On Thursday we had the first part of a short story that took place in a world based off of our own, but then also featuring elements and abilities that were surreal and supernatural. In the piece there was even some discussion of outcomes that were not only unknown but unknowable. I’d like to take a look at stories that feature elements that are also not only unknown, but unknowable.
This concept is not the same as an ambiguous ending, and it is different from the concept I wrote of in my very first blog post where the author leaves some obvious connections unexplained so the reader can fill in the gap. Instead these are gaps that the reader is not meant to ever fill, mysteries that are not meant to ever be solved. This isn’t an open-ended invitation for the audience to draw their own conclusions, it is an invitation for them to accept that there are no conclusions. This can be a difficult thing for some to go along with, many people want closure in their stories and might react poorly when they are denied it. But I hope to lay a case here about why, in some cases, a story can be better for leaving some things inscrutable, and how they can provide a higher experience to the consumer because of it.
There’s a little-known film I greatly enjoy called Primer which is the most down-to-earth and intelligent take on time travel that I know of, examining what such a discovery accidentally made in the garage of a couple of engineers might actually play out like. From the very beginning the audience is asked to be embrace uncertainty. The characters use jargon-rich, technical terms and reference previous conversations that we were not privy to. The viewer will only get the general gist of what is being said and it’s uncomfortable, but that’s sort of the point, as I’ll get to in a moment.
After the introductions, our two main characters accidentally stumble upon their time-travelling device as an unintended side-effect of other experiments. At first their journeys play out in a way that makes sense to us, but as the characters begin performing multiple, intersecting jumps through time the plotline seems to fray and move around in a choppy, random manner, defying the viewer’s attempts to have any semblance of comprehension.
At this point most viewers will probably either write the story off entirely, or else accept that there is nothing wrong with either them or the film. They are meant to be confused, and that is the intentional experience of the movie. Because, after all, that is the experience of most scientist-inventors, such as our main characters. They are trying to grasp at deep, theoretical puzzles and finding they are only getting the gist of them. After all natural phenomenon usually don’t bother to occur in a way that is linearly convenient for an observer to understand. Why would anyone want a career where they spend the majority of their time being confused? Because through confusion comes questions, and from pursuing those questions there come answers. And so it is with the film. It isn’t hard to make a story obtuse, far more difficult is to create a puzzle that, though complex, actually makes sense and is logically complete. Primer does so, presenting an intricate knot that can be teased apart to a remarkable clarity with multiple viewings and contemplation, allowing what was impossible to understand on the first viewing make perfect sense in the later ones.
And it is here that the film throws one last wrinkle. When at last the viewer does understand everything there is to understand, there dawns the realization that there yet remains one outer mystery which will never be untangled. It’s not a question of being smart enough or observant enough, it simply involves events that are not displayed in the scenes of the film and the occurrences of which are unknown even to our main characters. It is not that it is hard to know, it is actually unknowable. This final lesson from the film is again being true to the experience of the inventor. One of the greatest truths of science is that it has limitations. There are questions which we know, as a mathematical fact, are simply incapable of ever having answers, and that must be accepted.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Another example of a film that was willing to throw its audience for a loop, and probably a more familiar one, is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now the book that was released alongside of this film was not so ambitiously ambiguous in its ending, but I would also say it provides a lesser experience because of it. In the story we are taken through a series of increasingly fantastic experiences. In our first act we see lowly apes develop the ability to use tools. They are primitive, basic, and totally comprehensible to us. Next we go to a sequence where we see humans traversing in space shuttles as casually as we do now in buses, and making calls to individuals across thousands of miles of space as easily as we might phone a neighbor. This is all advanced and impressive, but is merely a natural evolution of technologies and tools that we currently possess. So, once again, we find ourselves able to understand it perfectly.
Next we follow a duo of astronauts in a bold mission out to Jupiter. We see the most advanced tech shown thus far, including an artificial intelligence that is far beyond anything we are currently familiar with. In fact this intelligence is capable of being malicious and murderous. To this day theoreticians argue whether it is possible for machines to ever originate thought as it appears the HAL 9000 does. Even so, while we are being faced with more speculative ideas, it is all still grounded within our realm of understanding and basic belief.
It is, of course, at this point in the film version that we reach the famous final sequences, where our sole surviving astronaut makes contact with a mysterious floating monolith and we, with the character, are assaulted by a barrage of dreamlike colors and shapes that culminate in our character both dying and becoming reconceived as a massive embryo floating in space. It doesn’t exactly make sense, but that’s okay.
As I mentioned, the story takes its audience through increasingly fantastic experiences. Though the technologies and concepts illustrated through the bulk of the film are advanced, they are perfectly understandable and attainable, given enough time and research. So how is the film meant to climax in a reach that extends beyond just bigger spaceships, or faster computers, or more prevalent robots? Its answer is to delve into things that are too vast and advanced to be able to comprehend. This final experience is meant to defy human description, he is meant to be witnessing things he does not understand, he is meant to be pushing beyond the limits of human consciousness and comprehension. Thus if we had been shown a sequence of events that we could fully understand, then it would feel dishonest. If we had been shown his facial expressions with no idea of what he was experiencing it would have felt cheap. The better solution was to let the audience be made thoroughly and completely confused.
I know that these sorts of ununderstandable moments are far different from where most books and films dare stray, but I would argue that that is an artificial and unnecessary limitation. After all, it is not remotely unusual for these very same elements to crop up in other forms of art, such as music and painting. For some reason we are much more comfortable with lyrics and sounds and visuals there that don’t quite make sense or even present complete paradoxes.
Personally I feel that when a tale handles these unknowable elements with care and incorporates them in ways that complement the story, it provides an all-too-rare treat for those willing to stomach the uncertainty. It means that we are dealing with concepts and realities that are higher than our own. It suggests we are brushing against a great beyond that will not be fully explained only because it cannot be fully explained. No doubt it takes the bold author to flirt with that which is beyond human ability to portray.
On Thursday I will present the second and final part of To the Great Infinite. I’ll warn you right now, though, the end is not going to have answers and conclusions. To be perfectly honest I had originally planned out a third chapter that gave closure to e everything that I was going to write out next week, but I realized it would be cheap and untrue to the rules of that world. We’ll journey together into the unknown unknowable then.