The Chimpanzee Complex… Stripp’d

There is consolation in conspiracy. Whenever something terrible happens, humans look for answers and they don’t stop looking even when they have found them: It wasn’t Oswald who killed Kennedy, it was the mob or the commies, or the CIA. It wasn’t a drunk driver who killed Princess Diana; it was British Intelligence and the Royal Family. The reason why our minds are drawn to conspiracies is because conspiracies make the world seem a less random and little more comprehensible. Our need to derive spiritual sustenance from a belief that we are part of some grand plan or pattern fuels religion as well as psychology. In fact, one could argue that the whole point of Freudian psychoanalysis is the construction of elaborate conspiracy theories that explain away people’s less desirable character traits:

Why is there suffering in the world? Blame God.

Why did Kennedy have to die? Blame the CIA.

Why am I such a dick? Blame Mommy.

Richard Marazano and Jean-Michel Ponzio’s trilogy of science fiction graphic novels The Chimpanzee Complex is just this kind of conspiracy. It is a conspiracy constructed by a little girl to explain why it is that her mother never came home.

Everybody knows that the crew of Apollo XI got home safely after taking mankind to the Moon.  We all know that Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean in July 1969. We all know this because we have seen the pictures, we have heard the recordings and we have read the history books. But history is, at the very least, incomplete.

When, in 2035, a battered old space capsule crashes into the sea off the coast of Zanzibar the US Military quickly realises that it has a problem that can only be solved by Helen Freeman, their nation’s top astronaut. When Freeman debriefs the inhabitants of the space capsule, the US Military realises that it has an even bigger problem because the two men who journeyed to Earth in that battered old space capsule were not Chinese or Russian cosmonauts but American astronauts. In fact, they are the most famous astronauts of all: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The problem the US military now faces is that history is wrong and they have to know why: What happened on the Moon? Where did these doubles come from? Who is responsible? The only way they can solve this mystery is by sending a mission to the Moon.

Over the course of three well-paced short graphic novels, Marazano and Ponzio recount a journey through an alternate version of history.  A history in which the Soviet Union made it to Mars in the 1970s while the great figures of space exploration were duplicated and shifted forward in time only to fall to pieces upon return to Earth. As The Chimpanzee Complex walks us through this baffling alternate history, it alludes to deep structures in the nature of existence and humanity’s hostility to the idea that we might not have control over our destinies. In a style that echoes the work of Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, Marazano hints at some truth behind the mystery and yet the truth never quite resolves itself into something that we can comprehend. Indeed, all that can be said of Helen Freeman’s journey from Earth to the Moon, from the Moon to Mars and from Mars to some distant future in which the deserts of Mars bloom with alien civilisation is that it never quite manages to make sense.

However, far from being the result of weak storytelling or sloppy portentous plotting, the refusal of The Chimpanzee Complex’s central conspiracy to surrender itself to human cognition is one of the series’ most compelling characteristics.

The Chimpanzee Complex is best understood not as a story of space exploration but as an attempt by a human to impose some meaning and sense upon the incomprehensible.  The human in question is not Helen Freeman but rather her daughter Sofia.

When we first encounter Sofia, she is a small girl who seems strangely adult in both her speech patterns and levels of bitterness. Hugely resentful of her mother’s desire to have a career, Sofia reacts to her mother’s work-related absences with furious anger and a genuine sense of betrayal. Indeed, when Helen announces that she is going to the Moon – thereby accomplishing her life-long dream – Sofia responds by accusing her of selfishness and runs away. As Helen never returns from her journey into space, mother and daughter are never reconciled but at the very end of the series we learn that Sofia evidently used her anger towards her mother as a source of inspiration in her own quest to become an astronaut.

By ending the story on an image of Sofia, Marazano and Ponzio are informing us that The Chimpanzee Complex is her story and not Helen’s.  Helen Freeman left the Earth and never returned.  Because nobody knows that happened to Helen, the series cannot be read as being her story; instead The Chimpanzee Complex should be understood as being Sofia’s speculations about what actually happened to her mother and why she abandoned her.

I have some sympathy with this undertaking. When my mother died, my mind was drawn again and again to the question of why she lived her life the way she did. Why was she such a miserable drunk? Why did she make so little of the opportunities that were offered her? Why did she spend so much of her life alone at home despite the fact that her youth was one long cavalcade of parties, holidays, love affairs and family get-togethers? Donning fedora and trench coat I spoke to my older siblings, my mother’s friends and my father as part of some attempt to make sense of my mother’s life. I looked for clues and combed the archives and generated endless hypotheses that I would refine and revisit in light of each new fragment of data. This process went on for months until, one day, I realised that it was pointless as there was no true pattern to my mother’s existence. There was no secret narrative embedded in the millions of choices she made, there was only life and life never quite fits into the narratives that we seek to impose upon it.

If we read The Chimpanzee Complex as Sofia Freeman’s attempt to make sense of her mother’s life and disappearance, then the endless conspiracies and unresolved mysteries that comprise the series’ the plot make perfect sense as their failure to offer us an explanation of what is going on mirrors life’s refusal to surrender itself to tidy narratives. The hanging plotlines, pseudo-mystical ramblings and never quite fleshed out psychological principles invoked by The Chimpanzee Complex are expressions of Sofia’s frustration at her own inability to make sense of what happened to her mother. When government conspiracies and a mysterious flight to the Moon fail to make sense of Helen’s life then Sofia wheels out a journey to Mars and when the Journey to Mars and an encounter with Uri Gagarin do not yield much consolation then Sofia has her mother disappear off to the ends of the universe. The ever-expanding scope of the comic and Marazano’s eagerness to invoke the Sense of Wonder associated with the old school science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Olaf Stapledon reflect Sofia’s increasingly desperate desire for consolation and for the world to surrender itself to some kind of sense.

This is hard science fiction refracted through the lens of Tolkien’s consolatory world building. In what remains one of the most influential works of genre criticism ever produced, J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” states that:

    Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of his secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can be fairly described by the dictionary definition: ‘inner consistency of reality’, it is difficult to conceive how this can be, how the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a consolation for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’ the answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): ‘If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.’

What Tolkien is suggesting is that there is consolation to be found in the act of constructing a world that makes sense. Even if our lives are meaningless and the universe indifferent to our pitiful cries, comfort may be found in escaping to simpler places, fortresses built by the mind and for the soul. The bundling up of Fantasy with ideas of consolation, escape, retreat from the world and fairy stories has done a good deal of harm to Fantasy’s image over the years. For many critics, ‘escapism’ is as dirty a word as ‘populist’ and ‘heart-warming’. Indeed, the pseudo-modernist rhetoric of science fiction has always been quite opposed to the idea that science fictional writing might be a form of escapist fantasy: Science fiction, we are told, is about the world. It is about exploring the possibilities of physics and holding a fun-house mirror up to society in order to show it how grotesque some of its trends have become. But this is only true of some science fiction. In his excellent essay “Tales of Stasis and Chaos” (taken from his recent collection Evaporating Genres), Gary K. Wolfe suggests that pretty much every genre swings between presenting society as a place that makes sense and presenting it as a chaotic and incomprehensible blur. Echoing my own thoughts on the consolatory nature of detective fiction, Wolfe concludes his essay with a barnstorming ode to the consolatory nature of post-apocalyptic science fiction:

    In a perverse way, these tales of global disaster and distant medieval futures may be among science fiction’s most reassuring texts, since they subvert the anxiety […] by reversing the polarities on stasis and chaos in the master narrative: They begin with fragmented worlds and move toward some kind of order. In this sense, they become the genre’s creation myths, reflecting Mircea Eliade’s observation that we return to such myths because “life cannot be repaired, it can only be re-created by a return to sources.” Or, in the words of J.G. Ballard, the task of the apocalyptic novelist is “to confront the terrifying void of a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game, to remake zero by provoking it in every conceivable way.”

The Chimpanzee Complex is science fiction re-invented as psychoanalysis. Mother fucked off to space and never came back? Blame a vast mystical space conspiracy involving alien civilisations, ghostly astronauts, black-ops teams and secret government slush funds. We are at our most creative when we are at our most emotionally vulnerable and the Stapledonian vistas of The Chimpanzee Complex ripple with the pain of a little girl whose mother never came home.

As Wolfe suggests, using science fiction as a source of consolation is nothing new. Indeed, what makes this series of comics so fascinating is the not the fact that it is an attempt to create a little world that makes sense, nor even the fact that the consolatory world created in the comic is in fact a world within a world. What makes The Chimpanzee Complex so interesting is the fact that its world is so incoherent and filled with holes that it could never hope to offer the sort of consolation that Tolkien was talking about. Marazano’s invented psychological complexes and waffly talk of deep patterns are what happens when people try to seek consolation in fantasy and fail. The Chimpanzee Complex is a comic all about the impossibility of making sense of the world.  This difficulty is also reflected in the comic’s artwork.

Jean-Michel Ponzio opts for a style that might be called photo-realistic but which is probably more accurately described as pseudo-rotoscoping. Best known for featuring in many of the early Disney films as well as Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (1978) and some of the more recent films of Richard Linklater, rotoscoping describes the process of tracing over images in live-action film so as to imbue cartoonish figures with realistic animated movement.

However, as Richard Linklater demonstrated with A Scanner Darkly (2006), the process of rotoscoping is not always completely successful.  In principle, tracing cartoonish figures onto real-life images should augment the cartoons by anchoring them in real-world physics and anatomy. However, when the figures traced onto the film footage are also realistic, the results can be unsettling as the brain ceases to interpret those images as ‘realistically animated fictions’ and starts to interpret them as ‘grotesquely distorted real things’. The anxiety that humans feel when looking at not quite perfectly realistic images follows the contours of what psychologists call the uncanny valley:

The closer we get to realism, the more we notice the little ways in which the images on the screen fall short of being real. Reading The Chimpanzee Complex involves being repeatedly hurled against the wall of the uncanny valley.  There are times when Ponzio’s art is so realistic that it seems almost impossible that he did not trace the images. However, there are other times when his characters’ facial expressions and body language seem peculiarly wrong and unnatural:

It is as though Sofia is telling us a story and, try as she might, she never quite manages to make her mother’s story mesh with reality as we know it. Sofia’s failure to create her own consolatory creation myth is further reflected in the fact that there seems to be little connection between the little girl who claims to hate science fiction and the grown woman who becomes an astronaut. Despite invoking conspiracies, aliens and secret histories of the world, Sofia still cannot make sense of her own life but then… neither can anyone else.

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.