JJ Abrams used to be a fairly acquired taste. An elite few of us sat, agape, through several seasons of his TV series Roswell High many years ago, but not everyone could stomach the subtle metaphor for teen alienation being delivered via the plot vehicle of teen aliens attending high school in Roswell, New Mexico, famed for an alleged UFO crash and resulting cover up in 1947. Subtle and fairly casual about timelines, he went on to make Lost which made him more popular, until the ending made everyone cross.
However, now there is no way of evading Abrams, even if you wanted to. Much like Joss Whedon’s ascent post-Buffy and Firefly, these geeks have sidled into commanding mainstream cinema in the form of The Avengers for Whedon, and Star Trek and Star Wars for Abrams. To be helming two major science fiction franchises at once is unheard of, but regrettably this post is not about fanatical loyalty, but about Abrams’ literary side project.
An interesting reaction to the pressure of taking several massive professional commitments is writing a book. However, what makes it more intriguing is the form in which the book appears. S. was co-authored by Doug Dorst (a slightly shadowy figure who writes full time as well as being a three time Jeopardy winner), and is a singularly beautiful – or at the very least pleasing – object. The hardback appears in a box, and resembles a library book down to the label on the spine and the stamps on the inside cover. What is more, it is entitled Ship of Theseus, by an unknown 19th century writer called V M Straka, and it is full of pieces of paper: maps, letters and postcards hidden between the pages. It is also covered in notes scribbled in the margins, written in two very different (but wonderfully legible) kinds of handwriting. It emerges that this book is in fact more like three stories: there is the science fiction novel by ‘Straka’, the footnotes by Straka’s translator arguably add another level as it turns out Straka’s true identity remains a mystery to this day, and the relationship developing between the two people who take it in turns borrowing this volume from their university library in order to crack who Straka was. The stakes are raised by a rival group who are trying to uncover the Straka myth at the same time, and seem to be supported by a larger entity with nefarious influences.
Trying to keep track of the varying strands at the same time while juggling the marginalia and various paper clues means that the reader has to work rather harder than they may be used to, but this may be a welcome change for the readers so habitual they tend to gallop faster than they’d like. Going back and forth and around makes you reconsider the pages, which is both refreshing and exasperating. The reader encounters a ship manned by a silent, gaunt crew with a grim mission reminiscent of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a country broken by revolution, an American university in the grip of winter plagued by apparently random acts of violence and theft, an elderly Brazilian lady refusing to give up her secrets in any of the many languages she speaks, and two chippy academics with a certain amount of self-pity who still manage to fall rather touchingly in love.
The stories themselves may not stand up to prolonged scrutiny, but it is such a creative way of changing one of the more established formats that it does not matter hugely. The production must have been an expensive labour of love, as the end product costs no more than a standard hardback and is the sort of object you would be delighted to hold on to. S. has been compared to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and A S Byatt’s Possession with some justification, and even if you are still seething about Lost, this book will not entirely repair the damage, but it may both mollify and entertain you in the process.