Dystopian future: a still from Bladerunner (1982)
Show Hide image

The Bladerunner book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep on Radio 4

Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation rightly cherished many things that the film ultimately minimised, in particular the novel’s mourning of the extinction of various animal species.

Dangerous Visions: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Radio 4

A season of dramas about future dystopias on Radio 4 featured a nicely depressed dramatisation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (15 and 22 June, 3pm), Philip K Dick’s best-known science-fiction novel. James Purefoy played Deckard, the bounty hunter charged to “retire” advance-model humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers in a congested, polluted, postwar 1992. Purefoy got that Dickian sense of inward scrutiny – his voice a scar of suffering, quivering with impatience and humiliation.

So often, radio adaptations of stories that have already been made into blockbusting movies (in this case, Blade Runner) ooze with self-consciousness; you’re terribly aware that you’re listening to something suspended between the page and the screen. Not here. I was half an hour into the show when I noticed they were using the word “android”, which appears in the book, rather than the iconic “replicant”. (In 1982, Ridley Scott felt that “android” represented the kind of B-movie lingo that the world was heartily sick of.)

Jonathan Holloway’s adaptation rightly cherished many things that the film ultimately minimised, in particular the novel’s mourning of the extinction of various animal species. On the page, Deckard recalls the days when the owls “fell out of the sky” and people did nothing but sit about, numbly reading animal obituaries. On the radio, he has a simple, gnawing desire for a pet monkey – a real pet monkey, not one that smells of electricity, a sure sign the creature is artificial. (A brilliant suggestion in the early drafts of the movie screenplay was a menagerie of mythic animals – including a unicorn – created to replace real ones. But it proved too expensive and the animal idea became less pivotal generally.)

Philip K Dick’s sense of a world reduced to an electronic slum was marvellously captured in the production – often with just the vague sound of static, or the swish of doors sliding so smoothly open and shut that after a while it began to feel like barbed wire in your head. And always there was Purefoy’s Bogartian, mumbled, perished voice, longing for a glimpse of his non-electric monkey, or even a slither of real sky, poor son of a bitch.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear