who hasn’t experienced it.
So you use the characters of ‘God’ and ‘Prinzhorn.’ Why did you use these characters as physical personifications?
‘Prinzhorn’ is actually German. He’s named after a psychiatrist from the early 1900s who collected artwork by mental patients. And I guess ‘God’ represents the euphoria I felt during my manic episodes, and this strange power that I felt I had been imbued with. The demons represent depression and the way that it constantly drags you down into a hellish pit.
Why do you think it’s important for mental illness to be portrayed in graphic fiction?
I think it’s very important because it’s a medium that’s very accessible, especially to young adult readers who may be struggling with mental illness. They probably need it most, and it’s important for them to read stories that represent what they might be going through. I’ve heard from a number of readers who’ve said they’ve had similar experiences, and that my book helped them. I’ve also heard from a couple of people who said they came to a greater understanding of mental illness through my book.
That’s awesome! That’s a real testament to the power of this art form we’ve got here. So based on that, what do you think is the most important thing that readers should take away from your book?
I would say, “There is hope and you aren’t alone, and if you have a story of your own, you might want to share it.” I understand that maybe some people don’t want to, but it’s important to open up discussions surrounding mental health, lessen the stigma, and perhaps even encourage better mental healthcare.
And now a question that I pulled from reading the back of your book. It says here that the book will ask “What does it mean to be crazy, anyway?” I was wondering if you could answer that.
Well, there’s a section in the book that I often read when I’m asked to do a reading, because I think that it sums it up quite well. It’s when Jeremy’s first admitted to the hospital and he’s having a conversation with Ian, the cool older guy that he meets there. Ian says, “Well, sometimes I think that you and I are the enlightened ones and everybody else is actually crazy,” because if you think of all the crazy things that happen in the world and this horrible capitalist system that we live in that favours the rich, and that sort of thing, I think the normal reaction is to perhaps fall into depression. It’s no wonder there are so many people struggling with depression, you know? In the difficult world and the difficult times that we live in?
That’s an interesting thing, because that’s such a dark statement, but at the end of the book, we know what you’re trying to have them come away with: that there is hope and you can make it better. When a story can tackle both sides of the story well, that’s sort of the hallmark of a good piece of literature.
I have been criticized for the ending of the book: that perhaps it was too abrupt. But, I didn’t want to tell anybody how they should recover, and my own recovery was actually every bit as swift. One thing I maybe should have included is that maybe you won’t ever be “cured” if you have a mental illness, but you can manage it, and you can live a “so-called” normal life.
So-called, yeah. That is, if you have access to the right sort of resources, which unfortunately many people don’t. I was really fortunate to have a really good psychiatrist who never argued with me about my delusions, because he knew that they were real to me. And I don’t think it is humouring to work with people with their delusions, you know?
To validate them.
Yeah. I think that’s important because you’re just going to make someone more upset if you try to argue with them.
To wrap it up a little bit, what are you working on now? Do you have anything in the works?
I’m finishing up a graphic novel called Dustship Glory, which is an adaptation of a novel about a Finnish immigrant farmer who lived in Saskatchewan during the 1930s and tried to build a huge steamship in the middle of his wheat field—this is a true story. I’m also going be working soon on a graphic novelette that my partner Mark wrote called “Arcade”, which is a metafictional story about an old, forgotten retro-videogame character called Axe-man. He’s a Viking warrior with an axe for a hand, and faces the destruction of his world because the cartridge chip is deteriorating, and he has to get the attention of a retro game character in the real world.
And as someone who’s breaking into the industry, what advice would you give to any people who are trying to get into the graphic fiction industry, or even just start making comics themselves?
Start making comics and exhibit at as many shows as you can. And one thing to remember about shows is that you might not always make money. I think Noah van Sciver said it best when he said “be prepared to be at a signing at a store where hopefully one person will show up and cough on you,” which is very true. Not every event will be like that obviously.
There always seems to be some sort of mysticism surrounding the notion of “myths”. Often, they can seem inaccessible. They’re something of the past, locked away in a box only Classics majors have the keys to, and not really something you think about on a day-to-day basis.
But that’s wrong, because myths are hauntingly transcendent and say a giant “fuck you” to time, place, and language. Don’t be disillusioned—myths are as contemporary as “Harry Potter”, and just as relevant.
We live in a world so saturated with myths, both new and old, that we often don’t recognize mythology for what it is: a primordial truth about humanity. However, that definition sounds awfully lofty and pompous, so it is super cool for twenty-first century authors to incorporate myths into fiction.
Averno by Louise Glück is a poetry collection that uses the myth of Persephone and Hades as a point of reference to explore larger-than-life topics like death, the soul, and the breakdown of a relationship. It offers unconventional takes on the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, telling the story both from the kidnapper’s perspective and, refreshingly, from Persephone’s.
Glück’s poetry feels personal and domestic, concentrating on scenes of nature, which adds to the borderless aspect of her writing. She switches between the first and second person with ease, inviting you into her narrative that seems to draw on her own life and experiences. She makes myths feel intimate, by grounding her collection in a central household myth that is able to translate perfectly from an ancient Greek context into a very tangible contemporary one.
When you first read Anne Carson’s Antigonick, it seems a little strange to see seemingly unrelated pen and watercolour drawings printed on vellum in the middle of a modern translation of Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone”. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense in an abstract, magical-realism sort of way. When Haimon and Kreon are arguing, we see birds exploding out of a chimney, signifying conflict within the household. Some drawings are more abstract than others, composed of watercolour lines and blurs that remind me of Chinese ink paintings, while others are simply absurd (a horse knocking over a dining table), yet all of them connect to the tragedy in some inexplicable way.
Another point of note in Antigonick is the lack of punctuation. Carson’s prose seems poetic in form, using the spacing and positioning of words on the page to signify starts and stops. The main themes and conflicts of the play are clearly presented in a poetic form, and although there is a distinct archaic taste to the text (“thou, thee”), there is also displacement through the insertion of modern concepts and turns of phrases.
As someone who has studied the Fagles translation of the play last year, I thoroughly enjoyed Carson’s take, which presents the text graphically and bluntly. You are no longer required to parse through the text to get to the themes, and in a sense this work is an English lecture in and of itself.
If you are a first time reader of Sophocles, however, I would recommend a more literal translation of the play, as Antigonick is a piece of art that requires foreknowledge of the source material.
Mythology is awesome, which is great because it’s everywhere. Really, read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me. But mythology is also varied, and is definitely not limited to the Greek canon. So after you check out these two beautiful works of fiction, be sure to branch out. Maybe you’ll have an epiphany somewhere along the way.
You’ve never seen the magical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) before, but after seeing Doctor Strange in theatres, I guarantee that you’ll want to see more of it.
The MCU has broached science fiction before between the inventions of Tony Stark and the space adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, the MCU approaches traditional fantasy by exploring the world of magic and spells with the future Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. How well did this film treat the subject of magic and how faithful was it to its source material?
Doctor Strange was no stranger to its source material, though some changes were made to serve the cinematic timeline and larger plotlines. Firstly, the MCU’s Doctor Strange is set in the 2016 contemporary world, whereas the comic debut was set during the Silver Age in the 1960s. Naturally, many facts changed as a result.
The biggest change surrounds the villain “Kaecilius”, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, and “Baron Mordo”, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale) is no stranger to playing villains and if you’re looking for a good villain, you’ll be happy to hear that he delivers. However, in the comics Kaecilius is merely a named disciple of Baron Mordo, and most of Kaecilius’ role and power in the film is actually closer to Baron Mordo in the comics.
The problem is that the modern setting of the MCU could never explain Baron Mordo’s reason for turning baddie; in the comic universe, it’s a product of his disillusion from WW1. It’s unclear how the MCU will treat Baron Mordo, but his disillusionment with the modern world will have to be derived from another source if he does become a villain.
The second large change to source material was the Eye of Agamotto. In the comics, the Eye could emit light to dispel illusions, look into the souls of others, and had the capacity to view incidents that had recently passed. While the comics never explained its origins, the MCU has made the Eye of Agamotto a significant relic to serve a larger plotline: now, the eye is an Infinity Stone, specifically the fifth Infinity Stone, called the Time Stone. I don’t think most fans would complain about this change; however, the power of amulet may have been greatly exaggerated in the film and let’s just leave it at that.
The most controversial deviation from source material was the casting of Tilda Swinton for the portrayal of the “Ancient One”. The Ancient One in the comics was an elderly man of Tibetan descent, but the MCU decided on a female of Caucasian complexion for the role. Whatever your feelings on this matter, Tilda Swanton delivers a powerful performance. Unfortunately, the bald cap that she wore was extremely noticeable at parts and provoked some laughs from the crowd during scenes that were supposed to be somber.
This movie has an excellent cast and the actors deliver. Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is spot on, both as the arrogant surgeon pre-magic and as the humorous yet intensive the-ends-justifies-the-means magician post-magic. The only deviation was his mastery of pop culture references; the MCU’s Doctor Strange has a definite advantage over the graphic novel’s character in that regard.
The film’s treatment of magic is both faithful and intricate. The explanation of magic in the film was gratifying because the film actually provided a magical system. Magic was derived from scrolls and old texts and there was a requirement to study spells as a subject, rather than just have some innate use of them. The use of geometry to distinguish between the different types of spells was evocative of alchemy and the mandalas that originally influenced the character’s creator, Steve Ditko. Alternatively, the geometry could have correlated to the Sacred Geometry in the occult genre that informed the later Doctor Strange graphic fiction.
As an extension of magic, there is an appropriate analogy to be made between this movie and Inception. The manipulation of physics and structural solidarity, exemplified by the folding of city streets or the walls of a church in the trailer is fully utilized in the movie. These mind-blowing visuals are complimented by multi-dimensional traveling. My only gripe is that alternative dimensional beings weren’t significantly explored like they are in the comics. Nonetheless, you plan to see the film, watch it in 3D!
Doctor Strange is a fantastic origin story that is both intriguing and humorous in all the right areas without dwelling on the hero-founding incident. As one who usually complains when a film isn’t faithful to its source material, Doctor Strange’s slight deviations from the source material are illusions: too small to cause incident, and not even worth investigation by the graphic novel’s Eye of Agamotto.
I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a movie ‘good’ ever since this year’s Oscar winners were announced back in February. This isn’t because I was displeased with the movies nominated for Best Picture, or the men for Best Actor, or the women for Best Actress, not even the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey somehow received a nomination. No, I was drawn to the animated shorts section in support of Don Hertzfeldt, my favourite filmmaker, and his film World of Tomorrow.
As an avid fan, I have seen every film he’s ever made, whether wonderful or horrible (and I’m not ashamed to say that he’s had one or two duds). Yet, when I watched World of Tomorrow for the first time, about a week or so before the nominations were announced, I found something different from anything he’d done before: a sci-fi flick.
Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction from the bottom of my heart. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times on opening weekend and I am not ashamed in the least. However, when I watch a Don Hertzfeldt film, I expect to see less ‘galaxy far, far away’ and more ‘so deep I can’t even see you anymore.’ As an imaginative and angsty indie filmmaker, Hertzfeldt is more likely to deal with the ethical and moral issues of whether Han shot first than actually animate a blaster-burned, bug-eyed bounty hunter. And yet, the latter doesn’t seem so impossible after watching World of Tomorrow. Heck, we even get an appearance by a snake boy! (A Hutt maybe?)
I’ll keep my review short, as I’m obviously a little biased, and if you wanted a true review, you’d be on IMDb, so let’s not kid ourselves. In simple terms, if you and I are of similar mind and thought any of his other films were genius, this one will appeal to you. However, for the sake of most of the population who are unfamiliar with this man’s work, it is important to know a bit about his other films. Generally speaking, they’re always very introspective and character-driven, and deal with grand themes regarding the nature of reality or the human condition.
World of Tomorrow fulfills all of these criteria handily.
I have a few friends who would balk at my assertion that a film could be sci-fi through and through, yet still bear these stereotypical qualities of a ‘good’ film. Nevertheless, that’s what Hertzfeldt has made. The plot focuses on a girl named Emily, who is contacted by, and then transported via time travel, to her third generation clone in the far-flung future, who retains all of the memories of ‘Emily Prime,’ and thus is essentially the same person. You don’t really find anything more introspective or character-driven than that.
Furthermore, as it runs its course, the film presents many philosophical quandaries via these two awkward protagonists, including but not limited to: What is love? What makes the world beautiful? What role does sadness play in being human? At what point will technology end our humanity? And so on. Themes don’t often get much grander than that in my experience.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you read that last segment with disdain when I implied it was surprising that a sci-fi film could be more than aliens and blaster rifles, and were screaming, “Yes, many do raise the same philosophical quandaries, you blithering idiot!”
I would agree with you (except maybe on the idiot part). However, society’s mark on me would not.
Did you know that a science-fiction film has never once won an Academy Award for Best Picture? Oscar history has been one of drama after hard-boiled drama scooping up the top prizes. Occasionally, a comedy will rise up an remind everyone that the world is not entirely terrible all the time, but science fiction, fantasy (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), and other speculative genres are typically shoved into the categories of Costume Design, Visual Effects, or the ever-popular Sound Mixing.
It would be a sweeping overgeneralization to say that most people, or even most film critics, don’t take speculative genres seriously. But for the fans of such films, it often feels that way. We are often relegated into a ‘nerd’ culture that the media clearly sees as painfully other, comical, and even downright silly. Watch a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory if you have any doubt.
But maybe even that is putting aside the issue too easily. It’s very simple to blame the mainstream society that has clearly ‘othered’ us nerds for our nerdy misfortune. At some point, we need to ask ourselves why our speculative films are viewed with such disregard.
“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” is a phrase I hear getting thrown around a lot lately. If we can’t respect our own movies, how can we expect anyone else to? This is not to say that we should blindly love every movie adaptation of our favourite book (I’m going to be honest, the movies based on the Percy Jackson series sucked), nor do I mean to focus solely on adaptations.
My point is that speculative films should contain the things that made us fall in love with these genres in the first place. To beat on Percy Jackson again (sorry Chris Columbus, but you peaked with Harry Potter), I loved the books because they could weave crazy magic and monsters with characters, themes, and situations I could actually care about, whereas the film was pure consumerist fluff.
In a world where commodification is everything, the artistry that comes with the massive imaginations of speculative writers and filmmakers is quickly getting sucked away.
This, in essence, is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see World of Tomorrow nominated for an Oscar. Yes, consumerism puts more and more pressure on filmmakers to produce speculative fluff that will make you eat popcorn and feel good, but this film, and other films like it (I could probably write a complete rant on The Martian) show what can happen when filmmakers care more about the quality of the story they’re telling than the size of the explosions.
Perhaps sci-fi needs to get a little bit more down to Earth in order to reach for the stars again.
Childhood’s End is a 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke. In the twentieth century, Clarke was considered to be one of the three greatest science fiction writers, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
The story that has stood the test of time for over sixty years. Now, after various failed attempts (Stanley Kubrick once tried to make it a movie, and the BBC did a radio adaption in the 90s), Clarke’s favourite of his own novels has reached the small screen thanks to the efforts of Matthew Graham and the Syfy channel.
But does the adaption live up to the source material? Well… yes. Many of the things that made Clarke’s writing great are alive and well on screen, yet so are his weaknesses. Some deviations from the source material don’t seem to hurt, but neither do they improve the story much.
Let me explain myself.
This show perfectly adopts the atmosphere that Clarke was once so famous for. There is a real sense of scale and power to Childhood’s End. When you are told to believe that the events of the show are affecting the whole world, you really believe it. Clarke’s novels always gave an impression of size and, just like in the books, when spaceships appear in the sky above Earth in the show, you really get a sense that they are vast. His ideas have enormous scale, and that scale is represented perfectly in the series.
Unfortunately, like Clarke’s books, the characters aren’t quite as impressive as the world they inhabit. Yes, they serve a purpose, and can be charismatic and cool, but you never quite invest in them the way you should. Character development takes a back seat to the grander, more fascinating story being told. As a result, it’s hard to care about the characters’ complicated relationships.
However, credit must still be given to Mike Vogel as Ricky Stormgren for giving what otherwise is a bland and tired trope some charisma and weight. In addition, Osy Ikhile as Milo Rodericks manages to pour in some good emotion, and the wonderful Charles Dance as the alien “supervisor for Earth” Karellen turns out to deliver an absolutely stellar performance.
But like I said, characters are a secondary feature. The story and its ideas are what sells.
One day, spaceships appear in the sky. The human race is told not to be afraid. A peaceful alien invasion proceeds, with aliens titled the Overlords now watch over the skies of planet Earth. They have decrees that it’s time for the world to become a utopia—but at what cost?
The book is split into three parts: Earth and the Overlords, The Golden Age, and The Last Generation. Similarly, the show is split into three two-hour long episodes titled The Overlords, The Deceivers, and The Children. Though the names are changed, the focus of each episode mostly correlates with the novels’ plots.
The Overlords begins with an ominous flash to the future, in the ruins of a post-apocalypse, where a man named Milo stumbles through the wreckage of a city and claims to be the last living human being.
With that to hang over us, we are thrown back in time to our present-day Earth, with the arrival of giant spaceships in the sky, and the grumbling tones of Charles Dance introducing himself as Karellen. Karellen proclaims himself to be the supervisor for Earth, and he has come to pull humanity into the future by ending war, poverty, starvation, and every other blight on Earth.
The Ooverlords choose a farmer (though in the book it was a UN secretary) named Ricky, a calm, self-assured, almost painfully all-American boy as their liaison. Ricky is periodically brought to the Overlords’ ship. Karellen advises him, and there is slowly a real sense that the two have become friends. This is by far the most interesting relationship in the show.
Together, they end war, pollution, famine, and slowly transform the world into a better place. There is some resistance to the Overlords, but it is quickly defeated. During this time, a young wheelchair-bound boy named Milo is shot through the heart. A beam of light comes down from the sky, and Milo is suddenly alive again and able to walk. Milo then tells an old man who he shares a friendship with that he wants to grow up to become the first person to see the Overlords home planet.
Everything is wonderful, but as Karellen continues to stay in the shadows, Ricky becomes more frantic and paranoid as to why his alien friend won’t reveal himself. When Ricky finally catches a glimpse of his friend, he decides that it’s better that the Overlords go unseen. Then, after fifteen years on Earth (fifty in the book), Karellen reveals himself to the world.
Cloven hooves for feet, horns, bright red wings, and fiery eyes—Karellen looks like the devil.
Episode two, The Deceivers, might be the weakest of the three episodes. This is not the fault of any particular element. Episode two must deal with the consequences of the first episode while setting up for the finale. That’s a lot to do, and its storyline is hindered by some sub-par new characters. While we are invested in Milo and Ricky, it’s hard to care about the new Greggson family and their seemingly possessed children. Meanwhile, when Ricky falls ill from exposure on the Overlords’ ship, it simply seems like a way to continue to include him now that his role has been fulfilled. Milo is still fascinating as the only human to still yearn for answers, but he’s mostly just waiting around to take the spotlight in the finale.
The quality of episode three, The Children, is somewhere between the two preceding episodes. Ricky’s inclusion seems pointless, though with some nice beats, and the Greggsons’ story continues to be annoyingly flat. Their deaths in the climax occur without any emotional resonance. We simply don’t care about these people.
Nevertheless the Greggsons do serve a purpose. They help show that, though humanity has reached utopia, it has done so by sacrificing its imagination and its culture. The world may be perfect and free from all evil, but it’s a dull perfection. This is contrasted by the small community that rejects the Overlords’ help, and lives as the humanity of days gone by, in which culture, creativity, and scientific inquiry are seeping back in. They are also included in the series because their child, Jennifer, grows to possess psychic abilities, linking her to all other children and showing the eventual fate of Earth.
It’s Milo who takes the final spotlight however. As a man who grew up wanting to be a scientist, he is distraught to find that scientific inquiry on Earth is dying, and he’d like to know why. Milo believes there is a time distortion that occurs when the Overlords travel from their world to Earth, so he hides aboard their ship, thinking it will be a forty days journey between worlds.
Milo is awakened on the planet of the Overlords, and it is there that their true purpose is revealed to him before he is taken back home. He was wrong. As Milo stumbles through the wreckage of the Earth, eighty years after he left, we are finally back where we began.
As the Earth crumbles around him, Milo asks Karellen to save something, anything of Earth culture, so that it may survive them. Karellen obliges, and as the Earth vanishes from the universe, music remains.
Music floats in space as a symbol of the culture and creativity that once was the human race.
Childhood’s End is by no means perfect, nor is it an exact replica of Clarke’s great novel. The inter-human relationships fall flat, to the point that I didn’t even bother to mention some of them here. But the story is as beautiful and fascinating as it was on the page, a story that I’ve only partially spoiled here—if you’d like to know it all, go watch for yourself! The love and attention payed to Clarke’s story has resulted in six hours of television that are definitely worth watching.
“Here is another manifestation of insanity: people are united in actions that they would neither have known how to do nor dreamed of doing until seized by madness.”
~ From the Mouth of the Whale, Sjón
Sometimes you get tired of reading books in a specific genre, books by well-known authors, or whatever books are currently popular. Sometimes, the desire to read something different can be all-consuming. And in the sea of existing literature, that isn’t an impossible desire. Though, for best results, such a book should be found entirely by accident.
That is exactly how I came across Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale, hailing from a country whose literature is on the peripheries when it comes to attention and recognition: Iceland. The summary seems straightforward enough: Iceland, 1635—Jónas Pálmason, a self-taught healer and academic, is branded a heretic and shunned by society, forced to seek refuge with his wife Sigga and survive the country’s harsh conditions. Beginning with a prelude where Lucifer has a confrontation with the Father, the book is set up to make the reader assume that the story will follow a rather predictable, linear storyline, with the possible interweaving of religious motifs on the side.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The only clear formatting in the book lies in the seven sections into which it is divided. Otherwise, the reader is constantly being forced to remember that this is a story about Jónas, as opposed to a reflection on religion or the culture’s practices and ideologies in the 17th century. At a certain point, however, the certainty wears away as the captivating narrative takes effect.
Religion is the most dominant theme, with frequent indications of just how attached the Icelanders were to God and the Christian faith. What’s interesting is the way in which even religion seems unable to escape the dark and complex nature of existence. The second section begins with a rather unusual retelling of the story of Adam: how he grew so lustful that he began to desire his own shadow, and how God took it away while thinking of how to solve the problem. Where most books tend to focus on the idealized and sanitized versions of Bible stories, Sjón is clearly comfortable with presenting their darker side, the conflicts and dirt that may in fact have happened but that humanity has chosen to erase in an attempt to idealize them.
The novel’s biggest strength is how skilfully it weaves magical realism into an otherwise realistic and convincing narrative. Eventually there’s nothing surprising about hearing the story of how Jónas tried to exorcise the ghost of a young boy and almost drowned in a stream of excrement, or the vision he has of a being ripping out his fifth rib which, when placed on the doorstep, reminds Jonas of his wife—who has been standing there the whole time. Other incidents, like his reveal that the King of Denmark’s prized “unicorn horn” was actually a narwhal’s, rely on historical facts that nonetheless maintain a touch of the otherworldly. The same is the case with the almanac-like “entries” appearing at varying stages throughout the novel, providing dictionary-like definitions that sound like something taken from historical records. Their only shortcomings are how inconsistently they appear.
The novel “echoes across centuries and cultures,” as the blurb on the back states, in a more indirect sense than most will expect, and that was the best part of the entire story. It’s not a novel that strives to teach its reader something, to chastise the past, or even to weave an entirely compelling story. One must let the story’s natural course exert its power, which it possesses a great deal of, to grow attached to Jónas.
It’s a book that serves as a character study through the eyes of the culture and environment that surrounds him. The elements of magical realism, especially the very last scene in which a younger Jónas is willingly consumed by a whale, can be taken literally in the sense that they add a touch of excitement to the story. Another interpretation is as signs of how the human mind doesn’t always know what’s real.
Unusual and memorable, Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale is worth a read not only to delve into the aforementioned world of the unusual, but also to experience the literature of a culture that isn’t dominate in the current literary market, at least in North America. The writing style is refreshing and full of risk-taking, and whether you love or hate the book after finishing, it will leave a memorable, lasting impression.