Science in Storytelling: Interstellar and ’39

Both Queen and Christopher Nolan have used the theory of relativity as a foundation for storytelling in surprisingly similar ways. Their ventures show how science can be used to tell human stories.

By Sadie MacDonald

I don’t think that everyone is aware of the song “39” by Queen. This underrated gem sounds like a folksy shanty with its lyrics about ships and seas, but it’s not what it seems.

“39” was penned by Brian May, who put his astrophysics studies on hold to pursue his career as lead guitarist of Queen (as one does). With that fact in mind, the song becomes very different from what its genre initially implies it to be.

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Dr. Brian May eventually did finish his Ph.D in astrophysics thirty years after starting it! Photo: HuffPost

The song’s “ship” is a spaceship, and the “milky seas” refers to the Milky Way. The “world so newly born” is another planet that offers hope for an “old and grey” Earth. Some lyrics in the song are strange: the chorus mentions “the land that our grandchildren knew” and the narrator observes in the final verse that “so many years have gone though I’m older but a year.” He addresses someone mournfully, saying “your mother’s eyes from your eyes cry to me.”

May once explained “39” in an interview:

It’s a science fiction story. It’s the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He’s aged a year and they’ve aged 100 years so, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his wife in his daughter, a strange story.

Essentially, “39” is about the human effects of the theory of relativity. I had too much of an arts education to explain relativity properly, but what’s important to this discussion is that time is relative; it will not pass at the same rate for all observers, and can be distorted. Some causes for extreme time dilation include black holes, which can distort the fabric of space-time itself, and light-speed travel (the closer something gets to the speed of light, the slower time will pass for it). For the traveller in “39,” only a year has gone by, but much more time has passed back on Earth, and the person who wrote him “letters in the sand” is no longer alive when he returns.

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar, this might sound a little familiar.

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Matthew McConaughey as Joseph Cooper in Interstellar. Photo: FilmGrab

To sum up (and spoil) Interstellar: the film is set in a future where the Earth is a dying dust bowl and its population is at risk of extinction. NASA sends explorers into space to find a planet to serve as a new home. Protagonist Cooper is one reluctant explorer, leaving his children in hopes of giving them a future. Near the midpoint of the film, Cooper arrives on a planet where time is so dilated that while a few hours pass for him, 23 Earth years go by, as he discovers when he returns to the ship to find recorded messages left by his aging children. By the end of the film, his daughter Murphy is an old woman, and Cooper reunites with her on her deathbed.

When I saw Interstellar’s trailers, I wondered if it was connected to “39”, and after watching the film, I felt certain of it. As far as I’m aware, though, Nolan never confirmed if “39” inspired Interstellar. There are several key similarities. Both feature explorers leaving a failing Earth in a spaceship in search of a new world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but at huge personal – and temporal – cost to the explorers and their loved ones. Time acts as a destructive force that irrevocably disrupts the natural lifespans of those involved, but it is also a precious resource for the protagonist, who gets to see his daughter in her old age.

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Cooper saying goodbye to his daughter Murphy as he leaves for his mission. Photo: FilmGrab

These stories show that science fiction can be intimately human. Both “39” and Interstellar use physics to tell stories of love, loss, and hope. Cooper realizes that his and Murphy’s love for each other is “the key” to transmitting the data that will save humanity, and the narrator of “39” promises his partner he will return to Earth. Interstellar ends optimistically, but the narrator of “39” laments that “all your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand / for my life still ahead, pity me.” Scientific discoveries and saving Earth’s population is not enough to make up for what was lost on a personal scale, but love endures nonetheless.

Science fiction, though often maligned, offers unique opportunities to explore human relationships and emotions in technologically fantastic settings. These elements have been tied to the genre since its beginnings in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and have endured up through Star Trek and Carl Sagan’s Contact. We could use more marriages between science and storytelling. As Dr. Brian May himself says, “I think we all realize ourselves best by opening up both sides of our intellect… artistic and scientific.”

Unfinished Austen: The Watsons

Unlike Austen’s other incomplete novel Sanditon, there are hints as to how The Watsons was meant to end. But does knowing the ending mean that the reader will be more satisfied with what we have of Austen’s work?

By Sadie MacDonald

Time for another Unfinished Austen discussion! I wrote about Sanditon, Austen’s last (incomplete) novel, in March. Let’s backtrack to an unfinished novel from the middle of Austen’s career: The Watsons. Images of the manuscript are available online (as well as edited full text). The Watsons is shorter than Sanditon, though we know more about its unwritten plot. Even so, after reading it, I feel wistful for what could’ve been.

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Jane Austen made rewrites to the draft of The Watsons by affixing additional scraps of paper to the manuscript with pins, as shown here. When Microsoft Word isn’t an option, you make do. Photo: Open Culture

Austen’s reasons for abandoning The Watsons aren’t fully known. According to Austen’s great-niece Fanny Lefroy, Austen began the novel “somewhere in 1804… but her father died early in 1805 and it was never finished.” The death of Austen’s father George, who had encouraged his daughter to write, was a serious emotional blow, especially considering that Austen’s close friend Anne Lefroy had died suddenly the month before. Furthermore, George Austen’s death forced Jane, her sister Cassandra, and their mother to depend on relatives for their livelihood. Understandably, Austen was not a prolific writer during those years.

While Austen eventually wrote other novels, she never completed The Watsons, though the manuscript features extensive revisions. The subject matter likely became too personal for her, as the Watson patriarch was supposed to die, casting his daughters in an uncertain position (more on that later). Whatever the case, the fragment remained unpublished until James Edward Austen-Leigh released it in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871.

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A plaque designating the house in Bath where Jane Austen and her family lived from 1801 to 1805. Austen wrote The Watsons during this period. Apparently Austen was not a fan of Bath – maybe her dislike of the place had something to do with her losing her desire to finish the novel she had started there. Photo: sleepymyf

The story of The Watsons is familiar for Austen readers. The Watsons are poor and numerous, like the Morland and Price families. Heroine Emma Watson was raised by affluent relatives with the expectation she would be made their heir, much like Frank Churchill in Emma. As with the Bennets and the Dashwoods, the family’s sisters must marry and secure a stable future.

We don’t get much of the story, but we have an idea of how The Watsons was meant to end, if Austen-Leigh’s note accompanying the published fragment is anything to go by:

“When the author’s sister, Cassandra, showed the manuscript of this work to some of her nieces, she also told them something of the intended story… Mr. Watson was soon to die; and Emma to become dependent for a home on her narrow-minded sister-in-law and brother. She was to decline an offer of marriage from Lord Osborne, and much of the interest of the tale was to arise from Lady Osborne’s love for Mr. Howard, and his counter affection for Emma, whom he was finally to marry.”

So, The Watsons treads familiar ground, but it also offers intriguing possibilities. Other Austen novels feature death as backstory, but here a father dies in the midst of the story itself. Emma’s relative poverty and distaste for rich suitor Lord Osborne are also interesting. Though her stories focus on affluent circles, Austen was from a family of modest income – closer to the Watsons than the Woodhouses – so this plot could have been personally meaningful for her. As Margaret Drabble writes, “one feels that through [Emma] Jane Austen was expressing the indignation of a whole class of women, to which she herself belonged.” I’m also curious about Emma’s competition against Lady Osborne, Lord Osborne’s mother – I would’ve liked to see a wealthy older woman pursuing a younger man!

As with Sanditon, other creators have finished The Watsons, including Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, her great-great-niece Edith Brown, and playwright Laura Wade in 2018.

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A scene from Laura Wade’s stage rendition of The Watsons at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

With the available story notes, taking over The Watsons is an easier task than it is for Sanditon, which contains multitudes of unknowns. As an Austen fan, is it more satisfying knowing the ending to The Watsons? Not really.

Generally, we know what ending to expect when we read Austen novels. We read because we’re intrigued by the steps it takes to get to that ending, and the winding social interactions that make up the plot. I still get anxious when I read about Lydia Bennet’s elopement or Edward Ferrars’ apparent marriage to Lucy Steele. I would’ve liked to see the story build in The Watsons. Margaret Drabble concurs: “although it was written in a period of some sadness, The Watsons has a vitality and optimism that one would have liked to follow to the end.”

We have a roadmap to finish it ourselves, but we’ll always ache for Austen’s touch.

Unfinished Austen: Sanditon

Sanditon is one of two novels Jane Austen never finished. Since her death, this fragment of writing has undergone a long journey of alternate interpretations. For better or for worse, everyone who interacts with Sanditon must make their own interpretive choices.

By Sadie MacDonald

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Jane Austen fan in possession of six full-length novels must be in want of even more Austen stories.

Luckily for us greedy fans, more writing is available! There are several works of juvenilia as well as unfinished fragments The Watsons and Sanditon. Today I’ll focus on Sanditon, which you can read online. As an unfinished novel, it’s been subject to a lot of interpretation and conjecture over time.

First, Sanditon‘s publishing history: it wasn’t a given that it would be widely shared with readers. Jane Austen was a private person who cared deeply about her work, heavily revising manuscripts before publishing them anonymously. After Austen died, her sister Cassandra safeguarded her writing by destroying some of Jane’s letters and preserving unpublished manuscripts, which were distributed among family members after Cassandra’s death. Austen’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh included extracts of Sanditon in A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1871. Some of the Austen family had doubts about publishing Jane’s unfinished works, but Austen-Leigh felt that the public should read them. R.W. Chapman published the full text for the first time in 1925. There are pressing questions here regarding the ethics of publishing posthumously, which is beyond the scope of this post (fortunately, Serena will discuss this topic in an upcoming article!).

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A watercolour of Jane Austen painted by her sister Cassandra in 1804. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Sanditon tells the story of the Parker family and their speculative attempts to make the titular seaside town a resort destination for tourists. The Parkers invite Charlotte Heywood to experience Sanditon’s charms for herself. The sensible, wry Charlotte meets many characters who vary in ridiculousness. Lady Denham, for example, is a rude, tightfisted gentlewoman who delights in having her relatives compete for her favour. There’s also Mr. Parker’s three hypochondriac siblings, who have teeth pulled on the merest suspicion of gum issues, and his charming unmarried brother, Sidney Parker. The stage is set – but the story didn’t have the chance to play out.

Austen started writing Sanditon in the last months of her life, but she was forced to abandon it when she became too ill. The fragment consists of twelve chapters, ending abruptly after Charlotte compares the portraits of Lady Denham’s deceased husbands: one has a “whole-length portrait” over the mantelpiece, while the other gets an inconspicuous miniature. It’s an innocuous moment to end on – but it’s fitting for Austen’s career to end with a witty observation. What little we have of Sanditon is tantalizing, and Austen presents it with characteristic irony and snideness. Sanditon is most intriguing, however, for what we don’t get to see, and for what we must interpret ourselves.

In her introduction to the Penguin edition of Sanditon, Margaret Drabble notes that “one cannot predict with any certainty the ways in which the plot would have developed.” The biggest questions surround the speculative venture; Mr. Parker’s naïvety left me pessimistic about its success. There’s also Sidney Parker to consider – is he another rakish red herring of a love interest like Wickham and Willoughby, a jovial beau like Mr. Tilney, or something else entirely? One interesting character, discussed but not seen, is Miss Lambe, “a young West Indian of large fortune” who is “about seventeen, half mulatto,* chilly and tender” and the “most important and precious” charge of her guardian. Austen novels can be insular, as they focus on the rural English upper-class; Mansfield Park is one exception, as it mentions that the Bertrams acquired their wealth through slave plantations. Sanditon could have been another chance to broaden horizons.

Unsurprisingly, others have tried to finish Sanditon. Some adaptations have questionable literary merits, but the blanks must be filled in. Prominent continuations include Marie Dobbs’s 1975 version and an attempted completion by Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy. There is also an upcoming television series. What choices will it make?

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The attribution of Marie Dobbs’s continuation makes reference to how Sense and Sensibility was originally promoted as “A New Novel by a Lady.” Photo: Amazon

We all must guess when it comes to Sanditon. By necessity, reading it is an exercise in making one’s own interpretations. In many respects this is nerve-wracking and unsatisfying. Can our own imaginations match up to Austen’s? Should they? Sanditon, perhaps, can be seen as a gift: a Jane Austen story we can make our own.

*The archaic term “mulatto” refers to people of mixed Black and white heritage and came into use during the period of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Considered offensive to English-speakers today, it is not a word that should be used casually in 2019!

In Defense of Fanfiction: Authors as Fanfic Writers

By Sadie MacDonald

Ah, fanfiction. Constantly derided, gleefully parodied, snidely dismissed. Even some creators are opposed to it (most famously Anne Rice, but also George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon), preferring that fans refrain from writing fanfiction of their works.

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Tina Belcher, a teenage girl, shows us how it’s done in Bob’s Burgers. Photo: Know Your Meme.

I could argue about how sneering over fanfic tends to have a misogynist bent, as fanfic is generally seen as the realm of teenage girls. I could also point out that this dismissive attitude has tinges of homophobia, as most fanfiction is characterized as “slash fiction” (sexual relationships between same-sex characters generally not explored in the original canon), which is accordingly chided as ridiculous. However, in this post, I will stick to examining examples of fanfic produced by well-known creators, who seem to escape the stigma by virtue of being established authors. These authors nonetheless create fanfiction for the same reasons that ordinary teenagers do: to explore the unexplored, and to express love for the source material.

Fanfiction has existed for a long time. Virgil’s Aeneid is arguably fanfic of the Iliad, and is an example of a work that explores the unexplored, showing the other side of the Trojan War from the perspective of Trojan warrior Aeneas.

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Like The Iliad, The Aeneid itself has spawned its own iconic imagery, such as this 1598 painting by Frederico Barocci showing the flight of Aeneas and his family from Troy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Pastiches often examine hidden perspectives and bring them to the forefront, frequently casting the original works in a new light. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood puts a twist on the Odyssey by exploring the perspectives of Penelope and her twelve maids. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story behind Mr. Rochester’s doomed first marriage and giving Bertha much-needed sympathy and humanity. Wicked by Gregory Maguire retells The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West, explaining the reasoning behind her decisions. Geraldine Brooks’ Little Women fanfiction March places much emphasis on slavery, an institution that defined the social and physical landscape of mid-19th century America but is left unspoken in Little Women. These examples show that beloved stories are still capable of revealing new discoveries.

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A Study in Emerald was later adapted into a comic book. Photo: Dark Horse Comics.

Not all fanfictions make changes to their source material, and there are many that seem to have been created for the sheer pleasure of engaging with a beloved work. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have existed since Arthur Conan Doyle’s days (and he cared little about what these creators did with his intellectual property). Even established novelists have participated in the Holmesian fun. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is actually a fanfiction of TWO works, H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and Sherlock Holmes, and serves as a love letter to both.

The persistence of Holmesian fandom, still active nearly a century after Doyle’s last Holmes story was published, shows how much audiences love Sherlock Holmes. We want to continue to have adventures with him, even if that means making our own adventures.

If professional authors can write fanfiction to great acclaim, why do we deride teenagers, just learning how to stretch their literary muscles, for doing the same? Seasoned authors have played in other creators’ sandboxes. Let emerging writers do the same.

Historical Looks on Film: A Rant

Period dramas often fudge the accuracy of historical costumes, resulting in possible misconceptions and a flawed feel. But what happens when a series puts the work into capturing period-specific attire?

By Sadie MacDonald

Let’s talk about a trope I am resentfully fascinated by: inaccurate fashion in historical films. Many such films reflect the standards of attractiveness at the time they were made, often at the expense of historical accuracy.

This trend isn’t new. William Makepeace Thackeray’s illustrations for Vanity Fair show the characters in contemporary 1840s fashion rather than Regency attire, as Thackeray claimed “I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous.”

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On the left, apparently “hideous” costumes, and on the right, one of Thackeray’s… improvements. Photo Credit: Left, Sisters Dancing, Marino Bovi; right, A Family Party at Brighton, William Thackeray, scanned by Gerald Ajam.

Let’s start off our look at film examples with Disney. Snow White (1937) has a tidily-curled bob; the accentuated waists of Cinderella’s (1950) gowns evoke Christian Dior’s “New Look”; Ariel (1989) sports voluminous bangs and a wedding dress with sleeves that Princess Diana would approve of; Rapunzel’s (2010) side-part and gently-waved straight hair look very stylish for the late 2000s.

An example from the Golden Age of Cinema is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. While the costumes of the film revel in lavish stylings of antebellum American Southern dress, Vivien Leigh’s bright red lipstick and sculpted eyebrows belong more in 1939 than 1860.

It’s easy to see this convention in 1980s films. Check out the perm on the 1940s mother in A Christmas Story, or EVERYONE in Dirty Dancing, which is ostensibly set in the 1960s.

Recent films are also guilty. Pride and Prejudice (2005) is a major offender, as the Bennet sisters run around with wispy unsecured bangs and long, loose hair. It seems unfair for me to target The Tudors and Reign, as the dubious accuracy of those shows’ costuming has been endlessly lampooned, and neither show makes pretensions to historical accuracy.

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But it’s so hard to resist making fun of the show’s choices. Photo: Frock Flicks, which does a hilarious takedown of Mary’s wedding dress.

This trend is especially jarring when inconsistently applied in a film. The love interest in the 1996 French film Ridicule has straight hair, thick bangs, and simple make-up, but the unsympathetic characters of the French court look more accurate. A male example from the 90s would be Jack from Titanic, who has boyishly-floppy locks parted in the middle. Villain Cal, however, looks more period-appropriate. Clearly the film creators were okay with maintaining less-flattering historical looks for antagonistic characters, but not heroes.

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Sometimes you gotta toss your anachronistic hair. Photo: Pinterest

This illustrates that anachronistic costuming choices are not necessarily borne from laziness. In addition to making main characters look attractive and sympathetic, inaccurate fashion can also help convey aspects of character. The titular character in Marie Antoinette (2006) owns a pair of Converse sneakers to emphasize that she is a childish teenager. A Knight’s Tale puts leading lady Jocelyn in punk-rock hairstyles to illustrate her rebelliousness.

Anachronistic fashion doesn’t have to be sloppy. But when accuracy is taken into account, the results are worth it.

Take the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries. The tightly-curled hair might look funny at first, but it adds to the detailed Regency environment, the elements of which come together to bring Jane Austen’s world vibrantly to life.

Mad Men is a recent triumphant example. The actors are decked out in proper attire right down to their undergarments, as costume designer Janie Bryant understood how important this detail was to creating 1960s silhouettes. Here, historical accuracy is not exclusive with creativity, as costuming on Mad Men also reflect the characters’ personalities.

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Lookin’ good! Photo: Pinterest

These examples use costuming not to make the characters look attractive to modern sensibilities, but to fully immerse viewers in the period. If anything else, shouldn’t film be immersive?