J.J. Abrams now runs the world’s two biggest sci-fi franchises. So what’s he doing venturing into literature?
THE Ubergeek. The Boy With All the Toys. The Lord Of The Nerds. It might seem as if the most significant achievement of Jeffrey Jacob “JJ” Abrams, screenwriter, actor, producer, director, composer and author, is to have made fanboy culture part of the mainstream. But the publication of “his” first novel – more on those inverted commas anon – also shows that the avant-garde and the experimental are in the ascendant.
The fusion of popular culture and continental philosophy – works which are as au fait with Foucault as with the Flash, Boba Fett and Baudrillard, Kierkegaard and Kirk – are everywhere, from the novels of China Mieville, Michael Chabon and Scarlett Thomas, to the comics work of Grant Morrison and Mike Carey, to TV shows such as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Big Bang Theory. The geeks have inherited the earth.
Abrams was born in New York, in 1966, and raised in Los Angeles, with both his parents working in the industry he now bestrides. One shouldn’t read too much into this confluence of East Coast intelligentsia and West Coast free-thinking, given that the genuinely significant event of his childhood was the 1977 release of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope.
I am of an age, roughly, with Abrams, and remember obsessing about that Roman numeral. We were already in a story. Things had happened before the tale we were being told. When Alec Guinness replied to Mark Hamill’s question: “You fought in the clone wars?” “Yes, I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father”, tens of thousands of kids with glasses went away thinking: “What were the clone wars?” (When we found out in 2002, we were mostly disappointed: imagine all those years of imaginative investment reduced to pallid CGI.)
At the same time, deep in the Scottish Borders, I was watching reruns of Star Trek. Star Wars was “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. Star Trek was an obviously possible future: faster-than-light spaceships, a unified world government and the capability to transport people by unstitching their molecules and atoms, and then reassembling them, were clearly within our reach. The idea of mobile communication devices, computers that could scan all recorded knowledge and self-opening doors were definitely fantastical and a bit silly.
Abrams is now in charge of both franchises, hence the monikers found on fan sites. He has delivered two Star Trek films and the much-anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII is due sometime in 2015. He has both the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon to play with, and yet has chosen to co-create a novel, S., instead. It is not a diversion or a jeu d’esprit or a frolic of his own: S. is at the heart of Abrams’ aesthetic vision.
Although Abrams worked on a number of cinematic projects – notably Regarding Harry with Star Wars star Harrison Ford, about the nature of identity, and two comedies, Gone Fishin’ and Taking Care Of Business (released as Filofax in Britain) – his breakthrough work was in television and with his own production company, Bad Robot.
That show was Alias, about a young woman, Sydney Bristow, who is a triple agent for the CIA. It established a set of Abrams-esque themes: arcing mythologies (in this case, the prophecies and technologies of Milo Rambaldi), a willingness to reboot the series radically at certain junctures, and a canny eye on audience expectations. There were hints of these associations in his earlier career. His fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios chimes neatly with working on Armageddon.
Moreover, although the TV series he co-wrote first, Felicity, was primarily a realistic comedy about a college student, it contained the seeds of ideas that would be fully realised later. Towards the end of season four, the audience was given alternate timelines and parallel realities. Just before season two, the eponymous star Keri Russell sent producers a prank photograph of herself with, apparently, her trademark golden locks shorn off. This became integrated into the show itself, a trick that would be used well during the filming of Lost.
It does seem, in retrospect, strange that I spent nearly 15% of my life obsessed with Abrams’ TV series Lost, co-created with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber. Every week for six years I would phone my friend, the novelist Andrew Crumey, to unpick the latest episode. Lost had a simple premise: Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 crashes on a desert island, and some of the passengers have miraculously survived. They discover they are not alone on the island; and a series of flashbacks (then flash-forwards, and flash-sideways) link their lives before and after the crash to an intricate mythology.
Lost was television for the TiVo generation. It teased the viewer with clues and hints that could only be fully interpreted on freeze-frame and had innovative online alternate-reality games. Discussions about the show buzzed on Internet message boards, giving the producers invaluable insight into its reception, and even allowing them to misdirect or seed ideas based on the fans’ response. If, in the end, Lost was more emotionally fulfilling than intellectually satisfying (I still have a pang of anger whenever I remember they never explained why all the combs disappeared from the luggage), it nevertheless set a new standard for television drama.
Abrams withdrew from Lost to direct Mission: Impossible III and co-created a similar TV show, Fringe, in 2008, with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. Collaboration seems his preferred mode of production, and this is borne out with the novel S., which Abrams “conceived”, but which has been written by Doug Dorst.
A minute-long YouTube trailer, featuring a man with his mouth stitched shut and a voiceover stating “what begins at the water shall end there” and “this is what happens when you become lost”, was the first hint of S. Online speculation wondered if this was a teaser for a Lost spinoff series, an adaptation of DC comics’ Phantom Stranger, or even a cryptic reference to the new Star Wars film. Instead, it heralded a book.
Ship Of Theseus is purportedly a novel by V.M. Straka. It is a “fake artefact”, much like the monster movie Cloverfield, which Abrams produced in 2008 and which used found footage. Not only do we get the novel itself – about a man shanghaied onto a mysterious boat with a demonic crew – the copy in the reader’s hand is heavily annotated by two other readers, Jennifer and Eric, who are attempting to make sense of the text and themselves, as well as the enigmatic figure of Straka himself.
Interleaved into it are countless pieces of ephemera: postcards, telegrams, a map scribbled on a napkin from the Pronghorn Java coffee shop. It even has a fake library sticker (813.54 STR 1949). It winks at Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire – another book about the role of the reader in creating the story – and is probably the most intricately designed piece of literature since Mark Z. Danielewski’s two novels, House Of Leaves and Only Revolutions.
The Ship Of Theseus paradox is first recorded in Plutarch’s first-century Life Of Theseus: if every plank of a boat is replaced during its voyage, is it the same vessel that embarked or a different one when it reaches its destination? The novel raises similar questions of identity. How much can you change before you are different? How much does interpretation change the text?
In his 2008 TED talk, Abrams reminisced about buying a mystery magic box from Lou Tannen’s magic store: “I bought this decades ago, but if you look at this, you’ll see it’s never been opened. Ever,” said Abrams. “Why have I not opened this, and why have I kept it? It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. What I love about this box – and what I realised I sort of do, in whatever it is that I do – is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential. And I realise that mystery is the catalyst for imagination. ... What are stories besides mystery boxes?”
S., in its elegant slipcase, is the mystery box that can be opened without dispelling its mystery. It is as much of a love letter to the form as Super 8 was a homage to the films of Spielberg. If Abrams brings the same ingenuity and intensity to Star Wars: Episode VII, then 2015 might feel like 1977. – Guardian News & Media
> S. is released today.
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