Alex Garland: From The Beach to Ex Machina
Twenty years ago, Alex Garland published his debut novel, The Beach, and within a year it was a worldwide bestseller and a cultural reference point. The Londoner was the son of political cartoonist Nicholas Garland and his early interests were graphic art and journalism rather than fiction. But after travelling extensively around Asia as a […]
Twenty years ago, Alex Garland published his debut novel, The Beach, and within a year it was a worldwide bestseller and a cultural reference point. The Londoner was the son of political cartoonist Nicholas Garland and his early interests were graphic art and journalism rather than fiction. But after travelling extensively around Asia as a young man he had the idea for a compelling story. His first attempt at The Beach was as a comic strip, and it was then expanded into a full novel. The book begins in a rundown rooming house on the Khao San Road, a route in Bangkok that became popular in the early 1980s. The narrator Richard learns of a utopian commune on a remote island beach in the Gulf of Thailand, but the source of this information is an apparently deranged older Scottish backpacker in the room next to him. After providing Richard with a rudimentary map, the man commits suicide.
Richard confides in a French couple who are also wearying of the standard backpacker itinerary. Together the three of them estimate from the map the remote cluster of islands where the beach should be situated and decide to set out secretly on a boat trip, followed by a dangerous swim, to locate the beach. What unfolds after that is a cautionary modern fable, drawing on the Shangri-La myth of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The book is in many ways a pessimistic tale, but it was marketed as part of the ‘90s cool Britannica wave of popular culture. Garland was uneasy about many aspects of his newfound fame. He’d written The Beach as a critique of the backpacker lifestyle, but it was received in some quarters as a celebration of it.
His next novel, The Tesseract (1998) was a complex narrative of three interconnecting stories, set partly in the Philippines; it did not have the same popular and commercial impact. Subsequently he retreated from the career envisioned for him. He had a lucrative contract to write two more books, but returned his advance to the publisher. A novella, Coma, appeared in 2003, illustrated with forty woodcuts by his father. But he found a new métier working as a screenwriter on a series of films: 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never let Me Go, and Dredd. Two of these involved Danny Boyle, who had directed a lacklustre film adaptation of The Beach in 2000 (John Hodge wrote the screenplay, which altered some of the novel’s later events).
In 2015 came Ex Machina, his first film as a director. It is a science fiction film that seems only a short distance removed from present possibilities. A young computer programmer, Caleb is selected to visit the remote mansion home and research facility of Nathan, his employer and a reclusive technological genius. Nathan reveals that he has created a prototype female robot, Ava, and needs assistance testing whether he has arrived at true AI (artificial intelligence). The nature of inherent and simulated intelligence is explored in the screenplay and Caleb’s task is based on the Turing test devised by pioneering scientist Alan Turing to measure AI. But the basis of human intelligence and rationality is under the microscope too.
As in his first novel, a growing atmosphere of distrust develops in the enclosed setting. There is tension and black humour throughout the film. Garland directed from his own original screenplay, but he sees film as very much a collaborative process. The movie features impressive performances by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. Vikander’s robotic outfit is a striking silver mesh suit and skullcap with added special effects. What is on screen is a triumph of production design on a relatively modest budget. The modernist Juvet Landscape hotel in Norway mostly doubles as Nathan’s futuristic home in a forest. The sleek and cold visual aesthetics resonate with the themes of the film. Garland’s transition from bestselling novelist to acclaimed film director is a singular achievement.
The Beach and Ex Machina are available in Fingal Libraries. A 20th anniversary edition of The Beach, with a new introduction by John Niven, will soon be available.
By Fergus O’ Reilly, Blanchardstown Library